The Tokyo Express
  What was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s task force that the Guadalcanal PT’s fought with night after night for four months? The Japanese simply termed it the Reinforcement Unit; headed mainly by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, the bulk of the task force was composed of destroyers (and the occasional light cruiser) from Tanaka’s Destroyer Squadron Two, plus any other Imperial Navy elements (submarines, for instance) that were deemed necessary to carry out the mission. That mission was simple enough: transport troop reinforcements to the battalions of the Japanese 17th Army on Guadalcanal, keep them continually armed and fed, and at the same time punishing their opposition—the United States Marines—with a bombardment. To the Americans, any Japanese naval presence in the waters of Ironbottom Sound, whether it was simply a destroyer-transport/resupply group or a beefier gunfire support unit replete with battleships and heavy cruisers was known as an “Express”, because it carried out its nightly tasks as if it were on an express-train timetable. The American sailors and Marines had a number of colorful names for what one PT squadron commander referred to—partly in jest—as “that nocturnal annoyance”. Originally the PT men dubbed Tanaka’s group the Bougainville Express, after the Japanese-held island of the same name in the upper Solomons, where the Imperial Navy had a major base. The much-harassed Marines branded it the Cactus Express after their code name for Guadalcanal; the indignant Leathernecks also had an amazing string of other names for the Reinforcement Unit, all of them primordially obscene and best left to the imagination. Another nom-du-guerre was the Insomnia Express, in reference to the shellings from Japanese warships, which were designed primarily to wear the Marines’ resistance down by keeping them running for foxholes all night. Apparently a journalist coined the term the Tanaka Force would be forever known by, and the commander of the South Pacific Forces—Vice Admiral William F. Halsey—quickly adopted it. As one PT officer at the time said: “It was still the same as the Bougainville Express, but the Tokyo Express is what Admiral Halsey called it, and who were we to argue with him?” 

   In reading most accounts of the duels fought between American wood and Japanese steel, few authors record what Imperial Navy ships opposed the PT’s when the boats sallied forth to do battle. This page brings to light the rivals of the “wooden wonders of Tulagi”—the ships that composed, and the men who led the dreaded Reinforcement Unit—the Tokyo Express.

13/14 October 1942

Henderson Field Bombardment Unit: Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita in
Kongo

Battleships:
Kongo, Haruna
Light Cruiser:
Izuzu
Destroyers:
Takanami, Oyashio, Kuroshio, Hayashio, Naganami, Umikaze,
                 Kawakaze, Suzukaze


PT Unit: Senior Officer, Lt. Comdr. Alan R. Montgomery USN in PT 60

PT 38 (Lt. j/g Robert L. Searles USNR)
PT 46 (Lt. j/g Henry S. Taylor USNR)
PT 48 (Lt. j/g Robert C. Wark USNR)
PT 60 (Lt. j/g John M. Searles USNR)

Comments: First PT action in the Guadalcanal area. The first four boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three attacked the Japanese bombardment force, PT 60 claiming two torpedo hits, PT 38 claiming one. PT 48 strafed one destroyer’s searchlight with machine-gun fire, putting it out. Destroyer Naganami, with one other ship gave chase to PT 60, which discouraged their pursuit by dropping a couple of depth charges in her wake. The PT 60 later ran aground on coral, seriously damaging her hull; she would be out of action until May 1943. Radio Tokyo broadcast that Admiral Kurita’s force was attacked by nineteen torpedo boats, which they claimed to have sunk fourteen for the loss of a light cruiser. A coastwatcher reported that natives saw “a large ship” sinking the next morning off New Georgia. Based on these reports, the squadron claimed one cruiser probably sunk, one damaged. Nothing thus far has been found to confirm ‘Ron Three’s damage claim.

29/30 October 1942

Troop Reinforcement Run

Destroyers:
Shigure, Ariake

PT Unit: Senior Officer, Lt. Hugh M. Robinson USN in PT 61

PT 37 (Lt. j/g Leonard A. Nikoloric USNR)
PT 38 (Lt. j/g Robert L. Searles USNR)
PT 45 (Lt. j/g Thomas E. Kendall USNR)
PT 46 (Lt. j/g Henry S. Taylor USNR)
PT 48 (Ens. James B. Greene USNR)
PT 61 (Lt. Robinson) 

Comments: The second section of MTBRON Three arrived on 25 October, bringing the total number of operational boats to seven. Radio intelligence warned the PT officers of the destroyers’ approach, and the five available boats waited to meet it. Lt. Searles’ PT 38 was nearly run down by a destroyer, which was first seen heading east through the Savo-Cape Esperance channel by Ens. Greene in PT 48 before he lost it in the darkness. The enemy ship wasn’t sighted again until a flare from an American aircraft illuminated it; this time it was heading west and bearing down on the PT 38 at high speed. The 38 escaped at 26 knots laying smoke. Ens. Greene in PT 48 intercepted the destroyer and fired three torpedoes at 400 yards, while the destroyer opened up with automatic weapons fire, holing the boat in many places. Greene claimed one torpedo hit the destroyer, but this is unconfirmed. None of the other boats made contact with the enemy, and the Japanese destroyers returned to their base in the Shortland Islands with a portion of their cargoes.  
   
5/6 November 1942

Troop Reinforcement Run

Ko (“A”) Detachment:

Desdiv 2:
Murasame, Harusame, Yudachi
Desdiv 27:
Shigure, Shirayatsu, Ariake, Yugure
Desdiv 8:
Arashi, Michisio, Asagumo 



Otsu (“B”) Detachment:

Desdiv 11:
Shirayuki, Mochizuki
Desdiv 19:
Uranami, Shikanami, Isonami, Tenryu (light cruiser)

PT Unit: Senior Officer, Lt. Hugh M. Robinson USN in PT 61

PT 37 (Lt. j/g Leonard A. Nikoloric USNR)
PT 39 (Lt. j/g Henry S. Taylor USNR)
PT 48 (Lt. j/g Thomas E. Kendall USNR)
PT 61 (Lt. Robinson)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Comments: The Otsu Detachment delivered part of the 228th Japanese Infantry Regiment to Cape Esperance, while the Ko unit landed Maj. Gen. Ito, the commander of the 38th Infantry Group, his headquarters, and the remainder of the 228th Infantry at Tassafaronga. 206 construction workers and 142 soldiers returned in the destroyers. The only PT contact came when Lt. Taylor in PT 39 detected two ships headed for Tassafaronga. The ships were not visible in the darkness, but the boat began rolling in the destroyers’ wakes as they passed. Taylor lost track of the two ships in the darkness; forty minutes later—almost at the moment when Taylor made out the silhouette of an enemy warship, Murasame caught the PT 39 full in its searchlight, and opened fire with all guns. Taylor tried to get his torpedoes away, but only one fired—which missed. 5-inch shells from Murasame dropped within fifty yards of the retiring PT, while 39’s gunners put out the destroyer’s searchlight with machine-gun fire. A second enemy ship illuminated PT 39 as she ran for safety, dropping heavy caliber shells in her wake and churning up the sea around the boat with automatic gunfire. The boat escaped behind a smoke screen.

6/7 November 1942

Troop Reinforcement Run

Ships: Not known

PT Unit: Senior Officer, Lt. Hugh M. Robinson USN in PT 61

PT 37 (Lt. j/g Leonard A. Nikoloric USNR)
PT 48 (Lt. Lester H. Gamble, USNR)
PT 61 (Lt. Robinson)

Comments: PT’s 37 and 48 sighted an enemy ship—identified as a heavy cruiser or a destroyer—sailing slowly on a westerly heading off Guadalcanal’s Koli Point. Lt. Nikoloric’s PT 37 fired four torpedoes, which missed. Lt. Gamble in PT 48 also fired four, two of which were seen by the crew to explode. A single burst of shellfire passed overhead as the 48 boat made its getaway. A large oil slick was seen in the area the next morning, but no confirmation of a sinking or damage could be found from Japanese sources after the war.

8/9 November 1942

Destroyer Resupply Run

Otsu Detachment:

Desdiv 2:
Murasame, Yudachi
Desdiv 27:
Shigure, Shirayatsu, Yugure, Asagumo, Mochizuki, Arashi,
               
Michisio, Tenryu (light cruiser)

PT Unit: Senior Officer, Lt. Hugh M. Robinson USN in PT 61

PT 37 (Lt. j/g Leonard A. Nikoloric USNR)
PT 39 (Ens. James B. Greene USNR)
PT 61 (Lt. Robinson)

Comments: For this run, the Otsu Detachment was on a resupply and bombardment mission—among those on the receiving end of the shelling was South Pacific Force commander Vice Adm. Halsey, who was visiting Guadalcanal to see the Marines’ situation for himself. At 2144 hours off Tassafaronga, three Japanese destroyers began battling with Lt. Robinson’s PT division. Ens. Greene’s PT 39 let go two torpedoes but scored no hits. Lt. Robinson’s 61 boat couldn’t fire because it was blocked by Lt. Nikoloric’s PT 37, but the 37 fired two torpedoes at 500 yards, and unloaded a third a few seconds later. One of these torpedoes hit the destroyer Mochizuki, causing her minor damage; some sources say the torpedo failed to explode. The destroyers turned on their searchlights and began shelling the PT’s heavily, with one five-inch shell (apparently from Mochizuki) striking PT 61 forward, blowing off her bow. The boats escaped behind a smoke screen, and PT 61 was able to return to Tulagi safely. This eight-minute action was ‘Ron Three’s quickest engagement thus far. 

10/11 November 1942

Troop Reinforcement Run

Destroyers:

Desdiv 10:
Yugumo, Makigumo, Kasegumo

Unattached:
Makinami, Suzukaze

PT Unit: Senior Officer, Lt. Hugh M. Robinson USN in PT 45

PT 37 (Lt. j/g Leonard A. Nikoloric USNR)
PT 45 (Lt. Robinson)
PT 48 (Lt. j/g Thomas E. Kendall USNR)

Comments: The Express run for tonight carried ammunition, supplies, and 600 men including the commander of the 38th Infantry Division (Lt. Gen. Tadayoshi Sano), his staff, and Imperial Navy Lt. Comdr. Masatoshi Funabashi to act as a spotter for a future naval shelling of Henderson Field. The PT’s were patrolling south of Savo Island when they saw four of the destroyers off the Guadalcanal coast; the boats tried to close the range for a torpedo attack, but the destroyers saw them first. Lt. Robinson got two torpedoes away, Lt. Nikoloric’s PT 37 fired off one—then a shell exploded so close to the 37 boat that everyone on deck was knocked down and stunned except for quartermaster John D. Legg, who kept the boat moving until Lt. Nikoloric regained consciousness. Lt. Kendall’s PT 48 fired no torpedoes, but traded bullets with several enemy ships. The Japanese destroyers returned to Shortland with 585 sick.

13/14 November 1942

Henderson Field Bombardment Force: Rear Adm. Shoji Nishimura commanding

Heavy cruisers:
Maya, Suzuya
Light Cruiser:
Tenryu
Destroyers:
Yugumo, Makigumo, Kasegumo, Michisio, Mochizuki, Amagiri

PT Unit: Senior Officer, Lt. John M. Searles USNR in PT 39

PT 37 (Lt. Robert L. Searles USNR)
PT 39 (Lt. John Searles)
PT 45 (Lt. Lester H. Gamble USNR)
PT 46 (Lt. Henry S. Taylor USNR)
PT 48 (Lt. j/g Thomas E. Kendall USNR)

Comments: Admiral Nishimura’s bombardment force fired 989 rounds of 8-inch ordinance onto Henderson Field with negligible results. PT’s 37 and 39 fired torpedoes at the Japanese warships as they came in through Sandfly Passage, but scored no hits. Lt. Kendall’s PT 48 fired two torpedoes at US heavy cruiser Portland, which was limping into Tulagi Harbor and crippled from damage received during the first phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal the previous evening. Fortunately those torpedoes missed as well. Later, Lt. Taylor’s PT 46 closed to 1,000 yards of a cruiser and fired three torpedoes, one of which he was certain was a hit. Lt. Gamble’s PT 45 with Lt. John Searles aboard (Searles transferred to Gamble’s boat from the now-torpedoless PT 39) fired two torpedoes at a destroyer and claimed two hits. After the PT’s attacked, Nishimura ships stopped shelling and retreated. Henderson Field suffered 18 planes destroyed and 32 damaged, but the field was still usable.

24/25 November 1942

Submarine Supply Run

Submarines: I-17, I-19

PT boats on patrol:

PT 36 (Lt. j/g Marvin G. Pettit USNR)
PT 37 (Lt. j/g Leonard A. Nikoloric USNR)
PT 46 (Lt. Henry S. Taylor USNR)
PT 48 (Lt. j/g Thomas E. Kendall USNR)

Comments: This was the first mission using submarines to deliver supplies to the 17th Army, and it was aborted because of the presence of PT boats and aircraft.
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