Key Point: With the experience of so many previous successful landings behind them, Allied planners should have known better.
By April 1944, American and Australian troops were moving westward along the northern edge of New Guinea, reclaiming territory taken by the Japanese in early 1942. After hard-fought battles to capture Gona, Buna, and Sanananda in eastern Papua New Guinea, in late 1942 and early 1943, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, had captured Salamaua, Lae, and Finschhaven in northeast New Guinea. Next, MacArthur captured the Japanese supply base at Saidor, 52 miles east of the enemy stronghold of Madang. Either unable or unwilling to commit their troops to a battle in the Madang area, the retreating Japanese withdrew farther west. While the Australians advanced against Madang, MacArthur set his sights on the coastal villages of Wewak and Aitape in northeastern New Guinea and Hollandia near the border in Dutch New Guinea.
By this time the Allies controlled the air and the seas around New Guinea. Although there were still about 60,000 Japanese soldiers on New Guinea, they were short of supplies, and morale was dangerously low. On the other hand, the Allies had continued to grow more powerful. By the beginning of 1944, MacArthur had five American divisions, three regimental combat teams, and three engineer special brigades, along with five Australian divisions, at his disposal. Also, his Fifth Air Force had about 1,000 combat aircraft and his Seventh Fleet had a large array of warships, cargo vessels, transports, and landing craft.
Instead of attacking Wewak, where the Japanese were concentrating and expecting this to be his next landing site, MacArthur proposed to jump his army 275 miles up the coast to capture the village of Aitape, site of three Japanese airfields. At the same time he would push two divisions of Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger’s I Corps 125 miles farther west to capture the major Japanese air and supply base at Hollandia. By deciphering captured Japanese codebooks, the Allies knew that the Hollandia area, with its three airfields, was lightly defended. MacArthur was going to bypass Wewak and land behind the Japanese, trapping the Imperial soldiers between the Australian troops that continued to push westward overland and the recently landed American troops.
Two landing zones were selected in the Hollandia area. One would be at Tanahmerah Bay on the west side of an outcropping of land formed by the Cyclops Mountains. Thought to be a lightly defended area, the 24th Infantry Division, a regular Army unit commanded by Maj. Gen. Frederick A. Irving, would storm ashore at two separate beaches, Red Beaches 1 and 2, and then drive inland on a well-established old Dutch road toward the airfields, which had been constructed on a strip of land sitting between the southern edge of the Cyclops Mountains and a large meandering body of water known as Lake Sentai.
Simultaneously, a landing was to be made at Humboldt Bay on the eastern side of the Cyclops Mountains outcropping. The 41st Infantry Division, National Guard troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Horace H. Fuller, would land at White Beaches 1 through 4. Thought to be more heavily defended, the strongest force would land on White Beaches 1 and 2 on a narrow strip of land about 21/2miles south of Hollandia town. Each beach was only about 700 yards long and 100 yards deep with a mangrove swamp directly behind. Another landing area, White Beach 3, was no better, situated on the tip of a finger of a peninsula separating large Humboldt Bay from small, hidden Jautefa Bay. On the northwestern shore of Jautefa Bay sat the small native village of Pim, which had a jetty and the start of a road leading to the eastern side of Lake Sentai. While most of the attackers would come ashore at White Beaches 1 and 2, a battalion of soldiers in LVT amphibious tractors and DUKW amphibious trucks would land at White Beach 3, rumble across the finger-like peninsula, splash into Jautefa Bay, and make a final landing near Pim at White Beach 4.
Throughout the month of March and into mid-April, MacArthur kept up the illusion that his next objective was Wewak, launching several aerial bombing runs and even a few naval bombardments. At the same time, Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney’s Fifth Air Force struck at the Hollandia airfields, wiping out almost all of the 350 defending Japanese planes. On April 20, the three invasion convoys, headed for Aitape, Tanahmerah Bay, and Humboldt Bay, rendezvoused near Manus Island. On the 21st, the ships bearing the invasion force for Aitape, code named Persecution Task Force, broke off and headed southeast toward their landing beaches. The rest of the ships, containing the invaders for Hollandia, code named Reckless Task Force, continued on. At 1:30 am on April 22, D-day, the remaining convoys split. The Central Attack Group carrying the 41st Division headed toward Humboldt Bay, while the Western Attack Group, with the 24th Division, went toward Tanahmerah Bay.
At first light on April 22, 1944, the two invasion fleets began their preinvasion bombardment while airplanes from a supporting carrier task force made bombing and strafing runs on the area. The Japanese had about 7,600 men in the area, but most were service troops. Only about one out of every 10 Japanese soldiers carried a rifle. Caught completely by surprise, most of the enemy soldiers fled into the jungle. Surprisingly, when the first American troops from the 24th Division stormed ashore at Red Beaches 1 and 2 they were greeted by only a few scattered rifle shots. Enemy opposition was almost nonexistent.
As the following waves quickly raced ashore, the first wave searched for the old Dutch road that was to lead them off the beaches and toward the Lake Sentai airfields. As troops and supplies started to pile up on the two beaches, the men discovered that there was no “old Dutch road.” Wrote naval historian Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, “There simply was no way to get men or vehicles off this beach except by the way they had come; they might as well have landed at the base of an unscalable cliff.”
At Humboldt Bay, the preinvasion bombardment hit a Japanese ammunition dump. Captain Bern Anderson, the landing control officer, reported, “A fire in an enemy dump on the right side of Beach White One was plainly visible and was picked up well out to sea.” Two companies of infantry hit White Beach 1 two minutes behind schedule, followed by a reinforced rifle platoon landing at White Beach 2. On the southern finger of land, at White Beach 3, a rifle company came ashore and secured the southern entrance into Jautefa Bay. Noted Captain Anderson, “The beach frontage [at White Beach 1] … was filled with large quantities of Japanese supplies of all kinds, including large dumps of rations, ammunition, and aerial bombs.” A 41st Division infantryman added, “We discovered the largest Japanese ammunition dump that I have ever seen. It covered the beach for about a mile and must have been 200 [sic] feet deep.” Like the landings at Tanahmerah Bay, the landings at Humboldt Bay were unopposed.
As the fire in the Japanese supply dump continued to burn, the 41st Division troops moved north toward Hollandia town and west toward Lake Sentai and the airfields. Simultaneously, the 24th Division soldiers were inching their way eastward along a series of small trails, none of them large enough to move supplies. Since the 41st Division was having an easier time, 24th Division commander General Irving made the decision to have his followup supplies sent to Humboldt Bay on D+1. White Beaches 1 and 2 would now be the supply points for both advancing divisions.
Pushing their way off the crowded White Beaches, the 41st Division soldiers captured Pancake Hill, a slight promontory just north of the beach peninsula, and pushed on toward Hollandia. By nightfall they were near the town. And still there was no heavy opposition from the Japanese.
At White Beach 1, the 116th Engineer Battalion came ashore and tried to build an exit road off the beach. When the sand proved to be too soft for wheeled construction equipment and the swampy land behind the beaches limited the site of such a road, most of the engineers turned to helping unload seven large Landing Ship, Tanks (LSTs) that were bringing in all kinds of supplies. The big ships, easy targets for Japanese night aircraft, needed to be unloaded and out of the area as soon as possible. With no exit road in existence yet, the supplies began to pile up, literally. Large stacks of food, ammunition, gasoline, and other essentials began to grow sky high along White Beaches 1 and 2.
Early on the morning of April 23, D+1, the 41st Division soldiers began their move against Hollandia. By 11:15, the town was in American hands. Below the Cyclops Mountains, advancing troops from both the 24th and 41st Divisions began to run into some Japanese resistance as they forced their way over the narrow native trails toward Lake Sentai and the three enemy airfields. By nightfall, the two divisions were still miles from their objectives.