Paul Budde's History Archives

Liberation of NEI stopped in Dutch New Guinea

In mid-1942, Merauke, on the south coast of Dutch New Guinea was one of only a few parts of the NEI that had not been occupied by Japanese forces. It was garrisoned by a company of infantry from the KNIL, equipped with heavy weapons. The strategic location of Merauke on the western flank of Allied forces in Papua led MacArthur strengthen the garrison and ordered the building of an airfield there. This was done by mainly black Americans, which made an enormous impression on the (black) Papuans living in and around Merauke.

It is interesting to note here that America was still a segregated society. Black Americans were not allowed to bear weapons and were used behind the front line in activities such as building airfields. The American Pacific HQ was in Brisbane and the Black American were stationed in South Brisbane and were not allowed to cross the river where the White Americans were stationed.

On 31 December 1942, the Australian Merauke Force[1] was formed, to further reinforce the KNIL garrison taking charge of the day to day operations on 7 January 1943. At the time of its establishment the Merauke Force comprised of the C Company of the Australian 62nd Infantry Battalion and the 1st NEI Fusilier Company and various Royal Australian Air Force units.

During the first half of 1943 the Australian force at Merauke was gradually expanded to a full brigade – with over 1500 personnel.  The 26th Infantry Battalion was added to the force between 29 May and 2 August when it was flown into the inland town of Tanah Merah.  This was a place 200km further north of Merauke in inaccessible jungle.

Shortly after the Java uprising in 1926/27 the Dutch had exiled leaders of the uprising to Dutch New Guinea. At Tanah Merah they built a concentration camp[2] for political prisoners from across the archipelago. As we will see later, the Dutch were worried that the Japanese would further occupy New Guinea.  They wanted to prevent the Japanese taking hold of this camp, with the for them potential valuable prisoners. In 1943 the Dutch transported these prisoners to Australia.

In April 1944 the Australian Army began to plan an offensive along New Guinea’s south coast using elements of the Merauke Force. However, this offensive never eventuated as there were hardly any Japanese activities observed in the area. Instead the war activities took place on the north side of the island around the capital Hollandia. By mid-1944 it was decided to reduce the force and on 4 July 1945 the command of the Merauke region was handed back to the Dutch authorities.

On the northern shore of New Guinea, where the Japanese had their main military facilities a surprise attack by the Americans started the liberation of NEI. The Battle of Hollandia (code-named Operation Reckless) was an engagement between American and Japanese in April 1944.

The U.S. 24th and the 41st Infantry Divisions—under Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger—landed at Tanah Merah as well as at Humboldt Bay near Hollandia. At the same time Operation Persecution was launched with the 163rd Regimental Combat Team—detached from the U.S. 41st Infantry Division—and the No. 62 Works Wing of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). They landed at Aitape, in the Australian Territory of New Guinea (later Papua New Guinea) about 230 km east of Hollandia.

The battle was an unqualified success for the US and Australian forces, resulting in a withdrawal by the Japanese to a new strategic defence line in the west of New Guinea and the abandonment of all positions in the east of the island.

General MacArthur successfully argued with President Roosevelt that he now should be allowed to move to the Philippines in order to fulfil his promise that “he would be back”. He had to flee the Philippines in March 1942 after losing the battle with the Japanese and this had severely hurt his ego.

The Dutch and Australian had argued to move from Papua to the Dutch East Indies. The fact that this didn’t happen would have far reaching consequences for the developments in this part of the world.

[1] Personal recollection of Merauke from the 86 (F) Squadron RAAF

[2] Tanah Merah Concentration Camp