ChapterVI: Huon Peninsula Campaign
(click images to enlarge)

No accompanying
photos for this section

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 without attacking.

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 shot down.

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 killed.

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.

Return to Menu
Next Chapter
Previous Chapter