They had all suffered privations and endured the hellish hardships of jungle fighting. Their clothes were stained and discoloured from perspiration, torn and ragged. They were tired to death and hungry and yet, without complaint, stood in the heavy rain and quietly ate their meal. These men, boys in years, knew hardships as few of the world's soldiers had known it.

Signalman Lloyd Collins, 3rd Division Signals, Australian Army. In The New Guinea Narrative (2001), p60. Read more about his experience.


At the start of the war, the Australian administration had its district-level headquarters at Salamaua. The township sits on an isthmus on the north-eastern coastline of New Guinea.

The Japanese base at Salamaua

On March 8, 1942, Japanese forces captured the township and set up a base. They also captured Lae.

To protect their base, they set up strong defensive positions in the hills to the east. Japanese forces also advanced inland to Mubo.

General Thomas Blamey, Commander of Allied land forces in the South West Pacific, wanted to make the Japanese forces concentrate on a defence of Salamaua. He believed that forcing the Japanese to defend their base might play a decisive part in the capture of Lae.

In the early hours of 29 June 1942, Australian commandos raided the Japanese base at Salamaua.

This led the Japanese to reinforce their base, making Salamaua a strongly defended region. Lieutenant General Iven Mackay, Commander of New Guinea Force, said the Allies would not try and take it by siege.

Fighting in other areas occupied the Allies and the Japanese until early 1943.

The advance from Wau to Salamaua

The Japanese successfully landed almost 4,000 reinforcements at Salamaua and at Lae in January 1943. Kanga Force had an injection of fresh troops from the 2/7th Independent Company and almost 2,000 men from 17th Infantry Brigade arrived to assist in the defence of Wau. Brigadier Murray Moten took over command of Kanga Force.

After being defeated by the Australians at Wau in January 1943, the Japanese moved inland to Mubo. The Allies feared they would push through to take the Wau-Bulolo Valley.

On 29 June US Forces of the 162nd Infantry Regiment arrived on the coast and began to move inland to join with the 17th Brigade. The 17th Brigade captured Mubo in July.

On 23 April 1943, Kanga Force ceased to exist after the 3rd Australian Division, 15th Infantry Brigade, under the command of Major General Stanley Savige, arrived to take over operations in the area. It took months for the Australians to drive the Japanese back and to take the Japanese base at Salamaua.

On 23 August 1943, 3rd Division handed this operation to the Australian Army 5th Division under Major General Edward Milford.

It took about six months to advance from Wau to Salamaua across what became known as the "Bloody Ridges".

As official historian David Dexter wrote in The New Guinea Offensives:

One of the most difficult and unpleasant areas ever to confront troops lay before the Australians. It posed an immense supply problem. Endurance and determination in generous quantities were needed from the troops themselves, while a high degree of ingenuity was required from those responsible for planning and organisation.

The troops found it difficult to find enough unpleasant adjectives to describe the country, which, for the most part, consisted of rugged mountains clothed with dense, almost impenetrable jungle, and in the higher areas with moss forest...

When the wind blew it raised a sour unclean smell of decay from the vegetation which, season after season, rotted in the all-pervading damp. Clothing was perpetually wet with rain and perspiration; the ravages of insect pests, notably mosquitoes and leeches, were enough to call out the blasphemous superlatives of the sorely-tried Australian soldier.

Allied forces clashed with the Japanese along the way at Mubo and Bobdubi, among others.

The Japanese abandon Salamaua

During August and early September, the Japanese in the Salamaua region fought to hold the advancing Allies.

The Japanese army garrison in Lae needed reinforcements.

The 18th Army commander, Hatazō Adachi, ordered troops to abandon Salamaua. They withdrew to the north, sending between 5,000 and 6,000 troops to Lae by barge. Others marched out along the coastal road.

The Australian 15th, 17th and 29th Infantry Brigades, and the American 162nd Infantry Regiment, captured Salamaua on 11 September 1943. When they arrived, they found the town in ruins due to Allied bombing. The Japanese had abandoned Salamaua to defend Lae.

Sergeant Stanley Benson, 42nd Battalion, recalls what the troops found.

Not one building in Salamaua had been missed by bombs. A few on the isthmus still stood, with walls blown out, roofs holed by strafing, but there was nothing to inspire pride of possession. Only yards separated the holes where bombs had landed and it was a wonder that any of the buildings managed to remain upright. Everywhere the stink `of the 'Pongo' [enemy dead] hung in the air.

The outcome

The fighting between April and September cost 343 Australian, 81 US and 2,722 Japanese lives.

Despite initial plans, the Allies chose not to develop a base at Salamaua. By the time the troops arrived, it was little more than a town in ruins.

But the advance on Salamaua was not a wasted effort. It drew Japanese troops away from Lae at a crucial time in the campaign.

Papua New Guinea
March to September 1943
Image caption
The Australia War Cemetery on the waterfront at Salamaua. Photo taken 1 October 1944.
Image attribution
Australian War Memorial. AWM 076372. Photographer unknown.

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