"Commence firing!  Counter-illuminate!"
The Battle begins
With ships all around them the captain of the Atlanta was growing impatient, why were they waiting? The Japanese no doubt knew of there presence. Indeed Admiral Abe did learn of the American task forces presence after the near collision of the Yudachi and Harusame with the Cushing. By 0142 all Japanese ships were alerted. However the Admiral was still unaware of the situation with the lead destroyers, which were rushing to get back on station. The range the enemy was reported to be at, seemed impossibly close, he feared they were being ambushed. If it had not been for the overrunning of their turning point earlier in evening the lead destroyers would have been in an excellent position to warn of the closing enemy task force. It is likely that Admiral Callaghan would have opened fire on the destroyers sweeping the waters ahead of the fleet and alerted the Japanese to their presence in plenty of time to maneuver to gain an advantage. But fortunately for the Americans, things had been going wrong for the Japanese as well.  Click on
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IJN Kirishima

Though they lacked radar, the Imperial Japanese Navy had some of the best optics in the world at that time, and they were highly skilled in identifying and tracking targets in the darkest of nights. Now the enemies presence in the waters of iron bottom sound was known, but what were they doing charging down on them like that, this surely was some kind of trap. How else would you explain the unexpected arrival of so many destroyers and cruisers bearing down on them now. The Japanese were not really prepared for a ship to ship battle, their turrets were loaded with HE rounds and were now being changed out for AP rounds.
At 0150 the Japanese searchlights snapped on, illuminating the Atlanta in a blinding bright light. The Japanese searchlights swept up and down the American column. There was no need to wait for further orders to fire. When Admiral Scott ordered the target "counter illuminated", his gunnery officer Commander Nickelson responded "counter illuminate hell, Fire!", and all at once Atlanta's main batteries began pumping out five inch rounds as fast as they could be loaded. The ship Atlanta chose was none other than the Battleship Hiei, then only about three thousand yards away. The battle was underway!
IJN Hiei
A confusing order came over the TBS, at 0148 from Admiral Callaghan as he tried to take control of the situation, stating "Odd ships commence fire to starboard, even fire to port." unfortunately some ships in the American task force were tracking targets on the opposite sides and had to check fire and acquire other targets. Some ships ignored the order as they were already engaging ships on the wrong side. Atlanta being one of them. Soon after opening fire on the Battleship, the forward guns shifted to a destroyer seen passing in front to the starboard. The Atlanta pumped out about forty shells in short order, at least half of which struck the target. It was claimed that the target broke in two and sank, if this was the Akatsuki, then she was definitely in serious trouble having earned almost every one of the American ships attention when she along with the Hiei turned on their searchlights. Within minutes of the encounter she was reduced to a burning wreck, the Akatsuki was out of action without firing a shot. Though she had not managed to get a shot off at the Atlanta, then about a mile away, one of the following destroyers did. 
The Ikazuchi and the Inazuma, both fired torpedoes at the enemy ships and reversed course, one of these struck the Atlanta. The impact knocked out the communications with the engine room, and the steering control. The Atlanta began to take hits from the Nagara, who had reversed her course and was steaming on the same heading as the Atlanta for a time. Her 5.5 inch guns raked the superstructure of the Atlanta as she drifted out of control though the American column. But the worse was yet to come for the Atlanta as she passed between the San Francisco and the Japanese ships, she took several 8" rounds before Admiral Callaghan realized he was firing on one of his ships and ordered  "cease firing own ships" unfortunately this went out over the TBS. 
Many of the other American ships heard this order and though it was directed at them, momentarily checking their fire. When clarification was sought the order came back "Give em Hell!", and "we want the big one!" The San Francisco then lead by example by engaging the Hiei at only 2,500 yards.
Fubuki Class DD
The two ships fired back and forth trading savo's, but it was the San Francisco that getting the worst of it. Her bridge was hit by a Savo of main and secondary rounds, killing Admiral Callaghan instantly and most of the personal on the bridge. After that beating the surviving officers on the San Francisco would have been justified by sailing out of harms way. But the officer now in charge was Lt. Commander Bruce McCandles and he knew that other ships in the group would follow the flag ship, so he turned back west and thus back into the fray, exchanging fire with both battleships, before limping away to the east. 
 The Cushing was looking for another target after the Yudachi and Harusame slipped away, she found the Amatsukaze off her starboard side about 2000 yards out, but was with both ships moving in the opposite directions no hits were scored.
Akatsukit Class DD
The Laffey was one of those ships pumping shells into the Akitsuki. The Sterret opened up on a ship to her starboard, identified as a light cruiser, probably the Nagara. The crew of the Sterret started to score hits, at least until the O'Bannon moved between them. Then she became the object of much attention, and began taking hits all over. One hit disabled her steering gear and almost sent her into the O'Bannon. Further hits took out her radar, and TBS. Though she was getting knocked around by multiple hits, the Sterret continued to blase away at any target that presented itself to her.
 The O'Bannon having just missed the Sterret, now took up station behind the Cushing and headed due west. A course that would take her right through the Japanese formation. It was at this time that the cease fire order was received as the San Francisco accidently fired on the Atlanta. The O'Bannon briefly obeyed that order until a ship identified as a Tenryu class CL sailed into range and was fired on until it was observed burning.
While the big ships were trading shells, the Cushing was heading back to a north back on the last ordered course, when a lookout spotted a large ship looming out of the darkness on the port side. This was the Hiei, who also sighted the little destroyer, but since the main guns were preoccupied with the American cruisers, she opened up with her secondary 5" and 6" guns. With shells splashing all around, the Cushing trained out her torpeado tubes and barely managed to get one torpeado out before she began taking hits which wounded the torpedo mount crew. Another hit took out the number 3 5" mount and set it afire. Soon after clearing the Hiei, the Cushing found herself taking fire from both sides that damaged the engine room, the forward and number two fire rooms. The Cushing started to lose power and was drifting to a stop.
Meanwhile the Laffey, following close behind also engaged the Japanese Battleship, but at a much closer range. In fact so close that the collision alarm was sounded as the monster bore down on the little destroyer seemingly intent on ramming them. Increasing speed and turning hard to port the Laffey never stopped shooting, raking the bridge with everything she had. The two ships passed close enough throw rocks at each other. The O'Bannon now turned her sights on the huge Battleship and launched three torpedo's at her at a range of about 1200 yards. A direct hit was observed so the other torpedo's were held. The Hiei was observed burning fiercely and believing that the ship was done for the O'Bannon ceased fire and headed east.
The Portland opened fire with her forward 8" guns on a target she had been tracking, claiming four hits. Starshells were fired from the secondary armament. During this early phase the Sweat Pea took a hit that took out her starboard searchlights and blew a large hole in the aircraft hanger on that side. This hit also disabled two of the 5 inch gun mounts. She was hit again above her armor belt resulting in some minor flooding.
Next in line the USS Helena probably had the most complete battle picture, having tracked targets from the very beginning. When the searchlights opened up, the Helena began pumping out six inch shells with all fifteen of her guns at a phenomenal rate of seventeen shells a minute. This was seven round more than her advertised rate of fire. She continued firing at that rate for over two minutes, until her target was observed to burn fiercely. The target they fired on was erroneously identified as a heavy cruiser, more likely the Akatsuki. Other targets were observing by the light of the burning ship  confirming their earlier SG radar plots were accurate. In this exchange the Helena made it through with only minor hits received, one through the forward stack, another next to it, striking the searchlight platform legs. Another hit was later discovered to have struck the aircraft crane on the fantail. 
The last cruiser in line was the Juneau, sister ship to the Atlanta, but with a more modern radar suite. She also opened up on one of the enemy ships aiming a searchlight, possibly the Hiei, or one of the other lead destroyers. When this ship aimed it searchlight elsewhere the Juneau, opened up on the Destroyer Yudachi. She blazed away until the destroyer passed astern and they had to check fire as there were several American destroyers following behind. 
Shiratsuyu Class DD
The Aaron Ward led the rear pack of destroyers, she did not follow the Juneau, as the last orders were to head north. She had been exchanging fire with the Hiei, but the cruisers had turned to the west passing between them, and causing he to check fire after getting off ten rounds. She also took three major hits from the 14 inch guns of the Japanese Battleship that caused major damage to the ship behind the bridge. A moment later the Japanese destroyer Harusame, passed right in front of them from right to left. Engines were stopped and put into reverse to avoid a collision. Deep within the bowels of the ship, the unmistakable shrill whine of a torpedo was heard approaching. The men could only wait and pray that it would miss, their prayers were answered when it passed by them. 
Charging up from behind the Barton was engaging a ship on the starboard side. Momentarily tuning to port to unmask her torpedo batteries, she let loose with a spread of fish. Barton was approaching a Japanese battleship, when they suddenly came upon the slowing Aaron Ward, when they slowed to avoid a collision, she became a perfect target for two of the torpedo's. The first one hit her in the forward fire room, with the other close behind in the forward engine room. The ship erupted in a sheet of flames and broke in two, within seconds the rear of the ship went under taking 250 of her crew. The Barton was the first ship to find its place in Iron Bottom Sound, but certainly not the last. 
The Monssen had escaped the torpedo's that had taken the Barton, and prepared to launch her own, first at the Hiei, which seemed to be dead in the water. Mount two fired all five in a close spread, claiming two or three hits. Mount number one fired her remaining five fish one at a time at an enemy cruiser. It is possible that one of these was responsible for a hit on the Nagara. Now they opened up on a target off the port side with the five inch guns and 20 mm guns.
Nagara CL
Last in line was the Fletcher which opened up on a ship that was illuminating the Atlanta. She shifted to another which was set afire, as they steamed north into the fray. 

All the American ships were now fully engaged as the last ship joined in, some were now out of action or fighting for their lives.

Stay tuned as we attempt to untangle in point blank duels
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