Often overlooked now, the first American destroyer action of World War II proved a resounding success. Off Balikpapan, Borneo, on 24 February 1942, four elderly “four-pipers” of the Asiatic Fleet slashed through an anchored Japanese convoy at night, sinking four transports and a vintage destroyer reclassified as a patrol boat.1 But thereafter until August 1943, the Allies posted a dismal record in Pacific destroyer-versus-destroyer fights.
As the imperfect evidence best indicates, in encounters involving only destroyers or destroyer exchanges within other battles, destroyers flying the Rising Sun ensign and bearing poetic names for weather phenomena probably sank or played the key role in sinking at least 12 Allied destroyers as well as 2 converted destroyer transports. In return, not one Japanese destroyer was sunk wholly by its U.S. (or Allied) peer, although American destroyers apparently contributed to the destruction of four of the enemy ships.2
While a complex web of reasons for this tabulation can be assembled, several factors stand out. The marked technical superiority of the superb Japanese Type 93 61-cm (24-inch) “Long Lance” torpedo over its Allied counterparts might seem the foremost factor, but intangibles afford a more powerful explanation. Worldwide commitments with inadequate forces compelled the U.S. Navy constantly to throw scratch teams lacking a common task-force-level doctrine against Japanese task forces that, if they lacked a task-force-level doctrine, at least comprised groupings of cruiser and destroyer divisions that habitually operated together as teams with a well-honed doctrine.
Further, the U.S. Navy’s prewar emphasis on “major tactics” of battle-fleet engagements led to a neglect of “minor tactics” of cruiser and destroyer operations. By contrast, Japanese prewar emphasis on realistic training for night torpedo attacks by cruisers and destroyers proved admirably fitted to the encounters in the Solomon Islands.
Only in third place do we come to technology. The U.S. Navy believed the naval gun would destroy or neutralize enemy surface combatants before they drew within effective torpedo range. The Battle of Cape Esperance in October 1942 seemed to validate this belief. It was only in the second half of 1943 that Americans fully grasped that the Long Lance could be wielded with deadly results from beyond effective gunfire range at night.3
American destroyers finally secured an independent role some 17 months after Balikpapan. Ironically, their Japanese counterparts created this opportunity with their drubbing of American cruiser-destroyer formations (which included HMNZS Leander) led by Rear Admiral Warden L. Ainsworth at the battles of Kula Gulf and Kolombangara on 6 and 13 July 1943. These twin defeats left only one American cruiser-destroyer task force to contest the Solomons. The reverses also coincided with a fortuitous command change. When Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner left the South Pacific Amphibious Force for command of the Central Pacific Amphibious Force, Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson replaced him. Necessity afforded an opportunity for Wilkinson, a former destroyer sailor himself, to cut loose American “tin can” sailors anxious to try out new tactics devised by Commander Arleigh A. Burke.4
Turning the Tables
When word came of a Japanese resupply run, what the Americans called a “Tokyo Express,” on the night of 6–7 August, the first opportunity to apply Burke’s innovative tactics fell to Commander Frederick Moosbrugger, who led his own Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 12, and Commander Roger Simpson’s DesDiv 15. This Express mission down into Vella Gulf comprised Captain Kaju Sugiura’s own DesDiv 4 and a destroyer of Captain Tameichi Hara’s DesDiv 27 loaded with supplies and 900 troops destined for Vila on Kolombangara.5
At a pre-mission conference, Hara protested Sugiura’s scheme to repeat the route used twice previously to Vila. Sugiura answered that the route designated by his superiors could not be altered due to communications difficulties, particularly with the army. He offered to let Hara take his destroyer, the Shigure, ahead as a scout, but Hara declined on the basis that the ship’s engines, desperately needing overhaul, could scarcely generate 30 knots, rendering her unfit for that role. Instead, the Shigure fatefully would bring up the rear of the Japanese formation.6
When the radar on board Moosbrugger’s flagship, the Dunlap (DD-384), first sensed the presence of the Japanese, the moonless night and low overcast stymied normally keen-eyed Japanese lookouts. In accordance with Burke’s template, Moosbrugger’s leading trio discharged 24 torpedoes to port at the unsuspecting Japanese and then immediately wheeled simultaneously to starboard to avoid Japanese retaliation in kind, as Simpson’s trailing division pivoted to port to cross the Japanese “T” and bring guns to bear after the torpedoes did their work.
Belated cries of lookouts sighting Moosbrugger’s destroyers sent the Hagikaze and Arashi swinging to starboard while the Kawakaze veered to port as American warheads detonated in a chain of explosions against their hulls. Only Hara’s Shigure escaped—and she because her power plant left her trailing her three consorts by 1,500 meters, rather than 500, and the fact that a torpedo failed to explode when it hit her rudder. American guns and torpedoes from Simpson’s division delivered the coup de grâce to the crippled Japanese destroyers. Just 310 Japanese survived of the complements of the three destroyers and their 900 passengers.7
Several factors figured vitally in Moosbrugger’s triumph. His two destroyer divisions, like the Balikpapan quartet, were experienced teams with a well-understood common doctrine that had incorporated Burke’s clever tactics. They also benefited from a recent upward leap in the reliability of American torpedoes. As far as we know, the Waller’s (DD-466) single torpedo hit on the disabled destroyer Mursame in March 1943 was the sole effective American surface-ship torpedo hit on an enemy vessel between February 1942 and August 1943.
On 24 July 1943, Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz authorized the deactivation of the defective Mark VI magnetic-influence exploder on American torpedoes, the first of two important reasons for this black record. Designed to trigger a devastating explosion below the hull of the target, the device failed to work as planned and frequently produced premature explosions. Moosbrugger addressed a second great fault of American torpedoes—deep running—by ordering depth settings of only five to nine feet. And when the commander’s torpedoes gouged into Japanese hulls, they erupted with a new and more powerful Torpex explosive.8
Another tremendous stride falls in the category of what is now called “situational awareness.” Early search and fire-control radars left a decidedly mixed record of besting Japanese visual sightings in the first half of the war. On this moonless night in Vella Gulf, however, the later-generation microwave SG search radar detected Sugiura’s destroyers critical minutes before Japanese lookouts sighted their executioners.9
‘Tin Can’ Learning Curve
Four destroyer actions following Moosbrugger’s triumph underscored the point that technological improvements alone could not produce uniform victories. Off Horaniu on 18 August, four American destroyers under Captain Thomas J. Ryan tangled with four Japanese destroyers under Rear Admiral Matsuji Ijuin, commander of Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 3, screening a convoy of barges, submarine chasers, and torpedo boats bearing reinforcements to Vella Lavella. Both sides missed with torpedoes, but an erroneous report of a large American task force convinced Ijuin to abandon his convoy. Ryan’s tars learned that hunting the small, low-slung Japanese barges in the dark with destroyers was frustrating. They sank just one barge, but put under the two 135-ton subchasers and drove a motor torpedo boat ashore.10
During the night of 2–3 October, Ijuin led nine destroyers to cover the withdrawal of troops from Kolombangara. Six American destroyers prowled for him, but just three encountered four of Ijuin’s contingent. Both sides discharged torpedo salvoes without effect. The other three American destroyers joined in a high-speed chase. Three American 5-inch shells punctured the Shigure, but all were duds and the Japanese pulled away.11
Both sides drew blood at the Battle of Vella Lavella on 6 October. Captain Frank Walker, commander of DesRon 4, pitched the Selfridge (DD-357), Chevalier (DD-451), and O’Bannon (DD-459) against six Japanese destroyers. The Yugumo succumbed to American gunfire and a torpedo, but one of her Long Lances mortally wounded the Chevalier. The O’Bannon damaged her bow in an inadvertent ramming of the smoke-obscured Chevalier. Another Long Lance mangled the bow of the Selfridge. Thanks in large measure to Ijuin’s inept tactics, the Selfridge and O’Bannon survived Walker’s decision to engage when outnumbered two to one.12
Neither the Imperial Japanese Navy nor the U.S. Navy could acclaim destroyer performance in the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay during the early hours of 2 November 1943. Rear Admiral A. Stanton Merrill kept his four light cruisers in one column to engage the Japanese at long range while maneuvering radically to deny the Japanese opportunities with their Long Lances. He turned loose the eight destroyers of Captain Burke’s DesRon 23 to launch surprise torpedo attacks from both flanks of the Japanese formation.
Rear Admiral Sentaro Omori’s force approached in three well-spread columns. In the center were Omori’s duo of heavy cruisers, the Haguro and Myoko. To port was Ijiun’s DesRon 3—the old light cruiser Sendai and destroyers Shigure, Samidare, and Shiratsuyu. To starboard was DesRon 10 under Rear Admiral Morikaze Osugi—the new light cruiser Agano and destroyers Naganami, Hatsukaze, and Wakatsuki.
Immediately after the four destroyers of DesRon 23’s Division 45 launched torpedoes, the Japanese sighted them and commenced to turn away. Observing the Japanese maneuvers and correctly discerning the loss of surprise, Merrill commenced cruiser gunfire. American shells crippled the Sendai and contributed to causing a collision between the Samidare, and Shiratsuyu. Osuji disastrously turned his column in front of the Japanese heavy cruisers, and the Myoko sliced off the Hatsukaze’s bow. The cruisers on both sides secured few hits, none very serious.
Meanwhile, the American destroyers rambled in confusion about the area, contributing nothing positive for most of the battle. At one juncture, DesDiv 45, which Burke led, began to chase Merrill’s cruisers thinking them Japanese. Among DesDiv 46’s destroyers, the Spence (DD-512) and Converse (DD-509) collided—fortunately a side swipe—while a Japanese torpedo amputated the Foote’s (DD-511) stern.
Convinced he was heavily outgunned, Omori withdrew. Burke’s destroyers polished off the cripples Sendai and Hatsukaze and extracted the Foote safely. Apart from damaging that ship, Japanese destroyers achieved nothing. Even with the benefits of being a well-trained team with a sound doctrine and technological advantages, Burke’s command had relatively little about which to boast.13
A Crowning Triumph
Fittingly, it was Burke himself who orchestrated the capstone destroyer victory, thanks to a radio-intelligence warning of a Tokyo Express between Rabaul and Buka, Bougainville, on the night of 24–25 November. Burke led DesDiv 45—the Charles Ausburne (DD-570), Dyson (DD-571), and Claxton (DD-572)—while Captain Bernard Austin led the trailing Division 46 (Spence and Converse). The Onami and Makinami, under Captain Kiyoto Kagawa, guarded an Express transport group of the Amagiri, Yugiri, and Uzuki.
Burke’s SG radars had tracked the unsuspecting Japanese for 15 minutes when his division launched 15 torpedoes with the Japanese just 5,500 yards distant. DesDiv 45 promptly turned simultaneously to starboard to avoid Japanese torpedoes. Just 30 seconds after Japanese lookouts cried warnings of retiring American silhouettes, Burke’s torpedoes blasted the Onami and Makinami. The former sank with no survivors, carrying down Kagawa and her skipper, Commander Kiyoshi Kikkawa. Austin’s pair finished the Makinami, from which only 28 men survived. The trio of transport destroyers spit up, and Burke ran down and sank the Yugiri. Japanese submarines rescued 278 men from her crew and passengers.
One particular detail symbolized how Burke’s victory emphatically confirmed the reversal of effectiveness of Japanese and American destroyers. Among a galaxy of superb destroyer leaders in the Imperial Japanese Navy, Commander Kikkawa was perhaps the greatest as gauged by the fact that he alone in that company was promoted posthumously two grades to rear admiral. He fell to Burke, the greatest of the American destroyer leaders of his generation—and a future chief of Naval Operations.14
2. This list of destroyers lost to other destroyers was assembled primarily from David Brown, Warship Losses of World War Two (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1990), cross-examined in light of the Tabular Records of Movements (TROMs) of numerous Japanese destroyers from www.combinedfleet.com. The 12 Allied destroyers were the Blue (DD-387), Laffey (DD-459), Barton (DD-599), Monssen (DD-436), Walke (DD-416) Benham (DD-397), Strong (DD-467), Gwin (DD-433), HMS Thanet, Hr. Ms. Piet Hein, HMS Electra, Hr. Ms. Evertsen, as well as two converted destroyer transports, the Little (APD-4) and Gregory (APD-3). The four Japanese destroyers were the Yudachi, Akatsuki, Ayanami, and Murasame.
3. Trent Hone, “‘Give them Hell’: The U.S. Navy’s Night Combat Doctrine and the Campaign for Guadalcanal,” War in History, vol. 13, no. 2, 171–199, especially pages 195–9. Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal (Random House, 1990), 310–2, 603–4.
4. O’Hara, The U.S. Navy Against the Axis, 173–88, 201.
5. Ibid., 187–92. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 6, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, 22 July 1942–1 May 1944 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964), 212–24.
6. Captain Tameichi Hara with Fred Saito and Roger Pineau, Japanese Destroyer Captain (New York: Ballantine Books, 1961), 183–87.
7. Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain, 188, 191. TROMs for the Hagikaze, Arashi, Kawakaze, www.combinedfleet.com.
8. O’Hara, The U.S. Navy Against the Axis, 190.
9. Ibid., 192.
10. Ibid., 195–98. Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, 233–36.
11. O’Hara, The U.S. Navy Against the Axis, 199–200.
12. Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, 243–52. O’Hara, The U.S. Navy Against the Axis, 201–5.
13. O’Hara, The U.S. Navy Against the Axis, 207–16. Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, 305–22. TROMs of the Japanese participants at www.combinedfleet.com.
14. O’Hara, The U.S. Navy Against the Axis, 216–20. Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, 352–59. TROMs of the Japanese participants at www.combinedfleet.com.
Before Rear Admiral Theodore Wilkinson’s orders emancipated American destroyers from their customary subservience to cruiser admirals in the Solomons, there transpired an incident of very small moment in the war but with a large reverberation in history. On the night of 1–2 August 1943, four Japanese destroyers on a “Tokyo Express” resupply run sprinted back and forth through Blackett Strait off the southern end of Kolombangara. Fifteen U.S. patrol torpedo (PT) boats failed in an attempted ambush, expending more than 30 torpedoes without a hit. The Amagiri (Mist in the Heavens) rammed and sank PT-109, skippered by Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy. Rallying the survivors, Kennedy displayed solid leadership after the disaster and later became president of the United States.1
To this famous story, two additions may be added. Anyone standing on the deck of a ship in Blackett Strait will be impressed that the passage seems incredibly tiny to have held in or about it nearly 20 ships and craft that night. Even granting an extremely dark night, it is hard to fathom why 109 did not detect the Amagiri closing on her until it was too late.
According to a local guide, one of the PT torpedoes fired that night careened up on Kolombangara. The weapon sat there in quiet solitude near a village until about a decade ago, when an Australian explosive ordnance disposal team—oblivious to the weapon’s historic significance—destroyed it for purposes of islander safety.2
1. Captain Robert J. Bulkley Jr., At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy (Washington: Naval History Division, 1962), 120–8. Robert D. Ballard and Michael Hamilton Morgan, Collision with History: The Search for John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 (Washington: National Geographic, 2002). It appears highly probable that Ballard found the wreck of PT-109.
2. Author’s personal observations and conversations, on board the SS Oceanic Discoverer in Blackett Strait, 14 March 2012.
—Richard B. Frank