War in the Pacific: The First Year
Papua and New Guinea: The Forgotten Campaign
Japanese strategy called for the occupation of Port
Moresby in Papua, a key Allied transition point in the Australian
controlled island. A Japanese task force composed of troop transports
and aircraft carriers was turned back by Allied naval forces at the
Battle of the Coral Sea between May 4-8, 1942. This was the first naval
battle in history where opposing surface ships never came into contact
with each other; all fighting was carried out by aircraft and
submarines. The Japanese light carrier, Shoho, was sunk by American
planes from the USS Lexington and USS Yorktown, but the Japanese
sank or damaged several American ships, including the Lexington, which
was later scuttled by a U.S. destroyer. Considered by some historians
as a draw, the Battle of the Coral Sea had one important effect: the
Japanese were thwarted in their attempt to seize the important Allied
base at Port Morseby.
Following the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese
decided on an alternate plan to capture the vital base at Port Moresby.
Having previously landed on the northern coast of New Guinea in the
first week of March, 1942, the Japanese launched an offensive across
the Owen Stanley mountains. The Owen Stanely mountain range, with an
elevation of over two miles in places and covered with extremely dense
jungle, was considered impassable by the Australian defenders. The
Japanese, however, managed to advance across the mountains along an old
native trail called the Kokoda Track.
Australian soldiers, supported by tanks,
during the fighting near Buna, January 1, 1942.
In the early stages of the campaign, fighting was
primarily between the Australian Imperial Forces and militia units, such
as the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, and veteran Japanese troops,
including the South Seas Detachment Force, commanded by Major General
Horii Tomitara. The Australians counter-attacked in September, 1942,
driving the Japanese back across the Owen Stanley mountains. Known as
"Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels," Papuan Islanders fought along side Australian and
New Zealand forces in the treacherous, malaria-infested jungles. Papuans
also transported wounded and killed Allied soldiers back to the hospital
at Port Morseby. The "Aussies" sustained extremely high casualties in
this relatively unknown campaign, but they also dealt the Japanese their
first defeat on land.
The following months were characterized by some of
the war's most bitter fighting, by Australians, Japanese, Americans, New
Zealanders and native Papuans on the ground, in the air, and at sea. The
Papuan campaign reached its climax in January, 1943, when the Allies
captured Buna, on the northern coast of the Papuan peninsula. Throughout
1943, and well into 1944, the Allied forces continued to fight along the
rugged coastline of Papua and New Guinea, to Gona, Salamaua, Madang,
Lae, Aitape, Hollandia, and Wakde Island. More than 220,000 Japanese
would lose their lives in the Papua and New Guinea campaign alone.
Australian and Papuan troops pause along the Kokoda Track.