Hit-and-Run Raids

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The Forgotten Revenge for Pearl Harbor - Lae-Salamaua 1942

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

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.)


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.”

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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