Yesterday’s battle (Prohkorovka) was a tongue-twister, so let’s do it again!
Kolombangara is not the biggest island you’ve never heard of, and it’s certainly not the easiest to pronounce. But it’s one of the roundest. So round, in fact, that I used some of my old geometry equations to roughly compute the area. About 9.3 miles in diameter, divide that by 2, square the result, and multiply by pi…70 square miles, give or take.
Isn’t math fun? I didn’t think so, so let’s – but math is extremely important, and a worthy course of study!! – move on to history. Kolombangara is located in the Solomon Islands, down near New Guinea. On a map, it’s right about here. If you zoom out a bit from that link, and move about 200 miles to the southeast, you’ll discover the island of Guadalcanal, which with regular readers will be very familiar.
But after that storied 6-month battle, there was the almost unknown Battle of Kolombangara.
Despite losing Guadalcanal in February of 1943, the Japanese military still controlled much of the Solomon Islands, including New Georgia (Kolombangara’s southern neighbor). It was decided that the Kolombangara’s garrison be reinforced, so a handful of destroyers were packed with 1,200 soldiers and down The Slot they came, 1 light cruiser and a quintet of destroyers. But more than that, two groups of U.S. Marines had just landed on New Georgia, and this small battle group was also tasked with putting some steel and fire into their existence.
U.S. naval intelligence got wind of the move and sent Rear Admiral Walden Ainsworth on an intercept course with 3 light cruisers and 10 destroyers. And at 1:00am on July 13, 1943, contact was made and the Japanese cruiser Jinstu turned on her searchlights and began firing. But the U.S. Navy had superior fire control radar and spotter planes that were most effective, and their return fire plastered Admiral Shinju Izaki’s flagship, sending it to the ocean floor with the Admiral and nearly all hands.
The Japanese turned around, and Ainsworth, smelling more blood, gave chase. But the pursuer was soon to feel the “sting in the tail” when spreads of those deadly Long Lance Torpedoes we’ve spoken about came scything through the formation.
Leander, a New Zealand cruiser, was hit before Jintsu went down. The other pair of cruisers, the USS Honolulu and USS St. Louis, were next to feel the bite of the Long Lance, though both stayed afloat. The same could not be said for the destroyer USS Gwin, which took a torpedo amidships and ended up being scuttled later in the day.
So who wins this battle? Well, the Japanese Navy was able to land its troops on Kolombangara, while losing just a light cruiser. The U.S. protected the Marines on New Guinea, but lost a destroyer and had 3 additional ships put out of action. The Japanese saw it as a victory. Humorously, the great historian Samuel Eliot Morison penned, “A string of such victories added up to defeat.”
Recommended Reading: Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier