H-020-2: Central Solomon Islands Campaign: Kula Gulf, Kolombangara, Vella Gulf, PT-109, and Battles with No Names (Not High-Velocity Learning)
H-Gram 020, Attachment 2
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
All of the major night surface actions in the Central Solomon Islands campaign would take place around the island of Kolombangara, as U.S. Navy forces tried to interdict Japanese destroyer-transports (the return of the “Tokyo Express”) trying to bring reinforcements and supplies to Japanese army forces fighting to hold New Georgia after the U.S. landings. For orientation, the Solomon Islands are located to the northeast of Australia and New Guinea. The chain is roughly 500 miles long and oriented in a northwest-southeast direction. At the northwestern end of the chain is the large island of Bougainville, which is where Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was shot down in April 1943 (see H-Gram 018). One of the islands at the southeastern end of the chain is Guadalcanal. Running between Bougainville and Guadalcanal is a passage of water about 300 miles long known as “The Slot.” On the north side of The Slot, and parallel to it, are several very large, long narrow islands. On the south side of The Slot about halfway between Guadalcanal and Bougainville are a jumble of islands, of which the irregularly shaped New Georgia is the largest. Just to the northwest of New Georgia is a roughly circular island known as Kolombangara. Separating Kolombanga from New Georgia to the east is Kula Gulf, and, to the south, Blackett Strait. To the west of Kolombangara is Vella Gulf, and to the north is The Slot. Ferocious night surface actions would be fought in waters on all sides of Kolombangara.
Except for continuing air battles, a comparative lull existed in the Solomon Islands for several months in early 1943 as both Japanese and U.S. forces licked their wounds after the bloody battles around Guadalcanal in late 1942. Execution of planned U.S. offensive operations up the Solomon Islands chain was delayed and severely hampered by lack of resources (the unofficial name given to the Guadalcanal Campaign was “Operation Shoestring,” and the paucity of resources persisted well into 1943). The European theater of operations still had priority in accordance with the agreed Allied strategy of “Germany First.” The Allied invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky), executed in early July 1943, was to that point the largest amphibious operation in history (and in some respects was even bigger than the D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944) and, as a result, resources of any kind, particularly landing craft, were in exceedingly short supply anywhere else.
The massive U.S. shipbuilding program was underway, but except for several new Cleveland-class cruisers and Fletcher-class destroyers, U.S. Navy forces in the Solomon Islands were still limited to ships that had been built prior to the war, and almost all the heavy cruisers in the Pacific had been sunk or damaged. Several new fast battleships were available and, although the U.S. Navy had no idea just how many Japanese torpedoes had been fired at, and missed, the USS Washington (BB-56) and USS South Dakota (BB-57) in the night action off Guadalcanal on 14–15 November 1942 (H-Gram 012), Vice Admiral William Halsey sensed that he had gotten lucky, and wisely decided not to risk battleships in the constrained and poorly charted waters of the Central Solomons.
The Allied command and control during the Central Solomons campaign was more convoluted on paper than it was in practice. Although Guadalcanal was in Admiral Chester Nimitz’s area of operations, the central and northern Solomons were in General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific area of operations. However, MacArthur was heavily engaged in the New Guinea campaign (supported by his own navy, the small but growing Seventh Fleet, which I will cover in a future H-gram) and readily ceded tactical control of operations in the Central Solomons to Admiral Nimitz’s Third Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Halsey. Halsey and MacArthur actually hit it off pretty well (a rarity), probably because MacArthur mostly left Halsey alone to run the Central Solomons campaign as Halsey saw fit. To deal with the constant air battles over the Central Solomons, a new joint command was established, “Commander, Aircraft, Solomons (ComAirSols), based on Guadalcanal. ComAirSols was perhaps the first truly “joint” U.S. operational command, in many ways more “joint” than any air campaign that followed it up to and including Desert Storm. At the time of the New Georgia landing, AirSols was commanded by Rear Admiral Marc A. “Pete” Mitscher.
Selected Battles and Actions in the Central Solomon Islands Campaign
17 February 1943: Night Air Attack on U.S. Convoy
On the morning of 17 February 1943, a U.S. force of four transports, six escorting destroyers, and a tanker was transiting en route to land the troops in the Russell Islands (which are about 30 miles up The Slot from Guadalcanal and had been evacuated by the Japanese), when it was sighted and trailed by Japanese scout aircraft. The transport task unit commander, Captain Ingolf N. Kiland, correctly anticipated that he would be subject to a major air raid after dusk, and disposed his force and made course changes accordingly. For over an hour the ships and aircraft tried to gain positional advantage, until 12 Betty twin-engine torpedo bombers commenced a night torpedo attack from multiple axes. However, the fully alerted U.S. Navy force, many now armed with the new 5-inch proximity fuze rounds and 40-mm Bofors guns, shot down five of the bombers and disrupted the rest so that no torpedoes hit home. The U.S. landings in the Russell Islands on 20 February 1943 were unopposed, but the U.S. occupation didn’t significantly change the overall situation.
6 March 1943: The Battle of Blackett Strait
(This battle has no name in Morison’s History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II, but more contemporary accounts have taken to calling it the Battle of Blackett Strait, although it was actually fought in the Kula Gulf and might more properly be called the “First Battle of Kula Gulf.”)
In the pre-dawn hours of 6 March 1943, Task Force 68 (TF-68), consisting of the new light cruisers Montpelier (CL-57), Cleveland (CL-55), and Denver (CL-58), and three destroyers, under the command of Rear Admiral Aaron Stanton “Tip” Merrill, entered Kula Gulf from The Slot with the intent to bombard the Japanese airfield under construction at Vila on Kolombangara. Two Japanese destroyers (Murusame and Minegumo, both veterans of multiple Tokyo Express runs to Guadalcanal) were already at Vila on a routine mission to bring supplies. Instead of opting to return the way they came, via Blackett Strait to the south and then west through Vella Gulf, they decided to head home through Kula Gulf and westward around northern Kolombangara.
At 0057 on 6 March, U.S. radar detected the two Japanese destroyers, which were unaware of TF-68’s presence. At 0101, TF-68’s cruisers commenced fire with their rapid-fire 6-inch guns, and USS Waller (DD-466) fired torpedoes. Repeating the same tactical error as at the disastrous Battle of Tassafaronga (H-Gram 013) off Guadalcanal in November 1942, all the U.S. cruisers concentrated their radar-directed fire on the lead Japanese ship. Murusame was smothered by a deluge of shells and a torpedo, and the ship exploded, broke in two, and sank with 128 of her crew (53 survived). Unlike Tassafaronga, the trail destroyer, Minegumo, was unable to launch any torpedoes before the U.S. cruisers shifted fire and sank her, too, with a loss of 46 of her crew, including her commanding officer. Merrill reported sinking two Japanese light cruisers, which was typical of the constant misidentification (and inflation of enemy losses) that characterized U.S. operational reporting throughout the war, although, in consolation, Japanese reports were much worse. The battle was marred by the disappearance with all hands of the submarine USS Grampus (SS-207), which was stationed to cover the Japanese exit route south of Kolombangara. There was some indication that Murusame and Minegumo encountered and sank Grampus in Blackett Strait before the battle started, but this is not confirmed.
20 March 1943: Commencement of U.S. Aerial Minelaying Flights
After dusk on 20 March 1943, 42 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, each carrying one Mark-12 magnetic mine, supported by a diversionary raid by 18 B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, mined the harbor of Kahili in the northern Solomons, without loss. They did the same thing the next night. During the course of the month, over 100 additional mines were delivered by air around Bougainville, with the most significant Japanese victims being light cruise Yubari (damaged) and the submarine RO-103, which was lost, possibly due to a mine.
7 May 1943: Blackett Strait Mining Operations
Just before midnight on 6-7 May 1943, the destroyer USS Radford (DD-446) led three converted destroyer-minelayers, Preble (DM-20,) Gamble (DM-15), and Breese (DM-18,) into Blackett Strait and in a textbook-perfect operation laid over 250 mines in 17 minutes, withdrawing without detection. On the night of 7–8 May, four Japanese destroyers blundered into the minefield. The Oyashio and Kagero were crippled, but remained afloat, and the Kurashio hit more mines and sank. The next morning, the undamaged Michishio was rescuing men from the crippled destroyers. In response to a coast watcher report, Guadalcanal launched a 60-plane strike, but poor weather prevented all but 18 Dauntless dive bombers from getting through. However, they succeeded in sinking the two cripples, while Michishio was subsequently strafed by Wildcat fighters. (Samuel Eliot Morison identifies this Japanese destroyer as Michishio, but more recent information indicates that destroyer was in Japan undergoing repair at that time; however, I have been unable to come up with an alternate candidate).
On the night of 12–13 May, the U.S. conducted another minelaying operation in Ferguson Passage (which feeds Blackett Strait and Kula Gulf from the south), covered by two bombardment groups, shelling the airstrips at Munda on New Georgia and Vila on Kolombangara, under the overall command of Rear Admiral Walden Lee “Pug” Ainsworth. The minelaying operation and the bombardments were successful; however, the Japanese were now wise to minelaying ops and swept the field within 24 hours. Unfortunately, the operation was marred by several accidents, including a turret explosion on the light cruiser USS Nashville (CL-43), which killed 20 men; a powder cartridge cooked off on destroyer USS Nicholson (DD-442), wrecking the gun mount; other 6-inch guns jamming; an anchor carried away on cruiser USS St. Louis (CL-49); engine casualties; and a near-collision. Night combat was dangerous, even when no enemy showed up.
Using the limited numbers of landing craft available, U.S. Army units and Marines landed at multiple locations on the Island of New Georgia, with the primary objective to capture the airfield at Munda (which had been bombed so many times it wasn’t operational by then), catching the Japanese by surprise. Unlike on Guadalcanal, where Japanese army commanders behaved with appalling arrogance and misguided contempt for the fighting spirit of U.S. forces (resulting in pointless slaughter of their own troops), the commander of Japanese forces on New Georgia, Major General Noburo Sasaki, proved to be a very effective and wily leader, conducting a protracted fighting withdrawal across the island that inflicted heavy casualties on U.S. forces, who got bogged down in swamps and jungles. Unlike on Guadalcanal, the Japanese reacted very swiftly, and quickly got over 4,500 troop reinforcements by destroyer-transport and barge onto New Georgia—through U.S. Navy forces trying to prevent this effort. The campaign to take New Georgia proved far longer than planned, and would ultimately require over 30,000 troops to subdue the Island at a cost of over 1,000 dead. The island was not secured until late August, when remaining Japanese troops pulled yet another disappearing act, hopping on barges across the Kula Gulf and taking up positions with a sizable Japanese force on Kolombangara (although some Japanese troops on New Georgia continued to resist until October). Morison’s verdict on the campaign was: “The strategy and tactics of the New Georgia campaign were amongst the least successful of any Allied campaign in the Pacific.”
Prior to the 16 June 1943 landing on New Georgia, the Japanese launched two sizable air strikes on the U.S. force assembling off Guadalcanal, without apparently putting two and two together that they were attacking an invasion force. Most of the Japanese planes were shot down and only two bombs hit, damaging the freighter Celeno, which had to be beached, and LST-340, which was fully loaded with soldiers and vehicles. Nine Japanese Val dive bombers attacked LST-340, achieving two near-misses, one direct hit, and strafed her, killing one Navy crewman and nine Army passengers. The bomb ignited gasoline and ammunition, causing an intense fire. The Army troops were ordered to abandon ship and swim for nearby rescue vessels. However, the skipper, Lieutenant William Villella, was true to the dictum, “don’t give up the ship.” He ordered his engineers to set the starboard engine to flank speed (the port engine had been damaged) before abandoning the engine room. He then steered for the beach and made it before the engine quit. Two other LSTs joined the crew of LST 340 in fighting the fire, despite exploding ammunition, and together saved the ship.
30 June 1943: Landings on Rendova and Loss of USS McCawley (APA-4)
Concurrent with the landings on New Georgia, U.S. Navy forces landed several thousand Army troops on the island of Rendova, just south of New Georgia, meeting minimal resistance ashore. However, shore batteries on New Georgia eventually opened fire on U.S. destroyers supporting the Rendova landing, hitting and damaging the destroyer USS Gwin (DD-433), killing three crewmen. (Gwin had been the sole U.S. destroyer to survive the night action off Guadalcanal on 14–15 November 1942, but she would not survive much longer.) The first Japanese counterstrike on the U.S. landings on New Georgia was a sweep by 27 Zero fighters, which were nearly wiped out by U.S. air cover, by now flying the much superior F-4U Corsair fighters, among others. The second strike, several hours later, consisted of 25 twin-engine Betty bombers armed with torpedoes, escorted by 24 Zero fighters, which located Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turners amphibious force off New Georgia. Of the Japanese aircraft, only ten Bettys got through the U.S. fighter cover and shipboard anti-aircraft fire. Only one torpedo hit, striking Turner’s flagship, the USS McCawley (APA-4) in the engine room, immobilizing her, and killing 15 of her crew. Progressive flooding forced Turner to shift his flag. The destroyer Ralph Talbot (DD-390) took off most of McCawley’s crew, and the ship was taken under tow. Eight Val dive bombers then attacked her, one of which was shot down by a Marine officer who manned the aft machine gun on the crippled ship, while two others were shot down by escorts; the Japanese planes scored no hits. McCawley’s skeleton crew continued to fight a valiant but losing battle to save the ship, but even they were eventually ordered off the transport. After dusk, Turner was trying to decide whether or not to order McCawley scuttled, when two torpedoes hit her and she sank. As it turned out, the torpedoes were fired by U.S. PT-boats who mistook McCawley for a Japanese transport (they’d been informed there were no friendlies in that area), after which Turner assumed direct control of the PT-boat squadron.
1 July 1943: The Mystery of Japanese Submarine RO-101
On 1 July 1943, the Japanese submarine RO-101 was spotted on the surface near the landing area on Rendova after nightfall, and USS Radford (DD-446) attacked. Radford blazed away with 5-inch guns and machine guns and fired a torpedo (which missed), blowing off RO-101’s conning tower and puncturing the hull with one 5-inch round. RO-101 went under before Radford could ram her. Radford dropped depth charges in the pool of oil for good measure, according to the destroyer’s account. Morison notes in History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II that somehow RO-101 survived and was still operational in late 1943. Japanese records for RO-101 tell a completely different story. In the Japanese version, the submarine attempted to penetrate the PT-boat screen around the Rendova landing beach on 1 and 2 July but was unable to do so. There is no indication of an engagement with a U.S. destroyer. However, Japanese accounts do show that, on 12 July 1943, RO-101 was on the surface recharging batteries when she was attacked by the USS Taylor (DD-468). The torpedo officer and two lookouts were killed by Taylor’s fire, and the skipper had to drag bodies away to get down into the submarine and take her under. RO-101 then survived Taylor’s depth-charge attack with damage that was repairable. U.S. records show Taylor (commanded by future Rear Admiral Benjamin Katz) engaged an “RO-type” submarine on that date with undetermined result, although later assessed as RO-107 sunk. RO-101 was probably actually sunk by USS Saufley (DD-468) and a PBY Catalina in the northern Solomons on 15 September 1943 and lost with all hands. I haven’t been able to figure out what submarine Radford sank, if any, although RO-107 and RO-103 were lost in the central Solomons and their exact fate is unknown. The fog of war eventually turns in to the fog of history.
2 July 1943: Air Raid on Rendova
On 2 July, a Japanese air raid by 24 Japanese army twin-engine bombers and 20 Navy Zero fighters caught the American beachhead on Rendova by surprise. Radar did not detect the incoming raid and no air raid alert was sounded. Army troops on the ground were still standing in chow lines, thinking the planes were U.S. B-25 twin-engine bombers when the bombs fell. Fifty-nine men were killed and 77 wounded; damage was extensive. That night, the Japanese light cruiser Yubari made it through the gauntlet of U.S. forces, shelled the Rendova beachhead, and then got away. Fortunately, all Yubari’s shells landed in the jungle.
5 July 1943: Loss of USS Strong (DD-467)
On the night of 4-5 July, a task force under the command of Rear Admiral “Pug” Ainsworth, consisting of three light cruisers and nine destroyers, entered Kula Gulf from the north with the intent of bombarding Vila, on Kolombangara, to provide cover for another landing on New Georgia (after the first ones had quickly become bogged down). At 0026 on 6 July, light cruisers Honolulu (CL-48), Helena (CL-50), and St. Louis (CL-49), and the destroyers O’Bannon (DD-450) and Chevalier (DD-451) opened fire on Vila. The light cruisers fired over 3,000 rounds. The group then transited to the east side of Kula Gulf and shelled Japanese positions on New Georgia in preparation for the planned pre-dawn landings.
The destroyers Nicholas (DD-449) and Strong had previously detached from the main group to search for Japanese ships or submarines at the south end of Kula Gulf and the entrance to Blackett Strait. At 0031 on 5 July, radar on Ralph Talbot (DD-390) detected two unidentified radar contacts apparently exiting Kula Gulf toward Blackett Strait. Ainsworth was attempting to determine the identity of these contacts when, at 0049, a torpedo from out of nowhere hit the Strong, inflicting fatal damage. The torpedo actually came from a group of Japanese destroyers, led by Niizuki, transporting Japanese troop reinforcements, that was entering Kula Gulf many miles to the northwest. Having seen the flashes of the U.S. bombardment, and with his ships loaded with troops, the Japanese commander opted not to engage, but three of the four destroyers fired torpedoes at long range as the group turned to depart. U.S. radar detected the group, but it was not deemed a threat due to the distance, the U.S. commanders still being clueless about the range of Japanese torpedoes. The landings just before dawn were successful as Radford and Gwin (DD-433) silenced Japanese shore batteries.
After Strong did not respond to radio calls, Ainsworth ordered the destroyers Chevalier and O’Bannon to search. Chevalier and O’Bannon found Strong crippled, but still afloat, and Chevalier came alongside and began to transfer Strong’s crew via nets. Japanese shore batteries, aided by a spotter plane, opened fire. Strong was hit by a dud. O’Bannon broke off rescue efforts to return fire. Chevalier remained alongside, as Japanese shells came closer, and in seven minutes took 241 of Strong’s crew aboard before Strong sank a minute later. Some of Strong’s depth charges exploded, accounting for most of the 46 of her crew who were lost. The skipper of Strong, Commander Gus Wellings, was one of the few in the water who survived and was rescued later by other destroyers. (Of note, the Vulcan Group, which found the wrecks of Indianapolis [CA-35], Lexington [CV-2], Juneau [CL-52], and Helena [CL-50] in 2017/2018, searched for Strong in Kula Gulf, but was unable to find her.)
Early Morning, 6 July 1943: The Battle of Kula Gulf
As Rear Admiral Ainsworth and Task Group 36.1 were transiting back to the Guadalcanal area after the bombardments at Vila and New Georgia, he received intelligence from Vice Admiral Halsey that a Japanese Tokyo Express was setting up to go into Kula Gulf. Despite the prodigious expenditure of ammunition the night before, and having just enough fuel to do it, Ainsworth reversed course intent on intercepting the Tokyo Express Run on the night of 5–6 July. TG 36.1 consisted of light cruisers Honolulu (CL-48), Helena, and St. Louis (CL-49); and the destroyers Nicholas (DD-449), O’Bannon (DD-450), Radford (DD-446), and Jenkins (DD-447). As noted above, Strong had been sunk the night before, and Chevalier was burdened with Strong’s survivors.
Ten Japanese destroyers, in three groups, under the overall command of Rear Admiral Akiyama, were en route to Kula Gulf to carry 2,600 combat troops and supplies to Vila, Kolombangara, where they would then go by barge across the Kula Gulf to New Georgia. The groups were divided into two transport groups and one support group. The support group was the same group that had torpedoed and sunk Strong the night before, and the lead destroyer in the group, Niizuki, had one of the first Japanese radar sets to be installed on a destroyer. She also had passive radar detection gear, which was a new Japanese innovation to counter U.S. radar. The Tokyo Express run avoided the usual U.S. air attacks due to bad flying weather. Once in Kula Gulf, Akiyama detached one of the transport groups of three destroyers to proceed ahead down the east coast of Kolombangara and off-load at Vila.
Shortly after midnight, the U.S. force entered Kula Gulf from the northeast, while the Japanese force had entered from the northwest. At 0106, the new Japanese radar detector registered the U.S. force, so surprise was lost before Ainsworth even knew it. At 0140, U.S. radar detected the Japanese at a range of 24,700 yards and TG36.1 shifted from cruising to battle disposition. At 0146, Japanese radar detected the U.S. force. At 0154, Ainsworth gave the order to open fire as range decreased to 10,000 yards. The U.S. picture was confused because just before contact Akiyama had detached the second group of transport destroyers. Akiyama’s three-destroyer support force was already up to 30 knots and evading, when the U.S. opened fire, and he had ordered the second transport group, despite having 1,200 troops embarked, to reverse course and get in the impending fight. Because of the confused radar picture, the U.S. ships didn’t open fire until 0157 and the range was down to 7,000 yards.
Yet again, repeating the Tassafaronga pattern, all three U.S. light cruisers concentrated their fire on the lead Japanese ship, Akiyama’s flagship, the destroyer Niizuki. As Niizuki was smothered in shellfire, the untouched Suzukaze and Tanikaze maintained fire discipline (i.e., no gunfire), evaded into the darkness, and fired 16 “Long Lance” torpedoes at the U.S. cruiser line as it was blazing away with rapid-fire 6-inch guns (which the Japanese called “machine-gun cruisers”). Helena, which had run out of flashless powder as a result of the shore bombardment the night before, made an ideal aim point for the Japanese torpedoes. “Happy Helena” had survived a torpedo hit at Pearl Harbor and then, with minimal damage, the Battle of Cape Esperance, the horrific battle of Friday the 13th (November 1942) off Guadalcanal, and the torpedo attack that destroyed Juneau. Helena’s luck ran out when she was hit by four torpedoes (one a dud), causing her to jackknife between turrets one and two. There was no doubt from the very beginning that the damage was fatal, and Captain Charles P. Cecil quickly ordered abandon ship. Helena sank in about six minutes, except for her severed bow, which remained afloat for hours.
As Suzukaze and Tanikaze made good their escape (O’Bannon and Radford fired nine torpedoes at them in a futile stern chase), the second group of Japanese destroyer-transports, under the command of Captain Yamashiro, which had reversed course back to the north on Akiyama’s order (one of his last), entered the engagement and were engaged by the U.S. cruisers. The U.S. cruisers fired over 2,500 6-inch rounds in the first 20 minutes and even crossed Yamashiro’s “T,” but only achieved a few more hits, although the deluge of shellfire disrupted Yamashiro’s group from getting off a torpedo attack. The four destroyers escaped with relatively minor damage. Convinced he had sunk many more ships than he had, and running low on fuel and ammunition, Ainsworth broke off the engagement at about 0230. As Ainsworth’s force exited the battle area, Nicholas fired five torpedoes at the flaming wreckage of Niizuki, with no discernable result. Nicholas and Radford were then directed to remain behind and search for Helena survivors.
In the meantime, Helena’s commanding officer, Captain Cecil, had formed his rafts into a convoy. At 0341, Radford and Nicholas located the main group of Helena survivors in the water. Just after they commenced rescue ops, they broke off because radar detected Suzukaze and Tanikaze, which had reloaded their torpedo tubes and were coming back looking to resume the fight. However, not seeing anything, the two Japanese destroyers withdrew. Radford and Nicholas resumed rescuing Helena’s crew. Meanwhile, the group of four Japanese destroyers under Yamashiro, which had escaped, proceeded to Vila, offloaded their 1,200 army troops, and then headed for home. Three of the destroyers headed south and west intent on escape via Blackett Strait and Vella Gulf, but one ran aground. Captain Yamashiro took his flagship, Amagiri (which would later sink PT-109) north back into the Kula Gulf to try to find any survivors from Niizuki. Amagiri found some, and was in the process of rescuing them at the same time Radford and Nicholas were rescuing Helena survivors 13,000 yards away. The Japanese and U.S. ships detected each other, broke off rescue operations (again, for the Americans) and attacked each other. Amagiri fired torpedoes at Nicholas and Nicholas fired torpedoes at Amagiri. All missed (by 15 feet in the case of the Japanese). The exchange of gunfire that followed knocked out Amagiri’s fire control circuits, and her skipper elected at that point to withdraw. Almost all of Niizuki’s crew of 300 would be lost, including her skipper and Rear Admiral Akiyama.
The other Japanese transport group successfully off-loaded their troops at Vila, and two of the three elected to withdraw via Blackett Strait, while the Mochizuki, which had encountered delay on off-loading, elected to take her chances alone in Kula Gulf. Mochizuki transited northbound hugging the east coast of Kolombangara and once again interrupted the efforts of Nicholas and O’Bannon to rescue Helena survivors, of which a number had now been pulled from the water. Mochizuki launched one torpedo at the U.S. destroyers that missed and, after a brief exchange of gunfire, made her escape under a smoke screen. The U.S. destroyers, with Helena survivors on board (eventually over 600), were in no mood for a fight by then either and screened themselves in smoke. When the two destroyers departed, they left behind four lifeboats with volunteer crews, which continued rescue work into the next day.
The Japanese destroyer that had run aground, the Nagatsuki, tried valiantly to get off the rocks, but she was hard aground. Most of her crew got off by small boat to Kolombangara at dawn before the inevitable U.S. airstrikes rolled in, bombing her throughout the day until her magazine blew up.
12–13 July 1943: Battle of Kolombangara
About the best that can be said for the Battle of Kolombangara is that it could have been a lot worse. With the difference of a few feet from where Japanese torpedoes hit, it could have been another Tassafaronga disaster.
During the days after the Battle of Kula Gulf, two U.S. cruiser-destroyer groups were operating in the waters around Kolombangara, sometimes on alternate nights and sometimes on the same nights in different locations. On 12 July 1943, Rear Admiral Ainsworth received orders to proceed up The Slot to interdict another Japanese reinforcement/resupply run by the Tokyo Express. Task Force 18 consisted of the light cruisers Honolulu and St. Louis, both veterans of the Battle of Kula Gulf, and the Royal New Zealand Navy light cruiser HMNZS Leander (75) replacing the sunken Helena. This time, ten destroyers accompanied the U.S. cruisers. Ainsworth’s battle plan was essentially the same as at Kula Gulf: Use radar to smother the Japanese ships with shellfire before the Japanese could launch torpedoes, and turn away in the event they did launch. The problem with the plan is that Ainsworth still did not know how far Japanese torpedoes could go (nor did he know Japanese destroyers could reload torpedoes at sea).
The Japanese task group consisted of the battle-veteran light cruiser Jintsu, with Rear Admiral Shunji Izaki embarked, and five destroyers, supporting four destroyer-transports carrying 1,200 troops. Using their new radar-detection device (which also provided line-of-bearing), Izaki was aware of and tracking the U.S. force for almost two hours before the U.S. gained radar contact. Despite the warning that he would be opposed, Izaki boldly decided to press on with the mission. His force was still in The Slot, transiting southeasterly, just north of Kolombangara, while Ainsworth’s force was transiting westerly across the mouth of Kula Gulf.
At 0100, the flagship Honolulu’s radar made contact with the Japanese. Ainsworth ordered his van destroyers to race ahead and at 0109 gave them orders to attack with torpedoes. Nicholas (DD-449) immediately launched torpedoes at the lead Japanese ship, Jintsu, at a range of 7,000 yards. Jintsu replied with torpedoes and gunfire. Ainsworth waited until the range from his cruisers to Jintsu closed to 10,000 yards. Repeating the now-familiar pattern, the three U.S. light cruisers smothered Jintsu with 2,630 rounds of rapid-fire 6-inch shells in about ten minutes, while the other Japanese ships remained unscathed and set up for a stealthy torpedo attack. Jintsu was also hit by two torpedoes from U.S. destroyers, which, in an anomaly, actually worked. Jintsu broke into two floating, burning halves that drifted apart. Admiral Izaki, the captain, and 482 of her crew were lost, almost all hands. However, Jintsu’s torpedoes and those of other destroyers were already on the way.
Leander was hit by a torpedo that killed 28 crewmen and put her out of action for the remainder of the battle (and actually for the rest of the war). Other torpedoes were near-misses. The destroyer Radford narrowly avoided two torpedoes and destroyer Jenkins (DD-447) dodged one. In the meantime, the four Japanese destroyer-transports, burdened with troops and supplies, had reversed course to avoid the battle. Four of the destroyers in the support group, having fired their torpedoes, began to withdraw to the northwest, while the destroyer Mikazuki tried to stand by Jintsu until it was quickly deemed hopeless.
In the confusion of the night battle, Ainsworth’s van destroyers broke off pursuit of the retiring Japanese destroyers and reversed course to the east to rejoin the cruisers, while at the same time Ainsworth decided to pursue the Japanese destroyers to the west with his cruisers, unbeknownst to each other due to communications challenges. This nearly resulted in a “blue-on-blue” engagement. At the same time, the five Japanese destroyers had also reversed course, having reloaded their torpedoes in 18 minutes. Precious time was lost on the flagship Honolulu trying sort out friend from foe. At 0203, Ainsworth was still uncertain and ordered his cruisers to illuminate the group he thought might be Japanese with star shells. Meanwhile the Japanese had already launched their second load of torpedoes, and 31 torpedoes were en route the U.S. cruisers. The star shells confirmed that the contacts were Japanese and Ainsworth ordered his cruisers to turn to unmask their main batteries, unfortunately right into the paths of the oncoming torpedoes.
Before she could obey the command to commence firing, St. Louis was hit by a torpedo, fortunately well forward, as was Honolulu, while the destroyer Gwin received a fatal hit amidships in her engine room. Honolulu, maneuvering radically to avoid numerous torpedoes, narrowly avoided colliding with the burning Gwin, while a second torpedo hit Honolulu square in the stern without exploding, and stuck there for several minutes, long enough for the gun captain of the aftermost machine guns to request permission for his crew to abandon their posts because there was a torpedo stuck in the stern directly below them. The report was initially disbelieved, but the captain gave permission, as the torpedo slid back in the water on its own. Gwin had been the only one of the four U.S. destroyers in the night action off Guadalcanal on 14–15 November to survive the battle, and had rescued almost the entire crew of Benham (DD-397). Despite a valiant attempt to save their ship, Gwin’s crew was taken off by Ralph Talbot before she was scuttled. Two officers and 59 men of Gwin’s crew were lost.
In the unnamed action that resulted in the loss of the destroyer Strong, and in the battles of Kula Gulf and Kolombangara, the Japanese accomplished their mission of transporting troops to Kolombangara, then ferried them across Kula Gulf to New Georgia, at a cost of one light cruiser and two destroyers. The U.S. had lost one light cruiser and two destroyers, plus three other light cruisers significantly damaged. Had Honolulu and St. Louis not been hit so far forward (which resulted in no deaths on either cruiser), the results of Kolombangara could have been even worse than Tassafaronga. The U.S. Navy had learned many lessons from the battles off Guadalcanal, but still failed to comprehend the true extent of Japanese torpedo capability. The Americans continued to repeat the flawed tactic of concentrating the fire of all of their cruisers on the lead (or largest) Japanese ship, while unknowingly well within effective Japanese torpedo range, leaving the other Japanese ships free to launch torpedo attacks, which only by luck were not far more effective.
Both sides claimed to sink many more ships than they actually did. Rear Admiral Ainsworth claimed to have sunk seven to nine Japanese ships at Kula Gulf (actual score: two) and five more sunk at Kolombangara (actual score: one). This was not all that unusual. U.S. post-battle reports regularly inflated the size enemy ships (heavy cruisers reported as battleships, destroyers reported as cruisers, etc.) and claimed more sunk and damaged than was actually the case. Japanese operational reporting was just as bad, and often worse. The Japanese claimed to have sunk all three Allied cruisers and several destroyers at Kolombangara, although a big difference was that their admiral was dead. Nevertheless, subsequent U.S. intelligence reporting would determine with a decent degree of accuracy the real tally of enemy ships lost, often to the consternation, and even anger, of U.S. operational commanders, who did not appreciate having their victories downgraded by the intelligence types.
The postscript to the Battle of Kula Gulf was the extraordinary effort to rescue the survivors of Helena. Most of the crew was actually rescued the night of the battle, many of them from CAaptainCecil’s well-disciplined raft convoy. However, about 200 of Helena’s crew were not able to reach rafts and initially remained clustered around the bow, which floated for several hours, before it finally sank (at various points during the night both the U.S. and Japanese fired torpedoes and shells at the floating bow thinking it was an enemy ship). After daybreak on 6 July, a Navy PB4Y-2 (B-24) Liberator patrol bomber sighted the cluster of survivors and dropped four life rafts (one of which sank before opening), which wasn’t near enough for the whole group, but was a help. Over the next day, the current carried the group of survivors toward the northwest (and toward the Japanese-held islands), past the north coast of Kolumbangara, all the way across Vella Gulf, during which about of a quarter of their number died from wounds, drowning, or exposure. Fortunately, Japanese Zero fighters that buzzed the group several times opted not to strafe, apparently unsure whether the oil-soaked survivors were not their own. Finally, the current carried the remaining 165 survivors close enough to the Japanese-held island of Vella LaVella, that they were able to reach shore in two groups eight miles apart.
On Vella LaVella, two Australian coast watchers and their Melanesian (native) militia saw the Americans come ashore, provided assistance (including wiping out a Japanese patrol that came too close), and radioed for help. There were too many survivors for a PBY or submarine rescue, and any partial rescue would alert the Japanese, who would almost certainly respond with far more than one patrol. As a result, Captain Francis X. McInerney (who had been DESRON 21 commander at both Kula Gulf and Kolombangara) led the destroyers Nicholas, Radford, Jenkins and O’Bannon (also all veterans of both battles) up The Slot in the farthest penetration yet attempted deep in “enemy” waters, which drew the attention of Japanese night reconnaissance aircraft. Meanwhile, the destroyer transports Dent (APD-9) and Waters (APD-8), escorted by four destroyers of DESRON 12 (led by Captain Thomas J. Ryan, who had been awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in rescuing Japanese during the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923), transited south of New Georgia and entered Vella Gulf from the south via Gizo Strait. While three of the southern group of destroyers stood guard, the destroyer Taylor led Dent and Waters through treacherous, poorly-charted waters, using lead-line soundings for some of it. Landing craft from Dent and Waters picked up 61 survivors and one Japanese POW from one location, then felt their way eight miles northward and picked up 104 survivors and 16 Chinese. By daybreak, the entire U.S. force was transiting at maximum speed down The Slot, passing survivors of the Japanese cruise Jintsu, who refused to be rescued, except for two who had found their way onto an abandoned lifeboat from the sunken Gwin. In the end, 168 of “Happy Helena’s” crew would be lost, but 739 were saved.
Helena would be the first ship to be awarded the newly created Navy Unit Commendation (NUC) for her actions at Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal, and Kula Gulf. Captain Charles P. Cecil would be awarded his second Navy Cross, but would perish in an accidental plane crash before the war ended. Captain (and future vice admiral) Francis X. McInerney would be awarded a Navy Cross for Kula Gulf, a Silver Star for Kolombangara, and a Legion of Merit with Combat V for the rescue of Helena survivors from Vella LaVella. The Oliver Hazard Perry–class frigate FFG-8 would be named in his honor. The Vulcan Group located and positively identified Helena’s wreck on 11 April 2018.
18 July 1943: Sinking of LST-342 and Loss of Combat Artist McClelland Barclay
On 18 July 1943, Japanese submarine RO-106 torpedoed and sank LST-342 off the Solomon Islands. The explosion broke the ship in two; the stern section sank immediately, while the bow remained afloat and was pulled into harbor. Among those killed was famed artist McClelland Barclay, who had had a very successful career painting covers for the Saturday Evening Post and numerous other periodicals. Beginning in 1938, he painted numerous recruiting posters for the U.S. Navy, many of which were among the most famous and popular during and even after the war, before becoming a reserve officer. Barclay became one of first, and most prolific, Navy combat artists (NHHC still has the program and two combat artists). Barclay stated: “A camera cannot catch the human element of a fight, the sweat and blood and courage our boys expend every time they face the enemy.” Barclay’s body was never recovered. (Please see attachment H-020-3 for an example of his work.)
19–20 July 1943: Unnamed Air-to-Surface Action
On the night of 19–20 July, the Japanese decided to have a surprise in store for the U.S. light cruisers, believing that they had sunk several of them and now had the upper hand. This time the Tokyo Express run to Kolombangara consisted of three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers, commanded by Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura, who expected to overpower any U.S. opposition. However, on this night, the U.S. Navy had sent no surface forces into the Kula Gulf. At 2230 on 19 July, a U.S. Navy radar-equipped PBY Catalina “Black Cat” flying boat detected the Japanese task force heading down The Slot. Six TBF Avenger torpedo bombers (carrying bombs) from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal launched on a daring night strike against the Japanese force, sank the destroyer Yugure, and hit and damaged the heavy cruiser Kumano with a 2,000-pound bomb. A follow-on pre-dawn strike by five TBFs (with torpedoes) and eight U.S. Army Air Force B-25 bombers employing skip-bombing tactics attacked the force, but hit nothing, although the attack did cause Nishimura to decide he’d had enough. The destroyer Kiyonami was left behind to pick up survivors from Yugure, only to be sunk herself after daybreak by B-25s. Two B-25s and two Avengers were lost in the strikes.
2 August 1943: The Loss of PT-109 (LTJG John F. Kennedy, Commanding)
The night of 2 August 1943 was not one of the better ones for U.S. PT-boats operating around New Georgia. At the time, there were four PT-boat squadrons, with 52 boats, operating around New Georgia from two bases, one on the island of Rendova, just south of New Georgia, and the other at Lever Harbor on the north side of the island. All were under Commander Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons South Pacific, Captain E. J. “Mike” Moran (who had been skipper of the badly damaged light cruiser USS Boise [CL-47] at the Battle of Cape Esperance [H-gram 011]). After the accidental sinking of Vice Admiral Turner’s flagship (although it was already done for), the PT-boats were kept on a very tight leash. In fact, whenever Rear Admiral Ainsworth or Rear Admiral Merrill brought their cruiser-destroyer forces in the waters of Kula Gulf and Kolombangara, the PT-boats were ordered to stay in port and out of the way.
The PT-boats actually had their hands full with Japanese troop barges, with frequent engagements between them as the barges brought troops from Kolombangara to reinforce the defense in what had become a protracted fight on New Georgia. The boats had a great speed advantage over the barges, most of which were the “Type A Daihatsu,” but torpedoes were not effective against them. Although relatively slow, the barges were heavily armed and armored (and more so as the engagements continued) and generally had 100–120 combat troops embarked, who were not passive observers and energetically joined in firing back at the attackers with a number of automatic weapons that easily perforated the wooden hulls of the PT-boats. Throughout the summer of 1943, there was an escalation on both sides of the size of weapons carried, with the barges mounting anti-tank field pieces and some of the PT-boats mounting a single Bofors 40-mm cannon in addition to machine guns of smaller caliber. The barges hugged the coast during daylight under jungle canopy, where they were effectively immune to U.S. air strikes, and they came out only at night.
The Japanese planned (and U.S. Navy intelligence detected) another Tokyo Express run for the night of 1–2 August, consisting of five destroyers. This time the Japanese sent 18 bombers to strike the PT-boat base at Rendova during daylight on 1 August, sinking two PT-boats (PT-117 and PT-164) that were caught in the harbor. Two torpedoes were blown off PT-164 and ran an erratic course around the harbor until they beached themselves. (This is the air raid loosely depicted in the movie PT-109.) Since neither of Ainsworth’s or Merrill’s cruisers were in position to interdict, 15 PT-boats from Rendova, split in four groups, took up stations in Blackett Strait, between Kolombangara and New Georgia.
PT-159 and PT-157 attacked what they thought were landing craft and got a rude surprise when the Japanese destroyers opened up. Nevertheless, despite the loss of surprise, the two PT-boats closed to attack and fired six torpedoes, with no hits. PT-171 then conducted a solo attack under fire, launching four torpedoes for no hits; the other three PT-boats in company with PT-171 did not see the Japanese until it was too late to intercept. PT-107 and three other boats tried to attack, but only PT-107 was able get a firing solution; however, all four torpedoes missed. Three more PT-boats then attacked and, despite being strafed by a Japanese float plane in the dark, fired 12 torpedoes at the Japanese destroyers—all missed. The unscathed Japanese destroyers exited Blackett Strait to the east and off-loaded their troops and supplies at Vila, Kolombangara.
PT-109, under the command of Lieutenant Junior Grade (and future President) John F. Kennedy, lingered in Blackett Strait in loose company with PT-162 and PT-169 in the event the Japanese chose to exit the Kula Gulf the same way they went in. And they did. A lookout on PT-109 spotted the destroyer Amagiri bearing down on them only at the last moment. With less than ten seconds to react, Kennedy attempted to take evasive action, but he’d been idling so as not to have his wake attract the Japanese float plane that had attacked earlier. It was too late and Amagiri sliced PT-109 in two, crushing the after section, causing a large explosion, but leaving the bow half afloat and surrounded by flames. PT-162 avoided being rammed and sunk by Amagiri by only a few yards. Information from Japanese sources indicates that Amagiri’s actions were deliberate. PT-169 fired torpedoes at a Japanese destroyer, but they did not arm because the range was too close. PT-157 subsequently fired two torpedoes at the retiring Japanese, with no hits. The tally for the night was one PT-boat sunk and 30 torpedoes fired in exchange for a dent in Amagiri’s bow and a successful Japanese re-supply run. The tactics at the time called for PT-boats that had expended their torpedoes to return to base. Unfortunately, the first boats to expend torpedoes were the few that had radar, so, on a moonless night, none of the boats remaining in Blackett Strait had radar, including PT-109.
Of PT-109’s 13-man crew, two were killed in the collision, six were on the bow section and five were somewhere out in the water. Kennedy was able to get them all on the bow, although it was slowly sinking. At 1400 on 2 August, Kennedy decided they would have to swim for it. Using a timber to hold lanterns, shoes, and those who couldn’t swim, the crew made for Plum Pudding Island, since the other islands in proximity were Japanese-held. Kennedy towed his severely burned senior machinist mate with a life jacket strap clenched in his teeth. It took four hours to reach the island, which turned out to have no water or food. Kennedy then swam 1.25 miles to scout Naru and Olasana Islands. Finding potable water—and no Japanese—on Olasana Island, Kennedy swam back to Plum Pudding Island and led his crew on another swim to Olasana.
A coast watcher on Kolombangara had seen and reported the explosion when Amagiri rammed PT-109. The torpedo boat base at Rendova then held a memorial service for the crew of PT-109 (I hate to be uncharitable, but a search might have been more appropriate). The crew survived for six days on coconuts. At night, Kennedy would swim out with a lantern into Ferguson Passage attempting to flag down the next PT-boat patrol, of which for some reason there were none. Meanwhile, the coast watcher had dispatched two native islanders (Biaku Gasa and Eroni Kumana) to look for possible survivors. They found Kennedy and his crew. After initial tense moments when the islanders pointed their submachine guns at the survivors, unsure if they were American or Japanese, Kennedy convinced the islanders they were friendly. Gasa indicated that Kennedy should carve a message on a coconut, because neither spoke any English. The islanders took the coconut 35 nautical miles to Rendova, at great risk. The Japanese were known to torture any islanders caught aiding the Allies, before killing them. A canoe then came to take Kennedy to the coast watcher (Australian Sublieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans) to coordinate the rescue, and PT-109’s crew were subsequently picked up by PT-157.
Kennedy and the executive officer, Ensign Leonard J. Thom, would be awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and Kennedy would also receive a Purple Heart. Of the 11 survivors, Seaman Second Class Raymond Albert would subsequently be killed in action in October 1943. When Kennedy was running for President, the story of PT-109 became a cultural sensation, with books, TV shows, a movie, toys, and even a top 10 song by Jimmy Dean (it may be the only hit song to mention a Japanese destroyer). The Amagiri was the only one of the five Japanese destroyers to escape unscathed during Captain Arleigh Burke’s lopsided victory at the Battle of Cape St. George later in 1943, before succumbing to a mine strike in the Makassar Strait on 23 April 1944. Amagiri took over two hours sink, so almost all her crew survived. The skipper of Amagiri at the time the destroyer rammed PT-109, Lieutenant Commander Kohei Hanami, survived the war and was an invited guest at JFK’s inauguration. In 2002, an expedition by Bob Ballard located a torpedo tube and then the forward section of PT-109, which were left in place in accordance with U.S. Navy policy. And, of note, Kennedy’s first duty station after joining the Navy in October 1941 was the Office of Naval Intelligence.
6-7 August 1943: Battle of Vella Gulf
On the night of 6–7 August 1943, a force of six destroyers (Task Group 31.2) under the command of Commander Frederick Moosbrugger intercepted four Japanese destroyers carrying 900 soldiers in Vella Gulf on the west side of Kolombangara, to the surprise of the Japanese. Following the loss of Helena, the near-loss of HMNZS Leander, and the “could have been a lot worse” damage to Honolulu and St. Louis, the U.S. Navy was having second thoughts (again) about committing cruisers into the confined waters of the Central Solomons, especially as it had now become plainly evident that the Japanese had a much superior torpedo. Moosbrugger was given orders to take on the expected Tokyo Express run using only destroyers.
Moosbrugger’s force transited south of New Georgia and entered Vella Gulf from the south via the poorly charted and treacherous Gizo Strait. The Japanese force entered Vella Gulf from the northwest, heading for Blackett Strait to go around the south end of Kolombangara to Vila. Based on aircraft reconnaissance reports, Moosbrugger knew the Japanese were coming. The Japanese task group, under the command of Captain Kaju Sugiura, was not expecting to encounter U.S. ships on the west side of Kolombangara since previous engagements had all been on the east side in Kula Gulf or to the south in Blackett Strait.
Moosbrugger arrayed his force in two staggered columns heading north in Vella Gulf. The destroyers Dunlap (DD-384,) Craven (DD-382), and Maury (DD-401) were to the west (port) and slightly ahead of the second column of Lang (DD-399,) Sterrett (DD-407), and Stack (DD-406). At 2033 on 6 August, U.S. radar detected the Japanese destroyers to the northwest, steaming in a single column heading southeast. The first group of U.S. destroyers maneuvered to engage the Japanese on a parallel reciprocal course, while the second group of U.S. destroyers turned to the west to cross behind the first group and cross the Japanese “T.” With visibility of only two miles, the Japanese were still unaware of the presence of U.S. ships when Moosbrugger ordered Dunlap, Craven, and Maury to fire torpedoes at 2341. Twenty-four torpedoes were heading for the Japanese with a near perfect set-up, with a 4,000-yard run and torpedoes striking perpendicular to the Japanese course. By now, the destroyermen were as aware as the submariners about how faulty U.S. torpedoes were, with the magnetic exploders being the prime suspect. Moosbrugger’s destroyers disconnected the magnetic exploders so the weapons would operate as contact torpedoes.
At 2342, a lookout on the lead Japanese destroyer, Hagikaze, sighted an unidentified contact to the east. Within seconds, Arashi reported seeing a PT-boat in the same direction, and Shigure reported a wake in the same direction. Kawakaze then injected confusion by reporting an imaginary PT-boat to the southwest. After another minute, Hagikaze identified the contacts to the east as four destroyers. Although the Japanese ships had been at battle stations, the surprise still resulted in a mad scramble. Hagikaze and Arashi desperately turned to port (toward U.S. ships) to try to comb the incoming torpedo wakes, while Kawakaze turned away. One or two torpedoes hit Hagikaze in a fireroom, and two or three hit Arashi. Kawakaze was hit by a torpedo in her forward magazine that blew up the forward part of the ship into a massive ball of fire. Shigure (a charmed ship), bringing up the rear, did not turn, and U.S. torpedoes passed underneath her hull without exploding, and one actually hit but failed to explode. Shigure counter-fired eight torpedoes at 2345, but Moosbrugger’s destroyers had already executed a turn away in anticipation of Japanese torpedoes, while the turn west of the second group of U.S. destroyers took them out of the path of Shigure’s torpedoes. Shigure then reversed course to exit the battle area to the north. Shigure fought in ten major battles—and was the sole survivor of two of them, Vella Gulf and Surigao Strait—and a host of smaller actions, including the action against PT-109. Damaged repeatedly but not fatally, until she was torpedoed by submarine USS Blackfin (SS-322) in March 1945.
Only after confirmation that U.S. torpedoes were hitting home did the U.S. destroyers open fire with guns. Both groups of destroyers then poured fire into the three crippled Japanese destroyers, and Lang fired four torpedoes for good measure. Kawakaze went down quickly and, by midnight, the other two had been reduced to burning derelicts. In the meantime, Shigure had reloaded her torpedoes and came charging back into the fight just as Arashi suffered a massive magazine explosion seen for many miles. With a PBY Black Cat now overhead, and believing that one of the burning ships was a U.S. victim of his torpedoes, the commanding officer of the Shigure thought better of re-engaging and once again exited the battle area at high speed. (Of note, Arashi was the destroyer that inadvertently led Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky and Enterprise air group to the Japanese carriers at Midway.)
U.S. ships attempted to pick up some Japanese survivors, but all refused rescue. Over 1,500 Japanese sailors and embarked soldiers perished in the Battle of Vella Gulf; only about 300 made their way to shore. Moosbrugger’s force suffered no casualties due to the enemy, and only one injury due to an accident. It was the first truly one-sided U.S. victory of the Solomon Islands campaign and Moosbrugger received widespread accolades. Admiral Nimitz stated that the victory “was due to good intelligence of the enemy’s movements, wise planning, the utmost exploitation of surprise, the withholding of torpedo fire until salvos would course at right angles to the enemy, turning away before he could counterattack, and prompt follow up with gunfire,” to which Morison added “good training, and the commander’s ability to make correct estimates and quick decisions.” I would add that had visibility not been so poor, Japanese torpedoes might well have been on the way first.
Moosbrugger was ordered to conduct a repeat on the night of 9–10 August, but only found a few barges, which put up a spirited fight, hitting Lang with .25-caliber machine-gun fire and spinning in such tight circles that they frustrated American gunnery: “like shooting cockroaches with a pistol.” After prodigious expenditure of ammunition, one and maybe two of the plucky barges finally went down. Thus ended the naval portion of the Solomon Islands campaign. As a result of the protracted and poorly run fight on New Georgia, U.S. strategists decided to bypass Kolombangara and skip to Vella LaVella (which the U.S. should probably have skipped, too) in preparation to move against the primary objective in the northern Solomon Islands: Bougainville. (And, this H-gram should make it clear why we have a cruiser named after the Battle of Vella Gulf (CG-72) and none named after the Battles of Kula Gulf and Kolombangara.)
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