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Attitudes to the war
Southern Cross: III Fighting near Buna
Southern Cross
The G.O.C., who knew the situation in the vicinity of Buna quickly sent the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade to Buna in 4 trips by destroyers, to act as reinforcement and save the South Seas Detachment from disaster; in the first lot he hurriedly sent to Buna the Brigade Commander Maj-Gen YAMAGATA with one battalion of infantry and one company of mountain guns; he was accompanied by Staff Officers Lt Col KITA and Major TANAKA, responsible for control of operations and collection of intelligence.

These reinforcement units on the evening of 27th November went aboard four destroyers and left Rabaul Harbour. On the 28th they were crossing the Dampier Strait and were attacked by enemy B-17s. Two ships were badly damaged, became distressed and had to return to Rabaul Harbour. Next the damaged ships were replaced by fresh ones, again the Yamagata units boarded them and on the evening of 27th left Rabaul. This time they had the protection of naval aircraft when they headed for the Dampier, and in the evening they quickly came to the mouth of the Kumusi River and began landing. Although it was night time there was effective opposition from the enemy planes and they managed to complete about half the landing but it was impossible to bring ashore the mountain guns and ammunition. Immediately after the landing they were attacked by the enemy, and, as a result of a combination of ignorance of the terrain and insufficiency of numbers, they were not able to help at Basabua as had been expected. The army decided to send its third lot of reinforcement units – 1 battalion and 1 company of mountain guns as before. This time it was accompanied by Maj-Gen ODA, who had arrived from Japan as successor to Maj-Gen HORII and Army Senior Staff Officer, Colonel AOTSU.

After this Lt Gen ADACHI decided he should lead his troops personally and insisted he should go to Buna. Although one can sympathise with the G.O.C.’s feeling of gratitude and affection for the Buna Detachment, the 18th Army made the plan of campaign for the whole of New Guinea, and from now on would be an important time for establishing operational control. Furthermore, the strategic operational pivot was the division, and as yet not one had arrived. The army’s task was to stop the attacks of the American and Australian combined forces commanded by MacArthur and occupying that huge continent; the influence of the G.O.C. would be most important in subsequent direction of operations; if he did as he was determined he would worry Senior staff Officer AOTSU. These were my views and this is what I told him.

However, the G.O.C. did not agree, and argued: "If I don’t go, who will save the Buna Detachment? Perhaps the army must be responsible for checking the advance of the American and Australian troops in New Guinea. But isn’t the South Seas Detachment the only battlefield unit I am commanding at present? I am not going to look on while my only son is killed in battle."

Thereupon I went to Area Army H.Q., related the position to General IMAMURA and asked for his decision.

Gen IMAMURA listened to me in silence from beginning to end and then with a really troubled face expressed the opinion: "I am very grateful for the way that G.O.C. ADACHI feels, as commander of the units. However, in the present circumstances we are in difficulties. Originally, H.Q. should have been able to wait for a while in Rabaul, to await the arrival of the front line division and then exercise its authority of command. But recently I have wanted to establish a plan, with all the sufficient intelligence that has been collected, for the future operations of the army. The area army has not been able to formulate the plans it should have. For this reason I want to delegate lots of things to the army which will go back to area army and Imperial General Headquarters. As far as concerns future operations, having responsibility for the Buna units, I want to have my self respect about this." So I was able to transmit this directly to G.O.C. ADACHI. However this was ineffective, naturally. Finally a singular Area Army order was sent "The GOC must be in Rabaul." The GOC at last had his mind changed, and there was talk of sending Senior Staff Officer AOTSU.

The third reinforcement by destroyer was decided on for 9th December. As for the second time, the landing was planned to take place at the mouth of the Kumusi River. However, on the way they were obstructed by enemy planes, the landing was abandoned and they had to return to Rabaul. So it came to the fourth try. This was the last destroyer transport with naval cooperation. This time it was decided that as the enemy planes would obstruct a landing at the mouth of the Kumusi R. they should land at Mambare Bay; and this was done in accordance with an order. Unexpectedly a landing barge came round to Mambare Bay from Kumusi. This was the shipping engineer unit near Kumusi which had come to look for the landing units. It is easy to imagine how the front line units were anxiously waiting for reinforcement. So by this chance meeting between the shipping engineer unit and the landing units, the thing the army most desired – the advance of the units to the Kumusi River – was achieved.

The enemy planes dropped numerous flares, and all night the mouth of the Kumusi was guarded, but they were unable to prevent the attack, and in the morning violent bombing increased on Mambare Bay.

In all there had been four attempts, two successful, and now the desperate destroyer transport was ended; in future reinforcement would not be cut off, but could be done by movement of troops along the coast and by submarine.

Well now, for the position on the Buna front. From round about late November the enemy attacks were directed against the central positions and the right flank. Naturally, these positions were on a very wide front, and were set up in dense jungle, so that mutual assistance was impossible, and it was natural that each position fought for its own place.

The Allied forces attacked, the Americans from the left flank coastal area, the Australians from the centre and right flank area. The enemy method of attack at that time was first to violently bomb the place so that the jungle was changed into a field, pulverizing the Japanese positions, then to send ahead tanks and armoured vehicles, followed by infantry. As a result of the violent bombing our positions were left quite naked, but from whatever building material was left (such as dirt or timber) our garrison troops strove bravely in their defensive role, and although the enemy had armoured vehicles, his losses continued, without his being able to make any occupations, so that he had to repeat his attacks over and over again. As well as our explanations of this fighting, there is the description "Bloody Chronicle" of Lt Gen Eichelberger’s notebook.

The great jungle swamps, the peculiarities of the weather, such as squalls, the malaria which was a natural disease of the area, suffered no distinction between the Japanese army and the Allied army. Amid these natural difficulties, according to that same notebook, the Americans used to a luxurious manner of life, suffered from considerable weakness. Of course, compared with the enemy, the Japanese troops were more fatigued. Furthermore, as I stated previously, our army units were not complete, but were composed of what troops were left without the sick; food and medical supplies were cut off completely since the landing, and there was a serious shortage of food. Naturally, local resources dried up, and at the end of November when the GOC arrived in Rabaul, the sad state was revealed by a report from Colonel YOKOYAMA: "Food short. Local resources, which we had to eat, also short. Medical supplies for sick also short. Therefore malnutrition has broken out. This causing losses from death without even fighting. Request urgent air transport." The army made continuous requests to the navy and a little food and medicine was dropped.

The troops in Guadalcanal were in the same desperate straits because of lack of transport.

The Buna garrison, in this difficult position, were fighting desperately against attacks from in front and from the rear, from the left and from the right. Particularly on the front of the left flank battalion which faced the main strength of the American forces many attacks were beaten off. Usually this battalion changed its tactics and took the enemy by surprise. Again, the desperate fighting of the Yamamoto Units, in the right flank positions facing the Australians, was really splendid. The Yamamoto Units were formed of a nucleus of Field Road Units and Land Transport Troops who had had very little preparation for fighting; but under the command of Lt Col YAMAMOTO they fought desperately and it is a great pity that nearly all of them made the supreme sacrifice.

The Army in Rabaul tried every possible way to find out what had happened to the Yamamoto unit, but were not able to obtain any communication. Even when Staff Officer KITA was sent to the front line with his most important duty to signal confirmation about the Yamamoto unit, his report came: "In the Basabua region where the Yamamoto unit should be, there has been no sign of fighting since 8th December. If you try to approach for a reconnaissance there’s heavy fire from the shore, so I could not go close. Perhaps they had withdrawn from Basabua and joined the main strength of Giruwa. I quickly went to Giruwa to confirm whether or not the Yamamoto unit was there. There were no signs of it having reached there, and they had not sent any report to Colonel YOKOYAMA, so we are all at sea." There is a fishing village on the beach midway between the mouth of the Kumusi River and Buna. If we could somehow get in touch with it we would be able to judge whether they had made the sacrifice, so this was a riddle within a riddle. The truth of the matter was revealed by troops of the Takasago Giyûtai at the time of the general withdrawal of the units. (The Takasago Giyûtai was a unit formed from the Kosa family in Formosa.)

According to their story, the Yamamoto unit was attacked on three fronts by strong Australian forces and fierce fighting continued; in all three sorties were made and heavy losses were inflicted on the enemy but the odds were too great and they died with honour. The major entrusted a note to this effect and planned to join up with the main strength of the Buna units. It was really a pathetic story – attacks waged back and forth over the bodies of the dead, using the weapons and ammunition of comrades, fierce defensive fighting amid the bodies of dead comrades, losing one, then two, they gradually died with honour. In this note the major highly commended the Takasago Giyutai. Splendid jungle fighters, excellent marksmen, never missing the target, with such keen hearing that they seemed to hear things before they happened when there were concerned with the enemy, expert at advancing in silence, making reconnaissances of the enemy, striking in the jungle. Especially at the time of the capture of Moresby, when there were added to the formation of the 15th Independent Engineer Regt., were they effective; they were the picked troops of Formosa. For such splendid, meritorious service, the G.O.C. praised them highly. In due time the fame of the Takasago Giyutai spread, and naturally the then Government-General of Formosa rejoiced in its fame, and the Kosa family achieved more prestige, so that subsequently when they raised troops more and more were raised, and two or three lots were despatched to the southern area. And this beginning was recorded in the Basabua memorandum of Major YAMAMOTO. Later many mainland men came to New Guinea to fight, but there was all the difference in the world in their value.

I will return now to the position in Buna. The Buna garrison, as I have stated before, had many sick and wounded, and food and ammunition were very short; so whatever way it was looked at, it seemed impossible to hold Buna. However, to withdraw was no light matter. The desirable form of transport, destroyers, which we had had previously, were not to be hoped for, and the next best, the available force of submarine transport, was very small; besides, the loading of severely wounded would be scarcely possible. There was no hope for secret transport save by using landing barges. Even if we used landing barges, there was no remaining shipping engineer strength, because the main strength of the 18th Army shipping engineer unit was necessary for the Guadalcanal area transport. In this new turn of the predicament there was no other plan than to hurriedly build a shipping engineer unit. So the army decided to organize a temporary engineer unit. One day I summoned the head of the Mixed Brigade engineer unit and requested him to assume this responsibility. Thereupon he readily consented, saying, "What do you want me to move?" I felt no pleasure at this. Ever since I moved southwards, all pleasure seemed to have been swept away.

The most worrying part of the withdrawal from Buna was the moving of the sick and wounded. However far to the rear they were moved, if they remained there they would undoubtedly fall into the enemy’s hands. In the case of the severely wounded, it was possible that they might die while being moved, and then how could I face their families? What was to be done? The best thing seemed to be to get these engineers to take the boats across the sea to find out whether or not they could withdraw these heavily wounded. The commander of these young engineers was Major ISHIKAWA. Not being able to bear just looking at the plight of their Buna comrades, they overcame a thousand difficulties to quickly push ahead with their training. They had a week at handling engines and carried out exercises of controlling boat methods, navigating as they practised in the waters of New Britain, and then headed towards the Dampier Straits.

The boats encountered many difficulties on the way. The speed of the current was about 10 miles, and the width was close on 150 miles, so that there was opportunity for enemy planes or submarines to sink them; but without even a compass, in the dark of the Dampier Strait they finally made the crossing successfully. They went through Lae and rushed on to Mambare, making connection with the Buna shipping Engineer unit.

The Ukai Company did not fall behind the splendid achievements of the Ishikawa shipping unit. They performed meritorious service in the Buna fighting, carrying the severely wounded, in the midst of the violence, day and night, performing liaison with supply in the rear. Really they carried out the withdrawal of the Buna Detachment, and the story is worth a book to itself. Thanks to the brave cooperation of the shipping unit between the front line and the rear units, it was possible to carry out the withdrawal from Buna, which had been declared impossible.

In the meantime, what of the situation in the Guadalcanal area? There, supplies and reinforcements had ceased, so that a desperate and difficult struggle was going on; a life or death last attack failed and now they were sitting, waiting to die.

At the beginning of January 1943 the line from the centre - Buna – Guadalcanal line was shortened and withdrawn to a line in the Lae-Salamaua and Munda-Kolombangara regions; the strategic situation was prepared, orders were given, and a change was made to a basis of a sudden warfare there. About a month after the Rabaul advance, a campaign was carried out, concentrating on the whole strength, to hold Buna, and eventually the signal came to end this.

As a result of what he had heard, the Emperor was anxious about the state of the fighting at Guadalcanal and Buna and summoned the naval and Army Heads of Staff and commanded them to make a study of plans. He made an evaluation of the situation, gave his opinion that Guadalcanal and Buna should be abandoned, and issued an order about it. There was no way of knowing this were true or false, but judging from the atmosphere when I left Tokyo and the words of Deputy Chief of Staff TANABE in Rabaul, it was necessary to agree.

In view of these problems, the situation seemed to be, when we left, as I have stated, that it was unreasonable to try to hold Buna and Guadalcanal. They had to be let go sooner or later, and it was a question only of when and how. But why was the basic plan thus altered for only a month? To explain briefly, it was due to an error in appreciation of the allocation of air strength in the island campaign. The turning point in Japanese-American air strength was the Coral Sea battle. Up till then the Japanese had been slightly superior in sea warfare and transport warfare, and their air strength also had been superior to that of the enemy. At first in spite of difficulties in the battles the situation returned to normal, but with the splitting up of the Guadalcanal war there was a change in the situation of their and our air strengths.

In the Centre, was there no wise discernment about the reports received quite plainly from the front line? To use proper common sense, was there not some miscalculation in the collection of reports concerning the increase in air strength of the Americans? Was there no boast of being able to break the enemy air power? With the front line army, was it not possible to make a false show of strength? However, at such a time of loss and defeat, it was natural not to complain. Like everyone else, I did not want to.

According to the radio news from Japan, the propaganda was that in the Munda, Kolombangara and Lae, Salamaua hand to hand fighting a retreat had developed, and it would be necessary to wait for the development of another operation; but in actual fact, though the Guadalcanal and Buna operations were hand to hand fighting, it was not a retreat developing. Rather it was a war of gradually strengthening the holding of places already held, and if one were broken in this battle, one was beaten in the hand to hand fighting. The rear positions were the positions to be held if the front line troops were defeated, so it was definitely an empty war to say a retreat developed. Naturally, there were things that the Centre could not know. Probably the transitions of the Guadalcanal and Buna battles had the attention of the people at the time, and all nerves were concentrated on one place. The withdrawal from these strategic places would be the first report or defeat to the Japanese people, and its effect would be enormous. However as front line elements, we did not put much reliance on this and were opposed to the serious responsibility of giving the people a second cause for loss of hope. At the time it was not possible to hold the strategic points of Guadalcanal and Buna in the face of strong enemy air power, so we had retreated to a strategic line in the rear and were planning another attack – this is what they had broadcast.

It was unexpected good luck that details were completed for a new plan for the army to save Buna and a shipping engineer unit was quickly formed, so that, after the wounded had first been withdrawn, as far as ammunition and supplies would allow, new picked troops could be poured in. However, a problem arose, about the date of opening the withdrawal. Without knowing about the future, the main problem was the besieging of a large force of 2 divisions in south east Guadalcanal. If the Buna withdrawal were carried out before Guadalcanal, the results would be that the American forces on the Guadalcanal front would have previous notice of the Guadalcanal withdrawal. The principle of retreat is – when you have decided to retreat – quickly get away from the enemy. If you delay even by one day, this will increase your difficulties and augment your losses, but in this case it was not possible to adopt this principle.

The next problem was how to pass the order for retreat. If such an important and complicated order were sent by wireless, there was the fear of the enemy ear might catch it, so that it would be necessary to appoint a special messenger. A young staff officer, a Major WAKATSUKI, was appointed for this duty. Night after night and day after day he drafted the plan for retreat, and carrying it with him he went aboard a submarine and set off for the Mambalei base but unfortunately on the way he was lost with the ship. It was impossible not to feel despair at the loss at his post of such a man, in the prime of youth, at the beginning of the new campaign. We prayed for his happiness in his future existence.

It seemed that in the naval sphere at that time it was hard to preserve the safety of submarines. According to enemy broadcasts, in the southern waters of the Dampier Strait a destroyer was blown up. Perhaps during the night, when it was surfaced, it was picked up by enemy scout’s radar and met its end.

The van of Ishikawa Shipping Unit, moving only by night, were miraculously not discovered by enemy planes, and crossing the waves of 450 long sea miles arrived at Mambalei, successfully accomplishing their mission. The coming of the landing barges had been waited for with anxiety, so imagine the delight of the badly wounded! The crippled now crawled as far as the shore, or were carried on their comrades’ shoulders, and so were assembled. The Ukai shipping Unit, concealed in the daytime in the luxuriance at the mouth of the Kumusi River, sailed with the dusk, going out in the dark of night, avoided enemy planes, and pulled in on Buna shore. They gathered the badly wounded from all sides, returned to hiding till evening and so began the evacuation of the wounded. There were many of the severely wounded, who having been tense under the strain for many days previously, now finding themselves safe, passed away in their comrades’ arms and left their souls for an eternity on Buna Beach.

The evacuation of the wounded brought one stage to a conclusion. It had its effect on the whole situation, particularly because the Guadalcanal retreat was not then taking place; on 20th January the retreat on all lines began, on the road which led to the Kumusi River mouth. These units who were retreating were one after another accommodated by Yamagata Unit.

In concluding this account of the Buna campaign, there were some details which I should like to mention particularly.

These were the death in action of Navy Capt YASUDA Yoshitachi and Colonel YAMAMOTO (in charge of 144th Regiment) and the suicide of the commander of the South Seas Detachment, Maj-Gen ODA Kensaku.

As I have already mentioned, Naval Captain YASUDA was for a long time in charge of the Special Naval Landing Party, so that Yasuda was regarded as another name for Buna. He was attacked by the American Army, defended the Buna airfield, and cooperated strongly with the Army units. In repulsing the enemy attacks, this unit sustained heavy losses, but it ensured the safety of key positions on the left flank of the Buna position. Finally, however, on 2nd January there was a large scale attack by American tanks under cover of a smoke screen, and with Colonel YAMAMOTO, the Army Commander, he (YASUDA) died facing the enemy tanks. The splendid achievement of Captain YASUDA was, amid the smoke and rain of bullets, in accordance with our operational rules, reporting the change in the enemy’s operational methods, and this was important training for the whole of New Guinea. So from a long way away we offer incense and flowers to the graves of YAMAMOTO and YASUDA who for eternity watch over the Buna airfield.

Next comes the suicide of Maj-Gen ODA. He took over from Maj-Gen HORII as commander of the South Seas Detachment, and as I have already mentioned, advanced to Mambare in mid December with the second lot of reinforcement units. Because of the air attacks on Mambare and the honourable death of the Yamamoto unit, it was not easy for him to advance, but nevertheless he faced up to all difficulties and late in December arrived at Buna to take control of the Detachment. Each unit had already been separated, and the main strength died in the sago palm swamps on the left bank of the Kumusi River. The units of the Detachment which were left in Buna had no firm control, and communication between both was very difficult because of enemy penetration. In addition to this difficulty, there was the strangeness of taking over the position and the fact that the whole units were dying, that there could be no good plan for a revival, that the desperate struggle was continuing; then, at this stage, he received the order for a general retreat. The Major General, being the officer in command, finishing the arrangements for the retreat of the whole army, attended to their execution, and saw the last units set off; then he embraced Lt Col TOMITA, a member of his staff, and committed suicide. It is impossible to restrain sympathetic tears at such a deed. According to what we heard, the Maj-General withdrew the very last remaining unit, then said to the soldier on duty: "That’s the end of that. I am going to smoke one cigarette at leisure." Then he ordered "March on." The man on duty did as he was told, and continued with the retreating unit. Some time afterwards he heard pistol shots in the rear. He hastily went back to see if the enemy had started a fight, and saw that the Major-General and Lt Gen TOMITA had committed suicide and were lying on a cloak spread out on the ground. It seems likely that the Major-General had previously decided to commit suicide, had endured all the difficulties, and then when he had finished everything, carried out his cherished desire. And how many of the 10,000 of the South Seas detachment, with a nucleus of 2 Regiments, who were in his hands? The majority of them were gravely ill troops, and how many of them would be able to be assembled after the withdrawal? And since the greater part of the South Seas Detachment left their corpses behind, how would they be able to retreat?

Maj-Gen ODA, having previously been in charge of the Toyohashi Reserve Officers’ College, and he had been on administration duties all the time, so that by his training he was prepared for anything. I think he committed suicide because things had shown him he must die. This sublime conception of duty was the ideal representative of an officer and a warrior.

The Buna defeat was really the limit of magnificent tragedy. Although they lost their leader, were very sick, had gone through a hard campaign and were over a wide front, they did not forget they were warriors, and crossed swords with the fresh troops of Australia and the U.S.

Here I must explain one matter. According to Gen. Eichelberger’s "Bloody History" it is stated that at the time of the retreat our commanding officers ordered sick people who were already in the boat to be taken off and left them at Buna. Where the foundation for such a story arose I do not know, but I had no knowledge of it from our limited information. I imagine it was perhaps when Major-Gen YAMAGATA was directing the withdrawal from Buna. Maj-Gen YAMAGATA was in command of the Buna Units and he came from the mouth of the Kumusi River to the front line at Buna to direct their withdrawal; after transmitting the orders to Maj-Gen ODA who was in charge of the Buna garrison he returned to the Kumusi River and there received the units retreating from Buna and directed their return to Lae by boat. Maj-Gen YAMAGATA inevitably and as a matter of course had the duty of going back ahead of the units from Buna. He did not have to withdraw with the units. In this respect there was a difference between him and Maj-Gen ODA. And even if a few wounded were actually left behind, it is slanderous to say that they were put off the board. I felt I must clear up this point.

As I have already stated, the main strength of the Buna units concentrated at the mouth of the Kumushi River, then moved to the Mambare base, from where they began their withdrawal to Lae; this assembly at Lae ended early in March, so that it took over a month. This was due to the lack of transport and the serious illness of the troops. The 400 kms between Buna and Lae were filled with horror and losses were very heavy. When the concentration of these units was accomplished in Lae, the G.O.C. flew over from Rabaul to see how they were. The various units were recuperating where they had assembled, and as opportunity offered they were gradually sent back to Rabaul. They were subsequently repatriated to Japan to the places of their parent units. They were really unfortunate heroes.

Printer version

Southern Cross
1. Cornered
2. Buna area situation
3. Fighting near Buna
4. Army planning
5. New Guinea
6. Operation No.18
7. Wau campaign
8. 20th and 41st Divisions
9. Operation No.81
10. Lae-Salamaua
11. Enemy at Buso-Nadzab
12. Nakai Detachment
13. Natives-flora-fauna
14. Finschhafen
15. Nakano Group
16. Air and shipping
17. Madang to Wewak
18. Hollandia
19. Aitape
20. Ambush

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Tamura diary
Southern Cross
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