The American goal of isolating the main Japanese military base at Rabaul on the island of New Britain came a step closer with the amphibious assault of Bougainville on Nov. 1, 1943. In response, the Japanese commanders at Rabaul ordered naval personnel stationed at the air base on Buka Island, just north of Bougainville, evacuated and replaced with army troops. A five-ship convoy composed of destroyer-transports Yuguri, Uzuki, and Amagiri, escorted by destroyers Makinami and Onami was dispatched under command of Capt. Kiyoto Kagawa. Alerted by U.S. Navy intelligence, on Nov. 24, 1943, theater naval commander Adm. William Halsey ordered nine PT boats to guard Buka Passage, which separated Buka from Bougainville, and sent Capt. Arleigh Burke, the commander of the five-ship Destroyer Squadron 23 (DESRON 23), to intercept the convoy.
“An almost perfect surface action.”
Burke was new to the command, having assumed it on October 23. He received his orders while his ships were refueling at New Georgia Island, approximately 300 miles southeast. Burke was told to top off his ships’ bunkers and proceed with all due speed to the intercept point “Point Uncle.” The Fletcher-class destroyers of DESRON 23 (Charles Ausburne (flag), Claxton, Dyson, Converse, and Spence) had been in constant action since September, and were overdue for maintenance. As a result, Burke knew his ships were incapable of reaching their top rated speed of 38 knots. Accounts vary regarding Burke’s message to Halsey on that subject, with some claiming he sent a message before proceeding to Point Uncle, others after, and variations of the speed itself. Most accounts state his slowest ship was the Spence, capable of 31 knots. That was the speed referenced when Burke sent his message to Halsey. Regardless, it was Halsey’s response that gave Burke his famous nickname:
THIRTY-ONE KNOT BURKE GET ATHWART THE BUKA-RABAUL EVACUATION LINE ABOUT 35 MILES WEST OF BUKA XXX IF NO ENEMY CONTACTS BY 0300 . . . 25TH . . . COME SOUTH TO REFUEL SAME PLACE XXX IF ENEMY CONTACTED YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO
While counting on surprise, Burke also had three advantages going into battle. The Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance, after much prodding by COMSUBPAC Vice Adm. Charles Lockwood, had finally fixed the bugs plaguing the Navy’s torpedoes. He also had a viable combat naval radar doctrine that was the result of brutal lessons learned in the Solomons campaign. The third advantage was more personal. During the Battle of Blackett Strait in March 1943, Burke served as a destroyer captain in Task Force 68. Though an American victory, Burke came away frustrated. The task force commander did not inform his ship captains of his intentions until just before the battle commenced. Burke was determined that his captains would know his exact thoughts well before battle. Though individual engagements would contain relevant specifics, Burke’s standing order in all cases was: “Destroyers to attack on enemy contact WITHOUT ORDERS from the task force commander.”
“Destroyers to attack on enemy contact WITHOUT ORDERS from the task force commander.”
DESRON 23’s nickname was the “Little Beavers.” It was bestowed by Burke following an inspection of the Claxton where he saw that a torpedoman had drawn on the side of the torpedo mount the image of Little Beaver, the young Indian sidekick of Red Ryder, the hero of a popular comic strip and radio show character. Burke incorporated the image into the squadron’s logo, thus giving DESRON 23 one of the most famous nicknames in the war.
Kagawa’s convoy had successfully landed the troops and was in the process of returning to Rabaul when at about 0141 on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, the Dyson made radar contact on the Japanese destroyers Onami and Makinami. Burke later recalled the night was overcast and moonless, “An ideal night for a nice quiet torpedo attack.” Guided by radar, the ships closed to within 5,500 yards before unleashing a salvo of fifteen torpedoes. Hit by several torpedoes, the Onami promptly sank. The Makinami was heavily damaged and sunk by gunfire.
The chase was now on to catch the fleeing destroyer-transports. Burke managed to catch and sink the Yuguri and damage the Uzuki, which along with the untouched Amagiri, escaped. The U.S. Naval War College used the Battle of Cape St. George in its curriculum for many years and called it, “An almost perfect surface action.” It was the last engagement of surface warships in the Solomons Campaign and the last run of the Tokyo Express. DESRON 23 would receive the Presidential Unit Citation for its role in the action, the only destroyer squadron in the war to be so honored. Burke would stay in the Navy after the war, serve in Korea, reach the rank of admiral and serve three terms as Chief of Naval Operations before retiring in 1961.
DESRON 23 would receive the Presidential Unit Citation for its role in the action, the only destroyer squadron in the war to be so honored.
YouTube contains a U.S. Navy Heritage Mini-Series video about the Battle of Cape St. George under the title Thirty-One Knot Burke.