World War Two: Papuan Campaign (14A); Buna: Second Two Weeks

The 32nd Division’s supply situation, hopelessly inadequate in late November, began to improve in early December. There were many reasons for the improvement. Airdrops and emergency movements by sea had staved off disaster, and the arrival of supplies which General Harding had requisitioned some time before helped the division to overcome the most pressing of its logistical difficulties. The opening of additional airfields at Dobodura and Popondetta, the completion of the Dobodura-Simemi jeep track and other tracks, the arrival of a new flotilla of luggers to replace those which had been destroyed in November, the establishment of a separate service organization at Dobodura known as ALMA Force, General Eichelberger’s efforts, the efforts of Colonel George DeGraaf, his quartermaster officer, and the continuing efforts of the division’s supply officers—all these things helped to improve the situation, and, for the first time since operations began, the pipeline began to fill.

The Attack of 5 December; Regrouping the Troops

On both the Warren and Urbana fronts the inspection of 2 December found the Allied units, in the words of General Eichelberger, “scrambled like eggs.” He at once ordered them regrouped and reorganized. On the Warren front, Company I, 128th Infantry, which had been operating under Colonel Carrier’s command off the southwest end of the strip, was returned to Colonel Miller, and Company A, 126th Infantry, which had been under Colonel McCoy’s command off the southeast end of the strip, was returned to Colonel Carrier.

Colonel Miller’s 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, was disposed to the right of the strip and took up position in an arc extending from the sea to a point just below the dispersal bays at the eastern end of the strip. Colonel McCoy’s 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, moved in on Miller’s left, just below (south of) the strip, and Major Harcourt’s 2/6 Independent Company covered the gap between Carrier and McCoy. Warren Force had no reserve, but each battalion held small reserve elements out of the line.

On the Urbana front, units of the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, which had been out-posting Entrance Creek north of the Coconut Grove rejoined their battalion and the Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, in front of Buna Village. The 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, took over the sector following the west bank of Entrance Creek. Company F, 128th Infantry, continued as before to hold the blocking positions between the Girua River and Siwori Creek. During the previous week the average daily ration for troops on both fronts had consisted of a single can of meat component and an emergency bar of concentrated chocolate, just enough to subsist on. Though the stockpile of rations was still short, the men ate their first full meal in some time on 3 December, and preparations began for a scheduled attack the next day.

The New Commanders Take Over

When Colonel Martin went forward to the Warren front early on 3 December to take command, he discovered first of all that the troops “had little in the nature of weapons and equipment of what was normally considered necessary to dislodge an enemy from a dug in, concealed position.” His forward CP, he found, was “a single shelter half suspended horizontally about five feet from the ground, under which the CP telephone rested against a log on the ground.” Major Milton F. Ziebell, the regimental S-3, had with him, Martin remembers, a printed map “inaccurate for artillery fire,” and “half of a small writing tablet, the kind selling in ten cent stores for a dime, and a pencil.” When Martin asked the adjutant for his files, the latter “patted the pocket of his denim jacket which was a shade of black from the swamp mud, and said that he was keeping what he could there.”

Colonel Martin set himself to improve conditions, despite the prevailing “lack of almost everything with which to operate.” One of the first things he did upon taking command was to call an officers’ meeting at which he told his officers that the men “would be required to do all they could to better their conditions, their personal appearance, and their equipment.” Sanitation would be improved. More attention would be paid to the care of equipment, and officers would cease commiserating with the troops and abetting them in the “feeling sorry for ourselves attitude” that he had noticed during his inspection the day before.

The command was to be informed, he said further, that there would be no relief until “after Buna was taken.” Martin knew that this news would come as a shock, “but I was certain,” he adds, “that after the shock was over, the troops knowing their task would fight better than those just hanging on and continually looking over their shoulders for relief to come.”

Unlike Colonel Martin, Colonel Grose had little opportunity to inspect his forces before he took command. He came in by air from Australia on the morning of 3 December and made a hurried inspection of the Urbana front that afternoon. Next day when he took command, he found Colonel McCreary supervising a reorganization of the positions, and he asked General Eichelberger to postpone the attack for a day. General Eichelberger granted the request, though with considerable reluctance, and the attack there and on the Warren front was set for 5 December.

The Arrival of the Bren Carriers

Late on the evening of 3 December a section of five Bren gun carriers arrived by boat from Porlock Harbor. The rest of the cargo included forty tons of food and ammunition, a shipment that was particularly welcome inasmuch as Warren Force had run out of rations that day. The carriers were quickly unloaded and given to Colonel Martin for use on the 5th in the attack on the Japanese positions in the Duropa Plantation.

As soon as they could, Colonel Martin and Colonel MacNab gave Lieutenant T. St. D. Fergusson, who commanded the carriers, a briefing on the terrain. They stressed the likelihood that his carriers might be “bellied” by stumps and other obstacles in the plantation area.

The next day, MacNab sent Fergusson and 1st Lieutenant David Anderson, commanding officer of the regimental Reconnaissance Platoon, to make a daylight reconnaissance of the area. Though under no illusions about the risk of the attack, Fergusson reported that he believed his carriers could negotiate the ground. To provide insurance against unforeseen contingencies he requested additional automatic weapons for his men, and was promptly given all the weapons he asked for.

Sending the thin-skinned vehicles, open at the top and unarmored below, against the formidable enemy positions in the plantation area was a desperate venture at best. The least the Americans could do was to give the Australian crews, who were to spearhead the attack, all the weapons they could use.

Reorganization and regrouping were completed on 4 December. Fortified by an unwonted and much-needed two-day rest, the troops received rations and ammunition and prepared to resume operations under their new commanders.

Colonel Yamamoto’s forces and those of Captain Yasuda were ready. Yamamoto had the bulk of his relatively fresh 144th and 229th Infantry troops in the plantation and at the northeast end of the New Strip. The rest were holding the bridge between the strips, together with the troops of the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment and of the 47th Field Antiaircraft Battalion originally assigned there. Captain Yasuda had his Yokosuka 5th and Sasebo 5th Special Naval Landing troops, supported by naval pioneer units in the village, the Triangle, and the mission. The Japanese had thrown back every attack thus far, and they were ready to continue doing so.

The plan for the American-Australian attack scheduled for 5 December was embodied in a field order drawn up the day before by General Waldron. Warren Force and the five Bren gun carriers, supported by elements of the Fifth Air Force and the artillery, were to attack the Japanese positions in the Duropa Plantation-Buna Strips area at 0830. Their objective encompassed the entire area east of a line drawn along the coast southwest from Strip Point and extending inland to the Old Strip. Urbana Force, also supported by artillery and air bombardment, was to jump off at 1000 with the mission of taking Buna Village. Both attacking forces were to make an all-out effort.

The Attack on the Right

On the Warren front Colonel Miller’s battalion was to be on the right, nearest the sea. Colonel McCoy’s battalion was to be on Miller’s left, and Colonel Carrier was to be on the far left, with the 2/6 Independent Company intervening between him and McCoy. Company L and the Bren carriers were to attack straight up the coast on a 200-yard front. Company I was to follow in column on Company L’s left rear, and machine gun crews of Company M were to be disposed along the line of departure and immediately to the rear to clean out snipers in trees and give direct support to the advance. Colonel McCoy’s leading unit, Company A, 128th Infantry, was to move in on Company L’s left and attempt to cross the eastern end of the New Strip. Colonel Carrier’s 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, was to advance northward against the bridge between the strips. Patrols of the Australian Independent Company were to make whatever gains they could in the area between Carrier and McCoy.

Between 0820 and 0835 on the morning of 5 December, six A-20’s bombed and strafed the area between the Old Strip and Cape Endaiadere. The artillery began to fire at 0830. Supported by mortar and machine gun fire from Company M, the Bren carriers and Company L left the line of departure at 0842. They immediately ran into heavy fire from a barricade near the coast, and from concealed positions on their left front and left. As had been feared, the Bren carriers bellied up badly on the uneven stump-filled ground and their progress was slow. As they rose high in the air to clear stumps and other obstacles, they were easy targets for enemy machine gunners. To complete the job, the Japanese tossed hand grenades over the sides, threw “sticky” bombs that clung to the superstructures, and scored several direct hits with an antitank gun.

Within twenty minutes they had knocked out all five vehicles—three just outside the Allied lines and two within their own. The carrier crews suffered heavily. Lieutenant Fergusson was wounded, and thirteen of the twenty others in the carriers were killed, wounded, or missing.

Fergusson’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Ian Walker, heard of the disaster shortly after it happened. From his post at the rear where he had been attending to the housekeeping needs of the platoon, he left for the front on the run, accompanied by a single enlisted man of his command. Covered by fire from Company L, 128th Infantry, the two men methodically removed the guns and ammunition from the three closest carriers. Walker then ordered the enlisted man back, took up a submachine gun, and went forward alone toward the two remaining carriers intending to recover their guns as well. Before he could reach the nearer of the two carriers, he fell mortally wounded. The Japanese succeeded in stripping the gutted hulks of the two carriers that night before a patrol of Warren Force sent out to recover the guns could get to them. Walker was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation is in GHQSWPA GO No. 7, 15 January.

In attempting to support the Bren carriers in their disastrous attack, Captain Samuel M. Morton’s Company L, 128th Infantry, had also been hit hard. The center platoon suffered so many casualties during the first half-hour of the fighting that it had to have help from the left platoon, which was itself under heavy fire. A platoon of Company I had to plug the resulting gap on the left before the attack could continue.

The men tried to push forward but were unable to. They were blocked, not only by the heavy fire that came from behind the still-unreduced log barricade a few yards in from the coast and from the hidden and carefully sited strongpoints in the plantation, but by the intense heat of the morning. Man after man of Colonel Miller’s battalion gave way to heat prostration. By 1010 the battalion had gained less than forty yards, and it could make no further advance that day.

A few minutes after the 3rd Battalion attack, the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry began its move. At 0855 the eighty-three men of Company A, under 1st Lieutenant Samuel J. Scott, pushed off in the Y-shaped dispersal area at the eastern end of the New Strip.

Company B was on Scott’s left rear, waiting to go in. Company D was disposed along the line of departure, supporting the advance by fire. Scott’s troops moved slowly and cautiously through the tall grass. Despite the heat and heavy casualties from enemy fire, they made good progress at first, and by 1100 most of them were across the lower arm of the Y. There they were halted by rifle grenade, mortar, and machine gun fire from three directions. By noon Japanese action and heat prostration had cut deep into Company A’s strength, and Company B, under 1st Lieutenant Milan J. Bloecher, had to be ordered in on its left to relieve the pressure.

Company B reached the southeastern end of the strip two hours later at a point just west of the dispersal area occupied by Company A. Setting up light machine guns on the left to cover the strip, Bloecher tried to move his men across, but without success. As the men crawled out of the sheltering tall grass into the heat-ridden strip, heavy enemy fire from bunkers and hidden firing positions in the area immobilized them. Those who managed to get halfway across the strip could move neither forward nor back. Since further advance was impossible, the company began to consolidate at the eastern end of the strip.

Company A was meanwhile having an even rougher time than in the morning. At the center of the Y the troops encountered almost point-blank fire that came at them from three directions. All attempts to cross the northern prong of the Y failed. Men who tried to advance were caught in the enemy’s crossfire and either wounded or killed. By late afternoon the situation was seen to be hopeless, and Colonel Martin ordered the company to pull back as soon as it could. That evening he relieved it.

At the western end of the strip Colonel Carrier’s battalion did little better. The two companies in attack—A on the right and C on the left—moved out against the bridge between the strips at 0850 and at first reported good progress. Aided by the mortars and the detachment’s 37-mm. gun, they succeeded in knocking out seven enemy pillboxes during the first two hours of fighting.

With the enemy fire from the pillboxes suppressed, the troops began to close on the bridge, only to be halted by heavy fire from front and left when they were only 150 yards from their objective. Artillery fire was called for, but it proved ineffective. The Japanese fire only increased in intensity.

Colonel Carrier’s troops, suffering from the heat like the companies on the right, made repeated attempts to advance, but the enemy fire was too heavy. Frontal attack was abandoned; Company B relieved Company A, and an attempt was made to cross Simemi Creek in the hope of flanking the bridge. The attempt was given up because there was quicksand reported in the crossing area and the creek was too deep. At the end of the day’s fighting the Japanese still-held the bridge between the strips, and Colonel Carrier’s troops were dug in about 200 yards south of it. The “all-out” attack of Warren Force had failed all along the line, and Colonel Yamamoto had the situation in hand. As Colonel Martin put it in a phone call to General Byers that night: “We have hit them and bounced off.”

Bottcher’s Break-Through

On 4 December Colonel Tomlinson and 126th Infantry headquarters moved from Sanananda to the Urbana front, and advance parties of the 127th Infantry—which was also to be committed to the Urbana front—began reaching Dobodura. By this time the troops in the line—the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, and the Cannon Company, 128th Infantry—had had a little rest. They would now have another chance to finish the job that they had not been quite able to complete on the 2nd.

The plan of attack called for the Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, to attack at specified points on the perimeter of Buna Village. Having suffered very heavy losses during previous attacks, Company F would be in reserve. The Cannon Company would remain on the left of the 126th Infantry and continue as before to support its operations.

Colonel Smith’s 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, on Major Smith’s right would complete the investiture of the left bank of Entrance Creek. Air and artillery bombardment would support the attacks. From positions behind the large grassy strip west of Entrance Creek, eight 81-mm. mortars would fire on the village. The troops of Company F, 128th Infantry, from their positions on the west side of the Girua River, would fire upon it with two 81-mm. mortars, a 37-mm. gun, and an assortment of light and heavy machine guns.

Colonel Grose went to the front early on the morning of 5 December. After getting the men into line and making a final check of their positions, he returned to his CP about 1015 to find both General Eichelberger and General Waldron there. A number of other officers were present including December Japanese bombers, escorted by Zeros, had parachuted food and ammunition onto the northern end of the Old Strip for Yamamoto’s troops. Colonel DeGraaf, Colonel Rogers, Colonel McCreary, Colonel Tomlinson, Lieutenant Colonel Merle H. Howe, the division G-3, and General Eichelberger’s aide, Captain Edwards.

The attack had opened at 1000 with a raid on the mission by nine B-25’s. Eichelberger and his party were briefed on how the action was progressing and then went forward to observe the fighting. After the B-25’s hit the target area, the artillery and the mortars began firing on the village. At 1030 the fire ceased, and the infantry moved forward. The Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, attacked along the east bank of the Girua River. On its right Companies E and G attacked abreast, with Company H supporting the attack with fire. Pivoting short from the line of departure, the units fanned out against the enemy perimeter, and Companies E and G in the center hit directly against the village.

The Japanese commander in the area, Navy Captain Yosuda, had a few hundred men in the village—enough for his immediate purpose. With the help of the bunkers, barricades, and trenches available to his men, he could count on holding the village for some time, even though it was his least defensible position.

The attack met strong opposition. On the far left the Cannon Company ran into heavy fire when it emerged onto an open space south of the village. The company sent out patrols to flank the enemy, the mortar men on the west side of the Girua River began firing on the village to relieve the pressure, and a platoon of Company F, 126th Infantry, under 1st Lieutenant Paul L. Schwartz, moved in to reinforce the Cannon Company. None of these measures worked. The enemy fire continued, and the company could not advance.

Late in the afternoon Major Chester M. Beaver of the divisional staff took over command of the company. Organizing a patrol with Lieutenant Schwartz as his second-in-command, Beaver managed to clear out the enemy positions immediately to the front and then crawled through muck to bring his patrol to a point just outside the village. Beaver and Schwartz had to withdraw when night fell, but by the following morning the Cannon Company and the Company F platoon were on the outskirts of the village, the position they had tried in vain to reach the day before.

Company E, under Captain Schultz, also met tough opposition from the entrenched enemy. By dint of hard fighting, the line moved forward until it reached the Japanese main line of resistance about fifty yards from the village. There the advance was stopped completely, and the troops had to dig in. Both Beaver and Schwartz were later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citations are in GHQ SWPA, GO No. 1, 1 January 1943.

That the company pushed even that far in the face of the heavy enemy fire was due principally to the able leadership of two platoon leaders, 1st Lieutenant Thomas E. Knode and 1st Sergeant Paul R. Lutjens, who were severely wounded as they led their men in the day’s fighting. The combat performance of a member of Lutjens’ platoon, Sergeant Harold E. Graber, had also helped to push the line forward. When the platoon was pinned down, Sergeant Graber leaped to his feet, fired his light machine gun from the hip, and cleaned out a main Japanese strongpoint which had been holding up the advance—an act that cost him his life.

Company G, under Captain Bailey, was also finding it difficult to make any progress. Disappointed that the attack had bogged down just outside the village, General Eichelberger took direct control of operations. He called Grose forward to the observation post and sent Colonel Tomlinson back to the command post. Then he ordered Company F to pass through Company E and take the village. Colonel Grose immediately protested the order. Instead of committing Company F, his last reserve, to the center of the line, Grose had hoped to use it at a more propitious moment on the left. He told General Eichelberger that there was nothing to be gained by hurrying the attack, that it was the kind of attack that might take “a day or two,” but General Eichelberger had apparently set his heart on taking Buna Village that day and overruled his protest.

Summoned to the observation post, 1st Lieutenant Robert H. Odell, who had taken command of Company F a few days before, was, as he put it, “surprised to see a couple of generals—one a three star—in addition to the usual array of majors and colonels.” To continue in Odell’s own words, The Lieutenant General explained what he wanted, and after a brief delay, I brought up the company and deployed accordingly.

Pravda [1st Sergeant George Pravda] was to take half the company up one side of the trail, and I the other half on the other side. We were given ten minutes to make our reconnaissance and to gather information from the most forward troops which we were to pass. It was intended that we finish the job—actually take the Village—and [it was thought] that we needed little more than our bayonets to do it. Well, off we went, and within a few minutes our rush forward had been definitely and completely halted. Of the 40 men who started with me, 4 had been (known) killed, and 18 were lying wounded. We were within a few yards of the village, but with … no chance of going a step further. . . . [Pravda] was among the wounded, and casualties were about as heavy on his side. Knode, Lutjens, and Graber were all later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and Lutjens was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. The citations for Knode and Lutjens are in GHQ SWPA GO No. 64, 28 December 1942. Graber’s posthumous award is in GO No. 1, 1 January 1943.

Scarcely had Company F’s attack in the center been brought to a halt when electrifying news was received from Captain Bailey on the right. Instead of continuing the profitless attack directly on the village, a platoon of Company H under Staff Sergeant Herman J. F. Bottcher, which had been attached to Company G, had pushed north from its position on the far right. Knocking out several pillboxes en route, Bottcher had successfully crossed a creek under enemy fire and by late afternoon had reached the beach with eighteen men and one machine gun. Bottcher, an experienced soldier who had served with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, ordered his men to dig in at once on the edge of the beach. Attacks followed from both the village and the mission, but Bottcher and his riflemen, with Bottcher himself at the machine gun, made short work of the enemy. The beach on either side of Bottcher’s Corner (as the position came to be known) was soon piled with Japanese corpses, whom neither friend nor foe could immediately bury.

Bottcher’s break-through completed the isolation of the village. The Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, less Bottcher’s platoon, were now pressed tightly against its inner defenses, and the troops at Bottcher’s Corner made its reinforcement from the mission extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Colonel Smith’s 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry had meanwhile invested the entire west bank of Entrance Creek except for the Coconut Grove. It was now in position to reduce the grove as well. With the village cut off and Entrance Creek out-posted along its entire length, the early fall of the village was assured, provided the Japanese did not in the meantime succeed in their attempts to evict the attackers, particularly those at Bottcher’s Corner.

With Colonel Howe, his G-3, General Waldron had been pushing the assault personally in the right center of the line. During Company F’s attack he received a shoulder wound and had to be evacuated. On General Eichelberger’s orders, General Byers, his chief of staff, succeeded Waldron as commander of the troops at the front.

Colonel Bradley, whom General Waldron had chosen to be his chief of staff, continued to serve in the same capacity under General Byers. Colonel McCreary, for two days commander of Urbana Force, and before that deputy to General Waldron when the latter was division artillery commander, took command of the artillery and mortars on the Urbana front. Bottcher was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and given a direct battlefield commission as a captain. His citation for the DSC is in GHQ SWPA GO No. 64, 28 December 1942.

[NOTE 2PC7: Byers did not take command of the 32nd Division, since Brigadier General Frayne Baker, commander of the division’s rear echelon in Australia and, after Waldron, senior officer of the division, became division commander when Waldron was wounded and evacuated. Ltr, Gen Eichelberger to Gen Sutherland, 18 Dec 42, copy in OCMH files; Ltr, Gen Sutherland to Gen Ward, 6 April 51. Both Waldron and Howe were later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Waldron’s citation is in GHQ SWPA GO No. 60, 18 Dec 42; Howe’s, in GO No. 64, 28 Dec. 42.]

General Eichelberger and his party departed for the rear about 1800, less Captain Edwards who had been wounded and evacuated earlier in the day. Colonel Grose was left to reorganize. While he had not taken kindly to the way General Eichelberger had thrown Company F into the battle against his protest, Grose had nothing but praise for the way the troops had performed. “The battalion’s men,” he wrote that night in his diary, “have been courageous and willing, but they have been pushed almost beyond the limit of human endurance.” They were, he continued, “courageous, fine men,” and all of them had given him “the utmost cooperation.”

Although the troops had not taken the village, General Eichelberger, who, with members of his staff, had taken a personal hand in the battle, had revised the opinion he expressed on 2 December that they lacked fight. Writing to General Sutherland the next day, Eichelberger noted that the troops had fought hard, that morale had been high, and that there had been “much to be proud of during the day’s operations.” General Herring, he said, had praised the bravery of the 32nd Division highly. As far as he personally was concerned, Eichelberger went on, General MacArthur could begin to stop worrying about its conduct in battle.

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

World War Two: Papuan Campaign (14B); Buna: The Second Two Weeks

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

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