ChapterVIII: Life at Tuluvu
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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 been).

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 supplying them.

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 camouflage.

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 troops.

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.”

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