Strength and Organization
Rabaul served as headquarters for the top ranking Japanese Army officer on the island: General Hitoshi Imamura, commander of the Eighth Area Army. This echelon, the rough equivalent of a U.S. field army, exercised command over the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Armies. The latter (three divisions) was operating in northern New Guinea, following the disaster encountered by its advance echelon at Battle of the Bismarck Sea. Part of the Seventeenth was on Bougainville, the rest concentrated mainly in the vicinity of Rabaul, with one of its divisions (the 17th, Lieutenant General Yasushi Sakai) responsible for defense of central and western New Britain, with headquarters at Gavuvu, on Cape Hoskins. Immediate defense of the region lying west of a line drawn from Iboki on the northern coast to Arawe on the southern was entrusted to something designated the 65th Brigade.1
Because its original mission had been maintaining the supply line to New Guinea, this brigade was topheavy with transportation personnel, notably the 1st and 8th Shipping Engineer Regiments, 64th Line of Communications, 5th Sea Transport Battalion, and 1st Debarkation Unit. For the same reason, command had been vested in Major General Iwao Matsuda, who had achieved his high rank mainly as a transportation expert rather than as a line officer.
To set up a detailed order of battle for the 65th Brigade would be confusing and futile. In a strength report to 17th Division, dated 1 December 1943,2 General Matsuda listed 41 separate components, ranging in numbers from four men to 3,365, of which in many cases only elements--sometimes very small elements--were actually present.
Units attached directly to Brigade Headquarters consisted of a staff group of 408, engineer and signal components, and a field hospital. Combat troops included parts of four battalions of field artillery, three of antiaircraft artillery, and two machine cannon companies. There was also Colonel Jiro Sato's 51st Reconnaissance Regiment, of which more will be heard later, and miscellaneous more or less orphan elements which had become separated from their parent organizations and stranded in western New Britain en route to New Guinea. Exact designations are unimportant, inasmuch as
most of these, together with labor and specialist troops, were soon reduced to the lowest common denominator and did their fighting incorporated in, or attached to, the two infantry regiments which comprised the hard core of the brigade's fighting strength.
These were the 53d Infantry, commanded by Colonel Koki Sumiya, and the 141st, Colonel Kenshiro Katayama. At the outset each consisted of only two battalions. The 3d Battalion, 53d, had been committed on Bougainville and what remained of it was far away when the invasion of New Britain began. The 141st had seen arduous service in the Philippines, losing many of its best officers and men.3 For some reason it had never had more than two battalions: This lack was rectified in mid-December, however, by formation of a new 3d Battalion under Major Asachichi Tatsumi,4 principally from personnel of the stranded orphan units previously mentioned5 and some elements of the 51st Reconnaissance Regiment.
In the 1 December report previously mentioned, General Matsuda listed the 65th Brigade's present strength as 15,018,6 effective strength 12,078. The latter figure included about 2,500 personnel not actually in the defense area for one reason or another (detached duty, engaged in shipping, in
LIEUTENANT GENERAL YASUSHI SAKAI, commanding general of the 17th Division, maintained his headquarters at Cape Hoskins. (Courtesy Morison History Project.)
transit, etc.). It did not include three units which had been ordered forward but had not arrived at that date: 1st Battalion 81st Infantry, 3d Battalion 23d Field Artillery, and 17th Division 2d Field Hospital. Of 9,501 effectives listed as in the region west of the Iboki-Arawe line, a total of 3,883 were in the immediate target area of the U.S. invasion: either in strong point garrisons or positions within prompt supporting distance.
Terrain and Dispositions
The defense area assigned the 65th Brigade was not only extensive but most of it exceedingly difficult to traverse: the low ground swampy and jungled, the high ground rugged, cloaked by dense rain forest and interlaced by unpredictable streams. Allowing for such natural obstacles and a paucity of troops for the mission assigned him,
COLONEL KENSHIRO KATAYAMA, commander of the 141st Infantry Regiment, IJA. (Courtesy Morison History Project.)
General Matsuda made his dispositions with considerable shrewdness, leaving the small garrisons of the north coast staging points about as they were in order to concentrate his greatest strength in the more directly threatened points to the west and south.
Two large mountains constitute the dominating terrain features of westernmost New Britain. To the north, the volcanic cone of Mount Talawe rises steeply to an elevation of 6,600 feet, with the dormant7 crater of its eastern shoulder, 3,800-foot, Mount Langla, looming as an ever-smoking landmark above the shelf of low ground containing the airdrome. South of Talawe and separated from it by a high, broad saddle sprawls 5,600-foot Mount Tangi: less precipitous but combining to channelize north-south movement along the coast to a narrow flat traversed by a partially improved native trail. To the east, both mountains fall away into the wide, jungled valley of the Itni River, traversed by the cross-island north-south Government Trail, constructed originally by native labor under Australian supervision.
For tactical purposes the Japanese divided the northwestern sector into two areas: Tsurubu and Natamo,8 the line of demarcation lying a short distance west of Silimati Point (known to the Japanese as Cape Eboshi), where the western shore of Borgen Bay angles almost due south to form a deep indentation in the coastline.
Tsurubu embraced the airdrome area and the barge staging point known to the Japanese as Kalingi,9 around to the southwest of Cape Gloucester proper. Although Allied bombing had knocked out the air facilities for effective operational purposes by the end of October,10 denying the use of these to his enemy remained General Matsuda's primary mission. To this end he maintained brigade headquarters near Kalingi until late November when, to facilitate communications with his outlying detachments (and possibly to escape stepped-up enemy bombing, for which the general appears to have had an acute distaste) he moved to a more centralized location at Egaroppu, inland of the Borgen Bay area. (See below.)
Responsibility for immediate defense of the airdrome rested on Colonel Sumiya, commanding officer of the 53d Infantry, who
Western New Britain
Under Japanese Domination
continued his regimental headquarters there following Matsuda's removal to quieter surroundings. The principal troop unit at his disposal was the 1st Battalion of his own regiment (Captain Tadao Nakamura), strongly reinforced with service troops, parts of two battalions of field artillery, a machine cannon company, and the dual-purpose weapons of at least one full battalion of antiaircraft artillery. He had the foresight to prepare several small road blocks11 to cover his eastward approaches, but disposed the bulk of his troops and weapons in and around two main strong points.
The first of these was designed to defend a crescent-shaped bay more than 1,000 yards east of the airdrome which offered by far the best natural features for an assault landing to be found anywhere in the region.12 Installations comprised an elaborate system of mutually supporting bunkers mounting weapons up to 75mm mountain guns, connected by a network of rifle trenches. The second fixed position, also constructed at cost of much well planned labor, lay in the broken foothills of Mount Talawe, dominating the flat from several hundred yards to the south to such effect that, even in the event of the airdrome's capture, its operation by U.S. forces would remain impossible until this formidable high ground had been secured.
A motor transport road capable of handling light traffic connected Tsurubu with the main landing point in Borgen Bay,13 to the eastward, traversing a narrow shelf of dry ground near the shore. This provided
CAPTAIN TADAO NAKAMURA, commander of the 1st Battalion, 53d Infantry Regiment, as he appeared as a lieutenant in 1938. (Courtesy Morison History Project.)
an excellent route for speedy communications but was dangerously exposed to seaward, seldom running more than a hundred yards inland and in places debouching on the jungle-fringed beach itself.
The deep swamps and broken high ground lying inland of this road barred any additional thoroughfares north of Mt. Talawe. Hence, the other main route between the Tsurubu and Natamo regions was exceedingly roundabout: south along the coastal trail that skirted New Britain's western shore to Sag Sag, where a more or less improved track, sometimes called the east-west Government Trail, led in a generally easterly direction across the high saddle between Mt. Talawe and Mt. Tangi to join the north-south Government Trail at the inland village of Agulupella (prewar population, 34).14
A secondary trail short-cut this, running south from the airdrome, traversing the Mt.
AN AERIAL VIEW OF MT. TALAWE looking northeast. The white volcanic smoke from Mt. Langla became a familiar sight to the Marines of the 1st Division. (AF Photo)
Langla (eastern) shoulder of Mt. Talawe and intersecting the Sag Sag trail high up in the saddle. This was too rough and steep to permit even handcarts to be drawn over it, but it was usable by men on foot and ultimately played some small part in the operations to come.15
The place name "Natamo" appeared on U.S. maps in four separate conections: two native villages (Natamo and Old Natamo), a river, and a point of land projecting from the southern shore of Borgen Bay. The Japanese applied the term inclusively to the region embracing the entire bay area and extending an indeterminable distance inland. Under the cloaking jungle, much of the high ground here was rugged, but not mountainous in the sense of Mt. Talawe. However, two lesser elevations, rising abruptly near the shore, constituted conspicuous landmarks: Sankokuyama and Manjuyama, later known to the Marines respectively as Target Hill (or Hill 450) and Hill 660. The main Japanese sea transport landing point lay on the western shore of Borgen Bay between the two, with a secondary barge hideout situated around to the northwest beyond Silimati Point.
Target Hill, a steep-sided, grass-covered razorback ridge, rises to an elevation of 450 feet a short distance inland from Silimati
Point. Affording a magnificent view seaward and westward all the way to the airdrome, it became the site of the main Japanese observation post, with some very fancy optical equipment installed. Hill 660, about a mile and a half to the southward and closer to the shore of Borgen Bay, is higher, larger in area, and equally steep at many points, but less conspicuous for being completely cloaked by jungle.
Egaroppu and Magairapua, site of Matsuda headquarters and principal bivouac area respectively, were others of the many place names appearing on no U.S. maps.16 They lay three to four miles inland from Borgen Bay on high ground that afforded occasional glimpses of the sea; adjacent to, but concealed from the north-south Government Trail, and near the junction of the east-west trail that crossed the saddle behind Mount Talawe. Installations included a number of
NEW BRITAIN'S COASTLINE was not particularly inviting. This is the village of Ulamaingi, slightly west of the Cape Gloucester airdrome. The northwestern slopes of Mt. Talawe are in the background. (AF Photo.)
ALLIED BOMBERS PASS HILL 660 (Manjuyama), conspicuous landmark on the Borgen Bay area. The camera is pointing south-east; Natamo Point to the left of the hill.
well constructed lumber and thatch buildings which provided living quarters, kitchens, mess halls and office facilities for brigade staff personnel, a field hospital, and supply storage for troops occupying the several bivouac areas nearby. The whole establishment was so well camouflaged under cover of standing rain forest as to escape detection from the air and resultant bombing and gunfire.
The general's own quarters were described as follows by a Marine combat correspondent who accompanied a patrol that later occupied them:
[Matsuda's] personal abode includes a bedroom, complete with double-width mattress and four-poster bed; kitchen and fancy toilet facilities; and a deep air raid shelter reached by ladder from the kitchen, containing candles, canned heat and rice bowls. . . . [The residence] is constructed about ten feet off the damp soil and is both dry and cool. The walls are made of bamboo and saplings; the roof is galvanized iron; the floors of inlaid wood. The furniture was for the most part imported, featured by a wicker easy chair. . . . Not only did General Matsuda have plenty of saki on hand, as witnessed by the empty bottles, but he had an ample supply of Pilsen, bottled in Manila, according to the labels. We even found one Coca-Cola bottle cap. . . . Among the abandoned effects and supplies are all kinds of goods--toilet articles, stationery, canned foods, clothing--manufactured in America, Australia and England. . . . Prize booty for the occupying Marines is a Jap phonograph with records.17
The living quarters also included a small prayer room with altar window where the eminent warrior might sit cross-legged in leisurely contemplation of his navel when he could think of nothing better to do, which might have been quite often to judge by some aspects of the subsequent operation.
Immediate beach defense in the Natamo area Matsuda left in the hands of transportation troops doubling as infantry, strongly stiffened with artillery and automatic weapons units. His main striking force, the reinforced 2d Battalion, 53d Infantry (Major Takabe) he held at Magairapua as a mobile reserve: prepared to move swiftly to any threatened point in his area or in support of
NEW BRITAIN'S COAST as seen from Target Hill. This photograph was taken after the Marines had moved in.
Colonel Sumiya at the airdrome, just as he expected Sumiya to act in Takabe's support should the attack develop in Borgen Bay. That it might occur somewhere between the two seems not seriously to have entered the general's calculations, owing to the narrowness of such jungle-fringed beaches as existed and the deep swamps that hemmed them in and appeared to preclude dispersal or maneuver.18
But Matsuda's responsibility embraced a vast territory extending far beyond the primary target area, which necessitated wider dispersal of his remaining troops. Thus, Colonel Katayama's 141st Infantry, reinforced, was posted to the south, while Colonel Jiro Sato's 51st Reconnaissance Regiment (originally about battalion strength) occupied Rooke (Umboi) Island, across Dampier Strait from western New Britain, and operated a secondary observation post on Sakar Island, immediately to the north.
Katayama maintained his regimental command post at Nigol19 on the Itni River, where his new 3d Battalion was organized in mid-December. At this more or less central location, a network of improved trails facilitated communications with Matsuda, to the north, as well as with the remaining battalions of the 141st which held key coastal strong points and controlled the area between by means of outposts and patrols:20
MAJOR ASAYUKI TOBUSE, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, IJA. (Courtesy Morison History Project.)
1st Battalion (Major Asyuki Tobuse) at Cape Bushing, 2d Battalion (Captain Toyoji Mukai)21 at Aisega (see Map 6).
These dispositions took care, after a fashion, of all the strategically important locations in western New Britain, with a single exception: the barge staging point of Arawe (known to the Japanese as Merkus)22 far to the southeast of Cape Bushing and to a great extent isolated from Katayama's forces by lack of an overland trail. The small original garrison of this place had been lightly reinforced in late October,23 but as the war situation grew more threatening Matsuda became increasingly concerned for its safety. Thus, he dispatched to that point the first additional troops to come under his command.
This unit comprised the advance echelon of the 1st Battalion, 81st Infantry: headquarters group, two rifle companies and the machine-gun company, which landed at Iboki early in December. The battalion commander, Major Shinjiro Komori, was ordered to proceed to Arawe at once, without waiting for his remaining elements to come up, carrying all possible food and supplies, upon arrival to assume command of the entire defending group. The north-south trail which he must traverse had been reconnoitered previously24 and was known to be exceedingly difficult but passable, winding through swamps and jungles, over mountains and rivers the entire width of the island, there about 40 airline miles. Nevertheless, Komori's heavily laden men had reached the inland village of Didmop, within sound of the gunfire, by 15 December when the U.S. 12th Cavalry RCT's assault was actually staged.25
With invasion a reality at Arawe, Matsuda immediately dispatched Major Tobuse's 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry as further reinforcement to that trouble spot. Since no trail connected the Itni and Arawe regions, the troops traveled by landing craft from Cape Bushing to a point some miles west of their destination, thence overland to join Major Komori. They completed the movement shortly before the Marines landed in the Cape Gloucester area, thus passing out of the picture of the 65th Brigade's main action.
Morale and Physical Condition
In contrast to their commander and his immediate headquarters, garrison troops of
Disposition of the Matsuda Detachment
26 Dec 1943
Cape Glocester, New Britain
BOMBING CAMOUFLAGED BARGE HIDEOUTS along New Britain's coast was part of the air preparation for the Cape Gloucester landings. (AF Photo)
western New Britain lived under conditions of increasing squalor and wretchedness as the sands of 1943 ran out their course.
Allied air activity along the barge routes had so curtailed that vital traffic that the men were placed on short rations before the end of November;26 rations destined to become still shorter and less varied.27 The stepped-up pre-invasion air attack in December, discussed in Chapter III, superimposed nerve strain28 on hunger. The almost simultaneous arrival of the northwest monsoon brought added misery, especially in the exposed airdrome area where nearly all aboveground shelters against the torrential rains had been destroyed.
TENUOUS SUPPLY LINES BETWEEN RABAUL AND CAPE GLOUCESTER were cut when these barges and many others like them were left in this condition by Fifth Air Force bombers.
Although casualties from the aerial bombing do not appear to have been heavy,29 hunger and weather conditions increased the incidence of illness, overcrowding hospital facilities already suffering serious shortages of medicines and medical supplies because of curtailment of the barge traffic. Malaria was the greatest scourge, with dysentery (amoebic in particular) a closer second, the latter often so riddling the patient's intestines as to make treatment of the former by internal medication impossible.30 Fungus infection, the ubiquitous "jungle rot" of the Marines, was practically universal, sometimes developing into crippling tropical ulcers.
Troops stationed in the southern regions of the island did not have to endure the monsoon31 and suffered less from the bombing, because of the less exposed nature of their positions. But they, too, suffered from the universal shortages and had become a hungry group of soldiers when their turn came to make the long, difficult uphill march to the main scene of action.
The period of pre-landing preparation also saw the final deterioration of Japanese-native relations. The less friendly islanders had long since fled to the hills, and with the increasing supply pinch even the best intentioned officers could not deter their hungry soldiers from plundering the gardens of those who remained and reacting violently to any attempted resistance. So, these, too, began
disappearing into the high jungle, thereby depriving the Japanese of what might have proved most useful allies, as they subsequently did to the Americans.32
Most prisoner of war interrogations and some captured personal documents reflect the low morale which these several factors engendered in the defenders of the Cape Gloucester area. But morale is seldom so decisive a factor with oriental troops as it can be with occidentals. These men were soldiers of Japan; regardless of how badly their combat efficiency had been sapped, they would fight.33
Thus matters stood during the dark early morning hours of 26 December 1943, when one of Colonel Sato's observers on Sakar Island, descrying blacker bulks at sea against the graying sky, began sputtering excitedly into a radio transmitter that an enemy convoy was approaching the north coast of western New Britain.
1. "The 65th Brigade [was] apparently so called because there were not sixty-four others like it, nor even one." (Fletcher Pratt: The Marines' War [New York, 1948,] 305.). This unit reported to 17th Division at Cape Hoskins rather than direct to Rabaul.
2. ATIS 788, 3.
3. Prisoner of War Interrogation No. 191. Hereinafter such interrogations are cited POW, followed by number.
4. This reorganization was directed in NATSU 3 Opn Or A-7 dated 12Dec43, and reported completed in NATSU 3 Opn Or A-8, 20Dec43. ATIS 754, 6; ATIS 875, 5.
5. Ibid. Principal elements were two companies of 115th Infantry, and approximately one platoon of 66th Infantry. 1st Lt Tsurujiu Fukushima's 1st Provisional Co, 115th became 10th Co, 141st, but did its actual fighting with that regiment's 1st Bn at Arake (Merkus). On the other hand, some elements of the 1st Bn fought with 3/141 at Borgen Bay (Natamo). (POW 191). This may appear a confusing way of handling the command set-up, but such instances are far from unique in Japanese operations.
6. ATIS 788, 3. Figures quoted are those appearing in the report, but they do not check up accurately in detail.
7. By technical definition. a volcano is active only when actually erupting, dormant between periods of activity and extinct when all activity ceases. Since Langla emitted only smoke, it fell in second category.
8. The name Tsurubu appeared on no U.S. maps prior to the operation. Natamo occurred in such a way as to cause some confusion in interpreting the Japanese use of the term, as will be seen.
9. The particular locality designated Kalingi by the Japanese lay a short distance north of a group of native villages of the same name. What facilities the Japanese had there is not known, as FATF had demolished all installations beyond recognition by the time Marines arrived.
10. Two fighters were observed taking off from the No. 2 strip as late as 17Dec43. AAF No. 43.
11. Many of the bunkers had firing aperatures facing in two directions so that they could serve either as beach defenses or road blocks as necessity demanded. 1st MarDiv SAR, Annex A, 57.
12. Designated BLUE Beach on U.S. operations maps. The promontory from which these emplacements enfiladed the landing area subsequently became known as Hell's Point. See Chap VI.
13. The Japanese had planned to construct a motor transport road to link all the staging points in the whole area: along the coast from Iboki, around the western nose of the island to Cape Bushing on the southern shore, but owing to dearth of men and equipment, that described above was the only usable stretch of any length.
14. Rpt Maj J. V. Mather, AIF to CO, Gilnit Force, 20Feb44, hereinafter cited Mather Rpt.
15. Ltr Maj G. M. Dawes to CMC, 13Apr52, hereinafter cited as Dawes.
16. Egaroppu appeared as Nakarop, a transliteration not immediately recognized. See Appendix III.
17. News dispatch by MT/Sgt Samuel E. Stavisky.
18. A few defensive installations had been prepared in this area, but these were not manned.
19. Called Nigoru by the Japanese, neither name appearing on U.S. maps. It lay not far above the native village of Gilnit, at the head of barge navigation on the Itni River.
20. Patrols were especially active along the west coast, where the Japanese were well aware of the Allied reconnaissance efforts described in Chap III, either through native reports or their own observations, and tried to intercept. Additional false alarms kept them rushing off in all directions for more than two months.
21. Lt Eizo Ikema, a medical officer attached to the 141st, described Mukai as a 31-year-old neurotic who belonged in an asylum rather than in the field. POW 191.
22. Another instance of confusing nomenclature. Arawe applied properly to a group of islands lying off Cape Merkus.
23. By Lt Fukushima's 1st Provisional Co, 115th Infantry, later incorporated as 10th Co, 141st Infantry. and a company of 14th FA under Lt Mishina.
24. ATIS 670, 5.
25. Discussion of the Arawe operation with pertinent documentation appears in Chap IX.
26. POW 126.
27. As a crowning irony, a ration dump painstakingly stockpiled with delicacies intended to afford all hands a special New Year's feast was captured by the invaders on D-Day. See Chap V.
28. The effect of the incessant bombing on the defenders' nerves has probably been much exaggerated. A Japanese medical officer (POW 191) stated that neurotic cases were practically non-existent, owing mainly to the troops' psychology and indoctrination. "There are nervous troops," he said, "but no neurotics."
29. No definite figures are available, and statements of individuals differ. POW 104 stated the bombings "killed about 500 [50%] in each battalion." POW 108: "Some were killed as a result [of the bombing] but not many." Both belonged to 1/53, posted in the airdrome area.
30. POW 191.
31. Owing to the interposition of high mountains, New Britain's north and south coasts have different monsoon seasons, the one being wet while the other is "dry," or comparatively so. Burcham.
32. A handful of natives remained with the Japanese after the invasion for reasons of their own, but the trustworthiness of even these few was not above suspicion. See Chap VI.
33. POW 110.
Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation