Isolate Rabaul. The advance up the Solomons from Guadalcanal had been primarily for this objective. Now that a strategic base in Bougainville was in place, more frequent and effective direct air strikes as well as air support for operations to cut off supply routes to Rabaul from Truk 695 miles to the north
were feasible. Within one week of the inital landing of Marine Fight Squadron VMF-216, the first of a series of fighter sweeps andbombing missions were to commence. The air offensives would be now be handled by Air Solomons, AirSols, an Allied air unit comprised of the United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, United States Army Air Forces, and Royal New Zealand Air Force headed by Major General Ralph J. Mitchell, USMC.
On Friday, December 17, a 76 plane fighter sweep headed by VMF-214 commander Major Gregory Boyington (aka "Pappy" Boyington of the "Black Sheep Squadron") was launched comprised of 31 F4U's, 23 P-40's, and 22 F6F's. Eight F4U's from VMF-216 took off from Torokina at 0845 to participate in the sweep. Their 1st Division, led by Major Morrell included Lts. Mattingly, Wilkerson, and Mahoney. Their 2nd Division, led by Captain Faulkner included, Lts. Foote, Patton, and McGowan. The 216 planes were over Rabaul for approximately 30 minutes but made no contacts. Just west of New Ireland, one Zeke was spotted below but was destroyed by the New Zealanders. The 216 planes returned to base at 12:30. Lt. Patton's plane was found to have one bullet hole in the right wing. The overall result was far less than expected. Few defending aircraft came to meet the attack and only five of those were shot down at lower levels by their P-40's and another Marine and Navy pilot downed two others. In addition, three RNZAF planes were lost. Major Boyington had argued that sending up just half of 76 planes would be more manageable and, thus, more effective. The next fighter sweep would not occur until December 23rd.
On the heels of the fighter sweep on the 17th, AirSols had also scheduled a large scale bombing run on Rabaul for the next day. On, Saturday, December 18th, a B-24 bomber escort to Rabaul. Eight aircraft took off at 0940 and after being airborne for an hour, all were ordered to return to home base. The mission was called off for reasons unknown by the escort squadrons at the time. Later it was learned that the cancellation was due to a dense cloud cover over the bomber targets both within and surrounding Rabaul.
Control Tower at Torokina
On Sunday, December 19, the mission to escort the B-24 bombing strike on Rabaul was again scheduled and executed. The eight aircraft from the previous day's cancelled mission were off at 1045 from Torokina. 45 minutes later the 216 aircraft rendezvoused with B-24 bombers over Bougainville and proceeded on their course to Rabaul. The 1st division was led by Major Morrell with Lts. Barton, Dempster, and Means. The 2nd division was led by Captain Faulkner with Lts. Kemper, Marshall, and Hancock. Enroute, Lt. Barton experienced engine trouble and returned to base. Lt. Hancock was pulled from the 2nd division joined the 1st division to replace Lt. Barton.
The B-24's participating in this mission were from the Thirteenth Army Air Force based on Guadalcanal. According to AAF records, this mention of the mission is made: "16 B-24's, escorted by 50 AAF and RNZAF fighters, bomb the town of Rabaul and Simpson Harbor on New Britain Island in the Bismarck Archipelago."
31st Bomber Squadron and
394th Bomber Squadron, 5th Bombardment Group, 13th Army Air Force
Squadron No. 16 Squadron No. 17
Eight F6F's of VF-33 take off from Ondongo.
Thirteen RNZAF P40's, Squadron 16, take off for Torokina from Ondongo.
F6F's land at Torokina
B24's take off from Guadalcanal Five turned back due to mechanical failure and onr due to pilot illness. Two more failed to take off due to mechanical difficulties.
Assembled over Koli field, proceeded up southern route south of Renova and south of Vella LaVella. Then turned through Bougainville Strait to a point on the NE coast of Bougainville, 15 miles about Kieta and a course taken directly across the island to Torokina to pickup the fighters.
Twelve Ondonga based RNZAF P-40's, Squadron 17 took off from Torokina as close top cover for B-24's. Twelve Ondonga based RNZAF P-40's, Squadron 16 took off from Torokina as close top cover for B-24's.
B-24's hit Rabaul.
Eight shiny blue Zekes* contacted just North of the center of Blanche Bay at about 11,000 feet.
Six VF-33's returned to Torokina, then Ondonga. No enemy interception was encountered.
Morrell's squadron returns to Torokina
B-24's return and land at Guadalcanal.
*The Japanese A6M Fighter was universally known as the Zero from its Japanese Navy type designation, Type 0 (zero) Carrier Fighter. The official Allied code name was "Zeke" and the A6M3-32 variation was called "Hamp".
The Consolidated Mission Report submitted by the 5th Bombardment Group Headquarters was summarized with these Observations and Remarks:
"Aerial bombs were used against our formation. Four bombs in one cluster exploded directly in front of our planes. These were the same type of aerial bombs our formation had encountered over Kahili.
Approximately 25-30 ships were observed in Simpson Harbor. It is estimated 4-6 were destroyers, 8-12 medium sized AK's and the balance miscellaneous.
Fighter cover on this mission was exceptionally good. The attacking Zekes were kept well broken up by this force. One unidentified airplane was seen to fall in flames and crash into the water, just after leaving the target.
No observations were made at Kahili or Kara."
"For the second straight day we were greatly hampered by adverse weather conditions. Only slightly more than half of our airplanes were able to attain the primary target. It was unfortunate that the set plan of attack led our aircraft into the target in such a manner as to preclude the getting of a good sight on it due to the fact there was a heavy cloud condition present. It is possible had a run been made from a different direction the target may have been visible. Although observation of bombing results were difficult and our pictures failed to tell the full story it is felt that some damage was done to the enemy. It is unknown what damage was done by the bombs that fell in the Rabaul proper, but some damage was done to enemy shipping in the harbor. It is hoped that our next attempt at this target we will be favored with better weather conditions."