So desperate did things become that finally Admiral Bull Halsey himself broke a stern War College edict -- the one against committing capital ships in restricted waters. Gambling the future of the cut-off troops on Guadalcanal on one final roll of the dice, Halsey dispatched into the Slot his two remaining fast battleships, the USS South Dakota and the USS Washington, escorted by the only four destroyers with enough fuel in their bunkers to get them there and back.
In command of the 28-knot battlewagons was the right man at the right place, gunnery expert Rear Admiral Willis A. "Ching Chong China" Lee. Lee's flag flew aboard the Washington, in turn commanded by Captain Glenn Davis.
Lee was a nut for gunnery drills. "He tested every gunnery-book rule with exercises," Naval historian David Lippman writes, "and ordered gunnery drills under odd conditions -- turret firing with relief crews, anything that might simulate the freakishness of battle."
As it turned out, the American destroyers need not have worried about carrying enough fuel to get home. By 11 p.m. on Nov. 13, outnumbered better than three-to-one by a massive Japanese task force driving down from the northwest, every one of the four American destroyers had been shot up, sunk, or set aflame, while the South Dakota -- known throughout the fleet as a jinx ship -- managed to damage some lesser Japanese vessels but continued to be plagued with electrical and fire control problems.
"Washington was now the only intact ship left in the force," Lippman writes. "In fact, at that moment Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet. She was the only barrier between (Admiral) Kondo's ships and Guadalcanal. If this one ship did not stop 14 Japanese ships right then and there, America might lose the war."
"On Washington's bridge, Lieutenant Ray Hunter still had the conn. He had just heard that South Dakota had gone off the air and had seen (destroyers) Walke and Preston "blow sky high." Dead ahead lay their burning wreckage, while hundreds of men were swimming in the water and Japanese ships were racing in.
"Hunter had to do something. The course he took now could decide the war. 'Come left,' he said, and Washington straightened out on a course parallel to the one on which she (had been) steaming. Washington's rudder change put the burning destroyers between her and the enemy, preventing her from being silhouetted by their fires.
"The move made the Japanese momentarily cease fire. Lacking radar, they could not spot Washington behind the fires."
"Meanwhile, Washington raced through burning seas. Everyone could see dozens of men in the water clinging to floating wreckage. Flag Lieutenant Raymond Thompson said, 'Seeing that burning, sinking ship as it passed so close aboard, and realizing that there was nothing I, or anyone, could do about it, was a devastating experience.'"
"Commander Ayrault, the Washington's executive officer, clambered down ladders, ran to Bart Stoodley's damage-control post, and ordered Stoodley to cut loose life rafts. That saved a lot of lives. But the men in the water had some fight left in them. One was heard to scream, 'Get after them, Washington!'"
Sacrificing their ships by maneuvering into the path of torpedoes intended for the Washington, the captains of the American destroyers had given China Lee one final chance. The Washington was fast, undamaged, and bristling with 16-inch guns. And, thanks to Lt. Hunter's course change, she was also now invisible to the enemy.
Blinded by the smoke and flames, the Japanese battleship Kirishima turned on her searchlights, illuminating the helpless South Dakota, and opened fire. Finally, as her own muzzle blasts illuminated her in the darkness, Lee and Davis could positively identify an enemy target.
The Washington's main batteries opened fire at 12 midnight precisely. Her new SG radar fire control system worked perfectly. Between midnight and 1207 a.m., Nov. 14, the "last ship in the U.S. Pacific Fleet" stunned the battleship Kirishima with 75, 16-inch shells. For those aboard the Kirishima, it rained steel.
In seven minutes, the Japanese battleship was reduced to a funeral pyre. She went down at 0325 a.m., the first enemy sunk by an American battleship since the Spanish-American War. Stunned, the remaining Japanese ships withdrew. Within days, Yamamoto and his staff reviewed their mounting losses and recommended the unthinkable to the emperor -- withdrawal from Guadalcanal.