World War II: Raids on Rabaul in November 1943
|Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006|
The abandonment of Guadalcanal by Japanese forces in February 1943 ended a grueling six-month campaign and brought the first American offensive operation of World War II to a victorious conclusion. It was, however, only the beginning of a difficult Allied advance through the Solomon Islands, attended by savage fighting on land, at sea and in the air. At the northwestern end of the island chain the Japanese directed their defensive efforts from a well-developed naval base on New Britain, the name of which soon became notorious among all Allied servicemen in the South Pacific: Rabaul.
It was from Rabaul that Japanese warships and aircraft were staged before being hurled south against the advancing Allies. Rabaul in turn was frequently the target of air raids by the U.S. Army’s Fifth and Thirteenth air forces, the U.S. Marines, and the Royal Australian and Royal New Zealand air forces. Regardless of the outcome of such attacks, the Allies could almost invariably count on a hot reception from air groups, or kokutais, of Mitsubishi A6M Zeros, flown by the best pilots in the Japanese navy, and from scores of anti-aircraft (AA) positions.
By November 1943, however, the constant attrition of fighting over the Solomons was taking its toll on Rabaul’s capabilities. And at that point, a new threat appeared. A new generation of U.S. naval aircraft carriers, built to replace those lost in 1942, were ready to join the offensive, manned by sailors and airmen who had been intensely trained by the combat-seasoned survivors of the battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, the eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz.
Joining the surviving carriers Saratoga and Enterprise were new 27,000-ton Essex-class fleet carriers and 11,000-ton Independence-class light carriers. Along with the veteran Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bombers and Douglas SDB-4 Dauntless dive bombers on their decks were two new aircraft–the Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat fighter and a new dive bomber, the Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver.
While his fleet buildup and the Allied advance up the Solomons proceeded, the American commander in chief in the Pacific (CINCPAC), Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, decided on an alternate plan to advance on Japan by seizing strategically selected island groups. The first targets would be Makin and Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati), but before those invasions commenced, Nimitz sent his new task forces on a series of minor raids. The first occurred on August 31, 1943, when aircraft of Task Force 15.5, built around the carriers Yorktown, Essex and Independence, attacked Marcus Island in the North Pacific. That was followed by strikes against Tarawa and Makin by the carriers Lexington, Princeton and Belleau Wood from September 17 to 19. Wake Island was next, hit by planes from Essex, Yorktown, Lexington, Cowpens, Independence and Belleau Wood on October 5 and 6. The Wake strike saw the first confrontation between carrier-based F6F-3s and A6M2 Zeros–with the Hellcat coming away the victor–and the first successful use of a submarine, Skate, to rescue downed carrier airmen.
The damage inflicted in the raids was hardly crippling to the Japanese, but it gave the U.S. Navy airmen and sailors experience–and even more valuable self-confidence–for the greater campaigns to come. The first major operation for Nimitz’s new carriers came not in the Central Pacific, however, but in the Solomons to the southwest. And their first real challenge would come from Rabaul.
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 (he was really a Headhunter!). 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.