|Army operations in the South Pacific area: Papua campaigns, 1942–1943|
Chapter 7: Commencement of command of the 18th Army
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Chapter 7: Commencement of command of the 18th Army
Leadership by the commander of the 17th Army
Strategic leadership of the 8th Area Army commander and mobilisation of the 18th Army command
The plan to resupply the Buna area
Change of operational policy
Lieutenant Colonel Kita’s intelligence
Operational preparations and leadership in Rabaul
Reinforcement by the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade
The landing of Major General Oda at the Mambare River
Destruction of positions on the right flank of the Basabua camp
Japanese army air units Buna offensive
The Buna Garrison up to 3 December
The situation of the 1st American Corps
The Buna Garrison up to 27 December
The glorious sacrifice of the Buna Garrison
The struggle to hold Buna, and its consequences
The advance of the Allies
As dawn broke on 16 November 1942, the Buna area was bombarded by several tens of formations of American bombers.
As expected, the first report at 8 am from the lookout station of the Japanese naval garrison at Buna read that, "Enemy transport ships are visible in the waters off Cape Endaiadere." From 10 am that morning, six small landing craft began the Allied force landing at Oro Bay, 13 kilometres south-east of Buna. It was reported that the landing was made on the left bank of the Samboga River by a force of approximately one thousand men.
The Japanese navy’s Airbase Force Command sortied 18 carrier-based fighters, 12 carrier-based bombers, and three land-based attack planes at 2 pm to engage the landing force. It was reported that three landing craft were sunk and that a further two were on fire and sinking after the Allied force was discovered at 5 pm. A lone land-based attack plane was despatched forty minutes after the raiding party to confirm the results of the battle. This reconnaissance confirmed that two landing craft survived, and that the wrecks of destroyed craft were visible in the area.
On that day, the commander of the 17th Army tasked Colonel Yamamoto Hiroshi, who had arrived to replace Colonel Kusunose Masao as commander of the 144th Infantry Regiment, to secure the Buna, Giruwa and Soputa (10 kilometres south of Giruwa) areas at all costs, and to protect the landing of reinforcement units. Colonel Yamamoto led a force that included the 3rd Battalion of the 229th Infantry Regiment (Major Kenmotsu Heishichi), the 2nd Company of the 38th Mountain Artillery Regiment (Lieutenant Shiiki Kazuo), and approximately seven hundred replacement troops for the 144th Infantry Regiment.
The transport of the troops led by Colonel Yamamoto (approximately fifteen hundred troops) was divided into two echelons. The units of the first echelon, which consisted of Colonel Yamamoto and one thousand men, were transported by five destroyers (Kazagumo, Makigumo, Yûgumo, Oyashio, and Kagiroi). The convoy left Rabaul at 8 am on 17 November and arrived safely at the Buna anchorage at 11.40 pm that day by way of the sea route to the south of New Britain. Disembarkation was carried out during the night and completed by 2.30 am.
The second echelon units (approximately five hundred troops) boarded three destroyers (Asashio, Umikaze, and Kawakaze) at Rabaul at midnight on 17 November, and arrived at the Buna anchorage at 5 pm on 18 November. Just prior to the planned completion of the disembarkation work at 7.40 am, an Allied heavy bomber attacked using the light of the moon. Umikaze sustained medium damage and Kawakaze slight damage in the raid.
The situation of the Japanese forces at the time the Allies had landed at Oro Bay was as follows. The South Seas Force headquarters and the main strength of the 41st Infantry Regiment were retreating along the left bank of the Kumusi River after the crossing point over the river had been occupied by Australian forces. Their condition was unknown. As previously mentioned, the 144th Infantry Regiment had crossed the Kumusi near the old crossing and was retreating along the main track. The unit retreated to Giruwa during the morning of 17 November after the following orders were received on 14 November at Sonbo from the 17th Army Headquarters: "The South Seas Force will withdraw to Giruwa and facilitate the landing of reinforcement units."
The 15th Independent Engineer Regiment (Colonel Yokoyama Yosuke) and the main strength of the 47th Field Anti-aircraft Artillery Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Fuchiyama Sadahide) were stationed at the rear in the Giruwa area under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Tomita, who was attached to the South Seas Force.
At Basabua, Major Yamamoto Tsuneichi, a 17th Army fortification officer, was in command of a 700–800-strong provisional road construction unit. Many in the unit were labourers from the Tasasago Volunteers.
Editor’s note: According to Koiwai’s memoir, there were also around five hundred infirmary troops stationed at Soputa.
Further, one company from the 47th Field Anti-aircraft Artillery Battalion had positioned three anti-aircraft guns at Buna to defend the camp. On the navy side, the commander of the Yokosuka 5th Special Naval Landing Party, Captain Yasuda Yoshitatsu, was responsible for guarding the facilities at the Buna airstrip with 400 naval landing troops and 600 construction unit troops.
The various units of the South Seas Force were unaware of the fate of their leader, Major General Horii, so Colonel Yokoyama temporarily unified command in the Basabua, Giruwa, and Buna areas.
Leadership by the commander of the 17th Army
Under these conditions, the commander of the 17th Army, General Hyakutake Haruyoshi, deployed reinforcements based on an infantry battalion led by Colonel Yamamoto. That same day (16 November 1942), the commander received the following telegraph orders from Imperial Headquarters ("Staff telegraph orders no. 627"):
The commander of the 17th Army consequently reached the following agreement with the local naval authorities on 18 November:
2. As there are no prospects for the future operations of the Buna airstrip owing to its poor quality, make preparations to quickly seize the airfield under construction by the Allies approximately 10 kilometres to the south of Buna.
The unit commanded by Colonel Yamamoto arrived at the Buna base of the naval units during that evening (18 November). Allied forces raided the Buna area from 6 am the following morning. Colonel Yamamoto’s unit held its own amidst fierce fighting at close range.
Allied attacks again began from early in the morning of 20 November. They were driven back, though their main thrust was against the coastal area. Heavy attacks continued on 21 November on two fronts: against the coastal area and against the airstrip.
An Allied force of around one thousand men armed with mortars attacked the Giruwa and Basabua areas to the north on 19 and 20 November. At that time, intelligence was received that the main strength of the 41st Infantry Regiment and the commander of the South Seas Force were heading along the left bank towards the mouth of the Kumusi River. Plans were formulated to send barges from Basabua on 22 November to rescue them.
The 17th Army commander, after considering the situation, took the measure of deploying a battalion of infantry reinforcements for the South Seas Force, which had recently arrived in Rabaul. This temporarily organised unit of approximately eight hundred men, led by Lieutenant Ogi, arrived by destroyer in the Basabua area during the evening of 21 November and was placed under the command of Colonel Yokoyama. The operational plan at that time was for the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade main strength to quickly enter and secure the Buna area. In addition, new reinforcements from the Philippines, consisting of the main strength of the 65th Brigade, based on two infantry battalions, were to occupy the airfield to the south of Buna.
The command of the Combined Fleet basically agreed with this plan, and went as far as to investigate policies to implement this positive offensive while maintaining a stable position at Guadalcanal. The commander of the 8th Area Army had arrived with his headquarters at Truk precisely at this time, 21 November, and had expressed his opinions concerning the plans. There was little chance of gaining quick assent from him, however, as the commander had received great army orders for the "Solomon Islands offensive" only three days previously (details to follow).
Meanwhile, the infantry battalion led by Lieutenant Ogi boarded four destroyers (Makigumo, Kazagumo, Yûgumo, and Arashio) and departed from Rabaul in the early morning of 21 November. Contact was made by a lone B-17 bomber during the passage south of New Britain, but the convoy arrived at Basabua that evening and the unit disembarked safely. Lieutenant Ogi’s battalion succeeded the 3rd Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment led by Major Kobayashi Asao. It was placed at Giruwa under the command of Major Murase Gohei, who had only arrived and taken up duty on 18 November, but, contrary to expectations, was only held in reserve.
The activity of the battle in the Giruwa and Basabua areas intensified from the evening of 22 November. Hand-to-hand fighting was especially intense on the Giruwa front, though the attack was eventually repelled during the evening of 23 November, after which the battle settled down. However, it was clear that, overall, the Allies were gradually encircling and constricting the Japanese positions.
Meanwhile, the 41st Infantry Regiment had crossed the Kumusi River near Pinga and arrived in the Gona area. The main strength of the regiment was unfit for battle, owing to the lack of provisions during the withdrawal and fatigue from long periods of battle. Many had become so desperate, during the withdrawal in particular, that they disposed of their weapons. Combined with the losses sustained in crossing the Kumusi River, there was little expectation that the unit would have the strength for another major battle around Buna and Giruwa. Despite this, the regiment (less the 1st Battalion) advanced to Giruwa from Gona by barge during the evening of 28 November and was placed under the command of Colonel Yokoyama.
Army and navy strategies concerning the value of the front at Buna, in response to the worsening situation in the area, were in opposition at the end of November.
On 18 November, the headquarters of the 8th Area Army, the supreme army authority in the region, received a great army order from Tokyo that charged them to "Cooperate with the navy to first invade the Solomon Islands while securing key areas in New Guinea and preparing for future operations in that area." The bottom line for the army, as indicated in the operational outline based on these responsibilities, was to "Secure key areas around Lae, Salamaua and Buna in cooperation with the navy." Namely, this indicated that priority be given to the invasion of Guadalcanal. The operational policy was to "Continue to secure the Buna area with reinforcements consisting of the 21st Mixed Brigade, first defeat and clean up the Australian force attacking from the Owen Stanley Range, then destroy the American force advancing on the Buna front from the coast."
On the other hand, the navy felt that this campaign would go the way of Guadalcanal if the airfield to the south of Buna was not quickly seized. Not only would the execution of future operations become extremely difficult if this airfield became operational, but it would even come to threaten the Japanese position at Rabaul. Consequently, the navy proposed that the airfields in the area be occupied at the earliest opportunity.
The army opposed this proposal by countering that even if military strengths in the area were reinforced to seize the airfield (with the expectation of the navy redeploying the 65th Brigade and elements of the 51st Division), the current difficulty in supplying the Guadalcanal campaign would be compounded by any attempt to increase supply to a large force in New Guinea.
On this point, the navy argued that if the Buna airfield was captured and key areas secured, then there would be no impediment for advancing army air units into the area. In addition to enabling a strengthening of the air war against Port Moresby, this would provide the capability for aerial protection of small supply ships, thus alleviating, rather than hindering, the overall supply situation.
The sub-plot of the army’s argument was, of course, the desire not to abandon army troops on Guadalcanal to starvation.
Strategic leadership of the 8th Area Army commander and mobilisation of the 18th Army command
After it had arrived in Rabaul, debate within the staff office of the 8th Area Army ensued whether to secure Buna. However, a decision to continue to hold the area was made clear in the above-mentioned operational outline from the commander of the area army. Notable at this time was the strongly advocated proposal by staff officer Sugita Ichiji to abandon Buna.
The first operational orders for the campaign were issued by the commander on 26 November, which placed the main strength of the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade and one infantry battalion from the 38th Division under the command of the 18th Army to "first secure the key areas around Buna village".
At the time of the activation of these orders, at midnight on 26 November, the combined situation of Japanese army and navy troops deployed in the Buna area was as follows:
South-east sector (south of Giruwa)
144th Infantry Regiment main strength
41st Infantry Regiment part strength (approximately 300 troops led by Lieutenant Takenaka)
Field Hospital patients (Takeda Unit)
Takasago Volunteer Unit (small number)
Editor’s note: Lieutenant Takenaka’s unit was included under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto because the main road had been blockaded by Australian troops when they were proceeding from rear positions to the front line.
South Seas Force Headquarters (commander and staff officers missing)
South Seas Force mountain artillery battalion (55th Mountain Artillery Regiment, 1st Battalion)
15th Independent Engineer Regiment main strength (approximately 300 troops)
47th Field Anti-aircraft Artillery Battalion main strength (commander Lieutenant Colonel Fuchiyama Sadahide)
South Seas Force Medical Unit (total with two hospitals approximately 2,500 men, mainly patients)
South Seas Force field hospital
Murase Battalion (South Seas Force reinforcements, approximately 800 troops)
South Seas Force cavalry units
41st Infantry Regiment (led by Colonel Yazawa Kiyomi, missing 1st Battalion, advanced to Giruwa on 28 November)
Uchida Unit (formed from patients of the Line of communication hospital)
Nakamura Unit (formed from the Takasago Volunteers)
Mori Unit (formed from the Disease Prevention and Water Supply Unit)
Sôda Unit (69 men from the 41st Infantry Regiment led by Lieutenant Sôda, reinforcements who had arrived on 19 November)
229th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion (led by Major Kenmotsu Heishichi)
38th Mountain Artillery Regiment, 2nd Company (led by Lieutenant Shiiki Kazuo)
47th Field Anti-aircraft Artillery Battalion (one company)
Navy units (led by Navy Captain Yasuda Yoshitatsu, approximately 800 men).
The only fresh troops who had recently disembarked among these units were the Buna Garrison (with the exception of navy troops) and the 800 reinforcements for the South Seas Force.
On 26 November, the commander of the 18th Army ordered Colonel Yokoyama, the commander of the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment, to doggedly defend his current position at Giruwa. The main strength of the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade was ordered to land near Basabua. The brigade commander, Major General Yamagata Kuribanaike, took command of all 18th Army units in the Buna, Giruwa, and Basabua areas (with the exception of units directly under the command of the South Seas Force commander), with orders for the main strength to first repel Australian attacks in the area, then secure a line from Basabua through south Giruwa to the navy airfield in the Buna area and prepare for future assaults.
The 21st Independent Mixed Brigade was quickly transported to Basabua by four destroyer transports.
Major General Yamagata first deployed one infantry battalion and one mountain artillery battalion, along with army staff officers Colonel Kita Gozô and Major Tanaka Kengorô, for operational leadership and intelligence-gathering duties. This cadre force boarded four destroyers and sortied from Rabaul on 28 November, but was forced to return after two of the vessels suffered damage from Allied planes encountered en route.
The units were transferred to another four destroyers on 30 November, this time arriving in the Basabua anchorage during the evening of 1 December. However, it was not possible to launch the landing barges owing to a fierce attack from Allied planes. The landing point was changed to the mouth of the Kumusi River, and the unit was disembarked and dispersed on a wide front from the left bank of the river to the area near Gona. The troops directly in train with the brigade commander numbered little more than one infantry battalion and the signals unit.
The command of the 18th Army decided to send a second reinforcement unit based around one infantry battalion. A senior staff officer from the army, Colonel Aotsu Kikutarô, accompanied the reinforcements. The unit boarded six destroyers and left Rabaul early on the morning of 8 December, but, similar to the previous attempt, the vessels were prevented from disembarking by Allied planes and were forced to return to Rabaul.
The commander of the 18th Army had, just prior to this on 6 December, added the 41st Infantry Regiment to the command of the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade. This formation, called the Buna Detachment, inherited previous responsibilities of the regiment, which included orders to quickly pacify the situation around Basabua, and to clear the occupied area of enemy troops using reinforcement units. On that day, the entire complement of units engaged in battle in New Guinea were united under the command of Major General Yamagata.
The plan to resupply the Buna area
Transport of supplies to the Buna area was not being undertaken at the time when the command of the 18th Army was mobilised. Allied air superiority prevented transport ships from arriving in the region and, as described above, even transport by destroyer was difficult.
Meanwhile, 18th Army Headquarters estimated that approximately ten thousand troops were deployed in the Buna area. The following outline of a plan for resupply was formulated in late November:
It is assumed that the Buna sector requires supplies for approximately 10,000 men. Supplies will be loaded on vessels used for landing operations sufficient to supply these troops for one month.
If these operations are successful, sufficient supplies for three months will be successively advanced to the area.
2. The Buna base will be strengthened in preparation for a future assault against Port Moresby. In addition, new bases will be established near the mouth of the Mambare River, Zaka, and Morobe. A new line of communication will be established from the Zaka sector to Port Moresby.
The transport of the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade as reinforcements under this plan, as well as the transport of supplies, was to be carried out by destroyer. There were many occasions, however, when destroyers were only able to debark their human cargo before being turned back by Allied air attacks. There was no time to unload the military supplies and food. The immediate result was that the supply situation on land was becoming desperate.
The commander of the 18th Army discussed plans with the area army commander and related navy units for resupply by plane and submarine. As a result, aerial drops of supplies were undertaken over the Buna area by navy air units on 4 and 10 December. In response to the supply from Rabaul of pickled plums, powdered miso, and soy sauce, troops in the field demanded only rice, powdered miso, and rifles – all else was considered a luxury. It was at this time that the previously quoted telegram lamenting the lack of understanding by the Rabaul authorities was received.
Resupply by submarine was undertaken three or four times (once on 16 December, twice around 19 December) with disembarkation taking place near Mambare Bay.
Major General Oda Kensaku, who had only arrived at Rabaul on 8 December, was appointed by the commander of the 18th Army to succeed Major General Horii as commander of the South Seas Force. The reinforcement units that were turned back to Rabaul en route (with staff officer Colonel Aotsu) were to be placed under the command of the Buna Detachment.
Editor’s note: Although both Major General Yamagata and Major General Oda were of equal seniority, Yamagata was the ranking officer.
Oda’s unit landed at the mouth of the Mambare River at 4 am on 14 December.
The Allied attacks had eased somewhat since late November. From early December, however, the intensity of attacks resumed in close cooperation with aerial bombing along the Basabua, south Giruwa, and Buna fronts.
Despite the valiant resistance of commander Yamamoto and his garrison of 800 men at Basabua, the unit was eventually overrun and annihilated on 8 December. Allied pressure consequently came to bear on the Japanese positions at south Giruwa and Buna.
Change of operational policy
The commander of the 18th Army received "Staff telegraph orders no. 119" from Imperial Headquarters on 12 December.
The gist of the telegram was as follows: "Great importance must be placed on securing the north-eastern end of New Guinea. Buna will not be reinforced, but should eventually be evacuated."
This arrived just a month after the telegram addressed to the 17 Army commander ("Staff telegraph orders no. 627"), dated 16 November, which stated the opposite, that, "It is essential for the execution of future operations that the Buna area be secured. Our strategic position in the seas will be fundamentally shaken if this area is lost. Consequently … we would like all assurances that this area will be secured."
The command of the 8th Area Army was activated on 26 November. General Imamura and his army commanders were of the opinion that Guadalcanal was the most important region. In addition, the difficulties of successive transports by destroyer to the Buna area from early December forced "operations to adopt a passive stance owing to the extreme difficulties of the situation, despite future reinforcements". The "true conditions" of the situation were clear. The following passage from the diary of the chief of staff of the Combined Fleet on 12 November outlines the change in position over this period:
Meanwhile, the new chief of operations from Imperial Headquarters, Colonel Sanada, arrived in Rabaul on 19 December. He explained the new operational policy as follows:
Consequently, there are those who feel that New Guinea should be accorded less importance. On the other hand, there are also those who feel that New Guinea should be quickly secured and stabilised.
Hence this outline. If Lae, Salamaua, and Madang are firmly secured, then there will be the opportunity to retake Buna later, even if it is now lost. We are currently facing two options: to simply discard Buna; or to support a withdrawal from Buna. If withdrawal is chosen, it must be done now. This means that the area army needs to spread itself in a manageable fashion.
This explanation was understood by the command of the 8th Area Army.
Imperial Headquarters consequently amended parts of the South Pacific Area army and navy central agreement and the 8th Area Army operational outline based on this new understanding ("Great army instruction no. 1376", dated 21 December 1942).
The content of these amendments were: "The current situation demands that units in the Buna area withdraw to the Salamaua area and occupy key locations."
Editor’s note: Navy amendments were contained in "Great navy instruction no. 181", dated 23 December 1942.
Lieutenant Colonel Kita’s intelligence
Lieutenant Colonel Kita, the 18th Army staff officer who had accompanied the reinforcements to New Guinea led by Major General Yamagata, reported on the "Conditions in the Buna area" to army headquarters on 12 December. Chief of operations, Colonel Sanada, was at that time in Rabaul. He attended the briefing and heard Kita’s report. Both the diary of Colonel Sanada and the duty diary of area army staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Imoto, contained the following transmission:
According to reports from staff officer Kita of the 18th Army, the actual situation in the Buna area is as expected and does not seem to be acute. With the exception of continuing supplies of food, there seems to be absolutely no difficulty in securing the area at this time.
There were, however, different interpretations of this same report. Imoto’s diary for that day continues with these words:
Comparing this with the telegram of the chief of operations reveals the difficulty of interpreting the report:
Operational preparations and leadership in Rabaul
Imperial Headquarters, on 23 December 1942, removed the 51st Division from the order of battle of the 17th Army and removed the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade (less motor car units) from the 8th Area Army and placed them both in the order of battle of the 18th Army ("Great army order no. 729").
As previously mentioned, elements of the 51st Division were to reinforce the Lae and Salamaua areas, with the main strength of the division to occupy and secure the area around Madang.
Meanwhile, the fierce Allied assault on the Buna sector continued.
The Americans concentrated their attack from the south and to the north-west of the airstrip. One side of the Japanese position was finally penetrated on 5 December. Contact between the garrison headquarters and the Buna camp was lost on 20 December. The overall situation in the Buna area became progressively desperate. In response to the overall progress in the area, 8th Area Army headquarters maintained close links between its own staff officers and those of the 18th Army in the area. The pattern of these links can be seen from the following entries in Imoto’s diary:
Sugiyama (Lieutenant Colonel Sugiyama Shigeru, 18th Army staff officer): I would like to see orders and instructions for the army issued at the discretion of the army commander.
Imoto: Was there some issue related to area army orders and the like?
Sugiyama: We had no alternative but to make a furious dash into Buna when orders were issued to secure the area.
Imoto: This was contained in a great army order issued by Imperial Headquarters. The area army cannot issue such an order. Imperial Headquarters cancelled the order to secure Buna based on the army and navy central agreement. (Following section deleted by the editor.)
Yoshihara (Major General Yoshihara Kane, 18th Army chief of staff): I would like clarification concerning the future use of the 51st Division. Pouring military strength into Buna is problematic from a strategic point of view, but it is not possible for the army just to abandon the area. It is essential to retake Buna by gradually deploying the 51st Division from the coast. If the navy is not willing to cooperate, the operation will have to be conducted with our army barges. The distance between Salamaua and Buna can be divided into five 50 kilometre stages. Four barges can make 40 round trips over each stage. This can be accomplished with one shipping engineer regiment.
Katô (Lieutenant General Katô Rinpei, 8th Area Army chief of staff): As I have explained, advancing troops to Buna is problematic. It is only possible to indicate the first stage of our plan at this time.
Yoshihara: Even if we attempted to withdraw from Buna, it would not be possible. To do nothing would also be a disaster. Staff officer Aotsu’s battalion entered north Giruwa last night carrying some provisions. It will be possible to restore the situation at Buna if military strength can be applied to key battlefields. If we now attempt to bring relief to Buna, it must be an infantry regiment that is first disembarked. We would have withdrawn from Buna if this had been possible.
Katô: Even if the navy could supply assistance and key areas were reinforced, this would, on the contrary, increase our troubles. Resupply is simply not possible.
Yoshihara: Well, what do you propose?
Katô: There is no alternative at this time but to adopt a policy to strengthen our position to the west of Lae and Salamaua.
Yoshihara: The army commander may have visited commander Imamura, but if not, he should go and speak to him immediately. It is not satisfactory that Adachi speaks only to his staff officers.
The Japanese navy anti-aircraft artillery positions were taken by the Allies on 26 December. The following day, a combined force of all available army and navy aircraft, totalling sixty planes, attacked the Allied mortar positions in the central airfield sector. The overall situation, however, remained extremely difficult.
The commander of the 18th Army issued the following orders on 26 December to the commander of the Buna Detachment, who was at that time in Gona:
Quickly mobilise your available strength by sea to an area to the north of Giruwa and attack the flank of the Allied force to the west of Buna. Bring aid to the army and navy units in the Buna area, and secure north Giruwa, regardless of how desperate the situation becomes.
Reinforcement by the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade
The main strength of the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade was deployed as emergency reinforcements for the Buna area. The first echelon, which consisted of the 1st Battalion of the 170th Infantry Regiment and the main strength of the 1st Battalion of the 38th Mountain Artillery Regiment, and led by Major General Yamagata, sortied from Rabaul on 28 November aboard four destroyers, Makigumo, Kazagumo, Yûgumo, and Shiratsuyu, and headed for Basabua.
The convoy, however, was attacked by three waves of 12 B-17 bombers from noon the following day until 5.30 pm. Shiratsuyu suffered substantial damage (a direct hit to the fore section, and while there was no damage to the engine, water seepage had reduced speed to 19 kilometres per hour). Makigumo survived a near miss, but a fire somehow broke out in Number 2 boiler room. Emergency mechanisms contained the fire and the ship remained operational, but Makigumo returned to Rabaul with Shiratsuyu.
Kazagumo and Yûgumo proceeded as planned and entered the anchorage, but were forced to leave and head back to Rabaul. This was owing to Allied air activity and a lack of visibility that compelled them to abandon disembarkation. The first transport had ended in failure.
During the transport on 28 November, 12 carrier-based fighters and four carrier-based bombers from navy air units provided direct protection over the convoy, engaging five B-17s. Six carrier-based fighters were deployed the following day to provide aerial protection. The objective of the transport convoy was not attained, though reports were received that one of three B-17s engaged on 29 November was downed.
Editor’s note: The postwar reminiscence of the 18th Army chief of staff, Yoshihara Kane, records that, contrary to official navy records, there was no aerial escort during the first transport.
The reorganised first landing party, consisting of brigade headquarters, the main strength of the 3rd Battalion of the 170th Infantry Battalion, and elements of the brigade signals unit, boarded four destroyers, Asashio, Arashio, Inazuma, and Isonami, and left Rabaul during the evening of 30 November. The convoy proceeded under direct escort from Japanese fighters, who kept Allied planes at bay. The destroyers entered the Basabua anchorage during the evening of 1 December but the troops could not board the landing barges owing to Allied air attacks.
As an emergency measure, the landing point was changed to the mouth of the Kumusi River. Troops barely managed to board the landing barges under the spotlights of Allied planes. Each destroyer was equipped with two small landing barges and two inflatable boats, with an additional large barge for the brigade headquarters on their vessel. The units headed towards the shore at 12.45 am on 2 December, but with no time to organise the barges into formations, the units were dispersed and landed along the coast between Gona and the left bank of the Kumusi a little before first light. The brigade commander had barely one infantry company and elements of the brigade signals unit with him.
The destroyers returned to Rabaul safely, though they were attacked by Allied submarines en route.
Meanwhile, 24 carrier-based fighters deployed for aerial patrolling engaged 16 B-17s and several B-25s. On 2 December, 15 fighters engaged three B-17s, reporting that one of the B-17s was shot down.
Brigade commander Yamagata reached the Gona area during the evening of 6 December with his small force in train. He took command of the entire strength of the first reinforcement units (400 men) and the members of the 1st Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment at Gona (led by Major Miyamoto Kikumatsu, with 50 rifles and one heavy machine gun).
Brigade commander Yamagata received army orders on 5 December to "Form the Buna Detachment, and stabilise the situation around Basabua." In order to bring aid to the Basabua Garrison in accordance with these army orders, the detachment advanced to the east towards the coast. This resulted in fierce fighting with Australian forces in the area to the east of Gona.
The formation directly led by Major General Yamagata also suffered heavy casualties in these actions. Out of a formation of 280 men on 10 December, it was recorded that one hundred (including five officers) had been killed or wounded. Commander Yamagata, faced with the sudden depletion of his force, decided to "secure our current position in the Gona area, wait for the arrival of the second echelon of reinforcements, and plan subsequent strategies".
Consequently, elements of the force were deployed near Kigoku from 11 December (though they withdrew to Napapo on 13 December), with the main strength stationed around Gona. These units repulsed fierce attacks from Allied forces for two weeks.
Editor’s note: Napapo is a coastal village about 3 kilometres north-west of Gona. It is thought that Kigoku was to the south, but the location of this deployment is unclear.
During this time, a staff officer of the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade, Major Aoyanagi Sumiharu, was killed while making contact with the front line.
The 18th Army loaded the second echelon reinforcements, which included the main strength of the 1st Battalion of the 170th Infantry Regiment, the 9th Company, the regimental artillery company, and the 25th Field Machine-cannon Company, onto the destroyers Asashio, Arashio, Kazagumo, Yûgumo, Inazuma, and Isonami. The ships sortied from Rabaul on the morning of 8 December and attempted to disembark that evening near Gona. The convoy was engaged by 23 B-17s from as early as 8.25 am. Asashio and Isonami received direct hits and suffered slight damage. The commander of the 8th Destroyer Squadron was determined to continue, but a telegraph was received at 1 pm from the commander of the 18th Squadron cancelling the landing operation. The convoy headed back to Rabaul from a position near Cape Alford on New Britain.
During this time, a total of 48 carrier-based navy fighters, in groups of 6–9 planes, carried out aerial protection of the convoy. It was reported that five B-17s (three unconfirmed) were shot down out of a total of 23 that engaged the convoy. Again, however, the objective of the operation was not achieved.
Editor’s note: The American official history records that none of the B-17s were damaged.
On 30 November, elements of Allied units penetrated the area between Japanese units in the south-west sector (main strength of the 144th Infantry Regiment) and the central sector (which included the main strength of the 41st Infantry Regiment and the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment). The distance between the Japanese forces was approximately 1.5 kilometres.
Colonel Yokoyama ordered the commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment, Major Murase Gohei, to take his battalion and the reinforcements troops for the 144th Infantry Regiment to drive out the Allied troops.
The Australian troops facing Major Murase’s unit were ground troop reinforcements assisted by strong artillery troops. Murase could not repulse the Allies, and the battle came to a standstill, with the Australians occupying positions close to the Japanese camp (the position occupied by Murase’s unit was later called the "advance camp").
In this manner, the line of communication between the south-west sector and central sector units was broken.
The landing of Major General Oda at the Mambare River
The commander of the 18th Army placed Major General Oda Kensaku, the new head of the South Seas Force, in command of the second echelon reinforcements that had been turned back to Rabaul on 8 December. Oda, on board the destroyer with staff officer Aotsu, left Rabaul during the evening of 12 December and landed near Gona, where he was deployed under the Buna Detachment commander.
The second echelon reinforcement units were loaded on five destroyers (Arashio, Kazagumo, Yûgumo, Inazuma, and Isonami), which pressed on towards Gona through poor weather. Enemy planes attacked en route but the convoy sustained no damage. The ships entered the mouth of the Mambare River (50 kilometres north-west of the mouth of the Kumusi River) at 2 am on 14 December, owing to a judgment that landing near Gona would be difficult under attack from Allied planes. They immediately began disembarkation. A second disembarkation took place from 3.30 am and was completed by 4 am. Isonami was attacked by Allied planes during the passage back to Rabaul but suffered only slight damage.
Thirty carrier-based naval fighters provided direct cover for the destroyers on 30 December, repulsing two B-17s and two B-25s. The following day, 29 fighters engaged over forty B-24s, reporting one shot down, for the loss of two Japanese planes that did not return, and two which crash-landed.
The makeup of the units which were landed near the Mambare River was as follows:
The units travelled by barge along the coast and successively arrived in the Napapo area (3 kilometres north-west of Gona) between the evening of 18 and 25 December.
The new commander of the South Seas Force, Major General Oda Kensaku, also arrived at Napapo by barge on 18 December. The commander of the Buna Detachment, Major General Yamagata, ordered Oda to proceed by barge to Giruwa on 19 December. There he was ordered to occupy and secure key areas using troops of the South Seas Force presently under the command of Colonel Yokoyama.
Editor’s note: The regimental flag of the 170th Infantry Regiment was lost when the barge carrying the commander of the regiment was sunk during the operation. Thereafter, the commander was left at Rabaul.
Destruction of positions on the right flank of the Basabua camp
The Basabua Garrison was commanded by Major Yamamoto Tsuneichi and was formed from the Uchida, Nakamura, Mori, and Sôda Units.
The Basabua camp initially had no depth owing to its proximity to the shore. After the battle had turned and the camp was driven to the south, Major Yamamoto launched a temporary counter-offensive up to 8 December to secure the line of the camp.
Editor’s note: Postwar investigations of various sources indicate that the location of this battle was Gona, though the Japanese army called this place Basabua.
On 21 November, the sixty-strong Yamamoto Medical Unit, led by Medical Captain Yamamoto, was placed under the command of Major Yamamoto. Reinforcements consisting of eighty men led by Lieutenant Yamazaki (including two machine-guns) arrived on 24 November. The Yamazaki Unit was deployed at the point of strongest attack by the Australians, and casualties continued to mount from heavy mortar fire. By 6 December, the unit had been completely destroyed.
The wired line of communication with Giruwa had previously been severed. Despatch troops would swim out to sea, then penetrate the Allied perimeter to deliver messages. Aid from Giruwa and Gona, however, was blocked by the presence of Australian troops. The Basabua Garrison was initially a mixed formation primarily consisting of labourers who were not accustomed to military manoeuvres. They bore well this heavy burden, however, and died defending the camp.
The last stage of resistance was reached on 8 December 1942 when Major Yamamoto and his senior officers were killed at the camp. The few who survived escaped to the east.
The 41st Infantry Regiment, which had arrived at Giruwa on 29 November, received orders to rescue the Basabua units on 30 November. The 2nd Battalion was quickly advanced to Basabua by barge. Communication with Major Yamamoto, however, could not be established, so the unit returned empty-handed to Giruwa.
According to the memoir of the commander of the battalion, Major Koiwai Mitsuo, the 2nd Battalion, based on troops from the 5th and 8th Companies with 50–60 men each, was divided into two barges. The battalion left Giruwa but could not identify the landing point at Basabua in the darkness. The only response to the lighting of signal flares was a burst of fierce machine-gun fire from the land. Thinking they would try again the following day, the barges returned to Giruwa close to the shore.
The above account of the battle conditions at the Basabua Garrison was primarily taken from the Outline of operations of the 41st Infantry Regiment and the Record of operations of the 18th Army, volume 1. The actual conditions of the battle by the garrison, as described in original documents that were destroyed, will remain a mystery. Lieutenant General Yoshihara, the chief of staff of the 18th Army, included the following account in his memoir from what is felt to have occurred:
The Basabua battle from Allied sources
(Editor’s note: this section is in agreement with the memoir of Major Koiwai.)
The Australians buried 638 Japanese dead at Gona, but they themselves had suffered more than 750 killed, wounded, and missing.
Editor’s note: According to the sources, there are various opinions as to whether orders were issued to withdraw from the Basabua Garrison. According to 18th Army staff officer, Major Tanaka Kengorô: "I do not think orders were issued to withdraw from Basabua. Perhaps Colonel Yokoyama issued orders for the troops of the Basabua Garrison to withdraw to Giruwa, but they probably did not reach the garrison."
Japanese army air units Buna offensive
The situation at Buna had become desperate. On 23 December, 18th Army staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sugiyama, approached the 8th Area Army for an offensive against Buna by army air units. Reinforcements to the area had previously been unsuccessful by sea. The only force available to assist the campaign was by air.
Consequently, the navy planned a night attack for 23 December using medium attack planes, and the army decided to attack the Buna area with elements of its fighter strength the following day.
Navy air units undertook night attacks on Allied positions in the Buna area and on the airfield at Dobodura from 6.55 to 8.45 pm on 23 December. The attack consisted of four waves using eight land-based attack planes, with signs of damage to Allied positions at several locations.
On the army side, the command of the 6th Air Division had been activated from 11 December. Though the 1st Air Group of the 12th Air Brigade was still being transported to Rabaul, the main strength of the brigade had completed assembly at Vunakanau airfield west of Rabaul. The air division and brigade commanders wanted to apply their entire strength to what was their first air battle. However, the situation at Buna would not allow any delay.
The 11th Air Group advanced in waves on 24 December but all were forced back en route owing to poor weather. The air group made another attempt the following day with the assistance of two reconnaissance planes, but it was still not possible to penetrate to the Buna area. Seven navy land-based attack planes were able to penetrate the Buna area that evening and carry out night raids.
Though the weather had not entirely cleared on 26 December, 15 fighters led by the commander of the 1st Squadron of the 11th Air Group were able to advance at 6.55 am and attack the airfield to the south of Buna. Some of the fighters destroyed a number of large planes on the ground, while the main strength of the squadron was engaged in fierce aerial combat. There were reports that four P-40s (one unconfirmed) and two Lockheed bombers were downed, for the loss of two Japanese planes.
Army and navy air units carried out a joint operation at 10 am on 27 December, with 31 fighters from the army’s 11th Air Group, and 11 fighters and 12 carrier-based bombers from the navy advancing to Buna. As on the previous day, fierce fighting developed against 16 P-38s in the skies over Buna, with reports of three shot down, and four more unconfirmed, for the loss of one army and one navy plane. However, that day marked the completion of preparations for the next stage of operations, so the sorties to Buna by the 12th Air Brigade ceased.
The Buna Garrison up to 3 December
The army units of the Buna Garrison, led by Colonel Yamamoto Hiroshi, had arrived in the Buna area on 18 November and had taken up positions within the Duropa Plantation (hereafter called the "outer camp") and at key points outside the Old Strip and New Strip airfields (called the "eastern sector"). The formation was based on the 144th Infantry Regiment reinforcements and the 3rd Battalion of the 229th Infantry Regiment.
The navy units were led by Naval Captain Yasuda Yoshitatsu and were deployed to protect Buna village and the area around the Buna mission (hereafter the "western sector"). They were based on the Yokosuka 5th Special Naval Landing Party and the Sasebo 5th Special Naval Landing Party.
The first Allied assault on the front line came at 5.58 am on 19 November 1942. The Allied force numbered around seven hundred, but their attack was repulsed by 8.20 am. The Allies were not budged and remained at close quarters after the second attack began at 1.20 pm, with Japanese units holding their positions. It became clear that the Allied force was much larger than anticipated and the Japanese army and navy garrison’s front was largely encircled.
At 5.20 am the following day, the Allies attacked along the coastal road and were repulsed. The fighting then eased off and the battlefield went quiet after 9.20 am. Seven Japanese carrier-based fighters assisted in the land battle.
Over fifty Allied planes attacked on 21 December, with approximately eighteen assisting in the land battle. The strength of Allied land forces numbered approximately one thousand men, but the attack was repulsed by 4 pm. The Allies were held only 300 metres from the Japanese positions. Given the state of affairs, the Yasuda Unit destroyed all important documents to prevent them falling into enemy hands.
Twelve each of navy carrier-based fighters and bombers flew over the skies of Buna on 22 November. The fighter unit engaged 14 Allied fighters and reported shooting two down (unconfirmed). The bombers strafed the native village.
Allied land forces appeared to the west of Buna village in the western sector on 23 November, adopting a position for an east–west pincer attack. The front line was guarded by sentries from the 14th and 15th Establishment Units, and by engineers. Approximately forty Allied planes mounted heavy air raids on that day.
There was little fighting of note on 24 November. The Japanese navy air forces sortied ten carrier-based fighters to control the skies over Buna and four carrier-based bombers to raid the Dobodura airfield. Twenty Allied planes were engaged over Dobodura with reports of four shot down (one unconfirmed) for the loss of two Japanese bombers.
The following day was also relatively quiet except for four P-38s, which engaged Japanese bombers in the skies.
Intensive Allied air attacks were carried out on the following day, 26 November. Raids came from thirty Allied planes at 5.30 am and from a further 35 planes at 11.30 am. The Japanese navy air forces deployed 12 carrier-based fighters and four carrier-based bombers to raid the Dobodura airfield. A further seven fighters and four bombers were sent to attack land troop concentrations and transport ships in the Buna area. A 500-tonne transport ship was sunk, an armoured vessel received a direct hit, and a bridge over the mouth of the Samboga River was bombed. During the night, three Japanese land-based attack planes were sent to raid the airfields at Emboga (south of Buna) and Port Moresby.
The anti-aircraft defence unit at Buna shot down four Allied aircraft on this day, but the army’s mountain artillery gun was destroyed.
At 1 pm on 27 November, nine Japanese navy carrier-based bombers and 12 carrier-based fighters raided Soputa (10 kilometres south of Buna). Three land-based attack planes later carried out a night attack on Emboga.
On the following day, six Japanese carrier-based bombers and 12 carrier-based fighters attacked a transport convoy in Buna Bay, leaving one 500-tonne transport on fire. Three other carrier-based bombers raided the staging point at Sumpit village (near Buna).
There was little change to the land battle through 29 November. At a little after 2 am the following morning, however, a strong Allied force attacked the "jungle unit" (so-called for the terrain at the front line protected by the 14th and 15th Establishment Units and thirty infantry troops). Fighting at close quarters ensued in the jungle. Realising that the situation on this front had become desperate by 3 December, the labourers were withdrawn and their positions strengthened by an infantry platoon.
The situation of the 1st American Corps</a>]
The American troops on the Buna front had been assembling their main strength near Pongani, with elements near Bofu, since mid-October. The unit, which had arrived by a combination of air, sea, and overland transport, was the 32nd American Division (based on the 126th and 128th Regiments, with the 127th Regiment missing).
The offensive against Japanese positions in the Buna area began from mid-November. The Australian units had thrust over the Owen Stanley Range while continuing to harass the South Seas Force. They arrived at Wairopi, the crossing over the Kumusi River, and headed for the Gona and Giruwa areas. The 32nd American Division commenced its assault on 19 November. However, they encountered stubborn Japanese resistance both on the airfield and at the Buna front, making little progress.
Offensive methods were improved, such as the alteration of deployments, and cooperation with the air forces. Two weeks after the start of the operation, however, the only change was an increase in the number of casualties (divisional losses amounted to 492 men). The unit was exhausted from jungle fighting in unsanitary, swampy conditions. The divisional supply line was strained owing to counter-attacks from Japanese air units since the start of the campaign. Food and ammunition were in short supply, and some front-line units were down to one-third their nominal strength.
In order to resolve the impasse, senior command sent several senior officers and staff officers to divisional headquarters. General MacArthur, on the basis of their reports, decided to replace the commander and senior officers of the 32nd Division.
Lieutenant General Eichelberger was appointed commander of the 1st American Corps on 1 December 1942, thus taking command of all American troops in the Buna area. He proceeded to the front line the following day and, as a result of his inspection, issued orders relieving the commander of the 32nd Division of his position. He then placed the head of the divisional artillery unit as divisional commander.
The following day, Eichelberger visited units at the airfield and Buna village fronts, discharging both unit commanders. The new regimental commanders arrived in the morning and afternoon of 3 February and immediately took command.
The Allied position in the Buna area was in this way revived after 3 February.
Editor’s note: According to the memoir of General Eichelberger, MacArthur had told him: "I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive."
The Buna Garrison up to 27 December
The battle in the eastern sector started early on 5 December. For 35 minutes from 6.20 am, six Allied fighters strafed the outer camp from the direction of New Strip. Supporting artillery fire began at the same time, while front-line infantry troops with armoured reconnaissance carriers began advancing at 6.42 am.
The Japanese garrison at the eastern sector targeted the carriers with hand grenades, adhesion mines, and some anti-tank artillery. The five carriers were all destroyed within only twenty minutes.
Editor’s note: The reconnaissance carriers were lightly armoured on the sides, with an open top and no armour underneath.
The company of the American 128th Regiment, which had advanced with the carriers, suffered heavy casualties. Fierce fire from the Japanese defenders and the intensity of the heat halted the advance.
The new American regimental commander telegraphed to his senior command that: "We have thrown everything at the enemy, but it has bounced straight back."
The battle in the western sector commenced at 8 am with an attack by nine B-25s against the Buna mission. The assault continued with artillery and mortar fire against Buna village. The advance of infantry troops began at 8.30 am.
The Japanese naval units led by Captain Yasuda returned heavy fire and halted the American advance. Meanwhile, a platoon from the American 126th Regiment, in defiance of the Japanese attack, penetrated into the coastal sector between the Buna mission and village. This unit encircled and attacked the Japanese position from both sides. However, the Japanese units were not destroyed, but fought all the stronger for being cornered in the village. The front-line other-ranks sentry position was destroyed in this attack.
The Americans, having failed in their attempt to assault the eastern sector, determined that a frontal attack would not penetrate the Japanese camp and so altered their operational plan. The Japanese position was to be weakened through a war of attrition and infiltration undertaken by strengthened tank units and reserves of Australian troops.
In reality, the attacks undertaken by American troops did not achieve any significant results. The operation to occupy the bridge between the two airstrips was consistently repelled, and the unit which attacked the south side of Old Strip gained only yards despite a large investment in time. The battle seemed like an assault on a heavily guarded fortress.
Relative quiet continued for several days in the eastern sector owing to the change in operational policy by the Americans. In contrast, the western sector came under constant attack. The navy units in the Buna sector were effectively surrounded and, though they received heavy fire from the front and on the flank, the garrison stubbornly defended the position. However, feeling that the end had come, all important documents were destroyed on 6 December.
The Americans planned a major attack for 7 December. Though the required preparations had been completed, the Japanese forces mobilised first. At 4 am, the Japanese garrison switched the offensive to two fronts at Buna village and the mission. When the assault was held, reinforcements were to arrive during the evening at Buna village by boat from the mission, but the plan failed.
The Japanese navy units again mounted a counter-offensive on 8 December. Approximately forty men from Buna village attacked the American’s left flank, and one hundred men from the mission sector sortied against the Americans’ right flank. After a brief encounter, the sallying parties were forced back by heavy mortar and machine-gun fire. However, the strong defences of the Japanese garrison withstood over 12 assaults by the American force.
A concentrated barrage of over two thousand artillery shells in the half hour from 5.30 am on 9 December destroyed the second-line other-ranks sentry position, which consisted of 130 men. Many of these men were buried alive.
According to the American official history, concentrated artillery and heavy mortar on 13 December resulted in the withdrawal of the Japanese troops to Giruwa that evening. Further concentrated artillery early in the morning of 14 December was followed by an advance into Buna village at 7 am. The village was completely occupied by 10 am with no resistance.
Mopping-up operations continued until noon the following day, 15 December. It was recorded that 2,000 pounds of rice and oatmeal, barley meal, and several barrels of barley grain were collected. A wounded non-commissioned officer was also captured. No records survived from the Japanese side to describe the battle on the Buna front from 13–16 December. The only records list that "The number of navy personnel in battle at Buna on 15 December totals 585 men, including 17 warrant officers and higher ranks, 372 non-commissioned officers, and 196 labourers," and that "Communication with the rear has been severed by enemy troops who have infiltrated our position in the jungle camp, with the cookhouse of the 15th Establishment Unit completely destroyed by encirclement attacks from enemy troops on 16 December." Though the dates differ by one day, there is surely a connection between the reference to the cookhouse and the discovery of the supplies by the Americans. The following account of events is possible from a combination of the records of both armies.
Allied M3 light tanks arrived at the eastern sector front on 17 December. The tank company proceeded to the staging point in preparation for the beginning of operations that evening. The Japanese troops were more concerned with the constant mortar and artillery fire than the penetration of the tanks.
Air raids and mortar fire began as planned at 4.45 am on 18 December. The shelling stopped at 5 am, whereupon the freshly arrived Australian troops, with the tanks in the lead, began their advance. The concealed Japanese positions could not be destroyed despite the heavy clearing fire in front of the advance. The appearance of the tanks, however, was a great shock to the Japanese troops. This was because the tanks were not visible under heavy fire until they were right over the concealed Japanese positions. The tanks had been diverted via the coastline near the outer camp to penetrate the Japanese positions. The Japanese defended grimly and set fire to two of the tanks near the front line. The remaining three tanks halted at pillboxes and concealments positioned some 500 metres to the rear of the outer camp.
The Japanese garrison at the Old Strip front safely defended their position during the day. The turret of one of the two tanks that was providing direct support stopped moving owing to damage by machine-gun fire. Four further tanks arrived at the front at 4 pm, and the Japanese defensive line was finally breached. The 3rd Battalion of the 229th Infantry Regiment had been guarding the outer camp during the day’s battle. It suffered heavy casualties and withdrew to a line east of the creek.
The army troops led by Colonel Yamamoto withdrew over the bridge or by wading through the shallows near the river mouth and established a second-line camp. The fire fight over the bridge continued throughout 20 December. Meanwhile, communications had been severed between the garrison headquarters and the Buna area camp.
The Australians discovered a crossing near a bend in the river about 350 metres north of the bridge late in the afternoon of 21 December. A company of Australian riflemen had crossed over the creek by the following morning. Apart from occasional mortar fire, the Australians did not meet any Japanese resistance.
A superior force of Allied tanks and accompanying infantry, under heavy artillery cover, assaulted the front line of the Japanese garrison headquarters for 30 minutes from 5.50 am on 22 December. Most of the important documents of the unit were destroyed at this time.
The Allies had repaired the bridge sufficiently for tanks to cross by 23 December. A Japanese torpedo boat raided the Allied anchorage at Hariko at dusk that evening, sinking a barge as it was disembarking. In addition, eight navy land-based attack planes carried out night raids on Allied positions near Buna and on the airfield at Dobodura.
Fighting resumed in the area of Old Strip on 24 December. Australian troops, as usual with preparatory covering fire, departed from the offensive line 180 metres from the northern end of the strip at 7.55 am. The Japanese defenders withstood the assault, then aimed the two navy anti-aircraft guns at the tanks, three of which were instantly destroyed. The Japanese then turned their firepower towards the airstrip, whereupon the offensive units became completely tied down. The Australians tried to attack the Japanese concealments during the night, but they were repelled by Japanese sentries.
The battle developed and intensified along the front on 25 December, but with little overall change.
The Allies closed in on the flank of the anti-aircraft gun emplacement at 7.02 am on 26 December. The emplacement was overrun after an hour of close combat. The Japanese garrison mounted a counter-offensive against the Australians’ right flank, but were unsuccessful and withdrew.
The battle around the airstrips finally moved into the final stages on 27 December. Colonel Yamamoto withdrew his main strength to the plantations near Giropa Point and mounted a second counter-offensive against the Australians’ right flank with troops in the strip’s aircraft concealments. However, their strength was not effectively applied, and they were repelled with heavy casualties.
Meanwhile, the commander of the 18th Army, realising the situation had turned for the worse, issued orders on 26 December for the Buna Detachment commander, Major General Yamagata, at that time in Gona, to send aid to the Buna units.
Major General Yamagata subsequently ordered the 41st Infantry Regiment commander to lead a force of approximately four hundred and thirty men to assist the troops at Buna. These troops were formed from the 1st Battalion of the 170th Infantry Regiment (less the 3rd and 4th Companies), the 9th Company, the Regimental Artillery Company, the Brigade Signals Unit, the 25th Machine-cannon Company, elements of the Brigade Engineer Unit, and whatever troops from the South Seas Force could be released. The relief party mobilised by barge during that day to a staging point near north Giruwa.
The glorious sacrifice of the Buna Garrison
The Buna Garrison received telegrams of support and encouragement from the navy chief of staff, the commander of the Combined Fleet, and the commander of the 8th Fleet. In reply, Naval Captain Yasuda despatched the following telegram at 5.30 am on 28 December:
Our gratitude to our commanders and the support of navy air and surface forces is boundless. We pray for the prosperity of our imperial land far away, and for lasting success in battle for all.
After sending this final message, the telegraph machine was destroyed and the codebook burned. On that day, the commander of the South-East Fleet (also commander of the 11th Air Fleet), Vice Admiral Kusaka Jin’ichi, sent an order to "withdraw to Giruwa". The commander of the 18th Army also issued orders to "Withdraw and assemble in the north Giruwa area, then secure the area."
Major General Yamagata advanced to north Giruwa on 29 December. The assembly of the relief party, which was to concentrate at north Giruwa, gradually came to a standstill.
Four Allied tanks appeared in the area near the garrison headquarters at 3.15 pm. A fierce battle developed. The navy units’ headquarters destroyed its last radio receiver at 5.10 pm that day.
Though surrounded, a party of twenty Japanese soldiers infiltrated the American command post during the night, where they killed 15 and wounded a further 12 men before withdrawing. Two accomplished swimmers were despatched from Giruwa as messengers. One was killed, but the other was able to provide the information that there were no barges at Giruwa. There was no alternative but to break through the enemy line and conduct a fighting withdrawal.
Major General Yamagata at north Giruwa ordered the commander of the 41st Infantry Regiment to lead a relief party to immediately bring aid to the Buna troops. The 230 troops included 26 from regimental headquarters, and others from the 1st Battalion of the 170th Infantry Regiment (elements missing) and the 9th Company.
The commanders at Giruwa were unaware of the situation at Buna. The first information they received was on 30 December from the one of the two messengers who swam to the area. His report was: "Enemy tanks have already penetrated near unit headquarters, and fierce fighting has developed. Numbers are down to around 250 and food is scarce. They will be able to hold out for only a short time longer."
Allied tanks encircled the Buna Garrison headquarters on 1 January 1943. All members of the garrison fought bravely. Many who formed human anti-tank attack squads met a heroic death in battle. Some of the troops held on for over 12 hours against tank shells and turret-mounted machine-guns from a range of less than 50 metres. The attack was finally repulsed by nightfall.
A general withdrawal was decided on during the night. A total of 70–80 army and navy staff from garrison headquarters, including 30–40 walking wounded, left their air-raid shelters and joined soldiers holed up at Buna village to break through the Australian lines and head for north Giruwa.
The night assault party, led by the commander of the mountain artillery company, Lieutenant Shiiki Kazuo, suffered almost complete losses of its seventy men when it attempted to break through the Allied lines. The members of the garrison returned to the air-raid shelters, recognising the low probability of successfully penetrating the lines. At this time, a total of barely ten army and navy personnel were fit to fight.
The surviving army and navy commanders, adjutants, doctors, and probationary officers huddled around the last candle and discussed the coming of their final day. Just before the arrival of the tanks early in the morning two days previously, the commanders had led an assault that penetrated the Allied camp. Now, the unit’s place of death had been chosen and the final stage of the Buna Garrison headquarters was determined.
Having foreseen this situation, it had been established that able-bodied swimmers would provide a last report to those at Giruwa. However, none who could swim became available in the frantic continuing battle. Consequently, Captain Yasuda ordered Ensign Suzuki Kiyotaka from the Yokosuka 5th Special Naval Landing Party to steal through the heavy Allied encirclement and head for Giruwa by sea. Captain Yasuda entrusted Suzuki with his final report to his superiors, as follows: "It is deeply regrettable that we have not been able to hold out for the arrival of the relief party."
Ensign Suzuki entered the sea at 2.30 am. The distant shore was approximately 1,000 metres away in the dark. It seemed from the glimpses between the swell that the battle on land had started early. Leaving his unit behind was unbearable. However, he kept swimming. He finally arrived on the beach at Giruwa around 9.30 am.
Editor’s note: It is not possible to authenticate the details of the movements of the commander of the Buna Garrison, Colonel Yamamoto Hiroshi (144th Infantry Regiment commander), owing to the lack of evidence contained in army documents.
Meanwhile, the relief party, which was led by the commander of the 41st Infantry Regiment, Colonel Yazawa, had not assembled by the evening of 31 December owing to the lack of fuel for the transport barges. Major General Yamagata then ordered just the present strength to advance on 2 January.
The relief party crossed the first arm of the Giruwa River during that night and advanced into the jungle. Contact was made with a party of around one hundred enemy troops near the second arm of the river during the evening of 3 January. These troops were attacked during the night of 4 January and the party advanced to a point about 2 kilometres to the west of Buna. However, they arrived too late, as the garrison had already been destroyed and most of its troops killed in battle.
By the evening of 6 January, the relief party had picked up 180 army and 190 navy personnel.
The key location of Basabua on the right flank had already fallen, and with the destruction of the Buna Garrison, the left flank was now taken. Pressure by American and Australian troops on the central sector at Giruwa subsequently intensified.
The new commander of the South Seas Force, Major General Oda Kensaku, took leadership of fighting in the area to the south of Giruwa, while Major General Yamagata Kuribanaike, the commander of the Buna Detachment (21st Independent Mixed Brigade commander), assumed overall command and directed the fighting against the Americans advancing to the west from Buna.
Imperial Headquarters had issued instructions on 21 December 1942 granting permission for "units in the Buna area, when the situation allows, to withdraw to the Salamaua area". However, the commander of the 8th Area Army did not rescind the orders to "secure Buna". This was because he wished to buy time to strengthen the position in the Salamaua area and, further, he did not want to compromise the strategic position at Guadalcanal.
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1 Daitôa Sensô keika gaiyô (Overview of the progress of the Greater East Asian War).
2 Daitôa Sensô keika gaiyô (Overview of the progress of the Greater East Asian War).
3 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
4 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
5 Minami Taiheiyô sakusen shiryô (Documents of operations in the South Pacific).
6 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
7 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
8 Minami Taiheiyô sakusen shiryô (Documents of operations in the South Pacific).
9 Ugaki Matome, Ugaki Matome Shôjô nisshi (Diary of Rear Admiral Ugaki Matome).
10 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
11 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
12 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
13 Imoto Kumao, Imoto Kumao Chûsa nisshi (Diary of Lieutenant Colonel Imoto Kumao).
14 Ugaki Matome, Ugaki Matome Shôjô nisshi (Diary of Rear Admiral Ugaki Matome).
15 Ugaki Matome, Ugaki Matome Shôjô nisshi (Diary of Rear Admiral Ugaki Matome).
16 Ugaki Matome, Ugaki Matome Shôjô nisshi (Diary of Rear Admiral Ugaki Matome).
17 Imoto Kumao, Imoto Kumao Chûsa nisshi (Diary of Lieutenant Colonel Imoto Kumao).
18 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
19 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
20 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
21 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
22 Minami Taiheiyô sakusen shiryô (Documents of operations in the South Pacific).
23 Yoshihara Kane, Yoshihara Kane Shôjô kaisô (Recollections of Major General Yoshihara Kane).
24 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
25 Minami Taiheiyô sakusen shiryô (Documents of operations in the South Pacific).
26 Sanada Jôichirô, Sanada Jôichirô Taisa nisshi (Diary of Colonel Sanada Jôichirô).
27 Imoto Kumao, Imoto Kumao Chûsa nisshi (Diary of Lieutenant Colonel Imoto Kumao).
28 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
29 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
30 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
31 Daitôa Sensô keika gaiyô (Overview of the progress of the Greater East Asian War).
32 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
33 Daitôa Sensô keika gaiyô (Overview of the progress of the Greater East Asian War).
34 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
35 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
36 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
37 Samuel Milner, Victory in Papua (Washington: United States Army, 1957).
38 Hohei Dai 41 Rentai dai ichiji Nyûginia sen rentai kôdô gaiyô (Overview of movements of the 41st Infantry Regiment during the first New Guinea battles).
39 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
40 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
41 Mikawa Gun’ichi, Mikawa Gun’ichi Chûjô gyômu techô (Duty pocketbook of Vice Admiral Mikawa Gun’ichi).
42 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
43 Hohei Dai 41 Rentai dai ichiji Nyûginia sen rentai kôdô gaiyô (Overview of movements of the 41st Infantry Regiment during the first New Guinea battles).
44 Hohei Dai 41 Rentai dai ichiji Nyûginia sen rentai kôdô gaiyô (Overview of movements of the 41st Infantry Regiment during the first New Guinea battles).
45 This chapter is taken directly from Milner, Victory in Papua, pp. 214–216.
46 Imoto Kumao, Imoto Kumao Chûsa nisshi (Diary of Lieutenant Colonel Imoto Kumao).
47 Daitôa Sensô keika gaiyô (Overview of the progress of the Greater East Asian War).
48 Bôeikenshûjo Senshishitsu (ed.), Tôbu Nyûginia kôkû sakusen (Air operations in eastern New Guinea) (Tokyo: Asagumo Shinbunsha, 1967).
49 Imoto Kumao, Imoto Kumao Chûsa nisshi (Diary of Lieutenant Colonel Imoto Kumao).
50 Bôeikenshûjo Senshishitsu (ed.), Tôbu Nyûginia kôkû sakusen (Air operations in eastern New Guinea) (Tokyo: Asagumo Shinbunsha, 1967).
51 Imoto Kumao, Imoto Kumao Chûsa nisshi (Diary of Lieutenant Colonel Imoto Kumao).
52 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
53 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
54 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
55 Sakusen kenkyûkai kiroku (Records of the Operations Research Office).
56 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
57 Samuel Milner, Victory in Papua (Washington: United States Army, 1957)
58 Robert Eichelberger, Our jungle road to Tokyo (New York: Viking Press, 1950), p. 21.
59 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
60 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
61 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
62 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
63 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
64 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
65 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
66 Sakusen kenkyû shiryô (Operations research documents).
67 Suzuki Yasutaka, Suzuki Yasutaka Taii kaisô (Recollections of Lieutenant Suzuki Yasutaka).
68 Suzuki Yasutaka, Suzuki Yasutaka Taii kaisô (Recollections of Lieutenant Suzuki Yasutaka).
69 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
70 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
71 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
Translated by: Dr Steven Bullard
Original text: Bôeichô Bôei Kenshûjo Senshishitsu (ed), Senshi sôsho: Minami Taiheiyô Rikugun sakusen <2> Gadarukanaru–Buna sakusen (War history series: South Pacific area army operations (2) Guadalcanal–Buna campaigns) (Tokyo: Asagumo Shinbunsha, 1969): 324–362.
Reference for this web page: http://ajrp.awm.gov.au/ajrp/ajrp2.nsf/translation/Chapter7?opendocument
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