The battle of Kula Gulf (6 July 1943) was an inconclusive naval clash between American and Japanese forces transporting troops to the New Georgia theatre in which both sides lost ships and the Japanese achieved their main aim of landing reinforcements on Kolombangara.
Both fleets had come to the area carrying troops. The Japanese ships were part of the regular 'Tokyo Express' and carried reinforcements for the garrisons on Kolombangara and New Georgia. The Japanese force left the Shortland Islands in the afternoon of 4 July and arrived at the northern end of the Kula Gulf on 5 July just after the American ships had carried out their main mission. The Japanese fired a salvo of long lance torpedoes and then retired.
The American ships, under Admiral Ainsworth, were taking part in the main US invasion of New Georgia, and very early on 5 July put the Northern Landing Group ashore at Rice Anchorage. After the main bombardment two targets showed several miles away to the north-west. The Americans were just beginning to investigate these contacts when one of the long lance torpedoes hit the destroyer USS Strong. The destroyer was badly damaged, but stayed afloat. The destroyers Chevalier and O'Bannon were sent to rescue her. Chevalier poked her bow into the hole on the Strong's port side and 241 of the survivors were able to escape. Japanese guns on New Georgia opened fire, and eventually Chevalier was forced to withdraw. Within a minute the Strong sank. The rest of the bombardment group then began the return trip east towards Tulagi.
During this battle the transport ships carried out their mission. The landings began at 1.36 and were complete by 6.00. The transport group then followed the bombardment group on its way east.
Although the Japanese destroyers had withdrawn early on 5 July, once the Americans had sailed away they prepared for a second attempt. Rear Admiral Akiyama commanded a force of ten destroyers split into three groups. Two groups, with three and four destroyers respectively, were the troop transports, while the third group, consisting of the destroyers Niizuki, Suzukaza, and Tanikaze, was the escort group.
The new Japanese move was quickly detected by the Americans, and Admiral Ainsworth turned back to attack them. He now commanded three cruisers and four destroyers - USS Saint Louis (CL-49), USS Honolulu (CL-48), USS Helena (CL-50), USS Radford (DD-446), USS Nicholas (DD-449), USS Jenkins (DD-447) and USS O'Bannon (DD-450)
The American fleet reached the north-western corner of New Georgia by midnight on 5-6 July, putting them at the north-eastern corner of Kula Gulf. Ainsworth expected to fight an artillery duel with the Japanese, using his radar to give him an advantage. He was unaware of the existence of the excellent Japanese long lance torpedo, which had a much greater range than its American equivalents.
The Japanese entered Kula Gulf just before the Americans arrived at its northern edge. The first transport group was sent to Kolombangara at 0.26, while the rest of the fleet continued south. At 1.18 the main fleet turned north, and at 1.43 the second transport group was sent west towards Vila on Kolombangara. The three escort ships, Niizuki, Suzukaza, and Tanikaze, headed north.
These two Japanese groups showed up on US radar at 1.40. Ainsworth closed to 11,000 yards and then moved onto a course of 302 degrees, in order to keep at a medium range. He decided to split his fire and open a radar controlled bombardment. The cruisers and two destroyers were ordered to fire on the four ships of the second transport group, which showed up as the bigger radar target, while the destroyers Nicholas and O'Bannon targeted the escort group. When it became clear that the larger group was also much further away Ainsworth changed his mind, and ordered the cruisers to concentrate on the escort group first.
The Japanese only had radar on one ship, the Niizuki. They had detected the Americans at 1.06, but continued with their primary mission. At 1.46, with the Americans closing on him, Admiral Akiyama ordered his ships to turn north and called the second transport group back into the action.
The battle began at 1.57 when the Helena opened fire. Several of the other American ships waited to see if they could fire their torpedoes before opening fire with their guns, and thus missed the change to use either weapon effectively.
The initial American bombardment did claim one victim, the Niizuki, which was hit by the first salvo and was soon sinking. Admiral Akiyama went down with his ship.
The other two destroyers in the escort group fired their long lance torpedoes at the start of the engagement. Three of them hit the Helena just as the Americans were preparing to turn towards the east. The first hit at 2.04 and the last at 2.07. Her bow came off, she began to break up and sank rapidly (see below for the fate of her crew)..
The two surviving destroyers from the escort group now escaped to the west. The second transport group was heading north towards the Americans and were picked up on radar at 13,000 yards. Ainsworth managed to manoeuvre his surviving ships into a line in front of the advancing Japanese, achieving the dream of any naval commander, crossing the 'T' of the Japanese column.
The four Japanese destroyer transports were now in a very vulnerable position, exposed to fire from the entire American fleet while only their lead ship was able to fire back. The Amagiri, at the head of the column, managed to escape by turning sharply to the right and hiding behind a smoke screen. Next in line was the Hatsuyuki which was hit by three duds, and managed to escape by turning to the left. Nagatsuki and Satsuki turned back south and escaped to Vila, where they unloaded their troops. By 2.27 the first phase of the battle was over. Both sides had lost one ship, and the Japanese had suffered the higher number of casualties but they had also successfully landed most of their troops at Vila.
At 3.41 the destroyers Radford and Nicholas began to rescue the survivors of the Helena, but after a few minutes they were distracted by new contacts on their radar, one in the west and one in the south. They were the Suzukaze and Tanikaze, looking for another change to fire their excellent long lance torpedoes. They came close to the US ships, but without radar didn’t detect them and passed by. The rescue was able to resume, at least until daylight.
The Japanese also managed to rescue some of the survivors from the Niizuki. The Amagiri, which was heading around the northern coast of Kolombangara on its way home, found the survivors and stopped to pick them up. It was now close to dawn, and at 5.18 the Japanese spotted the Nicholas and Radford. Both sides opened fire, first with torpedoes (fired at 5.22 for the Nicholas and 5.30 for the Amagiri). Neither side hit. Gunfire began at 5.34, and the Americans scored a hit on the Amagiri. She then turned and fled under cover of smoke,
The battle wasn't quite over. The Mochizuki was the last of the Japanese destroyer transports to complete unloading. Her captain decided to follow the Amagiri and try and skirt around the northern coast of Kolombangara. Once again he was picked up on radar, and just after 6.00 a final gunnery duel took place, once again with Nicholas and Radford on the American side. After this short clash, in which neither side scored any hits, the Mochizuki turned west and escaped. At 6.17 the two American destroyers also left the scene, with 745 survivors from the Helenaonboard.
The Japanese destroyer Nagatsuki, one of the transport ships, was lightly damaged by US gunfire during the battle. At the end of the fight she ran aground north of Vila (Kolombangara Island). She was bombed by US aircraft during the morning and afternoon of 6 July, and her forward ammunition exploded. After this the Nagatsuki was abandoned, making her the second Japanese loss of the battle.
Although the Helena sank quickly, many of her crew escaped into the sea. A series of attempts were made to rescue the survivors over the next ten days. This started with the destroyers Nicholas and Radford, both of which reached the scene within half an hour. They stayed until dawn, when the Japanese ships came back into sight. By this time all but 275 of the survivors had been rescued, but the destroyers had to leave the area to avoid possible Japanese air attack. The Nicholas had picked up 291 survivors. The destroyers left three motor whaleboats, each towing a life raft. This little flotilla, with 87 men, reached a small island close to Rice Anchorage, and on 7 July they were rescued by the destroyers USS Gwin (DD-433) and Woodworth (DD-460).
This left 200 men trapped on the slowly sinking bow of the Helena. A Navy Liberator dropped four lifeboats and lifejackets. The wounded were placed on the lifeboats and the fit survivors were given lifejackets and this flotilla attempted to reach Kolombaranga. Winds and tides pushed them away from that island, but after a painful day 165 survivors managed to get ashore on Vella Lavella.
On 7 July USS Gwin (DD-433) sailed into the gulf to join the rescue effort, picking up 87 survivors. A major effort was made to rescue them. Four destroyers were sent up to slot to distract the Japanese, while on the night of 16 July two destroyer transports and four destroyers (including the Taylor DD-468 and the elderly Waters DD-115) picked up the 165 survivors and sixteen Chinese who had managed to evade the Japanese on Vella Lavella. Of the crew of nearly 900, more than 700 had been rescued but 168 were lost (mostly in the initial sinking).
At the time the Americans viewed the battle of Kula Gulf as a victory, in the belief that they had prevented the Japanese from landing their reinforcements. Admiral Ainsworth was awarded the Navy Cross for his 'outstanding leadership, brilliant tactics and courageous conduct'. After the war it became clear that the Japanese had actually landed 1,600 soldiers at Vila, and so the battle could be seen as a Japanese victory. At the cost of two destroyers they had succeeded in their main mission and sunk one light cruiser.
Admiral Ainsworth would clash with the Tokyo Express for a second time only a week later, during the battle of Kolombangara (13 July 1943). Once again the long lance torpedoes would cause surprising damage to Allied ships,