By the summer of 1943 the Allies had seized the initiative from the Japanese in the south Pacific. After months of bitter fighting they had secured the northeast coast of New Guinea, lifting the Japanese threat against Australia. The key Japanese air and naval base at Rabaul was the next obstacle. From there, Japanese forces threatened the AlliesAca,!a,,c line of communications from America to Australia and blocked the path to the Philippines. The advance could not continue until Rabaul was captured or neutralized. The Allied plan of attack, codenamed OPERATION CARTWHEEL, called for a two-pronged assault on Rabaul. Admiral William HalseyAca,!a,,cs forces would advance along the Solomon Islands chain, approaching Rabaul from the southeast. Forces from General Douglas MacArthurAca,!a,,cs Southwest Pacific Area would approach Rabaul from the southwest. One of MacArthurAca,!a,,cs key objectives was the Japanese strongpoint at Lae, New Guinea. Aircraft from there controlled the Vitiaz and Dampier Straits, between New Guinea and the island of New Britain. The supply lines to Rabaul ran through these straits. MacArthurAca,!a,,cs men were determined to take Lae and sever them.

The Australian 7th and 9th Divisions were available to attack Lae, but there was not sufficent shipping to transport and supply both divisions. Ground Forces Commander, Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey, and Air Commander, American Lieutenant General George Kenney, hatched a bold, innovative plan. They would land one division on the coast near Lae. The other would be airlifted into an abandoned jungle airstrip near the village of Nadzab, twenty miles west of the Japanese base. They would crush the fortress of Lae between two forces Aca,!" one supplied by sea and a second delivered, supplied and supported by air. Kenney realized that seizing and constructing an airhead under the nose of the Japanese garrison was difficult and risky. Transport planes could not operate until engineers cleared the airstrip. An airborne assault force had to take and hold the Nadzab area until the airstrip was ready.

Many members of MacArthurAca,!a,,cs staff were not enthusiastic about the plan. Allied resources were thin, and Japanese air and ground strength was formidable. Many military planners were skeptical of airborne operations. Some questioned the viability of the entire concept. German paratroops had suffered unsustainable casualties assaulting Crete in May, 1941. Allied airborne operations had met with disaster invading Sicily in July, 1943. Experience argued against establishing additional airborne units. Nevertheless, Kenney was convinced that with proper planning and support his plan would succeed. Fifth Air Force firepower was committed to provide close air support, and the troopers would be dropped in one lift to achieve mass and surprise.

The U.S. 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was tasked to jump on Nadzab to seize, clear and defend the airstrip. The 503rd PIR was one the first operational airborne units created by the U.S. Army. The paratroopers had been training for eight months in Australia and were ready to fight. The regiment was reinforced by a section of Australian parachute field artillery. They would later be joined by a small, elite unit of Australian engineers tasked with making the field operational. The U.S. 871st Airborne Engineer Battalion would be air-landed after the initial drop to clear the way for the transports ferrying in the Australian infantry. The operation started on September 5, one day after the amphibious assault by the 9th Australian Division south of Lae.

That dawn, seventy-nine transport planes and swarms of fighters and bombers departed from eight forward airfields scattered across New Guinea. They flew fast and low through the misty mountains of the Owen Stanley Range and rendezvoused over Nadzab. Allied fighters established a multi-layered air umbrella; medium bombers strafed and bombed suspected enemy positions while attack bombers put down smoke screens along the edges of the drop zones. Three columns of transport planes, flying at an altitude of 600 feet, dropped the paratroopers. Once the troopers had secured and marked the drop zones, heavy bombers, carrying 300 pound supply parcels rigged with parachutes, began to circle and drop additional supplies to the ground force.

The Japanese were completely surprised. They had no troops in the area, and within hours the airstrip at Nadzab was firmly in Allied hands. The engineers worked feverishly to improve the strip while the paratroopers established a defensive perimeter and sent out reconnaissance patrols toward Lae. Advanced elements of the Australian 7th Division flew into Nadzab on September 6. By September 10 the divisionAca,!a,,cs lead brigade, supported by Fifth Air Force transports and bombers, was on its way to Lae. The Japanese could not stop the assault, and the fortress fell on September 16. The supply lines to Rabaul were cut, and the Allies passed another milestone on their way to Tokyo.

The 503rd PIR assault on Nadzab was one of historyAca,!a,,cs most successful airborne operations. General MacArthur called it the greatest example of combat efficiency he had ever witnessed. The results had skeptical minds in the army and elsewhere reconsidering their objections to airborne operations. General KenneyAca,!a,,cs imaginative use of airpower and willingness to accept risk, combined with the flexibility of Australian ground commanders and the superb tactical skill of Allied soldiers and airmen, did more than shorten the war in the Pacific. They proved that airborne units were valuable and effective.

Page last updated Tue August 26th, 2008 at 09:57