Operation Leatherback

This was the US seizure of Kiriwina island within the context of 'Chronicle' (24/30 June 1944).

Kiriwina island is the largest of the Trobriand islands group to the north of the eastern tip of New Guinea. The island approximately tadpole-shaped, with a rounded upper part and a long peninsula extending to the south, and is about 25 miles (40 km) long and 7 miles (11.25 km) wide across its head. The island is low and very flat, with a maximum height of 180 ft (55 m) near its northern end, and it and covered with jungle. The island’s population in the middle of 1944 was about 7,500 persons. Criss-crossed by many trails, the island’s flat terrain rendered it suitable for the establishment of airfields, but this was made difficult by its shortage of adequate landing beaches.

The Royal Australian Air Force had established a radar station on the island by March 1943, and the station’s specialist rather than combat personnel were alarmed to see Japanese survivors of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea coming ashore on 7 March, but on the following day the Australians killed 34 survivors and captured three, while eight others escaped into the jungle. Japanese survivors continued to come ashore for some time after this, and the pro-Allied native population handed these to the Australians.

Elements of the 158th Infantry and the 59th Combat Engineer Company arrived on 24 June 1944 to build a coral causeway on the north coast. The landings took place at night without air cover and were hindered by the reef and lack of good landing sites, and the ships were forced to withdraw at dawn with much of their equipment still aboard. The remainder of 158th Infantry landed on 30 June and, despite the hindrance of heavy rain, had completed a 5,000-ft (1525-m) runway by the end of July: this was later extended to a length of 6,000 ft (1830 m).