Showers broke down ... we had to take our soap and towel over to the river to bathe. That happened just a couple of times, and our mess there was pretty terrible. I can't remember what we lived in, but that was only a staging camp, you accepted that.

Joyce Ellen Cleary, Lieutenant Australian Army Nursing Service. Listen to her story.

Strategic location

Lae sits on the Huon Gulf on the northern side of Papua New Guinea, near the delta of the Markham River. Today, it is the country’s second largest city after Port Moresby. Before the war, it had been used as a port for the goldfields around Wau.

Following the 1937 volcanic eruption at Rabaul, the Australians chose it as the new capital of the Australian Territory of New Guinea. Before they could set up operations, the war intervened, and Japanese forces captured Lae.

Japanese base at Lae

On 8 March 1942, Japanese forces waded ashore at Lae. The small Australian garrison in the area withdrew. The Japanese met no resistance.

Two days later, US aircraft carriers, the USS Lexington and USS Yorktown launched an aircraft strike on the Japanese at Lae.

While these attacks failed to force the Japanese away from Lae, they were a show of the strength of US aircraft carrier capability. This made the Japanese rethink their plans for invading Port Moresby by sea. They included carriers in their invasion force, which led to the confrontation of both sides' carriers at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Following the successful occupation of Lae, the Japanese established an airfield and large base facilities at Lae.

Recapture of Lae

On 18 April 1942, General Douglas MacArthur became Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area. Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey was appointed Commander, Allied Land Forces.

By July 1942, MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Area headquarters was planning to secure eastern New Guinea and set up bases. From these bases, they could mount operations against the Lae-Salamaua area.

In early 1943, the Allies defeated the Japanese at both Buna, Gona and Wau. This opened the way for the Allied forces to attack the main objective—the Japanese Base at Lae.

The decisive Allied win in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in early March 1943 also weakened the Japanese at Lae.

In May 1943, MacArthur directed the Allied forces to attack Lae.

Before the attack, Allied airstrikes further weakened the Japanese defence at Lae.

The Landing at Lae

On 2 September 1943, troops of the 9th Australian Division left Milne Bay, headed for Lae.

The amphibious landings were part of the Allied Operation Postern.

They stopped briefly at Buna and came under attack from nine Japanese Betty Bombers.

On 4 September 1943, five US destroyers supported the Australians' amphibious landing east of Lae.

Despite air resistance, the landing operation continued. Within four hours of the first landing craft being lowered into the water, about 8,000 men were put ashore.

The advance on Lae proved to be a difficult task. Recent rains meant the rivers were swollen. The Australians were forced to stop at the Busu River. They had no heavy equipment to build a bridge, and Japanese occupied the far bank.

On 9 September, after fierce fighting, the 2/28th Infantry Battalion led the attack across the river and secured the bridgehead.

Advance on Lae

Over the next few days, the 25th Infantry Brigade of the Australian 7th Division also began advancing on Lae from Nadzab.

As they moved toward Lae, the 25th Infantry Brigade met with Japanese forces at Jensen's Plantation and Heath's Plantation.

Private Richard Kelliher, of the 2/25th, became one of just 20 Australians awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) in the Second World War, during the advance on Lae.

The 25th Infantry Brigade arrived in the township of Lae on 16 September.

The outcome

Allied troops established two bases at Lae:

  • the Australian Lae Base Sub Area
  • the US Air Support Operations Squadron (ASOS) Base E

These combined to become Lae Fortress, under Australian Major General Edward Milford.

Lae was seen as an important supply port for the airbase at Nadzab. First, the Allies needed to clear debris and sunken barges from the Port of Lae.

Allied forces also extended and widened Lae Aerodrome.

Lae was later the site for a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp, operating from February 1945 until April 1946. It closed after the repatriation of Japanese POWs.

Today, Lae is the site of the second-largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Papua New Guinea. It is the final resting place of 2,359 Australians and 53 Papua New Guineans. It also commemorates 348 others on the Memorial to the Missing.

Papua New Guinea
March 1942 to September 1943
Image caption
The beachhead at Lae, depicting the 'Tong Sung' in the centre middle and a sunken Japanese ship in the distance on the right. On the left, you can see a pile driver on left for building wharves. In the right foreground, there's a bombed Japanese propellor torpedo boat.
Image attribution
Australian War Memorial. ART 22324. Painting by Geoffrey Mainwaring, oil on canvas on cardboard, 69 cm x 78.5 cm, 1943.

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The Huon Peninsula Remembrance Trail

22 Steps