In less than a minute, the skies changed from pitch black to fluorescent pink.
Japanese bombers dropped flares off Savo Island, illuminating the waters and revealing the position of Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra and US cruiser USS Chicago.
Within seconds, Imperial Japanese Navy ships engaged the cruisers, which held the duty of the Allied Southern Screening Force during World War II and were supporting American landings at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
It was part of networked protection around the American invasion force, which had begun landing on August 7, 1942 – just two days earlier.
Canberra was the lead ship in the Southern Screening Force and as such, received almost the entirety of the enemy’s focus. The ship was immediately put out of action and left listing to starboard.
Chicago remained operational, but was badly damaged during the barrage.
Knowing they had destroyed the southern patrol’s ability to conduct its duty, the Japanese pushed their offensive campaign around the island, splitting into two columns and approaching the Northern Screening Force at high speed.
Their mission was simple: destroy the screening force and expose the landings.
It was mission success. The Japanese force continued to batter, and in some instances destroy, a number of other Allied naval vessels before withdrawing to their posts.
More than 1000 Allied sailors lost their lives and a further 700 were wounded.
Canberra alone lost 84 sailors and treated a further 109 wounded in the attack.
With Canberra burning and without power, the Allied Commander Rear Admiral Richmond Turner ordered the ship be abandoned and scuttled by friendly fire.
On August 9, 2021, the crew of HMAS Canberra remembered the first ship to bear her name during a small ceremony at sea, marking 79 years since the battle.
Commanding Officer Canberra Captain Jace Hutchison said the Battle of Savo Island formed part of a shared history between Australia and the US.
“It has seen our alliance and friendship strengthen in the face of adversity,” Captain Hutchison said.
“The name Canberra has lived on since World War II, not just in the RAN but also in the United States Navy, which has named two ships after Canberra.
“As Australians, we have been truly honoured by these gestures, and serve with pride in Canberra’s namesake.”
In Australia, a small commemoration was hosted at the HMAS Canberra Memorial on the northern shore of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra.
It was attended by senior naval personnel, government officials and various military organisation representatives.