Australia-Japan Research Project

AustraliaJapan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Australian and Japanese attitudes to the war
Southern Cross: VIII The landing of the 20th (Asa) and 41st (Kawa) divisions

The main group of the army, 20th Division (O.C. Lt Gen AOKI) and 41st Division (O.C. Lt Gen KAWABE) landed at Wewak in mid-January and mid-February respectively. Both Generals were in vigorous spirits and the morale of the Group was high. On their journey from Palau they suffered no attacks from enemy submarines or planes and the fact that they were able to land intact meant a big strengthening of the New Guinea strategical situation. The enemy planes’ bases, MORESBY and Rabi, with Buna as their advance base, with the fighting at Buna and Wau, were not able to reach out their attacking fingers as far as this. You may ask what would have happened if the landings had been delayed for a month. Probably they could not have been carried out safely.

The Army, in order to carry out quickly the occupation of the Madang vicinity and to prepare to advance to the Markham River track, formed a detachment from 20th Division and pushed it on to the vicinity of Madang. This was the Yanagigawa Detachment under Maj-Gen YANAGIGAWA.

In mid-February 1943 I flew from Rabaul to Wewak and Madang for liaison with the Groups.

20th Division H.Q. were in a church on a high spot (subsequently called Yotendai) overlooking Wewak Bay. The eyes looked down on Mushu and Kairiru Islands, while underfoot the coconut trees formed a bow-shaped pattern; the left end of the Bowstring was Wewak Peninsula stretching out into the sea, while symmetrically with this left edge, Cape Boram, where 41st division H.Q. were situated, embraced Wewak Bay.

The airfield was established at the foot of Yotendai, and all the Wewak units worked energetically, ignoring the blazing heat, to extend it. It was truly astounding to see what had been accomplished, in the short month since they landed; by 20th Division; although they had no earth-moving material, they were encouraged and stimulated by their commander, Lt Gen AOKI, who knew the importance of the airfield.

After inspecting Wewak, I made an air reconnaissance of the Hagen tableland, upstream on the far Ramu River, and of the Ramu and Markham River valleys; on the way back I visited the Yanagigawa Detachment.

As we were about to land at Madang Airfield the first thing that met my eyes was the sight of officers and men scattered all over the airfield, backs bent, doing something incessantly. When I looked closer, it seemed that they were plucking grass with their hands. Major-General YANIGIGAWA told me that when the airfield establishment unit landed all the equipment they had with them was blown to pieces on the pier and now even if they had no sickles there would be n obstacle to the airfield – they would pluck the grass with their hands.

The Madang airfield was a small airfield which had already been built; when the enemy was retreating, to stop our forces using this airfield, he spread rolls of barbed wire across it. The grass grew just as it liked (anywhere in New Guinea at all, if you leave it alone for a month, various grasses will spring up and completely change the appearance of the place. That is why airfields and roads frequently vanished from sight) and had to be weeded, and it was done with primitive, nativelike methods. That was how the Japanese forces established their airfield immediately after they landed.

Here I would like to record what an American Air Force Officer wrote about this in his book called "Big Distances".

"When I came to New Guinea I felt as if I had gone back a thousand years in time. Whatever barbarous parts of Africa you go to, there are so-called buildings, hotels and restaurants. But when you come to New Guinea there are no houses and no roads. There are no dwellings and no cafes. It must be the most uncivilized place on earth. We have the most modern weapons in the world. Even in the dampness of the jungle we can build the world’s most modern airfields, and the world’s most modern airfields enable planes to land and to take off. Soon we will be able to build the world’s most modern cities also." As well as being thrown into consternation by the primitiveness of New Guinea, he was able to boast loudly about the latest American equipment.

What then of the sight that met one’s eyes at Madang airfield? It was the oldest method in the world, used for building an airfield. Our forces also had had excellent power equipment, but had been prevented from using them by the cavortings of enemy planes. This meant that they had to use their own power on the airfield and this created a difference of a hundred, no, a thousand, years. This was the special characteristic of the New Guinea fighting. The enemy had the latest equipment and fighting methods, while we had primitive equipment and fighting methods.

During this trip I was able to make a detailed reconnaissance of the relationship between the upper reaches of the Ramu River, the upper reaches of the Markham River and the Minjim River valley. I found that the Ramu and Markham Rivers are related in their upper reaches and watershed; it is a level highland and this highland and the Minjim River valley have a boundary of an angular line of about 200 or 300 metres. To break through this watershed would present no great problem; then if we followed the path along the angle it would be possible to communicate for strategical purposes with both the Madang Plain and the Lae Plain and it would be advantageous for either attack or defence. This was the plan that I immediately thought should be carried out. Later this task was entrusted to Takahashi Battalion of 5th Division, at Madang.

The Major chose the good walkers from his battalion and formed them into a reconnaissance unit, and leading them himself he went off on the big expedition.

It was a big expedition following the South sea Detachment’s climb through the Owen Stanleys. If it had been peacetime it would have figured in the annuals of New Guinea expeditions as a grand one requiring several months and great expense, but on the battlefield it became something that had to be very simple. So the Major looked back on the causes of the failure of the Owen Stanley, Wau etc. expedition and made thorough preparations before starting. In order to supply sufficient food for a reconnaissance trip whose duration could not be estimated he collected a considerable number of horses and cows; then he organized the assistance of the natives and went off on his reconnaissance. Wandering in the Finisterres, crossing rapid streams, savouring the pleasures and disappointment of life, he reported to H.Q. by wireless about the areas they came to each day and gave us the results of a completed reconnaissance of these areas which could be used advantageously in our strategy. For more than a month he carried out this reconnaissance and contacted the Madang and Lae units. Not only did this reconnaissance fulfil its ordered object; it also lessened the feeling of isolation of the officers and men of 51st Division who were engaged in fighting in the Lae and Salamaua area and raised their morale. After completing this duty the Battalion performed great deeds in cooperating in the Moto Group’s operations.

Here I would like to say a few words about the air units which cooperated in the New Guinea fighting.

For cooperation in the New Guinea operations the new 6th Air Division (commanded by Lt Gen SAKABANA) was organised and despatched to the south-east area, as I have mentioned before. This Air Division had as its nucleus the Manchurian Paichengtzu Flying School Instruction Flying Group (led by Major-General NAGASHIRO) and was formed from the heavy bomber squadron commanded by Major ITODA in Malaya, the Shimoyama Fighter Squadron specially sent from Japan and a light bomber squadron commanded by Major OITA.

The Instruction Flying Group were able to move quickly to Wewak and so that the air units from Japan could assemble quickly they came as far as Truk by aircraft carrier and then rushed on from Truk by flying. The Oita Squadron had some casualties but was able to assemble all the same; since this fighter unit could not fly by instruments it incurred great losses.

Truk and Rabaul are only 3 or 4 hours apart by fighter plane, and if it is fitted with instruments it is possible to make a compass flight. If there are no instruments, should they encounter a squall each plane loses contact with the others and takes an individual course. There is no sorrow like that of a plane, without a compass, which has lost its bearings. Because the pilot has become blind there is no alternative but to die at his post after making a forced landing in the sea.

Thus almost the whole of Shimoyama Squadron were lost. Without joining battle, without showing their ability, without meeting enemy planes, these airmen perished in the sea.

Army planes being built for the purpose of operations on land, and by training being used for attacking land targets, there was no training in flights by compass. So that it was only natural that in this respect the navy planes took the laurel from the army planes.

Printed on 03/25/2018 04:59:32 AM