World War II Pacific: New Guinea, Burma, & China

Australian soldiers during the Battle of Milne Bay, 1942. Photograph Source: Public Domain
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The Japanese Land in New Guinea

In early 1942, following their occupation of Rabaul on New Britain, Japanese troops began landing on the north coast of New Guinea. Their objective was to secure the island and its capital, Port Moresby, in order to consolidate their position in the South Pacific and provide a springboard for attacking the Allies in Australia. That May, the Japanese prepared an invasion fleet with the goal of attacking Port Moresby directly. This was turned back by Allied naval forces at the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 4-8. With the naval approaches to Port Moresby closed, the Japanese focused on attacking overland. To accomplish this, they began landing troops along the island's northeast coast on July 21. Coming ashore at Buna, Gona, and Sanananda, Japanese forces began pressing inland and soon captured the airfield at Kokoda after heavy fighting.

Battle for the Kokoda Trail

The Japanese landings preempted Supreme Allied Commander, Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) General Douglas MacArthur's plans for using New Guinea as a platform for attacking the Japanese at Rabaul. Instead, MacArthur built up his forces on New Guinea with the goal of expelling the Japanese. With the fall of Kokoda, the only way to supply Allied troops north of the Owen Stanley Mountains was over the single-file Kokoda Trail. Running from Port Moresby over the mountains to Kokoda, the trail was a treacherous path that was seen as an avenue of advance for both sides.

Pushing his men forward, Major General Tomitaro Horii was able to slowly drive the Australian defenders back up the trail. Fighting in terrible conditions, both sides were plagued by disease and a lack of food. Upon reaching Ioribaiwa, the Japanese could see the lights of Port Moresby but were forced to halt due to a lack of supplies and reinforcements. With his supply situation desperate, Horii was ordered to withdraw back to Kokoda and the beachhead at Buna. This coupled with the repulse of Japanese attacks on the base at Milne Bay, ended the threat to Port Moresby.

Allied Counterattacks on New Guinea

Reinforced by the arrival fresh American and Australian troops, the Allies launched a counteroffensive in the wake of the Japanese retreat. Pushing over the mountains, Allied forces pursued the Japanese to their heavily defended coastal bases at Buna, Gona, and Sanananda. Beginning on November 16, Allied troops assaulted the Japanese positions and in bitter, close-quarters, fighting slowly overcame them. The final Japanese strongpoint at Sanananda fell on January 22, 1943. Conditions in the Japanese base were horrific as their supplies had run out and many had resorted to cannibalism.

After successfully defending the airstrip at Wau in late January, the Allies scored a major victory at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea on March 2-4. Attacking Japanese troop transports, aircraft from SWPA's air forces managed to sink eight, killing over 5,000 soldiers that were en route to New Guinea. With momentum shifting, MacArthur planned a major offensive against the Japanese bases at Salamaua and Lae. This attack was to be part of Operation Cartwheel, an Allied strategy for isolating Rabaul. Moving forward in April 1943, Allied forces advanced towards Salamaua from Wau and were later supported by landings to the south at Nassau Bay in late June. While fighting continued around Salamaua, a second front was opened around Lae. Named Operation Postern, the attack on Lae began with airborne landings at Nadzab to the west and amphibious operations to the east. With the Allies threatening Lae, the Japanese abandoned Salamaua on September 11. After heavy fighting around the town, Lae fell four days later. While fighting continued on New Guinea for the rest of the war, it became a secondary theater as SWPA shifted its attention to planning the invasion of the Philippines.

The Early War in Southeast Asia

Following the destruction of Allied naval forces at the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942, the Japanese Fast Carrier Strike Force, under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, raided into the Indian Ocean. Hitting targets on Ceylon, the Japanese sank the aging carrier HMS Hermes and forced the British to relocate their forward naval base in the Indian Ocean to Kilindini, Kenya. The Japanese also seized the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Ashore, Japanese troops began entering Burma in January 1942, to protect the flank of their operations in Malaya. Pushing north towards the port of Rangoon, the Japanese pushed aside British opposition and forced them to abandon the city on March 7.

The Allies sought to stabilize their lines in the northern part of the country and Chinese troops rushed south to aid in the fight. This attempt failed and the Japanese advance continued, with the British retreating to Imphal, India and the Chinese falling back to the north. The loss of Burma severed the "Burma Road" by which Allied military aid had been reaching China. As a result, the Allies began flying supplies over the Himalayas to bases in China. Known as "The Hump," the route saw over 7,000 tons of supplies cross it each month. Due to the hazardous conditions over the mountains, "The Hump" claimed 1,500 Allied aviators during the war.

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The Burmese Front

Allied operations in Southeast Asia were perpetually hampered by a lack of supplies and the low priority given the theater by Allied commanders. In late 1942, the British launched their first offensive into Burma. Moving along the coast, it was quickly defeated by the Japanese. To the north, Major General Orde Wingate began a series of deep penetration raids designed to wreak havoc on the Japanese behind the lines. Known as "Chindits," these columns were supplied entirely by air and, though they suffered heavy casualties, succeeded in keeping the Japanese on edge. Chindit raids continued throughout the war and in 1943, a similar American unit was formed under Brigadier General Frank Merrill.

In August 1943, the Allies formed the Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) to handle operations in the region and named Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten as its commander. Seeking to regain the initiative, Mountbatten planned a series of amphibious landings as part of a new offensive, but had to cancel them when his landing craft were withdrawn for use in the Normandy invasion. In March 1944, the Japanese, led by Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi, launched a major offensive to take the British base at Imphal. Surging forward they encircled the town, forcing General William Slim to shift forces north to rescue the situation. Over the next few months heavy fighting raged around Imphal and Kohima. Having suffered high numbers of casualties and unable to break the British defenses, the Japanese broke off the offensive and began retreating in July. While the Japanese focus was on Imphal, US and Chinese troops, directed by General Joseph Stilwell made progress in northern Burma.

Retaking Burma

With India defended, Mountbatten and Slim began offensive operations into Burma. With his forces weakened and lacking equipment, the new Japanese commander in Burma, General Hyotaro Kimura fell back to the Irrawaddy River in the central part of the country. Pushing on all fronts, Allied forces met with success as the Japanese began giving ground. Driving hard through central Burma, British forces liberated Meiktila and Mandalay, while US and Chinese forces linked up in the north. Due to a need to take Rangoon before the monsoon season washed away the overland supply routes, Slim turned south and fought through determined Japanese resistance to take the city on April 30, 1945. Retreating east, the Kimura's forces were hammered on July 17 when many attempted to cross the Sittang River. Attacked by the British, the Japanese suffered nearly 10,000 casualties. The fighting along the Sittang was the last of the campaign in Burma.

The War in China

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched a major offensive in China against the city of Changsha. Attacking with 120,000 men, Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Army responded with 300,000 forcing the Japanese to withdrawal. In the wake of the failed offensive, the situation in China returned to the stalemate that had existed since 1940. To support the war effort in China, the Allies dispatched large amounts of Lend-Lease equipment and supplies over the Burma Road. Following the capture of the road by the Japanese, these supplies were flown in over "The Hump."

To ensure that China remained in the war, President Franklin Roosevelt dispatched General Joseph Stilwell to serve as Chiang Kai-Shek's chief of staff and as commander of the US China-Burma-India Theater. China's survival was of paramount concern for the Allies as the Chinese front tied down large numbers of Japanese troops, preventing them from being used elsewhere. Roosevelt also made the decision that US troops would not serve in large numbers in the Chinese theater, and that American involvement would be limited to air support and logistics. A largely political assignment, Stilwell soon became frustrated by the extreme corruption of Chiang's regime and his unwillingness to engage in offensive operations against the Japanese. This hesitancy was largely the result of Chiang's desire to reserve his forces for fighting Mao Zedong's Chinese Communists after the war. While Mao's forces were nominally allied with Chiang during the war, they operated independently under Communist control.

Issues Between Chiang, Stilwell, & Chennault

Stilwell also butted heads with Major General Claire Chennault, the former commander of the "Flying Tigers," who now led the US Fourteenth Air Force. A friend of Chiang's, Chennault believed that the war could be won through air power alone. Wishing to conserve his infantry, Chiang became an active advocate of Chennault's approach. Stilwell countered Chennault by pointing out that large numbers of troops would still be required to defend US airbases. Operating parallel to Chennault was Operation Matterhorn, which called for the basing of new B-29 Superfortress bombers in China with the task of striking the Japanese home islands. In April 1944, the Japanese launched Operation Ichigo which opened a rail route from Beijing to Indochina and captured many of Chennault's ill-defended airbases. Due to the Japanese offensive and the difficulty in obtaining supplies over "The Hump," the B-29s were re-based to the Marianas Islands in early 1945.

Endgame in China

Despite having been proven correct, in October 1944, Stilwell was recalled to the US at Chiang's request. He was replaced by Major General Albert Wedemeyer. With the Japanese position eroding, Chiang became more willing to resume offensive operations. Chinese forces first aided in evicting the Japanese from northern Burma, and then, led by General Sun Li-jen, attacked into Guangxi and southwestern China. With Burma retaken, supplies began to flow into China allowing Wedemeyer to consider larger operations. He soon planned Operation Carbonado for the summer of 1945, which called for an assault to take the port of Guandong. This plan was cancelled following the dropping of the atomic bombs and Japan's surrender.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II Pacific: New Guinea, Burma, & China." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). World War II Pacific: New Guinea, Burma, & China. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II Pacific: New Guinea, Burma, & China." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 2, 2023).