Battering at Buna
(19 November-14 December)
The Attack on Buna
19 November--14 December 1942
Early on 19 November the 1st and 3d Battalions, 128th Infantry, moved north in the rain along parallel trails to attack the Japanese forces on the east flank, which ran from the sea along the New Strip to Simemi Creek. C Company led the 1st Battalion up the coastal trail toward Duropa Plantation; the 3d Battalion, with K Company as advance guard, trudged along the track from Simemi village toward the New Strip. Both units advanced until they met rifle and automatic fire, then stopped. Ground observation was impossible; jungle and swamp limited expansion of the front and prevented direct communication between the two battalions. The 3d Battalion was about 500 yards southwest of the New Strip, and the 1st Battalion was approximately abreast on the coast. During the day, in the confusion of attack in the jungle, the leading units were completely out of contact with one another and had even lost contact within themselves. As night came on, rain was again falling. Our men could hear the sound of truck motors behind the Japanese lines, indicating that reinforcements were coming up; they could also hear the noise of pounding which suggested that the enemy was strengthening his defenses.
With this attack the Buna operation really commenced. It was not to be marked by broad strategic movements, for the terrain limited our action to a series of penetrations along well-defined corridors through the impassable swamps. During the first 26 days, our troops felt out the strength of the enemy's position, determined the general line of his well-camouflaged defensive works, and at the end of the period captured Buna Village. Our initial attempt to rush the enemy defenses had to give way to tactics of dogged infiltration by small
groups, bunker to bunker, until the last stubbornly defended bunker was taken. Toward the end of December the introduction of light tanks and the weakening of the enemy forces speeded up the action, but throughout the operation it was the individual soldier's battle. Often cut off from his fellows by dense jungle underbrush, crawling on his belly in the sticky mud, each infantryman had to learn to fight alone.
The disappointing results of the attack on 19 November did not destroy the confidence of our troops in a quick success, for Buna Mission was only 3 miles away. The 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, arrived at the front during the 20th and went into the line on the right of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, which by evening had pushed to the edge of Duropa Plantation. For the 21st, Division Headquarters ordered an all-out attack along the entire front, to be preceded by a bombing run of our planes along the enemy positions in the Plantation.
Feeling out the Enemy Lines (20--25 November)
The front lines were so indistinct in the jungle that the bombing on the eastern front caused some casualties in the 3d Battalion, 128th Infantry, and damaged the morale of the entire unit. Apart from the failure of the air preparation, things went wrong, for the troops did not receive the divisional attack order until well after the bombing was over. The infantry attack was finally launched late in the afternoon, following another bombing raid and a mortar concentration. Units made slight advances, met well-directed fire from snipers, machine guns, and mortars. and then withdrew to their original positions.
On this same day, our first offensive against the western end of the Japanese stronghold also failed. The 2d Battalion, 128th Infantry, moved up west of the great swamp to take the place of the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry (less three platoons of C Company and all of D Company), which, after its exhausting march over the mountains had been attached to the Australian 7th Division in operations west of the Girua River. The fresh battalion attacked up the Ango trail toward the junction where branches forked to the Mission on the right and to Buna Village on the left. As the point of the battalion approached this Junction, the leader, Sgt. Irving W. Hall
of F Company, spotted a Japanese machine gun 50 yards ahead. By cool action he got his men off the trail before the enemy opened fire, and the remainder of the battalion moved up on both sides of the trail against the narrow salient in the fork. At 1330,6 enemy fire from the salient, later known as the Triangle, had stopped our troops. This area was to be the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting on the whole Buna front.
On 22 November the 2d Battalion, 126th Infantry, was released by the Australian 7th Division to the 32d Division and advanced along the Ango trail to support the 2d Battalion, 128th Infantry. This was the last major troop movement on the Buna front until reinforcements arrived. Henceforth, the 2d Battalions of the 126th Infantry and 128th Infantry were called the Urbana Force. Under the command of Col. John W. Mott, this force operated in the corridor west of the great swamp. On the east of that barrier, between Simemi Creek and the sea, the 1st and 3d Battalions of the 128th Infantry, the 1st Battalion of the 126th Infantry, and the Australian 2/6 Independent Company formed the Warren Force under Brig. Gen. Hanford MacNider. When this officer was wounded on the 23d, Col. 1. Tracy Hale, Jr., of the 128th Infantry took over command of the Warren Force. Until 1 January, these forces were to fight separate actions, each with its own story.
The Urbana Force began an attack toward the Triangle on 24 November (Sketch No. 1, page 30). E Company, 126th Infantry, moved to the left flank and got 400 yards out into the swamp without meeting enemy opposition. By the next day it had struggled through the swamp to a point beyond Entrance Creek, close to the left-fork trail to the Village.
F Company, 128th Infantry, moved directly up the trail; E and G Companies, 128th Infantry, swung around the right flank. Enemy barbed wire and machine-gun fire stopped F Company at the apex of the Triangle. For a while the right-flank companies had easy going. Then, as they came out on the kunai-grass strip southeast of the Triangle, they encountered enemy fire. By dark it was clear that the enemy had drawn them into a trap on the relatively open ground, swept by fire from his fortifications. G Company lost its 60-mm mortars and light machine guns, and the men were forced
SKETCH NO. 1
The Urbana Force Attacks the Triangle
24 November 1942
into the swamp to the south. Ammunition ran low, and there was no food. During the night most of the company made its way back to the main force.
The day's fighting established clearly that the main enemy position in front of the Urbana Force was the deep narrow salient of the Triangle, commanding the Ango trail. Attack on the east side of this position was hampered both by swamp and by the open grass strip, where the enemy had excellent fields of fire, but the advance of E Company on the left suggested that the Triangle might be skirted on its western side. Consequently, attacks on the Urbana front during the next month were directed at the area west and north of the Triangle.
On Thanksgiving Day, 26 November, the main action shifted to the Warren front, where our forces made a heavy attack, concentrating
A Week of Attack (26 November--2 December)
in a push northward through the Duropa Plantation. The 3d Battalion, 128th Infantry, left I Company under Lt. Carl K. Fryday to guard the Simemi trail, moved over to the coast and joined the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, to form the first wave. The 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, followed 100 yards in rear of the left flank,
Japanese Defenses in the Duropa Plantation.
ready to push through and swing west. The frontage Of the 3d Battalion, which made the main push on the coast, was about 400 yards; that of the 1st Battalion on the left was 800 yards; company fronts varied from 125 to 600 yards, depending on the opposition expected.
The attack of the 26th was the first in which the artillery could furnish real support. When the initial plans were made shipping had not been available for the transportation of artillery by sea; moving it by land over the mountains was obviously impossible; but by almost single-handed exertions, Brig. Gen. (now Maj. Gen.) Albert W. Waldron, Divisional Artillery Officer, managed to work some pieces forward by water and by air. On 26 November the following artillery had arrived:
Number of Pieces Artillery Unit 3 3.7-In. howitzers Australian 1st Mountain Battery 2 25-pounders One troop, Australian 2/5 Field Regiment 4 25-pounders One troop, Australian 2/1 Field Regiment 1 105-mm howitzer Battery A, U. S. 129th Field Artillery Battalion
The artillery was divided between the east flank, on the coast north of Hariko, and the west flank in the vicinity of Ango, but the area of operations was so small that the fire of all guns could be concentrated at any point on the front. At first, however, the artillery was handicapped by inadequate maps and lack of ground observation. The flight of Australian Wirraway observation planes which had been brought up to Dobodura to meet this difficulty, did good work throughout the campaign in adjusting artillery fire. The pilots of the Wirraways were fearless in their hazardous job of hovering over enemy positions; one pilot even crept up on an unsuspecting Zero and downed it by one short burst.
Shortage of ammunition was also a problem. The original ammunition supply plan had to be given up by 7 December because of difficulties in transportation. Supply in predetermined quantities and types was then tried but abandoned on 17 December, partly because of frequent changes in requirements. Thenceforth ammunition was supplied through requisition by rounds of specific types, but always had to be used with the greatest economy. On 26 December the Australian 1st Mountain Battery ran out of ammunition and took no further part in the operation.
The Warren Force's attack on the morning of 26 November was preceded by aerial strafing and bombing. From 0730 to 0825, P-40's and Beaufighters strafed at tree-top level from the west end of the New Strip to Cape Endaiadere. A-20's bombed the rear areas from 0835 to 0853. These air attacks were followed by a half hour of pounding by the artillery, mortars, and machine guns. Everything proceeded according to schedule until the infantry jumped off at 0930. At once it became apparent that the supporting fires had not touched the enemy bunkers. Concealed machine guns and snipers opened up, and at nightfall our lines were in practically the same position as before the attack. Units of the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, had got close enough to the Japanese bunkers to see that the enemy machine guns were barricaded with oil drums and had a roof over them, but our troops did not yet fully understand the nature of the Japanese defenses.
A 3-day lull followed this repulse. On the Urbana front, units worked along the left flank to extend the line which E Company had previously established on the Buna Village trail. Active patrolling in this zone added to our scanty information regarding enemy positions.
On the 30th, the attack was renewed on both fronts. The Urbana Force made its main effort to the west of Entrance Creek. Units of this force moved up through the swamps during the night and jumped off before dawn against Buna Village. Within 100 yards they met machine-gun fire but pressed on despite heavy casualties, and by the end of the day they had made limited gains. In a wide flanking movement, F Company, 128th Infantry, reached Siwori Village and so cut enemy land communication between the Buna and Sanananda fronts. Other units got to the outskirts of Buna Village. On the right, E Company, 128th Infantry, advanced west of Entrance Creek toward Coconut Grove, which lies along the Buna Village trail just north of the Triangle. They failed to take the Grove, which was to prove almost as difficult to penetrate as the Triangle. In this action the 2d Battalion, 128th Infantry, captured the first prisoner taken in the Buna campaign.
The attack on the Warren front was not so successful. The plan for the 30th differed materially from that of 26 November, when two battalions had attacked northward in the Plantation. This time one
battalion was to move west along the New Strip to deal with the opposition along its northern edge, and only one battalion was to advance north along the coast through the Plantation. The battalion in reserve would be ready to support either attack. Bren-gun carriers which had been counted on to spearhead the attack failed to arrive because of a shortage in shipping.
The infantry, attacking at dawn, made almost no progress. Leading the push north through the Plantation, A Company, 128th Infantry, ran into a log barricade on its right, while its left platoon was held up by automatic fire. It tried to knock out the barricade by mortar fire, but failed. Then a 37-mm gun was brought up for direct fire on the obstacle, but still the company could not advance. By noon the men were digging in where they were, and at nightfall B Company relieved them squad by squad.
Two companies of the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, pushed toward the eastern end of the New Strip but fared little better. C Company, advancing west on the south edge, was stopped when it was halfway along the strip by heavy fire coming from the north across the open field. It was apparent that Japanese defenses, concealed where the Duropa Plantation surrounds the spur which juts off northeast from the strip, commanded all the neighboring cleared ground. B Company reached the southeastern tip of the New Strip but got no farther.
At the conclusion of the attack on 30 November, the Warren Force had not penetrated the main line of enemy defensive positions, which was not to be cracked until tanks were employed on 18 December. Through the Duropa Plantation, from the sea to the north end of the little spur off the New Strip, the Japanese had a strong line of bunkers, each surrounded by individual emplacements linked with the main bunker by trenches. The western end of this line, just northwest of the spur, formed an almost impregnable strongpoint with fields of fire to the east across the spur, to the south across the New Strip, and to the west across the open ground north of the New Strip.
In many ways this strongpoint was the key defensive position in the Plantation area. As long as the enemy held it, the line to the coast could not be turned on its western extremity; frontal assault by infantry supported only by mortar and artillery fire proved unsuccessful time and time again. When the enemy defenses at the bridge on the Simemi-Buna trail over Simemi Creek were explored in the
Terrain to the West of the New Strip.
next few days, it was discovered that another strongpoint had been constructed there. The cross fire between the bunkers at the bridge and the bunkers at the cast end of the New Strip was to make attack north across the open ground of the strip so costly as to be impractical. Finally, Allied naval support was not available to carry out an amphibious landing farther up in the Plantation.
Meanwhile, a new commander for the forces attacking Buna was on the way. Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, Commander of the U. S. I Corps, and staff officers landed at Dobodura on the morning of 1 December, after conferring with General MacArthur in Port Moresby the previous evening. At 1300 on the same day he assumed command of the Allied forces operating east of the Girua River.
The following morning General Eichelberger and his staff came to the front and watched another attack all along the line. The Urbana Force again attacked Buna Village and again failed, although G Company, 126th Infantry, under Lt. Cladie A. Bailey, mopped up a Japanese command post and supporting bunkers and then advanced our right flank to Entrance Creek. On the Warren front, the two main enemy positions, one at the bridge over Simemi Creek and the other in Duropa Plantation, stood as firmly as ever. B Company, 126th Infantry, got men within 25 yards of enemy positions in the Plantation. They could not penetrate the final protective lines, where they ran into well-coordinated machine-gun fire, and were forced to withdraw to the southeastern tip of the strip. At the Simemi bridge, A Company, 128th Infantry, tried grenades, 6o-mm mortar fire, and infiltration, but could not reduce the bunkers or get men through the murderous cross fire of enemy light machine guns so sited that they swept the level terrain. At the close of the day the Japanese positions in the key areas were as strong as they had been when first assaulted on 19 November.
Even before the attack on 2 December, our troops were tired and dispirited, and this last repulse reduced their confidence to a low ebb, probably the lowest of the entire campaign. Two weeks of fighting had not even dented the Japanese line. Rations had been so short that troops sometimes received only one-sixth of a "C" ration per day. Torrential rain alternated with jungle heat. The insects seemed as determined as the enemy. Casualties from disease and wounds had reduced all battalions to approximately half strength.
SKETCH NO. 2
Attack on Warren Front,
5 December 1942
Reorganization of the Allied forces in the Buna area and regrouping of units which had become badly intermixed during the fighting of the past 14 days followed promptly on General Eichelberger's assumption of command. Col. (now Brig. Gen.) Clarence A. Martin became commander of the Warren Force. The 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, took over the lines on the Simemi-Buna trail south of the bridge; the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, occupied the Plantation positions; and the 3d Battalion, 128th Infantry, went into reserve on the coast behind the right flank. Minor reshuffling on the Urbana front was accompanied by the assignment of Col. John E. Grose as commander there. General Harding, Divisional Commander, was relieved by General Waldron. Elements of Headquarters, I Corps, were merged with Headquarters, 32d Division, and henceforth called Buna Force Headquarters, located near Simemi village. Headquarters of the Advanced New Guinea Force, under General Herring, who commanded all troops north of the Owen Stanley Mountains, was now at Soputa. Late in December it was moved to the neighborhood of Dobodura.
Reorganization of the supply system accompanied the front-line changes and began to show results in increased shipment of supplies
by air and water and quicker distribution to front-line units. The Bren-gun carriers, with Australian crews, arrived, and orders were prepared for an advance on the morning of 5 December. On the Warren front all three battalions were to take part. While two followed the Brens north through the Plantation, the third was to take the bridge over Simemi Creek (Sketch No. 2, page 37).
Early on the morning of the 5th, six A-20's made a bombing run from the Old Strip to Cape Endaiadere, and all the artillery in the Buna area concentrated its fire 500 yards ahead of our troops in the Plantation. At 0842 L Company, 128th Infantry, moved forward with the Brens on a 200-yard front while our machine guns strafed the trees to comb out the snipers. The presence of the Bren-gun carriers proved a complete surprise to the enemy, but he quickly rallied. As the Brens swung to the west to rake the enemy front lines, snipers in the trees picked off the crews from above; Japanese soldiers on the ground tossed hand grenades over the sides of the carriers. Within 30 minutes the Brens were immobilized. Fire from the front and from the strongpoint to the left pinned down the infantry, and by 1000 our men had withdrawn to their original lines. The Brens
Disabled Bren-Gun Carriers.
After the attack Of 5 December in the Duropa Plantation.
lay deserted out in front and were stripped of their weapons by the Japanese before nightfall.
The 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, moved up to the left of the 3d Battalion and attacked north across the eastern end of the New Strip toward the Japanese strongpoint. Under Lt. Samuel J. Scott, A Company made its way across the strip by noon and pushed on toward the spur. B Company under Lt. Milan J. Bloecher then went in on the left to cross the strip just west of the spur. At 1400 it had reached the south edge of the strip and set up its light machine guns on the left to protect the crossing. The soldiers crawled out in the fairly high grass, only to meet very heavy sniper fire when they reached a bare spot in the middle of the New Strip. The heat of the sun in the tall grass was terrific; the crack of a sniper's shot or a short burst from an enemy light machine gun followed any incautious movement. By 1700 the men of both A and B Companies were exhausted. At nightfall B Company reassembled on the south edge of the New Strip. The Antitank Platoon of the 1st Battalion, now constituted as a rifle unit, crawled up to relieve A Company in the Plantation just south of the spur.
The 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, was meanwhile attacking the bunker area at the bridge over Simemi Creek. Fire from mortars and 37-mm guns forced the Japanese out of some of their positions east of the bridge. Then A Company and elements of C Company closed for an assault, but machine-gun fire on their left flank forced their withdrawal to a line about 200 yards south of the bridge. When artillery fire failed to reduce the enemy defenses, frontal attack was given up and B Company, relieving A on the line in the afternoon, tried to bypass the strongpoint by infiltrating across the creek southwest of the bridge. The attempt was frustrated by deep water and impassable swamp. No further gains were made during the day on that sector.
On the Urbana front, the 2d Battalion, 126th Infantry, was given the task of pushing through to the sea, thus cutting off Buna Village from the Mission (Sketch No. 3, page 40). The 2d Battalion, 128th Infantry, was to protect both flanks of the 126th. The infantry attacked at 1030 after an artillery and mortar concentration. For the first 30 minutes it met little opposition as it advanced cautiously through the jungle. Then the Cannon Company, 128th Infantry,
SKETCH NO. 3
Breakthrough at Buna Village
5 December 1942
pushing ahead on the left along the Girua River, ran into mortar fire as it came out in the open. It stopped and sent a patrol toward the Village, but machine-gun fire almost at once pinned the patrol to the ground. Until late afternoon there was no further advance in this zone.
In the middle of the line, E Company, 126th Infantry, skirted the Village in such close contact with the enemy that little supporting fire was possible. G Company advanced on the right flank of E Company, and one platoon of G had driven to the sea by 1330. The platoon established itself on the beach between the maze of Japanese tunnel and pillbox positions at Buna Mission and another maze at Buna Village. Several enemy counterattacks were repulsed. By occupying this point, the platoon cut the Village from the Mission area, where the Japanese had a pool of troops and supplies to reinforce the Village. The platoon leader was German-born S/Sgt. Herman J. Boucher, who had served in the Loyalist International Brigade in the
Spanish Civil War; for his outstanding accomplishment in this action he was made a captain.
General Eichelberger spent the entire day at the front; both his aide and General Waldron were wounded during the course of the attack. He sent two platoons of F Company to help E Company hold the line toward the Village. By nightfall the wedge to the sea was firmly established. For the first time since the campaign began, the Japanese line had been broken.
Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger
Commanding General, I Corps, United States Army
For the next week activity was very restricted. The Warren Force had thrown everything available at the enemy, again without success. Baffled and disheartened, it settled down in its positions. Gas stoves were brought up to provide hot meals, and the soldiers were permitted to have their pack rolls.
The Capture of Buna Village (6--14 December)
New tactics now were adopted. Artillery and mortar concentrations preceding earlier attacks had not succeeded in knocking out the Japanese defenses, partly because fire was directed too far behind the enemy front lines. The artillery preparation had served also to warn the enemy of impending attack. When the artillery opened fire, Japanese troops found relative security in their bunkers; when it ended, they crawled out into firing positions. Our infantry usually pulled back before the artillery concentration began and advanced after it ended to find the Japanese ready and waiting for them. Henceforth, the mortars fired at irregular intervals and only on targets located as accurately as possible. Patrols were pushed up to feel out any weak spots in the Japanese lines and so assist in inching our offensive forward by infiltration. Hand grenades were used more frequently as the firing slits and rear entrances of enemy bunkers were discovered. Although the success of these tactics was limited when measured in terms of advancing our lines, the patrol activity enabled us to fix the location of enemy bunkers and the persistent mortar fire wore down enemy strength and morale day by day. Prisoners of war reported that our mortar fire was extremely effective; all agreed that our mortars and artillery were more feared than air support.
Enemy counterattacks came from both flanks on the 6th, but the units on the Urbana front held tightly to their corridor. The next day they tried to take the Village. F Company, 126th Infantry, captured a trench at the edge of the Village, while G Company moved up to Coconut Grove. Early in the afternoon their battalion commander, Maj. Herbert M. Smith, was wounded. The greatly weakened companies on this flank could do little more than hold their positions. Further advance was impossible without reinforcements.
The needed reinforcements were provided. The 3d Battalion, 127th Infantry, under Lt. Col. Edwin W. Swedberg, finished its
movement by air from Port Moresby to Dobodura and Popondetta on 9 December; on the 11th, it relieved the 2d Battalion, 126th Infantry, and on the following day began active night patrolling. On the morning of the 14th, after spending 2 days in the line to become acquainted with the location of enemy defenses and the nature of the terrain, I and K Companies, 127th Infantry, attacked Buna Village, following a mortar concentration of 400 rounds. Within an hour they had overrun the last enemy resistance in this area. Most of the enemy had retired before we advanced. The only American casualty was a souvenir-hunting soldier of the 126th Infantry.
On the same day the three battalions on the Warren front received new commanders: Maj. Chester M. Beaver for the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry; Lt. Col. Alexander J. MacNab for the 3d Battalion, 128th Infantry; and Maj. Gordon M. Clarkson for the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry. The Warren Force had improved greatly in morale during the comparative rest of the past week. It was soon to renew the attack.
On the evening of the 14th the American line ran from the sea east of Buna Village roughly along the Buna Village trail, bending around the Coconut Grove and along the west edge of the Triangle to the Ango trail. After a wide gap covered by impassable swamp, our line began again with the jungle along Simemi Creek just south of the bridge bunkers and curved northeast across the western end of the New Strip. The open ground south of the New Strip between the bridge and the Plantation was constantly patrolled. At the eastern end of the New Strip our line looped northward to encircle a spur of the strip, then ran eastward through the Duropa Plantation to the sea.
Situation on 14 December
Although heartbreaking setbacks, each with costly casualties, had thus far attended the campaign, our situation was actually improved to a marked degree. The 2d Battalion, 126th Infantry, had shown that the enemy lines on the west flank could be broken. The nature of the enemy defenses in the Plantation and bridge areas had become much clearer, even though our troops did not yet have the right weapon to smash them. The supply of the force was more effective; rear echelons now functioned with relative smoothness; command
had been reorganized in all echelons; and most important, the troops had learned much from hard experience and were becoming battle-wise.
The enemy situation, on the other hand, had deteriorated considerably, though our soldiers were not yet aware of the fact. Each of our attacks had added to his casualties, the failure of long-promised reinforcements to arrive had sapped morale, and our aerial superiority had prevented supply except by parachute and by small coastal boats. After the last delivery by parachute on 10 December, the enemy supply situation grew ever more critical. His morale began slowly to crack. One Japanese soldier wrote in his diary:With the dawn the enemy starts shooting all over. All I can do is shed tears of resentment. Now we are waiting only for death. The news that reinforcement had come turned out to be a rumor. All day we stay in the bunkers. We are filled with vexation. Comrades, are you going to stand by and watch us die? Even the invincible Imperial Army is at a loss.
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6 Time used in this pamphlet is Melbourne time plus 1 hour.