Victories in the Pacific gives you the unique opportunity to explore some of the key battlefields from the New Guinea campaign of World War Two.
Milne Bay on the eastern tip of New Guinea was the scene of the one of the most important, yet often overlooked, battles of the Pacific War. In August 1942 Japanese troops landed at Milne Bay in an effort to capture the Allied airfields that had recently been constructed there. In two weeks of bitter fighting, Australian and American troops comprehensively defeated the Japanese, who were forced to withdraw and abandon their plans for taking the airfields. This was the first time the Japanese suffered a comprehensive land defeat in the Pacific War.
Our charter flight from Port Moresby will land at one of the wartime airfields that were the Japanese objective during the battle. We will drive along the coast road, the same road the Japanese advanced along, and stop at key sites from the fighting. We will board Oceanic Discoverer at Alotau, not far from the Japanese landing point, and cruise around Milne Bay.
This large island was a staging point for the Japanese attack on Milne Bay in August 1942. The Japanese force which landed here was spotted by Allied planes and its landing craft were destroyed before they could embark. Australian troops later landed on the island and cleared it of Japanese troops. For the remainder of the war Goodenough Island was an Allied staging base, and was home to the US 1st Marine Division before its attack on Cape Gloucester in 1943.
Time permitting, we will visit the beaches where the Australian troops landed in 1943, and also the site of the former Allied base on the island.
Buna, Gona and Sanananda
The villages of Buna, Gona and Sanananda formed the Japanese support base during the Kokoda Trail campaign. Following their withdrawal at the end of the Kokoda campaign, the Japanese fortified the villages and the surrounding beachhead in expectation of an Allied offensive to drive them from New Guinea. They didn’t have to wait long – in November 1942 a combined Australian and American force launched a large offensive against the villages, attacking with infantry, aircraft and tanks. The swift advance the Allies had anticipated soon evaporated in the face of murderous Japanese machine gun fire, and the Battle of Buna-Gona swiftly degenerated into one of the toughest battles of attrition of the entire Pacific War. By the time the villages had been captured in January 1943, the Allies had lost more than 15,000 men, and virtually the entire 6000-strong Japanese garrison had been killed. In relation to the number of men engaged, the Battle of Buna-Gona had one of the highest casualty rates of the war.
We will spend a full day exploring the battlefields around Buna, Gona and Sanananda. Today there are numerous memorials to the forces involved, the wrecks of tanks and landing craft and numerous relics from the fighting.
Salamaua and Lae
The towns of Salamaua and Lae were important supply bases for Japanese forces in New Guinea. After their defeat in the Kokoda and Buna-Gona campaigns, the Japanese retreated to Salamaua and Lae and fortified them in preparation for the inevitable Allied offensive. Australian and American troops attacked both towns in 1943, in a series of actions that included ground offensives, amphibious landings and even a parachute drop by US Airborne troops. By September 1943 both towns had been captured, although large numbers of Japanese troops had escaped to the north, and would need to be fought again in later campaigns. Lae became a major Australian and US base, but Salamaua was found to be unsuitable as a base location and was not developed.
As major Japanese and Allied bases, Salamaua and Lae have a rich war history. We will dive and snorkel over the wreck of a Japanese ship, the Kotoku Maru, before visiting Lae, now home to the second-largest war cemetery in Papua New Guinea. Lae War Cemetery contains the graves of men killed in fighting in the later stages of the New Guinea campaign, and also contains a memorial to 300 Australian soldiers, airmen and merchant sailors who were killed in the area and have no known grave.
The Lutheran mission at Finschhafen was occupied and developed into yet another Japanese base in 1942. It was captured by the Allies during the Huon Peninsula campaign in Septemeber 1943, which involved Australian troops making their first opposed amphibious landing since Gallipoli in 1915. Australian and US troops completed the capture of the peninsula by early-1944 and Finschhafen became a major Allied support base. It was particularly important as a staging point for attacks on New Britain as part of Operation Cartwheel.
Most of the original mission was destroyed during the war, but we will visit the only remaining building, which is still used by missionaries today. We will also cruise past Scarlet Beach, where the Australians landed, and visit the remains of the Allied air base.
The town of Medang featured prominently in the later stages of the New Guinea campaign, from September 1943 to April 1944. It was captured by Australian troops as part of the Finisterre Range campaign, a six-month effort to drive the Japanese from the high ground known to the Allies as Shaggy Ridge. The fighting on Shaggy Ridge took place in some of the toughest country of the entire New Guinea campaign, and rivalled the Kokoda Trail for the feats of endurance displayed by the Australian troops. The beleagured Australians eventually overcame the determined Japanese defenders and took Madang, linking up with American forces on the coast and completing the capture of the Huon Peninsula.
Madang was destroyed during the war and has been completely rebuilt. Today it is picturesque town and offers excellent swimming and wreck diving on the islands around the harbour. Its prominent lighthouse is a memorial to the Allied coastwatchers who operated behind Japanese lines and radioed warnings of incoming air and sea attacks to Allied forces on nearby islands.
In 1943 the Allies launched Operation Cartwheel, an attempt to isolate the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul by capturing key islands around it. One of the most important stages of the operation was to take the airfields at Cape Gloucester, on the western tip of New Britain. The US 1st Marine Division, having rested and refitted in Melbourne after their victory on Guadalcanal, landed at Cape Gloucester on December 26, 1943. They expected a relatively straightforward advance through ‘marshy ground’ to the airfields. Instead they found themselves facing an impenatrable swamp, and spent four months battling the Japanese, the jungle and the atrocious weather conditions. Many Marine veterans remembered Cape Gloucester as their darkest hour of the war. Cape Gloucester featured in the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks mini-series, The Pacific.
Cape Gloucester is very isolated, and this is the first time a tour group has visited it. We will come ashore on the beaches where the Marines landed, and explore inland to the old airfields.
After Cape Gloucester was secured, Allied forces pushed east along the island of New Britain towards the major Japanese base at Rabaul. Kimbe Bay was the scene of an amphibious landing by US Marines, and later actions by Australian troops as they moved to cut off the Japanese garrison at Rabaul.
We will explore the diverse marine life in the Kimbe Bay area, and also the sites of the American and Australian advances during the war.
New Britain/Rabaul, Papua New Guinea
Rabaul, located on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea, was the largest and most important Japanese base in the South Pacific. It was the headquarters of both the Japanese Army and Navy and was occupied by more than 100,000 Japanese troops. Allied forces were nervous about the large number of casualties they would almost certainly suffer in capturing Rabaul and, in mid-1943, launched Operation Cartwheel instead, a plan to capture strategically-important islands that surrounded Rabaul, thereby isolating and neutralizing it. The operation was extremely successful and demonstrated the effectiveness of bypassing large concentrations of enemy forces and concentrating on severing Japanese lines of communication instead. The success of Operation Cartwheel meant that Rabaul was not attacked directly, and the Japanese garrison held out until the surrender in August 1945.
As their major base in the South Pacific, Rabaul was strongly fortified by the Japanese and today there are many war-related sites of interest for visitors. We will tour the tunnels, bunkers, gun positions and other relics from the Japanese occupation.