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The Naval Battle of Vella Lavella
Written By: Sam Ghaleb Ridgecrest, Calif.
*Click images below to view larger versions.
The Naval Battle of Vella Lavella
World War II photo of then-Major Gregory Boyington.
The Naval Battle of Vella Lavella
USS Selfridge after battle.
The Naval Battle of Vella Lavella
USS Chevalier
The Naval Battle of Vella Lavella
Shigure and Samidare off Bougainville just hours before the battle.
The Naval Battle of Vella Lavella
USS O'Bannon DD450
6-7 October 1943
 
     Seventy years ago, on the morning of October 6, 1943, a force of 9 Imperial Japanese Navy destroyers, and some barges, under the command of Rear Admiral Matsuji Ijuin set sail from Rabaul, which is located at the tip of the island of New Britain, and headed for Vella Lavella. Vella Lavella is an island in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands and it lies to the west of New Georgia. The goal of the Japanese task force was to evacuate that island’s 589-man garrison. That Japanese garrison was under pressure from U.S. forces that landed at Vella Lavella on August 15, 1943. On the afternoon of October 6th, U.S. Navy search planes sighted the Japanese force. A group of six American destroyers in the area was dispatched toward the evacuation point at Marquana Bay. Three of these destroyers, Selfridge (DD-357), Chevalier (DD-451), and O’Bannon (DD-450), under the command of Captain Frank Walker, arrived at their rendezvous point ahead of the other three destroyers commanded by Captain Harold Larson. Knowing that a Japanese scout plane had denied him the element of surprise, Captain Walker decided not to wait for Larson’s group and went on to engage the much larger Japanese force.
    Admiral Ijuin, acting cautiously, decided to split his force into two divisions. With four destroyers he pushed ahead to the waters off Marquana Bay, while the other division, under Captain Hara, with the destroyers Shigure and Samidare and the three transport destroyers, went on to meet the barges that were coming to evacuate the Japanese garrison. The Japanese Admiral knew that the Allies had knowledge of his approach and hoped to confuse them as to the size of his force and dispositions. He was also hoping to set Captain Hara up to make a surprise flank attack on the U.S. force. At about 10:00 pm Admiral Ijuin received a report from one of his aircraft that he was facing a U.S. force of six ships.
    The Japanese destroyer Yugumo’s “Long Lance” torpedoes drew first blood when the U.S. destroyer Chevalier was hit at 11:01pm on her bow, penetrating a magazine and tearing her bow off up to the bridge. The destroyer O’Bannon next in line, then collided with the Chevalier. The O’Bannon was able to back off, but she was out of the battle. The Chevalier loss was quickly avenged when gun fire and torpedoes from U.S. destroyers hit the Yugumo, which sank within minutes. When Admiral Ijuin saw what happened to his destroyer, he formed a column with the rest of his destroyers, made smoke, and then turned south at high speed.
    The Selfridge, the only remaining destroyer in Captain Walker’s force, continued on her course to attack the Japanese Transport Force. This action brought her into a fire fight with two Japanese destroyers, during which they launched sixteen torpedoes, one of which hit the Selfridge on her port side and caused severe damage.
    The barges, the real cause of this battle, were able to evacuate the Japanese troops and return them safely to the north. The result of this battle was, one U.S destroyer sunk and two heavily damaged, while the Japanese force lost one destroyer sunk with heavy loss of life.
    The battle of Vella Lavella was one of a series of naval battles that covered the period from 6 July to 26 November 1943. In these battles, U.S. navy cruisers and destroyers were sent to intercept Japanese destroyers that were carrying men and supplies to reinforce Japanese garrisons in the Solomon Islands. Japanese destroyers making these high speed runs were termed “The Tokyo Express” by the U.S. Navy. In these battles, U.S. ships fared much better than during the Guadalcanal campaign. This was because U.S. ship commanders began to apply the lessons they had learned from naval surface night action. The Japanese also grew to respect U.S. naval radar directed fire power, especially during night engagements. The result of these naval surface engagements were devastating to the Imperial Japanese Navy. Japanese losses were one light cruiser sunk, one damaged, ten destroyers sunk, and four damaged. The U.S. Navy lost, during these engagements, one light cruiser sunk, one damaged, one destroyer sunk, and two damaged.
    Although Japanese actions were flawed during the battle, the battle of Vella Lavella was Japan’s last naval surface victory of the war.
    After securing the Island of Vella Lavella, it became a base for Greg “Pappy” Boyington’s Marine Fighter Squadron 214, better known by its nickname, the "Black Sheep Squadron”. Boyington offered to down a Japanese Zero for every baseball cap sent to them by major league players in the World Series. They received 20 caps and shot down many more enemy aircraft. Boyington would become a Marine hero for shooting down 26 Japanese planes. He was awarded the nation’s highest honor – the Congressional Medal of Honor - by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1944.

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