- Wright, Ken
- WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Australian author Lex McAulay aptly describes the scene ‘No one person was able to sit and watch the entire scene. The Beaufighters and the B-25 strafers had been overtaken by the A-20 Bostons and high level B-25s. Overhead, B-17s were on their bomb runs despite Japanese fighters. The ships were attacked from almost every direction, frantically trying to protect themselves as bomb after bomb struck home and the deadly whiplash of massed .50 calibre machine guns and 20 mm cannon flailed decks, superstructures, smashing deck cargo to splinters.’
Free for all
What this type of ammunition did to human flesh is best left to the imagination. Overhead, P-38 Lightnings battled it out with the Japanese fighters. It was, despite all the meticulous planning, a free for all with everyone engrossed in their own battle. The Allied aircraft finally began to reform and return to their bases to refuel and rearm. The first mad slaughter was over in 20 minutes. Only one ship, the Kembu Maru, loaded with aviation fuel, was actually sunk during the raid but the Nojima sank just after the Allied aircraft left. To maintain pressure on the Japanese and protect the strike force that was to return to finish off the surviving ships, the airfield at Lae was attacked again, this time by P-38s. Five aircraft were claimed as destroyed with three probables.
At 1410 a patrolling B-24 reported seeing four destroyers speeding away from the battle area with survivors packed on their decks heading in the direction of Rabaul. East of Long Island they met two destroyers sent from Rabaul, transferred their human cargo and refuelled. In the meantime, the second Allied attack force ran into a problem. The weather had turned foul again and many of the aircraft dispatched on the afternoon raid had to turn back to base. The assorted group of B-17s, B-25s, A-20s plus 10 P-38s that did manage to get through arrived over the remains of the convoy at 1500 that afternoon. Five transports, the Aiyo-Maru, Teiyo-Maru Shin-ai-Maru, Taimei-Maru and the Oigawa-Maru and the destroyer Arashio were stopped, damaged and on fire to varying degrees. The Shirayuki had sunk, the Tokitsukase was west of the convoy, disabled and drifting with the ocean current and the Asashio had remained behind at the original battle site to pick up survivors.
At 1503 five A-20s from RAAF 22 Squadron attacked the Tokitsukase despite the presence of 25 or 30 enemy fighters on station over the convoy. While the P-38s engaged the Japanese fighters, the other Allied bombers joined in the attack on the remaining ships, including the Asashio, from different angles and heights. The effect of bombs, 20mm cannon and machinegun bullets on survivors packed on the decks of the Asashio was devastating. All around the burning hulks, the surface of the ocean was littered with wreckage, small boats, barges and several thousand Japanese soldiers and sailors of all ranks who, only that morning, had received a lesson in the use of air power. Only a year before it had been the Japanese air forces which had swept the seas, ruthlessly sinking the fleets of ships fleeing Malaya, Singapore, Java, Sumatra and the Philippines.
A solitary reconnaissance plane remained. As night fell, the four destroyers that had disembarked the survivors near Long Island returned to the battle site and began the almost impossible task of trying to find people in the water, in the darkness and in a search radius of approximately 20 miles. The night was also a good chance for American PT boats to attack what remained afloat. Ten PT boats set out from their base near Tufi but two hit debris and had to return, the other eight scoured the battle area looking for targets of opportunity. At approximately 2320 two PT boats found the transport ship Oigawa Maru and, using one torpedo each, sent the last transport afloat to the bottom. Meanwhile, the crews of the destroyers were doing their best to find survivors within the vast search area but at 0230 they slipped away, leaving the remaining men to their fate. They never returned and left eight transports and three destroyers resting on the ocean floor. The destroyer Tokitsukaze was the sole ship afloat after the afternoon’s attack. Her abandoned hulk was found by Japanese forces and an attempt to sink her failed. She sank later that afternoon without assistance.