US destroyers ambush Japanese at Vella Gulf

The USS Dunlap led the group of US Navy destroyers that lay in wait for the Japanese.

The USS Dunlap led the group of US Navy destroyers that lay in wait for the Japanese.

The Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Arashi, photographed in 1940. The fast destroyers were used for the 'Tokyo Express'.

The Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Arashi, photographed in 1940. The fast destroyers were used for the ‘Tokyo Express’.

In the Soloman islands US Naval forces were making it extremely difficult for the Japanese to bring in reinforcements and supplies. Their forces on the islands were already suffering from shortages and were unable to mount a co-ordinated defence. Even though Japanese troops suffered from poor morale they were determined to fight on.

The Japanese solution was to bring in troops by fast destroyer under cover of darkness rather than conventional troop transports – the system known as the ‘Tokyo Express’. Radar was now challenging even that tactic. On the night of 6th August 1943 it was to give the US Navy a great advantage.

As four Japanese destroyers bringing troop reinforcements to Kolombangara island made their approach, they were unable to spot a force of US destroyers – the USS Dunlap, Craven, Maury, Lang, Sterett, and Stack – that were lying in wait for them. The Japanese radar could not distinguish the US ships from the great mass of the island behind them. The surprise torpedo attack by the US destroyers almost achieved total annihilation of the Japanese forces.

Tameichi Hara was the commander of the Japanese destroyer Shigure. Being unable to to keep up with the other three destroyers probably contributed to his lucky escape:

We sortied from Rabaul on August 6 at 0300 and headed southward in a calm sea. The cloudy sky offered intermittent rain squalls and brief glimpses of sunshine.

We were passing Buka Island at 1430 when an enemy patrol plane was seen disappearing into the clouds. Our radiomen reported hearing an “Urgent” coded message, which must have been the plane’s report of our approach. Clearly, our operation would not take the enemy by surprise.

I kept close watch of flagship Hagikaze to see how Captain Sugiura would react to this development. It grieved me to see our same speed of advance and course maintained, even after we had been sighted by the enemy. I gritted my teeth and followed along.

We entered Bougainville Strait at 1900 and, turning to a course of 140 degrees, boosted speed to 30 knots. Two hours and twenty minutes later we were directly northeast of Vella Lavella Island. Shigure was falling behind the formation as the 30—knot speed proved too much for her. The navigation officer, Lieutenant Yoshio Tsukihara, came to report to me.

“Sir, we are lagging 1,000 meters behind Kawakaze. Shall we use the overboost to gain back our lost 500 meters?”

”No,” I roared, “this is good enough. To hell with the prescribed 500- meter distance. Don’t overboost the engine!”

Kolombangara loomed to starboard, its towering volcanic peak overhung with ominous black clouds. To port I could see nothing but blackness, from which anything could emerge at any moment. It made my spine creep.

I shouted new orders. “Stand by for action! Aim all guns and torpedoes to port. Set gun range of 3,000 meters. Set torpedoes to run at two-meter depth, angle 20 degrees. Double all lookouts!”

For the next ten uneasy minutes I peered searchingly to port for some sign of activity or movement to betray the presence of the enemy. Visibility was no more than 2,000 meters in this direction. The growing tension was shattered by the voice tube from torpedo control where Lieutenant Doi asked if it was all right to return the tubes from portside to their original starboard position

I shrieked an emphatic “No!” and followed with a more controlled explanation, “No, Doi, for heaven’s sake, no! Starboard visibility is so good that we can see the reefs of Vella Lavella. To port we see no more than 2,000 meters, and we don’t know where the enemy is. Stay trained to port and be ready for action at any moment.”

This bit of instruction was hardly finished when lookout Yamashita called, “White waves! Black objects! . . . Several ships heading toward us!”

I called at once for full starboard helm, and ordered torpedoes launched at port-side targets. The white waves were plainly visible. I shuddered and glanced at the three leading destroyers. They were proceeding straight ahead, oblivious of the closing enemy ships.

Damn! Damn! Shigure was now 1,500 meters behind Kawakaze. Forty-five seconds after the order was given, Shigure began swinging to starboard as her torpedoes leapt in rapid succession into the water. The time was 2145.

As the eighth torpedo was about to be released I caught sight of telltale white torpedo tracks fanning out in our direction, the nearest within 800 meters. I shouted again for hard starboard helm. In the same moment I saw a pillar of fire shoot up from amidship of Arashi, and two from Kawakaze. Lead ship Hagikaze was beyond and in line with these two victims so that I could not see her.

Looking again at the water, I held my breath. Three torpedoes were streaking toward Shigure’s bow, which was swinging rapidly to the right.

My knees almost gave in as I clutched the handrail. The first torpedo passed 20 meters ahead of the bow, the second was closer, and the third appeared certain to hit. It did not, however, or if it did it was just a glancing blow on the skin of the rapidly turning ship. I thought I felt a dull thud from aft but could not be sure. Looking around again I saw several torpedoes running 30 meters or more in front of the bow, as the ship was completing a full circle in its desperate evasive turn.

See Tameichi Hara: Japanese Destroyer Captain: Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Midway – The Great Naval Battles as Seen Through Japanese Eyes.

Three out of the four Japanese destroyers – the Hagikaze, Arashi, and Kawakaze had been sunk. The US destroyers suffered no damage or casualties at all – but for the escape of the Shigure it would have been complete and utter victory. Around 1000 Japanese were left in the water as they abandoned ship but many were to refuse rescue when daylight came.

USS Sterett (DD-407) after portion of the ship, photographed from a crane at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 6 February 1943, at the end of an overhaul. Circles mark recent alterations, including the installation of 40mm guns on her after deckhouse. Note the photographer's shoes in lower left. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

USS Sterett (DD-407) after portion of the ship, photographed from a crane at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 6 February 1943, at the end of an overhaul. Circles mark recent alterations, including the installation of 40mm guns on her after deckhouse. Note the photographer’s shoes in lower left. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

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Kahoolie August 11, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Captain Hara later found a round hole in the center of Shigure’s rudder, which he believes is from this engagement. But for a dud torpedo, it would have been a clean sweep.

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