Australia-Japan Research Project

Australian and Japanese attitudes to the war
Southern Cross: VII The Wau attack and its failure

The Okabu Detachment on the way lost one fifth of its strength – The Takamura Battalion, and again suffered losses when landing at Lae; however it completed its adjustments, gradually assembled its strength at Salamaua and completed preparations for the attack on Wau. It was necessary to cross Komiatum Hill, advance to Mubo and then take the advance road westward, and in order to avoid observation from enemy planes in the daytime they cut their way into the jungle which had not been entered for a thousand years by axes, and so they headed for the high country behind Wau. This mountain range east of Wau was about 1500 feet high and was not a very difficult range, but since in parts there were no tracks and they had to make tracks in order to advance, but without being seen by the enemy, and since officers and men carried food, ammunition and all sorts of equipment, the advance was more difficult than anticipated, and time was the important factor. However, they overcome their difficulties and finally reached a high peak from which they were able to look down on the Wau goldfield. But by this time they had very little food left and they were short of the spare food which had been counted on in the well organized preparations for the attack.

The commander of the Okabu Detachment, pointing at the Wau village, gave the order to attack, encouraging his subordinates thus:- "We are short of food – let us quickly capture Wau and get food from the enemy!"

Each unit, taking heart and heading for Wau, descended from the heights, but although they had seen, from the crest, Wau in the distance, as they descended from the top they were surrounded by a sea of trees on all sides. They had no maps, and as though drawn by a magnet the officers and men came up against jungle. It seems they could not work out the relationship between where they were and the Wau airfield, for which they were heading.

Soon after all the units advanced they lost touch with one another, but they spent the time with no thought save for preparing to attack and did not abandon their plan for a sudden assault on the enemy.

The enemy observed the advance on Wau of our detachment, and hurriedly sent air transport after air transport with reinforcements. In order to stop this reinforcement we were going to bomb Wau airfield from the air, but it was the rainy season and we were not blessed with favourable weather. The planes which did set off from Rabaul were not able to sight the enemy airfield and returned without accomplishing anything, it seemed at the time. However, the fact that the reinforcement of Wau was not stopped was because Fate had already gone against the Okabe Detachment, and this was the main reason for the failure of the attack on Wau. During the time there was none of the anticipated communication with the Okabe Detachment; there were only anxious thoughts and repeated despair that the attacking strength of the army had not been able to concentrate in Wau.

So the enemy was able to obtain reinforcements and prepare himself for our expected attack; our troops had lost touch with each other. I have mentioned, and their attack was too hurried, without sufficient preparations. Each time they attacked they were obstructed by the enemy’s heavy fire; they were already short of food and eventually had to withdraw, to the great despair of the whole army.

There were instances like that of the Engineer Company. Being in the very forefront, they penetrated the enemy positions and even reached a corner of the airfield; but unfortunately they received no assistance and the mains strength of the Company were eventually killed there.

In such circumstances the Commander of Okabe Detachment, with tears in his eyes, ordered all units to retreat and decided to try to regroup at Salamaua.

Maj-General OKABE, after returning to Salamaua was wounded nearby in a battle and was evacuated to Rabaul. I went to see him in hospital and heard about the battle. The Army, in ordering the attack on Wau, had not specified from what direction Okabe Detachment should make the attack but had left it to the Commander’s discretion and hoped they would soon occupy Wau. Therefore he had hoped to choose the Bulolo River valley which was the easiest, even though he expected there would be considerable numbers of the enemy on the route of the advance, and he thought it would be favourable for communication with the air units. That is what he told me. However, what actually happened was contrary to his expectations and when the time of the attack arrived he chose the mountain area. When I asked why he chose the latter and not the former, the Major-General said that as a result of the intensive bombing of Lae, he thought that if they took the Bulolo River valley route the Detachment would lost most of its men by the time it reached Wau. To avoid enemy aircraft and enemy territory he changed the plan and decided to go via Salamaua, but it took longer than he expected and as a result of the dampness trouble areas with the signals equipment and he was without suitable communications. The intensive bombing of Lae influenced Maj-Gen OKABE’s decision, and I think that was his baptism of fire.

At the end of the war when I was held by the Australian Army at Mushu Island I had the opportunity of meeting an Australian Battalion Commander who participated in the defence of Wau at that time. He cross-examined me as to why the Japanese forces had not attacked the Bulolo River valley. When I explained the foregoing circumstances to him, he laughed heartily and said, "Ha, that saved us. If you had come down the Bulolo River valley in force you would have got through. At that time our strength was only one company and we had no defence positions. We had assembled the native mine-workers to look like a crowd of people, and if we had been attacked by a force with air transport it would have been all up."

It seems like crying over spilt milk but I was affected beyond all measure by this discussion of old times.

Printed on 06/14/2024 03:52:23 PM