What Is At The Bottom of Empress Augusta Bay

by John Douglas

Empress Augusta Bay is on the west coast of Bougainville Island, in the country of Papua New Guinea. In 1943, Bougainville was occupied by Imperial Japanese Forces; engaged in desperate war with the allied Forces of America, Australia and New Zealand; a minor battle front of the second world war.

The Allies were on the offensive, and aimed to put increased pressure on the strong Japanese base of Rabaul.  They needed a closer airbase to Rabaul than Munda, Ondonga or Guadalcanal; all located in the central Solomon Islands, or Dobudura on mainland New Guinea. The strategic planners on Guadalcanal decided to make a seaborne landing in Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville which would place the Allies about 250 miles from Rabaul.  This location would allow the bombers to carry increased loads of munitions, use less fuel, and increase safety factors compared to operating from the more remote strips back towards Guadalcanal.

The occupation of Empress Augusta Bay was to be only sufficient in captured land to allow for the establishment of a good airfield complex (eventually 3 strips were built) and as the area was defended this would not be an uncontested invasion. Foot patrols of Coast Watchers and US Navy Marines were set ashore to reconnoiter the target area, inserted and removed by submarine.  Several locations were examined and finally Empress Augusta Bay was chosen – almost by default – as offering less disadvantages than other possible sites on Bougainville.

Click For EnlargementOn November 11th 1943 the Third Marines Division landed, at Torokina on Empress Augusta Bay along with supporting forces.  After a day of fierce fighting the immediate area was secured and then gradually expanded over the next few weeks; to provide adequate land and a defensive buffer zone for the needed airbase.

Two reasons for the selection of Empress Augusta Bay included the existence of a sheltered harbour, desirable for the safe anchorage of ships; and the relative absence of Japanese land forces in the vicinity.  On the other hand, the topography was not immediately suitable for an airbase, the anchorage was perhaps a little exposed; but hey, there’s a war to fight guys.  And so; in they went. 

The battle was not easy and 3 Medals of Honor were won the first day ashore.  Gradually the Marines prevailed, and the fighting temporarily died down.  The marines moved out from Torokina as the battle settle down and Regular Army Forces, including, Negro infantry were introduced – this as their first battle in the Pacific. – all hell broke loose.  The Japanese had, by now, gathered troops from all over Bougainville and delivered a series of attacks that resulted in over 5000 dead Japanese soldiers in a month long campaign in desperate effort to eject the invaders.  The Allies which included Fijians, American ground forces and American Army, Navy, Marine and New Zealand Air Forces were there in force and determined to hold their ground. 

Torokina (and Empress Augusta Bay) experienced two phases in its war, the invasion, and then the airbase development and utilization.

The Invasion
Click For EnlargementThe invasion, which began on November 1 1943, was delivered by LCVPs and LCIs, launched from motherships offshore. The limited defense that the Japanese could provide immediately included a 75mm gun for coastal defense located on Torokina Point.  This sole gun sank 4 land craft before it was destroyed (1 Medal of Honour).  The surf proved very rough and a further 84 landing craft (62LCVPs and 22LCIs) were broached in the landing.  Most of these craft still remain in the surfline and shallow waters offshore.  Later air raids by Japanese bombers sank a further 4LCVPs in December.  Several Japanese planes launched in a reaction to the invasion were lost in combat, flying down from Rabaul.  The combat loss records are from a diversity of sources, both countries and military branches and vary considerably in accuracy.  Planes from the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the US Marines Air Wing and the 13th USA Air Force claimed 26 victories for 4 losses on day 1.  Air Raids continued for several months afterwards by Japanese forces and up to 100 Japanese planes eventually were claimed to be shot down, some in the sea, some onto land near the base.

The night of the 1st/2nd November witnessed a Naval battle, some 45 nautical miles North West of Empress Augusta Bay, and saw one Japanese cruiser (Sandai) and one destroyer Hatsukaze sank.  Later, one American destroyer was sunk to the SE of the Bay (Teate) 22nd Miles offshore.  There were further Naval and Aerial battles with significant losses as well in the general vicinity of Empress Augusta Bay, but they are outside the scope of this story. By the time that the battle for Torokina and for Empress Augusta Bay was over; there were perhaps 50 LCVP and LCIs at the bottom of Empress Augusta Bay and up to 10 allied and over 50 Japanese aircraft on the bottom of the Bay as well.

Development & Utilization
The second phase of the war in Empress Augusta Bay saw the ultization by allied forces of the airstrips at Torokina for bombing and staffing Japanese Forces at Rabaul and New Ireland, and tactical reconnaissance missions throughout all of the Japanese occupied territories, and finally with local defense, and attacks against Japanese forces throughout Bougainville, which continued until the war ended in August 1945.

The active Air Forces based at Torokina from December 1943 were initially American, Army Navy, and Marine; followed subsequently by the New Zealanders and eventually in 1945 by Australian Air Forces(Boomerangs, Wirraways and Beaufighters).  The Kiwis had Corsairs, P40s, SBDs, Avengers, and Hudsons, while the American used Wildcats Corsairs, Mitchells and P39s.  Torokina was an active airbase from December 1943 to August 1945 – nearly two years.

In February 1944 the Japanese Air Force withdrew to Truk and beyond, and practically no aerial combat was offered to the allied fliers from this date on.  Japanese Anti Aircraft guns remained an effective deterrent however, at their various buses until the end of the war.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force lost over 100 aircraft (mostly Corsairs) in and around the Torokina airstrip due to combat damage, mechanical failures, fuel exhaustion etc.  Over half of these losses went into Empress Augusta Bay, as a preferred ditching location.  The American losses are not known in detail, but would be similar, while the Australian Air Force lost perhaps 10 A/C over Empress Augusta Bay. This phase of the war (18 months) saw perhaps a further 50-60 Allied Aircraft ditch into Empress Augusta Bay.

In late 1943 American Seabees built two large bomber airstrips inland from the coast Piva (Uncle and Yoke) and concluded the development of the fighter strip on the coast at Torokina Point. The fightining continued until the end of the war in August 1945 (18 months later) with Australia ground troops and Australian and New Zealand aerial support.

What remains today?
The three airstrips (Piva Yoke, Uncle and Torokina) are still visible from the air.  Torokina Point is now a Catholic Mission, School and Aid Post.  Recently, media reports surfaced of a local businessman who had recovered over a hundred tones of war surplus material from the Torokina area and shipped it all to Rabaul for sale and export.

When the was finished in the late 1945, the Torokina airbase was used for a while as a Japanese POW compound.  Afterwards the Catholic Mission obtained a scrapping licence from the government of the day and recovered a good deal of aluminum from wrecked aircraft in and around Torokina.  The villagers also removed what they could use, the civil war on Bougainville in the 1990s saw insurgents seeking out machine guns and ammunition from plane wrecks – throughout Bougainville; - and then the activities of the scrapper in 2001 scooped up a further amount of ferrous and non ferrous material.

To my knowledge no-one has ever dived into Empress Augusta Bay, to see what remains of 50 landing craft and over 100 aircraft.  This must be an undiscovered, unexploited, diver’s paradise, and one day I will visit the bay and dive it. The attractiveness of the local coral reefs is unrecorded, as is the clarity of the water and the welcoming of the local villagers.

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