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H-Gram 024: Operation Cherryblossom: Victory in the Solomon Islands, November 1943 

27 December 2018 


USS SARATOGA (CV-3)

Dawn on USS Saratoga’s (CV-3) flight deck, during preparations for the air strike on Rabaul, 5 November 1943 (80-G-470943).

I regret that with the unfortunate number of flag officer passing notes in the last month I have fallen behind in tracking with 75th anniversary events of World War II. However, my trusty staff has managed to keep up with articles, photos, and documents on the Naval History and Heritage Command website, so you can always find interesting and constantly updated things there.

Back issues of H-grams (enhanced by photos and charts) can be accessed here.

By the end of November 1943, U.S. and Allied forces were on the offensive against the Japanese in the southwest and central Pacific along three axes of attack.

In New Guinea, Allied forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, supported by the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, had completed the protracted capture of Salamaua and Lae, and were commencing a series of advances westward along the northern coast of New Guinea with the objective of reaching the Philippines to fulfill MacArthur's 1942 promise that he would return. (I will cover the New Guinea campaign in a future H-gram.)

In the Central Pacific, Admiral Chester Nimitz and the U.S. Fifth Fleet (under the command of Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance) commenced the drive for the Marianas and Japan by capturing Tarawa and Makin in the Gilbert Islands chain, in an operation code-named Galvanic. The bloody battle of Tarawa, and the high price the U.S. Marines paid to capture it (just over 1,000 killed) proved to be controversial at the time and in the years since, with a continuing debate over whether the atoll’s capture was necessary or worth the cost. What is less well known was the high price the U.S. Navy paid for Galvanic, with the loss of the escort carrier Liscome Bay (CVE-56) with over 640 of her crew killed, including Rear Admiral Henry Mullinex and Mess Attendant 1st Class Doris Miller (the first African American to be awarded a Navy Cross, for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor). A turret explosion onboard the battleship Mississippi (BB-41) claimed the lives of 43 sailors. An additional 40 sailors were lost on the submarine Sculpin (SS-191), in which Captain John P. Cromwell chose to go down with the boat in order to keep his knowledge of “Ultra” intelligence from the Japanese. Cromwell was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Fighter pilot Lieutenant Commander Edward "Butch" O'Hare, previously awarded a Medal of Honor, was lost in a night action over the Gilberts. (I will cover Operation Galvanic in detail in H-Gram 025.)

The third axis of attack, and the subject of this H-gram, was the culmination of the advance through the Solomon Islands chain by forces under the command of Admiral William F. Halsey, commander, U.S. Third Fleet: Operation Cherryblossom, the U.S. landings on Bougainville, the northernmost major island in the Solomons. This operation would bring land-based Allied airpower within 200 miles of the key Japanese stronghold of Rabaul, setting the stage for its subsequent encirclement and isolation.

Key (or at least interesting) events covered in H-gram attachment H-024-1 include:

  • The last combat operations by future President John F. Kennedy in extracting a force of U.S. Marines (including future three-star Victor Krulak) from a diversionary attack on the island of Choiseul.
  • The landings at Cape Torokina, Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, on 1 November 1943 by 14,000 U.S. Marines and over 400 U.S. Navy Seabees, including Carpenter Samuel J. Cox (my grandfather) and the immediate Japanese air counter-attacks.
  • The Battle of Empress Augusta Bay on the night of 1–2 November, in which a force of four U.S. light cruisers and eight destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral "Tip" Merrill defeated a Japanese force of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and six destroyers. These were unsuccessfully attempting to attack the U.S. invasion force and replicate the Japanese success at the Battle of Savo Island during the landings at Guadalcanal in August 1942. This time, thanks to better use of radar, the use of combat information centers, improved tactics, and experience, the Japanese force was driven away with the loss of one light cruiser and one destroyer in exchange for one U.S. destroyer badly damaged. Vastly improved U.S. shipboard anti-aircraft capability decimated a major Japanese air strike the next morning.
  • The first U.S. carrier air strikes against Rabaul, on 5 November 1943. In response to the landings at Bougainville, the Japanese immediately deployed a powerful force of seven heavy cruisers to Rabaul, with the intent of attacking the U.S. beachhead, and for which the U.S. had no surface capability to match. Halsey boldly ordered the carriers Saratoga (CV-3) and Princeton (CVL-23) to attack the Japanese force in the harbor at Rabaul, by far the most heavily defended installation to be attacked by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft to that date in the war. The extremely audacious strike accomplished the objective of putting as many of the Japanese cruisers out of action as possible—all were damaged, four severely—rather than trying to sink some of them, forcing the cancellation of the Japanese operation and the withdrawal of their ships. This was carried out with astonishingly light casualties, thanks to innovative tactics and the introduction of the new F6F Hellcat fighter into major combat operations. This relatively unheralded attack is actually one of the most amazing in the history of U.S. naval aviation.

In the "First Air Battle of Guadalcanal," a large Japanese air counter-attack against the U.S. carriers following the strike on Rabaul instead struck a U.S. force of two amphibious craft and a PT-boat, which fought valiantly and escaped largely unscathed, downing several Japanese aircraft. The Japanese claimed a great, but imaginary, victory. The PT-boat skipper received a memorable congratulatory note from Rear Admiral Wilkinson, Third Fleet amphibious force commander) that concluded with "Fireplug Sprinkles Dog."

  • Second U.S. carrier strike on Rabaul on 11 November 1943. Saratoga and Princeton, joined by a second carrier group with the new Essex-class carriers Essex (CV-9) and Bunker Hill (CV-17) plus the light carrier Independence (CVL-22), launched a second massive strike on Rabaul. Poor weather, delay, and lack of targets made this attack less effective than the first one. Noteworthy was the combat debut of the new SB2C-1 Helldiver dive bomber, which performed very well. The Japanese countered with one of the largest anti-carrier strikes of the war, which achieved virtually nothing thanks to the new Hellcats (and F-4U Corsairs, temporarily embarked on Bunker Hill), and new U.S. shipboard radar and anti-aircraft defenses.

Following the carrier strikes on Rabaul, the Japanese were still able to conduct fairly large-scale air attacks against U.S. ships bringing reinforcements and supplies to Bougainville. These air attacks were mostly noteworthy for extravagant claims compared to minimal results, and heavy Japanese aircraft losses. Several U.S. cruisers were damaged in these attacks, and the fast destroyer transport McKean (DD-90/APD-5) was sunk with a significant number of her crew and Marine passengers. McKean had been the sole survivor of Transport Division 12, which had sustained the Marines ashore on Guadalcanal during the darkest days after the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942.

  • Battle of Cape St. George, 25 November 1943. A force of five U.S. destroyers, under the command of Captain (and future CNO) Arleigh Burke, engaged a force of five Japanese destroyers in a night action between Bougainville and Rabaul. With effective use of radar, combat information centers, and new and innovative tactics, Burke's destroyers sank three of the Japanese destroyers and damaged a fourth without receiving a single hit in return, and without losing a single man. This was the last major surface action of the Solomon Islands campaign that had begun with the landings at Guadalcanal, and was the culmination of an extremely bitter and ferocious contest between the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese navy for control of the Solomons, during which losses were extremely high, and extraordinary valor was abundant—on both sides. In the end, though, the U.S. Navy could replace losses and the Japanese could not. New U.S. Cleveland-class light cruisers, Fletcher-class destroyers, Hellcats, Corsairs, new radars, combat information centers, new tactics, all coupled with hard-won experience, outclassed and overpowered the enemy.

For more on Operation Cherryblossom and the U.S. victory in the Solomon Islands, please see attachment H-024-1.

Two 50th Anniversary events of note (that I will cover in more detail in the next H-gram) include:

  • Apollo 8 Mission to the moon. On 21 December 1968, Apollo 8 was launched with a three-man crew that included Navy pilot James Lovell, in the first mission to leave earth orbit, reach and orbit the moon, and return safely. The crew was also the first to ever see an "earthrise." The Christmas Eve broadcast by astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders was the most-watched TV broadcast of all time to that point, and was certainly one of the most memorable, powerful, and moving events that I can remember from my youth.
  • Release of the crew of USS Pueblo (AGER-2) from North Korea. On 23 December 1968, the surviving 82 members of the crew of Pueblo were returned to U.S. control across the "bridge of no return," into South Korea following almost a year of often-brutal captivity. Their release was secured when the U.S. government signed a written apology and an admission that the Pueblo was spying, and that the U.S. would not spy on North Korea in the future. The signing was preceded by an oral statement stipulating that the U.S. was only signing the document to secure the release of the crew, (i.e., we didn't really mean we were sorry). This kabuki, however, satisfied the North Koreans. The "confession" that was signed under duress by Pueblo's skipper, Commander "Pete" Bucher, while in captivity, is one of the most amazing satirical documents ever written (it was astonishing that the North Koreans fell for it). I will include it in H-Gram 025.
Published: Wed May 08 10:15:09 EDT 2019