Japanese Soldier vs US Soldier, New Guinea 1942-44, Gregg Adams


Japanese Soldier vs US Soldier, New Guinea 1942-44, Gregg Adams

This book looks at three battles over a period of more than a year and a half on New Guinea, from the fighting at Buna in November 1942-January 1943 to the fighting on the Driniumor River in July-August 1944.

On the American side the focus is on three National Guard Divisions, the 32nd (Wisconsin and Michigan), 41st (Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington) and dismounted 112th Cavalry Regiment (Texas). Each of these units contained a mix of pre-war members of the National Guard and wartime conscripts needed to bring them up to strength.

The section on doctrine and training makes an interesting point. Neither side had prepared for jungle warfare. The Americans were trained for another war in Europe, the Japanese for war against the Soviet Union or China. However the Japanese focus on small unit training and on infantry worked well in the jungle. In addition their focus on infantry as the leading arm of the army meant that it got the best men.

In contrast the US focus on combined arms was tricker to adapt to the jungle environment, where visibility was often short, making artillery less useful, and tanks struggled to find a route. However if the terrain could be cleared, the American methods proved superior. The best conscripts normally went to other branches of the army, while high quality NCOs and junior officers were often moved away to higher priority branches.

Because the three battles are spread over such a long time period the nature of the fighting changed quite dramatically between the first and last chapters. At Buna the Americans were at the end of a long, thin supply line and the Japanese could still pose a threat in the air and at sea. By 1944 that had changed – American logistics were now world beating, while the Japanese system had collapsed.

At Buna we see an inexperienced US Army attacking veteran Japanese troops, and suffering as a result. Only a change of command, the arrival of a fresh Australian infantry brigade and most significantly a force of M3 Light Tanks broke the deadlock.

Biak comes six months later. By this point the Allies have control of the seas, and are free to attack wherever they want. Instead of attacking the Japanese 18th Army at its strongpoint around Wewak the Americans leapfrogged west, landing at Aitape (50 miles to the west), Hollandia (200 miles west) and finally Biak (550 miles west). Biak saw the Japanese adopt new defensive measures during an island defence. Their previous plan had been to try and defeat the invaders at the shoreline and if that failed to launch immediate counterattacks. This approach failed repeatedly, and just exposed the Japanese defenders to overwhelming Allied naval and air power. On Biak the plan was to defend further inland – allow the Allies onto the island and then use the terrain and strong interlocking defences to inflict as many casualties as possible. This was an effective tactic – the Americans were unable to use the airfields on Biak until the Japanese had been cleared out of their defensive positions in the high ground overlooking them. Compared to some later battles this fight was over fairly quickly, but it did demonstrate an ability to change strategy.

The third battle, the Driniumor River (or Aitape) is rather different, in that it was a Japanese offensive. By the summer of 1944 the troops at Wewak were isolated, running short of supplies, and effectively out of the battle. The 18th Army decided to launch an attack on the US troops at Aitape, where a garrison was defending a number of airfields. This was a large operation, with some 20,000 combat troops and many more support troops. However the Americans detected the advancing Japanese, who were having to move slowly through the jungle, and were able to plan their defence. The Japanese were able to cross the Driniumor at one point but only at very heavy cost. In some ways this entire battle resembles the desperate last ditch ‘banzai’ charges carried out by island garrisons on the verge of defeat, but on a larger scale. In this case they weren’t even attacking the main US garrison at Aitape, but a covering force posted twenty miles to the east, and were unable to defeat that.

The author makes a very good point about the failure of the Japanese to adapt to the sort of war they were fighting. There are some changes of tactics, but the emphasis on martial valour and the power of the infantry remained the same, as did the results – hard fighting for the Allies, but costly defeats for the Japanese.

The Opposing Sides
The Driniumor River

Author: Gregg Adams
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 80
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2021

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