US Army Smallships Section

New Guinea 1942-1945

The Book "The Forgotten Fleet" by Bill Lunney and Frank Finch provides the site with the following material:-

Just after dawn on the 18th October 1942, two little fishing trawlers landed 102 soldiers at Pongani on the north coast of Papua, 30 miles from the Japanese stronghold at Buna. This unsung event was the first of the amphibious operations which helped push the Japanese out of New Guinea.

Small ships, capable of negotiating the treacherous and largely uncharted reefs of the New Guinea coast, were desperately needed to supply the Allied Forces.

3,000 Australians volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army Small Ships Section. Many had a seafaring background and were unable to join the wartime armed forces, or had been discharged unfit for service, and many transferred from the Australian shipping companies. The volunteers included teenagers as young as fifteen as well as veterans of earlier wars and merchant seamen as old as seventy years of age joined.

The ships were as motley as the crews, fishing trawlers and schooners, tug boats and ferry boats, apple boats from Tasmania, wheat ketches from South Australia and there was even an ancient paddlewheeler.

A lifeline of the allied troops at the front, the Small Ships carried up guns and ammunition, bully beef and biscuits, fuel, army tanks and tents. They took up fresh troops, and returned with tired, sick, wounded soldiers, and those killed in action.

On 22 January 2024 Lieutenant General Herring, Commander in Chief of New Guinea Force said of the Small Ships. "I want to thank particularly, the small boat section that has braved hazardous waters and enemy action, in getting supplies up the coast".

The Australian population in 1942 were fully aware that to lose New Guinea would be to open the door to invasion. Japanese forces had taken Rabaul in the January, commenced bombing raids on Darwin on 19 February and early in March invaded the Lae and Salamaua area of New Guinea, a mere 400 miles from Cape York on the mainland. Fortunately, the Coral Sea Battle 5-8 May, when the United States and Australian naval forces prevented the Japanese Army from landing at Port Moresby, and from there crossing the Torres Straits to the mainland, for the moment haled the advance on Australia.

The battles of the Kokoda Track and the bitter struggle at Milne Bay stopped the Japanese Army, and the contest for the Southwest Pacific had begun. Small ships with their capabilities of negotiating the unchartered reefs and coastlines were now to come into their own. The Allied strategy was a plan of island hopping, with amphibious forces to the Philippines and Japan. For General MacArthur to succeed, he must first capture the Milne Bay- Buna area, and push the Japanese from New Guinea and for this he needed ships to land troops and supplies. He had none for a number of reasons, which included the facts that the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet had been decimated at Pearl Harbour, and the U.S. Marines were now in a grim struggle with Japanese forces in the Solomons, and could not, and would not, supply ships for MacArthur's amphibious campaign.

Under an agreement with the Australian Government, the Mission X group was formed and authorised to search every port and shipping company, and to commandeer every useful small ship they could find. This was the beginning of the "Small Ships Section of the United States Army Services of Supply" known as the Small Ships. Headquarters were established in Sydney, Burns, Philp & Company Limited were appointed Agents, with responsibility for main overall administration, maintenance, repair, supply, and crew recruitment. (Burns Philp became the Agency of all American Forces in the South Pacific Area. Australia was the only nation in the world to which the United States owed money at war's end.)

From August 1942 Milne Bay became the main base for the Small Ships, and was subject to frequent bombing attack from Japanese planes from Buna and Rabaul, and open to sea attack from the Japanese Navy. The savage fighting which soon took place at Milne Bay involved Australian Militia and A.I.F. troops, R.A.A.F. crews, American Construction Battalions (C.B's), Merchant Navy Ships and the U.S. Army Small Ships Section. The defence of Milne Bay was nothing less than heroic and the Australian victory at Milne Bay proved a turning point of the war. On the night of 5 September 2023 Japanese ships came into Milne Bay and evacuated the 1300 troops left from the 1900 who had landed twelve days earlier. The Australians had now thwarted Japanese General Horii's plan for a two pronged attack on Port Moresby, one prong to reach across the Owen Stanleys, the other to be an amphibious operation launched at Milne Bay, but with Milne Bay in the hands of the Allies, there was no chance of the Japanese launching an attack by sea.

The continuing allied logistic difficulties were, however, highlighted in this extract of a personal message to General Marshall, U.S. Army South Pacific, from General Douglas MacArthur:-

"Due to lack of maritime resources, I am unable to increase ground forces in New Guinea, as I cannot maintain them. It is imperative that Merchant Shipping, and Naval Forces for escort duty be increased, to ensure that communication between the Australian mainland and southern New Guinea is maintained. With these additional facilities, I can despatch large ground forces, I can counter infiltration towards the north, and make advances along the north coast with small vessels and marine forces. If New Guinea goes the results will be disastrous. This is urgent"

Buna now became a key Allied objective. By October 1942 General Horii had more than 5,000 troops dug in at Buna, Gona and Sanananda. Horii's plan depended on being sure that Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands, including Guardalcanal, could reverse the defeats suffered against American Marines, and then be in a position to reinforce Buna, allowing a second attempt on Port Moresby. This never happened, MacArthur seizing the opportunity to take Buna before reinforcements could be sent from Rabaul (though this was attempted later, in March 1943, culminating in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea) .

Small Ships were crucial to the success of MacArthur's plan to take Buna. Supply was the greatest problem for the United States forces. Because of incessant rain and the shortage of planes they could not supply the needs of thousands of infantry by air. The Australians and Americans were thus heavily dependent upon the Small Ships to get supplies through the narrow hazardous and unchartered reefs. There are stories of skippers being handed rough sketches of coastline on toilet paper, before survey and charts were prepared. The small vessels were highly vulnerable to enemy air attack, and the Japanese were well informed of the movements of Allied shipping along the New Guinea coast.

The book "Guns and Gunners" remarks of the Small Ships in the Buna campaign: "These little ships were the lifeline of the Allied fighting men. Their number and capacity controlled the scope of military operations. On these vessels dangers from the sea or from the enemy were to be expected on every voyage made." Many were lost, and when this happened, there was an immediate effect on the Allied forces in the area. As one example, on 16 November a group of ships was blitzed and four of them, all of which were loaded with supplies and ammunition, were destroyed.

For more than a year after the January 1943 Buna victory, Allied forces pushed inch by inch up the coast of New Guinea, beyond the Kumusi River to Tambu Bay and on to Salamaua, and then to Lae, Finschafen, and eventually to Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea, supported by and dependent upon supplies by the Small Ships. There a great Armada was assembled for the invasion of the Philippines on October 1944.

There is no clear record of the number of Small Ships seamen killed in action and the number of Small Ships sunk, or even the number registered with the United States Army. The sacrifices made by Australia's Merchant Seamen sailing under the United States flag during WW11, constitute a little-known chapter in this country's maritime history. The Small Ships went where larger ships could not go and they were a crucial part of the lifeline of the Allied armies' advance during the whole Papua New Guinea campaign, especially during 1942 and 1943.

Small Ships remained actively involved through to the final repulse battles and it was not until December 1946 that the last of the Small Ships veterans returned from Japan to Australia.

We would like to thank Bill Lunney and Frank Finch co authors of "FORGOTTEN FLEET" for permission to use extracts from their book.