World war Two: Papuan Campaign (6): Japanese Offensive Collapses

Ten days after the first Japanese landing at Basabua Admiral King wrote to General Marshall that, while he was willing to assume that General MacArthur was “taking all measures in his power to deny the threat of Japanese penetration toward Port Moresby,” he doubted that the measures taken (which he described as “airpower supported by minor ground forces north of the Owen Stanley Mountains”) would be successful. Since, in his opinion, the holding of Port Moresby and the Buna-Gona area was essential to the ultimate success of operations in both the South and Southwest Pacific Areas, he asked that General Marshall obtain from General MacArthur by dispatch the latter’s “views as to the present situation in New Guinea, and his plan to deny further advance to the Japanese, pending execution of Task Two.” General Marshall replied the next day. He agreed, he said, with the assumption that General MacArthur was taking all measures in his power to deny the Japanese threat, but he felt it was “a little early to assume that such measures [would] be unsuccessful.” Admiral King was assured, however, that General MacArthur was being asked for his plan to counteract the Japanese offensive. Such a message had, in fact, gone out the day before.

The SWPA: Early August

General MacArthur’s Accounting

General MacArthur had a reassuring story to tell. He had just ordered the 7th Australian Infantry Division to New Guinea—the 18th Brigade to Milne Bay, and the 21st and 25th Brigades to Port Moresby. His plan of operations to prevent further enemy encroachment in New Guinea had been greatly hampered, he noted, by a critical shortage of transportation, especially sea transport, and by a dearth of naval convoy ships to protect his supply routes. The work of defending the area had nevertheless gone on despite these difficulties. Before the defenses in New Guinea could be augmented, it had been necessary, as a first step, to move engineers and protective garrisons into the Townsville-Cloncurry area in order to complete a series of airfields there and to develop Port Moresby as an advance jump-off point for the air force. As a second step, the garrison at Port Moresby was doubled to two brigades; engineers and antiaircraft units were sent forward to develop and protect the dispersal facilities in the area; and a beginning was made in developing and securing airfields in the Cape York Peninsula. As a succeeding step, airfields were built at Milne Bay and Merauke to cover Port Moresby from east and west, and troops were ordered forward to secure the crest of the range at Wau and Kokoda.

The experienced 7th Australian Infantry Division would begin moving to the front within the next few days—one brigade to Milne Bay, the other two to Port Moresby. Seven transpacific ships, which would in due course be returned to their regular runs, were being requisitioned to get the division and its equipment forward.

General MacArthur went on to say that the final solution to the problem of defending New Guinea would, of course, come with the completion of Task One and the inception of Tasks Two and Three. After sketching a plan of maneuver for the latter two tasks, he told General Marshall that, while further preparations were necessary for Task Three, immediately after Task One was successfully completed Task Two could begin if the aircraft carriers and the Marine division with its amphibious equipment were made available for the operation.

It was an excellent accounting. Starting in late March with only a few airfields in the Townsville-Cloncurry area and two poor fields at Port Moresby, General MacArthur by early August also had effective bases in the Cape York Peninsula, at Merauke, and at Milne Bay—a remarkable accomplishment in view of the appalling terrain, the shortage of engineer troops, and the difficulties of supply.

General Rowell Takes Over in New Guinea

On 6 August all Australian and American forces serving in Australian New Guinea (Papua and North East New Guinea) were put under New Guinea Force. On 9 August Major General Sydney F. Rowell, General Officer Commanding, 1st Australian Corps, took command of all forces in New Guinea. Nine days later, General Rowell became G. O. C. New Guinea Force.

[NOTE 16: GHQ SWPA OI No. 15, 6 Aug 42; LHQ OI No. 30, 9 Aug 42; NGF OI No. 24, 18 Aug 42. General Morris, who in addition to being G. O. C. New Guinea Force had also been Administrator of New Guinea and head of the Australia-New Guinea Administrative Unit, ANGAU, continued in the latter two capacities, thereby making it possible for General Rowell to concentrate exclusively on combat operations.]

The orders of 6 August gave New Guinea Force a greatly expanded mission. It was to prevent further penetration of Australian New Guinea, hold the crest of the Owen Stanley Range, and retake Kokoda, the Buna-Gona area, and ultimately Lae and Salamaua. It was to carry out active reconnaissance of its area and the approaches thereto, maintain and augment KANGA Force, and establish a special force at Milne Bay. After infiltrating the northeast coast of Papua from East Cape to Tufi, the Milne Bay troops would join with the overland forces on the Kokoda trail in the capture of the Buna-Gona area.

As General Rowell took command in New Guinea, the Japanese on the trail were at Isurava south of Kokoda. Radio intercepts and documents captured by KANGA Force revealed that the Japanese intended to land at Samarai shortly. The situation was in crisis, but the Allied defensive position was stronger than it appeared to be—much stronger, in fact, than had been thought possible only a few short weeks before.

The Defense Falls into Place

The North Queensland Bases

By the third week in August three fields had been completed in the Cape York Peninsula, one for fighters and two for heavy bombers. Three additional fields for heavy bombers were due to be completed by the end of September. The movement of aviation units, garrison troops, and supplies to the bases in northern Queensland was proceeding but was not expected to be complete until sometime in October because of the emergency troop movements to Port Moresby and Milne Bay, and the consequent shortage of shipping.

To alleviate a critical shortage of U.S. engineer troops, and to speed construction where it was most needed, arrangements were made in August to turn over the task of airfield construction [NOTE 17]and maintenance in northern Queensland and elsewhere on the mainland either to the RAAF or to the Allied Works Council, a civilian construction agency of the Australian Government staffed for the most part by men who were over age or otherwise exempt from military duty. American engineer troops released in this way were at once transferred to New Guinea. The change-over was a gradual one, but by the end of the year almost all U.S. engineer troops in the Southwest Pacific Area were in New Guinea.

[NOTE 17: General Casey had under his command on 1 May 1942 a total of 6,240 U.S. Engineer construction troops comprising the following units: the 43rd and 46th General Service Engineer Battalions, the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion, the 91st and 96th Separate Engineer Battalions, and the 576th and 585th Engineer Dump Truck Companies. The first three were white units; the remaining four, Negro. Except for the addition of the 69th Topographical Company, and the expansion of the 91st and 96th Battalions to regiments, an increase since May of some 1,200 men, his command was substantially the same at the end of the year. OCE SWPA Annual Rpt, 1942; OCE SWPA, Location and Strength of U.S. Engineer Units, 31 Dec 42. Both in AFPAC Engr File.]

Port Moresby

By 19 August, Brig. A. W. Potts’s 21st Australian Infantry Brigade, the leading brigade of the two 7th Division brigades ordered to Port Moresby, had already arrived there. It did not tarry but began moving at once to Isurava, where MAROUBRA Force—by this time a battalion and two companies of the 30th Brigade—was making a stand under the brigade commander, Brigadier Selwyn H. Porter. The 25th Brigade, which was to follow the 21st, was delayed by the shipping shortage and was not expected to arrive until early September.

Even so, the Port Moresby garrison, with its three infantry brigades and its Australian and American air, antiaircraft, engineer, and service units, already numbered 22,000 men. When the 25th Brigade, 7th Division headquarters, and other divisional troops arrived, it would total 28,000. The seven-air-field program projected for Port Moresby was nearing completion. Four fields were finished and in use—two for fighters, one for medium bombers, and one for heavy bombers. The three remaining fields—two for heavy bombers and one for medium bombers—were expected to be ready by early September.

Plans to make Port Moresby a large supply and communications area were well advanced. On 11 August the U. S. Advanced Base in New Guinea was established by USASOS with headquarters at Port Moresby. Its functions were to aid in the operation of the port and other ports in New Guinea, to control the activities of U. S. service troops in the area, and, in general, to provide for the supply of all American troops in the battle zone.

The port itself, shallow and suitable only for light traffic, was to be improved. Existing facilities permitted only one ship to be unloaded at a time, and that very slowly, with the frequent result that as many as two or three others had to wait in the roads to unload, exposed all the while to enemy attack. Since the existing harbor site did not lend itself to expansion, General Casey planned to develop Tatana Island (a small island in Fairfax Harbor to the northwest of the existing harbor) into an entirely new port. The new development, which would permit several ocean-going ships to be unloaded at one time, was to be connected with the mainland by an earth-filled causeway a half-mile long, over which would run a two-lane highway with a freeboard of two feet over high tide. The project was to be undertaken as soon as engineers and engineering equipment became available.

Measures were being taken to improve the air supply situation both in the Owen Stanleys and in the Bulolo Valley. After a careful study of the problem, General Kenney assigned six A-24’s, a B-17, and two transports—all the aircraft that could be spared—to the task of dropping supplies to the Australian troops in both areas. It was hoped that the use of these planes if only for ten days, the period of their assignment, would make possible a substantial improvement in the supply situation at both Kagi and Wau.

Milne Bay

By 21 August the 18th Australian Infantry Brigade (the 2/9, 2/10, and 2/12 Australian Infantry Battalions) under Brigadier George F. Wootten completed its movement to Milne Bay. There it joined the 7th Australian Infantry Brigade, Citizen Military Forces (the 9, 25, and 61 Australian Infantry Battalions), under Brigadier John Field, which had reached Milne Bay in July. The following day, 22 August, Major General Cyril A. Clowes, an experienced officer who had commanded the ANZAC Corps artillery in Greece, took command of Milne Force. His instructions were to protect the airfields and deny Milne Bay to the enemy.

After the company of the 46th U. S. Engineers had arrived in late June and the 7th Brigade, a 25-pounder battery, and some light and heavy Australian antiaircraft in early July, the second of two RAAF fighter squadrons equipped with P-40’s and part of a RAAF reconnaissance squadron using Hudsons reached Milne Bay by early August. Two companies of the 43rd U. S. Engineers had also arrived by this time as well as the 709th U. S. Airborne Antiaircraft Battery which was equipped with -50-caliber machine guns. The American engineer troops had a few .50-caliber machine guns and some 37-mm. antitank guns in addition to their rifles and light machine guns.

[NOTE 18: The 25-pounder was the standard artillery piece of the Australian and British Army at this time. The caliber was about 3½ inches; the barrel was about 7¾ feet long; and the weight of the shell, as the name of piece suggested, was roughly 25 pounds.]

Milne Force, when General Clowes took it over on 22 August, was a good-sized command. Australian troop strength was 7,429 men, of whom 6,394 were combat troops and 1,035 were service troops. American troop strength, mainly engineers and antiaircraft personnel, numbered 1,365 men; the strength of the RAAF was 664 men. Clowes’s total strength was thus 9,458 men. To guard against Japanese infiltration from the Buna-Gona area patrols were operating between East Cape (the eastern tip of New Guinea) and Goodenough Bay. The overland trails leading into Milne Bay were being patrolled regularly, as was the Mullins Harbor area to the southwest of Milne Bay. General Clowes had neither landing craft, coastal guns, nor searchlights, but the best defense that time would allow had been provided.

The Battle of Milne Bay

The Scene of Operations

Milne Bay, about twenty miles long and five to ten miles wide, lies at the extreme southeast tip of New Guinea. The fact that it is often closed in from the air probably accounted for the long time that it took the Japanese to discover the presence of the Allies in the area. On either arm of the bay, mountains 4,000 feet high rise abruptly from the shore. Between the mountains and the sea are narrow coastal corridors consisting for the most part of deep swamp, and dense, almost impenetrable, jungle. The rainfall in the bay area averages 200 inches a year, and during wet weather the corridors are virtually impassable.

At the head of the bay is a large plain into which the coastal corridors merge. This plain, the site in prewar days of an immense coconut plantation operated by Lever Brothers, was the only place in the entire area which was not completely bogged down in mud. Because it already had a small, if inadequate, road net, all the base installations and airfields were concentrated there.

At the time General Clowes took command, one airfield—No. 1 Strip, in the center of the plantation area—had been completed and was being used by the P-40’s and Hudsons. The 46th Engineer Company was working on No. 2 Strip, which was about four miles inland at the western end of the plantation. The two companies of the 43rd Engineers were working on No. 3 Strip, which was just off the north shore. Although a great deal of hard work, under the most adverse conditions, had gone into the base, much still remained to be done. The roads, for the most part, a corduroy of coconut logs covered with decomposed coral, were in very poor condition.

[NOTE 19: Major General Hugh J. Casey to author, 21 Jul 50, in OCMH files. General Casey’s explanation of the hasty construction of No. 1 Strip is that the field had to be constructed that way “in order to secure an operable airdrome in the limited time available.”]

The dock, at Gili Gili, at the very head of the bay, consisted of two barges placed side by side with a ramp leading to the small and inadequate jetty that had been there when the military first arrived. Number 1 Strip, the only runway in operation, and very hastily constructed, consisted of an open-mesh steel mat, laid over a low-lying, poorly drained base. Mud seeped through the mat and caused aircraft using the runway to skid and sometimes crack up. Since there was no time to rebuild the field, all that could be done to remedy the situation was to have bulldozers scrape the mat daily and deposit the mud in piles on either side of the strip. The runway was particularly treacherous during wet weather. Though it had originally been built as a bomber strip, the P-40’s often required its entire length for their take-offs when it had rained for any length of time. When the rainfall was exceptionally heavy they were often unable to take off at all.

This then was the place that the Japanese had chosen, at the last minute, to capture instead of Samarai. They had made the decision only in mid-August, when they first discovered the Allies were actually there. A few days later they issued the orders to attack.

The Landing

Toward the latter part of August the Japanese decided to launch the Milne Bay operation immediately. The Aoba Detachment, the Army force earmarked to land at Milne Bay, was still at Davao. Nevertheless the 8th Fleet, with naval troops available for action at Kavieng and Buna, decided to proceed with the operation without waiting for the detachment to come in. Judging that Milne Bay was held by two or three infantry companies and twenty or thirty aircraft, Admiral Mikawa on 20 August ordered some 1,500 men to Milne Bay. A total of 1,171 men (612 Kure 5th Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) troops, 362 16th Naval Pioneer Unit troops, and 197 men of the Sasebo 5th SNLF) were ordered to Milne Bay from Kavieng; the rest, 353 Sasebo 5th SNLF troops, were to come from Buna. Commander Shojiro Hayashi, of the Kure 5th SNLF, was in command of the landing forces from Kavieng. His orders were to land at Rabi, a point about three miles from the Gili Gili wharf area at the head of the bay. The troops from Buna were to land at Taupota on the north coast and march on Gili Gili overland.

The first echelon from Kavieng, bearing mostly Kure 5th troops, left Rabaul for Rabi in two transports in the early morning of 24 August. The troops of the Sasebo 5th SNLF at Buna left for Milne Bay at approximately the same time in seven large motor-driven landing barges.

The seven landing craft were the first to be detected by the Allies. The Coast Watcher at Porlock Harbor sighted them the same afternoon, and early the next morning a reconnaissance aircraft reported that they were nearing Goodenough Island. Twelve P-40’s from Milne Bay (which had been unable to attack previously because of enemy air raids and bad weather) took off for Goodenough Island at noon and shortly thereafter discovered the landing craft beached on the southwestern shore of the island, where the Japanese had put in to stretch their legs and prepare a meal. The P-40’s gave the drawn-up barges and ration littered beach a thorough strafing. When the attack was over, all of the landing craft had been destroyed, and the Sasebo unit, its stores, ammunition, and communications equipment gone, was left stranded on Goodenough Island with no way of reaching its objective, or even of returning to Buna.

The convoy bearing the Kure 5th troops fared better in its approach to the target. Heavily escorted by cruisers and destroyers, the transports were first sighted off Kiriwina Island, 140 miles northeast of Milne Bay, in the early morning of 25 August, making directly for Milne Bay. General MacArthur’s headquarters immediately ordered the Air Force to attack the convoy and destroy it. All available B-25’s and B-26’s at Townsville and nine B-17’s at Mareeba in the Cape York Peninsula took off at once for the attack, which was to be made that afternoon in concert with the RAAF P-40’s and Hudsons from Milne Bay.

Fortunately for the Japanese, the weather (except for a short break at noon which the RAAF had exploited to the full in the attack on Goodenough Island) was very bad all day, both at Moresby and Milne Bay. For hours on end planes were unable to take off from either place. Attempts by the B- 17’s from the Cape York Peninsula and the P-40’s and Hudsons from Milne Bay to hit the convoy proved fruitless because of violent rain squalls and a heavy overcast. By late afternoon visibility was down to zero, and despite occasional breaks thereafter the Air Force found it impossible to attack successfully that day.

The Japanese landing began about 2200 hours, 25 August, on the north shore of the bay near Waga Waga and Wanadala—five to seven miles east of Rabi, their prescribed landing point. The landing force set up headquarters at Waga Waga and established a series of supply dumps there and in the Wanadala area. The shore east of K. B. Mission, which the Japanese continued to think for some time was the Rabi area, became their main bivouac site and forward jump-off point. Here, about one mile east of the mission, at 0145 hours on 26 August, elements of Milne Force met the Japanese column in an indecisive engagement when a screening platoon from Company B, 61 Battalion, at K. B. Mission started a fire fight with the Japanese that lasted until nearly dawn. Although the enemy used light tanks in support of his probe, he finally withdrew leaving the Australian detachment in place.

The Advance

The Japanese could scarcely have chosen a worse landing place. Their objectives, the airfields and the wharf, were at the head of Milne Bay, and they had landed several miles from the plantation area on a jungle covered coastal shelf, flanked on the right by mountains and on the left by the sea. Because the mountains in the landing area were steep and very close to shore, there was virtually no room for maneuver, and the heavy jungle which covered the bay shore made it impossible to find a dry bivouac for the troops anywhere in the area.

It had rained steadily during the preceding few weeks, and the heavy tropical downpour continued. The mountain streams had become roaring torrents, and the spongy soil of the corridor a quagmire. The single coastal track that skirted the corridor had in places completely washed away, and the level of the many fords that cut across it had risen to almost three feet. Except for a few abandoned plantations and mission stations, the corridor was a sodden welter of jungle and swamp, an utter nightmare for any force operating in it.

Although they had seriously misjudged Allied strength, and had landed on a muddy coastal shelf thousands of yards from the head of the bay, the Japanese nevertheless enjoyed some significant tactical advantages. Their left flank was secure because they had control of the sea, and their right flank could not easily be turned because of the mountains a few hundred yards away. It was true that they could count on little air power, since Lae and Salamaua, the nearest operational air bases, were more than 300 miles away; but unlike Milne Force, which could barely scrape up a few trawlers, they had plenty of landing craft and could therefore land troops and supplies freely under cover of darkness or of the weather, despite their deficiency in the air.

General Clowes, on the other hand, was a man fighting blind. Because of the dense jungle on the north shore of the bay and frequent heavy overcasts, neither his ground patrols nor his aerial reconnaissance could tell him what the Japanese were doing or what their numbers were. Worse still, he was face to face with the possibility that the Japanese, in addition to landing on the north shore, might land troops on the south shore, or even at the head of the bay. Having no idea as yet of Japanese intentions, Clowes held the bulk of his force in the plantation area, to be committed to the north shore when it became apparent from the circumstances that the Japanese had no intention of landing troops elsewhere in the bay area.

At the time of the Japanese landings during the night of 25-26 August, the main body of Milne Force was deployed in the plantation area in the vicinity of the airfields and two companies of the 61 Battalion were on the north shore in the path of the Japanese thrust. One of these companies was at Ahioma, just east of Wanadala; the other was at K. B. Mission. There was also a platoon of the 61 Battalion on the northeast coast guarding against an overland attack on Milne Bay from the Taupota side of the mountains, as well as a reinforced company of the 25 Battalion farther to the northwest on Goodenough Bay.

The company at Ahioma did not fare as well as the one at K. B. Mission. The troops at Ahioma had been under orders to return to Gili Gili by water, and two of the three platoons were already on their way in two ketches when the Japanese landings began. Shortly after leaving Ahioma the ketches plowed into a landing wave off Wanadala. In the melee one of the Australian craft was sunk. Some of the militia troops were lost; others struggled ashore and infiltrated back to their own lines. The platoon in the other ketch returned to Ahioma and, with the platoon that had remained there, marched overland to Taupota and thence back over the mountains to Gili Gili where they rejoined their battalion several days later.

By 0745 that morning, 26 August, the weather had abated sufficiently for the P-40’s from No. 1 Strip and the B-17’s staging from Port Moresby to go into action. In an extremely successful morning’s business, the P-40’s managed to destroy most of the food and ammunition that the Japanese had brought with them. The B-l 7’s, almost as successful, inflicted heavy damage on a large Japanese transport unloading offshore.

Toward evening a second Japanese convoy (Commander Hayashi’s second echelon) was sighted off Normanby Island in the D’Entrecasteaux Group, making at high speed for Milne Bay. Before it could be dealt with, a heavy fog descended over the area, blotting out the convoy’s further movements. The troops aboard landed safely that night, completing the 1,170-man movement from Kavieng.

K. B. Mission had meanwhile been reinforced by a second company of the 61 Battalion. The Japanese, who had reconnoitered the mission during the day, struck again that night in much greater strength than before. The Australian militia was forced out of the mission and all the way back to the line of the Gama River, just east of Rabi. Fortunately for the Australians, the Japanese again chose to break off the engagement at dawn.

The following morning, General Clowes sent the 2/10 Battalion of the 18th Brigade to K. B. Mission. The battalion, intended to be a reconnaissance force, was lightly armed. Its orders were to keep in contact with the Japanese, draw them out, and in general find out what they were up to.

Without such essential knowledge, General Clowes was confronted with a cruel dilemma. If he moved his troops onto the north shore, the enemy might counter by landing fresh troops on the south shore or at the head of the bay itself. As he himself was to explain: The presence of Jap naval elements in the vicinity throughout the operation and the freedom of activity enjoyed by the enemy by sea constituted a continuous menace in regard to possible further landings. These factors necessarily had a marked influence on plans and dispositions made to deal with the enemy. On several occasions, such plans were definitely slowed down or suffered variation through the delay involved in assuring that the south shore was clear, and, further, that reports of the presence of enemy ships at Mullins Harbor were not founded on fact. [NOTE 19]

[NOTE 19: Comdr Milne Force, Rpt on Opns 25 Aug-7 Sep 42; Naval Account Japanese Invasion Eastern New Guinea, p. 26; Interv with Lieutenant Colonel Peter S. Teesdale-Smith, AMF, 22 Aug 49, copy in OCMH files. At the time the battle was fought, Colonel Teesdale-Smith, then a captain, was intelligence officer of the 2/10 Battalion.]

The 2/10 Battalion reached the mission unopposed in the late afternoon of 27 August. Under orders to move on again in the morning, the battalion had barely settled itself for the night when the Japanese struck at the mission again, this time with two tanks and all their available combat troops.

Despite unceasing tropical rain, the ground in the well-drained and relatively open plantation area was firm enough for tank action. The two tanks, equipped with brilliant headlights that made targets of the Australians and left the attackers in darkness, inflicted heavy casualties on the 2/10 Battalion. The lightly armed Australians, whose only antitank protection was “sticky-type” hand grenades, which would not stick, were unable to knock out the tanks and also failed to shoot out their headlights. After about two hours of fighting the Japanese managed to split the battalion in two. Battalion headquarters and two companies were forced off the track and into the jungle, and the remainder of the battalion was pushed back to the Gama River. A portion of the battalion reached the plantation area that night, but the main body took to the hills in order to get around the enemy’s flank and did not get back to the head of the bay until three days later. With the 2/10 Battalion out of the way, the Japanese continued on to No. 3 strip. There a heavy fire fight at once developed, a fight in which American antiaircraft and engineer troops played a significant part.

The Fighting at No. 3 Strip

The east-west airstrip, just west of Kilabo and only a few miles from Rabi, was an ideal defensive position. The runway, a hundred yards wide and 2,000 yards long, was cleared but only partially graded, and there was a sea of mud at its eastern edge which made it impossible for tanks to get through. It afforded the defenders a broad, cleared field of fire, and, lying obliquely across the mouth of the corridor with its southern end less than five hundred feet from the water, was directly in the path of the Japanese advance.

Brigadier Field, in charge of the defense, ranged his troops along the southern edge of the strip, giving the Japanese no alternative but to attack frontally. The main burden of holding the strip fell upon the brigade’s 25th and 61st Battalions, but the 709th U. S. Airborne Antiaircraft Battery and Companies D and F of the 43rd U. S. Engineers held key positions in its defense.

The antiaircraft battery with its .50-caliber machine guns was given the task of supporting the Australians at the eastern end of the strip, and the .50-caliber and 37-mm. gun crews of Companies D and F, 43rd U. S. Engineers, flanked on either side by Australian riflemen and mortar-men, were stationed at the center of the line at the crucial point where the track from Rabi crossed the runway.

The Japanese reached the area immediately in front of the strip just before dawn. They attacked aggressively but were repulsed and forced to withdraw. No tanks were used in the attack, although two of them (apparently the same two that the Japanese had used with such success at K. B. Mission were brought up, only to be abandoned when they bogged down hopelessly.

The attackers were now within a few miles of No. 1 Strip, and General Clowes, fearful lest they infiltrate it during the night, ordered the P-40’s to Port Moresby. Fortunately the Japanese were quiet that night, and the following morning the fighters returned to Milne Bay to stay.

Bogged down near No. 3 Strip.

On 26 August, the day of the landing, and again on the afternoon of the 28th, General MacArthur had ordered General Blarney to see to it that the north shore of Milne Bay was cleared of the enemy at once. Because of defective communications New Guinea Force did not receive the orders of the 26th until late on the 27th, and General Clowes, apparently, not until early the next morning. Early on the 28th Clowes ordered the 7th Brigade to be prepared to move forward at dawn the following day.

Strong patrols of the brigade moved out early on the 29th but met stiff enemy opposition, and little progress was registered. Clowes thereupon ordered in the 18th Brigade with instructions to move at once on K. B. Mission. He canceled the orders at 1633 upon learning that another Japanese convoy was on its way to Milne Bay.

His reason for the cancellation—as he was to explain later—was the renewed possibility “of an enemy attempt to land on the west and south shores of Milne Bay.” The convoy, escorted by a cruiser and nine destroyers, unloaded safely under cover of a heavy mist. It brought to the sore-beset Japanese on the north shore nearly 770 reinforcements—568 troops of the Kure 3rd SNLF and 200 of the Yokosuka 5th SNLF—under Commander Minoru Yano, who, being apparently senior to Hayashi, at once took over command of operations.

The daylight hours of the following day, 30 August, were quiet. Milne Force sent patrols to feel out the enemy in preparation for the long-delayed general advance, and the Japanese, hidden in the jungle, consolidated for another attack on No. 3 strip. The climax came that night when the Japanese made an all-out effort to take the strip.

Brigadier Field was again ready for them. The only change in his dispositions was to place the .50-caliber machine guns of the 709th Antiaircraft Battery at both ends of the line instead of as before on its eastern end. The .50-caliber machine guns and 37-mm. antitank gun crews of Companies D and F of the 43rd Engineers were as before in the center of the line, flanked on either side by the riflemen and mortar-men of the 25th and 61st Battalions. The 25 pounders, about half a mile to the rear, lent their support, as did the P-40’s from No. 1 Strip.

When the Japanese made their move against the airstrip, such intense fire hit them that not one man was able to cross the strip alive. The heaviest attack came before dawn. Like the others, it was repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy, who withdrew at first light, leaving 160 dead behind.

The Withdrawal

The Japanese were now in full retreat, and Brigadier Wootten’s 18th Brigade, the 2/12 Battalion leading, began the long delayed task of clearing them from the north shore. Very heavy fighting developed at once along the Gama River and later near K. B. Mission. Between 1 and 5 September the Australians lost 45 killed and 147 wounded. Japanese losses were much heavier. At the Gama River alone, the enemy lost at least 100 killed, and his casualties mounted steadily as the Australians advanced. Hungry, riddled with tropical fevers, suffering from trench foot and jungle rot, and with many wounded in their midst, the Japanese realized the end was near; and Commander Yano, himself wounded, so advised the 8th Fleet.

The commander in chief of the 8th Fleet, Admiral Mikawa, considered the possibility of reinforcing the landing parties at Milne Bay with the 1,000-man advance echelon of the Aoba Detachment, which had finally reached Rabaul on 31 August. It was a sufficient force, he thought, to retrieve the situation if the troops ashore could hold out till it arrived. In an interchange of messages with Yano, Admiral Mikawa offered to land 200 more Yokosuka 5th troops immediately, and the Aoba Detachment by 12 September, if there was any possibility that the troops at Milne Bay could hold out till the Aoba Force arrived. When Yano told him that the troops ashore were physically incapable of making a further stand, Mikawa concluded the situation was hopeless and ordered Milne Bay evacuated.

The wounded were put on board ship on the night of 4 September. The rest of the landing force, except for scattered elements that had to be left behind, took ship the following night from the anchorage at Waga Waga one jump ahead of the 18th Brigade, whose forward elements were actually within earshot when the Japanese pulled out. Some 1,300 of the 1,900 troops landed were evacuated to Rabaul, nearly all of them suffering from trench foot, jungle rot, tropical ulcers, and other tropical diseases. Virtually none of the evacuees, not even those who landed as late as 29 August, were in condition to fight.

The 2/9 Battalion, which was now leading the advance, met with only light and scattered resistance on the morning of 6 September. By the following morning it was clear that organized resistance had ceased. Small bands of stragglers were all that remained of the Japanese landing forces, and these were disposed of in the next few weeks by Australian patrols, which took only a handful of prisoners. The Japanese lost some 600 killed in the operation, as against 321 Australian ground casualties—123 killed and 198 wounded. American losses in defense of No. 3 Strip were very low—one man killed and two wounded.

The timely return from the Solomons in early September of Task Force 44 made it possible thenceforward for the Allied Naval Forces to cover the sea approaches to Milne Bay; and the dispatch, at approximately the same time, of two 155-mm. guns with attached searchlight units helped further to secure the area.

The base was meanwhile being steadily improved. More and better roads were built A new wharf was constructed to replace the old inadequate jetty. Number 1 Strip was rebuilt, and No. 3 Strip was completed. Bombing of Rabaul and of Japanese airfields in the northern Solomons without the need of crossing the Owen Stanleys became possible for the first time. Equally important the stage was set for a successful investiture of the north coast of Papua from East Cape to Buna.

[NOTE: OCE SWPA, Draft Engr Rpt, 31 Dec 42; Ltr, General Casey to author, 21 Jul 50. Number 2 Strip was never completed, for it was decided immediately after the battle to discontinue work on it and to concentrate instead on the other two fields.]

The Allied victory at Milne Bay had snapped the southern prong of the pincers the Japanese had hoped to apply to Port Moresby. An essential part of the plan of 31 July had failed. The rest of the plan, the overland attack on Port Moresby by the South Seas Detachment, was now to be put to the test.

SOURCE: Victory in Papua, BY: Samuel Milner (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Papuan Campaign (7); Road to Ioribaiwa

World War Two: Papuan Campaign (5); Kokoda Trail

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.