Papua New Guinea

Following the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, into the late spring of 1942, Japanese forces conquered one objective after another. Rabaul, New Guinea, was captured from Australian troops on 23 January. British Commonwealth units could not hold the Malayan Peninsula, falling back to the island fortress of Singapore. On 15 February Singapore was overrun with more than 130,000 Allied servicemen taken as POWs. On 19 February, Darwin, Australia was bombed by Japanese air forces, and in May, Sydney was attacked by Japanese submarines. An invasion of Australia seemed imminent.

Japanese soldiers lie dead on the beach of Buna Mission, New Guinea, a few steps from their shattered landing boat. December 1942
Japanese soldiers lie dead on the beach of Buna Mission, New Guinea, a few steps from their shattered landing boat. December 1942.

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Papua Campaign in Eastern New Guinea

To open the door to Australia, the Japanese turned their attention to the conquest of Australian-held Papua, the eastern peninsula of New Guinea. A Japanese invasion fleet left Rabaul for Port Moresby, on the southeastern coast of New Guinea, while a covering carrier force moved into the Coral Sea. In the Battle of the Coral Sea (7-8 May 1942), the Japanese invasion was thwarted by US carrier-based aircraft and the Australian Navy who forced the Japanese armada back to Rabaul.

After an even bigger defeat and loss of aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway (3-6 June 1942), the Japanese decided to abandon their invasion by sea and to instead attack Port Moresby by an overland advance from Buna on the north coast of New Guinea. This plan required crossing the forbidding Owen Stanley Mountains that form the spine of the Papua peninsula, a saw-toothed jungle range reaching a height of 13,000 feet. Hot and humid near the coasts, with torrential rains, the mountain weather can be biting cold above 5,000 feet.

Japanese Campaign on the Kokoda Track, Papua New Guinea

Photo taken in 1942 showing native aid to the Allied drive in Papua, New Guinea. Following the Kokoda battle, native carriers transported Allied wounded through jungles, across rivers and over the Owen Stanley Range. Many carriers, including those shown above, were decorated for their work in the campaign
Photo taken in 1942 showing native aid to the Allied drive in Papua, New Guinea. Following the Kokoda battle, native carriers transported Allied wounded through jungles, across rivers and over the Owen Stanley Range. Many carriers, including those shown above, were decorated for their work in the campaign.

On 22 July 1942, a Japanese landing force of 1,800 soldiers (augmented by local laborers) under Maj. Gen. Tomitaro Horii came ashore at Basabua and moved along the northeast coast of New Guinea to Buna. The landing, without air cover, was a complete surprise to General Douglas MacArthur, the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) Commander based in Australia after his withdrawal from the Philippines. Without opposition, the Japanese were able to begin their campaign along the Kokoda Track over the Owen Stanley Range.

The Kokoda Track is a foot trail, 100 miles of mud, that crosses the Owen Stanley Range to connect the north coast of Papua with Port Moresby on the south coast. Kokoda Village, with a small airfield, lies on a plateau on the north-east slopes of the mountains, an eight day march from Port Moresby.

Battles along the Kokoda Track, during July through September 1942, were lopsided, with small units of the Australian militia (not the regular Army, the Australian Imperial Force) facing the hardened Japanese regulars. Nonetheless, the undermanned and ill-equipped Australians and native Papuan Infantry Battalion managed to blunt the Japanese attack and inflict disproportionate casualties. Even when the Japanese were able to push southward, the Australians made it costly with a fighting withdrawal. Gradually the Japanese were exhausted by lengthening supply lines and battle attrition.

After the Japanese on Guadalcanal failed to repulse the Marine landing there, the Japanese force on the Kokoda Track received orders (on 18 September) to withdraw. MacArthur committed additional troops, allowing the Australians to push northward again. Kokoda was retaken on 2 November, and the Allied advance continued from there all the way to the north coast.

Battle on Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea

The Allies encountered the Japanese on a second Papuan front, 200 miles east at Milne Bay. Milne Bay is a deep harbor on the eastern tip of Papua, surrounded by steep mountains with difficult jungle terrain along a narrow coastal strip. In June 1942, the Allies began construction of three airfields at Milne Bay for offensive use to the east over the Solomon Sea as far as Rabaul, to shorten flying distances north compared to operating out of Port Moresby, and to defend sea approaches to Australia and the approach to Port Moresby from the east. The Japanese valued the site for the same reasons: to deny its use to the Allies and to support their offensive against Port Moresby and Australia.

At Milne Bay, the "Milne Force" was assembled, with American Engineers working on the airfields, roads and harbor while Australian infantry and artillery provided defense of the facilities. RAAF pilots arrived with Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk fighters and Hudson bombers as soon as the fields were operational. By late August the Allied force at Milne Bay numbered about 9,500, 7,500 of them Australian soldiers, the rest Americans and RAAF personnel. The American ground contingent included three companies of engineers and a battery of anti-aircraft artillery.

Since the battle for the Kokoda Track was progressing slowly, a flanking invasion at Milne Bay was ordered by the Japanese command, using a relatively small force due to intelligence failures that underestimated the Allied defense. A Japanese convoy was spotted and attacked by the RAAF from the air as it moved toward Milne Bay, but most of the invasion force survived. On the night of 25-26 August the Japanese landed 1,500 men on the north shore of Milne Bay, six miles east of the airfields, reinforced a few days later with 1,200 more troops. Spearheaded by two light tanks, and supported by naval gunfire, the Japanese mounted night assaults on the 26th and 27th, and reached Airstrip No. 3 against a vigorous fighting withdrawal by the Australians and attacks from the RAAF aircraft. The Allied defensive line held at Airstrip No. 3 despite massive Japanese charges on 31 August. The Australians rallied from that point to push the enemy into a general retreat back to their landing point. The Japanese evacuated their force by sea, 3-6 September.

In this first Allied ground victory of the war, the Australian troops proved that the Japanese were not invincible. The Milne Force killed 600 Japanese, while losing 322 dead and 200 wounded, virtually all Australians. [Thanks to Mike Brown for help with this section.]

Buna, Gona and Sanananda Operations in Papua New Guinea

After the failure of both the Japanese advance over the Kokoda Track and their landing at Milne Bay, the Japanese retreated to strongly defended northeastern coast positions at Buna, Gona and Sanananda. In a major intelligence blunder, Allied staffs told front line commanders that they faced no more than 1,500 to 2,000 enemy and could expect the Japanese to surrender by 1 December 1942. In fact, some 6,500 Japanese held the area.

On 16 November the Australians assaulted Gona, suffering heavy losses without success. American attacks in their zone did no better, leaving commanders with bitter lessons in the tenacity of the Japanese defense. Two weeks of offensive operations produced 492 American casualties, the troops were underfed and suffering from tropical diseases, while the enemy still held its positions.

General Eichelberger visited the front on 2 December, finding demoralized troops, exhausted, starved, feverish, and in tatters. He relieved the commanders, improved the supply situation, and launched new attacks in both the Australian and American sectors, starting on 5 December. With fresh reserves and better cooperation with the Americans, the Australians were able to break through and take Gona Village on 9 December. On 14 December the U.S. 3d Battalion overran Buna Village, pushing the remaining enemy into Buna Mission.

Both sides managed to resupply during December. The Japanese slipped another 1,300 troops into Sanananda and Buna Mission despite the best efforts of the Fifth Air Force to interdict. But the Allies brought up their first tanks along with two fresh Australian battalions. Early on 18 December a new Allied drive began, with more success, sweeping westward along the coast and capturing two airfields within ten days, closing on Buna Mission. A second force linked up by 28 December, encircling Buna Mission and driving out the remaining Japanese defenders, leaving only Sanananda to the west in Japanese hands.

Over the next twenty days the Allies overcame Japanese resistance at Sanananda with repeated artillery barrages, tank assaults, and infantry envelopments. Allied air forces played a vital role through close air support of ground troops, aerial transport of men and materiel, and by attacks on Japanese shipping. The Japanese could not resupply and gradually ran out of food and ammunition. Japanese resistance at Sanananda came to an end on 22 January, six months to the day after the Papua Campaign began.

Lessons of the Papua Campaign

Victory in Papua meant that the immediate threat to Australia was over. About 13,000 Japanese troops perished during the terrible fighting, but Allied casualties were also heavy; 8,500 men fell in battle (5,698 of them Australians) and 27,000 cases of malaria were reported, mainly because of shortages of medical supplies. The Papua Campaign made clear that Allied units committed to combat in the summer of 1942 were insufficiently trained, equipped, led, and supported in comparison to the Japanese who had been fighting for five years. Many of the deficiencies were recognized and improvements made, to be tested again very quickly. The Japanese had not abandoned New Guinea. Sizable Japanese forces remained at several points west of Bona, with reinforcements still coming in from Raul. The next battle was only days away as MacArthur's Allied troops continued to push west along New Guinea's northern shore.

Recommended Books about the Papua Campaign

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