by Vincent P. O'Hara

TIME: 0245-0539
WEATHER: Overcast with scattered showers.. Gentle wind, force 1 from SW.
VISIBILITY: Dark night with no moon and poor visibility,
SEA STATE: Smooth with gentle swell from SW.
SURPRISE: Americans
MISSION: Japanese interception mission. Allies defend beachhead.

"We must fight and fight desperately. Japan will topple if Bougainville falls.[1]

Following the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal the Japanese were conservative -- even stingy -- in their use of major ships to contest the Allies drive up the Solomon chain. Only at Kolombangara, did they risk (and lose) any ship heavier than a destroyer. This policy of hoarding cruisers didn't change until the 3rd Marine Division landed at Cape Torokina just north of Empress August Bay, Bougainville Island on November 1, 1943 and only then because the Japanese considered Bougainville essential to the defense of Rabaul

The largest of the Solomon chain, Bougainville was mountainous and covered with dense jungle, especially in the north. The indigenous population of around 43,000 spoke eighteen distinct languages.. The Japanese garrison more than doubled the island's population, but they could hardly defend every potential landing site. Only 3,000 men guarded the Empress Augusta Bay area and just 175[2] men covered the actual landing beaches. These troops fought well, but were no match for 14,000 marines.

For their part, the Americans were becoming practiced in amphibious operations. The transports discharged all troops and most supplies by 1800 hours on the day of the landing. The bulk of the amphibious force cleared the island, but four partially unladen ships remained in the vicinity to complete unloading the next day. Then reports reached the Americans that a major Japanese force had sailed from Rabaul.

Cruiser Division (Sentai) 5, heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro under Vice Admiral Sentaro Omori, reinforced the 8th Fleet at Rabaul on 21 October [3. Admiral Samejima, commander of the 8th Fleet, attempted to use Omori on the 31st to intercept American units reported sailing up the slot. Omori failed to make contact, but as he was returning to harbor, news of the American landing arrived. At Truk Admiral Koga, commander of the Combined Fleet saw an opportunity to repeat and perfect the victory at Savo Island, by immediately hitting the beachhead with a counterlanding and by destroying the transport fleet. When Omori made port Samejima gave him with this assignment. Reinforced by four destroyers, he would escort a landing force of 1,000 men carried on five transports to Empress Augusta Bay, see them ashore and then conduct a devastating strike against the American transports. Of necessity, this mission was devised in haste; the commanders of the three flotillas involved, none of whom had operated together, had time for just a brief conference. But the campaign had reached a nexus and the Japanese had more cruisers than they had time. Six hours after making Rabaul, Omori was at sea once again.

Omori's ten warships rendezvoused with the transports in St. George Channel, but Omori was quickly able to revise his original mission and obtain permission to continue without them. Various reasons were given: the transports were late in arriving and then too slow to make up the lost time, command realized that 1,000 troops would be more of a gesture than a remedy, given the size of the American landing force, or Omori simply didn't want to be bothered with them.

Whatever the reason, the decision to leave the transports was wise because Tip Merrill's Task Force 39 was waiting. Merrill bombarded Buka's airfields on October 31and then withdrew south. The news of Omori's sortie brought him rushing back north. TF 39 arrived at the point of conflict fully aware of Omori's whereabouts. For his part, Omori had little expectation of achieving surprise. American aircraft snooped him about 15 miles east of Cape St. George and shadowed his force, even making two attacks. The second, at about 0130, an hour before surface contact, scored a near miss on Haguro, that reduced her speed to 26 knots. Shortly after Haguro launched a scout plane and at 0146 she reported an enemy force of one cruiser and three destroyers twenty miles south. Omori reacted by ordering a 180 simultaneous turn away from the bay marking time while his plane provided additional intelligence. He was not disappointed. After 0200 the Haguro scout radioed that the bay was crowded with transports[4] and so Omori ordered another 180 simultaneous turn, this time toward the enemy. He also hoped his maneuvers would confuse the Americans as to his exact position. The time was 0225.

Expecting light opposition, Omori's force sailed in three columns. On the port side light cruiser Sendai under Rear Admiral Ijuin led destroyers Shigure, Samidare and Shiratsuyu. Ten thousand yards to starboard sailed heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro while the third column of light cruiser Agano under Rear Admiral Morikazu Osugi followed by destroyers Naganami, Hatsukaze and Wakatsuki< cruised 5,400 yards to the starboard of the heavies. The columns were supposed to be staggered with Sendai 1,100 yards ahead of Myoko. However, two 180 turns had disordered Omori's formation. The port column had fallen back so it was on Myoko's beam and the spacing between ships had dropped to 325 rather than the prescribed 540 yards; it had also drawn closer to the heavy cruisers. Merrill's force loitered off the mouth of Empress Augusta Bay (Gazelle Bay to the Japanese). Destroyers Charles Ausburne, Dyson, Stanley and Claxton led his main body of light cruisers Montpelier, flag, Cleveland, Columbia and Denver by 5,000 yards. Destroyers Spence, Thatcher, Converse and Foote followed, 3,000 yards behind the rear cruiser.

The Americans not only enjoyed superior position and intelligence, radar gave them the advantage of surprise as well, scooping the Sendai column at 0227 from 36,000 yards. With this contact, Merrill's battle plan went into effect. TF 39 turned due north. The cruisers would fight at long range to avoid Japanese torpedo waters. Merrill led the only cruiser task force left in the South Pacific. He intended to avoid a battle of annihilation; it would be enough to merely repulse the Japanese if he could avoid serious damage. His plan also recognized that destroyers had proven themselves more effective operating independently instead of as a rigidly controlled cruiser screen and that torpedoes were the best way to disclose one's presence to an enemy force. At 0231 Desdiv 45, commanded by Arleigh Burke turned to port heading north, northwest positioning itself for a surprise torpedo attack.. At 0239 the rear destroyers under Commander B. Austin, and the cruisers countermarched to the south, the rear becoming the van. These destroyers were to bear to the southwest to obtain clear waters for their own torpedo attack; the cruisers were to hold fire until the torpedoes struck home. Orders were transmitted via TBS. On Foote, the rear destroyer, the order to countermarch was misunderstood. She fell seriously out of position, with serious consequences later.

The battle which ensued was essentially a series of independent actions. The Japanese and Americans each operated their fleets as three autonomous units (by design, in the case of the Americans, by accident in the case of the Japanese). These six formations fought their own private battles hardly coordinating with other ships on their own side. The first ten minutes between 0245 and 0255 set the tone for what was to follow.

At 0245 Austin's destroyers obtained radar contact with the Japanese and all except Foote turned 90 degrees west to starboard. The prospect for a double hammer surprise blow from both destroyer divisions was looking good, but then a lookout on Shigure brought Merrill's plan crashing down. He spotted Burke's destroyers and broadcast the alarm.

At 0246 Burke's division had 25 torpedoes in the water.[5] He ordered each destroyer to fire half salvos of five but the captain of Claxton felt his commander would not condemn a little extra aggression, so he fired off his entire load of ten.

On Agano, Rear Admiral Osugi received the alarm. He had never fought a night surface engagement, but he aggressively rang up full speed and charged ahead in search of the enemy, apparently without reference to his commander.

Ijuin on Sendai and Hara on Shigure were both very experienced in night actions, unlike Omori and Osugi. They realized the American destroyers probably already had torpedoes running and did not hesitate to react. Sendai's column turned to starboard, toward the southeast, but the results of the just completed 180 turn, which reduced the spacing between ships, did them in. Sendai's turn was very sharp. She cut inside of Shigure and the two almost collided, clearing each other by only ten feet. Meanwhile, at 0248 Shigure fired a counter-barrage of 8 torpedoes. Merrill, observing the maneuvers of Ijuin's column realized surprise was lost and that Burke's attack would likely fail. Merrill's greatest asset in night surface battles (this was his second) was that when he concluded it was time to use his guns, he used them. At 0249.5 the four light cruisers lit up the sky with their opening salvos, their targets being the largest blip in the port column, e.g. Sendai. Sendai, meanwhile had eight Type 93 torpedoes in the water within a half minute of this event.

Omori, meanwhile, turned his heavy cruisers south. He opened fire, but could not see what he was shooting at. His salvos were tight, but several thousand yards short.

At 0251 Merrill's cruisers made a simultaneous turn to course 200 to maintain the range, then at 19,000 yards. This change of course ruined Ijuin's torpedo attack.

At 0252, or maybe even before (Hara credits the Americans with a first salvo hit) 6 shells hit Sendai's boiler rooms. Heavy fires blazed up, broadcasting her position to Omori who was surprised to see her close off his port beam. More hits followed in her aft engine room, stopping her engines and jamming her rudder. At this same moment, Samidare, fired 8 torpedoes from 16,000 yards range. She had previously avoided a collision with Sendai, but in so doing, she sideswiped Shiratsuyu, the last destroyer in line at 0253, extensively damaging Shiratsuyu on her port side.

After their torpedo attack Burke's destroyers headed northeast, always from the battle. Then at, 0251, Ausburne, followed by Dyson turned east, southeast. Stanley and Claxton made a sharper turn and became separated to the south of their leader, responding to a TBS order intended for the light cruisers, not them.

As Sendai burned Samidare and Shiratsuyu lingered in the vicinity. Samidare took three hits during the action and they probably occurred shortly after Sendai was first struck. Shigure's subsequent actions are more difficult to interpret. She was also standing by Sendai and received orders to come along side; instead, she independently struck out to the south in a fruitless search for targets.

By 0256 Foote had finally cleared the cruiser line and was streaming hard to regain her position in Austin's column. However, her efforts were not helped by Austin's change of course to 255 at 0300, required to stay clear of the cruiser's line of fire.

Omori remained unclear of his enemy's location and heading. His heavy cruisers made a complete circle and at 0301 came to a generally southerly heading. At this time Merrill was executing a figure 8 firing at both the center and starboard columns from long range. At 0301, as the Japanese cruisers turned south, he turned north. Merrill's TBS order to turn one-eight was overheard on two of Burke's destroyers' Stanley and Claxton and misinterpreted as having originated with Burke. At 0306 they turned to starboard and began steaming southeast, in the direction of the American cruisers becoming separated from their two companions. At 0308 Ausburne and Dyson turned to chase them, thinking, perhaps, they were Japanese warships closing the bay.

Also at 0301 a "Long Lance", probably from Samidare hit unfortunate Foote as she steamed at 34 knots, still trying to rejoin Austin. The explosion blew off her three aft compartments, opened six more to the sea and cost 19 lives. Strenuous damage control kept her afloat and she was eventually towed to safety.

At 0305, the Agano column was the most easterly of the three Japanese forces, about 12,000 yards due west of the American cruisers which, at the time, were heading north in column and southeast of the heavy cruisers. His aggressive impulse spend with nothing to show for it, Osugi reversed course back to the west to conform to Omori's movements, unwittingly leading his destroyers across the course of the oncoming heavy cruisers.

At 0307 Myoko collided with Hatsukaze and sheered off her bow. This fragment, still wrapped around Myoko's bow, was the only portion of Hatsukaze to make it back to Rabaul. Haguro barely avoided Wakatsuki, the last ship in the Agano column.

At 0308 as these two Japanese columns were inflicting significant self damage, and sorting themselves out, Merrill ordered Austin's DesDiv 46 to attack with torpedoes while he turned his cruisers back to the south. The timing was excellent, but once again, misunderstood TBS orders fouled the effectiveness of the American destroyers. At 0310, Austin ordered his ships to prepare to turn, but on Thatcher, the order was heard as turn and so she did. At 0311 Spence and Thatcher sideswiped each other, heading in opposite directions at thirty knots. Thatcher suffered extensive damage along her upperworks and her starboard shaft was thrown out of line. The damage to Spence was less extensive. However, both ships were able to remain in the fight.

The battle was only twenty minutes old, but the only force under effective command was Merrill's light cruisers. As the direct result of misunderstood orders, Burke was chasing his own tail and Austin had one ship out and one damaged. The situation for Omori was worse. His port column had lost its leader and its component destroyers were fighting or not as they choose. His center and starboard columns were maneuvering ineffectively casting about for an enemy they couldn't pinpoint, damaging each other and the Americans not at all. Although he was flinging generous amounts or ordnance at these two Japanese formations, Merrill had only scored with his initial salvos against the port column. And even his cruisers had barely avoided a collision at 0255. Up to this point, it had not been a particularly well fought battle.

Omori turned from course 180 to 160 and at 0313 he finally pinpointed Merrill's location. The excellent Japanese pyrotechnics lit the sky and finally provided Omori's gunners with the targets they had been struggling so hard to obtain. He opened fire at 0315 and followed with torpedoes at 0318. Once they had targets, the veterans of Myoko and Haguro exhibited remarkable marksmanship. Tight salvos repeatedly straddled Montpelier. Then, between 0320 and 0325 Myoko and Haguro each scored hits on Denver, from three different salvos. These shell were all duds [6], but they still caused considerable damage, holing the light cruiser forward, forcing her to sheer out of formation and to reduce her speed to 28 knots to keep from submarining. Columbia was also lightly damaged by the base plug from an 8 shell that penetrated her plating and came to rest in a sail locker. At 0326, with the Japanese firing so effectively, Merrill ordered smoke and a 180 counterclockwise turn back north to open the range which had closed to 13,000 yards. For his part Merrill scored about ten 6 and 5 hits on Haguro between 0310 and 0320. Most of the shells were duds and only one man was killed while five were wounded.

By 0327 Omori believed he had sunk one cruiser and severely damaged two others with torpedo hits. The geysers from his misses were wistfully interpreted as explosions and when the American cruisers disappeared from sight, due to sudden turns and smoke, he thought they had been instantaneously sunk. As well as exaggerating the damage he was inflicting, he also exaggerated the force he was facing as seven heavy cruisers and twelve destroyers. Considering himself the victor, and not wishing to tempt fate, he creased fire at 0329 and ordered withdrawal at 0337, turning east away from the action.

As the cruisers slugged it out, Austin's destroyers sped north by northwest between the two columns. Myoko found Spence at 0320, damaging her with two near misses and scoring a solid hit at the junction of the mess hall, the baker's living compartment and the fuel tanks. Again, the shell was fortunately a dud, but salt water contaminated the destroyer's fuel supply forcing a reduction in speed. Spence's damage control party plugged the hole with bags of beans. Continuing north, DesDiv 46 encountered tortured Sendai at 3028 and sent 8 torpedoes toward her, two of which may have hit. Sendai had gotten steam back up, but her jammed rudder permitted her to only go in circles. She returned a heavy, but ineffective fire as Samidare and Shiratsuyu fled northwest. Austin's three destroyers gave chase and a running fight developed. Desdiv 46 fired 19 torpedoes, but scored no hits. Neither side managed to damage the other with gunfire, even though ranges closed to 3,000 yards.

As the Japanese heavy cruisers turned away Merrill turned northwest at 0336, and at 0342 came back to the south.

Burke's van destroyers spent the bulk of the battle and all of the cruiser action sorting themselves out. It was an hour from the time of their initial torpedo attack before they returned to battle, engaging the burning Sendai with gunfire at 0349. They then picked up the Samidare and Shiratsuyu on radar and set off in pursuit of them. However, they became mixed with Austin's destroyers and in the confusion, the two damaged Japanese destroyers made good their escape. Burke fired on Austin's ships at 0425 [7]. At 0454 the destroyers received orders to rejoin the cruisers, but another target appeared on the radar, the damaged Hatsukaze. The two groups collectively finished her off with gunfire. She sank at 0539.

The American cruisers came west and looked for additional targets, but found nothing, with the exception of Hatsukaze at 0500. They lobbed some shells at her at a range of 17,500 yards, but scored no hits.

Empress August Bay was a confusing battle. Omori has been criticized for maintaining a complicated formation, for permitting his columns to become disorganized and most severely, for the maneuver he ordered at 0252. His biggest error, however, was to give up the fight when he was doing so well. The American destroyers were largely ineffective. Burke's force made an attack and then disappeared for an hour. Austin's destroyers wandered through the middle of the battle, but likewise inflicted little damage except against cripples. Merrill's figure 8 maneuvers were more complicated than Omori's turnabouts. However, he managed to keep his cruisers safe from Japanese torpedoes, which, given past history, was a major accomplishment, and his cruisers didn't fire on friendly ships, another accomplishment. It is a little remarkable that the radar controlled fire could be so incredibly effective when first used and then so ineffective for the balance of the battle. The four cruisers shot off 4,591 rounds of 6 and 705 5 shells. During the short period when the Japanese heavy cruisers were engaged, their visual fire was much better than American radar. In any case, the Japanese suffered the greater damage, much of it self-inflicted, and failed to accomplish both their tactical and strategic objectives. Empress Augusta Bay was a clear American victory.

The Japanese lost one light cruiser mainly to gunfire with, perhaps, an assist from torpedoes. One destroyer was damaged by collision and sunk by gunfire. Another destroyer was moderately damaged by collision and gunfire while a fourth was damaged by collision. One light cruiser was slightly damaged by near misses. Haguro was lightly damaged by gunfire and Myoko lost two torpedo tubes as the result of her collision. The Americans had one destroyer heavily damaged by torpedo, one moderately damaged by gunfire and collision, one destroyer lightly damaged by collision and one light cruiser moderately damaged, also by gunfire. As a final note, it is remarkable that all of the Japanese shells and many of the American shells that did strike a target were duds. The sailors that risked their lives in ships that took so much money and time to build would have been well served by better quality control in the armament factories back home.

1: Hara 231. Words attributed to Rear Admiral Ijuin after the hasty conference in Myoko's gunroom before the battle.
2: 270 According to Dull
3: According to Hara. Lacroix and Wells state the two heavy cruisers arrived on 13 October. Morison does not give a date, but implies they arrived on or about the 30th, having escorted a convoy to Rabaul.
4: Actually minelayers Sicard, Gamble and Breese escorted by destroyer Renshaw. The four transports were 35 miles south when the Japanese approached.
5: Burke gathered decorations and position during the course of the war. He eventually became the only three-term Chief of Naval Operations. His "fighting philosophy, if not politically correct by the standards of today, merits quotation as an example of the attitude of the times
"If it will help kill Japs--it's important
"If it does not help kill Japs--it's not important.
"Keep your ship trained for battle!
"Keep your material ready for battle!
"Keep your boss informed concerning readiness for battle!
6: The damage inflicted caused her return to the United States for repairs. The log entry describing this damage follows: "8 shell entered second deck, starboard, stateroom 205, pierced watertight bulkhead No. 35, passing through 2nd deck in stateroom No. 203; entered 3rd deck stateroom No. 309, passed through Warrant Officer's Mess door, and 3rd deck below door to Warrant Officer's Stores; passed through hull in Small Stores Issuing Room on first platform level. 8 shell entered starboard side of Paravane Stowage (A-302 A) and passed out port side about 18 above water line. 8 shell touched starboard after rim, and passed through port side of watch cap on forward stack. Denver's situation would have been far worse if the shells had actually exploded.
7: Austin is supposed to have voice radioed to Burke, "We have just had another bad close miss. Hope you are not shooting at us. Burke answered, "Sorry but you'll have to excuse the next four salvos as they are already on their way! .