The success of the raid was told in black Stateside headlines the day after, but the little incidents which make it truly an American venture have not been fully related.
The detailed plan was drawn up less than twenty-four hours before the surprise assault. The squadron’s flagship lay in a small Solomons bay at the time, completely darkened except for the charthouse and Captain Simpson’s cabin where conferences were held with Admiral Halsey’s aides.
Shortly before dawn the flagship stood out of the harbor alone. At dawn several of the squadron’s ships met the flagship and word was received that still another DesRon R— tin can had asked and received permission to join. This ship was not originally ordered to participate. It had had engineering difficulty. This, however, was not sufficient to dampen the courage of the skipper and his crew. He immediately set out to join his sister ships in a mission many regarded as a suicide trip.
Two other destroyers had engine trouble—traced back to the grind of steady operations for many months. Captain Simpson slowed his group for a short time until it appeared that one of the ships would have to be left behind. But the skill and courage of the stricken ship’s crew had been challenged. They accepted the challenge and met it in praiseworthy fashion, enabling the ship to catch DesRon 12 as it started a high-speed run up St. George’s Channel.
When it appeared that the ship might be left behind, a division commander aboard was transferred to another ship by means of a bosn’s chair.
The men were already veterans, but not a few of them had forebodings as New Ireland came into view just beneath a protecting rain cloud. Sailors, known for their lighthearted kidding and joking, were noticeable subdued. Officers were alert and intent upon their jobs; all hands were well prepared, as the results later proved.
As the ships streaked toward the Rabaul bastion, the misty rain continued to afford protection from enemy float planes, which ordinarily searched the channel. Such good fortune was an answer to many a silent prayer.
After an anti-shipping sweep above New Britain, the ships whirled about and dashed toward their major objective.
There was nothing timid about the rapid-fire maneuvers of Captain Simpson’s ships as he brought this outfit into the most advantageous position to awaken the Japs from their stupor.
The first salvos arched high over the three volcanic hills marking the Rabaul sector. Split-second flashes were seen amidst the flares and star shells.
About the time the ships changed course to slip into the entrance to Karavia Bay anchorage for a torpedo attack, the Japs awoke in dazed fashion. A few shore batteries countered with shells and enemy torpedo wakes were reported.
“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” was not just an historical naval phrase that night. One of the ships lost steering control at the very mouth of the harbor. In an effort to get the best bearing possible, it had waited until the last minute, then given such a hard rudder that the ship started to go in circles. The steering casualty was quickly fixed, however, and all ships swung out as previously planned.
The destroyer torpedoes were shot with cooly calculated bearings and ranges, which enabled the sinking of at least four ships of undetermined size and the damaging of others. Two Nip tin cans changed their minds after our forces had sighted them on the way out of the harbor to intercept DesRon R—. The enemy destroyers fled when our ships opened fire on them, reportedly hitting them.
During the entire engagement some of the tin can batteries were constantly pounding shore batteries on Cape Gazelle and other points. Before the defending positions were rendered ineffective, several salvos dropped yards away from several of the ships; others passed overhead; some when whistlin’ through the riggin’.
Unable to find our ships with shellfire, the Nips flashed searchlights out to sea. Their gamble lost, for the task group commander had already ordered a smoke screen.
There were many instances of calm, decisive action aboard all ships, the type of action which had made DesRon R— a real fighting team. Men at anti-aircraft guns on the side of the ship away from the firing scanned the sky for planes so carefully that they had to be told about the details of the bombardment later. About half a dozen airfields were still in operation in the immediate vicinity of Rabaul.
After firing several thousand rounds into troop areas, the squadron maneuvered through a smoke screen and the rain clouds which effectively hid a bright moon. No incidents, other than the futile attempts of snooper planes to determine our course and speed, occurred during the remainder of the evening.
The last score or so of miles toward the home base was marked by the quiet jubilation of all hands. They had every reason to be proud of their exploit. As a final tribute to the destroyers, the crew of the cruiser with which the squadron had served many times lined the rails of the cruiser and cheered their fellow seamen as the squadron wound its way into port.
The Rabaul raid was almost equaled several days later with a walloping blow at Jap shipping at Kavieng, New Ireland in the Bismarck Archipelago. One tanker was halved and sunk; two other cargo vessels were set afire; an ammunition dump was left blazing and several persistent shore batteries were silenced. Still other Jap shipping was sent scurrying into the waiting arms of other US destroyers at the southern entrance of the harbor. That unit bagged a large cargo vessel, a tug and a schooner.
The most daring part of the Kavieng strike was a toe-to-toe match with Jap shore batteries, the most nasty and accurate of those encountered. Before the squadron called it a day and headed down the coast of New Ireland, passing a point only 45 miles from Rabaul airfields during the afternoon, the force has suffered minor casualties; nothing, however, comparable to those inflicted upon the Japanese.
As this is written on the shady side of the foc’sle deck, DesRon R— is once more bound for a rear area base to replenish ammunition and stores. It will soon be underway in new and telling assaults upon enemy positions and ships. DesRon R—, like other South Pacific destroyer units, speaks the only language the Japs seem to understand. It will continue to administer lashings to the retreating enemy until it someday delivers the last blow and heads for its real home, for which the men are fighting.