Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration: Piotr Forkasiewicz
Cat. No. 82214
Rabaul on New Britain in the South Pacific was occupied by Japanese in early 1942 and for the next two years it became a key base for naval, air and ground units during their campaigns in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. It was so heavily defended that the Allies decided to neutralize it and not waste their forces in capturing it. At the end of 1943 its fighter protection was provided by Zero pilots from Kōkūtai 201, 204 and 253.
On November 1, 1943, the Allies began landing at Cape Torokina north of Empress Augusta Bay on the west coast of Bougainville Island. Their mission was to establish air bases closer to Rabaul. The Japanese were prepared for this risk and therefore sent reinforcements to Rabaul in the form of cruisers and destroyers as well as air units from the aircraft carriers Shōkaku, Zuikaku and Zuihō.
The Americans were first unsuccessfully attacked by airmen from the carrier units, and at night two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and six destroyers sailed to the island. Behind them, vessels with Japanese reinforcements followed. A night battle occurred in Empress Augusta Bay in which several warships collided, and the Japanese lost one light cruiser and one destroyer, two cruisers were damaged, and two destroyers suffered heavy damage. The Americans came out of the battle in better shape, with damage to one cruiser and one destroyer.
The Americans scheduled a raid on Rabaul for Tuesday, November 2, 1943. The low-altitude attack by 75 Mitchells from the 3rd, 38th and 345th BG was escorted by 70 Lightnings from the 8th, 49th and 475th FG. The fighters were commanded by Gerald Johnson of the 9th FS and his deputy, future America's most successful fighter pilot, Dick Bong. The Liberator crews were tasked to conduct their raid at the same time, but due to bad weather, some heavies and part of their escort returned to New Guinea. While planning the attack, the Americans had no information about the reinforcements that had arrived in Rabaul, nor did they take into account that the warships would return after the night battle off Bougainville. They were thus heading into deadly trap.
The bombers approached Rabaul from the northeast and passed over the target between the volcanoes of Tovanudatir and Komvur. Two P-38 squadrons were the first to attack Lakunai airfield, but far from surprising the Japanese, they were instead engaged by about a hundred Zeros. The individual gunship squadrons attacked airfields and vessels at Rabaul about a minute apart. There the defenders were surprised, but gunners on shore and on ships quickly opened fire. The defence was led by the heavy cruisers Haguro and Myoko. The Japanese also fired large calibres into the water to threaten the low-flying bombers with high geysers.
All hell broke loose over the bay, the air was filled with flak explosions and falling machines. The bombers trying to fly below the level of the cruisers' decks to escape their fire were also attempting to avoid the water geysers. Piotr Forkasiewicz captured this phase of the battle on the boxart. The aircraft 2-163 probably belonged to Hikōtaichō of 201. Kōkūtai, Lt. Cdr. Shirō Kawai. However, he did not participate in this action and unit´s formation was led by Lt.(jg) Yoshio Ôba.
Some Zeros chased the B-25s during their retreat, but the Japanese pilots avoided attacking from the front because they feared the gunships' armament. Some Japanese pilots apparently ran out of ammunition, flew alongside the Mitchells for a while, then saluted and took off.
The Japanese lost fourteen Zeros and nine pilots, and six more fighters were destroyed in collisions during takeoff. The Japanese reported 119 aircraft shot down, 22 of them probably. The American side also inflated its reports, with fighters and bombers claiming 55 Zeros shot down. The exact damage to Japanese vessels is still disputed, but after this attack the Japanese abandoned another naval attack on Bougainville.
The Americans lost 11 Mitchells and 9 Lightnings, many more were damaged. Most of the P-38s were shot down in fighter engagements, while a large number of B-25s was shot down by flak. Due to these losses, November 2, 1943, was nicknamed “Black Tuesday”. Major Raynold H. Wilkins of the 8th BS, 3rd BG was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his attack on one of the cruisers and his courage in leading his formation.