At the beginning of the Second World War, Salamaua was the administrative centre for the New Guinea district of Morobe. Built on a small isthmus on the shores of Huon Gulf it was also the main point of entry for the inland goldfields around Wau and had both a small wharf and an airstrip. Salamaua was occupied by the Japanese in March 1942 and developed as a base area. To protect it, the Japanese established strong defensive positions in the hills to the east and advanced inland to Mubo. In 1943, Salamaua became a focus of Allied strategy but not as a goal in its own right. Allied operations were launched towards Salamaua along the coast, and through the mountains from Wau, to divert Japanese attention from Lae - the Allies' main objective. The operations around Lababia, Bobdubi and Komantium Ridges, the fight for Mount Tambu, and the American landing in Tambu Bay were all part of this strategy. Salamaua was occupied, without opposition, by the 42nd Australian Battalion on 11 September 1943. Lae fell to the 7th Australian Division five days later.

The Salamaua strategy is generally regarded as having been a success because when the Lae landings commenced the town was only occupied by around 2,000 Japanese, mainly base troops. Salamaua was evacuated on 6 September to provide combatant reinforcements for Lae and approximately 5,800 troops were moved there. These units, however, were tired from the Salamaua fighting and were deployed piecemeal as they arrived at Lae.