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

Along with the Battles of Guadalcanal and the Coral Sea, the successful defense of Milne Bay and Port Moresby in 1942 helped stop Japan’s southward expansion in its tracks. But the majority of New Guinea remained in Axis hands, and securing the rest of the island was a prerequisite for America’s future plan to retake the Philippines and prepare for a climactic push towards the Japanese home islands. But before that could be done, the Allies had to find a way to take Rabaul, Japan’s stronghold on the island of New Britain.

Fortunately, a new year brought fresh victories for the Allies. When the Japanese attempted to attack Wau, a village southwest of Salamaua, the Australian infantry decisively repulsed the assault and chased them out of the area on January 31st. Incidentally, this was followed shortly thereafter by the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands after six months of fighting, on February 9th. The disasters mounted towards the end of the month, when 6,900 Japanese troops boarded eight transport ships in Rabaul and headed towards Lae to mount a new offensive towards Wau. An Allied plane spotted the convoy, however, and on March 3rd American planes decimated the strike force, killing over half of the inbound soldiers. This action, known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, established Allied air superiority over eastern New Guinea and infuriated the Japanese naval command. Although Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto retaliated by launching Operation I-Go, which consisted of several large air assaults on Port Moresby, Oro Bay, and Milne Bay in early October, the raids were not sustained over a longer period and the Allied facilities quickly recovered.

A patrol from the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion looking out over the Uberi Valley in October 1942..

With the Papuan Peninsula and the air and waters surrounding it firmly under Allied control, the Australians and Americans could now more carefully consider their offensive options. The main priority, as far as MacArthur was concerned, was to take Rabaul on New Britain. By this time the Japanese had built it into a veritable fortress, and despite the Empire’s recent losses in and around New Guinea Rabaul kept them relevant, and dangerous, in the region. MacArthur’s plan to take Rabaul, New Britain, and the surrounding islands while maintaining pressure on New Guinea was called Elkton III. After conferring with President Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Elkton III plan became Operation Cartwheel.

The new campaign began on June 30, 1943, when Allied forces landed at Kiriwina, Woodlark Island, and several points along the New Georgia coast. The goal was to systematically isolate Rabaul by taking strategic islands and spaces surrounding the space. On New Georgia, for instance, Allied forces targeted the Japanese base at Munda Point, which continued to harass the Americans stationed in Guadalcanal. Although New Georgia and its 780 square miles would not be completely pacified until August 23rd, the strategy began to pay dividends as the Allies slowly neutralized Rabaul by choking off its air support and supply lines.

The western portion of Operation Cartwheel, the massive and convoluted plan to neutralize Rabaul

As the Americans closed in on Rabaul, on New Guinea the fight to reclaim the island was still in progress. In late April the Australians and Americans began a five month-long drive toward Lae and Salamaua, where the Japanese had established bases. The Allies succeeded in taking Salamaua by land on September 11, but Lae required an amphibious assault as well. It fell to the Allies four days later. Later that month, the Allies began two new offensives using Lae as a base of operations: one drove west towards the Finisterre Ridge, while another cleared out the Huon Peninsula to the north and east. Both objectives were achieved by April the following year.

The New Guinea Campaign is a difficult subject to learn, with its extensive and complicated geography, multi-pronged operations, and long duration. Yet the fighting was far, far worse – Australian war correspondent George H. Johnston called it “the toughest fighting in the world” in his book on the subject. In the South Pacific theater of World War II, Guadalcanal gets much of the attention, and rightfully so – it was an epic slugfest and a devastating slog. But narratively it also makes sense: one army invades an island, the other army fights back and gets reinforcements, and a terrible and long battle slow burns across the land. This story has an intelligible beginning, middle, and end. It could be a movie. In fact, it was:

The New Guinea Campaign is harder to summarize. Like Guadalcanal it had its fits and spurts, but it was perhaps more akin to several seasons of a long-running drama that to a movie. Yet the campaign’s narrative history does not negate its tremendous influence and impact on the war.

In any case, the last months of the New Guinea campaign proceeded linearly and at breakneck speed. And once the Mink arrived in March 1944, the United States and Australia were readying themselves for the final push up the northern coast. While Elmer was not on the beaches or in the jungles fighting, his ship followed close behind. Soldiers and Marines needed air support, and airplanes providing air support needed aviation fuel. So did the many vessels providing direct and logistical support to the invaders. Everyone had a part to play, and the Mink was right where it needed to be.

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.

March 1944: The Filling Station

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2 thoughts on “The Toughest Campaign: The War for New Guinea (Part 2 of 2)

  1. New Guinea was definitely an under appreciated battle-zone in the Pacific Theater and it puts me a little in mind of the campaigns in Burma in terms of the difficulty of the fighting.

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