‘It Just Took a Few’: the Tank in New Guinea Campaign

by Dr. Robert Young

The tank has achieved a well-deserved aura of decisiveness and versatility in the annals of World War II history. Images of German panzers dashing across Poland and France; of Rommel’s tanks dominating the vast, open spaces of the North African desert; and of American tanks tearing across Western Europe tend to be what one sees when visualizing armor in World War II.

A common factor in the aforementioned theaters of war was terrain. All were ideal tank country. All were ideal for vast maneuvers, flanking movements and large-scale armor-vs.-armor engagements.

In another theater of the war and in far different terrain, the tank also developed into a decisive weapon. In what the U.S. Army called the Southwest Pacific area, American armor, employed in small numbers – often as few as four and never more than eight – turned the tide of several key battles. Their decisiveness would be proven not only in the battles in which they were employed, but also in those in which they were not. The jungle island of New Guinea, home to some of World War II’s most ferocious battles, would attest to armor’s value under even the most adverse circumstances.

The campaign in New Guinea lasted about two years, commencing in Winter 1942 with the Battle of Buna and ending with the Battle of Biak in Summer 1944. The campaign was the creation of the SWPA commander, GEN Douglas MacArthur. Its many successes and failures, both at the strategic and tactical levels, reside with him. MacArthur’s decision to fight at Buna in November 1942 was the product of the then-recent American landings on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal and in North Africa. (He loathed exclusion from the headlines.) A Japanese force at Buna posed a perceived threat to Australia, but MacArthur’s intelligence section also presented inaccurate forecasts of Japanese strength.

New Guinea’s challenges

In spite of his eagerness to become involved in the war, the SWPA commander had two serious concerns. First, the men he commanded were not experienced, hardened soldiers. MacArthur’s command consisted of 32nd and 41st Infantry Divisions: both recently activated National Guard divisions; both devoid of most of their heavy weapons; and abundant only in green, basic trainees. The men and commanders were unfit for combat in a jungle environment. MacArthur fretted that “… none of the three elements of my command – naval, air or ground – was adequate for the job.”1

LTG Robert Eichelberger, whom MacArthur tasked to evaluate his divisions, reiterated this point.2 Eichelberger noted the men were not hardened for jungle war and abounded in one trait: inexperience.

The military weaknesses of his force were compounded by the terrain of the Buna area, MacArthur’s second major concern. Buna was the last place on the planet a commander, particularly one unaccustomed to a jungle environment, wanted to fight a battle. However, the Japanese were turning Buna into an airbase, and two airstrips already existed. Given their ability to interdict the supply and communication lanes to Australia, possession of these airfields were imperative. However, the terrain lent many advantages to the defender.

Photo: Landings of Allied forces to Western New Guinea, 1944.

MacArthur noted, “In addition to all our other difficulties, there was New Guinea itself, as tough and tenacious an enemy as the Japanese. Few areas in the world present so formidable an obstacle to military operations. The jagged mountains rear their tall peaks amid sudden plunging gorges, towering above the trackless jungle that covers nearly the entire surface of the sprawling island. … In the jungle itself, trails were a sea of mud, with little relief from the swollen rivers and the razor-edged kunai grass that grows in treacherous bunches higher than a man’s head. … Nature did not stop with adverse terrain, however. … Health conditions matched the world’s worst.”3

This general outline of New Guinea’s topography was reinforced by the land around Buna itself, which included “[t]he principal swamp in the Buna area [that] lies between Entrance Creek and Simemi-Creek. … It is absolutely impenetrable. … Between the closely spaced trees, which are 25 to 100 feet high, is a tangle of roots, creepers and underbrush. Much of the drier land is covered with a thick growth of kunai grass or plantations of coconut palms. This coarse grass grows to a height of more than six feet, but its height varies greatly, depending on how recently it has been burned over or cut. Its leaves are broad and sharp-edged: its stems are about the thickness of a pencil.”4

Despite the formidable natural terrain and oppressive climate, despite the obvious military inadequacies of his command, MacArthur decided to send his men in. Why?

MacArthur’s misgivings notwithstanding, he really had little choice but to advance on Buna. Any future offensive strategy in SWPA was dependent on Australia’s remaining a viable staging area. Japanese-controlled airfields at Buna would impede any form of buildup on the island continent. However, MacArthur’s misgivings were parlayed by his intelligence section’s erroneous projections of Japanese troop strength and intentions. The SWPA commander felt that even his inexperienced, ill-equipped troops could deal with the 1,250 depleted, jungle-ravaged skeletons his S-2 informed him were defending Buna. Why not send in his men, devoid of heavy weapon and armor support (which seemed prohibited by the terrain) when such a debilitated force awaited them? However, his S-2 missed several important points.

Through diligent work, work unknown to MacArthur’s intelligence staff, the Japanese had constructed a series of formidable bunkers that covered all overland approaches to the airfields. These bunkers – constructed in shallow trenches and reinforced with coconut logs, rocks, sand-filled ammunition boxes, sand and earth-filled oil drums – made the Japanese positions impervious to all but the heaviest weapons, of which MacArthur’s men had little. Several feet of overhead cover also protected these bunkers from most artillery and mortar ammunition. The commanders of 32nd Infantry Division were unaware of these defenses. Nor were they aware of the approximately 1,500 fresh troops who arrived in two separate convoys, completely undetected, immediately prior to the battle.5

Photo: A superbly camouflaged Japanese trench and bunker on the approaches to the airstrips.

Buna perimeter

Misgivings aside, abounding with a hesitant confidence due to the faulty appraisal of the enemy facing him, MacArthur ordered 32nd Infantry Division to launch its first attack Nov. 19, 1942.

Beginning with the attack of Nov. 19, the men of the 32nd would spend more than a month launching fruitless attacks against the Japanese bunkers sprinkled throughout Buna. Repeatedly, as one battalion commander noted, “We were stopped cold.”6 The reasons were obvious. In the first attack, no definitive information on the Japanese positions existed. After the initial attack, inadequate artillery support (there were only two guns available), inadequate ammunition (artillery and mortar ammunition were fitted with quick-action instead of delayed-action fuses, which did little more than blow away overhead cover) and the forbidding terrain continued to frustrate all attacks.

Map: Buna battlefield.

The formerly green infantry of the 32nd were learning the trade of the combat soldier but now faced an even greater obstacle than inexperience: inadequate weapons. A gallant soldier could advance onto a bunker and drop a grenade through a vision slit. While ultimately effective, it was safe to say, it was a very hazardous undertaking. MG Edwin Harding, commander of the 32nd, knew what he needed: tanks.

After the Japanese easily repulsed his first few assaults, Harding began pleading with MacArthur for tanks. Stuart light tanks were available, and their 37mm guns could penetrate the bunkers at short range.

The tanks would also place the Japanese in a position similar to their American attackers – the Japanese weapons were as ineffective against the tanks as the American weapons were against the bunkers. If only they could be brought to the front. MacArthur told Harding it would be several weeks before they arrived. This delay, in MacArthur’s opinion, could not impede any imminent offensive operations. Harding’s men would have to continue with what they had.

One virtue sorely lacking in the MacArthur mystique was patience. Despite never visiting the front or seeing the conditions his men were fighting in, despite denying Harding the equipment he needed to break the stalemate, MacArthur decided to relieve him. His replacement would be Eichelberger, perhaps the most capable American ground commander of the Pacific War. Aptly nicknamed “MacArthur’s Fireman,” he received a parting message from the SWPA commander. This message, ripe with frustration and unwarranted hostility, instructed Eichelberger to “… go to Buna and capture it. If you do not do so, I don’t want you to come out alive, and that applies to your chief of staff also. Do you understand, Bob? Time is of the essence! I want you to relieve Harding, Bob. Send him back to America. If you don’t do it, I will. Relieve every regimental and battalion commander. Put corporals in command if necessary. Get somebody who will fight. When do you want to start, Bob?”7

He started immediately, though not by choice. Eichelberger wanted to postpone any attack until the arrival of the Stuart tanks. MacArthur would not wait. After an attack Dec. 5 failed, Eichelberger steadfastly refused to do anything else until the tanks arrived.

By Dec. 18, everything was ready. Eight tanks had arrived. An 105mm howitzer with a supply of delayed-action ammunition was also available to support the attack. The attack began in the morning with American and Australian infantry advancing, supported by the newly arrived tanks. A preattack artillery and mortar barrage had the usual negligible effect. However, such was not the case with the Stuarts. A battalion commander noted, “The tanks really did that job. They apparently completely demoralized the Japs … who fought like cornered rats when they were forced into the open as a result of having their fires masked when the tanks broke through their final protective line. … There were few holes knocked in the bunkers except where the tanks stood off and blasted them at short range with their 37mm guns.”8

Photo: The M5A1 Stuart light tank. This model is at Worthington Tank Museum in Canada, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worthington_Tank_Museum.

The heavy enemy small-arms fire, which had stalled the infantry for a month, had no effect on the tanks. Two tanks were lost, one to a molotov cocktail, the other to mechanical failure, but the attack continued. Three of the remaining tanks resumed their advance, blasting various strongpoints enroute. About one-third of the Buna battlefield was now secure.

Another area, between “the bridge” and the “new strip,” consisted of a system of 20 bunkers. Two tanks were committed there, one of which was quickly put out of action when machinegun fire damaged its vision slits. The three tanks of the main attack, the lone reserve tank and the undamaged tank then went to work. They destroyed half the bunkers at point-blank range. Infantrymen were able to advance to within kicking distance of the bunkers because the tanks drew all the enemy fire. The infantrymen destroyed the remaining positions, and the Japanese could do little to stop them. The antiquated Stuart tank had turned the tide.

Armor could not be employed on the entire battlefield since the rest of the Buna area was too marshy. The battle would continue for several more weeks, but the issue was no longer in doubt. Several Stuart tanks – tanks that in the European theater of operations were considered relics – had ensured victory.

Wakde Island

Finally victorious at Buna, MacArthur would wait 16 months before his next major operation along the northern coast of New Guinea. In a brilliant campaign that would bring the American army to the doorstep of the Philippines, the tank continually proved its value.

The next major operation occurred on the small island of Wakde off New Guinea’s northern coast. Wakde was attacked in May 1944 after a relatively effortless operation secured the key points of Hollandia and Aitape. Wakde was needed because its airstrips could support both the bombers and fighters of the U.S. Fifth Air Force, appropriately named “MacArthur’s Air Force.”

Map: The small but formidable island of Wakde.

The 163rd Regimental Combat Team of 41st Infantry Division would attack Wakde the morning of May 18, 1944. Support for this invasion had come quite far since the lean days of Buna. There was ample artillery support (two field-artillery battalions, one each of 105mm and 155mm howitzers, reinforced by another company of 105mm howitzers) and the fires of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, 20 destroyers, three rocket-equipped Landing Crafts Infantry, two rocket-equipped submarine chasers and the Fifth Air Force.

The 163rd also had the help of a platoon of four Sherman tanks. Their 75mm guns, three-inch armor plates and mere presence proved decisive in the coming battle.9

Wakde, as with most positions occupied by the Japanese during World War II, was superbly prepared. The island itself is only 3,000 yards long and 1,200 yards wide at its widest point. The airstrip dominated the island. Eight hundred Japanese soldiers garrisoned the island, and they erected about 100 bunkers, many of which were reinforced with concrete or coconut logs and concealed by nature and superb camouflage. It was as imposing a position as the one formerly occupied by the Japanese at Buna. However, the American army was not the same force who fought on that battlefield.

The landing was relatively easy. Once ashore, Company C, 1st Battalion, made first contact with the enemy. Company C encountered a system of bunkers and cleared them in little more than an hour. They did this by laying down heavy small-arms fire and lobbing grenades through the bunkers’ firing slits. This took place in spite of heavy enemy fire.

Once they reached the second bunker system, Company C needed help. A new system of bunkers, better concealed and with considerable underbrush, obstructed the advance. Two Sherman tanks were dispatched to the area and quickly proved their value. They attacked each bunker separately, a task made easier by the Japanese failure to make their positions mutually supporting. The tanks, with infantry close behind, blasted the Japanese positions at point-blank range. Forced to engage the tanks, though lacking weapons capable of defeating them, the Japanese allowed American infantrymen to get right on top of the bunkers, where grenades and flame-throwers eradicated whatever the Shermans left standing. Small-arms fire and tank machineguns cut down fleeing Japanese infantry.

Meanwhile, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 163rd Infantry, was occupied with the old coconut plantation buildings on the eastern end of the island. They awaited support after they were pinned down by enemy automatic-weapons fire. The two tanks that had aided C Company were dispatched to the area. By noon, using the tanks and their machineguns as both a shield and base of fire, Company F was able to clear the buildings.

At the same time, Company A, 1st Battalion, had moved to clear the western end of the island, but they were held up by three Japanese bunkers. The two tanks arrived and quickly destroyed all three bunkers from distances as close as 20 yards. Japanese fire bounced harmlessly off the Shermans’ three-inch armor, and any attempts at ambush were frustrated by accompanying American infantry. Less than an hour after Company A had commenced attacking, the unit had reached the island’s northern shore.

The next morning, an hour-long artillery and mortar barrage blanketed the remaining Japanese positions. Company C was the first unit to encounter enemy opposition. The formation chosen by the Company C commander demonstrated that unit commanders realized how best to use their men and weapons.

Two platoons led the attack. One platoon had two tanks, the other, one tank. The third rifle platoon and the weapons platoon followed in support. The tanks drew most of the enemy fire, allowing the infantrymen to advance to the doorstep of Japanese positions. The trailing infantry platoon was then available to deal with isolated pockets of resistance, allowing the main attack to continue.

As Company C advanced, they encountered a small rise in the ground – a rise that was riddled with Japanese positions. The tanks destroyed each position, and the accompanying riflemen killed fleeing Japanese soldiers. Then the company advanced to the beach and turned north, encountering Japanese positions in small coral caves. The tanks advanced to within throwing distance of the caves, blasting away enroute. Riflemen and flame-thrower teams finished the job.10

The other unit in action at the time was Company B, 1st Battalion, 163rd Infantry. They were attempting to clear the airstrip’s southern edge and were advancing slowly. Two tanks arrived to lend their support. A rifle platoon accompanied each tank, with the third rifle platoon in support. They moved toward the bunkers and heavy brush that had impeded Company B’s advance. The brush meant little to the tanks, but the advance had to proceed cautiously since the riflemen had to be wary of hidden Japanese soldiers in the brush. Company B was able to secure the airstrip by afternoon.

A few dozen fanatical Japanese defenders launched a banzai charge May 20, but it was of no consequence. The airfield was already operational.11

Wakde was a rousing victory. Japanese losses were 759 killed and four captured in the two days of heavy fighting, while American losses were 40 men killed and 107 wounded.12 Why such a difference? The Japanese soldiers were certainly competent and their defensive positions were typically excellent, but American tactics and equipment were superior. American industry provided in abundance the tools of war. In the arena of tactics, 41st Infantry Division had clearly molded its armor and infantry into a cohesive unit.

Tanks were the key. They drew most of the enemy fire, and the infantry eliminated any Japanese soldiers who managed to flee their positions. One of the American company commanders noted, “The enemy seemed intent on knocking the tanks out so much so that they actually forgot the infantry following the tanks and delivered a great share of their fire at the tanks.”13 A platoon of Shermans made Wakde an easy victory.


After Wakde Island’s capture, GEN Walter Krueger, commander of the U.S. Sixth Army, felt unsure about his new position. He worried about the safety of the island since Japanese forces on the mainland could still threaten it.14 The Sixth Army commander decided to send the newly arrived 158th Regimental Combat Team and their battalion of 105mm howitzers toward Sarmi, a point 16 miles west of the Tor River. Due in part to inadequate information on enemy strength and positions in the area, the Battle of Sarmi, well known for the fight for Lone Tree Hill, was a far more difficult victory than that achieved at Wakde.

The 158th began moving west on the morning of May 23. On both May 23 and May 24, their attacks were repulsed by heavily fortified enemy positions. Several Sherman tanks were brought forward and eliminated the Japanese positions. The infantry resumed their advance, but the jungle in this area was far denser than on Wakde, and such an environment presented an enormous advantage to the defender. Armor would play no further role in what developed into a slugging match, as the terrain was inaccessible. Having lost the weapon the Japanese feared most, American infantry fought for 30 days.

Two infantry regiments, the 158th and 6th Infantry Division’s 20th Infantry Regiment, were rendered combat-ineffective. Further, other operations in New Guinea were delayed, and a sense of frustration developed in SWPA headquarters as some, especially MacArthur, sensed a return to the early stalemate at Buna. Since Sarmi had a vital airstrip, the surrounding area had to be secured. Artillery, airstrikes and amphibious end runs all failed to dislodge the Japanese. The natural coral was of such wonderful defensive value that on June 22, a massive artillery and air attack managed to force the Japanese underground but did not eliminate them.

The 20th Infantry advanced over the cave-bound Japanese, reaching the top of Lone Tree Hill. The euphoria of victory quickly evaporated as the 20th noticed the Japanese emerging unscathed from the coral. The American infantry were now isolated at the top of the hill. Only several fruitless and nonsensical attacks against American machineguns eliminated the Japanese force. Had the Japanese adhered to their doctrine of occupying a position and allowing the enemy to dissipate himself through repeated attacks, America’s strategic progress across New Guinea would have been severely delayed.


The campaign in New Guinea came down to MacArthur’s timetable. Always looking forward, he continuously launched new operations before completing ongoing ones. While the men of the 158th and 20th Infantry Regiments toiled in the jungles around Lone Tree Hill, a new attack occurred against the small but strategically vital island of Biak.

Biak was a mass of coral a few miles off New Guinea’s northern coast. The Japanese had already constructed two airfields on the island and surveyed the area for another. These airfields could support not only fighters and attack planes but heavy bombers as well.

The assault on Biak began May 27, 1944, two weeks before ADM Chester Nimitz was scheduled to attack the Marianna Islands in the Central Pacific. Biak’s airfields were needed to support that operation. The men attacking Biak could have reinforced those toiling at Lone Tree Hill, but MacArthur’s tunnel vision was forward, not to his rear. His S-2 section expected little trouble from the Japanese and anticipated American planes flying from Biak’s airfields by June 15. As at Buna, MacArthur’s intelligence staff grossly underestimated Japanese strength and capabilities.

The 41st Infantry Division was earmarked for the Biak operation. As at Wakde, there was plenty of support, including four battalions of artillery, a company of mortars and two platoons of Sherman tanks. There was also abundant air support and the naval fires of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, 21 destroyers and three rocket-firing Landing Crafts Tanks. This support was vital.

Photo: Typical terrain encountered on Biak: jungle and coral.

Again, the terrain favored the Japanese. Mokmer Airdrome, the key objective of the battle, was dominated by heights that would take three weeks to clear. These heights were “… a position which had withstood two aerial bombings and strafings, naval gunfire, heavy mortar and artillery concentrations and almost daily pounding from our guns,” 162nd Infantry Regiment wrote in its Report of Operations: Biak Island, 15 May-19 August 1944. “The coral reef that parallels the coast rises to a height in excess of 240 feet behind the village of Mokmer. The cliff at this point is not as sheer as near Parai, but it is very steep and cannot be ascended without [using hands].

“Both caves here were at least 50 feet deep, and one of them measured about 75 feet x 200 feet across its top opening. They were honeycombed with tunnels and passages, at least one of which led to an opening in the face of the cliff.

“Forward of the caves on the high point were two well-constructed observation shelters. Behind the caves on the steep slope that led to the top of the reef were five pillboxes. … Excellent cover and concealment for snipers and automatic weapons existed in the area surrounding the caves. The [observation post] permitted unobstructed observation of the whole coastal flat from Parai Jetty to the east end of Mokmer Airdrome. [Machinegun] and mortar fire could be laid at will on most of this area. … This position is but another example of the Jap ability to select a terrain feature and develop it into a fortress by a small amount of pioneer work.”15

The other Japanese positions on Biak were centered on the East Caves and the Ibdi Pocket. The Ibdi Pocket was “… a series of knife-like east-west ridges separated by depressions and crevices up to [50] feet deep. These ridges were connected in places by cross-ridges, and the entire area was covered with thick rainforest and dense jungle undergrowth that had found a foothold in the coral. Pillboxes of coral and logs, hasty emplacements of the same materials, small caves and crevices, and foxholes at the bases of large trees were all used by the enemy to defend the area.”16

The terrain of Biak was the anchor of the Japanese defensive plan. COL Naoyuki Kuzume, the Japanese commander of the island, made a critical decision before the Americans landed. Obviously, the airfields were the American targets. They were located on most of the only open terrain of the island, and to fight a battle there would leave Kuzume’s forces vulnerable to superior American firepower. However, Kuzume did not have to hold the airfields to render them unusable. By occupying the high ground above them, he could deny their use by enemy aircraft and place any attacking units under constant fire.

To accomplish this, Kuzume had 3,400 army troops, a company of light tanks, 1,500 naval troops and some 6,000 service personnel.17 Overlooking Mokmer, the Japanese had a battery of mountain guns, four three-inch anti-aircraft guns and large numbers of machineguns and mortars.18 Other heavy weapons were sprinkled among the East Caves and Ibdi Pocket.

MacArthur’s intelligence section was unaware of most of these weapons or the Japanese forces’ likely strategy.

An uneventful landing May 27 was followed by a few more easy days and the securing of Mokmer Airdrome by May 29. However, the Japanese surprised the Americans when they committed their armor. Two waves of Japanese tanks, the first with four vehicles, the second with three, attacked 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment, about 1,000 yards east of Mokmer. Infantry and mortar fire supported the Japanese tanks.

The Japanese vehicles were Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks. Weighing only 7.28 tons, armed with a 37mm main gun, two machineguns and a crew of three, they were little match for 603rd Medium Tank Company’s Shermans.19

Photo: The Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tank.

Two platoons of Sherman tanks were ready for the Japanese in a rare tank-vs.-tank battle in the Pacific. In addition to their light armament, the Japanese tanks only had about 30mm of armor. The 32-ton Shermans had 76mm of armor, a crew of four, a 75mm gun and three machineguns. The Sherman’s 75mm gun also had a far longer range than the Japanese 37mm gun. This disparity was obvious as the Shermans quickly destroyed four Japanese tanks and dispersed or killed their infantry. Several hits were scored on American tanks, but the small-caliber Japanese rounds did no damage.

Shortly thereafter, the second wave of Japanese tanks attacked with the same results. One Sherman’s turret was locked in place, though it remained in the fight. Seven Japanese tanks and 250 infantrymen were killed in this engagement, demonstrating the dominance of American armor in this theater of the war.20

Free of the enemy’s armor, the American advance resumed June 1. By June 6, all the airfields were secure, but an eerie feeling was present among both the men and commanders of 41st Infantry Division. That feeling proved founded when the unpatrolled heights overlooking the airfield erupted with Japanese fire. The 603rd’s tanks silenced two Japanese guns and a number of pillboxes in the East Caves. The infantry quickly mopped up what remained. However, the West Caves still existed.

Between June 7-10, American infantry attacked the heights of the West Caves, meeting nothing but frustration. Naval gunfire, artillery and air bombardment had little effect on the natural coral. The Americans used tanks sparingly because of the forbidding terrain and lack of knowledge of Japanese-position locations.

MacArthur also compounded the problems. Making a statement of the type for which he became famous, he claimed victory at Biak. Pressure was then placed on all levels of command to move quickly. This pressure overlooked intelligence failures, the impenetrable terrain and the fact that, once again, MacArthur never actually toured the battlefield.

Conditions began to remind some of Buna, and a parallel emerged: MG Horace Hayes Fuller, 41st Division commander, was relieved, as was Harding at Buna, for failing to move vigorously enough. MacArthur’s Fireman assumed command June 14.

In spite of Eichelberger’s arrival, Biak was not declared officially secure until July 22. By June 19, the West Caves were isolated (four days too late to support Nimitz’s offensive in the Central Pacific) and Mokmer became operational, but enemy fire continued to emerge from three sumps within the caves. These sumps were actually natural depressions in the coral that were overgrown with vegetation and riddled with caves. However, exact Japanese positions were located, and the Shermans deployed. At point-blank range, their fire was effective. Firing at the cave entrances kept the Japanese pinned inside and allowed flame-thrower teams to get close enough to finish them off.21 The West Caves were no longer a threat.

Tanks were employed in reducing the remaining Japanese positions, the East Caves and the Ibdi Pocket. Their role now was little different than that of conventional artillery. Thousands of 75mm rounds – along with the sustained fires of artillery, mortars and offshore destroyers – finally silenced the East Caves July 20.

The volume of fire placed on the East Caves was dwarfed by the bombardment inflicted on the Ibdi Pocket. By June 28,the Ibdi Pocket was but 600 square yards. Between July 4-11, about 20,000 105mm shells and an equal number of 60mm, 81mm and 4.2-inch mortar bombs blasted the area.22 The formidable totals allowed bazooka teams to enter the small area and finish off pillboxes or bunkers left erect. Amazingly, there were Japanese positions still fighting. Tanks also targeted the ground, now devoid of cover.23

There was still opposition, and another firestorm was needed. Between July 15-22, another 5,000 105mm and 2,275 155mm shells, 64 1,000-pound bombs, thousands of mortar rounds and 1,000 tank rounds hit Ibdi. The 163rd Infantry Regiment occupied the area and sealed off the remaining caves with explosives.

Later inspection discovered an incredible number of Japanese positions, both natural and manmade. There were four large caves, 17 smaller caves, 75 log and coral pillboxes and various individual fighting positions. A multitude of light and heavy weapons supported them.

The campaign in New Guinea was over.24


When I recently saw a book titled Marine Tank Battles in the Pacific, I was reminded that far too often, the vital role the American army played in the march to Japan is overshadowed by the Marine drive across the Central Pacific. Also overshadowed was the tank. MacArthur’s battles have been marveled at as amphibious masterpieces, textbook examples of air-ground cooperation and the personification of the foot soldier in a jungle environment. All are correct. What is omitted is the power, psychological value and versatility of tanks.

It is fair to say that a handful of antiquated Stuart tanks won the Battle of Buna. Wakde, perhaps the most perfect battle of the Pacific War, is a textbook example of armor-infantry cooperation. Sarmi and Biak became frustrating, attritional battles because the terrain limited tanks to sporadic use, but when used, tanks were decisive. This decisiveness was a product of both the enemy and the machine, as American armor overwhelmed the Japanese.

Thousands of American tanks ranged across the plains of France and Germany and played a prominent role in the Nazis’ defeat. But on New Guinea, no more than 23 tanks (eight at Buna, four at Wakde, three at Sarmi and eight at Biak) helped win this vital campaign.

When New Guinea was secured, MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, his obsession since being ordered out in 1942, became a reality. The tank was again an important element in American victories.


Dr. Robert Young is professor of history at American Military University. While in the military, he served as S-4, 1st Battalion, 101st Cavalry, Staten Island, NY; executive officer for Headquarters Company and Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 101st Cavalry; scout platoon leader, 1st Battalion, 101st Cavalry; and tank platoon leader, Company A, 1st Battalion, 101st Cavalry. His military schooling includes the Armor Officer Basic Course and Armor Officer Advanced Course. He holds a bachelor’s of arts degree from St. John’s University, a master’s of arts degree from Brooklyn College and a PhD from the City University of New York Graduate Center.


1 MacArthur, Douglas, Reminiscences, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964.

2 Eichelberger, Robert L., Our Bloody Jungle Road To Tokyo, New York: The Viking Press, 1950.

3 MacArthur.

4 The Buna-Sanananda Operation, 16 November 1942-23 January 1943, Washington, DC: War Department, Military Intelligence Division, 1944.

5 Eichelberger.

6 Milner, Samuel, Victory in Papua, Washington, DC: Department of the Army, Office of the Chief of Military History, 1957.

7 Robert L. Eichelberger papers, Duke University, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/findingaids/eichel/#c01_9.

8 Milner.

9 Smith, Robert Ross, The Approach to the Philippines, Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1953.

10 163rd Infantry Regiment, History: Wakde, Ibdi Ridge, Headquarters 163rd Infantry Regiment, 41st Infantry Division, 1944.

11 Smith.

12 Ibid.

13 163rd Infantry Regiment history.

14 Smith.

15 162nd Infantry Regiment, Report of Operations: Biak Island, 15 May-19 August 1944, Headquarters 162nd Infantry Regiment, 41st Infantry Division, 1944.

16 Smith.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Hogg, Ian V., The Greenhill Armoured Fighting Vehicles Data Book, London: Greenhill Books, 2000.

20 603rd Medium Tank Company, Historical Record: Biak Island Operation, Aug. 26, 1944.

21 41st Infantry Division, History: Hurricane (Biak) Operation, 15-27 June 1944, Headquarters 41st Infantry Division, 1944.

22 Smith.

23 “Bazookas on Biak,” Infantry Journal, Vol. 56, No. 3, 1945.

24 Smith.

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