This was the Allied convoy operation in support of the the Australian and US seizure of the area between Buna and Gona on the north-east coast of Japanese-occupied Papua (December 1942/June 1943).
The Allies had planned to strengthen their hold of this area of the coast opposite the vital town of Port Moresby in ‘Providence’, but had been forestalled by the ‘Ri’ arrival of Japanese forces on 21/22 July 1942 to establish beach-heads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda Point. This paved the way for the Kokoda Trail campaign spearheaded, on the Japanese side, by Major General Tomitaro Horii’s South Seas Detachment of Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake’s 17th Army, which comprised a number of infantry groups of regimental size with supporting elements.
The South Seas Detachment advanced over the Owen Stanley mountains toward Port Moresby but, on 26 September, was checked at Ioribaiwa only some 30 miles (48 km) from Port Moresby and then, after it had been denied reinforcement by the decision of the Japanese high command that the retention of Guadalcanal should have a higher priority than the seizure of Port Moresby, the South Seas Detachment , now with only some 20% of its original strength after the other 80% had been killed, wounded or fallen victim to malnutrition or disease, started to pull back to the north-east across the Own Stanley mountains once more to its beach-heads on the north coast even as Major General Arthur S. Allen’s (from 29 October Major General George A. Vasey’s) Australian 7th Division started its counterattack under the overall supervision of Lieutenant General Edmund F. Herring and General Sir George Blamey, commanding the New Guinea Force and the Australian military forces respectively.
The major bases at Port Moresby and Milne Bay, from which the Allies would have to support the operation against Buna, Sanananda Point and Gona, were too distant for practicality. The only feasible port was at Oro Bay, 15 miles (24 km) to the south-east of Buna and some 211 miles (340 km) from Milne Bay. However, Oro Bay was noted for the treacherous nature of the approach between Milne Bay and Cape Nelson, and the final approach was through a channel only 0.5 to 0.75 mile (0.8 to 1.2 km) wide and 36 to 48 ft (11 to 15 m) deep. The port’s anchorage was also small, and could only accommodate only about six to eight small ships ships at a time. To connect the port with the airstrip complex that was to be built at Dobodura, the Allies had to construct a road 72 miles (116 km) long, but Jeeps following the existing jungle trails provided an interim transport capability.
The Owen Stanley mountains were impassable to motor vehicles, and before World War II Australian vessels used a route through the Bismarck Sea around the north of New Guinea, but this access route to the proposed new theatre was now impossible as Japanese warships and warplanes controlled the area. Allied supplies were initially delivered by means of airdrops from Consolidated Liberator transport aircraft of Major General George C. Kenney’s US 5th Army Air Force and makeshift transport units assembled by the Royal Australian Air Force, as well as coastal shipping using small local water craft that were very vulnerable to air attack.
On 2 November, even as the 126th Infantry was inching its tortured way over portions of the Kapa Kapa Track across the 9,000 ft (2740 m) Owen Stanley mountains, a local missionary, Cecil Abel, reached Port Moresby and suggested that it might be possible to build an airstrip on the far side of the Owen Stanley mountains at Fasari in the Musa river valley and also at Pongani. Colonel Leif J. Sverdrup, a US Army engineer, left Abau on foot with a detachment of 190 men, including the Australian Flight Lieutenant M. J. Leahy, who had spent most of his life in New Guinea and knew many of the tribal chiefs. The detachment reached Fasari on 18 October and hired local villagers to clear the site by burning the bush and extracting stumps.
Sverdrup and Leahy also explored farther to the north and located another site suitable for airstrip construction near Embessa and Kinjaki, whose villagers Sverdrup hired as part of his work force. An air-dropped message then ordered Sverdrup to Pongani, where he found troops of Company C, 114th Engineer Battalion. These had been flown to Wanigela airstrip and had then made their way to Pongani by boat along the coast. Sverdrup supervised the construction of airfield facilities at Pongani, where there were eventually three airstrips.
While these airstrips were still under construction, the quantity supplies that could be delivered to the area was severely limited: food was in such short supply during November and early December that many Allied soldiers sometimes received only a small portion of a C ration each day; and small arms and mortar ammunition were both rationed. This placed greater emphasis on the ability of USAAF and RAAF ground attack and bomber aircraft, including the Douglas A-20 Havoc and Bristol Beaufighter, to provide effective close support, but the density of the jungle canopy and poor maps combined to degrade this capability to a level that sometimes led to the Allied aircraft dropping bombs on their own units.
In October the Allies captured Goodenough island, the most north-westerly of the D’Entrecasteaux islands group on the northern side of the Ward Hunt Strait, against minimal Japanese resistance. It had been on 25 August that a Japanese convoy of seven motorised landing craft with 353 marines of the Sasebo 5th Special Naval Landing Force stopped to rest at the southern end of the island. Led by Commander Tsukioka, the marines were bound for Taupota and involvement in ‘Re’ against Milne Bay, but were left stranded after their landing craft had been destroyed by Curtiss Kittyhawk fighter-bombers of the RAAF’s No. 75 Squadron. On 22 October the Australian destroyers Stuart and Arunta landed 640 men of the 2/12th Battalion of Brigadier G. F. Wootten’s 18th Brigade from Milne Bay on each side of the island’s southern tip during the night. Intense fighting occurred during 23 October and during the night a successful rescue mission evacuated about 250 Japanese soldiers by submarine to Fergusson island, whence they were taken by cruiser to Rabaul. The remaining Japanese defenders were mopped up and the island declared secured by 27 October.
The occupation force remained on the island until 28 December 1942. During that time they used deception and camouflage to make the Japanese believe that a brigade-sized force was occupying the island. The Australians fabricated a ‘ghost force’ of dummy structures, including a hospital, anti-aircraft guns constructed of logs pointed at the sky, and barricades of jungle vines which looked like barbed wire; lit fires to appear as cooking fires for large numbers of soldiers; and sent messages consistent with the volume of traffic consistent with the existence of a brigade
During this time a US airfield engineer reported that a temporary airfield could be constructed for emergency use on the site of an existing mission airstrip on the north-eastern plain near Vivigani, and also recommended that a permanent airstrip with a 6,000-ft (1830-m) runway be constructed.
With Goodenough island in their grip, the Allies could then start to use this as a mid-way staging point for air and naval patrols. The US Army Services of Supply procured a flotilla of local water craft along with a few military vessels (some 250 schooners, motor launches, cabin cruisers, ketches, trawlers, barges, motor vessels and miscellaneous craft) ferried supplies from Milne Bay, round the southern end of New Guinea, to Wanigela, where the first of these deliveries arrived on 16 October.
‘Lilliput’ proper was the Allied convoy operation to move troops, weapons and supplies from Milne Bay to Oro Bay in Papua, and in the six-month period from December 1942 the convoys delivered 3,802 troops and some 60,000 tons of supplies, with corvettes providing most of the escort force. Losses during Japanese air attacks amounted to two merchant ships sunk and two badly damaged, and several of the corvettes also sustained damage and casualties.
The first larger vessel to deliver supplies to Oro Bay was the former railway ferry Karsik, escorted by the Australian minesweeper Lithgow, on the night of 11/12 December after being pressed into emergency service to carry four M3 Stuart light tanks of the Australian 2/6th Armoured Regiment and supplies sufficient for seven days for the 2/9th Battalion.Karsik returned with a second load of tanks two days later, and on 20 December there arrived the first true ‘Lilliput’ convoy as Japara, again escorted by Lithgow, reached Oro Bay from Milne Bay.
After the defeat of the Japanese ‘Re’ at Milne Bay, the Allies went over to the offensive on New Guinea late in 1942 with an attack on the Buna, Gona and Sanananda area of Papua, which were too distant from Port Moresby for effective sealift support from Port Moresby, the main Allied base on New Guinea. For the new offensive, therefore, the primary sealift capability was provided by Dutch merchant vessels which had escaped the Japanese seizure of the Netherlands East Indies and were now based, after being leaded by the USA and manned largely by Australians, at Milne Bay. The survivors, of which most belonged to the country’s major shipping line, the Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij, were soon placed under the control of the US Army via the Allied Consultative Shipping Council. Nearly all of the troops, weapons and supplies were carried by convoys of one or two Dutch vessels, which included the KPM’s Balikpapan, Bantam, Bontekoe, Both, Cremer, Janssens, Japara, Karsik, Maetsuycker, Patras, Reijnst, s’Jacob, Swartenhondt, Tasman, Thedens, Van den Bosch, Van Heemskirk, Van Heutz, Van Outhoorn, Van Spillbergen and Van Swoll. Losses were inevitable: on 8 March 1943, s’Jacob was sunk off Oro Bay by Japanese bombers; Bantam fell victim to a similar attack later in the month, and was run aground as she was about to sink; Van Heemskirk was also sunk by aircraft at Oro Bay in April; and several other ships were seriously damaged by bombs.
In December 1942, with the campaign in the Buna area in jeopardy, and no landing craft available, the former train ferry Karsik was pressed into service as an emergency tank landing ship, carrying four M3 Stuart tanks of the Australian 2/6th Armoured Regiment to Oro Bay. This convoy was successful, and the tanks played a decisive role in the fighting. A similar second convoy was then undertaken.
Before this, as they approached the north coast of Papua the Australians had been supplemented by US troops, and on 16 November the Allied forces began to attack the main Japanese beach-heads on the north coast of Papua at Buna, Sanananda and Gona. By 22 January 1943 the Allied forces had achieved their objective of isolating the Japanese forces in eastern Papua and cutting off their main line of communication. Although intelligence had suggested to the Allied commanders that there were no more than 1,500 to 2,000 Japanese defenders in the beach-heads, the area in fact contained, under the command of Major General Kensuku Oda as successor to Horii, who had been drowned in the Kumasi river, more than 8,700 troops of the Japanese navy’s Kure Special Naval Landing Force and Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force as well as Japanese army forces in well-planned perimeter of 11 miles (18 km) including strongly built field defences: from south-east to north-west along the coast, these comprised 2,000 men at Buna, 5,000 men around Sanananda and on the eastern end of the Kokoda Trail, 800 men at Gona, and 900 men north of the Kumusi river to the north-west of Gona.
The Allies believed that the swampiness of the ground in this area would make it impossible for the Japanese to construct bunkers below ground level. But instead the Japanese were able to build several hundreds of very sturdy palm log strongpoints above ground and conceal them with felled trees and tall tropical grass, thereby creating a defensive system of interlocking fields of fire almost invisible to the attacking troops until they actually came under fire.
Initially lacking armour, artillery and air support, the Allied troops had to take these bunkers one by one, using grenades and small arms. Tropical diseases, especially bush typhus, caused far greater numbers of casualties to the combatants than the direct effects of battle. Long lines of communication were also a major problem for each side. The Allied forces’ major bases, at Port Moresby and Milne Bay, were distant, the Owen Stanley mountains were impassable to motor vehicles, and the Bismarck Sea north of New Guinea was controlled by Japanese naval and air forces. The attacking troops therefore depended on air drops by the Consolidated Liberator transport aircraft of the US 5th AAF and makeshift transport units assembled by the Royal Australian Air Force, as well as coastal shipping that was very vulnerable to air attack. The Japanese were initially able to maintain supply and to evacuate wounded personnel by sea, and submarines maintained contact with the beach-heads until January. However, USAAF and RAAF ground-attack and bomber aircraft, typified by the Douglas A-20 Havoc/Boston type, represented a significant and ever-increasing advantage for the Allies.
Blamey’s plan to remove the Japanese from their bases at the northern end of the Kokoda Trail was to advance along three axes: one through Kokoda toward Gona and Giruwa by Brigadier John E. Lloyd’s Australian 16th Brigade and Brigadier Kenneth W. Eather’s Australian 25th Brigade of the 7th Division, with Brigadier Ivan N. Dougherty’s Australian 21st Brigade in reserve, and two from the south of Buna by Colonel Lawrence A. Quinn’s 126th Infantry and the 128th Infantry of Major General Edwin F. Harding’s US 32nd Division, which was a National Guard formation. The forces advancing along these thee axes were pressing on the Japanese defence by a time later in November 1942, but the Americans suffered something in the order of almost 2,000 casualties out of their total of 5,000 men and had to be reinforced by another regiment. They entered Buna on 14 November without dislodging the main Japanese positions on the trail.
The Australian advance was also slow. In the thrust toward Gona, where the Japanese had an 11.25-mile (18-km) perimeter round the beach-head they had established in July 1941, the 7th Division, which was missing one brigade deployed at Milne Bay, was augmented by the 126th Infantry detached from the 32nd Division. They were also reinforced by the remnants of the Australian ‘Maroubra’ Force, in the shape of Brigadier Selwyn H. W. Porter’s battered 30th Brigade, a militia unit which included the ‘ragged bloody heroes’ of the fighting of the Kokoda Track back to Port Moresby, the 39th (Militia) Battalion. One unit, the 16th Brigade, had lost half its numbers through battle casualties and sickness, and by the end of November was suffering from fatigue and a shortage of food and other essential supplies.
On 14 October elements of Major Harry Harcourt’s Australian 2/6th Independent Company, a commando-type unit, had been flown from 14-Mile Drome outside Port Moresby across the Own Stanley mountains to the airstrip at Wanigela, and from there moved to Pongani. When the offensive started, the 2/6th Independent Company patrolled in front of the 3/126th Infantry along the coast from Pongani to Buna, provided flank protection and reconnaissance, and was engaged in heavy fighting around the New Strip airstrip just to the south of the Duropa Planation near Buna until a time early in December 1942. Operating on the coastal area to the south of Cape Endaiadere, on a line running inland to Sinemi Creek, this became known as ‘Warren’ Force.
Harding’s 32nd Division launched the initial attack on Buna during 16 November. Deployed along the track linking Ango with Buna, the Americans made contact with the Japanese about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south of Buna. Harding requested the delivery of tanks from Milne Bay, but at this time the Allies lacked the shipping to move such items. The Americans were later sent lighter but only thinly armoured and open-topped Bren Gun Carriers, designed as machine gun or mortar platforms. These were soon destroyed by the Japanese.
The Stuart light tanks delivered to Oro Bay by Karsik were loaded onto recently arrived barges that were towed up the coast and landed within miles of the front. However, these tanks were at first of little use as a result of their commitment in a swampy area choked by kunai grass and the further degradation of their crews’ already limited fields of vision by the thickness of the jungle. However, the arrival of the tanks was an indicator that the Allied supply effort was at last beginning top bear fruit.
A key initial objective for the Allies had been achieved with the construction of airstrips at Dobodura and the completion of the road linking these airstrips with Oro Bay. The Australians had found that area suitable for tanks, whose arrival made possible a combined armour and infantry attack in the Duropa Plantation and New Strip area with support by newly arrived artillery. On the night of 17 December tanks moved up to the start line under cover of a mortar barrage and the attack began at 07.00 on 18 December, when the Australians and their tanks finally took the plantation area that had held up the advance for so long.
Having only with great reluctance accepted MacArthur’s decision that the 32nd Division would rely on direct air support rather than artillery for its heavier firepower requirements, Harding and the 32nd Division could not break through the formidable Japanese field fortifications. One battalion of the 126th Infantry was detached from the 32nd Division and crossed the Girua river at Inonde to join the 7th Division that was short of one of its three brigades. This ‘Urbana’ Force was to defend Soputa and later attack the Sanananda Point beach-head.
The push of Gona was reinforced by the remnants of the ‘Maroubra’ Force, comprising Brigadier S. H. W. C. Porter’s battered 30th Brigade, a militia unit which included the ‘ragged bloody heroes’ of the Kokoda Track, the 39th Battalion. Brigadier J. E. Lloyd’s 16th Brigade, detached from Vasey’s 6th Division, was to push toward Sanananda. Thus the Australian and US forces were shifted between the Buna and Sanananda fronts, and this led to blurred lines of communication and a certain confusion of leadership.
By the evening of 16 November the Allies had made no real progress, and the fighting was bitter from the outset: the 7th Division suffered 204 casualties in the first three days of its thrust. Each Japanese bunker contained several well-concealed machine guns, and in many places the jungle was so dense that the Allied troops could not tell from which direction the Japanese were firing. The Japanese also made use of snipers tied into the tops of coconut trees to pick off single targets. The 32nd Division was the first US formation to encounter this type of defence in World War II.
By the time the Allied advance on Buna stalled late in November, the morale of the men was low as a result of a combination of factors including casualties, disease (typically malaria, dengue fever, dysentery and typhus) and poor supplies. A particularly distressing factor for the Americans was the increasing level of self-inflicted wounds among their casualties.
The Japanese were subjected every day to air and artillery bombardments, and to avoid revealing their positions did not at aircraft attacking them. Like those of the Allied troops, their foxholes and even their bunkers were flooded and, under constant attack and soaked by constant rain, it was hard for them to get much sleep. Further pain was added to their situation by the fact they they had almost completely exhausted their food supplies, each man receiving a mere half pint of rice per day in December and many resorting to the consumption of tree bark, grass and, in a few cases, the flesh of dead Australians. The cost to the Japanese of deaths from disease averaged 20 men per day. Even so, the remaining Japanese clung with stubborn courage to their defences.
There were about 5,500 Japanese army and navy troops in and around Buna. Opposite the 126th Infantry was the Yokosuka 5th Special Naval Landing Force with about 400 marines and 600 naval construction troops. As recently as 17 November, Japanese destroyers had delivered 2,300 troops fresh from the base area at Rabaul on New Britain island. These included the 3/229th Regiment of Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Sano’s veteran 38th Division, which had fought in China, Hong Kong and Java.
On 19 November, Blamey asked, via MacArthur’s headquarters, for support from the US warships commanded by Rear Admiral Arthur S. Carpender, but this officer refused to commit destroyers to any such effort in poorly charted and confined waters that were littered with reefs that would limit the ships’ ability to manoeuvre when under air attack, and instead suggested that corvettes and night approaches were the better options. In this matter Blamey had made assumptions which were seriously wrongs, stating for example that ‘the navy is only being asked to go where the Japanese have frequently gone’ when, in fact, the Japanese had never operated large ships in the waters between Milne Bay and Buna, and when attacking Milne Bay had despatched their warships via a route that avoided the narrow passage in question and instead exploited the pre-war route used by Australian vessels heading to the south-east from Rabaul and thus approached from the north.
On 20 November, MacArthur ordered Harding to attack ‘regardless of losses’, and on the following day to ‘take Buna today at all costs’. Herring reached the US front on 25 November and reported that the 32nd Division had ‘maintained a masterly inactivity at Buna’. When MacArthur offered Major General Horace H. Fuller’s US 41st Division to reinforce the advance on Gona, Blamey declined the offer as what was soon seen as payback for MacArthur’s earlier adverse comments on the fighting ability of Australian troops. Blamey simply stated he would rely on Brigadier I. N. Dougherty’s depleted 21st Brigade, as he ‘knew they would fight’, and sent this forward to reinforce Vasey’s formation.
With artillery support provided by only one battery of 25-pdr gun/howitzers with 200 rounds of ammunition, the 32nd Division began its attack on 19 November and was immediately met by determined and effective rifle and machine gun resistance from Japanese troops in entrenched and well-camouflaged positions. Near the Duropa Plantation, the 1/128th Infantry discovered that the density of the jungle prevented its men from determining the position of the hidden Japanese machine gun positions, and therefore made it impossible to return effective fire. The density of the jungle also made it difficult for the Americans to use their mortars and grenades effectively.
On the junction between the Old Strip and New Strip, the Sinemi trail narrowed into a path flanked by swamp, and here the 3/128th Infantry was met with intense fire from three directions. The battalion could not use mortars, which had been left in Port Moresby, and also discovered that their machine gun ammunition was of the wrong type and that a many of their grenades did not detonate. The battalion quickly exhausted its 0.3-in (7.62-mm) ammunition and made no advance on this first day. On the next day, the 1/128th Infantry advanced just 200 yards (185 m) and the 3/128th Infantry was checked where it stood. When they saw the few Japanese whom they had killed, the Americans were appalled to discover that their opponents had been sturdy and well-fed men rather than the wasted figures they had been told they were to fight. Late on 20 November the 1/126th Infantry, which had been flown over the Owen Stanley mountains to Pongani, completed a difficult march to join the attacking force.
On 21 November the 126th Infantry was detached from the 32nd Division, despite Harding’s objection to this lessening of his strength, to cross the Girua river and come under the command of the 7th Division. An attack scheduled to begin at 08.00 had to be aborted after the various commanding officers received no orders until after the time fixed for the attack, and some of the warplanes tasked with support of the assault missed their targets and wounded men of the 3/128th Infantry. Harding rescheduled the attack for 13.00, but on this occasion the promised air cover failed to arrive before 14.00 and then, while most of the aircraft did not find their target area, one North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber dropped its weapons on Companies B and C of the 128th Infantry, wounding several men and further degrading the attacking force’s morale. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that when the attack was finally delivered, the Americans armed only with rifles, sub-machine guns, light machine guns and grenades were easily checked with considerable losses. Company C of the 128th Infantry lost 63 men, including all four of its officers, in the first three days of fighting.
Short of men, Harding committed his reserve force, the 2/128th Infantry, to replace the detached 126th Infantry and reinforce his left flank. As it tried to advance, this battalion too came under heavy machine gun fire from undetermined positions and driven back. Any effort to outflank the Japanese meant crawling through the swamps, unable to see more than a few yards in any direction. Thus the 32nd Division repeatedly failed to make any progress, and there followed a stalemate. The Japanese had occupied all of the high ground, where they had created formidable defensive works, and some of the American troops were in the swamp for three to four days at a time. The Americans dug foxholes, but these almost immediately filled with water up to the knees of the men.
Ignoring his instructions not to do so, Harding called for the return of at least one of his battalions, and the 2/126th Infantry was sent back across the Girua river, which was flooded, and finally returned to its parent formation only late on 22 November. Harding also requested some light tanks from the Australians, but the captured barges used to transport the tanks sank under their weight.
MacArthur was exasperated by the 32nd Division’s lack of progress, and late on 22 November MacArthur’s headquarters once again ordered Harding to attack again on the following day regardless of cost. Harding was sure that his superiors did not appreciate the strength of the Japanese defence, and believed that any strict compliance with the order could well lead to the destruction of his whole right-flank force. Harding therefore passed to Brigadier General Hanford MacNider, one of his assistant divisional commanders and commander of the Buna Task Force, a modified version of the order he had received, and ordered him to launch as strong an attack as he could but also to call off the effort as soon as it was making no progress and appeared to be in imminent danger of taking very heavy losses. Harding also informed MacNider that he assumed full responsibility for modifying MacArthur’s order. The resulting attack made some progress, but was then brought to a halt by the Japanese.
By 23 November it had become cleat that the capture of Gona was unlikely as a result of the Allies’ lack of adequate strength in men combined with insufficient tank and artillery support. Without the support of tanks, which could have destroyed a strongpoint in minutes, the Allies were finding it very difficult to defeat Japanese positions, which had therefore to be taken singly by men crawling through interlocking fields of fire and sniper fire to reach the relevant bunker and push grenades through its slits.
At Buna the 32nd Division had available only two 105-mm (4.13-in) M101 howitzers of the 129th Field Artillery’s Battery A, the other batteries having been left at Camp Cable in Australia for lack of the means to deliver them to Papua. The four gun sections of Battery A were the first US howitzers to be flown into combat, and first landed at Port Moresby. Then half of Battery A (two gun sections) was airlifted over the Owen Stanley mountains to Buna, where the howitzers were reassembled.
When additional US artillery arrived on 26 November, the accuracy of these weapons’ fire was limited by poor maps and the impossibility of forward observer seeing far enough through the dense jungle. On the morning of 26 November the Japanese positions were strafed and bombed at tree-top level for nearly an hour by P-40 fighter-bombers and Beaufighter heavy fighters, and A-20 attack warplanes bombed the Japanese rear areas for another 30 minutes. The air attacks were followed by a 30-minute pounding by machine guns, mortars and the newly arrived artillery. At 09.30 the infantry advanced as scheduled, but it immediately became clear that the two hours of bombardment had not diminished the Japanese, who had ridden out the storm of firepower in their bunkers.
The Allies made preparation for another attack on 26 November. The effort was prepared with air, heavy machine gun, mortar and artillery fire, but again made no impression on the well-emplaced Japanese. Harding came well forward to observe, and watched helplessly as the 3/128th Infantry was again halted in the face of fierce resistance.
At last the cannon and anti-tank companies of the 126th Infantry arrived on 27 November, and these were immediately put to use in support of the remaining two battalions of the 126th Infantry and the 7th Division. The Allies made some progress, but supply problems contributed to delays and lack of progress. Local men were recruited to move supplies from Dobodura airstrip, but the Papuans refused to approach close to the front line.
On 29 November, the Japanese were reinforced by the remaining 500 men of the South Seas Detachment, who were mostly troops of Colonel Kiyomi Yazawa’s 41st Regiment, which had led the Kokoda Trail campaign and then fallen back to the sea at a point to the north of Gona. These reinforcements were shuttled by boat to the Sanananda Point stronghold mid-way between Gona and Buna.
On the same date MacArthur had become so frustrated at what he saw as the poor performance of the 32nd Division, and especially its commissioned officers, that he informed Major General Robert L. Eichelberger, the commander of the US I Corps, that ‘I’m putting you in command at Buna. Relieve Harding…I want you to remove all officers who won’t fight. Relieve regimental and battalion commanders; if necessary, put sergeants in charge of battalions and corporals in charge of companies—anyone who will fight. Time is of the essence…I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive…And that goes for your chief of staff, too.’
On 30 November, the 2/126th Infantry finally achieved a significant breakthrough of the Japanese lines at Buna, pushing the Japanese back several hundred yards. On 1 December Harding directed attacks on the fronts of both the ‘Urbana’ and ‘Warren’ Forces. On the front of the ‘Urbana’ Force, Company E of the 126th Infantry, reinforced by the headquarters companies of both battalions, was able with support from the single available 25-pdr gun/howitzer and several mortars to advance across an open area below the bridge over the Girua river, but then inexplicably withdrew, perhaps as a result of a communications problem. Companies E and F of the 126th Infantry, together with a platoon of the 128th Infantry, resumed the attack on 2 December, but were stopped on their approaches by heavy machine gun fire from every direction. On the same day Eichelberger arrived in Buna to make his own assessment of the situation.
On the ‘Warren’ Force’s front, the attack of 2 December began with an air attack, but a planned artillery barrage was late and the advancing infantrymen were then stopped once again by the Japanese without making significant gains. Many of the men succumbed to heat exhaustion.
With the 32nd Division failing to advance in accordance with his expectations, MacArthur sent two staff officers, Colonels Clarence A. Martin and Gordon B. Rogers, who were the I Corps’ assistant chief-of-staff and head of intelligence respectively, to evaluate the situation on the front of the ‘Warren’ Force. The two colonels arrived in the middle of the afternoon after the conclusion of an intense battle during which all available reserves had been committed. Martin could not understand why the men had halted, and both men questioned whether there had been any fighting at all. However, they did find that many of the men were ill with malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, other tropical diseases and, as a result of living and fighting in a swamp, trench foot, that the men were losing weight for lack of adequate food, and were suffering from low morale occasioned, at least in part, by lack of hot meals and cigarettes.
Accompanied by Harding and Brigadier General Albert W. Waldron, of whom the latter was the commander of the 32nd Division’s artillery and also an assistant divisional commander, Eichelberger inspected the front of the ‘Urbana’ Force after the day’s combat had ended. Visiting an aid station, Eichelberger saw among the casualties unwounded men sick with fever and exhaustion, and also a few men suffering from combat fatigue. The inspection party then approached the front line and, on not being taken under Japanese fire, Eichelberger decided that the US troops faced little real opposition. He was disturbed when he found no continuous front and criticised the placement of a machine gun, seeing in this proof that the men were failing to press a weak enemy.
Eichelberger expostulated angrily to two officers of the 32nd Division, and one of them retorted by pointing out the suffering and bravery of his men. Harding angrily threw his cigarette on the ground, agreeing with this officer, but Eichelberger merely responded that ‘You’re licked.’
Martin and Rogers returned from the front of the ‘Warren’ Force to the 32nd Division’s headquarters at Dobodura at 22.00 to find that Eichelberger had already relieved Harding of command and replaced him with Waldron. Eichelberger also removed all the regimental commanders and most battalion commanders, ordered improved food and medical supplies, and halted operations on the Buna front for two days to allow units to reorganise.
Finding that the men lacked even the most basic of equipment with which to keep their weapons clean, Eichelberger put in charge of supply an officer who was to ignore all protocols in obtaining whatever the men needed.
Eichelberger also ordered more extensive reconnaissance to help fix the Japanese positions, and what he then learned impressed him strongly. For the Allies, Japanese seemed to be everywhere, but their strongest positions were along the coastal strip. Here troops could move from place to place quickly, and numerous bunkers constructed of coconut logs and sand provided added protection and a superb defensive perimeter. In looking at Japanese positions, MacArthur’s staff reported that ‘every contour of the terrain was exploited and the driest stretches of land were carefully chosen to be occupied and fortified, making it impossible for the Allies to execute any lateral movements without becoming mired in swamp.’
On the same day 500 Japanese reinforcements, in the form of Major General Kurihanao Yamagata’s inexperienced 21st Independent Mixed Brigade, based on the 170th Regiment, arrived at Gona.
On 5 December Eichelberger ordered an attack across the entire front. Waldron was shot in the shoulder by a sniper while observing the fighting, and Eichelberger replaced him with his new chief-of-staff, Brigadier General Clovis E. Byers. Eichelberger moved the command echelon of his I Corps to the Buna area.
On the same day, the Allies finally broke the Japanese lines when Staff Sergeant Herman Bottcher, a platoon commander of Company G, 126th Infantry, led 18 men against a Japanese emplacement and secured a breach on the Japanese line between Buna Mission and the village of Buna, on the north-western end of the Buna beach-head, in the process killing 40 Japanese and wounding another 12 more. Bottcher and his men then fought off attacks for seven days, taking over Japanese machine guns for their own use, and Bottcher was wounded twice before he was relieved. Bottcher’s effort had finally turned the tide in the fight for Buna. His men’s effort isolated the Japanese in the village of Buna from resupply and reinforcement, enabling the rest of the division to take the village.
Farther to the north-west, on 8 December vicious close-quarter fighting finally allowed the Australians to take the village of Gona in the northernmost beach-head. On the same day Eichelberger organised a new attack on the village of Buna and the 32nd Division captured the position on 14 December. Byers was wounded on 16 December, and Eichelberger took direct command of the division. The Japanese landed 1,300 reinforcements, but by 18 December the Allies had been reinforced by Wootten’s 18th Brigade of the 7th Division as well as more Stuart light tanks of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment. Even so, the Australians suffered some of their worst losses of the entire battle, although they eventually broke through the Japanese defensive positions along the coast.
In 10 days of fighting, the 32nd Division, reinforced by the 18th Brigade and finally assisted by tanks, advanced along the coast from Duropa Plantation north-west to Buna Mission, taking the remaining Japanese positions on 2 January 1943.
The battle for Sanananda was the longest of the fights for the three Japanese beach-head strongholds. The Japanese position was well-sited astride a raised road on relatively dry ground and surrounded by waist-deep jungle swamp that made approach very difficult. In an attempt to cut off the defence’s forward positions, the elements of 3/126th Infantry managed to outflank the Japanese road block and capture the road behind it. Although the battalion was able to establish a roadblock, the Japanese were able to maintain their position by means of supplies delivered through the swamp.
Now down to about half its establishment strength, the 16th Brigade was despatched to attack the Japanese position, but the Australian movement was poorly organised. From 16 November to their first contact with the Japanese on 19 November, the troops were without food. The 1,400 men of 126th Infantry were ordered to report to the Australians but did not arrive until 21 November, by which time the Australians had suffered more than 30% casualties. On 7 December, the 30th Brigade relieved the 16th Brigade, and Porter assumed command from Lloyd. The 126th Infantry was also relieved, but 635 troops nonetheless manned a roadblock under constant Japanese attack. The remainder of the 2/126th Infantry was withdrawn to Soputa and then to Port Moresby, where it spent Christmas before returning to Australia for reorganisation and refurbishment.
The Americans received their first reinforcements on 18 December when 350 men of the Australian 2/7th Cavalry Regiment fought their way through to the roadblock. On the following day, this unit outflanked the Japanese and established another roadblock 330 yards (300 m) ahead of the American position, and the Australian 49th Battalion now reinforced the 126th. Disease and low morale were taking their toll and the 126th Infantry was pulled out of the line on 22 December.
On 25 December, eight companies of the 127th Infantry followed a large artillery and mortar barrage and attacked the Japanese position in the Government Gardens section of Buna.
So detached was MacArthur from the reality of the situation that he sent Sutherland, his chief-of-staff, to Eichelberger with a latter that was handed over on 25 December. In this letter MacArthur delivered himself of the opinion that ‘Where you have a company on your firing line, you should have a battalion; and where you have a battalion, you should have a regiment. And your attacks, instead of being made up of two or three hundred rifles, should be made up by two or three thousand… Your battle casualties to date compared with your total strength are slight so that you have a big margin to work with.’
Eichelberger responded that he was pushing the offensive with the kinds of numbers he felt the situation warranted, and assured MacArthur that his men were fighting hard. On 28 December, he received a communiqué from MacArthur that he had released to the press describing the action in the area of Buna and Gona. This read ‘On Christmas Day, our activities were limited to routine safety precautions. Divine services were held.’ Eichelberger was furious. During the night of 25/26 December a Japanese submarine unloaded supplies and ammunition at Buna Government Station, and this was the last time that the Japanese received supplies.
On 2 January Colonel Jena A. Does’s 163rd Infantry Regiment of the US 41st Division arrived straight from Australia ans assumed responsibility for operations associated with the two US roadblocks, while Doe became the local tactical commander in succession to Dougherty on the following day. The preliminary attacks began with a failed attack on the Japanese position between the two roadblocks on 8 January. Two days later, the Allies supported by tanks attacked the Japanese position at the trail junction. The attack failed but convinced Lieutenant Colonel Hatsuo Tsukamoto, the local Japanese commander, to order a retreat. The Japanese Imperial Headquarters had already decided on 4 January to order a retreat to Lae and Salamaua, but the order did not reach Sanananda until 12 January. On 14 January the Allies discovered that most of the Japanese defenders had left and quickly overran the junction stronghold now held by only 158 Japanese.
On 15 January the 163rd Infantry finally broke the Japanese position between the road blocks. The main attack began the next day with the 163rd Infantry attacking the Japanese troops north of the two roadblocks while the 18th Brigade’s attack reached the coast on each side of Sanananda and also supported the US attack, linking with the Americans at Huggins and on the Killerton track. The Japanese resistance was determined, but by 17 January they had been pinned down in three positions, on the coast to the north of Sanananda, on the coast to the west of Giruwa and on the main track to the north of the roadblocks, which was still holding out. On 20 January Yamagata ordered an evacuation and escaped while Oda and Yazawa encountered Australian troops and were killed. The Japanese positions on the coast then collapsed with little resistance. Evacuation of the main track was not possible and this last Japanese position was overrun on 22 January.
After almost three months of fighting, of the 16,000 Japanese who had been landed on New Guinea, an estimated 6,500 were defending the area between Buna and Gona. They had been cut off from resupply during the second week of January and their food had already run out by 2 January. Allied troops found evidence of cannibalism of both Japanese and Allied soldiers in captured Japanese positions. As the fighting ended, the Allies captured only six Japanese, all the others who were still alive having escaping northward into the jungle.
Once they had expelled the US forces from Guadalcanal in August and September 1942, as they planned to do, they had intended to reinforce Horii’s forces and launch another overland attack on the Australians around Port Moresby. In the end, though, their defeats at Buna, Sanananda and Gona and also on Guadalcanal did not allow the implementation of these plans as the Allies gained the ascendency in the region throughout late 1942, and from a time early in 1943 the Japanese were forced to fall back to the north coast of New Guinea.
The Australians suffered 5,698 casualties in the form of 169 officers and 1,996 other ranks killed, and 206 officers and 3,327 other ranks wounded. The Americans lost 798 men killed in the Battle of Buna and Gona. When the 32nd Division entered combat on 14 October 1942, it had 9,825 men, with 10,825 eventually involved, and in the course of slightly less than seven weeks in Papua suffered 586 killed, 1,954 wounded, and 100 more dead from other causes. Tropical diseases caused considerably more casualties than battle. The division suffered a 66% illness rate, with 7,125 casualties, of which 2,952 required hospitalisation, resulting from illness. The total casualty list of 9,956 men exceeded the division’s entire initial battle strength.
In the 126th Infantry, whose 2nd Battalion had marched over the Kapa Kapa Trail only six weeks earlier, the percentage of losses was even higher. When the troops arrived in the Buna area and entered combat on 21 November, they totalled 1,400, but when they were relieved by the Australian 2/7th Cavalry Regiment on 9 January only 165 men remained, the majority of them scarcely able to walk.
In overall terms about 60,000 Americans fought on Guadalcanal, suffering 5,845 casualties including 1,600 men killed in action. In Papua more than 33,000 Americans and Australians fought, and they suffered 8,546 casualties, of whom 3,095 were killed. Thus on Guadalcanal, one in 37 men died, while the troops in New Guinea had a one in 11 chance of dying.
These Allied losses in the Battle of Buna and Gona were appalling figures by any standards, but the Americans in particular learned from the lesson and never again were US forces committed to battle with so little effective training and so little logistical backing. During the whole campaign the Japanese had committed approximately 17,000 men, of whom 7,200 are known to have perished, and it is probable that in fact another few thousands also died. In overall terms, for the small but bitter campaign to take Buna, Gona and Sanananda, the Allies had deployed more than 20,000 men and suffered 3,500 battle casualties (including 1,300 Australian and 1,000 US dead) as well as large numbers victims of disease, whereas the Japanese deployed something over 10,000 men of whom more than 8,000 were killed or died or disease; 1,200 casualties were evacuated, and 200 men were taken prisoner.
The capture of Buna on 14 December 1942 allowed the more efficient shipment of supplies and the evacuation of the wounded and ill. It also bolstered the offensive capability of the US and Australian forces of MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area, operating in the south-east end of New Guinea, and consisting at this stage primarily of the 7th and 32nd Divisions.