In mid-February 1942, at the same time as the army was busy with operations around Buna, it was required for a landing base for the various groups deploying in New Guinea, so that the strategical situation strengthened and there was haste to adopt a situation which would make it possible to attack or defend. The Lae and Salamaua areas were the first strategic positions which it was absolutely necessary for us to hold. This was because Lae and Salamaua were the barriers of the Dampier Strait, the area between New Guinea and New Britain and also because they were the forward base of our aviation; at the same time, next to Buna the enemy wanted to transfer his air base to the Sanabu Plain, and we were absolutely determined not to hand it over to the enemy. For this reason, in the spring of 1942 the Japanese forces sent part of the Navy to occupy it.
If we really meant to hold Buna, it was necessary to increase the troops to ensure holding it. For this reason it was decided to send firstly to Lae the 51st Division (Moto Group) which had been the first to arrive in Rabaul.. Since it was not possible to transport the division in one go, as many troops as possible were moved as soon as shipping permitted.
An order came that as well as Moto Group, which I have mentioned the 20th Division from Formosa (Cho Group) and the 41st Division from Northern China (Kawa Group) should also form up, and February 1943 was set at the date for their landing in New Guinea. Of course it was pre-arranged that the main strength of army and air would be transferred to New Guinea, the coming strategic point. Therefore the army was urged that it was essential to hasten preparations for arranging the landing in New Guinea of the various Groups and for arranging airfields.
When it came to deciding where to make these Groups land, the eastern side was the most eminently desirable, but considering that after two months the enemy’s air strength would have increased, it would on the other hand be dangerous to go too far east, so Hansa and Wewak were decided on as a comparative choice. Since Hansa lacked permanency but was dangerous, Wewak was chosen as safer in the long run while Hansa was to be used only when circumstances favoured.
But Wewak was too far away as a supply point for Lae, and it would not be possible to transport from there to Lae in one go, so it was essential to have a base between them. Madang was between Wewak and Rabaul, and also been Lae and Wewak; furthermore it was close to the Hagen Highlands where the enemy’s advance could be expected. Thus from the point of view of strategy it was a vital spot, and it was definitely necessary to occupy it.
For these reasons, in order to establish the strategic situation in New Guinea at the end of 1942. No. 18 Operation was planned. The object of this plan, as I have mentioned, was to carry out the occupation of Lae and at the same time occupy Wewak and Madang, strategic points for the landing of the future Groups, and to set up airfields; the date set for doing this was 2nd January.
The units to accomplish this were as follows:-
Lae Landing: Okabe Detachment, from 51st Division, made up of some Signals and Supply troops, 1 company of engineers, 1 Mountain Gun Battalion with nucleus 102nd Infantry Regiment commanded by Major General OKABE.
Wewak landing: Navy 2nd special Naval Base Unit (commanded by Rear Admiral KAMATA) and 1 Battalion of selected officers and men of 5th Division (commanded by Lt Col KONISHI).
Madang landing: 2 Battalions of selected officers and men of 5th division (commanded by Lt Col HANAWA) and airfield construction unit.
At first the Okabe Detachment, which was to land at Lae, had the objective of occupying Lae and Salamaua; but if it only occupied Lae and Salamaua, there would be the inconvenience of the enemy’s being able to freely use Wau, an important strategical point south west of Lae, so it was altered so that they should attack Wau as well.
Wau was a mining area and had factory installations which were rare in New Guinea; it was an important town in the Bulolo river valley and its rear cut off the Hagen Tableland; it was possible to communicate with it by the Papua Sea and the Fly River, so that from the point of view of the defence of Lae it was a thorn in the side. According to a photographic reconnaissance taken at the time, it was determined that the enemy was felling trees along a line with the object of making a road, so it was clear that he planned to hold Wau.
Here I should like to say a word about the Hagen Tableland, which ran west of Wau.
The Hagen Tableland is situated in Central New Guinea on the upper reaches of the Ramu River, and its height is 2,000 metres. Although it is a tropical region, the altitude of 2,000 metres makes it a Paradise of perpetual spring and autumn. Therefore the natives have made great developments with agriculture and in every direction it is New Guinea’s treasure-house. But being a tableland, its surroundings are very steep so that it is difficult of access, hard to attack and easy to defend.
But on the other hand, at the rear, the slope to the Fly River is gradual, so that it would be possible if a road were built there. Since the heavy rains which are a speciality of New Guinea do not reach as far as that, such a road would be easy to maintain. A 150-ton steamer could navigate to the upper reaches of the Fly River. On the other hand, once enemy planes advanced to this tableland, almost the whole of eastern New Guinea would be within their bombing range and there would be no place under heaven to hide. It was considered much more likely that the advance of the enemy aircraft would be to Hagen Tableland in the mountains than to the coast. It was therefore absolutely essential, in order to forestall this plan to capture Wau, the eastern gateway to the tableland. This was not the opinion merely of us in the front line; Imperial General Headquarters were of the same frame of mind.
So Plan No. 18 developed; as I have said, there were to be simultaneous landings at three places. The troops were to be divided into two convoys; the troops for the Lae landing would be in the southern convoy composed of 5 army transports with Navy destroyer and air escort; it was to take course along the south coast of New Britain and sail straight for Lae. The Wewak and Madang troops were to be in the northern convoy which was to detour to the Admiralty Islands as though returning to Palau from Rabaul; thus it would be moving out of range of enemy aircraft and on the very night of the landing it would sharply change course southward and head for the landing points.
This northern convoy, being able to escape enemy eyes skillfully, encountered no obstacle on the way, and in particular the Wewak units were all able to land safely, though it was not so simple for the Madang landing units.
Whether by accident, or because they had foreknowledge, an enemy submarine was on the look-out off Madang and during the landing suddenly put in an appearance. Tenryu, the flagship of the destroyer squadron, was torpedoed and sunk by it – a great misfortune. Although this was a great setback to the landing operation, fortunately the troops were able to land, but they were unable to land the equipment they carried because of the need for a fast withdrawal, but this material was brought back for the next morning's attack.
However, what about the Okabe Detachment, the main strength, and their landing at Lae?
The story was that since the Okabe Detachment’s convoy consisted of so many transports, it could not help being spotted by enemy planes. So our destroyer was on the alert from the sea and our planes were watching from the sky for any attack on the convoy. So it journeyed around the south coast of New Britain, and unfortunately the Nichiryu Maru was attacked and sunk by enemy planes off Gasmata. Another ship, the Tenryu Maru was bombed from the air and ran aground in Lae Harbour. This happened in front of all our people, our naval and air units and our airfields. The enemy’s airfields were at Port Moresby and Rabi, a long way away.
The transports were in great danger from the airplanes. They had no armour-plating, no water-tight bulkheads, but were just small, toy, tinplate ships. If a bomb hit the target they would immediately catch on fire. To manoeuvre the ships was not quick and easy as with battleships, and this made them all the weaker. Our air units also gave as much assistance as they could, but unfortunately the number of our planes in the air was only a fraction of the total. The enemy planes which came to attack seemed to concentrate the numbers they wanted just at the time when they wanted to attack, so it was natural that in the long run we could not make big strikes. It goes without saying that the enemy’s air strength by that time had far surpassed ours. "In such a case, why make such a decisive step?" That is what you will perhaps reprove, but it is the misfortune of front line troops. The planes which acted as cover were the main strength belonging to the South East Area Fleet, and if they had not deliberately exposed themselves to this danger the little units at Lae would have been driven out and all those in New Guinea would have had to go northwards like the Macassar Army. As their losses were one in five, this was their greatest achievement.
The officer in charge of transport of the Tenryu Maru, Major TAKAMURA, commanding officer of a 102nd Infantry Regiment Battalion was a casualty, being wounded by bombing; being carried away by the tide of the Dampier, he was drifting close to Goodenough Island when rescued luckily by a submarine which had been sent to save him. After this narrow escape he was taken back to Rabaul Harbour. In a case like this where a ship was lost, even though the Navy had other important duties, it temporarily abandoned these and immediately sent a submarine and a destroyer to the rescue. In peacetime a sea rescue is an easy thing, or rather merely a matter of course; in a battle area it is a desperate and self-sacrificing act. It was particularly difficult if a submarine was being used for the rescue. To surface a submarine in the face of enemy air opposition was no small thing.
There are critics who say that the main cause of losing the war was the lack of understanding between the Army and the Navy, but from the experience of the 18th Army there is not the slightest particle of truth in this statement. There was close cooperation with the Army and Navy acting as two people with one body, forgetting all distinctions between Army and Navy. This was not an isolated instance of this cooperation which was repeated over and over again.
The return, alive, of Major TAKAMURA was not only a blessing in the shape of his luck as a warrior, but was taken as a matter for great rejoicing by the whole of the forces. With Major TAKAMURA’s experience as a casualty as the keynote, a counter-measure for such disasters could be established, thus saving many lives in future operations.
Occasionally casualty counter-measures are based on peace time manoeuvres and experience, but not being based on long experience, even if detailed, it turns out that it is not suitable at the actual time.
In the forces, Major TAKAMURA’s experience was used as a basis and the counter-measure was studied by the Groups and used as the policy in future transport operations. As a result of this, a counter-measure was accomplished which in the case of subsequent disasters enabled lives of personnel for certain, and possibly even heavy material such as arms and ammunition also, to be saved. This preparatory study later on, on the occasion of Operation 81’s major disaster, was a piece of good fortune in misfortune because it proved effective immediately.
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