Battle of Vella Gulf
Coordinates: 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 American destroyers were allowed to operate independently of the American cruiser force during the Pacific campaign. In the battle, six American destroyers engaged four Japanese destroyers attempting to reinforce Japanese troops on Kolombangara. The American warships closed the Japanese force undetected with the aid of radar and fired torpedoes, sinking three Japanese destroyers with no damage to American ships.
After their victory in the Battle of Kolombangara on 13 July, the Japanese had established a powerful garrison of 12,400 around Vila on the southern tip of Kolombangara island in an attempt to block further island hopping by the American forces, which had taken Guadalcanal the previous year as part of Operation Cartwheel. Vila was the principal port on Kolombangara, and it was supplied at night using fast destroyer transport runs the Americans called the "Tokyo Express". Three supply runs on 19 July, 29 July, and 1 August were successfully completed.
During the final run on 1 August, a force of 15 US PT boats launched an unsuccessful attack, firing between 26 and 30 torpedoes. Four Japanese destroyers responded, and in the ensuing battle PT-109, captained by Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, later President of the United States, was sunk. By 5 August, the Americans were driving towards the Japanese held airfield at Munda on New Georgia Island just south of Kolombangara and the Japanese decided to send a fourth transport run to Vila with reinforcements.
On the night of 6 August, the Imperial Japanese Navy sent a force of four destroyers under Captain Kaju Sugiura—Hagikaze, Arashi, Kawakaze of Sugiara's own Destroyer Division 4 and Shigure of Captain Tameichi Hara's Destroyer Division 27—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 Japanese commanders expected that Vila would become the center of their next line of defense. The Japanese operational plan specified the same approach route through Vella Gulf as the three previous successful transport runs over the objections of Hara, who argued that repeating prior operations was courting disaster.
The U.S. Navy Task Group 31.2 (TG 31.2) of six destroyers—USS Dunlap, Craven, Maury, Lang, Sterett, and Stack—commanded by Commander Frederick Moosbrugger, having been forewarned of the Japanese operation, was lying in wait, and it made radar contact with the Japanese force at 23:33. Moosbrugger's battle plan divided his forces into two divisions: Moosbrugger's own Destroyer Division 12 (Dunlap, Craven and Maury), which retained their full pre-war torpedo batteries, were to launch a surprise torpedo attack out of the shadow of Kolambangara Island while Commander Roger Simpson's Destroyer Division 15 (Lang, Sterett and Stack), which had exchanged some of their torpedo tubes for extra 40 mm guns, covered them from an overwatch position, turning to cross the enemy's course so any attempt by the Japanese to turn into the first division's torpedo attack would expose their broadsides to a torpedo attack from the second division.
The two divisions could then switch roles if a repeat torpedo attack proved necessary, or alternate roles if barges were encountered, which could be dealt with by the second division's extra guns if necessary. Having learned the harsh lessons of naval combat at night after the Battle of Kolombangara, the Battle of Kula Gulf, and a previous PT boat skirmish, and having finally addressed the technical problems that had plagued their Mark 15 torpedoes since the beginning of the war, the American destroyers did not give away their position with gunfire until their torpedoes started striking their targets.
Dunlap, Craven and Maury fired a total of 24 torpedoes in the space of 63 seconds before turning to starboard and withdrawing at high speed, using the mountainous island to their east to help camouflage their movements. The Americans were operating on the assumption that the Japanese had nothing to match their new centrimetric SG radar; they knew that their older meter band radars could not differentiate between the surface ships and the island and presumed Japanese radars were no better. In the event, none of the Japanese ships present actually had radar and the looming mass of the island served to conceal the American ships from visual observation. Lang, Sterett and Stack turned to port to cross their opponent's T and opened fire as soon as the torpedoes started detonating. All four Japanese destroyers were hit by American torpedoes. Hagikaze, Arashi, and Kawakaze burst into flames and either sank immediately or were quickly sunk by naval gunfire. The torpedo that hit Shigure was a dud that passed through her rudder without detonating, allowing her to escape into the darkness. Shigure fired eight torpedoes as Hara retreated from the scene, all of which missed their targets.
Many of the Japanese soldiers and sailors left floating in the water after their ships sank refused rescue by American ships. A total of 1,210 Japanese soldiers and sailors were lost, mostly by drowning. Six hundred and eighty-five troops were lost. In addition, 356 men were lost on Hagikaze and Arashi (178 on each), while 169 were lost on Kawakaze. A small group of 300 survivors reached Vella Lavella. They were later transferred to Kolombangara Island. During this battle, not one U.S. ship was struck by so much as a single bullet or shell, with the only casualty being a crush injury to a gun loader caused by an accident.
The battle—coming less than one month after the night action at the Battle of Kolombangara—was the first time that the Japanese had been beaten in a night destroyer action. 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 on 15 August. The Japanese Army soon abandoned Kolombangara, completing their withdrawal by early October.
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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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Vella Gulf.|
- McComb, David W. (2008). "Battle of Vella Gulf". Destroyer History Foundation. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008. Retrieved 16 April 2008.
- Muir, Dan. "Order of battle: Battle of Vella Gulf". NavWeaps. Retrieved 29 August 2017.
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