- Historic Sites
Ordeal At Vella Lavella
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Twelve miles down the coast, Jack Chew’s group was on the move too. With the strongest serving as stretcher-bearers for the sick and wounded, they left the camp at 3 P.M. —a time nicely calculated to get them to Lambu Lambu Cove just before dark. They were in no shape to travel at night, and the coastal plain was too exposed to wait there in broad daylight. Now added to the party were sixteen of the local Chinese—mostly Sam Chung and his relatives.
Kelly’s Irregulars screened the movement, taking position between the line of march and the nearest Japanese outpost. Behind them the evacuees plodded along, reaching the coast at dusk, just as planned. The spot selected for the rendezvous was not on the open sea, but at a former trading post dock a mile or so up the Lambu Lambu River. This was a broad estuary with several tricky turns, and Chew assigned Warren Boles, the old Marblehead sailor, to go out in a native canoe and pilot the rescuers in.
It was a far cry from cruising the New England coast. The canoe was paddled by a single native who couldn’t speak English and didn’t understand any instructions. There was a moon, but the shadows of the jungle hid the shoreline. The only channel markers were natives positioned in the water by “Bish” Silvester to mark each bend in the river. Boles longed for the days of neatly numbered “red nuns” as he tried to meet the challenge of picking out a black man in a black river on a black night.
Now they were off the mouth of the river, bobbing in the waters of The Slot. Here they waited and waited for some sign of the rescue ships. Once they heard the whine of destroyer blowers and vessels going by at high speed, then came a few flares and explosions. Japanese ships were apparently on the prowl, sniffing trouble. Then it was dark again, and the wait continued.
On shore Major Kelly also felt the strain of the long wait. Finally he slipped away from his defense line and consulted with Chew. If the ships didn’t come soon, it would be dawn, and they couldn’t risk staying here during the day. They began discussing the possibility of returning to camp.
Twelve miles up the coast at Paraso Bay, Bausewine’s group was to have a long night, too. The rescue was set for 2 A.M. on the sixteenth, and at midnight Josselyn pushed off in a large canoe to guide in the rescuers. With him went three natives and Bill Dupay, to help make contact. For the next two hours they bobbed up and down in the empty night a mile or so offshore. Then, toward 2 A.M. , they spotted the shadowy forms of several blacked-out ships approaching through the dark. There was no clue whether they were friend or foe, but Josselyn hopefully flashed a series of R ’s—the recognition signal.
On shore George Bausewine and the others restlessly waited as the hours ticked by. He hoped for the best, but he had always been fatalistic about the group’s chances. That Rear Admiral Kelly Turner, commander of the area’s amphibious forces, would send three thousand men in ten destroyers to rescue them was a thought that had never occurred to him.
From the start Kelly Turner was determined to rescue the Helena survivors on Vella Lavella. It was more than a matter of saving 165 good men; it was important to the whole Navy’s morale. As he explained, “It means a lot to know that if the worst happens and you get blown off your ship and washed ashore somewhere, the Navy isn’t going to forget you.”
But how to do the job? PBY’s, submarines, PT-boats—all the usual ways were out. They just couldn’t hold enough men. Ships were clearly the answer, and the destroyer-transports Dent and Waters seemed the best bet. Painted a mottled jungle green, these APD’s (as they were called) had the right size and speed, with crews specially trained in amphibious operations—and looking at it one way, this was just an amphibious operation in reverse.
Protecting the two APD’s was the problem. They were lightly armed, and this would be the Navy’s deepest penetration yet into enemy-controlled waters. The Japanese not only held Vella Lavella, but had airstrips on Bougainville and on Ballale Island, plus their anchorage in the Shortland Islands only sixty miles away.
Kelly Turner took few chances. As the Dent and Waters steamed toward Vella Lavella on the afternoon of July 15, they were escorted by four destroyers under Captain Thomas J. Ryan. Out of sight but very much in the picture were four more destroyers under Captain Francis X. Mclnerney. They would hover in The Slot during the pickup, ready to intercept any Japanese ships coming down from the Shortlands. Mclnerney was in overall charge of the operation.
Midnight, and Ryan’s six ships, coming up from the south, entered Vella Gulf. The moon was full, and it was hard to believe they had not been sighted. At 1:12 a white flare went up from Vella off to port, and the crews braced for an attack. Nothing happened. Five minutes later, a red parachute flare shot up from Kolombangara on the starboard side. Again the men steeled themselves; again nothing happened.