Sara & Co stop by Rabaul
Some 77 years ago today:
On 1 November 1943, the 3rd Marine Division landed at Cape Torokina in Empress Augusta Bay, about halfway up the west coast of Bougainville.
That very evening into the next morning, RADM Stanton Merrill’s Task Force 39 took on the IJN’s 5th Cruiser Division in a dramatic surface action that preserved the initial beachhead known as the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay.
Soon after that, ONI discovered that as many as 10 Japanese cruisers were massing at Rabaul– a significant surface action force that could really affect the landings, especially if they sortied under the cover of night.
USS Saratoga (CV 3), in conjunction with the light carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23), supported by a joint raid by 27 B-24s of the USAAF 3rd Bomb Group with P-38s running top cover, was ordered to spoil the Japanese force’s plans.
As troops stormed ashore on Bougainville on 1 November, Saratoga’s aircraft neutralized nearby Japanese airfields on Buka. Then, on 5 November, in response to reports of Japanese cruisers concentrating at Rabaul to counterattack the Allied landing forces, Saratoga conducted perhaps her most brilliant strike of the war. Her aircraft penetrated the heavily defended port and disabled most of the Japanese cruisers, ending the surface threat to Bougainville. Saratoga, herself, escaped unscathed and returned to raid Rabaul again on 11 November.
The ships massed included the cruisers Atago, Takao, Maya, Mogami, Agano, Noshiro, Chikuma, and Haguro.
The huge 15,000-ton Maya was perhaps the most damaged, suffering 70 killed when an SBD-delivered bomb hit the aircraft deck port side above the No. 3 engine room and started a major fire. Takao, Mogami, and Atago also suffered significant, although not crippling, bomb damage.
Noshiro was hit by a dud Mark 13 aerial torpedo dropped by an Avenger. Agano was the target of a better-performing Mark 13 which blew off the very end of her stern and bent her rearmost propeller shafts. Several destroyers also suffered damage.
24 Japanese fighters from Lakunai airfield, rising up to meet the carrier planes and Liberators, were shot down, depriving the Empire of not only their airframes but in most cases, precious experienced pilots that could not be replaced.
All in all, not bad work.