Chapter 2: Approach March
Even a cursory study of the organizational structure of air command in the South Pacific can produce a headache for the orderly mind. Many officers held two or three billets concurrently, in units of their own service as well as elements of SoPac task forces. The resulting maze of administrative and command channels might appear unworkable, but it functioned smoothly as a result of Admiral Halsey’s emphasis on the principle of unity of command. He “insisted that each commander of a task force must have full authority over all components of his force, regardless of service or nationality.”2 Under this tenet, Commander, Aircraft, Solomons (ComAirSols), directed the combat operations of all land-based air in the Solomons during CARTWHEEL.
Rear Admiral Charles P. Mason was the first officer to hold the title ComAirSols; he assumed command on 15 February 1943 at Guadalcanal. Actually, Mason took over a going concern, as he relieved Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy, who had controlled all aircraft stationed at the island during the final phase of its defense. Mulcahy, who became Mason’s chief of staff, was also Commanding General, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. The fact that a general headed the staff of an admiral is perhaps the best indication of the multiservice nature of AirSols operations. Since Mason brought only a few officers
with him to help run the new command with its enlarged scope of activity, he kept Mulcahy’s veteran staff. Experience, not rank, seniority, or service, determined the assignments.
Vice Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, as Commander, Aircraft, South Pacific (ComAirSoPac), was Admiral Mason’s immediate superior. The senior officer retained two areas of flight operations under his direct control; sea search by long range Navy patrol planes and Army bombers, and transport operations by South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command (SCAT). Throughout its long and useful life (November 1942-February 1945), SCAT’s complement of Marine and Army transports was headed by MAG-25’s commanding officer. SCAT’s operations area moved northward with the fighting during 1943, and by August’s end, all regularly scheduled flights in SoPac’s rear areas were being handled by the Naval Air Transport Service (NATS).3
Admiral Fitch, in addition to his immediate concern with the far-ranging sea search and transport operations, coordinated the multitude of air combat and support activities within the whole of Halsey’s extensive command area. In administrative and logistical matters, there was a headquarters at Pearl Harbor above ComAirSoPac. Air Force, Pacific Fleet (AirPac) controlled allocation and distribution of Navy and Marine planes, matériel, and aviation personnel throughout the Pacific and was responsible for advance training and combat readiness of squadrons.
Subordinate to ComAirPac, and charged with responsibility for Marine aviation’s role in his sphere, was Major General Ross E. Rowell, commanding Marine Aircraft Wings, Pacific (MAWPac). In his training, administrative, and supply capacities, Rowell dealt with a comparable headquarters within Admiral Fitch’s command, Marine Aircraft, South Pacific (MASP). With Admiral Halsey’s approval, MASP was established on a tentative basis on 21 April 1943 to coordinate the administrative and logistical workload of the 1st and 2nd MAWs. For almost a year, until 3 December, when the Commandant of the Marine Corps was finally successful in convincing Admiral King that a separate headquarters was necessary, the 1st Wing commander headed MASP also, using officers and men from the wing headquarters and service squadrons to handle the additional duties. Throughout the period when it was operating without a T/O sanctioned by CominCh, MASP was under Major General Ralph J. Mitchell.
Neither Mitchell’s 1st Wing nor Mulcahy’s 2nd functioned as tactical or operational commands. In common with the higher air headquarters of other American services and that of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) in the South Pacific, the Marine wings and their descending chain of groups and squadrons were primarily concerned with the host of collateral duties necessary to get planes in the air, armed, fueled, and manned for a combat mission. ComAirSols, and the various operational task forces he set up, planned and controlled all sorties against the enemy in the combat area.4
The Army counterpart of MASP was the Thirteenth Air Force which came into being on 14 December 1942.5 Throughout most of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Army Air Forces units fighting in the South Pacific were nominally part of the Seventh Air Force based in Hawaii. Actually, most of the administrative and logistical support of the AAF squadrons and groups was channeled through the headquarters of Major General Millard F. Harmon, Halsey’s senior Army commander and a veteran pilot himself. Harmon was vitally interested in achieving closer control and coordination of these units and strongly urged Washington to authorize formation of a new air force. Adding impetus to his request was the general’s feeling, shared at AAF headquarters, that the Navy was not utilizing Army aircraft, particularly heavy bombers, to their fullest combat potential.
While General Harmon “had no intention of capsizing the accepted principle of unity of command,” he was interested in “gaining for the AAF full operational control of its own aircraft.”6 He wanted to insure that AAF views on proper employment of its planes and personnel were fully considered. He argued that “no one can build up a force, train it, dispose it, and supply it and be held responsible for its operational effectiveness without some direct contact and influence on operational control.”7 Both Admirals Halsey and Fitch supported General Harmon’s request for a separate SoPac command of AAF units, and General Marshall, agreeing, designated them the Thirteenth Air Force. By 13 January, organizational work was far enough along so that headquarters squadrons for the force and its subordinate XIII Fighter and Bomber Commands could be activated. The Thirteenth’s commander, Brigadier General Nathan F. Twining, and his staff set up for work close to Admiral Fitch’s headquarters on Espiritu Santo.
For much the same reason that the Thirteenth located near ComAirSoPac—to have a strong voice in the employment of its aircraft—the RNZAF assigned a senior liaison officer to Fitch’s staff. On 10 March 1943, after the New Zealand War Cabinet had decided to deploy most of the country’s operational squadrons in the South Pacific’s forward area, a suitable command echelon, No. 1 (Islands) Group under Group Captain Sidney Wallingford, was activated to administer the RNZAF units. At the time, one New Zealand bomber-reconnaissance squadron was flying from Guadalcanal and another from Espiritu Santo, and two fighter squadrons were getting ready to move up from rear area bases. As the RNZAF strength gradually built up during 1943, the New Zealanders took an increasingly prominent role in the drive to isolate Rabaul.
Navy planes, other than those flying from carriers, were administered by Commander, Fleet Aircraft, Noumea, an echelon on a par with MASP, Thirteenth Air
Force, and No. 1 (Islands) Group. Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher had the command during the last days of the Guadalcanal campaign and kept it until 4 April 1943, when Admiral Halsey designated him Admiral Mason’s relief as ComAirSols. Like Mason, Mitscher brought relatively few staff officers with him and melded them easily into the existing command setup. Another Marine, Brigadier General Field Harris, became AirSols chief of staff to replace General Mulcahy, who went to New Zealand for a short, well-deserved rest before returning to the combat area and his next tactical assignment as ComAir New Georgia.
By the time Mitscher assumed command, AirSols had shaken down into the organizational pattern it was to follow throughout the air offensive against Rabaul—three major functional task forces: fighters; medium and heavy bombers; and light bombers and reconnaissance planes. Each command had its beginning with the mixed bag of aircraft and pilots, crewmen and mechanics, that had defended Guadalcanal as the Cactus Air Force, taking its name from the island’s code name. In the urgent haste of getting anyone and everything that could fly and fight to Henderson Field, niceties of squadron and group organization and concerns with service of origin were often forgotten and usually ignored. The Marine command echelons that were on the island controlled all aircraft that were sent up from the rear area and employed them according to function and performance. General Mulcahy was the first island air commander to bring in a full wing operating staff and the first to have enough planes and personnel to warrant its employment.
In the course of the air battles over Guadalcanal and its surrounding seas, two task forces evolved, one composed of fighters and the other of everything else that would fly. Until 16 October 1942, when MAG-14 relieved MAG-23 as the administrative and maintenance agency at Henderson Field, Cactus Air Force was too small to worry about intermediate echelons of tactical command. The 1st MAW commander, General Geiger, and a small operations staff directly controlled all missions. Senior Marine fighter pilots, first Lieutenant Colonel William J. Wallace, then Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Bauer, acted as fighter commanders, and, in like manner, the most experienced pilots of other aircraft types, regardless of service, helped plan and lead strikes. When most of MAG-23’s surviving pilots and aircrews were pulled out of Guadalcanal in October for a rest and a training assignment in the States, Cactus Air Force had grown to a size and complexity that precluded Geiger’s direct supervision of all flights.
On the arrival of MAG-14, its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Albert D. Cooley, was named to head an Air Search and Attack Command which would control all bombing, reconnaissance, and rescue operations. Direction of fighter activity, still largely an informal tactical arrangement, remained with Lieutenant Colonel Bauer. After Bauer was reported missing in action on 15 November, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel S. Jack took over as fighter commander. On 28 December, General Mulcahy, now heading Cactus Air, established a Fighter Command and confirmed Jack as its head. When Colonel William O. Brice relieved Lieutenant Colonel Cooley as Commanding Officer of
MAG-14 on 19 December, he also assumed command of Air Search and Attack.
In April, at the time Admiral Mitscher took over AirSols, MAG-14, in its turn, was due for a rest from combat; Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Pugh’s8 MAG-12 was in line to make the relief as Guadalcanal’s top Marine administrative and logistical echelon. Mitscher decided to make MAG-12’s commander responsible for running Fighter Command, and brought Marine Colonel Christian F. Schilt up from Admiral Fitch’s staff to head a smaller but more easily controlled Air Search and Attack Command. Under Schilt, in what was soon known as Search and Strike Command and, by mid-summer, simply as Strike Command, were all dive and torpedo bombers and short-range reconnaissance planes. The aircraft types assigned to Strike Command insured that it would be primarily composed of Navy and Marine air crews, with a substantial leaven of New Zealanders.
At the same time the new Strike Command was formed, with its headquarters and most of its strength at Henderson Field, the medium and heavy bombers that had served under Cooley and Brice were concentrated under a separate task force at Carney Field near Koli Point. To head this Bomber Command, Admiral Mitscher approved the appointment of the Army’s Colonel William A. Matheny. By reason of its assigned aircraft and personnel, Bomber Command was almost wholly an AAF organization, and its commander concurrently led XIII Bomber Command.
During the Allied approach to New Georgia and the first month of operations ashore, Admiral Mitscher continued to command AirSols. On 25 July, Admiral Halsey initiated a practise of rotating the top tactical air command among the various services, and Mitscher was relieved by the Thirteenth Air Force’s commander, General Twining. Holding to the joint service nature of AirSols, Twining chose a Navy captain, Charles F. Coe, as his chief of staff and continued the assignments of many Navy and Marine officers who had been a part of Mitscher’s command organization.9 Twining’s AirSols bomber chief was still Colonel Matheny, but Fighter Command went to the XIII Fighter Command’s Brigadier General Dean C. Strother and Strike Command to Marine Lieutenant Colonel David F. O’Neill.
On their detachment, Admiral Mitscher and General Harris sent a message to Air Sols personnel addressed “to the best air force we know and the one best known to the Japs.”10 The organization they praised was clearly in the ascendency, already a good deal stronger than the Eleventh Air Fleet was or could hope to be. Although some of this Allied strength lay in increased allotments of planes and men, even more stemmed from a complete
reversal of form between opposing fighter aircraft. The fighter plane called the turn in the advance toward Rabaul, and the day of the Zeke had long passed. In its stead stood the Corsair, the Hellcat, and the Lightning.
Allied Planes and Aircrews11
One of the more significant events in the history of the air war in the Pacific was a crash landing on 3 June 1942 from which the plane emerged virtually intact. The pilot, a Japanese petty officer, was less fortunate and broke his neck. The plane, a Zero, had had its fuel line punctured by antiaircraft fire during a raid on the U.S. naval base at Dutch Harbor. When the luckless Japanese pilot was unable to get back to his carrier, the Ryujo, he attempted a landing on an isolated Aleutian island. Five weeks later, an American scouting party found the plane upside down in a marsh, its pilot dead in the cockpit.
The invaluable find, a new aircraft on its first combat mission, had been built at the Mitsubishi plant only four months before it went down. Returned to the States with careful haste, the plane was completely disassembled by engineers and technicians and rebuilt in its original undamaged condition ready for flight test. At San Diego, in the last months of 1942, the Zeke was skillfully flown against major American fighter aircraft to measure comparative performance and to fathom the Japanese plane’s weaknesses. The findings were revealing and reinforced the combat experience of Allied pilots; in essence, they boiled down to one warning: “Never attempt to dog fight Zeke.”12
While the tests revealed that the enemy fighter could out-maneuver any of its opponents at speeds below 300 miles per hour, they also confirmed defects cited in combat pilots’ reports from the Pacific. The Zeke had comparatively poor diving ability, gave sluggish response to controls at high speed, and performed best at medium and low altitudes. The lack of armor for the pilot and the inflammable fuel supply both emphasized the experience of the leading Marine ace at Guadalcanal, Captain Joseph J. Foss, who stated “If you hit a Zero at the base of its wing, it’s just POW! and it disintegrates.”13 The response to these findings was twofold, to accelerate production of new American fighters that could clearly outclass the Zeke, and to emphasize aerial
combat tactics that took full advantage of the Japanese plane’s limitations.
The more important Allied fighters that met the enemy attack as part of Cactus Air Force were the F4F (Grumman Wildcat) flown by the Navy and Marine Corps, and the Army’s P-38 (Lockheed Lightning), P-39 (Bell Airacobra), and P-40 (Curtiss Warhawk). After the fighting on Guadalcanal ended, two new American planes began to make their appearance; one, the new standard Navy fighter, the F6F (Grumman Hellcat), and the other—the plane that was to become synonymous with Marine air for the next decade—the F4U (Chance-Vought Corsair). Like all military aircraft, these planes underwent constant modification and improvement, and the various models that fought the Japanese carried a steadily changing array of identifying numbers and letters. In general, it should be remembered that each new version of a basic plane type could do a little more than its predecessor, fly a bit faster, climb higher, or carry a greater pay load or heavier armament.
The system used by the Navy to designate its aircraft gave a letter to denote function, followed by the number of that type made by a particular company, then gave the manufacturer’s code and any model numbers and letters: e.g., F4U-1C, the third version (C) of the first model of the fourth fighter (F) manufactured by Chance-Vought (U).14 The Army Air Forces used a letter function symbol with a number to indicate sequence within a type; letters appended to the number indicated the model: e.g., P-38H, the eighth model (H) of the thirty-eighth fighter (P) accepted by the AAF.15 While Allied pilots and aircrews were vitally interested in the improved performance indicated by the modification symbols, the basic designations were in more common usage and were employed interchangeably with the colorful names chosen by the manufacturers or the service concerned.
The Wildcat, a stubby, mid-wing monoplane, was the mainstay of Navy and Marine fighter strength for the first 18 months of the war. Slow, when measured against its opponents, the F4F could make about 320 miles per hour at its best altitude, 19,400 feet. With a maximum fuel load, the plane had a total range of 1,100 miles, well under the Zeke’s capability; its normal combat range was 770 miles. The Wildcat was sturdily built and was equipped with self-sealing fuel tanks and armor for its vitals so that it could absorb terrific punishment. As one Marine pilot noted, “a Zero can’t take two seconds’ fire from a Grumman, and a Grumman can sometimes take as high as fifteen minutes’ fire from a Zero.”16 As it could take it, the American carrier fighter could also dish it out, and the destructive impact of the fire of its six .50 caliber wing guns blasted hundreds of enemy planes to pieces.
Grumman’s successor to the F4F, its production accelerated by the menace of the Zeke, was the F6F Hellcat, which had
greater speed, increased range (but still not as much as the Japanese fighter), and improved maneuverability. In high compliment to its performance, the Japanese considered it to be “the only aircraft that could acquit itself with distinction in a fighter-vs-fighter dogfight.”17 In appearance, the Hellcat resembled its predecessor, having the same thick-bodied fuselage and square-tipped wings with a cockpit canopy set high over the fuel tanks between the wing roots. The armament was the same, but the ammunition load was greater, and the F6F was even better protected from enemy fire. The plane could make 375 miles per hour at 17,500 feet, had a climbing rate of 3,500 feet a minute, and a service ceiling of 37,300 feet.
Developed simultaneously with the F6F, the F4U had poor downward visibility (corrected in later models) and a relatively high landing speed, both attributes that made it unattractive as a carrier fighter. While the Navy was hesitant about using the Corsair, the Marines were enthusiastic. The distinctive-looking, gull-winged monoplane was produced in such quantity that all Marine fighter squadrons in the Pacific were equipped with it by July 1943. The powerful Corsair drew a high rating when flown against the captured Zeke in the San Diego tests, with the findings: “Zeke is far inferior to the F4U-1 in level and diving speeds at all altitudes. It is inferior in climb at sea level, and inferior above 20,000 feet ... Zeke cannot stay with the F4U in high speed climbs.”18 In combat, the disparity of performance proved equally wide; the Japanese called the Corsair “the first single-engine American fighter seriously to challenge the Zero.”19 The F4U’s top speed was 417 miles per hour at 20,000 feet; it had a normal range of 1,015 miles with a maximum double that. Armed like the F6F with six wing-mounted .50s, and protected by armor and self-sealing tanks, the Corsair was deadly when flown by an experienced pilot.
Tactics developed to counter the Zeke’s maneuverability capitalized on the uniformly high diving performance of American planes, and the mutual protection of two-plane sections fighting as a team and keeping each other’s tail clear of enemy attackers. One plane that was singularly proficient in the high speed diving engagement was the AAF’s P-38. The two-engined fighter with its distinguishing twin tail booms was designed for high altitude interception and clearly outclassed the Zeke above 20,000 feet, where it could hit maximum speeds just over 400 miles per hour. After making the initial mistake of trying to fight the Zeke on its own terms, Lightning pilots soon learned to fly high out of reach and dive to the attack, firing a nose concentration of four .50s and a 20-mm cannon. The plunging dive, launched at the attackers’ initiative, carried through Japanese formations and away at speeds that left little chance of being tagged by pursuers. The P-38 was capable of performing a wide variety of tasks and was particularly good as a reconnaissance and photographic plane, since it had a range of 1,500 miles with full tanks and was almost invulnerable to air attack so long as it flew above the Zeke’s service ceiling.
The Army’s utility fighters were the P-39 and P-40, which went through continual redesign and improvement and fought throughout the war, although in gradually decreasing numbers. Both low-wing monoplanes carried the same engine, one that limited effective operations to heights below 15,000 feet. The Airacobra’s engine was mounted behind the pilot and the Warhawk’s was in the nose; the engine airscoop immediately behind the P-39’s cockpit enclosure and the P-40’s deep-throated intake under its engine gave each aircraft one of its primary identifying characteristics. Neither plane was particularly fast, the Airacobra could hit 368 miles per hour at maximum efficiency and the Warhawk 350, but both aircraft could out-dive and pull away from the Zeke at lower altitudes. Beyond that accomplishment, Allied pilots (Commonwealth air forces used the P-40 extensively, calling it the Kittyhawk) relied on superior flying skill and wingman protection when jumped by Japanese fighters. The two planes proved to be particularly suited for low-level ground support as strafers and fighter-bombers and saw most use in the latter part of the war in that role. The P-39 delivered a heavy punch with a 37-mm gun in its nose firing through a hollow propeller shaft and two .30 and four .50 caliber machine guns in its wings; the P-40 carried the common American fighter armament of six .50s.
When the Lightnings and Corsairs came into common use, the pattern for the AirSols offensive deployed each type at the altitude where it performed best. A typical large-scale raid late in 1943 with bombers at 20,000 feet would have P-39s or P-40s furnishing low cover and P-38s flying at about 30-34,000 feet; between the bombers and the Lightnings would be F4Us in staggered layers of four to eight planes weaving over an area two to four miles wide. No matter where the Japanese attacked, they had to penetrate a screen of fighters operating at maximum efficiency and be ever wary of the escorts waiting to dive on them from above.
One of the mainstays of naval aviation in World War II, the dive bomber, found little favor with the AAF. The Navy’s SBD-3, the Douglas Dauntless, was tried out as the A-24 in New Guinea in 1942 and won a verdict of “too slow, too limited in range, and too vulnerable to enemy fighters” from Army pilots.20 The Army’s further development of light bombers tended, thereafter, to concentrate on fighters equipped as bombers. While recognizing the faults of the SBD and working to replace it with a better aircraft, the Navy found it effective as a carrier-borne attack plane, and the Marines were sold on its accuracy against both shipping and point targets ashore. The Dauntless, a single-engine low-wing monoplane with a thick body and a narrow upswept tail, carried a crew of two, a pilot and a radioman-gunner. For defense, the gunner manned a pair of flexible mounted .30s firing to the rear from the cockpit enclosure, and the pilot controlled two .50s fixed in the nose. The dive bomber had a range of 1,345 miles with a 1,000-pound bomb load and 1,580 miles when used as a scout; its best speed was 250 miles per hour at 16,000 feet. Since, like all American combat aircraft, the SBD carried protective armor and self-sealing tanks, it was not nearly as vulnerable to Japanese fighters as was the Val, its enemy counterpart, to Allied hunters.
Unlike the hapless Kate, the American Navy’s standard torpedo bomber throughout most of the war was a relatively high performance aircraft. The TBF (Grumman Avenger) had a top speed of 271 miles per hour at 12,000 feet and made only a few miles less when it was carrying its internally stowed torpedo. Fat-bodied, with a long canopied cockpit ending in a power-operated turret for a .50 caliber machine gun, the TBF looked a little like the Wildcat from below. More than one Japanese pilot weak on plane recognition discovered to his sorrow that the difference between the two Grummans included a ventral-mounted .30 caliber machine gun manned by the bombardier. To round off the plane’s armament, the pilot at first had a .30 mounted in the engine cowling and, in later modifications, a pair of .50s mounted in the wings. The Avenger’s combat range with a 1,760-pound torpedo was 1,215 miles.
In the early stages of the war, the Navy relied on its flying boats for planes that could deliver a heavier bomb load than the carriers’ SBDs and TBFs. These patrol bombers, the PBY (Consolidated Catalina), PB2Y (Consolidated Coronado), and PBM (Martin Mariner), were excellent for sea search and antisubmarine work and invaluable in rescuing downed flyers; properly fitted for the job, they made effective cargo and personnel transports. The PBYs, when equipped with radar for night reconnaissance and bombing, were justly famed as the Black Cats, that made darkness a misery for outlying Japanese garrisons and the vessels that tried to supply them. All the flying boats, however, were slow and prime game for enemy fighters and antiaircraft gunners. As a result, in areas where Japanese planes swarmed, better armed and protected Army heavy bombers had to be used for reconnaissance missions, a fact that bothered AAF commanders who felt that their planes should be employed in their primary bombardment function. Eventually, as more aircraft were manufactured, the Navy procured land bombers, and the majority of its patrol planes in the latter stages of the war were land-based.
When the Navy did get four-engine land bombers, it took the AAF’s B-24 (Consolidated Liberator) in both a twin-tail (PB4Y) and single-tail (PB4Y-2) version. After 1942, the Liberator gradually succeeded the B-17 (Boeing Flying Fortress) in the South Pacific campaign against Rabaul. The Fortress, aptly named for its guns and armor, could fight its way through to a target and home again, but its practical combat range was less than 800 miles when fully loaded and its bomb capacity was relatively small. General Harmon wanted the B-24 for Halsey’s command because it could carry a larger bomb load over a longer distance and still hold its own with Japanese interceptors.
While the Liberator was not quite as strong defensively as the Fortress, it carried ten .50 caliber machine guns in flexible single mounts or paired in power turrets, and its 10-man crew could put up a whale of a battle. With a range of 2,850 miles carrying a 2,500-pound bomb load and 2,000 miles with 8,000 pounds, a speed of 287 miles per hour at 26,700 feet, and a service ceiling of 32,600 feet, the B-24 was also a formidable offensive weapon. One experienced Japanese fighter commander who fought in the Solomons
termed the B-17 and the B-24, “the most difficult” aircraft for Zekes to shoot down.21
The AAF was preeminent in the medium bombardment field, and two of its bombers, much alike in performance, were used extensively in the Pacific—the B-25 (North American Mitchell) and B-26 (Martin Marauder). Both were twin-engine monoplanes with the same top speed, 285 miles per hour, and a bomb capacity that crept steadily upward during the fighting to reach 4,000 pounds carried over a 1,200-mile range by 1945. Medium bombers specialized in strafing and low-level bombing runs, and, as a result, both planes were flying arsenals with their six-man crews firing as many as 12 .50 caliber machine guns, and, in the B-25’s case, often a 75-mm nose cannon to boot. The Marauder, a sleek high-wing, needle-like aircraft, was plagued with troubles when it was first introduced and won a reputation as a difficult plane to fly and fight. In contrast, the Mitchell, a twin-tail, midwing plane that looked a lot like the Liberator, was a pilots’ favorite. It was the B-25, rechristened the PBJ by the Navy, that the Marines adopted and used extensively during the last year of the war.
The Navy and Army used many of the same planes in another category, transports. The majority of the aircraft that were employed were military versions of one prewar commercial model, the Douglas twin-engine DC-3, which could carry a cargo payload of as much as 10,000 pounds or a 6,500-pound passenger load. The Army called this plane the C-47 (Skytrain) and the Navy dubbed it the R4D, but by any name it was the workhorse of the air, dependable and employed everywhere. The four-engine Douglas DC-4, the Army’s C-54 (Skymaster), saw limited use by the Navy as the R5D, but, as the larger plane was in limited supply, in its stead the Coronado and Mariner were successfully adapted to haul cargo and passengers. Marine transport squadrons used the R4D, which, unarmed and unarmored, flew at considerable risk in the combat areas of the Pacific.
One aircraft problem, shared by all the services, and never adequately solved until late in the war, was the development of an effective night fighter. Although conventional fighters working with ground searchlights were occasionally able to down night intruders, the score was not impressive. What was needed was a fast plane equipped with radar and capable of reaching high altitudes that could work with ground controllers to find and destroy enemy attackers. For their first night fighter, the Marines reluctantly chose the twin-tail PV-1 (Vega Ventura), which was the best aircraft they could get for the job in October 1942 when the first VMF(N) squadron began forming. The plane had a rated service ceiling of 26,300 feet and a practical one well below that, and the fact that many interceptions would occur above 25,000 feet was well recognized. The Ventura, used by the Navy as a patrol plane, was a twin-engine mid-wing monoplane that could perform adequately as a low-altitude medium bomber; in its night fighter version, the plane carried radar and six .50 caliber machine guns in its nose. The men who crewed the night fighters were highly
trained,22 a description that fitted all of the Allied pilots and aircrews who were fighting in the Pacific at the time of the air offensive against Rabaul.
When the war started, American service pilots, particularly the men in command billets, were veterans of hundreds of hours of flying in all types of aircraft. Fledgling pilots and aircrewmen underwent an extensive training program before they ever joined a squadron, and kept on learning after they reported for duty. With wartime expansion, many easier-paced schedules of prewar years were discarded, but the concept of extensive ground and flight schooling was retained. In many instances in the early part of the war, when American aircraft were no better than on a par with their opponents and often no real match at all, pilot skill was all that could be relied upon. A continuous stream of experienced flying personnel returned to the States from the active war theaters to instruct the men in training and pass on life-saving tips of aerial combat. In the case of Marine trainees, who had only one adversary to get to know, all indoctrination was concentrated on beating the Japanese.
After 1942, most naval pilots were the products of a training system which included preflight school for basic instruction and physical conditioning, followed by three months of primary training about equally divided between ground and flight school. Next phase in the program was intermediate training, 14 weeks at Pensacola or Corpus Christi mainly spent flying, at the end of which successful students were designated naval aviators (officers) or naval aviation pilots (enlisted men), the latter group a very small percentage of the whole. At this point, Marine pilots went to Cherry Point or El Toro to begin at least two months of operational training in high performance aircraft of the type they would fly in combat, and Navy pilots reported to naval commands for similar instruction.
The Army Air Forces pilot training program was closely akin to the system used by the Navy with a primary indoctrination course, then basic flying school, followed by advanced school, and completed with transition training to handle combat aircraft. After transition, a new Army pilot, like his Navy and Marine counterpart, had 140-150 hours flying time behind him and the expectation that he would add many more before he met the enemy. The requirements for aircrewmen and mechanics of all the services were met in a manner similar to pilot training multi-stage courses, tailored to job requirements, concluded with practice work on combat aircraft before assignment to operational units.
Once they had joined a combat squadron, new Allied flying personnel could count on the fact that they would not be expended by unbroken action. Unlike most Japanese flyers, who had to fight until exhaustion hastened their end in battle, Allied pilots and aircrews were given regular respites from the intense strain of combat flying, In Halsey’s area, after a Marine squadron fought for four to six weeks under ComAirSols, it moved to the rear area while combat crews were given a week’s leave in Sydney or Auckland, and then, after two weeks to a month spent training and absorbing replacements at Efate or Espiritu Santo, the squadron
went back into action. The benefit of such a program, common to all Allied air units once the first desperate days of understrength, shortage-plagued fighting were over, was incalculable. Although it gave rise to envious and often ribald comment from ground troops, the system of combat air crew rotation to rest centers undeniably saved lives. While it was impossible to give every combat veteran in the South and Southwest Pacific a vacation from war with a taste of civilization and a temperate climate thrown in, it was feasible for flying personnel. The privilege paid off, as it was intended to, in increased operational efficiency and prolonged combat employment of veteran squadrons.
Northwest from Henderson Field23
In reconstructing the course of aerial operations during CARTWHEEL, the historian is necessarily struck with the wide disparity between claimed and admitted losses by both sides.24 Overclaiming was a common fault, and contemporary public accounts as well as many memoirs based on such material are poor sources of relative scores. A reasonably accurate picture of the results of air action can be established, however, by using Allied official reports for Allied losses and captured documents, helped out by postwar assessments, for the toll of damage to the Japanese.
Some of the inflated statistics published by the enemy can be traced to a losing side’s natural eagerness to accept the most glowing pilots’ victory reports and to an equal reluctance to release news of plummeting strength. Allied commands had less excuse for exaggerated totals, since concerted efforts were made to cross-check claim and counterclaim in order to keep accurate tallys.25 Most AirSols flyers prided themselves on asking credit for
nothing but sure kills and observed hits, yet the nature of air warfare is such that a hasty backward glance from a swiftly maneuvering plane was often all the confirmation possible of a claim. Under the circumstances, all manner of targets were “destroyed” several times over. Nowhere was this tendency more pronounced than in air combat, for, as the historian of Marine aviation in the Pacific has cogently observed:–
Nothing is more difficult than an accurate count during an air battle in which several dozen planes are involved; it is very easy for two pilots to claim the same plane at which both are shooting. The smoking plane may get back to its base; it may not even have been actually smoking.26
The flashing complexity of a single aerial affray illustrates the difficulty of reconstructing a history containing a succession of such combats. The snarling tangle of interceptors and escorts is, however, only a part of the story, although it is often the part that seizes the imagination and overbalances many popular narrations. A review of air operations lends itself all too easily to a style of telling that places the individual in the forefront, sometimes to the neglect of the group effort. Certainly the highlighted pilot ace and the sharpshooting bomber crew were invaluable, and there is no disposition to downgrade their vital skills and example here, but the larger framework in which they acted will be the theme of this account.
From a Marine aviator’s viewpoint, and indeed from that of many other AirSols flyers, 12 March 1943 was the start of a new chapter in the air war against the Japanese. The day marked the debut of the Corsair as a combat plane, as Major William E. Gise led VMF-124’s flight echelon up from Espiritu Santo to Henderson Field. There was work for the gull-winged fighters immediately as 12 of the pilots, with only a hasty briefing on Solomons topography, flew escort for a rescue mission to Vella Lavella. Next day, the F4Us made the 600-mile round trip to Bougainville as part of the escort for B-24s attacking shipping at Buin. A similar mission on the 14th ran into about 50 Zekes over Kahili, and the meeting was not a happy one for AirSols. One Corsair was shot down and another lost in a collision with an enemy fighter. Japanese naval pilots also accounted for two of the P-40s flying low, two of the heavy bombers, and the whole top cover, four P-38s. The total enemy loss was three Zekes.
Fortunately, this inauspicious beginning was not a portent of the Corsair’s future performance. The Marine pilots were new to the plane, new to combat, and had far less operational flying time, 20 hours on the average,27 than was the case with men who arrived later in the year as replacements and reinforcements.28 It took a little while for the F4U and the
men who flew it to get completely shaken down in combat, but when Admiral Yamamoto launched his I Go attacks in early April, the Corsairs were ready and able to meet the best pilots and planes the Japanese could send up. Confidence in the F4U grew as its record of victories mounted, and pilots could say as one veteran did; “The Corsair was a sweet-flying baby if ever I flew one. No longer would we have to fight the Nip’s fight, for we could make our own rules.”29 Respected but unregretted, the Marines’ Wildcats swiftly passed from the scene, and, by 2 July, all eight of the fighter squadrons under MASP were flying Corsairs.30
One of the greatest assets of the F4U was its range; unlike the F4F, the swifter fighter could cover the distance from Guadalcanal to southern Bougainville and return, carrying fuel to spare for air combat. Since it flew best at the altitude where Zekes were wont to intercept, the Corsair eased the lot of the Warhawks and Lightnings, letting each type fly at a height where it was on a par with or superior to the enemy fighter. With adequate escort available, daylight raids by Liberators and Fortresses on targets at Ballale, Buin, and Kahili increased. Fighter sweeps into the northern Solomons were flown regularly.
Japanese airfields closer to Guadalcanal, Munda, and the little-used liaison strip at Vila, were not neglected, however, while the heavy bombers and long-legged fighters ranged beyond the New Georgia Group. Strike Command sent a steady procession of SBDs and TBFs to New Georgia, accompanied by AirSol’s usual varied collection of fighters, to keep the enemy runways bomb-cratered and their defending gun crews fearful. Despite the pounding it took, the Japanese kept Munda in use as an emergency strip, and its threat was constant. Any letup in the Allied air attacks and Rabaul’s 300-plane garrison could begin staging raids through Munda to hit the swelling complex of fields on Guadalcanal.
Without auxiliary tanks, Navy and Marine dive bombers could not join in attacks on Bougainville targets and return with safety, but torpedo bombers could make the trip and did. The TBFs were used primarily on night harassing missions, hitting shipping and airfield installations by flare light. Enemy attempts at interception, using day fighters and searchlights to locate targets, were even less successful than similar Allied attempts.
Aside from their more common employment as bombers, the Avengers were occasionally used for another type of mission, offensive aerial mining, with results hard to assess. On the night of 20 March, Major John W. Sapp led 42 TBFs from his own VMSB-14331 and three Navy squadrons up to Bougainville to mine the waters off Buin-Kahili. While 18 Army heavy bombers dropped clusters of fragmentation bombs on shore targets and attracted the attention of searchlights and antiaircraft, the TBFs slipped down to 1,500 feet and parachuted a pattern of 1,600-pound magnetic mines into the enemy harbor. None of the Avengers was hit, and the entire raiding force got back
safely. On the following night, 40 torpedo bombers and 21 B-17s and B-24s mounted another mining strike to the same area; again the Japanese went scoreless.
Careful study by the Navy indicates that this mine plant probably claimed two merchantmen and damaged a destroyer, but the results of mining in poorly charted enemy waters can never be completely known. Admiral Halsey was pleased enough with the reported damage to order a resumption of aerial mining in May, and on the 19th, 30 TBFs from VMSB-143 and VT-11, with a supporting flight of six heavy bombers carrying 100-pound fragmentation bombs, sortied for Buin-Kahili. This time enemy antiaircraft ignored the relatively light diversionary attack and concentrated search lights and guns on the TBFs as they parachuted their mines. The Navy and the Marine squadron each lost two planes to the hail of defending fire. On 20 May, four Liberators and four Fortresses with a mixed load of 100- and 300-pound bombs, accompanied 30 mine-laden Avengers to the Shortlands. Surprised by the Allied attack, the Japanese engaged the bombers and devoted little fire to the mining planes; all TBFs returned to base after laying their deadly cargo. The Avenger crews felt themselves lucky to have escaped whole, as the enemy fire was heavy and the mined area was close inshore.
A final mission of the mining program, the target again Buin-Kahili waters, was mounted on 23 May. About midnight on the 22nd, while the main striking force was taking off from Guadalcanal, five B-24s hit Kahili’s airstrip and defenses, breaking off their attack when a flight of 14 B-17s arrived to hit shore defenses during the mining run. Of 26 TBFs employed, only 20 carried mines, while two Navy and four Marine planes each had a load of four 500-pound bombs. Two of these Marine Avengers served as prowlers, unsuccessfully seeking enemy shipping during the attack, and the remaining bomb-loaded torpedo planes attacked searchlights and antiaircraft positions on offshore islands. The bombing was effective; enemy fire was erratic and probing lights were knocked out almost as soon as they flashed on. No AirSols planes were downed, and all returned without mishap, helped along the way by the flares that a RNZAF Hudson (Lockheed PBO) dropped near Vella Lavella as navigational aids.32
One of the mines of this series was credited with causing damage to the enemy light cruiser Yubari on 5 July, but otherwise nothing definite was learned of the mission’s success. TBFs were not used for mine laying again until after the Bougainville landing, but Strike Command had learned that aerial mining in constricted and heavily defended waters required effective supporting and diversionary attacks. Many Avenger pilots were convinced that, without such support, losses among mine-laying planes would be prohibitive.
The more usual run of Allied air raids on Buin-Kahili and the Shortlands stepped up appreciably after the Seabee-constructed airfields in the Russells opened for business. The advance echelon of Lieutenant Colonel Raymond E. Hopper’s MAG-21 landed on Banika on 14 March, the rest of the group arrived on 4 April, and the first of the island’s two fields was unofficially christened on the 13th, two days before its completion, when a damaged
P-38 made an emergency landing. By the time both airstrips were in full operation in late June, MAG-21’s three fighter squadrons were being employed primarily as escorts for bombers with interception scrambles limited to the intrusion of an occasional snooper picked up on radar.
Following the enemy’s unsuccessful I Go attacks of early April, Japanese fighters and bombers steered clear of Guadalcanal in daylight for several weeks. Then on 25 April, a force of 16 Bettys and 20-25 Zekes was spotted southeast of New Georgia by a flight of four Corsairs led by Major Monfurd K. Peyton. The Marine planes, all from VMF-213, were returning to base from a strafing mission at Vila. When the F4Us circled to intercept the bomber formation, they were jumped by enemy fighters, but bore in despite the odds. Five Zekes were gunned down in the resulting affray and two Corsairs and one pilot were lost, but the entire Japanese attack formation was turned back.
While daylight raids were scarce, enemy night attacks on Guadalcanal and Banika, sometimes in formations as large as eight bombers, were frequent. The physical damage done on such visits was meager, but the wear and tear on nerves and tempers was great, and many a fervent wish for an effective night fighter was voiced by troops chased into trenches and dugouts by “Condition Red” alerts. A squadron of the RAF’s first night fighters, P-70s, which began operating from Guadalcanal in March was generally ineffective, as the plane could not operate at the heights where enemy bombers flew. Lightnings practiced in night work easily reach the required altitude and occasionally flamed an unwary raider caught in the glare of probing searchlights, but a lack of airborne radar limited the P-38s’ effectiveness. Not until late fall, when the first Navy and Marine night fighter squadrons began operating in the South Pacific did the Allies achieve control of the skies over their positions at night as well as in daytime. The dawn-to-dusk mastery of the air by AirSols interceptors was conclusively demonstrated in the bloody repulse of the series of raids which the Japanese launched against Guadalcanal between 7 and 16 June 1943.
Reinforced by 58 fighters and 49 bombers that the Combined Fleet transferred from Truk to Rabaul on 10 May, the Eleventh Air Fleet sought to check the Allies’ aggressive air attacks by hitting at the ultimate source of AirSols offensive strength, its fighters. On 7 June, Admiral Kusaka sent approximately 80 Zekes, a number of them new Hamp models with bombs carried under the wings, flying toward the Russells and spoiling for a fight. Warned by coastwatchers, Fighter Command obliged the enemy naval pilots by sending up more game than they wanted, 104 interceptors, with about half deployed over the shipping at Guadalcanal and the rest stacked in layers between the Russells and New Georgia. For about an hour and a half, Japanese and Allied fighters tangled in a blinding rain storm all over a 50-mile-long battle zone. Finally, after the defenders shot down 23 Zekes, and antiaircraft guns on Banika accounted for a 24th,33 the raid was turned
back short of Henderson Field. Allied losses were seven fighters in combat, with all pilots recovered but one, and two planes crashed as a result of the foul weather.
On 12 June, Admiral Kusaka again tried a fighter sweep with about 50 Zekes and experienced the same dismal failure. Intercepted north and west of the Russells by 49 Allied fighters of the 90 scrambled, the Japanese attacking force lost half its strength before it turned back.34 Five American fighters were downed and one RNZAF P-40; four of the pilots survived to be picked up by rescue amphibians. Coastwatchers reported Japanese bombers had come south past Bougainville during the day, but none showed up in the lower Solomons when the Zekes failed to clear a path.
Despite its heavy losses, a month’s allotment of replacement aircraft in two days of combat, the Eleventh Air Fleet staged a third big attack on 16 June. Prompted by sightings of large numbers of ships moving into the waters off Guadalcanal during the build-up for the TOENAILS operation, Admiral Kusaka this time sent at least 24 dive bombers along with 70 of his fighters. Amply forewarned by coastwatchers, and vectored into position by New Zealand ground intercept radar, AirSols fighters virtually destroyed the raiding force. Seventy-four of the 104 planes sent aloft by Fighter Command made contact, and no two accounts agree on the exact total of damage, but one thing is certain, the relative score was incredibly high in favor of the defenders. AirSols pilots originally claimed 49 Zekes and 32 Vals; ship and ground antiaircraft fire added 17 planes to that count. Six Allied fighters were destroyed and five pilots were lost. The few bombers that got through to Guadalcanal before they were shot out of the sky damaged one cargo ship sufficiently to force it ashore and set an LST afire. Enemy records are curiously blank regarding this raid; there is no doubt, however, that the number of planes that got back to Rabaul was woefully low. One lucky survivor who returned with tales of substantial Allied shipping losses found no witness to substantiate or dispute his fable.35
The Eleventh Air Fleet had no time to lick its wounds and recover. Less than a week after the 16 June attack, Marine raiders landed at Segi, heralding the launching of the drive to seize Munda airfield. Reacting to the grave threat posed by Allied seizure of bases in the New Georgia Group, Kusaka threw every plane he had against the attacking forces. To give his subordinate badly needed reinforcements, Admiral Koga ordered the air groups of the 2nd Carrier Division at Truk forward to Kahili. The commitment of 150 additional Zekes, Vals, and Kates to the Solomons air battles, a move that crippled the offensive power of the Combined Fleet, precipitated violent air action, but had little overall effect on the outcome of the campaign. The balance of air power was now so overwhelmingly
with AirSols that the final result could not be doubted.
The imbalance was found not only in relative quantity and quality of aircraft, but also in what the enemy 6th Attack Force commander called the “world of difference between the ability of the Japanese and Americans to construct air bases in the combat theaters.”36 While taking judicious note that most Japanese forward airbases had been built and maintained by “primitive manpower,” in contrast to those that seemed to be the product of “mass mechanical invasion on jungle, coral, and rock,” the enemy officer made an even more significant assessment, recalling:
One of the major points which has too often been overlooked in an evaluation of fighting power, but which determined to a large extent the efficiency of air units, was that of hygienic installations. Japanese engineers paid scant attention to this problem, dismissing the pressing matter of mosquito protection by simply rigging mosquito nets in personnel quarters. Sanitary facilities were basically crude and ineffective; certainly they contributed nothing to the morale of ground and air crews.
The Americans, by contrast, swept clean vast areas surrounding their ground installations with advanced mechanical aids. Through exhaustive disinfecting operations, they banished flies and mosquitos from their airbases and paid similar attention to every phase of sanitation and disease.
Some may consider this a prosaic matter, but it was vital to the men forced to live on desert islands and in the midst of jungles swarming with disease and insect life. The inevitable outcome of such neglect was a tremendous difference in the health of the American and Japanese personnel who were assigned to these forward air facilities.37
Wracked by disease, starved for proper foods, living in wretched squalor, with AirSols night intruders banishing sleep, Japanese flyers at Kahili were literally wearied to the point where they were often victims of their own poor reactions in combat. The living conditions of mechanics and armorers were considerably worse than those of flight crews, and the numbed senses of maintenance personnel working through the night to patch damaged planes unwittingly caused the deaths of many flyers. Topping the bitter cup of enemy naval aviators was the knowledge that they had slight chance to live if their planes went down any distance from a Japanese base. A gross wastage of veteran pilots and crews occurred because the Japanese had no air-sea rescue apparatus comparable to the extensive Allied setup. The 2nd Carrier Division’s operations officer believed that “naval commanders were so afraid of the possible sacrifices which might be the consequences of attempting to rescue our crews which were shot down that often we abandoned on the open sea those men whom we could obviously have saved.”38 The fault was not entirely with commanders either, as the Japanese staff officer further noted that “our own combat men, the flying mates of
the same men who were shot down and adrift at sea, would not even under orders, take any unnecessary chances to save their lives.”39
If Japanese flyers “accepted their abandonment stoically”40 there was no need for such resignation on the part of any Allied aircrewman who survived a crash or bailed out from a plunging wreck. In the vicinity of home fields, small amphibians were quick to the scene of any water landings, racing crash boats for the rescue honors. Hudsons and Venturas were stationed on the return routes of Allied air attack forces to spot downed planes and protect and keep in sight crew survivors. Flying boats, nicknamed Dumbos after a popular cartoon character, a flying elephant, made the pickup under the cover of a heavy fighter escort. Many men who swam or paddled ashore on the various islands owed their lives and freedom to friendly natives who cared for the injured and got the flyers back to the nearest coastwatcher, often after near-incredible adventures dodging enemy searching parties. In the Bougainville vicinity, where the Melanesians were less well disposed toward the colonial government, downed aviators were sometimes turned over to the Japanese, but the coastwatchers were usually able to call upon AirSols for a bombing and strafing mission against any village that actively supported the enemy. The harsh punishment, and the reason for it, were not lost on the offenders.
Bougainville and its offshore islands were by no means neglected during TOENAILS, even though most of the AirSols effort was in direct support of New Georgia operations. Dauntless dive bombers, helped along by 55-gallon belly tanks to increase their range, began joining Buin-Kahili strikes in early June, and they continued to hit such targets when their presence was not more urgently needed by ComAir New Georgia. Mitchells made their first appearance in Bomber Command’s array in June, and the medium bombers too had a hand in the reduction of Bougainville installations when General Mulcahy did not put in a call for their support against enemy forces on New Georgia. Most of the missions flown against targets in the northern Solomons hampered Japanese efforts to support their beleaguered troops in the central Solomons.
One such strike, larger than most but still representative of many others, was mounted on 17 July, after aerial reconnaissance had disclosed that a large concentration of shipping lay off Buin. Led in by seven B-24s which bombed from high altitude, an attack force of 37 SBDs and 35 TBFs covered by 114 fighters dove on the enemy vessels with the Corsairs of the escort keeping close company. Zekes rising from Kahili’s runways to intercept were shot down by the zooming F4Us almost before the enemy pilots knew what hit them. Surprise seemed to be complete, and AirSols flyers claimed 47 Zekes and five floatplanes, with 41 of the 52 credited to pilots of the four participating Marine fighter squadrons.41 Excited Avenger and Dauntless crews were sure that they had sunk four destroyers and an oiler; postwar assessment gave
them the destroyer Hatsuyuki and damage to three others. The Japanese got slim pickings for their heavy losses: one SBD, one TBF, two P-38s, and one F4U.
In case the Japanese did not absorb the lesson that a 192-plane strike taught on the 17th, another equally heavy attack on the same area was made on the 18th, again with considerable damage to enemy shipping. Then, on the evening of the 19th, a Black Cat spotted and trailed an enemy task force near Choiseul, giving the lead to Strike Command which sent six Avengers up from Henderson Field, each carrying a 2,000-pound bomb. Dropping their loads from masthead height, the TBFs sank the destroyer Yugure and put a hole in the side of the heavy cruiser Kumano. A further attack during darkness by five more Avengers and eight Mitchells failed to score, but another destroyer, the Kiyoami, was sent to the bottom after daylight on the 20th by skip-bombing B-25s. Two days later, a shipping strike of 12 B-24s, 16 SBDs, and 18 TBFs covered by 122 fighters caught the seaplane tender Nisshin off Bougainville’s south coast and sent it to the bottom with all the 24 medium tanks and most of the 600-odd troops it carried.
The ceaseless attacks on targets in the northern Solomons, while the fighting on New Georgia coursed its slow way to an end, left no doubt in Japanese minds of the general area of the next major Allied objective. When Munda airfield finally fell to the XIV Corps in early August, the enemy’s only valid reason for continuing the fight in the central Solomons was to win time to strengthen Bougainville defenses.
In August and September, Seabees worked feverishly on the fields at Segi, Munda, the small island of Ondonga six miles northwest of Munda Point, and Barakoma on the east coast of Vella Lavella. As these Allied airbases came into heavy use, the forward fields of the Japanese became untenable. Munda had been rendered impotent by continued strikes mounted from Guadalcanal and Banika, and now Ballale and Kahili were emptied of planes by similar relentless attacks. Japanese auxiliary airstrips on Bougainville at Kara near Kahili, at Tenekau and Kieta on the northeast coast, and at Bonis on the Buka Passage were never finished or were knocked out of action almost as soon as they came into use.
In mid-October, headquarters of Strike Command, Fighter Command, and AirSols all moved to New Georgia, keeping pace with the shorter-ranged aircraft that were crowding into the expanding airdromes on the newly won islands. Bomber Command’s Liberators continued to fly from Carney and Koli Point Fields on Guadalcanal, and its Mitchells were based in the Russells. The B-24s and PB4Ys made Buka their special target, and Japanese ships and barges drew a good share of the attention of the heavily gunned B-25s. To handle the enemy bases in southern Bougainville, Strike Command sent about a hundred planes a day in the last two weeks of October to bomb and strafe runways, defending antiaircraft, and whatever else seemed a profitable mark.
Since the SBD-TBF attack formations had abundant fighter cover, most opposition came from the enemy guns ringing the airfields. The tactics developed by Strike Command to deal with antiaircraft fire were calculated to give the Japanese gunners nightmares. As Lieutenant Colonel O’Neill’s operations officer, Lieutenant Commander Harold H. Larsen, USN,
outlined the procedure, the strike setup against Ballale, Kahili, and Kara was:
... to have the dive bombers go down and hit the guns, with as many diving simultaneously as possible. Torpedo planes came down and hit the field with a lot of variations, due to the fact that the Japs soon caught on that the torpedo planes would hit the field and they would come out of their holes after the dive bombers went away and wallop the torpedo planes as they pulled out. So we had little sneakers arranged here and there—some dive bombers would lay up in the air until the SBDs had all gone over, and then come down and hit some of the Japs who got sassy; or they would wait until after the torpedo planes had finished their attacks and come down; or a group of four to six torpedo planes would come down in the center of the torpedo plane attack on the field and hit any guns that happened to open fire.42
The air offensive against the remaining Japanese positions in the Solomons, was so extensive in nature by the time of the Bougainville operation that local airbase commanders, or air operations officers as they were usually designated, acted as deputies for ComAirSols in tactical command of all aircraft assigned to their fields. Through local headquarters of the type commands, Fighter, Strike, and Bomber, directions were issued for various missions, with joint operations coordinated by the AirSols operations officer. On the eve of the Empress Augusta Bay landings, local tactical air control had been passed to Commander Air Guadalcanal, except for heavy bomber sorties which were handled by the Air Operations Officer, Koli Point, and to local commands at Banika, Segi, Ondonga, and Barakoma. Fighter and Strike Commands directly controlled all missions originated from Munda’s fields.43
Perhaps the best way of showing how much the precursor Cactus Air Force of 1942 had grown in a year of steady reinforcement, aircraft improvement, and operational success is to outline AirSols strength at the start of the amphibious campaign in the northern Solomons:
|12th Fighter Sqn||25 P-39|
|17th Photo Sqn||3 F5A*|
|70th Fighter Sqn||25 P-39|
|No. 15 RNZAF Sqn||21 P-40|
|No. 17 RNZAF Sqn||21 P-40|
|70th Bomb Sqn||16 B-25|
|75th Bomb Sqn||16 B-25|
|390th Bomb Sqn||16 B-25|
|44th Fighter Sqn||25 P-38|
|Reserve (AAF)||10 P-40|
|Reserve (AAF)||10 P-39|
|5th & 307th Bomb Groups||48 B-24, 4 SB-24*|
|No. 3 RNZAF Sqn||15 PV-1|
|VD-1||7 PB4Y (Photo)|
|17th Photo Sqn||3 F5A*|
[Table data merged onto previous page]
The Japanese considered that the seizure of a foothold at Torokina and the construction of airfields there was the move that “decided the fate of Rabaul.”45 Once Marines were ashore on Bougainville, and Seabees and engineers were at work with bulldozer and grader, the neutralization of the airfields on Gazelle Peninsula was inevitable. Before the Japanese pulled out their air garrison, however, four months of heavy air attacks, begun by SWPA Allied Air Forces, intensified by South and Central Pacific carrier planes, and finished by AirSols, were necessary.