By early 1943 the Japanese were struggling to come to terms with Allied air power in the Pacific which was rapidly challenging their ability to operate offensively. They had been unable to bring in re-inforcements to Guadalcanal because of the US planes based at Henderson Field and even their attempt to withdraw from the island had been compromised.
The Japanese forces on New Guinea were now under pressure and the need to re-inforce them meant that they had to take risks in transporting troops. Some of the most experienced Japanese destroyers were assigned as escorts. Whilst they accepted some risks they had little idea just how perilous the operation was to be:
The crew of one of General Kenney’s bombers spotted a large Japanese convoy heading toward New Guinea on March 1, 1943. Thus began the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. During the three days that followed, the crews of 162 Allied planes repeatedly attacked this convoy and its protective cover of land-based fighters.
Allied heavy bombers destroyed many Japanese fighters while on the ground at their Lae, Finschhafen and Gasmata-bases. Other bombers, medium and light as well as heavy, made attack after attack on the convoy with highly coordinated precision and masthead skip-bombing tactics. Techniques of this sort had been developed in the course of months of hard, driving rehearsals. By March 4, the convoy had been smashed.
Both tactically and strategically, this was an outstanding operation. Besides the ships sunk, from 59 to 83 planes had been shot down and at least 9 others damaged. The Army Air Forces lost 1 B-17 and 3 P-38’s in combat, and a B-25 and a Beaufighter through other causes. Total Army Air Forces personnel losses came to 13 while the Japanese lost approximately 12,700 officers and men. Entirely unassisted, the Fifth Air Force, besides disposing of large numbers of airmen and sailors, wiped out an entire division of troops.
Thus the Fifth Air Force, operating in conjunction with our amphibious, naval and land forces in and around the Solomons and New Guinea, had seized the initiative in the Southwest Pacific. For the first time in that theater we were able to strike at times and places of our own choosing.
From the wartime records of the US Fifth Air Force.
The following video includes contemporary newsreel of the battle. Attitudes to the Japanese at the time can be readily understood from the commentary, it should be remembered that only a year before the Japanese military had appeared to be an unstoppable force rolling through Malaya, Singapore and the Philippines: