Australia-Japan Research Project

Australian and Japanese attitudes to the war
Southern Cross: X The attack and defence at Lae and Salamaua

The 7th Special Naval Base Unit (about 2,500 strong) was stationed in the Lae-Salamaua area, but in adhering to the Lae-Salamaua area it was far from its base, a disadvantage in waging war. Accordingly, the Army had to be in charge of battles in other places. If we consider the point of view of supply, at that time it was quite impossible to send material by transport ships. Therefore, whether we liked it or not, there was no method of doing so other than by submarines. However, there is a limit to the capacity of submarines. Even with the maximum capacity of the navy at the time, there was only sufficient supply power to supply a force limited to 10,000 men.

So, from a numerical point of view, it was necessary to limit the army strength to 7,500. Among those who had returned from the Buna area there were sick and exhausted men, so that it was by no means easy to calculate the strength. As a result of the Wau campaign the number of wounded and sick troops was considerable. Thus the battle strength of the army units in the Lae, Salamaua area at the time was really weak, and in the face of the enemy who was making a decisive attack it was a though we were a candle in the wind. It was an agonising situation to command the operations of such an army in this area.

As a result of the failure of Operation 81, it was not possible to greatly increase the strength as had been hoped, and we also lost all hope of accumulating the expected supplies by using the landing convoy to put down a large quantity of material in one stroke. After the defeat of Operation 81, the G.O.C., Maj-Gen ADACHI, flew to Lae, examined all aspects of the situation and drew up a counter-plan to act upon – to send the sick and wounded, and the units which had returned from Buna, to the rear, and to open a large-scale ship movement in order to place them with the new Surudoi force – the 66th Infantry Regiment.

From Rabaul to Lae is a distance of roughly 500 miles. To add to the distance, the voyage was a stealthy one, for it meant crossing the Dampier rapid currents, then remaining concealed from the dominant enemy aircraft – in the daytime, lying hidden in small inlets, river mouths, etc., and in the gloom of night advancing from hiding place to hiding place. However, the voyage was successfully accomplished. The most important thing was to concentrate the shipping engineer units and motor boats as quickly as possible.

I must mention the Salamaua attack and defence. The Okabe Detachment, which was sheltered and retreated in the Wau battle, placed its main strength I the Salamaua – Lae Road area and defended Nassau Bay against the enemy who was advancing towards the coast. Since it was possible to supply the Nassau Bay area from the sea, there was very little supply problem, but Kamiatum Hill stood between them and the Mubo area. Not only did this hill have very steep slopes, having a precipice of 3,000 feet on each side, but in addition it did not have a single tree for cover, so that it was a mountain which could not escape observation under the unceasing patrolling of the enemy planes. And of course, horses and vehicles could not tackle it. It was impossible for them to go past even temporarily. For this reason, food and ammunition had to be sent to Okabe Detachment on the backs of men. So as to avoid attacks from enemy planes in the daytime, ascents and descents of Kamiatum Hill had to be carried out at dawn or else at dusk. Naturally, this meant a lowering in the efficiency of transport, and as a result the Mubo Detachment encountered supply difficulties. Nevertheless, as the loss of the strategic Kamiatum Hill would as a result mean the loss of Salamaua, even though ten thousand difficulties should be encountered, it must be held come what might.

Already there was no relief for the 102nd Regiment, extinct since the Wau attack. We were waiting for the arrival of the 115th Infantry Regiment, but they were broken in Operation 81 and went to a watery grave in the Dampier currents, so there was only the advance of the 86th Infantry Regiment left to wait for. But would there be any opportunity to advance, crossing 450 meandering miles of waves? The quantity of supplies dwindled day by day. The commodity reported to be particularly scarce was vegetables. Round Mubo it was all jungle and native vegetable gardens were few; it was clear these had been only temporary and had completely dried up over a long period, so the troops could only search for vegetables in the jungle and eat them.

Mubo taro was one type of jungle plant. Although it was called taro, its root was not edible. As its leaves resembled those of the taro, it was given this name. In the New Guinea campaign, how familiar were officers and men with this plant, commonly known as the Mubo taro. Its alkaloid properties were strong, and there was a risk of its causing dysentery, but when boiled for a while it could be made into pickles. It was everywhere in the plantations, and in the jungle where there was nothing else which could be eaten, it was a plant that had to be eaten even if one did not like it.

The enemy, who was pursuing Okabe Detachment, was preparing for attacks from all angles, and from about the beginning of May, the Australian Army opened its drive from the area west of Mubo, and the American Army opened its from the area running along the coast. Divisional Commander NAKANO landed at Lae at the time of Operation 81, immediately drove his headquarters to Salamaua, and was responsible for over-all command. After Maj-Gen OKABE was evacuated to Rabaul wounded, the Divisional Commander took over direct control of all units.

The greatest difficult in the defence of Salamaua was the deep valley of the Francisco River which flows between Salamaua and Kamiatum Hill. Running along this river valley there were in several places small tracks from the Wau area, and they were close o the side of the Kamiatum Road, and this was a topographical feature that threatened the only supply road. In order to be able to dominate the strategic point for breaking off the supply route, Bobudabi Hill, the enemy attacked us three or four times, and the struggle for possession was repeated. Chief of Staff HONGO was shot and killed near here. In contrast to our supply difficulties, the enemy received all his supplies from the air, so that whether it was a high mountain or deep valley presenting supply difficulties, he was able to occupy every position of strategic necessary and send forward attacking parties, while we had to swallow our tears and throw away strategic positions because of supply difficulties.

In this way the quality of the respective supply battles was decisive. However, the officers and men of our 51st Division, putting all their efforts into brave fighting, did not allow the enemy invasion to be easy. Day by day the number of enemy aircraft increased, bombing followed bombing and Divisional H.Q. were blown up several times.

So, after 6 months’ fighting, what had previously been jungle dark even in the daytime now became clear fields. But the stoic, indomitable vigour of Northern Kanto tried a dogged, defensive warfare and on many occasions used special attacking units to infiltrate deeply enemy artillery positions and H.Q. and increasing attacks, etc. Especially at the beginning of the Salamaua battle, Major-General SHIROKANE, Commander of the Paichengtzu Flying Group, advanced of his own accord to Lae aerodrome and replied to the enemy. Naturally, they compared unfavourably with the enemy, who were superior in number and had far closer bases, but their positive action in the New Guinea campaign was unparalleled. This shows deep respect for the daring flying of the Shirokane Flying Units.

From the point of view of terrain, New Guinea is thickly wooded and has many ups and downs, and for this reason ground units have little to fear from aircraft. But for the maintenance of morale it was an absolute necessity to have friendly planes flying overhead occasionally.

Although the officers and men of the 51st Division fought perseveringly, they had been engaged in defensive warfare for a long time, and supplies were deteriorating day by day, with no improvements; after the superhuman coastal transport of the new Surudoi 66th Regiment they almost reached the Salamaua area, and it was a natural decision that they should give a rest to the 102nd Division who were wearied and exhausted in the face of the ever increasing enemy, with the sick continuing, the number of dead and wounded increasing, and with a lack of reserves; it was to be expected that this would cause a lot of anguish for Lt Gen NAKANO, and experienced campaigner.

But the 51st Division, trusting to Hachiman (T.N. the god of war) in the desperate fighting, did not cease to want the situation to develop. The army planned to use the 51st Division to concentrated on the defence of Salamaua and relax the defence at the area of Lae because of the mountain barrier, and no words could be heard but words of despair. From an army point of view, for the whole South East Area, or again, on a larger scale, for the whole conquering Imperial Army, the sacrifice was an important one. Lt Gen NAKANO, seeing the colour of insecurity on the faces of his subordinates, and watching their desperate fighting, could hardly bear it. He decided that there must be no submission. I wonder how many times he choked back tears in the dark of night. In difficult straits there is not limit to the anguish of a commander.

Pitying Lieutenant General NAKANO
With beard growing white,
Coming to resemble Shogun NOGI.

In the meantime, although the G.O.C. Lt Gen ADACHI’s body was in Madang, his thoughts ran only to the Base Group, and he insisted on going to Lae if there were changes in the position, and there was continual discussion to stop the trip to Lae, but it was no use. The frolics of the enemy planes became more frequent, so they had to surmount the Finisterre Range at dawn or dusk. It was easy to say 虹Go to Lae枇 but in fact it was a death defying battle for the air units.

Finally, the enemy probably received a report about the trip to Lae. Over the Dampier Strait they were pounced on by a powerful force of enemy planes which were unconcerned by the fierce fighting of our escort fighter planes, and finally the G.O.C.’s plane was lost to sight.

I was aghast when I heard the fighter escorts’ report and sent a message to Lae, but he had not yet reached Lae, and it seemed the G.O.C. had been killed. We passed an anxious night, but fortunately next morning from the Tsurubu Detachment there was a report that he had made a forced landing, so we were greatly relieved. We later found out that the pilot was very clever and when pursued by the enemy planes he skilfully piloted the plane to the Tsurubu mountains, making it impossible for the enemy to attack; at last the attacks were broken off, a marvellous achievement. These planes, on the Burma front, were intended to co-operate directly with the ground fighting, and were of splendid type; they had a steady speed, and according to the unevenness of the mountains could fly close to them. On the other hand, the enemy fighters had a high speed and could not come near the mountains, and while our plane saw its goal beneath it, it lost the attacking planes. An excellent plane and a clever pilot saved the G.O.C. He was also the Commander of the Dampier Air Battle, Lt Col YOKOYAMA, a famous ace who had shot down 53 planes during the Sino-Japanese incident, the very finest pilot in the Imperial Forces, and it was a pity that he at last died at this point. Losing this famous warrior made a great difference to our fighter plane strength, and it was really despairing. The following army song well illustrates the desperate position of the Lae-Salamaua battle at the time. It was very popular with both officers and men:-

The Lae-Salamaua battle

In the luxuriance of the forest, delicate moon shadow
Voices of insects chirping who knows where.
Time when gunfire dies away.
Faces of fellow warriors float before my eyes.
How deeply I hate the Dampier.

In the enemy stronghold, a short period of rest.
The sinking evening sun pierces my eyes.
My fellow warriors pray for victory.
There is nothing but Mubo yam cooking.
Let us talk of home and brighten up.

In bombing raids that rend the sky
Lae and Salamaua’s mounts and valleys change.
Are we still living?
There is no trace of our position
The mountains have burned and the trees are gone.
Evening sun; voices of guns, like beaten drums.
Mountain trees have all fallen into green fields.
Persevering, choking back tears of blood,
Determined, until death defence of Buyu Mountain
(strategic point of Salamaua position)

Is this a mere trifle, to be destroyed,
The 51st Division of the very front line?
The mountains are crumbling, evil woods too.
Is it a thing to waver, the spirit of Japan?
Tomorrow human bullets will retaliate.

As I have mentioned previously, C.I.C. YAMAMOTO of Combined Fleet H.A. of his own accord advanced to Rabaul to decide victory or defeat with the enemy air forces, but before this splendid plan progressed, on 11th April in the skies over Bougainville the enemy planes attacked him and again just as we had high aspirations, he died a heroic death in battle. Not only was it our navy’s biggest attack, but also in view of the land forces in New Guinea it had much influence.

The nerves of both officers and men were concentrated on enemy air destruction. For this reason they had extraordinary expectations of the advance in the front line, and as great were their hopes, so great were their disappointments; although the facts were kept secret, it was not possible that such an occurrence could be kept from the ears of officers and men. Up till this time, the enemy Allied Air Forces were becoming stronger every day and with our gradual increase we could not compare with the enemy, but it was a leisurely upward curve; now, with the death of C.I.C. YAMAMOTO it was a downward slope, and the difference between our forces and theirs became greater every day.

On the Salamaua front, as a result of the American landing at Nassau Bay in July, things took a sudden change for the worse. They deployed their heavy guns on the coast, and shots from these shattered our positions in front of them and were able to carry as far as the strategic point of Salamaua. Everywhere on the high ground, from all directions there were attacks from the Australian forces, and these in concert became violent; now at last the front line had to be gradually contracted. However courageously the army base units fought, the preservation of Lae and Salamaua, with the problem of speed and time, could not have any great hopes.

Once the Lae-Salamaua area was lost, it was inevitable that the enemy would take control of the Dampier. The Dampier Straits checked the north of the enemy fleet, and were the very last barrier.

This was really half the reason for the demand for the strenuous efforts of the base troops in Lae and Salamaua. From the gradual cooling-off, it could be felt that it was autumn. The problem of supply was very great, but the 79th Infantry Regiment from the 20th Division was quickly sent to Finschhafen, while all the shipping units there were brought together under the control of Maj-Gen YAMADA, O.C. of the No. 1 Shipping Group, and jointly they stiffened the defence of Finschhafen.

Although the 7th Naval Base Unit was stationed at Lae, it was not possible to prevent its fighting strength from becoming weaker. We were not able to hasten its reinforcement. It was possible that the enemy would strike strongly at the base troops rear from the Markham River valley.

The forces which were the nucleus of the garrison were the Kamino Battalion, the 1st Battalion of the 79th Regiment, which was quickly sent to Lae, and at the same time the general command at Lae was entrusted to Maj-Gen CHOSHO in charge of the 41st Infantry Corps at Wewak.

Gradually the forces made all the necessary arrangements. Afterwards it was a matter of transport and supplies.

But what of the position at Salamaua? The enemy attacks were becoming increasingly severe. But our garrison troops guarded their positions with their lives without losing a step, and under artillery attacks they fought strongly amid the clouds of dirt.

Quick temper is a characteristic of the Japanese, but it is also a defect. The Americans called the desperate attacks by the Japanese "Banzai attacks" and said they were like moths to a flame, but they did not come out as expected, because their duty was to hold their positions. Faithful to their duty, they fought bravely. The firmness of the Salamaua garrison was unwavering, and for another reason, that the greatest incident occurred here. That was the landing of the Australian 9th Division at the mouth of the Buso River and the parachute landing on the Sanabu Plain of the Allied-Australian and American – 1st Division.

Printed on 06/20/2024 07:26:30 PM