Warren Front: Capture of the Old Strip (15 December-3 January)
The Capture of Buna
15 December 1942--3 January 1943
Incessant attacks on both fronts characterized the final phase of the Buna operation. On the Warren front the Australian 18th Infantry Brigade,7 seasoned veterans of Libya, Greece, Crete, and Syria, had come up in small boats from Milne Bay and with them came seven light tanks. Their commander, Brigadier (now Maj. Gen.) George F. Wootten, who was senior to Col. Martin, took over command of the front on 17 January. The next day, the Australian 2/9 Infantry Battalion, aided by the tanks, attacked northward along the coast, drove through the intricate network of the enemy defenses to Cape Endaiadere, and then swung west parallel with the shore. By the 20th our line ran along Simemi Creek from the bridge to its mouth. Here we were held up until the Australian 2/10 Infantry Battalion crossed the creek north of the bridge and outflanked the enemy positions in the bridge area.
An advance northwest up the Old Strip by one Australian and two American battalions brought our troops on 28 December to the final enemy position in the Government Plantation southeast of Giropa Point. On 1-2 January the Australian 2/12 Battalion and tanks crushed this last organized strongpoint on the Warren front.
On 15 December the Warren front began to stir with preparations for an attack. During the next 3 days all three of the American battalions in the line edged forward until they were pressing tightly against the enemy all along the front.
The Tanks Break Through to Cape Endaiadere (18 December)
On the 17th Brigadier Wootten assumed command. During the evening the seven General Stuart light tanks of X Squadron, Australian 2/6 Armored Regiment, rumbled up close to the front while mortars fired as rapidly as possible to conceal the noise of their motors. Later in the night a Japanese patrol alerted the front of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, but moved off to the east without discovering anything.
Before dawn on the 18th, our troops in the Plantation withdrew 300 yards to allow the artillery to smash directly at the bunkers which the infantry had located in the advance of the past 3 days. During the 10-minute concentration by artillery and mortars, the Australian 2/9 Infantry Battalion under Lt. Col. Clement J. Cummings passed through the American units and worked its way toward the former front line. To insure complete surprise, these Australian units had been kept in rear areas until the actual time of the attack.
At 0700 the Australians jumped off. The artillery and mortars had wrecked the enemy front lines, and within an hour and a half, A and D Companies of the 2/9 Battalion, advancing with the tanks, had reached the Cape. They then swung west along the north coast but were stopped in front of a new line of Japanese bunkers which the artillery had not reached. Two tanks were knocked out by 13-mm antiaircraft pompoms, and after 1100 there was no further advance in this zone. During the afternoon the 3d Battalion, 128th Infantry, moved forward in the Plantation, mopping up and establishing an all-around beach defense south of the Cape.
C Company, 2/9 Battalion, attacked the enemy strongpoint at the spur of the New Strip. Enemy reinforcements were observed entering this ground in the morning, and the strongpoint put up stiff resistance throughout the day. Although tanks knocked out three or four bunkers with their 37-mm guns, the Australian infantry could not advance because of heavy fire from the remaining bunkers. Shortly after noon one tank was burned out in front of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, which had been committed by this time on both flanks of C Company. Finally, in the late afternoon, the Australians began to work around the bunkers. Under the threat of being cut off, the enemy evacuated the strongpoint and fell back westward along the jungle north of the New Strip to the bunkers near the bridge. In the bridge area the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry,
American Light Tanks Manned by Australians.
A tank stalled in the mud is being hauled out. Duropa Plantation, 21 December.
made no advance during the day, but artillery and mortar fire caused a considerable number of casualties among enemy troops in the vicinity of his bunkers.
Three of the tanks had been knocked out, and one-third of the Australians were casualties, but the Allied attack on the 18th had smashed once and for all the Japanese defenses in the Plantation. As our troops moved forward through the coconut trees, they found that the whole area was a mass of fortifications which the infantry alone could probably never have stormed. Some bunkers on the front line had roofs 3 to 4 feet thick; others had a layer of sheet iron on top and a front wall 6 feet thick. Surrounding them were individual covered fire pits with gun slits. These facts help to explain how the enemy defense had been able to stand up under our repeated attacks.
On 19 December our line pushed about 300 yards westward through the Plantation along a 1,000-yard front. The following day the 2/9 Battalion and units of the 3d Battalion, 128th Infantry, advanced into the narrow nose of land on the north side of Simemi Creek. The 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, which had followed the withdrawing enemy along the north edge of the New Strip, Joined the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, in assailing the bunkers on the east side of the creek, and this time every one was taken. By noon of the 20th our troops were at the bridge.
Our Troops Cross the Bridge (19-23 December)
The bridge over Simemi Creek might better be called a causeway, for it crosses more swamp than stream. The creek itself is only about 6 feet wide at the crossing, although over a man's head in depth, while the bridge is 125 feet long by 10 feet wide. Our troops found that the enemy had blown a gap of some 12 feet in the bridge over the main stream and commanded the crossing with 2 light machine guns, one .50-cal. machine gun, and 30 to 40 riflemen.
The 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, spent the rest of the 20th and most of that night in attempting to get men across the creek. After the morning attack, units reorganized and in the early afternoon reconnoitered the bridge position. At 1650-1700 artillery and mortars laid down a concentration, and at 1700-1705 the mortars provided a smoke screen. Under cover of this, the pioneers brought up a catwalk,
Bridge over Simemi Creek.
After repair by the 114th Engineers. New Strip in the background.
but it proved to be too short to span the gap. Enemy fire from the west bank on both sides of the bridge still raked the crossing, and the attack failed. Our forces were now facing along the creek from its mouth to the bridge, with the exception of a small tip of jungle at the very end of the nose. The 1st Battalion attacked the bridge again at midnight, B Company going single-file into the creek to the south of the bridge, but the leading platoon found the water too deep for wading and the enemy opposition as stiff as ever. Action was finally called off for the night, and Brigade Headquarters decided to outflank the bridge positions from the north.
On the 21st the Australian 2/10 Battalion, under Col. James G. Dobbs, which had come up by boat on the 19th, was put in the line along the creek north of the bridge. During the day some of its men worked their way across the swampy creek at the big bend due north of the bridge. More got across during the following day, and by the 23d the entire 2/10 Battalion commanded the bridge area from the north. Enemy defenders of the bridge area were now threatened with complete encirclement but put up determined opposition when the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, at last succeeded in pushing across the bridge immediately after noon and moved up the southern edge of the Old Strip. The 1st Battalion was now moving parallel with the 2/10 Battalion, which was advancing in skirmisher formation along the northern edge. Later in the afternoon the 1st Battalion, 1128th Infantry, crossed the bridge and moved along the jungle south of the Old Strip as a left-flank guard. By nightfall our forward elements had advanced 800 yards from the bridge up the Old Strip, and the 3d Platoon of C Company, 114th Engineers, had completely repaired the bridge. It was now capable of carrying our light tanks. The 2/9 Battalion and the 3d Battalion, 128th Infantry, remained in the area between Simemi Creek and Cape Endaiadere to guard the coast.
The three battalions west of the creek spent the next 5 days in fighting their way up the Old Strip. Until the very end of the campaign our troops always found that the Japanese, when pried out of one position, fell back into another just as strong or even stronger. The entire area of the Old Strip was commanded by a group of enemy
The Fight Up the Old Strip (24-28 December)
bunkers at the northwest end of the runway; other bunkers dotted the northern edge and the center of the strip itself. On the 24th the tanks crossed the reinforced bridge over Simemi Creek and went in on the northeast flank. They found the going difficult. One overturned in a shell crater, and enemy 37-mm fire and Molotov cocktails had immobilized the rest by 1115. Nevertheless, our line had advanced about 500 yards by nightfall, except in the sector of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, which was floundering in the swamp on the extreme south flank. After dark it was brought out and stationed in the open field behind the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry.
Christmas was just another day. As one soldier wrote, "We hung out our socks and got water in them." For the units struggling on the open surface of the Old Strip it was a particularly uncomfortable day. Christmas Eve was marked by enemy bombing and the harassing fire of our mortars. After an artillery concentration at dawn, the infantry attacked, ran up against enemy bunkers, and recoiled to their original positions. C Company, 126th Infantry, spearheading the advance on the south side of the strip, was stopped by an extremely difficult bunker. One platoon of B Company swung around our right flank, and Col. Martin, commander of the 128th Infantry, took A Company around the left, but the bunker still stood at nightfall. Our line then consisted of an open V with the arms pointed up the Old Strip, the Australians on the right and the Americans on the left, with a strong enemy pocket between them.8
On the 26th our lines edged up a little as men of the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, outflanked and captured the bunker which had held them up the preceding day. A 25-pounder of the 2/5 Field Regiment was put into position in the vicinity of the bridge and fired armor-piercing shell with supercharge against the bunkers as they were definitely located. With this assistance the advance continued through the late afternoon of the 27th. By evening the upper end of the Old Strip had been reached, and our line began to swing around toward the north against the Government Plantation, which stretched along the coast from the mouth of Simemi Creek to Buna Mission. The 28th saw this pivoting movement completed; our line then pressed up against the Plantation and the dispersal bays at its southeastern edge bordering the Old Strip.
Defenses in the Old Strip Area.
Throughout our advance up the Old Strip, the situation was even more fluid than was usual during the Buna operation. Enemy units were becoming disorganized and split up. Our own units had become intermixed, and small groups of Japanese were everywhere, dressed in American and Australian uniforms, using M-1 rifles, and calling out that they were Americans. On the night of 28 December, the situation was so confused that the enemy was able to penetrate to the command post of C Company, 128th Infantry, where a hand-to-hand struggle took place in the dark.
The Last Days on the Warren Front (29 Deer--3 January)
At the Government Plantation enemy resistance stiffened. Four new Allied tanks came up and led an advance on the afternoon of the 29th. They did not start from the intended jumping-off line and got out of touch with the infantry. As the tanks approached,
the Japanese withdrew from their first line of defense to their second then, while the tanks pushed on, they slipped back undetected to reoccupy their first line in time to stop our infantry. To prevent a repetition of the costly and unsuccessful attacks which had characterized the early fighting in the Duropa Plantation, our forces marked time until heavy reinforcements could be brought up.
On the 30th the 3d Battalion, 128th Infantry, took over the lines on the right opposite the dispersal bays, and on the 31st the Australian 2/12 Infantry Battalion, a fresh unit of the 18th Brigade, came in to the northwest of the 3d Battalion. More tanks arrived, and on 1 January the 2/12 Battalion under Lt. Col. Arthur S. W. Arnold made a thrust toward the sea across the north end of the enemy strongpoint. Within an hour of the jump-off the Australians were on the beach just southeast of Giropa Point. In the afternoon they moved south in the Plantation against the main center of enemy resistance. The 3d Battalion, 128th Infantry, closed in at the same time. By the evening of 2 January only two small enemy pockets remained. The next day the 1st and 3d Battalions, 128th Infantry, cleaned these out despite a last desperate stand by the enemy. Meanwhile, the 2/12 Battalion moved west to make contact with the Urbana Force.
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7 An Australian infantry brigade is equivalent to a U.S. infantry regiment.
8 The enemy bunkers and trenches in this pocket can be seen clearly on the photograph, p. 52.