Early in January, the native situation began to take a turn for the worse. The people of Ruri really believed my propaganda that the death of their chief was caused by his wearing the armband of Nippon. They spread the story far and wide, and consequently many Japanese armbands were thrown away.
The natives of Sorem Village, three miles south of the [Buka] Passage, were very much pro-Japanese. They considered themselves very important people. They fraternized and drank whiskey with the Japs and were gullible to enemy promises of intermarriage after the war was over. Enticements such as these were standard Japanese methods of currying native favor.
The Sorem residents lured several Ruri men to their village, where they were captured and turned over to the Japanese as being pro-British. The prisoners were flogged and interned at the Passage. I quickly realized that unless this sort of thing was stopped, the Japanese sphere of influence would grow too rapidly and would soon interfere with our coast watching activities. I sent a message to Station KEN asking for Sorem Village to be bombed.
Mackenzie arranged for the attack to take place on the night of January 13. The plan called for a team of my boys to make their way under cover of darkness to the outskirts of town where daylight aerial reconnaissance had revealed a certain grass hut near the village. My men were instructed to lie in wait until they heard a plane approaching, then to set fire to the shack as a guide for the aircraft and to run as fast as possible away from the target area. The natives, led by Sergeant Yauwika, showed a lot of courage in volunteering for the mission, and it was executed to perfection.
A Catalina carried out the raid. The pilot made three runs over the village at 1,500 feet, dropping two 500-pound bombs, a cluster of incendiaries, and a couple of depth charges. This probably sounds like a powerful discharge of explosives on a small native settlement, but fortunately only one person was slightly wounded. However, the gesture and resulting shock value served our purpose.
Much to our astonishment, the surprise bombardment even unnerved the enemy. A few days after the attack on Sorem, the Japanese commander at the Passage summoned all the area native chiefs to Sohano where they were addressed by the commandant. He informed the people that U.S. forces were expected to invade northern Bougainville and that his troops might have to retreat for a few days until they could launch a counterattack.
In case of such an eventuality, the natives were ordered to assist and feed the Japanese soldiers. Beach villages were instructed to institute a system of constant vigilance—reporting anything unusual to Sohano immediately. The chieftains were also warned against sending any information to me, and that henceforth the airfield and all fortified positions were off-limits. Finally, the chiefs were advised to protect their people by building air raid shelters.
While the speech did not enhance Japanese prestige in the eyes of the natives, fear of the consequences weighed heavily on the minds of the village leaders. More importantly, however, was the fact that this display of panic on the part of the enemy was the first intimation to the islanders that their conquerors were not the invincible beings they professed to be. The stern lecture and warnings certainly contradicted earlier Japanese assertions that the war was over and they had won it.
Frightened natives, in the vicinity of the Passage, now tended to migrate toward Soraken and away from the threatened danger. For the moment, at least, we were afforded a breathing spell.