Landing at Saidor
|Landing at Saidor|
|Part of World War II, Pacific War|
Troops of the 32nd Infantry Division near Saidor.
| United States
|Empire of Japan|
|Commanders and leaders|
Clarence A. Martin
|13,000 ||6,000 |
|Casualties and losses|
|40 killed, 11 wounded, 16 missing ||119 killed, 18 captured |
In Allied hands, Saidor was a stepping stone towards Madang, the ultimate objective of General Douglas MacArthur's Huon Peninsula campaign. The capture of the airstrip at Saidor also allowed construction of an airbase to assist Allied air forces to conduct operations against Japanese bases at Wewak and Hollandia. But MacArthur's immediate objective was to cut off the 6,000 Imperial Japanese troops retreating from Sio in the face of the Australian advance from Finschhafen.
Following the landing at Saidor, the Japanese elected to retreat rather than fight, and withdrew over the foothills of the rugged Finisterre Range. For the Japanese soldiers involved, the march was a nightmare, as they struggled through the jungles, across the swollen rivers, and over cliffs and mountains. Men succumbed to fatigue, disease, starvation, drowning, and even exposure, the nights in the Finisterres being bitterly cold. Hampered by the rugged terrain, inclement weather, signal failures, misunderstandings, over-caution, and above all the resolute and resourceful Japanese, US troops were unable to prevent large numbers of the retreating Japanese from slipping past them.
After considerable construction effort in the face of wet weather, the airbase was completed and proved useful. Whereas the base at Nadzab was surrounded by mountains and was therefore unsuited for missions that had to take off after dark, there was no such problem at Saidor. During March 1944, B-24 Liberator bombers staged through Saidor for night attacks on Hollandia.
Fighting in the South West Pacific Area in late 1943 and early 1944 was dominated by General Douglas MacArthur's Operation CARTWHEEL, a series of operations directed at isolating and neutralising Rabaul, the main base of the Imperial Japanese forces in the South West Pacific area. MacArthur's original ELKTON III plan called for Australian troops to capture first Lae, then Finschhafen, and finally Madang with a combination of airborne and amphibious assaults. However, it was a long way from Finschhafen to Madang — 178 miles (286 km). Thinking in terms of a shore-to-shore operation, which would be limited in radius of action to the distance that landing craft could sail in one night, the Commander of Allied Land Forces, General Sir Thomas Blamey recommended in August 1943 that an intermediate objective be seized first. Saidor was chosen as it had accessible beaches, a harbour, and a pre-war airstrip, and was allocated the GHQ codename MICHAELMAS. It was recognised that the capture of Saidor might make that of Madang unnecessary, as both could cover the Dampier and Vitiaz Straits, and both would provide airbases close to the Japanese base at Wewak. For the time being though, both were considered objectives.
The Battle of Finschhafen prevented the early occupation of Saidor. The Japanese wrested back the initiative and threatened to derail MacArthur's strategy, but ultimately failed to dislodge the Australian 9th Division or prevent the occupation of the Finschhafen area. With the battle of Finschhafen won, the 9th Division initiated a pursuit of Lieutenant General Hatazō Adachi's retreating Japanese Eighteenth Army on 5 December 1943. Adachi was now in a difficult and precarious position, attempting to conduct a fighting withdrawal with his inland right flank vulnerable to attack from the Australian 7th Division in the Ramu Valley and his seaborne left flank open to amphibious assault. That he had an opportunity to destroy Adachi's army was not lost on MacArthur, who decided on 10 December that Saidor should be seized on or about 7 January, provided that Operation BACKHANDER was proceeding satisfactorily. On 17 December, Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, the commander of the ALAMO Force, received orders setting a target date for Saidor of 2 January 1944.
General Krueger selected the 32nd Infantry Division for the Saidor operation as it was at Goodenough Island but no longer required for the New Britain campaign. The assistant division commander, Brigadier General Clarence A. Martin was appointed commander of MICHAELMAS Task Force, which was built around the 126th Infantry Regimental Combat Team. The 126th Regimental Combat Team had been rebuilt after the Battle of Buna-Gona and had received six weeks' amphibious training in Australia and a further three weeks' training at Milne Bay. Units assigned to the task force were at Goodenough Island, Milne Bay, Oro Bay, Lae, Finschafen, Port Moresby, Kiriwina, Arawe, Cape Cretin, and Australia.
The mission of MICHAELMAS Task Force was to (1) seize the Saidor area; (2) establish facilities for a fighter group; (3) assist in the establishment of air forces in the area; (4) assist in the establishment of light naval forces in the area; and (5) construct minimal port and base facilities. Notably, it did not contain any explicit instruction to fight the Japanese. Lieutenant General Frank Berryman's Australian II Corps would cooperate by exploitation along the coast, while the Australian 7th Division would contain Japanese forces in the Bogadjim area by fighting patrols.
Maps were supplied by the Australian Survey Corps. There was insufficient time and opportunity for ground reconnaissance, so three beaches, codenamed Red, White, and Blue, on the west shore of Dekays Bay were chosen from aerial photographs. They proved to be "narrow, rocky and exposed to heavy seas". The intelligence staff at GHQ in Brisbane believed that there were no more than 4,500 Japanese forward of Sio, and only 1,500 more between there and the Madang area. They estimated that if the Japanese decided to counter-attack at Saidor, they would take a week to bring up 3,000 men. Accordingly, General Martin elected to dispense with a preliminary aerial bombardment. Removing this requirement permitted a dawn landing.
The assault troops with their supplies and equipment had to be loaded on board the ships on 31 December 1943, just five days after the assault on Cape Gloucester. Rear Admiral Daniel E. Barbey's VII Amphibious Force allotted 6 Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs), 10 High speed transports (APDs) and 17 Landing Craft Infantry (LCIs). A last minute hitch developed on 30 December when it was discovered that only nine APDs would be available. New embarkation tables were drawn up, shifting personnel not required in the assault waves to LCIs, and the landing schedule was revised in the light of the reduced number of landing craft.
The difficulty of simultaneously supplying operations at Saidor, Arawe, Long Island, and Cape Gloucester was sufficiently daunting for General Krueger to request for a postponement of the Saidor operation. But the commander of the Allied Naval Forces and the United States Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid assured MacArthur that enough supplies would be delivered, and MacArthur overruled Krueger. "I am most anxious that if humanly possible this operation take place as scheduled," MacArthur informed him, "Its capture will have a vital strategic effect which will be lost if materially postponed."
The ships and landing craft arrived at Dekays Bay before dawn on 2 January 1944 to find the shore obscured by low hanging clouds and drizzling rain. Admiral Barbey postponed H-Hour from 0650 to 0705 to provide more light for the naval bombardment, and then to 0725 to allow the landing craft more time to form up. Destroyers fired 1,725 5-inch rounds, while rocket-equipped LCIs fired 624 4.5-inch rockets. There was no concurrent aerial bombardment, but Fifth Air Force B-24 Liberators, B-25 Mitchells and A-20 Havocs bombed Saidor airstrip later that morning.
The first wave reached the shore at about 0730. The first four waves of landing craft–LCP(R)s from the APDs–arrived over the next 15 minutes. Each of the six LSTs in the assault towed a Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade; two carried bulldozers, two carried rocket equipped DUKWs, and two carried spare diesel fuel. The LCMs beached shortly before 0830 and the LSTs soon after. The Shore Battalion, 542nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment laid Australian ARC mesh to provide a roadway across the beach for vehicles.
All six LSTs were unloaded by 1145. There was little opposition. Eleven Japanese soldiers were killed by the naval bombardment or assault troops. Perhaps as many as 150 transient Japanese troops were in the Saidor area, all of whom fled into the interior. American D-Day casualties came to one soldier killed and five wounded, and two sailors drowned. Nine Japanese Nakajima Ki-49 (Helen) aircraft, escorted by up to twenty A6M Zero (Zeke) and Kawasaki Ki-61 (Tony) fighters bombed the beach area at 1630. There were three more air raids during the night, and 49 over the course of the month, but most were small.
General MacArthur announced the landing in his communiqué the next day:
We have seized Saidor on the north coast of New Guinea. In a combined operation of ground, sea and air forces, elements of the Sixth Army landed at three beaches under cover of heavy air and naval bombardment. The enemy was surprised both strategically and tactically and the landings were accomplished without loss. The harbour and airfields are in our firm grasp. Enemy forces on the north coast between Sixth Army and the advancing Australians are trapped with no source of supply and face disintegration and destruction.
Since October 1943, the Japanese strategy had been to conduct a fighting withdrawal in the face of MacArthur's advance that would "trade position, to the end that the enemy offensive will be crushed as far forward as possible under the accumulation of losses". At General Hitoshi Imamura's Japanese Eighth Area Army headquarters at Rabaul, the staff debated whether the 20th and 51st Divisions should attack Saidor or slip past it and join up with the rest of the Eighteenth Army at Wewak. In view of the poor condition of the 20th and 51st Divisions, Imamura relieved the Eighteenth Army of responsibility for the Sio area and ordered Adachi to withdraw to Madang.
General Adachi had flown from Madang to the 51st Division's headquarters at Kiari in late December, and he received word of the landing at Saidor shortly before heading overland to the 20th Division's headquarters at Sio, where he received Imamura's orders. He placed Lieutenant General Hidemitsu Nakano of the 51st Division in overall command of the forces east of Saidor and ordered the 41st Division to move from Wewak to Madang to defend that area. He then departed for Madang by submarine. To harass Saidor, he withdrew eight companies from Major General Masutaro Nakai's force facing Major General Alan Vasey's Australian 7th Division in the Finisterres. The Nakai force deployed along the Mot River around Gambumi. It succeeded in repelling American attempts to cross the river until 21 February, when it withdrew, its mission complete. However, weakening the Finisterres front provoked an Australian attack, resulting in the loss of the entire Kankirei position.
General Nakano organised the withdrawal of his force. He chose two routes, one following the coast and the other running along the ridge lines of the foothills of the Finisterres. Initially, the 20th Division was to take the coastal route while the 51st and some naval units took the inland one, but this was changed at the last minute and both divisions took the inland route. Additional rations and supplies were to be delivered by submarine. However, the 51st Division elected to move out rather than wait for the submarines and risk exhausting its rations through waiting. The 51st Division had experience crossing the mountains before, and Nakano was confident of its ability to negotiate them. In the event, one submarine was discovered by Allied aircraft and failed to reach its objective, while a second was discovered and sunk. A third got through but it was a small type that was only able to carry five tons of supplies, which were distributed among units of the 20th Division.
The difficulty of the march had been underestimated, and sick and wounded men had to make their way through trackless regions. Lieutenant General Kane Yoshihara, the Chief of Staff of the Eighteenth Army, recalled the march:
The most wearing part was that with these ranges, when they climbed to the craggy summit they had to descend and then climb again, and the mountains seemed to continue indefinitely, until they were at the extreme of exhaustion. Especially when they trod the frost of Nokobo Peak they were overwhelmed by cold and hunger. At times they had to make ropes out of vines and rattan and adopt "rock-climbing" methods; or they crawled and slipped on the steep slopes; or on the waterless mountain roads they cut moss in their potatoes and steamed them. In this manner, for three months, looking down at the enemy beneath their feet, they continued their move. Another thing which made the journey difficult was the valley streams, which were not usually very dangerous. At times, however, there was a violent squall, for which the Finisterres are famous during the rainy season; then these valley streams for the time being flowed swiftly and became cataracts. Then there were many people drowned... Lieutenant General Ryoichi Shoge was swept away by one of these streams on one occasion but fortunately managed to grasp the branch of a tree which was near the bank and was able to save one of his nine lives.
The first troops reached Madang on 8 February, and the whole movement was complete by 23 February. Eighteenth Army anticipated that units reaching Madang, would probably have lost much of their equipment, as was indeed the case, so stores were gathered together from distant Wewak and Hansa, and collected together near Madang. In addition emergency articles such as some food, shoes and clothing were collected near the mouth of Minderi River, supplied by the Nakai Detachment.
Junction with the Australians
American patrols which attempted to reach the track in the Sindaman area encountered aggressive Japanese patrols. An observation post in the mountains at Mambit counted 965 Japanese troops passing through Yagoyoga between 6 and 10 February and 2,613 between 11 and 23 February. Perhaps another 1,000 passed through before 6 February. From prisoners of war, the Task Force built up a fairly complete and accurate picture of the identity and strength of the opposing Japanese forces. On 12 January, Martin received intelligence from ALAMO Force to the effect that the Japanese were concentrating around Sio, and would attempt to force their way through to Madang. In response to a request from General Martin for reinforcements, the 1st and 3rd Battalion Combat Teams of the 128th Infantry were sent to reinforce Saidor, arriving on 16 January. Martin came to believe that an advance to the east and an attack on the withdrawing enemy would "provide an opportunity to destroy the Japanese before they could organise an attack on the Saidor position".
Krueger did not immediately give Martin permission for such an operation. There was still the possibility of Japanese attack, and the 32nd Infantry Division was required for the upcoming Hansa Bay operation. On 20 January, a visiting staff officer from ALAMO Force was asked to raise the possibility with Krueger. However, on 21 January Martin received a letter stating that the mission of the Task Force remained unchanged and a radiogram was received on 22 January to the effect that this was not consistent with Krueger's wishes. On 8 February, Martin received a garbled radiogram from Krueger that indicated that the earlier restrictive message of 22 January had itself been garbled, and on 9 February a radiogram was received authorising offensive action. Plans were immediately made but on 10 February contact was made with elements of the Australian 5th Division, which had relieved the 9th Division on 20 January. This closed the gap on the east flank.
Australian historian David Dexter concluded that:
The threat of enemy counter-attacks which had been further magnified by native reports, had already delayed the transition from the defensive to the offensive and the torrential rains, which rendered all tracks and rivers impassable caused great difficulty with the movement of troops and supplies to outlying sectors. Japanese units, brought from Madang, blocked access to the main escape routes, and although the task force pushed its attacks and patrolled vigorously, efforts to prevent the escape of the Japs retiring before the Australians were not completely successful.
With a large construction programme, engineers made up 29.3% of MICHAELMAS Task Force. An Engineer Section headquarters was organised on 24 December 1943, only nine days before D-Day, consisting of five officers and five enlisted men. Later a jeep and a driver were borrowed from the 114th Engineer Battalion to provide transportation. The officers did not know each other and therefore were unaware of each other's capabilities. As it turned out, none of them had experience with amphibious operations, and only one had experience in airbase construction, although this was to be their most important task.
Saidor had an existing grass civilian airstrip. Before they had abandoned Saidor in 1942, Australian troops had sabotaged the airstrip by digging trenches across the runway. These were quickly filled in, and the overgrown Kunai grass was knocked down by driving 2½-ton trucks over it. By the afternoon of 4 January, 1,800 feet (550 m) of runway was ready for use. A Piper Cub took off from it the next day. The 863rd Engineer Aviation Battalion arrived on 9 January and improved the strip, permitting twelve C-47 Skytrains loaded with ammunition to land on 11 January. ALAMO Force wanted an all-weather runway 6,000 feet (1,800 m) by 100 feet (30 m), preferably where a second, parallel runway could be constructed if need be. Construction of the second runway was requested by the Fifth Air Force on 24 January. The 8th Engineer Squadron survey detachment laid out a new runway oriented about 10° from the existing airstrip.
The Task Force engineer had the entire site stripped, leaving the subgrade exposed. This was a serious error, as from 10 to 31 January there were only three days during which it did not rain, and 25 inches (640 mm) of rain fell over the period — quite normal for the time of year. As a result, construction was delayed. Gravel was taken from the Nankina River which was laid up to 0.7 feet (0.21 m) deep and topped with crushed aggregate. The rains, and frequent rolling, gave a good water-bound surface. Part was sealed with Bitumen but delays caused by the weather prevented it all being sealed before being overlaid with Marston mats. The runway was declared ready for emergency landings on 4 February but the surface deteriorated under use. The runway was finally completed on 6 March. Construction of the taxiways and dispersal areas continued through April, with the airbase being complete and in operation on 7 May.
On 5 March, the engineers began construction of the bulk petroleum installation. Storage was provided for 20,000 barrels (~2,700 t) of avgas in one 10,000-barrel (~1,400 t) tank and five 2,000-barrel (~270 t) tanks. A fuel jetty was constructed, allowing tankers to discharge into a pipeline which ran over a catwalk to the storage tanks. Work was completed on 8 April. Considerable effort had to be expended on road construction. The 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion had to be assigned to road work, the task being beyond the resources of the Shore Battalion. Gravel was laid up to 2 feet (0.61 m) thick. By late January, the weather and damage to the roads by heavy military traffic forced the engineers to impose a ban on morning road use. By midday the sun had dried out the roads and traffic could resume.
Initially, the Nakina River could be forded but the heavy seasonal rains turned it into a fast-flowing torrent. A portable bridge was flown in from Milne Bay and erected in a day but it took two weeks to construct the approaches. In the meantime the troops on the other side had to be supplied by water. To open up the most suitable area for camp sites, another bridge had to be erected over the Nakina. This was a permanent bridge with concrete abutments. A rise in the river level of 8 feet (2.4 m) complicated work, but the 112-foot (34 m) bridge opened to traffic on 17 February.
Local labour was supplied by an Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) detachment, initially consisting of eight Australian Army officers and eleven native police. A week after the landing, 199 native labourers were brought in from Lae. Initially, the ANGAU detachment found it difficult to lure the frightened local people in from the bush, but as the word spread that there was food and safety to be had within the American perimeter, large numbers began to walk in. ANGAU established a native settlement in the Biding River area. By 13 February, 680 native labourers were at work. They constructed camps for the Americans, carried supplies to units in the mountains and brought back the wounded, and worked in the hospital. ANGAU also carried out patrols, providing intelligence on the Japanese positions.
The amphibian engineers had brought six LCMs on the first day. These were joined by another six towed by the six LSTs that arrived on the second day. Unfortunately, within days the rocky beaches and reefs caused nine to be damaged so badly that they had to be sent back to Cape Cretin for repairs. Later in January, the rest of B Company, 542nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment was sent to Saidor. A 100-foot (30 m) lighter wharf was begun on 19 January and completed on 5 March. The unseasoned local timber used in its construction soon took a battering from heavily loaded barges bumping into them in high seas and had to be replaced with steel piles. A 330-foot (100 m) liberty ship wharf was completed on 6 May. Other construction activities included jetties for servicing PT boats, landings for LSTs, a 250-bed hospital opened on 11 May, a quartermaster dump, and a staging area for 9,000.
Saidor was soon in use by the Fifth Air Force. Its base at Nadzab was surrounded by mountains and was therefore unsuited for missions that had to take off after dark, but there was no such problem at Saidor. During March, B-24 Liberator bombers staged through Saidor for night attacks on Hollandia. A raid on Hollandia on 16 April 1944 encountered a weather front that closed Nadzab and the other fields in the Markham Valley. More than 30 aircraft made their way to Saidor. An F-5 Lightning and a B-25 Mitchell collided on the runway, and two aircraft cracked up on landing, but the other aircraft that made it to Saidor eventually returned to their bases.
Krueger reported that "MICHAELMAS Task Force tried hard to block these escape routes. But the torrential rain, the ruggedness of the country with its impenetrable rain forests and jungles and impassable rivers, and the resistance of enemy troops pushed forward from Madang to guard the trails leading eastward, made this effort fall short of success". Australian commanders were critical. In a letter to Blamey, Berryman, who had visited Krueger in an attempt to ensure that the Japanese would not escape, wrote that "about 8,000 semi-starved, ill-equipped and dispirited Japanese bypassed Saidor. It was disappointing that the fruits of victory were not fully reaped, and that once again the remnants of the 51st Division escaped our clutches." Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead of New Guinea Force reported to Blamey that MICHAELMAS Task Force appeared not to have made "any appreciable effort" to cut off the retreating Japanese. Sadly for the men of the 32nd Infantry Division, many of these Japanese would later have to be fought again under less advantageous circumstances in the Battle of Driniumor River. Krueger officially terminated Operation DEXTERITY, of which MICHAELMAS was a part, on 10 February 1944. All that remained now was the final act of the Huon Peninsula campaign: the capture of Madang.
In the Australian 5th Division's advance from Sio to Saidor between 20 January and the end of February, 734 Japanese were killed, 1,793 found dead, and 48 Japanese prisoners were taken. Australian and Papuan casualties came to 3 killed and 5 wounded. The US 32nd Infantry Division at Saidor killed 119 Japanese and captured 18, while losing 40 killed, 11 wounded, 16 missing.
- Report of MICHAELMAS Operation, p. 23. Strength of the MICHAELMAS Task Force was 657 officers and 12,463 men on 10 February 1944. In addition, the Air Corps presence was 129 officers and 1,730 men.
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