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Two hours after launching, the 97 planes reached their targets, Simpson Harbor, the Inner anchorage at Rabaul, and the outer roadstead at Blanche Bay. Again the Americans got a break from the weather, which was so clear over Rabaul that they could see for 50 miles. That was especially welcome under the circumstances, because although the aircrews had been rigorously trained to hit moving targets, there had not had time to prepare a detailed plan of attack for the Rabaul strike; much of which being worked out by group and squadron commanders over their radios while enroute.
The strike force was met with a wall of anti-aircraft fire, and a total of 59 A6M3 Zeros. The Japanese had expected the Americans to break into small groups as they neared the targets, but instead, Lieutenant Commander Caldwell simply directed the large formation through the gantlet of AA fire, letting it split into smaller groups only at the last moment before making their attacks. Unwilling to go through their own flak, the Zeros milled around. VF-12's and VF-23's 52 Hellcats went after them with a vengeance.
Meanwhile, ignoring the curtain of AA shellfire, Lieutenant Commander Caldwell led the SBDs and TBFs across Crater Point in order to swing upwind of the enemy ships. Only then did he deploy his SBDs while the TBFs went down low to start their torpedo runs. By then, the Japanese ships were either steaming for the harbor entrance or taking evasive action. One heavy cruiser even fired its main 8-inch gun battery at the TBFs.
As they pulled up from their attacks, the SBD and TBF pilots found themselves dodging over or around ships for four or five miles. Miraculously, all but five fighters and five bombers emerged from the wild melee, although almost all of the survivors suffered some damage.
Lieutenant Commander Caldwell, who had been directing the dive bombers from above, found himself and Lieutenant H.M. Crockett, one of Princeton's Hellcats, being chased by no less than eight Zeros. His rear turret was disabled and his navigator/radio operator was dead, but Lieutenant Commander Caldwell managed to fend off his attackers with his nose machine gun. Lieutenant Crockett took more than 200 hits in his Hellcat, yet he managed to land aboard Princeton later without flaps; while Caldwell brought his Avenger back to Saratoga "with one wheel, no flaps, no aileron and no radio."
Total American losses in the attack came to 13 aircraft, seven pilots and eight crewmen killed or missing in action. Task Force 38's Hellcat pilots however were credited with 21 victories and the TBFs and SBDs claimed another seven.
The attack did not sink any ships, but it accomplished its mission. The heavy cruiser Atago was damaged by two near misses and the heavy cruiser Takao took two hits under the waterline. VB-12's SBDs caught the heavy cruiser Maya refueling, and sent a bomb down her smokestack and into her engine room, causing damage that would keep her out of commission for five months. The heavy cruiser Mogami took some damaging bomb hits as well as the light cruisers Chikuma, Kumano and Agano. The light cruiser Noshiro took a torpedo hit, along with the destroyer Fujinami, while the destroyers Amagiri and Wakatsuki were holed by near misses.
5 November 1943, was recorded as one of the most brilliant air strikes of the war. Three days after the strike, Admiral Halsey came aboard as the Saratoga entered the harbor at Espiritu Santo. "Your strike was another shot heard 'round the world," he said. "The Saratoga, when given the chance can be deadly." He expressed his personal gratitude at the job accomplished and claimed the two carriers had saved thousands of lives by crippling the Japanese fleet before it could attack our Marines on Bougainville. Besides the personal appearance of the Admiral, there were other glowing tributes to the Saratoga expressed in radio messages from Admiral King, and General MacArthur. A treasured dispatch is that of General Hap Arnold of the U.S. Army Air Forces; "Your flyers have set a record for damage per bomb and per torpedo that all other airmen will find hard to equal."
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Nine days after the first strike, and in preparation of the Gilbert Islands offensive, Saratoga and Princeton formed into Task Force 50's Task Group 50.4. Accompanied by the USS Essex, USS Bunker Hill and the light carrier USS Independence of Task Group 50.3, and two land-based Navy squadrons from New Georgia; VF-17 from Odonga and VF-33 from Segi Point, made another attack on Rabaul from a point near the Green Islands, 225 miles southeast of Rabaul.
In all, 148 F6F-3 Hellcats, 24 F4U-1 Corsairs, 58 SBD Dauntless, 33 SB2C Helldivers and 69 Avengers took part in the attack. Of special note was that this was the Curtis SB2C Helldiver's combat debut. The pilots even speculated on how it would compare with the old Douglas Dauntless.
The strike succeeded in sinking the destroyer Suzunami and damaging light cruisers Yubari and Agano, and the destroyers Jubari, Naganami, Urakaze, and Wakatsuki, thus ending any remaining threat poised by the Imperial Japanese Fleet in the Solomon Islands.
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For Operation Galvin (Gilbert Islands offensive), the USS Saratoga and USS Princeton were designated as the Relief Carrier Group. After striking Nauru Island on 19 November 1943, they rendezvoused on 23 November 1943 with the transports carrying the post invasion garrison troops for Makin and Tarawa Atolls. The carriers covered the transports until they reached their destinations, then provided combat air patrols over Tarawa for the remainder of the operation.
By this time, Saratoga had steamed for 19 months without repairs, and she was detached on 30 November 1943 to return to the United States. She entered dry dock at Hunter's Point, San Francisco in early December 1943, and remained there until the 3rd of January, 1944.
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LCDR J.H. Newell - Commanding Officer
LT Mini - Executive Officer
ENS A.H. Gunderson
ENS C.F. Engelhardt
ENS C.H. Baumeister
ENS C.H. Urie
ENS E.F. Coy
ENS G.A. Rullo
ENS H.J. McKinnon
ENS J. Casey
ENS J. Hoisington
ENS R.D. Hightower
LTJG A.G. Kafer
LTJG F.R. MacDonald
LTJG F.W. Hatton
LTJG H.E. Clark
LTJG H.H. Dunkum
LTGH J.J. Bond
LTJG J.V. Lucas
LTJG R.D. Anthony
LTJG R.E. Ervin
LTJG R.J. Macklin
LTJG R.N. Emerson
LTJG W.E. Brown
LT C.B. Cottingham
LT J.G. Werkley
LT S.A. Ludlum