The podcast is back, after a month-long break! Here we continue the coverage we started in the previous episode, about World War II in New Guinea. This time we will see the crucial turning point in the conflict between the Japanese, Australians and Americans.
(Transcript, added 09/05/2020.)
This episode is dedicated to Inez A., who made a generous donation shortly after the previous episode was released. Inez, your donation came on a day when I was out of town and could only do a little to prepare this episode, so thank you very much for your support. Thank you also for waiting until I could return home. To the rest of the listeners, every bit of encouragement, whether verbal or financial, is appreciated. And now, the month-long hiatus of the podcast is over, so it’s on with the show!
Episode 46: The New Guinea Campaign, Part 2
or, The Kokoda Track
Greetings, dear listeners! If you are not listening to this episode around the time I recorded it, in June 2018, you can ignore what I say for about the next three minutes. Maybe you can go get yourself some coffee or tea.
As for those of you listening in or near real time, here is what I have been up to. In the second half of May I went on a business trip to Florida, for some specialized training not available in my current home state, Kentucky. Although I live in Kentucky’s second largest city, and it is a fully civilized community, there are a few things I cannot get here, because the state is off the beaten path, as far as other Americans are concerned. While I was following that real world pursuit, I could not research and record for this podcast.
I also want to remind you of the announcement I made in the last two episodes; I am planning to do a “Question and Answer” episode this summer. Or this winter, if you live in Australia or somewhere else in the southern hemisphere. Originally I was going to do it for the podcast’s second anniversary episode, which is due to come out on July 1, but because of the podcast’s recent interruption, it will now probably come out at a later date. I am looking for at least six questions on anything having to do with Southeast Asia’s past. They can be about the period we are currently going through, World War II, or about any of the previous eras of history we have covered: prehistoric, ancient, medieval and early modern times, the nineteenth or the early twentieth century. Perhaps I did not say as much as you would like to hear about a certain subject. Or if you are looking to learn the background behind some current events, like the situation with the Rohingyas in Myanmar or about the turbulent politics in the Philippines, ask about those; just be aware that I may be answering such questions anyway in a future episode. And soon after we get done with World War II, we will begin covering the Vietnam War; I’m sure some of you will have questions about that conflict.
When I last talked about this, I invited listeners to post questions on the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page. Now I also invite you to send questions by email. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, an “at” sign, and gmail.com. I look forward to seeing those questions soon. In case you’re wondering about my email address, that’s a Babylonian name. Berosus is the name of a Babylonian historian who lived in the early third century B. C. When I first got on the Internet, the first online forum I took part in discussed Babylonian history, so I found the name appropriate. But enough about my Internet past; let’s get into today’s narrative!
If you’re just joining us, and I hope that’s not the case, this episode is the tenth episode in this podcast series about World War II events. Episodes 36 through 42 covered the Japanese Empire’s conquest of Southeast Asia. Now our timeline is up to the second half of 1942. The Allied nations, meaning Great Britain, China, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, are not yet ready to take back Southeast Asia, but there are battles near Southeast Asia, in the zone I called the periphery, so we are now concentrating our attention there. In Episode 43 we saw battles between the Japanese and the British in the Indian Ocean, which happened in part because Japan had overrun Southeast Asia so quickly. Then in Episode 45 we went to the world’s second largest island, New Guinea; the battles fought here will affect the course of the war in Southeast Asia later on.
For a quick recap of the previous episode, we saw that before World War II, New Guinea was divided in two, with the Dutch ruling the western half of the island, as part of their Dutch East Indies colony, and the Australians ruling the east, which today is joined to the Bismarck Archipelago to form the modern nation of Papua New Guinea. In January 1942 the Japanese invaded the Bismarck Archipelago, and then in early March 1942 they made their first troop landings on New Guinea itself, on the northeast coast at Huon Gulf; the towns of Lae and Salamaua were taken here. Next they were planning to attack Port Moresby, the most important city Australia held on the island. Controlling Port Moresby was essential if they wanted to control the whole island, and taking it would also give Japan a base only 340 miles from Australia’s Cape York Peninsula. The possibility that Japan might do this prompted Australia to recall some of the troops it had sent to fight in North Africa, because it looked like they would be needed to defend the Australian homeland. As the bird of paradise flies, it is just 192 miles from Lae to Port Moresby, but American air attacks forced them to call off the march before it really got started.
Meanwhile in the west, Japanese troops from Java landed on the island’s western tip at the end of March. In April they advanced along the northern coast as far as the most important Dutch city, Hollandia, modern Jayapura. At Hollandia they halted to await further instructions.
Another attempt on Port Moresby was made by the Imperial Japanese Navy in early May, and that was turned back in one of the war’s most critical battles, the battle of the Coral Sea; here American and Japanese aircraft carriers fought each other to a standstill. Or to be more correct, their fighters and bombers did; this was the first battle where the warships on two sides never got close enough to see each other. After this the Japanese began to lose ships and planes faster than they could replace them, while American industry, now fully mobilized, turned out new wartime equipment at a truly stupendous rate. Consequently the Japanese threat to Australia began to fade.
Okay, that ends the recap, we’re all caught up. The Japanese threat to Australia also faded because they lost another critical battle, this time in the north Pacific, and the commander in chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, saw this outcome before it happened. In 1940, when Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye asked him how he thought a war between Japan and the United States would go, Yamamoto said, quote: “I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years.” End quote. Then in September 1941, three months before the raid on Pearl Harbor, he made a similar prediction. Quote: “For a while we’ll have everything our own way, stretching out in every direction like an octopus spreading its tentacles. But it’ll last for a year and a half at the most.” End quote. Yamamoto said this because in late 1941 the Japanese and US Pacific fleets were roughly the same size, but at the rate the Americans could build new ships, by the end of 1943 the American fleet would be 50 percent larger, and it would be more than twice as large by the end of 1944. And this was assuming that all the time, part of the American fleet would be busy in the Atlantic, fighting the Germans and delivering aid to the British and the Soviets.
What Yamamoto wanted was a knockout battle that would utterly destroy the American fleet, and persuade the United States to sue for peace before a new fleet could be built. For those of you who remember the Russo-Japanese War, you will recall that Japan had done this to the Russian fleet in 1905, at the battle of Tsushima Strait; this is how the Japanese Empire rolled. Yamamoto got the battle he wanted by sending nearly all of the Japanese fleet to the north Pacific, and likewise the Americans sent just about every ship they had to meet this threat. The resulting showdown was the battle of Midway, 1,300 miles west of Hawaii, in early June 1942. I won’t be going into details on the battle of Midway here, because it is too far away from Southeast Asia to justify that coverage; hopefully Ray Harris will cover it soon with his World War II podcast. Instead I will give you the Cliff Notes version. The battle’s result was not a Japanese victory, but an American triumph; the Japanese lost all four fleet carriers committed to the battle, while the Americans lost just one, the Yorktown; also, the Japanese lost far more aircraft than the Americans did.
After the battle of Midway, the Japanese realized their forces were overextended. Instead of getting destroyed at Midway, the US Navy would grow every year, while the Japanese Navy, staying about the same size even when it won battles, would be hard pressed to defend the huge portion of the world Japan claimed for itself. Previously, Admiral Yamamoto had promised that after he won at Midway, he would send the Navy to conquer valuable islands in the South Pacific like New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. Instead, when the bad news from Midway reached Tokyo, those plans were cancelled immediately; carriers and aircraft were no longer available to support major amphibious operations below the equator.
However, there was one place left in the southern hemisphere where meaningful victories were possible, and that was on New Guinea. And the Japanese Army was eager to go for this prize; if you had asked the Army’s generals what they wanted to do in mid-1942, they would have acted like the villain in a WWE wrestling match and answered, “Let’s go hurt somebody.” Unlike the Navy, the Japanese Army had not lost a battle yet, and it still felt that it would win in the end, if the soldiers never gave up. In May the soldiers in the beach head at Lae and Salamaua broke out and marched west; in June they linked up with the Japanese force holding Hollandia; by doing this, they completed the conquest of the island’s north coast.
Before the war, the Dutch had divided western New Guinea into six provinces. By the end of April 1942 the Japanese had overrun three of them, the ones along the north coast. Now between May and August they tried to take the rest, by advancing slowly down the west coast. Although the Japanese made it a little more than halfway to the border between the Dutch and Australian halves of the island, they eventually stopped, and later they never got around to invading the southernmost province, what the Dutch called Zuid Nieuw-Guinea. In fact, they did not consider the southwestern quarter of the island important, so when Australian forces moved into Merauke, the Dutch provincial capital on the south coast, it meant this town would stay in Allied hands for the entire war.
To understand what the Japanese Army wanted to do next, look at a map of New Guinea. I posted maps on the podcast’s Facebook page and on the Blubrry.com page for your convenience. Now imagine the island’s shape as a large bird like a peacock or pheasant, with its head and tail pointing out horizontally. The head of the “bird” is the Doberai Peninsula in the west; in fact, it is sometimes called the Bird’s Head Peninsula; this is the area the Japanese conquered at the end of March 1942. To the southwest, Frederik Hendrik Island, modern Pulau Yos Sudarso, is separated from New Guinea by a very narrow strait; you can imagine that as a leg of the bird. Likewise the long, thin peninsula in the east, which points in the general direction of the Coral Sea, has been called the Bird’s Tail Peninsula; Port Moresby is on the underside of the “tail.”
The Japanese plan was to make a third attempt on Port Moresby, this time by marching over the Owen Stanley Mts., the east-west mountain range that forms the spine of New Guinea. Because Australia held the whole eastern end of New Guinea, the “tail” of the island, the Japanese would starting by landing more troops on the northeast coast, this time halfway between Salamaua and Milne Bay, the bay on the tip of the “tail.” They would take the towns of Buna and Gona, and a village between them named Sanananda; then they would strike inland. 60 miles from Buna, on the northern slopes of the mountains, was a village named Kokoda. Kokoda was the site of a government station, a rubber plantation and an airstrip. What made it special now was a 120-mile-long foot trail, called the Kokoda Track or the Kokoda Trail, that connected Kokoda with Buna on the northeast coast, and Port Moresby in the south. Before the war this trail had mainly been used to deliver mail to Kokoda; now the Japanese would use it to go over the Owen Stanley Mts. and head straight for Port Moresby. To regain some of its lost honor, the Navy would assist the operation, by taking the Australian airfields at Milne Bay.
As you might expect, the tough part would be the hike over the mountains. Even before the trail got to Kokoda, there were natural obstacles, like the large and rapidly-moving Kumusi River. To cross the river, people had to take their chances either with rafts and boats, or with a wire-rope bridge. Indeed, the natives named this crossing point Wairopi, which is pidgin English for wire rope. And that was only the beginning of the adventure. The Owen Stanley Mountains have peaks towering as much as 13,000 ft. above sea level, and the highest elevation reached by the Kokoda Track is 7,380 ft. Before the Japanese arrived in the neighborhood, the Allies thought no army could get through these mountains.
What’s more, the mountains are covered with jungles. Because New Guinea is in the tropics, it never gets cold enough for these mountains to have snow. Most of the time the temperature around the peaks is in the 70s Fahrenheit by day, and in the 60s by night; in a typical year, the lowest annual temperature is 59° F., or 15° C. This means the Kokoda Track goes through jungle even at the high points. While people hiking around here will only have to deal with the jungle’s heat in the lowlands, they will have to face the other hazards jungles are known for: torrential rains, tough plants, nasty animals, diseases like malaria and dengue fever, and so forth. But don’t just take my word for it. Hear what Samuel Eliot Morison said about the trail in his book on the New Guinea campaign, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier. Quote:
“The Owen Stanley Range is a jagged, precipitous obstacle covered with tropical rainforest up to the pass at 6500-foot elevation, and with moss like a thick wet sponge up to the highest peaks, 13,000 feet above the sea. The Kokoda Trail was suitable for splay-toed Papuan aborigines but a torture to modern soldiers carrying heavy equipment…”
By the way, Australia made a movie about the struggle on the Kokoda Track in 2006, called “Kokoda: 39th Battalion.”
Troops from the Japanese XVIIIth Army began landing on July 21, 1942. Buna and Gona were captured easily; the Allied commander, General Douglas MacArthur, did not even try to defend them. Part of the force headed for the Kokoda Track immediately; it reached Wairopi on July 23, and it captured Kokoda and its airfield on July 29. There were 1,500 Japanese soldiers in the initial beachhead, and over the next month this force was built up to 11,430 men; throw in reinforcements and Japan committed a total of 13,500 men for the third attempt on Port Moresby.
On the other side, the Allies, in this case the Australians, Americans and some native Papuans, would eventually commit 30,000 men to this campaign, meaning they outnumbered the Japanese by more than 2 to 1. Sometimes you will hear the Kokoda Track struggle described as a David vs. Goliath match, but from the Allies’ point of view, that wasn’t really the case. What the Japanese really had in their favor was their skill at surviving in the jungle; among the Allies, only the Papuans were good at that.
<Welcome to the Jungle>
Even with their jungle advantage, the Japanese found the trail narrower and more rugged than expected; moreover, now that the Australians knew what the Japanese were up to, they sent the 53rd Infantry Battalion from Port Moresby up the Kokoda Track, to join the unit that the Japanese had driven from Kokoda, the 39th Infantry Battalion. For these reasons, it took until August 12 for the Japanese to seize the key mountain passes used by the trail. Next, two more Australian battalions rushed up the trail, and together the four battalions made a stand at Isurava, holding off a Japanese force nearly the same size from August 26 to the 31st, when the Japanese got around one end of the Australian line. More engagements followed in early September as the Australians withdrew southward and the Japanese pursued them.
Meanwhile at Milne Bay, the Japanese Navy failed to play its part. They had 1,943 elite naval troops, which landed on the north side of the bay and marched west to the nearest airfield, with two light tanks leading the way. But while they expected only a few hundred defenders, the Australians and Americans heard the Japanese were coming and brought in reinforcements, building up the defending force to 8,824 men. This meant not only that the Japanese force would not be strong enough to take the airfields, but also that the Allies would have air superiority, and we have already seen how control of the air can decide the course of battles. The battle for Milne Bay lasted two weeks, from August 25 to September 7. Eventually artillery and heavy machine gun fire forced the Japanese troops back to the beaches where they had landed originally, and the Navy picked up 1,318 of them.
For the Allies, Milne Bay showed that the Japanese could be beaten on land. And this didn’t just boost morale on New Guinea. General William Slim, the British commander in Burma, paid tribute to the Australians for this victory. Quote:
“We were helped, too, by a very cheering piece of news that now reached us, and of which, as a morale raiser, I made great use. Australian troops had, at Milne Bay in New Guinea, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. If the Australians, in conditions very like ours, had done it, so could we. Some of us may forget that of all the Allies it was the Australian soldiers who first broke the spell of the invincibility of the Japanese Army; those of us who were in Burma have cause to remember.”
After the battle, it was discovered that the Japanese had taken some prisoners, but executed them all; this was a clear violation of the Geneva Convention. No Japanese soldiers were tried for this war crime, because nobody could identify who was responsible. As you might expect, it encouraged the Allied soldiers to get even tougher on the Japanese than they already were.
Back at the Kokoda Track, on September 5, the Japanese reached “the Gap,” the highest point on the trail in the mountains; it was downhill from here! They also won two more battles in early September, at Eora Creek, also called Templeton’s Crossing, and at Brigade Hill. At the next point where the trail crossed a ridge, Ioribaiwa, the Australians made another stand, held that spot from September 14 to the 16th, and then fell back to the next ridge, Imita. The Australian commanding general, Arthur Samuel Allen, gave the troops permission to withdraw from Ioribaiwa, but at the same time warned them there would be no more withdrawals after this. He said that because Ioribaiwa was thirty miles from Port Moresby, and Imita was only twenty-six miles from it. Indeed, the Japanese cheered because from Ioribaiwa they could see the Coral Sea in the day, and the lights of Port Moresby at night.
However, the Japanese stopped here. South of the equator, Ioribaiwa would be the high-water mark of the Japanese Empire. They had outrun their supply lines, air raids by Allied bombers were taking their toll, and the arrival of the Australian 16th and 25th Brigades meant that the odds were tipping in favor of the Allies. Finally, there were no more reinforcements for the Japanese side. On August 7, eight months to the day after Pearl Harbor, the Americans began their counteroffensive against Japan by landing on Guadalcanal, the southernmost island captured by the Japanese. Though it took six months for the Americans to take the whole island, every Japanese counterattack on them failed, and General Harukichi Hyakutake, the supreme commander of the southwest Pacific campaigns, figured that Japan could not drive the Allies from New Guinea and Guadalcanal at the same time, so he chose to send all reinforcements to Guadalcanal. The Japanese commander on New Guinea, General Tomitaro Horii, had orders to retreat if his force could not advance, so after a few days of skirmishes between Ioribaiwa and Imita, the Japanese began to go back the way they came. When the Australians launched an attack on Ioribaiwa on September 27, they found it deserted.
Now the situation on the Kokoda Track was reversed, with the Japanese trying to hold defensive positions and the Allies overcoming them each time. There was a second battle of Eora Creek/Templeton’s Crossing, from October 11th to the 28th, and there was a battle at Oivi, also called and Gorari, from November 4th to the 11th. Between those battles, on November 2, the Australians recovered Kokoda, which like Ioribaiwa had been abandoned before the Australians arrived.
Up to this point the Japanese had made an orderly retreat, but when they got to the Kumusi River, they found it flooded, and in their efforts to get across the river, the retreat became a rout. One of the casualties here was General Horii. Rather than using the wire rope bridge or just sitting on the river’s banks to wait for better conditions, Horii tried to cross the river immediately, first on a raft, then on a canoe; the canoe was swept out to sea and capsized, and the general drowned. Finally in mid-November the Japanese returned to Buna, Sanananda and Gona, and dug in around these bases, using the local swamps as part of their defensive perimeters.
On November 16th the Americans entered the ground phase of the New Guinea campaign by sending the US 32nd Division, to join the Australians as they began to besiege the Japanese bases. Though they had air support, they were unable to penetrate the combination of natural and manmade defenses they were up against. The American performance was especially poor, because the American troops were inexperienced; most of them had just come out of training camp. John Vader, author of New Guinea: The Tide is Stemmed, used these words to describe what the Allies faced. Quote:
“In the swamp country which surrounded the area were large crocodiles … Incidence of malaria was almost one hundred per cent. At Sanananda the swamp and jungle were typhus-ridden … crawling roots reached out into stagnant pools infested with mosquitoes and numerous crawling insects … every foxhole filled with water. Thompson sub machine-guns jammed with the gritty mud and were unreliable in the humid atmosphere … ”
“Also formidable was the tenacity of the enemy, who would fight to the death in these stinking holes, starving, diseased and with their dead rotting and unburied beside them.”
General MacArthur was now on New Guinea, too. When he first became commander in chief of the Allied forces in the southwest Pacific, he was in Australia, and he set up his headquarters in Melbourne. However, Melbourne is on the south coast of Australia, nowhere near the troops he was leading. I told you in previous episodes that many Australians did not like serving under an American general, and an Australian listener to this show told me that MacArthur was scornfully nicknamed “Dugout Doug,” as long as he was in Australia. Fortunately he did not stay in Melbourne, and as the Japanese threat receded, his position grew more secure. In July 1942 he moved his headquarters to Brisbane, on Australia’s northeast coast, and in November he was confident enough to move it to Port Moresby.
Though he was closer to the action, MacArthur showed little sympathy for the hardship the troops were suffering; after the Japanese won a firefight, he sacked the commanding officer on the front line, Major General Edwin Forrest Harding. At first the general who took his place, Robert Eichelberger, did not fare better, so MacArthur told him, quote: “Bob, I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive . . . And that goes for your chief of staff, too.” End quote. Because the defenders were doing their job better, it took persistence to get the results MacArthur wanted. Fortunately MacArthur also gave Eichelberger the heavy equipment that the troops had lacked previously. The Australians overran Gona on December 9, while a combined frontal attack and flanking movement finally captured Buna on January 2 and Sanananda on January 22, 1943.
In six months, during the three battles covered by this episode – Milne Bay, the Kokoda Track and the Buna beachhead – the Japanese suffered a combined total of 8,675 killed in action, 16,311 wounded and sick. Unlike the battles described in previous World War II episodes of this podcast, Allied casualties were less: this time Allied losses were 2,797 killed, 13,561 wounded and sick. At least two thirds of the Allied casualties were Australian, and the rest were American. The Americans were so battered that they had to take six months off, to rest, recuperate and replace their losses, before they would be ready for more action. As a result, when the next operation began, the Australians had to fight the Japanese alone for a while. And on that note, this is a good place to break off the narrative for today.
Although this episode is done, we’re not done with New Guinea. We will need one, maybe two more episodes to cover the conflict there in 1943 and 1944. And when we’re done there, we’ll be ready to return to Southeast Asia itself, because New Guinea is not too far from both Indonesia and the Philippines. General MacArthur promised to return to the Philippines, remember? Furthermore, on the other end of Southeast Asia, we have an unstable frontier between Japanese-ruled Burma and British-ruled India. The British could take back Burma, or the Japanese could invade India; which will happen first? All things considered, we’ll have several more stories to tell before our narrative is done with World War II.
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