In the first minutes of the 30th of June, 1943, seventy years ago today, men from the 1st Battalion of the United States’ 162nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team stumbled ashore through heavy surf at a place called Nassau Bay in the then Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Guided in to their objective by a platoon from the Australian 2/6th Infantry Battalion, who ensured that the landing was unopposed, it was the first significant action in the campaign to reoccupy the Japanese-held township of Salamaua, and one part of a three-point offensive, the first Allied offensive campaign against the Japanese in the South West and South Pacific areas.*
Scheduled to land at 2345 hours (11:45 P.M.) on the 29th, by about 0130 on the 30th, roughly 750 personnel of the first wave had gained a toehold on the beach, despite the surf being between 10 and 12 feet high, resulting in the loss of vital wireless communication equipment and leaving 19 landing craft stranded and being pounded in the rough surf. The loss of the former delayed MacKechnie Force, as the American combat team were called, from contacting the 17th Australian Infantry Brigade, who were based inland facing the enemy-held forward stronghold of Mubo, and with whom they were to co-operate in coming operations. The loss of the landing barges was a challenge to the carrying forward of the next waves of MacKechnie Force, which included support troops such as artillery, engineers and medical units, and, of course, vital maintenance supplies.
By the morning of the 4th of July, MacKechnie Force was 1,337 strong all ranks, and had had a number of clashes with the enemy, including on the second night, 30-31 July, when Company “C” of the 1st Battalion and the 90th Engineers had borne the brunt of a firefight that resulted in 9 dead, 12 wounded and 4 missing, with the Japanese known dead counted as 10.
The Japanese were occupying the Bassis villages on Cape Dinga southeast of the landing beach, which the Papuan Infantry Battalion were assisting to clean out, and the village of Duali, north of the beachhead and past the entrance to the South Arm of the Bitoi River. These enemy positions, which were not thought to have been held strongly, needed to be overcome before Nassau Bay could be secured, and MacKechnie Force could venture inland and rendezvous with the 17th Australian Infantry Brigade.
MacKechnie Force was only one element of Operation “Doublet”, the push to recapture the coastal settlement of Salamaua which had been in Japanese hands since March of the previous year, 1942. While in recent years the Wau-Salamaua Campaign as it is generally known (more about the ‘Wau’ aspect in future blog posts) has been slowly gaining some acknowledgement, in the pages of modern, popular military remembrance, it is still regarded as a side-show, if mentioned at all.
Over the whole 18 month period, the Wau-Salamaua Campaign cumulatively involved, for the Australians and Americans, more than ten infantry battalions, three independent companies, a company of the Papuan Infantry Battalion, and a smaller, local territorial force; and for the Japanese, at least nine army battalions and three battalions of marines. This is infantry on the ground alone, and does not take into account the substantial artillery, engineer, medical, supply and communications units employed by both sides, let alone those from the respective air forces which provided valuable support. A very conservative guestimate, assuming that many infantry units were understrength as was often the case, is that a minimum total of 18,000 men directly served on the ground in the Wau-Salamaua Campaign. Though these numbers were never present simultaneously, the mere quantity indicates that it deserves to be remembered as more than just a ‘sideshow.’
You’ll be reading more about this, one of my pet subjects, on this blog in the future, so stay tuned.
* The other two ‘points’ were at New Georgia in the Solomon Islands, and the Trobriand Islands between Papua and New Britain.
References available on request.
Endnote: Prior to the landing at Nassau Bay, O.C.s (Officers Commanding) of Headquarters, “A”, “B”, “C” and “D” Companies of the 1st Battalion, 162nd U.S. Infantry Regiment were Kliever, George, Kitchen, Newman, and Fague respectively. The battalion was commanded by Lt. Col. Taylor.
The photograph is of Roosevelt Ridge (in the middle ground) and northern Tambu Bay, further towards Salamaua.