The Battle of Vella Gulf

Time: 2341–0017, August 6, 1943
Weather: Scattered squalls.
Visibility: Moonless dark visibility 2,000 yards.
Sea State: Calm.
Mission: Japanese transport mission. Allies interception mission.
Surpise: Americans

In June 1943, the Allies initiated Operation Cartwheel, designed to neutralize the Japanese bastion at Rabaul with twin advances up the Solomons and the tail of eastern New Guinea. When the Americans landed at Rendova and New Georgia the commanders of the Japanese 8th Fleet and 17th Armies headquartered at Rabaul, reacted by vigorously reinforcing their forces to the south around Munda and on Kolombangara. Surface battles followed at Kula Gulf and off Kolombangara as the United States Navy flung cruiser/destroyer task forces against the Japanese warships ferrying in troops and supplies. In general, the Japanese gave better than they got, dragging out the campaign in New Georgia and establishing a formidable garrison in Kolombangara in the process.

Following up on their victory in the Battle of Kolombangara the Japanese moved troops into Vila, their principal port on Kolombangara, on the nights of July 19, July 22, and August 1 using destroyers as fast transports. On this last mission four destroyers tangled with fifteen PT boats, evaded 26 (or 30) torpedoes, successfully unloaded 900 troops and 120 tons of cargo and, on the way back, sank PT-109 captained by Jack Kennedy, future president of the United States.

The July 22 and August 1 missions traveled around the north side of Vella Lavella Island, through Vella Gulf between Vella Lavella and Kolombangara and then to the entrance of the narrow, dangerous Blackett Strait. There the destroyers offloaded their cargo onto barges for the last leg of the journey to Vila on Kolombangara's southeast extremity. The route via Kula Gulf north of Vila was more direct, but because of American cruiser/destroyer patrols, more dangerous as well. The 8th Fleet command concluded that torpedo boat patrols did not represent a significant danger to large warships (not without reason). Accordingly, they ordered a repeat of the successful August 1 sortie for the night of August 6 with basically the same force: Hagikaze, flag of the force commander Captain Sugiura, Arashi and Shigure (Kawakaze replaced Amagiri, slightly damaged when she sliced PT109 in two). The payload would be 950 troops and 55 tons of supplies. During the captain's conference held on August 4, Tameichi Hara, skipper of Shigure, objected to repeating the same mission via the same route, on the same schedule, three times running. Sugiura cited communication difficulties with the garrison as the reason why the plan couldn't be altered. Normally one destroyer (the flagship on the previous mission) lead the column as a scout, unencumbered with passengers or cargo. Sugiura offered this position to Hara, perhaps to offset his reservations, but Hara begged off, giving the condition of Shigure's boilers as his reason. Sugiura took the scout position for his ship, Hagikaze, but curiously, he announced she would carry a portion of the troops. Thus, when the Japanese weighed anchor at 0500 hours on the 6th, they were under twin handicaps: not a single vessel was operating as a pure warship and there was a stain of pessimism about the mission itself.

Meanwhile at Tulugi, Rear Admiral Wilkinson, the new commander of the Third Amphibious Force and Task Force 31 received accurate intelligence of Japanese movements. However, after Ainsworth's two battles, he was short of undamaged cruisers. His immediately available force was TF31.2, a pure destroyer strike force. From July 23 the strike force was under Commodore Arleigh Burke. Wilkinson sent Burke north on July 31, but to Kula, not Vella Gulf. Burke was reassigned on August 3. When Wilkinson got news of another "Tokyo Express" on the 5th, Frederick Moosbrugger, who had recently arrived in Tulugi and served under Burke on the previous mission, got the job of leading the Strike Force north. Wilkinson gave Moosbrugger six destroyers and the freedom to disregard his tactical advice: to avoid torpedo actions and relay on long range gunfire. Moosbrugger stated his confidence in the division's ability to utilize the destroyer's primary weapon, the torpedo.

Moosbrugger first met with Commander Rodger Simpson, Comdesdiv15. Three of Simpson's ships, Lang, Sterett and Stack formed Division A-2. Commander Moosbrugger's Desdiv12 ships, Dunlap, Craven and Maury formed Division A-1. Moosbrugger explained his tactics and plan to Simpson over breakfast that morning. Then a conference was held with the six captains to further explain the plan and the contingencies.

Moosbrugger expected to encounter destroyers. If that proved the case, A-1 would strike first with torpedoes. The ships of A-2 had lost half their original torpedo complement in favor of extra 40mm guns. These were the preferred weapon against the Japanese barges, so if the Americans encountered Daihatsu, A-2 would assume the offensive. This arrangement was an adaptation of Burke's basic destroyer battle doctrine: destroyers would operate in two groups, the group closest to the enemy when contact was made would attack with torpedoes. The second group would maneuver to cross the enemy force's T and hit them with gunfire once torpedoes struck. Because the groups would operate independently, they would catch the enemy in a crossfire. In order to function correctly, this doctrine required a complete understanding of what each division would do in any given circumstance.

The American ships sailed from Purvis Bay at 1130 hours, one hour ahead of schedule. Seven hours later as the Japanese force sailed pass Buki Island, they saw an Allied aircraft ducking into clouds and intercepted an urgent coded message. Sugiura correctly assumed they were sighted and that they would face a night engagement. In fact, Moosbrugger received the sighting report soon after. The Japanese did not benefit from any such reconnaissance by their own forces.

By 2100 hours the two forces were approaching their respective destinations. The Japanese entered Bougainville Strait at 30 knots while the Americans were turning north towad Gizo strait at 16 knots. The Japanese sailed in a tight column formation led by Hagikaze then Arashi, Kawakaze and finally Shigure. Shigure, was older and due to the condition of her boilers, she couldn't maintain her position 540 yards aft the ship ahead.

At 2226 the quarter moon set. It was a very dark night with periodic rain squalls, but hardly any wind. The sea was calm and visibility was only about 2,000 yards. At 2228 both of the American divisions came simultaneously right to 124° to sweep the approaches to Blackett Strait. Finding nothing, they turned north a half hour later to examine the Kolombangara coast. By 2323 the Americans had changed course to 30° following this coast north. Each of the divisions were in column with a 500 yard interval between ships. A-1 was ahead and to port of A-2. At this time the Japanese were northeast of Vella Lavella and entering Vella Gulf from the north. Shigure, lagging by 1,500 yards, had her torpedo tubes trained to port since the shores of Vella Lavella to starboard were clear of ships.

Dunlap, leading A-1 made the first radar contact at 2333, almost due north at 29,500 yards. The contact quickly resolved into four pips and the other ships were notified. Craven confirmed the contact at 2336. Moosbrugger ordered Division A-1 (the outer or port column further offshore) to prepare to fire torpedoes while Division A-2 swung behind her track turning from a north-northeast heading to the west and then southwest to cross the Japanese T. As the range quickly closed A-1 turned north-northwest, parallel to the Japanese on a reciprocal heading. By 2341 the range was down to 6,300 yards and Moosbrugger gave the order to fire full port side salvos. The torpedoes were set at 36 knots with runs to target of just over three to four minutes.

Before the impact of this 24 torpedo salvo is described several points are relevant. First, the torpedoes were armed with a new, more powerful warhead (using Torpex an enhanced TNT blend instead of pure TNT), shields were employed to hide the telltale flash when the torpedoes were discharged. The MK6 magnetic detonators were disabled and finally, the depth settings were staggered between five and nine feet. On Maury, at least, the executive officer, Russell Crenshaw correctly believed that the torpedoes were running too deep, so with the permission of his captain, Commander Gelzer Sims, he had all eight torpedoes set to run at five feet.

Division A-1 executed its attack, the torpedoes flawlessly swooshing from their tubes at three second intervals. Then Moosbrugger ordered a hard turn to starboard to head away from any return salvos.

At 2342, with the American fish in the water, lookouts on each of the four Japanese vessels began reporting ambiguous sightings, perhaps PT boats. Their course was 165° south-southeast, speed still 30 knots. The dark coast of Kolombangara was about eight miles ahead. Then Shigure's lookout reported: "white waves! black objects! . . . several ships headed toward us!" By 2343 the Japanese were aware of their danger, but by then it was too late. Shigure, perhaps added by her position far to the rear, or by Hara's premonitions of danger, was the only Japanese ship to fire a countersalvo of eight torpedoes. But at 2345, even before her last torpedo had hit the water, the three destroyers ahead erupted in a dramatic sequence of explosions. These brought cheers from the tense crews of Division A-1 who had been nervously counting off the minutes to impact. Crenshaw believed Maury was responsible for five of these hits.

Three torpedoes slammed into Arashi's engine room. As she erupted into flames a fourth torpedo hit. Kawakaze, turning to starboard received one in her magazine below her bridge, igniting her entire forward section. Two more torpedoes struck Hagikaze's fireroom, bringing her to a halt, also on fire. Division A-1's attack was impressively effective by any standards with 7 of 24 torpedoes fired resulting in effective hits, but it should have been even better. An eighth hit holed Shigure's rudder without exploding while two torpedoes passed within twenty yards of her as she swung to starboard. Hara ordered smoke and retired northwest to reload his tubes.

Simpson's division, A-2, which was to starboard, turned southwest to 240° at 2344, capping the Japanese T. There was no question of finding targets when his ships opened fire at 2347. Kawakaze was about 3,000 yards northwest and initially all three of Simpson's ships concentrated their fire on her. Stack also fired a salvo of four torpedoes at the same time and at the same target. The results of this salvo were uncertain, although some sources credit her with finishing off Kawakaze which rolled over and sank at 2352, just as Division A-1 turned south. At 2355 A-1 opened fire, probably at Arashi. Arashi and Hagikaze returned fire "raggedly in all directions." Maury's radar overload relay tripped after her first salvo so she ceased fire after only five salvos. At 2357, firing steadily, Simpson countermarched to the east to take another pass at the burning Japanese ships.

By 0000 both Arashi and Hagikaze's guns had gone silent. Moosbrugger doubled back to the northwest to engage any reinforcements that may have entering the gulf. This was a precautionary move based upon experience of the Japanese operating in two widely separated forces. Meanwhile, Shigure, having reloaded her torpedoes, turned back south. Her queries as to the status of her flotilla mates went unanswered. At 0010 Arashi's magazine exploded. Based upon this blast as well as the sounds of an aircraft engine from a Black Cat spotter, Hara concluded the other ships were under air attack and "decided retreat was honorable." Moreover, he believed his torpedo salvo had sunk one of the enemy destroyers. At 0015 he ordered his ship back to Rabaul.

In fact, at 0018 Hagikaze was still afloat, but under fire from the entire American force, she did not remain in this condition long. 0020 Moosbrugger turned his column due east then back north to keep clear of Simpson. At 0021 each ship in Simpson's division fired two more torpedoes. Three explosions occurred and Hagikaze disappeared. With this, American radar displayed empty seas.

At 0035 Moosbrugger turned back south. Apparently visibility was deteriorating and nothing showed on the radar, although Shigure was still well within SG range. From the battle area, burning oil covered the sea while the smell of gas was so strong it burned the eyes. Then Maury's main feed pump failed, limiting her speed below her previous high of 27 knots. Consequently, Moosbrugger led his division home around the north of Kolombangara after ordering Simpson to secure some prisoners.

This epilogue to the battle made a strong impression on all concerned. The ships of Division A-2 slowly cruised the battle area offering lines and floats to the hundreds of heads bobbing amid the carnage. But the Japanese sailors and soldiers refused all aid as they chanted the Hymn to the Dead. 1,210 Japanese died in this battle, although 310 survived, including Sugiura. He drifted ashore after 30 hours and wandered in the jungle for a week before he was rescued. He went on to command the heavy cruiser Haguro. Shigure made Rabaul. Members of her crew got into fistfights to defend their ship from suggestions of cowardliness.

The battle was catastrophic for the Japanese, both materially and psychologically. In twenty months of war their destroyers had never been bested in a night torpedo action. Within a week they concluded Kolombangara could not be held and commenced preparations to evacuate the forces they had built up at such effort and cost.

For the Americans Vella Gulf was also a watershed battle. It was the first time American destroyers had independently taken the offensive against Japanese surface shipping since Balikpapan, eighteen month previously. The destroyer men regarded their success as vindication of their weapons and proof of the principal that destroyers were best employed offensively unencumbered by screening or escort duties. However, there was more to the American victory. American destroyers fought Japanese destroyers five times more, (at Horaniu, three times off Kolombangara and at the Battle of Vella Lavella) before they achieved another victory at Cape St. George. The victory at Vella Gulf was surely assisted by having a plan and a doctrine. But other factors were equally important. First was experience. The Americans rotated men in and out and a weeding out process was gradually bringing the best men, like Burke, Simpson and Moosbrugger to positions of leadership. Officers like Russell had seen enough war to sense the flaws in their weapons and ways to offset these flaws. Second was improvement in weapons. Faulty torpedo detonator were out, flashless powder, flash hiders, and more powerful warheads were in. Third was opportunity. The Americans found the Japanese first and were in the perfect position against a dark shore with the torpedo division closest to the enemy when they did so. Fourth was complacency on the Japanese side: they did exactly what they were supposed to do. Fifth was luck. Japanese eyes outperformed American radar many times before Vella Gulf. If the lookouts had seen the Americans even one minute earlier, the results could have been far different. As events at Tassafaronga (or Samar) proved, it was possible to have a plan, the superior force, achieve surprise and to still suffer a stinging defeat. There are no guarantees in war, but Moosbrugger (and Simpson) did everything right, all the intangibles worked in their favor and they were rewarded with one of the great victories of the campaign. They finally taught the Japanese to respect American torpedoes.