Hell in the Pacific: How the Japanese Army Desperately Struggled for Survival and Lost
Under a midnight moon, hundreds of soldiers crept forward into position along the riverbank. Fields of tall reeds helped conceal them from observation but could not muffle the sounds of weary men slipping in the mud. Sergeants whispered orders to stay quiet while officers anxiously listened for any sign the enemy was alert to their presence.
As they waited for the signal to attack, the men of Major Moritoshi Kawahigashi’s 1st Battalion, 78th Infantry Regiment felt something beside fear in their stomachs. Gnawing, incessant hunger pains tormented them fiercely. For weeks they had been reduced to eating grass and insects while making a grueling march across the rainforests and swamps of New Guinea. Supplies, what few remained, could not keep up. Only through sheer willpower and iron discipline did Kawahigashi’s troops manage to get this far—but would their warrior spirit be enough to defeat the powerful American army arrayed against them?
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One man crouching along the banks of the Driniumor River that night believed so. He was Lt. Gen. Hatazo Adachi, commander of the Japanese 18th Army and author of this desperate plan. During the spring of 1944, massive Allied “leapfrog” invasions across the coast of northern New Guinea had cut Adachi’s command off from the rest of Japan’s Southern Army. Effectively abandoned by Imperial General Headquarters, the 55,000 men of 18th Army were left to fend for themselves without hope of resupply, reinforcement, or evacuation.
On April 22, 1944, the Americans made simultaneous amphibious landings at Hollandia and Aitape in northern New Guinea. From his headquarters at Wewak, General Adachi considered all possible responses to this menace. He could do nothing and watch his soldiers slowly die of starvation and disease. He could attack the foe at Aitape, 94 miles distant. Or he might, by an arduous walk, bypass Allied lodgments and rejoin Japanese forces stationed far to the west.
None of these options appealed to the 61-year-old Army commander. Staying put in Wewak violated every principle of the Bushido (warrior) code to which he dedicated his life. Maneuvering around Aitape and Hollandia to reach friendly forces meant sending the 18th Army on a 600-mile trek through uncharted jungle terrain without adequate rations, transportation, or medical supplies. Adachi knew his men, many of whom were weakened from previous withdrawals across eastern New Guinea, simply could not accomplish such a journey.
Adachi’s sole remaining course of action, then, was to attack. He had on hand two months of supplies, enough to send his strongest infantry formations against the Allies’ airfields at Aitape. If successful, 18th Army could then reprovision itself with captured matériel before moving on to take Hollandia, another 120 miles to the west.
This scheme placed greater reliance on the Japanese soldier’s fighting spirit than it did on sound military strategy, which indeed was a reflection of the general who devised it. Hatazo Adachi, son of an Army officer, was born in Tokyo on June 17, 1890. Raised in the samurai tradition, the tall, heavy-set youth seemed destined to follow his father’s career path as a professional soldier. Following attendance at Tokyo Cadet Academy, Adachi joined the elite Imperial Guards Division as a lieutenant in 1910.
Peacetime duty emphasized the values of stoicism, self-sacrifice, and physical toughness that already were essential elements of this young officer’s character. Combat service in Manchuria and China during the 1930s earned Adachi—by now a colonel and regimental commander—a reputation for bravery under fire. He usually could be found where the fighting was heaviest, leading from the front while shunning those privileges normally due officers of his rank and status. He endured the hazards of battle as well, in 1937 taking mortar fragments to his face, neck, and leg that left him with a permanent limp.
Promotion came steadily, and by 1940 Adachi wore the rank insignia of a lieutenant general. He successfully led the 37th Division in action before becoming chief of staff, South China Area Army, during the autumn of 1941. One year later he left China to command the newly formed 18th Army, then organizing on the island of New Guinea.
Upon his arrival there in January 1943, Adachi encountered for the first time a shameful reality: Japanese forces defeated on the battlefield. Enemy troops had recently seized the key port town of Buna in a brutal fight, after which the remnants of its garrison fled westward, discarding along the way most of their equipment and wounded comrades.
The tides of war were turning against Lt. Gen. Adachi and his command. He now faced the near impossible task of defending 400 miles of coastline against a foe who increasingly dominated the skies and the sea. Reinforcements had to run a gauntlet of air and naval attacks just to reach the 18th Army’s area of operations. Eventually, though, Japanese combat power in eastern New Guinea totaled 60,000 men organized into three divisions—the 20th, 41st, and 51st.