Australian War Memorial - AJRP
Home | About | Database | Research | Maps | Sitemap | Search | Links | Thanks | Translations | What's New | View this site in Japanese

Human face of war
Wau campaigns
For most of 1942, fighting in south-eastern New Guinea was restricted to the guerrilla warfare waged by Kanga Force against Japanese naval forces occupying Lae and Salamaua. The bases were regularly raided by Allied aircraft. Then, in early 1943, as fighting in Papua drew to a close, the Japanese and Australians identified the Australian base at Wau as the next important battleground.

The Japanese believed the capture of Wau would eliminate the guerrillas and perhaps also facilitate another advance over the Owen Stanley Range. In January 1943, Lieutenant General ADACHI Hatazô established his 18th Army headquarters at Lae to oversee the operation. His 20th and 41st Divisions had been deployed on the Wewak–Madang coast to protect the logistic base at Wewak, so he gave the 51st Division the task of capturing Wau.

Major General OKABE Tôru’s 102nd Infantry Regiment would lead the attack. It left Rabaul in early January but the 3rd Battalion suffered casualties in an aerial attack on the convoy. On arrival, OKABE still had two complete infantry battalions as well as a battalion of the 14th Field Artillery Regiment, a company of the 51st Engineer Regiment, a company of the 51st Transport Regiment, and anti-aircraft, mortar, signals, medical and labour detachments. He also received the 144th Regiment’s reinforcements, as this unit had been lost on the Kokoda Trail. His force was known as the Okabe Detachment.

ADACHI and OKABE were confident of success but worried about the boldness of Kanga Force guerrillas. Although the Australians had been pushed back to Mubo, at least 116 Japanese marines were killed in clashes and it was apparent that the guerrillas could delay the advance on the Buisaval Track and send long-range patrols to harass the line of communication. The commanders decided to maintain pressure on the Australians but send the bulk of the force by way of a track used by German explorers and missionaries before the territory passed to Australian control. The Australians did not know of the track’s existence, as it had become overgrown. OKABE believed it offered a chance for his force to advance undetected and make a surprise attack.

This track (subsequently called Jap Track by the Australians) was more rugged than the Buisaval Track, and scouts and engineers had to cut pathways through overgrown sections. This slowed progress considerably, which was critical because it meant OKABE and his staff underestimated the time and energy troops needed to reach the objective. The men were not issued enough rations to sustain them the whole way. Labour troops and New Guineans carried supplies but most loads contained ammunition. Another problem was that OKABE’s artillerymen could not manhandle mountain guns over the steep and narrow tracks, so the infantry would have to attack without artillery support.

The Australian-led New Guinea Force had already planned to reinforce the garrison at Wau. Major General Thomas Blamey believed it was vital to hold the base because its airfield could be used to airlift troops from Port Moresby for an advance on Lae and Salamaua. He also planned to have a road constructed over the Owen Stanley Range to move even more troops to Wau and resupply them.

Blamey had kept the 17th Brigade out of the campaign so that it would be available as a mobile reserve. The end of the battle for Buna released Douglas C-47 transport aircraft to airlift the brigade to Wau, however the Wau–Bulolo Valley was plagued by bouts of bad weather; clouds would suddenly envelope the airfield for several hours or enshroud the valley for days at a time. Consequently, it took a week to airlift the first battalion (thirty men in each aircraft) because bad weather forced many C-47s to return to base. Nonetheless, by 19 January 1943 the 2/6th Battalion had 28 officers and 535 men at Wau.

Kanga Force had observed increased Japanese activity near Mubo but did not realise Wau was threatened. The new commander of Kanga Force, Brigadier Murray Moten of the 17th Brigade, sent the 2/6th Battalion to reinforce the line near Mubo and recapture the village. On 24 January a patrol reported movement on the alternative “Jap Track” but the Australians did not know that an entire regiment was advancing over this route. Then, on 28 January, another patrol reported “hundreds” of Japanese approaching Wau. OKABE had achieved his element of surprise.

Moten had retained only a small number of troops at the base and it was too late to pull back the 2/6th Battalion to block the Japanese. It sent companies to engage the Japanese on their flanks but these actions were unsuccessful. The defence of Wau, and its airfields, depended on the urgent airlift of reinforcements from Port Moresby.

The main problem faced by the Australians was bad weather. On 28 January only four transport aircraft reached the base before clouds closed in. The Okabe Detachment advanced to within two miles of the airfield. Its men were weary and hungry after trekking from the coast but anticipated capturing stores at Wau. Many Australians at the base believed it might indeed fall, and some supplies and huts were destroyed as a precautionary measure.

On the morning of 29 January, the clouds lifted and C-47s delivered 814 men of the 2/5th and 2/7th Battalions. The Japanese attacked that night but failed to take the airfield. Next morning, C-47s delivered more infantrymen and two 25-pounder field guns and gunners of the 2/1st Field Regiment; the artillery was reassembled and in action by midday. The Australians’ firepower was boosted by Beaufighter fighter-bombers of 30 Squadron RAAF, which flew from Port Moresby to strafe Japanese troops. By the following day, the Okabe Detachment had fallen into retreat.

The Okabe Detachment was in a poor state. It had suffered over 1,000 battle casualties and hundreds more were sick. Wirraway tactical reconnaissance aircraft plotted the Japanese movements, enabling patrols, artillery, mortars and aircraft to harass the rearguard. So ended the last Japanese offensive in New Guinea.

Having secured the base, the Australians stepped-up its development. Engineers built another airstrip at Bulolo and repaired buildings, tracks and bridges. New Guineans who made themselves scarce during the battle returned to accept employment. Many worked as carriers, without whom the Australian counter-attack would have faltered, while others worked as labourers around the base or cultivated gardens to supply the military and New Guineans with fresh produce. Japanese bombers raided the base several times but anti-aircraft fire and American fighters limited the damage inflicted. The base was thus secured to support the counter-offensive against Lae and Salamaua.

Contributed by John Moreman (AJRP)

Printer version

Related links
Campaign text

Human face of war
Show details for   Campaign overview Campaign overview
Show details for   Campaign text Campaign text
Show details for   Maps Maps
Show details for   Stories Stories
Show details for   Themes Themes
Show details for   Units Units

Click images to enlarge.

The AJRP has wound up its activities at the Memorial for the moment.
Please contact the relevant officer of the Australian War Memorial for assistance.
Internet implementation by Fulton Technology and AJRP staff .
Visit the Australian War Memorial home page.