By Naval History and Heritage Command staff
It was “an ideal night for a nice, quiet torpedo attack,” according to then-Capt. Arleigh A. Burke. “There may have been blacker nights than Thanksgiving Eve, 1943, in the South Pacific, but none could have been more completely blacked out with regard to information of the enemy.”
That’s how Burke described the famed Battle of Cape St. George. Today is the 70th anniversary of that final surface battle that ended the World War II Solomon Islands Campaign, in which 7th Fleet Destroyer Squadron 23 sank three out of a 5-ship “Tokyo Express” that was evacuating Japanese troops and aviation crew from Buka Island to Rabaul, and heavily damaged a fourth.
The significance of the Battle of Cape St. George on Nov. 25, 1943, was the complete reversal of fortune between the Japanese and American navies since the start of World War II. Despite the devastating loss of ships during the attack at Pearl Harbor, and other losses during the Battle of Midway, American shipbuilding efforts helped replenish the fleet, while Japan’s fleet dropped to critically low numbers, with no time to repair damaged ships or maintain those that needed infrastructure refits. The United States had also gained on Japan with advancement of technology. And with more successful rescues of Sailors and airmen downed from damaged ships and aircraft, the U.S. Navy also outpaced Japan in retention of service members who were veterans of combat.
The Battle of Cape St. George was called “an almost perfect surface action” by the Naval War College, and Burke’s good friend and commander of the South Pacific Forces Adm. William “Bull” Halsey called it the “Trafalgar of the Pacific.”
It was the Battle of Cape St. George where Capt. Burke would earn the nickname that would stick with him for the rest of his career. Burke, who was known for his hard-charging style, had his flagship reduced to 30 knots from the typical 34 knots or more after a boiler burst. When intelligence came in about a clandestine movement of Japanese troops, Adm. Halsey ordered Burke to rendezvous at “Point Uncle” near Bougainville by 10 p.m. Confirming the orders, Burke indicated his squadron would ramp up his reduced speed capacity to 31 knots.
He then received the crafted response approved by Halsey: “THIRTY-ONE KNOT BURKE GET ATHWART THE BUKA-RABUL EVACUATION LINE ABOUT 35 MILES WEST OF BUKA….”
And thus moniker “31-knot” Burke was born.
After sinking three of the destroyers, the squadron attempted to chase down the two remaining Japanese ships back to Rabaul. As the battle continued through the darkness, heavily damaging a fourth enemy destroyer, DESRON 23 discovered at 4:05 a.m. they were deep into Japanese territory, well within range of enemy aircraft.
With sunrise dawning, Burke made the decision to end his second “stern chase” of the night in the event the Japanese launched an air attack on the squadron. Yet the Japanese chose not to fight back, leaving scores of aircraft on the ground rather than pursuing the five destroyers.
As the American ships sailed back to Purvis Bay, without a single casualty, there was but one thought on everyone’s mind: Thanksgiving. Burke’s crew passed along the message back to Purvis Bay: “Please arrange Thanksgiving services for all hands on arrival.”
Later, Burke himself admitted much of that naval victory came from serendipity. Radar on the American warships allowed them to enact an attack based on electronics rather than optics; the Japanese transport consisted of similarly sized destroyers rather than cruisers, and Burke’s counter-attack maneuver after firing torpedoes at the first two destroyers that allowed radar to pick up the second Japanese column.
Fortune also smiled on the Americans that night: Salvos fired by the Japanese were “not consistent in their missing,” Burke wryly noted that night; a torpedo that struck Converse either wasn’t armed or a dud; and a wave of Japanese torpedoes exploded in the wakes left by Burke’s destroyers after his gut instinct to change position to the right.
Throughout World War II, no other U.S. Naval Unit eclipsed the record of the Little Beavers at the Battle of Cape St. George. Just as the crews serving under Burke responded in that decisive battle 70 years ago, Sailors continue to step up today, whether it is a fight against piracy or providing humanitarian support. They can, in fact take inspiration from Burke’s words for his squadron following the Battle of Cape St. George.
“The Navy stresses devotion to duty, aggressiveness, boldness, determination, courage,” Burke wrote to the crews of the ships under his command. “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.”
The full text of then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Burke’s essay, published in Parade Magazine Nov. 18, 1956, is below:
An ideal night for a nice quiet torpedo attack.
— Capt. Arleigh A. Burke
There may have been blacker nights than Thanksgiving Eve, 1943, in the South Pacific, but none could have been more completely blacked out with regard to information of the enemy.
The Solomon Islands campaign, one of the decisive battles of World War II in the Pacific, was at its height, and the issue had not yet been resolved. Our destroyers were steaming north in search of the Japanese, who were reported to be evacuating their forces from the islands of Buka and Rabaul.
Suddenly our ships made contact with an unidentified force—strength unknown—and closed to fight it out.
The battle continued throughout the night. One after another, the breaks fell to us. The pieces of the puzzle gradually slipped into their proper places as, one by one, the enemy warships were routed or sunk.
But, as dawn came, a new battle loomed ahead. Pursuit of the beaten Japs had put our formation deep in enemy waters, far beyond our own air cover. The weather was clear. Japanese airfields were close by, and we knew they had many fighters and bombers on the four bases in the vicinity of Rabaul.
As we began our retirement to the southward, aerial attack seemed imminent. We hadn’t suffered a single casualty during the night action, but now, perhaps, our luck had run out.
To our surprise, nothing happened—nothing at all. The Japanese did not strike back! As we continued to sail into friendlier waters, identical requests began coming to the flagship from every destroyer in the formation. Finally we passed them all along to Admiral Merrill, our commander back in Purvis Bay: “Please arrange Thanksgiving services for all hands on arrival.”
They were waiting for us when we returned to port—our Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chaplains. An explanation was also waiting—a reconnaissance dispatch stating that 58 enemy bombers and 145 fighters had been observed on Japanese airfields near Rabaul. They had not attacked up presumably because, through the grace of Divine Providence, they didn’t know our exact position and, hence, couldn’t find us in time.
I’ll always remember that Thanksgiving Day in that beautiful, tropical harbor: battle-scarred ships nested together in a quiet anchorage, battle-weary crews giving thanks to God for their victory—and for their deliverance.
—Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations
With permission from Parade Magazine, Nov. 18, 1956.