Operation Bismarck Sea, 2–4 March 1943

One reason I’ve been posting a bit less is that I’ve been reading a book that is not very bloggable—Operation Bismarck Sea, by Lawrence Cortesi (Major Books, 1977)—which I picked up for $1.39 at a used book store. It interested me because it describes a major air–sea battle in the area of Papua New Guinea in which I did fieldwork in 1976, and where I heard many stories about the Pacific War in that neighborhood. I shan’t keep it. There are much better resources online these days.

The little mass-market paperback book has all the accuracy of a TV docudrama by Ollie North. In other words, it has lots of accurate and fascinating facts and figures, but it’s quite one-sided. Among the earliest tipoffs that the Japanese side was badly misrepresented was the improbable name Yukata Tishayuna, a fictional captain subordinate to the real admiral Masatomi Kimura (citing the names in English order). That, plus the fact that the captain addresses his superior as the ‘Honorable Kimura’, and the Japanese speak in orientalized clichés:

“Before the first buds of cherry blossoms seek the sunlight of spring,” the aide said, “we shall destroy the cancer at Wau.”

“Banzai,” Okabe answered softly with a grin.

Other names are also screwed up: a Japanese ship named Arishio (蟻潮 ‘ant tide’?) instead of Arashio (荒潮 ‘rough tide’); and an island called Undoi instead of Umboi (the former somehow distinguished from Rooke Island, the latter synonymous with Rooke Island, and also known as Siassi Island).

Nevertheless, there is one passage that seems worth quoting on pp. 182-183:

The Imperial Japanese Staff had always been too cautious, even when they possessed far superior numbers. They were never willing to commit more troops or planes or ships than necessary, especially in air and sea battles.

At Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had come up short of a true knockout blow because they were too cautious to move in for the kill and perhaps occupy the Hawaiian Islands. In the Battle of the Coral Sea, though their forces far outnumbered the understrength Allies, they retired after suffering the loss of a single carrier, even though they had sunk two American carriers. In the Battle of Midway, although Japan’s air and sea units had suffered losses, they still had a formidable, unscathed striking force in the area; but instead of pressing on against the depleted American carrier force, they again retired.

The same might be said of the Solomons campaign. Japanese caution was the major reason for American success at Guadalcanal. In most of the naval fights during the Solomon campaign, the Japanese task forces did more damage to the American navy than the Americans had meted out. Yet, after successful naval engagements, such as the Battles of Savo Island or Cape Esperance, the Japanese naval units retired after their victories instead of pressing forward. As a result, they had allowed the American navy to lick its wounds and regain its strength.

As to Japan’s aerial strategy, the worst kind of caution prevailed. While American pilots were generally superior to Japanese pilots, and while the American P-38 was superior to the Hamp and Zero fighter plane, the Japanese could muster many more planes. Further, they were superior to the earlier P-39 and P-40 used by the American air force prior to 1943. Yet they never sent more than a squadron or two of fighter planes into an aerial engagement. They thus allowed even terms to inferior numbers of Allied army and navy units, which could rarely muster more than a squadron or two of planes to meet a Japanese challenge. So, because of the superior training of Allied airmen, the Allied pilots usually defeated their opponents.

The Japanese also followed this caution in the use of their bombers. Hundreds of Sally and Betty bombers sat on the many Japanese air bases in the Bismarck Archipelago, especially at Rabaul. Yet they rarely committed more than 20 or 30 bombers to an air attack against an Allied base. Against navy ships, the Japanese only used their light naval fighter-bombers. They rarely sent their heavy and medium bombers that were only a stone’s throw from the Ironbottom Strait [or Sound] in the Solomons where most of the action took place during the Guadalcanal operation. The biggest raid ever conducted by the Japanese in the Southwest Pacific was the 5-plane raid on Port Moresby in February, 1942.

At the conference in Rabaul in February 1943, where the Japanese staff planned operation 157, Admiral Junichi Kasaka of the Imperial Eleventh Naval Air Fleet, boasted of his great airpower. He could count hundreds of planes scattered among the various Japanese airfields in the Bismarck Archipelago. Why then, didn’t Admiral Kasaka maintain a cover of a hundred or even two-hundred planes over the convoy all the way from Rabaul to the Huon Gulf? Kasaka’s land-based aircraft were never more than an hour or two from the route of Kimura’s convoy. And, ironically, Kasaka did maintain heavy air cover over the convoy during the early part of the voyage, when the convoy was far into the Bismarck Sea and out of range of Allied medium or light bombers. But he failed to maintain this cover as the convoy neared Huon Gulf, within range of any Allied plane in New Guinea.

Moreover, Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, commander of the Eighth Outer Sea Fleet, could proclaim that he had all but chased the American navy from the Bismarck Archipelago because of his superior numbers in naval ships. Why then, didn’t he allot one or even two aircraft carriers to escort the hugely important 22-ship convoy into Lae? Again, because the Japanese had an obsession with safeguarding their heavy strength. They kept planes and ships ever in reserve for future emergency.

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Filed under Australia, Japan, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

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