Action Off Rabaul

(See chart opposite)

February 20th

Having carried out the attacks on the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, the two task forces commanded by Vice Admiral Halsey, were retiring to the eastward on the 1st of February 1942. Admiral Halsey had burned excessive fuel in making his retirement under enemy bombing attacks, and deemed it necessary to request the Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet, that arrangements for an emergency fueling rendezvous be made. It so happened that at that time Task Force BAKER, commanded by Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, U.S.N., had recently left Pearl Harbor and was proceeding southward on a patrol mission. Accordingly, CINCPAC directed Admiral brown to divert course toward the Marshalls in order to cover the withdrawal of Admiral Halsey's ships and provide fuel as necessary.

As it turned out, Admiral Halsey's forces were able to return to base without the emergency refueling. In the meantime, however, Task Force BAKER had received further orders. These orders were the outgrowth of a dispatch from COMINCH to CINCPAC which contained the information that a widespread, coordinated Japanese offensive was expected, possibly involving strong attacks on Midway, Oahu, the New Hebrides, northeast Australia, the Canal Zone or United States West Coast. CINCPAC was ordered to dispose his forces so as to hit the enemy wherever and whenever he might attack. A second COMINCH dispatch called attention to an anticipated enemy offensive in the direction of New Caledonia, the New Hebrides or other positions on our lines of communication with the southwest Pacific. It appeared that the Japanese would gather their forces at Rabaul, New Britain, preliminary to launching an offensive. The dispatch specified that Task Force BAKER, augmented by additional cruisers and destroyers as well as Navy patrol planes and Army bombers from other areas, should proceed to the southwest Pacific and operate under the Commander ANZAC Forces, Vice Admiral Herbert F. Leary in such a manner as seemed


advisable to COMANZAC. At that stage of the Pacific war, Allied convoying, garrisoning and other activities necessary to the defense of the south Pacific were in an embryonic and vulnerable phase.


After taking up his station with Task Force BAKER, Admiral Brown conceived a plan for an attack on Rabaul and received authority from COMANZAC to carry it out. Roughly speaking, the plan called for an air and surface attack on the enemy base, to be coordinated with an attack by United States Army heavy bombers of the Australian command, at dawn on February 21st. Combatant ships at Admiral Brown's disposal were:

One carrier--
Lexington (flagship of Admiral Brown), Capt. Frederick C. Sherman.

Four heavy cruisers--
Minneapolis, Capt. Frank J. Lowry.
Indianapolis, Capt. Edward W. Hanson.
Pensacola, Capt. Frank L. Lowe.
San Francisco, Capt. Daniel J. Callaghan.

Ten destroyers--
Phelps, Lt. Comdr. Edward L. Beck.
Dewey, Lt. Comdr. Charles F. Chillingworth, Jr.
MacDonough, Lt. Comdr. John M. Mclsaac.
Hull, Lt. Comdr. Richard F. Stout.
Aylwin, Lt. Comdr. Rohert H. Rogers.
Dale, Lt. Comdr. Anthony L. Rorschach.
Bagley, Lt. Comdr. George A. Sinclair.
Patterson, Comdr. Frank R. Walker.
Clark, Comdr. Myron T. Richardson.
Drayton, Lt. Comdr. Laurence A. Abercrombie.

The plan of attack was elastic, in that it contained a proviso that the surface bombardment was to be made only if the air attack was a success. The Pensacola, Clark, and Bagley were designated as this provisional attack group.

The approach on Rabaul was made from due east, the intention being to place the Lexington in a position to launch her planes at a distance of 125 miles from the objective at 0400 of the 21st. On the morning of the 20th, Task Force BAKER was some 350 miles northeast of Rabaul. Enemy patrol flying boats were encountered, and these planes no doubt reported the presence of our force. At any rate, Task Force BAKER was


attacked several hours later by enemy heavy bombers. A highly successful action ensued, which is described below. However, the element of surprise had been lost. Furthermore, it became evident that as a result of their high speed maneuvering during the enemy attack our ships no longer had sufficient fuel to safely carry out their mission. It seems the estimated fuel consumption had been based on a slow approach. Admiral Brown, after steering a course directly toward Rabaul for the remaining daylight hours in order to create as much alarm among the enemy as possible, ordered a withdrawal. His decision was approved by both CINCPAC and COMINCH, as evidenced by reports and congratulatory messages.


At 1015 on the 20th the Lexington radar picked up an unknown aircraft 35 miles from the ship on bearing 180° true. A six-plane combat patrol was launched, two fighters being directed to investigate the contact. These two planes, under command of Lt. Comdr. John S. Thach located a Japanese four-engined flying boat about 43 miles out and shot it down at 1112. Later another radar contact 35 miles ahead was made and two other planes of the combat patrol, commanded by Lt. (j.g.) Onia B. Stanley were sent to the contact point. They discovered a second enemy four-engined flying boat and shot it down at 1202. A third contact was made 80 miles ahead, but the enemy soon reversed course and disappeared. At 1326 a relief combat patrol and an afternoon search group were launched and the first group of planes were landed.

The Lexington was steaming at 20 knots on a course 234° true at 1542 when her radar indicated a large group of planes approaching from the direction of Rabaul and about 76 miles distant from the ship. At 1615 a relief patrol of six fighters was launched and the previous patrol was told to land. However, 5 minutes later radar showed the enemy planes to be close to the carrier, and both patrols were ordered to intercept. Vectored out by radar and the Lexington's fighter director, our planes made contact well out with nine Japanese twin-engined bombers at an altitude of 11,000 feet. The enemy aircraft appeared to be a modified type 97. They approached from the starboard side swinging astern to make their runs. Our fighters attacked and shot down five of them before they reached the bomb release point. Our planes broke off the attack in the face of our ships' antiaircraft fire. In the case of the Lexington, fire was


opened by the starboard 5-inch guns at a range of 10,000 yards. These guns were credited with damaging the leading plane of the enemy formation, which approached in a shallow "V of V's".

As is often the case, there was some doubt as to just what caused the destruction of planes--fighters or antiaircraft fire. However, of the four enemy aircraft which reached the point of release, only one escaped. Moreover, the bomb salvo fell a full 3,000 yards short of the Lexington, the intended target, and it is reasonable to assume that this wildness was a result of the effective joint defense put up by Lexington fighters and the antiaircraft fire of the task force.

As near as can be determined from available information, three of the four enemy planes which were able to release their bombs immediately fled. Our fighters again attacked as soon as the ships ceased firing, and caught and shot down two of the three. The third escaped in good shape. In the meantime, the fourth enemy bomber had peeled off and begun a low-level strafing attack on the Lexington.

The behavior of this plane, and that of another which will be detailed below, caused some of the people in Task Force BAKER to conclude that it was doctrine for damaged Japanese planes to attempt to crash aboard our ships. The plane came in against the Lexington from the starboard beam. Fire was opened by all starboard 1.1 and .50-caliber mounts at 2,500 yards. The enemy was smoking by the time he had come within 1,000 yards of the ship, and the smoke increased until he crashed in flames 75 yards astern.

During the course of this attack, the Lexington launched 4 fighters and 11 patrol planes and landed 5 fighters for reservicing, all while maneuvering with 30° rudder at 30 knots to avoid bombs.

Meanwhile, a second group of nine enemy planes was detected by radar approaching from eastward. All Lexington fighters in the air except two were pursuing the remnants of the first wave of enemy planes and were not in a position to intercept. As the enemy came up on the starboard quarter, the two available fighters, led by Lt. Edward H. O'Hare, attacked. The guns of one fighter immediately jammed. Lieutenant O'Hare continued to attack alone. He shot down two bombers almost at once and damaged three others, so that only four of the enemy reached the release point. The Lexington maneuvered radically, and the salvo fell astern, the nearest splash being 100 feet away.


Lieutenant O'Hare, meanwhile, persisted in his attacks and shot down two more bombers in flames and caused a third to crash into the sea. He thus was directly responsible for the destruction of five enemy planes. In the opinion of Admiral Brown and of Capt. Frederick Sherman, commanding the Lexington, Lieutenant O'Hare's skill and daring may have saved the carrier from serious damage or even loss.

Of the four planes of the second wave of nine which managed to release their bombs, one was shot down 8 miles ahead by a fighter, a second 40 miles ahead by a fighter, a third 80 miles ahead by returning scout bomber, and the fourth was badly damaged but still flying after a 150-mile running fight with the aforementioned scout bomber. The pilot of this SBD, Lt. Edward H. Allen, and his free gunner, Bruce Rountree, radioman first class, were highly praised by their superiors for their achievement with a plane not intended for that type of work. They broke off their attack on the enemy only because of fuel shortage.

Good flying conditions held throughout the action. Various cloud formations were present at altitudes ranging from 2,800 to 25,000 feet, but these, particularly the low ones, were broken by large clearings. Visibility was from 15 to 20 miles. A slight sea was running.

During the second attack, the Lexington's starboard 5-inch guns opened fire and continued until the swinging of the ship to port operated the cut-out cams. Fire was opened by the port batteries as they bore. A total of 133 rounds were fired in all. No hits were claimed. Gunners complained of not being able to distinguish their bursts from those of escorting ships. At one point an enemy bomber approached the Lexington from the port side on a 30° converging course, giving the appearance of trying to strafe the ship or crash aboard. One 1.1 mount and two .50-caliber guns opened fire at 3,000 yards range. The enemy plane crashed in flames about 1,500 yards off the port bow. As far as can be determined, this plane was one of the 5 put out of the bombing action by Lieutenant O'Hare.

Antiaircraft fire by ships in the rear of the formation was heavy but inaccurate. Our pilots reported that bursts were beyond the target by 500 to 1,000 feet on the first attack and short by more than 1,000 feet on the second. Illustrative of the conflicting opinions as to the effectiveness of our antiaircraft fire was the fact that our fighter pilots stated positively that no enemy planes were shot down, while observers on ships' decks report from two to four. Fighter pilots also complained that the anti


aircraft fire hampered them in driving home their attacks on enemy aircraft approaching the bomb release point. Four of our fighters engaged in the action were slightly damaged by our own antiaircraft fire, one pilot sustaining superficial wounds.

By 1900 all Lexington planes had been landed except for two fighters which were shot down while attacking enemy bombers. It is of interest to note that both planes were lost while making steady, no-deflection runs from astern of their targets. The pilot of one fighter was picked up after parachuting to safety. The other, Ensign John Woodrow Wilson, sank with his plane.

Summary of results.

Enemy losses:

  1. Two four-engined patrol planes shot down.
  2. Sixteen of 18 two-engined bombers shot down; 1 damaged and probably lost; 1 escaped.

Our losses:

  1. Two fighter planes; one pilot saved.


The action of February 20 tended to show that an aircraft carrier can defend itself against a bombing attack, provided the enemy planes have no fighter support, the attack is not coordinated with one by torpedo planes, and the number of planes is limited. The Lexington was very nearly caught by the second wave of enemy bombers, evading their missiles by what appeared to be a combination of skillful maneuvering and good luck. "It is my considered opinion," Admiral Brown reported, "that if we had been attacked by 40 planes instead of 18, only a miracle could have prevented damage to the Lexington."

Our antiaircraft fire was poor, even though the enemy planes came on in tight formations, holding a steady course and altitude throughout most of the 6 miles of their approach which was observed by our ships.

The Japanese two-engined bombers showed a gratifying vulnerability, particularly to being set afire in the engine sections.


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Last updated: August 15, 2002

Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation