Small Battle, Big Implications:
Japan Lost the Upper Hand When it Lost New Guinea
by Rob Dean
The Southwest Pacific proved to be Japan's undoing in World War II because the
Imperial Army overreached, stretching its manpower and its supply lines too
far. But beyond issues of men and equipment, the Imperial Army's failure
exposed fundamental weaknesses in military doctrine. This study focuses on the
battle for the island of Papua as an indicator of Japanese losses to come and
concludes that the military doctrine that had been so successful for the
previous 10 years would lead in the end to Japan's defeat. Using the accounts
of Japanese soldiers and civilians and contemporaneous news reports, this study
blends Japanese and American perspectives on one of the first land battles in
the Southwest Pacific. The analysis of those accounts leads to five central
conclusions: (1) command decisions, not the fighting effectiveness of
individuals, sealed the fate of the Imperial Army; (2) the Japanese struggled
to get reinforcements, arms, and supplies to the front; (3) they found past
combat experience inadequate as preparation for jungle and mountain fighting;
(4) they underestimated the Allies; and (5) those miscalculations were the
result of flawed strategic analyses and operational choices. By itself, Papua
was not vital for either side. For the Japanese, New Guinea lay beyond the
vital perimeter, and for the Americans, the island had strategic value mostly
as a stepping stone. The inescapable fact was that the battle for ground so
insignificant was also a fight that proved so deadly: some 220,000 Japanese
dead on New Guinea, 12,000 on Papua alone. This study contributes to the
history of World War II by laying out the conditions, the state of morale, and
the way of war that led to Japanese defeat in a land battle early in the
Japan looked unstoppable five months after Pearl Harbor. In early May 1942, a
task force of the Imperial Japanese Navy set course through the Coral Sea
headed for Port Moresby in New Guinea to establish an outpost on the
southwestern edge of Japan's Pacific empire. Port Moresby sat on the peninsula
of Papua, a rocky point of land separated only by a thin slice of ocean from
the northern coast of Australia and the Allied army stationed there. The U.S.
Navy stopped the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea. That defeat was
important for Japan on three counts. First, it marked the first major setback
in the empire building that Japan had begun a decade earlier. Second, the
Japanese were forced to abandon plans to invade Port Moresby. Third, Australian
and American land forces bought time to implement a new strategy of their own.
Deciding that the best defense of Australia was to keep the Japanese off the
southern coast of Papua, the Allies moved their line of defense from the
mainland of Australia across the water to Papua.
In early July, the Allies occupied southern Papua and positioned themselves to
start taking back the Pacific. Later that month, the Japanese successfully
invaded the northern coast of Papua with a determination to hold the extreme
southwestern point of their empire. The two armies dug in, and nothing but 120
miles of jungle and rugged mountains lay between them. The Imperial Japanese
Army stood on the brink of its great land war for control of the Southwest
Japan was so positioned because of a string of military victories stretching
back 10 years. Japan seized Manchuria in 1931, invaded China in 1937,
devastated the American fleet in December 1941, and conquered the Philippines
in March 1942. The Japanese empire was at its height, having accomplished much
without paying too heavy a price in men, weapons, and ships, according to an
assessment by the Institute of Pacific Relations. A March 1942 article
published in the institute's Far Eastern Survey said that "Japan's
victories so far have cost her relatively little." Over that 10-year run of
success, Japanese strategy, doctrine, and tactics produced a fighting force
that possessed high morale, aggressive spirit, and zealous patriotism. Those
qualities helped create an army that could strike quickly using coordinated
artillery and light infantry. By early May 1942, Japan had the upper hand in
the Southwest Pacific. That was about to change.
This article argues that the land war in the Southwest Pacific was an indicator
of battles to come and that Japan was doomed from the start when it deployed an
army whose reliance on fighting spirit and defensive position could not
overcome the shortages of men and equipment and the stubborn miscalculation of
Allied strength. On Papua, Japan found itself overextended in a remote place
and unprepared for the combat conditions in a harsh land. The battle there
exposed the weaknesses of the Imperial Japanese Army. The military doctrine
that had been so successful for 10 years would lead in the end to Japan's
defeat. Command decisions, not the fighting effectiveness of individuals,
sealed the fate of the Imperial Army. The Japanese struggled to get
reinforcements, arms, and supplies to the front. They found past combat
experience inadequate as preparation for jungle and mountain fighting. They
underestimated the Allies. Those miscalculations were the result of flawed
strategic analyses and operational choices.
In many ways, Papua was a sideshow in World War II. For the Japanese, New
Guinea sat outside of the perimeter vital to the defense of their empire. For
the Allies, it was a harsh land strategically significant only as a stepping
stone to eventual war in the Philippines and Japan. The war in New Guinea
deserves attention, however, because the grueling campaign there was so deadly.
Some 220,000 Japanese troops died there, 12,000 in the Papuan campaign
alone. This article examines the conditions, the state of morale, and the
ways of war that led to Japanese defeat in the land battle for Papua early in
the Pacific war.
Japanese Imperialism: Interplay of Politics and War
For Japan, the road to war began with imperial ambitions. Between 1868 and
1912, Emperor Meiji's government instituted constitutional reforms that turned
Japan from a feudal state into a modern nation. Before the Meiji restoration,
Japan since the 1600s deliberately shunned contact with foreigners. In an
effort to develop its national power, Japan during the Meiji era selectively
embraced foreign influences and trading partners. "Most dramatically, Japan
shed its traditional military structure, a feudal relic, turning instead to
European models for an entirely new army and navy," military analyst William D.
The end of the feudal order meant the end of the privileged warrior class, but
the men who built the modern government were still the keepers of warrior
tradition. "They constructed an authoritarian state that was ideally suited for
purposes of war," according to Asian scholar John Maki. "… No longer was the
bearing of arms a jealously guarded privilege of a few select members of the
population. Under the new system all men became soldiers."
By the 1930s, Japanese leaders "wanted to realize military and economic
security and world recognition of Japan's ‘proper place' as a peer of the
European and American powers." The Japanese empire included a string of
colonies that formed a protective net around the home island, a network of
trading partners throughout the Asian Pacific region, and a supply line from
China that fed raw materials to Japanese industry.
Beginning in the late-19th century, the military became an instrument of
Japan's continental expansion. Military leaders took advantage of the global
economic malaise of the 1930s and exploited the nationalism that arose in Japan
during a time of crisis. In defiance of government policy, army extremists
forced the seizure of Manchuria, a first significant step in the army's rise to
power. "Having defied the government and set the nation on a course opposed by
the Cabinet, the Army gained virtual control the following year, 1932,"
historian Louis Morton wrote.
Military influence over the government grew. In Japan, civilian governments
often linked their survival to their successes in foreign relations. By the
mid-1930s that changed. Japan's relationships in the world "reflected the
domestic political influence of those Japanese who favored a direct, simplistic
approach to solving their nation's problems," an approach that favored military
action and cared little about foreign reactions. The melding of military
and political power was ultimately destructive to the country, Japanese Admiral
Soemu Toyoda said in a postwar assessment. "[I]t has been my conviction that
soldiers and sailors should not mix in politics," Toyoda said. "[T]he
combination of political and military power [should not rest] in one and the
same hands. … [T]he Army did participate in politics and that is not a recent
phenomenon. It goes back considerably into the past, tracing as far back as the
Nevertheless, in Japanese society during the years before the war, the military
asserted its dominance over civilian government. Within the military
establishment, the army emerged dominant over the navy. Leaders saw the army as
the primary instrument to assert Asian cultural identity across the empire. The
navy's role was merely to transport, supply, and protect ground forces, while
Japanese leaders gave the army the exalted mission to conquer and occupy the
territory of the expanding empire.
Within the army, an informal pecking order also developed. The infantry was the
army's heart and soul. "Only the best officers were commissioned into the
infantry," military historian Edward Drea said. The army's emphasis on the
intangible qualities of fighting spirit over the hardware of equipment,
artillery, and other weapons fit a principal theme in Japanese military
thought. Drea stated that theme this way: "[I]nfantry, properly led and
motivated, can overcome the material advantages of the foe. The Japanese army
then was diverging from machine and firepower solutions to tactical problems.
Men, not machines and firepower, win wars."
The martial code dictated that the fighting man would be devoted to the
emperor, and the dominant Shinto religion reinforced the emperor's divine
status. The result of those two cultural forces was a strict military code of
obedience to command. The soldier would die for the emperor without asking why,
would avoid surrender at all costs, and would choose suicide over capture.
On the eve of World War II, the traditional warrior code of bushido took on new
elements that went beyond the long-honored qualities of modesty, bravery, and
humanity. "Japanese military culture from the end of World War I through World
War II stripped it down to a few deadly virtues," historian John Lynn said.
"The soldier was to sacrifice his life willingly."
The influence of the military and the effect of war dominated everyday civilian
life. A young woman who sent her husband to fight in China in 1934 became
active in the National Defense Women's Association. "You had to send off the
soldiers and welcome them back," she said. "And you had to volunteer to make
money to send to the military. … We did things to comfort soldiers. We
collected small things to send to them, bought canned goods, made ‘comfort
bags' and wrote ‘comfort letters.'" Japanese cities and villages were full
of young wives, children, old people – but few men. "If you had a family with a
man who hadn't gone to the front you were all right," the young women
continued. "But in those days, there weren't any families with men. Everybody
The military influenced civilian life through the co-mingling of religion with
national identity and ambition. Michitoshi Soga was a Tokyo school boy during
the war. In a 1999 interview, he recalled what it was like on the home front.
"Shinto was very much a national religion," he said. "When a warrior was going
to leave for battle, people prayed in the Shinto shrines. It [was] very much
used by the military and the government to sway the people." The government
tightly controlled information. "Everything was censored," Soga said. "There
was a screen." The government eagerly reported news of Japanese victories,
and even after Japan started to lose battles, civilians got a rose-colored view
through official channels. "But, they never told us the truth," Soga continued.
"Always: we won, we won. Gradually, we found that it was not true. So many dead
soldiers came back, and broken war ships. No matter how hard they tried to hide
it, the truth always came through somewhere. Finally, the government could not
hide anymore, so they started to speak of it."
Newspaper correspondent Hata Shoryo observed the national preoccupation with
military affairs from his perspective as a one-time soldier who became a
professional recorder of public affairs. After serving in China, he rejoined
his old newspaper expecting that it would continue its tradition of questioning
government authority. "I was shocked on returning to find the newspaper so
wholeheartedly supporting the war," he said. "They were ultranationalistic! The
atmosphere of the paper was more jingoistic and militaristic than what I'd
experienced in the military myself as a first lieutenant in the cavalry."
Japan Gears for War
A clash with the West was inevitable. In response to global economic depression
of the 19030s, the United States turned isolationist to the detriment of
trading partners like Japan. In response, an extreme form of nationalism
emerged in Japan. Historian D. Clayton James said, "Japan plunged into a new
era of reaction against cooperation with the West and in favor of the old
panacea of continental expansion. Spearheading the new aggressiveness was the
army." Japan's conquest of Manchuria and invasion of China were parts of a
grand plan for an East Asian empire with Japan at the center. No group within
Japan opposed such acts of aggression. Maki said that "the nation stood as one
behind the policy of aggression that was bringing Japan to her doom."
Western nations did react. They cut off equipment, parts, and raw materials,
particularly oil, the key to Japanese growth, prosperity, and security. The
empire needed oil, minerals, and rubber from other countries and built a
military to defend those strategic bases. The bond between economic and
military power was cemented. "Without oil and steel, Japan could not fight a
war; and as the stockpiles ran down, war seemed to be the only way of renewing
them," W.G. Beasley wrote.
Between 1930 and 1940, industrial production increased rapidly, much of it
corresponding to the expanding role of the military. "The entire economy of the
nation was rigidly controlled and oriented toward war," Morton wrote.
Production of steel used primarily for weapons mushroomed from 1.8 million tons
in 1930 to 6.8 million tons in 1940. Japan produced 500 vehicles and 400
aircraft in 1930. Ten years later, factories churned out 48,000 vehicles and
5,000 planes annually. In those years of high production, the military
stockpiled finished products, but strategic supplies of bauxite, iron, and oil
were in serious decline.
The islands of the Southwest Pacific were rich in the materials Japan needed.
Japanese leaders did not expect much resistance from the West, the United
States in particular. Should the Americans respond, Japan reasoned, the
superior Imperial Navy could force a U.S. retreat to Hawaii. When U.S. Army
General Douglas MacArthur escaped from the Philippines and chose to regroup in
Australia, he surprised the Japanese. "Japan, expecting the American forces to
return to Hawaii, had not considered facing a counter-offensive from [a
U.S.-led] allied force based in Australia," Japanese historian Hiromi Tanaka
wrote. The Imperial Japanese Army stationed in the Southwest Pacific was
not ready to fight, a German naval officer assigned to Japan said during an
interrogation for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey conducted after the war. "I
asked [the Japanese soldiers] why they did not prepare fortifications and do
something to make these places stronger, but they said that the Americans would
never come, that they could not fight in the jungle and that they were not the
kind of people who could stand warfare in the south," Paul H. Weneker, German
vice admiral, recalled in 1945.
The view of soldiers on the ground in the Pacific islands merely gave voice to
the insulated and self-absorbed view shared by people in Japan. The chauvinism
of the people contributed strongly to development of the spirit of militarism
in Japan, Maki wrote. "Cut off from the flow of more liberal ideas that swept
through the West after the first World War, and ignorant of the potential power
of the United States and Great Britain, the people of Japan were not conscious
of their limitations and of the limitations of the Japanese."
Japanese strategy in the Southwest Pacific relied on Japan's gaining the
advantage from nothing short of a perfect blend of Japanese strength and
American weakness. The Japanese believed that U.S. forces were insufficient to
prevent seasoned Japanese troops from occupying within three or four months the
perimeter from Burma to New Guinea. Further, Japan counted on the Pearl Harbor
attack to so weaken America that it would be unable for at least 18 months to
mobilize sufficient strength to mount an offensive. During that time, Japan
would establish and fortify its bases in the Southwest Pacific. Its territory
secure, the Japanese would extract bauxite, oil, rubber, and metals to feed war
industries back home. At that point, according to Japan's plan, the combination
of Japanese fighting spirit and American disadvantages would break the will of
the United States and force an end to the war under conditions favorable to
Despite the confidence expressed by individual soldiers and the boldness of
Japan's military strategy, the Imperial Japanese Army was not ready for the
fight about to begin on Papua. The Japanese stuck to their blueprint, even when
the results in battle did not go according to the plan. Despite setbacks in the
Coral Sea in May 1942 and off Midway Island a month later, Japan looked the
other way. Commanders continued to preach loyalty to the emperor and to the
principles of bushido, the code of honor for the samurai, and turned
to propaganda and censorship to boost morale on the battle front and the home
front. "Tokyo reported steady progress toward the final defeat of Japan's
enemies, and field headquarters increasingly amended their after-action reports
to present optimistic results to superior echelons," historian James found.
Japanese and Allied Operations on Papua
The Japanese exaggerated their strengths and the Americans' weaknesses. The
infantry soldier fighting for Japan consistently dismissed the U.S. military as
a fighting force that possessed superior weapons and equipment but lacked the
character to prevail in combat. For example, before its invasion of the
Philippines, Japan's army prepared exclusively for an American air attack on
troop transports and prepared not at all for U.S. tactics on the ground. In a
second example from another island battle, a Japanese force of 600 fought until
it was wiped out, convinced to the end that the U.S. enemy would turn and
At the outbreak of the Pacific war, the Imperial Army expected to dispose of
the Americans quite quickly and for that reason turned its focus on a likely
showdown with the Soviet Union sometime in the future. "It's unnecessary to
conduct a study of the weak American Army," one commander said. "Better to
spend our time studying the powerful Red Army." While war with the Soviet
Union was not imminent, the potential for war with the Soviets was more than a
hypothetical contemporary issue for Japan. The Imperial Army had gained
valuable experience in 1939 fighting on the Manchurian-Soviet border and traced
development of Imperial Army doctrine to wars in the neighboring states of
Russia, Manchuria, and China. As Japanese military planners in the early-1940s
focused on an expected war on the broad plains of Manchuria, they developed a
doctrine that envisioned their outnumbered infantry troops maneuvering to
outflank, encircle, and destroy a larger Soviet force. In such a war, the
infantryman would play the key role.
The war in the Southwest Pacific presented a different kind of foe. The Allied
army was a military built on technology. Land war in the jungle was no place
for tanks and heavy artillery, so the Allies could not exploit mechanized
forces in the ground war. But machines in the air and on the sea were a clear
Allied advantage. The U.S. military possessed enough planes and boats to keep
its troops supplied and mobile, and it used fighter planes to keep the Japanese
enemy pinned down and to keep reinforcements and supplies away from Japan's
front lines. "For every American soldier in the field during the Pacific War,
there were four tons of equipment available; for every Japanese soldier, there
were two pounds," historians Meirion and Susie Harries wrote. "This was
essentially a war of resources. … [T]he Japanese may have failed to see
precisely how the new technological developments might apply."
At the same time, jungle warfare had no place in Japanese military doctrine.
The style of fighting designed to beat the Soviets, however, proved adaptable.
Turning movements, night attacks, and fearless hand-to-hand combat were
effective techniques in the jungles of Papua. Emphasis on quick-strike
offensive tactics nonetheless obscured the need for planning and logistics
specific to jungle fighting. By chance, established infantry doctrine and
training were adequate to turn Japanese soldiers into excellent jungle
fighters. They employed a defensive style that had characteristics of offensive
warfare – a style that was active rather than passive and mobile rather than
static. The Japanese used the environment to their advantage, mastering use of
camouflage and striking fear in their enemy by setting sharpened bamboo stick
upright in the bottom of concealed pits.
In the big picture, still, the Japanese struggled to understand what the Allies
were doing in New Guinea. The Japanese reacted to the enemy, defined its
mission only in terms of checking Allied movement, and failed to develop a
strategy that served Japan's vital interests. Port Moresby as a jumping-off
point to Australia served a limited purpose, but once the Allies secured Port
Moresby that objective no longer existed. "[N]o one from Japanese command was
able to place any significance on New Guinea within the overall context of the
war," historian Himori Tanaka said. Consequently, Japan's army was slow to
adapt to changing conditions, a situation that exposed a lack of leadership and
New Guinea was a place that turned the failure to adapt into a handicap. Combat
conditions were difficult. An Australian writer dubbed New Guinea "Green Armor"
because the lush island formed a protective arc over the north coasts of
Australia and New Zealand. Despite the setback in the Coral Sea and at Midway,
the Japanese did not give up plans to capture Port Moresby and isolate
Australia from other Allied forces. "The fight ostensibly was for Port
Moresby, but it was Australia, no less than Port Moresby, which was in danger,"
historian Samuel Milner said.
In July 1942, the Japanese landed on the northern coast of Papua. At roughly
the same time, the Allies occupied Port Moresby on the southern shore. Between
the two armies stretched 120 miles of mountainous terrain, dense forests, and
disease-infested swamps. Violent thunderstorms lasted days and left waist-deep
pools of standing water. The jungle was unbearably hot and humid. The whole
territory was poorly charted. "Fighting in slime and dripping foliage day and
night[,] exposed to violent storms of rain, never dry except for a limited
period after changing into a fresh suit, never clean except for an even more
limited time after a bathe [sic], always perspiring and sticky," a British
naturalist wrote in 1943. "This is what the soldiers had to bear in addition to
the usual sufferings of warfare."
In mid-September 1942, the Japanese pushed additional forces through the jungle
and had Port Moresby in sight. "For the first time, Port Moresby, main Allied
base in Papua, seems in danger with the outflanking of our lines," a news
report said. "… The advance is patterned faithfully on the Japanese tactics of
infiltration and envelopment so effectively used in Malaya." Within days of
the news report, the Japanese abruptly stopped their advanced 30 miles from
Port Moresby and reassigned New Guinea troops as reinforcements on
With that, the Allies started their push to the opposite side of the peninsula
toward Japanese strongholds on the northern coast of Papua. Japanese and
American operations on Papua were a study in contrasts. The Japanese marched
every inch, taking two months to cut through the dense jungle and to climb
methodically over 7,000-foot mountain passes. Each step made logistics more
difficult. Not only was the terrain impossible, the Japanese had to contend
with low-level U.S. air attacks on both Japanese land forces and supply ships.
The attacks severely affected supply and troop positions of Japanese forces on
New Guinea. "When the heavy-bombers came, the landing strips were seriously
damaged but there were not very many casualties," Commander Yasumi Doi of the
Imperial Japanese Navy said. "The dive-bombers were very serious against ships
and did practically all of that kind of damage. One day … was a bad one.
Dive-bombers sank four supply ships in the harbor." With the United States
in control of the air, the Allies did not have to worry about Japanese planes.
Because overland movement was extraordinarily difficult, the Allies used some
boats and mostly air transports to move from the south shore to the north.
The Japanese tried airlifting neither troops nor supplies on a large scale. The
soldiers on the ground were cut off and left to starve or fall victim to
disease. "Their positions were strong and their troops would not yield, but
without food, medicine, or ammunition men can do only so much," analyst William
O'Neil concluded. "Tens of thousands were rendered ineffective, or even died
outright, from lack of sustenance." Conversely, the Allied forces were weak
in almost every other respect. They lacked artillery, and despite that their
commanders pushed them to make gains at any cost against an enemy that was dug
in and willing to fight to the death. In the end, six months of hellish combat
conditions yielded what seemed a modest victory as they reclaimed a tiny piece
"of the vast island network that had fallen to Japan in a comparable period of
time so very recently."
The Combat Experience
On Papua, Japanese and Allied strengths were mirror images. The Allied command
structure was solid, but the frontline troops were green. Japan's officers were
its weak link, but the infantry was tactically superior to its American and
Australia counterparts. Even veteran Australian soldiers acknowledged Japanese
skills and spirit. The Australians praised their enemies for their
jungle-fighting skill and for their effective use of the jungle to conceal
their positions. Japanese officers did not match their troops in quality.
"Japanese commanders, with a few notable exceptions, were not proficient in the
command of large units, or in what today is termed the operational level of
warfare," Drea said.
The Japanese were good fighters in the jungle or elsewhere, but the army had no
overall approach to jungle combat and had trained little for that type of
fighting. As a result, the army had not considered the broad implications for
its infantry fighting in the jungle. At the regimental level and below, a few
riflemen carried a heavy fighting load. It was a burden dictated by the
particular situation rather than a plan prescribed by doctrine. "We would
attack [the Americans on Papua] the same way we fought against the Chinese," a
battalion commander said. "Full of confidence, we moved forward to attack in a
standard close-column. Next thing we heard from the jungle was violent gunfire
and men started to drop everywhere."
The Japanese used night raids effectively. Soldier Ogawa Masatsugu was deployed
to New Guinea late in the last month of the Papuan campaign and was assigned to
a special-forces unit. On those difficult missions, the Japanese pitted men
against machines. "We blew up enemy tanks with saucer-shaped mines," Masatsugu
said. "We'd approach moving tanks from their blind side and attach the charge
directly to their hull. We'd trap them in tank pits." The Allies, on the
other hand, avoided infantry battles and relied on mechanized power. "The
Japanese military had only infantry," Masatsugu continued. "Our artillery had
almost no ammunition. If we fired even one shell, hundreds came back to
The conventional military planner surveying Papua might have used the east-west
ridge line as the battle line separating the Japanese-held northern peninsula
from the Allied-held south side. That made sense geographically. But the
Japanese drew their defense line elsewhere, along a thin coastal strip.
They established a front line in "zigzag gappy fashion" that extended inland
about 400 yards. It was a strong position and could have been made even more
formidable with Japanese aerial and naval support. Fearful of Allied air
attacks, the Japanese chose not to risk giving the ground forces such support,
and that left soldiers holding the narrow strip of island that was vulnerable
to Allied fighter planes.
The Japanese succeeded in making their position a virtual fortress. They carved
tunnels in the rock, built concrete bunkers, and placed machine guns in other
fortifications made of logs and dirt. They erected protective barriers out of
oil drums filled with dirt. The design of the fortress left only a few lanes of
attack open to the Allied forces. "The Japanese have their machine guns trained
on these approaches and Allied assaults can be met with concentrated fire," a
U.S. newspaper reported. "When our artillery and mortars put down salvos on the
Japanese strong points they leave their guns for shelter in the tunnels, some
of which are reinforced with steel plates."
The Japanese stronghold was a pressure cooker for the soldiers stuck inside the
perimeter. Under attack and running for cover, not all soldiers fought with the
tenacity normally expected from the Imperial Japanese Army. Under pressure from
superiors to get a victory, field commanders turned their criticism on their
own troops who did not stand up to Allied attacks from the air.
Fighting starvation, disease, and a lack of food and medicine, the imperial
foot soldiers felt betrayed by the officers. Infantryman Masatsugu witnessed
deaths by execution. For example, a soldier would get an order to deliver a
message to another camp and return in a specified period of time. "But malaria
was like a time bomb," Masatsugu said. "If it went off you just collapsed and
couldn't move. That happened to me. So a week later, you return and you're
charged as a deserter. Even many officers were ordered to kill themselves for
the crime of desertion."
On the American side, soldiers fighting on Papua were among the first U.S. Army
units mobilized for World War II. Some were National Guardsmen who had been
placed on active duty in September 1940. For the United States, an active role
in combat still was not a sure thing in 1940, but the troop buildup was
beginning. Hugh Reynolds, a U.S. Army infantry soldier, started a personal
journal, and one of the early entries was about his plans for Christmas 1941.
He was eligible for leave long before the holidays, but he instead chose to
defer his leave in hopes of spending Christmas at home. "This proved to be a
mistake," Reynolds wrote, "because in August, President Roosevelt issued an
executive order extending our tour of duty for another 18 months. … I still
planned on having a leave to go home around Christmas. The day of December 7
changed all of my future plans." The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
happened, and Reynolds' unit went on indefinite active duty.
Three months after Pearl Harbor, the Americans, many young men who had never
been out of the rural west, were aboard the Queen Elizabeth bound for
Australia as part of one of the first U.S. units deployed in the war. Some had
joined the guard when they were just boys, hardly considering that some day
soon they might be on the front lines. Leslie D. Slyter, who enlisted at 16,
said, "It never occurred to me at the time that the National Guard could be
sent out of the country to fight overseas. While it was true that Hitler's
Nazis were at war in Europe, the United States, led by such prominent figures
as Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, who vehemently espoused isolationism, had
once again declared its desire to avoid entanglement in Europe's never-ending
That unit of Americans saw their first combat in January 1943 on Papua.
Everything about the fight seemed beyond the limits of human capability. The
Allies endured mud, heat, and disease and faced sniper fire from the Japanese
enemy dug in on the island. "You might not get your boots off for a week, and
when you did the skin would come with ‘em. And the malaria took the guys, the
company was down to 20 or 30 at one time from 150," an American soldier
said. The Army had been rushed into the battle with little preparation for
jungle fighting and with supplies that did not match conditions. Slyter said
the misery of daily life tested the human body: "People can't live in
conditions that were there. Everything that lit on you you picked at and it
made you sick. Everything you touched cut you. Everything you drank gave you
dysentery. Men groaned at night because they could not control their bowels,
and the very worst of all was malnutrition. ... Fear was present all of the
Reynolds' unit went on the line in the thick jungle along the Sanananda Trail
near the northern coast of the peninsula. "The first night was a bad one,"
Reynolds wrote of his unit's baptism by fire. "One of our own was killed by our
own troops when he got up to move around. The policy was to shoot at anything
and everything that moved at night. We had to stay in our own holes at all
costs." At Sanananda Trail, the Australians and Americans established
perimeter positions that wound through the jungles, at some points nearly
touching the perimeter lines set up by the Japanese. "In some cases we were
separated by only 10 to 20 yards," Reynolds wrote. "It was very hard to move
from one position to another without being fired upon. So it was with the
The ferociousness of the fighting and deadly response by the Allied forces
earned them unwanted notoriety. Early in the morning on Jan. 22, Japanese
blundered across lines held by a U.S. infantry company. The fighting turned
hand-to-hand, and the Americans killed every enemy soldier. Later that day,
another company of Americans came across what appeared to be a Japanese
hospital, Reynolds wrote. As the Americans entered one of the hospital wards,
some of the wounded soldiers and some pretending to be wounded started
shooting. His story continued:
They threw grenades and shot at our troops. Our men systematically shot all
occupants of the … hospital, some of them unarmed. This action, which could not
be avoided, gave Tokyo Rose cause to accuse America of violating the Geneva
Convention. They branded us the Bloody Butchers of Sanananda. Of course nothing
could be further from the truth.
The rigors of combat on Papua showed. A month on the line often left a
soldier's body 20 pounds lighter, his boots falling apart, and his uniform in
tatters. In the final days of the campaign, one U.S. captain went looking for
several soldiers to climb into the trees to point out enemy targets and to spot
enemy snipers. He said he "couldn't find any one strong enough to get up a
In the end, courage, determination, and good infantry tactics were not
sufficient to allow the Japanese to mount the kinds of operations called for on
Papua. "It is a measure of Japanese operational deficiencies that they failed
to recognize and respond to this," O'Neil said. "U.S. commanders generally
displayed far more vigor in recognizing and responding to operational
problems." Yet Japan's command and operational inadequacies were not a
matter of incompetence as much as they were the consequence of a conscious
decision about where the army would place its emphasis. In order to validate
the primacy of the infantry soldier, Japanese senior commanders gave a low
priority to the administrative functions of war. For every Allied rifleman in a
forward position, eight soldiers served in a support role behind the scenes.
"Japan was alleged to have no more men behind the lines than she kept in the
field," Meirion and Susie Harries wrote.
Lessons of the Papuan Campaign
On Jan. 28, 1943, MacArthur announced to the press that the battle for Papua
was over. The piece of ground then in Allied hands was not worth much
strategically. Territory was not the prize. A reversal of fortunes was the
cause for celebration. Six months earlier, the Japanese had the upper hand in
the Southwest Pacific. With victory on Papua, the Americans and their
Australian allies created conditions that turned the war in their favor. Each
step thereafter would lead toward Japan and final victory. On the other side,
for the next 33 months the Japanese dreamed of regrouping for a
counteroffensive that would swing the war back their way. They never would have
a chance to regroup, as the Allies kept pressing the attack island by island.
Papua was not the longest, deadliest, or most dangerous battle. It left no
doubt, however, about which side was on the run.
The verdict did not make it back to the home island. Only words of triumph
passed the lips of Japanese leaders. They ran a propaganda campaign elaborately
designed to hide the truth from the people and the Imperial Army. Officially,
losses were reported as inconsequential and retreats were described as clever
tactical maneuvers. "Announcements of such defeats were made grudgingly, long
after the fact, and sometimes not at all except through indirect reference to
the geographical disposition of the armed forces," according to Japanese
newsman Masuo Kato, whose memoir published after the war was a sharp rebuke of
Japan's militarism, nationalism, and campaign of lies. One of the premier
examples of the widespread and long-lasting propaganda campaign followed the
Papuan campaign. The government withheld news about New Guinea, hoping for
perfect timing to present itself. Japanese leaders hoped to make a dramatic
announcement about the climactic capture of Port Moresby. Victory never came,
and instead Japan's failure to reach the objective was the first domino to fall
in a string of subsequent battlefield losses. Kato said that "from that time
on, there were so many failures for the Army and the Navy to conceal that [in
1946] it is impossible to obtain any sort of chronological history of the war
from their announcements."
On that score, Kato said, the difference between the Japanese and the Allies
was critical. The Japanese wanted the people to know only good news. The Allies
understood that the civilians who stood behind them would believe the news
about victories only if they could trust the military to tell them also about
the defeats. "Japan's military leaders did not understand that at all," Kato
said. "They expected … a warm and rosy glow of optimism, and as a result were
forced to fight a rear-guard action against truth throughout the war. The
Allies, on the other hand, undertook a truth offensive from the first."
Official propaganda drove the Japanese deeper and deeper into a losing effort
because the people did not have the truth on which to base an informed choice.
Admiral Toyoda described the Japanese people as being drunk on victory. He
said the government made an error in judgment by hiding the rapid depletion of
war-making resources. "Because of the failure of the people to acquire such
information, it was not possible for them to make up their minds to live out
the slogan that was adopted by the Government; namely, ‘100,000,000 people
united and ready to die for the Nation,'" Toyoda said.
The idealized version of the war effort served to reinforce the Japanese
warrior tradition. Community associations formed to care for their brave men at
the front and the families left alone at home. In schools, teachers
punished male students who did not enthusiastically express the desire to join
the army, fight for their country, and die if necessary for their emperor.
Propaganda alone was not adequate to explain such patriotic fervor and warrior
spirit. Without a doubt, bushido, the honor code of the samurai, was
part of the Japanese vocabulary of war. According to doctrine committed to
paper, the Imperial Army was a force of light infantry, quick strike,
encirclement, and night attacks. But at its core, the army stuck heavily to
themes of fighting spirit and determination, the intangible factors of infantry
that recalled the tradition of the one-on-one contest between sword-wielding
samurai. In truth, the fighting spirit of the Imperial Army bore little
resemblance to bushido of the medieval samurai. "Far better clues
to the attitudes of the Japanese high command, the officer corps, and the
ordinary troops can be found in the specific circumstances of the war, the
political atmosphere – both domestic and international – of the 1930s, and the
process through which Japan emerged as a modern nation," Japan scholar Karl
The Japanese had spirit and courage aplenty. What they lacked were equipment
and the means to deliver it. The Japanese war effort broke down logistically
because of inadequate intelligence, the failure to protect supply lines from
air attack, and the inability to use sea or air power to keep enemy supplies
and troops from getting through. On the operational level, the Japanese
suffered from insufficient jungle training, improper tactics against mechanized
forces, and weak command of large infantry units. An outside observer could see
the Allied advantage, as the following news report made clear: "Planes not only
transported most of the troops long distances to Eastern Papua but also largely
kept them supplied with food and ammunition. … At the same time fighting planes
[were] keeping Japanese reinforcements and supplies from reaching [the north
coast of New Guinea]." What was plain to see for a correspondent became a
painful regret for a Japanese military insider. Admiral Toyoda said the army
misused its aircraft, but the cause of Japanese defeat ran much deeper than
that operational failure. "On the material side, [failure lie in] the fact that
our country was woefully weak, lacking resources," the admiral said. "On the
spiritual side, I should say that people were not actually told what this war
was for, and for that reason they were not able to really put themselves into
the war effort. … On the American side I should say that it was the fact that
you had adequate raw materials, bountiful resources, and tremendous production
Conclusion: Defeat a Result of a Failure to Adapt
In the final analysis, defeat for Japan was the product of overall strategy.
The Imperial Japanese Army fixated on the need to react and check Allied
movements, even when those actions led to objectives of little strategic value.
Japanese high command did not adapt well to changing conditions. Their eyes on
China and the Soviet Union, the Japanese formulated a war plan that assumed
they would rule the sea and that predicted a slow, weak response from the
United States. They set up a perimeter to protect sources of raw materials, but
New Guinea overextended Japan. The move into New Guinea was not for oil or
minerals but for an overly ambitious and marginally strategic goal of
By mid-1942 the tables had turned quickly. Although the Japanese were by then
on the defensive in the Southwest Pacific, they did not adapt to the
unexpectedly strong challenge mounted by the Americans. Inflexible strategy and
nonexistent reserve strength pointed toward a Japanese defeat in an unwanted
war of attrition. "However, Japanese command paid no heed to the changing
conditions of the war and from the beginning lacked a strategy," said Tanaka,
the Japanese military analyst. However, the defeated Admiral Toyoda did not
blame the government in place during the war with the United States. Japan
never overcame the violent reactions touched off abroad by the invasions of
Manchuria and China. "Our country needed at that time to avoid war, the
presence of a strong and wise statesman who could have led the country at the
As it stood, the Japanese, with no clear overriding interest in New Guinea and
with no strategic plan that made war there a centerpiece, got stuck on Papua.
It took three more years to get unstuck from the whole of New Guinea, and all
the while 350,000 imperial soldiers were pinned down in a sideshow. In that
time, the bulk of U.S. forces left New Guinea behind them and advanced to the
doorstep of Japan's home island. Historian Henri Frei put the mystery of
Japan's fateful strategy this way: "Given New Guinea's small importance to
Japan before the war, one asks why the Japanese and Australians fought so
bitterly on New Guinea for three and a half years at tremendous loss of life
Show Footnotes and
1. Leonard Engel, "Japan's Losses in the Southwest Pacific," Far Eastern Survey
11, no. 5 (9 March 1942), 62
2. Edward Drea, In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese
Army (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 64.
3. Henri Frei, "Why the Japanese were in New Guinea" (paper presented at a
symposium at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, October
4. Alan J. Levine, The Pacific War: Japan Versus the Allies (Westport,
Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 1995), 106.
5. William D. O'Neil, Transformation of the officer corps: analysis in the
historical context of the U.S. and Japan between the world wars (Alexandria,
Va.: Center for Naval Analyses, 2005), 80.
6. John M. Maki, Japanese Militarism: Its Cause and Cure (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 182.
7. Harry Wray and Hilary Conroy, eds., Japan Examined: Perspectives on Modern
Japanese History (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), 316.
8. W.G. Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945, (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1987), 254.
9. Wray and Conroy, Japan Examined, 319-320.
10. Louis Morton, Strategy and Command: The First Two Years, (Washington,
D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1962),
11. Wray and Conroy, Japan Examined, 322.
12. Soemu Toyoda, interrogation by R.A. Ofstie, O.A. Anderson, and W. Wilds,
U.S. Navy, November 13-14, 1945, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (Pacific):
Interrogations of Japanese Officials (Washington, D.C.: Government
Printing Office, 1947), 314.
13. D. Clayton James, "American and Japanese Strategy." In Makers of modern
strategy, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1986), 706-707.
14. Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, 64.
15. Ibid., 63.
16. John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Cambridge,
Mass.: Westview Press, 2003), 246-248.
17. Ibid., 247.
18. Haruko Cook and Theodore F. Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History (New
York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 182.
19. Ibid., 183.
20. Michitoshi Soga, interview by Jason Winokur, University of Michigan, In the
First Person, March 12, 1999.
23. Cook, Japan at War, 208.
24. James, "American and Japanese Strategy," 705.
25. Maki, Japanese Militarism, 186.
26. Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 232.
27. Morton, Strategy and Command, 55.
28. Ibid., 54-56.
29. Hiromi Tanaka, "The Pacific War and New Guinea" (paper presented at a
symposium at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, October
30. Paul H. Weneker, interrogation by R.A. Ofstie, U.S. Navy, November 11,
1945, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (Pacific): Interrogations of Japanese
Officials (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1947).
31. Maki, Japanese Militarism, 192.
32. U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, Summary Report (Pacific War) (
Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1946), 2.
33. James, "American and Japanese Strategy," 705.
34. Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, 64.
35. Ibid., 69.
36. Meirion Harries, and Susie Harries, Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall
of the Imperial Japanese Army (New York: Random House, 1991), 348.
37. Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, 64-69.
38. Harries and Harries, Soldiers of the Sun, 386-387.
39. Tanaka, "The Pacific War and New Guinea."
41. Levine, The Pacific War, 97-98.
42. Samuel Milner, Victory in Papua (Washington, D.C.: Office of The
Chief of Military History, Department of Army), 1.
43. L.E. Cheesman, "Japanese Operations in New Guinea," The Geographical
Journal 101, no. 3 (March 1943), 106.
44. "Japan Advances Again," The New York Times (10 September 1942),
45. O'Neil, Transformation of the officer corps, 41.
46. Levine, The Pacific War, 99.
47. Yasumi Doi, interrogation by Captain C. Shands, U.S. Navy, October 27,
1945, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (Pacific): Interrogations of Japanese
Officials (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1947), 206.
48. O'Neil, 41.
49. Ibid., 42.
50. Ibid., 43.
51. F. Tillman Durdin, "Air-Borne Army Won Papua Despite Terrible Hardships," The
New York Times (11 January 1943), 1.
52. Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, 70.
53. Ibid., 63.
54. Ibid., 70.
55. Cook, Japan at War, 270.
56. Ibid., 271.
57. Tanaka, "The Pacific War and New Guinea."
58. F. Tillman Durdin, "The Japanese Position," The New York Times (25
November 1942), 3, and F. Tillman Durdin, "Location of the Front Lines," The
New York Times (12 December 1942), 6.
59. "Japanese in Virtual Fortresses," The New York Times (7 December
60. Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, 70.
61. Cook, Japan at War, 275.
62. Hugh Z. Reynolds, "The Jungleers," Personal Journal, The 41st Division:
Home of the Jungeleers, 2005.
63. Carle F. O'Neil, "Pacific Memories: Montana National Guardsmen Recall the
Fighting on New Guinea in World War II," Montana The Magazine of Western
History 52, no. 2 (Summer 2002), 39.
64. Ibid., 41.
65. Ibid., 40.
66. Reynolds, "The Jungleers."
69. Durdin, "Air-Borne Army Won Papua Despite Terrible Hardships," 1.
70. O'Neil, Transformation of the officer corps, 75.
71. Harries and Harries, Soldiers of the Sun, 369-370.
72. "Allies' Papua Loss Half That of Foe," The New York Times (28
January 1943), 10.
73. Masuo Kato, The Lost War: A Japanese Reporter's Inside Story (New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), 137-138.
74. Ibid., 137.
75. Ibid., 135.
76. Toyoda, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: Interrogations of Japanese
77. Ibid., 320.
78. Cook, Japan at War, 171-172.
79. Andrew Kang, interview by G. Kurt Pieler and Robyn Lee Hendrick, Veteran's
Oral History Project, Center for the Study of War and Society, University of
Tennessee, December 26, 2001.
80. Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, 63-73.
81. Karl Friday, "Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian's Perspective on the
Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition," The History Teacher (May
82. Ibid., 348.
83. Durdin, "Air-Borne Army Won Papua Despite Terrible Hardships," 1.
84. Toyoda, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: Interrogations of Japanese
85. Tanaka, "The Pacific War and New Guinea."
86. Toyoda, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: Interrogations of Japanese
87. Frei, "Why the Japanese were in New Guinea."
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Copyright © 2008 Rob Dean.
Written by Rob Dean. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Rob Dean at:
About the author:
Rob Dean is a newspaper editor in Santa Fe, N.M. He is on track to earn a master of arts in military history from Norwich University in Vermont in June 2008. His primary interests are civil-military relations and World War II. He earned a B.A. in journalism and history-political science at the University of Montana.
Published online: 04/24/2008.