First Contact
(The two fleets collide)

It's now Friday the 13th, not an encouraging thought among the sailors. Rumors run rampant about what is going down. Aboard the USS CUSHING Commander Thomas Stokes ComDesDiv 10, is at the bridge. He has just heard the USS HELENA broadcast over the TBS (Talk Between Ships) at 0124 1 "Large unidentified targets bearing three hundred twenty degrees, range thirty two thousand yards" Only a Battleship would be tall enough to show up that far over the horizon, and they were picking up more than one! Stokes had to be concerned his ship had only surface scan SC-1 radar that had been malfunctioning ever since the war started. He was leading the Task Force with the oldest ship and the one least prepared to lead, but perhaps the most prepared to fight. 

A minute after the first report at 0125, the SG radar operator on the USS HELENA broadcast another report to the bridge, "Radar contact. Bearing 310 True. Distance 31,900 yards." This was different than the first contact and was probably a second group. Orders from the Flagship SAN FRANCISCO came an agonizing four minutes later, they called for a course change to 310 degree's. This was right toward the oncoming enemy force. It is thought that Callaghan was having a hard time visualizing the enemy course and formation, he might have been trying to cross the enemies "T" as Admiral Scott had done at the Battle of Cape Esperance, a month ago. AT 0131 HELENA again reported that the enemy was "Now three targets. Bearing 312 (degrees), Distance 26,000 (yards)." Followed by "Their course 107. Speed possibly 23 (knots)."  The HELENA was getting an accurate picture of the Japanese force, however in the flagship the translation was getting lost. Callaghan again called for a course change this time to 0 degrees due North and speed increased from 18 knots to 20. Things get confusing from here on, but it appears that Callaghan had CUSHING change course again back to 310 degrees but at 0137 he reversed himself and ordered her back to 0 degrees. With about 500 yards between ships traveling line ahead, only the CUSHING would have been able to execute the turns before the course was corrected again. This would have placed her to the left of the formation and unfortunately on a collision course with a couple of speeding Japanese destroyers racing to get back into their intended positions. The YUDACHI and HARUSAME crossed about 3000 yards directly ahead of the CUSHING. Though the CUSHING lacked effective radar and the most up-to-date gunnery, she was commanded by an able Captain that night. LCdr. Butch Parker instantly reacted to the situation and at 0141 ordered the ship to a hard turn to port at 330 degrees. This turn avoided a possible collision and also unmasked his torpedo tubes for attack. They were all ready to fire, but by time word was passed down the Japanese ships had turned away, another opportunity lost. The abrupt turn by the CUSHING surprised the other Destroyers in the van. One by one they attempted to follow, each one losing speed in the process, and bunching up the formation. 
CUSHING had the Japanese Light Cruiser Nagara off her starboard bow, and a Battleships bearing down from the port side. The second Destroyer in line was the LAFFEY, she was following the CUSHING thru her turn, when the YUDACHI and HARUSAME raced by in front of them. Torpedo tubes were trained out in anticipation, the enemy was right on top of them and still no permission to fire. The Admiral was still busy trying to sort out his tangled ships. As soon as the two Japanese destroyers moved out of sight, LAFFEY had another target, a big one, thought to be a cruiser. "I request permission to fire." Lt. Tom Evin's the torpedo officer called out. LCdr Bill Hank, the Laffey's captain  replied immediately "Permission NOT granted". There was still no order to open fire. 
The STERRET had been tracking the largest target in the enemy fleet, the Battleship Hiei which was now visible to the naked eye. Guns  and torpedo tubes were also trained out awaiting the order, but it didn't come. 

SG VS SC Radar

Unlike earlier radar set which displayed target info much like the signal on an ociliscope, SG radar info is displayed on a circular screen much the same way as modern sets in use today. Radar contacts display as points of light (blips) relative to the center of the screen. The distance from the center is the range to the target, and the direction from the center is the bearing, pretty simple. The older sets display targets as a peak in the wave with the position displayed as the left or right location of the peaking wave. Sounds complicated, but a good operator could do a fair job of tracking a target. Now add 20 targets to that display and it is next to impossible to interpret the movement and range of any of them

Early Radar view
SG Style view
click for a picture
of a real SG set
Aboard the O'BANNON the targets had been tracked since 0130 with her brand new SG radar. Cdr Edwin Wilkerson had been getting reliable course and range info from his PPI scope. Just as they were getting a clear picture of the enemy the O'BANNON had to turn more than 45 degrees and wound up on STERETT's port quarter instead of astern. 
Aboard the ATLANTA Admiral Scott, was growing very impatient waiting to fire. The whole enemy task force was almost on top of them. "Well if Admiral Callaghan doesn't say commence firing, I will" he announced. But at that moment the ATLANTA came up on the destroyers turning in front of him and had to turn sharply himself to avoid running over the O'BANNON. "What are you doing" called Callaghan over the TBS. Captain Jenkins, skipper of the ATLANTA answered back that they were avoiding their destroyers. He was ordered to resume course as soon as possible. ATLANTA began turning right at about 0147, to comply with the Admirals order.  At about this point her SC radar picked up a target 3,000 yards directly ahead of her. This was probably the NAGARA, which was now crossing 
the American's T and moving across their starboard bow.  As she continued to turn to the north, she now had a destroyer 2000 yards off the port bow and another one 1600 yards to port.

The SAN FRANCISCO had originally turned  to port to follow the ATLANTA, but as the lead ship cut even harder right, the SAN FRANCISCO turned back and steadied on course north.
The PORTLAND recorded "four ships in a line southwest to northeast, east of Savo." as she came to the turn point. It is not known whether this report made it out over the TBS, as there was a lot of chatter amoung all the ships reporting contacts and inquiring of them.
HELENA had to maneuver radically to avoid collision and keep station; she had gone to flank speed, stopped all engines, and gone to flank speed again, in a little over a minute at about the same time as the ships ahead started bunching up. Sailors aboard the HELENA were growing impatient as when they watched the guns swing out to Port and elevate for maximum range, and then slowly lower until they were almost dead level as they tracked their targets. But still no orders to fire had been given.
On board the JUNEAU nearly identical to her sister ship ATLANTA except she was one of the three cruisers fitted with SG radar. She reported to CTG 67.4 that , "We have several ships on starboard." It is not known whether Captain Swenson made a mistake in direction of his contacts, as the bulk of the enemy was on the portside, or if he was tracking the  HARUSAME and YUDACHI, who had already crossed in front of the American ships.
Even on the AARON WARD, Captain Tobin's flagship leading the rear division of destroyers, there was radar contact. The AARON WARD had a target indicated at 12,000 yards at 310 Degree's from her position. Since she only had Fire Director (FD) radar and primitive (SC) radar, it must have been the Battleship HIEI, is is doubtful that anything smaller would have shown up on her radar at that range.
The BARTON, was the newest of the four Benson  class, but with ships pilling up in front of her the Captain and crew were so busy following the leader that they were sailing almost blindly into the melee.
MONSSEN  was forced to rely on radio information and visual detection, due to damage sustained  in the torpedo plane attacks the day before, one of which had cost MONSSEN the use of her fire control radar. 
The FLETCHER, another brand new destroyer rushed to the Pacific, also had a brand new SG radar set, and even from the back of the pack had multiple targets on her screen, trouble was that they were coming together and intermingling making it hard to determine friend from foe.
As ATLANTA skidded around through her turn, things began to happen quickly. The Japanese Admiral was now fully aware of the Americans presence and was himself deciding what to do. At 0142 Abe received a message from the destroyer YUDACHI stating "Enemy sighted" bearing "toward Lunga." "What is the range and bearing? And  where is YUDACHI?"  He demanded. within a minute HIEI's own lookouts reported, "Four black objects ahead! Looks like warships.  Five degrees to starboard, eight thousand meters.  Unsure yet; visibility bad." Abe flashed to the Bombardment Unit, "Probable enemy ships in sight, bearing 136 degrees."  He ordered a formation turn left to a course of 080 degrees, and at 0145 that turn was executed.
Admiral Callaghan came onto TBS at 0145 to broadcast to all ships, "Stand by to open fire." Whatever the Admiral had in mind by waiting twenty minutes to open fire, it was all for not as the two formations had collided. 
"Commence firing!  Counter-illuminate!"

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