Intelligence reported a large build-up of Japanese fleet units at Tonelei Harbor on the southern end of Bougainville. There was little doubt that the enemy was getting ready to send powerful surface forces south to support his ground offensive and to engage any enemy naval units which came forth to fight. But before that happened, the Cats would give them something to think about.
At dusk on October 22, three PBYs of VP-11, with torpedoes tucked under their port wings, took off from Espiritu Santo. Each plane also carried two 500-pound bombs under its starboard wing. It was a 900-mile flight one way and they could not expect to make it all the way back to Espiritu Santo. Instead, they planned to stop at Tulagi to refuel on the way home. This was a flight deep into an enemy-controlled area and there was some question whether they would make it back at all. Lieutenant Jack Coley flew the lead plane, and his navigator and copilot, Joe Deodati, was responsible for the kind of pin-point navigation on which much of the mission's success depended.
The course ran along the underside of the Solomon chain well out to sea, and the planes made landfall only at Rennell Island and an unnamed reef along the way. Time of arrival at Tonelei Harbor was sometime after 0200 in the early-morning hours of the 23rd. The other two aircraft, flown by Lieutenants Charles F. "Whiskey" Willis and George F. "Blackie" Poulos, kept station on Coley while their navigators tracked him to doublecheck the progress of the flight. Blackie Poulos remembers the episode distinctly.
"It was a bright moonlit night with exceptionally good visibility. In order to avoid detection, we flew the last 150 miles at 20 feet above the water in a tight formation. Jack Coley was the lead plane and his navigation was perfect. We found ourselves going right into the harbor inlet undetected until we had to pull up to avoid hitting the destroyer that was doing sentinel duty at the entrance. Once inside the harbor the formation split up with each of us seeking his own target. Ships were visible everywhere, mostly destroyers and harbor craft then a larger ship, a heavy cruiser in an uncluttered area - a very good target. I swung to the right to allow enough room to make a good torpedo run, a quick turn to the left with just enough time to stabilize the run, and I pulled the release handle at about 300 yards. During the pull-up to get over the top of the cruiser, I pulled the handle to release two 500-pound bombs. The PBY shuddered as the weapons exploded. The crew members at the waist hatches reported direct hits but it was not possible to determine the extent of the damage. Nevertheless, we knew that we had scored, that we had hurt them, and that they now knew that their sanctuary was not safe from the workhorse PBYs."
Whiskey Willis also remembers hitting Tonelei Harbor on the nose that night. His aircraft, which bore the nickname "Fabulous Character," crossed over a spit of land and burst into the enemy stronghold at fifty feet. It was a breathtaking sight and Willis estimates that there were at least eighty ships there, mostly anchored and silhouetted sharply against the bright moonlight. Surprise was total. The Japanese did not expect American "torpedo planes" to penetrate this far north and certainly not at night.
Willis surveyed the situation quickly and also chose a cruiser as his victim. Lining up on the sleeping giant, he made his run at deck level. As the image of the ship loomed large he dropped his torpedo and pulled up steeply, just missing the superstructure. Seconds later the crew of Fabulous Character was rewarded by a flash and an explosion. Willis now spotted a destroyer also at anchor. It was another sitting duck, but he was coming up on it fast. Making a quick decision, he dropped both his 500-pounders, one on the heels of the other. At least one of these must have hit a magazine for the ship appeared to explode and break in two. Joe Deodati in Coley's plane recalls that they had really come looking for carriers, but found none. "Instead," he says, "we slammed a torpedo into an armed transport ship. We also attacked an unknown combatant ship with skip bombs with questionable success."
Now all hell broke loose. "It was like the fourth of July," said Willis. "We stayed right on the deck as we made our escape and the Japanese had to depress their guns to shoot at us. I'm sure they must have hit each other with all that stuff flying around."
All three planes made it out of the harbor and headed for Tulagi independently. Coley's aircraft had taken several hits and as a result had lost all fuel from the starboard wing tank. This was serious because even under normal conditions there was not that much fuel to spare. Coley throttled back and carefully leaned the engines to get as many miles as possible out of the remaining fuel. Miraculously, they made it all the way to land at Tulagi that morning with a few gallons left over. The other two Cats also arrived safely at Tulagi, and the subsequent flight back to Espiritu Santo was uneventful.
As part of their new push against Guadalcanal,the Japanese threw a large naval force into the area which included four carriers, four battleships, and a number of cruisers, destroyers, and other vessels. The Americans had but two carriers, the Enterprise and Hornet, plus two battleships, nine cruisers, and some twenty-four destroyers. The engagement which resulted is now known as the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
At first the two forces jockeyed for position, neither making contact with the other. Then on the 23rd one of the Cats located a Japanese carrier and the pace quickened. After dark Fitch launched several torpedo-armed PBYs to find and sink it. But the elusive aircraft carrier seemed to have vanished. Only Lieutenant (j.g.) George Enloe of VP-11 and his crew turned up hard evidence that the Japanese were operating in the area. What they found was a heavy cruiser and although it was not what they were looking for, it was better than nothing. Enloe made a low approach and released his fish before the Japanese knew they were under attack. But there was no explosive flash telling the Cat crew they had scored. Having expended their only shot, they headed for home.
Subsequently the area lapsed into the eerie silence that often seems to precede a battle. Then on the 25th a PBY-5A from VP-24 flown by Lieutenant (j.g.) "Doc" Mathews discovered a powerful Japanese task force which included the battleship Haruna. This was a daylight search mission and the aircraft had no torpedoes aboard with which to attack. But the opportunity was too good to pass up. Having reported his find to base radio, Mathews made a single run at the Haruna and dropped the only weapons he had two 500-pound flat-nosed depth charges, which he released from a considerable distance. Then he wrapped the airplane into a tight turn to high-tail it out of the area. What happened to the depth charges is not known but the Haruna ignored the insult and steamed on. Three floatplanes pounced on the Cat before she could get clear. First radioman Ewing W. "Bill" Hix, who was then manning the starboard gun, took careful aim and squeezed the trigger as they made their runs on the big Cat. Plane Captain Elmer Parker straddled the center line between the two blisters and coolly reloaded the empty 50-round cannisters as the cartridges were expended. Hix, who had been with Dagwood Propst at Midway, remembered with satisfaction that he "burned one and damaged another." After that, the floatplanes broke off and the PBY returned to base without further incident.
(The above section of text was taken from "Black Cat Raiders of WWII" by Richard C. Knott, 1982)(now out of print)
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