"One of the worst things to watch when on night duty [in Port Moresby] would be the heavy 4-engine bombers coming back from night raids... Some nights the unfortunate Liberator or Fortress would be returning from a raid with possibly one or two motors on fire and would crash just before making the strip. There would be a ball of flame and that was it."
Sapper Bill Stanbury, 15th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers. Read his full account.
Port Moresby lies on the southern coast of the island of New Guinea in present day Papua New Guinea. During the Second World War, it was in the Australian Territory of Papua. It's 845 km from Cairns, and only 560 km from Thursday Island in Far North Queensland.
Japan already had a base at Rabaul in New Guinea. But it wanted to take control of Papua as part of its ambitions for the rest of the Pacific. This was partly to cut Australia off from US help.
Port Moresby also had many strategic advantages. These included:
- a harbour
- storage sheds
- other infrastructure to support military operations.
The perception that Japan could invade mainland Australia was a major driver of Allied defensive operations in Port Moresby. Capturing Port Moresby would put most of northern Australia in range of Japanese bombers. Having a base at Port Moresby would allow Japan to launch an invasion against the Australian mainland, should it choose to do so.
We now know that, although Japan had initially contemplated invading Australia, it changed those plans. Instead, Japan tried to isolate Australia so it could not be a base for a US counter-offensive, working together by taking territory across the Pacific. But, at the time, many people in Australia and the US believed that Japan planned to invade. This belief drove a lot of people in Australia to sign up to the war effort, and also shaped Australia's defence strategy.
Bombing of Port Moresby
Japan began bombing Port Moresby in February 1942, in preparation for a naval invasion. However, Allied resistance and the Battle of the Coral Sea, especially the US invasion of Guadalcanal, derailed those plans. The Allies retained Port Moresby.
Port Moresby became a major Allied base. It was used for air operations against Japanese forces to the north, and supply drops to Allied troops on the Kokoda Track and elsewhere.