The Attack at Lae and Salamaua(See Chart opposite)
The attack by our carrier-borne aircraft on Japanese ships and shore establishments in the Lae-Salamaua area of New Guinea on March 10, 1942, was a one-sided victory. The apparent ease with which this victory was achieved is the more notable when it is recalled that it went forward despite a necessary change of tactics at the eleventh hour. It was at Lae and Salamaua that two United States aircraft carrier groups operated together in a coordinated attack for the first time in history.
The Japanese advance southward in the New Guinea-New Britain area had gained considerable momentum by the end of February 1942. The enemy had completed the occupation of Rabaul, New Britain, and also had established themselves in Gasmata, New Britain, Kavieng, New Ireland, Mussau Island northwest of New Hanover, and Buka Island, northernmost of the Solomons. Kieta on Bougainville Island in the Solomons and Rossel Island in the Louisiades also were reported in enemy hands, although no confirmation was then available. Moreover, the Japanese had made repeated bombing attacks on Salamaua, Port Moresby, and Buna, all in New Guinea, and on Tulagi and Gizo Islands in the lower Solomons, indicating their probable intention of occupying these places.
Intelligence available to us concerning the Japanese strength and the pattern of their fleet movements in the area was generally good. For instance, reconnaisance had located an enemy force of about 3 heavy cruisers, 5 light cruisers, 8 destroyers, 15 transports, a submarine tender, a submarine squadron, a gunboat division and at least 50 land-based aircraft, including fighters and heavy bombers, in the Rabaul area. These units, together with other units which were active in the same general vicinity, including tenders for flying boats and pontoon planes, were expected to start an offensive on or about March 5th. The estimated probable objective of the enemy was the extension of their sphere of conquest
into New Guinea or outlying islands in the southwest Pacific. It was known that the enemy had various land and seaplane bases in the area including two fields at Rabaul, both suitable for all types of planes, and a field near Gasmata suitable for fighters.
Two principal strategical considerations lead to the Lae-Salamaua attack. First, it was desired that the Japanese advance southward be checked. Secondly, United States Army troops were to be transported from Australia to New Caledonia between the 7th and 12th of March, and it was expedient that our fleet provide a "cover" for this movement. Accordingly, on March 2, the Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, directed that Task Forces BAKER and FOX and the ANZAC squadron attack enemy ships and air bases in the Bismarck Archipelago-Solomon Islands area about March 10th. The order further directed Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, then commander of Task Force BAKER, to arrange for and control the operations of the three forces.
The combination of Task Force BAKER, which was built around the Lexington, with FOX, built around the Yorktown, plus the ANZAC squadron, put a considerable force at the disposal of Admiral Brown. Besides the 2 carriers, there were present in the combined task force 8 heavy cruisers and 14 destroyers, as follows:
Australia, Capt. H. P. Farncomb, R. A. N. MacDonough, Lt. Comdr. John M. McIsaac. Astoria, Capt. Francis W. Scanland. Hull, Lt. Comdr. Richard F. Stout. Chicago, Capt. Howard D. Bode. Clark, Comdr. Myron T. Richardson. Indianapolis, Capt. Edward W. Hanson. Bagley, Lt. Comdr. George A. Sinclair. Louisville, Capt. Elliott B. Nixon. Russell, Lt. Comdr Glenn R. Hartwig. Minneapolis, Capt. Frank J. Lowry. Walke, Lt. Comdr. Thomas E. Fraser. Pensacola, Capt. Frank L. Lowe. Anderson, Lt. Comdr. John K. B. Ginder. San Francisco, Capt. Daniel J. Callaghan. Hammann, Comdr. Arnold E. True. Phelps, Lt. Comdr. Edward L. Beck. Hughes, Lt. Comdr. Donald J. Ramsey. Dewey, Lt. Comdr. Charles F. Chillingworth, Jr. Sims, Lt. Comdr. Wilford M. Hyman. Dale, Lt. Comdr. Anthony L. Rorschach.
Decision as to what objectives were to be attacked was left to Admiral Brown. In his action report, the admiral pointed out that on the basis of information at hand there were only three locations at which the Japanese were known to have air bases where shipping could be found. These were Rabaul and Gasmata in New Britain and Kavieng in New
Ireland. Of the three, Rabaul and Gasmata were considered more important in terms of their value to the enemy as air bases and the volume of shipping likely to be found there.
The objectives chosen, Admiral Brown next had to fix upon a method of approach. COMINCH'S orders had contained a suggestion that our forces should advance from the eastward or northeastward, but Admiral Brown considered that it would be tactically sounder to keep his forces together and approach from the south. He gave four reasons in a post-battle report for this decision:
- Experience of February 20th had shown that the enemy was maintaining an extensive search to the eastward of Rabaul.
- Greater mutual protection would be afforded by keeping all units together, and better control of movement and timing of attack effected.
- Advance from the south offered a shorter route to the selected objectives, involving less expenditure of fuel and consequently affording more fuel for high speed.
- There was more likelihood of encountering a southeast wind, which would facilitate retirement after the attack.
Because of the desirability of surprise, a moonlight air attack on Rabaul and Gasmata was first planned. However, this was abandoned when it was learned that a majority of pilots on the Yorktown were unqualified in night launching and landing and were relatively inexperienced in night bombing. A dawn air attack, to be followed by bombardment of shipping and shore installations by cruisers and destroyers, next was fixed upon. This plan contained a proviso that should the air attack find the enemy alerted and no shipping in the harbors the attack groups would be directed to rejoin the main body without attacking.
THE PLAN IS CHANGED
On the 7th of March information was received from COMANZAC which changed the tactical complexion entirely and necessitated a drastic revision of plans. This information was that a Japanese convoy consisting of a cruiser and several destroyers, with transports, had been sighted off Buna, New Guinea. The following day, additional information was received from COMANZAC to the effect that enemy forces had begun an early morning landing at Salamaua, and that at 0830 (local
time) on the same date 11 additional enemy ships, including 4 cruisers or destroyers, had begun to shell both Salamaua and Lae. Landings had been made and both places were in enemy hands by noon. Furthermore, air reconnaissance by the RAAF on March 8th had revealed no warships and only 3 transports at Rabaul, and no shipping whatsoever at Gasmata. The day before this reconnaissance, 23 ships had been present at Rabaul alone. It was apparent that the Japanese were moving in force on New Guinea.
It at once became evident to Admiral Brown that it now was advisable to attack the enemy while they were in an exposed position at Salamaua and Lae and before they had an opportunity to establish themselves in force at those two ports. It was considered that such an attack, if successful, would remove the immediate threat to New Guinea (the Allied base of Port Moresby was generally considered to be the enemy's goal), and would go far toward checking any Japanese advance in the area.
Having determined to strike at Salamaua and Lae rather than at Rabaul and Gasmata, Admiral Brown next had to fix upon a method of approach to the new objectives. Two general directions of approach offered themselves: From the eastward, that is north of the Papuan Peninsula, or from the south below that peninsula. Considerable thought would seem to have been given the choice, for Admiral Brown stated in his action report that it was made after "careful deliberation." In weighing the choice, the following favorable points were considered:
- An attack from the Gulf of Papua stood an excellent chance of taking the enemy by surprise, whereas an attack from the eastward required an approach through waters that were being patrolled by the enemy. (In this connection, it was assumed as a matter of principle that an alert enemy, once they had received warning of the approach of a hostile raiding force, in all probability would disperse their shipping to areas out of ready reach by air attack.)
- An approach from the south offered reasonable security from repeated attacks by enemy aircraft based at Rabaul and Gasmata.
- It would permit lower speeds during the approach and retirement because of the relative immunity from air attacks. This would allow a reserve of fuel which could be used, if necessary, to make a temporary withdrawal and return in case unsuitable weather were encountered on the day chosen for the attack. Such freedom of action would have been denied by an approach from the east.
On the other hand, it was realized that an air attack from the Gulf of Papua entailed the following principal disadvantages:
- A hazardous, 100-mile flight over wild and unknown country and mountain ranges often obscured by clouds.
- The probability that the attack would not prove as damaging or as decisive as one launched from the eastward, should it have been possible to effect the latter with the element of surprise.
It was considered, however, that the above disadvantages were outweighed by the aforementioned advantages, and the decision to approach from the south was reached late in the day of March 8th. March 10th was fixed as the day for the attack.
The decision reached, Admiral Brown notified the ships of his command of the change in plans. In the meantime, however, another decision had been made. This was that a special group of four heavy cruisers and four destroyers should be detached from the main body to remain in the vicinity of Rossel Island in the Louisiades in order to cover the carrier operations in the Gulf of Papua and to be in a position to intercept any enemy surface force which might move southward to attack Port Moresby. The special group likewise would be in a position to cover the arrival of American troops in New Caledonia. Rear Admiral Grace, R. N., commander of the ANZAC squadron, was given command of the group, which consisted of the Australia, Chicago, Astoria, Louisville, and the Anderson, Hammann, Hughes, and Sims.
Admiral Grace was ordered to take up a position southeastward of Rossel Island at a distance not less than 600 miles south of Rabaul. He was to rendezvous with the main body at 0100 (G. C. T.) on March 14 at "point pig" (lat. 15°00' S., long. 159°00' E.) and to direct the two fueling groups built around the Neosho and Kaskaskia to do the same. The two oilers, under terms of the orders applying to the original Rabaul-Gasmata attack plan, had been assigned separate fueling rendezvous stations, both of which were several miles eastward of "point pig."
The approach to the Gulf of Papua throughout the 9th was without incident. The ships steered a northerly course, roughly paralleling the Australian coast.
Obviously, however, the attack as planned entailed a flight across the Papuan Peninsula, no ordinary body of land from an aviator's point of view. It was common knowledge that the Owen Stanley Range, which
forms the backbone of the peninsula, contained mountain peaks as high as 15,000 feet and that the interior, besides being rugged, was largely unexplored jungle. Charts available to the fleet showed nothing of the interior behind the shore line. Furthermore, in order to launch the planes within effective striking distance it would be necessary to take the task force into narrow water abounding in coral reefs, the positions of many of them doubtful. To secure better information concerning waters to be navigated and the terrain to be flown over, as well as to gather weather data, two planes were sent out. Comdr. Walton W. Smith, of Admiral Brown's staff, flew to Townsville, Australia, and Comdr. William B. Ault, of the Lexington air group, to Port Moresby. These officers brought back information which contributed a great deal towards success.
It was learned that the best pass over the mountains, the highest point of which was at an altitude of about 7,500 feet, happened to be on a direct line between the point in the Gulf of Papua from which it had been hoped that the carriers could launch their planes and Salamaua, and that this pass was most likely to be free of clouds between the hours of 0700 and 1100. Consequently, course and speed were set in order that the launching point would be reached at about 0800 on the 10th.
Task Force BAKER arrived at its assigned station in the Gulf of Papua during the early morning hours of the 10th and began launching planes from a position about 45 miles distant from the shore line at the mouth of Freshwater Bay. Because weather was to be a prime factor, Comdr. Ault flew a scout bomber into a position about midway across the peninsula at the highest point of the pass to be traversed by the attack group. Responsibility for carrying out or abandoning the attack was placed in his hands. He remained on station between Mount Chapman and Mount Lawson, broadcasting weather and operational information on both the planes and the surface units, until all planes had returned.
The first plane left the deck of the Lexington at 0749, and the Yorktown began launching about 20 minutes later. At about 0840 the entire combined striking group--104 planes--was in the air. Aside from Comdr. Ault's plane, the Lexington group was composed of 18 scout bombers (SBD-3) of Scouting Squadron TWO, 12 bombers
(SBD-3) of Bombing Squadron TWO, 13 topedo planes (TBD-1) of Torpedo Squadron TWO, and 8 fighters (F4F-3) of Fighting Squadron THREE. Yorktown planes in the air included 17 bombers (SBD-3) of Bombing Squadron FIVE, 13 scout bombers (SBD-3) of Scouting Squadron FIVE, 12 torpedo planes (TBD-1) of Torpedo Squadron FIVE, and 10 fighters (F4F-3) of Fighting Squadron FORTY-TWO. The planes carried a total weight of 38 tons of bombs and torpedoes, six 1,000-pound, seventy-nine 500-pound, 110 100-pound, sixteen 30-pound bombs and 13 torpedoes.
Capt. Frederick C. Sherman, commander of the Lexington and senior air officer, reported later that he was anxious to test the performance of both torpedo planes and torpedoes. Because of some doubt as to the ability of the TBD's to carry torpedoes over the mountains and return, however, he directed that only the Lexington torpedo squadron carry this weapon. The Yorktown VT squadron carried a substitute armament of two 500-pound bombs each.
The carriers launched on a course 088.5° at 25 knots speed. Weather conditions were excellent, with unlimited ceiling and visibility and a wind of nine knots. The sea was smooth.
Six fighters from each carrier, five bombers from the Lexington and four bombers from the Yorktown were kept in the air over the task force throughout the action for defensive purposes.
In order that they might have the maximum amount of fuel for the operation, the fighters of the attack group were landed after all planes were in the air and reserviced. They were then launched again and because of their superior speed were able to overtake the other planes en route to the objectives.
It is believed that the enemy ships present at Lae and Salamaua when our attack began consisted of five transports, two cargo vessels and a covering force of two cruisers and four destroyers. These vessels were attacked by the Lexington group and by three squadrons of the Yorktown group somewhat later. However, another enemy force was approaching the scene from the eastward, being about 25 miles distant when our first planes entered their dives. The composition of the second enemy force has never been determined exactly, but it is believed to have included at least one cruiser, four destroyers, a seaplane carrier (Kamoi), and six transports. The cruiser and destroyer steamed ahead to the Salamaua area to defend or rescue personnel already under attack. The
cruisers and destroyers were attacked by the Yorktown dive bombers and the seaplane tender by Torpedo Squadron FIVE. The transports subsequently were attacked by Army B-17 heavy bombers, with undetermined results.
That surprise had been achieved was attested by the fact that no enemy fighter opposition was encountered at any time during the attack.
ACTION OF THE LEXINGTON GROUP
The Lexington group attacked first at 0922. Scouting Squadron TWO proceeded to a position 16,000 feet above Lae, its mission being to dive bomb shipping there. Three large enemy transports were at Lae, one unloading at the dock and two anchored a half mile off shore. Three divisions of scouts, each plane armed with one 500-pound bomb and two 100-pound bombs, attacked these ships. According to plan, the 500-pounders were dropped first and the smaller bombs later on "opportunity" targets. The planes also strafed the transports with their fixed .5o-caliber machine guns. The transport at the dock and one of the two in the harbor were sunk. The third was set afire and subsequently beached itself east of Lae.
Two pilots pulled out of their initial dives when their windshields and sighting telescopes fogged-over. These two planes later made glide bombing attacks on a cruiser which was underway. A 500-pound bomb struck the cruiser, which was believed to be of the Kinugasa class, aft of its second stack. A few seconds later a large explosion occurred within the ship and she last was seen heading toward the beach east of Lae burning fiercely. Photographs taken a half hour later by the Yorktown planes did not show the ship in the area, and she is believed to have sunk.
Other scout planes dropped 100-pound bombs on a small auxiliary, possibly a mine sweeper, and the vessel caught fire and lost headway.
The squadron made additional attacks off Salamaua. A 100-pound bomb hit on the stern of a frantically maneuvering destroyer apparently set off depth charges, and a second explosion occurred. The ship was left afire and sinking rapidly.
One plane of Scouting Squadron TWO was lost. Ensign Joseph Philip Johnson, pilot, and J. B. Jewell, aviation radioman, third class, were shot down from 200 feet altitude by shore-based antiaircraft fire. The plane crashed in flames into the water east of Lae.
Torpedo Squadron TWO began attacking at 0938. Three planes attacked two transports anchored close to the shore in Samoa Bay off Salamaua. One torpedo was seen to hit one of the transports. The other two torpedoes exploded against the shore in back of the ships, indicating that they had run too deep. Five planes dropped torpedoes at a transport anchored off Lae, but the results were difficult to determine as the ship had already been struck by bombs. Pilots were of the opinion that two of the five torpedoes sounded.
Of three torpedoes launched against two other transports near the beach at Lae, two were believed to have hit. The third exploded against the beach. Still another torpedo was fired at a light cruiser underway off Salamaua with undetermined results. The thirteenth torpedo was inadvertently released and its run was not observed.
Bombing Squadron TWO coordinated its attack with Torpedo Squadron TWO. Six bombers carried 1,000-pound bombs and the other six carried one 500-pound and two 100-pound bombs each. All 1,000-pounders were aimed at a cruiser of the Mogami class which was maneuvering at high speed off Salamaua. One direct hit was scored, one bomb landed 20 feet astern and the other four were fairly close, all to port. The cruiser was believed to have sunk
The other six planes concentrated on one of two transports at Salamaua. These were the same two transports attacked by VT-2, and one of them appeared to be resting on the bottom. Two direct 500-pound bomb hits set the second one afire and it later beached itself.
Fighting Squadron THREE, having overtaken the slower planes in the pass, proceeded ahead to cover the arrival of the striking force. No enemy aircraft were encountered either on the ground or in the air, so the squadron split into two four-plane groups. One division proceeded to Lae to support the scouting planes. These fighters silenced an antiaircraft gun at Lae and then machine-gunned and dropped small bombs on a nearby air field, inflicting minor damages. Observing nothing more worthy of their attention, they next flew out and strafed and bombed a cruiser, a destroyer, and a small auxiliary, all underway off Salamaua. Small fires were started on the destroyer and auxiliary and several of the crew were killed. One enemy single-float biplane which attempted to intercept our torpedo planes was shot down by Lt. Noel A. Gayler.
The other fighter division operated over Salamaua, dropping seven 30-pound fragmentation bombs among buildings at the air field there.
The 4 planes then strafed a small auxiliary vessel before covering the rendezvous and retirement of the bombing and torpedo planes. In all, VF-3 estimated that they had killed 45 or 50 Japanese.
ACTION OF THE YORKTOWN GROUP
The Yorktown air group attacked on the heels of the Lexington planes. Bombing Squadron FIVE split into three divisions. Six planes attacked a light cruiser of the Natori or Tenryu class which was underway in Salamaua Roads. Six 500-pound and twelve 100-pound bombs were released. Several near misses but no direct hits resulted. These planes then strafed a gunboat. Almost simultaneously a second division of 6 planes attacked the same enemy cruiser. Three direct hits and 3 probable hits were reported out of a total of six 500-pound and six 100-pound bombs dropped. The third division, comprising 5 planes, likewise attacked the cruiser, releasing five 500-pound and four 100-pound bombs, scoring 3 near misses. The ship was believed to have sunk. The third division then attacked two maneuvering destroyers in the same vicinity, scoring 3 direct hits with 100-pound bombs. The results of this (destroyer) attack were obscure, and it was not even known whether the 3 hits were all made on one of the ships or divided between the 2. The section also strafed a gunboat.
The 10 planes of Fighting Squadron FORTY-TWO maintained a combat patrol over the Lae-Salamaua area until it became clear that no enemy fighters were present, then broke into sections and machine-gunned surface objectives, including small boats attempting to rescue enemy personnel in the water.
Torpedo Squadron FIVE, which had been armed with two 500-pound bombs per plane, located and attacked a seaplane tender about 25 miles east of Salamaua at 1020. This ship, later identified by photo interpretations as the Kamoi, was a part of the enemy force which was approaching from the eastward, unknown to most of our planes. When the attack began VT-5 released its bombs in level flight at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet. The ship stopped as a result of one direct hit. Three planes of the squadron were attacked during the run by an enemy observation-type floatplane, each receiving several bullet hits in tail surfaces. The concentrated fire of three rear seat gunners evidently damaged the enemy, because he broke off his attack in a wobbly condition. The seaplane tender put up a desulatory and inaccurate antiaircraft fire.
Scouting Squadron FIVE separated into 2 sections over Lae. Seven planes concentrated on 2 auxiliaries close to the beach, dropping seven 500-pound and fourteen 100-pound bombs. The auxiliaries were riding at anchor and had previously been attacked by Lexington planes. VS-5 obtained at least 3 direct hits on each. Pilots reported that both were left beached and burning. Antiaircraft fire from both ships was encountered. Strafing silenced at least 1 deck gun. The 6 planes of the second division aimed six 500-pound and twelve 100-pound bombs at one of the auxiliaries with undetermined results.
It was difficult to determine accurately the damage inflicted on the enemy or to assign definite hits to specific pilots, as pointed out in the action report of Capt. Elliott Buckmaster, commander of the Yorktown. However, analysis of the various and sometimes conflicting reports submitted by squadrons lead to the belief our attack had achieved the following attack:
- Total sinkings:
- 5 transports or cargo ships.
- 2 heavy cruisers.
- 1 light cruiser.
- 1 destroyer.
- Additional probable sinkings:
- 1 mine layer.
- Seriously damaged and possibly sunk:
- 2 destroyers.
- 1 gunboat.
- Seriously damaged:
- 1 seaplane tender.
- 1 gunboat.
Our only loss was the scout bomber shot down by shore-based enemy antiaircraft fire off Lae. Eleven other planes were slightly damaged (8 scouts and 3 torpedo planes), by antiaircraft shell fragments, or bullets.
The last plane to return from the attack was recovered by the Yorktown at 1201. Retirement was made to the southeastward at 20 knots until dark, when the speed was slowed to 15 knots and a more easterly course taken. No enemy aircraft were sighted by Task Force BAKER
during the 10th, although several strange planes were reported. These were supposed to have been Australian planes operating from Port Moresby. Rendezvous with Admiral Crace's task group and with the fueling ships was effected as planned on the 14th.
While there is no doubt as to the damaging effect of the Lae-Salamaua attack--CINCPAC considered it "well planned and very well executed"--it should not be forgotten that it did not dislodge the Japanese from New Guinea.
The performance of torpedoes was disappointing. Of 13 dropped only 3 could be recorded as certain or probable hits. Under the favorable conditions which prevailed, CINCPAC considered that 9 should have made sure hits.
Subsequent developments did not substantiate the reported sinking of two Japanese heavy cruisers.