From Rabaul to Stack 190: The Travels of a Famous Japanese Army Publication

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

During the first days of August 2012, at the National Archive in College Park, MD (Archives II), I looked at three archival boxes that were labeled as Captured Korean Documents.  They were Japanese documents, bound together in small groups of pages by the Allied Translator and Interrogator Section (ATIS) of MacArthur’s General Headquarters, Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA).  On the ATIS cover page of each group was the name of the translator and the date a translation was completed.  The dates were in April 1943.  The documents were similar in format and I believed them to be pages from some Japanese publication.  I called on my colleague Eric Van Slander, who reads Japanese, to look at them.  He informed me they were a listing of Japanese Army officers.

Given the April 1943 dates of translations and what the documents were, I was pretty sure they were pages from the famous Japanese register of Army officers, that had been captured in March 1943 and published by ATIS in May 1943. In looking further at the documents, in the second box I found the first page (see image below).  I immediately went to look at ATIS Publication No. 2, a copy of which is part of Record Group 554 (Records of General Headquarters, Far East Command, Supreme Commander Allied Powers, and United Nations Command).  That publication told me that the register had been published on October 15, 1942, and contained information as of September 1, 1942.  Eric Van Slander then looked at the first page, and confirmed the title of the publication and the 1942 dates.  Ann Cummings suggested that I write something about the travel of the documents to Stack 190, thus the title of this blog.

The story begins in February 1943, when Lt. Gen. Adachi, commander of the Japanese 18th Army, decided to build up the Lae area on New Guinea with some 6,500 troops from Rabaul, New Britain, the main base of Japanese military and naval activity in the South Pacific.  Allied interceptors attached to monitoring and cryptographic intelligence units in Australia and Hawaii got wind of these plans in mid-February.  On February 22 Adachi issued an order indicating that reinforcements be sent to the Lae area and prepare for offensive operations.  On February 25, in MacArthur’s office, General Kenney, commander of Allied Air Forces in the SWPA, read a Japanese message intercepted and forwarded by the U.S. Navy that showed the Japanese intended to move troops from Rabaul to Lae.  Kenney began preparing his 5th USAAF aircraft to intercept them.  The Royal Australian Air Force also made preparations to intercept the convoy on its way through the Bismarck Sea.

The convoy destined for Lae consisted of 8 transport vessels and 8 destroyers.  The transports carried 6,004 Japanese troops and the destroyers carried a known total of 958 men (both Army and Special Naval Landing Force), making a least 6,962 personnel, including Adachi, in the convoy.  At midnight February 28-March 1 the convoy assembled outside Rabaul harbor and early on March 1 set course along the northern coast of New Britain, northwest from Rabaul, before turning west and then south, a route that would take them to Huon Gulf and Lae, via the Bismarck Sea and Vitiaz Strait.

During the early morning of March 2 the convoy was spotted as it prepared to enter Dampier Strait. Eight B-17s promptly took off to attack it.  Twenty more soon followed, and at approximately 1015am the first flight began an attack. Thus began the misnamed Battle of the Bismarck Sea  (it took place mostly in Huon Gulf.)  Within the hour the second group also attacked.  During the midmorning of March 3 the convoy was attacked again by continuous coordinated attacks by Australian and American aircraft.  By dark all the transports had been either destroyed or were in sinking condition and their troops were scattered in the water.

Many survivors were fished from the ocean by Japanese submarines, military landing crafts, and destroyers, and taken primarily to Lae, Rabaul, and Kavieng.  Many of the survivors made it on lifeboats to various islands, including Goodenough Island, part of the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, to the east of Papua New Guinea.

During the second week of March soldiers of the 47th Australian Brigade on Goodenough found in a lifeboat washed ashore from the Teiyo Maru, one of the sunken ships, large quantities of documents in sealed tins. The documents, which included navigation charts, were hurried back to SWPA headquarters in Brisbane, where, upon inspection, it was discovered one of the documents was “The Japanese Army List,” dated October 15, 1942. This three-volume, 2,700-page document, provided a complete list of approximately 40,000 Japanese Army officers together with their assignments.

The document, from an Order of Battle standpoint, was a godsend to the Allied military intelligence staffs.  Up to this point in the SWPA, MacArthur and his intelligence chief, General Willoughby, had to rely on information on Japanese formations from the War Department that was so elementary that it was useless. Realizing the great importance of the document, it was turned over to ATIS for translation and publication.  Working around the clock a team of twenty Nisei and Caucasian ATIS linguists worked nonstop for weeks, translating and listing every name and the accompanying data.  The resulting information was printed by the Australian Government Printer on emergency order and published as the 683-page ATIS Publication No. 2 (Alphabetical List of Japanese Army Officers) in May 1943.  Willoughby wrote that that it was a “notable tour de force” by ATIS.  Indeed, with the newly discovered information, every Japanese unit in the field could be reconstructed, from company through division, corps, and army.  The publication was immediately distributed to all Allied intelligence staffs from Ceylon to Alaska and it formed the original basis for all subsequent battle order studies in the Pacific.

Before war’s end, ATIS sent a portion of the captured register to the Military Intelligence Service Language School in Minnesota, and it subsequently sent it to the Army Adjutant General’s Departmental Records Branch (DRB).  In January 1958 the DRB transferred to the National Archives its holdings of captured records, some of which ended up with the General Archives Division at the Washington National Records Center.  The pages of the Japanese register of officers at some point were incorporated into the 1,500-box collection of captured Korean records, which were moved to Archives II in the mid-1990s, where they were placed in Stack 190.

2 thoughts on “From Rabaul to Stack 190: The Travels of a Famous Japanese Army Publication

  1. When you think about the journeys many of these records have taken, it’s truly amazing that they have survived to have their tales told. Thanks for telling this one.

  2. Indeed, an interesting tale, and illustrative of the role that serendipity (or luck) sometimes plays in the realm of intelligence. As an aside, Willoughby himself was proficient in several languages, including Japanese. Ironically, Willoughby (possibly born Adolf Karl Weidenbach) was a native of Japan’s nominal ally, Germany, as was MacArthur’s Sixth Army Commander, General Walter Kreuger. Both men had also served as junior officers in WWI, and were sent back to the US from France on suspicion of pro-German sentiments.

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