Action off Bougainville
Contributor: David Stubblebine
ww2dbaseAfter Japanese forces captured the port of Rabaul in New Britain early in Feb 1942, Allied commanders fully understood that this put the Japanese squarely in position to interdict the shipping lanes supplying Australia. In response, a complicated plan was created to attack Rabaul with coordinated efforts from the United States Navy in the Pacific, United States Army Air Forces based in Australia, and Australian and New Zealand forces also based in Australia. The attack was to take place on 21 Feb 1942 and commence with an air attack by aircraft from USS Lexington (Lexington-class) in conjunction with shore bombardments from Lexington's escorting cruisers.
ww2dbaseLexington sailed as part of Task Force 11, also called Tack Force Baker, along with four heavy cruisers and ten destroyers under the command of United States Navy Vice-Admiral Wilson Brown. One day before the intended attack, on 20 Feb 1942, while Lexington was still 350 miles northeast of her intended launch point, American radar detected incoming aircraft. Lexington's F4F Wildcat fighters, in a decisive action, engaged the Japanese aircraft and shot down two out three reconnaissance flying boats and 15 out of 17 land-based bombers sent to attack the US ships. US losses were only two fighters with one of those pilots rescued.
ww2dbaseWith the element of surprise lost, the entire Rabaul attack was aborted; although Brown continued toward Rabaul for the remaining daylight hours to cause maximum concern among the Japanese commanders. The task force reversed course during the night.
ww2dbaseThe loss to the Japanese of nearly the entire bomber group caused Fourth Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue to delay the Japanese intended Invasion of Laeâ€“Salamaua on New Guinea by five days. This brief delay was enough for the Allies to better mobilize their response to that invasion and effectively blunt the Japanese efforts.
ww2dbaseThe skirmish of 20 Feb 1942 off Bougainville was small compared with engagements later in the war and would almost be considered insignificant in late 1944. But this was Feb 1942, eleven weeks after the Pearl Harbor Attack and three-and-a-half months before the Battle of Midway. Japanese forces were well developed and seasoned while American forces were untested and still trying to mobilize to formulate their response. In this context, for the United States Navy to delay the Japanese steamroller, even by a mere five days, was a significant strategic accomplishment. The United States Navy recognized this importance by including this single engagement on their list of official battle stars for World War II.
United States Navy
Last Major Update: Mar 2023
Action off Bougainville Interactive Map
Action off Bougainville Timeline
|20 Feb 1942||A Japanese H6K flying boat piloted by Lieutenant (jg) Noboru Sakai spotted a US carrier force 460 miles northeast of New Britain; US pilot Jimmy Thatch of Fighting Squadron 3 (VF-3) flying from USS Lexington shot down Sakai's aircraft at 1112 hours, but not before Sakai had alerted others. At 1202 hours, Burt Stanley and Leon Haynes, also of VF-3, shot down another H6K aircraft flown by Warrant Officer Kiyoshi Hayashi north of Lexington. At 1420 hours, 17 Type 1 bombers of Japanese 4th Air Group, led by Lieutenant Masayoshi Nakagawa, were launched from Rabaul, with the first wave reaching Lexington at 1625 hours. The first wave of 9 bombers were all shot down without causing any damage to Lexington (Nakagawa tried to crash into Lexington as he fell from the sky, but fell short by less than 1 mile). US Navy Lieutenant Albert Vorse of VF-3 shot down one of these bombers for his first aerial kill. The second wave attacked USS Lexington and USS Minneapolis at 1705 hours, still causing no damage; Edward "Butch" O'Hare shot down 3 and damaged 4 Japanese bombers. Only 2 Japanese bombers arrived back at Rabaul at the end of the day; 100 Japanese bomber crewmen were lost during the attacks, and Japan also lost 20 men with the H6K reconnaissance flights earlier in the morning. O'Hare was given credit for 5 kills, making him an "Ace in a Day" and leading to him being awarded the Medal of Honor. With the element of surprise lost, Lexington broke off her intended raid on Rabaul. Because of the loss of so many bombers, the Japanese delayed their plans to invade Lae, New Guinea.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945
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