Battle of Buna–Gona

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Battle of Buna–Gona
Part of the Pacific Theatre 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 scrub typhus. (Picture by George Silk, AWM104028)[Note 1]
Date 16 November 1942 – 22 January 1943
Location New Guinea
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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 6 December:
Japan Tsuyuo Yamagata
Units involved
20,000+[Note 2] 6,500+
Casualties and losses
1,991 killed,
12,300+ injured or sick[Note 3]
7,000 killed,[Note 4]
1,200 injured (evacuated),
250+ captured

The Battle of Buna–Gona was part of the New Guinea campaign in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. It followed the conclusion of the Kokoda Track campaign and lasted from 16 November 1942 until 22 January 1943. The battle was conducted by Australian and United States forces against the Japanese beachheads at Buna, Sanananda and Gona. From these, the Japanese had launched an overland attack on Port Moresby. In light of developments in the Solomon Islands campaign, Japanese forces approaching Port Moresby were ordered to withdraw to and secure these bases on the northern coast. Australian forces maintained contact as the Japanese conducted a well-ordered rearguard action. The Allied objective was to eject the Japanese forces from these positions and deny them their further use. The Japanese forces were skillful, well prepared and resolute in their defence. They had developed a strong network of well-concealed defences.

Operations in New Guinea were severely impacted by terrain, vegetation, climate, disease and the lack of infrastructure. In turn, these imposed significant logistical limitations. During the Kokoda Track campaign, these factors applied more-or-less equally to both belligerents but favoured the defender in attacks against well-fortified positions. The battlefield and logistical constraints limited the applicability of conventional Allied doctrine of manoeuvre and firepower. During the opening stages of the offensive, the Allies faced a severe shortage of food and ammunition. This problem was never entirely resolved. The battle also exposed critical problems with the suitability and performance of Allied equipment. The combat effectiveness of US forces, particularly the US 32nd Division, has been severely criticised. These factors were compounded by repeated demands from General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, for a rapid conclusion to the battle. The demands were more to politically secure and strengthen the position of MacArthur's command than for any strategic need. In consequence, troops were hastily committed to battle on repeated occasions, increasing Allied losses and ultimately lengthening the duration of the battle.

Allied air power interrupted the Japanese capacity to reinforce and resupply the beachheads from Rabaul. This ultimately made the Japanese position untenable. There was widespread evidence of Japanese cannibalism. In the closing stages of the battle, significant numbers of the defenders were withdrawn by sea or escaped overland toward the west and the Japanese base around Salamaua and Lae. The remaining garrison fought to the death, almost to the man.

The battle is noteworthy for a number of reasons. The resolve and tenacity of the Japanese in defence was unprecedented and had not previously been encountered. It was to mark the desperate nature of fighting that characterised battles for the remainder of the Pacific war. For the Allies, there were a number of valuable but costly lessons in the conduct of jungle warfare. Allied losses in the battle were at a rate higher than that experienced at Guadalcanal.


Relation of Buna–Gona and New Guinea campaign within region.

Japan's entry into World War II and the war in the Pacific commenced with the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, which was coordinated with closely coinciding attacks on Thailand, the Philippines, the American bases on Guam and Wake Island, and the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.[1] Japanese forces rapidly secured territory in South-East Asia, the East Indies, and the Central and South-West Pacific. Australia had been shocked by the speedy collapse of British Malaya and the fall of Singapore. With the fall, nearly 15,000 Australian soldiers became prisoners of war along with the rest of the garrison of some 85,000 (mostly British and Indian troops).[2]

US President Franklin Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines to formulate a Pacific defence plan with Australia in March 1942. The Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, agreed to place Australian forces under the command of MacArthur, who became Supreme Commander, Southwest Pacific Area. MacArthur moved his headquarters (HQ) to Melbourne in March 1942.[3]

The Japanese assaulted Rabaul on 23 January 1942.[4] Rabaul became the forward base for the Japanese campaigns in mainland New Guinea. Japanese forces first landed on the mainland of New Guinea on 8 March 1942[5] when they invaded Lae and Salamaua to secure bases for the defence of the important base they were developing at Rabaul.[6]

The Japanese 17th Army under Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake was a corps-sized command involved in the New Guinea, Guadalcanal, and Solomon Islands campaigns.[7] The Japanese 8th Area Army, under General Hitoshi Imamura, was mobilised to take overall command in the areas from 16 November 1942. It was responsible for both the New Guinea and Solomon Islands campaigns. Imamura was based at Rabaul. The Japanese 18th Army, under Lieutenant General Hatazō Adachi, was also formed to take over responsibilities for Japanese operations on mainland New Guinea, leaving the 17th Army responsible for the Solomon Islands.[8]

On the road to Buna, Australian troops cross a stream on an improvised bridge. AWM013755

Despite Australian fears, the Japanese never intended to invade the Australian mainland. While an invasion was considered by the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters in February 1942, it was judged to be beyond the Japanese military's capabilities and no planning or other preparations were undertaken.[9] Instead, in March 1942 the Japanese military adopted a strategy of isolating Australia from the United States; planning to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia.[10] The first part of this plan, codenamed Operation Mo, was an amphibious landing to capture Port Moresby, capital of the Australian Territory of Papua.[11] This was frustrated by the Japanese defeat in the Battle of the Coral Sea and postponed indefinitely after the Battle of Midway.[12]

The Japanese then planned an overland attack to capture the town by advancing from the north coast. Having already captured much of the northern part of New Guinea earlier that year, they landed on 21 July 1942, to established beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.[13] This marked the beginning of the Kokoda Track campaign. The South Seas Detachment, under command of Major General Tomitarō Horii, advanced using the Kokoda Track to cross the rugged Owen Stanley Range.[14]

As the Kokoda Track campaign was taking place, a Japanese invasion force made up of Japanese Special Naval Landing Force units attempted to capture the strategic Milne Bay area in August 1942. The Battle of Milne Bay, fought from 25 August to 7 September 1942,[15] resulted in a Japanese defeat. This was the first notable Japanese land defeat and raised Allied morale across the Pacific Theatre.[16]

Allied forces identified a Japanese airfield under construction at Guadalcanal, and 19,000 US Marines were embarked to capture the airfield.[17] An amphibious landing was made on 7 August.[18] The battle lasted until 9 February 1943[19] and was strongly contested, on land, at sea and in the air.[20]

By 16 September, Horii's force had advanced as far as Ioribaiwa, 32 kilometres (20 mi) from Port Moresby, and was close enough to see the town's lights.[21] In light of reverses at Guadalcanal, Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake determined he could not support both battles and, on 23 September,[22] ordered Horii to withdraw his troops on the Kokoda Track until the issue at Guadalcanal was decided. Limited provision had been made for the resupply of Horii's force and, by this time, the situation had reached a crisis.[23] There were also concerns that Allied forces might land at Buna at any time.[24]

The Allied advance across the Owen Stanley Range, 26 September – 15 November

On 26 September, the Japanese commenced to withdraw from the front line.[25] They fought a well-ordered rear-guard action back over the Owen Stanley Range, with the Australian 7th Division in close pursuit.[26] The US 32nd Infantry Division had been sent to New Guinea in September and was ordered to make a circling move against the Japanese eastern flank near Wairopi.[27] This move commenced on 14 October.[28][Note 5] These plans were rendered ineffectual by the rate of the Japanese withdrawal, but it did leave the division well positioned to coordinate its advance on the beachheads with the Australians that were approaching from the southwest.[30]

Major General Arthur Allen was controversially relieved of command[31] of the 7th Division on 28 October, and replaced by Major General George Vasey, previously commander of the 6th Division.[32] Horii's force had been severely depleted by lack of supply, but at Oivi it received both resupply and reinforcement. The Japanese suffered heavily in the battle around Oivi–Gorari, from 4 to 11 November, and the well-ordered withdrawal that had been planned quickly disintegrated into a rout.[33] The 7th Division was now about 65 kilometres (40 mi) from Buna–Gona.[34][Note 6] Although experience demanded caution,[37] the way before them was clear of Japanese forces.[38]


Climate and terrain

Rain turned the tracks to mud. AWM014187

The Japanese beachheads from which the Kokoda campaign was launched were located about three key positions along a 25-kilometre (16 mi) stretch of the north coast of New Guinea: Gona to the west, Buna to the east, and Sanananda–Giruwa in the centre.[39] Roughly 160 kilometres (99 mi) northeast of Port Moresby,[40][Note 7] it approximates to the most direct line from there to the north coast. The settlements are located on a thin coastal strip that separates the sea from a tidal forest swamp of mangroves, nipa and sago.[41] Rivers flowing across the broad, flat, coastal plain from the Owen Stanley Range disappear into the swamps and discharge to the sea through many coastal creeks.[42] The coastal strip is rarely more than a few hundred metres at its widest to little more than a foot pad separating the swamp from the sea. The few paths through the swamp were seldom more than 12-foot (3.7 m) wide.[43]

The area was low-lying and featureless. Buna air strip is 5 feet (1.5 m) above sea level.[44] The elevation is only double this at Soputa, 7.5 miles (12.1 km) inland[44] and 85 metres (279 ft) at Popondetta, 21 kilometres (13 mi) inland.[45] The water table is reportedly shallow at about 3 feet (0.91 m).[46][47] This impacted upon the construction of weapons pits and defensive positions.[48]

A patrol pushes its way through thick kunai grass. AWM014181

Areas not waterlogged were either dense jungle or swathes of kunai grass.[49] Coconut plantations filled the wider areas of dry ground along the coastal strip but neglected, undergrowth had reclaimed the ground.[50] The dense kunai grass could grow to 2 metres (6.6 ft) and the leaves were broad and sharp.[41]

Temperatures over the period of the battle ranged from an average daily low of 72 °F (22 °C) to 89 °F (31 °C) but with a humidity of 82 percent, this could be oppressive.[51] In the humid conditions, kunai grass trapped the heat and it was not uncommon for temperatures to reach 50 °C (122 °F).[50]

The battle was conducted during the tropical wet season.[52] Average rainfall for December was 368 millimetres (14.5 in),[53] although this figure does not lend itself to a full appreciation of the impact of rain. It was characterised by heavy tropical storms, usually in the afternoon. While the worst of the monsoon held off until after the battle,[53] rain was nonetheless a prevalent feature of the battle. Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger wrote: "At Buna that year it rained about a hundred and seventy inches [4,300 mm]. I have found out since that we got more than our share in December and January 1942–43."[54] Daily rainfall totals of 200 to 250 millimetres (7.9 to 9.8 in) were not uncommon.[55] Under these conditions, the few tracks, seldom more than foot trails, quickly became boggy.[50]


The area was one of the most malarial regions in the world.[56] While malaria was the greatest disease threat, other tropical diseases such as dengue fever, scrub typhus, tropical ulcers, dysentery from a range of causes and fungal infections were also common.[57][58] The impact and susceptibility to disease was exacerbated by poor and insufficient diet.[59]

While the Australian Army had encountered malaria in the Middle East, few doctors with the militia had seen the disease before. Supplies of quinine, which was still the major drug in use, were unreliable.[60] Atebrin only became the official suppressive drug used by the Australian forces in late December 1942 and the change to its use was not immediate.[61] The need for a strict anti-malaria program was not fully understood.[62] Many officers saw this as a medical rather than a disciplinary issue, and did not compel their men to take their medicine.[63] It was common for Australian soldiers to wear shorts and rolled sleeves in response to the oppressive heat.[64] Mosquito nets and repellent were in short supply,[65] while the repellent that was supplied was considered ineffective.[66]

Papuan stretcher bearers carrying US 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.

Bergerud states that 85–95 percent of all Allied soldiers in the area carried malaria during the course of the battle.[67][Note 8] There were 4.8 men hospitalised through sickness for every one Allied battle casualty.[Note 9] 75 percent of the cases were attributed to malaria.[61] After he had relieved Harding, Eichelberger gave orders to take the temperature of an entire company near the front. Every member of that company was running a fever.[70] By necessity, many men remained in the front lines with a fever as high as 40 °C (103 °F).[71] Brien reports, "Japanese accounts of the prevalence of disease are similarly shocking."[72]


Porters with ammunition for the front lines taking a brief rest. Porters were essential to the Allied supply system. Note that the track has been laid with corduroy.

After the Battle of Milne Bay, the Allies set about developing a number of aircraft landing fields.[73] The fields were built to enable Allied forces to more quickly deploy in response to any future Japanese landings, as forward bases for the air campaign against the Japanese, and to support the battle at the beachheads.[74] They were used to deploy a part of the US 32nd Division to the Buna area.[75][76] Colonel Leif Sverdrup was awarded the Silver Star[77] and the Distinguished Service Medal[78] for his efforts in reconnaissance and construction of air strips in New Guinea, including those at Fasari, Embessa and Pongani.[79]

During the Kokoda campaign, there were three alternatives available to the Australians for resupply. Supplies and equipment could either be carried by Papuan porters overland from Port Moresby, they could be air dropped or they could be landed at a forward air strip and man-packed from there.[80] Topography precluded the prospect of developing an overland route for motor transport.[Note 10] Supply was limited by the number of available aircraft and unsuitable weather over the Owen Stanley Range stopping flights.[92] Civilian aircraft and pilots were pressed into service in an effort to meet demand. They were mainly used in flights between Australia and New Guinea or in rear areas in order to release military planes and personnel for service in forward areas.[93]

Unreliable maps or poor visibility in the drop zone meant that supplies were often misdropped. Parachutes were in limited supply. As a result, only essential equipment, ammunition and medical supplies were dropped with parachutes.[94] Rations and other supplies were "free dropped". Packaging was primitive and inadequate.[95] The rate of recovery was low and the rate of breakage high – on average, 50 percent.[96][97] Of a drop made on 22 November, it was reported that only about 5 percent was recovered.[98][Note 11]

Troops load ammunition wrapped in blankets, which will be dropped to the troops in the Buna–Gona area. Blamey displays a keen interest. AWM013836

While the use of air transport generally restricted the availability of heavy equipment, some artillery was broken down and transported by air to the Buna–Gona area.[100][101] Another notable exception was equipment of the 43rd General Service Regiment. On 25 November, 210 men of the regiment were flown to Dobodura to construct more runways. Transported with them were two tractors, five mowers, a sheepsfoot roller and a grader. All of these were disassembled and cut down to allow loading and then reconstructed on site.[102]

Air strips were quickly developed at Dobodura and Popondetta to support the US 32nd Division and Australian 7th Division respectively. The first temporary strip at Dobodura was cleared by a company of the 114th Engineer Battalion. It was completed on 21 November, after a day of work.[103] The strip at Popondetta was commenced on 19 November[104] by the 2/6th Field Company. Completed after two days, it received its first landings on 21 November.[105][Note 12]

The alternative of resupply by sea was equally problematic. Before the war, coastal traders approached the north coast of New Guinea from Rabaul, on the island of New Britain.[107] This route was denied by the Japanese occupation of the island. The coastal passage from Milne Bay was treacherous and lacked an identified safe sea route.[108] An assortment of small vessels were operated by the Small Ships Section of the US Army Services of Supply (USASOS). The vessels were "schooners, motorships, motor launches, cabin cruisers, ketches, trawlers, barges, and miscellaneous vessels, most of which were ancient and rusty."[109] They were leased or requisitioned by the US Army and largely crewed by Australians under contract with USASOS.[110] Initially, these vessels faced a constant threat of attack by Japanese planes.[111] This situation eased as the Allies began to achieve air dominance near the end of 1942.[112] The Small Ships Section was operating vessels up to 500 tons but most were significantly smaller than this.[113]

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.

Oro Bay was the nearest suitable location to be developed as a harbour in support of the Buna–Gona operations. It is located 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) southeast of Dobodura. The road eventually constructed to connect the two was 40 kilometres (25 mi) long.[114] Without any developed facilities, stores and equipment had to be cross-loaded onto barges or double canoes for landing.[113] Harding's plan was to support his forces by ferrying supplies from Oro Bay to Hariko using luggers and a captured Japanese barge. Late on 16 November, making this journey, a convoy of three luggers with the barge, small boats and pontoons in tow was attacked by fourteen Japanese Zero fighters as it rounded Cape Sudest. The three boats and the barge were set ablaze. Two 25-pounders of the 2/5th Field Regiment loaded on the barge were lost; 24 soldiers and 28 Papuans were killed. Many more were wounded.[115] Two more luggers were attacked the next morning. One was lost, while one had to return to Milne Bay for repairs. Only one lugger remained and was insufficient to support Harding's force. Sea resupply from Oro Bay was effectively suspended for three weeks while these losses were made good. Limited supplies could be paddled or man-handled around the coast;[116] or packed overland. Apart from the critical shortages this created on the eve of battle, Harding's force had to rely on air support for resupply in the interim.[117][118]

The Allies had jeeps flown in to help move stores forward.[119] These significantly eased the workload faced by the Papuan porters.[120] The transverse track connecting Ango, Soputa and Jumbora was developed with corduroy to allow communication between the three Allied fronts.[121]

An assault boat being used to transport rations, Girua River, December 1942.

The Allies faced critical shortages of ammunition and rations at the start of the battle. American troops subsisted for almost a week on a daily diet of one-third of a 'C' ration and one-sixth of a 'D' ration. This was equivalent to about 1,000 calories a day.[Note 13][95] The lot of the Australian troops was similar.[122] The logistical situation improved as the battle progressed but remained a defining feature of the engagement.[Note 15] Improvements in infrastructure and capacity were largely consumed by increases in the size of the force.[Note 16]

The Japanese fighting along the Kododa Track faced the same logistical problems as the Australians but lacked the benefit of aerial resupply to any significant extent. Stocks of rice and other foodstuffs identified at Gona when it was captured on 8 December suggest that the garrison had been well provisioned at the start of the battle.[131] The Japanese positions had been supplied by sea from Rabaul. Attempts at the start of the battle to land troops and supplies from destroyers were only partly successful.[132] Allied air power at both Rabaul and over the beachheads curtailed the use of surface ships for resupply. Some troops and equipment destined for Buna–Gona were landed near the mouth of the Mambare River. Reinforcement and supplies were barged from there to the beachheads.[133] Some supplies were landed from submarines although size and travel time dictated that the quantities were necessarily small. On the night of 25 December, a Japanese submarine unloaded supplies and ammunition at Buna Government Station, the last time the Japanese received supplies.[134][Note 17] There was limited use of aerial resupply by the Japanese at Buna–Gona.[135]

Inside passage, Milne Bay to Cape Nelson and Oro Bay.

The normal rice ration was 28 oz (800 g or approximately 600 mL).[136] Rice formed the bulk of the Japanese ration. At the end of December, each man received around 360 mL of rice per day but this was reduced to 40–80 mL in early January. There was no food for the period 8–12 January.[137][Note 18] By the time that the battle was over on 22 January, the garrison had been virtually starved into submission. There was widespread evidence that the Japanese had resorted to cannibalising the dead to stay alive.[139][140][Note 19]

Sea route opened

In October, the Allies captured Goodenough Island off the northeast coast of New Guinea, with little Japanese resistance. In the hands of the Japanese, the island had potentially compromised the security of the north coast.[142] From early 1943, the Allies developed it as a forward base.[143][144]

The route between the north shore and the D'Entrecasteaux Islands had never been accurately charted. It was described by Colonel Wilson, Chief of Transportation, as "the most dangerous coastline in the world."[107] Vessels of the Small Ships Section, apart from delivering cargo from Milne Bay to Wanigela, Pongani, Oro Bay and Hariko, made a valuable contribution to opening up the inside passage to larger shipping. Of the section, Masterson wrote: "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."[109]

SS Karsik, the first large ship into Oro Bay.

Those efforts were augmented by the arrival of HMAS Paluma. The forty-five ton examination vessel began 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 around Cape Nelson suitable for larger vessels in the Small Ships fleet. Thereafter, the larger vessels discharged at Porlock. The luggers concentrated on transporting forward from there. The hydrographic section in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) learned of the local effort and provided additional support. HMA Ships Warrego, Stella, and Polaris were tasked to survey and establish safe passage for large ships from Milne Bay to Cape Nelson. HMAS Paluma worked on the route forward to Oro Bay. These combined efforts made the large ship convoy service of Operation Lilliput a possibility.[145]

The interior of a Japanese bunker near Duropa Plantation. The reinforced bunkers had been incorrectly dismissed by MacArthur's staff as "hasty field entrenchments".

The first large vessel to deliver supplies to Oro Bay was the SS Karsik.[Note 20] She was escorted by HMAS Lithgow, in Operation Karsik on the night of 11/12 December 1942. The cargo was four Stuart light tanks of the Australian 2/6th Armoured Regiment and seven days' supply for the 2/9th Battalion.[146] Karsik returned with a second load of tanks on the 14th, in Operation Tramsik.[147] On 18 December the Japara escorted by Lithgow departed Milne Bay and arrived at Oro Bay on the 20th. This voyage inaugurated the regular supply runs of Operation Lilliput. With few exceptions, the convoys of Lilliput were composed of the Dutch KPM vessels under the control of the US Army Services of Supply escorted by an Australian corvette.[148][Note 21]


Leading into the battle, Allied intelligence was severely deficient in respect to the disposition of Japanese forces at the beachheads and knowledge of the battlefield. Both the strength and the overall combat effectiveness of the Japanese defenders was severely underestimated.[150] "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 by about 1 December."[150] Other intelligence described the Japanese defenders as "sick and malnourished" when in fact, at least 6,500 from the Imperial Japanese Army and marines from the Special Naval Landing Forces held the beachhead.[150][57][Note 22] They were largely experienced troops, in good spirit, well prepared and well provisioned. What had filtered down to the GIs making the attack on 19 November, was that there were only two squads of Japanese at Buna.[151]

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."[46] 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. Scanty, ill-informed intelligence led MacArthur to believe that Buna could be taken with relative ease.[46]

Reproduction of an original photomap from the Report of the Commanding General, Buna Forces in the Buna Campaign. Reliable maps and photographs were not readily available, particularly at the start of the battle.

Australian maps of the area were, for the most part, only sketches. They were so inaccurate that they showed some rivers flowing uphill.[152] The lack of accurate maps of the area made it extremely difficult to accurately position and target artillery.[153]

Aerial photos were not generally available and those photographs that were available were not produced in sufficient numbers, nor distributed in a timely fashion to commanders.[154] The 30th Brigade at Sanananda did not receive any aerial photos of the area until 18 December, almost two weeks after arriving at the front.[155] Brien recounts that after the battle "Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, commanding the 39th Battalion, was horrified to learn that there had been a considerable number of good aerial reconnaissance photos which had not been distributed."[156] While the photos could show a large area, they could also give the wrong impression. The dense vegetation often obscured many of the important features. Areas of ground which looked flat and relatively clear often turned out to be large patches of kunai grass or swamp.[157] They also failed to identify many of the Japanese defensive positions.[158]

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.

Terrain and persistent pressure for haste meant that there was little, if any, time given for reconnaissance. Intelligence gathering on the Japanese defences and dispositions was often incomplete, if attempted at all.[159] Captain Harry Katekar, Adjutant of the 2/27th Battalion, wrote afterward:

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 therefore 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.[159]

Japanese preparations


Before the Allied forces arrived on the Buna–Gona coast, Lieutenant General Richard K. Sutherland, MacArthur's chief of staff, had glibly referred to the Japanese coastal fortifications as "hasty field entrenchments."[46][47] After the battle, Lieutenant General Robert Eichelberger, the US Corps Commander, called the Japanese utilisation of terrain "perfect" and "brilliant".[160][Note 23] Natural obstacles were used to advantage to channel attackers into coordinated fields of fire.[162] The Japanese defensive positions at Buna–Gona have been described as "one of the most impressive defensive networks seen in the entire war."[156] They consisted of hundreds of bunkers and machine gun emplacements.[163] The positions had been skilfully developed in accordance with the principles of defence. They made excellent use of terrain, which limited the tactical possibilities for attackers.[164] The defences were developed in depth. Individual positions were mutually supporting and alternative positions were used to confound attackers.[165]

American signallers operating beside a captured Japanese bunker at Buna. AWM013979

Maximum use was made of locally available resources. Concrete and steel was also used to a limited extent.[166] A typical structure was revetted with coconut logs, reinforced with 44-gallon (55 US gal) drums filled with earth or concrete.[167] The roof was made from two or three courses of logs, covered with earth. Ammunition boxes filled with earth and used rice bags were also common in construction.[168][169] Most of the structure was built above ground due to the shallow water table. The complete structure might be 2 to 2.4 metres (6.6 to 7.9 ft) above ground level.[170] A large proportion had been constructed well in advance of the battle and were extremely well camouflaged by jungle regrowth which quickly covered them.[171] Entrances were designed to protect the occupants from grenade blasts.[172]

Structures were connected by a system of crawl trenches, with firing positions in between. The bunkers were mainly intended to protect the defenders from artillery and air attack.[173] When the threat lifted, the defenders would disperse to firing positions between the bunkers and emplacements.[174] The War Diary of the 2/6th Independent Company recounts:

All emplacements appeared to be made of cocoanut [sic] logs laid lengthwise with others placed on bearers forming the roof. The whole was then camouflaged according to the country in which it was situated... In most cases the loopholes were hidden to view by a screen of bush or camouflage, although vision from the inside out was still possible, and in most cases the pillbox or emplacement was not discovered until you were right on to it.[175]

Map showing the main Japanese positions at Buna–Gona.

The main Japanese position was centred on Sanananda and Giruwa. Defensive positions were located on the coastal flanks at Gona, to the west, and Buna to the east. A further position was located forward, astride the Sanananda-Soputa track, about 5.5 kilometres (3.4 mi) from the coast.[Note 24] These were a series of posts which, apart from covering the approach to Sanananda, also denied the use of two branch tracks to Cape Killerton. The three outer defensive positions can be considered as being located at the corners of a triangle,[178] while the main position was located at the centre of the base.[179] These positions were each separate but, initially at least, they could be readily resupplied and reinforced from the main position.[180] The outer positions covered the likely approaches to Sanananda-Giruwa while the swamp effectively barred any attempt to by-pass these positions.[181]

The Japanese defenders, while not strong in artillery, nonetheless had at their disposal a variety of pieces. Indicative of this is the artillery that was deployed at Buna. It consisted of: "several 75-mm naval guns, some 37-mm pom poms, 5 heavy anti-aircraft guns and a few 13-mms".[182][Note 25] The anti-aircraft pieces were quite capable against light armour. There was a battalion of mountain artillery located around Sanananda-Giruwa[184] and a company at Buna.[185]

Japanese tactics were mainly defensive in nature[170] but included counter-attacks when positions were taken. A notable exception was the attack on 25-pounder gun emplacements of 2/1st Field Regiment near Soputa in the first minutes of 29 December.[186] A charge was exploded in the barrel of one of the guns.[187]


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

The Japanese positions in the Buna–Gona area were manned by both Japanese Naval and Army units. The naval units included the 5th Special Landing Party, the equivalent of marines. Forces withdrawing down the Kokoda Track added to the strength of the original garrison.[188] Many survivors of the Kokoda campaign congregated to the west near the mouth of the Kumusi River and linked up with Japanese reinforcements that were landed there in early December.[189] This force actively threatened the western flank of the Australians at Gona.[190] Sources generally quote the Japanese effective strength at the start of the battle as 5,500[191] or 6,500 after reinforcement on the night of 18 November.[192][57] Milner observes, "No precise figure can be given for Japanese strength at the beachhead in mid-November."[193] Sources give the total of Japanese forces deployed to Buna–Gona or operating to the west in the vicinity of the Kumusi and Membare Rivers as between 11,000[194] and nearly 12,000.[195][Note 26]

Between 1,000 and 1,500 troops were landed by destroyer on 17 and 18 November, immediately prior to the Allied forces reaching the beachhead positions.[196] Bullard records the landing at Basabua (just east of Gona) of 800 reinforcements for the South Seas Force on the evening of 21 November. On 29 November, 400–500 of the troops that had withdrawn along the Kumusi River and concentrated near its mouth were barged to Sanananda.[197]

The position at Buna to the Girua River was held by between 2,000 and 2,500 defenders.[198][Note 27] Gona was held by 800–900 defenders.[200] Sources record that the Japanese forces in front of Sanananda numbered between 4,000 and 5,500 including the hospitalised.[201][Note 28] Defenders on the Sananada track are included as part of the strength of the Sanananda-Giruwa position. Between about 1,700 to 1,800 held the defences on the track.[202]

Four further attempts were made by destroyer convoys to reinforce the beachheads.[203] Convoys on 28 November and 9 December were turned back by air attacks.[204] A convoy on 2 December, after an aborted attempt at Basabua, landed about 500 troops, mainly the III/170th Battalion, near the mouth of the Kumusi River.[205] On 12 December, 800 troops, mainly of the I/170th Battalion, were landed near the mouth of the Mambare River, further along the coast.[206][Note 29] Part of this force was moved to reinforce the III/170th Battalion operating against the flank at Gona.[208] Between 700 and 800 reached Giruwa from 26 to 31 December.[209]

Horii, who had led the attack across the Kokoda Track, drowned at sea on 19 November[210] after rafting down the Kumusi River during the withdrawal from Kokoda. Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama temporarily assumed command of the South Seas Force following Horii's death.[211] Major General Kensaku Oda succeeded Horii in command of the South Seas Force. Major General Tsuyuo Yamagata commanded the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade[212] and was given command of all 18th Army units in the area other than the South Seas Force. He landed near the Kumusi River on 2 December and reached Gona on 6 December.[213] On this date, he was given overall command of the Japanese units engaged in the battle.[214]

Allied forces

Australians of the 2/12th Battalion move past a group of Americans on the Sanananda track, who had been in action a little earlier. AWM 014214

The Allied advance on the Japanese positions at Buna–Gona was made by the 16th and 25th Brigades of the Australian 7th Division and the 126th and 128th Infantry Regiments of the US 32nd Infantry Division.[215] During the course of the battle, a further four infantry brigades, two infantry regiments and an armoured squadron of 19 M3 Stuart tanks were deployed.[Note 30]

Australian units were generally well below establishment.[Note 31] American forces arrived on the battlefield with a force much closer to their establishment.[Note 32] The Papuan Infantry Battalion patrolled in the vicinity for Japanese stragglers from the Kokoda Track Campaign but was not engaged directly in the battle.[220] The contribution of Papuans engaged as labourers or porters was a significant part of the Allied logistic effort.[221] More than 3,000 Papuans worked to support the Allies during the battle.[222][Note 33]

US 32nd Division

The 32nd Infantry Division was a National Guard unit (militia) from Michigan and Wisconsin,[224] commanded at the start of the battle by Major General Edwin F. Harding. It had been sent to Australia in April 1942. It consisted of the 126th, 127th and 128th Infantry Regiments. Together with the US 41st Division, also based in Australia, it formed US I Corps.[225]

Major General Edwin F. Harding, Commanding General of the 32nd Infantry Division.

Staff officers considered the US 32nd Division unprepared and under-supplied for combat.[226] While in the US, the division had trained for a European war. Standard US Army practices dictated that a division should train together for a year,[227] but the 32nd had picked up more than 3,000 replacements fresh out of boot camp when the division was suddenly redirected to Australia.[228] When in Australia, they had moved to three different camps and were tasked with building each of them,[229] all of which cut heavily into the division's training time.[230] Harding, commenting on the unit's 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."[231] 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. The 32nd was not trained, equipped or prepared to fight in the jungle nor taught Japanese tactics.[46]

In early July, Major General Robert C. Richardson, Jr., Commanding General, US VII Corps, inspected the 32nd and found them in the "elementary stages" of training.[231] When 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, MacArthur insisted that a division be immediately moved from Australia to New Guinea. Eichelberger felt that the facilities at Camp Cable, where the 32nd Division was based, were inadequate and a further move was necessary. This pending move weighed heavily in his choice to deploy the 32nd Division to New Guinea.[232] Blamey had been told that the 41st Division was better than the 32nd but whether this was true at the time the 32nd Division was deployed is unclear.[233] The transfer to Port Moresby, less the 127th Infantry Regiment, was completed on 28 September.[224] The 127th Infantry Regiment followed and joined the division in the battle area, with advanced elements arriving in early December, followed by the remainder of the regiment in the middle of the month.[234]

Carting ammunition forward. There was no escaping mud and water on the battlefield. AWM014244

Major J.H. Trevivian, assigned to the division as the Australian liaison officer, noted that, "the officers had no sense of responsibility for the welfare of the men entrusted to them," and that the US GIs "were treated like cattle". Conversely, no soldier appeared to have a good word for any officer.[235]

Not only was the 32nd Division's training deficient but, after their arrival in New Guinea, the men quickly found that some of their weapons, and much of their clothing and equipment, were unsatisfactory and that they had to modify many details of their organisation.[236] Their heavy-weight herringbone twill combat uniforms were the wrong colour. In the early part of the Kokoda Track campaign, Australian soldiers wore tan uniforms that stood out against the jungle. Learning from the experience, the Americans had two sets of their uniforms dyed a darker green at a dry cleaner in Brisbane.[237] Unfortunately, the dye was more like paint and would not allow the cloth to wick moisture away from the skin. This caused "hideous jungle ulcers".[238] While they had been issued leather toilet seats[28] they had no machetes, insect repellent, waterproof containers for medicine or personal effects, and it rained heavily every day.[239] 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.[240] Most of the division's heavy equipment had been left in Australia due to lack of transportation. Significantly, this included all of its field artillery[Note 34] and about two-thirds of its 81 mm mortars.[224]

Problems with equipment were not isolated to the Americans. Anything susceptible to moisture was likely to fail. The reliability of radios was a particular problem.[242] In the opening engagement, a large portion of grenades used by the Americans failed to detonate. These were Australian supplied Mills bombs. The failure was attributed to them having been wet.[243]

Soldiers of the 127th Infantry, 32nd Division, conducting a rifle inspection aboard the USS George Taylor en route from Brisbane, Australia to Port Moresby, New Guinea, on 18 November 1942.

The Americans had not been prepared physically for the rigors of war[231] let alone the particularly harsh conditions they would face in New Guinea.[244] The 2nd Battalion of the 126th Infantry Regiment was called on to trek 210 kilometres (130 mi) from 14 October to 12 November, across the extremely rugged Kapa Kapa Trail. More than two-thirds of their men became casualties, sick with malaria and other tropical diseases.[57] They did not encounter a single Japanese soldier. The remainder of the division was largely spared the hardships of an overland trek. Units were flown to strips inland at Fasarsi (I/126th) and on the north coast at Pongani and Wanigela. These had been developed after the departure of the II/126th.[245]

The division went into the first day of battle with a brash cockiness.[246] They were "joking and laughing, and sure of an easy victory." They ended the day, a badly shaken outfit. "Now they were dazed and taken aback by the mauling they had received at the hands of the Japanese."[247] By late November, morale was low due to heavy casualties and disease. Self-inflicted wounds were increasingly responsible for American casualties.[248][249] "In almost two weeks of fighting they had failed to score even one noteworthy success."[250]

Lieutenant General Edmund Herring, GOC New Guinea Force, arrived at the American front on 25 November and reported that the American infantry had "maintained a masterly inactivity at Buna".[251] Of his inspection on 2 December, Eichelberger wrote: "The rear areas are strong and the front line is weak. Inspired leadership is lacking. ... Our patrols were dazed by the hazards of swamp and jungle; they were unwilling to undertake the patrolling which alone could safeguard their own interests."[252] Colonel Rogers, then I Corps Intelligence Officer, in an inspection of the same time, reported:

The troops were deplorable. ... Troops were scattered along a trail toward the front line in small groups, engaged in eating, sleeping, during the time they were supposed to be in an attack. ... Outside of the 150 men in the foxholes in the front lines, the remainder of the 2,000 men in the combat area could not have been even considered a reserve – since three or four hours would have been required to organise and move them on any tactical mission.[252]

American soldiers clearing a bunker near Buna.

Colonel Clarence Martin, who subsequently replaced Colonel Tracy Hale as commander of Warren Force, had accompanied Rogers. 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.[253] Lieutenant Colonel Larr, of MacArther's staff, was sent to Buna after the first week. He reported back that: "The GIs had not been properly trained and were reluctant to close with and kill the enemy, had abandoned weapons and had fled into the swamp."[254] Lex McAuley observed: "This all reflects poorly on the US Regular and National Guard officers at all levels in the 32nd Division."[255] In contrast, there were outstanding performances by junior leaders such as Staff Sergeant Herman Bottcher[256] and many acts of individual bravery.[257]

While lack of training and the availability of time able to be committed to this are clearly responsible for the criticism levelled at the 32nd Division, McCarthy contrasts this with what had been achieved earlier by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in a similarly short time.[236]

Australian militia

In fairness, Australian militia soldiers of the 30th Brigade, which included the 36th, 49th and 55th/53rd Battalions, did not fare much better. These units had spent most of their time in New Guinea unloading boats or constructing roads rather than training or in combat. Many men received their first training in the use of Bren and Owen guns or throwing grenades on their arrival at the front, just a few days prior to being sent in to battle.[258] Private Kevin Barry recalled the experience: "Bearing in mind at this time I’d never held a rifle in my hand, never ever fired one – didn't know anything about it...Next minute we're over there [Sanananda] and we're lining up at 3:15 pm on the 7th of December, fixed bayonets..."[259]

The 49th Battalion had received a "stiffening" of experienced AIF officers. Not so the 55th/53rd, which had amalgamated on 26 October. It lacked cohesion and training as a unit.[260] These two units were cast into battle on 7 December. At the end of the day, 8 officers and 122 men of the 55th/53rd Battalion were listed as killed, wounded or missing. Significantly, in view of later developments within this battalion, the losses included 28 NCOs. Losses for the 49th Battalion were 6 officers and 93 men. Combined, these casualties represented nearly 60 percent of the attacking force.[261]

The 39th Battalion AMF on parade having returned from fighting on the Kokoda Track, 1942. AWM013289

In an attempted attack in the early morning of 13 December involving the 55th/53rd, the battalion diarist noted that their officers "had great difficulty in moving troops forward whilst dense undergrowth made maintenance of control and direction difficult. Troops were prone to go to ground and thus prevented themselves from being extricated by fire and movement."[262]

By 22 December, Brigadier Selwyn Porter, commanding 30th Brigade, had become bitterly critical of both the 36th and 55th/53rd Battalions. In a report to Vasey, he said that any success which was theirs was "due to a percentage of personnel who are brave in the extreme"; and "the result of unskilful aggression".[263] He was caustic in referring to their deficiencies in training and spirit. McCarthy observes however, that "it is very doubtful if any Australian units could have suffered the same percentage of losses in their first action and done much better".[264] The final tally of casualties at Sanananda was to show that the Australian militia losses were almost one-third of the total Allied casualties suffered there.[264]

In late December 1942 Brigade HQ noted that:

... in the 39 and 49 Aust Inf Bns the bulk of the trained and resolute leaders have become casualties, and those that remain are not up to the standard of the units when they originally arrived here. Seven members of the 39th Aust Inf Bn are under arrest on charges of cowardice; this position is not peculiar to 39th Inf Bn as similar action could be taken in numerous cases in other units.[265]

Incidents of such seriousness were not isolated to the militia units. On 23 December, the composite 2/16th – 2/27th Battalion reported that "two soldiers have been placed under arrest for refusing to take part in a routine [reconnaissance] patrol". Morale had plummeted.[265] Likewise, according to Dean, the "49th Bn was seen as undisciplined and under trained until late 1942. ... The battalion's history noted that 'with hindsight, it is unbelievable that Army commanders or a government could have allowed troops as inadequately prepared as the 49th to move to a war zone'."[265] Similarly, the US 32nd Division went into battle ill prepared and inadequately trained.[266][Note 35]

Allied command

MacArthur moved the advanced echelon of GHQ to Port Moresby on 6 November 1942.[267] Blamey, commander of Allied Land Forces, had been sent forward earlier and had assumed command at Port Moresby on 23 September.[268] The two Allied divisions, the Australian 7th and US 32nd, were under the immediate command of Lieutenant General Herring, GOC of New Guinea Force. Herring "stepped up" to an advanced headquarters (Advanced New Guinea Force) that was established at Popondetta at 8:00 pm on 28 November.[269] Blamey assumed command of the rear New Guinea Force headquarters at Port Moresby. Eichelberger, when sent forward by MacArthur might otherwise have rightly assumed command of both Allied divisions at the beachheads.[270] When Blamey and MacArthur returned to Australia, Herring "stepped back" to the rear headquarters on 12 January. Eichelberger then took command of the Advanced headquarters with Berryman as his chief-of-staff.[271]

MacArthur's pressure and posturing

New Guinea. October 1942. A tea break at a canteen in the forward areas during a tour of inspection by US General, Douglas MacArthur. In the background, left to right, are: Major General G. S. Allen, Commander, Australian 7th Division AIF; Mr F. M. Forde, Australian Minister for the Army; General MacArthur, Supreme Commander, South West Pacific Area, and General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander, Allied Land Forces. AWM150836

MacArthur, after being ordered to evacuate the Philippines, was appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA). MacArthur had to compete with Admiral Chester Nimitz's plan to drive towards Japan through the central Pacific.[272][273] When Port Moresby was threatened, he persuaded the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, to send the Australian General, Sir Thomas Blamey, commander of Allied Land Forces, to New Guinea. By this manoeuvre, MacArthur ensured that Blamey would be the scapegoat if Port Moresby fell.[274]

View of Australian troops

MacArthur informed General George Marshall that, "the Australians have proven themselves unable to match the enemy in jungle fighting. Aggressive leadership is lacking."[275] Jones observes, "The attitude that the Australians were poor fighters pervaded thinking at MacArthur's headquarters".[276] As the Japanese were withdrawing, MacArthur became dissatisfied with the rate of advance of the 7th Division. On 8 October, Australian Major General Arthur Allen received a message from Blamey: "General MacArthur considers quote light casualties indicate no serious effort to displace enemy unquote. You will attack enemy with all speed at each point of resistance."[277] Pressure from MacArthur was instrumental in persuading Blamey to relieve Allen and Australian Brigadier Arnold Potts of command.[278]

Control of press

Ostensibly for security, the Australian Government had given MacArthur control over the media in respect to operations in the theatre. MacArthur used this power for self-promotion[279] and to convince the US public that the war in the Pacific was being won by his actions. Press releases implied that he was personally directing the battles from the front when, in reality, he was in Brisbane or Melbourne.[280][Note 36] Victories at Milne Bay and Kokoda were attributed to the Allies, making the contribution of Australian forces ambiguous.[282] Disguise this as he might, there was no paper-trail of the involvement of US troops: no medal recommendations, no casualty lists and no after action reports.[283] "He could not let his superiors ... feel that the war in SWPA could be left to Australians."[282] MacArthur felt pressure to produce a victory to secure his command and he needed American troops to produce it for him.[284]

Demands results

Compounding the difficulties presented by the tactical situation was persistent pressure from General MacArthur's headquarters for the swift capture of the beachheads.[285] MacArthur was driven to compete with the progress of Admiral William Halsey's Marines at Guadalcanal.[286] There was also the threat that the Japanese could reinforce the beachhead positions.[287]

MacArthur never visited the front during the campaign.[288] He had no understanding of the conditions faced by his commanders and troops,[289] yet he continued to interfere and pressure them to achieve unreasonable outcomes.[290] On 20 November, MacArthur told Blamey that "all columns will be driven through to the objectives regardless of losses".[291] The following day, he sent another missive to Harding, telling him to "take Buna today at all costs".[292] Jones observed of MacArthur:

... most serious of General MacArthur's failings, he never got out from behind the desk to find out what was going on. On more than one occasion this failing was a life-or-death error for the troops at the front. Had MacArthur bothered to visit the Philippine Army in the field prior to the war he would have known they could not oppose the Japanese on the beaches. Had he regularly visited his troops on Bataan he would have realized that his troops were literally starving to death. Had he gone to the front in New Guinea, he would have seen the horrible combat conditions under which he directed his units forward "regardless of cost."[293]

Eichelberger inspects newly taken ground in the Triangle area, near Buna Station. He was conspicuous in his presence close to the forward positions.

When MacArthur offered the US 41st Division as reinforcements for the advance on Gona, Blamey declined. He replied he would rather rely on his depleted 21st Brigade as he "knew they would fight".[251] This was certainly payback for earlier denigrating statements by MacArthur about the fighting ability of Australian troops. Blamey was pleased with MacArthur's discomfort.[203]

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. [Major General Frank Berryman (Blamey's chief of staff and head of operational planning) to Major General Eichelberger][294]

By 29 November, 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.[295]

MacArthur told Lieutenant General Edmund Herring GOC, New Guinea Force, "This situation is very serious. If we can't clear this up quickly I'll be finished and so will your General Blamey."[296] MacArthur’s concerns were for his own personal future and his reputation.[297] His constant exhortation for speed had led to the very situation he had feared.[297] MacArthur was faced with a personal disaster, much of his own making.[298]

After Harding was relieved of command, MacArthur continued to pressure Eichelberger to achieve results.[299] Eichelberger recorded multiple instances when MacArthur urged him to hasten his efforts to rapidly defeat the Japanese. On 15 December, MacArthur sent his Chief of Staff, Richard K. Sutherland with authority to relieve Eichelberger and orders not to return until Buna was taken. He did return though, and made a strong report endorsing Eichelberger.[300]

(L-R) Generals Vasey, Herring and Brigadier Wootten visiting the Sanananda front. AWM 014308

On Christmas day, Sutherland delivered a letter to Eichelberger from MacArthur.[301]

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.[134]

Vasey wrote of the pressure being applied: "For weeks and weeks now I have been trying to make bricks without straw, which in itself is bad enough, but which is made much worse when others believe you have the straw."[302]

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."[303][Note 37] 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."[301] Manchester comments that with this statement, MacArthur "stunned his victorious troops".[305] Jones continues:

This is an absurdity and an outright lie. The battle of Buna (commonly referring to the Buna–Gona–Sanananda area) was one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. ... According to D. Clayton James, "the deepest resentment felt by the veterans of the Papuan Campaign was probably reserved for MacArthur's audacity in depicting the casualty rate as relatively light." These men were, James continued, the same veterans urged to "take all objectives regardless of cost."[306]

Fire support

The role of field artillery (and fire support in general) in the attack is to destroy, neutralise or suppress the objective and supporting positions and to deny, delay or disrupt the enemy's capacity to support the objective positions while also preventing enemy artillery from fulfilling its role. It can also be used to deceive or cause the enemy to divert resources from the objective.[307]

Gunners of the 2/5th Field Regiment manhandling a 25-pounder off a captured barge at Oro Bay.

Allied command had failed to make effective provision for supply of artillery or tanks as the Allied troops advanced on the Japanese positions at Buna–Gona. It was believed that air support could replace the need for these.[308][118] The air support provided proved ineffective in achieving the effect required. Attacks by Allied troops were repeatedly stalled. Allied commanders in the field were unable to provide fire support capable of suppressing, let alone neutralizing the Japanese positions to an extent that would permit attacking infantry to close with and overwhelm them. Logistical limitations hindered attempts to make good the deficiency in artillery by either type, number of guns, or the availability of ammunition.[309] While tanks were available, there was initially no means to transport them.[310] Several authors have commented on the lack of naval support and either directly or indirectly referred to the potential of naval gunfire support.[311][312][313][Note 38]

The problems of providing effective fire support, the solutions, and the lessons learned were fundamental in developing future Allied tactics and doctrine.[314] The failure to make effective provision to support attacking infantry both protracted the battle and increased the Allied losses.[315]


The Allied forces commenced the battle on 19 November with two 3.7 inch Mountain howitzers from the Australian 1st Mountain Battery which was in support of the US 32nd Division.[316] A further mountain howitzer, from the Left Section of the battery, had been flown to Kokoda to support the 7th Division.[317][Note 39] Also available in support were 3 in mortars,[320] the US equivalent 81 mm mortar,[321] the light 60 mm mortars in American use[321] and the equivalent 2 in mortar in Australian use.[322]

Using the one lugger that remained after the earlier attacks, two 25-pounders of the 2/5th Field Regiment arrived on 22 November to support the 32nd Division.[323] On 23 November, two 25-pounders of the 2/1st Field Regiment were flown to Popondetta. A further two guns were also flown to Dobodura on the same day.[324] This was the first move by air of 25-pounders in this theatre. The guns were not made to be transported in pieces. The pieces were heavy and there was a real danger of them going through the floor of the planes.[324] Shortly after, two more guns arrived at each location. One 105-mm howitzer of Battery 'A', 129th US Field Artillery Battalion was landed at Dobodura on 29 November.[325] It took three C-47 transports to move the gun, its crew and 200 rounds of ammunition.[101]

Flat terrain and thick vegetation made it a challenge to find suitable vantage points from which to direct fire. AWM013856

In context, a US infantry division would have an establishment of thirty-six 105 mm (4.1 in) howitzers and twelve 155 mm (6.1 in) howitzers in its four field artillery battalions. Each of the three infantry regiments had a cannon company with an establishment of six 75 mm (3 in) howitzers[Note 40] and two 105 mm howitzers.[326] An Australian division would have three field regiments (before adopting the jungle division establishment in 1943). Each regiment would have two or three batteries of 12 guns each.[327] It could be expected that the two Allied divisions deployed might field between 144 and 180 artillery pieces. As a corps-level engagement, there may be additional non-divisional assets allocated, increasing the total of guns even further.[328] Exacerbating this shortage in the number of guns was a severely limited supply of ammunition. The plan for the final attack at Gona on 8 December was only allocated 250 rounds of artillery.[329] For another attack at Gona, Russell reports that only 40 rounds were allocated.[330]

The task of destroying Japanese bunkers was found to be "beyond the scope of 25 prs".[331] Brigadier General Waldron, the 32nd Division's artillery commander at the start of the battle, was more forthright. "The 25 pounders", he said, "annoyed the Japanese, and that's about all."[332] The gun's flat trajectory and small explosive shell was not suited to destroying emplacements, but rather for fire support against exposed targets.[333][Note 41] The high trajectory of the mountain howitzers was better suited to this task but, while a larger calibre, they fired a smaller 20 pound shell. The 3.7 in howitzer was considered accurate and capable of a high rate of fire; however, these particular guns were well worn, and accuracy was compromised as a consequence.[318] Shells used by artillery were armed with instantaneous fuses, causing them to explode on impact. Hits achieved by the artillery were comparatively ineffective.[333] With adequate observation, between 100 and 200 shells fired by four guns were needed to reduce a large emplacement.[331] A delayed fuse, to postpone the explosion until the projectile had buried itself deep in the target, would have been much more effective. None were initially available, and when they were, their supply was limited.[334] The Japanese defenders referred to delayed-fuse shells fired from the American 105 mm howitzer as "earthquake bombs".[335] The Japanese defensive positions remained substantially proof against shell fire.[336] The use of delayed fuses at Gona on 8 December was critical to the success of the 39th Battalion, when attacking troops spent two full minutes under their own artillery bombardment as they stormed Japanese positions.[337]

A Wirraway directing fire during an attack at Buna. AWM013954

The difficulties faced were not confined to the numbers of guns and the quantity of ammunition. The flat terrain, with dense jungle or open strips of tall grass, provided no vantage point from which to observe and adjust fire. Maps available for plotting targets were inaccurate and lacked detail.[338] A workable map was constructed from air photos.[325] Sound ranging was used in place of observation. By "skilful calculation", fire could be delivered to an accuracy of 200 yards (180 m). However, well-trained infantry would look to advance as near as 30 yards (27 m) to the fall of the shot.[339] To improve visibility, forward observers would take to the trees, making them targets for Japanese snipers.[340]

The solution to the problem of observation arrived on 28 November in the form of "slow, almost weaponless Wirraways"[341] of No. 4 Army Cooperation Squadron, RAAF. One of these aircraft was allotted to the 32nd Division and one to the 7th Division, to work with the artillery, initially for two hours during each morning.[116] So successful were these planes, their availability was quickly increased, operating from both Dobodura and Popondetta. They were used to adjust fire, to identify targets and to lure enemy AA into disclosing their positions so they could be attacked with counter-battery fire.[325] It was a dangerous job as the Japanese ordered that these planes be made priority targets.[342]

The number of guns available was increased over the course of the battle. Two more guns of the 2/5th Field Regiment arrived on 8 December.[336] About 20 December, one troop of four QF 4.5-inch howitzers arrived.[343][Note 42] Eight guns of the 2/1st Field Regiment were landed at Oro Bay on 7 January.[346] Milner compares the effectiveness of the 4.5-inch howitzer favourably with that of the 105 mm howitzer.[347]

Carson's Gun, "Freddie One" placed between the airstrips at Buna. AWM014021

With more guns available, Eichelberger was able to risk bringing one of his guns closer. He believed it might be more effective firing from a forward position.[336] A 25-pounder, "Freddie One" of the 2/5th Field Regiment, was tried in this experimental role. It became known as "Carson's Gun", after the detachment commander. It went into action on 27 December, sited forward of the bridge between the strips. Observation was from a 70-foot high banyan tree some 1,300 yards (1,200 m) ahead of the gun, in the bush, off to the southern side of the strip. Solid, armour-piercing shot was generally used by this gun to lessen the risk of injury to the Allied infantry close to targets. The first shell disappeared through the 12-inch square embrasure of the target and destroyed the 75 mm gun which the strongpoint sheltered. The gun then fought a two-day duel with a triple-barrelled 25 mm piece. Carson's men claimed they eliminated three opposing crews before the 25 mm was completely silenced.[344] The gun fired 1,000 rounds in five days. It silenced eleven bunkers. It claimed a further two 75 mm guns, a mountain gun and "many machine guns".[348] Both the Americans and the Australians had experimented with lighter anti-tank guns in a similar way but without the same degree of success having been noted in either of the three principal sources.[349][Note 43]

Herring asserted that it was not the number of artillery pieces in action that was the limiting factor but rather, the supply of shells.[354] It was not possible to provide enough shells for overwhelming artillery support without sacrificing the supply of other essentials like food, medical supplies and small arms ammunition.[Note 44] Author Peter Brune supports the assertion that pressure by MacArthur for results was a factor that increased Allied casualties, but argues that it was Herring's willingness to respond to such pressure that exacerbated the issue; he also argues that this pressure resulted in inadequate provisions being made to provide sufficient artillery pieces and shells.[360] Continued pressure for early results meant that precious supplies of artillery ammunition were consumed rather than stockpiled for a concentrated effort.[Note 45]

Air support

Lieutenant General George Kenney, Commander of the Allied air forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, argued that artillery support was unnecessary. Although he had no knowledge of jungle warfare, he told MacArthur that tanks had no role in ground action in the jungle.[118]

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

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 theatre 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. [Lieutenant General George Kenney][308]

Kenney's optimism that air superiority would compensate for the shortages of artillery pieces and shells was misplaced.[363][364] Aerial bombardment was even less effective at destroying the Japanese emplacements than artillery. Allied aircraft dropped 2,807 fragmentation bombs (28 tons) and 728 demolition bombs (124.5 tons) on Buna alone.[365] Fragmentation had little effect against bunkers.[366] The results of such heavy bombardments were much less than expected. A reliance on area bombing was, in part, to blame for this lack of success.[367] Area bombing could not be used effectively against forward Japanese positions, particularly in support of an attack, as Allied troops needed to be withdrawn to a safe distance.[Note 46]

The constant presence of Allied aircraft did, however, have a significant impact on the morale of the Japanese defenders.[370] The diary of Private Kiyoshi Wada, garrisoned at Sanananda, recounted Allied strafing and bombing on a continual basis. On 1 January 1943, he wrote, "Not a single one of our planes flew overhead, and enemy strafing was very fierce". On the next day, he continued, "It would be good if two or three of our planes came over."[371]

Squadron Leader K.R. McDonald (second from left) and his crew in front of their Boston bomber aircraft "Retribution" of No. 22 Squadron RAAF, which operated over Buna–Gona. AWM0G0078

The doctrine relating to the employment of close air support by Allied forces was in its infancy and the Buna–Gona battlefield posed particular problems due to the nature of the fighting and the terrain. The dense vegetation and camouflaged positions made identifying ground targets and distinguishing friendly positions extremely difficult.[372][364] Procedures and protocols for co-ordination and control of close air support had not been developed. There were numerous instances of "friendly fire".[373][Note 47] This led to the development of procedures which differentiated between targets in "close support", requiring close co-ordination with ground troops, and "targets in depth", where the air force could operate freely, without risk of endangering friendly forces.[374][375]

Despite this, air power played a major role in other areas. The campaign in Papua was the first military campaign to rely heavily on air transport and resupply.[376] Air resupply was essential to the outcome of this battle. Air transport also expedited the evacuation of the sick and wounded.[377] By the end of the year, around 6,000 men had been evacuated by air.[378]

Air superiority was crucial to maintaining lines of communication, both air[379] and sea, and providing air cover over the beachheads in support of Allied ground forces.[380][381] The air force presence over the beachheads and at Rabaul[382] was instrumental in severing the Japanese capacity to reinforce and resupply their positions.[383][384] Bombing harassed Japanese forces landed in support of the beachheads near the mouths of the Mambare and Kumusi Rivers. These missions were supported with target identification by the coastwatchers, Lieutenant L.C. Noakes and Sergeant L.T.W. Carlson.[385]

Most noteworthy, was the contribution of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Wirraways. On 26 November, two detached flights (four aircraft each) were based at the forward air fields at Popondetta and Dobodura[386] These were the only planes to be based in the forward area. Their role of target identification and artillery observation was invaluable. They also provided reconnaissance, aerial photography and close air support. On 26 December, Flying Officer Jack Archer downed a Japanese Zero – the only such victory for the Wirraway.[387] Of the Australian Wirraway crews, Eichelberger remarked: "I never hope to fight with braver men."[388]

In tribute to the American Fifth Air Force and the RAAF, MacArthur said, "Their outstanding efforts in combat, supply, and transportation over both land and sea constituted the key-stone upon which the arch of the campaign was erected."[389] The experiences at Buna–Gona were certainly a milestone in the developing role of air power in modern warfare.[Note 48] MacArthur announced in a press release of 24 January 1943:

The destruction of the remnants of the enemy forces in the Sanananda area concludes the Papuan Campaign. The Horii Army has been annihilated. The outstanding military lesson of this campaign was the continuous calculated application of air power, inherent in the potentialities of every component of the Air Forces, employed in the most intimate tactical and logistical union with ground troops. The effect of this modern instrumentality was sharply accentuated by the geographical limitations of this theater. For months on end, air transport with constant fighter coverage moved complete infantry regiments and artillery battalions across the almost impenetrable mountains and jungles of Papua, and the reaches of the sea; transported field hospitals and other base installations to the front; supplied the troops and evacuated casualties. For hundreds of miles bombers provided all-around reconnaissance, protected the coast from hostile naval intervention, and blasted the way for the infantry as it drove forward. A new form of campaign was tested which points the way to the ultimate defeat of the enemy in the Pacific. The offensive and defensive power of the air and the adaptability, range and capacity of its transport in an effective combination with ground forces, represent tactical and strategical elements of a broadened conception of warfare that will permit the application of offensive power in swift, massive strokes, rather than the dilatory and costly island-to-island advance that some have assumed to be necessary in a theater where the enemy's far-flung strongholds are dispersed throughout a vast expanse of archipelagos. Air forces and ground forces were welded together in Papua and when in sufficient strength with proper naval support, their indissoluble union points the way to victory through new and broadened strategic and tactical conceptions.[390][Note 51]

Putting the lessons of the battle in their "proper perspective",[389] Kenney, in a letter to Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of Air Corps, said, "we learned a lot and the next one will be better."[389]

Role of armour

Disabled Bren carriers in the Duropa Plantation.

Artillery and air power were unable to provide sufficiently effective close support to the infantry. Commanders looked to the tank to break the stalemate that had developed. Although the expectation of Australian commanders had generally been similar to the American view that resistance in the Buna area would be light, provision had been made to support the operation with tanks. On 13 November, orders were given to dispatch a troop of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment, equipped with M3 Stuart tanks, from Milne Bay. When the first tank was loaded onto the only available craft, a captured barge, both barge and tank sank. There was no immediate prospect of moving the tanks. As a temporary measure, a platoon of Bren carriers were sent instead.[310]

The carriers had been designed for reconnaissance and the rapid transport of troops and weapons across bullet-swept ground. Their light armour was intended to stop small-arms fire but not from close range. They were not provided with overhead protection. Doctrine was that carriers were not tanks and, "should not, indeed could not, be used as such."[325] Each was armed with two Bren guns. One fired forward through a simple firing slit. The second was unmounted. Five carriers were bought forward from Porlock Harbour to participate in the attack on the morning of 5 December. These were manned by crews from the 2/5th Battalion and the 2/7th Battalion.[395] This was a general attack by Warren force, at the eastern end of the Buna position. The carriers were assigned to the left flank at Duropa plantation, by the water's edge. They were to support the III/128th Battalion. One carrier was hit by a mortar round but fought on until its engine failed. The others became bellied on fallen logs. The crews were attacked by tree-top snipers or with grenades tossed into their carrier's open top. The five vehicles had been immobilized within half an hour. The losses only served to confirm doctrine: that carriers were no substitute for tanks.[396] Attacking troops were pinned down by heavy fire and withdrew to their original positions.[397]

An M3 tank bellied on a log and temporarily disabled. The original source indicates that this log had been deliberately intended as an improvised tank trap. An anti-tank mine had been placed beside the log. AWM013932

Eight Stuart tanks of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment were transported in two lifts by the Karsik, from Milne Bay. This was immediately preceding commencement of Operation Lilliput. Their arrival coincided with that of 18th Brigade.[398] The M3 Stuart was a light tank intended for the cavalry roles of reconnaissance and exploitation. The tank was only lightly armoured. Its strengths were speed and mobility. The tank's cross-country performance was severely limited in close country or boggy conditions.[398] It was armed with a relatively light 37 mm high velocity gun. It had a .30 calibre machine gun co-axially mounted and a second, ball mounted in the front of the hull. A third was provided for an external anti-aircraft mount. By conventional wisdom, it was ill-suited as an infantry support tank and not designed to operate in this role. Infantry tanks were more heavily armoured and relatively slow. For these reasons, the M3s were likened to "race horses harnessed to heavy ploughs".[399] It lacked an external phone for communication with supporting infantry and the crews were not trained for combined arms operations.[400]

The Stuarts were committed in much the same location as the Bren carriers. They were to support the attack by the 2/9th Battalion on 18 December. Operational orders were issued prior to the battle outlining some basic visual signals for infantry to use to communicate with the tanks. However, signals were often missed by the crews because the tanks had poor visibility.[401] No time was given for rehearsal or liaison between the tank crews and supporting infantry. Much was left to the ingenuity of the crews and the infantry as the battle developed. Communications between infantry and tanks, and between the tanks themselves, was very difficult. The wireless sets in the tanks were practically useless in combat.[402] American hand-held wirelesses were tried but the operators drew too much fire from Japanese snipers.[403] Targets were identified by firing flares or by getting the attention of the tank crew by simply climbing on board.[403]

A corporal climbs aboard a tank to direct its fire during an attack at Buna. AWM 014002

The plantation was littered with coconut logs and stumps which were concealed by the undergrowth. At least two tanks were bellied on logs and immobilised.[404] Japanese infantry showed little fear, attacking the tanks with petrol bombs and setting fires under tanks that had bellied.[405] Mutual support between tanks and infantry was essential in achieving success.[406] Two tanks were burnt-out after the first days fighting.[399] When the tanks withdrew to rearm and refuel, the infantry were left exposed to counter-attack. From this lesson, it was found best to keep a number of tanks in reserve so that the armoured presence could be maintained when refuelling or rearming was required or a tank was disabled.[407]

From 18 December until 2 January, when the Buna position was finally captured, the tanks continued to provide invaluable support. First, the strip of land from the plantation to the mouth of Simemi Creek was cleared. Then, on the southern side of the creek, from the new strip, along the length of the old strip towards the Triangle was cleared. A link with Urbana force was made at Giropa.[408]

29 December was marred by errors. The supporting tanks failed to arrive at the start line until hours after they were due. They then bought fire to bear on attacking troops of the 2/9th Battalion, forcing them from the positions they had captured. These particular tanks had only just arrived from Milne Bay.[409] Inexperience of the crews, unfamiliar with conditions on the battlefield, and assumptions in command and coordination undoubtedly contributed to these events.[410]

Tanks and infantry in action near Giropa Point. The tank's performance was limited by close country. AWM013961

The tanks were confined to operating on firm ground. On more than one occasion, tanks became bogged and attacks had to proceed with limited or no tank support. On 20 December, as the 2/9th Battalion emerged from the plantation near Strip Point, two of the four tanks bogged and were held fast. The left and centre companies had to continue the attack without tank support. Only on the right, by the coast, was it firm enough for the remaining tanks to operate.[399]

The tanks were vulnerable to Japanese anti-aircraft guns employed in an anti-tank role. On 24 December, four Stuarts advanced over the open ground of the Old Strip. They were knocked out in quick succession by a Japanese 75 mm anti-aircraft gun. It was thought that this gun had been disabled when it had actually been maintaining silence as a ruse.[411] It was hoped that an attack with tanks on 12 January would break the deadlock that had developed on the Sanananda Track. The terrain was entirely unsuited to their use. They were channelled along a narrow track by the dense growth to either side. The three tanks engaged advanced no more than 60 yards (55 m) before a well-concealed Japanese anti-tank gun opened fire. It promptly knocked out all three tanks.[412] Without room to manoeuvre, they were easily targeted. The attack, involving the three battalions of the 18th Brigade failed.[271]

An M3 of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment supports infantry advancing through a coconut grove at Buna. Note the machine gun which is firing upward into the trees against snipers. AWM014008

Referring to the use of tanks at Buna–Gona, the American historian, Mayo notes in On Beachhead and Battlefront: "These tanks, and those following a few days later, had little effect on the battle for Buna ... "[Note 52] but this is contrary to the opinion of other authors.[415][Note 53] While the role of the tanks at Buna may not have been decisive or critical to the outcome of the battle, they did, nonetheless, make a valuable contribution. They were able to destroy or neutralize Japanese positions, allowing the supporting infantry to overwhelm them in a way that neither artillery nor air power had been able to achieve. Where tanks were able to be employed, greater gains were made with fewer losses.[406] However, the effective use of tanks was constrained by terrain.[416]

Naval support

The efficacy of naval bombardment against shore targets and in support of amphibious or land operations in coastal areas is well documented.[417] Allied ships in the south-west Pacific were heavily committed to supporting the Guadalcanal Campaign, which was strongly opposed by the Imperial Japanese Navy for its duration. The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was fought between 12–15 November. Heavy losses were incurred by both navies. The scant force of remaining destroyers not committed there, were thinly spread in the essential role of convoy escorts or patrolling the Coral Sea.[418]

On 19 November, Blamey sent a communication through MacArthur and tried to persuade Vice-Admiral Arthur S. Carpender (USN), Commander South-West Pacific Force, 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."[419] Carpender would not commit destroyers to the mission in poorly charted, reef strewn waters limiting their manoeuvre and sea room under air attack and suggested corvettes and night approach the best plan—one instituted in Operation Lilliput.[420] On 8 December, Blamey directed a further request to MacArthur.

This requires at least two destroyers and two corvettes. I understand that the Navy is reluctant to risk its vessels. I desire to point out that the Navy is only being asked to go where the Japanese have gone frequently. Further there does not appear to be great risk in making an immediate reconnaissance both by sea and air by naval officers to select a reasonably safe route in view of the daily protection given by our Air Force. Enemy destroyers when bombed in the vicinity of the proposed landing have moved freely in these waters without meeting with disasters from reefs or other sea dangers. Preparations for the operation will be continued but unless the Navy is prepared to cooperate the risks are great owing to the reduced numbers that can be transported. It is somewhat difficult to understand the Navy attitude of non-cooperation because of risk. "Safety First" as a Naval motto — Shades of Nelson.[421]

HMAS Ballarat at McLaren Harbour New Guinea with troops of the 2/9th Battalion emarked for Buna, 14 December 1942. While destroyers could not be spared, corvettes of the Bathurst class were made available, performing escort and transport duties.

In so writing, Blamey was out of his depth, and 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 gone frequently."[421] 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. They had access to the pre-war route from Rabaul and could approach Buna–Gona from the north.[422] The main concern for Carpender was not the vicinity of Buna–Gona but the approach route.[421]

These requests that were made were for transport and escort duties and not in direct support of the battle. James 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.[312] A small force however, even if it could have been provided, would likely have been severely threatened by Japanese air, surface and submarine forces operating out of Rabaul. It would likely have lacked the capacity to both counter these threats[418] and effectively operate in a fire support role.[citation needed]


Closing in on the Japanese beachhead, 16–21 November 1942

The battle started on 16 November, when the Australian 7th Division crossed the Kumusi River,[423] about 40 miles (64 km) from the beachheads, in pursuit of the withdrawing Japanese forces.[34] This marked the start of the battle.[Note 54] On the eve of 19 November, the 25th Brigade was advancing toward Gona, along the track from Jumbora,[424] while the 16th Brigade was advancing toward Sanananda on the track from Soputa.[425] The American 126th Regiment (less the 1st Battalion) was placed under command of 7th Division to protect its eastern flank.[426] The 32nd Division was approaching Buna along the coastal route and along the track from Simemi.[427] Harding prepared to attack positions at the eastern end of the Buna defences in the vicinity of the landing strip and the plantation. Attacks were launched on 19 November, using the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 128th Infantry Regiment.[426] On the same day, the 25th Brigade, approaching Gona, made contact with defended positions placed along its line of advance.[428] The 16th Brigade, approaching Sanananda, made contact the following day.[429]

Up to that point, there had been only limited and light contact with the Japanese defenders as the Australians approached the beachheads.[430] It had the same for the 32nd Division.[431] This situation quickly changed as the attacking forces met with stiff resistance. The conventional doctrine of manoeuvre and fire support was negated by terrain, a lack of heavy weapons and logistical limitations.[432] Difficulties were compounded by the determination of the Japanese fighting from well-prepared defensive positions. Despite repeated attacks over the next two weeks, the Allies made little progress and were faced with mounting casualties. The conditions were likened to a "tropical vignette of the trench warfare conditions of the earlier war."[433]

The 2nd Battalion, 126th Regiment was returned to command of 32nd Division on 22 November, while the 3rd Battalion was tasked to secure the Soputa–Sanananda–Cape Killerton track junction, to the front of the 16th Brigade.[434] On 30 November, after nearly a week of indecisive skirmishing through the bush, the position which was to become well known as "Huggins' Roadblock" was established on the Sanananda Track, just south of the second Cape Killerton track junction.[435] The position was manned by these occupiers until relieved on 22 December by the 39th Battalion.[264] Wedged between the Japanese positions astride the track, it compromised the line of communication to the forward Japanese positions; however, its own position was equally tenuous. The Japanese forward positions were enveloped but not sealed.[435]

File:USA-P-Papua-p337 COLLAPSIBLE ASSAULT BOATS being used by 127th Infantrymen to cross the Siwori Creek. Note guide rope across the creek. milner.jpg
A collapsible assault boat being used by 127th Infantrymen to cross the Siwori Creek. Note the rope used to warp the boat across the creek.

By concentrating reinforcements, the Japanese position at Gona was finally cleared on the morning of 9 December.[436] The position was threatened by Japanese forces that had landed at the mouth of the Kumusi River and fighting continued west of Gona Creek for some time.[437]

Attacking the Buna area from both flanks, American forces entered Buna village on 14 December[438] but a virtual stalemate developed on the eastern flank. This was relieved by the arrival of the Australian 18th Brigade and Stuart tanks of 2/6th Armoured Regiment. With an attack on 18 December, steady progress thereafter followed. By 3 January, the Buna area, as far as the Girua River, had been cleared.[439]

The Australian 7th Division continued to pressure the forward Japanese positions astride the Sanananda track without a decisive result, despite reinforcements and redeploying units that had been fighting at Gona.[440] Figures prepared by HQ 7th Division showed that, from 25 November to 23 December, the Division had received 4,273 troops to replace 5,905 lost to its front from all causes. Thus Vasey's force was about 1,632 weaker than at the outset.[441] As December closed, there was no prospect of the division being reinforced by further Australian units; however, the 163rd Infantry of the US 41st Division had been ordered to New Guinea, arriving at Port Moresby on 27 December. It was to be placed under command of 7th Division.[442] After the fall of Buna, the 32nd Division was to advance on the main Sanananda position from the east.[443]

On 12 January, the Japanese positions south of Huggins' were attacked by the 18th Brigade without success.[444] Following this, Vasey made an appreciation of the situation. These observations, while made in response to the attack on the 12th, exemplify the conditions under which the battle was conducted.

As a result of the attack by 18 Aust Inf Bde on 12 Jan 43, it is now clear that the present position which has been held by the Jap since 20 Nov 42 consists of a series of perimeter localities in which there are numerous pill-boxes of the same type as those found in the Buna area. To attack these with infantry using their own weapons is repeating the costly mistakes of 1915–17 and, in view of the limited resources which can be, at present, put into the field in this area, such attacks seem unlikely to succeed.

The nature of the ground prevents the use of tanks except along the main Sanananda Track on which the enemy has already shown that he has A-Tk guns capable of knocking out the M3 light tank.

Owing to the denseness of the undergrowth in the area of ops, these pill-boxes are only discovered at very short ranges (in all cases under 100 yards (91 m)) and it is therefore not possible to subject them to arty bombardment without withdrawing our own troops. Experience has shown that when our troops are withdrawn to permit of such bombardment, the Jap occupies the vacated territory so that the bombardment, apart from doing him little damage, only produces new positions out of which the Jap must be driven. [Appreciation by Vasey][445]

Emaciated Japanese prisoners being led to the rear for questioning.

The problem of the forward positions on the main track was resolved by the Japanese withdrawing over the next two nights (commencing 12 January) and the positions were occupied by the evening of the 14th.[446] The 18th Brigade quickly advanced on Cape Killerton and then Sanananda. A link was established with the 32nd Division at Giruwa on 21 January. The battle concluded on 22 January, but there were still many Japanese roaming the area.[447]

The Japanese had planned for evacuation of the area but this was overtaken by the rate of the Allied advance.[448] About 1,200 sick and wounded were evacuated by sea in the period 13–20 January.[449] On 20 January, Yamagata ordered an evacuation. On the night of 21 January, large sections of the force still remaining in the area began to break away in accordance with their orders. About 1,000 escaped overland to the west of Gona[450] but Japanese sources suggest this may be as high as 1,900.[194]

Advance on Buna – Warren Force

The Buna area, to be taken by the 32nd Division, stretched from the Duropa plantation in the east to Buna Village, at the mouth of the Girua River, in the west. This strip of coast is about 5,200 metres (5,700 yd) from end to end. The Girua River formed the operational boundary with 7th Division.[451] The firmer ground and defended positions were widest at each end – about 1,500 metres (1,600 yd) at the eastern end and a little less at the other end.[452][Note 55] With a narrower strip in between, it has some resemblance to a dog's bone.[Note 56] The inland side of the eastern end is defined by two landing strips. The Old Strip runs roughly parallel to the coast and with Simemi Creek, which flows along the seaward edge of the strip. This creek represented an obstacle for attacking troops. Dispersal bays had been constructed at the eastern end of the Old Strip and along the seaward side.[455] While not actually joined, the two strips formed a wide corner. The Simemi Creek passed between the two strips. A bridge on the track to Simemi crossed the Creek there. The bridge was 125 ft (38 m) long and had a section blown from one end.[456] The New Strip was actually a decoy strip.[43] The ground was unsuitable for developing as a landing strip. The Duropa coconut plantation occupied most of the ground around Cape Endaiadere north of the eastern end of the New Strip. A track approached Cape Endaiadere, along the coast from Hariko, to the south east.[457]

Soldiers preparing a hot meal of "jungle stew". Early in the battle, no provision had been made for the occasional hot meal to make their canned fare more palatable.[458] AWM014241

At the eastern end, the Japanese occupied the Duropa Plantation, from the New Strip, blocking the approach by the coastal route.[459] They also blocked the approach from Simemi, with positions forward of the bridge.[460]

At the western end of the Buna area, a track led from Buna village and the Buna Government Station, inland, to Ango. The position that came to be known as the Triangle was a salient protruding from the Japanese defensive line. It straddled the track just inland of where the track branched to either the Village or Station.[461] The Government Station is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Buna Mission.[462] Entrance Creek separated the Station from the village. On the track to the village, a foot bridge crossed Entrance Creek a short distance from the track junction.[463] The "Coconut Grove" lay along the track to Buna Village, after crossing Entrance Creek.[464] To the north east of the Triangle was the open area of the Government Gardens, which had formerly been cultivated.[465] The Government Plantation, a coconut grove, occupied the area around the Station and the thin coastal strip to the east, as far as the mouth of the Simemi Creek and the western end of the Old Strip. Giropa point is about half way between the Government Station and the mouth of Simemi Creek. Giropa Creek discharges to the sea on the western side of Giropa Point.[466]

On 18 November, the 32nd Division was approaching the Buna positions. The I/128th Battalion was nearing the Duropa Plantation along the coastal path. The I/126th Battalion, with the 2/6th Independent Company and a detached company of the 128th Battalion were well behind following the same route and arrived on 20 November.[467] The III/128th Battalion was approaching the strips on the track from Semime. The II/128th Battalion was close behind.[427] The remaining two battalions of the 126th Regiment were at Inoda, well inland and had been tasked to engage the western flank of the Buna position.[426] On the 19th though, these two battalions were placed under command of the 7th Division, by order of Herring, GOC New Guinea Force, who was in immediate command of the two divisions. This was to concentrate maximum force against the main Japanese position around Sanananda.[426] The two Australian brigades had been substantially depleted by the fighting along the Kokoda Track and were approximately one-third of their establishment strength. Harding was put out by this decision.[426] Not only did it alienate a large part of his command but it meant a major adjustment to his plans just as he was about to engage the Japanese.[426] The left flank task was reassigned to the II/128th Battalion. This left the I/126th Battalion, well to the rear, as the only reserve.[426] Movement between the two flanks entailed a two day march.[468]

An Australian 3.7 inch mountain howitzer is dismantled before being loaded on a Japanese motor-driven barge which was captured at Milne Bay. These guns were initially the only guns able to support the American attack at Buna.

Despite this, and with only two mountain howitzers in support, Harding proceeded with the planned attack of 19 November on the eastern flank.[469] The attacks were met with intense fire from the Japanese defenders and quickly faltered with no gain.[470]

The early movements of battalions blurred the assignment of tasks against the eastern and western flanks on the basis of regimental commands. The force attacking the Japanese western flank was designated Urbana Force. The concentration to the east, around Cape Endaiadere and the two strips, was called Warren Force.[471]

The next day, a further attack was pressed with support from bombers and the mountain howitzers. About 100 yards (91 m) was gained on the coastal strip but the III/128th was still held up in front of the bridge.[247][Note 57]

An attack on the 21st was to be an "all-out"[473] effort. The I/126th and 2/6th Independent Company had arrived and were committed to the attack between the coast and the eastern end of the New Strip – I/128th against the coast, I/126th in the centre and 2/6th Independent Company on the left at the eastern end of the strip. Three bombing missions had been ordered in support of the attack. The orders for the attack had not been received before the first mission in the morning. The second mission was cancelled due to weather. The attack proceeded with the third that arrived at 3:57 pm. Both bombing missions caused Allied casualties: 10 killed and 14 wounded in total.[474] The bombing failed to neutralize the Japanese positions and disrupted the attackers. The attack resulted in no appreciable gain by the forces at either end of the New Strip.[475]

The bridge across the Simemi Creek between the two strips at Buna being repaired after a bridgehead was eventually established on 23 December 1942. AWM013982

By 26 November, artillery support for the division had increased from the two mountain howitzers to include six 25-pounders.[338][Note 58] Warren Force was to concentrate its efforts against the eastern end of the New Strip. On the 22nd, the III/128th was moved to there, leaving a company to guard the Simemi Track.[464] The front was adjusted, with III/128th taking the right, seaward flank. I/126th remained in the centre, with the 2/6th Independent Company to the left. Here, the coast ran south to north toward Cape Endaiadere so that the axis of advance toward the Cape was north. The I/128th was positioned behind the I/126th. It was tasked to move through the I/128th, west, along the edge of the New Strip. The I/128th was to advance north-west and the III/128th on a northerly axis. This plan, with attacking troops moving on three different axies, was perhaps altogether too complex.[478]

The attack was preceded with strafing by P-40s and Beaufighters, while A-20s bombed to the rear. Some fifty aircraft participated.[479] This was followed by half an hour of artillery bombardment. The amassed fire failed to suppress the Japanese position and the attack was met with heavy fire. The advance of the I/126th was misdirected, opening a gap in the left flank. The I/126th was recalled to seal the flank. The attack ended without significant gain[480] as Japanese aircraft from Lae strafed the Americans.[325]

An attack on 30 November was to coincide with one by Urbana Force. While the I/126th made some progress along the axis of the new strip, the day again ended without significant progress.[481] Through the course of these events, some small gains had been made by small attacks and infiltration.[334] Nevertheless, MacArthur became increasingly impatient with Harding's efforts and the lack of progress by the 32nd Division.[482]

Buna Station – Urbana Force

Urbana Force attacks the Triangle, 24 November 1942

The II/128th, advancing along the track from Ango, made contact with the Japanese defenders around midday on 21 November. Feeling out each flank, the Americans plunged into a mire of swamp. The II/126th was released by 7th Division on the 22nd and linked up with the II/128th on the morning of the 23rd.[334] An attack on the 24th was pressed by these Battalions against the flanks and front of the Triangle. It was to be supported by artillery and aerial bombing but the latter did not eventuate. An Allied fighter strafed the force headquarters.[324] The right flank emerged from the swamp and moved about 200 yards (180 m) across open kunai before being caught exposed and came under heavy fire. The left and centre fared little better and no gain was made.[483] Urbana Force, thereafter concentrated its efforts against the left flank.

The attack of the 30th was to strike on a wide front from the apex of the Triangle toward Buna Village, having first paralleled the Japanese defences. Little real headway was made against the defenders but at the end of the day, E Company of the II/126th was short of the village by about 100 yards (91 m) and F Company of the II/128th had made a wide flanking move, to reach Siwori Village, cutting land communication between Buna and Sanananda.[484] By this time, losses for the 32nd Division were 492 men.[485] The following day saw an attempt against the village with some minor success. Though the main attack faltered, G Company, II/126th advance to Entrance Creek after clearing a command post and several bunkers.[486]

Harding replaced

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.

Following the inspection of 2 December, Eichelberger relieved Harding, replacing him with the division's artillery commander, Brigadier General Waldron.[487] He also sacked the regimental commanders and most battalion commanders.[488] He ordered improved food and medical supplies.[489] Through both the moves to the beachheads beforehand and over the course of the fighting the division had become badly intermixed. Many companies had been separated from their parent battalions.[490] He halted operations on the Buna front for two days to allow units to reorganise.[491]

Eichelberger set about restoring the flagging confidence of his men. Eichelberger conspicuously wore his three stars on his collar among the front-line troops,[492][493] ignoring the convention of removing insignia at the front so as to not attract the enemy.[494] He and his staff regularly came under fire,[495] once from only 15 yards (14 m), but he insisted on being present with his forward troops to quietly urge them in their efforts.[496] He expected the same leadership from his officers at every level.[497] Waldron was injured on 5 December, accompanying Eichelberger near the front and was replaced by Brigadier General Byers.[498] An article in Time magazine from September 1945 records that "some of the 32nd's officers privately denounced Eichelberger as ruthless, Prussian. The men of the 32nd...called their division cemetery 'Eichelberger Square.'"[499]

Breakthrough at Buna Village

On 5 December, Urbana Force pressed an attack on Buna village from the south with four companies. P-40 Kittyhawks supported by attacking the station, to disrupt any attempt to reinforce the village. The attacks by the flank companies faltered while the centre advanced with limited success.[500] However, on the centre right, Staff Sergeant Herman Bottcher, a platoon commander in H Company, 126th Infantry, leading 18 men, was able to drive to the sea. Bottcher and his troops fought off attacks for seven days during which he was wounded twice before he was relieved.[501] Australian war correspondent George Johnston wrote in Time magazine on 20 September 1943: "By a conservative count ... Bottcher and his twelve men ... killed more than 120 Japs."[502]

Sanananda Front, December 1942.

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, being already isolated on the western flank. It provided the impetus for the ultimate capture of the village. Bottcher was awarded a battlefield commission to the rank of captain and the first of two Distinguished Service Cross Medals.[498] A plaque was later placed at the entrance to Buna Village in memory of his actions that day.[503]

On this same day, Bren carriers were to spearhead an unsuccessful attack on the Warren Force front.[504] Subsequent actions on the Urbana front were to consolidate the gain made by Bottcher. For the next week, activity on both flanks at Buna was mainly restricted to infiltration and harassing artillery fire.[505] On 11 December, the III/127th, having arrived at Dobodura two days earlier, took over forward positions occupied by II/126th.[336] In the morning of the 14th, after concentrated mortar fire, the III/127th advanced on the village but the defenders had already fled.[506] The only positions to the west of Entrance Creek that remained were at the Coconut Grove.[507] This was cleared by the II/128th, with attacks on the 16th and 17th.[508]

Sanananda Track

On the morning of 20 November, the 16th Brigade, having advanced from Soputa on the Sanananda track, was approaching the vicinity of two track junctions that left the main track for Cape Killerton. It was here, that the 2/1st Battalion, leading, came under effective small arms and artillery fire. The 2/1st deployed to feel out the flanks.[509] Two companies under Captain Basil Catterns were tasked to make a broad left-flanking manoeuvre, to envelop the Japanese positions astride the road. The remainder of the brigade adjusted itself in support.[320] Catterns' force skirted the Japanese forward positions and attacked the main Japanese position astride the road as evening approached (after about 6 pm).[510]

Soldiers stand-to in a weapon pit filled with rainwater. AWM014211

Catterns' force fought a desperate action through the night and the day of the 21st while the rest of the battalion pressed the forward against Japanese positions that were threatened by Catterns' manoeuvre. These positions fell back through the night and into the morning. By 8:30 am of the 21st, the 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions moved through the forward companies of the 2/1st.[511] Catterns' force had achieved a small salient in the main Japanese defences but they were determined to yield no more ground. The 2/3rd pressed forward to relieve Catterns by the early evening and took up a position immediately to Catterns' rear, while his force vacated the position it had been holding.[512] While this seemed prudent at the time, maintaining the position may have been advantageous for subsequent operations.[513] In Catterns' initial force of 91 all ranks, 5 officers and 26 other ranks had been killed and 2 officers and 34 other ranks had been wounded. The gun, the forward positions immediately delaying the brigade's advance, and a further defensive position in between were secured by this action.[514]

The Japanese positions were now just north of the first track junction but denied the use of this track to Cape Killerton. To either flank was thick jungle and swamp. Dispersed through the area were relatively open patches of kunai grass. One such area was immediately forward of the Japanese positions encountered by the 2/1st Battalion on the 20th.[429] After long fighting along the Kokoda Track, the effective strength of the Brigade was less than that of one battalion.[515] The American III/126th Battalion (with two companies of the regiment's 1st Battalion) was bought forward on the 22nd to make a similar left flank manoeuvre to Catterns'. It was tasked to secure the Soputa–Sanananda–Cape Killerton track junction, to the front of 16th Brigade. After a false start on 23 November, the American attack commenced the following day. On 30 November, after nearly a week of indecisive skirmishing through the bush, the position which was to become known as "Huggins' Roadblock" was established on the Sanananda Track, just south of the second Cape Killerton track junction.[516] The position had an initial strength of about 250.[517][Note 59]


Air photo of the Gona area. Additional annotation shows positions on the eastern flank for the attack of 29 November. Point Z is just off the edge of the photo.[Note 60][Note 61]

On 19 November, the 25th Brigade approached Gona Village on the track from Jumbora. Just south of the village, the passage of a patrol of the 2/33rd through a large patch of kunai was being disputed by some Japanese riflemen. The 2/31st pushed through the kunai and then came under heavy small arms fire from the direction of the village. It immediately deployed to feel for the flanks. The defence was tenacious and, short of ammunition, the Battalion broke contact just before midnight.[428] Having received resupply at Wariopa on 13 November, the brigade was on the last of its emergency rations and required ammunition.[521] Resupply occurred on the 21st and an attack was planned for the following day, where the 2/33rd Battalion was to advance on the village. Lieutenant Haddy's 2/16th Chaforce Company, was now under command of the 2/31st Battalion. It had taken up a position just west of the village and Gona Creek.[522]

As the 2/33rd Battalion, advanced and met strong resistance, the 2/31st Battalion worked around to the east. Having made the beach, it attacked on a narrow front, confined by beach and swamp on either flank. Having made the forward Japanese positions, it was beaten back by heavy enfilade fire.[523] The 2/25th Battalion was to push through the 2/31st Battalion on the 23rd to renew the attack from the east. The battalion made a small gain before being held and was forced to withdraw.[524] The village was heavily bombed on the 24th. The 3rd Battalion attacked on the afternoon of the 25th, from the southwest, with mortars and artillery in support. After a small advance, the Battalion was held up by a strong Japanese position.[525] The Japanese at Gona had been aggressive in their defence. In the evening of 26 November, the 2/33rd, astride the main track, was vigorously attacked by the defenders.[526] By these events, the offensive capacity of the 25th Brigade was effectively exhausted.[527] It had fought the Japanese the length of the Kokoda Track. It had been reinforced by the 3rd Battalion (AMF), and the three Chaforce companies. The four battalions totaled just over the strength of a battalion and the Chaforce companies about one-third of a battalion.[Note 62]

An Allied aircraft (possibly a Wirraway), strafing Japanese snipers outside Gona. AWM013754

The 21st Brigade, though barely 1,000 strong,[433] was shortly to arrive and was assigned the task of capturing Gona Village with the 25th Brigade in support. Recent reinforcements had remained in Port Moresby for further training.[530] An attack was ordered for 29 November, even though the last of the Brigade's battalions was not due until the following day – likely because of intelligence indicating the imminent arrival of Japanese reinforcements.[531] The 2/14th Battalion was to move to a forming up point, Point 'Y', on the eastern flank and attack along the coastal strip from a line of departure at 'Point X', just west of Small Creek, about 1,000 yards (910 m) from the village. Heavy aerial bombardment was to precede the attack. A clearing patrol failed to identify strong Japanese positions between Point 'Y' and Point 'X' and the 2/14th Battalion was heavily engaged as it proceeded to the line of departure.[532] The attack was modified, with the 2/27th Battalion to move directly to Point 'X' and take over the task against the Village. The 2/14th Battalion was to concentrate on the force about Small Creek, having skirted a patch of kunai, it was to move easterly from Point 'Y', then to a point on the coast, designated Point 'Z' and launch its attack from there. Both attacking battalions met heavy resistance and made small gains that day.[533]

Vickers machine gunners reloading belts following the fall of Gona. AWM013846

The 2/16th Battalion arrived to join the fighting the following day. It was deployed to protect the eastern flank and contributed two companies to a renewed attack against the village. These attacks were met with heavy machine gun fire. While they failed to make any gain, the 2/14th Battalion was able to clear the beach positions.[534] A renewed attack followed on the 1st. The attackers were able to enter the village but, in the face of fierce counter attacks, were unable to consolidate their gains.[535] While the remaining force maintained pressure on the village, the 2/14th Battalion was tasked to press east toward Sanananda. It encountered no resistance except from the impenetrable swamp and an "over-zealous" member of the RAAF, who strafed the whole unit.[536] The 21st Brigade, in five days of fighting, had lost 340 in battle – over a third of its strength.[536]

The 30th Brigade was then moving to the beachheads and the 39th Battalion was detached from it to join the 21st Brigade. The 39th Battalion had been first to meet the advance of the Japanese across the Kokoda Track.[537] Though then inexperienced, it had accounted for itself well and was ably led by Honner.[538] The 25th Brigade was relieved and moved to Port Moresby from 4 December.[539] The Chaforce companies remained. The 2/16th and 2/27th, so depleted by the recent fighting, were amalgamated into a composite battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Albert Caro. A fresh attack on 6 December, with the 39th Battalion from the south and the composite battalion along the coast quickly became bogged down.[540]

This sedan, converted for service as an ambulance, was captured by the Japanese at Singapore and recaptured by Allied troops at Gona. AWM013858

An assault was planned for 8 December, with the main thrust to be provided by the 39th Battalion. This was Brigadier Ivan Dougherty's "last throw" at taking Gona. If unsuccessful, Vasey had decided not to commit further resources to taking Gona but to contain it while concentrating on Sanananda.[329] Aerial bombardment in preparation mainly fell on the Australian positions by mistake and the attack was postponed until a 250-round artillery bombardment was fired with delay fuses. Honner committed his battalion to attack under the artillery barrage, calculating that his troops would maintain the attack under their own fire, and that the barrage would give them an advantage to succeed.[541][Note 63] Additionally, the delayed fuses were not only more effective against the Japanese positions but were less likely to inflict casualties in the attacking force, compared with instantaneous fuses. The day closed with the Japanese position reduced to a small enclave that was taken the following day, after which Honner sent Dougherty the message: "Gona's gone!"[543]

West of Gona – Haddy's Village

Japanese ammunition captured by Allied forces at Gona.

Haddy's 2/16th Chaforce company had been positioned on the west bank of Gona Creek since 21 November and had dwindled to a strength of 45 all ranks.[544] They had been protecting the west flank while at the same time harassing the Japanese in the village. On 30 November, a Chaforce patrol, at "Haddy's" Village, at little east of the Amboga River, beat off a Japanese force of between 150 and 200, that were trying to infiltrate east in support of the beachheads.[545] The Japanese maintained a strong presence in the area and there was a further violent clash on 7 December.[545] A Japanese force of 400–500 men was operating in the area.[329] Haddy, covering the withdrawal of his patrol from the village was killed.[329]

The 2/14th Battalion was tasked to protect this flank and active patrolling on this western flank prevented this force from reinforcing the beachheads.[546] On 10 December, the 39th Battalion patrolled by a slightly inland route[547] toward Haddy's Village and met firm resistance from an outer perimeter of defenders to the south of the Village.[548] They deployed and engaged the Japanese occupying the village while the 2/14th Battalion, which had been operating from a firm base about half-way between Gona and the village, moved along the coast to join the 39th Battalion. En route, on the 11th, it met stiff resistance from Japanese that had occupied a small cluster of huts. Its advance toward Haddy's Village was opposed and only grudgingly gave ground.[549] What remained of the 2/14th Battalion was placed under Honner's command and a concerted attack against the Village was made on the 16th.[550] Fighting continued until the Village was captured on the morning of 18 December.[551] There were 170 defenders buried after the attack but captured documents indicated a larger force had occupied the village and wounded had been evacuated prior to the final battle.[552] The occupiers were from the III/170th Infantry that had landed near the mouth of the Kumusi River in early December. After this, the Japanese forces that had landed west of the beachheads made no further serious push against the Allied western flank but Vasey maintained a force in and around Gona, both to secure this flank and to contain the Japanese defenders at the beachheads.[553]

Tanks at Buna

Attacks at Buna – Warren Force 18–28 December.

On 14 December, the 2/9th Battalion of the Australian 18th Brigade arrived at Oro Bay.[554] The brigade was attached to the 32nd Division and, led by Brigadier George Wootten, was to take over the Warren Force area, with the American units, I/126th, I/128th and III/128th Battalions, placed under command.[555] The 2/9th Battalion attacked on 18 December, on a front extending from the eastern end of the New Strip to the coast and pivoting on its left flank. The attack was supported by seven M3 tanks of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment and an eighth in reserve. This first phase of the brigade's operation was to capture the Duropa Plantation and the area beyond bordered by the Simemi Creek. At the end of the first days fighting, the 2/9th Battalion lost 11 officers and 160 other ranks, while 2 tanks had been destroyed and one damaged[399] but the right flank had been advanced to about 400 yards (370 m) west of Cape Endaiadere and the front now ran north from the eastern end of the New Strip – a substantial gain.[556] The 19th was taken up consolidating these gains.[399]

It was a spectacular and dramatic assault, and a brave one [General Eichelberger wrote later]. From the New Strip to the sea was about half a mile. American troops wheeled to the west in support, and other Americans were assigned to mopping-up duties. But behind the tanks went the fresh and jaunty Aussie veterans, tall, mustached, erect, with their blazing Tommy-guns swinging before them. Concealed Japanese positions – which were even more formidable than our patrols had indicated – burst into flame. There was the greasy smell of tracer fire ... and heavy machine-gun fire from barricades and entrenchments. Steadily tanks and infantrymen advanced through the spare, high coconut trees, seemingly impervious to the heavy opposition.[557]

Troops crouch behind an M3 Stuart light tank as they wait to advance during the clearing out of pillboxes on the edge of Semini Creek. This open kunai country could be boggy and was hazardous for the tanks.

The Japanese had abandoned their positions along the New Strip and forward of the bridge, which the I/128th and I/126th (respectively) were able to occupy.[399] In a renewed attack on the 20th, the 2/9th Battalion was strengthened by a company of the 2/10th Battalion.[558] This battalion had embarked at Porlock Harbour on 17 December.[555] On the 20th, the I/126th and then, a detachment of the 114th Engineer Battalion tried to force the Creek at the bridge but were unsuccessful.[559] On the following day, the 2/10th Battalion and the two battalions of the 128th Infantry Regiment were tasked with making a crossing of the creek.[560] The 2/10th Battalion, which had concentrated at the western end of the New Strip, achieved this on 22 December about 500 yards (460 m) west of the bridge, close to where the creek returned from making a sharp 'U' toward the cape. Having made the crossing in force on the 23rd, the 2/10th Battalion then swung left back toward the bridge to occupy the bridgehead by midday with few casualties.[561] The American engineers quickly set about making repairs[562] while the I/126th Battalion crossed the creek to take up the left flank.[563] By the end of the day, the 2/10th Battalion had advanced about 400 yards (370 m) along the northern side of the Old Strip from where it had crossed the Creek. From there, the front swept back and along the fringe of the swamp toward the bridge. Phase one of Wootten's plan had concluded after six days of hard fighting.[564]

Australian assault on a pillbox at Giropa Point, January 1943

On the 24th, the 2/10th Battalion with the I/126th Battalion were to attack up the Old Strip.[565] Despite the four tanks allocated to support the attack being destroyed by a concealed anti-aircraft gun at the outset,[566] the right flank was able to advance about 600 yards (550 m), having approached the fringe of the coconut plantation that extended around the coast from the western end of the Old Strip.[567] The I/128th Battalion had also joined the fighting along the Old Strip that day.[568] The Australians were being employed as "shock troops" and relied on the Americans to clear behind them as they advanced.[569] The III/128th Battalion had similarly supported the 2/9th Battalion.[570] The 25th was given over to advancing by infiltration but two anti-aircraft guns and their supporting defences proved problematic.[571] On the 26th, the first fell silent, out of ammunition, and was over-run by the Americans.[572] The second gun and supporting positions only fell after a bitter struggle. The impetus for the advance that day had been held by strongly contested positions which ultimately yielded to the tenacity of the attackers who suffered heavily without the benefit of supporting tanks.[573] The 27th was then given over to consolidating the position at the end of the Old Strip.[574] By the 28th, most of the Japanese were contained in the coastal strip of coconut plantation that extended from the Simemi Creek at the end of the Old Strip to Giropa Creek, about half a mile from the coast. A plan for the 28th to squeeze the Japanese with a pivot from each flank resulted in bloody skirmishes but no decisive result. That evening, the right flank was counter-attacked and savagely mauled, while the Japanese raided American positions in depth.[575]

An attack was planned for the 29th, with newly arrived tanks.[576] The 2/10th Battalion was strengthened by a company of the 2/9th Battalion. The day ended in disaster with the tanks turning on their own attacking troops.[410]

The 2/12th Battalion was then arriving and was tasked to clear the strip of coconut plantation in an attack on 1 January, with six tanks supporting and three in reserve.[577] By this time, the III/128th Battalion had rotated with the I/126th Battalion.[578] The fighting continued through the day.[579] The last post was reduced by 9:55 am on the 2nd. Sporadic fighting continued into the afternoon as the position was cleared.[580] The 2/12th Battalion lost 12 officers and 179 other ranks in these two days of fighting.[581] The 18th Brigade lost 55 officers and 808 other ranks since being committed on 18 December.[581]

Huggins' and James' Roadblocks

An infantryman receives grenades from the crew of a tank during an attack at Buna. AWM023955

The bulk of the force occupying the roadblock on the Sanananda Track consisted of I Company, the III/126th Battalion and the Regiments Anti-tank Company, with Captain John Shirley in overall command.[582] The forward Japanese positions had been enveloped but not isolated by Allied positions which resembled a horseshoe with the ends pointing northward and the roadblock between the two ends. Cannon Company and K Company, at the western end of the horseshoe, were located about 1,400 yards (1,300 m) west of the roadblock.[435] Initially, this provided a base from which to supply the roadblock position.[517] Huggins was leading a ration party to the roadblock on 1 December when, shortly after his arrival, Shirley was killed. Huggins then took command of the force[517] but was himself wounded and evacuated from the position on 8 December.[262]

The Americans mounted an attack against the enveloped Japanese positions on 5 December without success.[583] With this, it became apparent that they would be unable to force these positions with the force then available. The Australian 30th Brigade (less the 39th Battalion) was then assigned this task for 7 December.[584] The 49th Battalion was allocated the right side of the track and was to attack in the morning, while the 55th/53rd, allocated the left side, was to attack in the afternoon. Both attacks made little gain for heavy casualties, though, the 49th Battalion did link with parts of the 2/2nd Battalion occupying positions near the far right end of the horseshoe of positions around the Japanese.[585] Thereafter, until mid-December, which heralded the arrival of the 2/7th Cavalry Regiment and the 36th Battalion, the forces deployed on the track adopted a policy of patrolling and infiltrating the Japanese positions.[586]

Headquarters 2/7th Cavalry Regiment, Sanananda Track, just 40 yards (37 m) from Japanese positions. AWM014177

The 36th Battalion took over positions astride the track on 18 December, with the 55th/53rd and 49th Battalions shuffling left and right respectively. Attacks were to be made by these two battalions the following day against the forward Japanese positions, with the 36th initially in reserve.[587] Meanwhile, the 2/7th Cavalry Regiment had circled left to advance to Huggins' that night, to launch an attack in the morning along the track and press on to Sanananda.[264] Having lost many of its junior leaders, the attack by the 55th/53rd Battalion was soon held with little gain.[588] The 49th Battalion was able to push forward, mainly along the Japanese flank, to the vicinity of the roadblock position.[589] Renewed attacks by the 49th Battalion with support from elements of the 36th Battalion were held up.[590] An attempt by the 36th Battalion on 21 December to push through from positions gained by the 49th Battalion made little progress.[591]

The attack of the 2/7th Cavalry Regiment was able to advance about 450 yards (410 m) before meeting strong resistance, which also threatened the flanks of its advance. By nightfall, Captain James, with about 100 men, was able to establish a perimeter about 400 yards (370 m) from Huggins'.[592] Most of the remaining force was able to fall back to Huggins'.[593] The attacking forces continued to patrol vigorously on 20 and 21 December. While the attacks failed to capture the forward position or achieve a breakthrough along the track, they did result in isolating a further cluster of the defender's posts, between Huggins' and the fresh roadblock position occupied by James.[594] There was now also a line of posts along the eastern flank to Huggins', manned by the 49th Battalion. This then became the line of communication and supply for the roadblock positions.[595] It was clear; however, that the additional forces bought into action on the 19th would be insufficient to force a decision on the Sanananda Track. There were no further Australian forces that could be deployed to the beachheads without compromising the defence of key locations elsewhere in New Guinea. The US 163rd Infantry Regiment (41st Infantry Division) was en route to the beachheads. The 18th Brigade and tanks of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment would be released from the 32nd Division with the pending fall of the Buna defences, but neither of these two eventualities would relieve the situation on the Sanananda Track until early in the new year. While active patrolling continued, no further major action was to occur on this front until then.[596]

Buna Government Station falls

Urbana Front, 18–28 December.

After the fall of Buna Village on 14 December, the II/128th Battalion successfully cleared the Coconut Grove by noon on the 17th, having commenced the attack on the 16th.[597] On the 18th, an attempt was made by the III/128th Battalion to advance on the Government Station by crossing to Musita Island. The advance across the Island was made without opposition but was driven back off the island by heavy fire as it attempted to cross the bridge at the eastern end.[598] An attempt by the II/126th Battalion was made on the Triangle on the 19th, from near the bridge over Entrance Creek, driving south but was a costly failure.[599] The 20th saw the II/127th Battalion cross the creek at the Coconut Grove under cover of smoke but, unseasoned, the attack became confused and "fizzled out"[600] so that Urbana Force had made no progress in the attacks of the preceding three days.[601]

A new plan was developing. A bridgehead was to be made across Entrance Creek about half-way between the Island and the Triangle, with the attack pressing through the Government Gardens and bypassing the Triangle. A crossing was made by the III/127th Battalion in assault boats on the night of the 21st and a bridge was built by which 5 companies were able to cross on the 24th.[602] At the same time, repairs were made to a bridge at the south-west end of Musita Island and the occupation of the Island by midday on the 23rd was uneventful.[603] Notwithstanding this, it was decided to press forward with an advance across the Government Gardens along an axis slightly north of east on the 24th.[604] From about this point, the action became one fought by companies without a clear distinction between battalions. On the 24th, the right and centre became bogged down, but on the left, one of the platoons was able to advance to the sea. However, without communication, isolated, fiercely opposed and under fire from its own guns, it was forced to withdraw.[605] A renewed effort was joined by parts of the I/127th Battalion, which were then, just arriving. The attack on the 25th produced a similar result to the previous day but this time, two companies were able to establish a perimeter about 300 yards (270 m) from the sea and 600 yards (550 m) from the Government Station.[606] The position was isolated and strongly contested by the Japanese. By the 28th, the position had been firmed and progress had been made by the centre and right of the advance.[607] By this time, it had been found that the Japanese had abandoned the Triangle.[608] Also on the 28th, the III/128th Battalion tried to force a bridgehead from Musita Island in assault boats but this failed when the artillery cover lifted while the boats were still midstream.[609]

The fall of Buna, 31 December 1942 – 2 January 1943.

On the night of the 29th, it was discovered that the Japanese were no longer contesting an approach to the Government Station across the spit seaward of Musita Island.[610] Plans were made to exploit this with an attack early on the 31st, approaching from both the spit and from the bridge on Musita Island. Irresponsible firing alerted the Japanese of the approach along the spit. The inexperienced company of the II/127th Battalion broke under fire after the company commander was wounded. Disaster was averted by the intervention of the regiment's commander, Colonel Grose, who turned the troops back to their task. The second of the companies committed along this axis was "more resolute"[611] and a beachhead was secured.[612]

On 1 January 1943, a strong effort by Urban Force against the Government Station and by the 2nd, some Japanese troops were breaking to the sea. By mid-afternoon, advances from the coast and the bridge had met. Final positions were captured later that afternoon and a link was made with the Australians on the right flank.[613]

Realignment of Allied forces

A Japanese built foot bridge crossing described as: "Entrance Creek to the Buna Station". Possibly the bridge on the eastern end of Musita Island.

With the fall of Buna, the 32nd Division was to press on against the Japanese at Sanananda–Giruwa from the east while the 18th Brigade and tanks of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment were to join the 7th Division at the Sanananda Track. The US 163rd infantry Regiment was also joining the fight at the Track. There was some movement of units and realignment of commands in the intervening period. On 22 December, the headquarters of the 21st Brigade and the 39th Battalion moved from Gona to the Sanananda Track, where the 49th Battalion and 2/7th Cavalry Regiment came under command.[595] The 39th Battalion relieved the Americans occupying Huggins' Roadblock at this time.[264] The AIF battalions properly belonging to the brigade remained in the Gona area, to be known as Goforce, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Challen. The Americans of the 126th Infantry Regiment that remained were under command of the 30th Brigade but ultimately, were returned to the 32nd Division at Buna on 9 January.[614]

Brigadier Porter, commanding the 30th Brigade wrote to Eichelberger:

I am taking the opportunity offered by Major Boerem's return to you to express my appreciation of what the men of your division who have been under my command have done to assist our efforts on the Sanananda Road. By now it is realized that greater difficulties presented themselves here than were foreseen, and the men of your division probably bore most of them ... Your men are worthy comrades and stout hearts. I trust that they will have the opportunity to rebuild their depleted ranks in the very near future. With their present fund of experience they will rebuild into a formidable force ...[615]

A Stuart tank that was destroyed at Sanananda. The dense vegetation confined the tanks to the track. AWMP04491.008

On the night of 2/3 January, with the arrival of the 163rd Regiment, there was a general reshuffle. The Americans took over the positions then held by the Australians under command of the 21st Brigade. These Australian units then came under command of the 30th Brigade and relieved the 36th and 55th/53rd Battalions, which, in turn, were placed under command of the newly arrived Headquarters 14th Brigade which took over the responsibilities of Goforce.[346] Thus relieved, the 21st Brigade and its AIF battalions returned to Port Moresby.[616] On the morning of 10 January, the 18th Brigade took the 2/7th Cavalry Regiment under command and occupied the positions held by the 39th and 49th Battalions of the 30th Brigade, in preparation for an attack on 12 January.[617]

Leading up to this, Colonel Doe, commanding the 163rd Infantry Regiment, tried to force the Japanese positions between the two roadblocks. The attack by the I/163rd Battalion on 8 January was fiercely met and thrown back by the defenders.[618] On 9 January, the II/163rd Battalion deployed through Huggins' (known as Musket by the 163rd Infantry Regiment)[619] to a position on the Killerton Track. There, the battalion established a roadblock in close contact with Japanese positions to the south. This position was slightly south of west from Huggins' and was known as "Rankin", after the battalion commander, Major Rankin.[620]

On the 12th, the 2/9th and 2/12th Battalions, each reinforced with a company from the 2/10th Battalion attacked the forward Japanese positions along the Sanananda Track. Three tanks were allocated to support the attack with an additional one in reserve. Unable to manoeuvre, the tanks were quickly destroyed or disabled by a concealed gun, and the attack failed, having met strong resistance, particularly on the left, in front of the 2/12th Battalion. The attack was, however, sufficient to entice the Japanese to abandon the forward positions that had barred the track to Cape Killerton. The positions south of Huggins' were abandoned over the nights of 12 and 13 January.[444]

Sanananda Front 15–22 January.

Tarakena, Cape Killerton, Sanananda and Giruwa

The 127th Regiment had been tasked to advance along the coast toward Sanananda–Giruwa from Buna. A beachhead had previously been established at Siwori but at dusk on 4 January, the Japanese fell upon the advance American position forward of the village, forcing them back.[621] Two companies crossed Siwori Creek on the morning of the 5th and advanced toward Tarakena, in contact with the Japanese, who fought to delay them.[622] Nevertheless, Tarakena was taken by the evening of 8 January.[623] The fast flowing Konombi Creek, immediately west of the village, covered by fire, was a significant obstacle to any further advance.[624] A bridgehead was secured by the 10th but the country that lay beyond offered no route by which to advance – at high tide, the ocean and swamp were one.[625] There, the advance by the 32nd Division paused until 15 January.[619][Note 64]

The 18th Brigade advanced toward Cape Killerton on the morning of 15 January, with the 2/10th leading. The going became very heavy as the track petered into swamp. The beach was reached the next day and Wye Point by that evening (the 16th). There, the battalion encountered the outer defences of a strong position.[629] The II/163rd, leaving "Rankin", followed in the wake of the 18th Brigade. It left the Killerton track at the coconut grove (a little less than half-way to Cape Killerton) to find the second, more easterly Killerton track.[630] On the 16th, it then moved south along the second track to support of the rest of the Regiment. It approached the Japanese positions near James' (known as Fisk[Note 65] by the 163rd Infantry Regiment) from the rear, and married-up with the I/163rd Battalion.[631][Note 66] The 2/12th struck east from the coconut grove on the Killerton track for the main Sanananda track to press along the track to Sanananda. It reached this by 11:30 on the 17th. The 2/9th struck east from the Kilerton track, through the Killerton Village. It paralleled the coast before striking northeast for Sanananda, thereby bypassing the Japanese coastal defensive positions east of Wye Point.[634] It halted just short of the Sanananda Village positions for the night.[635]

An Australian rolls a cigarette for a Japanese prisoner captured at Sanananda. AWM014218

The positions between Huggins' and James' were reduced on 16 January by the 163rd Infantry Regiment.[636] It also enveloped the Japanese positions to the front of James'. This was the last of the cluster that had held the advance of the Australians along the track. The II/163rd, having patrolled back along the second Killerton track to meet with the rest of the regiment, skirted east to the main Sanananda Track and advanced along this until it linked with the 2/12th Battalion.[637] Having found the track clear, it returned to the regiment, which was detained by the task before it until 22 January.[638]

On the morning of the 18th, the 2/9th Battalion approached Sanananda Village through swamp from the southwest. This unlikely approach was not strongly defended and the village fell by 1:00 pm. The battalion then cleared Sanananda Point and east to the Giruwa River before nightfall.[639] The 127th Infantry Regiment, having paused at Konombi Creek recommenced its advance on 16 January and made steady progress, taking Giruwa on 21 January. It linked with the Australians that had already reached the Giruwa River.[640][Note 67]

By the evening of the 17th, the 2/12th Battalion was astride the Sanananda Track and had linked with 'A' Company of the 2/10th Battalion that had been directed to patrol to the track from Killerton Village earlier.[634] On the 18th, it advanced north toward Sanananda but the battalion met determined resistance that could not be overcome that day despite three separate attempts.[642] On the 19th, positions on the western side of the track were taken by 'A' Company of the 2/10th Battalion, who were detached temporarily to the 2/12th Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Arnold, commanding the 2/12th Battalion, described this feat as "one of the outstanding features of this phase of the campaign".[642] By this action, the battalion was able to link with a company of the 2/9th Battalion that had been lending assistance from the north end of the track. Defences on the eastern side of the track resisted the efforts of the attackers that day and the following but on the morning of the 21st, only the sick and wounded manned the position and offered little resistance.[643]

File:American dead buna beach.png
Three American GIs lie dead on Buna Beach.[644] [Note 68] The image was captured by George Strock on 31 December 1942[645] though it is sometimes described as having been taken in February 1943, a month after the battle ended.[646] Life was finally able to publish it on 20 September 1943 after President Roosevelt authorised its release. It was the first photograph published in the United States during World War II to show 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.

The 2/10th Battalion confronted stubborn resistance in its advance from Wye Point,[647] compounded by extremely difficult terrain. The strip separating sea from swamp was only a few feet wide at high tide and not much more at low tide.[648] Progress was painfully slow, with the only effective fire support coming from mortars, but this was limited since the ammunition had to be man-packed forward.[649] Having cleared Sanananda, the 2/9th Battalion was also pushing west in support of the 2/10th Battalion, initially with one company.[649] By the 20th, only 300 yards (270 m) separated the two battalions but it was not until 1:15 pm on the 22nd that it was reported that the forces had joined and organised resistance had ended.[650]


Although the main fighting was over, significant numbers of Japanese remained at large about the beachheads and had to be dealt with over the following days.[651] The 14th Brigade clashed sharply with bands of fugitives in the Amboga River area.[651] The remaining regiments of the US 41st Division were moved forward to relieve the depleted Allied forces and had the remnants of the Japanese forces around the Kumusi River to deal with.[652] Dobodura was developed as a major forward air base, supported by improved harbour facilities at Oro Bay.[653]

Australian battle casualties were 3,471, with 1,204 killed in action or died of wounds and 66 missing, presumed dead. This does not include those who were evacuated sick.[654] For a total strength of 13,645, American ground forces suffered 671 killed in action, 116 other deaths, 2,172 wounded in action and 7,920 sick for a total of 10,879. The 163rd Infantry Regiment sustained 88 killed in action and 238 wounded.[655] 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.[656]

Japanese soldiers killed during the final phase of the battle at Buna Station, January 1943. The large number of dead Japanese and Allied bodies on the beach led the Allies to nickname it "Maggot Beach".[657][658]

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."[659]

Historian Stanley Falk agreed, writing that "the Papuan campaign was one of the costliest Allied victories of the Pacific war in terms of casualties per troops committed."[134] The 2/126th was especially hard hit. The fighting on the Sanananda track had reduced their strength of over 1,300 to 158.[660][Note 69]

During Kokoda, Horii had been ordered to withdraw, or euphemistically, according to Bullard, to "advance in another direction".[662] At Gorari, the well-ordered withdrawal collapsed under the pressure applied by the 7th Division.[33] Vasey wrote of this, "... we have just proved he does not like being attacked from all directions anymore than we do. ... [Gorari] absolutely routed the Jap."[663] For the defence of Buna, orders were given by the Japanese that, "It is essential for the execution of future operations that the Buna area be secured."[664] There, Vasey observes: "The Jap is being more stubborn and tiresome than I thought and I fear a war of attrition is taking place on this front. The Jap won’t go till he is killed and in the process he is inflicting many casualties on us."[665] He went on to write, "I had no idea that the Japanese, or anyone, could be as obstinate and stubborn as he has proved to be. I compared our situation now to Crete reversed, but unfortunately the Japanese is not playing by our rules."[666][Note 70] The resolve and tenacity of the Japanese defenders was, to Western perceptions, unprecedented to the point of being "fanatical",[667] and had not previously been encountered. It was to mark the conduct of further battles throughout the war.[668][Note 71]

Estimating the Japanese losses is as difficult as determining the strength of their force. Japanese sources give their losses at about 8,000.[195][Note 72] More than 200 prisoners, including 159 Japanese were taken at Gona and Sanananda.[671] At Buna, only 50 prisoners, mostly non-Japanese labourers, were taken.[672][Note 73] However, the victory, "was not as complete as could be desired", as many of the able-bodied Japanese troops escaped.[671]

File:Short 25pdr.jpg
A Short 25-pounder in New Guinea in 1944. This variant, developed in Australia, was a response to the demands of jungle fighting.

Authors including McCarthy[674] and McAuley[675] have questioned whether it was necessary to engage the Japanese in a costly battle or whether they could have been contained and reduced by starvation. Both concluded that a battle was necessary and that a victory was necessary for the Allies and not just MacArthur. Condon-Rall and Cowdrey have a similar position but a different rational, citing Eichelberger, who wrote that disease "was a surer and more deadly peril to us than enemy marksmanship. We had to whip the Japanese before the malarial mosquito whipped us."[676][677][Note 74] However, it is difficult not to question whether this victory could have been achieved without the loss that was incurred.[315] It is clear that undue pressure for haste exacerbated the Allies losses.[361][159] It is also apparent that the process of pinching off or infiltrating the Japanese defences produced results where repeated assaults failed to produce any gain.[678][Note 75] The losses suffered by the Australian forces limited their offensive capacity for "months" following the battle.[682][683]

There were many valuable, albeit costly lessons gained through the campaign.[684] It proved to be a massive learning experience for the Allies.[685] These lessons came to form the core of doctrines and tactics employed by the Australian Army throughout the remainder of the war.[686]

Recognition and memorials

For eligible Australian units, the battle honour "Buna–Gona"[687] was bestowed. Subsidiary honours were also bestowed for: "Gona",[688] "Sanananda Road",[689] "Amboga River",[690] "Cape Endaiadere–Sinemi Creek"[691] and "Sanananda–Cape Killerton".[692][Note 76]

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

First Sergeant Elmer J. Burr[695] and Sergeant Kenneth E. Gruennert[696] 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.[697]

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 Track. 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 honour of his valour.
With grateful appreciation The American Legion remembers Capt. Meredith Huggins. Erected on behalf of the American Legion by National Commander April[698]

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.[699][700]

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.)[Note 77] who gave their lives in Papua New Guinea 1942–1945.[699]


  1. Australian War Memorial (AWM) collection reference number.
  2. See Order of battle for details.
  3. Deaths include 1,204 Australian and 671 US killed in action or died of wounds. Illness from contracting tropical diseases exceeded 50 percent of the Allied troops. This figure includes nearly 8,000 Americans evacuated sick but does not include Australian troops evacuated sick (see section – 'Aftermath').
  4. 4,000 buried by Allies. See Number of Japanese killed for details.
  5. An advance party under Captain Medendorp departed on 6 October.[29]
  6. Anderson reports the distance as 25 mi (40 km).[35] This is consistent with the straight-line distance indicated by maps in other sources.[36]
  7. Confirmed by measurement using Google Earth.
  8. Brigadier Harold Disher was the Deputy Director Medical Services, New Guinea Force from late November 1942. At the end of December, he remarked in his diary, "that he thought that 100 per cent of the men at Milne Bay and in the Buna area had been infected."[68] By the end of January 1943 the malarial rate for operational areas rose to a peak equivalent to 2,496 per 1,000 per year,[69] or nearly 250 percent. This would include relapses at an average of two per man. The 163rd Infantry Regiment arrived at Sanananda from early January. It had deployed from Australia in late December, where it had not been exposed to the risk of malaria.
  9. These figures appear to be based on the whole of New Guinea and not just operations around Buna–Gona.
  10. New Guinea Force Instruction No 13 assigned to Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) the task of, "the construction of a road from McDonald's [Corner (just beyond Ilolo)] to Kokoda and the maintenance of supplies to the forces of the Kokoda District. ... The road was to be commenced no later than 29 June [1942]."[81] ANGAU was responsible for the recruitment and management of Papuan labour in support of the Allied war effort. Lieutenant (later Captain) Bert Kienzle was assigned this task and was subsequently appointed to the 7th Australian Division as Officer Commanding Native Labour, He served along the Kokoda Track and at Buna–Gona, until he was evacuated sick on 22 December. He was awarded the MBE (Military Division) for his work in this capacity.[82] The labour resources under control of Kienzel were fully committed to maintaining the line of communication along the Kokoda Track.[80] Before enlisting, Bert Kienzle was a rubber planter and gold miner from the Yodda River Valley, near Kokoda. Of the plan to build a road, Bert Kienzel later said, "Some twit at headquarters had looked at a map and said ' We'll put a road there'."[83] It has been described as a "pipe dream".[83] Lieutenant Noel Owers, a surveyor with New Guinea Force, was subsequently given the task of surveying a route to Kokoda.[84] Owers prepared a report outlining a route to Kagi (about halfway to Kokoda).[85][86] The plan was cancelled when the extent of resources required was realised. Extension of the jeep track from Ilolo to Nauro, about two-thirds the way to Kagi,[87] was begun instead. By the end of September 1942, the road had only been developed as far as Owers’ Corner, before this plan too was cancelled.[88] Owers' Corner is 61 kilometres (38 mi) from Port Moresby.[89] Just over 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) of road was completed.[83] The Kokoda Track Commemorative web site[90] and James[91] give a cross-section of the track. The cross-section gives some understanding of the enormity of the task, particularly when compared with the extent of work that was actually completed.
  11. Mayo reports a drop being made half a days march from where it was expected.[99]
  12. Multiple strips were cleared at both Dobodura and Popondetta.[106]
  13. A 'D' ration is 3 chocolate bars.
  14. McAuley cites Mayo [127] as his source. He argues against this position and proposes instead, that the victory can be ascribed to Japanese command being "inflexible and incompetent at higher levels."[126]
  15. Milner states, "Supply at Buna, in short, had ceased to be a problem just as the fight for the place was coming to an end."[123] The Center of Military History publication records that supply was an "extraordinarily difficult problem throughout the operation."[96] The United States Army publication[124] is understood to be the appendicies to the Report of the Commanding General Buna Forces in the Buna Campaign. December 1, 1942 – January 25, 1943. This document lists ongoing issues in meeting the logistical requirement of the American forces at Buna–Gona.[125] McAuley, attributing the statement to Colonel Bradley of the US 32nd Division records the opinion that, "it was fantasy to claim the Allied victory at Buna was due to superior performance; it was due to Japanese isolation and a marginally better but enduring Allied logistical system."[126][Note 14]
  16. By way of example, Milner records that Harding's request for the 127th Infantry Regiment to be deployed was denied until the level of supply could be increased.[128] MacArthur reports, "Shipping resources and supply facilities were taxed to the limit to transport and maintain a force of this size. ... These facilities had to be developed at the same time that the troops were moved into position."[129] Despite the significant increase in capacity resulting from Operation Lilliput[130] (see section – 'Sea route opened'), the level of supply never reached the point where it ceased to be an "extraordinarily difficult problem".[96] While there was significant attrition due to disease and relief of some units, four brigades, two regiments and an armoured squadron were deployed additional to the Allied forces that commenced the battle (see section – 'Allied forces') and the number of artillery pieces increased from six to over twenty (see section – 'Artillery').
  17. Bullard reports the landing of supplies by submarine near Mambare Bay. He does not record submarines directly resupplying Buna–Gona.[135]
  18. In September 1942, Japanese daily rations had consisted of 800 grams of rice and tinned meat; by December, this had fallen to 50 grams.[138]
  19. Bartholomew,[140] among other evidence of cannibalism, recounts having been shown food tins that contained fleshless hands. AWM records indicate that a "Japanese custom was to cut off a dead friend's hand, skin it, char the flesh and bones, and send the mementos to the dead man's family."[141]
  20. Karsik was the German Soneck impounded in the Netherlands East Indies. She had been used as a train ferry at Batavia, making her suited for transporting tanks to the Allied forces at Buna.
  21. The maximum lift achieved by air was on 14 December, when 74 flights delivered a total of 178 tons to Buna–Gona.[149] Milner reports that, on 31 December, two ships arrived at Oro Bay carrying 350 and 500 tons of cargo each. In the period 11–31 December, nine ship loads delivered approximately of 4,000 tons of cargo. This was more than three times the tonnage supplied to the 32nd Division by air for the same period. In combination with smaller vessels, the average level of resupply by sea was 200 tons per day.[130]
  22. Papuans provided Division G2, Brigadier General Charles Willoughby, with information that led him to believe the Japanese garrison at Buna was about a battalion.[57]
  23. Eichelberger was to refer to the situation as a "Leavenworth nightmare", which is a reference to the United States Army Command and General Staff College based at Fort Leavenworth.[161]
  24. Anderson reports that the defences "streached" seven miles inland.[39] This appears to be inconsistent with the map provided by Anderson[176] and those in other sources.[177]
  25. Though designated as an 8 cm naval anti-aircraft gun, the actual calibre is 3 in. Japanese records list two such guns at this location.[183]
  26. See Japanese strength and Reconciling reported strengths for details.
  27. Sandler gives the force as 3,450.[199] See Strength at key positions for further details.
  28. See Strength at key positions for details.
  29. Bullard reports the strength landed as 591.[207]
  30. See Order of battle for details.
  31. The establishment strength of an Australian battalion at this time was 910 all ranks.[216] The 2/12th Battalion was the strongest of the battalions in the 18th Brigade.[217] It was deployed with a total strength of 615, all ranks.[218] Other Australian battalions were typically about half this strength or less.
  32. On 14 November, the 32nd Divisions forward strength was reported as 6,951. The forward strength consisted of the 126th and 128th Regimental Combat Teams and the forward echelon of division headquarters.[219]
  33. Nelson reports that by the end of 1942, 5,500 men were employed by ANGAU in the Buna area.[223]
  34. None of the 105 mm howitzers initially moved to New Guinea with the division. Four 105 mm howitzers were subsequently flown to Port Moresby.[241] Only one was eventually flown forward to the battlefield.[241]
  35. Eichelberger quoted in Advance to Buna – Part 2 of The 32nd 'Red Arrow' Infantry Division in World War II.[57]
  36. Jones discusses MacArthur's use of the press for self-promotion and the "untruths and misstatements" that emanated from his headquarters.[281]
  37. In this press release MacArthur's headquarters announced that the losses had been low, less than half those of the enemy, battle casualties and sick included. It gave as the reason for this favorable result that there had been no need to hurry the attack because "the time element was in this case of little importance." Communique, United Nations Headquarters, Australia, 28 January 1943, in The New York Times, 29 January 1943. Eichelberger has written: "The statement to the correspondents in Brisbane after Buna that 'losses were small because there was no hurry' was one of the great surprises of my life. As you know, our Allied losses were heavy and as commander in the field, I had been told many times of the necessity for speed." Eichelberger to author, 8 March 1954, OCMH files (quoted by Milner).[304]
  38. Milner, in his closing chapter on the battle, discusses naval support under a common heading, "Artillery, Air, and Naval Support". While he does not specifically mention the potential role of naval bombardment, there is a clear inference being made by the context.
  39. McCarthy[318] reports that a section (nominally two guns) had been deployed to Kokoda. On 5 December, this gun from the Left Section joined with the Right Section of the battery in support of the 32nd Division at Buna.[319]
  40. This entitlement was short lived, from August 1942 until early 1943.[326]
  41. A flat trajectory also made it more difficult to shoot through a tree canopy.[332]
  42. Two of these guns were flown to Dobodura on 20 December. Another two were transported by sea and landed at Hariko on 23 December.[344] Milner gives the arrival of the first two guns as 18 December.[345]
  43. McCarthy[350] refers to a 6-pounder (57 mm/2.24 in) of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment being employed against positions on the Sanananda track. McCarthy is not specific as to when this occurred but it would appear to be some time shortly after 8 December. The Americans employed the lighter 37 mm anti-tank gun.[351] Sources suggest canster rounds were commonly employed by the American gunners.[352] The canister in this gun was employed effectively against Japanese in tree positions.[353]
  44. MacArthur reports that, "the flow of supplies and equipment [was restricted] to the barest essentials."[355] The Center of Military History publication states that resupply was an "extraordinarily difficult problem throughout the operation"[96] but especially so in the early part of the battle.[149] All of the requests received at Port Moresby were marked urgent.[356] McAuley notes that the Americans already gave precedence to ammunition over rations.[357] Harding described the situation as, "hand-to-mouth".[358] Blakeley states that: "Rations and medical supplies necessarily had precedence over artillery ammunition."[359]
  45. Milner writes, "the picture, especially in the final beachhead phase of operations, had been rather one in which the troops suffered heavy casualties while being hastily pressed forward in repeated attacks on prepared enemy positions with little more in the way of weapons than their rifles, machine guns, mortars, and hand grenades. ... hurrying the attack had become the leitmotiv of the campaign."[361] Here, Milner was specifically referring to hast that had arisen from the pressure that had been applied by MacArthur. Troops were prematurely committed to attacks with a predictable lack of success leading to wastage of both manpower[159] and material that might otherwise have been conserved and used more effectively. Firing was frequently restricted to conserve ammunition.[362]
  46. Eichelberger considered that the Air Force could not provide effective close air support at this time without there being an unacceptable level of risk to attacking troops. From 22 December, American forces made no further requests for close air support.[368] McCarthy recounts that, at Gona, Brigadier Ken Eather was told to withdraw his troops to a safe distance to "allow the air attackers full play".[369] Vasey also commented on how forward troops had to be withdrawn to permit preparatory artillery bombardment, and how this advantaged the Japanese defenders.[271] Watson and Rohfleisch record that vigorous patrolling occurred in the Giruwa area following 13 January and "the hand-to-hand fighting which resulted prevented any attempts at direct support by the air arm."[364]
  47. "On at least six occasions, Fifth Air Force planes attacked their own troops and inflicted casualties."[364]
  48. MacArthur went on to say, "They have set up new horizons for air conduct of the war."[389]
  49. The enmity can be attributed, at least in part, to MacArthur becoming aware that Admiral Ernest King opposed his appointment as Supreme Commander, South West Pacific Area.[392]
  50. MacArthur was admonished by Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army for press releases with the potential to have severely compromised Allied operations. In one instance, sufficient information was disclosed to potentially reveal that Japanese codes had been broken by the Allies. Jones (citing James[393]) records that this was not an isolated incident and that "MacArthur's headquarters continued to dispatch numerous leaks".[394]
  51. This press release says much about MacArthur. It is, perhaps, as much about self-promotion as it is about praising the efforts of the Air Forces. It states that artillery battalions were moved by air; a claim which was clearly false. The number of guns moved by air in support of the battle fell just short of the number in one artillery battalion nor did it include the heavier 155 mm howitzers that would be part of a division's artillery. It exaggerates (by omission and inference) the capacity of air resupply to sustain the needs of the forces deployed and of the capacity of air power to provide effective close air support. The phrasing relegates the future employment of naval forces to a lesser role. It is possibly indicative of territorial differences between MacArthur and Nimitz[391] and of MacArthur's "lack of love"[283] for the US Navy.[Note 49] One might also consider the prudence of MacArthur's statements, to the extent that they might indicate the Allies' policy, strategy, intentions and tactics for future operations.[Note 50]
  52. In making this statement, Mayo reports citing McCarthy.[413] A review of McCarthy, does not support this conclusion. At Buna, McCarthy[399] observes that they were ill-suited to the task by design (hence the simile McCarthy uses) and that there were issues, such as communication, to be overcome. He does not conclude that they had little effect. It may, perhaps, be valid to assert that they had little effect at the Sanananda Track.[414] There, they were defeated by anti-tank fire that had not been neutralized and by terrain that was unsuitable for their employment. Even so, the outcome may well have been different but for the anti-tank fire.
  53. Anderson states: "The tanks immediately proved their worth".[176]
  54. Compiled ostensibly from McCarthy 1959, Milner 1957, and Center of Military History 1990. Other sources are specifically cited.
  55. Sandler described the Buna area as being three-quarters of a mile deep (about 1300 m).[453]
  56. The Japanese defences shown on the commander's photo map[454] are indicative of the firm ground at Buna. See section – 'Intelligence' herein for photo map.
  57. Milner[243] reports the gain as "several hundred yards". A reconnaissance by Major Harry Harcourt, Officer Commanding the 2/6th Independent Company, found that the gain on the 20th was not nearly as great as what Lieutenant Colonel Robert McCoy, commanding the I/128th Battalion, believed.[472]
  58. The cited reference (Center of Military History 1990, p. 32), additionally lists one 105mm howitzer and a third mountain howitzer. McCarthy[325] records that the 105mm howitzer did not arrive until 29 November. This is supported by Milner.[476] Gillison[379] records that it was not landed until the 26th. Allan & Cutts indicate that the third mountain howitzer did not join the battle in support of the 32nd Division until 5 December and was still located near Kokoda on 26 November.[477]
  59. Milner[518] reports the initial attacking force as 256. Captain Meredith Huggins reported the strength on 5 December as 225.[519]
  60. Gona had been an Anglican mission before the war.
  61. The location of points indicated is approximate. They have been transposed onto the air photo from the sketch appearing in McCarthy.[520]
  62. The total strength of the three battalions was 35 officers and 701 other ranks.[526] The 3rd Battalion entered the fighting with a strength of 179 all ranks.[528] The three Chaforce companies entered the fighting with a combined strength of 18 officer and 311 other ranks.[529] The strength of a battalion at this time was 910 all ranks.[216]
  63. Brune opined that Honner's decision "took guts".[542]
  64. McCarthy states that the pause lasted until 16 January.[626] Milner recounts that the 127th Infantry Regiment met stiff opposition when it attempted to advance on 15 January.[627] Having reassessed the situation, the advance was renewed in greater force on 16 January. The Center of Military History records that there was active patrolling on this front until the attack of the 16th.[628]
  65. Also known as Kano.
  66. The Center of Military History publication[632] states that the II/163rd Battalion moved via the transverse track from the junction on the second Killerton track to the main Sanananda track. From there, it advanced south to support the Regiment. Milner[633] records that the II/163rd Battalion followed the second Killerton track southward, even though all trace of it disappeared.
  67. McCarthy[641] refers to the river at Giruwa but none of the maps in the principle sources[349] appear to indicate a watercourse at this point. They do indicate a lagoon.
  68. For a further image, see "The Photo That Won World War II: 'Dead Americans at Buna Beach,' 1943". TIME. 19 October 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  69. McCarthy[614] states, "battle casualties, sickness and the transfer of regimental headquarters to the Buna front having reduced their original 1,400 to a mere 165".[661]
  70. McCarthy observes, "Quite obviously the Japanese were soldiers to whom, lacking a means of escape, only death could bring an acceptable relief."[548]
  71. Bergerud[669] and Powers[670] discuss the source of this fanaticism as arising from indoctrination. Powers explores other contributing factors. The Battle of Tarawa is an example of future experiences. From the Japanese garrison of 4,836, 17 Japanese soldiers and 129 Korean labourers were taken prisoner. The balance of the garrison was killed during the battle.
  72. See Number of Japanese killed for detail.
  73. Milner reports that 350 prisoners were taken during the fighting in Papua, indicating this included fighting along the Kokoda Track, at Milne Bay and Goodenough Island.[673]
  74. McAuley also notes, "history abounds with examples of besiegers defeated by disease"[126]
  75. Porter referred to this as "peaceful penetration".[679] This phrase originally referred to a successful policy of aggressive patrolling and infiltration employed by Australian forces near Armiens in World War I, following the German Spring Offensive of 1918.[680] At Buna–Gona, this was also referred to as "stalk and consolidate" and "soft spot" tactics.[681]
  76. The AWM refers to a sixth subsidiary honour of "Buna Village".[687] The Battlefields Nomenclature Committee which was responsible for determining the official names of battles and engagements with respect to Britain and the Commonwealth, also lists six subsidiary battles.[693] Battle honours use the titles as determined by the Committee but these are not, per se, battle honours. While "Buna Village" is the official name of the engagement, it does not appear to have been actually conferred upon any unit as a subsidiary battle honour. Maitland lists only five subsidiary honours.[694]
  77. The inscription "A.I.F." is accurate.[701] Militia units with more than 75 percent volunteers could be identified as AIF units.[702]


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Further reading

  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
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  • Rottman, Gordon L. (2005). Duncan Anderson, ed. Japanese Army in World War II: The South Pacific and New Guinea, 1942–43. Oxford and New York: Osprey. ISBN 1-84176-870-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Strock, George (22 February 1943). "Booty at Buna". LIFE. Retrieved 5 June 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Strock, George (15 February 1943). "The Battle for Buna". LIFE. Retrieved 5 June 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Tanaka (1996). Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 9780813327181.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Trigellis-Smith, Syd (1992). The Purple Devils: The 2/6 Australian Commando Squadron. Melbourne: 2/6 Commando Squadron Association. ISBN 0-646-07125-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links