© 1996 Allyn D. Nevitt

The Battle of Vella Lavella

The Battle of Vella Lavella, fought on 6 October 1943, occurred as a result of a Japanese effort to evacuate a 600-man garrison from the island of that name, in the Solomons. These men had been operating a barge base at Horaniu, on the northeast shore of Vella Lavella, since 17 August, assisting in the withdrawal of some 10,000 troops from bypassed Kolombangara. When Allied forces occupied Horaniu on 14 September, the garrison withdrew to Marquana Bay on the northwest tip of the island to await rescue by the navy.

The force assembled for the task was somewhat out-sized considering the small number of men to be evacuated; it was apparent that Rear Admiral Ijuin Matsuji, Comdesron 3 in AKIGUMO, was expecting a fight. Nine destroyers, a Support Group (AKIGUMO, ISOKAZE, KAZAGUMO, YUGUMO, SHIGURE, SAMIDARE) and a Transport Group (FUMIZUKI, MATSUKAZE, YUNAGI) left Rabaul early in the morning of the 6th and steamed south at high speed to rendezvous with a supplemental evacuation unit of some 20 barges and small craft from Buin. As they approached Vella Lavella, Captain Hara Tameichi's Desdiv 27 (SHIGURE and SAMIDARE) was detached to cover the Transport Group (and hopefully confuse the enemy as to Japanese strength) while Ijuin's four remaining destroyers swept ahead to block out any intervening forces.

And intervention was indeed en route, for Allied patrol planes had spotted Ijuin early in the afternoon and six U. S. destroyers were sent pounding north to intercept. But Captain Frank R. Walker's Northern Group (SELFRIDGE, CHEVALIER, O'BANNON) was about 20 miles ahead of Captain Harold O. Larson's Southern Group (RALPH TALBOT, TAYLOR, LAVALLETTE), and Walker chose not to wait for Larson's support before attacking. This was the first of several impetuous decisions made by the U. S. commander. Perhaps, as the late Paul Dull has written, Captain Walker had "a little bit of banzai in him, too."

Admiral Ijuin also had aerial spotters up; these reported the American forces steaming north, but exaggerated their strength as including four cruisers, an error which would color Ijuin's movements throughout the battle and help to rescue Walker from some of his own mistakes. The Japanese sighting reports led to the early withdrawal of Captain Kanaoka Yuzo's three lightly-armed destroyer-transports, leaving Desdiv 27 operating eight miles to the west of Ijuin's four ships when action was joined with Walker just after 2230, some 12 miles north-northwest of Vella Lavella.

Ijuin's best opportunity came early in the action when, turning due south, he was in an excellent position to cap the onrushing Walker's "T." But the Japanese admiral almost immediately commenced a series of complex maneuvers which not only lost him this advantage, but sent his own column skidding through dangerous waters, waters into which Walker's ships at 2255 began unleashing 14 torpedoes. The American destroyers opened up with their guns 20 seconds later. Ijuin, his own ships masking each others' fire while dodging shell-splashes, seemed in a fix.

At this point Commander Oosako Azuma of YUGUMO, at the rear of Ijuin's column, apparently decided to take matters into his own hands, for at 2256 YUGUMO suddenly broke formation and charged the Americans, opening gunfire and launching torpedoes as she went. The intrepid destroyer also promptly began taking hits, and was soon reduced to a battered wreck. But YUGUMO's bold attack had turned the tide of battle.

At 2301 a YUGUMO Long-Lance found CHEVALIER's forward magazine and the resulting explosion tore the destroyer's bow off as far aft as the bridge. O'BANNON, next in line, then plowed into CHEVALIER's stern, thus quickly reducing Walker's strength by two-thirds. This success was YUGUMO's last, for at 2303 the blazing destroyer took at least one American torpedo in return, blew up, and sank at 2310. Admiral Ijuin, observing YUGUMO's sacrifice from afar, disconsolately turned south and then west, making smoke to cover his withdrawal.

But Captain Walker in SELFRIDGE was not yet done: his flagship continued plunging ahead to engage SHIGURE and SAMIDARE, now steering across his front at high speed to join Ijuin. Captain Hara's destroyers got off a spread of 16 Long-Lances and at 2306 one of SAMIDARE's caught SELFRIDGE on her port side forward, bringing her to a stop and all but ending the battle.

By this time Captain Larson's three-ship division was a mere 15 minutes away from joining in the fray, but Ijuin's recon plane advised him of this fact and the admiral, not wishing to engage any more "cruisers," ordered retreat. Thus unable to find any enemy to engage, Larson set about succoring Walker's cripples. Both SELFRIDGE and O'BANNON, bows shattered, were able to limp home, but CHEVALIER was beyond salvage and LAVALLETTE scuttled her with a torpedo at 0311; all but 51 of her crew had earlier been removed. PT-boats later rescued 78 YUGUMO survivors while another 25 reached safety in an abandoned O'BANNON lifeboat. Commander Oosako was not among them.

While the above rescue operations were underway, Captain Nakayama Shigoroku's little convoy of barges and sub-chasers chugged purposefully into Marquana Bay, took on the 589 evacuees, and sailed for Buin at 0305, mission accomplished.

Though much has been made of Ijuin's missed chances and the fact that "evacuations don't win wars," it would be both unrealistic and unchivalrous to assert that Vella Lavella was anything but a Japanese victory. Ijuin's forces knocked out three American destroyers for the loss of one of their own, and Nakagawa's vulnerable small-craft pulled off the troop evacuation without loss. Captain Walker was admittedly out-numbered, but this was only the more reason for him to have been more circumspect in his moves. He was not, and it was left for the Long-Lancers to blast out yet another chapter in their long record of night-fighting prowess.

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