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

The complete failure on 5 December of the attack on the Warren front had satisfied General Eichelberger that the enemy line was too strong to be breached by frontal assault In the course of a conversation held two days earlier with General Herring at Dobodura, he had learned that he could very shortly expect the arrival of tanks and fresh Australian troops for action on his side of the river. He decided therefore to try no more all-out frontal assaults on the Warren front until he had received the tanks and the promised reinforcements. Meanwhile he intended to do everything possible to weaken the enemy line.

General Herring had suggested late on 5 December that Eichelberger try pushing forward on the Warren front by concentrating on the destruction of individual pillboxes and machine gun nests which lay in the way. This job, General Eichelberger assured Port Moresby the next day, he had “already decided to do.” Since the Japanese line on that front had been found to be very strong, he added, he would make the main effort for the time being on the left, “while containing the Japanese on [the] right.” Instead of making frontal infantry assaults, which had gotten Warren Force nowhere, the troops now were to soften up the enemy line by attrition and infiltration, and to make the final break-through with the tanks when they arrived.

General Eichelberger’s orders to Colonel Martin were therefore to have his men begin vigorous patrolling in order to locate and pinpoint the individual enemy positions. As soon as they located an enemy strongpoint, they were to destroy it. The troops were to move forward by infiltration, and not by frontal assault On 7 December Colonel Martin explained the new tactics to his battalion commanders. There were to be no more all-out attacks. Instead there was to be constant patrolling by small groups. After the artillery had worked over the enemy emplacements, the patrols were to knock them out one at a time, with mortar, grenade, and rifle. They were to subject the enemy line to constant probing. Instead of rushing ahead, they were to feel their way forward. Every effort was to be made meanwhile to make the men comfortable. They were to be given their pack rolls if they wanted them, fed hot food, and allowed to rest. Colonel George DeGraaf, Colonel Rogers, and Captain Edwards, who intervened briefly in the fighting in the center, were all later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citations are in GHQ SWPA GO No. 60, 18 December 1942.

Intense patrolling became the order of the day on the Warren front. The 37-mm. guns and mortars fired on the bunkers as they were located, and the artillery, aided by Wirraways now based at Dobodura, joined in. But the 37-mm. guns and the mortars were too light to have much effect on the bunkers, and the 3.7-inch mountain howitzers and the 25-pounders using high-explosive shells with super-quick fuse proved little more effective. Because it had a higher angle of fire and its shells had delay fuses, the 105-mm. howitzer was much better suited to the task, and soon proved itself to be the only weapon on the front which was effective against the enemy bunkers. By comparison, the 25-pounder with its flatter trajectory had only a limited usefulness. Not only was it often unable to clear the trees, but it could not drop its projectiles on the bunkers as could the 105.34 General Waldron put the matter in a sentence. “The 25 pounders,” he said, “annoyed the Japanese, and that’s about all.”

The 105-mm. howitzer could have been even more effective had it been properly supplied with ammunition. But shells for it were very slow in coming forward. After having fired the initial few hundred rounds with which it reached the front, the 105 had to remain silent for days. On 6 December the I Corps ordnance officer at Port Moresby wrote to the front as follows: “I’ve been burning the air waves since 2 December to have 800 rounds of 105-mm. ammunition flown [to you]. The stuff has been at Brisbane airdrome since the night of 3 December. . . . The General asked for 100 rounds per day for 10 days starting 5 December, and there isn’t a single damned round here.”

Ammunition for the 105 finally began reaching the front during the second week in December, and then (apparently because of the priority situation) only in small amounts. Thus, for much of the time when it could have done most good, the 105 stood useless while artillery pieces less suited to the task tried vainly to deal with the Japanese bunker defenses.

Colonel Martin wanted to move up a few of the artillery pieces for direct fire on the bunkers, but Warren Force had too few guns on hand to risk any of them so far forward. The arrival by sea on 8 December of two more 25-pounders then made it possible to shift the pieces. The two 25-pounders were emplaced just north of Hariko, and the O’Hare Troop (the three 3.7-inch howitzers of the 1st Australian Mountain Battery at Hariko) took up a new position about one mile below the bridge between the strips, completing the move on 11 December. Even though the howitzers at once began hitting Japanese positions behind both strips with greater effect than before, they were still able to make no apparent impression on the Japanese line, so well was the enemy entrenched.

Throughout the battle the enemy had been achieving excellent results with grenade launchers. Impressed by their effectiveness the troops on the Warren front found time during this period of attritional warfare to experiment with rifle grenades. The experiments were conducted with Australian grenades since no American grenades were available. Using Australian rifles the men found the few grenades on hand very effective. The small supply soon ran out, however, and they received no more during the campaign. The situation on Colonel Carrier’s front during this period was one of unrelieved hardship.

The positions occupied by the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry [General Martin recalls], were almost unbearably hot in the day time as the tropical sun broiled down, the grass shut off all air, and held in the steaming heat. Due to enemy observation any daylight movement among the forward positions had to be by crawling which added to the misery from the heat. There were cases of heat exhaustion daily, and some of the company commanders strongly urged the battalion commander to permit the troops to withdraw about 300 yards in daytime to positions where there was shade, and reoccupy the forward positions at night. Martin overruled these requests. He felt that to allow daily withdrawals would contribute nothing to the harassing and softening up of the enemy, “would be psychologically bad” for the troops, and “would hurt the rebuilding of their offensive spirit.”

The infantry attackers made few gains anywhere along the Warren front. Colonel Carrier’s troops met repeated setbacks in their efforts to cross the bridge between the strips, and the forces under Colonel Miller and Colonel McCoy moved ahead only a few yards. The fighting had settled down to a siege.

With the fall of Gona, it became clear that the enemy’s beachhead garrison could no longer be supplied easily by sea. But the Japanese could still use the air lanes. On 10 December twenty medium naval bombers flew nonstop from Rabaul and dropped food and ammunition onto the Old Strip. This flight was the second—and last—air supply mission ordered by the enemy headquarters at Rabaul.

On the same day, the 10th, Major Harcourt’s 2/6 Independent Company was returned to the 7th Division, and there were other changes on the Warren front. The three battalion commanders had begun showing signs of wear. When Colonel Carrier, who was suffering from angina pectoris, had to be evacuated on 13 December, General Eichelberger decided the time had come to change the other battalion commanders. Major Beaver replaced Colonel Carrier in command of the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry. Major Gordon Clarkson of I Corps took command of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, in place of Colonel McCoy, who returned to division headquarters. Colonel MacNab, executive officer of Warren Force under General MacNider, Colonel Hale, and Colonel Martin, successively, changed places with Colonel Miller to take command of the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, and Miller became executive officer to Colonel Martin.

The attritional type of warfare ordered on the Warren front did not advance the line much, but the relentless pounding by the mortars and artillery and the sharp probing forays of the infantry were having exactly the effect intended by General Eichelberger—wearing the enemy down physically and softening up his defenses for the final knockout blow.

Urbana Force Makes Its First Gains; The Capture of Buna Village

Though relative quiet had descended on the Warren front, bitter fighting had continued almost without cease on the Urbana front. The Japanese in the village were virtually surrounded. Fire was hitting them frontally and from across Buna Creek, but they held their positions with extreme tenacity, and it began to look as if it would be necessary to root them out of their bunkers individually as had been the case at Gona.

The 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, was reorganized on 6 December. Colonel Grose had been promised command of the 127th Infantry, which was then on its way to the front, and left the reorganization to Colonel Tomlinson and Major Smith. He himself attended to supply matters and to the readjustment of the positions held by the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, on the right. Feeling that it was really Colonel Tomlinson’s command and that there was no use in having two regimental commanders at the front, Colonel Grose asked General Byers when the latter visited him that afternoon that Colonel Tomlinson be given the command. Byers agreed. Grose returned to the rear, and Tomlinson (who formally took command the next day) went on with preparations for an attack scheduled to be launched the next morning.

The attack was to have better artillery support than before, with all the guns east of the river scheduled to go into action, and the mortars also were to be used more effectively than before. Finding that the infantry could not control their mortar fire in the dense jungle, Colonel McCreary adopted an innovation in the use of mortars, based on artillery practice. He consolidated the seventeen available 81-mm. mortars on his front into one unit, made a fire direction chart from a vertical photograph, and by observation and mathematical calculation fixed the position of the mortars in relation to the Japanese positions. He formed the mortars into three batteries, two of six guns, and one of five guns. After adjusting the mortars and training the crews in artillery methods, he spent “the next two days 60 feet up in a tree less than 200 yards from the Jap forward elements, throwing hammer blow after hammer blow (all guns firing at once fairly concentrated) on the strong localities, searching through Buna Village.

The attack was to be mounted by the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, less the troops at Bottcher’s Corner. Companies E and G were to attack on right and left, and the weapons crews of Company H, would support the attack by fire from a position to the right of Company G. The troops at Bottcher’s Corner would hold where they were, and Company F would be available as required for the reinforcement of the other companies. The Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, now in regimental reserve, would take up a holding position in the area immediately below Musita Island, and the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, would continue to hold on the 126th Infantry’s right.

The strike against the village was to be in the early afternoon of 7 December, but the Japanese moved first. At 0600 in the morning, they attacked the troops at Bottcher’s Corner from both the village and the mission, but Bottcher’s machine gun and the rifle fire of his troops (reinforced by a fresh platoon from Company H) broke up the attack. Urbana Force telephoned the following description of the action: “Bottcher opened fire on the Buna Mission force first, stopping that attack. He then turned his gun on the Buna Village force, and stopped that attack. During the attack, Bottcher was shot in the hand. He was given first aid treatment, and is now commanding his gun.”

The story might have had a different ending had it not been for the alertness of Corporal Harold L. Mitchell of Company H, who had joined Bottcher’s little force the previous day. Acting as a forward outpost, Mitchell detected the enemy force from the village while it was creeping forward under cover of the jungle. Just as it was about to launch its attack, he charged at the Japanese suddenly with a loud yell and bayonet fixed. Mitchell so surprised and dumbfounded them that instead of continuing with the attack they hesitated and momentarily fell back. His yell alerted the rest of the force, with the result that when the Japanese finally did attack they were cut down. Mitchell escaped without a scratch. Mitchell distinguished himself further on 9 December by bringing in a prisoner for questioning. He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation is in GHQ SWPA GO No. 3, 6 January 1943.

The flurry at Bottcher’s Corner over, Companies E and G jumped off at 1335 after a fifteen-minute artillery and mortar preparation. They met heavy opposition and made little headway against an enemy that held with fanatic determination. To encourage his troops in their attempts to advance, Major Smith moved to the most exposed forward positions. Less than an hour after the attack began he was severely wounded. Captain Boice, the regimental S-2, who had made the first reconnaissance of the trail to Jaure, immediately replaced him as battalion commander.

The attack made no progress whatever. At 1430 Company F was committed in support of Company E and Company G, and the remaining platoon under Lieutenant Odell was ordered to Bottcher’s Corner. The line still did not move forward, and the only success of the day—a very modest one—was registered by Odell’s platoon.

Odell’s orders had been to move onto the fire-swept beach and clear out two suspected enemy outposts: one northwest of Bottcher’s Corner; the other closer to the village. The first outpost gave no trouble—the enemy troops in it were either dead or dying. The second was a different matter. Odell’s platoon, down to a dozen men, began closing in on the objective, when it found itself faced with about fifteen Japanese in a hastily dug trench. As the platoon edged forward, one of the Japanese called out in English that he and his fellows would surrender if the Americans came over to them first. The men (as the battalion journal notes) treated the offer as a “gag.” They stormed the trench and mopped up the Japanese, but heavy fire from the village ultimately drove them back to the Corner. The Japanese kept on trying. An attempt that evening by Captain Yasuda to send boats through to the village from his headquarters in the mission was frustrated when Sergeant Bottcher detected the leading barge and set it on fire with his machine gun. The barge was pulled back to the mission, a blazing hulk. After that rebuff the Japanese made no further attempts to send boats to the village.

On 8 December the companies attacked again. Artillery, mortars, and machine guns opened up at 1400, and the troops started moving forward at 1415. Colonel McCreary’s mortars laid down fire as close as fifty yards to the front of the battalion’s advance elements, but the Japanese line still held, and the attack was beaten off once again.

The day was marked by a futile attempt to burn out a main Japanese bunker position on the southern edge of the village which had resisted capture for several days. The bunker was on the corner of a kunai flat, with dense jungle and swamp to the rear. It could neither be taken by frontal assault nor flanked. Two primitive flame throwers had reached the front that day, and one of them was immediately pressed into use. Covered by the fire of twenty men, the operator managed to get within thirty feet of the enemy without being detected.

Then he stepped into the open and turned on his machine. All that came out of it was a ten or fifteen-foot dribble of flame which set the grass on fire and did not even come near the Japanese position. The operator, two of the men covering him, as well as the chemical officer in charge, were killed. The operation, as reported to Port Moresby that night, had been a complete “fizzle.

The same evening Captain Yasuda made his last diversion in favor of the beleaguered troops in the village. While the Japanese in the village counterattacked on the left with about forty men, a second force of between seventy-five and a hundred men moved from the mission by way of the island and hit the right flank of the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry. The force from the mission advanced to the attack screaming and yelling, but the battalion’s mortars and machine guns beat it off in short order. “Our heavy weapons quieted them down rather fast,” was the way the battalion journal described the action.

Colonel McCreary continued his “hammer blows” against the village next day, but the Japanese still held their positions. During the afternoon, 1st Lieutenant James G. Downer, now commanding Company E, led a patrol against the same bunker position that the flame throwers had failed to reduce the day before. Covered by fire from the rest of the patrol, Downer moved out against the enemy positions alone but was killed by a hidden sniper just before reaching it. Downer’s body was recovered and the fight for the bunker went on. Enemy fire slackened by evening and the bunker finally fell after costing the attackers heavy casualties and several days of effort.

By this time the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, had launched twelve futile attacks on the village. Its companies had become so understrength that they could do little more than hold their positions. Companies E and F each had less than fifty effectives left, and the whole battalion totaled about 250 men.

Its relief had long been overdue, and the task of delivering the final attack on the village went therefore to the fresh 3rd Battalion, 127th Infantry, which together with regimental headquarters had completed its movement to the forward area by air on 9 December. On 10 December, just as the 2nd Battalion was about to be relieved, Private First Class Walter A. Bajdek, of Battalion Headquarters Company, made a dash under heavy enemy fire to reestablish communication with an advanced observation post overlooking the enemy positions. Bajdek was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation is in Hq USAFFE, GO No. 32, 15 June 1943.

Colonel Grose, as he had been promised earlier, took over command of the regiment the same day, and Lieutenant Colonel Edwin J. Schmidt, the regimental commander, became his executive officer. On 11 December, Companies I and K, 127th Infantry, relieved Companies E and G, 126th Infantry. Company I took up a position at Bottcher’s Corner between the village and the mission, and the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, moved into a reserve area along the supply trail.

Companies I and K began probing the Japanese line at once. They made small gains on the 12th and consolidated them. On the 13th the village was subjected to heavy fire from the 25-pounders at Ango, and a heavy mortar concentration was laid down in preparation for a final assault the next day. The Japanese—by that time down to about 100 men—apparently had a premonition of what was coming. They evacuated the village that night and made for Giruwa. Most of them appear to have gotten through. On the 13th, while the Japanese were still holding, Sergeant Samuel G. Winzenreid of Company I, 127th Infantry, acting on his own initiative, single-handedly reduced a strongly held enemy bunker with hand grenades. Winzenreid was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation is in Hq USAFFE GO No. 32, 15 June 1943.

Early the next morning, 14 December, a thorough preparation by 25-pounders and mortars was put down on the village. Leaving a small holding force at the corner, Company K moved forward against the village at 0700. Company I was in support on Company K’s left flank, and one of its platoons covered Company K’s left rear. The advance continued steadily and cautiously. There was no opposition. By 1000 the entire area was overrun. Moving slowly and warily because they feared a trap, the troops soon discovered that none existed. They found no Japanese anywhere in the village. After all the bitter fighting that had raged on the outskirts, the village had fallen without the firing of a single enemy shot.

The village was a mass of wreckage. Its few huts had been blown to bits; the coconut palms in the area were splintered and broken by shellfire; and there were craters and shell holes everywhere. The bunkers still stood, despite evidence of numerous direct hits registered upon them by the artillery. The Japanese had left little equipment and food behind: a few guns, some discarded clothing, a supply of canned goods, and a store of medical supplies.

Thus anticlimactically had Urbana Force taken its first objective. The Coconut Grove remained as the only position on the left bank of Entrance Creek still in Japanese hands. This labyrinth of trenches and bunkers was next.

The Reduction of the Coconut Grove

Lieutenant Colonel Herbert A. Smith, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, had been told by General Byers a few days before that he would be called upon to take the Coconut Grove when Buna Village fell. Smith and his executive officer, Major Roy F. Zinser, lost no time therefore in preparing a plan for its reduction. Since the jungle fronting the grove was split by an open grassy area, the plan called for one company of the battalion to attack on the right under Smith and a second company to attack on the left under Zinser, whose unit was to make the main effort.

About 1300 on 15 December General Byers came to Colonel Smith’s CP, west of the grove, and told him he was to attack at once. Smith’s battalion numbered about 350 men at the time, but they were scattered along a 1,750-yard front all the way from the apex of the Triangle and along the left bank of Entrance Creek to a point just below Musita Island. Not counting a platoon of heavy machine guns from Company H which was to play a supporting role, Smith had less than 100 men immediately available for the attack: about 40 men from Company E; about 20 men from a Company F platoon; 15 or 20 men from Battalion Headquarters Company; and about 15 men from the Regimental Cannon Company who happened to be in the immediate area. Smith requested more troops, and specifically asked for the rest of Company F, which was then in the Siwori Village area protecting the left flank. General Byers found it impossible to give Smith the men he asked for, and the attack was ordered to begin at 1500 with those he had available. Smith divided his available strength in half. He gave Zinser the platoon of Company F, most of the troops from Battalion Headquarters Company, and a few men from the Cannon Company detachment. He himself took Company E and a few men from each of the other units. The two forces moved out quickly to their respective points of departure. At 1510, with the troops in position and ready to go, Colonel McCreary’s mortars opened up on the grove.

The mortar preparation, about 100 rounds in all, hit the target area but had little effect. As one who was there recalls, it merely “blew a little dirt from the Japanese emplacements.” At 1520 the mortars ceased firing, and the troops moved out on right and left with the help of fire from the platoon of Company H.

The Japanese had the approaches to the grove covered and laid down heavy fire on the attackers. Progress was slow, but Colonel Smith’s forces were pressed up tight against their objective by nightfall. A heavy rain fell during the night, drenching the troops and filling their foxholes with water. Zinser’s force took the initiative next morning. Running into a particularly troublesome bunker, it pressed into use a flame thrower of the same type that had worked so badly the week before in front of Buna Village. The result was the same: the flame thrower “fizzed out and Japanese shot it up.

After reducing this position with grenades and small arms fire, the troops on the left discovered a very large bunker which commanded the American approaches to the grove. Since the enemy strongpoint was accessible to both of them, the two forces began converging on it from right and left, clearing out intermediate obstacles as they went. In this fighting Major Zinser demonstrated conspicuous leadership, but it fell to two men of Company E on the right—Corporal Daniel F. Rini and Private Bernardino Y. Estrada—to clear out the main position. Rini and Estrada, members of the same squad, had been in the forefront of the company’s advance. The climax came when Rini, covered by Estrada’s BAR, got close enough to the main bunker to jump on top and knock it out.

That morning Colonel Smith had been watching Rini and Estrada from a position thirty or forty yards behind them, occasionally helping them with fire. Just as Rini reached the bunker, Smith was called to the phone tied to a tree about twenty-five yards to the rear to talk to Colonel Tomlinson. He had scarcely lifted the receiver when he heard shouting from the direction of the main bunker.

I sensed [he recalls] that this was probably the break we were looking for, so I told Colonel Tomlinson that I must get forward and see what was happening. I arrived just in time to see Corporal Rini on top of the big bunker and the rest of the squad closing in on it. Later I learned that Rini, after working up as close as he could, had suddenly made a dash, jumped on top of the bunker, and leaning over had pushed hand grenades through the firing slits.

Realizing that he would have to move fast to take full advantage of this turn in the fighting, Colonel Smith ordered all-out attacks on the remaining enemy positions. Charging at the head of a squad, Smith cleared out a bunker in the center, and Captain Joseph M. Stehling of Company E did the same in an attack on his right. The bunkers fell in quick succession, but Corporal Rini and Private Estrada were both killed in the mop-up which their valor had made possible. Rini was shot by a wounded Japanese to whom he was trying to administer first aid, and Estrada fell not long after while helping to clear the last enemy position in the grove.

[NOTE: Zinser, Rini, and Estrada were later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross; Smith and Stehling, the Silver Star. Zinser’s citation is in Hq USAFFE GO No. 2, 11 Jan 44; Rini’s and Estrada’s posthumous awards are cited in GHQ SWPA GO No. 9, 19 Jan 43. The Silver Star citations are in Hq 32nd Div GO No. 54, 14 January 1943, and in GO No. 28, 6 April 1943, of the same headquarters.]

The fighting was over by noon. Thirty-seven Japanese were buried by the following day, and more were found and buried subsequently. The cost to the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, was four killed and thirteen wounded. Booty included 2,000 pounds of rice and oatmeal, a number of kegs of malt and barley, a quantity of small arms, several light machine guns, and a hut full of ammunition. One wounded Japanese sergeant was taken prisoner.

As soon as the grove was captured, Colonel Smith sent patrols over a footbridge built by the Japanese across Entrance Creek and the Ango-Buna track bridge. Though the latter span lacked flooring, its piling and stringers were still intact. The patrols met no opposition, and two heavy machine guns were immediately emplaced covering the approaches to the bridges. Late in the afternoon, while the engineers were repairing the track bridge, an enemy attempt to mass troops in the Government Gardens, presumably for an attack on the newly won beachhead east of Entrance Creek, was frustrated by fire from the heavy machine guns both east and west of the creek.

General Eichelberger wrote General Sutherland that night that he was “delighted” with the way Colonel Smith’s battalion had performed in the day’s fighting. The battalion was now “high” in his favor, Colonel Smith had “developed into quite a fighter,” and the men had “a high morale.”As a matter of fact,” he added, “the boys are coming to life all along the line.”

The Scene Brightens: The Situation: Mid-December

General Eichelberger was right. Despite considerable losses, widespread sickness, and severe physical discomforts, the troops were giving an increasingly good account of themselves. By 11 December, after having been been in action for only twenty-one days, the two task forces east of the Girua River had lost 667 killed, wounded, and missing, and 1,260 evacuated sick. The detailed figures are: KIA, 113; WIA, 490; MIA, 64. Warren Force sustained 422 of these casualties; Urbana Force, 245. Troop morale had touched bottom during the first week in December and had stayed there for a few days after. By mid-month, however, a distinct improvement had become manifest. A report on morale in the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, submitted to Colonel Martin on 13 December, noted that the men were tired and feverish, that their physical co-ordination was poor, that they complained of the, food and of the difficulty of getting rest at night. The same report nevertheless commented that their “spirits” had “livened-up” considerably during the preceding few days.

There were good reasons for the upswing in morale. The fact that the troops had by this time learned their business had a great deal to do with it. More food and rest, the arrival of the 127th Infantry, the victories on the Urbana front, the receipt of mail for the first time since the campaign began, and the knowledge that tanks and fresh Australian troops were coming had boosted morale still further.

The supply situation was improving. More luggers were becoming available, and General Johns of the Combined Operational Service Command (COSC) had already decided to send large freighters into Oro Bay. The airlift was beginning to bring in truly impressive tonnages. On 14 December, for example, the air force in seventy-four individual flights between Port Moresby and the airfields at Dobodura and Popondetta brought in 178 tons of high-priority matériel. This was a maximum effort that was never equaled during the rest of the campaign, but it indicated what the air force could do when it extended itself and the weather was favorable.

The rapidly growing airlift, the opening of a fourth field at Dobodura, regular nightly deliveries by the luggers, and the completion by the engineers of additional jeep trails to the front had done more than merely make good the supply shortages that had so long afflicted the 32nd Division. They had made it possible for the first time to begin stockpiling food and ammunition for a sustained offensive effort.

There were other improvements. The sound-power telephone, pressed into use at this time for fire control purposes, was proving itself highly efficient within a two-mile range, and the introduction of the new 4-inch-to-1-mile Buna Map, in place of the improvised Buna Target Plan No. 24, was already paying the troops dividends. With a more accurate base map, improved communications with the forward observers, and observation from the air, the artillery was beginning to give an even better account of itself. From time to time, it was executing fire missions on bunkers adjacent to the bridge between the strips, and on those flanking the dispersal bays off the northeastern end of the New Strip. It was laying down harassing fire on the enemy front and rear. Direct hits were chipping away at the bunkers, but except in the case of the 105-mm. howitzer, using shells with delayed fuses, artillery had little effect on the enemy bunker positions.

On the more strongly defended Warren front what was needed, in addition to more effective artillery support, was special equipment for the reduction of bunkers. Such equipment—routine later on—was simply not to be had at Buna. It was expected that the tanks, when they finally reached the front, would make up for these deficiencies.

The Arrival of the Australians

Early on 7 December General Herring and his chief of staff, Brigadier R. N. L. Hopkins, visited General Eichelberger’s headquarters at Henahamburi to make arrangements for the reception of the Australian troops and tanks that General Eichelberger had been promised on 3 December. General Blarney had chosen Brigadier George F. Wootten of the 18th Brigade (then still at Milne Bay) to command the incoming Australian force. General Eichelberger at once offered to put Wootten in command of Warren Force with Colonel Martin as second-incommand—an offer which General Herring promptly accepted.

General Blarney had discussed the matter with General MacArthur the day before. The two commanders had agreed that the operation would require at least a battalion of troops from Milne Bay and a suitable number of tanks from Port Moresby. Since General Blarney did not have enough small ships to move the battalion, he asked General MacArthur to prevail upon the Navy (which up to that time had been unwilling to send its ships into the waters around Buna) to provide corvettes or destroyers to get the troops forward. On 8 December— the same day that Brigadier Wootten was ordered to report to General Blarney at Port Moresby—the Navy agreed to provide three corvettes for the purpose, and New Guinea Force issued its first orders relating to the movement the following day.

The orders provided that one troop (four tanks) of the 2/6 Australian Armored Regiment at Port Moresby, and the 2/9 Australian Infantry Battalion at Milne Bay, were to be sent to Buna. The tanks were to go forward in the Dutch ship Karsik, a 3,300-ton, four-hatch freighter of the K. P. M. line; the Australian corvettes Colac, Ballarat, and Broome were to carry the troops. The Karsik was to pick up supplies and ammunition at Milne Bay before moving on to Oro Bay where it was to be unloaded on the night of 11-12 December. The three corvettes would touch at Milne Bay on the 12th. After taking on brigade headquarters and the 2/9 Battalion, they would make a speedy run northward and rendezvous the same night off Soena Plantation just below Cape Sudest with landing craft from Porlock Harbor which were to ferry the troops and their equipment ashore.

Brigadier Wootten reported to General Blarney on 10 December and received his instructions. Blarney had decided by that time to send another troop of tanks and another infantry battalion to Buna. Of Brigadier Wootten’s two remaining battalions, the 2/10th was at Wanigela and Porlock Harbor, and the 2/12th was at Goodenough Island. Blarney therefore intended to draw the additional battalion from the 7th Brigade, which was still at Milne Bay. However, at Brigadier Wootten’s request, the 2/10 Battalion, the 18th Brigade unit at Wanigela and Porlock Harbor, was substituted. This change in plan made it necessary to move the battalion of the 7th Brigade to Wanigela and Porlock Harbor before the 2/10 Battalion could be sent forward to Buna. The change-over began immediately in order to permit the 2/10 Battalion to reach Buna by the night of 17-18 December.

Brigadier Wootten flew to Popondetta at dawn the next morning, 11 December. After conferring with General Herring and Brigadier Hopkins, he and Hopkins flew to Dobodura where they met General Eichelberger. Wootten spent the afternoon reconnoitering the Warren front, and that night, while he slept at General Eichelberger’s headquarters, the Karsik came into Oro Bay.

The Karsik had in its hold four light American M3 tanks (General Stuarts) belonging to the 2/6 Australian Armored Regiment. It carried also a seven-day level of supply for the 2/9 Battalion. Major Carroll K. Moffatt, an American infantry officer serving with the COSC, supervised the unloading. He had just reached the area from Milne Bay with six Higgins boats (LCVP’s) and two Australian barges, the first Allied landing craft to reach the combat zone. The actual unloading was done by troops of the 287th U. S. Port Battalion who had come in on the Karsik. They did the job quickly, and, the ship got away safely before daylight. The tanks were transferred to specially constructed barges (which had reached the area a few days before), towed to shore, unloaded, and hidden in the jungle. They were reloaded on the barges the next night and then towed by luggers to Boreo. There they were landed, run into the jungle, and hidden at a tank lying-up point a few hundred yards north of the village.

Brigade headquarters, the 2/9 Battalion, and the commanding officer of the 2/10 Battalion (who had flown in from Wanigela the night before) left in the Colac, Broome, and Ballarat early on 12 December. Traveling at high speed, the ships reached the rendezous point off Cape Sudest late that night to find Major Moffatt and the eight landing craft waiting for them.

Unloading began at once, but scarcely had the first seventy-five men, including the two battalion commanders, stepped into the two leading LCVP’s when the captain of the Ballarat, the senior officer in charge of the corvettes, learned that a “large” Japanese naval force, was moving on Buna from Rabaul. He immediately pulled the corvettes back to Porlock Harbor with the rest of the troops still aboard. The enemy force was the one bearing General Oda and the 1st Battalion, 170th Infantry, which was to reach the mouth of the Mambare the following morning.

The two loaded landing craft let the troops off at Boreo, and all eight craft made for the Oro Bay area, their hiding place during the day. Just before they reached it, they were bombed by patrolling Australian aircraft, which mistook them for Japanese—an understandable error since the pilots had not been told to look out for Allied landing craft, and the Allies had up to that time had no landing craft of any kind in the area. One LCVP was sunk, and another had to be beached, a total loss. Nine crew members were wounded, and one died before he could reach a hospital.

The corvettes returned the following night. Instead of rendezvousing with the landing craft off Cape Sudest as planned, the corvettes landed the troops at Oro Bay, a full day’s march away. The Japanese naval force was still in the area and unaccounted for, and the corvettes had no intention of running into it, especially with troops aboard.

The Australian troops reached Hariko the following night. The next morning—15 December—they moved up to their permanent bivouac area about a mile north of Boreo and a quarter-mile inland. That night the Karsik came in again to Oro Bay, with 100 tons of cargo and a second troop of tanks. As in the case of the first tank movement, the four tanks were put aboard barges, towed to Boreo, unloaded, and moved up the beach to the tank park. With the first four tanks they were organized into a composite unit: X Squadron of the 2/6 Armored Regiment.

[NOTE 8180: Rpt on Opns 18th Inf Bde Gp at Cape Endaiadere and Giropa Point; Interv with Col Moffatt, 30 Oct 49; Kenney, General Kenney Reports, pp. 165, 166. General Kenney’s story of the bombing is inaccurate in that he says that no one was hurt, and fails to mention that, in addition to the one craft sunk, a second was rendered useless and had to be abandoned. The figures given are from records kept by Colonel Moffatt, who was in charge of the landing craft.]

On 16 December Advance New Guinea Force moved to Dobodura from Popondetta. General Byers was wounded while in the front lines during the attack on the Coconut Grove, and General Eichelberger, as the only U.S. general officer present, took command of the American forces at the front. The next day, 17 December, after consulting with General Eichelberger, Brigadier Wootten took over command of the Warren front, and Buna Force set 18 December as D Day.

General MacArthur had been urging General Eichelberger to speed his preparations, and Eichelberger had done his best to comply. The attack General MacArthur had asked for was now ready. Warren Force was to move out on the 18th with tanks; its successive objectives were Duropa Plantationand Cape Endaiadere (including a bridgehead across the mouth of Simemi Creek), the New Strip, and the Old Strip.

Urbana Force was to attack on the 19th—D plus 1. It was to storm the Triangle, cut through to the coast, and seize the track junction between Buna Mission and Giropa Point, thereby isolating the one from the other, and exposing both to attack on their inward flanks.85 Captain Yasuda and Colonel Yamamoto were now each faced with a double envelopment, and both were about to be caught in a pincers from which there was no escape.

[NOTE 8082 Rpt, CG Buna Force, p. 27; Eichelberger, Our Jungle Road to Tokyo, p. 41. Byers, who was wounded immediately after his troops jumped off, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross nine days later. The citation is in GHQ SWPA GO No. 63, 24 Dec 42.]

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

World War Two: Papuan Campaign (15); Warren Force Takes the Initiative

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


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