THE LAE-SALAMAUA RAID
While Admirals Brown, Fletcher, and Crace were engaged in planning attacks on the Japanese base at Rabaul and the airfield at Gasmata on the southern coast of New Britain, a Japanese amphibious invasion force of 3,000 troops had already left Rabaul on 5 March with the intention of capturing the town of Lae and the nearby village of Salamaua on the north-eastern coast of the New Guinea mainland. Both Lae and Salamaua were important to the Japanese because they possessed airstrips from which Allied counter-attacks on Rabaul had been launched. The Lae-Salamaua operation was a preliminary to the more ambitious Operation MO - the capture of the vital Allied base Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea.
The invasion convoy of several transports and covering warships was sighted by an Australian Hudson reconnaissance bomber on the afternoon of 7 March as it was nearing its two objectives.
Japanese invasion forces land at Lae and Salamaua
At 1.00 am on 8 March 1942, Japanese marines waded ashore at Lae in heavy rain to secure a beachhead. Further down the coast, troops of the elite South Seas Detachment landed at Salamaua. The small Australian garrisons at Lae and Salamaua withdrew into the jungle as the Japanese were landing. After some attention from Australian Hudson bombers during the day of 8 March which caused some damage to one transport, the Japanese set to work to unload their transports, fortify their beachheads, and prepare the airstrips to receive Japanese Zero fighters from New Britain.
Bad weather impeded progress on the Lae airstrip which had been heavily damaged by Australian demolition crews before they withdrew. Poor weather conditions over the Japanese beachheads also prevented Zeros from New Britain airfields providing air cover for the landings.
Lexington and Yorktown strike the Japanese at Lae and Salamaua
As Lexington and Yorktown, screened by a powerful force of eight cruisers (including HMAS Australia) and fourteen destroyers, steamed across the Coral Sea toward New Guinea, Vice Admiral Brown received word of the Japanese landings at Lae and Salamaua. This was welcome news, and caused an immediate cancellation of the plan to strike at Rabaul and Gasmata. The Allied task force could now strike the Japanese when they were most vulnerable - engaged in unloading their transports at the beachheads.
The first hurdle facing Admiral Brown was how to avoid early detection of his task force by vigilant Japanese patrol planes of the kind that had defeated his attempt to strike Rabaul in February. The most direct route across the Solomon Sea and up the north-eastern coast of the New Guinea mainland posed a real risk of early detection by Japanese patrol planes flying from airfields on the island of New Britain.
Vice Admiral Brown resolved that TF-11 would mount its attack on the Japanese beachheads from the Gulf of Papua on the southern side of the New Guinea mainland. Although the actual flying distance was not great, this route would require the carrier attack groups to cross the towering central mountain feature of New Guinea - the rugged Owen Stanley Range. The many ridges of this range were cloaked by dense rain forest and often obscured by cloud or mist. Experienced New Guinea pilots regularly flew from Port Moresby to Lae by a carefully defined route. They took care to avoid being trapped in the mountains when cloud closed in.
Naval charts offered little guidance to the American pilots who were about to cross the Owen Stanleys, and the vital guidance needed to cross the massive range was ultimately provided to Commander William B. Ault, Lexington's air group commander, on 9 March by experienced Australian civilian pilots at Port Moresby. Vice Admiral Brown fixed the raid for the following day. To cover his flank to the east and the arrival of the American troop convoy at Noumea, Brown dispatched Rear Admiral Crace with four cruisers and four destroyers to the Louisiade Archipelago off the eastern tip of New Guinea.
To cover their landings at Lae and Salamaua, the Japanese had bombed the Australian military airstrips at Port Moresby, Bulolo, and Wau. They met no Allied fighter opposition. Their long-range Kawanishi H6K flying boats had patrolled the Solomon Sea and Coral Sea intensively for American carriers, and had found nothing. They believed that they had nothing to fear from Allied aircraft, and had grown complacent. Admiral Brown's ruse had succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.
In the pre-dawn darkness of 10 March, as the two carrier task forces stood off the southern coast of Papua, Yorktown and Lexington went to general quarters. Lexington began launching her air group at 0749. Yorktown began launching her own air group at 0803. Both carriers launched fifty-two aircraft. By 0849, all aircraft were on their way with Commander Ault from Lexington in overall command, and having authority to proceed or abort the strike.
Lexington's attack group comprised eighteen Dauntless SBDs of VS-2, twelve Dauntless SBDs of VB-2, thirteen Devastator TBD torpedo bombers of VT-2, and an escort of eight Grumman Wildcat F4F fighters of VF-3 led by Lieutenant Commander John "Jimmy" Thatch.
Yorktown's attack group followed, and comprised seventeen SBDs of VB-5, thirteen SBDs of VS-5, twelve TBDs of VT-5, and ten F4F fighters of VF- 42.
While the strike was under way, the task force was protected in the Gulf of Papua by a combat air patrol of twelve fighters and nine SBDs flying an anti-torpedo patrol.
Having reached the vital gap in the range that gave access to the northern coast, Commander Ault circled to oversee and coordinate the passage of both air groups.
VS-2 from Lexington initiated the strike at Lae. The SBDs pushed over at 0922 and attacked two Japanese transports and an armed merchant cruiser. Fire from a shore battery downed one SBD, but escorting F4F Wildcats of VF-3 quickly put the battery out of action. Lexington's VB-2 followed VS-2 and attacked a mine-layer and third transport. Hampered by fogged windshields and telescopic sights, all SBD bombs missed their targets. Off Salamaua, three torpedo bombers from VT-2 had one success. A torpedo hit a Japanese transport which began to sink. The remaining torpedo bombers from Lexington attacked the transports off Lae, and holed one transport and the armed merchant cruiser. The escorting Japanese cruisers and destroyers weighed anchor, made smoke to provide cover, and headed for open water.
Yorktown's air group then took its turn at 0950. The SBDs of VB-5 concentrated on the fleeing Japanese escort cruisers and destroyers. One division from VB-5 attacked Rear Admiral Kajioka's flagship Yubari and claimed three hits on the cruiser. Another division from VB-5 attacked the destroyer Asanagi and knocked out her boilers. A bomb hit the destroyer Yunagi and damaged her engines. The SBDs from VB-5 then strafed a Japanese gunboat, and set it on fire.
At 1005, the SBDs of VS-5 struck the relatively unscathed transports at Lae. The Yorktown SBDs scored direct hits on three transports, leaving all three on fire and beached.
The twelve TBDs of Yorktown's VT-5, each armed with two 500-pound bombs came upon the seaplane carrier Kiyokawa Maru and an escort destroyer just north of Lae. The TBDs had been armed with bombs instead of torpedoes for this operation, and lacking experience in high level bombing, the air crews failed to score a direct hit on either ship. However, a near miss damaged the seaplane carrier, allowed water to enter the engine room, and left her dead in the water.
The Wildcats of VF-42 strafed ships and shore installations, drew fire away from the dive bombers, and dropped fragmentation bombs.
When the last of the attack group left the Japanese beachheads, the score was three transports on fire and beached at Lae, a seaplane tender damaged and dead in the water, the light cruiser Yubari damaged sufficiently to require dockyard repairs in Japan, two destroyers damaged and stopped in the water, one transport listing heavily and another sunk off Salamaua. The final score was four transports sunk. One American SBD was lost in the raids on Lae and Salamaua. The approach from the Gulf of Papua had provided security for the task force and ensured complete surprise. Japanese Zero fighters arrived over the beachheads from New Britain too late to protect their ships and shore installations.
Of the 104 aircraft launched by Lexington and Yorktown, 103 planes were back safely on board by noon. The raid on Lae and Salamaua provided many of the pilots with their first experience of action against warships and ground targets defended by anti-aircraft fire, and although the torpedo and bombing accuracy of some squadrons left a good deal to be desired, the raid gave the fliers valuable experience for later major actions at Coral Sea and Midway.
Although Rear Admiral Fletcher urged a second strike, Vice Admiral Brown considered that the strike had been highly successful and that it was time to withdraw. Task Force 11 retired on a south-easterly course until dark, when the ships turned eastward and joined Rear Admiral Crace's squadron of four heavy cruisers and four destroyers.
The Lae-Salamaua Raid in retrospect
Admiral Nimitz did not award the Lae-Salamaua raid the same high praise that he had lavished on the Marshall-Gilbert raid. Nimitz was disappointed that the attacks on Lae and Salamaua had failed to dislodge the Japanese from their beachheads on the New Guinea mainland. President Roosevelt did not share Nimitz's reservations, describing the Lae-Salamaua raid to Winston Churchill as "the best day's work we have had."
President Roosevelt's assessment of the Lae-Salamaua raid turned out to be the correct one. The raid produced deep alarm in Tokyo, especially at Navy General Headquarters where it was becoming apparent that the carriers of the US Pacific Fleet could punch holes in Japan's eastern and southern defensive perimeter at will and with impunity.
The American carrier raids in the first three months of 1942 were causing deep concern to Admiral Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet. He was particularly concerned by Vice Admiral Halsey's raids on Wake Island and Minami-tori Island (also known as Marcus Island). Minami-tori Island was only 700 miles (1,125km) from Japan, and Yamamoto feared that the American carriers had the capability to raid Tokyo. An American air raid on Tokyo was something that Japan's military leaders had assured their emperor could never happen. To ensure this did not happen, officers of the Combined Fleet began to plan a complex operation to destroy the American Pacific Fleet at Midway in the central Pacific.
For the Navy General Staff in Tokyo, the Lae-Salamaua raid reinforced its view that Japan's main strategic priority in the Pacific should be to cut the lines of communication between Australia and the United States. That plan had been assigned the code reference Operation FS, and involved Japan capturing and fortifying the chain of islands between New Guinea and Samoa. The Lae-Salamaua raid had demonstrated the urgent need for Japan to capture Port Moresby in the Australian Territory of Papua and Tulagi in the British Solomons as quickly as possible. On 15 March 1942, Imperial General Headquarters agreed that Operation FS was to be Japan's strategic priority in the Pacific and would commence with the capture of Port Moresby and Tulagi. This initial operation was asigned the code reference MO.
In retrospect, it can be seen that the Lae-Salamaua raid was of vital importance to the Allies for a number of reasons. It was a severe blow to Japan's plan to isolate Australia from the United States as quickly as possible, because the Japanese had intended to use the sunk and damaged transports as part of the invasion force to capture Port Moresby and Tulagi in April 1942. The Japanese were forced to postpone the capture of Port Moresby and Tulagi for one month to replace the sunk and damaged ships, and because they realised that these operations would require support from their own aircraft carriers. In this way, the Lae-Salamaua Raid set the stage for the Battle of the Coral Sea.
The Lae-Salamaua Raid also laid the foundations for Allied victories later in 1942 at Guadalcanal and Kokoda. By delaying for one month the capture of Tulagi, the establishment of a Japanese forward airstrip on the northern coast of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands was also delayed. The delay in establishing that airstrip on Guadalcanal provided the Americans with more time to prepare a landing force to capture the airstrip that later became famous as Henderson Field. Even so, the Americans barely made it in time. When the Americans landed on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942, the Japanese were ready to bring this forward airstrip into operation. If the Americans had not seized that strategically vital Japanese airstrip when they did, the Guadalcanal operation could not have proceeded as it did, and would almost certainly have been deferred to much later, probably 1943.
The Guadalcanal Campaign had a direct impact on the equally bloody fighting between the Japanese and Australians on the Kokoda Track. The Japanese outnumbered the Australians by five to one, and had pushed them back to a ridge overlooking Port Moresby. Here the Australians dug in to make a final stand. Major General Horii's starving and exhausted South Seas Detachment on the Kokoda Track was in sight of Port Moresby and begging for reinforcements for the final push to capture the vital Allied base. Because of heavy Japanese losses at Guadalcanal, Major General Horii was denied reinforcements and he was forced to retreat to his beachheads with the Australians in hot pursuit.