The battle of Cape Saint George (25 November 1943) was the last significant naval battle during the Solomon Islands campaign and saw an American destroyer squadron defeat a similar Japanese force that was attempting to carry reinforcements to Buka on Bougainville.
The Japanese operation was a product of a dispute between the Army and Navy. The Navy soon realised that the American landing at Cape Augusta Bay on the west coast of Bougainville was going to be their main effort on the island. The Army continued to believe that they were just the first step in a wider campaign, and that the airfields at Buka and Bonis, at the northern tip of the island, would soon come under attack. In order to prepare for this attack the Army ordered the Navy to transport 920 fresh troops to Buka, and withdraw 700 personnel who had been working at the airfield, which had been knocked out of operation by the Americans.
The Navy allocated five destroyers to this mission (Amagiri, Yugiri, Uzuki, Onami and Makinami). The first three were to be used as transport and the last two as escorts. The force was commanded by Captain Kiyoto Kagawa.
The Americans soon learnt of the incoming Japanese force and ordered Captain Arleigh Burke's Destroyer Squadron 23 to intercept and destroy it. Burke also had five destroyers, split into two divisions. Desdiv 45 contained the Charles F. Ausburne, Claxton and Dyson, while Desdiv 46 was made up of the Converse and the Spence. Burke was also given air cover, including a night fighter. Nine PT boats were posted near Buka Passage as a backup.
The battle took place in the seas between the north-western end of Bougainville and the southern end of New Ireland (Cape Saint George is the southern tip of New Ireland).
The Japanese reached Buka without encountering any American forces. The transport destroyers unloaded the troops and loaded the airfield personnel, and headed back to sea at 0.45am on 25 November.
The first contact came at midnight on 24-25 November, when the PT boats detected four nearby ships. They assumed that the strange ships were Burke's destroyers, even after one of the escort ships attempted to ram PT-318. After this encounter the Japanese escort ships completed their mission, them steamed west, heading towards Cape Saint George.
Captain Burke decided that his best chance of intercepting the Japanese was to get as far west as possible between Cape Saint George and Buka and catch them on their way home. He reached a position about have way between the two at 1.30am on 25 November, then slowed down and prepared to patrol the area.
At 1.41am the Americans detected the Japanese force on radar. At this time the Americans were heading north in two columns, with Burke on the right and Austin slightly behind and to the left. The Japanese were eleven miles to the east and heading west, with the escort destroyers to the right and the transport destroyers to the left and some way behind.
Burke ordered his ships to turn right and head straight for the Japanese ships. At 1.56 he reached his desired firing point and his three destroyers fired fifteen torpedoes towards the Japanese escort destroyers, which were now to the north-east of the American ships. Both American divisions then turned south to avoid any incoming Japanese torpedoes.
The Japanese lookouts didn't spot the incoming torpedoes until they were 30 seconds from impact, and both of the escort ships were hit. The Onami exploded and 2.00 and sank almost immediately. There was also an explosion on the Makinami, but she remained afloat. At about the same time US radar found the three Japanese transport destroyers, which at this point were 13,000 yards to the east, heading west.
Captain Yamashiro, commanding the transport force, saw the explosions, and turned north in an attempt to escape towards Rabaul. Burke split his force, leaving Austin to finish off the Makinami, while he went after Yamashiro.
At about 2.00am the two American forces split. Austin turned to starboard and Burke to port. Austin completed his turn and steamed north. By 2.14 he was west of the Makinami, and at 2.20 he opened fire on her. He then circled to her south, firing as he went. By 2.28 he was to her south, from where he turned to the north-east to follow Burke. At 2.40 he fired on Makinami again, and at 2.54 the Japanese destroyer finally sank.
While this was going on Burke was involved in a stern chase. He managed to get within 8,000 yards of the Japanese destroyers, with both forces heading north. At 2.15 he zigzagged, and in the process avoiding torpedoes fired from the Yugiri.
At 2.22 Burke opened fire using only his forward guns, so that he could maintain full speed. Blast from the No.2 Gun caused some damage on the Ausburne, but she kept firing with both forward guns. The Japanese returned fire, before at 2.25 their formation broke up - Uzuki headed west, Yugiri north and Amagiri between the two. Burke decided to focus on the Yugiri, which appeared to be the biggest target. Burke's three destroyers curved around the Yugiri, inflicted heavy damage that at 3.05 triggered large explosions. At 3.28 the Yugiri finally sank, and Burke's ships were free to head west in pursuit of the remaining two Japanese destroyers.
By 3.28 contact had been lost with Uzuki and Amagiri and it was never regained. At 4.04 Burke decided to abandon the chase and head back toward safer waters, the battle having taken him dangerously close to Rabaul. Much to Burke's surprise the Japanese aircraft based on Rabaul failed to respond, and the American destroyers escaped without a scratch.
The Japanese suffered very heavy casualties. The submarine I-177 rescued 278 men from the Yugiri, but there were only a handful of survivors from the Onami and the Makinami. In contrast the Americans didn't suffer a single casualty or a single hit - the Japanese escort ships were sunk or critically damaged before they could open fire while the transport ships, with their decks filled with soldiers, only managed near misses. The battle of Cape Saint George was the last night battle of the Solomons Campaign, and demonstrated how much the US Navy had improved since the early disastrous night battles around Guadalcanal.