World War Two: Guadalcanal (3); Marines Come a Shore

While the invasion force was assembling and rehearsing, Army B-17’s of the 26th Squadron of the 11th Bombardment Group, which were part of Task Force 63, had been executing daily bombardments of Guadalcanal and Tulagi to “soften” them before the invasion. The 26th Squadron was then based at Efate and Espiritu Santo. The air strips at both islands were each 5,000 feet long and 150 feet wide by the end of July, but facilities were primitive. The runways were soft and were frequently covered by water from the many rains. For night take-offs, the ends of the runways were marked by truck headlights, and the sides by rags stuck in bottles of gasoline and set ablaze. Beginning on 31 July, the B-17’s bombed Guadalcanal and Tulagi for seven days. One B-17 was lost, but the 26th Squadron shot down three Japanese fighters. Since the airfield on Guadalcanal had no planes, the principal targets were the runways and suspected supply depots and antiaircraft positions on both Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

The Approach

The Amphibious Force, covered by the Air Support Force and by Task Force 63, had left Koro in the Fijis on a southwesterly course on 31 July. Four days later the Betelgeuse and Zeilin with their escorts joined Transport Groups X and Y, respectively, to bring the total number of ships in the Expeditionary Force to 82, and the number of men in the landing force to over 19,000. Sailing in three great concentric circles—the transports in the middle, the cruisers around them, and the screening destroyers in the outer circle—the Amphibious Force reached a point south of Rennell, then swung north and set its course for Savo Island, while the carriers sailed for a point southwest of Guadalcanal. On 5 and 6 August, during the Amphibious Force’s northward run west of Guadalcanal, overcast skies and a heavy haze reduced visibility to four miles and limited air operations. Intermittent rain squalls helped to cover the ships, which were maintaining radio silence. There were no contacts with the enemy.

The weather cleared for the approaching American ships on the night of 6-7 August, and the Amphibious Force, still undetected, raised Savo Island at 0200. Clear skies and a moon in the last quarter provided good visibility as the force passed into the calm, narrow waters between Savo, Guadalcanal, and Florida. The transport groups separated at 0240, 7 August. The four transports and four destroyer-transports of one group sailed around Savo to enter Sealark Channel between Savo and Florida. The fifteen transports of the Guadalcanal Group entered the channel between Savo and Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal. As daylight broke, the islands lay quiet. The Japanese were taken by surprise; not one shot had been fired at the Amphibious Force.

The supporting warships took station, while their observation planes flew over the target areas. The three cruisers and four destroyers of the Guadalcanal Fire Support Group opened fire on their targets between Kukum and Koli Point on Guadalcanal at 0614. Two minutes later the cruiser and two destroyers comprising the Tulagi Fire Support Group opened fire on Tulagi. The minesweepers covered their assigned areas but found no mines. By 0651 the transport groups had reached their areas, 9,000 yards off the landing beaches, and lowered landing craft into the water. A calm sea permitted the troops to descend via cargo-net gangways on both sides of all transports into the landing craft. H Hour, the time for the Tulagi landing, was set for 0800. Zero Hour, the time for the landing on Guadalcanal, was finally set at 0910.

Ships’ gunfire and strafing by fighter planes quickly sank a small gasoline schooner, the only visible enemy vessel in Sealark Channel. Dive bombers and fighters from the carriers, then maneuvering seventy-five miles to the south in open waters, bombed and strafed the target areas, but encountered only feeble antiaircraft fire. Forty-four planes struck at Guadalcanal, and forty-one attacked Tulagi. Eighteen Japanese seaplanes were destroyed.

The Northern Attack

Tulagi

The initial Allied landing in the Solomon Islands, which preceded those on Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, was made by a covering force. Supported by fire from the cruiser and destroyers of the Tulagi Fire Support Group and the minesweepers, landing boats put B Company of the 2nd Marines ashore near Haleta, a village adjoining a promontory on Florida Island which commands Beach Blue on Tulagi. The remainder of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Marines landed at Halavo on Florida to cover the landings. No enemy forces opposed either landing, and the battalion was later withdrawn.

Covered by fire from the supporting cruiser and destroyers, the first wave of landing craft carrying B and D Companies of the 1st Raider Battalion sailed to Beach Blue on Tulagi, a small, hilly island about three miles long. The enemy was not defending Beach Blue but had retired to caves and dugouts in the hills and ravines on the southeast part of the island. The only casualty in landing was one raider killed by rifle fire. The second wave, A and C Companies, quickly followed B and D Companies which then advanced north across the island. The 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, then came ashore and pushed northwest to clear out the enemy in the northwest part of the island. The raider companies turned right and advanced to the southeast, supported by E Company, the raiders’ heavy weapons company. There was no hard fighting until the afternoon when fire from Japanese caves and dugouts halted the raiders about one mile short of Tulagi’s southeast tip. The marines discovered that the ships’ gunfire and dive bombing had not destroyed the caves and dugouts, most of which would withstand everything but a direct hit. Machine-gun fire was relatively ineffective against the tunnels and caves, which were not constructed along straight lines. The most efficient means for destroying the enemy positions were grenades and high explosive charges placed by hand.

The Japanese sailors and laborers fought from foxholes, pillboxes, slit trenches, and caves. They refused to surrender and fought until they were shot or blown up. Machine gunners fired their weapons until they were killed. When one gunner fell, another would take his place, a process that continued until all in the position were dead.

By late afternoon it had become obvious that the raiders could not complete the capture of Tulagi on 7 August, and the battalion established a defensive line about 1,000 yards from the southeast tip of the island. The five raider companies and G Company of the 5th Marines occupied these positions, which the enemy attacked repeatedly but unsuccessfully throughout the night of 7-8 August.

The first reports estimated that the raiders had suffered casualties amounting to 22 percent of their total strength on Tulagi; the 1st Parachute Battalion was reported to have lost from 50 to 60 percent on Gavutu. General Vandegrift requested Admiral Turner at 0135, 8 August, to release the remaining battalions of the 2nd Marines from division reserve for the Tulagi-Gavutu operation. Admiral Turner assented.

On the morning of 8 August F and E Companies of the 5th Marines, having cleared the northwest part of Tulagi, joined G Company and the five companies of the 1st Raider Battalion. The combined force pressed its attack, reduced the enemy positions, and by 1500 had completed the occupation of Tulagi. Only three of the original Japanese garrison surrendered; an estimated forty escaped to Florida by swimming. The remainder, about 200 men, were killed. The Marine casualties on Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, which had been exaggerated in the first reports, were lighter than those of the Japanese. On Tulagi thirty-six were killed and fifty-four wounded.14 Captured materiel included trucks, motorcycles, ammunition, gasoline, radio supplies, two 13-mm. antiaircraft guns, one 3-inch gun, and ten machine guns.

Gavutu and Tanambogo

While the 1st Raider Battalion and the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines were reducing Tulagi, the islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo, lying 3,000 yards to the east, also saw hard fighting. Gavutu is 250 by 500 yards in size and Tanambogo, a slightly smaller island, is joined to Gavutu by a 300-yard-long concrete causeway. Dive bombers (SBD’s) attacked Gavutu from 1145 to 1155 on 7 August.

The Tulagi Fire Support Group shelled Gavutu from 1155 to 1200 to cover the 7-mile approach of the thirteen landing craft bearing the 1st Parachute Battalion to the seaplane slips and jetties on Gavutu’s northeast corner. The bombardment had knocked several large concrete blocks from the ramps into the water, and the parachutists were forced to land at the docks and mount them in face of enemy small-arms fire. The first wave reached shore safely, but succeeding waves were hit hard, about one man in ten becoming a casualty. By 1400 the parachutists were advancing inland under fire from the Japanese emplaced on the island’s single hill and on near-by Tanambogo. By 1800 the battalion had secured the hill and raised the national colors there. The Japanese retained possession of several dugouts until the afternoon of 8 August, when they were reduced by the parachutists and two companies of the 2nd Marines.

In spite of air bombardment and naval shelling, the Japanese on Tanambogo continued active on 7 August. After being withdrawn from Haleta, B Company of the 2nd Marines attempted to land on Tanambogo’s north coast after a 5-minute naval bombardment, but the attack failed. About 1130 the next day, the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Marines and two light tanks attacked Tanambogo from the beach and the causeway and secured most of the island by late afternoon. By nightfall all the Japanese were dead. Marine casualties in the Tanambogo-Gavutu attacks had been relatively heavy; 108 were dead or missing, 140 wounded. The marines later estimated that nearly 1,000 Japanese had held Gavutu and Tanambogo, but the actual figure was about 500. On 8 and 9 August the 2nd Marines completed the northern attack by seizing the adjacent islets of Mbangai, Makambo, and Kokomtambu.

The Invasion of Guadalcanal

The Landings

Beach Red, which lies about 6,000 yards east of Lunga Point, between the Tenaru and Tenavatu Rivers, had been selected for the Guadalcanal landings. The transports of Group X initially anchored 9,000 yards off Beach Red on the morning of 7 August. The destroyers of the Guadalcanal Fire Support Group took their stations 5,000 yards north of the beach at 0840 to mark the line of departure for the landing craft. The assigned liaison planes made eight runs at low altitudes to mark the extremities of the beaches with smoke. The three cruisers and four destroyers of the Guadalcanal Fire Support Group began firing at 0900, to cover a 3,200-yard-long area from a point extending 800 yards on either side of Beach Red to a depth of 200 yards.

The first wave of landing craft, carrying troops of the reinforced 5th Marines (less the 2nd Battalion), crossed the line of departure 5,000 yards off Beach Red. As the landing craft drew to within 1,300 yards of the beach, the warships ceased firing. There were no Japanese on the beach. The marines went ashore at 0910 on a 1,600-yard front, the reinforced 1st Battalion on the right (west), the reinforced 3rd Battalion on the left. Regimental headquarters followed at 0938, and by 0940 heavy weapons troops had come ashore to act as regimental reserve. All boat formations had crossed the line of departure promptly and in good order, and had reached their assigned beach areas. The assault battalions of the 5th Marines then advanced inland about 600 yards to establish a beachhead perimeter bounded on the west by the Tenaru River, on the east by the Tenavatu River, on the south by an east-west branch of the Tenaru, and to cover the landings of successive units.

Landing of the reinforced 1st Marines in column of battalions had begun at 0930. The 2nd Battalion led, followed by the 36 and 1st Battalions. By 1100 the entire reinforced regiment had come ashore. Meanwhile, in the absence of enemy mines and shore defenses, the transports had moved 7,000 yards closer to the shore.

To provide direct support, the 75-mm. pack howitzers of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 11th Marines came ashore with the assault battalions of the 5th and 1st Marines. The 105-mm. howitzers of the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, had been assigned to general support but were not ready for action until the afternoon. The howitzers were landed separately from their prime movers, which had been held on board ship because there were not enough ramp boats to bring them ashore promptly. When the 105’s reached shore, there were no prime movers immediately available to pull them up the beach. Whenever amphibian tractors were available at the beach, they were used to pull the 105’s until the prime movers (1-ton trucks, instead of the authorized 2½-ton 6-wheeldrive trucks) came ashore in the afternoon. The artillery battalions reverted to control of Headquarters, 11th Marines, when that headquarters landed. All battalions upon landing registered their fire by air observation.

The Advance

When the assaulting regiments and their supporting pack howitzers were ashore, the advance toward the airfield was ready to begin. The 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines was to advance west along the beach toward the Lunga River while the 1st Marines attacked southwest toward Mount Austen. The 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marines, the artillery, engineer, pioneer, and special weapons and defense battalions were to hold the beach during the advance.

At 1115 the 1st Marines passed through the 5th Marines’ lines. Engineers put a temporary bridge upstream on the Tenaru, using amphibian tractors as pontoons. The 1st Marines crossed the river and turned southwest toward Mount Austen. On the beach the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines crossed the mouth of the Tenaru at 1330 and marched toward the Ilu. Neither regiment met any Japanese.

The 1st Marines, advancing inland with battalions echeloned to the left and rear, progressed slowly. The only, map which the regiment had to guide it was vague; the angle of declination between grid and true north was not shown. The regimental historian stated later that, had commanders been able to study aerial photographs before the landing, they might have picked easy, natural routes instead of a straight compass course through the jungle.

The troops were heavily loaded with ammunition, packs, mortars, and heavy machine guns as they struggled through the thick, fetid jungle. The humid heat exhausted the men, whose strength had already been sapped by weeks aboard crowded transports. Salt tablets were insufficient in number. Troops in the Solomons needed two canteens of water per day per man, but the number of canteens available had permitted the issue of but one to each man. All these factors served to slow the advance of both regiments.

By dusk the regiments had each advanced about one mile. General Vandegrift, who had come ashore at 1601, ordered them to halt in order to reorient and establish contact. The 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines established a perimeter defense at the mouth of the Ilu River, while the three battalions of the 1st Marines dug in for the night in the jungle about 3,500 yards to the south.

Considering the division’s state of training and the inexperience of the junior officers and noncommissioned officers, tactical operations were satisfactory, but General Vandegrift criticized the “uniform and lamentable” failure of all units to patrol their fronts and flanks properly. Organization for landing and the ship-to-shore movement of troops had been very good. As the Japanese were not opposing the advance, the operation did not involve a thorough test of methods of controlling ships’ gunfire by shore-based fire control parties, but nothing had indicated the need for fundamental changes in doctrine.

Co-ordination between ground forces on the one hand, and naval and air units on the other, had been unsatisfactory, for the naval forces were not using the same map as the 1st Marine Division.25 In view of the relatively few air support missions requested by the ground troops, the centralized control of supporting aircraft had been satisfactory. Had the division met heavy resistance on Guadalcanal, a more direct means of air-to-ground communication would probably have been necessary. The problem had been recognized in advance, but there had not been time to organize and train air control groups for liaison duty with regiments and battalions. The liaison planes furnished little information to division headquarters, for the pilots were not able to observe very much in the jungle, and some of the messages they transmitted were vague.

The Capture of the Airfield

At 2000, when 10,000 troops had come ashore, General Vandegrift ordered the 1st Marines to attack toward the Lunga the next morning instead of taking Mount Austen. He recognized that Mount Austen commanded Lunga Point, but because it was too large and too far away for his relatively small force to hold he decided not to take it immediately.

Supported by tanks, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines crossed the Ilu at 0930 on 8 August. Progress was slow at first as the battalion advanced on a wide front. General Vandegrift, then convinced that his division was not faced by a sizable organized force on Guadalcanal, ordered the battalion to contract its front, cross the Lunga River, and seize Kukum village before nightfall. By 1500 the advance guard had traveled almost 6,000 yards to overrun a small party of Japanese firing rifles and machine guns from knolls on the outskirts of Kukum. Kukum, containing one 3-inch antiaircraft gun, one 1-inch antiaircraft gun, two 37-mm. antitank guns, and heavy machine guns, was otherwise undefended. Meanwhile the 1st Battalion of the 1st Marines had covered 4,500 yards to capture the airfield by 1600.

The enemy garrison, composed of 430 sailors and 1,700 laborers, had fled westward without attempting to defend or destroy their installations, including the nearly completed runway. General Vandegrift wrote: The extent to which the enemy had been able to develop their Lunga Point positions was remarkable in view of the short time of occupation. Since 4 July they had succeeded in constructing large semi-permanent camps, finger wharves, bridges, machine shops, two large radio stations, ice plants, two large and permanent electric power plants, an elaborate air compressor plant for torpedoes, and a nearly completed airdrome with hangars, blast pens, and a … runway.

Besides the runway and the weapons in Kukum, the Japanese had abandoned a store of .25-caliber rifles, .25-and .303-caliber machine guns, two 70-mm. and two 75-mm. guns, ammunition, gasoline, oil, individual equipment, machinery, Ford and Chevrolet-type trucks, and two radars. They left stocks of rice, tea, hardtack, dried kelp, noodles, canned goods, and large quantities of beer and sake behind. The marines took over the abandoned weapons and used them to bolster their defenses. The 100-pound bags of rice and other food in the commissary dumps were added to the marines’ limited stores. The Japanese left among their personal belongings many diaries which were valuable sources of information for Allied intelligence.

About thirty-five of the Japanese trucks were serviceable. Lighter than American military transport, they proved less efficient. Without powered front axles, they stuck easily, but were a valuable addition to the 1st Marine Division’s limited motor transport, and were used as long as they held together. The division engineers also used the Japanese rollers, mixers, surveying equipment, gasoline locomotives, and hopper cars in the subsequent completion of the airfield.

Tactical operations had proceeded favorably. The Guadalcanal forces had landed unopposed and captured the airfield without casualties. In the Tulagi-Gavutu-Tanambogo area, all objectives had been taken at the cost of 144 killed and 194 wounded, while the defending garrisons had been destroyed. By 9 August, 10,900 troops had landed on Guadalcanal, and 6,075 on Tulagi. To support the infantry, 3 field artillery battalions, with 3 units of fire, plus special weapons, tanks, tank destroyers, and part of the 3rd Defense Battalion, had landed on Guadalcanal, while the 3rd Battalion, 10th Marines (75-mm. pack howitzers), and part of the 3rd Defense Battalion had landed on Tulagi.

Unloading

Logistical operations, in contrast with tactical developments, had seriously bogged down. The 1st Pioneer Battalion had been charged with the duty of unloading supplies from the landing craft as they touched at Beach Red, while a navy beachmaster and shore party directed the boat movements at the beach. Of the 596 men (including naval medical personnel) of the Pioneer Battalion, one platoon of 52 went to Tulagi with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, and another remained on board one of the cargo ships. About 490 men on Beach Red were to handle supplies for the Guadalcanal force of the 1st Marine Division. By 1043 of 7 August the beachmaster’s party was operating on Beach Red.

Unloading the landing boats proved to be an exhausting and almost impossible job, for so many of them lacked movable bow ramps which could be let down to speed the removal of supplies from the boats. The pioneers had to lift the supplies up and over the gunwales to unload them. On the other hand, the unarmored amphibian tractors “demonstrated a usefulness exceeding all expectations.” Used as an ambulance, a prime mover, and an ammunition carrier, the amphibian tractor, later to play such an important tactical role in the Pacific, was able to move directly from ship’s side to inland dump, easily traversing the sea, reefs, beaches, and swamps without halting. But there were only a few amphibian tractors.

Too few troops had been provided to unload boats and move materiel off the beach. While loaded landing craft hovered off Beach Red, which was already cluttered with unsorted gear, hundreds of marines who were waiting to move forward were in the vicinity, but did not assist on the beach. General Vandegrift later stated that the unloading party had been too small; he pointed out that he had anticipated that his division would have to fight a major engagement before capturing the airfield and he had therefore expected to use most of his troops tactically. At that time, too, the 2nd Marines (less one battalion) had not been released by Admiral Turner.

When supplies began to pile up on the beach, sailors from the transports joined the shore party to try to get the boats unloaded and the supplies moved farther inland. Pioneers and sailors worked to the point of exhaustion; the extreme heat caused many to suffer from nausea and severe headaches. But the beach remained cluttered.

Enemy air attacks also delayed unloading operations. Twenty-five twin-engine Japanese bombers from Rabaul attacked the ships in the early afternoon of 7 August. Several planes were shot down by the covering fighters and gunfire from the transports and screening warships. The Bougainville coast-watcher had warned the Allied ships in time so that none were hit, but the transports had been obliged to cease unloading and get underway. About one hour later, a second wave of Japanese bombers drove the transports off again and damaged the destroyer Mugford. The Japanese aircraft fortunately did not attack the gear which crowded the beach, but three hours of unloading time had been lost.

By nightfall on 7 August 100 landing craft were beached, waiting to be unloaded, while an additional 50, unable to find landing room on the beach, stood offshore. Unloading was continued into the night, but the tired shore party could not cope with its task and operations broke down completely. At 2330 the shore party commander, stating that unloading was “entirely out of hand,” requested that the ships cease discharging cargo until 1000, 8 August, when he estimated the beach would be cleared. Admiral Turner and General Vandegrift assented.

To provide more room for incoming supplies, General Vandegrift doubled the length of the beach by extending Beach Red’s boundary west to the Block Four River on 8 August. But the situation did not improve. Forty more enemy bombers flew over Florida about noon to disperse the ships again, this time setting the George F. Elliott afire and damaging the destroyer Jarvis. The Elliott burned until she was a total loss. The Jarvis left for Noumea but was never heard from again. A false air alarm later in the afternoon forced the ships to get underway once more.

Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Guadalcanal (4); Consolidating the Beachhead

World War Two: Guadalcanal (2);

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World War Two: Guadalcanal (2); Logistics

The problems of logistics proved as serious as had those of procuring information about enemy strength and dispositions. Preparations began before the intelligence section had completed its work and before the final tactical plans were prepared. The logistical plans were based upon General Vandegrift’s organization of the division for combat. On 29 June he organized the division into two regimental combat groups each of about 4,500 men. Each group was organized into a headquarters and support group and three battalion combat teams. Every combat group consisted of one infantry regiment, one artillery battalion, one company each from the tank, engineer, pioneer, amphibian tractor, and medical battalions, and scout, special weapons, and transport platoons. Each combat team was originally composed of one infantry battalion, one field artillery battery, and platoons of engineer, pioneer, and amphibian tractor personnel. Scouts, signal, medical, and other service personnel were added to the combat teams prior to the invasion.

Combat Group A, commanded by Colonel Le Roy P. Hunt, was composed of the 5th Marines and supporting troops. Combat Teams Nos. 1, 2, and 3 of Combat Group A consisted of the reinforced 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, respectively, of the 5th Marines. Combat Group B, Colonel Clifton B. Cates commanding, was made up of the 1st Marines and supporting troops. Combat Teams Nos. 4,5, and 6 of Combat Group B consisted of the reinforced 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, respectively, of the 1st Marines. On 9 July the division support group was organized. It consisted of about 3,500 men under Colonel Pedro A. del Valle organized into four subgroups made up of headquarters, communications, medical, artillery, special weapons, pioneer, engineer, and amphibian tractor personnel and the 1st Parachute Battalion. The parachutists, fighting as infantry, were later assigned to the assault on Gavutu. The rear echelon, 1,729 men from all divisional units, including the 4th Battalion, 11th Marines (155-mm. howitzers), was to remain in Wellington when the division departed.

[NOTE: 1st Mar Div Opn Ord No. 5-42, 29 Jun 42, in 1st Mar Div Rpt, I, Annex B. The terms in the operation order differ from present day usage. The combat groups would now be regimental combat teams. The combat teams would be battalion landing teams.]

As each combat group was to be embarked in a transport division consisting of three transports and one cargo ship, every transport in each division was assigned to carry one combat team, three units of fire, thirty days’ rations, and quartermaster, ordnance, engineer, chemical, signal, and medical supplies. Supporting troops, heavy equipment, seven units of fire, thirty days’ rations and other supplies, and clothing stocks were “assigned to each cargo ship. The logistical difficulties did not stem from shortages of materiel, for the division had come overseas with nearly all its equipment and supplies. The shortages were in dock space, time, and shipping. In late June there were just seven ships of the Amphibious Force in Wellington Harbor—five transports and two cargo ships. More vessels had been assigned, but it was apparent that there would not be enough cargo space to combat-load all the division with its supplies and equipment. To embark the maximum number of troops, General Vandegrift ordered that “all units . . . reduce their equipment and supplies to those items that are actually required to live and fight.”

The division was ordered to embark bulk supplies, including rations and fuel, for sixty days instead of the ninety days then considered necessary. The ammunition allowance was reduced by one-half. Office equipment, cut to a minimum, included no more than two typewriters per battalion headquarters and four per regimental headquarters. Mess equipment was limited to water bags, vacuum food carriers, camp kettles, coffee mills, and stoves. The order directed that all the division’s motor transport would be embarked; all sandbags, rubber boats, outboard motors, camouflage and chemical warfare equipment, all engineering materiel, water purification equipment, sixty days’ clothing replenishment (shoes, socks, and green utility suits), and thirty days’ post exchange supplies (tobacco, matches, soap, and razor blades only) were to be embarked. Officers and enlisted men were ordered to take with them all their individual equipment but to reduce their baggage to a minimum. Each officer was allowed one bedding roll, clothing roll, or handbag, while enlisted men were limited to what they could carry in their packs.

Loading the division’s weapons and supplies on board the ships was a difficult matter. Aotea Quay in Wellington was small and could berth only five ships at the same time. Combat Group A had already landed, unloaded, and been established inland in base camps prior to 29 June. To clear the quay for the second echelon, it was decided to begin the embarkation of Combat Group A and its equipment and supplies on 2 July. The division supply officer organized the embarkation and combat loading, exercising control through transport quartermasters on the ships and through field officers in charge of the 300-man working parties assigned to each ship. Organized into three reliefs, the working parties labored around the clock in 8-hour shifts. Except for a few skilled civilian operators of loading machines, cranes, hoists, carriers, and stacking machines, marines performed all dockside labor. All divisional motor transport plus eighteen 10-wheeled trucks of the 1st Base Depot and thirty flat-bedded New Zealand Army lorries moved supplies, equipment, and ammunition from their depots to the dockside. By 13 July Combat Group A and its gear had been embarked. A few shortages were made up by local purchases in Wellington, and others were alleviated by materiel carried by the second echelon. After embarkation Combat Group A practiced landings in Wellington Harbor.

The second echelon—largely troops of Combat Group B and the Support Group—encountered much greater difficulty. It arrived at Aotea Quay on 11 July, while Combat Group A was completing its embarkation. As it had not been anticipated that the division would be tactically employed after its arrival in New Zealand, the ships had not been combat-loaded before leaving the United States. Most of the troops had been carried across the Pacific aboard passenger vessels, while cargo ships carried their supplies and equipment. The second echelon was forced to unload, sort, and classify stores and equipment on the limited dock space, and to reload for combat by 22 July. The weather had been clear while the first group had embarked, but, during the entire period of the second echelon’s unloading and re-embarkation, cold, driving rains typical of a New Zealand winter made the task miserable. The morale of the troops, working in the rain, was low. Many of the supplies had been packed in cardboard cartons, which, becoming soggy from the rains, burst and strewed their contents over the docks. Other cardboard cartons, stacked inside the warehouse, were crushed.

Lack of cargo space prevented the division from loading all its motor transport aboard the twelve available ships. Nearly all the quarter-ton and one-ton trucks were put aboard, but 75 percent of the heavier vehicles were left behind in Wellington with the rear echelon. The engineers expected that the Lunga Point airfield would perhaps be almost complete by D Day, but put earth-moving equipment, in addition to bridging equipment and a portable dock, aboard the cargo ship Fomalhaut.

Medical preparations for the campaign had not been difficult. Those medically unfit for foreign service had been left behind in the United States. The standard of health remained fairly high, except for troops on board one transport of the second echelon. Among those marines rotten food on the voyage to New Zealand had caused a loss of weight varying from sixteen to twenty pounds per man, as well as a diarrhea epidemic. Exposure while loading in Wellington had resulted in some cases of colds and influenza, and a few sporadic cases of mumps broke out en route to the target area. The medical plans provided for medical care, under combat conditions, of 18,134 men for ninety days. By 22 July reloading had been completed, and the division was ready to sail from Wellington.

Tactical Plans

On 20 July, when logistical preparations had been almost completed in Wellington, General Vandegrift issued tactical orders for the landings. The grouping of forces for Tulagi and Guadalcanal was based upon the premise that of the 8,400 Japanese which the intelligence section believed to be defending the objectives 1,400 troops, including one infantry and one antiaircraft battalion, were in the Tulagi area. One reinforced infantry regiment, one antiaircraft battalion, one engineer battalion, pioneers, and others—7,000 in all—were thought to be on Guadalcanal. The major part of these were expected to be at Lunga Point, with a smaller force at Koli Point. These estimates greatly exaggerated enemy strength. In early August there were about 780 Japanese in the Tulagi-Gavutu-Tanambogo area, and 2,230 on Guadalcanal. Admiral Ghormley’s original estimate of 3,100 had been correct.

As it was anticipated that the invasion of the Tulagi area, involving direct assaults against small islands, would be the most difficult, the most experienced battalions were assigned to this attack. To protect the flanks of the units landing on Tulagi and other islets, small forces were to land first on near-by Florida. One battalion would then land on Tulagi, followed quickly by a second. A third battalion would land on Gavutu at H plus 4 hours to seize Gavutu and Tanambogo.

The Guadalcanal landing presented a simpler tactical problem than did the landing on Tulagi. The large number of undefended beaches on the north coast would make it possible for the remainder of the division to land unopposed at some distance from the Japanese. The area selected for the landing lies between the Tenaru and Tenavatu Rivers, about 6,000 yards east of the Lunga airstrip, well away from both Lunga and Koli Points. Having landed and established a beachhead, the Guadalcanal Group of the division under General Vandegrift could then attack west to capture the airfield. This maneuver would require the troops to cross both the Tenaru and the Ilu Rivers, but the Tenaru and the Tenavatu Rivers, on either flank of the beach, would help to protect the beachhead if the Japanese counterattacked while men and supplies were coming ashore.

The orders issued on 20 July utilized the previous organization of the division into combat groups, combat teams, and the support group. The orders also organized the reinforcing units—the reinforced 2nd Marines, the 1st Raider Battalion, and 3rd Defense Battalion—which had not then joined the division. The In the early maps, the names of the Tenaru and the Ilu Rivers were transposed. The Ilu lies about 2¾ miles east of the Lunga. The wide part of the river is also known as Alligator Creek.

2nd Marines, Reinforced, commanded by Colonel John M. Arthur, included the 2nd Marines, the 3rd Battalion of the 10th Marines (75-mm. pack howitzers), and engineer, pioneer, amphibian tractor, tank, medical, and other service troops—a total of 4,840 men. This reinforced regiment was organized like the others into a headquarters and support group and three combat teams of about 1,300 each. Combat Teams A, B, and C were composed of the reinforced 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, respectively. The 1st Raider Battalion, totaling 828 men, was commanded by Lt. Colonel Merritt A. Edson. The 3rd Defense Battalion, Colonel Robert H. Pepper commanding, totaled 872 men. These reinforcements, when they arrived, increased the division strength to over 19,000.

The 20 July orders prescribed eight groups of varying strengths: Combat Group A, Colonel Hunt commanding, 4,398 (to be subsequently reduced by about 1,100 by the assignment of Combat Team No. 2, one reinforced infantry battalion, to the Tulagi attack); Combat Group B, Colonel Cates commanding, 4,531; the Support Group, Colonel del Valle commanding, 3,537; the Tulagi Group (the 1st Raider Battalion and Combat Team No. 2 of Combat Group A), Colonel Edson commanding; the Gavutu Group, Major Robert Williams commanding, 395 of the 1st Parachute Battalion; the Florida Group, Major Robert E. Hill commanding, 1,295 of Combat Team A (1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, Reinforced); the 3rd Defense Battalion; and the Division Reserve—the 2nd Marines, Reinforced (less Combat Team A)—Colonel Arthur commanding, 3,545.

These forces were to attack and destroy the hostile garrisons on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Gavutu, Tanambogo, and Makambo by landings on D Day, and then to organize the defense of those islands. There were not enough landing craft, however, to execute all landings simultaneously. At H minus 20 minutes, one rifle company and one machine gun platoon of Combat Team A (1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, Reinforced) were to land at Haleta on Florida, just west of Tulagi, to cover the Tulagi landing. At H plus 30 minutes the remainder of Combat Team A would seize Halavo, the peninsula on Florida just east of Gavutu, and support the Gavutu assault by fire.

The Tulagi Group, led by the 1st Raider Battalion, would land on a 500-yard front on Tulagi at H Hour and seize the northwest part of the island. Having reached the first phase line about 1,500 yards northwest of the southeast shore, the assault troops would signal for a 5-minute air and naval bombardment upon the defense positions in the hills and ravines around Government House, the cricket field, the hospital, the prison, and the radio station, then attack and capture that area. Once taken, the island was to pass to the control of the commander of Combat Team No. 2 (2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, Reinforced, less E Battery, 11th Marines) of Combat Group A. The 1st Raider Battalion would then prepare to re-embark for further operations. Combat Team No. 2 was to embark enough troops to seize Makambo, northeast of Tulagi, and also was to relieve the 1st Parachute Battalion after it had captured Gavutu and Tanambogo. The 3rd Defense Battalion was to land one-third of its antiaircraft strength on Tulagi.

The 1st Parachute Battalion was to land on the east coast of Gavutu at H plus 4 hours, seize it, and then take Tanambogo, the small island connected with Gavutu by a concrete causeway. The firing of a green star cluster would be the signal for five minutes of naval gunfire on Tanambogo from the Tulagi Fire Support Group. After the capture of the islets the battalion was to be prepared to re-embark for employment elsewhere.

While operations were being conducted against the northern islets by air squadrons, the Tulagi Fire Support Group, Transport Group Y, and the Marine units under General Rupertus’ command, the rest of the force—air squadrons, the Guadalcanal Fire Support Group, Transport Group X, and the majority of the Marine division under General Vandegrift—would be operating against Guadalcanal. Combat Group A (5th Marines, Reinforced), less Combat Team No. 2 (2nd Battalion, Reinforced, less E Battery, 11th Marines), was to land at Zero Hour on a 1,600-yard front with combat teams abreast to take the beachhead.

Combat Group B (1st Marines, Reinforced) was to land in column of battalions at Zero plus 50 minutes, pass through Group A, and attack westward toward the “grassy knoll” (Mount Austen) which was erroneously believed to be only four instead of six miles southwest of Lunga Point. This course, it was hoped, would prevent the Japanese from escaping southward into the mountains. The 1st Marines was to maintain contact with the units advancing on its right. The formation would be a column of battalions echeloned to the left and rear to protect the left flank. Group A, after Group B had passed through, was to send Combat Team No. 1 (1st Battalion, 5th Marines) west along the shore to seize the Ilu River line. In the order the Ilu was mistakenly called the Tenaru.

Combat Team No. 3 (3rd Battalion, 5th Marines) was to seize the line of woods running southeast from the Tenavatu River, thus covering the east line of the beachhead. The division’s light tanks, landing with the combat groups, were also to cover the east flank of the beachhead but were not to be committed to action except on orders from General Vandegrift. Platoons of A Battery of the 1st Special Weapons Battalion were to land on the flanks of the beach to provide antiaircraft defense with automatic weapons. They were to revert to control of the 1st Special Weapons Battalion of the Support Group upon the landing of that battalion’s headquarters.

The artillery battalions of the combat groups were to land with their groups, but to pass to control of the headquarters of the 11th Marines of the Support Group upon the landing of that headquarters. The Support Group, including elements of the artillery, engineer, special weapons, and pioneer battalions was to land on orders from division headquarters, and to co-ordinate the artillery support for the attacks of the Combat Groups as well as the antiaircraft defense of the beachhead. The 3rd Defense Battalion (less one-third of its antiaircraft units) was to land on divisional order, pass to control of the Support Group, and assist in the defense of the beachhead.

Combat Team A of the division reserve (2nd Marines, Reinforced) had been released to General Vandegrift for the Florida landing, but the remainder of the reserve was to remain under Admiral Turner’s control for the occupation of Ndeni if it was not required for Guadalcanal and Tulagi. General Vandegrift ordered the reserve, however, to be prepared to land Combat Team B less its reinforcing elements at H plus 4 hours, and to be ready to attach Combat Team C minus its reinforcing units to the Tulagi Group.

Final Preparations

While the division was making ready for combat, the other units which were to make up the invading force were sailing toward their respective rendezvous areas. The carrier Wasp came from the Atlantic Ocean through the Panama Canal. On 1 July she sailed from San Diego, escorting the five ships bearing the 2nd Marines, Reinforced, across the Pacific. On 7 July the carrier Saratoga, with Admiral Fletcher on board, and her supporting warships departed from Pearl Harbor, followed by the carrier Enterprise and her supporting ships. The destroyer-transports, which had helped to escort the Enterprise, left the carrier at sea and sailed to New Caledonia to embark the 1st Raider Battalion. The ships from the Southwest Pacific left Brisbane, Australia, on 14 July and arrived at New Zealand five days later to come under Admiral Turner’s control. On 21 July Admiral Fletcher, commanding Task Force 61, ordered all units to rendezvous southeast of the Fiji Islands at 1400, 26 July. The 3rd Defense Battalion, on board the Zeilin and Betelgeuse, escorted by two destroyers, did not leave Pearl Harbor until 22 July and did not join die task force until 3 August.

The twelve transports and cargo ships of the Amphibious Force, carrying the 1st Marine Division together with their escorts, sailed from Wellington on 22 July under Admiral Turner’s command. On 26 July the entire Expeditionary Force (Task Force 61), except the Zeilin and Betelgeuse and their escorts, assembled southeast of the Fijis, and on the next day sailed to Koro for the rehearsal.

From 28 through 31 July the Expeditionary Force rehearsed with carrier air groups participating. The rehearsal was far from being a success. One of the most serious handicaps was the necessity for maintaining radio silence which made ground-to-air communication impossible and impeded the co-ordination of ground force attacks with close air support. Two complete landing exercises simulating the scheme of maneuver had been planned, but coral reefs made the beaches impracticable for landings. General Vandegrift, who firmly believed in the necessity for complete rehearsals, later wrote that the advantages gained from the Koro rehearsal were “dubious” when compared with the loss of “priceless time.” The rehearsal had some value, however, for the force received practice in debarkation procedure and in the conduct and timing of boat waves. The forces supporting the ground troops had an opportunity for firing and bombing practice. Since McCain, Fletcher, Turner, and Vandegrift all attended the rehearsal, they seized this first opportunity for close personal conferences during which they discussed their plans in detail.

Since the performance of landing craft at the rehearsal led the commanders to expect numerous mechanical break-downs, a boat pool was organized. It was at Koro that the decision was made to land first at Tulagi and later at Guadalcanal on D Day. The transport Heywood, carrying both the 1st Parachute Battalion and elements of the Guadalcanal Support Group, would have to unload the Parachute Battalion in the Tulagi area and then cross the channel to land tanks on Guadalcanal.

The landing craft carried by the ships of the Amphibious Force amounted to 480 1942-model boats of various types,54 in addition to the vehicles of the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion of the 1st Marine Division. There were 8 30-foot landing craft. 308 36-foot LCP(L)’s and LCP(R)’s, 116 36-foot LCV’s, and 48 45-foot LCM’s. The 30-foot boats and the LCP(L)’s were the old fixed-bow type without ramps. The LCP (R)’s, the LCM’s and the LCV’s were equipped with movable bow ramps. The LCV’s, each with a 10,000-pound cargo capacity, could carry 75-mm. and 105-mm. howitzers or 1-ton trucks, but heavier equipment (90-mm. and 5-inch guns and heavy trucks) would have to be carried in the LCM’s. The LCP(L)’s could carry troops and portable supplies, but all supplies brought ashore by the LCP(L)’s would have to be lifted over the gunwales by hand at a considerable expense of time and manpower. The amphibian tractors (LVT’s), about to make their first appearance in action, were an early, unarmored type mounting two machine guns.

The final details of organization of the boat pool, including all boats from the ships of the Amphibious Force, were completed during the rehearsal. Ten boat groups, varying in size from sixteen to sixty-four boats of various types, were organized. Nearly every group included one craft assigned as a repair boat. Four groups, including 103 craft, were assigned to the Tulagi area to unload Transport Group Y, and the remaining six groups were assigned to unload Transport Group X at Guadalcanal. The assaulting combat teams would be brought ashore by ninety-one craft—sixty-three carrying Combat Team No. 1 and Headquarters and supporting troops of Combat Group A, and twenty-eight carrying Combat Team No. 3. Combat Group A’s tanks would be brought in by sixteen LCM’s. Forty-one boats would carry the next waves—Combat Team No. 4 and Headquarters, Combat Group B. Following the landing of the first elements of Combat Group B the forty-one boats would join an additional fifty-one to carry Combat Team No. 5. Combat Team No. 6 would be borne ashore by fifty-seven craft.

After the landing of the assault troops, the LCM’s of the boat groups, in general, were to continue unloading heavy equipment from certain specified ships, while the other boats returned to their mother ships to unload them, bringing in supporting troops and supplies on the second, third, and succeeding trips to shore. General Vandegrift also ordered that amphibian tractors be used wherever possible to haul supplies. Although not a tactical vehicle, the unarmored amphibian tractor could sail from ship to shore, surmount the beach, and carry supplies overland directly to regimental and battalion dumps, with a resulting economy in both time and labor.

Those troop commanders who were to be responsible for the complete unloading of the ships were to assign enough men to work all ships’ holds twenty-four hours per day, for all ships were to be unloaded in the shortest possible time. Supplies were to move over the beaches in accordance with the following priority: ammunition, water, combat transport, rations, medical supplies, gasoline, other transport, and lastly, miscellaneous supplies.

All men, as originally planned, were to wear green utility suits and to carry head nets and cot nets for protection against mosquitoes. Each man was to carry two canteens of water if enough canteens were available. The men of the task and landing forces were to initiate the first Allied offensive in the Pacific, one of the largest amphibious operations in the history of the United States up to that time. The tactical plans were hastily prepared, but they had a broad and well-established base in the doctrines governing landings on hostile shores which had been developed during the years preceding the outbreak of war. It is significant to note that whereas plans for the landing operations proper were detailed and comprehensive, there was no reference to systematic re-supply of the 1st Marine Division which carried sufficient supplies for sixty days. Although on 14 July Admiral Ghormley had directed the 7th Marines in Samoa to be ready to embark on four days’ notice with ninety days’ supply and ten units of fire, no Army units for reinforcing or relieving the division were alerted.

Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Guadalcanal (3); Marines Come a Shore

World War Two: Guadalcanal (1-2); Plans for Invasion

World war Two: Papuan Campaign (6): Japanese Offensive Collapses

Ten days after the first Japanese landing at Basabua Admiral King wrote to General Marshall that, while he was willing to assume that General MacArthur was “taking all measures in his power to deny the threat of Japanese penetration toward Port Moresby,” he doubted that the measures taken (which he described as “airpower supported by minor ground forces north of the Owen Stanley Mountains”) would be successful. Since, in his opinion, the holding of Port Moresby and the Buna-Gona area was essential to the ultimate success of operations in both the South and Southwest Pacific Areas, he asked that General Marshall obtain from General MacArthur by dispatch the latter’s “views as to the present situation in New Guinea, and his plan to deny further advance to the Japanese, pending execution of Task Two.” General Marshall replied the next day. He agreed, he said, with the assumption that General MacArthur was taking all measures in his power to deny the Japanese threat, but he felt it was “a little early to assume that such measures [would] be unsuccessful.” Admiral King was assured, however, that General MacArthur was being asked for his plan to counteract the Japanese offensive. Such a message had, in fact, gone out the day before.

The SWPA: Early August

General MacArthur’s Accounting

General MacArthur had a reassuring story to tell. He had just ordered the 7th Australian Infantry Division to New Guinea—the 18th Brigade to Milne Bay, and the 21st and 25th Brigades to Port Moresby. His plan of operations to prevent further enemy encroachment in New Guinea had been greatly hampered, he noted, by a critical shortage of transportation, especially sea transport, and by a dearth of naval convoy ships to protect his supply routes. The work of defending the area had nevertheless gone on despite these difficulties. Before the defenses in New Guinea could be augmented, it had been necessary, as a first step, to move engineers and protective garrisons into the Townsville-Cloncurry area in order to complete a series of airfields there and to develop Port Moresby as an advance jump-off point for the air force. As a second step, the garrison at Port Moresby was doubled to two brigades; engineers and antiaircraft units were sent forward to develop and protect the dispersal facilities in the area; and a beginning was made in developing and securing airfields in the Cape York Peninsula. As a succeeding step, airfields were built at Milne Bay and Merauke to cover Port Moresby from east and west, and troops were ordered forward to secure the crest of the range at Wau and Kokoda.

The experienced 7th Australian Infantry Division would begin moving to the front within the next few days—one brigade to Milne Bay, the other two to Port Moresby. Seven transpacific ships, which would in due course be returned to their regular runs, were being requisitioned to get the division and its equipment forward.

General MacArthur went on to say that the final solution to the problem of defending New Guinea would, of course, come with the completion of Task One and the inception of Tasks Two and Three. After sketching a plan of maneuver for the latter two tasks, he told General Marshall that, while further preparations were necessary for Task Three, immediately after Task One was successfully completed Task Two could begin if the aircraft carriers and the Marine division with its amphibious equipment were made available for the operation.

It was an excellent accounting. Starting in late March with only a few airfields in the Townsville-Cloncurry area and two poor fields at Port Moresby, General MacArthur by early August also had effective bases in the Cape York Peninsula, at Merauke, and at Milne Bay—a remarkable accomplishment in view of the appalling terrain, the shortage of engineer troops, and the difficulties of supply.

General Rowell Takes Over in New Guinea

On 6 August all Australian and American forces serving in Australian New Guinea (Papua and North East New Guinea) were put under New Guinea Force. On 9 August Major General Sydney F. Rowell, General Officer Commanding, 1st Australian Corps, took command of all forces in New Guinea. Nine days later, General Rowell became G. O. C. New Guinea Force.

[NOTE 16: GHQ SWPA OI No. 15, 6 Aug 42; LHQ OI No. 30, 9 Aug 42; NGF OI No. 24, 18 Aug 42. General Morris, who in addition to being G. O. C. New Guinea Force had also been Administrator of New Guinea and head of the Australia-New Guinea Administrative Unit, ANGAU, continued in the latter two capacities, thereby making it possible for General Rowell to concentrate exclusively on combat operations.]

The orders of 6 August gave New Guinea Force a greatly expanded mission. It was to prevent further penetration of Australian New Guinea, hold the crest of the Owen Stanley Range, and retake Kokoda, the Buna-Gona area, and ultimately Lae and Salamaua. It was to carry out active reconnaissance of its area and the approaches thereto, maintain and augment KANGA Force, and establish a special force at Milne Bay. After infiltrating the northeast coast of Papua from East Cape to Tufi, the Milne Bay troops would join with the overland forces on the Kokoda trail in the capture of the Buna-Gona area.

As General Rowell took command in New Guinea, the Japanese on the trail were at Isurava south of Kokoda. Radio intercepts and documents captured by KANGA Force revealed that the Japanese intended to land at Samarai shortly. The situation was in crisis, but the Allied defensive position was stronger than it appeared to be—much stronger, in fact, than had been thought possible only a few short weeks before.

The Defense Falls into Place

The North Queensland Bases

By the third week in August three fields had been completed in the Cape York Peninsula, one for fighters and two for heavy bombers. Three additional fields for heavy bombers were due to be completed by the end of September. The movement of aviation units, garrison troops, and supplies to the bases in northern Queensland was proceeding but was not expected to be complete until sometime in October because of the emergency troop movements to Port Moresby and Milne Bay, and the consequent shortage of shipping.

To alleviate a critical shortage of U.S. engineer troops, and to speed construction where it was most needed, arrangements were made in August to turn over the task of airfield construction [NOTE 17]and maintenance in northern Queensland and elsewhere on the mainland either to the RAAF or to the Allied Works Council, a civilian construction agency of the Australian Government staffed for the most part by men who were over age or otherwise exempt from military duty. American engineer troops released in this way were at once transferred to New Guinea. The change-over was a gradual one, but by the end of the year almost all U.S. engineer troops in the Southwest Pacific Area were in New Guinea.

[NOTE 17: General Casey had under his command on 1 May 1942 a total of 6,240 U.S. Engineer construction troops comprising the following units: the 43rd and 46th General Service Engineer Battalions, the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion, the 91st and 96th Separate Engineer Battalions, and the 576th and 585th Engineer Dump Truck Companies. The first three were white units; the remaining four, Negro. Except for the addition of the 69th Topographical Company, and the expansion of the 91st and 96th Battalions to regiments, an increase since May of some 1,200 men, his command was substantially the same at the end of the year. OCE SWPA Annual Rpt, 1942; OCE SWPA, Location and Strength of U.S. Engineer Units, 31 Dec 42. Both in AFPAC Engr File.]

Port Moresby

By 19 August, Brig. A. W. Potts’s 21st Australian Infantry Brigade, the leading brigade of the two 7th Division brigades ordered to Port Moresby, had already arrived there. It did not tarry but began moving at once to Isurava, where MAROUBRA Force—by this time a battalion and two companies of the 30th Brigade—was making a stand under the brigade commander, Brigadier Selwyn H. Porter. The 25th Brigade, which was to follow the 21st, was delayed by the shipping shortage and was not expected to arrive until early September.

Even so, the Port Moresby garrison, with its three infantry brigades and its Australian and American air, antiaircraft, engineer, and service units, already numbered 22,000 men. When the 25th Brigade, 7th Division headquarters, and other divisional troops arrived, it would total 28,000. The seven-air-field program projected for Port Moresby was nearing completion. Four fields were finished and in use—two for fighters, one for medium bombers, and one for heavy bombers. The three remaining fields—two for heavy bombers and one for medium bombers—were expected to be ready by early September.

Plans to make Port Moresby a large supply and communications area were well advanced. On 11 August the U. S. Advanced Base in New Guinea was established by USASOS with headquarters at Port Moresby. Its functions were to aid in the operation of the port and other ports in New Guinea, to control the activities of U. S. service troops in the area, and, in general, to provide for the supply of all American troops in the battle zone.

The port itself, shallow and suitable only for light traffic, was to be improved. Existing facilities permitted only one ship to be unloaded at a time, and that very slowly, with the frequent result that as many as two or three others had to wait in the roads to unload, exposed all the while to enemy attack. Since the existing harbor site did not lend itself to expansion, General Casey planned to develop Tatana Island (a small island in Fairfax Harbor to the northwest of the existing harbor) into an entirely new port. The new development, which would permit several ocean-going ships to be unloaded at one time, was to be connected with the mainland by an earth-filled causeway a half-mile long, over which would run a two-lane highway with a freeboard of two feet over high tide. The project was to be undertaken as soon as engineers and engineering equipment became available.

Measures were being taken to improve the air supply situation both in the Owen Stanleys and in the Bulolo Valley. After a careful study of the problem, General Kenney assigned six A-24’s, a B-17, and two transports—all the aircraft that could be spared—to the task of dropping supplies to the Australian troops in both areas. It was hoped that the use of these planes if only for ten days, the period of their assignment, would make possible a substantial improvement in the supply situation at both Kagi and Wau.

Milne Bay

By 21 August the 18th Australian Infantry Brigade (the 2/9, 2/10, and 2/12 Australian Infantry Battalions) under Brigadier George F. Wootten completed its movement to Milne Bay. There it joined the 7th Australian Infantry Brigade, Citizen Military Forces (the 9, 25, and 61 Australian Infantry Battalions), under Brigadier John Field, which had reached Milne Bay in July. The following day, 22 August, Major General Cyril A. Clowes, an experienced officer who had commanded the ANZAC Corps artillery in Greece, took command of Milne Force. His instructions were to protect the airfields and deny Milne Bay to the enemy.

After the company of the 46th U. S. Engineers had arrived in late June and the 7th Brigade, a 25-pounder battery, and some light and heavy Australian antiaircraft in early July, the second of two RAAF fighter squadrons equipped with P-40’s and part of a RAAF reconnaissance squadron using Hudsons reached Milne Bay by early August. Two companies of the 43rd U. S. Engineers had also arrived by this time as well as the 709th U. S. Airborne Antiaircraft Battery which was equipped with -50-caliber machine guns. The American engineer troops had a few .50-caliber machine guns and some 37-mm. antitank guns in addition to their rifles and light machine guns.

[NOTE 18: The 25-pounder was the standard artillery piece of the Australian and British Army at this time. The caliber was about 3½ inches; the barrel was about 7¾ feet long; and the weight of the shell, as the name of piece suggested, was roughly 25 pounds.]

Milne Force, when General Clowes took it over on 22 August, was a good-sized command. Australian troop strength was 7,429 men, of whom 6,394 were combat troops and 1,035 were service troops. American troop strength, mainly engineers and antiaircraft personnel, numbered 1,365 men; the strength of the RAAF was 664 men. Clowes’s total strength was thus 9,458 men. To guard against Japanese infiltration from the Buna-Gona area patrols were operating between East Cape (the eastern tip of New Guinea) and Goodenough Bay. The overland trails leading into Milne Bay were being patrolled regularly, as was the Mullins Harbor area to the southwest of Milne Bay. General Clowes had neither landing craft, coastal guns, nor searchlights, but the best defense that time would allow had been provided.

The Battle of Milne Bay

The Scene of Operations

Milne Bay, about twenty miles long and five to ten miles wide, lies at the extreme southeast tip of New Guinea. The fact that it is often closed in from the air probably accounted for the long time that it took the Japanese to discover the presence of the Allies in the area. On either arm of the bay, mountains 4,000 feet high rise abruptly from the shore. Between the mountains and the sea are narrow coastal corridors consisting for the most part of deep swamp, and dense, almost impenetrable, jungle. The rainfall in the bay area averages 200 inches a year, and during wet weather the corridors are virtually impassable.

At the head of the bay is a large plain into which the coastal corridors merge. This plain, the site in prewar days of an immense coconut plantation operated by Lever Brothers, was the only place in the entire area which was not completely bogged down in mud. Because it already had a small, if inadequate, road net, all the base installations and airfields were concentrated there.

At the time General Clowes took command, one airfield—No. 1 Strip, in the center of the plantation area—had been completed and was being used by the P-40’s and Hudsons. The 46th Engineer Company was working on No. 2 Strip, which was about four miles inland at the western end of the plantation. The two companies of the 43rd Engineers were working on No. 3 Strip, which was just off the north shore. Although a great deal of hard work, under the most adverse conditions, had gone into the base, much still remained to be done. The roads, for the most part, a corduroy of coconut logs covered with decomposed coral, were in very poor condition.

[NOTE 19: Major General Hugh J. Casey to author, 21 Jul 50, in OCMH files. General Casey’s explanation of the hasty construction of No. 1 Strip is that the field had to be constructed that way “in order to secure an operable airdrome in the limited time available.”]

The dock, at Gili Gili, at the very head of the bay, consisted of two barges placed side by side with a ramp leading to the small and inadequate jetty that had been there when the military first arrived. Number 1 Strip, the only runway in operation, and very hastily constructed, consisted of an open-mesh steel mat, laid over a low-lying, poorly drained base. Mud seeped through the mat and caused aircraft using the runway to skid and sometimes crack up. Since there was no time to rebuild the field, all that could be done to remedy the situation was to have bulldozers scrape the mat daily and deposit the mud in piles on either side of the strip. The runway was particularly treacherous during wet weather. Though it had originally been built as a bomber strip, the P-40’s often required its entire length for their take-offs when it had rained for any length of time. When the rainfall was exceptionally heavy they were often unable to take off at all.

This then was the place that the Japanese had chosen, at the last minute, to capture instead of Samarai. They had made the decision only in mid-August, when they first discovered the Allies were actually there. A few days later they issued the orders to attack.

The Landing

Toward the latter part of August the Japanese decided to launch the Milne Bay operation immediately. The Aoba Detachment, the Army force earmarked to land at Milne Bay, was still at Davao. Nevertheless the 8th Fleet, with naval troops available for action at Kavieng and Buna, decided to proceed with the operation without waiting for the detachment to come in. Judging that Milne Bay was held by two or three infantry companies and twenty or thirty aircraft, Admiral Mikawa on 20 August ordered some 1,500 men to Milne Bay. A total of 1,171 men (612 Kure 5th Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) troops, 362 16th Naval Pioneer Unit troops, and 197 men of the Sasebo 5th SNLF) were ordered to Milne Bay from Kavieng; the rest, 353 Sasebo 5th SNLF troops, were to come from Buna. Commander Shojiro Hayashi, of the Kure 5th SNLF, was in command of the landing forces from Kavieng. His orders were to land at Rabi, a point about three miles from the Gili Gili wharf area at the head of the bay. The troops from Buna were to land at Taupota on the north coast and march on Gili Gili overland.

The first echelon from Kavieng, bearing mostly Kure 5th troops, left Rabaul for Rabi in two transports in the early morning of 24 August. The troops of the Sasebo 5th SNLF at Buna left for Milne Bay at approximately the same time in seven large motor-driven landing barges.

The seven landing craft were the first to be detected by the Allies. The Coast Watcher at Porlock Harbor sighted them the same afternoon, and early the next morning a reconnaissance aircraft reported that they were nearing Goodenough Island. Twelve P-40’s from Milne Bay (which had been unable to attack previously because of enemy air raids and bad weather) took off for Goodenough Island at noon and shortly thereafter discovered the landing craft beached on the southwestern shore of the island, where the Japanese had put in to stretch their legs and prepare a meal. The P-40’s gave the drawn-up barges and ration littered beach a thorough strafing. When the attack was over, all of the landing craft had been destroyed, and the Sasebo unit, its stores, ammunition, and communications equipment gone, was left stranded on Goodenough Island with no way of reaching its objective, or even of returning to Buna.

The convoy bearing the Kure 5th troops fared better in its approach to the target. Heavily escorted by cruisers and destroyers, the transports were first sighted off Kiriwina Island, 140 miles northeast of Milne Bay, in the early morning of 25 August, making directly for Milne Bay. General MacArthur’s headquarters immediately ordered the Air Force to attack the convoy and destroy it. All available B-25’s and B-26’s at Townsville and nine B-17’s at Mareeba in the Cape York Peninsula took off at once for the attack, which was to be made that afternoon in concert with the RAAF P-40’s and Hudsons from Milne Bay.

Fortunately for the Japanese, the weather (except for a short break at noon which the RAAF had exploited to the full in the attack on Goodenough Island) was very bad all day, both at Moresby and Milne Bay. For hours on end planes were unable to take off from either place. Attempts by the B- 17’s from the Cape York Peninsula and the P-40’s and Hudsons from Milne Bay to hit the convoy proved fruitless because of violent rain squalls and a heavy overcast. By late afternoon visibility was down to zero, and despite occasional breaks thereafter the Air Force found it impossible to attack successfully that day.

The Japanese landing began about 2200 hours, 25 August, on the north shore of the bay near Waga Waga and Wanadala—five to seven miles east of Rabi, their prescribed landing point. The landing force set up headquarters at Waga Waga and established a series of supply dumps there and in the Wanadala area. The shore east of K. B. Mission, which the Japanese continued to think for some time was the Rabi area, became their main bivouac site and forward jump-off point. Here, about one mile east of the mission, at 0145 hours on 26 August, elements of Milne Force met the Japanese column in an indecisive engagement when a screening platoon from Company B, 61 Battalion, at K. B. Mission started a fire fight with the Japanese that lasted until nearly dawn. Although the enemy used light tanks in support of his probe, he finally withdrew leaving the Australian detachment in place.

The Advance

The Japanese could scarcely have chosen a worse landing place. Their objectives, the airfields and the wharf, were at the head of Milne Bay, and they had landed several miles from the plantation area on a jungle covered coastal shelf, flanked on the right by mountains and on the left by the sea. Because the mountains in the landing area were steep and very close to shore, there was virtually no room for maneuver, and the heavy jungle which covered the bay shore made it impossible to find a dry bivouac for the troops anywhere in the area.

It had rained steadily during the preceding few weeks, and the heavy tropical downpour continued. The mountain streams had become roaring torrents, and the spongy soil of the corridor a quagmire. The single coastal track that skirted the corridor had in places completely washed away, and the level of the many fords that cut across it had risen to almost three feet. Except for a few abandoned plantations and mission stations, the corridor was a sodden welter of jungle and swamp, an utter nightmare for any force operating in it.

Although they had seriously misjudged Allied strength, and had landed on a muddy coastal shelf thousands of yards from the head of the bay, the Japanese nevertheless enjoyed some significant tactical advantages. Their left flank was secure because they had control of the sea, and their right flank could not easily be turned because of the mountains a few hundred yards away. It was true that they could count on little air power, since Lae and Salamaua, the nearest operational air bases, were more than 300 miles away; but unlike Milne Force, which could barely scrape up a few trawlers, they had plenty of landing craft and could therefore land troops and supplies freely under cover of darkness or of the weather, despite their deficiency in the air.

General Clowes, on the other hand, was a man fighting blind. Because of the dense jungle on the north shore of the bay and frequent heavy overcasts, neither his ground patrols nor his aerial reconnaissance could tell him what the Japanese were doing or what their numbers were. Worse still, he was face to face with the possibility that the Japanese, in addition to landing on the north shore, might land troops on the south shore, or even at the head of the bay. Having no idea as yet of Japanese intentions, Clowes held the bulk of his force in the plantation area, to be committed to the north shore when it became apparent from the circumstances that the Japanese had no intention of landing troops elsewhere in the bay area.

At the time of the Japanese landings during the night of 25-26 August, the main body of Milne Force was deployed in the plantation area in the vicinity of the airfields and two companies of the 61 Battalion were on the north shore in the path of the Japanese thrust. One of these companies was at Ahioma, just east of Wanadala; the other was at K. B. Mission. There was also a platoon of the 61 Battalion on the northeast coast guarding against an overland attack on Milne Bay from the Taupota side of the mountains, as well as a reinforced company of the 25 Battalion farther to the northwest on Goodenough Bay.

The company at Ahioma did not fare as well as the one at K. B. Mission. The troops at Ahioma had been under orders to return to Gili Gili by water, and two of the three platoons were already on their way in two ketches when the Japanese landings began. Shortly after leaving Ahioma the ketches plowed into a landing wave off Wanadala. In the melee one of the Australian craft was sunk. Some of the militia troops were lost; others struggled ashore and infiltrated back to their own lines. The platoon in the other ketch returned to Ahioma and, with the platoon that had remained there, marched overland to Taupota and thence back over the mountains to Gili Gili where they rejoined their battalion several days later.

By 0745 that morning, 26 August, the weather had abated sufficiently for the P-40’s from No. 1 Strip and the B-17’s staging from Port Moresby to go into action. In an extremely successful morning’s business, the P-40’s managed to destroy most of the food and ammunition that the Japanese had brought with them. The B-l 7’s, almost as successful, inflicted heavy damage on a large Japanese transport unloading offshore.

Toward evening a second Japanese convoy (Commander Hayashi’s second echelon) was sighted off Normanby Island in the D’Entrecasteaux Group, making at high speed for Milne Bay. Before it could be dealt with, a heavy fog descended over the area, blotting out the convoy’s further movements. The troops aboard landed safely that night, completing the 1,170-man movement from Kavieng.

K. B. Mission had meanwhile been reinforced by a second company of the 61 Battalion. The Japanese, who had reconnoitered the mission during the day, struck again that night in much greater strength than before. The Australian militia was forced out of the mission and all the way back to the line of the Gama River, just east of Rabi. Fortunately for the Australians, the Japanese again chose to break off the engagement at dawn.

The following morning, General Clowes sent the 2/10 Battalion of the 18th Brigade to K. B. Mission. The battalion, intended to be a reconnaissance force, was lightly armed. Its orders were to keep in contact with the Japanese, draw them out, and in general find out what they were up to.

Without such essential knowledge, General Clowes was confronted with a cruel dilemma. If he moved his troops onto the north shore, the enemy might counter by landing fresh troops on the south shore or at the head of the bay itself. As he himself was to explain: The presence of Jap naval elements in the vicinity throughout the operation and the freedom of activity enjoyed by the enemy by sea constituted a continuous menace in regard to possible further landings. These factors necessarily had a marked influence on plans and dispositions made to deal with the enemy. On several occasions, such plans were definitely slowed down or suffered variation through the delay involved in assuring that the south shore was clear, and, further, that reports of the presence of enemy ships at Mullins Harbor were not founded on fact. [NOTE 19]

[NOTE 19: Comdr Milne Force, Rpt on Opns 25 Aug-7 Sep 42; Naval Account Japanese Invasion Eastern New Guinea, p. 26; Interv with Lieutenant Colonel Peter S. Teesdale-Smith, AMF, 22 Aug 49, copy in OCMH files. At the time the battle was fought, Colonel Teesdale-Smith, then a captain, was intelligence officer of the 2/10 Battalion.]

The 2/10 Battalion reached the mission unopposed in the late afternoon of 27 August. Under orders to move on again in the morning, the battalion had barely settled itself for the night when the Japanese struck at the mission again, this time with two tanks and all their available combat troops.

Despite unceasing tropical rain, the ground in the well-drained and relatively open plantation area was firm enough for tank action. The two tanks, equipped with brilliant headlights that made targets of the Australians and left the attackers in darkness, inflicted heavy casualties on the 2/10 Battalion. The lightly armed Australians, whose only antitank protection was “sticky-type” hand grenades, which would not stick, were unable to knock out the tanks and also failed to shoot out their headlights. After about two hours of fighting the Japanese managed to split the battalion in two. Battalion headquarters and two companies were forced off the track and into the jungle, and the remainder of the battalion was pushed back to the Gama River. A portion of the battalion reached the plantation area that night, but the main body took to the hills in order to get around the enemy’s flank and did not get back to the head of the bay until three days later. With the 2/10 Battalion out of the way, the Japanese continued on to No. 3 strip. There a heavy fire fight at once developed, a fight in which American antiaircraft and engineer troops played a significant part.

The Fighting at No. 3 Strip

The east-west airstrip, just west of Kilabo and only a few miles from Rabi, was an ideal defensive position. The runway, a hundred yards wide and 2,000 yards long, was cleared but only partially graded, and there was a sea of mud at its eastern edge which made it impossible for tanks to get through. It afforded the defenders a broad, cleared field of fire, and, lying obliquely across the mouth of the corridor with its southern end less than five hundred feet from the water, was directly in the path of the Japanese advance.

Brigadier Field, in charge of the defense, ranged his troops along the southern edge of the strip, giving the Japanese no alternative but to attack frontally. The main burden of holding the strip fell upon the brigade’s 25th and 61st Battalions, but the 709th U. S. Airborne Antiaircraft Battery and Companies D and F of the 43rd U. S. Engineers held key positions in its defense.

The antiaircraft battery with its .50-caliber machine guns was given the task of supporting the Australians at the eastern end of the strip, and the .50-caliber and 37-mm. gun crews of Companies D and F, 43rd U. S. Engineers, flanked on either side by Australian riflemen and mortar-men, were stationed at the center of the line at the crucial point where the track from Rabi crossed the runway.

The Japanese reached the area immediately in front of the strip just before dawn. They attacked aggressively but were repulsed and forced to withdraw. No tanks were used in the attack, although two of them (apparently the same two that the Japanese had used with such success at K. B. Mission were brought up, only to be abandoned when they bogged down hopelessly.

The attackers were now within a few miles of No. 1 Strip, and General Clowes, fearful lest they infiltrate it during the night, ordered the P-40’s to Port Moresby. Fortunately the Japanese were quiet that night, and the following morning the fighters returned to Milne Bay to stay.

Bogged down near No. 3 Strip.

On 26 August, the day of the landing, and again on the afternoon of the 28th, General MacArthur had ordered General Blarney to see to it that the north shore of Milne Bay was cleared of the enemy at once. Because of defective communications New Guinea Force did not receive the orders of the 26th until late on the 27th, and General Clowes, apparently, not until early the next morning. Early on the 28th Clowes ordered the 7th Brigade to be prepared to move forward at dawn the following day.

Strong patrols of the brigade moved out early on the 29th but met stiff enemy opposition, and little progress was registered. Clowes thereupon ordered in the 18th Brigade with instructions to move at once on K. B. Mission. He canceled the orders at 1633 upon learning that another Japanese convoy was on its way to Milne Bay.

His reason for the cancellation—as he was to explain later—was the renewed possibility “of an enemy attempt to land on the west and south shores of Milne Bay.” The convoy, escorted by a cruiser and nine destroyers, unloaded safely under cover of a heavy mist. It brought to the sore-beset Japanese on the north shore nearly 770 reinforcements—568 troops of the Kure 3rd SNLF and 200 of the Yokosuka 5th SNLF—under Commander Minoru Yano, who, being apparently senior to Hayashi, at once took over command of operations.

The daylight hours of the following day, 30 August, were quiet. Milne Force sent patrols to feel out the enemy in preparation for the long-delayed general advance, and the Japanese, hidden in the jungle, consolidated for another attack on No. 3 strip. The climax came that night when the Japanese made an all-out effort to take the strip.

Brigadier Field was again ready for them. The only change in his dispositions was to place the .50-caliber machine guns of the 709th Antiaircraft Battery at both ends of the line instead of as before on its eastern end. The .50-caliber machine guns and 37-mm. antitank gun crews of Companies D and F of the 43rd Engineers were as before in the center of the line, flanked on either side by the riflemen and mortar-men of the 25th and 61st Battalions. The 25 pounders, about half a mile to the rear, lent their support, as did the P-40’s from No. 1 Strip.

When the Japanese made their move against the airstrip, such intense fire hit them that not one man was able to cross the strip alive. The heaviest attack came before dawn. Like the others, it was repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy, who withdrew at first light, leaving 160 dead behind.

The Withdrawal

The Japanese were now in full retreat, and Brigadier Wootten’s 18th Brigade, the 2/12 Battalion leading, began the long delayed task of clearing them from the north shore. Very heavy fighting developed at once along the Gama River and later near K. B. Mission. Between 1 and 5 September the Australians lost 45 killed and 147 wounded. Japanese losses were much heavier. At the Gama River alone, the enemy lost at least 100 killed, and his casualties mounted steadily as the Australians advanced. Hungry, riddled with tropical fevers, suffering from trench foot and jungle rot, and with many wounded in their midst, the Japanese realized the end was near; and Commander Yano, himself wounded, so advised the 8th Fleet.

The commander in chief of the 8th Fleet, Admiral Mikawa, considered the possibility of reinforcing the landing parties at Milne Bay with the 1,000-man advance echelon of the Aoba Detachment, which had finally reached Rabaul on 31 August. It was a sufficient force, he thought, to retrieve the situation if the troops ashore could hold out till it arrived. In an interchange of messages with Yano, Admiral Mikawa offered to land 200 more Yokosuka 5th troops immediately, and the Aoba Detachment by 12 September, if there was any possibility that the troops at Milne Bay could hold out till the Aoba Force arrived. When Yano told him that the troops ashore were physically incapable of making a further stand, Mikawa concluded the situation was hopeless and ordered Milne Bay evacuated.

The wounded were put on board ship on the night of 4 September. The rest of the landing force, except for scattered elements that had to be left behind, took ship the following night from the anchorage at Waga Waga one jump ahead of the 18th Brigade, whose forward elements were actually within earshot when the Japanese pulled out. Some 1,300 of the 1,900 troops landed were evacuated to Rabaul, nearly all of them suffering from trench foot, jungle rot, tropical ulcers, and other tropical diseases. Virtually none of the evacuees, not even those who landed as late as 29 August, were in condition to fight.

The 2/9 Battalion, which was now leading the advance, met with only light and scattered resistance on the morning of 6 September. By the following morning it was clear that organized resistance had ceased. Small bands of stragglers were all that remained of the Japanese landing forces, and these were disposed of in the next few weeks by Australian patrols, which took only a handful of prisoners. The Japanese lost some 600 killed in the operation, as against 321 Australian ground casualties—123 killed and 198 wounded. American losses in defense of No. 3 Strip were very low—one man killed and two wounded.

The timely return from the Solomons in early September of Task Force 44 made it possible thenceforward for the Allied Naval Forces to cover the sea approaches to Milne Bay; and the dispatch, at approximately the same time, of two 155-mm. guns with attached searchlight units helped further to secure the area.

The base was meanwhile being steadily improved. More and better roads were built A new wharf was constructed to replace the old inadequate jetty. Number 1 Strip was rebuilt, and No. 3 Strip was completed. Bombing of Rabaul and of Japanese airfields in the northern Solomons without the need of crossing the Owen Stanleys became possible for the first time. Equally important the stage was set for a successful investiture of the north coast of Papua from East Cape to Buna.

[NOTE: OCE SWPA, Draft Engr Rpt, 31 Dec 42; Ltr, General Casey to author, 21 Jul 50. Number 2 Strip was never completed, for it was decided immediately after the battle to discontinue work on it and to concentrate instead on the other two fields.]

The Allied victory at Milne Bay had snapped the southern prong of the pincers the Japanese had hoped to apply to Port Moresby. An essential part of the plan of 31 July had failed. The rest of the plan, the overland attack on Port Moresby by the South Seas Detachment, was now to be put to the test.

SOURCE: Victory in Papua, BY: Samuel Milner (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Papuan Campaign (7); Road to Ioribaiwa

World War Two: Papuan Campaign (5); Kokoda Trail

World War Two: Papuan Campaign (5); Kokoda Trail

The landing at Basabua on the night of 21-22 July was a direct outgrowth of the naval reverses the Japanese had suffered at the Coral Sea and Midway. After the Battle of the Coral Sea, they had temporarily postponed the Port Moresby operation with the understanding that they would return to it as soon as succeeding operations against Midway and the Aleutians had been completed.

The loss of their first-line carriers at Midway had disrupted these plans. Not only were the Japanese forced to postpone indefinitely the projected operations against the South Pacific island bases, but they had to abandon the idea of taking Port Moresby by amphibious assault They realized that to use the few remaining carriers for support of a second amphibious thrust against Port Moresby would probably be to lose them to superior carrier forces of the U. S. Pacific Fleet, a risk that they were not prepared to take. Since they were agreed that Port Moresby, which flanked Rabaul, would have to be taken at the earliest possible moment, the problem became one of taking it without carrier support. The successful landing in the Buna-Gona area was the first indication of the manner in which they had chosen to solve that problem.

Planning the Overland Attack

The Operations Area

The die was cast. The fighting was to be in the Papuan Peninsula, or, as the Japanese insisted on calling it, eastern New Guinea. The peninsula, part of the Territory of Papua, a lush, tropical area, most of it still in a state of nature, lies at the southeast end of New Guinea, forming the tail, so to speak, of that vast, bird-shaped island. Occupying an area of 90,540 square miles, Papua is an Australian possession, annexed by the British in 1884, and turned over to the Australians in 1901. The natives, of Melanesian stock, are at a primitive stage of development; and the fact that their hair is generally frizzly rather than woolly has given Papua its name—Papuwa being the Malay for frizzly or frizzled.

The Japanese could scarcely have chosen a more dismal place in which to conduct a campaign. The rainfall at many points in the peninsula is torrential. It often runs as high as 150, 200, and even 300 inches per year, and, during the rainy season, daily falls of eight or ten inches are not uncommon.

The terrain, as varied as it is difficult, is a military nightmare. Towering saw-toothed mountains, densely covered by mountain forest and rain forest, alternate with flat malarial, coastal areas made up of matted jungle, reeking swamp, and broad patches of knife-edged kunai grass four to seven feet high. The heat and humidity in the coastal areas are well-nigh unbearable, and in the mountains there is biting cold at altitudes over 5,000 feet. The mountains are drained by turbulent rivers and creeks, which become slow and sluggish as they reach the sea. Along the streams, the fringes of the forest become interwoven from ground to treetop level with vines and creepers to form an almost solid mat of vegetation which has to be cut by the machete or the bolo before progress is possible. The vegetation in the mountains is almost as luxuriant; leeches abound everywhere; and the trees are often so overgrown with creepers and moss that the sunlight can scarcely filter through to the muddy tracks below.

The Owen Stanley Mountains, whose peaks rise to heights of more than 13,000 feet, overshadow the entire Papuan Peninsula, running down its center to Milne Bay like an immense spine. On the northeast, or Buna, side the foothills of the range slope gently to the sea. On the southwest or Port Moresby side, the picture is startlingly different. Sharp ridges which rise abruptly from the southwest coast connect with the main range to produce a geographical obstacle of such formidable proportions that overland crossing is possible only by means of tortuous native footpaths or tracks that lead from one native village to the other, often at dizzy heights.

The Kokoda Trail

The best overland route to Port Moresby passed through Kokoda, a point about fifty miles from Buna and more than one hundred miles from Port Moresby. At Wairopi, about thirty miles southwest of Buna, a wire-rope bridge, from which the place took its name, spanned the immense gorge of the Kumusi River, a broad turbulent stream subject to dangerous undertows and flash floods. Between Buna and Wairopi the country is gentle and rolling. Past Wairopi it suddenly becomes steep and rocky. Kokoda itself is set on a little plateau between the foothills of the Ajura Kijala and Owen Stanley Ranges. On this plateau, which is about 1,200 feet above sea level, there was a small airfield, suitable only for use by light commercial planes and the smaller types of military transport aircraft.

From Kokoda, the trail leads southward along the western side of a huge canyon or chasm, the so-called Eora Creek Gorge. It passes through the native villages of Deniki and Isurava to a trail junction at Alola, where a cross-country trail from Ilimo, a point southwest of Wairopi, joins the main track via Kobara, Fila, Missima, and Abuari, a short-cut which makes it possible to bypass Kokoda. From Alola, the trail crosses to the eastern side of Eora Creek and climbs to Templeton’s Crossing, where the immense spurs of the main range are met for the first time at an elevation of 7,000 feet.

Just past Templeton’s Crossing is the Gap, the mountain pass that leads across the range. The Gap, which is only twenty miles south of Kokoda, is a broken, jungle covered saddle in the main range, about 7,500 feet high at its central point. The saddle is about five miles wide, with high mountains on either side. The trail runs about six miles through the Gap over a rocky, broken track, on which there is not enough level space to pitch a tent, and room enough for only one man to pass.

From the Gap, the trail plunges downward to Myola, Kagi, Efogi, Menari, Nauro, Ioribaiwa, the Imita Range, and Uberi, traversing in its course mountain peaks 5,000 and 6,000 feet high, and sharp, east-west ridges whose altitude is from 3,000 to 4,000 feet. The southern edge of the range is at Koitaki, about thirty miles from Port Moresby by road, where the elevation is 2,000 feet.

From Kokoda to Templeton’s Crossing the trail climbs 6,000 feet in less than twenty miles as it crosses a series of knife-edged ridges. The peaks in the area rise as high as 9,000 feet, and the valleys, whose sides slope as much as 60 percent from the horizontal, descend as low as 1,000 feet. Ridges rising from creeks and river beds are 1,500 to 2,000 feet high, and the soil in the valleys has up to thirty feet of humus and leaf mold. The area is perpetually wet, the rainfall at 3,000 feet being 200 and 300 inches a year.

The situation is only slightly better between Myola and Uberi. There are still knife-edges and razorbacks, but now they are not as precipitous as before. The gorges, though deeper and with denser undergrowth, are less frequent, but they are still extremely hard to cross. Not till the trail reaches Koitaki does the going moderate.

It was a moot point whether a large, fully equipped force could complete the difficult march from Kokoda to Koitaki, in the face of determined opposition, and still be in condition to launch an effective attack on Port Moresby when it got there. Yet it was by an advance over this trail that the Japanese proposed to take Port Moresby.

The Enemy Plans a Reconnaissance

The Japanese did not act recklessly in their attempt to send troops over the Owen Stanley Range. On 14 June, six days after Midway, General Hyakutake, commander of the 17th Army, was told to prepare for an overland attack on Port Moresby. General Hyakutake, then on his way to Davao, was specifically cautioned not to order major forces under his command to New Guinea until the trail had been thoroughly reconnoitered, and the operation found to be feasible. He was told that his forces were to be held in readiness for instant action should the reconnaissance have a favorable result General Horii, commander of the Nankai Shitai, was to have the immediate responsibility for the operation. The 15th Independent Engineer Regiment, a highly trained and well-equipped combat engineer unit stationed at Davao, which had distinguished itself in combat in Malaya, would be assigned to General Horii to perform the reconnaissance.

On 29 June the engineer regiment, with supporting antiaircraft, communications, medical, and service troops, was ordered to Rabaul, and General Horii flew to Davao on the 30th to receive his orders from General Hyakutake for the reconnaissance. Hyakutake issued the orders the next day, 1 July. They provided that the force making the reconnaissance was to consist of the engineer regiment, an infantry battalion of the Nankai Shitai, the 47th Field Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, and supporting troops.

The force was to be under command of Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama, commander of the engineer regiment. Yokoyama’s mission was to land in the Buna area, advance rapidly to Kokoda and “the mountain pass south of Kokoda,” and reconnoiter the trail leading from it to Port Moresby. He was to report to General Horii as quickly as possible on the state of the Buna-Kokoda “road” and on all possible routes of advance from Kokoda to Port Moresby. Horii, in turn, was to pass on the information to higher headquarters with an indorsement setting forth his views on the feasibility of the proposed operation.

On 11 July, with Colonel Yokoyama on his way from Davao to Rabaul, the Army Section of Imperial General Headquarters gave General Hyakutake the go-ahead signal for the reconnaissance. Hyakutake passed the orders on to General Horii, who at once worked out an agreement with the Navy and the naval air force at Rabaul for the escort and support of Colonel Yokoyama’s force. The latter force reached Rabaul on the 14th, and two days later Horii ordered Yokoyama to “carry out a landing near Basabua, and quickly occupy a strategic line south of Kokoda in order to reconnoiter the route over which it is intended to advance.” If he found it out of the question to advance beyond Kokoda, he was to occupy and hold the area from the coast westward to the Owen Stanley Range.

Yokoyama was specifically ordered to put the “road” east of the Owen Stanley Range in condition to handle motor traffic, and to prepare the “roads” in the mountains for the use, if not of vehicles, at least of pack horses.

On 18 July, on the eve of the departure of the Yokoyama Force for Buna, General Hyakutake prepared a plan looking to the capture not only of Port Moresby but also of a flanking position at Samarai, a small island just off the southeast tip of New Guinea. Samarai had an excellent harbor and in prewar days had been a trading center of considerable importance.

The Japanese, who as yet knew nothing of what was going on at Milne Bay, wanted Samarai (where they believed there was a small Allied garrison) in order to establish a seaplane base there for use in the attack on Port Moresby. The plan provided that the entire strength of the 17th Army—the South Seas Detachment at Rabaul, the Aoba and Yazawa Detachments at Davao, and the Kawaguchi Detachment at Palau—would be committed to these operations.

The South Seas Detachment, with the support of the Yazawa Detachment, would take Port Moresby by an advance over the mountains, and the Navy, aided by the Kawaguchi Detachment, would seize Samarai. The Aoba Detachment would remain in army reserve.

The Japanese apparently were no longer interested in a thorough reconnaissance of the Kokoda Trail. The mission of the Yokoyama Force had changed. Instead of being primarily a reconnaissance force, it had become an advance echelon. Its mission was not so much reconnaissance as to secure a firm foothold in the Buna-Kokoda area. When that was done, the main force would arrive and do the rest.

The Japanese Strike Inland

The Yokoyama Force Departs

The Yokoyama Force was quickly in readiness for the operation. Its troop list included the 1st Battalion, 144th Infantry, the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment (less one company and two platoons), a detachment of the 10th Independent Engineers, a company of the 55th Mountain Artillery, a company of Sasebo 5th Special Naval Landing Force, the 47th Field Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion (less two companies), several signal units, a field hospital section, and a service unit that included supply, transport, water-purification, and port battalion troops. Attached to this force of about 1,800 men were 100 naval laborers from Formosa, 52 horses, and 1,200 Rabaul natives impressed by the Japanese to act as porters and laborers. [NOTE 14]

[NOTE 14: There is no authoritative figure for the total strength of the Yokoyama Force. Troop strength, less the infantry battalion, is known to have been 1,115 men. Allowing 700 men for the battalion would bring the total strength to 1,800, the figure given.]

The Yokoyama Force received its instructions on 16 July and left for Buna four days later with an advance unit of the Sasebo 5th Special Naval Landing Force, in three heavily escorted transports. Effective diversions were mounted in support of the Yokoyama Force. As the convoy sped to its target, Japanese naval troops massed at Lae and Salamaua launched heavy raids upon Mubo and Komiatum in the Bulolo Valley, the two most forward outposts of KANGA Force. In addition, Japanese submarines, which had been operating off the east coast of Australia since early June, stepped up their activity and sank four Allied merchantmen the very day of the landing.

The landing cost the Japanese one ship, the transport Ayatozan Maru, which Allied air units caught and sank as it was unloading off Gona. Forty men and a number of vehicles were lost with the ship. The other two transports, whose cargo had already been unloaded when the air attack began, managed to escape without damage, as did their escort.

It had been agreed that Buna would be a naval installation, and the advance unit of the Sasebo Naval Landing Force was sent there immediately on landing. Colonel Yokoyama chose Giruwa, about three and a half miles east of the anchorage, as the site of the Army base and immediately ordered all Army troops there. The evening of the landing an advance force under Lieutenant Colonel Hatsuo Tsukamoto, commander of the infantry battalion, was organized at Giruwa and sent southward. The force was composed of the infantry battalion, an attached regimental signal unit, and a company of the 15th Independent Engineers. Tsukamoto, whose orders were “to push on night and day to the line of the mountain range,” appears to have taken them literally. The attacking force, about 900 men, made its first bivouac that night just outside of Soputa, a point about seven miles inland, and by the following afternoon was approaching Wairopi.

The Onset

Only light opposition faced the Japanese. MAROUBRA Force, the Australian force charged with the defense of Kokoda and the Kokoda Trail, still had most of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion on the Port Moresby side of the range. Only Company B and the 300-man Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) were in the Buna-Kokoda area at the time of the landing. Company B, 129 men at full strength, was at Kokoda; the PIB, part of whose strength was on patrol miles to the north, was at Awala, a few miles east of Wairopi.

A grueling overland march from Port Moresby had brought Company B to Kokoda on 12 July. Its heavy supplies and machine guns reached Buna by sea on the 19th; and company headquarters and one platoon, under the company commander, Captain Samuel V. Templeton, set out from Kokoda the same day to bring them in. After picking up the supplies and machine guns, Templeton had almost returned to Kokoda when the Japanese landed. He turned back at once when he heard the news, and made at top speed for Awala to reinforce the PIB.

A PIB patrol first sighted the Japanese at 1750, 22 July, a few miles from Awala. The enemy struck at Awala the following afternoon just as the headquarters of Company B and its accompanying platoon reached the area. After a short skirmish, Templeton’s force withdrew, taking up a defensive position that night just short of the Wairopi Bridge. The next day, with the enemy closing in, it pulled back over the bridge and demolished it before the Japanese could make the crossing.

The thrust toward Kokoda caught General Morris, who, as G.O.C. New Guinea Force, was in command at Port Moresby, at a painful disadvantage. He had been ordered to get the rest of the 39th Battalion to Kokoda with all speed, as soon as the Japanese landed,14 but found himself unable immediately to comply with the order. The problem was that four companies of the 39th Battalion (Headquarters Company and three rifle companies) were on the Port Moresby side of the mountains, including a rifle company in the foothills outside Port Moresby, Morris did what he could. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel William T. Owen, was immediately ordered to Kokoda by air in the one plane capable of landing there; Company C, the rifle company in the western foothills of the range, was ordered to march on Kokoda as quickly as possible; and the remaining three companies of the battalion, still at Port Moresby, were put on the alert for early movement to Kokoda by air if enough aircraft of a type capable of landing at Kokoda could be secured in time.

The Fall of Kokoda

Colonel Owen had been instructed to make a stand immediately east of Kokoda, and, if that failed, to take up a position south of it. He arrived at Kokoda on 24 July to find that there was little he could do to stop the onrush of the Japanese. The demolition of the Wairopi Bridge had not held them up long. By the 25th, they had a hasty bridge over the Kumusi and were advancing rapidly on Kokoda. Captain Templeton (whose original force of little more than a platoon had by this time been reinforced by a second platoon of Company B) made a desperate stand that day at Gorari, about eight miles west of Wairopi. The Japanese, attacking with mortars, machine guns, and light field pieces, quickly outflanked him and forced him to withdraw to Oivi, a point in the steep foothills of the range, only eight miles by trail from Kokoda.

General Morris had meanwhile been making every effort to get men forward. Early on 26 July, the small transport aircraft at his disposal made two flights to Kokoda, bringing in thirty men from Company D. Holding half of them at Kokoda, Colonel Owen sent the other half on to Oivi where Captain Templeton was trying to hold in the face of heavy odds. The resistance at Oivi did not last long. Templeton was killed that afternoon, and his tiny force was outflanked and encircled.

Colonel Owen now had no choice but to evacuate Kokoda, and did so just before midnight. After he sent New Guinea Force notice of the evacuation, Owen’s force—the rest of Company B, and the incoming fifteen men of Company D—crossed over the western side of Eora Creek Gorge. It took up previously prepared positions at Deniki, five miles southwest of Kokoda, and was joined next day by those of the Oivi force who had succeeded in extricating themselves during the night from the Japanese encirclement.

The Fight To Retake the Airfield

New Guinea Force received Owen’s evacuation message late on the morning of 27 July. By then the arrival from Australia of another plane had given General Morris’ headquarters two aircraft suitable for the Kokoda run, and both of them were in the air at the time loaded with troops and supplies.

They were at once recalled to Port Moresby. Next morning Owen counterattacked and, after some bitter hand-to-hand fighting, drove the Japanese out of Kokoda. Owen was now desperately in need of the very reinforcements that New Guinea Force had recalled the previous day. Unfortunately the message that he had regained Kokoda did not reach Port Moresby until late in the afternoon, too late for action that day.

Meanwhile, two more planes had come from Australia. New Guinea Force, now with four transports that could land at Kokoda, planned to fly in a full infantry company with mortar and antiaircraft elements the first thing in the morning. The planes were never sent. At dawn on the 29th, the Japanese counterattacked and, after two hours of fighting during which Colonel Owen was killed, again drove the Australians out of Kokoda.

Australian reinforcements had meanwhile begun arriving in the forward area on foot. Company C reached Deniki on 31 July, followed the next day by Company A. By 7 August, all five companies of the 39th Battalion were at the front, and MAROUBRA Force totaled 480 men. Supplies were being manhandled over the trail by the incoming troops, and by hundreds of native carriers under the supervision of ANGAU. Food and ammunition were also being dropped from the air—a dry lake bed at Myola, a few miles southeast of Kagi, the forward supply base, served as the main dropping ground.

There were patrol clashes on 7 and 8 August, and early on 10 August MAROUBRA Force, which estimated enemy strength at Kokoda as no more than 400 men counterattacked. Three companies were committed to the assault, with the remaining two held in reserve. While one company engaged the Japanese to the south of Kokoda, a second moved astride the Kokoda-Oivi track via the Abuari-Missima-Fila cutoff and engaged them to the east of Kokoda. The third company marched undetected on Kokoda and took possession of the airfield that afternoon without suffering a single casualty.

The success was short-lived. The company astride the Japanese rear had to be ordered back to Deniki to stem a powerful enemy attack on that point, and the company holding the airfield (whose position had in any event become untenable) had to evacuate it on the night of 11-12 August because of a critical shortage of supplies.

Colonel Yokoyama was now ready to attack with his full force. Early on 13 August, he struck the Australian position at Deniki with about 1,500 men. The Australians were forced to yield not only Deniki but also Isurava five miles away. The Japanese, having no intention at the moment of going any farther, began to dig in.

Kokoda and the Buna-Kokoda track were now firmly in Japanese hands, and a base had been established for the advance on Port Moresby through the Gap. According to plan, the move was to be undertaken as soon as General Horii and the main body of the South Seas Detachment reached the scene of operations.

The Main Force Arrives

The Joint Agreement of 31 July

General Hyakutake arrived at Rabaul from Davao on 24 July to find that Colonel Yokoyama had been reporting good progress in his thrust on Kokoda. As the news from Yokoyama continued good, Hyakutake, seeing no reason for further delay, recommended to Imperial General Headquarters that the overland operation be undertaken at once. Tokyo, which had been well disposed to the project from the first, quickly gave its blessing and, on 28 July, ordered the operation to be mounted as quickly as possible.

Three days later, on the 31st, General Hyakutake concluded a joint Army-Navy agreement with Vice Admiral Nichizo Tsukahara, commander of the 11th Air Fleet, and Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, commander of the newly established 8th Fleet.

Mikawa had just taken over control of naval operations in the New Guinea-Bismarcks-Solomons area from the 4th Fleet. After stating that the seizure of Port Moresby and other key points in eastern New Guinea was necessary in order to secure control of the Coral Sea, the three commanders adopted a basic plan of attack patterned closely on the draft plan which General Hyakutake had prepared on 18 July, thirteen days before.

The plan provided that General Horii, with both the South Seas Detachment and the Yazawa Detachment under his command, would move on Port Moresby via Kokoda, and that the Kawaguchi Detachment, supported by units of the 8th Fleet, would take Samarai. As soon as Samarai was taken, a “Port Moresby Attack Force,” consisting of the Kawaguchi Detachment and elements of the 8th Fleet would be organized there. Then, in a move timed to coincide with diversionary attacks on the Bulolo Valley by the naval troops at Lae and Salamaua, the attack force would embark for Port Moresby, attacking it from the sea at the precise moment that the South Seas and Yazawa Detachments cleared the mountains and began attacking it from landward.

The agreement provided specifically that all the forces at the disposal of the participating commanders would be available for these operations, which were to begin on X Day, the day that the main body of the South Seas Detachment arrived at Buna. X Day was set as 7 August, the date, interestingly enough, of the projected American landing at Guadalcanal.

Under the joint agreement of 31 July, the 8th Fleet had undertaken to have the airfields at Buna and Kokoda in operation when the main force landed. But this project was not to be easily accomplished. On 29 and 31 July the Allied Air Force caught the enemy supply ships, laden with vehicles and construction materials for the field, while they were en route to Buna. The Kotoku Maru was lost and the rest were obliged to return to Rabaul with their cargo undelivered. These mishaps, and the discovery that the airfield site at Buna was very soggy and could not possibly be put into readiness by 7 August, caused X Day to be moved forward to 16 August.

The Landings in the Solomons

Pursuant to the Joint Directive of 2 July, the 1st Marine Division, reinforced, went ashore on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and adjoining islands in the southern Solomons early on 7 August. The Americans quickly dispersed the weak forces the enemy had on the islands, including a few hundred garrison troops and a couple of thousand naval construction troops on Guadalcanal. By the evening of 8 August the marines were in control of Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo and held the airfield at Lunga Point on Guadalcanal, the main objective of the landings.

World War Two: Guadalcanal (1); Plans for Invasion

The 8th Fleet had been busy gathering ships for the Port Moresby operation. Though caught off balance by the landings, it struck back vigorously during the early hours of 9 August. Entering the area between Florida Island and Guadalcanal undetected, the Japanese sank four heavy cruisers, including the Australian flagship Canberra which with other ships of Task Force 44, Admiral Leary’s main force, was in the Solomons supporting the landings.

That afternoon the Allied fleet pulled out of the area in accordance with a decision made the previous evening that its ships were vulnerable and would have to be withdrawn. No sooner was the withdrawal completed than the 8th Fleet and the naval air units at Rabaul began a day-and-night harassment of the Marine landing force.

The next step was to send in troops. Here the Japanese ran into difficulties. The 8th Fleet did not have enough naval troops at Rabaul and Kavieng to counter the American landings. The 17th Army, on the other hand, was at a loss to know which of its forces to order to Guadalcanal. The South Seas Detachment, its only unit at Rabaul, was committed to the Port Moresby operation, and the rest of its troops were out of reach at Davao and Palau.

After much consultation between Tokyo and Rabaul, it was decided to use the Kawaguchi Detachment, less one battalion, which would remain committed to the capture of Samarai and the subsequent landing at Port Moresby. Because there was no shipping immediately available at Palau with which to get the detachment to its destination, a further decision was made to have another force precede it. The Ichiki Detachment, which was already at sea and in position to reach the target quickly, was given the assignment.

These decisions had scarcely been made when Rabaul discovered for the first time that the Allies were building an airfield at Milne Bay and had a garrison there. It was a startling discovery. Realizing that their reconnaissances of the area had been faulty, and that they had almost attacked the wrong objective, the Japanese at once abandoned the Samarai operation and chose Rabi, near the head of Milne Bay, as the new target. It was to be taken by the same battalion of the Kawaguchi Detachment which had previously been assigned to the capture of Samarai, plus such naval landing units of the 8th Fleet as would be available at the time of the operation.

The Japanese Build-up at Buna

At Buna, meanwhile, the Japanese buildup was proceeding. It had been interrupted by the Allied landings in the southern Solomons, but not seriously. For example, a convoy carrying the 3,000 men of the 14th and 15th Naval Construction Units, their construction equipment, vehicles, and some army supplies had left Rabaul for Buna on 6 August. It was recalled next day by the 8th Fleet when it was only part of the way to its destination. Held over at Rabaul till the situation in the Solomons clarified itself, the convoy left Rabaul a second time on the night of 12 August and, though heavily attacked from the air on the way, reached Basabua safely the following afternoon. By early morning of the 14th, the ships were unloaded and on their way home. Next morning as work began on the Buna strip and on a dummy strip immediately to the west of it, the ships, despite more air attacks, arrived back at Rabaul undamaged.

The main body of the Nankai Shitai (less a rear echelon which was to come later) left Rabaul on 17 August in three escorted transports. Aboard were Detachment Headquarters under General Horii; the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 144th Infantry with attached gun company, signal unit, and ammunition sections; the two remaining companies of the 55th Mountain Artillery; the rest of the 47th Field AAA Battalion; a company of the 55th Cavalry with attached antitank gun section; part of the divisional medical unit, a base hospital, a collecting station, and a divisional decontamination and water-purification unit. A naval liaison detachment, a couple of hundred more men of the Sasebo 5th Special Naval Landing Force, 700 more Rabaul natives, 170 horses, and a large tonnage of supplies were also in the convoy.

[NOTE 15: Nankai Shitai Opns Orders No. 96, 12 Aug 42 Annex No. 5, Table of Disposition of South Seas Detachment Aboard Ship, 15 Aug 42, in ATIS CT 21, No. 267; No. 98, 18 Aug 42, No. 99, 21 Aug 42, in ATIS EP 33; Yazawa Shitai Intel Rpt No. 3, in ATIS CT 24, No. 293; Naval Account, Japanese Invasion Eastern New Guinea, p. 19; 17th Army Opns, I, 47, 48. The date of the Shitai’s arrival at the beachhead was moved up from 16 to 18 August because of the delays in getting the 14th and 15th Naval Construction Units there.]

Without being detected by Allied air units, the transports reached Basabua in the late afternoon of 18 August and were unloaded quickly and without incident. Strangely enough, the transports were not attacked during the entire time they were at anchor, nor even while they were on their way back to Rabaul. The Allied Air Forces had been caught napping. The biggest prize of all, the main body of the Nankai Shitai and Detachment Headquarters, had landed safely.

The Yazawa Detachment, the 41st Infantry Regiment under its commander, Colonel Kiyomi Yazawa, was next to go. The regiment, detached in March 1942 from the 5th Division, had distinguished itself in Malaya. Like the Nankai Shitai and the 15th Independent Engineers, it was a veteran force with a high reputation for aggressiveness. The Yazawa Force had reached Rabaul from Davao on 16 August and upon arrival had come under General Horii’s command as an integral part of the South Seas Detachment.

Rabaul had planned to have the full strength of the regiment, plus the rear echelon of the Nankai Shitai, arrive at the beachhead together. At the last moment, however, it was decided to put aboard a large Army bridge-building and road-construction unit, numbering about a thousand men. This change in plan made it necessary to leave the rear echelon troops and one battalion of the 41st Infantry for a later convoy. As finally loaded on 18 August, the troop list included regimental headquarters and two battalions of the 41st Infantry, a regimental gun unit, signal, ordnance and motor transport troops, a veterinary hospital, a water supply and purification unit, and the bridge-building and road-construction unit. Also aboard were a hundred more men of the Sasebo 5th Special Naval Landing Force, some 200 more Rabaul natives, 200 more horses, several hundred cases of ammunition, five tons of medical supplies, a quantity of gasoline in drums, and large stores of food and fodder.

The convoy left Rabaul on 19 August and landed at Basabua on 21 August in the midst of a storm. There was no interference from Allied aircraft, the ships unloaded safely, and the two battalions of the 41st Infantry made their first bivouac that night at Popondetta about fifteen miles southeast of the anchorage. Except for some 1,500 men—the rear echelon of the Nankai Shitai and the remaining battalion of the 41st Infantry, which were due in the next convoy—the full allocation of troops for the overland push against Port Moresby had arrived at the scene of operations.

Horii would have a hard time getting additional troops, for things had not gone well at Guadalcanal. The advance echelon of the Ichiki Detachment had reached the island on 19 August. Though the strength of the force was under a thousand men, its commander had attacked at once without waiting for reinforcements. The attacking force was cut to pieces, and General Hyakutake, as a result, again had to change his plans. He returned the battalion of the Kawaguchi Detachment, which had been scheduled for the Milne Bay operations, to its parent detachment for use in the Solomons. Hyakutake then earmarked the Aoba Detachment, previously in Army reserve, as the landing force for the Milne Bay operation, thus leaving the Army without a reserve force upon which to call in case of need.

General Horii Takes Over

By this time General Horii had a substantial force at his disposal. A total of 8,000 Army troops, 3,000 naval construction troops, and some 450 troops of the Sasebo 5th Special Naval Landing Force had been landed safely in the Buna-Gona area since the Yokoyama Advance Force had hit the beach at Basabua a month before. Even with combat losses which had been light, the desertion of some of the Rabaul natives, and the diversion of a substantial portion of his combat strength for essential supply and communication activities, it was still a formidable force. But whether such a force would be able to cross the Owen Stanley Mountains in the face of determined opposition and still be in condition to launch a successful attack on Port Moresby when it reached the other side, even General Horii, poised as he was for the operation, probably would have found it difficult to answer.

General Willoughby, General MacArthur’s G-2, while admitting the possibility that the Japanese might attempt to cross the mountains in force, found it hard to believe, with the terrain what it was, that they would seriously contemplate doing so. His stated belief in late July was that the Japanese undertook seizure of the Buna-Gona-Kokoda area primarily to secure advanced airfields in the favorable terrain afforded by the grass plains area at Dobodura. They needed the airfields, he submitted, in order to bring Port Moresby and the Cape York Peninsula under attack, and also to support a possible coastwise infiltration to the southeast which would have as its culmination joint Army and Navy operations against both Port Moresby and Milne Bay. He conceded that the Japanese might go as far as the Gap in order to establish a forward outpost there, but held it extremely unlikely that they would go further in view of the fantastically difficult terrain beyond.

On 12 August, with two landings completed, and a third expected momentarily, General Willoughby still held that “an overland advance in strength is discounted in view of logistic difficulties, poor communications, and difficult terrain.” On 18 August, the day that the main body of the Nankai Shitai landed at Basabua, he again gave it as his belief that the enemy’s purpose seemed to be the development of an air base for fighters and medium bombers at Dobodura and that, while more pressure could be expected in the Kokoda-Gap area, “an overland movement in strength is discounted in view of the terrain.”

On 21 August, almost a week after the activity began, Allied air reconnaissance discovered for the first time that the Japanese were lengthening the small low-lying emergency landing strip at Buna which Colonel Robinson had reported as unsuitable for military use. The discovery that the Japanese were building airfields in the Buna area (if only at Buna rather than as they might have done at Dobodura) led General Willoughby to the conclusion that here at last was the explanation for the Japanese seizure of the beachhead. The fact that they had done so, he thought, had nothing to do with a possible thrust through the mountains, for an overland operation against Port Moresby was to be “discounted in view of the logistical difficulties of maintaining any force in strength” on the Kokoda Trail.

The same day that General Willoughby issued this estimate, General Horii, who had previously been at Giruwa, left the beachhead for Kokoda to take personal charge of the advance through the Gap. The overland operation against Port Moresby, which General Willoughby had been so thoroughly convinced the Japanese would not undertake, was about to begin.

SOURCE: Victory in Papua, BY: Samuel Milner (United States Army Center of Military History)

World war Two: Papuan Campaign (6): Japanese Offensive Collapses

World War Two: Papuan Campaign (4);Operation PROVIDENCE