Australia-Japan Research Project

Australian and Japanese attitudes to the war
Southern Cross: IX Bismarck Sea and air battle and Operation No. 81

The strategic strength in New Guinea was reinforced by the landing at Wewak of 20th and 41st Divisions and the advance to Wewak of the Paichengtzu Flight but the situation in the vital Lae area, after the defeat of Okabe Detachment’s Wau attack and the enemy’s attacks from the rear, caused anxiety from the agitation of the Lae base. It was therefore planned to advance 51st Division’s main strength to Lae to provide a firm support for Okabe Detachment and to strengthen the defence of Dampier Strait, and this was called Operation No. 81. The date for this was fixed as 1st March. On this occasion the G.O.C. moved his battle H.Q. to Lae to conduct operations in the area.

In carrying out this operation, in the light of the failure of Operation No. 18 in the preceding January, it was necessary to provide a counter measure against disaster by concentrating a land, sea and air strengths. In Operation 18 a route following the south coast of New Britain was used so that air cover for the convoys would be easy but it was too close to the airfields, and both the convoys and the airfields could be attacked at the same time. This time the route was changed and the north coast of New Britain course was chosen, on the one hand to deceive the enemy that they were making for Madang and on the other hand in the event of an attack by enemy planes they would not be able to pass our front line observation post.

The opinion was put forward that in view of the increased power of the enemy’s air strength it would be dangerous to land at Lae, and better to land at Madang and advance by land on Lae but consideration had to be given as to whether the difficulty of an advance on Lae by units landing at Madang would not make the difference six of one and half a dozen of another in defending them against enemy air attacks. From Lae to Madang was 250 miles by land and 375 miles by sea; there were no roads to travel by on land and no ships to travel in by sea. Not to mention whether the Okabe Detachment, defeated in their attack on Wau, would be able to hold Lae and Salamaua until then. We felt it was a case of nothing venture, nothing win. So both Navy and Army agreed we must go to Lae.

Army Headquarters and the main strength of 51st Division were embarked on 8 ships and 8 destroyers and left Rabaul Harbour on the night of 27th February; under the protection of No. 1 Mine Squadron (commanded by Vice-Admiral KIMURA), composed of 8 destroyers, they went in close formation round the north east tip of New Britain and steamed westward.

The next day, the 28th, there were no attacks from enemy aircraft and they were able to proceed in peace. However on the 29th as they approached Talasea they were suddenly attacked by ten or more enemy bombers; one transport was hit astern by a bomb and sank. However, thanks to the efficient sinking counter-measures, the troops and most of the arms were saved from loss. They were immediately crowded aboard the destroyer in which Divisional Commander NAKANO was travelling, making it a case of 虹House full". The same evening this destroyer, using all the speed it had, left the convoy and went on ahead to Lae.

On 1st March, the convoy passed through the Umboi Island east channel at dawn and was about to approach Dampier Strait. I was travelling in the destroyer Tokitusukaze ("Favourable Wind") with the G.O.C. I went up on deck at dawn and was gazing at the distant shore of New Guinea in the west. Over this coast of New Guinea, which was a trail of darkness, an enemy plane came flying from the south, heading northwards, and disappeared in the morning mist. On seeing this plane, I was assailed by a premonition of evil. I surmised that the enemy’s attention had been focussed on our landing place, wondering whether, as we passed north of Umboi Island and we would head for Madang or veer southwards to land at Lae.

Now was just the very moment when the convoy would diverge and definitely take its course. This was not the observation plane of time-honoured custom. Undoubtedly it must be a reconnaissance plane with the special mission of concentrating on our convoy. If this were the case then it was necessary to give sufficient warning. But in the next instant I thought of our skill when attacked by enemy planes off Talasea the day before. And our evading movement continued all day. Even though a thousand enemy planes came, we would be able to land without big losses, I judged.

As night became day the morning mist disappeared as though wiped away, and there was not a cloud in the sky. After breakfast I again went up on deck and was on the alert for an attack by enemy planes: there was no sign of any and soon we passed by off Finschhafen. If enemy planes were going to attack, it was logical to presume they would make the main attack while the convoy was in narrow straits, and if they not, we were at last safe, so I returned to the cabin. I went into the next door cabin of Senior Staff Officer AOTSU to talk about our movements after the landing at Lae and other things. Within this short space of ten or so minutes the air raid alarm was broadcast. Before the siren had ceased there was the sound of guns and a fierce attack opened. There was the sound of automatic guns from the enemy planes, a sudden volley came down "Blim, blim" like a hail of parched beans. In all 122 bullets came flying into out cabins, and we could not go out or come in. We could only entrust our fate to heaven. Up on the bridge they were continuously sighting their target and exchanging fire. A little while later there was a big shock, with a bump, as though the ship had struck a rock. I resigned myself to the fact that this was the end, but there was no explosion and the ship without taking the slightest heed continued to join battle with all its guns. But while the ship had been making its evasion movements it had been at full speed, and there had been formidable groaning and vibration; now that this vibration had ceased, it was just as though we were on a millpond. I immediately felt that this calmness meant there was some damage in the hull. But now, being in the midst of a battle, such a thing would not be an obstacle to the staff of the ship; so, expecting that the sound of the guns would cease shortly, I went up to the bridge and met the commanding officer and the captain of the ship. They were both safe but already casualties were scattered about. First of all I asked, "What was that shock?" The O.C. answered briefly, "We’ve had it." The captain of the ship went into a detailed explanation that we had been torpedoed and the engines had stopped. I said, "If we were torpedoed it is miraculous that there was no explosion." At the same time I looked round the convoy and saw what was what. Already the ships had been reduced by half their number, it seemed. And of those ships that were still on the surface, more than half were sending up smoke and flames. I was speechless with amazement because our losses were greater than I could possibly have expected.

From what the captain of the ship told me, the reason why the Tokitsukaze was not sunk was not clear; whether it was because the torpedoed range was close, whether the armour was thin, or whether the adjustment of the fuse was faulty; but it penetrated the ship and exploded on the other side. Whatever the explanation, it was really miraculous. When I insisted, "There is no future in being in a ship that cannot move. Shouldn’t we quickly change ships to one that hasn’t been damaged?" The O.C. and the ship’s captain agreed, and I pointed to a destroyer beneath our gaze and said, "Let’s change to that one." The O.C. agreed immediately and ordered the transfer. The transfer was quickly accomplished with a small landing craft, in accordance with our pre-arranged stations and we went aboard the destroyer. This destroyer to which we transferred was the one which the night before had taken Lt Gen NAKANO and his men to Lae, completed the landing, and was on its way back when it happened to meet us. Although every ship in the convoy had suffered a group attack from the enemy planes, this ship had not been visited by one enemy aircraft; like a military observer, it had merely fired at the enemy planes.

According to the captain of this ship, the enemy aircraft were in groups of three. Each group had one ship as its target, and they converged on each ship and attacked simultaneously. The came skimming over the surface of the sea, only 2 or 3 hundred yards above it, from the east, from the rear of the convoy, and the first that was known of the air attack was the firing of the guns. So the estimate that they would attack in a place where it was difficult to perform evasion movements, such as the Dampier Strait, was completely betrayed. While we concentrated our field of vision on the southern surface of the sea, the enemy escaped our observation by coming from the east with the sun at his back; even though he was our enemy, this was admirably done. The method of attack was different from that of the day before and its main strategy was low level bombing against slow moving transports which found difficulty in making evasion movements. In the latest published memoirs of an American Air Force officer it is recorded that in the Bismarck Sea Battle skip bombing was used, and this was the first time it had been adopted. Even allowing for the laudatory nature of the book, it is quite right about the success of this attack. It was certainly beyond all our expectations.

The British and Americans originally thought of water level torpedo attacks. Our navy then fixed its eyes on this method and went ahead with desperate training methods so that in the end they were able to anticipate that no warship whatsoever would be able to escape certain destruction from their exceedingly low level torpedo attacks. In the naval engagement off Malaya this anticipation was carried out in actual fact. The British Navy planned to leave the port of Singapore heroically and destroy our convoy of transports as it sailed across the Gulf of Siam, and in view of their accuracy they had boundless confidence.

But it was something new in the memory of man when our Sea Eagles torpedoed the mighty dreadnoughts Prince of Wales and Repulse, much vaunted as unsinkable, and sent them to the sea bottom. It was the same at Pearl Harbour.

Well now, what on earth did the aircraft guarding the convoy do? What was the reason that, although they had orders to concentrate on covering us over the Dampier Strait, not one plane came to fire a shot? The covering assignment was given to the Naval flight as Gasmata.

When they were relieved by the Lae Army Flying Units there was some interval between them, and since the enemy attack came suddenly and all at the one time, there was insufficient liaison between them; the enemy fighter unit had considerable fighters and when our planes crossed swords with them the torpedo planes did their work.

When we had transferred to our companion vessel we went into the officers’ wardroom, and every mouth was uttering the same sound: "Water, water!" The people in the wardroom made us very welcome and brought cider out of the icebox for us. Everybody drank gratefully but it was obviously insufficient and there were further demands for water and everybody drank cups of clear water.

After I had quenched my thirst I went to the commander of the Mine Flotilla and told him that with all surviving ships we wanted to land at Finschhafen, and began a discussion with him.

Finschhafen was some sea miles in front of us. The south eastern edge of the Huon Peninsula was about 2 degrees sea miles away. Commander KIMURA did not reply. Soon the ships began to vibrate as though it would split into pieces and it went off at full speed. According to the captain, he had had orders "all ships proceed quickly to the north coast of Long Island" (north of Dampier Strait). I was pondering about this, thinking that we could not have the same opinion about landing at Finschhafen, and if the army landed, if not at Lae, on a corner of the Huon Peninsula there would be considerable inconveniences, and that if we accomplished this transport objective, we would perhaps have a second transport operation; Lae defence had considerable obstacles and it was quite impossible. Would it be the plan to assemble at Long Island in the morning and to use the night to land on the Huon Peninsula? While I was thinking of all of this, the ship headed northwards, vibrating as it did so. Soon the four surviving ships drew alongside one another on the north side of Long Island.

I immediately went to the Army commander’s ship and suggested that army headquarters should land at Madang that night. It had already been decided that army headquarters be situated at Madang, and it was planned to use transport planes to advance the Lae battle command post; so if the command post simply had to drive or, the method would be to use the aircraft from Madang. The units other than army headquarters, since there were none besides these survivors, would not make much difference whether they returned to Rabaul or landed at Madang. Maj-Gen KIMURA said that was reasonable, but we had already been hard pressed, and the only ones who had fortunately escaped disaster were these four ships, and of these two were damaged and could only travel at half speed. Another difficult was that they were short of fuel. Even if the fuel of the four ships were pooled, there would only be enough for two to reach Madang. Not only would there be no time to rescue survivors, but also the return trip to Madang would be an exceedingly dangerous undertaking. Maj-Gen KIMURA had been wounded and was lying on a sofa. Fresh blood was straining a bandage on his arm. I had not thought of fuel being short and since two ships were damaged, it was inevitable that we abandon the hope of landing at Madang. To prepare for join action by the forces, that evening survivors would be rescued. While I was discussing these things with Maj-Gen KIMURA and nerving myself for the return to Rabaul, orders came from both the Rabaul Area Army and the Area Fleet: -You must quickly return to Rabaul.反 Weeping copious tears, we abandoned everything, entrusted the rescue of survivors to the Mine Flotilla and prepared to set off back to Rabaul.

The four ships were side by side when transhipment began. All the navy and army wounded were transferred to the damaged ships. To say they were overcrowded was no figure of speech – wherever there was a level space, whether it was a lavatory or the deck it was occupied. The two intact vessels only carried the essential number of crew so that they could travel at full speed, and they were loaded with fuel. With Maj-Gen KIMURA in command they waited for darkness to go swiftly to the scene of the sinking to rescue any survivors. The other two vessels were to be escorted at dawn by air cover from Rabaul airfield.

These destroyers returned to Rabaul at about noon two days later and the tragic defeat of 81st operation became increasingly depressing. Army Headquarters had lost, starting from the C.O. of the Medical Section, Lt Gen MIZUMO, the C.O. of the Ordnance Department, Maj-Gen FUKUDA, Senior Staff Officer Intendance, Lt Col CHIBA, and Staff Officers Majors YAMAMOTO and MATSUNAGA. Yet to cease operations for one day was not permissible. We began drawing up plans immediately for the reinforcement of the Lae area and for Headquarters’ advance to Madang.

The defeat of 81st Operation had shown us the difficulty of transport in view of the enemy’s air power, so that even if we made detailed and thorough plans, if we did not break the enemy’s air strength at Buna, the same foolishness would be repeated. And to plan the destruction of the enemy base at Buna with our present air strength was reckless and impracticable. In any case, the 17th Area Army’s fighting on Munda and Kolambangara was at its climax, and it was unthinkable that we could use our inferior air strength on two fronts.

The navy had also been hard hit in this air and sea engagement. To cooperate in the engagement the Commander of the Combined fleet kindly spared 8 of the latest type destroyers, though the thought of despatching them made his heart bleed. The loss of these ships would mean the failure of the Combined fleet’s functions, and therefore the defeat of No. 81 Operation had a great influence on all naval operations.

Admiral YAMAMOTO was greatly incensed and came to Rabaul but was gradually mollified.

I think that here, to conclude the chapter on 81st Operation I should include two anecdotes. They are the disasters of the construction of the road on the north coast of New Britain and of 115th Regiment’s flag.

About the end of January the dominating hope of the brains of the Army was to help as quickly as possible the Okabe Detachment, which had been defeated in the attack on Wau, and also to hold the Lae and Salamaua strategic area. Transport vessels were again requested but it was difficult to plan for combined army and navy operations and it was not at all clear when the hoped for day would arrive. This plan of senior headquarters was no plan. The whole situation of the navy and shipping precluded it. The army at the time had at its disposal the main strength of 51st Division and 65th Mixed Brigade and the replacements for South Seas Detachment who had arrived from Japan; several thousand officers and men. It did not seem wise to assemble these, march them the length of New Britain, and considering the Dampier Strait as a river, to cross to the coast of New Guinea. In any case, working on the assumption that it would be possible for the main strength of 51st Division to advance to the east coast of Dampier Strait in less than three months, it was decided to build the New Britain north coast road. The construction of this road was confronted with a considerable amount of difficulty, but thanks to the great efforts of all units, and particularly the self-sacrificing endeavours of Lt Col MOTOMICHI, commander of 51st Engineer regiment, it was gradually successfully accomplished across New Britain and the foremost reconnaissance units advanced as far as the vicinity of Talasea, the centre of New Britain. As I have mentioned before, the Engineer Unit of 21st Independent Mixed Brigade had opened up a road, for shipping activities, on the south coast; it now was clear that, given time, this enterprise would be completed. Just then it was reported that it was possible to begin 81st Operation. Although we asked the superior headquarters concerned with the building of the road, -What are we building so leisurely; will the day soon come when can use it to advance to New Guinea?反 However, I assert that there was never any malicious intention whatsoever in our mental attitude. The people engaged in building the road were wild with joy when they heard about the beginning of convoy transport, but could not help feeling that it was wasted effort to have built the road. But the subsequent battle situation showed that it had never been wasted effort to labour on the road. For when the enemy attacked Tsurubu airfield from the end of 1943 to 1944 and 17th Division counter attacked, and again, for the defence of the Rabaul area until the end of the war, a great deal was owned to the activity of the units which had built the road, and to their reconnaissance parties.

Next was the miraculous return of 15th Regiment’s flag. It was held by Colonel ENDO, commanding officer of the Regiment, who embarked on the Oikawa Maru. On 1st March the ship was attacked by aircraft and a fire broke out and the flag-bearers jumped into the sea with the flag. In accordance with emergency precautions, it floated, and was in the water near 2nd-Lt IDE, a platoon leader of 1st Shipping Engineer Regiment. Clinging to a collapsible raft, he went to the rescue of the flag. About ten officers and men and flag-bearers who had been in the ship were clinging to the raft also. In a twinkling it was carried along by the swift current of the Dampier Strait. There had been many casualties, but either because heaven lent them protection or else because they all counterfeited death and gave the impression of aimlessly drifting, they were not seen by the enemy planes which came down to shoot individual drifters, and thus they avoided their raking fire; and pushed along like an arrow they floated as far as the vicinity of Goodenough Island. Suffering from hunger they caught fish and ate them; assailed by thirst, they collected rain in canvas; if there came a breeze they used this canvas as a sail, trying desperately to go further and further north to strike some point on New Britain During this time, in an extremity of weariness and fatigue, the flag-bearers and several of the troops died, but 2nd-Lt IDE and Sergeant NAMIKI, the senior member of the flag-bearers, now encouraging each other, now directing each other, after more than a month of utmost effort eventually drifted ashore at a point east of Gasmata. By chance they contacted Naval Ensign SAKAGUCHI, commander of the Gasmata Airfield anti aircraft defence unit. They were then able to return to Rabaul safely bringing back the regimental flag. It was really a case of URASHIMA Taro. (T.N. URASHIMA Taro is a Jap Rip Van Winkle. He went down under the sea, and on returning to the shore found he had been in the sea-palace for 500 years or so.)

At the time there were a great number of interesting stories such as this. There were people who drifted as far as Buna, or were able to return by using a cutter which drifted alongside them, or who had weapons and killed the enemy. There were people who were saved by the kindness of the natives, who took them to Mambare base. Although almost all the ships were sunk, losses were limited, and we were able to profit from the experience of the defeat of 81st Operation.

Printed on 06/14/2024 03:37:22 PM