Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bombs Over Biak (35)

Map of New Guinea with Biak circled (map from
     Biak is the largest of the three main islands of the Schouten Island Group that was part of Dutch New Guinea.  Biak is technically two islands, Biak and Soepiori, which are separated by a very narrow strait that is the size of a stream, so they are often lumped together.  It covers about 950 square miles, or about 60% the size of Rhode Island.  In the 1940's the population of all of the Schouten Island Group was probably no more than 35,000.  There were about 80 Asiatic foreigners, mostly Chinese, and a few Indonesian government officials. 

Map showing the area of interest on Biak (map from
http://www.3rdattackgroup.org/maps.php)
     Biak, like much of the rest of New Guinea, is inhabited mainly along the coast, with the interior being dense rain forest.  It is shaped somewhat like a boot with the flat sole on the southern coast and the toe facing east.  The coast is fringed by a 200- to 600-foot wide coral reef.  Biak has no good harbors, but about 2/3 of the island on the southern coast is flat.  The Japanese had built three airfields on that coastal plain: Mokmer (the largest), Sorido 1 (the smallest) and Sorido 2, which was uncompleted and called Borokoe by the Allies.  Overlooking the coastal plains was a coral ridge that was honeycombed with caves and steep enough in places to be considered a cliff.  Atop this cliff the Japanese had cleared a site for another airfield. 
     Bosnek village, where the American landing was planned, lies east of the air fields on the southern coast, about halfway to the "toe".  It served as the main Japanese supply and personnel center.  The Dutch had built a pier 425 feet long which the Japanese had extended.  Its beach, stretching east and west, was clear and sandy.  Until the Japanese occupation travel was entirely by foot and boat, and the only major paths were along the coast.  The Dutch improved the coastal path, but other roads were limited.  There was very little of commercial value produced on Biak.  The total population of the Schoutens in the 1940's was no more than 35,000.  The foreign settlement consisted of about 80 Asiatic people, mostly Chinese, and a few Indonesian government officials.
     According to information from the U.S. government in a publication called Map Talk, a  weekly magazine with restricted distribution to the American armed forces in the Pacific theater, although the natives lived under the influence of the Dutch Reformed Protestant missionaries for many years, most natives still had little respect for the Christian virtue of honesty.  This was attributed to the fact that they were first ruled by Indonesian pirates.  The coastal natives were considered good sailors, and would often travel in their large outriggers as far as Hollandia, 330 miles to the southeast, and Sorong, 320 miles to the northwest.  They spent most of their time fishing.  The  Map Talk author opined that the women on Biak were definitely the stronger sex, and made the best carriers.
     The basis of the Biak social culture was similar to the old Scottish clans, which were called "kerets" on Biak.   Each keret was made up of members of an extended family, all of whom lived together in one large house, usually built on stilts.  Unmarried men lived together in separate houses called "Roem Seram", provided by the village.  Malay is spoken by some of the coastal groups, but Noemfoor, first encountered by Europeans on the nearby island of the same name, was the more common language.

Map Talk Vol. 1, No. 15 (published by Information and Education Section USAFFEO
ASSAULT TROOPS HIT BIAK: New Ending Marks Practical End of New Guinea Campaign
     "For strategic purposes, this marks the practical end of the New Guinea campaign."
     Thus did General MacArthur's communiqué announce that on Saturday morning, 27 May, U.S. ground forces had landed on Biak Island, principal [sic] island in the Schouten group, 210 miles west of Wakde, which dominates the northern approaches to Geelvink Bay.
     Biak's capture, however, was not yet something to be recorded in the past tense.  By Sunday it was clear that the advance to the three airfields was to be no repetition of the Hollandia episode.  Last reported to have fought their way to a point within two miles of the first airdrome at Mokmer, Infantrymen were meeting with stiff opposition and were expecting more.
     The initial landing was in the familiar SWPA [South West Pacific Area] assault pattern.  In the haze of early morning, Australian and U.S. cruisers and destroyers stood offshore and pounded installations on the southeast coast near Bosnek Village without let up for 20 minutes.  At 0600, when the barrage lifted, a strong force of Mitchells [medium bomber] and A-20's[light bomber], accompanied by Lightnings[long range fighter], took over the bombardment with a 288-ton attack on enemy gun positions.
     Backed by rocket projectors from LCI [landing craft, infantry] and guns from destroyers and cruisers, the first wave moved in at 0615.  A coral reef which almost completely encircles Biak forced troops to wade some distance in water up to their necks.  For a while they were under intense, but wild, mortar and automatic weapons fure from Japs situated on rocky points in the rear of the beach.
     With the beachhead secure, LCI's, LST's [landing craft, tanks], and troop-laden four-stacker destroyers proceeded to discharge men, tanks, and equipment at jetties along the invasion point.  The landing was unopposed from the air and only minor damage to a few ships was caused by Jap shore batteries.
     By 0935 the ground troops had gained a ridge overlooking Bosnek.  The perimeter then was quickly extended one mile east and one mile west of the village.  In the township 200 Javanese forced laborers were found and freed.  Among the quantities of enemy material captured were two six-inch, four four-inch and two three-inch guns, nine more unassembled guns, and large stores of food, wine, and chemical warfare equipment.
     In mid-afternoon, ten hours after the first troops had hit the beaches, came the Japanese air support.  Of the four tardy raiders, Allied defenders shot down one, probably more.  When six more Jap aircraft tried to strafe the Bosnek position about half an hour later, antiaircraft guns from the naval vessels opened fire, shot down four.  Yet to be confirmed is an early report that one Thunderbolt [large, heavy fighter plane] pilot had knocked out four Jap fighters and one bomber in air combat.
     Unopposed except for snipers, the east flank proceeded one and a half miles northeast of Bosnek to Soriari Kampong.  But stern, organized resistance faced the west flank, which began to advance along a coastal track leading eight miles to the cluster of airstrips, at Mokmer, Borokoe, and Sorido.  Snipers planted in the coastal ridges killed eight U.S. soldiers Saturday night, the only fatalities so far reported.

So the 92nd Evac is home free?  Not by a long shot!  Col. Kuzume Naoyuki planned to lure the Americans into an ambush and carry out guerrilla warfare from the many caves in the area.  Tune in tomorrow to see how the May 28th landing and setting up with the 92nd Evac played out.

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