Bougainville Island is a long island the Pacific Ocean that currently belongs to Papua New Guinea. Prior to World War II, Bougainville was controlled by Australia until the Japanese invaded the island in 1942. Like many Pacific islands, Bougainville has a volcanic history with the highest peak being the volcano known as Mount Balbi which reaches an elevation of 8,907 feet above sea level. Bougainville is also considered to be the northern most of the Solomon Islands.
In 1943, Allied forces launched a campaign to drive the Japanese from Bougainville and out of the Solomon Islands.
On October 30, 1943, Japanese Admiral Sentaro Omori, normally based at Truk Island was visiting Rabaul with his two heavy cruisers, the Myoko and Haguro. Rabaul is a coastal port on the northeast end of New Britain about 250 miles northwest from Empress August Bay on Bougainville. Instead of returning to Truk Island, Omori was ordered to intercept an American Task Force that had been detected sailing north of Bougainville. Omori was ordered to take his heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, the Sendai and Agano, and two destroyers.
On November 1, 1943, Omori sailed away from Rabaul but was delayed in making the rendezvous with the transport ships because of an American submarine threat. The rendezvous was finally made around 8:30pm. At 9:20pm, a lone American plane bombed the Japanese fleet. The attacked caused Omori to send the transport ships back because he believed they were too vulnerable. Late that night, Merrill and the American Task Force were positioned just south of Bougainville but headed to Empress August Bay when they learned that was where the Japanese were headed.
On October 31, 1943, American Admiral Aaron Merrill rounded the northern tip of Bougainville with American Task Force 39. The American and Japanese narrowly missed each other and Omori returned to Rabaul just before midnight. As he arrived in port, he was informed that Merrill and his Task Force were off of Buka and that Americans had begun landing in /empress August Bay on Bougainville. The Japanese admiral in command at Rabaul ordered Omori to immediately set sail and added four more destroyers to his fleet. Omori was also supposed to rendezvous with five transport ships carrying 1,000 Japanese soldiers that were heading to Empress Augusta Bay.
On this day, November 2, 1943, the US Navy and Japanese Navy clashed in the Battle of Empress August Bay, which is located on the western side of Bougainville. At 2:46am, Merrill began shelling the Japanese ships. The first volley of shells hit and damaged the Sendai, jamming its rudder and causing numerous fires. Two of the Japanese destroyers, the Samidare and Shiratsuya began evasive maneuvers and ending up colliding with one another. The damage to each ship was enough to force them to retreat.
The remaining Japanese ships returned fire but most of their shells fell short of the American ships. Another factor that made many Japanese shells miss their targets was when Merrill ordered his cruisers to set up a heavy smoke screen, making it difficult for the Japanese to pin-point their targets.
Several of the Japanese ships tried sailing in a large circle in hopes of being able to get behind the American Task Force. In the process, the Japanese destroyer Hatsukaze collided with one of their own heavy cruisers and was heavily damaged. Merrill had the American Task Force begin sailing in a large figure eight to make it harder for the Japanese to shell them. In the process, only the USS Denver, a light cruiser, was hit by several Japanese shells but none of the exploded and damage was minor.
Around 3:30am, the American cruisers disappeared back into the smoke screen. When Omori heard the Japanese shells splashing into the water, he thought he was hearing torpedoes hitting the American ships and sinking three cruisers. However, believing that the Americans still had four heavy cruisers left, he issued the order to withdraw from the battle. The Japanese lost one cruiser and three of their destroyers received heavy damage. Before the Japanese could fully withdraw, the Americans were able to sink the Hatsukaze.
Around 5:00am, the remaining Japanese fleet had withdrawn and almost 100 Japanese planes left Rabaul headed for the Americans at Empress August Bay. In the air attack, anti-aircraft guns managed to shoot down 17 of the Japanese planes. The remaining Japanese planes were relatively ineffective, causing minor damage to one American ship and wounding one sailor.
The Japanese were prepared to launch a second air attack from Rabaul, but the American 5th Air Force began attacking Rabaul, causing the second attack wave to be cancelled.
In the end, the Battle of Empress August Bay was a very decisive American victory. Prior to this battle, the Japanese had prided themselves on their superior night time attack capabilities, but this battle changed that from then on.
As I write this, I keep looking up at a flag I have properly folded in a triangular display case. The flag flew at the Battles of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands on the ship my dad served on. Every time I write about the battles he was in, I constantly look up at that flag and my heart beats proud, wishing America could once again be as strong and mighty as we used to. It also causes me to remember my dad who served 6 years in the American Navy from 1941 to 1946.
Sources for the above includes: Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, 2 November 1943; World War II: Raids on Rabaul in November 1943; World War II: Battle of Empress Augusta Bay; Solomon Islands Naval Battles; Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, 2 November 1943; The Battle of Empress Augusta Bay