Buna-Gona

Making Maps Under Fire: Surveying New Guinea in World War II

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

On January 2nd 1943, the Australian Navy corvette HMAS Whyalla was anchored deep in the Maclaren Harbour inlet on the Cape Nelson Peninsula in New Guinea. She had been brought in close to the shoreline and camouflaged with a bewildering array of branches, vines and bushes that were doing their best to hide 730 tons of steel ship from the Imperial Japanese Air Service, who at that stage still menaced Allied naval operations in the area.

Like a lightning storm a force of 18 Japanese dive bombers approached undetected and attacked in a terrifyingly determined manner. The Whyalla had field survey parties out on duty and her two tenders, the requisitioned trawlers HMAS Stella and Polaris, were sounding off the harbour entrance. Several bombs narrowly missed the Whyalla, which suffered damage from debris and two casualties – members of the bridge Oerlikon gun crew who were seriously wounded.

The splashes from these near-misses raised several tons of water which deluged the bridge and washed the commanding officer’s map sheets overboard. They were found floating on the surface sometime later and, although legible, the accuracy of the drawings was ruined and the work had to be replotted – an intolerable labour which evidently was only remedied by violent expletives against all Japanese and a torrent of oaths that promised the inflicting of epic reprisals.

The Royal Australian Navy Hydrographic Survey Service

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944 [Image courtesy Dowsett Memorial Library]

In September 1942 when the operations to evict the Japanese from their foothold at Buna were being planned, it was found that to reach Buna was no simple task. It was not possible to carry heavy equipment over the difficult Kokoda Trail, and seaborne transport was considered the only practical method for carrying sufficient men and equipment to the fighting area. Two sea routes were open to use by Allied shipping, one to the east and north of the Trobriand Islands was a deep-sea route, fairly clear of navigational dangers, but could not be used at that stage without exposing Allied forces to disastrous attacks from enemy aircraft and submarines. In addition, it was necessary to wait until sufficient amphibious craft were available in the area, as an attack to the north of Buna could only be made in force.

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

The duty of surveying the northeastern New Guinea coastline in preparation for the future campaigns was undertaken in November by two small vessels, HMAS Polaris and Stella, under the command of Lt-Commander G. D. Tancred and Lieutenant J. Cody, RAN. These two ships were joined shortly after by HMAS Whyalla, under the command of Lt-Commander K. E. Oom, RAN. On the personnel of these three vessels fell the arduous duties, during the following six months, of fulfilling the requirements of this surveying program, during which the surveyors and men worked hard for long hours, fixing and running lines of soundings, erecting beacons, and observing under hostile conditions.

As operations advanced northwards, the strength of the surveying service was augmented by the addition of HMAS Shepparton, and later in June 1942 by HMAS Benalla. In addition, a number of requisitioned tenders was assigned to the group and at the end of 1943 HMAS Moresby was commissioned for surveying duties. Thus, as time went on, the force increased considerably in numbers, with the consequent increase in the scope of the service’s abilities.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was later despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Once during late 1942, HMAS Cape Leeuwin had been assigned the duty of erecting the light on Mitre Rock, a notorious landmark on the northeast coast of New Guinea. This imposing rock, which is forty feet high, is practically inaccessible and only by erecting special ladders could the upper portion of the stone cliff be reached. A midshipman was sent to get up through the undergrowth and secure a rope to the summit by which access could be achieved. He had not penetrated far before he became aware of the million or so local inhabitants – a particularly vicious type of ant rare to the coast region which set upon him with carnivorous enthusiasm, being the first meat they had encountered on that barren rock in aeons. In order to get down he had first to secure the rope, and thus was forced to carry on to the top. When this excruciating task was done, the watchers below were startled to see the midshipman fling himself out of the undergrowth, shoot down the rope in a skin-burning slide and then, without pause, dive headlong into the sea. It was quickly discovered that no man could work on the top, and that even the locals, who were requisitioned to cut down the undergrowth, went on a sit-down strike and refused to do “work belong bloody Navy”. Finally the ants were only culled by burning off the rock’s top with the assistance of fuel oil, petrol and cordite.

The survey of the extraordinarily deep gulf of Milne Bay was also undertaken by the Whyalla and the other vessels. Some parts of Milne Bay had been surveyed by the surveyors of HMS Dart as far back as 1885, but much of it required re-examination by modern methods. This was especially emphasized by the most recent survey of the Killerton Anchorage, which had previously been examined by Lieutenants Dawson and Messum of the Dart in 1886. In the southern entrance, right on the leading line, a rock with only eight feet of water covering it was discovered.

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

On weighing anchor next morning and proceeding out through the eastern entrance in the first light of dawn, the Whyalla discovered an extensive reef by running aground on it. Where the previous surveyors had marked thirteen fathoms, was indeed a reef a hundred yards in width with less than three feet of water covering it. During the next forty-eight hours, until the Whyalla floated itself off the reef unaided and undamaged, the surveyors had time to ruminate on the problem: “…did the coral grow out of over seventy feet of water in that time, or were the oysters on the reef so good that the earlier surveyors wished to keep the news hidden from other hungry seamen?” In honour of this unique event the two discoveries were called Messum Rock and Dawson Reef, which – although contravening accepted principles in nomenclature and awarding honour to whom it was least due – gave a subtle feeling of satisfaction, if not an answer to the conundrum in question.

The part played by the Surveying Services of the Royal Australian Navy was acknowledged by the Allied leaders of the Southwest Pacific Area as an integral factor contributing to the success of their campaigns in New Guinea. These surveys were later published in a set of charts that would also become vital to the safe navigation of ships in that area, both during the period of amphibious naval operations and equally important in guiding merchant ships supplying the varied units in forward areas.

The survey group continued to work between the New Guinea mainland and the D’Entrecastaux Islands where they were within 11 miles of Japanese forces and under frequent air attack, taking shelter in the mangroves. HMAS Stella and Polaris also went on to survey the landing routes at Salamaua and Finschhaven under covering fire from the corvettes Shepparton and Benalla.

The group was much decorated for these ventures; receiving the battle honours Pacific 1942–45, New Guinea 1942–44, and Okinawa 1945.

 

The Battle of Buna-Gona, Part 2: Allied Retribution

1942-12-28. Papua. silhouetted against the rising sun, an Australian tank moves through heavy foliage to attack the Japanese positions at Buna. (photograph by G. Silk)

1942-12-28. Papua. silhouetted against the rising sun, an Australian tank moves through heavy foliage to attack the Japanese positions at Buna. (photograph by G. Silk / AWM 013949)

“After Australian troops had fought the bitter, bloody fight that was the Kokoda trail, they drove the Japanese into the foul foxholes in the beach-heads at Gona, Buna and Sanananda. There, with support – for the first time – of American land forces, and under the increasing protection of the United States Fifth Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force, they annihilated him.” – The Jap Was Thrashed (1943)

Biamu, Oro Bay, New Guinea. 1942-11-11. United States Troops of the 1st Battalion, 128th Regiment, 32nd United States Division landing at Biamu Village, about 17 miles from Buna, during the advance on the Japanese forces occupying the Buna-Gona-Sanananda areas. (AWM 069274)

Biamu, Oro Bay, New Guinea. 1942-11-11. United States Troops of the 1st Battalion, 128th Regiment, 32nd United States Division landing at Biamu Village, about 17 miles from Buna, during the advance on the Japanese forces occupying the Buna-Gona-Sanananda areas. (AWM 069274)

In November 1942 – as a part of Operation Cartwheel – the U.S. Fifth Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force, all under the command of General George Kenney, began a sustained bombing campaign against the airfields and port of Rabaul. This cooperative Allied air power interdicted the Japanese capacity to reinforce and resupply the New Guinea beachheads from Rabaul, thus isolating the defensive positions on the island. However, leading into the battle of Buna-Gona in November 1942, Supreme Commander General MacArthur was operating under the dangerous assumption that Buna would be taken with relative ease – owing to the fact that Allied intelligence gathering efforts had severely underestimated both the number and combat effectiveness of the Japanese defenders. MacArthur’s chief of staff had dismissed the Japanese coastal fortifications as “hasty field entrenchments.” Not only was the initial reconnaissance lacking in important detailed knowledge of the battlefield, the Australian maps of the area were mostly sketches, with some so rough that they actually showed some rivers flowing uphill.1

The New Guinea coastal terrain around the coastal areas of Buna and Gona actually consisted of natural obstacles that were used by the Japanese to channel Allied attackers into overlapping, connected fields of fire. Tree trunks up to a foot in diameter cut into logs and interlaced with earth filling formed the top cover of innumerable strongposts, impervious to infantry weapons and able to withstand direct hits from 25-pounder artillery. These Japanese defensive positions at Buna-Gona would later be described as “one of the most impressive defensive networks seen in the entire war.”2 They consisted of hundreds of bunkers and machine gun emplacements which made excellent use of the formidable terrain, severely reducing the tactical alternatives for the attacking forces. All defensive positions were coordinated, in that forward positions were ‘mutually supporting’ and secondary positions were meant to confuse attackers. Structural defences were connected by a network of trenches with firing positions in between and bunkers intended to protect the defenders from artillery and air attack. Later, US Corps Commander Lieutenant General Robert Eichelberger would call the Japanese strategic use of terrain “perfect” and “brilliant”.3

In those posts, the Japanese sat for weeks amongst piles of ammunition and rations, crouched 24 hours a day. Rarely did they attempt to adapt to changing conditions or to gain ground. It was clear that their orders were based on the realisation that their main strength now lay in maintaining perimeter defence. Relief, ammunition and stores were brought along the maze of communication trenches about a metre and a half deep. The Japanese soldier lived underground and fought from almost impenetrable strongposts.

The main Japanese position the battle of Buna-Gona was centred on the coast at Sanananda and Giruwa with defensive positions located on the coastal flanks at Gona to the west, and Buna to the east. Estimated actual strength of the Japanese forces deployed to Buna–Gona or operating to the west in the vicinity of the Kumusi and Membare Rivers as between 11,000 and 12,000. The position at Buna back to the Girua River was held by between 2,000 – 2,500 defenders and Gona was garrisoned by 800–900 defenders. Records also show that the Japanese forces in front of Sanananda numbered around 5,000 plus about 1,800 held the defences on the Sanananda track.4

The Battle of Buna-Gona began on 16 November 1942 with the Australian 25 Brigade pursuing the withdrawing Japanese forces across the Kumusi River, roughly 60 kilometres from the beachheads.  The Australian forces were met with unbending resistance. The unique combination of difficult terrain, lack of heavy weapons and artillery and consequent logistical problems rendered traditional battle tactics of manoeuvre and fire support impossible.  These limitations were magnified by the grit of the Japanese warriors fighting from carefully planned entrenched defensive positions. After the first two weeks of battle, and despite repeated offensives, the Allies had made little progress and were faced with mounting casualties. As time wore on, the conditions were became like a “tropical vignette of the trench warfare conditions of the earlier war.”5

Australian manned General Stuart M3 tanks bust Japanese pillboxes in the final assault on Buna. Men of D Company, 2/12th Battalion, shoot Japanese fleeing from a tank-blasted Pillbox. Smoke At left is from the pillbox which the tank is attacking, at right is a destroyed empty pillbox. The soldier at back of tank, private E. R. Glover, was killed a few seconds after this picture was taken. Far right is private Davies. The Photograph was taken during the actual fighting. (AWM 014005)

Australian manned General Stuart M3 tanks bust Japanese pillboxes in the final assault on Buna. Men of D Company, 2/12th Battalion, shoot Japanese fleeing from a tank-blasted Pillbox. Smoke At left is from the pillbox which the tank is attacking, at right is a destroyed empty pillbox. The soldier at back of tank, private E. R. Glover, was killed a few seconds after this picture was taken. Far right is private Davies. The Photograph was taken during the actual fighting. (AWM 014005)

Here on the north coast the Japanese were taking a severe beating from the air, as heavy and medium bombers of the US Fifth Air Force and Australian-manned Beaufighters maintained devastating strafing of the enemy’s supply lines and barge traffic. Gona Village, which had been bombed and strafed for days, fell to determined attack by the 21st Brigade on December 1st. It was only then after concentrating their remaining reinforcements that the 7th Division finally broke through the Japanese lines at Gona on the morning of 9 December. They were then harassed by Japanese forces landing at the Kumusi River and fighting continued on west of the Gona Creek are for some time. Against repeated counter-attacks the Americans maintained a road block on the Sanananda track until the night of December 13/14. Attacking from both flanks, US 32nd Infantry Division forces entered Buna village on 14 December and were joined by the Australian 18th Brigade and Stuart tanks of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment after a stalemate had developed on the eastern flank. They successfully broke through and with another attack on 18 December.

1942-12. Papua. Buna. Australian troops of 2/7th Cavalry Regiment at Cape Endaiadere advance through mud and slush on Buna. (AWM 013971)

1942-12. Papua. Buna. Australian troops of 2/7th Cavalry Regiment at Cape Endaiadere advance through mud and slush on Buna. (AWM 013971)

A deep comradeship of arms developed between the Americans and Australians who fought these battles, but it was to the United States Fifth Air Force that the Australians in New Guinea felt particularly indebted. Reciprocal admiration of the Americans for their for the battle-proved Australians – young men, but now experienced in tropical jungle warfare – was also strongly felt, as in the example of one group of American infantrymen, who were intrigued when they were out-paced on a jungle track by Major-General G. A. Vasey, 7th Division commander, fresh from the triumphs of the Owen-Stanley Ranges. “Who’s that guy,” one asked, and received the reply: “He’s the guy who own the war in these parts.”6

After witnessing the efforts of the 2/9 Battalion at Buna, a senior American staff officer would report to General Eichelberger:

“I have seen today something that I never dreamt I would see. I have seen infantry go on taking such casualties as I wouldn’t have believed  any infantry in the world could ever take and still go on. However long I live I never expect to see the like again.”

The Buna area as far as the Girua River was clear of Japanese forces by January 3rd 1943 and the Australian 7th Division continued to pressure the forward Japanese positions astride the Sanananda track without a decisive result. The 18th Brigade was then ordered to quickly advance on Cape Killerton and then Sanananda. the rate of the Allied advance quickly overtook the retreating Japanese Even though at this stage they had planned for an orderly evacuation of the area.  After evacuating roughly 1,200 injured by sea during 13–20 January, General Yamagata ordered a full evacuation.

The Australian 7th Division linked up with the US 32nd Division at Giruwa on 21 January, and the battle ended the next day.

In the book Our Jungle Road to Tokyo (1950), General Eichelberger wrote: “Buna was … bought at a substantial price in death, wounds, disease, despair, and human suffering. No one who fought there, however hard he tries, will ever forget it.” Fatalities, he concluded, “closely approach, percentage-wise, the heaviest losses in our Civil War battles.” He also commented, “I am a reasonably unimaginative man, but Buna is still to me, in retrospect, a nightmare. This long after, I can still remember every day and most of the nights.”


1.  New Guinea – The tide is stemmed (1972) by John Vader
2. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
3. The Jap Was Thrashed, Director General of Public Relations (Australia) 1943
4. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
5. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
6. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Battle of Buna-Gona, Part 1: The Empire Strikes

NEW GUINEA. ON ROAD TO BUNA AUSTRALIAN TROOPS CROSS A STREAM ON AN IMPROVISED BRIDGE.

“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

Papua_New_Guinea_map

Image via wikipedia.org

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.

NEW GUINEA. ON ROAD TO BUNA AUSTRALIAN TROOPS CROSS A STREAM ON AN IMPROVISED BRIDGE.

New Guinea. On the road to Buna Australian troops cross a stream on an improvised bridge. AWM 013756

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.


1. The Jap Was Thrashed, Director General of Public Relations (Australia) 1943
2. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
3. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia