Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
The Pacific War and New Guinea, by Prof TANAKA Hiromi
Today, a number of distinguished scholars from Australia, Japan and Papua New Guinea have gathered for the opening of this symposium. As one who proposed such an event, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Dr Peter Stanley and Dr Peter Londey of the Military History Section and staff of the Australia-Japan Research Project for their work in preparing for the symposium.
The reason for proposing a symposium on the war in New Guinea is that it is consistent with the AJRP’s aim of encouraging collaborative research between Australia and Japan. Furthermore, I believe it is essential for this collaborative effort to be directed to a region which holds deep significance to both countries, and where fierce fighting raged for so long a time.
A large number of Japanese view the Second World War as a conflict between Japan and the US that began at Pearl Harbor. There is a tendency to downplay the significance of the actual role of Australia in the war. However, the battles fought in New Guinea and surrounding areas were conducted between Japanese forces and Australian–American allied forces. The role of Australian forces in these battles far exceeds the general Japanese understanding of the events.
It is a difficult truth that of the three campaigns that resulted in the greatest loss of Japanese life – namely in New Guinea, Burma and the Philippines – it is the New Guinea campaign that occupies the position of least interest in Japan. This apathy suggests that there has been no steady research into the reasons for the campaigns in New Guinea, why it was so miserable or how it related to the passage of the war in general. It is a fact that aside from Professor KONDO Shinji, present at this symposium, there has been no research in Japan into these issues. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an academic conference held in Japan on the topic of the war in New Guinea. Consequently, the opening of this symposium with Japanese researchers and their esteemed Australian colleagues is perhaps a bold undertaking. It is my hope that it will stimulate in Japan more interest in the war in New Guinea.
At the beginning of the New Guinea campaign, Japan did not have in its possession any reliable maps or any information on local weather and geographical conditions. This fact indicates that the operations were outside of initial expectations and planning. To understand this, we must recount Japanese military planning and strategy up to that point.
Japan began the war, for all intents and purposes, against China in 1937 and pursued southward the Chinese army under the command of Chiang Kai-shek. Since the middle of the 19th century, the southern Chinese region surrounding Yanzi Jiang was the centre of interest of the foreign powers. There were concerns that conflict with the Western powers would arise if Japan approached this region. At that time, the US and Britain clearly indicated an intention to aid China and began to supply materiel to Chiang Kai-shek. In order to cut off these supply routes, the Japanese army gradually penetrated southward into the French colony of Vietnam. American opposition to these actions increased. Trade relations between the US and Japan, the lifeline of the Japanese economy, were severed, leaving both the supply of iron and oil, essential to Japanese war preparations, and the importation of other raw materials, in turmoil.
Japan, isolated and cornered, plunged headlong into a fresh conflict with the United States, Britain and Holland in December 1941. The direct motive at the outbreak of war was to procure essential raw materials. The Malay Peninsula and Indonesia were rich in crude oil, bauxite, nickel, iron ore, tin and rubber and for this reason were termed the “southern resource belt”. The initial policy was to seek peace and plan a cessation of war after securing these regions as colonies.
The numerically inferior US Navy, according to Japanese naval strategic planning from about 1930, would retreat to Hawaii after initial engagements. There they would regroup before mounting an offensive in the direction of the Philippines. The scenario was that the Japanese Navy would mount repeated raids along the way, thus provoking the weakened US fleet into a decisive battle in the vicinity of the Philippines. It would be a triumph as decisive as the victory in the Japan Sea during the Russo-Japan War. Even after the emergence of this new plan to occupy the southern resource belt, there was little alteration to the existing strategic plan.
It is no exaggeration to say that the development of the war, apart from the main engagements in the Philippines, proceeded contrary to all expectations. We could reasonably expect that it was also contrary to US expectations. The main reason for this unexpected outcome was that General MacArthur escaped from the Philippines not to Hawaii, but to Brisbane in Australia, and used the region (including New Zealand) as a strategic base to wage his counter-offensive. Japan, expecting the American forces to return to Hawaii, had not considered facing a counter-offensive from an US-Australian allied force based in Australia.
The significance of this unexpected turn of events was that Japan lacked information on the geography, politics, economy and military strength of the region. Australia had been visited often since the first naval training voyages by the Japanese Navy in the 1880s. Further, the Japanese fleet provided escorts to allied convoys in Australian waters during the First World War. There was some knowledge of the coast, especially from the east coast south to Tasmania. This basic lack of vital information was illustrated in 1942. Vice-Admiral NAGUMO’s task force attacked Darwin using nautical charts of the Arafura Sea without depth markings. It was a similar situation for New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, which lay across the top of Australia.
Even so, a comparison of the attitude of the Japanese Army and Navy reveals that the navy, which was based on Truk Island, held a deep interest in New Guinea and the Solomons. Surveys of water passages and the topography of New Guinea and the surrounding islands had been conducted by the Naval Hydrographic Office from 1933 to 1938 using foreign publications and charts. They published numerous volumes that outlined weather conditions, ocean currents, water depth and coastal terrain. These, however, did not comment on internal social or economic conditions. The army, on the other hand, had hastily conducted surveys just prior to the outbreak of war on the ability of the southern resource belt to provide resources for military materiel. I do not think, however, that these surveys included New Guinea. In any case, maps captured from the Dutch and Australian armies, and maps constructed from reconnaissance photographs provided some inkling to the local conditions.
An investigation of maps makes clear the necessity of occupying New Guinea and the Solomons in order to enforce a blockade of military supply routes from the US to Australia and to prevent the expected Allied counter-attack from the south. The navy especially tended to cast its gaze south from its important base on Truk and desired to occupy and control New Guinea and the surrounding islands. Even the occupation of Rabaul, which was used as a base for the invasion into New Guinea and the Solomons, was pushed through by the navy – against opposition from the army – for the purpose of preventing Allied air raids on Truk. The strategy to invade Port Moresby was also promoted by the navy to enhance the defense of Rabaul.
The army had come to occupy a position of dominance in the war in China, so the advance south into the resource belt of the Pacific was approached like a campaign on a giant land mass. New Guinea and the Solomons seemed a distant, unknown quantity. Consequently, the army adopted a passive stance concerning operations promoted by the navy in that area.
The navy, with its base in Rabaul, began preparations during 1942 for two operations. The “MO” operation aimed to capture Port Moresby in eastern New Guinea, while the “FS” operation planned to occupy Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia in order to enforce the blockade between the US and Australia. However, the disaster of the Battle of the Coral Sea and the defeat in the Battle of Midway resulted in a substantial weakening of the Japanese position in the region and led to the start of the Allied counter-attack with the landing at Guadalcanal. In addition to this, the Allied forces under the command of MacArthur were advancing north along the “MacArthur axis”, which ran from Bougainville through the northern coastline of New Guinea, the Philippines, Okinawa and then on to mainland Japan. Meanwhile, the US Navy and naval units were approaching Japan by the “Nimitz axis” which ran from the Gilbert Islands through the Marshall Islands and the Mariana Islands.
Within the context of the entire war, what significance can be attributed to the southward advance of the Japanese forces and the counter-offensive of the Allies through Guadalcanal and on to mainland Japan? The southward advance into the Malay peninsula, Indonesia and the southern resource belt by Japan in order to supply natural resources for the war which had become bogged down in China represented the opening of a new phase of the conflict. The Japanese government used the phrase the “East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” to describe an area that included mainland Japan and its colonies, including the Chinese mainland and the southern resource belt. This was officially termed the “Greater East Asian War” soon after operations to secure these areas began.
It is possible, therefore, to view the Allied operations along the MacArthur and Nimitz axes as being outside the confines of the Greater East Asian War. There are many people within Japan who believe that the Greater East Asian War was prosecuted in order to free Asia. Even though their purpose was different, however, it is thought that the battles of the two axes were the stage that would decide the overall victor. This conflict in Japan is called the “Western Pacific war”. Japan considered winning and losing the war on the basis of the campaign in China and the campaign to secure areas rich in natural resources. On the other hand, the Allies adopted strategies to directly oppose the Japanese forces and bring a speedy conclusion without regard for either China or the southern resource belt.
Seen in this way, the Second World War in east Asia and the western Pacific consisted of three campaigns of differing motives and locations, namely the war in China, the war to procure primary resources in the south, and the war in the western Pacific (see diagram no. 1). The opponents in each of these theatres were also different: the Chinese in China; the British, Australian and Dutch primarily in the southern resource belt; and the Americans in the western Pacific.
Japan had become bogged down in the war in China at a time when national resources were weakening. It then began both the campaigns to secure natural resources in the south and the unexpected war of the western Pacific. Japan had to distribute its military capability and resources, which were inferior to the Allies, over three expansive theatres of operation. The Allied forces had no reason to become involved in China and had no need to secure resources and so concentrated its superior numbers and materiel in the western Pacific. Consequently, there was no significant difference in actual strength in the south.
The battles from Guadalcanal to New Guinea developed into a war of attrition that the Japanese had hoped to avoid due to its limited military strength and manufacturing capacity. In cannot be overstated that the relative merits of conducting a similar war of attrition in the western Pacific was not determined by manufacturing capacity but by the ability to transport supplies by sea over such long distances. The limits of the Japanese army’s supply capabilities had been reached in the Guadalcanal campaign, though there were sufficient resources to evacuate surviving units. In 1943, however, it was determined that even if an Allied land campaign towards Rabaul was imminent, there was no possibility of a Japanese withdrawal; units in Rabaul would be abandoned. Although postwar Western commentators often say that the Japanese army glorified the destruction of its army, the fact is that withdrawal in such a situation, if a possible option, was the army’s preferred course of action. The main reasons for the Japanese army’s choice of annihilation over withdrawal during the war occurred where units were stranded on islands without transport or room to withdraw.
It is possible to divide the war in New Guinea into two stages. The first concerns the defensive and offensive operations centred on Port Moresby on the southern coastline, and the second concerns the repeated land operations and movements of Allied and Japanese troops from 1943–1944 on the northern coastline of New Guinea. The navy occupied Rabaul in order to protect its base on Truk, and then planned to invade Port Moresby in order to strengthen their position at Rabaul. The Japanese army wished to prevent Allied counter-offensives from Australia, and also felt the necessity of expelling any Allied military force from New Guinea in preparation for a possible advance to Australia. The failure of the overland and seaborne campaigns to capture Port Moresby signalled the end of these operations and the end of the first stage of the war.
Imperial HQ in January 1943 decided to change focus by retreating from Guadalcanal and undertaking offensive operations in eastern New Guinea, thus ushering in the second stage of the New Guinea war. This change was not determined by a Japanese reading of Allied strategy based on an attack of Rabaul from the direction of both Guadalcanal and eastern New Guinea. Rather, the decision was politically motivated to hide the defeat at Guadalcanal from the Japanese people.
The leaders of the war effort described to the people of Japan the retreat from Guadalcanal as a “change of direction” rather than a withdrawal. Consequently, New Guinea became the objective of the new operations. In short, the New Guinea operations did not result from a new policy based in the overall direction of the war. It emerged out of Japan’s domestic political and social situation, and is considered to have been largely influenced by proposals from Hirohito, the Shôwa emperor.
The defeat at Guadalcanal stretched Japan’s supply capacity beyond its limit. The distinguishing feature of the New Guinea war conducted immediately after this defeat was that the Japanese forces could not expect any direct supplies from Japan from the very beginning. The Japanese forces, which previously had advanced into the south for natural resources, decided to procure supplies locally due to limited supplies from Japan. It is assumed that the same policy was taken in New Guinea. However, some degree of local agricultural development as well as a social and economic system to distribute agricultural produce must precede the local procurement of food supplies. Also, the local agricultural sector must have the capacity to produce surplus food. Agricultural development in New Guinea at that time was more primitive than that of Malaya and Indonesia. It was still in the phase of hunting and gathering, so it was nearly impossible to obtain food supplies locally in New Guinea.
The Japanese forces advancing into New Guinea must have been prepared for the situation where they could not obtain supplies directly from Japan. However, they were probably unaware that it would be difficult to source food supplies locally. This operation was executed in haste, and the Japanese forces entering New Guinea with such ignorance began to suffer from starvation as the food they carried ran out. Fierce attacks by Allied forces further increased the number of deaths from starvation and illness.
The area of East New Guinea alone is as large as the Japanese archipelago without Kyushu Island, and that of east and west New Guinea together is more than twice as large as the whole of Japan. Some would argue that, considering the size of the island, it would have been impossible to prevent the enemy from freely choosing landing points and cornering the defending forces into a small area, a familiar tactic in island campaigns. In other words, it could be possible to shift the main battlefield and war front inland, and start a battle between land forces alone. However, large areas of inland New Guinea were covered with steep mountains and unexplored jungles. These circumstances made it impossible for groups of people to move about in inland areas. This means that warfare was conducted in the narrow coastal area and that the nature of the war inevitably became similar to that of a battle on a small island.
Having supremacy in the sea, the Allied forces could easily attack Japanese warships defending the coast and freely choose landing points to disrupt the operations of the Japanese. In addition, the Allied forces had control in the air and could attack the Japanese as they liked. Some may argue that it was a strategic error on the part of the Japanese to advance only three divisions into such a large area as Eastern New Guinea. However, three divisions would perhaps have been too many, considering that they could only freely move about in the coastal areas.
Since victory in island warfare is generally determined by which side has control of the sea, the forces defending the island are eventually left with two options, annihilation or surrender. Japanese forces only had the option of annihilation, since the narrow interpretation of “loyalty” to the nation and the Emperor considered surrender disloyal.
In the natural environment of New Guinea, this appears to have been the only choice available. However, the Japanese in New Guinea chose a third option of advancing into the inland areas. More than 10,000 Japanese soldiers repeatedly climbed over mountains as high as 4,000 meters. Napoleon himself, who led his forces over the Alps, would perhaps have been impressed by this feat. General MacArthur had said “the jungle will finish them for us”, after being informed of the Japanese inland retreat. As this remark indicates, the jungle and steep terrain took a heavy toll on the Japanese forces and numerous soldiers perished on the way. Despite a substantial reduction in numbers, some soldiers survived after crossing several mountain ranges and large swamps along the Sepik River. Although they no longer had the ability to fight back, their tenacious survival perhaps delayed subsequent actions by the Allied forces.
The Japanese could not perceive the purpose of the unpredictable landing operations of the Allied forces as they advanced north-west along the north coast of New Guinea. It is not clear when the Japanese realised that the repeated campaigns of the Allies were not aimed at Rabaul, but were advance operations for an offensive to the Philippines. In September 1943, Japanese command changed its existing operations policies and instituted a “vital national line of defence”, as indicated in diagram 1. This was intended to strengthen the domestic defence mechanism. Perhaps the purpose of the New Guinea campaigns up to that point was to buy time to strengthen the defences of the Philippines and to delay the Allied offensive to that end.
The vital national line of defence bisected east and west New Guinea along the border. Considering that an easily defended, rugged mountain range runs along the length of the island, it was perhaps best to draw a line of defence along this range. However, the actual battles were fought in a thin coastal strip, so it was felt that it was sufficient to place the division from north to south.
The purpose of establishing the line of defence was to keep in check the Allied advance and buy time to strengthen the defence of vital positions. Those Japanese troops outside the line were cast aside like chaff. Fate had decided that their mission was to die honorably. The mission of the Japanese troops outside the line in eastern New Guinea was to check the progress of the Allies and to try and prevent the establishment in western New Guinea of advance bases for an invasion of the Philippines. The Japanese army in eastern New Guinea continued to prosecute a hopeless campaign felt to be futile by the Allied forces because of this mission.
Finally, I would like to address where lies the significance of the New Guinea war. It was not uncommon within the context of the Pacific war for the front line to move hundreds of kilometres in one stroke. The Allied advance north began in earnest in 1944 after a year of relative slow movement of the front line. The vital national line of defence was also established after an interval of relative inactivity in the overall conditions of the war. Even during this time the front in New Guinea was central. It could be said that the gradual westwards advance of the Japanese and Allied forces bought valuable time for the Japanese army to reorganise.
However, no one from Japanese command was able to place any significance on New Guinea within the overall context of the war. Though the army was the main force in the second stage of the New Guinea campaign, which was intended to obscure the defeat at Guadalcanal, it was conservative in its prosecution from the beginning. The realisation was sudden that the Allied goal was the Philippines and not Rabaul. With no regard or understanding for the significance of New Guinea, the Japanese were slow to adapt to the changing situation.
The main reasons for this must be sought in the fact that the war in New Guinea was prosecuted from necessities that arose out of the course of the conflict. Japanese strategic planning lacked a clear policy of war leadership and military strategy, and was based on reactions to Allied movements. It is natural that an army that has no flexibility in its strategy or reserve strength in its prosecution of war will be defeated. However, Japanese command paid no heed to the changing conditions of the war and from the beginning lacked a strategy. It must also be said that they suffered greatly in their inability to read the tactics of the Allies during the battle once it had begun.
I have intended in this talk to provide only a broad outline of the conditions of the New Guinea campaigns within the overall context of the war. Although it has not been my intention to forcibly lay the foundation for new academic debate, it is my hope that enough interest arises to warrant a second symposium. I have presented my ideas in the full knowledge that I may invite critical comment from the assembled guests.
This paper was delivered at the Remebering the war in New Guinea project symposium held at the Australian National University from 19-21 October, 2000.
Translated by Steve Bullard and Akemi Inoue, Australia-Japan Research Project, Australian War Memorial.
Printed on 01/19/2022 03:23:27 AM