The Kokoda Track | Australians in World War II | The Pacific War

Exploring the site of the battle fought by Australians in World War II

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The War in Papua: The Strategic Context

The war in the air

The war in the south-west Pacific was primarily a contest for possession of air bases...

September 1942. Milne Bay. Flying officer D.E. Pank, of no 75 fighter squadron, RAAF, taxiing his P40 Kittyhawk along the dispersal runway after a flight. [AWM 016664]
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The side which held the bases could project air power from them, sinking enemy ships, thus preventing supplies being sent across the sea. Without supplies the armies on islands such as New Guinea would eventually starve.

Aerial view of two Japanese Aichi D3A Navy Type 99 Val carrier bombers from the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier <em>Shokaku</em>. This type of aircraft was used at the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Darwin and throughout the Papuan and Guadalcanal fighting.  Although considered obsolete, as they were the last Japanese carrier-borne aircraft to use a fixed spatted undercarriage, they were very successful and sank more Allied fighting ships than any other single type of Japanese aircraft in the first ten months of the war. This image is an enlargement duplicated from AWM film no. F03354, frame 18296. [AWM P02886.001]

Aerial view of two Japanese Aichi D3A Navy Type 99 Val carrier bombers from the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Shokaku. This type of aircraft was used at the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Darwin and throughout the Papuan and Guadalcanal fighting. Although considered obsolete, as they were the last Japanese carrier-borne aircraft to use a fixed spatted undercarriage, they were very successful and sank more Allied fighting ships than any other single type of Japanese aircraft in the first ten months of the war. This image is an enlargement duplicated from AWM film no. F03354, frame 18296. [AWM P02886.001] ... Enlarge

As Papua is mountainous and the coastal lowlands are subject to flooding there were only a handful of airfields or potential sites there in 1942. It is no surprise that a list of these places is also a list of the scenes of the fighting on land, sea and air: Port Moresby, Milne Bay, Kokoda and Buna-Gona.

Port Moresby, as the premier Allied base in Papua, was the target of 94 Japanese air raids to January 1943. Milne Bay was also the scene of air encounters between Australian P-40 fighters, led by the aces Keith (Bluey) Truscott and Peter Turnbull, and aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Among the Japanese pilots who fought over Milne Bay were two of their top aces, Sakai Saburo and Nishizawa Hiroyoshi.

Side Trip: ‘Lost, Found and Lost.’

Squadron Leader John Francis Jackson DFC

Squadron Leader John Francis Jackson DFC led the small band of fighter pilots, known as ‘Jackson’s Few’, who defended Port Moresby in April-May 1942...

Find out more about the fate of Squadron Leader John Francis Jackson DFC on the Australia's War 1939-1945 website...

Along the Kokoda track Allied aircraft were almost unopposed in their ground attacks on Japanese soldiers because the concurrent battle on Guadalcanal absorbed most of the Japanese effort in the air. The Allied aircraft were usually unable to identify targets in the jungle and the Japanese found these attacks caused few casualties and did little damage. However, when a Japanese resupply convoy was to go from Rabaul to Buna-Gona, the Imperial Japanese Navy would temporarily switch its main air effort back to Papua. The largest and most prolonged air fighting of the Papuan campaign, and the heaviest losses among the aircrew on both sides, took place over these convoys, either in the Solomon Sea or as they unloaded at Buna-Gona. Again the Allied air attacks were not very successful. Of 24 Japanese transport ships which made the Rabaul to Buna-Gona run, only two were sunk by air attack.

Just less than 600 Allied aircrew were killed in the air fighting of the Papuan campaign. Japanese losses were half this number, commensurate with their smaller commitment of air assets to the campaign.