- Wright, Ken
- WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
On February 24, 1943, an unknown Japanese soldier aboard the Tosei Maru wrote in his diary, ‘Last night I dreamed I saw a dragon rising out of the sea’. Early in the morning of March 1, the Imperial Japanese Navy convoy from Rabaul began steaming through the Bismarck Sea bound for Lae-Salamaua. The weather forecast of tropical storms in the Solomon and Bismarck Seas was, of course, advantageous to the Japanese as Allied aircraft would find it very difficult if not impossible to see the ships. The convoy comprised eight escort destroyers and eight transports. The transports contained machine guns, trucks, cars, assorted artillery, aviation fuel, tractors, ammunition, rations and mortars. Also aboard the ships were thousands of troops assigned to the Lae-Salamaua area. Aware the convoy had finally been assembled and had departed Rabaul, General Kenney ordered an analysis of known Japanese sea routes so he could plan his attack. Fortunately, the Japanese route to Lae proved to be a regular one so air reconnaissance patrols over the route could be planned. The threat of enemy action against the convoy en route was expected by the Japanese High Command and 50% losses were deemed acceptable as Lae had to be reinforced and defended at all costs. Air cover for the convoy was limited as fighters could not stay on station over the ships for any length of time, due to the distance of land based airfields. The Japanese very rarely operated at night.
The bad weather was, as predicted, affecting Allied air reconnaissance but at 1600 in the afternoon of March 1, an off-course B-24 Liberator on patrol spotted the convoy through a break in the inclement weather and reported its position to HQ at Port Moresby. Kenney and Whitehead scrambled a strike force of seven B-17 long range bombers as the convoy was too far away for other Allied aircraft to reach. Night had fallen by the time the bombers had arrived and they were unable to find their targets despite dropping flares over the convoy’s estimated position. The unknown Japanese who dreamed of a dragon rising from the sea was soon to encounter not one, but many dragons and they breathed fire as well. They came not from the sea but from the air in the form of Allied bombers and fighters. The last entry in his diary read; ‘Discovered by the enemy. At night enemy planes dropped flares and reconnoitered.’
At 0730 on March 2, another B-24 flew reconnaissance over the area where the Japanese convoy was anticipated to be but again there was still no sign of them. Around 0815 a patrolling B-24 Liberator sighted the ships despite the bad weather and was able to stay on station over the convoy waiting for whatever forces General Kenney could send in for the attack. At 0930 a formation of B-17s with sixteen escorting P-38s approached the convoy. Three Japanese fighters were intercepted by the P-38s and shot down, then at 0950 seventeen B-17s attacked from 6,500 feet and the convoy scattered. Despite heavy rain, the presence of eight more Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft fire, the bombers managed to hit the transport ship Kyokusei Maru setting it on fire. She sank later that morning. Another six B-17s attacked doing only moderate damage to another transport. Still they came, the Angels of Death. At 1020, more B-17s and two B-24s attacked but there were no hits. About 1120 the Allied aircraft decided to pack up and go back to their bases.
As soon as the Allied aircraft had left, the destroyers Asagumo and Yukikaze picked up approximately 800 survivors out of 1,500 from the Kyokusei Maru and departed at full speed to Lae. As night fell, the convoy, now minus one transport and with both the Teiyo Maru and Nojima damaged, continued on. The two destroyers disembarked the survivors at Lae, returned to the convoy at full speed and resumed escort duties. The convoy turned south to pass through the Vitiaz Strait between New Britain and New Guinea and Rear Admiral Shofuku Kimura, onboard his flagship the destroyer Shirayuki, decided to circle in the darkness and time his arrival off the coast of Lae for next morning. This decision may have been based on the assumption that the weather would continue to hide his ships but his action was an enormous strategic blunder and doomed the convoy.