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Human face of war
Huon Peninsula campaigns
The Huon Peninsula campaign began after the Australian 7th and 9th Divisions captured Lae in September 1943. While the 7th Division advanced inland to the Ramu Valley, Major General George Wootten’s 9th Division was directed to capture the Huon Peninsula. This would secure the Vitiaz Strait for the Allies and, with new airbases developed, effectively complete the isolation of Rabaul.

Most of the Japanese garrison at Lae had escaped by withdrawing inland over the Saruwaged Range. Hundreds died from malnutrition and exhaustion in this terrible crossing to the northern side of the Huon Peninsula.

The first major objective for the Australians was Finschhafen. It had functioned as a staging post for units and reinforcements proceeding to the forward area and as a refuelling point for small ships and landing craft. In July 1943 Major General YAMADA Eizo took charge of the small logistic base. He was principally a logistics officer but the Allied advance transformed his role into that of an operational commander. He had about 5,000 troops, many of whom were weary and poorly equipped after defending and escaping from Salamaua, and he had to spread his force thinly to protect strategic points along the coast. About 1,000 marines, a company of infantry and some artillerymen defended Finschhafen itself.

The Japanese had employed New Guineans to assist with base and road construction, gardening and carrying supplies but many villagers had recently moved inland after the Allies launched an anti-Japanese propaganda campaign. The Far Eastern Liaison Office printed and dropped leaflets while Allied Intelligence Bureau patrols spread information about Allied successes. The Japanese became convinced that villagers who stayed were spies, and so trust between Japanese and New Guineans dissolved. Supplies were carried by Korean and Formosan labourers or by army engineers.

After mopping up around Lae was completed, the Australian 22nd Battalion set out along the coast on foot towards Finschhafen. It was a slow advance as the men had to cross many rivers and streams and move cautiously in case of ambush. The Papuan Infantry Battalion, which had regrouped and been trained after its failure on the Kokoda Trail in 1942, also sent troops to track down Japanese attempting to evade capture.

The main Australian attack began with an amphibious landing at Scarlet Beach, five miles north of Finschhafen, by the 20th Brigade on 22 September 1943. Most the American-manned landing craft missed the allocated landing beach, so the Australians unwittingly avoided the main defensive positions. The Japanese had two companies of infantry – one each from the 80th and 238th Regiments – along with a machine-gun platoon, mortar platoon and radio section in position. After a stiff defence of the nearby village of Katika, the Japanese withdrew.

This withdrawal confirmed a distinct shift in Japanese defensive strategy. Whereas at Buna the garrison had fought until it was wiped out, with only a small number of men escaping, the policy now was to resist probing attacks but not waste too many men in stubborn final stands. Senior officers deemed it better for the men to withdraw and regroup. YAMADA therefore authorised the withdrawal of units to Sattelberg, as Lieutenant General KATAGIRI Shigeru’s 20th Division was making its way there from Bogadjim to launch a counter-attack.

The Australian 20th Brigade’s commander, Brigadier W.J.V. Windeyer, ordered two battalions to advance along the coast and capture Finschhafen while part of his third battalion and a platoon of Papuans advanced towards Sattelberg Mountain, the dominant mountain in the area. Transportation in both directions was difficult because few villagers remained to be employed as carriers. Some Jeeps and tractors were landed at Scarlet Beach but these were limited to that area until engineers could improve roads. Supplies had to be carried by troops.

Despite the transportation problems and some hard fighting, Windeyer’s brigade captured Finschhafen 11 days after landing. A second brigade of the 9th Division arrived on 10–11 October but at the same time the Japanese 20th Division began arriving at Sattelberg. KATAGIRI soon had 12,000 troops to launch a counter-attack.

The Australian 20th and 26th Brigades advanced to Jivevaneng, between the coast and Sattelberg Mountain, but on 16 October the Japanese 20th Division began its counter-attack. The 80th Regiment attacked Jivevaneng while the 79th Regiment advanced towards Scarlet Beach. A small amphibious attack on Scarlet Beach was repelled by Australian and American machine-gunners. Fighting continued for over a week but the counter-attack was blunted. The 80th Regiment also ran short of supplies, despite attempts to airdrop supplies.

When the Australians attacked again along Sattelberg Road, the 9th Division boosted its offensive capability with tanks and artillery. Supplies began to flow more freely as Jeeps and trailers – often used as “Jeep trains” – were also delivered from Lae and villagers began returning and accepting employment as carriers.

The 79th and 80th Regiments stoutly resisted the Australian attacks but gradually were pushed back. When the Australians moved beyond Sattelberg Road, the country became more mountainous and tanks could no longer be used. The infantry pushed on until finally the 2/48th Battalion captured Sattelberg Mountain on 27 November 1942.

The senior Allied commanders wanted the Huon Peninsula secured before American forces landed on New Britain to build airbases there. The 9th Division therefore began its advance north towards Wareo and Gusika. The 4th Brigade, a militia formation, joined the pursuit of withdrawing Japanese troops who fought a series of delaying actions. Air power was vital to the Australian advance, particularly in the mountainous hinterland, as the troops could call for close air support to “soften up” pockets of Japanese resistance and for transport aircraft to drop supplies.

By mid-December, remnants of General KATAGIRI’s 20th Division were retreating by inland tracks to Lakona and Sio, in the northern part of the Huon Peninsula. It was a hard retreat, particularly for the sick and wounded, many of whom were left behind to delay the Australians or were killed by their comrades.

The main Australian advance on Sio was made by the 20th Brigade, which moved along the coast. Japanese troops endeavoured to delay the Australians but were short of supplies and weakening. It took about three weeks for the Australians to advance the final 75 kilometres to Sio, which was captured on 15 January 1944.

Meanwhile, the American 126th Regiment landed at Saidor, beyond the Huon Peninsula, and established a defensive perimeter to build a forward base there. The 9th Division had now been fighting for four months and, with KATAGIRI’s surviving troops weak and retreating back to Bogadjim, the Australians brought forward a fresh brigade to continue the offensive. The Japanese 20th Division had lost almost two-thirds of its 12,600 men killed, wounded or seriously ill, while the 9th Division lost 1,028 men in hard and exhausting fighting.

Contributed by John Moreman (AJRP)

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Huon Peninsula

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