U. S. Navy and Japanese Air Arm: Destroyers, LSTs, and Japanese Airmen
by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with various Naval Commanding Officers

            When our 41st Infantry Division beach headed on Biak in 1944,our US Navy's destroyers, LSTs, and smaller craft fought a spirited and bloody war against the Jap Air Force. Often the Navy fought without help from our own air forces.

On D-Day, 27 May, the Japs' 23 Air Flotilla in New Guinea was down to only 12 fighters and six medium bombers. But next day, 70 carrier-type fighters, four recon bombers, and 16 medium bombers were ordered from the Central Pacific to reinforce 23 Air Flotilla. Final number from Jap Navy to fight to regain Biak was 156 - with 20 more bombers. But most pilots were sickened with malaria, and not all planes fought over Biak.

Yet despite the malaria, Nippo planes endangered us. Only 345 miles lay between the Japs' main air base at Sorong on the extreme western Guinea Shore. For a long time, the 41st lacked US air protection. Until half-way through June, we held no air-strips near Biak. Nearest air-base was on newly won Wakde - 210 miles farther east. Bad weather, or a successful raid on Wakde could deprive us of US planes.

At 1600 on D-Day came our first Jap raid. It could have been a holocaust for our helpless LSTs. In hurrying to unload essential supplies before dark, Rear Admiral William Fechteler took a calculated risk. He had permitted four LSTs to unload sidewise at the only good site on Biak - Bosnek Jetties.

About 1635, two "Zero" fighters (earlier called "Zeroes") escaped radar watchers by flying low down over the low Bosnek Ridge. Grimly, they bore in from the east.

Thirty seconds later, four twin-engined medium bombers ("Sallys") swooped in from the west. Evidently they timed their dives when Navy and shore anti-aircraft batteries had their attention on the two fighters.

But the two-pronged attack failed. Beach batteries of 50 mm, 40 mm, and 20 mm caliber did open up at the fighters. Destroyers, LSTs, LCTs, and other craft blazed away. But the fighters merely alerted us for the more dangerous bombers.

At 500 feet, the Zero fighters strafed the beach. One dropped a belly tank on it. On reaching the southwest end of Bosnek Beach, they turned back and strafed again. Then both turned out to sea, and disappeared back in the northeast. In the second run, one Zero began to smoke heavily and lose altitude before it went out of sight. Surely our fire had killed it.

Meanwhile our main attack came. The four twin-engined medium bombers dived at just 800 feet above our four beached LSTs. Despite our ceiling of heavy fire, three small bombs thudded onto the deck of LST 466.

Not one of the three bombs exploded! Probably 220-lb bombs that could have pierced and flamed LST 466, they merely banged on deck. Perhaps they fell so few feet that they failed to arm. LST 466's crew lobbed two of them overside so fast that nearby Tug Sonoma's crew thought that they had first landed in shallow water close to the sides of the LST. What became of the third bomb is unreported.

Smashed by heavy anti-aircraft fire, Bomber No 1 had an engine burst out in a flaming torch. It crashed into the sea about 1,000 yards northeast of the LSTs beached at No 2 Jetty. Bomber No 2 torched an engine, made an agonizing loop, tried to crash an LST, missed it, and tore apart as it struck the sea. Bomber No 3 trailed smoke. It flew down-beach about 1.5 miles, then veered left and broke on the sands.

Most lethal of all was Bomber No 4. Aflame on its port engine, it flew east about three miles. As its fire seemed to lessen, it turned sharp right, and started a shallow drive at Destroyer Sampson, which was believed to have flamed the bomber's port engine.

All ships now fired on Bomber No 4, but notably Destroyer Sampson and little SC 699, a sub-chaser. At 400 yards distance, Tug Sonoma saw their 40 mm and 20 mm tracers repeatedly impacting the plane. These explosive shells kept the pilot from accurately sighting our ships.

This bomber pilot made a kamikaze attack months before Kamikaze became official Jap strategy. He made a dead set for Destroyer Sampson. But our gunners either slew the pilot or cut his controls. At the last moment, they shot off part of a wing. The bomber passed over Sampson's bridge and struck the sea 400 yards beyond Sampson.

But its wing-tip caught in the sea about 20 yards from little SC699. It caused the bomber to shower debris with flaming gasoline behind its bridge. SC699 midship was blazing. Sonoma had fired only 172 rounds of 50 and 20 mm ammo, but no she starred. From 1,000 yards away, she raced in to put out SC 699's fire, along with LCI 31, a "Landing Craft Infantry."

Sonoma delayed in getting up pressure to arc the water from her fire-hose. In hastening to man their guns to fight, the crew had failed to close a valve. Within two minutes, however, they found the open valve, closed it, and impacted the sub-chaser with a heavy stream.

The rescue was dangerous. Heat was exploding SC 699's 20 mm ammo. Heat was threatening to "cook off” the depth charges which could blow up both ships. The depth charges underwent intense heat and flames for at least 10 minutes but failed to detonate. One Sonoma sailor did suffer a minor flesh wound when a 20 mm shell exploded. SC 699 was saved, with one man killed, one missing, and eight burned.

During 28 May - 1 June, the Navy had only light action against Nippo planes, no doubt because reinforcements for 25 Air Flotilla were just reaching New Guinea. On 29 May, LCI 31 flamed a Jap bomber to death. On 31 May, a Nippo plane on a low run died from anti-aircraft fire on Bosnek Beach.

Then on 2 June, 54 planes raided Biak - the strongest attack of all. The raid was probably coordinated with the Jap Navy's first attempt to recapture Biak - so-called "Operation KON."

The radar man of Destroyer Hughes first reported the raid at 1627. Because the nearby Biak ridges confused the sighting, the operator delayed a whole minute to make sure that the bogeys were planes. At 1628, the bogies had closed in from 38 miles to 32 miles. Hughes alerted the other destroyers, eight LSTs, and the shore anti-aircraft batteries.

 At 1638, a flight of 10 light Jap single-motor planes dived on the beach, down to 200 feet. Mostly they tried to strafe beach personnel and supplies, but one dropped a belly tank that closely missed Destroyer Reid. We saw no bombs fall.

With three other LSTs, LST 467 was about to retract from Bosnek Jetty when the planes dived hard on the starboard of all four LSTs. On No 1 gun, 467's 20 mm, Haggerty first opened fire, followed by the other five 20 mm guns.

Their heavy fire caused all 10 planes to bank sharp and fly west of the shore line and ahead of the LSTs' bows at only 1,000 feet.

As the planes banked, Gunner Haggerty targeted a leading plane; his tracers hit that fighter over and over again. He emptied a whole magazine into it. On 20 mm Gun No 4, States also probably scored on that fighter with a 10-round burst. All six 20 mm guns fired so continuously that five of the six jammed - a total of 878 rounds. Two of the caliber 50s also consistently hit the plane but did not register as early as Haggerty's 20 mm. The 50s expended 1135 rounds.

Smoke and flames burst from the tail of the fighter. It crumpled close to the Biak jungle.

Two other ships also claimed kills, although it is uncertain whether or not they include killing the same plane that LST 467 reported. At 1640, Destroyer Hughes' 40 mm battery gave a Zero a direct hit. Observers saw it crash. About the same time that LST 462 was firing, LST 468 fought off two planes that alternately attacked. After taking a near miss, LST 468 claimed to down one of three planes with a three-inch 50 caliber gun.

Hardy little LCI 31 also fought Jap planes on that 2 June. At 1640, 31 was convoying smaller craft back from A Company 163 Infantry's occupation of Mios Woendi Island. When 8-12 planes came down over Bosnek Beach, two Zeros began strafing runs over LCI 31 and the barge convoy at 1700. For an entire minute, 31 shot 40 mm and 20 mm guns on the two Zeros. The guns deflected the two planes so that they overshot the LCI with the helpless convoy.

Fifteen minutes later as LCI 31 closed in on Bosnek Beach with the little convoy, an unreported number of planes dived on the LCI convoy. Again the 20 and 40 mm guns blazed out. At 1720, the crew saw 40 mm hits on one Zero circling west of Bosnek. In two minutes, the plane flamed and crashed near Mokmer point. Ensign Martin and his 40 mm crew were commended for efficiency. At 1720 also, the 20 mm gun hit a plane passing the stem. It burst into smoke and zoomed out of sight.

For 65 minutes, some 54 Nippo planes fought our Navy and Army shore anti-aircraft batteries. We had no US air protection. Bad weather restrained allied fighters from helping us from Hollandia and Wakde. Yet the Japs lost 12 of their 54 planes and hurt no ships - except for slight damage from a near miss on LST 467.

On 3 June, a Jap battle-fleet tried to strike Biak and land reinforcements, with one battleship, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers. These warships carried 2,500 soldiers of the new 2 Amphib Brigade. Although this fleet was scared off while 650 miles away from Biak, a second heavy Jap air raid struck Biak. Fifty-one planes attacked - 32 Zeros, nine medium bombers, and 10 Army planes of a type unreported.

Wildest tale of this 3 June raid was that of Destroyer Reid's battle. While bombarding Mokmer Ridge to help 162 Infantry, Reid had positioned in the narrow 3-mile channel between Owi and Biak. When radar bogeys appeared shortly before 1000, Reid's Commander McCornock rang up flank speed for 30 knots and prepared to maneuver radically to save his ship.

Five minutes later, 14 Jap fighters and bombers swooped on Reid for a death-blow with machine guns and bombs. Before the director with the forward guns could bear on any target, three bombers dived on Reid and dropped near misses at her. Our after machine guns and five-inch guns blasted down two planes and damaged two that ran away smoking. Then the after guns were alternately under director or local control. While Reid's main battery discouraged pilots from attacking, the automatic weapons arced in chains of shells when they began to dive.

To dodge the bombs, Commander McCornock turned Reid's bow toward single attacking planes. When 2-3 planes dived at once, he simply ordered the rudder hard over and prayed hard. He heard eight bombs explode before he lost count. For a long 20 minutes, Reid fought off 14 but finally 10 planes until McCornock dodged her into a passing rain squall. At 1125, friendly planes which the weather had delayed, arrived from their bases and drove off the last of the 51 planes.

Of the four Jap planes on which we made certain hits, one bomber took 40 mm fire and withdrew smoking in a low glide. It crashed 10,000 yards away. Twenty mm fire sheared off another plane's wing. Destroyer Mustin reported that it crashed off Owi Island. A third plane left in smoke after Reid's five-inch cannon held it from pressing home its attack. A fourth plane also fled while in smoke. Jap records say that 11 planes were lost.

Reid was hit lightly four times. A fragment holed a frame above the superstructure deck - killed the radar technician and cut the radio antenna train cable. Another fragment penetrated the deck house side and wounded an officer and four men. Another vessel, LCT 248 ("Landing Craft Tank") had two wounded.

 

On 27 May - 4 June 1944, we are fairly sure that the Japs lost 15 planes, with 11 downed on 4 June that they admitted. Certain figures are unavailable. In return, they briefly flamed Sub Chaser 699, slew three of us altogether and wounded 13.

 

The planes had one small victory. Increasing air attacks caused Rear-Admiral Fechteler to order all of his three destroyers from prolonged stationing at Biak. Actually, the 41st no longer needed their bombardments. General Fuller now had enough anti-aircraft batteries ashore for a solid ceiling of flame against the Japs.

 

On 12 June, the Japs' 23 Air Flotilla was ordered to return all Naval aircraft to the Central Pacific. This 12 June was the day of Jap Air's greatest success. A Jap plane dropped a bomb on Destroyer Kalk which had escorted LSTs to Biak. Kalk shot down the medium bomber but had 30 killed and wounded. Crippled Kalk must be towed back to Hollandia. But Kalk's history is too long for this article.

 

Why did Jap Air have so little success on Biak? Prime reason may well be that General Fuller had a ceiling of land-based anti-aircraft fire on Biak beach and excellent Naval gunnery offshore. Only 40 of the 156 Nippo planes assigned to Biak were badly needed bombers. Yet despite Japanese malaria, the war was fought with gallantry on both sides.

 

CREDIT: Most important part of this history comes from after-action reports found in US Navy Yard Archives in Washington, D.C., where I studied on a Division History Grant in 1984. The reports available were from Destroyers Hughes, Reid, and Kalk; Tug Sonoma; LSTs 462, 466, and 468; and LCI (L) 31. Most interesting, to my mind, were those of the destroyers and LST 462. Overall assistance came from R.R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines, and S.E. Morison's New Guinea and the Marianas, which is Volume VIII of his History of the United States Navy in World War II. But Smith and Morison are contradictory; I had to work out their differences as well as I could.