Five Zeros of 204 Ku and five carrier
bombers of 582 Ku landed at Tuluvu on September 4th. A badly damaged
land attack bomber of 702 Ku force landed there as well. The reason
for the sudden and unexpected appearance of these aircraft was the
Allied amphibious landing east of Lae.
In the morning small numbers of Japanese army aircraft damaged
landing craft. In the late afternoon army aircraft returned to inflict
damage on landing craft as well as troops and supplies ashore. The
big raid of the day was a navy strike from Rabaul that reached the
Huon Gulf in the early afternoon.
Down from Rabaul came twelve Type 1 land attack bombers (702 Ku),
eight Type 99 carrier bombers (582 Ku), and a mixed formation of
sixty-one Zero fighters. The U.S. destroyer Reid operating in the
lower reaches of Vitiaz Straight picked up a large Japanese formation
on radar over Gasmata (Surumi) about 100 miles away just as the
invasion task force was about to leave the area. This warning brought
forty P-38s and twenty P-47s to the Huon Gulf. In a sense the Japanese
were lucky. An additional sixteen P-38s of the 9th FS left the patrol
area about twenty minutes before the attack and twenty-three RAAF
Kittykawks flying from Vivigani on Goodenough Island arrived just
too late to intercept. Still the 80th FS (on patrol) and squadrons
scrambled from Dododura (39th FS), Tsili Tsili (433rd FS), and Port
Moresby (342nd FS) were there to meet the Japanese onslaught.
The Zeros did a good job of occupying the American fighters and
many of the Japanese bombers were able to press home their attacks
despite having to search for targets. The P-38s of the 80th FS were
the first to contact the Japanese. 1Lt. Jay T. Robbins was the outstanding
pilot on this day claiming no less than four ZEKES.
The Japanese bombers had some difficulty finding shipping targets
in the invasion area other than two LCIs damaged by the Japanese
army and small craft. The Japanese did find six retiring LSTs and
escorting destroyers off Cape Ward Hunt. Dive-bombers attacked Reid,
Conyngham, and Lamson. Conyngham was damaged by near misses and
Lamson sprayed with shrapnel. Reid claimed one dive-bomber destroyed
and Conyngham claimed two. LST-473 was less fortunate receiving
two direct bomb hits, near misses, and being barely missed by two
torpedoes. She was badly damaged and suffered heavy personnel casualties.
LST-471 was attacked by two of the medium bombers and sustained
a torpedo hit that wrecked her stern and caused many casualties.
This reasonably proficient but modest effort brought claims of a
cruiser and four transports sunk with several others badly damaged.
Both LSTs survived but were knocked out of the war for many months.
Air combat and anti-aircraft fire resulted in the outright loss
of four Zeros and three land attack bombers. Three Zeros, seven
land attack bombers, and five carrier bombers were damaged. Of these,
one land attack bomber that force landed at Tuluvu and two carrier
bombers were listed as “heavily damaged” generally denoting
a total loss. In addition to their shipping claims the Japanese
claimed twenty-three P-38s shot down.
American fighter claims were for fourteen fighters (most identified
as ZEKES), three BETTYS, and one dive-bomber. Eleven of the eighteen
victories (all ZEKES) were claimed by the P-38s of the 80th FS.
Only a single P-38 was lost.
The following day the navy returned, searching for shipping targets
but found only two beached LCIs and a number of LCTs and LCVPs.
They claimed one “2,000 ton special transport” and one
landing barge sunk. They actually caused a few casualties ashore
and may have added damage to the beached LCIs. The eight land attackers
(751 Ku) and 47 Zeros returned unharmed. Sixteen P-40s of the 7th
FS were nearby and sighted the Japanese above them. Unable to gain
an altitude advantage they failed to intercept.
On the 6th the Japanese navy launched its largest effort 17 medium
bombers (751 Ku), 12 carrier bombers (582 Ku), and sixty-two Zeros.
Due to poor visibility over the Huon Gulf this effort was largely
for naught. A half dozen Zeros did sweep down to strafe an LCVP
causing some damage and casualties.
After bombing from medium altitude of 4,000 meters the land attack
bombers and their close escort of about fifteen Zeros were intercepted
by four P-40Ns of the 8th FS and fifteen P-38s of the 9th FS. Seven
of the bombers and two Zeros were hit. One of the damaged bombers
crash-landed after the combat. The Japanese claimed one P-38 and
two P-40s shot down, another P-38 probable and three others hit.
The Americans claimed four BETTYS and three fighters destroyed
with others probably destroyed and damaged. The American pilots
generally got only a single pass at the bombers after which they
were ensnarled with Zeros. Most of the P-38s dove out of the fight.
One P-38 was lost. Ace Dick Bong failed to score and returned to
base with an engine shot out and ran his Lightning off the runway
into a ditch causing further damage.
On September 7th nine land attack bombers escorted by forty-four
Zeros sought out shipping targets in the vicinity of Morobe harbor
and claimed hits on two destroyers. Fourteen P-38Hs of the 432nd
FS and seventeen P-40Ns of the 7th FS scrambled to meet these intruders.
The P-38s encountered the bulk of the escorting fighters, which
kept them away from the bombers. The P-38s claimed four OSCARS and
ZEKES without loss. Later a single P-40 jumped two OSCARS and claimed
one destroyed. The Zeros also had an inconclusive clash with two
Bostons of No. 22 Squadron (RAAF).
One Zero was lost and a bomber and a Zero damaged. The Japanese
claimed one P-38 shot down and a second as “uncertain.”
In Japanese press reports the Bostons somehow became two “Boeing
B-17 bombers” one of which was shot down.
The Japanese medium bombers switched to night raids after this
attack but a final navy day raid on Morobe occurred on September
12th. Thirty-six Zeros escorted eleven dive-bombers in an attack
that sank LST-455 and caused other damage. One dive-bomber was lost
and five others damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Eight P-40Ns (8th
FS) were in the area but the Zeros had the altitude advantage and
when they dove on the P-40s the Americans took to their heels, neither
side suffering any loss.
This series of operations had little impact at Tuluvu other than
being monitored by the air intelligence unit. Air operations at
Tuluvu were routine after the initial flurry of activity caused
by the first big raid. Three navy transports arrived on the 5th
for personnel transport probably taking stranded airmen back to
Rabaul. A single Zero landed on the 6th, probably after combat near
Lae. Service was provided to a Type 97 heavy bomber on the 8th and
9th. On the 12th a single MC transport of the 101st Air Transport
Unit landed at Tuluvu. Two Type 1 transports escorted by ten Zeros
landed on the 16th.
September 19th brought another of the air raids to which Tuluvu
was increasingly subject. This raid left the eastern end of the
runway badly cratered and required considerable effort to repair.
Unknown to the Japanese this was a milestone in the Pacific air
war. Six B-17s of the 43rd BG were among the attackers and this
was the last major B-17 bombing attack in the Pacific.
September 22nd was remembered at Tuluvu primarily for the big
air raid that day that caused much damage and many casualties. Among
those killed was 1Lt. Takeo Sakai commander of the 21st Ab detachment.
It was also the day the Allies conducted landings at Finschhafen
and resulted in another attack by navy air units based at Rabaul.
The 5th Air Attack Force launched eight Type 1 land attack bombers
armed with torpedoes escorted by a mixed force of thirty-five fighters
from Air Groups 201, 204 and 253. Lt. Tadashi Tanida of 751 Ku led
the bombers. Though the bulk of the fighters came from 253 Ku, veteran
Lt. Shiro Kawai of 201 Ku led the fighters. Heavy action in the
Solomons precluded committing a greater fighter force and the size
of the of the bomber force was limited by the available escort and
the availability of crews trained in torpedo attack.
The Americans watched over their Finschafen invasion with a daylong
umbrella of fighters. Japanese flyers estimated that they engaged
fifty American fighters, but they underestimated the true number.
Three squadrons of P-38s, a squadron of P-47s and a squadron of
P-40Ns intercepted this raid. To some of the American pilots the
Japanese fighter pilots on this occasion seemed inexperienced. Other
American pilots reported that some BETTYS jettisoned their torpedoes
The ships that were attacked reported that seven torpedoes were
seen passing close to the ships. Three exploded in wakes of destroyers,
one passed under a ship without exploding, and one other barely
missed the bow of another ship. Despite the spirited attack not
one ship was hit. The inconsistent Allied accounts of the tenacity
of this attack illustrate how the same events can appear quite different
when viewed from varying perspectives.
The destroyers claimed at least six bombers shot down by anti-aircraft
fire in the immediate vicinity of the ships. Prior to coming under
gunfire from the ships fighters had engaged not more than three
of these. Some observers on the ships credited the American fighters
with efficiently engaging the Japanese fighters but were under the
impression most had failed to see the Japanese bombers. A few Japanese
airmen from downed bombers were captured after this attack. Their
interrogation reports reveal they encountered heavy anti-aircraft
fire and at least two of their aircraft were lost to anti-aircraft
fire. One Japanese POW reported he saw no American fighters until
P-38s appeared overhead thirty minutes after his bomber had been
The U.S. fighters used an altitude advantage to dive on the Zeros,
scatter them and then pursue them in wild dogfights. Returning Japanese
claimed seven P-38s and an F4F (presumably a P-47) as certain victories
and other P-38s and a P-40 uncertain. Only three U.S. fighters were
lost. Eight Zeros failed to return and two were damaged. Four out
of twelve Zeros from Kawai’s 201 Ku were lost. Six of the
bombers were lost, some undoubtedly the victim of ships’ guns
and others probably damaged by both guns and fighters. Only one
bomber returned to Rabaul and Warrant Officer Hisaji Aoki landed
his badly damaged bomber at Tuluvu.
Exclusive of three other victories clearly not associated with
this interception, American pilots claimed 16 ZEKES, 2 HAPS, 9 BETTYS,
and 2 SALLYS, plus seven aircraft variously identified as OSCARS,
ZEROS, or single-seat fighters.
A mixture of experienced and not so experienced pilots flew the
Zeros. 204 Ku lost a rising star in PO 1/C Toshihisa Shirakawa.
Several months of combat had seen the nineteen year old credited
with nine victories. One of the neophytes killed on this mission
was Reserve Ensign Minoru Tanaka who finished pilot training in
early 1943. He completed operational training and joined 201 Ku
just in time to be transferred to the combat zone without the additional
training usually afforded to officer pilots. Kawai’s unit
also lost two particularly experienced pilots. Warrant Officer Shunzo
Hongo had been a pilot for eight years. CPO Takeo Okamura is generally
credited with about fifty air victories and he had the unusual distinction
of receiving a personal commendation from Admiral Kusaka just days
before his death. The commendation recognized Okamura for shooting
down ten planes in a single day during combat in the Solomons.
The Japanese reported Okamura as “failed to return”
the circumstances of his death not being known. It is just possible
that Okamura’s demise was witnessed by U.S. Navy Captain Jerome
H. Carter, commander Destroyer Squadron 5, and recorded in his official
report as follows:
“One of the highlights of the affair occurred after the
end of the destroyer action. All hands were engrossed in watching
two P-38s trying to catch a ZEKE below the clouds. The ZEKE was
highly maneuverable, skillfully handled, and evaded the P-38s time
after time much to the amusement of the spectators. The P-38s finally
got him some distance out.”
Petty Officer 1/C Chikara Kitaguchi and another Zero pilot of
253 Ku found haven at Tuluvu after this mission. They landed for
fuel returning from this combat.
Due to bad weather and losses suffered prior to this, the Japanese
army response to this new invasion was pitifully weak. Their attack
force consisted of a mere three Type 99 army reconnaissance planes
of the 83rd FCs. One of these (claimed as a VAL) was shot down by
a P-38 of the 80th FS. They also lost a Type 100 command reconnaissance
plane of the 81st FCs shot down by a P-47 of the 342nd FS.
Patrol flights sighted no suitable shipping targets on either
the 23rd or 24th so the Japanese navy agreed to participate in ground
support operations on the 24th. Nine of the medium attack bombers
or chukos with thirty-two escorting Zeros bombed Australian artillery
positions in the Finschhafen landing zone. They reported that the
target was well covered with bombs. This was one of the most successful
ground support missions of the entire New Guinea campaign. No guns
were destroyed but eighteen casualties were inflicted on the gunners
of whom two died. Australian infantry troops fared even worse with
fourteen killed and nineteen wounded. The Fifth Air Force liaison
party in the beachhead had all its equipment destroyed and its commander
The Japanese reported encountering 24 P-38s and four P-47s claiming
11 P-38s destroyed. Six Japanese bombers suffered hits and one fighter
was also damaged. Among the intercepting American fighters were
thirteen P-38s of the 433rd FS that claimed one HAP destroyed and
one probable plus a damaged but lost two P-38s with their pilots.
One of the G4M1’s from 702 Ku made a forced landing at Tuluvu.
On the 25th an Air Group 751 attack bomber landed at Tuluvu on
a personnel transport mission most likely picking up the crews of
bombers force landed there in the previous three days. On the following
day a Type 100 reconnaissance plane of the 4th Air Army called at
Tuvulu also on a personnel transport mission.
Allied air raid activity at Tuluvu, which had been only moderate
during June and July, increased in August and continued to increase
through September and into October. Despite this, successful destroyer
runs were completed in August, September and October. The airfield
remained operational and individual aircraft usually Army reconnaissance
planes and navy transports continued to visit Tuluvu.