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Americans fought the Japanese, the jungle, disease and General Douglas MacArthur’s timetable in New Guinea.

By W.F. Burke

In March 1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff met in a closed session to decide on the course of the war in the Pacific theater. Both General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) Command and Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Ocean Area (POA) were slated to conduct offensives toward the China-Formosa-Luzon region. The priority in men and materiel was supposed to be given to the Central Pacific thrust, while the SWPA was to support the northern offensive by overrunning New Guinea and occupying Mindanao in the Philippines.

The March 1944 directive set the stage for MacArthur’s offensive along the northern coast of the world’s second largest island. New Guinea’s mountains were jagged and nearly impassable, the coast a densely vegetated expanse full of razor-sharp kunai grass and uncharted coral reefs. The wildlife consisted of man-eating crocodiles, three-foot-long lizards, huge bats, poisonous snakes and an insect population of mosquitoes, wasps, centipedes, cockroaches, fleas, chiggers, leeches, ants and flies. None of these, however, was as dangerous as the thriving microorganisms that transmitted malaria, dengue and blackwater fevers, amoebic and bacillary dysentery, tropical ulcers, scrub typhus and yaws. If you add to that hazardous environment an annual rainfall of 100 inches and a scorching sun, you have what Stephen R. Taaffe, author of MacArthur’s Jungle War (University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1998, $35), calls “a planetary purgatory.”

The success in 1943 of Operation Cartwheel in the Solomon Islands put MacArthur’s SWPA in a position to begin its 1944 campaign with a strike at the Admiralty Islands. On March 1, the 5th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division landed at Hyane Harbor, on the east side of Los Negros. During the fierce fight that followed, the Japanese unsuccessfully tried to throw the beachhead troops back into the sea. By D-plus-5, the cavalry regiments had overrun the island and an American victory was a foregone conclusion, according to Taaffe.

MacArthur now had airbases from which to hit targets on New Guinea’s north coast. The price was 330 dead American soldiers and 1,100 others wounded. MacArthur then decided to leapfrog past the strong Japanese garrison at Hansa Bay-Wewak and land at Hollandia, 500 miles up the New Guinea coast from Allied-controlled Saidor. A Japanese airfield at Aitape, halfway between Hollandia and Wewak, was slated to be assaulted simultaneously to provide Lt. Gen. George Kenny’s 5th Army Air Force an air base from which to support the Hollandia operation. The strike at Aitape met with minor resistance–the Americans were able to capture the Japanese air base at a cost of 60 dead and wounded. Hollandia was also quickly taken, and American Army engineers went to work to turn it into a huge SWPA logistical platform for the next move up the coast. Hollandia’s terrain presented more of a problem than the Japanese did.

Many of the defenders of Hollandia fled west toward the SWPA’s next objective, the Wakde-Sarmi area, where 11,000 battle-hardened soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 36th Division were dug in. On May 15, 1944, the U.S. 41st Division assaulted Arara, southwest of Wakde Island. The 163rd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) went ashore at Arara unopposed but encountered opposition in the storming of Wakde. The bitter battle for the island cost the U.S. Army 150 casualties. The Japanese force of 700 defenders was wiped out, and the SWPA now had another airfield from which to support operations to the west.

The 158th Regimental Combat Team, an independent unit created from the Arizona National Guard that came to be known as the “Bushmasters,” was given the task of clearing out Japanese concentrations in the Wakde-Toem area. The 158th found itself in a dogfight in the rugged hilly region southwest of Maffin Bay. In the meantime, on May 28, elements of the 41st Division splashed ashore at Biak, an island in Geelvink Bay, 200 miles northwest of Wakde.

The 6th Division arrived to replace the 158th RCT, which was supposed to land at Noemfoor Island, west of Biak. The 6th was pressed hard by Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, commander of the Sixth Army. As Taaffe puts it, Krueger had the unenviable task “of reconciling MacArthur’s rigorous timetable with operational realities.” The haste produced heavy casualties as the 6th cleared the island’s hills.

On Biak there had been no opposition at the waterline, leading MacArthur to claim a quick victory–but it was wishful thinking. The Japanese had dug themselves into the coral island. After eight weeks of bitter fighting, Biak had cost the Americans 400 dead and 2,000 wounded, but now the big Japanese base of Manokwari, on the Vogelkop peninsula, was isolated, and General Kenny’s air forces could project their power all the way to the southern Philippines. The fighting was bitter on Noemfoor as well, where the 158th RCT and the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, in a series of short but deadly clashes with the enemy, wiped out the entire Japanese garrison at a cost of 65 Americans killed.

While the battles for the Wakde-Sarmi area and Biak raged, the Japanese Eighteenth Army, bypassed in the Wewak-Hansa Bay area, lurched westward toward Aitape, which was held by the American 32nd Division. A fight ensued east of Aitape at the line of the Driniumor River. What followed was a bloody six-week-long battle that left 600 Americans dead but stripped the Japanese unit of its offensive power.

Taaffe writes that the Driniumor River operation was “one of SWPA’s most useless.” He views the many Americans killed in that campaign as sacrificial victims to MacArthur’s race with Admiral Chester Nimitz and the U.S. Navy to the China-Formosa-Luzon area. The Americans did not need to take the offensive, Taaffe points out. They could have let the Japanese batter themselves to pieces against the defensive walls of Aitape. Maintaining a defensive posture, however, would have upset MacArthur’s timetable, and in the New Guinea campaign, MacArthur “valued time more than the troops under his command,” according to Taaffe, and was not averse to sacrificing his troops to personal ambition, which “he often confused with the nation’s.”

The next SWPA landing was on the Vogelkop at Sansapor-Mar, halfway between two Japanese strongpoints. Elements of the 6th Division landed unopposed. The biggest threat to the GIs besides the terrain was a scrub typhus epidemic that debilitated hundreds and killed nine before it abated.

The final leap of the campaign was northwest of the Vogelkop to Morotai Island. Taaffe points out that the 31st Division’s unopposed landing on the island “terminated the New Guinea campaign in an almost bloodless fashion.” MacArthur had finished his race and had placed his forces in a position to liberate the Philippines–albeit at a tremendous cost.

Taaffe writes of the long, costly campaign in the Southwest Pacific with detail and clarity. His comprehensive coverage of this period is impressive.