- Hordern, Marsden
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1993 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Later that morning in improving weather, one hundred aircraft took off from airstrips around Port Moresby and found the ships. Among them were RAAF Bristol Beaufighters of 30 Squadron, powerfully armed with four cannon and six machine guns. Above them flew U.S. Mitchell bombers. A new type of Mitchell had just appeared in the South West Pacific. Fitted with four guns in the nose, eight more in side mountings and two in its turret, it was fearsome enough. But it could also deliver sixty anti-personnel, and six one hundred-pound high explosive bombs. Above the Mitchells flew thirteen Flying Fortresses, and higher still thirteen U.S. Air Force P38 Lockheed Lightings – fast heavily armed twin-tail fighters – to cope with the Japanese fighters.
As the Fortresses made their bombing run the sky and sea erupted in flame and thunder with Zeros and Lightnings locked in combat. One of the Fortresses trailing smoke began its dive to the Bismarck Sea. From it blossomed seven white parachutes. They opened, billowed, and began their ordered descent.
American Air Sea Rescue Catalinas had already performed amazing feats in saving ditched airmen and as these men drifted down confident that their position would be reported by their friends, they naturally hoped to be picked up before too long. But they hoped in vain. The Zeros, too, had seen the white mushrooms in the sky and swept in with blazing guns. All seven died along with three of the Lightning pilots who tried to protect them from the Zeros and a storm of fire from the ships.
In this assault every transport was damaged, and low-flying aircraft gave Kimura’s flagship the VIP attention it deserved. The SHIRAYUKI was the first to be attacked by Mitchells. Most of the men on the bridge were killed or wounded and she sustained a direct hit aft. Her magazine exploded and she broke in two. The wounded admiral was pitched into the sea and picked out of the water by the SHIKINAMI, in which he now hoisted his flag.
RAAF Beaufighters then raked the convoy at masthead height, silencing ships’ guns and killing their crews. Beaufighter A19-50, piloted by Mostyn Morgan with observer Fred Cassidy, had a narrow escape from destruction by its friends. Morgan swept in on a destroyer, thought to be the TOTITSUKAZE, raking it with his four cannons and six machine guns while the spray of three bombs from the high flying Fortresses was still in the air just astern of the ship. At the very moment when he was firing his guns, two more bombs exploded on or right beside the destroyer with a great blast buffeting the Beaufighter. TOTITSUKAZE was abandoned and her men taken off by YUKIKAZE.
Then came more U.S. Mitchells followed by RAAF Bostons and those of their crews who would live to be old men looked down on a spectacle they would never forget. Ships down by the bow, ships down by the stern, ships listing, burning, exploding, ships sinking, men drowning. And above them all large smoke rings in the sky and a funeral pyre of black smoke. The airman flew back to Port Moresby and made their battle reports and night fell over the Bismarck Sea. For the Japanese, disaster had followed disaster.
The destroyer ARASHIO had received a direct hit wrecking her steering. Running wild she had smashed into the NOJIMA which was abandoned before a rain of bombs sent her to the bottom where the ARASHIO, dead in the water and listing thirty degrees, was soon to join her.
Every remaining transport in the convoy was now taking water, listing or about to explode and sink. The disaster Kimura feared had become a reality and for some dangerous hours the flagship, with ASAGUMO, URANAMI and UKIKAZE, milled around picking up survivors from a sea littered with human flotsam. But Kimura knew this to be a fool’s errand for his valuable destroyers, and withdrew with two of them, leaving one behind to do its best, and perhaps give some drowning men a few moments of hope that they would be rescued. She picked up as many as she could and raced northward to rendezvous with Kimura east of Long Island. There they were met by the destroyer HATSUYUKI from Kavieng, and she and the URANAMI sped off to Rabaul with fourteen hundred survivors. SHIKINAMI, YUKIKAZE and ASAGUMO then returned to the battle area now covered with rafts, rubber boats and swimming men, some of them being torn to pieces by schools of sharks. These destroyers rescued men until midnight and then ran for Rabaul where they arrived on the afternoon of 4 March, to share with URANAMI the distinction of being the only surviving ships of the sixteen which had left Simpson Harbour four days earlier.