January 31 This Day during the World War ll

January 31, 1943 – The Battle of Wau was a battle in the New Guinea campaign of World War II. Forces of the Empire of Japan sailed from Rabaul and crossed the Solomon Sea and, despite Allied air attacks, successfully reached Lae, where they disembarked. Japanese troops then advanced overland on Wau, an Australian base that potentially threatened the Japanese positions at Salamaua and Lae. A race developed between the Japanese moving overland, hampered by the terrain, and the Australians, moving by air, hampered by the weather. By the time the Japanese reached the Wau area after a trek over the mountains, the Australian defenders had been greatly reinforced by air. In the battle that followed, despite achieving tactical surprise by approaching from an unexpected direction, the Japanese attackers were unable to capture Wau. Standing in the way was A Company of the 2/6th Infantry Battalion under Captain W. H. Sherlock. Okabe ordered an all-out attack on Sherlock’s position on 28 January. Sherlock was forced from his position and retreated onto a nearby spur. For much of the afternoon, frontal Japanese attacks were repelled by Australian mortar and machine gun fire, and efforts to infiltrate Sherlock’s positions were defeated by a bayonet attack led by Sherlock in person. By 18:00, Sherlock’s mortar ammunition had run out and his small arms ammunition was running short, while his position was being plastered with mortar rounds and swept by machine gun fire. Sherlock held on through the night and was killed the next day trying to break through the Japanese lines. For his actions, Sherlock was posthumously mentioned in despatches. The fighting at Buna ended on 23 January, freeing up aircraft to support Wau, and 52 brand-new Dakotas of the US 317th Troop Carrier Group had arrived in Australia, their movement from the United States having been expedited in response to urgent requests from General Douglas MacArthur arising from the Buna fighting. After a quick maintenance check, they were flown up to Port Moresby to help the 374th Troop Carrier Group fly the 17th Infantry Brigade in to Wau. This meant that up to 40 aircraft were now available daily. On 29 January, 57 planeloads arrived, bringing most of the 2/7th Infantry Battalion and the remainder of the 2/5th. Although subjected to small arms fire as they came in and unloaded, 40 aircraft made 66 trips the next day. Their cargo included two dismantled 25 pounder guns of the 2/1st Field Regiment with 688 rounds of ammunition, under the command of Captain R. J. Wise. These were landed in the morning and in action before noon, shelling a concentration of 300 enemy troops between the villages of Wandumi and Kaisenik. The Japanese were also engaged by Beaufighters of No. 30 Squadron RAAF flying close air support. Three Dakotas were damaged when one overshot the runway on landing and crashed into two others. One was repaired, but the other two were a total loss. One of the 46th Troop Carrier Squadron’s pilots, Staff Sergeant William B. Teague was injured, losing a leg. Japanese attacks that day succeeded in reaching the corner of the airstrip but were forced to fall back under enormous pressure. On 31 January, 35 aircraft made 71 trips, and 40 aircraft made 53 trips on 1 February, bringing reinforcements including the 2/3rd Independent Company that brought the strength of Kanga Force to over 3,000 men. By 4 February, Okabe was threatened with encirclement and was forced to order a withdrawal. With all hope of capturing Wau gone, Okabe was ordered to abandon the attempt. For his “high order of leadership and control” at Wau, Moten was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Service Order. The Japanese attempted to cut off the stream of Allied transports by bombing the Wau airstrip, but it was the rainy season and they were confronted by the same weather conditions which hampered the Allies. Aircraft which did set off from Rabaul were not able to sight the Wau airstrip and returned without accomplishing anything. Not until 6 February was there an aerial engagement. Eight P-39s of the 40th Fighter Squadron were patrolling at 12,000 feet (3,700 m) over Wau, having provided escort for a flight of five Dakotas, when they sighted 24 Japanese planes. Captain Thomas H. Winburn led his P-39s in an attack, claiming 11 Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes and Mitsubishi Ki-21 “Sallys” shot down. Meanwhile, eight P-40s of the 7th Fighter Squadron also on an escort mission sighted 12 aircraft bombing the airstrip at Wau. The transports they were escorting turned back while the fighters engaged the Japanese, claiming seven aircraft shot down. At this time, there were four Dakotas on the ground at Wau and another five were circling, waiting to land. One Dakota, commanded by Second Lieutenant Robert M. Schwensen, was shot down. All five crewmen on board were killed. A Dakota on the ground was damaged, and CAC Wirraway was destroyed by a bomb blast. Its two-man crew had hurriedly left the aircraft seconds before and thrown themselves flat on the ground. The pilot, Flight Sergeant A. Rodburn, was unharmed, but the observer, Sergeant A. E. Cole, was hit in the shoulder by shrapnel. The Air Cooperation Signals hut took a direct hit and three men were killed.  Ennis Whitehead’s Advanced Echelon (ADVON) headquarters in Port Moresby ordered three squadrons based there to join the battle. P-38s of the 39th Fighter Squadron engaged a dozen Japanese fighters over Wau, shooting one down. A few minutes later, the 9th Fighter Squadron—which had only recently converted to the P-38—downed another Japanese fighter, while P-40s of the 41st Fighter Squadron surprised six Japanese fighters, shooting down three. The airmen claimed to have shot down 23 Japanese fighters and a bomber. Australian gunners of the 156th Light Anti Aircraft Battery claimed another bomber and two fighters. For its part in the battle, the 374th Troop Carrier Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation. 

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