Background of the Buna Operation

Geography and Climate of the Buna Area

Buna-Sanananda Situation
18 November 1942

The Attack on Buna
19 November--14 December 1942

The enemy had taken cunning advantage of the peculiar geography of the Buna area to construct two almost impregnable defensive lines hidden in the swampy jungle. One of these lay across the Soputa-Sanananda Road; the other was in front of Buna itself. Our forces on 18 November had only the vaguest notion of these fortifications. The campaign cannot be understood without a description of the area, of its climate, and of the Japanese defenses.

The fighting took place in a narrow strip on the northeastern coast of Papua extending on both sides of Buna Mission, the prewar seat of government for the area. The Mission, sometimes called the Government Station, consisted of three houses and a few dozen native huts. Buna Village, a half mile to the northwest, was merely a cluster of huts. Bounded on the west by one of the several outlets of the Girua River and on the east by the coast a half mile south of Cape Endaiadere, the battleground was about 31/2 miles long and 3/4 of a mile deep. To a casual observer, the area would seem to be merely typical Papuan terrain, with its irregular pattern of steaming jungle, impassable swamp, coconut plantations, and open fields of coarse, shoulder-high kunai grass. Our troops came to know and to distinguish the smallest terrain features, usually the result of differences in vegetation.

Variations in the elevation played little part in the Buna landscape for the whole area is a flat, low-lying plain. The landing field at Buna is 5 feet above sea level, and even at Soputa, 71/2 miles inland, the land rises only to an elevation of 10 feet. The sluggish rivers that run north


from the Owen Stanley Mountains lose themselves in swamps of nipa, mangrove, and sago trees, which often extend to the coast. The Girua River is typical. It is 40 to 60 feet wide until it disappears in the swamps southeast of Buna Village, and it eventually reaches the ocean through several mouths between Buna and Sanananda. One of these mouths is Entrance Creek, which opens into a shallow lagoon between Buna Village and Buna Mission. Simemi Creek, another stream important in the fighting, runs north to the vicinity of the Buna airfield and then parallels the northern edge of the field to the sea.

The principal swamp in the Buna area lies between Entrance Creek and Simemi Creek and reaches inland to the vicinity of Simemi and Ango. It is absolutely impenetrable, a fact of vital importance in the campaign. Between the closely spaced trees, which are 25 to 100 feet high, is a tangle of roots, creepers, and underbrush. A man standing up can see from 5 to 30 yards; from a fox hole visibility is practically zero. Much of the other ground in the area, though not actually swamp, is thoroughly waterlogged, but a few places near the shore are fairly dry.

Most of the drier land is covered with a thick growth of kunai grass or plantations of coconut palms. This coarse grass grows to a height of more than 6 feet, but its height varies greatly, depending on how recently it has been burned over or cut. Its leaves are broad and sharp-edged; its stems are about the thickness of a pencil. The coconut palms are usually planted about 18 feet apart and the ground under them is relatively clear of cover. Between the mouth of Simemi Creek and Buna Mission lies a government coconut plantation about 300 yards wide; running south from Cape Endaiadere is the Duropa Plantation, about 700 yards wide and 1,800 yards long. To the southwest of this latter plantation is a large area overgrown with kunai grass. Another even larger area of grass occupies the region to the north of the main swamp.

In this open ground southeast of the Mission lies the most important objective of the Allied drive, the landing field. This landing field is 105 air miles from Port Moresby, 147 from Salamaua, and 400 from Rabaul. In Allied hands it would definitely check any enemy threat by land to Port Moresby and, as proved later, would be a powerful support for further advance along the north coast of New Guinea. The landing field was in existence before the Japanese came, but during the


enemy occupation it was enlarged to an area 1,300 yards by 90 yards, running southeast and northwest, and dispersal bays were added. Japanese planes used the field until the end of September, when our Air Force pocked its surface with bomb craters and put it out of commission. The Japanese had also built a dummy field, running almost due east and west, in the other grassy area, across Simemi Creek. To distinguish it from the "Old Strip," the dummy field received the name of "New Strip" in our operations.

Approach to Buna is difficult whether by sea or by land. It has no harbor. Coral reefs abound near the shore and are scattered over the sea to a distance of 25 miles from land. Cargo has to be discharged at sea into native double canoes usually carrying 1 to 11/2 tons. On the land side, Buna is cut off by swamps and creeks and can be approached only along four narrow corridors, each with its trail.

The coastal trail runs from Cape Sudest past Hariko and cuts over along the northern edge of the New Strip to Simemi Creek, southeast of the Old Strip. Here it meets the second trail, which comes from Dobodura and Simemi village and skirts the east side of the main swamp south of Buna. After the junction, the trail crosses the creek on a permanent bridge and continues along the northern edge of the Old Strip to the Mission. Between the bridge and the Mission, it is a passable motor road. The third trail comes up from Dobodura on the west side of the main swamp, joins a trail from Soputa at Ango Corner, and then runs to a fork about 1,200 yards from the coast. The right fork leads to the coastal track southeast of the Mission; the left fork crosses Entrance Creek by a footbridge and proceeds to Buna Village.

The fourth route approaches Buna from the northwest. It originates beyond Gona. and roughly follows the coast, fording several streams before it reaches Siwori Village where it meets two other trails. One of these leads from Siwori Village along the small peninsula between Girua River and the sea to a point just across the mouth of the river from Buna Village. The other skirts the mainland, crosses the Girua River by a footbridge (destroyed early in the operation), and joins the left fork of the Ango trail about 200 yards south of Buna Village. These trails average 12 feet in width but are so low-lying that a heavy rain would put sections under water. The 114th Engineers worked constantly putting down corduroy to make routes passable


for geeps, for all supply and evacuation were based on the trails, the "Main Streets" of the Buna jungle.

Along with difficulties resulting from the terrain went problems inherent in the uniformly hot and muggy climate. At Buna a rise in temperature of 1° or 2° F. increases physical discomfort tremendously. To make matters worse, the fighting took place in the months when precipitation, temperature, and humidity are highest. In December of a normal year, the temperature ranges between 72° and 89° F., and the humidity averages 82 per cent. During this month, the average precipitation of 141/2 inches falls in heavy tropical showers with intervening periods of clear weather. Fortunately the major rains held off until the very end of the operations at Buna, but the men who fought in the jungle swamps of the northeastern coast of Papua would not describe the area as dry at any time.

Our troops suffered from malaria and dengue fever prevalent in the region. They also suffered from depression and lassitude caused by the climate and inadequate food; salt and vitamin tablets did no more than alleviate the situation. Within 2 weeks of our entry into the area the rate of sickness began to climb, and at all times thereafter a heavy percentage of every combat unit was hospitalized by malaria and other fevers. For every two men who were battle casualties, five were out of action from fever. Daily doses of quinine or atabrine were compulsory but only suppressed the symptoms.

Jungle, swamp, stifling climate, insects, fever -- all these and the Japanese were the enemies of our troops. In the words of one of their own number:

The men at the front in New Guinea were perhaps among the most wretched-looking soldiers ever to wear the American uniform. They were gaunt and thin, with deep black circles under their sunken eyes. They were covered with tropical sores. ... They were clothed in tattered, stained jackets and pants. ... Often the soles had been sucked off their shoes by the tenacious, stinking mud. Many of them fought for days with fevers and didn't know it. ... Malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, and, in a few cases, typhus hit man after man. There was hardly a soldier, among the thousands who went into the jungle, who didn't come down with some kind of fever at least once.2


The Japanese Defensive Position

More than 1,800 seasoned Japanese soldiers and marines, who for the most part had not participated in the Moresby drive, were entrenched in a superb defensive position awaiting our attack. The western flank of the enemy line was protected by the sea and the impenetrable swamps of the main mouth of the Girua River. The eastern flank rested on the seacoast south of Cape Endaiadere. The middle of the line was guarded by the wide stretch of continuous swamp between Entrance and Simemi creeks. Our attacks were necessarily confined to the trails, canalized along two widely separated corridors without any lateral communication, one between Simemi Creek and the east coast and the other on the west side of the swamp along the Ango trail toward the Mission and Buna Village. Movement of our troops from one flank to the other entailed a 2-day march via Ango and Simemi; in contrast, the Japanese had a motor road from the Mission to Simemi Creek over which they could reinforce either flank in a few minutes.

The Japanese main line of defense ran from the Girua River along the outskirts of Buna Village, thence roughly southeast to Entrance Creek and across it to the nearby junction of the Village trail with the Mission-Ango track. There it turned abruptly north, enclosing a narrow pointed area called the Triangle, then swept east across the grass-covered field known as Government Gardens toward Giropa Point. About 500 yards south of the Point it bent southeast to the western end of the Old Strip. This western sector was manned by two Marine units, the Yasuda Butai (detachment) and the Tsukioka Butai, under Col. Yoshitatsu Yasuda. Men of these units had fought in China, Malaya, and various islands of the Pacific.

The south edge of the Old Strip was protected by the swamp. From the bridge across Simemi Creek at the southeastern corner of the Old Strip, the enemy defense line continued along the northern edge of the New Strip through the Duropa Plantation to reach the sea a half mile south of Cape Endaiadere. The 3d Battalion, 229th Infantry,3 which had fought at Canton and Hongkong, marched down from Gona on 18 November and manned this eastern flank, together with a replacement unit known as the Yamamoto Butai.


These troops were commanded by Maj. Gen. Oda, succeeding General Horii, who had been drowned in the Kumusi River while retreating from the attack on Port Moresby. In addition to the infantry already mentioned, which numbered about 1,165, he had at Buna a number of other elements: a heavy antiaircraft battery which was tentatively identified as the 73d Independent Unit, with a minimum strength of 100; a battery of mountain artillery believed to be from the 3d Battalion, 55th Field Artillery, and numbering at least 100 men; about 100 men remaining from the 144th Infantry, which had been decimated in the Port Moresby expedition; some 300 miscellaneous troops, including engineer, medical, signal, and supply personnel; about 400 Japanese, Formosan, and Korean laborers of the 14th and 15th Construction Units. The Japanese force at Buna thus totaled about 2,200, of which some 1,800 were combat troops. Only the remnant of the 144th Infantry had taken part in the disastrous retreat over the Owen Stanley Mountains; the rest were fresh and ready for battle.

Our troops approached Buna completely ignorant of the defenses which faced them. They found the enemy forces established in almost impregnable defensive works, which baffled the earlier attackers and left them uncertain of the exact location of their foes. They first had to find out just where the Japanese were and then solve the problem of how to drive them from their fortifications.

The defenses consisted essentially of a network of mutually supporting bunkers, organized in depth. The 32d Division at Buna was the first American unit to meet and conquer this type of defense. At Munda, Salamaua, and all other points in the Southwest Pacific Area where we have since encountered prepared Japanese positions, the experience gained at Buna has proved valuable.

Dugouts are not feasible in the Buna area because the water table is too close to the surface. The Japanese bunkers were, therefore, almost entirely above ground. The base of the bunker was a shallow trench, up to 40 feet in length for the larger bunkers, and 6 to 10 feet for the smaller. A framework of columns and beams was set up, the walls were revetted with coconut logs ranging up to 11/2 feet in thickness, and a ceiling of two or three courses of such logs was laid on top. Not content with this construction, the enemy reinforced the wall, using steel oil drums and ammunition boxes filled with sand, as well as log


Japanese Bunker in the Duropa Plantation.
Cpl. Charles Claridge of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, is looking at the entrance.

Interior of a Japanese Bunker in the Duropa Plantation.
Note the sand-filled oil drums used to reinforce the palm-log structure.


piles and rocks. Over all this were piled earth and sand mixed with short logs, coconuts, and the like. When the bunker, 7 to 8 feet high, was camouflaged with fast-growing jungle vegetation, it became almost impossible to spot in the tangled underbrush. The campaign was to prove that as a shelter it would withstand almost anything but a direct hit by a heavy artillery shell with delayed-action fuze. Entrances to the bunkers usually were in the rear, covered by fire from adjacent bunkers, and often angled so that a hand grenade tossed in the door would not kill the occupants.

Some of the bunkers had fire slits for machine guns or rifles. In this case snipers in the trees overhead served as observers. The snipers would fire warning shots when our troops approached, and then a machine-gun burst would come from the bunker. The bunkers, however, were principally used for shelter during aerial bombardment and shelling. After such attacks the Japanese crawled out along the communication trenches and took up firing positions in individual emplacements to the sides and front of the bunkers. Not all of these shelters were occupied at any one time; the garrison shifted from point to point to meet our attack, and our troops soon learned that each captured bunker must be garrisoned or destroyed to prevent the enemy from infiltrating and reoccupying it. The Japanese worked steadily to improve and strengthen their system of defenses and constructed new lines as they were forced back.

Japanese tactics during the Buna campaign were strictly defensive. Counterattacks were few and came mostly at the end of the operation, when the enemy's situation was growing desperate. For the most part he dug himself in and waited for our troops to cross his final protective lines. Time and time again our troops were baffled by the enfilading fire from positions they could not see. As the soldiers kept complaining, "If we could only see them, it wouldn't take long." But the Japanese light machine guns and Arisaka rifles gave off no flash, and in the great tent of towering trees sound so reverberated that the report of a weapon did not aid in its location. Our troops had to locate each bunker by costly fumbling, then either outflank it by creeping through a swamp or charge it again and again until the defenders were worn out. The Japanese never surrendered. As one soldier explained, "They are tough babies all right, but I guess part of the toughness comes from them not being able to go any place else; they just stay there and die."


The Old Strip, Buna, Showing Japanese Fortifications.

Firing Pits and Bunker Entrances, Buna Mission.


Air-Ground Cooperation

Our victory at Buna was the fruit of cooperation between ground and air forces. Either without the other would have failed. The Australian and American units of the U. S. 5th Air Force, under Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney, met all demands, strategic, tactical, and logistic. Though our squadrons were often outnumbered and always short of pilots, planes, and supplies, they were stronger than the forces which the Japanese could spare from their major effort in the Solomons. The skill and courage of Allied fliers, in combination with the superiority of our planes, won aerial mastery over the southeastern end of New Guinea. Our control of the air made large-scale reinforcement of the enemy troops in the area cost more than the Japanese were willing or able to pay in terms of losses. At the same time, we were able to bring in the soldiers and supplies to drive the enemy from Buna and Sanananda.

Our control of the air was won by constant patrolling, armed reconnaissance, and aggressive fighter operations.4 Yet we could not monopolize the air and considerable numbers of hostile planes from time to time succeeded in breaking through to bomb and strafe our troops and rear areas. For example, on 7 December, 3 Japanese navy dive bombers and 18 Zero-escorted high-level bombers attacked the 2d Field Hospital at Simemi, causing heavy casualties. As late as 27 December, when the enemy was withdrawing toward the sea for his last stand, 41 Zeros and dive bombers attempted to raid our positions but were intercepted by 8 of our P-38's. Two enemy planes were shot down, and the 3 bombs dropped did no damage. However, the


enemy could not maintain a continuous or effective aerial offensive and suffered severe losses in his occasional raids. He never completely severed our fragile lines of communication.

Strategic bombing and strafing of enemy airfields at Lae, Salamaua, and Rabaul by the 5th Air Force was severely limited by the small number of planes available. Between 1 November 1942 and 31 January 1943, only 131/2 tons of explosives were dropped on ground targets and shipping outside the coastal region of southeastern New Guinea. At the same time, however, the 13th Air Force was engaging large numbers of Japanese planes in the Solomons and was also bombing Rabaul. These attacks had an effect out of proportion to their apparent weight, for they compelled the enemy to allocate part of his strength to defense of his bases and restricted his ability to interfere with Allied operations in the Buna-Sanananda area.

Tactical bombing and strafing of enemy forward areas played a relatively small part, for such operations early proved almost as dangerous to our own troops as to the enemy. Contact between our ground units and those of the enemy was exceedingly close and aerial observation was practically impossible. Enemy rear areas were constantly pounded by our B-25's and A-20'S, yet during the 6 weeks of active operations only 163 tons of bombs were dropped and 144,790 rounds of ammunition fired on the Buna Mission and Old Strip area. Bombardiers in the combat zone usually had to aim at jungle-covered ground targets visible only at extremely low altitudes. In most instances, pilots had to report "results unobserved." Nevertheless, these raids had telling effect on Japanese forward supply lines and Japanese morale.

Tactical aerial reconnaissance and observation were likewise very difficult, but proved invaluable to our ground forces. A flight of Australian Wirraways, based at Dobodura late in November, gathered information contributing to a precision in artillery fire otherwise impossible because of the inaccuracy of available maps.

Transport, Supply, and Communications

Of first importance and most novel was the contribution of the 5th Air Force to the transport and supply of the ground troops. Most of our infantrymen and supporting troops, a total of 14,900 were flown to the Buna area in the uncomfortable bucket seats of C-47's. The


small amount of artillery used in the operation was all airborne for at least part of the way. The air movement of the 128th Infantry from Australia to New Guinea was the first large-scale airborne troop movement by United States forces in a theater of operations. The bulk of the other units of the Buna Force, including the 127th and 163d Infantry Regiments, were flown by the 374th Troop Carrier Group directly to Dobodura and Popondetta, only 10 miles from the front lines. When they were wounded or when they fell ill of tropical diseases, the troops left as they had come; the planes which brought in reinforcements and supplies returned to Port Moresby laden with hospital cases, many of which were ferried immediately by air to Australia.

Supply of rations and equipment was an extraordinarily difficult problem throughout the operation. Land transportation across the mountains was almost impossible and very impractical, since there was only a rough and steep foot trail from Port Moresby to the front and a trip over this trail took 18 to 28 days. The distance could be flown by plane in 35 minutes. While units near the coast relied on supply by small boats, those inland had to depend on supply by aircraft.

The Air Force maintained a regular shuttle service across the treacherous mountains and over the coastal jungle to deliver food for the soldiers and native carriers, as well as the ammunition, the 1/4-ton peeps used for transport on the corduroy trails, pick mattocks, shovels, axes, oil for the ordnance which was corroding in the steaming jungle, cots, blankets, surgical instruments, dressings, plasma, quinine and atabrine tablets for the sick and wounded, new shoes, and clothing. The only 105-mm howitzer used in the campaign was carried to the front by aircraft. Sixteen C-47's and several A-29's, based at Ward's Drome, Port Moresby, delivered a total of 2,450 tons to the landing strips at Dobodura, Popondetta, and Pongani and dropped 166 tons at small grounds designated along the jungle trails. Small arms, ammunition, mortar shells, and medical supplies were dropped with parachutes; food, clothing, and individual equipment other than arms, without parachutes.

The losses in dropping without parachutes averaged 50 per cent. For example, cans of bully beef broke open and spoiled. Dropping grounds were hard to find; smudge fires and panels often did not


Strip No. 4 at Dobodura.

American Troops Embarking in a C-47.


identify the area sufficiently, and occasionally loads landed in enemy territory. Hungry men watched every incoming plane for good drops. "Convey our compliments to pilot and crew of Dutch Boy. They really laid delivery on the door step," said Maj. Herbert M. Smith, speaking for the 2d Battalion, 126th Infantry.

Pilots made their turn-around as quickly as possible. Two planes, Sleepy Sally and Eager Beaver, on 4 December made two trips from Port Moresby to Hariko, a distance of 90 miles, and dropped both loads at Hariko within 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Approximately half of the supplies were seaborne. On 14 November, 45 tons a week of rations for the men on the east flank were ordered shipped to Pongani via Milne Bay. Cargoes were transferred at Milne Bay from ocean freighters to smaller vessels of 50 to 500 tons, which crept around East Cape and through Ward Hunt Strait to Oro Bay. Enemy planes and surface craft made it dangerous for ships to remain at Oro Bay during daylight hours, so loads were transferred to smaller craft which made hazardous nightly runs through reef-studded coastal waters to an advance supply base. There the troops, partly infantry, partly units of the 107th Quartermaster Battalion, put out through the surf in native outrigger canoes and unloaded the cases of food and equipment.

This seaborne supply line remained always under threat of interruption. Attacks by enemy planes on 16-17 November put it out of operation for 3 weeks. The 22d Portable Hospital on the Alacrity, one of the four boats sunk in the first of these attacks, lost four men and all of its equipment and supplies. On 23 December, two enemy PT-type boats sank a ship off Hariko and machine-gunned the supply base. However, through most of the period, the Allied forces on the east flank were successfully supplied by the sea route.

The chain of supply stretched 4700 miles from bases in Australia to the landing fields, dropping grounds, and coastal dumps. From such forward points, cargoes had to be transported to the men in and directly behind the combat lines. This last vital transport link was formed by a few peeps and some 700 fuzzy-headed native carriers, who delivered their 40 pounds apiece to dumps just outside the range of small-arms fire.

Requests for supplies flowed from the front to Lt. Col. Ralph T. Birkeness, Division Quartermaster at Port Moresby. All were marked


Native Stretcher Bearers with Wounded American.
On the trail from the Buna Front to Simemi.

Supplies for Headquarters.
Native carriers and guards on the trail from Oro Bay to the Buna Front.


urgent. He had to assign priorities on the limited space of the planes and boats, determining whether the soldiers would receive bullets or rations, or food for the natives who were indispensable as carriers and would go home unless fed, or replacements for the ordnance watches "going to hell" in the damp climate of the Papuan jungle and needed for synchronization of combat efforts, or canister and flame throwers when weapons available in the front lines failed to solve tactical problems. On one occasion, General Harding wired from his advanced headquarters, "So many priorities on medical, engineer, antiaircraft and other [supplies] are causing neglect of general ammunition and food for our fighting men."

Quartermaster officers in the field reported that the troops subsisted for almost a week on a daily diet of one-third of a "C" ration and one-sixth of a "D" ration,5 equivalent to about 1,000 calories a day. Even when shipping space was available, the problem was not solved. Foods in glass jars were packed in paper cartons which disintegrated in the rain. The jars, unprotected by cartons, often broke. There was a shortage of packing equipment. Parachutes used for the drops had to be salvaged for further use. However, as the operation progressed, both headquarters and officers at the front learned by trial and error what was needed, in what quantity, and how to use efficiently the available transportation.

The establishment and maintenance of communications across the Owen Stanley Mountains and in the Buna area involved many difficulties. Shortage of space on the air supply line from Port Moresby limited delivery of equipment. Radio sets corroded or short-circuited in the hot, moist air even when protected from the heavy rains. The more powerful radios used for communication between the front and Port Moresby worked well, but the limited Signal Corps staff was swamped with the coding and decoding of messages. Portable radios were often ineffective because the dense growth of trees and underbrush limited their range.

Headquarters at Simemi was connected with Dobodura, Hariko, and Oro Bay by teletype. Telephone wires were laid to each regimental headquarters, to the four air strips, to aircraft warning stations, and to all artillery batteries. Where jungle and swamp were absolutely impenetrable, reels were mounted on rafts and field wire was


strung on trees as the rafts floated downstream. Altogether some 300 miles of wire were laid, all of it by hand and much of it under fire. On 23 December, 1st Lt. Philip S. Winson of the 32d Signal Company, while laying a battalion observation post telephone line, was with a platoon of the 126th Infantry which was isolated by enemy counterattack. For organizing the defense of several captured enemy bunkers, he received a citation.

Lines were frequently broken by enemy patrols or bombing. Native carriers innocently cut lengths of wire to tie up their bundles. Repair parties were sniped at by the Japanese in daylight, and at night were fired on by our own men, who were suspicious of any movement in the dark. However, communications were maintained effectively throughout the operation; few complaints were heard.


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2 WO E. 1. Kahn, Jr., G. I. Jungle, New York; Simon and Schuster, 1943, pp. 121-122.

3 The 1st and 2d Battalions, 229th Infantry, it may be noted, were at this time on Guadalcanal.

4 Tabulation of cooperation by the 5th Air Force in the New Guinea area, 1 November 1942-23 January 1943:

Type of plane Aerial reconnaissance and observation Armed reconnaissance, escort, and patrol Attack on enemy aircraft; Bombing and strafing Total
Heavy Bomber   116 1 47 164
Medium Bomber   45   88 133
Light Bomber   28   74 102
Fighter 35 38 3 63 139
Miscellaneous   73     73
TOTAL 35 300 4 272 611

5 A "C" ration weighs 4.2 pounds and a "D" ration consists of three chocolate bars.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation