Australia-Japan Research Project

AustraliaJapan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Australian and Japanese attitudes to the war
Southern Cross: XIX The Aitape engagement

At the end of March it was apparent that no unloading could be done at Wewak, and that it would have to be done at Hollandia. However, if there were a Palau-Hollandia line, even though it was difficult, the army would be able to carry out small boat transport along the shore between Hollandia and Wewak. Now, with Hollandia lost, the umbilical cord was cut. Even if the army immediately began growing food in order to be self-sufficient, probably the majority of their lives could not be saved. It can well be imagined that only a few of them would survive. But from reports from all about, even this assumption did not seem permissible. The decisive battle in Western New Guinea was about to begin. We could only trust in our gods and fight for our country, with the cooperation of all units.

General ANAMI, G.O.C. 2nd Area Army, was of the same opinion. But the opinion of Southern Area General Headquarters was: "18th Army are in good health in one corner of New Guinea and must contribute to the all-over operations." This was an exceedingly cruel opinion and showed great lack of knowledge.

If immediate attempts at self-supporting were made, was survival possible? At First glance, it seemed easy, but in reality would be very difficult. Originally, the army had been the biggest army of the southern area, of several tens of thousands; but in its great transferring movement, heavy losses had been incurred, and its total strength was 54,000. And the food it had was only sufficient for less than two months. Moreover, the enemy’s bombing objective was gradually changing from the airfield to the supply dumps. So it was a moot point whether stores could or could not be kept for two months. And as for starting to grow crops, first it would be necessary to make a clearing in the jungle. And however quick-growing the crops might be, they would take three months. What could be used to fill the gap? It was natural to think of the native gardens, with the point of view of pacifying the natives, but the difficulty was that the number of natives was only about 5%. In the region 50 miles x 25 miles round Wewak, there were no more than about 15,000 natives. And considering the seeds and shoots, it seemed that things were not going to be easy and that there would be a lot of troops lost.

Would it be possible to improve the army’s lot by boldly attempting an attack on Aitape? It is superfluous to say that this would be exceedingly difficult. Even if, with temporary good luck, the army was able to force their way back to Aitape, in the light of past experience, it would be quite impossible to press on to Hollandia. But an attack on Aitape would achieve one of their objectives – to delay the enemy advance to the Philippines.

On one hand, in the Pacific area, though the enemy had few aircraft carriers, they had 20 or 30 ships in a very mobile fleet which was active in every area. On 21st May it appeared east of the Ogasawara Group and it was inferred that the enemy would land with over two divisions in western New Guinea. Then on 20th May the attack on Sarmi and Wakde began, and on 27th May the attack on Biak Island. Thus the great hope of Imperial General Headquarters – the big transfer to western New Guinea – became impossible. This firmed the army’s impression that there was only one path left to pursue.

That meant the strengthening of the army’s decision to attack Aitape. As a result of the enemy landing at Sarmi the idea of returning to Hollandia was abandoned and it was decided to attack Aitape.

Thus the army summed up its situation after the enemy landing and pressed on with its preparations.

At the beginning of the Aitape campaign, the G.O.C. issued an order to the whole of the army, as follows.

Order to the Whole Army concerning the Opening of the Aitape Campaign.

"The Army will assemble the Aitape operation units in the region round Yakamaru and will open the attack."



Now that the die was cast, two great misfortunes occurred. The first of these was the death of Lt Gen KATAGIRI, the commander of 20th Division. The staff of this headquarters was sadly depleted, and as it was the leading division in the encounter, the death of its commander was a serious obstacle to the campaign. The second tragedy was the death of six Staff officers of 41st Division, as the result of the bombing of headquarters. In May 1944 the casualties was a result of bombing were really exceptional, even though they had been severe before.

As far as concerned the 41st Division tragedy, it was as follows. A signal was sent to Colonel UJIHARA, the commander of 44th L. of C. unit. He came, in accordance with this signal, to make a situation report, and was accompanied by Chief of Staff Colonel ITO and Staff Officer INAGAKI. They met their fate together. The tragedy also befell the young Army Staff Officers Major MUKAI, Major UEDA and Major UCHIDA and the Army Adjutant Major HOJO. The Staff Orderly Room was blown up, without a trace being left; the damage extended all over the H.Q. area. Not only did the bombing of headquarters cause deaths and casualties, but by destroying documents it caused temporary hold-ups and influenced operations. It made things very difficult for Army, 20th Division and 40th Division to have been damaged before operations began.

However, it was one of the hazards of warfare, so they recovered their forces and pushed ahead their preparations, in accordance with plans.

Before the Aitape encounter began, there were three things the Army had to be sure to do. These three things were to be ready for future operations, and were respectively: to obtain emergency articles which were lacking, to send to Japan vital documents which could be called the Army’s will, and to communicate to the rear group their valuable experience, up till now, in the southern area. For later on the Army could expect absolutely no contact with other areas. So it was essential that they should request air transport of emergency articles now, while they were not far from friendly troops. They needed batteries and valves in order to ensure signals communications, and emergency medical supplies such as malaria medicine, alcohol and yeast etc for external application. Staff Officer OBATA was sent off to Area Army as special courier to return the documents, either by using emergency air transport or the submarines used for emergency transport. Area Army signalled General Army and General Army signalled Imperial General Headquarters, reporting the army’s experience in the whole Pacific area, and so the army became really illustrious.

The most difficult thing about the Aitape attack was supply. The supply base, Wewak, was 115 miles from Aitape. For various reasons, shipping transport from Wewak was limited to the Sonam River mouth, 40 miles away. Westwards from Sonam a motor road was built but as a result of its hasty construction, it could not be used during the rainy season. Therefore, everything had to be carried on shoulders from the Sonam River mouth. The limit for physical endurance was 5 miles of carrying packs – 2.1/2 miles in each direction. Therefore the distance had to be divided into fifteen sections. The limit of weight that could be carried was 20 kilograms, so that it would take 60 people to carry enough supplies for 10 people in the front line. That made it 6 to 1. But because of the nature of New Guinea, which caused the outbreak of so many cases of malaria, so that one in three people were hospital cases, and one in two were incapable of sustained movement. So this made it 12 to 1, really.

So that, of a strength of 10,000 troops, only about 770 were front line battle troops. And this number had to be the mathematical basis when the pack-carrying was done.

Thereupon the Army’s front line fighting control and the rear supply control were divided into two mechanisms; the G.O.C. himself, close to the front line, controlled operations; I, as Chief of Staff, was stationed at Sarupu, near the Sonam River mouth and was responsible for the control of rear supply.

Well, what of the situation in the front line area? Marujip, in the Sarupu area, was the vital point for the attack and the defence of the Aitape area. To the west, with the westward limit the Tori (T.N. = bird) River, there was a reasonably wide plain, which made movement easy for the units. To the east, the mountains were close to the sea, and movement was very difficult except on the shore. Accordingly, if this place were lost advance would be difficult; while if it were guarded with even a small force, it would be possible to stop a mighty army.

In view of these facts, the army planned to occupy Marujip. By good fortune, the army signals unit, which was heading for Hollandia from Wewak because of the enemy landing at Wewak, took refuge and landed there. This was, happily, the same result as if we had sent signals equipment with the object of occupying this strategic spot. Captain MIYANAGA, in charge of the unit, was a highly reliable, excellent wireless officer. He was able to obtain intelligence about the Aitape area, to evaluate it, and to communicate any important matters to the H.Q. units. The army was able to place reliance in this intelligence, a fact which was particularly efficacious in subsequent operations.

Major-General NAKAI, newly appointed commander of 20th Division, completed the concentration of the Division’s main strength, advanced to Marujip and assumed command there.

In mid-May this Division left Marujip, suddenly attacked the enemy at Haru, inflicted heavy casualties, and pursued the defeated enemy as far as his advance position at Yakamul. On this occasion, advancing to within distance of the enemy with flame throwers, they used accurate fire to drive the enemy in front of them, then encircled them on both sides and won a considerable victory. In this battle, the thing which most pleased both officers and men were the precious goods left behind by the enemy, such as butter and cheese, etc. These they brought back with them, as spoils of war to be shared with their comrades in arms.

It is difficult to visualise the joy this occasioned to troops who had nothing to smile about in 750 miles of marching, in the transfer from Finschhafen and then from Madang.

In reply to this effort, the enemy concentrated intense frontal fire and fierce naval bombardment from the sea, cutting them off on two sides. Then they tried, as a third measure, a desperate return, but as a result of our fire power on the flat coastal road, they crumbled and were unable to attain their objective.

The enemy now changed his tactics and made a counter-landing; following the example of Sugino Company at Finschhafen, they landed in the Urau area, between Marujip and Yakamul. To oppose them, they encountered the units of 41st Division, who were in the act of advancing there. The enemy abandoned their vehicles on the shore and fled, so the fortunes of war were with us in more than one place.

As from the beginning of June, 20th Division advanced to a line north and south from Yakamul; they made efforts to reconnoitre the enemy main position on the left bank of the Nanto Gawa, the Dorinimor river and at the same time gradually concentrated their strength and hurriedly went ahead with the stocking up of material. However, it was the rainy season, with rain continuing day after day, so that the rivers were overflowing and movement was impossible; sickness continued, and all day and night enemy aircraft bombed them. Movement was quite impossible in the daytime, and although they could just move at night, this made the concentration of material very difficult.

As for cooking, the night time was chosen, because of smoke from the fires. But even at night, this smoke showed up readily and could be seen easily, and so the enemy aircraft and ships aimed at the smoke from these fires and increased their bombardments, thus increasing our difficulties of movement. For the first time, in this operation, did the menace become evident of continual bombardment from the sea. From about 8 o’clock in the morning, the enemy steamed out of Aitape, and gradually from the west fiercely shelled for 20 or 30 minutes the fording spots of each river, the army barracks, the store dumps and other vital places, gradually going east, and from noon for about an hour they waited far out at sea to have lunch; then in the afternoon they went from the east to the west, repeating their fire, and returned to Aitape. This bombardment on both sides – from air and sea – had the effect of limiting daytime movements to single soldiers.

So as day after day went past, with the rain and the bombing continuing, the army could not advance its preparations for attack as had been planned. Compared with supplies in other areas, as I have mentioned, if the attack were not completed by the end of July, it would be quite impossible to break it off because supplies were cut off. Although it was known that preparations were incomplete, the attack for a certain fixed date must be begun.

Already two months had passed since the enemy landing at the Hanto river position, and the position was therefore very secure. It was garrisoned by an American force, of about one half of a Division, under a group commander, who was awaiting the attack of our 18th Army. The right wing of the position was in the shelter of the Alexander Range; the left wing embraced the sea, so encirclement was impossible. The only thing possible was to make a wedge-shaped attack on the centre of the position.

The vicinity of the island in the river would be the boundaries of the two Divisions; the 41st Division on the right and the 20th Division on the left would be parallel. After 41st Division crossed the river it would veer right and 20th Division would veer left.

At the time our attacking force was about 20,000, and rear units 15,000.

The Hanto River was between 150 and 200 metres wide, and the depth of water roughly 1 metre. The speed of its flow was fast, and crossing it was never easy.

The Crossing in the 20th Division Area.

On the 10th the 20th Division units opened their movement from the Tosato River line and secretly took up their positions to prepare for attack. But part of 78th Infantry Regiment and 80th Infantry Regiment misunderstood their deployment positions and crossed each other, causing considerable confusion.

At 2150 hours under cover of fire from all sorts of guns and machine guns, the units opened their advance across the Hanto River.

However, the enemy had anticipated our attack and poured an intense barrage of fire against the fording point and the right bank of the Hanto River, and for the troops at these points it became a shambles, with continuous casualties and dead Most of the artillery and heavy weapons were annihilated. However, that night at 0130 hours the units on both flanks gradually accomplished the difficult crossing, mopped up the enemy in the left bank position, as scheduled advanced to the vicinity of Yotsu Ohara, (T.N. – lit = Four small plains) and on the morning of the 11th concentrated the units near the northern side of Hill 50.

On the morning of the 12th, the commander of the left flank force (Maj-Gen MIYAKE) discovered some of the enemy retiring to Hill 50, and, using part of his forces, mopped them up; and, in order to cut off the enemy’s withdrawal, he had the main strength advance to the vicinity of Kotogawa to prepare for the coming advance.

As a result of our crossing the river, the enemy fled to the west, but found themselves between the positions of both flank units; from about 13th a force was transferred from the coast area and blocked up the gap; the dispositions on the left bank were strengthened and on about 20th this force reached 45 Battalion.

On 15th July, since the strength of both flank units was decreased, they were amalgamated and became Miyake unit. From the neighbourhood of Hill 78 they sought the left hand rear side of the enemy who remained in the Afua area and attacked them. At dusk on 17th they routed about 300 of the enemy near Afua and took up a position north of this. While the units were in the midst of arranging themselves, the enemy again returned to the Afua and Tsuru positions, and stubbornly clung to them. Unfortunately, Miyake unit did not have the forces to mop them, and because of the intense concentration of fire from these occupied positions, were unable to hold their positions.

Although Mitake unit tried another attack on the 18th, it was not successful. Furthermore, since the 17th there had not been a single grain of rice, and the only things to eat were jungle plants and the fruit of trees. With this, the continual rain and the manoeuvring battle, the exhaustion of both officers and men reached an extremity.

The main strength of 237th Infantry Regiment, 41st Division were unable to travel in the daytime and made preparations for the food they carried (surmising that once the fighting began they would not even be able to cook at night, they baked their rice); they found it was pitch black at night, and for all these reasons their movement was slowed up. In addition, because there was no communications network, the transmission of army orders was slow and preparations were lacking from the Regimental Commander down. Therefore, for the first time on 10th July in the afternoon, the very day of the crossing, they arrived at the scene of the battle; until this day, the day of the attack, the officers of the main strength had not seen the Hanto River, and so were unable to ascertain anything about the enemy there.

The River Crossing in the 237th Infantry Regiment Area.

At 2150 hours the rear of the Regiment’s main strength was just finishing its positions in preparation for the attack when suddenly the firing began in the 20th Division area. Thereupon the heavy weapons of each unit opened a barrage, and the enemy on the opposite bank opened up a violent barrage in reply. About 8 minutes after our artillery opened up, their artillery was directing accurate fire on the rear of the sentinel positions prepared for the attack.

At 2200 hours our front line, paying no attention to the violent fire, crossed the Hanto River like a raging billow, penetrated the enemy’s position and concentrated at a point about one kilometre west of it.

The enemy troops occupying the position ran in all directions, screaming, and fled westwards in a disorderly fashion. However, our units were rather confused as a result of their night crossing in front of the enemy, and although they should have seized the position late on the 11th, it was about noon on the 12th when they definitely took the place, the Regimental Commander having reached the units after mistaking the direction of the advance.

The units in the coastal road area, on the night of the 10th, in accordance with instructions, completed their preparations for the attack and, when the fire began in the main strength area, opened up a violent barrage on the enemy in front of them.

On the 11th, unit commander Major HOSHINO, aware that the enemy on the opposite bank had already withdrawn crossed over on that night and at dawn on the 12th advanced to the area east of Chakil. In the morning the units encountered the enemy, who had several tanks; although they used their mountain guns and put two of the foremost tanks out of action, their casualties and deaths continued under fire from aircraft, artillery and torpedo boats, their fire power was completely wiped out and all of them, from the infantry company commander down, were killed. The units assembled their survivors in the dense forest, and on the 17th about 30 survivors, led by Major HOSHINO, made suicide penetration of the motor and tank groups. It was a deed so brave as to make the gods weep.

The enemy, who on 11th July had abandoned the Hanto River track, from the 13th on again advanced along the river bank, and blocked the fording place. Therefore, in order to contact the troops which had attacked first, it was necessary to utilize the darkness and break through the enemy’s guard. On the 15th, Staff Officer SHIRO was despatched for liaison with them; but after this the enemy strengthened his position by setting up barbed wire etc. and as from the 17th liaison with the units which had attacked first was completely severed.

On the 12th, the 237th Infantry Regiment, aware that there was a considerable enemy strength on the right bank of both the Hansej river and the Jinto river, decided to attack it. The first Battalion attacked the enemy at the Koto River mouth and the 2nd Battalion attacked the enemy at the Koto River mouth and the 2nd Battalion attacked the enemy at the Hansej River mouth, but as the enemy position was strong the lst Battalion was not able to capture it; the 2nd Battalion were hindered by swamps in front of the enemy position and had no alternative but to retreat.

In order to restore contact with the main strength of the Division, it was decided on the 15th to attack from the rear the enemy in the vicinity of the fording place, and the 3rd Battalion was used to attack the Kawanaka (T.N. Literally=middle of the river) Island enemy troops from the rear, but this was unsuccessful. Again, on the 22nd, when the whole Division were attacking, they were surrounded on four sides by the enemy, so were forced to escape and were able to make contact with 80th Infantry Regiment of 20th Division.

Basing his facts on this situation, the G.O.C. realized that it was useless to attempt further hurried frontal attacks; he assembled the whole army on the highlands south of Afua, and, in order to sweep over the enemy position from the left flank, concentrated the troops of both Divisions upstream on the Hanto River. It was the 25th of July.

Although I have said two Divisions, their strength was now depleted, and by mid-July the front line strength of the two Divisions was no more than 4,000 troops. It was a desperate struggle, with officers taking guns and fighting. Furthermore, the positions were strong and in dense jungle; things were made more intense by microphones set up in the jungle, the observation of gliders which soared overhead unceasingly from dawn till dusk, and the great accuracy of the enemy’s artillery.

Our troops, tired by their long journey, tried retaliating with the mountain guns which they had brought with them, but the enemy, seeing where the firing was coming from, destroyed the guns, and made it impossible to attack easily. What made both officers and men gnash their teeth was the precipice in front of the enemy position.

The fact that this precipice was in front of it made impossible the assault methods characteristic of our army and so much feared by the enemy and it was only a matter of repeated fighting to the death some distance from the front of the enemy. However, days elapsed in this fashion, and after a week the coveted enemy position at last fell into our hands. Nevertheless, casualties among the front line units were very high. During the progress of the attack, while it was in the balance whether a unit would or would not seize the enemy position, we completely lost a concentration of artillery with over 100 guns. In addition, at the beginning of August, out of the seven infantry regiments, the front line strength was no more than 100 men, and this was reduced to a mere 30 or 50. In other words, one regiment was reduced to the fighting strength of a platoon.

As I have already remarked, the provisions held by the army were enough for three weeks’ fighting by the front line units. Now, when they were exhausted, it was impossible to continue the attack, whatever measures were taken. In other areas, Saipan had already fallen into the enemy’s hands; the West New Guinea fighting had ended by our defeat and it was now a matter of a desperate fight for the defence of the country and further attacks were not possible; in addition, their necessity was slight. Therefore the G.O.C. eventually decided on 4th August to withdraw from the enemy.

Just then, a fresh enemy group, thinking it was a good opportunity while our main strength was in the Afua River valley, advanced to the area of the right bank of the Hanto River and began an advance southwards along the course of the river. This was absolutely death for the army.

The G.O.C., daringly serving as front line regiment and battalion commander, managed to cut a way of escape through the enemy ranks. Perhaps the enemy’s shock troops were decreased in the desperate fighting that day.

Although it was supposed to be an army of two divisions, the actual strength was very slight, so that it was not very difficult to withdraw from the battlefield, but the big problem was the care of the wounded. The 20th and 41st Divisions, carrying their wounded, slowly withdrew, leaving the Hanto River line, and headed for the region of the rear bank of the Tori River.

On 10th July, at the time of the first general attack, I was busily employed, at Sarupu rear headquarters, with supply, but I was anxiously waiting for reports, but no good report came. I was so anxious that I was on the point of making a personal trip to fighting headquarters, and on 15th July I left Sarupu.

In accordance with precedent, the procedure was to march only at night and to have a brief sleep in the jungle, like a bat, starting to move at dusk. Every night we encountered heavy squalls, so that it was not possible to see the road four steps ahead in the darkness, and we had to gold on to a stick between us, just like little boys playing trains, moving carefully ahead in a single file. Many times we lost our way in the jungle, and probably went back over our tracks. It would have been rash to use torchlight, because when the enemy torpedo boats on the sea saw a light, they poured a torrent of fire at it, and so we fell into ditches and creeks and were soaked. Even though we were in the south, on these wet nights the cold was intense, and our rests were taken standing in the rain particularly propped up against a coconut tree for a brief sleep. This was the usual method of night marching.

The thing that really raised our admiration was the splendid behaviour of the Indians and Nepalese carriers, who had been continuously performing this work for 2 months. They had come from distant Malaya after vowing their support in the Great East Asia war.

Late one evening we arrived at a village. Because of the darkness we were unable to discover the road leading away from the village and so had to stay there until dawn. In a hut there were some troops having a sleep, crammed together. I interrupted the sleep of the nearest of these, made a corner for myself, and although we were jammed together like sardines, I fell asleep. Next morning when I opened my eyes and looked around, I was amazed to see several dead bodies. These people, who had been happily finding their way along, last night, or perhaps yesterday, had become tired and worn out, had been assailed by sickness and died in this fashion. Their spirits had kept urging them on, "Aitape! Aitape!" and they had come this far, but now their strength had evaporated and they had died in vain without seeing Aitape. I could not hold back my tears of sympathy.

It was a pity, but they were happy at last, while we had to pursue our thorny path and continue the fight. Perhaps one day I would meet their wives and children, and be able to tell them about this or write them page after page. These were the thoughts I could not repress on seeing the bodies of my comrades in arms. After praying sincerely for their souls, I hurried on my way.

When I arrived at army battle headquarters, I understood the whole position. I could not conceal my surprise at the pitiful condition of this canvas administration area, close to the battle line, battered by successive artillery bombardments. The bombing seemed to know the vicinity, and the artillery fire came accurately and without warning, effective from the first missiles. 41st Division H.Q. were the object of attention and Staff Officer Colonel OKUTA was killed by the first barrage; this made a deep impression on the tired, front line troops.

From the supply point of view I emphasized the importance of ending the attack on Aitape by the end of July and having the army in a self-supporting ambushing role.

Although the G.O.C. and his staff officers understood this, the difficulty was how to do it. With the position of 237th Regiment, led by Colonel NARA, not known, and in order to concentrate the units which had penetrated into the enemy positions, it was necessary to capture the Afua crossing place. They could not help being in complete agreement that there was no alternative to an attack for a decisive end.

As I have already mentioned, the army’s strength consisted of about 1,000 men from the two divisions. Even with the addition of the army general reserve, 66th Infantry Regiment, it was only 1,500 or 1,600. It was highly problematical whether they would be able to take the strong Afua position. The objective of saving the friendly troops isolated inside the enemy position made it a classical case of a decisive battle, a matter of life or death. Determination was evident on the face of the G.O.C. Walking alongside the G.O.C., I went to have a look at this decisive battle ground, and tried to work out subsequent dispositions, the supply problems, etc.

Before the second attack, I returned to Sarupu.

Printed on 10/23/2018 05:22:00 PM