Battle of Arawe, 15 December 1943-16 January 1944

The battle of Arawe (15 December 1943- 16 January 1944) was a diversionary attack on New Britain, carried out to distract Japanese attention from the main American target at Cape Gloucester on the north-west corner of the island.

The western end of New Britain was important for two reasons. First, it would allow the Allies to tighten their grip on Rabaul, the powerful Japanese base at the northern tip of the island. Second, it would give the Allies control of the Dampier Strait, which ran between New Britain and the smaller island of Umboi (or Rooke). The allied campaign on the Huon Peninsula had given them control of the Vitiaz Strait, between Umboi and New Guinea.

Arawe was to be attacked by the Director Task Force, under Brigadier General Julian W. Cunningham. He was given two squadrons from the 112th Cavalry, the 148th Field Artillery Battalion, the 59th Engineer Company, one battery of searchlights and two batteries from the 470th Antiaircraft Artillery (Automatic Weapons) Battalion. The 2nd Battalion, 158th Infantry, was in reserve.

The Japanese had decided that western New Britain would probably soon be attacked by the Allies, and in October began to move reinforcements into the area. Major Shinjiro Kmori, with the 1st Battalion, 81st Infantry, one company from the 54th Infantry and some engineers was ordered to move to Arawe. Major Komori was still moving west when the Americans landed at Arawe, so the initial landings were only opposed by a few companies of local troops.

The Arawe battlefield was somewhat unusual in shape. Most of the fighting would be carried out on the 'L' shaped Arawe Peninsula, which ran west from the mainland, then turned north at the far end. The peninsula was surrounded by the Arawe Island, with Arawe Island itself to the west and Pilelo Island to the south.

The American plan was for three landings, one on Pilelo Island, one at House Fireman Beach at the western end of the peninsula and one at the village of Umlingalu on the mainland, part of the way between the tip of the peninsula and the airfield.

The initial landings didn’t go quite as planned. The attack on Umlingalu was a total failure. At about 5.25am the attacking force came under attack and all but three of the fifteen rubber boats involved were sunk. Sixteen men were killed and survivors eventually made their way to the main landing area after being saved by fire from the destroyer USS Shaw.

The landing on Pilelo was more successful. The main target was a Japanese radio station in Paligmete village. A plan to carry out a surprise attack on the village was abandoned after firing broke out at Umlingalu, and instead the attacking force landed to the west. The Japanese were actually in two caves south of the village, and had to be knocked out by a flame thrower team. The fighting here was over by 11.30 at the cost of one dead.

The main landings, at House Fireman Beach, was supported by 1,800 rounds of 5in fire from US destroyers, then an raid by B-25 bombers. There was then a bit of a gap before the first troops landed at around 7am. There was some limited Japanese resistance, but this was knocked out by rocket fire, and after that the landings were unopposed. Only a handful of Japanese troops were found on the peninsula itself, and most of the few defenders retreated east towards the mainland when the scale of the US attack became clear.

The most serious opposition on D-Day came in the air. The 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul sent a raid of 20-30 aircraft, which hit at 9am. The Japanese managed to get to the beach despite the best efforts of a force of P-38s providing air cover, but did little damage. By the end of the day the Americans had landed 1,600 men on the peninsula, and had established a main line of resistance at the foot of the peninsula.

For most of the rest of 1943 the main Japanese opposition came from the 11th Air Fleet. There were seven raids between 15 and 27 December, and one coastal transport ship was sunk.

The Japanese were determined to force the Americans away from Arawe. Major Komori, who was still approaching from the east, was ordered to speed up, while the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, was ordered to move south from Cape Busching to join his force.

On 18 December the Americans had their first contact with the Japanese reinforcements, a naval clash between two Japanese armed barges and an American LCVP. On 20 December Komori reached the Pulie River, several miles to the east of the abandoned airfield. On 25 December he forced the Americans to retreat from their outposts east of Arawe, and on the following day he reached the main line of resistance at the foot of the peninsula. General Cunningham believed that more Japanese troops must be close behind, and asked for reinforcements. In response G Company, 18th infantry, was rushed to the peninsula.

Komori carried out a daylight attack on 28 December, using his troops from the 81st Infantry. This was repulsed. A second attack was made on 29 December, and this time the Japanese force was almost wiped out. Later on the same day the 141st Infantry arrived from Cape Busching. If there had been better communication between the two forces, then Major Komori might have been able to carry out a more effective attack, but by late December the American line was a very strong defensive position.

A brief period of stalemate now settled in. Komori decided to defend the old airfield, while the Americans had no interest in taking it. He was even given an Imperial citation for defending the airfield. Most of his men were posted between the airfield and the American lines, and the Japanese front line was only held by around 100 men.

Even so Cunningham didn’t want to risk an infantry attack, and he was granted reinforcements and tanks. F Company, 158th infantry, arrived on 10 January and the light tanks of the 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, followed on 12 January.

The Americans attacked on 16 January. First medium bombers attacked the Japanese positions. This was followed by an artillery barrage, and then the tanks went in, supported by the infantry. The attack was a total success, and the Americans advanced 1,500 yards by the end of the day.

This effectively ended the fighting at Arawe. Komori withdrew to the airfield, and the Americans were willing to leave him alone there. Finally, in mid-February, he was ordered to retreat back to the east. Komori didn't survive the retreat. On 9 April his party ran into a Marine outpost established after the conquest of Talasea on 6-11 March and he was killed in the resulting fire fight.
 
The Americans lost 118 dead, 352 wounded and 4 missing during the battle of Arawe. The attack had successfully kept two Japanese infantry battalions away from the main fighting at Cape Gloucester.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 April 2015), Battle of Arawe, 15 December 1943-16 January 1944, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_arawe.html

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