BATTLE OF CAPE ST. GEORGE - November 25, 1943
by Vincent P. O'Hara

TIME: 0156-0328
WEATHER/VISIBILITY/SEA STATE: Night, Dark, no moon, low clouds, occasional rain. Sea smooth, wind force 2 from the ESE. Visibility 3,000 yards without binoculars
SURPRISE: Americans
MISSION: Japanese transport mission. Allies interception mission.
"An almost perfect action.”[1]

The Battle of Cape Saint George was the last surface engagement of the Solomons campaign. In this action an American destroyer force ambushed and partially destroyed a Japanese force of identical composition and size returning from a Tokyo Express run to Buka Island. Buka, just north of Bougainville, was a major Japanese base and the army believed that it, not Bouganville, was the true objective of the Allied advance. They wanted to reinforce the garrison and the navy, of course, got the job. Accordingly, destroyers Amagiri, flag of Capitan Katsumori Yamashiro, screen commander, Yugiri and Uzuki were loaded with 920 troops and 35 tons of supply and sent south, screened by Onami, the flag of the force commander, Capitan Kiyoto Kagawa, who had no night battle experience, and Makinami. The first part of the mission was successfully carried out: the transport destroyers landed their troops and took on 700 aviation personnel made redundant by the heavy Allied bombing that had effectively closed the Buka airfield.

Onami and Makinami were modern boats of the Yugumo class launched in 1942 and 1941 respectively. They displaced 2,480 tons full load and were armed with six 5”/50 dual purpose guns and eight 24” torpedo tubes. Their top speed was 35 knots. Amagiri and Yugiri were older boats of the Fubuki class, launched in 1930 and armed with six 5”/50 dual purpose guns and eight 24” torpedo tubes. Their rated speed of 34 knots must have been much less by late 1943. Uzuki, a Mutsuki class boat launched in 1925 had been converted, much like the old American four-stacker destroyers, into a fast destroyer-transport with an armament of only two 4.7”/50 dual purpose guns and six 24” torpedo tubes. Her rated speed was 33.9 knots.

Allied intelligence was typically well informed of the Japanese movement. Halsey ordered DesRon 23, Capitan A. Burke, consisting of DesDiv 45, Charles Ausburne, flag, Claxton and Dyson and DesDiv 46, Captain Austin on Spence and Converse north to patrol the evacuation route in the strait between Buka and New Ireland. In addition, he sent nine PT boats to guard Buka Passage, the channel that separates Buka from Bougainville.

The American destroyers, all Fletcher class launched in 1942, displaced 2,924 tons full load, were armed with five 5”/38 dual purpose guns and ten 21”torpedo tubes. They were theoretically rated at 38 knots, but hard use and deferred maintenance reduced their effective top speed by at least five knots. The Japanese force arrived at Buka where American Black Cat spotters reported their presence at 2300 hours on the 24th. Yamashiro completed loading the evacuees and started north at 0045 on the 25th. The PTs (at this point, even these small warships were equipped with radar -- what a difference a year can make) made contact with the screen at 0030 hours, but mistook Onami and Makinami for Burke's destroyers, even though they were fired upon. The Japanese cleared Buka without further incident and turned back for Rabaul.

The American destroyers had rushed north to be in position -- in the waters midway between Cape St. George on the southern tip of New Ireland and Buka passage, on the direct line back to Rabaul They were cruising the strait at 23 knots. It was a dark, calm night with limited visibility, perfect conditions for a force relying on electronics not optics. DesDiv 45's three destroyers were headed north with DesDiv 46's two ships to port and 5,000 yards behind. At 0141 Dyson made radar contact with the Japanese screen, which was heading west, 22,000 yards to the northeast. The Japanese screen was to the starboard and well ahead of the transport destroyers. At 0145 DesDiv 45 turned east to close the Japanese screen, DesDiv 46 following echeloned back go starboard in support. At 0156 with a perfect setup Burke's three ships launched half salvos, 15 torpedoes in all, at a range of 5,500 to 6,000 yards (torpedo run 4,500 yards) and immediately turned 90° south increasing speed to 30 knots to avoid any Japanese counterstroke. Austin's two ships mirrored this movement. At 0200 Onami spotted the retiring American destroyers, but it was too late. Kagawa continued on course, his reactions, perhaps, not honed by the experience action brings and thirty seconds later, several torpedoes struck the flag. Massive explosions and a fireball three hundred feet high broadcasted her fate. Onami sank almost immediately with very few survivors. Another torpedo struck Makinami inflicting major damage, although she remained afloat, for the time being.

Just before the torpedoes hit, DesDiv 45 picked up the transports to the east, northeast at a range of 13,000 yards. Burke swung his ships back north immediately and ordered DesDiv 46 to finish off Makinami with gunfire, a task they accomplished with some difficulty by 0254 after intensely bombarding the unfortunate and stoutly constructed ship for forty-five minute and then launching five torpedoes from Converse. Makinami lashed back hitting Converse with a torpedo that was a dud or didn't have time to arm, but the American were otherwise untouched. Only a few crew from this ship survived, making it to shore on rafts.

As explosions disclosed the presence of danger, Yamashiro immediately swung his three ships north, northeast and bent on full speed. Their decks were crowded with non-combat personnel, which seriously impeded their ability to fight. Burke's force, approximately 12,000 yards off, took up the stern chase increasing speed to 33 knots. The Japanese sailed in column led by Amigiri followed by Yugiri and Uzuki with about 1,000 yards distance between ships. At 0212 Burke turned his ships 45°to course 060 degrees for sixty seconds before returning to his original course of 015 degrees. He claimed this maneuver, which cost him some distance, was based upon a hunch. If so, it was an extremely fortunate hunch as Yugiri had launched three torpedoes back down the track of her pursuers. At 0213 these torpedoes exploded in Ausburne's wake.

By 0222 the Americans had closed the range to the point where they could open fire with each ship's forward guns, fishtailing to bring their rear batteries to bear. The Japanese returned fire. They managed some near misses, drenching Claxton's bridge with the splashes. The American position was dangerous as Yamashiro merely had to turn 90° to cap Burke's T and send torpedoes down his throat. Instead, at 0225, the Japanese veered off in three directions 45° apart, Amigiri northwest, Yugiri north and Uzuki north, northwest. Burke choose to keep his ships together and pursued Yugiri as having the largest radar signature although Dyson continued to fire on Uzuki, as long as she bore. During this long pursuit Uzuki was hit only once, and that by a dud. Yugiri was less fortunate. Repeated hits finally began to affect her speed. By 0256 the range was down to 8,800 yards. At 0305 an Americans shell hit knocked out her engine and she was dead in the water by 0307. Forced to face her foes, Yugiri fired her remaining torpedoes and lashed out with ineffectual gunfire. She did not go down easily requiring an intensive bombardment, and several ineffective torpedo attacks, but she finally sank at 0328 at a point about 60 miles east of Cape St. George. A Japanese submarine subsequently rescued 178 men.

Austin's two destroyers had hurried north after finally dispatching their target, but they had a long way to go. As it was, the two divisions had reunited by 0345. The Americans continued northwest hoping to run down Amagiri and Uzuki, but Yamashiro's two remaining ships had too great a lead. At 0405 with New Britain on their radar screens, low on ammunition and fuel and expecting intensive air attacks from nearby Rabaul at daylight, DesRon 23 turned for home. In the event, the anticipated strikes never came. By 0643 air cover was overhead. They made Purvis Bay at 2200 hours on the 25th.

Even though the Americans did not prevent the Japanese from landing their reinforcements, or from evacuating the bulk of the aviation personnel, this mattered little as Buka was not the strategic target the army had thought it was. The Americans sank three Japanese destroyers at no lost to themselves, moreover they did it in the best fashion possible, with a surprise torpedo attack. On the other hand, some criticisms can be made. Burke didn't utilize his entire force very effectively. Austin's destroyers were relegated to a supporting role regardless of the tactical situation. If he had been released immediately, as he requested, to head north, west of Burke's column Amagiri and Uzuki would, at the very least have had their best escape route cut off. Two Japanese torpedo attacks that would have turned the results into a draw or even an American defeat failed by the barest of margins. But, only results count and this action was an outstanding American victory.

1: Morision VI 358 quoting Admiral Pye, President of the Naval War College.