Battle of Aitape, 22-24 April 1944

The battle of Aitape (22-24 April 1944) was carried out in support of the larger landings at Hollandia, and was designed to provide a shield against any possible intervention by Japanese forces further to the west at Wewak.

By the spring of 1944 it was clear that Operation Cartwheel, the series of attacks carried out to isolate Rabaul, were close to success. The Allies began to prepare for their next move, and chose to leapfrog the Japanese positions at Wewak and Hansa Bay and go straight for Hollandia, on the coast of Dutch New Guinea (Operation Reckless). Hollandia had the best natural harbour on that part of the coast, and was the point from where MacArthur wanted to turn north to attack the Philippines, but it was a long way past the most advanced Allied positions. It was decided to seize a suitable location for a forward airfield at the same time as the attack on Hollandia. A number of alternatives were examined, and eventually the decision was made to attack Aitape, on the north-western coast of Australian New Guinea, east of Hollandia. 

New Guinea during the Second World War
New Guinea during
the Second World War
The Japanese had built two airfields at Aitape. They had 1,000 men in the area, but only 200 or so were infantry. Most of the rest were the staff from the airfields, including ground crews and air crews, but five Allied air raids against the area in late March and early April had eliminated the vast majority of the Japanese aircraft, so the airmen could only be used as impromptu infantry. Aitape had also been attacked by aircraft from the fast carriers of Admiral Mitscher's Task Force 58.

General Adachi, commander of the 18th Army, had been ordered to send reinforcements to Aitape, and two regiments had left Wewak on 13 April. When the Americans landed they were still in the middle of this 210 mile march across some very difficult terrain, and after the success of the invasion they turned back.

The landings at Aitape were on a smaller scale than the landings at Hollandia, where most of two divisions were used. At Aitape the attack was carried out by the 163rd Regimental Combat Team of the 41st Division, commanded by General Jens Doe. Air support was provided by eight escort carriers that had been provided by Admiral Nimitz, and that weren't needed at Hollandia.

Both landings caught the Japanese entirely by surprise. The Japanese put up very little resistance at Aitape. The first wave landed at 6.45am on 22 April. The only problem was that the landing craft missed their intended beach and instead landed at Wapil, 1,200 yards further to the east. This turned out to be a better area than Blue Beach, and the mistake actually aided the invasion. The landing was unopposed, as any Japanese troops on the coast had fled at the start of the naval bombardment. By the end of the first day the Americans had reached both Japanese airfields, and had only lost two dead and thirteen wounded.

The airfield was cleared within 24 hours of the landings and by 24 April the area was secured. The Americans lost 2 dead during the first day and 19 dead by the time the area was secured, the Japanese around 525 in the overall battle. There was very little resistance in the area. The heaviest fighting came on 28-29 April when a small outpost was attacked by 200 Japanese troops, losing three dead and two wounded, but killing ninety of the Japanese in return. The main Allied effort came on the eastern flank, where troops were pushed some way east to watch for any Japanese troops approaching from Wewak.

A handful of prisoners were captured, and the rest of the garrison escaped east towards Wewak. The captured airfield was ready for use within 48 hours of the attack and was soon in use by Kittyhawks from No.78 Wing, RAAF.

General Adachi was now totally isolated at Wewak and Hansa Bay. A few days after the landings at Hollandia and Aitape he had pulled out of Madang, his base on the north-eastern coast of New Guinea and Allied troops occupied it on 24 March. Adachi was a determined figure, and decided that it was worth launching a counterattack against Aitape. On 28 June his men attacked the Americans on the Driniumor River, east of Aitape, triggering a fierce battle that lasted into August. After this he pulled back into Wewak, where he was left alone until the Australians took over the sector later in 1944 and carried out a fresh offensive.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 June 2015), Battle of Aitape, 22-24 April 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_aitape.html

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