There may have been blacker nights than Thanksgiving Eve, 1943, in the South Pacific, but none could have been more completely blacked out with regard to information of the enemy. The Solomon Islands campaign, one of the decisive battles of World War II in the Pacific, was at its height, and the issue had not yet been resolved. Our destroyers were steaming north in search of the Japanese, who were reported to be evacuating their forces from the islands of Buka and Rabaul.
Suddenly our ships made contact with an unidentified force—strength unknown—and closed to fight it out.
The battle continued throughout the night. One after another, the breaks fell to us. The pieces of the puzzle gradually slipped into their proper places as, one by one, the enemy warships were routed or sunk.
But, as dawn came, a new battle loomed ahead. Pursuit of the beaten Japs had put our formation deep in enemy waters, far beyond our own air cover. The weather was clear. Japanese airfields were close by, and we knew they had many fighters and bombers on the four bases in the vicinity of Rabaul.
As we began our retirement to the southward, aerial attack seemed imminent. We hadn’t suffered a single casualty during the night action, but now, perhaps, our luck had run out.
To our surprise, nothing happened—nothing at all. The Japanese did not strike back! As we continued to sail into friendlier waters, identical requests began coming to the flagship from every destroyer in the formation. Finally we passed them all along to Admiral Merrill, our commander back in Purvis Bay: “Please arrange Thanksgiving services for all hands on arrival.”
They were waiting for us when we returned to port—our Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chaplains. An explanation was also waiting—a reconnaissance dispatch stating that 58 enemy bombers and 145 fighters had been observed on Japanese airfields near Rabaul. They had not attacked up presumably because, through the grace of Divine Providence, they didn’t know our exact position and, hence, couldn’t find us in time.
I’ll always remember that Thanksgiving Day in that beautiful, tropical harbor: battle-scarred ships nested together in a quiet anchorage, battle-weary crews giving thanks to God for their victory—and for their deliverance.
—Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations
Parade, November 18, 1956