ChapterVII: Before the Storm
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The Battleground
October 1943

During October 1943 the 5th Air Force carried out a series of heavy daylight attacks on Rabaul. Several of these raids took the defenders by surprise. An early warning radar installation in western New Britain would have been a great help to the defenders of Rabaul. Unfortunately for the Japanese, ambitious plans to erect radar installations at Tuluvu and other locations were never realized. Plans called for the intelligence unit at Tuluvu to receive two sets to be sited at Busching. They were to cover a 200-kilometer arc to the west and south of western New Britain.

During the first of these raids on October 12th one B-24 aborting the mission chose Tuluvu as a target of opportunity and dropped its bombs on the East airfield before proceeding back to base. The entire 5th Air Force mission turned back early the following day. Several of the returning bombers detoured to Tuluvu on their return flight. In separate attacks five and ten B-24s followed by a single B-24 bombed Tuluvu airfield.

In an effort to strike back in retaliation for American raids on Rabaul and provide indirect support for land operations in New Guinea the 11th Air Fleet sent escorted dive bombers to Oro Bay on October 15th and sent out a fighter sweep in the same area two days later. The third effort in this series used Tuluvu as a staging base. This was a highly unusual night attack by just two Zero fighters of 204 Ku against Finschhafen. This raid caused a flurry of activity at Tuluvu. After this raid on the 20th two seriously damaged Zero fighters landed there.

The fall of Lae and Finschhafen did not end Tuluvu’s importance in barge operations. The terminus of barge shipments in New Guinea was changed to Sio. Shipments now departed direct from the Cape Gloucester region rather than being routed via Busching. Barge traffic along the New Britain coast as far as Cape Merkus remained important.

As November began land combat was raging on the main island of New Guinea directly across Vitiaz Straight from Cape Gloucester. In addition to ground combat nearby and the continuing air war, naval operations began to close in on Tuluvu. U.S. Navy PT boats based at Finschhafen began harassing Japanese sea communications around western New Britain on an almost nightly basis.

The end of October and the beginning of November was a period of change for the 4th Air Army as new units arrived and old ones departed. Other units withdrew temporarily to re-equip and rested units returned from obtaining new aircraft at Manila. The Type 1 fighter units (including the newly arrived 248th FR and recently re-equipped 59th FR plus 13th FR) were relatively strong with 75 operational aircraft. In contrast only a dozen Type 3 fighters were operational with 78th FR. The 208th FR had fifteen operational Type 99 light bombers. Its mate the 45th FR had transferred out of the area in October. The 26th FR armed with 27 Type 99 single engine assault bombers replaced the twin-engine light bomber unit. The heavy bomber units were very weak with little more than a dozen Type 97 and Type 100 heavy bombers operational. A half dozen Type 100 reconnaissance planes and a few tactical reconnaissance planes rounded out the Army’s combat strength.

Compared to the weak 4th Air Army the 5th Air Force was a tower of strength. Its five fighter groups had 346 fighters assigned of which 80 per cent were serviceable. These included 139 P-38s, 91 P-47s, 71 P-40Ns, and 47 P-39s. It had six bomber groups in New Guinea with 370 assigned aircraft including 204 B-25s and 118 B-24s. The 5th Air Force was so rich in aircraft that it held an additional 263 fighters that were not assigned to units and 221 unassigned bombers. In addition nearly 200 combat aircraft of RAAF No. 9 Operational Group were operating in conjunction with the American units. With its commitment to attack Rabaul in support of the Bouganville invasion completed, the 5th Air Force was ready to wield its full power against New Guinea and western New Britain.

Reliable information on air operations at Tuluvu during November and December 1943 is sparse but sufficient to at least outline the principal activities and provide a few key details. In early November 1943 the 6th FD planned to base five Type 99 assault bombers (Ki 51) of Lt. Col. Ryukichi Oda’s recently arrived 26th FR at the forward airstrip at Alexishafen (the unit’s main base was But-West). These orders were changed to divide the force between Alexishafen and Tuluvu. One day and one night patrol of Vitiaz Straight was to be flown daily.

Alexishafen was heavily bombed on November 9th the day the original orders were issued. Two days later a Type 99 assault bomber was shot down over Alexishafen. This was the VAL claimed by Maj. Fred Thompson of the 41st FS during a sweep by sixteen P-39s.

The activities of the Type 99 assault bombers at Tuluvu can be only partially detailed from available records. The 26th Ac did not service any of these aircraft during November. Detailed records of the 21st Ab detachment are not available (the 209th Ab detachment had withdrawn by this time). It is intriguing to note that on November 17th the 26th Ac installed an airfield lighting system (15 flare pots) to accommodate night flying and that the 26th FR engaged in night operations. The activities of the 26th FR at Tuluvu must have been significant because the 6th FD commander, Lt. Gen. Giichi Itabana, specifically mentioned them in his farewell message to the regiment.

It seems that after the events at Alexishafen several assault bombers of the Capt. Kunihiko Takano’s 3rd chutai, 26th FR were concentrated at Tuluvu as the regiment’s Tuluvu Expeditionary Force. The exact date is not clear but probably by the 17th and certainly by the 22nd. During a November 22nd American bombing attack five unidentified aircraft were observed dispersed south of the eastern end of the East airfield (No. 2 air strip in Allied parlance). These five aircraft plus a BETTY seen near the center of the runway were the highest number of aircraft reported by the Americans since the sighting of six bombers on April 30th. Two days later four unidentified aircraft were sighted in another dispersal area south of the runway. A record of the operations of the Type 99 assault bombers during this period exists. Since all the missions were to the Finschhafen area, outside the unit’s range from But, they may well relate to the aircraft sighted at Tuluvu. On November 22nd single assault bombers reconnoitered boats near Finschhafen at 0200-0300 hours and early in the evening of the same day. The later mission was turned back by weather. The following day no mission is reported. On the 24th a single assault bomber was again sent to reconnoiter Finschhafen 0100-0300 but turned back due to weather. The same result occurred on the evening of the 25th and from 1620-1800 hours on the 26th. At 1615 hours on the 28th four assault bombers attacked infantry mortar positions on the left bank of the Song River and reportedly covered them with bombs and gunfire. They received anti-aircraft fire but suffered no damage. On the following day two assault bombers reconnoitered Finschhafen from 1630 to 1800 hours but found no targets.

Operational details become less clear at this point. The unit’s losses on the ground at Tuluvu are, however, recorded in its field diary. Two bombers were slightly damaged in a raid on November 29th. One was badly damaged and two slightly damaged during a raid the following day. Fifteen attacking B-24s claimed two aircraft destroyed on the ground. That raid also rendered the runway unserviceable for the rest of the day. There was no additional damage to aircraft until December 10th when one bomber was slightly damaged with an estimate of two days to repair.

On November 30th the 26th FR had orders to attack Allied shipping in the Finschhafen area. These operations continued into early December despite the losses. At 1850 on December 3rd two PT boats were attacked by a VAL (according to one Allied account) that missed and whose bomb failed to explode. Two days later four bombs were dropped on Finschhafen. An Allied intelligence report provided this assessment: “on the night of December 5…the enemy was possibly patrolling in search of our small surface craft and bombed Finschhafen only when no small craft were located.” Unfortunately, details of these operations from the Japanese side are not available.

The Japanese anticipated Allied landings in western New Britain and were reinforcing the area. The 17th Division arrived at Rabaul from China in several echelons between October 4th and November 12th. The division was deployed from Tuluvu eastward as far as the Willaumez Peninsula. The first large contingent, elements of the 53rd Regiment, were transported to Tuluvu in several destroyer runs in early October but it would take many weeks to complete the deployment since most of the division was transported by small boats and even these were constantly harassed by Allied air power.

In mid-November the gravity of the situation was emphasized by a visit from Lt. Gen. Hitoshi Imamura, Commander in Chief of the Eighth Area Army, and highest Army officer in the Southeast Area. Imamura flew in for a brief inspection and consultation with senior commanders. Then at 1600 hours on November 14th he gave an address to an assembly of ground unit commanders. Imamura commenced his remarks by stating: “The present war situation is gradually becoming more difficult…” and urged the assembled officers and their units to “sacrifice yourselves for the great moral obligation of loyalty and patriotism.” Imamura stated that the “Southeastern Area is the main battle-field of the Japanese-US war, and success or failure of the Area Army’s war situation is directly related to the destiny of our country.” Imamura urged officers to use innovative combat methods and instill discipline and spirit in the men. He indicated he understood their deprivations and the supply difficulties but did not mention the prospect of any improvements. He insisted no troops give themselves up as prisoners but fight to the last. Imamura concluded by telling the assembled officers that they were about to engage in a “do or die battle.”

A few days later on the 19th two Type 96 transports, carrying Navy communications personnel, and their eight escorting Zero fighters arrived. Through dint of hard effort and as a testimony to good work originally invested in the runway Tuluvu’s airfield was still operational. Despite its seeming resilience, American engineers would later rate it as of poor quality.

Air strikes preparatory to the Allied ground offensive had already begun in October and were greatly intensified in November despite rainy weather that precluded missions on several days. During the month before the invasion the 5th Air Force flew 1,845 sorties to the relatively small region around Tuluvu and dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and expended 2,000,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition. Tuluvu airfield was one of the chief targets. According to the U.S. Army’s official history of the campaign: “The airfield was knocked out early and stayed that way.” Not quite accurate as we shall see.

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