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Vella Lavella (156.66E
7.75S) is the northwesternmost island of the New Georgia group. It is 26 miles
(42 km) long and 12 miles (19 km) wide. Mountainous
(peak elevation 2651' or 808 meters) and covered in jungle, with no good harbor, it is separated from Kolombangara by Vella Gulf. There was well-drained,
relatively flat ground suitable for airfields
in the southern corner of the island, near the main settlement of
Barakoma, but the island was completely undeveloped in 1941.
The war would likely have passed
it by had it not become the target of the first leapfrog operation of
the South Pacific campaign.
The difficult struggle for Munda was a significant setback for
the Allies under Halsey. The Japanese had
tenaciously to hold Munda while preparing a new line at Kolombangara, and
if the Japanese continued to be permitted to tenaciously defend each
island while building their next line of resistance at the next island,
they might well force the Allies to a compromise peace. The separate
Allied commanders arrived at the solution independently and at about
the same time: They would have to adopt a strategy of encirclement,
leapfrogging Japanese strong points rather than trying to take them.
This strategy had already been applied successfully, if
unintentionally, at Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians.
Attention focused on Vella Lavella, the next island beyond heavily-defended Kolombangara. The Japanese had very few troops on the island as yet, and on 21 July 1943 Wilkinson landed a mixed reconnaissance force by PT boat on the island. Aided by coast watchers, the force explored the island for six days and did not encounter a single Japanese soldier. The reconnaissance force determined that Barakoma, on the southeast coast of the island, was the most favorable location for a mass landing. This was approved for 15 August 1943.
U.S. Marine Corps. Via ibiblio.org
The Japanese were not caught entirely by surprise, as traffic analysis warned them
of an impending Allied move. However, they did not guess the objective,
and on 12-13 August 1943 a group of three PT boats was able to land a
scouting party at Barakoma. A fourth PT boat was damaged by air attack.
Another group of four PT boats arrived on 14 August with
reinforcements. The only Japanese opposition was from scattered and
poorly armed survivors of the Battle of Vella Gulf. The main Allied
force arrived on 15 August.
Amphibious Force (Wilkinson)
||4600 officers and men and 8700
tons of cargo
Regimental Combat Team, 25 Division
Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop
The Japanese responded at 0741 with an air strike by 6 Val dive bombers and 48 Zero fighters that scored only near misses while losing at least three Vals and six Zeros to antiaircraft and the defending Corsairs. A second strike shortly after noon by 11 Vals and 48 Zeros are equally unsuccessful, losing five Vals and at least two Zeros. A weak strike late in the day was ambushed while landing at Kahili and lost another aircraft.
Japanese commanders ruled out a counterlanding and chose instead to
establish a barge staging
point at Horianu on the northeast tip of the island. The Japanese
forces for this base were to be barged in with destroyer escort on 17-18 August
1943. The four Japanese destroyers were met by four American destroyers
just before midnight. The two forces exchanged torpedoes without scoring hits. The
Japanese commander, Ijuin,
attempted to cap the American T, but the Americans maneuvered into a
parallel formation and the two sides exchanged gunnery without much
effect. At 0058 the two forces exchanged more torpedoes, again without
effect, and the Japanese broke off and withdrew. Ijuin had concluded
that barges and troops were not worth the loss of any more precious
destroyers. Though the Americans sank four small craft and a barge,
most of the Japanese troops got through.
On 17 August 1943 the second American landing echelon arrived. The Japanese finally scored a hit, sinking LST-396, but the remaining American troops were able to come ashore. The third echelon, arriving on 20 August, was also attacked, losing no ships but suffering some strafing damage. The Japanese lost at least four aircraft.
On 14 September the Americans overran Horaniu, forcing the 600 Japanese of the garrison to retreat to the northwest cape of the island. The Americans were relieved on 18 September by troops of 3 New Zealand Division under H.E. Barrowclough.
Total casualties were 58
killed and 166 wounded for the U.S. forces, 32 killed and 32 wounded
from the New Zealand forces,
and about 250 Japanese dead.
With their grip on Vella Lavella secure and a new airstrip with a 4000' (1220 meter) runway operating at Barakoma on 24 September, the Allies attempted to impose a close blockade on Kolombangara. This was not very successful. The Japanese evacuated large numbers of men by barge in spite of heavy losses to Allied aircraft, and on 28-29 September a powerful force of four Japanese destroyer-transports escorted by nine destroyers evacuated 2115 men from Kolombangara. A repeat on 29-30 September resulted in an inconclusive long-range engagement between Japanese and Allied destroyer forces. Similar inconclusive engagements took place on the next three nights. By 4 October the Japanese had completed their evacuation, rescuing 5400 men by barge and another 4000 by destroyer, including General Sasaki. In the process, they lost about a third of their barges and a thousand men.
The airfield on Vella Lavella was closed on 15 June 1944 and the
remaining naval facilities closed in September.
The Battle of Vella Lavella.
With their troops on Kolombangara evacuated, Japanese attention now
turned to the 600 men still trapped on the northwest cape of Vella
Lavella. Although the number of troops was not large, the Japanese
decided for reasons of prestige that they had to be evacuated as well.
Ijuin therefore departed from Rabaul early on 6 October with a force of
nine destroyers to rendezvous with a dozen small craft and rescue the
surrounded troops that night.
Wilkinson received reports of the approaching Japanese force from search planes that afternoon. The only force in the immediate area was a group of three destroyers under Captain Frank Walker. Wilkinson ordered a second group of three destroyers detached from convoy duty to the south to join Walker, but they were unlikely to arrive before the Japanese did.
Walker knew that his three destroyers were up against nine Japanese
destroyers, and that Japanese reconnaissance aircraft had sighted his
force. He nevertheless pressed on to intercept, dodging into a squall
at one point in an unsuccessful attempt to elude the enemy air search.
At 2231 the Japanese force was sighted, and Walker steered towards the
enemy at full speed, uncertain whether Ijuin would break off when
challenged as he had in previous engagements. This time Ijuin chose to
fight, though not before he had ordered his destroyer-transports to
withdraw. His force was divided into a column of four destroyers from
his Support Group and a second column of two destroyers that had been
escorting the Destroyer Transport Group and were racing to join up.
Ijuin sighted the Americans at 2235 but was uncertain whether this was
his own subchaser group.
Walker ordered torpedoes fired at a range of 7000 yards, then ordered gunfire a few seconds later. He continued on course, a dangerous move in the face of possible Japanese torpedoes. However, Ijuin was poorly placed to fire his own torpedoes, since Yugumo had charged off to meet the Americans and had fouled the Japanese line of fire. Ijuin hauled the other three destroyers in his column south and evaded the American torpedoes, but Yugumo was hit by shells and a torpedo and left adrift and burning.
She was swiftly avenged. As Chevalier tried to close with
the Subchaser Group she was hit by a torpedo that exploded her forward
magazine. Moments later, as veered off course, she was rammed by O'Bannon
in her after engine room. Meanwhile Selfridge
charged ahead and into a spread of Japanese torpedoes, one of which
wrecked the forward part of the ship.
At this point the three destroyers sent to reinforce Walker charged
into the fight from the south. The Japanese reconnaissance aircraft
reported them as "cruisers" and Ijuin decided he had had enough. His
parting salvo at Walker's crippled ships failed to connect. Selfridge managed to get away; Chevalier was scuttled by a
torpedo from La Vallette
after the battle. Morison
While the Americans were conducting rescue and salvage operations, the Japanese Subchaser Transport Group quietly slipped past and embarked 589 men from Vella Lavella.
The battle was a tactical and strategic Japanese victory, but a
marginal one considering the three-to-one odds in favor of the
Japanese. It was widely regarded at the time as a moral victory for the
Lavella Evacuation Force (Ijuin)
||Severely damaged and scuttled
|DD Ralph Talbot|
|DD La Vallette||
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