Slaughter in the Bismarck Sea

By Gault, Owen | Sea Classics, April 2003 | Go to article overview
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Slaughter in the Bismarck Sea


Gault, Owen, Sea Classics


60th Anniversary of the Bottle of the Bismarck Sea

Often described as Japan's "Pearl Harbor," this unique strike against a massive troopship convoy by hard-hitting "skip-bombers" of the 5th Air

Force and US Navy PT boats significantly altered the course of the Pacific War

General Douglas MacArthur was excited.

Once assured that the voice scrambler was properly functioning so that his phone conversation with Maj. Gen. George C. Kenney could not be intercepted, the Supreme Commander Allied Forces Pacific went on to explain what was up. "George, I'm going to need everything you've got, and then some," he told the feisty leader of the newly organized 5th Army Air Force. "We've just intercepted a top secret Japanese message from Tokyo. Admiral Yamamoto intends to launch a major offensive in New Guinea. To accomplish it he's ordered 7000 crack assault troops transported from Rabaul to Lae via a 16-ship convoy ASAP. As you're well aware, it's too dangerous for thE Navy's big guns to maneuver in those uncharted waters. George, it's up to your bomber boys to stop them -- to hit 'em hard. If we don't take them all out in one fell swoop we'll be mixing it up in that damned jungle until we're all old men!"

"Sounds like this mission might be the one to test our theories about skip-bombing, General," Kenney enthusiastically asserted, eager to prove a unique new low-level bombing concept his Army flyers had been perfecting.

"Hit 'em every way you can,

George -- high altitude bombers, straffers, skip bombs-- the works. Give 'em hell. Those troops cannot be allowed to land at Lae, or anywhere else!" MacArthur insisted.

"I understand, sir," Kenney dutifully replied.

"How many planes can you put up, George?" Slightly-built 50-year-- old Kenney hesitated only briefly. "General, give me 24 hours and we can get 100 bombers and 100 fighters in the air. That's everything we have, including the Aussie Beaufighters. Incidentally, our air patrols over New Britain have already indicated an unusual amount of coastal traffic this week. We've doubled B-24 patrols to keep an eye on all ship movements."

"Good work, George. Knew I could count on you," MacArthur told him. No parade ground general, tough, irascible George C. Kenney was exactly the type of key subordinate every general savors in a shooting war. A team player known as an airmen's airman, Kenney liked nothing better than a two-fisted challenge. And he'd found one in 1942 in the torrid skies over Japanese-held New Guinea. In a matter of month's Kenny had taken the tattered remnant of the Philippines' 19th Bomb Group and transformed it into an effective strike force not only defending Australia but aggressively taking the war to the Japanese.

So a single brief phone call from MacArthur's headquarters at Government House, Port Moresby late in February 1943 set in motion the vital dynamics of one of the most critical naval encounters of World War II - The Battle of the Bismarck Sea - a unique hit and run assault between strike aircraft and surface vessels which cost the Japanese more casualties than the United States had suffered at Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the battle was to have lasting impact on MacArthur's entire Pacific War strategy. If these combat seasoned Japanese troops were allowed to land at Lae their presence would have immeasurably upset the strategic timetable of MacArthur's delicate ELKTON and RENO plan to rid New Guinea of the Japanese. In that event - his meager manpower and material resources already stressed to the limits of endurance - MacArthur would have to deploy more Allied troops in the mired down eastern New Guinea campaign thereby seriously endangering and delaying his promised return to the Philippines.

THE NEW GUINEA WAR: FRAGILE TAIL OF JAPAN'S SERPENTINE DRAGON

For all of its fetid jungles and towering mountain peaks which make thousand-mile-long New Guinea the world's second largest island, precious little was known about this equatorial hot spot's geography prior to WWII.

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