B25 returns from Rabaul bombing raid
Battle of the Bismark Sea: Japanese ship movements (black) and Allied air attacks (red) during the battle.
Rabaul: Captured on 23 January 1942, becoming the cornerstone of Japan’s position in the Southwest Pacific. The action allied one of the best natural harbors in the region with a complex of four major and one minor airfields, supporting 200-300 aircraft and heavy antiaircraft defenses. After Guadalcanal fell to the Allies, Rabaul’s importance increased. Allied planners, however, determined to neutralize the base through aerial bombardment.
General George C. Kenney’s Fifth Air Force opened the offensive on 12 October 1943. The first attack, by 349 aircraft, was the precursor of a series of raids through 2 November that wrecked many installations, causing the Japanese to excavate replacement underground facilities. The offensive also led Admiral Koga Minechi to reinforce Rabaul with the Combined Fleet’s air groups (175 aircraft), which arrived 1 November, and Vice Admiral Kurita Takeo’s heavy cruiser force.
Koga’s reinforcement prompted a swift reaction. Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman’s Task Force 38 (Saratoga and Princeton) struck Rabaul on 5 November, heavily damaging four heavy and two light cruisers. Task Force 38, joined by Pacific Fleet carriers Essex, Bunker Hill, and Independence, attacked again on 11 November, damaging most remaining warships. The carriers beat back a Japanese counterattack, inflicting such losses that Koga withdrew his battered carrier air groups from Rabaul.
Air Solomons Command, almost 500 aircraft, constructed new airstrips at Torokina on Bougainville, 210 miles from Rabaul, initially supporting only fighters. Fighters swept over Rabaul on 17 December; heavier raids followed through 28 December, but the Japanese made good their losses. Allied attacks recommenced on 5 January, more effectively once Torokina accommodated bombers from 21 January. Two light and one medium or heavy bomber missions struck Rabaul almost daily, accompanied by strong fighter escorts. Fighter opposition remained strong. Reinforcements were flown in from Truk, but attrition took its toll. Few replacements arrived after 1 February, and surface vessels were barred from the area.
The tempo of Allied operations intensified in February. Close to 3,000 sorties were flown over Rabaul to 19 February, almost equaling the total between October and January. A major assault that day, with almost 200 aircraft in two waves, devastated the harbor and airfields and destroyed a quarter of the defending interceptors. Coming two days after the Pacific Fleet struck Truk, it induced the Japanese to withdraw their remaining serviceable fighters. Unescorted Allied bombers assailed Rabaul daily to 15 May, dropping 7,410 tons of bombs on the town and harbor, airfields, and supply dumps. Rabaul was neutralized, despite its garrison of 100,000 troops.
The Japanese occupied Rabaul on New Britain in January 1942 during the Hundred Days campaign. They quickly built the capital of the Bismarck Archipelago into their major air and naval base in the South Pacific, home to major naval assets and Japanese 11th Air Fleet. General Douglas MacArthur proposed to retake Rabaul in Operation CARTWHEEL (1943), as part of his larger effort to reach the Philippines via New Guinea. The campaign began with raids and “quarantine” via reduction of nearby Japanese bases. The invasion of Bougainville that started on November 1, 1943, was supported by bombing raids by Task Force 58 that suppressed Japanese land-based air power across the eastern Marshall Islands, and did much to neutralize the 100,000 man garrison on Rabaul. Madang Island, located between New Guinea and New Britain, was assaulted in late December. The Arawe peninsula on New Guinea was finally cleared of defenders by January 16, 1944. A month later New Zealanders took the Green Islands, further isolating Rabaul. Once the Admiralty Islands also succumbed, Rabaul was cut-off. It was then decided to bypass Rabaul as part of the new island-hopping strategy. The New Britain campaign was modified to continue to isolate Japanese forces in Rabaul, while avoiding a direct assault on the garrison. Thereafter, Rabaul was intermittently bombed, initially from fast carrier task forces but later from captured or newly built air bases on Bougainville and other islands. The demoralized and undersupplied Japanese left in Rabaul surrendered on September 6, 1945. Allied intelligence thought there were only 32,000 Japanese inside the base. It was a shock to take 53,000 soldiers and 16,000 sailors and Rikusentai into captivity.
The putative aim of the New Guinea fighting in 1943 and 1944 was to reach the great Japanese base at Rabaul. While carrier air made substantial contributions to the advance, the Fifth Air Force with its land-based aircraft was even more important in gaining air superiority and isolating the battlefield. Its commander, Major-General George C. Kenney, proved one of the most adaptive and competent air commanders of the war. He also proved a tough advocate of air power and his command’s interests before MacArthur’s sycophantic staff. On Kenney’s introduction to the theater, MacArthur’s chief of staff, Brigadier-General Richard Sutherland, attempted to lecture him on how best to employ air power. Kenney grabbed a piece of paper off Sutherland’s desk, put a dot in the center with a pencil, and announced that the dot represented what the chief of staff knew about air power, while the surrounding sea of white represented what he (Kenney) knew.
General Hap Arnold had sent Kenney to the theater in August 1942 to clean up a monumental mess in which a badly run command was making little contribution to winning the war, while wasting large amounts of resources. Kenney cleared the field by firing five generals and a host of colonels. The atmosphere in the Fifth Air Force became one of energy and determination; its air crews were now going to kill Japanese in large numbers. So far the Fifth Air Force had stolidly followed pre-war doctrine by bombing Japanese ships from a high altitude, where enemy flak rarely reached. The results were spectacular water spouts, huge numbers of dead fish and little damage to the Japanese. Kenney immediately decreed that even the B-17s would bomb from lower altitudes. He modified his B-25 medium bombers to carry eight machine-guns in their nose and began an intensive program to retrain aircrews to attack from low altitude by ‘skipping’ their bombs directly into enemy ships.
As a retrained and refocused force, Kenney’s aircraft and crews made a decisive showing in the battle of the Bismarck Sea. The Japanese were involved in a major reinforcement to move their 51st Division from Rabaul to New Guinea. Eight transports, supported by eight destroyers, with 100 aircraft flying cover, moved along the New Britain coast out into the Solomon Sea. Alerted by Magic intercepts, Kenney and the Fifth Air Force were ready: Initial attacks by B-17s got two transports, and as Japanese ships moved through the Dampier Strait, their lookouts caught sight of nearly 100 Allied aircraft headed at full speed and at very low level straight toward them. B-25s, A-20s and Australian Beaufighters slashed into the Japanese convoy: By evening Allied aircraft had sunk the transports and half the destroyers; Allied aircrews then strafed the lifeboats to kill survivors. The Japanese 51st Division lost most of its staff, all its equipment and over 3,000 soldiers.
To counter the growth in Allied air effectiveness, Admiral Yamamoto scraped together 300 planes from the army and the carriers to attack Allied airfields throughout the Solomons and New Guinea. The raids inflicted insubstantial damage, but added to the severe attrition of the Japanese air forces. Meanwhile, the Americans were receiving more aircraft and pilots and introducing new and substantially improved models into the fighting. On the army air force side, the P38 ‘Lightning’, with its great range and capacity to loiter at high altitude, was a serious threat to Japanese fighters. On the navy side, the introduction of the F6F Hellcat provided a margin of superiority to naval pilots in the air-to-air arena.
The result was similar to what was happening to the Luftwaffe at this time. Air battles over the Solomons and New Guinea depleted the few remaining experienced Japanese pilots; their replacements received less and less training and consequently died at an increased rate. Having done little to prepare a solid base, the Japanese proved profligate with the lives of their fliers and then desperately had to fill the seats left by the destruction of the highly skilled pilot force with ill-trained and ill-prepared pilots. Saburo Sakai, returning to training with one good eye, records:
I found it hard to believe, when I saw the new trainees staggering along the runway, bumping their way into the air. The navy was frantic for pilots, and the school was expanded every month, with correspondingly lower entrance requirements … everything was urgent! We were told to rush the men through, to forget the fine points. One after the other, singly, in twos or threes, the training planes smashed into the ground, skidded wildly through the air … It was a hopeless task.
The Americans on the other hand made good their losses with new pilots who were given increased flying time and now with superior aircraft they held a double advantage. Symptomatic of the situation was the ambush of Admiral Yamamoto’s aircraft by P-38s in mid April 1943. Alerted by intelligence, the Americans pushed out a killing team of Lightnings, fitted with special drop tanks, to the furthest extent of their range. Off southern Bougainville, the Americans shot the Japanese admiral’s aircraft down.
References Brown, J. David. Carrier Operations in World War II: The Pacific Navies. London: Ian Allan, 1974. Craven, Wesley F., and James L. Cate, eds. The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 4: The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipan, August 1942-July 1944. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. Morison, Samuel E. Breaking the Bismarck’s Barrier. Boston: Little, Brown, 1954.