(September – October 1943)
On the night of 2rd September 1943, a large enemy transport convoy suddenly began a landing near the mouth of the Buso River. Naturally the army had estimated that such an event would occur sooner or later, but for the front line units it was like a peal of thunder in a clear sky. Then on the 5th huge flocks of enemy aircraft came flying over Nadzab and paratroops began to descend, completely blotting out the sky.
While the Lae units were keeping at bay the tiger at the front gate, the wolf had appeared at the back gate. This sudden outbreak meant, for the base group which had waged eight long months’ bloody and desperate warfare, the token of the end of the Salamaua campaign. But a piece of good fortune in the midst of misfortune was the fact that the G.O.C. at Lae, Maj-Gen SHOGE, a man of cool courage, was able to concentrate the whole strength of the Lae garrison troops.
The nucleus of the Lae forces was the Kamino Battalion of 20th Division, with an anti-aircraft machine cannot unit and airfield equipment units etc. – a very small fighting strength. However, as a result of the aptness of Maj-Gen SHOGE’s direction and the strenuous efforts of Maj MUKAI, the Staff Officer, that they were able to hold back the superior forces of the enemy for two weeks, by dint of fierce fighting, giving the base group main strength time to finish its concentration at Lae.
In particular, Staff Officer MUKAI, acting now as platoon commander, now as company commander, went right to the most forward positions and directed the fighting. In addition, Maj-Gen SHOGE’s attitude was considered to be the ideal representative of a commander. The Major-General was the original taciturn samurai, and if there was no business to be dealt with, he would go for a day or two without opening his mouth; he was a fighting man who did not display signs of joy or sorrow, pleasure or pain. Holding the enemy back to the east and west, even while they were within such close range, he was a model of coolness. When things became urgent, it was good that the officers and men were influenced by the mood of the commander. In such cases, the composure of the commander made the officers and men steady down. It is no exaggeration to say that silence is superior to eloquence on the battlefield.
Well then, although the attack was fierce from the troops who landed in the Buso River area, because of the restricted nature of the terrain it was comparatively easy to counter-attack; but since the attack from the Nadzab Plain threw open the rear of Lae, the enemy was able to advance in any area at all. The Lae garrison’s worry was all for that area. Although the true facts of the matter were not apparent, the movement of the units which had dropped on Nadzab were very sluggish; if they had attacked with their vast strength, it would have been the hour of death of Lae in a matter of a few hours; and the fact that this did not happen was, for our troops, a piece of good luck in the midst of misfortune. What was the cause of this? From our common-sense tactics, it was an insoluble riddle. Sooner or later the base group would be overthrown in the Finisterre Range. In that case, was it to save unnecessary bloodshed? It can be imagined that calculations came forward for a violent attack or for letting matters take their own course, and this was a piece of good fortune bestowed by heaven. So although the base group was unable to understand the reason, it meant they had time to concentrate at Lae and also to change direction to Kiari. In the beginning the enemy with small number troops tried to check the crossing of the Buso River at the rear of Lae, but they were scattered by units of 51st Division and were unable to carry out their plan.
But what of the situation of the Lae garrison who easily carried out their difficult concentration, in opposition to the great numbers of the enemy’s 9th Division of Australians, who were increasing their violent attack from the Buso River area? This was a misfortune in the midst of misfortunes. Originally air force land units, they had had no land warfare training. In addition, their equipment was not adequate. The units had for their fire power machine cannot which were for firing at the sky but which pointed towards the earth; in addition, they had to take part in night fighting, which is extremely difficult. Their losses grew in the fierce land and air attacks of the enemy. Their commanding officer was killed and his deputy took over the command. In this desperate, psychological moment fighting they were not permitted to fall back one pace, and eventually the soldiers were killed and it became a position of dead bodies.
Lt Gen NAKANO, commanding officer of 51st Division, retreated from Salamaua to Lae, and according to various reports, he studied the reports of Kitamoto Engineering Unit which had formerly been engaged in the pacification of the Finisterre area; he eventually decided to cross the Finisterres and to advance to the vicinity of Kiari, on the north coast, and arranged that the order of the withdrawal from Lae should be first Navy, then Army.
There were two proposals for the direction of the withdrawal. The first was Lt Gen NAKANO’s proposal to cross the Finisterre Range; the second was to advance westwards along the southern foot of this range and withdraw to the Bogadjim valley area which was occupied by the Nakai Detachment of 20th Division. As far as concerns the first proposal, not only were there doubts as to the possibility of effecting it, because although the distance was not great, it means the crossing of an as yet unknown mountain range 4,000 metres high; but also, the army did not have sufficient faith in the availability of supplies at Kiari even after such an advance had been effected. As far as concerns the latter proposal, there was the danger of exposing their flank to the enemy group (Australian 7th Division), but with positive action from Nakai Detachment there was the possibility of checking the enemy. The main advantage of this area was that although the distance was great it was level ground and movement was easy; also our Nakai Detachment could prepare for sufficient provisions. Each of the plans had advantages and disadvantages, merits and demerits. The Army advised that it would not restrict the Division Commander’s decision but would rely on what he chose. Lt Gen NAKANO listened to the report of Lt KITAMOTO (who had formerly represented Japan in the Olympic marathon) that it would be difficult but not impossible to cross the Finisterre Range, and he decided that if they adopted the proposal for a westward advance along the Nadzab Plain, although they would have the reinforcement of Nakai Detachment, the enemy planes, which made no differentiation between night and day would attack before they could contact the Detachment and the whole Division would be wiped out; so although it was a big undertaking, he settled on the proposal to cross the Finisterres. This was the famous Sarawaged crossing of the base group.
On hearing the report that the base group had decided to make the Sarawaged crossing the Army at once mobilized all its shipping units and exerted al its effort to supplying it at the same time as the main strength of 20th Division at Finschhafen.
When the Division left Lae it carried as many provisions as it could to make itself self-reliant. The supplied which had been for Salamaua were now joyfully taken as provisions for the retreat. Healthy people like the naval units were able to take enough for 14 or15 days but the army units, in an extreme of exhaustion, were only able to carry enough for about a week. With these meagre supplies they set off for Sarawaged Peak, to make a crossing of the 10,000 feet altitude, with a mileage of 250 miles. Particularly sad was the plight of the sick. Being unable to retreat, there was nothing left for them but an extreme measure. Of their own accord, with their grenades or rifles they committed suicide.
For a Japanese soldier the greatest disgrace is to fall into the hands of the enemy. This is a tradition of old Japan; it is a firmly rooted conviction about which there is no room for argument. Our fellow soldiers died with peaceful minds, and we must pray for their souls.
In the story of the crossing, there are countless incidents which could be related, but in the interests of brevity I shall only include two or three anecdotes.
As I have explained before, the decision for the Sarawaged crossing was due to the support of Lt KITAMOTO, and now he manifested his prowess as a former Olympic marathon competitor. He played an active part in the Finisterre Ranges, exerting himself to pacify the natives, assembling resources, gathering intelligence, and the fact that he was able to obtain 100% cooperation from the mountain natives was a big reason why this difficult mountain crossing was possible. The natives marvelled at his walking ability, and he won their trust.
Next there is the anecdote of the Division order that a mountain gun should be abandoned. Col WATANABE, commander of 14th Field Artillery Regiment, thought that if there were artillery troops, no matter what the situation, it was unjustifiable if they could not fire a shot on the battlefield. And since the fighting strength was small and the men were tired, one cannon would be enough. He decided that they must also carry some shells, and encouraging his own troops he set out for Sarawaged. Soldiers who were carrying insufficient food for themselves should not have had to carry 50 kilograms of mountain gun bits and pieces. Officers and men took it in turns and several at time carried these as they climbed the steep slopes. Naturally, the officers and men sympathized with the Regimental Commander and clung on to the rocks with truly formidable spirit. However, the Division Commander came to know about it. He was deeply stirred by their sense of responsibility but could not overlook their suffering, and he finally issued a divisional order that they should cease this. On the Sarawaged Mountain the Regiment Commander and his subordinates, with tears in their eyes, bade a formal farewell to this, the last of the Regiment’s guns. It is usual and natural for an artillery man to believe his gun and his fate are one and the same, so it can be imagined how despairing they were. I had known WATANABE for a long time, as we had both been pupils at the officers’ school at the same time. After the Sarawaged crossing he became sick; after recuperating he went to Hansa Bay to retain the Division’s newly arrived replacements. Fully-recovered, he fought well once again in the Wewak engagement. I thought he was safe, but sad to relate, after the end of the war he caught blackwater malaria and with repatriation just around the corner he died in the Mushu Island hospital. It was surprised to hear he was sick, and rushed to his hospital bed to see him, but he was already unconscious and, without my being able to bid him an eternal farewell, he died.
The last anecdote I shall include concerns the sea incursion into the midst of the enemy.
As I have mentioned before, the saddest thing was the transport of wounded when 51st Division left Lae and Salamaua, crossed the Finisterres and moved to the north coast. Lt Col SUZUKI, the senior staff officer in the rear, while accumulating the provisions for those who were moving on, worried greatly about evacuating even one of the many wounded, but when he looked up at the lofty mountains towering above the clouds, there was only one possible answer even if the men were healthy: Is he strong enough? What about food? It was obvious that the sick would die in the mountains. They would die if they moved. They would die if they remained. There was nothing for them to wait for but death. Already many had said, "If we’re going to die anyway, let’s not cause anyone any trouble", and had taken their own measures. It was unbearable to see. Naturally, the navy had been asked to provide submarine transport, but with the available force of submarines this was only a drop in the bucket. Besides if they were not very strong physically they could not negotiate the hatch. The case of the seriously wounded was very sad. Nothing venture, nothing win – so let’s try the shipping engineers. The enemy had warships lying off-shore at Hopoi and was unloading. It was ten days since they had started their landing; since they had grown a little careless and would not expect it, now was a good time for an incursion by the Japanese navy. And since army headquarters were deeply concerned about the lack of ships for carrying material to Finschhafen, if by chance in a million this were accomplished, imagine the joy of 20th Division: cooperation with 20th Division, which was making a hurried march to Finschhafen, would be an invaluable bolster to morale, in future campaigns, of both divisions. In addition, it would certainly ensure supplies for the division after the advance to Kiari. It was not merely a case of killing two birds with one stone, but of killing four birds with one stone. Why hadn’t I thought of this brilliant idea before? Still, it meant working right beneath the enemy’s nose. It meant not giving a thought to death. Still there was the urge to save one’s own skin. Such a feeling was unpardonable when one thought of the seriously wounded. They were 100% sure to die. Their fate depended on the success or failure of this venture. But the shipping company commander was of the opinion that it could not be avoided that there must be casualties.
Finally the concentration of the main strength from Salamaua was completed at Lae and the 5th Shipping Unit (3 big landing barges, and one small barge) and the 8th Shipping Unit (2 big landing barges and one raft) on the 14th September (a full moon) daringly went straight into the heart of the enemy, and although one barge was sunk they were able to load up with men and safely reached Dabubui on the 15th.
This plan did not employ Staff Officer SUZUKI’s original plan to detour round the enemy convoy; the seven boats made the raid between the enemy’s ship and the shore. This was certainly a case of entering the tiger’s lair. In charge of the boats was Lt ISHIHARA (he was later killed in action during 20th Division’s attack at Cape Anto. He was a graduate of Kobe Commerce University) and you can imagine the delight of the wounded who had arrived safely at Finschhafen.
The Sarawaged crossing took far longer than had been expected, and its difficulties were beyond discussion. Near the mountain summits the cold was intense and sleep was quite impossible all the cold night; they could only doze beside the fire. Squalls came, the ice spread and they advanced through snow under this tropical sky. Gradually the road they were climbing became a descending slope, but the inclination was so steep that if they missed their footing they would fall thousands and thousands of feet – and how many men lost their lives like that! About 4 out of 10 died of starvation and sickness in this crossing.
Major OKA, Captain SATO and the others who had been ordered to succour them called up the nearby natives to carry the material and supplies which had been landed on Kiari Beach by the shipping units; and carrying food and more especially medical goods they headed for the Sarawaged mountains from the other side. They wept for joy when they met the units who were crossing from the other side.
2. Buna area situation
3. Fighting near Buna
4. Army planning
5. New Guinea
6. Operation No.18
7. Wau campaign
8. 20th and 41st Divisions
9. Operation No.81
11. Enemy at Buso-Nadzab
12. Nakai Detachment
15. Nakano Group
16. Air and shipping
17. Madang to Wewak