Aboard the USS Phoenix in the Southwest Pacific • February 29, 1944
The Admiralty Islands lie 200 miles northeast of large contested island of New Guinea, which itself lies 93 miles north of Australia at the narrowest point, and nearly 1,800 miles southeast of Japanese-held Philippines (Mindanao). Consisting chiefly of the large island of Manus and the smaller island of Los Negros, the Japanese-held Admiralties (since April 1942) would be of enormous value to the Allies in supporting the sea and air approaches to the Philippines, as well as tightening the Allied quarantine of Japanese naval, air, and land forces on Rabaul on the island of New Britain, Japan’s forward base for its campaigns in New Guinea to the west (see map). Continuous U.S. bombardments on Rabaul had cleared enemy warships from Rabaul’s harbor by February 19, 1944, and no enemy pilots rose from airstrips to challenge Allied bombers. One hundred thousand well-trained and ‑equipped Japanese ground troops on Rabaul were bottled up and reduced to irrelevance except in the case of a ground assault, which never came.
On February 13, 1944, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA), ordered the invasion of the Admiralty Islands. Serious planning for their capture had begun in November 1943 following a midyear decision not to attempt to take Rabaul but to bypass it. On this date, a leap day, February 29, 1944, the first of four waves of Americans landed at Hyane Harbor on Los Negros’ eastern shore under the cover of bombarding warships, knocking the Japanese defenders off-balance because they had expected an attack on the island’s southeastern shore or along the well-defended beaches at Seeadler Harbor northwest of Los Negros. The 1,000‑man invasion force from the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division, hoping to elicit a strong reaction by the enemy that would reveal its strength, deployment, and other tactical information, was disappointed when it encountered little resistance once ashore.
Two days later MacArthur augmented his “reconnaissance-in-force” landing with 1,500 reinforcements for a weeklong battle for Los Negros. Its Lorengau airfield fell on March 17, and inside 8 days organized resistance on the Admiralties had collapsed. The campaign officially concluded on May 18.
MacArthur’s gamble at the start of the Admiralty Campaign (a 1-to-4 ratio of attackers to defenders during the first two days, believed by some Allied commanders and historians as reckless and flirting with disaster) cost the Allies over the course of the 79‑day campaign 326 dead, 1,189 wounded, and 4 missing out of a total strength of 35,000. Japanese casualties (killed and missing) were estimated at 4,380, with 75 captured. The campaign’s successful outcome strengthened MacArthur’s bid for a leapfrog offensive up the New Guinea coast that would return him, as he had promised its citizens, to the Philippines. The general made good on his pledge when, on October 20, 1944, he waded ashore on Leyte Island.
Capturing the Admiralties: Adding Another Stepping Stone on the Road to Tokyo
Above: Admiralty Islands operational area, February 29 to May 18, 1944. By July 1943, the advisory U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff began considering the possibility of neutralizing and bypassing the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul west of New Guinea on the island of New Britain (middle of map). Rabaul blocked any Allied advance up the northern coast of New Guinea toward Japanese-occupied Philippines. The U.S. Navy, however, still needed a forward fleet base if the conquest of Rabaul was ruled out. The Admiralty Islands, today the smallest and least-populous province of Papua New Guinea, could serve this purpose, as they contained flat areas for airstrips, space for military installations, and Seeadler Harbor, a perfect fleet anchorage with major facilities that was as fine as Rabaul’s harbor. On August 6, 1943, the Joint Chiefs adopted a plan that called for the neutralization rather than the capture of Rabaul, and penciled in a target date of mid-1944 for an invasion of the Admiralty Islands (Operation Brewer).
Left: U.S. Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, SWPA’s top naval commander (left); Gen. Douglas MacArthur (center); and MacArthur’s acting aid, Col. Lloyd “Larry” Lehrbas, on the flag bridge of the light cruiser USS Phoenix during the pre-invasion bombardment of Los Negros Island, off the east end of Manus Island, February 28, 1944. The previous day six scouts had gone ashore near the chosen landing site close to Momote Airfield and reported that the wooded area between Momote and the coast was “lousy with Japs.” The scouts’ report was written off as hyperbole.
Right: In the opening stages of the Admiralty Campaign, 1,000 men of the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division landed at Hyane Harbor on Los Negros, February 29, 1944. The small, remote landing site led directly to Momote Airfield, one of two airstrips on the Admiralties that the Japanese used as staging points for traffic between Rabaul and New Guinea. (The other airfield was Lorengau on Manus Island.) Momote Airfield was seized that afternoon. The U.S. landing force, small enough to be quickly evacuated if necessary, held its own (two dead, three wounded) and opened the way for reinforcing elements, including 428 Seabees from the Fortieth Naval Construction Battalion, to land on March 2 under the protection of B‑25 Mitchell medium bombers and P‑40 Curtiss Warhawk fighter planes from the U.S. Fifth Air Force.
Left: Admiralty Islands, February 29, 1944. At 4 p.m. MacArthur, wearing his trademark battered officer’s cap encrusted with gold braid, no helmet, went ashore in a torrential downpour and, oblivious of enemy snipers, awarded a few decorations to his soldiers. During the awards ceremony MacArthur spotted two dead Japanese out of 66 corpses later counted. “That’s the way I like to see them,” he said, delighting the men around him who had no idea that the day was MacArthur’s first close encounter with the Japanese enemy. MacArthur is shown here decorating the first man ashore, 2nd Lt. Marvin Henshaw, with the Distinguished Service Cross.
Right: MacArthur and Lehrbas inspect the results of the heavy naval bombardment on Los Negros, February 29, 1944. On his beachhead walkabout MacArthur made the decision to convert the initial reconnaissance-in-force landing into a full-scale invasion of the Admiralty Islands. (MacArthur would “patent” these stage-managed walkabouts with a few of his staff and war correspondents in tow at or near the frontlines—sometimes within an hour of the first assault wave to hit the beaches—and use the publicity they generated to great personal and self-serving effect back home.)
Contemporary Newsreels From 1944, Includes U.S. Attack on Japanese-Held Admiralty Islands