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The First Class at RAF No. 31 Radio School
Operation Dragoon and Invasion of Southern France
Battle of Buna-Gona
The Silent Service and the Turkey Shoot
Published works on WWII OOB for land forces
Flying Tiger, Hidden Eagle
SAARF – Special Allied Airborne Recon Force
Force at la Difensa
Sabotaging Hitler’s Heavy Water
Soviet Offensive in the Arctic
The Failure of Strategic Bombing
Dutch Harbor: Unraveling of Japan’s Pacific Strategy
Ed Ramsey, 26th Cav Reg (Philippine Scouts)
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45: An Operational Overview
Strategic Culture of the IJN
Battles of Luneville: September 1944
Visual Guide to US Fleet Subs Pt 1
Lodge Act Soldier
The Fate of the Kido Butai
Air Recon in WWII
Turning East: Hitler's only option
Resupply Operations to Malta, 1942
WWII Veteran Interview
Why Arnhem?
Hell Ship - From the Philippines to Japan
The Battleship USS Oregon
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45 to '48
Jewish Resistance in WWII
Battle for Seaports
Banzai Attack on Attu
End of the Battle of the Java Sea
Texas National Guard in WWII
How Arnhem was Lost
Saga of Ormoc Bay
Silent Service of the Pacific
USS Wahoo
Polish Cavalry: A Military Myth Dispelled
Confucian Martial Culture
Operation Market Garden
Legacy of WWII Sub Veterans
Lausdell Crossroads
Kasserine Pass
Arnhem Startline
Bushido: Valor of Deceit
British Offensive Operations
Sir Winston Churchill
American Stubbornness at Rimling
The OSS in Greece
Strategy of Blitzkrieg
Breaking Seelow Heights
The Rape of Nanking
Small Battle: Big Implications
Harris Class APA's
Aerial Defense of East Indies
Why the Bulge Didn't Break
American Forces in WWII
Shadow Warriors
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Panzer Brigades
Adolf Eichmann
Interview of a WWII Veteran
Failure and Destruction
Winter Warfare
Operation Rusty: The Gehlen-U.S. Army Connection
Was Hitler right to invade Russia?
Hitler, Germany's Worst General
Surface Actions of World War II
MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines
Japan's Monster Sub
Popski's Private Army
The Soviet Formula for Success
Japan's TA Operation
Hitler Youth: An Effective Organization
After Midway: The Fates of the Warships
Barbarossa: Strategic Miscalculation
The Story of a "Go Devil"
Long Range Desert Group
Island of Death
The Failure of Operation Barbarossa
The Liberation of Czechoslovakia 1945
Only the Admirals were Happy
Bicycle Blitzkrieg - Singapore
Good Grief Sir, We're in Trier!
Thermopylae, Balaklava and Kokoda
How Hitler Could Have Won
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Waffen SS - Birth of the Elite
Nomonhan and Okinawa
Der Bund Deutscher Mädel
Rulers of the World: Hitler Youth
Breakout From the Hedgerows
Memories of D-Day
Motivation of the Einsatzgruppen
Pearl Harbor and Midway
Amphibious Assaults during WWII
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Anzio: The Allies' Greatest Blunder
US Army in WWII
Battle of Mers-el-Kebir
Hitler's Ultra-Secret Adlerhorst
The Wilhelm Gustloff Disaster
The 88th Infantry in Italy

Rob Dean Articles
Commanders and Censors
Small Battle: Big Implications
Why the Bulge Didn't Break

Recommended Reading

Japan at War: An Oral History

Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army

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Small Battle, Big Implications: Japan Lost the Upper Hand When it Lost New Guinea
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 Pacific war.

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 Pacific.

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."[1] 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.[2] 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,[3] 12,000 in the Papuan campaign alone.[4] 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. O'Neil said.[5]

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."[6]

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."[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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 Meiji era."[12]

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.[13]

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.[14] 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."[15]

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.[16] 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."[17]

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.'"[18] 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 was gone."[19]

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."[20] The government tightly controlled information. "Everything was censored," Soga said. "There was a screen."[21] 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."[22]

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."[23]

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."[24] 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."[25]

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.[26]

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.[27] 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.[28]

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.[29] 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.[30]

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."[31]

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 Japan.[32]

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.[33]

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 run.[34]

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."[35] 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."[36]

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.[37] 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.[38]

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.[39] Consequently, Japan's army was slow to adapt to changing conditions, a situation that exposed a lack of leadership and strategy.[40]

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.[41] "The fight ostensibly was for Port Moresby, but it was Australia, no less than Port Moresby, which was in danger," historian Samuel Milner said.[42]

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."[43]

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."[44] 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 Guadalcanal.[45]

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.[46] "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."[47] 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.[48]

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."[49] 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."[50]

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.[51] 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.[52]

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.[53] "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."[54]

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."[55] 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 us."[56]

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.[57] 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.[58]

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."[59]

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.[60]

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."[61]

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."[62] 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 conflicts."[63]

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.[64] 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 time …."[65]

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."[66] 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 enemy."[67]

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.[68]

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 tree."[69]

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."[70] 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.[71]

Lessons of the Papuan Campaign

On Jan. 28, 1943, MacArthur announced to the press that the battle for Papua was over.[72] 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.[73] 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."[74]

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."[75]

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.[76] 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.[77]

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.[78] 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.[79] 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.[80] In truth, the fighting spirit of the Imperial Army bore little resemblance to bushido of the medieval samurai.[81] "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 Friday said.[82]

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]."[83] 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 capacity."[84]

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 clobbering Australia.

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.[85] 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 time."[86]

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 and materiel."[87]

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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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.
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