While South Pacific troops had been so heavily engaged in New Georgia, General MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific forces were executing Operation II of the ELKTON plan—the seizure of the Markham Valley and the Huon Peninsula of New Guinea—aimed at increasing the Southwest Pacific Area’s degree of control over Vitiaz and Dampier Straits. This operation had actually started in January 1943 with the Australian defense of Wau in the Bulolo Valley, and was furthered by the Australian advance from the Bulolo Valley toward Salamaua and the go June landing of the MacKechnie Force at Nassau Bay.
The ground forces in Operation II (or POSTERN) were under command of the New Guinea Force. General Blarney arrived at Port Moresby and assumed command of the New Guinea Force on 20 August 1943, and General Herring went to Dobodura, where as general officer commanding the I Australian Corps he exercised control over tactical operations. General Blarney was responsible for coordination of ground, air, and naval planning. In the actual conduct of ground, air, and naval operations, the principle of co-operation rather than unity of command appears to have been followed.
The operations involved in the seizure of the Huon Peninsula and the Markham Valley were complex. The Southwest Pacific lacked enough ships for a completely amphibious assault, and had too few aircraft for a completely airborne attack; there were enough ground troops, but New Guinea terrain precluded large-scale overland movements. To bring sufficient power to bear General MacArthur and his subordinates and staff therefore employed all available means—amphibious assault, an assault by parachute troops, an airlift of an entire division, and the shore-to-shore operation already executed at Nassau Bay.
MacArthur, in operations instructions issued before the invasions of Woodlark, Kiriwina, and Nassau Bay, and followed by a series of amendments, ordered the New Guinea Force to seize the Lae-Markham Valley area by co-ordinated airborne and overland operations through the Markham Valley and amphibious operations (including Nassau Bay) along the north coast of New Guinea. The Markham Valley operations were to be based on Port Moresby; the north coast operations on Buna and Milne Bay. MacArthur directed the seizure of the coastal areas of the Huon Gulf, including Salamaua and Finschhafen, and initially ordered the New Guinea Force to be prepared for airborne-overland and shore-to-shore operations along the north coast of New Guinea as far as Madang on Astrolabe Bay. The immediate objectives were Lae and the Markham and Ramu Valleys.
The two river valleys form a tremendous trough between the Finisterre and Kratke Ranges. Starting at the mouth of the Markham River at Lae and running northwesterly for 380 miles to the mouth of the Ramu, the trough varies from 5 to 25 miles in width. The rivers flow in opposite directions from a plain in the level uplands of the trough some 80 miles northwest of Lae. Both valleys contain extensive flats of grass-covered sand and gravel, and thus there were many excellent sites for air bases. Already in existence were several emergency strips that had been used by Australian civil aviation before the war.
Lae, a prewar sea terminal for air service to the Bulolo Valley, had a developed harbor and airfield, and was the key to successful employment of airfields in the valleys. Once it was captured, ships could carry supplies to Lae, and roads could be pushed up the Markham Valley to carry supplies to the airfields. The New Guinea Force was ordered to construct airfields in the Lae-Markham Valley area as specified by General Kenney. They were eventually to include facilities for two fighter groups, some night fighters, two medium and two light bombardment groups, one observation squadron, one photo-reconnaissance squadron, and four transport squadrons. MacArthur wanted Madang taken in order to protect the Southwest Pacific’s left flank during the subsequent landings on New Britain. Salamaua was not an important objective, but MacArthur and Blarney ordered the 3rd Australian Division with the MacKechnie Force attached to press against it for purposes of deception. They wanted the Japanese to believe that Salamaua and not Lae was the real objective, and so to strengthen Salamaua at Lae’s expense.
The commander in chief ordered Kenney and Carpender to support the New Guinea Force with their Allied Air and Allied Naval Forces. Allied Land Forces could make the necessary troops available.
U.S. Army Services of Supply and Line of Communications units of Allied Land Forces would provide logistical support. From thirty to ninety days of various classes of supply was to be stocked at intermediate and advance bases. General Marshall’s U.S. Army Services of Supply would be responsible for supply of American forces in the Huon Peninsula and Markham Valley, and would provide all items to the Army and Navy. MacArthur ordered Marshall’s command to aid Allied Naval Forces in transporting the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade to the combat zone, and to prepare to relieve Allied Naval Forces of the responsibility for transporting supplies to Lae and to Woodlark and Kiriwina.
Some of the plan’s outstanding features were the ways it proposed to use air power. The impending assault by parachute would be the first tactical employment of parachute troops as such by Allied forces in the Pacific.[N9-2]The combination of airlifted troops and parachute troops in co-ordination with amphibious assault had also not been used hitherto by the Allies in the Pacific. The year before, General Whitehead had “sold the Aussies on the scheme of an airborne show at Nadzab to take Lae out from the back,” and General MacArthur had liked the idea too, but there were not enough transport planes in the area to carry it out at that time. Generals MacArthur and Blarney had planned to operate overland from the Lakekamu River to the Bulolo Valley and thence to the Markham Valley in conjunction with a parachute assault by one battalion. Delays in building the mountain road from the Lakekamu to the Bulolo Valley made necessary a decision to land an entire parachute regiment at Nadzab, a superb airfield site in the Markham Valley where a prewar Australian airstrip already existed, and to fly an entire division from Port Moresby to Nadzab immediately afterward.
[N9-2:The 1st Marine Parachute Battalion fought well at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in 1942, but it fought on foot as an infantry battalion. It made no tactical jumps.]
The third unusual feature of the POSTERN air operations was made possible by General Kenney’s enthusiastic willingness to try any experiment that offered a hope of success and by the fact that both Allied and Japanese forces were concentrated in small enclaves on the New Guinea coast, with the highlands and hinterland available to whichever force could maintain patrols there. On General Kenney’s recommendation, MacArthur ordered the development of two grass strips, one in the Watut Valley west of Salamaua and the other in the grassy plateau south of Madang where the Markham and Ramu Rivers rise. These strips could serve as staging bases that would enable Kenney to send fighters from Port Moresby and Dobodura as far as the expanding enemy base at Wewak or over the western part of New Britain, and to give fighter cover to Allied bombers in the vicinity of Lae. Thus the Allied Air Forces would be using inland airfields to support and protect a seaborne invasion of a coastal area.
D Day was set for planning purposes as 1 August, but was postponed to 27 August and finally to 4 September to permit the assembly of enough C-47’s, more training for the 7th Australian Division, and the relief of the VII Amphibious Force of its responsibilities for Woodlark and Kiriwina. The precise date was picked by General Kenney on the basis of weather forecasts. He wanted fog over western New Britain and Vitiaz and Dampier Straits that would keep Japanese aircraft away while bright clear weather over New Guinea—a fairly common condition—permitted the flight to and jump into the Markham Valley. The fourth of September promised to be such a date and was selected.
The final tactical plans were prepared by New Guinea Force and by the various higher headquarters in the Allied Air and Allied Naval Forces under the supervision of General MacArthur, General Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, and such subordinates as General Chamberlin, the G-3 of GHQ.[N9-5]
[N9-5: GHQ supervised the preparation of the plans for Operation II more closely than, for example, those for Woodlark-Kiriwina. The staff at GHQ felt that New Guinea Force and subordinate headquarters were slow in preparing plans, tended to prepare plans for initiating operations rather than for carrying them through completely, failed to provide for co-ordination of forces, and did not thoroughly appreciate logistics. See Memo, Chamberlin for CofS GHQ SWPA, 28 Aug 43, no sub, in GHQ SWPA G-3 Jnl, 16 Jul 43.]
Final plans, issued in August, called for the employment of two veteran Australian divisions, the 7th and the 9th, the U.S. 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, and elements of the U.S. 2nd Engineer Special Brigade, as well as the American and Australian troops already pressing against Salamaua in their deception maneuver. The 9th Australian Division was to be carried by the VII Amphibious Force, with elements of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade, attached, from Milne Bay to beaches far enough east of Lae to be beyond range of enemy artillery.
Early plans had called for the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade to carry the 9th Australian Division to Lae and support it thereafter. But closer study showed that an engineer special brigade could carry and support but one brigade in reduced strength—about 3,000 men, or not nearly enough to attack Lae. Therefore the VII Amphibious Force was ordered to carry the 9th Division, and the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade was attached to Barbey’s command for the initial phases.
Two brigade groups, totaling 7,800 men, plus elements of the amphibian engineers, were to land starting at 0630, 4 September. That evening 2,400 more Australians would land, and on the night of 5-6 September the VII Amphibious Force, having retired to Buna after unloading on 4 September, was to bring in the 3,800 men of the reserve brigade group. The time for H Hour, 0630, was selected because it came thirty minutes past sunrise, by which time the light would be suitable for the preliminary naval bombardment.
Admiral Carpender organized his Allied Naval Forces into almost the same task forces that he had set up for Woodlark and Kiriwina and assigned them similar missions. Admiral Barbey organized his VII Amphibious Force into a transport group of 2 destroyers, 4 APD’s, 13 LST’s, 20 LCI’s, 14 LCT’s and 1 AP; a cover group of 4 destroyers; an escort group of 2 destroyers; an APC group of 13 APC’s, 9 LST’s, and 2 subchasers; and a service group of 1 tender, 3 LST’s, 10 subchasers, 5 minesweepers, 1 oiler, and 1 tug. The attached engineer special brigade elements possessed 10 LCM’s and 40 LCVP’s.
Allied Air Forces’ plans for support of the invasion called for General Whitehead to provide close support to ground troops, to provide escort and cover for the amphibious movements, to establish an air blockade over Huon Peninsula, to specify to General Blarney the air facilities to be constructed in the target areas, and to prepare to move forward to the new bases.
But again there was an argument over the method by which the air forces would cover the VII Amphibious Force. Admirals Carpender and Barbey had no aircraft carriers and thus were completely dependent upon the Allied Air Forces for air support. They pointed out that the amphibious movement to Lae would involve over forty ships, 7,800 soldiers and 3,260 sailors. This represented all suitable vessels available, with none retained in reserve. Losses to Japanese air attacks would seriously jeopardize the success of future operations, and therefore they argued that only a fighter umbrella providing continuous cover for the VII Amphibious Force would be adequate. The airmen, who were planning to use over three hundred planes in the Markham Valley parachute jump, were willing to provide air cover for Barbey’s ships over Lae itself on D Day, but argued that the movement of the convoys would be amply protected by maintaining fighter squadrons on ground alert at Dobodura and the staging airfield in the Watut Valley. The argument, a heated one, went up the chain of command to General MacArthur himself, and was finally settled by Kenney’s agreement to use a total of thirty-two planes to give as much cover as possible over the VII Amphibious Force during daylight and to maintain fighter squadrons on ground alert.
There remained the problem of fighter control. One fighter control unit was stationed at Dobodura, and another at the staging field in the Watut Valley, but radar coverage over the area was far from complete. Japanese aircraft from Wewak or Madang could fly south of the mountains to Lae, or from New Britain across Dampier and Vitiaz Straits, and radar would not pick them up until they were almost over Lae. And as Brigadier General Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur’s G-2, pointed out, Allied experience at New Georgia showed that the Japanese air reaction might be violent. An Australian airman suggested that the difficulty be alleviated by posting a radar-equipped destroyer between Lae and Finschhafen. This was accepted, and the U.S. destroyer Reid, which was part of Barbey’s antisubmarine screen, was selected as picket with orders to steam in Vitiaz Strait some forty-five miles southeast of Finschhafen.
Markham Valley plans called for the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, flying from Port Moresby in C-47’s, to jump onto Nadzab airstrip on the north bank of the Markham River on 5 September, the day after the amphibious assault Nadzab was not believed to be occupied by the Japanese, but this seizure would block the valley and prevent the enemy’s sending troops overland from Wewak. Once captured, Nadzab airstrip was to be quickly readied for airplanes by the 503rd and by a force of Australian engineers and pioneers. The Australians were to paddle in boats from the staging airfield in the Watut Valley down the Watut River to Nadzab—a distance of about thirty-two air miles, but actually twice that far for anything but crows and airplanes. Then one brigade of the 7th Australian Division, plus engineers and antiaircraft units, having been flown to the Watut Valley previously, would fly in. The next brigade would come in directly by air from Port Moresby. Once adequate strength had been assembled, the 7th Australian Division would march eastward down the Markham River against Lae, and at the same time the 9th Australian Division would drive westward from the landing beaches.
Seizure of Nadzab would have a threefold effect: it would provide Allied forces with one more air base with which to increase their control over the Huon Peninsula, the straits, and western New Britain; it would provide a base for the 7th Division’s eastward march against Lae; and an Allied force at Nadzab could forestall any attempt by the Japanese to reinforce Lae from Wewak by marching through the Ramu and Markham Valleys.
Japanese strategic intentions were not changed by the invasion of the Trobriands or of Nassau Bay. In August 1943 Generals Imamura and Adachi were still resolved to hold Lae and Salamaua as parts of the outer defenses of Wewak and Madang, and were still planning to move into Bena Bena south of the Ramu Valley.7 There were about ten thousand men in the Lae-Salamaua area, with somewhat more than half of these defending Salamaua. Many of the ten thousand, reported the Japanese after the war, were sick. Some estimates run as high as 50 percent. At Lae, General Shoge, temporarily detached from his post as infantry group commander of the 41st Division, led a force consisting of a naval guard unit, elements of the 21st, 102nd, and 115th Infantry Regiments, and artillerymen and engineers. In addition to defending Lae, Shoge was responsible for patrolling up the Markham River and for protecting the southern approaches to Finschhafen on the east coast of the Huon Peninsula.
In the months following the Bismarck Sea disaster the supply systems for Lae and Salamaua had almost broken down. The Allied aerial blockade of the Huon Peninsula prevented the use of large ships to carry supplies forward to Lae. Until June, six submarines helped carry supplies, but then the number was cut to three and the bulk of supplies had to be carried on barges. Supply of the ten thousand men for the five months preceding September would have required 150 barge-loads per month, while 200 more barges were needed for transport of reinforcements and ammunition. But there were far too few barges. Only 40, for example, were making the run to Lae from the staging base at Tuluvu on the north shore of Cape Gloucester. The sea and the tides in Dampier Strait damaged many, and several fell victim to Allied aircraft and to nocturnal PT’s which, like their sister boats in the Solomons, prowled the barge lanes.
Imperial General Headquarters, meanwhile, had paid heed to Imamura’s request for more planes. On 27 July Imperial Headquarters ordered the 4th Air Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Kumaichi Teramoto, from the Netherlands Indies to the Southeast Area. Teramoto’s army would include the 7th Air Division, the 14th Air Brigade, some miscellaneous squadrons, and the 6th Air Division, which was already based at Wewak.
The 4th Air Army headquarters arrived at Rabaul on 6 August, whereupon Imamura ordered Teramoto and his planes to proceed to Wewak with the mission of escorting convoys, destroying Allied planes and ships, and co-operating with the 18th Army. The move was made at once; the Allies were well aware that the Japanese were building up strength on the four Wewak airfields.
Allied Air and Naval Preparations
Increases in Air Strength
The increases in Allied strength that had been promised to the Southwest Pacific Area at the Pacific Military Conference in March had been coming through practically on schedule.8 P-47’s of the 348th Fighter Group began arriving in Australia in June, and before the end of July the whole group had been deployed to New Guinea. The 475th Fighter Group, flying P-38’s, was ready for combat by the middle of the next month.
Bomber strength, too, was increasing. Newly arrived B-24’s of the 380th Heavy Bombardment Group went into action from Darwin, Australia, in mid-July. One of the 380th’s first large-scale operations was a spectacular raid on the oil center at Balikpapan, Borneo, on 13 August, a feat that required a 1,200-mile round trip. Port Moresby saw the arrival of new B-25’s of the 345th Medium Bombardment Group in July. And the C-47’s were also increasing in number. By September the 54th Troop Carrier Wing could boast fourteen full squadrons of transport planes.
By the end of August the Southwest Pacific Area had on hand nearly all its authorized plane strength—197 heavy bombers and 598 fighters. Keeping this number in flying condition, however, was next to impossible. Many of the planes were old, and with the air forces constantly in action there were always battle casualties. Kenney was always short of manpower; he could never obtain enough replacement pilots to keep all his new and veteran squadrons up to strength, a condition that was probably duplicated in every active theater.
Operations: The first important action of Kenney’s
Allied Air Forces in preparation for the Markham Valley-Huon Peninsula operation was the development of the staging fields in the Watut Valley and in the Ramu-Markham trough. Ever since the Buna campaign Kenney had been anxious for a good fighter field near Lae to use in covering the invasion. He hoped to fly troops into an existing emergency strip and seize it, as he had done during the Buna campaign. Kokoda and Wau had been surveyed but found unsuitable.
Then in May an aviation engineer officer, with orders to find a field farther forward than Wau, trekked from the Bulolo Valley almost to Salamaua, found nothing suitable, and thereupon backtracked and went down the Watut River where he found and recommended an emergency landing strip at Marilinan.
But Marilinan was not perfect; it was feared the September rains would render its clay too muddy to be usable. At this point General Wurtsmith of the V Fighter Command took a hand. Looking over the ground himself, he picked a site at Tsili Tsili four miles down the Watut River from Marilinan. Kenney and Whitehead agreed with his choice.
Meanwhile Kenney and Herring arranged to build the second staging field, using a few Australian troops and native labor, at Bena Bena south of the Ramu Valley. This emergency strip had long served as a New Guinea Force patrol base, and the Japanese at this time were hoping to capture it eventually. The Allies decided to build a grass strip suitable for fighters at Bena Bena (C-47’s carrying supplies to the Australian patrols had been using Bena Bena for some time), and to burn off the grass in fashion so obvious as to distract the enemy’s attention from Tsili Tsili.
In June and July, C-47’s flew Australian troops and the U.S. 871st Airborne Engineer Battalion to Marilinan. The troops moved down the river to Tsili Tsili, cleared the strips, and C-47’s flew in specially designed bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment. Some gear, including trucks sawed in half so they could be loaded into C-47’s, was also flown to Tsili Tsili, where the trucks were welded together. Two strips at Tsili Tsili were soon ready, and by mid-August three thousand troops, including a fighter squadron, were based there. Japanese aircraft failed to molest the Allies until the fields were all built; they raided Tsili Tsili on 15 and 16 August without doing much damage and thereafter left it alone.
While General Kenney had liked the prospects of Tsili Tsili from a technical point of view, he had felt that Tsili Tsili had an unfortunate sound. He therefore officially directed that the base be given the more attractive name of Marilinan.
During this period the Fifth Air Force had been supporting the Allied diversionary attacks against Salamaua. Nearly every day of July saw some form of air attack against the Lae-Salamaua area. Sorties during the month totaled 400 by B-25’s, 100 by B-24’s, 45 by RAAF Bostons, 35 by A-20’s, 30 by B-17’s, and 7 by B-26’s. The Japanese supply point at Madang was also raided during the period 20-23 July by B-25’s and heavy bombers.
But these raids were secondary to Kenney’s main air effort, which was directed against Wewak. Aware of the increase in Japanese air strength at Wewak, and lacking enough strength to hit both Wewak and Rabaul, Kenney had decided to concentrate against Wewak rather than Rabaul up to the day of the landing at Lae, and to rely in part on the weather for protection against Rabaul based lanes. There were too many Japanese fighter planes at Wewak, however, for Kenney to risk sending unescorted bombers there. Raids against Wewak had to await completion of the Marilinan staging field, which would extend the range of Allied fighters as far as Wewak. Meanwhile Kenney ordered his bombers not to go as far as Wewak, thus leading the Japanese to believe that Wewak lay beyond bomber range and to send planes there with a false sense of security.
On 13 August photographs taken by Allied reconnaissance planes showed a total of 199 Japanese airplanes on the four fields at Wewak. The 4th Air Army was now due for a surprise. Marilinan was ready by midmonth and so was the Fifth Air Force. General Whitehead had four bombardment groups with enough range to hit Wewak from Port Moresby—two heavy groups with 64 planes in commission and two medium groups totaling 58 B-25’s. With Marilinan in commission the bombers would have fighter protection all the way.
Heavy and medium bombers and fighters struck the four Wewak fields on 17 August and achieved excellent results. Taking the Japanese by surprise, they caught most of the enemy planes on the ground. Next day they were back in strength, and the Wewak offensive continued throughout the rest of August. The planes struck at Hansa Bay and Alexishafen during the same period.
Damage inflicted by these raids was heavy, though less than estimated at the time. Kenney’s headquarters claimed over 200 Japanese aircraft destroyed on the ground, a claim that Army Air Forces headquarters scaled down to 175. Postwar Japanese reports, however, give losses as about half what the Allies initially claimed. But despite the efforts of Imamura and Teramoto, strength of the 4th Air Army thereafter averaged but 100 planes, and “the prospect of the New Guinea operation [was] much gloomier.”
The Allied Naval Forces, which had not played a decisive part in the Buna campaign because it lacked enough ships and because hydrographic information on the waters of New Guinea’s north coast was almost nonexistent, was also taking a hand. PT boats based at Morobe were stalking the enemy barge routes at night and making the transport of men and munitions to Lae increasingly difficult The Fifth Air Force’s successful strike against Wewak encouraged Admiral Carpender to send warships as far up the coast as Finschhafen. Thus on 22 August four destroyers under Captain Jesse H. Carter left Milne Bay, stopped at Buna to discuss air cover and obtain target information, and sailed for Finschhafen.
Starting at 0121, 23 August, Carter’s ships bombarded Finschhafen with 540 rounds of 5-inch shells and returned safely to Milne Bay. This operation was small in itself, but it was significant because this was the first time Allied warships had ventured so far up the New Guinea coast.
During the first three days of September Allied planes executed preparatory bombardments in support of the Lae invasion. They launched heavy attacks against airfields, supply points, and shipping lanes on 1 September, the same day on which medium and heavy bombers raided Alexishafen and Madang. Next day B-25’s and P-38’s delivered a low-level attack against Wewak. Gasmata and Borgen Bay on New Britain, and Lae itself, were struck on 3 September, and eleven nocturnal RAAF Catalinas raided Rabaul.
The Salamaua Attack: 1July-12 September1943
During July and August, while the various headquarters of the Southwest Pacific Area were preparing plans and assembling troops and supplies for the Lae-Markham Valley invasions, and while the air and naval forces were attacking Japanese aircraft, bases, and lines of communication, the troops in front of Salamaua were carrying out their part of the plan by the diversionary attack against that port. Starting from the arc-shaped positions they held in early July, the 3rd Australian Division and the MacKechnie Force, soon joined by the remainder of the 162nd Infantry, fought their way forward until by the end of August they were closing in on the town and airfield of Salamaua.
At first the reinforced 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry, fighting on the right of the 3rd Australian Division, was the only American unit present, but this force was enlarged in July, after the capture of Bitoi Ridge, when other elements of the 41st Division were attached to the 3rd Australian Division. This attachment came about because more U.S. infantrymen and artillerymen were needed to secure the Tambu Bay-Dot Inlet area northwest of Nassau Bay, and because a supply base for Australians and Americans in the combat area was required.
Consequently the Coane Force, commanded by Brigadier General Ralph W. Coane who was also 41st Division artillery commander, was organized during the second week in July.[N9-13] The MacKechnie Force, then fighting forward from Bitoi Ridge, was not a part of the Coane Force. Some units assigned to the Coane Force were already in the Nassau Bay area; others soon came up from Morobe.[N9-14]
[N9-13: It consisted at first of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 162nd Infantry; the 162nd Infantry Cannon Company; 3rd Platoon, Antitank Company, 162nd Infantry; C Battery, 209th Coast Artillery Battalion; A Battery, 218th Field Artillery Battalion; A Company, 116th Medical Battalion; A and D Companies, 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, 2nd Engineer Special Brigade; A Company, Papuan Infantry Battalion; a Combined Operational Service Command detachment; Troop D, 2/6th Royal Australian Artillery Regiment; and signal and quartermaster troops.]
[N9-14: Problems involving command over the mixed Australian-American units appear to have been additional factors in the decision to create the Coane Force rather than to turn all American troops over to Colonel MacKechnie. The MacKechnie Force was attached to the 3rd Australian Division, but Major General Horace H. Fuller, commanding the 41st U.S. Division, retained control over the American troops at the actual beachhead. Thus, as he put it later, Colonel MacKechnie was “placed in the unenviable position of trying to obey two masters” who kept giving him conflicting orders. The impossibility of obeying them both finally led MacKechnie to request relief as commanding officer of the 162nd. He was reassigned as Coane Force S-3, and later as liaison officer with the 3rd Australian Division, but returned to command the 162nd on the dissolution of the Coane Force. See Ltr, Colonel MacKechnie to General Smith, Chief of Mil Hist, 2 Nov 53, no sub, OCMH.]
Both Coane and MacKechnie Forces fought under command of General Savige, commanding the 3rd Australian Division, and after Savige’s headquarters was relieved on 24 August by Headquarters, 5th Australian Division, under command of Major General E. J. Milford, the Americans served under Milford. At the same time Colonel William D. Jackson, 41st Division artillery executive officer, was appointed as Commander, Royal Artillery, of the 3rd and then the 5th Australian Divisions. Jackson, using a composite Australian and American staff, served as artillery commander until the end of hostilities in that area.
On 17 July the Coane Force moved forward from Nassau Bay, and by the end of the next day had secured the southern headland of Tambu Bay, where a supply base was set up. Starting on 20 July, the Americans launched a series of attacks with strong artillery support which resulted on 13 August in the capture of the high ground—Roosevelt Ridge, Scout Ridge, and Mount Tambu —overlooking Tambu Bay and Dot Inlet. On 12 August the Coane Force was dissolved and the entire 162nd Infantry reverted to Colonel MacKechnie’s control.
At the same time the Australians pressed forward so that by the first week in September they had reached the Francisco River, which flows in an west-east direction just south of the Salamaua airfield. All advances were made up and down precipitous ridges varying from eight hundred to three thousand feet in height. With characteristic skill the Japanese had established strong defensive positions on the ridges; there were many automatic weapons emplacements, with earth-and-log pillboxes predominating, that gave each other mutual support with interlocking bands of fire. Trenches and tunnels connected the emplacements.
Early September saw Japanese resistance slackening. On 11 September the Australians and the 162nd Infantry Reconnaissance Platoon crossed the rain-swollen Francisco River and by the end of 12 September the airfield, the town, and the entire isthmus, which had been held by the Japanese for eighteen months, was back in Allied hands.
The cost was not cheap. On 29 June there were 2,554 men in the 162nd Infantry. By 12 September battle casualties and disease had reduced the regiment to 1,763 men. One hundred and two had been killed, 447 wounded. The 162nd estimated it had killed 1,272 Japanese and reported the capture of 6 prisoners.
The Japanese had lost Salamaua after a stiff fight and the very strength of their defense had played into Allied hands, for of the ten thousand enemy soldiers in the Lae-Salamaua area, the majority had been moved to Salamaua. The Allied ruse had succeeded.
Lae: The Seaborne Invasion; The Landing
The unit slated to invade Lae, Major General G. F. Wootten’s 9th Australian Division, embarked on the ships of Admiral Barbey’s Task Force 76 at Milne Bay on 1 September. Next day Barbey’s ships sailed to Buna and to Morobe, where they were joined by fifty-seven landing craft of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade that had assembled there in the latter part of August. On the night of 3-4 September the armada set out for Lae, eighty miles distant; it arrived at the landing beaches east of Lae at sunrise of 4 September.
At 0618, eighteen minutes after the sun rose, five destroyers fired a ten-minute bombardment on the beaches. Then sixteen landing craft from the APD’s started for the beaches carrying the assault waves. At 0631 the 20th Australian Infantry Brigade began going ashore at Red Beach, near Bulu Plantation and some eighteen miles east of Lae. This landing was unopposed. Two minutes later troops of the 26th Australian Infantry Brigade landed at Yellow Beach, eighteen miles east of Lae, east of the Bulu River. A small group of Japanese on Yellow Beach ran away at the approach of the Australians. Scouts of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade landed with the Australian infantry.
Fifteen minutes after the assault waves beached, LCI’s pushed their bows onto the beaches and put more riflemen ashore. They were followed by LCT’s and LST’s. All assault troops had landed by 0830, and by 1030 fifteen hundred tons of supplies had been landed. By the end of the day the beachheads were secure, 2,400 more Australians had landed, and the 26th Brigade and the 2/17th Australian Infantry Battalion had crossed the Buso and begun the advance westward against Lae.
There was no resistance on the ground, but Japanese aircraft attempted to break up the invasion. About 0700, before fighter cover had arrived, a few two-engine bombers with fighter escort attacked Task Force 76 and damaged two LCI’s. Imamura dispatched eighty planes from Rabaul to attack Barbey but these were delayed by the fog over New Britain that Kenney’s weathermen had predicted. The picket destroyer Reid’s radar located them over Gasmata in the afternoon just as Task Force 76 was making ready to sail for Milne Bay. The Reid vectored out forty P-38’s and twenty P-47’s which intercepted the flight and broke it up. Some planes got through, however, and attacked a group of six LST’s off Cape Ward Hunt. They damaged two and killed over a hundred Australian soldiers and American sailors. The Japanese did not attack the jammed landing beaches at this time, but returned in the evening to blow up an ammunition dump, damage two beached LCI’s, and kill two men.[N9-16]
[N9-16] They claimed to have sunk 14 transports,2 barges, 1 PT boat, 3 destroyers, and to have shot down 38 planes.]
The Advance Westward
Once the assault troops had landed control of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade elements—thirteen hundred men of a reinforced boat company, a boat control section, a shore battalion, a medical detachment, scouts, and a headquarters detachment—passed from Admiral Barbey to General Wootten. A salvage boat, ten LCVP’s, and two additional LCVP’s mounting machine guns for support of landings remained at Red Beach. Eventually, twenty-one LCM’s and twenty-one LCVP’s were sent to Red Beach. Because of breakdowns, these replacements were necessary if ten craft of each type were to be kept in operation. All these craft were used to support the 9th Division’s march against Lae.
The 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion, once landed, pushed east from Bulu Plantation and secured the east flank by seizing Hopoi. The reserve 24th Infantry Brigade landed on schedule on the night of 5-6 September, and at daylight started west behind the 26th Brigade. On 6 September, after a ten-mile march, the 26th Brigade met its first opposition at the Bunga River.
The 24th Brigade advanced along the coast while the 26th Brigade moved some distance inland in an effort to get behind Lae and cut off the enemy garrison.
The 24th’s advance was rendered difficult, not so much by the enemy as by the terrain. The heavy September rains flooded the creeks and turned the trails into deep mud that was virtually impassable for vehicles. Fortunately the boats of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade were available to ferry supplies by water to coastal dumps and enable the advance to continue. The leading Australian battalions reached the Busu (not to be confused with the Buso farther east) on the morning of 8 September. This swollen river, five feet deep and sixty feet wide at the mouth, and flowing at twelve knots, was a severe obstacle in itself, and the west bank was held by the Japanese.
Patrols attempted to force a crossing on the morning of 9 September but the combination of Japanese bullets and the swift current forced them back. In the late afternoon elements of four rifle companies got across in rubber boats and by wading and swimming. Several men were drowned and many weapons lost in this act of gallantry, but the four companies seized a bridgehead on the west bank and held it against enemy counterattacks.
Meanwhile the troops on the east bank loaded men, weapons, and ammunition onto the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade’s landing craft and sent them to the west bank. For the next sixty hours, the landing craft plied back and forth until the entire 24th Brigade had been transferred to the west bank. Rain, mist, and darkness helped hide the boats from the Japanese, who tried to hit them with artillery, machine guns, and rifles. During the same period a box girder bridge was moved in pieces by landing craft from Bulu Plantation to the mouth of the Burep River, then laboriously hauled inland to the 26th Brigade’s zone over a jeep track built by the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade. The bridge was installed over the Busu under enemy fire on the morning of the 14th. The 26th Brigade crossed over that night. Both brigades were then on the west bank of the Busu and were ready to resume the advance against Lae and effect a junction with the troops of the 7th Australian Division that were advancing east out of Nadzab.
Nadzab: The Airborne Invasion; The Jump
Capture of Nadzab had been spectacularly effected on 5 September. This mission, assigned to Colonel Kenneth H. Kinsler’s 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, was coupled with the additional mission of preparing the airstrip for C-47’s carrying Major General George A. Vasey’s 7th Australian Division from Marilinan and Port Moresby.
Reveille for the men of the 503rd sounded early at Port Moresby on the morning of 5 September. The weather promised to be fair, although bad flying weather over the Owen Stanleys delayed take off until 0825. New Guinea Force had prepared its plans flexibly so that the seaborne invasion on 4 September would not be slowed or altered if any threat of bad weather on 5 September delayed the parachute jump, but Kenney’s weathermen had forecast accurately.
2/4th Australian Field Regiment which was to jump with its 25-pounder guns reached the airfield two hours before take off. There they put on parachutes and equipment. The 54th Troop Carrier Wing had ninety-six C-47’s ready, and the troops boarded these fifteen minutes before take-off time.
The first C-47 roared down the runway at 0825; by 0840 all transports were aloft. They crossed the Owen Stanleys, then organized into three battalion flights abreast, with each flight in six-plane elements in step-up right echelon.
An hour later bombers, fighters, and weather planes joined the formation over Marilinan, on time to the minute. All together 302 aircraft from eight different fields were involved. The air armada then flew down the Watut Valley, swung to the right over the Markham River, and headed for Nadzab. The C-47’s dropped from 3,000 feet to 400-500 feet. The parachutists had stood in their planes and checked their equipment over Marilinan, and twelve minutes later they formed by the plane doors ready to jump.
In the lead six squadrons of B-25 strafers with eight .50-caliber machine guns in their noses and six parachute fragmentation bombs in their bays worked over the Nadzab field. Six A-20’s laid smoke after the last bomb had exploded. Then came the C-47’s, closely covered by fighters.
The paratroopers began jumping from the three columns of C-47’s onto separate jump areas about 1020. Eighty-one C-47’s carrying the 503rd were emptied in four and one-half minutes. All men of the 503rd but one, who fainted while getting ready, left the planes. Two men were killed instantly when their chutes failed to open, and a third landed in a tree, fell sixty feet to the ground, and died. Thirty-three men were injured. There was no opposition from the enemy, either on the ground or in the air. Once they reached the ground, the 503rd battalions laboriously moved through high kunai grass from landing grounds to assembly areas.
Five B-17’s carrying supply parachutes stayed over Nadzab all day. They dropped a total of fifteen tons of supplies on ground panel signals laid by the 503rd. The Australian artillerymen and their guns parachuted down in the afternoon. The whole splendid sight was witnessed by Generals MacArthur and Kenney from what Kenney called a “brass hat” flight of three B-17’s high above. MacArthur was in one, Kenney in another, and the third B-17 was there to provide added fire power in case the Japanese turned up.
The 503rd’s 1st Battalion seized the Nadzab airstrip and began to prepare it to receive C-47’s. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions blocked the approaches from the north and east. As soon as the parachutists had begun landing, the Australian units that had come down the Watut River—the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, the 2/6th Field Company, and one company of the Papuan Infantry Battalion—began landing on the north bank of the Markham. They made contact with the 503rd in late afternoon and worked through the night in preparing the airstrip. The next morning the first C-47 arrived. It brought in advance elements of the U.S. 871st Airborne Engineer Battalion.
Twenty-four hours later C-47’s brought in General Vasey’s 7th Division headquarters and part of the 25th Australian Infantry Brigade Group from Marilinan, where they had staged from Port Moresby. Thereafter the transports flew the Australian infantry and the American engineers directly from Port Moresby. By 10 September the well-timed, smoothly run operation had proceeded fast enough that 7th Division troops at Nadzab were able to relieve the 503rd of its defensive missions. Enough American engineers had arrived to take over construction of new airstrips.
The 503rd’s only contact with the enemy came in mid-September when the 3rd Battalion ran into a Japanese column at Yalu, east of Nadzab. The parachute regiment was withdrawn on 17 September. It had lost 3 men killed jumping, 8 men killed by enemy action, 33 injured jumping, 12 wounded by the enemy, and 26 sick.
This was, comparatively, small cost for the seizure of a major airbase with a parachute jump. Nadzab paid rich dividends. Within two weeks the engineers had completed two parallel airstrips six thousand feet long and had started six others.
The Advance Against Lae
The 25th Australian Infantry Brigade
Group moved eastward out of Nadzab toward Lae on 10 September while General Wootten’s 9th Division troops were forcing a crossing over the Busu River east of Lae. The Markham Valley narrows near Lae, with the Atzera Range on the northeast and the wide river on the southwest. A prewar road in the Atzera foothills connected Nadzab with Lae, and a rough trail on the other side of the Atzeras paralleled this road from Lae to Yalu, where it intersected the road. Thus while some troops blocked the trail at Yalu, and the 2/33rd Australian Infantry Battalion guarded the line of communications, the 2/25th Australian Infantry Battalion advanced down the road and part of the 2/2nd Australian Pioneer Battalion moved down the north bank of the river.
When a small group of Japanese offered resistance to the advance at Jensen’s Plantation, toward the lower end of the valley, the 2/25th Battalion drove it back and on 14 September captured Heath’s Plantation farther on. The 2/33rd Australian Infantry Battalion then took over and pushed on toward Lae. By now the Australians had come within range of Japanese 75-mm. guns and found the going harder. But an assault the next day cleared Edward’s Plantation and enemy resistance ended.
The advance elements of the 25th Brigade entered Lae from the west the next morning, 16 September. In the afternoon the 24th Brigade, which had advanced from the east and captured Malahang Airdrome on 15 September, pushed into Lae and made contact with the 25th Brigade. Lae had fallen easily and speedily. The Japanese had vanished.
The Japanese Evacuation
Throughout July and August the Salamaua Japanese were reinforced at Lae’s expense, but were continually forced back. On 24 August General Nakano, reflecting the importance which his superior had attached to Salamaua, addressed his troops thus: “Holding Salamaua is the Division’s responsibility. This position is our last defense line, and we will withdraw no further. If we are unable to hold, we will die fighting. I will burn our Divisional flag and even the patients will rise to fight in close combat. No one will be taken a prisoner.”
Imperial Headquarters, however, did not order a suicidal last stand. Nakano was ordered to hold out as long as possible, but to withdraw if he could not hold Salamaua. The Australian landing between Lae and Finschhafen and the 503rd’s seizure of Nadzab, coupled with Allied air and PT boat activity in the Huon Gulf and the straits, caused General Adachi on 8 September to order Nakano to abandon Salamaua and pull back to Lae. Nakano’s hospital patients and artillery had already been sent to Lae, and on 11 September withdrawal of the main body began.
Meanwhile, after considerable discussion Imperial Headquarters, Imamura, and Adachi abandoned their plans to take Bena Bena and Mount HaGen Adachi saw that the Allied operations at Salamaua, Nadzab, and Lae threatened to cut off the 51st Division. He now decided that he would have to withdraw from Lae, but determined to hold the Finisterre Range, the Ramu Valley, and Finschhafen. Therefore he ordered Nakano and Shoge to withdraw overland from Lae to the north coast of the Huon Peninsula, and directed the 20th Division to move from Madang to Finschhafen and to dispatch a regiment to the Ramu Valley to assist the 51st.
Thus the Allied troops pushing toward both Lae and Salamaua in early September met only delaying forces. The Salamaua garrison had assembled at Lae by the 14th, two days after the first echelon of the Lae garrison had started north. Another echelon left that day, and the last slipped out on the 15th. The day before, General Vasey had learned from a captured document and from interrogation of a prisoner that the Japanese were leaving Lae. He dispatched troops northward to reinforce the 2/4th Australian Independent Company, which was operating in the wilds north of Lae, but the Japanese eluded their pursuers.
It was a band of retreating enemy that the 3rd Battalion, 503rd, encountered at Yalu, and when Australian forces rushed there the Japanese hastily altered their route to avoid interception.
Once out of Lae, the 51st Division and the Lae naval garrison executed one of the difficult overland marches that were to characterize so many future Japanese operations in New Guinea. There was little fighting, but Australian patrols harried the retreat. The Japanese moved north out of Lae and avoided Nadzab and the obvious Markham-Ramu trough that Adachi had originally planned to use for the withdrawal. They moved in a generally north-northeasterly direction, crossed the Busu River by means of a rough-hewn bridge on 20-22 September, and skirted the west ends of the Rawlinson Range and Cromwell Mountains in the vicinity of Mount Salawaket about 25 September.
They had started with food for ten days, but this was exhausted by the time they reached Salawaket. Thereafter they lived by looting native gardens and by eating roots and grasses. Dysentery and malaria made their appearance, but as there were plenty of suppressive drugs the malaria rate was low.
The 51st Division had already abandoned most of its heavy equipment before the retreat. Along the way mountain artillerymen, unable to drag their guns over the precipitous slopes, were forced to abandon them. Many soldiers threw away their rifles. This was in strong contrast to the behavior of the 1st Battalion, 20th Division, which had reinforced the 51st Division at Salamaua. The commander, a Major Shintani, had threatened death to any soldier who abandoned his arms. Shintani died on the road, but his battalion rigorously adhered to his orders. Each soldier who completed the march carried his rifle and his helmet.
By mid-October the troops reached the north coast of the Huon Peninsula. The Army troops went to Kiari, naval personnel to nearby Sio. Slightly over 9,000 men had left Lae; 600 were march casualties. Nearly 5,000 soldiers arrived at Kiari, and some 1,500 sailors went to Lio. Many others were taken to the hospital at Madang. The defense of Lae-Salamaua and the subsequent retreat cost almost 2,600 lives.
Strategic Reconsiderations; The Japanese Pull Back
The fall of Lae and Salamaua, coming hard on the heels of defeat in the central Solomons, had a profound effect upon Japanese strategic plans, an effect that went far beyond the immediate importance of Lae and Salamaua. Although the twin losses of Guadalcanal and Buna were severe, Imperial General Headquarters had not regarded these as irretrievable. It had continued to prepare plans for offensives in the Southeast Area. Now the war leaders in Tokyo reassessed the situation and determined on a drastic retrenchment.
The fall of the central Solomons and of Lae-Salamaua closely followed the loss of Attu and the evacuation of Kiska in the Aleutians, and came at a time when Imperial Headquarters entertained well-justified fears about the opening of an Allied offensive through the Central Pacific. The Japanese in September decided that they were overextended.
They determined to withdraw their perimeter in order to set up a defense line that would hold back the Allies while they themselves marshaled their strength for decisive battle. This perimeter would be strongly manned and fortified. It was hoped that the defensive preparations behind it would be completed by the early part of 1944.
So Imperial Headquarters drew its main perimeter line from western New Guinea through the Carolines to the Marianas. This was “the absolute national defense line to be held by all means.” The Southeast Area, including Rabaul, once the focus of such great but elusive hopes for victory, was now on the outpost line.
But the war was far from over for MacArthur’s and Halsey’s troops. General Imamura and Admiral Kusaka were no longer counted on to win decisively, but they were ordered to hold out as long as possible, and so delay the Allied advance. To strengthen the Southeast Area, Imperial Headquarters in September ordered the 17th Division from Shanghai to Rabaul “to reinforce the troops manning the forward wall.”
Imamura and Kusaka determined to hold Bougainville, whose defenses they had been trying to build up during the long fight on New Georgia, to develop and strengthen Madang and Wewak, to develop the transport system connecting the main bases of the Southeast Area, and to hold Dampier and Vitiaz Straits. Control of these straits had been essential to nearly all Japanese movements to New Guinea and, as before, the Japanese were resolved to hold them in order to block any Allied westward advance.
To this end Imamura, who kept the 38th Division under his control to defend Rabaul, had previously dispatched the reinforced 65th Brigade to Tuluvu on the north coast of Cape Gloucester with orders to develop a shipping point there and to maintain the airfield. On 5 September he sent Major General Iwao Matsuda to Tuluvu to take command of the 65th Brigade, some elements of the 51st Division, and the 4th Shipping Group.
To Matsuda’s responsibility for handling shipping he added that of defending the coasts of western New Britain.
On the New Guinea side of the straits, the Japanese regarded Finschhafen as the key defensive position. Possessed of two good harbors—Finschhafen itself and Langemak Bay—and a small airfield, it had long been used as a barge staging point. In early August Adachi had been concerned about a possible attack against Finschhafen, but he did not have enough troops to strengthen its small garrison substantially while the 41st Division was defending Wewak, the 51st Division was defending the Lae-Salamaua area, and the 20th Division was working on the Madang-Lae road. He did, however, send the 80th Infantry and one battalion of the 21st Field Artillery Regiment of the 20th Division from Madang to Finschhafen. By the end of August Major General Eizo Yamada, commanding the 1st Shipping Group and the combat troops at Finschhafen, had about one thousand men.
When the 9th Australian Division landed east of Lae on 5 September, Adachi foresaw the danger, to Finschhafen. He suspended construction of the Madang-Lae road, which was now a twenty-foot-wide all-weather road running along the coast from Madang to Bogadjim, thence over the Finisterre Range at a defile named Kankirei and into the Ramu Valley to a point ten miles north of Dumpu. This decision freed the 20th Division for combat duty.
Adachi ordered a small force of the 20th Division, under Major General Masutaro Nakai, the divisional infantry commander, to advance to Kaiapit, which is on the uplands near the sources of the Markham and Ramu Rivers. The move was intended to keep the Allies from advancing through the Ramu Valley, over Kankirei to the coast, and on against Madang and Wewak, and was also to help cover the retreat of the 51st Division from Lae up the trough to Madang. When Adachi decided not to use the Markham and Ramu Valleys for the retreat he ordered Nakai north to hold the Kankirei defile.
Adachi ordered the main body of the 20th Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Shigeru Kitagiri, to march to Finschhafen. The division departed Bogadjim on 10 September on its march of nearly two hundred miles, but was still far from its destination when the Allies struck the next blow.
General MacArthur’s ELKTON III called for the capture of Finschhafen as a step toward gaining control of Vitiaz and Dampier Straits. The plan had set the tentative date for the move against Finschhafen at six weeks after the invasion of Lae. At least two factors, however, impelled a speed-up in the timetable. The first was the quick fall of Lae and Salamaua after the landing on 4 September. The second was the 20th Division’s move toward Finschhafen. But before orders could be sent out for the capture of Finschhafen, it was necessary to consider this operation in relation to the larger problems involved in capturing Madang, an operation considered necessary to protect the left flank during the seizure of Cape Gloucester. Seizure of Finschhafen, Madang, and Cape Gloucester would of course give physical control of both sides of the straits to the Allies.
Capture of Madang was bound to be a large operation. Allied intelligence estimated that in late August a total of 55,000 Japanese held the regions between Lae and Wewak. At this time General Blarney, in a letter to MacArthur, held that the Japanese would exert every effort to defend the Markham and Ramu Valleys, Bogadjim (near the defile into the Ramu), Lae, Salamaua, and Finschhafen. Capture of Madang, which had been assigned to his New Guinea Force, would require as preliminary conditions complete air and naval superiority, support by the VII Amphibious Force, physical possession of Lae, the Markham Valley, Salamaua, and Finschhafen, and the neutralization of the Japanese in western New Britain.
Blarney set forth three steps to be followed after the capture of Lae. The first was the capture of Finschhafen by a seaborne assault Blarney recommended as the second step seizure of an intermediate objective between Finschhafen and Bogadjim, because 256 miles of water separated Lae from Bogadjim, 178 separated Finschhafen and Bogadjim, and these were long distances to travel with a flank exposed. The third and final step would be the capture of Madang by a combination of airborne invasion and amphibious assault coupled with pressure from troops advancing northwestward out of the Ramu Valley. To avoid exposing the right flank, he strongly urged capturing Cape Gloucester (which had been assigned to the ALAMO Force) before taking Madang. This would be feasible, he argued, because Madang was so much farther from Finschhafen than was Cape Gloucester.
These proposals received close study at the advanced echelon of GHQ, which had moved to Port Moresby during the planning for Lae and the Markham Valley. General Chamberlin looked on them as generally sound. Regarding Blamey’s concern over control of Cape Gloucester as well as the coasts of the Huon Peninsula, however, he pointed out to General Sutherland that “G-3 believes that a physical occupation of areas has little bearing on the control of Vitiaz Strait but considers that airfields strategically placed which cover the water areas north of Vitiaz Strait are the controlling considerations.”
As to the intermediate objective between Finschhafen and Bogadjim, which Chamberlin placed at Saidor (with a harbor and prewar airfield) on the north coast of the Huon Peninsula, he felt that little would be gained by seizing it as well as Madang. On the other hand it appeared that Saidor might prove a satisfactory substitute for Madang.
Timing of operations would be tricky, largely because the VII Amphibious Force lacked enough ships to conduct two operations at once. It would be committed to operations on the Huon Peninsula until mid-November. Therefore the Cape Gloucester invasion could not take place until about 1 December, but the attack against the north coast of the Huon Peninsula would also have to be launched about the same time if the New Britain offensive was to be protected effectively. For these reasons Chamberlin recommended deferring the decision on whether to move to New Britain before or after invading the north coast of the Huon Peninsula. For this latter operation, he proposed two alternatives: seizure of a prewar airfield at Dumpu in the Ramu Valley without operating on the coast at all, or seizure of the Saidor airfield without operating in the Ramu Valley.
The questions were threshed out at a conference at Port Moresby on 3 September.
MacArthur, Sutherland, Chamberlin, Kenney, Whitehead, Blamey, Carpender, and others attended. Blarney spoke strongly in favor of his recommendations. Kenney urged a deep penetration of the Ramu Valley all the way to Hansa Bay, which lies between Madang and Wewak. After Hansa Bay, he recommended, the advance could turn southward in co-ordination with the Cape Gloucester attack. Admiral Carpender wanted an operation somewhere between Madang and Saidor to precede Cape Gloucester. He received some support in his view from MacArthur, who asserted the necessity for seizing an area between Finschhafen and Madang before capturing Cape Gloucester, so as to assure the safe movement of supplies to support the latter operation. After a good deal of discussion, opinion crystallized in favor of covering the move to Gloucester by seizing the line Dumpu-Saidor. Dumpu would be seized at once by airborne and overland advances, and would then be used to cover simultaneous moves against Saidor and Gloucester. These moves, Chamberlin estimated on 3 September, would take place about1 November at the earliest, but 1 December was more probable.
Thus it was that on 15 September MacArthur ordered Blamey’s New Guinea Force, supported by Kenney’s forces, to seize Kaiapit at the head of the Markham Valley and Dumpu about thirty miles south of Bogadjim. Two days later he ordered the New Guinea Force, with naval support, to capture Finschhafen. It would serve as an advanced air base, and Allied Naval Forces, basing light naval craft there, would use it to cut off the Japanese from Cape Gloucester and Saidor. The attack on Madang was postponed.
Advance Through the Ramu Valley
With his forces converging on Lae from east and west General Blarney completed plans for Kaiapit and Dumpu. Tactically the initial phases of the task appeared fairly simple; patrols had reported the area between Nadzab and the Leron River, a tributary of the Markham, to be free of the enemy.
Logistics would present the greatest difficulty. No overland line of communications existed, and until roads were built all supplies for the advancing troops would have to be flown in. This fact limited the attacking force to one division (the 7th) of but two brigade groups. The 2/6th Australian Independent Company began the drive in September when Kenney’s transport planes landed it on a prewar airstrip in the Markham Valley some thirty miles northwest of Nadzab near the Leron River. The 2/6th then made its way eight miles up the river to Kaiapit, after a sharp encounter on 19 September, captured the village from a small group of Japanese, and held it against their repeated counterattacks. Two days later the Kaiapit strip saw the arrival, after a flight up from Nadzab, of the 21st and 25th Brigade Groups of General Vasey’s 7th Australian Division.
At the month’s end the 21st Brigade, followed by the 25th, left Kaiapit and entered the Ramu Valley. By 6 October the 21st was in possession of Dumpu, where 7th Division headquarters was established. The great Markham-Ramu trough had fallen with an ease that the Allies had not expected, an ease brought about by the hasty Japanese decision not to retreat through the trough.
Behind the lines engineers set to work building a truck highway from Lae to Nadzab along the prewar road, but rain fell during forty-six of the final sixty days of the project and it was December before the task was finally finished and large amounts of supplies could be sent to Nadzab. Nadzab and the other sites in the Markham and Ramu Valleys received all their supplies and equipment by airlift during the period the road was under construction.
By the end of December Allied Air Forces possessed three first-class air bases in full-scale operation in the Markham and Ramu Valleys: one at Nadzab, one at Lae, and one at the juncture of the Gusap and Ramu Rivers. The last site was selected in preference to Kaiapit, which proved too swampy and malarious for extensive development. Dumpu served as a staging field for fighter planes.
After establishing strong positions at Dumpu, the 7th Australian Division continued its part in seizing the Huon Peninsula. Marching north-northwest from Dumpu, it attacked Nakai’s positions in the defiles of the Finisterres. The defiles were secured in February after almost three months of the most arduous kind of fighting. Nakai retreated toward Madang while Vasey’s division broke out to the coast east of Madang.
The Coastal Advance
Vasey’s operations through the Ramu Valley were co-ordinated with those of Wootten’s 9th Australian Division, which was operating on the coasts of the Huon Peninsula in a series of operations that began with Finschhafen. Before leaving Milne Bay for Lae, Wootten had been alerted to the possibility that he might have to send a brigade to Finschhafen.
Thus GHQ’s decision on 17 September to invade Finschhafen at once was no surprise to the veteran Australian commander. Admiral Barbey had just time enough, and no more, to assemble 8 LST’s, 16 LCI’s, 10 destroyers, and 4 APD’s for the invasion on 22 September, but “Uncle Dan” was now an old amphibious hand and he met the deadline. The LST’s loaded at Buna, and the whole task group assembled in the harbor at Lae on 21 September. General Wootten meanwhile had selected the 20th Infantry Brigade Group of his division to make the landing, and had ordered the 22nd Infantry Battalion to advance east along the coast to threaten Langemak Bay, just south of Finschhafen.
Elements of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade had been attached to Wootten, and these units also made ready. No close air support was planned for the invasion, but in the days preceding 22 September B-24’s and B-25’s bombed the Gasmata airfield on the south coast of New Britain. Daytime A-20’s and B-25’s struck at Japanese lines of communication to Finschhafen, and PT’s took over the work at night.
Troops of the 20th Brigade boarded their convoy on the afternoon of 21 September. The force included, besides the Australians and Barbey’s American sailors, one boat company, half the shore battalion of the 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, and medical and signal troops, or 575 men, 10 LCM’s, and 15 LCVP’s. The 22nd Battalion marched out of Lae en route to Langemak Bay on the 21st, and the same day the amphibious force sailed for Finschhafen, eighty-two miles distant.
The beach selected for the landing, designated Scarlet, lay six miles north of Finschhafen at the mouth of the Song River. It was nine hundred yards long (north to south), thirty feet wide, and was marked by coral headlands to the north and south. Destroyers bombarded Scarlet Beach on the morning of 22 September, and during darkness, at 0445, the first Australian assault wave touched down.
Coxswains had difficulty finding the right beach in the dark with the result that most landing craft carrying the first two waves lost direction and landed in a small cove south of Scarlet Beach. First light aided the LCI’s carrying the third wave; they landed at the right place. The waves that landed at the cove met some scattered but ineffective fire from enemy posts in the fringe of the jungle. The third wave met better organized opposition from log-and-earth pillboxes, but by 0930 all resistance had been overcome, all troops and supplies were ashore, and the landing craft retracted.
The Japanese survivors retired to rising ground about a half mile inland and some sharp fighting ensued before the 2/17th Battalion was in complete possession of the beachhead. The 2/13 Battalion meanwhile swung left (south) toward the village of Heldsbach, which was just north of the Finschhafen airstrip.
General Yamada had posted only a small part of his force at Scarlet Beach. He was keeping the rest of his 4,000-man command at Hanisch Harbor on the south coast of the peninsula and on Satelberg, a 3,240-foot peak which was about six miles west of Scarlet Beach, dominated the entire coastal region, and overlooked both Finschhafen and Langemak Bay. When General Adachi received news of the Allied landing he ordered Yamada to concentrate his force at Satelberg and attack at once. This attack was designed to hold or destroy the Australians pending the arrival of General Kitagiri’s 20th Division. By 21 September the 20th Division, advancing overland and hauling its heavy matériel on barges, had reached Gali, one hundred miles from Finschhafen; it expected to arrive at Finschhafen on 10 October. Adachi ordered Kitagiri to hurry.
Admiral Barbey’s retiring ships offered a tempting target to Japanese airmen, but the 7th Air Division, under orders to cover a Wewak-bound convoy, hesitated to leave it unprotected. The 4th Air Army headquarters ended this indecision by ordering the 7th out against Barbey, but bad weather over central New Guinea kept the Army planes on the ground. Those of the naval 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul went up and fiercely attacked the amphibious force on 22 and 24 September. But the vigilant destroyer Reid had given warning and Allied fighters, the ships’ own antiaircraft, and “good luck in addition to good ship maneuvering” kept the ships from harm.
At the beachhead the American engineers built roads and dumps and unloaded naval craft. The larger engineer craft carried additional supplies from Lae to Scarlet Beach, while the LCVP’s hauled supplies at night from Scarlet Beach to the Australians who were pushing south toward Finschhafen.
The 20th Brigade continued its move toward Finschhafen on the 23rd. It captured Heldsbach, the airfield, and part of the shore of the harbor before meeting stiff resistance at the Bumi River, where three hundred enemy sailors and one company of the 2nd Battalion, 238th Infantry, defended the south bank. Two companies of the 2/15th Battalion moved inland (right) to outflank the enemy, and the next morning the Australians forced their way over the river in the face of stalwart resistance. The brigade commander, who was becoming increasingly aware of the Japanese concentration at Satelberg, asked Wootten for one more battalion with which to hold Scarlet Beach while he concentrated his brigade against Finschhafen. Wootten assented.
The 2/43rd Battalion landed at Scarlet Beach on the night of 29-30 September to relieve the 2/17th, and the latter moved out at once for Finschhafen. Following air and artillery bombardment, the three Australian battalions—the 2/13th, 2/15th, and 2/17th—attacked on 1 October, fought all day, and overwhelmed the defenders. The next morning they occupied the village and harbor of Finschhafen and made contact south of Langemak Bay with patrols of the 22nd Battalion, which had advanced overland from Lae.
To gain complete control of the New Guinea side of Vitiaz Strait, Generals MacArthur and Blarney had ordered that the capture of Finschhafen be followed by an advance along the coast to Sio, fifty land miles distant. But the advance could not be undertaken until the Japanese were driven from their dominating positions at Satelberg and on Wareo spur, a lower spur which lay north of the Song River from Satelberg.
On 26 September Yamada had launched an unsuccessful attack with the 80th Infantry against the Australian beachhead. After Finschhafen fell on 2 October, the 20th Brigade moved back to Scarlet Beach in preparation for an assault against Satelberg. Two battalions attacked but met stout resistance.
When General Wootten’s headquarters and the 24th Brigade arrived, Wootten decided that all signs indicated the Japanese would counterattack immediately, before he could complete his preparations for advancing to Sio. He decided to go on the defensive for the time being.
Meanwhile the 20th Division was on its way; advance elements totaling 2,354 men had reached Sio by 30 September. General Kitagiri decided to advance by an inland route rather than use the coastal track to Satelberg. Like so many other Japanese generals in similar circumstances during World War II, he decided not to concentrate all his forces before attacking but ordered his units to attack the Australians upon arriving. Japanese tactical doctrine warns of the dangers of such piecemeal commitment but Japanese generals frequently aided the Allied cause by putting aside their doctrine in favor of pell-mell, piecemeal attack.
For his main attack against Scarlet Beach Kitagiri decided to drive eastward from Satelberg with most of his forces while a small detachment aboard four landing craft attempted an amphibious assault But his division was no better at safeguarding important documents than was any other Japanese unit. On 15 October General Wootten received a captured Japanese order which warned him to expect a two-regiment attack from Satelberg, coupled with a seaborne assault The Australians made ready.
Next day the 9th Division, though suffering some local reverses, repulsed the 20th’s attack from Satelberg. At 0300, 17 October, Japanese planes bombed the Allies, whereupon 155 men of the 10th Company, 79th Infantry, attempted to land from their four craft. Two barges were sunk, one departed in haste, and the other reached shore in the vicinity of a .50-caliber machine gun position manned by Private Nathan Van Noy, Jr., of the 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, and one other American engineer.
As the enemy soldiers disembarked they hurled grenades, one of which wounded Van Noy before he opened fire. But Van Noy held his fire until the Japanese were visible, then opened up and killed about thirty of them. He died of his wounds, and for his gallant devotion was awarded the Medal of Honor.30 Though the Japanese claim that the few men who reached the shore wrought great damage, in actuality they were all quickly killed.
Later in the morning came another major attack from Satelberg. Wootten, who had no reserve brigade, asked for the 26th and Barbey’s ships transported it to Scarlet Beach on 20 October. The Japanese attacks continued through 25 October, but all failed. As his food supplies were exhausted, Kitagiri suspended the attacks and regrouped for another try. The Australians, losing 49 dead in these actions, reported killing 679 of the enemy.
General Adachi, who had often been in and out of Salamaua during the fighting there, traveled from Madang via Kiari and Sio to Satelberg. He arrived on 31 October, and stayed for four days. During this period Kitagiri made some hopeful estimates on the success of future, more gradual offensives.
Satelberg to Sio
But Wootten was now ready to assume the offensive. By 17 November one more brigade, the 4th, had arrived to hold the beachhead while the three infantry brigades of the 9th Division attacked. Meanwhile work on the airstrip and advanced naval base at Finschhafen had gone forward so quickly that PT boats from Finschhafen were now harrying enemy sea communications at night in consort with PBY’s (“Black Cats”). With the support of tanks and artillery, and rocket-equipped LCVP’s lying offshore, the 9th Division fought a major action starting on 17 November. By 8 December it had captured Satelberg and Wareo spur and was ready to push up the coast to Sio, whence the 20th Division was retreating on orders from General Imamura himself.
Wootten’s men advanced slowly but steadily against the retreating enemy, supported all the while by the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade craft.31 The Australians found many sick, wounded, and dead Japanese who had fallen by the way as the weakened 20th Division, which numbered 12,526 men on 10 September and only 6,949 men by December, laboriously marched along. On 15 January 1944 the 9th Division entered Sio, on the north coast of the Huon Peninsula.
Fighting on the peninsula was not yet over, but the main strategic objectives—the airfield sites and the coast of Vitiaz Strait—were now in Allied hands. When the Lae-Nadzab road and the airfields were completed, the Allies could control the air over the straits and bring a heavier weight of metal to bear on Japanese bases to the north and to the west.
In the Nassau Bay-Lae-Finschhafen operation the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade lost twenty-one dead, ninety-four wounded, and sixty evacuated sick. On the pursuit to Sio four LCVP’s were lost to enemy action, four more to surf and reefs.
SOURCE: Cartwheel: Reduction of Rabaul; By John Miller Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)