Hollandia and Aitape, Northern New Guinea April 21–22, 1944

The Pacific War in New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after neigh­boring Aus­tra­lia, lasted from Janu­ary 1942 to several weeks past the sur­render of Japan on August 14, 1945. Japa­nese inva­ders set first foot in the Aus­tra­lian-admin­is­tered Man­dated Terri­tory of New Gui­nea, that is the north­eastern quad­rant of the island, on Janu­ary 23, 1942, then inva­ded North­western New Gui­nea (the Dutch half of the island and a portion of adjacent north­eastern New Gui­nea) begin­ning March 29/30, followed by a drawn-out attempt to over­run the south­western quad­rant of New Guinea, the Australian Territory of Papua, on July 21, 1942.

U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, since April 18, 1942, Supreme Com­mander of all Allied mili­tary forces in the South­west Pacific Area, was deter­mined to lib­er­ate the island of New Gui­nea as a stepping-stone to the recon­quest of the Amer­i­can Common­wealth of the Philip­pines, which fell to the south­ward-driving Japa­nese jugger­naut in May 1942. Mac­Arthur’s roll­back of Japa­nese con­quests along the north­western coast of New Gui­nea con­sisted of at least 10 major battles and sub­cam­paigns, and started with near simul­taneous amphib­ious landings in the Hollan­dia area early on this date, April 21, 1944, and the next morning at Aitape (see map below). The invaders met scant resis­tance due to most Japa­nese personnel fleeing the scene before the Americans’ arrival.

Dual landings near Hollandia (Operation Reck­less, 30,000 men) and a landing at Aitape (Oper­a­tion Perse­cu­tion, 22,500 men) were intended to iso­late the 20,000-man Japa­nese 18th Army garr­i­son and its air­base, the largest in main­land New Gui­nea, at Wewak to the south. Led by Lt. Gen. Hatazō Adachi, his weary and starving sol­diers had suffered severe losses at Lae and else­where on the jungle-covered, disease-ridden Huon Penin­sula. Licking their wounds they with­drew north­west to their Wewak base. Unex­pectedly they found them­selves stymied from falling even further back to Hollan­dia by Allied landings there and at Aitape, 113 miles closer to Wewak. The Battle of Driniu­mor River was Adachi’s attempt to recapture Aitape and join forces with the 2nd Area Army in West Papua that was sub­or­di­nated, like his, to the Japanese Southern Expedi­tionary Army Group headquartered in the Philippines.

The Battle of Driniumor River, aka Battle of Aitape (July 10 to August 25, 1944), was a slug­fest in which Adachi and 10,000 men under his com­mand came out the losers. On July 10–11 three Japa­nese regi­ments attacked and breached Amer­i­can lines on the Driniu­mor River, about 20 miles south of Aitape. The remainder of July saw heavy fighting on both river­banks. Fighting devolved into hand-to-hand com­bat and skir­mishes in the jungle until the enemy became a spent force. Adachi ordered a com­plete with­drawal toward Wewak on August 4. U.S. troops harassed Adachi’s rear­guard. Assisting the Amer­i­cans were U.S. and Austra­lian air­craft and naval fire­power. Battle casual­ties were roughly three times higher for the Japa­nese than the Americans’ 3,000, of which 440 were U.S. dead.

Following the Driniumor River drubbing, the Japa­nese 18th Army hun­kered down in their few strong­holds. Hunger, star­va­tion, tropi­cal dis­eases, and com­bat losses took their toll. In late 1944, as U.S. troops were released for ser­vice else­where in the South­west Pacific Thea­ter, leader­ship of the Western New Gui­nea Cam­paign passed to the Aus­tra­lians. Aussie “diggers” (sol­diers) began clearing Adachi rem­nants from coastal areas starting around Aitape and advancing east­ward to the Wewak area. On May 11, 1945, Adachi’s Wewak head­quarters fell. Offen­sive oper­a­tions con­tinued in the back­country until Adachi surren­dered his sword and men to the Aus­tra­lian 6th Army Divi­sion in a cere­mony near Wewak on Septem­ber 13, 1945. This cere­mony occurred 11 days after senior Japa­nese offi­cials had engaged in a far grander cere­mony stage-managed by Gen. Mac­Arthur aboard the battle­ship USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay.

Western New Guinea Campaign, April 21, 1944, to September 13, 1945

Map of New Guinea showing April 1944 amphibious landings at Hollandia and Aitape

Above: During the colonial period the tropical island of New Guin­ea was divided longi­tu­di­nally at the 141st meri­dian east between the Dutch in the west (today’s Indo­ne­sian pro­vince of West Papua), the Germans in the island’s north­east quad­rant, and the British in the south­east quad­rant. The German colony was con­verted by the League of Nations after World War I into a man­dated terri­tory admin­is­tered by Aus­tra­lia. On April 21 and 22, 1944, the U.S. and Aus­tra­lia con­tested the Japa­nese con­quest of the northern coast of New Guinea with near-simul­ta­neous landings in the area of Hollan­dia (renamed Jaya­pura in 1968), then and now the admin­ist­ra­tive capi­tal of West Papua, and Aitape in the Australian-mandated territory. Map source: Warfare History Network

Western New Guinea Campaign: Aitape landing, April 1944Western New Guinea Campaign: Hollandia area landing, April 1944

Left: U.S. soldiers unload supplies at Aitape, April 1944. Seizing Aitape and nearby air­fields in what was part of the Austra­lian-admin­is­tered Terri­tory of New Guinea helped secure the flank of U.S. forces fighting around Hollan­dia (Jaya­pura), Dutch New Guinea, 123 miles to the east. Two years before, the Japa­nese had occu­pied the Aitape region as part of their south­ward advance through the South­west Pacific. Through­out 1943 and into 1944, U.S. and Austra­lian forces began a series of offen­sives in New Guinea in con­cert with U.S. efforts to reduce and even­tually neutral­ize the huge Japa­nese presence on the east­ern tip of nearby New Britain Island (see map above), at Rabaul. The Western New Gui­nea Cam­paign, during the course of which the Allies slowly gained ascen­dency over the enemy, was part of a gene­ral U.S. advance north­ward toward the Philip­pines, the Japa­nese-occupied Amer­i­can common­wealth of islands, that was planned for 1944 and 1945.

Right: Aerial view of landing craft unloading U.S. troops and equip­ment on Beach Red Two, Tanah­merah Bay, April 21, 1944. In mid-April a flo­tilla of 217 U.S. air­craft carriers, escort vessels, and inva­sion forces heading for the north-central coast of New Gui­nea split into two parts: 22,500 infantry­men in Oper­ation Perse­cu­tion headed toward Aitape while roughly 30,000 men in Oper­a­tion Reck­less headed toward the Hollan­dia area. The latter contin­gent steamed into Hum­boldt Bay and a landing zone 2.5 miles from Hollan­dia as well as to Tanah­merah Bay 25 miles east of Hollandia in the early morning hours of April 21, 1944. The latter’s inva­sion beaches were so poor due to mud as to require many of the troops to debark at Hum­boldt Bay the next day, April 22. Hollan­dia was secured on April 23, 1944, when resis­tance by an enemy force of 11,000 men quickly col­lapsed. Japa­nese casual­ties approached 3,300 killed and 600 wounded. Allied casual­ties amounted to 157 dead and 1,057 wounded. Roughly 7,200 enemy troops attempted to escape death or cap­ture, but only around 1,000 managed that feat. U.S. mopping up oper­a­tions lasted into early June 1944 as the Allies made further landings west of Hollan­dia along the northern coast. In mid-July around 20,000 sol­diers of the Japa­nese 18th Army launched their expected counter­attack (enemy radio mes­sages were read by Mac­Arthur’s crypt­an­a­lysts), resulting in a stag­gering number of Japa­nese casual­ties 20 miles east of Aitape during the Battle of Driniumor River.

Western New Guinea Campaign: Battle of Driniumor River, July–August 1944Western New Guinea Campaign: Aitape-Wewak campaign, 1944–1945

Left: U.S. infantrymen patrol along a river near Aitape during the Battle of Driniu­mor River, aka Battle of Aitape. The aim of Lt. Gen. Hatazō Adachi’s 18th Army was to bust through U.S. lines and recap­ture Aitape and its stocks of food and muni­tions. The April 1944 landings at Aitape and Hollan­dia (Jaya­pura) had iso­lated Adachi’s head­quarters at Wewak from those of his supe­riors in the Philip­pines and from resupply. Between July 10 to August 25, 1944, Adachi’s origi­nal assault force of about 20,000 war­riors was reduced by nearly half (8,000–10,000 wounded, missing, and dead from com­bat, star­va­tion, or dis­ease) in all-out attacks, skir­mishes, and hand-to-hand fighting. After giving chase to the retreating foe, the Amer­i­cans called the battle in their favor, despite Driniu­mor River being the second most-costly Allied cam­paign in the eastern half of the island after the Battle of Buna-Gona six months earlier (November 1942 to January 1943).

Right: An Australian light machine gun team takes aim at the enemy near Wewak, June 27, 1945. By the end of com­bat in Septem­ber, most of Lt. Gen. Adachi’s Japa­nese 18th Army had been anni­hi­lated in the climac­tic epi­sode of the Western New Gui­nea Cam­paign, the Aus­tralian-led Aitape-Wewak cam­paign (Novem­ber 1944 to August 1945). From a 140,000-man force in 1943, barely 13,000 Japa­nese warriors were still alive when Adachi surren­dered his exhausted army to the battle-hardened Aus­tra­lian 6th Divi­sion on Septem­ber 13, 1945. Two years later Adachi, in Aus­tra­lian cus­tody, took his life, having been charged by a mili­tary tribu­nal with war crimes in con­nec­tion with mis­treat­ment and arbitrary execution of Allied POWs.

Battle for New Guinea, 1942–1945: Australian and U.S. Soldiers in Action