Attack on HMAS Australia -- October 21st, 1944
Crash at Biak -- May 27th, 1944
By Richard L. Dunn © 2002, 2005
Part I. HMAS AustraliaThe heavy cruiser HMAS Australia is a warship that distinguished itself in combat throughout World War Two. Americans will recall that during the first year of the Pacific War it fought in the Battle of the Coral Sea as well as in the Battle of Savo Island. In the last year of the Pacific War it saw action during the return to the Philippines ( Leyte Gulf ) as well as during the invasion of Luzon ( Lingayen Gulf ) during both of which actions it was badly damaged by Japanese aircraft.
HMAS Australia and the men that fought in her are not in need of any false, exaggerated, or misstated claims to secure their place in history. This paper attempts to correct certain inaccurate statements and clarify the circumstances relating to HMAS Australia and the initiation of Kamikaze tactics.
According to the Australian War Memorial, Australia ’s Government-supported historical center:
“ 21 October 1944 – HMAS Australia damaged by Kamikaze aircraft.”
“The Japanese first used suicide attacks on warships in the Allied fleet supporting the American landings on Leyte in the Philippines .”
On October 21st, 1994 the Reuters World Service reported on a memorial service held aboard the guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane stating: “…veterans mourned the victims of the first organized attack by Japanese Kamikaze pilots.” The service was held at sea off the Philippines on “the spot where a Kamikaze plane crashed into Australia ’s bridge on a suicide mission on October 21, 1944 .”
These are but two examples of the claim that the aircraft which crashed into Australia mortally wounding her Captain and killing or injuring nearly one hundred members of her crew was a Kamikaze – part of an organized and officially ordered use of suicide tactics. This is to be distinguished from individual instances where a Japanese pilot might spontaneously choose to sacrifice himself by crashing into an enemy target (“Jibaku”) usually occasioned by his aircraft having received severe battle damage. Such instances were far from rare .
The claim that Australia ’s attacker was part of an organized Kamikaze attack – indeed the first such attack – is not new. The claim was long ago memorialized in the official histories of World War Two naval operations of both Britain and Australia .
ORGANIZED JAPANESE SUICIDE TACTICS
The term “Kamikaze” was in fact first associated with suicide tactics contemporaneously with the attack on HMAS Australia. Japanese officers who were eyewitnesses to the decision to adopt suicide tactics and who played a role in the decision and its implementation describe the organization and initial operation of the first Kamikaze attackers in detail in the book The Divine Wind .
Though seemingly quickly made, the decision to adopt suicide tactics in the Philippines was actually the product of considerable deliberation. The context for the decision was the overwhelming military superiority of the Allies and Japan ’s rapid slide toward defeat, which was plainly evident after the fall of Saipan if not long before. In the summer of 1944 the Japanese Navy was already developing two suicide weapons. The Kaiten was a small submarine (little more than a large torpedo) guided to its target by its one-man crew . Ohka was a rocket-powered airplane dropped from a bomber and flown into its target by its pilot . Both weapons contained powerful warheads and the destruction of their crew was assured. Vice-Admiral Takejiro Onishi, who as commander of the First Air Fleet in the Philippines ordered the adoption of Kamikaze tactics, was undoubtedly aware of both projects. Prior to being assigned to the Philippines he was responsible for aviation ordnance matters at Naval Headquarters and Ohka would never have been developed without his support or approval.
According to The Divine Wind, Onishi arrived in the Philippines on October 17th. Suicide tactics were approved by the 19th and first pilots selected that same day. Zero pilots of 201 Kokutai (Air Group) at Clark/Mabalacat airfield were prepared to fly Kamikaze missions beginning October 20 th . On the afternoon of the 20 th eight Zeros of the Yamato unit (Kamikaze units were given symbolic names) of the “Special Attack Corps” (later the 1st Kamikaze Special Attack Corps) were sent south to Cebu air base under Group 201’s flight commander Lt. Cdr. Tadashi Nakajima. The Cebu special attack unit was available for operations from October 21st. Shortly thereafter special attack units were formed at Davao on southern Mindanao .
The first Kamikaze mission was flown on October 21st from Cebu and included two bomb carrying Zeros in the Kamikaze role and one escorting Zero (five other Zeros had been destroyed on the ground earlier in the day). This mission took off at 1625 hours. One Kamikaze and the escort Zero later returned without sighting a target. Lt. (j.g.) Yoshiyasu Kuno failed to return from this mission. No Allied loss or damage has been associated with this mission nor did American fighters claim any victims that afternoon. Cebu sent out the second official Kamikaze mission early on October 23rd. This consisted of two Zeros . Neither returned and no Allied loss or damage can be associated with this attack.
Finally, on October 25th several Kamikaze units sortied from Mabalacat, Cebu and Davao . An American escort carrier was sunk and others damaged. This success and the resultant publicity was the occasion for a great expansion of the Kamikaze effort within Japanese naval air units. The Japanese Army air units soon followed. According to renowned Japanese aviation historian Dr. Yashuo Izawa the Army’s first organized suicide attack came on November 5th, 1944 . Type 99 (Val) dive-bombers first joined the Navy’s Kamikaze effort on October 27th .
THE ATTACK ON HMAS AUSTRALIA
The preliminary landings in Leyte Gulf began on October 17th followed by the main landings near Tacloben on Leyte Island on the 20 th. Australia was part of a force of four cruisers and six destroyers covering the landings. Two of the cruisers as well as two of the destroyers were Australian. Dawn of October 21st found these ships close to Leyte prepared to deliver fire support or cover the operations then going on offshore .
At the first light of dawn a small group of aircraft appeared out of the dark of the western sky from the direction of Leyte Island . About 0600 hours HMAS Shropshire engaged these aircraft with her anti-aircraft batteries as they flew near the ships but they were soon lost in the half-light. At 0605 lookouts on the Australia saw one of the attackers diving at an angle of ten to fifteen degrees from about 2,000 yards astern. The stern approach blocked most of Australia ’s eight barreled pom-poms. One, which broke through the safety stops, managed to get off a few rounds. A single 40mm gun and a pair of single 20 mm guns took the attacker under fire and scored hits. The aircraft, identified as a “Val”, hit the foremast with its wing root and crashed into the sea. Burning gasoline rained onto the bridge and small explosions occurred.
There is some disagreement among the accounts of observers. Some thought the attacker carried no bomb and the crash was deliberate. Others saw a bomb drop and hit close to the ship without exploding. The Captain of Shropshire said only one aircraft attacked. Most witnesses agree at least four attacked with three shot down and possibly a fourth. The consensus seemed to be that the attacker was a Val but reports of cannon fire and wing guns are at variance with this identification.
The attack on Australia took place more than twelve hours before Lt. (j.g.) Kuno took off on the first organized Kamikaze mission. This leaves the question, if Kuno did not attack Australia and it was not an organized Kamikaze mission, who attacked Australia and what was their mission?
JAPANESE AIR FORCES IN THE PHILIPPINES
Once a rear area by summer 1944 the Philippines were in the frontlines of the Pacific Air War. The Japanese Navy defended the Philippines with its First Air Fleet consisting of Air Group 201 (Zero Fighters and Suisei dive bombers), Air Group 761 (medium bombers and Tenzan carrier attack planes), and Air Group 153 (night fighters and reconnaissance planes) . The Japanese 4th Air Army (Kokugun) had lost an entire air division in the final air battles in New Guinea . It built up its strength in the Philippines primarily through the transfer of the 2ndHiko Shidan (air division) from Manchuria and Japan during summer and early autumn 1944. This division incorporated Flying Brigades (Hiko Dan ) of Type 1, Type 3 and new Type 4 fighters, Type 99 assault bombers (6th Flying Brigade or FB) and medium bombers as well as units of reconnaissance planes, twin-engine light bombers and twin-engine fighters. Some of these units moved to North Borneo or were placed under Navy control but most came to the northern or central Philippines .
These were formidable organizations on paper but training was incomplete in some cases. The 6th FB assault bombers and some of the Army medium bombers were training in the unfamiliar operations of ocean flying and anti-shipping attacks. Aircraft availability was low in a number of units. Beginning on September 1st, American land based bombers began daylight raids on the Philippines . In mid-September American carrier forces began heavy raids that were repeated throughout the month and again in October. Losses in the air and especially on the ground were extremely heavy. Radar sites were destroyed, runways disabled and logistics disrupted.
Before the American attacks started the First Air Fleet numbered some 500 aircraft of which 280 were operationally available. This included over 200 Zero fighters. After the September attacks the operational figure had shrunk to about one hundred. On October 20 th the Japanese Navy operational strength in the Philippines was a mere thirty-nine aircraft of which thirty-four were Zero fighters .
The 4th Air Army was built up to about 400 aircraft before its strength began to ebb. On October 18th its operational strength was about seventy aircraft and two days later it was even less .
Reinforcements were on the way. The Japanese Navy 2nd Air Fleet was scheduled to begin arriving on October 22nd with much of its strength of 350 aircraft to arrive by the 23rd. The remaining units of the 2nd Flying Division and other Japanese Army air units were also slated to arrive in late October. However, any attacks on October 21st had to be carried out by units already on hand.
Among the units scheduled to arrive with the 2nd Air Fleet was Attack Unit 701 equipped with Type 99 carrier bombers (D3A2) known as Val in the Allied identification system. No aircraft of this type was on strength with the 1st Air Fleet on October 21st. The Val was a navy aircraft. None was operated by the Japanese army air units in the Philippines .
THE JAPANESE ATTACK
The Japanese navy sent out some of its few available aircraft on search missions on October 21st. They found nothing until the afternoon when a task force including aircraft carriers was reported 60 miles east of Suluan Island . This resulted in the Kuno Kamikaze mission already described .
The Japanese Army was not intent on seeking an aircraft carrier striking force. The warships and transports near the invasion site were suitable targets for them. Records of the 4th Air Army report only sixteen Japanese Army air force sorties over Leyte Gulf that day. Seven were by fighters (five Type 1 fighters and two Type 3 fighters) and nine were by light bombers or assault aircraft. These latter included two missions by three and six aircraft respectively .
The attack on Australia was almost certainly carried out by army light bombers, Type 99 assault bombers (Ki 51s) of the 6th Flying Brigade (FB). Six Type 99 assault planes (Allied code name Sonia) took off from San Jose on Mindoro Island approximately 275 miles west northwest of the invasion site at Tacloben on Leyte Island . The returning planes reported that a transport ship was set on fire. Three bombers failed to return. Two were reported to have caught fire. Failing to return was 1/Lt. Dai Morita and Sgt. Teruya; W.O. Seo and Sgt. Ishikawa; and, Sgt. Itano and Ldg. Pvt. Sekizawa .
The Sonia aircraft involved in this attack bear a superficial resemblance to the Navy Val dive-bomber. Both are single-engine, low wing monoplanes with a fixed undercarriage. The fixed undercarriage was the most characteristic feature of both types. In the southwest Pacific Sonias were not infrequently misidentified as Vals. The poor visibility at the time of the attack could have aided in such a misidentification just as the Japanese might have mistaken a cruiser for a large transport ship.
The low angle attack, reported in one case as ten to fifteen degrees, seems more characteristic of an army glide bombing attack than navy dive-bombing. The Australia ’s assailant was reported to have been on fire when it hit. According to Japanese sources two of the bombers that were lost caught fire. Moreover, three Japanese bombers were lost. Australia ’s gunners claimed three aircraft.
Although the Japanese report is far from explicit, W.O. Seo was reportedly killed in his aircraft, which may distinguish him from the two aircraft said to have caught fire. If this conjecture is correct, either 1/Lt. Morita or Sgt. Itano is the pilot most likely to have crashed Australia .
On October 21st, 1944 the Japanese army and navy air forces in the Philippines had only a limited number of aircraft to strike Allied shipping. HMAS Australia was the only large Allied ship damaged that day. These circumstances simplify identifying the attacker of a specific ship compared to the frenzied events of a few days later when hundreds of aircraft attacked dozens of ships.
The post-war Japanese monograph covering these operations and the various books published since identify only one Japanese navy anti-shipping strike on the 21st. This is the Kuno Kamikaze mission which, due to timing and other factors, clearly was not the attack carried out on Australia .
Both translated unit records of the Army’s 6th FB and the post-war Japanese monograph on Japanese army air operations on this date confirm a Japanese army attack by assault planes on shipping in Leyte Gulf . This is entirely consistent with the fact that 6th FB was trained for shipping strikes. Per 4th Air Army records cited in the monograph sixteen sorties were flown against shipping in Leyte Gulf . Seven were by fighters and nine by attack bombers. The 6th FB mounted twelve sorties during the day of which nine are known to be shipping strikes. Thus these two different records tally in this regard. The 6th FB report records five losses in these two attacks. American Hellcat fighters claimed two Type 3 (Tony) fighters off southern Leyte during the morning. If these claims are accurate then along with the five bombers lost they equal the seven Japanese losses as reported by the 4th Air Army. Two of the seven fighters flying against Leyte were Tonys tending to verify the American claims .
It has been pointed out that Sonias could be mistaken for Vals. American Hellcat fighters operating over the Sibuyan Sea that morning claimed two “Nates” destroyed. The fixed landing gear Nate (Army Type 97 fighter) was another possible misidentification for Sonia. This along with Australia ’s claims brings to five the “psuedo-Sonias” claimed destroyed exactly equating to the number of 6th FB assault bombers lost in shipping strikes.
Available Japanese records strongly suggest Australia ’s attackers were Type 99 assault bombers of the 6th FB. Allied information, even misidentification of Val and Nate aircraft in the area, tend to bolster the story which the Japanese records reveal.
Having established that the 6th FB’s bombers were almost certainly Australia ’s attackers it can be said with equal certainty that these attacks were not part of an official and organized policy of suicide tactics. The 6th FB combat reports make no mention of suicide attacks. The first officially sanctioned Army suicide attacks did not take place until two weeks later. The aircraft that crashed into HMAS Australia on October 21 st either did so by accident or was an example of “Jibaku” a spontaneous suicide attack probably resulting from damage to the aircraft or injury to its pilot.
The gallant ship HMAS Australia suffered the loss of her Captain, severe casualties, and significant battle damage due to a Japanese Ki 51 assault bomber crashing into her foremast on October 21st, 1944 . That HMAS Australia was not the first Allied ship to fall victim to an organized Kamikaze attack, as has been officially and repeatedly stated, in no way diminishes her distinguished record.
Part II. First Day at Biak
The end of May 1944 was a grim time for the Japanese air forces in New Guinea . Allied forces had occupied the major Japanese air base at Hollandia a month earlier destroying the remnants of the 6th Flying Division in the process. The Japanese navy abandoned the airfield (Mokmer) it shared with the Japanese army on Biak Island early in the month. On May 26th American P-47s began operating from the recently occupied airbase at Wakde Island just 225 miles from Biak . Further American gains in western New Guinea would unhinge Japan ’s defensive perimeter and imperil the Philippines and the East Indies ( Japan ’s southern resource area).
Japanese air strength, the navy’s 23rd Air Flotilla and the army’s 7th Flying Division, were very weak. The army units (including remnants of the 6 th Flying Division) numbered only eighty operational aircraft. Less than half these were based in western New Guinea . The navy’s strength in western New Guinea (Sorong) was less than twenty aircraft including only four Zero fighters and eight Type 1 fighters of the army’s 24 th Flying Regiment attached to the 23rd Air Flotilla . On May 27th many of the Japanese aircraft in western New Guinea were engaged in convoy escort and other duties. The American landings at Biak were a tactical surprise. The small number of available attack aircraft available (seven Type 99 light bombers of the 75th Flying Regiment and five Type 1 land attack bombers of the navy’s Air Group 753) could not be hazarded in a daylight attack without a strong fighter escort. These circumstances gave rise to yet another attack allegedly initiating suicide tactics.
The Japanese authors of a post-war monograph written under directions of the occupying Allied Powers asserted: “Maj TAKATA, Commander of the 5th Air Regiment, who was at Muni [Moemi] on that day, took off for the battle and fearlessly crashed into a (sic) enemy warship in a ‘suicide’ attack. This was the first of the Tokko attacks” .
This claim has been repeated in several works. For example: “On the New Guinea front, a fighter unit of four Ki-45s sank or destroyed enemy vessels advancing along the northern coast of the island on May 27, 1944. It was the first example of the so-called suicide attacks” . More recently (2002) it was asserted: “On learning of the landings on Biak , Maj Katsuhige Takada, commander of the 5th Sentai, led five Ki 45kais fitted with bombs from Jefman to attack. All failed to return, and this was subsequently considered to have been the first suicide attack unit…” .
ACTION AT BIAK
On the morning of May 27th a fleet of several dozen ships (including HMAS Australia) arrived off Biak transporting a U.S. Infantry Division. Cruisers and destroyers bombarded the beaches followed by LSTs, LCIs and smaller vessels landing troops. Initially there was little resistance ashore and none from sea or air.
The first Japanese air attack came in the afternoon. This was a navy attack although the aircraft involved were actually eight army Type 1 fighters under naval command. A navy Suisei reconnaissance plane apparently led the army fighters to the area. The fighters strafed small craft and troops ashore and claimed damage to boats and supplies . They were taken under fire by concentrated anti-aircraft fire and it appears two or more shot down. Then P-47s of the 342nd Fighter Squadron intercepted. In all five Japanese fighters were lost. One P-47 also went down.
After the navy attack the P-47s left the area and there was no fighter cover when the next Japanese attack came. This was by “twin engine” aircraft identified as twin-engine bombers or “Helens” in some reports . These were also taken under fire by heavy anti-aircraft fire both from shore and afloat. According to S. E. Morison: “…they were brought under intense anti-aircraft fire…Two burst into flames and crashed; one, badly hit and smoking, flew close inshore, and the fourth burst into flames as it passed destroyer Sampson…The Japanese pilot made a deliberate effort to suicide crash Sampson; but antiaircraft fire clipped off part of the wing and the plane passed over the bridge and struck the water 400 yards beyond. Its wing tip hit the water about twenty yards from SC-699 and the plane catapulted into the sub chaser…” The small vessel was seriously damaged in the ensuing fire with several crew casualties. It had to be towed to a friendly port . Some reports recount fighter cover arriving only after the attack had concluded.
The air combat action report of U.S.S. Kalk (DD-611) tracks closely with Morison’s description but specifically says: “Anti-aircraft fire from the LSTs at the beachhead and shore batteries shot down two of the planes, the USS Sampson shot down a third. This plane crashed in flames alongside the SC-699…” No mention is made of an intentional crash dive. Other reports, such as that of LCI-31, seem to collapse the attack by the single-engine fighters in with the attack in which SC-699 was crashed.
A report of the shore batteries (Pacific War Board Report No. 40, 21 Aug. 1944) places the attack by “twin-engine bombers” immediately after the attack by fighters (“Zekes”). The report claims two bombers for the shore batteries, one bomber that crashed on the beach and a second that was set afire, turned 180 degrees, was hit again, and crashed into the sea.
The Japanese aircraft were all engaged in low level attacks over a heavily defended area. Some American observers apparently were under the impression that one of the attacking aircraft attempted to crash into an American destroyer and Morison’s account reflects this view. Nothing in the contemporaneous American accounts suggests that more than one attacker attempted a deliberate crash dive. Thus, even if one pilot attempted a suicide attack, the American accounts contain nothing that suggests a planned and organized suicide attack.
THE JAPANESE RECORDS SPEAK
The only Japanese army aircraft returning from the attacks on Biak on May 27th were Type 1 fighters of the 24th Flying Regiment and these were attached to the navy’s 23rd Air Flotilla. It took the headquarters of the 7th Flying Division several days to discover what had occurred on the first day of the Allied invasion of Biak .
Here as translated by Allied intelligence are the intercepted radio messages from the 7th Flying Division at Liang to higher headquarters reporting on what happened:
“5th HIKO SENTAI CHO…who took off on his own initiative upon receiving reports of the enemy landing at BIAK on the 27th, and his passenger, Sergeant Major MOTOMIYA, were forced down and were thrown clear of the plane just before it crashed. After floating around in an unconscious condition, they were rescued by natives on the western tip of BIAK and returned today. According to these men the attack was as follows:
“1. They advanced from the sky above MOKMER at 1535 at an altitude of 180 meters. The plane of the SENTAI CHO made a direct hit on a cruiser and caused it to trail black smoke, and then bombarded a destroyer. Just then the plane was hit in the motor. Subsequently, after heavily bombarding __ as it left the fray, it was pursued by 2 “P-47s.” It fought them and shot down both but the right motor (caught fire?) and it seems the squadron leader was hit again. He went into a quick dive and crashed into the sea 60 kilometers east of NOEMFOOR.
“2. KUDO’s plane was seen to have been hit at the time of the first attack. It became a ball of fire, and crashed into a cruiser. There are indications that this cruiser burned and sank.
“3. OKABE’s plane also was hit by the enemy at the same time, and, wrapped in black smoke, it crashed into a destroyer. The aforementioned ship was seen to list immediately and sank from the stern.
“4. MATSUMOTO’s plane, according to pilots of the 24th HIKO SENTAI, crashed into enemy shore installations after repeatedly and heavily bombarding enemy warships and landing units.
“5. According to the above, all the planes came to a violent end…” (7th HIKO SHIDAN Staff message # 3111, 05 June 44/2400 )
A few hours later the initial report was clarified:
“Major TAKADA, commander of the 5th HIKO SENTAI, who received a report of enemy landing on Biak Island on 27 May, attacked with ___ of 4 planes and ___ did not return. Sergeant MOTOMIYA, the gunner of the plane of the SENTAI CHO was thrown out of the plane…” (7th HIKO SHIDAN Staff message # 3127, 06 June 44/0400 )
A few days later the formal report of Major Takada’s demise was radioed to Army Headquarters in Tokyo :
“Major TAKADA KATSUHIGE (term # 46) 5th HIKO SENTAI CHO received an urgent report of the enemy landings on Biak Island on May 27th and on his own initiative he commanded an attack unit of 4 two-seater fighter planes, used to defend strategic points, and attacked enemy ships, in that vicinity. He attacked a cruiser and then a destroyer…
“The same Major was hit by the enemy and died in a suicide attack in the sea about 40 kilometers east of NOEMFOOR, but Sergeant Major MOTOMIYA, who was ___ miraculously escaped injury from this incident and returned to Manokwari on 3 June.” (7th HIKO SHIDAN Staff message # 3158, 08 June 44/2400 )
Although these messages have a few unrecovered code groups and some unclear text, they present a fairly precise view of the action from the Japanese perspective. Major Takada, who commanded a unit charged with an air defense mission, hastily organized an attack against ships. The four interceptors were loaded with bombs (likely two 50kg bombs apiece) and set off to attack a major enemy landing. The attack was pressed home through anti-aircraft fire and later fighter interception and all the Japanese aircraft failed to return. This was a truly noteworthy and heroic action. Takada was entitled to the special commendation he later received .
An attack by army fighters against a major enemy fleet was almost unprecedented as were the claims of having sunk or damaged major enemy warships. According to the Japanese account two pilots crashed into enemy ships after having been hit. Another crashed into shore installations. If this description was meant to be literally true, it must be recalled that it was recounted by the sole survivor of the mission who was himself shot down and by pilots of the 24th Flying Regiment who were under attack at the time. None of these men had time for sober observations. Moreover, official Japanese accounts often recount the loss of pilots over enemy territory by stating the pilot crashed into an enemy objective. In either case this was a memorable action that merited and received acclaim.
The Japanese messages quoted above make clear that this attack was based on Major Takada’s initiative and not on orders from higher headquarters. This alone would seem to disqualify it as an “organized suicide mission.” While we don’t know what Takada’s orders to his pilots were, there is nothing to suggest he ordered them to crash dive enemy vessels. His own actions in attempting to escape by flying west after his attacks suggest he had no intention of crash-diving himself. It hardly seems likely he ordered his unit to do so.
The sole reference to “suicide” in the 7th Flying Division reports quoted above relates to Takada’s fighter crashing into the sea far from the scene of the shipping attack. Given that Takada had left the zone where he was likely to be captured and that his gunner survived the crash and was subsequently rescued, Takada’s intent to commit suicide in this instance seems dubious. The term was probably used in an honorary manner consistent with Japanese tradition.
There is no evidence that higher headquarters nor the unit commander involved ordered pilots to use crash diving suicide tactics in the attack on American naval vessels off Biak on May 27th, 1944 . It is far from clear that any of the pilots on the mission actually attempted to crash their aircraft into enemy ships. If they did so, it was only after their aircraft had been seriously damaged. The heroic Japanese attack on American vessels off Biak was not a “Kamikaze” or “Tokko” operation. It was not any form of organized suicide attack.
PHOTO CREDITS: Type 99 assault plane photos and Type 2 two-seat fighter
photos thanks to Rod’s Warbirds (http://www.warbirdpix.com).
Warship photos, U.S. Navy and National Archives (SC photos via Splinter