The battle of Gona, 19 November-9 December 1942, was one of three related battles that cleared the Japanese out of their beachheads at Gona, Sanananda and Buna on the northern coast of Papua. The Japanese had occupied this area in order to mount an attack towards Port Moresby along the Kokoda Trail. By 16 September the Japanese were only thirty miles north of Port Moresby, but setbacks elsewhere meant that the attack on Port Moresby had to be abandoned. When the Australians counterattacked they were able to push the Japanese back across the Owen Stanley Range, and after several weeks of severe fighting along the trail, on 13 November the Australians reached Wairopi, having finally pushed the Japanese out of their last defensive positions on the trail.
Allied attention had already turned to the attack on the Japanese beachhead. American troops had been marched and flow across the Papuan peninsula, and were to attack Buna from the south east, while Australian troops followed the Kokoda Trail in preparation for attacks on the Japanese positions at Gona and Sanananda.
The defensive position at Gona was intended to protect the western approaches to the main Japanese anchorage at Basabua. It was the smallest of the Japanese defensive positions in the area, and lacked any real depth, but the junction between the coastal track and the inland track was well defended. The defences centred around Gona Mission, which was surrounded by well built bunkers, trenches and firing pits
The Gona area was defended by 900 men at the start of the battle, the bulk of them from an Army road-building unit, all under the command of Major Tsume Yamamoto. It was to be attacked by the Australian 25th Brigade, which by the time the attack began contained just under 1,000 men.
The 25th Brigade left Wairopi on 16 November. Heat and malaria inflicted a number of casualties even before the brigade reached the front line. On 18 November a company from the 2/33rd battalion was sent towards Gona to see if the village was defended. The company ran into the Japanese defences, and became involved in an intense battle that continued on the following day. On 19 November the first company was joined by the 2/16th battalion, but the Japanese defence held firm. By the end of the day the Australians were forced to pull back and wait for fresh supplies.
On 22 and 23 November the Australians attempted to outflank the Japanese position on the track, on each day sending one battalion through the swamps, with orders to attack the Japanese positions from the east. Both attacks failed, at a cost of 129 Australian killed and wounded. Combined with the casualties on 19 November, the 25th Brigade now had less than 800 men.
The 25th Brigade made one more attempt to capture Gona, on 24 November. This time the attack was preceded by an aerial bombardment, and was supported by four 25-pounder guns. The assault battalion managed to break into the Japanese position, but was soon forced to retreat, although this time without suffering heavy losses.
It was now clear that the 25th Brigade was no longer strong enough to launch a new attack, and so on 28-30 November it was relieved by the 1,100 strong 21st Brigade. At the same time the Japanese attempted to reinforce the garrison at Gona. 800 men on four destroyers left Rabaul on 30 November, and despite repeated Allied air strikes managed to reach Basabua. Before the troops could be unloaded, the Allied aircraft returned, and the destroyers were forced to move up the coast. Despite more Allied air attacks, on the night of 2-3 December 500 troops, led by General Tsuyuo Yamagata, were put ashore at the mouth of the Kumusi River, twelve miles north of Gona.
The new Australian troops would have the bigger impact on the fighting. On 28 November they found a possible route to the beach east of Gona, and on 29-30 November the 2/27th Battalion attacked west along the beach, once again making little progress at heavy cost.
1 December saw the last attempt to reinforce the garrison, when 200 troops on barges got within 600 yards of Gona before being driven off. The day also saw the Australians attack again, with the 2/27th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Battalion, and one company from the 2/16th Battalion. This attack also failed, and the 21st Brigade had now lost 430 casualties in five days of fighting. More reinforcements were needed, this time the 39th Battalion, 30th Brigade.
The plan of 1 December was repeated on 6 December, this time with the 2/16th and 2/27th attacking along the beach and the 39th attacking from their left. This attack also failed, but the fighting had dramatically weakened the Japanese garrison. All attempts to get reinforcements to Gona had failed, and after the attack of 6 December the Japanese had lost at least half of their men.
The decisive attack came on 8 December. The 39th Battalion was finally able to clear the defenders out of Gona village, while the 2/27th and 2/16th made progress along the beach. That night Major Yamamoto, with 100 men, made an attempt to escape to Giruwa, but his force was detected and suffered heavy losses. Organised resistance was effectively over, but hand-to-hand fighting continued in Gona until 16.30 on the afternoon of 9 December. The Japanese lost at least 638 dead during the defence of Gona, while the Australians lost 750 men dead, wounded and missing.
This only left General Yamagata and his men at the mouth of the Kumusi River. Early in December they moved along the coast, and from 4 December the Australians had to defend their left flank against this attempt to reach Gona. On 9 December, with the fighting at Gona clearing coming to its end, the 39th Battalion was ordered west to face Yamagata. On the following day Yamagata abandoned the attempt to reach Gona, and instead set up a defensive perimeter at Napapa. Reinforcements from Rabaul finally reached him on 18 December, and for some time two Australian battalions were engaged in the operations west of Gona (39th and 2/14th).
The Australians were saved from a longer commitment to this new front at the end of December. Worried by the situation in the Sanananda beachhead General Adachi ordered Yamagata to move his men along the coast to Giruwa. Between 26 December, when he received the order, and 29 December, when he reached Giruwa, Yamagata managed to move 800 men along the coast.