In early March 1943, Japanese RADM Masatomi Kimura was tasked with carrying out Operation 81, a scratch troop convoy running from Simpson Harbour in Rabaul to Lae, New Guinea. The run was short compared to what the Allies were trying to pull off in the Atlantic or even in the Medderterrainan– just 400 miles. Just six months prior, the control of that part of the Southwestern Pacific was firmly undecided but leaned heavily to favor of the Empire. Well, things had certainly changed by the time Operation 81 got underway.
Kimura was given eight destroyers– Asashio, Arashio, Asagumo, Shikinami, Tokitsukaze, Uranami, Yukikaze, and Shirayuki— all veterans of the Tokyo Express days of running fast nighttime convoys through Guadalcanal’s Ironbottom Sound.
However, this speedy force was shackled to eight slower freighters and transports. Besides 400 Imperial marines (of the Yokosuka 5th and Maizuru 2nd Special Naval Landing Party) these vessels were filled with some 6,500 troops of the Imperial Army including LtGen. Hatazō Adachi’s 18th Army Headquarters and half of the 51st Infantry Division (115th Infantry and 14th Artillery Regiments, plus supporting units). Adachi, a battle-hardened officer much-employed in the assorted China campaigns, had been appointed commander of the 18th some three months prior, and two of the Army’s divisions, the 20th and 41st, were already in New Guinea and he hoped to arrive with his fresh 51st, also drawn from the Kwantung Army in China, then kick off a renewed effort in New Guinea.
Well, things didn’t quite turn out that way.
Obstensibly protected by air cover provided by the carrier Zuihō’s fighter group flying from land, two Army flying groups (1st and 11th Hikō Sentai), along with the Navy’s shore-based 252nd and 253rd Air Groups, Kimura’s slow-moving (seven knots!) 16-vessel convoy was quickly spotted by Royal Australian Air Force and U.S. Army Air Force aircraft on 2 March 1942 and havoc ensued.
Over the course of the next two days, five RAAF squadrons (Nos. 6, 22, 30, 75, and 100) and no less than 18 USAAF squadrons of the 35th and 49th FG, 3rd AG, 34th, 43rd, and 90th BGs, would hammer the convoy and annihilate its aircover. The mix of aircraft involved was incredible, with the Ozzies running Hudsons, Bostons (Havocs), Beaufighters, Beauforts, and Kittyhawks (P-40s) and the Americans sending P-38s, P-39s, and P-40s to sweep Zeroes and B-24s, B-25s, B-17s, and A-20s for body blows.
Watch Bismarck convoy smashed! by official war correspondent Damien Parer on 3 March 1943 [courtesy of British Pathé]. Parer filmed the action from a plane cockpit over the shoulder of Flight Lieutenant Ronald Frederick ‘Torchy ‘ Uren, DFC. This film includes shots of air attacks on ships and rafts by Beaufighters of No. 30 Squadron RAAF, the first unit to go in for the attack on the convoy.
The images released of the carnage, some garnered at mast-top level, are still chilling today even in black and white low-rez.
In the end, all eight transports were sent to the bottom along with four of Kimura’s destroyers, with the survivors turning back. While the Japanese would pull 2,734 men from the water— and return them back to Rabul rather than continue on to New Guinea– over 3,000 perished.
Allied casualties were relatively light. Some 13 RAAF and USAAF aircrew were lost in the action, along with 6 Allied aircraft.
As noted by the NHHC, ” As a result of the losses, the Japanese never again risked sending a large convoy into water that was controlled by American aircraft.”
Unleash the Mosquitos!
As a postscript to what later became known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, LCDR Barry K. Atkins on the night of 3/4 March led ten boats (77-foot Elcos PT-66, 67, and 68; and the 80-foot Elcos PT-119, 121, 128, 132, 143, 149, and 150) of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron (PTRON) 8out of Milne Bay and Tufi, New Guinea, on a mop-up operation against the flotsam over Kimura’s convoy’s watery graves.
A PT boat patrolling off New Guinea. National Archives photo 80-G-53855 from the collection of Joseph N. Myers
As described by Bulkley in “At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy”:
At 2310 the 143 and 150 saw a fire ahead, to the north. On close approach they saw it was a cargo ship, Oigawa Maru of 6,493 tons, dead in the water, with a large fire in the forward hold and a smaller fire aft. It seemed to be abandoned. At 800 yards the 143 fired a torpedo which exploded near the stern and the ship began to heel to port and settle in the water. Five minutes later the 150 fired a torpedo at 700 yards. This one exploded amidships and the ship sank, stern first, with a brilliant blaze of fire just before she went under.
The second group of boats, PT 149 (Lt. William J. Flittie, USNR), PT 66 (Lt. (jg.) William C. Quinby, USNR), PT 121 (Ens. Edward R. Bergin, Jr.,
USNR), and PT 68 (Lt. (jg.) Robert L. Childs, USNR), also saw the fire and began to approach it at slow speed. To Lieutenant Flittie, on the 149, the fire appeared as several lights on a stationary ship, and when it blazed up before taking its final plunge he thought the ship had put a searchlight on him. He fired one torpedo, the light went out immediately, and he could not find the target again.
The third group, PT 67 (Ens. James W. Emmons, USNR) and PT 128 (Ens. James W. Herring), also saw the fire. PT 128 fired two torpedoes at long range, 1,500 yards, the second at about the same time the 143 fired. Both of the 128’s torpedoes missed, but, seeing the explosion from the 143’s torpedo, the crew of the 128 thought for a time that their torpedo had hit.
After the sinking Lieutenant Commander Atkins ordered the three groups to search an area further to the west. All boats encountered heavy seas and frequent rain squalls, but found no more ships.
It was learned later that there were only two ships still afloat when the PT’s arrived in the area: the damaged cargo ship which they sank, and a destroyer which was finished off by planes the following morning.
On the 4th of March our planes returned and strafed everything afloat in Huon Gulf. Thousands of Japanese troops from the sunken transports were adrift in collapsible boats. For several days, the PT’s, too, met many of these troop-filled boats and sank them. It was an unpleasant task, but there was no alternative. If the boats were permitted to reach shore, the troops, who were armed with rifles, would constitute a serious menace to our lightly held positions along the coast.
At daylight on March 5, Jack Baylis in PT 143 and Russ Hamachek in PT 150 sighted a large submarine on the surface well out to sea, 25 miles northeast of Cape Ward Hunt. Near it were three boats: a large one with more than 100 Japanese soldiers and two smaller ones with about 20 soldiers in each. The men were survivors of the Bismarck Sea battle; the submarine was taking them aboard. Each PT fired a torpedo. The 143’s ran erratically. The 150’s ran true, but missed as the submarine crash dived. The PT’s strafed the conning tower as it submerged, then sank the three boats with machine-gun fire and depth charges.
Five days later Comdr. Geoffrey C. F. Branson, RN, Naval Officer in Charge, Milne Bay, received intelligence that a lifeboat containing 18 survivors of the battle had drifted ashore on Kiriwina, in the Trobriand Islands, 120 miles to the north of Milne Bay. The Trobriands were then a sort of no-man’s land; the Japanese held New Britain to the north, we held the New
Guinea coast to the south. The only military installation in the Trobriands was an Allied radar station on Kiriwina, which might be endangered by the new arrivals. Ens. Frank H. Dean, Jr.,12 took Commander Branson to Kiriwina in PT 114, captured the 18 Japanese, who were in a docile mood, and returned to Milne Bay the next day. One of the prisoners, who had been badly wounded a week earlier in the Bismarck Sea and almost certainly would have died had he not been captured, later sent his American-made money belt to “Skipper” Dean as a token of gratitude.
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea, a striking victory for airpower, convinced the enemy that he could no longer run surface ships from Rabaul to Lae. He never tried to again. The Fifth Air Force began operating from Dobodura, near Buna, in April, and thereafter the enemy was unable to send cargo ships or destroyers anywhere on the north coast of New Guinea east of Wewak. He could still move some supplies overland through the Ramu and Markham River Valleys, a slow and arduous undertaking, and he could operate a submarine shuttle service between Rabaul and Lae, but the great bulk of supplies had to be moved by coastal barges. The Air Force was to prevent the barges from operating by day, and the PT’s were to cut down the night traffic to such a thin trickle as literally to starve the enemy out.