Battle of Buna–Gona: Wikis


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Battle of Buna-Gona
Part of the Pacific Theater of World War II
Australian Private George "Dick" Whittington aided by Papuan orderly Raphael Oimbari
An Australian soldier, Private George "Dick" Whittington, is aided by Papuan orderly Raphael Oimbari, near Buna on December 25, 1942. Whittington died in February 1943 from the effects of bush typhus. (Picture by George Silk)
Date November 16, 1942 – January 22, 1943
Location New Guinea
8°39′S 148°22′E / 8.65°S 148.367°E / -8.65; 148.367Coordinates: 8°39′S 148°22′E / 8.65°S 148.367°E / -8.65; 148.367
Result Allied victory
Australia Australia
United States United States
Japan Empire of Japan
Australia Edmund Herring
Australia George Vasey
United States Edwin F. Harding
United States Robert L. Eichelberger
Japan Yosuke Yokoyama
Japan Yoshitatsu Yasuda
from December 2:
Japan Kurihanao Yamagata
20,000+ 6,500+ (peak strength, December 2)
Casualties and losses
2,300 killed,
12,000+ injured[notes 1]
6,000+ killed,
1,200 injured (evacuated),
200 captured

The Battle of Buna–Gona was a battle in the New Guinea campaign, a major part of the Pacific campaign of World War II. On November 16, 1942, Australian and United States forces attacked the main Japanese beachheads in New Guinea, at Buna, Sanananda and Gona. By January 22, 1943, after prolonged heavy fighting in trying conditions, the Allied forces had overcome the defenders. Casualties were extremely high. Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger later compared the casualty ratio to the American Civil War. As a percentage of casualties, killed or wounded in action at Buna exceeded the better known Battle of Guadalcanal.



Prior to this battle on the northern coast of the New Guinea peninsula, the Australians had narrowly averted an invasion of Milne Bay and an attack on Port Moresby via the Kokoda Track. Within 48 kilometres (30 mi) of Port Moresby, the Japanese were ordered to withdraw so the Imperial Forces could concentrate on the battle for Guadalcanal. The Australian and U.S. forces attacked the retreating Japanese, following them across the Owen Stanley Range until they reached the more heavily defended lines near the Buna-Gona perimeter.


Allied intelligence deficient

Intelligence in the lead-up to the battle was deficient in two key areas. While it was estimated that there were no more than 1,500–2,000 Japanese troops at the beachheads, the Allies actually faced more than 6,000 soldiers from the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and marines from the Special Naval Landing Forces (SNLF).[1][2][notes 2][notes 3] The Allies believed that widespread swampland would render the construction of strongpoints in the Buna-Gona area impossible. General Douglas MacArthur received intelligence from Brigadier General Charles A. Willoughby, who told MacArthur before the operation that there was "little indication of an attempt to make a strong stand against the Allied advance."[3] The information also led him to believe that Buna was held by about 1,000 sick and malnourished soldiers. Unfamiliar with the state of Japanese defenses, Lt. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, glibly referred to these fortifications as "hasty field entrenchments."

Japanese strong defenses

A firing trench (foreground) leads to a heavily camouflaged Japanese bunker (background) made from coconut logs.

The Japanese were now commanded by Maj. Gen. Oda, succeeding General Horii, who had drowned in the ocean off shore from the Kumusi River[4]:248 while retreating from their initial attack on Port Moresby. Unable to dig trenches or shelters due to the .91 metres (3 ft 0 in) deep water table, the Japanese had instead built hundreds of coconut log bunkers.[4]:246 These had been built with mutually supporting lines of fire and were organized in depth. Some of the larger bunkers were protected with steel beams and 40 gallon barrels filled with sand.[4]:248 A handful of pillboxes near the abandoned airstrip about a mile from the Buna Mission were built using steel and concrete. Some blockhouses were covered in earth and could hold up to 20 or 30 soldiers. The bunkers had been covered with earth and fast-growing jungle vegetation. Many smaller fortifications were placed in perimeter positions that were thick with trees or jungle vegetation. Firing slits were a few feet above ground. The bunkers rose to only 6 feet (1.8 m) to 8 feet (2.4 m), so that the emplacements were virtually invisible to attackers until the Japanese unleashed their weapons on the unsuspecting Allied troops. All of these positions could generate devastating interlocking fields of fire, supported by many snipers hidden in tall trees.[3]

Allied forces unprepared

Although staff officers considered the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division unready for combat, MacArthur insisted that it be moved from Australia to New Guinea in October 1942. The beginning of the campaign revealed that the American troops were completely unprepared for jungle warfare. They had received at most a few weeks of training for jungle warfare, and were poorly equipped and inexperienced National Guard formation. The 2nd Battalion of the 126th Infantry Regiment had trekked 210 kilometres (130 mi) from 14 October to 12 November across the Kapa Kapa Trail, and more than two-thirds of their men had malaria, dengue fever and dysentery. The division had stopped for one week at Natunga to resupply, but would soon run short of weapons, medicine and even food.[5] Exhausted from their march, they were nonetheless immediately put on the front line against the seasoned Japanese combat veterans.

The Allies initially lacked either tanks or air support for the troops. Heavy weapon support was inadequate and poorly coordinated. American officers had argued against artillery support as unnecessary with the result that the 32nd Division had to borrow eight 25 pounders from the Australians. General Harding requested tanks from Milne Bay but was sent Bren gun carriers instead.[4]:255 Tanks and artillery did not arrive until December 18, when they made a significant impact.[5]

Japanese forces and supply lines

The Japanese defences were concentrated in three strongholds.[4]:246 One was at Gona, under Major Tsume Yamamoto; another was around Sanananda, under Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama (who was in overall command of Imperial Japanese Army forces in the Buna-Gona area); and the third and largest Japanese stronghold was in the Buna area, under SNLF Captain Yoshitatsu Yasuda. Although these positions were separate, communications between them and Japanese supply lines were initially strong.[4]:246 At the outset, the Japanese were able to maintain supply lines to Rabaul and to evacuate wounded personnel by sea, using submarines to maintain contact with the beachheads. By January, however, the Allies successfully managed to cut the Japanese sea lanes of communication.[4]:262-263

The Japanese garrison was a mix of army and naval forces. It initially numbered about 5,500[4]:248 Imperial Japanese Army combat personnel: the remnants of the 144th Infantry Regiment, the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment, the 3rd Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment, a divisional cavalry detachment, and the 47th Field Anti-Aircraft Battalion. A few field artillery batteries were guarding the beachheads proper. In addition to these army units, there were about 500 marines[4]:249 from the 5th Yokosuka and 5th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Forces.

Allied supply lines distant

The Allies' major bases, at Port Moresby and Milne Bay, were distant. The Owen Stanley Ranges were impassable to motor vehicles. The Imperial Japanese Navy and air forces controlled the Bismarck Sea to the north of New Guinea. The attacking troops depended on airdrops by the Liberator cargo planes of the U.S. Fifth Air Force and makeshift transport units assembled by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), as well as coastal shipping, which was vulnerable to air attack. However, USAAF and RAAF ground attack and bomber aircraft, typified by the A-20 Havoc and Beaufighter respectively, represented a significant and ever-increasing advantage for the Allies.

Allied forces launch attack

Map of early operations in the battle of Buna-Gona.

U.S. 32nd Infantry Division commanded by Major General Edwin F. Harding launched the initial attack on Buna on 16 November. Harding accepted MacArthur's decision to rely on direct air support in place of tanks or heavy artillery, and his troops were stopped cold by formidable Japanese field fortifications.[6] The Australian 2/6th Independent Company provided flank protection and reconnaissance. The Australian 7th Division (minus one brigade) under Major General George Vasey, and the U.S. 128th Infantry Regiment (detached from the 32nd Division) was to attack Gona.[4]:249 The Gona push was reinforced by the remnants of Maroubra Force, in the shape of the battered 30th Brigade, a Militia unit which included the "ragged bloody heroes" of the Kokoda Track, the 39th Battalion.[4]:258 The Australian 16th Brigade, detached from the 6th Division, would push towards Sanananda.[4]:249

Machine guns were concealed in the many bunkers and snipers in the tops of coconut trees picked off troops, and by evening the Allied lines had barely moved. Units of the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, 32nd Division got close enough to the Japanese bunkers to learn that the Japanese machine guns were emplaced in bunkers reinforced with oil drums and covered with a roof.[7] Fighting was bitter from the outset: the Australian 7th Division took 204 casualties in the first three days of its thrust.

By the time the Allied advance on Buna had stalled in late November, morale was low due to heavy casualties and disease. Self-inflicted wounds were increasingly encountered amongst American casualties.[8][9]

By November 23 it was obvious that capturing Gona was unlikely due to lack of troops and insufficient tank and artillery support. Without support from tanks that could have taken out a strongpoint in minutes, the Japanese positions were very difficult to defeat and had to be taken one by one, which required troops crawling through murderous cross-fire and snipers to the bunkers and pushing grenades through the slits.[8] General Vasey requested Herring to send the 21st Brigade as reinforcements. The 32nd Division had a single Battery A of the 129th Field Artillery in New Guinea, the remaining batteries having remained at Camp Cable in Australia due to a lack of transport. The four gun sections of Battery A were the first howitzers flown into combat, first landing at Port Moresby. Then one-half of Battery A—two gun sections—were air-lifted over the Owen Stanley Mountains to Buna, becoming the first US Army artillery flown into combat in the Pacific in World War II.[10]

Advance on Buna Village

Papuan stretcher bearers carrying US Army wounded from the Buna front lines, pause to rest themselves and the soldiers in the shade of a coconut grove, enroute to hospitals in the rear.

On November 20, MacArthur, operating from his headquarters in Port Moresby, ordered his forces to attack "regardless of losses". The following day General Harding was further ordered to "take Buna today at all costs". General Herring arrived at the American front on November 25 and reported that the American infantry had "maintained a masterly inactivity at Buna". When MacArthur offered the 41st American Division as reinforcements for Gona, General Thomas Blamey declined. This was later seen as payback for earlier statements by MacArthur about the fighting ability of Australian troops. Blamey stated he would rely on his depleted 21st Brigade as he "knew they would fight".[11]

The jokes of the American officers in Australia, making fun of the Australian Army were told all over Australia. Therefore, when we've got the least thing on the American troops fighting in the Buna sector, our high command has gone to General MacArthur and rubbed salt into his wounds.
—General Berryman to General Eichelberger.[12]

When additional artillery finally arrived on November 26, the accuracy of artillery fire was limited by poor maps and inadequate ground observation. On that morning, the Japanese lines were strafed and bombed at tree-top level for nearly an hour by P-40s and Beaufighters. A-20s bombed the Japanese rear areas for another 30 minutes. The air attacks were then followed by a half hour of pounding by mortars, machine guns, and the newly available artillery. At 9:30, the infantry advanced as scheduled, but it immediately became apparent that the two hours of bombardment had not touched the enemy hidden in their bunkers.[7]

On November 29, the Japanese were reinforced by the remaining 500 troops from the South Seas Detachment (mostly the 41st Infantry Regiment under Colonel Kiyomi Yazawa), which had led the Kokoda Track campaign and retreated to the sea at a point north of Gona. They were shuttled by boat to the Sananada stronghold.

Harding sacked

By November 29, the Supreme Allied Commander in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had become frustrated at what he saw as poor performance by the 32nd Division, especially its commissioned officers. He told the US I Corps commander, Major General Robert L. Eichelberger:

Bob, I'm putting you in command at Buna. Relieve Harding ... I want you to remove all officers who won't fight. Relieve regimental and battalion commanders; if necessary, put sergeants in charge of battalions and corporals in charge of companies ... Bob, I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive ... And that goes for your chief of staff, too.[13]
Brigadier Generals Hanford MacNider, Albert Waldron, and Clovis E. Byers recuperate in hospital in Australia after being wounded in the Battle of Buna-Gona.

Upon his arrival at Buna, Eichelberger and his staff inspected the troop's condition. Two of his staff officers, Colonels Martin and Rogers, found the troops were ill with malaria, dengue fever, tropical dysentery, and other ailments. They discovered the men had few rations causing them to lose weight, and lacked hot meals, vitamins, and cigarettes. Some were unshaven, their uniforms and boots were dirty and in tatters, and they showed "little discipline or military courtesy." Having been on the front at Buna for two weeks with virtually no progress to show for it except for hundreds of casualties, their morale was very poor.[13] On December 2, 1942 he replaced Harding with the division's artillery commander, Brigadier General Albert W. Waldron. Eichelberger also sacked the regimental commanders and most battalion commanders, ordered improved food and medical supplies, and halted operations on the Buna front for two days, to allow units to reorganize.

Allied reconnaissance

Eichelberger also ordered additional reconnaissance to help fix the enemy positions. What he learned impressed him.

For the Allies, Japanese seemed to be everywhere, but their strongest positions were on the shore-zone terrain. Here troops could move from place to place quickly, and numerous bunkers constructed of coconut logs and sand provided added protection and a superb defensive perimeter. In looking at Japanese positions, MacArthur's staff reported that "every contour of the terrain was exploited and the driest stretches of land were carefully chosen to be occupied and fortified, making it impossible for the Allies to execute any lateral movements without becoming mired in swamp." Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger, U.S. Corps Commander, called the Japanese terrain utilization "perfect' and "brilliant."[14]:239

On the same day, 500 Japanese reinforcements, in the form of the inexperienced 21st Independent Mixed Brigade (based on the 170th Infantry Regiment), arrived at Gona under Maj. Gen. Kurihanao Yamagata. The Japanese fought tenaciously and the 32nd Division lost 392 personnel within the first two weeks.

Attack reinitiated

On December 5, Eichelberger ordered an attack across the entire front. Waldron was shot in the shoulder by a sniper while observing the fighting, and Eichelberger replaced him with his Chief of Staff, Brig. Gen. Clovis E. Byers. The Allies finally split the Japanese lines. Staff Sergeant Herman Bottcher led a 31-man platoon forward against the attacking Japanese forces. He stood up and threw hand grenades at the enemy and was able to drive a wedge between Buna and Buna village. The tide of the battle of Buna turned and Bottcher was awarded the battlefield commission of captain and his first of two Distinguished Service Cross Medals.

Japanese soldiers killed during the final phase of the battle at Buna Mission, January 1943.

On December 8, following savage close-quarter fighting, the Australians captured Gona village.[4]:258 That same day, Eichelberger organized a new attack on Buna Village and the 32nd Division captured the position on December 14.[citation needed] General Clovis Byers was in turn wounded on 16 December, forcing Eichelberger to take direct command of the division. The Japanese landed 1,300 reinforcements, but by December 18 the Allies were reinforced by the Australian 7th Division's 18th Brigade along with the M3 Stuart light tanks of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment[4]:263—the first tanks available to the Allied forces. In spite of this boost, the Australians suffered some of their worst losses of the entire battle, although they eventually broke through the Japanese defensive positions along the coast.

In ten days of fighting, the Allies advanced along the coast from Duropa plantation to Buna Mission, taking the remaining Japanese positions by December 28.[4]:270

Battle for Sanananda

Sanananda Front, 22 November 1942-22 January 1943

The battle of Sanananda was the longest of the three battles. The Japanese position was well-defended, astride a raised road on relatively dry ground, surrounded by waist-deep jungle swamp. The Allies had established a roadblocks behind the Japanese position, but the Japanese maintained their position, receiving resupply through the swamp.

The Australian 16th Brigade, by now half-strength, was sent to attack the position but their march was poorly organised. From November 16 to their first contact with the enemy on the 19th, the troops went without food. The 1,400 strong U.S. 126th Infantry regiment was ordered to report to the Australians but did not arrive until November 21 by which time the Australians had suffered more than 30 percent casualties. On December 7 the Australian 30th Brigade relieved the 16th Brigade, and Brigadier Porter took overall command.[4]:260 The 126th was also relieved but 635 troops manned a roadblock under constant Japanese attack.

The Americans received their first reinforcements on December 18 when 350 men from the Australian 2/7th Cavalry Regiment fought their way through to the roadblock. The following day the 2/7th outflanked the Japanese and established another roadblock 300 metres (980 ft) ahead of the American position and the Australian 49th Battalion now reinforced the 126th.[4]:260-262 By now illness and low morale was taking its toll and the 126th were retired on December 22. Of the 635 American troops who engaged the Japanese, only 244 effective troops remained by the end of December. The U.S. 163rd Infantry Regiment—from the U.S. 41st Infantry Division—arrived and took over the two roadblocks from the Australians on January 2.[4]:273

Allies attack Japanese-held junction

An Australian 2/6th Armoured Regiment tank supporting infantry

The preliminary attacks began with a failed attack on the Japanese position between the two roadblocks on January 8.[4]:274 Two days later, the allies supported by tanks attacked the Japanese position at the trail junction. The attack failed but convinced Colonel Tsukamoto to order a retreat. Japanese Imperial Headquarters had already decided on January 4 to retreat to Lae and Salamaua but the order did not reach Sanananda until January 12.[4]:276 On January 14 the Allies discovered that most of the Japanese defenders had left and quickly overran the junction stronghold now held by only 158 Japanese. January 15 saw the US 163rd Infantry finally break the Japanese position between the road blocks. The main attack began the next day with the 163rd attacking the Japanese troops north of the two roadblocks while the Australian 18th Brigade's attack reached the coast on both sides of Sanananda and also supported the American attack, effecting a link-up at Huggins and on the Killerton Track.[4]:276 Japanese resistance was stiff; nevertheless, by January 17 they had been pinned down in three positions, on the coast north of Sanananda, on the coast west of Giruwa and on the main track north of the roadblocks which was still holding out. On January 20, General Yamagata ordered an evacuation and escaped while General Oda and Colonel Yazawa ran into Australian troops and were killed; the Japanese positions on the coast collapsed with little resistance. Evacuation of the main track was not possible and this last position was overrun on January 22.[4]:276


After almost three months of fighting the Japanese had lost 1,500 men, the Australians 2,700 and the Americans 798.[4]:276 The Japanese forces had been cut off from resupply during the second week of January and their food had already run out by January 2. Allied troops found evidence of cannibalism in captured Japanese positions.[5][15][16]:343

Tropical diseases, especially malaria, dengue fever and bush typhus (known to the Japanese as tsutsugamushi), caused far more casualties than the effects of battle. The 32nd Division suffered the extraordinary illness rate of 66 percent. Of the 9,825 men who entered combat in the division, 7,125 were casualties due to illness (with 2,952 requiring hospitalisation), compared to 586 killed in action, 1,954 wounded in action, and 100 more dead from other causes. Total casualties of 9,956 exceeded the Division's entire battle strength.[17]

Two NCOs from the 32nd Division, both of them killed in action near Buna—1st Sgt Elmer J. Burr and Sgt Kenneth E. Gruennert—were later awarded the Medal of Honor. Herman Bottcher was awarded a DSC-twice. Allied operations against Japanese forces in New Guinea, including Operation Cartwheel and the Salamaua-Lae campaign, continued through 1945.


  1. ^ Deaths include 1,300 Australian and 1,000 U.S. Illness from contracting tropical diseases exceeded 50 percent of the Allied troops
  2. ^ The natives provided the Division G2 with information that led him to believe the Japanese garrison at Buna was about a battalion.
  3. ^ "In a major intelligence blunder, Allied staffs told frontline commanders that they faced no more than 1,500 to 2,000 enemy and could expect the Japanese to surrender about 1 December. In fact, some 6,500 enemy held the beachhead." (Charles R. Anderson Papua 1992, 22 p., ill. GPO S/N: 008-029-00235-3)


  1. ^ "Advance to Buna - Part 2 of The 32nd 'Red Arrow' Infantry Division in World War II". 32nd 'Red Arrow' Veteran Association. Retrieved 1-6-2010. 
  2. ^ Anderson, Charles R. (1992). "Papua". pp. 22. 
  3. ^ a b "World War II: Buna Mission". Retrieved 2009-02-04. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Keogh, E.G (1965). South West Pacific 1941–45. Melbourne: Grayflower Publications. 
  5. ^ a b c "Gona Buna Sanananda, hard slog but Japs beaten: The Buna, Gona & Sanananda Campaigns". Retrieved 1-7-2010. 
  6. ^ Budge, Kent G.. "Harding, Edwin Forrest (1886-1970)". The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2009-02-04. 
  7. ^ a b "Papuan Campaign he Buna-Sanananda Operation 16 November 1942 - 23 January 1943". Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C.. 1990. Retrieved 2009-02-07. 
  8. ^ a b "Papua 23 July 1942-23 January 1943". Retrieved 2009-03-08. 
  9. ^ Buna–Gona–Sanananda, 1942–43 Australia-Japan Research Project Australian War Memorial
  10. ^ "1st Battalion - 120th Field Artillery Regiment". Retrieved 2009-02-07. 
  11. ^ Brune, Peter (2003). A Bastard of a Place : The Australians in Papua. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-74114-403-5. 
  12. ^ Horner, David Murray (1978). Crisis of command: Australian generalship and the Japanese threat, 1941-1943. Australian National University Press. ISBN 0708113451. 
  13. ^ a b Thomas M. Huber. "Eichelberger at Buna: A Study in Battle Command". Studies in Battle Command. Faculty Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 
  14. ^ Winters, Harold A.; Gerald E. Galloway, Jr., William J. Reynolds, David W. Rhyne (2001). Battling the Elements: Weather and Terrain in the Conduct of War (illustrated ed.). JHU Press. ISBN 9780801866487. 
  15. ^ Tanaka (1996). Hidden horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II. Westview press. pp. 127. 
  16. ^ Milner, Samuel (1972). Victory in Papua. Washington, D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History. 
  17. ^ "Table of Strengths and Casualties during the Battle of Buna-Sanananda". The 32nd Infantry Division in World War II "The Red Arrow": The Papuan Campaign - The Battle of Sanananda. 15 March 1999. Retrieved 2009-03-10. 

Additional Reading

  • Anderson, Charles (1992). Papua. The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II, Volume 11. U.S. Army Center of Military History. ISBN 9780160358838. 
  • Brune, Peter (2003). A Bastard of a Place: The Australians in Papua. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-74114-403-5. 
  • Campbell, James (2007). The Ghost Mountain Boys: Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea–The Forgotten War of the South Pacific. Crown. ISBN 0307335968. 
  • Horner, David Murray (1978). Crisis of Command: Australian Generalship and the Japanese Threat, 1941–1943. Australian National University Press. ISBN 0708113451. 
  • Keogh, E.G (1965). South West Pacific 1941–45. Melbourne: Grayflower Publications. 

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