Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Planning the Operation
Diversionary Landings
Battle at Sea
Action Ashore: Koromokina
The Battle for Piva Trail
The Coconut Grove Battle
Piva Forks Battle
Hand Grenade Hill
The Koiari Raid
Hellzapoppin Ridge
Bougainville Finale
Major General Allen H. Turnage
Special Subjects
3d Marine Division
The Coatwatchers
37th Infantry Division
War Dogs
Navajo Code Talkers

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.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division