Battle of Wakde Island, 18-21 May 1944

The battle of Wakde Island (18-21 May 1944) was part of a wider American offensive carried out in order to protect the western flanks of their newly captured position at Hollandia, on the north coast of New Guinea. Technically the battle was fought on Insoemoar Island, the larger (by far) of the two Wakde Islands, but the large island was always known as Wakde Island to the Allies.

Hollandia had been captured as part of Operation Reckless (22-27 April 1944), and was to be turned into a major naval and air base. The landings at Hollandia and nearby Aitape split the Japanese army on the north coast of New Guinea in two. To the east were the battered remnants of General Adachi's 18th Army. To the west was the Japanese Second Army, as yet largely untouched by the fighting, well supplied and well dug in.

New Guinea during the Second World War
New Guinea during
the Second World War

The nearest major Japanese base to Hollandia was in the area of Maffin Bay, about 125 miles to the west. The Japanese had built an airfield west of the bay, and another on Wakde Island, which was east of Maffin Bay, opposite the village of Toem. The island was 3,000 yards long by 1,000 yards wide and the airfield covered about half of its surface.

The Japanese had 10,000 men of Lieutenant General Hachiro Tagami's 36th Division in the Wakde and Maffin Bay area, but only 800 of those men were actually on Wakde Island. This force was made up of a reinforced infantry company of 280 men (9th Company, 3rd Battalion, 224th Infantry Regiment), 150 naval troops and 350 other troops (presumably mainly support staff for the airfield). Although there had been some 75mm guns on the island, they were all destroyed in the pre-invasion bombardment. The Japanese had built around 100 bunkers on the island, of varied forms on construction.

The campaign opened on 17 May when US troops landed on the mainland, and on the small unoccupied Insoemanai Island close to Wakde Island. This was used as a base for a mortar and machine-gun bombardment of the main island.

At 7.15 on 18 May aircraft from the Fifth Air Force began an hour long bombardment of Wakde Island. The naval bombardment began at 8.30am and saw 600 6in shells, 1,950 5in shells and 850 4.5in rockets fired at the island.

The attack on Wakde was carried out by four companies from the 163rd Infantry and four Sherman tanks, supported by artillery fire from the mainland and Insomanai.

The first US troops landed at 9.10am on 18 May, hitting the shore near a jetty on the south-western coast. The invasion force, with two of the four tanks, was ashore by 9.25 (two tanks having been lost to accidents before landing). The Americans quickly secured their beachhead, but came under heavy fire. One of the four company commander was killed and two wounded in this stage of the battle. The Americans then split up. Company B and F, with the tanks, moved west along the coast, Company A moved south-east along the coast towards a machinegun nest, Company C moved north towards the airfield. The two coastal advances went well, but Company C had to fight its way past a series of Japanese defensive positions. Even so the Americans reached the airstrip well before noon on the first day. The Americans reached the north coast by 13.30, but the Japanese still held on at the eastern end of the airfield at the end of the first days fighting.

The advance resumed at 9.15am on 19 May. Once again the Japanese put up fierce resistance at the eastern end of the airfield, but their bunkers were destroyed by the tanks and they were cleared off the airfield. The survivors attempted to make a stand in some coral caves on the coast, but were soon overcome. By the end of the day the airfield had been cleared, and organised resistance had virtually ended. The Japanese held on in a small triangle of land at the north-eastern corner of the island.

On 20 May one group of 37 Japanese troops carried out a banzai attack, which ended with 36 dead and one wounded prisoner. The rest of the Japanese positions were overrun, and by the end of the day control of the island had been handed over to the Allied Air Forces. There were still a few Japanese snipers hiding on the island, and they had to be cleared out by L Company, 163rd Infantry, between 22-26 May.

The fighting cost the Americans 40 dead, while the Japanese lost at least 759 dead.

The fighting on the mainland was rather harder and lasted across the summer. The worst of the fighting was over by the end of June, although the Japanese weren't entirely cleared from the area. This fighting is known as the Wakde-Sarmi campaign, or the battle of Lone Tree Hill, taking that name from a key Japanese defensive position near the coast.

The Americans quickly expanded Wakde airfield until it covered the entire island. It was operational on 21 May, well in time to take part in the next amphibious invasion on New Guinea, the attack on Biak Island of 27 May 1944, even though fighting was still going on nearby on the mainland.

Wakde Island airfield was a valuable base for a few months in the summer of 1944. Aircraft based on Wakde carried out attacks on Biak, Noemfoor and the Vogelkop Peninsula in New Guinea, Halmahera and Morotai in the seas to the west, and supported the Central Pacific campaign with attacks on the Palau Islands and the Caroline Islands, as well as supporting the invasion of the Mariana Islands. As the action moved further away from the area its importance began to fade, and in December 1944 it became an emergency field only. At the start of February 1945 the last American troops withdrew from the mainland opposite Wakde Island, and it was defended by a single company from the 93rd Division from then until October 1945.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (25 June 2015), Battle of Wakde Island, 18-21 May 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_wakde_island.html

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