Chapter 12: The Americans at Buna
UP to the time when they began their approach march on Buna on 16th November the Americans could have had little idea of the nightmare nature of the country into which they were moving. Their area, lying between the coast on the right and the Girua River on the left, formed a rough isosceles triangle, its apex among the several mouths of the Girua. Buna village lay near the beach about a mile south of that apex; “Buna Mission”,1 also at the beach, was a mile east of the village; and Cape Endaiadere was some three miles farther east.
Buna could be approached from the South-east along the very edge of the sea by way of a narrow strip of sandy soil passing through Duropa Plantation, across the bases of Cape Endaiadere, Strip Point and Giropa Point; or by a rough roadway, farther inland, which led in from almost due south through Dobodura and Simemi. Beyond Simemi this roadway narrowly separated two air strips, each running roughly east and west—New Strip on the right, Old Strip on the left. Between these the roadway crossed Simemi Creek by a stout bridge, then ran parallel to the creek Northwest to Buna. Swamp and kunai stretched between these two lines of approach. West again, swamps, sluggishly heaving with the tides and foetid with rotten growth and sago palms, reached towards the Girua River line.
Using these two avenues in the coastal sector on the right of the 32nd Division’s advance, Colonel J. Tracy Hale’s 128th Regiment had already made flickering contact with the advanced Japanese elements by nightfall of the 16th. Along the coastline, the I Battalion, under Lieut-Colonel Robert C. McCoy, were reported to have found enemy outposts about 400 yards north of Hariko and to have gone into defensive positions. Lieut-Colonel Kelsie E. Miller’s III Battalion, which had gone westward from Embogo to Dobodura to approach Buna from the south, claimed to have killed three and wounded one of five Japanese whom they met at Dobodura on the afternoon of the 16th. They then continued on towards Simemi. Behind them was Lieut-Colonel Herbert A. Smith’s II Battalion, in reserve. It arrived at Dobodura with a company of engineers and at once all set to work clearing a landing strip.
On the 17th the I Battalion edged slightly forward along the shore and the III Battalion on the left entered Simemi. General Harding then prepared to attack simultaneously along the water’s edge and the Simemi Track early on the 19th, with support from two Australian howitzers, his only available artillery. These were from the 1st Australian Mountain Battery, commanded by Major O’Hare,2 a dashing young regular officer
who had seen service in the Middle East. The battery was armed with 3.7-inch howitzers, very accurate and fast weapons capable of getting off 12 rounds per gun per minute without undue strain on the crews. Their shells were most effective and they were very suitable for the type of country in which they were now deployed. The guns were worn, however, their connections so loose that closing a breech might throw a gun off line by as much as a degree. In temperate climates they could have been moved successfully by the pack horses of which the battery had about 150 at that time, but O’Hare had found that these animals became exhausted after packing the guns over about fifteen minutes of level going in the moist heat of New Guinea. Nor could native bearers solve the problem for about 90 were needed to carry one gun without ammunition. The guns’ wheels, made of wood for lightness, bogged easily in mud or sand.
In early November one section of these howitzers had been allotted to the 32nd Division, one to the 7th. The one for the Australians was flown in to Kokoda. O’Hare himself landed with the other at Pongani airfield on the 12th, and ferried it thence on a Japanese barge to a position about 1,000 yards north of Cape Sudest, where he brought it into action on the 16th. But he had fired only one round when American orders stopped him lest he draw counter-battery fire. Next day he mounted his guns some 600 yards north of Hariko, a position which he was to maintain for some time.
Meanwhile there had been some uncertainty on the inland route. There Colonel Tomlinson’s 126th Regiment (less that part of I Battalion which
was with Lieut-Colonel Carrier) had been pushing on from the Natunga–Bofu area to reach Dobodura by way of Inonda and Horanda and cover thence the left of the advance on Buna by following an alternative route west of Simemi through Ango and the village of Gerua. But, although an Australian wireless detachment had been attached to General Harding for the express purpose of keeping him informed of the progress of the Australians west of the Girua River, he could not establish radio contact with General Vasey during these early days of his advance, and thus was almost as ignorant of the whereabouts of his allies as of those of his enemies. Early on the 18th, therefore, he changed his plans slightly, telling Tomlinson, then at Inonda, to travel by way of Popondetta and Soputa and so forestall the possibility of the American left flank being peeled back by a thrust from the rear. Tomlinson then sent a strong detachment across the Girua River on the morning of the 19th. This found the Australian 16th Brigade past Popondetta and on their way to Soputa. Tomlinson then reverted to his original instructions. Scarcely, however, had he reached Horanda than he received news that he had been placed under command of General Vasey who wanted him at Soputa.
This was an outcome of a New Guinea Force decision to attack Japanese concentrations west of the Girua with the maximum force available. To effect this General Vasey was given the alternative of taking direct command of the 126th Regiment or shifting the American boundary westward. He chose the former. General Harding was then told that his role was to seize and hold a line from the Girua to the coast (including a crossing near Soputa), to prevent enemy penetration into his area, and to secure bridgeheads. General Herring overruled his protests. Reluctantly Tomlinson led his force towards Soputa where it began to arrive on the afternoon of the 20th.
Harding, however, still felt greatly put out by the alienation of such a large part of his force. In anticipation of Tomlinson’s arrival there to take over he had sent the bulk of his reserve battalion (II/128th) forward from Dobodura to Ango, leaving one company to assist the engineers (more of whom had followed the original group in) with the construction of the strip. The II/128th Battalion would now have to take over entirely the left flank role which the 126th had been forced to relinquish, thus leaving, Harding considered, no reserve other than Colonel Carrier’s small group which was following I Battalion along the seashore. And what disquieted him the more was news he had received from New Guinea Force that a battalion of Japanese reinforcements was thought to have been landed at Buna on the night 17th–18th and more were expected the following night.
This by-play had not prevented him, however, from going ahead with an attack which he had planned for the 19th, by the I/128th Battalion along the seashore and the III/128th Battalion along the track from Simemi. Rain poured down as the I Battalion sloshed forward along the track from Boreo towards Cape Endaiadere. On the fringes of Duropa Plantation, about a mile below the cape, they ran into machine-gun
and rifle fire which, inexperienced as they were, threw them into confusion. The bush and long grass which closed off their view, together with clever Japanese tactics of concealment and swift changes to alternative positions which gave the Americans the impression of being literally surrounded by blazing weapons, bewildered them.
Out of rations, and with the greater part of its ammunition used up, the 1st Battalion ended the day a badly shaken outfit. The troops had entered the battle joking and laughing, and sure of an easy victory. Now they were dazed and taken aback by the mauling they had received at the hands of the Japanese.3
Even more abrupt was the III Battalion’s baptism of fire. As they squelched forward from Simemi the trail became a narrow strip of corduroy against which the enveloping swamps oozed. As it approached the air strips this corduroy entered completely-cleared kunai grass country, little higher than the main swamp level. On the right New Strip was bathed in a blazing sun; the bridge between the strips lay ahead with Old Strip beyond it to the left, and, on the immediate left, a scarecrow growth marked the line of Simemi Creek with grey arms of dead wood. As they entered this inhospitable place such intense Japanese fire swept the Americans that, in Colonel Miller’s own words, they were “stopped cold”.
The next day saw a very slight improvement on Colonel McCoy’s front. With assistance from the two mountain guns and several strikes by bombers, the men managed to edge ahead a further hundred yards before they were halted once more—an advance for which Lieutenant John W. Crow, who was killed, and one of his platoon commanders, Staff-Sergeant Paul Sherney, were chiefly responsible. But even this small gain was greater than anything Colonel Miller was able to achieve. Swamp and fire held his I Battalion men precisely where they had been beaten into immobility among the kunai approaches to the bridge the day before.
By this time, back on the highest military levels, General MacArthur, temporarily established at Port Moresby, was restlessly demanding a successful conclusion to the operations which had now developed not only before Buna but on the whole wide circle Buna–Sanananda–Gona, with the Australian 16th and 25th Brigades, respectively, bitterly committed at the two latter places. He told General Blamey that his land forces must attack the Buna–Gona area on the 21st November; that “all columns will be driven through to objectives regardless of losses”. This was passed on to General Harding with information that heavy air support would be laid on for him at 8 a.m. He was to go forward immediately the air program concluded. If weather prevented the aircraft from assisting him his attack would go in just the same—about 8.10 a.m.
During the afternoon of the 20th Colonel Carrier’s detachment and Major Harcourt’s Independent Company, both of which groups, it will
be remembered, had marched forward from Pongani, came up with General MacNider’s headquarters near the edge of the water.
At this time Harcourt had 9 other officers and about 109 men with him. They had found conditions very trying since crossing the Musa in the middle of October, partly because of the difficult going and partly, Harcourt said, because the III/128th made no provision for supplying them after the Americans abandoned their own plans for an overland movement forward of the Musa River. Shortages continued to vex and weaken them and, during their stay at Pongani, a particularly virulent form of fever attacked many and left them weak. Then again although they did no fighting until they joined the Americans below Cape Endaiadere, they patrolled widely and arduously.
By the time Harcourt reported to Colonel McCoy at 7 a.m. on 21st November he had been told that that commander was holding a line from a point on the coast only some 600 yards south of Cape Endaiadere South-west to the eastern end of New Strip—a position which meant that his right was considerably above the line of the strip. Harcourt’s own reconnaissance suggested that this was an error; that the American right was not nearly so advanced and probably little if at all above a line drawn due east from the strip. The reports of two patrols which he at once sent out tended to confirm this. However, the plan now explained to him was that, with McCoy on the extreme right and Carrier on McCoy’s left, the Americans would advance on Cape Endaiadere on a 300-yard front. Harcourt would provide left flank protection, and oust the Japanese from their positions at the eastern end of New Strip, Colonel Miller would set his III Battalion once more at the bridge and, on the far left, Colonel Smith, with his II/128th, would push on from Ango, along the eastern bank of the river, over the four miles to Gerua and thence to Buna.
But confusion followed. Bombing aircraft assaulted the defences as planned at 8 a.m. Neither McCoy nor Miller had, however, received warning that this would be done. Neither did they receive their final orders for the attack until 8.50 a.m. and 8.40 a.m. respectively. And Miller’s position was not improved when some of the bombs landed among his men killing four and wounding two. Then, as though to even matters along the front, after Harding had planned another air attack for 12.45 which did not develop, and another later which his men were to follow in, the bombers came again at 3.57, failed to disconcert the Japanese seriously, and dropped some bombs among McCoy’s leading elements, killing 6 and wounding 12. Some of the remainder were so perturbed by this that they left their start-line and had to be coaxed by their officers to return.
Finally, however, the attack did go in but was shot ragged by the cool defence. The I Battalion scarcely improved its position. Harcourt’s Australians, with Captain Belmer4 in charge of the actual attack group, 50 to 60 strong, moved towards the strip, clearing several machine-gun
posts on their way and shooting snipers from trees. Among them, Private Martin5 fought on after he had been shot in the arm, and shot again, in the leg, and shot a third time, in the stomach, only then leaving the fight on direct orders. But, having lost 2 officers and 3 men to the enemy fire, they halted within 58 yards of the strip, partly because of the opposition, partly because they were left up in the air by the American failure to get forward at all to the immediate right of them. On the Simemi Track Miller’s 111/128th Battalion was swept back from the bridge and, after 42 had been killed or wounded, sought shelter in bush below the western end of New Strip.
While this was happening Colonel Smith’s II/128th Battalion, far to the left, had been advancing from Ango. Just after reaching Gerua village the main track forked, the right branch leading to the Buna Government Station, the left to Buna village. For a distance of 200 to 300 yards along the length of each from the point where they diverged, the two branches parted so gradually as to form an acute angle of only 20 to 30 degrees before they suddenly flung wide. The narrow space thus enclosed was to become known as the Triangle; the “Coconut Grove” lay just beyond, on the left-hand track.
As Smith approached the Triangle his leading company narrowly escaped an ambush. At once he attempted to outflank, facing the defences with one company on the track, holding a second in reserve, and sending one to either flank. But his flanking companies plunged deep into swamps in comparison with which the Japanese seemed almost a lesser evil. And so night overtook them.
When Harding received this news he knew that Smith could not hope to complete his mission with only one battalion. He therefore asked General Herring to return to him a battalion of the 126th. Herring left the decision to Vasey, who agreed that Colonel Tomlinson (by that time at Soputa with the 16th Brigade) should send his II Battalion off on the 22nd to join Colonel Smith.
At the same time Harding had been readjusting his coastal and centre positions. It seemed obvious to him that if Miller clung to his positions on the approach to the two strips, he would achieve no more in the future than he had been able to manage up to that time—almost nothing. He therefore told him to leave one company on the ground and bring the rest of his battalion round to the seashore to join McCoy and the others there. This Miller did on the 22nd, leaving Lieutenant Carl K. Fryday’s company behind. By nightfall he had closed up on McCoy’s rear. There were then only two main lines of attack in the American sector—along the shore and along the track to the Triangle.
Not only, however, did Harding readjust his forces at this time—he superimposed a rather curious readjustment in command on his already curious control system. He advanced Colonel MacNab, executive officer of the 128th Regiment, to operational command of the coastal drive over
the head of MacNab’s own commander, Colonel Hale. General MacNider, who had been the original commander of the mixed Australian-American force which had begun to build up at Wanigela on 14th October, remained as commander of Warren Force—the name which the Americans moving against Buna had apparently adopted some weeks before. Harding had thus inserted two other commanders between himself and his regimental commanders—in actual fact, since Tomlinson was not then under his command, between himself and Hale. That Hale felt the position was to be revealed by him much later in answer to a question put to him.
... while I commanded the 128th Infantry from 6 February 1942, until 3 December 1942, I was commander in name only from about mid-October until 23 November 1942.6
On the latter date MacNider, inspecting the forward lines, was wounded and Hale succeeded him, although MacNab remained in command of the actual operations.
By this time the Americans’ situation had brightened from one aspect at least: they were more certain of getting supplies for, on the 21st, the Dobodura strip had been completed to a length of 1,000 yards and a width of 110 feet—a notable achievement on the part of the engineers in so few days. But other problems were now looming large for the 32nd Division. They needed to adjust their own approach to the task before them; and they needed further support, of greater weight than infantry alone could bring to bear. It was true that considerable air support had already been provided. But the nature of the close country which shut off the recognition signals made from the ground, the inexperience of the soldiers combined with the lack of practice and skill of some of the pilots in close-support operations, and the skilful construction of the defences which made them invisible from the air and almost impervious to bombing (except to a direct hit), rendered air attack largely ineffective. Aggravating that was the shortage of artillery. Although the two howitzers from the Australian mountain battery were in position above Hariko, no field guns were firing until the 22nd when Captain Mueller of the 2/5th Field Regiment brought into action the two 25-pounders which remained to his troop after the sinking of the barge on the 16th.
After that misadventure most of the surviving gunners had walked back along the coast to Oro Bay and then, with Mueller, retraced their steps to join the battery commander, Major Hall.7 The latter, with the second troop of his battery, had left Milne Bay ten days after Mueller, his men and fifty sheep on the deck of one of the little ships which had been pressed into service, an ungainly barge towed behind them. At Wanigela, Hall rafted his guns and stores ashore on the 14th. Two days later he left them there in a beach and strip defence role under Captain
Nix8 while he himself went ahead to learn more of the American plans. At Hariko Mueller joined him, having left Lieutenant Marr9 and a few helpers at Oro Bay to get his two remaining guns forward. Marr managed to do this by dismantling the guns and ferrying the pieces in a long-boat out to the lugger Kelton where, by delicate judgment, the heavy parts were hauled aboard on inadequate cargo gear. Scarcely had Marr achieved this when word was received from the Americans that no landing could be made through the surf at Hariko. He chose to ignore this warning and hurried his departure before it could be forbidden. Then, through pitch darkness and broken sea, in the long-boat and canvas assault boats, he and his men landed their guns on the night 21st–22nd. On the 22nd these, concealed beneath thick tropical growth, were in action just above Hariko.10
By that time more guns were on their way to the front. In Port Moresby Lieut-Colonel O’Connell’s11 2/1st Field Regiment, veterans of the African desert and Greece, had been alerted. The 2nd Battery was standing by for final orders to move to Buna by sea, the 1st waited in hopeful expectancy, and the 51st was preparing to begin a flight to the coast on the 23rd. One troop of the 51st, constituting Blackforce under Major Hanson,12 was to land at Popondetta and join General Vasey; the second troop, constituting Bullforce under Captain Manning,13 was to land at Dobodura and join General Harding.
But more guns were not the final answer. Although the Australian commanders had generally shared the Americans’ expectations that resistance in the Buna area would be light, some provision had been made earlier for support by tanks. It was now clear that these would be not only the ideal but perhaps the only answer to the solidly prepared and tenaciously held Japanese bunker defences. On 13th November General Clowes had been ordered to send from Milne Bay to Pongani or Oro Bay (as General Harding might desire) one troop of General Stuart tanks from a squadron of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment then arriving there. But lack of shipping defeated this plan for, when the first tank was loaded on the only available craft which might have been suitable (a captured Japanese landing barge), both barge and tank sank. Although they were subsequently salvaged it was clear that there was no immediate hope of moving the tanks. Instead, as a temporary measure, Clowes was told on the 21st to send a platoon of Bren carriers.
MacNab, therefore, lacked armoured support and had nothing like adequate artillery. Nevertheless he ordered the coastal drive to begin afresh
on the 23rd. This McCoy and Carrier attempted by infiltration beneath the cover of artillery fire augmented by concentrated fire from heavy mortars which MacNab had had grouped as a battery. Lack of observation militated against both the artillery and mortars, however, and most of the artillery hits achieved were rendered comparatively ineffective by the fact that the instantaneous fuses with which the shells were armed caused them to explode on impact. Delayed fuses, to postpone the explosion until the projectile had buried itself deep in the target, would have been much more effective but none were available at the time. It was partly in consequence of this that McCoy and Carrier made very limited progress. “Line moved forward about 100 yards on coastal flank and centre but little on western or left flank.”14 This comparative failure inevitably reacted on the Independent Company, although it had been aggressively ranging round the eastern end of the strip, and, to its left, Fryday could not get forward although he remained firm on the approaches to the bridge.
Quiet then settled over the seashore for the next two days--except where Captain Belmer was still trying to track down Japanese posts at the eastern end of New Strip. Harcourt had planned a local attack there for the 24th but the Japanese posts were in even greater strength than the Australian reconnaissance had shown and Belmer lost six men for no gain.
On the Ango Track, however, these two days were more eventful. Major Herbert M. Smith, with his II/126th, had joined Colonel Smith’s II/128th in front of the Triangle on the morning of the 23rd. The two battalions, widely separated by swamps from the main group, then assumed the name Urbana Force (the rest of the attackers retaining the name Warren Force which had previously been applied to all of them) with Colonel Smith commanding. But by that time the colonel was in difficulties. His own two flanking companies were still wide in the swamps with Company “G”, on the right flank, in particular straits. After their initial plunge into the morass on the afternoon of the 21st, night caught them still floundering. They plunged deeper in the darkness, then halted about 10 p.m. with the more fortunate perched like birds in stunted trees, black slush beneath them. Most, however, just waited numbly for the new day to come, with the mud and water up to or above their waists. They pushed farther into the swamps on the 22nd and, about the middle of the afternoon, came to a stretch of kunai which rose slightly above the marsh level. It seemed that only about 200 more yards of swamp then separated them from the eastern arm of the Triangle. They were in a jumping-off position for attack if only they could be supplied. Colonel Smith, however, despaired of this. He planned to withdraw them and attack round the left where Company “F”, although practically swamp-bound, had yet found the going slightly easier along Entrance Creek. He signalled Harding to this effect and that the line of supply was “neck-deep in mud and water”. Harding, however, received the message as “knee-deep” and curtly replied that Smith was not to withdraw under any circumstances but to attack. He then overruled the latter’s protests that he had in-
sufficient knowledge of the terrain and virtually none of his enemies’ dispositions, and his plea for an extra day or two to remedy both lacks. Aircraft would strike at the Triangle at 8 a.m. on the 24th, Harding said, and Urbana Force would follow the bombs in. Smith then took hasty counsel with his more junior namesake. The two decided to attack simultaneously from the right, with Company “G” of the 128th (already in position there) reinforced with Company “E” of the 128th; frontally with Company “F” of the 126th; from the left with Company “E” of the 126th which would relieve Company “F” of the 128th along Entrance Creek.
While the two American commanders were finalising their plans, last-minute arrangements for some artillery support were made. Early on the morning of the 23rd the Bullforce guns and gunners had begun arriving at Dobodura. Captain Manning, not being able to report direct to General Harding at Embogo, reported to Colonel Smith instead. But, in Manning’s own words: “As he refused to adopt us had to wait to contact General [Albert W.] Waldron [the American artillery commander] by wireless.” Waldron told him to support the attack of the two Smiths, and Manning then had two guns ready for action by nightfall.15
At 8 a.m. on the 24th attacking aircraft swept over the Urbana positions but they consisted merely of twelve fighters which not only missed their target area but were not followed by bombers. Smith held his hand and asked for a second attempt. It was arranged that this would be made again by twelve fighters as no bombers were available, but only four fighters kept the appointment. These left the Japanese untouched but strafed Smith’s own headquarters. Apparently this persuaded the colonel to press on without waiting for further assistance from the air. So his men finally crossed their start-lines at about 2.30 p.m. supported, within a few minutes, by Manning’s guns.
On the right Company “G” moved off as planned with Company “E” in a supporting position in the kunai. But the former ran into opposition about 200 yards from their start-line and were held on the slopes of a second strip of kunai. Soon the Japanese seemed to be concentrating a good deal of fire on Company “E”. Although that company (and the heavy weapons platoon of Company “G” which had remained with them) lost only one man killed and five wounded, they became perturbed. Their own weapons seemed to be failing them through the effects of mud and water. Thereupon they fell back into the swamp and later, leaving some of their weapons behind them, stumbled to the rear. Not such disorder but an equal lack of success marked the frontal attack. Company “F” of the 126th, strengthened by Company “H” of the 128th, found barbed wire defences barring their way along the track. These, covered by heavy fire, effectively halted them both. On the left Company “E” of the 126th circled
for some distance on Entrance Creek as a diameter swinging for the bridge on the track to Buna village. But accurate and heavy fire forbade their close approach to this. They dug holes and lay in them with swamp water seeping over them.
Mortified by this whole failure, and the nature of it, General Harding was not disposed to listen to Colonel Smith’s explanations. Particularly was he incensed at the failure on the right wing. Smith had told him that he had ordered these companies to remain on the edge of the swamp until morning—and then Harding learned that they had straggled back to the rear. Smith said they were hungry and exhausted and incapable of further effort for the moment; that he was still of the opinion that no attack round the right could succeed. For those reasons he did not order the men back to their posts. He wanted to concentrate on the left and confine his activity on the right to patrols, and his patrol results during the next two days (25th and 26th) added weight to his arguments. Harding admitted it. On the 26th he told Smith to concentrate on the possibilities opened by the movements of the left flank company; to try to by-pass the Triangle completely and outflank the defences by getting his men on to a grassy strip which bestrode the left fork of the track—that which ran to Buna village.
On the afternoon of the 27th, however, Colonel John W. Mott, Harding’s Chief of Staff, took over Urbana Force and Colonel Smith reverted to command of his own battalion. Mott at once relieved the commanders of the two companies which had failed on the right (although the Company “E” commander was reinstated soon afterwards) and ordered the companies to return at once to the positions they had abandoned and salvage their jettisoned weapons. By sundown all of them had been recovered except one of Company “E’s” mortars. Mott at once sent that company back a second time and, when they returned again, they carried the missing piece with them. Meanwhile he had reached the same conclusion as Smith and Harding had done, substantially confirmed the former’s plan for an outflanking move round the left, and proceeded to embellish it—particularly with certain ideas that Major Smith had developed. In reply to Harding’s expressed desire for a night attack on the 28th, however, he asked for a little more time. Harding thereupon ordered him to attack the following night.
While Urbana Force had thus failed, and been gathering itself for an attempt to redeem that failure, the attack which Colonels Hale and Mac-Nab had worked out in detail after Warren Force’s lack of success on the 23rd, had taken place as planned on the 26th. By that day Colonel Miller’s III/128th had relieved Colonel McCoy’s I/128th in the most advanced positions along the water’s edge. Forward of Miller, at 7.30 a.m., the Allied fighters opened what was to be the largest air attack yet undertaken on the coast. Bombers followed them in at 8 a.m., and the attacks continued until 9 a.m., fifty aircraft in all participating. Then the guns took over: O’Hare’s howitzers concentrated on Cape Endaiadere; Manning’s Bullforce, with four 25-pounders now in action round Ango,
and Mueller’s two 25-pounders from Hariko, brought their fire down along the western edge of New Strip and on the bridge between the strips. Twelve 81-mm mortars and four heavy machine-guns thickened the artillery fire.
At 9.30 a.m. Miller’s battalion went in on the right to drive directly northward along the track to Cape Endaiadere. But the Japanese rose practically unscathed from their bunkers and strongpoints and stopped the Americans almost dead on the track and in the swamps which bordered it. Strafing aircraft which rushed down from Lae then completed Miller’s discomfiture.
On his left Colonel Carrier’s I/126th elements, aiming Northwest for Strip Point, confounded the confusion. Carrier unknowingly went east instead of Northwest. By 4 p.m. (still thinking he was headed aright) he had reported that there was little opposition ahead of him and he was nearing the sea. Harding, who had been forward with Miller and was now back at Embogo, not knowing of Carrier’s error, and fearing that the latter was so far forward as to be in serious danger of being cut off, instructed him to come back until he formed an extension of Miller’s left flank. Carrier thereupon emerged from a swamp which had stretched from his original right to Miller’s left and which had been the scene of his day’s hopeful but wasted manoeuvring.
This failure left the Australian Independent Company right out on a limb as they tried to seal Carrier’s left flank. New Strip, which their patrols, skimming the southern edge, could not cross because of the commanding Japanese fire, was above them, swamp water was all about them, and either rain or blazing sun was beating on them. Left of them again Fryday’s company, still in their position on the approaches to the bridge, had failed to secure the western end of the strip.
During the next few days Warren Force made no progress. General Harding then ordered another attack for the 29th but deferred it soon afterwards until the early morning of the 30th. Since Colonel Mott was preparing his Urbana Force attack for the night 29th–30th the effect would be an almost simultaneous attack on both flanks.
This was to be supported by more closely integrated artillery fire than any previously attempted, directed by General Waldron. The guns were still all Australian—Hall’s two 25-pounders forward of Hariko, O’Hare’s two howitzers in the same general area and Manning’s four guns near Ango. One 105-mm howitzer of Battery “A”, 129th U.S. Field Artillery Battalion was landed at Dobodura on the 29th but was not ready to support the attack on the 30th. The gunners were gradually lessening the problems which beset them in the flat coastal country. Manning reported that at first he had no accurate maps at all of his area but was able to construct a fairly satisfactory one from air photographs. His chief difficulty was observation. “No command at all, practically impenetrable jungle with open strips and all perfectly flat.” He was at first forced to rely on information from the infantry and reports of sound bearings from listening observation posts. By the 29th or 30th he had been able to
arrange only one observed shoot. Skilful calculations, however, enabled him to fire with sufficient accuracy to guarantee his shells falling within 200 yards of a given target. But even if that estimate were correct, it was not sufficiently accurate to give well-trained infantry the close artillery support they would look for; such men would advance as near as 30 yards to the fall of the shot.
A new artillery aid, however, was now beginning to lessen the disadvantages of lack of observation from the ground. On the 24th New Guinea Force had been able to arrange for No. 4 Army Cooperation Squadron RAAF “equipped with slow, almost weaponless Wirraways and manned by skilful pilots and observers”,16 to be made available for air spotting. On the 28th one of these aircraft was allotted to the 32nd Division, and one to the 7th Australian Division, to work with the artillery for two hours during the morning. Thereafter they were to play an increasing part in the coastal battle, at first landing at Dobodura for briefing before every mission, and later remaining at Dobodura and Popondetta for several days at a time subject to the demands of the artillery. Though the threat of Japanese fighters restricted their use to some extent they were handled so boldly that the soldiers soon became used to seeing them circling slowly, seeming almost to hover, over the Japanese lines and passing detailed directions to the guns.
They spotted shell bursts, lured enemy AA into disclosing their positions, reported Japs trying to escape; they were forced down and occasionally crashed in flames; and one daring Wirraway actually shot down a Zero. Their work according to the official artillery report, was ‘superb’.17
During the later stages of the coastal battle, as these and other expedients increased the effectiveness of artillery fire and more guns arrived in the forward areas, the supply of ammunition became a great problem. At this stage, however, the problem was not so acute: shells were brought by air to Dobodura and then taken out along the track on four jeeps for Manning’s guns at Ango; they were taken by sea to the guns on the shore. For the latter Hall’s dump was well to the rear of his gun positions to which the shells then had to be manhandled.
At night, ammunition was loaded into canvas assault-boats which were then pushed and pulled along the surf. While so engaged, the men watched anxiously for aerial flares from Cape Endaiadere, for they would then be clearly visible to the enemy, who were strongly entrenched in that area. To pull an assault-boat along, one man had to walk in the water, chest-deep most of the way, well outside the line of breakers. There was about two miles to travel, and after a few hundred yards even the strongest was exhausted. Sometimes the boats would be swamped, and then it was a case of diving for the boxes which, when full of water, became harder than ever to handle. Once the ammunition was ashore, it would be carried to the guns through the dark jungle. The usual routine was for each man to hold the belt of the man ahead, the leader trying to follow the telephone line. If he lost the wire, the file would soon be off the track. Everyone would then crawl on
hands and knees until the line was found again. Although this trip through the jungle was only about a mile, it took up to two and a half hours in the dark.18
Although, despite the difficulties still surrounding its use, General Harding could now hope for an increase in the effectiveness of his artillery, he was painfully aware that his men needed the kind of support which only tanks could provide, if they were to prevail against the solidly-entrenched Japanese. He had renewed his pleas for some of the tanks at Milne Bay. But still the lack of sea craft capable of carrying them prevented their dispatch. General Clowes (following his orders) had, however, been swift to get Bren carriers on the water (though he well knew that they could not be considered or used as substitutes for tanks). The first of these, with their crews, arrived at Porlock on the 27th. Harding was then told that at least four would reach him within the next two days and, in consequence, hoped to be able to use these new weapons on the 30th. But once again the lack of shipping nullified his hopes. Nor initially did he have the air support which he had confidently expected, for the approach to Buna of a Japanese convoy kept all available aircraft busy at a critical time.
Also, in the words of the American historian of this campaign:
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 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. ... 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 fighting they had failed to score even one noteworthy success.19
At 6.15 a.m. on the 30th artillery and mortars opened a fifteen-minutes program in front of Warren Force. At 6.30 the attackers crossed their start-lines, McCoy’s I/128th leading straight up the track. But within a hundred yards the vanguard company faced a big log barrier, which seemed to spout fire, thickened by a raking fire from the flanks. The artillery could not remove the barrier, nor could specially aimed concentrations from mortars and a 37-mm gun. The attack could not get round, over or through the main defence line of which this barricade was one of the pivots.
At the same time, on the left, with the Australian Independent Company on his own left, Carrier had been trying to lever an opening into the eastern end of New Strip. But well-directed fire swept his right company to ground near the Northeast corner of the airfield. His left company got no farther than half-way along the field’s southern edge before they
too took to the ground to survive the storm sweeping across and along the open spaces which had obviously been ranged as killing grounds. The Australians, handicapped by the American failure, gained no ground though their patrols on the right located Japanese machine-gun positions to the north of the strip’s east end and linked with Fryday below the bridge. They reported of the Japanese defences that:
All emplacements appeared to be made of coconut logs laid lengthwise with others placed on bearers forming the roof. The whole was then camouflaged according to the country in which they were situated. In the case of those to the west of the strip kunai grass was festooned all over them with small bundles standing upright in front, while at the eastern end ... [they] were covered with coconut leaves, bits of scrub and heaps of fallen coconuts or husks. In most cases the loopholes were hidden to view by the screen of bush or camouflage, although vision from inside out was still possible, and in nearly every case the pillbox or emplacement was not discovered until you were right on to it. The openings were difficult to see from the front and only in two cases—those near the bridge--were they located, nor could the width or size of the loopholes be ascertained.20
While Warren Force had thus stunned itself once more against the defences which stretched along New Strip and through the southern fringes of Duropa Plantation to the water’s edge, Urbana Force had been similarly embroiled around the Triangle beyond the swamps which spread west of the strips. There, Colonel Mott had undertaken a most difficult task even before he joined battle: an approach march by ill-trained and apprehensive troops through darkness and swamps. It was true that the distance was short from the two grassy spaces which he had selected as his forming-up
areas to the larger grassed area which lay astride the track to Buna village above the Triangle and which was his immediate objective. But a short distance under such circumstances can prove too much for even the best laid plans, and the Urbana plans, though bold, were far too intricate and ambitious—especially for their raw subjects. So it was that Mott’s timetable was disrupted when his initial moves were scarce begun. He had planned to advance on to his objective as soon after midnight as possible and hard behind a small barrage from Manning’s 25-pounders and his own mortars, both of which were ranged on the objective. But it was 4 a.m. before his men crossed their start-line.
Colonel Smith pitted his Company “G” against the apex of the Triangle and was to contain any Japanese sortie which might be made down the track. Companies “E” and “F” of the 126th pushed quickly through to the South-eastern edge of the objective, destroying a number of Japanese who tried to stop them, and carrying out their orders to secure first that part of it which was nearest the Coconut Grove and the Triangle. But Company “E” of the 128th, attacking forward then to clear the Coconut Grove, failed. Company “G” of the 126th likewise failed. They had jumped off on the left of the two leading companies with orders to wheel left again when they struck the track and take Buna village, but they became lost in the swamp. Mott quickly switched Company “E” of the 126th to this task (from consolidation on the original objective). These men hurried Northwest along the track but burnt themselves out during the day, within 150 yards of the village, in two fruitless attacks. Wide to their left Company “F” of the 128th, after skirting the defences, flung as far as Siwori village and bestrode the track in the path of any attempt which might be made along it against their friends in the main area. Then, with the night, Mott lodged more firmly on and around the grassy area which had been his first target.
By this time General MacArthur was in the grip of great disquiet at Port Moresby. Nowhere round the new battlefront had his forces been able to achieve any decision. In the two weeks since they had started forward the 32nd Division had lost 492 men in battle—and had nothing to show for it.21 The main Japanese line was still unbreached. At Sanananda and Gona the strength of the Australians was waning fast. In addition General Blamey had been outspoken to MacArthur in criticism of the American infantry. On 29th November MacArthur sent an urgent message to Lieut-General Eichelberger, the commander of I American Corps, to stand by at his headquarters at Rockhampton in Queensland. MacArthur’s own aircraft followed hard on that message and landed Eichelberger in Port Moresby late on the afternoon of the 30th. Almost at once he and his Chief of Staff, Brigadier-General Clovis E. Byers, were summoned into the Commander-in-Chief’s presence.
Byers and I were conducted to a sweeping veranda where General Sutherland sat at a desk, grave-faced (Eichelberger wrote later). He had just flown back over the Owen Stanley Mountains from Dobodura, and it was plain that his report on
conditions at Buna was responsible for my abrupt summons. General MacArthur was striding up and down the long veranda. General Kenney, whose planes were to do so much to make the ultimate victory possible, was the only man who greeted me with a smile. There were no preliminaries.
“Bob,” said General MacArthur in a grim voice, “I’m putting you in command at Buna. Relieve Harding. I am sending you in, Bob, and I want you to remove all officers who won’t fight. Relieve regimental and battalion commanders; if necessary, put sergeants in charge of battalions and corporals in charge of companies—anyone who will fight. Time is of the essence; the Japs may land reinforcements any night.”
General MacArthur strode down the breezy veranda again. He said he had reports that American soldiers were throwing away their weapons and running from the enemy. Then he stopped short and spoke with emphasis. He wanted no misunderstandings about my assignment.
“Bob,” he said, “I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive.” He paused a moment and then, without looking at Byers, pointed a finger. “And that goes for your chief of staff too. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
After breakfast [the following day] he put an arm around my shoulders and led me into his office. “If you capture Buna,” the Allied commander said, “I’ll give you a Distinguished Service Cross and recommend you for a high British decoration. Also,” he continued, referring to the complete anonymity under which all American commanders in that theatre functioned, “I’ll release your name for newspaper publication.”22
Eichelberger arrived at the front on the 1st. There he was to be responsible directly to General Herring who had opened an advanced headquarters at Popondetta on the 28th. Herring had quickly found that he could get no accurate picture of what was happening on the American front. He therefore sent his senior liaison officer, Lieut-Colonel Robertson,23 to visit Harding. Robertson flew to Dobodura and, at first, could see few signs of life as he looked about him after the aircraft which had brought him made a quick take-off. Then a wisp of smoke curling among the trees on the edge of the field attracted him. As he approached he could see a figure in American uniform bending over a fire and stirring a pot. Engaged upon this humble task he found a colonel, who told him that General Harding was just down the track and would be along soon. But he had a long wait before Harding appeared. Harding then could give him very few details of his infantry positions. He explained that he was quite out of touch with his forward troops. Nor could his signals officer give him much hope that early communication would be restored, saying that the signallers had found the going too hard to carry the divisional headquarters wireless set and had thrown it into the bush some miles back. Robertson, an officer of considerable experience, was astonished and dismayed and reported his impressions to Herring on the 30th. General Sutherland, who was with Herring at the time, listened gravely. Apparently Robertson’s story capped his own impressions and possibly accounted in some measure for the report he made to MacArthur on his return—the
report which Eichelberger considered to be the reason for his almost immediate summons to MacArthur’s presence after his arrival in Port Moresby and the haste with which he was then sent to the front.
On arrival Eichelberger found both Warren and Urbana Forces trying themselves once more against the defences. On the former’s front, however, McCoy’s men were soon hard held on the water’s edge; while an attack by Carrier towards New Strip, coinciding with an attempt to push forward across the bridge by Lieutenant Fryday, was halted by a grass fire accidentally started in rear of it. The most that Carrier could then achieve was to have two of his companies circle the southern edge of the strip and join Fryday.
In the Urbana sector, after an uneventful but watchful night, Mott had got his men off the main track for a flanking attack on Buna village. Fire from Manning’s guns and all the available mortars preceded the companies. But, just as the impetus was mounting, the leading company pulled back.
Whether it did so because there was a mix-up in signals or because the men were “jumpy” Colonel Mott was unable to ascertain.24
On the 2nd Eichelberger sent two trusted staff officers, Colonels Clarence A. Martin and Gordon B. Rogers, to observe Warren Force in action while he himself, with Generals Harding and Waldron, joined Colonel Mott.
The day was to see a shift of emphasis from the water’s edge westward against New Strip. McCoy left only one company immediately below Cape Endaiadere—to feint along the track. The rest of his men would probe towards the eastern end of New Strip with one of Colonel Carrier’s companies. At the same time the companies below the bridge would attack north and Northwest. McCoy would command the east-west push, Carrier that from the south. Major Harcourt’s Australians would link the two attacking groups although one of their patrols (under Lieutenant Blainey25) would operate on Carrier’s extreme left, South-west of the bridge.
But, in the event, the attack seemed to jerk spasmodically into anticlimax: the supporting aircraft aimed their bombs and fire well but apparently did not signal the conclusion of their runs to the ground forces; in consequence the mortars and artillery did not open fire soon enough to maintain the shock of the bombardment unbroken; nor were the Japanese taken in by the feint along the track. Intense and skilful fire erased the Americans’ intentions in their early stages. It stopped the Australians also, killing the constant Belmer, although, from the trees on the extreme left, Blainey’s men got within 30 yards of the rear of some of the bridge defences—near enough to engage them with grenades.
A similar lack of success marked the Urbana Force attack that day although it was strengthened by additional mortars which Harding had rushed up, preceded by thick and well-aimed fire from these and the
original mortar battery and by “accurate, and, in general, beautifully executed” artillery fire from Ango. Of this day General Eichelberger wrote later:
When I went to the front on 2 December I couldn’t find a front. I had been told the day before that our men were within seventy-five yards of Buna village and attacking. I knew that four hundred artillery rounds had been laid into the troubled sector. When I came back that evening to my headquarters tent on a creek bank ... I wrote to General Sutherland in Port Moresby.
“The rear areas are strong and the front line is weak. Inspired leadership is lacking. In a circuit of Buna village I found men hungry and generally without cigarettes and vitamins. Yesterday afternoon the men immediately in contact with the Japanese had had no food since the day before. About four o’clock the rations arrived, two tins of C ration!”
Here is what Colonel Rogers, then I Corps Intelligence officer, wrote me about his inspection trip [Rogers did not see the feint up the track nor the attempt on the bridges between the strips]:
“The troops were deplorable. They wore long dirty beards. Their clothing was in rags. Their shoes were uncared for, or worn out. They were receiving far less than adequate rations and there was little discipline or military courtesy. ... Troops were scattered along a trail toward the front line in small groups, engaged in eating, sleeping, during the time they were supposed to be in an attack. At the front there were portions of two companies, aggregating 150 men. Outside of the 150 men in the foxholes in the front lines, the remainder of the 2,000 men in the combat area could not have been even considered a reserve—since three or four hours would have been required to organise and move them on any tactical mission.”
... Our patrols were dazed by the hazards of swamp and jungle; they were unwilling to undertake the patrolling which alone could safeguard their own interests. ... One result of ... lack of communication and the density of the jungle was that companies and platoons were as scrambled as pied type on the floor of a printing office. ... I stopped all fighting, and it took two days to effect the unscrambling of the units and an orderly chain of command.26
Eichelberger’s comments on what he had seen led to an angry scene with Mott and later with Harding. He then relieved them both, giving the division to General Waldron and Urbana Force (after the lapse of another day) to Colonel John E. Grose. Colonel Martin replaced Colonel Hale in command of Warren Force. Both Grose and Martin were from Eichelberger’s own staff, both had seen action in 1918. This was the new commander’s first step in providing the leadership which he had decided was lacking. The task of straightening out the chaotic supply position he gave to Colonel George De Graaf, his own corps supply officer. Thus, with three of his own officers in the key positions under the already tried Waldron, he was now firmly in the saddle, and his was the responsibility for taking Buna.
In preparation for a major attack on the 5th Eichelberger gathered up the scattered bits and pieces of his command and formed them once more into homogeneous units. On the right of Warren Force, between the sea and the South-eastern end of New Strip, Colonel Martin placed McCoy’s III/128th. Carrier’s I/126th was re-formed south of the bridge between the strips. Miller’s I/128th was in reserve behind McCoy. On the Urbana
front Colonel Grose placed the II/128th on his right and the II/126th on his left, the two Smiths still commanding.
This 5th December attack would again follow the pattern which, up to the present, had been unsuccessfully laid down on the Buna front—a frontal assault with air and artillery support, mortars thickening the fire of the artillery. Lieut-Colonel O’Connell, of the 2/1st Field Regiment, who had flown from Port Moresby on the 3rd, was placed in charge of the guns. For the two near Hariko ammunition supply had recently been an acute problem which was relieved only just before the attack by the arrival of the little ships with 1,000 rounds and by the opening of a rough track from Hariko to Simemi. None the less delivery to the dump and gun positions was still slow and awkward. As the gunners manhandled the shells from the water’s edge they stumbled over roots and collided with one another in the darkness. The track from Simemi provided only a trickle of ammunition. Over this track the gunners’ only jeep, brakeless, running on kerosene, and missing with stuttering regularity, went bucketing to Dobodura to carry a mere forty rounds a trip.
One new feature, however, would mark the 5th December attack from those that had preceded it. Five Bren carriers had at last been got forward from Porlock Harbour. They were manned by men of the 17th Brigade who had reached Milne Bay during October. On 23rd November General Clowes had ordered Brigadier Moten27 to man thirteen carriers supplied by the 18th Brigade. Each was then armed with two light machine-guns, each section with an anti-tank rifle in addition. Moten appointed Lieutenant Fergusson28 to command this improvised platoon, mindful, no doubt, of the sound training that young officer had received in carriers as a trooper in his father’s29 6th Divisional Cavalry Regiment, before being commissioned and posted to the 2/7th Battalion.
On 29th November Fergusson succeeded in landing five of his carriers at Oro Bay although the shipping and unloading difficulties, which had already delayed him seriously, forced him to return the other eight to Porlock from that point. He could then find no overland route by which to get farther forward. But while he himself was reporting to the front-line Americans, Lieutenant Walker,30 his second-in-command, finally managed to get the carriers on to a barge which a small naval vessel then towed to Boreo. By the early hours of the 4th Walker had them ashore and in the afternoon they moved forward to an assembly area in preparation for the attack on the 5th. In that attack four would be manned by crews from the 2/7th Battalion, one by a 2/5th Battalion crew under Corporal Lucas.31 One of the crews from the 2/7th was led by Sergeant “Jock”
Taylor,32 who had shown himself in the African desert and Greece to be one of the outstanding fighting men of the AIF.
Although Fergusson’s men eagerly faced the prospect of new action, private misgivings must have touched the hearts of any who had time to contemplate the nature of the country and the task which lay before them. The role for which carriers had originally been designed was reconnaissance and the rapid transport of troops and weapons across bullet-swept ground. What light armour they had was capable only of stopping small-arms fire—and even some of that was likely to penetrate at close range. Their sides were low and they were fitted with no overhead protection of any kind. A basic doctrine of infantry training had always been that carriers were not tanks and should not, indeed could not, be used as such. And yet this was the prospect, in the face of deeply-entrenched positions manned by soldiers of great endurance in defence, now ahead of Fergusson and his men—a prospect that could be justified only by a desperate need. That need was twofold: to adopt any expedient, however slender its chance of success, which might result in the prising of a hole through the Japanese casemates; to hearten the bewildered Americans whose first two weeks of warfare had been such a stunning shock to them.
From 8.20 a.m. to 8.35 on 5th December six twin-engined medium bombers gunned and bombed between Cape Endaiadere and Old Strip. Without waiting for the aircraft to finish, the artillery joined in at 8.30. At 8.42 Warren Force crossed their start-lines on the water’s edge. There Fergusson and his carriers formed the spearhead of Miller’s III/128th Battalion. On the left McCoy was trying to break through the eastern end of New Strip. From his positions south of the bridge Carrier was thrusting against the resolute defenders who had refused a passage there for so long. Between McCoy and Carrier, Lieutenant Fielding33 was in charge of the most forward men of the Independent Company, whom Major Harcourt had instructed to provide contact patrols between the I/128th and I/126th and “to take any chance of inflicting casualties on enemy or opening avenues through which infantry advance could move”.
American fire was whipping the tree tops for snipers when the carriers broke cover, each with a crew of four, their speed held down to two miles an hour, partly to allow the infantry to keep pace, partly because the ground was spongy under their tracks and littered with fallen logs over which creepers twined. Sergeant Taylor’s and Corporal Lucas’ vehicles were on the right, Fergusson’s in the centre, Corporal Orpwood’s34 and Corporal Wilton’s35 on the left. A great volume of fire stormed about them
as they moved into the cleared space over which they must advance. On the extreme right Lucas’ carrier bellied on a log hidden in the long grass after it had travelled some 40 yards. The crew fought on from its shelter to give cover to Sergeant Taylor who was engaging a post about 50 yards to their left. Taylor had crossed about 75 yards of cleared space when a torrent of fire from a strong post just in front of him, heavily barricaded and camouflaged with palm fronds so that it was most difficult to locate, stopped him momentarily. He and his crew pounded it with grenades and flailed it with machine-gun fire. Then they circled to take it from the rear but not before a mortar bomb had exploded in the back of their vehicle, killing one of the crew. Just before they silenced this post a Japanese soldier attempted to grenade them. Taylor leaped from the carrier to meet him and killed him in the open. Swinging his vehicle to the right he then silenced a second post. As he was engaging a third post a burst shattered his left arm. With blood pouring from him he left the carrier to go to the assistance of Fergusson who was in difficulties farther to the left, while Private Locke’s36 fire covered him. Then as the carrier moved in to the post again, its damaged motor stopped. Desperately Private Cameron,37 the driver, emptied his rifle into the Japanese until the rifle jammed and then struggled to right a stoppage in the Bren. As he was doing so he was hit in the head. Locke covered him out of the rear of the carrier and then, desperately wounded himself, fell among the torn scrub.
Meanwhile, in the third carrier, Fergusson had been heavily engaged by posts in front of him and sharpshooters commanding his open vehicle from the tree-tops. When his driver was hit he took over himself in the driving seat. He turned to look for the infantry who should have been supporting him and his carrier became jammed among fallen logs and trees. As he stood up to call to Taylor, near him on the right, a tree-top marksman shot him through the head. At once, from Taylor’s carrier, Locke shot this sniper, but within seconds, Corporal Davies,38 struggling to move Fergusson’s body from the driving seat, was also shot dead. By this time, too, Corporal Orpwood in the fourth carrier had been wounded, mortally. After he had traversed about 100 yards on Fergusson’s left a grenade burst over his vehicle’s open top. Turning to crush the thrower, Orpwood became the target for a sharpshooter perched above him. He fell across the driver who temporarily lost control of his vehicle and then reversed into the cover provided by some bush and, under the protection of the forward infantry, removed his dying friend. Soon afterwards, however, his carrier stuck across a fallen log.
While he had been reversing he had passed Corporal Wilton’s carrier, helpless astride a log which had lain across the path it was following to
Orpwood’s left rear. In a free-for-all with Japanese riflemen who engaged them from trees Wilton’s two gunners were wounded. The crew then fought on for some time with the forward infantry. About midday Wilton sent the two wounded men back. A little later, however, on instructions from Lieutenant Walker who, hearing of the disaster, had hurried forward from the carriers’ rear headquarters, Wilton attached himself and his remaining crewmen to the Americans with whom they remained until next evening. Walker, who, with a small party, searched for his dead and wounded and emptied the carriers of equipment which the crews had been unable to carry away (although each had taken with him all the weapons and ammunition he could bear) was mortally wounded during his brave search.
So, within half an hour, the five vehicles lay abandoned, proof of the dictum that carriers were not tanks. And, just in rear of them, Miller’s leading company was shot to pieces from Duropa Plantation or from behind the log barricade. Miller’s whole attack was halted before it was well begun; the blazing sun now sickened the discouraged survivors.
It was a similar story in McCoy’s sector. There the men moved forward thirteen minutes after Miller’s through coarse kunai grass and in heat which wilted them. As the long day waned they were still only on the fringes of the strip and any more positive achievements were quite beyond their reach. Farther left, and in the bridge area, however, Carrier’s men had met with a little more success. The artillery, their own 37-mm gun, and the mortars, aided them in dislodging the defenders from about seven of the most forward positions, but when the Americans tried to close in on the bridge fierce fire swept them back. Night found them still some 200 yards south of the bridge.
Between McCoy and Carrier, commando patrols actually crossed the eastern end and centre of the strip, with most of the Japanese fire passing over their heads but, with no infantry up with them, they withdrew again later.
There was heartening news, however, from the Urbana front. Under the eyes of Generals Eichelberger and Waldron, Major Smith’s II/126th Battalion moved against Buna village at 10.30 a.m. after nine Kittyhawks had attacked the Government Station to disorganise any move to send reinforcements from that area—the only area from which assistance to the defenders of Buna village could come—and the guns and mortars also bombarded the area. From almost due south of the village, the 126th companies tried to advance along three radial axes, Company “H” on the right, Companies “G” and “E” in the centre, with the Cannon Company of the II/128th on a fourth and most westerly radius.
Apparently the extreme right company’s drive lost its force early. Next on the left two platoons of Company “G” went to ground under fire but the third platoon, Staff-Sergeant Herman J. F. Bottcher’s, took quick advantage of an opening to overcome a number of enemy positions and halted only when they reached the sea at 1.30 p.m. There, with eighteen men and one machine-gun, Bottcher dug in on a narrow sand spit just
east of the village and virtually commanding the line between the Government Station on the east and the village on the west. To the left again Company “E”, largely as a result of the drive of two brave young leaders, Lieutenant Thomas E. Knode and 1st-Sergeant Paul R. Lutjens, both of whom were badly wounded, got within 50 yards of the village
before they were stopped. On the extreme left, however, the Cannon Company of the 128th faltered below an open space in front of the village. Major Chester M. Beaver, a divisional staff officer, took command during the afternoon in an effort to get the company forward which, by that time, had been augmented by 2nd-Lieutenant Paul M. Schwartz’s platoon of Major Smith’s reserve company. Although Beaver and Schwartz then took a patrol to the very fringe of the village area the company itself did not move forward in their wake until darkness fell.
While this had been going on Colonel Smith had ranged along the western bank of Entrance Creek to such good effect that he could claim control of almost all its length on that side, except for the area of the Coconut Grove which was still strongly held. Smith’s commanding position, Bottcher’s break-through, and the close embrace of Major Smith’s companies and the Cannon Company, meant that Buna village was fairly effectively cut off from landward help. It was clearly now only a matter of time before that stronghold fell.
None the less it seems that the success of this day on the Urbana front was much less than it should have been. Two factors had swung the delicate balance in the Americans’ favour. First was Bottcher’s brilliant and brave opportunism. Of him Eichelberger was to write:
On my recommendation the Allied commander commissioned Bottcher as a captain of infantry for bravery on the field of battle. He was one of the best Americans I have ever known. He had been born in Germany and still talked with a faint Germanic accent. A profound anti-Nazi, he came to [America] early in the 1930s, took out his first papers, spent a year at the University of California, and then went to Spain to fight against Franco. His combat experience was extremely useful in Buna, and his patriotism as a new American was vigorous and determined.39
Second was the heroism of certain individuals. These fell into two main groups: there were those who, like Bottcher, fought surpassingly well in their proper roles, and those senior and extra-regimental officers who assumed the mantles of junior and non-commissioned officers to lead the men forward.
I watched the advance from the forward regimental command post, which was about a hundred and twenty-five yards from Buna village (wrote Eichelberger). The troops moved forward a few yards, heard the typewriter clatter of Jap machine-guns, ducked down, and stayed down. My little group and I left the observation post and moved through one company that was bogged down.
I spoke to the troops as we walked along. “Lads, come along with us.”
And they did. In the same fashion we were able to lead several units against the bunkers at Buna village.40
But the influence of such leaders as he could not restore to the men of Urbana Force the physical strength which the swamps and bush had drained out of them. Considering this Eichelberger laid down for the next few days a policy of “continued pressure and advance by infiltration” as a preliminary to the successive reduction of Buna village, the Coconut Grove and the Triangle. None the less Major Smith made careful preparations on the 6th for another attack on the village by his II/126th. And the day opened busily too for Sergeant Bottcher in his corner by the sea. He drove off a pre-dawn sally launched on him from the village and dealt similarly with one from the Government Station which followed. The next morning brought more determined attempts as the Japanese made another effort to pluck this thorn from their sides. But Bottcher’s gun blew the station attack apart; then, as the village group closed in from the other side, Corporal Harold L. Mitchell, one of a small group of newcomers who had been sent to strengthen Bottcher’s original garrison, overlooked them from a forward position. Single-handed he was suddenly among them with a bayonet, shouting aloud in fury to warn his fellows. Momentarily his assailants were disconcerted. That moment was all that Bottcher’s skilful gun needed. But the Japanese came again later, in the gloom of the evening which the shimmer of the sea lightened so that the Americans saw that boats had put out from the Government Station to attack them from seawards. The American guns set the foremost craft afire and the attempt washed back with the tide.
Offensively, however, the day had not been so successful for the Americans. Colonel Tomlinson, with his 126th Regimental Headquarters, had just re-crossed the Girua to the American lines, since the temporary incorporation of those of his men who were with the Australians into the 16th Brigade had virtually deprived him of his proper command function. He had taken Urbana Force over from Colonel Grose on the morning of 7th December. He sent Major Smith and his battalion once more against the village in the afternoon. But the defenders beat them off for the loss of only a small forward trench on the south, wounding the intrepid Major Smith as he was encouraging his men. The dying hopes of the II/126th, now commanded by Captain William F. Boice, that they might yet take the village, flared again on the 8th but flickered out with the last weak trickles of fire from an ineffective flame-thrower which had been brought forward. Although the operator of this instrument got within 30 feet of the defences, when he stepped forward into the open, the fuel container on his back and the nozzle in his hand, his jet barely reached half the distance to his target. As he moved closer he and two of his covering party were shot down. His officer, going to his assistance, met a like fate.
The night brought the last Japanese attempt to break the American hold on the village. As the garrison sallied against the II/126th’s left a small force from the Government Station fell on the American right but the effort failed.
By this time the II/126th was down to less than 300 men. But fresh
troops were now available, for the 127th Infantry Regiment (the third regiment of the 32nd Division) which had arrived in Port Moresby on 26th November, was coming forward. Its leading battalion, the III/127th, landed at Dobodura on the 9th. Next day this battalion began the relief of the II/126th and had completed the take-over by the 11th.
During the six days since the attack of 5th December no gain had been made on the Warren Force front. There, acting on a suggestion made by General Herring on the 5th that he concentrate on pinching off individual posts, Eichelberger had declared against any more frontal assaults for the moment—reserving his main effort for the Urbana front. He ordered vigorous patrolling to pinpoint enemy posts and feel for weak spots. As these were located they would be deluged with artillery and mortar fire and so softened as to become a prey for the creeping infantry. But, in the event, though these tactics might have helped tire the defenders by keeping them on the qui vive, they did not advance the line very much, principally because the defensive positions remained substantially proof against shell fire. Only delayed-action fuses, still not available, were likely to be able to overcome this. Eichelberger, however, thought that he might get better results by moving some of his guns farther forward. He had hesitated to do this, fearing to lose any of the few he had by placing them within reach of stealthy attackers, but the arrival of two more guns of the 2/5th Field Regiment on the 8th gave him a little latitude.
These were two of those which Major Hall had left with Captain Nix at Wanigela in the middle of November. On the 27th Nix, eagerly accepting a rather vague order from somewhere farther forward, had loaded them on s.s. Kuri Marau and set out for Oro Bay. They arrived there in darkness at the beginning of a little odyssey which provided a good picture of the difficulties of coastwise supply at this time.
The skipper could get no response to his oft-repeated signals. Accompanied by Nix, he rowed ashore. After a search along the blacked-out beach, the pair stirred up the soundly sleeping members of an American defence post. They then located the much harassed Harbour Master, who, learning the nature of their cargo, cried “Hell, I want food, not guns and ammunition.” ... There was no way to get the guns ashore. The ship turned back, its cargo still aboard, to be clear of the danger area by dawn. On arrival at Porlock Harbour the Kuri Marau received orders to proceed immediately to Milne Bay. The guns had to come off. ... The Harbour Master at Porlock was, like all of his kind on the New Guinea coast, very short on ships and very long on conflicting orders from above. Nix and company pestered him until he was glad to uphold their claim to a large, flat-topped barge, which they commandeered, so long as he got rid of them ... when a ship could be got from somewhere to tow the barge.
Spirits were ebbing fast when the familiar Kuri Marau appeared on the scene again. At Milne Bay it was discovered that there had been a mistake; the vessel had been required at Porlock, of all places. Nix pressed his claims so vigorously that Kuri Marau soon started on its way to Hariko, the big, awkward barge blundering along in tow. ... Just before dusk, three Jap planes came bombing and strafing. ... The damage forced the ship to return to Porlock. Worse, it was ordered to Milne Bay again. The section seemed fated never to leave Porlock.
But new hope dawned the following day. Two small vessels were obtained to tow the barge in tandem. This time the journey was going to be done entirely in the dark. The barge arrived off Hariko on the night of 8 December without
further mischance. ... The waves were tossing the barge several feet up and down on the edge of the beach, and so landing the guns was a hazardous business.41
Major Hall now had four 25-pounders in action north of Hariko, and soon afterwards Major O’Hare, his strength recently increased by the arrival of an additional howitzer, moved to a new site on the Dobodura–Buna track, 2,000 yards south of the bridge between the strips.
General Eichelberger was now almost ready for what he hoped would be his final clearing attacks in the village area. The bewilderment, and reluctance of some of his troops was being replaced by a higher resolve and a feeling of greater confidence although, east of the Girua, 113 had been killed, 490 wounded, 64 were missing, 1,260 had been sent to hospital sick, leaving approximate effective strengths at 5 p.m. on 10th December of 55 officers and 1,062 men in Urbana Force, 114 and 1,955 in Warren Force; malaria, dysentery and scrub typhus were on the increase. The arrival of the 127th was heartening; more vigorous officers were re-infusing the men; under Colonel De Graaf’s capable direction more food was being delivered and mail was beginning to come in; and word had gone round that Australian tanks and infantry would soon be joining them.
So it was with some feelings of exuberance that two companies of III/127th, which had been holding the village in a tight circle since they had taken over from II/126th, followed mortar bombs and shells into the Buna village at 7 a.m. on the 14th. But their birds had flown. After all the sound and fury, quiet lay over the shattered huts, the broken palms, the torn earth and fifty unburied dead. No one remained to dispute the American entry.
With the passing of the first blank feeling of anti-climax the attackers could turn to the real task: the subjugation of the Government Station area. But before that could be attempted again the Coconut Grove and the Triangle must be wiped out. Wise in his decision to exploit the physical uplift which followed on the capture of the village Eichelberger lost no time in turning to this.
Colonel Herbert A. Smith had earlier been warned for the task of clearing the Coconut Grove although his II/128th was scattered from the apex of the Triangle, along the west bank of Entrance Creek to Siwori. He had only some 84 of his 350 men available when General Byers, who had succeeded to the division when General Waldron was wounded on the 5th, told him to take the grove. But this small band plunged into the attack at 3 p.m. on the 16th. Fire swept them in their approach, wounding Byers among others, so that night found them still without the grove but lying closely round it. They hung on there through a night of drenching rain and went into the trees at 8.20 next morning with Smith himself at the head of one group, Sergeant Howard C. Purtyman at the head of another, Major Roy F. Zinser fearlessly at the head of another until he fell badly wounded. By noon the grove was in Smith’s hands and with it quantities of rice, oatmeal, malt, barley, and some
weapons and ammunition. The Americans buried 37 dead and others were uncounted.
Smith did not halt in the grove for, across Entrance Creek, the stubborn Triangle was still uncaptured. The skeleton of the bridge by which the village track had crossed the creek still held together and the attackers went with their own impetus across this and established themselves firmly on the eastern bank before they were checked. Smith then sent his men against the Triangle in a simultaneous movement from the bridgehead and from south of the apex of the Triangle where one of his companies had been lying for a long time to contain the defenders. But they provoked such a vicious recoil that it was clear that they could not hope for success with the strength available to them.
Now General Eichelberger, directly commanding since Byers had been taken to hospital, knew that the first phase of his Buna adventures had ended. Fresh forces were even then arriving in his area: Australian tanks and the experienced 18th Australian Brigade under Brigadier Wootten, who would initiate the second phase of the operations before Buna—with a comparatively detailed knowledge of the Japanese strengths and dispositions.
It was now known that, while the battle of the mountains was closing on the banks of the Kumusi River, not only had the remnants of the Japanese forces who had previously landed there been preparing to stand on the coast, but a Japanese reinforcement program was well under way. Two ships ran in at the beginning of November with fresh troops and supplies and another convoy landed a formidable group in the middle of the month consisting mainly of the III Battalion, 229th Regiment, and about 300 reinforcements for the 144th Regiment. Major Hiaichi Kimmotsu was leading the III/229th which had won a reputation for hard fighting in China, Hong Kong and Java. With Kimmotsu came Colonel Hiroshi Yamamoto to take over the 144th Regiment.
About this time, the Japanese were readjusting their command in the Pacific. The Eighth Area Army (Lieut-General Hitoshi Imamura) became responsible for operations in the Solomons and New Guinea on 16th November; Lieut-General Hyakutake, with his XVII Army, took over the Solomons battle; Lieut-General Hatazo Adachi arrived at Rabaul on 25th November and took over command of the XVIII Army and responsibility for the New Guinea theatre.
The Japanese on the Papuan coast were then organised into two main commands. East of the Girua River Captain Yoshitatsu Yasuda of the Japanese Navy, who had been responsible for the construction of the Buna airfield, was initially in command with about 500 marines (5th Yokosuka and 5th Sasebo) and some of his construction troops in the Buna area itself—at the village, the Government Station and about the Triangle—and several hundred of the 15th Independent Engineers, anti-aircraft gunners and army service troops of various kinds manning the defences from Cape Endaiadere to Giropa Point. Immediately after their arrival, however, on 17th November the III/229th Battalion joined him and Yamamoto took over command with Major Kimmotsu as his second-in-command. He left Yasuda in position with his marines and construction troops and added his newcomers to the Cape Endaiadere–Giropa Point sector. His force, all told, then numbered probably slightly more than 2,000. He was well served with artillery, mounting several 75-mm naval guns, some 37-mm pom-poms, 5 heavy anti-aircraft guns and a few 13-mms. West of the Girua the Japanese were well entrenched in the Sanananda area and at Gona Mission where, at both places, the Australians, pressing on from the Kumusi, came hard against them while the Americans were bogging down in front of Buna.