Air Power and Island Warfare

By Capt H A DeWeerd

General Kenney's achievement in transporting men and materials to jungle battlefields has been a decisive factor in Pacific offensives.

In an earlier article ["Air Power and Festung Europa," Flying, November, 1942.— —Ed] the author attempted to show how the technique of Allied ground-air cooperation as developed in North Africa is providing a model for the invasion of Hitler's European fortress from the west. This technique is already demonstrating its adaptability to new conditions as the Allied armies advance in Italy. Here the invasion was prepared by the strategic bombing of enemy communications and air fields from August 17 to September 3. From the time of the landings until the Allied victory at Salerno (September 15) planes were used in direct support of the ground forces.

The employment of air power at the height of the Salerno battle was spectacular and highly effective. Air Marshal Tedder's command flew 1,888 sorties and dropped 1,284 tons of bombs in 24 hours on September 14 in direct support of General Clark's hard-pressed Fifth Army. This violent intervention turned the scales against the Germans. From September 15 on the Fifth Army's Salerno beachhead was secure and the troops were able to press forward. With Foggia's well-dispersed air fields at our disposal, it may be assumed that some of the handicaps under which our Air Force operated in the initial stages of the Italian campaign have diminished,

While these techniques were being developed and perfected in North Africa, American forces in the Pacific were adapting themselves to the novel conditions imposed by jungle warfare in an island theater. This article will be confined to the role of air power in the New Guinea theater, but we may assume that operations in the Solomons follow a similar pattern.

Japan's multiple "triphibian" thrusts, begun on December 7, 1941, reached their crest in the summer of 1942. As long as the Japanese were opposed by ground forces operating in traditional manner without effective air support, they were everywhere victorious. In a seven-month campaign, they conquered Malaya, Burma, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and were penetrating. the island fringes guarding Australia. In speed, precision, and distances covered, these operations were unparalleled in history. They brought millions of people and untold riches in strategic raw material under Japanese control. Behind a vast cordon of island air bases Japan seemed to be in a position to exploit her newly-won resources. All the strategic advantages appeared to be in her hands. The decision of the Allies to defeat Hitler first„ seemed to assure the success of her plans.

But the Pacific war was not being waged in a vacuum. As a part of a vast coalition struggle, it was inseparably linked to the fluctuating conflict in Europe. The Red Army showed unexpected defensive strength in 1942, and passed to the offensive in 1943. Britain and the United States mustered sufficient power to seize the initiative in the Mediterranean. The United States Navy rose from the staggering blow it received at Pearl Harbor much more rapidly than the Japanese could have anticipated. The expansion of American air power in the Pacific made itself felt in the spring and summer of 1942.

The Japanese wave of conquest set in motion at Pearl Harbor was checked by American air power at the Coral Sea battle (May 7-11, 1942) and Midway (June 3-5). There followed a brief period of equilibrium in which the Japanese pushed into New Guinea to menace Port Moresby and Australia. While this advance was underway, the United States Marines assumed the initiative in the Solomons by seizing Guadalcanal, and gradually the United Nations passed into the offensive in the Southwest Pacific. In this transition and in subsequent operations air power played a supremely important role.

One of General MacArthur's earliest decisions was to defend Australia in New Guinea. This brought his forces and the invading army of Gen Tomatore Horii into conflict in the mountainous, jungle-covered terrain of Papua. Because normal communications were almost entirely lacking in Papua, this campaign provided a unique opportunity for the Fifth United States Air Force to demonstrate its adaptability to novel conditions.

A brief survey of the conditions under which the Papuan campaign (July 21, 1942-January 23, 1943) was fought is essential to an understanding of the role of air power in these events. Landing an army of 13,000 men at Gona Mission on the northern coast of New Guinea on July 21, General Horii crossed the Owen Stanley Mountain range by way of the jungle (Kokoda) trail and reached a point within 33 miles of Port Moresby on September 27. Here the Japanese advance was halted by Allied resistance and by the almost insurmountable difficulties of bringing up supplies.

The first step taken by the Allied command in order to drive the invader out of Papua was to gain control of the air. As one officer in the Southwest Pacific said: "The Navy can't save Australia if we lose the air." Once a working control of the air was attained over Papua, Allied ground troops were able to recapture Kokoda with its flying strip after six weeks of heavy fighting. This advance air field was put into operation two days after its capture, and from it Allied planes maintained pressure on the Japanese who retreated from Oivi on November 11 to their final defense positions at Soputa-Sanananda, Buna, and Gona Mission.

To move sufficient Allied troops and supplies to crack this position over the jungle trail across the Owen Stanley Mountains would have entailed incalculable labor and time. The troops would have arrived exhausted by "fighting the jungle," the mud, and heat. Lieut Gen Geo C Kenney saw the possibility of transporting them by air, and as soon as suitable landing strips had been built at Wanigela Mission, planes of the Fifth Air Force began ferrying in troops and supplies from Moresby and Kokoda. Some troop units were flown from Australia to Moresby and from there to Wanigela Mission.

This was the most ambitious program of air transport in direct support of a combat operation attempted up to that time by the American air forces. It involved flying the equivalent of a full combat division and most of its equipment a distance (from Moresby) of 110 miles. But those miles entailed crossing a 4,000 foot mountain range and landing on improvised fields. A notable achievement was the transport of a limited number of British 25-pounder field guns and American 105-mm howitzers. Supplies flown to the troops averaged 115 tons a day. The evacuation of sick and wounded troops by air is known to have saved hundreds of lives.

In addition to its transport role, the Fifth Air Force contributed directly to the defeat of General Horii's army by bombing and ground-strafing attacks on Japanese positions and by attacking enemy transports bringing in reinforcements. On two occasions in December and once in January, Japanese attempts to land reinforcements were thwarted by American planes. Remnants of the original fleet of transports did get through but not in sufficient force to save the Japanese garrison at Buna and Gona.

Japanese log bunker defenses in Papua proved to be unexpectedly resistant to light artillery and mortar fire. Bombing operations in jungle terrain presented unique problems in target identification, but steady air attack contributed greatly to the final collapse of the enemy. When Japanese resistance ended at Sanananda on January 23, the area was described as "a mass of bomb craters and wreckage." A total of about 15,000 enemy troops were destroyed in this campaign.

General MacArthur admitted that General Kenney's air ideas were like "heady brandy." Once he saw them operate he was convinced for all time. That he regarded the Papuan campaign as a turning point in the development of grand tactics, is shown in MacArthur's statement of January 24, 1943. Writing one day after the campaign ended, General MacArthur declared:

"A new form of campaign was tested which points the way to the ultimate defeat of the enemy in the Pacific.

"The offensive and defensive power of the air and the adaptability, range and capacity of its transport in an effective combination with ground forces represent tactical and strategical elements of a broadened conception of warfare that will permit the application of offensive power in swift, massive strokes rather than the dilatory and costly island-to-island advance that some have assumed to be necessary in a theater where the enemy's far flung strongholds are dispersed throughout a vast expanse of archipelagos."

In the union of air, ground and Naval forces, he saw the promise of new strategical and tactical concepts (which were successfully to be put into play later at Salamaua, Lae and Finschaven).

The campaign in Papua revealed that the air arm possesses great potentialities in jungle island warfare. For one thing, routes and communications in these theaters are channelized along jungle trails. Operating bases are restricted to ports and flying fields. Because of the nature of the terrain and the difficulty of moving supplies in the jungle, dispersal areas are limited. Thus the prime targets of strategic bombing: bases, communication routes, air fields and dispersal areas are well defined and limited in number. The clear atmosphere and high ceilings common to the Pacific favored American precision bombing. The second outstanding feature of jungle warfare was that conditions on the ground precluded the employment of heavy artillery in blasting Japanese log, concrete and earth bunkers. So the artillery preparation, which in European theaters would have been carried out by 155-mm guns and howitzers, under these conditions had to be provided by the bombers.

It was largely because the courses of action open to the enemy in island warfare are restricted by the factors described above, that the Allied air forces were able to deal the Japanese a shattering blow in the Gulf of Huon in March.

The battle of the Bismarck Sea (March 2-4) provided a convincing illustration of the capacity of air power to reach out and destroy enemy ground forces even before they got to their defense positions. After the loss of Papua, the Japanese high command made a determined effort to reinforce the garrisons at Lae and Salamaua to meet the inevitable Allied ad-

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above, that the Allied air forces were able to deal the Japanese 12 transports) bound from Rabaul to Lae was caught by Allied planes in the Gulf of Huon and completely destroyed. Not a ship escaped and 102 Japanese planes which tried to protect the convoy were shot down. An estimated 15,000 Japanese troops (identified as units of the 51st and 20th divisions) were drowned at the cost of one Allied bomber and three fighters. In two days Allied planes killed as many Japanese troops as were put out of action in five months of hard campaigning in Papua. This victory paved the way for the subsequent capture of Salamaua and Lae.

Recent events in northeast New Guinea testify as to the effectiveness of the new land, sea and air techniques developed in Papua. Although all forces are on a smaller scale than in Europe, certain essential similarities exist between the methods employed. Strategic bombing was used to reduce enemy air power and isolate ports and bases. Then ground troops operating from Naval landing craft or transport planes close in on their objectives under close air support. Since possession of bases means control of islands, the decisive battles are generally fought to a conclusion at the approaches to these bases.

Strategic bombing operations for the northward push into British Northeast New Guinea reached effective proportions with a 123-ton raid on Salamaua on July 23, and a 177-ton repeat performance on August 14. The Japanese "right air flank" was shattered by Allied surprise raids which caught 250 Japanese planes on the ground at Wewak (August 14-19) and destroyed 215. This prepared the way for the Australian landing east of Lae on September 6, which isolated the Japanese garrison at Salamaua. On the following day Allied paratroops made a mass descent into the Markham Valley which sealed the fate of Salamaua and Lae. A 145-ton bombing raid on Lae was sufficient to soften up the tough Japanese defense.

Salamaua was captured on September 11, and Lae, which according to the official communique had been reduced to a shambles by continuous air bombardment, fell on September 16. Six thousand three hundred Japanese troops died at Salamaua and Lae. The air field at Lae was put into condition for use, and Australian airborne troops were landed at Kaiapit near Finschaven on September 20. The attack on this base began two days later, and Finschaven fell on October 3, giving the Allies control of the Huon Gulf.

The Allied advance from Kaiapit up the Ramu Valley toward Madang is under way as this is being written, with Australian troops (the famous 7th division — victors at El Alamein) leading the way. They are being assisted by American troop carrier planes and airborne engineers. A program of leap-frogging from one air strip to another is carried out as fast as the engineers can build new or repair captured air strips behind the advancing infantry. This technique permits a velocity and range of action hitherto impossible in jungle terrain and points one way to the defeat of Japan.

Since mid-summer the Japanese have been driven out of one island after another in the Solomons and have lost control of most of Northeast New Guinea. This has not been because their troops lack courage, fighting ability or equipment. They have been driven out of these areas because after the Bismarck Sea massacre, the Japanese high command has been reluctant to send large-scale reinforcements inside the range of American bombers.

The isolating power of the air arm extends also to the matter of enemy air reinforcements. The Japanese have found that it has been a costly drain on their air resources to concentrate planes even at rear bases such as Wewak where they may be surprised on the ground by Allied bombers. This was confirmed again on October 13 when the Allied air force, operating from central positions and enjoying the advantages of surprise, struck the Japanese air force a crippling blow at Rabaul. More than 170 planes were destroyed and many small ships and barges sunk.

This blow, which was described by General MacArthur as "crushing the enemy's left air flank" in this theater, demonstrated once again the power, range and flexibility of the air arm in island warfare.

This article was originally published in the January, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 34, no 1, pp 52-53, 94, 97.
The PDF of this article includes a thumbnail portrait of Capt DeWeerd and photos of troops loading into and landing from transports in the Pacific theater.
Photos credited to Albee Studios, Australian News and Information Bureau.