For the two opposing leaders battling for control of Biak’s vital airfields in the spring of 1944, the impatience and meddling of their superiors made the task of command more difficult than fighting the enemy.
For a textbook example of the disparity often separating those at the highest levels of command from the men at the sharp end of the fighting, one need look no further than the battle for Biak, a critical steppingstone in General Douglas MacArthur’s grand island sweep toward the Philippines in the spring and summer of 1944.
MacArthur, Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) commander in chief, and his adversaries at the Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) in Tokyo all recognized the strategic importance of the small island just off the northwest coast of Netherlands New Guinea. The Allies needed Biak’s Japanese-built airfields to provide support for their planned operations against the Palau, Caroline and Mariana islands, which would move MacArthur one step closer to his return to the Philippines. For the Japanese, already on their heels in the face of the Allies’ accelerated Pacific campaign that spring, Biak was a key defensive bastion that could also serve as a staging ground for a counteroffensive during Operation A-Go.
The tiny island was no tropical paradise. Little fresh water was available, and the flat coastal plain, with one exception, was a narrow strip of ground that extended only 400 to 800 yards inland before being hemmed in by steep jungle-covered ridges towering as high as 250 feet. On the high ground behind the ridges, which were honeycombed with caves of all sizes—ideal fighting positions, it would prove—was a plateau covered with thick jungle vegetation and a tropical rain forest that made any movement in the equatorial heat both time-consuming and exhausting. The only extensive flat areas on the island were on the southeastern coast, where the ridges drifted inland a mile or so. It was there that the Japanese had recently built three coveted airfields.
In October 1943, IGHQ sent the 222nd Infantry Regiment, along with a large number of construction and support troops, to the island to organize defenses and build as many as five airfields. When the Allies captured Hollandia in Netherlands New Guinea on April 22, 1944, Biak came within range of U.S. bombers and seemingly lost its value as an air-staging base for some in the Japanese military hierarchy. On May 9 IGHQ relegated the island’s defense to delaying-action status, but Second Area Army, which was responsible for the overall defense of western New Guinea, counteracted that by insisting the island be held for as long as possible. With the Imperial Japanese Navy preparing for A-Go, Biak had renewed strategic importance. Because the imperial navy expected the next Allied attack to fall on the Palau Islands, it hoped its Combined Fleet would be able to challenge and defeat the U.S. Navy in a decisive engagement in the central Pacific. If so, Biak’s land-based air support would be essential to cover and support fleet operations.
The Americans, however, seemed to be holding all the winning cards. They controlled the air and sea around Biak, could move large ground forces quickly to the island and knew from deciphered Japanese army messages that IGHQ had written off the island’s garrison. In addition, the defenders were outnumbered and outgunned, suffered from malaria, amebic dysentery and other tropical ailments, and until late April they had spent much of their time building airfields, not training for combat.
The officers deciding who would be masters of Biak were Maj. Gen. Horace H. Fuller, head of the U.S. 41st Infantry Division, and Colonel Naoyuki Kuzume of the 222nd Infantry. Fuller was 57 years old and a 1909 West Point graduate. He had served in the Philippines in the early 20th century and had later commanded field artillery regiments during World War I. Between the wars, Fuller’s service took him as a student and instructor to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and to the Army War College in Washington, D.C. In June 1941, he became commandant of the Command and General Staff College, and in December took command of the 41st, which deployed to Australia in April 1942. The division, which had acquitted itself well in combat in eastern New Guinea and Hollandia, had become one of SWPA’s most-respected units. Fuller, a chain smoker and drinker, was well trained and educated in Army schools. He was efficient, did things by the book and seemed destined for higher command.
Kuzume, a graduate of the 1913 military academy class, was 53. As an infantry officer, he served in the 4th Infantry Regiment, Imperial Guards Division, for 10 years, rising to captain. Thereafter, he landed a series of training and administrative positions, never attended the army staff college and by 1941 commanded a regimental district responsible for raising and training recruits. In July 1941, Kuzume took command of the 222nd Regiment, then serving in northern China. He spent the next two years leading pacification campaigns in the mountains of Shanxi Province. In July 1943, the 222nd received orders for New Guinea, and that October Kuzume stepped ashore on Biak. He was the unusual Japanese officer who neither smoked nor drank, with a reputation as a hard-working stickler for following a superior’s orders.
Planning for the Americans’ Biak assault progressed rapidly, since MacArthur wanted the Japanese airfields by early June. On May 9 he approved a two-pronged operation. One regiment from Fuller’s division would attack Wakde Island, some 180 miles east of Biak, and 10 days later Fuller’s Hurricane Task Force, organized around the 41st Division (less the one regiment), would invade Biak. Allied intelligence predicted stubborn, though not serious, resistance. Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, commander of the U.S. Sixth Army, impressed on Fuller—who was serving as both division and task force commander—the need to secure Biak’s airfields quickly. Expecting the Japanese to make their stand around the airfields, Krueger also decided that Fuller’s initial landings would be made at Bosnek, about 10 miles east of the airstrips.
On May 25 Lt. Gen. Takazo Numata, Second Area Army chief of staff, flew from Menado, New Guinea, to inspect Biak’s defensive preparations. Since the fall of Hollandia, Kuzume had been strengthening his defenses, pulling two of his three infantry regiments off airfield construction duties and preparing them to repulse enemy landings. Following conventional Japanese army counteramphibious doctrine, Kuzume expected to defend the airfields and in cooperation with the air forces destroy the enemy at the water’s edge. He had about 3,800 infantrymen; 6,000 other troops in construction and support units were poorly armed, having a total of about 1,000 small arms and a few hundred grenades. Unarmed men were ordered to fight with bamboo spears or clubs. Also on the island were the 28th Naval Special Base Force, about 1,400 service troops and a 125-man guard detachment under the command of Rear Adm. Sadatochi Senda.
On May 26, after Kuzume briefed his superiors on the situation, Numata asked when he could anticipate the enemy attack. Another two weeks, was the answer, by which time the defenses would be complete. Late that night, troops in outposts along the southern beach heard rumbling noises and saw ghostly outlines of ships, but the men thought these were friendly warships preparing to commemorate Navy Day on May 27.
An American pre-dawn barrage caught Numata driving to the airfields to catch a flight to Menado. He was hit in the leg by shell fragments and, assisted by a beach patrol, made a painful journey back to the West Caves that overlooked the airfields. As the senior ranking officer on the island, Numata now assumed operational command, set up his headquarters in the West Caves alongside Admiral Senda and ordered an immediate counterattack against the U.S. landings underway at Bosnek. He also took personal command of two of the regiment’s three infantry battalions and its tank company. Kuzume now led only a detachment composed of the remaining infantry battalion, his headquarters company and a provisional unit of a few hundred men.
Numata had made his name as a staff officer and military attaché, not as a combat commander. His reaction was to destroy the invaders on the beach, even if that beach was about 10 miles away and required pulling every available reserve away from the vital airfields. The order made no sense to Kuzume. Why cross all that rugged and restricted terrain to attack a stronger, intact U.S. infantry regiment? But he would never argue with an order.
Fuller was also having problems. An unexpectedly strong current had pulled his landing craft westward, nearer to the airfields but farther from Bosnek, their initial objective. Smoke and debris kicked up by the bombardment obscured the landing beaches, and his regiments became intermixed and reversed on the beaches. Rather than improvise and press forward to the airfields, he ordered his regiments to realign themselves according to the original plan. The time lost doing this seemed harmless in the absence of a strong Japanese reaction. The next day MacArthur declared victory and the strategic end of the New Guinea campaign.
By 1 p.m. on the 27th, Fuller’s 162nd Infantry had moved westward about three miles along the narrow coastal road when it encountered the Parai Defile, a natural obstacle that ran to within 40 yards of the coast and appeared on none of his maps. It took two hours to drive a handful of Japanese defenders from the imposing ridges and fight through the narrow passageway. The next morning the 162nd continued to push west, and its lead company got to within a few hundred yards of the closest airfield before being driven back by Japanese infantry. It was a classic meeting engagement, with neither side sure of what the other had. The only certainty was that the Japanese held the high ground, and from the caves above they were raining down deadly small-arms and mortar fire on the invaders. Fuller ordered his troops to pull back and await reinforcements.
At dawn on May 29, Japanese troops emerged from the East Caves, located on the main ridge just north of the airfields, moved down the steep slope concealed in the thick vegetation and attacked the 162nd along a coastal road. Concentrated U.S. firepower backed up by naval gunfire shattered the assault, however. Four Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks that had been hiding near the airfields then rumbled into view. The hatch on the lead tank popped open and the commander ordered the scattered infantry to follow him into the opposing lines. The squad spread out around the advancing tank, but about 40 yards to its front an American M4 Sherman medium tank suddenly appeared. Without room to maneuver on the narrow road, the enemy tanks simply charged toward each other. A direct hit from a U.S. fighter-bomber destroyed one Japanese tank. The lead Japanese Ha-Go concentrated its fire on the American tank, hitting it several times but with no apparent effect. In response the Sherman’s 75mm gun smashed the front of its lightweight opponent, setting it on fire. The driver and gunner were both killed instantly, but the badly wounded tank commander continued to direct the fighting until a naval shell killed him.
All four Japanese tanks were destroyed, and three more that attacked about an hour later met the same fate. The Japanese still controlled the important high ground, however. After losing more than 100 troops killed or wounded during a day of tough fighting, the 162nd regimental commander ordered a withdrawal to reorganize. Fuller was becoming concerned that the rugged terrain and stubborn Japanese resistance would force him to dangerously overextend his available units. He asked Krueger for another infantry regiment and a field artillery battalion. The Sixth Army commander agreed, and accelerated the shipment of the 163rd Infantry to Biak.
Meanwhile in the West Caves, Numata had lost radio contact with his combat units and was unaware of the American withdrawal. By the time Kuzume and his forces reached the caves on morning of May 30, however, it was clear that the enemy was retreating, and Numata ordered him to lead an all-out night attack against the American forces at Bosnek. On just two hours’ rest, Kuzume set out in a driving rainstorm. By the afternoon he had deployed about 300 men of the 1st Battalion and his headquarters unit along the narrow coastal track and through Parai Defile to near Ibidi, about two miles west of Bosnek, where his exhausted troops prepared for the assault. Learning that a U.S. advance inland from Bosnek had reached the plateau and had destroyed a small reconnaissance troop nearby, Kuzume canceled his attack and positioned his unit to head off the enemy’s overland thrust. He was then notified by a runner to report with his men to Numata to coordinate the imminent landing of Japanese reinforcements.
On the morning of May 31, while waiting for Kuzume’s return, Numata notified Second Area Army of his intentions to attack Bosnek because the enemy was in full retreat. Based on Numata’s erroneous estimate, Second Area Army accelerated plans to reinforce Biak. Later that day, Numata again radioed higher headquarters that the enemy was having trouble seizing the Mokmer airfield and was consolidating to defend its Bosnek beachhead, probably awaiting reinforcements before making another attack. Unknown either to the Biak detachment or Second Area Army, Fuller’s reinforcements arrived that day. Numata expected his own reinforcements, and on June 1 informed higher headquarters that the enemy was still withdrawing from Mokmer.
That same day, Krueger radioed Fuller that he expected him to take the offensive and capture the airfields “effectively and expeditiously.” Fuller prepared an amphibious envelopment to reach Mokmer by sea without having to fight his way along the restricted coastline. He also sent his entire 186th Infantry Regiment to the high ground on the plateau that overlooked the coastal road. In sweltering heat and with little water, the troops searched for Japanese and for trails leading west before digging in for the night.
Unknown to the 186th soldiers, the 2nd Battalion, 222nd Infantry, was heading straight for them. Well acquainted with the island’s terrain, the Japanese moved through the jungle undergrowth and along the broken ridgelines with confidence while the Americans groped their way through head-high grass and mapped their way on the move.
Around 3:30 a.m. on June 2, Japanese mortar fire hit the 186th’s positions, followed by a savage ground assault. American artillery and naval gunfire, in turn, blasted the jungle into a desert. In four hours of confused night fighting, often hand to hand with bayonets, machetes and grenades, the 2nd Battalion lost 220 men killed and scores wounded. American losses were three dead and eight wounded. The high ground dominating the airfields was now open to the Americans, although neither side realized it.
The next day, as the 186th Infantry methodically advanced on the plateau, fighting again erupted along the coastal road when a Japanese shipping unit attacked a company of the 162nd Infantry just east of the Parai Defile, forcing it to retreat and reorganize. Later, troops from the 186th temporarily surrounded Kuzume’s headquarters unit and heavy weapons section (about 150 men) on the plateau. The Japanese commander was able to make his escape only after sacrificing 20 of his soldiers to serve as a rear guard.
Holed up in his cave, Numata had no sense of the danger the 186th now posed. That afternoon he signaled Second Area Army that the Americans were inactive and were still waiting reinforcements while constructing an airstrip near Bosnek. Based on that estimate, his superiors ordered him to launch an all-out offensive against Bosnek. Numata in turn radioed Kuzume, who had barely survived the afternoon, to prepare for the assault.
Fuller was worried about intelligence reports of imminent Japanese reinforcements and held his forces in check. When the night of June 3-4 passed peacefully, however, he approved the 186th’s drive to the ridges overlooking the airfields. He also set his amphibious assault into motion. MacArthur, having already declared victory and that the campaign had entered its mopping-up stage, was admonishing Krueger about the “unsatisfactory performance” of U.S. forces on Biak. Eager to protect his own position, Krueger wasted little time letting Fuller know about MacArthur’s displeasure. He pressured him to get moving, and Fuller responded on the morning of June 6 by ordering the 186th to move down from the heights and seize the airfields. That decision, initiated by command interference, finally put the Americans just where Kuzume had wanted them all along, exposed on the coastal plain under his guns.
On the evening of June 6, Kuzume, unaware of Fuller’s maneuver, was near the Parai Defile preparing for another night assault. A battalion commander wondered aloud why they were going to strike Bosnek if reports of an enemy sea landing near Mokmer were true. Besides, every organized night attack had failed in the face of heavy interlocking enemy fire. Wouldn’t it be better to attack the Americans at Mokmer during the day under covering fire from the ridges? Kuzume acknowledged that the major was entitled to his opinion but insisted on executing the plan in absolute obedience to orders.
The next day the 186th reached the eastern-most airfield, where a surprised Japanese outpost reported seeing soldiers in strange uniforms. Through his binoculars, a mortar section commander plainly saw the Americans in the open about a half-mile away. Senda and Numata were caught by surprise as well, but rather than deal with this new threat, Senda reported to higher headquarters that his planned attack against Bosnek would go off that night as scheduled.
Japanese infantry defending the airfields regrouped while their artillery opened fire on the Americans from the West Caves. Northeast of the fields, in the East Caves, the Japanese had converted a flat ledge about three-quarters of the way up the cliff face into an observation point. Enjoying an unobstructed view of the coastline, they could call down deadly accurate mortar and machine gun fire on the airfields as well as cover any enemy push westward from the Parai Defile. The 186th soon discovered that it had descended from the plateau and taken the airdrome only to find itself at the bottom of an amphitheater, in a shooting gallery for Japanese machine gun, mortar and artillery fire.
It might have been a one-sided fight except for sustained American counterbattery fire from artillery and naval guns, which wrecked 60 percent of the Japanese guns in a daylong exchange. Kuzume heard the exploding artillery to his rear, canceled the Bosnek attack and turned with his unit toward Mokmer. His troops reached the West Cave area around 2 a.m. on June 8. With more troops in hand, Numata and Senda ordered a dawn attack. After a brief rest, Kuzume’s exhausted detachment moved down the ridge toward the airfield. By 5 a.m. the Japanese had crawled forward to within a few dozen yards of the 186th’s defenses.
On the perimeter of 3rd Battalion, 186th Infantry, a group of barking native dogs gave away the general position of the GIs’ lines, enabling Japanese mortar crews to adjust their preparatory fire accordingly. Small numbers of Japanese soldiers infiltrated American outposts and attacked several defenders with bayonets. Kuzume followed with a desperate onslaught that was stopped cold.
Hounded by U.S. artillery and naval gunfire, Kuzume gathered the survivors and by midafternoon redeployed them, despite a relentless land and sea bombardment, on the high ground around the West Caves. By that time much of the Japanese field artillery had been destroyed, so Kuzume redirected four 75mm antiaircraft guns to fire on the U.S. tanks and landing craft around the airfields. With a direct line of sight to the coastal plain and firing over open sights on a flat trajectory, the AA gunners scored hit after hit.
Meanwhile, to assist the 186th, Fuller had ordered two infantry companies of the 162nd Infantry, then east of Parai, to envelop the defile by sea, then push westward to support the attack on the airfields. Their amphibious hook went smoothly, but after landing and heading toward the airfields the 162nd too came under heavy and sustained mortar and machine gun fire and was forced to halt its advance. If Fuller was in trouble, however, so was the Biak detachment, since Kuzume’s failed dawn attack had depleted the garrison’s remaining combat power. For the Japanese, it was the most dangerous moment since the U.S. landing on May 27.
On June 9 Kuzume again returned to West Caves to confer with Numata and Senda. Numata had already signaled Second Area Army that without reinforcements the garrison’s days were numbered, and now huddled around a small table with Senda and Kuzume to discuss future operations. Because food and water were in short supply, Kuzume wanted to retreat inland, harass the Americans and at a favorable time retake the airfields. Senda disagreed. There was no suitable defensible position inland, he argued, so their only hope was to hold out in the caves and await a chance to counterattack. They reached no agreement, leaving it understood that Kuzume would hold the West Caves.
Following the conference, Kuzume urged Numata to leave Biak because of his importance to Second Area Army and the need to pass on to higher headquarters the vital lessons learned about island defense. Numata had apparently already received a message from Second Area Army ordering him to return as quickly as possible. Finally he agreed. After turning operational command over to Kuzume, he departed on a motorized barge.
MacArthur increased his pressure on Krueger to seize the airdrome, and Fuller soon got wind of the SWPA commander’s impatience. Although the 186th had a tenuous hold on one airfield, as long as the Japanese remained on the surrounding high ground no Allied planes could use it. On June 6 observers sent to Biak by Krueger told him that the 41st Division was not aggressive enough and Fuller, who had remained at Bosnek, had little idea of the frontline conditions at Mokmer. Three days later, however, Krueger informed MacArthur that Fuller had made the appropriate adjustments and was moving more aggressively. The next day, as fighting for the airfields still raged, Krueger urged Fuller to capture the high ground and reopen the fields. When three days passed without success, Krueger reiterated his demands to the 41st’s commander.
It is to Fuller’s credit that despite the increased pressure he was under from his superiors he never conveyed this impatience to his regimental commanders. Then on June 13, Fuller reported to Krueger that his troops were fatigued, adding that he believed the enemy had landed a large number of reinforcements and asking to also be reinforced.
Having reviewed deciphered Japanese army and navy messages (which Fuller was not cleared to see), Krueger dismissed the notion of enemy reinforcements. Still, he sent the 34th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, to bolster the American forces on Biak.
Time had run out for Fuller, however. On June 14 MacArthur radioed Krueger and told him pointedly that the situation on Biak “is unsatisfactory.” Krueger now also believed that the slow pace of operations had been because Fuller was overburdened by his dual role of task force and division commander, so he ordered Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, I Corps commander, to take charge of Hurricane Task Force. Fuller was informed by radio of the command change.
Eichelberger arrived in Biak on June 15, a day that coincided with the invasion of the Marianas, the operation that MacArthur had said he needed the island’s airfields to support. Eichelberger found out that his former West Point classmate was angry and unhappy about his appointment and had already requested in writing to be relieved as division commander as well. A highly emotional and tearful Fuller complained that Krueger, who he asserted had no idea of conditions on the ground, had meddled throughout the operation and had wanted to dump him all along. Eichelberger, who later claimed Fuller was drunk during their meeting, also relieved the general of his division command.
Eichelberger quickly grasped the tactical difficulties of the operation he now controlled. His first act was to pull the 41st Division’s units back, the same intuition that had caused so much trouble for Fuller. He then went on to implement Fuller’s plan to flank the West Caves. On June 19 Eichelberger moved to take the high ground, and on the 20th the 41st Division was attacking the West Caves, backed by a fierce artillery and naval barrage. With this latest American offensive, Senda finally agreed with Kuzume’s plan to retreat inland. But it was now too late.
On the morning of June 22, Kuzume decided to burn the 222nd’s regimental colors. The unwritten code of the Japanese army was that such an act meant the unit commander had to accept responsibility for the disgrace of defeat by committing suicide. Shortly afterward, Senda crossed the narrow strait to Supiori Island northwest of Biak. There, the admiral hid in the jungle for more than a month before being rescued by submarine.
The Japanese finally abandoned the East Caves on June 28, but about 100 soldiers in the West Caves—many wounded— held out until July 29. On July 2 Kuzume gathered his surviving officers and told them he would meet them at the Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s Shinto shrine to honor its war dead. He seated himself facing the imperial palace, washed his hands with precious water from a canteen and used his sword to cut his carotid artery. With his remaining strength, he pulled the pin on a hand grenade, blowing himself apart. On July 26, upon receiving a report on the Biak fighting from the war minister and chief of staff, Emperor Hirohito commended the Biak detachment. In early August, commendations poured in from several higher headquarters, and on October 8 Kuzume was posthumously promoted to Numata’s rank, lieutenant general.
American and Japanese soldiers fought savagely for Biak, but the operation fulfilled neither side’s expectations. The stubborn Japanese defense precluded use of Biak’s airfields to support the invasion of the Marianas, and the determined American offensive prevented the airstrips from becoming way stations to support Japanese fleet operations during A-Go. Both tactical commanders, however, were judged by their ability to execute the respective original plans, even when the changing tactical and operational situation dictated otherwise. Each fought under constraints from higher headquarters that were often uncertain of what was happening, acted on mistaken appreciations or issued contradictory orders. Fuller moved at his own pace, never totally following repeated and pointed guidance to accelerate his offensive. Kuzume followed every order, even when he knew it made no sense. The Americans won, but Fuller left Biak in disgrace. The Japanese lost, but by killing himself Kuzume redeemed his honor and became a hero.
Ed Drea is a member of the World War II Magazine Editorial Advisory Board and the author of In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army. For further reading, see Hurricane at Biak: MacArthur Against the Japanese, by Marc D. Bernstein.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.