Action Reports Series 6
Southwest Pacific – Return to the Philippines

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

Report 6-1 - Morotai
Northwest of New Guinea’s Vogelkop lies Halmahera, an island shaped like a rude K, extending 170 miles from north to south. Morotai, an egg-shaped island some 40 miles long, is separated by 12 miles of water from the northernmost tip of Halmahera, and lied roughly halfway between Cape Sansapor in New Guinea and Davao Gulf in Mindanao, southernmost of the Philippines. Seizure of a base on Halmahera or Morotai was considered necessary to provide land-based air support and flank protection for invasion of the Philippines, which was to begin with landings on Mindanao.

Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, Commanding General Sixth Army, reported that “The successful fulfillment of this requirement would necessitate and amphibious operation in force to seize and hold an area as close to the Philippines as possible, but within fighter aircraft range of Cape Sansapor, where elements of the Allied Air Forces would be established to provide land-based air support. Furthermore, the area selected should be suitable for the development or construction of necessary airfields, for the employment of light naval forces required to prevent enemy reinforcement by small craft, and for maintenance of the forces committed.

“With these factors in view, GHQ, SWPA, thus restricted the choice of an objective to either northern Halmahera or to Morotai Island. Although northern Halmahera possessed a sufficient number of developed airfields, the capture of any one of these would require a large force. Even after an area had been captured, its defense would present a major problem: the enemy, by utilizing overland routes or by employing shore-to-shore overwater operations, could easily concentrate superior numbers to oppose our forces.

“Plans were therefore made in July 1944, to bypass the main island of Halmahera and to secure objectives on the weakly garrisoned Morotai Island . . .”

The Morotai Task Force, under the command of Rear Adm. Daniel E. Barbey, landed on the southwestern shore of the island on September 15, 1944. The next day Comdr. Selman S. Bowling, who commanded the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons of the Seventh Fleet, arrived in the PT-boat tender Oyster Bay with Mobjack, another tender, and 41 PT’s of Squadrons 9, 10, 18 and 33. From the night of September 16/17, when 16 PT’s went out on patrol, until the cessation of hostilities 11 months later, the PT’s operated regularly as the “light naval forces” mentioned by General Krueger, preventing the numerically superior Japanese on Halmahera from attacking our forces on Morotai. Estimates of Japanese strength on Halmahera ran as high as 31,000 troops, but it was not until August 1945 that the PT’s learned that they had “contained” 37,000 Japanese on Halmahera for nearly a year, rendering this huge force impotent by denying it passage across the 12-mile strait between the two islands.

Report 6-2 - Rescue in Wasile Bay
The landings of the Morotai Task Force were supported not only by land-based planes from Cape Sanspor but by Navy planes from six escort carriers.

Carrierbore fighters made an early morning sweep over Halmahera on September 16, and one of them was shot down by antiaircraft fire over Wasile Bay, 60 miles south of Morotai. The pilot, Ens. Harold A. Thompson, USNR, of Fighter Squadron 26 was wounded, but parachuted into the water several hundred yards from the shore. Soon a Catalina rescue plane arrived on the scene and dropped a rubber raft to Thompson. Thompson drifted shorewards until his raft fetched up against the side of a small unmanned cargo ship 200 yards from the enemy-occupied beach. He tied the raft to the ship’s anchor chain to keep from drifting ashore.

As long as their fuel held out, his squadron mates circled the area, strafing Japanese gun positions and keeping Thompson in sight. When the squadron’s fuel ran low, planes from other units arrived on the scene to continue harassing the Japanese. About noon a Navy Catalina tried to land to rescue him, but was driven off by heavy antiaircraft fire.

In the meantime Thompson’s plight was reported to Oyster Bay. Early in the afternoon Lt. A. Murray Preston, USNR, commander of Squadron 33, got underway for Wasile Bay in PT 489 (Lt. Wilfred B. Tatro, USNR) accompanied by PT 363 (Lt. (jg.) Hershel F. Boyd, USNR). Every officer and man aboard the two PTs had volunteered for the dangerous daylight mission.

Arriving at the four-mile-wide entrance to the bay ahead of their air cover, the boats started to run in close to the western side to avoid minefields and shore batteries to the east. When the PTs were still four miles from the narrows, a heavy gun opened fire from the western shore. Preston turned eastward, leading his boats at high speed across a suspected minefield to try the other side. Not one, but three heavy guns opened fire from the eastern shore. The boats were forced to retire. They had hardly pulled out of range of the guns before fighter planes arrived to cover them. They turned and started in again.

It took the PTs 20 minutes to pass through the straits and enter Wasile Bay. The planes strafed both sides of the entrance but the big guns kept blazing away from both sides, dropping their shells much closer to the PTs than they had on the first approach. Once inside the bay, which is nowhere more than seven miles across, the boats were brought under heavy fire by many guns from both the northern and southern coasts. A fighter plane laid smoke along the shore and guided the PTs to Thompson’s raft. Shore batteries, planes, and PTs were all firing furiously as PT 489 came close aboard the cargo ship. Lt. Donald F. Seaman, USNR, the Task Group Intelligence Officer, and Charles D. Day, MoMM1c, USNR, dived overboard from the 489, swam to the raft and towed it back to the 489. During the five minutes that the PTs had to lie to while Thompson was being brought aboard, the boats raked the beach with their 40mm guns, starting several fires. As a parting gesture they gunned up the cargo ship and left it ablaze.

Getting out of the bay was worse than getting in. The fighter planes were running low on fuel and had to streak back to their carriers. Now the shore batteries were free to fire in full volume. For 20 minutes the PTs zigzagged at high speed across the minefield, big shells dropping within 10 yards of them. At last they were out of range. They had been under almost constant shellfire in broad daylight for 2-1/2 hours.

There were no casualties on either PT. The boat’s themselves were unharmed save for superficial damage from shell fragments. Read Adm. C. A. F. Sprague, commander of the carrier task force, said in a letter to Commander Bowling, “The consummation of this rescue in the face of the tremendous odds is characteristic of the highest traditions of our Navy. The PT Squadron may well be proud of this act which is considered one of the most daring and skillfully executed rescues of war.”

For this action, Lieutenant Preston was awarded the “Congressional” Medal of Honor. Tatro, Boyd, Seaman, and Day were awarded Navy Crosses.


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