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Battle of Cape St George

                                             THE BATTLE OF CAPE ST. GEORGE

 

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During the third week in November 1943, Burke's DD's, busiest destroyers in the Solomons, were engaged in offensively sweeping the Bougainville area. As of this date DESRON 23 was composed of flag destroyer Charles Ausburne (CDR L. K. Reynolds); Claxton (CDR H. F. Stout); Dyson (CDR R. A. Gano); Converse (CDR C. E. Hamberger), flying the pennant of CDR B. L. Austin, COMDESDIV 46; and Spence (CDR H. J. Armstrong).
On the 24th the five destroyers put in for fuel at Hathorn Sound in Kula Gulf, New Georgia Island. They were loading their tanks to capacity when intelligence dispactched the interesting information that the Japanese planned to evacuate important aviation personnel from the battered Buka-Bonis airfields.
(Our intelligence people were, at that time, reading the Jap's mail)
As Japanese destroyers and high-speed transports would probably attempt the evacuation, it seemed logical that American destroyers, if they also moved at high speed, could frustrate the evacuation effort. ADM Halsey's flagship advised Burke's flag destroyer accordingly.
Burke was directed to finish topping off at top speed, then to steam to "Point Uncle" - a point off the southwest coast of Bougainville. There he was to report his time of arrival. And if the evacuation eventuated, DESRON 23 was to "take care of it".
Burke was away from Hathorn Sound with a celerity that let no moss grow under keel. He reported that his squadron would arrive at "Point Uncle" about 2200, via a route south of Treasure Island. This and a subsequent report indicated that his destroyers were making 31 knots - a fact which brought an exclamation from CAPT R. H. Thurber, Halsey's Operations Officer and one-time squadron mate of the fast-moving Burke. According to one story, Thurber cried: "Thirty-one knots! And he recently advised us he could make only 30 knots formation speed!"

When Halsey's next order was dispatched it was worded as follows:
THIRTY-ONE KNOT BURKE GET ATHWART THE BUKA-RABAUL EVACUATION LINE ABOUT 35 MILES WEST OF BUKA XXX IF NO ENEMY CONTACTS BY 0300...25th...COME SOUTH TO REFUEL SAME PLACE XXX IF ENEMY CONTACTED YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO
Historic message! Flashing from COMSOPAC to COMDESRON 23, it sent Burke's destroyers steaming into the waters between Buka and New Ireland to fight the classic Battle of Cape St. George. And now it endowed CAPT Burke with a nom de guerre destined to stay with him for the duration of Naval history - "31-Knot Burke".
About 0130 in the morning of November 25 the five destroyers of "31-Knot" Burke began their fateful patrol in the waters between Buka and New Ireland. Burke had his two divisions ranged in two-column echelon formation- Charles Ausburne in the lead, followed by Claxton and Dyson,
with Converse and Spence trailing on parallel course to port.
The night was overcast and moonless, its 3,000 yard visibility blurred by sporadic rain squalls. Burke ordered a patrolling speed of 23 knots through warm seas that were greasy-smooth and heaving. "An ideal night," he noted, "for a nice quiet torpedo attack." At 0141 through the propitious quietude came the first tally-ho radar contact by destroyer Dyson on a target 22,000 yards to the northeast. CDR Gano passed the word over voice radio, and Burke's reply by TBS was as informal as it was informative:

                   HELLO DS 23 HANG ON TO YOUR HATS BOYS HERE WE GO


The Squadron Commander's next order was:
DIVISION CORPEN 85 COMDESDIV 46 HOLD BACK UNTIL YOU GET YOUR PROPER BEARING...THAT IS 225

This order headed the squadron for the enemy, the DESDIV 45 column in the lead, and the DESDIV 46 column trailing to starboard in back-field position.
As the destroyers sprinted toward Target No. 1, a second pip showed up on the radar screen. Then, as the range decreased, a third pip glimmered into view on the scope, and the radar watch thought they had three Japanese ships in the immediate offing. Actually, one of these pips was an electronic phantom - an illusion. The squadron was bearing down on two Japanese men-of-war which were serving as a screen for the evacuation ships astern and to the east. These other ships were detected in due time - three more pips snared by the American radar to make a total of five targets in all. Although Burke formed no positive opinion as to the type of enemy ships ahead, some of the destroyermen believed they were cruisers, and Burke counted the enemy force as six. Perhaps it was just as well that the Japanese ships numbered five, and that they proved to be destroyers instead of cruisers. Not that the larger size and number would have deterred CAPT Burke and company. But the five American DD's would have been heavily outweighed had the Japanese force included several CL's.
As it was, the combatants were evenly matched as to weight; and for Burke's scrappy destroyers an even match was tantamount to a sizable advantage. Given radar's all seeing eye, the American advantage became overwhelming. Deployed in two columns (screening pair and trio astern), the Japanese were taken completely by surprise, and forced to fight blindly against a foe with long-range vision.
In failing to detect the approaching Americans, the two Japanese DD's in screening position were steaming on a steady course when Burke's van destroyers closed the range to 5,500 yards. The Japanese were blissfully unaware of what was coming. Charles Ausburne, Claxton, and Dyson had time to maneuver into position for a sharpshooting torpedo set-up. CDR Reynolds, C.O. of Charles Ausburne called it, "a destroyer officer's dream." "31-Knot" Burke drew a bead, so to speak, and ordered his DESDIV 45 DD's to let fly.
Five torpedoes were fired by each attacking destroyer -- a barrage that sent fifteen deadly "fish" in a school toward the Japanese targets. A lengthening wait stretched suspense to the limit of endurance and then the TNT thunderstorm exploded across the seascape. One target sent up a ball of fire 300 feet in the air. Explosives hurled up burning debris. In that livid climax one of the Japanese destroyers (IJN Onani) crumpled in ruination and sank. The other (IJN Makanami) staggered about in solitary desolation, a burning wreck.
Immediately after the torpedoes were fired Burke's DD's had executed a 90-degree right turn to side-step any counter torpedo attacks. The defensive tactic proved unnecessary in this instance, but while it was being made the radar watch picked up the second Japanese column, 13,000 yard astern of the first. Charles Ausburne, Claxton and Dyson promptly wheeled to attack these new targets.
Alarmed by the blasting of Column No. 1, the second Japanese column (IJN Yugiri, IJN Amigiri and IJN Uzuki) ran. Ordering Converse and Spence to demolish the enemy cripple, Burke sent DESDIV 45 in hot pursuit of the fugitives - targets that finally materialized as three destroyers.
The three Japanese destroyers hiked for home with their fantails between their legs. Racing northward, they built up speed. Ordering all the turns the engineers could make, "31-Knot" Burke coaxed over 35 knots out of Div 45. There are some reports that as much as 41 knots were finally reached. A Chief Watertender on the Claxton was asked after the battle how they managed to get so many turns up, He replied " We put all the ships 'Joe Pots' on line".                                                   
The Japanese had a long head start, however, and DESDIV 45 could not overhaul for a torpedo attack. A stern chase is invariably a long one, and this one seemed interminable to the sweating American destroyermen. For a time it seemed as though it might go on until the whole "kit and boiling" ended up in a Japanese backwater of Simpson Harbor. No matter, DESDIV 45 kept on going.
At 0215 Burke, acting on a sudden hunch, ordered a radical course change to the right to avoid a possible salvo of Japanese torpedoes. The division steadied, and a moment later came back to its base course. Intuition - whatever it was - Burke's hunch move apparently paid off. As he reported it:
"No sooner had the...division come to course...than three heavy explosions were felt by all the ships. The explosions were so heavy the ships were badly jarred and the Squadron Commander could not resist the temptation to look at the bow to see whether or not it was still there. Charles Ausburne did not slow, and it was felt that at least one of the ships astern had been hit by torpedoes. Each one of the ships astern thought that one of the other ships had been hit. Fortunately the explosions were merely Japanese torpedoes exploding at the end of their runs or as they crossed our wakes. It may be that the short jog to the right threw the division out of torpedo water. If so, it was one of the most fortunate of the many lucky breaks the Squadron experienced."
At 0222 the pursuing DD's were within gun range, and Burke snapped the order to open fire. The destroyers opened up with their forward guns at a range of about 8,000 yards. Burke penned a colorful description of the action which ensued:
"The enemy from this time on made several changes of course and also returned our fire. A large amount of smoke covered the retreating Japanese force which was either a smoke screen purposely laid or powder and stack smoke resulting from incidental operations. As soon as enemy fire was observed the division started to fishtail, weaving back and forth within 30 degrees of the base course. The enemy salvos were well grouped. Patterns were small and they came close, but for some unaccountable reason there were no direct hits. The nearness of the enemy projectiles is best demonstrated by the fact that there were two inches of water on the Claxton's bridge caused by the splashes of the shots. Some of the enemy salvos landed short, some over. they were not consistent in their missing.
"Hits were observed on the targets almost at once, but they seemed to have no effect. There were no fires in the beginning, the targets did not slow, and in spite of the magnificent efforts of the gunners of the 45th division, we seemed to be conducting a futile gun practice."
Meanwhile DESDIV 46 (Converse and Spence) finished off the IJN Makanami, with the latter sinking at 0254.
Converse and Spence immediately proceeded north to join DESDIV 45.
As the American 5-inchers of DESDIV 45 continued to blaze and bark, the Japanese destroyers, zigzagging like jackrabits, took divergent courses. The fastest raced ahead on a base course of 350T and the other two tangented on either side. This split up occurred at 0225, three minuted after DESDIV 45 opened fire. And presently it was apparent that the American gunnery was not as futile as Burke had feared. Shots from DESDIV 45, flashing and twinkling through the smoke which shrouded the fleeing ships, had hit the enemy some savage blows. At 0300, one of the jackrabbiting Japanese destroyers (IJN Yugiri) burst into flames and went reeling. Yugiri sank at 0328.
DESDIV 45 continued to pursue the remaining two Japanese destroyers, IJN Amigiri and IJN Uzuki. The Japanese continued to flee to the northwest at high speed. At 0345 DESDIV 46 rejoined with DESDIV 45 and continued the pursuit. At 0405, when it became apparent that the squadron was in another stern chase, CAPT Burke ordered the squadron to retire to the southeast.


                   Thus ended one of the greater destroyer actions in Naval history. The US Naval War College has
                    termed this engagement "An almost perfect surface action". The tactics of this action have been taught
                    there at the college for many years. Later, these five ships of the squadron were awarded the
                    Presidential Unit Citation. DESRON  23 was the only Destroyer Squadron to be so honored during
                    WW II.

                                                  Page revised June 29, 2005

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