© 1996 Allyn D. Nevitt

The Destruction of DesDiv 15

During the Guadalcanal campaign Desdiv 15 took part in more "Tokyo Express" missions to that island than any other unit., with KAGERO recording 14 runs, OYASHIO and KUROSHIO 10 each, and HAYASHIO (lost on 24 November 1942) seven. The division also played a key role in the naval Battles of Guadalcanal and Tassafaronga. At the end of the campaign the surviving units returned to Kure for refitting, but were back at Truk by mid-April 1943.

To the south, their comrades at the Shortlands had been busily engaged in building up Japanese positions in the central Solomons throughout March and were due to be relieved. As few units of Combined Fleet could boast of greater experience in the intricacies of transport duty, Desdiv 15's assignment to the task was a natural one. Captain Mutaguchi Kakuro, Comdesdiv 15 in OYASHIO, led his three destroyers south from Truk on 24 April, stopped briefly at Rabaul for supplies and orders, and was at Buin on the 29th.

Desdiv 15's participation in the Kolombangara build-up got off to a good enough start. Alternating on missions with destroyers UMIKAZE and HAGIKAZE, Mutaguchi's ships completed two successful runs to the garrison at Vila. On 29 April they delivered food, ammo, and 24 barges, and evacuated 289 excess personnel. On 3 May they brought in 350 troops and 14 tons of supplies. And then on 7 May Desdiv 15 embarked yet another 300-odd soldiers and 18 tons of munitions at Buin, and once again headed for Vila.

Most Japanese naval officers were always aware they were up against an enemy of vast material superiority, and many were even able to admit to their foes' bravery. But rarely were they prepared for the sheer guile and audacity so frequently displayed by the Americans. Desdiv 15's seemingly routine transport mission of 7/8 May would founder on a prime example of the latter.

For on the night of 6/7 May, three antiquated U. S. destroyers converted to minelayers, USS GAMBLE (DM-15), USS BREESE (DM-18) and USS PREBLE (DM-20), were escorted into the waters west of Vila by USS RADFORD (DD-446). Under the overall command of the latter's skipper, Lieutenant Commander W. H. Romoser, the group began laying its deadly cargo in Blackett Strait around midnight. With their movements hidden by a rain squall and Japanese attention further diverted by a supporting cruiser-destroyer group, the three old ships were able to lay 250 mines in three precise lines across the strait in just 17 minutes. They then promptly retired and were far to the south by the time the sun rose over Kolombangara.

Just over 24 hours later, in the early morning of 8 May, Desdiv 15 coasted into the Vila anchorage from the east and began off-loading troops and cargo. When this had been completed some 300 evacuees were embarked for the return trip. The three destroyers then sortied again for Buin, working up to 18 knots as they steamed west into Blackett Strait.

Less than an hour out OYASHIO was staggered by an explosion under her stern and went dead in the water. Her two companions quickly assumed antisubmarine screening positions around the crippled flagship. Then KAGERO was also brought to a halt by a blast. KUROSHIO continued to circle protectively around her sisters for another hour, but was then herself suddenly wracked by some five separate explosions. The first two or three were probably mines, the others her own magazines. KUROSHIO was torn apart and sank in seconds, taking 83 men down with her.

A call for assistance had already been flashed, and far to the north UMIKAZE and HAGIKAZE were ordered to the scene to tow the damaged ships to safety. Barges from Vila were also soon en route. But so were enemy aircraft.

Presumably alerted by coast-watchers, 19 American dive bombers from Guadalcanal arrived overhead shortly after sunrise. Their aim was not particularly good, considering that their targets were dead in the water, and only one direct hit, on OYASHIO, was achieved. But near-misses and strafing caused both destroyers further damage and casualties and sank or drove off some of the rescue barges.

OYASHIO and KAGERO continued drifting and flooding throughout the 8th, then finally sank about 20 minutes apart in the early evening. OYASHIO took 91 dead with her and KAGERO 18. Rescue operations continued from shore until 12 May, by which date 152 army and 618 navy personnel had been saved.

A persistent myth relating to this action holds that a fourth destroyer, MICHISHIO, was also present and only escaped with heavy damage. In fact, MICHISHIO was 3,000 miles away in a Yokosuka dockyard, repairing extensive damage incurred during the Guadalcanal fighting, and remained there from March through November 1943. The only other Japanese destroyers in the area, the afore-mentioned UMIKAZE and HAGIKAZE, did not arrive off Vila until the morning of 9 May, and never came under attack.

That Captain Mutaguchi was not held accountable for the disaster was evidenced by his later assignment to command of the new cruiser OYODO. But Desdiv 15 was gone nonetheless, officially removed from the books on 20 June 1943. The loss of even one such modern destroyer was fast becoming intolerable to the Japanese; having a crack unit of three erased in one blow was pure catastrophe. American daring and ingenuity in the Blackett Strait had reaped a substantial reward indeed.

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