Operation Appease

'Appease' was a US amphibious landing near Talasea on the waist of the Willaumez peninsula on the north coast of the island of New Britain by Colonel Oliver P. Smith’s reinforced 5th Marines of Major General William H. Rupertus’s 1st Marine Division (6 March 1944).

The operation was designed to take an emergency landing strip and outflank the Japanese forces pulling back from the 'Backhander' landing on Cape Gloucester at the western tip of New Britain on 26 December 1943.

General Douglas MacArthur had urged the need for an offensive against Rabaul, the Japanese base area at the north-eastern end of New Britain, almost from the time he arrived in Australia from the Philippine islands group in March 1942 to become commander of the South-West Pacific Area on 18 April of the same year. However, Allied planners opted instead first to encircle the base from east and west. As the war progressed, and it became clear how formidable a fortress the Japanese had made of Rabaul, the Allies contented themselves with smashing the base from the air, then bypassing it by seizing control of the Vitiaz and Dampier Straits between Cape Gloucester and the Huon Peninsula of New Guinea with the aid of the 'Director' and 'Backhander' operations of December 1943. By this month the Allied airfields in the Markham and Ramu river valleys, to the west of Lae on New Guinea, had also become fully operational and the US 5th AAF was thus able to guarantee air superiority over the western part of New Britain.

The major physical obstacle to the landing planned for Volupai on the western side of the isthmus was the reef that extended 3,000 yards (2745 m) from the shore. To make safe the narrow waterway that the only practical approach to the assault beach, safe for supply craft and support troops, the first marines would have to land in LVTs, supplied by the 1st Marine Division, which could climb over the reef and therefore land straight on to the beach. Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s US 7th Fleet provided the required transport vessels and the warships to escort the assault force to its target, and the US Army all the other landing craft needed.

As the assault force was brought together at Finschhafen in North-East New Guinea, reconnaissance parties made several attempts to land on the Willaumez peninsula so that they could establish the location and strength of the defending Japanese forces. Transported by night in PT-boats, these parties were turned back by high seas on one occasion and by the sight of troops in the proposed landing area in an other before finally, early on 3 March, an Australian officer, Flight Lieutenant G. H. Rodney Marsland, the manager of a plantation in this area before the war, the 1st Marine Division’s chief scout and two local men landed about 9 miles (14.5 km) from Volupai and despatched runners to contact members of the local population and fix the location and strength of the Japanese. After nearly 24 hours ashore, the scouts withdrew with useful information, but somewhat surprisingly no information about the major Japanese concentration outside Talasea.

Defending the Willaumez peninsula was the 'Terunuma' Detachment of 595 men, some 430 of them concentrated in the vicinity of Talasea and only 28 in Volupai, under the command of Captain Kiyomatsu Terunuma of the 54th Regiment of Lieutenant General Yasushi Sakai’s 17th Division.

The 5th Marines had no indication that its planned assault area was strongly defended and members of the native population reported that the area was not fortified, and air reconnaissance appeared to confirm this intelligence. During the three days before the landing, Bristol Beaufort bombers of the Royal Australian Air Force operated from the airfield of Kiriwina island, captured in 'Chronicle', to attack targets in the area of Talasea and nearby Cape Hoskins.

To offset its lack of naval gunfire support, the 1st Marine Division created its own support capability in the form of M4 Sherman medium tanks in medium landing craft.

The US plan called for the 1/5th Marines, carried in LVTs, to land first and secure a beach-head into which the 2/5th Marines, following in medium landing craft and LCVPs, would arrive and then penetrate along the trail to Bitokara and seize the area of Talasea. On the following day, it was schemed, the 3/5th Marines and reserve elements of the regiment’s reinforcing units would then come ashore.

The invasion force assembled off Iboki on 5 March for the 60-mile (100-km) passage to Volupai included 38 medium landing craft, 17 LCVPs, five landing craft tank and five PT-boats. The convoy arrived about 3.5 miles (5.6 km) off the coast at dawn on 6 March, but there was no air cover as the airfield on Kiriwina was closed by adverse weather. At 08.25 the tank landing craft lowered their ramps and the LVTs of the first two waves entered the water and started to move across the reef. As the tractors started toward the beach, a boat loaded with navigation buoys and two of the tank-carrying landing craft moved into the coral-free lane, on the right of the assault area, which aerial reconnaissance had showed to provide access to the beach. On the other flank the other pair of tanks in medium landing craft started shoreward, keeping pace with the LVTs for as long as the irregular coral formations would permit. The tanks opened fire with their machine guns to cover the tractors' approach to the beach, reserving their 75-mm (2.95-in) guns for any Japanese return fire, which started with machine gun fire to which mortar fire was then added. The LVTs hit the beach at 08.35, and the marines disembarked and started to probe inland. Initially there was little but mortar fire from the Japanese, and the two assault companies reached their objectives without major problem. The marines thereupon established a beach-head perimeter 200 yards (185 m) inland, dispatched combat patrols to the flanks, and awaited the marines who were to pass through the perimeter. Once it had passed the Japanese defences near the beach, the 2/5th Marines move swiftly through the Volupai Plantation. At about 15.00, five Bell P-39 Airacobra fighter-bombers of the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron at Cape Gloucester flew over the peninsula and, failing to locate the US front line, bombed Cape Hoskins.

The 5th Marines were well established at the end of this first day of 'Appease', but Smith had decided that his force, otherwise known as Combat Team A, was being opposed in a delaying action. The Japanese were well nourished and adequately equipped, and so capable of putting up a good fight. But it was not the sort of fight the Japanese normally undertook when trying to destroy US forces, so Smith decided that his opponents were trying to cover the escape route to Cape Hoskins.

The marine units dug in where they were at dusk, with the 1/5th Marines holding the beach-head perimeter, advance elements of the 2/5th Marines establishing an all-around defence within the coconut grove it had reached, and the battalion headquarters and the battalion reserve setting up a perimeter defence at the entrenchments abandoned by the Japanese on the edge of the plantation. Although they had suffered from the fire of Japanese 90-mm (3.54-in) mortars during the day, the marines' two batteries of 75-mm (2.95-in) pack howitzers had registered their guns late in the afternoon and kept up a harassing fire just beyond the coconut grove during the night.

By the end of 6 March the marines had pushed about 2,000 yards (1930 m) inland and killed some 35 Japanese. Largely as a result of mortar fire, however, the regiment had sustained losses disproportionate to the casualties it had inflicted and the gains it had made. The day’s losses were in fact more than half the total casualties the regiment suffered between 6 March and its departure on 25 April: 13 killed and 71 wounded, including nine dead and 29 wounded from the artillery battalions. At 18.30 an LCM loaded with 50 wounded departed for Iboki.

At 02.00 on 7 March a small group of Japanese infantry tried to infiltrate the lines of Company E, but this was the only Japanese activity between dusk and daylight. At daylight a patrol sent forward to seek out the Japanese returned to report Japanese dug in about 50 yards (45 m) to the front. But Company E moved in to investigate only to discover that once again the Japanese had abandoned prepared positions. The area contained a 90-mm (3.54-in) mortar emplacement, complete with weapon and ammunition.

Estimating that the Japanese would make a stand at a small stream cutting the trail beyond the clearing, Company G’s commander sent his men on a sweep to the right in an effort to turn the Japanese flank. But at 11.00 Company E crossed the stream without incident and Company G was recalled. This peaceful interlude did not last long, however, for at 11.45 the advance guard encountered Japanese on the north-western slope of Mt Schleuther, and there began a brisk fire fight. The clash at this point resulted from the fact that the 17th Division had instructed Terunuma to concentrate his forces in the vicinity of Talasea, and Terunuma had dug in on the 1,130-ft (345-m) height dominating the track linking Bitokara with the Talasea track and all the area’s connecting trails.

The 2/5th Marines poured fire into the Japanese position, but soon it became clear that the Japanese were attempting to turn the battalion’s right flank. Artillery and mortar support were requested, and Company F was sent up the steep slope with all speed to extend the threatened flank and seize the high ground. As Company F’s leading platoon climbed to the dominant hill crest, it found that the Japanese had the same objective, and in a fire fight drove the marines drove the Japanese over the reverse slope. But Company F’s right flank was now in danger and a platoon from Company H was pushed forward to protect it. This spotted a group of five Japanese digging a machine gun position on the western crest. The Marines killed all five of the Japanese and turned the Japanese machine gun around to bear on its former owners.

The 2/5th Marines had taken the initiative and now had the advantage. By the time the Japanese realised they had lost their positions, they had also lost 40 men and the machine gun.

The marines' progress on 7 March could be measured principally by the progress of the 2/5th Marines. Smith’s plans called for his reserve, the 3/5th Marines, to make an overnight run from Iboki in order to arrive early on 7 March and thereby free the 1/5th Marines from the beach-head line to move on Liapo and thence Waru, where the main Japanese force was thought to be.

But back at Iboki the loading plans went awry when Rupertus, who was on the scene, directed Lieutenant Colonel Harold O. Deakin, commanding the 3/5th Marines, not to depart before the break of day, so the battalion did not arrive at Volupai until 15.00 to relieve the 1/5th Marines. When the delay to the reserve battalion had become clear, a reinforced company of the 1/5th Marines was sent toward Liapo. But the trail from Volupai faded out, and the patrol did not reach the objective before dark. The 2/5th Marines dug in for the night of 7/8 March on the slopes of Mt Schleuther and the Volupai track, creating an all-round defence and firing mortars from time to time in the general direction of the Japanese, who were also dug in on the mountain. Japanese activity was confined to the front of Company F and was apparently to have consisted of a banzai attack: chatter and movement certainly suggested a build-up of men, but no charge emerged out of the dark.

At dawn on 8 March, Company F readied itself for a resumption of the fight with a mortar barrage as a 37-mm gun was manhandled up the steep hill to assist in the advance. But then a patrol found only 12 dead Japanese, 11 of them victims of the marines' fire and the twelfth of hara-kiri.

As preparations were being completed for a continued fight on the hill, a scout platoon despatched 500 yards (460 m) down the track to a trail junction at Bitokara returned to report that the Japanese were entrenched there, supported by at last one mountain gun. The battalion, less Company F, was sent forward, the latter unit proceeding over Mt Schleuther’s foothills, and the two forces converged on the Japanese position only to find, as was now familiar, that the position had been abandoned. No opposition had been reported by 13.40 when Company G reported that it was establish on the eastern side of Bitokara, and the remainder of the battalion moved into the mission area to set up a perimeter defence.

The morning of 8 March on the assault beach found the 1/5th Marines moving out east of Little Mt Worri in the direction of Liapo, its patrol the previous afternoon having skirted the western edge of the hill. Companies A and B moved to the south on separate tracks. The terrain and the vegetation both proved troublesome, and Company A’s advance guard mistook its guide for a Japanese soldier. In the shooting that followed, one man was killed and several wounded, including the unfortunate native. Locating an east/west trail about 880 yards (805 m) from Liapo, Barba sent a patrol to the village to get another guide and to join forces with the group that had moved out the preceding day.

The battalion then started the advance to its next objective over rough terrain. Waru consisted of four native villages forming a rough square and situated on Mt Schleuther’s ridge line about 2,000 yards (1830 m) west of Talasea and dominating it. The battalion found the going too difficult, however, and set up an all-around defence perimeter for the night just short of its goal.

Back at Bitokara Major Gayle awaited the return of two scouting groups sent to locate the Japanese positions on Mt Schleuther and to feel out any forces at Talasea. The former reported that the Japanese were well dug in on a nearby peak, and at 15.00 Company E and reinforcing elements began the ascent. A request for artillery fire on Mt Schleuther brought several rounds dangerously close to the 2.5th Marines' headquarters, and the battalion’s 81-mm (3.2-in) mortars promptly took over the support missions. As the task force approached the Japanese positions, however, it ran into concentrated fire from machine guns and small arms, backed by a 90-mm (3.54-in) mortar and a 75-mm (2.95-in) field gun. The marines fought back for an hour and sustained 18 casualties before being ordered back.

The second scouting party had returned from Talasea, meanwhile, to report the fact thatit had discovered no sign of the Japanese. Company F was hurriedly despatched to the airfield and seized it. While the rest of the battalion established a defensive perimeter at Bitokara, Company F remained on the airstrip through the night. Action during the night was largely confined to artillery and mortar duels, the Japanese involvement gradually slackening and ceasing. Upon Company E’s retirement to Bitokara, the Japanese sighted their 75-mm (2.95-in) gun on the mission, where the 81-mm (3.2-in) mortars had been established near the battalion headquarters. Gayle retaliated by ordering artillery support, and in company with mortar fire, this harassed the Japanese right through the night.

Companies G, B and C launched a co-ordinated attack at 08.00 on 9 March in the wake of artillery and mortar concentrations on the Japanese-held areas. Company G was tasked with reaching the top of Mt Schleuther as the other two companies struck directly at the four villages. This effort proved fruitless, as the Japanese had gone. The marines did find the 90-mm (3.54-in) mortar, the 75-mm (2.95-in) field gun, one dead Japanese and two stragglers, the last reporting that the main body had withdrawn on 7 March, leaving a rearguard of about 100 men who had departed toward Bola in the previous night.

For reasons known only to the Japanese, the 17th Division had chosen this moment to order the retirement of the 'Terunuma' Detachment, the unit complying rapidly and in good order. Companies G and C made contact at 10.28, and the Waru area was declared secure at 13.00. While primary attention focused on Waru during the morning, the 2/5th Marines sent a patrol to Talasea to contact Company F and establish whether or not the Japanese had sought to enter the village during the night. At 09.35 the patrol returned with a negative report, and another patrol was readied to investigate the island of Garua, lying about 1,000 yards (915 m) to the east of Talasea. Proceeding in two LVTs, the patrol landed at 11.47, made a thorough search of the island and returned to Bitokara at 15.20 to report that the island was deserted.

During the afternoon of 9 March Smith moved his regimental headquarters to Bitokara. He also instructed the 1/5th Marines to consolidate its defences around Waru, the 2/5th Marines to assume responsibility for the airfield and Talasea, Company K to establish the defence of the regimental headquarters, and the 3/5th Marines, less Company K, to maintain the beach-head line. This done, he informed Rupertus that Talasea was secure and that his regiment would concentrate on mopping up and patrolling Willaumez peninsula.

This small four-day campaign had cost the marines 17 dead and 114 wounded, while an estimated 150 Japanese had lost their lives. In US hands, Talasea gave the 1st Marine Division possession of the airfield, but this was a prize of questionable value. Of greater utility, though, the occupation of the area placed the marines across the Japanese route to Cape Hoskins and points farther to the east. Smith also emphasised to Rupertus that an advanced PT-boat base located here could throttle the Japanese barge traffic between Cape Hoskins and Rabaul, and force the Japanese to withdraw to the Gazelle peninsula, a move the Japanese had already started, as events were to prove.