On 13 November 1942, the first USS Laffey (DD-459) was sunk by the Japanese during a night battle during the early stages of the naval battle of Guadalcanal, less than a year after being commissioned.
The USS Laffey—a Benson Class destroyer—was commissioned on 31 March 1942 and commanded by Lt. Comdr. William E. Hank. The Laffey was sent to the South Pacific to join in the naval operations around the strategically significant island of Guadalcanal, which Allied land forces were fighting to take from the Japanese.
In mid-September, the Laffey took part in rescue operations when the USS Wasp—an aircraft carrier involved in escorting troop transports to Guadalcanal—was sunk by a Japanese submarine. A month later, on 11–12 October, the Laffey and the rest of her cruiser group fought in the Battle of Cape Esperance, in which American ships successfully turned back a Japanese bombardment group that was headed to Guadalcanal.
A month after that, mid-November, saw the naval battle of Guadalcanal, in which Allied (mainly American) naval forces tried to prevent the Japanese from landing reinforcements on the island. To do this, American ships were deployed to stop the Japanese bombardment force that was coming to attack the island’s American-held airfield in preparation for the landings.
The Laffey was part of the task force sent to stop the Japanese, and in the early morning of 13 November, the Americans spotted the Japanese ships. However, because it was dark, and because of communications problems, the Americans were unaware that they were practically surrounded by the Japanese. A chaotic, close-quarters battle ensued, and just before 2 a.m. the Laffey was struck in the fantail by a torpedo. Combined with other damage she sustained, the Laffey was put out of action. The order to abandon ship was given, but soon her magazines exploded and she swiftly sank, with a loss of 59 officers and men (including Lt. Comdr. Hank) and 116 wounded.
Despite inflicting heavy damage on the Americans during the fight, including sinking the Laffey and other ships, the Japanese bombardment group decided to withdraw. Over the next few days, American naval forces would meet the Japanese in additional fights and would ultimately prevent the Japanese from delivering most of their planned troops and supplies to Guadalcanal.
For the bravery of her crew, the Laffey was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, and the USS Hank was named after the Laffey’s commander. A second—more famous—destroyer named the USS Laffey (DD-724) would be commissioned just over a year later, in February 1944.
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