USS Saratoga planes attack Japanese ships in Rabaul

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in 1943/44. The photo was taken from one of her planes of Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12), of which many aircraft are visible on deck, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers (aft), Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters (mostly forward), and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.

US Navy pilots Ensign Charles Miller, Lieutenant (jg) Henry Dearing, and Lieutenant (jg) Bus Alber walking toward their aircraft aboard USS Saratoga, 5 Nov 1943; note F6F fighter.

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.

Japanese warships attempt to get under way while under attack from US Navy aircraft. Date	5 November 1943

Japanese warships attempt to get under way while under attack from US Navy aircraft.
Date 5 November 1943

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.

The Japanese cruiser Chikuma under attack on 5th November 1943.

The Japanese cruiser Chikuma under attack on 5th November 1943

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.]

The full interview and account of Cropper’s service was originally available at Worcester County Veterans Memorial- It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

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.

SBD Dauntless crewman Alva Parker, having suffered neck and shoulder shrapnel wounds over Rabaul, New Britain, being helped from the aircraft after landing on USS Saratoga, 5 Nov 1943

Aircrewman, wounded during raid on Rabaul, on board the USS Saratoga (CV-3). Alva Parker (ARM1) who suffered shrapnel wounds in neck and shoulders, rests in litter, 11/05/1943.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason M. Pilalas September 29, 2018 at 11:30 pm

Bruce Brookshire – your dad trained at NAS Fort Lauderdale, now a large modern commercial airport. At the western edge of the field in the only surviving WW2 building is a very nice museum which tells the story of the Navy’s usage and of several notable people and events of the times. President George George Bush trained there and of course the George Gay you mentioned was the sole survivor of Torpedo Squadron 8 at Midway. Flight 19 of Bermuda Triangle infamy launched from here too. Their website is very informative and you will enjoy it.

Russell Allen September 28, 2018 at 12:04 am

My father Charles C Allen was a fireman 1st class on her during WWll. He talked about when she was bombed and busted his eardrums.

Bruce Brookshire October 20, 2017 at 2:40 am

My Daddy, Naval Lieutenant William Carroll Brookshire was one of the TBF torpedo bomber pilots on the USS Saratoga. When I was much younger, after I returned from Vietnam, we would talk about his and my war experiences. He told me about flying over Rabaul, of how the stench from the burning of the piles of bodies on the island would engulf his cockpit. He did his 50 missions, then became a Naval flight instructor in Hollywood, FL, until the end of the war alongside a fellow instructor and friend named George Gay. He never flew again after being discharged.

Cynthia Egan March 29, 2016 at 3:01 am

I have a photo of a note that was signed by several POW’s at Rabaul. Frank Dockertty is one of the names signed on this note in 1945

Colin Docketty April 19, 2015 at 11:42 am

To the brave airmen mentioned above 5th November 1943. I want to thank you all for your bravery at Simpson Harbour. My dad Frank Docketty (a British POW) was close to the Tobera airstrip at this time and knew all about it. This action undoubtedly helped to bring the war in the Pacific to a close and possibly saved his life along with the lives of other POWs who were liberated by the RNAS Vendetta crew at the end of the war from Rabaul (7th September 1945). Do you have any other photos of this event and possibly bombing at Watom Island ? about 1mile off the North coast. My father was moved here in February 44 until the end of the war.

Michael Coff October 2, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Looking for pictures or information on Ralph Isaac Cozad, Radar man 3 c who was lost over the Pacific 10-14 1944

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