Port Moresby, New Guinea November 2, 1942

After failing in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4–8, 1942) to take the Austra­lian admin­is­tra­tive capital of Port Moresby on the island of New Gui­nea (see map), 4,400 Japa­nese troops landed on the island’s north­eastern shore on the night of July 21/22, 1942, and estab­lished beach­heads at (east to west) Buna, Sana­nanda, and Gona. From there they marched south­west over very diffi­cult terrain following the Kokoda Trail (or Kokoda Track, which was really just a foot­path) in an effort to take Port Moresby by land. Meeting the Japa­nese on the Kokoda Trail (highest ele­va­tion, 7,185 ft), the vastly out­numbered Austra­lian and native Papuan forces fought a two-month defen­sive battle, being pushed down the jungle-clad Owen Stanley Mountain Range that ran dia­gonally across the penin­sula back toward Port Moresby. Within 30 miles of the lights of the capital, the Japa­nese waited in vain for rein­force­ments. On Septem­ber 18 the invaders’ com­manding general, Gen. Tomi­tarō Horii, received orders to with­draw to his ­sea­side Buna-Gona strong­hold so that the Imperial Japa­nese Army and Navy could con­cen­trate their resources on expelling Amer­i­cans from Guadal­canal (August 7, 1942, to Febru­ary 9, 1943), an island in the Solo­mons chain 850 miles to the east. With­drawal was just as well for by then 80 per­cent of his fighters had been wounded, killed, or disabled by tropical disease and rice rations had dwindled to nil.

Australian forces counterattacked the retreating enemy, capturing Kokoda and the settle­ment’s air­field for the final time on this date, Novem­ber 2, 1942. Fighting a series of fierce battles against rear­guard defenses on the narrow moun­tain track, the Austra­lians reached heavily defended Japa­nese lines near the swampy or water­logged Buna-Gona coastal peri­meter, which stretched 15 miles. It was the beginning of the wet season, which brought tremen­dous rain­fall along with oppres­sive humidity and a myriad of tropical illnesses, chiefly malaria.

On January 2, 1943, the Allies finally captured Buna, six weeks after Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, South­west Pacific Area com­mander, had given the order, on Novem­ber 21, 1942, to “take Buna today at all costs.” By Janu­ary 22, 1943, the Allies had indeed taken every enemy strong­hold and killed (or rarely captured) every Japa­nese defender between Buna and Gona. Fanat­i­cal resis­tance by the enemy led the sick and wounded in Buna’s hos­pi­tal to fight to the death or commit sui­cide. Only 50 Buna defenders, mostly garri­son laborers, were captured, while an estimated 7,600 died.

In one sense the grueling Buna-Gona Campaign richly rewarded the U.S. and Austra­lian officer corps. Inno­va­tions in jungle war­fare, small-unit tactics, close-quarters combat, closely coor­di­nated infantry-tank assaults, air-ground coop­er­a­tion, air trans­port for troops and supplies, and com­muni­ca­tions were put into prac­tice in later Pacific engage­ments, including those on the western (Dutch) half of New Guinea. But all that on-the-job learning cost the Allies dearly in terms of combat casual­ties (3,470 Aus­tra­lians and 2,605 Amer­i­cans by one count), partly because Mac­Arthur remained mostly igno­rant of the com­plex tacti­cal situ­a­tion faced by his sub­or­dinate com­manders, infantry­men, and air­men (Mac­Arthur never once visited the front, staying instead in Port Moresby), and partly because the general, egged on by his reck­less nature and per­sist­ent need to make haste, saw him­self in per­sonal compe­ti­tion with U.S. Marines and Adm. William Halsey’s Guadal­canal slug­fest as to which of them would inflict the first major land defeat on the Japanese.

Beachhead Bloodbath: Buna, Sanananda, and Gona, Mid-November 1942 to Late January 1943

Papua New Guinea

Above: Lying on the southeastern coast of the Papuan Penin­sula, Port Moseby was the Austra­lian admin­is­tra­tive capi­tal of the Terri­tory of Papua. The Japa­nese objec­tive during the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May 1942 was to turn the settle­ment into a staging point and major air base from which they could sever Austra­lia, several hundred miles to the south, from South­east Asia and North America. In 1975 the Terri­tory of Papua and the Austra­lian-admin­is­tered Terri­tory of New Guinea on the north­eastern shore of the penin­sula (former German New Guinea before the out­break of World War I) merged to become Papua New Guinea, with Port Moresby as the seat of the independent country.

Buna-Gona Campaign: Australian 39th Battalion, Kokoda, New Guinea, 1942Buna-Gona Campaign: 128th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division, en route to Buna, late 1942

Above: Australian Militia soldiers of the 39th Battalion following their relief at Kokoda village and airstrip, New Guinea, September 1942 (left image) and men of the 128th Infantry Regiment, part of the 32nd Infantry Division, on the road to the sea­side village of Buna, probably November 1942 (right image). Neither the Austra­lian militia­men (army reservists) nor the U.S. National Guards­men of the 32nd Divi­sion were well trained or pre­pared for the tasks facing them along the 12 mile-long, Japa­nese-held Buna-Gona beach­head front despite being in the field for several months. On Decem­ber 1 Mac­Arthur testily told his third and last com­mander of the 32nd Divi­sion, Gen. Robert Eichel­berger: “I want you to take Buna or not come back alive.” The stub­born Japa­nese were not pre­pared to relin­quish their beach­heads easily, and the Austra­lian militiamen and Amer­i­can national guards­men received a brutal and bloody baptism of fire. The Austra­lian 49th Battal­ion at Sana­nanda (between Buna and Gona) on Decem­ber 7, 1942, lost 14 officers and 215 men in five hours of brutal and uncom­pro­mising fighting—48 per­cent of its fighting strength—for no gain. The Austra­lian 55/53rd suffered com­pa­rable losses in their ill-fated attack—8 officers and 122 men. As for the battle-exhausted 32nd Divi­sion, whose total casual­ty count of 9,956 exceeded its entire battle strength—it needed six months to recon­sti­tute before its next opera­tion, returning to New Guinea in Octo­ber 1943 and taking part in the libera­tion of the Philippines beginning the following October, 1944.

Buna-Gona Campaign: Dead GIs on Buna Beach, February 1943Buna-Gona Campaign: Japanese dead near Buna, January 1943

Left: Three GIs lie dead at low tide on Buna Beach near a wrecked landing craft. This image by LIFE magazine’s George Strock taken in Febru­ary 1943 was not pub­lished until Septem­ber 20, 1943, when Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt autho­rized its release, the first image of clearly visible Amer­i­can dead on a World War II battle­field. (U.S. mili­tary censors placed no restric­tions on photos of enemy war dead.) FDR was anxious that the public, far removed from the war’s front lines, was growing com­pla­cent over the toll the war exacted on American lives. Soon images like this became an accepted part of the public’s vision of the war.

Right: Japanese soldiers killed during the desperate final phase of the battle at Buna Mission (Austra­lian govern­ment sta­tion), which fell on Janu­ary 2, 1943. (Photo by George Strock.) Even before the new year the Japa­nese had lost air and naval supe­ri­ority. Increasingly, they were power­less to disrupt the Allies’ supply chain and were unable to resupply their troops by destroyers and night­time sub­marines with ammu­ni­tion and artil­lery shells, medi­cine (most of their garri­son was debil­i­tated by dysen­tery and assorted tropi­cal mala­dies), and food. In Decem­ber Japa­nese troopers were reduced to skin and bones, existing on 1 3/4 oz (50 grams) of rice and canned meat per day. Prevented by torren­tial rains, the Japa­nese took to stacking their dead in piles, which gave off such a hellish stench that service crews donned gas masks. After the Battle of Buna-Gona ended, the Allies found evidence of cannibalism of friend and foe alike among the Japanese.

Kokoda Trail Campaign: Day-by-Day