West New Britain, Papua New Guinea December 26, 1943

Following the successful conclusion of the U.S. and Australian Buna-Gona Cam­paign on New Guinea’s south­eastern penin­sula in late-Janu­ary 1943, the Allies moved west along the island’s north shore. Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, Supreme Com­mander of Allied Forces in the South­west Pacific Area, used Buna (see map, lower center) as the staging base for attacks up the north coast after the exhausted and battle-depleted Allied troops had recovered and were recon­sti­tuted. During these six months of recovery, as each side rein­forced and replaced ear­lier losses on New Guinea, the Japa­nese still retained the stra­te­gic initi­a­tive on the island, and they still held the prepon­derant air, naval, and ground strength in the South­west Pacific, despite being forced to aban­don their Solo­mon Islands forward base on Guadalcanal in February 1943.

The stalemate in the Southwest Pacific was broken at the beginning of Septem­ber 1943 by a joint opera­tion launched by Mac­Arthur and U.S. Rear Admiral Daniel E. Barbey, who headed up what even­tually became the VII Amphib­ious Force—the ships that carried the ground forces, their equip­ment, and supplies. The first coor­di­nated air­borne and amphib­ious assault in the Pacific occurred at Lae in the Huon Gulf (center in map). Finsch­hafen north­west of Lae, a Japa­nese strong­point that guarded the western side of the 60 mile-wide Vitiaz and Dam­pier Straits sepa­rating New Guinea and New Britain, proved a tougher nut to crack. In the mean­time, Mac­Arthur’s choice to lead his new Alamo Force, the U.S. Sixth Army’s Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, was training his growing num­ber of divi­sions to fight as amphib­ious task forces just as the U.S. was gaining over­whelming numer­i­cal supe­riority in air and naval strength in the South­west and South Pacific areas. The U.S. also now held the stra­tegic and tac­ti­cal initi­a­tive and could select the dates and locations for forth­coming oper­a­tions that would most advance the Allied cause.

In December 1943 MacArthur ordered amphib­ious assaults across the Vitiaz and Dam­pier Straits. In the pre­dawn hours of Decem­ber 15 the U.S. Army’s 112th Cavalry Regi­mental Combat Team, with help from a U.S. Marine amphib­ious tractor bat­talion and Allied naval and air units, seized Arawe, a Japa­nese air and PT (patrol torpedo boat) base on the south­western coast of New Britain garri­soned by 120 soldiers and sailors. And on this date, Decem­ber 26, 1943, the 1st Marine Divi­sion, vete­rans of the Guadal­canal Cam­paign (August 7, 1942, to Febru­ary 9, 1943), landed at full strength at Cape Gloucester on the island’s northwestern tip.

Aided by naval salvos from American and Austra­lian warships and by aerial attacks and smoke screens from the two nations’ air forces, the 1st Marine Division’s landing at Cape Gloucester proved success­ful. Four days later, against only light enemy oppo­si­tion, the Marines secured the air­fields that were the ini­tial objec­tive of the oper­a­tion. Heavy fighting tapered off after the first two weeks of 1944. Towards the end of Febru­ary the Japa­nese began to leave their defen­sive posi­tions for the rela­tive safety of Rabaul on the oppo­site end of the island. When U.S. rein­force­ments arrived on New Britain, the 112th Cav­alry Regi­ment deployed to New Guinea in early June. The 1st Marine Divi­sion returned to the Solo­mons, to the Russell Islands 30 miles north­west of their Gua­dal­canal stomping grounds, for rest and refitting before being dispatched to Peleliu in mid-September 1944. Amer­i­can casual­ties (killed and wounded) during the Arawe and Cape Glouces­ter oper­a­tions, which ended April 22, 1944, numbered 1,863, with 4 missing. Japa­nese dead amounted to just over 1,300, with an unknown number of wounded and missing.

Some of the most vicious combat anywhere in World War II was waged in the Pacific. Of the many fine first­hand accounts by those who fought there I have three favor­ites: Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific, Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Oki­nawa, and Chuck Tatum’s Red Blood, Black Sand: Fighting Along­side John Basi­lone from Boot Camp to Iwo Jima. For those less keen on reading about com­bat in the Pacific than viewing it, I recom­mend HBO’s homage to the men and women who fought and died in the Pacific Theater. Pro­duced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spiel­berg, and Gary Goetz­man, The Pacific is a 10part mini­series that delivers a gritty and real­is­tic por­trait of the war’s island-hopping cam­paigns as seen through the inter­twined odys­seys of Marines Leckie, Sledge, and Medal of Honor recipi­ent John Basi­lone, who was trag­ically killed on Iwo Jima on Febru­ary 19, 1945, the first day of the island’s invasion.—Norm Haskett

Battle of Cape Gloucester, December 26, 1943, to April 22, 1944

Eastern New Guinea and New Britain Island

Above: Map of Eastern New Guinea and Japanese-occupied New Britain. The Japa­nese bastion of Rabaul appears in capital letters on the north­eastern tip of the Taiwan-size island of New Britain and Cape Glouces­ter on the north­western tip of New Britain. Arawe appears on the south­western coast. The U.S. Army’s offi­cial history con­cluded that, in retro­spect, the New Britain landings at Arawe (Oper­a­tion Direc­tor) and Cape Glouces­ter (Oper­a­tion Back­hander) were not essen­tial to the reduc­tion of Rabaul as intended. (Actu­ally Rabaul, with its esti­mated 100,000-plus ground troops, was neu­tralized for the remain­der of the war by the Allies’ pro­longed aerial attacks and by the “island hopping” stra­tegy adopted in late 1943 to iso­late and by­pass enemy strong­points, letting them literally “wither on the vine” as U.S. forces advanced.) The landings and occu­pa­tion of Western New Britain simply seem to have tied down good men who could have been engaged to greater advantage elsewhere.

Battle of Cape Gloucester: 1st Marine Division at Cape Gloucester, December 1943Battle of Cape Gloucester: Cape Gloucester landings, December 1943

Left: Men and cargo of the 1st Marine Division, veterans of the cam­paign on Guadal­canal, are pictured aboard a landing craft for the invasion of Cape Glouces­ter, Decem­ber 26, 1943. Despite the narrow beaches and the rough surf that buffeted their landing craft, 13,000 Marines and an excess of 7,500 tons of supplies came ashore in a single day.

Right: The initial landings in the Cape Gloucester area had as their ulti­mate objec­tive the iso­la­tion of the huge Japa­nese air and naval base at Rabaul, 300 miles to the east on the other side of the island. The plan called for the Allies to secure Cape Glouces­ter’s beach­heads and capture the dual air­fields at Tuluvu to assist in the planned attacks on Rabaul. The Marines took the air­fields on Decem­ber 30, 1943, after slogging for three days through neck-deep swamps (marked “Damp Flats” on their maps), where men were actually killed by sodden branches falling from rotting trees. Impeded by heavy rains, Army avia­tion engi­neers worked around the clock to make Air­field No. 2, the larger of the Tuluvu air­strips, oper­a­tional, a task that took them until the end of January 1944. In the end the two air­strips proved of marginal value to the Allies.

Battle of Cape Gloucester: New Britain jungle landscapeBattle of Cape Gloucester: Marines’ machine gun nest, Cape Gloucester

Above: Embattled Marines at times could see no more than a few feet ahead of them owing to the thick jungle (left frame). Retreating at first into the jungle of Cape Glouces­ter, Japa­nese soldiers finally gathered strength and counter­attacked their Marine pur­suers. The photo in the right frame shows Marines in the forest’s dark­ness fending off a Japa­nese attack using an M1917 Browning machine gun. Marines needed three weeks of hand-to-hand com­bat to clear more than 10,000 enemy troops from the imme­diate area around Cape Glouces­ter. The Cape Glouces­ter base effectively bottled up the 135,000 Japa­nese defenders at Rabaul, because the dense, jungle-swathed mountain ridges of the interior were impassable.

Battle of Cape Gloucester: Marines try erecting a tent at Cape Gloucester base camp during a monsoon delugeBattle of Cape Gloucester: Cape Gloucester’s thick jungle made vehicular traffic almost impossible

Left: Atrocious weather in the “green inferno” of New Britain proved to be the main prob­lem for Marines and soldiers at Cape Glouces­ter. Mon­soon deluges—as much as 16 inches of rain fell in a day—flooded fox­holes and made life miser­able in the base camp. Wet uni­forms never really dried, and the men suffered contin­ually from fungus infec­tions, the so-called jungle rot, which readily developed into open sores. Mosquito-borne malaria threatened the health of the men, who also had to con­tend with other insects—“little black ants, little red ants, big red ants” on an island where “even the caterpillars bite.”

Right: Movement on foot or by vehicle through the island’s swamp, jungles, and tall, coarse kunai grass verged on the impos­sible, espe­cially where mon­soon rains had flooded the land or turned the volcanic soil into slippery mud.

“Rings Around Rabaul.” Victory at Sea Episode Makes Excellent Use of Japanese and American Footage