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South Pacific Campaign - Ordeal on Biak
by Paul Rohrbaugh

Background

The invasion of Biak island was the culmination of General MacArthur’s New Guinea campaign that began nearly a year earlier with Operation Cartwheel and the reduction and bypassing of the Japanese fortifications at Rabaul and Truk. MacArthur’s campaign had earlier stumbled out of the gate, with bloody battles at Buna and and Sanananda along the Northeastern coast of New Guinea in late 1942 and early 1943. Shocked at the butcher’s bill run-up in those fights, MarArthur initiated an “island hopping” campaign that bypassed Japanese strongholds and not attacking the dug-in defenders head-on. From mid-1943 to early 1944 the US and Australian forces outmaneuvered their Japanese opponents, reducing and leaving behind the massive defensive works of Rabaul and Truk, trapping thousands of badly needed Japanese defenders sitting-out the war amid growing squalor and privation. A risk with each island hop run by the US would be if the Japanese navy and air forces mounted and sustained a counter-attack that would cut-off the American spearhead. Such an operation by the enemy would turn the tables and change MacArthur’s bold gambit into a costly defeat.

By early 1944 General MacArthur feared the upcoming US Navy offensive to take the Marianas to the north could lead to a strategic switch in offensive operations that would jeopardize his ambition and promise to retake the Philippines (as well as taking away the spotlight his operations commanded to this point in the war). In early 1944 MacArthur proposed the capture of Biak Island to not only end the New Guinea campaign, but also to provide a forward base of operations for his planned return to the Philippine archipelago. He also argued his attack and capture of Biak would provide valuable protection and early warning along the navy’s “southern flank” in the Marianas, giving a base for operations against any moves by Japanese naval and air units based in and around Borneo.

The plan to take Biak Island was accepted over the objections of the US Navy as only a handful of ships could be spared from the Marianas offensive to support the Army’s attack. Expecting only light opposition two regiments of the US 41st Infantry Division landed on May 26th. After a relatively easy landing the GIs encountered fierce opposition by the veteran Japanese 36th Infantry, supported by SNLF troops, and tanks. Things for the Americans quickly went from bad to worse.

Ordeal on Biak

Aftermath

“It is easy to die, for it is the duty of the warrior to die and smiling pass through this.”
--Excerpt from the final diary entry of a Japanese officer found after the battle on Biak was over.

The American plans seemed to be working splendidly upon landing on the 27th. Little did they know there were far more well-armed enemy troops on Biak than estimated by General MacArthur and his staff. The Japanese Commander had prepared a defense in depth, and unlike the previous island battles, did not plan a quick “waters edge” fight to the finish. The next day when the 162nd Infantry Regiment moved off the beach head towards their first objective they ran into an entrenched Japanese force on Parai Ridge that forced the Americans to fall back to Mokmer Village. On the 29th the Japanese struck back with a two-pronged attack; one on Mokmer Village backed by Ha Go tanks and another along the Coastal Road connecting the 162nd to their beach head. In the first tank battle of the New Guinea Campaign, M-4 Shermans of the 603rd Tank Battalion shot their Japanese Type 95 Ha Go opponents to pieces. However, along the coastal road Japanese troops successfully infiltrated the American positions and sent the defenders reeling back to the beach head. A few days later the Americans at Mokmer retreated to the coast and were withdrawn back to their May 27th landing site.

General Macarthur argued that capturing Biak, and the airfields the Japanese constructed there, would provide valuable support to the Navy’s offensive in the Marianas. Instead, the savage and see-saw fighting led to the sacking of 41st Division’s Commander, General Krueger, and the diversion of valuable resources to what essentially was a “sideshow.” General MacArthur’s premature pronouncements of an easy and quick victory on the island came back to haunt and embarrass him, and he forbade mention of the Battle of Biak in his presence for the rest of his life.

The author extends sincere thanks to John Burtt for sharing his unpublished article manuscript on the battle for Biak Island.

Additional Reading:

  • Bernstein, Marc D. Hurricane on Biak: MacArthur Against the Japanese, May-August, 1944. Philadelphia: XLibris, 2000.
  • Burtt, John. The Battle of Biak Island [unpublished manuscript].
  • Kahn, Sy Myron. Between Tedium and Terror: A Soldier’s World War II Diary, 1943-45. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
  • Smurthwaite, David. The Pacific War Atlas, 1941-1945. New York: Facts on File, 1999.
  • Taafe, Stephen R. MacArthur’s Jungle War: the 1944 New Guinea Campaign. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1998










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