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Shootout at Rabaul.



The Lockheed P-38 Lightning has an iconic reputation as the outstanding U.S. Army Air Forces fighter for much of the Pacific air war. The two top ranking U.S. Army fighter aces of World War II, Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, both flew the P-38 in the Pacific. After its first major combat in late December 1942, the fighter commander in New Guinea, General Ennis Whitehead, announced, "we have the Jap[anese] Air Force whipped." (1) This is the reputation that has come down to us--the P-38 was the fighter, the nearly unbeatable fighter, which conquered the Japanese in the southern Pacific.

The Lightning did not hit the ground running. The first thirty arrived in the southwest Pacific in August 1942, with additional P-38s arriving in the following month. It was November before the P-38 actually got into combat and late December 1942, before it claimed its first air kills. Over New Guinea, after a few false starts, it quickly gained a positive reputation, and by providing top cover for P-39s and P-40s improved the effectiveness of those fighters as well as racking up an impressive ratio of claimed kills to losses. In the Solomons some of its early actions were medium altitude escort missions and it did not initially impress the pilots who flew victory to loss ratio among Allied fighters operating in the Solomons. (2)

Some aviation historians have noted the slow start of the P-38. In the book Zero, Masatake Okumiya asserts that pilots of the Japanese navy's Zero fighter were able to master the P--38 in early combats, but with improved tactics the P--38 became an extremely formidable opponent. Captured documents indicate Japanese army fighter pilots, who initially encountered the P-38 over New Guinea, felt capable of handling the big American fighter, but also recognized its potential if used in tactically advantageous situations. (3) Once its teething problems were worked out and suitable tactics were developed, the P-38 gained its formidable reputation.

This article studies a series of combats constituting a relatively brief but significant air campaign to assess the P-38's combat performance at mid-career and test its super star reputation. Undoubtedly, the P-38 was a good fighter with longer range and better high altitude performance than the P-39 and P-40. Based on claimed victories versus admitted losses, the P-38's record was remarkable. Was the P-38 a super fighter? Was its superiority highly dependent on favorable tactical circumstances? One campaign does not determine the merit of an aircraft, but the facts cited in this article suggest that other campaigns need to be examined on the basis of verified losses and not just claims. The outcome of those campaigns, and possibly the reputation of the P-38, may need to be reconsidered.


The Rabaul Campaign

As a preliminary to the invasion of Bougainville by South Pacific forces scheduled for November 1, 1943, Gen. George C. Kenney, Commander of Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific and U.S. Fifth Air Force, was assigned the mission of getting rid of the Japanese air force at Rabaul, destroying the supplies in the town, sinking shipping in the harbor, and making the place untenable for enemy vessels. In his book, General Kenney Reports, he titles the chapter on the October-November campaign against Rabaul "Taking out Rabaul." (4) The official history of the Army Air Forces (Craven & Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, vol. IV) says "the Fifth's attacks...neutralized Rabaul as a major threat to the American beach head at Bougainville...." (5) admitting it was done with some help from carrier strikes. Some historians protest that such claims are inaccurate.

While the Fifth's attacks caused considerable damage, evidence that Rabaul was not "taken out" or "neutralized" is not hard to find. During and after the Fifth Air Force's bombing campaign, Japanese planes and ships from Rabaul were active in opposing the Bougainville invasion. On October 27, planes from Rabaul attacked the preliminary landing in the Treasury Islands, just south of Bougainville, and damaged a destroyer. A few days later another destroyer received a near miss and was damaged. On the day of the invasion, Rabaul responded by flying more than 100 sorties against the landing. Cruisers and destroyers from Rabaul fought a major surface engagement with U.S. ships on the night of November 1-2; and, afterwards an American cruiser was damaged in an air attack. On November 6-7, destroyers from Rabaul landed hundreds of Japanese troops near the Torokina beachhead. An American reinforcement convoy was attacked on November 8-9, with a transport and a cruiser hit. On November 11, Japanese planes from Rabaul executed a large, albeit costly and ineffective, daylight attack on U.S. carriers. A few nights later another cruiser was damaged by air attack. Japanese night attacks on shipping were frequent. They sometimes delayed unloading supplies and inflicted casualties on landing craft and small ships. On November 17, the destroyer transport McKean was sunk with heavy loss of life. The Japanese also carried out twenty bombing and strafing attacks against the beachhead during November. These resulted in twenty-four troops killed and ninety-six wounded as well as artillery and supplies destroyed. A month later Rabaul again proved it had not been taken out when MacArthur's forces invaded western New Britain in December 1943. Planes from Rabaul vigorously opposed the landings at Arawe and Cape Gloucester sinking a destroyer and several smaller vessels as well as inflicting other damage in a series of raids by day and night. Also during November and December major troop movements transited through Rabaul, including significant reinforcements for western New Britain.


Rabaul may not have been knocked out or taken out, but there certainly was heavy air fighting over Rabaul. Each side made lop-sided victory claims. Both the Americans and Japanese claimed victory in the air fighting--the shootout. With the notable exception of the climactic raid of November 2, anti-aircraft fire caused few casualties and but little inconvenienced the Fifth Air Force so the campaign really was a duel between the defending Japanese fighters and the Fifth's attacking bombers and fighters. What really happened? What were the consequences for the Fifth and the Japanese? The remainder of this article provides a summary of the air battles and reveals the real loser in the air fighting over Rabaul.

The October Attacks

In August 1943, the Fifth Air Force struck the Japanese army air force airfield complex at Wewak and caused heavy losses as a preliminary to the invasion of Lae, New Guinea. By October 1943, the Fifth had grown stronger than it had been when it had devastated Wewak in August. The P-38 long range fighter force had grown to six regular squadrons (three in the 475th Fighter Group plus the 9th, 39th, and 80th Fighter Squadrons) and a provisional squadron made up from excess strength of the regular units. (6) According to Kenney, the first Rabaul raid on October 12th was, "the biggest attack so far in the Pacific." (7) Its two attack waves comprised eighty-seven heavy bombers, 114 B-25 strafers, twelve R.A.A.F. Beaufighters, and 125 P--38s supported by a score of weather and photographic planes, plus their escorts.

Rabaul was almost as unprepared for attack as Wewak had been. There had been no Fifth Air Force day raids on Rabaul for many months and no night raids since July (Japanese night fighters had inflicted several losses on American heavy bombers over Rabaul during May, June, and July). The Japanese navy had a long established radar station on high ground southeast of Vunakanau air base. This and more recent installations were useful for detecting aircraft approaching at high altitude, but had limitations. The mountainous spine of New Britain interfered with detection of aircraft from that direction and their ability to spot low flying aircraft was poor. Visual observations from lookout stations complemented radar observations.

For the Japanese army air force, Rabaul was a rear area base where planes were sent for maintenance and crews for training. The Japanese navy was present at Rabaul in strength, although part of its fighter force (the main strength of Air Group 201 and an element of Air Group 253) operated from Buin and Buka in the Solomon Islands. In early October, American air reconnaissance detected eighty-seven medium bombers, thirty-seven light bombers, and fifty-nine single-engine fighters on Rabaul's airfields. (8) This number jumped by about ninety aircraft, most of which were fighters, just before the raids began. Many of these were navy fighters and dive bombers involved in a temporaiy shuffling of units between Rabaul and Bougainville. The aerial photos also included some army aircraft, unserviceable hulks and even a few dummies. Japanese records indicate their naval fighter units at Rabaul and Bougainville numbered about 120 operational Zero fighters when the Rabaul raids began.


The defending fighter force was made up of Naval Air Group (Kaigen Kokutai abbreviated Ku meaning Air) 204, withdrawn from Buin to Rabaul just prior to the 12th and Air Group 253. Air Group 204, whose flight leader was Lt. (j.g.) Sumio Fukuda, had about forty serviceable Zero fighters (Zeke in the Allied codename system) and Air Group 253's Rabaul detachment numbered twenty-two. Many of these were Zero model 21s, essentially the same fighter that had opened the Pacific war over Hawaii and the Philippines and which had been in combat since 1940. The only significant improvement in these aircraft was an increase in cannon ammunition from sixty rounds per gun to 100 rounds and this improved version had only recently started to leave the production line. However, there was something new in store for the attacking Americans. Both Japanese units had a small number of the latest Zero model 52s on strength. The Zero 52 featured an improved long barrel 20mm cannon that was much more effective than the older version. Moreover, most of the Zero 22s in these units also were armed with long barrel cannon. In the case of Air Group 253, for example, on October 1, 1943, it had fifty-one serviceable Zeros, of which twenty-one were model 21s, twenty-three model 22s, and seven model 52s. (9)

On October 12, the first attack wave made up of B-25 strafers covered by P-38s took the Japanese by complete surprise. At Vunakanau (Rabaul No. 2 or West airfield to the Japanese) Type 1 land attack bombers of Air Groups 702 and 751 were bombed and strafed in their revetments. (10) Nine were burned, three others damaged beyond repair, with many others suffering lesser forms of damage. At the army's Rapopo airfield several Type 97 heavy bombers of the 14th Flying Regiment (FR) were caught in the process of taking off for New Guinea. One was shot down, while others were destroyed or damaged on the ground. Along with light bombers of the 208th FR and transports of the 20th Independent Squadron, a total of sixteen army aircraft were destroyed or badly damaged. In the harbor a 5,800 ton transport, three small transports (sea trucks), and a patrol boat were sunk. Three destroyers and several other vessels sustained minor damage. (11)

Near the end of the first attack wave, a number of Japanese fighters got into action. Zeros shot up a B-25, which crashed into Simpson Harbor and was the only B-25 lost. Air Group 253 claimed three B-25s. The P-38s of the 475th FG claimed an Oscar over Vunakanau as well as a Betty (one of several Type 1 land attack bombers up on training missions). One part of the mission was fouled up when a dozen Beaufighters arrived over Tobera (Rabaul No. 3), without their P-38 escort. They encountered a reported nineteen Japanese fighters likely those from 204 Air Group under Lt. (j. g.) Fukuda. The Beaufighters aborted their strafing attack and hastily withdrew, harassed by Japanese fighters. Eventually one Beaufighter was lost, probably the new type B-26, claimed by Air Group 204. (12)

The second attack wave was made up of B-24s escorted by P-38s. Flying at 21,000 feet or higher the B-24s were at an altitude where their Lightning escorts had a definite performance advantage over the Zero. The B-24s were apparently confronted by fighters from both Japanese groups which had received warning from Japanese observation posts in western New Britain. Some of the B-24s "were but little bothered" by fighter opposition while one commander saw "the biggest swarm of enemy fighters I had ever seen in the air at one time" (twenty-five to thirty by most counts). The P-38 escort had been thinned out by mechanical aborts, while others failed to rendezvous with the bombers. The Japanese fighters were able to make repeated attacks on the bombers. One observer counted eighty-seven individual fighter passes. In one flight of the 400th Bomb Squadron, all six B-24s were hit. Two B-24s of the 90th Bomb Group were lost and the 43d, which encountered less opposition, also lost one bomber. One B-24 returned with a fuel tank so badly damaged that the self-sealing material did not seal. Another B-24 ditched due to loss of fuel from a damaged tank. This damage may well have been caused by the improved cannon and ammunition used in the newer model Zero.


Air Group 253 claimed three B-25s, one B-24, and a P-38. It lost two Zeros with one pilot killed. Nine other Zeros were hit and two of these listed as seriously damaged. Japanese records summarizing the action indicate four fighters were lost, so Air Group 204 apparently also lost two fighters. Total Japanese air claims were nine plus four others damaged. Ground gunners also claimed a P-38 and four bombers. As a minor point in the action, Japanese interceptors caused one photo plane to abort its mission. They repeated this interference several other times during the campaign.

Leafing through Japanese records that sometimes contain conflicting information requires some effort and the application of judgment, but often American records also contain traps for the unwary. The official Army Air Forces history mentions the downed B-25 and the two B-24 losses of the 90th Bomb Group, but implies the 43d Bomb Group's loss was not due to combat. It ran out of gas and ditched after a fuel tank was shot up. It does not mention the loss of the Beaufighter nor that three P-38s failed to return and another crash landed at base. Other sources generally attribute the loss of the P-38s to weather. What is certain is that they reached the target area, failed to return to base, and the exact cause of their loss has never been established. Such losses are usually considered combat losses.

This first raid was proclaimed a great success in a communique issued by General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters. Official shipping claims included three destroyers, three large merchant vessels, forty-three smaller sea-going ships sunk, and damage caused to other warships and harbor craft. Aircraft claims included 100 destroyed, fifty-one damaged on the ground, plus twenty-six shot down in combat. The communique admitted the loss of four aircraft.

While this article focuses on the P--38 and the Japanese defensive response to the Fifth Air Force bombing campaign against Rabaul, it should not be thought that the Japanese were confined to Rabaul or flying only defensive missions nor that the Fifth Air Force was not also striking other targets. American bombers continued to visit Wewak and strike other targets in New Guinea. P-40s and P-47s were now flying as far as Wewak and relieved the P-38 force of some of the escort and fighter sweep effort on that front. On the 15th the Japanese mounted an attack against American shipping sighted off the New Guinea coast. Thirty-nine Zeros escorted fifteen dive bombers of the 582d Air Group and ran into more than fifty P--38s and eight P-40s. The dive bombers were virtually annihilated and five Zeros also went down (American claims totaled twenty-six dive bombers and eighteen fighters). Only one American fighter went down, although others were hit including some damaged beyond repair. On the same day twenty-one Thirteenth Air Force B-24s, escorted by twelve P--38s and sixteen F4Us, were intercepted by twenty-two Zeros over Bougain ville. Two days later a Japanese fighter sweep by fifty-six Rabaul-based Zeros approaching New Guinea was met by forty-three P--38s and three P--40s. Eight Zeros failed to return. Four P-38s and a P-40 were lost and others were damaged. Future Medal of Honor winner Thomas McGuire barely escaped with his life when he was shot down and had difficulty with his parachute. On the same day, P-39s clashed with escorted Japanese army bombers in the same region. Throughout the month, Japanese medium bombers based at Rabaul carried out night bombing attacks and also flew long patrol missions.

In addition to the main attack force of P--38s, B-24s, and B--25s, the Rabaul campaign had a supporting cast that included three squadrons of R.A.A.F. fighters protecting the staging base on Kiriwina Island; R.A.A.F. Beaufighters that participated in some attacks and also flew coastal patrols close to Rabaul; plus R.A.A.F. Beauforts that flew night attack missions.

Except for a pre-dawn attack by Beauforts, inclement weather precluded a follow-up attack planned for October 13. It was not until October 18 that the Fifth returned to Rabaul and this attack, too, was partially disrupted due to weather. The 38th and 345th Bomb Groups failed to receive or ignored the recall signal and fifty-one B-25s pressed on to their targets unescorted through rain and under a low overcast. Targets were the Japanese army airfield at Rapopo, where seventy-seven aircraft had been reported and Tobera base of the 253d Air Group. At Rapopo, a transport plane and two heavy bombers were burned or badly damaged. At Tobera five aircraft were destroyed or badly damaged. The 38th claimed sixteen destroyed on the ground at Tobera, while the 345th claimed twenty-five at Rapopo adding ten or more destroyed in air combat. Three B-25s failed to return and others were damaged.


A force from the 204th Air Group, combined with fighters from the 201st Air Group, totaling forty-two Zeros, saw most of the action and claimed eight bombers including three by Ensign Susumu Ishihara. Two Zeros went down. Air Group 253 also got into the action and claimed one B-25, while losing a single fighter. Most of the heavy bombers aborted or bombed secondary targets at Cape Hoskins in north central New Britain. At that target the Japanese claimed a "large aircraft" damaged, however, and a 400th Bomb Squadron B-24 succumbed to combat damage. Three missing heavies were believed lost due to weather.

After a brief hiatus, General Kenney launched a series of strikes on three successive days beginning October 23. More than 100 aircraft were launched each day and claims ran as high as 175 aircraft destroyed, rivaling the success at Wewak the previous August. The P-38s contributed significantly to the claims for enemy aircraft destroyed. The reality of both air and ground claims was somewhat different.

On the day Kenney resumed his attacks, the Japanese launched another anti-shipping strike with just four dive bombers escorted by twenty Zeros. These were away from Rabaul when Kenney's bombers arrived. The Zeros clashed with twenty-three P--47s of the 348th FG. Each side claimed enemy aircraft destroyed but no fighters were actually lost. Although the Thunderbolts did not engage any of the bombers one dive bomber failed to return.

On October 23,100 P--38s escorted forty B--24s, with the P-38s claiming thirteen victories. The B--24s claimed to have destroyed twenty aircraft on the ground and shot down four. Rapopo was the target of 105 tons of bombs. Eleven army and navy aircraft were burned or badly damaged and a few others suffered lesser damage from the bombing attack. Air Group 253 sent up flights of fifteen and seven fighters. Available Japanese records for Air Groups 201 and 204 are contradictory but they apparently scrambled twenty fighters. The official Japanese communique reported twenty-four victories, but some of these were actually claimed as uncertain or probable. Two P-38s, including one pilot, and a B-24 were lost. Three Zeros were lost. One of these was from Air Group 253, which also reported three others damaged.

In other action over or near Rabaul on October 23, Beaufighters conducting a fighter sweep over Jacquinot Bay south of Rabaul shot down a reconnaissance floatplane; and a P-38 escorting an F-5 photo reconnaissance plane failed to return.

The next day it was the turn of the medium bombers and the biggest air battle to date occurred. Fifty-four P-38s escorted sixty-two B-25s, and the P--38s claimed thirty-eight victories. Japanese fighters got among the low-level B-25s and shot down one bomber before the escorts could intervene. Covering from high above, flights of P--38s dove to attack the interceptors. Capt. Jay T. Robbins of the 80th FS personally claimed four victories bringing his total to eleven. In fact, ten Japanese fighters were either shot down or forced to land. It was the worst combat loss for the Japanese yet. Killed in this action was W.O. Shizuo Ishii of Air Group 204, who was officially credited with twenty-seven air victories since first entering combat in China in 1941. In addition, the B--25s destroyed seven Japanese land attack bombers and damaged an additional twenty-seven. Among the American fighter claims was a probable victory over a Tony (a Japanese army fighter with an in-line engine). Joining the Zeros on this occasion were two Suisei carrier bombers (501 Air Group) sent up to drop aerial bombs on the attacking planes. The Suisei was powered by an engine similar to the army's Type 3 fighter (Tony) and often misidentified as such. The Japanese claimed two bombers and fourteen P-38s. Two bombers were lost but no P-38s were shot down outright. However, a dozen were damaged including several that crash landed at base or were damaged beyond repair.

On October 25, the American strike force consisted of fifty P-38s and sixty-one B-24s and the target was Lakunai airfield. Most of the fighters turned back due to weather and several bombers also aborted. Maj. Charles H. MacDonald led eight P-38s of the 475th FG and stayed with the bombers throughout their bombing runs providing moral support, diverting a number of Japanese fighters, and claiming one destroyed. The bombers hit Lakunai heavily; destroying not only navy planes but also army reconnaissance planes based there and severely damaging the army's 14th Air Repair Depot. Twenty-two navy planes were burned and eight moderately damaged. The army's 10th Flying Regiment lost five Type 100 headquarters recon planes burned or badly damaged and another five moderately or slightly damaged.


Like air combat claims, assessment of ground damage left much to judgment. In this strike, the B-24s inflicted considerable damage. They also returned with strike photos showing fragmentation bombs exploding within a hundred feet of two Betty and four Sally bombers. Presumably extensive damage was inflicted. In a later attack low altitude photographs would reveal that these same aircraft were not extensively damaged although they had been assessed as unserviceable. These may have been aircraft the Japanese reported as moderately or slightly damaged. The army bombers were probably at Lakunai for repairs; it is unlikely they were combat-worthy before the attack.

The Japanese sent up forty-four fighters and two Suisei bombers for this raid. Air Group 253, with about fifteen fighters, provided most of the opposition, claiming two P-38s of which one was uncertain plus engines shot out on two B-24s and five others trailing smoke. The Americans noted the air burst bombs but did not specifically identify the Suisei as being involved. They likely also encountered some of the Zeros from the twenty-nine put up by Air Groups 201 and 204. Two Zeros failed to return and six others were damaged. Only one B-24 was lost though several were damaged. Total bomber claims ran to thirty-seven Japanese aircraft destroyed and twenty-one damaged. The official Japanese communique announced two P-38s destroyed and fourteen B-24s damaged.

General Kenney supplemented his attacks on Rabaul by sending R.A.A.F. Catalinas to raid Kavieng at night starting on October 25. In addition to destroying planes on the ground these attacks might discourage Rabaul-based aircraft from using Kavieng as a safe haven. Although Rabaul was still functioning as a major base, there is no doubt Kenney's attacks were having their effect. When an American invasion force was sighted off the Treasury Islands on the morning of October 27, the 11th Air Fleet advised the Combined Fleet that it had available only seventy-one fighters, ten dive bombers, thirty-six medium bombers, and a handful of carrier attack planes available for night attacks. For daylight attacks against this invasion force, they requested immediate reinforcements, including four chutai of fighters and three of dive bombers.

The Japanese had already consigned replacements for Air Groups 201 and 204. A commitment of thirty fighters to be ferried to these units as well as another fourteen to be shipped in crates had been made in the middle of the month and the first of these must have arrived in the latter part of October. The Japanese fighters had been driven out of Buin air base on southern Bougainville on October 22, and at the end of the month they abandoned Buka as well. As for obtaining new units, the only ready source of these were the carrier air groups at Truk. But the Combined Fleet resolved not to send these in light of the near certainty that the assault on Treasury I. would be followed by an invasion of the main island of Bougainville. New players were about to join the Shootout at Rabaul, Japanese carrier air groups and U.S. Navy carrier strikes, but before they did, the Fifth Air Force had a final go at Rabaul on its own.

On October 29, fifty-three P--38s, escorted the Liberators for another attack on Vunakanau. From an altitude of about 19,000 feet, the 43d Bomb Group dropped clusters of fragmentation bombs, while the B--24s of the 90th Group discharged their loads of 500-pound bombs. Five Japanese navy bombers went up in flames along with two army fighters. Several other aircraft were damaged, including two badly damaged army fighters. Unusual casualties were suffered when some bombs fell on a Japanese army veterinary hospital killing nine horses.

Seventy-five Zeros from Air Groups 201, 204, and 253 took off and about fifty engaged the attackers. Air Group 253 apparently spent most of its time sparring with the escort claiming seven P-38s,but only reporting observable damage to one B-24. It lost three fighters and had two others badly damaged and two pilots wounded. Air Group 201 claimed a B-24 without loss and Air Group 204 claimed a B-24 and four P-38s without suffering a loss. The P-38s claimed seventeen victories. Capt. Daniel T. Roberts of the 433d FS claimed his fifth kill of the campaign bringing his victory total to thirteen. Leading ace Richard Bong claimed a double victory, his first score in the campaign, to bring his total to nineteen. Only one P-38 was shot down over Rabaul; several others limped back to Kiriwina in a badly damaged condition. One B-24 also went down.

As October came to a close, the honors in the air fighting in six major Rabaul attacks were roughly even. The Japanese lost twenty-five Zeros shot down or missing, with others damaged including some damaged beyond repair. General Kenney's forces lost about twenty aircraft shot down or failing to return from combat including both fighters and bombers. Like the Japanese,the Americans had suffered numerous aircraft damaged, some of which were damaged beyond repair and others that were written off later. The Japanese lost more aircraft in offensive operations during October than in its defense of Rabaul.


On November 1, came the actual invasion of Bougainville and major changes in the battle. The 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul launched three attacks totaling more than 100 aircraft. The attacks caused relatively little physical damage, but they did delay unloading, resulting in very little heavy cargo being delivered to the invasion beaches. In return, the Japanese suffered heavy losses, with twenty-three fighters and five dive bombers shot down or force landing with major damage. Air Group 201 suffered heavily with eight pilots killed or missing. On the same day, but too late to join the attacks on the invasion fleet, some 150 planes from the carrier air groups at Truk arrived at Rabaul and Kavieng.

Climax of November 2

The following day, the Fifth Air Force returned to deliver the coup de gras to shipping in Rabaul's harbor. For the Japanese, the Fifth's attack was just part of the action on two fronts. They launched an early morning attack against the Bougainville landing site with eighty-nine Zeros and eighteen dive bombers. They claimed a destroyer sunk and other ships damaged, but actually scored only two hits on the light cruiser Montpelier, causing relatively minor damage; near misses on other ships did little or no harm. Six dive bombers fell to defending fighters and ships' guns. The Japanese striking force returned to Rabaul before the Fifth's attack.

Nine squadrons comprising seventy-five B-25s headed toward Rabaul to carry out low level attacks. Six squadrons of eighty P-38s would fly fighter sweeps and provide top cover and close escort. The attack plan called for four squadrons of B-25s to attack anti-aircraft positions around the harbor and drop phosphorous bombs on Lakunai airfield before five other squadrons of B--25s swept across the harbor from the north to sink the large concentration of shipping sighted there. It is interesting to note that though this was a maximum effort both the B--25 force and P--38 force were only about 2/3's as strong as the forces launched in the October 12 attack.

The attack became the subject of a small book issued by the Army Air Forces in 1944. The book declared that in "the space of twelve minutes a formidable sea and air armada, in the powerful, well organized, well defended stronghold of Rabaul, was attacked and decisively defeated. Never in the long history of warfare has so much destruction been wrought upon the forces of a belligerent nation so swiftly and at such little cost to the victor." There followed claims for 114,572 tons of shipping destroyed or damaged, sixty-nine enemy aircraft destroyed in combat and sixteen others destroyed on the ground. "This was accomplished for the loss of nine American bombers and ten American fighters." (13)

Those claims were consistent with the contemporaneous battle damage assessment and repeated in General Kenney's memoirs. General Kenney also marked this action as the Fifth Air Force's toughest and hardest fought battle. From the Japanese perspective, the attack achieved little and the defensive air battle was a major success. For one Japanese seaman, a veteran of many surface engagements, who found himself in the thick of things this battle "was the most spectacular action of my life."14

Weather delayed the American attack. It was not until 1300 hours (1100 Japan time) that the attack force approached the eastern coast of the Gazelle Peninsula. The improved Japanese warning system spread word of the threat. Fighters that had returned to Rabaul after the Bougainville attack were in the process of being readied for additional action. Most of the fighters from the 11th Air Fleet as well as from the carrier fighter groups were assembled at Lakunai adjacent to Rabaul's inner harbor. Air Group 253 was at its base Tobera and the fighter unit from the carrier Skokaku was at Vunakanau. Lt. (j.g.) Yoshio Oba a relatively inexperienced pilot was the senior fighter leader of 201 Air and led twenty-one Zeros from that unit. Lt. (j.g.) Morita led seventeen Zeros from 204 Air and Zeros from 253 Air brought the 11th Air Fleet's intercepting force to fifty-seven Zeros. One Suisei was also scrambled. Lt. Hohei Kobayashi led the Shokaku Zeros from Vunakanau and with those of Zuikaku and Zuiho the carriers contributed fifty-eight Zeros.

The American approach route ran roughly north up St. George's Channel to a point east of Rabaul town; a left turn to the west would bring the attackers in at the northern extremity of the harbor from where they would commence their runs spread out abreast in attack formation in order for individual aircraft to sight and attack their targets. Just minutes before the bombers arrived two squadrons of P-38s would sweep in north of Lakunai to clear the air of fighters and then fly a circuit to cover the bombers. They would be followed by four squadrons of B-25s and two squadrons of P-38s that would neutralize anti-aircraft positions and attack Lakunai. The first anti-shipping wave would follow closely covered by a squadron of P-38s. The second anti-shipping wave would fly farther north to gain separation and come over the harbor a few minutes later also covered by a squadron of P-38s.


Capt. Tameichi Hara was the commander of a division of three old destroyers that had just survived the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay the preceding night. Rather than have his crews rest that morning he ordered them to prepare for action and when the air raid alert was received steamed out of the harbor. As these destroyers made their way out of the harbor the 39th and 80th Fighter Squadrons passed by on their fighter sweep mission. So too did the four squadrons of the 345th Bomb Group. The 39th saw only a few Japanese fighters but both the Lightnings of the 80th and bombers of the 345th ran into an aggressive batch of Japanese fighters. Following behind, the bombers of the 3d and 38th Bomb Groups unexpectedly encountered Hara in destroyer Shigure followed by another and at a distance by the third. Anti-aircraft fire spewed at the low flying bombers and sent plumes of water up ahead of them. This was soon followed by the arrival of intercepting fighters. According to the Army Air Forces official history: "Two destroyers off the mouth of the Warangoi River, directly in the path of the approaching planes, caused some confusion, as their fire, together with that of intercepting fighters, forced the B-25s to break formation and attack in two-plane or individual bombing and strafing runs." (15)

The alert did not reach Lakunai as quickly as it did Hara. An alert lookout sighted the American strike force headed north east of Lakunai and sounded the alarm. The flight leader of the Zuiho fighters rushed to get his fighters into the air. He was followed by the other groups as dozens of fighters sought to take off

Sixteen P-38s of the 80th FS came in over Rabaul about 1315 hours at 8,000 feet. They sighted Zeros rising from Lakunai and dove to attack. The highest Zeros were at about 4,000 feet. After exploiting its initial height advantage the fight got tougher for the 80th and for half an hour they engaged an estimated fifty to sixty Japanese fighters claiming fourteen destroyed for two P-38s missing and two crash-landed upon return. The 39th FS flying above a layer of clouds sighted only fifteen to twenty Zekes and misidentified Oscars over Rabaul. These did not appear eager to engage. Late in the action they sighted several others headed south from Cape Gazelle and claimed one of these. They returned without a loss.

After the first combats between climbing Zeros and Lightnings, bombers and their escorts, and, intercepting Japanese fighters converged over the harbor and along the withdrawal route. Wild low level combats ensued with anti-aircraft fire adding to the mayhem.

Following the B-25s of the 345th the anti-shipping strike proceeded into the harbor after its initial contact with Hara's destroyers and harassment by intercepting Zeros. In addition to Hara and the Zeros some B-25s were confronted by smoke and preceding formations out of position. Despite this they pressed home attacks and brought back reports and photographs that seemed to verify impressive results.

The 345th Bomb Group lost three bombers and had several others shot up. The following waves suffered more heavily. Anti-aircraft fire from Japanese warships in the harbor was heavy. Maj. Raymond Wilkins, commander of the 8th Bomb Squadron was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and later awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage and leadership on this and earlier missions. Some B-25s and an escorting P-38 crashed into Rabaul's inner harbor. Six B-25s in this phase of the attack were shot down. Maj. John Henebry, of the 3d Bomb Group, was acting as mission commander.

His B-25 was badly shot up and later ditched close to Kiriwina with the crew safe. Three other B-25s limped back to base for crash landings.

Kobayashi's Shokaku Zeros taking off from Vunakanau were not in the direct line of attack but soon joined the action. The Shokaku pilots getting into action in more organized fashion than the other Japanese fighter units became the stars of the battle claiming forty victories and seven additional uncertain mainly P-38s. Old timer Hitoshi Sato, a pilot since 1935, but whose career up to this point was not particularly distinguished, made his mark by claiming eight victories. Also a pilot since 1935 Special Duty Ensign Kazunori Miyabe claimed six victories. Both these pilots would be killed in action flying from Rabaul in the next several days. Lt. Kobayashi also had a successful day claiming four victories. Kobayashi had been a pilot since June 1942 and first saw combat in the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942. For several months before arriving at Rabaul he had drilled Shokaku's fighters in combat tactics and adopted the four plane combat formation in lieu of the three-plane vie formally used by most Japanese air groups. Kobayashi was killed in October 1944. Kazuo Sugino claimed three victories in his first combat. Takeo Tanimuzu, also in his first combat, claimed two P-38s. Like Sugino he went on to score numerous other air victories and survived the war. Three of Kobayashi's pilots were killed.

Ens. Yoshio Fukui of Zuiho graduated in the same class as Hitoshi Sato but had established himself as a top pilot early in his career by achieving six victories in China. In this battle he shot down a B-25 at low-level but was then attacked by several P-38s. Fukui bailed out of his burning fighter and saved himself by parachute. Despite suffering bums he was back in action within a few days. He continued to fight in later campaigns and survived the war. Neither Zuikaku nor Zuiho following their confused scramble from Lakunai were able to duplicate Shokaku's success and Zuikaku lost four pilots killed.

Despite its small number of fighters engaged Air Group 204 claimed ten B-25s and nine P-38s. Susumu Ishihara repeated his earlier success and claimed three B-25s. Air Group 204 lost two pilots killed. Air Group 201 claimed a single B-25 and seven P-38s and lost one pilot killed. Rookie pilot Masajiro Kawato of 253 Air attacked the bombers but he reported that his attempt to evade escorting fighters by diving under a burning B-25 resulted in a collision. Like Fukui Kawato parachuted to safety. After the war Kawato immigrated to the United States where he wrote a book and became a fixture at California air shows, touting his claim to have shot down American Marine ace Gregory Boyington (who had gained fame due to a popular television program vaguely based on his exploits).

The American fighter squadrons returned with reports that indicated most of the Japanese fighter pilots encountered were experienced while some were described as eager and aggressive and others as not eager or even very cautious. The four squadrons providing close escort for the bombers all had numerous encounters with most reporting sighting up to seventy enemy fighters and engaging thirty or more in combat.

Only nine P-38s of the 431st FS made it to Rabaul. Their action started soon after crossing the New Britain coast when a B-25 was observed with one engine burning under attack by three Japanese fighters. One of the attacking fighters was jumped by 1st Lt. M.F. Kirby who claimed it as the first of his two victories on this mission bringing him ace status. The 431st engaged other Japanese fighters during and after the bombing attack claiming ten destroyed and others probably destroyed. Two of their P-38s were missing and another ditched on the return flight. The 432nd FS was in action thirty miles south of Rabaul harbor and claimed six destroyed. They lost one P-38 and had two others damaged. The 433rd FS claimed two Japanese fighters. Three of their P-38s were damaged including one that crash-landed on Kiriwina. The 9th FS sighted Japanese fighters over Simpson Harbor and Keravia Bay at 3-4,000 feet altitude and claimed eight destroyed; two of their P-38s were listed as missing.

The American planes withdrew and left Rabaul harbor smoking and seemingly badly hurt. But as the smoke cleared the damage proved to be far less than the attackers imagined. Two merchant vessels totaling about 4,600 tons sank as did a minesweeper and a few smaller vessels. A large tanker was badly damaged and several other ships suffered from bomb fragments or machine gun hits. A few planes at Lakunai as well as some float planes in the harbor had been destroyed or damaged.

The Japanese press reported the battle as a major success. Japanese claims ran to seventy-nine P-38s and twenty-two B-25s as well as additional uncertain victories which in Japanese press reports were included to reach a victory total of 122 American planes. Japanese losses were fifteen fighters destroyed or missing and four others badly damaged (and presumably write-offs). Kenney was informed by General Whitehead in command of his headquarters advanced echelon that "one of the major victories of the Pacific war" had been won but since the Japanese air force had not been destroyed the "attack will continue." (16)

Final Attacks and Repercussions

The attack was going to continue in large measure because MacArthur, meaning Kenney's air force, was committed to additional attacks on Rabaul in conjunction with carrier strikes by Admiral Nimitz' South Pacific forces. General Kenney would probably have been content to "declare victory" after the November 2d, attack but for those previous commitments.

Rabaul was very much a going concern not just as an air base but also as the major port and logistics facility in the area. The day following the Fifth Air Force victory, the Japanese sent out an initial strike of eight dive bombers and thirty-nine Zeros against shipping off Bougainville. Finding none, they attacked the beachhead. In the course of the action they shot down two intercepting Corsairs losing one fighter and one dive bomber. Earlier in the day Japanese fighters intercepted nineteen Solomons-based B-24s attacking a convoy; shot down one and damaged others, one of which crash-landed at a forward airfield. Due to a lack of shipping targets the Japanese flew no additional strikes on November 3-4.


The Fifth Air Force attack on November 5, 1943, did little to help the carrier forces because twenty-seven B-24s and fifty-eight P-38s arrived over Rabaul only as the carrier-based planes were withdrawing. Naval historian Samuel E. Morison recorded that this caused some consternation among South Pacific naval commanders. The carrier strike disabled several Japanese cruisers recently arrived at Rabaul from Truk and strategically was more damaging to the Japanese than any of the previous Fifth Air Force attacks. The 43d Bomb Group had not been assigned specific targets by the Fifth Air Force, suggesting this was merely show of force to meet a commitment rather than part of premeditated bombing campaign. They bombed a section of Rabaul township. The Japanese fighters had spent their effort against the carrier attack and only a few were seen by the army flyers. Ace Dick Bong claimed the only two kills. One P-38 failed to return.

The final day attack by the Fifth Air Force came two days later when twenty-six B-24s of the 90th Bomb Group escorted by sixty P-38s bombed Rapopo from high altitude. Fifty-eight Japanese fighters intercepted, including twenty-seven from the carriers. It appears six Japanese planes were burned on the ground and four shot down in combat. Five P-38s failed to return. The shootout between the Fifth Air Force and Japanese navy flyers at Rabaul was over.

In a month-long air campaign, the Americans had attacked from high, medium, and low altitude. P-38s had flown bomber escort missions, fighter sweeps, and escort to photo and weather planes. During the course of the campaign P-38s even flew some defensive missions against Japanese raiders that sortied from Rabaul. The attacking P-38s usually outnumbered the Zeros and the combined American bomber and fighter force substantially outnumbered the defenders. Japanese early warning was usually--but not always--good enough to get a substantial force of defenders up before the attackers were over the target. In short this campaign constitutes a good case study to assess the P-38 against the Japanese navy's Zero fighter.

By mid-November, the carrier air groups returned to Truk. The carrier attack planes and reconnaissance planes had been virtually annihilated and the dive bombers nearly so. The fighters had also suffered heavy losses. The Fifth Air Force had little to do with the decimation caused to these units. They had been expended in attacks on Bougainville and most particularly in a disastrous assault on an American carrier task force on November 11,1943. Their losses in defensive battles over Rabaul had been relatively minor. The fighter groups at Rabaul ended the campaign at about half their operational strength compared to the beginning of the campaign. An influx of a few dozen replacement planes and pilots plus a brief period for maintenance of damaged aircraft soon had an effect. Having consolidated after abandoning Buin and Buka they were stronger than before the Fifth's campaign began. (17)

It was clear that despite inflicting damage the Fifth Air Force had failed in its mission to knock out Rabaul. The numbers in the shootout had been fairly even. Had it been a draw? Actually, though few histories reveal it, there had been one clear loser. The Fifth Air force P-38 force had taken a drubbing. Recorded combat losses do not reveal this. Moreover, it seems counter-intuitive since the P-38 is iconic, the championship fighter of the Pacific war. However, outright combat losses, returning aircraft damaged beyond repair, and wear and tear caused by long range missions and combat damage came close to decimating the P--38 force.

In the initial attack, on October 12, seven squadrons and 125 P-38s participated. In the maximum effort attack of November 2d only eighty P-38s were involved. The P-38 force shrank to such an extent that not only did the provisional squadron disappear but two regular squadrons (9th and 39th FS) were reequipped with P-47s after the Rabaul campaign. The only all P-38 fighter group, the 475th, began October with 71 P-38H's and ended the month with fifty of which only about thirty-five were serviceable. In November it received P-38s from the two squadrons that transitioned to P-47s and built up strength to seventy-six P-38s of various models. A further influx of late model P-38J's failed to increase strength because older model P-38s that were hard to keep in combat condition were retired almost as quickly as newer P-38s were received. The 80th FS was the only other fighter unit to continue to fly the P-38. In early December the four P-38 squadrons had only about seventy serviceable aircraft on hand. It was not until well into March 1944 that P-38 strength returned to what it had been at the start of the Rabaul campaign.

During October, the P-38s claimed more than 150 aerial victories virtually all of which were the result of missions to Rabaul or defensive missions against Rabaul based navy aircraft. The P-40s and P-47s flying offensive missions against Japanese army aircraft at Wewak as well as defensive missions contributed less than fifty aerial victories (P-39s engaging in only defensive combat added a few more). Thus the P-38 accounted for about 75 percent of the Fifth Fighter Command's October air combat victories. Missions to Rabaul in early November drove their Rabaul total to nearly 190 victories. While these claims are greatly exaggerated they do allow for comparison. For the remainder of November the Fifth Fighter Command claimed a little over fifty air victories. Of this total the P-38s share was fifteen or less than one third.

The P-38 performed valiant service through the end of the war. Rabaul did not end the story for the P-38 in the Southwest Pacific but Rabaul is a hiccup in the P-38's success story, an incident, or perhaps the right word is a defeat that is usually overlooked in standard histories on the subject. The Fifth Air Force's P-38 force was the real loser of the shootout over Rabaul.


(1.) Craven & Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. TV, The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipan, University of Chicago Press (1950; reissued, U.S. Air Force History Program, 1983), p. 125. Whitehead's optimism was somewhat misplaced. In their first combat encounters Dec 27 and 31, 1942, the P-38s wildly over-claimed. On Dec 31, they encountered eight Japanese army fighters but claimed ten destroyed. Only one Japanese fighter was shot down. Moreover, Australian observers hidden in the hills above Lae, New Guinea saw the surviving seven land, (a fact not necessarily reported, or, known to Whitehead). In their next combat on Jan 6, 1943, the P-38s claimed nine Japanese fighters, but again only one was lost.

(2.) Okumiya & Hirokoshi, Zero, Ballantine Books (1956), p. 160; reports from several American pilots operating from Guadalcanal complained that in medium altitude escort missions the P-38 was little faster than the Zero but the Zero was vastly more maneuverable. Poor downward visibility from the cockpit and other details were also criticized. Some pilots suggested the P-40 was more suitable for the kind of missions to which they had been assigned.

(3.) Japanese pilots opinions summarized in 51st Division Intelligence Record, 12 Jan. 1943 (Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, ATIS, Enemy Publication No. 44)

(4.) Kenney, General Kenney Reports, Duell, Sloan & Pearce (1949), p. 312.

(5.) Craven & Cate (note 1), p. 328; other basic references for this period include Shaw & Kane, Isolation of Rabaul, History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Historical Branch, U.S.M.C. (1963); Morison, History of U.S. Navy Operations in World War II, Vol. VI, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, reissued U.S. Naval Institute Press (2010); and, Miller, Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul, Chief of Military History (1959).

(6.) The 5th Air Force P-38 force numbered 208 aircraft on October 7, 1943 of which 158 were in units, Ltr., HQ ADVON (Whitehead) to CG 5th AF (Kenney), subj.: Escalator Force, 20 Oct. 1943 (RG 18, U.S. National Archives, hereafter, NARA) [serviceability of P-38s with units was approximately 80%].

(7.) Kenney (note 4) p.312.

(8.) Photo recon data and estimated enemy order of battle data here and elsewhere in this article is from Allied Air Forces, Southwest Pacific, Intelligence Summaries (RG 165, NARA)

(9.) Status report for Air Group 253,1 Oct 1943, translation of intercepted radio message (RG 38, NARA)

(10.) 25th Air Flotilla war diary (translation of captured document WDC 161761, U.S. Navy History Center)

(11.) Loss details from "Reports of Damage and Casualties" (ATIS Enemy Publication No. 270) and other ATIS translations of Japanese reports; published sources include McAuley, Into the Jaws of the Dragon: Fifth Air Force Against Rabaul, Motorbooks International (1987); Southeast Area Naval Air Operations (Monograph No. 140, U.S. Army Japanese Monograph series)

(12.) Allied details come from Fifth Bomber Command and Fifth Fighter Command A-2 mission summaries; AAF, SWPA intelligence summaries (note 8); unit mission reports; individual mission reports; and Odgers, Air War Against Japan, Australian War Memorial (1957)

(13.) The Battle of Rabaul, 5th Air Force (1944) [reproduced in part with many photographs at website]

(14.) Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain, Ballentine Books (1961)

(15.) Craven & Cate (note 1), p. 326

(16.) The Battle of Rabaul (note 13) quoting message, Whitehead to Kenney, evening, 2 Nov. 1943.

(17.) Allied intelligence estimated Japanese single-engine fighter strength on New Britain as 149 fighters on 12 October and 175 fighters on 12 November, 1943.

Richard L. Dunn is an independent consultant advising on the deployment and implementation of technology in the military and civil sectors. He was graduated with a BA, cum laude, from the University of New Hampshire and earned law degrees from the University of Maryland and George Washington University (Highest Honors). Mr. Dunn has served on several study groups of the National Academy of Science and Defense Science Board. He was a senior fellow at the University of Maryland. From 1987 to 2000, he was the General Counsel of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Previously he was with the NASA in private legal practice and served for nine years on active duty as a Judge Advocate in the U.S. Air Force.
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Author:Dunn, Richard L.
Publication:Air Power History
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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