"I accordingly applied my major efforts to the seizure of areas which were suitable for airfields and base development, but which were only lightly defended by the enemy."

 

-- General MacArthur, in Reminiscences   [59]

 

In 1943, General Douglas MacArthur's primary goal in the Southwest Pacific was to cut off the major Japanese naval staging area, airfields and supply bases at Rabaul.  Located on the northeast coast of the island of New Britain, Rabaul was the Japanese focal point for the protection and reinforcement of the entire area.  In order to seize this critical target, it was first necessary to capture New Guinea, the strategic right flank of the Japanese line of defense.  The gulf port of Lae was the final objective of the New Guinea offensive.  In order to employ all necessary forces for the assault, MacArthur needed an airfield in the vicinity.    

MacArthur's plan was to "envelope them, incapacitate them, apply the 'hit 'em where they ain't -- let them die on the vine' " method of "leap frog" advances.  As he explained to one of his staff officers, this was the very opposite of the term "island hopping," which was the direct frontal pressure against enemy-occupied islands in a long and costly effort.  Instead, he intended to envelop the enemy in order to bypass and neutralize Japanese centers of strength.   This maneuver required the careful selection of key points, usually lightly defended areas that were suitable for airfields and bases, as objectives.  The timing of their seizure was critical for success.[60]

The lack of aircraft carriers and naval aviation significantly hampered MacArthur's progress in the Southwest Pacific.  The very nature of "leap frogging" depended on achieving air superiority over each move forward.  The limit of advance in the Southwest Pacific was the maximum range of ground-based fighter aircraft.  The presence of aircraft carriers would have enabled MacArthur to strike quickly and decisively throughout the entire area of operations, but reliance on ground-based aircraft meant that he had to advance airbases to support each subsequent operation.[61]

The senior intelligence officer of the Japanese Eighth Area Army described MacArthur's successful strategy to secure Buna, Papua:

 

This was the type of strategy that we hated most.  The Americans, with minimum losses, attacked and seized a relatively weak area, constructed airfields and then proceeded to cut the supply lines to troops in that area.  Without engaging in a large-scale operation, our strongpoints were gradually starved out.  The Japanese preferred direct assault after the German fashion, but the Americans flowed into our weaker points and submerged us, just as water seeks the weakest entry to sink a ship.  We respected this type of strategy for its brilliance because it gained the most while losing the least.[62]

 

 

This strategy worked to capture Buna, so MacArthur planned to use it again to take Rabaul.

With the fall of Papua in January 1943, the Japanese consolidated their defensive positions.  They withdrew along the northern coast of New Guinea, New Britain and the northern Solomons.  New Guinea was the strategic right flank of the Japanese line of defense.  From New Guinea, the Allies were able to begin operations into the heart of the Japanese-occupied areas, and eventually assault the Philippines and Japan itself. 

Final planning for the Rabaul operations began after the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff issued their planning directive on March 28, 1943.   The directive ordered General MacArthur and Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of the South Pacific Area (SOPAC), to accomplish the following tasks:  establish airfields on Woodlark and Kiriwina Islands; seize the Lae-Salamaua-Finschhafen-Madang area of New Guinea; occupy western New Britain; seize and occupy the Solomon Islands as far as southern Bougainville.[63]  MacArthur commanded the entire operation, but the advances in the Solomons were under the direction of Admiral Halsey (see fig. 2).  SOPAC was one of the three subordinate commands of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz's Pacific Ocean Area.  Except for the forces designated for the Rabaul operations, Halsey remained under Nimitz’s control.  This arrangement was another one of the complicated chain of commands in the Pacific Theater.  Fortunately for the Rabaul operation, the violation of the principle of unity of command did not affect the outcome.[64]

The planning task to seize Rabaul was not difficult because MacArthur's Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) General Headquarters (GHQ) had already developed two previous plans (designated ELKTON) to accomplish this mission.  On April 26, 1943, SWPA GHQ issued its plan, codenamed ELKTON III, after a personal conference in Brisbaine between Halsey and MacArthur.  The joint operations of the SWPA and SOPAC would occur under the codename CARTWHEEL (see fig. 3).  The plan, calling for mutually supporting advances along two axes of SWPA and SOPAC forces, envisioned thirteen amphibious operations, over eight months, culminating in the capture of Rabaul.[65]  

The SWPA and SOPAC plans each had three phases.  The SWPA phases were I, II and III and the SOPAC phases were A, B and C (see figs. 4 and 5).  The initial two phases (Operation I and A) began simultaneously.  Operation I was the seizure of Woodlark and Kiriwina and Operation A was the ground operations in the Solomon Islands (New Georgia and Santa Isabel).  Operation II was the capture of Lae (IIa), Salamaua and Finschhafen (IIb), and Madang (IIc).  One month later, the SWPA would begin Operation B to complete the conquest of New Georgia and move forward to take the Japanese bases on the Shortland Islands and Buin in southern Bouganville.   The final set of operations would also begin simultaneously.  Operation III would cross the Vitiaz Strait to seize Cape Gloucester and Operation C would take control of Buka Island before converging on the final objective of Rabaul.[66]

MacArthur used mainly the existing headquarters in his command to execute ELKTON III (see fig. 6).  But he did set up, under the direct control of his GHQ, a new, primarily American, task force (Alamo), under the command of Lieutenant General Walter Krueger.  The Alamo force was virtually the same as the Sixth Army that Krueger commanded.  The remainder of the ground forces, primarily Australian, was the New Guinea Force, under the control of Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey.  The Alamo Force conducted operations in Woodlark, Kiriwina and New Britain while the New Guinea Force fought primarily in New Guinea.  Lieutenant General George C. Kenney, commander of the U.S. Fifth Air Force, was responsible for the Allied Air Forces.[67]

The CARTWHEEL operations began June 29, 1943 when Halsey invaded New Georgia (Operation A) and MacArthur struck at Nassau Bay (Operation I).  The following day two U.S. Army regiments, 112th Cavalry and 158th Infantry, from the Alamo Force, made unopposed landings at Woodlark and Kiriwina Islands.  Nassau Bay, about forty miles from Lae, became a staging area that threatened the Japanese at Salamaua, a village that guarded the overland approach to Lae.  As the 41st Division and 162nd Regiment pushed slowly along the coast of the Nassau Bay, the Japanese began to reinforce Salamaua with the troops from the Lae garrison.  These operations set the conditions for a flanking attack by sea and air at Lae.   While the Americans advanced along the coast of Nassau Bay, Australian troops crossed overland from Wau through the Owen Stanley Mountains.  An Allied pincer closed on the real objective of Lae.[68]

            MacArthur described the basic scheme of maneuver for the New Guinea Force to seize the Huon Peninsula.

 

My plan to advance in northeast New Guinea and to seize the Huon Peninsula was entrusted to what was called the New Guinea Force.  It was largely composed of Australian troops under the command of General Blamey.  My order to the Force was to seize and occupy the sector that contained Salamaua, Lae, Finschhafen, and Madang.  Lae was to be the first main objective -- its capture would breach the vital gate in the Huon Peninsula.  The advance pushed the enemy back toward Salamaua with the purpose of deceiving him into the belief that it, and not Lae, was the prime objective.[69]

 

 

In early June 1943, Kenney began to look for airfields that could cover both an airborne and an amphibious assault on Lae.   General Whitehead, the Deputy Fifth Air Force Commander, established a base that was sixty miles southwest of Lae at a native village named Marilinan.  There was an old airstrip at the location, but it was satisfactory only for cargo planes.  Just four miles to the north was another strip at a little village named Tsili-Tsili that was made into a double runway 7,000 feet long with ample room for dispersed parking areas.[70]

            Work began immediately under great security to improve the airfields.   The Fifth Air Force brought in jeeps and trailers to move supplies from Marilinan to Tsili-Tsili for the larger base there.  Two and one-half ton trucks were necessary to handle the supplies, but would not fit into the C-47.  The ingenuity of the airmen of the Firth Air Force then came into play:  they sawed the frames of the truck in two, put the pieces in separate planes, flew them over the Owen Stanley Mountains into Marilinan, where they bolted and welded the trucks back together.  On July 26 the first fighters landed at Tsili-Tsili without the Japanese even detecting the improvements to the airstrip.  In the middle of August, the airfields were ready and fighters based there could now concentrate on the Japanese barge traffic into Lae from Wewak and Rabaul and the airfields at Wewak.[71]

            In the middle of July, the successful continuous attacks of the Allied Air Forces under Kenny and the SOPAC attacks near New Georgia took the initiative away from the Japanese air force in both the SWPA and SOPAC areas.  By August, the plans to capture Lae were in their final stages.  In spite of the progress, Kenney reported to MacArthur that he did not have sufficient assets to destroy all the Japanese air forces at both Rabaul and Wewak.  So he gained approval to concentrate all his forces on Wewak -- the airfield that had the greatest impact on the Lae operation.[72]

            With the forward secret airbase at Tsili-Tsili complete and in full operation, the fighters were in effective range of Wewak and were able to provide the required escort for the heavy bombers.  On August 17, Kenney's airmen struck Wewak and destroyed a hundred Japanese airplanes on the taxiways.  He had planned the raid based on intelligence from compromised air-ground codes that revealed that the Japanese had concentrated ten regiments of airplanes at Wewak.  The destroyed aircraft were most likely about to take off to attack Tsili-Tsili and Marilinan.  A Japanese reconnaissance flight had discovered the new bases on August 14 and over the next two days the Japanese attempted to attack the bases with little success.[73]  The Fifth Air Force continued the attack and destroyed twenty-eight more aircraft.  In just two days, the Japanese Fourth Air Force had lost three-quarters of its aircraft and was unable to oppose Allied operations at Lae.[74]  The conditions were set for the coordinated airborne and amphibious attack on Lae.

            MacArthur's plans to seize the Huon Peninsula and the Markham Valley were complex.  Lae was the first objective.  There were enough troops in the New Guinea Force, but the terrain precluded large-scale overland movements.  The SWPA lacked enough ships for a completely amphibious assault and did not have enough aircraft for a complete air-movement of the required troops.  To employ all the necessary forces, MacArthur and his staff developed a plan to employ all available means -- a division amphibious assault, an assault by parachute forces, and an air-movement of an entire division.[75]

            Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring, 1st Australian Corps Commander, controlled the assault on Lae.  For this operation, he had two divisions – Major General George Vasey's 7th Australian and Major General Sir George Wooten's 9th Australian.  The original plan called for the 9th to land by sea to the east of Lae and the 7th was to march overland from the Wau-Bulolo area down the Markham Valley towards Lae from the west.  In addition to the two Australian divisions, MacArthur made available a parachute battalion from the 503d PIR that formed part of Krueger's Alamo Force.  The battalion’s mission would be to seize the airfield at Nadzab.  During the assault on Lae, Major General Edward J. Milford's 5th Australian Division would continue to press towards Salamaua, to draw enemy forces away from the Lae area  (see fig. 7).  At the planning conference, Admiral Barbey worked with Wooten to prepare for the amphibious assault and Whitehead worked with Vasey to plan the attack on Nadzab and the subsequent air resupply of the 7th Australian Division.[76] 

Vasey was not happy with the original plan, which relied heavily on using the uncompleted Bulldog-Wau road to move his division into the Bulolo Valley.  Once in the Markham Valley, the division would require another road to advance into the Lae area.  Any delay would allow the Japanese to build up their forces.  In addition, the long overland march would exhaust his unit.  Vasey returned to the New Guinea Force Headquarters later that afternoon to recommend to Herring that the majority of his forces fly into Nadzab and receive resupplies by air.[77] 

            Vasey was also unsatisfied with the plan for one parachute battalion to seize the airstrip against possible opposition, while also preparing the airstrip for the transport planes to bring in the 7th Australian Division.  Enemy movement down the Markham Valley was increasing and it was essential to seize the airstrip quickly.  Although the Japanese did not occupy it, patrols passed through the area on a regular basis.  On July 31, Vasey discussed with Colonel Kenneth H. Kinsler, Commander of the 503d PIR, the possibility of using the entire regiment for the assault.  Kinsler "jumped" at the chance.  On August 2, Vasey wrote to Herring requesting the use of the entire 503d PIR in the operation.  Since it was a theater asset, the approval of MacArthur's GHQ was necessary; that obtained, planning for the operation continued.[78]

            There was another plan developed that called for an Australian infantry brigade to fly into Tsili-Tsili several days before the operations at Nadzab and then move down the Watut River to the Markham River to be in position to support the airborne operation and seizure of the airstrip at Nadzab.  As the planning continued, Vasey reduced the force to just the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion and the 2/6th Field Company.  After the 503d PIR seized the airstrip, the pioneers and engineers would prepare the airstrip for the 7th Australian Division's air-movement.[79]

            The timing of the attacks to seize Lae was critical.  To ensure minimal resistance, there also had to be a deception plan to divert Japanese attention from Lae.  Kenney proposed that the Navy load native boats and repaired Japanese barges with dummy figures to look as though they had troops on board and tow them from Goodenough Island in the direction of Gasmata on New Britain.  His fighters would allow the Japanese reconnaissance planes to report to Rabaul the naval expedition moving towards Gasmata.   He would then mass his fighters for the Japanese attack that he expected as soon as they received the report.  The idea did not materialize because the Navy could not spare the resources.[80] 

Salamaua was the deception plan for Lae.  Still in control of Salamaua, the Japanese believed that the Allied preparations were part of the plan to strengthen the forces advancing on Salamaua.  With enemy attention on Salamaua, the 9th Australian Division would make a surprise landing east of Lae on September 4 and draw the Japanese attention in that direction.  On the following day, the 503d PIR would make an unopposed jump to the west of Lae at Nadzab.  That would allow the 7th Australian Division to air-land the following day and commence its movement east towards Lae.  There would then be a race between the 7th and 9th Australian Divisions to see which unit could first make it to Lae.[81]  Rumor had it that Vasey and Wooten had a bet of twenty cases of whiskey on the outcome.[82]

On August 15, Blamey and his Chief of Staff flew to New Guinea to take command of the operations and to complete the plans.[83]   The New Guinea Force prepared the final tactical plans in conjunction with MacArthur's GHQ as well as with the Allied Air and Naval Force Staffs.  On August 24, MacArthur and Kenney arrived at Port Moresby.[84]  The whole plan was complete, except for one detail -- the start date.  The original D-Day was August 1, but it was postponed to August 27 to allow enough C-47s to assemble for the airborne and follow-on air-land operations.  Kenney did not have enough transport aircraft to ensure Allied success.  With enough planes available at the end of August, MacArthur left the final decision for the start date to Kenney – and the weather.  Kenney wanted early morning fog over western New Britain and the Vitiaz and Dampier Straits west of the Huon Peninsula, while the Markham Valley remained clear to allow the airborne operation at Nadzab.  This was a common condition for the area, but the weather forecasters could not agree on a date.  Kenney told MacArthur that he would give him the date and time to start the operation on September 1.[85]  On the morning of September 1, Kenney's Australian and American weather teams kept changing their forecasts and could not agree on a date.  The Australian team finally said the 3rd would be the best date, while the American team said the 5th.  Kenney decided that they knew little about weather forecasts, so he split the difference and told MacArthur the best date for the amphibious assault would be the morning of the 4th.[86]   With the date set, the New Guinea Force made final preparations for the attack on Lae.

 

CHAPTER 4- THE LONG ROAD TO PORT MORESBY

 

 

 

 

 

 

         

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