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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: They Served

article number 676
article date 08-03-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Air Battle in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Part 2: Our Crude Air Force is a Winner, January-March 1943
by U. S. Air Force Historical Division
   

From the 1952 book, The Army Air Forces in World War II.

* * *

The Bismarck Sea Action

Already MacArthur’s forces had taken the first steps toward ousting the Japanese from their positions on the Huon Gulf, the way having been made easier as the result of one of the more brilliant and historic actions of the Fifth Air Force.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea had been fought during the first days of March in fulfilment of an obligation falling to General Kenney’s air forces in the last days of the fight for Buna. When late in December the enemy had given up efforts to reinforce his troops around Buna, it had been anticipated that he would attempt the build-up of his garrisons at Lae and Salamaua.

Consequently, the isolation of that area had become a primary and continuing responsibility of the Allied Air Forces.

The first major action came early in January. B-24’s, B-17’s, and Catalinas on regular patrol kept watch over Rabaul and the sea lanes leading down into the Huon Gulf. F-4’s from Kenney’s lone photographic squadron repeatedly mapped the Lae area, where it was suspected that supplies were being regularly run in by submarine. On 30 December, shipping concentrations at Rabaul were the largest theretofore sighted—ninety-one vessels, including twenty-one warships and an estimated 300,000 tons of merchant shipping, were counted.

Float planes sighted in the vicinity of Lae, usually an indication of antisubmarine patrol in advance of ship movements, offered a clue as to the direction a new convoy might take, as did also the activity on Japanese airfields.

On 6 January, reconnaissance reported a convoy consisting of two light cruisers, four destroyers, and four medium transports off the south-central coast of New Britain heading west-southwest. For the next two days, all types of Allied bombers, protected by fighters, pierced the enemy’s fighter escort and bombed through low and broken clouds, but on 8 January the convoy, now reported as consisting of one light cruiser, three destroyers, and three transports, had reached Lae, where it unloaded. Early on the following morning, the enemy ships withdrew to the east, leaving one beached transport behind.

As is usual with convoy action, exact assessment of damage is difficult. The Japanese had succeeded in their effort to reinforce Lae; Headquarters, Allied Land Forces estimated that better than 4,000 troops had reached shore.

But at least two transports, and perhaps more, had been sunk, and American fighters had enjoyed a field day. The P-40’s of the veteran 49th Group claimed twenty-eight enemy planes shot down in addition to their contribution as dive bombers with 300-pound bombs in attacks on the transports.

Lt. Richard I. Bong of the same group, flying a P-38, claimed three planes, while other P-38’s accounted for at least thirteen of the enemy craft. The total claims ran well over fifty, against a loss of ten Allied planes.

   
Lt. Richard Bong sitting in a P-38.

These were reassuring figures for the fighter command, but the convoy had gotten through and that meant extra work for the air forces. With reinforcements at Lae, the Japanese moved promptly against the small Australian force based inland at Wau, troops who for a year now had been kept alive almost entirely by air transport and who, after the fighting ended at Buna, represented the only Allied ground forces in contact with the enemy on New Guinea.

Troop carrier pilots had become accustomed to the 3,000-foot runway at Wau with its 12 per cent grade heading directly at Kainde Mountain, and they had learned to maneuver the clumsy C-47’s as though they were fighters, “dodging a peak here and a cloud there.”

Now it would be necessary to operate on an emergency schedule for assistance of the some 200 Australian defenders of Wau.*

* Fortunately, badly needed reinforcements reached Australia with the air echelon of the 317th Troop Carrier Group, which in January flew fifty-two new C-47’s from California. The new planes were promptly transferred to the veteran 374th Group, and the 317th took over the assorted C-47’s, C-49’s, C-60’s, LB-30’s, and B-17’s heretofore serving as the troop carrier equipment.

On 29 January the Australians repulsed a sharp patrol attack in the immediate neighborhood of the airfield only to find the enemy back, employing tactics of infiltration, within a few hours.

A call for reinforcements brought the C-47’s onto the line back at Port Moresby. Heavy thunderstorms over the mountains threatened a fatal delay, but fortunately the weather shifted and the transports took off with reinforcements and supplies in the first flights of a movement that would carry over 2,000 troops into Wau within the two days following.

A full-scale battle for possession of the airfield on which the movement depended already had been joined: the Japanese had reached one end of the strip itself, which had been brought under fire from mortars, and some of the Australians literally came out of the planes with their guns firing. In some instances, it was necessary for the troop carriers to circle the field until the Aussies below had “grenaded” the Japanese far enough back into the jungle to permit a landing.

But by noon of 30 January, the enemy had been driven back with a loss of some 250 killed. The airfield at Wau would remain in Allied hands and its reinforced garrison, supplied by stepped-up transport operations, would continue its harassing tactics until it joined in the final assault on Lae.

Although the enemy had an estimated 50 bombers and 50 to 150 fighters regularly based in the New Britain—New Ireland area, he chose not to commit any part of this strength to operations against Wau until almost a week after the crisis had passed. On 6 February, eight P-39’s, covering a routine cargo flight of C-47’s, engaged an enemy force of twenty-four planes with resulting claims of eleven Zekes and one Sally shot down.

Simultaneously, another flight of eight P-40’s discovered that planes erroneously identified as Australian Beauforts were bombing the airfield. Roaring down into this formation, the P-40’s found themselves engaging twelve Lily bombers and an equal number of escorting Zekes and Ramps. The Americans were subsequently credited with seven of the enemy.

And the final score would be still higher—a score achieved without loss—for General Whitehead had answered a call for help by sending out from Port Moresby three more squadrons, which covered the hundred miles to Wau in time to claim five more planes.

If there was cause in this action for assurance that the Allied Air Forces could maintain a necessary control of the air over New Guinea, there existed also new reasons for concern. The long and bitter fighting on Guadalcanal was reaching its end, and as the enemy surrendered the lower Solomons, it had to be recognized that henceforth he might focus his attention on Allied positions in New Guinea.

   
HIT ‘EM HIGH, HIT ‘EM LOW. Below: A-20 at mast height.

Not only did the attack on Wau suggest this possibility but intelligence brought word of growing activity by Japanese engineers in the development of airfields as far as Babo, near the westernmost tip of Netherlands New Guinea, and eastward to Lae.

On Wakde Island they were building a 1,400-yard strip, another of 1,300 yards inland from Hollandia Bay, a major airdrome already possessing seventy-seven dispersal bays at Wewak, and in addition, they were at work on roads at Madang and Alexishafen and activity had been noticed on Cape Gloucester.

It would be necessary to keep a close watch on all this activity, and the turn of fortune that had come on Guadalcanal could be expected to reduce only partly the responsibility for coordinated effort with South Pacific forces in keeping under surveillance Japanese positions in the upper Solomons and in the Bismarcks.

The heavies based on Henderson Field could be expected now to carry the main burden in covering the Solomons, but Rabaul would continue for many months yet as a responsibility of the Fifth Air Force. Even Buin and Buka remained within easier reach of Southwest Pacific bases.

Throughout January the Fifth Air Force had kept up small but sharp attacks on Rabaul at regular intervals. Making their bomb runs at both medium (5,000- to 9,000-foot) and low (250-foot) altitudes, the heavies hit the town, the airfields, and shipping in the harbor.

Most of the attacks were made at night, when darkness or the glare of searchlights prevented accurate observation. Many of the reports by returning crews read simply: “Bombs in target area causing large fires.”

An exception had come on 5 January in a daylight mission which took the life, among others, of Brig. Gen. Kenneth Walker of the V Bomber Command. Forty 500-pound demolition bombs and 24 X 1,000-pound bombs were dropped from 8,500 feet. The official report indicated that nine vessels of an estimated total tonnage of over 50,000, including one destroyer tender hit with destroyer alongside, had been sunk or left burning.

Antiaircraft fire was heavy and fighter attack by apparently inexperienced pilots continuous. Two B-17’S, including Walker’s, were shot down.

A total of thirteen attacks had been made during the month, none of them by a force larger than twelve planes.

For some time yet, General Kenney would be forced to husband carefully his heavy bomber strength. At the close of the Buna campaign, the veteran 43d Bombardment Group had seen six months of hard service. Of its fifty-five B-17E’s and F’s, approximately twenty were usually in depot for overhaul. Perhaps 50 per cent of the remainder could be kept in daily combat commission, and a quarter of these were regularly required for reconnaissance, which left twelve to fourteen planes available for strikes.

The 90th Bombardment Group (H), a late arrival with its B-24 equipment, began taking over a major share of heavy operations only in January. Maintenance of the new plane presented special difficulties, and important modifications to the plane itself were undertaken. Of the sixty B-24’s on hand, no more than fifteen could be counted upon at any one time for a striking force.

Fortunately, the strain of bomber operations had been somewhat reduced by the fact that it was now possible to base some of the heavies at Port Moresby and Milne Bay in the forward area. Airfield development over the preceding six months had shown great progress. Six of the seven fields lying within thirty miles of Port Moresby were in constant use, with extensive taxiways and dispersal areas.

More frequent complaints were heard of rough and muddy landing strips at Milne Bay, but there were three fields and two of them handled steady traffic.

   
BATTLE OF THE BISMARCK SEA: Wounded destroyer.

The development of Dobodura into a major operating base had been begun. Along with the development of installations had come progress in the organization of more effective air defenses. An American aircraft warning unit had reached Moresby in the preceding September to supplement “the poor man’s radar”—Australian coast watchers and spotters located in the mountains with binoculars and radio.

Coast watchers above Milne Bay and on outlying islands as far to the northeast as Kiriwina continued their invaluable services, but radar equipment had been installed at Milne Bay, at Tufi Point 125 miles to the northwest, and on Normanby and Goodenough Islands. The antiaircraft protection had been increased, and since autumn the V Fighter Command had greatly improved its defensive organization.

The command had three veteran fighter groups, each with almost a year’s experience in the theater. All nine squadrons were now operating from New Guinea bases, though some, and especially the malaria-ridden group at Mime Bay, would soon have to be sent back for rest and recuperation.

Of the command’s 330 fighters, 80 P-38’s represented the chief strength. The other planes included 74 worn P-400’s.

Destructive raids on Allied bases had become the exception rather than the rule, partly because of a more effective defense and partly because of the enemy’s concern with other targets. The most serious of recent attacks had occurred at Mime Bay on the afternoon of 17 January 1943, when more than twenty escorted bombers destroyed with fragmentation bombs, two B-17’s, one B-24, two P-39’s, and one RAAF Hudson, and for good measure, six vehicles and half a dozen fuel dumps. There had been other raids, enough to keep the men “nervous and jumpy,” but the success of this one was exceptional.

It was at Moresby that Kenney based the bulk of his medium and light bombardment. He had six squadrons of medium bombers, of which the two squadrons of the 38th Group equipped with B-25’s were virtually up to strength.

The four squadrons of the 22d Group, having suffered heavily over a long period of operations, had been withdrawn with their B-26’s to Australia for recuperation.

The 13th and 90th Squadrons of the 3d Bombardment Group (L) were equipped with B-25’s; the 8th and 89th Squadrons fought with A-20’s, but they had suffered such attrition that they now operated in effect as a single squadron.

Indeed, so heavy had been the burden on the air forces through the fall and into January that General Kenney could meet his varied obligations only by care in the disposal of his limited strength.* He was working out a policy of rotating his squadrons in such a way that one-third would be assigned for rest and training, one-third held on alert, and the other on combat assignment. Thus it would be possible to marshal at least two-thirds of his available units for an emergency.*

* It should be noted that the Allied Air Forces, relying chiefly on Australian Hudsons, the Dutch B-25’s, and the 90th’s B-24’s, covered in continuous operations the Timor—Amboina—southern Celebes areas of the Netherlands East Indies and that long-range planes reconnoitered the upper New Guinea coast as far west as Wewak.

The training program during the winter of 1942-43 had its focus in an effort to perfect the techniques of low-level anti-shipping strikes. Especially significant were the experiments of the 90th Squadron of the 3d Bombardment Group with its newly received B-25C1.

This was the plane that the “gadgeteers” of the service command, with Kenney’s encouragement and the advice of Major Gunn and Jack Fox, representative in Australia of the North American Aviation company, had modified for strafing.

They had taken off the lower turret and the tail gun of the standard model and had added forward-firing guns until four bristled from the nose and four more from blisters attached on either side. In addition to these eight forward-firing guns, an upper turret carried two .50-Cal. machine guns. For its low-level work, the plane’s bomb racks could carry sixty small fragmentation bombs together with six 100-pound demolition bombs.

The crew of three included a co-pilot instead of the bombardier, standard in the B-25 crew. It was somewhat slower and less maneuverable than the A-20, but in attacks at 350 feet of altitude maneuverability counted for little and the longer range, heavier bomb load, and greater firepower of the modified B-25 promised real dividends. The experimental model had passed the tests in December, and by April some thirty of the B-25C’s had been accordingly modified.

   
BATTLE OF THE BISMARCK SEA: B-25’s in Low-level attack on freighter.

Meanwhile, crews of the 90th Squadron practiced for weeks on an old wreck lying off Port Moresby. Experiments with skip bombing were soon abandoned for direct attack on the target, a reference point on the nose of the plane serving as a bombsight. The bombs were armed with modified delayed-action fuzes, and the practice acquired more than a touch of realism when two planes sustained damage from flying debris and another was lost by collision with the wrecked vessel’s mast.

The planes went out twice during February against real targets, but each time failed to locate the reported vessels. By the end of February, however, they had engaged in coordinated rehearsals with A-20’s and Australian Beaufighters and were thus ready to participate in the celebrated action of early March which frustrated an enemy attempt once more to reinforce Lae.

* * *

As early as 19 February, Allied intelligence, which already had built a reputation for accuracy in its predictions of enemy movements, had issued a warning of “further troop movements to the Lae area.” By 28 February, G-2 talked in terms of a landing to be attempted at Lae on March and at Madang on or about 12 March.

Accordingly V Bomber Command prepared three different operational plans.
• The first assumed that the convoy would head for Lae, in which case it would come within reach of virtually the full striking power of the Allied Air Forces.
• A second plan was based on the assumption that the convoy might be divided north of the Dampier Strait. ◦ Should that occur, the heavies were to concentrate upon that portion of the convoy heading toward Madang, while light and medium bombers intercepted the remainder of the vessels if and when they came within range.
• Since it was recognized that the entire convoy might follow a course toward Madang, out of range of all but heavy air units, the third plan was drafted accordingly.

The enemy had determined to reinforce his troops in the Lae area at all costs. His plans, as subsequent examination has shown, were carefully drawn. Reinforcements would consist principally of the 51st Infantry Division, which would be transported in a convoy of seven merchant vessels and eight destroyers.

The ships would load at Rabaul between 23 and 27 February on a schedule calling for departure at 2300 on the following night. Air cover was to be furnished by some forty naval and sixty army planes operating on a definite schedule.

The plan called for the convoy to reach Lae on 3 March and to arrive back at Rabaul five days later.

At first the weather, which was generally stormy between 27 February and 1 March, conspired with the enemy. The first contact was reported on 1 March.
• Two B-24’s patrolling the sea lanes off New Britain that morning reported a break in the weather, and
• a third B-24 dispatched on patrol at 1130 sighted fourteen ships under Zero escort on a westerly course some forty miles northwest of Ubili at approximately 1500 hours.
• Another B-24 sent out two hours later to shadow the convoy found the weather closing in, and eight B-17’s on a late afternoon mission failed to locate the target.

By now the Fifth Air Force Advanced Echelon (ADVON) at Port Moresby had been fully alerted, although another day would pass before the convoy came within reach of anything but the heavies.*

* Of the units assigned to AD VON and prepared to participate in a convoy attack, the following aircraft were ready for action:
◦ 43 P-40’s and 18 P-38’s of the 49th Fighter Group;
◦ 17 P-38’s of the 35th Fighter Group;
◦ 17 P-40’s of the RAAF 75 Squadron;
◦ 6 B-25C’s and D’s of the 13th Squadron, 11 B-5C1’s of the 90th Squadron, and 15 A-20’s of the 89th Squadron, all of the 3d Bombardment Group;
◦ 11 B-25C’s and D’s of the 38th Group;
◦ 28 B-17’s of the 43d Group;
◦ 9 B-24’s of the 90th Group; and
◦ 6 Bostons, 13 Beaufighters, and 13 Beauforts of the RAAF 9 Operational Group.

* (continued) In the Allied Air Forces as a whole on 1 March, there was a total of 154 fighters, 34 light bombers, 41 medium bombers, and 39 heavy bombers ready for combat. Totals exclude planes on reconnaissance or escort duty.

   
Australian Beaufighter over New Guinea.

There would be some work meantime for the other planes, such as the effort inaugurated by six RAAF Bostons on the afternoon of 1 March to put the enemy’s airfield at Lae out of operation, but for the moment the critical responsibility fell to long-range reconnaissance.

The weather was still unfavorable on the 2d, and not until midmorning did a B-24 send back the convoy’s location. Eight B- 17’s promptly took off for attack, to be followed shortly by twenty more bombers.

The P-38 fighter cover failed to make its rendezvous with the first flight, but the heavies dropped 1,000-pound demolition bombs from an altitude of 6,500 feet with apparently good effect. Two merchant vessels were claimed sunk, one being described as breaking in half and sinking in two minutes.*

* At this time the convoy was reported as including one light cruiser, five destroyers, and eight merchant vessels. Actually there were no cruisers in the convoy. Sightings frequently mistook large destroyers for cruisers.

The second flight, again without its fighter protection, was over the convoy (variously described by the bomber crews as containing fourteen or fifteen vessels) within the hour. Though claiming only two hits and four near misses, the returning crews reported, no doubt with some duplication, a 6,000-ton transport “burning and exploding,” a 5,000-ton ship “burning,” a large cargo vessel “smoking and burning amidships,” a 6,000- to 7,000-ton vessel “seen to explode,” and a somewhat larger one “in a sinking condition.”

A B-17 clung to the contact until nightfall, reporting that two unidentified vessels had joined the convoy between 1530 and 1630 and later, at 1730, that “two possible CL’s left convoy.”

As night drew on, eleven B-17’s made the final attack of the day at the entrance to Vitiaz Strait. Enemy fighters, though not very persistent, were numerous and one was shot down. A total of forty-three bombs were dropped with claims registered for two hits. One vessel “was left sinking.” There had been, according to report, sixteen vessels at the beginning of the attack.

An RAAF PBY kept contact through the night, turning over the job to a B-17 at 0545 on the following morning.

The convoy, now off the Huon Peninsula, had come within a range inviting the coordinated attack so carefully rehearsed during recent weeks at Port Moresby. Torpedo-carrying Beauforts of the RAAF made the first attack on the morning of 3 March without success.

But by 0930 the planes for a coordinated effort had assembled over Cape Ward Hunt. Within half an hour thirteen Beaufighters, each armed with four cannons in the nose and six machine guns in the wings, “went into the target with flights in line astern.” Flying at 500 feet when they came within the reach of antiaircraft fire, they “then lost height rapidly and using rated power attacked in line abreast at a speed of 220 knots.”

Thirteen B-17’s had come into position above to drop their bombs just as the Beaufighters began their sweep. Thirteen B-25’s followed the Beaufighters in for a standard bombing attack from medium altitude.

And then came twelve of the 90th’s B-25C1’s in probably the most successful attack of all. Coming down to 500 feet above the now widely dispersed and rapidly maneuvering vessels, the new strafers broke formation as each pilot sought his own targets.

The forward-firing .50’S beat down opposing AA, and 500-pound bombs struck ship after ship. Out of the thirty-seven bombs dropped, seventeen were claimed as direct hits.

The returning pilots of the 90th Squadron reported one transport “badly damaged,” one left “burning violently,” and another “sinking,” that a cargo vessel “burst into flames and sank,” that another “stopped and began to settle,” that a third “appeared sinking,” and that a fourth had been left smoking and a fifth burning. One destroyer had been left smoking, while another “rolled on its side and sank.

The B-17’s claimed five direct hits, the sinking of one vessel, and the probable sinking of another. Twelve U.S. A-20’s had joined the attack to claim eleven direct hits, and six more B-25’s coming in toward the end reported four additional hits.

The cost had been four Allied aircraft shot down—three P-38’s out of the twenty-eight providing cover and one B-17.

   
KENNEY’S B-25’S GET A JAPANESE CORVETTE. Above: First pass. Below: On the mark.

Enemy interception, which had been fierce, tended to concentrate on the B-17’s. Lt. Woodrow W. Moore’s plane received hits in a wing and the radio compartment. He pulled out of formation and salvoed his bombs, but the plane went into a dive. Seven of the crew who bailed out were strafed on the way down and lost in the confusion of battle below. The plane disintegrated before plummeting into the sea.

But the bombers claimed five enemy planes, and returning P-38 pilots turned in a score of fifteen.

After these morning assaults, the surviving Japanese ships received no more than a brief respite. New strike orders went out to the air units shortly after noon, and almost immediately the planes were roaring off the Moresby dromes and heading for Lae.

The afternoon strikes did not go entirely according to plan. The weather had turned bad over the ranges: none of the Beaufighters crossed the mountains, twelve A-20’s “could not climb above or find [a] hole in the weather,” and of the twenty-nine B-25’s that set out, six failed to find the target.

Partly no doubt because of interference by the weather, there was some confusion in the timing of attacks.

The first attack, by B-17’s, occurred at 1512, one of the planes claiming two direct hits on a large destroyer which “stopped and burned.”

Then eight B-25C1’s of the 90th Squadron struck in a low-level sweep. Within five minutes they had left a destroyer “definitely sinking” after four direct hits, another “probably sinking” after an equal number of hits, and two merchant vessels badly damaged.

In the next ten minutes, fifteen additional B-25 ‘s, some attacking from 200 feet but most of them from medium altitude, had completed their runs with claims of at least ten direct hits.

Almost simultaneously with this attack, five RAAF Bostons concentrated on a destroyer, while B-17’s bombed from medium height through both the B-25’s and the Bostons. The Bostons claimed at least two direct hits and numerous near misses, and they were credited with still another sinking.

These afternoon missions represented the last coordinated attacks, for the victory had been won and back at Port Moresby there was already a feeling of festivity.

It remained only to clean up the job. During the remaining daylight hours, planes sent on reconnaissance swept over the scene of action, strafing survivors and seeking assurance that none of the burning hulks were in condition to get away.

In the night of 3/4 March, five motor torpedo boats of the Seventh Fleet from their base at Tufi undertook a search which resulted in the dispatch of one crippled vessel. Allied bombers on the next morning sank a badly damaged destroyer.

And that ended it, except that Beaufighters, A-20’s, and B-25’s continued for several days to search the general area and to strafe surviving enemy personnel, some of whom were picked up as far to the east as Goodenough, Kiriwina, and even Guadalcanal.

The victory thus won would be described by General MacArthur, after the Japanese surrender in 1945, as “the decisive aerial engagement” in his theater of the war, and certainly the enemy had suffered a smashing setback to his plans for holding New Guinea.

General Kenney’s flyers had accomplished as much in three days as had been possible in similar operations extending through the entire Papuan campaign, for only toward the end had Buna been blocked off from incoming shipping.

But now enemy troops in the Lae-Salamaua area were left dependent for supply and reinforcement on the provision that could be made by submarines, air transport, and barges cutting across Vitiaz Strait from Cape Gloucester or clinging to the coast on the way down from Madang or Wewak.Never again did the Japanese accept the risk of running large vessels into Lae; an effective if not absolutely tight air blockade had been established—months in advance of the Allied conquest of Lae.

   
Death of a Sally, Bismarck sea.

That this blockade could have been maintained in the face of a persistent attempt to challenge it may be open to debate. Kenney had concentrated virtually all available air strength against this one convoy; it might have been difficult to repeat the performance immediately, but the job had been done well enough to obviate any such necessity.

The victory had been a triumph of coordinated effort—of an accurate evaluation of intelligence, of daring technical developments, and of meticulous training. During the two-week period ending with 14 March, Allied aircraft catalogued 400 sorties connected with the Bismarck Sea action, of which number 76 per cent reached the objective.

The planes engaged dropped 571 bombs for a total of 426,000 pounds. Bombers and escorting fighters reported more than 350 enemy aircraft encountered, of which 50 to 60 were claimed as destroyed.

The losses were one B-25 in a landing accident and one B-17 and three P-38’s shot down in combat.

Internal Controversy

But the statistics of air warfare serve chiefly to emphasize the magnitude of the effort put forth. In their very nature they cannot be exact on such items as claims against the enemy force, and the central fact of an operation often stands independent of any of the statistician’s tables, however helpful those tables may be to an assessment of the effort.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that attention should have been diverted from the brilliant achievement of the Allied Air Forces in the Bismarck Sea action by a controversy over the exact number of enemy vessels destroyed.

The fact that counts is that a major effort to reinforce Lae was turned back with mass destruction inflicted upon an enemy who never thereafter dared renew the effort. All other points, whatever their inherent interest and significance, must assume a position of secondary importance.

Secondary though it may be, the question demands some attempt here to arrive at a conclusive settlement. The official GHQ communiqué of. March 1943 put the size and composition of the enemy convoy at twelve transports, three cruisers, and seven destroyers, and advanced a claim to their total destruction.

These figures apparently depended in the first instance upon an evaluation of reports by returning crews. Their reports had indicated a total of fourteen ships sighted during missions flown on the morning of 2 March and that perhaps as many as two of these vessels had been sunk. Reports of the afternoon missions on that same day showed a total of perhaps fifteen or even sixteen vessels in the convoy at that time.

These and other differences in sightings reported during the course of a running battle extending over a large area and through two days led to a natural conclusion that additional units had probably joined the original convoy.

Up at ADVON (Advanced Echelon: a special headquarters to contend with scarcity of forces set up by General Kenney in the Southwest Pacific), the evidence seemed to support the view expressed in its final report on 6 April 1943 that “an additional seven merchant vessels” had “moved into the immediate area” of combat. The final figure of twenty-two ships rested then upon the assumption that other vessels had joined the convoy after the action began, an assumption which seemed to find at least partial support in certain enemy documents captured with some of the survivors immediately after the battle.

Since no ship was seen to escape, it was assumed that all had been sunk. The evidence at best was tenuous, but good enough for a preliminary assessment.

At AAF Headquarters in Washington the Historical Office undertook in the summer of 1943 a study of all records of the action forwarded from the theater, including the captured enemy documents. These documents offered conclusive proof of the presence of no more than sixteen ships in the original convoy and failed to establish the assumption that additional vessels had later joined them.

The negative conclusion thus arrived at received support from the fact that photo intelligence had provided positive identification for only three destroyers and six merchant vessels, with five other units listed as possible destroyers for a total of fourteen. Moreover, ADVON’s report, published a month after the action, had declared that “only 12 or 13 ships were actually sighted sinking or in obviously desperate condition.”


But GHQ SWPA, on being apprised of the conclusions of this study in Washington, elected to stand on the original figures; indeed, one message forwarded over MacArthur’s signature even contained the remarkable suggestion that some action might be taken against those responsible for calling the claim into question. And General MacArthur renewed the claim in a postwar news release.

   
Martin B-26 bomber, Port Moresby, New Guinea.

There would seem to be some advantage, therefore, in an attempt to piece together the story of the action from the enemy’s point of view as revealed by interrogation of key Japanese personnel after the close of hostilities and by study of additional documentary records. That story follows:

Shortly after midnight on March 1943 a convoy of sixteen vessels—eight destroyers, seven transports, and the special service vessel ’Nojima’—left Rabaul for Lae. In the early morning of 2 March, the convoy took its first bombing, by B-17’s, which scored on two of the transports and sank the Army transport ’Kyokusei Maru.’

Approximately 850 men rescued from the sinking transport were then put aboard two destroyers, which headed for Lae under forced draft. Having delivered these troops at Lae during the night, the destroyers rejoined the convoy on the morning of March, in time for the heavy and coordinated attacks previously described.

The morning attacks of March were just as destructive as the returning crews at Port Moresby claimed. The destroyer ’Arashio’ received three direct hits, which threw it out of control and caused it to collide with the already damaged special service vessel Nojima. The Nojima sank; the Arashio, though mortally hit, managed to stay afloat for several hours.

Within a few minutes after this collision, the flagship ’Shirayuki’ was strafed and bombed with a resultant explosion aboard ship that caused its abandonment and the transfer of the flag to the destroyer ’Shikinami.’ Meanwhile, the destroyer ’Tokitsukaze’ had taken severe hits from which it sank sometime later, and the six remaining transports, as the bombers withdrew, had been sunk or left in a sinking condition.

The convoy, in short, had been broken up and in large part destroyed or doomed to destruction during the morning of 3 March.

As the planes returned in the afternoon, the five surviving destroyers—the ’Asashio,’ the ’Uranami,’ the ’Shikinami,’ the ’Yukikaze,’ and the ’Asagumo’—were engaged in attempts begun during the morning attacks to rescue as many as possible of the troops from the water and an undetermined number of crippled transports.

The Asashio took hits and went down, but the other four destroyers survived to continue rescue operations that were on the whole remarkably successful.

A rendezvous, with the destroyer Hatsuyuki, sent out from Kavieng, permitted refueling and the transfer of 1,400 men to the Hatsuyuki and the Uranami for return to Rabaul. The other three destroyers turned back toward Lae to pick up additional survivors, and having rescued about 200 more men, they reached Kavieng early in the morning of 4 March.

Submarines are credited with rescuing another 275.

It is impossible to reconcile all of the figures given, but the Japanese admit an over-all loss of some 3,000 men and claim that just under 6,000 survived.

Nor is it possible to fit together as neat and detailed a picture of the action as is desirable. This much, however, would seem to be clear from the evidence presently available: the convoy at no time included more than the original sixteen vessels and of this total, all of the transports, the Nojima, and four of the destroyers were lost, one of the vessels receiving its final dispatch by torpedo boat during the night of 3/4 March.

The full destruction thus could not have exceeded twelve vessels; the four surviving destroyers are all accounted for, three of them having been destroyed in combat during 1944 and the Yukikaze having run aground in July 1945.

The rendezvous on 3 March with the Hatsuyuki may help to account for the belief on the Allied side that additional vessels had joined the original convoy, although the confused and scattered nature of the action, together with a natural tendency for claims to be duplicated, would seem to offer sufficient explanation for conflicting reports as to the number of vessels engaged.

The Japanese rescued a substantial part of their troops, but few if any more than the 850 men carried into Lae during the night of 2 March reached their original destination.

The downward revision of claims counts for little beside the fact that land-based air forces had effectively demonstrated their power to impose an interdiction on seaborne forces seeking the reinforcement of a critically important coastal base. That fact was not only of vital significance for the further development of the New Guinea campaign but it demands the respectful attention of all students of warfare itself.

   
HIT ‘EM HIGH, HIT ‘EM LOW: Direct hit by B-24.
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