“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)
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
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.
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.”