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The Final Run of the Tokyo Express

  • Written by 
USS Spence USS Spence

The Battle of Cape St. George proved the United States Navy’s strength on the vast Pacific Ocean, but it was a long time coming. 7 December, 1941 truly is a date that remains with our country as one of infamy, but it also signified the beginning of a long climb back for our Pacific fleet.  Before Pearl Harbor the Navy depended on giant battleships, and afterwards on aircraft carriers.  But the battle off Cape St. George on 25 November 1943, less than two years after this transition, was fought entirely by surface ships and it, as much as any larger engagement, was a significant turning point.

Japan had sent ships and troops out to island after island: invading, conquering natives and defeating the British, the French, the Dutch.  The tentacles of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy reached almost to Australia before America’s military was able to react, with battles at Guadalcanal, in the Solomons, on Bouganville, on little spits of land like Tarawa.  The Japanese kept their remaining forces supplied by a string of warships known as the Tokyo Express.  Light ships, fast and well-armed, they brought in troops and supplies, and turned back to their homeland to prepare for another voyage.

But down near Buka in the Solomons the Japanese destroyers met the Little Beaver Squadron in a well-balanced surface action, with near-perfect destroyer weather, and they lost. Destroyer Squadron 23 was known as “The Little Beavers” when their charismatic leader, Captain Arleigh Burke, had his ships paint onto their stacks an image of a little Indian, a comic book character known as “Little Beaver”.  At sea he was naked, as the ships entered port the men would add a breech cloth.

Burke had come out of Colorado, a farm boy looking for an education, and he got one at the U. S. Naval Academy.  He graduated and went to battleships, but soon found his first love on the sleek greyhounds of the fleet:  the destroyers.  He commanded the USS MUGFORD and soon he had his captaincy and his own squadron, composed mostly of the newest and best destroyers:  the FLETCHER class.

And it was the Little Beaver Squadron, with ships, armed for surface fighting as well as for air protection and antisubmarine action, that finally stopped the Tokyo Express runs, in the waters off Cape St. George in the Solomon island chain.

The two forces were well balanced.  The Japanese commander was Captain Katsumori Yamashiro.  He had the destroyers AMAGIRI, YUGIRI, and UZUKI, all modern ships, as well as several other destroyers, well-armed and battle worthy.

Burke commanded the CHARLES AUSBURNE, the CLAXTON, and the DYSON, fleshed out by the SPENCE and the CONVERSE, all FLETCHERs constructed in 1942. Both Japanese and American ships were armed well with similar weapons, including torpedoes. The Japanese had a big edge with their “Long Lance” torpedoes, dependable and effective.

The weather conditions were, “Weather/visibility/sea state:  Night, dark, no moon, low clouds, occasional rain.  Sea smooth, wind force two from the East South East.  Visibility 3,000 yards without binoculars.” It was truly “destroyer weather for an almost perfect destroyer action”.

The Tokyo Express offloaded soldiers and supplies, and took aboard and took aboard pilots who no longer had airplanes in the area, and were re-assigned to Japan. Setting their course northward, they ventured into the strait between Buka and New Ireland.

The American forces rushed northward also, in order to be in position to intercept.  Once again, American intelligence played a big part in the operation, just as it had at Midway. They ended up in a direct line between Buka and Rabaul, and they were ready. It was a perfect night for a force relying on electronics, not visual, contacts. The Japanese screening destroyers began their run, leading the way up the strait toward their homeland.  The transports, all fast destroyers in their own right, followed. 

Within a short time, the American destroyers closed the range to the point where they could open fire, with each ship’s forward guns, zigzagging to bring their rear batteries to bear in turn.  The Japanese returned fire and managed some near misses, drenching one ship with near misses. The American position was dangerous.  The enemy only had to make a ninety degree turn to cap Burke’s destroyers, but the FLETCHERS, in turn, fired their torpedoes, fifteen each, and immediately sunk one enemy and damaged another.  The YUGIRI was also sunk in later action.  Soon the American destroyers damaged others and the final tally was three enemy destroyers with no losses or hits on Burke’s Little Beaver Squadron.

There was criticism after the battle by officers who thought that the fight could have been better, but only results count, and this action was an outstanding American victory.

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