Academic journal article Air Power History

The Search for General Walker: New Insights

Academic journal article Air Power History

The Search for General Walker: New Insights

Article excerpt

Brig. Gen. Kenneth Newton Walker, one of the architects of the prewar plan for strategic air war in Europe, and commanding general Fifth Bomber Command, went missing in action on January 5th, 1943, on an unescorted daylight bombing mission to Rabaul, New Britain. The B-17F in which the general flew, Walker, and the crew have never been found. He remains one of the highest ranking unrecovered officers lost in air combat in World War II. The search in the title of this article has multiple implications. First is the search for an accurate account based on credible evidence of Walker's mission and its importance. Then there is a recounting of the search missions that took place in 1943. Finally, mention must be made of the research under taken by an eclectic group of researchers to narrow the probable location of Walker's bomber; and, unfortunately the profound lack of actual searching and apparent lack of interest shown in the case by the Joint POW-MIA Accountability Command (JPAC). New insights come from previously unexploited sources: unpublished research results, diaries from participants on both sides, and, captured Japanese documents and media reports.

Most military historians have heard of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and understand that it was seminal event in the history of air power. Most air power historians are aware of the airlift of Australian troops to Wau, New Guinea, which helped turn back a Japanese offensive in early 1943. General Walker's January 1943 mission to Rabaul targeted a Japanese convoy prior to the one in the Bismarck Sea Battle, was the first of a series of operations that thinned out Japanese reinforcements so that they were unsuccessful against Wau, led to the Bismarck Sea Battle, and, was part of turning the tide in the Pacific. The importance of action against the first Lae convoy and accurate details of Walker's mission are hard to find in published accounts that cover events of this period.

The Lae Convoy

At Lae there was an airfield which had been the headquarters of Guinea Airways, Ltd. before the war and which had been extensively used by the Japanese navy in 1942. Obscure as it was Lae had been the world's leading airport in terms of cargo tonnage in the 1930s thanks to hauling dredges, vehicles, and other heavy equipment (often broken down and welded back together on location) as well as subsistence supplies in support of gold mining operations in New Guinea's remote mountain regions. It had also been the departure point for Amelia Earhart's last flight. At nearby Malahang was a disused pre-war landing strip cleared by Lutheran missionaries. Lae and more broadly the Lae-Salamaua-Wau area was one of the "strategic areas" which the Japanese army and navy agreed late in 1942 was needed to maintain Japan's position in New Guinea and prepare for future offensive operations. As 1943 began Lae and Salamaua were garrisoned by a weak force consisting of navy construction troops, a guard unit, and two platoons of a navy special landing party ("Japanese Marines") totaling about 1,200 men; usually 200 or so in the Salamaua-Mubo area and the rest near Lae.

Wau would be the forward defense line for Lae and Salamaua but Wau was a problem. At the center of the gold mining region, it was the base for Australian troops and native scouts that kept Lae and Salamaua under observation, occasionally clashed with Japanese patrols, and, had even raided the Japanese bases. Salamaua had an infrequently used landing strip. Wau's sloping mountainside landing strip had been the terminus of many of the prewar flights from Lae, forty air miles distant but with jungle, ridges, gorges and mountains in between. (1)

In the last days of 1942, just at the time Japanese army air units were arriving in Japan's Southeast Area, Japan's strategic view changed dramatically. Departing from an offensive philosophy the Japanese Imperial General Staff decided to evacuate Guadalcanal and Buna, go over to the defense in the Solomons, and switch to an active defense and limited offensive in New Guinea. …

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