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
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.