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Human face of war
Lae–Salamaua campaigns
The Allies’ advance on Salamaua and Lae began cautiously. The new commander of New Guinea Force, Major General Iven Mackay, was not convinced that the Japanese had abandoned their plan to take Wau. However, on 2–3 March 1943, Allied aircraft inflicted a decisive blow on the Japanese 18th Army when a troop convoy was intercepted at sea.

The battle of the Bismarck Sea marked a turning point in the air and sea campaigns. After a series of false starts, Allied airmen had revised anti-shipping tactics. Australian Beaufighter attack-fighters strafed the escorting warships to suppress anti-aircraft fire while American B-25 Mitchell bombers ‘skip bombed’ the transports. All the transports and three destroyers were sunk, with five destroyers damaged. At least 2,890 of the 6,500 troops embarked were killed or drowned, many strafed in the water or in rafts over the following days. Survivors reached the coast in scattered groups without weapons and equipment or were rescued and returned to Rabaul.

On 23 April, New Guinea Force dissolved Kanga Force, which had defended Wau, and raised the 3rd Division. It comprised the veteran 17th Brigade and two independent companies, along with the inexperienced 15th Brigade flown from Port Moresby. Original members of Kanga Force were evacuated.

The 17th Brigade pursued the retreating Okabe Detachment and by month’s end had seized Lababia Ridge, two-thirds of the way to the coast. Meanwhile, the 2/3rd Independent Company occupied positions near the Komiatum Track, the Japanese line of communication. In a separate deployment, the militia 24th Battalion occupied posts along the Markham River but encountered no serious opposition.

Movement in the jungle-clad mountains was slow and tedious. Tracks were narrow, muddy and often exceptionally steep. Soldiers and carriers struggled up each incline and clambered down the far side, only to face up to another grueling climb. Clashes usually occurred on ridgelines, and often the Japanese left sick or exhausted men to make a suicidal stand. Fighting was thus hard and costly to both sides.

American transport aircraft delivered Australian troops, equipment and stores to Wau and dropped rations and other supplies in the forward area. Bad weather frequently prevented flying, so supplies were stretched. New Guineans carried supplies for the Australians and evacuated non-walking casualties but the Australia New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) would not permit Papuans to cross the territorial border and bolster the carrier lines. However, hundreds of Papuan men and women worked alongside engineers and New Guineans building a road from Bulldog over the Owen Stanley Range to Wau.

Many villagers in Japanese territory debunked to avoid carrying or because Allied aircraft strafed their homes. Strafing usually occurred after warning was given to clear a village. This tactic was designed to deny the Japanese a New Guinean workforce whilst maintaining loyalty towards the Australian administration.

Japanese engineers and Korean labourers carried supplies but Komiatum Hill, the dominant feature overlooking the coast, was 3,000 feet high with bare slopes; thus not only was carrying arduous, it was restricted to night-time to avoid aerial attacks. In the forward area, hungry troops raided gardens or boiled “Mubo taro”, which could “be eaten even if one did not like it”.

Lieutenant General ADACHI Hatazô, the 18th Army’s commander, ordered the 66th Regiment to march from Finschhafen and block the Australian advance. However, its counter-attack at Lababia Ridge failed. The 17th and 15th Brigades pressed on. On 29–30 June, the American 126th Regiment landed at Nassau Bay and linked up with the Australians; OKABE’s 3rd Battalion, which garrisoned the bay, withdrew. The bay’s capture opened a new supply route for the Australians and also enabled landing craft to refuel before participating in a planned assault on Lae.

The attack on Lae was made in conjunction with the advance on Salamaua. The Australian 9th Division, recently returned from North Africa, would make an amphibious landing while the 7th Division, which had fought in Papua, advanced overland. The original plan was for the 7th Division to move by road to Wau and trek to the Markham Valley, however the Bulldog Road could not be completed in time. Airfields were cleared at Tsili Tsili, halfway to the Markham Valley, and in August the Fifth Air Force conducted the largest airlift of troops, equipment and supplies up to that time.

The Allies expected a strong defence of Lae but when the American 504th Parachute Regiment and gunners of the Australian 2/4th Field Regiment were dropped at the first objective, Nadzab, no opposition was encountered. In fact, ADACHI had authorised the garrison’s escape over the Finisterre Ranges, where dense jungle would hide troop columns from Allied aircraft.

The 9th Division landed north of Lae on 4 September. It was transported and resupplied by landing ships and craft of the American 7th Amphibious Force. American fighters flew ‘top cover’ and only about nine Japanese aircraft got through on the first day. The main difficulty was crossing the swollen Busu River; on 9 September, a battalion established a bridgehead, despite losing 13 men drowned, but it was hard to transport artillery and supplies over this and other rivers. Progress was slow.

The 7th Division advanced down the Markham Valley. Its objective was to capture Lae, rather than destroy its garrison, so the Japanese escape route was not blocked. The base fell on 16 September. Salamaua had fallen five days earlier.

In retreat, the Japanese were expected to trek 250 miles over some of the roughest mountains in New Guinea, rising to 10,000 feet in the Saruwaged Range. New Guineans carried some supplies but troops carried their own equipment and rations. It was obvious that badly wounded and sick men could not attempt the journey. Some were evacuated by submarine but most hospital patients committed suicide or were killed by medical staff.

Naval and base personnel were reasonably healthy and carried 15 days’ rations. At the rear came infantrymen who were tired after fighting and could carry only a week’s rations. Tracks were rugged and it was wet and cold, particularly at night when men camped without shelter and often without fires. As food ran out midway through the march, troops raided gardens and foraged for edible jungle plants, insects and snails. Men at the rear found areas stripped bare. Weakened by lack of food, many suffered relapses of malaria or other illnesses. About four in every ten men died of disease, starvation or exhaustion; some were killed by comrades. The rate of death was highest in the rear, and so the Japanese continued to lose their best troops.

Contributed by John Moreman (AJRP)

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