Battle of Morotai
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
The island of Morotai is a member of the Molucca Islands 1,800 km˛ or 695 square-miles in size, laying 300 miles northwest of Sansapor, New Guinea. Bypassing the strong nearby Japanese garrison of Halmahera, MacArthur selected Morotai, defended by a small garrison of only 1,000 men, as his next target on his "Hitting 'em where they ain't" island hopping campaign. On 15 Sep 1944, Major General John Persons' US 31st Infantry Division and 126th Infantry Regiment of 32nd Division were delivered by Rear Admiral Daniel Barbey's VII Amphibious Force to the island, landing unopposed. The landing operation was extremely inefficient, with vehicles bogged down by thick mud on the southern beaches of the island. The same soft earth seen at the landing site posed further problems when Army engineers arrived to construct an airfield to extend MacArthur's sphere of control, but they were able to locate another site for the airfield about two weeks later. As soon as the airfields were finished, B-24 Liberator bombers of the US 13th Air Force were flown in.
Although initial Japanese response was weak and uncoordinated, a Japanese infantry colonel was sent to the island to organize the defense. Under the cover of darkness at nights, the colonel transferred men from Halmahera to Morotai. US Navy PT boats and other small craft caused losses for the Japanese, but by Dec 1944, the bulk of the Japanese 211th Infantry Regiment was on Morotai. Assembling his forces near the Hill 40 area, the Japanese colonel sent harassing patrols for the Americans through mid-Dec, an called for air raids from Halmahera and Borneo against American forces through late-Dec. During the night of 24 Dec, the Japanese conducted the most effective air raid, in which sticks of bombs damaged airfields and destroyed several B-24 bombers, while losing only two aircraft. Captured documents later revealed that the colonel planned to sweep out of the jungle at the Gila Peninsula and isolate American forces in small pockets, then take control of the airstrips.
The Americans, meanwhile, was undergoing a transition where fresh troops of the 33rd Division were coming in to relieve men of the 31st Division. On 26 Dec, 33rd Division's 136th Regiment under the command of Colonel Ray E. Cavenee pre-empted the Japanese counteroffensive by moving his troops inland in two columns. The 3rd Battalion of the regiment dug in at Radja while the rest of the regiment moved to the Pilowo River. The regiment's supporting artillery of 105mm howitzers moved to the Ngelengele Island off the west coast of Morotai. The Americans experienced jungle trails more difficult than anticipated. While marching, the men needed to transfer heavy loads such as machine guns and mortars from one man to another as frequently as every 15 minutes to prevent exhaustion. When the troops were about one mile inland, radios failed and the two columns lost communication with each other, necessitating the two columns to use the artillery spotter aircraft as a means of communication between them. On 30 Dec, the Pilowo column came across a small Japanese force, which was promptly pushed back, and the column moved across the river on 1 Jan 1945. On the other side of the river, a strong and well-entrenched Japanese force was detected. From intelligence, the Americans determined the Japanese had two infantry battalions, two mortars, and two or more machine guns. Cavenee, whose headquarters was with Major Lewis L. Hawk's 1st Battalion, launched an attack with that battalion at 1000 on 3 Jan, while Lieutenant Colonel Arthur T. Sauser's 2nd Battalion was sent west of the Japanese position in attempt of envelopment. From Ngelengele, artillery shells poured into Japanese positions. American troops gained ground under fierce resistance from camouflaged defensive positions and sniper fire, reaching within 80 yards of the main Japanese line before stopping the advance for the day.
During the first day of major fighting on 3 Jan, a field 500 yards to the rear was cleared so supplies could be brought in by air for the Americans. This was needed because thick jungle growth and treacherous trails made supplying over land difficult. Due to terrain limitations, heavy machine guns and mortars were of little use, thus men of the heavy weapons companies took on a new duty of carrying the para-dropped supplies from the clearing to the front lines. Terrain difficulties also haunted the evacuation process, requiring eight men and two days of their time to carry a wounded soldier to the rear. The heavy weapons company men were often used to help evacuate the wounded as well. Very quickly, it was recognized that the evacuation was taking up too much resources. To improve the situation, the Americans gathered bamboo found nearby and made light-weight rafts so that the wounded could float down the streams toward the coast, reducing the litter bearing party down to four men instead of eight.
At dawn on 4 Jan, US artillery resumed the shelling. 136th Regiment's 1st and 2nd Battalions resumed their attack that morning after the shelling, but was quickly pinned down by machine guns and sniper fire. Both sides realized they were close to the enemy, and fighting became done mostly by grenades and small arms. It took the Americans the entire day to clear the Japanese perimeter defenses. Before nightfall, Cavenee pulled back his troops by 100 yards so that artillery pieces on Ngelengele could resume firing.
Meanwhile, the other column of the American offensive of Major Ralph Pate's 3rd Battalion of the 136th Regiment began to approach the Japanese positions from Radja on 27 Dec. They encountered the Japanese 211th Regiment's 3rd Battalion all along the way, all the while needing to hack their way through the jungle (as opposed to men of the other column, who traveled over trails). Although they did not know at the time, on their 10-day march toward the main Japanese position near Hill 40, his men had eliminated almost the entire Japanese 211th Regiment's 3rd Battalion.
As the two columns now both bearing down on the main Japanese position, the Japanese decided they must take back the initiative. At dawn on 5 Jan 1945, a small Japanese attack party of about ten men attacked the right flank of the American line. The sword-wielding Japanese officer in command of the attack came within 10 yards of the Americans before a Browning automatic rifle burst cut him down; his last action before collapsing was throwing his sword at an American soldier. The remaining attackers were all cut down by gunfire before they could reach the American line, hence rendering the attack a failure.
After a burst of artillery fire, the three battalions of the 136th Regiment attacked Hill 40 area at 0700 on 5 Jan. The spearhead elements suffered heavy fatalities, but were able to clear out two Japanese machine gun emplacements with grenades to continue their advance. With the machine gun positions taken out, Americans rushed the Japanese line and took over the 211th Regiment command post. The Americans observed that the Japanese were well supplied in terms of ammunition, radio equipment, and medical supplies, but there was a shortage of food. They also observed significant destruction from the artillery bombardment, and concluded that the artillery fire from Ngelengele played as much a role for the conquest of Hill 40 as the infantry did. American troops of the 1st and 2nd Battalions continued north beyond Hill 40 area to pursue the fleeing Japanese and to make contact with the 3rd Battalion which attacked from the north during the final battle; they made contact at 1400 that afternoon. Only 40 Japanese successfully fled from the area after the fall of their regimental command post.
Morotai was cleared of Japanese resistance on 14 Jan 1945. 870 Japanese were killed and 10 captured. 46 Americans were killed and 104 wounded. The island later played an important role in the Australian invasion of Borneo and the American operation to reclaim Leyte.
Source: World War II Magazine.
Battle of Morotai Timeline
|15 Sep 1944||US Army troops landed on Morotai, Maluku Islands.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945