World War Two: Papuan Campaign (12): I Corps Reaches the Front

The failure of the 32nd Division to take Buna by the end of November had strong repercussions at Port Moresby. The feeling there was that the division had bogged down because of poor leadership, a feeling that was to cost General Harding his command.

The Situation: 30 November

The Condition of the Troops

The men on both the Urbana and Warren fronts were tired and listless. They had not been sufficiently hardened for jungle operations and, with few exceptions, had not been fresh when they reached the combat zone. Thrown into battle in an exhausted state, most of them had had no chance to rest since. The loss of the 126th Infantry to the Australians on 19 November had left General Harding without a reserve.

Nor had the return of the far-from-fresh 2nd Battalion to his command on 23 November remedied the situation, for the battalion was immediately incorporated into Urbana Force, and the division still had no reserve. As General Harding explained the matter to General Herring the men, especially during the first five days of combat, had been without rest, and every combat element had, during that time, been “to all intents and purposes continuously engaged.”

The troops were half-starved. Most of them had been living on short rations for weeks and their food intake since the fighting began had averaged about a third of a C ration per day—just enough to sustain life. They were shaggy and bearded and their clothes were ragged. Their feet were swollen and in bad shape. Their shoes, which had shrunk in the wet, often had to be cut away so that the troops could even get their feet into them.

The men had very little tentage to protect themselves from the heavy rains. Those who had lost or thrown away their shelter halves during the approach march were still without them and had to sleep in the open. Quinine sulphate, salt tablets, vitamin pills, and chlorination pellets were in short supply, and sicknesses—malaria, “jungle rot,” dengue fever, and dysentery—were beginning to take an increasing toll.

Dysentery was the most widespread affliction. Tainted rations, the long periods that the troops had gone without food, and the lack of sterilizing equipment had all contributed to that result There were those who were careless with their drinking water, but they were a small minority. The fact was that even those who were extremely careful caught the disease. Thus, Colonel MacNab recalls that although he never drank water that was not chlorinated he “suffered from dysentery as much as any of the troops.

The troops were having trouble with their weapons, partly because of the wet, but mostly because they were not getting gun oil, patches, and other cleaning aids. The M1’s had been issued without oil and thong cases. Though gun oil was reaching the front it arrived in large containers that made wide distribution of it impracticable, with the result that some of the troops had to go completely without oil for considerable periods of time. Their weapons therefore—especially the BAR’s and machine guns—kept jamming.

There were other serious supply deficiencies. Spare parts and rifle clips were hard to come by, and the troops frequently ran short of ammunition, especially mortar shells. Some had lost their entrenching tools, and so disrupted was supply that they had not been replaced.

Morale was low. Instead of being met, as they had been led to expect, by a few hundred sick and starving Japanese, they found themselves facing apparently large numbers of fresh, well-fed, well-armed troops in seemingly impregnable positions, against whom in almost two weeks of righting they had failed to score even one noteworthy success.

Most frustrating of all, however, was the realization that they did not have the proper weapons to reduce the bunkers that stood in their way. They were without tanks, grenade launchers, or flame throwers, and mortars, artillery, and air bombardment seemed to have no effect on the enemy’s formidable bunker positions. About the only method they could use to reduce the enemy bunkers was to crawl forward as close as the Japanese protective fire would allow and then make a sudden rush in the hope of getting close enough to push hand grenades through the firing slits. This was a course in which, as one who was present was to observe, “Many more failed than succeeded, but for the most part, there was no other way.”

Supply

Adequate supply, a basic ingredient of good morale, was simply out of the question at Buna during the latter part of November and the first few days of December, for the Japanese by the end of November had succeeded in cutting the division’s supply line by sea. The division had had six luggers in operation on 21 November, but only one was still making the run on the 28th. The rest had either broken up on the reefs or been destroyed by the enemy. Everything now depended on the airlift, which was still too small to fill more than a fraction of the division’s needs. By the end of the month, less than sixty tons of freight had been brought in by air—about the equivalent of what one lugger could bring in two trips.

With air space strictly limited, there had been a mad scramble for priorities, and the division, intent on getting enough food and ammunition to the troops to keep the fighting going, found itself competing for space with its supporting elements. In a message to Major Birkness at Port Moresby, Colonel Joseph S. Bradley, Division G-4, wrote that the “many priorities by the medics, antiaircraft people, engineers, and others are causing essential chow and ammunition for the fighting men to be held up.” He closed his message with the plea that Birkness lose no time in bringing the difficulty “to the attention of the Big Boys.”

to General Herring in succinct fashion on 28 November. “Everything,” he wrote, “had been going beautifully until November the 16th, the day they blitzed the four ships, all of which were loaded with supplies and ammunition.” Since then, he added, everything had been on a “hand-to-mouth, catch-as-catch-can basis.” Nor had the situation improved with the arrival of new luggers on the 21st.. . . The little ship situation [General Harding continued] has gone from bad to worse. One went on the reefs a little while ago, another got stuck on a sandbar on the 25th, and was bombed by the Japs the following day, and three more have been shot up and bombed while at anchor, one at Mendaropu, one off Embogu, and one yesterday in Oro Bay. That finishes the Red Arrow freighters. There’s nothing left except one small craft with a kicker that will make about two knots. . . .

Though the division now had to get almost all of its supplies from Dobodura, the process was difficult because no roads existed between the airfield and the front suitable for the use of vehicles. The engineers were building a jeep track between Dobodura and Simemi to speed up the transfer of material to the front lines, but there were not enough engineer troops and engineer tools in the area to do the job quickly. Until the road was completed, native carriers, too few for the task, had to carry the supplies forward from Dobodura on their backs. Because the carriers would not go into the front lines, it became necessary to use combat troops to complete the deliveries.

The Question of Additional Support

General Harding had little luck in his pleas for additional support. When he asked for tanks he had been promised Bren gun carriers, but even the carriers had not arrived. When he asked for ten more artillery pieces, he was promised four—sometime in December. When he asked for all or part of the 127th Infantry (which had finally reached Port Moresby on Thanksgiving Day), General Herring had disapproved the request with the remark, “I cannot see what it is needed for, as you seem to have ample reserves.”

On 29 November Harding moved his headquarters from Embogo to Dobodura. The next day he had an opportunity to renew his plea for additional support. Not only did General Herring visit him, but General Sutherland flew in from Port Moresby.

Herring, who had just opened his headquarters at Popondetta, reached Dobodura by air early in the morning of the 30th, ahead of Sutherland. After the usual amenities, the two generals seated themselves on some empty ammunition boxes and plunged into a discussion devoted principally to Harding’s request for the 127th Infantry.

After expressing his dissatisfaction over the diversion to General Vasey of Colonel Tomlinson’s 126th Infantry troops, and getting no promise of their return, Harding began to press Herring for at least part of the 127th Infantry. This is the way Harding reported the discussion in his diary, The chief topic we discussed was the bringing in of part or all of the 127th Infantry.

In one of his letters to me, General Herring had stated that he disapproved of previous requests that part or all of the regiment be thrown in, on the ground that we had plenty of reserves. I explained somewhat heatedly, that we had no reserves, and I argued to the best of my ability for additional troops, not to relieve those in the line, but to strike in another quarter. General Herring remained unconvinced of the need or desirability of the proposed move despite all my protestations.

Recalling the matter, Harding was to write: I tried to give Herring the picture by letter, radio, and finally face to face, but he never seemed to get it. He was a gentleman … a scholar, and a pretty good guy withal, but his heart, I am sure, was with the Australians. He seemed to take an almost detached view of the trials and tribulations of my ail-American contingent. I felt all along that he had very little scope for independent decision.

Harding and Herring were still discussing the problem when Sutherland arrived. Sutherland was also opposed to bringing in the regiment. His argument was that the problem of supplying the troops already in the area was taxing the transport facilities of the air force to the utmost, and that it would be unwise to bring in more troops until a stockpile had been built up at Dobodura.

General Harding then pleaded for at least one battalion of the 127th Infantry to strike in a new quarter, but General Sutherland was adamant. The supply level would have to be raised, he said, before such a move could be considered. A further request by Harding that Colonel Tomlinson be returned to him was also refused. General Harding, who did not take kindly to these refusals, considered that he had been given “the brush-off.”

General Eichelberger Is Ordered Forward:General Sutherland Stays for Lunch

At the close of the discussion General Herring flew back to Popondetta, and General Sutherland, who had more to say, stayed for lunch. During the course of the meal, Harding again pressed him about the 127th Infantry…. I asked [he noted in his diary] if the Australians were going to use it on the other side of the river. His reply was startling. He said that that had been discussed, and that Blarney had spoken disparagingly of the fighting qualities of the American troops, and told MacArthur that he preferred to use his militia brigade in that quarter. He had also dropped one or two remarks to the effect that the Americans weren’t showing the fight they should. I told him that anyone who thought that didn’t know the facts—that while we hadn’t made much progress, it wasn’t because we weren’t in there fighting, and I reminded him that our casualties would testify to the hard fighting that had been going on.

General Blarney had indeed spoken disparagingly to General MacArthur of the performance of the 32nd Division. The conversation had taken place five days before at Government House, General MacArthur’s headquarters at Port Moresby.

General Kenney, who had been present (and had made a note of General Blamey’s remarks), felt that it had been “a bitter pill for General MacArthur to swallow.” It must have been, for it was about this time, as General Kenney recalls further, that General MacArthur “began to be worried about the caliber of his infantry.” Stories that American troops were fighting badly and that some had even thrown away their machine guns and fled in panic from the enemy were reaching headquarters, [NOTE 21E] as were observers’ reports which were distinctly unfavorable in tone. The observers noted that the troops and their officers seemed to lack aggressiveness, that many of the junior leaders did not seem to know their business, and that “too many” commanders were trying to conduct operations from a command post. At least one of the observers seems to have gone so far as to say that the 32nd Division would not fight.

Matters came to a head when Colonel Larr, General Chamberlin’s deputy, visited the front on 27 and 28 November and returned to Port Moresby with an extremely adverse report on conditions there. General Sutherland, whose visit was apparently occasioned by Larr’s report, mentioned it to Harding during lunch. He told Harding that because of its unfavorable tone General MacArthur had sent for General Eichelberger and would probably order him to the front. Sutherland then asked Harding (whose two field commanders, Colonels Mott and Hale, were ill-regarded by both I Corps and GHQ) whether he intended to make any changes in his top command.

Though Harding knew that Mott had a “notable talent for antagonizing superiors, subordinates, and contemporaries,” and was not particularly impressed with Colonel Hale’s ability as a regimental commander, [NOTE 27E] he nevertheless replied in the negative. Mott, he pointed out, appeared to be doing an excellent job on the Urbana front and, while he “frankly . . . questioned whether Hale had the qualifications to lead a regiment in battle,” he considered that he was “doing fairly well in the only chance he had had to show his stuff.”

[NOTE 21E: Ibid., pp. 150, 154, 156, 157. The incident which had given rise to these stories occurred on 24 November (see above, p. 186). The units involved were Company E, 128th Infantry, and the Weapons Platoon of Company G, 128th Infantry, then in their first day of combat.]

[NOTE 27E: Gen Harding’s Diary, 30 Nov 42. General Harding’s feeling in the matter was that Hale, as his last regimental commander from the National Guard, in a division in which the bulk of the officers were from the Guard, should be given a chance to show what he could do, especially since Colonel MacNab, who was on the ground, could be trusted to keep him out of trouble. Interv with Gen Harding, 9 Dec 47.]

[NOTE 29E: Eichelberger, promoted to lieutenant general on 15 October 1942, had been at Port Moresby in mid-November to observe the 32nd Division in action. He had been ordered back to Australia before the fight for the beachhead began in order to prepare a camp for the 25th U.S. Infantry Division, which was then on the alert for movement to Australia from Hawaii. The mission had come to nothing since the division had been diverted at the last moment to Guadalcanal in order to make possible the relief of the 1st Marine Division and its transfer to Australia for rest and rehabilitation. Ltr, CINCSWPA to CG USASOS et al., 22 Nov 42, sub: Reinforcements, in G-3 Jnl, GHQ SWPA; Msgs, Gen Marshall to Gen MacArthur, No. 3874, CM-OUT 6906, 23 Nov 42; No. 4131, CM-OUT 9526, 30 Nov 42; Interv with Gen Eichelberger, 21 Nov 48.]

Harding’s reply apparently was enough for General Sutherland. The latter returned to Port Moresby that same afternoon, 30 November, and recommended to General MacArthur that General Harding be relieved at once on the ground that he insisted on keeping in command subordinates whose competence was open to question.

General Eichelberger Is Given His Orders

As Sutherland had told Harding, General MacArthur had already ordered General Eichelberger to Port Moresby. [NOTE 29E] Eichelberger was at Rockhampton training the 41st Division in jungle warfare at the time the summons was received. It was 29 November, a summery and quiet Sunday, the last quiet day General Eichelberger was to enjoy for a long time. There were two messages. The first was an alerting order from General Chamberlin at Brisbane telling Eichelberger to stand by and advising him that if it was decided that he and a small staff were to go to Port Moresby he would be told that night.

Late at night the second message came ordering them to go. By that time General Eichelberger, Brigadier General Clovis E. Byers, his chief of staff, six staff officers, his aide, and nine enlisted men, mostly clerks, were packed and ready. They took off in two C-47’s for Port Moresby early the next morning, 30 November, and, after an uneventful flight over the Coral Sea, landed at Seven Mile Airdrome late in the afternoon. They were met at the airstrip by Colonel Larr, who told Eichelberger that he would be given four or five days to be briefed on the situation at Buna before he and his staff went over the mountains.

Eichelberger and Byers were given quarters at Government House, General MacArthur’s headquarters, a comfortable sprawling place, which in prewar days had been the official residence of the lieutenant governor of Papua. They had scarcely reached their rooms when they were ordered to report to General MacArthur immediately.

The two officers preserved a vivid recollection of what followed. They found General MacArthur with Generals Kenney and Sutherland on the long breezy veranda at the front of the house. General Kenney gave them a welcoming smile when they were ushered into MacArthur’s presence, but General Sutherland, who had come in earlier in the afternoon with the news that General Harding had no intention of relieving his subordinate commanders, sat at a desk, stern and unsmiling. Aware that General Sutherland had just returned from Dobodura, General Eichelberger, who had been surprised at the abruptness of the summons to report to General MacArthur, was surprised no longer. It was plain to see, he wrote later on, that Sutherland’s report had been the cause.

Striding up and down the veranda, grim and intense, General MacArthur without preliminary plunged into the matter at hand. American troops, he told the officers, had dropped their weapons and run from the enemy. He had never been so humiliated in his life, and it was the kind of thing that he would not stand for. Harding, he said, had failed and the blame for what had happened was his. What was needed at Buna, he told Eichelberger, was aggressive leadership. He knew, he continued, that the troops were not trained for operations in the jungle, that they were sick, and that the climate was wearing them down, but he was convinced that “a real leader could take these same men and capture Buna.”

General MacArthur told Eichelberger that he was to relieve Harding and his subordinate commanders, “or,” he flung out, “I will relieve them myself and you too.” “Time was of the essence,” he said, for the Japanese might land reinforcements “any night.” Continuing his restless pacing up and down the veranda, he told Eichelberger, “Go out there, Bob, and take Buna or don’t come back alive.” Then pointing to General Byers, he added, “And that goes for your chief of staff, Clovis, too.”

MacArthur went on to tell Eichelberger and Byers that he knew his staff thought they should have four or five days to be briefed on the situation before they went over the mountains. Things, however, were too serious for that, and he would therefore give them not even one day. They were to get ready immediately and leave for Buna in the morning.

General Eichelberger’s First Day at Buna

Subsequent briefings and conferences lasted far into the night. In the morning, immediately after breakfast, General Eichelberger and his party left for Buna. They landed at Dobodura at 0958, and, at 1300, General Eichelberger, as commander of I Corps, assumed command of all U.S. troops in the Buna Area.

Harding, who had been in the midst of a letter to General Sutherland when Eichelberger and the corps staff arrived, noted in his diary that night: Eichelberger had come fresh from the presence of MacArthur who had given him an earful of instructions concerning what he, Eichelberger, was expected to do. First of all, he was to take command of American troops in the sector. I wasn’t sure just where that left me, but I gathered MacArthur was much dissatisfied with way things were going. Among other things, he had told Eichelberger that he was to take Buna or die before it.

After explaining how General MacArthur felt about the situation at Buna, Eichelberger asked Harding what changes he proposed making in his command in order to get things moving. When Harding replied that he intended to relieve no one and that most of his commanders deserved to be decorated not relieved, Eichelberger pushed the matter no further. He decided to spend the day at Dobodura, find out what he could there, and inspect the front the following day. Two of his staff officers, Colonel Clarence A. Martin, his G-3, and Colonel Gordon Rogers, his G-2, would observe the attack on the Warren front, while he himself would observe it on the Urbana front.

That night General Eichelberger wrote to General Sutherland that, to judge from what he heard during the day, things did not appear to be as bad as he had been led to expect. Colonel Mott, for instance, was reporting progress, and seemed to be within a hundred yards of Buna Village. Eichelberger referred to a conversation that he had had that day with Brigadier R. N. L. Hopkins, General Herring’s chief of staff. Hopkins, he said, had stated that General Herring wanted Buna Mission taken and was not particularly interested in the capture of Buna Village. “I told him,” General Eichelberger wrote, “that I had directed, prior to seeing him, that Buna Village be captured tonight, and while I was anxious to get in Buna Mission, I did not want to leave the force in Buna Village on our front and rear.”I shall go forward in the morning,” General Eichelberger continued, “to gain a first hand knowledge of the situation.” While he was not willing to admit anything, he said, until he had “personally surveyed the situation well forward,” he nevertheless felt that he could already recommend the dispatch to the beachhead of “at least 127th Infantry, because we may need a fresh impetus to carry into Buna Village.”

Buna Operations: 1 and 2 December The Urbana Front

The night of 30 November-1 December had been an uneasy one on the Urbana front. The 25-pounders and the mortars had laid down a desultory fire on Buna Village, and a few unarmed Japanese were killed trying to get back to the large grassy strip where the headquarters area had been, in an effort apparently to recover some of the food and weapons left there. There was actually little action during the night, but the exhausted troops, who were expecting a counterattack, got little real rest.

In the morning Urbana force made another attempt to take Buna Village. Detachments from the Headquarters Companies of both 2nd Battalions, and a section of machine guns from Company H, 126th Infantry, were sent forward to reinforce Company E, 126th Infantry. This time the plan was to move on Buna Village through the relatively open area just below the bridge over the Girua River, instead of directly up the main track. The attempt was preceded by fire from the 25-pounders at Ango and from all the available 60-mm. and 81-mm. mortars in battery, the latter being, as before, under Captain Hantlemann of Company H. At the start the action went well, and several bunkers were knocked out. Then, just as the troops seems to be on the point of going through, Company E, instead of continuing to press forward, withdrew. Whether it did so because there was a mix-up in signals or because the men were “jumpy,” Colonel Mott was unable to ascertain.

[NOTE: 40C1: Colonel Mott’s Memo. Private John E. Combs of Company E distinguished himself on this day for a superb job of scouting, during the course of which he maneuvered himself behind an enemy bunker that had been holding up the advance, killed twelve Japanese single-handed, and enabled his platoon to take the position. For this exploit, Combs was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation is in the GHQ SWPA, GO No. 1, 1 Jan 43.]

Although his front line was now less than 300 yards from Buna Village, Colonel Mott decided to make no further attacks that day. His plan was to attack again in the morning with the aid of the Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, which had meanwhile been promised him by General Harding. There was intermittent firing during the night, most of it by enemy mortars and machine guns. A few Japanese again tried, unsuccessfully, to reach the large grassy strip. Otherwise, the night was quiet and the troops got a little rest.

By the following morning Colonel Mott had available for the attack on the village Companies E and H, 126th Infantry, the Cannon Company, and a platoon of Company F, 128th Infantry, which he had ordered up from the other side of the Girua River. He had also the eight additional mortars that General Harding, true to his promise, had rushed to him.

At 0950 the artillery opened a heavy concentration of fire on the bunkers holding up the advance. The artillery was followed by Captain Hantlemann’s massed 60-mm. and 81-mm. mortars. The artillery fire was accurate, and the mortar barrage intense and well placed. As soon as the American infantrymen attempted to move forward, however, they were stopped by heavy bands of fire across every axis of approach. Colonel Mott was again forced to call off the attack in order to give his battered troops at least one day’s rest before they attacked again.

Weakened by fever and suffering from hunger and exhaustion, the men by this time were in pitiable condition. Major Roger O. Egeberg, a visiting medical officer from Milne Bay, who saw the troops on 1 December, reported to General Eichelberger in General Harding’s hearing that they looked like “Christ off the Cross.”

[NOTE 42C1: Msgs, Gen Eichelberger to NGF, Sers 1882 and 1933, 2 Dec 42; Msg, Urbana Force to 32nd Div, Ser 1898, 2 Dec 42. All in 32nd Div G-2, G-3 Jnl. 2nd Bn, 126th Inf, Jnl, 2 Dec 42; 2nd Bn, 128th Inf, Jnl, 0030, 0954, 2 Dec. 42. Two men particularly distinguished themselves in the day’s attack—Captain Hantlemann, and 1st Lieutenant James I. Hunt of Battalion Headquarters Company, who at his own request led a platoon in the attack on the village. Each was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citations are in GHQ SWPA, GO No. 1, 1 Jan 43.]

As Colonel Mott observed, the men were suffering from the continuous round of fighting, lack of food, and lack of sleep, as well as from “the long marches and short rations on which they had been subsisting even before the fighting started.” An entry on 2 December in the journal of the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, made just after the Japanese had repulsed Company E’s fifth attack on Buna reads, “The troops that we have left are weak and tired and need rest and reinforcement.” It was clear that until they got both, it would be impossible to close the last few yards between them and Buna Village.

The Warren Front

General Harding had already concluded that to attack Cape Endaiadere and the New Strip simultaneously was tactically unsound because the attacks from the eastern end of the New Strip were on divergent lines. He decided therefore to shift the main attack to the New Strip. At 1045 on 1 December he ordered Colonel Hale to stop pressing the attack on Cape Endaiadere and to lend all possible support instead to Colonel Carrier in an attack on the New Strip. One of Colonel McCoy’s companies was to be left in place along the coastal track to hold the position there, and the other two companies were to support Colonel Carrier in his operations against the strip.

The plan of action, including air and artillery support, called for Company B, 128th Infantry, to remain in position about 900 yards south of Cape Endaiadere and to launch a series of demonstrations intended to deceive the enemy into thinking that the main Allied effort was still against the cape. The real attack would be against the New Strip. Its object was essentially exploratory: to discover a weak spot in the enemy line and to “go all out” if it found a hole.

Company A, 128th Infantry, with Company B, 126th Infantry, and what was left of Company C, 128th Infantry, would launch an east-west attack from the coastal flank toward the dispersal bays off the eastern end of the strip. At the other end of the strip, Company A, 126th Infantry, would join Company I, 128th Infantry, in an attack on the bridge between the strips. The 2/6 Australian Independent Company would patrol the area facing the strip and serve to connect the forces attacking at its other end. The drive from east to west would be under command of Colonel McCoy; that from south to north, under Colonel Carrier.

The air strafing and bombing of Buna Village, the New Strip, and the bridge between the strips took place between 0800 and 0815, and most of the bombs hit the target area. The last flight, however, forgot to drop flares (the prearranged signal that the air bombing was over), and the artillery and mortars as a result took up the bombardment only after an appreciable interval. The troops, who had pulled back temporarily to avoid being hit by friendly fire, jumped off at 0830 but made little progress. Colonel Yamamoto’s troops had not been taken in by the feint of Company B, 128th Infantry, toward Cape Endaiadere.

When the bombing began, they took shelter in the bunkers. When it was over, they emerged from their shelters and laid down such heavy fire that the advance stalled almost immediately and soon came to a complete halt The results of the day’s fighting were not encouraging. The heat was intense, and there were as many casualties from heat prostration as from enemy fire. The troops on Colonel McCoy’s front knocked out only a few bunkers before they were completely stopped by the enemy. On Colonel Carrier’s front the troops initially registered small gains, only to be stopped in their turn by flanking machine gun fire from positions in the western part of the strongpoint between the strips. The attack on the Warren front had once again been a failure.

NOTE 49C1: Tel Msg, Col Hale to Gen Byers, Ser 1897, 2 Dec 42, in 32nd Div G-2, G-3 Jnl; 1st Bn, 126th Inf, Jnl, Sers 454 through 465, 2 Dec 42; 1st Bn, 128th Inf, Jnl, Sers 9, 15, 17, 24, 51, 72, 2 Dec 42; 128th Inf Jnl, Sers 4, 9, 10, 15, 27, 42, 46, 2 Dec 42; 32nd Div Sitreps, No. 78, 2 Dec 42; No. 79, 3 Dec 42; Ltr, Col MacNab to author, 15 Nov 49. During the day’s operations, Staff Sergeant Delmar H. Daniels, of Company B, 126th Infantry, led three volunteers against an enemy strongpoint near the dispersal bays at the eastern end of the strip, which had held up the company for some time, only to be killed as he attempted to clear out the enemy position. Daniels was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation is in GHQ]

General Harding’s Relief: I Corps Inspects the Front

For the Corps inspection of 2 December, General Eichelberger, accompanied by his aide, Captain Daniel K. Edwards, General Harding, General Waldron, and several others, left Dobodura for the Urbana front at 0930. Half an hour later Colonel Martin and Rogers left for the Warren front. Both parties were able to go only a short distance by jeep; the rest of the way, they had to go on foot.

General Eichelberger’s party reached its destination first. Just before it arrived at the front, Eichelberger stopped at the Urbana force aid station. There he found a number of unwounded men who had been sent to the rear for a few days to recover from dengue fever or exhaustion. Some had cracked up in combat. Eichelberger made it a point to question several of them closely as to why they were not at the front. The most common answer was that they had been sent to the rear for a rest, and the same answer was given by two or three other unwounded individuals closer to the front, who either were dozing at the roots of trees or were on their way to the aid station.

The three generals reached Colonel Mott’s command post at 1140. The artillery was still firing, and it was hoped that this time the bunkers which had held up the previous attack would be destroyed. When the news came that the attack had failed, General Eichelberger announced that he was going forward to see for himself how things were. Ordering General Waldron to remain in the CP, he went up front. General Harding, who refused to remain behind, went with him. The Japanese, after repulsing a whole series of attacks, were not firing, and the two generals were able to inspect the front line without drawing enemy fire.

In General Harding’s opinion, General Eichelberger had been in an exceedingly censorious mood before. Now he found a great deal to be angry about in his tour of the front. He had been told (and had in good faith reported to New Guinea Force) that there had been a strong Japanese counterattack. On questioning Major Smith he discovered that there had been no counterattack, only a feeble attempt by a few Japanese to get back into the main strip southeast of the village. He noticed both light and heavy machine guns standing in the open neither dug in nor concealed.

Though he was to learn later what the men already knew, that fires made with wet jungle wood raised dense columns of smoke, he was extremely indignant when he discovered that the front-line troops, though ravenously hungry, had not been permitted to cook some captured Japanese rice lest by doing so they draw enemy fire. He seemed to think that lack of aggressiveness kept the troops from firing and he was greatly angered that, when he asked for volunteers to see what lay immediately ahead, the troops he spoke to did not respond.

While General Eichelberger was questioning the troops, he interviewed three machine gunners on the front line. In response to his question, they told him that they knew that there was an enemy machine gun immediately ahead because it had opened fire only a few hours ago on the troops who tried to go that way. General Eichelberger asked if any of them had gone down the trail since that time to see if the machine gun was still there. The men said they had not. The general then offered to decorate the man who would go forward fifty yards to find out.

Satisfied that the enemy weapon was still there, neither the gunners nor any of the other troops volunteered for the job. Instead, Captain Edwards, the general’s aide, using a different route and crawling on his belly, made his way to the outskirts of Buna Village and returned without being fired on, an exploit that only deepened the general’s irritation with the troops over their failure to show any disposition to fight.

[NOTE 55C1: General Harding’s Diary, 2 Dec 42; Colonel Mott’s Memo; Interv with General Eichelberger, 21 Nov 48; Ltr, General Harding to author, 24 Jul 51. Edwards was later awarded the Silver Star. The citation is in Hq I Corps, GO No. 102, 4 Dec 42.]

The upshot was an angry scene in Colonel Mott’s command post. General Eichelberger (who told the troops later on that he had not realized at the time “what they were up against”) had some “caustic comments” to make on what he had seen at the front.[NOTE 56C1]

[NOTE 56C1: Ltr, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert M. Smith to author, 16 Mar 50. Smith as commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry was in the CP at the time and witnessed the scene.]

He delivered pointed remarks on the unwounded men at the aid station, the exposed machine guns, the apparent hesitancy to stir up enemy fire, and the failure of frontline troops to volunteer “even for a decoration.” At one point, he went so far as to say that he was not even sure that the troops had fought. Colonel Mott flared up at this. He spoke of the hardships his men had been through and argued vehemently in their defense—a point of view with which General Harding made it clear he agreed by demonstratively dashing his cigarette to the ground when Mott finished speaking.[NOTE 58C1] This is Mott’s recollection of what followed: His [General Eichelberger’s] voice rose and he said, “You’re licked,” and indicated in various ways that the troops had done a very poor job and included a great many cowards.

[NOTE 58C1: General Harding’s Diary, 2 Dec 42; Colonel Mott’s Memo; Ltr, General Harding to author, 24 Jul 51; Interv with Gen Eichelberger, 21 Nov 48. That night General Harding wrote in his diary that in the light of his remarks General Eichelberger “showed no appreciation of what the men had been through, or the spirit shown by most of them in carrying on despite heavy casualties, the roughest kind of opposition, and the most trying conditions.” Of Colonel Mott’s outbursts, he wrote, “I approved of every word he said and of the vehemence with which he stated the case.”]

After having observed General Eichelberger’s manner, I refrained from further attempts to state my side of the case and that of the soldiers under me, and shortly thereafter General Eichelberger . . . left my command post. Nor had the inspection gone much better on the Warren front. Colonels Martin and Rogers reached Colonel Hale’s headquarters at Hariko about noon, after catching a lift part of the way to Simemi in a jeep.

They left Hariko at 1410 and at 1528 had reached Colonel McCoy’s command post. After a short visit there, they went forward with Colonel MacNab to the area off the eastern end of the New Strip. Before they came, the fighting had raged fiercely and every available man had been on the line. When they arrived, however, the action had died down to virtually nothing.

There was no firing, and, as Martin recalls, there were times when the front was “as quiet as the inside of an empty church.” Having beaten off a succession of American attacks, the Japanese were resting and taking things easy. They were not firing even on targets in plain view. Nor did the Americans seem anxious to stir up Japanese fire. After the bloody nose that the enemy had given them, they were content to let well enough alone and were using the respite to dig in, bring up supplies, and prepare for the next day’s attack. Although Martin admitted “in the light of subsequent knowledge” that the attacks could not possibly have succeeded even had they been “continued throughout the day with the utmost vigor and daring,” the total absence of fighting when the inspection team reached the front led the inspectors to wonder whether there had really been any fighting at all that day.

The inspection team was particularly struck by the poor physical condition of the troops. Colonel Rogers (who subsequently put his criticism in writing) described their condition as “deplorable,” and took special note of their dirty beards, ragged clothing, and worn-out shoes, and of the fact that they were not getting enough to eat. Colonel Martin noted that the morale of the troops was poor, that the men seemed to have a “sorry for ourselves” attitude, and that they appeared to be interested above all else in being relieved. Rogers was critical of Colonel Hale for remaining too far behind the lines and thought it remarkable that there had been so little action at the front when the inspection team arrived. Martin was struck by the fact that unsanitary conditions had been allowed to develop at the front, and recalls seeing a great deal of unnecessary litter, quantities of un-salvaged equipment, and piles of empty ration tins swarming with flies.

The two colonels were back at Colonel McCoy’s CP by 1702, and left on foot for the rear at 1820. They reached Dobodura about 2200, to discover that General Eichelberger had relieved General Harding only a short while before and that General Waldron was in command of the division.

General Eichelberger Comes to a Decision

General Eichelberger was well aware that General MacArthur had spoken in anger on 30 November when he ordered him to relieve Harding. As corps commander, Eichelberger knew, he was under no obligation to take the step if he thought the relief unnecessary.

After his visit to the Urbana front, he nevertheless concluded that Harding would have to go. That evening, shortly after his return from the front, he called in General Byers and other immediately available members of the corps staff and told them how things had gone on the left flank. He described the scene in Colonel Mott’s command post, informed them that General Harding had appeared to be in sympathy with Mott throughout, and asked them what they would do if they were in his place. The staff members present unanimously told him that he had only one choice: to comply with General MacArthur’s instructions and relieve Harding.

Shortly after the staff meeting, General Harding approached General Eichelberger in his tent in order to discuss a new plan to take Buna. He described the plan, which envisaged an air bombardment and an artillery preparation, both coordinated on a split-section schedule with the infantry attack. General Waldron was in Eichelberger’s tent at the time, and this, as Harding entered it in his diary that night, is what followed: Eichelberger listened but did not seem to be impressed. He had other matters on his mind, and I soon found out what they were.

He started talking about what he had found out that day that was allegedly wrong. I took issue on one or two points, and finally said, “You were probably sent here to get heads, maybe mine is one of them. If so, it is on the block.” He said, “You are right, it was, and I am putting this man”—pointing to Waldron—“in command of the division.” I said “I take it I am to return to Moresby.” He said, “Yes.” I stood up, and stepped outside the tent.

The New Task Force Commanders

As soon as General Harding left the tent, General Eichelberger offered to replace Colonel Hale with Colonel Martin, an offer that Waldron promptly accepted. Sometime later, while Waldron was still in Eichelberger’s tent, Colonel Martin and Colonel Rogers reported to General Eichelberger.

On the way in, Martin had confided to Colonel Rogers that he thought the reason General Eichelberger had sent him to the Warren front in the first place was that he probably wanted him to take command there. Colonel Martin was nevertheless taken aback by what followed. For scarcely had he, as Roger’s senior, started to give the report of what he had seen at the Warren front, when as he recalls, . . . General Eichelberger, turning to General Waldron, stated rather than asked, “Shall we tell him now.” Whereupon he turned again to me and said, “Clarence, my boy, you have always said you would like to command a regiment. I am going to give you one. You will take command of the 128th Infantry and the Warren front”. My conclusion . . . confided to Rogers . . . was confirmed. I immediately replied, “Yes, Sir, that is true, but I never imagined it would be under circumstances such as these.” Then, I added, “Since I am to take command of the 128th Infantry I would prefer [that] Colonel Rogers made the report.” Rogers then continued and made the report orally. We had just returned, it was dark, and there had been no time to write a report.

General Harding’s relief was followed the next day by that of Colonels Hale and Mott. Colonel Martin replaced Colonel Hale as commander of Warren Force, and Colonel McCreary took over from Colonel Mott as commander of Urbana Force. McCreary was replaced on 4 December by Colonel John E. Grose, General Eichelberger’s inspector general, whom Waldron accepted for the post after deciding that he needed McCreary to command the artillery.

I Corps had taken over completely, and the responsibility for taking Buna was now General Eichelberger’s.

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

World War Two: Papuan Campaign (13); Fighting West of the Girua

World War Two: Papuan Campaign (11B); First Two Weeks at Buna (Attack on the left)

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