Battle of the Beachheads 1942-1943

This commemorative publication is a part of the series; Australians in the Pacific War. It explores the battle in Papua New Guinea against the Japanese defences. Approximately 1300 Australians, 1000 Americans and 6000 Japanese lost their lives. 

ISBN: 1 877007 14 5
Series: Australians in the Pacific War
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Buna, Gona and Sanananda

... I fear a war of attrition is taking place on this front. The Jap won't go till he is killed & in the process he is inflicting many casualties on us. I am beginning to wonder who will reach Zero first.

No other battle in Papua New Guinea tested the Allies so completely and unexpectedly as did the Battle of the Beachheads—Buna, Gona and Sanananda. To be sent to this battlefield was to pass figuratively through the gates of Hell. For two awful months, from 19 November 1942 to 22 January 1943, unit after unit was flailed against obstinate and lethal Japanese defences. Men fought and died in overgrown coconut plantations, swathes of kunai grass, dank jungle and foetid swamps, determined to defeat the enemy and pressing on despite frightening losses. When finally the ordeal ended in an acrid victory for the Allies, approximately 1300 Australians, 1000 Americans and 6000 Japanese lay dead, intermingled across the battlefronts. Thousands of other Allied troops had been evacuated sick, diseased or wounded, or all three.

The area around Buna was strategically and politically important. General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of Allied forces in the South-West Pacific Area (SWPA), originally issued orders in June 1942 for a small Australian force to occupy the area and establish a forward base, but the Japanese got there first. The enemy invasion force landed at Gona, a few kilometres west of Buna, on 21–22 July, establishing a base to support the advance on Port Moresby south over the Kokoda Track. It took nearly four months of determined and tough fighting for Australian troops to repel and push back the Japanese to the northern edge of the Owen Stanley Range, with a final push required to eliminate the Japanese fortified beachheads at Buna, Gona and, between them, on the Sanananda Track. As this was the last portion of the Australian territory of Papua in enemy hands, a clear victory here would suitably bring to an end the most bitter year of the war.

A joint Australian–American attack was planned. The Australians had borne the brunt of land fighting in Papua New Guinea to date, with the only American troops to see action up to this time being some engineers who fought briefly at Milne Bay. Major General George Vasey, General Officer Commanding, 7th Division, Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was ordered to complete his division's counter-attack over the Kokoda Track and then send one brigade against Gona, on the western flank, and a second brigade down the Sanananda Track. The 32nd Division, US Army, under Major General Edwin F Harding, would attack Buna, on the eastern flank. The Americans were 'green', having no combat experience and little or no jungle training. General Thomas Blamey, Commander-in-Chief, Australian Military Forces and Commander, Allied Land Forces, SWPA, suggested deploying a third AIF brigade against Buna instead but MacArthur wanted American troops to play an active part in clearing the enemy from Papua, and this was their last chance. He thus ordered men obviously not ready for battle to make their combat debut.

MacArthur's intelligence staff estimated that up to 4000 Japanese were contained in the beachheads, believing them to be tattered survivors of Milne Bay and the Kokoda Track, and casualties of Allied bombing. MacArthur and Blamey thus believed the forthcoming battle would be won easily, requiring two or three days' fighting. In fact, the Japanese had about double this number defending the beachheads and many were reinforcements, as many of the sickest and most badly wounded had been evacuated. With nowhere to retreat, they were prepared to fight tenaciously and, if necessary, to the death. Engineers had built hundreds of bunkers sited in-depth to protect the perimeters and lines of retreat. Constructed of coconut palm logs and compacted earth, and camouflaged by fast-growing vegetation, they were hard to detect from the air or ground, could sustain great damage from bombing and shelling, and their flanks were protected by other bunkers or impenetrable swamps. Allied aerial reconnaissance photographs showed just a few of these bunkers. Allied troops had no real idea of what really lay ahead.

On 15–16 November, Australian troops crossed the Kumusi River, marking the northern edge of the Owen Stanley Range, on to the coastal plain. Vasey had two brigades, the 25th and 16th (a 6th Division brigade loaned to the 7th Division), but their battalions were down to one-third normal strength after their long advance over the mountains.

A suggestion to airlift the 21st Brigade, somewhat recovered after earlier fighting on the Kokoda Track, to Kokoda village to join the attack was dismissed as unnecessary because of the idea the battle would be relatively easy.

A map showing parts of Papua New Guinea.

A map showing significant locations in Papua during the Battle of Beachheads in 1942-1943.

Meanwhile, units of the American 32nd Division were approaching the beachheads. One battalion trekked over a little-known track east of the Kokoda Track and linked up with the Australians, while other units were flown over the mountains. The first airstrip constructed was at Wanigela, which was secured by the 2/12th Battalion AIF, which had fought at Milne Bay and on Goodenough Island. Among the first units to land was the 2/6th Independent Company AIF, attached to the 32nd Division; it began a trek through jungle and swamp so awful that men were soon 'dog-tired, bone-weary, completely stonkered, fed up to the back teeth and bloody hungry'. Another airstrip was built at Pongani, closer to Buna, to save men this dreadful trek. Harding also arranged for howitzers and gunners of the Australian 1st Mountain Battery to be flown to Pongani, and for guns and gunners of the 2/5th Field Regiment AIF to be shipped from Milne Bay.

The passage from Milne Bay was one of the world's most treacherous, with uncharted reefs and shifting sandbars dotting the coastline. Three Australian survey vessels, HMA Ships Paluma, Polaris and Stella, risked aerial attack to chart the coastline to Pongani, and the sloop HMAS Warrego marked a three mile wide channel with night vision marker buoys much of the way so the 1st Water Transport Group, Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) and the Small Ships Section, US Army Services of Supply (USASOS) could begin supporting the advance and battle. The small ships included former pearling luggers, trawlers, tugboats, ketches and captured barges. Australian engineers and Papuans manned Australian vessels, while Australian civilians (on contract to the USASOS), Papuans and Americans manned American vessels. The civilian seamen ranged in age from fifteen to seventy years old, with one having served in the Boer War!

The first serious loss occurred on this shipping line on 16 November 1942, three days before the battle was to start, when four luggers and a barge nearing Hariko, the forward landing site, were attacked by Japanese fighters. The vessels were carrying Harding and his staff, two 25-pounder field guns and gunners of the 2/5th Field Regiment, and supplies. Lacking aerial cover and lightly armed, they had no chance:

... tracer bullets and cannon shells kicked into our side at the water-line ... jagged splinters flew in all directions ... the second pass set us ablaze ... Our guns barked defiance, and rifles cracked desperately and heroically. I saw an American machine-gunner set his teeth in a mirthless smile and blaze away at a Zero that came in low ... Suddenly a crimson splash appeared across the gunner's chest, and the smile turned to a look of surprise, as though in that instant he saw something strange that living men never see ...

All five vessels were sunk. Twenty-four men, including six of the 2/5th Field Regiment and an army photographer, were killed in the stricken vessels or in the water. Survivors, including Harding, swam for shore, the strongest helping the wounded and non-swimmers. Private Tom Hale, 2/5th Field Regiment, swam for four hours with one foot hooked through the carrying loop of an empty Bren gun case to which clung three wounded mates; he was mentioned in despatches. Over the following days, other vessels were attacked.

The 7th and 32nd Divisions began their final advances to their attack lines. Vasey sent Brigadier Ken Eather's 25th Brigade, comprising the 2/25th, 2/31st and 2/33rd Battalions with the 3rd Battalion attached, to Gona while Brigadier John Lloyd's 16th Brigade, comprising the 2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions with the American II Battalion, 126th (II/126th) Regiment attached, headed for the Sanananda Track. Vasey's men had two days to traverse 40 miles (65km) of hot coastal plain, but they were weary and sick, the terrain was rougher than expected, and they found that steel helmets offered no protection from searing sunlight (not encountered in the jungle-clad mountains). Private Geoffrey Hamlyn-Harris, 2/31st Battalion, recalled how:

... [in] an indescribable condition of weariness, we fell into a state of apathy, just trudging or staggering or wading in waist-deep mud, mechanically almost insensibly. Increasing numbers began to lag behind ... limping, staggering, falling, and getting up again with only their indomitable spirit keeping them going.

Vasey knew he was pushing his men beyond normal limits of endurance—as often occurs in soldiering—but had no choice. Determination and the expectation of a swift victory spurred most on, but sunstroke and fever took out many. Troops of the 2/4th Field Ambulance coming up the rear found in every village infantrymen who had dropped out, some hoping to gather the strength to rejoin their mates and others too ill to try.

Allied bombers and fighters droned overhead, continuing to 'soften up' the objectives. As they had done for many months, the aircrews bombed and strafed supply dumps and other targets. Sometimes aircraft and crews were shot down over the target or crashed in the mountains on the way back to Port Moresby. The bomber squadrons included No. 22 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), with Douglas Bostons and No. 6 Squadron RAAF with Lockheed Hudsons, while No. 30 Squadron RAAF strafed the target area with cannon-equipped Beaufighter strike-fighters. In addition, No. 4 Squadron RAAF, an army co-operation unit, began dive-bombing and tactical reconnaissance missions. Other Australians flew in American squadrons. In addition, Catalina flying boats of Nos 11 and 20 Squadrons RAAF and Beaufort torpedo-bombers of No. 100 Squadron RAAF flew anti-shipping patrols.

The 16th and 25th Brigades could not reach the start-lines in time, so the Americans were the first into action. On 19 November, troops of the 126th and 128th Regiments attacked Buna and Cape Endaiadere (the westernmost flank of that beachhead), advancing through swamp and jungle until ambushed. Snipers, machine-gunners and mortarmen produced a 'storm sweeping across and along the open spaces which had obviously been ranged as killing grounds'. Pinned down and taking excessive casualties, the Americans retreated, dragging as many wounded to safety as was possible.

That afternoon, the leading Australian troops reached the perimeter of the Gona beachhead and on the Sanananda Track struck a road-block. They probed the defences but realised that frontal attacks would be suicidal. The men were also exhausted and were low on supplies. They dug in opposite the Japanese, laying low to avoid snipers. Bad weather prevented aircraft from crossing the mountains at this time to drop supplies and, with 'bloody little to eat anywhere', men opened their last tins of bully beef. Some found Japanese rice and molasses to add to their meals. Finally, the clouds cleared that afternoon and aircraft dropped rations and ammunition.

On 20 November, the 2/1st Battalion tried pushing past the road-block on the Sanananda Track. Some mortars and bombs had been carried from Kokoda and, using tactics devised in the Owen Stanleys, they lobbed bombs at bunkers to suppress their machine-guns but the Japanese had observation posts in trees and shelled the Australians. Snipers also inflicted casualties. A company (down to ninety-one men) managed to get around the forward positions and break through the outer perimeter, a tremendous effort leading one soldier to reflect, 'Where we got the energy from is unexplainable'. Once inside, however, the men had no means of communicating with their battalion and, with no fire support, faced a desperate struggle. When relieved the next day, thirty-one men had been killed and thirty-six wounded.

Across the beachheads, units continued attacking. At Buna, the 2/6th Independent Company arrived to bolster the effort but conditions were appalling:

The [coconut] plantation was at sea-level and ... drains that were criss-crossing it ... had [become] choked up with weeds and coconut fronds and bits and pieces and the water table was right up at the surface ... We were starting to get sick—plenty of malaria, dysentery, blokes had hookworm, ringworm, a little bit of scrub-typhus—you name it. Before we had been in any substantial action we were pretty-well knocked out of action.

The Allies were effectively bogged down.

With the battle tougher than expected, supply became a matter of concern because more equipment, ammunition and rations than had been planned for were needed. With most of the small ships knocked out, and supplies needed urgently, air supply became vital. Dropping supplies would not be enough, so the Americans cleared an airstrip at Dobodura and the Australians cleared two more at Soputa and Popondetta. The 2/5th and 2/6th Field Companies RAE, both units exhausted after weeks of hard work along the Kokoda Track, were given the task of clearing and maintaining the Australian airstrips with the assistance of local villagers. Supply runs were made whenever the weather permitted, with American fighters flying 'top cover' and a signal system developed to warn the unarmed transport aircraft to stay away when enemy fighters were around. The large-capacity Douglas C-47 (DC-3) transports of the 374th Troop Carrier Group, United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), had priority at forward airstrips. Small Lockheed Lodestar transport aircraft, flown by USAAF and Qantas aircrews, and Hudsons of No. 6 Squadron RAAF continued dropping supplies behind Allied lines. Light transport aircraft of No. 33 Squadron RAAF flew courier flights to the forward area. Private Ernest Bennett-Bremner, 2/2nd Battalion, recalled:

All who fought on the beachhead knew how greatly their efficiency and welfare depended on aircraft being able to land ... or at least to drop their cargoes behind the lines. Anxiously they looked each morning towards the mountains, and they were much heartened when the clear sky heralded the approach of the transports and the top cover of fighters.

As well as military supplies, aircraft dropped mail—boosting morale and, in some cases, helping feed hungry men with 'comforts' like fruit cake and sweets. Most prized were parcels containing tobacco, 'better than first prize in the lottery'.

Attacks continued for a time across all fronts. On 22 November, the 2/31st Battalion and men of Chaforce (volunteers from the 21st Brigade who took part in the advance over the Owen Stanleys) renewed the attack against Gona. In the face of heavy machine-gun fire, they reached the first bunkers but enfilading fire was coming from both sides and they were forced to withdraw. Not one of the 2/31st's companies had more than a dozen men standing afterwards. The busiest men on the battlefield were stretcher-bearers. By the following day, both of the Australian brigades had lost most of their men killed or wounded. Many of those remaining on the front-line were lightly wounded and almost all were sick; 'tradition' decreed that a man would not present himself for evacuation until his temperature topped 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.44 degrees Celsius). The only fresh unit under Vasey's command was the American II/126th Regiment, but he found it maintaining 'a masterly inactivity'.

On the 32nd Division's front, where Australian artillerymen were in support, morale slumped. Major Martin O'Hare, Australian 1st Mountain Battery, claimed that some of the 'green' Americans were feigning sickness or 'accidently [sic] shot in the hands and feet while cleaning their rifles'. On Vasey's fronts, men were 'too thin on the ground ... [and] too tired to achieve success'. It was obvious to most officers and men that reinforcements were needed if the battle was to be won. At Port Moresby, the Australian commander of New Guinea Force, Lieutenant General Edmund Herring, formulated plans to send more battalions by air. At a high level meeting, MacArthur proposed sending more Americans but Blamey, at Port Moresby overseeing operations, objected, stating he 'would rather put in more Australians, as he knew they would fight'.

At Port Moresby, Australian Army Service Corps and Australian Army Ordnance Corps personnel, pioneers in air supply, had become adept at sorting demands, allocating priorities, handling last-minute changes and coping with cancellations of flights due to bad weather. When the forward airfields opened, ordnance and supply troops were among the first flown over the mountains, ensuring efficient handling of stores at the receiving end and dispatch of supplies to units. Troops of the newly formed Corps of Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers were also flown over to reassemble and maintain Jeeps, artillery and other mechanical equipment.

Among the first loads were 25-pounder guns of the 2/1st Field Regiment AIF. Most American pilots had only recently arrived in Port Moresby, and one party of gunners was more than a little perturbed to have a pilot turn around before take-off and ask, 'Any of you guys know where this place Dobodura is?' Other guns of the 2/5th Field Regiment were sent on small ships, sailing under the cover of darkness. Within days, the Allies had two 3.7-inch howitzers, twelve 25-pounders and a solitary American 105-millimetre howitzer (initially without shells) that could be moved between the three battlefronts. When guns reached the Australian fronts on 23–24 November, a few rounds were fired to lift morale.

The job of the artillerymen was not easy, as forward observation officers found visibility limited by thick vegetation, grid maps were out by a few degrees, signallers were hard pressed trying to reel out signal lines, it was hard to move guns over poor tracks, and the supply of shells was limited. The Japanese also attempted to silence guns with counter-battery shelling and raiding parties. But shelling was made more accurate by the arrival of army co-operation pilots of No. 4 Squadron RAAF, which based several Wirraways and ground crews at Popondetta and Dobodura and flew tactical reconnaissance and artillery spotting sorties over both fronts. Flying low, the aircraft frequently attracted fire, the Allied troops marvelling at the bravery of their pilots and observers.

On 25 November, reinforcements in the form of the 21st Brigade AIF began arriving. The 2/14th Battalion was airlifted, with the 2/27th and 2/16th Battalions following. The airlift of nearly 1000 men over several days consumed most of the air transport capacity, so supplies again ran low, but the reinforcements were welcomed. Brigadier Ivan Dougherty led his men to Gona to relieve the remnants of the 25th Brigade, whose battalions were down to less than seventy men each, with dozens of others in and out of aid posts receiving treatment for fevers, swamp sores, tropical ulcers and heat exhaustion.

The 21st Brigade was meant to break the deadlock. Dougherty hoped to delay the first attack so that his men could reconnoitre the area, but was ordered to go ahead on 29 November. The 2/14th Battalion ran into trouble on the night of 28 November, and a 2/27th attack the next day proved futile. Allied bombers and fighters were meant to soften up enemy positions but their attacks did little material damage, with several aircraft bombing and strafing wide of the mark, and artillery support was disappointing because expenditure of shells 'was governed by the amount that could be brought in and not by what the targets demanded'. Over the following days, several attacks were made by the 2/14th, 2/16th and 2/27th Battalions. Despite fighting bravely and with a determination unmatched across the battlefronts at that time, their progress was negligible and losses mounted.

In early December, the 30th Brigade, under Brigadier Selwyn Porter, arrived. Vasey diverted its 39th and 49th Battalions to Gona and ordered an advance over terrain that was impassable; he then sent the 49th back to the Sanananda Track to take up positions alongside Porter's third battalion, the 55/53rd. Dudley McCarthy, the Australian official historian of the campaign, believed there was 'more than a hint of bewildered desperation in these rapidly changing plans'.

At Buna, the Americans kept attacking, losing heavily but making ground. As the battle was effectively bogged down, senior officers searched for new weapons to assist in forcing a breakthrough. Some felt that tanks were the only answer. Light tanks were at Milne Bay but they could not be transported until a heavy transport vessel came from Australia. In the meantime, machine-gun carriers belonging to the 17th Brigade AIF were shipped in. Designed for rapid transportation and reconnaissance over open ground, their light armour, low sides and lack of overhead cover made them vulnerable in close fighting. The new senior American general at Buna, Lieutenant General Robert L Eichelberger, ignored an Australian officer's warning and sent the carriers into battle on 5 December. Five machine-gun carriers made frontal attacks on bunkers and, left unprotected by hesitant American troops, they were disabled by machine-gun fire and grenades. Six men of the 2/7th Battalion were killed (Lieutenant Ian Walker was awarded a posthumous American Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership) and others dragged out wounded. Brigadier Ronald Hopkins, a liaison officer with the Americans, lamented: 'The loss of these brave men was as sad as it was misguided'.

Eichelberger decreed that no more frontal attacks would be attempted until tanks arrived. Since the American troops had failed to protect the carriers and thus probably could not cover tanks, any tank attack would hinge on the arrival from Milne Bay of the veteran 18th Brigade AIF. Blamey considered landing one of its battalions inside the Buna perimeter, but naval officers vetoed the plan. They probably prevented a massacre of the battalion.

While attacks continued on the Gona front, a change of troops was taking place on the Sanananda Track. The 16th Brigade had used up its 'last dregs of strength', with most of the few remaining men suffering from malaria and dietary deficiencies and promptly evacuated sick, as 'the need for them to stay and help their mates disappeared'. As they trudged rearward to the field hospitals or airfields for evacuation, many would have welcomed stops at the YMCA and Salvation Army tea huts established at several locations around the battlefronts.

Brigadier Porter expressed confidence that his 49th and 55/53rd Battalions were up to the job, but he was over-confident. The 49th and 55/53rd were no better prepared than were the Americans. A smattering of experienced officers and senior non-commissioned officers had been posted in, and some of the 55/53rd had seen action on the Kokoda Track, but training had been impaired as the men were used as labourers in and around Port Moresby. Some had never fired automatic weapons or thrown a grenade.

The 30th Brigade's first attack was planned for 7 December, but reconnaissance patrols failed to locate all the bunkers to be attacked and the artillery and mortar barrage did not suppress the enemy machine-gunners. The 49th and 55/53rd crumpled before murderous fire, losing about half their men killed or wounded that day. The 36th Battalion and 2/7th Cavalry Regiment AIF (serving as infantry) were flown from Port Moresby to reinforce this front. The 2/7th was sent to Huggins' Road Block, which American troops had secured behind the enemy's forward positions, cutting off their supply lines, while the 36th was slotted alongside the shocked survivors of the 49th and 55/53rd. Over the following weeks, more attacks were made but the militiamen continued to lose heavily. Porter wrote that what success they achieved 'is due to a percentage of personnel who are brave in the extreme; and, is the result of unskilful aggression' but most of the bravest were killed in futile attacks attempting to urge on others.

The first real success was achieved at Gona. As well as the 39th Battalion continuing to press against the defences around the village, troops of Chaforce (2/16th men, in this instance) and the 2/14th and 2/31st Battalions fought some sharp skirmishes on the western flank, fending off an attempt by some 200 Japanese reinforcements to penetrate the Australian lines and enter Gona. After repeated assaults, in which the 39th Battalion suffered heavy losses, the Australians had pushed the Japanese front-line back and on 8 December launched a final attack. Using tactics devised on the Western Front in World War I, troops advanced right behind the artillery barrage, risking 'drop shots', and broke into Gona. By this stage, the battalions had been 'bled almost white'. Many had been killed in front of bunkers and others desperately lobbing grenades through their slits. The bravery of many men in this attack and a supporting attack to the rear was perhaps exemplified by the actions of Lieutenant Leo Mayberry, 2/16th Battalion, who was awarded the Military Cross.

With a scratch crew of six men he stormed headlong against a key position. Badly wounded in the head and right arm he still fought on and urged his men forward. His shattered right arm refusing its function, he dragged the pin out of a grenade and essayed a throw with his left hand. But the arm was too weak. He forced the pin back with his teeth and then lay for some hours in his exposed position before he was rescued.

When the firing died down, Padre Albert Moore, of the Salvation Army, walked into the village, giving words of encouragement and solace to the survivors who had dropped down exhausted among their dead comrades and Japanese.

I stood and surveyed the whole field of desolation, hardly a square yard of this area had escaped the ravages of the attack. Buildings were wrecked, and great bomb craters would have swallowed 3 ton trucks without difficulty.

But two more fronts needed to fall.

At this time, the medical services were nearly overwhelmed by battle and sickness casualties. Papua and New Guinean carriers were used to evacuate many men to the field hospitals, and in some places where tracks were better, makeshift ambulances using Jeeps and captured cars could be used. The 2/4th Field Ambulance established the Main Dressing Station (MDS) at Soputa, with reinforcements from the 2/6th and 14th Field Ambulance and 5th Casualty Clearing Station bolstering the medical effort at this and other field hospitals and clearing stations. The 2/4th and 10th Field Ambulances soon arrived to boost medical services on the Buna front. The worst scourge was malaria, which struck down men at alarming rates, so much so that Blamey's deputy chief of staff, Brigadier Frank Berryman, reported: 'The Jap is, in one sense only, our worst enemy, as malaria and other tropical diseases claim far more victims'. The medical troops worked long and hard, fighting malaria themselves, and lost men when Japanese aircraft attacked the MDS on 27 November:

It was a scene of utter devastation; tents holed, huts keeling over, the quartermaster's-cum-dispensary store burning. Dead [twenty-two in all] and wounded [over fifty] included patients, members of the field ambulance, natives and visitors to the hospital. In a few minutes a busy hospital was transformed into a miniature battlefield.

Without aerial evacuation made possible by the 'air bridge', many more men would have died of wounds and sickness. As it was, the hospitals in Port Moresby were 'heavily overtaxed' by the casualties flowing in.

On 15 December, the 18th Brigade began arriving at Buna. Australian corvettes, HMA Ships Ballarat, Broome, Colac and Whyalla were involved in three voyages shipping the 2/9th, 2/10th and 2/12th Battalions AIF in turn. HMAS Lithgow was also in the area, escorting the Dutch tank ferry Karsik carrying Stuart tanks and crewmen of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment AIF to Oro Bay, while HMA Ships Ballarat and Katoomba had carried out anti-submarine patrols to prevent the enemy from using submarines for resupply. Oro Bay was developed to handle merchant ships that began venturing into these waters. The 2/4th Field Company RAE was sent to construct port facilities, while the 2/14th Field Company constructed roads around the battlefronts, alongside American engineers and Papua New Guinean labourers.

Much was expected of the 18th Brigade because it was jungle-experienced and fresh. The American 127th Regiment captured Buna village on 14 December but there remained many Japanese in the beachhead that stretched over to Cape Endaiadere. On 18 December, the 2/9th Battalion and seven tanks were used against a line of Japanese bunkers. For the 2/9th, it was a shocking introduction to the battle, losing 171 men, or over one-third of its strength, that day. One of the tank crewmen recalled:

The saddest memory I have of that day is seeing the infantry advancing in line into murderous machine gun fire and being shot to pieces. I saw many acts of individual bravery, particularly when they would crawl forward to bomb bunkers. One would go down and another would replace him until the job was done.

The Japanese were better prepared to face tanks the next time. Small advances were made and, on 24 December, the 2/10th Battalion and American troops attacked Old Strip, an overgrown aerodrome, with four tanks. The Japanese used naval and anti-aircraft guns to knock out all four. Boggy ground also impeded tank operations, though fire support was boosted by the 13th Field Regiment arriving with four 4.5-inch howitzers. Supply problems meant shells for the various Australian guns sometimes ran out. The infantry continued attacking, with platoons and sections rushing bunkers and using grenades, sub-machineguns and rifles to 'literally dig the enemy out of his posts'. On 1 January 1943, the 2/12th Battalion attacked with tank support and by the end of the next day the last enemy positions on this front were over-run. MacArthur declared victory. Historian, David Horner, has commented:

The fighting on the beachhead was not, of course, over, but MacArthur hailed the capture of Buna as a great victory—he needed a great victory. To onlookers around the world it appeared as though the campaign was at an end.

However, the Sanananda front had still to be eliminated.

On 4 January, the survivors of the 18th Brigade—with nearly 600 reinforcements posted in—were ordered to march over to the Sanananda Track. The quality of the reinforcements was difficult to assess but they were slotted in among experienced men and told to 'take notice of the old timers, what they tell you to do, do it!' The 18th Brigade's commander, Brigadier George Wootten, planned to use tanks to break through but in the first attack on 12 January all three tanks were knocked out by anti-aircraft guns. Deep swamps prevented them being used in encircling movements. The 2/7th Cavalry Regiment continued to block the enemy supply line, in appalling conditions amid mosquito infested swamps. But senior officers could see no way of breaking through the road-blocks to the main beachhead area around Sanananda Point, other than repeated frontal assaults that would prove far too costly.

Then on 17 January, quite unexpectedly, the Allies found that the Japanese had abandoned the road-blocks. It was, Vasey wrote, 'a marvellous turn for the good'. Australian and American troops advanced and found themselves mopping-up. The Japanese, many dead from battle and starvation, were too weak to continue resisting. On coming across an enemy field hospital, the advancing troops found:

... the scene was a grisly one. Sick and wounded were scattered through the area, a large number of them in the last stages of starvation. There were many unburied dead, and ... 'several skeletons walking around'. There was evidence too that some of the enemy had been practising cannibalism. Even in this extremity the Japanese fought back. Twenty were killed in the hospital area resisting capture; sixty-nine others, too helpless to resist, were taken prisoner.

Some Japanese tried escaping, as others had done from Gona, but were intercepted by troops of the 21st Brigade patrolling around Haddy's Village and the Amboga River, west of Gona.

By midday on 22 January 1943, resistance had ceased. The Allies had won their hardest victory in Papua New Guinea. The time taken and cost in lives had been so much greater than expected, and the physical and mental toll on survivors was so profound, that it would take months for the forces and men involved to recover and continue with the counter-offensive.


A naval ship on the water.

Survey ship HMAS Stella, December 1944. AWM P00880.010

A second world war military plane with male soldiers standing in front and indigenous men also visible.

Troops of the 2/6th Independent Company AIF alight from a Douglas C-47 Skytrain (also known as a DC-3 or Dakota) of the United States Army Air Forces at Wanigela in October 1942. The 2/6th then trekked along the coast to take up positions at Buna alongside American troops. AWM 027392

A male soldier and indigenous men in front of a storage hut.

An Australian soldier, probably of the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU), directs Papuan men retrieving bags of rice from a captured Japanese rice dump. The rice was added to the rations of troops and carriers in the first days of the battle. AWM 013740

Male soldiers hauling a military boat carrying armaments to shore.

Gunners of the 2/5th Field Regiment AIF unload a 25-pounder field gun at Oro Bay from a captured Japanese barge operated by the 1st Water Transport Group, Royal Australian Engineers. AWM 069260

A male pilot smiling and looking out of the window of a military plane with the word 'RETRIBUTION' painted on the side of the plane.

Squadron Leader Kenneth McDonald, No. 22 Squadron RAAF, in the cockpit of a Boston bomber. Tragically, McDonald, Flying Officer Thomas O'Neill and Sergeant Charles Napier were killed over Buna on 26 November 1942 when fragmentation bombs they were dropping exploded prematurely. AWM OG0077

male soldiers sitting in small trenches on the ground with their weapons and other items.

Australian troops occupy fox-holes in the kunai grass opposite Japanese positions at Gona, with no shelter from either searing sunlight or heavy rain. The high grass hindered enemy snipers, though men were still killed and wounded in these positions. AWM 013761

A small crowd of male soldiers kneeing down to prayer.

Troops of the 21st Brigade, which took over at Gona from the 25th Brigade, attend a church service conducted by Padre James Lynch on 5 December 1942. The men were shortly to attack Japanese positions again, but Gona did not fall for four more days. AWM 013739

Four soldiers sitting in long grass where one soldier is loading a bomb with the others looking on.

A mortar crew of the 21st Brigade lobs bombs at Japanese positions during one of the last attacks before the Australians broke into Gona village, making Gona the first beachhead to fall. AWM 013754/21

Shirtless indigenous men carrying an injured man on a stetcher.

Papuan bearers evacuate a wounded and exhausted soldier. Though the terrain was much flatter than in earlier fighting on the Kokoda Track, it still required of bearers skill and fortitude to carry a casualty smoothly and safely, time after time. AWM 014240

Male soldiers attending to injured male soldiers lying on stretchers.

Australian troops wounded in one of the final actions at Gona receive treatment and are made comfortable by battalion stretcher-bearers shortly before their evacuation by carrier teams. AWM 013861

Wounded male soldiers on stretchers receiving medical attention from male soldiers.

An Australian soldier assists a captured Japanese soldier, his wounds already tended, to drink from a water-bottle. The prisoner had been wounded in one of the last Australian attacks on Gona. AWM 013880

Exhausted looking male soldiers gathered together and relaxing on the ground.

Weary and worn after repeated assaults on Gona, 21st Brigade troops rest after taking the beachhead. They dropped down after the last positions fell, with dozens of dead Australians and Japanese around them. AWM 013845

Shirtless male soldiers sitting in front of a large gun and holding shells.

Artillerymen, probably of the 2/1st Field Regiment, seated in front of their 25-pounder field gun during a quiet spell. Artillery batteries gave valuable fire support to infantry attacking Japanese positions on all three fronts. AWM 013855

A shirtless male soldier unloading supplies from a military plane with two uniformed officers giving instructions.

General Thomas Blamey speaks with the pilot of a Lodestar aircraft at Port Moresby, while a soldier waits to load ammunition, wrapped in blankets, to be dropped behind Allied positions. Lodestars in American markings were flown by Qantas pilots as well as American pilots. AWM 013836

Medical staff peforming surgery on a patient inside a muddy makeshift theatre.

At the main dressing station near Soputa, set up by the 2/4th Field Ambulance, Major Thomas Ackland (at the operating table, left), Captain Alan Wakefield, and members of a surgical team from the 5th Casualty Clearing Station operate on Private Ron Weakley, 39th Battalion, wounded near the Amboga River pursuing Japanese escaping from Gona. AWM 013927

A military plane in a field with three men leaning on the left wing and chatting.

A Wirraway of No. 4 Squadron RAAF, used for dive-bombing, artillery spotting and tactical reconnaissance, at Popondetta. Leaning on a wing are (from left) Flying Officer John Utber, pilot, and ground crew, Corporals Sid McGibbon and Steve Maugher. AWM P00484.001

Male soldiers sitting behind a cannon with one soldier loading charge.

Gunners of the 1st Mountain Battery during shelling of Japanese positions at Buna. The unit supported American and later also Australian attacks on this and other fronts. AWM 013973

Male soldiers and some equipment gathered on a ships deck.

Troops of the 2/9th Battalion AIF on board the corvette HMAS Broome, which transported the battalion from Milne Bay to Oro Bay. Corvettes transported the entire 18th Brigade, and later escorted merchant ships to the forward area. AWM 300472

A male soldier taking aim with a gun pointed upwards.

An infantryman, probably of the 18th Brigade, brings down a sniper in a coconut tree using his Bren light machine-gun. In this instance, being unable to see the sniper clearly, he fired several bursts into the top of the tree, which snapped, and the sniper fell almost 20 metres to his death. AWM 013952

Two men walk side by side as crowds watch from the side of the road

Scenes from the Welcome Home Parade in Sydney. Two mates walking side by side during the Vietnam Veterans welcome home march in Sydney. AWM PAIU1987/231.15

A male soldier climbing up a tree using a ladder.

A forward observation officer of the 2/1st or 2/5th Field Regiments climbs an observation post erected and used by the Japanese to shell Australian positions prior to its capture by Australian troops. AWM 014022

Male soldiers carrying a large tree stump together.

Engineers and infantry prepare the way for further tank attacks against Japanese positions on the Buna front; they carry coconut palm logs that were used to build bridges and reinforced tracks across boggy ground. AWM 013951

Male soldiers engaged in combat with guns and ammunition.

On New Year's Day 1943, a Vickers machine-gun team of the 2/12th Battalion AIF fires on Japanese positions, with one of their mates lying dead alongside. Private John Senior is behind the gun and Sergeant Geoffrey Lowe is on the right feeding ammunition. AWM 014037

Male soldiers in combat with one soldier crouching down with his rifle while another soldier mounts a tank.

Corporal Roy Rodgers, 2/12th Battalion, climbs onto a Stuart tank of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment AIF to warn its crew of a Japanese bunker to its right, in addition to the one in front it is firing on. Private DG Rheinberger, with his bayonet-armed rifle, watches. AWM 014002

Male soldiers lying on stretchers and relaxing.

Pilot Officer Neil Hutchinson, pilot, and Pilot Officer Norman Jobson, observer, of No. 4 Squadron RAAF relax after returning from a sortie over one of the battle fronts. Based at Port Moresby, the squadron sent air and ground crews to operate out of Dobodura and Popondetta. AWM 013994

An armed male soldier pointing his rifle into a bunker with a dead man lying in front.

Near the end of fighting on the Buna front, Lieutenant Duncan Clarke, 2/12th Battalion, stands before a captured Japanese bunker, warily peering inside. One of the bunker's occupants during the battle lies dead outside. AWM 014082

A second world war military plane on a flight.

Among the variety of aircraft used by the RAAF Special Transport Flight were twelve Hudsons of No. 1 Operational Training Unit. As well as dropping supplies and ferrying troops, the Hudson in the foreground (photographed in Australia before the battle) flew General Blamey to Buna on 5 January 1943 for his inspection of the battle area. AWM 006878

A fallen military plane being inspected by a group of male soldiers.

Australian troops look over a Japanese aircraft captured inside the Buna beachhead. Some aircraft used the strip before the battle. This Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero (Allied codename 'Hamp', noting its squared wing-tips) was damaged in Allied air raids and abandoned. AWM 014042

Male soldiers gathered around at night in front of a accordian player.

YMCA representative Fern Hooper, known to all as 'Ferdie', plays his accordion and chats with troops outside his tea hut at Soputa. His first hut had been way back at Owers Corner, at the head of the Kokoda Track. Other YMCA and Salvation Army representatives were in the area. AWM 013869

A group of male soldiers helping to put injured troops into the back of a car.

Badly wounded Australian troops, believed to be from the 55/53rd Battalion, are loaded into a car converted into an ambulance by resourceful troops. The car evidently had been captured by the Japanese at Singapore and transported to New Guinea. AWM 013858

Male soldiers making their way on foot through a jungle landscape.

Troops of the 2/7th Cavalry Regiment make their way through a swamp to forward positions on the Sanananda front. It was unpleasant and hard going. Men identified are Dave Herbert (front left), Fred Oughton (behind him, far rear), Bill Paton (second from right) and 'Blue'Dawson (right). AWM 013971

A man on a stretcher being loaded onto a military plane by male soldiers.

A badly wounded or seriously ill soldier is loaded onto a C-47 transport aircraft for evacuation to Port Moresby. Within a short time, he would be receiving further treatment and care in one of the hospitals at the base, and from there would most likely be taken to Australia. AWM 014045

A graveyard with graves marked with wooden crosses, one has 'NATIVE BOY' written on it.

The grave of a Papua New Guinean in the small graveyard at Soputa. Carriers and labourers also came under fire or were victims of disease, and were among the casualties suffered when enemy aircraft strafed the main dressing station at Soputa. AWM 30208/15

Male soldiers lining up in front of a wooden building with plates in their hands waiting to receive food.

American reinforcements, probably of the 163 Infantry Regiment, line up for 'chow' at a transit camp in the forward area. These men took part in the final attacks on the Sanananda Track. AWM 014146

Two shirtless indigenous men carrying a stretchered male soldier on their shoulders.

Carriers bring a wounded man down a waterlogged track on the Sanananda Track. In this area, which even Jeeps could not get into, the carriers continued to deliver supplies and evacuate casualties. It was arduous and unpleasant work. AWM 014249

Two male soldiers lying down on their stomachs and aiming their rifles.

Sergeant Stuart Cumming (left) and Private Douglas Page of the 2/7th Cavalry Regiment AIF man a fox-hole, with weapons at the ready, in the Sanananda Track area, possibly at Huggins' Road Block. Page was the son of the politician Sir Earle Page. AWM 014212

A scene of devastation with dead male soldiers among boxes and debris.

The tragedy of war was evident on each battle area strewn with bodies of dead Japanese and Allied troops. Pictured are Japanese killed at Gona, with similar sights apparent on every front. The Japanese had proved a tough, determined and capable enemy. AWM 013878

A male soldier placing a cross into the ground to mark the site of a grave inside a graveyard.

Padre Alan Begbie marks the grave of an Australian soldier with a simple wooden cross. The men buried in improvised cemeteries around Buna, Gona and Sanananda were later reinterred in the Port Moresby (Bomana) War Cemetery, with the missing commemorated on the Port Moresby (Bomana) Memorial to the Missing. AWM 013853


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