Bloody ridges: Wau-Salamaua
one of the most difficult and unpleasant areas ever to confront troops
... declared the Australian official historian, David Dexter, referring to the Wau-Salamaua campaign. It was a little-known area of New Guinea over which thousands of Australians, New Guineans, Americans and Japanese fought and died. These men, Dexter explained:
… found it difficult to find enough unpleasant adjectives to describe the country, which, for the most part, consisted of rugged mountains clothed with dense, almost impenetrable jungle, and in the higher areas with moss forest. Occasionally hills covered with kunai grass, such as those in the Snake Valley, stood out against the jungle background.
[Quoted in David Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives, Canberra, 1961, p.21]
The campaign followed on from the battle for Wau at the start of 1943. After defeating the Japanese attack on Wau, the Australians made ready to advance. The Japanese retreated two-thirds of the way back across the mountains, but were determined to hold a line there. The Australian 3rd Division was tasked with driving the Japanese back and to take the base at Salamaua on the coast.
At the beginning of March 1943, as the Australians were preparing for a push, the Allied forces scored a significant victory in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. A Japanese convoy carrying reinforcements was spotted, and Allied aircraft began attacking the convoy on 3 March 1943. Bostons of 22 Squadron RAAF bombed the airfields at Lae and Salamaua to prevent Japanese fighters taking off to protect the ships, and then Beaufighters of 30 Squadron RAAF along with American B-17 and B-25 bombers attacked the fleet. Flying at low level, Beaufighters strafed the ships' bridges and anti-aircraft guns so that the bombers could make bombing runs. In repeated attacks, all eight merchant ships and four destroyers were sunk. What the air force official historian called a 'terrible yet essential finale' then took place, as Australian and American airmen were ordered to seek out and sink barges and rafts crammed with survivors to prevent them reaching the shore. Many taking part in these attacks were physically sickened by what they had to do.
In early May, after the Australians had advanced to within striking distance of the forward Japanese positions, around Mubo, the Japanese launched a counter-attack. Both the Australian 2/7th Battalion and 2/3rd Independent Company, which was operating behind enemy lines, were attacked. Although they had few supporting weapons, the Australians were determined to hold on, and repelled repeated attacks.
As the Australians pushed on, the demands of mountain warfare increased. Men had to walk for several days to reach the forward area, before taking part in the fighting or supporting the troops engaging the Japanese. The troops relied on New Guineans who carried all manner of supplies, although there was never enough food because ammunition was given priority. Traipsing up and down mountainsides bearing heavy loads tested every man. Signalman Lloyd Collins, 3rd Division Signals, explained:
… there was little conversation. You neither had the time nor the inclination. Talking required energy and energy was a scarce resource. When passing a mate you sometimes glanced at his face, a face dull from fatigue and dripping with perspiration. You saw his sticking clothes, his muddy boots and trousers. You noticed the heavy pack and you could hear his heaving breath as he struggled past. Then, as you pitied him and felt sorry for his plight, you realised that you looked the same to others. Even though no words were spoken the silent glance conveyed sympathy and understanding.
[Lloyd Collins, The New Guinea Narrative, 2001, p.55]
Coming the other way were sick and wounded men, many of them carried by New Guineans. Casualties were treated by medical troops in forward aid posts, and then sent rearward if further hospital treatment was called for. It could take weeks for wounded or sick men to reach Wau, from where they were flown to Port Moresby. Later, when the coast was reached, men could be evacuated more easily by sea to Buna.
It took months of hard slogging and fighting to make ground. The Australian 17th Infantry Brigade, which had fought in the Middle East, made most of the attacks against the Japanese along the main routes. Meanwhile, a 'militia' unit, the 58th/59th Battalion, serving alongside the commandos of the 2/3rd Independent Company, operated around Bobdubi Ridge and Old Vickers Position for a staggering 77 days without relief. Dozens of men were killed or wounded in attacks on enemy positions or in clashes between Australian and Japanese patrols.
As the Australians pushed on towards the coast, they gained support in mid-1943 from American troops who were landed at Nassau Bay. The Allies linked up for the final push on to Salamaua. As well as those killed or wounded in battle, many men were falling sick from the testing environment and the effects of weeks or months of inadequate diet. Others were injured in falls along steep and slippery tracks. A 3rd Division report pointed to the demands on the men, and what was required to pass this test of arms:
Such conditions of rain, mud, rottenness, stench, gloom, and, above all, the feeling of being shut in by everlasting jungle and ever ascending mountains, are sufficient to fray the strongest nerves. But add to them the tension of constant expectancy of death from behind the impenetrable screen of green, and nerves must be of the strongest, and morale of the highest, to live down these conditions, accept them as a matter of course, and maintain a cheerful yet fighting spirit.
[Quoted in David Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives, p.21]
It rained almost every day and campsites were damp, at best, or soaked. Men grew tired of a repetitive and meagre diet of bully beef, biscuits and rice. Signalman Collins observed infantry coming out of the lines after they had been campaigning for weeks on end:
They had all suffered privations and endured the hellish hardships of jungle fighting. Their clothes were stained and discoloured from perspiration, torn and ragged. They were tired to death and hungry and yet, without complaint, stood in the heavy rain and quietly ate their meal. These men, boys in years, knew hardships as few of the world's soldiers had known it.
[Collins, The New Guinea Offensives, p.60]
It took half a year to complete the advance from Wau to Salamaua. With a push by the Australian 15th, 17th and 29th Infantry Brigades and the American 162nd Infantry Regiment, Salamaua was captured on 11 September 1943. The troops found a ruined township, which had been bombed repeatedly by Allied aircraft. One soldier remembered:
Not one building in Salamaua had been missed by bombs. A few on the isthmus still stood, with walls blown out, roofs holed by strafing, but there was nothing to inspire pride of possession. Only yards separated the holes where bombs had landed and it was a wonder that any of the buildings managed to remain upright. Everywhere the stink of the 'Pongo' [corpses] hung in the air.
[SE Benson, The Story of the 42 Australian Infantry Battalion, Sydney, 1952, p.116]