The Allies were fighting with all available strength to blunt the spearhead of the Japanese offensive in the South Pacific. Shortly after the first of 1943, American intelligence sources reported to General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters that the Japanese were planning to send a large convoy south to reinforce Lae with a full division, preparatory to an all-out offensive in New Guinea. The landing of fresh enemy troops in force on New Guinea at that time was considered very serious, in light of the spent condition of the American and Australian forces fighting on the islands.
The Allied air force was called upon to break up the convoy before it could reach its destination; every combat ready plane was to be in the operation. General Howard K. Ramey, commanding general of the V Bomber Command, coordinated with General MacArthur and General George Kenney, theater Air Force commander, on the plan of attack. General Ramey had his heavy reconnaissance planes searching the probable sea lanes that the Japanese would follow; the convoy was sighted late in January and kept under constant watch until it got within range of the heavy bombers. General Ramey frequently accompanied his crews on combat and reconnaissance missions, but during these anxious days he spent time planning the attack. The Air Force had to show the Japanese navy that their ships did not have the freedom of movement within the perimeter of Allied defenses as well prevent the landing of enemy reinforcements.
General Ramey had arrived in the South Pacific during the first days of 1943 at the special request of the theater commander. Previously he had been in the Hawaiian Islands as deputy to General Delos C. Emmons, Commander of the Hawaiian air forces. General Ramey assumed command of the V Bomber Command at a time when air reserves in the Pacific were extremely low. The limited number of men and aircraft in the combat zone had already been under constant pressure of the Japanese offensive for many months. Ramey realized the importance of morale to his fighting forces and attempted, in every way, to command his men with an understanding of the demands being made upon them. General Ramey’s display of courage on combat flights and his cool-headedness during bombing raids contributed greatly toward maintaining excellent esprit de corps among the officers and airmen of his command. In the days ahead, during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, the General’s ability as a commander was to pay rich dividends.
Howard K. Ramey was born on October 14, 1896, at Waynesboro, Mississippi. He attended Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College and enlisted as a flying cadet on December 15, 1917. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Aviation Section, Signal Corps Reserve, on April 20, 1918. During World War I Lieutenant Ramey served at several air bases in the United States as a flying instructor. After the war he entered the Photo School at Langley Field, Virginia, and until 1924 served with various observation units at Bolling Field, District of Columbia.
In January of 1925 Ramey was transferred to the Philippine Islands to command the 6th Photo Section at Camp Nichols. In 1927 he returned to Kelly Field, Texas, to become commanding officer of the 22d Photo Section. In August of 1933 he entered the Air Corps Tactical School and upon graduation in June 1934 he entered the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In June of 1936 Ramey completed the two-year course at Fort Leavenworth and was assigned as operations officer of the 1st Wing, GHQ Air Force at March Field. General Ramey was at March Field with the Fourth Air Force when the United States entered World War II.
In August of 1942 he was given command of the IV Bomber Command at San Francisco, California. Shortly thereafter he was assigned to the air defense forces on the Hawaiian Islands.
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea began to take shape by the 1st of March, 1943. General Ramey’s V Bomber Command, and the planes of nearly Air Force unit in the area, were prepared for every eventual course of action on the part of the enemy. The weather seriously handicapped reconnaissance intelligence, but of 2 March a B-24 radioed the convoy’s location. The first wave of B-17s took off immediately and bombed the convoy from an altitude of 6,500 feet with 1,000 pound bombs. Two merchant vessels were claimed sunk. Another flight of long-range bombers attacked later on the same day and constant contact with the convoy was maintained until nightfall. At dusk another wave of B-17s closed in for a strike and another ship was left sinking, in spite of increased fighter opposition.
The following day the convoy had reached a point off the Huon Peninsula, within the reach of a well-rehearsed and well-coordinated attack by ground air power. B-25s and A-20s came in on the convoy at extremely low altitude, skip-bombing or dropping their bombs in on the decks. The convoy was hit and hit again all that day. Planes were refueled, crews stopped long enough for a quick meal or just coffee and were back in the air. The careful planning, the high state of air and ground crew morale paid dividends during these critical hours. The tally of enemy loses at the end of March 3rd and by the late afternoon of March 4th, was conclusive. The convoy had been stopped cold.
The enemy had been struck a crippling blow; 3,000 of her troops had been killed and an additional 6,000 had to be salvaged from the sea. All of the transport ships that had started the trip had been sunk—a total of seven. Four destroyers and one service vessel were also sunk; every ship of the seventeen-ship convoy was hit at least one crippling blow. The Allied losses during the entire operation were extremely light. Japanese naval strategists later called this battle their greatest shock of the war. The low-level bombing technique employed had caught them off guard. From this time on Japan realized that she could not send convoys beyond the range of her own land-based planes.
The victory did much to boost the morale of the men fighting with their backs to the wall in the Pacific. General Ramey passed to his men the special commendation received from General Kenney and General MacArthur. General Ramey was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Service Cross as official recognition of his outstanding leadership during this critical period. Unfortunately General Ramey was not to remain long with his men in the islands. A few weeks after the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, on March 26, 1943, the General and his bomber crew failed to return from a reconnaissance mission over enemy territory.
On September 18, 1948, Borinquen Army Airfield in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, was formally dedicated Ramey Air Force Base in honor of Brigadier General Howard K. Ramey.