TCS Daily

World War II and the Revolution in Military Affairs

By Sallie Baliunas - December 2, 2003 12:00 AM

On August 8, 1942 a fierce, six-month campaign by Allied forces began on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The outcome reversed the course of Imperial Japanese conquest in the South Pacific.


During the campaign, the new technology of radar grew to prove its battlefield worth. Today it permeates daily living in areas like communication, navigation and space exploration.


Radio detection and ranging sends out a beam of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength between approximately an inch and a yard. Those radio waves, like all electromagnetic radiation, generally travel at a constant speed of approximately 180,000 miles per second. The time for a beam to travel outward, reflect off a ship or plane and return yields an estimate of its range. The object's speed and direction of travel can be mapped by taking repeated readings. By turning the radar antenna, the surrounding area can be searched for ships or planes.


Japan had not invested in radar technology as had the United States and Britain. Instead, Japan used spotters with excellent night vision and superb telescopes who often found Allied ships before Japanese ships were seen. Combined with tactical genius, the Japanese Navy was master of nighttime naval combat, an advantage the Imperial Navy expected to use in retaining control of Guadalcanal by deliberately seeking nighttime engagements.


The new technology of radar eventually destroyed the tactical edge afforded the Japanese by the cloak of night. But early radar exhibited troubles, for example, common false "pips." A newer system operating on a shorter wavelength, the SG surface radar system, was more effective than the older SC system and had been installed on a few ships stationed on Guadalcanal. But the SG radar's talents were initially swathed in secrecy that dulled its capability and trustworthiness because few knew how to make best use of it.


Historians Samuel Eliot Morison (Struggle for Guadalcanal) and Richard B. Frank (Guadalcanal) describe radar's mixed results during Guadalcanal's crushing naval battles.


Japanese transports were headed to deliver reinforcements and supplies ashore when they were met by American ships on October 11-12. The Battle of Cape Esperance erupted at night in the narrow passage called Iron Bottom Sound between Guadalcanal's northeast coast and Savo Island. Admiral Norman Scott's flagship San Francisco had the older-style SC radar, but because intelligence indicated that the Japanese could detect SC radar, Scott ordered no SC radar used. Helena and Boise were equipped with the new SG radar, and Helena found the first Japanese target at 27,700 yards, but it was some precious minutes before Boise could confirm and relay the information to the flagship. Although discovery by radar had surprised Admiral Aritomo Goto, the Japanese quickly struck back and both sides fought with courage and tenacity, with radar a minor player because of its ineffective deployment.


Several weeks later a massive Japanese task force intending to resupply its ground troops and bomb Henderson Field were met by Admiral Daniel Callaghan, commanding from the flagship San Francisco, and Admiral Scott leading Atlanta. The battle of Friday the Bloody Thirteenth of November began with Helena first spotting the enemy by radar at over 27,000 yards, but information had to be relayed over the confusing chatter of ongoing ship-to-ship communications to the flagship, which still lacked SG radar. During this close battle, Americans incurred extremely heavy losses of brave men and ships, including the torpedoed cruiser Juneau, where all five Sullivan brothers died. Both Callaghan and Scott were killed, and both received the Medal of Honor for their extraordinary bravery. Including Callaghan, four Medals of Honor were awarded to men serving on San Francisco, more than for any ship in one day. But again radar had been underutilized.


Radar delivered vitally the next night during the second phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, in which the battleships Washington and South Dakota faced Admiral Nobutake Kondo aboard battleship Kirishima. Admiral Willis Augustus Lee brilliantly commanded the task force from his flagship Washington, which was equipped with SG radar. Lee had extensive knowledge of radar and successfully deployed it in the engagement, which is the only time one U.S. battleship -- Washington -- sunk an enemy battleship - Kirishima -- in a one-on-one attack. Afterward Lee summed up the American advantage accrued by radar, "...[O]ur entire superiority was due almost entirely to our possession of radar. Certainly we have no edge on the Japs in experience, skill, training or performance of personnel."


From a tentative beginning, radar emerged as decisive in naval combat on Guadalcanal and elsewhere across World War II's theaters. On August 15, 1945, the day after World War II ended, The New York Daily News ran a story about radar as the miraculous secret weapon of the war. A U.S. Army spokesman described radar's role: "In the technical field, where so much of this war has been fought, the failure of the Nazis and Japs to keep pace with Allied radar has been probably the major single reason for defeat."


The Daily News article had also speculated on radar's peacetime future by quoting a joint study from the Army, Navy and Office of Scientific Research: "Radar has made the electronics industry one of America's major ones, now comparable in size to the prewar automobile industry... This new industry can be expected to find innumerable applications in a wide variety of fields... the impact on electronics generally of techniques developed during the war because of radar will have profound and far-reaching effects on the shape of our daily life." That prophecy came true.


Admiration and gratitude are owed to those who remained on Guadalcanal and at Iron Bottom Sound. All who served in defense of freedom granted a future to technology and wealth created in part by an important wartime weapon, radar.




Guadalcanal The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle, Richard B. Frank, 1990, Random House, 800pp.


The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942 - February 1943, Samuel Eliot Morison, copyright 1949, Castle Books 2001, 388pp.


Battleship at War, the Epic Story of the U.S.S. Washington, Ivan Musicant, 1986 Avon Books, 348pp.

TCS Daily Archives