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    Arawe (Merkus, Cape Merkus) West New Britain Papua New Guinea (PNG)

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USAAF December 1943

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USAAF Dec 15, 1943

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US Army Jan 10, 1944

Location
Lat 6° 7' 60S Long 149° 7' 60E  Arawe is located on the western tip of New Britain on the Vitiaz Strait and Dampier Strait. Borders Arawe Harbor and Pinip Island. Japanese refereed to the location as Merkus or Cape Merkus. Also spelled Arawee. Pronounced "Ara-wee".

Wartime History
During early 1943, Markus was occupied by the Japanese and developed into a base area. The Japanese 1st Shipping Regiment and 8th Shipping Regiment used motorized barges to shuttle troops and cargo along the coast from Rabaul to Cape Merkus then onward to Rooke Island. The defense of the area was left to Major Shinjiro Komori. 

On December 13, 1943 US Navy Task Force 76 (TF 76) and Task Group 74.1 (TG 74.1) departed Goodenough Island. The force arrived off Arawe on December 14, 1943 and began a naval bombardment and aerial attacks on the landing area. On December 15, 1943 the U. S. Army 112th Cavalry Regiment commanded by Brigadier General Julian W. Cunningham made an amphibious landing at 7:00am on the west coast of Arawe, landing 1,600 troops. This landing was a diversionary attack ahead of the main effort at Cape Gloucester.

The landing plan called for the main assault to occur at the tip of the Arawe peninsula, while a company-size unit (A Troop) landed at the base of the peninsula in rubber boats to block a Japanese retreat. The assault began on December 15, 1943 and almost immediately encountered severe difficulties. Japanese machine gunners spotted the rubber boats and sank almost all of them. The soldiers of A Troop were forced to abandon their equipment and swim for their lives. Sixteen were killed and seventeen wounded in this abortive attack before naval gunfire could silence the Japanese machine guns. Meanwhile, the main attack, employing conventional landing craft less susceptible to damage from machine gun fire, also ran into problems as successive landing waves became separated and confused. Nevertheless, superior Allied firepower forced the numerically inferior Japanese to retreat. By mid afternoon the Americans controlled the peninsula.

Although they lost the opening battle, the Japanese did not concede Arawe to the Americans without further struggle. Beginning on the afternoon of the invasion, December 15, and continuing for the next several days, the Japanese launched furious air attacks, especially targeting ships that had supported the assault. In addition, the Japanese ordered reinforcements from the Japanese Army, 141st Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion to advance to Arawe and dug in beyond the American perimeter.

The tactical situation rapidly degenerated into a stalemate as the Americans and Japanese probed each other's lines. American strength and the natural defensive terrain along the base of the Arawe peninsula rendered the U.S. lodgment relatively secure for the moment, but American commanders could not feel comfortable with an entrenched enemy just outside their perimeter.

On December 26, 1943 the main landing by Marines occurred at Cape Gloucester. Meanwhile at Arawe Japanese defenders remained entrenched. To break the stalemate without incurring excessive casualties, General Krueger called for 1st Marine Division tanks from Finschafen. Reinforcements including eighteen tanks from the 1st Marine Tank Battalion, Company B, with 158th Infantry, 2nd Battalion were sent to reinforcements to reinforce the 112th Cavalry. On January 16, 1944 the American force counter attacked using the tanks and drove the Japanese from their trenches and the area was declared secure that same day. In total the Americans force suffered 118 killed, 352 wounded, and 4 missing.

After Arawe was declared secured, Army troops linked up with the Marines from Cape Gloucester on February 10, 1944 and ended the campaign for the western end of New Britain.

American and Japanese missions against Arawe
November 1942 - January 16, 1944

Afterwards, occasional missions were flown in the area, mostly barge sweeps and patrols only. Western New Britain's utility as a forward operating and support base proved less critical to the Allied campaign than originally anticipated. The commander of the American PT boat squadron in the area declined to establish a base at Arawe, and Allied pilots preferred to use the airfields at Cape Gloucester. On April 24, 1944 the 40th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit with soldiers from California, Utah, and Nevada, relieved the marines and 112th Cavalry. For the remainder of the campaign, the 40th Division would conduct patrols to keep the Japanese away from the western end of New Britain while the main Allied offensives continued elsewhere.

Today
Adequate exploration of the battlefield area has never been undertaken.

Mark Reichman visited the area on February 21, 2009:
"We thought we were on to some of those fortified Japanese positions in the Arawe battle area close to the airstrip so went to check them out.  When we got there, the informant wasn't there and the people showed my son around but he never really saw anything.  Nothing like what the informant had described and we haven't seen him since. They showed me a few months ago that had mortar shells in it.  Also, I heard they found the old hospital area but haven't been back to hear if they dug in to it or found anything."

Arawe Airfield (Merkus)
Defended by the Japanese never used by Allies

M3A1 General Stuart Tank
Abandoned after the battle

Arawe Harbor
Harbor at Arawe

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Last Updated
June 1, 2017

 

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