On November 1, 1943, U.S. Marines landed in Empress Augusta Bay on the island of Bougainville, bringing American forces to the upper region of the Solomons. The Japanese reacted by sending a force of cruisers and destroyers to annihilate the beachhead, but it was intercepted by an American cruiser-destroyer force on the early morning of November 2 and repulsed with the loss of the light cruiser Sendai and the destroyer Hatsukaze.
Later that day, 78 Fifth Air Force planes–North American B-25s of the 3rd, 38th and 345th bombardment groups, escorted by Lockheed P-38s from the 39th and 80th fighter squadrons and the 475th Fighter Group–attacked Rabaul and were intercepted by 112 Zeros. Rabaul's air defenses, under the overall command of Rear Adm. Jinichi Kusaka, included three carrier groups that had been dispatched there just the day before, while their ships underwent refit in Japan. The caliber of the pilots was reflected in their performance. Warrant Officer Kazuo Sugino from the carrier Zuikaku's air group was credited with shooting down three enemy planes. Shokaku's carrier group included Warrant Officer Kenji Okabe, famed for scoring seven victories in one day during the Battle of the Coral Sea, but its star in the November 2 air battle was Petty Officer 1st Class (PO1C) Takeo Tanimizu, who scored his first of an eventual 32 victories by downing two P-38s. From light carrier Zuiho, Ensign Yoshio Fukui downed a B-25 but was then himself shot down, possibly by Captain Marion Kirby of the 475th Group's 431st Squadron. Fukui survived with a burned right foot and insisted on returning to action. The loss of nine B-25s and nine P-38s earned the November 2 raid a place in Fifth Air Force annals as 'Bloody Tuesday,' but the Japanese recorded 18 Zeros destroyed or damaged in addition to bomb damage to Rabaul's ground installations.
The Japanese needed a more powerful naval force to destroy the American beachhead. Admiral Mineichi Koga, commander of the Combined Fleet, dispatched Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita's Second Fleet, comprised of the heavy cruisers Takao, Maya, Atago, Suzuya, Mogami, Chikuma and Chokai, the light cruiser Noshiro and four destroyers, from Japan to Rabaul. Chokai and a destroyer had to be detached on November 4 to tow two transports that had been crippled by American air attacks to the northwestern Pacific base at Truk in the Caroline Islands. A Consolidated B-24 spotted the rest of Kurita's fleet off the Admiralty Islands and duly reported 19 ships heading toward the western entrance of St. George's Channel at Rabaul. The Second Fleet's arrival was bad news to Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of U.S. Navy forces in the Southwest Pacific. With most of the U.S. fleet preparing to invade the Gilberts, he did not have one heavy cruiser to oppose Kurita's powerful veterans. He did, however, have a small carrier detachment, Rear Adm. Frederick C. Sherman's Task Force (TF) 38, which had supported the bombardment of Buka and Bonis.
The carriers Saratoga and Princeton were fueling from the tanker Kankakee northwest of Rennell Island when Halsey sent them a dispatch on November 4, ordering, 'Task Force 38 proceed maximum formation speed [to] launch all-out strike on shipping in Rabaul and north thereof (order of targets: cruisers, destroyers). Retire thereafter….'
Rabaul was then believed to have as many as 150 aircraft–quite a hornet's nest for two carriers to stir up. Even the aggressive Halsey knew the risks involved, but Saratoga and Princeton were the only weapons at his disposal that had a realistic chance of neutralizing the threat to the Bougainville beachhead. Joined by the anti-aircraft cruisers San Diego and San Juan and nine destroyers, the flattops headed north.
The weather favored TF 38 when it arrived at its designated launching point, 57 miles southwest of Cape Tokorina and 230 miles southeast of Rabaul, on the morning of November 5. The sea was smooth, allowing the destroyers to keep station, while overcast skies lessened the chances of being observed by Japanese patrol planes. Saratoga's Air Group 12, headed by Commander Henry H. Caldwell, sent every plane it had into the sky–33 F6Fs, 16 TBFs and 22 SBDs. Princeton sent up 19 Hellcats and seven Avengers. Lieutenant Commander Joseph J. Clifton, leader of Saratoga's fighter squadron VF-12, later said, 'The main idea of the orders was to cripple all of them that we could rather than concentrate on sinking a few.'
Two hours after launching, the 97 planes reached their targets–Simpson Harbor, the inner anchorage at Rabaul, and the outer roadstead at Blanche Bay–and a curtain of AA fire. Again the Americans got a break from the weather, which was so clear over Rabaul that they could see for 50 miles. That was especially welcome under the circumstances, because although Sherman and Caldwell had trained their aircrews rigorously to hit moving targets, they had not had time to prepare a detailed plan of attack for the Rabaul strike–much of it was worked out by group and squadron commanders over their radios.
The Japanese already had a total of 59 A6M3 Zeros in the air, but they had expected the Americans to break into small groups as they neared the targets. Instead, Caldwell simply directed one large formation through the gantlet of AA fire, letting it split into smaller groups only at the last moment before making their attacks. Unwilling to go through their own flak, the Zeros milled around while 'Jumping Joe' Clifton's Hellcats went after them.
Ignoring the curtain of AA shellfire, Caldwell led his group across Crater Point in order to swing upwind of the enemy ships. Then his SBDs deployed and the TBFs went down low to start their torpedo runs. By then, the Japanese ships were either steaming for the harbor entrance or taking evasive action. One heavy cruiser fired its main 8-inch gun battery at the TBFs. As they pulled up from their attacks, the SBD and TBF pilots found themselves dodging over or around ships for four or five miles. Miraculously, all but five fighters and five bombers emerged from the wild melee, although most of the survivors suffered some damage. Casualties amounted to seven pilots and eight crewmen killed or missing.
Caldwell, who had been directing the dive bombers from above, found himself and one of Princeton's Hellcats being chased by eight Zeros. His rear turret was disabled and his photographer, Paul T. Barnett, was dead, but Caldwell managed to fend off his attackers with his nose machine gun. Lieutenant H.M. Crockett of Princeton's VF-23 took more than 200 hits in his Hellcat–and a few in himself–yet he managed to land aboard Princeton without flaps, while Caldwell brought his Avenger back to Saratoga 'with one wheel, no flaps, no aileron and no radio.'
Total American losses in the attack came to 13 aircraft–far fewer than the 49, including 20 probables, claimed by the Japanese. While the Hellcat pilots were credited with 21 victories and the TBFs and SBDs claimed another seven, the Japanese recorded the loss of only two Zeros and their pilots: PO1C Hiroshi Nishimura from Zuikaku, and Zuiho's Chief Petty Officer Kosaku Minato.
The attack did not sink any ships, but it accomplished its mission. Lieutenant James Newell's Saratoga-based bombing squadron VB-12 caught Maya refueling, and one of his SBDs sent a bomb down her smokestack and into her engine room, causing damage that would keep her out of commission for five months. Takao took two hits under the waterline, Atago was damaged by two near misses, and Mogami took some damaging bomb hits. Chikuma and light cruisers Agano and Noshiro were also damaged, the latter by a torpedo hit. Destroyer Fujinami was hit by a dud torpedo, and Wakatsuki was holed by near misses. All the warships but Maya were able to retire under their own power, but the naval threat to the beachhead at Bougainville had been neutralized. A follow-up attack by Maj. Gen. George C. Kenney's Fifth Air Force was a virtual anticlimax.
After recovering their planes at 1 p.m., Sherman's carriers retired. Japanese searchers spotted them at 2:45, and Kusaka dispatched 18 Nakajima B5N2 torpedo planes (code-named Kate by the Allies) to sink the carriers. At 7:15 the Japanese found a target, and on the following day, Radio Tokyo reported the results of what it called the First Air Battle of Bougainville: 'One large carrier blown up and sunk, one medium carrier set ablaze and later sunk, and two heavy cruisers and one cruiser and destroyer sunk.'
That sanguine report turned out to have been one of the most absurdly inaccurate of the Pacific War. In actuality, LCI(L)-70 and patrol torpedo boat PT-167 had been escorting LCT-68 back from the Treasury Islands when they came under attack about 28 miles southwest of Cape Tokorina. The wing of one low-flying B5N had struck PT-167's radio antenna, and it fell into the sea, leaving its unexploded torpedo imbedded in the boat's bow. The PT boat's 20mm guns sent a second B5N crashing in flames, so close that her crew was drenched by the splash. LCI(L)-70 underwent 14 minutes of attacks, but thanks to her shallow draft, three torpedoes passed harmlessly under her keel. A fourth porpoised and punched into the engine room, killing a crewman but failing to explode. Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson, commander of the III Amphibious Force, subsequently commended PT-167's skipper Ensign Theodore Berlin for his courageous defense and concluded with the appraisal, 'Fireplug Sprinkles Dog.'
Upon learning of the success of his gamble, a relieved Halsey radioed Sherman, 'It is real music to me, and opens the stops for a funeral dirge for [Prime Minister Hideki] Tojo's Rabaul.' Halsey then ordered long-range bombers to find the retiring Japanese ships and'sink the cripples.' They failed to prevent the Japanese from reaching Truk, however, and Halsey was rumored to have wanted the carriers to attack that bastion as well. The upcoming invasion of the Gilberts precluded such an idea, but Halsey did persuade Nimitz to detach three more carriers, Essex, Bunker Hill and Independence, to join Saratoga and Princeton in a follow-up raid on Rabaul.