In mid-1942, the Japanese made two attempts to take Port Moresby, a key Australian base in southeast New Guinea. These efforts were part of a plan to isolate Australia lest it be used for Counteroffensives against them. Port Moresby was an inviting target, for it stood guard over Australia’s vital Melbourne-Brisbane coastal belt, the Commonwealth’s most thickly populated and most highly industrialized area. The first attempt was turned back by the U.S. Pacific Fleet at the Battle of the Coral Sea; the second resulted in the Papuan Campaign, one of the longest and most bitterly fought campaigns of the Pacific War. The fight ostensibly was for Port Moresby, but it was Australia, no less than Port Moresby, which was in danger.
Since late 1939 when they first began sending troops to the Middle East, the Australians had relied upon the British forces in Malaya, the base at Singapore, and the British Eastern Fleet to hold the Japanese enemy from their shores should he attack. They had sent troops, ships, and planes to Malaya before the Japanese struck; and, in mid-January 1942, with the Japanese moving forward rapidly in Burma, Malaya, and the Netherlands Indies, and the bulk of General Douglas MacArthur’s command in the Philippines already cut off on Bataan, their government had joined with other Allied governments in the Far East in the establishment of the American, British, Dutch, Australian Command (ABDACOM). General Sir Archibald P. Wavell of the British Army, and then Commander-in-chief, India, was put in supreme command. Named as his deputy was Lieutenant General George H. Brett, at the time Commanding General, United States Army Forces in Australia (USAFIA). USAFIA, a small hastily improvised service command a few weeks old, was engaged, on the one hand, in largely barren attempts to get supplies through to the Philippines by blockade runner and, on the other, in providing for the supply of American air units striking at the enemy from Darwin and advance bases in the Netherlands Indies.
General Wavell was given as his principal mission the task of holding the Malay Barrier, a defensive line which included the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, and Timor and extended eastward from Timor to the coastal waters of northwestern Australia. Australia (specifically excluded from the ABDA Area at the time) was to be used as “an essential supporting position.”
As the Allied plan of operations called for the build-up at top speed in Australia of a strong U.S. air force to strike at the enemy from forward bases in Java, USAFIA became in effect a supply echelon of ABDACOM, charged primarily with the logistical support of U.S. air operations in Java. United States aircraft and supplies would be rushed to Australia by way of the newly opened South Pacific ferry route whose island bases—Hawaii, Christmas Island, Canton Island, Samoa, Fiji, and New Caledonia—formed steppingstones all the way from the west coast of the United States to the east coast of Australia. Upon arrival the planes and matériel would be assigned to General Wavell for defense of the Barrier.
The Australians were left to defend the island continent’s eastern and northeastern approaches as best they could using their own resources, the assumption at the time being that Australia was safe as long as the Barrier held.
The trouble was that Australia was, if anything, even more exposed from the northeast than from the northwest. What was more, it had heavy obligations there, being responsible for the defense of territories in New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands. Its two territories in New Guinea—Papua, a territory of the Commonwealth, and North East New Guinea, a part of its New Guinea Mandate—together made up the eastern half of that immense island, the rest being controlled by the Dutch. Its mandated territory also included New Britain and New Ireland in the Bismarck Archipelago and Buka and Bougainville in the northern Solomons. It was, in addition, responsible for the defense of the British, or southern, Solomons, the whole New Guinea-Bismarcks-Solomons defense zone being known as the Northeast Area.
[NOTE: Msg, CG AAF to Gen Brett, No. 59, 2 Jan 42, copy in AG 381 (1-1-42) Misc, DRB HRS, AGO; Msg, Gen Brett to Gen George C. Marshall, No. CR 0139, CM-IN 30, 23 Jan 42; Maj Gen Julian F. Barnes, Rpt of Orgn and Activities USAFIA, copy in OCMH files. The command had been established on 22 December as the United States Forces in Australia (USFIA) upon the arrival at Brisbane of the Pensacola convoy, a 4,600-man movement of air corps and field artillery troops originally destined for Manila and diverted to Australia upon the outbreak of hostilities with Japan. General Brett, a noted air corps officer, and then a Major General, reached Australia by air from Chungking on 31 December and took command, becoming commander of United States Army Forces in Australia (USAFIA) when USFIA took that name on 5 January. For a full account of the contemporary operations of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), General MacArthur’s command in the Philippines, and of the blockade-running activity, see Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines, UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II (Washington, 1953).]
The means available to the Australians for the defense of this vast area and of Australia itself were very limited. By late 1941 Australia, a country of only a little over seven million people, had already been at war for more than two years. Loyally joining the mother country in the fight against the European Axis, the Australians had dispersed their land, sea, and air strength around the world. When the Japanese struck, nine squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) were serving with the British in the United Kingdom, the Middle East, and Malaya. Some 8,800 Australians were with the Royal Air Force (RAF). Major units of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), which then consisted principally of two heavy and three light cruisers, had just reached home waters after months of service with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.
Australia’s only trained and equipped troops, four divisions of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), the overseas volunteer force, were nearly all abroad. The 8th Australian Infantry Division, less one brigade, was in Malaya. The remaining three divisions, the 6th, 7th, and 9th, were in the Middle East. By agreement with Mr. Winston S. Churchill, the British Prime Minister, the 6th and 7th Divisions’ six brigades, with corps and service troops, had been ordered to Malaya on 8 December, but their leading elements were not due to arrive there until early March. Two of the remaining three battalions of the 8th Division had been sent to the Netherlands Indies to reinforce the Dutch garrisons at Amboina and Timor. The last battalion was at Rabaul in New Britain, the main Australian base in the Bismarck Archipelago, and a few hundred troops, part of an independent (Commando) company, were scattered through the islands north and south of Rabaul. The defense of the mainland and of its main outpost in New Guinea, Port Moresby, was left to the militia.
Australia’s home defenses were in a desperate state. Most of the 165 combat aircraft which it had in the Pacific when the Japanese struck were in Malaya. The total bombing force available for Australia’s defense consisted of twenty-nine Hudson medium bombers and fourteen Catalina flying boats, forty-three aircraft in all. Inasmuch as Australia’s only fighter-type planes, obsolete Brewster Buffaloes, were in Malaya, RAAF units defending the homeland had no choice but to employ in lieu of fighter planes the Australian-built Wirraway, a type of advance trainer virtually useless in aerial combat.
The ground forces were not much better off. Except for training cadres and an Australian Imperial Forces armored division without tanks, there were virtually no trained soldiers left in Australia. The bulk of those at hand were militia troops who would need months of training before they would be ready for combat.
The Australian home defense organization, the Australian Military Forces (AMF) had two components: the Permanent Forces or regular army (28,000 men in September 1939), and the Citizen Military Forces (CMF), the conscripted home defense force then liable for service only in Australia and Papua. The AMF was poorly armed. It was deficient in field equipment and, until February 1942, when the full mobilization of the CMF was finally completed, did not have even its minimum quota of small arms. It was organized into seven militia divisions, but these were at best only training units, which had just begun to train their personnel on a full-time basis.
It had been planned to keep the militia force at a constant strength of 250,000 men, but during 1941 only half that number had been in the training camps at any one time. The basis of call, three months in camp and three months at home, had insured that Australia’s overtaxed war industry would not be robbed of men it could ill afford to lose, but it had not done much to further the training of the troops, most of whom were scarcely beyond the recruit stage when full-time training began.
An organized reserve of about 50,000 men, the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC), was also available for defense of the mainland. Made up principally of veterans of World War I, who served in their home districts on a part-time basis without pay, the VDC at the outset had to use whatever weapons were at hand, including in some cases shotguns and antiquated fowling pieces.
The Australian Chiefs of Staff, the staff officers charged with the security of Australia, were faced with the problem of how best to use their inadequate forces in its defense. To begin with, they had to decide whether to make the principal defense effort in Australia or on its periphery, in the Northeast Area.
After pondering the situation, the Chiefs of Staff came to the conclusion that, with untrained, ill-equipped troops, a critical lack of aircraft, and insufficient naval forces, an effective defense of the forward bases to the northeast, especially the base at Rabaul, was out of the question. Additional troops committed to their reinforcement would probably be lost, and the only result would be to reduce by that much the forces available for the final defense of the mainland. On 15 December 1941 they therefore recommended to the Australian war cabinet that the existing garrison at Rabaul, and lesser garrisons in its vicinity, be neither withdrawn nor increased, but that the garrison at Port Moresby (which in their opinion had some chance of survival because of its more favorable geographical position) be increased from a battalion to a brigade group, the largest force that could be maintained there out of Australia’s slender resources.
The rest of Australia’s available manpower and resources would be concentrated on the mainland, the assumption being that as matters stood there was no choice but to make the fight for Australia in Australia itself.
The war cabinet accepted these recommendations, and the available troops were deployed accordingly. Because of Australia’s vast area, its 12,000-mile coast line, and the slowness and general inadequacy at the time of its road and rail communications, a relatively static local defense of the country’s most vital areas was adopted. Provision was made, however, for a mobile reserve in each military district or command in order to give the defense as much flexibility as possible. The main concentration of forces was in the Brisbane—Newcastle—Sydney-Melbourne area, the industrial and agricultural heart of Australia. Smaller forces were deployed in South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania, and independent garrisons were established at Darwin, Townsville, Cairns, and Thursday Island. A reinforced battalion was sent to Port Moresby, and the garrisons at Rabaul and in the rest of the Northeast Area were left to fend for themselves.
The situation to the northeast was exceedingly grave. Except for Port Moresby, the Northeast Area was held by only token forces, and even Port Moresby was in no position to defend itself successfully. Its strength, with the arrival of the promised reinforcements in January, was 3,000 men, but the troops were only partially trained, and their support—a 6-inch coastal battery, a 3.7-inch antiaircraft battery, a few antitank guns, and a handful of Catalinas and Hudsons—was scarcely such as to give any confidence that the place could be held against a full-scale Japanese attack.
To the northwest of Port Moresby, high in the mountains of North East New Guinea, there was another, much smaller, force. It consisted of a single platoon of the 1st Australian Independent Company, AIF, and a few hundred men of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), a local militia recruited in Papua and territories of the Mandate. This force held the 3,000-foot-high Bulolo Valley, an area famous in prewar days for its gold mining activity.
The valley, which boasted a small mountain airfield at Wau, was most strategically situated. Airplanes based at Wau were within easy flying distance of the great bight known as the Huon Gulf, and a series of native trails connected the valley with Lae and Salamaua, the two most important points on the gulf. Too weak even to attempt to hold Lae and Salamaua, the NGVR and AIF troops based themselves principally in the valley intending, when the Japanese came, to harass them from there and, later on when greater strength was available, to drive them out.
Rabaul, a fine seaport at the northeast tip of New Britain, had two good airfields and a small coastal fort. Its 1,400-man garrison consisted of the 2/22 Infantry Battalion, AIF, a 100-man formation of the NGVR, a small detachment of the RAAF, and a few officers of the RAN. In support were two discarded 6-inch naval guns, two 3-inch antiaircraft guns, seven Wirraways, and a few Hudsons.
[NOTE: The prefix “2/” in front of the 22 in 2/22 Battalion indicates that this was the second time that the 22d Battalion was constituted an AIF unit.]
The rest of the Northeast Area was held by the 1st Australian Independent Company, AIF (less the platoon in the Bulolo Valley), a force of about three hundred men. Detachments of the company were stationed at Lorengau in the Admiralties, at Kavieng in New Ireland, and at Buka and Tanambogo in the Solomons where there were also a few RAAF Catalinas and some RAAF personnel. In addition, a part of the company’s strength was to be found at Vila, in the New Hebrides.
Also stationed at strategic points in the Northeast Area was a small band of picked observers known as the Coast Watchers. Usually long-time residents of the area which they were to keep under surveillance, they had the duty of remaining behind when the Japanese came and reporting on their movements by radio. The Coast Watchers, who had long prepared themselves for the task, did not have long to wait.
The Fall of Rabaul
By the end of December, the Japanese had thoroughly reconnoitered the Bismarck Archipelago and the Lae—Salamaua area. Beginning on 4 January, four-engine flying boats and carrier aircraft bombed Rabaul repeatedly, forcing the Hudsons to withdraw to Australia. On 20 January all the Wirraways were shot down in a raid by one hundred carrier planes. A day later carrier-based dive bombers literally blasted both coastal guns out of the ground. The stage was set for the conquest of Rabaul.
The Japanese force chosen to take Rabaul was the same force that had taken Guam. It was to be the main force also in the Japanese attempt to take Port Moresby. Known as the South Seas Detachment, or Nankai Shitai, it had been detached on 8 December 1941 from the year-old 55th Infantry Division, then stationed on the island of Shikoku, Japan. The detachment was roughly five thousand strong. It consisted of the 144th Infantry Regiment and supporting divisional troops and was under the command of Major General Tomitaro Horii, an experienced general officer who had previously been in command of the 55th Division Infantry Group, from whose headquarters his staff had been drawn.
On 4 January 1942, Imperial General Headquarters ordered General Horii, then still stationed at Guam, to proceed as soon as possible with the capture of Rabaul. The commander in chief of the 4th Fleet, Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inouye, was ordered to support General Horii in the Rabaul operation and, simultaneously with the capture of Rabaul, to use his naval troops to take Kavieng. On 8 January (after having in the meantime flown to Truk and concluded an agreement with Admiral Inouye as to the fleet’s part in the operation), General Horii issued orders for the capture of Rabaul. D Day was to be 23 January, and the landings were to begin at approximately 0100.
The South Seas Detachment left Guam for Rabaul on 16 January. The transports were escorted by units of the 4th Fleet, and by the two fast carriers, Kaga and Akagi, detached for the operation from Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s Special Striking Force, the same carrier force that had attacked Pearl Harbor. The convoy was joined off Truk by the naval task force which was to take Kavieng, and the combined force headed from Truk directly for the Bismarcks.
The naval landing forces detailed to take Kavieng and points in its immediate vicinity met with no opposition. The small Kavieng garrison, which sought at the last moment to escape in a schooner, was captured intact when the vessel came under the guns of a Japanese destroyer.
The main body of the invasion convoy arrived off Rabaul on the night of 22-23 January and, a few minutes after midnight, began landing at Karavia and Simpson Harbor. Landings at Raluana Point and Vulcan Island followed. The Australians, who had only mortars, machine guns, and rifles, resisted stoutly from prepared positions and, though almost completely surrounded, continued to fight through the night and early morning: By 1000 the situation was seen to be hopeless, and the order was given to withdraw. Some of the Australian troops held their positions and fought to the death; the rest took to the hills with Japanese patrols in pursuit. Many of the fleeing Australians were caught and massacred, but four hundred of them managed to elude the Japanese and, after a harrowing march that tested their every ounce of endurance, reached the south and north coasts of New Britain more dead than alive. There other Australians, who had reached the scene from New Guinea, searched them out and took them to safety in small boats.
With the fall of Rabaul, the forward defense of the Northeast Area crumbled. All that was left of it was the garrison at Port Moresby, the troops in the Bulolo Valley, and a handful of commandos in the Admiralties and the Solomons who were prepared to leave or “go bush” at a moment’s notice.
The damage had been done. The Japanese were now in position to move at abound into North East New Guinea and the Solomons. Port Moresby and the Allied communications line to Australia, three of whose main bases—New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa—were within striking distance of the southern Solomons, were in danger.
The Collapse of the ABDA Area
The Combined Chiefs of Staff, aware by this time of Australia’s perilous position, began making the best provision they could to strengthen its defenses. On 24 January at the request of the Australian Prime Minister, Mr. John Curtin, they ordered that Darwin and its environs be incorporated in the ABDA Area; five days later they took their first measures in defense of Port Moresby and Australia’s vital east coast.
To meet Mr. Curtin’s insistent demand for fighter planes for Port Moresby, the Combined Chiefs gave General Wavell the alternatives of either providing the place with fighter aircraft or taking over its defense himself. Then, in a measure designed to throw a protecting naval cordon around Port Moresby and the east coast, they established the ANZAC Area, a new strategic command covering principally the ocean areas to the east and northeast of Australia, in which a combined Australian-American force, ANZAC Force, was to operate with the support of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. ANZAC Force—the Australian cruisers Australia, Canberra, and Hobart, the U.S. cruiser Chicago, four destroyers, and a few corvettes—under command of Vice Admiral Herbert F. Leary, USN, was in operation by 7 February. To assist him in the discharge of his mission, Admiral Leary was assigned a squadron of B-17’s from Hawaii. The bombers reached Townsville, Australia, on 17-18 February and several days later bombed Rabaul, the first U.S. bombers to do so.
But if Port Moresby now had a modicum of protection from the sea, its garrison continued as before without fighter planes. The direction from the Combined Chiefs to the contrary, General Wavell was able neither to provide it with aircraft nor to take over its defense. Indeed, so badly had things gone in Wavell’s area that he soon found himself unable to hold the Barrier with the means at hand.
The strong U.S. Army Air Force which was to have retrieved the tactical situation on the Barrier failed to reach Java in time. Of some 260 fighter planes allotted to the project, only thirty-six actually reached Java. While forty-nine heavy bombers got there, a portion arrived too late to affect the issue, and the rest, because of a critical lack of fighter protection, antiaircraft, and maintenance personnel, were soon reduced to a state approaching impotence. By the third week in February the ABDA Air Force (which had never been able to put more than fifteen heavy bombers in the air at any one time) had, in all, ten heavy bombers, seven dive bombers, and thirteen fighter planes in operative condition.
Malaya, against which the Japanese marshaled their strongest force, was the first to go. On 15 February the Malay Campaign came to an end with the surrender of Singapore. More than 64,000 troops (15,375 of them Australians), their guns, transport, and equipment were surrendered that day to the Japanese, in what Mr. Churchill has called “the worst disaster and greatest capitulation of British History.”
The Japanese by this time had invaded Borneo and the Celebes, taken Amboina, and landed in Sumatra. Now they could concentrate on the reduction of the Indies. On 19 February they bombed Darwin into rubble, and the next day began landing on Timor, Darwin’s closest neighbor in the Indies. Opposition on the island was quickly overcome, except for an Australian independent company in the hills of Portuguese Timor, most of whose men were out of reach of the Japanese when the landings began. Swollen by fugitives from the fighting elsewhere on the island, the company was to operate guerrilla-fashion from the hills for more than a year thereafter, scourging the Japanese garrison with hit-and-run raids, but scarcely threatening its control of the island. [NOTE 1]
The Barrier was now completely breached. With no further reason for being, ABDACOM was dissolved on 25 February. General Wavell returned at once to India, and General Brett to Australia, where each resumed his former command.[NOTE 2] The defense of Java fell to the Dutch, who, disregarding the odds, chose to fight on, though the struggle by this time was clearly hopeless and the early fall of the island was a foregone conclusion.
With the Japanese about to overrun the Indies, northwest Australia, and especially the Darwin area, lay open to invasion. But whether the Japanese would find it profitable to stage an invasion there was another matter. The area, mostly desert and very sparsely settled, possessed only the most tenuous of communications and, by the only available road, was more than a thousand miles from Australia’s developed and inhabited areas on the other side of the continent. Even though the Japanese could, if they wished, take Darwin, it was clear that they would have to think long and carefully before they undertook operations in Australia’s parched and inhospitable Northern Territory.
[NOTE 1: Memo, Australian Dept of External Affairs for the Minister, 30 Aug 42, sub: Summary Report on Portuguese Timor during the period December 1941 to June 1942, by Mr. David Ross, Australian Consul at Dili, who arrived in Darwin from Timor on 10 July 1942, copy in G-3 Jnl, GHQ SWPA; Buggy, Pacific Victory, pp. 51-59.]
[NOTE 2: Msg, Gen Marshall to Gen MacArthur, No. 1083, 24 Feb 42; Msg, Gen Wavell to Gen MacArthur, No. 1088, 25 Feb 42. Both in AG 381, Sec 2c. Despatch Supreme Commander ABDA Area (London, 1948), p. 16; Gen Barnes, Rpt of Orgn and Activities, USAFIA. Upon General Brett’s resumption of command, General Barnes, who since 25 January had served as Commanding General, USAFIA, became Deputy Commander. Colonel Stephen J. Chamberlin, who had served as chief of staff under Barnes since the latter’s assumption of command, continued as chief of staff under General Bret. Barnes, who had reached Australia on 22 December in the Pensacola convoy as a Brigadier General, had also served briefly as commanding general of the predecessor command, USFIA. Colonel Chamberlin, who had reached Australia by air on 9 January directly from Washington, had for a time been its G-4.]
The Occupation of Lae and Salamaua
Things had gone well for the enemy. He had thus far triumphed everywhere and was now ready for his first move onto the New Guinea mainland. On 2 February Imperial General Headquarters ordered the 4th Fleet and the South Seas Detachment to take Lae and Salamaua, and at the proper time Port Moresby. Tulagi in the southern Solomons was also to be occupied, on a date as yet unspecified, in order, as the instructions put it, “to bring further pressure on Australia.”
On 16 February, after some preliminary discussions, General Horii and Admiral Inouye concluded an agreement for joint operations against Lae and Salamaua, under the terms of which Navy troops were to take Lae and Army troops Salamaua. The landings were to be made before the end of the month, and the Navy was to supply the permanent garrison for both points when their seizure had been completed.
The landings were delayed. The U.S. aircraft carrier Lexington and a protecting force of four heavy cruisers and ten destroyers had moved into the area on 20 February with orders to break up the gathering Japanese concentrations at Rabaul in concert with the ANZAC B-17’s at Townsville. Japanese reconnaissance detected the Lexington force while it was still some 350 miles from Rabaul. After a running fight which cost the Japanese eighteen bombers, the carrier force ran short of oil and withdrew. The clash with the Lexington force upset the Japanese timetable for the Lae-Salamaua operation, which, as a result, was postponed to 8 March.
The forces chosen to make the landings were the 2d Battalion, 144th Infantry, a unit of the South Seas Detachment which was to take Salamaua, a battalion of the Maizuru 2d Special Naval Landing Force accompanied by a naval construction unit of 400 men, and a naval base unit about 1,500 strong which with the Maizuru troops was to constitute the garrison force. The 144th Infantry troops would return to Rabaul as soon as the area was secured.
[NOTE: South Seas Det Opns, pp. 10, 11; 1st Demob Bur, G-2 Hist Sec, GHQ FEC, Naval Account, Japanese Invasion Eastern New Guinea, Japanese Studies in World War II, No. 100, pp. 5-9; 1st Demob Bur, G-2 Hist Sec, GHQ FEC, 18th Army Opns, I, Japanese Studies in World War II, No. 41, p. 4; AMF, Interr of Lt Gen Hatazo Adachi, formerly CG 18th Army, and members of his staff, by O/C 5th Mil Hist Fld Team, AMF, Rabaul. All in OCMH files. ALF, History of the Lae-Salamaua Garrison (Japanese), 1 Apr 44, copy in DRB HRS, AGO.]
The landings were preceded by heavy air attacks on Lae, Salamaua, Wau, Bulolo, and Port Moresby, beginning 2 March. The invasion convoy of three cruisers, eight destroyers, a seaplane tender, and several transports and cargo ships left Rabaul on the night of 5 March and made for New Guinea along the south coast of New Britain. Its progress was uncontested, and the convoy reached the Huon Gulf shortly before midnight, 7 March. At 0100, 8 March, the 2d Battalion, 144th Infantry, made an unopposed night landing at Salamaua, and completed the occupation within the hour. At 0230 the Maizuru troops occupied Lae, eighteen miles to the north. They too met no opposition, for the NGVR, after putting both Lae and Salamaua to the torch, withdrew its few troops to the Bulolo Valley, leaving only light patrols behind.
On 9 March, the day that the Java garrison finally surrendered, a flight of ANZAC B-17’s from Townsville tried to prevent the Japanese from consolidating their newly won positions on the Huon Gulf. The attack was unsuccessful, but the enemy landing forces were not to go unscathed.
After the abortive attempt of the Lexington to raid Rabaul in late February, a larger carrier force, comprising the Lexington and Yorktown, supported by eight heavy cruisers and fourteen destroyers, including cruisers and destroyers from ANZAC Force, was assembled in early March to complete the mission. The Japanese landings, which the carrier forces might have prevented had they struck earlier, caused an immediate change in plan. On 10 March 104 carrier planes took off from the Lexington and the Yorktown, which were then in the Gulf of Papua, flew through a pass in the Owen Stanley Mountains, and struck at enemy concentrations on the Huon Gulf.
The bombing was effective, and eight ANZAC B-17’s and six RAAF Hudsons attacked when the carrier strike was over and finished the job. In addition to sinking three ships and damaging four, the Allied planes killed 130 Japanese troops and wounded 245. The ANZAC B-17’s attacked again the next day and did heavy damage to buildings, runways, and piers at both Lae and Salamaua.
Though the Allied air attacks of 10 and 11 March were unusually successful, they did not seriously disturb the efforts of the Japanese to establish themselves on the Huon Gulf. Work had been begun at once to improve the airfields, the first fighter planes from Rabaul arriving there 10 March, just after the main carrier attack. By 13 March the area was considered secure. The Navy troops took over, and the 2d Battalion, 144th Infantry, left for Rabaul, reaching it safely on the 15th.
The Plan to Isolate Australia
Allied headquarters during early March was alive with conjecture as to what the Japanese planned to do next. There were profound differences of opinion. General Brett (who had resumed command of USAFIA upon his return from the Indies) was convinced that the Japanese would invade Australia from the northwest, since they had large concentrations of troops, planes, and naval task forces in the Java area and could, if they chose, turn them against Darwin at a moment’s notice. The Australian Chiefs of Staff took a contrary view. In an estimate of the situation of 5 March, prepared by Major General Sydney F. Rowell, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, they concluded that the real threat lay elsewhere.
The Chiefs of Staff reasoned that if the Japanese bothered to take Darwin at all their aim would be to prevent its use by the Allies as a “spring-board” from which to attack them, rather than to use it as a “stepping stone” for the invasion of Australia. As the Australians saw it, the main object of the Japanese was “to cut the air and shipping lines of communication between United States and Australia with a view to preventing the development of Australia as a base for eventual offensive operations.”
They thought that the Japanese could best achieve this aim by occupying New Caledonia and Fiji. Nevertheless, since Port Moresby threatened Japanese lines of communication, the Australians believed it only natural that the enemy would act to eliminate that threat first. They could see no reason why the Japanese should not attack Port Moresby immediately, provided they were prepared to run the risk of meeting the naval units of ANZAC Force and units available to it from the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Should the Japanese choose to attack New Caledonia first, their lines of communication would be longer, and their risk of encountering ANZAC units and reinforcements from the Pacific Fleet would be correspondingly greater; furthermore, Port Moresby would be left as a hostile base on their flank. For that reason the Australian Chiefs thought out Moresby would be attacked first, and New Caledonia four to six weeks afterward.
Though he did not know it at the time, General Rowell had guessed the enemy’s intent exactly. In the orders of 2 February for the landings at Lae and Salamaua, Imperial General Headquarters had spoken of moves against Port Moresby and Tulagi but had issued no specific orders pertaining to those operations. On 9 March the 4th Fleet, in a companion move to the landings on the Huon Gulf, sent a landing party to Buka, in the northern Solomons; on the 15th the Army and Navy Sections of Imperial General Headquarters met to decide on some definitive line of action with regard to Australia.
The representatives of the Navy Section pointed to an ominous increase in air and sea activity between the United States and Australia as evidence that Australia was to be used as a base for counterattacks against them. They urged therefore that Australia be seized whatever the cost. The representatives of the Army Section, though equally perturbed by the prospect that Australia might be used as a base from which attacks would be launched against them, were strongly opposed to the invasion. It would require ten or more divisions to take and hold Australia, they pointed out, and they did not have at the time “the munitions, the reinforcements, or the ships,” for such an operation. The Army gained its point. Instead of approving an operation against the Australian mainland, the Japanese agreed to seize Port Moresby as planned and then, with the parallel occupation of the southern Solomons, “to isolate Australia” by seizing Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia.
The plan said nothing about invading Australia; it did not have to. If everything went well and all objectives were taken, there would be time enough to begin planning for the invasion of the Australian mainland. Meanwhile, it would be possible to squeeze Australia and render it harmless without invasion and at much less cost.
It was clear from the circumstances that the Japanese had not given up the idea of invading Australia. They had merely laid it aside in favor of measures that, if successful, would make invasion—in the event they found it necessary later on—a comparatively easy matter. The immediate object was to isolate Australia, and the plan for doing so was ready to go into effect. Japanese naval aviation was now within 170 air miles of Port Moresby, close fighter distance.
The 4th Fleet was spreading rapidly through the northern Solomons, with the southern Solomons next. The final step, after Port Moresby was taken, would be to seize New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa, thereby severing the line of communications between the United States and Australia.
The Japanese had already taken Singapore and the Indies and, with General MacArthur’s main force hopeless and starving on Bataan, would soon complete the reduction of the Philippines. Their success thus far had been astounding, and now after only three months of operations they were threatening Australia, the last major position still left to the Allies in the southwest Pacific. The danger to the Commonwealth was immediate. If it was to be organized as a base for Allied offensive operations, it could not be permitted to succumb to the Japanese, whatever their designs upon it. The Allied high command, seeing the danger, already had under consideration measures that sought both to strengthen Australia’s defense and to organize it for future offensive action.
SOURCE: Victory in Papua, BY: Samuel Milner