The war in Papua New Guinea did not start with Kokoda - Eagles of the Southern Sky

06 June 2014 by Gary Traynor

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.



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.

Port Moresby, New Guinea. August 1942. Kittyhawk fighter pilots of No. 75 Squadron RAAF, during a break in operations against the Japanese. Left to right: Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) L. D. Wintlen; Squadron Leader (Sqn Ldr) L. D. Jackson, Commanding Officer of the Squadron, who with his older brother, Sqn Ldr John Jackson (killed in action 28 April 1942), Flt Lt J. W. W. Piper and Flying Officer P. A. Masters fought fearlessly with the rest of the outnumbered Squadron.


The proud history of 75 Squadron tells of the forty four days from March, 1942 in which RAAF Kittyhawks fought themselves to a virtual standstill.  Their adversaries, the Tainan kokutai faced the same hardships experienced in tropical service, as the Australian pilots - yet on opposite sides of the Owen Stanley Range.  Poor supplies, fatigue and a struggle to make aircraft serviceable for operations; this air war in a harsh environment was as much a fight against the elements as it was against the enemy.  Facing the Mitsubishi A6M Type ‘0’ fighter, flown by Japanese veterans of the Philippines and Dutch East Indies, 75 Squadron claimed for 35 Japanese aircraft for the loss of 12 pilots and 22 machines.  However little knowledge outside of Japan of aerial combat from the Japanese perspective existed.  Until Eagles of the Southern Sky appeared on our bookshelves, the Japanese loss in men and machines was merely a statistic.  This book has finally put a face and many names to the story of war in the Pacific.

Eagles of the Southern Sky has recorded many interesting accounts of air engagement between Japanese and Allied flyers.  For those who have trekked the Kokoda Trail in recent years, the book has finally answered the mystery of the Japanese plane wreck above modern Isurava village.  First touched upon by Bill James in his Field Guide to the Kokoda Track, Claringbould’s account confirms the G4M Betty serial number 5194 was brought down by pilots of 75 Squadron.  In a detailed account, this book describes an attack made by Flight Officer John Piper, Pilot Officer Arthur Tucker and Pilot Officer Geoffrey  Atherton which brought the bomber down.  Piper would eventually be awarded a DFC;  Atherton the DFC & Bar.



Military aircraft modellers will revel in the colour plates which detail the various paint schemes of both Japanese and allied aircraft of this time period.  Detail of the early career of Japanese ace Sakai Saburo, who once flew the A6M2 which is currently on display in Aircraft Hall of the AWM is also of interest.  Sakai being but one of many talented Japanese flyers who operated from Lae and Rabaul.

It is refreshing to finally see a book which tells the story through the eyes of the Japanese flyer in New Guinea.  Sadly, Luca Ruffato passed away not long after the book was released however this volume is a fine testimony to his life’s work.  It is a must for anybody who has interest in air combat, the South West Pacific Theatre of operations or the Kokoda Trail.  Eagles of the Southern Sky is available in the Australian War Memorial bookshop.


By Assistant Curator Gary Traynor,

Military Heraldry & Technology