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 Campaign: Opening Ground Offensive Against the Japanese

New Guinea Campaign: Australian 39th Battalion on Kokoda Trail, 1942New Guinea Campaign: Australians attack near Buna, New Guinea, 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 on the shores of New Guinea’s Huon Gulf, 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.

New Guinea Campaign: 32nd Division soldiers fire into Japanese dugout near Buna, New GuineaNew Guinea Campaign: 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, New Guinea, January 1943.

Right: Japanese soldiers killed during the grisly final phase of the battle at Buna Mission (Austra­lian govern­ment sta­tion), New Guinea, 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. Officials later esti­mated that two-thirds of all Japa­nese mili­tary deaths were the result of star­va­tion or lack of medi­cal supplies. 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

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