A day to remember


By JIM RIDGES in Kavieng.
JUST about the saddest, but most eventful and memorable day in the history of the war in New Ireland occurred 75 years ago on March 20, 1944.
The small island of Emirau, 90 miles north of Kavieng the capital of the province, and the then
estimated 300 residents, suffered its most traumatic event early that morning when a US Pacific fleet offshore launched a full scale invasion of troops in landing barges.
Assisting in guiding the small ships to shore that day was Bill Forman, previously captain of the government schooner Leander in Kavieng for five years until 1941, and also Stan Bell the coast watcher on New Hanover, one of the five-member Bell family of New Ireland pre-war, three of whom died in the war.
The Japanese had visited Emirau but little of importance happened until that fateful, when in the morning the people awoke to find a huge fleet of American ships offshore ready to invade, not knowing for certain whether the Japanese were there or not.
In quick time the 4th Marines commanded by Lt Col Alan Shapley, supported by Company C, 3rd Amphibian Tractor Battalion; Company A (Medium) 3rd Tank Battalion equipped with M4 Sherman tanks; and a company of pioneers from the 2nd Battalion, 19th Marines; signals, ordinance and motor transport detachments; and a composite anti-aircraft battery of the 14th Defence Battalion, about 3,727 troops landed.
Within a month 18,000 men and 844 tonnes of cargo had been landed. US Navy Seabees of the 18th Construction Regiment, comprising 27th, 61st and 63rd Construction Battalions and the 17th Special Battalion arrived between March 25 and 30 and the 77th Construction Battalion which arrived on April 14.
A PT boat base, LCT floating dry-dock and slipway was built, sawmill, housing facilities, ammunition storage facilities two 2.1km runways, taxiways, warehouses, harbour facilities, magazines and avgas tank farm and dumps, aircraft workshops and hangars and radar stations were built. About 60 miles of roads, a water supply and a causeway at the eastern end of the island was also built. The situation on little Emirau had changed forever.
The Americans quickly sent all the people to live on nearby Mussau Island and in less than two months had constructed the two main airstrips, and a network of roads, together with a town with three hospitals catering for thousands of troops, through which many thousands more transited on their way to the fighting zones. Squadrons of aircraft were flying round the clock, their main aim being to prevent Japanese supply ships reaching Kavieng, and Rabaul the large Japanese base in the area, and to harass the Japanese on New Ireland.
The people were only able to return home to Emirau after the end of the war in 1945, and the eventual departure of the few remaining troops and aircraft, mainly Australian and New Zealand at that time, several months later. The building infrastructures were largely destroyed before the people returned, although the remains of unserviceable machinery, steel framing and even a heavy bomber remained. Most of this ‘scrap’ was cleared by salvage companies in the 1960/70s.
Unfortunately the extensive large scale construction work removed the topsoil from much of the best gardening and forest land on the island, exposing the coronas underneath, and most of those areas today are just unproductive scrublands bearing little resemblance to the lush growth of the original volcanic soils.
Ironically, the first recorded skin of New Ireland province’s own endemic monitor lizard, varanus douarrha, was collected in the St Mathias group (Mussau/Emira) by a Gardiner in 1944 and presented to the American Museum of Natural History (exhibit 85887) in 1961, probably the US Major John Gardiner MC, senior medical officer on Emirau from March 1944. It was most likely killed during the initial bush clearances, but subsequently the species was no longer able to survive on Emirau. Even some of the birds, formerly present, no longer live on the island as their habitat was destroyed.
Apart from the former bomber airstrip, at present rarely used but easily maintained or renovated, nothing remains except broken concrete slabs, rusting barges and pontoons, and bombs forming a reef in the sea, easily, but dangerously, accessible by divers, a number of whom were injured and have died while using the explosives to ‘bomb’ for fish.
The people at various times since the war sought assistance to clean up the place and replace or compensate somehow for the lost topsoil, but only deaf ears were listening.
As Emirau was being invaded, an additional naval fleet, made available by the last minute decision to abort the invasion of New Ireland itself, planned for March18, was directed to ensure that no Japanese relief could come from Kavieng to assist any Japanese resistance on Emirau.
There were no Japanese on Emirau but a US fleet, comprising four old World War 1 battleships with massive guns (New Mexico, Mississippi, Idaho and Tennessee), two escort aircraft carriers, (Manila Bay and Natoma Bay) and 15 destroyers pumped over 12,281 5-inch shells and 1,079 14-inch shells onto Kavieng for four hours. A ship launched spotter aircraft reported and improved on the accuracy of the strikes. That massive bombardment, for those near enough to Kavieng to experience it that day, was seminal, and a reference point to events before or after that bombardment.
It is also more than likely that the bombardment triggered the killing of the 32-3 remaining European civilians alive in Kavieng that same afternoon, as witnesses in Kavieng had said that the day after the massive bombardment the place where the prisoners were kept was deserted. They were mainly Australian/British plantation owners/managers but also seven Germans, MSC Catholic priests and a brother.
The Japanese would have been convinced the invasion was starting after the massive bombardment, and it was shown that in accordance with a previously agreed order, that all remaining POWs were to be killed in that event. The POWs were taken to main wharf entrance, led away individually, blind folded and garrotted at Kavieng wharf and their bodies weighted and taken to sea for disposal.
A war crime trial in Hong Kong in 1947 found various officers guilty and the Commander, Rear Admiral Tamura, Ryukichi was hanged on March 16, 1948.
As told, an eventful day in the history of New Ireland, a day of hope, and horror, never to be repeated but not to be forgotten or ignored either.