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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 22

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 24
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p225  Chapter 23

From New Britain to Morotai

The startling developments across the central Pacific have tended to overshadow a parallel movement across the southwest Pacific. While the Marshalls were being taken, the Marianas conquered, and the Carolines won, the armed forces of the Allies were beating their way from the Solomons up through New Guinea until, by the time the moment was ripe for the retaking of the Philippines, they had advanced to control Morotai, standing between the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies.

In this movement naval aviation played an important assisting role to the advancing army air and ground forces, which carried the brunt of the burden. In general, this assistance followed three lines of activity. In the first place, as in the early stages of the war, there were raids of varying intensity upon the Japanese in the region. By 15 February 1943 the southern Solomons campaign had been brought to a virtual close by our landings on Green Island. From this time on, Rabaul-bound convoys were the main targets of army bombs and Fairwing 17's "Black Cats." The latter, during 1943 and early 1944, greatly improved their technique of attack, and as a result came to be called upon more and more for special missions against Japanese convoys, rather than for routine nightly marauding patrols.

One such special mission took place on the night of 15 January 1944, when six PBY's were sent out to intercept a convoy en route from Truk to Rabaul before it could reach the safety of a weather front off New Ireland. A special communications plan was arranged, and contact was made about 0130, but it took some time to get all the planes together as the work had to be done largely by correlating radar "blips" with an occasional sight contact. The enemy was traveling in two separate convoys about eight miles apart, but during the attack became so confused that all ships were milling about together, and the antiaircraft fire set up, although heavy, was so dispersed that it was ineffectual.  p226 On the first run‑in, one of our planes scored two hits on what turned out to be a 10,000‑ton oiler that flared like a torch. The light from this doomed craft made it easier to make attacks on the rest of the convoy, and two merchantmen were hit and left dead in the water.

Not only was Japanese shipping struck, but enemy strongholds were also the subject of attack. Principal targets were Rabaul and Kavieng. Big navy PB4Y's (Liberators) of VB‑106 patrolled the area, and in February, 1944, in addition to their regular duties, were especially effective as "spotters" for destroyer attacks. Carrier groups also entered the picture attacking both Kavieng and Rabaul as well as raiding shipping bound for these ports. From early in 1944 to the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, land-based navy and marine TBF's and SBD's, accompanied by F4U's and F6F's, gave Rabaul and Kavieng a regular going over, from raids two or three times a week to daily attacks. These operations contributed heavily to keeping down any Japanese attempts to make effective use of these bases as our forces swept along the New Guinea coast and into the Admiralties.

An important aspect of naval air activity in the southwest Pacific was the extension of bases to keep pace with the advance of Allied ground forces. During the latter part of 1943 and the early months of 1944, the outstanding New Guinea seaplane base was Samarai, on Milne Bay. The tide of conquest, however, opened new bases along the northern New Guinea coast and on near‑by islands. The most important development of base facilities in the southwest Pacific began in March, 1944. This was the construction of a major naval repair and supply base on Manus, in the Admiralty Islands. This island has one of the finest harbors of the entire area and commands the Bismarck Sea and the northeast coast of New Guinea. It was found to be lightly defended and was quickly occupied. PBY's of VP‑34 assisted in the first landings by slipping in a reconnaissance party and picking it up on the following morning from a rubber boat. On 25 March, only ten days after the invasion of Manus, ComAir Seventh Fleet transferred his headquarters and Fairwing 17's operations into the forward area, and operated under the Thirteenth Air Force.

Along the northern New Guinea coast, Japanese shipping could not make the short runs from island to island at night which had been possible earlier. The ever-increasing Army Air Force daytime sweeps were thus reducing the "Black Cats" to searches for slim pickings. Furthermore, by 12 April, long-range PB4Y Liberators of VB‑106 were in the area. In their long flights to spy out enemy activity, they even  p227 reached the Japanese-dominated Philippines. The fact that the "Black Cats" were being curtailed in their activities to special missions, did not mean that the Catalina was no longer useful. As night operations declined, air‑sea rescue became more important.

One remarkable rescue was made at Kavieng on 15 February. The pilot of a PBY received a call that a B‑25 was down in the water. Securing fighter cover, the pilot went to the area and found not one but several planes downed in the harbor. Undeterred by the heavy swell, the navy pilot made four separate landings and effected the rescue of the crews of five B‑25's. The last take‑off was with twenty-four persons aboard.

Supporting Operations
in the Netherlands East Indies

In addition to attacking enemy shipping and bases in the southwest Pacific, naval aviation contributed to the effort by carrying out supporting operations in the Netherlands East Indies. During 1943 and well into 1944, PBY's of PatWing 10, as well as other planes of the Allies made raids from western Australia, doing considerable damage and keeping the Japanese invaders on the defensive.

Prior to 1944 there had been little in the way of offensive operations by the Allies in the Indian Ocean area, and, indeed, there had been a good deal of criticism of the lack of such operations by the British sea forces available in the Indian Ocean. It will be pointed out, however, that the British at this time had only one carrier, the Illustrious, with a complement of forty planes, available for fleet operations. The other carriers in the region, including CVE's of the U. S. Navy at various times, were primarily assigned to the protection of convoys carrying land-based army planes and supplies to the India-Burma theater.

In March, 1944, however, there was a new development. The carrier Saratoga, with two destroyers in attendance, left our naval base at Majuro in the Gilberts on the fourth, with orders to join the British Eastern Fleet. Stopping first at ports in Australia, the Saratoga continued on its way and made rendezvous with the British on 27 March about a thousand miles south of Ceylon, and participated in fleet exercises for almost a month preparatory to making diversionary strikes at the Netherlands East Indies at the same time that the Hollandia landings were to be made.

The first of the strikes was made on 19 April against Sabang, a Japanese base at the northern tip of Sumatra. A feint, in the form of  p228 a preliminary raid on the Andaman Islands had thrown the Japanese off guard, and the main raid was a marked success. Saratoga fliers sank a transport and left another smoking, in addition to strafing and causing considerable damage to other shipping and shore installations, including near‑by airfields and parked aircraft. The lone American pilot shot down was picked up by a British submarine which maneuvered under the point-blank range of a coastal gun, while twelve fighter pilots ruthlessly strafed the decks of a Japanese destroyer that attempted to interfere in the rescue operations.

The second strike was made at Soerabaja, in Java (which had become the most important Japanese base in the Netherlands East Indies) and did considerable damage. This strike was made to co‑ordinate with a southwest Pacific command advance in New Guinea, where landings were being made on Wadke. The Allies were fighting a co‑ordinated war; the left hand knew what the right hand was doing.

Naval Air Support
of Hollandia and Morotai Operations

In addition to harassing raids on enemy bases and shipping in the southwest Pacific and attacks in the Netherlands East Indies, naval aviation in April, 1944, returned to its familiar task of giving air support to amphibious operations. This time the target was the north coast of New Guinea, and landings were to be made at both Hollandia and Aitape. The amphibious force assembled for this operation was the largest group of the sort yet brought together in this area. The landing force was supported by strong elements of the United States and Australian fleets, including five task groups of aircraft carriers, with a total of nineteen flattops.

The principal prizes in the Hollandia area were the network of three airfields at the base of a rugged chain of mountains, the former Dutch seaplane base on Lake Sentani, and the best anchorage in that part of New Guinea. Our forces, feinting at Palau before turning abruptly south toward Hollandia at night, met hardly any opposition either on land or in the air. A single enemy plane attacked one of the Humboldt Bay beachheads on the night of 23 April, and on the following night one of our destroyers was attacked by twelve torpedo planes without damage to the vessel. In addition to the work done by the Fifth Air Force in the pre‑invasion softening of the area, it was estimated that navy carrier planes of Task Force 58 destroyed 132 aircraft — 16 as they  p229 attempted to take off in the target area, 13 downed by combat air patrols over a ten‑day period, and the remainder destroyed on the ground. From 21 to 24 April, the task force planes flew over 3,000 sorties in support of the Hollandia landings. Nearly 750 tons of bombs were dropped, mainly in advance of troop landings, and rockets were used by TBF planes from the Hornet and the Bunker Hill.

In addition to demonstrating the potent effect of carrier air support of amphibious operations, in this case far beyond what turned out to be actually needed, the Hollandia-Aitape campaign gave an excellent dress rehearsal for the composite operations of many ships and air components all working together to make one large and intricately co‑ordinated attack. Such tremendous undertakings were not long in coming in another area of the Pacific war; within six weeks we were to invade the Marianas.

In comparison with the Marianas campaign and other operations in the central Pacific, naval aviation's support of the continuing amphibious operations in the southwest Pacific was relatively minor. An exception was the conquest of Morotai, the last steppingstone to the Philippines. Strategically located, Morotai in our hands would place the Philippines, Borneo, and the Netherlands East Indies within range of our growing air power. The island, furthermore, straddled the Japanese supply lanes, and in our hands could be used to cut off vast territories under enemy control, not the least among which were the oil fields of Balikpapan and Tarakan, on Borneo.

The conquest of Morotai was, as it turned out, merely a part of a larger campaign aimed at placing our forces in a position to advance on the Philippines. Task Force 38 was assigned the role of giving air coverage for the landings on Morotai, which were effected in September, 1944. As in the case of the Hollandia invasion, the air support was far more than was needed. The landings on Morotai were virtually unopposed, and as a result our full carrier air strength was never employed. Nevertheless, the mere presence of such a potent force affected the Japanese reaction in the area, impelling them to withdraw their forces, limit their supplies, hide their shipping, and finally give up a strategic position without even fighting for it.

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Page updated: 9 Sep 14