Southwest Pacific Area HQ, Brisbane, Australia September 13, 1942

On May 14, 1942, after a voyage of 23 days and 9,000 miles, 12,000 men and equip­ment of the U.S. 32nd Infantry Divi­sion arrived in Aus­tralia for the pur­pose of bulking up the under­strength defenses of that country. Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, Allied Supreme Com­mander of all land, naval, and air forces in the South­west Pacific Area, deemed that the defense of the Austra­lian main­land, his base since fleeing the Philip­pines, would best be under­taken from the large, moun­tainous, jungle-covered island of New Guinea, at its narrowest point just over 60 miles across the Torres Strait from Queens­land’s Cape York Penin­sula. The spear-shaped penin­sula was the northern­most tip of the Austra­lian conti­nent. Already the Austra­lians admin­is­tered the east­ern half of New Guinea (an area known today as Papua New Guinea) from the terri­torial capital at Port Moresby on the island’s south­eastern coast. Sadly, though, the Port Moresby garri­son in May 1942 was not materially stronger than the one estab­lished there earlier in the year, when the Japan’s mili­tary jugger­naut was busily sweeping aside the colo­nial regimes of the U.S., British, and Dutch in South­east Asia and claiming their country’s place in the equatorial sun.

Twenty-one days into July 1942 the Japa­nese made unopposed incur­sions into North­eastern New Guinea, estab­lishing forward bases at Buna and neigh­boring Gona. Buna was the north­ern end of the 60‑mile-long Kokoda Trail (or Track), a primi­tive over­land mail route to Port Moresby through the nearly impas­sable Owen Stanley Range defended by a mixed force of 900 Australian and Papuan (mostly native) infantry. Scarcely nine weeks later, on this date, Septem­ber 13, 1942, Mac­Arthur ordered parts of the U.S. 32nd Divi­sion to Port Mosesby, even though the National Guards­men had less than two months of in-country com­bat training and not much more than that in the States. This move would become part of the opening ground offen­sive against Japa­nese units in the South­west Pacific. Mac­Arthur glibly expected the Amer­i­cans to quickly and easily advance on the inva­ders, who had driven the Austra­lians out of their moun­tain out­post at Kokoda, secure the rugged Kokoda Trail, and recapture Buna and Gona.

Weeks of bitter and vicious fighting on the Kokoda Trail, where both sides took heavy casual­ties, helped nudge the weakened Japa­nese to with­draw over the Owen Stanley Range and make for the north­east coast. Not until Novem­ber 16, 1942, were U.S. and Austra­lian forces in a posi­tion to attack the main Japa­nese beach­heads between Buna and Gona. Since arriving in June, the Japa­nese had built hun­dreds of well-camou­flaged, rein­forced bunkers in mutually supporting posi­tions blocking all avail­able approaches. Com­bined with the forces that had returned from fighting on the Kokoda Trail, the Japa­nese defenders initi­ally had nearly 5,500 troops to face the Allies. This rose to about 6,500 later in the battle. The effec­tive­ness of both com­bat­ant forces was reduced by an appaling number of tropi­cal ill­nesses, notably mala­ria, dengue fever, bush typhus, ulcers, and dysentery, that flourished in the warm, moist jungle.

Allied forces only made significant pro­gress after they were given the tanks and artil­lery they had long sought. On Janu­ary 2, 1943, they captured Buna, and on Janu­ary 22, after frenzied and bloody fighting in extraor­dinarily diffi­cult condi­tions, the Allies killed or captured almost the entire Japa­nese inva­sion force. Casual­ties on both sides were extremely high. More than 2,600 Aus­tra­lian and U.S. service­men were killed (one account places the number at 8,500) and over 17,000 injured or rendered sick during the seven-month Kokoda Trail and Buna-Gona cam­paigns. Japanese deaths exceeded 13,600. Fighting elsewhere in New Guinea continued through the end of the war.

New Guinea, the Opening Ground Campaign Against the Japanese

Australian 39th Battalion on Kokoda Trail, New Guinea, 1942 Australians attack near Buna, January 1943

Left: Members of the exhausted 39th Australian Infantry Battalion retreating after the Battle of Isurava, late-August or early-September 1942. The 39th Bat­tal­ion was raised for service in New Guinea in Octo­ber 1941. Arriving there with little military training in Janu­ary 1942, the bat­tal­ion was heavily engaged in the defense of the Kokoda Trail in July and August of that year, during which time they engaged in several des­per­ate encounters with the Japa­nese as they tried holding out until rein­force­ments and supplies could be brought up from Port Moresby. Such was the bat­tal­ion’s involve­ment in the Kokoda Trail Cam­paign (July 21 to Novem­ber 16, 1942) and the subse­quent Battle of Buna-Gona (Novem­ber 16 to Janu­ary 21, 1942) that by the time it was with­drawn to Port Moresby it could only muster 7 officers and 25 men. Fifteen weeks after its return to Austra­lia in March 1943, the battalion was disbanded.

Right: Australian forces attack Japanese positions near Buna, Janu­ary 7, 1943. Members of the 2/12th Infantry Bat­tal­ion advance as M3 Stuart tanks from the 2nd Bat­talion/6th Armored Regi­ment attack Japan­ese fox­holes and pill­boxes, which were expertly camou­flaged, had excel­lent fields of fire, and were connected to each other by shallow crawl trenches that allowed the enemy to move under cover to differ­ent posi­tions. An upward-firing .30 cal­i­ber machine gun on the light tank sprays tree­tops to clear them of snipers, whose van­tage point enabled them to pick off high-value targets like offi­cers and machine-gunners. Infantry attacking with­out the close fire support of tanks mounting machine guns and 37mm can­nons firing high-explo­sive shells suffered severely, not­with­standing the M3’s lack of suf­fi­cient armor pro­tec­tion to be an effec­tive infan­try support tank and the boggy coastal terrain that greatly restricted its range of operations.

32nd Division soldiers fire into Japanese dugout near Buna Japanese dead near Buna, January 1943

Left: Two members of the U.S. 32nd Division cautiously fire into a Japa­nese camou­flaged dug­out before entering it for inspection during the Allies’ drive on Buna, January 1943.

Right: Japanese soldiers killed during the grisly final phase of the battle at Buna Mission (Austra­lian govern­ment sta­tion), January 1943. Even before January the Japa­nese had lost air and naval supe­ri­ority, were power­less to disrupt the Allies’ supply chain, and were unable to supply their troops with ammu­ni­tion, 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 ounces (50 grams) of rice and canned meat per day). During Decem­ber between 20 and 30 Japa­nese sol­diers died each day in Buna’s hospital from the effects of star­va­tion, wound infec­tion, and disease. An Austra­lian private in the 2/12th Infan­try Bat­tal­ion wrote of the “con­stant stench of decaying [Japa­nese] bodies [in Buna]. . . . One could almost taste death in the drinking water.” The beach pictured here, taken by LIFE photo­jour­nalist George Strock, was nick­named “Maggot Beach” owing to the collection of bloated Japanese bodies and maggots found in the sand and surf.

Early 1943 Newsreel: Japanese Routed from Buna Stronghold