Battle of Kolombangara as recorded by Keith Johnstone
Able Seaman James Keith Johnstone kept a diary during his time in the Royal New Zealand Navy in the Second World War. When he was twenty years old, Johnstone was serving in HMNZS Leander. The ship was based in the Solomon Islands as an escort ship under American command. On the night of the 12th July and into the morning of the 13th, HMNZS Leander took part in the Battle of Kolombangara. To commemorate the 78th Anniversary of the battle, we wanted to share an excerpt of Johnstone’s diary where he shares his experience of the conflict. The diary is a recent donation to our museum collection.
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12th and 13th July
“Arrived Tulagi at about 0900 and went to anchor. Shifted to oiler 1600. Sailed with TF 18 at about 1700 for Kula Gulf. Same routines for last night. While passing Russell Island the Japanese were doing of a spot of bombing and one was shot down by a fighter. Assumed 1st degree at about 0000. Pipe came over that enemy force consisting of one cruiser and five destroyers was at the entrance of Kula Gulf. We are closing for action 0100, enemy in sight. Enemy engage. Everyone blazing away with all they’ve got. We punched away 21 rounds per gun in about 8 minutes. Check, check, check. Lull in firing. About 0120 we just missed [USS] Honolulu and by going full astern stopped a ‘tin fish’ [torpedo] amid ship on the port side. The power went off in all the turrets. Ship just drifting. Yanks continued firing and the battle is moving away to the southward and later to the north. Destroyer standing by just in case. We are still in Kula Gulf and just close to Kolombangara Island of which most of the action took place. Ship underway at about 6 knots and stops again but is soon going again at about 10 knots. Reports coming through of damage and casualties. Time now about 0300. Reverted to 2nd degree with the forward turrets still in hand. Got my head down for about an hour and then at about 0600 they exercised down action and we loaded one hoist H.E by hand. Doing about 15 knots with two destroyers as escort. Two cruisers passed us at about 0400, both with a ‘fish’ in the bows.
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Our main worry now is the damage from subo and aircraft although we have a fighter escort from Russell and Guadalcanal steaming through the bay at about 14 knots, no one doing much, upper deck crowded with blokes with their head down. Everyone just about frayed out. Reached Tulagi at about 1800, just as dusk was falling. Through the boom and down pick [this was navy slang for anchor] and so to safety. Boy what a relief and soon for a drop of sleep. As to the damage and casualties. A boiler room, the switch board, stokers mess deck, forward dynamos, are absolutely buggered and the deaths are so far estimated at 20 odd. The forward tubes were lifted right off their mounting and hurled to one side, injuring two men. Most of the left gun crew of P1 were wiped over the side including one from our mess Jim Beattie. Also George Dryland, Morris, Frank Hooke, [illegible] [Raymond] Rolston and maybe others. Down below, ‘Lofty’ [Gordon] Cameron and several others were killed on the stokers mess deck. Young Savi [Savenaca Naulamatua], the Fijian boy was badly injured by a ladder and died early this morning where his oppo young Timo [Paumau] went overboard in the Port Waist. The Commander and his messenger were hanging onto guard rails and manged [sic] to get back in board. 3 buried at sea 1030. My own feelings during the action of the most intense excitement and concentration on my job, but after we stopped firing my knees were pretty bloody wobbly and after the hit I felt very tired and keyed up. I am not afraid to admit that I was bloody well scared but kept my head. Later during the night I felt very tired and damned filthy, my battle rig was sopping with sweat as I was down the pump space on the cordite handle and standing by the secondary lighting.
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All day we were in battle rig and Mae Wests [inflatable life jackets] and pretty dirty as all the water was being used for steaming the old tub. One Chief Pusser did us pretty well under the circumstances. Sandwiches, kie [or kye the traditional middle watch brew of chocolate and condensed milk], limers [a cold drink of lime cordial issued when serving in the tropics] were on all night, and for breakfast we had corned dog. Dinner was corned dog and bread with some tinned pears. Everything went like clockwork all through the action, there was no sign of panic and everyone was great seeing that it was the first action that 90% of them had been in. Although the ship suffered serious damage the men below kept her going at 14 knots throughout the trip back to base. It is a great tribute to the Stokers and Damage Control parties that the old tub is still afloat. For the action itself when the enemy came into sight, the leading destroyers went in and presumably carried out a torpedo attack that was unsuccessful. The cruisers then opened fire and things started. One Japanese destroyer switched on its search light, immediately all the cruisers let go and the destroyer disappeared in a shower of flame and smoke. We then let go our ‘fish’ and another destroyer went up, it is believed that either one or two of our ‘fish’ hit the cruiser, seemingly an 8 in job, and stopped her, she was later finished off by gunfire from the Yanks. Later the Yanks belted away and sunk another destroyer and damaged two others. Then we had a very close shave. The Honolulu ordered an emergency turn to port and turned before giving the executive order.
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Consequently to avoid colliding with her at 20 knots we were forced to go emergency full astern. It was at this time when just starting to move ahead again that we stopped our ‘fish’. We were out of the fight and the others moved away and the fight became a running one. Then both the Honolulu and St Louis stopped ‘fish’ in the bows which didn’t seriously impair their speed or fighting efficiency. During the scrap the air was a mass of tracer shell and gun flashes. The explosions of the enemy being hit by ‘fish’ and bricks must have been a sight. The result of the action known as the ‘Battle of Kolombangara’ was 1 enemy cruiser sunk, 3 enemy destroyers sunk, 2 enemy destroyers seriously damaged and were last seen limping north. Our own were, 3 cruisers damaged, 1 destroyer lossed [sic] later by enemy aircraft bombing [in fact this destroyer, USS Gwin, was sunk by a Japanese ship-launched torpedo]. 1 destroyer damaged. The Yank cruiser casualties as far as we can gather were 1 killed, 17 wounded. Ours were killed and missing: 28 [Note that Johnstone’s summary of the battle was too optimistic about enemy ships sunk as it was only the cruiser Jintsū that was sunk and he also understates the US casualties.] On the way back, destroyers dropped depth charges. Well the scrap is over and we are back in Tulagi and the strain is telling on the men, everyone is sleeping on the upper deck tonight. I hope to god there is no air raid tonight. I think it would just about put the kibosh on things. Our main worry now is that no news would reach home about it so our people will not have to worry. Buzzes have a habit of enlarging from the actual happenings. And now for a good night sleep in good fresh air.”
Transcribed by Hannah Pym – Collections Assistant