In November 1943 Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey faced the greatest crisis in his 20 months as South Pacific Area commander. To support General Douglas MacArthur’s coming invasion of New Britain, U.S. Marines landed on Bougainville to win ground for an airstrip from which aircraft could attack the Japanese bastion of Rabaul. That plan was thrown into jeopardy when powerful Japanese warships from Truk set out to bombard the Bougainville beachhead. Unless Halsey moved decisively, the small Marine lodgment could be crushed, and it might become impossible to bring in reinforcements and supplies to hold the position and build an airfield to help MacArthur.
A window of opportunity existed for Halsey while the Japanese warships refueled at Rabaul. But Rabaul was heavily defended, and attacking it would be extremely hazardous. Against all odds, Halsey launched a carrier-plane strike that caught the Japanese by surprise, damaging many of them and forcing them to retreat. What began as a high-stakes gamble ended in what would be called a “Pearl Harbor in reverse” and the subsequent crippling of Japanese naval air power.
Here is how the events unfolded:
When the 3d Marine Division landed on Bougainville on 1 November 1943, the Imperial Japanese Navy responded immediately. Cruisers and destroyers operating from Rabaul attempted to attack the beachhead that night but were thwarted by Rear Admiral Aaron S. Merrill’s Task Force 39 at the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay. Merrill’s victory bought the American forces only temporary security, though.
Admiral Mineichi Koga, successor to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto as commander of the Japanese navy’s Combined Fleet, recognized the danger of allowing the Americans to establish themselves only 210 miles from Rabaul, the keystone Japanese base in the South Pacific. Koga dispatched from Truk a strong cruiser force that could easily overwhelm Merrill’s fewer and more lightly armed cruisers and strike a telling blow against the invasion beaches. Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita had led a Japanese force a year earlier that had delivered a devastating bombardment of the Marine foothold on Guadalcanal. He intended to accomplish the same feat at Bougainville.
Compounding the immediate threat to Halsey’s invasion forces, a major Allied reinforcement and supply convoy was already at sea, with another scheduled to follow three days later. If those ships were not brought in, the Marines on Bougainville would be starved for reinforcements and supplies—as had happened on Guadalcanal after the Japanese gained control of the surrounding waters. Halsey described the situation as “the most desperate emergency that confronted me in my entire term as [commander, South Pacific Area].”1
Kurita departed Truk on 3 November with seven heavy cruisers: the Takeo, Maya, Atago, Suzuya, Mogami, Chikuma, and Chokai; the light cruiser Noshiro; four destroyers; and a fleet train. Around 1200 on 4 November, a B-24 Liberator sighted the Japanese force off the Admiralty Islands, heading toward Rabaul to refuel before sailing for Bougainville.
Halsey and his staff immediately recognized the opportunity. If the Japanese ships were surprised at anchor in Rabaul’s Simpson Harbor, they might be so badly damaged by air attack they would be unable to continue their mission. Halsey turned to Task Force (TF) 38, built around the fleet carrier Saratoga (CV-3) and the light carrier Princeton (CVL-23), which were on loan from the 5th Fleet and refueling south of Guadalcanal.
Against All Odds
Everything in the rule book argued against exposing the carriers to attack from land-based aircraft, and the danger then was particularly acute. The addition of 173 aircraft from the Japanese carrier fleet, for a special air campaign planned earlier by Koga, had increased the total number of planes at Rabaul to 373. Further, Rabaul had efficient radar that could provide at least a half-hour warning of incoming aircraft, so complete surprise would be impossible. With so many major warships in the harbor, the Japanese would almost certainly be in a state of high alert.
Some factors were in Halsey’s favor: Japanese bases along the approach route had all been occupied or neutralized, and there were few shoals to impede ship movement in the eastern Solomon Sea. But the great plus was the men who would conduct the mission. TF 38 was led by Rear Admiral Frederick “Ted” Sherman, the most experienced and aggressive American carrier admiral. And there were no better-prepared airmen than the Saratoga’s Air Group 12, led by Commander Henry H. Caldwell, with effervescent Commander Joseph C. “Jumping Joe” Clifton in command of the F6F Hellcat fighters. Intensively trained as a team, with grandstanding and sloppy flying forbidden, Clifton’s pilots were committed to providing close cover for the group’s TBF Avenger torpedo bombers and SBD Dauntless dive bombers that were well schooled in attacking moving ships.2
The hastily drawn-up plan radioed to Sherman called for TF 38 to reach a point 57 miles southwest of the Cape Torokina beachhead after daylight on 5 November and launch its aircraft. The planes would head northwest to Rabaul, 230 miles away. Bomber pilots would make the enemy cruisers their first priority; the destroyers would be second. Everything flyable on board the Saratoga and Princeton would be deployed, with land-based fighters from Vella Lavella providing air cover for the carriers. To tie down the Japanese and inflict additional damage, aircraft from Major General George C. Kenney’s New Guinea–based 5th Air Force would raid Rabaul after the Navy pilots completed their mission.
Halsey later wrote that he “sincerely expected both air groups to be cut to pieces and both carriers stricken, if not lost.”3 With the painful knowledge that his son was then on board the Saratoga, Halsey ordered: “Let ’er go.” Historian Samuel Eliot Morison described the mission as “one of the most rugged tasks ever handed to pilots in the South Pacific.”4
Ideal Weather for an Attack
Weather conditions were ideal. Overcast skies and squalls shielded TF 38 from enemy reconnaissance aircraft until dawn, when a Japanese plane spotted the ships but misidentified them as a Bougainville reinforcement group. A calm sea made for a rapid run to the launch point at 27 knots, and a favorable five-to-seven-knot wind was blowing when launching commenced on schedule at 0900. Ninety-seven aircraft took off: 23 Avengers, 22 Dauntlesses, and 52 Hellcats. The extraordinary luck continued as the thick cloud cover persisted until the flight neared Rabaul, when the skies cleared to a bright morning with 50-mile visibility.
After flying up St. George Channel, Sherman’s aircraft made a great three-quarter circle to the left, crossing over Crater Peninsula, then swinging over Blanche Bay to swoop down on their prey in Simpson Harbor. Below were crowded 40 to 50 ships, including Kurita’s newly arrived heavy cruisers and about 20 light cruisers and destroyers. Some vessels were refueling or otherwise not in condition to get under way immediately. Those that could leave dashed for the harbor exit or took evasive action within the harbor. Meanwhile, shore batteries lost no time going into action, unleashing an intense curtain of antiaircraft fire.
About 70 Japanese fighters were airborne when the raiders arrived, flying outside the range of their flak and ready to attack as soon as the Hellcats separated from the bombers. Then came the big surprise. Clifton’s Hellcats stayed with the bombers through the flak to provide maximum protection until the last possible moment, flying in three tiers of 16 planes each. The lowest Hellcats flew just 800 to 1,000 feet above the bombers and the middle tier was 3,000 feet higher. At the top, 16 Hellcats were positioned to oppose any enemy aircraft that might break into the formation.
Beginning at 14,500 feet, the Dauntlesses descended to release their bombs at about 2,000 feet. On the heels of the dive bombers, the Avengers struck. Flying in low, where they were immune from the guns on shore and not too troubled by ship antiaircraft fire, they swooped in parallel to their quarry, then executed 90-degree turns and released their fish some 200 to 300 feet above the water. The torpedoes, with their 600-pound warheads, were set to run at six feet. When the bombers completed their attack, they ran a gauntlet of fire, maneuvering across the harbor at full speed to rejoin their escorts and return to the carriers.
High above the harbor, acting as spotter for the bombers, with a photographer to record the action, was the skipper of Air Group 12, Commander Caldwell. As the operation concluded, eight Zeros closed in on his Avenger and its two Hellcat escorts. During the ensuing desperate fight, his photographer was killed and his gunner wounded as he fought off the Zeros. Although badly shot up during desperate maneuvering, all three planes survived and made it back. One Hellcat landed aboard the Princeton with more than 200 bullet holes and no flaps, and the other fighter made an emergency landing on Vella Lavella. Caldwell’s Avenger returned to the Saratoga, according to his report, “with one wheel, no flaps, no aileron and no radio.”5
Of the seven heavy cruisers, four were severely damaged. While the Maya was attempting to leave the harbor, she was struck by a bomb that either hit her catapult area or plunged down a stack and exploded in the engine room, killing or wounding 130 on board.6 The resulting fire raged until late next day. The Mogami, recently back in service after repair of heavy damage suffered at Midway, was struck by a bomb or torpedo. In the effort to extinguish serious fires in the cruiser’s aircraft storage area, two turrets were flooded. The Atago took hull and other damage from three bomb near misses and lost many on board, including her captain, who was killed by a bomb fragment. The Takao took a bomb hit on her starboard side that blew a large hole at the waterline and disabled a gun turret. The Suzuya and Chikuma incurred slight damage, leaving the Chokai as the only one of Kurita’s heavy cruisers that emerged entirely unscathed. Two destroyers were slightly damaged, dud torpedoes struck a destroyer and the light cruiser Noshiro, and the light cruiser Agano took a near miss.7
The raid lasted only 24 minutes, from 1020 to 1044. Five Hellcat fighters and one Dauntless dive bomber were downed. Most heavily hit, proportionately, were the Avenger torpedo planes, four of which were shot down by Zeros while retiring after their attacks. Given the intensity of the opposition, it was almost miraculous that just seven pilots and eight crewmen were lost. Sherman’s aviators shot down 11 Zeros, including one bagged by Clifton, with several more considered probable losses.
Immediately after noon, on schedule, Kenney’s aircraft hit Rabaul. Having lost 22 planes there three days earlier when his fliers first encountered the massively reinforced Japanese air forces, Kenney sent just 27 B-24 bombers with 67 P-38 escorts. Because the general considered high-level bombing of maneuvering ships unproductive, his planes concentrated on the warehouse area. While much damage was done to Rabaul’s shore facilities, the raid provided little help to Halsey, whose overriding concern was the Japanese ships, still afloat in the harbor. This was but one of several instances during the war when Kenney refused to give top priority to targets that would have provided maximum benefit to the Navy.8
With many aircraft searching for Sherman’s ships, only 15 Zeros challenged Kenney’s planes.9 American air ace Major Richard Bong shot down two of the Japanese aircraft. Feeling badly let down, Halsey would say that he “resented the feebleness of [Kenney’s] support at this critical time.”10
When all aircraft were recovered, TF 38 headed home. It was mid-afternoon before the Japanese sighted the ships, and a flight of 18 B5N2 “Kate” torpedo bombers was dispatched. Remarkably, the planes mistook some small craft en route from the invasion beaches to the Treasury Islands for the carrier task force. Unable to sink even these lightly armed vessels, the pilots wildly claimed sinking a large carrier and other major vessels. Radio Tokyo broadcast news of a great Japanese victory.
To the Americans, the most disappointing aspect of the raid was the performance of the Avengers. The torpedo planes had scored only a few hits, and some of those involved duds. While in other respects America’s airmen and their equipment far outclassed the Japanese at this stage of the war, torpedo-plane performance continued to lag until 1944, when new techniques made possible high-speed attacks at 1,000 feet.
Withdrawal and a Second Strike
Sherman left Kurita in no condition to continue his mission. Most of the Japanese cruisers returned to Truk immediately, and the others were soon withdrawn. Four would go to Japan for repairs and be sidelined for months. Kurita lost the chance to repeat his success at Guadalcanal, but he would gain fame of a different sort. A year later at Leyte Gulf, his decision to withdraw while a decisive victory lay tantalizingly within his grasp would keep Kurita’s name alive for naval professionals and armchair strategists ever after.
As Jumping Joe Clifton explained, “The main idea . . . was to cripple all of [the cruisers] rather than concentrate on sinking a few,” and that was the exact result. Ted Sherman called the raid “a glorious victory, a second Pearl Harbor in reverse.”11 Greatly relieved, Halsey radioed Sherman: “It is real music to me and opens the stops for a funeral dirge for Tojo’s Rabaul.”12
Rabaul, however, was not yet ready for interment. It remained a formidable bastion and potential springboard for further threats to the Allied beachhead. A follow-up raid would be necessary, but in much greater strength. For this purpose, Halsey obtained help from Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Chester Nimitz, who sent a force centered on new fleet carriers Essex (CV-9) and Bunker Hill (CV-17), with the light carrier Independence (CVL-22). Commanded by Rear Admiral Alfred E. Montgomery, the three carriers mustered 234 aircraft. Together with Sherman’s TF 38 and Kenney’s aircraft, the U.S. force might overwhelm Rabaul’s air defenses and neutralize the base. Sherman wanted to organize one massive task force, but Halsey decided on two task forces attacking from different directions, while Kenney mounted his own attack.
The weather, which had fully cooperated on 5 November, was a hindrance on 11 November. Socked in by fog and rain, Kenney’s planes were grounded. Although Sherman’s carrier planes managed to get off a strike from the vicinity of Green Island at a range of 225 miles, between the poor visibility and the reduced shipping in the harbor little was achieved. The badly damaged Maya and unscathed Chokai were still anchored there, but neither could be found in the squall.13 The most material success occurred when a torpedo struck the stern of the light cruiser Agano, flooding her engine room. A second strike was canceled because of weather, but at least the foul conditions enabled Sherman’s planes to withdraw without opposition.
Montgomery launched his planes 160 miles southeast of Rabaul. His 185 aircraft included new SB2C Helldivers that were intended to replace the venerable SBD Dauntless. F4U Corsairs and Hellcats from New Georgia that landed and refueled on the carriers provided air cover for the ships. Arriving at Rabaul, the attackers were engaged by 68 Zeros. In rain that made ship identification difficult, Montgomery’s bombers defied the heavy flak to seek out targets in the harbor. The very limited results amounted to the bombing and sinking of one destroyer, damage by torpedo to another destroyer, and lighter damage to other ships from strafing. Again, it was the low score rate of the torpedo planes that was most disappointing.
While preparing to deliver a second strike, Montgomery received word of a massive incoming flight of 119 Japanese fighters and bombers. Gambling that he could withstand the attack, he ordered the second strike to proceed, confident that his combat air patrol and anti-aircraft fire could handle the situation. The task force assumed a newly adopted defense pattern to mass anti-aircraft fire better, enhanced by improved shell fuses. The three carriers were positioned at the center of a 2,000-yard circle surrounded by nine evenly spaced destroyers in a 4,000-yard circle.
Montgomery’s gamble succeeded, but the action might well have gone the other way. The Japanese attackers were first engaged 40 miles from the task force, but Montgomery’s fighters were kept so busy by the escorting Zeros that the D3A “Val” and Kate bombers easily slipped through to attack the carriers. Much of the fault lay with the carriers’ fighter-directors, who did not coordinate the available air cover effectively. After Montgomery decided to cancel the second strike while the planes were aloft, the accompanying fighters received little direction and were largely left to decide on their own how and where to join the battle. At one point, 16 desperately needed fighters were sent 30 miles from the task force to attack what turned out to be a flight of Hellcats.
Without well-directed fighter protection, the burden of protecting the task force rested on ship antiaircraft fire. Montgomery exhorted over his ship’s loudspeaker: “Man your guns and shoot those bastards out of the sky.”14 The 46-minute action produced ten near misses involving all three carriers. They caused only slight damage and left ten sailors wounded.
Providentially, a bomb that might have scored solidly on the Independence was detonated in the air by a shot from a 40-mm gun. Eleven defending aircraft were lost, but in return all 14 Kate torpedo planes were downed as well as 24 out of 27 Val dive bombers. This was in addition to about 20 Zeros lost earlier in the day at Rabaul.
Although the 11 November raid did not meet expectations, it proved highly successful in the overall equation. Out of 173 aircraft stripped from the Japanese carriers for Koga’s special operation, only 52 remained after the U.S. carrier actions and other operations. Unable to allow the further slaughter of his carrier air fleet, Koga withdrew the surviving aircraft, replacing them with lesser-quality planes and pilots from the Marshall Islands. The day after the second carrier raids, the heavy cruisers remaining at Rabaul were withdrawn. Major Japanese vessels would never again anchor in Simpson Harbor.
The great beneficiary of this squandering of Koga’s carrier aircraft was Admiral Nimitz, whose long-expected Central Pacific offensive was ready to begin. Vice Admiral Shigeru Fukudome, Combined Fleet chief of staff, described the consequences in a postwar interview: “Although the Gilberts fight appeared to be the last chance for a decisive fight, the fact that the Fleet’s air strength had been so badly depleted enabled us to send only very small air support to Tarawa and Makin. The almost complete loss of carrier planes was a mortal blow to the [Japanese] Fleet, since it would require six months [to replace them]. In the interim, any fighting with the carrier force was rendered impossible.”15 When the carrier air fleet was rebuilt, it was with less capable fliers than those sacrificed in the South Pacific. Their slaughter in the June 1944 “Marianas Turkey Shoot” would signal the sharp decline of Japan’s once overwhelming carrier air power.
Industrialist Henry Kaiser notably observed that “Problems are opportunities in work clothes.” No better example could be provided than how Halsey dealt with his “most desperate emergency” to dole out to Japan her own Pearl Harbor.
2. Clark G. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers: The Forging of an Air Navy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968) 97–98.
3. Halsey and Bryan, Halsey’s Story, 181.
4. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 6, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier (Boston: Little, Brown, 1950), 325–26.
5. Ibid., 327.
6. Ibid., 328. Morison says the bomb went down the Maya’s stack. However, Paul S. Dull, A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy 1941–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978), 292, claims the hit was on the catapult plane deck.
7. Dull, Imperial Japanese Navy, 292. Dull notes that the light cruisers Agano and Noshiro “received no damage.” But Andrieu D’Albas, in Death of a Navy: Japanese Naval Action in World War II (New York: Devin-Adair, 1957), says they were “struck and were no longer battleworthy (265).”
8. Thomas E. Griffith Jr., MacArthur’s Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 204. Griffin describes Kenney’s attitude throughout the war: “Kenney had little use for the complaints or suggestions of naval officers . . . there were few, if any, attempts to define what targets had the highest priority or to combine the efforts of the two services.”
9. Dull says that “no plane opposition” was encountered. Imperial Japanese Navy, 293.
10. Halsey and Bryan, Halsey’s Story, 183.
11. Reynolds, Fast Carriers, 99, quoting from Frederick Sherman’s diary.
12. Morison, Bismarcks, 329–30.
13. Dull doesn’t show the heavy cruiser Chokai there (Imperial Japanese Navy, 293) but Morison indicates she was present (Bismarcks, 335).
14. Reynolds, Fast Carriers, 100.
15. United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Interrogations of Japanese Officials—Vice Admiral Fukudome, Shigeru, IJN. Online resource: ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/USSBS/IJO/, 516.