The battle of Buna, 19 November 1942-2 January 1943, was one part of the Allied attack on the Japanese beach-head on the northern coast of Papua (along with the battles of Gona and Sanananda). This beach-head had been established to allow the Japanese to launch an overland assault over the Kokoda Trail to Port Moresby. This attack came within thirty miles of Port Moresby, before an Australian counterattack forced the Japanese back along the trail.
While the Australians were fighting on the trail, General MacArthur was preparing for his counterattack. American troops marched across the Owen Stanley Range using passes east of the Kokoda Trail, while new airstrips were cut out of the jungle. Other troops moved around the coast from Milne Bay. By mid November the Americans and Australians were ready to attack the Japanese beachhead.
The Buna position ran along the coast for three miles. At the western tip, close to the Girau River was Buna Village. This was separated from Buna Mission by Entrance Creek. East of the mission were the relatively open Government Gardens, which was then succeeded by a swampy area inland from Giropa Point. To the east were two airfields – first Old Strip, south of Strip Point, and then a little further east New Strip. Beyond this was Duropa Plantation, and then the coast.
The Japanese defences were at their strongest at the eastern and western ends of their position, blocking the only three routes available to the Americans. At the western end of the line was the area that became known as the Triangle, where the track from Dobodura split, with one branch going to Buna Village and the other to Buna Mission. At the eastern end of the line two routes were available. The first was the coastal track, which was blocked at Duropa Plantation. The second was a road that ran between the two airfields. Here the Japanese had built their main defences on the northern side of the two airstrips, giving them clear fields of fire. They had also strongly fortified the area where the road passed over a small creek between the airstrips.
At the start of the battle the Buna position was defended by 2,500 troops, amongst them 1,000 fresh troops who had arrived at Basabua on 17 November, and were moved along the coast by barge. They were commanded by Colonel Yokoyama, who was based at the eastern end of the line, while Captain Yasuda commanded at the western end of the position.
The American plan was for Warren Force (1st and 3rd Battalions, 128th Infantry) to attack along the coast, and for the 126th Infantry to attack Buna village and mission. This plan had to be changed on 19 November, when the 126th Infantry was transferred to Australian control and ordered to support the attack on Sanananda. General Harding was forced to use his reserve, the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, to make the attack on the village. This was soon joined by the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, forming Urbana Force. The two forces fought separate battles, and so will be dealt with separately here.
Warren Force suffered a disastrous setback even before the fighting began. On 16 November four ships carrying food, ammunition, two 25-pounder guns and their ammunition, radios, 50mm machine guns, 81mm morters and other heavy equipment were sunk by Japanese Zeros. On the next day two of the force’s three remaining coastal ships were also sunk. These losses would have a serious impact on Warren Force’s early attacks, leaving them short of supplies, ammunition and heavy weapons.
For the first attack, on19 November, the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry was to attack along the coast and the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry was to attack towards the bridge between the Old and New Strips. This first attack was plagued by torrential rain, and neither battalion made any real progress. This was the combat debut for most of the troops involved, and before the battle they had been told that they would be facing small numbers of half-starved troops. Instead they found themselves facing 800 recently arrived reinforcements.
No real progress was made during November. By the end of the month the American line was still short of the New Strip, and General Harding had come to realise that he would need tanks if he was to succeed. An attempt to move three General Stuart tanks from Milne Bay failed when the barges being used to transport them sank under their weight,
The slow progress at Buna, and reports of the poor condition of the American troops, now began to worry General MacArthur. On 29 November General Robert Eichelberger was summoned to Port Moresby, and on 30 November he was appointed as overall commander of all American troops at Buna, with orders to replace Harding and his two subordinate commanders, Colonels Mott and Hale. On the following day Eichelberger reached Harding’s headquarters, and decided to inspect the two fronts before making any changes. While Eichelberger visited the Urbana Front, two of his aides visited the Warren Front. They arrived on the afternoon of 2 December, after that days fighting had died down. From a position of some ignorance they drew very unfair negative conclusions about the situation on the Warren Front, and were not even entirely convinced that the morning’s combat had actually happened.
On the evening of 2 December Eichelberger met with his staff, and after a short meeting decided to replace General Harding with General Albert W. Waldron. At the same time Colonel Hale was replaced by Colonel Martin, and Colonel Mott by Colonel John E. Grose (Colonel McCreary held the post for one day before being moved to command the divisional artillery). While Eichelberger soon realised that he had misjudged the true situation at the front, the existing team probably did need replacing.
On 3 December five Australian Bren gun carriers reached Porlock Harbor, and were rushed to the front. Two days later they were used in an attack along the coast, and all five were destroyed within twenty minutes. The entire attack failed at heavy cost, and now General Eichelberger also realised that he needed tanks. Fortunately they were already on their way, and so until they arrived Eichelberger decided to concentrate on small scale attempts to soften up the Japanese line.
On 7 December the first Australian forces began to arrive. Eichelberger placed the Australian commander, Brigadier George F. Wootten, in command of Warren Force. His new command would include eight tanks (four from the 2/6 Australian Armoured Regiment) and the 2/9 Australian Infantry Battalion from Milne Bay. On the night of 11-12 December the tanks reached Oro Bay, and by 15 December the Australian troops were in position to join the next attack.
On 18 December the fresh Australian troops made their attack. The General Stuart tanks completely changed the situation, and within an hour the Australians reached Cape Endaiadere. They then turned west, and advanced 500 yards towards Strip Point, before finally running into a new line of Japanese bunkers.
The stalemate on the Warren Front had finally been broken. Although the Japanese continued to put up a determined resistance, they were steadily pushed west. By 20 December the Australians and Americans had reached the western end of New Strip, while on the coast they reached Strip Point, and were threatening Old Strip from the north. By 23 December they had reached the eastern edge of the Old Strip, and had reached the line of Simemi Creek, to the north of the strip. By 31 December Old Strip had fallen, and the Japanese were pinned back into a narrow coastal strip between the western end of Old Strip and the area of Giropa Point.
The final attack involved the Australian 2/12th Battalion and the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 128th Infantry, supported by eleven tanks and batteries of 25-pounders and 4.5 inch howitzers. The first attack would be made against the western end of the Japanese position, then once the attackers reached the coast they would turn east and push the Japanese towards the 3rd Battalion. The attack worked as planned – on 1 January 1943 the tanks reached the coast, and the last organised Japanese position was broken up. On 2 January contact was made with Urbana Force, while the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, and the 2/9 and 2/10 Battalions cleared up the last Japanese emplacements.
The western attack was originally to have been made by the two battalions of the 126th Infantry, but on 19 November that unit was transferred to Australian control. General Harding was forced to allocate his reserve, the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry (Colonel Smith), to the attack on Buna village and mission, halving the force to be used. Their orders were to attack towards Buna Mission, advancing through the Triangle.
That area was defended by a force twice the size of Smith’s battalion, and which occupied very strong defensive positions. The American advance began on the morning of 21 November, and the first contact with the Japanese came at 1.30 that afternoon. It was soon clear that the Japanese had a strong position on the track, and so Colonel Smith attempted to outflank them, while at the same time calling for reinforcements. 2nd Battalion, 126th infantry, was ordered to move back east of the Girua, This battalion, commanded by Major Herbert M. Smith, reached Major Smith’s command post early on 23 November, and the two battalions were designated at Urbana Force.
Urbana Force’s first attack was planned for 24 November. It would be a three-pronged assault on the triangle, with the two flanking forces attacking from the swamps, and would be supported by an air strike. The first attempt at an air strike saw twelve P-40s hit the wrong target. A second air strike, at 13.55, actually hit Colonel Smith’s command post. After this second failure the ground attacks began at 14.28. For many of the men involved this was their first combat experience, and hardly surprisingly all three attacks ended in failure.
The Triangle would remain in Japanese hands almost to the end of the battle. General Harding realised that the entire area could be bypassed to the left, taking advantage of a large grassy area to its north west. Colonel Smith was ordered to contain the Japanese troops in the Triangle, and deploy the rest of his troops for an attack on the left.
Before this attack got underway, Smith was replaced. On 27 November Harding sent Colonel John W. Mott, his chief of staff, to the Urbana Front, with orders to take over if the situation warranted it. A constant theme of the fighting around Bona would be a belief that time was of the essence and disappointment in the slow progress being made. Given that inexperienced troops were attacked a strongly entrenched opponent in difficult terrain, this seems rather unfair, and probably helped contribute to the very high level of casualties. On this occasion Mott took over from Colonel Smith and replaced two company captains.
Mott’s first attack came on 30 November, and was a relative success. One company from the 128th Infantry reached the coast just to the west of the Girua River, three companies of the 126th Infantry captured the grassy area, but an attack on Buna village stopped after the attackers ran into a line of bunkers. Attacks on Buna village on 1 and 2 December also ended in failure.
The attack on 2 December was observed by General Eichelberger. He did not yet realise how difficult the fighting had been so far, and was very angry with what at the time he believed to have been a lack of drive and aggression. He would later admit to the same troops that he had not realised “what they were up against”.
After the day's inspection Mott was replaced by Colonel John E. Grose. He reached the Urbana front on 3 December, and inherited a plan for an attack on Buna Village, to be carried out by the Cannon Company, 128th Infantry and the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry. The attack began with an attack by nine B-25s, before at 10.30 the infantry began their attack. Once again the American infantry fought hard, but made little progress along most of the line, even after Eichelberger took direct command. By the end of the day he no longer believed that the men lacked fight.
Eichelberger also had a genuine breakthrough to celebrate. A platoon led by Sgt. Herman J. F. Bottcher had turned north instead of west, and had managed to fight its way to the coast between Buna Village and the mission. Elsewhere the advance reached Entrance Creek, which ran from the Triangle to the beach between the village and the mission.
7 December began with a Japanese attack on Bottcher’s position, which was repulsed, and ended with an unsuccessful American attack on the village. Attacks on the village continued until 13 December, when after a heavy artillery bombardment the last 100 men in the garrison escaped to Giruwa. On the following day the Americans captured the village without encountering any resistance.
Urbana Force’s next target was Coconut Grove, the last remaining Japanese stronghold west of Entrance Creek. This position was captured in two days fighting (15-16 December). Urbana Force’s next objective was Buna Mission. For most of the rest of December the 127th Infantry was engaged in preliminary operations. An island at the mount of Entrance Creek was captured on 22 December, and on the same day Companies I and K won the first foothold across the creek. Over the next week the 127th Infantry pushed its way slowly towards the coast east of the mission. By 28 December they were so close to success that the Japanese abandoned their strong positions in the Triangle, which was about to be cut off, and the leading elements of the 127th Infantry were only 120 yards from the coast.
The final attack on Buna Mission came on 1-2 January 1943. While 2nd Battalion, 126th and 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry attacked east to support Warren Force, the 127th Infantry attacked the mission. By now the remaining Japanese troops were attempting to escape to Giruwa, in the beachhead around Sanananda. Some attempted to reach landing craft, while others attempted to swim to safety. At noon on 2 December the two senior Japanese officers in the mission, Colonel Tamamoto and Captain Tasuda, committed suicide, but even so fighting continued around the mission until 16:32. The fighting to the east lasted a little longer, but by the end of the day organised resistance was over.
Aftermath and Conclusion
Scattered fighting continued over the next few days, as the last surviving Japanese strong points were mopped up. Casualties on both sides were high – the Allies buried 1,400 Japanese dead, while the Allies lost 620 dead, 2,065 wounded and 132 missing, two thirds of them in the three regiments of the 32nd Division and the rest in the 18th Brigade. In all the Papuan campaign cost the Allies more men than the fighting on Guadalcanal.
Buna, Gona and Sanananda were the first battles in which Allied solders attacked Japanese troops who had had time to dig in. At the start of the campaign the Australians and Americans lacked the heavy weapons that would prove to be essential in the jungle. Air support was not yet effective – only 121 sorties were flown, and after 22 December no more requests were made for close air support. During the campaign the Allies began to learn how to deal with the impressive bunkers that they would find across the Pacific. At the start of the campaign the Allies had not believed that tanks or heavy artillery would be useful in the jungle – by the end of it the campaign it had become clear that both weapons were essential when faced by strong Japanese defensive positions. The lessons learnt at high coast at Buna, Gona and Sanananda would be applied with increasing skill as the Allied advanced across the Pacific.