Remembering the war in New Guinea - Aitape–Wewak 1944–45

Remembering the war in New Guinea
Aitape–Wewak, 1944–45 (Longer text)
Module name: Campaign history (All groups perspective)
This page was contributed by Dr John Moremon (Australian War Memorial)

The final campaign on the mainland of Papua New Guinea was for the Japanese base at Wewak. In April 1944, American forces bypassed the base with landings at Aitape and also Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea. Lieutenant General ADACHI Hatazo's 18th Army, which was contained between Aitape and the Sepik River, which the Australian 8th Brigade patrolled, launched counter-attacks along the Driniumor River. The Americans withstood them.

By October 1944, ADACHI's four divisions were each whittled down to the strength of a regiment. ADACHI positioned his 20th Division around But, on the coast midway between Wewak and Aitape, and the 41st Division in the Torricelli Ranges; the 25th and 51st Divisions were at Wewak, where ADACHI had his headquarters. Many troops were sick or physically weak because of shortages of food and medicines. A large proportion was engaged in gardening and fishing, and 3,000 base troops were dispersed to forage in the countryside.

The Japanese also employed New Guineans as gardeners, labourers and carriers, and traded with them. Villagers sometimes suffered at the hands of the occupiers, but generally relations were acceptable to both parties. Many Japanese realised that the villagers could (and often did) help them survive.

New Guineans sometimes assisted the Japanese in capturing Allied airmen shot down or commandos infiltrating Japanese lines. Perhaps the best known incident occurred in September 1943 when Sergeant Len Siffleet, an Australian, and two Ambonese privates from the Dutch colonial forces, M. Reharin and H. Pattiwael, were attacked by about 100 villagers near Wantipi, inland of Aitape, and handed over to the Japanese. The three were executed on 24 October 1943.

Patrols from the Allied Intelligence Bureau and Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit continued operating behind Japanese lines gathering intelligence and, particularly after April 1944, re-establishing an Australian presence. In several villages, trusted men were selected as "sentries" and trained in guerilla warfare. However, villagers in close contact with Japanese garrisons continued to provide food and labour, if only to ensure survival.

In mid-1944, the Allies reached agreement for an Australian division to take over at Aitape. Whereas the Americans were content to guard the base's perimeter, New Guinea Force planned an offensive. The 3rd Base Sub-Area was established to provide logistic support for the 6th Division, which arrived during September and October 1944. Its 16th and 17th Brigades had served in Papua New Guinea during 1942-43 but the 19th Brigade had not seen action since Greece in 1941. However, they had been training intensively for jungle warfare in the thickly timbered mountains of the Atherton Tablelands, Queensland.

The 6th Division's commander, Major General J.E.S. Stevens, started the campaign with vigorous patrolling. The 2/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment and 2/9th and 2/10th Commando Squadrons sent patrols along the coast and into the Torricelli Ranges. American inactivity had made the Japanese complacent, and the commandos ambushed several patrols.

In late November, the 19th Brigade began advancing along the coast and the 17th Brigade trekked into the mountains. The 16th Brigade was held in reserve. The opposing 20th and 41st Divisions had stepped up patrolling and prepared defensive positions. On both fronts, the Australians made slow progress against stiff opposition, but their superior training and equipment showed. For example, the 19th Brigade's advance to the Danmap River, which it reached in late January, cost it 36 men killed (including several drowned in flooded rivers) and 51 wounded, but the Japanese lost 434 killed and 13 captured. Hundreds of men on both sides suffered tropical diseases, in particular malaria, which raged in the 'wet season'.

Wounded and sick men often faced harrowing ordeals. For the Japanese, it usually meant being left behind to make a suicidal stand. For the Australians, it could take days or weeks to reach a hospital. Along the coast, men were evacuated in small ships or landing craft but in the mountains it took at least two weeks to reach the coast by walking or being carried by New Guineans over rugged jungle tracks. Some men were too seriously wounded or sick to make the journey and were cared for by field ambulances until they recovered sufficiently or died. In April 1945, the 17th Brigade cleared a small airstrip at Maprik, which enabled Auster observation aircraft to fly casualties to the coast in two hours, which undoubtedly saved lives.

The Australians were afflicted by supply shortages-but not as badly as the Japanese, who were desperately short of food and, at times, ammunition. Allied forces had come to rely on transport aircraft to drop supplies but most had been sent to the Philippines or Netherlands East Indies. Often, only one or two Dakotas were available. In the mountains, drop zones were cleared and New Guineans carried supplies forward. On the coast, small ships could transport stores to the forward area and then Jeeps or New Guineans delivered supplies to battalions.

Beaufort bombers of 71 Wing RAAF played an important role. Initially, they flew about 500 bombing sorties per month but in 1945 the three (later five) squadrons were constrained by shortages of fuel and bombs. There was not enough shipping available from Australia to meet demand. At one point, the Wing used Japanese bombs found at Aitape. Often they 'softened up' Japanese positions about to be attacked. Beauforts also flew supply dropping and tactical reconnaissance sorties, making up for a shortage of Boomerang tactical reconnaissance aircraft.

Despite advancing, the Australians increasingly struggled to maintain good morale. It was obvious that Aitape-Wewak was an operational backwater, and many officers and men felt that the American policy of containing the Japanese had been sufficient. It was especially hard to see comrades killed for no apparent strategic gain.

By May 1945, survivors of the 20th and 41st Divisions had retreated to Wewak or split up into small parties tracked by Australian and New Guinean patrols. Sometimes, these patrols discovered Indian prisoners of war (captured in Singapore) who escaped from Wewak, where most of their comrades died from overwork and neglect.

There remained at Wewak many well-fed and capably led troops of the 25th and 51st Divisions. Opposition strengthened as the Australians approached the base but Stevens deployed the fresh 16th Brigade and on 11 May an amphibious landing was made east of Wewak. The Australians also employed tanks and artillery. By the end of May, ADACHI's force had retreated inland.

The campaign closed with the end of the war. In 10 months of campaigning, the 6th Division advanced 70 miles along the coast and in the mountains. It drove the 18th Army (or what was left of it) from 3,000 square miles of territory but 442 men were killed and 1,141 wounded. The RAAF also lost several aircraft and crews shot down or crashed. The Japanese lost 9,000 men with 269 taken prisoner, while others died of disease or starvation. The losses were a bitter pill to swallow for what many on both sides considered an "unnecessary campaign".

Printed on 10/31/2020 12:13:54 PM