Papua New Guinea

History of WW2

Japan entered World War 2 on 7 December 1941 with attacks on Pearl Harbour and the Malay Peninsula.  Its forces then swept southward through the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).  To secure those gains, Japan had to deny to the United States and its allies the operational bases offered by New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

The Japanese occupied Rabaul (which became their most important base) on New Britain, and Lae and Salamaua on mainland New Guinea.  A major Japanese force landed at Gona and Buna in July 1942 with orders to advance across the Owen Stanley Mountain Range, via the Kokoda Track, to take Port Moresby.  Within a week the strategically important village and airstrip at Kokoda were in Japanese hands.

Allied Commander General Douglas MacArthur set up a defensive front that extended through Merauke, Wau and Kokoda to Milne Bay, where an airstrip was hurriedly constructed, and a squadron of RAAF Kittyhawks established.  On 25 August the Japanese attacked Milne Bay, but in fierce fighting over several days the invading force of 2 800 Marines was repulsed by the Australians.  It was the first defeat of the Japanese on land and it sent a heartening signal to all Allied commanders.

The Japanese advance from Kokoda penetrated as far as the Imita Ridge, within 48 kilometres of Port Moresby, before the Allied offensive drove them back along the Kokoda Track, down their overstretched supply lines.  The Australians re-took Kokoda, and by the end of November the Japanese attempt to cross the Owen Stanleys had been utterly defeated.  During the four months of battle the four Australian brigades had lost 625 killed and 1 055 wounded.

American and Australian forces pursued the Japanese in the northern coastal areas until, by the end of January 1943, all enemy resistance in the Gona/Buna area had been broken.

The Japanese, having failed to reach Port Moresby by advancing over the Owen Stanley Range, reinforced Salamaua and made a rapid march on Wau and its strategic mountain airfield.  That thrust was repulsed by a force composed of Australians and New Guinea Volunteer Riflemen who drove the Japanese back towards the coast.

In February 1943, the Japanese commander at Rabaul moved to reinforce Lae by sea with some 7 000 troops.  However, the fleet of light transports and eight destroyers was detected and, in the ensuing Battle of the Bismarck Sea, destroyed by US and Australian air attacks.

By May 1943 the Allies' objectives were:

  • to continue the advance westward to Madang;
  • to seize the Markham Valley (which extends 608 kilometres westward from Lae); and
  • to secure the Huon Peninsula prior to a move eastward to the island of New Britain.

From June to August 1943, American and Australian forces engaged the Japanese at Salamaua, to the south of Lae.  In a co-ordinated offensive, Allied forces landed at Nadzab and fought their way down the Markham Valley.  Lae was captured on 16 September 1943 and two weeks later Finschhafen was also occupied.  The Japanese began a fighting retreat westward and by 15 December 1943 Japanese forces had ceded command of the Huon Peninsula to the Allies.

By 24 April 1944 the Allies had taken Madang and had driven the Japanese forces from the mainland of Australian New Guinea, except for a part west of the Sepik River.

Wewak, the last of the Japanese strongholds, was eventually captured on 11 May 1945.  After the fall of Wewak the Japanese again retreated westward and by June were totally defeated.

New Britain and Bougainville

In January 1942, Rabaul, the principal port and Allied base on the island of New Britain, was captured by the Japanese and about 800 Australian Service personnel and many civilians became Prisoners of War (POW).  In addition, Indian and British Prisoners of War were later moved to Rabaul from Hong Kong and Singapore.  By mid-1943 Rabaul had become the main Japanese base in the South Pacific - the centre from which their campaigns in New Guinea, the Solomons and surrounding waters, were directed.  It was therefore a prime target for attack by Allied air and naval forces.

The Allied offensive to retake New Britain began in earnest in October 1943.  Night attacks by Australian bombers continued until January 1944.

By March 1944 the American and Australian forces had made large gains in western New Britain and by November of that year the Japanese were concentrated around Rabaul and the northern extremity of the island.

Meanwhile, on Bougainville, Allied forces landed on the west coast and began a sweep southward and northward.  Although the Japanese forces on Bougainville were not defeated, they suffered very heavy losses and Bougainville was neutralised as a base from which to mount operations against the Allies.

Similarly, the Allies were content to isolate the Japanese forces in New Britain rather than retake Rabaul by military action.  At war's end, in August 1945, about 83 000 Japanese surrendered in the Rabaul area and the island of Bougainville was occupied by Australian forces.

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