Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial (Sept. – Dec. 1943)
Australian and Japanese attitudes to the war
Southern Cross: XIV The attack and defence of Finschhafen
Finschhafen is situated on the eastern edge of New Guinea, and is therefore a strategic point on the west coast of Dampier Strait. Since the Dampier Strait is the barrier between the Solomon Sea and the Bismarck Sea, if the Allied forces could not use this barrier, an advance to the Bismarck Sea area would be extremely difficult. Because if they used the eastern barrier – i.e. the channel between New Britain and New Ireland – they would have to capture our very strong garrisons at Rabaul and Kavieng. To do this not only would it require a great deal of bloodshed, but it would also take a long time and would mean wasting time on the way to MacArthur’s Philippines. If they used both barriers, they would have to choose a road from the distant Nauru and Ocean Island to take the Admiralty Islands, and then there would be the danger of a frontal attack from our Combined fleet, particularly its air strength at Truk.
Considering matters from all angles, with Lae and Salamaua fallen, a break through the Dampier Strait would be very easy, and in addition it would confirm with strategy. So it became a problem of holding Lae and Salamaua; the defence of Finschhafen began immediately, and as I have mentioned before, with the enemy’s landing at Hopoi on 4th September, the situation became definite.
Hereupon, with the watch of the Finschhafen garrison becoming intense, the main strength of 20th division were hurriedly to be sent to Finschhafen. However, although this was easy to plan, it was difficult to accomplish. But the whole army realised the importance of the Dampier Strait and that it was a vital spot for the strategy of all regions of the south east Pacific Ocean. Once this barrier was broken, 8th Area Army would be halved. And since the effort had to be made, it was decided to do even in the face of the insistence that it would be impossible to change the difficulty of the supply problem.
The 80th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel MIYAKE, which had been ordered to advance hurriedly, was now advancing from Hansa and was on its way to Madang; with no time for resting, it continued its march. They had five hundred miles to advance; already they were on half rations, and in addition they were scorched by the tropical sun and drenched by squalls, but continuing their march along trackless beaches they arrived at Finschhafen.
Because of the crisis in the Lae and Salamaua areas, which I have already related, the precious leading Kamino Battalion of Miyake Unit was quickly sent to Lae and entered the command of Maj-Gen SHOGE; half of Shobu Battalion was posted between Finschhafen and Hopoi and its main strength was stationed near Rogain, south of Finschhafen. Since it was considered that the enemy landing would take place on the southern shore of the Huon Peninsula, only one company (9th Coy. Sawamura Coy) was despatched to Cape Anto, north of Finschhafen and acted as a direct alarm for Finsch airfield.
Although it was not clear where the enemy landing would be, the difficulty of defending the vast Huon Peninsula with a force of only two battalions was a worry for Regimental Commander MIYAKE. 20th Division Commander, Lt Gen KATAGIRI, ordered to be sent to Finschhafen on 5th September, took, excluding Nakai Detachment and Miyake Unit, the remaining division’s main strength (although it was the main strength, it was only a small unit with nucleus of 1 Regiment) and about 15th September left Bogadjim and went hurriedly to Finschhafen.
At the same time as the transfer to Finschhafen of the main strength of 20th Division, the Sorashira, the main strength of the garrison near Madang, and the 239th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel OKUTA, were called up and concealed. In fact the month of September was a month when the greater part of the army seemed to be on the move.
At the time of the advance of the powerful units the Shipping Engineers were the ones who suffered most attacks, as they performed their transport duties.
As I have mentioned before, the army’s supply base was Wewak, and the situation of the main strength was henceforth Madang. The Lae-Salamaua area was impracticable, and transport was carried out unceasingly by submarines and landing barges which came from Rabaul along the south coast of New Guinea to the Madang area. West of Hansa Bay the 9th Shipping Engineer Regt (Col ORITA) and east of Hansa the 5th Shipping Engineer Regt (Col NOZAKI) carried out the transport. When the 20th division advanced to Finschhafen these also were brought forward and it was changed to west of Madang 9th Shipping Regt and east of Madang 5th Regiment and within the limits of possibility the supply base was pushed forward to Hansa, and west of Hansa (at times as far as the Madang region) was entrusted to the Shizuoka Prefecture fishing auxiliary vessels which had come all the way from Japan.
As I have already related, at the time of the Buna retreat operation, these, in their auxiliary fishing vessels, at night slipped from hiding place to hiding place along the coast among the reefs and performed daring feats despite the enemy’s torpedo boats.
The American torpedo boats were fast like the Japanese mine boats and were equipped with machine guns, capable of fierce volleys; attacked by these, boats such as landing barges were easily sunk. Really it was slaughter of landing barges.
We fitted our barges with anti-torpedo devices and they daringly confronted the torpedo boats. Then a counter plan was formed that if it was at all possible for all vessels to use a mountain gun or infantry guns etc., they should be equipped with these.
As a result of this, small naval battles burst out everywhere. About September and October 1943 the enemy torpedo boats were crossing Dampier Strait and cruising as far as Cape Gunbi; gradually they widened their sphere of action and about December they reached the vicinity of Madang and Alexishafen; by January and February they used to advance as far as Hansa.
Three to four of our barges former a squadron and fought them. The enemy torpedo boats were sunk or routed by unfortunately when the enemy spotted us first we did not escape casualties. But it was due to these boats with their feeble equipment that the task of transport continued, and words fail me in describing their efforts – it would require a special book.
Their bravery is beyond imagination, for they fought bravely, not for one or two nights, but continuously every night.
After the fall of Lae, the Finschhafen units were convinced they would be the focus of the next attack, and were all prepared to defend Finschhafen; on the evening of 22nd September the Australian 9th Division made a sudden attack and began landing in the vicinity of Finschhafen airfield.
The garrison at Anto Point, the Sawamura Unit, were brushed aside by this vast enemy and the enemy occupied the aerodrome and began constructing positions on the hill line west of it.
The Commander of Yamada No. 1 Shipping Unit, the Finschhafen garrison, ordered the commander of Miyake Regiment to attack the enemy during the landing, but Rogain hill, where the unit was, was two days away from the landing spot. Although Miyake Unit set off immediately, the enemy had already finished landing. However Colonel MIYAKE did not want to miss an opportunity, so he occupied Sattelberg hill on the western side of Finschhafen and prepared to launch an attack. At this stage the hill was bombed savagely from the air, so that it was imperative to make no delay.
All the troops that Col MIYAKE had at his disposal were three infantry companies, but he carried out his cherished desire and violently attacked the enemy position. However, they were not able to rout the enemy but inflicted heavy losses on him. Holding Sattelberg hill, they could only await the arrival of the main strength of the division.
The Division Commander, hearing of the enemy’s landing at Finschhafen, while he was on the march could not advance as he had expected and was delayed for two weeks, the advanced units reaching Sattelberg on 10th October.
In the meantime Miyake Unit had awaited the arrival of the main strength, making attacks with platoons and carrying on offensive tactics. However they rang short of food and had only a few native vegetables etc. Eventually these too were exhausted so they tried a night rain on native vegetable gardens within the enemy’s position – this was the climax of their suffering. So they bravely awaited the 10th October, when their spirits rose a hundred fold on contacting the main strength of the division.
But what of the Division? Although it was called the main strength of the division, for the sake of Nakai Detachment one third of it was spared, by sending Kamino Battalion to Lae, and the newly arrived infantry units consisted only of 79th Regt. Although it was called artillery regiment, it had only about 10 mountain guns, while ammunition was exceedingly short; in addition they were exhausted after their long march along 250 miles of beach. So it was decided that with these units the best strategical method, against an enemy who had had time to make various preparations after landing, was the method of making sudden attacks and making a nuisance of themselves to the enemy. The idea was to take up the enemy’s attention with the front troops, and in the meantime use a small unit to make a daring counter-landing, thus making a great disturbance; then, seizing the opportunity, to make a thorough attack.
Although the numbers for this strategy were small, it was anticipated that the counter-landing unit would be successful. But it transpired that as a result of a hitch in the restraining attack of the main strength units from the front, it was not possible to make use of the success of the counter-landing party. So, unfortunately, the result was defeat.
The units which participated in the counter-landing were the 1st Infantry Company (commanded by 2nd Lt. SUGINO) of 79th Infantry Regiment’s 10th company, and one engineer platoon (commanded by Lt. MUTA). Sugino Unit on 16th October, in parallel with the attack by the main strength, that night in accordance with the plan for the counter-landing were to infiltrate into the enemy position on the coast of Songu. They embarked in three landing barges and left Naburiba and at midnight reached their objective shore but unfortunately the first and second craft were spotted by enemy sentries. They concentrated their fire on Sugino Company and many casualties occurred. However, their commander bravely opened the landing battle and the third barge landed safely in the rear. Immediately all the troops divided into two groups; one group engaged the enemy look-outs and the other group penetrated deeply into the enemy position. They created great havoc by putting out of action two field guns and 4 AA guns in this position and were very successful in the engagement. However all this time they were losing one man and then two, so that in the end virtually all the force was wiped out. It was an example of supreme grandeur. The Australian broadcasts also praised the bravery of this action. It can be conjectured that the Australian Brigade commander was frightened by this attack, thinking its objective was Brigade H.Q. The result was highly successful because it eased the Division’s operations because the enemy became much more wary.
As I have mentioned before, the main strength of 20th Division was very small, but as they were renowned throughout the Imperial Armies as picked troops, it was expected they would give relief by harassing the enemy at Finschhafen; but there was no cause for joy. With 20th Division guarding the Dampier Strait, when everyone from the G.O.C. down was feeling anxious, 51st Division succeeded in the Saruwaged crossing and were able to advance to Kiari.
The G.O.C. himself went to the front line to inspect the condition of each Division and to command future operations.
The G.O.C., accompanied by Staff Officer SUGIYAMA and the other Staff Officers, embarked on a landing barge, passed across the sea where enemy torpedo boats disported themselves, went to Sio and eventually reached 20th Division H.A. at Sattelberg.
At this time the air at 20th Division H.Q. was one of fatigue. The troops, short of food and ammunition, were searching for vegetables left in the native gardens around them and were so hungry they were eating banana and pawpaw roots. Since these abandoned gardens were right in the front line or inside the enemy’s positions, the troops penetrated the enemy positions to obtain vegetables. And they fought exposed to the enemy shells, committing their bodies to trenches in which the rain of days after days had accumulated.
So the fact that 20th Division was not able to fulfill the idea of its activities were not 20th Division’s fault, but ours. With this poverty of supply it made no difference how brave they were; it was a case of "An army marches on its stomach".
Hereupon, as an emergency measure, the Army began to use auxiliary fishing boats from Hansa for transport round the coast of New Guinea; from Hansa, via Karka, Bagubagu, Long the transport began and so a direct supply line to Sio was established.
This daring transport was conspicuously successful and brought great rejoicing to the officers and men of 20th Division. It was amazing the courageous deeds these fishing feats did in the skilful hands of the shipping engineers. With no training, no equipment the captains and crews of these fishing posts braved the front line of the fighting and all the dangerous places, saying, "We are immortal. Bring on your arrows or your guns." When attacked by enemy aircraft, they bravely engaged them and miraculously shot them down. However, this secret transport did not long remain hidden from enemy eyes. With the passage of time they were spotted, and their bases were demolished by bombing and the transport unfortunately ceased.
As for 51st Division, although they had crossed difficult peaks previously untrodden and performed a historical feat like Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps, they were extremely tired and had many wounded. The plan was to advance to Kiari and then promptly assemble in the Madang area to recuperate, but it seemed that if they did not rest there they would not be able to achieve the subsequent assembly. But since it was necessary to strengthen the rear of 20th Division and to have a plan to meet the enemy’s violent attacks, an amendment was made so that 51st Division should for the present act as garrison near Kiari.
About mid-November the G.O.C. returned to Motosan (H.Q.) at Amron but the situation in the Finschhafen area did not improve and there was no cause to anticipate any great development. Encouraging signals were received from General IMAMURA in Rabaul and from Vice-Admiral KUSAKA, of South East Area Fleet, but the end of 1943 was very dangerous in the south east area.
Although 51st Division managed to reach Kiari, they were exhausted after their long battle, their clothes were in shreds and their boots were worn out. They were very short of rifles, so it is no exaggeration to say that they had no fighting equipment to sue in their defence of the Kiari coast.
The Army exerted all its efforts to equip 51st Division. It levied clothes from all the troops in the Madang area and collected all the arms it could from Hansa and tried in various ways to transport these; but as I have mentioned previously, in addition to the difficulty of food, the enemy torpedo boats were daily making it difficult for transport, and these articles of equipment absolutely had to be transported; the sinking of boats and losses of shipping engineers became very frequent.
Although a supply of boats from Japan was requested, there were none there either; so what was to be done? It was then that the fishing boat transport commenced, but, as I have explained above, this was not able to continue for long. The decrease in the supply eventually became desperate.
Although a month previously the G.O.C. had visited the front line, inspected the situation and made a counter-plan so that there would be no blunders, with the landing of the enemy at Tsurubu on the east coast of the Dampier Strait and the loss therefore of both the east and west, for the peace of the country he decided on another trip to Sio.
20th Division, with an incomplete supply service continued their desperate fighting in the reef region for three months; but the enemy fitted out the Finschhafen airfield and began landing and taking off in front of our very eyes. He planned to intensify his bombing rate, pushed more and more tanks out in front and pushed northwards to reinforce the areas along the coast, cutting our supply lines, isolating the main strength of the Division in the mountain region. He developed fierce attacks from both the land and air so that there became a great difference between attack and defence positions.
As I have said before, equipment makes all the difference in the world; in addition we had numerous casualties and sick people, who in addition had empty stomachs. They transferred to the complex and confusing mountain tracks and gradually arranged their resistance. The enemy covered the grassland area along the coast from the airfield and with tanks and made assaults from the coast on to their flanks. Faced with the immense material strength of the enemy, our primitive pressing attacks were a poor reply.
What of all the officers and men of Asa Group on their second journey to Sio? They were in an extremely painful state.
The G.O.C. went from Sio to group H.C. and on 1st January 1944 some New Year material arrived. They were celebrating with banzais and praying for the welfare of Japan when suddenly left the barrier of the Dampier and showed itself in the Bismarck Sea. A bad omen for us.
Printed on 01/21/2022 08:07:04 PM
(Sept. – Dec. 1943)