One of the Japanese invasion barges used in their abortive landing attempt at Milne Bay, now salvaged and put into use by Australian engineers.
One chapter of the Milne Bay story remains to be told: the extraordinary saga of Tsukioka Unit. No one could account for the unit, which was assumed to have landed on the north coast at Taupota and advanced to the hills north of Rabi airfield. There had even been reported sightings of the unit on its way across the Stirling Range, but they were false. When the last soldier to be evacuated left Milne Bay, Tsukioka Unit was still marooned on the south of Goodenough Island. It had arrived on 25 August to find there was no place suitable for concealing its barges. The barges were spotted and destroyed by enemy aircraft along with the unit’s radio transmitter and all its provisions.
It wasn’t until 2 September that the castaways managed to locate a canoe and send three messengers paddling towards Buna. They reached their destination a week later and collapsed, having eaten nothing but coconut milk for eight days. It was the first the navy knew of Tsukioka Unit’s fate. Two destroyers, Yayoi and Isokaze, were sent on a rescue mission, but were intercepted by B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-25 Mitchell bombers. Yayoi suffered serious damage, became stranded and sank in the late afternoon. Isokaze had evaded the bombers, returned to where Yayoi had been and found only an oily residue. No Yayoi, no survivors. Isokaze searched for both until well after nightfall, then returned to Rabaul. 20 Now there were two groups stranded in the Solomon Sea, one still unlocated.
A message was air-dropped to the men on Goodenough Island on the 10th, letting them know that rescue ships would arrive the next day. Another message on the 12th, dropped with food supplies, advised that the rescue had been postponed, but at least they knew the men had been located.
Rear-Admiral Matsuyama on Tenryu led Hamakaze next day on a search-and-rescue mission for both the Yayoi and the Tsukioka groups. These two ships could find no trace of Yayoi either, but they did find a number of Allied aircraft and returned to Rabaul, recognising there was no wisdom in conducting a search without air cover. Isokaze set out on the 22nd with Mochizuki, and they had better luck. Ten survivors were found south of New Britain in a launch from Yayoi. Learning that eighty-seven more survivors had drifted to the coast of Normanby Island, the two warships hastened there and searched into the night with searchlights and sirens. They could find no one.
Further supplies were air-dropped on Goodenough Island on the 23rd. The same day, a passing Japanese plane spotted people on Normanby Island. They were assumed to be Yayoi survivors, and when they were evacuated on the 26th that was confirmed, but there were only ten of them. No further survivors from Yayoi were ever found. Rescue from Goodenough Island was a different matter, however. The Allies, by now aware of the presence of the stranded Japanese, made daily attacks on all rescue attempts. Worse, rations were getting threateningly low and the group was stricken with a serious outbreak of malaria.
The final scenes in the drama of rescuing Tsukioka’s castaways were set on submarines. A sub arrived at the island on 3 October and landed rations, ammunition, a wireless radio and a barge. It was able, within its limited interior space, to evacuate about fifty sick men. Returning ten days later it landed medical supplies and more rations, but when a flare was dropped by an enemy plane the sub submerged and didn’t reappear. A second landing craft was left behind. On the 15th, the stranded party got a message on their newly acquired wireless that the rescue was postponed for the time being and that they should conceal their barges. Something was obviously brewing. Too much Allied interest was being shown in Goodenough Island.
Three hundred Australian troops landed on nearby Mud Bay on the night of 22 October and advanced in pouring rain towards the castaways’ camp at Kilia Mission. The camp was no band of dispirited lost souls, however. The Japanese were now fed and well-positioned on a jungle-covered knoll, expecting Allied attention and ready to repel it. An Australian patrol came under heavy sniper fire and grenade attack as its men tried to climb up the bank of a nearby creek. A mortar crew was ambushed as it made its way to Kilia and abandoned most of its ammunition in the retreat. The attackers withdrew for the night and tried again the next day, but were stopped by accurate sniper fire. They tried approaching from other directions, but either found the jungle impenetrable or were driven back by Japanese fire. Air strafing of the Japanese positions was arranged for the next morning. It did not arrive until late in the afternoon. By the time the Australians, under air cover, moved in on Kilia Mission it had been evacuated.
Tsukioka Unit had relocated to nearby Ferguson Island by barge during the night of the 24th. Two days later, they were rescued by the destroyer Tenryu. It had been two months since they made the ill-fated overnight stop at Goodenough Island, and during that time the Japanese campaign in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands had deteriorated unimaginably. As an ironic postscript to the Tsukioka Unit saga, an Allied officer expressed surprise at the end of the Milne Bay battle that the Japanese had not thought to mount an overland attack on the base’s northern flank. To him, that seemed to be the weak point in Allied defences. That thrust was exactly the role that RE Operation had mapped out for Tsukioka Unit after it landed at Taupota. But it was not to be. The initial air raid at Goodenough Island saw to that. Tsukioka Unit never made it to Taupota. On such slips can the fate of battles turn.