Category Archives: Pacific

Japanese Surrender at Bougainville and Rabaul, 1945

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6821-6840:

On 11 August, General Savige had ordered his troops on Bougainville to suspend hostilities unless attacked. Two days later, Private Eric Bahr, of the 7th Battalion, was shot dead by an enemy sniper at a position north of Pearl Ridge. Three of his comrades were wounded when the Japanese position was attacked in response. Though others would die later of wounds, accidents and illness, Eric Bahr was the last Australian killed in action on Bougainville.

Lance Corporal Shigeo Nakano, of the II/81st Battalion, had arrived in Rabaul on 3 November 1943. American submarines had sunk one of the convoy transports on the way south, and Nakano’s battalion had reached Rabaul via the deck of the cruiser Minazuki. The unit had been sent south to Bougainville, and after the abortive attack on the Torokina perimeter, the men had been engaged in planting and harvesting what food they could to survive. Now, as the war neared its end, Nakano was at Numa Numa. The Allies had for some time been dropping leaflets urging the Japanese to surrender. Gradually, it dawned on the troops that what these leaflets said about landings in the Philippines and beyond was closer to the truth than what they heard on Japanese radio broadcasts. The latest leaflet informed them that the war had ended—a message reinforced by aircraft with the words ‘Japan has surrendered’ painted under their wings in Japanese. Nakano reflected that ‘of the four thousand troops who sailed from Shanghai less than two years before, only 170 of the originals had survived and we were ragged and starving.’ Some days later, when five Australians arrived at Numa Numa, the Japanese battalion commander paraded his men and offered the Australians the only gifts he had, a fresh coconut each. One of the Aussie soldiers turned to Nakano, held the coconut aloft and said, ‘Well, here’s to peace.’ When the Seventeenth Army commander, Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda, surrendered at Torokina on 8 September 1945, an extraordinary 14,546 Army and 9366 naval personnel ‘went into the bag’ as prisoners.

On 4 September, Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura and Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka had surrendered all remaining Japanese army and naval forces on New Britain to Lieutenant General Vernon Sturdee, the commander of the First Australian Army, on the deck of the British aircraft carrier HMS Glory, anchored off Rabaul. When the Australians landed at the town, there were 57,225 Japanese Army and 31,923 naval personnel there. The war had long since passed them by. The first repatriations to Japan took place on 28 February 1946, and they continued until 13 June.

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Codebreaking in New Guinea, 1944

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6019-37:

On 20 March [1944], Emirau Island, 120 kilometres northwest of Kavieng, was occupied unopposed, and by the end of April two airfields had been constructed there. With Kavieng and Rabaul isolated, MacArthur could now make a great bound towards the Philippines. Having convinced the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Wewak should be bypassed, he planned to strike Hollandia (modern-day Jayapura), just across the border from Wewak in Netherlands New Guinea. Apart from isolating the Japanese Army in New Guinea, MacArthur wanted the prime anchorage of Humboldt Bay and the Lake Sentani airfields for his drive towards Japan.

Intelligence made the Hollandia decision possible. ULTRA decrypts, the decoded Japanese naval and Army communications, had already played an important part in New Guinea operations. ULTRA’s first success had been to expose Japanese intentions during the Papuan campaign, particularly the planned invasions of Port Moresby and Milne Bay. Later plans to reinforce Lae had been uncovered by ULTRA and then undone by the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. ULTRA had then kept MacArthur informed of the air buildup at Wewak, which had been so efficiently nullified by Kenney’s air arm. Now it gave MacArthur the priceless advantage of knowing that Hansa Bay was being reinforced and would be a tough nut to crack. The same was true of Wewak, but the decrypts confirmed that both Aitape and Hollandia were weakly held. The Japanese commanders were thinking in small steps, while MacArthur was planning a great leap.

The Australians played a major part in this intelligence coup. When the radio platoon from the Japanese 20th Division headquarters had pulled out from Sio in the wake of the Australian advance, its men had to carry the heavy components of the radios. However, a large trunk containing all their code books and other cipher material was left behind, buried in a nearby creek. It was discovered by Australian sappers sweeping the former headquarters site for mines and sent back to Australia, where the documents were painstakingly dried out and analysed. The cipher keys gave the Allies access to crucial intelligence on Japanese Army strength and plans in New Guinea.

So MacArthur would boldly strike for Hollandia six months ahead of the originally scheduled date. Though the operation’s code name, Reckless, may have indicated otherwise, MacArthur had the intelligence and the resources to succeed.

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Japanese Troops Isolated in PNG, 1944

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6487-6497:

By October 1944, Lieutenant General Hataz [sic; Hatazō 二十三 '2-10-3' because he was born in the 23rd year of Emperor Meiji's reign] Adachi’s Eighteenth Army had dwindled to 35,000 men, most of them at Wewak and along the coastal strip further west. As at Bougainville, Australian ground forces had replaced the Americans at Aitape but were not content to sit still inside the former American perimeter. By the end of October, the first patrols by Major Charles Wray’s 2/10th Commando Squadron had contacted scattered troops from Lieutenant General Goro Mano’s 41st Division—the remnants from the abortive attacks at the Driniumor River—who were slowly withdrawing to the interior.

What was left of Major General Nakai’s 20th Division was further east, while the scant remnants of Lieutenant General Nakano’s 51st Division were around Wewak. All Adachi’s units were widely spread out and consigned to subsistence farming by the Allied blockade. The Japanese produced salt by night on the coast at Wewak and got oil and copra from nearby Muschu Island. However, they could not grow batteries for their communications equipment or ammunition for their weapons, so Adachi was limited to small-scale actions for the remainder of the campaign. As his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Kane Yoshihara, wrote: ‘There were no clothes, no shoes, no blankets, no mosquito nets, no tools, no ammunition, no medicine, and there was, of course, a shortage of food.’

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British Indian POWs in New Guinea

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6755-6767:

As far back as 10 December 1944, the first two Indian prisoners of war had been found by an Australian patrol. Indians had been brought in by the Japanese to work in labour companies, and these two had walked for forty-five days from Wewak. The advance towards Balif in March gathered up more emaciated Indians: Sandy Pearson released some who had been kept in bamboo cages and were unable to stand. In March 1945, Gavin Long talked to a released Indian who had been captured in Singapore and brought to Wewak with about 500 other POW-slaves. Long wrote, ‘I have never seen a man so thin, he was literally skin and bone.’

The 2/8th Battalion recovered 102 Indian prisoners of the Japanese. Despite their starving condition, they refused bully beef because their Hindu faith proscribed it. One man who had survived a Japanese massacre fifteen days previously had been carried in on a stretcher. He gratefully ate biscuits and then gathered all the fallen crumbs and placed them in his shirt pocket.

By the end of the campaign, 201 Indian prisoners had been rescued by the 6th Division, the only survivors of around 3000 who had been brought to Wewak in May 1943. As Jemadar Chint Singh later wrote, ‘At this hour of our calamity the Division worked as [an] Angel for us.’ The angels kept particularly close to Singh: of the handful of Indian prisoners recovered from Japanese control at the surrender, he was the only one not on board during an aircraft accident in which the rest perished.

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Malaria Killed More than Combat in PNG

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4885-4905:

From the moment the Australians flew into Nadzab, they were under insidious assault. Carried by the fragile mosquito, malaria could fell and even kill the strongest of men, and the Ramu Valley, the valley of death in the local dialect, had one of the highest incidences in the country.

The traditional treatment was with quinine, but 90 per cent of the world’s supply came from cinchona-tree plantations in Java, which was now under Japanese occupation. After the 252 Lark Force escapees ran out of quinine on New Britain in early 1942, fifty died within five weeks and most of the remainder needed hospitalisation. An alternative malaria suppressant had to be found or it would be impossible to maintain troops in northern Australia, let alone New Guinea. Atebrin, a synthetic version of quinine that had been developed in Germany before the war, became the Australian Army’s official antimalarial drug, and what quinine remained was reserved for treatment. Australian scientists helped develop practical methods of synthesising Atebrin and pinpointed the dosage that most effectively suppressed malaria among deployed troops. In New Guinea, wearing protective clothing, using mosquito nets, spraying, improving drainage and of course taking the bittertasting Atebrin pills became as important as any combat discipline.

Malaria is not found above elevations of about 1000 metres, but most of the fighting in New Guinea took place along the coast or in the lowlands of the Markham and Ramu Valleys. High rainfall increased the opportunities for mosquitoes to breed, so the relatively dry area around Port Moresby was less dangerous than Milne Bay and the Papuan beachheads, where malaria was rampant. From October 1942 to April 1943, malaria caused almost five times more casualties than combat did. Even that was not the full story, as most affected men had recurrences of the disease after returning to Australia. The highly malarial environment of the Ramu Valley almost crippled the Australian campaign. Almost 1 in 10 of the operational troops were falling ill with malaria each week, meaning that within eleven weeks almost all would be infected. There were other diseases, some—such as scrub typhus—much deadlier, but malaria accounted for 90 per cent of losses due to disease. As a result of the scientists’ studies, the daily Atebrin dose was doubled, and the infection rate fell by about two-thirds. For Japanese troops in New Guinea, malaria was also a serious problem. Though they had stocks of quinine, the progressive breakdown of their supply system meant that almost all frontline troops were infected with malaria, and deaths from it increased as the war went on.

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The Japanese Retreat from Lae, PNG

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4518-4577:

After the loss of the Bismarck Sea convoy the previous March, the Japanese command in Lae had seen the writing on the wall and made contingency plans for evacuation. As part of those preparations, the engineering unit of Lieutenant Masamichi Kitamoto had orders to blaze a land route across the Huon Peninsula to Lae. At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Kitamoto had run for Japan. Now he would again be asked to use his legs for his country. A week after the loss of the Lae convoy, his fifty-man detachment from the 30th Regiment Independent Engineers crossed the Vitiaz Strait from Tuluvu, on the western tip of New Britain, and landed on the New Guinea mainland. With a native guide, the heavily burdened engineers set out to cross the Saruwaged Range to Lae. ‘It was just like climbing a slide from the bottom to the top,’ Kitamoto wrote later. ‘You had to bend forward deeply to bring the centre of gravity before you. It was as if someone had put a heavy weight on our heads and [was] pulling our legs at the same time.’ It only got worse: ‘The incline kept going up and up into the skies. Our legs grew stiff and we gasped for breath . . . Gazing at the clouds below us, we continued the march up the sharp incline . . . It was so cold that it seemed that our hands which grasped the rocks to pull us up would become frozen.’ At 4500 metres, Kitamoto’s engineers crossed a summit higher than Mount Fuji in Japan. Almost as testing was the descent down the other side. The expedition to Lae took three weeks, but when Kitamoto reported to Lieutenant General Hidemitsu Nakano’s headquarters on 3 April, just a month after the Bismarck Sea debacle, Nakano had his escape route.

Now it was mid-September, and the Japanese situation in Lae was desperate as Kitamoto again reported to Nakano’s headquarters. When the young lieutenant entered, Nakano was in conference with his key officers, poring over a map spread across the table. Kitamoto soon learned that Nakano had ordered a retreat: there would be no final battle for Lae. Civilian employees had already left, beginning their trek on 4 September. For the troops who remained, there were two potential routes: across the Saruwaged Range to the north coast, or through the foothills of the Finisterre Range, parallel to the Markham Valley. Having traversed both, Kitamoto was asked for his opinion. ‘The second plan is impossible,’ he told Nakano, knowing that Allied aircraft could easily interdict a route through the kunai grass that covered the foothills. Kitamoto continued: ‘The first plan is difficult, but there is still some chance of success. If I had to make the final decision I would choose Plan 1. However, the sacrifice will be great.’ The die was cast: the order was issued.

The first group of Japanese soldiers, about 2000 naval troops including Kitamoto’s men, set off from Lae on 12 September, making their way inland along the west bank of the Busu River. They formed one of four groups, totalling 8650 men, headed for the high mountains with enough rations to last ten days. Intermediate supply dumps were established north of Gawan and at Iloko. The first and third groups went into the mountains via Gawan, the second and fourth groups via Kemen. Kitamoto’s engineers led the way, setting up signposts and repairing the track as they went. They crossed the Busu about 3 kilometres upstream from the now fallen kunda bridge. General Nakano travelled with the second group, which halted at the Busu for three days while a new bridge was constructed. The final organised group left Lae on 15 September.

Shigeru Horiuchi, a twenty-two-year-old private with III/238th Battalion, had arrived in Lae only a week before the Australian invasion. Since then, his unit had gone through ‘two weeks of hell,’ under constant attack from Allied bombers; ‘even the officers were trembling in funk holes and had no taste for fighting.’ Horiuchi’s company did not leave Lae until 17 September, but Horiuchi was soon forced to drop out because of a leg wound. He was captured a few days later sheltering in a native village 25 kilometres north of Lae.

In the first days of the trek, 200 men had died, mostly wounded and sick. ‘The mountains were only 500 metres high and this much casualties,’ Kitamoto observed with dismay. ‘How many will die before we clear Mt. Sarawaket, which is 4500 metres high? The sharp precipices rising before us will take many victims.’ Once the track began to rise, ‘the soldiers helped each other along, the strong carrying the rifles of weak men. However, as they grow tired, even the strong began to discard their rifles.’ Kitamoto ordered that any discarded weapons should have the chrysanthemum insignia filed off because ‘it was humiliating to throw away the arms that belong to the emperor.’

As the men weakened, the incidence of malaria increased and more men dropped out. In the first 1500 metres of the climb after leaving Kemen, 500 men died. Steep precipices dropped away on both sides of the track. ‘After we escaped the clutches of the enemy we were confronted by nature,’ Kitamoto wrote. Those who lived also confronted the corpses of those who died. ‘Using the dead bodies as stepping stones and clinging to the slippery lichen-covered rocks, the men made their way up the mountain. Fresh red blood ran from the mouths of the dead when they were stepped on and their glassy eyes stared us in the face.’ Approaching 4000 metres, the cold bit hard into lightweight tropical uniforms; though exhausted, the men were afraid to fall asleep lest they freeze to death. Another 800 men died crossing the top of the range. ‘The screaming voices of the men who slipped from the log bridges to their death in the canyons below, the wailing cries of the men who could move no more and were asking for help . . . it was a sense of hell, something quite out of this world.’

By now the rations had gone. Starving, some men ate human flesh. As he approached the summit of Mount Saruwaged, Kitamoto saw that ‘in the shadow of the rocks, three soldiers had pinned a trooper to the ground while one of them stabbed him in the heart with his bayonet. There were no signs that the dead man had asked the others to kill him. The remaining three soldiers cut slices of the dead trooper’s thigh and began to devour the human flesh.’ After Kitamoto shouted at them, ‘the men looked in my direction, flies that gathered about dead meat swarmed about their faces but they had no strength to drive them away. They had become mad with hunger and fatigue.’ Kitamoto covered the corpse and moved on.

In the end even Kitamoto’s strength gave out, and he was carried to the coast on a stretcher. He reached Kiari, some 20 kilometres west of Sio, twenty days after leaving Lae. Staff Officer Sugiyama told him: ‘I wish to bow my head in gratitude for your strong legs. Your legs saved the whole division.’ Once he recovered, Kitamoto headed back to the top of the range to help the stragglers reach the coast. The last stretcher case was brought in on 15 November. An 18th Army report showed that of the 8650 who had left Lae, 6417 survived—a loss of over 25 percent. Most of the survivors staggered into Kiari suffering from malnutrition and malaria. Although only 1271 of them were officially classified as ‘sick,’ Kitamoto wrote that all the men ‘were a group of invalids . . . in no condition to fight.’

Even on the coast, safety was not assured: three men died as they rested on the beach, crushed by a falling coconut tree. ‘At second look, I discovered that they were the men who became mad and ate their comrade during the march,’ Kitamoto wrote. His right-hand man, the native guide Rabo, also knew what these men had done. ‘Those soldiers no good,’ he told Kitamoto as he stared at the three dead men. ‘They eat friend. God punish them.’ As Rabo turned away, Kitamoto felt a shiver run down his spine.

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Japanese Bayonet Practice in New Britain, 1942

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 2440-2447, 2592-2601:

In 1942 the great majority of Japanese troops carried the 6.5mm Arisaka Model 38, a long but relatively light rifle that boasted almost no recoil. The weapon also had another important attribute, as described in a U.S. Army intelligence bulletin: “The length of the Model 38 makes it particularly suitable for bayonet fighting. When the Japanese infantryman is armed with this rifle and the Model 30 (1897) bayonet, which is also unusually long, he feels that in close combat he is a match for his larger and taller enemies.” The Imperial Army placed a heavy emphasis on bayonet fighting. Recruits spent hours practicing such moves as the “side-step thrust,” the “low body thrust,” and the “body contact thrust.” At this point in the war, few members of the South Seas Detachment, if any, had personally experienced hand-to-hand combat. They didn’t know what it felt like to pierce a man’s body with the thin, fifteen-inch-long blade affixed to the end of their rifles. But on the morning of February 4, many of Noda’s men would find out.

WHEN THE LONG DAY OF KILLING FINALLY ENDED, NODA’S MEN HAD massacred 160 Australians. All were tied up, rendering them completely defenseless, before they were bayoneted or shot. The mass execution, sanctioned by Colonel Kusunose at Rabaul, almost certainly had the approval of Major General Horii. Afterward, the Japanese tacked a chilling message to the front door of the Waitavalo plantation house: “To Commander Scanlan—Now that this Island is took and tightly surrounded by our Air Forces and Navy you have no means of escape. If your religion does not allow you to commit suicide it is up to you to surrender yourself and to beg mercy for your troops. You will be responsible for the death of your men.” Leaving the bodies to rot in the sun, Noda and his troops boarded their landing craft and headed back to Rabaul, taking with them the twenty-two prisoners that had first surrendered on the beach. The 8th Company stopped at Adler Bay and picked up dozens of soldiers waiting there under a white flag, and also stopped at the Warangoi River for more prisoners, including Harold Page and Harry Townsend. All were delivered to Malaguna Camp, part of which had been wired off to form a prison compound.

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New Britain Jungle as Great Equalizer, 1942

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 2150-2169:

The jungle, it turned out, was a great equalizer. Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto’s battalion encountered several impediments as they pursued the Australians, not the least of which was the heavy rain that blanketed the Gazelle Peninsula. Similarly, Lieutenant Colonel Sakigawa’s mechanized unit slowed to a crawl as they advanced around Ataliklikun Bay on January 27. “The butai could not advance as hoped,” he reported. “The mountain roads went up and down and in some places [soldiers] walked in mud and water up to the knees. And also there were obstructions on the roads [such] as fallen bamboo and rotted trees.”

Other units experienced even greater difficulty. One detachment of mountain artillery tried to drag their wheeled guns through the heavy jungle. They reached the Vudal River on January 25 only to find it impossible to ford, so the soldiers hacked out a road to a different crossing. They even labored to build a temporary bridge, but their progress was so slow that they were forced to leave the field guns in the jungle. By the time the detachment finally reached the western shores of Ataliklikun Bay, they had lost contact with the fleeing Australians.

As a result of such setbacks, the battalion commanders requested naval support. General Horii arranged for a destroyer and three transports to conduct a “sea pursuit,” resulting in the aforementioned landings at Lassul Bay and Massawa Bay, but these proved to be only a minor threat to the Australians. The Japanese did not venture inland, mainly because the jungle quickly conspired against them. As the writer of an operational report later explained: “Practically every man of the 1st Infantry Battalion suffered from malaria owing to an eruptive outbreak of the disease at the time of mopping up … in particular, the pursuit action in the Ataliklikun Bay area.”

The heavy rains and high humidity of the past several days had created ideal conditions for mosquitoes. Many of the men in Tsukamoto’s battalion, poised to capture hundreds of Australians, were themselves laid low by malaria. That so many became infected was the result of “nothing but negligence,” according to the report, which placed blame squarely on the “leaders, medical staffs and epidemic prevention staffs in particular.” Days passed before the Japanese realized what had caused the outbreak. At least ten men died, and several others were “affected in the brain and became mad.” Within days, the combat strength of the South Seas Detachment was reduced by half.

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Japan’s South Seas Detachment Crosses the Line, 1942

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1125-1147:

Private Akiyoshi Hisaeda, from the Ehime Prefecture of Shikoku, kept a diary as he sailed to Rabaul aboard the transport Venice Maru. He described the conditions as “very cramped and uncomfortable,” and noted that the temperature inside the ship reached 43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit). Life inside the other transports was equally awful. There was little fresh water, and the crude wooden benjos (latrines) were up on the main deck, which also happened to be where the meals were cooked. Down below, everyone was tormented by hordes of flies.

The Japanese soldiers were no strangers to terrible conditions or harsh environments. Their rigorous training system, based on the principle of instant obedience achieved through strict discipline, had prepared them well. From the moment they began training as recruits, they were immersed in a culture of degradation and abuse, a rude awakening for people who had spent their entire lives learning group harmony. Not only were recruits cursed and shamed in front of their peers, they were also beaten regularly. Sometimes they were hit on the buttocks with wooden sticks, other times they were slapped, usually with an open hand but occasionally with the sole from a hobnailed shoe. Many instructors were sadistic, barely more than thugs, and they had tremendous latitude to punish recruits with methods calculated to break down every vestige of individuality. Frequently the entire class or platoon received the same punishment: If one suffered, all suffered.

One of the cruelest penalties was meted out during evening meals. Picked at random, recruits were ordered to recite by memory from the Gunjin Chokuyu [軍人勅諭 aka 'Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors'], “Emperor Meiji’s Instructions to the Men of the Fighting Services.” First issued in 1883, it exhorted warriors to carry out their duties with loyalty, propriety, valor, faithfulness, and simplicity. The wording was archaic, difficult to memorize, and if anyone made a mistake or forgot a passage, he was forbidden to eat. For recruits already bruised, exhausted, and ravenous from the day’s training, the denial of food was excruciating. After six months or more of such extreme conditioning, the recruits emerged as well-disciplined soldiers, their “bodies and minds tempered hard as steel.” The men of the South Seas Detachment were no different, and could tolerate anything that nature or the Imperial Army could throw at them.

WHEN THE INVASION FORCE REACHED THE EQUATOR AT 0500 ON JANUARY 20, the South Seas Detachment paused to commemorate a special event. In all of Japan’s 2,600-year history, they were the first army force to cross the line. Miyake later described the scene aboard his vessel: “On the day we crossed the equator, all the men, fully armed and equipped, assembled on deck. ‘At this time, when we are about to … advance into the southern hemisphere, we shall pay our respect toward the Imperial Palace,’ said the commander toward his assembled subordinates. Solemnly, and with overflowing emotions, the men presented arms toward the north.”

The South Seas Detachment [南海支隊 Nankai Shitai], under Imperial Japanese Navy command, was mostly drawn from Japan’s 55th Division, which was recruited primarily from Shikoku and played a key role in the Burma Campaign. The 55th Division’s home base and elite POW camp was Zentsūji. The POWs included about 200 Americans captured by the South Seas Detachment on Guam and Wake Island, a few dozen mostly British prisoners from Singapore, and 60 Australian officers from Rabaul. The Zentsūji POW camp was a Potemkin village to impress International Red Cross representatives with Japan’s humane treatment of its captives. Most of the rest of the men captured in the Rabaul Campaign died aboard the hell ship Montevideo Maru en route to Hainan Island, when it was torpedoed by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, on 1 July 1942. The loss of those 1050+ men was Australia’s single worst military disaster of World War II.

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Australia’s Thin “Northern Barrier” in 1941

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 668-680, 288-295:

To the military planners in Australia, the long string of islands comprising the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and the British-protected Solomons represented a sort of fence. Some in the War Cabinet even referred to it as the “Northern Barrier,” though the islands weren’t fortified until 1941. Lionel Wigmore, an esteemed Australian historian, more accurately described them as “a slender chain of forward observation posts.”

In the fall of 1939, an officer of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) set out to link the islands with a communications and intelligence network. Over a period of months, Lieutenant Commander Eric A. Feldt traveled “by ship, motor boat, canoe, bicycle, airplane, and boot” from New Guinea all the way to the New Hebrides, single-handedly enrolling dozens of plantation owners, traders, and assorted civilians into a loosely organized group known as the “coastwatchers.” All of them would perform a crucial role the coming war, many at the cost of their lives.

Simultaneously, detachments of a small militia organization, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), were established among the major islands. Representing the mandated territory’s only infantry force prior to 1941, the NGVR was authorized the day after Australia declared war on Germany, and many of the region’s able-bodied men were volunteers. Lieutenant Colonel John Walstab, the supervisor of police on New Britain, trained a unit of approximately eighty men who formed a rifle company, a machine gun squad, and a small headquarters unit.

Finally, in early 1941, the AIF decided to send most of the 8th Division to augment the defenses at Singapore, minus the 23rd Brigade, which would garrison three islands north of the mainland: Ambon, Timor, and New Britain. The War Cabinet grandiosely referred to the islands as the “Malay Barrier,” but each small landmass was separated by hundreds of miles of ocean.

The garrisons chosen to defend the islands received operational code names, though none sounded particularly inspiring. Sparrow Force, consisting of the 2/40th Infantry Battalion [= 2nd Battalion of 40th Regiment] plus an antiaircraft battery and troops of the Netherlands East Indies, would be sent to Timor, east of Java. Gull Force, with the 2/21st Infantry Battalion as its nucleus, would fortify Ambon, two hundred miles farther to the north. The last but strategically most important assignment, the defense of Rabaul, went to the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion and its attached units, known collectively as Lark Force.

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