Eighty years ago, in the first minutes of the 30th of June, 1943, two waves of United States troops of the 41st Infantry Division were thrown ashore in a shipwreck landing at Nassau Bay, south of the Huon Gulf in Papua New Guinea. The event signalled the beginning of Operation Doublet, the final stage in the ultimately 18-month long Wau-Salamaua campaign of 1942-43.
It has been estimated that a minimum of 20,000 men served on-the-ground during those 18 months. In infantry alone, Australia contributed 8 battalions, 3 independent companies, the NGVR, and one company of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB). The United States 162nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team consisted of three battalions. Japan committed 11 battalions of infantry and 2 naval garrison units (also called Special Naval Landing Parties (SNLP).
On the Allied side, under the command of first Kanga Force, then the Third, followed by the Fifth Australian Divisions, the main combat units were the 15th, 17th, and 29th Australian Infantry Brigades, and the 162nd U.S. Infantry Regiment. The Japanese 51st Division, which had seen service in China, consisted of the 66th, 102nd, and 115th Infantry Regiments. These came from the Utsunomiya area north of Tokyo. The Japanese 20th and 41st Divisions contributed one infantry battalion each.
The artillery, engineer, amphibious engineer, medical, supply, ordnance, and transport units, from both sides, are too numerous to mention by name. On the Allied side, the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) was vital for supervising native welfare and labour.
Lieutenant-Colonel Fleay, then Major Generals Savige and Milford commanded the Australians, Colonels MacKechnie and Coane the Americans, and Major General Nakano, the Japanese 51st Division.
Operation Doublet – the last 11 weeks of the campaign – was the last time any significant number of U.S. troops fought under Australian command in the Southwest Pacific Area. The command arrangements were confusing, and no preparations for working side-by-side had been made prior to the beginning of the campaign itself. The commander of the initial U.S. element – MacKechnie Force – was relieved by his divisional commander, though later returned on Australian request in a different role. The Australians requested the relief of the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion of the U.S. 162nd Inf. Regt., a Major Archibald Roosevelt (nephew of the U.S. President).
Two A.I.F., two Royal Papuan Constabulary, and at least 8 Allied airmen (including 3 Australians), were captured by the Japanese during the campaign. All are believed to have been executed, though only three of the executions took place at Salamaua. Another three A.I.F., two men supporting a wounded mate, are believed to have been captured and executed at the Markham River, just south of Lae.
One of the R.A.A.F. men executed at Salamaua was Flight Lieutenant W.E. Newton, V.C. ‘Bill’ Newton’s Victoria Cross was the only one awarded to a member of the R.A.A.F. for service in the S.W.P.A. Of the two other crew of his Boston bomber, one was either killed by anti-aircraft fire over Salamaua or drowned when the aircraft was ditched into Bayern Bay, and the other bayonetted at Lae and possibly buried alive. The Japanese local naval commander who decapitated Newton (whose head has never been found), was later killed in the Philippines.
The commander of the Sasebo No.5 S.N.L.P., who, when at Buna the previous year had given the order to execute nine Australians, was killed in an air raid at Salamaua in July, 1943.
Then U.S. Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, was controversially awarded a Silver Star in mid 1942 for alleged courage whilst an observer in a U.S. bomber in the vicinity of Salamaua.
An estimated 5,000 Japanese escaped from Salamaua to the near north (mostly Lae, but some to Finschhafen), in the last few weeks of Doublet. The reason for this was twofold: (1). No Allied naval fighting resources were allotted to support Doublet aside from the few U.S. P.T. Boats harboured at Morobe further south. While these performed an admirable job hunting enemy barges, there were too few of them available, and no reliable communication between them and shore-based sources of intelligence once afloat. (2). Despite a proposal by Gen. Savige of the Third Australian Division to seize a beachhead on the coastal route from Salamaua to Lae, with a full infantry battalion and artillery field pieces, the only land-based resources made available for the main blocking role was a single infantry company operating from very difficult inland terrain.
At no time during Operation Doublet or the 15 months of mostly sporadic fighting that preceded it, did either Generals. MacArthur or Blamey visit the battlefield or the base area in the Bulolo Valley inland.
The Salamaua aerodrome – the primary reason for the settlement’s importance, despite the ‘drome having been used infrequently during the campaign – was re-entered on the 11th of September, 1943, though it was not until the following day, the 12th, when the settlement areas of Kela, the Isthmus, and the Peninsula, were declared clear of Japanese. While the enemy had successfully evacuated, with only a handful of sick or wounded stragglers remaining, the Japanese rearguard had fought tenaciously in the western ridges sector of their inner defences until the last hours.
With Lae falling – after just 12 days – on the 16th of September, Salamaua was quickly discarded as a site for port facilities to support the advance further north, the capture of the strategic Huon Peninsula and the western edge of New Britain. While a U.S. radar unit briefly operated there, and the Australian war cemetery was built and maintained there, overlooking Samoa Harbour and the Peninsula, within little more than 18 months, Salamaua had no sign of European habitation aside from battlefield debris.
Despite substantial percentages of the relevant volumes of the Australian Official History of the Second World War being dedicated to the Wau-Salamaua campaign, popular military history now largely ignores this 18-month period, and at best, renders it as a one-sentence ‘sideshow’ to the reoccupation of Lae. Turning point events do not occur spontaneously. They must be provoked, lead up to, or linked by, narrative intervals that carry less perceived glamour. Such is the case with the Wau-Salamaua campaign, and Operation Doublet.