DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY
The capture of the airfield at Munda Point on 5 August 19431 ended the first phase of our northward march through the New Georgia Group. Despite the fact that a total of 1,671 Japanese dead was counted and that heavy additional casualties were known to have been inflicted by Allied naval, artillery and air bombardments, some Japanese were able to withdraw to the north and effect a junction with other troops holding out at Bairoko Harbor, the last major center of Japanese resistance on New Georgia. A few others, probably high-ranking officers for the most part, were evacuated by barges to the enemy base at Vila-Stanmore on Kolombangara. This road of escape, however, was effectively denied to the majority of the survivors by our light surface vessels, which reported intercepting and sinking several troop-carrying barges in Kula Gulf during the final stages of the fighting at Munda.
Meanwhile, as two columns of our ground forces pushed through the jungle in pursuit of the fleeing enemy, Army engineers and Navy Seabee began reconstruction of Munda airfield, which was found to be in reasonably good condition despite the intensive bombardments which preceded its capture. Allied use of the airstrip, it was felt, would effectively neutralize the field at Vila-Stanmore, besides bringing our fighters and bombers within much closer range of the enemy's last three remaining air bases in the Solomons--Kahili, Ballale and Buka.
Even though partially neutralized, the base at Vila-Stanmore remained a tumbling block in the path of our northward drive. Indications were that the Japanese had no intention of withdrawing from the area, despite the fact that its potential usefulness had greatly diminished. It was believed, on the contrary, that the enemy intended to augment his garrison there, and to this end was preparing to move in troops and equipment from the north in barges and destroyers under cover of darkness.
The work of preventing these reinforcement operations fell to our destroyers and PT boats. For some weeks they had been systematically searching out enemy supply concentrations throughout the New Georgia Group. As our offensive against Munda gained momentum, they had contributed in no small measure to the success of the operation by breaking up enemy reinforcement attempts. Now the task would have to be continued in the waters surrounding Kolombangara.
On 4 August, the day before Munda finally fell, Comdr. Frederick Moosbrugger, commanding a Task Group of six destroyers, reported to the headquarters of Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson on Guadalcanal and was informed that the Admiral wished to make a sweep of Vella Gulf with two destroyers and a number of motor torpedo boats, with the object of intercepting and disrupting enemy barge traffic. Conversations on this subject with MTB officers led to the calling of a conference to meet the following day aboard the destroyer Dunlap (Lt. Comdr. Clifton Iverson) at Purvis Bay. Attending this conference were Comdr. Moosbrugger as Commander of Task Group MIKE;' Comdr. Rodger W. Simpson, ComDesDiv FIFTEEN in TG MIKE;2 Comdr. R. W. Calvert, ComMTB Flotilla ONE; Lt. Comdr. Henry Farrow, and other MTB officers. At this conference the MTB representatives presented "much valuable information" regarding barge traffic and destroyer
sightings in the Vella Gulf area, and tentative plans for an operation were worked out. The operation did not materialize because of the need for the MTB's elsewhere, but the information obtained at the conference proved invaluable in the action that was to follow.
Comdr. Moosbrugger, as CTG MIKE, had the following vessels at his disposal:
DesDiv TWELVE (less Gridley), Comdr. Moosbrugger.
Dunlap (F), Lt. Comdr. Iverson.
Craven, Lt. Comdr. Francis T. Williamson.
Maury, Comdr. Gelzer L. Sims.
DesDiv FIFTEEN (less Wilson), Comdr. Simpson.
Lang (F), Comdr. John L. Wilfong.
Sterett, Lt. Comdr. Frank G. Gould.
Stack, Lt. Comdr. Roy A. Newton.
Late in the afternoon of 5 August, he received a dispatch from Admiral Wilkinson directing him, with his two divisions, to sortie from Tulagi at 1230 on 6 August, proceed to Vella Gulf by a route south of the Russells and Rendova so as to arrive at Gizo Strait at 2200, and make sweeps of the Gulf, avoiding minefields. If he made no enemy contacts by 0200 on 7 August, he was to return at maximum speed to Port Purvis, passing north of Kolombangara. Admiral Wilkinson later informed Comdr. Moosbrugger that he believed the Japanese intended to reinforce the Vila-Stanmore area during the night of 6 August, using destroyers and possibly a cruiser.
The following morning Comdr. Moosbrugger invited Comdr. Simpson to a breakfast conference. The battle plan adopted was one previously conceived for a similar situation by Comdr. Arleigh A. Burke, who had been relieved by Comdr. Moosbrugger just prior to this operation. The following assumptions were made: (a) there was a remote possibility that enemy submarines might be encountered in Gizo Strait; (b) Gizo Strait was not mined; (c) enemy MTB's might be operating in the Vella Gulf area; (d) enemy snoopers would be active; (e) enemy troop-carrying barges equipped with the equivalent of 40 mm guns might be encountered in the Gizo Strait area, close to the fringing reefs north and west of Gizo Island, in the Blackett Strait area, and near the western shore of Kolombangara Island; (f) enemy destroyers would approach either from the north through Vella Gulf, or through Wilson Strait and Gizo Strait (the latter seemed improbable, as our PT boats had thoroughly combed that area); (g) enemy cruisers might be present; (h) the enemy force might consist of two groups, well separated; (i) the enemy surface forces would be at a disadvantage, their decks loaded with troops; (j) the element of surprise was in our favor, and must be exploited; (k) in a night surface engagement under favorable conditions, the destroyer's primary and most devastating weapon was the torpedo; and (I) that American gunfire was superior to that of the Japanese.
Detailed plans for the entire operation were developed and transmitted to the commanding officers. The vessels involved were to pass through Gizo Strait in column of division columns at 15 knots,3 entering Vella Gulf at moonset. On passing abeam of Liapari Island, DesDiv FIFTEEN was to form on bearing 150° T. about 4,000 yards from DesDiv TWELVE and sweep at 15 knots on course 124° T.
within a mile or two of Gizo Reefs. Thence they were to head north, close under the west shore of Kolombangara, searching for barges. DesDiv FIFTEEN, equipped with 40 mm guns, was selected as the inshore division, and DesDiv TWELVE, with 44 torpedoes, was designated as the offshore division to engage any destroyers or heavier ships which might arrive earlier than expected. It was planned to destroy barges detected on this sweep only on condition that reports from the spotting Black Cats gave definite information that there were no destroyers or heavier ships in the area. If such information were not forthcoming, contacts on barges were to be passed up until the second trip around.
If destroyers or larger vessels were encountered, Division TWELVE would close to fire torpedoes, retire to about 10,000 yards until the torpedoes hit, then open gunfire. Division FIFTEEN was to cover Division TWELVE while the latter approached the enemy for torpedo attack. Unless the enemy discovered and opened fire on Division TWELVE during its approach, Division FIFTEEN was to wait until the torpedoes hit before opening gunfire. It would also make a secondary torpedo attack if a favorable opportunity was presented.
Task Group MIKE departed Purvis Bay, Florida Island, 6 August at about 1130. The departure one hour prior to the scheduled time was considered necessary because of the condition of the Maury's engineering plant, which limited her speed to 27 knots. In the vicinity of Savo Island the task group assumed a special semi-circular antiaircraft formation with the Dunlap at the center and proceeded south of the Russells and Rendova Islands to Gizo Strait.
At 1730 a relay contact report was received from Plane One of Flight 15 saying that a Japanese force had been sighted at latitude 04°50' S., longitude 154°40' E. course 190° T., speed 15 knots. It was estimated that this force would reach Vella Gulf about midnight if it proceeded by direct route at a speed of 21 knots.
Six Black Cats were assigned to CTG MIKE for coverage and search, operating in two groups of three each. Bad weather and radar trouble were encountered, however, and communication was never established with either group.
In accordance with the battle plan, the Task Group arrived at Point Option, latitude 08°03' S., longitude 156°41' E. at 2200, slowed to 15 knots and began a careful search for enemy craft. Upon traversing Gizo Strait DesDiv FIFTEEN formed on bearing 150° T., distant 4,000 yards from DesDiv TWELVE. Our forces were disposed in a line of division columns with ships at intervals of 500 yards. At 2228 course was changed by division column movement to 124° T. to sweep the reefs fringing Gizo Island and the approach to Blackett Strait. That done, course was changed to 000° T. at 2250 for a sweep up the west coast of Kolombangara Island.
After the moon set at 2226 the night was extremely dark. The sky was completely overcast, with a ceiling at about 4,000 feet. Surface visibility varied from about 3,000 to 4,000 yards, depending upon the rain squalls that descended at frequent intervals. The wind was from the southeast, force 2. The sea was smooth, the Gulf being nearly landlocked. Our force was apparently not sighted by enemy planes throughout the approach.
2333 Dunlap makes radar contact. 2341-42 DesDiv TWELVE fires 14 torpedoes. 2344 CTG orders DesDiv 1WELVE to execulC "Turn 9." 2346 Explosions seen on targets. DesDiv FIFTEEN clunges course to 230° T. and opens fire. 2351 Enemy destroyer turns over and sinks. 2352 DesDiv TWELVE changes course to 180° T. to join in gunfire. Whole target area aflame. Many explosions. 2355 CTG orders Dunlap to open fire on smaller ship. Other ships of division join in firing. DesDiv FIFTEEN changes course to 090° T. and joins in firing. 0000 Target disappears. 0017 Enemy destroyer observed against flames of a large destroyer and sunk by gunfire from DesDiv FIFTEEN. 0027 Large enemy destroyer presumed sunk by torpedoes from DesDiv FIFTEEN.
At 2318 the flagship Dunlap reported what appeared to be a good radar contact bearing 090° T., range 4,500 yards, and requested verification by the other ships. Upon receiving no verification the contact was abandoned as false. At 2323 course was changed to 030° T., speed to 25 knots to continue along the northwest coast of Kolombangara.
Shortly after discarding the first contact as a phantom, the Dunlap at 2333 made a second radar contact, bearing 359° T., range 23,900 yards, and requested verification from other vessels. Craven confirmed the contact reporting, "I have three targets; looks mighty nice to me"; to which the Dunlap replied over TBS, "We have four." Reports from the Combat Intelligence Center indicated that the enemy ships were in column, apparently using a shallow zigzag on course 165° T. and 180° T., at speed between 25 and 30 knots.
At 2340, when the Dunlap's Torpedo Officer announced a track angle of 290° T., and the distance between the opposing forces was being closed at a rate of about 50 knots, TG MIKE gave orders over TBS for DesDiv TWELVE to take course 335° and prepare to fire torpedoes. DesDiv FIFTEEN turned by column movement to follow DesDiv TWELVE, then changed course to 270° T. and then to 190° T. The two divisions of TG MIKE now drew apart rapidly with Division TWELVE on a course that, if continued, would sweep the port flank of the enemy column while Division FIFTEEN was preparing to cut back on a southwesterly course to cross the bow of the enemy in excellent position to open gunfire.
Between 2341 and 2342 DesDiv TWELVE fired 24 torpedoes at a range of 4,300 to 4,820 yards. Since surface visibility at this time was less than 4,000 yards, none of the enemy ships had been sighted at the time of the torpedo attack. At 2345 Division TWELVE made a simultaneous turn to the right to maneuver clear of possible enemy torpedo fire and to take station for further action, leaving Division FIFTEEN to engage the enemy with gunfire during the maneuver.
While results of the attack were awaited, the chief torpedoman's mate of the flagship Dunlap reported to the bridge of his vessel that all torpedoes "appeared to run hot, straight and true." At 2346 the first explosion was observed among the targets. There followed a series of violent explosions, variously reported as to number. The general consensus of opinion seems to have been that there were four hits on three vessels, occurring from left to right; these were followed by another series of violent explosions totalling between seven and ten.
The torpedo attack created such havoc among the enemy forces that from the time its results were observed it was evident that the battle was won. Two ships were rocked by continuous explosions, and a third was enveloped in a mass of flame with successive explosions. The latter target was at first identified as a cruiser, though later information indicated that she was probably a large destroyer. Red flames and heavy black smoke proved unmistakably that she had been hit in her oil tanks. A large fire developed in the center of the explosions and spread over a considerable area.
It seems probable that the enemy did not know of the presence of our force until he was hit, since there were no indications of any evasive action taken by his ships. It was suggested that the position of our ships, close to the shoreline of Kolombangara may have prevented detection by Japanese radar. The enemy force seemed to be thrown into confusion from the start of the engagement. Some enemy gunfire was reopened, but it was of short duration and entirely ineffective.
Immediately after the first torpedo explosion, Division FIFTEEN, now broad on the port bow of the enemy column, swung right on course 230° T. to cut across its course, and opened fire with all guns. The Lang picked a target to the left of the flames by FD radar. An early hit illuminated the target, and the Sterett and Stack joined without signal in concentrating gunfire upon the same ship. About the third salvo, a yellow fire broke out amidships and spread rapidly. The target, now seen to be a destroyer, returned an ineffective fire, but under the combined pounding of three ships she rolled over and sank at 2352.
In the meantime the Stack discovered what was believed to be a good target in the area of the large destroyer that was aflame, and the Commanding Officer, Lt. Comdr. Roy A. Newton, ordered the starboard torpedo battery fired. It was believed that at least one hit was obtained, but results were obscured by the fire.
At 2352 Division TWELVE, having completed its evasive maneuver, changed course to 180° T. by turn movement to join in the gunfire. At 2355 Comdr. Moosbrugger ordered his flagship to open fire upon a target southeast of the burning area. The battery of the Dunlap was immediately joined by those of the other two ships of Division TWELVE. At 2356, just as Division FIFTEEN was changing course to 090°, gunflashes were observed coming from an enemy vessel, which was evidently firing on our division as it turned. This was the target upon which Division TWELVE had just opened fire from the opposite side. The Japanese destroyer was now smothered by fire from both divisions and "literally torn to pieces." She disappeared at 0000.
At 0003 the commander of TG MIKE ordered Division TWELVE to change course to 310° T. and pass a few thousand yards to the north of the flaming area. His purpose was to take a position near the northwest entrance to Vella Gulf so as to be prepared to intercept any other enemy force approaching.
Radar search indicated only one target remaining in the area, the bearing of which revealed it to be the large burning destroyer, which could be clearly seen at this time. Ships of both divisions took
turns in keeping up and spreading the fires that raged topside. At 0010 there was a terrific explosion on this ship that mounted 600 to 700 feet in the air. Division FIFTEEN, which had been assigned "mopping up" duties, took course 050° preparatory to finishing the burning ship with torpedoes. At 0017, when our ships were about ready to fire torpedoes, the procedure was interrupted by a rare and unexpected opportunity.
An apparently undamaged destroyer, not indicated on the radar scope, moved slowly into silhouette against the flames from the burning ship. Division FIFTEEN immediately opened fire at a range of less than 5,000 yards. All three ships began hitting at once, their salvos rending the topside and starting fires. An early salvo from the Sterett, striking just aft of amidships, evidently hit the enemy vessel's magazine. After a violent explosion the bow of the destroyer rose to an angle of sixty degrees, and she sank stern first in a few seconds.
At 0020 CTG MIKE, being informed that Comdr. Simpson was going to sink the remaining ship with torpedoes, ordered Division TWELVE to change course to 090° T. in order to clear range for Division FIFTEEN. Just at this point the Dunlap reported a torpedo to starboard and took an evasive turn. The same ship reported another torpedo at 0035 and a third at 0059. At none of these times, however, was a torpedo sighted from her bridge, and it was concluded that the reports were erroneous.
Comdr. Rodger W. Simpson in the meantime turned to the task of finishing the remaining Japanese ship, directing each ship of his division to fire two torpedoes at the burning vessel. Three violent explosions resulted. The target was said to have "looked like a bed of red hot coals thrown a thousand feet in the air." At 0027, after more explosions, she disappeared from sight as well as from all radar screens in the force, and was presumed to have sunk. Oil and debris continued to burn in the area for an hour and a half.
Radar search revealing no further targets in the surrounding area, both divisions, after joining up and adjusting their formations, maneuvered to search the area of burning oil. Much burning wreckage cluttered the area, filling the air with a mingled smell of burning fuel, diesel oil and wood. Observing many survivors in the water, Comdr. Moosbrugger directed Division TWELVE to attempt to pick up some of them. However, at this time the Maury reported that engineering difficulties would probably prevent her from maintaining her speed, a maximum of 22 at that time, for more than an hour. At 0118, therefore, Comdr. Moosbrugger retired down the "Slot"4 with Division TWELVE after directing Comdr. Simpson of Division FIFTEE to attempt to pick up survivors for intelligence purposes.
Steaming through the survivor area at 25 knots, Division FIFTEEN required about four minutes to traverse waters that were filled with men clinging to rafts and wreckage. To the Commanding Officer of the Lang it seemed that "the sea was literally covered with Japs"--so thick that their bodies were seen to be thrown up in the phosphorescent wake of the vessel. From all sides the survivors lifted a cry that sounded like "Kow-we, Kow-we", chanted in unison with considerable volume.5 "It was a weird unearthly sound punctuated at times by shrieks of mortal terror." When speed was reduced
and efforts were made to pick up survivors someone in the water blew a whistle, the chanting stopped, and the men all swam away from the ship.
It was concluded from the number of men seen in the water, a number clearly in excess of that accounted for by the ships' crews, that all four vessels were probably carrying troops and supplies to Kolombangara or reinforcements for Vila. Enemy casualties were thought to have been quite heavy, since there was no opportunity for orderly abandonment in the case of anyone of them. Moreover, the area surrounding the large destroyer had been a flaming sea of oil, and the waters surrounding the other vessels had been smothered with gunfire, much of it 5-inch AA common.
Unable to get any Japanese survivors aboard, or to discover any other targets, Division FIFTEEN retired from Vella Gulf about 0200 and proceeded to Tulagi. The reassembled task group discovered no material damage to any ship and no personnel casualties whatever as a result of its highly successful engagement.
As is usual in these night actions, evidence as to the exact extent of the enemy's losses is not conclusive. There seems to be no doubt that there were four Japanese vessels involved in the engagement. All the observers among our forces whose reports are on record believed that all four were destroyed. On the other hand, several Japanese survivors who were picked up later insisted that one of the destroyers escaped. Our own observers consistently refer to the "cruiser" present among the Japanese vessels. The gunnery officer of the Dunlap, who was in a good position for observation, identified it as belonging to the Kuma or the Natori class. Contrary to this, however, is the testimony of the prisoners, who agreed (even to the names of the ships) that all four of the ships were destroyers. At the present time, therefore, all that can be claimed conclusively are three destroyers sunk and one heavily damaged.
As a result of this battle heavy enemy reinforcements were prevented from reaching Kolombangara. This probably decided the Japanese to evacuate the Island instead of holding it. "Had they elected to defend it," observed CINCPAC, "it would have cost us a diversion of effort, either in ground forces to take it by assault, or in air and surface forces to keep it neutralized as we by-passed it and moved further to the northwest."
1. See Combat Narrative, "Operations in the New Georgia area, 29 June-5 August 1943".
2. Numbers identifying task forces have been omitted from all Combat Narratives for reasons of security. In place of these numbers will be found the Navy flag name for the first letter of the surname of the commanding officer of a task force.
3. The 15-knot speed was chosen because it made for efficient sound searches, produced a wake difficult for snoopers to detect, and permitted maintenance of the predetermined timetable.
4. "The Slot" was previously designated on Solomon Islands charts as New Georgia Sound. On later charts this body of water is given the name of "The Slot" in conformity with common usage.5. This word was probably Kowai, a Japanese ejaculation of fear.
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