Battle of Sanananda, 19 November 1942-22 January 1943

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The battle of Sanananda, 19 November 1942-22 January 1943, was the longest of the three intertwined battles that saw the Allies eliminate the Japanese beachhead on the northern coast of Papua. This beachhead, spread out from Gona in the west to Buna in the east, had been established to support a Japanese offensive across the Kokoda Trail towards Port Moresby. The Japanese reached within 30 miles of Port Moresby, before first being ordered to go onto the defensive, and then being thrown back by an Australian counterattack. Even while this counterattack was going on, General MacArthur, the Allied Commander-in-Chief in the South West Pacific Area, was preparing for the attack on the Japanese beachhead.

Allied plan for attack on Buna-Gona position
Allied plan for attack on
Buna-Gona position

Sanananda was defended in more depth than the positions at Buna or Gona. The fortified coastal belt ran from Wye Point in the west, past Sanananda Point and to the main Japanese headquarters at Giruwa. One of the best roads in the area ran south from Sanananda Point to Soputa, and a number of tracks branched off from this road to reach the coast close to Cape Killerton. If these tracks fell into Allied hands, then the main Japanese anchorage at Basabua (west of Cape Killerton) would be endangered, and so the Japanese created three strongly fortified areas centred on the track junctions, with the first one three and a half miles south of Sanananda Point.

These three fortified areas were on the only patches of dry land in the area, and were surrounded by waist-deep sago swamps. This line of outer defences would hold the Allies from November 1942 into the middle of January 1943. By the time the battle began, Sanananda was defended by 3,200 men, 1,800 of whom were posted in the southernmost defences at the trail junctions.

They were to be attacked by the three battalions of the Australian 16th Brigade (2/2nd, 2/3rd and 2/1st Battalions). Their march to the front was poorly organised – between 16 November when they crossed the Kumusi River and noon on 19 November, by which time they were approached Soputa and the first Japanese positions, they received no food. When food did arrive, it was dropped behind the column, and had to catch up with the troops. This brigade had been in combat for just under two months by this time, having fought its way over the Kokoda Trail, and was only just over half strength. By the end of the preliminary fighting just over 1,000 men remained in the brigade.

First contact with the Japanese was made on 19 November by the 2/3rd Battalion, just outside Soputa. A brief skirmish was ended by darkness, and by the next morning the Japanese had pulled back to their next line of defences. On 20 November the Japanese made a more determined stand at their most southerly prepared position, and held off a frontal assault, but a composite battalion under Lt. Colonel Paul A. Cullen managed to get onto the track behind the Japanese position and hold off heavy counterattacks while another frontal attack on 21 November forced the Japanese to abandon their outer defences and pull back to the track junction.

The 16th Brigade was now exhausted. General Vasey, commanding the Australian 7th Division, had already requested reinforcements, and on 19 November the US 126th Infantry, which was about to attack Buna Village, was ordered to cross the Girua River and report to the Australians. The 126th reached Soputa by the evening of 21 November, the same day that the Australians forced the Japanese back to the trail junction. On the next day half of the regiment – the 2nd Battalion – was ordered back across the river for a second time, this time to reinforce the American attack at Buna.

The American reinforcements now numbered 1,400 men – the headquarters company, a detachment under Major Boerem, the 3rd Battalion under Major Bond and the Cannon and Antitank Companies. Despite having lost half of his men, Colonel Tomlinson, the commander of the 126th decided to proceed with his original plan. While Major Boerem attacked up the track, Companies I and K would attack around the left and Company L would attack on the right. The original plan had been for the 2nd Battalion to provide a reserve force, and to exploit any opportunities that developed.

Japanese guns captured at Sanananda
Japanese guns captured at Sanananda

The attack began late on the morning of 22 November. The attack on the left ran into a number of Japanese patrols. Although the Japanese were driven off, the Americans got disoriented in the difficult terrain, and only advanced 350 yards during the day. On the right Company L ran into heavy Japanese opposition very quickly and only advanced 200 yards. Over the next few days the Americans attempted to improve their positions, in preparation for a new attack. This effort was somewhat successful, for I and K Companies managed to establish themselves in a position to the west of the main Japanese position. The next major attack was made on 26 November, and saw the two companies gain a new position only 700 yards west of the trail to Killerton.

The crucial breakthrough on the left, and one that would shape the rest of the battle, came on 29 November. I and K Companies had been joined by the Antitank and Cannon Companies, and were now under the command of Major Baetcke. Their objective was to reach the main trail behind the Japanese position, and establish a roadblock that would isolate the Japanese defenders of the trail junction. The attack began early on 30 November, and after a day of fierce fighting Major Baetcke’s men reached a Japanese bivouac area on the trail, 1,500 yards north of the track junction and 300 yards south of the next Japanese position. The area itself was an open clearing, 250 yards long and 150 yards wide. By 18:30 Major Baetcke’s force was firmly established in the roadblock, and that evening drove off the first two Japanese counterattacks.

The establishment of the roadblock did not guarantee quick Allied progress. Huggins was defended by Company I, the Antitank Company, one machine gun section from Company M and a detachment from headquarters. It was surrounded by a much larger Japanese force, and its lines of communication and supply were very vulnerable. To the south the main Japanese position was intact, and was still too strong for the combined Australian and American force to capture. Major Baetcke with Company K and the Cannon Company was still some way off to the west. Supplies did get into the roadblock on 2 December, but on the same day Captain Shirley, who had commanded the successful attack, was killed. He was replaced by Captain Huggins, whose name was soon given to the roadblock.

During the rest of December the fighting fell into three main categories – attempts to break through to the roadblock, attempts to get supplies to the roadblock, and Japanese attacks on the roadblock. On 7 December the Australian 30th Brigade relieved the 16th Brigade, and Brigadier Porter took overall command. The three American companies that had been on the front line on the trail were relieved, but Porter insisted on keeping them close to hand. The fresh Australian troops attempted another frontal assault down the trail on 7 December, without success. On the same day supplies finally reached the roadblock, and Huggins himself was evacuated. The garrison was now down to 225 men, of whom 100 were disabled by disease. Communications with the outside world relied on the supply parties, and they were only able to break through intermittently – attempts on 10 and 14 December were successful, but others failed.

Native stretcher bearers, Sanananda
Native stretcher bearers, Sanananda

The American defenders of the roadblock received their first substantial reinforcements on 18 December, when 350 men from the Australian 2/7th Cavalry Regiment fought their way in. On 19 December the cavalry regiment attacked north, outflanking the Japanese defenders of the road and establishing a second roadblock – Kano – 300 yards north east of Huggins. This period also saw the American defenders of the roadblock reinforced again, when the Australian 49th Battalion fought its way in. The 49th Battalion also had the strength to guard its supply lines, which now ran into the roadblock from the south east. The worst moments in Huggins were over, but the Japanese still held out north and south of Huggins and Kano.

By the end of December the roadblock contained the 39th Battalion and the headquarters of 21st Brigade. 49th Battalion was guarding the supply lines, and the 2/7th Cavalry was attacking to the north. On 22 December the troops of 126th Infantry were finally able to leave the roadblock, having held out for nearly a month in terrible conditions against repeated attacks.

The Australians and Americans were still faced with a difficult task. The Japanese had three strong positions – at the main trail junction, between the two roadblocks, and north of Kano, and progress was slow against all three. The constant fighting combined with disease reduced the strength of the Allied forces to dangerous levels – by the end of 1942 the entire American force was no stronger than a single company. On 10 December the Americans had had 635 effective troops; on 1 January they only had 244. Nearly two thirds of the 979 casualties suffered so far were due to disease.

The Japanese were in an even worse condition. Although they had strong defences and a reasonable number of men, they had virtually no supplies.  The isolated troops at the road junction were in the same position as the Americans had been in the roadblock, but even if General Oda, by then the commander at Sanananda had wanted to get supplies to them, he didn’t have any to send. The last reinforcements to reach Oda were 700-800 men who arrived at the end of December, after having been stranded further up the coast, west of Gona.

Fresh American troops reached the front early in January. The US 163rd Infantry began to reach the front on 31 December 1942, and on 2 January 1943 took over in the two road blocks. More reinforcements would soon be available, for the fighting to the west at Gona was already over, and on 2 January the last organised resistance ended at Buna. The Australian 18th Brigade, two troops of 25-pounder artillery, a number of General Stuart tanks and the US 127th Infantry were all available to join the 163rd. A three-pronged attack was planned – the 18th Brigade would attack up the road to Cape Killerton, the 163rd up the main road to Sanananda and the 127th Infantry would attack from the east.

Before this plan could be put into effect, a number of preliminary steps needed to be taken. The 127th Infantry needed to capture Tarakena, on the coast east of the Japanese base at Giruwa and the 163rd Infantry would have to eliminate the Japanese position between the two roadblocks, and to establish a position across the Cape Killerton trail, and the 18th Brigade would have to clear out the Japanese positions south of Huggins. These positions had been holding out since the start of the battle, but the Japanese defenders were now coming to the end of their strength.

Just as these attacks were being made, the command structure on New Guinea changed. On 8 January 1943 General MacArthur returned to Brisbane. General Blamey followed him a few days later, and so General Herring, who had been commander of Advance New Guinea Force, moved back to Port Moresby to become Commander, New Guinea Force. This left General Eichelberger as commander, Advance New Guinea Force, with responsibility for the final attack on Sanananda.

The preliminary attacks began with a failed attack on the Japanese position between the roadblocks on 8 January. The first success came on the next day, when roadblock Rankin was established on the Cape Killerton road. On 10 January Tarakena was taken from the east. On 12 January an attack against the Japanese position at the trail junction, supported by tanks, appeared to have failed, but actually convinced Colonel Tsukamoto, the commander at the junction, to order a retreat.

By now Japanese Imperial Headquarters had decided to abandon the remaining positions at Sanananda and Giruwa, and attempt to move the surviving troops back to Lae and Salamaua. This decision was made on 4 January, but General Adachi, the commander on New Guinea, did not pass the orders on to General Yamagata until 13 January. As many troops as possible would use motor launches to escape at night, and the rest would have to attempt to slip through the Allied lines. The breakout was timetabled for 25-29 January. By that point the battle would be over.

On 14 January the Allies discovered that most of the Japanese defenders had left the track junction, and launched a three-pronged attack that quickly overran the strong positions that had held them up for so long. Only 158 Japanese soldiers were found within the defences, and only six survived to be taken prisoner.

With this major block gone, the main attack could begin. On 14 January the 18th Brigade moved to the Rankin roadblock. On the following day they began the advance towards Cape Killerton, reaching within 800 yards of the coast. Killerton Village was occupied that evening. 15 January also saw the US 163rd Infantry break into the Japanese position between the road blocks.

The main attack came on 16 January. The 18th Brigade attack reached the coast on both sides of Cape Killerton, while other parts of the brigade were able to advance east to support the fighting on the main trail. The US 163rd was able to attack the Japanese troops north of the two roadblocks from front and back, clearing up that position by the end of the day.

On 17 January one battalion from the 18th Brigade moved east to the main trail, then turned north to attack towards Sanananda. To the south the US 163rd Infantry began an attack on the last strong Japanese position on the trail, which would hold out until 22 January. Further north the Australians reached Wye Point. By the end of the day the Japanese had been pinned back into a position on the coast north west of Sanananda, another close to the village on the main trail, and one further east around Giruwa. All three of these positions would come under attack from several directions at once.

The Japanese now attempted to withdraw from these last positions. General Yamagata ordered the evacuation to begin on 20 January. On 19 January the general made his own escape, reaching the mouth of the Kumusi River.  That night General Oda and Colonel Yazawa, now the two senior Japanese officers in the beachhead, made their own attempts to escape, but were both killed when they ran into Australian troops.

In the aftermath of this attempted evacuation the Japanese positions on the coast collapsed with surprisingly little resistance. The position south of Sanananda fell on 21 January, as did the main Japanese headquarters at Giruwa. Most of the position north west of Sanananda was also reduced that day, at the cost of one man wounded, and the final resistance ended on the following day.

The hardest fighting on 21 January came at the position on the main trail, where no evacuation had been possible, but even here the fighting was easier than expected. A heavy artillery bombardment from 10:15 to 10:30 pinned the defenders down, and was followed by a five minute mortar bombardment. The northern perimeter was soon overrun, and by the end of the day most resistance had ended. The final Japanese positions, on the eastern perimeter, were overrun by 13:00 on 22 January.

For once the Japanese had not fought to the death. Around 1,500 men were killed during the defence of the Sanananda beach-head, but 1,190 sick and wounded escaped by sea between 13-20 January, while 1,000 were able to successfully slip through the Allied lines and reach relative safety west of Gona.

The Allies had suffered 3,500 casualties in the fighting west of the Girua River – 2,700 Australian and 798 American (191 dead, 524 wounded and 83 missing). The final victory in Papua came one month before the Japanese withdrew from Guadalcanal, and together the two victories marked a clear turning point in the fighting in the Pacific – the last two Japanese offensives had both failed, and it was now the Allies turn to go onto the attack.  

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (20 November 2008), Battle of Sanananda, 19 November 1942-22 January 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_sanananda.html

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