Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Invasion of Morotai by James P. Duffy


The occupation of the Mar-Sansapor area marked the end of MacArthur’s offensive operations in New Guinea, a campaign that had spanned nearly three years and fifteen hundred miles. From Milne Bay at the east end of New Guinea to Sansapor at the west end, the Allies killed an estimated fifty thousand Japanese, and left nearly two hundred thousand more isolated and starving in their fortified defensive positions. MacArthur’s “hit them where they ain’t” policy resulted in fewer Americans being killed throughout the New Guinea campaign than died during the battle for tiny Iwo Jima in the central Pacific. Yet he had one more stop to make before heading to the Philippines: the island of Morotai.

Halfway between Sansapor and the southernmost territory of the Philippines are a group of several hundred islands named  Maluku. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese traders had called them the Spice Islands because they produced large quantities of nutmeg, mace, clove, and other spices. The larges of these islands was Halmahera, while the most northern, and closest to the Philippines, was Morotai. General MacArthur required one more island from which his aircraft could reach the Philippines and provide land-based air support for his planned invasion of Mindanao which he had tentatively scheduled for November 15.

Halmahera was MacArthur’s first selection, based on its location and the nine airfields the enemy had constructed there. That changed when intelligence reports estimated that a least thirty thousand Japanese  combat troops of the 32nd Infantry Division, supported by large numbers of service troops, defended the seven- thousand- square-mile island. Another drawback was that reconnaissance indicated that there were only a few beaches to serve as landing zones, and all appeared to be well defended by strong enemy fortifications. . . MacArthur had been shocked at the cost of lives in taking the stronghold of Buna at the end of 1943 and determined never again to make a direct assault on an enemy position. He had implemented a new policy of by-passing enemy strongholds and using the Air Force to help isolate them so that they could not be resupplied.

Just six miles northeast of Morotai, a much more attractive target that intelligence analysts believed contained fewer than a thousand enemy soldiers. The actual number turned out to be closer to five hundred. Less than seven hundred square miles in area, Morotai, like most Islands in the New Guinea area, was blanketed in heavy forests and had a rugged mountainous interior. A special attraction to the commander-in-chief was the single airfield the Japanese had built of the island’s southeast coast. Japanese engineers had abandoned the airfield because they found the soil throughout the area too soft to support aircraft operations.

The Morotai defenses were the responsibility of the 2nd Raiding Unit, a commando force composed mostly of Formosan soldiers under Japanese officers. The unit’s commander was Major Takenobu Kawashima, who along with most of his officers had been trained at the Imperial Army’s Nakano School, which was used to develop intelligence and guerilla war specialists. Since arriving on Morotai in late July, Kawashima, who suspected the Allies might invade his little island along with the larger target, Halmahera, had constructed a series of dummy gun positions and empty campsites at which he kept fires lit at night, as if Japanese soldiers.

MacArthur informed General Krueger that his next target was Morotai, and set September 15 as the D-Day. Krueger selected Major General Charles P. Hall, then at Aitape, to head up what he called the Tradewind Task Force. Nearly sixty-one thousand troops were assembled for the task force. Approximately forty thousand were combat troops from the 31st Infantry Division (Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard Units) and the 126th Regimental Combat Team from the 32nd Division (Wisconsin and Michigan National Guard Units, “the “Red Arrow” Division). Supporting these were American and Australian air force personnel assigned to quickly build an airfield on the island as combat units moved forward. The 6th Infantry Division, stationed at Sansapor, was designated as a reserve in case additional troops were needed.

Admiral Barbey’s Seventh Amphibious Force picked up most of the 31st , less the 124th Regiment, at Maffin Bay. The 124th loaded aboard the ships at Aitape and headed to Wakde Island, where it rehearsed the planned landings of September 6. Once the training was completed, the ships of Task Force 77 assembled and headed to Morotai. This fleet numbered over one hundred ships. Escorting the troop-carrying convoy was a support group of eight Australian and America cruisers and ten destroyers. Escort carriers and destroyer escorts searching enemy submarines offered an outer ring of protection, aircraft overhead flew wide-ranging patrols. The entire trip went off without a hitch.

To reduce enemy air action against the landings, Allied aircraft bombed and strafed Japanese airfields on Halmahera and other nearby islands, reportedly destroying several hundred aircraft while most were still on the ground. No bombing raids wwere made on Morotai. In fact, Morotai suffered no attacks until the morning of the landings, when destroyers bombarded the Gil Peninsula, a long finger of land sticking out of the south coast a short distance from the abandoned airfield. Several of General Kenney’s bombers joined in, including some that dumped DDT behind the beaches to eliminate mosquitoes and other insects carrying malaria and scrub typhus, diseases that had cause a high casualty rate in the Sansapor- Mar landing.

Aside from some accidents caused by large areas of dead coral covered in slime, beginning the morning of September 15, the landings at two beach sites went off with only a few major problems. Engineers found the beaches too muddy for heavy equipment, and coral ridges just below the surface made it difficult for many landing craft to even approach the beaches. The coral reef grew clogged with vehicles and craft whose engines had been drowned in the four feet of surf or simply could not climb over the ridge. Asa result, soldiers discharged at the reef had to wade through chest-high water to reach the muddy beaches. A survey party found a more acceptable beach less than a miler away, and it became the primary unloading site the next day.

The men struggling to get ashore were fortunate that no Japanese snipers were lying in wait. In fact, the few enemy troops stationed near the landing beaches fled as soon as they saw the size of the invading force.

Sporadic small-unit fighting continued on Morotai for some time, but the Japanese on Halmahera were never able to reinforce the island’s small garrison as Allied aircraft and PT boats blocked the strait between the two islands. American and Australian engineers ignored the partially built Japanese airfield and, as soon as combat troops established a defensive perimeter around the Doroeba Plain, began construction on what would eventually become three airfields. The Wawama Airfield received fighters on October 4, and heavy bombers on October 19. Soon after, a flying boat anchorage and a PT boat base were operating.

The invasion of Morotai cost thirty-five American lives, along with eighty-five wounded. Enemy dead, those who could be found and counted, were 117, and another 200 are believed to have perished when the barge they were using to evacuate the island was attacked and sunk by PT boats.

When MacArthur’s troops landed on the Philippine Island of Leyte on October 25, 1944, the airfields on Morotai would be the closest in Allied hands and able to contribute land-based bombers and fighter escorts to the invading forces. . .

 On October 16, more than seven hundred vessels of all sizes sailed from the New Guinea coast and headed northwest. A dozen battleships, nearly two dozen aircraft carriers, and almost one hundred cruisers and destroyers surrounded and protected a huge array of assault vessels carrying more than 150,000- men whose assignment was to liberate the Philippines. Overhead, nearly one thousand aircraft flew in wide-ranging patrols, watching for enemy ships and submarines. One historian contrasts the fleet to the cross- channel invasion of Normandy the previous June, calling the latter a ferry operation by comparison.

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