After the attack on Rabaul harbour on the 2nd November a new threat developed for the landings on Bougainville. The Japanese had been careful to avoid exposing their ships to undue risk but they now felt compelled to bring in a force of seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and three destroyers. They were spotted refuelling in Rabaul and it was obvious they were set for an attack on the ships off Bougainville. The U.S. had no capital ships near enough that would be able to challenge a force of this strength. For Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey it was:
the most desperate emergency that confronted me in my entire term as ComSoPac
He did have two carriers available, even though the only other previous comparable attack by carrier planes had been at Pearl Harbour itself. On that occasion the attackers had enjoyed complete surprise.
The USS Saratoga and USS Princetown steamed through the night to get within range and then launched all 97 available planes for an early attack, followed by a bombing attack by land based planes. Not only were the planes at risk but also the carriers.
The following account of the action comes from an interview with one of the pilots on the raid, Robert Lee Cropper:
What aircraft were you flying at that point?
Cropper: [The] TBF which preceded the TBM. [The TBF was a carrier-based bomber which carried a 2000 pound bomb or torpedo. It was called the Avenger.] We operated around Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. We had just bombed [Japanese ] bases on Bougainville Island, and were pulling back to refuel when we got rush orders [concerning] the proposed Marine invasion in Empress Augusta Bay on the south side of Bougainville. We had to steam all the way around the Solomon Islands, back around Guadalcanal and up because a [Japanese battle fleet] of cruisers had just come into Rabaul [harbor] and were going to sail down to wipe out the landing of the Marines. The Marines had no sea support other than a couple of destroyers, I think. So we launched [all our planes], and it was the longest launching way from the target the Navy had ever done at the time. After the launch, the SARATOGA was supposed to turn and run for her life. If we got out of Rabaul, we were supposed to try to land in the water at Empress August Bay, where the Marines were just making a landing and there was no airstrip yet. So we went [behind a weather front which helped to surprise the Japanese], into Rabaul to the [Japanese] fleet. That was our first strike on Rabaul. I got … a heavy cruiser.
Harrison: What class was that?
Cropper: [The one I hit was a Tone class, heavy cruiser.] I came around and my wing tip was almost lying on a volcanic mountain at the entrance to the Harbor. [The Japanese] fleet was steaming out, trying to get to sea so that they could maneuver. When I hit [the cruiser] and came over him, I passed over the bow of this cruiser after dropping my torpedo. Now this [Japanese] cruiser had four mounts of eight inch cannons going off, but I was right at bridge level off my wing tip. I could see the officers on the bridge as I passed over. I was being chewed up by a [Japanese fighter] sea plane, of all things, because they couldn’t go fast. A torpedo plane had no great speed [either], but…I managed to outrun him. But he chewed me up pretty bad, but we got back to the ship. Our captain had kept steaming ahead instead of obeying orders and turning to flee. So we came back and landed aboard, [and] went around the Solomons.
Harrison: Did you ever find the name of the cruiser that you sank?
Cropper: [Post war naval archive research shows it was the CHIKUMA. The Navy thought she sank, and, though severely damaged, the Japanese kept her afloat and later repaired her. She was sunk a year later with the loss of her entire crew in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.]
For the full interview and account of Cropper’s service see Worcester County Veterans Memorial.
In all the U.S. planes managed to damage nearly all of the Japanese ships, forcing them to retire the force to Truk for repairs. It was a stunning victory.
However the US forces also had their casualties and several families would subsequently receive letters like this:
The full tribute to Lt. George C. Haniotis, pilot of P-38 Lightning from the fighter escort, missing in action 5 November 1943 following a dogfight with Japanese Zero fighters, can be read at Purple Hearts.