On the night of November 14, 1942 the US Navy PT base received the following radio signal
“STAND ASIDE, I’M COMING THROUGH. THIS IS CHING LEE.”
The sender was actually US Navy Rear Admiral Willis Augustus Lee, Jr. (May 11, 1888 – August 25, 1945) commanding the hastily assembled Task Force 64 composed of two battleships, USS Washington (BB-56) and USS South Dakota (BB-57 and lead ship of her class) and four destroyers: USS Preston (DD-379; Mahan class, launched April 1936), USS Benham (DD-397; lead ship of the Benham class, launched April 1938), USS Walke (DD-416; Sims class, launched October 1939) and USS Gwin (DD-433, Gleaves class, launched May 1940). The US battleships were new – launched in June 1940 and June 1941, respectively. Significantly, the USS Washington was equipped with radar and had a commander who understood how radar and gunnery could be coordinated for night battles.
Admiral Lee had several challenges:
- there were no American or Allied cruisers available
- he was fighting at night in congested waters (as opposed to open seas)
- his destroyers had been picked solely on the basis of maximum fuel available
- he needed to stop the Japanese Navy from bombarding Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. Putting the US aircraft based at Henderson out of action would simplify the landing of Japanese troops and supplies at Tassafaronga on the western tip of Guadalcanal.
- It was reasonable to expect he was outnumbered.
- The Imperial Japanese Navy had a fine and deserved reputation for night gunnery
- This reputation had been enhanced earlier at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (October 25-27) and especially at the First Battle of Savo Island (night of November 12 into the day of November 13). Both were tactical defeats for the United States, although, as it turned out, strategic losses for Japan.
- Had Admiral Lee been defeated (both battleships sunk or damaged) it was very unclear what other remaining Allied surface warships could be used to counter Japanese Navy advances. Had Henderson Field been bombarded and put out of action, and the Japanese Navy managed to land the 7,000 troops of the 38th Infantry Division, whether the US Marines could have held is hard to say. It is not obvious they could have been re-supplied or evacuated.