Cast A Giant Shadow
The Flying General
Newly promoted Brigadier General Kenneth Walker arrived in Australia in July 1942 to find the Far East American Air Force (FEAAF) in a state of total disarray. The command supposedly consisted of five bombardment groups, three pursuit groups, two transport squadrons, and one photographic squadron. Most were grossly under strength and trying to conduct warfare in badly battered equipment. One of the bombardment groups was the 19th, which had been nearly decimated in the Philippines during the first weeks of the war. Those bombers that had survived were beat up, battle-scarred, worn down, and unreliable. The 19th Bomb Group's B-17s were so far beyond reliability that General MacArthur, even after his harrowing escape from Corregidor in a battered PT boat, had refused to fly out of harm's way at Mindanao in one of them.
That incident had been the final straw in another of the major problems in the FEAAF, a lack of confidence in the command structure. MacArthur not only had no confidence in the airplanes of his air force, he had no confidence in his air commander Lieutenant General George Brett. After the fiasco at Mindanao MacArthur had wired Washington, D.C., to have his air chief immediately replaced. General Arnold assigned the one man he believed could accomplish two goals: organize his air force, and, stand face-to-face with MacArthur who had a reputation of being exceedingly demanding of his top commanders. That man was a World War I veteran who had flown 75 combat missions, shot down two enemy planes, survived being shot down himself, and earned the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star. He was Major General George Kenney.
When General Walker arrived at Brisbane early in July along with Brigadier General Enis C. Whitehead, Kenney was still en route and Brett was still in charge. There was little that could be done immediately to correct the problems in MacArthur's air force, for Brett himself had been locked out of MacArthur's headquarters for three months. Though MacArthur knew nothing of air operations, because he had virtually no confidence in the airmen or their machines, he made all the decisions. His chief of staff General Richard K. Sutherland, an equally obstinate and perhaps even more overbearing commander than MacArthur himself, ordered all air missions.
To occupy Walker and Whitehead until General Kenney arrived, Brett instructed the two men to make separate inspection tours of the various squadrons throughout the theater. Despite the fact that General Sutherland was now directing all air operations, Brett also asked Walker to evaluate current bombardment methods and strategies in the hope that things might change with the arrival of Kenney.
In an interview after the war General Whitehead stated that upon his arrival in Australia he was, "shocked by the confusion and lack of organization" he found. The inspection tours the two new American generals in Australia conducted through the month of July served only to reflect that his observation was an understatement. The airmen themselves knew that their Supreme Allied Commander had no confidence in his air arm, and it seemed that every American officer in Australia with a star on his collar also had a "chip on his shoulder". Morale was at a very low ebb.
The Air Force's newest general proved to be something different. As Ken Walker toured the squadrons throughout Australia, he appeared to honestly care about what was happening, and seemed genuinely interested in the work the men were doing. General Walker wanted to fly missions with his men, to take the same risks that they took, and to fully understand what they were facing. The man with a star on his collar actually even waited in the chow line with them instead, of seeking any preference because of his rank. One story circulated that a corporal in line ahead of the general once offered to exchange places, but Walker declined saying he would wait his turn. At that very moment a second lieutenant passed through, confidently cutting into the front of the line. General Walker, the story continued, left his position and walked to the serving line where he took the upstart young officer by the arm and escorted him to the end of the line to await his turn.
And fly General Walker DID! His first flight on a B-17 was an unarmed reconnaissance mission that saw no enemy fighter resistance. Walker later admitted, "I was foolishly disappointed for a while." A short time later Japanese anti-aircraft fire erupted from below and Walker recalled, "Shell fragments sounded like hail on the wings, and we got one fair-sized hole in the right wing. It was my first time under fire, but I was so interested that I forgot to feel concerned."
Walker's flights had a purpose beyond a drive for excitement. The high priest of strategic bombardment wanted to test and observe the doctrines he had preached for more than a decade. Unfortunately, war in the South Pacific was outside the scope of the massive bombardment of enemy industry that Walker had always believed would cripple a foe. The Japanese had no industrial complexes in the theater. Instead, the targets were against ships that flooded the region with war materials and Japanese troops. These ships were a far smaller target than a large factory, and were often underway, making them difficult moving targets. For all the bombs that rained from the B-17s operating out of Australia, little damage was being done. Thus Walker's repeated missions with his fliers became a method of observing their effect and revising tactics.
Walker's decision to fly with his men and share their risks had an immediate and profoundly positive impact on morale. This was noted, along with the value of his first-hand observations, when he was awarded the Silver Star in August.
Captain Fred Dollenburg, Walker's aide and pilot once told news reporters, "The general figures he can't tell the boys how to go out and get shot at unless he's willing to get shot at too."
Regarding Walker's uncommon practice (for a general officer) of waiting in chow lines, mingling with his men on a personal level, and treating the lowest ranking man with dignity and respect, clerk/typist William Travis recalled, "(General Walker was) the best soldier I ever knew, from every point of view. Even without the externals of rank, you knew he was the general."
For gallantry in action over Port Moresby, New Guinea, during July 1942. This Officer took part in four different missions over enemy territory, each time being subjected to heavy enemy fire from anti-aircraft and fighter planes. The large amount of first-hand information gained by General Walker has proved of inestimable value in the performance of his duties. His complete disregard for personal safety, above and beyond the call of duty, has proved highly stimulating to the morale of all Air Force personnel with whom he has come in contact. Such courage and gallantry are in keeping with the finest American traditions and are worthy of the highest commendation.
Walker was unimpressed with Australia ("things are a little drab"), deeply saddened by the living conditions of his men, aghast at the deplorable condition of their equipment, and angered by the lack of organization and supply. But he did find one thing to admire in the quagmire that was the 1942 FEAAF, the young pilots and their crews. These were brave young men who struggled with almost nothing, to turn back a seemingly unbeatable advance of Japanese aggression in the South Pacific. Whenever a bombing mission was mounted, half of the assigned aircraft would often be forced to turn back due to mechanical failures. When bombers got through to their destination, their bombs seldom hit the targets.
Walker was impressed with the fact that the B-17s had a good record of fighting off attacking Zeroes. This validated his fundamental doctrine that a well-flown bombing mission couldn't be stopped. Force by fuel limitations to conduct long-range operations without fighter escorts, the heavily armed B-17s generally held their own against enemy pursuit. In an August 11 letter to his sons back in California Walker wrote in part:
"(I) Was up at a Pursuit Group in NW last week. The group has shot down 60 Jap planes and has lost only five in combat--a pretty good record. All the pilots are young kids--with a fine spirit. One of the pilots I met has 10 japs to his credit--a couple of others had eight apiece. We have had of course and will continue to have losses--they don't shoot rubber bullets--but our boys will lick them.
"(I) Just had dinner with a 2d Lt who is just out of the hospital. A zero got on his tail and shot him down. He bailed out at around 500 feet. Pulled out of a dive of about 500 mph and managed to get out. These young pilots are plenty brave.
"General George Kenney has just arrived to relieve General Brett who is going to Washington. (I) Am very happy that George is taking command and know that he will make a splendid commander and I'm proud to serve under him."
"Every time (General Hap Arnold) got something going wrong, he would say, 'Send George Kenney out there; he is a lucky SOB. He will straighten it out.' I never was supposed to have any brains. I was just lucky. (General George Churchill Kenney)
Major General George Kenney
General Arnold's trouble shooter was pretty comfortable in the Spring of 1942, commanding the Fourth Air Force based at the Presidio in San Francisco. His crisis during the early days of the war tended to be simplistic and mundane, like the young lieutenant he had reprimanded only moments before General Arnold's call. The P-38 pilot had been stunting in the worst way. First, he'd looped-the-loop around the Golden Gate Bridge. Then he'd buzzed in low over Market Street while waving to secretaries on the second floor of their office buildings. Kenney chewed out the young air officer, then dispatched him to Oakland to help a woman who had complained that the low-flying fighter had blown her clothes off the line where she'd hung them to dry.
General Arnold's call, arriving even as the chastened lieutenant departed, suddenly complicated General Kenney's life. Hap Arnold had problems in Australia where the Far East American Air Force was a mess. It was the place where General MacArthur's Chief of Staff had literally excluded the top air commander from MacArthur, and where the supreme commander himself was demanding the air commander's immediate replacement. George Brett was out and Arnold needed someone to replace him, clean up the mess, and if at all possible to prove to MacArthur that his air force could be a major factor in his Pacific War.
In fact, Kenney had not been General Arnold's first choice. Initially Hap wanted to sent Lieutenant General Frank Andrews, but the commander of the Caribbean Defense Command had been at odds with MacArthur for years. In so many words Andrews advised Arnold that he was appalled that the air chief would even consider that he would ever work for MacArthur. The two men's previous battles and mutual, long-standing distaste for each other aside, every officer in the Army knew that Douglas MacArthur was a demanding and difficult man to work for.
Arnold's deputy chief, General Laurence S. Kuter, then recommended Kenney for the job. Arnold was dubious. The World War I hero and outspoken air advocate had a tendency to speak his mind in blunt and sometimes caustic fashion. Arnold doubted Kenney would last long under MacArthur, but the man's qualifications matched those called for by the impossible mission at hand. Arnold called Kenney to Washington to reassign him.
Kenney did not have General Andrew's reluctance towards working for MacArthur; his major complaint was the nature of his mission. Under the ABC-1 War Plan hammered out with Churchill the previous year, the Pacific campaign was was secondary to defeating Hitler in German. Kenney was not happy with an assignment that called on him to wage a strictly defensive war. His objections aside, Kenney dutifully accepted the assignment and laid out a few requirements of his own. He wanted 3,000 parafrag bombs shipped to Australia for his arsenal. He also wanted fifty P-38s and pilots of the Fourth Air Force transferred to his new command in Australia. Among those pilots he wanted to include the young officer he had just finished chewing out when Arnold called him to Washington, a daring young pilot by the name of Lieutenant Richard Ira Bong.
General Kenney arrived in Australia at the end of July and was summoned almost immediately to MacArthur's office. The Allied Commander waved his new air chief to a black sofa and then began speaking while he paced the floor. "For the next half hour, I really heard about the shortcoming of the Air Force in general and the Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific in particular," he later wrote in his autobiography. "They couldn't bomb, their staff work was poor, and their commanders knew nothing about leadership."
Throughout the tirade Kenney kept his cool, returning MacArthur's gaze with his own. He later remembered MacArthur seemed to be "appraising" him as he talked, sizing him up. General George Kenney was up to the challenge and thus advised MacArthur after the long lecture. "If for any reason, I found that I couldn't work for him, I would tell him so and do everything in my power to get relieved," Kenney remembered telling his new boss.
When Kenney had finished his own brief comments MacArthur walked to him, put his arm around his shoulders and said, "George, I think we're going to get along."
For Kenney's predecessor General Brett it had been less a matter of getting along with MacArthur, than one of even getting through to him. Even before he had fallen out of favor with his boss, Brett had found it difficult to communicate with or to him. MacArthur's Chief of Staff General Sutherland was overly efficient in screening the commander's appointments, calls, and visitors. Sutherland had MacArthur's confidence, he had an ego, and he had rank. In the interim after MacArthur fired Brett, Sutherland locked the air chief out of the American high command in Australia and began scheduling the bombing missions.
A few days after arriving in Australia, General Kenney became aware that General Sutherland was already usurping his own authority as the new air chief, and was continuing to order bombing missions. The showdown that General Arnold had feared when he assigned Kenney to the FEAAF came in Kenney's first week on the job. His reaction vividly illustrates the kind of man and indomitable leader Kenney was. Ultimately, over the next year General George C. Kenney would contribute more to MacArthur's success in the Pacific than perhaps any other single individual.
On the date of the first showdown an obviously irate General Kenney strode directly into Sutherland's office, perched on his desk, and grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper. Drawing a small dot in the center of the paper, Kenney looked General Sutherland in the eyes and stated: "THAT is what YOU know about air power. The rest of the sheet is what I know about it."
Sutherland was caught off-guard and blustered. Kenney met his reaction firmly and stated flatly, "Let's go...see General MacArthur. I want to find out who is supposed to run this air force.
The question of who was in charge of the air war in the Pacific was settled in that moment. Sutherland backed down and the road was paved for air officers to begin planning their own missions and controlling their own destiny in the Pacific for the years to come. General Arnold would later say of Kenney, "No air commander ever did so much with so little."
MacArthur was even more glowing in his later assessment, stating, "Of all the commanders of our major air forces engaged in World War II, none surpassed General Kenney in those three great essentials of successful combat leadership: aggressive vision, mastery over air strategy and tactics, and the ability to exact the maximum in fighting qualities from both men and equipment."
The leadership and tactical genius of George Kenney endeared him to MacArthur, because the highly resourceful airman ultimately validated his commander's oft-risky strategies and contributed materially to their success. It is no infringement upon Kenney's abilities to note as well, that his own early success in building a viable air force out of the debris of the FEAAF were largely the result of the vision, hard work, and leadership of Generals Walker and Whitehead.
General Kenney established his headquarters at Brisbane, Australia, where MacArthur was himself headquartered. From there Kenney could issue orders for bombing missions in the combat theaters. To carry out those missions, General Walker was named commander of all Allied air assets in the region. In September, with the reorganization of the FEAAF as the new 5th Air Force, General Walker was named commander of the 5th Bomber Command. In both roles he was based out of Townsville, north of Brisbane.
General Whitehead was dispatched north across the 600-mile expanse of the Coral Sea to operate as the forward echelon commander. His command operated out of Port Moresby. The tenuously held Allied city and port were the forward staging areas for the bombing missions General Walker launched out of Townsville.
When Kenny left Washington, D.C., for Australia he had told General Arnold, "I am going to get rid of a lot of Air Corps deadwood." Upon his arrival he did just that, not only in terms of personnel but also in terms of procedures. On August 9 General George C. Marshall established the 5th Air Force, delegating command to Kenney. Kenney determined to build that command as a fighting Air Force, not a paper-work jungle and administrative boondoggle. Once, upon learning that it was not uncommon for needed supplies to be delayed because of improperly filled out paper work, he simplified the procedures immediately with the biting comment: "You don't win wars with file cabinets."
While Kenny was getting rid of the "deadwood" and organizing his 5th Air Force (though authorized on August 9 it was not formalized until September 3), General Whitehead and Ken Walker were refining operations and building infrastructure. Kenney had indicated that he intended to take an active role in the combat mission of his Air Force, issuing orders from Brisbane to Walker at Townsville. In that first month however, the need for organizational and administrative changes kept him occupied and left Walker with the freedom to plan and organize the missions himself.
The month of August 1942 was an important one for Ken Walker. It was a trial period for his own concepts of strategic bombardment, along with constant re-evaluation and revision based upon changing conditions and tactical necessity. Of the effort during that period General Kenney noted, "(We are) inventing new ways to win a war on a shoestring. We are doing things nearly every day that were never in the books. It really is remarkable what you can do with an airplane if you really try; anytime I can't think of something screwy enough, I have a flock of people out here to help me."
On August 7, U.S. Marines landed at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, expanding the air force area of operations eastward to support the men on the ground. Even as desperate as the situation was on Guadalcanal, however, perhaps the most tenuous Allied position was at Port Moresby on the Papuan Peninsula of New Guinea. This was the seaport city where General Whitehead was trying to establish airfields and logistical support for the raids launched by Walker out of Townsville.
The Desperate Weeks
The Papuan Peninsula juts out into the Coral Sea from the east side of New Guinea, with Port Moresby on its southern coast. Only 600 miles from Australia, in 1942 Port Moresby was the only Allied stronghold in the region. It was the last line of defense between Tokyo and Australia. Invading and taking Port Moresby (Operation MO) had been the primary objective of the Japanese incursion that led to the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 7 & 8, 1942. Despite the failure of that invasion, the Japanese refused to concede the important port to the Allies. In July the Japs landed thousands of seasoned jungle fighters along the northern coast of the peninsula, fortifying positions at Lae, Salamaua, Gona, Buna, and points in between.
While General Whitehead busied himself with turning Port Moresby into a forward staging area for the missions Walker was dispatching out of Townsville, the Japanese were doing their best to gain control of the important seaport. On August 13 more than 11,000 Japanese troops began the arduous march over the Owen Stanley Range, quickly routing the valiant but grossly outnumbered Australian defenders. American bombing missions were mounted repeatedly against Buna, Lae, Rabaul and other Japanese targets, but they seemed futile to stemming the steady influx of soldiers and supplies.
Meanwhile, on August 25, the Japanese landed more than 1,200 troops at Milne Bay at the far east side of the peninsula. They followed up by reinforcing them with an additional 1,200 jungle fighters the following day. Ten days of fierce battle raged before the enemy force was forced to retreat. When the 1,300 Japanese survivors of the failed Milne Bay invasion pulled out on September 5, it signaled the first ground defeat of the Japanese forces in the Pacific. It was a badly needed piece of good news that at last contradicted the common perception of Japanese invincibility.
When Japanese ships pulled out of Milne Bay to evacuate survivors of the failed assault, enemy forces moving on Port Moresby from the north had advanced down the southern slopes of the Owen Stanley Range and were less than 30 miles from the port city. It was a somber, uncertain time. With their backs to the wall, resistance by the Australian soldiers stiffened and the tide of battle began to turn. In Australia General MacArthur was eager to commit his first American ground forces to the battle but was hampered by the 600-mile expanse of Japanese infested ocean. General Kenney suggested using the Air Force to quickly transport troops and equipment to reinforce Port Moresby. Fifty years after World War II the concept seems a logical solution, but in 1942 it was a novel, untried approach. In mid-September Fifth Air Force C-47s began the transport of half of two full combat teams of the 32nd Infantry Division to New Guinea. They were joined at the end of the month by the remainder of their troops and personnel who came by ship.
The success of the airmobile infantry concept endeared Kenney to General MacArthur, and gave the Supreme Commander a new appreciation for his airmen. Where General Brett had seldom seen MacArthur and was totally excluded from his inner circle from April to July, General Kenney and his air combat leadership became an integral part of strategy and planning. When Hap Arnold visited Australia at the end of September, MacArthur told him General Kenney was "a real leader and has the finest bunch of pilots I have ever seen."
MacArthur was equally full of praise for Generals Walker and Whitehead.
When Port Moresby was at last secured in mid-September the Allies went on the offensive. Japanese troops and material poured daily into the large harbor at Rabaul, from which the enemy made nightly runs to resupply their forces at New Guinea and in the Solomon Islands. As a result, Kenneth Walker's 5th Bombardment Group had no shortage of targets. Missions were mounted against airfields at Lae and Buna, enemy positions along the northern coast of New Guinea, shipping ports and airfields at Rabaul, troops transports and resupply ships throughout the Bismarck and Solomon Seas.
On September 21 The Seattle Daily News reported on General Walker's leadership and efforts in the air missions in the battle for New Guinea:
General Roams Over Plane
While His Boys Raid Japs
By Associated Press.
GENERAL MacARTHUR'S HEADQUARTERS, Australia
A young American general aims at flying with his boys against the Japanese at least once a week and shows he means business by going on 11 raids in less than two months. He is Brig. Gen. K. N. Walker, 43 years old, of Washington, D.C., whose wife and two sons aged 14 and 9, live in the United States Capitol.
Boys All Like Him
"The boys in the south of Australia think the world of him," said the general's aid and pilot Capt. Fred P. Dollenberg of Philadelphia. "They figure things aren't so bad if a general's willing to go along and get shot at."
Carrying a bottle of oxygen, General Walker moves about a plane as it flies on its mission at a high altitude, Captain Dollenberg said.
"He climbs through the bomb bay and watches the rear gunner or the side gunners blast at Zeroes and when we are over the target he watches the bombardier as he gets set to drop his bombs," he went on.
"Wandering all over a plane like that isn't healthy but the general figures he can't tell the boys how to go out and get shot at unless he's willing to get shot at too."
General Walker, one of the youngest generals in the United States Army Air Forces, was in the War Plans Division in Washington before coming to Australia about three months ago.
The latest raid in which he took part was one against Rabaul, New Britain, deep in Japanese-occupied territory, last Friday night. Fires were started which were visible 50 miles away.
The general rode in a Flying Fortress on that trip. September 12 he was over Buna, New Guinea in what was probably the heaviest raid of the Southwest Pacific area. On that occasion, Flying Fortresses, medium and attack bombers and fighters destroyed at least 27 Japanese planes and probably more on the ground.
One Mission A Week
"The general doesn't talk much about the raids," Dollenberg said, "But he figures he can't direct flights from the ground and tell the boys what they are doing wrong.
"So he goes along and directs a flight from the air. If a plane gets out of formation he shouts his orders over the radio to get the hell back in line.
"The general figures on going on at leas one mission a week. In less than two months he been up with almost every squadron."
The high praise of General MacArthur and the glowing reports in the Times aside, the bombing campaign had actually not been going well. RAAF fighter pilots had played a pivotal role in turning back the enemy invasion at Milne Bay but Japanese Zeroes still had aerial superiority over the Owen Stanley Range. Meanwhile the infusion of new soldiers and war material flowed into Rabaul unabated. High altitude bombing of the airfields at Rabaul and the ships in its harbor had resulted in little damage and few, if any, enemy ships sunk. General Walker was trying to refine his tactics, which had always been based upon large armadas of bombers attacking from formation at high altitudes. Because of the shortage of aircraft and replacement parts for damaged planes, most bombing raids could mount only a half-dozen Flying Fortresses for any single mission.
Kenney began to doubt the wisdom of high-altitude daylight attacks and started urging low-level, night bombing missions. Walker initially resisted, resulting in some tension between the two commanders.
To add to that tension, early in October Kenney ordered Walker and Whitehead to quit flying on the bombing missions. While the intelligence information and understanding of operations the two generals had gained from previous missions had been lauded, Kenney felt his two top field officers were too important to risk on further missions.
With his 5th Air Force operating well at the administrative level, General Kenney also began to take a more active role in the day-to-day missions with increased concern for their lack of major impact. On October 4 six B-17s bombed anti-aircraft batteries at Buna. Simultaneously, six B-25s attacked a Japanese convoy without hitting anything, and eleven B-17s made a bombing raid on Rabaul. Kenney recorded, "Reports show formation did not hold. (I) Wrote Walker and told him to stop piecemeal attacks."
General Kenney began to push harder for low-level night bombing missions, and the use of skip bombs and instant fuses. The concepts were alien to all that Walker had ever espoused and, he felt, were needlessly dangerous to the safety of his men. He resisted when he could, grudgingly acquiesced when he could not resist.
It would be unfair to either man to define the disagreements that marked the two men's relationship throughout November and December as a rift. Kenney wanted results; Walker's resistance to Kenney's ideas may have been seated more in concern for the safety of his men. Ultimately, most of Kenney's methods proved accurate, especially in the case of skip-bombing which greatly improved the efficiency of the bombers against Japanese ships. According to one unverified story from the period, at one point when Kenney pulled rank Ken Walker abruptly saluted him and spit out, "Okay, but (expletive) you, George."
Walker's boss was man enough, and had enough respect for Walker's knowledge and ability, to brush off the incident. "Ken is O.K.," he wrote. "(He is) stubborn, oversensitive and a prima donna but works like a dog."
In November General MacArthur moved his headquarters to Port Moresby though it was still subject to regular attack from Japanese airplanes based at Lae, Buna and elsewhere in the region. Taking complete control of New Guinea was key to his island hopping strategy to fight his way back to the Philippines. General Kenney convinced MacArthur that aerial superiority of the region was the key to success, stating in his typically blunt fashion that there was no sense, "Playing across the street" until the Allies chased the Japanese troops "off our front lawn."
On November 30 MacArthur summoned his most aggressive American commander, General Robert Eichelberger, to his Port Moresby headquarters. He tasked him with leading Allied forces to capture Buna. "Bob," he admonished as he issued the orders, "take Buna or don't come back alive."
That critical mission would take more than a month, but Buna fell on January 9, 1943. Organized Japanese resistance in New Guinea ended on January 23 . The Allied victory was possible in large part due to the 5th Air Force, which flew 611 combat missions during the seven-week period.
5th Air Force Missions
Nov. 1, 1942 to Jan. 23, 1943
Armed Recon, Escort
Attacks on Enemy
Bombing & Strafing
TOTALS Heavy Bombers 116 1 47 164 Medium Bombers 45 88 133 Light Bombers 28 74 102 Fighter Aircraft 35 38 3 63 139 Miscellaneous 73 73
Reprimand or Medal?
To fully understand Rabaul's importance to the Japanese effort in the South Pacific, one might think of it as the Empire's own "Pearl Harbor". Just as the port on Oahu provided American forces a headquarters and staging point for operations throughout the Pacific, Rabaul was the hub for the Japanese offensive in the Pacific. Located at the northern tip of New Britain Island, the excellent port was 2,800 miles from Tokyo via a shipping lane through waters the Japanese navy dominated. The flow of troops and supplies from Japan could continue nearly unhindered, but for a few American submarines that managed to sneak into the area from time to time.
The harbor itself was deep and sheltered, and the docks and wharves at Rabaul were well-suited for a major distribution point. From Rabaul the influx of necessary men and material were dispersed quickly and easily throughout the theater of combat. In the darkness of night, massive Japanese convoys transported thousands of troops, material and ammunition into the Solomon Islands where U.S. Marines were struggling to control Guadalcanal. Those nightly convoys became known as The Tokyo Express. Similarly, it was also a quick trip from Rabaul to reinforce Japanese positions on the Papuan Peninsula, where the Allies were at last beating back the invading forces on the northern coastline.
Throughout the winter of 1942 the 5th Air Force flew repeated bombing missions against Rabaul in efforts to stem this flow of Japanese shipping. Such missions over the important port were both harrowing and often fatal. Staging out of Port Moresby, the bombers had to first traverse the Owen Stanely Range which was well protected by Japanese Zeroes from airbases at Lae and Buna. Then they had to cross hundreds of miles of enemy infested waters, cross New Britain Island, and then somehow arrive safely over Rabaul to drop their bombs. It was no small feat and was made nearly impossible by the port's heavy defenses. Activity around Rabaul peaked at the end of December with the presence of 21 Japanese warships and 300,000 tons of merchant shipping.
Rabaul was protected by four major Japanese airfields to the south (Keravat, Vunakanau, Tobera and Rapopo) as well as the Lakunai Airfield located near the docks. In December 1942 the Japanese Eighth Area Army Headquarters moved to Rabaul. On the first day of 1943 Colonel Nagaaki Kawai assumed command of the anti-aircraft defenses on the Gazelle Peninsula with a force equivalent to seven battalions, supplemented by five field machine cannon companies.
Despite these formidable defenses, American pilots flew nearly daily bombing missions against Rabaul throughout December and until January 2. On January 3 General Kenney learned through decoded Japanese communications that a major convoy was being mounted at Rabaul to reinforce Lae. The convoy was scheduled to depart the harbor on January 6. To conserve the strength of his exhausted pilots and his combat-depleted bombers, Kenney ordered no missions against Rabaul on January 4 and 5 while noting in his reports: "Told Walker to intensify reccos (reconnaissance) on both N and S of New Britain...and to put on a full-scale B-17 attack on Rabaul Harbor at dawn on the 5th to see if we can break it up at the source."
Ken Walker welcomed this new mission as perhaps providing the first real opportunity to test his ideas of large formation, daylight bombing raids. In prior months the missions of his command had usually been single-plane reconnaissance flights or small (six or fewer aircraft) night bombing raids. The proposed January 5 mission was to include more than a dozen aircraft from Port Moresby, including six B-17s and six B-24s. These were to be joined by a flight of B-24s out of Iron Range on Australia's Cape York. The two groups were to rendezvous in the air over Cape Hood and proceed to Rabaul. Then General Kenney threw in a new wrinkle. Since there would be no fighter escort, he wanted the attack to commence with the dawn.
Walker protested, and not just because this would deny him the chance to conduct the massive daylight mission that was the basis of his strategic doctrine. With the mission scheduled to include bombers from two separate elements, a dawn mission would require the aircraft to take off in the early morning and rendezvous in the air during hours of pre-dawn darkness. Such a rendezvous was difficult enough during daylight hours, nearly impossible at night.
Walker presented arguments for a noon strike, noting that in the darkness the B-24s from Iron Range might not be able to find and join the dozen bombers from Port Moresby. Kenney refused to alter his plan, advising Walker that he would rather have the two flights miss their rendezvous and bomb Rabaul separately at dawn, than to have them successfully meet under the lightened skies then attack the port in broad daylight. In his report he noted, "Nip fighters are never up at dawn, but at noon they will not only give our bombers hell but will ruin our bombing accuracy."
Ken Walker had always believed that enemy fighters were not a matter for consideration in planning the kind of mission scheduled for January 5. His manta had always been: "The well-organized, well-planned, and well-flown air force (bombing) attack will constitute an offensive that cannot be stopped." Already his B-17s had proven they were capable of holding their own against enemy Zeroes, and with more than a dozen bombers scheduled for the Rabaul mission Walker was certain that a carefully controlled formation would fend off any opposition.
When the mission was launched the fact that the B-17s didn't depart from Jackson Field near Port Moresby until 8:00 a.m. was obviously contrary to General Kenney's orders. In Walker's defense this may not have been a calculated act of defiance. Weather on the morning of September 5 was poor and rain delayed takeoff for the B-24s at Iron Range. General Walker may have postponed his own departure in hopes it would clear up enough for them to take off. On Cape York the rain continued and those B-24s never were never able to launch. Weather did improve enough on the Papuan Peninsula for the six B-17s to eventually take off and join the six B-24s from Port Moresby.
This plausible excuse aside, General Walker's decision to take off at 8:00 a.m. for a noon raid over Rabaul may have indeed been a defiant act motivated by his desire to finally test his bombing concepts. Such was also in character for General Kenneth Walker. What is without question is that General Walker further defied Kenney's orders by electing to join the mission himself.
Mission records reveal that this was not the first time since General Kenney grounded his top bomber commander early in October that Walker had defied him to fly with his men. After joining a mid-December reconnaissance mission Kenney had reminded BOTH Walker and Whitehead that they were far to important to the mission of the 5th Air Force to be risked on aerial missions. He insisted that Walker was simply excess baggage in a B-17, but was the best bombardment commander he had.
On January 5 the bomber carrying that excess baggage was the lead B-17 named "San Antonio Rose" and bearing the tail numbers 41-24453. It was piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Jack Bleasdale, executive officer for the 43rd Bombardment Group.
At noon Colonel Bleasdale was over Rabaul and making his bombing run on a harbor filled with enemy ships. Behind him five more B-17s were opening their bomb bay doors and picking their own targets. The enemy was caught totally unaware, but Jap gunners responded quickly to fill the heaven with a curtain of bursting anti-aircraft fire. Inside the San Antonio Rose General Walker was probably taking pictures of the action for later analysis. Before the mission he had mentioned to one of the other crews that he had just purchased a new camera and would be taking it on the mission.
By the time the B-24s were on target the ships below were billowing smoke and flames while the B-17s were trying to pull out and head for home. When the second wave made its run over the target, Japanese Zeroes were at last entering the fray from the nearby airfields. Navigator William Whitaker from one of the B-24s noticed the lead B-17 had fallen out of formation and was circling below with several Zeroes on its tail. He assumed it was General Walker's bomber.
Fred Wesche was in the B-17 following the San Antonio Rose before it fell out of formation and he recalled, "No sooner had we dropped our bombs than my tail gunner said, 'Hey, there's somebody in trouble behind us.' So we made a turn and looked back and here was an airplane, one of our airplanes, going down, smoking and on fire, not necessarily fire, but smoke anyway, and headed down obviously for a cloud bank with a whole cloud of fighters on top of him. There must have been 15 or 20 fighters. Of course they gang up on a cripple, you know, polish that one off with no trouble, but he disappeared into a cloud bank and we never saw him again. It turns out it was the general. General Walker was on board."
The January 5, 1943, daylight bombing raid on Rabaul was highly successful. As many as ten Japanese ships were damaged and the 5,833-ton Keifuku Maru was sunk. All six B-24s were shot up but managed to return home. The six B-17s suffered similar damage. Only four of them returned home.
General Kenney noted in his diary, "Walker off late. Disobeyed orders by going along as well as not starting his mission when I told him." Then the air chief launched an immediate and wide ranging search for any sign of the downed bomber and his general.
Kenney was reporting to General MacArthur when news reached him that search planes had spotted an American airplane down in a coral reef in the Trobriands. With a sigh of relief General Kenney told MacArthur, "When Walker gets back her, I'm going to officially reprimand him and send him to Australia on leave for a couple of weeks."
A less optimistic Douglas MacArthur responded:
"If he doesn't come back.....
.....I'm putting him in for the Medal of Honor!"