The Americans were indeed lying in wait. Moosbrugger with Destroyer Division 13—the Dunlap, Craven, and Maury—and Commander Roger R. Simpson's Destroyer Division 15—the Lang, Sterett, and Stack—were on the prowl south of Vella Gulf when the search plane's warning came. The moon had set when Moosbrugger led his destroyers in two columns into the gulf. The sky was overcast, and rainsqualls reduced visibility to less than 4,000 yards. Moosbrugger hugged the shore of the high, volcanic cone of Kolombangara.
At 11:33 p.m., radar picked up the Japanese destroyers: Sugiura in the Hagikaze, followed by the Arashi, Kawakaze, and Shigure. The Japanese ships, crammed with 50 tons of supplies and 900 troops, sailed into an ambush. Moosbrugger had been privy to Captain Arleigh Burke's planning for a night destroyer action, and he executed it to near perfection. With Simpson's division covering, Moosbrugger delivered the torpedo attack on the unsuspecting Japanese ships at 11:41 and then turned away to avoid any Japanese torpedoes. Simpson turned to port to cross the Japanese T, and a few minutes later, as the three leading Japanese destroyers exploded in flames that lit up the dark night, he opened fire. Only the Shigure, lagging behind because of engine problems, escaped and then only because the torpedo that stuck her rudder failed to explode.
For the Japanese, the Battle of Vella Gulf marked the first time they had been bested in a night destroyer action. The second time, in the Battle of Cape St. George, Burke himself, in an action remarkably similar to Vella Gulf, would administer the defeat.
Hara, Tamichi, Fred Saito, and Roger Pineau. Japanese Destroyer Captain. New York: Ballantine Books, 1961.; Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.