We were very proud that ComSoPac could trust his “Little Beavers” to do the job that he wanted done. We knew there were no friendly surface craft operating west of Bougainville except PT boats, which were operating close inshore, so that any contact we made would be enemy. This job was one that every destroyer sailor would like to have. The squadron was powerful enough to take care of any surface craft that it would encounter; our orders were plenty elastic; we had air cover when we stayed within range of our own air bases. The only thing that we had to do was to make contact and tell ComSoPac what we were doing.
We made the following plans: Of course, we fueled as quickly as possible. We’d proceed at maximum sustained speed up the Rabaul-Buka route. We expected to arrive or report at the Rabaul-Buka route at 0145 if we could maintain our usual 31 knots. We wanted to hit that line as far west as possible, even farther than 35 miles if we could, in order to cover as much area as possible. In other words, maybe the Japanese might be a little ahead of schedule and if so, we wanted to be sure and catch them.
After we arrived on the Rabaul-Buka line, we were going to slow to 23 knots to reduce the wake so that the enemy planes would not pick us up as easily as they would at our higher speed. We were going to search the Rabaul-Buka line on the northern side so as to make a contact northwest of the enemy, the direction from which the enemy could least expect interception. In other words, we were going to come down as if we were coming from his own bases. Perhaps he would think we were Japanese, if he picked us up.
There wasn’t time to hold a conference. There was too much hurry. The captains had to work as much as they possibly could to get their ships out quickly. Therefore, I gave the plans to the squadron via TBS, requested comments. There were none. We proceeded.
We gained a little bit on our estimate. We could have arrived at our original position about ten minutes ahead of time. So rather than arrive early, we went farther west. At 0130 we had arrived across the Buka-Rabaul line. At 0140 we changed course to the north in order to get northwest of the Rabaul-Buka line.
At 0141 three ships, the Dyson , Spence , and Claxton , simultaneously reported surface contact, range about 22,000 yards to the east. The Charles Ausburne reported it, too. But before we had time to get it out over the TBS, the other three ships came up. At 0142 there was no doubt about it. It was on the Ausburne ’s remote PPI. 4
We changed course immediately to the right, heading directly for the enemy, right down the bearing. The 46th Division was instructed to maintain its bearing on the 45th Division and to support the torpedo attack in accordance with doctrine. Commodore Austin didn’t like this because it meant he was going to get the second crack at it. Nevertheless, somebody had to support the operation, and the 45th Division was closer to the enemy.
On the way in to the attack, information was exchanged frequently regarding the enemy course and speed. The enemy was on a westerly course, speed about 25 knots. The 45th Division was maneuvered by column so that a torpedo firing point, about 50 degrees on the port bow of the enemy, distance 4,500 yards, could be reached. This was close, about the minimum range at which we could close without being visually sighted by the enemy ships.
This single pip got bigger as we came down on it. As we had previously decided to keep the problem simple, and as we were going in at a fairly slow speed, everybody had the dope on exactly what we were going to do.
As the range decreased, the single pip, which we had originally obtained, changed to two pips and finally three. At 0156 it seemed we reached the firing point, and we fired one-half salvos, that is DesDiv 45 did. We increased speed to 30 knots and retired by ship’s turn movement 90 degrees to the right, a maneuver calculated to avoid torpedoes, which we were pretty sure the enemy was going to fire at us just as soon as he saw the flashes from our torpedo tubes.
For some reason or other, apparently he didn’t see the flashes. We could see them all up and down our own line. They looked very bright to us. But the enemy did not. He steamed on a nice straight course and at a constant speed without firing either guns or torpedoes.
Three and a half minutes later, the torpedoes hit. There were tremendous explosions on two targets and a smaller explosion on another. 5 The explosions were not simultaneous. The first one was the largest one. One target was completely disintegrated. There was fire hundreds of feet high. It illuminated the falling debris. We stood out, we thought, like sore thumbs, but not nearly as much as the two enemy ships that remained.
Immediately following the first explosion, there was another explosion on another ship, not so big as the first one, and followed at once by a smaller explosion still. One target went down at once. We could see the ship break. The next target started to burn badly, and the third one slowed, turned to the north, and stopped. We thought we had done pretty well.
On the way in to the torpedo attack, because we thought we might run into some cruisers, we sent our contact report, breaking radio silence in order to do it. “Enemy vessels strength unknown,” gave the position, “I am attacking. This is my first report. Time 0145.”
Immediately after firing, after turning away from the first torpedo attack, we picked up an additional contact to the east, due east of us. We didn’t know that the Japanese were divided into two groups, but apparently they were, about 13,000 yards apart. The squadron commander, who was in the 45th Division, instructed ComDesDiv 46 to finish off the first targets. 6 We were going after the second group of targets. Of course, just as soon as the first group of targets lit themselves up into such beautiful flames, the second group of targets turned north. They saw what had happened to their compatriots.
We were heading directly toward this second group getting ready for a torpedo attack. We never made it, because they went north. They also increased speed to everything they had. We thought we were pretty good on this speed business. They were good, too.
We were not fired on by the Japanese of the second group at this time. Why, God only knows, because we were silhouetted. We were between them and their burning friends. In order to close the enemy as rapidly as possible, we increased speed to everything we had and still maintained formation, 31 knots—that was 33 knots for the last ship in column.
At this time we sent our second contact report: “Have made contact with two groups of enemy ships. The first group consisted of two ships, destroyed by torpedoes, the second group of three ships, am attacking second group.” That report was poorly worded. What we meant to say was that two ships of the first group were still floating and that we were going after the second group, all of which was still afloat.
Three targets of the second group were opening out, one from the other. The pips were now getting easily distinguishable. We had started out about 11,000 yards behind when they changed course to the north. We had now closed to about 8,000 yards. We told DesDiv 45 to stand by to fire torpedoes in the hope that distance could be reduced or that the enemy would change course so that we could close them by cutting off a dog leg. The torpedomen were jumping up and down begging the engineers “For God’s sake, please get us up there just a little bit closer, just a little bit closer.” The old maxim that a stern chase was a long chase was very well proved in this. We didn’t gain very much.
About this time, too, the enemy opened fire and we had to start zigzagging a little bit so as not to give them as setup. I felt that the enemy would do well if he were to change course to the left about 90 degrees and come across our bow and cap our “T.” He could have made a killing if he had. All he had to do was to change course and fire torpedoes down our throats. He was sure to get hits. Fortunately for us, he did not.
After we had been chasing him for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, zigzagging a little bit, heading directly for him, I felt that they couldn’t be stupid enough not to fire torpedoes at us. Their torpedoes could easily reach us; our torpedoes could not reach them. They couldn’t miss if they had any sort of directing gear at all. I felt that if they were ever going to fire torpedoes they would do it pretty soon, so I changed course to the right on a hunch.
Just about a minute or so later, we heard some terrific explosions on our port beam. I don’t know whether they were torpedoes that had finished the end of their runs or what. But something did blow up. The explosion was so bad that we looked up to the bow to see whether we still had a bow. We did. It may be that the short turn to the right got clear of the enemy torpedo water. It so, we were very lucky.
After we had been chasing for about 20 minutes, we opened fire with two forward gun mounts with a range of about 8,000 yards. That is, the range from the Ausburne was about 8,000 yards to the nearest ship. The range from our last ship was about 1,000 to 1,500 yards more.
The enemy changed course and started to shoot back and to smoke. I don’t know whether the smoke was caused by his gunfire or whether he was smoking from his stacks. In any case, he had a lot of smoke. We couldn’t see his gun flashes except through glasses. However, we knew he was shooting because we’d get wet every now and then and we could hear them when they went over, also their cracks if they landed short and close enough.
When the enemy salvos landed, the bullets were all close together. Though they frequently did not land very close to us, sometimes they did. The Claxton ’s bridge had about three inches of water on it caused by shorts. We started to hit at once, we thought, but our radars weren’t as good in those days as they are now. At the time we thought we were doing excellently, and we did do pretty well. We could see hits, but we couldn’t see enough of them and we couldn’t see any fires and the targets didn’t slow down. In spite of the shooting, of the care and exercise in trying to get exactly on, we weren’t doing as much damage as we had hoped we could do.
At about 0225, or 10 or 15 minute after we opened up on the enemy, they started to separate. One of them went dead ahead, one of them sheared off a little bit to the left, and one of them went about 40 degrees to the left. We had a choice then whether we should separate and go after targets individually or stay concentrated and go after the most profitable target, or what we thought was the most profitable target.
Had we separated, we would have been one ship against one ship. That’s a good battle in any language. That’s what we would have liked to have done, but we were right up near Rabaul, we were right close to enemy air bases, and morning was coming fast. We knew that we would have difficulty in rendezvousing in daylight. Therefore, we decided that the only possible way that we could exist was to stay concentrated.
Destroyers are fought a good deal like fighter planes. The fighters are trained in teams of four. So are destroyers. As long as we kept our team together we were all right; when we started breaking up our team and striking individually, maybe we’d be all right, maybe we wouldn’t be. In any case, I kept the division concentrated and tried to call ComDesDiv 46 and tell him of the situation. He had been receiving all the dope on the situation up until that time.
At about that time the left-hand Japanese ship, the laddie that had gone off about 40 degrees to the left, decided that he was getting too close to us. He was catching a few too many bullets, and he paralleled our course.
Although I had kept the division concentrated, I had them shoot at different targets, and the Dyson was pounding this particular lad very well with her 5-inch guns. Shortly afterward, the target slowed. But he seemed to be the smallest one of the group. He was one of the closest ones, but his pip was smaller than one of the leading ships, which we thought was bigger, ahead of him.
The Claxton , which was right astern of the Charles Ausburne , was also firing at this target during this period, which helped out the people on the Ausburne considerably because before that time the Claxton had been firing over the Charles Ausburne at the enemy, and in our fishtailing, which we were doing constantly, there were some times when we were looking down the nozzles of the Claxton ’s guns.
At about this time I was commencing to be disappointed in the fire of all three ships. It was not only poor, it had slowed down. I didn’t realize at that time how long the guns had been firing or the difficulties under which the boys were firing them.
For example, because they were firing dead ahead, number two gun shooting directly over number one, the gun captain’s hatch on number one mount was blown off, and every time number two gun fired the full effect of the blast went down into number one gun. Of course all the people in number one gun mount were deafened, some of them were slightly burned. The gun mount was filled full of smoke and gas. The boys stayed in there plugging until they dropped, when somebody came in to fill their places and put them out on deck, where they soon recovered and came back into the mount. It wasn’t very pleasant. They were working their hearts out, and we weren’t seeming to get what we thought we should get out of them.
About 0240 the middle target slowed. We thought we had him, but just about the time he dropped about 500 yards he sped up again. The biggest target of all was the one going north. We decided that we would keep after him.
At about 0300 the target heading north, which we had been hitting heavily, slowed quite a bit. Then he must have put out his last bit of energy for he started speeding up again. We felt that he was taking his last scrap of energy, that we were going to get him this time.
After about five minutes of firing, we had closed the range quite a bit. We were putting them in to him at very short range, perhaps three or four thousand yards, where every bullet was going into him. There were fires all over him. He started to slow and he started to slow fast.
One big explosion occurred, but the ship remained intact. As soon as the enemy ship, the big one, was dead in the water and all five guns from each ship were bearing, each of the three ships was putting five-gun salvos into this lad about every ten seconds. We could see him gradually start heeling, turned over to starboard, and he still wouldn’t go down. It was exasperating because we had another target that had just gone over the horizon; he had just gone out of sight of the radar, and if we could only get going after him, maybe we could catch him too.
So we ordered the Claxton to fire torpedoes, then we belayed the order, because the target turned over on its side. But the scoundrel didn’t sink. We had to change course again. This time we weren’t taking any chances, ordered the Dyson to fire torpedoes. She did. It was probably the only ship that ever fired torpedoes over a target, because the target sank before the torpedoes arrived.
Like all battles, this battle taught us something. It taught us about luck or good fortune or powers beyond those of people. We weren’t damaged. We should have been. By the law of averages some of us should have been hit. There were a lot of bullets flying around. There were a lot of torpedoes fired. We had inflicted heavy damage on the enemy. We had received only superficial damage. No person in our squadron had received a serious wound. Nobody was killed. We were grateful.
There were other things, too. This battle was an ideal one. Things went smoothly. We knew where everybody was all the time. We could tell our friends from our enemies. There was complete cooperation from all the captains. This was due, in part, to doctrine, in part to having fought and trained together, part in keeping concentrated, and partly it was due to the orders from our commander.
ComSoPac issued the ideal order. I’ve said that before, but it’s so seldom that a man in battle receives a good order. He is usually told how to do it or his information is lacking or he is told how to do one detail and not told how to do the rest of it. There’s usually something lacking. But in this particular battle we had all the dope that there was and we were allowed to do exactly what we wanted to do the way we wanted to do it, after having received the boss’ intention.
1. This article is based on an edited transcript of a 1 August 1945 Department of the Navy recording of Commodore Burke recounting his experiences at the Battle of Cape St. George. World War II Oral Histories, Interviews and Statements, RG 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
2. Hathorn Sound is located at the southern end of Kula Gulf.
3. ComThirdFleet (commander, Third Fleet) and ComSoPac (commander, South Pacific) are both references to Admiral William F. Halsey’s headquarters. The position noted in Burke’s orders is about 230 nautical miles northwest of Hathorn Sound.
4. PPI refers to plan position indicator scope.
5. Burke is mistaken here. DesDiv 45 fired torpedoes at two, not three, destroyers.
6. Here Burke is referring to himself.