Saidor is one of the Second World War's less-known operations.
There are many reasons for this, including: it was relatively small, there was no battle and it was in Southwest Pacific, an obscure theatre of war. Yet there are a lot of things about this campaign that are illustrative of the way that World War II has been written up.
Generally speaking, American histories are upbeat in tone, whereas Australian ones are deadpan. Both get pretty annoying after a while.
The selection of Saidor as an objective was done in September 1943 by General Blamey, who proposed it to General MacArthur as an alternative to Madang, further away and therefore closer to Japanese air bases. The Australian 6th Division was allotted to the Saidor operation but had not actually moved to New Guinea by December 1943, in order to economise on shipping.
The American Army's official history says:
Assignment of the mission to Alamo Force instead of New Guinea Force represented a departure from the principle that New Guinea Force would command all operations in New Guinea. The change was probably made because nearly all trained Australian divisions were either committed for action or withdrawn for rest, and because it seemed clear that all the Alamo reserve would not have to be committed to Arawe or Gloucester.
Most of this is wrong. Since New Britain is part of New Guinea, there was no departure, and no principle. The second sentence is speculation and wrong. Australian divisions were not all committed or withdrawn; only the ones in New Guinea. Two divisions, the 3rd and 6th, were available, on the Atherton Tableland in Queensland. All that was required was the shipping to move them to New Guinea.
However, the last part is correct. The US 32nd Infantry Division was available, at Goodenough Island, near the tip of the tail end of New Guinea. Troops of this division had allotted to an attack on Gasmata, on the south coast of New Britain. In November this operation had been cancelled, and the Arawe operation was substituted. Because Arawe was not as heavily defend, a smaller force was substituted. leaving the division in reserve. Using it at Saidor would therefore save shipping - always an attractive prospect, as shipping was in short supply.
Now, the US 32nd Infantry Division was a National Guard division - the American equivalent of an Australian militia division - from Michigan and Wisconsin. Called up in 1940, it had been rushed to Australia in 1942. Its introduction to combat at Buna had been brutal. It had taken heavy casualties. There had been severe criticism of its performance and its commander had been relieved.
The American Naval historian wrote:
The Australian Army... was now pushing [the Japanese] along westward by the coastal trail, which was studded with abandoned supplies and equipment and dead Japanese. At Saidor, there were no Japanese, but at Sio (which the Aussies had by-passed inland) on the coast about 75 miles to the east there were 12,000 enemy troops. So this operation was not only good "leapfrog" strategy, it also "hit 'em where they ain't".
The first part of this is true enough; between Finschhafen and Sio, the 9th Division buried some 3,099 enemy dead and took 38 prisoners. Some 8 Australians were killed and 48 wounded. However, the town was not bypassed. On the contrary, the Australian 9th Division drove straight for it, Matilda tanks in the lead, driving the Japanese before them. Whenever the Japanese rearguards tried to make a stand, they came under attack by tanks, mortars and artillery.
The plan, as already mentioned, had been formulated by General Blamey months before and ordered by General MacArthur shortly after the Australians had begun their pursuit of the Japanese they had defeated at Finschhafen. Nor did General MacArthur believe that there were 12,000 Japanese at Sio. His intelligence staff at General Headquarters (GHQ) in Brisbane believed that there were no more than 4,500 Japanese forward of Sio, and only 1,500 more between there and the Madang area. They estimated that it if the Japanese decided to counter-attack at Saidor, they would take a week to bring up 3,000 men. Although it might have been a "leapfrog" manoeuvre in retrospect, it was not conceived at such at the time.
General Krueger, commander of Alamo Force, attacked at Saidor with 7,000 men of the US 32nd Infantry Division. Did he not trust GHQ's estimates? There is a strong possibility, for the track record of MacArthur's intelligence staff had not been too good thus far, with notable failures at Buna and Finschhafen. This had led General Blamey to establish his own intelligence staff, independent of GHQ. And the number of Japanese forward of Sio was indeed more like 12,000. In 1945, GHQ would go on to even bigger miscalculations.
If Krueger and Blamey sometimes seemed over-cautious, this is understandable. Once committed to battle in the jungle, their troops were isolated, their only means of reinforcement being days away by sea. Assuming that the US Navy didn't feel the place was too dangerous, as had happened on Guadalcanal, and more recently, at Finschhafen.
Krueger did not immediately give his commander at Saidor, General Martin, permission to block the inland trails that the Japanese were retreating along. There was the possibility of Japanese attack; and the 32nd Division was required for an upcoming operation. This left Martin with conflicting orders. Communications difficulties in the form of garbled messages between Krueger's headquarters on Goodenough Island and Saidor prevented the orders being changed in time.
Krueger later wrote that the efforts to stop the Japanese "fell short of success" . Meaning, completely failed. The Australian commanders, particularly General Berryman of II Corps and Moreshead of New Guinea Force were scathing but Australian historians have been muted until recently. Sadly, for the men of the US 32nd Infantry Division, many of these Japanese would later have to be fought under less advantageous circumstances, with the loss of many American lives.
In the Australian 5th Division's advance from Sio to Saidor, 734 Japanese were killed and 1,775 found dead, and 48 prisoners were taken. Australian casualties came to 4 killed and 6 wounded, while the US 32nd Infantry Division at Saidor killed 119 Japanese and captured 18, while losing 40 of its own killed, 110 wounded and 10 missing. These ratios do not support the claims that the US 32nd Infantry Division had overcome its rough start.
In short, the campaign is not well known and the sources are woeful. It could be controversial but only if it is written up.
- Miller, J., Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul, (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1959),p. 296
- Morison, S. E., Volume VI: Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, 22 July 1942 - 1 May 1944, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1950), p. 389
- Krueger, Walter, From Down Under to Nippon: The Story of the Sixth Army in World War II, (Battery Press, Nashville, 1953), p. 38