It was a solitary machine-gun. The bullets came pattering over the water like recurrent bursts of hail. There was a horrible dream quality about it. You couldn't, in that moment, imagine that these drops falling in the river, skipping like stones, were really deadly.
John Hepworth, The Long Green Shore, Sydney, 1995. Learn more about his account.
Wewak is the capital of East Sepik Province, located in the upper north coast of present-day Papua New Guinea. It’s the largest town between Madang to the south-east and Jayapura in Indonesia, to the north-east.
Directly west is the peninsula known as Cape Wom, which was the site of the surrender of Japanese forces on 13 September 1945.
The old centre of town sits on a small peninsula, while the urban area is nestled on a narrow band of flat land between the ocean and the mountains. Caves emerge from the mountains not far from the coast. The Japanese dug tunnels between these caves, as they had done in Rabaul and elsewhere, as part of their defences. The Japanese fled to those caves during the fighting around Wewak.
The bay is surrounded by thick scrub and rushing rivers. Casualties from both combat and disease were high in this region because of the difficult jungle conditions.
During the Second World War, Wewak was home to the largest Japanese airbase on mainland New Guinea. Japanese forces controlled most of their air operations from Wewak between 1943 and 1945.
The Japanese airbase is now the Wewak International Airport (Boram Airport).
The purpose of Japan’s operations in the South Pacific was to 'secure a position of superiority', which included air superiority.
Early in the Second World War it was clear that neither Allied nor Japanese forces had achieved control of the air. The Japanese committed to seizing airfields in the Bismarck Archipelago and capturing Rabaul.
In 1942, the United States moved in on the Japanese who occupied the area around Aitape to the west of Wewak. The Allies' plans were to advance towards the Philippines. As preparations began, the US realised they would need to hand control of the region to Australia. This would make their troops available for service elsewhere.
Although the Allies often lost more aircraft in individual air battles, Allied air strength was not affected significantly. Yet the Japanese, while suffering fewer losses, experienced decline in the quality of their forces. They lost many of their highly trained and experienced pilots and could only replace them with less experienced ones.
By July 1943, the Japanese moved their headquarters to Wewak. But at this stage, their air forces were mostly operating defensively.
The following month, the US Air Force surprised the Japanese when they bombed their air bases at Wewak. They also bombed satellite airfields at Boram, Dagua and But. Between 17 and 21 August, these Allied air raids claimed 100 Japanese aircraft, including:
- light bombers
- reconnaissance aircraft.
The loss of aircraft had a serious impact on Japanese air strength.
In August 1944, the Australians took over former US positions around Aitape, 150 km to the west of Wewak.
The Australians then went on to capture Wewak. But with Japan on the verge of defeat, the strategic necessity of the campaign was called into question.