The Buna, Gona & Sanananda Campaigns – Battle History


The Buna, Gona & Sanananda Campaigns – Battle History

November 1942 – January 1943
After the Kokoda Campaign, the battle turned towards the northeastern coast of Papua. Australian and US Allied forces believed it would be relatively easy to defeat the Japanese who had established beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda. However, the battles were extremely hard-fought and the Battle of the Beachheads turned out to be one of the most costly battles in New Guinea with an excessive amount of casualties.

The Australians: From Kokoda Trail to the Coast
Australian troops suffered heavily after months of continuous fighting on the Kokoda Trail. They were lacking in resources, were using inaccurate maps and hardly had any information about the Japanese defences on the coast. They didn’t receive air photographs until 18 December, and the ones they did receive were quite inadequate. The Australians were also exhausted and plagued by diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea and dysentery, without adequate medication to treat these. In the 2/1st unit alone, 17 men had died from scrub typhus. As the Kokoda Trail came down to the northern coast, the jungle became denser and the temperature soared to around 50 deg C.

The Japanese: Defending the Papua North Coast
While the Japanese forces had fought tenaciously in the battles along the Kokoda Trail, they were now based on the island’s northeast coast. With their backs to the seas, they had instructions to keep fighting to the death. They had strongly fortified defences with concealed bunkers under deep overhead cover. The Japanese continued to receive resupplies and reinforcements at their coastal base right until the final stages of the battle.

Battles at Gona – 19 November to 18 December 1942
On 19 November 1942, a patrol from the 2/33rd Battalion made the first contact at Gona. The 2/31st Battalion, which led the 25th Brigade, helped in the attack but lost 32 men in the battle. On 22 November, the 2/31st launched a brigade attack but only gained 50 metres while another 14 men were killed, 45 were wounded and 8 went missing. Further attacks again resulted in more casualties but gained little ground. Even an air bombing that lasted six hours achieved very little because the Japanese were so well protected.

Over the next few weeks, the 3rd Battalion, the 2/1st Brigade and the 39th Battalion came to reinforce the 25th Brigade. The Australian troops managed to gradually close in on the Japanese. On 9 December 1942, Lt-Col Ralph Honner sent the two-word message that later became famous: “Gona’s gone”. However, there were only 92 men left in the 2/27th Battalion, and their position wasn’t yet secure.

There was still a significant enemy force left in the Amboga River area. That force consisted of survivors of earlier fights in the mountains and reinforcements for the main battle who had landed further north.

On 10 December, the 39th Battalion moved west to deal with the Japanese threat. Over the next 8 days, the battalion took out one post after the other and linked up with the 2/14th Battalion on the coast. The Australian forces finally overran the last Japanese defences in this area in a dawn attack on 18 December.

Battles at Sanananda – 20 November 1942 to 22 January 1943
Several kilometres east along the coast, the 2/1st made solid contact with the enemy on the Sanananda front on 20 November. The brigade’s commanding officer, Lt-Col Paul Cullen, sent two small companies out to cut the tracks behind the Japanese in a flanking movement. After nine hours of marching, they reached an important section of the main track, which was strongly held by the opposition. Without hesitation, the Australian forces attacked and captured. However, out of the 90 men, 31 were killed and 36 were wounded. The opposition was forced to retire and the 2/1st closed up.

On 6 December, the 30th Brigade came to relieve the 16th Brigade. Its 49th and 53rd/55th Battalions went into the attack almost immediately. They made considerable incursions in places but 359 men were killed by the evening of 7 December and the brigade was unable to consolidate its gains.

The 30th Brigade received reinforcements by the 36th Battalion and the 7th Division Cavalry Regiment on foot, and launched another attack on 19 December. The fighting continued for three days but the attacks were unsuccessful. Even after the 39th Battalion rejoined the brigade, the troops still weren’t strong enough for a major attack. An entire American division had also been injected into the campaign by this time. However, the division had not been properly prepared, both mentally and physically, and was in need of training and changes in command.

Things finally started turning around when the experienced 18th Brigade joined the attacks, with tanks and artillery brought in from Milne Bay. They started attacking north to Cape Endaiadere and west to Sinemi Creek, from 18 December. In the hard-fought battle, 47 of the 87 men who crossed the eastern end of the start line were shot down in less than 10 minutes.

Heavy fighting continued throughout December and into the New Year. On New Year’s Day of 1943, the 2/12th Battalion suffered 45 casualties and 127 men were wounded in an infantry and tank advance. However, the advance reached Giropa Point and on the following day, the Buna Government Station fell.

On 12 January, another major attack was launched on the Sanananda front, using the 2/12th as the principal unit. It wasn’t successful and 99 men were killed. But the attack was the final straw for the Japanese, who had endured weeks of fierce fighting. The Japanese started their withdrawal, quickly followed up by the 18th Brigade.

In clearing Cape Killerton to Sanananda Point, the Australians suffered a large number of casualties. By 22 January, the Japanese defences had finally been overcome. However, it would still take more time to clean up. The Japanese bunkers were filled with unburied dead, injured men with festering wounded and nauseating body wastes.

The barbarism of the Japanese had been appalling and they had killed every single soldier they had taken prisoner during the whole six-month campaign. Some of those captured were even found to have been tortured, eaten or used for bayonet practice.

The Australian troops had suffered heartbreaking casualties. Of the whole 39th Battalion, who had been the first into action on the Kokoda Trail, only 32 survived when they were finally flown back to Port Moresby on 25 January 1943.

Many Australian casualties were sadly due to the tactics of Douglas MacArthur, the American general commanding the South-West Pacific Area at that time. While he had excellent military ability, he never ventured beyond Port Moresby or familiarised himself with the terrain or the enemy’s defences in New Guinea. To get quick results, which really weren’t possibly in the circumstances, he ordered attacks to be launched without sufficient preparation or support.

Battles at Buna – 16 November 1942 to 2 January 1943
The 32d Infantry Division was made up of units from the Michigan and Wisconsin National Guards and was known as the "Red Arrow" Division. The division was mobilised on 15 October 1940 and arrived in Australia in May 1942 after a last-minute diversion from Northern Ireland to the Pacific.

In September 1942, elements of the Division were moved to Port Moresby to stop the Japanese invasion that threatened Australia. While the 126th Infantry Regiment went by sea, the 128th Infantry Regiment was airlifted in what was to be the first mass troop movement by air in the Second World War. The 32nd joined the Australians in New Guinea and entered combat on 16 November 1942.

The targets of these Allied forces were the heavily fortified Japanese coastal positions at Buna, a little further to the east from Gona and Sanananda. This turned out to be one of the most difficult campaigns of the entire war. Like the Australian troops had experienced before them, the 32nd Division had to fight in the hot and steamy jungle while suffering desperate shortages of basic equipment, medicine, weapons and food.

From mid November through all of December and even into early January, the men, many of whom were sick with burning fever, were battling the Japanese in extreme heat and soaking rain. The men of the Red Arrow Division reduced Japanese positions mostly one at a time, often by rushing them with grenades.

Buna finally fell on 2 January 1943. It was the first defeat of the Japanese Army in modern history. However, the victory came at a high cost for the 32nd Division: 1,954 men were either killed or wounded, while 2,952 were so sick they had to be hospitalised.

After Buna, the 32nd Division went on to take part in the long campaign to drive the Japanese from the rest of New Guinea. They were then put into action in the Philippines, where they took part in more fierce battles. The 32d Infantry Brigade, Wisconsin Army National Guard, maintains the Red Arrow heritage even today.




Related articles:


- The Kokoda Campaign – History of the Battle



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