The Toughest Campaign: The War for New Guinea (Part 1 of 2)

Before the Mink arrived at Milne Bay on March 9, 1944, Americans, Australians, and many Papuans had been fighting the Japanese on New Guinea for over two years. Yet the counter-offensive was only just reaching its crescendo at that point. More had yet to be done, and the island was not yet safe from Japanese imperial aggression.

New Guinea is often overlooked as one of the critical places in World War II historical lore. However, it was just as vital to Japan’s ambitions as it was to Australia’s self-defense. Port Moresby, the capital of Australia’s Papua colony, was only 530 miles from Cairns, Queensland, and the Torres Strait separating New Guinea from the Australian Mainland is just about as wide as the Straights of Florida that separate the U.S. from Cuba. Losing New Guinea would be an unmitigated disaster for both Australia and the other Allies, and Port Moresby’s capture in particular would benefit Japan by giving it control over the Torres Strait and anchoring the empire’s southern perimeter with a well-located and amply resourced base.

Yet taking New Guinea would be no easy task for the Japanese. It is the world’s second-largest island, big enough to swallow Texas whole and still have enough room left over to gobble up Ohio for dessert. It was also one of the least accessible places on the planet during the Second World War: suffocating heat, mercurial weather, rugged terrain, vector diseases, and poor infrastructure made the island inhospitable for Australian and American infantry, while tall, jagged peaks; low, heavy cloud cover; and geographic isolation made it an exceptionally difficult place to fly as well.

The Owen Stanley Mountains stretch along the length of the Papua peninsula in Papua New Guinea. They were the only things separating the Japanese from Port Moresby in early 1942.

The struggle for New Guinea actually began on New Britain to the north, where the Japanese attacked Rabaul on January 23, 1942. They conquered it and its superior harbor a short time later, and over the next year began turning their new possession into a major naval base. Shortly thereafter, on March 8th, the Japanese began seizing the northern New Guinea coast, and walked into Lae and Salamaua nearly unopposed. By the end of the spring the Japanese had overrun the Gilbert Islands and much of the Bismarck Archipelago, and were preparing to push towards New Guinea’s biggest prize: Port Moresby.

Refugees from villages across Papua began streaming into the capital as the Japanese Army fanned out across the northern half of the island. Bombers and fighters began attacking the city from the north as well, blasting and strafing barracks and airfields in a foreboding sign of the terrors to come. Meanwhile, over Australia, the enemy’s closeness was felt in Darwin, which was also targeted by bombing raids, and in Sydney, where a tiny submarine infiltrated its famed harbor. Port Moresby’s capture seemed all but inevitable.

Darwin Harbor on February 19, 1942. Picture: Australian War Memorial

However, General Douglas MacArthur was determined to hold it at all cost. As Supreme Commander Allied Forces of the South West Pacific Area he commanded the combined American and Australian forces in the region.

Meanwhile, Operation Mo, Japan’s somewhat convoluted plan to take Port Moresby, began in early May when the Japanese seized Tulagi in the Solomons in hopes of establishing a seaplane base. Yet the Americans had the drop on them and sank several of their ships using aircraft from the USS Yorktown. The Japanese responded by sailing southwest in order to flush out the Americans, which soon resulted in a showdown at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Over the course of two days the Japanese successfully attacked two fleet carriers, the Lexington and the Yorktown. The former was subsequently scuttled. But in return the Americans sank the light carrier Shōhō, damaged the fleet carrier Shōkaku, and destroyed many of the fleet carrier Zuikaku’s planes. None of the three carriers would be available for Yamamoto’s dangerous gamble at Midway the following month, and their loss effectively and abruptly ended Japan’s attempt to take Port Moresby by sea and air.

But the option to invade by land remained, although it was the Japanese planners’ second choice for a reason. Doing so would require an overland trek across the formidable Owen Stanley mountain range and through dense jungle. But the Japanese slid their chess pieces into position by taking the village of Buna on July 21st. It was located on the opposite side of the Papuan Peninsula from Port Moresby, which was only 150 kilometers to the west southwest. Within a month the Japanese amassed 11,000 troops in the area, and on August 22nd they began to climb their way towards the capital via the Kokoda Track across the Owen Stanley mountains.

Men of the 2/31st Australian Infantry Battalion stop for a rest in the jungle between Nauro and Menari, Papua New Guinea, 1942. National Museum of Australia.

The Kokoda Track is a bit like the Cumberland Gap, only it is sixty miles long, soars from 980 feet above sea level to 7,185 feet at Mount Bellamy, and its hikers are prone to get malaria. Once the Japanese committed to taking it, the Australians had a difficult time slowing them down despite the remote, difficult terrain. But this was no Thermopylae: the single-file trail could not be easily bypassed with some even narrower foot path, nor was there an Ephialtes within the local Papuan population who dared to believe that the Japanese conquerors would be friendlier overlords than the English or the Australians. The Allies held firm, and with the help of some well-placed airstrikes they broke the Japanese advance on September 17th. Plagued by disease and hunger during their disorganized retreat, most of the invaders never made it back to Buna.

Meanwhile, as Japanese troops battled their way south across the mountains, another force prepared to attack an emerging Allied stronghold at Milne Bay. Located at the extreme eastern end of New Guinea, Milne Bay provided an excellent harbor and air access to the Gilberts, Solomons, and other island groups in the region. A small contingent of Aussie troops and a few American engineers made a quiet landing there on June 15th, where they began constructing a new airbase. The Allied landing and subsequent buildup at Milne Bay quickly caught Japan’s attention, and they responded two months later by launching an amphibious assault. But they misjudged their target: the Aussies and Americans were dug in, the Japanese lacked air support, and by September 7th their gambit failed. While the Battle of Milne Bay was not large by World War II standards, it effectively secured southern New Guinea for the Allies and allowed them to build one of the region’s most important military bases.

It also revealed an evolving mindset among the Allies, who were beginning to figure out how to beat the seemingly invincible Japanese. Their successes on New Guinea and Guadalcanal foreshadowed their tactics and strategies later on, after the tide had irrevocably turned. Later, while MacArthur’s campaign to liberate the Buna-Gona region in November exposed his command’s inexperience and resulted in a long, bruising fight, the Americans overcame the steep learning curve and helped the Aussies recapture the region by late January 1943.

The new year would bring a new series of Japanese and Allied campaigns in eastern New Guinea, but for the time being at least Port Moresby and Milne Bay were safe. And MacArthur, who never forgot his vow to return to the Philippines, understood that the road back to Manila would lead him to the opposite end of New Guinea. There would be a lot of tough fighting in the months and years ahead, but the Australians and Americans now had reason to be optimistic.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

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February 1944: No News is Good News

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