World War II in the Pacific—The closing stages: Charles Betteridge
As World War II in New Guinea progressed, the noose around the Japanese was tightening further. By March 1944, the Americans were in possession of the Admiralty Islands and Madang, where the Japanese were strongly based, could no longer be supplied. At last General Adachi decided to move his headquarters and garrison troops, the 41st Division, up the coast to Hansa Bay. The 20th Division was to make a single trek all the way to Wewak. It had to be a jungle trek because of the Allies' effective control of the sea. Adachi wanted to have Wewak reinforced because he believed this would be America's next target. This is exactly what General McArthur wanted Adachi to believe. In fact he intended to bypass Wewak and go straight to Hollandia. So, to keep the Japanese Commander's attention fixed on Wewak, the Fifth Air Force continued to bombard Wewak with repeated air raids. Empty rubber boats were brought in by submarine and liberally strewn on the waters close to the shore, and reconnaissance planes flew over on ostensible mapping expeditions.
The strategy worked well. The Japanese, even as late as 21 April 1944, put Hollandia at the bottom of the list of possible places where Americans might attack. American landings at Hollandia and Aitape took place on 22 April 1944, with the aim of cutting off the retreat of Adachi's forces and preventing them from linking up with the Japanese forces already present in Hollandia.
The arrival of the Americans at Hollandia signalled the end of many, many months of hardship, fear and anxiety for missionaries held prisoner there. When the Japanese heard of the American invasion they forced the missionaries to go further into the bush. Many of them were too weak to go far. Seeing this, the Japanese officer in command told them they now had to fend for themselves, and the Japanese soldiers disappeared further inland. The problem now was to contact the Americans. Four of the Fathers decided that they would attempt the journey. Every sound they heard might be a Japanese soldier, or an American soldier who might shoot first before he ascertained that they were not Japanese. It was not an easy trek that these four men made. Finally, holding white towels fixed to sticks, they saw an American soldier. Father Bill Hagen hugged the soldier, so great was his joy at seeing a fellow countryman. The Fathers were taken to the Commanding Officer where they told their story, were fed with food some had not seen for years, and then sent back to the other missionaries. All were brought back to the coast on stretchers after being fed, then taken by boat to Finschhafen and thence to Brisbane where they were carefully tended back to health for the rest of the year.
With the American landings at Aitape and Hollandia, the Japanese 18th Army was completely isolated. The Americans were to the west, the Australians were to the east, and all easy lanes were held by the Allies. Adachi attempted to break through at Aitape and such was the speed of his forced march that he reached the Drinumor River. On the night of 10 July 1944, the Americans and the Japanese clashed near the river and Adachi later estimated that he lost 10,000 of his 13,000 men in that phase of the campaign. By 9 August, Adachi's weak, exhausted army limped its way back to Wewak. For the next few months the Japanese army rested.
In October 1944 the 6th Division under Major-General Stevens began to arrive at Aitape. Adachi soon learned of this and had to come to a quick decision as to his next move. He couldn't escape via the sea and his remaining troops were too exhausted to trek inland and bypass Aitape and Hollandia. The third alternative was to stay and fight and this Adachi chose to do, in spite of knowing that he could not expect any more supplies of troops, food or ammunition to come from Japan. Adachi moved inland and set up his headquarters at Nunbok, close to Mount Turu. It was a better base from which to conduct guerrilla warfare and it had a good supply of food.
Major General Stevens organised a vigorous patrolling system and it wasn't long before these patrols encountered many sick and starving Japanese. So hungry were some of the Japanese that they were driven to eating remains of dead comrades.
On 30 April 1945 General Blamey approved Major-General Stevens' plan for the capture of Wewak. The attack on Wewak began on 10 May 1945, by which time some Japanese forces had been able to sip through the Australian forces encircling Wewak. At 5.55 am on 10 May, an artillery barrage from Minga started the attack. By 8 am, Wewak Hill was already in the hands of the Australians and two Australians dead but over 200 Japanese casualties. Mission Hill was the next objective and it was during this campaign that Private Edward Kenna was awarded the Victoria Cross when he captured Japanese machine-gun posts which were preventing the advance of the Australians. One of the roads on top of Wewak Hill is named Kenna VC after him.
On 16 May 1945 Kreer and Boram, near Wewak, were heavily bombed and were taken by nightfall. Cape Moem, 15 km east of Wewak, was taken on 22 May. The Japanese had previously been prevented from moving east or west, and the taking of Wewak now prevented any movement north. The intention now was to drive the Japanese south where the 17th Brigade in the Maprik area would complete the encirclement of the enemy troops.
The order 'Cease fire' went out by radio and garamut drum the length and breadth of the Sepik District in the middle of August 1945. Such was the nature of the terrain in this huge area that fighting had continued inland for long after the major coastal areas had been taken. The Japanese Commander, General Adachi, was still at liberty and no one knew the exact location of his headquarters at that time. There was nothing to be done except to wait for his surrender.
Article continued in The aftermath of war