World War Two: Operation Cartwheel (18) Emiau

March was a busy month in the Admiralties and at Empress Augusta Bay, where battles raged almost simultaneously. It was also a month of important decisions that culminated in the last Allied offensive move directed against Rabaul and Kavieng.

General MacArthur and his staff for some time had been convinced that the invasion of Hansa Bay in New Guinea was not a worthwhile move. On 3 March, just after the reconnaissance force landed in the Admiralties, General Chamberlin suggested to other members of the staff that since Rabaul and Kavieng were now so much weaker than when operations were planned it might be possible, if carrier-based aviation was provided, to bypass Hansa Bay and advance beyond Wewak in a long leap forward. Two days later, by radio, MacArthur took up the question with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Explaining that complete occupation of the Admiralties would soon follow, he argued that the success of the reconnaissance party presented an excellent opportunity to move west along the north coast of New Guinea. He suggested that his forces seize Kavieng at once, bypass Hansa Bay, and advance all the way to Hollandia in Netherlands New Guinea, if Admiral Nimitz could provide the carriers for a short time. Carriers would be required for fighter cover, for Hollandia lay beyond effective fighter-plane range of the most westerly Southwest Pacific bases. Such a move, he pointed out, would bypass the main strength of Adachi’s 18th Army (then at Madang and Wewak) and speed the advance to the Vogelkop by several months.

[N8-2 Rad, MacArthur to CofS for JCS, 5 Mar 44, in GHQ SWPA G-3 Jnl, 5 Mar 44. On the same day MacArthur told Krueger of the proposals he had made and ordered him to prepare plans for both Hollandia and Hansa Bay so as to be ready for any contingency. Rad, MacArthur to Comdr ALAMO, 5 Mar 44, in GHQ SWPA G-3 Jnl, 5 Mar 44.]

The Joint Chiefs of Staff were undoubtedly influenced by Halsey’s arguments against Kavieng and in favor of Emirau, and by Nimitz’ opposition to Kavieng, as well as by MacArthur’s proposals. They ordered that the Kavieng plan be canceled, that Emirau be seized instead, and that Kavieng and Rabaul be isolated with minimum forces. They authorized the bypassing of Hansa Bay in favor of the invasion of Hollandia. The Hollandia invasion would be the first direct move in MacArthur’s advance to the Philippines.

MacArthur forwarded the relevant provisions of the orders to Halsey, directing him to revoke plans for Kavieng and to seize, occupy, and defend Emirau with minimum forces at the earliest possible moment. At Emirau a light air and naval base was to be established from which to blockade the Bismarck Archipelago and neutralize Truk. Meanwhile operations to neutralize Rabaul and Kavieng would continue.

Admiral Halsey has written that when he received these orders at Noumea he was surprised, but that no special problems were raised. “This entailed no more than dusting off our original plan, picking the landing force, and notifying Ping Wilkinson and Roy Geiger to load them in.” Commodore Reifsnider was given command of the amphibious force. The landing force Halsey selected was a new regiment, the 4th Marines, which had been created out of the recently disbanded raider battalions. [N8-6] Landing force command was entrusted to General Noble of the Marine Corps. Carried aboard nine APD’s and one APA and escorted by nine destroyers and two tugs, the landing force sailed from Guadalcanal on 18 March and made a peaceful voyage past the Solomon’s and New Ireland to Emirau. On 20 March, while four old battleships fired 1,079 14-inch and 12,281 5-inch shells at Kavieng, the Marines went peacefully ashore. There were no Japanese; air bombardments and naval gunfire were unnecessary. This operation, wrote Admiral Halsey, established “a record of six days between ‘Stand by to shove off!’ and ‘Well done!’ ” 

[N8-6 It was numbered the 4th to commemorate the 4th Marine Regiment that was taken prisoner on Corregidor. ]

Within a month 18,000 men and 44,000 tons of supplies had been ferried to Emirau. The first airstrip was opened in May. From here Allied planes and torpedo boats patrolled New Ireland, and when bomber strips were ready long-range bombers from Emirau and Nissan could reach Truk.

And so, peacefully and almost anticlimactically, the Emirau operation was concluded, and with it the long, hard-fought series of operations against Rabaul which had begun with the invasion of Guadalcanal almost two years before. Whereas the first of the operations, Guadalcanal and Papua, were agonizingly slow, the CARTWHEEL and Bismarck Archipelago campaigns had clicked off with speed and precision. In less than one year MacArthur’s and Halsey’s forces fought their way from Guadalcanal and Buna through Woodlark, Kiriwina, Nassau Bay, New Georgia, Lae, Salamaua, Nadzab, the Markham and Ramu Valleys, Finschhafen, the Treasuries, Empress Augusta Bay, Arawe, Cape Gloucester, Saidor, the Green Islands,

Emirau, and the Admiralties. They gained control of all the seas and straits, as well as the air, in the whole vast region of the Japanese Southeast Area. Using carrier aircraft and planes based on airfields captured by ground forces that had been transported and protected by air and naval surface forces, they reduced Rabaul to impotence. They destroyed hundreds of Japanese planes, seriously diminished the dwindling force of trained pilots, sank or damaged precious warships, chewed up three Japanese divisions and several brigades, and safely bypassed some 100,000 Japanese who, for practical purposes, were now out of the war. Together with Admiral Nimitz’ forces, they forced Japanese air and naval surface forces to evacuate the Southeast Area. In taking these strides, the Allied forces of the South and Southwest Pacific Areas accomplished their assigned mission of defending the U.S.-Australian line of communications. They also placed MacArthur’s forces in position to start the drive along the New Guinea coast to the Philippines.

This great advance from Guadalcanal and Buna employed elements of the armed forces of three nations and called for the most careful co-ordination and timing of a complex variety of operations. With the exception of large armored battles, true close air support, and struggles between aircraft carrier task forces, CARTWHEEL and the Bismarck operations boasted about every important type of action, singly and in combination, that, characterized World War

There were bitter struggles for a few yards of swampy jungles; land marches; assaults against fortified positions; gallant defenses; parachute jumps and airlifts; amphibious invasions, both ship-to-shore and shore-to-shore; air and naval support bombardments; fighter sweeps; large bombing raids; strikes by land-and carrier-based planes against ships; and gun and torpedo actions between surface warships. Throughout the series of battles an improvement in technique, especially in amphibious operations, is apparent.

All the invasions shared a dominant feature; in each case the range of the fighter plane was a vital factor in determining the objective, setting the timetable, and fixing the limits of the advance. Aircraft carriers might have made longer advances possible, but during much of the time they were not available and doctrines then current warned against using carriers to support the invasion of air and naval bases.

Planning and executing these forward moves were military accomplishments of a high order, and the credit must be shared by all participants from the area commanders to the men in the ranks. But stamped upon the whole series of operations is the imprint of the higher commanders. Although many of the staff officers and subordinate commanders stood out prominently and later won greater fame and rose to higher posts—Krueger, Collins, Harmon, Twining, Carney, Turner, Kenney, Kinkaid, Barbey, Sutherland, Fechteler, Chamberlin, Swift, Vandegrift, Geiger, Griswold, Hodge, Wilkinson, Beightler, and Turnage, to name a representative few—it is clear that General MacArthur and Admiral Halsey dominated and controlled the campaigns.

They were different men, and they worked differently: MacArthur, austere and aloof, insisting that his staff and subordinate commanders reach agreement on details; Halsey, with a salty façade of bluff humor and informality, working more closely with his generals and admirals. But both possessed and exhibited exceptional leadership and judgment. And they worked well together. With an easy, cordial relationship, they co-operated and assisted each other to further the Allied cause. They shuttled ships back and forth from area to area to bolster each other’s forces, and they timed operations in such a way that, as General Marshall predicted, forward moves in each area supported the other, thwarted the enemy strategy, and gained a significant victory. This victory was won at the cost of fewer casualties than the Japanese sustained in defeat. Both MacArthur and Halsey were obviously deeply conscious of their responsibility for conserving the lives of the men entrusted to their leadership, and considered each objective, not only in terms of its strategic value, but also in terms of human life.

In opposing the Allies, the Japanese had fought with characteristic resolution and often with great skill, but to little avail. Except for their delaying tactics in New Georgia, which slowed the campaign and required the commitment of far more Allied troops than had been planned, they were uniformly unsuccessful. General Imamura and Admiral Kusaka were, as far as the evidence indicates, experienced and skillful. Close analysis fails to show many overt errors in their strategy or in its execution. The flaw in their conduct of operations was fundamental, and was imposed on them by Imperial General Headquarters; they had to try too much with too little. Attempting to hold almost the entire Southeast Area with inferior numbers of men, ships, planes, and guns, they lost it all except the parts the Allies neither needed nor wanted. They had possessed, strategically speaking, interior lines which enabled them to switch reserves back and forth and to reinforce their forward units as long as they controlled the air and the sea. But they were so badly outnumbered that the advantages of interior lines were vitiated from the start, and when they lost control of the air and the sea the interior lines became valueless. Having lost the initiative, they never knew exactly where and when the next blow would fall and were never able to dispose their forces properly to meet it.

The Allied forces operated, strategically, on exterior lines—which as has often been pointed out present to the attacker greater difficulties but also greater promise of decisive results. Because of their superior strength the Allies could select targets so as to avoid strong points and seize lightly held, strategically valuable areas. In short, the Allies were able to use the bypass technique with its concomitant savings in lives and time.

So it was that March 1944 saw the Allies as far forward as Emirau, the Admiralties, and Saidor, with the Southwest Pacific forces making ready to drive toward the Philippines.

SOURCE: Cartwheel: Reduction of Rabaul; By John Miller Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Marianas (2-3) Planning the Invasion-Saipan &Guam

World War Two: Action in the Admiralties II (16)

World War Two: Bougainville Counterattack (17)

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