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« First flight to Tadji: The airstrip’ll be finished when you get there | Main | A wartime patrol through the New Guinea highlands »

25 April 2014


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The Yanks had a hard slog up the Solomons chain of islands since the battle for Guadalcanal ended in 1942. Although it was the 1st Marine Division (known as the Old Breed) that bore the brunt of the fighting the US Army took over when the Marines departed, to ready themselves for their next landing at Cape Gloucestor (pronounced 'Gloster') at the bottom tip of West New Britain, and then bloody Peleliu, near the Philippines in 1944, before moving on to the 'meatgrinder' of Okinawa in 1945.

So it was MacArthur's (South West Pacific force) men who fought their way up the Solomons, landed at Torokina on Bougainville's west coast (three Divisions of US Army gave the Japanese 'suicidal banzai frontal attacks' short shrift, later handed over to three Brigades of Australian troops who spent the rest of the war securing most of Bougainville Island.

The Japanese 'bridgehead' on Papua's north coast had been 'eliminated' by early 1943 and MacArthur's 'rag tag' force, including Australian troops, starved of amphibious vessels and engineering troops had made heavy work of moving west against the Japanese, pushing them out of Morobe and into the Madang Province as far as Saidor.

The Japanese forces were concentrated at Hansa Bay and MacArthur's boys were facing a very hard time. It thus came as a 'godsend', when MacArthur's Airforce boss, (Major General Brett) led him to believe that Manus (Los Negros Island actually) was almost deserted.

A base of operations on Manus would allow MacArthur to avoid the expensive in casualties and resources, hard slog along the New Guinea coast, fighting large numbers of Japanese and having to construct many airstrips and logistics bases. This would take a long time, given MacArthur's very limited troop, shipping and resources budget and he was in a hurry to "I shall return" to the Philippines which he had escaped from, under direct orders from the President,in early 1942.

Admiral Nimitz's well equipped 'Pacific Ocean' force of Marines, heavy Naval Units, including Aircraft Carriers, was busy heading for Japan by way of very bloody island hopping campaigns through the Gilberts (Tarawa), Carolines, Marianas (Saipan, Tinian) and Guam, and was heading for the Philippines. MacArthur was determined to get there before Nimitz, so the idea of leap-frogging Hansa Bay and Wewak on his way to Hollandia (Jaypura), Biak and Palau, by using a relatively cheaply acquired asset like Manus, was very attractive.

The Japanese Commander was being very cunning and he instructed his men to lie low during the day and not fire at any allied aircraft. There had been little activity in the area as the US Army's Air Force and RAAF dominated the skies.

He had concentrated his 4,500 troops in well prepared positions around Seeadler Harbour on Los Negros's north coast, which was the choicest landing area.

MacArthur sent his 'Alamo Force' of one battalion of the superb fighting US Cavalry, as a 'reconnaissance in force' into the lightly defended area near the abandoned Momote Airstrip.

After two days of heavy fighting, he then reinforced them. The Japanese by then had woken up to the fact that MacArthur had outsmarted him and pulled all of his troops away from Seeadler Harbour and set them out to move across the island to attack the US forces. The US Air Force made short work of them and the Cavalry eliminated what was left in a weeks heavy fighting.

MacArthur got his base, cheaply, (about 600 US soldiers died in the campaign), and was able to then move westwards and win his race to the Philippines.

He put troops ashore at Aitape and Hollandia simultaneously. General Adachi pulled off one of the most audacious feats in military history by moving 20,000 troops and their armaments, from Wewak down the coast to Aitape, largely undiscovered. They then attacked the Americans on the line of the Drinimore River and in a weeks furious fighting lost 10,000 of them killed, before withdrawing.

The Australians took over from the US forces and by August 1945 had driven the Japanese forces into the Wewak area, where they surrendered only when the Atomic bombs were dropped and the Japanese Emporer ordered his men to lay down their arms.

As Phil says, Manus became the base for over one million US servicemen and for a while was the biggest US base in the world.

It was used as a training base for troops moving forward to battle in other places, and was called 'the Reservation' by the troops who were deployed to round up and eliminate those Japanese who had escaped into the bush.

I lived on Manus Island in the 1950s when my father was in the Australian Navy.

I remember the Japanese war criminals well, because we would always be supplied with fresh vegetables by them.

None of the children fully understood, the what, where and why these men were there until we were much older, but as children, oblivious to all, we formed childhood friendships with those who spoke English.

When our time was up, and we were due to come back to Australia, my sister and I were given an array of departing gifts, some personal rice spoons, carved boxes and lamp bases in traditional Japanese design.

We still have them, and they are treasured not for the fact they were given by men who perpetrated some horrendous acts against humanity, but more because it was a moment in time in history.

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