Battle of Kula Gulf

The Solomon Islands were a crucial stepping-stone in the island-hopping strategy used by the Allies during World War II to retake the South Pacific territory captured by Imperial Japan from 1941 to 1942. The Battle of Kula Gulf showed that the Allies were committed to bold offensive strikes that would push the Japanese back toward Tokyo.

Summary of Event

During its modern history, Japan often felt isolated, deprived of natural resources, and disrespected by the powerful nations of the West. In World War II, Imperial Japan had enormous ambitions to control the oceans surrounding China and the Pacific Islands. As an island nation, Japan had no choice but to expand by conquest if it wanted to find its place in the sun. To show that an Asian nation could rival the military powers of Europe and America, Japan needed to conquer the South Pacific. Kula Gulf, Battle of (1943)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Solomon Islands campaign
[kw]Battle of Kula Gulf (July 6, 1943)
[kw]Kula Gulf, Battle of (July 6, 1943)
Kula Gulf, Battle of (1943)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Solomon Islands campaign
[g]Pacific;July 6, 1943: Battle of Kula Gulf[00870]
[g]South Pacific;July 6, 1943: Battle of Kula Gulf[00870]
[g]Melanesia;July 6, 1943: Battle of Kula Gulf[00870]
[c]Military history;July 6, 1943: Battle of Kula Gulf[00870]
[c]World War II;July 6, 1943: Battle of Kula Gulf[00870]
Akiyama, Teruo
Ainsworth, Walden L.
MacArthur, Douglas
[p]MacArthur, Douglas;World War II
Yamamoto, Isoroku

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, told the prime minister of Japan that he doubted his ability to control such a large area, but he would throw all his ships and personal energies into the war. Early victories in 1941-1942 by the navy and air force surprised even Yamamoto. Japan eventually controlled roughly six million square miles. This sphere was bounded by the Kuril Islands to the north, the Hawaiian Islands to the east, New Guinea and the Solomons in the south, and Southeast Asia and China in the west.

Many British, American, and Dutch forces were unprepared and ill equipped for the rapidity of the Japanese Pacific offensive. However, Japan’s military expansion and naval victories could not continue forever. The Allies (the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Australia), led in the Southwest Pacific by General Douglas MacArthur, were forced to retreat from many Pacific islands by Japan’s early tactical advances. The Allies, however, gained strength and confidence with time and experience. Their combined industrial power was thrown into full production mode in response to the Japanese aggression.

After three key Japanese losses in 1942, the momentum shifted to the Allies the following year. The Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway Midway, Battle of (1942) demonstrated that the Allies could win aircraft-carrier-based fights against superior Japanese aircraft, torpedoes, and pilot training. The Japanese were unable to defend their far-flung territories, in part because they could not replace the four aircraft carriers they lost at Midway, whereas American shipyards manufactured thousands of amphibious landing craft, cruisers, and escorts that were essential to the recapture of the lost islands. The six-month-long Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomons showed that American marines could withstand intense suffering in miserable tropical conditions and still achieve victory against the Japanese.

The Japanese defense of the Pacific Islands began to disintegrate by the summer of 1943. After they had been forced to evacuate from Guadalcanal in the south and the Aleutians in the north, the Japanese realized that no amount of courage or fierceness could compensate for a flawed strategy and inadequate military supply chain from distant Tokyo.

Operation Cartwheel Operation Cartwheel was the code name for the American plan to use a sequential island-hopping strategy to take control of the Pacific Islands, one island at at time. The Allies would face heavy resistance in places like the Kula Gulf, because the Japanese were instructed never to surrender and to fight to the death. The American forces planned to spearhead a major offensive in the Solomon Islands as a stepping-stone on the way to the Japanese mainland. Bombardment of Tokyo had already commenced in 1942 with the Doolittle raid, in which Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle successfully led a squadron of B-25 bombers from an aircraft carrier six hundred miles offshore to attack the Japanese mainland.

The Solomon Islands are located east of Papua New Guinea and just shy of ten thousand miles away from Tokyo. Their remote location made them difficult for Japan to communicate with and to resupply. Control of the shipping lane known as “the Slot” that ran through the middle of the Solomons was essential to disrupting the empire’s supply chain. An important Japanese military base and airfield at Munda, on the Solomon island of New Georgia, allowed Japanese troops to be resupplied via the so-called Tokyo Express. The U.S. Navy also needed to destroy Japanese airfields at Munda and Vila, near Kula Gulf.

Vila was a strategic airstrip on the south end of Kolombangara Island in the Solomons. The night before the Battle of Kula Gulf, Rear Admiral Walden L. Ainsworth ordered the bombardment of Vila as a way to prevent reinforcements from Vila from reaching Munda. In the early hours of July 6, 1943, the U.S. fleet entered Kula Gulf. It comprised four destroyers (Chevalier, Nicholas, O’Bannon, and Strong), three light cruisers (Helena, Honolulu, and St. Louis), and several transport and support ships.

When the American ships entered the gulf, ten Japanese destroyers under the command of Admiral Teruo Akiyama, including Nagatsuki, Yunagi, and the flagship Niizuki, simultaneously sailed into Kula Gulf. Seven of the Japanese ships were carrying 4,000 soldiers on their way to the airbase at Munda. The Japanese ships had already landed about 850 troops on Kolombangara. It was crucial for Ainsworth to stop the delivery of the additional troops. Kula Gulf was the crossroads where the two fleets met.

American radar detected the enemy ships several minutes before the Japanese knew about the American ships. Ainsworth opened fire first with long-range six-inch guns, while Akiyama responded with Type 93 torpedoes (nicknamed Long Lance torpedoes by U.S. troops), which had superior range and accuracy to American torpedoes. One such torpedo sank the destroyer Strong, Strong (ship) which went down with forty-six casualties. However, twenty-six hundred American troops were able to reach shore safely and with little resistance.

The naval battle lasted approximately thirty minutes. Akiyama’s flagship Niizuki
Niizuki (ship) suffered heavy damage when radar-directed guns from Ainsworth’s cruisers hit it. Akiyama quickly tried to retreat, and as the American ships pursued, they sailed right into the path of more Japanese torpedoes. All three American cruisers were hit, and the destroyer Helena was sunk by three torpedo explosions. The first torpedo detonated across the bow, slicing off the front of the Helena, Helena (ship) and it went down a few minutes later. The torpedoes failed to save Niizuki, however, and Akiyama was killed when his flagship sank. Approximately three hundred Japanese soldiers went down with Niizuki. Nagatsuki
Nagatsuki (ship) ran aground during its run for the open ocean, allowing American bombers to hit the ship repeatedly until its ammunition magazines exploded. Although American cruisers fired twenty-five hundred rounds from their six-inch cannons, Niizuki was the only Japanese ship that actually sank in the Battle of Kula Gulf.


The Battle of Kula Gulf was technically a standoff, as both fleets lost important ships and suffered serious casualties. However, the tide of war had turned in the larger Pacific conflict, following the devastating Japanese loss at Guadalcanal. Under the circumstances, a standoff enforced the status quo, confirming the growing Allied control of the Pacific and preparing the way for the central Pacific offensive that would begin less than five months later. The Battle of Kula Gulf allowed the Japanese to inflict damage with their torpedoes, but the Allies held the upper hand in refusing to run for cover and sinking Niizuki with Admiral Akiyama aboard. Kula Gulf, Battle of (1943)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Solomon Islands campaign

Further Reading

  • Bateson, Charles. The War with Japan: A Concise History. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1968. One of the earlier attempts by a military historian to focus a book-length study exclusively on the Pacific theater during World War II. Very detailed history with photographs, index, and maps.
  • Duus, Peter, ed. The Twentieth Century. Vol. 6 in The Cambridge History of Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. This authoritative work is the standard in the field of Japanese history. This volume expertly brings together the best scholars in the modern period.
  • Frank, Richard B. Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. New York: Random House, 1999. Focuses on the end of the World War II with the battles in the Pacific and the controversy surrounding the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs.
  • Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990. The best single-volume history of World War II, by a preeminent British military historian who focuses on both Pacific and European theaters. Index and photographs.
  • Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Free Press, 1985. Special attention paid to the conflict between the United States and Japan at sea and through air raids conducted by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and General MacArthur.
  • Taaffe, Stephen R. MacArthur’s Jungle War: The 1944 New Guinea Campaign. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. General MacArthur played an instrumental role in the amphibious conquest of New Guinea and the South Pacific, but the military establishment often did not see the importance of New Guinea to overall victory in World War II.

World War II: Pacific Theater

Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia

Japan Invades the Philippines

Doolittle Mission Bombs Tokyo

Battle of the Coral Sea

Battle of Midway

Battle of Guadalcanal

Central Pacific Offensive