Category Archives: Papua New Guinea

Military Incompetence at Port Moresby, 1942

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 3451-76:

Visiting the front lines on just his second full day in the theater, [George] Kenney impressed the men at Port Moresby. They had lost faith in [George] Brett, who rarely visited and had no concept of how awful the conditions at Port Moresby had become. Kenney later wrote: “[Brett] didn’t get up there very often; I think he was up there maybe twice. They didn’t have much equipment and weren’t getting any more equipment; they weren’t getting spare parts when their airplanes began falling apart. Brett didn’t get up to [see] them, and he didn’t check and find out what they needed and see that they got it. Their food was terrible stuff, and he wouldn’t do anything about that. They were getting malaria pretty badly, and there was nothing done about that.”

Kenney was disgusted with just about everything he saw on the tour. Joined by Brig. Gen. Martin F. “Mike” Scanlon, the ranking American at Port Moresby, Kenney spent the day visiting the base with Royce and Whitehead. During the briefing for a bombing mission, Kenney was appalled by the lack of organization. The preliminaries were conducted by an Australian officer who simply declared that the objective was Rabaul, giving no specific targets. Kenney later wrote, “I found out afterward that nobody expects the airplanes to get that far anyhow, and if they do, the town itself is a good target.”

A meteorologist spoke next. His estimates of the weather conditions over Rabaul were based on historical data rather than real-time analysis. Kenney observed that no one was designated to lead the formation, mainly because the bombers were not expected to stay together en route to the target—and no one seemed to care. The only thing the crews fretted about was their bomb load. “The personnel are obsessed with the idea that a bullet will detonate the bombs and blow up the whole works,” Kenney noted. “If enemy airplanes are seen along the route, all auxiliary gas and bombs are immediately jettisoned and the mission abandoned.”

Thoroughly displeased with bomber operations, Kenney next inspected the fighter squadrons and found them no better. After touring the fighter area for a few hours with Lt. Col. Richard A. Legg, commanding officer of the 35th Fighter Group, Kenney wrote, “His organization is lackadaisical, maintenance is at a low ebb, and while he is short of spares there is no excuse for only six P-39s out of forty being constantly available for combat.”

Kenney also investigated the camp areas. “Throughout the Moresby area the camps are poorly laid out and the food situation is extremely bad,” he later wrote. “There is no mosquito control discipline and the malaria and dysentery rates are forcing relief of a unit at the end of about two months’ duty.”

Now Kenney knew why MacArthur was displeased. Nobody seemed to be doing anything about the appalling conditions at Port Moresby, though Kenney did find a few subordinates—none above the rank of major—who were actually attempting to improve things.

After a quick assessment of the overall situation, Kenney immediately began to make changes. First, he told Whitehead to remain at Port Moresby to “look after the fighters” and implement some new policies. He directed that an American staff officer attend every mission briefing; also, every bombing mission would have a specific primary target assigned along with at least two alternates. Finally, he instructed Whitehead to inform Legg that if he didn’t snap out of his lethargy, he’d be replaced.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, military, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

Evolution of Rabaul as Japanese Military Base

From “Importance of Japanese Naval Bases Overseas,” by Masataka Chihaya (written on 14 January 1947), in The Pacific War Papers: Japanese Documents of World War II, edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Potomac Books, 2006), pp. 65-66 (paraphrased freely):

Even after Japanese forces occupied Rabaul at the outset of the Pacific War, it was not a major center until May 1942, when large-scale American and Japanese carrier-borne forces clashed in the nearby Coral Sea. Not long after that, in August 1942, the U.S. Navy landed its crack 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal. As all of Japan’s attention focused on the Solomons and New Britain, the Japanese Navy came to appreciate the magnificence of Rabaul as a naval base.

Rabaul had several sites suitable for large-scale airstrips and good anchorage, too. The land was suitable for cultivation and it was located in the center of the Pacific theater. During the Solomon Islands Campaign, the Japanese often compared Rabaul to the rivet of a folding fan, implying that it was so important that its loss would cause their whole campaign to fall apart.

From the autumn of 1942, Japan, especially its Navy, did everything it could to reinforce Rabaul by stocking it with as many weapons, airplanes, and ammunition as it could spare. Even so, these stocks were almost exhausted by February 1944, in the wake of the disaster in Truk Lagoon, when Japan was forced to withdraw its air forces from Rabaul and cease supplying it.

Japan moved its air forces from Rabaul to Truk and the Marianas not long before the Allied Powers penetrated the Dampier Strait [between New Guinea and New Britain] and invaded the Admiralties, leaving Japan without any means to counterattack. The Admiralties are situated in a position to cut Rabaul’s communication lines with Japan. In consequence, the once-famed base was left isolated in the Southern Pacific, serving primarily as a training target for Allied air forces.

The Admiralties are not only strategically well situated, but also offer a good harbor in Manus, one of the most magnificent bays in the southern Pacific. Whey did the Japanese forces let the Allied Powers invade such an important island without any effective counterattack? Why did the Japanese forces make no effort to fortify it to meet the enemy? Didn’t the Japanese Navy, which constantly emphasized the importance of the South Pacific theater, realize the importance of Manus and the Admiralties?

One cannot but doubt it. I once asked Capt. T. Ohmae, who was a staff officer in that theater, why the Navy did not recognize the importance of Manus? He replied, “It was not that the Japanese Navy didn’t recognize its importance. It was just that some survey of that island found that it was not entirely suitable for human habitation. So we had to give up building a base there.” This was indeed among our great blunders, for the Allied Powers succeeded in constructing a magnificent naval base at Manus after they occupied it.

The fate of once-famed Rabaul went from bad to worse after the fall of the Admiralties in February 1944. After losing its air power, the Japanese garrison at Rabaul had to go underground—literally. They constructed extensive underground fortifications, containing factories as well as warehouses. When the war ended in August 1945, Rabaul was found to be one of the strongest fortresses in the Pacific.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, military, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

Military Importance of Truk Lagoon to Japan’s Navy

From “Importance of Japanese Naval Bases Overseas,” by Masataka Chihaya (written on 14 January 1947), in The Pacific War Papers: Japanese Documents of World War II, edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Potomac Books, 2006), pp. 63-65 (paraphrased freely):

Truk Lagoon is one of the greatest, forming a rough triangle more than 30 miles on each side. Inside the lagoon are many islands, not sand islands or coral reefs, of which more than eight are more than one square mile in size. It provided not just sufficient anchorage for a whole Japanese fleet during that era, but also enough area to allow several vessels to maneuver for training. The islands also provide enough room for several airstrips. In fact, by the end of the war, the Japanese Navy had built at least four such strips. The climate is also tropical but mild. In addition to these advantages, Truk occupies a key position in the middle Pacific area, able to control Midway to the north, the Marshalls in the east, and Rabaul and New Britain to the south. From every point of view, Truk was one of Japan’s most important bases in the Pacific.

When it occupied Micronesia in World War I, and during the League of Nations mandated administration that followed, the Japanese Navy was well aware of Truk’s importance. However, in strict observance of the postwar naval treaties, it did little to establish a naval base there. It may be hard to believe, but it is true. At the outbreak of the Pacific War there was only one half of a completed airstrip on Takeshima (Bamboo Island), a small island less than 1,000 meters long. There was no underground oil storage, nor any repair facilities on land. The only naval facility worthy of the name was that half-completed airstrip.

Even after war broke out, the Japanese Navy was rather slow to strengthen Truk Naval Base. As soon as the U.S. Navy began its offensive on Guadalcanal in the summer of 1942, and the Solomon Islands became the main theater of fighting for both navies, Truk became the center of Japanese naval operations. Almost all naval vessels gathered there before making sorties into the Solomons, and returned there for refueling and repair when damaged. Never before had the need for oil storage and repair facilities been more urgent, and the Japanese Navy concentrated its oil tankers and repair ships there while quickly trying to build such facilities on land as well. But it was too late. This concentration of oil tankers in Truk disrupted the flow of oil from Southeast Asia back to the Japanese homeland. Even the giant battleships Yamato and Musashi, which should have been at the center of the Japanese fleet, were often nicknamed “the tankers Yamato and Musashi” because they served as tankers supplying fuel to smaller warships instead of engaging in combat operations.

As there were not enough repair facilities on Truk, Japanese naval vessels sometimes had to go all the way back to the homeland for repairs, thus reducing the size of the naval forces available for the Solomons campaign.

It was not until the summer of 1943 that the Japanese Navy began to construct three more airstrips at Truk, two on Harushima (Spring Island) and one of Kaedeshima (Maple Island). By the time the U.S. Navy made a surprise attack on Truk on 17 February 1944, those three bases were almost complete, but they lacked adequate radar and command-and-control equipment, which would have made them more useful.

As a result, during the surprise attack on Truk in February 1944, U.S. Navy carrier-borne aircraft came out of the blue, destroying one light cruiser, 4 destroyers, 26 transport ships, 3 oil tanks, 2,000 tons of food, and more than 180 airplanes, of which more than 100 were lost on the ground.

This fiasco, together with the loss of the Gilberts and Marshalls, suddenly lessened the importance of Truk as a naval base. The Japanese fleet, which had long gathered at Truk, moved westward into the Carolines, Singapore, and even the homeland. Soon afterward, the Japanese Navy withdrew its land-based aircraft to the Marianas and western Carolines. Truk was no longer a vital naval base, just a stepping stone between the Marianas and Rabaul.

The bad situation on Truk got worse when U.S. forces invaded the Marianas in June 1944. Truk could contribute little to the Japanese defense, and the fall of the Marianas left Truk largely isolated, except for very few small visits by submarines and flying boats. From that time on, Japanese forces on Truk had to endure not just Allied air attacks, but mounting starvation and disease until the war ended in August 1945.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, Micronesia, military, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Japan, military, Papua New Guinea, war

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Japan, language, military, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

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.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Japan, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Britain, food, India, Japan, labor, Papua New Guinea, slavery, war