War in the Pacific: The First Year
A Guide to
the War in
the Pacific
The Rising Sun

The Fall of the Philippines

Midway and the Aleutians

Japanese Occupation of Guam

Papua and New Guinea

Assault on the Solomons

Internment Camps


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
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
Australian and Papuan troops pause along the Kokoda Track.