Clearing of Papua
Plans and Preparations
General MacArthur's immediate problems were to secure and strengthen his forward bases in New Guinea and to begin a counteroffensive that would drive the Japanese from Papua. Operations would have to be carried out over some of the most difficult terrain of any area in the world. (Plate No. 22) Except for Port Moresby and Milne Bay, the Japanese possessed control of the mountain ranges and occupied the narrow coastline of all northeastern Papua. Immediate action was imperative before they could fully exploit the geographic features of New Guinea and transform their holdings into impregnable positions supported by their stronghold at Rabaul.
The presence of General Horii's troops in command of the Kokoda Trail was a threat to Port Moresby that had to be removed. The security of this important strategic base demanded a counterdrive to regain the crest of the Owen Stanleys. General Horii's units could be reinforced from such key bases as Buna, Sanananda, and Gona which the Japanese were constantly fortifying by shipments from Rabaul and Kavieng. The Japanese could also threaten Milne Bay by advancing down the northeastern coast of New Guinea. Port Moresby and Milne Bay were absolutely essential to support any Allied counteroffensive in New Guinea; their loss would constitute an irreparable blow to the Allied cause in the Southwest Pacific. Without these two forward bases, all New Guinea would soon fall to the enemy and Australia would be open to air attack from Japanese bases less than 350 miles from Cape York Peninsula. It was a sober realization of this fact that caused General MacArthur to warn at the time: "If New Guinea goes, the results will be disastrous."1
General MacArthur had studied carefully the whole picture of the enemy's operations in New Guinea and decided that General Horii had overreached himself along the Kokoda Trail. He felt that the moment was opportune for an immediate counterdrive that would catch the Japanese before they could find their second wind. "In view of the changed situation," he stated, "an attack to clear the north coast of New Guinea should be undertaken as soon as possible."2 Anticipating that the Japanese drive would abate and spend itself as it ran ahead of its supply line, General MacArthur had already started the execution of his plans for a counteroffensive before General Horii halted at Imita Ridge on 14 September. I Corps, under General Eichelberger, was undergoing intensive training and reequipment for seaborne operations and jungle warfare. On 4 September, General MacArthur had instructed General Eichelberger to be prepared to carry out amphibious operations along the northeastern coast of Papua.3 He strengthened the
PLATE NO. 22
Relief Map of Eastern Papua
Corps in order to provide a strong spearhead for a forward thrust and placed it under the operational control of Allied Land Forces.4
In order to seize the initiative while the Japanese were attempting to regroup their forces; General MacArthur rushed all available troops into New Guinea. General Blamey moved Allied Land Forces Headquarters forward to Port Moresby and Lt. Gen. Sir Edmund F. Herring replaced General Rowell as Commander, New Guinea Force.5 The Australian 16th Brigade and auxiliary troops of the Australian 6th Division were sent from Brisbane on 10 September. To insure that no time was lost, General MacArthur directed that the 126th and 128th Regimental Combat Teams of the United States 32nd Division be transported to Port Moresby by air. The movement of these two regiments, ordered on 11 September, was completed in record time by 28 September.6 This air transfer from Australia to New Guinea was "the first large-scale airborne troop movement by United States forces in a theater of operations."7 By the end of October, General MacArthur had augmented his ground forces in Papua to comprise a total of ten brigades and regiments together with supporting and attached troops.
Shipping resources and supply facilities were taxed to the limit to transport and maintain a force of this size. Docks for handling ships, roads for the distribution of supplies to depots, and buildings for hospitals and the protection of materiel against the heat and torrential rains were inadequate at Port Moresby, almost nonexistent at Milne Bay, and entirely lacking in the forward areas. These facilities had to be developed at the same time that the troops were moved into position.
It was in this phase of operations that General MacArthur felt most keenly the lack of service troops.8 Under terrain conditions which demanded an abnormally large proportion of service elements,9 his barest requirements were not being filled. Construction engineers and other supporting personnel were forced to work
to the point of exhaustion. The shortage of these troops was so critical that combat troops were continually called upon to unload ships, transport supplies, and perform other service duties which diverted their energies from the fighting fronts. Instead of being accorded a period for recuperation and an opportunity for reequipment after an area was captured, battle-weary troops had to develop their own facilities for the support of future operations.
In an effort to unravel the knotty logistic problem confronting him, General MacArthur directed the formation of the Combined Operational Service Command under Brig. Gen. Dwight F. Johns.10 This organization was established in Port Moresby and functioned directly under New Guinea Force as a co-ordinating agency between the American and Australian supply services. The consolidation of activities resulted in the increase of the cargo handling capacities of Port Moresby from under 2,000 tons to an average of over 6,000 tons daily.11 It also unified the utilization of shipping under the United States Army Transportation Corps and the Australian transportation units so that their combined facilities could be employed with maximum effect.
Clearing the Owen Stanleys
General MacArthur's preparations were designed to clear the Japanese from Papua by carrying out a plan of attack along three axes of advance. (Plate No. 23) One axis would engage the enemy in a frontal action along the Kokoda Trail; the second would involve a wide flanking movement over the Owen Stanleys east of Port Moresby against the enemy lines of communication and supply; and the third axis of advance would consist of large-scale infiltration from Milne Bay along the northeastern coast of Papua. The immediate objectives of the first two drives were to regain the Nauro and Kokoda airfields and to secure the line of the Kumusi River from Owalama Divide to the crossing of the Kokoda-Bung trail at Wairopi; the third drive aimed at seizing selected points south of Cape Nelson and occupying Goodenough Island to deny the enemy these areas. All three axes of advance were to converge upon the Buna-Sanananda-Gona area for a final simultaneous attack against this enemy coastal stronghold.12
The first move in the planned counteroffensive was made by the 7th Division of the Australian I Corps under Maj. Gen. A. S. Allen. With the mission of regaining control of the Isurava-Deniki-Kokoda route, it launched its drive on 26 September. The 25th Brigade, reinforced, spearheaded the advance while the 16th Brigade moved up in support. The 21st and 30th Brigades, which had borne the brunt of earlier fighting along the Kokoda Trail, and the 14th Brigade were placed under command of the Australian 6th Division Headquarters and retained in Port Moresby to defend the area against a possible seaborne attack. Ioribaiwa fell to the Australians on 28 September after the main enemy body evacuated its defenses and withdrew rapidly northward.
General Allen continued to press his advance, seizing Nauro on 30 September. Thus General MacArthur could report:
Ioribaiwa Ridge has been captured by our troops. The enemy is retiring in the direction of Nauro, ten miles to the north. Quantities of supplies and
PLATE NO. 23
Axes of Advance, Papuan Campaign
PLATE NO. 24
Owen Stanley Offensive
equipment were abandoned by him and are in our hands. The position was one of natural strength and had been prepared for defense with barricades, obstructions and field trenches....
Our forward elements have captured Nauro and are continuing the advance. There was no contact with the main enemy body yesterday, which is still retiring. Additional supplies and equipment abandoned by his retreating troops have fallen into our hands. Strong formations of our attack bombers, with fighter escort, harried enemy lines of supply in the Menari area.13
Pursuit of the enemy was delayed temporarily by the bad state of the trail and adverse weather conditions which hampered the air dropping of supplies. By 10 October, however, forward elements again met the enemy on top of the range in the area of The Gap. There the Japanese fought tenaciously from a series of well-prepared positions on the high ground dominating the trail.14 The last of these was not cleared until the end of the month when the enemy retreated toward Oivi. (Plate No. 24)
Meanwhile, troops of the United States 32nd Division under General Harding had been assigned the task of operating over the mountains east of Port Moresby along the second axis of advance. Two routes were considered: one from Rigo and the other from Abau, both of which passed through Jaure to Wairopi. While the United States 128th Infantry upon its arrival in New Guinea was temporarily allocated to the Australian 6th Division for the defense of Port Moresby, the 126th Infantry at Kapa Kapa dispatched its 2nd Battalion over the rugged trail rising more than 8,000 feet above Rigo. The difficulties of supply prevented the movement of a larger force until the route could be further developed and supply dumps established. The United States 127th Infantry was to be shipped from Australia and, as suggested by General MacArthur, utilized along the second trail. Later, conditions at Abau made rapid port development impractical, and the plan to establish it as a port of embarkation was cancelled on 14 October.15
Airlift to Wanigela
General MacArthur realized the importance of starting the third phase of his Papuan plan of attack at the earliest moment. He was handicapped, however, by a lack of trained amphibious forces and an acute shortage of landing craft with which to carry out his projected advance along the eastern Papuan coast. He accordingly asked the War Department for additional naval facilities and Marine troops and stressed the fact that the time was opportune for such an advance:
There are growing indications that the enemy intends to throw large ground reinforcements into New Guinea from the north by means of numerous small increments
using usual Marine infiltration technique. A golden opportunity is being lost in not anticipating the enemy through clearing the coast as far as Buna by trained amphibious combat teams operating in conjunction with projected enveloping movement by infantry over the trails of the Owen Stanleys. Earnestly request reconsideration of previous decision not to make available such forces until later developments. Small craft for landing and maintenance of supply are a necessary adjunct of the combat teams.16
He was informed, however, that the type and number of landing craft required for immediate operations in New Guinea along with trained amphibious combat teams were not available at the time. The first shipment of landing craft would not be sent from the United States until sometime in October and other shipments would not be ready until November and December, too late to take part in the campaign to capture Buna.17
Determined nevertheless to seize the initiative, General MacArthur sought to establish his forces on the northeastern coast of Papua by overland march and by air transport. At Wanigela, south of Cape Nelson, an airstrip was located which proved to be in sufficiently good order for the landing of transport aircraft. Instructions for its occupation were issued immediately and landings were successfully carried out on 5 October without the enemy's knowledge or opposition.
During the middle of October, plans to move the remainder of the Australian 18th Brigade to Wanigela were changed to speed the operation; instead, Regimental Headquarters and two battalions of the United States 128th Infantry, the Australian 26th Independent Company, and miscellaneous artillery units were substituted and flown from Port Moresby. The United States troops, together with the Australian Independent Company, started to move overland from Wanigela to Pongani, 23 miles from Buna, but found the Musa River impassable. The overland plan was consequently abandoned in favor of a coastwise ferry service. The first elements arrived at Pongani on 20 October.18
By 2 November the 128th Infantry, except for half a battalion at Port Moresby, had completed its move to the Pongani area. The 26th Independent Company covering the advance, reconnoitered the forward routes through Hydrographers Range, and an airstrip was cleared at Pongani for transport planes. The 2nd Battalion of the 126th Infantry which had marched overland from Rigo was deployed in the Jaure area. The remainder of the two United States regiments was concentrated north of the Owen Stanleys ready to attack the Japanese in conjunction with the Australian 7th Division.
Landings on Goodenough Island
Concurrently with the advance from Wanigela, a reconnaissance in force was made on Goodenough Island. This force was to locate suitable approaches for supply purposes, to examine the terrain for possible airfield sites, and to occupy the island thus denying it to the enemy. Drake Force, composed of a battalion of the Australian 18th Brigade and auxiliary troops, accordingly boarded two destroyers on the night of 22 October. The battalion, less one company, landed at Mud
Bay while the detached company landed at Taleba Bay. The Australians discovered a small force of the enemy on Goodenough Island near Kilia Mission which had been stranded there since August when Allied aircraft had destroyed the barges in which they were moving from Buna in an attempt to join the assault on Milne Bay. The Australians attacked the Japanese at Kilia Mission from the two landing points and forced them to withdraw eastward to Fergusson Island. Drake Force reassembled at Mud Bay on 26 October and remained in occupation of Goodenough Island.19 By 20 November, it had constructed an emergency airfield and had begun the preparation of an advance air base with radar stations. The lack of garrison troops, however, coupled with other developments in the New Guinea theater caused a temporary postponement of the project.20 Meanwhile, the troops stayed on as a "ghost force" and by elaborate camouflage and deceptive measures made a show of strength which deterred the enemy from any attempt to retake the island.
Although enemy reaction to the operations along the north Papuan coast was limited to minor resistance at Goodenough Island, grave risks were involved. The Japanese Navy, controlling the sea north of New Guinea, could cut the Allied line of communications almost at will and bring overwhelming force to bear against the newly won bases. The advance had to proceed with caution, since withdrawal would be necessary should the supply lines fail. Airstrips were cleared inland at Sapia and Kinjaki primarily for this purpose and supply dumps were established to permit the retirement overland of troops from the coast should the enemy attack in force.
Following the naval engagement in the eastern Solomons on 24 August, no decisive action took place in the South Pacific Area for a period of about six weeks. During this time, however, the supply lines to Guadalcanal had to be kept open. Japanese submarines and aircraft were active in the vicinity, and there were numerous scattered actions which sunk the carrier Wasp and several destroyers and damaged a number of other ships.
Despite offensive operations directed against his ground troops and naval forces by the Allies, the enemy had succeeded in putting almost the equivalent of a division on Guadalcanal by early September. Additional Japanese fleet units had been assembled to the north and the situation again became serious. Reinforcements for the Marines had now become imperative even though they had to be made in the face of enemy land and naval superiority.
On the night of 11 October, a United States cruiser and destroyer group surprised an enemy force off Cape Esperance; sinking and damaging a number of vessels and causing the remainder to withdraw. Although the engagement was a victory for the Allied forces, attributable both to the enemy's surprise and confusion and to the accuracy of Allied gunfire, the situation remained critical.
General MacArthur continued to do everything possible to support the operation in the Solomons and relieve the pressure on Guadalcanal. His drive in New Guinea was in part a diversion for that purpose, involving great risks which would not normally be justified.21
It served to divide the enemy effort, however, siphoning strength which would otherwise have been concentrated in the Solomons.22 The Japanese, confused in their estimate of the relative importance of the two theaters of operations and considering each a separate problem, frittered away their strength in uncoordinated and spasmodic reinforcement efforts. General MacArthur, on the other hand, realized that these operations were interdependent and that the utmost mutual co-operation was necessary to insure their success. He saw the picture in clear perspective and was prepared to do everything in his power to aid another operation even though he scarcely had enough manpower and equipment to pursue his own operational plans. In a radio to the War Department on 17 October, he stressed the extreme gravity of the struggle in the Solomons, reported on the contributions which his forces were making to the battle on Guadalcanal, and emphasized its importance to the over-all operational strategy against the Japanese:
From its inception I have been acutely aware of the critical situation in the Solomons and in fact anticipated it and reported it with Ghormley in July and in August.... I invited attention to the acute danger developing and begged review of the question by the President and the Chiefs of Staff lest it become too late.
Action in SOPAC has been supported to maximum capacity of my Air Force, using all planes that can reach targets; Ghormley three times has radioed his appreciation; Turner has also communicated to that effect; while it is impossible to assess all damage it is believed that our bombardment missions have had a vital effect upon the success of operations to date by pounding hostile air and supply installations; the major effort has been expended in Rabaul area, because it can be reached with full bomb loads, while planes going to Solomons area must carry bomb bay tanks, reducing bomb load by 50%; am in constant communication with Ghormley coordinating my reconnaissance with his and have given immediate priority to his requests for reconnaissance and attack; planes capable of affecting his situation have been used exclusively to that end; three times within the last week I have ordered missions on Ghormley's request, using every bomber available during the period; my own operations in New Guinea have been supported only by short-range aircraft....
My operation to capture the north coast of New Guinea in full swing; am greatly hampered by the total lack of light shipping, landing boats, and barges, which I have previously requested; in their absence am moving overland and by air; supply is the controlling factor and must be accomplished by native carrier and by air; improvised landing fields have been and are being prepared; ...supply difficulties incredible and limit speed of movement and size of forces and are of course multiplied by lack of shipping and shortage of transport planes; the possibility of success of the movement and the time factor are still unpredictable; under severe pressure from this Headquarters, much progress has been made beginning with the development of Port Moresby, which had initially a garrison of a regiment of militia, one landing strip without even parking space for planes and a port capacity of only 500 tons a day....
If we are defeated in the Solomons, as we must be unless the Navy accepts successfully the challenge of the enemy surface fleet, the entire Southwest Pacific Area will be in the gravest danger; information derived from enemy sources indicates that an attack on Milne Bay and possibly elsewhere in New Guinea is contemplated for mid-November; urge that the entire resources of the United States be used temporarily to meet the critical situation; that shipping be made available from
any source, that one corps be dispatched immediately; that all available heavy bombers be ferried here at once and that urgent action be taken to increase the air strength at least to the full complement allotted for this area; that immediate action be taken to prepare bases for naval operations on the east coast of Australia; that the British Eastern Fleet be moved to the west coast of Australia.23
An important factor in the Guadalcanal Campaign made itself felt at this time-AIB "coast watchers " sent out by General MacArthur's G-2 to operate secret radio stations behind enemy lines and report on Japanese troop, plane and ship movements. Carefully placed at strategic locations in the Solomon Islands, these agents were particularly effective in sending radio spot reports on imminent Japanese aerial attacks.
The main Japanese air bases for operations against Guadalcanal were at Rabaul on New Britain, Buin on Bougainville, and Buka Island, with Kavieng on New Ireland as a supporting base. AIB agents located at the key points of Buin and Buka Passage were ideally situated for observation purposes. (Plate No. 25) They had perfected a network by which they were able to give three successive warning signals of Japanese bombers en route to Tulagi and Guadalcanal. United States forces at Tulagi and at Henderson Field had ample notice of impending air attacks and were able to gain a decided advantage by having their planes aloft and ready to strike at the most opportune time.24
AIB "coast watchers" also reported on Japanese harbor activity in the waters adjacent to the Solomon Islands. One party in the hills overlooking Bougainville Island sent daily reports on enemy harbor activity to the Allied Fleet off Guadalcanal's shore. Another party gave details of sea and air arrivals and departures at Buka Passage, an important anchorage for ships operating against Guadalcanal. Other agents at Gold Ridge near Lunga and in northwest Guadalcanal formed an interlocking and efficient intelligence and radio communication net.25
Despite the reverses suffered in the Battle of Cape Esperance, the Japanese during the succeeding days continued to press their attacks on Guadalcanal. Although sustaining heavy losses, the enemy succeeded in getting a number of transports through and landed the major portion of another division. Meanwhile, enemy submarines and aircraft renewed their efforts to interrupt Allied lines of communications, and it became increasingly clear that the
PLATE NO. 25
Coast Watcher Stations (AIB) along the Japanese Bomber Routes
next Japanese move would be supported by powerful surface and air units.
On 18 October, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey relieved Admiral Ghormley in the South Pacific Area. On the night of 23 October, the Japanese began a ground offensive against the Guadalcanal airfield and at the same time moved their naval units east of the Solomons to support the offensive. In the battle which followed on 26 October, aircraft from the American carriers Hornet and Enterprise put two enemy carriers out of action. Four enemy air groups were cut to pieces, but the Hornet was sunk and the Enterprise damaged, forcing the Allied fleet to retire.26
On shore that same day, following an all-out enemy attack, the question of whether the Allied forces could retain the airfield hung in the balance. A counterattack, however, restored the situation, and initiated a series of Allied successes. Except for a minor assault the following day, this constituted the last serious threat by Japanese ground forces on Guadalcanal. The critical period was safely past.
The Japanese still exercised control over the waters adjacent to Guadalcanal, and for the next two weeks the Allied forces engaged in scattered actions calculated to interfere with that control. Submarines and PT boats were continuously active against hostile lines of communication and launched repeated attacks against enemy attempts to land during the night from surface craft dispatched from neighboring islands.
Allied troops on Guadalcanal had been reinforced on 6 November and a second group of ships arrived on 11-12 November. Simultaneously, the Japanese, in another invasion effort, concentrated their naval forces and transports in the Rabaul-Buin area and again moved southward. In a three-day battle beginning the night of 12 November, the Allied forces, despite heavy losses, gained a decisive victory, and their position in the southern Solomons was secured. Except for the "Tokyo Express," which succeeded from time to time in landing small quantities of supplies and reinforcements to the enemy, control of the sea and air in the southern Solomons passed to the Allies.27
The Advance in Papua Continues
General MacArthur was convinced that the Japanese would not deviate from their original plan to complete the seizure of New Guinea. He felt that their operational strategy would call for a firm hold in both New Guinea and the Solomons if they were to protect the key points necessary to maintain a dominant position in the Southwest Pacific and thereby in eastern Asia.28 In order to forestall Japanese
efforts to strengthen their positions and renew their assault on the Allies in Papua,29 General MacArthur decided to execute the final phase of his offensive-the simultaneous advance on Buna-Sanananda. On 6 November he moved forward into New Guinea and established an advance echelon of General Headquarters at Government House, Port Moresby. Losing no time, he set 15 November as a tentative date on which his three-pronged drive would stab at Buna-Sanananda.30
On 2 November the Australian 7th Division, now commanded by Gen. George A. Vasey who had relieved General Allen on 29 October, captured the airfield at Kokoda. The Australians quickly readied the landing strip to ease the supply problem, and then continued to push forward. The Japanese made a resolute stand on the high ground at Oivi and Gorari. General Vasey attacked with the 16th Brigade assaulting frontally, while the 25th Brigade moved against the enemy flank and rear. (Plate No. 26) On 10 November the enemy was driven from his positions in full retreat after suffering heavy casualties.31
General MacArthur described this envelopment and rout of the Japanese forces:
The enemy was forced from his main positions near Oivi with heavy loss. His retreat has been blocked by our enveloping troops astride the main track and he is endeavoring to cut his way through the rear. Simultaneously our forces enveloped and destroyed enemy forces trapped south of Gorari.32
Our ground troops have reached the vicinity of Ilimor. Here the enemy defending force has been surrounded. Of the enemy detachment which was encircled and destroyed at Gorari, bodies of five officers and more than five hundred men have already been counted in the jungle. In the Oivi pocket several hundred additional dead have been found. Allied fighters cooperating with ground units strafed and silenced enemy positions in the rear areas.33
The surviving Japanese set out for Buna. The main body moved toward the coast by plodding laboriously along the flooded west bank of the Kumusi River. A few attempted the hazardous trip down the river itself on hastily improvised rafts. Hearing the heavy mortar fire in the direction of Buna and feeling that his immediate presence on the coast was
PLATE NO. 26
Action in Kokoda-Oivi-Wairopi
imperative, General Horii decided to speed his progress by riding one of these rafts to the mouth of the Kumusi River and then paddling along the shore to the Buna area. He succeeded in reaching the sea with only one mishap, but during the short trip from the river mouth to the Japanese headquarters by native canoe the General and his staff officer were drowned during a squall. Many of his troops, however, succeeded in escaping down the Kumusi to the coast and eventually reached Gona to join in its defense.
On 14 November, New Guinea Force issued instructions for the Australian 7th and the United States 32nd Divisions to advance toward the sea from their positions on Hydrographers Range. The 7th Division was ordered to move from the vicinity of Hagenahambo toward Sanananda-Gona, and the 32nd Division, up the coast from the vicinity of Oro Bay and Bofu to Buna.34 The boundary between the two forces was formed for a distance by the Girua River and then followed a stream running southwest between Inonde and Popondetta.
The combat zone in which the final Papuan operations took place is a low, flat coastal plain stretching inland from Gona and Buna to the foothills of the Owen Stanley Range. It is covered with dense jungle, strips of forest, and large kunai grass patches with extensive sage and mangrove swamps bordering the coast. The area is divided by the Girua River which empties into a broad delta stretching between Sanananda Point and Buna Village. The overflow from the river runs into the low-lying ground south of the Buna Government Station and the Buna airstrips, forming with the delta a thick, impassable swamp. Movement was generally limited to the few native tracks which, although following the higher ground, were muddy at all times and hopelessly boggy in wet weather. In the Buna-Gona area there were five native trails: (1) Soputa to Sanananda, (2) Junbora to Gona, (3) Soputa to Buna Village, (4) Dobodura to the Buna airstrips, and (5) the coastal track north through Cape Endaiadere.35
The Australians crossed the Kumusi River on 14 November and quickly constructed a bridge at Wairopi; by 17 November the two Australian brigades were across the bridge in pursuit of the Japanese. The 25th Brigade, moving along the Junbora-Gona track, was held up about a mile south of Gona by strongly resisting enemy forces. On the following day the 16th Brigade, on the Soputa-Sanananda track, encountered well-prepared positions a mile and a half north of Soputa.
East of the Girua River the movement of the United States 126th and 128th Infantry Regiments from Port Moresby was completed by air transport to the Wanigela, Pongani, and Sapia landing strips. The use of air transport not only speeded the placement of combat troops on the fighting lines but also served to avoid the extreme physical exhaustion of a march through the New Guinea jungle, a factor which had proved so costly to the Japanese in their initial advance.
By the time the Australians had defeated the Japanese at Oivi and Gorari and pushed across the Kumusi River, the American forces under General Harding had started forward.36 The rapidity of their advance and the devious paths of the difficult terrain divided the units of the 32nd Division into two main groups.
Urbana Force was deployed along the Ango-Buna track and contacted the enemy about a mile south of Buna. Warren Force was situated in the coastal area south of Cape Endaiadere, on a line running inland to Sinemi Creek. One battalion of the 126th Infantry had crossed the Girua River at Inonde and, joining forces with the Australian 7th Division, had remained to participate in the defense of Soputa and the subsequent operation on Sanananda.
Thus, at the end of November the Japanese were pinned down in the narrow coastal strip from Gona to Buna and, with the sea at their backs, faced the Allied forces to the west and south.
It was hoped that a co-ordinated drive of the three Allied forces, poised before the last remaining enemy strongholds in Papua, would be able to gain an early victory. The Japanese, however, realizing that they could no longer retreat without forfeiting the vital air bases along the northern coast, were determined to hold their positions no matter what the cost.37 They accordingly took every advantage of the terrain, prepared strong defenses in depth, and fought with great courage and tenacity. The final phase of the struggle for Papua and the reduction of the enemy pockets on the northern coast witnessed some of the most grueling and savage fighting of the entire campaign.
During the operations along the Kokoda Trail, enemy troops remaining in the Buna-Gona area had methodically prepared a series of well-designed and extremely strong defenses. Every contour of the terrain was exploited and the driest stretches of land were carefully chosen to be occupied and fortified, making it impossible for the Allies to execute any lateral movement without becoming mired in swamp.38 All potential roads of approach were cleverly channeled into narrow corridors along tracks which led into a murderous crossfire of well-hidden machine guns. The western flank of the Buna defenses was protected by the sea and the unnavigable bog of the Girua River. (Plate No. 27) The worst swampland in the Buna area, between Entrance and Sinemi Creeks, formed a wide, impassable stretch joining with the thick jungle to protect the middle of the line. The eastern flank was anchored on the seacoast south of Cape Endaiadere. While any movement of the Allies from one flank to the other would have
entailed an arduous two-day trek via Ango and Sinemi, the Japanese could move by fast motor transport inside the perimeter of their defenses to bolster any weakening point almost immediately.
West of the Girua River, the enemy position protecting Sanananda constituted a deep beachhead roughly triangular in shape, the apex three and one-half miles inland on the Soputa-Sanananda track and the base resting on strongpoints along the coast between Cape Killerton and Tarakena. Gona, strongly fortified, was a flank position to the northwest.
To complicate the problem of piercing the enemy defenses, the already difficult logistical situation had become even more critical. Allied lines of communication were stretched 1,700 miles from Australia to the landing strips and supply dumps along the coast of New Guinea. Rations, ammunition, and equipment for Urbana Force and the Australian 7th Division were generally transported by the Fifth Air Force from Port Moresby to Dobodura and Popondetta.39 Flying weather was usually bad and for days at a time supply planes were grounded, unable to penetrate the thick, low-hanging clouds which veiled The Gap. This break in the supply line at so crucial a period caused the failure of the first Allied thrust at the enemy's coastal defenses. When elements of the 25th Brigade attacked Japanese positions at Gona on 19 November, they were forced to withdraw because of a shortage of ammunition.40
Warren Force was supported by light vessels creeping along the coast from Port Moresby to Porlock Harbor and thence to Oro Bay where the Combined Operational Service Command had established advance bases. At Oro Bay the supplies were transferred to small craft for movement to Hariko. Jeeps, trailers, and native porters then took over the task of transportation to the forward areas. This limited means of conveyance under constant threat of enemy air and sea attacks restricted the flow of supplies and equipment to the barest essentials.41
As an additional aggravation, the New Guinea jungle and swamp were unrelenting in their toll of disease and sickness.42 The troops in the Buna area were beginning to suffer from an increasing malaise and lassitude engendered by the stifling climate and an insufficient food ration. The incidence of illness climbed rapidly as man after man was stricken and hospitalized with at least one of the multitude of ever-present
PLATE NO. 27
Terrain Features, Buna-Gona Area
fevers which infested the entire region.43
Initial assaults against the enemy entrenchments failed to achieve any appreciable gains. General Blamey, feeling that his covering artillery fire was inadequate to support a frontal attack, proposed that an amphibious landing be made at the rear of the enemy's positions at Buna.44 The lack of small landing craft, however, and the fact that the Navy was unwilling to risk destroyers and corvettes in the shallow, uncharted, and dangerous waters off Collingswood Bay prevented his plan from being carried out.45
The Allied offensive, therefore, unable to pierce the enemy's powerful positions by frontal assault and incapable of mounting an amphibious flanking maneuver, had to give way to painstaking infiltration tactics. The situation developed into a virtual stalemate with activity on both sides restricted to sporadic thrusts by small groups. In fact, the entire Buna campaign was characterized by feats of the individual soldier, constantly isolated from his main unit and left to his own resources in the fight against the enemy.
The Fall of Buna
In order to break the existing deadlock, General MacArthur sent a new commander, General Eichelberger, to direct the Allied forces attacking Buna. He arrived with his staff at Dobodura on 1 December and took charge of the operations east of the Girua River. General Eichelberger found that the units of the 32nd division had become badly disorganized during the fighting, seriously weakening the chain of command. He proceeded immediately to regroup the scattered units and at the same time reorganize the supply system which had become disrupted and unreliable. Corps and division staffs were merged to form Headquarters Buna Force. The combined United States and Australian troops north of the Owen Stanley Range were placed under General Herring, Commander of Advanced New Guinea Force, whose headquarters were established at Popondetta on 28 November. General Blamey acted in the dual capacity of Commander, New Guinea Force, and Commander, Allied Land
Forces until after the fall of Buna when he returned to Australia. Brig. Gen. Albert W. Waldron replaced General Harding as commander of the United States 32nd Division.46
On 5 December General Eichelberger's reorganized forces made a co-ordinated attack on both fronts in another effort to dislodge the Japanese. (Plate No. 28) They resisted stubbornly, however, determined not to yield a foot of ground. Warren Force made repeated assaults, only to be thrown back exhausted and disheartened. The efforts of Urbana Force proved more successful. By resourceful leadership and daring exploits, a platoon of the 126th Infantry managed to pierce the enemy network of interlacing bunkers and break through to the sea. The enemy counterattacked immediately but the units on the Urbana front held doggedly to their corridor which wedged into the enemy defenses, isolating Buna Village from Buna Mission. For the first time since the beginning of the campaign against Buna, the Japanese line had been breached.47
General MacArthur insisted that immediate advantage should be taken of the gains on the Buna front and directed that maximum strength be concentrated in that sector, while the Japanese were contained west of the Girua River with a minimum force. The United States 127th Infantry was rushed by air to bolster Urbana Force. The Australian 18th Brigade and a number of tanks were moved by water to the Warren front below Cape Endaiadere near Cape Sudest.48 To avoid the necessity of diverting the artillery elements of the 32nd Division for reinforcement of its depleted infantry strength, General MacArthur ordered the 163rd Infantry of the 41st Division to be sent forward from Australia.
The presence of fresh troops in the Buna area made itself felt immediately. On 14 December, Urbana Force launched a heavy attack against Buna Village. Despite fierce resistance and repeated attempts by the enemy to bring in water-borne reinforcements, the village was at last wrested from the Japanese. General MacArthur, describing the first major victory in his coastal offensive, reported as follows:49
Buna Village has been taken. It was occupied by our troops at ten o'clock this morning, December 14.... In another attempt by the enemy's naval forces to reinforce their ground troops in the Buna area, the enemy launched a convoy of two cruisers and three destroyers for a landing at the Mambare and Kumusi estuaries. Our air force intercepted this convoy. In heavy bombing and strafing attacks the enemy's landing barges were sunk or disabled. Survivors attempted to reach land by swimming, suffering heavy casualties. Supplies were set afire. Several hits and many near misses were made on the war vessels. The enemy's air force intervened unsuccessfully.... It is believed that a major enemy effort was largely parried.
Heartened by its success, Urbana Force pushed ahead. After the capture of Buna Village, it attacked on its right flank in an effort to eliminate the strong enemy positions at Coconut Grove and The Triangle. By 17 December, the first of these positions had been reduced and cleared. During this attack on the Grove, General Byers was wounded and General Eichelberger assumed direct control of the 32nd Division. When The Triangle resisted all attacks, it was contained and Urbana Force prepared to cross Entrance Creek and seize Buna Mission.50
On the Warren front, the stalemate was finally broken. On 18 December, Brigadier Wootten's 18th Brigade moved forward with tank support and secured the Cape Endaiadere area. United States units joined the advance and together the Allies pushed slowly westward along the coast and along the two airstrips toward Giropa Point. Sinemi Creek was crossed and the entire Warren Force moved on against weakening enemy resistance.
The final phase of the struggle for Buna was at hand. Urbana Force crossed Entrance Creek and, duplicating its feat at Buna Village, drove a wedge to the sea isolating Buna Mission from Giropa Point. The enemy, thus cut off in the Mission, was hammered mercilessly by a series of heavy Allied assaults. The Japanese troops, severed from all reinforcement, their leaders lost in action or by suicide, their bodies worn with starvation and sickness, and their morale shattered by the unrelenting blows of their attackers, were finally forced to yield their positions.51 On 2 January, Buna Mission fell. Watching this successful conclusion to forty-five days of bitter and continuous fighting, General Eichelberger wrote:
At 4:30 PM, I crossed the bridge (from The Island) after "C" Company had passed and I saw American troops with their bellies out of the mud and their eyes to the sun circling unafraid around the bunkers. It was one of the grandest sights I have ever seen.... the 127th Infantry found its soul....52
Warren Force, meanwhile, had cleared and occupied Giropa Point. The first week of January saw the entire coast of Papua east of the Girua River in Allied hands and the enemy force in the Buna area completely destroyed. It was a fitting culmination to a year of hardship and a propitious beginning for a New Year
PLATE NO. 28
The Capture of Buna
PLATE NO. 29
Sanananda Front, 22 November 1942-22 January 1943
of hope. The Buna victory was a heartening tonic to the Allies and Secretary of War Stimson sent General MacArthur a warm letter of congratulations:
The coming of the New Year, coinciding as it does with your success at Buna impels me again to send you my warmest congratulations and good wishes. Have followed your masterly campaign with close interest and much gratification.... it is a tremendous satisfaction to feel that American fortunes in SWPA are in such skillful hands; am in constant touch with President Quezon here and we are both beginning to think with encouragement of the time, which now really seems approaching, when we shall redeem our promise to the Filipinos.... 53
While the right arm of the Allied offensive was hammering at Buna, the left arm was pressing its attack west of the Girua River against the Sanananda triangular defensive position. It was from these two points, Buna and Sanananda, that the enemy had originally launched his land drive on Port Moresby along the winding twin trails which joined at Soputa. The Allied counterdrive, prevented from lateral movement by the deep swamps of the coastal plain, was compelled to follow along these very same trails and was consequently split by the Girua River into two parallel operations.
On 22 November, the Australian 7th Division under General Vasey, combined with elements of the United States 126th Infantry, launched a general attack from Soputa in an attempt to encircle the enemy positions on the Sanananda track. The Australian 25th Brigade moved against Gona to the west; the 16th Brigade attacked frontally along the road itself supported on each side by troops of the United States 126th Infantry whose task it was to drive into the enemy flanks. (Plate No. 29)
The frontal assaults of the 25th and the 16th Brigades lacked the numbers to achieve their objective but troops of the 126th Infantry managed to advance about a mile to the rear of the enemy's forward positions where they established a road block squarely astride the Soputa-Sanananda track.54 The Japanese, realizing that this block would choke off a vital supply line to their forward defenses, immediately counterattacked with characteristic ferocity. The Americans however, would not be dislodged but held grimly to their entrenchments in the face of incessant assault from all sides.
Although the Allied forces struggled desperately to improve their positions around Sanananda, they were too exhausted and too few in number to do more than hold their ground. Their major effort was directed at maintaining
supplies to the all-important road block. In this they were greatly assisted by Papuan natives who risked their lives in daily infiltrations through watchful enemy lines, helping to carry in needed food and ammunition and to evacuate the wounded.
While the 126th Infantry was thus engaged, the Australian 21st Brigade was flown from Popondetta to join the exhausted 25th Brigade for another attempt to seize Gona. This time their drive was successful. Despite a fanatical, last-ditch defense by the Japanese who fought until they dropped amid the putrefying bodies of their dead comrades, Gona fell to the Allies on 9 December.55
It was not until after the fall of Buna, however, that the Allies were able to make any real progress toward Sanananda. Until the end of December it was a bitter see-saw struggle measured in yards, rather than in miles, of steaming, swampy road. Only after the close of the operations against Buna were the Allies permitted to shift their strength to the campaign west of the Girua River. The 163rd Infantry of the 41st Division, flown from Port Moresby to Popondetta and Dobodura, and Brigadier Wootten's 18th Brigade, transferred from Buna, were brought in to reinforce the hard-pressed forces on the Sanananda front.
General MacArthur advised General Blamey that, for strategic and logistic reasons, it was essential that an all-out attack on Sanananda be initiated immediately to close the campaign.56 On 13 January, General Eichelberger was placed in command of Advance New Guinea Force which included all Allied troops north of the Owen Stanleys.
The Australian 18th Brigade pushed vigorously along a branch trail to Cape Killerton, reaching the coast on 16 January. It then turned southeast to approach Sanananda and Giruwa on the flank. The United States 163rd Infantry advanced frontally along the Sanananda track to assault the main enemy defenses before Sanananda.57 The enemy's left flank was being threatened by units of the United States 127th Infantry which had crossed the Girua River after the capture of Buna and advanced northwest to take Tarakena. In the face of these three converging columns the battered enemy defenses began to crumble rapidly58 and General MacArthur was able to
report the situation as follows:
The Papuan campaign is in its final closing phase. The Sanananda position has now been completely enveloped. A remnant of the enemy's forces is entrenched there and faces certain destruction. With its elimination, Papua will be entirely cleared of the enemy. One of the primary objects of the campaign was the annihilation of the Japanese Papuan army under Lieutenant General Horii. This can now be regarded as accomplished. This army was approximately 15,000 strong.59
The End of the Papuan Campaign
Sanananda Point and Sanananda Village fell on 22 January and Giruwa was taken the same day. The only Japanese left in Papua were isolated groups fleeing or swimming along the coast to Salamaua. The Papuan campaign was finished.
During the entire struggle, the enormous flexibility of modern air power was constantly exploited. The calculated advance of bomber lines through seizure of forward bases meant that a relatively small force of bombers could attack under cover of an equally limited fighter force, operating at short and medium ranges. Each phase of advance had as its objective an airfield which could serve as a steppingstone to the next advance. In addition, as this airline moved forward, naval forces under newly established air coverage began to regain the sea-lanes which hitherto had been the undisputed arteries of the enemy's far-flung positions. Ground, air and sea operations were thoroughly co-ordinated.
In announcing the conclusion to six months of bitter, ceaseless struggle, General MacArthur said:
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.60 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.61
The close of the Papuan Campaign marked the first victorious operation of the Allied ground forces against the Japanese and the end of the first phase of operations in the Southwest Pacific Area.62 In the northwestern sector, with the exception of the occupation of the Kai, Aroe, and Tanimbar Islands on 30 July and intermittent air raids on Darwin, the Japanese had been engaged in consolidation. In the critical New Guinea-Bismarcks-Solomons sector, their deepest penetrations had been halted and thrown back. Australia and the supply lines from the United States were secure, and the firm establishment of a base in Papua formed an initial and vital step in the Allied counteroffensive which would eventually reduce Rabaul to impotence and drive the Japanese from their forward bases in the Southwest Pacific Area.
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