BUNA, GONA and
NOVEMBER 1942-JANUARY 1943
As the northern end of the Kokoda
Trail came down to the coast the terrain changed to a mix of dense
jungle, foetid swamps and eight-foot high kunai grass in which the
temperature was about 50 degrees Celsius. These conditions were host to
new health threats. The 2/1st alone lost 17 men from scrub
all were plagued by malaria, diarrhoea and dysentery for which little
medicine was available.
The opposing forces
also had changed. The Japanese had fought stubbornly in the battles on
the Trail, but now they had their backs to the sea and had been
instructed to fight to the death. And they were doing so from their base
where, until the final stages, reinforcements and resupplies were
continually arriving. There they had strongly fortified defences
containing concealed bunkers with deep overhead cover. These bunkers
were sited in mutually supporting positions which produced a devastating
Approaching them were
Australian units which were much depleted and suffering the effects of
two-and-a-half months of continuous fighting on the Trail. Their maps
were inaccurate and they had virtually no knowledge of the enemy's
defences which were in three main areas-Gona, Sanananda, and Buna to
Cape Endaiadere. Air photographs were not received until 18 December-and
then only in inadequate numbers.
The first contact at
Gona was made by a patrol from the 2/33rd Battalion on 19 November 1942.
The 2/31st, which was leading the 25th Brigade, swept into the
attack-but suffered 32 casualties. A brigade attack was launched on 22
November, but it gained only about 50 metres and cost the 2/31st 14
killed, 45 wounded and 8 missing. Repeated attacks incurred relatively
high casualties for similar small gains. The Japanese were so well
protected that a six hour air bombing achieved little.
The 25th Brigade was
reinforced by the 3rd Battalion, and then the 21st Brigade arrived,
followed by the 39th Battalion. Gradually, the Australians closed in. On
9 December, the commanding officer of the 39th Battalion,
Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner, sent the now-famous laconic message:
'Gona's gone' . At that stage, the 2/27th Battalion had only 92 officers
and men left, and the position was far from secure-for there was a
significant enemy force in the Amboga River area.
This force was made up
of reinforcements for the main battle, who had been forced by air
attacks to land further north, and of survivors of earlier fighting in
the mountains who had escaped down the Kumusi River. On 10 December, the
39th Battalion moved west to deal with the threat. Post after post was
taken out, and the battalion linked up with the 2/14th Battalion which
was on the coast. Finally, in a dawn attack on 18 December, they
over-ran the last defences.
On the Sanananda front
the 2/1st made solid contact on 20 November. Its commanding officer,
Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Cullen, sent two of his (by then small strength)
companies in a flanking movement aimed at cutting the tracks behind the
opposition. After a nine-hour approach march, they came across a
strongly held important section of the main track. Without hesitation,
they attacked and captured it but, of the 90 man force, 31 were killed
and 36 wounded.
The Japanese were
forced to retire, and the 2/1st closed up. The 30th Brigade commenced to
relieve the 16th Brigade on 6 December, and its 49th and 55th/53rd
Battalions went into the attack almost immediately. Considerable
penetration was achieved in places but, by day's end on 7 December, 359
casualties had been sustained, and the brigade was unable to consolidate
its gains. Reinforced by the 36th Battalion and the 7th Division Cavalry
Regiment on foot, the brigade tried again on 19 December but after three
days' fighting-remained unsuccessful.
The 39th Battalion rejoined the
30th Brigade but there was still insufficient strength for a major
attack. Although a whole American division had been injected into the
campaign, it had not been properly prepared, both mentally and
physically, and it required training and changes of command.
experienced 18th Brigade-with tanks and artillery brought in from Milne
Bay-tipped the scales. They were first employed on 18 December attacking
north to Cape Endaiadere and west to Sinemi Creek. It was a hard-fought
battle, and of 87 men who crossed the eastern end of the start line, 47
were shot down in less than 10 minutes.
The year of 1943
opened with fighting as fierce as any in the campaign. On New Year's
Day, in an infantry and tank advance, the 2/12th Battalion suffered 45
killed and 127 wounded, but the advance reached Giropa Point. On the
following day, the Buna Government Station fell.
Back on the Sanananda
front, another major attack was mounted on 12 January. The 2/12th was
the principal unit used and it suffered 99 casualties without
attack-coming after the weeks of ordeal that the Japanese had endured
put an end to their resolve, and they commenced to withdraw. The
18th Brigade quickly followed up.
Cape Killerton to
Sanananda Point remained to be cleared, and a large number of casualties
was the price paid in doing so. Finally, by 22 January, the Japanese
defences had been overcome-although mopping-up was to take more time.
Those entering the Japanese bunkers were confronted by the nauseating
presence of unburied dead, suppurating wounded and body wastes.
fanaticism of the Japanese commanded respect, their barbarism was appalling. Not one of the soldiers taken prisoner by them in
the whole six months of the campaign had been allowed to live.
a number of those captured were found to have been eaten, tortured, or
used for bayonet practice.
were heart-breaking. The 39th Battalion had been the first battalion
into action on the Trail and, when it was finally flown to Port Moresby
on 25 January 1943, it took up only 32 places.
Sadly, many Australian casualties were
due to the American general commanding the South-West Pacific
Area-Douglas MacArthur-who had fled the Philippines and arrived in
Australia on 17 March 1942. MacArthur had outstanding military ability, but he was not a soldiers' soldier. He
never ventured beyond Port Moresby, and never took the trouble to
familiarise himself with either the terrain or the enemy's defences.
Yet, for his own publicity purposes, he applied great pressure for quick
results-which were quite impossible in the circumstances. He caused
attacks to be mounted without adequate preparation, without adequate
support, and astride approaches that held no hope for success.