While the Japanese were sailing away from Darwin, a small U. S. task force based upon the fleet carrier USS Lexington under the command of Vice Admiral Wilson Brown was heading toward Rabaul to make a raid of its own. In the early weeks of the war, unable to engage Japanese forces in serious battle, Admiral Chester Nimitz, new head of Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, authorized a series of hit-and-run raids by America’s three fleet carriers then in the Pacific: Lexington, Enterprise, and Yorktown. (A Japanese submarine torpedoed USS Saratoga near Pearl Harbor and damaged it. Combined Fleet counted it as sunk. USS Hornet had not yet arrived in Hawaiian waters, although it soon did so in most dramatic fashion. USS Wasp spent the first few months of the war aiding the British defense of Malta. Americans employed a small number of light escort carriers to ferry aircraft, but they were not expected to fight.) Nimitz hoped that such tactics would unsettle the Japanese, make them cautious, and slow them down. Indeed for a short time Combined Fleet dispatched two Japanese fleet carriers to guard the approaches to the Home Islands. Yet the policy had its critics. Sending U. S. carriers within launch range of Japanese bases had inherent risks from air attacks and submarines. U. S. admirals did not anticipate inflicting major blows against Combined Fleet but nevertheless risked precious assets. Luck was kind to Nimitz, and no U. S. carrier suffered any damage. Indeed, although no one knew it at the time, Admiral Brown did the Allied cause a tremendous service.
The first Lexington raid was not, in an operational sense, a great success. When approaching Rabaul on February 20, Lexington was sighted by a long-range Japanese seaplane. The Lexington was outside of even the prodigious range of the Zero. There was no timidity among Japanese officers, still flush with victory, and they immediately launched an attack on the Lexington by seventeen new Betty bombers, their entire long-range strike force of 24th Air Flotilla (sometimes called 11th Air Fleet) newly established at Rabaul. Fortunately for the Americans the torpedoes, which made the Betty so deadly against British surface ships early in the war, had not yet arrived, so the Japanese loaded bombs instead.
It may have made no difference. American radar picked up the raiders, and Lexington’s Wildcat fighters made an accurate intercept. In the air battle that followed, the Japanese suffered one of their worst tactical reverses of the early Pacific war. As confirmed by postwar Japanese records, Wildcats shot down fifteen of the bombers at the cost of two defenders. Lexington was never in serious danger. The Americans proved they could risk an engagement inside the air perimeter of a major Japanese base. They had also shown that Japanese bombers-whatever their other virtues-were extremely flimsy, a flaw that would cost Japanese airmen dearly. One can only imagine the reaction at Combined Fleet when the news arrived, its leaders knowing that four of their carriers were at sea some 1,200 miles east. Had Combined Fleet divided its carrier task force and covered the operations planned out of Rabaul, it would have had ample aircraft to demolish Darwin and might well have caught Lexington. Port Moresby and Tulagi both would have fallen, almost certainly, in weeks.
Infuriated, Inoue called for replacement aircraft to be flown in. While waiting to reequip his shattered bomber force, Inoue also delayed the invasion of Lae and Salamaua from March 3 to March 8. Under normal circumstances, five days is not a long postponement. In this case, however, the situation could not have worked out worse for the Japanese. The Lexington task force joined up with USS Yorktown, and Nimitz granted Wilson’s request to strike Rabaul again. While the task force was sailing toward Rabaul, Allied reconnaissance picked up the Japanese transports and escorts embarking from Rabaul toward Lae and Salamaua. Wilson immediately saw that hitting a landing in progress offered the opportunity to rattle the Japanese seriously. The Japanese put their troops ashore on March 9 and swept away the insignificant opposition. The next day they received a shock. Wilson’s task force, for reasons of safety, maneuvered toward Port Moresby and launched from the west of Lae. This required the 100 American aircraft to cross the Owen Stanley Mountains, but this potentially perilous operation was carried out without loss. The surprise was complete. In the raid that followed, U. S. aircraft attacked the transports and their escorts and lost only a single plane. Within hours a strike of eight U. S. B-17s also joined the attack. Had the carrier pilots been more experienced, no doubt the Japanese losses would have been worse. As it stood, Inoue’s force was rudely treated. American planes sunk a minesweeper, a merchant-cruiser, and a transport and damaged a light cruiser and two destroyers.
Although not crushing, Fourth Fleet’s losses were serious enough to cause postponement of the planned move on Port Moresby and Tulagi. In March Port Moresby was nearly undefended, and Zeros based at Lae could have easily dealt with any Australian and American air defenders. Yet the possibility of U. S. carriers in the area, and the painful realization that the Allied buildup in northern Australia was taking place much faster than anticipated, altered the equation. A Japanese invasion fleet going from Rabaul (or Lae) to Port Moresby had to steam uncomfortably close to Australia. Prior to Admiral Brown’s raid, Inoue and Tokyo believed that Fourth Fleet could handle things by themselves. After the raid, however, the transports appeared much more vulnerable. An expedition without air protection from Combined Fleet’s carriers was judged too risky. Unfortunately for Tokyo, Combined Fleet, at a moment when the Allies were still desperately weak, had embarked on a major carrier raid against Ceylon on April 9, 1942. The Ceylon raid was another illustrious tactical victory. However, by the time Nagumo’s carriers had returned to imperial waters the Allied positions in the Indies, the Philippines, and Burma were obviously hopeless. However, this meant that Tokyo could no longer put off a final decision concerning where next to concentrate the action. Tokyo had squandered an opportunity go grab Port Moresby on the cheap. Although no one on either side of the Pacific could have anticipated it, the Japanese juggernaut had reached high tide. Within weeks the slow slide toward defeat began. (One individual who did not participate in further events was Wilson Brown, relieved because of failing health.)
ADMIRAL FREDERICK C. SHERMAN, from his book COMBAT COMMAND
After the Marshall Islands raid, the Yorktown task force, with the cruisers Astoria and Louisville and six destroyers, was sent south to augment Vice-Admiral Brown’s force. HMAS Australia also joined up. The combined task force now contained eight cruisers, 14 destroyers, and the two large carriers. Admiral Brown designated me as air commander, my unit consisting of the Lexington, the Yorktown and their air groups. For the first time, two carriers would act together tactically as one unit in combat. They would become the model of the multicarrier task groups which functioned so successfully later in the war.
The situation was discussed at a conference on board the Lexington. Admiral Brown still desired to attack Rabaul, but this time from a launching point south of the Solomons. The Japanese were now established at Gasmata, in southern New Britain, and had considerable air forces there as well as at Rabaul. To strike Rabaul from the south meant passing through restricted waters between the Louisiades and the Solomons and coming within range of air attack from Gasmata as well as from Rabaul. I recommended a dawn attack on both places to reduce the chances of counterattack. The plan was adopted, and we proceeded westward through the Coral Sea toward the contemplated launching position.
Shortly after this decision was reached, however, we got information that enemy ships had been sighted off Buna, just around the comer of New Guinea from Port Moresby, and, later, that troops were landing from many transports at Salamaua and near-by Lae, somewhat farther to the north along the same coast. This concentration seemed to promise a better objective than the ones we had chosen. To get within range of Salamaua and Lae from the Coral Sea side, however, we would have to penetrate to the north of the Louisiades and subject ourselves to air counterattack from Gasmata and Rabaul on our flank. There was one other alternative. From the northern tip of the Gulf of Papua, our planes could reach their targets by flying over the Owen Stanley Mountains of New Guinea to the Salamaua area while our carriers remained out of range of the enemy.
There were drawbacks to this plan. We had little information as to the height of the mountains and it was doubtful that our sea-level torpedo planes could clear them. Our intelligence data was extremely meager. Our charts showed the coast line but no details of the interior. Furthermore, our chart of the Gulf of Papua was marked “Surveyed in 1894” and “Area contains many coral heads which grow from year to year and whose position is unknown.” It was not a very pleasant prospect for a navigator.
To supplement our meager information, I sent two planes under Commander Walton W. Smith, of Admiral Brown’s staff, to Townsville, Australia, and two under Commander Willian. B. Ault, the Lexington’s Air Group Commander, to Port Moresby to pick up what information they could concerning the route of the projected flight. Commander Ault landed at Port Moresby between two Japanese air raids, a frequent occurrence which indicated their intention of capturing that base. Both he and Smith brought back valuable information. The towering peaks of the Owen Stanlev Mountains rise as high as 13,000 feet, a much greater altitude than our loaded torpedo planes could attain. Between these summits, however, my officers learned, was one pass at 7,500 feet, through which our planes could go. Though shrouded in clouds most of the time, the pass occasionally cleared for about two hours in the early morning. That would be just time enough, we estimated, for our planes to reach their objectives and get back. The terrain over which they would be flying was classed as “tiger country”-a wild, unexplored region of dense jungle and jagged peaks, inhabited by fierce head-hunters and cannibals.
We determined to attack through this pass. There was danger that if our planes got through on their way out, clouds might close in behind them before their return, shrouding the pass. In that case we might lose two whole air groups. To guard against this contingency, I decided to detail one plane, with an experienced officer, to remain in the pass as a weather observer while the rest were on the far side of the mountains. This officer would have authority to recall the planes if he saw the weather starting to close in. For this assignment, in view of his excellent judgment and experience, I selected Commander Ault. He was badly disappointed, since he naturally wanted to lead his planes in combat. The date set for the attack was March 10. The cruisers Australia, Chicago, Astoria and Louisville, and four destroyers, all under the command of Rear Admiral John Gregory Grace, of the Royal Navy, were detached and left behind to guard the passages through the Louisiades Islands against an enemy sortie in our rear. The rest of us proceeded westward into the Gulf of Papua, passing only 60 miles south of Port Moresby.
It was shortly after daylight when we arrived in the Gulf of Papua. In this sheltered area, we found little or no wind, and we could see that the pass through the mountains was clear. We kept within 15 miles of the coast, despite the numerous forbidding coral heads plainly visible in the clear water. Steaming at full speed to get sufficient wind over our decks, we launched our heavily loaded torpedo planes and dive bombers, with escorting fighter units. Snuggling to gain altitude. Lieutenant Commander Jimmie Brett’s torpedo squadron, at the last minute, received the benefit of an updraft of air and cleared the pass with a bare 500 feet to spare. When the groups sighted Salamaua and Lae, they saw two enemy cruisers and four destroyers in the harbors, with five transports and two cargo ships busily unloading supplies onto the beaches. Farther out, another Japanese task force was approaching. It contained an additional cruiser and five destroyers, six transports, and a seaplane tender of the Kamoi class. Until they heard the roar of engines and saw the flight swooping down from the mountains, the Japanese had no idea American planes were anywhere within miles of them.
To the enemy’s complete surprise, our torpedo planes and bombers swept into the harbors and the dive bombers pushed over in their attacks. When it was all over, five transports or cargo ships had been sunk, a destroyer had blown up, a mine layer was apparently sinking, and a 1,000-pound bomb had landed on each of two cruisers. Two additional destroyers were reported as dead in the water. Antiaircraft fire had been light, but one scout bomber of the Lexington group had been shot down. An enemy float plane which had tried to oppose the attack was picked off by Lieutenant Noel Gaylor of the Lexington, who sent it flaming into the sea. Another had been driven off, trailing smoke.
After the return of our planes through the pass, we were elated as we counted them and saw that all but one were present. As soon as all were safely aboard, we headed east for our fueling rendezvous and to rejoin our rear-guard cruisers. It had been a most successful attack and had demonstrated that two or more carriers could work together in combat as a team. It delayed the enemy’s plans for the capture of Port Moresby and began the attrition of his shipping that was eventually to be a major cause of his downfall. Admiral Nimitz congratulated Admiral Brown on a raid “well planned and well executed.”