Chapter 11: Taking Over at Aitape
THE Wewak campaign was fought in an elongated triangle of country bounded on the north by the sea, on the south by the Sepik River, and in the west more or less by a north-south line through Aitape. Round Aitape the swampy coastal plain extends inland for about eight miles before reaching the foothills of the Torricelli Mountains, but the plain narrows east of Aitape and thereafter the mountains reach down almost to the beach. North from the Torricellis a series of rivers flow rapidly to the sea, all of them subject to sudden flooding. To the south the streams run into the Sepik, a huge river navigable for some 300 miles by vessels drawing about 10 feet of water. Between these South-flowing streams lie a series of steep heavily-timbered ridges and spurs; round Maprik, however, they become slightly less rugged and there are wide areas of kunai grasslands.
Along the narrow coastal plain between the base of the mountains and the shore the tracks ran along the edge of the beach or a little distance inland, and the surface was often either loose sand or muddy quagmire. In heavy rain the rivers flooded swiftly and violently and swept down great pieces of driftwood which could break through low-level bridges. Only men on foot could move in the mountains rising abruptly on the southern flank. Often the tops of the spurs leading into these ranges were only a
few feet wide and offered a multitude of sites for defensive positions exceedingly difficult for infantry to attack or for artillery to range on to.
There were a few miles of motor road in the neighbourhood of Aitape and Wewak and a motor road between Marui and Maprik, which before the war had been an administrative centre and the site of an airfield. In the coastal area the population was sparse but the fertile hill country south of the Torricellis was fairly thickly populated, its many villages being connected by a network of foot tracks.
In this area in October 1944 was deployed the XVIII Japanese Army, greatly depleted after its defeat by the Australians in the long campaign in which it was driven westward from Lae and Salamaua in 1943 and early 1944, and by the repulse in July 1944 of its attack on the American garrison protecting the airfield and harbour of Aitape. The Australian Intelligence staffs believed in October that the XVIII Army had dwindled to about 30,000. (The true figure was about 35,000.) Lieut-General Adachi’s army headquarters were known to be some miles west of Wewak. About 2,000 base troops and infantry were believed to be on Kairiru and Muschu Islands. The 51st Division (Lieut-General Hidemitsu Nakano) was thought to be deployed in the coastal area from the Sepik to about Karawop; the 20th Division (Lieut-General Masutaro Nakai) about the But and Dagua airfields and inland to the Maprik area; the 41st Division (Lieut-General Goro Mano) forward of the Anumb River from the coast to Balif, where its headquarters were established. It was believed that some 3,000 base troops had been dispersed in small groups in the mountains east of the 20th Division’s area with instructions to live off the country.
Broadly speaking the 6th Australian Division considered that it faced three depleted Japanese divisions each reduced to about the strength of a reinforced brigade group. The Australians knew, however, that they themselves were far better equipped, particularly with heavy weapons. They were well fed, and had excellent medical services, and would have fairly strong air support and probably a moderate amount of naval support. The Japanese, on the other hand, were short of food, and many were sick. They had no air or naval forces and there was no hope of any arriving.
The 3rd Base Sub-Area, commanded by Lieut-Colonel J. T. Lang, was to provide a base for the 6th Division, and a reconnaissance party from this unit arrived at Aitape on 15th September. Transports carrying supplies and part of the unit arrived between 12th and 15th October, and when the 6th Division itself began to arrive the base was ready to serve them.1 Because of the shortage of ships and the means of unloading them – a shortage that would hamper the operations for months – the division could be only trickled into Aitape. Three months and a half elapsed between the arrival of the advanced party and the arrival of the last
fighting units. GHQ allocated ships piecemeal to the task. The first was the Gorgon, which left Brisbane with base troops on 4th October. Thereafter one ship arrived at Aitape on 19th October, two on 22nd October (with the 2/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment and others), one on 23rd October, one on 5th November, one on the 6th, one on the 11th, two on the 12th. By that time the 19th Brigade and a good part of the divisional troops had arrived. The whole 19th Brigade had arrived by 19th November, the 17th Brigade by 7th December and the 16th by 31st December.
The 6th Division – the senior formation of the AIF – had fought in Cyrenaica and Greece in 1940 and 1941 but since then had not been in action as a complete division. In the intervening three years and a half most of its units had seen much fighting both in the Middle East and New Guinea, but some had not been in battle since Crete in May 1941. Five of its battalions had fought in Crete; two, and the divisional cavalry, in Syria. For four months in 1942 the division had ceased to exist; part of it was in Ceylon, part in Australia, and its commander and staff were controlling Northern Territory Force. Its 16th Brigade fought in Papua in 1942 and its 17th Brigade in the Wau–Salamaua operations in 1943. The 19th Brigade spent many months as part of Northern Territory Force and had not yet fought against Japanese. The divisional commander, Major-General Stevens, and two of the infantry brigadiers – R. King of the 16th and Martin2 of the 19th – had not been in action in New Guinea. Stevens had led a brigade in the Syrian campaign; King a battalion in Cyrenaica, Greece and Syria; Martin a battalion at Giarabub and in Tobruk. The third brigade commander, M. J. Moten, however, had led his brigade during the long and exacting Wau–Salamaua operations of 1943.
In all battalions a substantial number and in some a majority of the officers and a small percentage of the other ranks had served in this division since 1939, and most of Stevens’ general and administrative staff were in that category. His GSO1, Lieut-Colonel J. A. Bishop, had served on a brigade staff in North Africa, Greece and Syria, and in 1943 had commanded the 2/27th Battalion in the Ramu Valley. Lieut-Colonel Murphy,3 his senior administrative officer, was a former regular soldier who had retired in 1923, joined the AIF as a lieutenant in 1940 and, in two years, had become a Lieut-colonel. He had served in the Middle East and had come to the 6th Division after twelve months as an instructor at the Senior Staff School.4
Air support was to be given by No. 71 Wing, RAAF, commanded by Wing Commander Cooper5 (but after 27th March by Group Captain Hancock6). It included Nos. 7, 8 and 100 Squadrons, equipped with Beauforts and had been operating in support of the American forces at Aitape. Tactical reconnaissance was to be performed by one flight of No. 4 Squadron with Boomerang and Wirraway aircraft.7 Support was also to be given by aircraft from the American Combat Replacement and Training Centre at Nadzab. Limited numbers of supply aircraft were allotted, as will be recorded later.
The instructions which General Blamey gave to General Sturdee in August have been mentioned earlier, with their indication that in all New Guinea areas the Australian garrisons would be more active than the American garrisons had been. In consequence General Sturdee on 18th October issued to General Stevens an operation instruction in which he defined the division’s role thus:
(a) To defend airfield and radar installations in the Aitape–Tadji area;
(b) To prevent movement westward of Japanese forces in the area and seize every opportunity for the destruction of these forces;
(c) To give maximum help to AIB and Angau units in the area in their tasks of gaining Intelligence, establishing patrol bases and protecting the native population.
These AIB and Angau units had been active in the Sepik–Aitape triangle since the time of the landing of American forces at Aitape in April 1944, and the 6th Division came into an area where, from the outset, practically all the deep patrolling had been done by groups of Australians.
In the Aitape area, prior to the arrival of the Division (said the report of the 6th Division), Angau long-range patrols operated without troop support and, for their own protection, inaugurated a type of guerilla warfare. Selected village natives called “sentries” were taught to use grenades and Japanese rifles. The sentries, besides furnishing Intelligence ... accounted for large numbers of enemy.
This system was continued. As each area was freed the sentries were rewarded and returned to their villages.
The plan for the relief of XI American Corps provided that the corps headquarters and a regiment of the 32nd Division should depart on 10th September, the 31st Division and the remainder of the 32nd on 10th October, and the 43rd Division and 112th Cavalry Regiment on 10th November. Actually the last American troops were not taken off until later than that.
As mentioned, the first Australian fighting unit to arrive at Aitape was the 2/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment (Lieut-Colonel Hennessy8)
and, pending the transfer of command to General Stevens, General Sturdee, with the concurrence of the American commander, instructed Hennessy to relieve the American outpost at Babiang and assist the Angau patrols farther forward. The 2/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment as a unit had not served in New Guinea before but contained many who had, having absorbed in a reorganisation one of the old Independent companies – the 2/7th, now the 2/7th Commando Squadron.
The 43rd American Division, which now formed the main part of the Aitape garrison, was maintaining standing patrols at Aiterap, Kamti and Palauru as well as Babiang. It had two companies forward of the Driniumor River and the remainder of the division either lightly manning the “main line of resistance” (or perimeter defences) or training. At this stage the AIB had patrols based at Mai Mai and Makru and there was an Angau patrol at the headwaters of the Harech River and another at Yapunda.
Little information was available to the division from American sources (wrote Stevens later) as the Americans had had no real contact with the enemy since ... July and August 1944. It appeared, however, that no organised Japanese force was in the coastal area west of Babiang. Inland and south of the Torricelli Mountains an Angau patrol had twice been driven out of Tong and there was clear evidence that a considerable enemy force was moving westwards. It was considered, therefore, that the enemy had moved a large proportion of his forces inland in order to gain control of the valuable food producing areas there. Several of the main
north-south tracks were evidently being used as lines of communication between their coastal and inland forces, the most westerly being the track Abau, Malin, Walum, Amam.9
With the object of supplementing his information about the enemy Stevens decided that from the outset there should be vigorous patrolling. Thus, on 27th October, the 2/10th Commando Squadron (Major Wray10) relieved a company of the 172nd American Regiment at the outpost at Babiang, at the mouth of the Dandriwad, and, with the help of natives, built a new camp. Thence patrols were carried out each day. On 1st November one of these, at Suain village 10 miles to the east, found 12 dead Japanese who appeared to have died of starvation. On 2nd November a new phase opened when a patrol of six officers and 30 others under Captain Short11 set out along the Old German Road – the road travelling along or near the shore to Wewak and originally formed during the German possession of this part of New Guinea – with the task of clearing the coastal area as far east as the Danmap River and establishing a base there. It discovered that throughout the area Japanese were moving about in small groups, sometimes unarmed. At Suain Plantation early on the 3rd three were surprised while cooking a meal and killed. A few minutes later two well-equipped Japanese were encountered and one was killed and one escaped. Beyond Suain village two Japanese, only one of them armed, were surrounded and captured. That day and the next other parties were seen; altogether the patrol saw about 40 Japanese, killed 11 for certain and probably 2 more, and had only one of its own men wounded. The fact that the Japanese were surprised at nearly every encounter suggested that they were outpost groups who had been wandering about the area unmolested for so long that they had become careless.
On 3rd November another ambitious patrol set out. It was guided by Captain Cole12 of Angau and included Captain Woodhouse13 of the commando squadron, seven other ranks of the squadron, and some native police, and its task was to examine the possibility of establishing a base with a dropping area and landing strip for light aircraft near Yasuar Mission at Tong, deep in the Torricellis. The patrol was in touch with native sentries posted about Kombio, Worn and Yambes and gained a good knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions; Yasuar Mission was suitable as a squadron base but the nearest area in which a landing ground could be made was found to be eight hours away.
On 10th November, after the patrol had been at Yasuar Mission for two days, natives reported that Japanese patrols were about, and on the morning of the 12th eight Japanese emerged from the jungle and began advancing on the mission where the Australians, forewarned, were manning their
weapon-pits. All eight were killed. The patrol then withdrew and was back at Babiang on the 14th.
Meanwhile between the 7th and 10th Captain Welsh’s14 troop of the. 2/10th Squadron set out with the task of destroying any enemy west of the Danmap area and in the mountain ridges above the German Road. Because the going was so difficult and the available carriers could not cope, the patrol concentrated on the coastal area where it killed four Japanese, including a captain, and captured a prisoner, weapons, and many documents, without loss to itself.
Such patrols continued. On the 10th a Japanese officer and a Chinese coolie surrendered to a small patrol. On the 15th a group of 32 under Short, probing towards Balup, engaged a Japanese party for 45 minutes, and drove it off killing 6 (but losing Trooper Le Brun,15 killed). On the 19th a patrol of 57 led by Lieutenant Mackinnon,16 inland from Luain, killed 10 Japanese, and captured three; and observed an air strike on the east side of the Danmap River.
Some of the Japanese killed or captured were in good condition but most were ill-nourished, and their main occupation seemed to be to find food; on the 20th a patrol found “positive evidence of cannibalism” in the foothills south of Suain. Some men were unarmed, and often they were living in twos and threes near sago swamps. The prisoners, who all belonged to the 41st Division, gave much information. The area as far east as the Anumb was occupied by the 237th Regiment then comprising two battalions each about 300 strong. The 238th and 239th Regiments in the Womisis area were each from 700 to 1,000 strong. Two prisoners said that some men were so hungry that they were eating human flesh, and one that he himself had done so. The 20th Division between the Anumb and But was about 7,000 strong and the 51st Division, farther east, with headquarters near Wewak, was probably stronger.
Throughout this period the 2/9th Commando Squadron (Captain Boyd17) had been manning the observation posts at Palauru, Kamti and Aiterap, where it had relieved a company of the 172nd American Regiment on 27th October, and maintaining frequent patrols from those posts southward over the Torricellis, but without meeting any Japanese. By 30th November the commando squadrons had killed 73 Japanese, found 12 dead, taken 7 prisoners; and had lost one man killed and one wounded. Meanwhile on 8th November General Stevens had opened his headquarters at Aitape. Already, under an arrangement with the outgoing American commander, he had issued general instructions to his brigades: the 19th was to relieve the regiment of the 43rd American Division on the Driniumor, the 17th was to relieve the units of the 43rd Division that
were manning the main line of resistance, and the 16th was to be in reserve. On 13th November General Sturdee’s instruction, quoted earlier, had been elaborated by one which required Stevens to conduct minor raids and patrols by land, sea and air “within the resources available”, with the object of gaining information on which to base plans for future operations and at the same time maintain an offensive spirit in the troops. The relief of the American force was completed on 26th November, and on that day Stevens assumed full command. Three days earlier he had sought approval to undertake two operations too large to be classed as “minor raids and patrols”: to cut the enemy’s line of communication through Malin–Walum–Womisis–Amam, and to destroy the enemy east of the Danmap River, D-day to be not before 31st December. These proposals were approved by Sturdee on 13th December, by which date the 19th and 17th Brigades had arrived at Aitape. In the background at this stage was always the consideration that it was possible that the division might be needed at short notice to reinforce I Australian Corps, and consequently it could not yet be committed to a major campaign in the Wewak area.
On 27th November General Stevens had issued “Operation Order 1”. In it he expressed the opinion that the enemy would defend the Danmap River area to prevent movement along the coast; and, inland, would use harassing patrols to control the Maprik–Tong area for gardening and foraging. The division’s tasks (as mentioned) were to protect the airfield and radar stations; to give maximum assistance to Angau and AIB patrols; and to prevent movement westward of the Japanese forces and seize every opportunity for the destruction of those forces. It was with this third task in view that Stevens had sought approval of an operation to cut the enemy’s line of communication from Malin to Amam. He ordered that the 19th Brigade, less most of the 2/11th Battalion, but plus two companies of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, the 53rd Field Battery and other units and detachments, would relieve the 2/6th Commando Regiment at Babiang by 2nd December and maintain contact on the Danmap River, establish a standing patrol at Afua, prevent enemy movement west of the Driniumor and protect the supply base at Yakamul.18 The 2/6th Commando Regiment would move the 2/7th Squadron to the Tong area, maintain a base there and gain control of the immediate vicinity, patrol southward and try to establish a forward base at Musu.
The 17th Brigade Group, while improving and maintaining the main line of resistance for local defence of Aitape and the Tadji strip, would, when sufficient troops were available, relieve the 2/9th Squadron, reinforce the Angau patrol at Yapunda, and be prepared to relieve the 2/7th Squadron at Tong, and patrol east to Musu, near Asiling.
In divisional reserve with the 16th Brigade, would be the 2/6th Commando Regiment less two squadrons, and “C” Squadron of the 2/4th Armoured Regiment.
The 2/7th Commando Squadron (Major A. L. Goode) had relieved the 2/10th at Babiang by 25th November and in accordance with the above orders had moved south. On 1st December Captain Fleming’s19 troop of the 2/7th marched from Nialu (where Cole maintained a base for collecting information from native agents) to Yasuar Mission (at Tong), the remainder of the 2/7th Squadron staying at Yakamul. That afternoon, when half the men were digging in and building huts and the others standing to, Japanese opened fire from the jungle, killing one man and wounding Fleming. In the next five hours a trooper was killed and a police boy wounded. Next morning the enemy had gone. Lieutenant Harrop,20 now in command, sent a request for reinforcement by the rest of the squadron. On the morning of the 4th Colonel Hennessy, Major Goode and eight others arrived at Tong; and Captain Byrne’s21 troop was on the way. Hennessy decided that Tong was tactically a sound position, the squadron headquarters were established there, and at midday the second troop arrived. Next day he ordered the squadron to clear the Kumbun–Yourang area, farther south, place a troop at Yourang, and patrol South-east. Kumbun was occupied unopposed on the 7th.
In the following days the squadron extended its area of control, establishing outposts at Yasile and Yambes. On 11th December an enemy patrol approached the perimeter held by Byrne’s troop at Yambes. The Australians held their fire until the Japanese were 35 to 50 yards away, killed 6 and, during the day, 2 more. There were patrol clashes that day and on the 13th. At 1.30 a.m. on the 15th an enemy force of at least 35 attacked. This time the Australians let the leading Japanese come to within three yards of the perimeter then fired with automatic weapons and threw grenades. After pressing the attack for a while the enemy withdrew, dragging away their wounded and about 10 dead.
On 12th December Stevens had issued an order that the 17th Brigade would, as forecast, relieve the 2/7th Squadron at Tong with not less than a company, and patrol south of the Torricellis west of a north-south line through Musu. From Tong it would patrol south to Mimbiok and Yanatong, South-east to Musimbe and establish a base, and then patrol east and establish a base at Musu. The 2/7th Squadron would move to a base at Makuir and reconnoitre a route via Chem to the Dandriwad River and Babiang, establish a forward base on the Danmap about five miles east of Makuir and carry out other reconnaissance.
Thus by the middle of December the commando regiment had probed forward in the coastal sector to the Danmap, over 40 miles from Aitape, and some 20 miles into the Torricellis without encountering very strong bodies of enemy troops. In addition the parties led by Angau officers were maintaining an Intelligence network farther afield in the Torricellis.
Not only had the forthcoming actions to be fought either along a coastal plain broken at intervals by rivers liable to flooding, or in inaccessible mountains, but the port was unsuited to the steady maintenance of a large force. By November the north-west monsoon was beginning and it would continue until April. The anchorage at Aitape offered practically no protection from the strong winds, and there was a heavy swell offshore and a surf that sometimes was 6 feet high. There were no jetties and all off-loading or loading had to be done with landing craft. Bulldozers and tractors had to be used to hold the larger landing craft on to the beach and prevent them from broaching. “The smaller landing craft could only dash in to the beach, take on a 2½-ton motor truck which was waiting with its engine switched on, back out to a ship, take on 2½ tons of stores, and then beach again momentarily to allow the motor truck to drive ashore. So a landing craft which was capable of carrying about 14 tons of stores could only be loaded each trip with 2½ tons!”22
In addition not only was the port equipped with fewer craft than would have been needed to achieve a swift exchange of garrisons, but priority was, rightly, given to the combat-loading of the American formations which were destined for Leyte.
While XIV American Corps was at Aitape it had control of 150 landing craft and in October was using each day 6 LCTs, 41 LCMs and 20 DUKWs. The initial planning for working the port at Aitape for the 6th Division provided for 6 LCTs, run by an Australian platoon, for handling normal maintenance cargo. But in fact a large force had to be embarked and another one disembarked. The American craft did much of this work, but as the American force departed the number of landing craft diminished. By 27th December 30,000 tons of cargo, 270 vehicles and 2,000 men were awaiting unloading in five transports lying off Aitape, and it was evident that if unloading could not be hastened supplies ashore would be exhausted in the first or second week of January. Sturdee sent a signal to Advanced LHQ to this effect, and Advanced LHQ to GHQ, which expressed concern but directed that priority must still be given to the forward movement of the Americans.
By 2nd February only seven days’ rations remained at Aitape. As a result of an appeal GHQ directed that priority be given to unloading a transport carrying Australian rations. On 3rd February a company of the 593rd American Boat and Shore Regiment arrived and unloading steadily improved until by April there was no undue delay in getting supplies ashore.