TOP OF THE LADDER: Marine Operations in the Northern Solomons
by Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret)
Battle at Sea
A final part of the planning for the main landing on
Bougainville had envisioned the certainty of a Japanese naval sortie to
attack the invasion transports. It came very early on the morning of D
plus 1. On the enemy side, Japanese destroyer Captain Tameichi Hara,
skipper of the Shigure, later recalled it was cold, drizzly, and
murky, with very limited visibility as his destroyer pulled out of
Simpson Harbor, Rabaul. He was a part of the interception force
determined to chew up the U.S. invasion troops that had just landed at
Empress Augusta Bay. The Shigure was one of the six destroyers in
the van of the assigned element of the Southeast Area Fleet,
which included the heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro,
together with the light cruisers Agano and Sendai. At
0027, 2 November 1943, he would run abreast of U.S. Task Force 39 under
Rear Admiral Merrill, who stood by to bar the enemy approach with four
light cruisers and eight destroyers. Among his captains was the daring
and determined Arleigh Burke on board the Charles S. Ausburne (DD
570) commanding DesDiv (Destroyer Division) 45.
This encounter was crucial to the Bougainville
campaign. At Rabaul, Rear Admiral Matsuji Ijuin had told his sailors,
"Japan will topple if Bougainville falls."
At 0250, the American ships were in action. Captain
Burke (later to become Chief of Naval Operations) closed in on the
nearest of the enemy force under Vice Admiral Sentaro Omori. Burke's
destroyers fired 25 torpedoes, and then Merrill maneuvered his cruiser
to avoid the expected "Long Lance" torpedo response of the Japanese and
to put his ships in position to fire with their six inch guns.
"I shuddered," Hara wrote later, "at the realization
that they must have already released their torpedoes. The initiative was
in the hands of the enemy. In an instant, I yelled two orders: 'Launch
torpedoes! Hard right rudder.'" Not a single Japanese or American
torpedo found its mark in the first exchange. Merrill then brought all
his guns to bear. The Japanese answered in kind. The Japanese eight-inch
gun salvos were either short or ahead. The Americans were luckier. One
shell of their first broadside slammed amidships into the cruiser
Sendai which carried Admiral Ijuin. There was frantic maneuvering
to avoid shells, with giant warships, yards apart at times, cutting at
speeds of 30 knots. Still Sendai managed to avoid eight American
torpedoes, even with her rudder jammed. Then a Japanese torpedo caught
the U.S. destroyer Foote (DD 511) and blew off her stern, leaving
her dead in the water.
Samuel Eliot Morison in Breaking the Bismarck
Barrier, tells how "Merrill maneuvered his cruisers so smartly and
kept them at such range that no enemy torpedoes could hit." Admiral
Omori showed the same skill and judgement, but he was a blind man. Only
the American had radar. Hara afterwards explained, "Japan did not see
the enemy, failed to size up the enemy and failed to locate it . . . The
Japanese fleet was a blind man swinging a stick against a seeing
opponent. The Japanese fleet had no advantage at all. . . ."
What Japan had lacked in electronic sight, however,
it partially made up with its super-brilliant airplane-dropped flares
and naval gunfire star shells. Commander Charles H. Pollow, USN, a
former radio officer on the Denver (CL 58), recalled the
"unblinking star shells that would let you read the fine print in the
bible . . . ." The Japanese also had a range advantage in their
eight-inch guns, "Sometimes we couldn't touch them. . . ." Three shells
hit his Denver not one detonated, but the ship was
damaged. Columbia (CL 56) also took an eight-inch hole through
her armor plate.
Then Merrill confused the enemy ships with smoke so
dense that the Japanese believed the Americans were heading one way when
they were in fact steaming in another direction. But before Admiral
Omori could break away, Burke and his destroyer division of "Little
Beavers" was in among them. First the Sendai was sent to the
bottom with 335 men, then Hatsukaze, brushed in an accident with
Myoko, was finished off by Burke's destroyers and sank with all
hands on board 240 men. Damaged were the cruisers Haguro,
Myoko, and destroyers Shiratsuyu and Samidare. But,
most important, the threat to the beachhead had been stopped.
The Americans got off with severe damage to the
Foote and light damage to the Denver, Spence (DD 512), and
Columbia. Hara later wrote, "had they pursued us really hot[ly] .
. . practically all the Japanese ships would have perished." The
Americans had left the fight too soon.
And Admiral Ijuin's prediction that Japan would
topple after the loss of Bougainville proved to be accurate, but not
because of this loss, particularly. It was just one of the number of
defeats which were to doom Japan.