From “The Little Beavers at the Battle of Cape St.
George” by R. G. Smith, depicting
(right to left) Charles Ausburne, Dyson and
Claxton firing on Yugiri (right)
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.
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."
Picture at right IJN Onami DD-111
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.
at right IJN Makinami DD-112
Picture at right IJN Uzuki
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.
Picture at right IJN Yuguri
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
Picture at right IJN Amigiri
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
Map from Google Earth showing the location of
the three Jap Destroyers sunk during the battle. The Omami, the Makinami and
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.