For some readers, it may come as a surprise that war in Papua and New Guinea did not start with fighting on the Kokoda Trail in July of 1942. This is partly due to a plethora of books which cover this important land campaign; yet fail to fully integrate the air war into the story. An exception to that statement is Lex McAulay’s Blood & Iron which made a creditable attempt to inform the reader of what was occurring in the skies above the track. In fact, the fight for Port Moresby and control of the air space over New Guinea began well before July.
RAAF Catalina aircraft had been attacking Simpson Harbour in Rabaul since New Britain fell to the Japanese in January of 1942. Interestingly, the first claim for a Japanese fighter shot down in the New Guinea campaign was not claimed by an allied fighter. It came on the night of 3rd-4th February from the Australian crew of a ’Consolidated’ PBY. Enemy night fighters made their first interception of five Catalinas attacking Rabaul and return fire is said to have sent one enemy fighter into a spin. Officially it was counted as a "probable".
And well before the Coral Sea battle, the first engagement between American and Japanese carrier borne aircraft took place on 20th February in a thwarted attempt by the Anzac Squadron and Lexington Group to attack Japanese forces building up at Rabaul. In this engagement, Grumman Wildcat fighters from the carrier Lexington brought down a number of Japanese aircraft for the loss of two fighters and one pilot.
However it is the air war over Lae and Port Moresby which pitted Japanese of the Tainan Air Group against our very own 75 Squadron; and later P-39’s of numerous U.S. Fighter groups which deserves to be recognised as an important phase in the defence of Australia. http://www.tainanbooks.com/
And fortunately for those with an interest in the Pacific war, a very important and long overdue book has been compiled which details the early struggle for the skies in the South West Pacific theatre. The book, written by two experts in the field of Pacific aviation is called Eagles of the Southern Sky and it fills a hug gap in our ‘pre-Kokoda’ knowledge. Very well supported by a number of associate editors; Luca Ruffato and Michael J. Claringbould have proficiently told the story of the Dai-4 kokutai and Tainan Air Group which operated out of Lae and Rabaul from March 1942.
In telling the story of the Tainan Air Group, ‘Eagles of the Southern Sky’ also give us an insight into the history of the RAAF and the fledgling American 5th Army Air Force during 1942. Just as the RAF fought the battle for Dunkirk well inland and away from the eyes of troops on the beaches; it can be said the battle for Port Moresby was fought on the other side of the Owen Stanleys during air assaults upon Lae and Rabaul.
To quote the Official History of the Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 by Douglas Gillison; “In March 1942 the Australian continent lay nakedly across the path of the Japanese southward drive”. Gillison states at this perilous time, the RAAF could simply muster ‘Two reduced squadrons of Catalina flying-boats (six aircraft) and one reduced squadron of Hudsons (seven aircraft). Port Moresby suffered its first air raid at 3am on 3 February and Japanese forces made their intentions clear by landing at Lae on 8 March, 1942. From here, Japanese fighters could dominate the skies above Port Moresby. And it was not until a further two weeks that the first operational RAAF fighter squadron landed at Seven Mile strip to begin the defence of the capital.