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Battle of Vella Gulf

MapIn August 1942, U.S. Marines waded ashore at Guadalcanal and began a year-long struggle to control the waters and islands nearby. The Solomon Islands were the furthest outpost of the Japanese Empire, and one of two points of entry in the Pacific for Allied forces committed to victory. The narrow body of water between Kolombangara and New Georgia Island became the route of the "Tokyo Express" - a group of Japanese destroyers that made midnight runs to resupply army garrisons engaged in the struggle against the Americans. The Battle of Vella Gulf was one of the last and most decisive battles in the Solomons campaign.

Onboard USS DUNLAP (DD 384) early on 6 August 1943, captains of six destroyers met with Task Group Commanders Frederick Moosbrugger and Rodger Simpson to discuss a plan to interdict the next running of the Tokyo Express. The group was divided in two divisions of three destroyers each. USS DUNLAP (DD 384), USS CRAVEN (DD 382) and USS MAURY (DD 401) comprised Division ABLE ONE. Division ABLE TWO had USS STACK (DD 406), USS STERRETT (DD 407), and USS LANG (DD 399). In accordance with revolutionary doctrine proposed by Commander Arleigh Burke, Moosbrugger planned to have ABLE ONE attack with torpedoes first and direct ABLE TWO to attack with guns and torpedoes after the initial attack was complete. It was to be the first time that destroyers were used as an independent striking force, free from responsibilities for screening battleships and cruisers.

Later that evening, the task group proceeded at 25 knots into Vella Gulf via Gizo Strait. American destroyers used their new “Sugar George” (SG) radar to find the enemy and close under cover of darkness and rain clouds. The Japanese did not have radar and relied on visual sightings to position themselves for battle. It was quickly determined there were multiple targets on a southerly course closing at nearly 30 knots. Commander Moosbrugger ordered ABLE ONE to prepare to fire twenty-four torpedoes to port. A fourth target eventually appeared and the formation maneuvered again.

At 2341, the torpedoes were fired and the American crews waited for explosions. CDR Moosbrugger turned ABLE ONE to starboard to escape counter-battery fire. As the torpedoes hit, Simpson’s ABLE TWO turned to port and opened up with 5 inch guns. Both divisions then turned and closed the enemy. With two targets sinking and one burning, the American ships continued to fire on an enemy barely able to respond. The fourth Japanese destroyer, SHIGURE, escaped to the north with only minor damage.

American forces experienced no combat-related damage to ships or crews. The Japanese lost three first-rate ships, 1500 soldiers and Sailors, and tons of cargo. 310 survivors washed up on nearby islands over the next few days. The enemy suffered a humiliating defeat and never again attempted to resupply through Vella Gulf. Within three months, the garrisons at Vila, Munda, and Vella Lavella surrendered and the Japanese soon evacuated their important base at Rabaul. The tide had turned and the end was in sight.