The Forgotten War in Burma, Part 1



Episode 48 of the podcast is finally up!  Originally I was planning to have it finished by July 16, but several factors came together to make it late, from a week-long trip out of town to a fierce storm that has knocked out power in my home city.  Still, I did not rush the recording, because as they say, haste makes waste.  I have learned that if I get it right the first time, I won’t have to redo it later.

Anyway, with this episode the podcast returns to Southeast Asia during World War II.  This time we look at what happened in Burma, modern-day Myanmar, from the middle of 1942 until early 1944.


(Transcript, added 09/16/2020.)

This episode is dedicated to Brian G., who made a generous donation right after the previous episode was released. Brian, that will cover the cost of hosting this podcast for more than one month, so I can’t thank you enough. It also shows you appreciate the research that I put into each episode. In the email you sent with this donation, you said you were mainly interested in Vietnam, so I’ll let you know that it won’t be too many episodes after we get done with World War II before I start talking about the Vietnam War. In fact, the First Indochina War, which pitted the Viet Minh against the French, began in 1946, one year after World War II ended, and we have to understand that war in order to understand the one the Americans got involved in. All right, so we don’t delay getting to Vietnam, let’s resume the World War II narrative.

Episode 48: The Forgotten War in Burma, Part 1

or, the Rumble in the Jungle

Greetings, dear listeners! Before we begin, I want to apologize that this episode came out a little late. The reason is the same as before; I have been out of town recently. This is my fourth trip so far this year, but this time it was no family emergency, just my wife and I going on our summer vacation. When I wasn’t doing things with my grandchildren, I was working on this episode, doing the research and writing the script. Still, I had less time to work on it, as you can guess, and on the days when I was driving, I had no time for the podcast at all. Then last Friday, I lost another day because the power went out for my whole city, after a fierce thunderstorm, ruining the recording session I had planned for that evening.

Another factor slowing me down is one I should have seen coming – information overload! In the early days of this podcast, I would breeze through centuries of history and prehistory in each episode, and my challenge back then was finding enough material to fill out at least half an hour of recording time. All too often I would say “We don’t know much about this,” or some variation of it, because we had so little to go on, where early civilizations like Funan are concerned. But over the last five hundred years, the ability to record and store information has increased tremendously, and less knowledge has been lost or forgotten. This means I now have the opposite problem – too many sources to read and consider using in this show. As a result, several recent episodes have only covered a year of events, or less than that. Nowadays, when doing the research, instead of wondering if I have enough sources, I am more likely to wonder if I can avoid mentioning something, and not hinder the audience’s ability to understand what is going on. It is even happening with the current episode about World War II in Burma; remember when I said that Burma, also known as Myanmar, was the hardest Southeast Asian country for me to research?

And as I have told you before, I am now working a day job, so I no longer have all the time I want to work on the podcast. I’ll keep recording it, but it looks like henceforth two episodes a month will be the ideal situation, rather than the standard.

Finally, I have a new challenge. On the day I started recording this, I learned that Dan Carlin, the “Godfather of history podcasts,” released the latest episode of his “Hardcore History,” and now he has started a new series about the same subject I’ve been talking about since this year began — World War II in the Pacific! Go ahead and listen to him if you wish; I have been told that second opinions are good where historical discussions are concerned. But if this is a competition, I am definitely the underdog in it!

Okay, so what does the podcast have for today? The main point is that we are back to talking about Southeast Asia again. In the first World War II episodes we saw the Axis Powers, meaning Japan and the partners of the Japanese, conquer all of Southeast Asia, most of which had previously been ruled by their opponents, the Allies. Thus, for Episodes 43 through 47, we covered battles that were near Southeast Asia but not in it, what I called the “periphery.” Now some battles have taken place in Burma in late 1942 and 1943, so it is time to go back and see what is happening there.



We last looked at the Burma campaign in Episode 42, and saw how in early 1942, Japan was able to overrun all of that large territory, and chase out the Allied forces – British, Chinese, Indians, pro-British Burmese troops, and a handful of American officers. After that rout, however, a lot of people forgot that this part of Southeast Asia was a war zone, along with neighboring China and India. I wouldn’t be surprised if you forgot about it, too.

The first reason for forgetting about this war zone, what the Americans called CBI, the “China-Burma-India Theater,” was because it was thousands of miles from the other places where World War II battles were being fought; before the war Burma was a remote colony of the British Empire, and it did not matter much to the other Allied nations. The second reason was that Burma was at the bottom of everyone’s priority list, except for the soldiers who fought there. We have noted before that the US and British governments saw Adolf Hitler as the main enemy, so in Washington and London, defeating Germany was more important than defeating Japan, and where the Pacific War was concerned, Allied commanders chose not to fight the Japanese in the Burmese jungle, when it was easier to approach Japan with a strategy of “island hopping,” taking one island at a time and bypassing those where the fighting was expected to be too tough.

In India, the British were still recruiting Indian soldiers for the war effort, but they expected those recruits would serve in North Africa or the Persian Gulf, so they continued to train them for desert warfare instead of jungle warfare. They only stopped this practice in December 1942; by then the Germans in North Africa were withdrawing to Tunisia, and it was obvious that the Allies could win in North Africa without sending any more troops. Meanwhile, the troops and civilians that had escaped from Burma were camped in the open at Imphal, the capital of India’s Manipur State, though the torrential monsoon rains were now falling, because nobody knew what to do with them. That goes a long way towards explaining why there was so little activity in and around Burma for a year and a half, from May 1942 to November 1943. Finally, the distances involved discouraged active involvement; because Burma was nearly on the opposite side of the world from the United States, it took at two months for the Americans to send supplies or troops there by sea.

The third reason was the same one that made outsiders forget about the New Guinea campaign in Episodes 45 through 47: the terrain involved. I gave you a quote about that the last time we looked at Burma in this podcast, and it is worth repeating here. General William Slim, the commander of the British army fighting for Burma, called that land, quote: “some of the world’s worst country, breeding the world’s worst diseases, and having for half the year at least the world’s worst climate.” Unquote.

What Slim meant by the world’s worst climate was the rainy season. In most years it lasted from May to October, and sometimes the rains did not end until December. During that period it is almost impossible for armies to move and fight, so both sides spent their time regrouping their forces, and the Japanese consolidated their hold over Burma’s territory, especially along the western frontier, which took them about three months to occupy after the British got out of it. Indeed, when Tokyo asked Lieutenant-General Shojiro Iida, the army commander in Burma, if he thought a new offensive should be launched after the rains stopped, Iida checked with the officers under him and decided the answer was no; the army had all it could handle in the areas it had taken already. In addition, the Japanese could no longer count on their native helpers, the Burmese Independence Army; this force was so undisciplined that some of its members were ruffians who said they were in the army but had never formally joined it, and many members, including the commander Aung San, did not want to be under Japanese rule any more than they had wanted to be under British rule. The BIA was disbanded, and in its place the Japanese recruited a new body of 3,000 troops, directed by Japanese officers; this was called the Burma Defence Army. At its peak, this force would have 11,000 soldiers organized into seven battalions; one battalion had troops from Burma’s largest ethnic minority, the Karens, while the other six battalions contained troops from the Burmese majority. But don’t forget Aung San; we’re not done with his story, and he will be back in a future episode of the podcast.

Finally, the Allies were reluctant to fight in Burma because of the widespread belief that the Japanese were invincible in the jungle. Japanese troops lived off the land very effectively, and they were more willing than the Allies to leave the few roads running through the Burma countryside. More than once the Japanese crossed rivers and mountain ranges that the Allies thought were impassable.

We also saw previously that the Allies, especially the Americans, were in Burma to help China in its ongoing war against Japan. China’s last supply line on the ground was the Burma Road, and the Allies were able to hold it until late April 1942, when the Japanese captured the road’s western terminus at Lashio. Because three fourths of the Japanese Army was tied down by the fighting in China, the Allies could not let China collapse, or make peace with the Japanese. Thus, as soon as the Burma Road was cut, the Allies began airlifting supplies to China, in what would become the largest airlift campaign of the war. This was called “going over the Hump,” because supply planes flew from northeast India, crossed a spur of the eastern Himalayas nicknamed “the Hump,” and landed at Kunming, the capital of the nearest Chinese province.

Over the next three and a half years, American pilots got 650,000 tons of supplies to the Chinese. But it was a smaller amount than what had been carried on the Burma Road, and it came at a dreadful cost: 594 aircraft and 1,659 airmen were lost on this dangerous route. Some planes were shot down by Japanese fighters, but most of the hazards were not combat-related. One of the types of cargo planes used, the DC-3, could not fly higher than 15.000 feet when fully loaded, meaning it could only complete the journey by following mountain passes, instead of going over the peaks. Other risks were extreme turbulence, which could make a plane drop thousands of feet in a few seconds, treacherous weather, mechanical failures, inaccurate maps, and not enough oxygen for the flight crews, who tend to make mistakes when they did not have clear heads. In the book Hirohito’s War: The Pacific War, 1941–1945, the historian Francis Pike made this declaration about the airlift. Quote: “Every 340 tons delivered cost the life of a pilot.” End quote.

In the summer of 1942 the Allies were pleasantly surprised to discover that one British outpost in northeast Burma had not been taken by the Japanese. On July 3 a small reconnaissance team was parachuted in to investigate the area around Myitkyina, the capital of Burma’s northernmost province. From there the team marched 150 miles north to Fort Hertz; no one had heard from this fort in months. They found a group of Indian Army soldiers had been holding out there since May, because their way had been blocked by the Japanese when they tried to escape to India. This was verified by a reconnaissance flight over Fort Hertz on August 12, and support was parachuted in, including communications specialists and engineers. They raised and trained a militia from the local tribe to protect the fort, which they named the Kachin Levies, and they repaired the airstrip next to the fort so that by August 20 it could be used again. After that, the airstrip became a place where those aircraft flying the ”Hump”’to China could make emergency landings, and the radio navigation beacon set up there, made it easier for pilots to know where they were. Fort Hertz stayed in British hands for the entire war, though from 1942 to 1944 it was isolated by the Japanese and the only way to get supplies to the fort was by the airstrip.

The First Arakan Operation

In the middle of 1942, the British not only reorganized the forces they had left in India; they also thought about how they would go about recovering Burma. They agreed that the first operation would have to be a limited one, because the morale of the troops had been badly shaken by their retreat from Burma. Still, if the operation succeeded, it would help a lot in restoring that morale. The generals decided to go into Arakan Province, to capture the capital, Akyab, and the nearby Mayu peninsula.

Those of you who are longtime listeners will remember that Arakan is the territory along Burma’s northwest coast, running between the Irrawaddy delta and the border of Bangladesh. We mentioned it several times in the early episodes of the podcast, especially in Episode 18. For most of ancient, medieval and early modern times, Arakan was independent of the Burmese state. Then the Burmese conquered Arakan in 1784, and the British added Arakan to their growing empire in 1826. Nowadays Arakan is called Rakhine, and it is where modern Myanmar’s refugees, the Rohingyas, are fleeing to Bangladesh. In fact, that dispute began in 1942, when fighting broke out between the Arakanese, who were Buddhists and pro-Japanese, and the Moslem, pro-British Rohingyas. Estimates of the number killed during the war are 20,000 Arakanese, and at least 40,000 Rohingyas.
Today Akyab also has a new name; on modern maps it is Sittwe. The main asset of Akyab were its airstrips; Japanese planes taking off from here could threaten Chittagong, Dacca and even Calcutta. Conversely, if the Allies had the airstrips, they could provide air support for an army liberating the rest of Burma.

The original plan called for the British 29th Brigade to make an amphibious assault on Akyab, while the 14th Indian Division marched overland to the Mayu peninsula; this would all take place in September 1942. But the amphibious part had to be scrapped, because there weren’t enough boats available, and the 29th Brigade was busy taking part in the battle of Madagascar, which we covered in Episode 43. That battle did not end until November 1942, so on September 21 the 14th Indian Division began to play its part alone, advancing from Chittagong to a town on the India-Burma border called Cox’s Bazaar. There they waited nearly three months, for the rainy season to end. Meanwhile, the three Japanese battalions defending Arakan, two infantry and one artillery, were expecting the British to attack, and they spent their time digging trenches at their main defensive position, the Buthidaung-Maungdaw Road. Their advantage was that there was only one railway, and no roads, going down the Mayu peninsula, so once the British got moving, it would not be hard for the Japanese to figure out exactly where they were.

The 14th Division, led by Major-General Wilfred Lewis Lloyd, resumed its march southward on December 17. Realizing that this force was larger than their own, the Japanese ordered their units to fall back to Akyab and the tip of the Mayu peninsula, and the 55th Japanese Division, one of the units that had conquered Burma earlier in the year, was transferred from central Burma to Akyab. The British were thus able to occupy the area abandoned by the Japanese, but when the 14th Division approached the towns of Donbaik and Rathedaung in January 1943, its advance bogged down, and the Japanese threw back every attempt to take those towns. One company built a series of bunkers one mile north of Donbaik, close enough together that their fields of fire overlapped, allowing them to support each other’s defense. When General Lloyd’s superiors visited the front on January 10, he told them he would need tanks to take out the bunkers, since artillery wasn’t doing the job. The generals decided that at least 50 tanks were needed, but they were overruled and only eight tanks were sent. When the tanks went into action, most of them got stuck in ditches or were destroyed by enemy artillery; needless to say, that attack was a complete failure.

Because one Japanese company had held off more than half of the 14th Division, the Japanese now knew that they had the better troops. Still, the British badly wanted some kind of victory to show that the offensive had been worth everything they put into it, so during the rest of January, February and March they launched more attacks on the Japanese positions, but they fared no better in these attempts. On March 29 the British and Indians began to withdraw, to escape before a Japanese attack through the jungle hit them on their left flank. General Lloyd was fired by his commanding officer, General Noel Irwin, and General Slim in turn dismissed Irwin, officially putting him on sick leave, but in reality he got rid of Irwin because of his poor judgment, and because his abrasive personality kept him from getting along with the troops under him. Slim personally led the troops after this, and on May 4 he was preparing to have two Indian battalions surround the Japanese, but instead a British battalion failed to defend a hill called Point 551, and the Japanese cut the Maungdaw-Buthidaung Road. Since there were no other roads going out of the valley, the British units in it had to destroy their vehicles before escaping the valley, to keep their transportation from falling into the wrong hands. Once out of central Arakan, the British forces returned to Cox’s Bazaar. The Japanese did not follow, because the monsoon rains were about to begin and because the open terrain along the frontier would have made them easy targets for British artillery. The farthest this foray had gotten into Burma was 75 miles. Slim also admitted in his report that they had been defeated by an inferior force. Quote: “17 bns. [battalions] have been chased about by possibly 6, a sad but realistic commentary on the present fighting.” End quote.

Meet Orde Wingate

It was at this point that World War II’s most controversial officer entered the story. Colonel Orde Charles Wingate was definitely a nonconformist, in an institution where eccentric behavior was frowned upon. To start with, he often wore an alarm clock around his wrist, which might go off when other people were around, and he habitually carried whatever book he was reading at the time, usually a work of classical literature. He also wore raw onions and garlic on a string around his neck, and sometimes he would eat one of the bulbs as a snack, because he thought they kept mosquitoes away. Like most Englishmen he liked tea, and would use his socks as tea bags.

<Ewww sound file>

Yeah, tell me about it! Other times Wingate went completely naked; in Palestine before the war, he would come out of the shower to give orders to recruits, wearing nothing but a shower cap, and on later assignments he would greet visitors to his tent while wearing nothing at all. In Burma he also grew a non-regulation beard and wore a pith helmet, looking like he was on an African safari.

Wingate’s first assignments after becoming an officer in the British Army were first in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, where his father had been governor-general, then in the Palestine mandated territory, during the second half of the 1930s. Here in the land that would one day become the state of Israel, most British officials sympathized with the Palestinian Arabs, but Wingate befriended the Jewish settlers and became a Zionist. Eventually he would give guerrilla training to the first modern Jewish military force, the Haganah, and today’s Israelis regard him as a hero for that. After World War II began, Wingate created, organized and led an irregular force against the Italians occupying Ethiopia, and this unit, called the Gideon Force, played a major part in the liberation of that country in 1941. Near the end of that campaign; when the Gideon Force numbered only 1,700 men, it took the surrender of about 20,000 Italian soldiers. But when the unit was no longer needed, British authorities who disliked Wingate disbanded it; he was demoted to the rank of major, and they obstructed his efforts to obtain back pay and decorations for himself and his troops.

Fortunately that wasn’t the end of Wingate’s story. One of his commanders had been Sir Archibald Wavell, who was now the commander in chief of British forces in India and Burma, and in March 1942, after Wingate came to India to make the case for a guerrilla unit operating behind enemy lines in the Far East, Wavell had him reinstated as a colonel, and listened to what this military maverick had to say. He spent the rest of 1942 training a brigade for this project. Officially it was called the 77th Indian Infantry, but today its members are remembered as the Chindits, after the Burmese word for lion, chinthe.

Podcast footnote: Wingate was inspired to call his men “lions” because statues of lions are a common sight outside of Burmese temples. They are like the famous lion statues at the entrance to the New York Public Library. Chinese temples have lion statues, too, but in both cases the lions look more like dogs. Evidently most sculptors in the Far East have not seen a lion up close. End footnote.

Half of the recruits were British, and the other half were Indians and Gurkhas; many of them were survivors of the retreat from Burma. The training was so rigorous that nearly a third of the British and Gurkha soldiers did not make it to the end. When the Chindits were finished training, Wingate showed in one more way how he was a different officer. In his opening speech to them he said, quote: “You will be making history, it will be a tale that will be told, but remember, most of you may not be at the telling of it.” End quote. Likewise, as he saw the men parade off, Wavell said to them, quote: “This is a great adventure. It is not going to be an easy one. I wish you all the very best of luck.” End quote.

Podcast footnote: Orde Wingate is my favorite World War II hero. I am a nonconformist as well, and in more than one way I can relate to him. If I believed in reincarnation, I would want to be Wingate in a former life. End footnote.

Operation Longcloth

Wavell planned to launch a major ground offensive in Burma in early 1943, which he called Operation Longcloth. The operation was cancelled before it got started, but Wingate persuaded his boss to let him go into Burma with just his own brigade, so Operation Longcloth became the name of the Chindit mission. Thus, Wingate led 3,000 Chindits across the Chindwin River on February 14 and 15, 1943, to disrupt the Japanese and destroy their communications. 1,000 horses and mules went with them, as they were the only reliable transportation for heavy equipment in the jungle. They went forth in eight columns, but one column was disbanded and its troops divided between the others, so there were really seven full-strength columns. A single squadron – six aircraft – from the Royal Air Force, provided all the air support. And that support was needed, for the men brought only enough food and water to last five days – when that ran out, planes would drop more to them.

Wingate’s plan began with a trick. Two columns, led by a white soldier dressed as a British general, headed south after crossing the Chindwin and were re-supplied by air in broad daylight; the idea here was to fool the Japanese into thinking this was the main attack, while the other five columns marched straight into the heart of Burma. Sure enough, the Japanese went for one of the diversionary columns, ambushing it and driving it back to India. As for the other southern column, it succeeded in blowing up some bridges and ambushing a large Japanese unit, killing its commander. Meanwhile Wingate and the five-column force kept going, and between March 4 and 6 they laid demolitions which put 70 miles of railroad tracks between Mandalay and Myitkyina out of action.

Not wanting to quit while they were ahead, the Chindits crossed the mile-wide Irrawaddy River next. But now they were a hundred and fifty miles from India, meaning it was getting harder for the planes to keep them supplied. Moreover, the jungle was getting drier, and larger Japanese units were in the area, now that they realized this was more than just a minor raid. The Chindits soon found themselves confined to a triangle-shaped area where the Schweli and Irrawaddy Rivers meet. Casualties mounted from disease as well as firefights. On March 24 Wingate was ordered to end the mission, and he broke up the columns into smaller units, to reduce the chance of the Japanese ambushing the whole force as it retreated to India. They also had to leave behind most of the heavy equipment and turn their pack animals loose. Because of the ongoing firefights and the scattering of troops across the jungle, Wingate reached India a few months before the last stragglers did, while a few troops, finding the Japanese troops too tough to get past, withdrew to China or to northern Burma, where the friendly Kachin tribe gave them assistance. By the end of April 1943, there were 2,182 Chindits back in India, although about 600 of these were unfit for active duty owing to wounds or disease.

Wingate felt he had proved his point; waging a war behind enemy lines was feasible, if aircraft were used extensively to transport and supply the troops. But among the other British officers, there was a general feeling that Wingate’s expedition cost too much. For a huge investment in men and equipment, the Chindits had done damage which the Japanese could repair in three months. Still, the officers knew that the British Army badly needed a victory to restore its morale, so they declared Operation Longcloth a great victory. In part this was true; the Japanese had been provoked enough to prepare for an offensive of their own, which we will cover in the next episode, and Wingate had destroyed the myth that the Japanese could not be beaten in the jungle. Now there would be another battle in Burma; you could bet your last dollar on that.

However, this didn’t mean that General Slim and the other commanders were willing to let Wingate lead another Chindit mission. Wingate got another chance, though, because at this time he gained a very powerful new friend – Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill was impressed by Wingate, considered him the only leader in the China-Burma-India theater with daring and vision, and promoted him to the rank of brigadier general. He called Wingate to London in July to talk about future plans for the war, and then brought him to the conference held at Quebec, Canada in August 1943, so the other Allied leaders could hear his stories. Those other leaders, like US President Franklin Roosevelt, were impressed, too, so much so that after the conference, Wingate was promoted to major general, and the Americans created a guerrilla unit of their own for the China-Burma-India theater. This was known officially as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), and unofficially as Merrill’s Marauders, after the commander, General Frank Merrill.

Stilwell Returns to Burma

After the Quebec conference, the Allies also reorganized the structure of their forces in Southeast Asia again. Previously, British forces in Burma, India, and even Iran and Iraq had been under one commander, most recently Sir Archibald Wavell. This command was now broken up, and Burma became part of the Southeast Asia Command, or SEAC. Instead of leading any of them, Wavell became the new viceroy, or governor general of India; now his main challenge would be dealing with a terrible famine in the Bengal region, which would claim 3 million lives before it was over. In his place, the new commander in chief for Southeast Asia was a member of the royal family; Admiral Louis Mountbatten. The leading American on the spot, General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, became Mountbatten’s deputy commander, because he already led the Chinese troops in the area, while William Slim continued to lead the 14th Army.

In addition, the infrastructure behind the Allied war effort was improving. By 1944 the railways of northern India were delivering four times as many supplies as they had at the start of the war, and together the Allied air forces had gained control of the skies. The involvement of American planes in this theater was especially welcomed by the Chindits, who found that American pilots were more willing to give them what they wanted. The Royal Air Force had been so uncooperative that one of the brigade majors in the Chindits wrote this about them in his memoirs. Quote: “Whatever we asked them to do they declared to be difficult, impossible or against Air Force policy. Whatever they offered to do, we didn’t need.” End quote. By contrast, the Americans were willing to do things for the Chindits that seemed impossible. For example, during one training exercise, a Chindit was injured in a field barely 400 yards wide. According to the RAF, 600 yards was the minimum safe length for a landing zone, but the American Air Commandos managed to land a small plane and pick up the soldier. The Americans also brought with them K-Ration Packs, which were less nutritious than British rations, but British soldiers enjoyed having them because they tasted much better.

Podcast footnote: Hmm, I remember back during the 2003 war in Iraq, British soldiers complained about how the Americans fighting alongside them had better food than they did. Is this a case of history repeating itself? End footnote.

On the other side, the Japanese created the Burma Area Army, which was led by Lieutenant General Masakazu Kawabe and consisted of the 15th Army and the newly formed 28th Army.

Now what would the Allies do with their new advantages? Because of his naval background, Mountbatten wanted to see an amphibious assault on Akyab in Arakan, and another amphibious landing to take back the Andaman Islands. This never happened because again there weren’t enough landing craft available – they had been sent to Europe to carry troops on D-Day. Instead they acted on Stilwell’s idea – use the dry season of late 1943 and early 1944 to conduct a limited offensive in northern Burma. Stilwell’s goals were to capture the cities of Myitkyina and Mogaung, and build a new road behind his advancing men, to replace the Burma Road. This road would run directly from northeast India through Burma to connect with the Burma Road somewhere in China, and because it began at the Indian town of Ledo, it would be called the Ledo Road. For this expedition, Stilwell had two Chinese divisions with American equipment, and a Chinese light tank battalion; he also brought along Merrill’s Marauders. They moved out of Ledo in October 1943, crossing into Burma by way of a mountain pass that would soon be called “Hell Pass.” We will come back to them in the next episode, since they did not achieve their goals until after the dry season ended.

Operation Thursday

General Wingate wanted the Chindits to go on Stilwell’s expedition. His plan was to send them into central Burma again, where they would disrupt Japanese communications and supply lines to northern Burma. The other senior officers viewed Wingate with skepticism and distrust, but both Roosevelt and Churchill approved the plan, so eventually preparations got underway for the second Chindit mission, code-named Operation Thursday. It had been delayed partly because of the opposition from Wingate’s rivals, partly because Wingate was ill with typhoid fever for several months, and partly because of the need to retrain the troops, to incorporate what had been learned from the first mission. Recruitment boosted the size of the Chindit force to 10,000, and it was ready to go in early 1944. Wingate vowed that when the mission was done, all of Burma north of Latitude 24̊ would be liberated. If you look at a map of modern Myanmar, that is all of Kachin State and half of Sagaing State.

The first Chindit brigade marched from Ledo, the same place from which Stillwell’s Chinese troops had started, on February 5, 1944. Their job was reconnaissance, and they went through terrain impassable to ordinary troops in the same way as the Japanese had done to surprise the British. The brigade commander, Brigadier General Bernard Fergusson, described the land they entered as a “nightmare country.“ Later he wrote, quote: ”From the moment we started up the Road until we came into the Chindwin Valley, not a day passed without rain: steady, solid, cold and merciless.” End quote. This was supposed to be the dry season, remember? Well, we have to make an exception for India’s Assam district. Assam is one of the wettest places on earth, with some spots getting as much as 400 inches of rain per year.

The plan was to bring in the second wave of troops by gliders to three landing zones, and they would secure these zones until an airstrip could be built, allowing the rest of the troops, mules and equipment to be flown in. Thus, this would be one of the biggest airborne operations of the war. The fields picked for landing zones were named Piccadilly, Broadway, and Chowringhee. They were just about to take off with the gliders when a reconnaissance patrol discovered that Picadilly field was covered with teak logs, left there to dry in the sun before they were cut up into useable lumber. There was a fear that the Japanese had discovered the Chindit plan, and put the logs there to keep aircraft from landing on Picadilly, but it soon turned out to be the work of Burmese lumberjacks, who had no idea the war was coming to their neighborhood, so the plan was changed to land the gliders at just the other two landing zones. They left on March 5, landed without meeting any opposition, promptly began building the airstrip at Broadway, and sent out patrols across hundreds of square miles of surrounding territory. In the process they turned each landing zone into a fortified base – what Wingate called strongholds – and established additional bases named Aberdeen and White City, near the town of Indaw. With most of the Japanese forces in Burma now committed to an invasion of India, which we will cover in the next episode, they had no plans for dealing with a counter-invasion from the air.

The first clashes between the Chindits and the Japanese came in the second half of March, when Fergusson’s brigade tried unsuccessfully to take Indaw. But the real tragedy did not strike in any battle. On March 24, Wingate flew to Imphal in India to meet with other Allied officers. From there he flew in an American B-25 to Lalaghat, one of the bases the gliders came from, but the pilot flew into a thunderstorm, lost control, and crashed the plane, killing everyone aboard. The bodies of the crew and passengers could not be identified; the authorities only knew that Wingate was among them because they found his pith helmet and some letters of his in the wreckage. At first the bodies were buried in India, but after the war they were exhumed and reburied in the United States, at Arlington National Cemetery. I will finish Wingate’s story by reading Winston Churchill’s tribute to him, in front of the House of Commons in August 1944. Quote:

“We placed our hopes at Quebec in the new Supreme Commander Admiral Mountbatten and in his brilliant lieutenant Major-General Wingate who, alas, has paid a soldiers debt. There was a man of genius who might well have become also a man of destiny. He has gone, but his spirit lives on in the long range penetration groups, and has underlain all these intricate and daring air operations and military operations based on air transport and on air supply.”

End quote.

The general who replaced Wingate as leader of the Chindits didn’t have his imagination, and most of their air support was taken away, to help the garrisons defending Imphal and Kohima against the Japanese. The Chindits were also placed, like Merrill’s Marauders, under the command of Stilwell; he ordered them to abandon their work around Indaw and do nothing but assist his own operations, in effect making them conventional soldiers. Therefore you won’t hear of them making any more achievements, so let’s go back to Arakan and see what is happening on that front.
The Second Arakan Operation

While Stilwell was moving into northern Burma, Slim ordered a second attack on the Arakan coast. There were two goals for this operation: to succeed where the first Arakan offensive had failed, and to draw away enough Japanese from northern Burma to make sure that Stilwell’s offensive succeeded. This time the attack was carried out by the XV corps, under the command of Lieutenant-General Philip Christison. There were three divisions involved, the 5th Indian, the 7th Indian, and the 81st West African Divisions, and because they could only advance along the coast and in narrow valleys, each division moved separately. A fourth division, the 26th Indian, was held in reserve.

The XV Corps started moving in December 1943 and captured the first objective, the port of Maungdaw, on January 9, 1944. The Japanese force south of here was too strong for them to dislodge, so next they tried to advance east, capturing two unused railway tunnels and the road to Buthidaung. Instead, the Japanese 55th Division, also called the Sakurai Force, after its commander, Shozo Sakurai, struck first. On February 4 the 55th Division outflanked the 7th Indian Division, rushed behind it, and reached the 7th Division’s forward headquarters, which also put them in striking range of the 5th Division. For eighteen days the two sides fought on this spot the battle of the Admin Box; much of the fighting was hand-to-hand, and the headquarters was virtually destroyed. The signalmen and clerks who worked in the headquarters got out after destroying everything of use to the enemy; the division’s radio operators heard someone say, quote, “put a pick through that radio,” unquote, and then there was silence. Japanese troops in the tunnel area also came out and attacked, while Japanese aircraft were launched from Akyab.

On the night of February 7, the Japanese committed yet another atrocity when they captured the 7th Division’s field hospital and promptly killed 35 unarmed doctors, nurses and patients. The massacre worked against the Japanese, in that it increased the determination of the defenders to beat them here. As the author Bryan Perrett wrote, quote: “British and Indian troops retained few illusions about their opponents, but they had respected them as soldiers. Now they saw them as merely dangerous animals, to be exterminated with every means at their disposal.” End quote.

What kept the second Arakan offensive from being a depressing repeat of the first one was that the troops were better trained and more confident, and that Slim kept them supplied by dropping food and ammunition from the air. All three divisions dug in and held on, while the 26th Indian Division was sent in to help them. In addition, the RAF managed to shoot down 65 Japanese planes, and some Japanese supplies were captured from the mules and Arakanese porters used to deliver them. The result was that soon the Japanese were starving, not the Allies.

By the night of February 21, the Japanese had been out of food for several days, making them so desperate that some of them launched suicide attacks. The next day, Colonel Tanahashi, the officer in charge of the main body of Sakurai Force, radioed to his superiors that he only had 400 men of his original 2,200 left, and that he would not make any more attacks. Two days later, without authorization from his commanders, he retreated, bringing an end to the Japanese counterattack. Now that the heat was off the 5th Indian Division, it sent a brigade broke through the Ngakyedauk Pass, which the Allies renamed the Okeydoke Pass, linked up with the 7th, and drove off any remaining Japanese in the area. Because the enemy had been forced to leave behind all their wounded, the British counted five thousand Japanese troops dead or wounded on the battlefield, out of a force that numbered 8,000 before the battle. The British and Indians in turn lost just over 3,500. For the first time in the war, British troops had won a battle against the Japanese, and it happened in the jungle, of all places. After the war, Slim wrote this about the battle in his memoirs, Defeat into Victory. Quote: “This Arakan battle, judged by the size of the forces engaged, was not of great magnitude, but it was, nevertheless, one of the historic successes of British arms…. It was a victory, a victory about which there could be no argument, and its effect not only on the troops engaged but on the whole Fourteenth Army, was immense.” End quote.

March saw the XV Corps take the railway tunnels, several hills the Japanese had held previously, and the town of Buthidaung. They expected to resume their advance on Akyab next, but then they had to halt and even withdraw from some malaria-infested spots, because something more important was happening to the north of Arakan. The Japanese XV Army had invaded India, and some of the Allied troops in Arakan were pulled out to defend Imphal, one of the cities the Japanese attacked. Therefore the second Arakan offensive ended with about one quarter of Arakan province in Allied hands.


Cut! That’s a wrap, and what a wrap it is! You’re probably thinking there will be a second part to this narrative about the war in Burma, and you’re right, because we don’t have a winner yet. In fact, the next episode will see the climax of the Burma campaign. As we break off in early 1944, we have General Stilwell in northern Burma with his Chinese troops and Merrill’s Marauders, while General Slim holds the line in the south, in Arakan to be exact, and the Japanese in the middle are beginning an invasion of India. Tune in next time to hear how all this will turn out!


Before we go, I want to remind everyone that I would like to do a question and answer show in the near future. I don’t want this podcast to get in a rut, where all I do is give a narration of historical events every time. Some of you have suggested I do interviews, for instance, and I have gotten one or two requests for shows about topics related to history, like an episode about the hill tribes in Vietnam. Furthermore, you may remember the show featured in Episode 40, where I was the one interviewed. Therefore in the name of variety, I want to take some time out to answer your questions, like some other history podcasters have done. So far I have not received enough questions, so it’s time for you to ask them. I know there’s more than a few of you out there, so even if only 1 percent of you ask, I’ll be overwhelmed. Ask about anything having to do with Southeast Asian history, whether it’s a topic I covered in the past, or something I haven’t covered yet, meaning it might tie in with current events. You can post your questions on the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page, or email them to me. Once again, my email address is That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, an “at” sign, and

Now it’s time for the requests at the end of each episode. If you want me to keep making episodes like this one and continue the narrative to the twenty-first century, you can make a secure donation with Paypal. At the bottom of this episode’s page on, there is a Paypal button next to the words “Support this podcast!” – just click on that. Another way you can help is to write a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to these episodes; that can attract potential new listeners years from now. In the real world I tell anyone who might be interested about the podcast; feel free to tell your family and friends about it, too. Okay, I have kept your attention long enough for today, so thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon rains are finished!



The New Guinea Campaign, Part 3



With today’s episode, the podcast finishes covering World War II in New Guinea.  Although the war turned in the Allies’ favor in 1942, the struggle here would go on until the war ended everywhere else.  The Allies find out that in every territory occupied by Japan, it is at least twice as hard to drive the Japanese out, as it was for the Japanese to invade the territory in the first place.  Also, today is the second anniversary of the podcast’s launching.  Happy birthday, podcast!


(Transcript, added 09/14/2020.)

This episode is dedicated to Vilhelm R., who made a donation last Father’s Day. Clint Eastwood, the actor and director, is famous for this line:

<Make my day>

And Vilhelm, you made my day. Thank you for joining the listeners who have supported this podcast. May this year be a pleasant one for you, and keep on listening; before you know it, this podcast will reach events that happened in your lifetime and mine. Now let’s take the next step.

Episode 47: The New Guinea Campaign, Part 3

or, The Long Allied Advance

Greetings, dear listeners! This episode was uploaded on July 1, 2018. If you’re Canadian, that means it’s Canada Day, but it is also the second anniversary of this podcast. Yes, I have been recording it for two years, so Happy Birthday podcast!

<celebration effect 1>

All right! Am I in voice? Wait a minute, you heard me sing at this time last year, back in Episode #24. Let’s hear some ladies who sing better than I do. Go for it, girls!

<Happy Birthday song>
<celebration effect 2>

Yes, that was much nicer. We’ve come a long way in two years. Judging from the number of downloads so far, I estimate there are 2,100 of you in the listening crowd. We have also come a long way chronologically: our narrative has advanced from the stone age to the Second World War, and at the point where the last episode broke off, we were only 75 years from the present. For those of you who have been with me from the start, I can’t thank you enough. And I hope the rest of you will listen to the episodes I recorded in the podcast’s earliest days, so you will know what you missed.

I also want to remind all of you once more that I am seeking questions from you to answer in a special question-and-answer show. Some of the other podcasts I listen to have done question and answer episodes, to keep from getting into a rut with a narrative that continues with no end in sight. Therefore I am looking for a minimum of six questions on anything having to do with Southeast Asian history, whether they are about the current topic, World War II, a topic I covered previously, or a topic I haven’t covered yet, like the Vietnam War, if you don’t mind spoilers. Post your questions on the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page, or email them to me. My email address is That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, an “at” sign, and


If you’re not a new listener, you know that since Episode #36, this podcast has been covering World War II in and around Southeast Asia, or as it is sometimes called, the Pacific Theater. On the other hand, if you’re new, I recommend you listen to some of the other episodes first, since you have walked into the middle of a story. Anyway, up until now we have mainly talked about the battles fought in 1942, because that was the most critical year of the war. 1942 began with the Allies on the defensive in both Europe and the Pacific, reeling from the attacks of the Axis dictators. In Southeast Asia the Japanese ran the Allies out completely, so we have concentrated our attention on Southeast Asia’s periphery since Episode 43. But then the tide turned against the Axis, because the Allies won important battles on the front lines in mid to late 1942. The tide turned at Stalingrad in the Soviet Union, and at El Alamein in North Africa. In the Pacific it turned at the Coral Sea, Midway Island, and on Guadalcanal. And in the previous episode we saw the tide turn on New Guinea, at a mountain trail called the Kokoda Track. From now on you will hear about the Allies being on the offensive most of the time. While we won’t have as many intense moments as we had when the battles could go either way, don’t worry; the narrative won’t get boring.

As you probably guessed from the title, this is the third episode, and it will also be the last, in a series about the battles on the island of New Guinea. Japan wanted New Guinea for two reasons:

1. Holding this huge island would make it easier to defend the southern flank of the empire the Japanese had recently conquered.
2. Japan wanted to isolate Australia, to keep it from contributing to the war effort of the Allies.

For a quick recap of the two previous episodes, we saw the Japanese invade New Guinea in early 1942. They overran most of northern and western New Guinea without too much fuss, but the most important objective on New Guinea was Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian half of the huge island, and it was on the southeast coast. Japan tried three times to take Port Moresby in 1942, twice by land and once by sea, but each attempt was turned back by the Allies, which during the New Guinea campaign meant the Australians and Americans. Now we are up to early 1943, and the Allies have begun to drive the Japanese back in the direction from which they came. And this did not just happen on New Guinea; in the Solomon Islands the Americans have just recovered Guadalcanal after a six-month battle, and over the course of 1943 they will take back the rest of the Solomon Islands, while the US Pacific Fleet, led by Admiral Chester Nimitz, will begin a strategy of “island-hopping” to capture the tiny islands Japan holds in the central Pacific.

Our last episode ended with the siege and taking of Buna, the town on New Guinea’s northeast coast that the Japanese captured to give them a base on one end of the Kokoda Track. This was an important landmark in the liberation of New Guinea, but the Allied commander on New Guinea, General Douglas MacArthur, had a long way to go to finish the job. In fact, one of my sources is a book about the New Guinea campaign by George H. Johnson, entitled “The Toughest Fighting in the World.” Three factors made the Allied advance painfully slow:

Reason 1. New Guinea’s terrible terrain, which we have mentioned more than once in this narrative already. Most of what the commanding officers had learned about fighting battles, they had to forget about on New Guinea. If you will pardon the expression, it’s a jungle out there! Do we have the jungle sound effects?

<jungle animals>

Yes, that will do! Anyway, the jungle made the deployment of large formations impossible, to start with. Much of the northern coast was covered with mangrove swamps; I don’t recommend sending men or vehicles to advance through THAT. There were no railways, and the only roads were foot trails; during the rainy season, when eight to ten inches of rain fell on a typical day, these trails became trails of mud, several inches deep. Finally there were the jungle diseases, which often put more men out of action than the Japanese did. Speaking of the Japanese, there was . . .

Reason 2. Japanese determination to defend most territories for as long as humanly possible. Most of them no longer expected to win, or even live long past this date; one of my sources defined their tactics as, quote, “dig in and die.” Unquote. The jungle provided great opportunities for the Japanese to hide themselves, so the Allies had to show again and again that the Japanese were could be defeated in the jungle.

Reason 3. Every time ground forces advanced more than a few miles, a new airfield had to be built, to maintain air cover and provide an alternative to ground transportation.

Because the New Guinea campaign was so long and inglorious, having been fought “beyond the pale of civilization,” the struggle was forgotten by most of the outside world after it ended. Ask somebody familiar with World War II to name battles fought in the Pacific, and he is likely to mention Pearl Harbor, Corregidor, Midway, Tarawa or Iwo Jima — but not any New Guinea battles.

Podcast footnote: Well actually, two of today’s nations remember the battles. We noted in the previous episode that Australia remembers them, because the New Guinea battles were the most important part Australia played in the whole war. And it shouldn’t surprise you that Papua New Guinea remembers the battles. The Japanese and native Papuans first clashed on July 23, 1942, when the Japanese took Wairopi, the river crossing we mentioned in the previous episode. The anniversary of that battle is now a national holiday, Remembrance Day, where the Papuans honor their soldiers, including those who served in the Australian armed forces before Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975. Australia began recruiting native soldiers in 1940, as the Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR); by the end of the war more than 3,500 had served in its ranks. Because they knew the land well, natives gained a reputation as fearsome jungle fighters, killing some 2,200 Japanese while only losing 65 of their own men. Natives were also pleased to find out that their relationship with non-Papuans had changed; the Australian army and the Americans treated them better than the Germans, Dutch, Japanese, and even pre-war Australians had. I will talk a little more about that at the end of this episode. End footnote.

When the Allies recovered Gona and Buna, the Japanese evacuated their survivors, 5,400 men, to the bases they had on the northeast coast, at Lae and Salamaua. If you could draw a straight line between Lae and Buna, the distance would be 166 miles, but the Allies would not follow immediately. To win the battles of 1942 and January 1943, MacArthur had wrecked two infantry divisions and exhausted two others. Consequently the American and Australian troops needed time to recover before they could engage the Japanese again. The Japanese force had been badly bloodied by those battles as well, but they were already planning where they would attack next. Even after the latest defeats, Japanese air, naval and ground forces in the southwest Pacific were still stronger than those of the Allies, and they would not hesitate to use this advantage while they had it.

The next Japanese target would be Wau, a town in the jungle, thirty miles to the southwest of Salamaua. That’s spelled W-A-U, by the way, not W-O-W. Wau had been the site of a gold rush in the 1920s and 30s, and an airfield had been built there to handle the gold traffic. When the Japanese captured Salamaua in early 1942, they had ignored Wau. Now at the beginning of 1943, their strategists finally noticed Wau, and got the idea that capturing Wau’s airfield would give them air cover for the troops, the next time they marched on Port Moresby. And by this time the Japanese knew they were going to lose Guadalcanal, so for them capturing Port Moresby looked more important than ever, to make up for losses elsewhere.

Accordingly, reinforcements were sent. In November 1942 the Japanese 51st Division had been transferred, from Indochina on the Southeast Asian mainland to Rabaul, the big Japanese base on the island of New Britain. Now in January 1943 part of that division, the 102nd Infantry Regiment, was transferred by sea to Lae, so it could take part in the attempt to capture Wau. Allied warplanes attacked the Japanese convoy, and they sank two troop transports, damaged a third, and killed 600 Japanese soldiers. Only about 300 of the intended Japanese reinforcements reached Lae, and they had lost half of their equipment. This guaranteed the attack on Wau would fail, for the Australians had sent in reinforcements as well. Despite their mishap, the Japanese stuck to their orders, marched to Wau, and engaged the Australians on the edge of the airfield; some of the Australians were just leaving the transport planes that had brought them when the battle began. The battle of Wau lasted from January 29 to February 4, 1943, and though the Japanese force was larger – 4,000 of them vs. 3,000 Australians, the Australians threw them back, suffering just 349 killed, wounded or missing, while 1,200 Japanese were killed.

The Japanese were not ready to give up on New Guinea yet, and Tokyo ordered massive reinforcements sent to Lae for a second attempt on Wau, followed by a fourth attempt on Port Moresby. Unfortunately for them, they could not keep this move secret. US Navy cryptographers decoded and translated Japanese naval messages that told of a convoy going from Rabaul to Lae in early March, under the cover of bad weather: eight transports carrying 6,900 troops, escorted by eight destroyers and a hundred aircraft. On February 19, 1943, the cryptographers reported this to General MacArthur, and MacArthur’s air commander, General George C. Kenney, sent every available plane to intercept the convoy, resulting in the battle of the Bismarck Sea, from March 2 to March 4. Attacks from B-17 and B-25 bombers sank all eight transports and four of the destroyers. 3,000 Japanese troops drowned, and while 3,900 survived, they were soaked, oil-stained and exhausted. Most of them had to be rescued and returned to Rabaul; only 1,200 made it to Lae.

The next four months, March to June 1943, were a stalemate caused by shortages of transport ships and supplies on both sides. The Japanese no longer tried to send reinforcements to New Guinea, because with Allied planes controlling the air, that looked like suicide; the Japanese troops on the island were now on their own. However, the Allies did not have reinforcements to send either, because of the overall strategy planned by their governments; Washington and London had made Europe the first priority in the war, and now that they were winning in North Africa, any available men and equipment would be sent there, to bring that campaign to a quick end.

What the Japanese could do was attack from the air, using their aircraft at Rabaul. The Navy’s commander in chief, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, promised the emperor that he would launch a series of huge airstrikes, to retaliate for Japanese defeats suffered over the past few months. While these attacks hit targets in the Solomon Islands, Milne Bay and Port Moresby, the main casualty was the admiral himself. Yamamoto made an inspection tour of the New Guinea-Solomon Islands area in April 1943, and by intercepting another message, which used the code the Americans had broken, the Allies learned his itinerary, and set up an ambush to get him. They succeeded on April 18, shooting down his plane over Bougainville. His successor, Admiral Mineichi Koga, made a serious mistake. To bolster the defense of New Britain and the northern Solomons, he transferred all naval aircraft from their carriers to Rabaul. This meant that the carriers now had to replace and train a whole new generation of pilots, though time and resources were against them. The next time a carrier battle took place was in the Philippine Sea in June 1944, and because the Japanese pilots were inexperienced and poorly trained, the Americans shot down nearly all of them.

On April 22, Australian ground forces began attacking the Japanese defense perimeter around Salamaua. Again they faced slow going, partly because American troops hadn’t joined them yet. Then at the end of June the Americans got moving. MacArthur and Admiral William Halsey, the commander of US Naval forces in the southwest Pacific, agreed to work together in a series of simultaneous offenses in the Solomon Islands and on New Guinea, which they called Operation Cartwheel. The New Guinea part of the operation began with a landing at Nassau Bay, fifteen miles south of Salamaua, on June 30. More jungle warfare under appalling conditions followed; it took until mid-July for the Allies to reach the foothills of the mountain overlooking Salamaua, Mount Tambu, and it took until mid-August to drive the Japanese off it. Then additional fronts were opened against Lae, with an amphibious landing on the coast twenty miles from Lae, and an airborne landing 30 miles inland, at Nadzab; those were September 4-6. On top of all that, General Kenney launched air strikes against Wewak, a town 317 miles west of Lae on New Guinea’s north coast, where the Japanese had stationed some 170 planes; these raids took out three fourths of the planes, destroying most of them while they were parked on the ground. After all that, the Allies finally retook Salamaua on September 11, and Lae on September 15.

The next landmark above Lae is the Huon Peninsula, which juts into the sea, pointing toward New Britain; this marks the junction between New Guinea’s northern and eastern coasts. Australia’s 20th Infantry Brigade made an amphibious landing at Scarlet Beach, on the peninsula’s eastern tip, on September 22. They captured the nearest town, Finschhafen, ten days later, but while MacArthur expected a walkover after that, instead the Japanese launched a ferocious counterattack in mid-October. I will read a few lines from the US Army’s history website,, where it describes the foremost hero of that battle. Quote:

“Pvt. Nathan Van Noy, Jr., of the 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, although seriously wounded by enemy grenades, sprayed the advancing Japanese with .50-caliber machine-gun fire. Van Noy’s body was later found with his finger still on the trigger, his last round of ammunition fired, and thirty slain Japanese sprawled in front of his position. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.” End quote.

The Allies won the battle, but two more months of jungle fighting followed, in which the Japanese hid in the jungle and the Allies could only make progress by isolating the Japanese and destroying them one pocket at a time. The Japanese had two strongpoints a few miles inland from Finschhafen, Sattelberg Hill and Wareo; it took until November 25 for the Allies to capture Sattelberg, and until December 8 to take Wareo. When that happened, the Japanese withdrew to Sio, a town on the north coast. Things didn’t speed up for the Allies until January 2, when the US 126th Regiment of the 32nd Division landed at another spot on the north coast and captured the town of Saidor. This isolated Sio, and the Japanese commander, General Hatazo Adachi, chose to abandon it, withdrawing his 30,000 remaining troops to Wewak. Therefore Sio fell to the Australians on January 14. It had taken them three and a half months to advance 50 miles from Finschhafen to Sio, and then they continued to push west for another 50 miles, where they met the Americans just outside Saidor on February 10, 1944.

Meanwhile to the east, American naval and marine forces had spent most of 1943 advancing up the Solomon Islands in a parallel course. December saw the first two Allied landings on New Britain, the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago. Originally Rabaul, the capital of New Britain, had been the ultimate goal of Operation Cartwheel, but as the Allies got closer, they had second thoughts. Over the course of 1942 and 1943 the Japanese had stationed hundreds of planes and as many as 100,000 personnel there, giving Rabaul a new nickname, the “Gibraltar of the South Pacific.” Although recent bombing runs on the base had persuaded Tokyo to pull out its air and naval groups, there were probably enough troops remaining to make an assault on Rabaul the mother of all Pacific battles. When American, British and Canadian leaders met at the Quebec conference in August 1943, they decided that it would be better to neutralize Rabaul than to try beating it to a bloody pulp. MacArthur would have preferred taking Rabaul, but he had his orders, so once he was sure that the Japanese troops at Rabaul and on the neighboring island of New Ireland could not break out of the Allied blockade, he bypassed them and turned his attention back to liberating New Guinea. This was a new feature in the Allied strategy; from now on they would skip Japanese strongholds if (1) taking them wasn’t worth the cost, and (2) those places weren’t needed to win the war.

After the liberation of the Huon peninsula, further Allied advances on the north coast of New Guinea were blocked by the Japanese army in Wewak. What the Allies had done with Rabaul showed MacArthur what to do here; he would go around that army, instead of hitting it. This maneuver, called Operation Reckless, landed troops at three points west of Wewak on April 22, 1944: Aitape, Vanimo, and Hollandia. MacArthur fooled Adachi into thinking that the main landing would be at Hansa Bay, a point east of Wewak, so the real landings surprised the Japanese completely; all three towns were taken quickly. And we mentioned one of those towns previously in the podcast. Hollandia was just across the border in the Dutch half of New Guinea; in fact, it was the capital of Netherlands New Guinea. However, nowadays Hollandia has an Indonesian name, Jayapura. Whether you want to call it Hollandia or Jayapura, taking it ruined Japanese plans for defending western New Guinea. By combining airpower, seapower and manpower, MacArthur had made a larger step toward Tokyo than expected.

Podcast footnote: In the last episode we noted that in November 1942, MacArthur moved his headquarters from Australia to Port Moresby. At the end of April 1944, MacArthur would move his headquarters again, this time to the airfield at Hollandia. It stayed there until March 1945, when (spoiler alert!) he moved it to Manila in the Philippines. And because he had been trying to get back to Manila since the Japanese drove him away in 1941, once MacArthur had his office in the Philippine capital, he kept it there for the rest of the war. End footnote.


Trapped between an American army in the west and an Australian army in the east, General Adachi and the Japanese XVIII Army were left to starve in Wewak for the rest of the war. In July 1944 they tried to break out by recapturing Aitape, but the Americans drove them back easily. We have an account from one of the officers, First Lieutenant Toshiro Kuroki, who commanded the Third Company of the 20th Engineer Regiment attached to the 20th Division. He talked mainly about the hardship they suffered when the supply of rice ran out. Quote:

“Potatoes, potatoes! The battle in the Finschhafen area was full of potatoes. It would be impossible to live without potatoes. Since our arrival on November 11 we have had hardly any rice. We added a few potatoes to what rice we have had and continued the fight. We have an army, a division and an area army, with a commander-in-chief, a divisional commander, a chief of staff, a director of intelligence and what have you, but in the front line we have to contend with a rotten supply situation and live a dog’s life on potatoes.

You will not find many smiling faces among the men in the ranks in New Guinea. They are always hungry; every other word has something to do with eating. At the sight of potatoes their eyes gleam and their mouths water. The divisional commander and the staff officers do not seem to realize that the only way the men can drag out their lives from day to day is by this endless hunt for potatoes. How can they complain about slackness and expect miracles when most of our effort goes into looking for something to eat!”

End quote.

Being married to an Asian, I can understand the lieutenant missing the rice. My wife tells me it’s reason to panic when a Filipino house runs out of rice, and likewise she makes a big deal of it when we don’t have rice in our house; to her a lack of rice is a sure sign of poverty.

Whereas there had been 120,000 Japanese personnel stationed in eastern New Guinea in September 1943, only 13,500 of them survived with General Adachi to surrender at the end of the war.

The next move was a pair of landings 130 miles west of Hollandia on May 17, which took Sarmi on the coast and the adjacent island of Wakde. This is sometimes called the battle of Lone Tree Hill, because the hill where most of the fighting took place was incorrectly shown on American maps as having one tree on it. Then on May 27 came a landing on Biak, a small island near western New Guinea. MacArthur wanted Biak because it had good quality airstrips, and he thought this island had 4,000 defenders, but instead the Japanese had stationed 10,800, and instead of trying to stop the Americans on the island’s beaches, they tried to lure the Americans inland to ambush them there. As a result, the battle for Biak lasted longer than expected, and though MacArthur announced more than once that the island had been secured, the fighting did not end until August 17. 474 Americans were killed, and 2,428 were wounded. 6,100 Japanese were reported killed, and 450 were captured; the other 4,000 were missing, and presumed dead. Because this battle took so long, MacArthur landed 10,000 Americans at Noemfoor, a small island near Biak that also had airfields, on July 2. Here the Americans had an easier time of it; although fighting continued on Noemfoor until the end of August, by the end of July all three airfields were captured and two were being used.

By now the Americans were getting ready to return to the Philippines, and for that campaign they would need some bases closer than what they had now. They looked for a spot on the western end of New Guinea that would make a suitable bomber base, and chose Sansapor, on the far northwestern coast. Those of you who listened to the last episode will remember that I described New Guinea as being shaped like a giant bird, and the peninsula on the northwestern corner is nowadays called the Doberai peninsula, but is also nicknamed the Bird’s Head peninsula; the Dutch called it Vogelkop. Vogelkop, Doberai, Bird’s Head, that’s where Sansapor was, and landings on four beaches at the site took place on July 30. The landings were unopposed because there were no Japanese in the area. When some Japanese showed up in the middle of August, the Americans had no trouble dealing with them; at the end of August the fighting was over.

The last thing MacArthur did in the New Guinea campaign was move part of the American force from New Guinea to the islands of eastern Indonesia. Again, he was looking to establish an advance base within striking distance of the Philippines, and this time he chose Morotai, a small island in the northern Moluccas. Next to Morotai was a larger island, Halmahera, and it had a major garrison; the Japanese 32nd Infantry Division had been moved here earlier in 1944. By taking Morotai, MacArthur was also able to isolate this garrison. For that purpose, 57,000 troops landed at Morotai on September 15. The Japanese had less than 500 troops on Morotai; outnumbered by more than 100 to 1, and taken by surprise, they were unable to put up much resistance. The operation was declared completed on October 4, though a few surviving Japanese troops held out in the mountainous interior for the rest of the war. And in one extraordinary case, a Japanese soldier remained at large for almost thirty years after the war ended. Private Teruo Nakamura was discovered living on Morotai in a hut at the end of 1974, and was captured by personnel from the Indonesian Air Force; he was the last Japanese soldier to surrender anywhere.

There were more clashes between Japanese and Allied forces in northern and western New Guinea after this, going on all the way until the end of the war. We won’t be covering them here for the following reasons:

1. None of them were very large; they were really just skirmishes. And I know you’re all ready to move on to another subject.
2. They had no effect on the war anywhere else, since they involved Japanese soldiers in isolated pockets vs. Allied efforts to reduce those pockets.
3. The Allies won all of them at little cost.

In the end the struggle for New Guinea was one of the longest of World War II, lasting nearly three and a half years. It got the same treatment as Burma, for the same reasons: while neither side considered the huge island critically important, everybody felt they needed it to win the war. The Australians wanted it to defend their homeland, the Japanese wanted it to defend their Southeast Asian holdings, and the Americans (read: MacArthur) wanted it because it was on the way to the Philippines. For the New Guinea campaign, the Japanese committed 180,000 men, while the Allied commitment was five Australian divisions and six American divisions. During World War II an army division contained anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 troops, with 15,000 as the average, so this means there were approximately 75,000 Australians and 90,000 Americans active here. Of those approximately 16,850 Americans were killed, and the Australians had over 17,000 casualties. Since the American suffered around 400,000 killed for the entire war, this means about 4 percent of US casualties, or 1 in 25, happened on New Guinea. Australia wasn’t as involved in as many battles as the United States, so it lost 27,000 soldiers over the course of the war; this means a full two thirds of their casualties were on New Guinea. Because the Japanese were eventually defeated, they lost the most, with 123,000 killed.

MacArthur’s advance to an Indonesian island means we are not only done with New Guinea, we are also done with discussing battles on Southeast Asia’s periphery; the action has moved back into Southeast Asia itself. However, for the next episode we won’t talk about where MacArthur went next, which you probably guessed was the Philippines. Over on the other side of Southeast Asia, believe it or not, there WAS activity between late 1942 and 1944, so first we need to catch up on that. I’m talking about the Burma-India frontier, which I said in the past was unstable, because British, Japanese and Chinese units remained close enough together to make a rematch very likely. Join me in the next episode as we dive into the forgotten war in Burma, where we will also meet my favorite World War II hero. However, we’re not done with today’s episode yet; we’ve got one more item to mention before leaving New Guinea

A Few Words on the Cargo Cults

What I’m going to talk about here is unrelated to our Southeast Asia narrative. At best it’s a distant tangent. But the subject is so interesting that I’m sure some of you thought about it, when you heard we were talking about World War II in New Guinea, so I’ll end this episode by mentioning it.

One aspect of Melanesian culture that anthropologists love to discuss is the “cargo cults.” This term has been given to dozens of fringe religious movements that sprang up on the Melanesian islands, which not only include New Guinea but also the Solomon Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Because Melanesians are divided between these islands, and also into hundreds of tribes and languages, the cargo cult doctrines varied from place to place; where they agreed is that they saw the possessions of the white man, which they called “cargo,” as magical items. Cult members went on to teach that the gods intended black people to have this cargo, but white people intercepted the goods, so if they built replicas of the items the cargo came from — like dummy airplanes, landing strips and docks — cargo would be delivered to them, too.

The first cargo cults appeared in the late nineteenth century, the first time when outsiders could visit the Melanesian islands and not worry too much about getting killed by headhunters. But the strongest push for cargo cults came during World War II. When foreign nations fought over the islands of the southwest Pacific, war materiel was dropped from airplanes, or otherwise was left for the soldiers’ use. Natives were pleasantly surprised when the American servicemen treated them as equals and shared food with them; they had never gotten along this well with Europeans. They were also amazed to see that some of the Americans were black, and that black Americans were allowed to have the same equipment as their white companions. Then when the battles were over and the soldiers left Melanesia, they scuttled boats and threw guns and jeeps into the sea, instead of trying to take the equipment with them on ships or cargo planes — waste on a scale that only a national government can commit. On New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, especially Guadalcanal, much of the materiel left behind went into postwar building projects; you can see the World War II-era fences and Quonset huts that still stand on Guadalcanal. All of this was very strange to people who had been in the stone age just a few years earlier.

By now the natives had enjoyed the benefits from all the goods the foreigners brought, so after the war, cargo cult followers performed whatever rituals they thought would bring the goods again. Most of these movements have faded away, because it has now been three quarters of a century since the battles in the southwest Pacific ended, and the expected cargo never appeared to the cult followers.

However, there is one cult hanging on in Vanuatu. This cult venerates a black American soldier named John Frum, who probably never really existed. If he did exist, the soldier may have told the natives he was “John from Texas,” or something like that, and the natives forgot the place name. However it got started, the John Frum Movement was recognized as a legitimate religion in 1956, when Vanuatu was a colony called the New Hebrides, jointly ruled by the British and the French. On the island of Tanna, the natives believe John Frum is living in a nearby volcano, and every year on February 15, the natives stage a parade with American flags and fake rifles, and wear American-style uniforms with medals, in the hope that this year, John Frum will return to them. In modern Vanuatu, the cult even has its own political party, which is also called the John Frum Movement.

In Papua New Guinea, the natives also adopted one element of twentieth-century pop culture that may surprise you. One of the oldest costume-wearing super heroes is The Phantom; comics about him were first drawn by Lee Falk in 1936. This was two years before Superman, three years before the first Marvel super heroes (the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner), and this was five years before Batman. If you’re not familiar with the Phantom, it’s either because you are less than 40 years old, or because he does not belong to either Marvel or DC Comics. Therefore I don’t expect to see him join the Justice League, nor will he appear in the next Avengers movie.

Like Batman, the Phantom has no super powers, but relies on his fighting skills and his wits to defeat the bad guys. His main trick is spreading a rumor that he is “the man who cannot die,” and “the ghost who walks.” This isn’t really the case, but only his family knows that. The truth of the matter is that the Phantom’s identity has been handed down from father to son for twenty-one generations, and the previous twenty Phantoms are buried in the cave where the current one lives. American soldiers who fought on New Guinea during World War II shared some of the literature they liked to read with the natives, and that included Phantom comics.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the Phantom comic strip appeared in hundreds of newspapers. Two movies were made about the Phantom (in 1943 and 1996), and in the mid-1990s he starred in an animated TV show (Phantom 2040), but since then he has faded into obscurity. Presumably that is because the Phantom isn’t as exciting as the super heroes that have come down the pike more recently, like Black Panther. However, he has remained staggeringly popular in Papua New Guinea. Although the Phantom stories are set somewhere in Africa, an immortal warrior who fights only to protect his homeland is also an ideal role model for Papuans. Thus, the Phantom’s stories have been translated into Pidgin English, which most of the people in Papua New Guinea understand. Even today some New Guinea tribes make wooden shields – as art objects, not to wage war with their neighbors – and often they will paint the Phantom’s picture on them as a decoration.

Okay, so the cargo cults are an example of how the Melanesians have employed their knowledge of Western civilization; in return, what have we learned from the Melanesians? One answer is bungee jumping. The original bungee jumpers were the so-called land divers on Vanuatu’s Pentecost Island. Here boys jump from a wooden tower, sixty to a hundred feet high, as a rite of passage, and grown men do it to prove their courage; their only protective gear is a pair of elastic vines called lianas, tied around their ankles. No doubt this is one of the most amazing death-defying ceremonies performed anywhere, and as Western man will do, he has taken the religious element and some of the danger out of the ritual, and turned it into a sport. Indeed, I once heard the comedian Gallagher describe bungee jumping as, quote, “suicide without the commitment.” Unquote.

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