March 2017 marks the 74th anniversary of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. One of the forgotten battles of WWII, yet one of the most significant for Australia as it represented the beginning of the turning point to the Japanese advance that had gone unimpeded throughout much of China, Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Dutch East Indies, Malaya and well into the Pacific, including New Guinea.
The Bismarck Sea is a large egg shaped mass about half the size of New South Wales that lies in the area on the north side of New Britain and along the east coast of New Guinea.
In 1919 Japan went to the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the "Big Five" of the new international order. It joined the League of Nations and received a mandate over the Pacific islands north of the Equator formerly held by Germany until the First World War. These would become the platform for the Japanese onslaught in the Pacfic at the start of the Second World War.
In the 1930's the small island of Japan had enmassed one of the biggest and most powerful armys in the world. They were unrestrained in their uptake of technology and adapted their research for military purposes building its' stock of fighting assets. Many of these were state of the art: from fighter planes like the Zeke / Zero to battleships like the Yamato, the heaviest battleship in history. Today it seems almost impossible that such a tiny island 3% of the size of China could threaten world peace and overrun much of Asia, including the majority of China - a country 10% bigger than the United States.
Equally hard to imagine in today's world is the direct threat they posed to the citizens of Australia, a small country by comparison per capita of fighting population. At the outbreak of WWII Australia had a population of 6.65 million people. After the loss of 2.12 million soldiers during the war, the Japanese still had 5.5 million active fighting men in their imperial forces when the war suddenly ended in September 1945 with the atomic bombs. There were more fighting soldiers in the Japanese Imperial Forces than the combined total of every man, woman and child in Australia. The combined total of all men and women serving in the Australian defense forces in WII was less than 1 million. These resources were stretched between many countries around the world, including throughout Europe, the Middle East, Britain, Australia and New Guinea. That's considerably less than the 7.6+ million fighting men at the disposal of the Emperor of Japan during the Second World War.
The key to annexing Australia from the Commonwealth Empire and incorporating the country into the Japanese Empire was New Guinea; and the key to New Guinea was Port Moresby, a large town on the southern side of the Kokoda Track. The Kokoda Track was a very narrow trail joining the north to the south by running through the dense jungle and across the often cloud covered Owen Stanley Ranges. Less than a day's sail from Port Moresby is the Australian mainland.
To say in 1943 that Australia was seriously at risk to Japanese occupation is an understatement that now appears lost in the eventual outcome of the war. However in March 1943 the Japanese were on the verge of winning the battle along the Kokoda Track. All they needed were a few reinforcements to make the final push into Port Moresby. Well equiped with numerous airfields and a large harbour, this port was the perfect staging location for an invasionary force. It was our Calis in France where the Germans prepared to take Great Britain in 1941. In Port Morseby they could rapidly prepare the necessary supplies, equipment, bombers, fighters, ships and soldiers. An effective and deadly invasion force could be quickly ransack Australia, as they had done to much of Asia in the previous 7 years. Could you imagine a flag with the southern cross under a rising sun? The Japanese were already preparing their branding for Australia including occupation currency and new laws, none of which were democraticly based.
The Allies had exhausted all immediate reinforcements. However the Japanese had reinforcements available and these were battle hardened troops just days away, coming in their thousands in large convoys. To reinforce their troops on Kokoda quickly, they came through the Bismarck Sea. In a little over over 12 months, Australia had lost many of its' important warships including HMAS Sydney, HMAS Perth, HMAS Yarra, HMAS Vampire, HMAS Canberra, HMAS Voyager and HMAS Armidale. The remaining warships of the RAN, along with the Royal Navy and US Navy fleets were occupied too far away to stop these troops from landing on the northern side of the Kokoda track. It seemed Australia's fate was sealed. In Brisbane, General Douglas MacArthur drew up plans to sacrifice the majority of Queensland and the Northern Territory in a desperate bid to stand ground against the Japanese somewhere just north of Brisbane. Australia was facing a looming checkmate but for one thing, a few small number of squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force and the US Army Air Force located around Port Moresby, including June Valley where the long range strike fighters of 30 Squadron were based. These are the unsung heroes Australia knows little about.
30 Squadron was one of the major players in the first RAAF/USAAF combined operation in what is known as "The Battle of the Bismarck Sea". The outcome would be more significant than Gallipoli, yet this important battle and its' significance is known by few Australians.