The Battle of Kula Gulf
Friday, July 6, 2018
On July 5, 1943, Rear Admiral Walden L. Ainsworth received orders from his immediate superior, Admiral William Halsey, to ambush the Imperial Japanese Navy in Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands. Ainsworth had seven warships under his command, and he wasted no time directing them on an intercept path with Japanese naval forces in the process of delivering more than 2,000 combat troops to Vila on the southern coast of the island of Kolombangara. The route would take Ainsworth’s United States Navy Task Group 36.1 through “The Slot,” a narrow channel from the upper Solomon Islands through the New Georgia Island group. It was a dangerous path that ended in the enemy-held waters of Kula Gulf.
Navy Task Group 36.1 entered the Kula Gulf shortly after midnight on July 6 to poor weather conditions. Ainsworth later reported, “The night was very dark, no moon, overcast, passing showers. The average visibility at its best did not exceed two miles, reduced to less than one mile at times.” American radar spotted enemy ships shortly after 1:30 am at a distance of almost 25,000 yards.
American radar continued scanning the gulf for information on Japanese forces and Ainsworth soon learned that he was facing two groups of Japanese ships positioned roughly 8,000 yards apart. Ainsworth initially wanted to attack both Japanese groups simultaneously, but eventually decided against doing so. He later stated, “It now appeared that it would be much better to hit them separately, even if to do so might give the second group a chance to run back into Blackett Strait. The range by this time had closed to about 7,000 yards, but there had been nothing to indicate that the enemy had either seen us or made contact on our formation.” Ainsworth did not know he had already been spotted via enemy radar.
The Japanese destroyer Niizuki reported locating the American fleet almost 30 minutes before Navy Task Group 36.1 reported their siting of Japanese forces. Despite the presence of American naval forces, Admiral Teruo Akiyama, leader of the Japanese 3rd Destroyer Squadron, had made the decision to proceed with his current mission while keeping a careful watch on the American forces. As the American fleet moved closer, Admiral Akiyama adjusted his positioning and prepared for attack.
Both sides opened fire almost simultaneously just before 2:00 am.
The American light cruisers Helena, St. Louis, and Honolulu sent almost 1,500 shells hurtling toward the enemy in the first five minutes of the battle. The barrage quickly destroyed and sank the Japanese flagship Niizuki, killing Admiral Akiyama and many others in the process. The Americans also damaged the Japanese destroyers Suzukaze and Tanikaze.
During the attack the Helena expended its limited supply of flashless powder and was forced to use smokeless. As a result, every time the ship fired, it shot up a flame that illuminated its presence and marked it as an easy target for Japanese forces. The Helena was quickly targeted and took the brunt of three Japanese torpedoes in less than seven minutes.
Ainsworth continued his attack on Japanese forces, focusing on the four destroyers of the Japanese Second Transport Unit. The Amagiri and Hatsuyuki escaped with minor damage, while the Satsuki and Nagatsuki (which was later run aground and abandoned) escaped to Vila to unload their passengers and cargo. By around 2:30 am, the battle was essentially over.
Ainsworth turned his attention from the battle to locating survivors of the now-sunken Helena. Ainsworth later wrote, “The visibility was very poor and made worse by the smoke of battle.” The Nicholas and Radford found the first survivors shortly before 4:00 am. Japanese and American forces engaged once more around 5:00 am, with the while both sides worked to rescue survivors from the Helena and Niizuki respectively.
Ainsworth led his forces out of Kula Gulf believing that he had scored a decisive victory in the Pacific. Most historians, however, believe the battle was a draw with neither side truly gaining an upper hand. American forces suffered the loss of the Helena while the Japanese lost the destroyers Niizuki and Nagatsuk, but were still able to deliver more than 1,500 troops and 90 tons of supplies to Kolombangara.