Niizuki was equipped with radar and this time it was the Japanese who were able to use this new technology effectively. She scooped the Americans at 0015 at a range of 11 miles. The blips from so many ships must have impressed and perhaps intimidated the Japanese. Any doubt about the nature of these blips was answered when at 0026 the Americans commenced their bombardment of Vila. The three Japanese destroyers fired a salvo of torpedoes at long range and wisely turned away.
Ralph Talbot picked up radar images at 0031. She determined these to be unidentified ships at 0040 and advised Admiral Ainsworth of the contact at approximately 0047. At 0049 a torpedo struck Strong. She sank at 0122 with the loss of 46 men. Chevalier and O’Bannon moved in to rescue Strong’s crew and were taken under fire by Japanese shore batteries. Unable to deliver their troops, the Japanese destroyers withdrew to Buin. The American landings commenced at 0136 and continued until 0600.
By this stage of the war the Americans were beginning to suspect that Japanese torpedoes were more deadly and capable then they had hitherto believed. Nonetheless, Ainsworth, ignoring the evidence of Ralph Talbot’s radar operator, didn’t know he had been involved in a surface engagement and had forestalled a “Tokyo Express,” supposing Strong had fallen victim to a submarine.
After completing their bombardment and escort mission, Ainsworth’s force retired south. However, when news came that afternoon that a Japanese destroyer group had departed Buin bound for Vila, light cruisers Honolulu, Helena and St. Louis, with destroyers O’Bannon and Nicholas, reversed course, determined to intercept. Radford and Jenkins hurried up to join them from Tulagi where they had been refueling. By rushing separated forces into combat, in an impromptu fashion, without conference or plan, the Americans were repeating mistakes made at Java Sea, Badung Strait, and Tassafaronga. However, this time every American ship had improved SG radar, they knew well the waters to where they were bound and had up to six months experience working with their Admiral.
The Japanese force, all destroyers, consisted of a support group, Niizuki, flag commanded by Rear Admiral Akiyama, Suzukaze and Tanikaze and two transport groups, first, Mochizuki, Mikazuki and Hamakaze and second, Amagiri, Hatsuyuki, Nagatsuki and Satsuki.
The Japanese made Vila unmolested. The first transport group separated and successfully landed its troops while the remainder of the force probed north. Thirteen miles to the southwest, Ainsworth’s Task Force 36.1 was steaming on a northwesterly course roughly parallel to the Japanese. Dull states that Niizuki’s radar got the Americans at 0106 while the Americans didn’t pick up the Japanese until 0136. At 0143 Rear Admiral Akiyama ordered the second transport group to turn south toward Vila to land their troops while his support group continued north. Within minutes, however, Akiyama realized his support group by itself lacked the strength to confront TF 36.1, so he ordered the second transport group to double back and come to his aid as he maneuvered to position his ships for a torpedo attack. Meanwhile Ainsworth, thinking the advantage of surprise was his, closed and held his fire. Finally, at 0157, with the range down to less than 7,000 yards, the American cruisers opened up.
A pattern was being established. Niizuki had the misfortune of being the lead Japanese ship and as such, she was the target of almost every gun in the entire American force. The first salvo hit home and the weight of fire sank her within a few minutes. Suzukaze and Tanikaze, aiming at the American gun flashes, each launched a full salvo of eight torpedoes within the first minute. They then turned to avoid their stricken leader and made smoke. Suzukaze took several hits, but only suffered light damage. Tanikaze was struck by one dud. These two destroyers continued northwest out of the battle. When they backtracked several hours later, they saw nothing on the field of battle (although there were things to see) and returned to Buin. The Americans were tardy or delinquent in returning the torpedo fire. Jenkins launched at 0201, O’Bannon and Radford at 0210 and the others not at all. No hits were scored.
At 0203 Ainsworth ordered his force to assume a south-southwest course. At 0204 after a run of six minutes, a Japanese longlance struck Helena and severed her bow back to her No. 2 turret. Two more torpedoes followed at 0205 and 0206 and broke the back of the light cruisers. The bow and stern rose independently into the air, describing a giant V as the Helena quickly sank. The Americans had been properly impressed by the flashless powder used by the Japanese and were working to equip their own forces with the same resource. In this battle, Helena was the only cruiser completely dependent upon the old power, which may explain why she caught all the torpedoes—it was the same principle as the largest blip on the screen—she was the most visible target.
While these events were pyrotechnically unfolding, the second transport group was coming hard from the south. The American column, minus Helena, successfully maneuvered to cap their T and opened fire at 0221. Amagiri, the leader, took four hits killing ten men and disabling her electric power plant and radio compartment. She made smoke, fired torpedoes and turned south. Next in line, Hatsuyuki was hit by three duds which did heavy damage. Her hull was holed twice and six men were killed. She followed Amagiri’s example. Nagatsuki took one direct hit. She and the last ship in line, Satsuki, also turned away. However, Nagatsuki ran aground five miles short of Vila. Satsuki, unable to pull her free, returned to Buin.
At 0235 Ainsworth figured the battle was over and ordered a return to Tulagi. He believed he had sunk the entire Japanese force. Radford and Nicholas lingered to rescue Helena survivors. Amagiri was engaged in the same work for the survivors of Niizuki. After 0500 Amagiri and Nicholas spotted each other and exchanged torpedoes. All missed. At 0534 they opened fire. Amagiri was hit several times during this duel and retired under smoke, leaving Niizuki’s men to their unhappy fate: approximately 300 perished in the warm waters of Kula Gulf. Mochizuki of the first transport group elected to return to Buin via Kula Gulf. Radford and Nicholas challenged her as well, Dull states that neither side were damaged; Morison credits the American destroyers with two hits on Mochizuki.
Allied aircraft sunk the stranded Nagatsuki the next day. Of the 2,600 Japanese reinforcements, only those on the first transport group, 850, were delivered to their destination. The Americans lost a light cruiser in this engagement, but the Japanese suffered two destroyers sunk, one destroyer heavily damaged, one moderately damaged and another one (or perhaps two if Mochizuki was indeed hit) lightly damaged. Dull criticizes Ainsworth for being slow to open fire in this battle. However, in his defense, he believed he had the surprise and that firing too soon in such circumstances would be worse. A more valid criticism would be the failure, once again, of the Americans to use their torpedoes effectively. Moreover, American marksmanship was not remarkable. When they crossed the T of the transport group, their automated radar directed 6-inch “machine-guns” only damaged the four destroyers; none seriously.