Battle of Vella Lavella, 6 October 1943

The battle of Vella Lavella (6 October 1943) was a Japanese naval victory that allowed them to evacuate nearly 600 men from the north-western coast of Vella Lavella.

The Americans landed on Vella Lavella on 15 August and at first encountered little resistance on land. The Japanese decided not to try and retake the island, but they did build a barge base at Horaniu (after avoiding an American attempt to intervene, action off Horaniu, 18 August 1943). The few Japanese troops on the island were steadily pushed back, until by 1 October around 600 men were trapped at the north-western corner of the island.

Map of Allied Invasions, Solomon Islands
Solomon Islands:
Allied Invasions

The Japanese decided to try and evacuate the trapped troops. Admiral Ijuin gathered a force of nine destroyers (Akigumo, Isokaze, Kazegumo, Yugumo, Shigure and Samidare, and the destroyer transports Fumizuki, Matsukaze and Yunagi) and twelve lighter craft (four submarine chasers, four motor torpedo boats and four landing craft). At 6.14pm on 6 October he split his fleet, sending Shigure, Samidare and the destroyer transports ahead to Marquana Bay, the evacuation point on Vella Lavella.

The Americans detected the Japanese force on the afternoon of 6 October 1943, and found themselves somewhat short of ships that they could use to intercept it. The only immediately available ships were three destroyers under Captain Walker (O'Bannon, Selfridge and Chevalier). They were ordered to head to a point ten miles north of the island, while three more destroyers (Ralph Talbot, Taylor and Lavallette) under Captain Larson were detached from a convoy that was then south of Vella Lavella and were ordered to head at full speed around the south and west coasts of Vella Lavella. 

Walker arrived on the scene first and found himself outnumbered by three to nine. He decided to make a long range attack on the Japanese in the hope that he could drive them towards Larson's southern group. By this time the odds had been improved somewhat as the three destroyer transports had been sent back towards their base. This left the Japanese with six destroyers, as the two that had been detached to escort the destroyer transports returned to the main fleet.

The Americans detected the Japanese on radar at 22.31, while the Japanese lookouts spotted the Americans at 22.35. At first Admiral Ijuin thought they might be the sub chaser group, still heading towards the pickup point. He decided to move west then south around the coast of Vella Lavella, in an attempt to pull the Americans away from the evacuation. He would then turn back and defeat the small American force in less dangerous waters.

At 22.48 the Japanese turned to 207 degrees to head south/ south west. Four minutes later they turned left to 115 degrees (east/ south east). This meant that they were cutting across the front of the American line, crossing the 'T' in classic naval strategy. This would have been a valuable achievement if the Japanese ships hadn’t got in each others way. Instead of getting a chance to focus all of their firepower on the Americans, three of the four destroyers found their view blocked by the Yugumo. Soon afterwards the American ships opened fire. The Yugumo was their main target. She fired a spread of eight torpedoes, but at 23.05 she was hit by an American torpedo and fatally damaged. The remaining three ships in the main group turned south and began to pull away from the Americans, who were now heading west.

At 23.01 one of the Yugumo's torpedoes hit the Chevalier in the port bow, near a magazine. Both torpedo and magazine exploded, blowing the bow off the ship. A few seconds later she was rammed by the O'Bannon, which hadn’t had time to change course to avoid her. This actually made it easier to evacuate the wounded from the Chevalier, and efforts were then made to save her.

This just left the Selfridge. She opened fire on the Shigure and Samidare, which were then heading south-west. At 22.59 the two Japanese ships turned west and fired a salvo of sixteen torpedoes. At 23.06 one of these torpedoes hit the Selfridge at frame 40 on the port side. She was badly damaged, but no fires broke out and she remained afloat.

At this point the Japanese became aware of Larson's fresh destroyers, rapidly approaching from the south. Admiral Ijuin decided to abandon the fight and ordered all of his remaining destroyers and destroyer transports to retreat back to base. This left the sub chaser and transport group, but they successfully evaded the searching Americans. At 0.20am on 7 October Larson's destroyers abandoned the hunt and moved to help the damaged Selfridge and Chevalier.

It soon became clear that the Chevalier couldn't be saved. The O'Bannon launched two of her boats to evacuate the wounded, while the able bodied survivors swam to safety. 250 of her 301 crew were rescued. Once everyone had been evacuated she was sunk by an American torpedo.

The Selfridge was in better condition, and she was able to slowly move backwards while repairs were being carried out. With the surviving bulkheads reinforced she was eventually able to make ten knots and on 8 October she reached safety in Purvis Bay.

While the Americans concentrated on their damaged destroyers the Japanese transport group reached Marquana Bay at 1.10 on 7 October. They embarked all 589 of the isolated troops and just after 3am sailed for safety. The battle had been a clear Japanese victory - both sides lost one destroyer, but the Americans suffered serious damage to a second and minor damage to a third. The Japanese had also successfully carried out the evacuation, the main point of the exercise. As in most of the night naval battles in the Solomons both sides exaggerated their successes. The Japanese claimed to have sunk two cruisers and three destroyers. The Americans claimed three destroyers and believed that they had won the battle, unaware of the successful evacuation. They had also effectively won the wider campaign in the central Solomons.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 May 2013), Battle of Vella Lavella, 6 October 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_vella_lavella.html

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