ChapterIX:Landings in Western New Britain
(click images to enlarge)

Type 100 heavy bomber at But. Reflected light may have made the wings look "silver".

Type 100 heavy bomber
under the gun.

Rabaul, long the strategic focal point of Allied operations in both the SWPA and SoPac, was no longer a target of invasion. It was sufficient that Rabaul be neutralized by air power and by-passed. Instead, Cape Gloucester was to be invaded and western New Britain occupied. The aim was to secure Vitiaz Straight as well as provide an air base for future operations against New Ireland, the Admiralties, and adjacent islands. Prior to the main landing at Cape Gloucester a smaller operation was to be mounted at Arawe (Cape Merkus in Japanese parlance though they sometimes referred to Arawe I. specifically) on New Britain’s south coast. This would act as a diversion from the main landing and also facilitate Allied efforts to eject the Japanese from both the north and south coasts of New Britain.

In the pre-dawn hours of December 15th, 1943, Lt. Chohei Nishiyama of 958 Ku sighted the invasion fleet approaching Arawe. At dawn he radioed a report with specific details from his Type Zero reconnaissance seaplane (E13A). Two large transports, two destroyer transports, and a variety of landing craft arrived off-shore before dawn and commenced landing about 1,700 U.S. Army troops of a force that would eventually exceed 4,000. There were about 400 Japanese troops in the immediate area. Supporting the landing were five fire support destroyers as well as covering and screening forces made up of two cruisers, two destroyers and PT boats. Nishiyama’s sighting was reported in an intercepted message (his name corrupted to Niradaru) that characterized this “as an act of noteworthy merit.” This was high praise in a Japanese official communication.

At Rabaul the Japanese lost no time in assembling a striking force that consisted eight Type 99 dive bombers of 582 Ku covered by fifty-six Zeros led by Lt. (j.g.) Toshio Oba of 201 Ku (some of the Zeros apparently carried bombs). The Japanese army at Wewak was slower to react because it had to bring bombers into Wewak from rear area bases before attacking. They prepared an attack force made up of eleven Type 100 heavy bombers of the 9th FB escorted by twenty-two Type 1 fighters (59th and 248th FR)
and twenty-two Type 3 fighters (68th and 78th FR).

A resume of the day’s fighter activities from the American perspective is given in the figure below. With the exception of the 341st and 342nd FS at Finschhafen all the American fighters were based on airfields in the Dobodura airfield complex near Buna. All missions are fighter cover at Arawe unless noted. In addition to U.S. fighters, RAAF fighters also flew patrols over Arawe. Kittyhawks of No. 76 Squadron were on dawn patrol and left the area only minutes before the Japanese attack.


Sq. No.
Take-off Incidents
432 4 P-38 0615 Rcn. Arawe, Open Bay, Wide Bay
432 9 P-38 0645 No sightings
431 12 P-38 0705
Sighted 12 ZEKES, 10 BETTYS, 20 OSCARS. At 0845, 1 flight attacked by about 12 ZEKES; P-38s avoided combat
432 2 P-38 0741 Patrol north coast & E. New Britain
341 16 P-47 0845 No sightings
433 8 P-38 0910 Scramble to convoy, no sightings
433 4 P-38 0945 Destroyed 1 ZEKE (TOJO?) 1115
80 15 P-38 0955 No sightings
340 6 P-47 1010 No sightings
432 4 P-38 1045 No sightings
342 16 P-47 1115 No sightings
340 8 P-47 1130 Patrol til 1420 then escort bombers to Cape Gloucester
80 12 P-38 1135 No sightings
433 4 P-38 1150 W. New Britain, patrol incomplete
431 10 P-38 1310 No sightings
432 4 P-38 1445 Fight with 30 ZEKES, 12 BETTYS and SALLYS


Between 0800 and 0820 agents of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (A.I.B.) radioed in sightings of the Japanese formation from four different locations. From their reports it appears that the Japanese proceeded along the north coast of New Britain as far as Cape Hoskins. They were apparently flying in two formations. In accordance with established doctrine, most likely these were one formation of the bombers and their close escort and another formation of fighters only (“air annihilation” unit).

A.I.B. operatives had been in eastern New Britain for several months reporting on Japanese aircraft and submarine movements. More recently a team of A.I.B. agents had landed in western New Britain to scout the area prior to the Arawe and Cape Gloucester landings. The team was led by Andrew Kirkwall-Smith, the same man that had reported the Japanese landing at Cape Gloucester a year earlier.

Destroyer Reid picked up the approaching Japanese formation on radar at a range of 59 miles. The Japanese had crossed New Britain and were then off the south coast roughly half way between Gasmata and Arawe. Less than ten minutes later destroyer Shaw vectored fighters toward the enemy then only 34 miles away. There were twelve P-38Hs on patrol over the beachhead with several other P-38 flights in the general area, six P-47Ds en route from Finschhafen and eight more P-38s scrambled from Dobodura.

A little before 0900 P-38s of the 431st FS reported ten BETTY bombers escorted by twenty OSCAR fighters approaching from the west. This formation was not engaged and there is no record of it having made an attack. Just what the Lightning pilots saw is unclear because no BETTY bombers of the 11th Air Fleet were in action that day and the HELENS of the Japanese army air service did not arrive in the area until several hours later. It seems possible they sighted a squadron of B-25s in the area to provide on-call ground support and also sighted part of the Zero escort. One of the squadron’s flights was attacked by a dozen Zeros at 25,000 feet north of the beachhead and finding itself in a disadvantageous position avoided combat with no losses on either side.

In the meantime the dive-bombers and some of the Zeros bombed and strafed the beachhead opposed only by anti-aircraft fire. After a few minutes of this, the nearby destroyers were sighted and attacked. Conyngham received three near misses that caused no damage. The only aerial opposition to this attack came from a B-25 of the 501st BS that claimed damage to a withdrawing VAL.

The Japanese aircraft then returned to Rabaul less one Zero and two of the dive-bombers. At Arawe one LCVP had been destroyed, several other landing craft damaged, and a few personnel casualties inflicted. After this “brilliant initial attack” (according to one Japanese report) a follow-up attack was cancelled because of weather.

Intercepted radio traffic gives some insight into the state of affairs at Tuluvu on this day. At 0740 the 6th Air Attack Force at Rabaul radioed Tuluvu to advise that attacks on Arawe are being scheduled and inquiring into the state of the runway. At 1635 Tuluvu reported to Rabaul that due to a noontime heavy bombing the runway is damaged and cannot be used by large type aircraft but about 1000 meters is available for small aircraft. Repairs were expected to be completed by the 16th. It appears the raid mentioned disrupted communications at Tuluvu for a time because at the same time Tuluvu was sending its message the Cape Gloucester lookout station was advising Rabaul that it was unable to communicate with the airbase. Rabaul sent a message advising that fighter pilot Petty Officer 2/C Hiroshi Gakube became lost in the vicinity of Cape Gloucester returning from the Cape Merkus attack and requested that search and rescue measures be taken. Gakube may have been flying the “possible TOJO” claimed by P-47s of the 342nd FS at 1115 hours (the “TOJO” appeared to be carrying under wing bombs and a belly tank when it was attacked). Later Rabaul advised that two missing carrier bombers were believed not to have been shot down but landed on New Britain and again requested search and rescue. Finally, at 1810 Tuluvu airbase sent this message: “Report from Army reconnaissance plane at this base to the effect that the enemy was in the process of landing Cape Merkus 1635. Force consisted of 5 destroyers, 4 transports, and some 20 large landing barges.”

The “Army reconnaissance plane” mentioned in the last message was in fact a Type 99 assault bomber (No. 959) flown by 2Lt. Tsutomu Nishida and Sgt. Maj. Kobayashi. They took off at 1610 and flew nearly a direct course for Arawe over New Britain’s central mountains, made their observations in rain showers, and returned to Tuluvu safely after a forty-minute flight.

The final aerial drama of the day occurred over Vitiaz Straight where the long delayed army attack mission finally arrived and was unable to find its way to Arawe through the murky weather. The army formation was intercepted by a flight of P-38s and engaged in a series of inconclusive combats with neither side suffering loss. The Japanese bombed a target of opportunity, boats in Langemack Bay near Finschhafen, before returning to Wewak.

On the morning of the 16th the Japanese were again over Arawe. This time with seven dive-bombers and fifty-six Zeros. Two chutai of the latter, probably sixteen aircraft, also carried bombs. There was no interception. Again, one Zero and two dive-bombers failed to return.

In the early afternoon of the 16th the Japanese army made its second attempt to attack the beachhead. This time operations orders called for seven Type 100 heavy bombers of the 9th FB’s two regiments (7th and 61st FR) to be escorted by the same fighter units as on the previous day. Capt. Shigeo Fukuda of 7th FR led the bombers. Sixteen Type 1 fighters covered them as their close escort and eighteen Type 3 fighters flew top cover. Apparently only six bombers got to New Britain. They encountered a total of 25 P-38Hs of the 431st and 432nd FS. East of Umboi Island at about 13,000 feet the bombers started to climb and were at about 20,000 feet when a flight of four P-38s from the 432nd (the squadron was escorting B-24s to bomb Gloucester but one flight was sent to investigate the aircraft encountered en route) jumped their escorting fighters. Combat ranged south over western New Britain within sight of Tuluvu whose airfield had been listed on the operations orders of the Japanese units as available for emergency landings. After several diving passes by the P-38s additional Lightnings of the 431st joined the fray. All of the bombers failed to return and not a bomb was dropped on the beachhead. One of the missing bombers landed at Tuluvu. American aircrews sighted a twin-engine bomber there on the 17th and on the 18th what was undoubtedly the same aircraft was identified as a damaged HELEN.

The Americans claimed seven bombers but identified them as BETTYS. Five Japanese fighters also failed to return that day. The Americans claimed a TONY and a ZEKE destroyed. Ace Capt. Thomas B. McGuire of the 431st FS claimed a ZEKE damaged and two pilots of the 432nd FS claimed two ZEROS damaged near Cape Gloucester.

Nine Type 1 model 2 fighters of the 248th FR were part of this escort. Led by Maj. Shinichi Muraoka, the regiment was assigned as close escort on the right flank of the bomber formation. In combat with the P-38s the 248th claimed three destroyed but suffered three aircraft missing. 1Lt. Hisomatsu Ejiri and 1Lt. Shoji Fueki of the 2nd chutai were never found but Sgt. Maj. Yasuo Saito of the 3rd chutai landed his Hayabusa (No. 5951) at Gavuvu east of Tuluvu. He returned to Wewak two days later flying his fighter.

Assuming, as seems quite possible, that Saito was one of the damage claims near Cape Gloucester, it appears that the other two claims for damage were in fact a victories. Possibly McGuire and one of the two 432nd pilots actually scored kills rather than a damaged albeit over an OSCAR instead of a ZEKE or ZERO.

At the end of the afternoon the navy mounted a second strike from Rabaul. This involved but a single dive-bomber and fifty-four Zeros that claimed to sink or damage several landing barges as well as shoot down five enemy fighters. Three Zeros failed to return. Fifteen P-47Ds of the 342nd FS reported intercepting twelve to fifteen Zeros at 7,000 feet and claimed four ZEKES and a KATE destroyed without loss.

The Japanese Navy version of these actions was recorded in a citation awarded by the Commander-in-Chief, Combined Fleet long after the events:” Citation was awarded to the 201 Naval Air Unit Fighter Plane Unit which was under the command of Lt (jg) OBA, for the setting ablaze of one enemy cruiser, the sinking of three transports and approximately 50 landing barges and the shooting down of five interceptor planes at Merkus Cape on 15-16 Dec 1943.”

That Lt. (j.g.) Oba, a relatively inexperienced pilot, should lead such a large attack group is testimony to the casualties being suffered in the tough air fighting going on around Rabaul at this time. Oba, who graduated from pilot training in February 1943, was the only surviving flight buntaicho (division commander) in 201 Ku. A more likely leader would have been the unit’s most successful pilot Warrant Officer Tetsuzo Iwamoto but Japanese navy protocol demanded a unit commander lead. Besides this Iwamoto was ill with fever from malaria and dengue fever and unable to fly at this time. Oba was shot down and killed in air combat over Rabaul a week later. In post-war comments Iwamoto assessed the ability of 201 Ku’s senior Lieutenant (j.g.) as “trivial.”

Beginning on the night of the 16th-17th the 5th Air Attack Force began a series of night raids targeting Arawe. On this and several succeeding nights raids were mounted by carrier attack bombers of 582 Ku (including one of the new Tenzan attack bombers), carrier attack bombers temporarily detached from Zuikaku, and land attack bombers of 751 Ku (702 Ku had been dissolved as of December 1st and its remaining G4M1s and aircrews transferred to 751). The heaviest of these raids came in the early hours of December 22nd when ten Type 1 land attack planes and three Type 97 carrier attack planes bombed the area claiming to have caused an explosion and several fires. These attacks did no damage to shipping but caused minor damage and casualties ashore.

The 17th found the regular strike from Rabaul arriving in the morning – twelve dive-bombers and fifty-five Zeros. Intercepting fighters, P-47Ds from the 348th and 58th FG, claimed eight VALS and two OSCARS. Three dive-bombers and a single Zero were listed as missing. This was the most successful Japanese attack to date. The small (100 ton) coastal transport APc-21 received a direct hit and a near miss and sank. Small (207 tons) minesweeper YMS-50 was damaged by a near miss and four LCTs (285 tons) received serious damage.

There was no afternoon strike from Rabaul because December 17th marked the first attack on Rabaul mounted by SoPac fighters. It was the beginning of a series of air raids that was to result in almost daily air battles over Rabaul for two full months. Flying from newly acquired air bases on Bouganville island in the northern Solomons American and New Zealand fighters could mount fighter sweeps and fly bomber escort directly to the principal Japanese base in the Southeast Area.

With no heavy bombers immediately available and apparently reticent to commit Type 99 light bombers to such a heavily defended target the 4th Air Army launched only a fighter strike and a reconnaissance mission on the 17th. Thunderbolts claimed a DINAH over Arawe. This aircraft came from Wewak and was reported missing by the Japanese. Tuluvu was the designated post-strike assembly area for the fighter mission. The fighters apparently carried out brief strafing attacks at Arawe without encountering American fighters. Some of the army fighters landed at Tuluvu after the attack. In the late afternoon sixteen P-38s ended their patrol at Arawe by sweeping over Tuluvu before returning to base. At Tuluvu they sighted a TONY and a ZEKE taxiing. Waiting for the Japanese aircraft to take-off Capt. Kenneth G. Ladd of the 80th FS swooped down and shot down the ZEKE 500 feet over the airfield. 2Lt. Masanao Masuzawa of the 59th FR died in the crash of his Type 1 fighter. Allied photographic reconnaissance sighted a twin-engine bomber on the field in addition to the two fighters. It is interesting to note that after many weeks of intense bombing and a year to the day after the Japanese landed at Tuluvu the airfield was still in use. The following day B-24s of the 90th BG cratered the field with 198 thousand pound bombs.

On the 18th the 433rd FS ran into the Japanese army fighter sweep between Tuluvu and Arawe. After initiating the bounce on one Japanese formation the P-38s found themselves under attack from a second. Forced on to the defensive and outmaneuvered by Japanese pilots that were reported to be skillful, two P-38s collided and one was lost. A second was shot down before they broke off the engagement. Three P-38 pilots made claims but no Japanese aircraft were lost.

On the same day Tuluvu was bombed by 25 B-24s, 57 B-25s and 12 B-26s. The 26th FR suffered no damage on this occasion but the runway was now well cratered with little hope of repair in the near term. Flight operations were suspended.

Ironically, the highest number of apparently serviceable aircraft ever observed at Tuluvu by the Allies came as late as December 18th. Five twin-engine bombers were observed at three different locations on or adjacent to the runway. Two “silver” bombers were reported on opposite ends of the runway and three green aircraft near the east end of the runway close to the dispersal lanes. Six or more unidentified fighters were spotted in a wooded area north of the west end of the runway. The identity of these aircraft from Japanese sources has not been verified. The green “bombers” may have been Type 1 land attack planes flown as transports. Plans for the flight of such aircraft about this time are known. One of the “silver” bombers may have been the damaged HELEN identified later (not silver at all but with its light gray finish over-sprayed with variegated green appearing much lighter and possibly reflecting light in contrast to the dark green bombers). The other aircraft may also have been an army aircraft. The unidentified “fighters” undoubtedly include army Type 99 single-engine assault bombers. Camouflage of branches and foliage and their location among trees probably contributed to the unidentified nature of these aircraft.

With the runway at Tuluvu out of action, it appears the 26th FR’s 2nd chutai was called upon to fill the gap in the Vitiaz patrol. Seven P-39s of the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron flying a patrol of the New Guinea coast in the late afternoon encountered a single-engine bomber flying at low level near Lepisius Point on the upper reaches of Vitiaz Straight. The P-39s attacked and Lt. Delta C. Graham fired the fatal shots reporting that a wing came off and the bomber crashed into the sea. Graham received credit for the destruction of a VAL, his squadron’s first aerial victory.

Weather washed out Arawe attacks on the 19th and nearly so on the 20th. Thirteen P-47s reported encountering some dive-bombers and fighters under low clouds with neither side suffering any damage. There is no record of this raid available from the Japanese side. A P-47 did claim a DINAH near Cape Gloucester.

On the 20th Capt. Takano flew his Type 99 assault plane from Tuluvu to Wewak using a dispersal track for a runway. 2Lt. Nishida and ten enlisted men from the 26th were left to make their way to Wewak by boat via Rabaul. Earlier that day a bombing attack had severely damaged two of the 3rd chutai’s aircraft. The Takano detachment did not lose a man during its stay at Tuluvu and only one enlisted man had been wounded.

December 21st brought Arawe its heaviest day of raids. The Japanese navy contributed two massive attacks and claimed several ships sunk, others damaged and four planes shot down. The Japanese army struck with such forces as it could muster. These attacks did inflict some damage on land. At sea the navy’s morning attack damaged a small transport (APc-2) operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. She later sank. In the afternoon LCT-171 was damaged by bomb shrapnel. There were a few casualties but little other damage.

The first action of the day brought an unusual encounter as two RAAF Spitfires of 79 Squadron flew a long-range interception from Kiriwina and claimed a TONY destroyed off the south coast of New Britain. The intruder had been tracked from the general direction of Rabaul and was almost certainly a navy reconnaissance plane from that base but details are lacking. RAAF strike aircraft had been active over central New Britain for many weeks but this was the only instance of air combat for the Australians.

The Japanese navy’s morning raid (1000 hours Tokyo time, noon by Allied reckoning) was mounted by no less than 64 Zeros and 29 dive-bombers. The opposition to this raid, fourteen P-38s of the 432nd FS, reported encountering only about ten VALS and fifteen ZEKES and OSCARS. This was clearly only part of the attack force and most of the bombers must have gotten through without aerial opposition. The ships sent up anti-aircraft fire that may have accounted for some of the four bombers and one Zero that failed to return. The Lightnings claimed eight VALS and two fighters (a ZEKE and an OSCAR).

The 6th FD’s attack came in the form of eight Type 99 twin-engine light bombers of 208th FR escorted by twelve Hayabusas of 59th and 248th FR and eight Hiens of 68th FR. Four P-47Ds of the 340th FS reported encountering twenty TONYS and HAMPS covering 10-12 NELLS at 5,000 feet over the interior of New Britain between Arawe and Cape Gloucester. In the combat that followed the Thunderbolt pilots claimed two victories over HAMPS. The Japanese did indeed lose two fighters but in-line engine Type 3 fighters – TONYS – not the radial engine Hayabusas that could be easily mistaken for HAMPS. One 59th FR pilot claimed a Thunderbolt destroyed. One P-47 was damaged but returned to base.

During this fight Capt. Shogo Takeuchi commander of the 2nd chutai of 68th FR chased a Thunderbolt off the tail of his regimental commander Maj. Kiyoshi Kimura but his own aircraft was damaged. Takeuchi returned all the way to Hansa Bay airfield only to have his engine seize while approaching for a landing. His Ki 61 ran into trees, overturned and Takeuchi suffered fatal injuries in the crumpled wreckage. So died the man who was probably the most successful Hien ace in New Guinea.

At about the same time the army raid approached Arawe from Wewak the second navy attack was approaching from Rabaul. It was another big one, 64 Zeros and 16 dive-bombers. Seven Thunderbolts of the 342nd FS reported encountering about twenty VALS and claimed eight destroyed and others probably destroyed and damaged. A ZEKE was claimed as a probable. Five dive-bombers were in fact shot down. A single Thunderbolt was shot down.

Fighter direction at Arawe was less than perfect on this day as on other occasions. There were American fighters that were misdirected and failed to engage or engaged only after the Japanese had dropped their bombs. One pilot’s report stated phony directions were received on the fighters’ frequency by an enemy speaking perfect English. This report was apparently taken seriously in some histories but seems actually to have been a facetious example of fighter pilot sardonic humor. Those who have spent any amount of time among fighter pilots will not find such an interpretation difficult to credit. On the other hand, it seems clear that the Japanese went to some effort to disguise their approach routes utilizing terrain, sending part of the escort as a diversionary force and probably also using metal coated paper strips (“window”) as a radar counter-measure.

Arawe’s moment in the world’s headlines was rapidly coming to a close but not quite over. On the morning of December 26th Tuluvu was invaded but the Japanese strike force from Rabaul was directed to Arawe. APc-15 and an LCT were damaged. Allied fighter cover was concentrated at Cape Gloucester. On the following morning Tuluvu was the intended target but the Japanese could not make an undetected approach and diverted to Arawe. Thirty-eight Zeros and fifteen dive-bombers found only PT boats and other small craft. A bomb that did not explode punctured PT-138. Bombs fell near the other PT-boats but none was damaged and PT gunners claimed four VALS. After this sixteen P-47Ds of the 340th FS intercepted the low flying Japanese and claimed eight VALS, seven ZEKES and a TONY. P-40Ns of the 35th FS got into this action and claimed three ZEKES destroyed. The Thunderbolts of the 341st FS assigned to the Cape Gloucester patrol also got a piece of the action and claimed ten ZEKES and two OSCARS.

The official Japanese report claimed the sinking of two special transports and two torpedo boats and the destruction of 18 planes (including four probables) for the loss of seven planes. Two P-47s were lost.

The landings at Arawe had been a relatively small affair compared to what was to befall Cape Gloucester. Arawe did have the desired effect. Parts of the Japanese 141st IR were drawn from the western tip of New Britain to counter-attack at Arawe. The 17th Division was now the highest Japanese command in western New Britain but its headquarters were far to the east near Talasea. The 65th Brigade and 4th Shipping Group would be on hand to oppose the landing of some 13,000 Marines of the 1st Marine Division back in action for the first time since Guadalcanal. The invasion fleet transporting the marines consisted of 4 cruisers, 13 destroyers, ten large transports, and dozens of lesser vessels.

As the invasion fleet approached New Britain on the 25th/26th December the first Japanese air moves were miscues. During the night a land attack bomber sent out to attack a task force east of Rabaul became badly lost returning to Rabaul and ended up crash landing at Tuluvu
just hours before the invasion. The approach of the invasion force had been detected by army reconnaissance early on the 25th. Its exact destination was not known but a navy alert message notified Tuluvu and other locations in western New Britain that they were potential invasion sites. Three carrier attack planes of 582 Ku were sent late on the 25th to search out and attack any enemy ships near Tuluvu. They found no ships and instead bombed Arawe with unobserved results. One plane failed to return.

The morning strike from Rabaul was apparently sent to counter this threat but was to attack Arawe if the exact location of the invasion convoy could not be determined. News of the invasion reached Rabaul that morning but apparently too late to direct the attack force to Tuluvu. In any event, 25 dive-bombers and 63 Zeros attacked Arawe that morning. They met no aerial opposition but also found few targets.

While the Japanese attack was misdirected, fourteen squadrons of American light, medium and heavy bombers joined the warships in pounding the invasion beaches and nearby areas. American fighters patrolled overhead. The misdirected Japanese force returned to Rabaul where it was hastily refueled and rearmed. Weary but determined aircrews soon set off to attack the invaders of Tuluvu.

On their way to Tuluvu ground radio teams of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (A.I.B.) first sighted the Japanese. They were then picked up on radar. Thirty-three P-38s, sixteen P-47Ds, and sixteen P-40Ns were on patrol as they closed in on Tuluvu. One squadron of P-38s (80th FS) was sent north to intercept; a second (431st) was vectored east to another plot. The P-40s (35th FS) patrolled over the destroyers offshore and the P-47s (36th FS) orbited over the invasion beaches a few miles east of Tuluvu airfield. The Japanese approached from the south.

Dive-bombers attacked the beaches just as B-25s from the 345th BG arrived to carry out ground support attacks. Some of the B-25s swerved and fired on the VALS with their heavy battery of nose guns. Some of their fire may have fallen among the LCIs and disembarking Marines. American ground gunners took both American and Japanese bombers under fire. The American airmen reported receiving “withering” friendly ground fire. B-25 gunners fired on Japanese dive-bombers and some of the harassed Mitchell bombers may have dropped bombs on friendly troops. One B-25 plunged in flames into the sea close to the landing beach. Another badly damaged bomber limped to a crash landing farther away. This bomber carried Lt. Col. Clinton U. True, commander of the 345th. True and other members of the crew were injured but after many harrowing hours in Borgen Bay landed through heavy surf and were rescued by Marines. True and his crew were evacuated by LST. Three months later True returned to action and flew several additional missions before being transferred to the U.S. In the interim he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for leading an attack on Rabaul in October 1943 despite the fact that his fighter escort turned back (True reported he had not heard the re-call order).

B-25s of a second squadron following the first formation were also taken under fire but at least had the satisfaction of seeing two VALS fall to ground gunners.

American fighters converged on the scene of chaos to begin their work of execution and air combats broke out over a wide area. Principal damage inflicted at this stage of the attack was fragment damage to two LSTs caused by near misses and concussion damage to at least one other.

After the initial attacks the main Japanese formation sighted the warships of the convoy escort and directed their effort there. The commander, U.S. Destroyer Squadron 5, reported sighting 21 VALS with fighter escort approaching his ships (other observers estimated there were 15-20 dive bombers in the attack). The dive-bombers were clearly under attack by U.S. fighters and two aircraft were seen to be hit and burn before several peeled off to attack the destroyers.

The destroyers rang up high-speed and maneuvered radically but several dive-bombers pressed home their attacks despite heavy anti-aircraft fire. Brownson was sunk with the loss of 108 lives. Shaw was badly hit and for a time barely able to stay afloat. Thirty men were killed aboard her.
Mugford suffered considerable damage from a near miss and Lamson was damaged to a lesser extent. The fifth destroyer attacked, Hutchins was not damaged. Eleven or twelve dive-bombers were believed to have attacked the destroyers and of these three were claimed certainly destroyed by anti-aircraft fire and two others were probably destroyed.

The four American fighter squadrons involved in this action claimed forty-three sure kills (19 VALS and 24 fighters). The 499th BS claimed a VAL and the 501st BS claimed another as a probable. Ground gunners also claimed two VALS in addition to the three claimed by the ships. Two P-47s and two P-38s were shot down and others limped back to base with battle damage. Also lost were two B-25s shot down and two that returned to base crippled. An American fighter shot down a Navy PBY by mistake. Several of the American fighter squadrons claimed ten or more victories. The 80th FS claimed ten victories but suffered the loss of two P-38s and its squadron commander, Maj. Edward Cragg, a noted ace with fifteen victories to his credit.

Japanese losses were heavy. Thirteen dive-bombers and four Zeros failed to return. One of the Japanese fighter pilots killed in this action was Petty Officer 1/C Chikara Kitaguchi of 253 Ku the same pilot that had landed at Tuluvu for fuel after the shipping attack on September 22nd.

It is interesting to note that, despite possible duplication with claims by ship and ground gunners, American fighter claims for dive bombers appear to be only moderately overstated while their claims for fighters are wildly optimistic. The Japanese claimed twenty fighters shot down including five that were uncertain.

The Japanese navy attack suffered heavy losses but at least inflicted real damage. The 6th FD’s mission came late in the day and was plagued with misfortune.

Hoping to avoid the miscue of December 15th or the disaster of December 16th this army attack was closely preceded by a reconnaissance mission flown by Capt. Kanoyoshi Nakagawa of 74th FCs in Type 100 command reconnaissance plane No. 2576. Taking off at the same time as the attack force Nakagawa and his observer 1Lt. Tetsunari Sakuda would arrive earlier than the bombers. Providing weather data and pinpointing the target location to the attacking bombers should allow them to go directly to their targets possibly avoiding intercepting fighters. Well-laid plans began to unravel early. Half the escort and two of the bombers failed to rendezvous. Five Type 100 heavy bombers of the 61st FR were escorted by only ten Type 3 fighters (68th and 78th FR) and nine Type 1 fighters of the 248th FR. This force was picked up by radar well to the north of Tuluvu. Sixteen P-38s and thirty-eight P-47s were then on station or about to report to the fighter director.

The 248th FR encountered Thunderbolts that, according its commanding officer, “surrounded” the Hayabusas. They engaged in an inconclusive combat in which they suffered no losses and claimed two victories. Apparently some of the Type 3 fighters became embroiled in early combats as well for when the Thunderbolts of the 342nd FS intercepted the bombers they were being escorted by only two TONYS. The Thunderbolts repeatedly attacked the seven-plane formation and reported encountering multiple bomber formations (actually the same bombers being encountered, lost and encountered again). Despite claiming fourteen BETTYS destroyed, they failed to get all the bombers. A pilot from 348th FG headquarters flying with the 341st FS shot down one BETTY pressing a determined low-level attack over Borgen Bay. U.S.S. Lamson reported seeing one bomber (correctly identified as a HELEN) shot down by Mugford. In total, ships’ guns claimed three of these bombers. In the end all five bombers were destroyed and the Japanese had no idea of the exact cause of their loss. Two Type 3 fighters also failed to return although in this case the Thunderbolts only claimed one TONY.

Cpl. Katsumi Omori of 61st FR may have flown the Donryu shot down over Borgen Bay by Lt. Col. Robert Rowland of the 348th FG. This would tend to explain why Omori’s diary was captured at Cape Gloucester that day. Omori had graduated from pilot training in July 1942. After completing operational training he joined 3rd chutai, 61st FR in the Netherlands East Indies. He did not begin flying combat over New Guinea until October 1943 when his chutai joined the main force of 61st FR at Wakde. His usual plane captain was Sgt. Maj. Yoshiharu Takata.

Though we know there were only five army bombers and not the fifteen or more that were claimed, Japanese reports provide no clue as to the exact circumstances of their demise. We would be left with just a jumble of contradictory American fighter and ship claims except that the 433rd FS had a panoramic view of the action. That squadron’s mission report shows that they sighted the arrowhead formation of bombers approaching the convoy, at an altitude of about 10,000 feet, 10 miles northeast of Umboi Island and at the same time saw the big dogfight between the Japanese escort fighters and P-47s off to the west of Umboi Island. The bombers were evidently not then under fighter attack and the 433rd was prevented from engaging by heavy anti-aircraft fire that enveloped the bombers. The 433rd saw the formation leader and two other bombers fall and crash into the sea under this fire. They reported that the remaining bombers scattered and headed for Wewak. Despite this latter report, eventually at least one of them (presumably Omori’s bomber) pressed its attack and was shot down low over Borgen Bay by Lt. Col. Rowland. While it is hard to be precise, the reported location of most of the 342nd FS claims tend to indicate their attacks came both before and after the 433rd observed the bombers fall to ships’ gunfire. If, as appears likely, three of these bombers fell to anti-aircraft fire and one to Rowland, the claims of the 342nd FS for fourteen victories (four by 1Lt. Lawrence O’Neill) is one of the most outlandish examples of over-claiming recorded in this monograph.

The final attack of the day came after dark from a single Navy Gekko night fighter that strafed ships with unobserved results. A similar single plane attack strafed ground targets two nights later.

The navy’s Tuluvu attack planned for the 27th was diverted to Arawe as previously described. Weather, Allied attacks on Rabaul and the threat of an American carrier raid on Kavieng washed out further attacks until the 31st when the attack was again diverted to Arawe. Thunderbolts from two squadrons of the 348th FG as well as Warhawks of the 35th FS reported encountering only nine VALS and 9 fighters and claimed twelve victories. The Japanese admitted the loss of nine of the thirty aircraft involved in the attack. They claimed sinking a medium transport ship and the destruction of four aircraft but the attack actually did little damage.

With this abortive attack air combat over the Tuluvu area was nearly over. Night raids continued for some time. These were often small affairs and seldom caused much damage. One exception came on February 13th, 1944, when four bombs killed seven, wounded sixteen and destroyed an amphibious tractor. This attack was carried out by a single land attack bomber of 751 Ku on a patrol of Dampier Straight. Not making any enemy contact during during the patrol the bombs were dropped on Tuluvu on its return trip. One large fire was reported as a result of the attack. This Japanese strike was reminiscent of the many attacks on the Japanese base at Tuluvu received from Allied bombers returning from patrol missions. This strike was something of a “last hurrah”. Two days later 751 Ku reported it had only twenty-seven land attack bombers left and only eleven of these were operational. Losses on the ground and on patrol missions as well as in night attacks were all taking their toll.


In this figure MB denotes Type 1 land attack plane (751 Ku), TB denotes Type 97 carrier attack plane (582 or Zuikaku detachment), DB denotes dive-bomber (582 Ku) and NF means Gekko night fighter (251 Ku). Targets are Tuluvu airfield or military installations in the general Cape Gloucester area unless noted. “Ex” means diverted from another attack or after a patrol.


Date Attack Force Remarks
12/26/43 1 NF shipping offshore
12/28 1 NF  
12/29 5 TB  
12/30 4 TB  
12/31 6 TB  
1/2/44 10 TB  
1/3 4 TB, 3 DB  
1/8 8 TB, 6 MB 4 MB diverted to Arawe
1/22 6 MB, 6 DB  
1/29 3 DB  
2/5 5 DB, 3 MB, 2 TB MBs ex Dampier St
2/10 1 MB ex Dampier patrol
2/11 2 MB ex Finschhafen shipping
2/12 1 MB ex Dampier patrol
2/13 1 MB ex Dampier patrol
2/14 4 TB shipping, ex Dampier


On February 7th Maj. William W. Banks flying a P-47D of the 342nd FS claimed the last plane shot down over Tuluvu. Identified as a TONY, this was probably a navy Type 2 carrier reconnaissance plane or Suisei dive-bomber (D4Y1 or JUDY) but details are lacking. Farther east over Cape Hoskins Capt. Dick Bong claimed another TONY on February 15th (almost certainly the Suisei reported force landed between Talasea and Cape Hoskins on that date) and on the 27th Lt. Col. Robert Rowland flying a Thunderbolt of the 340th FS in the same area claimed an aircraft identified as a SALLY. There were a few Japanese army reconnaissance flights over Tuluvu in March but no recorded interceptions.

A few days before Rowland’s victory General Imamura had ordered the surviving troops south of Tuluvu to retreat toward Rabaul. The Japanese navy had abandoned the aerial defense of Rabaul and was withdrawing all but a handful of its aircraft to Truk. The Japanese were abandoning all of western and central New Britain. In a matter of days the zone of active air combat operations moved hundreds of miles from Tuluvu. Tuluvu’s air war was over.

Three American aviation engineer battalions were sent to Cape Gloucester where they found their work impeded by heavy rains. Marine L-4 aircraft (military versions of the Piper Cub) began operating from a road near the airfield as early as January 2nd. Other aircraft made emergency landings. The available engineering forces planned to have the airfield operational for fighters by February 1st, a year to the day after the first Japanese aircraft landed there. Cape Gloucester was developed as an American and later Australian air base but it was never a particularly important one.

Tuluvu and western New Britain were never hot points of conflict like Guadalcanal, Buna, New Georgia, Lae, Wewak or Rabaul. For a brief moment in early August 1943 Tuluvu seemed on the verge of becoming an important advanced airfield. Japanese losses at Wewak were probably decisive in assuring that did not occur. In succeeding months the war on land, sea and air pressed closely on Tuluvu. By the autumn of 1943 it appeared to be an important objective in the Allies’ strategic scheme. Japanese weakness there spurred the Americans to move rapidly up the coast of New Guinea with additional amphibious assaults. Tuluvu’s role in the overall war was a small one. Still, combat action, especially air combat action, swirled over or near Tuluvu for more than a year. It serves as a microcosm that may aid us in gaining a better understanding of air war in the Pacific.

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