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Human face of war
Retreat of the South Seas Force in Papua
By mid-September 1942, Major General HORII’s troops had forced the Australian defenders in the Owen Stanley Range back to Imita Ridge, one of the last high points on the track leading from Port Moresby to Kokoda. Many of the troops felt that reaching Port Moresby was within their grasp, despite their own stretched condition. In opposition at that time were fresh Australian troops from Moresby supported by artillery fire from Owers Corner.

News of unfavourable developments elsewhere prompted Commander HORII to comment that "only my South Seas Force is overwhelming the enemy in the region". High command of the 17th Army, in light of deteriorating conditions in the Solomons and the defeat at Milne Bay, and holding fears of Allied counter-offensive landings on the north Papuan coast, ordered HORII’s force on 23 September to withdraw and consolidate. Further attempts at Port Moresby were to be undertaken after Guadalcanal had been retaken and secured.

One part of the South Seas Force, renamed Stanley Detachment, was to take up defensive positions at Isurava, Gap and Kokoda. Though its composition was modified over the course of the withdrawal, it included the battalions of the 144th and 41st Infantry Regiments, with artillery and engineers in support. The rest of HORII’s force, including the main strength of the 41st Regiment, were ordered return to the Buna area to strengthen defences. In an optimistic note, the orders also called for improvements and repairs to the roads from Buna through Kokoda in time for the next assault.

Withdrawal was bitter and demoralising for the Japanese troops. Supplies of food and ammunition were running extremely low for those still in the mountains, despite several significant resupply shipments arriving at Basabua on the coast over the next few months. Local foraging parties failed to provide sufficient sustenance for soldiers suffering from beriberi, malaria, dysentery and tropical ulcers, and healthy carriers were becoming increasingly scarce. Soldiers, labourers and other support troops heading back to the coast discarded all but the most essential of items. Infantry troops remaining to delay the Australians fought in the knowledge that the victories gained by the sacrifice of their fallen comrades would have to be won again if they were to eventually reach the prize of Port Moresby.

Units of the Australian 25th Brigade entered Japanese positions at Ioribaiwa on 28 September to find them abandoned. Over the course of the next week, the Australians harassed the retreating Japanese while shoring up supply lines. A shortage of fit carriers was partly compensated by the commencement of air drops of food and munitions. Australian high command was pleased with the initial progress of the pursuit, and interpreted the lack of Japanese resistance as evidence of a completely demoralised and routed enemy. The events of October, however, were to prove that the Japanese, though severely depleted in numbers, and short of all essential supplies, would not make the recapture of ground back to Buna easy.

The first tough resistance came from the 2nd Battalion of the Japanese 144th Regiment around Templeton’s Crossing south of Eora Creek on 13 October. This was the first in a series of prearranged defensive positions designed by the commander of the South Seas Force to delay the Australian pursuit. Another line of defence on the high ground to the north of the village was held until 28 October when the Stanley Detachment withdrew to Isurava and Kokoda. The Japanese units then moved back to the increasingly well defended locations near Oivi and Gorari on the track between Kokoda and the crossing of the Kumusi River at Wairopi.

Japanese casualties mounted during this phase of the campaign, with more and more soldiers succumbing to disease and sickness. Evacuation of the injured and sick became increasingly problematic, with stories of many soldiers left to fend for themselves. The Australians re-entered Kokoda on 2 November to find it abandoned like other positions during the retreat.

The main strength of the 41st Regiment had taken a strong defensive position at Oivi, and initially held Australian units when their main attack began from 3 November. The Australians, however, began to outflank the Japanese units due to a more steady supply of food and munitions from the rear. By 8 November, isolated Japanese units along the track at Gorari, and on the junction track to the south, were forced to fight an enemy approaching from all sides. The commander of the South Seas Force, close to the fighting and unable to communicate with the bulk of his units, determined to conduct a general withdrawal on 10 November.

Contributed by Steven Bullard (AJRP)

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Kokoda Track

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