On the night of 6–7 August 1943, a task group of six destroyers got under way to intercept a group of Japanese ships that were part of what had become known as the “Tokyo Express,” the sobriquet given to Japanese attempts to resupply and reinforce their forces in the Solomon Islands by nighttime destroyer sorties.
The American task group was headed by Commander Frederick Moosbrugger, who had recently relieved Commander Arleigh Burke, who had been lobbying his superiors for a more aggressive use of destroyers in surface actions. Burke had developed a plan that called for “hitting the enemy with one sudden surprise after another” by “putting two destroyer divisions in parallel columns” and using one of the columns to “slip in close, under cover of darkness, launch torpedoes and duck back out. When the torpedoes hit, and the enemy began shooting at the retiring first division, the second half of the team would suddenly open up from another direction. When the rattled enemy turned toward this new and unexpected attack, the first division would slam back in again.”
Moosbrugger carried out his predecessor’s plan, with the result that three enemy destroyers exploded, their death throes so vivid against the black curtain of night that PT boat crews 30 miles away in Kula Gulf thought they were seeing a volcano erupting on Kolombangara. None of Moosbrugger’s ships was damaged, making the engagement—thereafter known as the Battle of Vella Gulf—the first unqualified American surface-action victory of the war.