Battle of the Bismarck Sea
4th March 1943: A Japanese Division is destroyed while en route to New Guinea as the US Fifth Air Force and RAAF make a series of devastating low level attacks
By early 1943 the Japanese were struggling to come to terms with Allied air power in the Pacific which was rapidly challenging their ability to operate offensively. They had been unable to bring in reinforcements to Guadalcanal because of the US planes based at Henderson Field - and even their attempt to withdraw from the island had been compromised.
The Japanese forces on New Guinea were also under pressure and the need to reinforce them meant that they had to take risks in transporting troops. A new Japanese Division - around 12,700 men were embarked on transport ships. They would be escorted from Rabaul to Lae in New Guinea by some of the most experienced Japanese destroyers. Whilst they accepted some risks they had little idea just how perilous the operation was to be.
The US Fifth Airforce had been experimenting with a new technique - “Skip Bombing”. The firepower on their medium bombers was improved by installing extra machine guns - which meant they could fly in low and fast. The machine guns were effective in suppressing the fire from the deck guns on the Japanese ships:
The strafing attack is an essential element in minimum-altitude bombing of enemy vessels. To minimize losses from antiaircraft fire it is necessary to cover the enemy’s decks with .50-caliber fire which will keep gunners away from their positions and greatly hamper the efforts of any gunners who do remain at their posts.1
Then I realized what I was watching were human beings. I was watching hundreds of those Japanese just blown off the deck by those machine guns. They just splintered around the air like sticks in a whirlwind and they’d fall in the water.
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