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World War II Pacific: New Guinea, Burma, & China

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World War II Pacific: New Guinea, Burma, & China

Australian soldiers during the Battle of Milne Bay, 1942

Photograph Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org (public domain)
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The Japanese Land in New Guinea

In early 1942, following their occupation of Rabaul on New Britain, Japanese troops began landing on the north coast of New Guinea. Their objective was to secure the island and its capital, Port Moresby, in order to consolidate their position in the South Pacific and provide a springboard for attacking the Allies in Australia. That May, the Japanese prepared an invasion fleet with the goal of attacking Port Moresby directly. This was turned back by Allied naval forces at the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 4-8. With the naval approaches to Port Moresby closed, the Japanese focused on attacking overland. To accomplish this, they began landing troops along the island's northeast coast on July 21. Coming ashore at Buna, Gona, and Sanananda, Japanese forces began pressing inland and soon captured the airfield at Kokoda after heavy fighting.

Battle for the Kokoda Trail

The Japanese landings preempted Supreme Allied Commander, Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) General Douglas MacArthur's plans for using New Guinea as a platform for attacking the Japanese at Rabaul. Instead, MacArthur built up his forces on New Guinea with the goal of expelling the Japanese. With the fall of Kokoda, the only way to supply Allied troops north of the Owen Stanley Mountains was over the single-file Kokoda Trail. Running from Port Moresby over the mountains to Kokoda, the trail was a treacherous path that was seen as an avenue of advance for both sides.

Pushing his men forward, Major General Tomitaro Horii was able to slowly drive the Australian defenders back up the trail. Fighting in terrible conditions, both sides were plagued by disease and a lack of food. Upon reaching Ioribaiwa, the Japanese could see the lights of Port Moresby but were forced to halt due to a lack of supplies and reinforcements. With his supply situation desperate, Horii was ordered to withdraw back to Kokoda and the beachhead at Buna. This coupled with the repulse of Japanese attacks on the base at Milne Bay, ended the threat to Port Moresby.

Allied Counterattacks on New Guinea

Reinforced by the arrival fresh American and Australian troops, the Allies launched a counteroffensive in the wake of the Japanese retreat. Pushing over the mountains, Allied forces pursued the Japanese to their heavily defended coastal bases at Buna, Gona, and Sanananda. Beginning on November 16, Allied troops assaulted the Japanese positions and in bitter, close-quarters, fighting slowly overcame them. The final Japanese strongpoint at Sanananda fell on January 22, 1943. Conditions in the Japanese base were horrific as their supplies had run out and many had resorted to cannibalism.

After successfully defending the airstrip at Wau in late January, the Allies scored a major victory at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea on March 2-4. Attacking Japanese troop transports, aircraft from SWPA's air forces managed to sink eight, killing over 5,000 soldiers that were en route to New Guinea. With momentum shifting, MacArthur planned a major offensive against the Japanese bases at Salamaua and Lae. This attack was to be part of Operation Cartwheel, an Allied strategy for isolating Rabaul. Moving forward in April 1943, Allied forces advanced towards Salamaua from Wau and were later supported by landings to the south at Nassau Bay in late June. While fighting continued around Salamaua, a second front was opened around Lae. Named Operation Postern, the attack on Lae began with airborne landings at Nadzab to the west and amphibious operations to the east. With the Allies threatening Lae, the Japanese abandoned Salamaua on September 11. After heavy fighting around the town, Lae fell four days later. While fighting continued on New Guinea for the rest of the war, it became a secondary theater as SWPA shifted its attention to planning the invasion of the Philippines.

The Early War in Southeast Asia

Following the destruction of Allied naval forces at the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942, the Japanese Fast Carrier Strike Force, under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, raided into the Indian Ocean. Hitting targets on Ceylon, the Japanese sank the aging carrier HMS Hermes and forced the British to relocate their forward naval base in the Indian Ocean to Kilindini, Kenya. The Japanese also seized the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Ashore, Japanese troops began entering Burma in January 1942, to protect the flank of their operations in Malaya. Pushing north towards the port of Rangoon, the Japanese pushed aside British opposition and forced them to abandon the city on March 7.

The Allies sought to stabilize their lines in the northern part of the country and Chinese troops rushed south to aid in the fight. This attempt failed and the Japanese advance continued, with the British retreating to Imphal, India and the Chinese falling back to the north. The loss of Burma severed the "Burma Road" by which Allied military aid had been reaching China. As a result, the Allies began flying supplies over the Himalayas to bases in China. Known as "The Hump," the route saw over 7,000 tons of supplies cross it each month. Due to the hazardous conditions over the mountains, "The Hump" claimed 1,500 Allied aviators during the war.

Previous: Japanese Advances & Early Allied Victories | World War II 101 | Next: Island Hopping to Victory
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