Remembering 1942: Milne Bay
- / 12:32
By August 1942, the Japanese had been in New Guinea for five months. Their prime objective was the capture of Port Moresby, but a naval force attempting to attack Port Moresby from the sea was turned back at the Battle of the Coral Sea. With the navy thwarted by sea, the Japanese army set out to capture Port Moresby from the north, by crossing the Owen Stanley Ranges via the Kokoda Trail.
A key strategic point was now Milne Bay, a deep natural harbour at the eastern tip of the island of New Guinea. With aircraft based there, the allies would be able to make any further naval ventures in the area very dangerous for the Japanese. As an added advantage, allied aircraft would be able to attack the Japanese on the north coast without first making the climb over the Owen Stanleys.
From the Japanese point of view, it was essential to prevent the Allies from gaining such a strategically sited air base. In addition, the navy wanted to save face by making its own contribution to the capture of Port Moresby, and thought that Milne Bay would make a good jumping-off point for an attack along the south coast.
The Allies arrive
American airfield construction troops arrived at Milne Bay in June 1942, with the 55th Australian militia battalion accompanying them to provide protection from the enemy. One of the Australians' first tasks was to set out and map the area they were to defend, to supplement the naval charts which were the only maps available. Stuck in this lonely outpost, paranoia soon set in: many of the men were convinced they were being spied on by Japanese in the hills, but patrols sent out could never find any trace of them.
Milne Bay was a deep bay, running over 30 km west from the sea. Surrounded by rain-clad mountains – the area received 200 inches of rain a year – this tropical paradise did not appeal to the Australians. One wrote:
Even without the war Milne Bay would have been a hell hole – it was a terrible place. The sun hardly ever shined and it rained all the time. It was stinking hot and bog holes everywhere and it was very marshy, boggy country. Even without the Japanese it would have been hard to live there. It was a disease-ridden place – it was terrible.
Work began carving airfields out of jungle and swamp, and building roads, wharves and other facilities, with conscripted local labour helping the troops. Soon a much larger force of Australians arrived to supplement the defence: this was the 7th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier John Field and consisting of the 9th, 25th and 61st militia battalions.
On 21 July, the same day the Japanese landed at Buna and Gona in preparation for the trek across the Kokoda Trail, the first of three airstrips being built at Milne Bay was declared ready, complete with a surface of steel Marsden matting to stop the planes from sinking into the prevailing mud. The next day the first P40 Kittyhawks arrived, after having been involved in a fight with Japanese aircraft over Gona, and a few days later two squadrons of Kittyhawks – 75 and 76 Squadrons – had joined the defence, along with some Hudson bombers of 6 and 32 Squadrons. Then in mid-August the 18th Brigade of the AIF arrived, commanded by Brigadier George Wooten and including the 2/9th, 2/10th and 2/12th Battalions. Overall command was now given to Major General Cyril Clowes, a cautious and reserved 50-year-old nicknamed "Cyril the Silent". At last the defenders were ready for the Japanese.
The Japanese attack
The fatal error for the Japanese was that, despite aerial reconnaissance, they seriously underestimated the number of troops defending Milne Bay (a tribute also to Brigadier Field's efforts at camouflage). By late August there were nearly 9,500 defenders, about 7,500 of them Australian soldiers, the rest Americans and RAAF personnel. Against them the Japanese – heavily committed on Guadalcanal and on the Kokoda Trail – despatched a force of just 2,400 naval landing force troops. Even some of these failed to make it. Three hundred and fifty men travelling down the coast by barge were seen by coastwatchers. The Kittyhawks caught the Japanese while they had stopped to eat and rest on Goodenough Island, north of Milne Bay. They strafed the barges, destroying them and stranding the Japanese troops on the island, so that they took no further part in the battle.
The Kittyhawks and one serviceable Hudson also attacked the main Japanese convoy, but the Japanese got through and began landing late on the night of 25 August. They landed in the darkness well to the east of the airfields, possibly further east than they had intended. During the night there were a number of skirmishes between Australians and Japanese. At dawn the Kittyhawks were in the air, flying low along the coast to hunt out the invaders. A foolish Japanese marine gave away their position by opening up with an anti-aircraft gun, and soon the Kittyhawks and Hudsons were bombing and destroying the Japanese barges which they had hoped would give them mobility to move along the coast. Now they would be forced to rely on the muddy coastal tracks.
During the day the Kittyhawks continued strafing Japanese positions. At night the Japanese advanced, wading through swamps to outflank groups of defenders, and having some success fooling defenders into withdrawing by calling out commands in English (though "Who goes there? Friend? Good morning!" did not work well in the pitch dark).
Next day the Kittyhawks kept hunting out the Japanese, but late in the day 76 Squadron suffered a serious loss with the death of its commanding officer, Squadron Leader Pete Turnbull. "Tomahawk Pete", a former jackeroo from northern NSW, was a veteran of the Middle East and had helped defend Port Moresby as a member of 75 Squadron. Now, flying in low to attack some Japanese infantry, he may have been hit by ground fire or simply failed to pull out of his dive. One of the Milne Bay airstrips was later named after him.
The battle continues
That night the fighting intensified as the Japanese advanced west, supported by light three-man tanks, and over the next few days this remained the pattern, though both the operational tanks were eventually put out of action. For one night the Kittyhawks were ordered to return to Port Moresby, to avoid any danger of being overrun by the enemy, but this was not repeated.
The climactic battle occurred at dawn on 31 August, as the Japanese made a determined assault on No. 3 Strip, the easternmost of the three airstrips. The Japanese had mountain guns and machine-guns, but the defenders were well dug in and had open fields of fire. Three times the Japanese attacked across open ground and were driven back with heavy losses. One wrote in his diary,
We were like rats in a bag and men were falling all around. I thought we were going to be wiped out and then we were told to withdraw ...
Over the next few days the Australians gained the upper hand and pushed the Japanese back. There were many Australian acts of courage. On 4 September Corporal John French of the 2/9th Battalion found his section held up by three Japanese machine-gun posts. Ordering his men to take cover, he advanced alone with grenades and a sub-machine-gun and single-handedly killed all three machine-gun crews before being killed himself in front of the third gun pit. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Eventually the Japanese gave up and evacuated as many of their troops as they could. For them, the attack had been a disaster: six hundred men, a quarter of their force, died. The Allies lost less than two hundred dead. Apart from superior numbers, the decisive factor for the Allies was the close cooperation between army and air force. Australian air superiority forced the Japanese to move entirely at night. Operating from airstrips close to the fighting, the Kittyhawk pilots flew continual sorties to suppress any Japanese activity. "Palm fronds, bullets and dead Japanese snipers were pouring down with the rain," one observer commented.
In a tale with which we may perhaps empathize, the Japanese marines had been sent into a hopeless fight at the whim of their commanders. A medical officer summed up their experience at Milne Bay:
they were attacked from the air throughout the day, and wandered about through heavy rain day and night, being bombarded intensively by an invisible enemy from all sides, while their losses steadily grew and they finished up cornered.
Months after the fighting was over, the rotting bodies of unburied Japanese still littered the jungle on the edge of the streams around Milne Bay; the Australian dead had been buried in a war cemetery behind Gili Gili. Other Japanese, who had survived but failed to be evacuated, set out on foot across the mountains to try to reach their countrymen at Buna. They did not make it. An Australian report described how their skeletons could be found lying in small coral caves along the coast. Local Papuans found two Japanese wandering in the grasslands and pelted them with rocks whenever they attempted to rest. At dusk the two hanged themselves from a tree.
The other side of the story is that in their few days at Milne Bay the Japanese had displayed remarkable brutality. The Webb Commission into Japanese atrocities listed 59 cases of local people murdered by the Japanese, often being bayoneted while held prisoner, and in many cases being tortured or mutilated. Not one of the 36 Australians captured by the Japanese in the course of the battle survived. All were killed, and some were badly mutilated.
For the Allies, Milne Bay represented a turning point. Victory here and a few weeks later on the Kokoda Trail ended any Japanese hopes of taking Port Moresby. More important, perhaps, was the psychological victory. The seemingly unstoppable Japanese had been stopped. Australian Brigadier John Field summed up Australian feelings at the time:
Our troops have proved the Jap is not a superman.