© 1996 Allyn D. Nevitt

Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Just after midnight of 1 March 1943 an important Japanese convoy cleared Rabaul and set its course along the north shore of New Britain. Packed into eight transports were major reinforcements for the garrison at Lae, New Guinea, an advance base just then coming under serious Allied pressure. On board six army troopships -- AIYO MARU, KYOKUSEI MARU, OIGAWA MARU, SHINAI MARU, TAIMEI MARU and TEIYO MARU -- were 6,000 soldiers of the 51st Division, with provisions, arms and ammunition. A seventh transport, little KEMBU MARU, was loaded with drummed aviation fuel, while the navy's "special service vessel" NOJIMA carried 400 marines.

The convoy's escort was strictly first-rate: eight of the most battle-hardened destroyers in the Imperial Navy were assembled under the flag of Rear Admiral Kimura Masatomi, Comdesron 3. Ringing the transports were SHIRAYUKI, SHIKINAMI, URANAMI, TOKITSUKAZE, YUKIKAZE, ASASHIO, ARASHIO and ASAGUMO, each one a Guadalcanal veteran many times over. Eighteenth Army commander Lieutenant General Adachi Hatazo rode in TOKITSUKAZE, and Lieutenant General Nakano Hidemitsu and staff of 51st Division in YUKIKAZE. SHIRAYUKI, wearing Admiral Kimura's flag at her truck, led the ships out of port and towards Cape Gloucester at an easy seven knots.

Each vessel taking part in Operation 81, as the movement was designated, was carefully combat-loaded for rapid disembarkation at Lae. The threat of heavy air attack en route was acknowledged and accepted: 50 percent losses were expected, but if the rest got through it could all be worth it. Lae had to be held at all costs.

Awaiting Kimura's ships on the airfields of Papua, New Guinea, lay the U. S. Fifth Army Air Force, augmented by several squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force. It numbered 129 fighters and 207 bombers, many of the latter recently up-gunned with forward-firing cannon and carrying delayed-action 500 lb. bombs. These weapons were to be used for skip-bombing, a novel anti-shipping tactic employing a low-level approach designed to slam a bomb into a ship's vulnerable underside much like a torpedo, while utterly confounding all previous antiaircraft doctrine. The Allied aircrews, well-trained and confident, awaited the call to action.

Allied reconnaissance first spotted the convoy on the afternoon of 1 March, still north of New Britain. But overcast skies shielded the ships from attack until the following morning. The Japanese had high hopes that cloud cover would protect them all the way to Lae, but when the skies began to clear they knew they were in trouble.

Early on 2 March long-range B-17s scored fatal hits on KYOKUSEI MARU, but the big transport remained afloat long enough for over 900 troops to be transferred to YUKIKAZE and ASAGUMO. Those two destroyers then left the formation, proceeded at high speed to Lae, and disembarked their passengers, including General Nakano. They rejoined the convoy early in the morning of the 3rd, by which time the troopships had "turned the corner" south through Vitiaz Strait and were entering Huon Gulf, only 80 miles from their destination.

Japanese clocks read 0755 that morning when the first large formations of enemy aircraft were reported approaching from the south. Flights of Australian Beauforts and Beaufighters joined U. S. A-20s and B-25s sweeping in at low level. Higher up, but still far below their normal bombing altitude, were the B-17s. Over all swarmed P-38, P-39 and P-40 fighters. The Japanese ships -- and some 30 Zero fighters flying combat air patrol above them -- swung to port to meet their attackers head on.

The first 15 minutes of the Allied attack were among the most devastating in the annals of air-sea warfare: no fewer than 28 of the first 37 bombs released are reported to have found their targets. KEMBU MARU exploded in a great ball of fire and was gone. By 0805 AIYO MARU, OIGAWA MARU and NOJIMA had all been hit and stopped. A few minutes later SHINAI MARU, TAIMEI MARU and TEIYO MARU began taking the first of four direct hits apiece. Deck-loads of soldiers -- those who had survived the carnage wrought by bomb explosions and cannon fire -- began going overboard in a hurry.

Nor were the destroyers' speed and maneuverability adequate proof against the onslaught. Flagship SHIRAYUKI promptly had her stern blown off; she stayed afloat only just long enough for SHIKINAMI to come alongside and remove her crew and a wounded Admiral Kimura. ARASHIO, hit by three bombs, lost rudder control and plowed into crippled NOJIMA. TOKITSUKAZE, a bomb in her engineering spaces, was also left dead in the water; YUKIKAZE removed General Adachi and all but a salvage party from her crew.

As the first waves of attackers withdrew, Kimura's five operational destroyers began dredging survivors out of the water by the hundreds. When the count had reached approximately 2,700 (submarines I-17 and I-26 would later rescue 275 more) all but ASASHIO retired up Vitiaz Strait.

Captain Sato Yasuo, Comdesdiv 8 in ASASHIO, chose to remain behind to assist ARASHIO. Thus when Allied aircraft returned in early afternoon, only ASASHIO moved among a sea of cripples. Once targeted, her fate was predictable, and a signal reporting renewed air attacks was the last ever heard from her.

One by one throughout the afternoon the gutted transports tilted and slid beneath the surface, leaving only OIGAWA MARU to be finished by two American PT-boats after dark. Kimura rendezvoused with destroyer HATSUYUKI from Kavieng, exchanged passengers for fuel, and that night returned with SHIKINAMI, YUKIKAZE and ASAGUMO to the scene of battle. They rescued 170 more men from ARASHIO and the last 20 from TOKITSUKAZE, then left the two wrecks for Allied aircraft to dispose of the following day.

The Empire had been bloodied and shocked. Japanese losses totalled all eight transports, four destroyers, 15-20 aircraft, and close to 3,000 men, in exchange for two Allied bombers and three fighters shot down. Orders went out that never again must large convoys be allowed within range of substantial enemy air power. Lae fell to Australian ground forces seven months later. "This defeat was the biggest cause of the loss of New Guinea," related a Combined Fleet staff officer after the war. "Your victory started from there."

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