Action Reports Series 3
Southwest Pacific – Conquest of New Guinea

Below are two of the thirty one Action Reports included this section "Southwest Pacific – Conquest of New Guinea." If you would like to read more, please order the newly re-published book available from the Ship's Store.

Report 3-1 - To the Buna Campaign
The Japanese did not wait for the end of the Philippine campaign to launch their engulfing sweep to the south. Three weeks after the fall of Manila they made their first landings on Rabaul in New Britain and Kavieng in New Ireland. From Rabaul they spearheaded twin advances, one southeast through the Solomons, the other southwest into New Guinea. The objective of both was the isolation or conquest of Australia.

New Guinea, which bars the approach at Australia from the north, is one of the world’s largest, least-developed, and least-known islands, extending for nearly 1,500 miles on a northwest-southeast line and containing more than 300,0000 square miles. Dense jungles and rugged mountains make its interior all but impassable and, for the most part, limited the Japanese advance to the coastline.

Early in March of 1942,, the enemy landed on New Guinea at Lae and Salamaua in Huon Gulf and began to develop these bases as staging points for further moves down the Papuan coast. So compelling was his advance that in Australia serious consideration was given to plans to abandon most of Australia’s northern province of Queensland and to fall back on a defense line just north of Brisbane.

At the time of the fall of Corregidor on May 6, there was in progress a naval battle, the first in history to be decided entirely by carrier planes, which for the time being checked the march toward Australia. This action, now known as the Battle of the Coral Sea, was fought from the 4th to the 8th of May in waters to the southeast of New Guinea. We lost the carrier Lexington and suffered damage to the carrier Yorktown, but the enemy was turned back with loss of the carrier Shoho and damage to other ships.

For the first time in the Pacific war, we has inflicted an important setback on the enemy. Still, he was only checked; not stopped. On July 21 and 22 he landed troops at Gona, Buna, and Sanananda on the northern Papuan coast and began his drive across the Kokoda trail through the Owen Stanley Mountains toward Port Moresby on the south coast, the last Allied base north of Australia. He almost succeeded. The drive was stopped only 32 miles from Port Moresby.

In connection with the overland advance, the enemy landed troops in Milne Bay at the southeastern end of New Guinea, apparently in preparation for an amphibious assault on Port Moresby. Two Australian brigades engaged these forces so effectively that, after 3 days of fighting, Japanese destroyers evacuated them. The destroyers came into Milne Bay again on three night early in September to shell the Australians. Destroyer Squadron 4, under Capt. Cornelius W. Flynn, moved north on September 11 to intercept the enemy surface forces, but could not find them. The Japanese never again attempted to send ships into Milne Bay.

This unusual lack of persistence on the part of the Japanese was undoubtedly a result of the fierceness of the struggle for Guadalcanal, to which the enemy was devoting all available sea, air, and land strength. With the major part of the enemy’s forces committed to the Guadalcanal campaign, and with the arrival of U.S. ground forces in the Southwest Pacific, American and Australian troops were able to concentrate on clearing the enemy from eastern New Guinea. They pushed him back across the Kokoda trail and at the same time moved up the northern Papuan coast in a flanking movement aimed at Buna. After a long and bitter struggle, in which the rains and swamps and jungles proved to be enemies as formidable as the Japanese, Allied troops took Buna Mission on January 2 and completed mopping up the remaining enemy forces at Sanananda on January 23.

PT’s were the first naval vessels to have action in New Guinea waters, and their first actions were in support of the coastal advance toward Buna.

Report 3-2 - The Cruise of the Hilo
To bring the first PTs to New Guinea, it is necessary to go back to Pearl Harbor, where, it will be remembered, the captain and crew of the tender Hilo saw their first PT on July 5, 1942. Ten days later the Hilo left Pearl Harbor with PTs 21, 23, 25, and 26, which comprised MTB Division 2 of Squadron 1, under command of Lt. Jonathan F. Rice, USNR, for duty in Palmyra Island, 1,100 miles to the southwest. Hilo towed two boats; the other two ran free, fueling from Hilo each morning while under way. At midpoint in the passage, the boats exchanged places to share equally the discomforts of towing.

Palmyra was quiet. There was nothing for the boats to do there but take part in the island’s weekly battle problem and run as practice targets for the shore radar station. Lt. Comdr. Frank A. Munroe, Jr., USNR, commanding officer of Hilo, recalled later that “About the middle of September, Admiral Nimitz stopped overnight en route to Guadalcanal. He gave a talk to all the officers and afterward [Lt. (jg.) Alvin P.] Cluster button-holed him and persuaded him that the boats would be more useful farther south. So the Admiral wrote out a dispatch to the Staff in Pearl telling them to send the boats southward. I got in my two-bits worth for dry docking and a radar.”

Hilo made a quick run to Pearl Harbor for docking and radar, then returned to Palmyra to pick up the boats. They left Palmyra on October 25 and arrived at their new base, Funafuti, in the Ellice Islands, on November 2. On the way out they kept a sharp lookout for the plane in which Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker had been flying across the Pacific on a special mission for the War Department. It had not been heard from since October 21, when the pilot reported he was lost and running low on gasoline.

No trace of the plane was seen and nothing more was heard of it until November 11, when Lt. (jg.) Frederick E. Woodward, USNR, pilot of a Navy Kingfisher scout plane based at Funafuti, reported after an afternoon patrol that he had seen a yellow raft a few miles south of the atoll. Lieutenant Cluster got PT 21 underway, found the raft, and returned to Hilo with a very sick man. After treatment by Hilo’s medical officer, Lt. Richard W. Garrity (MC), he revived sufficiently to say that he was Capt. William T. Cherry, Jr., pilot of the Rickenbacker plane; the other survivors were in two rafts; they had separated two days before; the rafts should be southwest of the point where the PT 21 had found him.

At first light on the 12th, Lieutenant Commander Munroe got underway with the Hilo and the four PTs. At 1630 he received a dispatch from the island saying a Kingfisher plane had found another raft northwest of the island and was landing near it. The four PTs took off at top speed. Just before dark End. J. M. Weeks, USNR, in PT 26, found the plane.

The pilot of the Kingfisher, Lt. William F. Eadie, knew when he saw the raft that he could not fly with extra passengers in his two-seater plane, but he was afraid that if he did not pick up the survivors, the PTs might miss them in the approaching darkness. So he set his plane down on the water and took three men aboard. They were “Captain” Rickenbacker; his aid, Col. Hans C. Adamson; and Pvt. John F. Bartek, the flight engineer. Colonel Adamson, in great pain from a back injury, was put in the back seat of the Kingfisher with Eadie’s radioman, L. H. Boutte, ARM1c, USNR. Then Eadie lashed Rickenbacker to the starboard wing and Bartek to the port wing, and began to taxi back to Funafuti, 40 miles away. Within minutes, PT 26 arrived. Rickenbacker and Bartek were transferred to the PT, but it was decided that the plane should continue taxiing to the base rather than risk moving the injured Adamson again.

Lt. Edward M. Gordon, USNR, executive officer of the Hilo, recalled that “One interesting sidelight on Captain Rickenbacker’s condition was that when he was taken aboard he said that he had never seen a PT boat before, and, therefore, he would like to inspect it, in spite of the fact that he had been on this raft 21 days, and the captain of the PT boat took him all over his ship, showing him the various features.”

As soon as Hilo anchored at Funafuti the next morning, Lt. Col. J. Franklin good, USMC, came aboard to tell Lieutenant Commander Munroe that a coast watcher on Nuku Fetau, 60 miles to the northwest, had reported that the third raft, with three survivors, had washed ashore there.

“I got underway immediately,” Munroe said, “and arrived off the island in the middle of the afternoon. The lagoon looked too dirty so I sent in the whale boat with Mack Gordon and Dr. Garrity. They returned in about an hour with three survivors, Lt. J. C. Whittaker, the copilot, Lt. J. I. DeAngelis, and Staff Sgt. J. W. Reynolds. Whittaker was in quite good shape, but the other two were in very bad state – very thin and badly ulcerated. I had not realized that living bodies could smell so putrid and still be alive. It was remarkable that the two oldest men in the party, Rickenbacker and Whittaker, were in the best shape.

“Gordon and Garrity returned with very smug expressions and a tall tale of an extraordinarily beautiful native girl who had spoke to them in excellent English, asked them to have a drink, and perhaps spend the night. No further details could be drawn from either officer.

“I remained underway overnight and returned to Funafuti in the morning. Whittaker and DeAngelis were taken to the hospital but Reynolds was in such bad shape that it was necessary to keep him aboard for several days while Garrity gave him plasma and glucose.

“On 24 November I received a dispatch from ComSoPac directing me to proceed to Noumea, leaving the four boats at Funafuti. That left the boats in a grim fix. There was no pier or jetty, no bulk gasoline, no torpedo compressor, no dry dock, no shop, no living or messing facilities and water had to be delivered in gas drums. The Marines and SeaBees were helpful and cooperative and gave the boats whatever they could of their limited facilities. I off-loaded all spare engines, torpedoes and all Packard and Elco parts.

“Hilo left Funafuti the next day and arrived in Noumea on 2 December.”

Lieutenant Commander Munroe was ordered to take the Hilo and four boats of Division 17 to Cairns, Australia, and report to the commander Southwest Pacific Forces for duty. Division 17, it will be remembered, was made up of PTs 113 and 114 of Squadron 2 and PTs 119-133, of Squadron 6, and was commanded by Lt. Daniel S. Baughman, who had been executive officer of Squadron 6.

“I found that PTs 121 and 122 had departed for Cairns a few days previously in tow of a Liberty ship, with a substantial part of the division’s spares in the Liberty,” Munroe said. “Hilo fueled and then went alongside another Liberty to load the balance of the spares. Many of the vital Packard spares were missing as a result of a barge capsizing the previous day. Loading was accomplished with the usual confusion, and a small base force came aboard.

“Hilo and the four boats departed Noumea late in the afternoon of 3 December. Tow lines were passed to two of the boats and we proceeded at the usual 5 knots. We had an escort this time – USS Aaron Ward. Weather was unfavorable, generally poor visibility with frequent squalls. None of the personnel in the boats had ever been to sea in them before, and considerable difficulty was had in keeping stations. One particularly dirty night, one of the boats was continually dropping out of sight. The boat quartermaster was green and unable to read blinker. It took three hours to get a visual message through to him that I desired the boat to come within hailing distance, and another hour for the boat to get there. When he was finally alongside I told the boat captain in an emphatic manner that he was to stay within 200 yards of Hilo, period. After we arrive in Cairns and we were holding a conference about the next leg, this particular boat captain, who shall be nameless, told me that he took exception to the tone of voice which I had used in talking to him by megaphone! It was quite a trip. In the seven days underway I had 21 hours sleep. When tow lines were not parting, boat engines were failing. I had several consoling messages from the skipper of the escorting destroyer.”

Hilo and the PTs arrived in Cairns on the morning of December 11, and the next day received orders to proceed as soon as possible to Milne Bay and to report there to Commander Task Group 50.1, which was to be the PT task group in New Guinea. PTs 121 and 122 left for Milne Bay three days earlier in tow of the gunboat Tulsa.

Also at Cairns was the advance echelon of PT Base 4. “Confusion reigned supreme,” Munroe said. “The base site was in a mangrove swamp; there was no construction equipment; the squadron equipment which had accompanied the first two boats had been off-loaded into a municipal warehouse and thoroughly rifled. We took aboard as much gear as we could and an Advance Communications Unit with Ensign Simons in charge, plus one bottle of Australian beer and a Red Cross Christmas package per man. It was in Cairns that we first encountered HMAS Arunta (destroyer), and her doughty skipper, Comdr. J. D. Morrow, RAN, and his formidable wine mess. An evening aboard Arunta was a hair-raising experience.

“We left Cairns late on the 15th and picked up our escort outside, USS Patterson, commanded by a classmate, Lt. Comdr. W. C. Schultz, USN. On account of the comparatively short distance involved, and the possibility of enemy air attack, all boats ran under their own power, all being refueled during the 16th. The weather was quite dirty and many insulting remarks came from Schultz to the effect that it was a poor hen that couldn’t keep its chickens under its wings..

“The New Guinea coast was picked up in the morning of the 17th, and position fixed. Whereupon Schultz turned around and said, ‘Goodbye now, this is as far as I’m allowed to go.’ That made us feel just wonderful. And that was the last U.S. naval vessel, other than the Tulsa and an occasional SC or YP, we saw until Rigel arrived late in May.”


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