Remembering the first-year battles of the Pacific war
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked the United States’ Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, destroying dozens of ships and planes, and killing thousands of American servicemen. Japan and the United States were at war.
Australians were already fighting in Europe and the Middle East, but Prime Minister John Curtin quickly expanded Australia’s Second World War commitments, declaring that we, too, were at war with Japan because of its “unprovoked attack on British and United States territory”.
In the first year of the war in the south-west Pacific, Australians and Americans would fight the Japanese in Malaya and Singapore; in Ambon, Java and Timor; the Philippines; Papua, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Borneo. Not often, however, did they come together on the ground, and so some of the best known land campaigns fought by Australians – on the Kokoda Trail, and at Milne Bay – are unknown to Americans. Australians, meanwhile, play down the importance of the concurrent US campaign at Guadalcanal and the naval battle at Midway Island.
In December, on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an international conference of experts and veterans from America, Australia and Japan will meet in New Orleans to discuss the first-year battles of the Pacific war, and to share the experiences of each of the nations involved, as well as some of the misconceptions that exist. Among the speakers are two of the Australian War Memorial’s senior historians, Dr Steve Bullard and Dr Karl James.
Bullard, a Japanese-speaker, has translated extracts from the Senshi sōsho (War history series), the official account of the Japanese experience of the Second World War. His talk on “Japanese operations in New Guinea: a prelude to invasion of Australia?” will introduce an American audience to Australia’s wartime fears of Japanese invasion , and our continuing misconceptions of Japanese intentions.
In the early part of the Pacific war – January, February and March of 1942 – the Japanese were discussing a partial invasion of Australia, but this idea was quickly rejected, Bullard says. Japan’s main motivation for going to war was to secure natural resources, such as oil, rubber and tin, in south-east Asia and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Occupation of bases in Papua and New Guinea, and attacks on the Australian mainland, were designed to protect the supply of these resources.
“There is a common misconception that they [the Japanese] were coming south and they weren’t going to stop until they had captured Australia; and that our boys in Papua stopped them. But in actual fact the Japanese had clear objectives ... and it never involved them continuing on to take Australia,” Bullard says.
James will deliver a talk on “The Kokoda Trail” that takes in the Australian actions along that well known track in Papua, as well as the fighting at Milne Bay.
“Kokoda and Milne Bay were among the best known Australian campaigns in the Second World War, but an American audience will probably have never heard of them,” he says. “A conference like this helps give the global perspective to the first year of the Pacific War, and remind an American audience that Australians were heavily involved in the south-west Pacific.”
The Japanese suffered their first defeat in the Papuan campaign at Milne Bay. The Japanese saw the Allied airstrips in the area as a stepping stone on their way to Port Moresby. On the night of 25 August 1942, they landed by sea at Milne Bay. Two Australian brigades (about 4,500 men), some American engineers, and two RAAF squadrons were awaiting them. A savage battle raged along the shore, but the Japanese never took the airstrips. They were evacuated by sea on 4 September.
The Kokoda campaign, fought between July and November 1942, saw some of the most desperate and vicious fighting encountered by Australian troops in the Second World War. The Australians were ultimately successful in stopping the Japanese from capturing the Papuan capital of Port Moresby.
Both Kokoda and Milne Bay were part of a larger campaign fought in Papua that – after the bloody beachhead battles of Buna, Gona, and Sanananda at the end of the year, from November 1942 to January 1943 – cleared the Japanese from Papua.
James says Australia’s victory in the Kokoda campaign is linked to the US victory at Guadalcanal: severe losses suffered by the Japanese in the Solomon Islands resulted in their South Seas Detachment on Kokoda being ordered to withdraw, which was the beginning of the end for their campaign in the Owen Stanley Range.
James says being able to share the Kokoda story with American historians – and, in turn, to learn more about what happened at Guadalcanal – will “help to put the Australian story into context, which makes it more meaningful”.
The conference, from 7 to 9 December, is the first of a series of five on the Second World War that will be convened by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.