First Battle of Kula Gulf , March 5, 1943
by Vincent P. O'Hara

Japanese destroyers Minegumo and Murasame had sailed from Shortlands on a routine mission to deliver supplies to Vila on the southern tip of Kolombangara Island.  At 2330 on March 4, they arrived safely off Vila and discharged their cargo into barges. As they began their run home, bearing northeast into Kula Gulf, Murasame’s lookout saw white flashes on the horizon.  These flashes were the guns of light cruisers Montpelier, Cleveland, and Denver screened by destroyers Conway, Waller and Cony.   This force had set out to bombard and harass the Japanese forces at Vila.  Enroute they received news that two cruisers had been sighted departing Shortlands and were in their vicinity.  "Black Cat" PBY Catalina spotter aircraft picked up the Japanese vessels followed by American radar at 0057 at a range of 15,200 yards.

In this action the American commander, Stanton “Tip” Merrill, did not agonize over opening fire like Scott, Callaghan or Wright did in their battles off Guadalcanal.  At 0101, just four minutes after the radar data had been received and interpreted, the American light cruisers had their initial salvo in the air from a range of 10,000 yards. Waller followed with torpedoes one minute later.   Murasame was straddled by the first salvo.  Within a minute the sixth salvo of concentrated 6” radar directed cruiser fire hit home, causing serious damage.  Then Waller’s torpedoes struck Murasame, the first torpedo hits achieved by an American warship other than a submarine or PT boat in the Pacific since the battle of Balikpapan. The Japanese destroyer exploded and sank by 0115.   Fire was shifted to Minegumo at 0106.  She returned fire and tried to escape, but was hit repeatedly and sank at 0130.  The Americans did not suffer any damage in this engagement.  After dispatching the two destroyers they proceeded to complete their bombardment mission.  Montpelier fired 1,800 5” and 6” shells in fifteen minutes during the surface engagement and 700 more during the shore bombardment following.

While this engagement was brief and completely one-sided, it is significant in several respects.  The Americans demonstrated improvements in their use of radar, their destroyers finally managed to add torpedoes to their arsenal and their commander acted promptly and decisively.  While the Americans had an overwhelmingly superior force, this was no guarantee of success as the Japanese had shown at Tassafaronga.