Central Solomons
The US Naval strength in the Solomons had recovered somewhat from the tremendous losses sustained during the battles in “Iron Bottom Bay” in the last half of 1942. Two US cruiser task forces were now operating in the general area. Task Force 67 commanded by Rear Admiral W. L. “Pug” Ainsworth consisted of the cruisers Helena, Honolulu, St. Louis and Nashville with Destroyer Squadron 21O’Bannon, Fletcher, Nicholas, Radford, Jenkins, Strong, Chevalier and Taylor. Task Force 68 based at Éfaté and commanded by Rear Admiral A. S. “Tip” Merrill consisted of the cruisers Denver, Cleveland, Columbia and Montpelier and Destroyer Squadron 23 with the later-famous squadron commander, Arleigh Burke.”
New Georgia navigation chart

New Georgia Group. Click to view this image in more detail.

These two cruiser task forces were employed to strike at targets further up the “Slot” from Guadalcanal—principally in the New Georgia Island and Kolombangara areas.

RADM. Richmond K. Turner with 9000 troops landed on the Russell Islands —

The landing on these small, muddy islands just northwest of Guadalcanal took place on 21 February. To everyone’s surprise, the landing was totally unopposed. We now know that the Japanese had evacuated these islands during the visit of the “Tokyo Express” on 7 February.

RADM. Merrill’s Task Force Sunk Two in Kula Gulf —

On the night of 6 March, Rear Admiral Merrill’s task force with the cruisers Montpelier, Cleveland and Denver and destroyers Cony, Conway and Waller were headed into Kula Gulf for a bombardment with they detected two Japanese destroyers of the Vila Express headed out of the gulf on a northeasterly course. These two destroyers, Murasame and Minegumo, were sunk—one was torpedoed by Waller.

We Tweaked the Nose of the Vila Express —

On 16 March (hoping to provoke the Vila Express), Nicholas, Radford, Strong and Taylor (without cruisers) entered Kula Gulf and bombarded the usual targets like Vila Airfield. The operation was completed without unusual events.

We Hunted for the Vila Express —

During late March and early April, Strong (as a unit of RADM. Ainsworth’s Task Force) made six night runs up the Slot trying to intercept the Vila Express. Twice we missed runs of five Japanese destroyers each because air spotters failed to detect the Japanese ships.

On one of these runs, however, as we were headed back down the Slot, our radar operators called me in and reported: “Do you see that little ‘blip’ that looks like a point of land on the south coast of Choiseul Island? Well, we’ve been tracking it and is just speeded up to ten knots. It was making five knots. It is staying close to the coast and headed northwest.” I did, in fact, see the “blip.” It was, in fact, moving northwest. It was a big ship! The contact was reported but not investigated further. A few days later, intelligence reports indicated that the Japanese had evacuated most of their troops from Choiseul Island that same night.

We Sink the Japanese Submarine RO-34

You may recall the trip on the night of 4–5 April. We were returning down the Slot when Butler, ED2c in Strong reported “surfaced submarine” at 15,200 yards.

“ . . . RO-34 . . . tangled with Ainsworth’s screen in the dark small hours of 5 April. Destroyer Strong made radar contact and doughty O’Bannon, only 1500 yards from the surfaced enemy, was ordered to attack. She first opened fire with 5-inch guns in radar control, then closed to point-blank range as the submarine became visible. Without radar, and crippled by the opening salvos, RO-34 wallowed helpless as an old log. O’Bannon cut loose with machine guns and hurled depth charges right onto the enemy’s decks; RO-34 stood on her nose and slid under. She was sunk by Strong on 7 April off Lark Shoal.”

Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. VI, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, page 119.

(Our radar operators in Strong had discovered that each type ship produced a distinctive pattern on the “A” scope. Butler had been evaluating the “pip” since 21,000 yards.) O’Bannon was then only 7000 yards from the submarine and leaped to the attack. O’Bannon illuminated the submarine on the surface and was credited with a kill. Initially it was incorrectly stated that the RO-34 was sunk in that attack. Japanese records reveal that RO-34 was not sunk at that time. During another Slot run on the night of 6–7 April at 2152, Butler, ED2c again reported surface submarine bearing 250 degrees true at range 9320 yards. This time Strong proceeded directly to the attack and illuminated the submarine on the surface.

Strong got three direct hits with the 5-inch guns and dropped two patterns of depth charges. Although there were few signs of submarine debris on the surface following the attack, later research of Japanese records indicated that the RO-34 was, in fact, sunk by Strong in that attack. Morison’s later edition (see sidebar at right) clarifies this point.

The big disappointment of this attack was the missed opportunity to fire torpedoes at the submarine. The radar plotters and torpedo control began working in close coordination early in the run. By the time Strong reached torpedo firing position, the torpedo director had a good solution and the torpedoes were ready to fire. Unfortunately, permission to fire was denied because of a misunderstanding.

The Japanese “I” Offensive —

There was more excitement on 7 April. Our task force had been ordered to bombard Munda Airfield (on the northwestern corner of New Georgia Island) during the night of 7–8 April in hopes that we would intercept the Vila Express.

There had been an unusual sense of urgency about preparations for this operation. Extra precautions seemed to be in order. A unit of our fire control radar needed repair, and it was not certain that it would be ready in time for the night action. As insurance, we borrowed a unit from Aaron Ward since, at the time, she was scheduled to remain in Tulagi.

The 'Slot'

We got underway for this operation from Tulagi Harbor at high noon. As our Task Force with Honolulu, Helena and St. Louis headed northwest out of Iron Bottom Bay toward New Georgia Island, reports began to indicate that a major Japanese air strike was headed down the Slot.

For several days intelligence had indicated that there were large aircraft build-ups on the Japanese airfields further up the Solomons, but now Japanese aircraft carriers had closed within striking range of Guadalcanal. (Today we know that these were the Zuikaku, Zuiho, Junyo and Hiyo. We also know that this was to be the “crushing air strike” to knock out the US forces in the Solomons, which the Japanese Imperial Headquarters had promised the Emperor. This was to be the big punch in the Solomons—the “I” Operation.)

On Strong, we detected the first wave of aircraft at 1400 when it was 75 miles away. The aircraft were finally reported by Honolulu at a distance of 17 miles. As it turned out, there were 67 “Vals” (dive bombers) and 110 “Zekes” (fighters) in this first wave—mostly from the four aircraft carriers. In all, there were to be four waves of aircraft of about equal numbers. The later waves included 72 twin-engine bombers.

At this point, Rear Admiral Ainsworth did the unexpected. He turned east away from Guadalcanal and then proceeded to turn to a southeasterly course that would take the task force through Indispensable Straits behind (to the east of the Florida Islands, where Tulagi Harbor was located). In briefing their pilots, the Japanese clearly had not covered this possibility. While crackling radio indicated that an intense air battle was taking place over Guadalcanal and Tulagi, not a single Japanese plane discovered our task force.

Meanwhile, back at Guadalcanal and Tulagi there had been a huge dogfight. The Marine fighters had jumped the Zekes over Savo Island leaving the Vals more or less free to hit whatever ground and ship targets they could find.

The returning Japanese pilots made glowing reports of their results and Admiral Yamamoto, Commander in Chief Combined Fleet, turned the “I” offensive toward Papua (eastern New Guinea).

It must always remain one of the most notable events of warfare that this huge Japanese air strike (which, after Pearl Harbor, was the largest the Japanese ever assembled) sank only one destroyer (our friend, the Aaron Ward), one tanker and one corvette, and shot down only seven aircraft. The pilots of all but one of our aircraft were recovered.

For our task force, the only event that disturbed the otherwise calm occurred just after the Japanese air strikes were over. Our task force suddenly was faced with what appeared to be a long, low attack by a lone SBD (US five bomber) aimed at the bridge of the Fletcher. One salvo from Fletcher shot it down and no wreckage was recovered. The reason for this attack will always remain a mystery.

Fleet Admiral Yamamoto, Commander in Chief Japanese Combined Fleet is shot down —

Although results of the Japanese “I” offensive air strikes were shockingly poor, they were inconsequential in comparison with the Japanese disaster which followed. Fleet Admiral Yamamoto, Commander in Chief Combined Fleet (and one of the most respected military leaders in Japan), having received glowing pilot reports of successes of his air strikes in the Solomons and New Guinea areas, called a halt to the “I” offensive on 16 April and ordered all Japanese carrier aircraft back to their aircraft carriers. He believed that one cruiser, two destroyers and 25 transports had been sunk with 175 aircraft shot down. Actual US losses were one destroyer, one corvette, one tanker and two amphibious ships with 25 aircraft shot down.

Yamamoto never learned the truth. He decided to visit Japanese bases in the upper Solomons. With most of the important members of his staff in two “Betty” medium bombers, he took off from Rabaul, New Britain at 0800 on 18 April. He was escorted by six fighters and headed for Kahili Airfield, Buin. US intelligence had learned of this flight. When Yamamoto arrived over Buin at 0935, so did 16 Lightnings from Henderson Field led by Major John W. Mitchell, USA. Captain Thomas G. Lamphier, USA got in under the departing Zekes and shot down the first Betty in the landing pattern and Lieutenant Rex T. Barber, USA shot down the second. The first Betty carried Yamamoto. The second carried Vice Admiral Ukagi, his Chief of Staff. It could not be positively confirmed that Yamamoto was actually aboard until announced by Tokyo 21 May. As Morison’s book indicates, many in Japan felt that there could only be one Yamamoto and his death was a major blow to all the Japanese armed forces.

(Note: this item is included since we were more involved in the “I” offensive than most of us realized at the time.)

We Help Provide Defense for the Mining of Blackett Strait —

On the night of 7 May, cruisers Honolulu, St. Louis, and Nashville with destroyers O’Bannon, Strong, Chevalier and Taylor went up beyond Kolombangara where no US Navy surface ship had been and entered Vella Gulf to provide support for a mining operation at the northwest entrance of Blackett Strait. The Vila Express had been using this strait to re-supply Japanese forces in the Kula Gulf and Kolombangara areas.

The minelaying force consisted of three old World War I four-stack destroyersPreble, Gamble and Breese. Two stacks had been removed in the conversion to minelayers. These ships were escorted by Radford with Captain Romoser, skipper of Radford, in tactical command of the minelaying. The mining operation was executed exactly as planned and planted a minefield that fully covered the entrance to Blackett Strait. Both the minelayers and the cruiser task force made an exit of Vella Gulf at 25 knots and returned to Tulagi.

It did not take long for the minefield to produce results. The very next night, 7–8 May, four Japanese destroyers proceeded through Vella Gulf and headed for Blackett Strait. Oyashio and Kagero both hit several mines and were burning and struggling to remain afloat. Kurashio then hit a mine and sank. When dawn broke, Michishio was still undamaged and was trying to rescue men from the other ships.

An Australian coastwatcher informed Guadalcanal of these events, and a 60-plane air strike was sent to the area. Unfortunately, only the SBDs got through the weather. These sank the two damaged destroyers. Michishio escaped the attack but later on, during its escape, it received some damage from strafing attacks by several Wildcats.

We Bombard Targets in Kula Gulf and Help Cover for the Minelayers —

The night of 13–14 May was selected for another minelaying operation. This time the coast of Kolombangara inside Kula Gulf was the target area. It was felt that the Vila Express now might choose to avoid the Blackett Strait route and, instead, choose to re-supply the area through Kula Gulf.

The mine force was organized as at Blackett Strait—Radford, Preble, Gamble and Breese. It was decided to divert attention from the mining operation by bombarding the usual targets in the Gulf. Honolulu and Nashville with Nicholas, Strong and Chevalier were to bombard in the Gulf. St. Louis with Jenkins and Fletcher were to approach from the southwestern side of New Georgia and bombard Munda Airfield. (I’ll bet that last is a surprise.)

The mining was executed as planned, but the cruiser task force had difficulties. There was a turret explosion on Nashville, and an anchor shook loose on St. Louis punching a hole in the bow. Do you remember that we had a steering casualty? Over 10,000 rounds of ammunition were expended in this bombardment.

This time the minefield was effective for only a few days. The Japanese swept it up immediately. (Note: some survivors of Strong have conjectured that Strong may have accidentally hit one of the mines from this field. This is highly unlikely.)

We Look for Survivors from Niagara

Do you recall an overnight trip we made from Iron Bottom Bay toward San Cristobal Island in company with the destroyer Wilson? That was on the night of 23 May. We were looking for survivors of Niagara—a PT boat tender. This ship had been sunk off San Cristobal by air attack in a stepped-up Japanese offensive aimed at harassing US lines of support.

Four surviving PT boats from Niagara were intercepted heading toward Guadalcanal. These boats reported having all survivors from the ship aboard.

A few of us who were on the bridge that night will remember a little debate that took place. The radar room had reported four torpedo boats in column at 15,000 yards on opposite course to Wilson and Strong. We then got into a debate as to whether these were boats or small rain showers. This debate continued until Wilson sighted the torpedo boats and made a report. ’Taint easy to be sharp all the time!

We Get in Another Air Attack on Guadalcanal—16 June —

During the month of June, logistics forces were building up in Iron Bottom Bay. Most of us in Strong didn’t know it then, but we were getting ready for the invasion of New Georgia. The build-up provided the Japanese with some attractive targets. Their air strikes had not been successful in attacking the protected convoys in the area so the Japanese decided to attack the build-up of logistics forces in Iron Bottom Bay.

We were patrolling off Lunda Point at the time providing protection for the oiler Monongahela. Nicholas was assisting. Our radar screen showed that a large air attack was closing. Fighters from Guadalcanal intercepted first. Some of the Vals got through and started to attack the ships. Our 5-inch guns commenced firing, then the 40mms, then the 20mms and lookouts reported “dive bombers overhead.” Strong was twisting and turning. After all the excitement was over, we were given credit for shooting down three Vals and damaging several more.

Incredibly, only one Japanese aircraft returned from that strike to report that six transports and one destroyer had been sunk. He was wrong! Only the freighter Celeno and LST 340 were damaged.

* Destroyer Squadron 22, in which then-Cmdr. Arleigh Burke—later famous as Capt. Arleigh Burke, commander of Destroyer Squadron 23—commanded Destroyer Division 43.