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Wakde

Digital relief map of Wakde area

Wakde (139.01E 1.94S) is an island with a small anchorage off the north coast of New Guinea. The Japanese had completed an airfield here, with an excellent crushed coral runway, by 1943. By early 1944 the Japanese had also completed an airstrip at Sawar (138.810E 1.941S) on the mainland and had a second under construction at Maffin Bay, just to the east of Sawar. The headquarters of 36 Division (Tagami) was established at Sarmi (138.754E 1.874S), with a strength in the immediate area of about 11,000 men (of which perhaps half were trained combat troops).

MacArthur had been ordered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 12 March 1944 to seize Hollandia in order to establish heavy bomber bases from which to protect the southern flank of Nimitz' Central Pacific drive. However, it became clear shortly after the Hollandia landings that it would take many months to prepare the runways for heavy bombers, and aerial reconnaissance had identified no other suitable site closer than Biak. MacArthur therefore ordered rapid planning for an invasion of the Wakde-Sarmi area as a preliminary to invading Biak ten days later. The initial orders went out on 27 April and the invasion date was set for 15 May. Fechteler would command the naval forces and the ground force would be built around 41 Division (Fuller). However, because of a serious shortage of shippping, the invasion was later moved back to 17 May and the invasion force was pared down to 163 Regimental Combat Team (7800 men under Doe) with the remainder of 41 Division committed to the Biak landings on 27 May. Captain A.G. Noble was designated to lead the naval forces in place of Fechteler.

The base complex had been hit by American carrier strikes on 21 April 1944 in preparation for the Hollandia invasion. The only resistance was scattered antiaircraft fire. Further strikes were carried out by land-based bombers from 28 April on, and these were joind by bombardments by Berkey's TF 75 from 29 April. Weather then interfered with air operations until 13 May when 5 Air Force resumed heavy strikes against Wakde and Biak.

A landing flotilla of two transports and 11 LCIs began embarking 163 RCT at Aitape on 15 May, and the whole attack group assembled at Hollandia on 16 May, covered by cruiser forces under Crutchley and Berkey. The Allies correctly guessed that Japanese Navy was preoccupied with preparations for a decisive battle at the Philippines or Marianas and would not make a serious effort to interfere.

Tagami had deployed about 800 of his troops to Wakde and spread another 1700 troops along the coast opposite the island, with the remainder deployed between Sawar and Sarmi. The initial landings on 17 May, which took place on the mainland, took Tagami by surprise. Japanese positions were bombarded for almost an hour by a force of five light cruisers and ten destroyers, followed by a rocket bombardment of the landing beaches by two LCIs. A beachhead was rapidly secured and artillery deployed to support the landings scheduled for the next day on Wakde. Landings also took place on the islet of Insoemanai, just south of Wakde, where mortars and heavy machine guns were set up.

The landings at Wakde began on 18 May 1944 with a brief bombardment by two destroyers supported by the machine gunners on Insoemanai. Three rocket-carrying LCIs bombarded the landing beach and the southern shore of Wakde, which flanked the landing craft approach lane. The Japanese defenders responded with heavy machine gun fire from carefully concealed positions. The LCI gunboats drew most of the fire and the landing force was able to get ashore by 0930 with light casualties. Aviation engineers followed so closely that they came under sniper fire. It took two and a half days to secure the island against determined Japanese resistance. Casualties were 759 Japanese confirmed dead and four taken prisoner, versus 40 Americans dead and another 107 wounded.

On 19 May the Kumamba Islands north of Sarmi were occupied with no opposition and radars were set up to provide early warning for Wakde.

Wakde airfield was operational for Allied aircraft by noon on 21 May 1944, and by 27 May B-24 Liberators based there were conducting reconnaissance over Mindanao. The island was densely packed with aircraft for several months thereafter, but by December 1944 the Allied counteroffensive had moved on and Wakde was reduced to an emergency airfield.

Krueger was unwilling to leave the 10,000 Japanese troops remaining in the Sawar-Sarmi area alone. He ordered his troops on the mainland to take the offensive and clear the enemy out of the area, which led to almost four months of vicious jungle fighting in the Trier Mountains. This cost the Japanese almost 4000 dead and the Americans 400 dead and 1500 wounded. The surviving Japanese retreated to Sarmi and remained there until the final surrender.

Allied order of battle, 18 May 1944

Southwest Pacific Area (MacArthur)     

 
7 Fleet (Kinkaid


 
Task Force 77



 
DD Reid



Transports
163 Regimental Combat Team (Doe), 7800 men




AP Henry T. Allen




LSI Manoora




11 LCI




Screen





DD Hobby





DD Nicholson





DD Wilkes





DD Grayson




DD Gillespie




DD Kalk




DD Stevenson




DD Stockton




DD Roe




DD Welles




DD Trathen





DE Lovelace




DE Manning




DE James E. Craig





DE Eichenberger




DE Neuendorf




Special Service Vessels





AT Reserve





AT Sonoma




4 SC
3 LCI (R)



Task Force 74 Covering Group "A" (Crutchley)     




CA Australia




CA Shropshire




DD Warramunga




DD Arunta



DD Ammen



DD Mullany


Task Force 75 Covering Force "B" (Berkey)




CL Phoenix




CL Nashville



CL Boise



Destroyer Squadron 24




 
DD Hutchins




DD Bache




DD Daly




DD Abner Read





DD Bush


Task Force 73 Aircraft Seventh Fleet




Task Group 73.1 Seeadler Harbor Group





AV Tangier





AVP Heron





AVP San Pablo





VP-33 13 PBY-5




VP-52
13 PBY-5




VB-106
11 PB4Y-1 Liberator



Task Group 73.2 Langemak Bay Group





AVP Half Moon




VP-34
10 PBY-5


References

Morison (1953)


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