“Our army has never encountered anything more grim than the campaigns which have been fought in the Jungles of New Guinea. No Australian troops have acquitted themselves more honourably than those men who stopped the Japanese advance at Milne Bay and a little later in the Owen Stanley Ranges… and I say that as one who has an intimate knowledge of our soldiers in two world wars.”1 – General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander-in-Chief, Australian Military Forces
The Battle of Buna-Gona fought by the Allied powers in the Pacific against the Japanese Empire in New Guinea from late 1942 to early 1943 was one of the major turning points in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Somewhat lesser known in the Australian public consciousness – often overshadowed by the tragic glory of Gallipoli in World War I and the miraculous bravery of Long Tan in the Vietnam War – this hard-fought battle is important in Australian military history for many reasons and would teach hard lessons in jungle warfare. The fanatical determination of hardened Japanese Imperial forces caught the Allies off-guard and would become typical of the bitterly contested, savage warfare the Japanese were known for during the remainder of the Pacific War. In fact, Allied losses in the battle were at a rate higher than that experienced at Guadalcanal.2
Before the Second World War, Australia had been given responsibility for the Territory of Papua in the south-east of the island by Britain in 1906 and during the First World War had seized the remaining north-eastern territories of German New Guinea, thus giving Australia control over all of the eastern half of the main island of New Guinea and the islands of New England and New Ireland. Port Moresby, the main city on New Guinea, lies on the shore of the Gulf of Papua on the main island’s Papuan Peninsula. Rabaul, on the island of New England, was known as Simpsonhafen during the German administration. Australia recieved full administrative control of these territories under a mandate from the League of Nations in 1919.
The fall of British Malaya and Singapore in February 1942 sent shockwaves through the Empire and startled Australia in particular, as suddenly there was not much that lay between the rapidly advancing Japanese war machine and the Australian mainland. For the first time, an invasion of our island nation was entirely plausible. In Singapore, nearly 15,000 Australian soldiers became prisoners of war along with the rest of the garrison of some 85,000 mostly British and Indian troops in the largest surrender and capture of British Imperial troops in history.
After the Japanese shocked the Allies by attacking Pearl Harbor – which would dramatically alter the course of the entire war – it was evident that the strategic harbour of Rabaul on the island of New Britain in New Guinea would be next as they advanced towards Australia. In late January 1942, Rabaul would fall to the Japanese after a campaign of heavy bombing (the Battle of Rabaul), and subsequently thousands of Japanese naval forces were landed and developed the township into a powerful base. The Japanese military then adopted as part of their Asia-Pacific strategy a plan to isolate Australia from the United States in March of 1942. The idea was to take Port Moresby in New Guinea and also the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia.
However, Japanese defeats in the Battle of the Coral Sea at the hands of naval and air forces from the United States and Australia hampered the plans for a naval attack on Port Moresby, and it was abandoned entirely after the Battle of Midway. Then US President Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines to formulate a defense plan for the Pacific region with the Australian military. The Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, agreed to place his forces under the command of MacArthur, who became Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Theatre. MacArthur established a headquarters in Melbourne, Victoria in March of 1942. Operation Cartwheel was the name given to the Allies’ South West Pacific strategy in June 1943, part of which included the isolation of Rabaul via air power.
An amphibious landing to capture Port Moresby, capital of the Australian Territory of Papua, by establishing beachheads at Buna and Gona and then crossing the Owen Stanley ranges, marked stage one of the Japanese plan known as Operation MO. The Battle of Milne Bay or Operation RE, was fought from 25 August to 7 September 1942 began when a Japanese invasion force made up of special naval units attempted to capture the strategically important Milne Bay area. ADD This was the first notable Japanese land defeat and raised Allied morale across the Pacific Theatre.
By campaigning in New Guinea, Japanese forces had consigned themselves and their Australian and American counterparts to fighting in one of the most malarial regions in the world. In addition to malaria other vicious tropical diseases such as dengue fever, scrub typhus, tropical ulcers, dysentery and fungal infections were also constant problem. Allied supplies of quinine were unreliable and it was common for Australian soldiers to wear shorts and rolled sleeves in response to the oppressive heat. Insect repellent and mosquito nets and were in relative short supply, and the repellent was practically useless. 90 percent of Allied soldiers in Buna-Gona contracted malaria during the course of the battle and 75 percent of those cases were diagnosed with malaria. The ratio of men hospitalised through sickness to every Allied battle casualty was nearly 5 to 1. Many men fought on the front lines with fevers as high as 40 °C (103 °F).
By the time the battle commenced with their beach landings at Buna, Gona, and Sanananda, the Japanese army was already in control of much of the northern part of New Guinea. A Japanese detachment under the command of Major General Tomitarō Horii, began advancing through the formidably rugged Owen Stanley Range via the Kokoda Track. As of 16 September 1942, General Horii’s force had advanced as far as Ioribaiwa, just 30 kilometres from Port Moresby, and was “close enough to see the town’s lights”.
The Owen Stanley Ranges are criss-crossed by rivers that disappear into swamps and small creeks. The adjacent coastal strip goes from a few hundred metres at its widest to little more than centimetres separating the swamp from the sea and the few paths that went through the swamps were usually only a couple of metres wide and often narrower. The lower lying areas not already saturated were either dense jungle or acres of kunai grass. This dense grass could grow up to 2 metres (6.6 ft) and the leaves were broad and sharp-edged. Temperatures during the months of the battle are the hottest in the region and ranged from an average daily low of 22 °C (72 °F) to 31 °C (89 °F) but with a relative humidity of 82 percent, this would have been oppressive. In these hot and humid conditions, the kunai grasses trapped the heat at ground level and it was not uncommon for temperatures to reach 50 °C (122 °F).3
Meanwhile, the Allied forces in the Pacific had identified a Japanese airfield under construction at Guadalcanal. were embarked to capture the airfield. An amphibious landing was made on 7 August by 19,000 US Marines and thus began a battle of attrition that was strongly contested on land, at sea and in the air and would ultimately rage for 5 long months before the Japanese were finally evicted from Guadalcanal on 9 February 1943.
Japanese Lieutenant General Hyakutake determined he could not support both the deteriorating battles at Guadalcanal and the one in New Guinea, so on 23 September 1942 he ordered Horii to withdraw his troops on the Kokoda Track while Guadalcanal was contested. Commencing on 26 September 1942, the Japanese began withdrawal from their favored position near Port Moresby . They retreated back through the Owen Stanley Range with the Australian 7th Division in close pursuit. The US 32nd Infantry Division had been sent to New Guinea in September and was ordered to make a circling move against the Japanese eastern flank near Wairopi. The Japanese suffered heavily in the battle around Oivi–Gorari, from 4 to 11 November, and the orderly withdrawal that had been initiated quickly disintegrated into a rout.
The Australian 7th Division was now roughly 65 kilometres (40 miles) from Buna–Gona.