Military Wiki
Battle of Buna – Gona
Part of the Pacific Theater of World War II
Australian Private George "Dick" Whittington aided by Papuan orderly Raphael Oimbari
An Australian soldier, Private George "Dick" Whittington, is aided by Papuan orderly Raphael Oimbari, near Buna on 25 December 1942. Whittington died in February 1943 from the effects of bush typhus. (Picture by George Silk)
Date16 November 1942 – 22 January 1943
LocationNew Guinea
Coordinates: 8°39′S 148°22′E / 8.65°S 148.367°E / -8.65; 148.367
Result Allied victory
 United States
Japan Empire of Japan
Commanders and leaders
Australia Edmund Herring
Australia George Vasey
United States Edwin F. Harding
United States Robert L. Eichelberger
Japan Yosuke Yokoyama
Japan Yoshitatsu Yasuda
from 2 December:
Japan Kurihanao Yamagata
20,000+ 6,500+ (peak strength, 2 December)
Casualties and losses
2,300 killed,
12,000+ injured[notes 1]
6,000+ killed,
1,200 injured (evacuated),
200 captured

Relation of Buna-Sanananda-New Guinea campaign within region.

The Battle of Buna – Gona was part of the New Guinea campaign in the Pacific campaign of World War II. On 16 November 1942, Australian and United States forces attacked the main Japanese beachheads in New Guinea, at Buna, Sanananda and Gona. When the Japanese forces were within sight of Port Moresby, the Japanese leadership decided holding Guadalcanal was a higher priority, and they ordered their New Guinea forces to withdraw northeastward to the coast. Since arriving on the north coast in June, the Japanese had built hundreds of well-camouflaged, reinforced bunkers in mutually supporting positions blocking all available approaches. Combined with the forces who had returned from the Kokoda Track, the Japanese initially had nearly 5,500 seasoned troops on the northern coast. This rose to about 6,500 later in the battle. Both the Japanese and Allied forces were riddled by disease and lacked the most basic supplies, including medicine and food.[1] Some U.S. troops were reduced to a small portion of a C ration each day.

Allied Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur and his staff received poor intelligence and vastly underestimated the number of defenders and the superior quality of the Japanese defensive system. MacArthur’s chief of staff Lt. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland glibly referred to the Japanese fortifications as "hasty field entrenchments." The Allies had only a few mortar pieces and ammunition was so limited it was rationed. The Allies lacked tank support, the navy ignored their requests for assistance, they initially had only a single artillery piece, and air support was only partially effective. When the Allies attacked on three fronts, they were immediately stymied by the excellent Japanese defensive position. The Allies suffered heavy casualties and gained virtually no ground.

MacArthur repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division's inability to defeat the Japanese. On 29 November, after 13 days of poor results and high casualties, Lieutenant General Eichelberger relieved Harding of command. Eichelberger later assumed command and only then fully appreciated the difficulty faced by the Allies in overcoming the Japanese forces. He learned that the majority of his troops had fevers and were sick with a variety of illnesses including malaria, dengue fever, bush typhus, and tropical dysentery. The Japanese received limited reinforcements and additional supplies until mid-December, when they were cut off. Although they had very limited food and no way to evacuate their sick and wounded, the Japanese resolutely continued the fight to the very end.

The Allied forces only made significant progress when they were finally given the tanks and artillery they had long sought. The first large supply ship, the Karsik, arrived at Oro Bay 11 December 1942 preceding the regular supply convoys of Operation Lilliput.[2][3] On 2 January, the Allies captured Buna, and on 22 January 1943, after prolonged intense fighting in extraordinarily difficult conditions, the Allied forces killed or captured almost the entire defending Japanese forces. Only a few hundred escaped to the north. Casualties on both sides were extremely high. General Eichelberger later compared the casualty ratio to the American Civil War. As a percentage of casualties, killed or wounded in action at Buna exceeded the better known Battle of Guadalcanal by a margin of three to one.


After the failure of the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea to take Port Moresby by sea, they had landed on the north coast of New Guinea on 21 July 1942 and established beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda. From there, they had attacked over the Kokoda Track in an attempt to take Port Moresby by land. Meeting the Japanese on the Kokoda Track, the vastly outnumbered Australian forces fought a two-month defensive battle, pushed back over the track toward Port Moresby over very difficult terrain by the superior Japanese forces. Within 48 km (30 mi) of Port Moresby, 80% of the Japanese forces had been wounded, killed or disabled by disease. The Japanese troop's medical care was virtually non-existent, many were out of food, and nearly all of the men were sick.[4]:57 Nonetheless, Lieutenant General Tomitarō Horii wanted to push forward to Port Moresby.

The weakened but determined Japanese forces paused on a hill just east of Imita Ridge, where they could see Port Moresby's lights reflected in the sky, and waited for the reinforcements promised them. When General Horii instead received orders to withdraw so the Imperial Forces could concentrate their resources on the battle for Guadalcanal, he was despondent.[4]:57

The Australian forces counterattacked the retreating Japanese, fighting a series of tough battles against Japanese rearguard defences on the narrow mountain track. The Japanese established a defensive line at Eora Creek, but after several days of fighting, they left their position to be defended by sick and wounded troops while the remainder escaped to the coast. The Australians continued to attack the withdrawing Japanese until they reached the more heavily defended lines near the Buna-Gona perimeter.

During the same time period in late August and early September 1942, Australian forces at the Battle of Milne Bay defeated Japan's attempt to capture the strategically important port and airfield on the southeastern tip of New Guinea. It was the first time in the Pacific war that the Allies had prevented the Japanese from capturing their objective.[4]

Impenetrable terrain

The terrain in the Buna-Gona area was principally a swamp. The foothills of the Owen Stanley Range spread out into a flat plain 7.5 miles (12.1 km) inland only 10 ft (3.0 m) above sea level. The land near the beach at Buna was 5 ft (1.5 m) above sea level. The Girua River, 40 to 60 feet (12 to 18 m) wide at the point it left the foothills, entered a vast tidal swamp, where it broke into several minor creeks from Sanananda Point on the north to Buna Village on the south. Between two of these creeks, Entrance Creek and Simemi Creek, lay an impenetrable swamp. On the periphery lay dense jungle bush including 6–10 ft (1.8–3.0 m) tall, sharp-edged, kunai grass, thick forest and more swamp. The temperature averaged 95 °F (35 °C) and the humidity 85%.[5] It rained up to 10 inches (250 mm) daily.

Tangled among the closely spaced 25–100 ft (7.6–30.5 m) high trees was a tangle of roots, creepers, and brush. Visibility from a fox hole was practically zero. If a man stood, which guaranteed he would be shot at, he could only see 5–30 yd (4.6–27.4 m). If the ground was not actually swamp, it was thoroughly waterlogged. The only way across was via a few native tracks that followed the higher ground, but even they were always muddy and thoroughly soaked in wet weather. The Japanese had placed their camouflaged bunkers on high ground at key points across all possible access points. Vehicle travel was impossible.[6] The bush, swamp, forest, rivers and beach made it virtually impossible to flank the Japanese positions. Along the edge of the sea was a strip of dry, sandy soil where the Japanese had built emplacements.[5]

Japanese forces and supply lines

The Japanese were now commanded by Major General Kensaku Oda, succeeding Lieutenant General Tomitarō Horii, who had drowned in the Kumusi River[7]:248 while retreating from their initial attack across the Kokoda Track on Port Moresby.

The Japanese defences were concentrated in three strongholds.[7]:246 The northern-most position was at Gona Mission from Wye Point, under Major Tsume Yamamoto. In the center the Japanese built up defensive fortifications around Sanananda Point and extended their forces with blocking positions south-westward along the Soputa track. This area was under the command of Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama, who was also in overall command of Imperial Japanese Army forces in the Buna-Gona area. The third and largest Japanese stronghold extended from just south of Cape Endaiadere near the Duropa Plantation north-westerly to Buna village.[8] It included the Buna Mission, Buna Government Station, and an airstrip that the Japanese had extended. It was under the command of Special Naval Landing Forces Captain Yoshitatsu Yasuda. The entire Japanese front lines were about 6 miles (9.7 km) long and at their deepest point only .75 miles (1.21 km) wide.

Although these positions were separate, communications between them and Japanese supply lines were initially strong.[7]:246 At the outset, the Japanese were able to maintain supply lines to Rabaul and to evacuate wounded personnel by sea, using submarines to maintain contact with the beachheads. It took almost two months for the Allies to finally cut the Japanese sea lanes of communication, reinforcement, and re-supply.[7]:262–263

A captured Japanese Type 88 75mm Field Anti-Aircraft gun in the Buna area.

The Japanese garrison was a mix of army and naval forces. It initially numbered about 5,500[7]:248 On the Allies' left at Guna Mission, they were faced by the 2nd and 3rd battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment, plus the 144th Infantry Regiment and the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment occupied fortified positions defending the Soputa-Sanananda Road and the trail to Cape Killerton.

To the Allies' right guarding the beachheads, including Buna Government Village and the old airstrip, was the 3rd Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment, a divisional cavalry detachment, and the 47th Field Anti-Aircraft Battalion, which fielded a battery of 8 mobile Type 88 75mm Field Anti-Aircraft guns.[9] In addition to these army units, there were about 500 marines from the 5th Yokosuka and 5th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Forces present.[7]:249

The 1st Battalion of the Japanese 41st Infantry Regiment were positioned at Gona Mission. During the night of 1–2 December, about 1000 troops belonging to the Yamagata Brigade, consisting of the Brigade Headquarters, the 3rd Battalion of the 170th Infantry Regiment, and a battery of mountain artillery landed north of Gona, bringing the total Japanese strength in the Sanananda area to between four and five thousand. This was at least twice the strength of the Buna garrison. A second detachment of the Yamagata Brigade, also totalling about 1,000, landed near the mouth of the Mambare River on the night of 12–13 December. The reinforcements brought the Japanese strength to about 6,500.[10]

Strong Japanese defences

File:Coconut log bunker at Buna.jpg

A communications trench connecting bunkers (foreground) leads to a heavily camouflaged Japanese bunker (background) made from coconut logs.

Unable to dig deep foxholes or shelters due to the .91 m (3.0 ft) deep water table, the Japanese had instead built hundreds of coconut log bunkers.[7]:246 The larger bunkers also served as shelter from air raid and heavy artillery, and when these attacks ended, the Japanese passed from the larger bunkers along shallow communication trenches to smaller, well-positioned bunkers and firing posts.[8]

The communication trenches allowed the Japanese to move at will among the bunkers and reinforce one another.[4] The bunkers were normally supported by infantry in firing pits to the front, sides and rear.[4]:126 Some of the larger bunkers were protected with steel plate or steel rails and 50 US gallons (190 litres; 42 imperial gallons) barrels filled with sand.[7]:248 A handful of pillboxes near the abandoned airstrip about a mile from the Buna Mission were built using steel and concrete. Some blockhouses were covered in earth that protected them from artillery fire and concealed with fast-growing jungle vegetation. Blockhouses covered in earth concealed four or five machine gun emplacements and could hold 20–30 soldiers. The bunkers and fortifications were built with mutually supporting lines of fire and organised in depth.[11]

Many smaller fortifications were placed in perimeter positions that were thick with trees or jungle vegetation. Well-concealed firing slits were a few feet above ground. The bunkers rose only 6–8 ft (1.8–2.4 m) high, and were so well concealed that the emplacements were virtually invisible to attackers. Even when they fired their weapons on the unsuspecting Allied troops the lack of muzzle flash from their weapons plus the dense jungle which concealed the direction of fire made it extremely difficult for the Allies to pinpoint the Japanese soldier's locations. All of these positions could generate devastating interlocking fields of fire, supported by many snipers hidden in tall trees.[11]

Allied forces unprepared

MacArthur felt pressure to produce a victory. He was intent on returning to Manila, although Admiral Chester Nimitz wanted to advance through the central Pacific via the Gilberts, Marshalls, Marianas, Carolines, and Palau Islands, while the British and her Dominions thought Java ought to be the primary focus.[12][13] In Washington, Fleet Admiral Ernest King—Commander in Chief, United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations—was not completely satisfied with MacArthur sharing command with Admiral Chester Nimitz and held out hope that Nimitz might get overall command.[4]:73 King wanted to build a large blue-water Navy based in Hawaii that would defeat the Japanese on the ocean and then support the seizure of island stepping-stones.[14] Although the Japanese were concentrated in three areas within easy range of naval gunfire, MacArthur's and Blamey's repeated requests for naval support were often simply put aside. MacArthur commented, “The attitude of the Navy in regard to the destroyers appears to avoid risk at a time when all services should give a maximum of cooperation to defeat the enemy.”[14] Australian Vice Admiral Arthur Carpender said that his naval experts prohibited dispatching any capital ships into the area until the reefs had been better charted.[14]

The lack of naval support was due in part to the lack of adequate charts and maps, but also due to tension between MacArthur and Admirals King and Nimitz. MacArthur's position as Supreme Commander was mostly a political and strategic appointment and did not give him any direct combat command.[4]:76 MacArthur did however enjoy a close relationship with Australian Prime Minister John Curtin, who strongly admired MacArthur. MacArthur—who had to depend on Australian commanders to carry out his plans—often used his influence with Curtin to obtain changes in Australian decisions. Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey exercised command of all Allied land forces but he was not well liked.[4] But even Curtin couldn't persuade the Americans to release the Australian naval forces that might have been available to MacArthur. They were reassigned to the Guadalcanal Campaign and MacArthur wasn't able to call on elements of this force until after Guadalcanal was captured on February 9, well after the battle for Buna-Gona had ended.[14]

Allied intelligence deficient

Allied intelligence in the lead-up to the battle was deficient in two key areas. First, "In a major intelligence blunder, Allied staffs told frontline commanders that they faced no more than 1,500 to 2,000 enemy and could expect the Japanese to surrender about 1 December."[15] Other intelligence described the Japanese defenders as "sick and malnourished" when in fact some 6,500 enemy from the Imperial Japanese Army and marines from the Special Naval Landing Forces held the beachhead.[15][16][notes 2]

Brigadier General Charles A. Willoughby told MacArthur before the operation that there was "little indication of an attempt to make a strong stand against the Allied advance."[11] Based on what little they knew about the area, Allied intelligence believed that widespread swampland would render the construction of strongpoints in the Buna-Gona area impossible. Unfamiliar with the state of Japanese defences, Lieutenant General Richard K. Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, glibly referred to these fortifications as "hasty field entrenchments."[11][17] All of this information led MacArthur to believe that Buna could be taken with relative ease.[11]

The Allies had very poor maps and limited reconnaissance photos of the area, which would later make it extremely difficult to accurately position and target artillery.[4] Australian maps of the area—sketches for the most part—were so inaccurate that they showed some rivers flowing uphill.[18] Buna was General Douglas MacArthur's first ground offensive campaign against Japanese troops in World War II.[11] Captain Harry Katekar, adjutant of the 2/27th Battalion, wrote afterward:[19]

We were thrown in with scant information about the enemy, no aerial photographs, nothing to go on. I don’t recall ever seeing a proper plan of the area showing where the 25th Brigade was at that time when we were supposed to go in or, in fact, what the 2/14th were doing on our right. The whole thing was rushed and therefor one can expect there to be what actually transpired – a slaughter of good men! The correct way to get information is to send in recce patrols. That’s always the way you do it, because you get the enemy to disclose where he is. You don’t go in with a full company rushing in against something you know nothing about.

Inadequate training

Staff officers considered the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division unprepared and under-supplied for combat.[12] While in the U.S., the division had trained for a European war. Standard U.S. Army practices dictated that a division should train together for a year,[20] but the 32nd had picked up more than 3,000 replacements fresh out of boot camp when the division was suddenly redirected to Australia.[21] When in Australia, they had moved to three different camps and were tasked with building each of them,[22] all of which cut heavily into the division's training time.[23] In early July, General Richardson, Commanding General, VII Corps, inspected the 32nd and found them in the "elementary stages" of training.[23] What limited training they had received in Australia had been to prepare them to fight in Australia's outback to defend the country from Japanese attack. Their heavy-weight Herringbone Twill combat uniforms were the wrong color. Learning from the experience of Australian soldiers, who in the early part of the Kokoda Track campaign wore tan uniforms that stood out against the jungle, the Americans had two sets of their uniforms dyed a darker green at a dry cleaner in Brisbane.[24] Unfortunately, the dye was more like paint and would not allow the cloth to wick moisture away from the skins, causing "hideous jungle ulcers."[23][25] The 32nd was not trained, equipped or prepared to fight in the jungle nor taught Japanese tactics.[11][17] When General Eichelberger inspected the troops in early September, he felt the division was still unready for combat. Before he could make any changes in the training regimen, the 126th and 128th Infantry Regiments were transported to New Guinea. General Harding, commenting on the units training, said "From February when I took over until November when we went into battle we were always getting ready to move, on the move, or getting settled after a move."[23]

Unprepared for jungle warfare

Nonetheless, the Division was the most well-prepared of the 32nd, and MacArthur insisted in October 1942 that it be immediately moved from Australia to New Guinea. The beginning of the campaign revealed that the American troops were unprepared for jungle warfare. The 2nd Battalion of the 126th Infantry Regiment was called on to trek 210 km (130 mi) from 14 October – 12 November across the extremely rugged Kapa Kapa Trail. They did not encounter a single enemy soldier, but more than ⅔ of their men became casualties, sick with malaria, dengue fever, bush typhus, amoebic dysentery, bacillary, along with jungle rot, dobie itch, trench foot, athlete's foot and ringworm.[16]

Exhausted from their march, the division stopped for one week at Natunga to resupply. They then were directed to the front lines against seasoned Japanese combat veterans, and in the ensuing battle soon ran short of weapons, medicine and even food.[1] While they had been issued leather toilet seats[26] they had no machetes, insect repellent, waterproof containers for medicine or personal effects, and it rained heavily every day.[5] When they received quinine pills, water chlorination tablets, vitamin pills, or salt tablets, usually a few days supply, they began to disintegrate almost as soon as the men put them in their pockets or packs.[23]

Scant artillery support

The only 105mm M3A1 howitzer used in the Battle for Buna-Gona is unloaded through the bomb bay doors of the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress used to transport it to New Guinea from Australia.

The Allies initially lacked armour, artillery, naval support and air support for their attack.[4]:138 The division was normally assigned a complement of thirty-six 105 mm (4.1 in) howitzers and twelve 155 mm (6.1 in) howitzers. But due to a lack of transportation, these had all been left in Australia. General Waldron kept asking that the division's artillery be brought forward, but MacArthur's headquarters didn't have any way to transport the weapons nor keep them supplied with ammunition, and they responded coolly to Waldron's pleas.[23]

American officers, especially General George Kenney—Commander of the Allied air forces in the Southwest Pacific Area—argued against artillery support as unnecessary. Although he had no knowledge of jungle warfare, he told MacArthur that tanks had no role in ground action in the jungle.[27]

Tanks and heavy artillery can be reserved for the battlefields of Europe and Africa. They have no place in jungle warfare. The artillery in this theater flies, the light mortar and machine guns, the rifle, the tommygun, the grenade and knife are the weapons carried by men who fly to war, jump in parachutes, are carried by gliders and who land from air transports on grounds which air engineers have prepared. —General George Kenney[4]:139

Major General Edwin Harding, commanding officer of the 32nd Infantry Division, reluctantly accepted MacArthur's decision to go ahead with the attack and to rely on direct air support in place of tanks or heavy artillery. Harding and his artillery commander—Brig. Gen. Samuel Waldron—finally persuaded MacArthur's headquarters to break down one 105 mm howitzer and fly it to Pongani, where it was moved closer to Buna for fire support. They also borrowed eight 25-pounder guns from the Australians.

Establishing lines of supply

A section of the Oro Bay-Dobodura road after construction.

The Allies' major bases—at Port Moresby and Milne Bay—were distant. The only feasible port near Buna was at Oro Bay some 211 miles (340 km) from Milne Bay and noted for the treacherous approaches via sea between Milne Bay and Cape Nelson. The final approach was through a channel that was only .5 to .75 miles (0.80 to 1.21 km) wide and 36 to 48 feet (11 to 15 m) deep. The port's anchorage of about 90 feet (27.4 m) could only accommodate six to eight ships.

Elements of the 114th Engineer Combat Battalion that reached the front had no axes, shovels, picks, no assault boats, very little rope, and not a single piece of block and tackle.[23] But they needed to build a road from Oro Bay to Dobodura Airfield, about 10 miles (16 km) southeast of Buna.[28] The Allies needed to build 72 miles (116 km) of road over a mountain range to connect the port at Oro Bay to Dobodura Airfield. Jeeps following the existing jungle trails provided interim transport.[29]

The Owen Stanley Ranges were impassable to motor vehicles. Prior to the war Australian vessels used a route through the Bismarck Sea, but now the Imperial Japanese Navy and air forces controlled that area. Supplies were initially delivered to the Allied troops via airdrops from Liberator cargo planes of the U.S. Fifth Air Force and makeshift transport units assembled by the Royal Australian Air Force, as well as coastal shipping using small vessels that were vulnerable to air attack.

Airstrips built

While the 2/126th Infantry Regiment were preparing for their long trek over the Kapa Kapa Track across the 9,000 ft (2,700 m) Owen Stanley Range, a local missionary suggested an alternative. Cecil Abel, who owned a plantation on the north side of the Owen Stanley Mountains, came into Port Moresby and told the Allies that he thought they might be able to build an airstrip on the far side of the Owen Stanley Range at Fasari in the Musa River valley and at Pongani. Col. Leif Sverdrup set out from Abau on foot with 190 men, including Flight Lieutenant M. J. Leahy, who had spent most of his life in New Guinea and personally knew many of the tribal chiefs. They reached Fasari on 18 October and hired local villages to clear the site by burning the bush and clearing a few stumps.[30]:180–181 Severdup knew that the natives appreciated in-kind payments. He arranged for them to receive "1,500 lbs of trading tobacco, 50 bolts of cloth, 1,000 Boy Scout knives, 50 cases of canned meat, 200 lbs. of salt, 1,000 tin-plate bowls, 1,000 spoons, and 1,000 packages of garden seed."[28]

Sverdrup and Leahy explored further north and found another suitable airstrip site near the village of Embessa and Kinjaki, which Sverdrup hired natives to clear. A message dropped by air instructed him to go to Pongani, where he found troops of Company C, 114th Engineer Battalion that had been flown to Wanigela airstrip and had made their way to Pongani by traveling along the coast by boat. Sverdrup supervised the construction of Pongani airstrip. All three airstrips were soon in use.[30] Sverdrup was later awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts, which included walking across the Owen Stanley Range three times far forward of friendly forces and building the essential air strips.[31]

While the airfields were under construction, supplies were severely limited. Even 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. Mortar crews received very limited ammo and were told to ration it. USAAF and RAAF ground attack and bomber aircraft, including the Douglas A-20 Havoc and Bristol Beaufighter, helped the Allies' efforts, although the dense jungle canopy combined with poor maps caused the Allies to drop bombs on their own units more than once.[4]

Sea route opened

In October, the Allies captured Goodenough Island to the east with little Japanese resistance. The Allies began to use it as a staging point for air and naval patrols. General Kenney procured a flotilla of local water craft along with a few military ships and ferried supplies from Milne Bay, around the southern end of New Guinea, to Wanigela. The first arrived on 16 October.[4]:110

Inside passage Milne Bay to Cape Nelson and Oro Bay.

Before the Allies could deliver supplies via large ships and establish the regular convoy operations of "Operation Lilliput" they used small vessels to deliver cargo around the northeastern tip of New Guinea from Milne Bay to Wanigela, Pongani and Hariko, General MacNider's advanced headquarters, where General Harding had been forced to abandon and swim from the burning small ship Minnamurra on 16 November.[32][33][34] This route between the north shore and the D'Entrecasteaux Islands had never been accurately charted and was described by Colonel Wilson, Chief of Transportation, as "the most dangerous coastline in the world." Prior to the war Australian vessels avoided that route and instead used an open sea approach through the Solomon Sea and Rabaul now controlled by the Japanese. The Small Ships Section of the U.S. Army Services of Supply (USASOS) was composed of "schooners, motorships, motor launches, cabin cruisers, ketches, trawlers, barges, and miscellaneous vessels, most of which were ancient and rusty."[32] These were leased or requisitioned by Australian Army. The approximately 250 vessels, largely crewed by Australians, were ordered to Milne Bay to support the Buna area which had up to this time only been supported by air drops.[32] "Their Australian crews rigged sails when the engines broke down, and made emergency repairs when the hulls were punctured with bullets or jagged coral." They landed elements of the invasion force and provided logistical support. To avoid Japanese attacks, they hid in rivers by day and "moved at night through uncharted waters, marking reefs with empty oil drums and keeping records of observations and soundings, which were later used in charts."[32] Those efforts were augmented by the arrival of the survey vessel HMAS Paluma, the forty-five ton former examination vessel at Thursday Island, that began actual surveys to find a reliable approach for larger vessels from Milne Bay to Oro Bay. In addition to surveys the vessel was to install lights, land shore parties for reconnaissance, establish radio stations and pilot ships through discovered channels. By early November Paluma had found a route for large ships around Cape Nelson whereupon the larger vessels discharged at Porlock with the luggers concentrating on transport forward from there. The hydrographic section in the RAN learned of the local effort and lent assistance with surveys by HMAS Warrego (U73), HMAS Stella and HMAS Polaris assisting, establishing safe passage for large ships from Milne Bay to Cape Nelson while Paluma worked the route forward to Oro Bay making the large ship convoy service of "Operation Lilliput" possible.[35][36]

SS Karsik, first large ship into Oro Bay.

The first large vessel to deliver supplies to Oro Bay was Karsik,[notes 3] escorted by HMAS Lithgow, in "Operation Karsik" on the night of 11—12 December 1942 with four Stuart light tanks of the 2/6 Australian Armored Regiment and a seven-day level of supply for the 2/9 Battalion.[37][38] Karsik returned with a second load of tanks on the 14th in "Operation Tramsik" that was followed by the first Lilliput convoy four days later.[37][2][3] On 18 December the Japara escorted by Lithgow departed Milne Bay and arrived at Oro Bay on the 20th to inaugurate the regular supply of Operation Lilliput. The convoys of Lilliput were, with few exceptions, composed of the Dutch KPM vessels under the control of the U.S. Army Services of Supply (USASOS) escorted by an Australian corvette.[39][2]

Allied forces launch attack

Map of early operations in the battle of Buna-Gona.

On 14 October 1942, elements of 2/6th Independent Company were flown from 14-Mile Drome across the mountains to Wanigela Airfield, Wanigela.[notes 4][40]:81 From Wanigela, the company moved to Pongani. When the offensive started, the 2/6th patrolled in front of the U.S. 3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment along the coast from Pongani to Buna. Under the command of Major Harry Harcourt, they provided flank protection and reconnaissance and were engaged in heavy fighting around the airfield named New Strip until early December 1942.[40]:97–119[41]:360 Situated in the coastal area south of Cape Endaiadere, on a line running inland to Sinemi Creek, this became known as the Warren Force.[17]:154

The U.S. 32nd Infantry Division—commanded by Major General Edwin F. Harding—launched the initial attack on Buna on 16 November. Deployed along the Ango-Buna track, they contacted the enemy about 1 mi (1.6 km) south of Buna. General Harding requested tanks from Milne Bay but the Allies lacked the boats required to ship them. They were later sent thinly armoured, open-top, and lightly armed Bren gun carriers, a machine gun or mortar and transport platform.[7]:255 These were rapidly knocked out by the Japanese. The Stuart light tanks delivered to Oro Bay by Karsik were loaded into recently arrived barges and then towed up the coast and landed within miles of the battlefront.[2][3][37] Mayo notes in On Beachhead And Battlefront:

These tanks, and those following a few days later, had little effect on the battle for Buna; the light, fast Stuarts, slowed by swamp mud choked with kunai grass, were, in the words of the Australian historian of the battle, “like race horses harnessed to heavy ploughs”; moreover, they were “almost blind” because tank vision, restricted at the best of times, was shut off by the tropical growth.[notes 5]

Yet the fact that the tanks could be landed on that coast at all, only a month after General Harding's ill-starred effort to bring them up by barge from Milne Bay, showed how far the sea supply operation had progressed in a very short time.[37] The regular delivery of heavy supplies began with the regular Milne Bay to Oro Bay operations of Lilliput convoys with the first arriving on 20 December.[39][2] A key initial objective was building airfields at Dobodura and building a 72 miles (116 km) road from Oro Bay to Dobodura, 10 miles (16 km) southeast of Buna. [42]

Limited artillery

Harding reluctantly accepted MacArthur's decision to rely on direct air support, and his troops were stopped cold by the formidable Japanese field fortifications.[43] Despite Harding's objection, one battalion—minus one brigade—of the U.S. 126th Infantry Regiment was detached from the 32nd Division[7]:249 and crossed the Girua River at Inonde to join the Australian 7th Division under Maj. Gen. George Vasey. This group, named the Urbana Force, were charged with defending Soputa and with the subsequent attack on Sanananda.

The Gona push was reinforced by the remnants of Maroubra Force, made up of the battered 30th Brigade, a Militia unit which included the "ragged bloody heroes" of the Kokoda Track, the 39th Battalion.[7]:258 The Australian 16th Brigade—detached from the 6th Division—would push toward Sanananda.[7]:249 The Australian and U.S. forces were shifted between the Buna and Sanananda fronts, resulting in blurred lines of communication and leadership.[4]

By the evening of the first day, the Allied lines had barely moved. Units of the U.S. 1/126th Infantry got close enough to the Japanese positions to learn that the Japanese machine guns were positioned in bunkers reinforced with oil drums and covered with roofs.[6] Fighting was bitter from the outset: the Australian 7th Division took 204 casualties in the first three days of its thrust.

Each Japanese bunker contained several well-concealed machine guns. At times, the jungle was so dense that the Allied troops could not tell from which direction the Japanese were firing.[4] Japanese snipers tied themselves to the tops of coconut trees and picked off targets. The 32d Division was the first American unit during the war to encounter this type of defense.

Morale low

By the time the Allied advance on Buna had stalled in late November, morale was low due to heavy casualties and disease. Self-inflicted wounds were increasingly responsible for American casualties.[44][45]

The men at the front in New Guinea were perhaps among the most wretched-looking soldiers ever to wear the American uniform. They were gaunt and thin, with deep black circles under their sunken eyes. They were covered with tropical sores. ... They were clothed in tattered, stained jackets and pants. ... Often the soles had been sucked off their shoes by the tenacious, stinking mud. Many of them fought for days with fevers and didn't know it. ... Malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, and, in a few cases, typhus hit man after man. There was hardly a soldier, among the thousands who went into the jungle, who didn't come down with some kind of fever at least once.[46]

The Japanese were bombarded by air and artillery all day. To avoid revealing their positions, they refused to fire at attacking aircraft. Like the Allied troops, their foxholes and even their bunkers were flooded. Under constant attack and subject to ongoing, unremitting rain, it was hard for them to get much sleep. They could not leave their positions. A Japanese officer described in his diary watching several men go mad "before my eyes" due to the constant pounding. Another officer expressed his regret at the "wretched sight" of casualties who had to prop themselves upright to avoid drowning in their bedrolls.[11] A Japanese machine-gunner hastily scribbled in his diary on 17 November: "Our food is completely gone. We are eating tree bark and grass." On 19 November, he wrote, "In other units there are men eating the flesh of dead Australians. There is nothing to eat." During December, supplies to the Japanese forces were reduced further, and the isolated forces subsisted on a half-pint of rice per day.[11]

An average of 20 Japanese troops died of illness every day. A Tokyo staff officer commented, "Even regimental and battalion commanders do not play their proper roles and lack spirited morale." Like the Allied troops, the soldiers were sick with malaria and other jungle diseases. Some were virtually comatose in their foxholes, but the remaining Japanese stubbornly clung to their defenses.[11]

Advance on Buna Village

Papuan stretcher bearers carrying U.S. Army wounded from the Buna front lines, pause to rest themselves and the soldiers in the shade of a coconut grove, en route to hospitals in the rear.

A camouflaged Japanese machine gun bunker in the Buna area badly damaged by shellfire from a tank.

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, composed of about 400 tough naval infantrymen with an additional 600 naval construction troops. As recently as 17 November, Japanese destroyers had delivered 2,300 troops fresh from Rabaul, New Britain. These included the veteran 3rd Battalion, 229th Infantry Regiment, 38th Division, which had fought in China, Hong Kong and Java.[11]

On 20 November, MacArthur—operating from his comfortable headquarters in Port Moresby—ordered Harding to attack "regardless of losses". The following day, he sent another missive to Harding, telling him to "take Buna today at all costs". General Edmund Herring arrived at the American front on 25 November and reported that the American infantry had "maintained a masterly inactivity at Buna".

When MacArthur offered the 41st American Division as reinforcements for the advance on Gona, Australian General Thomas Blamey declined. This was later seen as payback for earlier statements by MacArthur about the fighting ability of Australian troops. Blamey stated he would rely on his depleted 21st Brigade as he "knew they would fight".[47]

The jokes of the American officers in Australia, making fun of the Australian Army were told all over Australia. Therefore, when we've got the least thing on the American troops fighting in the Buna sector, our high command has gone to General MacArthur and rubbed salt into his wounds.
—General Berryman to General Eichelberger.[48]

On 19 November, Blamey sent a communication through MacArthur and tried to persuade Admiral Arthur S. Carpender—who controlled U.S. Navy vessels—to provide support.

The bulk of the land forces in New Guinea have had to move into positions where it is impossible to support them and extremely difficult to give them the necessary ammunition and supplies to maintain them.[4]:138

Carpender would not commit destroyers to the mission in poorly charted, reef strewn waters limiting their maneuver and sea room under air attack and suggested corvettes and night approach the best plan—one instituted in Operation Lilliput.[49] Blamey had made serious mistakes in his assumptions regarding such naval forces, for example stating "the navy is only being asked to go where the Japanese have frequently gone" when the Japanese had never operated large ships in the waters between Milne Bay and Buna. Japanese ships making attacks on Milne Bay had used a route avoiding that passage and had access to the pre-war route for Australian vessels from Rabaul and an approach from the north.[notes 6][50][51]

With the only artillery support provided by a single 25 pounder battery with 200 rounds of ammunition, the 32nd Division began its attack on 19 November and was immediately met by strong resistance from well-entrenched and camouflaged Japanese positions manned by fresh soldiers. During their initial assault, the Americans were met by heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Near the Duropa Plantation, the 1/128 found that due to the dense jungle growth, they could not identify the position of the hidden enemy machine gun positions and were uncertain where to fire. The Japanese weapons gave off no flash, and the jungle concealed the reverberation of their fire. The heavy jungle canopy also made it difficult for them to fire their mortars or use their grenades effectively.[27] Veterans of the battle said later that their field of vision was very limited, from 2–20 feet (0.61–6.10 m), and they couldn't be certain of which direction the enemy was firing from.[52] Despite the lack of progress made by U.S. and Australian forces, naval support remained unavailable.

On the trail junction between the old and new airstrips, the Simemi Trail narrowed into a path with swamp on either side. At the trail junction between the air strips, the 3/128 were met with intense fire from three directions. The battalion could not use their mortars which had been left behind in Port Moresby. They discovered that most of their machine gun cartridges were the wrong type and that a large number of their grenades failed to detonate. They quickly ran out of .30-caliber ammunition and failed to advance the first day.[27] On the next day, the 1/128th advanced a mere 200 yards; the 3/128th made no progress. When the Americans saw the few Japanese killed, they were surprised to see the men were robust and well-fed and not in the emaciated, weak state they had been led to believe. Late on the 20th, the 1/126th, who had been flown across the Owen Stanley Mountains, completed a difficult trek from Pongani, arrived to reinforce the attacking force.[27]

On the 21st, the 126th Infantry was detached from General Harding's organisation and reassigned to the Australian 7th Division across the Girua River. Harding objected to the splitting of his forces and was overruled. A scheduled attack at 0800 was aborted when the commanding officers didn't get word until after the attack was set to begin. Aircraft assigned to support the assault missed some of their targets, wounding soldiers in the 3/128th. Harding reset the attack to 1300 but the air cover promised didn't arrive until 1400. Most of the planes could not find the target area while one B-25 dropped its bomb load on Companies B and C of the 128th, wounding several men, hurting the group's morale and will to fight. The subsequent attack by the Americans, armed only with rifles, Thompson submachine guns, light machine guns, and hand grenades, was easily stopped by the Japanese.[27] Company C of the 128th lost 63 men including all four of its officers in the first three days of combat.[27]

Short of men, Harding committed his reserve force, the 2/128th to replace the detached 126th and reinforce the left side. As it tried to advance, it too was hit by heavy machine gun fire from concealed positions and was soon thrown back. Flanking the Japanese meant crawling through the swamps, unable to see more than a few yards in any direction. The division repeatedly failed to make any progress against the Japanese positions, and a stalemate ensued. The Japanese had occupied and fortified all of the high ground, and some of the Americans were in swamps for three to four days at a time. They built foxholes, but they filled with water up to their knees, and the GIs slept in them, ate in them, and relieved themselves in them because they had nowhere else to go.[52] General Harding, despite having been told not to ask, requested return of at least one of his battalions. The 2/126, the "Ghost Battalion", was sent back across the Girua River but was delayed by the high flood waters. They finally returned late on 22 November. Harding requested some light tanks from the Australians, but the captured barges used to transport them sank under the weight of the tanks.[27]

MacArthur was frustrated by Maj. Gen. Harding's lack of progress. Late on 22 November, MacArthur’s headquarters sent an order to Harding to attack the next day regardless of cost. Harding was convinced that his commanding officers could not know the strength of the defending Japanese. He felt that if he strictly obeyed the order, his entire force on the right flank could be destroyed. Harding relayed the order in its entirety to General MacNider, but modified it. He told MacNider to put everything he had available and to press the attack, but that if it became evident that they could not progress and further action would result in needless casualties, to call off the advance. Harding took the extra step of telling MacNider that he assumed full responsibility for modifying MacArthur's order.[27] The attack made some progress but was finally halted by the Japanese.

By 23 November, it was obvious that capturing Gona was unlikely due to a lack of Allied troops and insufficient tank and artillery support. Without support from tanks that could have taken out a strongpoint in minutes, the Japanese positions were very difficult to defeat and had to be taken one by one, which required troops crawling through murderous cross-fire and snipers to the bunkers and pushing grenades through the slits.[44] General Vasey requested that Lieutenant General Edmund Herring send the 21st Brigade as reinforcements. The 32nd Division had only two M101 howitzers belonging to Battery A of the 129th Field Artillery in New Guinea, the remaining batteries having been left at Camp Cable in Australia due to a lack of transport. The four gun sections of Battery A were the first howitzers flown into combat, first landing at Port Moresby. Then, ½ of Battery A—two gun sections—were air-lifted over the Owen Stanley Mountains to Buna and reassembled, becoming the first U.S. Army artillery flown into combat in the Pacific in World War II.[53]

Beaufighter of No. 30 Squadron RAAF over the Owen Stanley Range, New Guinea, 1942

When additional artillery finally arrived on 26 November, the accuracy of artillery fire was limited by poor maps and the inability of the forward artillery observer's to see far enough through the dense jungle. On that morning, the Japanese lines were strafed and bombed at tree-top level for nearly an hour by Curtiss P-40s and Beaufighters. Douglas A-20s bombed the Japanese rear areas for another 30 minutes. The air attacks were then followed by 30 minutes of pounding by mortars, machine guns, and the newly available artillery. At 9:30, the infantry advanced as scheduled, but it immediately became apparent that the two hours of bombardment had not touched the enemy, still hidden in their bunkers.[6]

The Allies made preparation for another offensive operation on 26 November, Thanksgiving Day. The attack was prepared with air, artillery, mortar and heavy machine gun fire, but it had little affect on the well-emplaced Japanese. Harding came well forward to observe and watched as the 3/128th ran into fierce resistance.[27]

Finally, the Cannon and Anti-tank Companies of the 126th arrived on 27 November and were put to use supporting the remaining two battalions of the 126th and the 7th Australian. They made some progress, but supply problems contributed to delays and lack of progress. Only one supply boat was operational to get supplies from the Dobodura air strip, and natives were recruited, but they would not advance to the front lines.[27]

On 29 November, the Japanese were reinforced by the remaining 500 troops from the South Seas Detachment (mostly the 41st Infantry Regiment under Colonel Kiyomi Yazawa), which had led the Kokoda Track campaign and retreated to the sea at a point north of Gona. They were shuttled by boat to the Sananada stronghold.

Harding relieved of command

By 29 November, the Supreme Allied Commander in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had become frustrated at what he saw as poor performance by the 32nd Division, especially its commissioned officers. He told the US I Corps commander, Major General Robert L. Eichelberger:

Bob, 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... Bob, I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive ... And that goes for your chief of staff, too.[54][55]

File:MacNider, Waldron, and Byers.jpg

Brigadier Generals Hanford MacNider, Albert W. Waldron, and Clovis E. Byers recuperate in hospital in Australia after being wounded in the Battle of Buna-Gona.

On 30 November, the 2/126th became the first to significantly penetrate the enemy lines at Buna, successfully pushing the Japanese back several hundred metres.[26] On 1 December, Harding directed attacks on both the Urbana and the Warren front. On the Urbana front, Company E of the 126th, reinforced by the headquarters companies of both battalions, was able with support from the available 25-pounder artillery piece and mortar support to advance across an open area below the bridge over the Girua River, but then inexplicably withdrew, perhaps due to a communications problem. E and F Companies from the 126th, along with a platoon from the 128th, resumed the attack on 2 December, but were stopped by heavy machine gun fire from every direction they approached. A visiting medical officer reported that the men looked like "Christ of the Cross."[4]:165 These and other reports did not mollify Eichelberger's view of the situation. Eichelberger arrived in Buna to inspect the troops on 2 December.

On the Warren front, the attack on 2 December began with an air attack, but a planned artillery barrage was late. When the infantry finally advanced, they were stopped once again by the Japanese without significant gains. Many troops dropped from heat exhaustion.[4]:166

With the 32nd Division failing to advance in keeping with MacArthur's expectations, MacArthur sent two staff officers—Col. Clarance Martin and Col. Gordon Rogers—to evaluate the situation on the Warren front. They arrived in midafternoon after the conclusion of an intense battle which had put all available reserves on the line. Martin could not understand why the men were not pushing forward. They questioned whether there had been any fighting at all.[4]:167 They found the troops were ill with malaria, dengue fever, tropical dysentery, and other ailments. They discovered the men had few rations causing them to lose weight, and lacked hot meals, vitamins, and cigarettes. Some were unshaven, their uniforms and boots were dirty and in tatters, and they showed "little discipline or military courtesy."[54] Without fresh clothing, walking through swamps, and lacking sanitation, many were afflicted with trench foot.[26] Having been on the front at Buna for two weeks with virtually no progress to show for it except for hundreds of casualties, the U.S. troops' morale was very poor.[54]

Accompanied by Harding and Brigadier General Albert W. Waldron, Eichelberger inspected the Urbana front after the combat action for the day had played itself out. When they stopped to visit an aid station, Eichelberger saw among the casualties unwounded men who were sick with fever and exhaustion and a few with combat fatigue. Eichelberger was further upset when he learned that day's attack had failed. They walked forward, and when he was not fired on by the Japanese concluded that the U.S. troops faced little opposition. He was disturbed when he found there wasn't a continuous front and criticised the placement of a machine gun, seeing this as proof the men were not pressing a weak enemy. He queried troops about where a path led and was told it was covered by a Japanese machine gun. He offered to decorate any man who would run 50 yd (46 m) down the path. No one took him up on his offer, and he decided they were cowards.[4]:167

Eichelberger vented his anger on Major Mott and Smith, pointing out the unwounded men in the aid station and the machine gunner's hesitance. Mott vehemently exploded, pointed out the suffering and bravery of his men. Harding angrily threw his cigarette on the ground, agreeing with Mott. Eichelberger responded, "You're licked."[4]:167

Martin and Rogers returned from the Warren front to the 32nd Division headquarters at Dobodura at 22:00 to find that Eichelberger had already relieved Harding of command. Eichelberger replaced him with the division's artillery commander, General Waldron. Eichelberger also sacked 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.[4]:167

Eichelberger later noted that after he relieved Harding he "ordered the medicos to take the temperature of an entire company of hollow-eyed men near the front. Every member, I repeat, every member of that company was running a fever."[4]:165 Eichelberger found the men lacked even the oil and patches required to keep their guns free of rust. He put an officer in charge of supply who ignored all protocols to obtain whatever the men needed. Eichelberger conspicuously wore his three stars on his shoulders among the front-line troops, ignoring the rule that officers remove their insignia at the front because they will attract the enemy. He lost thirty pounds in thirty days at the front.[5]:327

Martin later admitted, after some experience with the Japanese defences, that had attacks been continued on the day he conducted his inspection, they would not have been successful.[4]:167

Allied reconnaissance

Eichelberger also ordered additional reconnaissance to help fix the enemy positions. What he learned impressed him.

For the Allies, Japanese seemed to be everywhere, but their strongest positions were on the shore-zone terrain. 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." Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger, U.S. Corps Commander, called the Japanese terrain utilization "perfect' and "brilliant."[56]:239

On the same day, 500 Japanese reinforcements, in the form of the inexperienced 21st Independent Mixed Brigade (based on the 170th Infantry Regiment), arrived at Gona under Maj. Gen. Kurihanao Yamagata. The Japanese fought tenaciously and the 32nd Division lost 392 personnel within the first two weeks.

Attack reinitiated

Brig. Gen. Clovis E. Byers. He became commander of the 32nd Division after Harding was relieved of command, and following Brig. Gen. Albert W. Waldron who was wounded by a sniper.

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 Chief of Staff, Brig. Gen. Clovis E. Byers. Eichelberger moved the I Corps command to the Buna area, running his HQ with a batman and radio operator. "Some of the 32nd's officers privately denounced Eichelberger as ruthless, Prussian. The men of the 32nd...called their division cemetery 'Eichelberger Square.'"[57]

Japanese lines split

On the same day, the Allies split the Japanese lines. Staff Sergeant Herman Bottcher, Platoon Commander G Company, 126th Infantry, led 18 men against the defending and heavily entrenched Japanese forces. He stood up and threw hand grenades at the enemy in their emplacements and was able to drive a wedge between the Japanese positions in Buna and Buna village. Forty Japanese soldiers were killed on the beach; a dozen were wounded. Sergeant Bottcher and his troops fought off attacks for seven days, taking over enemy machine guns for their own use. Bottcher was wounded twice before he was relieved.[58]

...With 18 men, one machine gun, and 'sheer guts under fire' SSgt Bottcher held off a Japanese force that flanked him on two sides and numbered in the thousands. Despite being out-gunned and out-numbered, Bottcher and his men so effectively fought the enemy that they were never able to launch a coordinated attack and secure the narrow beach of Buna, New Guinea. When the enemy finally grew impatient and attacked, Bottcher 'mowed them down like wheat in a field'. For bravery under fire, he was awarded the battlefield commission of Captain. Two year later, Captain Bottcher was killed in combat fighting in the Philippines. With grateful appreciation The American Legion remembers Capt. Herman J. Bottcher and 'G' Company Erected on behalf of the American Legion by Dominic D. Difrancesco National Commander April 1992.[59]

Australian war correspondent George Johnston wrote in Time magazine on 20 September 1943:

"The American, Herman Bottcher, led twelve volunteers into the Japanese positions, built fortifications on the beach. Constantly under fire, Bottcher provided a diversion that resulted in Allied victory. By a conservative count ... Bottcher and his twelve men ... killed more than 120 Japs."[60]

Bottcher had finally turned the tide of the battle at Buna. His platoon's efforts cut off the Japanese in Buna Village from resupply and reinforcements, enabling the rest of the division to take the village. Bottcher was awarded the battlefield commission of captain and his first of two Distinguished Service Cross Medals. A plaque was later placed at the entrance to Buna Village in memory of his actions that day.[58]

Gona village captured

A M3 tank manned by the Australian 2/6th Armoured Regiment supports infantry advancing through a coconut grove at Buna.


On 8 December, following savage close-quarter fighting, the Australians captured Gona village.[7]:258 That same day, Eichelberger organised a new attack on Buna Village and the 32nd Division captured the position on 14 December.[61] General Clovis Byers was in turn wounded on 16 December, forcing Eichelberger to take direct command of the division. The Japanese landed 1,300 reinforcements, but by 18 December the Allies were reinforced by the Australian 7th Division's 18th Brigade along with the M3 Stuart light tanks of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment[7]:263—the first tanks available to the Allied forces. In spite of this boost, the Australians suffered some of their worst losses of the entire battle, although they eventually broke through the Japanese defensive positions along the coast.

Buna Mission overtaken

File:American dead buna beach.png

Three American G.I.s lay dead on Buna Beach.[62] The image was captured by George Strock on 31 December 1942[63] though it is sometimes described as having been taken in February 1943, a month after the battle ended.[64] LIFE magazine was finally able to publish it on 20 September 1943 after President Roosevelt authorised its release. It was the first photograph to depict American soldiers dead on the battlefield. Roosevelt was concerned that the American public were growing complacent about the cost of the war on human life.

Japanese soldiers killed during the final phase of the battle at Buna Mission, January 1943. The large number of dead Japanese and Allied bodies on the beach led the Allies to nickname it "Maggot Beach".[65][66]

The Australians had found that area suitable for tanks and the Allies decided to initiate a tank-infantry attack on the Duropa Plantation and New Strip areas. With the help of newly arrived artillery and mortar the attack began at 0700 on 18 December.[42] In 10 days of fighting, the 32nd Division, reinforced by the fresh Australian 18th Brigade and with the help of the tanks, advanced along the coast from Duropa plantation to Buna Mission, taking the remaining Japanese positions on 2 January 1943.[7]:270 In the Japanese positions they located the bodies of Allied soldiers who had been captured and found evidence of cannibalism. During the prior attempt to capture Port Moresby over the Kokoda Track, and during their defense of Buna-Gona, the Japanese regularly practiced cannibalism.[notes 7][67]:80 None of the Allied soldiers taken captive during the entire Kokoda Track campaign and the fight for Buna-Gona were allowed to live, and a number of those who were captured had been tortured, used for bayonet practice, or eaten.[1]

Battle for Sanananda

The battle of Sanananda was the longest of the three battles. The Japanese position was well-defended, astride a raised road on relatively dry ground, surrounded by waist-deep jungle swamp. In an attempt to cut off the forward Japanese positions, the elements of 3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment flanked the Japanese road block and capture the road behind them. Although they were successful in establishing the roadblock, the Japanese maintained their position, receiving resupply through the swamp.

The Australian 16th Brigade—by now half-strength—was sent to attack the position, but their march was poorly organised. From 16 November to their first contact with the enemy on 19 November, the troops went without food. The 1,400 men of 126th Infantry regiment 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 Australian 30th Brigade relieved the 16th Brigade, and Brigadier Porter took overall command.[7]:260 The 126th was also relieved but 635 troops manned a roadblock under constant Japanese attack. The remainder of the 2/6th was withdrawn to Soputa and then Port Moresby, where they spent Christmas prior to returning to Australia for re-organization and refurbishment.[40]:110[41]:126

File:Sanananda map.jpg

Sanananda Front, 22 November 1942 – 22 January 1943

The Americans received their first reinforcements on 18 December when 350 men from the Australian 2/7th Cavalry Regiment fought their way through to the roadblock. The following day, the 2/7th outflanked the Japanese and established another roadblock 300 m (980 ft) ahead of the American position and the Australian 49th Battalion now reinforced the 126th.[7]:260–262 By now, illness and low morale was taking its toll and the 126th were retired 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. The commanding officer of Company C was killed. Eichelberger later wrote that "the fighting was desperate and the outcome of the whole miserable, tortured campaign was in doubt".[5]:328 Having never visited the front, MacArthur sent his Chief of Staff—Richard K. Sutherland—with a letter for Eichelberger which Sutherland delivered on Christmas Day.[5]:328

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.[68]

Eichelberger wrote back that he was pushing the offensive with the kinds of numbers he felt the situation warranted. He reassured MacArthur that his men were fighting hard. On 28 December, he received a communique from MacArthur that he had released to the press describing the action at Buna Gona. It read, "On Christmas Day, our activities were limited to routine safety precautions. Divine services were held." It left Eichelberger fuming.[5]:328[68]

On the night of 25 December, a Japanese submarine unloaded supplies and ammunition at Buna Government Station, the last time the Japanese received supplies.[68]

Of the 635 American troops who engaged the Japanese, only 244 effective troops remained by the end of December.

Allies attack Japanese-held junction

On 2 January, the U.S. 163rd Infantry Regiment of the 41st Infantry Division—fresh from Australia—arrived and took over the two roadblocks and relieved the Australians.[7]:273

File:Sanananda Roadblocks.jpg

Sanananda road block positions 1–22 January 1943.

The preliminary attacks began with a failed attack on the Japanese position between the two roadblocks on 8 January.[7]:274 Two days later, the Allies supported by tanks attacked the Japanese position at the trail junction. The attack failed but convinced Col. Tsukamoto to order a retreat. Japanese Imperial Headquarters had already decided on 4 January to retreat to Lae and Salamaua, but the order did not reach Sanananda until 12 January.[7]:276 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.

15 January saw the U.S. 163rd Infantry finally broke the Japanese position between the road blocks. The main attack began the next day with the 163rd attacking the Japanese troops north of the two roadblocks while the Australian 18th Brigade's attack reached the coast on both sides of Sanananda and also supported the American attack, effecting a link-up at Huggins and on the Killerton Track.[7]:276 Japanese resistance was stiff; nevertheless, by 17 January, they had been pinned down in three positions, on the coast north of Sanananda, on the coast west of Giruwa and on the main track north of the roadblocks which was still holding out. On 20 January, General Yamagata ordered an evacuation and escaped while General Oda and Colonel Yazawa ran into Australian troops and were killed; the Japanese positions on the coast collapsed with little resistance. Evacuation of the main track was not possible and this last position was overrun on 22 January.[7]:276


After almost three months of fighting, of the 16,000 Japanese who had been landed on New Guinea, an estimated 6,500 were defending Buna-Gona. The Japanese forces 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.[1][69][70]:343 When the fighting ended, only six Japanese were captured. The remainder of the garrison had escaped northward into the jungle or were annihilated.[71] On 20 November, MacArthur had ordered Harding to attack "regardless of losses". Two days later he sent an order to Harding to attack the next day regardless of cost. After Harding was relieved of command, MacArthur constantly pressured Eichelberger to act quickly and obtain results. Eichelberger recorded multiple instances when MacArthur urged him to hasten his efforts to rapidly defeat the Japanese. In public, MacArthur stated after the campaign's conclusion that, "There was no reason to hurry the attack because the time element was of little importance."[5] He told the media, "The utmost care was taken for the conservation of our forces with the result that probably no campaign in history against a thoroughly prepared and trained Army produced such complete and decisive results with so low an expenditure of life and resources."[5]:328 The Japanese planned to retake Guadalcana, after which they would reinforce Horii's forces and launch a reinvigorated attack on the Australians around Port Moresby.[72]:p230 In the end, subsequent defeats at Buna–Gona and on Guadalcanal did not allow them to implement these plans as the Allies gained the ascendency in the region throughout late 1942 and the Japanese were forced to fall back to the northern coast of New Guinea.[72]:p24961[73]:p61

Allied casualty rate exceeds Guadalcanal

The Australians lost 2,700 and the Americans 798 at Buna-Gona.[7]:276 On 14 October 1942, 9,825 men of the 32nd Division entered combat. During less than seven weeks in New Guinea, it suffered 586 killed, 1,954 wounded, and 100 more dead from other causes.[74] Tropical diseases—especially malaria, dengue fever and bush typhus (known to the Japanese as tsutsugamushi)—caused far more casualties than the effects of battle. The division suffered an extraordinary 66% illness rate, with 7,125 casualties due to illness (with 2,952 requiring hospitalisation). Total casualties of 9,956 exceeded the Division's entire battle strength.[74][75] The high casualty rate was due in part to the lack of armor, artillery, and naval support. An unknown observer commented that if the Allies had provided only a token naval force, the capture of Buna-Gona would have been completed within a few weeks instead of months.[14]

Among the 126th Infantry Regiment, 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 had gone into action during on 21 November, they including 1,400 troops in their ranks. When they were relieved by the Australian 2/7 Cavalry on 9 January, only 165 men remained, the majority of them scarcely able to walk.[76]

Overall, about 60,000 Americans fought on Guadalcanal, suffering 5,845 casualties, including 1,600 killed in action. On Papua more than 33,000 Americans and Australians fought, and they suffered 8,546 casualties, of whom 3,095 were killed. On Guadalcanal, one in 37 died, while troops in New Guinea had a one in 11 chance of dying.[5]:329

In his book, Our Jungle Road to Tokyo written in 1950, Eichelberger wrote, "Buna was...bought at a substantial price in death, wounds, disease, despair, and human suffering. No one who fought there, however hard he tries, will ever forget it." Fatalities, he concluded, "closely approach, percentage-wise, the heaviest losses in our Civil War battles." He also commented, "I am a reasonably unimaginative man, but Buna is still to me, in retrospect, a nightmare. This long after, I can still remember every day and most of the nights."[5]:327

Historian Stanley Falk agreed. "The Papuan campaign was one of the costliest Allied victories of the Pacific war in terms of casualties per troops committed."[68] The Ghost Mountain Boys of the 2/126th were especially hard hit. When Buna was taken they finished the fight with only six officers and 126 troops standing out of the 900 plus who had started out from Kapa Kapa.[26]

The march by the U.S. 2/126th from Kapa Kapa to Jaure and the brutal combat at Buna-Gona taught the Allied armies important lessons that they applied throughout the Pacific Theater and remainder of the war in the Pacific.[77]

Recognition and memorials

The memorial plaque in the entrance to Buna Village, dedicated to Herman Bottcher and the Red Arrow Division.

1st Sgt Elmer J. Burr[78] and Sgt Kenneth E. Gruennert[79] were later posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in the Battle of Buna-Gona. Herman Bottcher was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross twice. Allied operations against Japanese forces in New Guinea, including Operation Cartwheel and the Salamaua-Lae campaign, continued through 1945.

A brass memorial plaque was placed at the site of the Huggins roadblock after the war.

Capt. Meredith H. Huggins,USA
3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment,
32nd Division "Huggins Road Block"
November 1941 – December 1942

After his commanding officer was killed, Capt. Huggins assumed command of companies of the 126th Infantry, 32nd Division. Tasked with securing a critical choke point to thwart a rapid Japanese advance across the Kokoda Trail. Huggins' bravery under fire and his ability to hold a numerically superior Japanese force at bay, lay the groundwork for an American victory in New Guinea. The place where he fought and was wounded on 3 December 1942 now bears the name "Huggins Road Block," in honor of his valor.
With grateful appreciation The American Legion remembers Capt. Meredith Huggins. Erected on behalf of the American Legion by National Commander April[80]

The Japanese also erected a monument commemorating their soldiers' struggle.

The war dead from Kochi-ken lies here. 1974, July Governor of Kochi, Kochi-ken, Masumi Mizobuchi, representative of bereaved New Guinea society.

Australian units placed a plaque in memory of their fallen comrades.

To the memory of the 161 members of the 53, 55, 55/53rd Australian Infantry Battalion (A.I.F) who gave their lives in Papua New Guinea 1942–1945.


  1. Deaths include 1,300 Australian and 1,000 U.S. Illness from contracting tropical diseases exceeded 50 percent of the Allied troops
  2. The natives provided Division G2 Brig. General Charles Willoughby with information that led him to believe the Japanese garrison at Buna was about a battalion.
  3. Karsik was the German Soneck impounded in the Netherlands East Indies, and used as a train ferry at Batavia making her suited for transporting tanks to the Allied forces at Buna.
  4. A and D Patrols were still in the Kokoda area at this time along with Y Patrol which was heading to the Yodda River. Only about 100 men were available at Wanigela in mid-October. (Trigellis-Smith 1992, p. 82)
  5. Citing McCarthy, South-West Pacific — The First Year: Kokoda to Wau, pp. 462, 517
  6. See Colonel Wilson, Chief of Transportation, quote about danger and discussion of the coastal route Allied ships were forced to use and Japanese access from Rabaul in connection with Small Ships above under "Allied supply lines distant."
  7. In September 1942, Japanese daily rations had consisted of 800 grams of rice and tinned meat; by December, this had fallen to 50 grams. Happell (2008), p. 78.


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