A naval engagement in the Solomons campaign of World War II, fought in Vella Gulf between the islands Vella Lavella and Kolombangara on the night of 6 and 7 August 1943. In the battle of Vella Gulf, six American destroyers: Dunlap (DD-384), Craven (DD-382), Maury (DD-401), Lang (DD-399), Sterett (DD-407), and Stack (DD-406), engaged a group of four enemy destroyers attempting to reinforce Japanese troops on Kolombangara. The American warships closed, undetected, and fired torpedoes which sank Hagikaze, Arashi, and Kawakaze.
(CVE-111: displacement 11,373; length 557'1"; beam 75'0"; extreme width 104'0"; draft 32'0"; speed 19 knots; complement 1,066; armament 2 5-inch, 36 40 millimeter, 24 20 millimeter, aircraft 34; class Commencement Bay)
Totem Bay (CVE-111) was laid down on 7 February 1944 at Tacoma, Wash., by the Todd-Pacific Shipyards, Inc.; renamed Vella Gulf on 26 April 1944; launched on 19 October 1944; sponsored by Mrs. Donald F. Smith; and commissioned on 9 April 1945, Capt. Robert W. Morse in command.
Following initial local operations in Puget Sound, Vella Gulf sailed for San Diego and arrived there on 4 May 1945 to pick up the initial increment of her assigned USMC air group. After embarking it at the naval air station, the escort aircraft carrier conducted shakedown off the southern California coast and embarked the remainder of her group during this period. At the completion of a post-shakedown availability, she departed the west coast on 17 June, bound for the Territory of Hawaii. She arrived at Pearl Harbor on 25 June and conducted 11 days of intensive training operations.
Vella Gulf departed Pearl Harbor on 9 July 1945; stopped at Eniwetok in the Marshalls on the 16th to refuel; and proceeded on to Guam, where she arrived four days later. On the 23rd, she sailed for the Marianas to conduct air strikes against Rota and Pagan Islands. The next day, she launched 24 sorties against Pagan Island with her FG-1D Corsairs, Hellcat photographic aircraft, and TBM-3E Avenger bombers. Three days later, the escort carrier launched 21 sorties against Rota, with a dozen Corsairs, eight Avengers and one Hellcat taking part. Light antiaircraft fire from Japanese guns peppered the skies but failed to reach the U.S. planes. Two aircraft returned from the mission having conducted their attacks from such a low altitude that shrapnel from their own bomb explosions slightly damaged their tail surfaces.
The day after the Rota strike, the ship flew off her planes to Saipan and then returned to Apra Harbor, Guam, on 2 August 1945, for a three-day breather before heading for Okinawa on the 5th. She arrived at Buckner Bay four days later. Her one night spent in the anchorage there proved memorable when, during the evening, word arrived that surrender negotiations with the Japanese were in progress and prompted many ships and shore-based units to set off pyrotechnics.
Vella Gulf arrived back at Guam on 15 August 1945 in time to receive the welcome news that Japan had capitulated. Vella Gulf participated in the initial occupation operations of the Japanese home islands. She provided food and fuel to other Fleet units off the coast and, in late August, alternated with Gilbert Islands (CVE-107) in furnishing air cover for a replenishment group. The escort carrier then sailed for Tokyo Bay and arrived there on 10 September.
Departing Japanese waters on 21 September 1945, Vella Gulf embarked 650 men at Okinawa for passage back to the west coast of the United States. After a brief stop at Pearl Harbor, she arrived at San Francisco, Calif., on 14 October. She subsequently operated in the Puget Sound area as training ship for escort carrier personnel until late March 1946, when she sailed for the coast of southern California and arrived at San Diego on 27 March. However, her stay there was brief, for she soon got underway again, touched at Port Angeles, and pushed on to Tacoma, Wash., where she began inactivation on the last day of the month. Moved to Seattle on 7 April, the ship was placed in inactive status, out of commission, on 9 August 1946.
Placed in reserve at Tacoma, the vessel remained there into the 1960's. Reclassified as a helicopter carrier (CVHE) on 12 June 1955, Vella Gulf was later transferred to the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS); and she was again reclassified, this time to T-AKV-11. She never returned to active service. Struck from the Navy list on 1 June 1960, she was reinstated on 1 November of the same year. Stricken for the second time on 1 December 1970, the erstwhile escort carrier was sold to the American Ship Dismantlers, Inc., of Portland, Oregon, on 22 October 1971 and scrapped.
Vella Gulf received one battle star for her World War II service.
Robert J. Cressman
Updated 6 April 2022