The Bougainville campaign was one of the final campaigns of the war in the Pacific. Waged largely by militia formations, it proved to be a well fought although costly encounter against Japanese forces on three fronts. It wrapped up a series of actions and campaigns waged against the Japanese by Australian, American, Fijian and New Zealand forces, beginning at the time of the Japanese invasion of Bougainville and the adjacent Buka Island in early 1942.
Bougainville and Buka are the two northern islands of the Solomon Islands group. Before World War II they were held by Australia under a League of Nations mandate. The remainder of the Solomon Islands was a British Protectorate administered from Tulagi, which was to be the next Japanese objective. Tulagi is a small island off the south coast of Florida, north across a narrow strait from Guadalcanal. Other islands in the Solomons include Savo, Malaita, San Cristobal, New Georgia, Choiseul, Shortland, Vella Lavella and Rendova. The Japanese were intent on capturing the entire group.
In January 1942, only a small number of Australians were on Bougainville and Buka Islands. The 1st Independent Company, which was based at Kavieng, New Ireland, maintained a detached section on Buka as part of the forward air observation line. The Royal Australian Navy also had several coastwatchers in position—mostly civilian planters who had volunteered to report on enemy activities even if the island was occupied. That the Japanese were showing an interest in the islands was made apparent on the morning of 23 January 1942, just after the fall of Rabaul and Kavieng. Japanese floatplanes appeared over Buka Island and northern Bougainville, bombing and strafing several buildings and vessels. Troops at one observation post returned fire, possibly shooting down one of the floatplanes, though this was not confirmed. Lieutenant Jack Mackie, section commander, then distributed his troops at several observation posts from north Buka to south Bougainville.
On 29 January 1942, Japanese Imperial Headquarters ordered Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to plan for the occupation of Lae and Salamaua in New Guinea, with follow-up operations against Port Moresby and Tulagi in the Solomons. It was the latter operation that saw the Japanese making firm plans to invade Bougainville and Buka. The objective was to secure an anchorage to support operations further east in the Solomons. Five weeks after the order had been issued, naval forces set out from Rabaul to seize Lae and Salamaua to the south and Queen Carola Harbour on Buka Island to the east. Two cruisers and six destroyers sailed for Queen Carola Harbour in north Buka. Lance-Corporal Jack Matthews was one of a party at Kessa, overlooking the harbour:
At 0900 hours on 9 March 1942, we noticed a number of ships on the horizon, which appeared to be approaching. This proved to be so, and later we could identify them as Japanese naval vessels ... Sig Sly immediately tried to contact [naval coastwatcher] WJ Read on the radio for half an hour but with no success. During this time the ships were getting very close, so I decided to dismantle and hide the radio in case they should land in our vicinity.
The Australians continued observing the warships. Eventually they got a message to Read, who was able to inform authorities at Port Moresby. Tragically, a press release back in Melbourne noted that Japanese ships had visited Kessa, so the Japanese knew to return in search of coastwatchers. A planter, Percy Goode, was killed and a missionary was taken prisoner.
By the end of April 1942, having consolidated their positions in New Guinea, the Japanese were ready to step up operations and launch 'Operation Mo', the occupation of Port Moresby and Tulagi. The intention was to establish air bases in southern New Guinea to facilitate air operations against northern Australia, take Nauru and Ocean Islands with their phosphate deposits, and capture the Solomons to cut across the most direct Australia – United States shipping routes. Tulagi was occupied without opposition on 3 May. The Battle of the Coral Sea stopped the Port Moresby invasion force, and the Battle of Midway, north-west of Hawaii, was a further setback to the Japanese as they lost the aircraft carriers needed to support their operations in the Solomons. Three months later, the American 1st Marine Division landed at Tulagi and Guadalcanal Islands, starting the battle to reclaim the Solomons.
Buka and Bougainville had been overrun by the end of April. The Australian coastwatchers—appointed to the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve in the hope it might offer them some protection under the Geneva Convention if captured—and the troops of the 1st Independent Company remained to observe Japanese land, sea and air activities. They were able to give warning of enemy shipping movements and impending attacks on the American forces at Tulagi and Guadalcanal. The observation posts of Lieutenant John Read in northern Bougainville and Lieutenant Paul Mason in southern Bougainville were especially important to the Americans because they were very well placed to give warnings.
Read was in the best position to warn of impending enemy air attacks on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, giving two hours advance notice. The importance of this was noted by an historian of the coastwatching operations:
This lengthy warning enabled the various Allied commands to prepare accordingly. Shipping could be dispersed from highly vulnerable concentrated areas to widely scattered positions of maximum safety. And fighter aircraft had time to be fueled, armed, and dispatched to high altitudes—ready to pounce on the attacking force. In addition, naval warships were able to form a defensive antiaircraft perimeter around the beachhead. The element of surprise—the best weapon in any assault—was taken away from the Japanese. That meant that coast watching alone was responsible for the success of the air war.
Mason, overlooking Buin in south Bougainville, was in an excellent position to report ship movements. Extracts from Jane's Fighting Ships were air-dropped to him, enabling Mason to send very accurate identifications. Messages were kept short and simple. For example, on 7 August 1942, after spotting enemy aircraft heading for Guadalcanal, Mason signalled:
From STO. Twenty-four torpedo-bombers headed yours.
The code-name STO used the initials of Mason's married sister. With this warning, all but one of the Japanese aircraft were shot down and no American or Australian ships were damaged. On another occasion, Mason reported at least sixty-one Japanese ships heading for Guadalcanal. So vital was their contribution that Admiral William 'Bull' Halsey, United States Navy commander of the forces retaking the Solomons, declared: 'The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific'.
By February 1943, the American forces were in control of Guadalcanal. Plans were made to withdraw the independent company troops. Sadly, in the last weeks of supporting them, a Catalina flying boat of 11 Squadron RAAF crashed while dropping supplies. Three men were killed and six badly injured, of whom four were captured and killed. Eventually, the troops and airmen, along with some missionaries and planters, were taken out by American submarine. Relief troops operated for a few months before they, too, were withdrawn.
Many of the 13000 Japanese troops withdrawn from the Guadalcanal area ended up on Bougainville and Buka Islands. A force was built up to defend the islands. In June and July, the Americans landed in the New Georgia island group and captured four airfields, all in Allied fighter range of Bougainville.
On 1 November 1943, the 3rd Marine Division, United States Marine Corps (USMC), landed at Torokina on the northern side of Empress Augusta Bay. Rather than retake the whole of Bougainville, the Americans planned only to take the Torokina area and build airfields to support the 'island hopping' advance west.
The marines disembarked under fire, and after fierce fighting established themselves ashore, losing seventy-eight killed and 104 wounded on the first day. They might have suffered greater losses if Sergeant Robert Allen Owens, USMC, had not rushed a 75-mm gun position under cover of fire from four riflemen, killing or driving off the Japanese crew before he died of wounds received in his assault. He was posthumously awarded the United States Medal of Honor.
Also to be killed was an Australian war correspondent, Keith Palmer, filing for The Herald in Melbourne and Newsweek in the United States. He had landed on the first day, and on 6 November returned to the press tent to file another story. Technical Sergeant Ted Link, a Marine combat correspondent, recalled:
Palmer was sleeping in the press tent with several other marines and correspondents ... Vicious air attacks continued all night—so fast and furious we didn't get a chance to more than start our foxholes. The attacks got worse after midnight and one Jap plane ... came over low and dropped a 500 pound [230 kg] bomb about 40 feet [13 m] from the press tent. It blew a hole 12 feet [4 m] deep and 30 feet [10 m] in circumference, killing some marines in the nearby Signal Corps camp ... A piece of shell struck Palmer in the forehead—just a tiny piece—-but he was dead within a few minutes.
Despite these attacks and also resistance on the ground, the marines were able to expand their perimeter to over 20 kilometres in length before they were relieved by two US Army infantry divisions. American and New Zealand engineers constructed the airfields and base facilities required for aircraft to operate out of Torokina against targets further west.
Fighting died down in the Torokina area until March 1944, when the Japanese launched a determined offensive. For three weeks, the Americans fought off numerous attacks. In this tough fighting, 263 Americans were killed, but the Japanese lost some 5000 troops. Following these assaults the Americans expanded their perimeter, but in the main they adopted a 'live and let live' attitude towards the Japanese. However, some long range patrolling was undertaken, particularly by the Fijian Infantry Battalion attached to the Americans. Also operating on the island were Allied Intelligence Bureau patrols, including some former members of the 1st Independent Company who returned to Bougainville.
It was during this period, before the Australian takeover on the island, that the action leading to the first Victoria Cross on Bougainville took place. On 23 June 1944, a Fijian patrol was ambushed at Mawaraka, on the southern side of Empress Augusta Bay. Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu crawled forward to rescue some wounded men, but was seriously wounded on a further attempt. Unable to move any farther, and cut off by heavy fire, he called to his men not to try and rescue him as he was in a very exposed position. His men replied that they would never leave him to fall alive into the hands of the enemy. Realising that his men would not withdraw as long as they could see that he was alive, and knowing that they were themselves all in danger of being killed or captured as long as they remained where they were, Corporal Sukanaivalu, well aware of the consequences, raised himself up in front of the Japanese machine-gun and was riddled with bullets. Months later, after the Australians arrived in Bougainville, the body of Corporal Sukanaivalu was recovered, and he is buried at Rabaul (Bita Paka) War Cemetery. His posthumous Victoria Cross was the first of three such awards for valour on Bougainville.
As early as March 1944, Australia's senior commanders anticipated that the Americans would request that Australian troops replace American troops in the New Guinea mainland, New Britain and Bougainville. The Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces, General Sir Thomas Blamey, planned to garrison these areas using the 3rd, 5th and 11th Divisions, all militia formations. The 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) would be held ready for a possible task in the Philippines. The difference between these divisions was that the 3rd, 5th and 11th had been formed from the pre-war Citizen Military Forces, called up for full-time duty originally for home defence and later also to serve in Australia's territories of Papua and New Guinea, while the AIF had been especially raised in 1939 for service anywhere in the world—and indeed the 6th, 7th and 9th had all served in the Middle East before returning to fight in New Guinea.
On 12 July, the American supreme commander of the Allied forces in the South-West Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, advised Blamey that Australian forces should assume responsibility for the continued neutralisation of the Japanese in Australian and British territory in the theatre by 1 November 1944. MacArthur rejected Blamey's proposal to replace six and a half American divisions with seven brigades—essentially, two and one-third divisions—and insisted that he use twelve brigades, including five assigned to Bougainville and the outer islands.
Lieutenant General Stanley Savige, commanding II Australian Corps, was ordered to relieve the American divisions on Bougainville and nearby islands and then 'to gain information which would assist the preparation of a plan for the total reduction of the Japanese troops on Bougainville'. When the Australians sought up-to-date information they found that the Australian coastwatchers, controlled by the Allied Intelligence Bureau, had been withdrawn in March 1944 when the Americans indicated they were no longer interested in the enemy's activities outside the Torokina perimeter. In September, the coastwatchers were called forward again to resume work with their trusted Bougainville villagers and their wireless sets.
The first American division to be replaced by Australian troops was the 93rd, in the outer islands, such as Green Island, relieved by the Australian 23rd Brigade. This brigade was originally formed as part of the ill-fated 8th Australian Division, most of which had been lost in the opening campaigns against the Japanese. The 23rd Brigade headquarters remained at Darwin when its three battalions were detached to Rabaul, Ambon and Timor, where they were overrun in early 1942. With the headquarters still intact, the brigade was reformed with militia battalions, and after service in Darwin, north Queensland and New Guinea it opened its headquarters on Green Island on 27 September 1944, with units on Emirau, Mono and New Georgia Islands.
On Bougainville, the Americans were replaced by the 3rd Australian Division, comprising the 7th, 15th and 29th Brigades, together with the 11th Brigade. The four brigades had seen fighting in New Guinea. The 7th, for example, had fought at Milne Bay in 1942, while the 15th had seen some sixteen months of operational service by the time it reached Bougainville. While these were militia units, by 1944 many soldiers in them had volunteered for the AIF and had been issued with an AIF 'X' service number; when seventy-five per cent of a unit had volunteered it was entitled to be called an AIF unit, or more commonly was referred to as a 'brackets AIF' unit because its new status would be shown in brackets, for example 58th/59th Battalion (AIF). This system meant that within each unit there were men who had signed on for the AIF and others who steadfastly remained militia, although as Lance-Corporal Peter Medcalf, 15th Battalion, commented, 'the difference between militiamen and AIF lasted about two seconds after the first shots were fired in anger'.
Most of the units on Bougainville achieved the 75 per cent target, so the 3rd Division became essentially an AIF division. It was an island and campaign that many Queenslanders, in particular, would be associated with. Eight of the twelve infantry battalions sent to the island originally were raised in Queensland—all the militia battalions from that State. Although reinforcements to these battalions came from every other state and territory, more than half of the men of each battalion still belonged to its home State. Thus the burden of the jungle fighting on Bougainville fell particularly heavily on Queenslanders.
On 22 November 1944, II Australian Corps formally took over from the American XIV Corps. The handover happened quickly and the last American combatant unit was relieved on 12 December. Thereafter, the American presence on the island diminished rapidly, with only small numbers of specialist and transport troops remaining for some months longer.
What the Australians found themselves occupying, and soon to conquer, was a corner of an island that is 200 kilometres long and up to 75 kilometres wide. The mountain chain that forms its backbone rises to 8000 metres at Mount Balbi, an active volcano. The main population areas are in the south-east and east, in wide flat country, with high forest and dense undergrowth covering the rest of the island up to the 4500 metre contour, where scantier moss forest begins. The temperature is generally hot and humid, although the beaches are pleasantly cool at night.
The Australian troops found the conditions at the main base at Torokina superior to what they had experienced in New Guinea. The historian of the 58th/59th Battalion, which had fought with distinction in the Wau–Salamau campaign and on to Madang, wrote that the general standard of comfort in the area was greater than anything the troops had known before:
All troops were supplied with folding cots. A battalion saw-mill was established and provided timber not only for mess huts, etc, but also for shower units and recreation centres. An education centre was set up, containing the unit library, gramophone and records, and educational material. An amenities centre was also established, containing YMCA hut, picture theatre (also used for concerts and boxing ring), reading room and sports area. A unit broadcasting station operated over the battalions public address system, giving news bulletins and musical programmes. Sporting facilities existed for the playing of football, cricket, softball, basketball and volley-ball, and frequent swimming parades were held at Torokina beach. Food had greatly improved since the New Guinea days (the battalion operated its own vegetable garden) and there was a general issue of beer to all troops who wanted it.
The men in the battalions would look back on the days of Torokina fondly. Once ordered out into the operational areas, either in the mountains or heading north or south along the coasts, the likes of broadcasting systems, sporting facilities and general beer issues could only be dreamt of.
Air support was to be provided primarily by the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). Two, and later four, squadrons of Corsair fighter-bombers would prove invaluable to the ground forces, 'softening up' enemy positions with precision bombing ahead of many infantry attacks. The New Zealanders were supported by 84 (Army Co-operation) Wing RAAF, which provided light transportation, supply dropping, tactical reconnaissance and target marking capabilities. The wing arrived on Bougainville on 8 October 1944. The main unit was 5 (Tactical Reconnaissance) Squadron, equipped with Boomerangs and Wirraways, together with 10 Local Air Supply Unit flying Beauforts modified to carry and drop supplies (known as 'Beaufreighters'), 17 (Air Observation Post) Flight with Auster light aircraft, and 39 Operational Base Unit providing logistical support.
From an early stage in the campaign, the troops knew that the value of the operations and of their efforts was being questioned by politicians and the press in Australia. However, despite the controversy over the military worth of this and other 'final campaigns' the well-trained and disciplined troops remained committed. The historian of the 24th Battalion wrote:
The critics have implied, on some occasions, that the Australian troops generally were opposed to the operations and were reluctant to carry out instructions. If such a situation ever existed it certainly did not manifest itself in the 24th Battalion ... the men never were in doubt that they were opposed to skilful and courageous adversaries who neither asked [for] nor gave quarter ... as in New Guinea, the prime object was to outwit, outflank and outfight the Japanese until he capitulated.
The Australians were opposed by the Japanese 17th Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutake until February 1945 and then by Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda. In the north were 4000 Japanese marines in the Buka area; on the north-east coast was the 18th Independent Mixed Brigade; on the east coast around Kieta was the 45th Regiment; in the south were the 13th and 23rd Regiments, as well as 3500 naval troops.
Numa Numa Trail
Although the main Japanese force was in the south of Bougainville, it was in the central sector along the Numa Numa Trail that the Australian campaign opened. The trail—so named by the Americans—traversed the island from the Torokina perimeter along a gorge, up an escarpment and then along a saddle of the main range to the east coast. American troops had advanced along the trail to take control of the heights above Torokina.
Responsibility for taking over in the forward area was handed to the 7th Brigade, which had arrived from Madang a few days earlier. Its 9th Battalion was ordered into the mountains first. It took two days for the troops, moving at a slow but steady pace, to climb what was, in the words of the battalion war diarist, 'arduous country of mountains and gorges making the trip long and tiresome'. He added that when the forward party reached the American positions above the escarpment, they were 'greeted by bearded and ragged US Forces who had been in the front defences for almost a month'. The Australians began relieving the Americans on 22 November 1944. Two days later, at 1.50 pm, a single shot from enemy territory opposite the D Company lines welcomed the Australians to the operational area—fortunately, nobody was hit. The first attack by the Australians took place on 29 November. The war diarist explained:
Some idea of the tenseness of the situation may be conjectured when consideration is given to the fact that for many of the tps engaged it was their first time in contact with the enemy. However, despite this, they moved to their assembly area ... with the air of veterans of many campaigns.
Well trained and disciplined, the Australians' attack went well. They took the nearest Japanese positions, on the reverse slope of the hill opposite, for the loss of one man, Private Edwin Barges, killed, another, Private Kenneth Martin, dying of wounds and five others wounded. An enemy counter-attack was staved off. Weeks of patrolling, probing and clashes were followed by another attack on 18 December, with air and artillery support, taking the next key position, Arty Hill.
The 25th Battalion relieved the 9th Battalion and took the next feature, Pearl Ridge, at the end of the month. Intelligence had suggested that one company of Japanese previously pushed out of Arty Hill was holding the position. Stronger than expected resistance was encountered, with ten Australians killed and twenty-five wounded. A report on the action explained:
We know now that the attack on Pearl Ridge was launched not against a Japanese company, as was then believed, but against a battalion of fresh troops strongly dug in. Its capture by an Australian battalion whose experience of battle was limited to a brief encounter more than two years before was thus one of the outstanding feats of arms in this campaign and a striking demonstration of the effectiveness of the Australian force's training and tactics.
From the ridgeline, the Australians could see the coasts of both sides of the island.
On 1 January 1945, the 11th Brigade took over this front as well as the advance to the north of Bougainville. There was an interchange of battalions between the relatively quiet Pearl Ridge operations and the advance in the north towards the Soraken Peninsula. At Pearl Ridge, although the Australians could now see the sea in the distance in front of them, as well as behind them, no advance was contemplated at this stage. Each of the 11th Brigade's battalions did a tour of four to six weeks in the sector, the 26th Battalion until 2 February, the 55th/53rd until 15 March and the 31st/51st until 18 April. Each battalion held the Pearl Ridge position while patrolling, often clashing with Japanese troops.
In the rear, engineers, including men of the 5th and 16th Field Companies, battled to improve the tracks leading into the mountains. The first priority was to ensure the tracks remained open to 'native carriers' carrying supplies and evacuating the wounded and sick. The engineers started their work on the coastal plains, putting a great deal of effort into building fords across rivers and streams. Then a bulldozer was hauled forward to build a Jeep track into the mountains to lift the capacity of the supply line.
In April 1945, the 23rd Brigade, having moved to Bougainville from the outer islands, replaced the 11th Brigade in the central sector so that it could focus on the northern advance. Its 27th Battalion patrolled deeply but was under orders not to attack in strength. In six weeks, it made forty-eight patrols and killed 122 Japanese for the loss of four Australians killed and nine wounded. The 7th Battalion relieved the 27th Battalion in June and was given a more active role. Advancing from Pearl Ridge, the 7th attacked and captured a series of Japanese positions. In June it took Wearne's Hill, and in July pushed further ahead while establishing an observation post that overlooked the big Numa Numa plantation on the east coast. In August 1945, McInnes Hill was captured and patrolling and clashes continued until the order was received on 11 August to suspend hostilities. The 7th Battalion history recorded:
Col Dunkley advised his troops to suspend all operations against the enemy, unless attacked. He further advised that leaflets were to be dropped in the Japanese areas. Unfortunately, the enemy had not yet received word of the impending surrender, and on 13 August, 11 Pl was fired upon by LMG and rifle fire, resulting in V220096 Pte E J Bahr being killed.
Japanese snipers were still active on 15 August and Australian artillery fired in reply. In two months of fighting, the 7th Battalion had killed nearly 200 Japanese for the loss of 23 killed and 52 wounded.
The 3rd Division was also given the role of destroying the Japanese in south Bougainville. In late November 1944, the 29th Brigade (15th, 42nd and 47th Battalions) replaced the Americans north of the Jaba River and began extensive patrols. Then, on 28 December, the brigade was ordered to advance south along the coast. The Japanese resisted but the Australians steadily gained ground. On the inland flank was the 2/8th Commando Squadron, which encountered its first Japanese when they ventured into what they believed to be an American campsite. Trooper Alan Blythe recalled that they were:
... the first live specimens of the hated enemy seen at close range. Two of the Japs looked very uneasy whilst the other one, smiling and bowing, seemed quite pleased with himself. It turned out that he had worked on an American liner for a few years before the war and ... he'd influenced the others to desert by convincing them that they would not be tortured or eaten by the Americans, a fate their leaders had promised them if they were captured ... Their clothing was tattered, they were grubby and half starved as well.
Other encounters with the Japanese were more deadly. The Australians also found that the enemy held an advantage in knowing the country. Nevertheless, by 17 January 1945 the 29th Brigade had advanced 20 kms and secured the coast as far south as the village of Mawarak, which was entered without opposition. The brigade was relieved on 23 January by the 7th Brigade, which continued the advance towards the Puriata River.
Throughout the campaign, ground units had extensive air support from the Australian and New Zealand aircraft. The pilots of 5 Squadron RAAF had specialised in tactical reconnaissance over jungle and proved adept at picking out Japanese positions. To improve their skills further and provide the airmen with a greater appreciation for the job facing the infantrymen, the 7th Brigade's commander invited pilots to stay with the brigade for a few days so that they could:
... move along the tracks with the infantry so they could see what the bush hid. The tracks were wide enough to take heavy trucks but they were concealed by the overhanging canopy. Along these tracks the 7th Brigade patrols would advance. The Japanese method was to dig one pit at the base of a large tree and another covering pit behind it, each with a narrow escape route cut through the bush which would join a main escape route. When the leading pit came under heavy fire it would withdraw along the escape route and the covering pit machine gun would take over until its crew withdrew.
New Zealand pilots also sometimes accompanied the Australians on patrol. After several weeks of operating in the campaign, improvements in close air support were noticeable.
In the push south along the Buin Road, the infantry was also supported by Matilda tanks of the 2/4th Armoured Regiment. Trooper Royce Whatley, B Squadron, described the composition of an armoured squadron:
There was the headquarters troop, and 5 troops consisting of 3 tanks in each troop. There was 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 troops. Each troop was commandeered by a lieutenant, with a sergeant, 3 corporals and 20-odd men to make up the crews of the tanks. The different troops were allocated to different battalions for the push down the Buin Road.
The tanks slowly advanced against strong points, covered by infantrymen walking alongside. If it was not possible to advance down the main road, they could also try 'scrub bashing' around machine-gun posts. They helped reduce Australian casualties in frontal and flanking attacks.
The 9th Battalion advanced towards Mosigetta against Japanese tactics of fighting from ambush positions flanked by swamps and dense bush, mining the road, cutting signal wires and mounting night counter-attacks. The Australians responded with mortar and artillery fire, but if this failed, wide and deep outflanking moves had to be made. Although losses were not particularly heavy, conditions were extremely uncomfortable and there was a constant sense of danger. The 61st Battalion linked up with the 9th Battalion at Mosigetta on 17 February 1945, and by 1 March patrols from both battalions, and a detachment of the 25th Battalion, had reached the Puriata River along a wide front.
The 25th Battalion crossed the Puriata River on 4 March 1945 and soon ran into heavy Japanese resistance. The battalion established its base close to where the Puriata converged with Buin Road at Slater's Knoll. The Japanese were strongly dug in along Buin Road, with artillery regularly lobbing shells at Slater's Knoll. A company advancing along the road was surrounded and persistently attacked for three days. The 25th Battalion attacked on a two company front on 19 March and forced the Japanese back from their positions to an extensive system of pill-boxes at a road junction.
On 22 March, the new position was attacked. It had been 'softened up' by artillery bombardments, with the assistance of Auster light aircraft spotting for the guns, before eight New Zealand Corsairs swept in and bombed the enemy positions. During the attack by the 25th Battalion, Corporal Reg Rattey led his section, firing a Bren gun from the hip, until he was on top of the first Japanese weapon-pit. He flung in a grenade and called his men forward. Using the same tactics, he killed the Japanese in two more weapon-pits. He then advanced on a Japanese machine-gun post and, with his Bren gun, killed one of the gun team, wounded another, and put the rest to flight. Rattey's action enabled the advance to continue and the company gained its objective within the hour. For his outstanding courage, Rattey was awarded the Victoria Cross. It was the first gained by an Australian on Bougainville.
Intelligence indicated that the Japanese would launch a major counter-attack in April 1945, with the brunt falling on the 25th Battalion. The attack was prefaced by a series of raids on the Australian lines of communication and on troops in the rear. The positions of the 25th Battalion were probed and attacked from 27 March onwards. Sergeant Errol 'Jorgy' Jorgensen of A Company, 25th Battalion, described the situation:
B Company went across the other side, what was left of them, and dug in on the other side of the junction and we dug in on this side ... We were pretty well dug in, we had crawl trenches and everything like that and ... the Japanese attacked B Company and over ran them because only half of them had been left behind there [in their main positions] while the other half had been on patrol and what was left of B Company came in with us. This was Easter, March ... 1945 and we were completely surrounded for the Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
Many of the attacks fell on the sector commanded by Jorgy Jorgensen. He exposed himself to enemy fire while directing his men dragging forward ammunition. Although wounded, he took over a Bren gun whose gunner was badly hit and halted a Japanese bayonet charge. For his gallantry, he was awarded the Military Medal.
The Japanese offensive culminated on 5 April with a major assault against Slater's Knoll. On 6 April, a Boomerang of 5 Squadron led in thirty-four Corsairs in a close support air strike for the 7th Brigade, which helped in breaking the enemy attack. In ten days of fighting around Slater's Knoll, about 620 Japanese were killed and about 1000 wounded. The 7th Brigade was relieved after ten weeks in the front lines during which the 25th Battalion, which had suffered the brunt of the enemy attacks, lost ten officers and 179 other ranks killed and wounded.
New Zealand Corsairs, led in by the Boomerangs, continued pounding enemy positions and lines of communication as the Australians moved forward again. They blasted opposition immediately in the infantry's path—so effective was the bombing, the Australians often moved into positions where every tree was shattered. Mitchell bombers and Catalina flying boats of the United States Marine Corps laid on further repeated heavy attacks against enemy communications, supply dumps and defensive positions.
A lull followed the Japanese offensive and the Australian establishment of fresh positions. The 15th Brigade (24th, 57/60th and 58/59th Battalions) was not able to renew the offensive until the roads were upgraded so that supplies could be brought forward. However, patrols were sent forward and on 16 April a 24th Battalion patrol in the vicinity of Anderson's Junction was attacked from a machine-gun post at a range of ten metres. The patrol took cover, but a Bren gunner was left wounded on the track beyond two logs. The wounded man appeared to be doomed, but Corporal Max Maritz left the safety of his covered position to attempt a rescue. The battalion historian described his efforts:
Maritz crept across the logs under heavy fire, and in a crouching position, dragged this wounded man over the first log. The gunner's wounds prevented Maritz from dragging him over the higher second log, so he returned under a hail of fire for assistance. An Owen gunner went out with him and as they were lifting the wounded man over the log, the Owen gunner was hit by machine-gun bullets and fell. Maritz ... dragged his assistant to safety across 25 yards of open ground. Then Maritz with two field dressings went out again to bring in the first victim. In the act of getting him over the log the wounded man was hit by a burst of fire, but it missed Maritz. The wounded man died and Maritz ran the gauntlet of enemy fire for the fourth time returning to safety unscathed.
Maritz was awarded the Military Medal for his efforts.
The 15th Brigade advance opened on 17 April. The 24th Battalion, with three companies supported by a creeping barrage, advanced against enemy positions around Dawe's Creek, which was taken after heavy fighting in which the battalion suffered twenty-six casualties. The battalion then reached Sindou Creek, where it beat back Japanese counter-attacks. On 26 April, guided by two Wirraways of 5 Squadron, some New Zealand Corsairs bombed and machine-gunned the enemy's area to within 300 metres of the Australian positions. The undergrowth was cleared for some distance each side of the road. The advance along Buin Road continued, with a creeping barrage fired by artillery and mortars preceding the advancing infantry. There was little opposition. By 28 April the 24th Battalion was about one-third of the distance from the Puriata to the next major objective, the Hongorai River.
After three weeks of fighting to gain 7000 yards [6.5 km], the Hongorai River was reached on 7 May. The cost had been 120 killed or wounded, against which 169 Japanese dead were counted. Despite the tough going, the forward troops were being well supplied, as engineers had put great effort into improving the road behind the advance. The 58th/59th Battalion's historian observed:
Rations were good, and all troops except those on long-range patrols were getting at least one meal of fresh meat each day. At the end of April, it was even possible for a patrol to return from an engagement with the enemy and to proceed immediately to a film show established at a nearby air dropping ground. The YMCA representative ... maintained coffee stalls on the Buin Road. A jeep and trailer, fitted as a mobile canteen, was continually in operation with forward troops. Early in May, a rest camp was established on the beach near Toko and fighting troops took it in turns to spend some days relaxing away from battle.
Such facilities were essential, for jungle warfare was gruelling, and without some periods of rest and improved rations the health of troops could deteriorate rapidly.
The advance continued to be supported by Matilda tanks of the 2/4th Armoured Regiment. However, the Japanese intended to make the Australians pay a price for each advance and had learnt how to slow the tanks. On many occasions, leading tanks were fired on at close range by cleverly concealed guns, the Japanese willing to trade a field gun for a tank. On sections of the Buin Road, concealed mines and booby-trapped bombs threatened the tanks. Sappers of the 7th Bomb Disposal Platoon were brought in to advance with the tanks. The 2/4th Armoured Regiment historian observed:
These boys did a remarkable job; briefly it consisted of walking down a track through the jungle, in front of the tanks, with infantry creeping through the undergrowth on their flanks, while they prodded an old bayonet into the ground to feel if there were any mines there. The fact that the first sight that the Japs would have of the approach of our troops was that of a tank rolling down the road with a man brandishing a bayonet and frequently stopping while he deloused and pulled up a mine, didn't appear to worry these fellows.
The Japanese tactics improved, with each forward Australian battalion coming under frequent artillery fire, directed by observers close to the Australian positions. The shells usually burst in the trees, and their fragments were scattered over a wide area, with lethal effects. The Japanese then established their positions 100 metres from the main track so that Australian tanks could not reach the positions until side tracks had been cleared.
As well as better Japanese tactics, Australian logistics were also a major factor in slowing the advance. Although the roads were being improved for Jeeps to carry supplies, the supply lines were now becoming stretched. Water transport offered a promise of better supply, but there was no suitable barge landing point on the coast in the Aitara area or at Mamagota. This meant the Australians were reliant on the Buin Road being upgraded further to carry 3-tonne trucks, and this meant further delays. Air drops helped a little in supplementing the supplies carried on corduroyed tracks by Jeep 'trains', but they were not enough to sustain an advance. Until sufficient stores had been brought forward, the Australians could not resume the offensive.
The Royal Australian Navy played a part at this time in harassing Japanese forces. One of the ships involved was the corvette HMAS Colac, which took part in operations to prevent Japanese troops to the south on Choiseul Island from evacuating to Bougainville, and to harass the enemy on the coast ahead of the Australian positions. During these operations Colac sustained casualties when, on the night of 25–26 May 1945, the warship received two hits from enemy shore batteries. The first shell killed two ratings and wounded two others, while the second struck the ship on the waterline. She began to settle by the stern, but after moveable stores, depth charges and other fittings had been jettisoned, she was able to proceed to Treasury Island and eventually back to Sydney for repairs.
From the Hongorai River
to the Mivo River
Still in the south, the 57th/60th Battalion began a diversionary advance on 17 May, three days prior to the main attack across the Hongorai. Supported by air attacks and artillery bombardment, the battalion crossed the upper Hongorai and advanced on a wide front, and by 11.35 am had secured the Commando Road beyond the river. In preparation for the main attack that was to follow on 20 May, all four of the New Zealand Corsair squadrons—14, 16, 22 and 26 Squadrons RNZAF—attacked along the axis of the Commando and Buin Roads for eight days, when for each day except one, some forty to sixty-three sorties were made. In addition to leading in many Corsair strikes, the Australian pilots in Boomerangs and Wirraways also carried out artillery spotting.
On 20 May on Buin Road, the main advance recommenced with attacks by the 24th and 58th/59th Battalions. The bombardment had been successful, and after some sharp clashes the advancing infantry found the area west of the Hari River abandoned. After consolidating the newly won positions, the main advance resumed on 2 June behind deadly air and artillery bombardments. Patrols had reached the Hari River by 5 June, but when the main body of the 58th/59th advanced along the Buin Road, it met heavy fire and the tanks were delayed by boggy ground. Skilfully, and with orders to minimise their own casualties, the Australians probed and attacked the Japanese over the following days.
Meanwhile the 57th/60th Battalion moved along Commando Road, and by mid-June both it and the 58th/59th were beyond the Hari River. The Japanese put up a strong defence in front of the Mobia River, which was reached on 25 June. The next objective was the Mivo River, which was reached by a series of wide flanking moves carried out skilfully with few casualties. However, many minor actions were fought by the 15th Brigade in between the major battles and its losses were heavier than any other brigade on Bougainville, with thirty-two officers and 493 men killed or wounded.
During the 3rd Division's advance south from the Jaba River to the Mivo River, the 2/8th Commando Squadron protected its flank. Further inland, the Allied Intelligence Bureau, led by Australians but with native guerrillas, created a reign of terror among the well armed and trained Japanese troops. It is estimated that this force killed over 2000 Japanese in eight months of operations. The 29th Brigade replaced the 15th Brigade and was to cross the Mivo River on 3 July, but continuing heavy rain caused a series of postponements. Before the offensive could be launched, active patrolling ceased on 11 August, when it became clear the war would soon end.
The Northern Advance:
from Kuraia to Soraken
The advance in the northern sector commenced in January 1945. The 11th Brigade, which at this time was also still responsible for the Numa Numa Trail, was given the task of advancing north from Sipaai. The 31st/51st Battalion started the advance and soon ran into the Japanese on Tsimba Ridge, forward of the Genga River, some 8 kilometres south of Soraken.
On 6 February, in an attack preceded by artillery and mortar barrages, troops of the 31st/51st Battalion took most of the Tsimba ridgeline, on which the Japanese had prepared defensive positions. However, the Japanese clung on to one section of the ridgeline and on the next day counter-attacked. The Australians held onto their newly won ground and made a final attack on 9 February. More than sixty-six Japanese were killed in the fighting on this ridgeline, and seven pieces of artillery and nine machine-guns were captured.
The Australians had already begun moving forward, and with air and artillery support they captured the ridge overlooking Soraken on 19 February 1945. One of those who took part in a company attack reported:
The advance was up two spurs: two platoons up the left and one up the right. The Nips were well dug in and the majority were firing American Springfield rifles. We cleared the ridge with grenades and rifles and pushed on to find three pits and a hut in the rear. Two Japs killed by the grenades remained in the pits. The remainder had fled though one was shot careering down the slope. The company moved on down the ridge which was so narrow that the troops had to move down in single file. Just before dusk one of our men was killed ...
Others had been wounded, and it was a struggle to get them back about ten kilometres to the regimental aid post. Two days later, the 31st/51st Battalion, which had suffered thirty-four killed and ninety-one wounded in six weeks of fighting, was relieved for a well-earned rest.
During March, the 26th Battalion cleared the Japanese from the Soraken Peninsula and nearby islands in a series of skilful and difficult clashes. The Australians now had good observation of Soraken Harbour and Buka Island. These were the northern strong-points for Japanese forces. In early April 1945, the 26th Battalion was relieved by the 55th/53rd Battalion. In a further series of coordinated attacks, it moved towards Pora Pora with one company advancing along the coast and another along an inland track. It pushed the Japanese back to a line stretching across the neck of the Bonis Peninsula from Ruri Bay to Ratsua Inlet, effectively containing the Japanese within this narrow land mass. Late in May 1945, the 26th Battalion returned to relieve the 55th/53rd and continue northward, but it met opposition so stern that the 31st/51st Battalion was again brought forward. The Japanese doggedly resisted the Australians, who by now were weary from weeks of gruelling movement, patrolling and fighting and were far below strength.
With the advance stalled, a bold flanking manoeuvre was attempted. On 8 June, a reinforced company of the 31st/51st Battalion tried to outflank the Japanese by landing behind the lines at Porton Plantation. The company met resistance and then a stiff counter-attack, and the troops had to be withdrawn after forty-eight hours under heavy fire, having explained their situation in a succinct signal: 'We are now near the beach and getting hell'. Captain Stuart Leslie, 42nd Landing Craft Company, in charge of the landing craft used in the operation, remembered:
It got so desperate that we were ordered to evacuate them in broad daylight ... the three landing craft were all grounded and ... I had to get up in the middle of all this machine-gun fire and wave the army in [to the landing craft]. They came eventually through the water and the reef and got into the three landing craft. But they were all overloaded, and they just stayed on the bottom. The one I was in, I was waving the troops to get out, on the side away from the machine gun fire, so we could get it afloat, which we did, and then we could gradually move away from the beach.
It actually took hours to get the stranded craft moving. Fortunately they were bullet-proof, which prevented heavier losses as they were under fire for the whole of this time.
One craft was still stranded at dawn the next day when aircraft appeared overhead to give support. During the night, some Japanese had swum out and tried to lob grenades into the craft, and also swum around trying to entice the Australians out by pretending to be their countrymen, crying 'I am Johnson, come and help me' or 'I am blind and wounded'. Rescue attempts failed, and on the next night a Japanese soldier succeeded in clambering onto the stranded craft and fired a machine-gun among the thirty-eight occupants, many of whom were already wounded, killing two and wounding others before he was shot dead. Finally, before dawn, rescue craft got through and took off the thirty-eight survivors from the craft. Altogether, the Porton Plantation action cost twenty-three killed or missing and 106 wounded among the infantry and landing craft troops.
The 11th Brigade was relieved at the end of June by the 23rd Brigade, which was ordered to contain the Japanese in the Bonis Peninsula and to patrol towards Buka passage. Initially, the 8th and 27th Battalions operated on separate sides of the peninsula—but deadly Japanese raids, ambushed ration parties and cut signal wires behind Australian lines forced a rethink of this policy. Frequent clashes were fought forward and rear of the Australian positions.
On 21 July 1945, the 27th Battalion recorded that it had suffered ten killed and thirty-four wounded in the previous month although it had made no forward movement.
Approval was given on 22 July for the 23rd Brigade to concentrate on a 3000 metre front around the Buoi plantation. On 23 July, the 8th Battalion launched a company attack against a ridge and successfully took it. On the afternoon of the 24 July, two platoons were given the task of eliminating an enemy post that prevented the 8th Battalion's advance. The troops reached the first ridge without difficulty, but then came under fierce machine-gun, grenade and rifle fire. Private Frank Partridge's section came under particularly heavy fire and he was hit in the left arm and the left thigh. Despite his wounds, and disregarding the heavy fire, he retrieved a Bren gun from a dead gunner, passed it on to another man and told him to give covering fire. He then rushed the enemy bunker, silenced it with a grenade, and killed the only living occupant with his knife. He then rushed another bunker, but loss of blood caused him to halt and call for aid. His platoon moved forward but overwhelming enemy fire caused it to withdraw. The whole position was not taken that day, however it was abandoned by the Japanese soon after. For his valour, Partridge, aged twenty, was awarded the Victoria Cross—the youngest Australian recipient of the medal in World War II, the only serving member of the militia to receive the VC, and the last VC awarded to any British Commonwealth serviceman for a land action in that war.
In the last days before the war was declared over on 15 August 1945, fighting on all fronts began to die down. With victory imminent, the Australians were ordered to take no unnecessary risks.
On 18 August 1945, three days after the victory, a Japanese envoy entered Australian lines to begin negotiations for the surrender of all forces on Bougainville and Buka Islands. However, fighting was not necessary over and Australian minesweepers at Moila Point were fired upon on 20 August. The Japanese commander waited until the surrender of forces at Rabaul in New Britain on 8 September 1945 before surrendering his Bougainville command.
During the whole of the Bougainville campaign of 1944-45, more than 520 Australians lost their lives and more than 1500 were wounded. Of the 65,000 Japanese who were on the island when the Americans attacked in late 1943, only 24,000 survived to surrender.
The Australian final campaigns have on occasions been criticised as being unnecessary. When these operations commenced at the end of 1944, the end of the war was not in sight and many believed that the war could continue for some years. While some Australians were disappointed that Australian troops were not used in the Philippines, it has been overlooked that the operations in the Philippines and in Bougainville were similar. In retrospect it was quite appropriate in 1945 that, while American troops cleared the Philippines, Australians were doing the identical task of clearing Australian territory in New Guinea, New Britain and Bougainville. That the Australians did so while demonstrating skill and determination from start to finish is worthy of remembrance. With a minimum of resources, the Australian achievement was obtained with far less cost in human lives than comparable operations.
The official history Australia in the War of 1939–1945, published by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, has several volumes covering military operations in and around Bougainville, in particular during 1944–45. Army operations are in Gavin Long, The Final Campaigns (1963); air operations in George Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943–45 (1957); and naval operations in G Hermon Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942–1945 (1968). Medical services are in Allan S Walker, The Island Campaigns (1957) and Medical Services of the RAN and RAAF (1961).
A number of unit histories cover operations in the area. Those from which quotes were drawn include Anon., Tank Tracks: The war history of the 2/4th Australian Armoured Regimental Group (Sydney, 1953); Don Astill, Commando White Diamond: Unit history of the 2/8 Australian Commando Squadron (Loftus, 1996) including the quote of Trooper Alan Blythe; George Christensen, That's the way it was: The history of the 24th Australian Infantry Battalion (AIF) 1939–1945 (Melbourne, 1982) including the quote of Corporal Max Maritz; Peter J Denham, The Blue Diamonds; The history of the 7th Brigade (Melbourne, 1987); Russell Mathews, Militia Battalion at War: The history of the 58th/59th Australian Infantry Battalion in the Second World War (Melbourne, 1961); Alexander 'Sandy' McNab, We Were the First: The unit history of No 1 Independent Company (Loftus, 1998) including the quote of Lance-Corporal Jack Matthews; and Allan Pedder, The Seventh Battalion, 1936–1946 (Niddrie, 1989).
The coastwatching experience was described by the commanding officer, Eric Feldt, in The Coastwatchers (Melbourne, 1946). Another source quoted in this book, is AB Feuer (ed.) Coast Watching in the Solomon Islands: The Bougainville reports December 1941–July 1943 (1992).
Some memoirs of Americans, Australians and New Zealanders involved in the campaign have been published. One quoted in this book is Peter Medcalf, War in the Shadows: Bougainville, 1944–45 (Sydney, 1986). The memoir and historical summary by American war correspondent Doral Chenoweth, 54 War Correspondents KIA WWII, published on the internet, contains Technical Sergeant Ted Link's account of the death of Keith Palmer.
The Australian War Memorial website www.awm.gov.au has infantry brigade and battalion war diaries and those of some other units, available online, including the 7th, 9th and 25th Battalions quoted in this book. The Australians at War Film Archive, set up by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, is the source of quotes from Stuart Leslie and Royce Whatley. Transcripts are available on the internet at www.australiansatwarfilmarchive.gov.au.