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Mount Austen, Papua, Tripoli and National Handwriting Day

Well, there’s a lot to say for 23 January.  The Ming dynasty of China began in 1368; Charles I was sold to the Parliamentarians by the Scots in 1647: Georgetown, Virginia was founded in 1789; Elizabeth Blackwell earned her MD in 1849, the first American woman to do so;  Kim Philby defected in 1962; and USS Pueblo was seized by the North Koreans in 1968.  But today, only 1943 in WWII, and National Handwriting Day…for what that’s worth.

The Japanese had dug in along Mount Austen’s many hills, forming a maze of bunkers, dugouts and caves they dubbed the Gifu.

As mountains go, Mount Austen isn’t much of one.  At 461 meters (1514 feet) it would qualify as a hill in most places, but it really wasn’t even that, but a series of hills and ridges that the Japanese called Bear Height, and the locals called Mount Mambulu.  But for the Solomons Islands, it’s the highest point for thousands of miles.  And in 1943, it was an anchor for the Japanese defensive line on that tropical rock that both Japan and the United States decided had to be fought over.  On their arrival on 7 August 1942, the American forces were resisted by a comparative handful of Japanese troops, which gradually built up into a force of about 20,000 by year’s end commanded by Hyakutake Harukichi.  The American 1st Marine Division was relieved on Guadalcanal at the end of December, and was replaced by two Army infantry divisions, a Marine division, an independent Army infantry regiment and assorted support units, the lot commanded by  Alexander Patch, adding up to about 50,000.  From August through November 1942, the Americans and Japanese fought savage battles over Henderson Field, the Matanikau and Tenaru Rivers, and scores of other places that nearly always ended in Japanese defeat. By the end of December the Japanese had decided to evacuate Guadalcanal, but in the nature of things in the Pacific War that was easier said than done, and wouldn’t be officially transmitted until 15 January 1943, the middle of the fight over the Mount Austen hill mass. The Japanese had dug in along Mount Austen’s many hills, forming a maze of bunkers, dugouts and caves they dubbed the Gifu. Gradually, painfully, the Americans dug the Japanese out of their excellent defensive positions as the Japanese gradually pulled back to the south.  By 23 January 1943, Mount Austen was secure.  After losing some 3,300 men in its defense to the Americans less than 300, it was fairly clear that the Japanese were either losing or giving up Guadalcanal.

After months of fighting … on 23 January 1943 the Papua Peninsula was more or less secured … after scores of company and battalion-sized fights over roadblocks, swamps, individual buildings and other minor terrain features that, in toto, reminds the student of WWII of a  tropical Stalingrad, with less rubble.

In the Southwest Pacific Area, the Domain of Douglas MacArthur (Guadalcanal was in the South Pacific Area, the Domain of Robert Ghormley until William Halsey took over) the Papua peninsula of New Guinea was fought over by American, Australian and other Commonwealth troops beginning in February 1942.  The Japanese were after Port Moresby on the southern coast of the peninsula.  From two different directions they tried to get there.  The first, an amphibious landing, ended with the battle of Coral Sea in May 1942, where the Japanese fleet was turned back.  The second was an overland campaign across the Kokoda Track, which ended in failure in September 1942. As the Australians pushed back along the Kokoda, the Americans and Australians pushed north and west from Milne Bay.  After months of fighting the jungle as well as the Japanese, on 23 January 1943 the Papua Peninsula was more or less secured with the fall of Buna on the north coast, after scores of company and battalion-sized fights over roadblocks, swamps, individual buildings and other minor terrain features that, in toto, reminds the student of WWII of a tropical Stalingrad, with less rubble.

The Torch landings on 8 November 1942 had been anticipated, but when the French defected and Morocco became an Allied base, the Axis position in North Africa was doomed.

On the other side of the world, Commonwealth forces were fighting in a much different climate: the Western Desert.  After Erwin Rommel’s line broke at El Alamein on 4 November 1942, German and Italian forces rolled back as the had before, but this time there was an Anglo-American army on the other end of Africa.  The Torch landings on 8 November 1942 had been anticipated, but when the French defected and Morocco became an Allied base, the Axis position in North Africa was doomed.  By early 1943, the German 90th Light Division was at about half strength but was grimly holding on on the coast road from Egypt west to Tripoli.  Pushing west were the British 51st Division and 7th Armored Division.  Outflanked again and again, the 90th Light left Tripoli on 23 January 1943, a third minor but vital Axis loss on the same day.

The loss of so many men would be nearly impossible for the Nazis to hide, while the samurai leadership could publicly ignore the 25,000 lives that the late 1942-early 1943 campaigns would cost.

After Guadalcanal and Papua, the Allied defense of Australia was fairly secure.  Japan’s big striking force had been decimated, their surface naval force was being frittered away in futile resupply efforts, and their land forces were being bled of leadership and vitality.  At the same time, the Germans in the Mediterranean Basin seemed to be floundering as North Africa was rapidly lost in late 1942 and early 1943.  But more ominously, the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad was nearly finished, as the last flight out of the Cauldron was on 23 January, 1943.  The loss of so many men would be nearly impossible for the Nazis to hide, while the samurai leadership could publicly ignore the 25,000 lives that the late 1942-early 1943 campaigns would cost.

And finally, National Handwriting Day.  Now, you may ask, who in the name of all that’s holy would ever even think of a “handwriting day?”  Well, apparently there’s this outfit called the Writing Instrument Manufacturer’s Association  (I can’t make this stuff up) which, in 1977, declared the anniversary of John Hancock’s birthday (born Braintree, Massachusetts on 23 January 1737) to be National Handwriting Day.  Now, with the current hubbub about schools not teaching cursive anymore, such an observance may be timely.  Frankly, as bad as my handwriting has always been, it’s remarkable that I got as much as I did done as I did (which wasn’t much, but I got by) before the computer could hide my poor penmanship.

 

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