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Human face of war
Sio–Madang campaigns
With the completion of the Huon Peninsula and Ramu Valley campaigns by the Australian 9th and 7th Divisions, a new phase of the war in New Guinea began in early 1944. Whereas the Japanese had previously endeavoured to defend each base along the New Guinea coast stoutly, the survivors of the 18th Army which had faced the 7th and 9th Divisions were now merely retreating towards Madang. The new American base at Saidor straddled their escape route but fresh Australian troops were deployed to pursue the retreating Japanese force.

The main body of Japanese retreating from Sio marched westward along the Rai Coast. Another body of troops retreated from the 7th Division across the Finisterre Ranges, also making for Madang.

On the Rai Coast, the survivors of the 51st and 20th Divisions were weary and desperately short of supplies. Many fell by the wayside suffering wounds or sickness. A covering force of about 2,000 troops waited at Tarikngan, about halfway to Saidor, under Major General NAKAI Matsutaro, however it was not expected to block the Allied advance.

The Australian 5th Division, under Major General Ramsay, took over the Australian offensive on the coast. Ramsay allocated his 8th Brigade, a militia formation, to pursue the Japanese to Saidor, where it was hoped the American 32nd Division would block their retreat. Ramsay estimated that about 3,000 Japanese were making their way westward and he expected some delaying actions. A company of Papuan troops, perhaps the best trackers in the Allied forces in New Guinea, accompanied the Australians along with artillery, engineers and a field ambulance. Supply would largely be provided by landing craft of the American 2nd Engineer Special Brigade, which would use beaches to land fresh troops and stores.

The Australian advance along the Rai Coast began on 25 January 1944, with the Papuans leading. At the Kwama River lay several dead Japanese, testimony to the fact that many Japanese were now dying of sickness and exhaustion rather than in combat. Others were killed by their comrades or committed suicide. However, a few men who were no longer capable of marching chose another option – remaining hidden and firing on Allied troops. One such man was in position at the Kwama River and was killed after firing at a Papuan patrol.

Although the Japanese were clearly beaten and retreating, the Australians and Papuans had to advance slowly and cautiously in case of ambush. The “eyes” of the advance were pilots of No 4 (Tactical Reconnaissance) Squadron RAAF who flew at low level searching for signs of the enemy and spotting for ambush positions or stragglers. They reportedly flew low enough to observe the expressions on the faces of dead Japanese. Another inhibiting factor in the advance was the difficulty of moving artillery over narrow jungle tracks and across coastal streams. Finally, with so little opposition, Ramsay agreed that his troops could advance without artillery support.

The pursuers often came across Japanese who had died of starvation or exhaustion. For instance, on 7 February the 30th Battalion, which was 24 to 48 hours behind the tail of the Japanese column, passed sixty dead troops. The Japanese had resorted to eating insects, snails, small birds and grass and this diet was barely sustaining. They sometimes raided gardens, as villages were usually abandoned if troops were in the area, but raiding gardens was risky because New Guineans could see that the Japanese were defeated and it was relatively easy to kill a ragged, weakened straggler.

From 22 February 1944, the pursuit of the Japanese on the Rai Coast was left largely to the Papuan troops. They were able to move faster through the jungle and stalk stragglers with greater success. The ineffectiveness of the Japanese at this stage of the campaign is illustrated by the fact that between 20 January and 28 February the 8th Brigade killed 734 Japanese, found another 1,793 already dead and took 48 prisoners. The Papuans and Australians lost just three men killed and five wounded. However, the Japanese were not wiped out at Saidor, as senior Australian officers hoped, as the Americans made no real effort to prevent the ragged enemy troops from skirting their positions. Up to 8,000 Japanese survivors of the fighting in the Lae and Finschhafen areas got past the Americans.

In the mountains, the 7th Division had defeated the Japanese in the Ramu Valley but survivors were left to retreat over the Finisterre Range to the coast. It was a shocking and depressing landscape of rugged, steep, precipitous mountains covered with dense rain forest. Movement was difficult and exhausting. The 7th Division’s commander, Major General George Vasey, gave responsibility for pursuing the Japanese over the Finisterre Range to the militia 15th Brigade. The 15th Brigade pursued the Japanese over the Bogadjim Road, a track which wound its way over the mountains, but encountered only scattered resistance.

An Australian patrol finally entered Bogadjim on 13 April 1944. There was much evidence that Bogadjim had been an important forward base for the Japanese, with many trucks still in the area, an engineer dump and a signals centre. Local villagers, who were not especially friendly towards the Australians, assured officers that the Japanese had departed the area.

The 15th Brigade continued the pursuit of the Japanese beyond Saidor to Madang, joined by leading elements of the 8th Brigade. There was little opposition, apart from firing by stragglers, and it even seemed that the Japanese would not even defend Madang. On 24 April 1944, patrols from the 57th/60th and 30th Battalions entered Madang, which had been occupied by the Japanese since 1942 and had functioned as a base. The troops could see that Allied bombers had hit Madang heavily and the retreating Japanese caused further damage by destroying supply dumps and buildings.

The Japanese 18th Army had abandoned Madang without a serious fight. Its ragged survivors continued moving along the coast towards Wewak. The occupation of Madang by Australian forces effectively brought to a close both the Huon Peninsula and Ramu Valley campaigns.

Contributed by John Moreman (AJRP)

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Huon Peninsula

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