As they came in, they were only about 15-20 feet above the Japs front line so they were firing up through the aircraft... a lot of guys were wounded ... in the aircraft ...

Corporal Noel Anthony Carey, 2/3rd Independent Company (later 2/3rd Australian Commando Squadron). Read more about his experience.


Wau is located in the Buolo Valley, south-central New Guinea. For decades before the war, Australians and other outsiders had come to the valley in search of gold. There was a small mining settlement in Wau.

During the gold rush of the 1920s and 1930s, prospectors arrived on the coast at Salamaua and moved inland along the Black Cat Track, a rough overland track in Morobe Province. They used carriers, often from other parts of Papua and New Guinea to transport supplies and equipment into the lands of the Bulolo people.

The miners built houses and workshops, as well as airfields at Wau and Bulolo. They also established water and electricity supplies.

During the war, Wau sat in the middle of the main Japanese route from their bases in Lae and Salamaua to the Australian base at Port Moresby.

Strategic situation

On 8 March 1942, Japanese forces landed at Lae and Salamaua. They established bases in both townships.

Japanese forces held air superiority over the Solomon Sea. This meant an Allied air attack on Lae or Salamaua would be risky. The Allied forces decided to mount a land campaign on the Japanese base at Lae.

Allied troops could get from the Port Moresby area to Wau via the Bulldog Track or via air. From there, they could travel on foot to Salamaua and Lae.

Battles in the Wau area

In April 1942, the Australian Army established 'Kanga Force', made up of trained commandos from 1st and 2/5th Independent Companies and the local militia force, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR). Lieutenant Colonel Norman Fleay commanded Kanga Force. By June 1942, the force was mostly around Wau.

In August 1942, the Japanese pushed inland from Salamaua and took Mubo, on the way to Wau.

They stopped at Mubo. Over the following months, there were dozens of clashes between opposing troops and many air raids carried out by Allied aircrews.

On 14 January 1943, Kanga Force was reinforced with fresh troops. The 17th Infantry Brigade arrived at Wau airfield.

A week later, on 21 January, allied forces detected Japanese movement overland towards Wau. Several companies of the 2/6th Battalion were deployed east of the town to block their approach.

Allied troops had to protect the Wau Airfield. Without it, they couldn't get reinforcements or supplies. Kanga Force would have to attempt a hard and probably costly counterattack.

The Japanese got to within a few metres of the airfield. But early on January 29, battle-ready troops were airlifted to Wau and went straight into action.

Aircraft brought reinforcements, including the 2/3rd Independent Company. Kanga Force grew to more than 3,000 men.

The Japanese tried to bomb the airstrip to cut off the supply of troops. Bad weather meant they had to return to Rabaul without completing their mission.

On 8 February, Allied pilots downed 24 Japanese aircraft. The Japanese retreated to Mubo.

As they retreated, they mounted a rear-guard action. Fighting continued for months across the "Bloody Ridges" to Salamaua.

The outcome

Between May 1942 and February 1944, the fighting resulted in Kanga Force suffering 349 deaths, while Australian troops counted 753 Japanese dead.

The Battle of Wau was the last attempt by the Japanese to advance towards Port Moresby. Their defeat marked the end of their significant offensive on New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea
May 1942 to February 1943
Image caption
Typical terrain in the Wau-Mubo area.
Image attribution
Australian War Memorial. AWM 015154. Photo by Gordon Herbert Short.

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