Rabaul, long the strategic focal point
of Allied operations in both the SWPA and SoPac, was no longer a
target of invasion. It was sufficient that Rabaul be neutralized
by air power and by-passed. Instead, Cape Gloucester was to be invaded
and western New Britain occupied. The aim was to secure Vitiaz Straight
as well as provide an air base for future operations against New
Ireland, the Admiralties, and adjacent islands. Prior to the main
landing at Cape Gloucester a smaller operation was to be mounted
at Arawe (Cape Merkus in Japanese parlance though they sometimes
referred to Arawe I. specifically) on New Britain’s south
coast. This would act as a diversion from the main landing and also
facilitate Allied efforts to eject the Japanese from both the north
and south coasts of New Britain.
In the pre-dawn hours of December 15th, 1943, Lt. Chohei Nishiyama
of 958 Ku sighted the invasion fleet approaching Arawe. At dawn
he radioed a report with specific details from his Type Zero reconnaissance
seaplane (E13A). Two large transports, two destroyer transports,
and a variety of landing craft arrived off-shore before dawn and
commenced landing about 1,700 U.S. Army troops of a force that would
eventually exceed 4,000. There were about 400 Japanese troops in
the immediate area. Supporting the landing were five fire support
destroyers as well as covering and screening forces made up of two
cruisers, two destroyers and PT boats. Nishiyama’s sighting
was reported in an intercepted message (his name corrupted to Niradaru)
that characterized this “as an act of noteworthy merit.”
This was high praise in a Japanese official communication.
At Rabaul the Japanese lost no time in assembling a striking force
that consisted eight Type 99 dive bombers of 582 Ku covered by fifty-six
Zeros led by Lt. (j.g.) Toshio Oba of 201 Ku (some of the Zeros
apparently carried bombs). The Japanese army at Wewak was slower
to react because it had to bring bombers into Wewak from rear area
bases before attacking. They prepared an attack force made up of
eleven Type 100 heavy bombers of the 9th FB escorted by twenty-two
Type 1 fighters (59th and 248th FR)
and twenty-two Type 3 fighters (68th and 78th FR).
A resume of the day’s fighter activities from the American
perspective is given in the figure below. With the exception of
the 341st and 342nd FS at Finschhafen all the American fighters
were based on airfields in the Dobodura airfield complex near Buna.
All missions are fighter cover at Arawe unless noted. In addition
to U.S. fighters, RAAF fighters also flew patrols over Arawe. Kittyhawks
of No. 76 Squadron were on dawn patrol and left the area only minutes
before the Japanese attack.
FIGURE 6: FIGHTER COVER/PATROLS, ARAWE, 15th DECEMBER 1943
||Rcn. Arawe, Open Bay, Wide Bay
Sighted 12 ZEKES, 10 BETTYS, 20 OSCARS. At 0845, 1 flight attacked
by about 12 ZEKES; P-38s avoided combat
||Patrol north coast & E. New Britain
||Scramble to convoy, no sightings
||Destroyed 1 ZEKE (TOJO?) 1115
||Patrol til 1420 then escort bombers to Cape Gloucester
|| No sightings
||W. New Britain, patrol incomplete
||Fight with 30 ZEKES, 12 BETTYS and SALLYS
Between 0800 and 0820 agents of the Allied Intelligence Bureau
(A.I.B.) radioed in sightings of the Japanese formation from four
different locations. From their reports it appears that the Japanese
proceeded along the north coast of New Britain as far as Cape Hoskins.
They were apparently flying in two formations. In accordance with
established doctrine, most likely these were one formation of the
bombers and their close escort and another formation of fighters
only (“air annihilation” unit).
A.I.B. operatives had been in eastern New Britain for several
months reporting on Japanese aircraft and submarine movements. More
recently a team of A.I.B. agents had landed in western New Britain
to scout the area prior to the Arawe and Cape Gloucester landings.
The team was led by Andrew Kirkwall-Smith, the same man that had
reported the Japanese landing at Cape Gloucester a year earlier.
Destroyer Reid picked up the approaching Japanese formation on
radar at a range of 59 miles. The Japanese had crossed New Britain
and were then off the south coast roughly half way between Gasmata
and Arawe. Less than ten minutes later destroyer Shaw vectored fighters
toward the enemy then only 34 miles away. There were twelve P-38Hs
on patrol over the beachhead with several other P-38 flights in
the general area, six P-47Ds en route from Finschhafen and eight
more P-38s scrambled from Dobodura.
A little before 0900 P-38s of the 431st FS reported ten BETTY
bombers escorted by twenty OSCAR fighters approaching from the west.
This formation was not engaged and there is no record of it having
made an attack. Just what the Lightning pilots saw is unclear because
no BETTY bombers of the 11th Air Fleet were in action that day and
the HELENS of the Japanese army air service did not arrive in the
area until several hours later. It seems possible they sighted a
squadron of B-25s in the area to provide on-call ground support
and also sighted part of the Zero escort. One of the squadron’s
flights was attacked by a dozen Zeros at 25,000 feet north of the
beachhead and finding itself in a disadvantageous position avoided
combat with no losses on either side.
In the meantime the dive-bombers and some of the Zeros bombed
and strafed the beachhead opposed only by anti-aircraft fire. After
a few minutes of this, the nearby destroyers were sighted and attacked.
Conyngham received three near misses that caused no damage. The
only aerial opposition to this attack came from a B-25 of the 501st
BS that claimed damage to a withdrawing VAL.
The Japanese aircraft then returned to Rabaul less one Zero and
two of the dive-bombers. At Arawe one LCVP had been destroyed, several
other landing craft damaged, and a few personnel casualties inflicted.
After this “brilliant initial attack” (according to
one Japanese report) a follow-up attack was cancelled because of
Intercepted radio traffic gives some insight into the state of
affairs at Tuluvu on this day. At 0740 the 6th Air Attack Force
at Rabaul radioed Tuluvu to advise that attacks on Arawe are being
scheduled and inquiring into the state of the runway. At 1635 Tuluvu
reported to Rabaul that due to a noontime heavy bombing the runway
is damaged and cannot be used by large type aircraft but about 1000
meters is available for small aircraft. Repairs were expected to
be completed by the 16th. It appears the raid mentioned disrupted
communications at Tuluvu for a time because at the same time Tuluvu
was sending its message the Cape Gloucester lookout station was
advising Rabaul that it was unable to communicate with the airbase.
Rabaul sent a message advising that fighter pilot Petty Officer
2/C Hiroshi Gakube became lost in the vicinity of Cape Gloucester
returning from the Cape Merkus attack and requested that search
and rescue measures be taken. Gakube may have been flying the “possible
TOJO” claimed by P-47s of the 342nd FS at 1115 hours (the
“TOJO” appeared to be carrying under wing bombs and
a belly tank when it was attacked). Later Rabaul advised that two
missing carrier bombers were believed not to have been shot down
but landed on New Britain and again requested search and rescue.
Finally, at 1810 Tuluvu airbase sent this message: “Report
from Army reconnaissance plane at this base to the effect that the
enemy was in the process of landing Cape Merkus 1635. Force consisted
of 5 destroyers, 4 transports, and some 20 large landing barges.”
The “Army reconnaissance plane” mentioned in the last
message was in fact a Type 99 assault bomber (No. 959) flown by
2Lt. Tsutomu Nishida and Sgt. Maj. Kobayashi. They took off at 1610
and flew nearly a direct course for Arawe over New Britain’s
central mountains, made their observations in rain showers, and
returned to Tuluvu safely after a forty-minute flight.
The final aerial drama of the day occurred over Vitiaz Straight
where the long delayed army attack mission finally arrived and was
unable to find its way to Arawe through the murky weather. The army
formation was intercepted by a flight of P-38s and engaged in a
series of inconclusive combats with neither side suffering loss.
The Japanese bombed a target of opportunity, boats in Langemack
Bay near Finschhafen, before returning to Wewak.
On the morning of the 16th the Japanese were again over Arawe.
This time with seven dive-bombers and fifty-six Zeros. Two chutai
of the latter, probably sixteen aircraft, also carried bombs. There
was no interception. Again, one Zero and two dive-bombers failed
In the early afternoon of the 16th the Japanese army made its
second attempt to attack the beachhead. This time operations orders
called for seven Type 100 heavy bombers of the 9th FB’s two
regiments (7th and 61st FR) to be escorted by the same fighter units
as on the previous day. Capt. Shigeo Fukuda of 7th FR led the bombers.
Sixteen Type 1 fighters covered them as their close escort and eighteen
Type 3 fighters flew top cover. Apparently only six bombers got
to New Britain. They encountered a total of 25 P-38Hs of the 431st
and 432nd FS. East of Umboi Island at about 13,000 feet the bombers
started to climb and were at about 20,000 feet when a flight of
four P-38s from the 432nd (the squadron was escorting B-24s to bomb
Gloucester but one flight was sent to investigate the aircraft encountered
en route) jumped their escorting fighters. Combat ranged south over
western New Britain within sight of Tuluvu whose airfield had been
listed on the operations orders of the Japanese units as available
for emergency landings. After several diving passes by the P-38s
additional Lightnings of the 431st joined the fray. All of the bombers
failed to return and not a bomb was dropped on the beachhead. One
of the missing bombers landed at Tuluvu. American aircrews sighted
a twin-engine bomber there on the 17th and on the 18th what was
undoubtedly the same aircraft was identified as a damaged HELEN.
The Americans claimed seven bombers but identified them as BETTYS.
Five Japanese fighters also failed to return that day. The Americans
claimed a TONY and a ZEKE destroyed. Ace Capt. Thomas B. McGuire
of the 431st FS claimed a ZEKE damaged and two pilots of the 432nd
FS claimed two ZEROS damaged near Cape Gloucester.
Nine Type 1 model 2 fighters of the 248th FR were part of this
escort. Led by Maj. Shinichi Muraoka, the regiment was assigned
as close escort on the right flank of the bomber formation. In combat
with the P-38s the 248th claimed three destroyed but suffered three
aircraft missing. 1Lt. Hisomatsu Ejiri and 1Lt. Shoji Fueki of the
2nd chutai were never found but Sgt. Maj. Yasuo Saito of the 3rd
chutai landed his Hayabusa (No. 5951) at Gavuvu east of Tuluvu.
He returned to Wewak two days later flying his fighter.
Assuming, as seems quite possible, that Saito was one of the damage
claims near Cape Gloucester, it appears that the other two claims
for damage were in fact a victories. Possibly McGuire and one of
the two 432nd pilots actually scored kills rather than a damaged
albeit over an OSCAR instead of a ZEKE or ZERO.
At the end of the afternoon the navy mounted a second strike from
Rabaul. This involved but a single dive-bomber and fifty-four Zeros
that claimed to sink or damage several landing barges as well as
shoot down five enemy fighters. Three Zeros failed to return. Fifteen
P-47Ds of the 342nd FS reported intercepting twelve to fifteen Zeros
at 7,000 feet and claimed four ZEKES and a KATE destroyed without
The Japanese Navy version of these actions was recorded in a citation
awarded by the Commander-in-Chief, Combined Fleet long after the
events:” Citation was awarded to the 201 Naval Air Unit Fighter
Plane Unit which was under the command of Lt (jg) OBA, for the setting
ablaze of one enemy cruiser, the sinking of three transports and
approximately 50 landing barges and the shooting down of five interceptor
planes at Merkus Cape on 15-16 Dec 1943.”
That Lt. (j.g.) Oba, a relatively inexperienced pilot, should lead
such a large attack group is testimony to the casualties being suffered
in the tough air fighting going on around Rabaul at this time. Oba,
who graduated from pilot training in February 1943, was the only
surviving flight buntaicho (division commander) in 201 Ku. A more
likely leader would have been the unit’s most successful pilot
Warrant Officer Tetsuzo Iwamoto but Japanese navy protocol demanded
a unit commander lead. Besides this Iwamoto was ill with fever from
malaria and dengue fever and unable to fly at this time. Oba was
shot down and killed in air combat over Rabaul a week later. In
post-war comments Iwamoto assessed the ability of 201 Ku’s
senior Lieutenant (j.g.) as “trivial.”
Beginning on the night of the 16th-17th the 5th Air Attack Force
began a series of night raids targeting Arawe. On this and several
succeeding nights raids were mounted by carrier attack bombers of
582 Ku (including one of the new Tenzan attack bombers), carrier
attack bombers temporarily detached from Zuikaku, and land attack
bombers of 751 Ku (702 Ku had been dissolved as of December 1st
and its remaining G4M1s and aircrews transferred to 751). The heaviest
of these raids came in the early hours of December 22nd when ten
Type 1 land attack planes and three Type 97 carrier attack planes
bombed the area claiming to have caused an explosion and several
fires. These attacks did no damage to shipping but caused minor
damage and casualties ashore.
The 17th found the regular strike from Rabaul arriving in the
morning – twelve dive-bombers and fifty-five Zeros. Intercepting
fighters, P-47Ds from the 348th and 58th FG, claimed eight VALS
and two OSCARS. Three dive-bombers and a single Zero were listed
as missing. This was the most successful Japanese attack to date.
The small (100 ton) coastal transport APc-21 received a direct hit
and a near miss and sank. Small (207 tons) minesweeper YMS-50 was
damaged by a near miss and four LCTs (285 tons) received serious
There was no afternoon strike from Rabaul because December 17th
marked the first attack on Rabaul mounted by SoPac fighters. It
was the beginning of a series of air raids that was to result in
almost daily air battles over Rabaul for two full months. Flying
from newly acquired air bases on Bouganville island in the northern
Solomons American and New Zealand fighters could mount fighter sweeps
and fly bomber escort directly to the principal Japanese base in
the Southeast Area.
With no heavy bombers immediately available and apparently reticent
to commit Type 99 light bombers to such a heavily defended target
the 4th Air Army launched only a fighter strike and a reconnaissance
mission on the 17th. Thunderbolts claimed a DINAH over Arawe. This
aircraft came from Wewak and was reported missing by the Japanese.
Tuluvu was the designated post-strike assembly area for the fighter
mission. The fighters apparently carried out brief strafing attacks
at Arawe without encountering American fighters. Some of the army
fighters landed at Tuluvu after the attack. In the late afternoon
sixteen P-38s ended their patrol at Arawe by sweeping over Tuluvu
before returning to base. At Tuluvu they sighted a TONY and a ZEKE
taxiing. Waiting for the Japanese aircraft to take-off Capt. Kenneth
G. Ladd of the 80th FS swooped down and shot down the ZEKE 500 feet
over the airfield. 2Lt. Masanao Masuzawa of the 59th FR died in
the crash of his Type 1 fighter. Allied photographic reconnaissance
sighted a twin-engine bomber on the field in addition to the two
fighters. It is interesting to note that after many weeks of intense
bombing and a year to the day after the Japanese landed at Tuluvu
the airfield was still in use. The following day B-24s of the 90th
BG cratered the field with 198 thousand pound bombs.
On the 18th the 433rd FS ran into the Japanese army fighter sweep
between Tuluvu and Arawe. After initiating the bounce on one Japanese
formation the P-38s found themselves under attack from a second.
Forced on to the defensive and outmaneuvered by Japanese pilots
that were reported to be skillful, two P-38s collided and one was
lost. A second was shot down before they broke off the engagement.
Three P-38 pilots made claims but no Japanese aircraft were lost.
On the same day Tuluvu was bombed by 25 B-24s, 57 B-25s and 12
B-26s. The 26th FR suffered no damage on this occasion but the runway
was now well cratered with little hope of repair in the near term.
Flight operations were suspended.
Ironically, the highest number of apparently serviceable aircraft
ever observed at Tuluvu by the Allies came as late as December 18th.
Five twin-engine bombers were observed at three different locations
on or adjacent to the runway. Two “silver” bombers were
reported on opposite ends of the runway and three green aircraft
near the east end of the runway close to the dispersal lanes. Six
or more unidentified fighters were spotted in a wooded area north
of the west end of the runway. The identity of these aircraft from
Japanese sources has not been verified. The green “bombers”
may have been Type 1 land attack planes flown as transports. Plans
for the flight of such aircraft about this time are known. One of
the “silver” bombers may have been the damaged HELEN
identified later (not silver at all but with its light gray finish
over-sprayed with variegated green appearing much lighter and possibly
reflecting light in contrast to the dark green bombers). The other
aircraft may also have been an army aircraft. The unidentified “fighters”
undoubtedly include army Type 99 single-engine assault bombers.
Camouflage of branches and foliage and their location among trees
probably contributed to the unidentified nature of these aircraft.
With the runway at Tuluvu out of action, it appears the 26th FR’s
2nd chutai was called upon to fill the gap in the Vitiaz patrol.
Seven P-39s of the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron flying a patrol
of the New Guinea coast in the late afternoon encountered a single-engine
bomber flying at low level near Lepisius Point on the upper reaches
of Vitiaz Straight. The P-39s attacked and Lt. Delta C. Graham fired
the fatal shots reporting that a wing came off and the bomber crashed
into the sea. Graham received credit for the destruction of a VAL,
his squadron’s first aerial victory.
Weather washed out Arawe attacks on the 19th and nearly so on
the 20th. Thirteen P-47s reported encountering some dive-bombers
and fighters under low clouds with neither side suffering any damage.
There is no record of this raid available from the Japanese side.
A P-47 did claim a DINAH near Cape Gloucester.
On the 20th Capt. Takano flew his Type 99 assault plane from Tuluvu
to Wewak using a dispersal track for a runway. 2Lt. Nishida and
ten enlisted men from the 26th were left to make their way to Wewak
by boat via Rabaul. Earlier that day a bombing attack had severely
damaged two of the 3rd chutai’s aircraft. The Takano detachment
did not lose a man during its stay at Tuluvu and only one enlisted
man had been wounded.
December 21st brought Arawe its heaviest day of raids. The Japanese
navy contributed two massive attacks and claimed several ships sunk,
others damaged and four planes shot down. The Japanese army struck
with such forces as it could muster. These attacks did inflict some
damage on land. At sea the navy’s morning attack damaged a
small transport (APc-2) operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. She later
sank. In the afternoon LCT-171 was damaged by bomb shrapnel. There
were a few casualties but little other damage.
The first action of the day brought an unusual encounter as two
RAAF Spitfires of 79 Squadron flew a long-range interception from
Kiriwina and claimed a TONY destroyed off the south coast of New
Britain. The intruder had been tracked from the general direction
of Rabaul and was almost certainly a navy reconnaissance plane from
that base but details are lacking. RAAF strike aircraft had been
active over central New Britain for many weeks but this was the
only instance of air combat for the Australians.
The Japanese navy’s morning raid (1000 hours Tokyo time,
noon by Allied reckoning) was mounted by no less than 64 Zeros and
29 dive-bombers. The opposition to this raid, fourteen P-38s of
the 432nd FS, reported encountering only about ten VALS and fifteen
ZEKES and OSCARS. This was clearly only part of the attack force
and most of the bombers must have gotten through without aerial
opposition. The ships sent up anti-aircraft fire that may have accounted
for some of the four bombers and one Zero that failed to return.
The Lightnings claimed eight VALS and two fighters (a ZEKE and an
The 6th FD’s attack came in the form of eight Type 99 twin-engine
light bombers of 208th FR escorted by twelve Hayabusas of 59th and
248th FR and eight Hiens of 68th FR. Four P-47Ds of the 340th FS
reported encountering twenty TONYS and HAMPS covering 10-12 NELLS
at 5,000 feet over the interior of New Britain between Arawe and
Cape Gloucester. In the combat that followed the Thunderbolt pilots
claimed two victories over HAMPS. The Japanese did indeed lose two
fighters but in-line engine Type 3 fighters – TONYS –
not the radial engine Hayabusas that could be easily mistaken for
HAMPS. One 59th FR pilot claimed a Thunderbolt destroyed. One P-47
was damaged but returned to base.
During this fight Capt. Shogo Takeuchi commander of the 2nd chutai
of 68th FR chased a Thunderbolt off the tail of his regimental commander
Maj. Kiyoshi Kimura but his own aircraft was damaged. Takeuchi returned
all the way to Hansa Bay airfield only to have his engine seize
while approaching for a landing. His Ki 61 ran into trees, overturned
and Takeuchi suffered fatal injuries in the crumpled wreckage. So
died the man who was probably the most successful Hien ace in New
At about the same time the army raid approached Arawe from Wewak
the second navy attack was approaching from Rabaul. It was another
big one, 64 Zeros and 16 dive-bombers. Seven Thunderbolts of the
342nd FS reported encountering about twenty VALS and claimed eight
destroyed and others probably destroyed and damaged. A ZEKE was
claimed as a probable. Five dive-bombers were in fact shot down.
A single Thunderbolt was shot down.
Fighter direction at Arawe was less than perfect on this day as
on other occasions. There were American fighters that were misdirected
and failed to engage or engaged only after the Japanese had dropped
their bombs. One pilot’s report stated phony directions were
received on the fighters’ frequency by an enemy speaking perfect
English. This report was apparently taken seriously in some histories
but seems actually to have been a facetious example of fighter pilot
sardonic humor. Those who have spent any amount of time among fighter
pilots will not find such an interpretation difficult to credit.
On the other hand, it seems clear that the Japanese went to some
effort to disguise their approach routes utilizing terrain, sending
part of the escort as a diversionary force and probably also using
metal coated paper strips (“window”) as a radar counter-measure.
Arawe’s moment in the world’s headlines was rapidly
coming to a close but not quite over. On the morning of December
26th Tuluvu was invaded but the Japanese strike force from Rabaul
was directed to Arawe. APc-15 and an LCT were damaged. Allied fighter
cover was concentrated at Cape Gloucester. On the following morning
Tuluvu was the intended target but the Japanese could not make an
undetected approach and diverted to Arawe. Thirty-eight Zeros and
fifteen dive-bombers found only PT boats and other small craft.
A bomb that did not explode punctured PT-138. Bombs fell near the
other PT-boats but none was damaged and PT gunners claimed four
VALS. After this sixteen P-47Ds of the 340th FS intercepted the
low flying Japanese and claimed eight VALS, seven ZEKES and a TONY.
P-40Ns of the 35th FS got into this action and claimed three ZEKES
destroyed. The Thunderbolts of the 341st FS assigned to the Cape
Gloucester patrol also got a piece of the action and claimed ten
ZEKES and two OSCARS.
The official Japanese report claimed the sinking of two special
transports and two torpedo boats and the destruction of 18 planes
(including four probables) for the loss of seven planes. Two P-47s
The landings at Arawe had been a relatively small affair compared
to what was to befall Cape Gloucester. Arawe did have the desired
effect. Parts of the Japanese 141st IR were drawn from the western
tip of New Britain to counter-attack at Arawe. The 17th Division
was now the highest Japanese command in western New Britain but
its headquarters were far to the east near Talasea. The 65th Brigade
and 4th Shipping Group would be on hand to oppose the landing of
some 13,000 Marines of the 1st Marine Division back in action for
the first time since Guadalcanal. The invasion fleet transporting
the marines consisted of 4 cruisers, 13 destroyers, ten large transports,
and dozens of lesser vessels.
As the invasion fleet approached New Britain on the 25th/26th
December the first Japanese air moves were miscues. During the night
a land attack bomber sent out to attack a task force east of Rabaul
became badly lost returning to Rabaul and ended up crash landing
just hours before the invasion. The approach of the invasion force
had been detected by army reconnaissance early on the 25th. Its
exact destination was not known but a navy alert message notified
Tuluvu and other locations in western New Britain that they were
potential invasion sites. Three carrier attack planes of 582 Ku
were sent late on the 25th to search out and attack any enemy ships
near Tuluvu. They found no ships and instead bombed Arawe with unobserved
results. One plane failed to return.
The morning strike from Rabaul was apparently sent to counter
this threat but was to attack Arawe if the exact location of the
invasion convoy could not be determined. News of the invasion reached
Rabaul that morning but apparently too late to direct the attack
force to Tuluvu. In any event, 25 dive-bombers and 63 Zeros attacked
Arawe that morning. They met no aerial opposition but also found
While the Japanese attack was misdirected, fourteen squadrons
of American light, medium and heavy bombers joined the warships
in pounding the invasion beaches and nearby areas. American fighters
patrolled overhead. The misdirected Japanese force returned to Rabaul
where it was hastily refueled and rearmed. Weary but determined
aircrews soon set off to attack the invaders of Tuluvu.
On their way to Tuluvu ground radio teams of the Allied Intelligence
Bureau (A.I.B.) first sighted the Japanese. They were then picked
up on radar. Thirty-three P-38s, sixteen P-47Ds, and sixteen P-40Ns
were on patrol as they closed in on Tuluvu. One squadron of P-38s
(80th FS) was sent north to intercept; a second (431st) was vectored
east to another plot. The P-40s (35th FS) patrolled over the destroyers
offshore and the P-47s (36th FS) orbited over the invasion beaches
a few miles east of Tuluvu airfield. The Japanese approached from
Dive-bombers attacked the beaches just as B-25s from the 345th
BG arrived to carry out ground support attacks. Some of the B-25s
swerved and fired on the VALS with their heavy battery of nose guns.
Some of their fire may have fallen among the LCIs and disembarking
Marines. American ground gunners took both American and Japanese
bombers under fire. The American airmen reported receiving “withering”
friendly ground fire. B-25 gunners fired on Japanese dive-bombers
and some of the harassed Mitchell bombers may have dropped bombs
on friendly troops. One B-25 plunged in flames into the sea close
to the landing beach. Another badly damaged bomber limped to a crash
landing farther away. This bomber carried Lt. Col. Clinton U. True,
commander of the 345th. True and other members of the crew were
injured but after many harrowing hours in Borgen Bay landed through
heavy surf and were rescued by Marines. True and his crew were evacuated
by LST. Three months later True returned to action and flew several
additional missions before being transferred to the U.S. In the
interim he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for leading
an attack on Rabaul in October 1943 despite the fact that his fighter
escort turned back (True reported he had not heard the re-call order).
B-25s of a second squadron following the first formation were
also taken under fire but at least had the satisfaction of seeing
two VALS fall to ground gunners.
American fighters converged on the scene of chaos to begin their
work of execution and air combats broke out over a wide area. Principal
damage inflicted at this stage of the attack was fragment damage
to two LSTs caused by near misses and concussion damage to at least
After the initial attacks the main Japanese formation sighted
the warships of the convoy escort and directed their effort there.
The commander, U.S. Destroyer Squadron 5, reported sighting 21 VALS
with fighter escort approaching his ships (other observers estimated
there were 15-20 dive bombers in the attack). The dive-bombers were
clearly under attack by U.S. fighters and two aircraft were seen
to be hit and burn before several peeled off to attack the destroyers.
The destroyers rang up high-speed and maneuvered radically but
several dive-bombers pressed home their attacks despite heavy anti-aircraft
fire. Brownson was sunk with the loss of 108 lives. Shaw was badly
hit and for a time barely able to stay afloat. Thirty men were killed
Mugford suffered considerable damage from a near miss and Lamson
was damaged to a lesser extent. The fifth destroyer attacked, Hutchins
was not damaged. Eleven or twelve dive-bombers were believed to
have attacked the destroyers and of these three were claimed certainly
destroyed by anti-aircraft fire and two others were probably destroyed.
The four American fighter squadrons involved in this action claimed
forty-three sure kills (19 VALS and 24 fighters). The 499th BS claimed
a VAL and the 501st BS claimed another as a probable. Ground gunners
also claimed two VALS in addition to the three claimed by the ships.
Two P-47s and two P-38s were shot down and others limped back to
base with battle damage. Also lost were two B-25s shot down and
two that returned to base crippled. An American fighter shot down
a Navy PBY by mistake. Several of the American fighter squadrons
claimed ten or more victories. The 80th FS claimed ten victories
but suffered the loss of two P-38s and its squadron commander, Maj.
Edward Cragg, a noted ace with fifteen victories to his credit.
Japanese losses were heavy. Thirteen dive-bombers and four Zeros
failed to return. One of the Japanese fighter pilots killed in this
action was Petty Officer 1/C Chikara Kitaguchi of 253 Ku the same
pilot that had landed at Tuluvu for fuel after the shipping attack
on September 22nd.
It is interesting to note that, despite possible duplication with
claims by ship and ground gunners, American fighter claims for dive
bombers appear to be only moderately overstated while their claims
for fighters are wildly optimistic. The Japanese claimed twenty
fighters shot down including five that were uncertain.
The Japanese navy attack suffered heavy losses but at least inflicted
real damage. The 6th FD’s mission came late in the day and
was plagued with misfortune.
Hoping to avoid the miscue of December 15th or the disaster of
December 16th this army attack was closely preceded by a reconnaissance
mission flown by Capt. Kanoyoshi Nakagawa of 74th FCs in Type 100
command reconnaissance plane No. 2576. Taking off at the same time
as the attack force Nakagawa and his observer 1Lt. Tetsunari Sakuda
would arrive earlier than the bombers. Providing weather data and
pinpointing the target location to the attacking bombers should
allow them to go directly to their targets possibly avoiding intercepting
fighters. Well-laid plans began to unravel early. Half the escort
and two of the bombers failed to rendezvous. Five Type 100 heavy
bombers of the 61st FR were escorted by only ten Type 3 fighters
(68th and 78th FR) and nine Type 1 fighters of the 248th FR. This
force was picked up by radar well to the north of Tuluvu. Sixteen
P-38s and thirty-eight P-47s were then on station or about to report
to the fighter director.
The 248th FR encountered Thunderbolts that, according its commanding
officer, “surrounded” the Hayabusas. They engaged in
an inconclusive combat in which they suffered no losses and claimed
two victories. Apparently some of the Type 3 fighters became embroiled
in early combats as well for when the Thunderbolts of the 342nd
FS intercepted the bombers they were being escorted by only two
TONYS. The Thunderbolts repeatedly attacked the seven-plane formation
and reported encountering multiple bomber formations (actually the
same bombers being encountered, lost and encountered again). Despite
claiming fourteen BETTYS destroyed, they failed to get all the bombers.
A pilot from 348th FG headquarters flying with the 341st FS shot
down one BETTY pressing a determined low-level attack over Borgen
Bay. U.S.S. Lamson reported seeing one bomber (correctly identified
as a HELEN) shot down by Mugford. In total, ships’ guns claimed
three of these bombers. In the end all five bombers were destroyed
and the Japanese had no idea of the exact cause of their loss. Two
Type 3 fighters also failed to return although in this case the
Thunderbolts only claimed one TONY.
Cpl. Katsumi Omori of 61st FR may have flown the Donryu shot down
over Borgen Bay by Lt. Col. Robert Rowland of the 348th FG. This
would tend to explain why Omori’s diary was captured at Cape
Gloucester that day. Omori had graduated from pilot training in
July 1942. After completing operational training he joined 3rd chutai,
61st FR in the Netherlands East Indies. He did not begin flying
combat over New Guinea until October 1943 when his chutai joined
the main force of 61st FR at Wakde. His usual plane captain was
Sgt. Maj. Yoshiharu Takata.
Though we know there were only five army bombers and not the fifteen
or more that were claimed, Japanese reports provide no clue as to
the exact circumstances of their demise. We would be left with just
a jumble of contradictory American fighter and ship claims except
that the 433rd FS had a panoramic view of the action. That squadron’s
mission report shows that they sighted the arrowhead formation of
bombers approaching the convoy, at an altitude of about 10,000 feet,
10 miles northeast of Umboi Island and at the same time saw the
big dogfight between the Japanese escort fighters and P-47s off
to the west of Umboi Island. The bombers were evidently not then
under fighter attack and the 433rd was prevented from engaging by
heavy anti-aircraft fire that enveloped the bombers. The 433rd saw
the formation leader and two other bombers fall and crash into the
sea under this fire. They reported that the remaining bombers scattered
and headed for Wewak. Despite this latter report, eventually at
least one of them (presumably Omori’s bomber) pressed its
attack and was shot down low over Borgen Bay by Lt. Col. Rowland.
While it is hard to be precise, the reported location of most of
the 342nd FS claims tend to indicate their attacks came both before
and after the 433rd observed the bombers fall to ships’ gunfire.
If, as appears likely, three of these bombers fell to anti-aircraft
fire and one to Rowland, the claims of the 342nd FS for fourteen
victories (four by 1Lt. Lawrence O’Neill) is one of the most
outlandish examples of over-claiming recorded in this monograph.
The final attack of the day came after dark from a single Navy
Gekko night fighter that strafed ships with unobserved results.
A similar single plane attack strafed ground targets two nights
The navy’s Tuluvu attack planned for the 27th was diverted
to Arawe as previously described. Weather, Allied attacks on Rabaul
and the threat of an American carrier raid on Kavieng washed out
further attacks until the 31st when the attack was again diverted
to Arawe. Thunderbolts from two squadrons of the 348th FG as well
as Warhawks of the 35th FS reported encountering only nine VALS
and 9 fighters and claimed twelve victories. The Japanese admitted
the loss of nine of the thirty aircraft involved in the attack.
They claimed sinking a medium transport ship and the destruction
of four aircraft but the attack actually did little damage.
With this abortive attack air combat over the Tuluvu area was
nearly over. Night raids continued for some time. These were often
small affairs and seldom caused much damage. One exception came
on February 13th, 1944, when four bombs killed seven, wounded sixteen
and destroyed an amphibious tractor. This attack was carried out
by a single land attack bomber of 751 Ku on a patrol of Dampier
Straight. Not making any enemy contact during during the patrol
the bombs were dropped on Tuluvu on its return trip. One large fire
was reported as a result of the attack. This Japanese strike was
reminiscent of the many attacks on the Japanese base at Tuluvu received
from Allied bombers returning from patrol missions. This strike
was something of a “last hurrah”. Two days later 751
Ku reported it had only twenty-seven land attack bombers left and
only eleven of these were operational. Losses on the ground and
on patrol missions as well as in night attacks were all taking their
In this figure MB denotes Type 1 land attack plane (751 Ku), TB
denotes Type 97 carrier attack plane (582 or Zuikaku detachment),
DB denotes dive-bomber (582 Ku) and NF means Gekko night fighter
(251 Ku). Targets are Tuluvu airfield or military installations
in the general Cape Gloucester area unless noted. “Ex”
means diverted from another attack or after a patrol.
||4 TB, 3 DB
||8 TB, 6 MB
|| 4 MB diverted to Arawe
||6 MB, 6 DB
||5 DB, 3 MB, 2 TB
||MBs ex Dampier St
||ex Dampier patrol
||ex Finschhafen shipping
||ex Dampier patrol
||ex Dampier patrol
||shipping, ex Dampier
On February 7th Maj. William W. Banks flying a P-47D of the 342nd
FS claimed the last plane shot down over Tuluvu. Identified as a
TONY, this was probably a navy Type 2 carrier reconnaissance plane
or Suisei dive-bomber (D4Y1 or JUDY) but details are lacking. Farther
east over Cape Hoskins Capt. Dick Bong claimed another TONY on February
15th (almost certainly the Suisei reported force landed between
Talasea and Cape Hoskins on that date) and on the 27th Lt. Col.
Robert Rowland flying a Thunderbolt of the 340th FS in the same
area claimed an aircraft identified as a SALLY. There were a few
Japanese army reconnaissance flights over Tuluvu in March but no
A few days before Rowland’s victory General Imamura had
ordered the surviving troops south of Tuluvu to retreat toward Rabaul.
The Japanese navy had abandoned the aerial defense of Rabaul and
was withdrawing all but a handful of its aircraft to Truk. The Japanese
were abandoning all of western and central New Britain. In a matter
of days the zone of active air combat operations moved hundreds
of miles from Tuluvu. Tuluvu’s air war was over.
Three American aviation engineer battalions were sent to Cape
Gloucester where they found their work impeded by heavy rains. Marine
L-4 aircraft (military versions of the Piper Cub) began operating
from a road near the airfield as early as January 2nd. Other aircraft
made emergency landings. The available engineering forces planned
to have the airfield operational for fighters by February 1st, a
year to the day after the first Japanese aircraft landed there.
Cape Gloucester was developed as an American and later Australian
air base but it was never a particularly important one.
Tuluvu and western New Britain were never hot points of conflict
like Guadalcanal, Buna, New Georgia, Lae, Wewak or Rabaul. For a
brief moment in early August 1943 Tuluvu seemed on the verge of
becoming an important advanced airfield. Japanese losses at Wewak
were probably decisive in assuring that did not occur. In succeeding
months the war on land, sea and air pressed closely on Tuluvu. By
the autumn of 1943 it appeared to be an important objective in the
Allies’ strategic scheme. Japanese weakness there spurred
the Americans to move rapidly up the coast of New Guinea with additional
amphibious assaults. Tuluvu’s role in the overall war was
a small one. Still, combat action, especially air combat action,
swirled over or near Tuluvu for more than a year. It serves as a
microcosm that may aid us in gaining a better understanding of air
war in the Pacific.