The advance to the sea

After the Japanese defeat at Oivi-Gorari the next Allied objective was to take the Japanese base on the north coast between Gona and Buna...

Under the command of Australian Lt General Edmund Herring, the Allies advanced from two directions: From the south-east came the United States 32nd Division under Major General Edwin Harding. The American move along the coast towards Buna, their objective, was by sea and by air. Luggers, captured Japanese barges, indeed anything that would float, was pressed into this service. The majority of troops and heavy equipment came from Milne Bay via Porlock Harbour, Oro Bay and Hariko. Airfields at Wanigela, Pongani and Sepia were also used. The entire operation went undetected by the Japanese until 16 November when their aircraft discovered and sank half a dozen Allied vessels off Cape Sudest.

From the west, along the Kokoda-Sanananda track, came the Australian 7th Division under Major General George Vasey. The division crossed the Kumusi River on 15 November and advanced towards the sea. The 25th Brigade made for Gona while 16th Brigade marched along the Sanananda road.

As the Australians and Americans approached Buna-Gona they entered a vast tidal swamp. They found their advance channelled along a number of causeways of varying width and just a metre or two above water level. This feature determined the layout of the Japanese defences. The Japanese placed their men in one central bastion at Sanananda and in three outer fortifications covering its approaches. All four positions, Gona, Buna, the Sanananda road and Sanananda itself, were independent of each other and each was, with the exception of the causeways, almost surrounded by swamp or sea. As the Japanese were aware, and the Allies were to find, the movement of large bodies of men through the swamps was sometimes possible but maintaining them there was not. One American colonel described his supply line as 'neck deep in mud and water.'

Forces present

Vasey commanded north of the Giruwa River while Harding directed operations to its south. Both had elements of the other's force under their command. Vasey had two battalions of 126th Regiment while the Americans had the Australian 2/6th Independent Company and Australian artillery from 2/5th Field Regiment. Air support was a combined Australian-American effort as was air and sea supply. Vasey had 4300 men and Harding had 6600 men. All the Australian infantry battalions were already worn down by several months campaigning against the Japanese. The Americans were fresh troops. The Japanese also had a range of fresh and tired troops as well as many sick among their 11,000 men. Well protected in a complex of camouflaged coconut log bunkers and trenches were 3100 soldiers recently arrived from Rabaul. Still straggling in from their defeat at Oivi-Gorari were 2400 survivors of the campaign in the Owen Stanley Range. Another 3700 were base troops and civilian labourers most of whom fought willingly but with little skill. The remaining 1800 were those too ill to fight, most of whom were in the Japanese hospital at Giruwa.

Teaching and learning activities for the classroom

Battle brainstorm

  1. There are many things happening at once in Geoffrey Mainwaring's painting. Look at the painting for exactly a minute and try to remember everything you can see there. Then turn the painting over and, numbering each point, quickly write down a list of all that you can remember.
    Hint - look into the background as well as the foreground and don't just look at the men.
  2. Compare your lists to see who has remembered the most.
  3. Now you know what is in the painting, but what does it all mean? Look at it again and answer these questions in one or two sentences each.
  4. Can you see any message in the painting that the artist wants to convey to you?
  5. Decide what feature of the painting stands out more than the rest. Why do you think it does?
  6. The artist was present at the battle and the painting was done 20 years afterwards. Does this tell you anything more about the painting?
  7. The painting's title is 'Australian action at Buna'. Think of a new title for the painting and explain why yours is better.

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Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), The advance to the sea, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 5 December 2023,
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