Authors: John Prados
Tags: #eBook, #WWII, #PTO, #USMC, #USN, #Solomon Islands, #Guadalcanal, #Naval, #Rabaul
took position northeast of New Ireland, steaming back and forth across the equator, heading north in the daytime to avoid possible Australian air action, and south at night to attain attack position. At dawn on January 20, it flung ninety planes at Rabaul. Commander Fuchida Mitsuo, master of the Pearl Harbor attack, led the air groups. They launched from 200 miles away. There was little resistance. The base had two airfields
then. The Japanese encountered a pair of Australian aircraft attempting to flee, and Zeroes quickly destroyed them. (Australian sources maintain that eight of Squadron Leader John Lerew’s No. 24 Squadron fighters intercepted the strike, and that six of Lerew’s planes were lost, including the two mentioned by Fuchida.) Dive-bombers blew up the only ship in the harbor, a merchantman. Fuchida led the level bomber unit himself, and they demolished the only target they could find, the single coast defense gun emplacement at the entrance to Simpson Harbor. “If ever a sledge hammer had been used to crack an egg,” Fuchida later reflected, “this was the time.”
Admiral Nagumo divided his force the following day, with deckload strikes from one carrier division against Kavieng, and from the other on Lae and Salamaua in New Guinea. Once again there were no targets worth speaking of. On January 22 the planes smashed Rabaul all over. Fuchida felt the operations misguided, exposing the striking force to possible enemy attack, plus aircraft wastage, for few results. As for Seaman Kuramoto, he felt crestfallen that
had never seen an enemy.
The sailors and troops aboard the invasion flotilla bound for Rabaul were no doubt grateful for carrier air support. Their path was smoothed, for example, by destruction of the Australian coast defense battery. Carrier fighters shot down the Australian patrol plane that sighted the heavy cruiser unit slated to support the landings. A coastwatcher also reported the flotilla as it negotiated the strait between New Britain and New Ireland on January 22. The Lark Force commander, a veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front in 1917, knew the dangers of artillery bombardment and accurately surmised that Japanese strength was several times his own. Not willing to see his men slaughtered by naval gunfire, Jack Scanlan ordered them to new positions at the edge of Rabaul and the southern point of Blanche Bay. Later that day, following the second round of carrier air strikes, Scanlan realized his most vital installations were gone. With the remnants of the Australian air unit withdrawn, he gave orders to blow up remaining positions and concentrate to the west and south.
Shortly after midnight Japanese soldiers began landing in Simpson Harbor, near the town, and in Keravia Bay, under the lip of Vulcan volcano, aiming at Vunakanau airfield. The landings went without incident, illuminated by parachute flares. An Australian first saw the Japanese onshore at about 2:30 a.m. A brief firefight occurred at Keravia Bay, but the Australians
could not stop the invaders. Japanese troops quickly moved off the beaches, and with dawn their transports entered the harbor and began to disgorge equipment. JNAF aircraft swept over to strafe anything that moved. Close air support cost the
one level bomber and one dive-bomber.
Colonel Scanlan’s units were out of touch with one another except by messenger. Rumors of large Japanese forces were rife, and truck convoys were actually spotted. Bit by bit the Australians retired until Scanlan ordered a withdrawal. By midafternoon the company holding Vunakanau airfield had been driven back. Japanese reported the capture of 6,000 bombs and sixty drums of aviation gas. Rabaul town and Lakunai airfield had already fallen. Japanese losses were sixteen dead and twenty-five wounded. A desultory war of patrols took place across New Britain, until Japanese troops massacred roughly 160 Australian soldiers at Tol Plantation on February 4. Hearing of the atrocity, his supplies dwindling, Scanlan donned dress uniform and emerged from the bush to surrender his men.
One Australian company got away in good order, and scattered bands of others did too. Coastwatchers organized secret evacuations. Roughly 400 soldiers and civilians escaped New Britain. Approximately 1,050 Australian troops were taken captive and held in a camp at Rabaul through summer, when most were sent to Japan. Sadly a great many were aboard the steamer
when the American submarine
torpedoed her on July 1, 1942. Jack Scanlan survived the war, becoming a prison warden in Hobart.
Rabaul would be the big base of the
. At Truk, Admiral Inouye ordered JNAF units there, including the Yokohama Air Corps of patrol bombers, plus a formation of medium bombers and fighters. The fleet created a special base force for the Outer South Seas with 8,800 seamen, engineers, stevedores, maintenance and repair specialists, plus SNLF troops. Rear Admiral Goto Aritomo brought the four heavy ships of his Cruiser Division 6 to Simpson Harbor, where they dropped anchor on January 30. A unit of Zero fighters reached Vunakanau airfield that very day. Starting the day after Rabaul fell, the Australians bombed it every other night through early February.
Simultaneous with the Rabaul attack, another Japanese flotilla captured Kavieng. There the invasion began shortly after midnight. The assault unit
was the 2nd Maizuru SNLF. The town fell at about the time Japanese troops started landing at Rabaul. Kavieng had been held by only part of a single infantry company, which withdrew except for a few men who stayed to destroy supplies. The rest moved into the interior, circled back to the coast, and made a heroic attempt to escape to Port Moresby aboard a patched-up island steamer, the
. Their harrowing voyage deserves more attention than we can give it. Almost caught by a Japanese destroyer, they were bombed in early February while crossing the Solomon Sea some ninety miles south of Rabaul. The ship actually surrendered to aircraft, which watched them for hours until a destroyer arrived to take off the men and tow the captive vessel.
Other enclaves followed Rabaul and Kavieng. On New Ireland, the latter functioned as a satellite port. Little time had passed by January 29, when the Navy General Staff ordered the occupation of Tulagi, Lae, and Salamaua. The NGS directive instructed Fourth Fleet “to invade strategic points in the Solomon Islands and the eastern part of New Guinea in order to cut communications between these areas and the Australian mainland and to neutralize the waters north of Eastern Australia.”
The next Japanese enclave became Gasmata on the southern coast of New Britain. A coastwatcher there, P. Daymond, had alerted Port Moresby to the first air raid against it from Rabaul. The Japanese discovered him when Australian commercial radio broadcast news that the strike had been seen over Gasmata. The Japanese promptly bombed and strafed. Daymond got away before the enemy invasion ships arrived on February 9. SNLF troops landed with the 4th Engineer Unit, which began that indispensable element of warfare in the South Pacific, an airstrip.
Japan’s outposts were soon disturbed. The Allies struck at the Outer South Seas bases. On February 20, an American carrier unit, Vice Admiral Wilson E. Brown’s Task Force 11 with the
, attempted a carrier raid on Rabaul. The fleet was nearing its intended launch position that morning when a JNAF plane appeared on radar just thirty-five miles away. The
launched fighters and caught that snooper, then another, but a third search plane escaped. That afternoon two bomber formations led by Lieutenant Commander Ito Takuzo streaked toward Brown’s task force, which dispatched combat air patrols to intercept them. With most of the ship’s fighters engaging the first wave, a second was detected, and just two fighters
were positioned to oppose it. Pilot Edward H. (“Butch”) O’Hare became the sole interceptor when his wingman’s guns jammed. Butch O’Hare pressed his attacks and shot down two Japanese aircraft, damaging a third so badly it crashed. O’Hare had also been in on the fight that morning, making his score five planes. Butch O’Hare became America’s first Pacific war ace. In all, thirteen of seventeen JNAF bombers and three flying boats were destroyed (by Japanese sources), against the loss of two U.S. planes. Lieutenant Noel Gayler, a future U.S. Pacific commander and head of the National Security Agency, was saved when a Japanese bullet failed to penetrate his windshield. Admiral Brown, surprise lost, broke off. Starting a few days later, B-17 bombers hit Rabaul in the first strike of what became a sporadic aerial campaign.
Still the Americans were not done. Brown recommended fresh efforts. At Pearl Harbor, U.S. Pacific commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz agreed and sent Task Force 17, led by Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, to join Brown, with orders to attack in the Solomons–New Guinea region. The combined force was headed there when the Japanese executed their next landing, on the north coast of New Guinea, capturing Lae and Salamaua from weak Australian units on March 8. These towns became the American targets, with a strike of 104 aircraft against them. The warplanes had difficulty climbing high enough to cross the Owen Stanley mountain range, but managed that feat and found the Imperial Navy in their sights. A fierce battle ensued. U.S. intelligence initially exaggerated the results, including two heavy cruisers among assorted other victims. But Japanese losses were serious enough: four merchant vessels blasted, plus damage to light cruiser
, the seaplane tender
, and light damage to three destroyers and other merchantmen. Pilot Nemoto Kumesaka of the
recorded this as “our biggest loss since the beginning of the war.” Captain Ban Masami’s
had to repair at Truk, out of action for a month.
Japan’s landings on New Guinea completed the agreed Outer South Seas offensive so far as the Japanese Army was concerned. Despite U.S. air attacks, General Horii Tomitaro’s South Seas Detachment regrouped at Rabaul, replaced on New Guinea by naval troops. But the Imperial Navy continued eyeing the Solomons, and began raids on Port Moresby. By mid-March it had moved a detachment of Zero fighters forward to Lae,
where they flew counterair missions against Moresby. A unit of Type 1, or “Betty,” bombers followed. Lae also functioned as a recovery station for bombers damaged in the Moresby raids. On April 1 there were nearly a dozen Japanese aircraft at Lae—but ten more under repair. That day there were only twenty-four planes at Rabaul, all of them at Vunakanau field. JNAF aircraft photographed Port Moresby and, in the Solomons, the island of Bougainville.
Allied air reconnaissance detected construction at Rabaul as early as March 9. At the end of that month the headquarters of Rear Admiral Yamada Sadatoshi’s 25th Air Flotilla arrived to take closer control of the several JNAF air groups now flying from Rabaul. Conditions were primitive. Only improvised officers’ clubs served the Japanese cadres. One of the several volcanoes surrounding the town had erupted in 1937, and others were semiactive. Rabaul was subject to debilitating vapors and rains of volcanic dust, especially in summer. Ash from Vulcan volcano mountain eroded aircraft fuselages at Vunakanau, and fumes from Tavurvur ate away at fabric wing surfaces at Lakunai, major headaches. Vunakanau had fifteen fighters and nine medium bombers. At Lakunai field on April 10 there were six Zero fighters but twenty-four under repair. A couple of days later an equal number landed from the aviation ship
They had to be modified for tropical service. Yamada also lacked crews, especially after the one-sided fight with the
The JNAF often maintained only a one-to-one ratio of crews to aircraft, low by the standards of many air forces, and tropical diseases took a toll as great as enemy action. More than a dozen fresh crews were called up from Japan and the East Indies to make up shortages. One section of the flotilla’s bomber group was still training in Japan and had to be called to the front.
The fifty-year-old Admiral Yamada had never faced anything like this. He had been a flier for half his life and had skippered two aircraft carriers. In fact, Yamada was the only aviator of flag rank in the Imperial Navy. Not just the aviation headaches, but the South Pacific climate and New Britain volcanoes posed challenges. If not on the bridge of a flattop, Yamada would have been more comfortable on the streets of Paris, where he had been a naval attaché, or Tokyo, where he had served with NGS. A resourceful officer, Yamada devised ways to protect aircraft from the elements. The admiral began pressing for new fields farther from the volcanoes. Unfortunately
surveyors did a poor job selecting the first site, Kerevat, where construction began in June. When completed, its drainage was so bad the field could not initially be used. Allied air attacks were rated as “probable” by the 25th Air Flotilla war diary for this period. As raids picked up, Yamada ordered revetments camouflaged. He established new patrol patterns for scout planes to warn of task forces, searching 600 miles out on several vectors from Rabaul and two from Lae.
On April 16 the last elements of Yamada’s fighter group
arrived aboard the
, sunk by an Allied air raid before she could clear the harbor. Master pilot Sakai Saburo arrived on that ship. The tropical heat had Sakai believing
a stinking old tub, whereas in reality she had been built in 1933. Sakai had made his reputation as a combat ace over the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies.
“Sea eagles” like Sakai filled the ranks of the air flotilla, for the JNAF pilots of this time, if not numerous, were certainly expert. More planes of the bomber group flew in a week later. The last bombers appeared on the first of May. Also arriving in Rabaul at this time were a number of geisha, as well as Korean “comfort women,” whose misery at the front would be enormous. Some accounts put their number at Rabaul in the thousands, but this seems excessive, at least in the spring of 1942, since such a number would nearly have equaled the total of naval and military personnel.
Meanwhile on Bougainville, excepting the few hardy men and women
who decided to take their chances, white civilians had been evacuated in late December. Coastwatchers kept up their reporting. The Japanese looked for the watchers to neutralize them. Several air searches came from Rabaul. On March 6, two Imperial Navy cruisers stopped at a cove to put a patrol ashore. The SNLF found nothing but the whites at a nearby plantation, whom they put on parole. Naval infantry occupied points on Bougainville at the end of March. On Buka, off the main island, there was a 1,400-foot airstrip guarded by two dozen Australian commandos from the unit that had held Kavieng, under Lieutenant John H. Mackie. With no chance against Japanese Marines backed by their fleet, the Australians withdrew. In residence on Sohana, a tiny island in Buka Passage, was coastwatcher Jack Read, who concerted with Mackie to take to the bush and set up a post for his teleradio, the coastwatcher’s most vital equipment.