Bismarck Sea, Southwestern Pacific Ocean March 2, 1943

The Battle of Midway (June 4–7, 1942) was America’s first stra­te­gic victory against the Japa­nese Navy and a devas­tating defeat for the war­lords ruling that Asian nation. Lost were four of the six Japa­nese air­craft carriers (the bulk of the Japa­nese carrier fleet) that had taken part in the sneak attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Decem­ber 7, 1941. Midway is con­sidered the turning point in the Pacific War, despite Japan still main­taining a power­ful pre­sence through­out South­east Asia, especially in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in the latter half of 1942–early 1943 (see map below), islands that lay at the door­step of Aus­tra­lia, America’s threatened ally against expansionist Japan.

Often denied its turning-point status, the Battle of Bis­marck Sea was a repeat mauling by U.S. armed forces on Japa­nese inter­ests in the South­west Pacific, this time assisted by Aus­tra­lian service­members. In early Febru­ary 1943 U.S. naval code­breakers decrypted enemy signals that a large Japa­nese convoy was forming to land more than 9,000 fresh troops at Lae on the south side of the Huon Penin­sula of New Guinea. Several months before, the two Allies had wiped out Japa­nese invaders at Buna and nearby Gona, Aus­tra­lian-Papuan settle­ments over 160 miles south of Lae. The enemy convoy was to leave Rabaul, Japan’s stra­tegic naval and army strong­hold on the eastern tip of New Britain Island, steam to the western end of that island, pass south through the Vitiaz Strait toward Finsch­hafen, and steer west into the Huon Gulf. A suc­cess­ful Lae landing would provide the enemy with suffi­cient rein­force­ments to allow them to reclaim the initiative in New Guinea, or so it was thought.

In late February 1943 a Japanese convoy of 8 destroyer escorts, 7 troop trans­ports and a naval spe­cial ser­vice ship carrying more than 6,000 ground troops and avi­a­tion person­nel, plus a pro­tec­tive screen of 100 air­craft, was assembling at Rabaul. Mean­while, Austra­lia-based crews of U.S. and Aus­tra­lian bomb groups reporting to U.S. Fifth Air Force Maj. Gen. George Kenney were refining their killer skills. (Kenney reported directly to Gen. Doug­las Mac­Arthur, supreme mili­tary com­man­der in the South­west Pacific Theater, which included the ter­ri­tories of Papua and New Guinea and the west­ern part of the Solo­mon Islands.) The killer skills being honed were skip-bombing skills as a means of sinking or damaging enemy vessels. The idea was for a bomber to release its deadly pay­load at extremely low alti­tude (mast­head height) so that it skim­med across the water like a flat rock before striking the side of its target. Practice results were spectacular.

Of course, proof was in the battle. On this date, March 2, 1943, and over the next two days, squad­rons of Consoli­dated B‑24 Liber­ators, Martin B‑26 Marau­ders, Douglas A‑20 Havocs, North American B‑25 Mitchells, preceded by U.S. and Royal Aus­tra­lian cannon-fighter and torpedo bomber air­craft, strafed, bombed, and skip-bombed enemy ships. Off Lae on the second day Allied air forces fell on the sur­vi­ving foe. Diary entries of Japa­nese sailors and soldiers describe ship decks awash in blood. By the time the high-altitude bombers and the low-flying A‑20 and B‑25 skip-bombers had left the grue­some fray, 7 troop transports, 6 or 7 destroy­ers, and almost 3,000 Japa­nese had slipped below the green sur­face of the Bis­marck Sea or clung to flot­sam. Returning U.S. pilots and Navy fast (PT) boats were ordered to com­pletely riddle every soldier (about 1,000) and box of sup­plies still floating in the water, which they tried doing. The last troop trans­port, a dere­lict, was dis­patched to the sea­bed on March 3. Some 2,700 enemy sur­vi­vors were picked up by rescue destroyers and sub­marines during and after the killing spree and returned to Rabaul; only about 1,200 ever reached Lae. Allied losses over the 3 days were 13 aircrew, 4 fighter air­craft, and 8 wounded.

Japanese Calamity: The Battle of the Bismarck Sea, March 2–4, 1943

Battle of the Bismarck Sea: Map of Eastern New Guinea and New Britain

Above: The Battle of the Bismarck Sea (March 2–4, 1943) involved no U.S., Austra­lian, or Japa­nese war­ships with the excep­tion of Japa­nese destroyers escorting troop trans­ports and U.S. Navy PT boats providing mop-up ser­vices. Never­the­less, the Battle of the Bis­marck Sea counted as both a major World War II naval battle and a major turning point in the Pacific War in the way that the Battle of Midway did three-quarters of a year earlier. The suc­cess of the Amer­i­can and Aus­tra­lian air­crews vividly demon­strated that the claims put forth by U.S. Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell in the early 1920s, namely, that land-based bombers were a highly effec­tive wea­pon against enemy ships, were indeed true. Japa­nese hopes for regaining the ini­ti­ative on the island of New Guinea (today Papua New Guinea) after the Battle of the Bismarck Sea were dashed when the remaining and starving Japa­nese gar­ri­sons suc­cumbed to amphibi­ous and land-based offensives by U.S. and Aus­tra­lian troops and airmen under the leadership of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Battle of the Bismarck Sea: Troop transport under attack 1Battle of the Bismarck Sea: Troop transport under attack 2

Above: In the left frame a Japanese troop trans­port is under aerial attack in the Bis­marck Sea, March 3, 1943. The troop convoy carried the main body of the Japa­nese 51st Infan­try Divi­sion from Rabaul, the Japa­nese strong­hold on New Britain Island, to Lae in North­east New Guinea. The 51st Divi­sion was assigned to the Japa­nese 18th Army, whose gar­ri­son head­quarters was on New Guinea. According to one source, in the Battle of the Bis­marck Sea the 51st In­fan­try Divi­sion lost 3,664 men; only 2,427 men of the divi­sion were rescued. In the right frame a stricken Japa­nese vessel billows smoke from a bomb hit amid­ships while a fire rages in the stern. Moments later the transport settled on the bottom of the sea.

Battle of the Bismarck Sea: Skip-bombing A-20 HavocBattle of the Bismarck Sea: Beauf­ighter attack, March 3, 1943

Left: A U.S. Douglas A-20 Havoc at the moment it cleared a Japa­nese mer­chant ship following a suc­cess­ful skip-bombing attack. A more suc­cess­ful anti-ship­ping tech­nique was mast-height, or extreme low alti­tude, bombing. The two tech­niques were not mutually exclu­sive, how­ever. Air­crew could deliver their first bomb by skipping it and the second at mast height.

Right: Aerial photograph taken on March 3, 1943, of Japa­nese ships on fire after an attack by Bristol Beau­fighters of No. 30 Squa­dron Royal Aus­tra­lian Air Force. According to the offi­cial RAAF release on the Beauf­ighter attack, “enemy crews were slain beside their guns, deck cargo burst into flame, super­structures toppled and burned.” By day’s end seven trans­ports had been hit and most were burning or sinking along with three escort destroyers. Four other enemy destroyers picked up as many sur­vi­vors as pos­sible and then fled to Rabaul, accom­panied by a fifth destroyer that had been sent from Rabaul to assist in the rescue. On the evenings of March 3–5, a slew of U.S. air­craft and Navy PT boats raked Japa­nese rescue vessels, as well as the ship­wreck sur­vi­vors on life rafts and swim­ming or floating in the sea. The mur­der­ous runs were later justi­fied on grounds that rescued Japa­nese service­men would have been rapidly landed at their mili­tary desti­na­tion and promptly returned to combat, as well as retal­i­a­tion for Japa­nese pilots shooting U.S. survivors of downed aircraft.

Battle of the Bismarck Sea: Two aircraft engaged in mast-height bombingBattle of the Bismarck Sea: "Taimei Maru" under aerial attack

Left: Mast-height bombing required bombers to approach a target ship at low alti­tude, 200–500 ft, at roughly 265–275 miles per hour, and then drop down to mast height, 10–15 ft about 600 yards (55 m) from the target. The air­craft released its bombs around 300 yards (270 m) short of the target, aiming directly at it, prefer­ably broad­side. In this photo, sweeping in at mast height, two U.S. medium bombers, pro­bably Mitchell B‑25s, prepare to drop their pay­load on a Japa­nese troop transport, possibly the Taimei Maru.

Right: U.S. Fifth Air Force bombs bracket the 2,883‑ton trans­port Taimei Maru, March 3, 1943. The trans­port carried a cargo of troops, equip­ment, fuel, landing craft, and ammu­ni­tion destined for Lae on New Guinea. Of the men aboard, some 200 perished in the attack. An air­borne and sea­borne assault by U.S. and Aus­tra­lian forces on Lae in mid-Septem­ber 1943 in led to the destruction of Japanese efforts in New Guinea.

Newsreel Account of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, March 2–4, 1943