Action off Bougainville: Wikis


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Action off Bougainville
Part of the Pacific Theater of World War II
Action off Bougainville Type 1.jpg
A Japanese 4th Air Group Type 1 bomber, piloted by the strike commander Lieutenant Commander Takuzo Ito, approaches Lexington during the action. The bomber, already missing one engine after an attack by a Wildcat fighter piloted by "Butch" O'Hare moments earlier, crashed into the ocean shortly after this picture was taken.
Date February 20, 1942
Location 450 miles east of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea
Result US raiding force turned back
 United States Japan Empire of Japan
United States Wilson Brown
United States Frederick Carl Sherman
Japan Shigeyoshi Inoue
Japan Eiji Gotō
1 aircraft carrier,
4 cruisers,
10 destroyers,
19 fighter aircraft
17 bombers,
5 reconnaissance aircraft
Casualties and losses
2 fighter destroyed,
1 killed
23 aircraft destroyed,
130 killed

The Action off Bougainville was a naval air/sea engagement in the South Pacific near Bougainville, Papua New Guinea on 20 February 1942. In the engagement, a United States Navy aircraft carrier task force on its way to raid the Imperial Japanese military base at Rabaul, New Britain was attacked by a force of land-based bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The US task force was commanded by Admiral Wilson Brown and the Japanese aircraft forces were under the command of Eiji Gotō.



Following the capture of the port of Rabaul during the battle of Rabaul, Japanese forces proceeded to turn it into a major base. Concerns grew in the allied command that with the fall of Rabaul the San Francisco to Australia sea lane supply line would be threatened and ordered the supply line to be patrolled. Admiral Chester William Nimitz and Admiral Brown devised a plan to solve the threat on the supply line by attacking the newly-captured Rabaul. Task Force 11 (TF 11) and ANZAC Squadron were tasked with undertaking the raid. Unfortunately, ANZAC Squadron lacked the fuel oil to head north while TF 11 sailed north to its launching point north-east of Rabaul planned for 21 February.


TF 11 with Lexington, 450 mi (720 km) from the harbor at Rabaul, detected an unknown aircraft on radar 35 mi (56 km) from the ship at 10:15. A six-plane combat patrol was launched, two fighters being directed to investigate the contact. These two planes, under command of Lieutenant Commander Thach shot down a four-engined Kawanishi H6K4 Type 97 ("Mavis") flying boat about 43 mi (69 km) out at 11:12. Later, two other planes of the combat patrol were sent to another radar contact 35 mi (56 km) ahead, shooting down a second "Mavis" at 12:02. A third contact was made 80 mi (130 km) out, but reversed course and disappeared.

Rabaul having been alerted of the presence of United States naval forces in the area, alerted Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue at the Imperial Japanese Fourth Fleet headquarters in Truk, who ordered an initial air strike to be conducted from Rabaul and also ordered the Cruiser Division 6, consisting of the heavy cruisers Aoba, Furutaka, Kinugasa, and Kako to intercept the TF 11.

Seventeen Japanese Mitsubishi G4M Type 1 "Betty" bombers of the 4 Kokutai took off from Vunakanau Aerodrome, Rabaul to attack TF 11. Admiral Brown, having lost the element of surprise, decided to break off the attack against Rabaul and started to retire form the area. At 15:42, a jagged vee signal was detected on radar, but the contact then was lost, but reappeared at 16:25 47 mi (76 km) west. 19 F4F Wildcats from Lexington were sent to intercept the incoming targets. Of the incoming nine Japanese "Betty" bombers from 2nd Chûtai of 4 Kokutai,[1] at this time five had already been shot down.

At 16:49, a second formation of "Bettys" were detected by radar [2] only 12 mi (19 km) out, on the[3] disengaged side of the task force, completely unopposed, from 1st Chûtai of 4 Kokutai. Lexington only having two Wildcats, piloted by Lieutenant Marion Dufilho and Lieutenant Edward O'Hare, left to confront the intruders, flew eastwards and arrived 1,500 ft (460 m) above eight Bettys nine miles out at 17:00. Dufilho’s guns jammed and leaving only O'Hare to protect the carrier from the enemy formation in V formation flying very close together.

O'Hare employing a high-side diving attack accurately placing bursts of gunfire into a "Betty"'s right engine[4] and wing fuel tanks; when the stricken craft of Nitō Hikō Heisō Tokiharu Baba (3rd Shotai)[5 ] on the right side of the formation abruptly lurched to starboard, he ducked to the other side of the V formation and aimed at the enemy bomber of Ittō Hikō Heisō Bin Mori 3rd Shotai[5 ] on the extreme left. When he made his third and fourth firing passes, the Japanese planes were close enough to the American ships for them to fire their anti-aircraft guns. The five survivors managed to drop their ordnance, but all 10 250 kg (550 lb) bombs missed.[6] O'Hare's hits were so concentrated, the nacelle of a "Betty" literally jumped out of its mountings, after O'Hare blew up the leading Shōsa Takuzo Ito's "Betty"'s port engine. O'Hare believed he had shot down five bombers, and damage a sixth. Lieutenant Commander John Thach arrived at the scene with other pilots of the flight, later reporting that at one point he saw three of the enemy bombers falling in flames at the same time.[7]

O'Hare had destroyed only three "Bettys": Nitō Hikō Heisō Tokiharu Baba's from 3rd Shotai, Ittō Hikō Heisō Susumu Uchiyama's (flying at left wing of the leading V, 1st Shotai) and the leader of the formation, Shōsa Takuzo Ito's. This last (flying on the head of leading V) "Betty"'s left engine was hit at the time it dropped its ordinance. Its pilot Hikō Heisōchō Chuzo Watanabe[8] tried to hit Lexington with the damaged plane. He missed and flew into the water near Lexington at 17:12. Another two "Bettys" were damaged by O'Hare's attacks. Ittō Hikō Heisō Kodji Maeda (2nd Shotai, left wing of V) safely landed at Vunakanau aerodrome and Ittō Hikō Heisō Bin Mori was later shot down by Lieutenant Noel Gayler when trying to escape 40 mi (64 km) from Lexington.[9]


As a result of the loss of surprise, Brown canceled the planned raid on Rabaul and retired from the area. Because of the high losses in bomber aircraft, the Japanese postponed their impending invasion of Lae-Salamaua, Papua New Guinea from 3-8 March 1942.

Two "Mavis" flying boats were also shot down which were shadowing the US force, as well as two other Japanese scout aircraft lost in operational accidents while participating in the day's action. The US lost two fighters to defensive gunfire from the bombers, but one pilot survived, while no damage was inflicted on the US warships. United States Navy pilot Edward O'Hare was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.




  1. ^ Shores, Cull, Izawa, p. 186-188
  2. ^ Shores, Cull, Izawa, p. 186-189
  3. ^ Ewing and Lundstrom 1987, p. 129.
  4. ^ Shores, Cull, Izawa, p. 189
  5. ^ a b Shores, Cull, Izawa, p. 188-189
  6. ^ Shores, Cull, Izawa, p. 191
  7. ^ "Acepilots: Saving the Lexington"
  8. ^ Commanding officer Takuzo Ito wasn't piloting his own "Betty". The pilot was of lowest rank and the commander of the plane was an observer and/or navigator. That was common practice in the IJNAF.
  9. ^ Shores, Cull, Izawa, p. 188-191




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