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Lieutenant General George Kenney: Master Operator of the South Pacific

WWII

Lieutenant General George Kenney: Master Operator of the South Pacific

The most audacious American air commander of World War II was by all odds Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney of the Fifth Air Force. Read all about him here.

The most audacious American air commander of World War II was by all odds Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney of the Fifth Air Force. Read all about him here.

by David S. Thompson

The most inventive and audacious American air commander of World War II was by all odds Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney, head of the Fifth Air Force in the Southwest Pacific. Five feet, six inches tall and anything but dashing in appearance, Kenney nevertheless possessed the military equivalent of street smarts—the ability to spot an opening and take advantage of it with lightning speed. His favorite term of approval for a subordinate who had done something special was: “He’s an operator.” Kenney himself was the best operator of all. Without him and his planes, General Douglas MacArthur’s victorious leapfrog advance up the island chains from Australia and New Guinea to the Philippines would never have gotten off the ground—literally.

Any such advance was a distant dream when Kenney arrived in Australia in August 1942. The Japanese, victorious everywhere in Southeast Asia, had already bombed Darwin and seemed poised to invade northern Australia. Japanese forces were firmly lodged at villages all along the northeast coast of neighboring New Guinea. Flying out of jungle airstrips, Japanese bombers regularly hammered Port Moresby, the single outpost on New Guinea’s southern coast still held by Australian and American forces.

To face the Japanese, Kenney had only a ragtag collection of battle-weary Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, a third of them out of commission for lack of spare parts, along with 40 operational twin-engine medium bombers and a few beaten-up squadrons of underpowered Curtis P-40 Warhawk and Bell P-39 Aircobra fighters. The Royal Australian Air Force had only a handful of twin-engine Beaufighter attack planes.

Assessing the Situation in Port Morsby

Kenney got a firsthand look at the situation on his initial inspection trip to Port Morsby. Hardly had his B-17 touched down on the main airstrip when a dozen Japanese bombers roared over, plastering the runway and flaming several parked aircraft. A squadron of P-39s took off in pursuit, but with their poor rate of climb they could not reach the enemy bombers, let alone tangle with the swift and agile Mitsubishi Zero fighters flying escort. Worse yet, Kenney learned that a column of Japanese infantry was snaking its way over the Owen Stanley Mountains, New Guinea’s rough, jungle-shrouded spine, and might descend on Port Moresby in a matter of days.

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Back at headquarters in Brisbane, Kenney told General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Force, that he had to have more and better planes to protect Port Moresby. He would need many more if he was to help MacArthur’s ground forces go on the offensive. Arnold was hardly encouraging. The global strategy hammered out by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill called for defeating Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich first, with the war against Japan a distant second. Arnold had been forced to send most of his available pilots and planes across the Atlantic to the European Theater.

Nevertheless, Arnold did the best he could, and soon a few aircraft were making their way westward across the Pacific. By late 1942, Kenney had enough fresh B-17s to form a new squadron, the 63rd. Along with them came a couple of squadrons of B-24s, plus an assortment of new American Mitchell B-25 mediums, Douglas A-20 twin-engine attack bombers, and P-38 Lockheed Lightnings. Heavier and less agile than the Zero, the sleek, twin-engine, twin-tailed fighters were faster than the Japanese planes, could outclimb and outdive them, and packed a ferocious wallop—four .50-caliber machine guns plus a 20mm cannon were housed in the nose cone in front of the bubble cockpit. One short burst of fire could disintegrate a lightly armored Zero.

Repurposing Operations

Eventually, with new planes filtering in, Kenney and his second in command, Brig. Gen. Ennis Whitehead, immediately began giving air support to the Australian troops. In late September 1942, the combined forces managed to halt the Japanese thrust over the Owen Stanleys toward Port Moresby. Kenney also worked feverishly to support Australian and American infantry attacking Buna on Papua’s northeastern coast, which they captured after prolonged jungle fighting in January 1943.

Kenney and Whitehead concentrated on exactly how to deal with the Japanese Air Force and with the ships hauling supplies and reinforcements to the enemy’s New Guinea strong points. Kenney concluded that high-altitude raids by big planes like his B-17s would not get the job done. Japanese ships were too small and elusive to be hit from 10,000 feet, and Japanese airfields were too well hidden. The answer was low-level attacks by planes modified precisely for that purpose.

To do the modifying, Kenney turned to Major Paul I. Gunn, an inventive 42-year-old engineer known as “Pappy” to his fuzzy-cheeked mechanics at the Fifth Air Force’s busy repair depot at Townsville. Gunn, whom Kenney called “a super experimental gadgeteer and all-around fixer,” began by installing four .50-caliber machine guns in the noses of a squadron of A-20s, turning them into lethal strafers. He then modified every B-25 he could get his hands on. Ripping the plexiglass from the bombardier’s perch in the nose, Gunn installed four .50-caliber machine guns and added four more in pods on the sides of the fuselage, for a total of eight heavy machine guns firing forward. He then hung extra .50s from the noses of some B-17s, turning the big planes into potential strafers. Kenney began training his pilots in a totally unorthodox bombing method, flying over the water at 150 feet and releasing 500-pound bombs so that they would skip along the water’s surface and explode against the hulls of enemy ships like torpedoes.

Battle of the Bismarck Sea

The first payoff for Pappy Gunn’s hammering and welding came on March 3, 1943, in the spectacular Battle of the Bismarck Sea. Late in February, Kenney had received word from U.S. Navy intelligence that a large convoy carrying the entire Japanese 51st Division, plus antiaircraft, artillery, and engineer units, was about to leave Rabaul for Lae, New Guinea. Rabaul, on the northern tip of the neighboring island of New Britain, had become a huge and bustling Japanese supply base. Lae and the nearby village of Salamaua were the next scheduled targets after Buna in MacArthur’s plan to reconquer New Guinea. The convoy had to be stopped.

Scout planes returned with news that eight transports and a number of escorting destroyers had set sail from Rabaul and were starting down the west coast of New Britain.

The convoy was found steaming southwest on March 1 by a patrolling B-24, then again the next morning when another B-24 broke through clouds and spotted 14 ships and radioed their position to Whitehead at Port  Moresby. The Japanese were 50 miles north of New Britain’s Cape Gloucester in the Bismarck Sea and headed for the Vitiaz Strait between New Britain and New Guinea.

The Big Brawl

Kenney and Whitehead pounced, quickly dispatching seven B-17s on the 350-mile flight to the scene. These and 20 more planes straddled the convoy with 500- and 1,000-pound bombs, claiming several hits and blowing up one transport, Kyokusei Maru. The “big brawl,” as Kenney called it, began the next morning when the enemy ships were 50 miles southeast of Finschhafen. This put them within range of Kenney’s B-25 “commerce destroyers” at Port Moresby and other strafers coming from airbases at Milne Bay on Papua’s eastern tip. Thirteen Beaufighters of the Royal Australian Air Force, diving to almost mast height, raked the bridges and decks of the transports with 20mm cannons and .303-caliber machine guns. Next came a dozen B-17s, bombing from medium altitude while fighting off 20 to 30 intercepting Japanese fighters with the help of the hot pilots of the 39th Fighter Squadron in their P-38s, who shot down 10 enemy planes.

A dozen of the 90th Squadron’s Pappy Gunn specials roared in. Skimming the water as low as 20 feet, they chewed up what was left of the Japanese gun crews with their .50-calibers while skip-bombing 500-pounders. The effect was devastating. Bombs dropped by squadron leader Major Ed Larner knocked one destroyer, Shirayuki, on her side and detonated her magazines, then blew the entire stern section off a transport. Lieutenant Charles Howe hit a transport amidships, causing an explosion that nearly cut the ship in two. Captain Robert Chatt in his B-25 released all four of his 500-pounders on a destroyer, scoring two hits in the bow and blowing away the bridge and most of the rest of the superstructure. Other pilots were just as busy, crippling another destroyer and blasting every transport in sight. By the time the 90th pilots turned south for Port Moresby, all seven of the remaining Japanese transports had been hit and were either sinking or floundering in the water. Fifth Air Force losses were astonishingly light: one B-24, one B-17, and three P-38s.

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