New Guinea Campaign
Allied forces defeat Japan on New Guinea
January 23, 1942 – August 1945
author Paul Boșcu, February 2019
After the Japanese invasion of New Guinea the Americans, aided by Australian troops, organized a series of landings and other offensive actions against the Japanese in New Guinea. The campaign was long and arduous, but by the end of 1944 the Japanese threat was contained in New Guinea. After this point the American forces moved to other fronts, leaving the Australian troops to commence mop up operations. The Japanese forces in New Guinea finally surrendered in August 1945.

In the beginning of 1942 the Japanese started their assault on the Australian-held territories of New Guinea Mandate and Papua, and on Western Guinea, which was a part of the Dutch East Indies. In the second phase of the battle, the Allied forces seized the initiative and managed to recapture the lost territories. The campaign in New Guinea lasted until the Japanese surrender in 1945.

Australian units began moving towards Papua’s north coast in July 1942, but the Japanese secured footholds there first, and began to build up forces for an advance over the Owen Stanley mountain range to Port Moresby. The ensuing battles along its only practicable passage, the Kokoda Trail, were small in scale, but a dreadful experience for every participant. Amid dense rainforest, men struggled for footholds, scrambling through deep mud on near-vertical tracks, bent under crippling weights of equipment and supplies; rations arrived erratically and rain almost daily; disease and insects intensified misery.

Ultra decrypts revealed a Japanese plan to land at Milne Bay, on the southeastern tip of the island. An Australian brigade was hastily shipped there and deployed. When the Japanese attempted a night landing, they met fierce resistance, and their survivors were evacuated.

The local Japanese commander was ordered to pull back to the north shore of Papua. The Australians found themselves once more struggling up the Kokoda Trail and across the Owen Stanleys, this time pressing a retreating enemy in conditions no less appalling than during the earlier march.

General Douglas MacArthur launched coastal landings by two US regiments, to take Buna. The green Americans, shocked by their first encounter with the combat environment of Papua, performed poorly. Meanwhile, the Australians were exhausted by their efforts on the Kokoda Trail. Thousands of soldiers on both sides were weakened by malaria. But Buna was finally taken at the beginning of January 1943, and residual enemy forces in the area were mopped up three weeks later.

Hard fighting persisted throughout 1943, the battlefields slowly shifting northwards up the huge island. The Japanese, defeated on Guadalcanal, exerted themselves to their utmost to hold a line in New Guinea, feeding in reinforcements. But in March they suffered a crippling blow, during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. George Kenney’s Fifth Air Force, alerted by Ultra, launched a succession of attacks on a Japanese convoy which sank eight transports and four escorting destroyers en route from Rabaul, destroying most of a division intended for Papua New Guinea.

A decisive breakthrough came when Kenney secretly constructed a forward airstrip from which his fighters could strike at the main enemy air bases at Wewak. This they did to devastating effect in August 1943, almost destroying Japanese air power in the region. Thereafter, a force that eventually comprised one US and five Australian divisions launched a major offensive. By September 1943, the major enemy strongholds had been overrun, and 8,000 Japanese survivors were straggling away northwards. The Huon peninsula was cleared in December, and Allied dominance of the campaign became explicit.

Ultra revealed the location of the remaining Japanese concentrations, enabling MacArthur to launch a dramatic operation to bypass them and cut off their escape by landing at Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea in April 1944. Fighting on the island persisted until the end of the war, Australians providing the main Allied effort. Some 13,500 Japanese emerged from the jungle to surrender there in August 1945.

The next phase of the Pacific campaign was driven by expediency and characterized by improvisation. The US, committed to ‘Germany first’, planned to dispatch most of its available troop strength to fight in North Africa. General Douglas MacArthur, in Australia, lacked men to launch the assault on Rabaul which he favored. Instead, Australian troops, slowly reinforced by Americans, were committed to frustrate Japanese designs on the vast jungle island of Papua New Guinea. Separated from the northern tip of Australia by only two hundred miles of sea, this became the scene of one of the grimmest struggles of the war.

Conflict in a hostile natural environment, where amenities and comforts were wholly absent, imposed greater miseries than fighting in North Africa or northwest Europe. But the experience of combat for months on end, prey to fear, chronic exhaustion and discomfort, loss of comrades, separation from domestic life and loved ones, bore down upon every front-line fighter, wherever he was.

With little to show for their commitments in Asia, US military leaders chose to fight Japan where they saw some chance of offensive action. The initiation of South Pacific offensive operations rested on a level of Allied military strength that encouraged caution. In the Southwest Pacific, MacArthur had only two untested American divisions, two Australian divisions, and an Allied air force of 500 aircraft. The Australian-American naval forces had no greater power than the ground and air forces until reinforced by the Pacific Fleet, based in Hawaii and California. The South Pacific theater had one marine division available.

MacArthur recognized that Australia was the Pacific War’s England: an island bastion from which to mount expeditions against the Malay barrier islands all the way to the Philippines. He needed Australian air and ground units to supplement his own forces, and he depended on the enthusiastic commitment of home-front civilians for logistical support. Although he gave its generals no special role, MacArthur understood Australia’s ability to keep a substantial part of the Commonwealth war effort focused on the Pacific. He also often used Australian diplomatic channels to evade the US military chain of command.

Early in the New Guinea campaign, MacArthur revealed some unique leadership characteristics. MacArthur’s staff tried to convince themselves and others that MacArthur was a military genius. Some people believed it, but many did not. MacArthur’s paranoia, lust for personal publicity, political ambition, structured and comfortable lifestyle, and hypochondria were well known in the army. His erratic performance in the Philippines should have led to his relief and retirement, but, instead, the Medal of Honor and a flood of media attention, encouraged by President Roosevelt, diverted attention from America’s military disasters.

One of his intimates said that MacArthur hated funerals and hospitals and avoided them at all cost. In World War I, he had refused to wear a gas mask (and was gassed twice) because of claustrophobic panic, not bravado. His emotional balance was precarious. These personal foibles, which made George Patton look normal, diverted attention from what should have been the real issue: MacArthur’s professional military competence.

Of the senior commanders in the Pacific, MacArthur was the least qualified, on strict military criteria, to play a major role. He had spent his first 14 years in the army as an engineer. In World War I he had served as a division chief of staff, as commander of an infantry brigade, and, for two weeks with no combat, as an acting division commander. After five months of battle in France, MacArthur saw no field service again. His premature generalship and assignments cut him off from the rigorous professional military education of the interwar years. He was a general-impresario, a man most given to geopolitical lecturing, not generalship.

Part of the function of MacArthur’s staff was to keep his morale up. But another important piece of their mission was to protect the general from people, including newspaper reporters, who might discover his superficial grasp of operational and technical details. His subordinate generals and admirals received only broad guidance—a leadership technique which worked at times and not at others, especially if operations soured. Army aviation flourished in this uncertainty, but the navy, the army, and the Australians found their supreme commander a heavy burden.

MacArthur had a way with casualty figures. He convinced himself and others that his way of war — that is, bypassing some Japanese enclaves — minimized Allied losses and hence showed greater effectiveness than operations mounted by commanders in other parts of the Pacific. Even though he exaggerated Japanese losses, MacArthur spoke the truth about the ratio of combat deaths suffered between the opposing sides. But the differences were attributable to artillery density, air superiority, medical care, and logistical support, not the simple act of bypassing Japanese positions: though the press releases might lead one to think otherwise.

The Japanese began establishing small forces on the eastern coast of the island in March 1942, with the intention of seizing Port Moresby, capital of Australian-ruled Papua, two hundred miles distant on the south-west shore. American success at Midway denied the Japanese any prospect of a swift capture of New Guinea through seaborne landings. Tokyo’s local commander, Col. Tsuji, made a personal decision instead to secure the island the hard way, by an overland advance, and forged an order supposedly from Imperial headquarters to authorize his operation.

Many, especially in the Pacific theater, deluded themselves that their enemies found the experience more acceptable. Allied troops believed the Japanese to be natural jungle warriors in a way they themselves were not. Yet many of Hirohito’s soldiers used language to describe their experiences and sufferings that was little different from that employed by their Australian, British and American foes.

The Japanese had not yet strengthened their South Pacific bases, but by mid-1942 they had established an area army headquarters (the Eighth) with two subordinate armies (the Seventeenth and Eighteenth) that at one time or another controlled eight divisions and assorted naval garrison troops. The strength of the Japanese position was land-based air power, the Japanese Army’s Sixth and Seventh Air Divisions, and the IJN’s Eleventh Air Fleet. Eighth Fleet, later designated the Southeast Area Fleet, controlled naval operations from Rabaul.

The only possible resumption of the offensive to which the Japanese now turned was an overland assault to seize Port Moresby. Because the new Allied command in the South Pacific was building up slowly, the Japanese were able to get first to the northern end of the land route, the Kokoda trail. Landing an army contingent at Buna, they proceeded to push back the Australians across the rugged Owen Stanley Mountains.

The debates in Washington and Melbourne, where MacArthur's headquarters were located, and between them, had delayed a planned United States-Australian landing at Buna, so that the Japanese arrived there first. Now all appeared to be going badly.

The Japanese eventually covered 120 miles out of the 150 necessary to reach their objective, over the Owen Stanley Mountains. A new air commander was sent out, and that commander, General George C. Kenney, soon brought about dramatic improvements. The air strikes he commanded helped the Australians to finally bring the Japanese to a halt. By then the Japanese were themselves so weakened from losses and the horrendous terrain that they were told to halt by their headquarters. From places within sight of Port Moresby the Japanese began a withdrawal back across the Kokoda trail; few ever saw home.

The Japanese trek was possible in part because the Australian units facing them were too small, MacArthur's intelligence having completely failed to recognize the threat, and in part because the air force command structure simply did not function well. Certainly in the face of a determined and energetic Japanese push, new measures were needed.

‘I have seen men standing knee-deep in the mud of a narrow mountain track, looking with complete despair at yet another seemingly unsurmountable ridge,’ an Australian officer wrote to his former school headmaster. ‘Ridge after ridge, ridge after ridge, heart-breaking, hopeless, futile country.’

The need to carry all supplies and ammunition rendered the Kokoda Trail campaign a colossal undertaking: every soldier bore sixty pounds, some a hundred. ‘What a hell of a load to lump uphill all the way through mud and slush,’ wrote Australian corporal Jack Craig. ‘Some of us lose our footing and finish up flat out. One feels like just lying there for ever. I don’t think I have been so exhausted in all my life.’ Many men suffered agonies from bleeding hemorrhoids as well as more deadly tropical diseases.

The Japanese repulsed the Australians on the Kokoda Trail, then harassed them relentlessly as they retreated, with ambushes and outflanking movements. Many stragglers died: ‘Confusion was the keynote,’ wrote Sergeant Clive Edwards. ‘No one knew exactly what was happening, but when the sounds of battle came from in front we were told that the others were trying to fight their way through … It was pitiful – the rain was coming down, and there was a long string of dog-tired men straining the last nerve to get wounded men down and yet save their own lives too. Bewilderment … showed on every face and as the long line faltered and halted those at the back became affected and sent messages … to “Keep moving, the Jap is on us.”’ The Australians were eventually pushed back to within a few miles of Port Moresby.

MacArthur displayed a contempt for the Australian effort which reflected his ignorance of conditions on the Kokoda Trail. The Japanese battered the Allied perimeter relentlessly, and a disaster beckoned. This was averted chiefly by air power: USAAF bombing of the enemy’s over-extended supply line created a crisis for the attackers which worsened when some troops were diverted from New Guinea to Guadalcanal.

If the Japanese had beaten the Allies to Buna, the reverse was true at the southeastern end of New Guinea. There Australian troops with some American engineers and anti-aircraft units had been landed at Milne Bay to begin establishing what became one of the great shipping and air bases in the South Pacific. When Japanese Marines came ashore they were met by the entrenched Allied force. In two weeks of bitter fighting the Japanese were crushed, losing over 2,000 men and evacuating only a remnant. For the first time in the war, a major Japanese amphibious force had been defeated ashore. The tide was turning against Japan on New Guinea even before her weary land forces had begun to trudge back over the Kokoda trail.

A young chaplain wrote from the rear areas of the front: ‘I do not believe there has ever been a campaign when men have suffered hardship, privation and incredible difficulties as in this one. To see these men arrive here wounded and ill from terrible tropical diseases, absolutely exhausted, clothes in tatters and filthy, long matted hair and beards, without a wash for days, having lain in mud and slush, fighting a desperate cruel foe they could not see, emaciated through having been weeks in the jungle, wracked with malaria and prostrated by scrub typhus, has made me feel that nothing is too good for them … I have seen so much suffering and sorrow here that more than ever I have realized the tragedy of war and the heroism of our men.’ Observations such as this came from the heart, and were characteristic of a witness who, in the nature of things, could make no comparison with the plight of combatants fighting in Russia, the central Pacific, or Burma – the other notably dreadful theaters of war.

‘Our troops are fighting in the cold mists of an altitude of 6,700 feet,’ wrote Australian correspondent George Johnston, ‘fighting viciously because they have only a mile or two to go before they reach the peak of the pass and will be able to attack downhill. This means a lot to troops who have climbed every inch of that agonizing track, who have buried so many of their cobbers, and who have seen so many more going back weak with sickness or mauled by the mortar bombs and the bullets and grenades of the enemy, men gone from their ranks simply to win back a few hundred yards of this wild, unfriendly and utterly untamed mountain … The men are bearded to the eyes. Their uniforms are hotch-potches of anything that fits or is warm or affords some protection from the insects … In the green half-light, amid the stink of rotten mud and rotting corpses, with the long line of green-clad Australians climbing wearily along the tunnel of the track, you have a noisome, unforgettable picture of the awful horror of this jungle war.’

The follow-up to the victory at Milne Bay did not go smoothly. Heavy Allied casualties due both to Japanese weapons and to disease, the sacking of both United States and Australian generals and a proclamation of victory from MacArthur's headquarters long before the campaign was over, characterized a battle that did not end in victory for the Allies until January 1943.

Unfamiliarity with the terrain problems, an intelligence failure which put Japanese strength in the Buna-Gona area at under two thousand when it was actually more than four times that large, and the inexperience of all the American and some of the Australian staffs, produced a long and bitter campaign.

At the margins of the newly acquired Japanese empire, the forces engaged and the casualties were small by the standards of the great front in Eastern Europe, but the fighting was no less hard and the percentage of casualties was just as high. Of the 15,000 or so Japanese committed to this battle, almost none survived, while the 10,000 battle casualties and disabled by disease constituted about half the Allied soldiers involved. The Allies were learning how to fight the Japanese and the terrain of New Guinea; they were paying a heavy price; but they were learning and winning.

The Japanese had lost almost two-thirds of their 20,000 men committed, while 2,165 Australians and 930 Americans died. Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger, a US divisional commander, wrote: ‘It was a sly and sneaky kind of combat, which never resembled the massive and thunderous operations in Europe, where tank battalions were pitted against tank battalions and armies the size of city populations ponderously moved and maneuvered … In New Guinea, when the rains came, wounded men might drown before the litter bearers found them. Many did. No war is good war and death ignores geography. But out here I was convinced, as were my soldiers, that death was pleasanter in the Temperate Zone.’

The Papua operations were characterized by Allied dissensions and heavy-handed interventions by MacArthur. Disdain and mistrust between Australians and Americans caused bitterness, and belated success at Buna brought little joy.

The Japanese defeat at Buna-Gona made it all the more important to hold on in central New Guinea. The agreed strategy, formalized in a new war plan, provided for the defense of the existing perimeter in the south. The Japanese would try hard to rebuild the strength of their forces on New Guinea, depleted by the Australian-US victory in Papua, in the hope of holding on to the northern portion of the great island, thereby protecting the approaches to their major base at Rabaul. These efforts were thwarted by quick Allied moves, greatly aided by an airlift arranged by the 5th Air Force, and by a crushing defeat inflicted by the same air force on a major Japanese reinforcement effort in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

The American and Australian forces would be made to pay heavily for each advance, however small, until either a major defensive counter-blow by the navy provided a great victory for Japan or the eventual exhaustion of her enemies brought on a new settlement in East Asia. The death of Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku when his plane was intercepted by American airplanes brought no change; his successor, Admiral Koga Mineichi, adhered to the same basic strategy. Japan would fight a defensive war until her enemies decided they had had enough.

American and Australian troops in a series of carefully planned and coordinated moves crushed the main Japanese forces in the Lae and Salamaua area. A combined US-Australian force, assisted by a parachute assault to capture a nearby area for an airfield, succeeded in taking both Lae and Salamaua with the surviving Japanese defenders driven into the jungle. The Allies were greatly assisted by a surprise attack of the 5th Air Force which destroyed almost 200 Japanese planes on the ground at Wewak, thus depriving the Japanese in central New Guinea of air cover for several weeks in the face of the Allied offensive.

Ernest Gerber, a squad leader in the 32rd Infantry Division, found that the utter darkness of the jungle matched his ignorance: ‘We didn’t understand jungle warfare ... we didn’t understand the Japanese. We thought the war would be fought by gentlemen. When a guy had had enough, he’d give up and that was that. That’s not how it was. We found that out very quickly.’

A brilliant aircraft developer, trainer, organizer, and combat pilot in World War I, General Kenney cajoled more planes and men from his friend General ‘Hap’ Arnold, chief of the army air forces, largely because he accepted aircraft types that did not appeal to air commanders in Europe. Kenney made do with sound tactics and exceptional pilots; navy amphibious task forces sailed without severe setback, protected by the army’s air umbrella.

Kenney’s offensive operations against Japanese bases and shipping made leap-frogging possible. His operation, staged from hidden advanced bases, allowed Fifth Air Force to destroy four airfields at Wewak on New Guinea’s north coast. Neither of these operations proved costly to Kenney, who lost only eight aircraft and approximately 40 airmen, while destroying more than 200 enemy planes and 1,000 air crewmen and ground crews.

Reflecting an unhealthy degree of contempt for the Japanese Army, MacArthur committed his ground forces to high-risk operations in the name of surprise. The landing at Lae in September 1943 required the coordination of a 7,800-man Australian force, an American parachute regiment dropped 20 miles inland, and the timely arrival of more Australians marching overland or ferried in by transports to an airstrip seized by US paratroopers. The 10,000 Japanese defenders surprised everyone by not counterattacking the isolated groups as they fought their way through the entrapment and fled into the mountains.

Hardly had the main bases of Japanese power in central New Guinea been taken than the 9th Australian Division landed at Finschhafen at the tip of the Huon peninsula and took the town and harbor after ten days of bitter fighting. They thus anchored an Allied presence on the New Guinea side of the straits separating that great island from New Britain, the long curving island with Rabaul, Japan's major bastion in the Southwest Pacific, at the other end. By the time Finschhafen was secured, the other wing of the ‘Cartwheel’ operation to isolate Rabaul, the offensive in the Solomons, had also made major advances.

MacArthur raised the risks when he attempted to exploit the Lae victory. At Arawe, the Americans met a more numerous Japanese force and had to fight hard for over a month to hold its beachhead. The Marines spent four weeks mired in a New Britain swamp teeming with Japanese before it could conduct even limited offensive operations. MacArthur paid no attention to either force except to abandon his idea of an overland campaign on New Britain.

The campaign suggested to MacArthur that he must exploit his superiority in tactical aviation and the growing amphibious capability of his theater naval forces, now designated the Seventh Fleet. His unwillingness to create a joint staff doomed MacArthur to fight his war without fast carrier task forces. He could and did, however, request timely support from Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet when an operation allowed adequate preparation and the objectives had real targets for air attacks.

The Australians found Japanese defenders at Finschhafen to be twice as numerous and more determined than predicted, and they had to fight for three months to take a position MacArthur had estimated to be a week’s work. Such events added to the Oz-like character of the war in the Southwest Pacific. MacArthur often announced the successful completion of operations long before the fighting had actually ended. In a sense, the Japanese stay-behind, fight-to-the-death tactics made such announcements correct as soon as the Allies stormed ashore. But it did not inspire infantrymen facing the dangerous task of killing the Japanese defenders bunker by bunker.

In a series of policy conferences in Tokyo, the Japanese agreed on a somewhat modified strategy for the defense of their Pacific empire. They drew a new defensive line — including Bougainville and parts of New Guinea — which they would hold as long as at all possible, with that defense strengthened by extensive reinforcements which were now to be sent to the Southern Pacific. This would hopefully buy them enough time to refit and rearm their armies and air force.

This defensive strategy would be assisted by cooperation with Germany and facilitated by improved relations with the Soviet Union. The time gained by hard defensive fighting was to be used to build more airplanes and ships as well as an inner line of strong points for the continuation of the struggle.

The following year, 1944, did see Japanese aircraft production reach its World War II peak of 28,180, but the United States alone produced 100,752, a figure which actually understates the discrepancy because of the high proportion of four-engine bombers included in the American production figure.

While the Japanese were getting ready to reinforce their 35,000 soldiers on the threatened island with additional troops from New Britain and naval air units from the Combined Fleet, the Allies carried out several diversionary operations to mislead the Japanese and throw them off balance. The main assault went into a lightly defended and unlikely portion of Bougainville, Empress Augusta Bay. Attacks by planes and warships on the Japanese air bases at both ends of the island threw off the defenders, who were totally surprised by the 3rd Marine Division's landing. The Japanese counterattack mounted by naval forces already on the way from Rabaul was defeated by the smaller but better handled forces of Admiral Aaron Stanton Merrill.

As part of the diversionary attacks, an American Marine unit temporarily landed on Choiseul Island, drawing off Japanese reserves, while a force from New Zealand landed on the Treasury Islands to make it possible for the Allies to build an advance airstrip for additional coverage of Bougainville.

By the time the Japanese on the island realized that there were going to be no further landings, the Americans had upset all their calculations by building an airfield in the swamps within their Empress Augusta Bay perimeter. The Japanese attack on that perimeter failed, and another attempt by the Japanese navy to bring in reinforcements was beaten off by the United States navy.

The danger posed to the landing by the dispatch of large Japanese naval reinforcements was averted by Admiral William Halsey's risking his carriers Saratoga and Independence to attack Rabaul. In conjunction with the land-based planes sent from New Guinea, these air attacks destroyed most of the carrier planes the Combined Fleet had sent to Rabaul and damaged six cruisers in the harbor. Perhaps even more important, the raid had the effect of bluffing the Japanese navy out of use of Rabaul because Admiral Koga was simply unwilling to believe that Halsey would have sent in his carriers without massive escorting warships.

The fighting on Bougainville continued for months; but without substantial air support and with no prospect of reinforcement, the Japanese soldiers who survived the hard battle on the island became involuntary bystanders in the war.

A final operation in the process concerning Rabaul was the landing of the 1st Marine Division and army units at Cape Gloucester near the western end of New Britain. This operation helped contain the Japanese forces of over 100,000 men who remained on both New Britain and the nearby island of New Ireland until 1945. Rabaul had been isolated and largely neutralized. ‘Cartwheel’, the operation designed to convert the Japanese base at Rabaul from an effective bastion in defense and a potential basis for new offensives into a wasting liability, had been completed.

The extremely large garrisons isolated at Rabaul and elsewhere, furthermore, showed the reverse side of the Japanese strategy of fighting hard to defend the outer perimeter of their empire. Once the perimeter had been pierced, there were after Guadalcanal no large-scale evacuations of the experienced garrisons left behind by Allied thrusts. The Japanese procedure of making the crust hard to crack was costly for them, not just for the Allies.

One of the major reasons that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had decided against allocating to the Southwest Pacific the resources needed for any direct attack on Rabaul had been their agreement in the summer of 1943, formally settled with the British at the Quadrant Conference, for a push in the Central Pacific. This axis of advance pointed through the Marshall Islands to the Marianas.

In a gamble which paid off handsomely, the Americans had landed a reconnaissance force in the Admiralty Islands on short notice. Bypassing the bulk of Japanese units in central New Guinea, the Americans had then surprised them by going 600 miles up the coast to Hollandia, soon making this small community in the Dutch portion of New Guinea into a major base. Because it turned out that the land nearby was not suitable for airfields which could carry heavy bombers, MacArthur quickly threw his forces forward, landing on the little island of Wakde to seize its airfield, and launching an assault on Biak. The American troops eventually destroyed the Japanese force on Biak and secured the airfields.

Whereas in the Admiralty Islands, at Hollandia, and at Wakde, the Americans had surprised the Japanese, on Biak it was the other way around. The airfields which were the objective of the assault were on a narrow coastal plain overlooked by high ground marked by caves. The Japanese commander, who anticipated a landing, withdrew his troops from the beach and entrenched them in the rugged terrain from which they poured fire on the Americans. Sending in reinforcements and replacing the American division commander did not move the fight forward much faster.

At Biak the Japanese acted to crush the landing force by reinforcements to deal with the American army; and the world's two largest battleships, the Yamato and Musashi, to deal with the navy. It was news of American preliminary bombardment of Saipan which led to the cancellation of this project.

The purpose of seizing the Biak airfields and those on Wakde had been to provide air support for the last offensive on New Guinea—the seizure of points in the northwest, the area called Vogelkop. American troops landed first on Noemfoor and then at Sansapor, establishing themselves quickly while the substantial and recently reinforced Japanese garrison in the area, the equivalent of two divisions, faded into the jungle until the 1945 surrender rather than fight it out.

Exceptionally well served by Ultra radio intelligence and his Australian-Dutch-American intelligence community, MacArthur knew much more about the Japanese than they knew about him. Air superiority and aerial reconnaissance (as well as an expert mapping agency) provided essential topographical information. He shared the knowledge with the Joint Chiefs that he faced a dogged but abandoned Japanese Eighteenth Army.

Of the remaining Japanese forces only General Adachi Hataao's 18th Army would attempt a major counter-offensive against Aitape, one of the American coastal strong points. Beaten off with losses of over 10,000 men, the 18th Army, like the Japanese 2nd Army in northwest New Guinea, was left behind by the war. Their containment was turned over to the Australians. General Thomas Blarney ordered aggressive operations by the Australians. Only on New Britain, where the Japanese greatly outnumbered the Australians, was a policy of containment rather than constant attacks followed. The Japanese forces surrendered in September 1945 after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Australian army had replaced American divisions containing the bypassed Japanese forces in the Southwest Pacific. The Japanese 18th Army on New Guinea and 8th Area Army on New Britain still headquartered at Rabaul, presented no major threat; but the question of dealing with their approximately 160,000 to 200,000 soldiers remained. Though short of supplies, especially ammunition and medicine, these were still formidable numbers.

The New Guinea campaign remains a focus of controversy. It inflicted misery on all its participants, many of whom doubted its usefulness, especially in the later stages. For a few brief weeks before the Coral Sea and Midway, it seemed a possible Japanese stepping stone to Australia, but by June 1942 this prospect was already dead. In some respects, the campaign became thereafter an Asian counterpart of Britain’s North African and 1942–44 Burma operations.

Once the US Navy and USAAF had gained strategic dominance, the Japanese faced insuperable difficulties in sustaining and supporting their New Guinea operations at the end of a long line of maritime communications. From an Allied viewpoint, the campaign’s principal strategic merit was that it provided a theater in which the enemy could be engaged, when Allied land forces were too small to strike a decisive blow.

The critical operations against Japan remained those of the US Navy, committed to its own thrust across the central Pacific. Month by month across a battlefield of several hundred thousand square miles, American planes, surface ships and submarines inflicted crippling attrition on Japanese naval power – vital to the maintenance of their long supply chains. In 1942-43 the Allies needed airfields on Papua New Guinea, which had to be fought for and won. In 1943-44, however, it was probably unnecessary to launch the costly operations to clear the Japanese from the north coast, once their offensive and air capabilities had been destroyed.

The Papua New Guinea campaign, like so many others in the course of the war, gained a momentum and logic of its own. Once thousands of troops were committed, lives lost and generals’ reputations staked, it became progressively more difficult to accept anything less than victory. The only senior officer to emerge with an enhanced reputation from the New Guinea operations was the US air chief, Kenney, one of his service’s outstanding commanders.

Within a year of Pearl Harbor, the arrest of Japan’s Asian and Pacific advances, and the beginnings of their reversal, made its doom inevitable. It is remarkable that, even after Tokyo’s hopes of quick victory were confounded and American resolve had been amply demonstrated, Hirohito’s nation still fought on.

Japanese strategy hinged upon a belief in German victory in the west, yet by the end of 1942 this had become unrealistic. Thereafter, peace on any terms or even none should have seemed to Tokyo preferable to looming American retribution. But no more in Japan than in Germany did any faction display will and power to deflect the country from its march towards immolation. Shikata ga nai: it could not be helped. If this was a monumentally inadequate excuse for condemning millions to death without hope of securing any redemptive compensation, it is a constant of history that nations which start wars find it very hard to stop them.

The campaign ultimately depended on how closely the opposing forces could integrate air, land, and naval operations, since no element of military power by itself could prove decisive. The Japanese problem remained the difficulty of inter-service cooperation, which meant that the army and navy fought different wars and blamed any failures on their service counterparts. The Americans, of course, could do the same and did, but assertive theater commanders enforced cooperation, with the backing of the service chains of command and the Joint Chiefs.