Beachhead Battles (Papua 1942-1943)
The last battle of 1942 involving Australians was for the Japanese beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda in northern Papua. The Allies expected the battle would be easily won but underestimated Japanese strength and resolve and grossly overestimated Allied capabilities. The battle opened on 19-20 November with attacks against Buna by the Americans, against Gona by the Australians, and against Sanananda by Australians and Americans. Tropical diseases, rain, mud and supply difficulties impaired both sides and the battle dragged on. By the time the last Japanese positions fell on 22 January 1943, about 1300 Australians and 1000 Americans lay dead, with thousands more evacuated wounded or sick. More than 6000 Japanese had fought to the death. It was the single most costly battle for Australians in 'the islands'.
An extraordinary incident
The Wirraway, an Aboriginal word meaning 'challenge', was a trainer design but classed as a 'general purpose' aircraft and equipped with machine-guns and bomb racks. The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation's plant at Fisherman's Bend in Victoria produced 755 Wirraways. They were most successful as army cooperation aircraft during the campaign in Papua New Guinea. On 26 December 1942, Pilot Officer John Archer, 4 Squadron RAAF, shot down a Japanese fighter, believed at the time to be a Mitsubishi 'Zero', from his Wirraway. Archer's Wirraway is now in the Bradbury Aircraft Hall at the Australian War Memorial.
As soon as he had landed at Popondetta airstrip in Papua on 12 December 1942, Pilot Officer J S Archer leapt from his Wirraway aircraft, A20-103, to tell the Control Officer that he had shot down a Japanese 'Zero'. Despite the Control Officer's disbelief, Archer described the incident and soon phone calls from observers all around the Gona area confirmed his story. He and his observer, Sergeant J F Coulston, had been flying a tactical reconnaissance mission over a Japanese ship which had been wrecked in the sea off Gona. When they sighted the 'Zero' 1000 feet below, Archer dived on the Japanese aircraft and fired a long burst from the Wirraway's two Vickers .303 machine-guns. The 'Zero' crashed into the sea.
For his actions, Pilot Officer John Archer received the United States Silver Star from Brigadier General Ennis C Whitehead, the Commanding General of Allied Air Forces in New Guinea in a ceremony at Buna in 1943.