It was a peaceful night off the northwest coast of Buka Island in the Solomons as Captain Arleigh Burke quietly walked through the red glow of the radar room on his flagship, the Fletcher-class destroyer, USS Charles Ausburne (DD-570). Below him, his ship seemed to sway in the gentle early morning breeze, and he once again checked the course as she patrolled off the Japanese-held island. Clouds hung low in the sky, all but blotting out the moon as a light rain pattered like a drumbeat on the five ships of Burke’s squadron.
Nicknamed “tin cans” by their sailors, the five destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 23 had been through the thickest of the now 14-month Solomon Islands campaign, from fierce fighting off of Vella Lavella to helping finish off the Japanese cruiser Sendai. Yet with the arrival of U.S. troops on the final island in the chain, Bougainville, the long campaign seemed to be finally nearing its end.
As with nearly every clash against the Imperial Japanese Navy, it had been a long and costly one. The available pool of U.S. cruisers had been hit especially hard, with heavy fighting claiming eight ships and putting many more out of action. The Japanese had hardly gotten off easier, however, losing three cruisers and more crucially, two fast battleships. Thus, it came down to the small destroyers of each fleet to bear the brunt of their navies’ needs.
U.S. ships ran patrols, supported ground troops by providing accurate close-range shore bombardment, and acted as the first line of defense against Japanese forces looking to attack the vital but vulnerable transports pushing the U.S. war machine west.
The retreating Japanese force’s destroyers served a different purpose. Since the start of the campaign, U.S. planes working off of the captured airfield on the island of Guadalcanal had owned the skies. This forced the Japanese to make moves only at night. Any transport they could bring to bear was simply too slow to make the long journey to Guadalcanal and return to the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul before the cover of night was lost and it was obliterated by U.S. air power.
Thus, the task fell to Japan’s speedy but fragile destroyers to move troops on and off of threatened Islands. Yet these destroyers were not immune to being spotted during daylight hours, leading the U.S. Navy to respond by sending its own destroyers to intercept them.
Precious Cargo for Rabaul
On the night of 25 November 1943, a small force of five Japanese destroyers were returning from Buka, having successfully landed a force of 920 troops on the island. Yet, three of the ships—the Uzuki, Amagiri, and Yugiri—were still weighed down by a new, arguably more important cargo. They had picked up 700 naval aviation personnel from the threatened Buka and were making their best to speed toward Rabaul to bring the desperately needed men back into the war effort. Near them, two other destroyers, the Makinami and the flagship of the task force, the Onami under the command of Rear Admiral Kiyoto Kagawa sailed as a close support group.
It had not been an easy night for the Japanese ships. An hour and half earlier, they had been intercepted by PT boats led by Commander Henry Farrow, who despite having originally mistook the Japanese ships for Burke’s forces, attempted to press home an attack under fierce Japanese fire. Though Farrow’s ships only managed to fire a single torpedo before turning away, the brief skirmish undoubtedly rattled Kagawa’s nerves as his five ships steamed off into the overcast night, hoping to avoid further contact with American forces.
But 12 and a half miles away, aboard the bridge of one of Burke’s destroyers, the USS Dyson (DD-572), the silence was suddenly broken by a radarman at 0141. A contact had been spotted 87 degrees to the northeast.
A few seconds later, the other ships of Destroyer Squadron 23 began to pick up the contact. In seconds, the single pip became three as the serenity of the night was broken by alarm bells on all five of the ships in Burke’s squadron calling their men to general quarters. Foaming wakes cut through the placid surface as the ships closed at 23 knots on their unsuspecting enemy. On board the Charles Ausburne, Burke looked out into the inky darkness as he, his crew, and his squadron charged into a battle that would etch their names into history.
Burke’s New Combat Doctrine
As they charged down on the enemy, the captains of Burke’s five ships mulled over the plan that Burke had presented to them over the TBS transmitter. Over the past year in the Solomons, the U.S. Navy had experienced firsthand the night-fighting prowess of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
While their new radar systems had helped to level the playing field, the painful lessons of Tassafaronga and Kula Gulf at the hands of the vaunted Japanese Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes still showed the need for change in USN night doctrine.
As a response to these losses and a severe shortage of cruisers in the area, U.S. destroyers and their captains in the area were given more leeway to find a strategy to triumph over the Japanese at night. Burke himself had used this opportunity to create a new destroyer combat doctrine in which a U.S. squadron of destroyers was to attack an enemy in two groups. The first group would fire their torpedoes in a broadside at an enemy force to ensure the highest possible chance of a hit, while the second group would maneuver to cross the enemy’s T, and only open fire once the torpedoes of the first group had struck.
Thus, the enemy would be caught in a crossfire and be placed at a massive disadvantage right at the start of the battle, if not sunk outright. This theory first proved its worth when one of Burke’s colleagues, Captain Frederick Moosbrugger, had applied Burke’s destroyer doctrine to devastating effect during the Battle of Vella Gulf, suffering no losses while sinking three of four Japanese destroyers.
As his ships raced toward the enemy somewhere in the gloom, the uncertainties of the upcoming battle must have flashed through Burke’s mind, yet he paid them no heed. Around him and his ship lay one of the tightest-knit fighting teams in the Pacific. Behind the Ausburne sailed the USS Claxton (DD-571), and behind her sailed the Dyson, the three ships making up the larger of Burke’s two formations. This division, DesDiv 45, was to be the “Group One” of Burke’s plan and was to initiate the battle with a torpedo attack. Slightly behind and to the portside of these three ships sailed the final two destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 23. The USS Converse (DD-509) and Spence (DD-512) made up DesDiv 46 and were to join in the attack alongside DesDiv 45 shortly after the latter’s torpedoes made contact.
The Battle Is Joined
At 0145, the whirr of electric mounts filled the air on board the U.S. ships. The ships in DesDiv 45 readied their torpedoes, set to a degree of 37 degrees true, as behind them, DesDiv 46’s 5-inch/38-caliber guns leveled on their unsuspecting targets. The seconds began to tick down as the Japanese ships passed the 9,000-yard mark, the maximum range of the U.S. ships’ Mk-14 torpedoes, but Burke kept his nerve. Eyes strained through the light mist of the early morning murk and to the faintly glowing “Sugar George” (SG radar) screens for any sign that they had been spotted by their quarry, yet the three radar blips stayed their course.
Finally, at 5,500 yards from their target, sharp blasts of compressed air from the decks of the Charles Ausburne, Claxton, and Dyson signaled the start of the attack. As a half-salvo of “fish'' from each of the ships splashed into the water, the three destroyers accelerated to 30 knots and turned hard starboard, their crews waiting with building anxiety for their warheads to hit their targets.
On board the Japanese flagship Onami, however, everything was calm. After the surprising encounter with the PT boats, the voyage had been tense, if uneventful. Kagawa’s two “covering” ships sailed swiftly through light morning squalls as their lookouts peered into the inky gloom. Behind his force, the Uzuki, Amagiri and Yugiri, carrying the aircrews to Rabaul, continued to sail in a line-ahead formation; while the atmosphere was uneasy, the ships seemed to have weathered the worst of what the Americans had planned for them tonight.
Suddenly, the tense silence was broken by a cry from the Onami’s forward lookout: “Unidentified ships off the port side!”. Alarm bells sounded on the Japanese ships as crews scrambled to action stations, yet Kagawa failed to change his heading. Thirty seconds later, another cry came from a lookout: “Torpedoes! Torpedoes! Port side!”
Whatever Kagawa may have ordered in response, it was far too late. At 0200 three massive explosions tore the Onami apart, launching a fireball 300 feet into the air, taking nearly her entire crew, including Rear Admiral Kagawa, down with her. Behind her, the Makinami attempted to turn in vain as a few seconds later she, too, was rocked with a massive explosion, grinding to a near halt. Plumes of fire illuminated the night from the burning Onami and Makinami, a testament to both the skill and accuracy of the torpedomen on Burkes’ ships.
But on board those ships there was no time to celebrate. Just as Burke’s destroyers sharply turned away from Kagawa’s force, the Charles Ausburne’s radar flashed to life with three new contacts, seemingly making a break to the north. These were the Uzuki, Amagiri, and Yugiri with their precious human cargo of aircrews desperately needed at Rabaul. The three ships’ crews had watched in horror the fate that befell their two escorting vessels.
Captain Katsumori Yamashiro of the Amagiri understood the danger posed to his three transports and acted immediately. Instead of attempting to support his obviously doomed comrades, he ordered all his ships north at whatever speed they could manage in a bid to escape the trap they had fallen into.
Having gotten in the first punch, however, Burke was determined not to let this opportunity go to waste. Ordering his ships to 32 knots, he swung due north again in dogged pursuit of the foe. To his southwest, DesDiv 46 also increased speed as its 5-inch guns cracked to life, engaging the damaged but still resisting Makinami. The fires from the destroyed enemy ships illuminating the night behind him, Burke ordered his ships into an echelon formation, and the forward guns of the Dyson, Claxton, and Charles Ausburne roared to life, launching shells at Yamashiro’s retreating ships.
A Close Shave
As he paced the bridge of the Amagiri, shells raining down around his heavily laden vessels, Yamashiro pondered his predicament. None of his ships could reliably win a one-on-one fight with their pursuers, and with every passing second, the American ships behind him zeroed in on the range. Inaction would only lead to a fate similar to what befell Kagawa and thus, as he made up his mind on his next action, he ordered his ships into a wedge, allowing all his rear-facing guns to return fire on his pursuers. On board the Ausburne, Burke noticed this change in his quarry but was unconcerned. His ships, with the edge given to them by their radar, could still reliably outshoot the Japanese ships up ahead of him, even as Japanese shells began to land around his division.
Another looming danger, though, was on his mind. If his quarry was still able to nearly keep pace with him, he must be facing either light cruisers or destroyers, both of which were armed with the deadly Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedo. A single hit could easily decimate any one of his ships, and so, even though it would mean a loss of ground to his enemy, at 0215 he ordered his formation 60 degrees to starboard.
Not even a minute later, his caution proved wise as three heavy explosions reverberated through the water just astern, Japanese torpedoes exploding in his wake. With this, Burke knew that Yamashiro had played his one remaining card, and with a slight turn to port, he resumed his pursuit, his gunners zeroing in.
As shells began to rain down around his ships once again, Yamashiro cursed his luck. Even though the detonation of his torpedoes was clearly heard by his men, it seemed to have little to no effect on the forces pursuing him. Any thoughts of holding his position and continuing to slug it out with the Americans were quickly wiped from his mind as shells began to straddle his ships. Suddenly, to his starboard side, the Yugiri staggered under multiple hits. Burke had found his range.
Now or Never
Even as his gunners began to report hits on “Target A,” Burke knew his job was far from over. His ships were running low on their flashless powder, something the Japanese gunners seemed to have an infinite supply of, and with every shot of smokeless powder used, not only were his crew blinded by the brilliant flash from his guns, but the Japanese return fire became more and more accurate until his ships were being bracketed by shell splashes. Yet he also knew that his ships were already scoring hits. In this game of chicken, he was not going to blink first.
Suddenly, messages from the radar room caught Burke’s attention as another smokeless round from the Ausburne’s forward guns lit up the bridge. Making his way into the glowing red room, he looked at his SG radar’s display. Yamashiro had seemingly made his move, as his three targets began to move in dramatically different directions. One continued north while the other two veered west to different degrees, forcing Burke into a decision: He could order one of his ships to pursue each target, giving him the chance to destroy all three Japanese ships, but this would cause him to lose an advantage in numbers, and thus run the risk of one of his ships losing a one-on-one engagement with the Japanese. On the other hand, he could order all of his ships to pursue one target, nearly assuring its destruction, but at the same time running the risk of allowing the two remaining Japanese ships to escape.
As another Japanese shell whizzed past his ship, Burke realized that whatever his choice may be, he had to make it immediately to have a chance of catching any of the Japanese ships. Thus, at 0225 he ordered all his ships to break off their assigned targets and focus on the largest of the three contacts, “Target A,” which was fleeing north. As his ships began to zero in on the hapless Yugiri, Burke’s thoughts turned back to DesDiv 46—and a possible chance to catch more than just one of his fleeing foe.
It was 0235 as the Converse and Spence wheeled around to the east of their burning target, their combined ten 5-inch guns firing some 150 rounds at the doomed Makinami every minute. To her credit, even in her death throes, the stubborn Japanese destroyer resisted, proving surprisingly hard to sink. However, the stationary target was easy pickings for the two American ships, and after only seven minutes of sustained fire, she was a burning wreck.
A few minutes later, a new message crackled to life over the Converses’ TBS system. DesDiv 45 had pushed forward against a retreating second group of enemies. Unfortunately, the fleeing group had scattered, and if they had finished off the first group, DesDiv 46 would assist in finding the missing Japanese ships. The Makinami was left to burn as DesDiv 46’s engines roared once again to high speed, plotting a course due north to catch their foe.
Yet even as they sped off into the night, issues were beginning to plague the U.S. ships. Plotters on board the Converse and Spence waited patiently for an assumed Japanese bearing and course to arrive from DesDiv 45’s radar rooms, but as the seconds turned into minutes, only garbled messages came through the TBS system. Unsure of where the enemy ships were and unable to gain radar lock through their own systems, the crews of DesDiv 45 hoped for the best as they hurled their ships northward, headlong into the early morning gloom.
Another Enemy Ship Sunk
Despite Yamashiro’s obvious defeat in the battle, he had at least limited the losses his force took—losses the already-pressed Japanese Empire could ill afford. Yet as the Amagiri sliced through the dark waters of the Solomon Sea on its way back to Rabaul, he must have wondered if there was anything he or Kagawa could have done to avoid the disaster.
Only five and a half miles away, the bridge of the Charles Ausburne was a bustle of activity. DesDiv 45 had the range of the fleeing target in front of them, and after the frustration of being forced to lose two of his three targets, Burke was determined to not let this opportunity slip. To his flanks, the Claxton’s and Dyson’s 5-inch main guns roared to life, launching shells at their still-unseen quarry about a mile ahead. A few seconds later, a return salvo caused walls of water to arise around the Dyson. After the course change, both sides seemed to be honing in their shots, and Burke could only trust in the skill of his gunners that he would hit first.
His attention was taken momentarily by his ship’s TBS set. While its operator claimed to have sent the assumed heading and location of targets B and C, he could not confirm DesDiv 46’s intentions or heading, meaning that unless some miracle were to occur, Burke’s ships would be on their own for the rest of the engagement.
Seconds later, the whoosh of Japanese shells landing around the Ausburne brought Burke back to the command bridge. Despite both the Claxton and Dyson reporting hits, no majorly visible damage had been done to their quarry, and they could only hope to land a meaningful hit on the enemy before the enemy hit them. Then, at 0305, a massive explosion erupted from the deck of the Yugiri. She began to slow, smoke billowing out of her superstructure. Letting loose everything they had as they moved to close range, the Charles Ausburne, Claxton, and Dyson unleashed a torrent against the crippled Yugiri, which was soon nothing more than a burning hulk. Even before the last torpedoes fired by the Dyson made contact, the Japanese destroyer’s decks, already sitting low and awash with water, slipped beneath the waves.
A Final Tempting Target?
Eighteen miles away, the two ships of DesDiv 46 cut through the darkness, hoping they were on the right path. Despite DesDiv 45’s attempts to bring them into radar range of targets B or C using TBS guidance, it had all come to naught. Thus, out of radar range of either their allies or enemies, the two ships continued north. It was around 0340 and though the adrenaline of the battle had passed, the crews of both ships were in no mood to rest as their humming engines pushed them onward into the unknown.
Suddenly, the radar screens on board both the Converse and Spence lit up. Contacts were heading west about twelve miles north of them. Could they have found another enemy group? Were these the two escaped targets? Seconds later, though, any ideas of these ships being hostile were vanquished as the TBS systems crackled to life, affirming these ships to be DesDiv 45. Target “A” was sunk, and they were on the hunt for targets B and C for as long as their fuel, ammo, and time under the cover of night permitted. At 0345, both groups turned and sailed westward.
To the southwest, the destroyer Uzuki was in trouble. Though she had only sustained minor damage during the chase, engine troubles had plagued them as they had made their escape to the west. As they limped away from their pursuers, the possibility of an engine failure loomed in the crew’s minds, knowing that their old and heavily laden destroyer couldn’t possibly fight off three U.S. ships, and even fighting one would be a roll of the dice. Engineers worked frantically, but the intermittent engines finally cut out. To make matters worse, a plane was spotted circling the ship and dropping flares in the early morning haze. The Uzuki bobbed helplessly in the water as her gunners stayed at their stations, peering into the gloom as engineers worked frantically to restart the engines.
It was 0506, and Burke was once again in the radar room. A fighter plane had just reported a tantalizing target: a lone contact dead in the water about 35 miles away from Burke’s formation. Closing and sinking this target would finish off an already successful night. Yet, even as he contemplated the order to turn to engage this final enemy, Burke pondered at the larger tactical situation. His ships were only about 155 nautical miles from Rabaul, a major enemy base. With the amount of aircraft stationed there, coupled with the fact that the escaping Japanese destroyers would almost certainly alert their superiors to his whereabouts, he could expect a strong and direct attack from the air if he failed to leave the area before daylight. Mulling over his options, Burke decided that the risks involved in attempting to hunt down a single Japanese destroyer were not worth the risk of losing portions of his task force. Thus, he continued his retirement to the south, and with the undamaged ships of Destroyer Squadron 23 beginning to glow in the morning sunlight, Captain Arleigh Burke closed out one of the most stunningly successful surface actions in U.S. naval history.
Later to be known as the Battle of Cape St. George, Burke’s first major surface action in an overall command role was later to be described as “an almost perfect surface action.” The prowess in which he used the technology available to him and commanded his ships would be nearly unmatched in the Solomon Islands campaign, which would effectively end at sea due to his victory. A campaign that started with the disastrous nighttime Battle of Savo Island—during which the U.S. Navy would be dealt its single worst defeat in its history—ended with U.S. domination of night combat. It was a testament both to the advancements made in U.S. radar technology and in the training that had led U.S crews to gain expertise at both night action and coordinated attacks.
During the battle, the precision of Destroyer Squadron 23 demonstrated the importance of trust, discipline, and communication on board the U.S. ships, with the after-action report noting: “The squadron had operated together as a unit for a long period of time, thus forming a team that knew exactly what could be expected of each other on various demands and the effectiveness of each play.”
Burke received the Navy Cross for the action, was eventually promoted admiral, and went on to serve throughout the rest of the World War II and into the Korean War. After serving an unprecedented three terms as the Chief of Naval Operations and helping to guide the U.S. Navy into the nuclear age, he retired in 1961. He died at the age of 94 on January 1st, 1996, but not before being present for the launch of the first Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, a class that now makes up the backbone of the Navy’s destroyer force.
Throughout his life, Burke was never one to shy away from risk. Yet it may have been his ability to read battlefield situations objectively despite his aggressive tactical nature that was his greatest asset—one that shone brightly on that misty night of 25 November 1943.
“Battle Experience: Battle of Cape Saint George, New Ireland, 24-25 November 1943: Surface and Air Attacks on Nauru Island, 8 December 1943” (Washington, DC: United States Fleet, Headquarters of the Commander in Chief, Navy Department, 1944).
“Destroyer Squadron (COMDESRON) 23,” https://www.surfpac.navy.mil/cds23/.
Paul S. Dull, A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 294.
Norman Friedman, Naval Anti-Aircraft Guns and Gunnery (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), gun data appendix.
Katsumori Yamashiro obituary, The New York Times, 28 January 1986.
Eric Lacroix and Linton Wells, Japanese Cruisers of the Pacific War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 248.
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 and Company, 1954), 354.
Vincent P. O’Hara, “Battle of Cape St. George—November 25, 1943, http://www.microworks.net/pacific/battles/cape_stgeorge.htm.
Vincent P. O’Hara, “Battle of Vella Gulf—August 6–7, 1943,” http://www.microworks.net/pacific/battles/vella_gulf.htm.
Jack Sweetman, American Naval History: An Illustrated Chronology of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, 1775–Present, 3rd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002), 157,160–61.
Ian S. Toll, The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942–1944 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 233.
William Tuohy, America’s Fighting Admirals: Winning the War At Sea in World War II (Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2007), 239.