Australia-Japan Research Project

Australian and Japanese attitudes to the war
Southern Cross: XVI Air and shipping position in New Guinea

As I have mentioned before, the air units which participated in the New Guinea campaign were first the 6th Flying Division under the command of Lt Gen SAKABANA, Shirogane Flying Group, its main body, having advanced from Manchuria. Already they had advanced in May 1943 to But and Wewak airfields and co-operated in 51st Division’s operations at Lae and Salamaua and helped the Army’s fighting.

Next, the main strength of 6th Flying Division, which had concentrated in the Rabaul area, with its various units from the H.Q. down, gradually advanced to New Guinea. They based themselves on the But east-west airfield and the Wewak east-west airfield, and as occasion demanded, at the time of Hansa, Alexishafen and Madang, advanced to Lae airfield and co-operated. Because of the importance of the air in the whole of the Army’s New Guinea campaign, and because of the daily increase in the Allied air strength, the 4th Air Army was freshly organized (O.C. Lt Gen TERAMOTO) and the 7th Flying Division, at that time in action in the Java Area, was transferred (O.C. Lt Gen SUTO); these two Divisions were to be used in conjunction for a large-scale, desperate air campaign.

This was proof indeed that Imperial General headquarters regarded the New Guinea campaign as very important.

Although the Burma campaign had opened and large scale operations were developing on the mainland of China, half of the air strength, which constituted a third of the nation’s forces, was poured into the vital New Guinea area.

Lt Gen SUTO, commander of 7th Flying Division, at the end of July left the Java area and advanced to But airfield.

The airfield was insufficient but he saw to the completion of its concealment installations, and was able to use the Hansa and Alexishafen airfields. About August 1943 the air units in New Guinea reached their peak, and the army ground units which had advanced over the Hagen Tableland and as far as the enemy air bases at far off Buna and Moresby were able to relax to the extent of thinking they could sleep peacefully. But so on, about mid-August, the airfields at Wewak and But were bombed heavily and almost 100 crack planes were lost. Not only were the air troops despondent, but so also were the troops of 13th Army.

In mid-September there was a second heavy raid and 40 or 50 aircraft were lost. This time the despondency was very great. The first raid was immediately before the Hopoi landing, the second at the beginning of the big move of the Lae and Salamaua groups. The first was a very heavy raid which caused our air force considerable damage, and the enemy profited by it to land at Hopoi and open the drop on Nadzab.

The land units, trusting implicitly in the strength of the air force, now found themselves anxiously waiting. As long as there were planes, ships could load normally and carry out their proportion of transport smoothly, the empty stomachs they complained about, on one third rations, might get an increase to one half rations; there might be tit-bits and sake from Japan, letters from their beloved wives and children, or parents; but now they only waited anxiously for these. This sheet anchor for their hope was now lost. Their despondency was complete.

As far as letters were concerned, every time a ship came, it gave preference to food in its unloading. Particularly in the case of distant areas such as Lae, Salamaua and Finschhafen, there was no means of transport, which was most unfortunate.

The transport ships from Japan which came to New Guinea were fully laden, but their time for unloading in New Guinea harbours was strictly limited and they could do no more than unload a small part of the cargo. At first their stay in New Guinea was about twenty-four hours, but as a precaution against air raids it was gradually reduced to 18, then 12, then 8 hours; finally it was only permitted at night.

The extent of the damage the enemy aircraft could inflict during the unloading depended on our aircraft capacity to cover the anchorages and the coast. This was the crux of the transport warfare.

The enemy’s aim was to attack during unloading. Our desire was to unload lots of goods and to have plenty of time to do it. We wanted to unload systematically. Enticing away the enemy planes so that the unloading units could work at full speed was rather like the childhood game of "Puss in the Corner".

Every available weapon of aircraft, anti-aircraft/guns and land units which might serve to bring down a plane must be used. The loading units were unloading in the face of certain death, and the land units had to co-operate with them so that unloading, collecting and distributing could be carried out; it therefore became a might battle.

A convoy was formed at Palau and was to make for New Guinea under naval escort. Just as it was about to leave Palau harbour it suffered its first attack, from an enemy submarine which had sneaked into the harbour. Fortunately, as a result of the action of its defensive elements, no damage was suffered. Although it was spared this trouble, during its long voyage it was attacked for the second time when it was sighted by long range patrol planes. Happily it was able to come into harbour at Hansa and Wewak without harm, but while in the anchorage was attacked for the third time. This time the majority of the convoy was burned or sunk. Those ships which escaped the gates of this hell were attacked for the fourth time on the return voyage. This time the convoy was completely wiped out and not one ship was able to return to its base at Palau.

In June 1943 the food in the Madang neighbourhood ran out; rations were reduced to a quarter, and most people were prepared to be lost when two sea trucks (5 or 6 hundred ton types) tried to see if they could penetrate into Madang. On these boats were the equipment and material for equipping the Alexishafen airfield and also the airfield establishment unit, under the command of Major MORISHITA. Naturally, on the voyage between Madang and Hansa, they had direct air protection from our flying units. When I heard the report that these sea trucks were approaching, I came out of the jungle, and climbed to a vantage point. I looked at the coconut palms of Leo Island in the far distance, in front of me, until my eyes were sore, and joyfully watched the moving sea trucks.

The two boats moved past island after island, and then the front one changed course to enter Madang Harbour. The officers and men watched with great joy and shouted "Tomorrow we’ll have plenty of food, and sake and tobacco, and we’ll be able to send some mail!" Suddenly the Madang anti-aircraft guns opened up a hideous noise, all together. Heavens! Startled by this calamity, I looked up and saw five or six North American planes come flying over the palm trees and swooping down on the trucks.

Trapped, unable to do a thing, the two trucks were the victims of a low level attack before our gaze. The first truck sank immediately and the second burst into flame and clouds of smoke.

The soldiers who were watching screamed loudly and burst out crying. Seeing their dream vanish, there was nothing else for them to do.

A little later, in March 1944, I was on the coast at Boikin when a transport convoy of three ships, protected by several destroyers, came into Wewak Harbour. At the time food and ammunition were short in Wewak, and this was a cheering sight. Next day I went down to the shore again to see them off on their return journey. In those days, to carry out a complete unloading and loading was rare and a cause for rejoicing.

Aboard this convoy there were a number of officers and troops who were to serve in the defence of Hollandia and Aitape, and I returned to H.Q., praying for their safety. That afternoon there was a signal from the Air Force, which gave me a ghastly surprise. It stated that that morning the entire convoy and its escort had been destroyed, at sea, east of Aitape. I asked the Air Force if there was some mistake but they replied that the message was correct. At that time the main body of the Air Force had already transferred Hollandia; there were only a few tens of planes left, and it was difficult to expect them to protect all convoys. And although I say that the Air Force had transferred to Hollandia, as a result of the March air attack on Wewak, not too much could be expected of them, as they were smarting from their wounds.

The enemy had acted meaninglessly. I couldn’t help wondering why they hadn’t attacked during the loading at Wewak. Why wait till the convoy was returning? It made me suspect that the Wewak Japanese forces would be destroyed. Perhaps it was our last water and Japanese rice. Because on 24th April the enemy decided to land at Aitape and Hollandia. Perhaps if the convoy had ignored the Aitape area and gone directly to Palau it would have avoided attack. From the moment it headed towards Aitape and Hollandia it was doomed.

At the beginning of 1944 I flew over Wewak and Hansa harbours and looked down on all the ships which had been sunk in the harbours. How many ships projected out of the blue waters on pure white reefs! They lay side by side across the harbour. How despairing it was! And how many troops and members of the crews found the same graves as the ships!

How much damage had our air forces inflicted on enemy shipping? Because of our limited information it was not possible to know, but most likely it was only slight.

I remember that in August 1943 Army GOC TERAMOTO and Chief of Staff AKIYAMA, from Wewak, paid a visit to our H.Q. at Motosan. I said plainly that I thought the duties of the air units were different here from in continental campaigns. It was necessary to extend all our cares for the New Guinea land fighting. What we wanted was attacks on enemy shipping. If their shipping was knocked, they would be in difficulties both for landing and for supplies. The army did not answer although requests were made from the front line. It did not look as if our hope would ever be fulfilled.

The big raid on Wewak in mid August was really a fatal blow to the air force. And the continuous big raids, till the end of August, on the Madang and Alexishafen areas, meant the destruction of each airfield. Following on these heavy bombings, on 4th September there occurred the landing at Hopoi and the paratroop drop on Nadzab, and this was because the air force could not make any move.

The Air Force, because of these heavy blows, needed urgently replacement aircraft from Japan, but this was not easy to accomplish. The homeland air units were carrying out supplementary transport as far as the Philippines, and after the Philippines it was completely in the hands of the Air Force itself. If there were fighter planes, there would be great trouble in what could be transported for bombers. Even with the crew that could be carried in one transport plane, they could only transport two or three planes. Therefore the transport capacity was extremely low, and no quick assembly could be anticipated. Another particular difficulty was aircraft equipment. Equipment from Japan, to the extent in which it was needed, was completely non-existent.

Another serious problem was a reserve of aircrew. Apart from the sicknesses to be expected when living in New Guinea, they suffered heavy losses from accumulated exhaustion after continuous days and nights of flying. Although it was completely impossible to replace pilots locally, efforts were made to replace signallers, machine-gunners, etc. from the land forces.

Already there had been seen the edifying spectacle of cutting by hand the grass on the airfields, but after the bombing raids, to repair the damage the whole units went out and worked from night till dawn. And even after they repaired them, they still had to repair the effects of later bombings.

When 7th Flying Division moved to the Celebes, there was indignation among many of the land officers and men that on such an important occasion air units from New Guinea were selected. I strongly opposed this, because the few bombers, although not able to attack shipping, were vital for New Guinea. At this time they must have been training in the rear area. True, a few tens of planes, a reconnaissance squadron, were transferred from the Burma front line, and perhaps they could achieve some results by independent attacks at the Hopoi and Finschhafen and Gunbi landings.

Compared with American aircraft, Japanese aircraft had many defects. They had bomb-aiming instruments and other flying aids but the electrical wiring of the engine was not concealed. So when they encountered a squall the engine seized and the plane force-landed. It was a source of perpetual despair in New Guinea that planes were unable to fly because of squalls. Every time I met Lt Gen SAKABANA, commander of 6th Air Division, he used to grumble, "Planes made like paper are no good, we have to make planes that won’t burn!" Until I came to New Guinea I did not realise how inflammable were the Japanese-made duralumin planes. Naturally, I knew that Aluminium was inflammable, but I thought duralumin had eliminated this defect.

Printed on 06/14/2024 03:08:03 PM