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Thanksgiving 1943: US sailors pull off a miraculous naval victory

As we celebrate Thanksgiving with our families and loved ones, let us remember the American sailors who 73 years ago spent their Thanksgiving fighting a Japanese task force off Cape St. George in the Solomon Islands.  

In what could be considered a Thanksgiving miracle, not a single American life was lost — something worth giving thanks for still today.

The Solomon Islands lie to the east of Papua New Guinea and were the site of numerous decisive battles during World War II, including Guadalcanal. On Nov. 1, 1943, the American 3rd Marine Division launched an invasion of Bougainville, some 250 miles southeast of a major Japanese military base at Rabaul, New Britain.

The Japanese commanders at Rabaul dispatched a five-ship convoy — part of what was known as the Tokyo Express — with additional army troops to reinforce their air base on Buka Island, just north of Bougainville, and evacuate their naval personnel. The convoy consisted of two destroyers and three destroyer-transports.

On the day before Thanksgiving, American Admiral William “Bull” Halsey ordered Captain Arleigh “31-Knot” Burke — who eventually became Admiral Burke, the chief of naval operations — to stop the Japanese reinforcements, using Burke’s five-ship destroyer squadron to intercept the Japanese convoy. Burke had assumed command of 7th Fleet Destroyer Squadron 23 (nicknamed the “Little Beavers”) only a month before. "Little Beavers" was a reference to the sidekick of Red Ryder, a tough cowboy who was the hero of a very popular Western comic strip that had started in 1938.

When he received Halsey’s order, Burke was hundreds of miles away, taking on fuel at New Georgia Island. The destroyers that made up his small fleet — the Charles Ausburne (Burke’s ship), Claxton, Dyson, Converse, and Spence — had been in almost continuous battles for several months and were badly in need of maintenance.

Because of that, Burke’s ship was capable of only 31 knots, not its maximum speed of 38 knots. A message from Admiral Halsey gave Burke his nickname: “THIRTY-ONE KNOT BURKE GET ATHWART THE BUKA-RABAUL EVACUATION LINE … IF ENEMY CONTACTED YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO.”

Burke and his task force sped north to try to find and destroy the Japanese task force. They found what they were looking for not long after midnight on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 1943, when they encountered two of the Japanese destroyers, the Makinami and the Onami.

Long after the naval battle, Admiral Burke said that “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.” But Burke also said that it was “an ideal night for a nice, quiet torpedo attack.” Using their relatively new radar technology on the moonless, dark, overcast night, Burke’s squadron fired more than a dozen torpedoes and sank both ships, finishing off one of the Japanese destroyers with surface guns.

The chase was then on to catch the fleeing destroyer-transports. Burke’s task force caught up with the Yuguri, sinking it and damaging the Uzuki, although the Uzuki managed to escape with the last Japanese ship, the Amagiri. It was the Amagiri that had collided with PT-109, the boat skippered by Lt. John F. Kennedy, on August 1, 1943.

Trying to catch the fleeing Uzuki and the Amagiri, Burke went deep into Japanese-held territory — far beyond the reach of American air cover. With the onset of dawn and the possibility of massed attacks by Japanese aircraft, Burke wisely ended the chase and withdrew.

As the task force headed back to an American Navy base in Purvis Bay, another 350 miles southeast of Bougainville, Thanksgiving was on everyone’s mind. Burke sent a message asking that Thanksgiving services be arranged for “all hands on arrival.”

Not a single American sailor was killed. Gunfire from the Japanese destroyers had all missed. A Japanese torpedo that hit one of the American destroyers didn’t explode. A group of torpedoes fired by the Japanese exploded in the wakes of Burke’s destroyers after he had a gut feeling that he should change position. And when Destroyer Squadron 23 withdrew, not a single plane from the four Japanese airbases in the vicinity of Rabaul (58 bombers and 145 fighters) attacked the task force.

It was either luck or a series of miracles, or a combination of both.

Burke’s strategy and tactics, and the performance of his sailors, led to the Naval War College calling the Battle of Cape St. George “an almost perfect surface action.” Bull Halsey called it the “Trafalgar of the Pacific.” It ended the Tokyo Express, the Japanese naval convoys that were used to supply Japanese land forces and attack Allied military efforts in the Solomon Islands.

Bull Halsey once famously said that “there are no great men; just great challenges that ordinary men, out of necessity, are forced by circumstances to meet.” The Battle of Cape St. George was one of those great challenges that, out of necessity, Captain Arleigh Burke and the hundreds of American sailors who served under him were forced to meet.

They did so with the gallantry and can-do attitude that has long been a hallmark of the U.S. Navy. Burke himself told his sailors that they had been successful because of their “courage and valiant determination,” and when they got safely to port, his “battle-weary crews [gave] thanks to God for their victory – and for their deliverance.”

So as you sit down to eat that great American bird (which Benjamin Franklin thought should be our national symbol instead of the eagle), with stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, and whatever other goodies your family includes, give thanks for those American sailors who nearly eight decades ago spent Thanksgiving risking their lives to protect our nation in a fight with a merciless enemy. We owe them more than we can ever say.

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