In November 1943, U.S. Forces were conducting an offensive island- hopping campaign in the Solomon Island chain of the Southwest Pacific. The campaign objective was to recapture territories taken by the Japanese in the early years of the war, and to provide bases for further strikes against Japan. The offensive began in early 1943, with the fierce Battle of Guadalcanal, and had progressed farther north, around New Georgia, Bougainville, Buka, and New Ireland Islands.
U.S. Naval Forces operating in the area included the ships of Destroyer Squadron 23, under the command of Captain Arleigh "31-Knot" Burke. Burke assumed command of the "Little Beavers" in October 1943, and the destroyers of "23" immediately got busy. Their missions up The Slot were never ending. They ran the mail, lobbed shells at enemy shore installations, and their personnel learned to do without sleep. Reflecting their Commodore's brashness, they did everything at high speed.
In late November 1943, South Pacific Intelligence suspected that the Japanese intended to evacuate their technical aviation personnel from their air base in Buka. The base had been knocked out by the bombardments of the THIRD fleet, and the personnel were needed elsewhere.
Since the 22nd of November, Destroyer Squadron 23 had been operating at night off Bougainville Island, retiring to Hathorn Sound at maximum speed for fuel during the day. On the 24th of November, while fueling at Hathorn Sound, the Squadron received orders from Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey, Commander THIRD Fleet, to expedite fueling and return to point UNCLE, off Empress Augusta Bay. Evacuation of aviation personnel from Buka Island was suspected and DESRON 23 was to "take care of it." En route, Captain Burke received these orders from Admiral Halsey:
"Thirty-One Knot Burke, get athwart the Buka-Rabaul evacuation line about 35 miles west of Buka. If no enemy contact by 0300...come south to refuel same place. If enemy contacted, you know what to do."
At about 1730, the Squadron was steaming at 30 knots towards point UNCLE. Captain Burke's plan was to place his ships near the St. George Channel, as far west as possible. He intended to search the Rabaul-Buka line on the northern side so as to make contact northwest of the enemy, the direction from which the enemy could least expect interception. "It was," Burke wrote afterward, "an ideal night for a nice quiet torpedo attack." At 0130, the Squadron slowed to 23 knots to reduce their wake, and at 0140 changed course to the north, DESDIV 46 taking line of bearing 225 degrees from DESDIV 45, distance 5000 yards. Only one minute later, at 0141, USS DYSON, USS SPENCE, and USS CLAXTON made contact with the Imperial Japanese Navy, picking up the creening destroyers ONAMI and MAKINAMI on radar, eleven miles to the east. At 0145, Burke ordered DESDIV 45 to head directly for the enemy, who was steaming at 25 knots on a westerly course. According to the battle plan, DESDIV 46 would cover DESDIV 45 in the torpedo attack, after which the two divisions would change places. At 0156, DYSON, CLAXTON, and USS CHARLES AUSBURNE reached the desired torpedo firing point on the enemy's port bow, launched 15 torpedoes, and promptly turned 90 degrees right to avoid any fish the enemy might offer. The torpedoes struck; ONAMI disintegrated in a ball of fire 300 feet high, while KINAMI exploded, but stubbornly remained afloat.
Just before the torpedoes hit, CHARLES AUSBURNE made radar contact on the transport destroyers AMIGIRI, YUGURI, and UZUKI. Burke headed after them, ordering USS CONVERSE and SPENCE to finish off the MAKINAMI. Burke prepared his ships for a torpedo run on the second group of ships, but the attack never came to pass. The second group of enemy ships apparently caught sight of the burning hulks of the first group, and turned tail to run. They changed course towards Rabaul, and backed their throttles wide open, with CHARLES AUSBURNE, DYSON, and CLAXTON in hot pursuit.
The Japanese had a seven mile head start, but DESDIV 45 gradually closed the enemy. At 0215, with the chase little more than ten minutes old, Burke decided to change course on a hunch that the enemy might be firing torpedoes. Just as the ships of DESDIV 45 completed a zig-zag maneuver, three heavy explosions rocked the ships. Fortunately, the explosions were merely Japanese torpedoes exploding in the turbulent wake of DESDIV 45. Apparently, the course change kept the ships out of torpedo water. This was just one of many lucky breaks the Squadron experienced that night.
A stern chase is a long chase, but by 0222, Burke's ships had closed the Japanese destroyers to 8000 yards, and opened fire with guns. Burke described the battle action as follows: "The enemy from this time on made several changes of course and also returned our fire... 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..." At 0225, the three enemy targets separated on diverging courses with YUGURI continuing north, while UZUKI and AMIGIRI turned westward. As DYSON fired on UZUKI, CHARLES AUSBURNE and CLAXTON were ordered to concentrate their fire on YUGURI. The ships pounded shell after shell into their targets, with what seemed like minimal results. But after continued relentless gunfire, the YUGURI sank at 0328. AMIGIRI and UZUKI managed to escape, but not without absorbing some savage blows. A night fighter later reported a ship burning and exploding 60 miles due east of Cape St. George, which was probably one of the fleeing ships.
Meanwhile, CONVERSE and SPENCE were finishing off MAKINAMI, the remaining destroyer afloat from the first group. They sank her with torpedoes and gunfire at 0254, and reported to Burke, "One more rising sun has set." During the attack, CONVERSE was hit by an enemy torpedo, but the warhead, fortunately, turned out to be a dud. With MAKINAMI on the bottom, DESDIV 46 set out, rejoining DESDIV 45 in pursuit of the fleeing Japanese ships. The Squadron headed towards St. George's Channel in an attempt to intercept the damaged ships. This action was in itself most daring, for Burke pursued the enemy to within easy range of Japanese air cover at Rabaul. The search, however, was in vain, and the Squadron broke off the search at 0405. Burke expected furious retaliation from enemy aircraft come daybreak; however, enemy planes never appeared. The first and only planes they saw were their fighter cover, which arrived over them at 0648. "Never has the white star on a wing meant so much to tired sailors as the one on those Lightnings," said Burke.
Commending the Squadron after the Battle, Captain Burke wrote: "The Navy stresses devotion to duty, aggressiveness, boldness, determination, courage. The full realization of exactly what these traits of character mean was brought out by the officers and crews during this engagement. The universal desire of all hands to do damage to the enemy regardless of consequences, is the greatest exhilaration that any Commander can possibly have. The complete loyalty, understanding and wholehearted desire to mutually support the operation, coupled with the courage and valiant determination to do it, were the outstanding characteristics of these ships."
In this long fight, the Japanese were outmaneuvered, outfought, and very probably taken by surprise. The "Bull dog" tactics of Captain Burke in the Battle of Cape St. George earned DESRON 23 the pride and admiration of the Pacific Fleet. The Squadron managed to sink three enemy ships and heavily damaged a fourth, in a naval action fought for the first time in waters so close to the enemy's naval and air fortress of abaul. The Naval War College characterized the engagement as "the almost prefect surface action," while Admiral Halsey called it the "Trafalgar of the Pacific." Throughout World War II, no other U.S. Naval Unit eclipsed the record of the Little Beavers at the Battle of Cape St. George.