New Britain is a tropical island, but
unlike some islands of the Pacific, western New Britain and the
area around Tuluvu was no paradise. Most of terrain was jungle (rain
forest), peppered with fetid swamps. The jungles were thick tangles
of foliage. There were some coconut groves and grass covered plains
but jungle was the dominant characteristic. Land transportation
was limited to established paths and the few available roads. Streams
were numerous but few were navigable. Coastal transportation was
feasible but dangerous reefs marked the Cape Gloucester region and
the surf was often heavy.
There were a few native (Melanesian) villages in the area but
scant evidence that European civilization had much impact. The natives
engaged in little more than subsistence-level agriculture. The mission,
plantations, and buildings that demonstrated the former presence
of white men were few in number and generally in disrepair. Only
near Kalingi was there a substantial concentration of natives (several
hundred) that could be recruited as a labor force. There were areas
where taro and fruit were available in New Britain’s interior
but absent adequate transportation these items were not available
to the troops.
During parts of the year it rained as much as twenty-five days
per month. Clear days were common during the drier seasons, but
even then rain clouds were not far off, never more than a few days
away. The dank jungle was always steamy and wet, rain or no rain.
The Japanese lacked adequate effective lubricants and many weapons
and equipment items became unserviceable as a result of rust. Paths
that were passable and streams that were fordable in drier weather
often proved difficult if not impossible to traverse in rainy weather.
It is interesting that there was no village or geographical location
called Tuluvu. When the Kanji version “Tsurubu” began
to show up in radio messages intercepted and decoded by the Allies
they soon associated it with the general Cape Gloucester region
but could not pin point the location. It was long assumed that it
was a code name for Natamo or some other village or geographical
feature. Many months after reference to Tsurubu began to appear
someone discovered that a 1934 official Australian government map
showed Tuluvu directly at the tip of Cape Gloucester. The reference
was to a small mission manned by only native teachers. The Japanese,
obviously aware of the map, adopted the terminology for the location
after it had fallen into disuse by the Australians themselves (natives
in the area sometimes spoke of a Tuluvu River but the Japanese never
determined which of the many streams in the region it might have
The mystery surrounding the name Tuluvu tends to emphasize the
remote and untamed nature of the region. Here the survivors of the
first 350 Japanese troops were to spend a full year. Eventually
the presence of Japanese troops in the region would swell to more
than ten times that number including many who would spend long months
there. Just before the invasion about 6,000 troops were drawing
rations in the region.
The original contingent of Japanese troops that landed at Tuluvu
was provided with food stocks sufficient to last seven months. Even
with an adequate stock of food, periodically difficulties were encountered
in supplying some isolated units due to the inadequacy of roads
in the area. The troops that followed later were not so generously
supplied. As the number of troops grew so did the difficulties of
Reduced rations were ordered during May 1943 and rations were
also cut at other times. Food supply got particularly difficult
in August and the 65th Brigade reduced the daily ration to one half
normal. This applied to aviation units and other units that drew
their supplies from the 65th Brigade as well as units integral to
the Brigade. The reduced ration was established as: 300 grams polished
rice; 50 grams ordinary canned goods; 15 grams each biscuits, fresh
food, and dried vegetables; and 10 grams each soy sauce, bean paste,
sugar and salt. Three hundred grams (10 ½ ounces) of uncooked
rice can easily be held in your cupped hands (even if you have small
hands). Cigarette ration was seven per week. Some units ate only
tofu and dried vegetables for a few weeks.
A standard ration of 600 grams of rice, 7.5 grams of tinned meat,
and a slight increase in other supplements went into effect under
an order dated August 14th. Cigarette ration went up to 40 per week.
In September a 70% ration of 400 grams of rice, 460 grams of hardtack,
and other supplements was ordered. A rough estimate might be that
the 70% ration probably provided only about 2/3s of the 3500 calories
per day of the standard Japanese army peacetime ration. Despite
this official or standard ration some units received something more
like a 50% ration. Other units had to send parties of men to pick
up their rations from a distribution point that required a 10 km
walk each day.
A 70% ration for 6,000 troops for thirty days involved the transportation
of over 200 metric tons of provisions. This would have required
only a partial load on even a modest sized cargo ship but cargo
ships did not call at Tuluvu and the few destroyers that arrived
were loaded with troops and war material. Rations were transported
primarily by MLCs and 200 metric tons represented dozens of MLC
runs. Air attacks, the vagaries of weather and a dangerous coastline
meant many of these runs were delayed or unsuccessful.
There was no official self-sufficiency policy during the early
months at Tuluvu. Some units, however, cultivated garden plots near
their bivouac areas. Among the crops raised were wheat used to make
wheat cakes and noodles. Fresh vegetables included radishes. Even
radish leaves were wrapped around rice cakes and eaten. The time
and effort involved in this endeavor was not always rewarded. Tuluvu
continually suffered from a labor shortage for the many construction
projects and other essential duties. Sometimes no personnel were
available to harvest the crops when they were ready.
1Lt. Oyama, 26th Ac company commander, requested extra rations
of 200 grams for those of his men that were engaged in heavy airfield
construction work. His request went unanswered. By November his
company was eating only dried vegetables and taking vitamin B supplements.
The troops were physically vulnerable due to overwork and a poor
diet. Dampness and mosquitoes were prevalent. Some anti-mosquito
measures such as cutting back weeds and undergrowth near bivouac
and work areas were not taken since this foliage was needed as natural
Conditions at Tuluvu were conducive to illness. From time to time
contagious diseases broke out requiring entire units be quarantined.
More than once bombing destroyed significant quantities of medical
supplies. Even bedding in the line-of–communication hospital
was in such short supply straw mattresses were produced by troops
locally. Unit commanders exhorted their men to maintain sanitation
standards but facilities were not always adequate. Malaria was the
main illness but severe intestinal disorders, skin conditions, and
other maladies took their toll. As the months went by casualties
from air attacks added to the sick list.
There were no clubs or canteens at Tuluvu. Mail from home was
rare and “comfort packages” never arrived. Writing from
Rabaul in mid-1943, Sgt. Tomiji Suemasu, rhetorically asked his
comrade Sgt. Nubuo Nakashima of the 21st Ab detachment, “Tsurubu
is pretty tough, isn’t it?” commenting, “Rabaul
hasn’t anything special to recommend it…” and
wishing they were back in Java. Troops bivouacked near native villages
might have the monotony broken occasionally by observing native
dances. Recreation basically consisted of whatever the tired, sick
and hungry troops could extemporize. Absent mail, gifts from home,
or even some of the basics of everyday life, the conclusion seems
irresistible that Tuluvu was rough, even debilitating, duty.
As the bombing intensified and the threat of invasion came closer
more and more effort was devoted to building shelters and trenches.
Bomb damage had to be repaired. Anti-aircraft guns and other heavy
weapons had to be moved to prevent their discovery and destruction
by bombing. There were few vehicles available to move equipment.
All these activities involved heavy labor performed by the troops.
Defense positions and bivouac areas were relocated to the jungle.
This avoided casualties but made life even more miserable for the
In the early months at Tuluvu units that exceeded the work plan
on airfield construction were given special rest days as a reward.
In the final months some troops were worked on a daily basis with
no rest days at all.
When the invasion finally came some of the troops of the relatively
recently arrived 53rd Regiment were in fairly good shape but those
defenders that had been at Tuluvu for several months or a year were
generally in poor condition. The invading Marines cleared opposition
from the coastal region between the landing beaches and the airfield
in three days despite Japanese counter attacks and fierce resistance
at several locations. Thereafter the Japanese fought a stubborn
defense from the jungle hills and mountains south of Tuluvu. By
the second week in January the Marines considered the Cape Gloucester
area secured. One month after the invasion 2,144 Japanese troops
are recorded as having died in western New Britain since the Arawe
landing. Lt. Gen. Imamura finally agreed to allow the remaining
troops to retreat eastward to Rabaul on February 23rd, 1944 nearly
two months after the landing. From late January to March an additional
1,379 deaths were recorded. Few of the original Tuluvu detachment
could have survived to carry out Imamura’s retreat order.
They had been faithful to his earlier order to “do or die.”