TULUVU’S AIR WAR
Chapter I: Tuluvu is Occupied
| Had Japanese plans to conquer Port Moresby on New Guinea’s southeast
coast early in 1942 been successful, the Cape Gloucester region might never
have been involved in military operations. The Japanese plans to take Port
Moresby were thwarted at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Later stubborn Australian
resistance in the Owen Stanley Mountains combined with changed priorities
caused by the U.S. Marine invasion of Guadalcanal resulted in the Japanese
falling back to Buna on New Guinea’s northeast coast. It is in the
context of Japanese attempts to reinforce their Buna garrison that mention
of Cape Gloucester first appears in Allied combat reports.
On November 29th, 1942, four destroyers carrying the Headquarters of the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade and the 1st Battalion, 170th Infantry Regiment (IR) to Buna attempted to avoid early detection and attack by using an approach route north of New Britain rather than the more direct and obvious route south of the island. B-17s of the 43rd Bomb Group (BG) and B-24s of the recently arrived 90th BG were sent to attack the destroyers. A total of six Type Zero carrier fighters from Rabaul covered the destroyers during the day. Six B-24s of the 319th Bomb Squadron (BS) arrived in the vicinity and three of them met two Zeros. The B-24s escaped undamaged in cloud cover after a single firing pass by each Zero. The B-24s never found the destroyers. The B-17s did. In two formations several hours apart a total of eleven B-17s from the 64th and 65th BS attacked the ships. They were about to enter Vitiaz Straight when they were successfully attacked by a flight of five B-17s (in one of those quirks that makes the study of history both difficult and interesting, the Japanese often used the term “Dampier Straight” to refer to both Vitiaz and Dampier Straights while many Allied sources use “Vitiaz Straight” to refer to both passages). Makigumo received minor damage from near misses but Shiratsuyu took a direct hit and was more seriously damaged, suffered crew casualties and had her speed reduced to 21 knots. The B-17s were not intercepted. The ships got no farther than Cape Gloucester. After these attacks they returned to Rabaul. Their use of a route north of New Britain to approach Buna instead of the route south of New Britain had proved unsuccessful.
Tuluvu’s occupation came less than three weeks after the destroyers had been attacked nearby. The invasion force consisted of the 31st Road Construction Unit, 28th Field Anti-aircraft Machine Cannon Battery, and small contingents from the 5th Air Signals Regiment (1 radio section), and 5th Shipping Engineer Regiment (2 motorized landing craft or MLCs). Navy fighters provided air cover and naval vessels supporting other operations in the general area provided indirect support. At dawn on December 17th the troops disembarked from destroyer Tachikaze and Patrol Boat No. 39. Low clouds and rain covered the landing. The detachment under the overall command of Major Kiyomitsu Mukai, the construction battalion commander, rapidly secured the rough airfield and set out to establish a 40 km beachhead. The entire force numbered only 350 troops.
The 18th and 19th were spent on reconnoitering the airfield and organizing supply dumps, troop dispositions and bivouac areas. A survey of the airfield commenced on the 20th. The existing Australian airfield consisted of two narrow intersecting runways that formed a cross. One measured 750 yards and the other was only 600 yards long. Both were unserviceable due to trench barricades, erosion, floodwaters, undergrowth and vegetation. Major Mukai decided to build a new runway adjacent to the existing northwest/southeast runway.
The ships of the invasion force had been spotted on the 17th and a party of three recently arrived Allied intelligence agents (two soldiers and a former missionary) moved in close to the airfield to confirm that the Japanese had occupied the area in force. Subsequently the Japanese found and killed two of the men but Lt. Andrew Kirkwall-Smith escaped. By the 22nd a report of his observations had reached Port Moresby. The next day B-25s of the 3d Attack Group pounded the airfield killing one Japanese officer and wounding ten men. 1Lt. Taniguchi became the first victim of air attacks on Tuluvu. Thereafter Tuluvu was often attacked, occasionally as a planned target but more often as a target of opportunity by a bomber returning from patrol with bombs still on board.
December 18th was a significant date for the Japanese Army in the Southeast Area. The Japanese occupied Wewak and Madang on New Guinea’s north coast and the first major combat force of the Japanese Army Air Force arrived. Fifty-seven Type 1 model 1 fighters (Ki 43) of the 11th Flying Regiment (FR) flew from Truk Island to Rabaul. At Rabaul the 11th joined the Headquarters of the 6th Flying Division (FD), a small number of Type 100 command reconnaissance planes of the 76th Independent Flying Squadron (FCs), and several maintenance and support units.
Allied radio intelligence had detected and predicted both the Wewak-Madang landings and the arrival of Japanese army fighters. Only the presence of coast-watchers on the ground had provided early detection of the occupation of Tuluvu. These had either been killed or driven off. It was to be many months before Allied agents returned to Tuluvu. Until then, aerial reconnaissance was to be the primary means of Allied intelligence about Tuluvu.
The period of Tuluvu’s occupation was one of active operations at Buna and on Guadalcanal. At Buna U.S. and Australian forces had linked up and were driving on the airfield and reducing the Japanese perimeter. They had introduced tanks and armored personnel carriers to add to their air and artillery superiority. On Guadalcanal Marines were being replaced by Army troops and the Army was beginning its first limited offensive. The Japanese were desperately in need of supplies and reinforcements in both areas. Hotly contested air and sea actions flared up every time a relief effort was mounted. The Japanese were rushing completion of an airfield at Munda on New Georgia and it became a favorite target for American planes. Despite fighting losing battles at Buna and Guadalcanal, Japanese efforts in other areas such as New Georgia, Wewak, Madang, Finschhafen, and Tuluvu showed they were consolidating their position and preparing for a long campaign.
Tuluvu’s airfield was not ready for the 11th FR’s first large-scale operation. The newly arrived unit flew cover for Operation No. 18, the first Lae convoy, from January 6th-10th, 1943. On the first day the regiment kept a chutai of 8-10 fighters over the convoy proceeding along the south coast of New Britain. There were several clashes with American bombers and P-38 fighters on that day. One Japanese fighter was shot down with the pilot rescued and one B-26 returned to base but crash-landed damaged beyond repair. In the course of intense operations over five days the regiment lost seven pilots with five others wounded. Twelve aircraft were lost or “badly damaged” (damaged beyond repair). Four more were burned on the ground at Lae and others damaged to a lesser extent. With some help from navy Zeros the air cover successfully got the convoy to Lae. The only ship lost was sunk during a night attack by a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Catalina flying boat when there was no fighter cover. A second transport was disabled and beached after reaching Lae. Three other transports and their five escorting destroyers returned safely to Rabaul after landing most of a reinforced Infantry Regiment (102nd IR) and about half the supplies carried. Numerous air attacks on the return trip inflicted only minor damage on the ships. On January 7th and 8th the Japanese fighters operated from Lae.
Additional Japanese actions tended to even the score of this operation. On the 9th Japanese navy dive-bombers and fighters raided Oro Bay and sank a small transport. On the 10th, the last day of the operation, Japanese destroyers escorting the convoy sank the large U.S. submarine Argonaut.
The 11th FR claimed 17 sure and 19 probable (“uncertain”) victories. Navy Zeros claimed seven certain victories and additional probables. Allied losses in aircraft shot down and damaged beyond repair amounted to little more than ten with others damaged to a lesser degree.
American fighters claimed 26 ZEKES (codename for the navy Zero fighter) and 19 OSCARS (codename for the Type 1 fighter) as well as others probably destroyed and damaged. Bombers made numerous additional claims. Over claiming by both sides as occurred in this action was fairly typical (though by no means universal) in this theater.
Less than a week after Operation No. 18 concluded, on January 15th, the first phase of construction on Tuluvu’s new runway was finished. This made the runway fit for little more than emergency landings and much work remained to be done. Up to that date the Tuluvu detachment recorded attacks by 27 B-24s, 16 B-17s and 7 unidentified aircraft during which over 150 bombs of various sizes were dropped. Allied bombs were directed at the airfield, anti-aircraft installations, billeting areas, and ships that brought in supplies and reinforcements. Major Mukai was already considering building a larger more capable airfield.
Completion of the initial phase of work on the new runway was not only hindered by bombing attacks but by the diversion of the work force to other projects. During the last week in January the detachment was called upon to build hideouts for twenty large MLCs at Cape Gloucester, Aisega and Busching. Troops also reconnoitered and improved local roads and scouted locations for additional barge hideouts. Illness (primarily malaria) was already depleting the available work force.
The Japanese reported the runway was 1150x100 meters but that 200 meters on each end was very rough. Detailed (third phase) analysis of aerial photographs by the Allies on February 16th found the runway to be 3,900 feet long (over 1150 meters) but considered only one section 930x150 feet to be serviceable. Allied reports of the serviceability of the runway were, however, inconsistent. After March 7th it was generally reported serviceable. (NB-Allied intelligence reports and other sources are used in this monograph not only to give the Allied perspective but in some cases to fill gaps were reliable Japanese documentation is unavailable).
Hard work to complete the airfield continued through April. During that period, the troops cleared large tracts of forest, burned acres of grassland and hauled away the residue. Fourteen thousand cubic meters of earth were removed, 95,000 square meters leveled, and nearly 180,000 square meters were pressed. Hundreds of trees and stumps were removed. A gravel pit was opened on Mt. Talawe and the men gathered and laid 116 cubic meters of gravel. Fifteen revetments were built. A half-mile of roads and taxi ways were built and four miles of roads repaired.
Japanese aircraft had over flown Tuluvu during this period but the first to land came in on February 1st. This was a Type 100 command reconnaissance plane (Ki 46-II) carrying 1Lt. Okano and Sgt. Major Kanaya. Shortly after 0900 hours the twin-engine plane touched down, began its landing run and promptly flipped over badly damaging the aircraft and injuring the crew.
The first successful landing occurred at 0600 on February 5th when four
aircraft landed. While not identified in Japanese records these were almost
certainly Type 1 fighters, part of the 11th FR, en route from Rabaul to
Lae. The planes took off again at 0730 hours. The following day the 11th
FR engaged in air battles over Wau and Lae during which their regimental
commander Maj. Katsuji Sugiura and three other pilots were killed in action.
The Regiment shot down a C-47 and an RAAF Boston. This action occurred
as the troops landed earlier in Operation No. 18 were driven back from
Wau by superior numbers of Australian troops that had been flown in to
Wau by air transports and were provided with strong air support.