|Army operations in the South Pacific area: Papua campaigns, 1942–1943
Chapter 8: Withdrawal operations from the Buna area
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Chapter 8: Withdrawal operations from the Buna area
Leadership of the withdrawal by the 18th Army commander
Conditions at the Giruwa front
Leadership of the withdrawal operation by the commander of the Buna Detachment
South Seas Force commander’s orders to withdraw and the situation of front-line units
Escape from the coastal sector
The situation after the arrival at the Kumusi River
Various issues raised by the withdrawal from Giruwa
Issues concerning the withdrawal of Colonel Yokoyama
Issues concerning the withdrawal of the Tsukamoto Unit
End of the Buna force
Withdrawal from north and south Giruwa
The Giruwa camp on the verge of collapse
The circumstances of the war in the New Guinea area up to the fall of the Buna Garrison in early January 1943 have been described. As a result of the fall to the Allies of the flanking camps at Basabua and Buna, the central camp at Giruwa came to receive encirclement attacks from three sides.
The Allies moved the focus of their artillery attacks from the Buna area to Giruwa. In addition, the Allies intensified these attacks on Japanese positions in the south-west sector, after elements had applied pressure along the coastal area.
The South Seas Force commander, Major General Oda Kensaku, primarily led the fighting in the south Giruwa area, while the Buna Detachment commander, Major General Yamagata Kuribanaike, took command of the overall battle in the Buna area, as well as taking direct control of fighting against the Allied force advancing to the west from Buna village.
The contents of an intelligence report telegraphed from the South Seas Force commander to the chief of staff of the 18th Army on 12 January 1943 speaks plainly about the situation at that time:
Enemy planes fly overhead all day, and have no regard for where they drop their bombs. Further, enemy artillery is strong, and fire is concentrated into our camp. Casualties among the army and navy are steadily mounting.
Communications between the central camp and front-line positions have been severed since yesterday. Enemy troops have also infiltrated the central camp area in large numbers. Artillery fire on our coastal positions is also intense.
Fresh enemy troops are mounting spirited attacks from the Buna area. The supply road bringing provisions from the coast has also been cut off.
Around half of the officers and troops within the camp are stricken with malnutrition. Those without food and bereft of energy, who can barely lift their weapons, are gradually dying. Our scattered troops continue to be all the more isolated.
The garrison here at Giruwa will suffer the same fate as that of the camps at Basabua and Buna before too many days pass. Despite the soldiers’ cherished wish to die in battle, the sacrifices which have spanned half a year will ultimately come to nothing. It is deeply regrettable that the framework established for the invasion of New Guinea will be lost. If the opportunity is to be saved, then the [word missing] must be urged to immediately send reinforcements to land near Gona.
The officers and men within the camp endure constant air raids and mortar fire during the day, while at night, there is no time for sleep within the flooded redoubts. For two months we have been besieged, waiting for nothing other than the arrival of friendly troops.
Editor’s note: The communications station to Rabaul was near the South Seas Force command, so it is thought that the information about the current situation was accurately transmitted from the South Seas Force commander.
The overall situation for the Buna Detachment in the middle of January was as follows: the South Seas Force was deployed to the south of Giruwa as the south-west sector unit; the 144th Infantry Regiment had secured an outer circular camp to hold Allied forces in the area; the Buna Detachment Headquarters was located at north Giruwa; while the South Seas Force headquarters, the 41st Infantry Regiment, and the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment occupied positions on the line of the main road between these sectors.
Supplies were transported to north Giruwa by boats detached from units near the Mambare River (eight barges from the 5th Marine Engineer Regiment 3rd Company). Approximately five thousand men needed to be supplied. At the end of December, each man received around 360 millilitres of rice per day, but this was reduced to 40–80 millilitres in early January. There was no food for the period 8–12 January.
In addition to detaching Major Tanaka Kengorô, an army staff officer, to the Buna Detachment, the commander of the 18th Army established a supply base at Mambare and advanced officers from all sections of the army (staff office, munitions section, finance section, medical section) to liaise closely with the front line to maintain continuous supply. The transport units also established an interim base near the mouth of the Kumusi River. Communications were maintained with the wireless receiver at Giruwa.
The 18th Army command had recognised that the area from Giruwa to Kokoda to the west was occupied by Australian forces, and the area to the east by American forces (around a regiment from both the 32nd and 41st Divisions). Further, the front-line Allied troops were known to be planning a campaign of gradual encroachment, infiltrating and occupying positions within the Japanese camps. However, it was observed that the exhaustive tactics seen in the attack on Buna were not being adopted. Instead, the attacks were carried out by artillery fire and the infiltration of smaller-scale units in contact with the gunners.
The pressure enclosing the Japanese positions intensified each passing day. The Japanese were convinced that the Allied forces in the Buna area were planning to advance along the coast to north Giruwa, and that the final stage of the campaign was drawing near.
The Allies had established a base and an airbase at Oro Bay, and had begun construction of an airfield at Dobodura closer to the Japanese positions. Torpedo boats from these bases would often sortie to the waters east of Mambare, causing increasing difficulties for Japanese transport vessels.
The situation at various Allied airfields as reported by Japanese navy reconnaissance planes in the latter part of January was as follows:
In March 1958, the US government returned to Japan the set of documents titled Records of the former Japanese army. Among these records, which were collected during battles by Allied forces, were approximately thirty items that concern the situation in the Giruwa area.
These primarily consisted of battle reports, presumably written by battalion commanders at the front line and addressed to the South Seas Force commander. Among these was one document written by an officer in the field and addressed to the officers of the South Seas Force. Written under the conditions of battle as described above, the reports are little more than pencil scribbled on straw paper – far from the uniform appearance of normal battle reports. The following extract, probably drafted in late December 1942, describes the situation at the time:
2. Mortar attacks continue as usual. Just after sunset, rapid-fire guns? Several shells fell within the camp, but there were no casualties.
3. 2nd Lieutenant Hisasue has fallen ill, as per previous reports. Though he has continued to command until today, this will be a pressing problem as his condition has deteriorated. Though his treatment continues within the camp, there is no improvement. 2nd Lieutenant Munenaga has developed a malignant fever. He continues to command within the redoubt, though he sleeps often. There are no officers or men who are not patients. According to the testimony of the battalion commander, this is especially the case for the troops.
4. Though few in total, the number of men who have lost their minds continues to rise.
5. The camp is becoming a graveyard for officers and men, though we continue to defend it to the best of our abilities.
6. The Murase Unit applied the 11th Company to the Takenaka Unit (elements of the 41st Infantry Regiment) by order of the Yokoyama Detachment. When the 2nd Company, 1st Platoon was withdrawing, Lieutenant Takenaka implored them to remain behind. However, all 112 men of the company, including the company commander, were patients. Among them were 30 men who were clinically ill at the front line, but there was no one available to take their place.
It is no exaggeration to say that the end will come if one element fails under the current conditions.
Food is gradually becoming scarce, but even if we have no rations, all units will continue to defend the front line with all their strength.
This state of affairs is truly lamentable. Day by day, we cannot escape this situation, which is becoming worse. It is the good fight, which is tear-provoking.
On another matter, if the reinforcements for the Asai Unit do not arrive on the 19th of the month, then we must consider that fate is not with us.
I present this report in the hope that its contents are comprehended by my superiors.
2nd Lieutenant Ogawa.
Leadership of the withdrawal by the 18th Army commander
The commander of the 18th Army received orders on 13 January 1943 from the 8th Area Army commander to "Withdraw strengths in the Buna area at an appropriate time to Lae and Salamaua in cooperation with the navy." The decision was made to withdraw the force and the following "Outline of the withdrawal of the Buna Detachment" was formulated:
b. The base at Mambare will be strengthened.
c. The army will indicate the time for the withdrawal to the west of Mambare.
d. Elements from the 2nd Company of the Okabe Detachment will be deployed to provide protection for the Buna Detachment. These troops will be under the command of the Buna Detachment commander until they reach Mambare.
The condition in this outline that "the army will indicate the time for the withdrawal to the west of Mambare" was because the 18th Army was considering at that time transporting the second echelon to Lae and so barges would consequently be needed in the Lae area. There was also consideration for reinforcing the Lae and Salamaua areas with a view to recapturing Buna. If that were to happen, there would be a necessity to secure Mambare as an offensive base, and to secure the Lae and Salamaua areas as advance bases. Consequently, the decision concerning when to withdraw needed to be taken in accordance with the current situation.
The commander of the 18th Army issued the following general orders based on the withdrawal overview on 13 January ("Mô operational order A no. 72"):
2. The army has secured a strategic position for securing key areas in New Guinea to the west of Lae, Salamaua, and Wau, and is currently planning preparations for future offensive operations.
For this purpose, troops in the Buna area will be evacuated to the Lae and Salamaua areas in cooperation with the navy.
3. The Buna Detachment will withdraw independently from the area, with the following units to retreated and assemble at the designated locations. The withdrawal of main units will commence on 29 January and be completed by 7–8 February.
Withdrawal of units to the west of Zaka and Morobe is indicated separately.
The commencement of the withdrawal is given in Operational records of the 18th Army as "around 25 January". However, Operational documents of the South Pacific compiled by the 4th (History and Tactics) Department of the Army General Staff records that the withdrawal would commence on "29 January with plans to complete by 7–8 February". The leadership of the Buna operation would seem appropriate when considered in relation to the withdrawal from Guadalcanal. However, the postwar reminiscence by the chief of staff of the 18th Army, Major General Yoshihara Kane, contains the following statement, which generally supports the position of the Army General Staff:
In addition, 18th Army staff officer Major Tanaka Kengorô recalled the following:
After no more than a week’s worth of instructions in procedures and operations, the vessels set off through the Dampier Strait. This was a treacherous passage only 90 kilometres wide with strong currents and frequent sorties by Allied planes and submarines. Travelling by night, without even a compass, the ships set off for Buna some 830 kilometres distant.
Conditions at the Giruwa front
The conditions of the battle at the front line at Giruwa until the end of January were as follows:
In light of the situation since the end of December, the commander of the South Seas Force gave consideration to adopting a final strategy to withdraw units in the south-west and central sectors and consolidate them in the coastal sector. A bell-shaped bridgehead camp would then be constructed to await army reinforcements.
Meanwhile, the penetration by Allied troops strengthened day by day. On 9 January, contact with the south-west sector unit was finally lost. The South Seas Force commander, in the midst of efforts to extract the south-west sector units and reform units at the bridgehead camp, received news on 12 January that "the entire complement of the south-west sector unit has withdrawn to the mouth of the Kumusi River".
The escape of the south-west sector units, which was made up primarily of the 144th Infantry Regiment, had a great impact on the reformed plans for the bridgehead camp. Ultimately, however, the South Seas Force commander moved his headquarters nearer the coast and entrusted command of the central sector, which protruded into the front line, to Lieutenant Colonel Fuchiyama Sadahide, commander of the 47th Field Anti-aircraft Artillery Battalion. The 2nd Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment, led by Major Koiwai Mitsuo, and the 2nd Battalion of the 144th Infantry Regiment, led by Major Katô Yukiyoshi (newly appointed), were placed under the command of Colonel Fuchiyama. The 3rd Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment, led by Major Murase Gohei, which was previously positioned in the sector, was now deployed at the western flank of the bell-shaped bridgehead. The Murase Battalion safely withdrew during the evening of 15 January and joined the new line.
Editor’s note: Colonel Yazawa Kiyomi, the commander of the 41st Infantry Regiment, contracted malaria during the rescue operation in the Buna sector and was evacuated to the Kumusi River during the night of 19 January.
Meanwhile, the Allied forces mounted an unprecedented, ferocious artillery and mortar attack from 9 am on 16 January, then began a wholesale assault on the Japanese positions. The difference in firepower between the sides made going very difficult for the defenders. Finally, at 3 pm that afternoon, Allied troops breached the lines from the west at a central position between the newly established coastal bridgehead sector (north Giruwa) and the front line (south Giruwa). The units of the central sector in south Giruwa led by Colonel Fuchiyama were completely encircled.
Leadership of the withdrawal operation by the commander of the Buna Detachment
Meanwhile, the commander of the Buna Detachment, Major General Yamagata, had received orders on 14 January from the 18th Army ("Mô operational order A no. 72") for the detachment to withdraw to the west of the Mambare River. According to the army orders, the withdrawal was to commence from 25 January. However, the situation for the detachment had deteriorated to the point where it could not wait that long.
At that time, the detachment had possession of eight serviceable barges. These were used to evacuate around two hundred casualties per day. By 18 January, all sick and injured had been transferred to the Line-of-communication Hospital staging area.
The detachment commander subsequently drafted the following order ("Nishi operational order A no. 65") at noon on 18 January:
2. The detachment has been ordered to withdraw to the mouth of the Kumusi River to undertake preparations for the next stage of operations. For this purpose, all fronts will change the direction of the offensive to the west at 2000 hrs on day x. Units will first withdraw to near Bekabari, while continuing to destroy enemy troops in the area.
Day x has been designated in separate orders as 20 January.
It is anticipated that Colonel Yoshida will lead the former Tsukamoto Battalion and clear the path from the Kumusi to Basabua to aid the withdrawal of the detachment.
Editor’s note: Colonel Yoshida was the newly appointed commander of the 144th Infantry Regiment.
3. The South Seas Force (with the exception of elements at Garara and near the disembarkation point) will first head west from their current positions and begin their attack at 2000 hrs on day x. They will aim to withdraw to the sector on the right bank at the mouth of the Kumusi River along a front approximately 4 kilometres from the line of the coast.
Navy units and the 45th Fixed Wireless Unit will be subsumed under this command.
4. The Nojiri Battalion (1st Battalion, 170th Infantry Regiment) will withdraw from the front line at 2000 hrs on day x and breakthrough to Basabua along the line of the coast, aiming first to head for Bekabari. The units at Garara and near the disembarkation point will be subsumed under this command.
5. The Hozumi Battalion (South Seas Force Mountain Artillery Battalion) will withdraw with the Nojiri Battalion.
6. The Brigade Signals Unit, in addition to continuing present duties up to day x-1, will secure wireless communications between the Kumusi River and Giruwa up to 1700 hrs on day x. The 170th Infantry Regiment Signals Unit will be subsumed under this command.
7. Units to withdraw by boat will be as follows:
Day x–1 (five barges)
Brigade Signals Unit main strength (with the exception of the 170th Infantry Regiment Signals Unit and the Type-3 Wireless Squad)
Detachment reserve troops
Sick and injured who emerged since day x-2
Disembarkation duty officers
8. Units will make every effort to carry their own casualties with the withdrawal, and shall securely dispose of all munitions, etc.
9. The South Seas Force commander will order the Tomita Unit to make every effort to speedily distribute debarked military supplies to all units.
10. I shall withdraw with the detachment headquarters on day x-1, first proceeding to the Hashimoto River (approximately 6 kilometres north of Bekabari).
Method of distribution of orders
1. Notes shall be distributed only to the South Seas Force commander at 0900 hrs on day x-1. However, the South Seas Force commander may distribute his own orders based on the original orders after 1600 hrs on day x-1. Until that time, the South Seas Force commander and senior officers will not disclose the orders.
2. Staff officers will distribute orders in sealed envelopes to the Nojiri and Hozumi Battalions at 0900 hrs on day x-1, with instructions to open the orders at 1600 hrs that same day.
3. Orders will be passed orally to the Brigade Signals Unit, etc.
The commander of the South Seas Force distributed the following orders, which were based on the detachment commander’s orders, during the morning of 20 January:
2. All units will undertake various preparations, then infiltrate and break through gaps in the enemy lines at 2000 hrs on 20 January and head for the mouth of the Kumusi River.
*Casualties who cannot travel must remain behind at the camp.
Five scouting parties were deployed to deliver these orders to the Fuchiyama Unit, who, as previously mentioned, had been completely encircled by Allied troops. The orders were written on signals paper in Japanese phonetic characters in case anything happened.
Corporal Watanabe Jinsuke penetrated the Allied lines and reached the Fuchiyama Unit at 9 am.
According to the memoir of Major Koiwai, the line with the asterisk was missing from the orders at that time. Leaving their immobile comrades behind would have been unbearable for the troops.
When Major Koiwai handed over the orders, even Lieutenant Colonel Fuchiyama, with an expression unlike what one would expect after suddenly receiving orders to withdraw, said: "This is not possible." Major Koiwai agreed. The reason was that the unit had absolutely no strength, either to break through the complete encirclement, or to carry out their casualties. Lieutenant Colonel Fuchiyama decided to stay and die an honourable death.
However, when Major Koiwai had returned to his unit, talk of a withdrawal had somehow already spread through the entire camp. Aside from infantry units, those in charge of engineer and supply company troops had gone out to find out if the rumours were true. Major Koiwai, confident he could explain the proposal to fight for an honourable death to the troops of his own regiment, was unsure if he could face other units when pressed with: "If they are military orders, shouldn’t we withdraw?"
There was no certainty that such a situation wouldn’t result in a breakdown of solidarity in the troops and the descent into chaos. The great irony for Major Koiwai, in addition to the concern over not executing orders that were delivered, was that everyone knew that he had previously looked into the feasibility of withdrawal and had gone to Lieutenant Colonel Fuchiyama to present the case for its success.
Fuchiyama agreed to preparations for withdrawal, but had charged Koiwai, as a man of infantry background, to devise a method to break through the Allied perimeter. When Koiwai remarked that "the problem is the transport of casualties", the lieutenant colonel immediately bowed his head in silence, a pained expression crossing his face. After a while, he spoke quietly with a deep sigh: "Living is certainly harder than dying."
Major Koiwai gave the responsibility of how to tell the immobile casualties about the withdrawal to each company commander. A second liaison officer, 1st Lieutenant Ikeda Shigeyoshi from the South Seas Force Signals Unit, arrived at that time, which was about 5.30 pm. He was one of the scouts sent out that morning.
1st Lieutenant Ikeda delivered the following message from Major General Oda, the commander of the South Seas Force:
The message was worded such that the treatment of casualties was the sole responsibility of the commander of the South Seas Force. While the emotional scars of this action could not be healed, the heavy burden of distress was placed firmly on the shoulders of the two commanders.
The line in front of the 7th Company was chosen as the location of the disengagement because no Allied attacks had yet come from that sector. The senior officer who was despatched for reconnaissance of the site reported that "disengagement is possible".
A torrent of rain continued from the afternoon into the evening. The rain that had tormented them continuously since their landing in New Guinea was this night, for the first time, a welcome visitor. The planned disengagement under concealment through the front line, which was only 20–30 metres from the Allied positions, was made possible by this heavy rain.
The various units assembled on the road in the centre of the camp from 8 pm amidst the pouring rain. There were concerns, however, that Allied troops would be encountered further on even if they could disengage from the front line. Food was also in short supply. Disease constantly shadowed their weak bodies. The path of death was only certain for those who would remain behind in the camp. For those who were to escape, their future seemed only supported by a fragile thread.
The stretcher-bound casualties were bid farewell with instructions to "take their lives before the Allies arrived the next morning". Major Koiwai explained the situation at that time in his memoir, as follows:
The advance into the dark commenced in the continuing heavy rain at 10 pm on 20 January. The Murase Battalion (approximately one hundred men) led, with the Fuchiyama Unit, the 41st Infantry Regiment Headquarters, and other units in train.
Officers of the forward sector units, who had advanced safely through the first line of the Allied encirclement by dawn, judged that by noon they had advanced to a location near the second line of encirclement through which passed the road from Basabua to Soputa. They were on high alert for Allied troops.
To break through this barrier, the Fuchiyama Unit adopted a strategy whereby battalion-sized units were divided into smaller sections to creep forward under cover of darkness and penetrate gaps between Allied positions. All officers over company commander were assembled. Major Koiwai provided a detailed briefing, which included an appraisal of Allied positions, the direction of the mouth of the Kumusi River, and the order of departure.
Three of the most able-bodied men from each unit were organised under the acting regimental commander, Major Koiwai, with Major Murase and Lieutenant Hayashi, to protect the colours of the 41st Infantry Regiment. It was reported to the commander that even if the colours did not reach the mouth of the Kumusi River, the flag would be destroyed and would not fall into the hands of the enemy. Two points were transmitted from man to man: that they would die in battle, and that the colours would be destroyed.
Lieutenant Colonel Fuchiyama and the senior command, in light of the breakdown of communications to date, decided to travel in train with the colour party.
Escape from the coastal sector
Meanwhile, the Buna Detachment was weathering heavy artillery attacks from the west. Major General Yamagata, with the detachment headquarters, elements of the Brigade Signals Unit, the Detachment Reserve Unit (Ikegami Unit), and about one hundred and forty casualties, boarded two recently arrived barges at 9.30 pm on 19 January and headed for the mouth of the Kumusi River. They arrived at their destination at 2.30 am the following morning.
The headquarters of the South Seas Force, along with detached units, including the Noshiro Battalion and the Mountain Artillery Battalion, commenced their overland retreat as per their orders during the night of 20 January. The commander of the South Seas Force, Major General Oda Kensaku, remained behind after the withdrawal had commenced. On 21 January, he committed suicide together with his senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Tomita Yoshinobu.
On the evening of 20 January, as planned, Major General Yamagata assigned responsibilities for loading the main strength of the Brigade Signals Unit and casualties on four barges, which had arrived in Giruwa at 9 pm on 20 January. Efforts were made to board the troops, but Allied artillery fire was too strong. The situation became confused and dangerous, with ultimately only elements of the signals unit and the remainder of the 9th Company able to board and return.
Two barges set off to board the troops again the following night. By that time, however, Allied troops had occupied the coastal area around Giruwa and it was not possible for the men to embark.
The coastal units that had commenced their overland withdrawal divided into platoons and broke through the Allied containment. The Noshiro Battalion advanced along the coastal sector, receiving heavy attacks from the time when they initially broke through the Allied positions. The majority of the unit, including the battalion commander, were killed in the repeated engagements, but the rest finally arrived at Basabua.
The Mountain Artillery Battalion also penetrated the Allied front lines. The commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hozumi, was extremely weakened by a bout of diarrhoea. He told his subordinates: "If I go on like this, I will bring disaster on us all. Do not worry about me. Advance!" His subordinates, forcibly trying to take the commander’s hand, replied: "We will push on, even if we have to carry you on our backs." At that, the commander firmly pushed them away, saying, "I cannot ask this of you under these circumstances", whereupon he killed himself with his pistol. Almost all personnel of the artillery company, including the commander, were also killed on the battlefield and the commander of the supply company was missing. The pressure brought to bear by the Allies in the face of the Japanese retreat was truly immense.
The navy units and Formosan Volunteers did not encounter the Allies and continued their advance concealed in the depths of the jungle.
The situation after the arrival at the Kumusi River
The acting commander of the 144th Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto, whose unit had withdrawn from the south-west sector during the evening of 20 January, arrived at the Kumusi River on 23 January. There he was placed under the command of the newly appointed regimental commander, Colonel Yoshida Akio. Only 140 out of the 300 men who left the south-west sector had arrived at the Kumusi River.
The 26-man colour party led by the acting commander of the 41st Infantry Regiment, Major Koiwai Mitsuo, arrived at the mouth of the Kumusi River with the regimental flag on 28 January. The unit had safely broken through to the Basabua–Soputa road, then proceeded north for a week before arriving at the river. The unit there occupied the camp held by Major Miyamoto Kikumatsu, leader of the 1st Battalion of the same regiment. They were joined by 45 men from the Takenaka Unit of the regiment who had escaped from the south-west sector under the command of Colonel Tsukamoto. However, 2nd Lieutenant Takenaka and his entire command were missing.
Other units, through the sacrifice of officers and men killed en route, gradually arrived at the right bank of the Kumusi River, with the assembly basically complete by 5 February. Meanwhile, the withdrawal to Mambare was progressively being undertaken, with the entire strength of the Buna Detachment assembled there by 7 February.
Major Tanaka Kengorô, the 18th Army staff officer assigned to the Buna Detachment, had travelled with the detachment during the withdrawal to the Kumusi River. He was replaced at the Kumusi River on 24 January by Colonel Tanaka Shôji, staff officer with the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade, and then returned to Rabaul.
The advance barge party, led by Lieutenant Ishikawa, arrived at Mambare on 23 January. It was now possible to apply a total of around twenty barges to the withdrawal effort when used in combination with the army barges at Lae.
The 2nd and 8th Companies of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, to provide aid from the Okabe Detachment, arrived at Mambare on 23 January. The 8th Company occupied the left bank near the mouth of the river, then carried out clearing operations at Tatututu and Manau along the river valley. The 2nd Company travelled by barge to the Kumusi River on 24 January, then left the next day towards the Ampolo River, where they were charged with establishing a holding camp for the overland withdrawal units. This company succeeded in discharging their responsibilities when they repelled numerous attacks from an Allied pursuit party around the mouth of the Ampolo River.
The Buna Detachment commander, Major General Yamagata, moved to Mambare on 2 February 1943. Out of an estimated standing strength of five thousand men prior to the withdrawal, only 3,400 were assembled by 7 February, including navy personnel. The number of troops at the beginning of the battle at Giruwa and Buna in early November, plus subsequent reinforcements, totalled approximately eleven thousand troops. This means that around seven thousand six hundred men had been lost since then.
Navy units were removed from Major General Yamagata’s command once they had arrived at Mambare.
Editor’s note: The regimental colours of the 144th Infantry Regiment were temporarily evacuated to Rabaul owing to a misunderstanding in orders, but returned to Mambare by submarine on 2 February. It was said that the colour party’s uniforms were tattered and that they were without shoes when they arrived in Rabaul.
The numbers of troops at the end of the battle were listed by the Buna Detachment staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Tanaka Shôji, as follows:
2. Makeup of survivors for each unit at the Kumusi River
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Various issues raised by the withdrawal from Giruwa
At the time of the Giruwa evacuation, Major General Yamagata travelled with his Buna Detachment commanders by boat to the mouth of the Kumusi River during the evening of 19 January 1943. The commander of the South Seas Force, Major General Oda, was ordered to lead his troops on an overland withdrawal, but he remained at the Giruwa camp and took his own life. The commander of the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment, Colonel Yokoyama, withdrew by boat to the Kumusi River with fifty of his troops by his own authority on 17 January. Further, the main strength of the 144th Infantry Regiment, which was led into fierce fighting at the south-west sector camp by its commander, Colonel Tsukamoto, withdrew to the Kumusi River without orders during the night of 12 January.
The various issues raised here relate to decisions taken under extreme conditions of battle. These decisions also stemmed from differences of opinion arising from strategic and moral perspectives. The actual events were extremely complex, with those concerned perhaps having different reasons altogether. Consequently, there follows several accounts from the memoirs of those involved.
The death of the commander of the South Seas Force
The 18th Army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Yoshihara Kane, wrote in his memoir concerning the death of the commander of the South Seas Force, Major General Oda Kensaku:
According to what we heard, the commander oversaw the withdrawal of the last of his units. He then turned to the duty soldier and said: "That’s done then. I wish to smoke a last cigarette. Go on ahead." The duty soldier, following his commander’s orders, turned and followed the retreating unit with heavy feet. Some time later, he heard gunshots from the rear. Thinking the enemy had started a fight, he quickly returned to find that, incredibly, the Major General and Colonel Tomita had laid out a cloak and together committed suicide.
It seems likely that the commander had previously decided to end his life. On this day, having endured all hardships and settled his affairs, he realised his cherished desire and killed himself. It is beyond my simple understanding how he could have considered that he had settled his affairs, for were not the 10,000 men of the South Seas Force, a force based on two regiments, at that time under his care? Further, the majority of these troops were sick and injured. How could they have assembled after the withdrawal? How would this be recalled under tragic circumstances, and how could you alone return from this? How could he have returned leaving the corpses of so many of the South Seas Force behind? At the very least, is not the true path of a warrior to remain with the spirits of his men and make appeal on their behalf to the spirits of their ancestors? Did he not recognise the time to discard the present and die for others? Did he not become a martyr for his men?
Further details are contained in the memoir of Major Koiwai, the acting commander of the 144th Infantry Regiment:
Despite this, the other officers continued to make every effort to escape, but there were absolutely no gaps in the Allied lines. The officers returned again to the spot where they parted from the commander and Colonel Tomita only to find that the two senior officers had carried out their heroic suicide. The officers again attempted to penetrate the enemy lines, this time with nothing to lose. Though some non-commissioned officers just managed to escape, the remaining officers were all lost without a trace.
There are some doubts, however, about the "escape relatively easily" claim given the progress of the battle and the great losses incurred, as described in this section.
Staff officer Yoshihara recalled the circumstances of the unauthorised retreat of Colonel Yokoyama, as follows:
This question was addressed in a long statement, entitled "The true account of the withdrawal from the Giruwa area" submitted to the War History Office in February 1958 by Colonel Yokoyama. This account states the details of the incident and is divided in two parts: the conditions at Giruwa in mid-January; and the motivations for withdrawal. The following extract summarises the main points:
The beach was very narrow at that point, with only 3–4 metres between the water and the jungle. With no tools to dig trenches, the casualties lay down among the roots of trees with the waves crashing at their feet. Under these conditions, they literally had their backs against a wall.
Many among the gathered casualties and lightly wounded were killed or injured at this place. The intensity of the mortar attacks increased during the night of 16 January, but all the troops could do was continue to bear the attack from an untouchable enemy.
The artillery attacks increased again from the morning of 17 January. Periodic attacks came from all sides. Only about twenty Japanese troops were able to move freely, so these were dispersed to provide occasional nuisance hand-grenade attacks, though these were more for show than effect. Contact with the detachment headquarters had been lost, but according to the reports of casualties recently evacuated, the front line had retreated to the west and the Allies had assembled in the Japanese camp. The numbers of dead and injured continued to rise with each passing hour, with a total of less than thirty sick and wounded soldiers remaining. Recognising that they were gradually being destroyed, I ordered the officers as follows: "Quickly assemble all casualties in this camp, and if no boats come from elsewhere, guide the boat that is coming tonight to this area."
Since the beginning of the withdrawal from the mountains behind Port Moresby, there had been ineffective lines of command from officers to troops in operations within the trackless jungle. On numerous occasions, withdrawal from a particular area had always been according to the judgment of officers on the spot. Among all these incidents, only one or two were conducted after receipt of orders. The retreat to Giruwa was conducted by independent judgment, as we were separated from the detachment commander with no line of communication. The deployments at Giruwa and the occupation of Basabua were undertaken by the judgment of junior officers. Major General Oda was suffering from high malarial fevers after he commenced command, so he said: "I am not used to this place, so I entrust the situation to you, Colonel Yokoyama." The fact of the matter was that decisions were made and carried out by me.
I was also suffering malarial fevers, with some over 40 degrees. Diarrhoea was severe, but just bearable with injections of morphine and camphor. However, the unit was crawling among the roots at the waters edge, with bouts of diarrhoea every half hour. The Allied troops drew increasingly close by nightfall of 17 January, with the artillery fire almost constant. What emplacements were available became filled with water owing to the intense downpour of rain. The situation became unmanageable.
I moved along the coastline at around 7 pm to take charge of the fighting at the machine-gun placement on the western side of the camp, but turned back at the sight of their courageous resistance. After I had moved 40 or 50 metres, I was fired on by an Allied light machine-gun that had appeared on the path back to the regimental headquarters, thus pinning me down.
I managed to run around 5 metres at a time, using the lightning, the bursts of artillery and flare bombs, hiding face down in the water when I might be seen. During the next lightning flash, I would run again, in this way slowly withdrawing. When I returned to my starting point among the tree roots, I discovered two barges on the beach. I ordered everyone to get aboard, and the troops carried me into the boat. Later, I heard that a particular officer had said: "I had never in the previous five years seen such a sight of madmen than I did that day." I felt great shame on hearing this. The high fever and diarrhoea were caused by a strain of malignant malaria, and my judgment was somewhat impaired. I think my courage had perhaps faltered as well.
Our boat was fired on through the rain by an enemy patrol boat, so we headed back for the jungle towards the Kumusi. I received a telegraph from Major General Yamagata the following day to return to Giruwa, but as a result of a medical exam diagnosing high fever and severe diarrhoea, I cabled back that I could not return.
Apart from the memoirs of chief of staff Yoshihara, staff officer Tanaka, and Colonel Yokoyama, there are no historical records to verify the truth of the details of the story.
The third issue concerns the withdrawal of the Tsukamoto Unit. The reasons behind the withdrawal are contained in an extract from the detailed battle report for the 3rd Battalion of the 144th Regiment. A unit travelling with the Tsukamoto Unit wrote as follows ("Kuwa operations order no. 72", dated 1800 hrs 12 January): "The south-west sector unit and the Takenaka Unit sortied in the direction of Soputa. Meeting stiff enemy resistance, they intended to head for Gona, then return to Giruwa by boat."
This is in accord with the postwar memoir of Major Tajima Norikuni, who had arrived at Giruwa on 7 January and was assigned as South Seas Force staff officer responsible for protecting the retreat of Lieutenant Colonel Tanaka Toyonari. "Major General Oda and I were sleeping in the same bunker. A report came the night before the withdrawal that Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto was ‘about to contrive a plan and was seeking food’." In other words, seeking food for a starved unit meant he was about to break through the Allied encirclement.
Even with the main strength of his unit, Tsukamoto did not have the strength to "sortie in the direction of Soputa". According to the 3rd Battalion’s detailed battle report, the situation was as follows: "It would not be possible to reach the objective, as losses would continue after contact with the enemy outside the camp. Scouts had even been despatched to Gona to reveal that the area was in Allied hands, so a direct retreat towards Gona naturally become an advance to the Kumusi River."
According to Tajima’s memoir, the "report [that] came the night before the withdrawal" described the placement of anti-tank land mines as the only measure taken by the South Seas Force to prevent Australian penetration into Japanese positions.
Editor’s note: Tajima was wounded in fighting during the night of 12 January and evacuated. There were no staff officers in South Seas Force headquarters during the withdrawal of 20 January.
The Buna Detachment staff officer, Tanaka Kengorô, later recalled that "When seen from the overall strategic situation in the Buna sector, the news of the escape of the Tsukamoto Unit was the first shock to the operational command."
However, there was no time in the quickly changing situation of the campaign for a detailed investigation of the issues of responsibility for Tsukamoto’s "unauthorised" actions. The reality was that most of those involved lay dead at the camp, and the issue did not surface at the army or area army level.
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End of the Buna force
Withdrawal to Lae and Salamaua
The commander of the 18th Army gave the following outline orders on 8 February ("Mô operational order A no. 118"):
2. The commander of the Buna Detachment will withdraw and assemble at Lae and Salamaua the following strengths, then carry out the indicated adjustments:
To commence as soon as possible, to be completed by early March
b. Order of withdrawal
Two companies of 102nd Infantry Regiment
Elements of the engineer regiment and medical units
Salamaua area: 102 Infantry Regiment companies, 41st Infantry Regiment
Lae area: other units, except those elements that are able to assemble at Salamaua
Details of these locations will be advised by staff officer Kita, who will be despatched by the army.
All units from the 51st Division will be returned to their original commands immediately after arrival at Salamaua.
Meanwhile, the situation of the war in eastern New Guinea moved into a new phase. It was time for the offensive units of the 18th Army (51st Division) to open up a logistics line, so the transport of the Buna Detachment was temporarily suspended.
The withdrawal was recommenced, with the main strength of the Buna Detachment evacuated to Hopoi, east of Lae, by 11 March. The various units of the Buna Detachment, the formation of which was disbanded upon the completion of the withdrawal, were placed under the command of the 51st Division and gradually reassembled at Rabaul while efforts were taken to restore their strength as a fighting force.
The circumstances of the main elements of the Buna Detachment over the following months is as follows:
The South Seas Force assembled in Rabaul by late April. The force was removed from the order of battle of the 18th Army by an order dated 17 June ("Great army order no. 804"). This order dissolved the formation, and returned units to the order of battle of the 55th Division, at that time in Burma.
In summary, the South Seas Force was a unique formation directly commanded by Imperial Headquarters at the beginning of the war. It had been given the responsibility of invading Guam and then Rabaul, had participated in fierce fighting after landing in New Guinea, and had crossed the Owen Stanley Range to within sight of Port Moresby. Thereafter, the force had fought desperately against the odds, had lost two commanders in succession, and lost most of its officers in battle.
The losses for the South Seas Force were compiled by the No. 1 Demobilisation Bureau as follows:
The 41st Infantry Regiment assembled in Rabaul by mid-June 1943. The regiment was removed from the order of battle of the 18th Army by "Great army order no. 834" on 2 September. The regiment was returned to Korea and placed under the command of the Demobilisation Duty Officer.
According to the memoir of Koiwai Mitsuo, the commander of the 2nd Battalion, the regiment lost over two thousand men and approximately three hundred casualties were evacuated. There were barely two hundred survivors when the regiment arrived in Rabaul. The commander of the regiment, Colonel Yazawa Kiyomi, died on active service after the evacuation from the Mambare River.
The withdrawal to Rabaul of the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade was completed in early June. The brigade was ordered back to Japan by "Great army order no. 800" issued on 12 June. The brigade’s artillery and anti-aircraft units formed the 5th Independent Field Heavy Artillery Battalion and the 42nd Independent Field Anti-aircraft Company respectively. They were then placed in the order of battle of the 18th Army. The brigade’s tank unit was transferred to Wake Island on 22 June and placed under the command of the 170th Infantry Regiment 2nd Battalion.
The brigade commander, Major General Yamagata Kuribanaike, was transferred to the headquarters of the garrison division in Kyoto.
The 15th Independent Engineer Regiment was transferred from the order of battle of the 18th Army to the 19th Army by "Great army order no. 868" on 18 October. The regiment then headed for the new battlefields of western New Guinea.
So the majority of units first involved in campaigns in eastern New Guinea had suffered great losses. They had reassembled at Rabaul and, by the autumn of 1943, most had departed from the battlefields of the South Pacific.
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1 Daitôasen shi Minami Taiheiyô sakusen (Greater East Asian War South Pacific operations).
2 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
3 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
4 Dai 8 Hômen Gun jôhô kiroku (Record of intelligence for the 8th Area Army).
5 Buna sakusen shiryô (Records of the Buna campaign).
6 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
7 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
8 Daitôasen shi Minami Taiheiyô sakusen (Greater East Asian War South Pacific operations).
9 Yoshihara Kane, Yoshihara Kane Shôjô kaisô (Recollections of Major General Yoshihara Kane).
10 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
11 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
12 Daitôasen shi Minami Taiheiyô sakusen (Greater East Asian War South Pacific operations).
13 Tanaka Shôji, Tanaka Shôji Chûsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Lieutenant Colonel Tanaka Shôji).
14 Daitôasen shi Minami Taiheiyô sakusen (Greater East Asian War South Pacific operations).
15 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
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 Daitôasen shi Minami Taiheiyô sakusen (Greater East Asian War South Pacific operations).
18 Daitôasen shi Minami Taiheiyô sakusen (Greater East Asian War South Pacific operations).
19 Tanaka Shôji, Tanaka Shôji Chûsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Lieutenant Colonel Tanaka Shôji).
20 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
21 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
22 Koiwai Mitsuo, Koiwai Mitsuo Shôsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Major Koiwai Mitsuo).
23 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
24 Tanaka Shôji, Tanaka Shôji Chûsa kaisôroku (Recollections of Lieutenant Colonel Tanaka Shôji).
25 Dai 18 Gun sakusen kiroku (Records of 18th Army campaigns).
26 Daitôasen shi Minami Taiheiyô sakusen (Greater East Asian War South Pacific operations).
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): 577–601.
Reference for this web page: http://ajrp.awm.gov.au/ajrp/ajrp2.nsf/translation/Chapter8?opendocument
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