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March 2-4, 1943: The Battle of the Bismarck Sea

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea occurred March 2-4, 1943, when planes from the U.S. Fifth Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) attacked a convoy of Japanese ships carrying troops and supplies to Lae, New Guinea. The bombing campaign ended with the destruction of four Japanese destroyers, eight Japanese troop transport ships, 102 Japanese fighter planes, and some 3,000 enemy soldiers.

Japanese ship is crippled after Allied bomb strike

To shore up their defenses in the Southwest Pacific, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters made plans to send a convoy of ships from Rabaul, New Britain to Lae in New Guinea. The convoy would deliver troops, supplies, and aircraft fuel to New Guinea. The convoy also presented a threat to Australia, putting it at risk for a future Japanese invasion.

Allies monitoring Japanese radio messages intercepted and decrypted information about the convoy, and they began to plan an attack. The plan of attack called for long-range heavy bombers from the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF), followed by anti-shipping aircraft from the RAAF and the USAAF once the enemy was within range. These planes would attack at medium, low, and sometimes very low (mast height) elevation.

Japanese ship burns during Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Reconnaissance planes began sweeping the South Pacific, and on March 1, they spotted a concentration of enemy ships near Rabaul. Bad weather hampered reconnaissance but on the morning of March 2nd, the weather cleared, and aircrews spotted the convoy.

The attack started with a wave of B-17s dropping 1,000 lb. bombs. Crews reported successful hits with ships burning and explosions. Japanese destroyers plucked survivors out of the water. Ships that were not disabled continued churning towards New Guinea, and on the morning of March 3rd, the convoy was in striking range of the entire Allied forces.  

A formation of Allied planes assembled over Cape Ward Hunt and attacked the convoy in three waves. The first wave involved Flying Fortresses that attacked from medium altitude, followed quickly by RAAF Beaufighters that dived to mast level, bombing and strafing the ships with machine gunfire. The third wave of bombers concentrated on sinking the ships. On March 4th, the US Navy sent patrol torpedo boats and aircraft to mop-up the operation. They engaged a Japanese sub trying to pick up survivors in the water.

Allied aircraft attack Japanese ship

The attacks sunk all eight Japanese troop transport ships, and four of the eight destroyers. Of the 6,900 Japanese troops headed to Lae, only 1,200 made it. Destroyers and submarines rescued another 2,700 and returned them to Rabaul. In a controversial move, Allies patrolled the waters for several days, strafing survivors in lifeboats. This was later justified as necessary to prevent the enemy from coming ashore.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a devastating loss for Japan. Allied losses numbered four aircraft and 13 airmen. General Douglas MacArthur called it “the decisive aerial engagement of the war in the Southwest Pacific.” To learn more about the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, search Fold3 today!

74 Comments

  1. Bo says:

    The strafing of shipwrecked survivors is outright murder – total war in the extreme.
    The excuse offered here is lame and prejudiced.

    • alex says:

      so was marching 70,000 men to their death in Bataan,war is hell,that’s why we should do everything in our power to prevent it.

    • John says:

      Bo, of course the Japanese marched a whole lot of English and Auusie nurses into the sea and shot them, but that was ok?
      Read the history first !

    • James Nichols says:

      Tell that to the US POWs that were set on fire with gasoline in bombing shelters by the Japanese. No sympathy here!

    • jonesy says:

      All’s fair in love & WAR

    • Greg says:

      Spoken like a true 21st century pundit. They were soldiers invading a free country. The fact that they were in life boats did not change that status.

    • Clayton says:

      It’s easy to have an arm chair quarterback, 70+ year perception today. Prejudiced? I don’t see where you pull that rabbit out of your hat.

    • Jim says:

      So if those troops were trying to get ashore and then fight, I guess it’s just a question of which type of boat they’re on? OK to strafe and bomb transports but not OK to strafe lifeboats being used to transport them to shore. These men at least had a fighting chance, unlike the hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs that were beaten, murdered or starved to death by the Japanese.

    • Tom Turnbull says:

      Bull! Would you rather the S O B’s got back into action killing US Marines, Sailors and ground pounders? What a LAME statement!
      Tom Turnbull
      Vietnam Veteran
      Garden Valley, Idaho

    • Byron W. Daniels says:

      It sounds pretty brutal, for sure. I think however, by the time of the battle, the Allies had seen plenty of defeated Japanese troops not truly surrendering but using the opportunity to take out more of their enemies. Hence, shoot on sight. Keep ’em at distance.

    • Colin Griffiths says:

      They beyonetted patients in a hospital in Hong Kong without a thought ,know your enemy.

    • Robert Cribb says:

      “marching 70,000 men to their death in Bataan” says alex. Falk, who wrote the definitive work on the Bataan march puts the number of American deaths at 600-650.

    • Larry says:

      Bo Japanese did the same thing to our men when they were in the same situation.

    • You ever been in combat Bo?? Sometimes you get angry. Total destruction is the desired effect. The Japanese were hardly examples of restraint.

    • David G. says:

      Bo— looks like you are taking a beating here. I once had a very hard discussion with a PT boat commander and ask him if he ever shot Japanese from troop transports in the slot off Guadalcanal. He never said yes or no, but replied that it sickened him to see the contortions a human body made when a .50 caliber bullet hit it. He mentioned he had nightmares most nights and it took three years to enter back into society. Hopefully we won’t see a war like that again.

    • Sam McGowan says:

      You’ve obviously never been in a war.

    • Neil F Hutchinson says:

      Try saying that to any surviving Far East Prisoner of War held captive by the Japanese. The latter’s cruelty knew no bounds.

    • McLaughlin Tom says:

      Fuck em, they were our sworn enemies who beheaded allied soldiers, weren’t enough atomic bombs.

    • Phil Rundle says:

      Nonsense The Japanese did exactly the same at sea and let’s not forget executions of POWs, except. The Japanese got back in return what they started. No sympathy

    • Robert W Hunnicutt says:

      Please learn something about Japanese culture that prevailed during those times, that the Japanese had embraced Bushido, the ancient Japanese warrior code. The Japanese showed no mercy to any other people, including the Chinese. Learn about the “Rape of Nanking.” Japan is not the same as it was, but not because of themselves. They had to be vanquished.

      Now we face an emerging China, which is behaving much like Imperial Japan. The next war that we have will likely be against Asians once again, and it will be very bad.

    • Robert Grinslade says:

      The goal of the Japanese soldier was to kill American soldiers, which they would have happily done had they landed. What difference does it make if you kill them before they land, as those on the troop ships, or after they landed, on the battlefield? It’s war! Bad things are going to happen on either side. The Japanese did much worse to the Chinese and Americans during the entire war, not having to do with any battles or trying to protect themselves against attack.

  2. Mark Humphrey says:

    If I remember correctly, initial sighting of the Japanese fleet was made by the US armed supply schooner Echo, a rather aged sailing vessel lent the US Army by New Zealand. The so-called “Wackiest Ship in the Army”. The story first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor in 1944. A highly fictionized version was made into a movie twenty years later. The producers wanted to use the Echo, which still existed at that point, in the movie but her owners declined as filming would interrupt their usual freight business.

    • Jess says:

      Very interesting info, thanks for sharing.

    • Sam McGowan says:

      Maybe, but I doubt it since the Japanese convoy commander was taking advantage of the weather to conceal his movement. The first acknowledged sighting was by a B-24 from the 90th Bombardment Group. Bear in mind that accounts in magazines written during the war were less than completely factual.

  3. Shane says:

    I’m pretty understanding about straffing the lifeboats. I’ll never let an enemy survive behind my back. That’s war. You can call it crime – I call it prudence.

    I’d take out an entire village of “innocents” to wipe out one terrorist. Brutality has to be answered with overwhelming force and no regrets. Makes the next village wonder if they want to harbor their terrorist.

    Scorched earth is a doctrine as old as time. And it’s been effective. Ask Ghengis Khan or Alexander.

    • Robert Cribb says:

      By your standards, then, the killing of American prisoners of war by the Japanese was prudent. Nice to have this view on the record.

    • Leif Eriksson says:

      Worked well in Vietnam too??

    • nick says:

      Murder a village to get one terrorist? You would be guilty of a war crime.

      Soldiers trying to get ashore are combatants and legitimate targets. Civilians in a village are not.

      One hopes you never served and never commanded.

  4. Axel Niestlé says:

    Murder is always murder and it will be so forwever, regardless who committed it. Looks as if some people in the U.S. still have to learn that lesson. I would love to see some comments here being removed as openly supporting murder is a crime in itself.

  5. Robert Beardsley says:

    We all should hate war and do everything possible to avoid it. That being said, killing enemy combatants is part of war, like it or not. I am a Vietnam era vet. Some of the things we did there was murder, but to kill someone — who is a combatant — who would kill you is survival.

    • Patty says:

      I would like to express my gratitude to you and others who were able to protect our way of life, the good, the bad and the ugly. Because of people like you America has freedoms that no other countries offer. Because of people like you America is considered the strongest country in the world.

  6. Jack Yandell says:

    It appears that some of the (murder) statements made here, are from people that are far too young to have experienced war or did everything they could to avoid it. Until you are made to change into an animal to survive, don’t make comments you know NOTHING about. U.S.Navy.Vietnam 68-69

  7. Edward Bruce says:

    My father fought with the 41st Infantry Division in New Guinea. He wrote a record of his experiences There in WWII and recorded 2 hours of VHS tape, also. He told of the flights of Allied planes that fly over him “days and nights” when the Battle of the Bismarck Sea occurred. One pack missing from the Fold3 account was an incident that occurred on March 3. A Zero collided with a B-17 called the ‘Double Trouble’ Seven crew members of the B-17 parachuted out of the flaming plane. Several Zeros broke off from the dogfights to machine-gun all seven of the helpless men floating to earth. This was observed by many allied flyers. This incident turned the battle into a massacre. Reference: War at the End of the World, James Duffy.
    FYI: The Japanese on New Guinea reached starvation because they could no longer be supplied by ships from Rabaul. Some of them began eating Allied soldiers. My father saw their flesh boiling in pots after his company had overrun Japanese positions. The Japanese were brutal. They had their enlisted men bayonet prisoners. They raped women in the countries they invaded often over two dozen times which killed the women. They forced boys to rape their mothers. They inserted grenades into the vaginas of women and blew them up. They took no prisoners. It was savage warfare. Allied soldiers fought for survival and that meant they fought savagely, also. My father dealt with the memory of the atrocities after the war. I could write much more but I think you get the point.

    • Susan says:

      While your graphic descriptions are horrendous and gut-wrenching to read, that is sometimes what it takes for people to acknowledge that otherwise inconceivable actions taken by individuals in circumstances totally alien to most, will occur. Thank you for your post.

    • Good points taken the Japanese were brutal as I had family in all the wars and my uncles would only say you wouldn’t like what happened to us pows

  8. Tom Helmantoler says:

    Outrage by hindsight never has a good look. The people whose opinions mean the most are from those that were there, like those on the Bataan Death March, or from the Filipinos who endured the Japanese occupation.
    My father was a WWII submariner, The Mapiro #376.

    • John Benbow says:

      My father-in-law was an officer on the Mapiro, and my wife would like to contact you. If you are willing, please send her an email with your contact information to [email protected] .

  9. Harryo says:

    War – what is it good for?

  10. John says:

    My father was us navy anti submarine (u-boat) and he was good at strafing surfaced u-boats. He did it saying if we didn’t stop the nazi war machine that monstrosity would have come to America with all its hideous activities. He told me if you knew about what the Nazi submarines did to allied shipping you would understand why he disabled submarines and killed crew members. Japanese troops were also terrible and should be shot before they could gain control of anyone’s life.

  11. Don says:

    Not to mention the pilots that were parachuting from the down planes. They didn’t have a problem shooting them on the way down in mid air???

  12. Marsha says:

    You little snowflakes know absolutely nothing about war. If they hadn’t done this you would be speaking Japanese and forget your rights to even express how you think this is murder.

  13. Ed Last says:

    Without war, we would all be bowing to a king or queen. I spend almost 3 decades of the best part of my life defending this country. If you have not been there keep ya pie hole shut. War is a necessary evil of survival.

  14. RAS says:

    The Japanese also shot survivors of the USSHouston in the water.

  15. My father was on the SS Quincy when it was sunk in the South Pacific. He survived the night by hanging onto a vinegar barrel. That’s really all I know. Does anyone have any more info on that incident?

  16. Yank D. says:

    Check the net… lots of info on Wikipedia!

  17. Don Landecker says:

    Remember Pearl Harbor! War is evil. Death is both ways. Don’t judge someone for their aggression when you are not part of what happened.

  18. Gary Howell says:

    My father, at the time, was in New Guinea and later in New Britain and other islands in the area. The Japanese took NO prisoners. GIs found, on patrols, bayoneted soldiers with eyes gouged, genitals removed-enough said. The Japanese were so instilled with the bushido code and samauri tradition, their greatest honor was to die for the emperor. My dad related to me how difficult it was to understand this ideology but squad leaders drilled into our troops what fate lay ahead for captured soldiers. Once they saw a few of the mutilated GI bodies, attitudes changed as they realized it was kill or be killed. I suggest some of the readers who condemn strafing Japanese soldiers watch UNBROKEN and the story of Louis Zamporini-he was strafed by Japanese aircraft as he lay unprotected in a raft. During the Coral Sea and Leyte Gulf battles, there were many reports of downed fliers being strafed. War of any sort is hell-but WWII in the Pacific was especially barbaric.

    • Robert says:

      If you want a through discussion of inhumane practices by the Japanese, read “The Flyboys” by Bradley (son of Iwo Jima flag raiser). His details of Japanese prisoner of war practices are all documented and chilling. Cannibalism, decapitation of POWs, bayoneting of POWs fire bombing by USA, etc. all covered, in detail.

    • Edward Bruce says:

      Thank you for your comments. Your father and mine saw the worst of Japanese savagery. I’m currently working on a book about my father’s experiences in the Southwest Pacific Area. He left written material and recordings on VHS of his experiences. He died in 1999. I’ve found books that confirm what he recorded. People don’t know about the Army’s part of the war war in the Pacific. It’s always shown as a Marine war.

  19. Gordon Hawkins says:

    Bad behaviour by the Japanese justifies bad behaviour by the allies. At the end of World 2 we had trials to punish the Japanese bad behaviour. Unfortunately we had no trials or consequences for allied bad behaviour. I realize war is a dirty business but are we not being a wee bit hypocritical. We screamed loud and long about Japanese bad behaviour. The silence was deafening about allied bad behaviour.

  20. John de says:

    Korean war vet. Housemate was in Bataan Death March. Hideous skin diseases. Horrible stories of the March, especially of the Philipinos who were murdered indiscriminately or allowed to die from starvation. The Japanese soldiers were applying centuries-old military practices and had no modern sense of decency. Some 40% of their British prisoners died of starvation. The only way to deal with this is to kill them on site and without remorse. Note that as a matter of honor they would not surrender, even committing hari-kari to avoid capture.

    • Bruce says:

      The human race for all it’s pros and cons ,and reasons why it does what it does, creates a very scary and horrifying existence.

  21. John S (British) says:

    The Japanese attitude to treatment of victims of warfare is best illustrated as follows. They invaded China before WW2. In 1937 they captured Nanking. The atrocities they committed are known as the ‘Rape of Nanking’. Following the capture of the city, It is estimated that at least 40,000 maybe as many as 80,000 women were raped. It is also estimated that between 200,000and 300,000 civilians, men women and children, were murdered. Each Japanese soldier was ordered to bayonet a prisoner to death, as military training and to make them ‘battle hardened’. There were similar atrocities, though on lesser scale, following their capture of Hong Kong and Singapore.

  22. Keith says:

    The Germans were just the same by firing into the landing craft trying to land on the beachheads on D day. It’s just the same as the lifeboats, to prevent them reaching the beach and fighting. They were also brutal in other ways too but that’s for another time.

  23. Janie says:

    My father was in New Guinea with the “Biscuit Bombers”, and flew many missions. The Japanese were brutal – feel no sympathy for them at all. “War is Hell”, I believe was a quote. Not sorry at all for those guys in the water.

    • Sam McGowan says:

      The “biscuit bombers” are the unsung heroes of the war in the Pacific. Thanks to Troop Carrier, MacArthur’s forces were able to establish airfields and bases behind Japanese lines and continue their advance that eventually led to the Philippines.

  24. Sam McGowan says:

    The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was an amazing victory that still grates the nerves of the Navy. It was made possible because of the efforts of former enlisted Naval aviator Paul I “Pappy” Gunn who came up with plans to convert A-20s and B-25s into powerful gunships. The two squadrons literally sank the Rising Sun in about fifteen minutes. As for the strafing of Japanese survivors in the water, they did it keep them from reaching shore and becoming part of the Japanese forces. Some did. Those who are offended have no clue what war really is. It’s only been in recent years that critics – who have no combat experience – came up with ideas of what’s honorable and what isn’t. World War II was a brutal war that ended with the immolation of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in the firebombings of Japanese cities. The Allied victory over Japan started with the Bismarck Sea. After that, Japan was unable to reinforce and supply it’s troops in New Guinea. From then on, it was one Allied victory after another. As for how the Allies got word of the convoy, it was through intelligence, officially that the Allies had broken the Japanese codes and intercepted the shipping order. However, there is another possibility – a young Neisi intelligence agent from Hawaii had remained on Bataan and infiltrated the Japanese high command in the Philippines and passed on intelligence to MacArthur’s forces in Australia. By the way, after the Bismarck Sea, the embarrassed Navy tried in vain to get Pappy Gunn to transfer back to the Navy but he chose to remain in the Army because his family was interned in Manila and he believed he could do much more to get them back by remaining with General George Kenney and MacArthur, which he did until he was wounded in a Japanese attack on the airfield at Tacloban after the Leyte invasion.

  25. Jerry, US Army 4th Recon Co. '54-56 says:

    Ed Bruce:
    You probably did not mean to imply that your father had recorded the war on VHS during the war, but probably copied either film or TV documentaries long after WWII.
    The first video recording machine was invented by the Ampex corporation of California in 1956. The first video recorder, the Ampex VR1000, stood 3 ft 3 in (1,1 m) high [or more than 6ft when fully assembled] and weighed as much as a small car: 1,466 lb. You might like to know that the VHS standard for consumer-level analog video recording on tape cassettes was not developed until the early 1970’s by Victor Company of Japan. It was released in Japan on September 9, 1976, and in the United States on August 23, 1977.

  26. LaCombe says:

    Those who believe that killing in war is equal to murder share the same 3 symptoms.
    –They are unable to understand the historic framework that existed during the war.
    –Empathy for the Japanese Empire is misplaced. Knowledge about the planet’s most inhumane war machine ever created is missing.
    –Using a modern paradigm for evaluating past actions always fails.
    One needs– 1. Knowledge of history 2. Well placed understanding (with empathy) 3. The ability to view events through the appropriate prism of time.
    Few of the current generations master any of the above.

  27. Peter says:

    First of all I’d like to thank the folks who served in Viet Nam, Korea, WWII and the Gulf Wars. Whether you like it or not folks we owe these individuals our lives.
    I hated the fact that Kurt Waldheim became the Sec. General of the U.N. He was a SS soldier from the Waffen SS. He claimed that he was only a clerk. There were NO clerks in the SS but only murderers. Do some reading……Malmedy massacre..do some reading.
    I had family near Kiev and they were murdered along with 33,300 others in a few days at BarbiYah,,,don’t know what I’m talking about..do some reading.
    There eventually were approximately 100,000 killed at BarbiYah including Russian POWs, Polish, Jews from anywhere, Priests, people from Czechoslovakia…anywhere and anyone else who were considered ungermensch….don’t know what I’m talking about..do some reading.
    Nanking, Philippines, Bataan, Unit 731, Shanghai ……do some reading.
    Comfort women..about 100,000 Korean women to service the Japanese soldiers before fighting and after. No wonder Japan hold its breath when North Korea launches a rocket over their territory into the sea. The Japanese never apologized for that one either. Just animals.
    The dropping of the bomb on H. and N. was called for and necessary if you bother to read any history. We were fire bombing cities causing 10,000 casualties a night so the A bomb was not so outrageous in proportion. Whenever I am introduced to a very senior Japanese person I am saying to myself..”What were you doing during the war”

    • I have a great collection of true DVDs and ww2 books all made from a persons life in the war. Yes people should watch and read what happened to any person that became a pow or civilian that the Japanese didn’t like or those fuckin German Nazis. The Australians in a story of building that bridge or train thing only about six survived out of thousands and that was just cause they took off and escaped. I feel the Japanese got off to easy for the brutality they did and the stalen era where they shot about 23000 polish officers the katylin story that will bring tears to your eyes.

  28. Roy Wood says:

    My Uncle, Fred Wiles, was a prisoner on the infamous ‘Burma Railway’ and later being shipped to Japan was torpedoed by USA submarines. The sub flotilla returned a few days later and sailed through the debris and oil-covered British and Australian survivors. As the USS Pampanito, later on display in San Francisco, surfaced, the crew were told “Anyone who wants to shoot a Jap, bring a weapon on deck!”. Only someone spotting that there was a man with curly hair changed a massacre into a rescue mission. Footnote; Fred’s nickname was “Curly” and a few years after being liberated, he died when his wife shot him! Roy

  29. Mauser says:

    Good article, and excellent comments, and comments on comments, IMO.
    The best speak of knowing history, and the historical context.
    If we had that, America wouldn’t have gone through the mess of recent history.
    And I wonder if we would have avoided some of the relatively recent wars.
    WW2 was forced upon us. WW2 and Korea were necessary, and if you fight, you had better fight to win.

  30. My father passed away in 1966. Master Sargaent Bernard J Cullinane. 72nd heavy army air corps. I was 5. Fifteen yrs ago by sheer luck I was viewing a news short called Pearl Harbor Payback. The short was to calm the public’s nerves, training is under way. Dad had a still shot pasted in his diary. We, as kids would glance at it, wonder about dad, who was he. The film was playing and there was my father. Wow.
    Proud but sad moment. Anybody know where I could find information about this film. He trained numbers of men finally seeing action in the Solomons. He was wounded and I have his purple heart. Sadly I do not know how that happened. I’m very proud of my dad. Im ungrateful to that whole generation. Freedom is not free. Joe Cullinane

  31. Denis Hannah says:

    Having in more recent years lived and worked in Germany, Holland, Sweden and Norway, with local people and culture.., visited and spent time in many places like Tobruk, El Alemain, Arhnem, Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Krakow, Normandy, Somme, Narvik, etc, as well as Stalag IVB and Auschwitz, I have learned that “There is nothing good about a War, All are losers, just that some lose more than others”.. I find that I am not able to visit and walk around places where over a million people have perished through no fault of their own without it impacting me.. What sheer waste of humanity.. Lest we Forget….

  32. Can someone tell me why I can leave a reply on this post but not any of the WBTS posts?

    BTW this is my 1st visit here any help appreciated.

  33. Linda S Maurer Collins says:

    Do you have any in formation on Harry F. Maurer. Us Army, world War ll. Served in the Pacific. Thank you so much. Oh, he was from PA. Linda.