Aerial photograph of Wau airstrip

Australian War Memorial #014368

In 1941, Wau (146.718E 7.346S) was a gold mining center in the northern foothills of the Owen Stanley Range of New Guinea.  Located deep in the jungle, it could be reached overland only over primitive trails (such as the Black Cat Trail from Salamaua), so supplies were flown in and gold was flown out.  The airfield was a terror, with a 10% grade and a steep mountain face at one end.  This made for heavy operational losses.

When war broke out, the only organized Allied military force in northwest New Guinea was Kanga Force, consisting of a few hundred New Guinea Volunteer Rifles at Wau. This force attempted unsuccessfully to drive the Japanese out of Lae as a diversion from the Milne Bay landings in June 1942.

Wau was strategically placed, providing a potential staging base for fighters from Madang and Wewak to reach Port Moresby and for land forces to cross the Owen Stanleys and renew the assault against the port. 102 Regiment arrived at Lae in early January 1943 after losing a quarter of its manpower and half its supplies to an air attack that sank two transports in its convoy. Okabe Toru, infantry group commander of 51 Division, was nevertheless ordered to lead the weakened regiment against Wau by way of the Black Cat Trail.

Elements of Australian 17 Brigade, 3 Division, began arriving at Wau on 8 January 1943 to make it an advanced base for further operations once the Buna area was cleared.  The timing suggests that the Allies had signals intelligence regarding Japanese intentions, but none are mentioned in Prados (1995) or other studies. The Japanese reached Wau on 28 January and promptly attacked.  The remainder of 17 Brigade was hurredly flown in to the airfield, which at one point was under small-arms and mortar fire.  The troops would disembark and walk a couple of hundred yards to the front line to join battle. Some 194 plane loads, or about 500 tons, were brought in in this manner. Two days later, the Japanese acknowledged defeat and withdrew, pursued by 17 Brigade nearly to Salamaua.

3 Australian Division took over the defense in April 1943 and Kanga Force itself was dissolved.


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