Operation Battle of Noemfoor

The 'Battle of Noemfoor' was part of the New Guinea campaign and fought by Allied (primarily US) and Japanese forces for the island of Noemfoor in Japanese-occupied Netherlands New Guinea (2 July/31 August 1944).

During this 'Cyclone' battle, Allied forces landed on the island to capture Japanese bases as part of their advance through the South-West Pacific Area toward the Philippine islands group. The initial landing was largely unopposed and the Japanese defenders withdrew inland as the US troops came ashore. Sporadic fighting took place over the course of two months as the Allies secured the island’s three airfields and pushed the surviving Japanese troops to the south-eastern coast. The island was later used by the Allies to support the 'Globetrotter' and 'Tradewind' operations around Sansapor and on Morotai respectively.

Noemfoor is of an elliptical, almost circular, shape, and is about 11 miles (18 km) in diameter, with an area of 129 sq miles (335 km˛), and encircled by coral reefs. The land is dominated by limestone and coral terraces, topped by a hill 670 ft (204 m) high, and is covered by tropical rain forest, as is much of the interior. One of the Schouten islands group, Noemfoor lies at the western end of the Japen Strait, to the north of Geelvink Bay, between the island of Biak and the eastern coast of the Vogelkop peninsula, on mainland New Guinea.

The island was occupied by Japanese forces in December 1943, and at that time the indigenous civilian population numbered about 5,000 persons, of whom most were occupied by a subsistence life in coastal villages. The Japanese brought in some 1,100 labourers in the form of a 600-strong Formosan auxiliary labour unit and 500 impressed Indonesian civilians. According to the official US Army history, more than 3,000 Indonesian men, women and children were shipped to Noemfoor by the Japanese military: most of these came from Soerabaja and other large cities on Java. These Javanese civilians were forced to construct roads and airfields, mostly by hand. Little food, clothing, shelter or medical attention were provided. Many attempted to steal Japanese supplies, and when caught were executed. Others died from starvation and preventable disease. Survivors also alleged that sick Javanese were buried alive.

The Formosan labour troops had originally numbered about 900 men who worked on airfield and road construction on half the ration of rice issued to regular Japanese troops. When they became ill from exhaustion, hunger or tropical diseases, they were put in a convalescent camp. In the words of the US official history, '…their rations were again cut in half, and the shelter and blankets provided covered but a fraction of the inmates. Medical care was given only to the worse cases, and then was inadequate.'

Throughout 1943 and 1944, the Japanese built three airfields on the island, turning it into a significant air base. The three fields were: Kornasoren airfield toward the island’s northern end, Kamiri airfield on the island’s north-western coast and Namber airfield on the island’s western coast. Of these, Kornasoren was unfinished at the time of the 'Battle of Noemfoor'. Noemfoor was also used as a staging area for Japanese troops moving to reinforce Biak, which was attacked by the Allies in 'Horlicks' during May 1944 as part of their westward advance along the northern coast of New Guinea. Japanese barges could travel from Manokwari to Noemfoor, a distance of about 70 miles (112.5 km), in one night.

By 20 June, the Japanese forces on Biak island had been largely defeated and construction work begun on Mokmer airfield, which was operational two days later. Bombing of the Noemfoor by the US Army Air Forces and Royal Australian Air Force began as early as April 1944: between 20 June and 1 July, Allied bombers dropped 800 tons of bombs on Noemfoor island.

In describing his preparations for the Western New Guinea campaign, General Douglas MacArthur wrote in his memoirs that '[t]he Hollandia Invasion initiated a marked change in the tempo of my advance westward. Subsequent assaults against Wakde, Biak, Noemfoor, and Sansapor were mounted in quick succession, and, in contrast to previous campaigns, I planned no attempt to complete all phases of one operation before moving on to the next objective.'

At the time of the battle, the area’s strategic importance lay in its proximity to the planned Allied avenues of advance through the south-west Pacific and western New Guinea areas toward the Philippine islands group. Specifically, Noemfoor was selected for invasion for four reasons: firstly, Allied commanders believed that Japanese troops equivalent to less than one battalion were based there; secondly, the Allies were already experiencing a shortage of amphibious vessels and Noemfoor could be seized without large-scale operations; thirdly, Noemfoor also had the greatest number of useful airfields in the smallest area; and fourthly, the Japanese air defences in western New Guinea were almost negligible. At the end of June, the headquarters of the RAAF reported that although the Namber and Kamiri airfields were serviceable, they were barely being used and 'a possibly generous' estimate suggested that only 19 Japanese bombers and 37 fighters remained in New Guinea.

For the assault on Noemfoor, known as 'Cyclone', MacArthur selected a ground and air task force numbering 10,000 as the 'Cyclone' Task Force. About 5,500 of these men were support and service personnel, including 3,000 assigned to the rapid upgrading of the Japanese airfields, as well as construction of new air fields, following the capture of the island. As the main assault force, MacArthur selected the 158th Regimental Combat Team. This comprised primarily units of the Arizona National Guard, and was commanded by Major General Edwin D. Patrick. The 158th Regimental Combat Team formed part of General Walter C. Krueger’s 6th Army (Alamo Force). At the time of its assignment to the operation, the 158th Regimental Combat Team was fighting around Wakde and, to make available for its new assignment, in the middle of June Kruger decided to replace the 158th Regimental Combat Team at Wakde with the US 6th Division.

In the middle of June, the RAAF’s No. 10 Operational Group, under the command of Air Commodore Frederick Scherger, was designated the controlling Allied air unit for 'Cyclone'. USAAF units attached to No. 10 Operational Group for the invasion comprised: the 58th and 348th Fighter Groups and the 307th, 309th and 417th Bombardment Groups. The RAAF’s No. 62 Wing, a non-flying construction unit, landed with the US ground forces and was tasked with airfield improvement works.

A 39-strong contingent of Dutch civil administration personnel was included to re-establish Dutch civil administration. This force was reinforced by 10 local police officers after the landing.

Facing these Allied forces were approximately 2,000 Japanese troops, mostly of the 219th Regiment of the 35th Division in the 2nd Army, as well as some mern of the 222nd Regiment who had been in transit to Biak. The garrison was commanded by Colonel Suesada Shimizu, who was also the commander of the 219th Regiment. Shimizu had reached the island on 8 June and organised his defending troops into 14 strongpoints, but as revealed by subsequent combat, these were too widely dispersed to enable a coherent defence. Other units assigned to the Japanese garrison included the 8th Independent Battalion (Provisional), several airfield construction units, one motor transport company, one anti-aircraft unit and elements of an airfield company and an airfield battalion. Throughout 1944, various kinds of Japanese aircraft were based on Noemfoor’s airfields. Elements of the 61st Air Group flying Mitsubishi Ki-21 'Sally' twin-engined light bombers, were based at Kamiri. However, Japanese aircraft played no significant role in the ensuing battle as the 23rd Air Flotilla was redeployed on 13 June to resist the US forces in the 'Forager' assault on Saipan in the Mariana islands group.

The landing force assembled at Finschhafen and Toem late in June, and departed toward Noemfoor in three groups after orders had been drawn up and rehearsals completed. From 04.30 on 2 July, warships of the US and Australian Task Forces 74 and 75, under Rear Admiral Russell S. Berkey, bombarded Japanese positions on Noemfoor. TF74 was commanded for the first time by Commodore John Collins, making him the first graduate of the Royal Australian Naval College to command a naval squadron in action. In response to the bombardment, Japanese anti-aircraft guns briefly fired upon spotting aircraft until destroyed by the fire of Allied warships.

At 08.00 on 2 July, the 158th Regimental Combat Team was delivered to the beach by TF77, comprising LCM and LCT craft under Rear Admiral William M. Fechteler. The initial landings were made near Kamiri airfield, on the island’s north-western coast. The island was surrounded by 'an almost solid ring' of coral, but this did not hinder the landing and US newspapers later reported 'almost no loss' of life as the troops closed on the shore. Shimizu’s force had largely retired inland before the US landing, which was effected by two battalions, landing abreast of each other, and secured a beach-head about 900 yards (825 m) wide, supported by LVTs crewed by men of the 3rd Engineer Special Brigade.

As suggested above, the Japanese had created extensive defences in the Kamiri area, these including wire entanglements, trenches, dug-outs and prepared positions covering the Allied avenues of advance, but there was little resistance at Kamiri airfield and the area was quickly secured. About 300 improvised landmines had been placed by the Japanese around the beach, but these were clearly marked and were quickly cleared. A group of about 40 Japanese were killed around some of the caves in the area, but the majority of Japanese troops had withdrawn inland, as part of Shimizu’s plan to move to the east in the direction of Broe Bay for evacuation. As a result, the only opposition to the landing was a one-hour artillery bombardment from an inland battery, a bombardment which fell on the landing beach and reef. One Allied soldier was killed in the bombardment, and two vehicles were destroyed before the battery was suppressed by naval guns.

In the words of the US Navy official history, 'Japanese encountered around the airfield were so stunned from the effects of the bombardment that all the fight was taken out of them.' Kamiri was captured within hours of the landing. Reports indicated that about 45 Japanese soldiers had been killed, and about 30 Japanese aircraft captured, although all of these latter were damaged as a result of the earlier bombardment and bombing. By 17.50 on the first day, 7,100 troops had been landed, along with 500 vehicles and 2,250 tons of supplies, which had been unloaded from the eight assigned LSTs.

On the following day, 3 July, as a precaution against Japanese resistance elsewhere, 2,000 paratroopers of the US 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment began dropping onto the island. The regiment’s 1st Battalion arrived first, suffering 72 non-battle casualties as several sticks were dropped from low altitude, resulting in a large number of leg fractures. The 3rd Battalion followed on the next day, incurring another 56 non-battle casualties in the drop. As a result of the large numbers of injuries, the 2nd Battalion was brought ashore in LCIs instead of being dropped from the air.

The second base captured by US forces, Yebrurro airfield, was secured on 4 July and the Allied beach-head was expanded toward Kamiri. That same day, the first elements of No. 10 Operational Group arrived on Noemfoor. There were no Japanese air attacks until the night of 4 July, when a light bomber dropped three bombs near Kamiri, without effect. A few days later, four single-engined fighters dropped about 40 incendiary bombs, causing some damage to Allied matériel.

Early on 5 July, there was an unsuccessful counterattack by Japanese ground forces at Kamiri, around Hill 201, but this had been defeated by 06.30. Some 200 Japanese were killed during the assault, which was carried out by two companies of the 219th Regiment and around 150 Formosan labourers. For the remainder of the day, US forces carried out mopping-up operations and sent out patrols toward the north-east. On the following day, a detachment of US forces from Noemfoor also secured the smaller neighbouring island of Manim. The 2/158th Infantry embarked on 20 LCTs and sailed down the western coast to capture Namber airfield, which was brought under Allied control without resistance on 6 July. The island was officially declared secure on 7 July. However, individual Japanese soldiers continued guerrilla activities, albeit largely limited to night time raids. While this was taking place, the Dutch detachment was able to establish contact with local chiefs, who assisted in mopping-up operations against the Japanese from a time late in July.

Following this, the Japanese withdraw farther inland. Despite Shimizu’s plans to withdraw to Broe Bay to await evacuation, the majority of his troops melted into the hills and there was no evacuation. Small groups attempted to resist and Shimizu’s small force was slowly pushed toward the south-eastern part of the island. Men of the 503rd Parachute Infantry sent out many patrols to pursue the withdrawing Japanese. Initially, a force of about 400 to 500 Japanese under Shimizu broke contact and gathered at Hill 670, several miles to the north-east of the airfield. The 1/503rd Parachute Infantry re-established contact on 13 July and over the course of three days pushed toward the crest of the hill, which was found abandoned on 16 July.

After withdrawing from Hill 670, Shimizu’s force then managed to evade the US patrols until 23 July. About 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north-west of Inasi, men of the 2/503rd Parachute Infantry clashed with the Japanese near the lagoon. Contact between the two forces was lost from 25 July until 10 August, when a week-long action took place around Hill 380. Despite US artillery and air attacks, the Japanese commander managed to slip through the US cordon with a small force and withdrew toward Pakriki on the coast. Sporadic fighting continued throughout the rest of the month, but by 31 August all fighting had ceased.

By 31 August, the 'Cyclone' Task Force had lost 66 men killed or missing and 343 wounded. It had killed about 1,730 Japanese and taken 186 men prisoner. According to the US Army official history, only 403 of the original 3,000 Javanese civilian labourers were still alive by 31 August. About 10 to 15 were reported to have been killed accidentally by Allied forces, and the rest had died from mistreatment before the invasion. About 300 Formosan labour troops had died before the invasion. Others fought the Allies, allegedly as a result of Japanese coercion. More than 550 surrendered: more than half of these were suffering from starvation and tropical diseases. Fewer than 20 were reported killed by Allied action. According to the US Army historian, Allied personnel found evidence that human bodies, of Japanese, Formosan and Allied personnel, had been partly eaten by starving Japanese and Formosans.

Allied airfield repair and construction work by the RAAF and US Army engineers began on 2 July. On the afternoon of 6 July, before the formal cessation of hostilities on the ground, an RAAF Curtiss Kittyhawk single-engined fighter-bomber squadron had landed at Kamiri, supporting operations on Noemfoor and becoming the first of many Allied air force units to be based there.

Namber airfield was assessed as too rough and badly graded to be of use by Allied aircraft. It was abandoned in favour of expansion and improvements at Kornasoren. On 25 July, a USAAF Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engined heavy fighter group was able to land there. By 2 September, two parallel 7,000-ft (2135-m) runways had been completed, and soon after this Consolidated B-24 Liberator four-engined heavy bombers began operating from Kornasoren airfield against Japanese oil facilities at Balikpapan in Borneo. As noted above, Allied aircraft based on Noemfoor played an important role in the 'Battle of Sansapor' and the 'Battle of Morotai'.