Eastward to Talasea1
By the end of February there remained no doubt that the original mission of the 1st Marine Division, securing western New Britain, had been accomplished. But the original BACKHANDER plan had visualized a drive eastward to Talasea and this, combined with pursuit of enemy forces fleeing to the sanctuary of Cape Hoskins and Rabaul, remained to be accomplished. As previously discussed, a series of leapfrog maneuvers had carried the 5th Marines 60 miles east from Cape Gloucester in pursuit of Matsuda's tattered remnants. Now based at Iboki Plantation, the regiment was vigorously patrolling southward and eastward, with not too satisfactory results.
Sixty miles beyond Iboki, 120 miles from Cape Gloucester, the Willaumez Peninsula juts 25 miles northward from New Britain like a crooked finger.2 In 1944 it contained four coconut plantations and three times that many mountain peaks. In addition, there was a German mission at Bitokara and an airdrome of sorts at Talasea. Its possession by the division would provide a clear boundary marking the extent of the advance on New Britain, but from a more practical view escape routes from all western New Britain to Cape Hoskins seemed to funnel through the base of the peninsula. By taking a giant stride across water from Iboki to Talasea, the Marines hoped to be in a position to plug the funnel before all the retreating Japanese could get through. No one was much surprised, therefore, when on 1 March division issued an operation order which directed the 5th Marines to seize and occupy Talasea and patrol southward to extensive Numundo Plantation, located at the eastern junction of the peninsula and the mainland.
On that same date the 5th had welcomed on board a new commanding officer, Colonel Oliver P. Smith, newly joined to the division, who had served briefly as chief of staff. In a command and staff switch, Colonel Smith and Colonel Selden had swapped jobs. In as the new regimental commander's executive officer was Lieutenant Colonel Henry W. Buse, Jr., whose 3d Battalion, 7th Marines had successfuly assaulted Hill 660.
Plans called for the reinforced regiment, designated Combat Team A, to land at a point about midway on the west coast of the
Willaumez Peninsula north of Volupai, labeled Beach RED. This was the narrowest part of the peninsula and was recommended by Flight Lieutenant G. H. Rodney Marshland, RAAF, who had operated Santa Monica Plantation just south of Talasea prior to the coming of the Japanese in 1942.
The chosen zone of operations was about as good a one as the Marines could have found. It presented them with a short, comparatively flat route to their objective which might make possible utilization of tanks. A dirt track approximately four miles long connected Beach RED with Bitokara, and although it was not designed for motor transport the Marines could hope.
Beach RED contained about as much depth as had Beaches YELLOW 1 and YELLOW 2 in the Gloucester landings, but was more confined on its flanks. Its 350 yards of sand nestled between a cliff on the right and a swamp on the left. The cliff constituted the northwestern slope of Little Mt. Worri, a mass rising 1,360 feet above the beach and enfolding the native villages of Liapo to the south and Volupai on the west. Overlooking this smaller mountain from the south was Big Mt. Worri, higher by 300 feet and with a more encompassing base. Included in its ridge line was Mt. Schleuther, on the peninsula's eastern coast which dominated Bitokara, Talasea and the Waru villages from an altitude of 1,130 feet.
Four hundred yards inland from Beach RED was Volupai Plantation, containing a collection of small buildings and groves of coconut palms and cacao trees. Volupai track, linking Beach RED with Bitokara, skirted the northern bases of the several mountains. The country, except for the plantations and villages, was typical of New Britain: overgrown jungle and underbrush.
Sea and air control in the New Britain area had passed so completely into Allied hands that it was decided to transport the assault forces from Iboki to Volupai in a convoy of 38 LCM's, 17 LCVP's and five LCT's3 with only five PT boats as escorts.4 The LCT's belonged to the Navy, while the other craft were handled by the Army's 533d Engineer Boat Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Amory, Jr.
D-Day and H-Hour were set for 6 March and 0800 respectively. The 1st Battalion, 1st Marines was brought up from Cape Gloucester to Iboki to act as division reserve for the operation, no one being too certain how the Japanese would react to an assault so close to Cape Hoskins. Division estimated about 4,000 enemy troops in the Talasea-Cape Hoskins5 area, roughly the strength of the reinforced 5th Marines, which could be augmented by another 1,000 in the Rein Bay-Arawe area, 1,500 remnants of the Matsuda forces, and 3,500 from the naval garrison at Gasmata. Thus the assaulting Marines could face a potential force of 10,000 Japanese. Looking at it realistically, however, it was believed that whatever enemy forces were in the Talasea-Cape Hoskins area were concentrated at the latter location and these would probably not exceed one battalion.6
Task organization for the operation included:
2d Bn, 11th Marines
Company A, 1st Battalion, 17th Marines
Company F, 2d Battalion, 17th Marines
Battery B, 1st Special Weapons Battalion
1st Platoon, Battery A, 1st Special Weapons Battalion
1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Tank Battalion (plus four Medium Tanks)
Company A, 1st Medical Battalion
Company B, 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion (less two tractors)
1st Platoon, Company B, 1st Motor Transport Battalion (less one section)
2d Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (MP's)
LCM'S AND LCT'S loading at Iboki for the Volupai landing.
Detachment Ordnance Company, 1st Service Battalion
Detachment Graves Registration Section, 1st Service Battalion
3d Air Liaison Party
Boat Battalion, 533d Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment (less Companies B & C)
Detachment Company C, 592d Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment
Detachment Company F, 533d Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment
Medical Detachment, 533d Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment
Company A, 563d Engineer Boat Maintenance Battalion (less one platoon)
Provisional Division LCT(5) Flotilla 8 TF-76
Shortly after midnight in the early hours of 3 March PT boats put ashore an amphibious patrol consisting of Australian Lieutenant Marsland, Lieutenant Bradbeer of the D-2 Section, and two native scouts just north of Cape Bastian on the western side of the Willaumez Peninsula. Two earlier efforts had aborted: the first because of enemy troops spotted in the proposed landing area, the second because of bad weather.7
The patrol's mission was to contact friendly natives in order to gain some indication of enemy dispositions and strength. Stationing themselves at the village of Bagum, the two white men learned that there were an estimated 24 Japanese at Kambili, 15 between Waru and Kumeraki, 39 between Waru and Giri, 20 with one machine gun at
Waru Village No. 2, 20 with a machine gun on Little Mt. Worri's northwest slope. And so it went. Obviously the area was still in enemy hands, but it seemed evident that he would not make a serious fight to retain it. A survey of the trail net indicated the tracks were primarily for pedestrians, but were in good shape for them. At 2230 that night a PT boat picked up the men and took them to Iboki where they imparted the information they had gleaned.
The 5th Marines, meanwhile, utilized the few days to test fire weapons, sample a new ration labeled 10-in-1, and watch trials of the proposed naval gunfire support for the landing. This novel method consisted of securely lashing and blocking four medium tanks into as many LCM's so that fire could be delivered over either gunwale.8 The Iboki tests were satisfactory and were fully justified later in the operation, as will be described.
Assault elements of Combat Team A began loading at 1300, 5 March, for the overnight run to Willaumez.9 They consisted of 1/5, 2/5, one section Regimental Weapons Company 37mm guns, forward echelon H&S Company, forward echelon A Medical Company, Batteries E and D of 11th Marines, detachment of Company A, 1st Tank Battalion, and the Air Liaison Party. Five LVT's were loaded into each of the five LCT's to carry the first wave of the assault troops over the coral reefs. This was something of an experiment itself and was later listed as an accomplishment of the operation. The force duly embarked and with its escort of PT boats departed for the objective at 2200.
D-Day at Beach RED
On 13 January Lieutenant General Yasushi Sakai, commander of the 17th Division, IJA, had assigned the defense of Talasea to the 1st Battalion, 54th Infantry, commanded by Captain Kiyamatsu Terunuma.10 The defenders, known variously as the Talasea Garrison Unit and the Terunuma Detachment, were reinforced by the 9th Battery, 23d Field Artillery.11 Captain Terunuma received explicit orders to hold the ground around Volupai and withdraw only on division order.
Apparently having reason to believe that the Marines would attempt to land at Beach RED, the defenders constructed an intricate communications net between Talasea and Volupai, placed some mines on the beach, constructed defenses of a sort, sighted in 90mm mortars--and then inexplicably did not attempt to defend the beach as they could have done very well under the circumstances.12
The shoestring convoy assembled off previously described Volupai beach as dawn broke on D-Day, with everyone accounted for except two key boats. One contained the Air Liaison Party; the other Major Gordon D. Gayle, commanding officer of 2/5, and Lieutenant Colonel Noah P. Wood, Jr., commanding officer of 2/11, with the artillery reconnaissance and communication parties. Several of the craft had lost contact during the night13 and by sheer chance Major Gayle's boat encountered the ALP craft broken down and adrift. Although it caused him considerable delay, Gayle agreed to give the LCM a tow to Beach RED.
In its orders to Combat Team A for the Talasea operation, division had set forth an elaborate plan for air support. One squadron of fighters from the Fifth Air Force was to appear over the convoy at first light14 and remain to protect it until the boats were unloaded. Two flights were to fly over Beach RED, for interception and protection. Two additional flights were to cover the withdrawal of the boats to Iboki where the craft were to pick up the remainder of Combat Team A. The air support was to bomb and strafe Beach RED, smoke Volupai Point and the northwest point of the beach, strafe the inland trail and road net, and bomb Talasea airdrome and installations.15
But there was no signs of any part of this support16 as the boats wallowed in the water of the rendezvous area, their intentions obvious to anyone who might see them from peninsula. Colonel Smith realized that the longer his force waited off its landing beach in broad daylight, the longer the Japanese would have to prepare a welcome. Therefore, 25 minutes past H-Hour the combat team commander ordered in the assault wave.
As the LVT's carrying Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Barba's 1st Battalion, roared across the coral reefs to Beach RED, one lone plane appeared. But it was hardly an indication of the expected air support. Captain Theodore A. Petras, aide and pilot to Major General Rupertus, had been ordered to fly Brigadier General David A. D. Ogden, commanding general of the Army's 3d Engineer Special Brigade, over to watch the amphibious operation.17 Airborne in a Piper Cub, Captain Petras' sole armament consisted of 30 hand grenades, and these were sent tumbling down to Japanese positions, actual or otherwise, with unobserved effect. The enemy later complained, however, that they had been heavily bombed during the landing operations.18
The LCM-tank gunboats hove to close inshore and raked the beach with machine guns. Japanese reaction was swift, if not sure. Some sniper fire was observed and 90mm mortar shells began splashing in the water,19 but Companies A and B drove on shoreward and within 10 minutes after crossing the line of departure about 500 Marines had landed.20 The Marsland-Bradbeer patrol had reported a machine-gun bunker on the northwest slope of Little Mt. Worri, but it was found to be empty by a reinforced rifle platoon dispatched from the 1st Battalion to eliminate it.21
The two assault companies pushed forward to establish a beachhead line through which the 2d Battalion could pass and continue the attack in the direction of Bitokara Mission. Company A accomplished this with relatively little difficulty on the right, but on
A MEDIUM TANK is supplied with 75mm shells at Volupai Plantation.
the left there existed a virtually impassable swamp, running north and south and extending to the edge of the Volupai track. As a result, Company B had to pass through a slot between Little Mt. Worri and the swamp in order to accomplish its mission, encountering and eliminating an enemy pocket of resistance before establishing its lines 200 yards inland.22
Meanwhile the reinforced platoon patrol that had gone after the bunker on Little Mt. Worri had run into difficulty. The retreating enemy joined other of their fellows and hastily manned defensive positions which had been prepared in the Volupai coconut grove. The platoon accounted for about a dozen of the Emperor's troops, losing one Marine killed and another wounded in the process. Finding he could not advance against the Japanese all-around defensive positions, the patrol leader requested assistance but was instructed to hold what he had until the 2d Battalion arrived on the scene.
Landing the 2d Battalion, temporarily commanded by its executive officer, Major C. R. Baker, was not as easily nor as quickly accomplished as with the 1st Battalion. It was a simple matter to cross the line of departure on schedule, but it was something else to get into the beach in an LCM. Coral reefs permitted the boats to move in only a single column along a route described as two
sides of a triangle. Another impediment was that, once landed, all gear had to be manhandled. At 0930 2/5 began coming in, but because of the tortuous boat route to the beach, elements were still landing when Major Gayle's landing craft arrived on the scene with the ALP boat in tow, at 1230.
Although the 1st Battalion had not yet achieved its first objective--the edge of the plantation area--Company E's advance guard began moving through the 1st Battalion's lines astride the Volupai Plantation track at 1100. However, this forward motion was brought to an abrupt halt 200 yards farther on where the Japanese had dug positions commanding the narrow trail. As Company E attempted to attack outside the plantation track, a medium tank commanded by Lieutenant John M. Scarborough moved up the trail to the company's assistance and knocked out a heavy machine-gun position.23 But suddenly two Japanese, one on each side of the trail and each armed with a magnetic mine,24 leaped out of the brush. The defending Marine infantry killed one before he could reach the tank, but the other succeeded in affixing the mine to the port side of the turret. The blast that followed killed the Japanese and the Marine who was trying to stop him, as well as jamming the turret so that it could not be operated and stunning the tank crew within. Simultaneously the rear of the turret was pierced by a missile, presumably an anti-tank grenade, which made a hole about three quarters of an inch in diameter.25
Accompanied by two other medium tanks and supported by the 81mm mortars of the 1st Battalion, Company E launched a cautious attack against the Japanese entrenchment in the southwest corner of the plantation, gaining spirit and momentum from the tanks' assistance.26 By one of those occasional strokes of fortune that crop up in war, an enemy officer killed here had on his person a detailed map of Japanese positions in the Talasea-Bitokara-Waru area, and by equally good fortune it was turned over to intelligence personnel instead of being thrust into someone's pocket as a souvenir.27 This map, after being translated by R-2, greatly simplified planning of the regiment's next moves.
Meanwhile, with the assistance of the medium tanks, Company E began moving toward the coconut grove with increasing momentum, despite having lost its company commander shortly before. Enemy entrenchments occupied only by a few dead Japanese were passed a short distance within the plantation. Despite only fragmentary resistance, Major Gayle became concerned about his flanks and dispatched Company G on a swing to the right with orders to meet Company E on the far side of the plantation area.
As the advancing elements pushed their way through the coconut trees, rear echelon personnel on Beach RED were suffering heavier casualties than the assault units. All during the day the Japanese lobbed 90mm mortar shells on to the beach,28 shells landing capriciously and inevitably taking their toll in the crowded, constricted area.29 Among
the early victims was Lieutenant Commander Richard M. Forsythe, regimental surgeon, who continued working with the wounded until he was evacuated.30 The heaviest casualties that day were recorded in the 11th Marines and among medical company personnel. Both groups had to remain on the beach, there being no other place to go.
At 1500 five P-39's from the Fifth Air Force made their belated appearance over hotly contested Volupai Plantation, but although four of the planes were carrying 500-pound bombs, they did not tarry. Later they reported that they had been unable to locate the Marines and therefore had proceeded on to Cape Hoskins to drop their loads.31
As D-Day drew to a close, Colonel Smith concluded that his combat team was being opposed merely by a delaying action. Enemy troops, which had numbered 527 officers and men two days earlier, were well-fed and well-equipped and putting up a fight. But it was not the sort of fight they gave when attempting to destroy the Marines. Thus it would appear that the Japanese were trying to cover the escape route to Cape Hoskins, whether for a definite or indefinite period could not be known. To make this time as short as possible was the job of the 5th Marines.
The combat team dug in where it stood as night approached, the 1st Battalion continuing to maintain the beachhead line. Advance elements of the 2d Battalion set up an all-around defense within the coconut grove, while the rear battalion CP joined with Company F, battalion reserve, in a perimeter defense at the abandoned enemy entrenchments on the edge of the plantation. Batteries E and D of the 11th Marines had registered their guns late that afternoon and kept up a harassing fire just beyond the coconut grove during the night. After a day's fighting the companies required a resupply of rations and ammunition. This
MACHINE GUN AMMUNITION CARRIERS accompanied by a corpsman move along toward the Talasea airstrip.
was effected at night, as at Cape Gloucester, by utilizing the LVT's over the muddy trail.32
At the end of the first day the Marines had penetrated approximately 2,000 yards inland from the beach and killed 35 Japanese, including three officers. The deadly 90mm mortars, however, had given the regiment casualties out of proportion to its opposition and its gains. More than half of these were incurred on the beach, and the figures for the day represented more than half the total casualties the combat team would suffer between 6 March and its departure on 25 April: 13 killed and 71 wounded, nine of the fatalities and 29 of the wounded in the 11th Marines alone. At 1830 an LCM loaded with 50 wounded departed Beach RED for Iboki, and the 5th requested more litters from division.33
Bitokara, Talasea and Waru
At 0200 on 7 March a handful of enemy sought to infiltrate the lines of Company E, and the resulting flurry of rifle fire and grenades wounded two Marines. That
A JAPANESE 90MM MORTAR position near Talasea. The mortar tube is not shown.
marked the only enemy activity between dusk and daylight, and it was considered of such a minor nature that Colonel Smith radioed division that his forces had experienced no counterattack during the night.
Although the 2d Battalion was receiving light fire when it halted to dig in for the night, nothing happened as daylight of D-plus 1 revealed the Marine positions. A patrol sent forward to seek out the Japanese quickly returned, reporting the enemy dug in about 50 yards to the front. But Company E moved in to investigate only to discover that once again the Japanese had abandoned prepared positions. The area contained a 90mm mortar emplacement, complete with weapon and ammunition, but Marines could see that artillery shells had burst within five feet of it, possibly accounting for the absence of the crew.34
Surmising that the enemy would make a stand at a small stream bisecting the trail beyond the clearing, Major Gayle sent Company G on a sweep to the right, aimed at enveloping the Japanese flank. But at 1100 Company E crossed the stream without incident and Company G was recalled. This peaceful interlude did not last long, however, for at 1145 the advance guard met resistance from enemy lodged in the northwest slope of Mt. Schleuther, and a brisk fire fight developed. The clash at this point was no accident. Headquarters, 17th Division, IJA, had directed Captain Terunuma to concentrate his forces in the vicinity of Talasea,35 and, quite logically, he had dug in on the 1,130-foot height that dominated the Bitokara-Talasea track and all connecting trails. There, 54th Infantry elements brought the 2d Battalion's morning walk to a halt.
The Marines built up their fire, but soon it became evident that the Japanese were attempting to turn the battalion's right. Artillery and mortar support were requested, and Company F was sent up the 45 degree slope with all speed to extend the threatened flank and seize the high ground.
Within the next few minutes there occurred one of those breathless bits of action that so often determine the ultimate outcome of a larger battle. As Company F's advance platoon climbed to the dominant hill crest, it found that the Japanese had the same objective, and a fire fight developed that drove the enemy over the reverse slope. But Company F's right flank was now in danger and a platoon from Company H was pushed forward to protect it. These new arrivals spotted a group of five Japanese digging a machine-gun position on the western crest, the gun lying nearby. Firing as they ran, the Marines killed all five of the enemy and turned the machine-gun around to bear on its former owners.36 The 2d Battalion had taken the initiative and now had the advantage. By the time the Japanese
realized they had lost their positions, they had also lost 40 men plus the machine gun.
Combat Team A's progress on D-plus 1 could be measured principally by the progress of the 2d Battalion. Colonel Smith's plans called for his reserve 3d Battalion to make an overnight run from Iboki in order to arrive early on D-plus 1 and thereby free 1/5 from the beachhead line, that unit proceeding to Liapo and thence to Waru where the main Japanese force was thought to be. But back at Iboki loading plans went awry when General Rupertus, who was on the scene, directed Lieutenant Colonel Harold O. Deakin, commander of 3/5, not to depart prior to dawn.37 The battalion did not arrive at Volupai until 1500, therefore, and began the relief of the 1st Battalion at that time.
When it had become evident that the reserve battalion would be delayed, a reinforced company from the 1st Battalion was sent toward Liapo. But the trail from Volupai faded out, and the patrol, operating on an azimuth, did not reach the objective before dark.
The 2d Battalion dug in for the night of D-plus 1 on the slopes of Mt. Schleuther and the Volupai track, effecting an all-around defense and firing its mortars from time to time in the direction of the enemy, also dug in on the mountain. Japanese activity was confined to the front of Company F and apparently consisted of a banzai attack that somehow missed fire. The chatter and movements of the congregated enemy bore all the earmarks of a build up, but no charge developed.
As dawn broke over the Willaumez Peninsula, Company F readied itself for a resumption of the fight. A mortar barrage was laid down in front38 of the company and a 37mm gun was manhandled up the steep hill to assist in the advance, but these efforts proved anticlimatic. A patrol investigating the enemy positions of the night before found only 12 dead Japanese, 11 of them as a result of Marine fire and the twelfth a victim of harakiri.
While preparations were underway to continue the fight on the hill, a scout platoon was sent 500 yards down the track to a trail junction at Bitokara. It returned shortly to report the enemy entrenched there, backed up by at last one mountain gun. The entire battalion, less Company F, was sent forward, the latter unit proceeding over Mt. Schleuther's foothills, and the two forces converging on the Japanese entrenchments. It was a familiar story--abandoned positions, but evidence of recent occupation. No opposition had been reported by 1340 when Company G announced itself established on the eastern side of Bitokara,39 and the remainder of the battalion moved into the mission area to set up a perimeter defense.
The morning of 8 March on Beach RED found the 1st Battalion moving out east of Little Mt. Worri in the direction of Liapo, its patrol the previous afternoon having skirted the western edge of the hill mass. Companies A and B moved southward on separate tracks, a native guide clad in Japanese clothing leading the latter organization. The terrain was difficult, the underbrush heavy, and Company A's advance guard mistook the guide for an enemy soldier. In the shooting that followed, one man was killed and several wounded, including the unfortunate native.40
Locating an East-West trail about one-half mile from Liapo, Colonel Barba sent a patrol to the village to get another guide and to join forces with the group that had moved out the preceding day. This done, the battalion began its push to the next objective over rough terrain. Waru consisted of four native villages forming a rough square and
THE BOOBYTRAPPED Japanese 75mm mountain gun that was inadvertently tripped by a Marine. (Army Photo.)
situated on Mt. Schleuther's ridge line about 2,000 yards due west of Talasea and dominating it. The battalion found the going too difficult, however, and set up an all-around defense perimeter for the night just short of its goal.
Back at Bitokara Major Gayle awaited two scouting groups sent to determine enemy positions on Mt. Schleuther and to feel out any forces at Talasea. The former reported that the Japanese were well dug in on a nearby peak, and at 1500 a task force consisting of Company E and reinforcing elements began the ascent. A request for artillery fire on Scheuther brought several rounds dangerously close to the 2/5 CP,41 and the battalion's 81mm mortars promptly took over the support missions. As the task force approached the enemy positions, however, it ran into concentrated fire from machine guns and small arms, backed up by a 90mm mortar and a 75mm field piece. The Marines fought back for an hour and sustained 18 casualties before they were ordered withdrawn to the mission.
The second scouting party had returned from Talasea, meanwhile, to report no indications of enemy. Company F was dispatched hurriedly to the airdrome and in less than an hour reported possession of it. While the remainder of the battalion effected a perimeter defense at Bitokara Company F maintained a lonely vigil at the airstrip through the night.42
Action during the night was largely confined to artillery and mortar duels with Japanese participation gradually slackening and
finally ceasing altogether. Upon Company E's retirement to Bitokara, the enemy sighted their 75mm gun on the mission where the 81mm mortars had set up near the battalion command post. Gayle retaliated by getting effective artillery support, which, abetted by mortar fire, harassed the enemy area throughout the night.43
Companies G, B, and C launched a coordinated attack at 0800, 9 March, following artillery and mortar concentrations on the enemy areas. Company G was assigned the mission of clambering to the top of Mt. Schleuther, while the other two companies struck directly at the four villages. This hefty punch hit only empty air. The Marines found the 90mm mortar, the 75mm field piece,44 one dead Japanese and two stragglers who reported that their main body had withdrawn on 7 March, leaving a rear guard of about 100 men who, in turn, had departed toward Bola the preceding night.45
For reasons best known to the Japanese, the 17th Division had chosen this providential time to issue its withdrawal order to the Terunuma Detachment, that unit complying rapidly and in good order.46 Companies G and C made contact at 1028, and the
TALASEA ROADS were not designed for medium tanks.
Waru area was declared free of the enemy at 1300.47
While primary attention focused on Waru during the morning, the 2d Battalion sent a patrol to Talasea to contact Company F and determine if the enemy had attempted to move in there under the cover of night. At 0935 it came back with a negative report, and another patrol was readied to investigate the island of Garua, lying about 1,000 yards east of Talasea. Proceeding in two LVT's, the patrol landed at 1147, made a thorough search of the island and returned to Bitokara at 1520 to report Garua deserted but in good police.
On the afternoon of 9 March Colonel Smith moved his regimental command post to Bitokara.48 He directed the 1st Battalion to consolidate defenses around Waru; the 2d Battalion to assume responsibility for the airdrome and Talasea; Company K to establish the defense of the regimental CP, and the 3d Battalion, less Company K, to maintain the beachhead line at Beach RED. This done, he informed division that Talasea was secure and that his forces would concentrate on mopping up and patrolling Willaumez Peninsula.
The Volupai track had proved no better than other New Britain roads under damp conditions, and a 10-ton wrecker was requested from division to extricate three medium tanks from the mire. Company F, 17th Marines, assisted by Company F, 533d Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, assumed the task of improving the cross-peninsula trail so supplies and equipment at Beach RED could be transported to the eastern coast, completing the job on 12 March.
From 6 March the four-day campaign had cost the Marines 17 killed and 114 wounded, while an estimated 150 Japanese met death. Securing of Talasea gave the division possession of the airdrome, a questionable prize to be sure.49 More definitely on the credit side, occupation of this area put the Marines in a position to sit squarely athwart the Japanese route to Cape Hoskins and points east. Further, Colonel Smith pointed out to division that an advanced PT boat base located here could throttle enemy barge traffic between Hoskins and Rabaul and force the Japanese to withdraw to the Gazelle Peninsula, a move they had already under way as events proved. But to take full advantage of its new position the regiment must dispatch patrols southward on the heels of the withdrawing Japanese. And this it did.
The Navy at Willaumez
The composite navy of Marines working with Army LCM's and Navy LCT's had its own brushes with the enemy during the Willaumez campaign and came off as victoriously as its compatriots on the ground.
On 9 March with Bitokara and Talasea secured, Colonel Smith ordered the landing craft carrying ammunition and provisions to his combat team from Iboki to proceed around the northern tip of the peninsula and land their cargoes at Talasea Point instead of braving the reefs at Beach RED. As the convoy rounded the peninsula's tip and started down the eastern shore, its crews sighted a group of enemy barges.
The report subsequently dispatched to the Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet by the Commander of LCT Group 23 best describes what happened:
At Bulu-Murli on the tip of Willaumez four enemy barges were observed on the beach, poorly camouflaged. The Commander, LCT Group 23, detached
SHORE PARTY OPERATIONS at the Talasea jetty. (Army Photo.)
LCT 397 and set course sufficiently to starboard to pass within 1,000 yards of the beach, then turned slightly to port to allow all guns to bear from the starboard quarter, and expended one magazine from all guns (two 20mm, three .50, two .30 cal.) on targets. Machine gun fire was returned weakly, but no hits scored on 397. One enemy barge was observed to ground on ringing coral reef. No barges were observed actually destroyed, but the Chief of Staff of the First Marine Division later credited 397 with one barge destroyed in this incident.50
On the same afternoon two LCM-tank gunboats also scored a hit on the enemy's barge activities.51 The substitute combat vessels spotted a lone Japanese barge near Cape Hollmann at the northern tip of Willaumez and one of them proceded to give battle, firing 18 rounds of 37mm HE. The enemy craft made for the shore where about 20 of the Emperor's troops were seen to depart their vessel hurriedly. The second tank had joined the action by this time, firing 310 rounds of .30-calibre machine gun, but the Japanese apparently made good their escape.
Three days later natives from Bulu-Daba on the west coast of Willaumez made their way to the 5th Marine CP and reported that
THE ROADS TO TALASEA were muddy, too. (Army Photo.)
on the night of 6 March the Japanese had fled their village in 5 barges and headed east. The villagers reported that the barge attacked by the LCM-tank gunboat was not one of these five barges but was from the Witu Islands.
Although the 1st Division considered the shore-to-shore operation from Iboki to Talasea a success, the Navy displayed a notable lack of enthusiasm. True, the LCT officers and crews were commended for their actions, but the authorities complained that the Marines commandeered three of the five LCT's without authority. The Commander of LCT Flotillas, 7th Amphibious Force, declared that the craft were required to run continuously over an extended period which put four of them out of commission for a week; that they had no proper navigational escort, were without communications and did not possess compasses sufficiently reliable to justify their employment over such an extended stretch of water. He credited pure luck with the fact that none was lost. The Commander of Task Force 76 stated that the Commander, Seventh Amphibious Force, had not been advised of the operation during the planning stage and if he had been forewarned could have furnished additional ships, craft and naval gunfire support.
The Navy might pull its chin and growl, but the operation had come off successfuly without any loss to the precious naval craft.
The Fifth Mops Up
Starting on the morning of 10 March and continuing until 25 April, the 5th Marines' three infantry battalions patrolled north, south and southeast. They encountered no large bodies of enemy troops, nor did they expect to.52 It was literally the mopping-up
Patrols of the Fifth Marines
10 March-25 April 1944
of Japanese stragglers from western New Britain.53 The 47-day period cost the regiment three men killed and eight wounded, while the 5th's patrols accounted for 151 Japanese dead and 68 prisoners.54
With the Talasea area secured, Colonel Smith reached the conclusion that the enemy was withdrawing as rapidly as possible to Cape Hoskins. He thereupon acted to complete the unfilled portion of his orders from division: patrol to Numundo Plantation. A reconnaissance patrol on 10 March found enemy positions at Bola and Santa Monica Plantation evacuated, but came upon entrenched enemy at Garilli. On 11 March Captain Andrew Haldane's Company K left Bitokara with orders to proceed to Numundo on a three-day patrol, a time estimate that was to prove too optimistic.
Company K reached Garilli to find it empty of enemy, but just north of Patanga encountered Japanese small-arms, automatic-weapons and mortar fire. For four days the Marine patrol made slow progress, fighting an enemy who made a stand in the heavy vegetation approximately every 200 yards and then withdrew effectively before the advance guard flankers could close in. On the evening of 16 March the company entered Kilu where the Japanese made their final stand. While the two forces battled, a Marine landing craft appeared offshore and as it approached the beach the enemy diverted what apparently was a 75mm field gun from the ground action to the "naval force". In the boat was Lieutenant Colonel Deakin who had obtained permission from Colonel Smith to transport a section of 81mm mortars to Captain Haldane's assistance. Although the Japanese bracketed the craft, they failed to hit it and the weapons were landed without casualties.55 Shortly after the heavy mortars began lobbing shells toward the enemy, the Japanese broke contact and the Marines reached Numundo 48 hours later without finding the Terunuma Detachment again.56
Captain Terunuma had executed an able withdrawal and had accomplished his mission: to hold up the Marine advance south of Talasea long enough to permit the organized residue of the Matsuda and Komori forces to pass through to Hoskins.57 This done, he broke contact with the Marines and made good his own escape. His delaying action had cost him eight dead, while Company K lost one officer killed and seven men wounded.
While Company K made its way toward Numundo, activity continued in the Talasea area. On 12 March the 3d Battalion, less the detached company, moved to Bitokara mission from Beach RED and provided an honor guard for the flag raising ceremony. Colonel Smith and Lieutenant Colonel Buse raised the colors, the same one which had flown over Cape Gloucester,58 which made the victory official. Later that day, the Talasea airdrome having been sufficiently cleared, Major
General Rupertus stepped from his Piper cub to the division's latest real estate acquisition.
Defense lines around the area were prepared and strengthened, and patrols thrown out to Wongankai, Pangalu, Kumeraki, Volupai and Liapo. The 1st Battalion set up an ambush at Garu59 which was productive of enemy dead and prisoners for awhile. Company I replaced Company K at Numundo and in turn was replaced on 25 March by the 2d Battalion. Inasmuch as the enemy continued to straggle eastward singly and in small groups with little or no communications, patrols were kept busy returning over and over again to the same villages and plantations in hopes of catching unwary Japanese. Such hopes frequently paid off.
It was not all patrolling, however. After Cape Gloucester, Bitokara-Talasea seemed a garden spot. The buildings of a German Mission, with an extensive lawn, flowers and fruit trees, occupied a high hill overlooking Garua Harbor, with a native village nearby. Talasea consisted of a coconut grove, a jetty and a collection of buildings, all damaged to a greater or lesser extent. Natives, with a skill openly admired by the Marines, constructed a thatched chapel there for the use of all faiths, as well as several large shelters for the regimental quartermaster. As a measure of reciprocity, Company A, 1st Medical Battalion, established a clinic for the
BITOKARA MISSION after the flag had been raised. (Army Photo.)
COLONEL SMITH welcomed General Rupertus and Captain Petras to the Talasea airstrip three days after it was secured.
natives, utilizing captured Japanese medical supplies to treat their ills.
Hot water springs abounding in the area provided the men with hot baths, in most cases their first since leaving Australia. Garua Harbor offered swimming and fishing facilities, with rubber boats available to those who liked these recreations. True, some rain still fell to remind the troops that they were still in New Britain, but the end of the monsoon brought a great deal of sunshine as well. Schools and training were instituted for those not preoccupied with patrolling. With what amounted to contempt for enemy capabilities, movies were held nightly without fear of blackouts. Relaxation came as a welcome change after months in the jungles.
On 26 March a PT boat base was established at Talasea, which greatly increased the range and effectiveness of the deadly little craft. One day later, however, there occurred one of those tragic errors of mistaken identification, for friendly aircraft strafed and bombed two PT boats operating from the new Willaumez base off Bialli Plantation. Torpedoes and gasoline exploded, partially destroying the boats, killing five men and wounding 18.60 Fortunately, such mistakes did not happen often.
At this time the Australians also took advantage of the advanced base to establish a radio control station at Bitokara for their
MARINES WASH AWAY the mud and grime after battle.
system of coastwatchers61 who continued to operate in the enemy-held sections of the island.
On 30 March the 2d Battalion moved southeast from Numundo to San Remo Plantation, described by one Marine as "a very pleasant place."62 From that point patrols probed westward to the Kulu River and eastward into the Cape Hoskins area as far as Buluma.
Patrolling the various escape routes continued to be the primary occupation of the Marines, but on 13 April they undertook a slightly more ambitious project. One group's completion of a course at the newly-created Division Amphibious Scout School coincided with a headquarters inspiration to send a patrol to Cape Hoskins to study possible landing beaches and the airdrome, and to estimate enemy strength in the area.63 Aerial reconnaissance had indicated no Japanese in the region, and a plan was bandied about the division CP to land the 5th Marines on the cape in order to claim the airdrome before relief by the Army.64 Assignment of the mission as a "graduation exercise" directed that the 2d Battalion's Lieutenant Richard R. Breen and Australian Lieutenant Marsland lead the 16-man patrol, while Major H. J. Adams, now Assistant D-2, and Lieutenant Bradbeer, scout school director, stand by in LCM's.65
Picking up a platoon from the 2d Battalion at San Remo, the patrol embarked in two LCM's provided by the Army's 533d Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment and dropped the platoon about eight miles west of the objective to guard a trail junction from Gasmata. With two natives, the "graduates" then landed about 5,000 yards west of the
airdrome66 and proceeded overland toward it.67
The group ran into a mortar and machine-gun ambush after covering about 2,000 yards, however, and withdrew without casualties, to learn later that the Japanese used scout dogs in an effort to trail its withdrawal.68 Nothing further was heard of the proposal to land on Cape Hoskins, presumably because of the opposition encountered by the patrol, as well as the unexpected early relief by the Army.
The gradual eastward movement as represented by the 2d Battalion's patrols to Buluma and the attempted reconnaissance of Cape Hoskins gave rise to rumors that the 1st Division was eventually going to take Rabaul. Such reports formerly had some basis of truth, but now were entirely without foundation as the Joint Chiefs of Staff had decided long since to by-pass that citadel in favor of isolating it.69
1. Coded APPEASE. Except as otherwise cited, this chapter derives from the following basic documentary sources: 1st MarDiv SAR, APPEASE; 5th Marines Unit Report; 2d Battalion, 5th Marines Record of Events.
2. McMillan, op. cit., 220 describes the peninsula as resembling the silhouette of a lusciously curved woman.
3. The Navy took a dim view of this shore-to-shore operation insofar as the LCT's were concerned, as will be described subsequently.
4. Ltr LtCol Robert Amory, Jr., Mass. NG, to CMC, 25Mar52, hereinafter cited as Amory.
5. As previously noted, headquarters Japanese 17th Div was at Gavuvu on Cape Hoskins.
6. 5th Mar Opn Or 17-44, 2.
7. D-2 RofE, 28Feb44 and 1Mar44.
8. Tests were also run on half-tracks which proved satisfactory. It was felt, however, that once ashore tanks would be of more value than half-tracks, so only tanks were taken along on the landing operation. 1st MarDiv SAR, APPEASE, 4.
9. This task force of Army LCM's and Navy LCT's supporting a Marine amphibious assault had the unique distinction of an Army lieutenant colonel (Amory) in tactical command of all craft. This was one of the few times in World War II when an Army officer exercised tactical command of naval vessels.
10. ATIS 899, 17.
11. Ibid. Murayama includes, in addition, one platoon, 21st Mortar Battalion, and one squad, division radio unit. The Marines identified the 2d, 4th and 7th Companies, 54th Inf, and elements of the 8th Shipping Engineers.
12. Terunuma's conduct of the defense and his own fate are principally matters of surmise. Japanese records of the engagement are few and none goes into detail. Under such circumstances the account must of necessity present a one-sided view.
13. "My coxwain was completely lost, would not trust his compass and got a little panicky. I required him to follow the compass until the horizon became visible after which we piloted on terrain features," (Ltr LtCol G. D. Gayle to CMC, 28Apr52, hereinafter cited as Gayle.)
14. "The Fifth Air Force could never be over a convoy at first light since they were not trained nor equipped to take off in darkness and therefore take off time was usually first light. This was a constant point of friction between naval forces who wanted first light coverage and the Air Force, who did not have pilots trained for night flying." Fuller.
15. "This element of the plan strongly influenced my decision to tow the ALP boat. . . . Many times was tempted to leave him for a turn-around craft to rescue, but each time decided that the ALP function was important enough to warrant my delay." Gayle.
16. Later the irritated 5th Marines learned that the support elements of the Fifth Air Force had been weathered in.
17. Interview with Maj T. A. Petras, hereinafter cited as Petras, 11Apr50.
19. "When Company A made its run into the beach, there was some concern because we thought the 'supporting naval gunfire' from the tanks in the LCM's was falling short, and as we approached the beach the supporting gunfire did not lift. Upon observing the tanks, we found that they had ceased firing and we were running under enemy mortar fire." Ltr Maj R. F. Nellson to CMC, 24Mar52.
20. The official Japanese account of the landing states that the initial landing attempt was repulsed and that a second landing 7,000 yards southwest of the actual landing site was successful. This history by Murayama would have Combat Team A landing in the face of Big Mt. Worri.
21. Barba. Advancing forces later encountered a group of enemy carrying a machine gun and moving down the mountain toward Volupai Plantation. They surmise that this was the force originally occupying the abandoned position.
22. Account of operation by Lt O. W. Garner prepared for LtCol G. D. Gayle, undated, hereinafter cited as Garner.
23. Ltr LtCol Rowland L. Hall to CMC, 27Mar52. Hereinafter cited as R. L. Hall.
24. The enemy's use of the magnetic antitank mine, something new to the 1st MarDiv, brought a request from the IMAC for a detailed description of it. The use of mines on the Volupai track also produced an urgent request from the 5th to division that mine detectors be expedited to the scene of action. D-3 Journal.
25. A short time later in an attempt to move forward again, this tank struck a land mine. The force of the explosion flattened the first bogie wheel on the right track and blew off a track end connector. R. L. Hall.
27. 1st MarDiv SAR sets forth that the map was captured within three hours after the landing. Maj H. J. Adams, R-2 at that time, says that it was translated and copies distributed by 1300. Ltr Lt Col H. J. Adams to CMC, 8Apr52, hereinafter cited as Adams.
28. 5th Mar Unit Report fixes the number of 90mm mortars in action against the beach as two.
29. Maj Gayle attempted to locate the mortar positions by estimating where he would put them if he were the enemy. Late that afternoon he had artillery fire a blind concentration on the site he had picked, a clearing on the far side of Volupai Plantation, with gratifying results. Gayle.
30. Dr. Forsythe died of his wounds 30 March in the 1st Field Hospital. D-3 Journal.
31. Ibid., 6Mar44.
32. Baker. LVT's were employed as mobile supply dumps throughout the drive across the peninsula.
33. D-3 Journal.
34. 1st MarDiv SAR, APPEASE, 3. "It was with considerable elation that I viewed this mortar position," Gayle. Beach RED continued to receive mortar fire on D-plus 1, but at a diminished rate.
36. Ltr Capt James M. Newman to CMC, 21Mar52.
37. Ltr Col H. O. Deakin to CMC, 12Mar52, hereinafter cited as Deakin.
38. A short mortar shell landed in the battalion area, wounding 14 men. 2/5 RofE.
39. D-2 Bulletin No. 74 relates that the movement of 2/5 to Bitokara had been opposed that morning. Gayle notes: "We were opposed, but the opposition did not choose to fight when we threatened to envelop."
40. Ltr Maj J. S. Stankus to CMC, 1Apr52; Barba; Garner.
41. LtCol Wood, CO of 2/11, was present at Gayle's CP when this occurred. Because of the casualty rate in 2/11 on Beach RED, artillery was not up to its usual high performance during the movement to Talasea. Gayle.
42. Ltr Maj W. H. Cuenin to CMC, 1Apr52.
44. The 75mm gun had been ingeniously boobytrapped. Vines were left hanging about it, which appeared to be camouflage but in reality were trip wires to the trigger mechanism. The barrel had been plugged with dirt. When a Marine inadvertently hit one of the vines the weapon exploded, blowing off the breach block and wounding one man. 1st MarDiv SAR, APPEASE, Intelligence Addenda to Special Report.
45. "I later came to believe that the appearance of Company F on the Talasea strip, near Bola, together with our artillery on Schleuther precipitated this withdrawal." Gayle.
47. 2/5 RofE shows that G/5 returned to Bitokara from Waru at 1120, but SAR, APPEASE, 4, relates that the 1st Battalion declared the area free of enemy at 1300.
48. Recognizing Bitokara as the choicest spot in the area, I made immediate preparations to surrender it to Regimental headquarters, and commenced looking for the second choice spot. We consolidated our holdings at Talasea." Gayle.
49. The airdrome was overgrown and in a state of disrepair when the Marines took over. It was much too short to have any tactical value, but was utilized satisfactorily for cub traffic between the regiment and division, and a sergeant was placed in charge of field operations. A Japanese fighter lay on its back in the middle of the strip and at first all incoming planes had to land on one side or the other, but eventually the craft was hauled away. Petras.
50. The account of LCT participation is taken from Talasea Action Report, Commander, LCT Group 23, Flotilla 8, to COMINCH, U.S. Fleet, 15Mar44, with endorsements by Commander, LCT Flotillas, 14May 44, and Commander, Task Force 76, 26Jul44.
51. R. L. Hall. These gunboats were composed of light tanks on LCM's rather than the medium models.
52. This expectation resulted from faulty estimate of the enemy's capabilities and intentions. Actually the first echelon of the 65th Brigade crossed the base of the peninsula on the day of the Volupai landing, with the other echelons strung out far behind. Murayama. This dilatory activity cost the Marines their last opportunity to intercept the organized Japanese remnants.
53. "In judging the speed with which the 5th Marines was able to position itself across the escape route of the Japanese, it must be borne in mind that there were no roads capable of taking even jeep traffic, nor were boats available for shore-to-shore operations. . . . After the evacuation of RED Beach practically all boats were withdrawn by division. . . . In retrospect, one might question why, after the occupation of Talasea, boats were not diverted to effect a shore-to-shore operation against San Remo Plantation. It must be borne in mind, however, that the regiment was on the end of a long and tenuous supply line . . . " Ltr MajGen O. P. Smith to CMC, 31Mar52, hereinafter cited as O. P. Smith.
54. D-3 Journal.
56. There is no record of the 5th Marines ever again encountering elements of the defending Talasea force, after Terunuma broke contact 16 March. A patrol captured a Japanese straggler from the 7th Company on 7 April near San Remo, but he related that he had come down with malaria during the withdrawal and remained behind.
57. Murayama. This source glosses over the retreat, refering to the movement of the Matsuda and Komori remnants as "the transfer eastward."
58. O. P. Smith.
59. Because of vast swamps at base of peninsula, main Japanese withdrawal route crossed north of Kulu river, ran northward to Garu, thence southeast to Numundo. Part of the Japanese Waru defense was sited against an attack from the direction of Garu, and the road from Kumeraki 1 to Waru was mined. Barba.
60. D-3 Journal. The planes were two Beauforts and two P-40's.
61. Ltr LtCol Harry S. Connor to CMC, 27Mar52.
63. Ltr Maj R. R. Breen to CMC, 14Mar52, hereinafter cited as Breen.
65. Ltr Maj J. D. Bradbeer to CMC, 31Mar52, hereinafter cited as Bradbeer.
66. Breen recalls that the landing was made at 0300, while Bradbeer says it was made "in broad daylight."
67. An Australian plane spotted the patrol on the trail, circled it several times and then dropped a load of daily news sheets, thereby undoubtedly contributing to the group's exposure. Adams.
68. D-3 Journal.
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