Though I am out of town this week, Episode 45 is now available for your listening pleasure. This is another World War II episode that is not set in Southeast Asia, but next to it. Today we begin the long jungle war in New Guinea, as the Japanese stage their first invasions of the world’s second largest island. Meanwhile to the southeast, in the Coral Sea, Japanese and American aircraft carriers meet. The result is a crucial battle, halting the Japanese advance toward Australia from the sea.
(Transcript, added 09/01/2020.)
Episode 45: The New Guinea Campaign, Part 1
or, The Battle of the Coral Sea
Greetings, dear listeners! Today our narrative is still in the middle of World War II, but we are done talking about the campaigns that were astonishingly successful for Japan. If you want to hear about those, go to the episodes of this podcast recorded in early 2018: Episodes 36 through 39, and 41 through 43. The Allies are not able to take back the Japanese conquests yet, so instead of concentrating our attention on Southeast Asia itself, we will look at an area on the periphery where the battles will affect what happens in Southeast Asia later on. This area is New Guinea, the world’s second largest island, and the islands and seas to the east of New Guinea, especially the Coral Sea.
Back when I described Southeast Asia in the introductory episode to this podcast, I said I did not really consider New Guinea a part of Southeast Asia. One reason why I said that comes from the fact that the local wildlife is more like the animals of Australia than the animals of the Asian mainland, causing biologists to draw the so-called “Wallace Line” across eastern Indonesia. The other reason is that the indigenous population of New Guinea is a black-skinned race, the Melanesians, which you can also find in New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Fiji – but in Southeast Asia you can only find Melanesians on the nearest Indonesian islands, like Halmahera and Timor. The only thing Melanesians have in common with the major ethnic groups of Southeast Asia, like the Burmese and Filipinos, is that they are all people.
Nevertheless, New Guinea has been mentioned a few times in our narrative so far, partly because the Europeans who explored Southeast Asia’s islands stumbled on it, and partly because the rulers of Indonesia claimed at least part of New Guinea too, whether they were Dutch, Japanese, or today’s government in Jakarta. Therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Pacific War will spill over into an area both sides had not given much thought to before the war. As was the case in Burma, the two sides will be drawn into a jungle conflict that will last until the end of World War II, and it happened in both places for nearly the same reasons.
At the date when the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia was finished, May 1942, they started looking at how to defend all their gains. Because the British, Americans and Australians were still resisting elsewhere, if not in Southeast Asia, the Japanese felt they would have to keep hitting them hard until they would accept peace at any price. In other words, the best defense is a good offense, so at this stage they would defend what they had by conquering even more territory.
Let’s give the Japanese armed forces a morale check. Are they eager to fight some more?
Yes they are. Expect a tough struggle ahead. However, the Japanese war machine was now reaching its limits, and in today’s narrative, the most important battle would not be a victory or a defeat, but a draw. And when the Japanese offensive runs out of steam, their leaders won’t know what to do next; they will learn that it’s more difficult to lead armies and navies when you are not winning.
Because we haven’t talked much about New Guinea in the podcast, I will begin with a few words to bring you up to date on that huge island. Back in Episode 22 we learned that the Dutch claimed the western half of New Guinea in the early nineteenth century. Everything about New Guinea told outsiders to stay away: the climate, diseases, difficult terrain, isolation, unfriendly natives, and risk all around. Still, a few folks figured that any landmass that big had to have resources worth exploiting. Besides the Dutch, in the early nineteenth century some British, French and American whalers and traders came to New Guinea, seeking the same commodities that had attracted them to other parts of the Pacific: whales, sandalwood and sea cucumbers. They sold the sandalwood and sea cucumbers in Chinese ports, where those items were hot commodities, while the whales hunted were processed into commodities that were useful in Europe and North America. One baleen whale could provide more than a ton of whalebone for corsets and hoop skirts; in London you could sell that for enough money to pay for the ship that caught the whale in the first place. Even more valuable was whale oil, which was used to light lamps until it was discovered that kerosene burned cleaner. You could get more than two tons of whale oil from a single sperm whale. Eventually the visitors got the natives of New Guinea, the Papuans, to help them gather the sandalwood and sea cucumbers, and in return they gave the natives iron and steel tools, calico and fish hooks. The tools caused a population explosion, because they made more efficient farming possible (meaning larger harvests). Unfortunately the traders also introduced devastating European diseases, and when the natives acquired guns, the result was an explosion of warfare and head-hunting.
More outsiders came to New Guinea after 1870: German merchants looking for coconuts and laborers for their plantations in Samoa, prospectors to the southeast coast, where gold had been discovered in 1877, and missionaries. At first these foreigners all managed to stay out of each other’s way, but in 1882 some Australian labor recruiters wandered to the northeast coast, the area where the Germans were most active. One year later the premier of Queensland, the nearest Australian territory, called for the annexation of all of eastern New Guinea and the nearby islands; he sent a petition requesting that the British government do this. London didn’t want to get involved in New Guinea, but because Australia was one of their colonies, and New Guinea was next to Australia, they had to. Germany and Britain sent representatives to the negotiating table; first they accused each other of acting in bad faith, then they reached an agreement in late 1884, and signed it in April 1885. Henceforth New Guineas would be divided three ways. The southeastern quarter of New Guinea, renamed Papua, went to the British. In 1906, five years after the British gave Australia its independence, they would transfer Papua to the Australians. Germany got the northeastern quarter, along with the nearest islands to the east like New Britain and New Ireland. Back in Germany the rulers in the mid-1880s were Kaiser Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck, so their part of New Guinea was renamed Kaiser Wilhelm Land, and the islands became the Bismarck Archipelago. Finally, the Dutch returned to western New Guinea near the end of the century, and began to build Dutch settlements.
This balance lasted almost thirty years, until World War I broke out in Europe. Because Australia was required by treaty to fight on Britain’s side, it invaded German New Guinea. Overall the campaign was quick and nearly bloodless; the fighting both began and ended in September 1914. The only German who escaped was one officer, Lieutenant Hermann Detzner, who hid in the interior with some 20 native policemen until January 1919; by the time he gave up the war was over everywhere else. After the war the former German territory was awarded to Australia as a League of Nations mandate, so New Guinea was now divided evenly down the middle, with the Dutch ruling the west and the Australians ruling the east. That was the situation when World War II began. Then in 1975, thirty years after the war, the Australian half of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, would be merged together and granted independence; today we call that nation Papua New Guinea.
Now on with our narrative. While the Japanese were overrunning Southeast Asia, another Japanese fleet was trying to conquer as many islands in the southwest Pacific as possible. They did this to create a buffer zone around their conquests in Southeast Asia, and because Australia was in the war on Britain’s side again. The Japanese did not think they could conquer Australia — it was too far from Japan and they did not have enough soldiers to occupy a whole continent, for crying out loud — but they could neutralize Australia, by keeping it isolated and unable to receive assistance from the other Allies. If all worked as planned, Australia would make a separate peace with Japan and drop out of the war. Then with Australia gone from the game and the British too far away to strike back, the Japanese could concentrate their efforts on knocking out their two largest opponents, China and the United States.
For the Australians, the Japanese threat couldn’t have come at a worse time than this. As noted in previous episodes, much of the Australian army was overseas, fighting alongside the British in places like North Africa. And in the past they had counted on the Royal Navy to defend their shores, but now when British ships were needed the most, they had either been sunk by the Japanese or were needed elsewhere, especially in the Atlantic. Although the Australians lost far more men in World War I than in World War II, they found the second war more emotionally draining, because they didn’t have to worry about a foreign power invading their homeland in the first war.
Fortunately the Americans were still able to help, and they made the defense of the southwest Pacific their priority, after they failed to hold onto the Philippines. We saw in Episode 41 that US General Douglas MacArthur escaped to Australia in March 1942, and in April he was appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area. MacArthur got along well enough with the Australian prime minister, John Curtin, but for the Australian people this was a big adjustment. Up until now the only commanders they had served under were Australian or British, and many resented the idea that a general from anywhere else would be leading them in battles. Still, as we shall see, the Australians and Americans worked out their differences eventually. Because the Australians knew that the Americans had saved them, and not the British, their wartime partnership with the Americans marked the end of Australia’s special relationship with Britain. Aussies still get along with the mother country today, but in the decades since the war ended, they have usually seen the United States as their best friend abroad. Likewise, on the other side of the Pacific, it is hard to find a modern-day American who doesn’t like Australia. Fair dinkum, as the Aussies will say.
The United States Pacific Fleet was also placed under one commander; Admiral Chester Nimitz was promoted to that position in December 1941. One of the first things Nimitz did was strengthen the lines of communication between the United States, Australia and New Zealand. To do this he added troops to the garrison on American Samoa, and established new garrisons on New Caledonia, and on two tiny atolls in the mid-Pacific, Christmas and Canton Islands. New Zealand helped in this endeavor by placing its own garrison in Fiji. Now a steady stream of ships and planes would travel between Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, using these islands as stepping stones to cross the Pacific.
This is a good place to mention that there were five Allied nations that ruled islands in the Pacific: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and New Zealand. When France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, French citizens in the overseas colonies had to choose which side to give their allegiance to. We saw in previous episodes that French Indochina went with the Vichy French government, the puppet regime installed by Germany. However, the French colonies in the South Pacific — French Polynesia, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides (modern Vanuatu) — backed Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement, so they stayed with the Allies. Because the need for cooperation was more important than all other matters, during the war the borders between the Allied-ruled territories in the Pacific were practically nonexistent.
The southwest Pacific campaign began with the Japanese invading the Bismarck Archipelago. The task force assigned to this job left Truk in the Caroline Islands on January 14, 1942, and began attacking the island of New Britain with bombers on January 20. Between 3,000 and 4,000 troops came ashore next, and they took Rabaul, the Australian capital of New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands, on the 23rd. 1,400 Australian soldiers and 600 civilians were in Rabaul at the time, and Australia was unable to evacuate them; those who weren’t killed or captured fled into the nearby jungle. Australian forces on New Guinea managed to rescue 450 of these personnel, while the rest (more than a thousand), realizing they were likely to starve in the jungle, surrendered over the course of February. Rabaul now became the Japanese base of operations, for activities on New Guinea, the Bismarck and Solomon Islands; it would be their strongest base south of the equator.
For March the Japanese task force split into two groups, one began the conquest of the Solomon Islands and one headed for New Guinea. The main target on New Guinea was Port Moresby, the island’s largest city. Taking Port Moresby would give them a second base to launch attacks on Australia itself; the first was on the Indonesian island of Timor. Moreover, Port Moresby was Australia’s most important advance base, and without it the Australians could do little besides defend their homeland. For the same reasons, General MacArthur would defend Port Moresby with everything they had.
Because Port Moresby was on the southeast coast of New Guinea, and the Japanese fleet was northeast of the island, they couldn’t strike at Port Moresby first. Instead they landed on the northeast coast, taking the communities of Lae and Salamaua on March 8. These troops probably would have marched overland to Port Moresby, but casualties (in landing craft as well as men) were heavier than expected. Although MacArthur did not have ships or planes at this point, American planes were available to help the defenders. These planes came from the Lexington and the Yorktown, two American aircraft carriers in the Coral Sea, and they flew over New Guinea to attack the Japanese troops and ships on the northeastern shore. Since the Japanese had no ships that could deal with the carriers, they had to postpone their plan to march on Port Moresby. The Japanese only knew about the Lexington – they never saw the Yorktown – and thus they assumed all the American planes came from one carrier; make a note of that. Meanwhile the northern half of the Solomon Islands were captured in March and April, and air and naval bases were built on the largest island, Bougainville.
Japan’s next move on New Guinea would be in the west. The campaign to conquer Indonesia, which we covered in Episode 39, saw Dutch defenses collapse so quickly that the Dutch surrendered before Japanese forces got to the Dutch half of New Guinea. With the fighting all but over, some of the troops that had been sent to occupy Java were transferred to western New Guinea; the first of them arrived on March 29 and 30. Only a few hundred Dutch soldiers were there to resist; those that weren’t captured immediately withdrew to the jungle, where they switched to guerrilla warfare. Over the course of April, the Japanese first occupied the western tip of the island, then advanced on the north coast; Hollandia, the largest Dutch town on the north coast, fell to them on April 20. Here they stopped, leaving 500 miles of coastline between them and the force occupying Lae and Salamaua.
In Episode 43 of this podcast we saw two Japanese fleets conduct successful raids in the Indian Ocean. In April 1942 those fleets were recalled, and one reason for that was to provide ships for a second operation in the southwest Pacific. But for this operation to succeed, they would have to get that pesky American carrier out of the Coral Sea. While they were assembling the ships needed, the Japanese got a reminder of how dangerous enemy carriers can be; on April 18, Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle led a squadron of bombers from another American carrier, the USS Hornet, to stage the first air raid on Tokyo. To bag the Lexington, two of the fleet carriers returning from the Indian Ocean, the Shokaku and the Zuikaku, were sent to the southwest Pacific. The second operation was called Operation Mo, and it consisted of four steps:
1. Tulagi Island in the southern Solomon Islands would be occupied on May 3, 1942. An airfield would be built here to give the Japanese a base in the southern Solomons.
2. The fleet that took Tulagi would split into two parts. The larger part would sail west to New Guinea and take Port Moresby, no more than four days later.
3. The other part of the fleet would sail east and capture Nauru and Ocean Island, two atolls in the central Pacific that had rich phosphate deposits.
4. If the first three steps all succeeded, there would be future actions to take New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa, to cut the supply and communications lines between Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
The invasion fleet, led by Admiral Aritomo Goto, had eleven troop transports, four heavy cruisers, a destroyer, and a light carrier, the Shoho. The Shoho could give air cover for the troops and other ships, but it would be no match for the Lexington, which was a fleet carrier. Another admiral, Takeo Takagi, brought the Shokaku and Zuikaku, to catch the American forces who came to stop the invasion. Takagi followed a northwest-to-southeast course, passing the Solomons on the north side, and then went around the islands on the south side to enter the Coral Sea. If Takagi did not find any Americans, his orders were to go on to Australia and bombard the Queensland coast.
Before I continue, I should explain the differences between the two types of carriers used here. On both sides the fleet carriers were as big as battleships, and carried anywhere from 70 to 90 aircraft each, while light carriers carried half as many planes, 35 to 45. The three American carriers that escaped the attack on Pearl Harbor were all fleet carriers. The US had no light carriers in the Pacific before the war, and they were basically cruisers with flat tops; this design made them fast enough to keep up with other ships. Japanese light carriers, however, were converted non-warships like tankers: because they were slower, they usually sailed independently. Also, at this stage, Japanese carriers had wooden flight decks, which made it easier to set them on fire than the carriers built later on, which had steel or aluminum flight decks.
The biggest advantage the Americans had was not in ships, but in information. In March Navy codebreakers had cracked the complex JN-25 code, used by the Japanese for their most secret communications. After this achievement, American naval personnel were able to intercept Japanese radio messages and find out when and where they were going to strike. In this way Nimitz learned that the Japanese were next going to make another attempt to take Port Moresby. At the end of April, the Yorktown was refueling in the Tonga islands; now Nimitz ordered the Yorktown to return to the Coral Sea, and put its commander, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, in command over both the Yorktown and the Lexington. With the carriers went 9 cruisers, 13 destroyers, 2 oilers, one seaplane tender, and 128 aircraft.
Remember when I said the Japanese did not know about one of the American carriers in the Coral Sea, the Yorktown? This gave Admiral Fletcher the advantage of surprise. Fletcher couldn’t save Tulagi, which was taken on schedule, but he detected Admiral Goto’s force when it sailed to Port Moresby on May 7, 1942, and launched a strike on it with 93 planes. The onslaught of bombs and torpedoes caught the Shoho and sank it in thirty minutes; Admiral Goto halted the advance on Port Moresby and waited for Admiral Takagi’s fleet carriers to arrive.
The rest of the day continued to work in the Americans’ favor. The Shokaku and Zuikaku were now less than an hour’s flying time to the east, and their planes attacked and sank the two American ships they encountered. One of the ships was a destroyer, the Sims; the other was thought to be a carrier, but it was actually an oiler, the Neosho. Sinking these was not enough to make up for the loss of the Shoho. Finally, on the night on May 7-8, Takagi launched an air attack on the Yorktown and her escort ships; it failed and most of the planes used in the attack were shot down.
The next day was a better one for the Japanese. Fletcher and Takagi located each other at 8 AM and launched their planes. American dive-bombers hit the Shokaku three times, while the Zuikaku sailed into a storm and escaped without damage. The weather was better over the American fleet, allowing the Japanese to hit the Yorktown with one bomb and the Lexington with two bombs and two torpedoes. Fires on the Lexington spread out of control; five hours later she was abandoned and scuttled with torpedoes from an American destroyer. Of the Lexington’s 2,791 crewmen, 216 were lost. And on that note the two fleets broke off. Each side had one carrier left that was able to fight, and the flight crews were exhausted, so they weren’t in the mood to continue the battle any longer. All the fighting had been conducted by aircraft; this was the first naval battle in history where the opposing ships never got close enough to see each other.
Podcast footnote: Last week was the 76th anniversary of this battle, and I found it appropriate that the wreck of the Lexington was found just two months ago, on March 4, 2018. A team led by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has been searching over the past few years for ships sunk during World War II, and they located the Lexington 500 miles from the coast of Australia, in an area where the Coral Sea is two miles deep. Also found were 35 planes that went down with the Lexington when she sank. There won’t be any attempt to salvage or raise the wreck, though, it is considered a war cemetery for the crewmen killed in the battle. End footnote.
The end result was that the Americans had fought the Japanese to a standstill. When it came to ships, the Japanese did better; they had lost a light carrier while the Americans had lost a fleet carrier, and this battle let everyone know that fleet carriers had replaced battleships as the most important naval vessels. However, the Japanese had also lost more planes than the Americans. Because of that, both fleet carriers were sent back to Japan immediately; the Shokaku needed extensive repairs, while the Zuikaku needed to replace the planes and pilots lost in the battle. Neither carrier was battle-ready again before July, and that may have decided the battle for Midway Island, where the Americans won a major victory in early June. Also important, the Americans for the second time had kept Port Moresby from falling into Japanese hands. Most of all, the battle gained time for the Allies, because Japan had lost the initiative. The resources, manpower and industrial output of the United States were still greater than those of Japan, and one of the rules of military history is that the longer the war, the more likely the big contestant (in this case the USA) will win. For all these reasons the battle of the Coral Sea was one of the turning points of the war. Another turning point was the battle of Midway, and in August 1942, the Americans would land on Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands, to begin rolling back the Japanese Empire.
We have one more story to tell before we’re finished for today. On the night of May 31, 1942, three Japanese mini-submarines entered Sydney’s harbor. They succeeded in sinking a converted ferry, the HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 sailors. In the battle that followed, the crews of the mini-subs scuttled their vessels and committed suicide; one of the mini-subs was not found on the bottom of Sydney harbor until 2006. If you listened to Episode 43, you will remember that other mini-subs like these were used in a raid on Madagascar at the same time. Then in early June, regular-sized Japanese submarines off the coast of New South Wales sank three Allied merchant ships, killing 50 sailors, and bombarded Sydney and Newcastle. By this time, the battle of Midway had taken place near Hawaii, and Japanese losses were so bad at Midway that they no longer had enough ships to conduct raids this far from home, so after June 1942 the Japanese did not threaten Australia from the east anymore. They were still only a threat from New Guinea, and what the Allies did about that will be the topic for the next episode.
Cut! That’s a wrap for today! I said the New Guinea campaign would be a long one, so expect more episodes about it before the narrative moves elsewhere. So far the Japanese have tried and failed twice to take Port Moresby on the side of New Guinea facing Australia. In the next episode they will try again, because they have another trick up their sleeves. Will the third time be the charm, so to speak?
With the previous episode I finished by talking about something I want to do in the middle of 2018. I’ll tell you about it again here, in case you missed it. At some point I would like to take a break from the narrative and record a question and answer session. Originally I was going to do this for the second anniversary episode, which is due to come out on July 1, 2018, but now I will have to play it by ear, because it looks like I may be out of town on a business trip by the time you listen to this, and I don’t know yet if that will interfere with the schedule I have kept to so far, of producing two episodes every month. These questions don’t have to be about World War II events; they can be about anything related to Southeast Asia’s history, especially if it is a question you have from one of the earlier episodes in this podcast. Ask them on the podcast Facebook page, and maybe soon I’ll give you another way to ask them, like my email address. So think of what you would like to ask, and contact me in May or June 2018.
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