Geographical Notes

Map 1
Table of Distances from Cape Gloucester

The Pacific island group known as the Bismarck Archipelago stretches across a sea-land area bounded approximately by the parallels 1°-8° south latitude, 146°-154° east longitude, describing a rough ellipse to embrace a body of water aptly called the Bismarck Sea during the war. The Solomons1 lie to the southeast, beginning about 100 miles away; New Guinea to the south and southwest, at the nearest point less than 50 miles distant across Vitiaz Strait.

The islands range in size from very large to very small, how small depending on one's definition of what constitutes an island; in nature from extremely rugged terrain of volcanic origin, to low, flat coral atolls. The two largest, New Britain and New Ireland, comprise the arc of the ellipse reaching southeast to northeast. The St. Matthias Group (notably Massau, Emirau) bound the archipelago on the extreme north; the Admiralty Islands (Manus, Los Negros) on the northwest.

In this region hot, humid climate produces that type of jungle known as "rain forest,"2 characteristic of larger land masses of the Pacific tropics: giant trees towering up to 200 feet into the sky above dense undergrowth lashed together by savage vines as thick as a man's arm and many times as tough, in the coastal area interspersed with occasional patches of kunai grass sometimes higher than a man's head, and hip-deep swamps. Decay lies everywhere just under the exotic lushness, emitting an indescribable odor unforgettable to anyone who has lived with it. Insect life flourishes prodigiously: disease-bearing mosquitoes and ticks, spiders the size of dinner plates, wasps three inches long, scorpions, centipedes. Vertebrate animals occur in less variety, the only dangerous creatures indigenous to the region being alligators and giant snakes of the constrictor species.

For all practical purposes, there are only two seasons: wet and less wet. Dates of occurrence vary in different parts of the


same island owing to the interposition of high mountains. In that portion of New Britain where the action of this narrative is centered, the northwest monsoon arrived in mid-December and lasted through most of March, a factor destined to have an important bearing on the operation under discussion.

Largest of the Bismarcks, New Britain is a rugged, volcanic island: roughly crescent-shaped, 370 miles long, with an average width of 40 to 50 miles. Viewed on a map beside neighboring New Guinea, world's second largest island, it does not appear especially impressive; yet, aside from that enormous subcontinent, it was by far the largest land mass on which U.S. troops fought in the Pacific short of Luzon and Mindanao. Its surface area exceeds that of all the Solomons combined. The total area of the Gilberts, Marshalls, Marianas, Palaus, Iwo Jima and Okinawa would occupy only a small portion of that region of New Britain where the 1st Marine Division operated during the early months of 1944.3

Historical Summary

Densely jungled, with a spine of seemingly impassable mountains, New Britain was one of the many Pacific islands which no European power bothered to claim for three centuries following its discovery. In the memories of the men who fought there, American, Australian, and Japanese, it will remain one of the evil spots of this world. Nearly everybody had malaria, dysentery or fungus infection, often all three simultaneously; dengue fever and scrub typhus occurred, and among the Japanese beri-beri and scurvy as well. Volcanoes and earthquakes featured the local scene. Twenty Marines were killed by falling trees and at least three by lightning. A corporal found a nine-foot python in his foxhole during an air raid, and an Army officer had his arm chewed off by an alligator. Nine inches of rain fell in a single night, causing one stream to shift its course 200 yards, washing out two regimental CP's and depositing an eel in the commanding general's spare field shoes.

But this is getting a bit ahead of history.

New Britain first achieved some measure of international importance in 1880 when Germany, belatedly empire-conscious, moved in and took over. Actually, this island constituted only one item in a sizeable land grab that included the rest of the Bismarck Archipelago, northeastern New Guinea and the northern Solomons. In 1910, after several other places had proved unsatisfactory, the Germans carefully planned and built the pleasant town of Rabaul, situated on splendid Simpson Harbor at New Britain's northeastern tip, to serve as administrative capital for the entire territory.4

This encroachment of a vigorous European power greatly worried the nearby Australians, who had themselves recently taken possession of southeastern New Guinea (Papua) in an effort to forestall such a move. Thus, with the outbreak of World War I, they lost no time in seizing the German territory, which was subsequently granted to them under a League of Nations Mandate. These changes in sovereignty explain the widespread occurrence of both German and English as well as native place names throughout the entire region, a situation not simplified by the penchant of the Japanese for superimposing their own nomenclature on all three when their turn came to take over.5

The Germans made some efforts to exploit New Britain commercially, but the Australians, hampered by limited means, did little with their new acquisition, such possibilities as it had seeming overshadowed by the rapid growth of gold mining in the New Guinea territory they had acquired at the same time. As a result, except for Rabaul


Map 2
Bismarck Archipelago

and the territory immediately adjacent, civilizing development at the outbreak of World War II consisted only of a few scattered missions and plantations, the most notable being in the Talasea and Gasmata regions, nearly opposite each other on the north and south coasts respectively, about two-thirds of the distance from Rabaul to Cape Gloucester, the island's northwestern tip. And Rabaul itself was in a decline. The town had been severely damaged by volcanic eruption in 1939 and again in 1941, and the territorial government was in the process of displacing to Lae, on New Guinea, at the time the Japanese arrived.

The Japanese seized Rabaul by amphibious assault on 23 January 1942. The Australian garrison put up as game a fight as the circumstances permitted, but the Japanese had big plans for the place and came for it in overwhelming strength. The defenders' handful of obsolete fighter planes was quickly destroyed by carrier-based aircraft. On the ground the Japanese soon put to rout an understrength battalion, reinforced by a few local volunteers, driving into the jungle those men not killed or captured.6 The women and children, fortunately, had been evacuated beforehand, and those of the men who managed to survive the jungle were subsequently rescued at great hazard by a group of those colorful gentry known as coastwatchers.7 Prominent among these was G. H. R. ("Roddy") Marsland, a young plantation operator in the Talasea region, of whom more will be heard in the course of this narrative.

With the thoroughness of which they were capable on occasion, the Japanese converted Rabaul into their most formidable advance base. During its flourishing phases the place boasted five8 airfields, a fine fleet anchorage, and the fanciest brothel9 east of the Netherlands Indies. How many troops passed through at one time or another is a matter for speculation, but with Rabaul's surrender at the end of the war nearly 100,000 were found in garrison there.

Japanese Offensive Operations

The Japanese staged their invasions of both the Solomons and New Guinea from Rabaul. Because these operations caused that base to become the principal focal point of Allied strategic thinking during the first two years of the war, they will bear a brief review.

In the Solomons, the Japanese moved southward unopposed with the object of cutting the supply route between the United States and Australia, constructing airfields as they went. They announced the occupation of Buka and Bougainville on 10 March 1942, and moved on into the Southern Solomons. On 4 May they seized Tulagi, the British Solomon Islands territorial capital, and shortly thereafter sent men and airfield materials into Guadalcanal. There destiny caught up with them, however, on that memorable 7 August when U.S. Marines struck back10 in the first step of the Allied offensive against Rabaul, and thenceforth the tide began slowly to turn.

In New Guinea the picture was somewhat more complicated. The Japanese seized Lae and Salamaua on 8 March, and two days later landed at Finschhafen to gain control of the entire Huon Peninsula. In July they moved east into Papua, setting up a base


TARGET: RABAUL. This bastion of the Japanese southeastern defenses was contained at a distance in 1943, but still presented a potent threat to Allied operations. (AF Photo)

in the Buna-Gona area for a drive southward over the Owen Stanley Mountains to Port Moresby,11 the territorial capital of Papua, arriving within 40 miles of that place by mid-September. A secondary offensive with the same objective began on 26 August with a Japanese landing at Milne Bay, indenting the island's southeastern tip.

As subsequently disclosed, Japanese plans at this time did not contemplate an immediate invasion of Australia proper.12 But with enemy air pounding Port Darwin from the conquered Netherlands Indies, enemy submarines shelling Sydney and Newcastle, and enemy ground troops in New Guinea perched virtually on the Commonwealth's northern doorstep, the Australians had just cause for alarm. The bulk of their small regular Army (the AIF: Australian Imperial Forces) had been committed elsewhere. One division had been lost at Singapore, and frantic efforts were made to obtain the quick return of two others fighting with the British in North Africa.

However, the tide was beginning to turn in New Guinea as well as in the Solomons. Those Japanese who had crossed the Owen Stanleys found their position untenable because of the difficult supply route over the mountains, and were either wiped out or driven back by Australians and hurriedly committed U.S. Army troops. Veterans of


Map 3
New Britain Island

the AIF, newly returned from Africa, annihilated the Milne Bay force four days after its landing. Australians and Americans labored over the mountains in their turn and, with amphibious and air-borne reinforcements, attacked the enemy north coast bases in one of the most bitter jungle campaigns of the war. Gona fell to the former on 10 December, Buna to the latter on the 14th. Capture of Sanananda on 20 January 1943, completed rectification of the situation in Papua, setting the Japanese back where they had been slightly less than a year earlier.

Target: Rabaul

Throughout the operations described, Japanese aircraft, warships and transports had poured from Rabaul, to bring aid and comfort to their own people and misery to their enemies. Whether this sore spot could be captured short of a prohibitive cost was a question which troubled the cogitations of Allied strategists. Whether it could be effectively neutralized under any circumstances was yet another matter. Only one point was wholly clear: to accomplish either, the Allies would have to fight their way within practicable attacking distance of the place, and the year 1943 was devoted primarily to this grueling work.

All through the spring and summer U.S. troops based on captured Guadalcanal slugged their way stubbornly through the Central Solomons, exacting heavy toll of Japanese sea and air strength in the process. The long jump northward to Bougainville on 1 November resulted in seizure of a usable portion of that big island. Airfields constructed there placed Allied planes only 210 miles from the critical target. Now attrition could begin in earnest.

Meanwhile, over on New Guinea, establishment of vast supply bases and airdromes along the northern Papuan coast and adjacent islands forecast the pattern of events to come. Of key importance was the drome at Dobadura, near Buna, from which flew bombers capable of striking both Rabaul and the newer enemy bases which had sprung up farther west along New Guinea's northern shore: notably Madang, Wewak and Hollandia. Milne Bay, Goodenough Island and Oro Bay became major Allied staging areas. Farther offshore U.S. troops seized Woodlark and Kiriwina Islands to intercept Japanese flights coming down from Rabaul.13

Australian and U.S. ground troops resumed the westward movement early in July, recapturing Salamaua on 10 September and Lae six days later. On 3 October they took Finschhafen and set about consolidating their hold on the Huon Peninsula. But here, of necessity, forward movement paused until something could be done about the western end of New Britain, now squarely on the flank of the advance, across 50-mile Vitiaz Strait.

Thus, the last month of 1943 found Rabaul surrounded at a distance on the east, south and southwest, coming under increasingly heavy air attack; in a situation approaching a state of siege, but neither knocked out nor cut off from support, and still presenting a very potent threat to further Allied operations.

The Japanese on New Britain

So long as everything continued to go their way, the interest of the Japanese in western New Britain was mainly negative in character: to deny its use to those enemies attempting to close in on Rabaul, a matter of no great concern while the New Guinea fighting remained as far away as the Buna-Gona area. However, early in March, an event occurred which necessitated some rapid reevaluation on their part: the plane versus


THIS SMOKING JAPANESE SHIP was one of the casualties in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, March 1943. (AF Photo)

ship action known to history as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

Following heavy naval losses in the Solomons and construction of strong Allied air bases in northern Papua, Japan's control over adjacent waters began to slip. Early in 1943 the commanders at Rabaul were faced with a momentous problem. They had gathered at that place a mobile force of about 50,000 fully equipped troops in hopes of retrieving their sagging fortunes. Only by that time their fortunes were sagging in two separate places, both of which could not be supported effectively even if means could be found for conveying the troops there. With great reluctance the decision was made to withdraw from Guadalcanal in favor of reinforcing the effort in New Guinea.

At the end of February the high command at Rabaul embarked approximately 6,900 of these personnel14 in a convoy of eight transports escorted by eight destroyers, and started them for Lae via the northern coast of New Britain. From that point onward, so far as the Japanese were concerned, the operation was characterized by bad judgment, bad management and bad luck: a combination hard to beat as a formula for disaster.

The concentration of shipping in Simpson Harbor had not failed to attract the interest of Allied aircraft, but the Japanese relied on a heavy weather front to provide concealment and 200 fighter planes to furnish such air cover as might prove necessary. Unfortunately for them, a U.S. B-24 chanced to break through the overcast on the afternoon of 1 March: spotted the convoy and tailed it until darkness, long enough to estimate its strength, course and speed. Then during the night the weather front perversely drifted off to eastward, with the result that a reconnaissance plane of the U.S. Fifth Air Force found the convoy in the clear next morning, about 30 miles north of Cape Gloucester.

At once all Allied aircraft based in northern Papua and even far away Port Moresby converged on the target. The promised Japanese air cover of 200 fighters turned up in the form of 40 ZEROES, low on gas and wholly inadequate to cope with the attackers' strength, which the Japanese had grossly underestimated from the start. This attack sank one large transport and seriously damaged two others. Two destroyers picked up about 950 survivors from the sunken vessel, sped them to Lae and returned next morning in time to be in on the receiving end of the kill.

That day (3 March) finished it. By the time PT boats arrived to mop up floating survivors under cover of darkness, all eight transports and four of the destroyers had


THE BISMARCK SEA BATTLE was disastrous for the Japanese in the New Guinea-New Britain area. Here Fifth Air Force bombs bracket a transport. (AF Photo)

been sunk, and the remaining destroyers were in full flight northward.15

This disaster brought home dramatically to the Japanese the futility of risking large vessels within effective range of Allied air power, and never again did they do so. Yet Rabaul remained no less responsible for support of the forces operating in New Guinea east of Madang, so clearly some other means must be devised for carrying out this vital function. The one that came readiest to mind, already practiced with considerable success in the Solomons, was employment in quantity of craft capable of hiding out during the day, evading hostile planes by traveling only under cover of darkness: military landing barges, fishing boats and a type of small transport which the Japanese liked to call a "sea truck," roughly comparable in size to the U.S. LCI.

Making this method feasible entailed development of a series of small staging and hide-out points along the full length of New Britain's shores, and this the Japanese promptly set about doing. On the north coast from Cape Hoskins westward (see Map 4) the principal ones became Gavuvu, Talasea, Bulu-Daba, Garove Island (off-lying spatulate Willaumez Peninsula), Iboki, Karai-ai, Kokopo, Natamo and Cape Gloucester; then around the western tip of the island


Map 4
Western New Britain
Japanese Boat Staging Bases and Airfields
December 1943


to Sag Sag and Aisega, and thence across Dampier Strait to the southern tip of Rooke (Umboi) Island. Main stop-overs on the longer, more vulnerable south coast route were Gasmata, Arawe and Cape Bushing. The importance and volume achieved by this traffic are indicated by tonnage tables subsequently captured and by the commanding general's order, dated 6 May 1943, directing that the "Tsurubu16 [Japanese name for Cape Gloucester region] Sea Transport Base" be strengthened to serve as supply base for "all Area Army forces in the Lae Area."17

To facilitate communications and mutual support, existing trails connecting these various staging points were reconnoitered, both along the shores and inland through mountains and jungle from coast to coast.18 Engineers and labor details improved them as practicable and in a few instances built new ones. Auxiliary airfields were either constructed or improved at Cape Hoskins, Talasea, and Gasmata, and a bomber strip was completed at Cape Gloucester to supplement the commercial landing strip already in existence there.19

These activities brought the Japanese increasingly into contact with the New Britain natives, with results unfortunate to both parties.

These more or less typical Melanesians were an easy-going people who preferred to lead their own lives unless guided into something demonstrably better. The Australians had proved tolerant overlords on the whole, furnishing agreeable employment for a few on plantations and in the native constabulary, and leaving the others pretty much alone. Such treatment failed to imbue them with any very passionate craving for "liberation" by people whose skin was as alien to their own in color as that of white men, and from the outset their enthusiasm for the sublime ideals of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was something less than fervid. Perforce, they accepted occupation as a fait accompli and waited watchfully to see what might be in it for them.

By the middle of 1943 defeats elsewhere had tempered somewhat that arrogance which had made the conduct of Japanese conquerors so reprehensible during the days when they still cherished the superman complex. Foresighted officers made earnest efforts to win the Melanesians' friendship. They set up conciliation groups to arbitrate differences and enforce disciplinary measures applying to violations of the natives' rights, especially the plundering of their gardens where, characteristically, they cultivated only enough for their own immediate needs and any serious loss meant destitution.

This policy worked out to the extent that many natives supplied the invaders with more or less willing labor, and several instances were recorded of village chiefs freely presenting gifts of delicacies (pigs, chickens, fruit) to individual Japanese friends. But it could not stand the strain imposed by deterioration of the supply system in western New Britain under the mounting fury of Allied air attack along the barge route. Hungry fighting men, Japanese or other, do not tend to be overzealous of the rights of weaker civilians, and as the food shortage developed forcible seizure became the rule, highlighted by occasional murders and rapes. Terrified Melanesians fled to the hills en mass where, as Japanese disintegration set in, their fear and hatred grew into overt hostility.

Japanese garrisons at the barge staging points were small to begin with, mainly


shipping engineers to service the transport craft and handle supplies as necessary, plus a few medical personnel to care for troops en route. Later, as the situation in New Guinea became more threatening with the Allies' westward push, key points were greatly strengthened. Thus, by the beginning of December, 1943, as the stage was being set for the forthcoming drama, the Japanese had upward of 10,000 troops in the vulnerable area bounded on the east by a line drawn from Iboki on the north to Arawe on the south.

Who these were and how disposed will be treated in detail in Chapter IV.


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (Foreword) * Next Chapter (2)


1. Buka and Bougainville, northernmost of the Solomons, had been politically, if not geographically, a part of the Bismarcks for several decades.

2. "Rain forest" is a very general term and in this case misused. By strict botanical definition, the jungle prevailing in New Britain's coastal areas is "swamp forest." (Capt. L. T. Burcham, comments on preliminary draft, hereinafter cited as Burcham.) However, since most sources on which this work is based refer to it as "rain forest," this term will be used in the interest of consistency. See Appendix II for further description of New Britain vegetation.

3. R. W. Robson, The Pacific Islands Handbook, 1944 (New York, 1944), 238. Except as otherwise noted, material dealing with times prior to and immediately following the Japanese invasion is drawn from this source.

4. Ibid., 251.

5. See Appendix III.

6. Missionaries and Rabaul's sizable Chinese population were interned in concentration camps, as were many of the less docile natives. (The Allied Campaign Against Rabaul, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, hereinafter cited as USSBS, 115).

7. Eric A. Feldt, The Coastwatchers (New York, 1946). Australia is noted as a nation of rugged individualists, but the Coastwatchers stood out on this count even among Australians. They must take rank among the bravest and most devoted men to serve in any war.

8. Only four were operational. The fifth, graded but not surfaced, was eventually abandoned owing to drainage difficulties. (USSBS, 12.)

9. 500-600 Japanese and Korean inmates provided "entertainment" for both officers and enlisted men. (Ibid., 35.)

10. Maj. John L. Zimmerman, The Guadalcanal Campaign, monograph prepared by Historical Division, USMC.

11. This operation followed a previous over-water attempt which was thwarted at Battle of the Coral Sea, 4-8 May 1942.

12. USSBS, 5.

13. Also as a coordinated step in the over-all plan for closing in on Rabaul (Operation CARTWHEEL). These islands were seized simultaneously with U.S. offensive landings in the Central Solomons. (Maj. John N. Rentz, Marines in the Central Solomons, monograph in course of preparation by Historical Branch, USMC.)

14. Components of Japanese Eighteenth Army, commanded by LtGen Hatazo Adachi. The latter survived the ensuing massacre, to give U.S. ground troops their largest battle during the entire Western New Guinea campaign: at Aitape in July 1944.

15. This account derives from Samuel E. Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier (Boston, 1950), 54-65, supported by Craven and Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. IV (Chicago, 1950; hereinafter cited as AAF in WW II), 146-150, both of which draw on Japanese as well as U.S. sources. AAF reports at the time listed 22 vessels destroyed, or six more than composed the entire convoy. These figures were made "official" in Gen MacArthur's communique, and the fiction was perpetuated by Gen George C. Kenney in his book General Kenney Reports (New York, 1949). Conflicting estimates of air and personnel losses are omitted here as not pertinent to the aspects of the action affecting this narrative.

16. Evidently Japanese pronunciation of "Taluvu," the Australian administrative district.

17. Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, Southwest Pacific Area, Preliminary Examination of Documents, Bulletin No. 757. Item 1. This source hereinafter cited ATIS, followed by bulletin no. and item no.

18. Interior New Britain had been sketchily explored, to put it mildly. Except for near its extremities, the island had been crossed by only one organized expedition during all the Australian occupation: at a point about midway of its length. The Pacific, Islands Handbook, 1944, 238.

19. Another prewar emergency landing strip existed at Arawe, but it was in such bad condition that the Japanese did not attempt making it serviceable. Nevertheless, it was destined to play an odd part during operations in that region. (See Ch. IX.)

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