Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Army operations in the South Pacific area: Papua campaigns, 1942–1943
Chapter 6: Retreat to Buna
(A translation of 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): 194–218.)
Translated by Dr Steven Bullard
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Chapter 6: Retreat to Buna
The fighting withdrawal of the South Seas Force
The Allied counter-offensive
The fundamental strategy of the Allies
The fighting withdrawal of the South Seas Force
Leadership by the 17th Army
The commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment, Major Kobayashi Asao, while fighting in the Owen Stanley Range, received orders that transferred him to duty in Japan. The commander of the South Seas Force, Major General Horii, ordered Major Kobayashi to "Clearly communicate to 17th Army command the actual overall conditions of the battle." Kobayashi left the front in the Owen Stanley Range on 20 September and arrived at army headquarters in Rabaul on 6 October.
His report was as follows:
However, the 17th Army had at that time concentrated its entire efforts towards the Guadalcanal campaign. After reports of the failure of the first stage of operations in Guadalcanal, the supply situation in the New Guinea area after the beginning of November was decided in one fell swoop – the lack of supplies for the South Seas Force simply had to be endured.
The supply situation for the South Seas Force has already reached a crisis. The number of troops who are collapsing continues to rise. Allied pressure mounts daily with no improvement in sight. I would like to see an immediate transport of supplies by destroyer to ease the situation.
The 17th Army command formulated the "Strategic plan for operations after the Guadalcanal invasion" and left several staff officers in Rabaul charged with preparations and leadership of the Re Operation (Port Moresby invasion).
The first echelon of the 38th Division, which was to appropriated for the Re Operation, arrived at Rabaul on 6 October. The commander of the South Seas Force, on hearing the news that the 38th Division was to be now despatched to New Guinea, telegraphed its commander: "Serving under the command of such a glorious, valorous division is indeed a great honour." At this stage, the commander was very pleased that the occupation of Port Moresby might now be possible.
Even this joy, however, was fleeting. The main strength of the 38th Division was despatched to the Guadalcanal area owing to the intensification of the battle in the latter stages of October. The Re Operation was again postponed. Meanwhile, from early October, the Allies had gradually sent a force to meet the Stanley Detachment (2nd Battalion of the 144th Infantry Regiment with one artillery company and one engineer company, led by Major Horie Masao). The strength of the Allied commitment was judged to be around two battalions. The main strength of the South Seas Force had intended to mobilise on 15 October to reinforce the detachment, but the intensification of the Allied attack saw the beginning of a blockade of the South Seas Force’s own line of communication. The combination of daily heavy rain and lack of supplies gradually wore down the fighting strength of the force.
The battle near Gap
According to the Detailed battle report of the 144th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion, which was the second reinforcement group for the front line of the Stanley Detachment, the battles proceeded as follows:
Engaged a strong enemy force from 3 October. Our forward positions were breached on 13 October but we denied the enemy at our main camp. With the unfavourable climate and severe cold, combined with the lack of supplies, casualties in the unit continue to mount. The conditions of the battle are extremely harsh.
The main strength of the regiment set out to reinforce us, but they were encircled by the enemy and gradually forced back. On 21 October, we repelled a strong enemy assault while retreating to Gap.
The battalion left its current position and quickly proceeded to Gap after orders were issued by the detachment commander on 22 October.
The third reinforcement unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment (92 men), received orders on 25 October, and arrived at the rear of the front line by 9 am the following day.
The camp was prepared by around noon on 26 October. Meanwhile, the commander of the South Seas Force ordered the Stanley Detachment to "Repel the frontal attacks of the enemy and withdraw during the evening of 28 October." Further, the 2nd Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment (led by Major Koiwai Mitsuo, hereafter referred to as the Koiwai Battalion) was issued instructions to "Act as the rearguard of the Stanley Detachment."
Meanwhile, the Allies began operations from around 20 October to break through the positions of the Stanley Detachment in a pass in the Owen Stanley Range (Templeton’s Crossing). However, the effective resistance of the Stanley Detachment (at that time based on 2nd Battalion of the 144th Infantry Regiment) resulted in the Allies achieving little progress. Consequently, measures were taken to replace Allied front-line units with the fresh 16th Brigade (based on three battalions) and the 25th Brigade of the 7th Australian Division.
Editor’s note: Localities in this area were not designated with names, so references in different sources are very confused. For example, the location known as "Gap" by the Japanese is around 5 kilometres from what the Allies refer to as "Gap". In this text, designations have been standardised according to Japanese official records, with discrepancies indicated with a note.
The area around Gap was the most suitable location to hold the track from Kokoda to Port Moresby. Advanced troops of the Stanley Detachment engaged Australian troops early in the morning of 23 October. The Australian official history records the situation in this engagement through the words of a conscript soldier, as follows:
The Japanese had the good sense to establish this forest fort on the only water to be found on the ridge. Consequently, for the four days before support arrived, the men of the company had to catch rain water in their gas capes and drink water from the roots of the "water tree". Their only food was dehydrated emergency ration, eaten dry and cold. Every time patrols from the company located one of the outlying Japanese machine-gun posts, scouts were killed or wounded.
Great courage was being asked of forward scout units. The Australian divisional commander responsible for field operations received an urgent telegram from his superiors, as follows:
Your difficulties are very great but enemy has similar. In view of your superior strength energy and force on the part of all commanders should overcome the enemy speedily. In spite of your superior strength enemy appears able to delay advance at will. Essential that forward commanders should control situation and not allow situation control them.
Attacks on the Stanley Detachment’s main line of defence began on 27 October, but they repelled strong Australian attacks on both flanks. Rain fell at around 4 pm. The troops immediately gathered water with their tents, and collected it in unused utensils and canteens while washing their rice.
The day for the withdrawal was 28 October. Attacks on both flanks continued during the morning like the previous day, then ceased for about an hour. Signals scouts from the Koiwai Battalion discovered Allied signals wires running between the track and the camp. The battalion commander recognised this as preparations for an Allied attack on the camp, so detached a platoon to close the gap.
The 3rd Battalion positions, which to this point had been spared attack, suffered a strong Allied assault at around 3 pm. According to postwar investigations, the Australians had applied two companies to the front line of the 3rd Battalion while applying one company to encircle the left flank.
The following passage is taken from the Detailed battle report of the 144th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion:
Enemy troops who attacked the left flank of the 7th and 9th Companies approached within 5 metres of the front of our position. The front line company put up good resistance. Casualties to our machine-gun platoon gradually mounted but they kept being replaced under extreme fire from the attack by the Allies, which was finally repelled at 1400 hrs.
Although orders had previously been issued to withdraw at 1300 hrs, there were reports that a strong enemy force had penetrated behind the lines of the 41st Infantry Regiment. Major Koiwai was consulted over the route of withdrawal, with the 41st Infantry Regiment cooperating to attack and secure a passage.
There are some discrepancies between this passage and the memoirs of Major Koiwai. According to the latter, there was neither a "strong enemy force" nor did they "attack and secure a passage". Major Koiwai personally visited the position of the 3rd Battalion at around 1 pm. At that time, his comment to the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kuwada Genjirô, was to the effect that, "If there are incursions by an enemy force, my battalion will attack." It seems that this exchange entered into the battle reports as if it was a fact. Koiwai stated in his memoirs as follows:
The 3rd Battalion’s detailed battle report contains the following record:
The time designated to leave our position was 8 pm. According to previous arrangements, the Kuwada Battalion was to have withdrawn to our position by that time, then proceed to positions on the road held by Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto Masao. Our battalion also undertook preparations for withdrawal, then waited for Kuwada’s unit. However, 8 pm passed without any sign of them. We began to think something had befallen them but they finally arrived around 8.30 pm. Lieutenant Colonel Kuwada then said: "Elements of an enemy force penetrated our battalion’s position and engaged us in close fighting. We were finally able to repel them and I issued the order to withdraw."
Only the battalion headquarters and machine-gun company returned with the battalion commander. (Section omitted by editor.)
We waited for a further hour, but there was still no sign of the rest of the battalion by 10 pm. The moon was bright and thin beams of light penetrated here and there between the thick growth of the forest. Lieutenant Colonel Kuwada said to me: "We cannot wait any longer for the unit. We have to leave. The company commanders may be somehow able to withdraw."
I replied: "No. Our unit is to defend the withdrawal. We must leave friendly forces to the rear of the unit. Let’s wait for another hour. Any longer, and it will become difficult to secure a position for tomorrow."
Kuwada then replied: "But perhaps another company will come out on the road further down. Even if we wait here it will be a waste. Let’s leave now."
It is not possible to verify which is the correct account. Both versions, however, speak of aspects of separation of command during periods of difficult prolonged combat.
The unit debouched from the mountain having taking longer than expected to maintain contact and seek a path in the dark … However, the 7th and 9th Companies and the Machine-gun Company needed time to accommodate their casualties, so they detached from the main unit.
Retreat of the rearguard unit
The Stanley Detachment withdrew from contact with the Australian forces in the Gap area during the evening of 28 October. It was planned that Isurava was to be the location of the next camp.
The unit arrived in Isurava village at around 3.30 am and immediately began preparing their position. There were no pursuing attacks from the Australians that day. The main strength of the Stanley Detachment (based on the 144th Infantry Regiment) continued its withdrawal towards Kokoda.
The commander of the rearguard battalion, sensing a change in future battles, took the decision on 30 October to retain only able-bodied men, sending all casualties to the rear. Sixteen men, plus the battalion commander, remained in the camp after this selection process. Major General Horii had ordered them to "delay their withdrawal to arrive in Kokoda by 31 October". Though it was only 10 kilometres from the camp to Kokoda, it was doubtful if 16 men could effectively obstruct the Australian pursuit. At around 10 am, the unit withdrew to the position planned for the second line of resistance. It was here that the previously mentioned front-line company from the 3rd Battalion, which had lost communications with the battalion headquarters, had withdrawn and assembled without either food or water. The company commander told of how they had lost their way in the jungle, then, all the while carrying their casualties, had arrived through the mountains.
The unit withdrew to the third line of resistance at around 2 pm, despite there being no offensive from the Australians. Incidentally, this was the line of attack at the time of the start of the offensive against Isurava in late August, when the South Seas Force was pressing on to Port Moresby full of vigour and spirit.
By nightfall, the unit had withdrawn to Deniki, some 3 kilometres to the rear. Battalion commander Koiwai heard on 31 October that: "The South Seas Force will occupy the high ground at Oivi, approximately 8 kilometres to the east of Kokoda. The main strength of the 41st Infantry Regiment will prepare the camp. The Koiwai Battalion will be positioned on the right flank." Koiwai’s battalion quickly proceeded to Oivi. Fortunately, there were no Australian attacks on that day.
Battles near Oivi
The 41st Infantry Regiment was the primary unit deployed around Oivi.
The Australian divisional commander, as previously mentioned, was replaced on 28 October. The Australian plan at that time was for a direct pursuit by the 25th Brigade to Kokoda, and for the 16th Brigade to quickly occupy Oivi then establish and hold a bridgehead over the Kumusi River.
The Australians occupied Kokoda on 3 November, and made contact with the camp at Oivi two days later. The Australian official history records: "On that day, our advance was halted at the Oivi front by Japanese mortar fire." Two Australian battalions were undertaking this offensive.
There was no great difference in this attack from that at Gap. Heavy fire would be poured on Japanese positions at set times twice a day, in the morning and evening, with no attacks at other times of the day.
However, as the days passed, there were indications of an encirclement on the flank to the left of the front line. The commander of the 41st Infantry Regiment, Colonel Yazawa Kiyomi, was on high alert for this kind of encirclement attack by the Australians.
The situation for the Japanese troops quickly deteriorated – worse than that feared by Colonel Yazawa. The Australian troops had penetrated to the immediate vicinity of the headquarters of the South Seas Force, located at that time around 5 kilometres to the rear of the Oivi front. This occurred on 8 November. According to the memoirs of Major Koiwai, the Australian unit penetrated the front line between the 1st Battalion of the 144th Infantry Regiment and the mountain artillery company on the left flank, and then proceeded east along the main track. This explanation is, however, problematic on one point – namely, the strategic deployment of troops on the southern side track. There is no evidence of discussions concerning deployments along this track after the decision was taken by the commander of the South Seas Force to defend Oivi in late October.
Given the common-sense approach to deploy the main strength of the crack 41st Infantry Regiment on the point of most resistance at the high ground at Oivi, it would have been routine to assign the 144th Infantry Regiment, which had been involved in fighting at the front line as part of the Stanley Detachment, to guard the southern branch track and remain in reserve for the South Seas Force.
The only official record relating to this point is contained in the Detailed battle report of the 144th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion: "Departed from Kokoda at 0200 hrs on 31 October and headed for Ilimo. Regiment occupied a camp at Ilimo, then was ordered to vigilantly guard the flanks of the South Seas Force along the track from Isurava to Papaki."
This may on first glance seem a reasonable statement, but Ilimo, the location referred to in the text, is some 12 kilometres distant from the camp at Oivi where the main strength of the regiment was deployed. Given that there were at least two possible lines of infiltration between these two positions, there are doubts that the battalion could "vigilantly guard the flanks" from Ilimo.
With the occasional confusion of place names, and when considered from strategic common sense, it is possible that the location referred to as "Ilimo" in the 3rd Battalion’s detailed battle report was in fact to the south of Gorari. The following entry appeared in the report dated 3 November: "Departed Ilimo at 0800 hrs for Baribe. Arrived at 1100 hrs and immediately executed the aforementioned orders. Occupied the main camp at the line of the three-forked stream. Ordered to occupy the advance camp at Waju to the south."
This advance camp, according to the battalion’s detailed battle report, was attacked on 5 November and held for ten days. After that, the unit was encircled by a superior force and the company commander and other men died a heroic death.
However, the memoir of Major Koiwai contains the record of the following conversation with the South Seas Force chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Tanaka Toyonari:
(8 November) A telephone call came from chief of staff Tanaka during the evening.
"I have also just now received a telephone message from the regimental commander. As you know, the enemy has appeared to the rear of the force. We have been vigorously trying to repulse them since yesterday. However, the situation is deteriorating."
I replied: "If that’s the case, why didn’t we withdraw to the right bank of the Kumusi River in line with the original decision? Is support to be forthcoming from the army?"
"No, there will be no reinforcements. However, the commander will not allow the enemy to easily cross the plain at Kokoda. Therefore, our decision must change and the present strategy be undertaken while returning from Gap."
"It seems that the 144th Infantry Regiment is deployed on the branch track. Do you have contact with them?"
"No. I have no idea what the trouble may be, and I am gravely concerned. I wonder if they have already withdrawn to the line of the Kumusi River."
This conversation occurred on 8 November. It is clear that the lines of command between the South Seas Force and the headquarters of the 144th Infantry Regiment had been cut sometime prior to this time. Meanwhile, the location of the South Seas Force headquarters is clearly indicated to be west of Gorari.
If one applies the notion introduced above that the "Ilimo" referred to by the 144th Infantry Regiment was in fact "Gorari", then the headquarters of the regiment was only separated from the force headquarters by a few kilometres. This gives rise to doubts over the claim of lack of contact between the two. It is clear from the content of the phone conversation that the chief of staff was unaware that contact with the enemy had been made some three days previously at the advance camp on the branch track. From the course of the subsequent battle, it seems that communications were not restored between the force headquarters and the main strength of the regiment. Incursions through the defensive perimeter were, tragically, allowed to get completely out of hand after the departure from Oivi.
In contrast, Australian postwar sources indicate that the commander of the 7th Division felt that frontal attacks on Japanese positions near Oivi on 4 November were ineffective. Consequently, he quickly ordered a battalion to advance along the branch track to the south through Ilimo. The unit departed early in the morning of 5 November and advanced to Waju by evening, passing Japanese footprints, cigarette cases, and remains of cooking fires along the way.
This unit lost its way between 6–7 November, but turned north towards Gorari after the commander discovered that the 16th Brigade was involved in fierce fighting at the Oivi front.
Meanwhile, the divisional commander had taken the step of despatching the 25th Brigade along the southern branch track. Consequently, there were four battalions deployed along the branch track. At 11.50 am on 8 November, the lead units made contact with Japanese troops equipped with machine-guns. This unit had entered the branch track at Waju.
Thereafter, the overwhelmingly superior Australian force poured fire on the encircled Japanese troops. Fierce fighting continued around Gorari from 9 to 11 November.
The Japanese record generally agrees with this account, though there are slight differences in time and date. It can be reasonably ascertained from these accounts that the 144th Infantry Regiment was stationed to the south of Gorari to guard the perimeter of the South Seas Force position, that they came under heavy attack from Australian forces, and that they returned fire then withdrew piecemeal in the direction of Ilimo.
Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo had transferred the 51st Division to the order of battle of the 17th Army on 20 October for the Re Operation. However, the division did not arrive in the region until late November, making them too late to assist the stricken South Seas Force.
The commander of the South Seas Force had three times sent telegrams to Rabaul outlining the difficult situation of his units. Chief of staff Miyazaki personally ordered the despatch of the 1st Battalion of the 229th Infantry Regiment, set to arrive in Rabaul on 30 October, to quickly reinforce the South Seas Force. However, this order was cancelled owing to every available unit being prioritised to Guadalcanal owing to the defeat in the area. Lieutenant General Miyazaki reminisced later that, unavoidably, the whole affair just had to be endured.
The chief of staff received a report on 28 October, the night prior to his departure for Guadalcanal, that the commander of the South Seas Force at Kokoda had decided to withdraw from the front line and retreat. The chief of staff immediately issued an army order for the South Seas Force to "withdraw and secure the Papaki area". This order was dated prior to any telegram from the force commander indicating his decision to withdraw, which was a measure to make the retreat the responsibility of the army rather than of the force commander.
Early doubts over the invasion of Port Moresby
The chief of staff of the 17th Army relayed the situation to the adjutant and to the chiefs of staff of the Southern Area Army and the 14th Army as follows:
Oki Group Operations Staff Telegram No. 137
The South Seas Force has been engaged in combat with 300–400 enemy troops who have appeared in the Owen Stanley Range since around 20 October. The strength of the force gradually deteriorated owing to the constant heavy rain and depletion of supplies. The commander led approximately 100 of his men to the front line to the west of Isurava on 25 October, but the fighting strength at the front was depleted to one company (20–30 men). Meanwhile, the commander realised that attacks from Allied planes had disrupted the transport of supplies further forward than the bridge at Papaki. He consequently made the unavoidable decision on 27 October to withdraw the force to the north bank of the Kumusi River at Papaki. There are reports that elements of the force have already arrived at this position. Consequently, in addition to current measures to supply the force (two army transport ships to land at Buna on 1 November), orders were issued endorsing the force commander’s decision to withdraw to and secure the line at Papaki.
The transport vessels quoted in the telegram (Chôryô Maru and Kiyokawa Maru) arrived at Buna safely on 2 November and debarked ammunition and supplies.
Under these circumstances, Imperial Headquarters sought opinions from the 17th Army concerning the deployment of the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade, which had been added to the order of battle of the 17th Army, to the New Guinea area. Staff officer Tsuji replied by telegram ("Oki group operations staff telegram no. 219") that the artillery unit of the brigade would be deployed to Guadalcanal and the main strength to Buna.
Editor’s note: The 21st Independent Mixed Brigade consisted of approximately three thousand seven hundred troops of various types, including brigade headquarters, the 170th Infantry Regiment, a tank company, an artillery unit, an anti-aircraft company, engineers, a signals unit, and a field hospital.
Meanwhile, the South Seas Force was carrying out a courageous defensive battle to hold Oivi, and had considered a withdrawal to the line of the Kumusi River as a last resort. At such a time, it would be natural to evaluate the feasibility of the Port Moresby operation in light of the long-term strategic position. However, no one would have publicly stated this in the mood of the time.
On 1 November, the head of the Military Affairs Section in the Army Ministry, Colonel Nishiura Susumu, formally submitted to the Operations Section of the Army General Staff a consideration titled: "Is it essential to take Port Moresby?" These remarks stemmed from a position that considered that the demands on merchant shipping for the operation would be too great.
This issue surely had it origins in enquiries made by commanders in the field. A reply was despatched to the Chief of Operations on 10 November by staff officer Tsuji in Rabaul:
Oki Group Telegram No. 1,262
We know only too well from the bitter experience of the South Seas Force that a strong invasion of Port Moresby over the Owen Stanley Range is extremely difficult. Furthermore, we must expect an exceptionally strong defence in the vicinity of Port Moresby to counter a seaborne attack, as was made evident through the sacrifices made at Guadalcanal. According to information I have received from Major Iwakoshi, it seems that the navy can spare no air strength and that we must rely exclusively on the army to provide air power for the Port Moresby operation. As a result, we hold absolutely no hope for success in the Port Moresby campaign. In the light of these events, there is no doubt that the objectives of the Ka Operation will be achieved, regardless of the sacrifice to be paid. The execution of the Re Operation, however, requires careful study of the responsibilities given to the area army and the operational army, owing to the necessity of making decisions based on the overall war situation. Particular care must be taken in making decisions in light of the navy’s resolve, and in retaining the flexibility to incorporate movements prompted by the navy’s own agenda.
Editor’s note: Major Iwakoshi was an Imperial Headquarters staff officer who was despatched to Rabaul from 4–18 November.
This issue of air support was deeply intertwined with the feasibility of the Port Moresby operation, so a solution was not quickly forthcoming. Meanwhile, the main strength of the South Seas Force, which had occupied Oivi, had been cut off at the rear by a superior Australian force.
Crossing the tributary of the Kumusi River by the main strength of the South Seas Force
A decision was taken on 10 November for a general withdrawal by the South Seas Force.
The initial consideration was to break through the blockade to the rear and withdraw. However, this would have left them open to a swift pursuit from the front line at Oivi and the possible complete destruction of the force. A unit (based on the 41st Infantry Regiment), would first cross to the north bank of the tributary of the Kumusi River, then would lead a withdrawal from the Australian units along the north (left) bank.
Meanwhile, the movements of the main strength of the 144th Infantry Regiment, which had lost contact with the force, were recorded in the previously cited Detailed battle report of the 144th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion, as follows:
Meanwhile, the units at Ilimo (Editor’s note: as previously discussed, this was in fact Gorari) were completely surrounded by the enemy. Though some had escaped after fierce fighting, reports were received of the complete destruction of those remaining units. Consequently, the plan was changed and a withdrawal to Papaki undertaken (rather than to Gorari).
The withdrawal of the regiment began at 2200 hrs that night. The plan was to break through the enemy lines, then occupy key locations between Ilimo and Papaki, which could be used to accommodate the main strength of the South Seas Force.
In this way, the main strength of the 144th Infantry Regiment became isolated from the South Seas Force and came to withdraw towards the direction of the main track from Kokoda. As discussed, it is unclear to what degree command lines were effective between the two forces under the conditions of the battle.
The 41st Infantry Regiment was ordered to disengage from the Australians during the evening of 10 November. When the troops arrived at Gorari in the morning, they discovered that the days of continual rain had flooded the Kumusi River, making a crossing by weary soldiers difficult.
During preparations for the withdrawal, the commander of the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion of the 55th Mountain Artillery Regiment, Lieutenant Takagi Yoshifumi, committed suicide. According to Koiwai’s memoir, the commander of the force ordered Takagi to bury his artillery gun and made the artillery company carry the wounded from force headquarters. Takagi, unable to bring himself to bury the artillery piece, went to the commander and implored him: "If we can carry out wounded, then please let us carry out the gun." The commander flatly refused this request. Takagi had no option but to return to his unit, gather his troops, and explain the situation. The breach was broken up and the gun buried. After the company had given a final parting salute to the buried gun and then dispersed, Lieutenant Takagi took his life with his pistol.
Major Koiwai commented on this incident in his memoir, as follows:
Artillery officers fresh from officers’ college hold equal sentiment for their guns and military orders. Older army commanders hold human life as the fundamental principle. Though there is a great difference between these two positions, a judgment of which position is right and which is wrong cannot question the character of each man. The military spirit which compelled the lieutenant to act will live forever. At the same time, even the decision of the commander to bury the gun was principled when seen from a wider perspective, owing to his desire to save the young troops in his charge.
Australian units were attacking hard on the heels of the Koiwai Battalion around 10 November. The battalion, which was responsible for protecting the rear of the main force, met these repeated attacks with counter-attacks, and held firm. The unit continued to walk, without food, through the boggy, trackless jungle. Physical strength was drained owing to lack of food. Heavy firearms were discarded, as was ammunition; finally, even pistols were disposed of. Shoes were worn out, with many walking barefoot.
The memoir of Major Koiwai described the situation at that time as follows:
The following story, related to the problem of munitions, was recorded for the following day:
On the way, there was an officer waiting for me on the side of the track. It was the commander of a cavalry company from the South Seas Force. He said: "I’ve been at my wits’ end wondering what to do, so I have been waiting for you." I asked him what was wrong. I knew his face but could not recall his name.
"We have been carrying the company’s wounded, but three out of the four have died. The remaining patient has sunk into a coma, and I think, more than likely, he too will soon breathe his last. The men of my company have continued to carry these casualties over trackless mountains to the point of collapse. They have had no food, and I am virtually the only one left who can still walk. I think that if they continue to carry the patient, they will probably all die for the sake of trying to save one man. Of course I would like to be able to save both the troops and the patient, but under these conditions this is not possible. Is the answer to this dilemma to just leave the patient, who is without hope anyway, somewhere in the mountains? Or should we just end it all by putting him out of his misery once and for all? However, I don’t have the spirit to do this, so I am at a complete loss what to do."
I listened to his story, but I, too, was unable to muster a reply.
The next day, more and more men fell by the way. But even those who tottered on left their pistols by their sides. This was evidence of their comprehensive military education. Discarding weapons without permission would naturally bring down heavy punishment. This lesson had seeped to the very marrow of the soldiers.
"Throw away your weapons!" I yelled this to exhausted soldiers who were dragging their legs as if in a dream. "You will travel lighter without them. Throw them away, then walk on and leave them in these mountains."
Some bewildered soldiers, however, cast an incriminating glance my way, then, as expected, showed no desire to discard their pistols.
"I am Major Koiwai of the 41st. I will look after the pistols for you." I took the weapons from them. I then told them: "If the company commander asks you where they are, tell him that Major Koiwai is keeping charge of them."
Despite it only being that one time, I had lowered myself to the point of personally destroying the weapons of ten soldiers.
Crossing the main stream of the Kumusi River by the South Seas Force
Judging from the sound of artillery fire around the Giruwa area after 17 November, the enemy had captured the camp at Oivi and had advanced towards Giruwa and Basabua.
The unit camped on flat ground next to the Kumusi River near Pinga the following evening. Heavy rain fell during the night, causing the river to overflow and flood the camp. Officers and men alike were forced to stand through the night like horses, shivering from the intense cold.
The commander of the South Seas Force, Lieutenant General Horii, decided on 19 November to go ahead to Giruwa by raft down the Kumusi River with several of his staff officers after hearing artillery fire from the direction of Giruwa. Horii left the main strength of the South Seas Force in the charge of the commander of the 41st Infantry Regiment, Colonel Yazawa, with orders to cross the Kumusi River near Pinga, their present location, then advance towards Gona.
The force commander boarded a large raft with his staff officers and adjutant, with a small number of other ranks and some troops in train. The commander issued the parting remark: "I go on ahead!" after which the raft headed down the Kumusi River.
The main strength of the force commenced preparations on the bank to carry out orders to cross the Kumusi, which was 120 metres across and 2 metres deep. How to achieve this, however, was a huge obstacle.
While the senior officers were racking their brains over how to cross the river, a member of the Takasago Volunteers proposed the following method: four or five 1.8 metre lengths of sapling, each around 6 centimetres in diameter, were to be lashed together to form a raft. This was not for a soldier to ride on, but to carry clothes and weapons, etc. The other side would be reached if a soldier pushed the raft as far as possible into the middle, where the river bent outwards, then clutched hold of the raft as it flowed around the bend.
The unit crossed the river using this method. However, many soldiers were physically exhausted and drowned during the crossing. The loss of equipment under these circumstances was also regrettable.
The right bank of the Kumusi River was flat and easy going for the marching troops, who set out on a native track. Fields of sweet potato and fruit were discovered, giving the troops the feeling that they had suddenly emerged into the world of light after having endured the underworld the previous days. The advance continued, with various units able to assemble at Gona by 27 November.
All the while, however, the losses in numbers of troops and military equipment were very high, with military strength for the battles in the Buna area much less than expected.
Meanwhile, troops of the 144th Infantry Regiment were retreating along the main track from Kokoda, having crossed the Kumusi River near an old ford at Papaki. On 14 November, the unit received the following army order: "The South Seas Force will withdraw to Giruwa and facilitate the landing of reinforcement units." They arrived at Giruwa in the morning of 17 November.
The situation at Buna, Giruwa, and Basabua was as follows: Colonel Yokoyama Yosuke, the commander of the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment, was in charge of the defence of the Giruwa and Basabua areas. Most of his troops, however, were weakened by disease, and included those who could not participate in the thrust over the Owen Stanley Range, as well as engineers and supply troops charged with transport and road construction duties. They had no discernable fighting strength.
In addition, Captain Yasuda Yoshitatsu and his Yokosuka 5th Special Naval Landing Party were defending the Buna area. Their strength included approximately nine hundred engineers and soldiers equipped with two 8-centimetre anti-aircraft guns, four machine-guns, and three rapid-fire guns.
The death of the commander of the South Seas Force
On 19 November, the commander boarded a raft and set out before his unit with a cadre force in train. The raft became stuck, however, on a large tree that had fallen into the river around 2 kilometres downstream. The group abandoned the raft and clambered ashore, then continued to follow the river along its right bank, where a single canoe was discovered. The commander’s duty soldier happened to be a fisherman, so he navigated the commander and his chief of staff in the canoe safely to the mouth of the Kumusi River.
The commander had heard fierce gunfire from the direction of Giruwa continually over several days. Despite the danger, the commander set off out to sea in the canoe in order to quickly advance to Giruwa to lead the battle.
As it happened, a fierce tropical storm hit that afternoon. The canoe, which had drifted some 10 kilometres off shore, was tossed like a twig in the turbulent seas, then suddenly capsized. The head of chief of staff Tanaka, who could not swim, appeared once, then twice above the surface of the water, then disappeared.
The commander and his duty soldier began the swim towards the shore. After swimming about 4 kilometres, however, the commander said to his duty soldier: "I have no strength to swim any further. Tell the troops that Horii died here." He lifted both arms above the surface of the water, cried "Banzai to the emperor!" with his remaining strength, and sank beneath the waves. This account is contained in the memoir of Major Koiwai, and is based on the report given to the unit by the duty soldier after he had reached shore. The commander’s death at the vanguard of the New Guinea operation was perhaps foreshadowed by his desire to lead from the front of his force: during the invasion of Guam by the South Seas Force in 1941 at the outset of the war, in the occupation of Rabaul, and finally during the advance into New Guinea.
The discovery of an Allied base
On 16 November, just prior to these events, the survey headquarters of the navy at Rabaul received an intelligence report of enormous significance. Allied ships, in the middle of landing operations, were sighted by air patrols at Oro Bay, around 15 kilometres south of Buna. The landing force was approximately one thousand strong.
The Airbase Force Command scrambled a group of thirty fighters and bombers at just after 1 pm. These engaged the Allied force at 5 pm, immediately sinking three transports and setting fire to two others, which later sank. Army reconnaissance planes discovered an airfield approximately 10 kilometres south-east of Buna, and two airfields at Mendaropu (approximately 25 kilometres south-east of Buna). An offensive against the airfields on a scale suitable to halt the damage to numerous Japanese transport ships was not contemplated.
The entry in the diary of the chief of staff of the Combined Fleet for that day was as follows:
If the Buna and Salamaua areas are left to the Allies, then the South Seas Force will be caught like a mouse in a trap and we will lose the sector from where to mount the offensive on Port Moresby. (It is said there has been some discussion within the 17th Army in Rabaul to abandon the Buna area, which is scandalous.) The air attacks on Rabaul are becoming more intense. Buna is becoming a bigger issue in this region than the problematic Solomon Islands, in terms of national defence. It is essential to nip this in the bud now, and deprive the Allies of any room for a counter-offensive.
If the sentiment of this entry is compared to the previously quoted telegram from staff officer Tsuji, it is clear that great differences of opinion in the fundamental position were held by many.
At any rate, the main strength of the South Seas Force was retreating along the left bank of the Kumusi River carrying their wounded, all the while battling malaria and malnutrition. The crossing points over the Kumusi had been controlled by the Allies, so there was no choice but to continue north along the river.
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The Allied counter-offensive
The fundamental strategy of the Allies
Preparations for the Allied operation to mop up Japanese resistance in the Buna area of eastern New Guinea gradually came together in October 1942.
MacArthur had a total strength of ten brigades in the area for this task at the end of October. Allied air units would sortie from Port Moresby and attack Japanese transports at Rabaul with the aid of accurate intelligence from secretly placed coast watchers.
General MacArthur advanced towards the Buna area along four axes. The first two were on the Owen Stanley Range front, along the Kokoda Trail and the Kapa Kapa (Jaure) Track to the south-east. The third was along the north coast of Papua from Milne Bay. The fourth was a direct air route to Buna from the south-east, with troops airlifted from Wanigela south of Cape Nelson.
Operations to take and completely eject Japanese troops from Papua were conducted in concert with campaigns by marine units on Guadalcanal. One of the reasons why General MacArthur prosecuted the Buna campaign with insufficient strength was that the Japanese troops at Guadalcanal had offered little resistance.
On 17 October 1942, MacArthur sent the following telegram to the US army minister:
The Allies discovered a runway at Wanigela to the south of Cape Nelson, which they knew was suitable for use by transport planes. The Allies made uninterrupted use of the airfield, despite it being discovered by the Japanese on 5 October.
My operation to capture the north coast of New Guinea in full swing: am greatly hampered by the total lack of light shipping, landing boats, and barges, which I have previously requested; in their absence am moving overland and by air; supply is the controlling factor and must be accomplished by native carrier and by air; improvised landing fields have been and are being prepared … supply difficulties incredible and limit speed of movement and size of forces and are of course multiplied by lack of shipping and shortage of transport planes.
[Under these conditions] the major effort has been expended in Rabaul area, because it can be reached with full bomb loads, while planes going to Solomon Islands area must carry bomb bay tanks, reducing bomb load by 50 per cent.
The headquarters and two battalions of the American 128th Infantry Regiment, along with the 2/6th Australian Independent Company, were airlifted to Wanigela from Port Moresby in mid-October. These units were to establish a footing before heading towards Buna. However, prior to the American landings at Oro Bay on 16 November, the existence of these was not known to the Japanese.
Meanwhile, the Allied units crossing the Owen Stanley Range along the Kokoda Trail made steady northward progress. Only two or three months before, the Japanese troops had been fighting their way south along the same precipitous mountain trails. The present Allied advance, however, was conducted at much greater speed than the former southward thrust of the Japanese. The 7th Australian Division occupied the airfield at Kokoda in early November 1942. The Japanese forces resisted from the high ground in the area, but effected a complete withdrawal by 10 November.
General MacArthur made the following statement concerning the situation when the Japanese troops were surrounded:
The Allied force, which had captured the Japanese camp at Oivi on 10 November, quickly pursued the Japanese army towards Giruwa and Basabua. Simultaneously, on 16 November, the Allies began to land troops at Oro Bay to the south of Buna. The Japanese units, who had adopted a policy to secure the Buna sector at all costs, began literally to wage a bloody resistance.
The enemy was forced from his main positions near Oivi with heavy losses. His retreat has been blocked by our enveloping troops astride the main track and he is endeavouring to cut his way through the rear. Simultaneously our forces enveloped and destroyed enemy forces trapped south of Gorari.
Our ground troops have reached the vicinity of Ilimor [Ilimo]. Here the enemy defending force had been surrounded. Of the enemy detachment which was encircled and destroyed at Gorari, bodies of five officers and more than 500 men have already been counted in the jungle. In the Oivi pocket, several hundred additional dead have been found. Allied fighters cooperating with ground units strafed and silenced enemy positions in the rear areas.
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1 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
2 Dai 17 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 17th Army campaigns).
3 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
4 Dudley McCarthy, South-West Pacific – first year: Kokoda to Wau (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1959). p. 281.
5 Dudley McCarthy, South-West Pacific – first year: Kokoda to Wau (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1959). p. 297.
6 Dudley McCarthy, South-West Pacific – first year: Kokoda to Wau (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1959), p. 299.
7 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
8 Dudley McCarthy, South-West Pacific – first year: Kokoda to Wau (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1959), pp. 311–335.
9 Dudley McCarthy, South-West Pacific – first year: Kokoda to Wau (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1959), p. 320.
10 Dai 17 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 17th Army campaigns).
11 Miyazaki Shûichi, Miyazaki Shûichi Shôjô kaisôroku (Recollections of Major General Miyazaki Shûichi).
12 Miyazaki Shûichi, Miyazaki Shûichi Shôjô kaisôroku (Recollections of Major General Miyazaki Shûichi).
13 Minami Taiheiyô sakusen shiryô (Documents of operations in the South Pacific).
14 Minami Taiheiyô sakusen shiryô (Documents of operations in the South Pacific).
15 Dai 17 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 17th Army campaigns).
16 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).
17 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
18 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
19 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).
20 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
21 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
22 Dai 17 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 17th Army campaigns).
23 Minami Taiheiyô sakusen shiryô (Documents of operations in the South Pacific).
24 Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur, 1941–1951: victory in the Pacific (Melbourne, London, Toronto: William Heinemann Ltd, 1956), pp. 87–88.
25 Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur, 1941–1951: victory in the Pacific (Melbourne, London, Toronto: William Heinemann Ltd, 1956), pp. 89–90.
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): 194–218.
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