Brig. Gen. Kenneth Newton Walker, one of the architects of the prewar plan for strategic air war in Europe, and commanding general Fifth Bomber Command, went missing in action on January 5th, 1943, on an unescorted daylight bombing mission to Rabaul, New Britain. The B-17F in which the general flew, Walker, and the crew have never been found. He remains one of the highest ranking unrecovered officers lost in air combat in World War II. The search in the title of this article has multiple implications. First is the search for an accurate account based on credible evidence of Walker's mission and its importance. Then there is a recounting of the search missions that took place in 1943. Finally, mention must be made of the research under taken by an eclectic group of researchers to narrow the probable location of Walker's bomber; and, unfortunately the profound lack of actual searching and apparent lack of interest shown in the case by the Joint POW-MIA Accountability Command (JPAC). New insights come from previously unexploited sources: unpublished research results, diaries from participants on both sides, and, captured Japanese documents and media reports.
Most military historians have heard of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and understand that it was seminal event in the history of air power. Most air power historians are aware of the airlift of Australian troops to Wau, New Guinea, which helped turn back a Japanese offensive in early 1943. General Walker's January 1943 mission to Rabaul targeted a Japanese convoy prior to the one in the Bismarck Sea Battle, was the first of a series of operations that thinned out Japanese reinforcements so that they were unsuccessful against Wau, led to the Bismarck Sea Battle, and, was part of turning the tide in the Pacific. The importance of action against the first Lae convoy and accurate details of Walker's mission are hard to find in published accounts that cover events of this period.
The Lae Convoy
At Lae there was an airfield which had been the headquarters of Guinea Airways, Ltd. before the war and which had been extensively used by the Japanese navy in 1942. Obscure as it was Lae had been the world's leading airport in terms of cargo tonnage in the 1930s thanks to hauling dredges, vehicles, and other heavy equipment (often broken down and welded back together on location) as well as subsistence supplies in support of gold mining operations in New Guinea's remote mountain regions. It had also been the departure point for Amelia Earhart's last flight. At nearby Malahang was a disused pre-war landing strip cleared by Lutheran missionaries. Lae and more broadly the Lae-Salamaua-Wau area was one of the "strategic areas" which the Japanese army and navy agreed late in 1942 was needed to maintain Japan's position in New Guinea and prepare for future offensive operations. As 1943 began Lae and Salamaua were garrisoned by a weak force consisting of navy construction troops, a guard unit, and two platoons of a navy special landing party ("Japanese Marines") totaling about 1,200 men; usually 200 or so in the Salamaua-Mubo area and the rest near Lae.
Wau would be the forward defense line for Lae and Salamaua but Wau was a problem. At the center of the gold mining region, it was the base for Australian troops and native scouts that kept Lae and Salamaua under observation, occasionally clashed with Japanese patrols, and, had even raided the Japanese bases. Salamaua had an infrequently used landing strip. Wau's sloping mountainside landing strip had been the terminus of many of the prewar flights from Lae, forty air miles distant but with jungle, ridges, gorges and mountains in between. (1)
In the last days of 1942, just at the time Japanese army air units were arriving in Japan's Southeast Area, Japan's strategic view changed dramatically. Departing from an offensive philosophy the Japanese Imperial General Staff decided to evacuate Guadalcanal and Buna, go over to the defense in the Solomons, and switch to an active defense and limited offensive in New Guinea. Both the army and navy recognized that in the Southeast Area (approximating the Allied Southwest Pacific Area) effective air power was the prerequisite for successful operations on land or sea.
The Japanese practiced "cooperation" rather than unity of command in the Southeast Area. It was, however, apparent to both the army and navy that circumstances had created new strategic realities among which was a line which must be held to maintain Japan's position in the area. This was the line: Lae/Salamaua-New Britain-northern Solomon Islands. This line famously called "the Bismarck Barrier" in Samuel Eliot Morison's book title would be fought over for the next year. The first order of business for the Japanese 18th Army and its supporting air force was to secure the Lae/Salamaua end of that line. Initial elements of the 51st Division were arriving at Rabaul by the end of 1942. Originally slated to be part of the 17 th Army and go to Guadalcanal, the 51st was allocated to the 18th Army and assigned the mission of securing the Lae-Salamaua-Wau area.
To supplement intermittent supply by submarine and small transport vessels the Japanese were planning routes and coastal hideouts for Daihatsu motorized landing craft to transport troops and supplies from Rabaul to Lae. These routes had yet to be developed and their capacity would never be sufficient to sustain a large force. The decision was made to risk a convoy to transport substantial elements of the 51st Division, organized around a reinforced infantry regiment and commanded by Maj. Gen. Toru Okabe, to Lae through waters known to be constantly patrolled by enemy aircraft. Supplies and support units were also on board, including an airfield maintenance battalion. The key to success by limiting losses en route was provision of air cover for the convoy sufficient to ward off attacks by aircraft and submarines.
Given the desperate straits of the Japanese at Buna and the weakness of their garrison at Lae the idea that the Japanese might try to reinforce Lae was hardly surprising to Allied intelligence officers. At the end of 1942 and beginning of 1943 the 300,000 tons of shipping at Rabaul (fifty large and medium cargo vessels, twenty small cargo ships and seventeen naval vessels including destroyers in one sighting report) reached an all-time high. (2) This plus increased scouting activities by Japanese floatplanes in the Huon Gulf also pointed to the possibility of a convoy. Finally radio intercepts not only confirmed that reinforcement would be attempted but pointed to the date of the convoy's departure.
The recently arrived 11th Hiko Sentai (Flying Regiment, FR) of the Japanese army would have the primary responsibility for air cover. Navy bombers and fighters would attack Port Moresby to suppress Allied air power. Navy fighters would supplement the army fighters as circumstances permitted. Navy float planes or carrier bombers would fly anti-submarine patrols along the convoy route. The 11th entered 1943 with forty-nine Type 1 fighters (Ki 43) in commission. Three had been lost in combat and six had been damaged in combat or accidents and were temporarily or permanently unavailable. (3) Forty-five were operational on January 5. When the navy risked denuding the Solomons of everything except for floatplanes and a handful of landplanes it could assemble as many as forty-five medium bombers and over sixty Type Zero fighters for operations from Rabaul and Kavieng for short periods. Army Type 1 fighters (Codename Oscar) were each armed with just one 12.7mm machine cannon and one 7.7mm machine gun. Navy Zeros (Zeke) were armed with two 20mm cannon and two 7.7mm machine guns. (4)
General George C. Kenney, Allied air commander and commanding general of the U.S. Fifth Air Force, laid plans to intercept and wreck the predicted convoy. He ordered a brief stand down from bomber operations to provide for rest and maintenance of his heavy bomber force. He ordered General Walker, his bomber commander, to prepare a maximum effort to strike Rabaul shipping on the morning the convoy was to sail. A coordinated strike with B-17s and B-24s flying from Port Moresby with another force of B-24s flying from Australia totaling more than twenty bombers would be the largest force ever to hit Rabaul in daylight. In recent months the Fifth Air Force had avoided attacks on Rabaul in full daylight. Most attacks took place at night with an occasional bomber completing its attack after dawn. Kenney directed that the bombers strike in the early morning.
But things did not go as directed. Walker disagreed with Kenney about an early morning attack. That would require a night take off and also make it unlikely his bomber force would arrive over the target in a compact formation. Walker ordered an attack for midday and, as he had done before, further ignored Kenney's wishes by going on the mission himself. The B-24s flying from Iron Range, Australia never made the trip due to bad weather. A small advance force of B-17s detailed for an airfield attack preceded the main force. The main force headed toward Rabaul in a formation consisting of six B-17s of the 43rd BG and six B-24s of the 90th BG. The B-17s carried 500-lb. bombs and the B-24s one thousand pounders.
At Vunakanau southwest of Rabaul town the pilots of the 11th FR were assembled early on the 5th of January. Rain storms from the previous night had ended and clouds were slowly clearing. After paying homage to the Emperor they were briefed on their convoy cover assignments. The first shift of convoy cover would take off at noon (Tokyo time; two hours behind local time). Shortly after dawn a flight under Lt. Kyoka Yanagawa took off as a security patrol over the airfield. Yanagawa's flight had landed and a second flight was about to take off when a report of approaching planes was received. Both flights scrambled. (5) Four stand-by...