|The Japanese troops finally decided to withdraw from the Buna area in January 1943 after enduring fierce attacks by the Allies, disease and starvation. However, there was confusion associated with the retreat and some commanders were accused of having carried out an unauthorised retreat from the area.
The official order to retreat from the Buna area west towards Mambare was issued by Major General YAMAGATA on 18 January. The remaining troops of the South Seas Force received the order from Major General ODA to retreat to the mouth of the Kumusi River on 20 January. However, prior to the official withdrawal order, the main force of the 144th Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel TSUKAMOTO left their position without authorisation from ODA. Similarly, the remaining fifty members of the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment, commanded by Colonel YOKOYAMA, left Buna heading for the Kumusi River on 17 January. The unexpected withdrawal of these units shocked the other units in the area and had a bad effect on their morale. Major General YAMAGATA was particularly furious as Colonel YOKOYAMA boarded the boat he was going use for his own retreat.
In 1959, as the official history was compiled, Colonel YOKOYAMA was asked to explain the situation relating to his decision to retreat. He submitted a long reply which provided revealing insights into the circumstances. Substantial sections of his reply are quoted in the official history.
In his reply, he elaborated on the desperate situation he and his troops found themselves in at Giruwa Beach. He wrote as follows:
The order our unit had received was to reach Giruwa Beach and manage and transport casualties. Around 16 January, the enemy had increased the intensity of their attack and we were completely under siege. All the injured and sick were moved to the garrison on the beach from the roads, but there was no cover from the enemy attack. The situation was horrible beyond description.
The area was only 3 to 4 meters wide. We did not have equipment to dig trenches. We could only shelter by the tree roots as the waves came close to our feet. Thus, we could not dig trenches. We were literally fighting with our backs to the wall.
Patients and other healthy members who assembled at the beach were injured in the artillery attacks. On the evening of 16 January, the attack became more severe, but we could not counter-attack.
On the morning of 17 January, the artillery attack became more severe. On and off, we tried to attack, but there were only about ten among us who were mobile. Those members were positioned on three sides and they threw grenades occasionally to just bluff the enemy. Communication with the Headquarters was cut off and it was not possible for us to grasp the situation. Some injured soldiers who were retreating told us that the front line had already moved towards the west and that the enemy had started to concentrate their attack on our garrison. As time went by, deaths and injuries increased, and there were only thirty alive among us including the injured. Thus, we realised that we would certainly perish and I told the officers: "If we were the only ones alive and if there were no others joining us, the boats which might approach the beach should be guided towards us. . ."
At that time, I had a high fever of 40 degrees and was suffering from diarrhoea. I managed to sustain myself with injections of morphine and camphor. In front of my men, I had to crawl into the sea from the foot of a tree root and stay in the water for about 30 minutes with diarrhoea. On the evening of 17 January, the enemy approached closer and artillery attacks became incessant. Thunder and lightning brought drenching rain. Our fox holes were thus filled with water and there was no boundary between the sea and the ground.
In the midst of the storm, Colonel YOKOYAMA saw two boats approach the beach. He ordered all the remaining troops of his unit to get into the boat and left the area. Colonel YOKOYAMA was embarrassed when his subordinate officer who served with him for the previous five years commented that Colonel YOKOYAMA behaved as if he were a madman when the troops were boarding the boats.
In addition to explaining the situation, Colonel YOKOYAMA was critical of the prolonged chaotic situation which existed since the South Seas Force’s retreat from the Owen Stanley Range. He wrote as follows:
As we had to fight in the jungle where communication was difficult, making it very hard to ensure orders reached relevant officers at the appropriate time, . Among the many retreats we had to carry out, there were only one or two occasions when we received orders from the authorities. In all other cases, each officer had to make his decision at each circumstance. At the end, each unit moved to Giruwa without receiving official orders as it was separated from the commander. Furthermore, communication with the commander of the Force was not possible. The garrison construction in Giruwa and the occupation of Basabua were accomplished by my own judgement. Major General ODA arrived on 20 December, but he had a high fever because of malaria and he asked me, "As you are familiar with the area, please do what we need to do." In reality, he was doing as I advised him to do.
Colonel YOKOYAMA further added that debilitating health he and his troops suffered due to malaria and long-term malnutrition affected not only their intellectual judgement of the situation but also their courageous spirit as soldiers.
In spite of the controversy, there was no official enquiry held regarding the YOKOYAMA or TSUKAMOTO incidents since the war situation developed further and some crucial players were killed in action.
Contributed by Keiko Tamura, AJRP
Bôeichô Bôei Kenkyû Senshishitsu (ed.), Senshi sôsho Minami Taiheiyô rikugun sakusen 2: Gadarukanaru-Buna sakusen (Official war history South Pacific Area army operations, vol.2: Guadalcanal-Buna campaigns), Tokyo: Asagumo Shinbunsha, 1969, pp. 595-597.
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