Jumps ahead of the Japs

by William Courtenay

In the Markham Valley of New Guinea, some twenty air miles west of Lae, the most beautifully timed parachute exercise yet seen in this war took place on Sunday, September 5, 1943. The operation was part of a grand maneuver designed to trap the Japanese forces operating in the whole Huon Gulf area, to take both Lae and Salamaua, to exploit these strategic successes to the limit, to become masters of the Huon Peninsula and the Dampier and Vitiaz Straits between New Guinea and New Britain.

Through August I had marched with the Australian and American infantry from Wau in the center of the New Guinea goldfields to Mubo and Roosevelt Ridge, to Komiatum and Mt Tambu, until finally we gazed down upon the sea at the Huon Gulf, and stood within two or three miles of the township of Salamaua.

There General MacArthur halted his forces. In this campaign as in the Kokoda campaign of the previous year, air power had played a decisive role. With the aid of newly arrived Lockheed Lightnings we had command of the air.

By August 21 the Japanese had been ejected from all mountain positions between Wau and Salamaua. Standing with their backs to the sea, with only about two or three miles of depth in which to maneuver, dig themselves in, they were prepared to die rather than surrender. Then a strange thing happened. General MacArthur halted just when it seemed apparent that with one more leap he could have taken Salamaua, ended the engagement. But he had planned something more ambitious. The enemy's supply line to Salamaua ran along the north New Guinea coast from Wewak and Madang through Finschafen and Lae. It was far too hazardous for the Japanese to bring supplies to Salamaua from New Britain. If Lae could be taken, Salamaua must automatically fall.

When General MacArthur halted before Salamaua, he was conforming to sound military doctrine. He was to practice upon the unsuspecting Japanese the well-tried technique of holding a maneuver in front of the enemy and enveloping his flank. The Japs were to be enveloped from the right flank by landings on the beaches near Lae, on the left flank by the march of troops east to Lae, and by a vertical envelopment with the use of paratroops in the immediate rear of Lae. By this plan it was hoped that both Lae and Salamaua would fall, that all the Huon Peninsula would fall with them. The unsuspecting enemy dropped neatly into the trap. Planning and timing were magnificent and there was perfect cooperation between American and Australian staffs and forces engaged.

Preparations for this grand exercise began in August with the softening of the enemy's air strength at its four airfields at Wewak in New Guinea, its four airfields at Rabaul in New Britain, and at its Madang, Lae, Cape Gloucester and Gasmata bases. Activities reached full fury at Wewak where 216 tons of bombs were dropped on four airfields between August 18 and 22, 112 tons on August 24, 114 tons on August 30, 82 tons on August 31. In one day during this period the score was 220 planes caught and destroyed on the ground, 39 damaged, 90 fighters shot down.

On Friday, September 3, 1943 — fifth anniversary of the outbreak of war — all these airfields were attacked throughout the night to keep the Japanese air force grounded. Next morning, Australian infantry, traveling in amphibious vessels manned by Americans, sailed into the Huon Gulf and behind a smoke screen laid by American destroyers, landed at 6:30 AM. They had been set ashore at two beaches, known as "Red" and "Yellow," between the Buso and Bulu rivers, some twelve miles above Lae. One part of this force from the famous 9th Division of the AIF turned towards Hopoi to cut the Jap supply line on the coast from Wewak. The other part turned towards Lae. It marched in two columns, one along the coast and one inland parallel with the coast towards the main defenses of Lae.

There was no opposition at the landing. The enemy was unpleasantly surprised, didn't do anything about it for a vital thirty minutes. Then thirty aircraft managed to struggle into the air from the battered bases at Wewak. Twenty-seven of them were shot down by USAAF fighters who had been waiting for their prey. The other three were bagged by antiaircraft gunners of the US destroyers, but not before they had strafed two of the barges, causing some Australian casualties.

Once ashore, forces quickly established large beachheads, brought equipment and ammunition ashore, started marches according to plan. The great paratroop exercise was timed to take place next day. Three or four war correspondents were permitted to accompany the paratroops. I was the only British journalist privileged to accompany the American units.

I had been given a seat in the last plane. If we ran into trouble we'd get the brunt of it. If we didn't meet opposition it meant I would have a grandstand view of the whole procession in the air.

These troop transports had to keep tight formation, fly to 10,000 feet to pass through a gap in the mountain, then descend to 400 feet for the drop. Four ships took off at a time, one behind the other on the runway. So perfectly was this part of the exercise completed that machines ascended at thirty second intervals.

At 10:10 AM the green light appeared in the cabin of each transport. Paratroopers blackened their faces, adjusted their chutes, stood up, fastened their chutes to the static line. Ten minutes later the green light changed to red. The paratroop officer brusquely ordered "follow me men," then hurled himself through the doorless opening.

In two minutes hundreds of men had billowed out safely to earth. Up to sixty seconds before the drop bombers were pasting away at Jap defences at Lae.

Four days later Lae fell. Finschafen followed. The great encirclement movement was complete. Remnants of 20,000 Jap troops who had been campaigning from January to September in the Huon Gulf were trapped and destroyed.

This article was originally published in the March, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 2, pp 22-23, 69.
The original article includes 1 plain photo, 9 captioned photos, and a facsimile of a portion of a newspaper page with a map of the described area.
Photos credited to Acme, USAAF.

Photo captions: