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Lae

U.S. Army photograph

Lae (146.983E 6.728S) is located at the base of the Huon Peninsula at the mouth of the Markham River.  It was the capital of Morobe district and the largest settlement in northeastern New Guinea, with a good anchorage. Malahand Airdrome, located four miles northeast, dated back to 1928. Lae was also the key to the Ramu and Markham Valley to the west, where flat terrain of sand and gravel with relatively little jungle cover was ideal for building roads and airfields.

Gold was discovered inland in 1921, bringing in a mining community of 1500 Europeans and 10,000 natives that was still producing £3,000,000 per year right up to the evacuation in January 1941. There were some small plantations and oil exploration had just begun when war broke out.

Japanese Landings at Lae

Lae was bombed by the Japanese on 21 January 1942 in preparation for their move against Rabaul two days later. As a result of the bombing, the town was largely abandoned.

By March 1942 the Japanese were winding up their campaign in the Netherlands East Indies and were looking for new worlds to conquer. The importance of Australia as a base for a future Allied counteroffensive was clear to both sides, and the Japanese began preparations to cut the sea lanes between Australia and the U.S. West Coast. The Japanese planned to secure eastern New Guinea, including strategic Port Moresby, before advancing southeast towards Fiji and Samoa.

On 26 February 1942 King ordered Nimitz  to maintain some of his carrier strength in the ANZAC area to guard against the expected Japanese move. On 2 March King sent additional orders for Leary, commanding ANZAC, and Brown, commanding Task Force 11 (Lexington), to strike Rabaul around 10 March. Four days later Fletcher with Task Force 17 (Yorktown) had joined Brown in the Coral Sea. Brown planned to have one carrier strike Rabaul and the other strike Gasmata, then bombard both bases with surface strike groups detached from the task forces. Crace was eager to see some action and welcomed his bombardment mission against Gasmata, but "Poco" Smith was aghast at the prospect of taking his cruisers up St. George Channel to Rabaul with no guarantee of air cover and the distinct possibility of encountering a superior Japanese cruiser force when he got there.

Meanwhile Inoue prepared for Operation SR to seize the Lae-Salamaua area, including the airstrip at Lae from which the Japanese could project air power forward to Port Moresby. On 5 March 1942 Kajioka left Rabaul with SR Invasion Force, consisting of one light cruiser, six destroyers, three minelayer, a seaplane tender, and five transports. These were carrying 2 Battalion, 144 Regiment (Yokohama Maru and China Maru) and 2 Maizuru SNLF (Kongo Maru, Tenyo Maru and Kokai Maru). They were to be supported by Goto with his Support Force of four heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and three destroyers, while air cover was provided by 15 A6M "Zero" fighters, 21 G4M "Betty" bombers, and six H6K "Mavis" flying boats at Rabaul. Another 19 Zeros were to be shuttled in by carrier Shoho on 9 March, and a number of these were due to stage through Gasmata to the airstrip at Lae once it was captured.

On 6 March 1942 Brown was refueling in preparation for the dash in to the launch point when intelligence began pouring in of a Japanese move west from New Britain. Brown disregarded the intelligence until just before midnight on 7 March, when definite word came in of a Japanese convoy 150 miles southwest of Gasmata heading for the Lae area. Presented with a juicy target far from Japanese air cover, Brown immediately abandoned the Rabaul raid and prepared to attack the convoy when it reach Lae. However, Lae was a difficult target; the approach from the east would require Brown's force to steam through an area well reconnoitered by the Japanese to avoid the poorly charted reefs of the Louisiade Archipelago off the southeast tip of New Guinea. A better solution was identified by Frederick Sherman, captain of Lexington, who discovered that the Gulf of Papua west of Port Moresby was within comfortable flying distance of Lae. However, there were no good charts of New Guinea and it was rumored that the Owen Stanley Mountains reached to 15,000 feet (4600 meters) or more, too high for heavily laden torpedo bombers The Lexington air group commander, William Ault, flew in to Port Moresby and learned that there was a 7,500 foot (2300 meter) pass through the mountains almost directly along the projected route and that the weather was usually favorable early in the morning.

Word came on 8 March of Japanese transports off Salamaua and Brown was in position to launch his strikes by dawn on 10 March 1942. To increase the size of his strike, Sherman launched his fighters first, then his strike aircraft, then quickly recovered and refueled his escort fighters and relaunched them to catch up with the strike. A total of 18 F4F Wildcats, 61 SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and 25 TBD Devastator torpedo bombers were sent out. The American pilots claimed extensive damage, including five transports, three cruisers, and a destroyer sunk and a minelayer and two more destroyers probably sunk and a seaplane tender badly damaged. Fletcher's combat intelligence officer failed to confirm such losses, but Brown declined to launch a second strike, citing the damage already inflicted and deteriorating weather over the mountain pass.  Actual damage was three transports and a minelayer sunk and another transport, a seaplane tender, another minelayer, and two destroyers damaged. Some 350 men were killed on the transports alone. This was a significant loss to 4 Fleet, though the transports were already almost finished unloading and the occupation of Lae completed. Inoue called off the occupation of Port Moresby until carrier support could be provided by Combined Fleet.

The Japanese engineers had Lae airstrip ready to receive aircraft in just 36 hours.

As Allied air power grew, the Japanese began construction of a road from Madang to Lae to avoid reliance on coastal barges.

The Lae-Salamaua Campaign

Lae was recaptured by the Allies in late 1943. Because the Allied commanders were reluctant to risk their limited shipping in the narrow waters of the Huon Gulf, a direct amphibious assault was ruled out. Nor could Lae be reached from Wau, because there was inadequate air transport to supply the necessary ground forces, and an Australian effort to build a road over the Owen Stanley Mountains to Wau was progressing only very slowly. Instead, the Allied command settled on carrying out a landing atNassau Bay ( 147.126E 7.300S), which was within range of landing craft, in order to set up a forward base of supply.

The landing force was assembled around 1 Battalion, 162 Regiment, and scouts infiltrated the Nassau Bay area on the night of 28 June 1943. Enemy defenders were 150 men from 102 Regiment and from a naval guard unit, concentrated at Cape Dinga (147.136E 7.310S). The main landing force arrived just after midnight on 30 June amidst considerable confusion, with some landing craft missing their landing beaches and other landing craft being driven ashore by the heavy surf. Of the four PT boats, 29 LCVPs, one LCM, and two captured Japanese barges used to move the force, 17 LCVPs were wrecked and the LCM was swamped. Most of the battalion's radios were put out of action by seawater. However, there was no Japanese opposition, and 779 men and a bulldozer were successfully brought ashore.

Adachi was inclined to divert elements of 51 Division (Nakano), which had been trying to drive the Australian 3 Division from its commanding position on Lababia Ridge (147.018E 7.231S), to destroy the Nassau beachhead. However, Nakano persuaded Adachi to ignore the landings and mantain the pressure on the Australians. Thus the only counterattack against Nassau Bay, by the small Cape Dinga garrison, was driven off. Adachi then ordered a barge line to be set up to bring reinforcements into Lae and Salamaua.

MacArthur decided that local air superiority must be established before making his next move. His gifted air commander, George Kenney, discounted the Japanese airfields at Lae and Salamaua themselves, because they lacked the logistical support to pose a significant threat. However, the airfields in western New Guinea and New Britain were close enough to the two towns that fighters from the Allied airbase at Dobodura could not assure air superiority.

Kenney met the challenge with one of the most successful deception operations of the war. Early in June an Allied patrol had scouted an abandoned field at Tsili Tsili, located just 40 miles inland from Lae, and concluded that it was suitable for development as a fighter base. On 16 June troops and engineers were flown in to the strip and began quietly improving it. Meanwhile, a conspicuous dummy airstrip was scraped out of the vegetation at Bena Bena, some miles away. Tsili Tsili itself was basing aircraft by 26 July but was not discovered by the Japanese until 14 August.

On 10 August the Japanese massed over 250 aircraft at Wewak for an air counteroffensive. These began raiding Tsili Tsili as soon as it was discovered. However, on 17 August, as the Japanese were preparing to launch a massive strike against the new Allied airfield, some 48 heavy bombers, 31 B-25 strafers, and 85 P-38 Lightning fighters surprised the Japanese and destroyed 70 aircraft on the ground. A second strike the next day destroyed many more Japanese aircraft.

Meanwhile American PT boats, which had become adept at barge hunting, were seriously disrupting the barge line from Rabaul. They were aided during daylight by Allied aircraft. The Japanese responded by bringing in obsolescent Ki-21 "Sally" bombers to hunt the PT boats, but this proved unsuccessful.

By late July, 3 Australian Division from Wau had joined with elements of 41 Division to drive the Japanese to within six miles of Salamaua. Here they were joined by additional troops brought in by 2 Engineer Special Brigade. The Japanese responded with sharp but unsuccessful counterattacks, and by August there were 8000 Japanese left at Salamaua and only 2000 at Lae.

On the night of 22-23 August 1943, a force of four destroyers shelled Lae. Although they did negligible damage, this marked the first time in eighteen months that major Allied warships had operated in the reef-strewn waters north of Milne Bay. A combination of hydrographic surveys and improved radar on the destroyers made the sortie possible.

The destroyer sortie also paved the way for a major amphibious assault by Barbey's VII Amphibious Force:

Allied order of battle

VII Amphibious Force (Barbey)     
Embarking 7800 troops of Australian 9 Division and 1500 tons of supplies
 
DD Conyngham


DD Flusser

APD Brooks


APD Gilmer

APD Sands

APD Humphreys

LST Group


 
13 LST


LCI Group



20 LCI


LCT Group



14 LCT



APc-4


Cover Group



DD Perkins


DD Smith


DD Mahan


DD Lamson

Escort Group
Wau


DD Mugford



DD Drayton

APc Group



13 APc



9 LCT


2 SC


Service Group



AR Rigel



3 LST


10 SC


5 YMS



1 small AO



AT Sonoma


Shore Regiment



532 Engineer Regiment



10 LCM



40 LCVP

Barbey brought the Australian infantry of 20 Brigade ashore some 15 to 17 miles (24 to 27 km) east of Lae on 4 September 1943. A raid by six Zeros and three Bettys from Lae managed to destroy an LCI. Imamura launched an 80-plane raid from Rabaul, but this was intercepted by 48 Lightnings directed from destroyer Reid off Finschhafen. The fighters destroyer 23 Japanese aircraft at the cost of two of their own, and another was shot down by Reid. The Vals and Bettys damaged two more LSTs. However, the bulk of the troops and supplies, including 26 Brigade, were ashore by evening. They began to advance west, supported by landing craft that allowed them to move around river obstacles and outflank Japanese holdouts.

The U.S. 503 Parachute Regiment landed at Nadzab the next day. Kenney threw the works into this operation (300 aircraft) while MacArthur observed from his personal B-17. The Japanese were swiftly overwhelmed, and within 24 hours hours troops of Australian 7 Division were being flown in. By 14 September these troops had closed on Lae.

After enduring a bombardment by American destroyers on 9 September 1943, the Japanese commander decided to pull the garrison out and make for the north coast of the Huon Peninsula. The last Japanese pulled out of Lae on 15 September. 1500 of the 2000 men made it across the Huon Peninsula, but only about 400 were still fit for combat by the time they arrived, on 14 October.

References

Gamble (2010)

Lundstrom (2006)

Miller (1959)

Morison (1950)

Rottman (2002)



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