The Japanese never again attempted to reinforce New Guinea from Rabaul
BATTLE OF BISMARCK SEA
The month of March saw the 38th settled into 17 mile Airdrome, but still operating with only two Squadrons. It was to be a very busy month for both the 71st and 405th. The Japanese had lost the battle of Buna and were running short of supplies due to the incessant raids by the 5th AF on supply dumps and harbor installations at Lae and Finchaven.
The harbor at Rabaul was crowded with shipping and search planes were constantly monitoring the sea lanes for Japanese convoys attempting to re-supply Lae and Finchaven. On the 1st of March a B-24 located a large convoy of eight to eleven large merchant vessels being escorted by eight destroyers. The 2nd of March the convoy was located and attacked by B-17s and B-24s and two freighters were claimed sunk or damaged. The survivors were picked up and taken to Lae by destroyers. When the battle results were in after the 4th of March, they were the lucky ones.
The third of March found the planes of the 38th armed and ready to join the largest combined group of B-17s,B-24s, Australian Beaufighters, a-20s and B-25s that had ever been organized by the 5th AF. The Heavies were to bomb at 8500 feet , the 71st was to bomb from 5,000 ft and the 405th and four squadrons of A-20s and B-25s of the Third Bomb Group plus Beaufighters of the Royal Australians Air Force were to strafe and skip bomb the flotilla. The Third Bomb Group had A-20s and B-25s that had been converted to Strafers by Pappy Gunn and they were to prove their worth with a vengeance.
The first day of the month shows the 405th flying a 2 hour and thirty minute photo mission to Morobe and 90 photos were taken. The same afternoon the 405th launched one plane on a search mission. No missions were flown on the second day of March. The morning of the third the 71st and 405th each launched seven (7) B-25s each loaded with four 500 pound bombs, each fused with 5 second delay fuses.
One of the 405th planes had to turn back, but the remaining 13 planes flew the Owen Stanley’s without mishap and the 38th joined the armada attacking the Huon Convoy. The P-38’s were flying top cover and kept the Japanese Zeros away from the bombers for the most part although the B-17’s were attacked and two planes were lost.
The Australian Beaufighters led the low level attack strafing the antiaircraft positions on the destroyers and merchant vessels. Major Cheli led the 405th in their skip bombing attack followed by the Third Attack with their modified A-20s and B-25s. The A-20s had been modified with eight forward firing .50 caliber machine guns in the nose. The B-25s had four package guns and four more .50 caliber machine guns in the nose. These planes created havoc when they strafed their way in and then skip bombed their targets.
The 71st bombed from medium altitude and scored well before leaving the scene of the slaughter and heading for Durand. The planes were hurriedly rearmed, and Col. O’Neill again led the group back to the area and the 38th continued to sink anything that was floating. Pittman and Middlebrook found a Jap Destroyer leaving the scene of battle and sunk it with a mast high run from bow to stern right down the middle of the destroyer. Garrett Middlebrook’s account follows:
The explosion was so great that I was startled in disbelief. Two bombs penetrated below deck into the interior of the ship and exploded a fraction of a second apart. The entire ship seemed to rise several feet, almost out of the water, while a series of other bombs, dropped by our wingman, exploded just along its hull on the opposite side from us sending up water geysers higher than the superstructures, and, at the same time, splitting the outer platting of the vessel with tremendous concussions.
The following day on the fourth of March, the 5th AAF returned sinking lifeboats, rafts and anything that the Japanese soldiers or sailors were using to stay afloat. The sharks were numerous and fed well for the next few days. Two more missions were flown by the 405th on 5 March looking for any Japanese who might still be afloat. Sherman stated it best when he said “War is Hell.”
The records show that in the period of 1 – 4 March 1943, the 38th in conjunction with other elements of the Fifth Air Force, participated in an attack on a Japanese convoy spotted in the Bismarck Sea. The entire convoy of transport vessels, cargo ships and escorting destroyers, was completely annihilated; the official score of the 38th in this battle of the Bismarck Sea was four destroyers sunk or damaged and six cargo vessels destroyed or damaged. For this outstanding performance the group won the commendations of the theater commander, General Douglas MacArthur and General George C. Kenney, then the chief of the Fifth Air Force.
(The following eyewitness account of an air attack on the Japanese convoy at the entrance to New Guinea’s Huon Gulf was written for the AP by Capt. W. S. Royalty of Peoria, Ill., navigator in a Mitchell bomber which scored a direct hit on a transport. Three Japanese light cruisers, seven destroyers, a dozen transport and cargo ships and 102 planes were destroyed during the battle of which he presents one phase.)
SOMEWHERE IN NEW GUINEA, March– We took off as No. 7 in a flight of B-25s about 8:30 a.m. We had heard several reports as to what the convoy consisted of. Naturally everyone was a bit nervous in anticipation.
We knew from previous experiences, that there would be Zeros protecting the ships, but we also knew we were to have some P-38s for top cover. After the way these P-38s have shown themselves in the past two or three months, it made us feel fairly safe from the Zeros.
Our planes were the first flight over the rendezvous point, which was some distance from the convoy’s last reported position south of Finschafen. We circled around, waiting for the rest of the planes in the coordinated attack.
Planes Swarm Out
As we made the first circle we could see coming from the mountains an almost unbelievable number of planes. A number of B-17s were getting into formation slightly above us. Below us three separate flights of B-25s were already in formation and beginning to circle. Below also were a great number of Beaufighters, A-20s and P-40s, all in formation more or less.
A few thousand feet above, I counted a number of P-38s in formations of twos, threes and fours. It was the most concentrated flight of aircraft any of us had ever seen. After we had circled twice, all the planes started for the convoy at once. Our flight followed two flights of three B-17s each.
Cruiser Opens Fire
About 30 miles out, we saw some ships of the convoy. Nearest to us as we came closer were what seemed to be two cruisers and three destroyers? These ships were making violent maneuvers and their wakes were stringing out 10 to 12 times their lengths. I counted six transports and cargo vessels on the other side of these warships and at least two more warships still farther on. The
warships were moving fast, but the cargo ships seemed to be almost at a standstill.
We followed along behind the B-17s as they flew parallel to the line of warships and the nearest cruiser threw three broadsides at us – it looked like the whole ship was lighted up. As we got opposite this ship, the B-17s turned off to go over the convoy.
Our flight went on for a minute or more and then turned in also. As we turned, another broadside left the cruiser and immediately afterward, one of the bombs from a B-17 hit that ship at dead center and huge clouds of smoke billowed out.
I didn’t have the time to watch it anymore. Below I saw almost an endless stream of planes strafing and bombing every ship in the convoy. A B-25 scored a direct hit on a large transport – and the whole stern blew up and burned fiercely.
We lined up on three transports and started a bombing run and then I saw seven or eight Zeros at about 12 o’clock (straight ahead) along them. They started some good dogfights, but other things happening attracted my attention.
We were just dropping our bombs at the middle transport of three. Pictures showed later that we made a direct hit and some near misses.
As we turned to leave for home, we saw at least five ships smoking and three of these flaming. A-20s, Beaufighters, B-25s and B-17s were still strafing and bombing all the ships I could see.
The Rest of March
The rest of March was relatively quiet, several photo missions were flown to the Trobriand Islands and Dobodura .Weather recon missions and patrol activity we flown on almost every day. On the 28th and 30th of March the 405th attacked Lae, Salamaua and Finchaven.
The 38th continued to fly a few medium altitude missions but were also flying more minimum altitude missions without nose guns. This continued into May of 1943 when the first planes were rotated south to have nose guns installed and the air crews took on a more optimistic view of skip bombing because they could strafe their way into the target. The use of Parafrag Bombs was experimented with and would soon be added to their arsenal of weapons. White Phosphorous had been used but napalm was also being developed and would see wide use in the coming months.