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.

Some of the most vicious fighting anywhere in World War II was waged in the Pacific Theater. Drawing hea­vily on first­hand accounts, John Costello gives voice to the Marines, soldiers, sailors, and air­men who parti­ci­pated in this grue­some period of mili­tary history in The Pacific War, 1941–1945. Costello’s pano­ramic and detailed account of the fighting in South­east Asia, the East Indies, New Guinea, the Philip­pines, and the Pacific vividly brought home to me that the physi­cal and emo­tional costs of defeating the Japa­nese were as high, and pro­bably higher, as those incur­red in defeating Nazism in Europe.—Norm Haskett

Capturing the Admiralties: Adding Another Stepping Stone on the Road to Tokyo

Location of Admiralty Islands

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).

MacArthur/Kinkaid during Admiralty Island bombardmentU.S. Army 1st Cavalry landing, Los Negros, February 29, 1944

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.

MacArthur decorating the first soldier on Los Negros, February 29, 1944MacArthur inspecting bombardment results, Los Negros, February 29, 1944

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