The Eighth Fleet assigned Rear Admiral Baron Matsuji Ijuin to this mission and gave him a force completely out of proportion to the 589 troops he was charged to rescue: a support group of six destroyers and two transport groups, one of three transport destroyers and the other of four subchasers and twenty barges. His destroyers departed Rabaul on the morning of the 6th while the barges sailed from Buin at 1653 that afternoon. The Japanese movement down the Slot was reported, but Admiral Wilkinson only had three destroyers available to intercept, Squadron 4 led by Captain Frank Walker. Admiral Wilkinson mustered these while he detached another group of three under Captain Harold Larson from convoy duty. The two squadrons were ordered to rendezvous off Marquana Bay, Vella Lavella Island. Walker’s group sailing around the north side of the island while Larson’s approached up the west coast from the south. Japanese aircraft detected Walker’s approach at around 1940 and marked his progress with flares and floatlights.
Ijuin split his support group into two divisions. With four ships he pushed ahead to the waters off Marquana Bay while Captain Hara, with Shigure and Samidare and the three transport destroyers, tarried to meet the barges coming up from Buin at 9 knots. Ijuin knew the Allies had wind of his approach and hoped to confuse them as to his size and dispositions. He was also hoping to set Hara up to make a surprise flank attack. At about 2200 Ijuin received a report from one of his aircraft that he was facing four cruisers and three destroyers, according to Hara’s account of the battle. Morison has the report as one cruiser and four destroyers. Hara explains his old commander’s conduct of this battle with this sighting report and the fact he was exhausted from sustained duty. The Japanese had come to respect radar controlled gunfire, particularly as delivered by the Brooklyn-class light cruisers, “a cruiser packs ten times the firepower of a destroyer and Ijuin must have been thinking of this.” Morison treats Ijuin sarcastically (he was a baron and the son of a prominent admiral during the Russo-Japanese War): “Was Ijuin following his habit of fleeing, even when lightly opposed?”
At 2210 Ijuin ordered Hara to join him as quickly as possible. The three transport destroyers, Fumizuki, Matsukaze and Yunagi turned back, although the barges continued toward Horaniu. At 2229 Ijuin turned his four destroyers from a westerly heading to the northwest. At 2230 Isokaze reported the first visual sighting of the American force. Captain Walker, leading Selfridge, Chevalier and O’Bannon got radar readings on a Japanese force 10 miles north, northeast just after the Japanese made visual contact. This was apparently the retiring transport group. Larson’s group, Ralph Talbot, Taylor and LaVallette were still some twenty miles south and Walker could not raise them on TBS. Although Wilkinson had advised him the Japanese force consisted of nine destroyers, Walker elected to pile in and engage rather than wait 40 minutes for reinforcements. At 2235 Ijuin turned east and then southeast. The barges were steaming southwest about 20 miles from their destination. Hara’s group was northwest of Ijuin, heading south. He could not see Ijuin’s column so he requested that Isokaze hang a blue light on her stern. There was a quarter moon low in the sky and scattered mist and squalls made visibility uncertain.
At 2240 Ijuin was heading south-southwest. Hara had closed to within five miles of Ijuin. At this same time Walker was shaping a course directly toward the Japanese. Their respective courses would take the Japanese across the American T. However, Ijuin, thinking to make a torpedo attack, miscalculated the distance. When he discovered the Americans were further off then he thought, he ordered a simultaneous turn 45 degrees to port at 2245. Three minutes later, his ships executed a 90 degree turn to port to a southeasterly heading, all this to close range. The Americans were less than 12,000 yards away at this point and the range was closing rapidly at 1,300 yards a minute. In response to Ijuin’s turn left, Walker turned his column right to the west. These complicated maneuvers erased Ijuin’s initial advantage and in fact placed his four ships in a difficult position. They were sailing parallel in echelon with Akigumo furthest ahead and most distant from the Americans, followed by Isokaze, Kazagumo and finally Yugumo, only 3,300 yards from Selfridge. At 2255 as they passed, the three American destroyers launched 14 torpedoes. At 2256 they opened fire.
When Walker commenced fire only Yugumo could reply as she was masking her comrades from the enemy. She turned toward the Americans at 2255 and had eight torpedoes in the water a minute after the Americans launched theirs. Her movement cleared Kazagumo’s line of fire so she opened up with her guns shortly after. Ijuin swung his ships back into column and headed south, away from the action. All but Yugumo. She, being nearest to the Americans, was punished by the combined fire of eighteen 5-inch guns. At least five hits left her drifting, without rudder control. But she obtained her revenge at 2301 when one of her torpedoes struck Chevalier and exploded her forward magazine, ripping off her bow all the way aft to her bridge. Two minutes later, O’Bannon, charging through the smoke lingering from her gunnery, collided with Chevalier. The two ships were locked together until O’Bannon was able to back clear. She was fortunate that Ijuin had turned away, but the damage she sustained was enough to remove her from the action. At 2303, just as this was happening, one of the slower American torpedoes struck Yugumo and finished her off. She sank seven minutes later.
While Yugumo was being picked off and Ijuin was tearing south, Shigure and Samidare continued on their southwesterly course past the Americans until 2259 when they turned sharply to the northwest. Hara was maneuvering for a good torpedo solution. He was approximately 11,000 yards west of Walker’s lead ship when Selfridge, now a one ship task force, shifted fire to Shigure. The time was 2304. However, both Shigure and Samidare had already emptied their tubes in the direction of Selfridge some three minutes before just after they made their turn. As the Japanese torpedo men struggled to reload for a second attack, Selfridge’s shells began straddling Shigure. At 2306.5, before Selfridge could damage her target, the battle effectively ended when one of the torpedoes fired six minutes before exploded against Selfridge’s port side and left her dead in the water.
Larson’s group charging up from the south was still twenty minutes out. Shortly before 2313 aircraft advised Ijuin of this reinforcement. Believing he would be facing more cruisers, Ijuin turned his column away to the northwest. At 2317 his ships fired a parting torpedo salvo from 24 tubes at the two crippled American destroyers 16,000 yards to the northeast, but none found targets. Hara who had been sailing northwest since 2259 fell in behind Ijuin; they collected the destroyer transports which had been lingering off Shortlands and returned to Rabaul. When Larson arrived on the scene, he found three crippled American destroyers. Although he poked around Marquana Bay until after 0200 hours on the 7th, he missed the barge convoy. Demonstrating their customary stealth, the Daihatsus and subchasers made landfall at Marquana Bay at 0110, loaded the 589 evacuees and at 0305 slipped away bound for Buin.
It proved impossible to save Chevalier; LaVallette finished her off with a single torpedo at 0311. O’Bannon and Selfridge, however, both limped back to Purvis Bay. Walker claimed a score of three destroyers sunk and several damaged. Ijuin made his tally two cruisers and three destroyers sunk. The Japanese prevailed both strategically and tactically: they inflicted more damage and completed their mission successfully. It is interesting to consider, however, that in the moral sense, they may have been defeated. The Americans were outnumbered two to one, yet fought the battle with aggression and a degree of skill. Walker was convinced he had won a victory while Ijuin was “shaken and ashamed” when he returned to Rabaul. Although the Eighth Fleet recognized Vella Lavella as a victory, they bestowed cermonional swords on the skippers of Shigure and Samidare and ignored the commander. Generally, Walker is chided for not waiting for Larson, but there is no guarantee that if he had, the Americans would have preformed any more effectively or inflicted more damage on the Japanese. The cohesion of a formation was more decisive than its size; “slap-dash” collections of ships with no common operational experience or doctrine merely provided the Japanese with more targets. In retrospect, Walker was probably right to attack immediately. His aggression confirmed Ijuin’s belief that he was the underdog. Although an experienced leader, Ijuin was clumsy in the way he handled his force—two of his destroyers hardly participated in the battle at all. He withdrew when the issue was still very much in doubt. He was lucky Larson did not discover the barge convoy, because if he had, there was nothing to prevent him from destroying it. Nonetheless, flawed though it may have been, Vella Lavella was Japan’s last surface victory of the war.