Battle of Vella Gulf
The Battle of Vella Gulf (ベラ湾夜戦 Berawan yasen ) was a naval battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II fought on the night of 6–7 August 1943, in Vella Gulf between Vella Lavella Island and Kolombangara Island in the Solomon Islands of the Southwest Pacific.
This engagement was the first time that destroyers were allowed to operate independent of the cruiser force during the Pacific campaign. In the battle, six American destroyers—Dunlap, Craven, Maury, Lang, Sterett, and Stack—engaged a group of four enemy destroyers attempting to reinforce Japanese troops on Kolombangara. The American warships closed the enemy undetected with the aid of radar and fired torpedoes, which sank Hagikaze, Arashi, and Kawakaze with no damage to American ships.
The American forces were in a campaign of island hopping their way towards Japan. They had taken Guadalcanal the past year. After their victory in the Battle of Kolombangara on 13 July, the Japanese had established a powerful garrison of 12,400 around Vila at the southern tip of the island. This was the principal port on that island, and it supplied at night using fast destroyers as transports known as the "Tokyo Express". Three supply runs on 19 July, 29 July, and 1 August were successful deliveries. However, by 1 August the Americans were driving the Japanese out of the airfield on New Georgia Island just south of Kolombangara.
The last of these runs resulted in an unsuccessful skirmish for the Americans - one which does not merit a name from naval historians. It would become the noted topic of magazine articles, books, motion pictures, and political campaigns when of fifteen PT boats (which did not score a single sinking), the destroyer Amagiri rammed and sank PT-109, commanded by future U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
On the night of 6 August, the Imperial Japanese Navy sent a force of four destroyers under Captain Kaju Sugiura—Hagikaze, Arashi, Shigure, and Kawakaze—carrying about 950 soldiers and their supplies. The Japanese airfield at Munda on New Georgia, which the force at Vila was assigned to reinforce, was on the verge of being captured; it would actually fall later that day. The Imperial commanders expected that Vila would become the center of their next line of defense.
The U.S. Navy Task Group 31.2 (TG 31.2) of six destroyers—USS Dunlap, Craven, USS Maury (DD-401), Lang, Sterett, and Stack—commanded by Captain Frederick Moosbrugger was lying in wait, and it made radar contact with the Japanese force at 23:33. Having learned the harsh lessons of naval combat at night after the Battle of Tassafaronga, the Battle of Kula Gulf, and the previous PT boat debacle, the American destroyers did not give away their position with gunfire, but rather, they waited until they had all their torpedoes in the water. The U.S. Navy destroyers fired a total of 36 torpedoes in the space of 63 seconds. Four American ships—including USS Craven—used the mountains of the main island to their east to help camouflage their position. The radar possessed by the Japanese was not as advanced as the American radar, and it could not differentiate between the surface ships and the island. All four Japanese destroyers were hit by American torpedoes. Hagikaze, Arashi, and Kawakaze burst into flames and were quickly sunk by naval gunfire. The torpedo that hit Shigure was a dud that did not explode, damaging her rudder only, and she escaped into the darkness.
Many of the Imperial soldiers and sailors left floating in the water after their ships sank refused rescue by American ships. Over 1,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors were lost, mostly by drowning. 300 of them reached Vella Lavella and they were later transferred to Kolombangara Island.
During this entire battle, not one U.S. ship was struck by so much as a single bullet or shell. Moosbrugger's wise usage of radar resulted in the battle being nearly a "clean sweep" of Vella Gulf by the U.S. Navy.
The battle—coming less than one month after the night action at the Battle of Kolombangara—was the first U.S. Navy victory in World War II in a torpedo duel. The six destroyers had accomplished what a squadron of 15 American PT boats could not shortly before: sink the Tokyo Express with torpedoes with no American or friendly navy losses. The Empire of Japan could no longer supply their garrison on Kolombangara Island, and the Allies bypassed it, landing instead on Vella Lavella to the west. The Japanese Army soon abandoned Kolombangara.
The escort aircraft carrier USS Vella Gulf (CVE-111), in commission from 1945 to 1946, and the Ticonderoga class guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf (CG-72), in commission since 1993, were named for this battle.
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- Description by Vincent O'Hara
- Order of battle