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Vella Lavella


Digital relief map of Vella Lavella

Photograph of Barakoma airfield on Vella Lavella

U.S. Navy


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 Vella Lavella Campaign

The difficult struggle for Munda was a significant setback for the Allies under Halsey. The Japanese had fought 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.

Photograph of New Zealand troops landng at Vella Lavella

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.

Allied order of battle, 15 August 1943

III Amphibious Force (Wilkinson)

 
Advance Transport Group


 
Transport Division 12



 
APD Stringham
 



APD Waters




APD Dent




APD Talbot



Transport Division 22




APD Kilty




APD Ward



APD McKean



Destroyer Screen




DD Nicholas




DD O'Bannon




DD Taylor



DD Chevalier




DD Cony




DD Pringle


Second Transport Group



LCI Unit




12 LCI


Destroyer Screen




DD Waller



DD Saufley




DD Philip




DD Renshaw

Third Transport Group



3 LST



Screen




DD Conway



DD Eaton




2 SC


Landing Force (McClure)
4600 officers and men and 8700 tons of cargo


35 Regimental Combat Team, 25 Division     



64 Field Artillery Battalion



4 Marine Defense Battalion



25 Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop



58 Naval Construction Battalion



Naval Base Group

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


.Photograph of Selfridge and O'Bannon after the battle

Selfridge and O'Bannon after the battle. Morison (1950)

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 Americans.

Japanese order of battle

Vella Lavella Evacuation Force (Ijuin)     

 
Support Group (Ijuin)


 
DD Akigumo



DD Isokaze


DD Kazagumo



DD Yugumo Sunk


DD Shigure



DD Samidare

Destroyer Transport Group



APD Fumizuki



APD Matsukaze



APD Yunagi

Subchaser-Transport Group



4 SC



4 PT



4 Daihatsu

Allied order of battle

Northern Group

 
DD Selfridge
Damaged

DD Chevalier
Severely damaged and scuttled

DD O'Bannon
Damaged
Southern Group


DD Ralph Talbot      

DD Taylor

DD La Vallette


References

Morison (1950)

Rottman (2002)



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