The Battle of Vella Gulf

On the 6th of August, after two days at anchor in Purvis Bay, intelligence predicted a Japanese supply run to reinforce Munda through Vella Gulf and Blackett Strait, which ran along the south side of Kolombangara. Commodore Moosbrugger called a conference of his commanding officers and when Captain Sims returned to the ship, he announced that the we were being ordered out to intercept the Jap force. The commodore had also prepared a rather detailed search and battle plan. The captain was particularly pleased that he was going to follow Burke’s Doctrine and divide his force into two separate groups. We got underway from Purvis about 1130 and headed west.

Moosbrugger was flying his Broad Command Pennant in Dunlap, and Commodore Simpson, ComDesDiv 15 in Lang, was second-in-command. Moosbrugger’s Division, A-1, consisting of Dunlap, Craven and Maury, was designated the Torpedo Attack Division and Simpson’s Division, A-2, containing Lang, Sterett and Stack, was designated the Support Division. Dunlap’s Fighter Direction team took over primary Fighter Direction and Maury’s ARGUS unit was placed in Standby. Our cruising formation during daylight was a circular AA formation, with Dunlap in the center.

It was a long run at 27 knots from Tulagi to Gizo Straits, at the bottom of Vella Gulf, but it was in relatively safe waters, south of the New Georgia, Rendova and Kolombangara. It was pretty sure we were going to engage the enemy, and we had plenty of time to think. By early afternoon, as we were passing to the south of the Russells, I made up my mind to bring the matter of Torpedo Depth to a head. The commodore had instructed all skippers to be prepared to fire torpedoes at Intermediate Speed and set Depth alternately at 5 and 9 feet, as outlined in DesPac Instructions for Destroyer Targets. Why not set them all at minimum depth? If our fish were running too deep, maybe the difference between 5 and 9 feet would be the difference between a hit and a miss! Our fish no longer had a magnetic exploder, so we had to hit the target’s hull. Maury was designed to draw 12 ft. amidships—one of those 9 ft. fish running only 5 ft. too deep would miss her! Jap destroyers probably had about the same keel depth as Maury.

I found the Captain in deep thought in his chair on the Bridge, but there was no time to lose, so I took a chance and disturbed his reverie. Starting with a careful review of all the clues that our fish were running too deep, I proposed that we set our torpedoes to run at the minimum possible depth, instead of the DesPac standard. Against a destroyer, it wouldn’t make any difference if we hit her just below the waterline instead of the turn of the bilge. If the torpedo should even “broach” and hit the ship above the waterline, it would still do immense damage. If the 9 foot setting was too deep, we’d be throwing away half of our torpedoes! Captain Sims agreed with me that there might be something wrong with our torpedoes, but, since he wasn’t sure what it was, he felt he’d be on a safer ground to follow DesPac Instructions. Perhaps they knew something that we didn’t.

My pressure made the Captain uncomfortable. He was a planner, a strategist, but not a technician. He could lead his men and maneuver his ship with the best of them, but when it came to hardware, especially ordnance, he had always left that to others. He squirmed in his seat, stared at the horizon, and finally said, “Look Russ, I received clear instructions from the commodore to set the fish at the DesPac standard. I don’t have any factual evidence to do otherwise and I’m not going to second guess the commodore.” He turned moodily back to studying the ships ahead, indicating the discussion was finished.

This wasn’t typical of Captain Sims. He was a master at making logical decisions and a gambler to boot. Ordinarily he would try anything that would improve our chances for success, but these weren’t ordinary times. The drumbeat of operations and the constant threat of destruction were taking their toll on everyone. Perhaps he had too much on his mind. It was obviously not useful to continue to argue, so I excused myself and left the bridge.

But the more I thought, the less I could accept his decision! I was proposing to take the safest possible course of action. I felt sure that if he had not been instructed by the commodore, he would have agreed with me. I could see no disadvantage in having our fish running at minimum depth, but there was plenty against having them run too deep! After an hour of weighing the gravity of my action, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

With no further discussion with anyone, I went to the Torpedo Battery and personally supervised the setting of all 16 torpedoes to run at the minimum possible depth—five feet! I then had the Depth setting spindles withdrawn and locked out. Bachman and Fisher were charged to not let anyone change the settings. If there were anything wrong with my decision, there would be no one but me to blame.

By sunset, we were running along smoothly at 27 knots with all four boilers on the line, ready for maximum speed. Spirits were high. We all seemed confident of our equipment and our ability to use it. We were free from the cruisers, in a sensible formation and had a sensible plan of action. If we found the enemy, we knew what to expect. At 2115, as we entered Gizo Straits, we went to battle stations.

The night was particularly dark. There were threatening clouds and a few rain squalls, one of which hit us as we arrived at the narrow part of the passage. The sea was smooth and there was little wind. The only known problem with the ship was in the Main Feed pumps, which had been leaking steam from around the carbon packing. As we entered the Gulf, men started talking in whispers, or not at all. Quiet anticipation was the mood.

At 2200, in accordance with the commodore’s detailed plan, we passed “Point Option,” slowed to 15 knots and started a sweep to the East, along the bottom of Vella Gulf, to check the Entrance to Blackett Strait. The great bulk of Kolombangara loomed ahead and to the left and there were some small islands to the right, but nothing in the Straits. We then we turned to the north following the coast of Kolombangara with our closest ship passing about 4,000 yards out. We’d never been this near to Kolombangara before and weren’t sure whether there were Japs on the beach. Our guns were ready, both to starboard and to port.

At 2323, Moosbrugger ordered both divisions to Course 030 to follow the coast and increased speed to 25 knots. The ships of the two divisions were in column, 500 yards between ships. Simpson’s Flagship bore 150 T, 4,000 yards from Moosbrugger’s. The three pips of Simpson’s ships were bright on the PPI, but otherwise the screen was clear, except for some fuzzy “weather return” to the north.

At 2330, Acker, on the SG, picked a contact out of the fuzz. Medler and his team started plotting. I shouted up the Voice tube, “Radar Contact, bearing 350 True, 19,800 yards.” Almost immediately, over the TBS, Dunlap reported “SKUNK, THREE FOUR FIVE, NINETEEN THOUSAND! Our target and its coordinates were confirmed! Over Acker’s shoulder, I could see one strong pip with two or three weaker ones close to it to the north. We had a real contact and the range was closing fast!

Two minutes later, we could report to “Bridge” that the target consisted of a column of four ships. The lead ship appeared bigger than the other three. Medler was plotting steadily as the ranges and bearings were being read off the SG PPI. Acker was our best Radar Operator and doing great. Bean was also plotting them on the Air Plot to check Medler’s solution. “Target Course One Seven Zero True, Speed Twenty Six.” was Melder’s solution. I passed it up the Voice Tube to the captain. “TORPEDO ACTION, PORT!” was his immediate reply.

I checked with Bachman over the JA phones—he reported his Torpedo Director “Matched” to our solution and to our constant stream of bearings. The port Torpedo Mounts were trained out to follow the director. I could imagine torpedomen Olcott and Bonds, cranking their Mount Train handles carefully to keep their mounts matched to the director’s order, and Fisher, maul in hand, poised behind the mount. Bachman on the port Bridge wing would be checking the settings of his director and staring into the black, while Torpedoman Corcoran trained the director to match the stream of bearings coming over the phones and taking an occasional peek through its telescope, trying to spot the enemy.

Speed was increased to 30 knots and the commodore brought us Left to Course 335. The Captain ordered a “Full Salvo” of eight torpedoes. Being last ship in column, we centered our aim on the lead ship. We were closing at a speed of over 50 knots; the range was plunging. At 9,000 yards, we shifted Torpedo Speed to Intermediate, 36 knots. We refined our Target Speed to 28 knots, Target Course held steady at 170° T. The Plotting Team was working like clockwork, every man intent on his task, too engrossed to be frightened. Maury followed in Craven’s wake as the commodore brought the column a bit to the Right to a better firing course.

At 6,500 yards range the TBS ordered, “FIRE TORPEDOES!” Our eight port fish “sponged” into the water at three-second intervals. Medler marked the ship’s position as each fish hit the water, laid out its particular course, taking the 2 degree spread into account, and marked out the torpedo run in seconds. He had started a stopwatch on the first fish and would call out when each fish crossed the enemy’s track.

As the last Torpedo hit the water, Moosbrugger ordered a simultaneous turn, 90 degrees to the Right. Maury heeled sharply to Port and shuddered into the turn. In CIC, we clutched the plotting table and held our breath. If we were going to be hit by enemy torpedoes, it would be now! Once around, we would be going away with only our stern exposed and the chance of getting hit would be small. She was heeling at least 15 degrees outboard and shaking like a banshee as the screws nearly surfaced and the centrifugal force tugged at anything loose. Medler and Bean flattened themselves across the plotting table to keep their instruments and pencils under control. After an eternity the ship came back up to an even keel and the shaking abated. We’d made it! We were running free—heading away from any Jap torpedoes.

At 36 knots, a torpedo goes through the water at 1200 yards a minute, or 20 yards a second. The firing range had been about 6400 yards, but the torpedo run to intercept the enemy column ranged from 3800 to 4900 yards from left to right. The first fish should hit 3 minutes and 10 seconds after firing. We told Bridge we would “Mark” when each of our shots should cross the enemy’s Track.

The Captain, at the Voice Tube on the port wing of the bridge with his arm around the pelorus, stared into the dark. No one had seen a target yet. All guns were trained on the unseen targets, but none fired. Every man topsides strained his eyes to pierce the dark, some whispered they could see the bow waves and shadows of ships, but none was sure.

“Mark First Fish!”—Nothing! The silence screamed! “Mark Two!”—Five seconds passed—“Explosion on Port Quarter!” The silence shattered! “We hit her!” It was the Captain’s voice! “Mark three!”—Nothing! “Mark four!”—two seconds—“Huge explosion! Different ship!” The shocks of the explosions shook our whole ship! Tressler, over the JA, reported he could see a ship and swung his director to it. “Mark five!”—a moment’s pause—“Big explosion!” “Mark six!”—“Tall column of fire! That is a different ship!” “Mark seven!”—three seconds—“Huge column of fire to the right!” “Mark eight!”—Nothing! Bachman reported there were three enormous bonfires blazing on the water. Flames were leaping a thousand feet in the air! He couldn’t identify what type of ships they were, but he could see wreckage at the base of the flames.

We raced away from the conflagration—each second carrying us further from the menace of torpedoes. We began to breathe again. Smiles broke into strained faces. An involuntary cheer surged upward. “Mac” MacInnes from the ARGUS unit, burst through the door from the radar transmitter room. “Kee-rist! Take a look what you’ve done!” One by one, we went to the transmitter room door and took a peek. In was breathtaking! Fire smeared across the sea! The water was a flaming orange as it reflected the towering pyres.

Five out of the eight times we called our shots, Bridge reported a big explosion on the bearing! There were two or three smaller explosions mixed with the big ones, but the big ones were unmistakable. We were convinced that the “big” explosions, which flashed hundreds of feet up into the night, were caused by large warheads going off near the surface—just the kind Maury had fired.

Simpson’s division had turned Left to cross ahead of the enemy column as we started our torpedo run. As soon as our fish began to hit, his three ships opened up with their 5-inch batteries. If the enemy had seen us, he was now engaged from a different direction. As our division ran out to a safe range, the Support Division poured fire into the stricken ships. There was no sign of return fire. Our fish must have hit before the Japs knew we were there.

At 10,000 yards, Moosbrugger turned us due south bringing our Division back into column with Maury in the lead. He then ordered, “Engage with guns!” As our first salvo crashed out, the SG radar started to fade. The radar was more important than the chance of a few extra hits. I ordered “CEASE FIRE” over the JA circuit to keep the SG from being blinded and explained to the captain over the voice tube. He concurred. After a few more minutes, Maury was the only ship in the division with a functioning SG.

There had been four enemy ships in the Column, but only three burning hulks could be seen. As we had run eastward to escape their torpedoes, the enemy ships were in the “Blind” sector of our SG, which extended almost 30° to each side of our stern. Now that we were heading south, the burning enemy ships were in a clear sector for the SG and we could make out several strong pips, but the whole area was peppered with smaller pips from our own shell splashes and floating debris. About five miles to the north of the wrecked ships we spotted a dim “pip” moving away and reported it, but it merged into some weather before we could develop a good “track”.

The Commodore turned the division to course 330° T to return to the raging inferno and make sure there were no more Japs coming down the gulf. We swept northwest in quarter echelon for about 20 minutes, passing closer to the raging flames, but still unable to clearly identify individual ships. The Captain estimated he could make out one cruiser and three destroyers from the flaming wreckage, but he wasn’t sure. We continued past the battle area, but a rain squall produced a lot of clutter to the north and we couldn’t find any targets. The commodore turned us to the East, then after a few minutes back to North, bringing us back into Column with Dunlap in the lead. He wasn’t going to repeat Adm. Ainsworth’s mistake of holding a steady course when near Jap destroyers.

About 0035, with visibility getting worse and nothing on the radars, Moosbrugger led us southward to the battle area, where Simpson’s division had been patrolling. The whole area was covered with oil and littered with debris. The smell of oil and gasoline permeated the air and burned the eyes. The fires were out, but we could make out objects poking up through the sheet of black oil. We slowed to steerageway to look for survivors. We could hear voices shouting in the dark, but saw no one.

Just after turning to the south, the Carbon Packing on No. 2 Main Feed pump let go and we shifted the whole load to No.1, which itself had been repaired with a makeshift patch. We’d be lucky if No. 1 lasted an hour. In the engineroom, the “Snipes” were playing hoses on No. 2 to get it cool enough to work on. Even feed water in a 600-psi plant sears flesh! It would be the better part of an hour before the gland could be backed off and the packing replaced. Bill Booze, who had replaced Jim Winn as Chief Engineer, came to the Bridge to explain to the Captain. If both Main Feed Pumps went out, we’d be down to our Cruising Feed Pump, which had also been giving trouble, or finally to the Emergency Feed Pump and limited to 12 knots!

Captain Sims reported our situation to the commodore, who immediately turned our column to the northeast to head for home around the tip of Kolombangara. Commodore Simpson was instructed to try to pick up some Japanese survivors from the hundreds that had been sighted in the wreckage. His ships steamed slowly through the oil soaked wreckage for nearly an hour trying to coax survivors to take rescue lines—there were no takers. The Japanese could be heard talking and occasionally chanting in unison in the water, but when one of our ships approached a group, a whistle would blow, the chanting would stop and the oil-blackened survivors could be seen trying to swim away. About 0200 Commodore Simpson gave up and followed us down the Slot.

At 0239, No.1 Main Feed Pump blew its packing as predicted and the Snipes shifted to the Cruiser. It lasted only fifteen minutes before it was leaking so much steam that the men couldn’t see to work on the two Main Feed Pumps, which were just next to it. We shifted to the Emergency Feed Pump and prayed. We were just north of Kolombangara and it was no place to linger. Moosbrugger slowed the division to our speed. We watched the radars anxiously for enemy planes. Surely the Japs would be sending their best to avenge their losses. We were closer to Rabaul by 30 miles than we’d been when we were trying to coax Gwin to safety!

After an agonizing hour of creeping along, the snipes got No.2 Main Feed Pump back on the line and we increased speed to 25 knots. Two of the men doing the work had to be treated for second-degree burns. By the time we passed New Georgia, we had all pumps back on the line and were ready for Full Speed, if only for a short time. Maury’s “Black Gang” had her running again!

As the sun climbed into the sky ahead, the leaden weight of fatigue replaced the adrenaline of battle. We struggled to keep our eyes open as the warmth of day mounted, but there was to be no rest. Despite our exciting battle—the first clear victory for our surface forces in a long list of confused night battles—there was no time to relax and rest. Even before refueling, Maury was ordered to Lunga Point to escort an LST and an SC boat to Rendova. We picked up our charges about 1000, but before we had reached the Russells, a replenished Lang relieved us and we could finally head for Purvis and some sleep.

When our engines had cooled down and a thorough examination of the feed pumps could be made, it was clear that they needed a complete overhaul. The situation was reported to the Task Force Commander and, within hours, we received orders to escort the oiler Patapsco to Espiritu and were assigned a repair period alongside Dixie. We’d been part of the Striking Force for just over a month—it seemed more like a year!

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Postscript: after the war was over, Japanese battle reports revealed that the Japanese column had consisted of four Destroyers: Hagikase, Arashi, Kawakase and Shigure. The first three had carried 900 soldiers and many tons of supplies on deck, including drums of gasoline. These three ships were mortally wounded before they even sighted us and went down without being able to reply. Shigure, carrying troops but not encumbered with supplies, sighted torpedoes passing close aboard and even under her keel, but was not hit. She managed to get off a hasty torpedo spread, which missed because of Moosbrugger’s turn away, and raced north into some rain squalls to escape. After reloading her torpedo tubes, she came south again but as she came out of the rain and her skipper could see the carnage of the battle area, he decided to return to Rabaul to fight another day. Hagikase and Arashi were of one of the newest classes of Japanese destroyers, over 2,000 tons standard displacement and almost 390 ft. LOA, and they had superposed twin turrets aft. They were much larger and imposing than the 1,500-ton Kawakase and Shigure, so it is understandable that in the poor visibility and excitement of battle, they were judged to be cruisers.

Copyright © 2003 Capt. Russell S. Crenshaw, Jr., USN (Ret.)