The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a pivotal WWII battle fought March 2-4, 1943, in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA). Allied aircraft from the US Fifth Airforce and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) attacked a convoy of Japanese ships transporting troop reinforcements to Lae, New Guinea. The Allies destroyed most of the convoy, and Japan suffered heavy losses, abandoning their plan to land more troops at Lae.
In January 1943, Japan launched a convoy of five destroyers and five transport ships to New Guinea to reinforce the Japanese hold in the SWPA. Allied aircraft attacked the convoy, but only two transports were lost. Some 4,000 Japanese troops successfully made it to New Guinea.
Emboldened by their success, Japan began planning a more extensive transport to bring 6,900 troops, ammunition, fuel, and supplies to reinforce New Guinea. They knew the convoy was risky because of strong Allied air power, but the alternative was landing the troops much further away, where they would be required to hike through rugged terrain to reach Lae.
The second Japanese convoy consisted of eight destroyers, eight transports, and 100 Japanese aircraft to provide air cover. The convoy departed Simpson Harbour in Rabaul on February 28, 1943.
Allied intelligence officials, however, had intercepted coded Japanese messages and were aware of the plans for a convoy. Under the direction of US Army Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney and RAAF Group Captain William H. Garing, the Allies planned and rehearsed a highly coordinated air attack. Reconnaissance planes began sweeping the sea, looking for enemy ships. On March 2, they spotted the enemy convoy and launched the first of several waves of attacks.
The multi-pronged attacks involved 16 Allied squadrons that attacked from different altitudes. Some bombers flew just a few feet above the ground, dropping skip bombs (bombs that skipped across the water before slamming into the sides of ships). Others from medium altitude and some from as high as 10,000 feet.
Over the next two days, the Allies sank all eight transports and four destroyers. The remaining four destroyers were damaged. They also shot down numerous Japanese fighter planes. Japanese survivors from the ships were adrift in the sea. On March 4, the Allies sent torpedo boats and aircraft to patrol the area. They strafed Japanese survivors and rescue vessels. They also engaged with a Japanese submarine, assisting in the rescue operation. The controversial strafing decision was defended as a way to prevent enemy soldiers from returning to active service.
At least 3,000 Japanese soldiers died. Some 2,700 were rescued from the water and returned to Rabaul, and 1,200 made it ashore to Lai. In contrast, just 13 Allied airmen died. The losses were devastating for Japan, and they made no further attempt to reinforce Lai.
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