The Japanese expedition in Makassar Strait had been heavily hit, and Army B-17's gave it some additional touches on January 28th and again on February 2d, when they sank two transports. Our action had not prevented the Japanese from taking Balikpapan, but they were stalled there for some time.
East of Celebes, however, the Japanese continued to progress. On the 21st they began a series of bombing attacks on points in northeastern New Guinea and in the Bismarck Archipelago. They followed these by landing at Kavieng in New Ireland and at Rabaul in New Britain, where the RAAF bombed their ships three times within a week. About the same time they landed at Kieta on Bougainville Island in the Solomons.
In Borneo they advanced overland from Sarawak, which they had controlled since early January, to new points on the western coast. On January 29th they took Pemangkat. Within a few days they controlled Pontianak and soon they were pushing beyond. At the same time planes operating from Samarinda and Balikpapan began to bomb Bandjermasin on the southeast coast. These movements threatened to bring them opposite Java and southeastern Sumatra.
Had we been able to strike at other expeditions as effectively as in Makassar Strait the Japanese advance might have been slowed sufficiently to permit help to arrive from the United States. But we could not strike again immediately. The Marblehead required repairs to her turbine. Our destroyers were beginning to show the effects of having been almost constantly at sea since the beginning of the war. Moreover, many of their torpedo tubes were empty and no more torpedoes were to be had at once. Our larger submarines had been running patrols of 50 days and our smaller ones 30 or 40 days, and often when they were returning to port for a badly needed rest a new emergency required their turning again to sea.
The Dutch ships were in better condition, but, acting on information which later proved inaccurate, Admiral Helfrich had sent his fleet northwest into Karimata Channel. Consequently it was not available to strengthen our striking force in the east at this critical time.
The British were concentrating their attention and naval forces in the west, where the situation was critical. In Burma they were holding the line of the Salween River, but in the south, Moulmein, anchor of their right flank, was seriously threatened. The last reinforcements were being thrown into Singapore "under a hail of bombs running clear down to Banka Strait" and at the cost of the Empress of Japan sunk and the Duchess of Bedford and the U.S.S. Wakefield damaged. By the end of January ABDACOM decided to withdraw the British troops in Malaya to Singapore Island, and he again left Lembang to visit the great base. While General Wavell believed that Singapore might hold out indefinitely, it had become useless as a naval base. The Royal Navy was closing its dockyard-a bitter blow. ABDACOM's decision meant too that the RAF was forced to move from Singapore and base operations on Sumatra. But already the northern and eastern ports of Sumatra were too dangerous for merchant shipping and vessels had been sunk at Padang on the west coast and at Emmahaven just below.
In the face of these difficulties we did the best we could. Admiral Hart felt that the enemy force which had regathered in Makassar Strait and which again offered "some attractive targets" should be our next objective. Submarines were placed to protect Bandjermasin and Makassar, while repairs on the Marblehead and our destroyers were rushed to completion for another raid up the straits. But as our ships worked northward on the afternoon of February 1st they were sighted and shadowed by a Japanese plane. That night there was bright moonlight and our commander prudently decided not to attack a superior force (as our air reconnaissance had reported it to be) after the element of surprise had obviously been lost.
It was known that the Japanese were building up a force at Kendari and Staring Bay on the southeast coast of Celebes. While we were occupied with our unsuccessful attempt in Makassar Strait they moved in the Molucca Sea. On February 1st they bombed Laha airfield on Ceram and subsequently occupied it. On the same day a large convoy, reported to consist of 10 transports, 10 destroyers and 6 cruisers, approached Amboina, chief Dutch stronghold on the eastern flank of the Indies. The
Dutch and Australian air force there had been pretty well whittled down during previous raids, and within 2 or 3 days the island was in the possession of the Japanese. With it we lost a good battalion of Australians and "one of the best units of the Netherlands East Indies Army."
The difficulty in repairing and servicing our ships had convinced Admiral Hart that Port Darwin was too far removed from the scene of operations. Moreover, it had proven unsuitable as a base in other respects, and on January 29th he ordered our auxiliaries to move westward to Netherlands East Indies harbors. The ships sailed on February 3d and Holland and Otus arrived at Tjilatjap on the 10th. The move was late. On the same day that our auxiliaries left Darwin the Japanese, operating from their new bases, crossed the Java Sea to bomb Soerabaja and several other points in Java, as well as Timor. It was the first of a series of raids which were to make Soerabaja first difficult, then utterly untenable as a base. On this first raid most of the Dutch fighters were shot out of the air. Our own Navy planes escaped only because our tenders, always on the move, enabled them always to be elsewhere than where the Japs expected to find them.
The Japanese now controlled all the northern approaches to the Indies and would soon be in a position to move directly against the Soenda chain itself. It appeared that the bombing of Java and Timor marked the beginning of the "softening up" process. The need for a striking force capable of breaking up the next Japanese expedition was obvious.
To consider the creation of such a force Admiral Hart as ABDAFLOAT called a conference of Admiral Helfrich, Admiral Glassford, and Commodore Collins. They met at Lembang on February 2d. The Dutch cruisers and destroyers were now available and some British vessels had been released from the Singapore convoy. Of the American ships, Boise sailed for Colombo with a long gash in her bottom, but the Houston and Marblehead and some destroyers were ready for action. The Langley had just been sent to Fremantle on the southwest coast of Australia to load Army P-40 planes so desperately needed now in Java. It was decided to put the Dutch Rear Admiral, Karel W. F.M. Doorman, in charge of the force which was to assemble east of Java as soon as possible. It was realized that the tactical handling of the little fleet would present some difficulties, but there was no opportunity for joint training.
It looked as if we might at last have a force capable of smashing the
next Japanese expedition even if it should be heavily protected. But the promise of this start was short-lived.