Chapter 7: The Advance on the Beachhead
The Japanese had again done the unexpected. Instead of holding Ioribaiwa tenaciously as General MacArthur had assumed they would, they had thinned out their lines and withdrawn after the opening encounter. Their withdrawal, if unexpected, nevertheless enabled GHQ for the first time in the campaign to issue a comprehensive plan on 1 October looking to the envelopment and destruction of the enemy at the Buna–Gona beachhead. This plan and the more detailed instructions of 11 October provided for the recapture of Goodenough Island and stipulated that the troops available to the Commander, New Guinea Force, would move on the beachhead along three axes of advance: along the Kokoda Trail; via the Kapa Kapa–Jaure track or the Abau–Namudi–Jaure route; and up the coast northwestward from Milne Bay. (Map 6) The advance would be in two stages. The troops moving overland would, before any further advance, secure the line of the Kumusi River from the Owalama
Divide (north of Jaure) to the crossing of the Buna-Kokoda track at Wairopi. Those moving up from Milne Bay would first secure Goodenough Island and the coastal area to the northward as far as Cape Nelson. When these areas were secured, a concerted advance by all land forces upon the Buna–Gona area would be ordered.1
The Approach To the Target
General MacArthur Explains the Plan
Because General MacArthur always had to consider the possibility that the Japanese might succeed in retaking Guadalcanal, and that they would then throw all their available forces into New Guinea, the plan had been so drawn that his troops could be extricated should they be met by overwhelming force or should their supply lines by sea or across the mountains fail. Emphasizing that the situation in the Solomons had “a direct and vital bearing upon our operations,” General MacArthur explained the basic reason for the provision in the Operation Order of 1 October which required that the line of the Kumusi River be secured in preparation for “an offensive against the north coast of New Guinea to be executed upon order from General Headquarters.”
... the successful employment, [he wrote] of any considerable number of troops on the north shore of New Guinea is entirely dependent upon lines of communication. The enemy has complete control of the sea lanes, and we are not now, nor have any reasonable expectation of being in position to contest that control. In consequence, although we shall employ shipping to the maximum extent possible in the supply of our troops, our fundamental plans are limited by the fact that the enemy can cut that line at will, even with so small a force as a few torpedo boats. ...
The general continued:
... It must be contemplated that any organization engaged on the north shore of New Guinea must be ready and able to withdraw successfully across the mountains with only such supplies as can be made available by air and by native carriers. A local success attained at a time when the enemy is devoting his attention to the Solomons, must not blind us to the fact that basic conditions which have heretofore limited our action in New Guinea are unchanged, and that in the absence of secure lines of communication on the north coast of New Guinea we still are unable to maintain large forces there. In consequence, our advance must be so planned that if supply lines fail, or if we are met by overwhelming forces, we can withdraw to our previously occupied defensive positions.
It was with an eye to such an eventuality that Colonel Sverdrup (who had meanwhile reported adversely on the Abau–Jaure track) had again been sent to New Guinea with instructions to discover and develop landing strips and dropping grounds in the area beyond the mountains north of Abau.2
General MacArthur’s purpose was clear. The risks of the advance would be counterbalanced by a secure line of retreat. If the
maneuver for whatever reason turned out badly, it would at least be possible to extricate the forces and use them to fight again under more favorable circumstances.
As preparations for the offensive gathered momentum, a much-needed consolidation of Australian and U.S. supply services in New Guinea was effected. On 5 October General Headquarters established the Combined Operational Service Command (COSC). The new command was to operate under New Guinea Force and to control all Allied line of communications activities in Australian New Guinea. Brig. Gen. Dwight F. Johns, U.S.A., Deputy Commander, United States Army Services of Supply, was designated its commander, and Brig. V. C. Secombe, Australian Staff Corps, became his deputy. All Australian and U.S. supply elements in the forward area were placed under General Johns’s command. In addition to carrying out routine service of supply functions, the new command took over control of a pool of small boats or luggers which were being assembled at Milne Bay for use in operations against Buna.3
Dock and port improvements at Milne Bay and Port Moresby were by this time well advanced. The acute shortage of engineer troops in the combat zone was being remedied by the transfer to New Guinea from Australia of all available engineer troops, a process that in the case of the U.S. engineers had begun in earnest in August. At Milne Bay, a permanent T-shape wharf to replace the previous makeshift was finished in early October. At Port Moresby the half-mile causeway to Tatana Island was completed by the end of the month. The benefit to Allied logistics was very great. Several large ships could be unloaded simultaneously, where previously it had been possible to unload only one. A small tropical anchorage, capable initially of unloading and storing only 500 tons of cargo a day, had been transformed into a busy port which already had several times that capacity, and which ultimately would have a capacity nine times that figure. It was a noteworthy achievement, and one of which General Casey could well be proud.4
The airfield construction program was almost complete. With few exceptions, the airfields at both Port Moresby and Milne Bay were either finished or due to be completed shortly, and a 120-day supply level was being built up at both points.5 A tremendous amount of construction still remained to be done in the forward area, but it could be completed concurrently with the offensive.
The Recapture of Kokoda
To marshal the troops and bring them in concerted fashion before their objective over the mountains and along the coast of a vast,
undeveloped, jungle-covered island like New Guinea was to be no easy task. The first drive, that along the Kokoda Trail, was already under way, with the Australians under Maj. Gen. Arthur S. Allen, General Officer Commanding, 7th Australian Infantry Division, in pursuit of the retreating Japanese. After abandoning Ioribaiwa, the latter had withdrawn through the Gap, and by 8 October were at Templeton’s Crossing. (Map IV) Entrenching themselves on high ground on either side of the entrance to Eora Creek Gorge, the Japanese, now principally troops of the 2nd Battalion, 144th Infantry, held for a week and then withdrew to Eora Creek. On orders of General Horii, who was then at Kokoda, the main body of the 144th Infantry rejoined the 2nd Battalion on 17 October at Eora Creek where a further stand was made.6
The Japanese had suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Australians and were being relentlessly bombed and strafed from the air by the Fifth Air Force. Their troops were suffering from beriberi, dysentery, lack of food, and some had already begun to practice cannibalism.7 Yet they held to their positions tenaciously and could be dislodged only by frontal attack and the same flanking tactics that the Japanese themselves had used so effectively in the advance to Ioribaiwa.
The troops of the 25th Brigade, forced to scale the heights where the enemy troops were entrenched, pushed them out of one strong point after the other. The 16th Brigade, under Brig. John E. Boyd, relieved the 25th Brigade on 20 October. Aided by the 25th Brigade’s 2/31 Battalion, the fresh troops of the new brigade soon cleared the Japanese out of the Eora Creek area and, shortly thereafter, forced them out of Alola. The 144th Infantry next fell back on Oivi where it was relieved on 29 October by a fresh force from the beachhead under command of Colonel Yazawa. The new force, a composite battalion of 41st Infantry troops strongly reinforced with artillery and engineer elements, was ordered to dig itself in on the heights at Oivi and to hold its positions as long as possible in order to cover the movement of the 144th Infantry across the Kumusi River. The 41st Infantry troops, who had brought all the food and ammunition with them that they and hundreds of impressed Rabaul natives could carry, quickly dug themselves in on the heights and prepared for a major stand.
After a short rest the 25th Brigade had again gone into action, and it occupied Kokoda on 2 November. The Australian flag was raised there on that day by Maj. Gen. George A. Vasey, who had taken over command of the 7th Division from General Allen a few days before. With Kokoda airfield in Australian hands, and the 25th and 16th Brigades converging on Oivi, the pursuit was virtually over.8 The troops along the first axis of advance had almost reached their objective.
Securing the Coast
The problem still remained how to secure the coast from Milne Bay to Cape Nelson. Since there were then no landing craft in the theater, General MacArthur had issued orders in August that as many shallow-draft boats as possible be assembled at Milne Bay to serve the purpose.9
Planning for the move had scarcely begun when the possibility arose that Marine Corps troops would be made available for the task. The initiative had come from Admiral King, who ordered Admiral Nimitz on 8 September to release a regiment of trained amphibious troops to the Southwest Pacific Area. The 8th Marine Regiment was chosen for the task. Notified four days later by General Marshall that the regiment would be turned over to him by Admiral Ghormley on or about 1 October, General MacArthur began at once to plan for the use of the Marine unit in the coastal infiltration.10
General MacArthur did not get the Marine regiment. Admirals Nimitz and Ghormley had grave objections to releasing it and told Admiral King that this highly trained amphibious unit should not be used to do a job that General MacArthur’s available troops in shallow-draft barges could probably do as well. Admiral King apparently considered the point well taken. The offer of amphibious troops was withdrawn, and General MacArthur was left with the task of securing the northeast coast of Papua as best he could from his own resources.11
By this time, it had become clear that to send the troops up the coast by boat would be both slow and dangerous. For one thing there were not nearly enough shallow-draft boats in sight to do the job properly; for another the route between Milne Bay and Cape Nelson and beyond Cape Nelson was strewn with uncharted reefs. Finally, as General Blamey observed to General MacArthur, to use the boats for the forward movement would not only delay the operation but might also result in the troops’ meeting the same fate that befell the Japanese on Goodenough Island.
There was fortunately a better way. In July the local Australian authorities had cleared off and barricaded an airstrip at Wanigela Mission on Collingwood Bay, a point within easy marching distance of Cape Nelson. It became possible therefore to get the troops forward by air, and to use the boats to supply them from Milne Bay as soon as a clear channel could be charted through the reefs. The air force, which by this time had the space, undertook to fly the troops in, and a party of coastwatchers in the small motorship HMAS Paluma began charting the required clear-water channel to Cape Nelson.12
The 2/10 Battalion of the 18th Brigade and attached U.S. engineer and antiaircraft troops were flown into Wanigela from Milne Bay on 5 and 6 October by the 21st and 22nd Transport Squadrons of the Fifth Air Force. The troops immediately began securing the area and preparing it for the reception of more troops. By that time the Paluma had completed the charting of the channel to Cape Nelson, and the boats, laden with supplies, began moving forward to Wanigela from Milne Bay.13
General Blamey had planned to follow the 2/10 Battalion with the rest of the 18th Brigade as soon as the 17th Brigade (which was to replace it at Milne Bay) arrived there and the supply of the Wanigela area by sea was assured. To wait for the arrival of the 17th Brigade would have meant a considerable delay inasmuch as it was not due at Milne Bay until late October. General Blamey decided therefore to use the 128th Infantry (then still at Port Moresby) to reinforce the Wanigela garrison. By doing so, Blamey believed he would not only save time but would also help out the air force, which was reluctant to use the airfields at Milne Bay for troop movements because they were inferior to those at Port Moresby.14
On 13 October the 2/6 Independent Company and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 128th Infantry were ordered to Wanigela by air, the 3rd Battalion, under Lt. Col. Kelsie E. Miller, leading. The air movements began next morning with the initial flights originating at Laloki airfield near Port Moresby. By 18 October, most of the regiment was at Wanigela. The Band, the Antitank Company, the Service Company, and two companies of the 1st Battalion had to be left temporarily at Port Moresby when the field at Wanigela became unusable because of heavy rains.15
Preliminary reconnaissance had indicated that there were excellent trails in the Wanigela-Cape Nelson area. It was therefore planned that the troops would march from Wanigela to Pongani, a point on the western shore of Dyke Ackland Bay, about thirty miles from Buna, which was known to be free of Japanese. The men of the Australian Independent Company, who were specially trained in jungle operations, were to go first, and the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st Battalions, 128th Infantry, were to follow in that order. The trail, which lay diagonally across the neck of the Cape Nelson Peninsula, was cut by the Musa River at Totore, a day’s march from Wanigela, and reputedly the only good river crossing in the area.
It was soon discovered that the reconnaissance reports had been mistaken about the condition of the trails in the Wanigela-Pongani area. The river was rising rapidly and most of the trails in the area had been obliterated. Traveling with little but their rifles, the Australian commandos who left on the 14th as planned, managed to reach Pongani, but the heavily loaded 3rd Battalion,
only a day behind the Australians, was unable to get through. After floundering in knee-deep swamps, the men reached Totore on the afternoon of 16 October, and went into camp near by at Guri Guri, called by Colonel Miller “the most filthy, swampy, mosquito infested area” that he had ever seen in New Guinea.
A crossing by log raft was attempted at a nearby native village. Reconnaissance on the far side showed that a crossing there would put the battalion on the wrong route, and the project was abandoned in favor of a crossing farther upstream. On 18 October, 1,500 feet of cable was dropped from the air at Guri Guri. No tools, tie wire, clamps, or bolts were dropped with the cable. Company M, under Capt. Frank N. Williams, and a platoon of Company C, 114th Engineer Battalion, carried the cable, strung out by hand, to the upstream site and started establishing the crossing there.
Though still without tools, clamps, or tie wire, Captain Williams soon had a makeshift crossing over the Musa. It too was abandoned when ANGAU passed on the information that the trail leading out of the site was under seven feet of water, and impassable to anything except small boats and native canoes.
On 23 October Company M and the engineer platoon rejoined the 3rd Battalion, which had been ordered from Guri Guri to Gobe, west of Porlock Harbor. The battalion was to be shuttled from Gobe to Pongani in such of the boats coming in with supplies from Milne Bay as could negotiate the treacherous waters around Cape Nelson. The 2nd Battalion, which had been just behind the 3rd on the Wanigela-Totore track, was ordered back to Wanigela, to be moved to Pongani by sea as soon as shipping was available. The elements of the 1st Battalion present at Wanigela were to follow immediately, and the rest of the battalion was to be transferred to Pongani in the same fashion as soon as it reached Wanigela.16
The 3rd Battalion marched overland from Totore to Gobe in two echelons, taking approximately four days for the move. Some of the men picked up malaria in the mosquito-infested swamps along the Musa, and the weakening effects of the march were apparent in the subsequent operations of the battalion.17
The coastal shuttle had meanwhile gone into operation, despite the fact that little was known at that time about the waters past Wanigela. The available information was that boats of up to twelve-foot draft could safely negotiate the coastal waters between Milne Bay and Wanigela, but that only small luggers or trawlers would be able to get around Cape Nelson because of submerged reefs in that area, some of them only a few feet from the surface. The plan for the shuttle was worked out accordingly. Large fishing boats of between 100 and 120 tons, loaded so as to draw not more than twelve feet of water, would bring the supplies forward from Milne Bay to Wanigela, and a flotilla of eight luggers with an average
displacement of about 20 tons, would carry them around Cape Nelson to Pongani. The larger boats were to be under control of the Combined Operational Service Command, while the luggers would come under command of Lt. Col. Laurence A. McKenny, Quartermaster of the 32nd Division.18
The first two luggers reached Wanigela on 17 October and were at once sent forward to Pongani with men and supplies. Early the following morning, a Fifth Air Force B-25 mistook them for the enemy and bombed the boats off Pongani. Two men were killed: Lt. A. B. Fahnestock, in charge of small boat operations for the COSC, and Byron Darnton, a veteran correspondent of The New York Times who had served with the 32nd Division during World War I, and had looked forward to reporting its operations in World War II. Several others were wounded, and one of the boats suffered such severe damage that it had to be withdrawn from the run.19
Despite this initial error, and the fact that the luggers did not operate during daylight to avoid being attacked by Japanese aircraft, the Wanigela-Pongani shuttle continued in successful operation through the rest of October. The few quartermaster troops under Colonel McKenny’s command had a difficult time of it. There were no piers or jetties in the area and no lighters. To unload the luggers they had to pile the cargo on native outrigger canoes, rowboats, or canvas-sided engineer boats. Then, aided wherever possible by natives and tactical forces from the shore, they would take to the water and, stark naked, push the tiny craft through the breakers, unload, and go back again, making dozens of trips through the night without rest in order to be on their way again before daylight.20
These small seaborne supply and troop movements had their effect. By 2 November, the day the Australians retook Kokoda, the 128th Infantry, less only the elements still at Port Moresby, was at Pongani and Mendaropu and rapidly growing supply dumps had been established at both points.21
The discovery by the Paluma in early November that the larger vessels operated by the COSC could safely round Cape Nelson further increased the usefulness of the luggers. The bigger boats from Milne Bay began discharging their cargo at Porlock
Harbor, and the luggers, in turn, began shuttling between Porlock and Pongani.22
The Recapture of Goodenough Island
GHQ had ordered that, in addition to securing the coast between Milne Bay and Cape Nelson, the Commander, New Guinea Force, was to recapture Goodenough Island, a flanking position which in enemy hands could imperil the advance along the northeast coast of Papua. The task of taking the island went to the 2/12 Battalion of the 18th Brigade, then still at Milne Bay. The troops, in two destroyers, were landed on both sides of the island’s southern tip on the night of 22–23 October and drove inland.23
There were some 290 Japanese on the island, sixty of the 353 troops of the Sasebo 5th SNLF who had been stranded there on 26 August having been evacuated to Buna by submarine before the Australians landed.24 The submarine had brought in food and ammunition, and the remaining Japanese, well dug in, resisted tenaciously during the daylight hours of the 23rd, but only to gain time. That night, the submarine came in again. Shuttling back and forth through the night, it deposited 250 Japanese troops on nearby Fergusson Island, where they were picked up by a cruiser and taken to Rabaul. The few stragglers left behind on Goodenough were quickly mopped up by the Australians who at once took appropriate measures for the island’s security.25
The March to Jaure
On the Kapa Kapa trail, meanwhile, Captain Boice and a small party were advancing toward Jaure and Major Baetcke, in command at “Kalamazoo,” was building a forward supply base at Arapara, about thirty miles away by trail. Though the road was still unfinished, it was possible by this time for jeeps to travel over it as far as Nepeana, a distance of about fourteen miles. Over the remaining sixteen miles the track was so steep and so rough that native carriers had to be used to do the job. Supervised by ANGAU officers the natives were hard at work moving the supplies forward on their backs.26
The results of Captain Boice’s reconnaissance were soon in. After being delayed at Laruni, about fifty miles out, because he had run out of rations and an airdrop that he had asked for had not materialized in time, Boice had finally reached Jaure on 4 October. Next day he reported by radio that the trail although taxing was practicable for marching. General Harding, who had moved the divisional CP to Kalamazoo,
at once secured permission from New Guinea Force to send forward an advance echelon of the 126th Infantry. Except for Company E, at Nepeana, the regiment was then encamped at Bootless Inlet near Port Moresby. The advance unit was to be composed of the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, supported by troops of the regimental Antitank and Cannon Companies operating as riflemen, who were to go first.
The Antitank and Cannon Companies and a small medical detachment, all under the command of Captain Medendorp, left Kalikodobu for Nepeana en route to Jaure on 6 October. At Nepeana, Medendorp was to use forty-five men from Company E—a five-man communications detachment under 1st Lt. James G. Downer and a forty-man rifle platoon under 1st Lt. Harold B. Chandler, Jr.—as his advance guard. The force as it left Kalikodobu numbered 250, with 100 natives attached. Medendorp’s orders were to establish dropping grounds at Laruni and Jaure and to build up stocks of food and supplies there for the use of the main force when it began moving. By arrangement with the air force, the Band, Service, and Casual Companies were to load the planes and do the actual dropping.
Because the troops were fresh to the jungle, too heavily burdened, and not in top condition, the first day’s march to Nepeana (where Company E was encamped) did not go well. Hearing that the troops had fared
badly, General Harding, who reached Nepeana by jeep early the next morning to see the men off, gave orders that their packs be lightened and their ammunition cut down. In addition, he ordered the forty-five men detailed as advance guard to push ahead for Jaure “without regard to the progress of the other two companies. ...” Lieutenants Downer and Chandler—Downer going first—were to come under command of Captain Boice upon their arrival at Jaure, where they were ultimately to be reunited with their company.27
The second day’s march, through comparatively easy country, went off without difficulty. The next day when the foothills of the range were reached told a different story, especially for the troops of the Antitank and Cannon Companies. These men were in much poorer condition than the men of the advance guard, who had been longer in the area and had had a chance to toughen up while helping the engineers build the road to Nepeana.
As Medendorp recalls the situation:–
The troops had no trail discipline. The hills were steeper. Footing was insecure. Leeches and insects began to be a nuisance. The trail was strewn with cast-off articles. Leather toilet sets, soap, socks, and extra underwear told a tale of exhaustion and misery. Upon reaching streams, the men would rush to them and drink, regardless of the fact that upstream some soldier might be washing his feet. The trail was filled with struggling individuals, many lying on one side panting for breath. The medical officer bringing up the rear, reached the bivouac that night with a platoon of limping and dazed men. There were no stragglers however, for it was feared all through the march that stragglers might be killed by a Jap patrol.28
On the fourth day the troops reached Arapara, halfway to Laruni, and the last point which could be supplied from Kalamazoo.29 The next day most of the native carriers deserted, and the weary troops were left to carry their rations and heavy supplies themselves.
After a hard uphill climb the Medendorp force reached Laruni, which was on a mountain top, on 13 October. The advance guard, traveling light and moving fast, was a day ahead. On 14 October, just as the Medendorp force began establishing a dropping ground at Laruni, the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, under the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Henry A. Geerds, began leaving Kalikodobu for Jaure. Attached was the 19th Portable Hospital and a platoon of the 114th Engineer Battalion. The force was almost 900 strong and had several hundred native carriers accompanying it. The companies were following each other at a day’s interval, with Company E,
under Captain Schultz, leading, and Company F, under Lt. Erwin Nummer, immediately behind.
After leaving a forty-two-man detachment at Laruni to take care of the dropping ground, Medendorp pushed on to Jaure and reached it on 20 October, four days after Downer and Chandler got there. The next day, on orders of New Guinea Force, he sent a fifty-man detachment of the Cannon Company northeastward into the Kumusi River Valley. These men were to be joined immediately by the rest of the troops of the Antitank and Cannon Companies, in order to prevent a possible Japanese attack on Jaure from the Wairopi area.
The march was much more difficult for the 2nd Battalion than for the troops with Boice and Medendorp because, while it had rained spasmodically during the first two weeks of October, the heaviest rains fell just as the battalion began leaving Kalikadobu. Beginning 15 October, a steady downpour gave the men no respite through five days and five nights. Even after the elements abated a little, heavy rains during the afternoon and at night left the troops drenched and miserable.
The Owen Stanley divide at Mount Suwemalla (or, as the troops called it, “Ghost Mountain”), was a dank, eerie place a few days out of Laruni. It rose 2,000 feet higher than the Gap, and the terrain was, without qualification, rougher and more precipitous than that over which the Australians and Japanese were struggling further to the northwest. Captain Schultz reported that the trail was so narrow that “even a jack rabbit couldn’t leave it.” The troops had to march in single file, and there was usually no place on either side of the trail for a bivouac. In the jungle the men stumbled over vines and roots with every step as they made their way through the muck and slime. The ever-present mud was sometimes so deep that the men sank into it up to their knees and had to have help in extricating themselves. The swollen mountain streams through which the men had to wade had currents of up to twenty miles per hour—sufficient to knock a man down during some of the crossings.
To follow the stream beds gave no relief. Not only were they cluttered with immense boulders but the streams became roaring torrents at a moment’s notice, and the men had no choice but to take to the trail again.
Immense ridges, or “razorbacks,” followed each other in succession like the teeth of a saw. As a rule, the only way the troops could get up these ridges, which were steeper than along the Kokoda Trail, was either on hands and knees, or by cutting steps into them with ax and machete. To rest, the men simply leaned forward, holding on to vines and roots in order to keep themselves from slipping down the mountainside.
Plunging down the face of one such ridge, the troops would find themselves faced with the towering slope of another only a stone’s throw away. Four or five ridges—only a few miles as the crow flies—meant a day’s march. The same troops that, in one instance, stumbled, slipped, or fell more than 2,000 feet in forty minutes on a downward slope took almost eight hours, most of it on hands and knees, to cover the last 2,000 feet of the 9,000-foot divide.
Profiting from the experience of Boice and Medendorp, the battalion had stripped for the march. Gas masks, helmets, mess kits, and heavy weapons had been left behind, and the ammunition load had been cut down. But so rough was the trail and so
arduous the march that even the lightened packs proved too heavy. Piece by piece, the men discarded toilet articles, raincoats, shelter-halves, mosquito nets, and even blankets. As a result the troops, who were constantly at the mercy of chiggers, mites, mosquitoes, and leeches, spent their nights being cold as well as wet.30
The men had been poorly fed. They were, for the most part, on the Australian ration—hardtack, bully beef, and tea, supplemented by a little rice. Because the unceasing wet had made it virtually impossible for them either to heat the ration or to boil water for tea, most ate the food cold and threw away the tea. The bully beef (corned, preserved beef of Australian manufacture) came in large, four- or five-pound tins. It was not only unappetizing, it often had a revolting fish-oil taste that caused some of the troops to retch when they tried eating it. Many of the tins had become contaminated: some had been contused or sprung when they were dropped from the air; others had been left out in the open without cover and had rusted. This contamination, together with the impossibility of sterilizing the few eating utensils the troops had with them, and the tendency of the oversize cans of beef to spoil before they were completely consumed, had its effect. Acute diarrhea and dysentery gripped most of the battalion, and many of the men had to cut holes in the seats of their trousers, so completely had they lost control of their bowel movements.31
The medical officers marching at the rear of the column did what they could for those who because of exhaustion, dysentery, and other ailments could not keep up. It was a great deal, and in the opinion of one who made the march, many members of the battalion owed their lives to these doctors who picked them up and cared for them when they were so sick and weak that “they were ready to call it ‘quits’ and die.”32
The 1st Sergeant of Company E, Paul R. Lutjens, recalls the march in these words:–
It was one green hell to Jaure. We went up and down continuously; the company would be stretched over two or three miles. We’d start at six every morning by cooking rice or trying to. Two guys would work together. If they could start a fire which was hard because the wood was wet even when you cut deep into the center of the log, They’d mix a little bully beef into a canteen cup with rice, to get the starchy taste out of it. Sometimes we’d take turns blowing on sparks trying to start a fire, and keep it up for two hours without success. I could hardly describe the country. It would take five or six hours to go a mile, edging along cliff walls, hanging on to vines, up and down, up and down. The men got weaker; guys began to lag back. ... An officer stayed at the end of the line to keep driving the stragglers. There wasn’t any way of evacuating to the rear. Men with sprained ankles hobbled along as well as they could, driven on by fear of being left behind. ...”33
As the march continued, the suffering of the men increased, and Sergeant Lutjens wrote in his diary: “... Our strength is about gone. Most of us have dysentery. Boys are falling out and dropping back with fever. Continual downpour of rain. It’s hard to cook our rice and tea. Bully beef makes us sick. We seem to climb straight up for hours, then down again. God, will it never end?”34
After plunging through gorges, wading neck-deep streams, scaling cliffs, and slogging over muddy trails, the men of Schultz’s company reached Jaure on 25 October exhausted, their clothing in tatters and their shoes moldy and worn out. The march had been too much for Colonel Geerds. He suffered a heart attack on the trail and had to be evacuated to Port Moresby. Ordered forward from Kalikadobu, Maj. Herbert M. Smith, previously supply liaison officer for the regiment, took over as battalion commander.35
By 28 October, the other companies had reached Jaure and the main body of the battalion began leaving Jaure for Natunga and Bofu, points in the steep foothills of the range northeast of Jaure leading to the Buna area. Companies E and F, the first to arrive, had gone on ahead to prepare dropping grounds at Natunga and Bofu. Already in place to the west, where they were guarding the battalion’s flank and rear, were the Antitank and Cannon Companies under Captain Medendorp. The Medendorp force, now known as the W or Wairopi Patrol, had elements operating on the east bank of the Kumusi in the shadow of Mount Lamington. With a base camp and dropping ground at Kovio and, two days away, an advance post at Barumbila, ten miles south of Wairopi, it was actively patrolling the area forward of Barumbila.36
Completing the Deployment
The Discovery of the Airfields
The 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, with attached regimental and divisional troops, was the only American force to march over the Owen Stanleys since a better way had been found to get the troops forward. Acting on his own volition, Cecil Abel, a missionary and long-time resident of the Abau district, came to Port Moresby with the information that there was an excellent airfield site near Fasari, in the upper valley of the Musa River. General MacNider and Colonel Bradley, recognizing the importance of the information, rushed Abel to Kalamazoo to see General Harding. Having realized the difficulty of getting any sizable body of troops across the Owen Stanleys by marching, Harding welcomed the news. He saw in the field of which Abel spoke a way of getting his remaining troops across the mountains swiftly, and without dulling their physical edge. He was convinced
of the feasibility of the idea when Abel assured him that a trail on high ground, suitable for marching, led from the site of the airfield to Pongani, forty-five miles away. Returning to Port Moresby the next day, Harding enlisted the aid of General Whitehead, who was also much taken with the idea. Abel returned at once to Fasari and, with the aid of native labor and hand tools dropped from the air by the Fifth Air Force, soon had a field there suitable for the use of transports. Thus, when Colonel Sverdrup reached the upper Musa on 19 October, after toiling laboriously over the mountainous Abau track, he found C-47’s already using the field, the first plane having landed there that day.37
Within days of the completion of the strip, which was fittingly given the name Abel’s Field, three other promising sites were found in the same general area. The first, suitable only for emergency landings, was at Embessa, a few miles north of Abel’s Field; the second, a much better site, was at Kinjaki Barige, about twenty-five miles farther and northwest from Embessa; the third, also an excellent site, was at Pongani itself.38 As had been the case at Abel’s Field, little more was required to convert these sites into acceptable landing fields than cutting over and burning tall grass and small trees. By early November Colonel Sverdrup had finished the job, using native labor at Embessa and Kinjaki Barige, and members of Company C, 114th Engineer Battalion, at Pongani.39
General Blamey’s Proposal
The question as to whether the Kapa Kapa–Jaure track would be used for further troop movements was not easily dismissed. On 19 October, the day that he received word that Abel’s field was ready for use, General Harding asked permission from New Guinea Force to fly in the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 126th Infantry, to the field. From there the two units would march to Pongani. General Herring had been in favor of the plan, but General Blamey had turned it down on the ground that, except for Abel’s word, there was no proof that a practicable trail to Pongani existed. On 30 October Harding proposed that the 1st and 3rd Battalions be flown across the mountains to Pongani and Kinjaki Barige. This time, Blamey approved the plan, and at once asked General MacArthur’s concurrence for the transfer by air to Pongani of the two battalions, and for the immediate landing of supplies for their support at Abel’s field and Kinjaki Barige.40
Because of events in the Solomons, General MacArthur did not immediately give his concurrence. The situation in the South Pacific (where Vice Adm. William F. Halsey had succeeded Admiral Ghormley as Commander, South Pacific Area, on 18 October) had become critical. After successfully landing troops on Guadalcanal, the Japanese on 23 October had launched a fierce attack on the airfield. The land attack was coordinated with a move southward from Rabaul of heavy Japanese naval forces, including carriers. On 26–27 October the attacks, both by land and by sea, were repulsed with heavy losses to the enemy. The situation, however, continued grave, for the American fleet, after losing one of its two carriers and suffering heavy damage to the other, had been forced to withdraw, leaving the Japanese free to continue with the reinforcement of their expeditionary force on Guadalcanal.41
General MacArthur had already prepared a plan for withdrawal from the north coast and, if necessary, from New Guinea, should the Japanese take Guadalcanal and then turn their full strength on New Guinea.42 He therefore answered General Blamey that as long as the situation in the Solomons remained indecisive, and the enemy had afloat large bodies of troops which could be easily turned against New Guinea, it was unsafe to concentrate as large a force as two regiments, less one battalion, in the Pongani area—at least before the line of the Kumusi River was secured. General MacArthur added that the original plan to combine the advance along the Kokoda Trail with an envelopment from Jaure was still safest line of action, since it could be by a movement on Buna in conjunction with envelopments from both Jaure and Pongani.43
General Blamey assured General MacArthur that he had never intended to concentrate the remaining units of the 126th Infantry at Pongani. His intention had been rather to consolidate the regiment (less the 250 men in the Kumusi Valley) at Bofu. The troops would be flown to the Pongani area only because the airfields were there, and there was nowhere else to land them. Immediately upon disembarking, they would leave the coastal area and march inland to Bofu and join the 2nd Battalion. The march from Pongani to Bofu would be by a route south of, and protected by, Hydrographer’s Range. For additional protection, the 2/6 Independent Company, at Pongani, would be assigned to patrol the trails north of the range. The 250-man force in the Kumusi Valley would remain there to harass enemy communications and would come under 7th Division command when the Australians crossed the Kumusi River.
Having clarified his proposal, General Blamey asked General MacArthur to give further consideration to the request that the remaining units of the 126th Infantry be flown to the north shore. Lines of withdrawal Blamey added, were available both from Pongani and Bofu and, while not easy to use, were believed to be no more difficult than those over the Kokoda Trail.44
After reconsidering the matter, General MacArthur told General Blamey that he was very much in favor of an early attack and would be in complete accord with such a proposal if sufficient supplies could be provided by air in time to assure its success. This meant, he stipulated, that at least ten days’ rations and appropriate amounts of ammunition and medical supplies would have to be in place behind each of the three columns before an advance was ordered. What was more, the air supply movements to Kokoda, Bofu, and Pongani would have to be completed before the movement of the 126th Infantry from Port Moresby began. Since these movements would place a tremendous strain upon the air force, Blamey was told to make sure that the attack was logistically feasible before the troops were ordered forward.45
That same day, 2 November, General MacArthur picked 15 November as the tentative date of attack. The following day,
New Guinea Force ordered the 32nd Division to patrol up to, but to make no move beyond, the Oro Bay-Bofu-Wairopi line until so ordered. On 6 November an advance echelon of General Headquarters opened at Port Moresby, and General MacArthur arrived there the same day to direct the operations.46
Drawing the Noose Tight
Oivi and Gorari
Progress on the main axis of advance accelerated when Kokoda was recaptured. The airfield was quickly reconditioned and lengthened to accommodate C-47’s, and the Fifth Air Force at once began using it to fly in food, guns, and ammunition in support of the Australian advance. Vehicles, bridging equipment, and other paraphernalia followed. The supply nightmare that had beset the Australians in the Owen
Stanleys was over. What 2,000 natives and dropping from the air could not do in days, it was now possible to accomplish by plane in minutes. With Kokoda airfield as their rearward base, the Australians could advance on the beachhead with confidence.47
Colonel Yazawa’s troops, having come in from the beachhead, were well dug in when the 16th Brigade, advancing over the Abuari–Missima–Fila cutoff, attacked toward Oivi on 4 November. The Japanese had artillery emplaced on the heights and, as both Colonel Yazawa and General Horii hoped, enough food and ammunition for at least a week’s stand, followed by an orderly withdrawal. The 3rd Battalion, 144th Infantry, with attached engineer troops was at Gorari, a few miles to the east, where it had been sent the day before by General Horii to prevent an Australian break-through on Colonel Yazawa’s left rear. The rest of the 144th Infantry and attached divisional and regimental units were in bivouac at Ilimo. They were resting and recovering their strength preparatory to crossing the Kumusi River. Since Colonel Kusunose had been evacuated to Rabaul in late October because of sickness and wounds, Colonel Tsukamoto, commander of the 1st Battalion, 144th Infantry, who had led the initial attack on Kokoda, was temporarily in command of the regiment.48
The 16th Brigade met stiff resistance when it attacked toward Oivi. Reinforced by the 3rd Australian Infantry Battalion, a militia unit, the brigade began flanking on right and left. By 8 November elements of the 2/1 Battalion, moving around the Japanese south (left) flank, were in contact with the enemy southeast of Gorari. On 9 November the 25th Brigade joined the 2/1 Battalion, and the Australians pounced on the Japanese at Gorari.
With the Australians in front and rear, Colonel Yazawa realized it was time to pull out. That night he evacuated Oivi unobserved with what was left of his force—900 men. With him were General Horii and several members of the Shitai staff, who had apparently been inspecting Yazawa’s position when the Australians cut between it and Gorari. Abandoning guns and ammunition, and indeed everything that would impede their flight, the Japanese took the only remaining route of escape left to them—the rugged jungle country northeast of Oivi. Since the mouth of the Kumusi was only about twenty miles north of Gona, Yazawa planned to follow the river bank to the sea and then move to Gona by way of the coast.
After circling through the jungle, the troops of the Yazawa Force came out on the left bank of the Kumusi, well north of the Australians. Shaking off all attempts of the latter to overtake them, they struck off toward the river’s mouth—their ultimate destination, Gona.
Gorari was completely overrun by 12 November. More than 500 Japanese were killed there; guns, small arms, and ammunition were captured; and some 200 Rabaul natives were liberated. The Japanese suffered heavily at Gorari, but the much larger body of Japanese at Ilimo, as well as a remnant of the Gorari force, got away. Japanese sick and wounded began crossing
the Kumusi on 10 November, and the main body crossed on the night of 12–13 November, covered by a small rear guard which dug itself in at Ilimo. With the sick and wounded, some 1,200 men crossed the river, mostly on rafts. The incoming troops reached Giruwa several days later, hungry and mostly weaponless, having lost most of their equipment, stores, and ammunition either before or during the crossing.49
The Japanese had taken heavy losses at Oivi and Gorari, and their forces had been scattered. Colonel Yazawa had held at Oivi almost as long as he had intended, but the orderly withdrawal that General Horii had planned for had become a rout.
On 13 November the 25th Brigade wiped out the enemy rear guard which had been covering the crossing. A temporary bridge was completed at Wairopi that night. The next morning, while the air force dropped bridging equipment for a more permanent structure, the leading element of the brigade began crossing the river.50
The Americans Reach the Front
By this time the movement of the American forces into the concentration areas was almost complete. The 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, which had started leaving Jaure on 28 October, closed into the Natunga area on 2 November, after a comparatively easy march from Jaure. After spending more than a week in the area drawing rations, helmets, boots, and other equipment at the Natunga dropping ground, the battalion pushed on to Gora and Bofu, reaching the latter point on 12 November.
Captain Boice had been unable to find even one good dropping ground between Jaure and Natunga. As a result, most of the rations dropped from the air between those two points had been lost, and the troops (who were reduced to eating bananas and papayas or whatever else they could find) had gone hungry. Colonel Quinn had made it his business to fly with the airdropping planes in the hope of working out dropping techniques which would get food to his troops. He was killed on 5 November while in a plane dropping supplies to the troops at Natunga. A cargo parachute that caught in the plane’s tail assembly sent the plane out of control, and everyone aboard died in the crash.
Colonel Quinn’s loss was a blow to the division. General Harding, in a letter to General Eichelberger, described Quinn as “my best regimental commander, and that by a wide margin.” Harding chose Lt. Col. Clarence M. Tomlinson, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, to command the regiment, and Tomlinson was promoted to colonel in short order. Maj. George Bond took command of the 3rd Battalion.51
The air movement from Port Moresby of regimental headquarters and of the 1st and 3rd Battalions began on 8 November, the 1st Battalion going first. Because heavy
rains had made the airfield at Pongani temporarily unsafe for the landing of troops, 590 men of the 1st Battalion—Battalion Headquarters, Company A, Company B, two platoons of Company C, and a squad of Company D—under the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Edmund J. Carrier, were flown instead to Abel’s Field. Upon arrival there, they began marching to Pongani.52
Work on a new all-weather airfield had been proceeding at Pongani. The field, on a well-drained site and covered with gravel from a nearby pit, was finished on 9 November, the day after the movement to Abel’s Field began. The air force, previously under the impression that only Abel’s Field was open, tested the new field, found it acceptable, and at once began flying in the rest of the 126th Infantry to Pongani.53
Within hours of Colonel Carrier’s arrival at Abel’s Field, the rest of the 1st Battalion, 218 men—Company D, less one squad, and Company C, less two platoons—under Maj.
Richard D. Boerem, executive officer of the battalion, had landed at Pongani and at once began marching to Natunga. Colonel Tomlinson and regimental headquarters reached Pongani by air on 11 November, as did the 3rd Battalion, all elements moving out to Natunga immediately on arrival. By 14 November Major Boerem’s detachment was approaching Natunga, and regimental headquarters and the 3rd Battalion were moving forward rapidly behind it. Almost all of Major Smith’s 2nd Battalion was at Bofu, and the remaining troops of the 1st Battalion, under Colonel Carrier, after having struggled through swampy terrain since 9 November, were approaching Pongani.54
On the coastal flank, General MacNider’s command, the 128th Infantry and the 2/6 Independent Company, known by this time as Warren Task Force, was consolidating in the Oro Bay-Embogo-Embi area. Its
patrols were operating inland as far as Borio and up the coast as far as Cape Sudest. The last two companies of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, had been flown to Wanigela from Port Moresby on 8 November and brought forward immediately by boat. Except for Company A, which had been left at Pongani to guard the supply dumps there, the battalion was now at Embogo under Lt. Col. Robert C. McCoy. The 2nd Battalion, under Lt. Col. Herbert A. Smith, was at Eroro Mission, and the 3rd Battalion, under Colonel Miller, was near Embi. The Australian Independent Company, under Maj. Harry G. Harcourt, was at Pongani preparing to move forward after its extensive patrols of the trails north of Hydrographer’s Range and of the Natunga-Pongani track. There was a forward dump at Embogo, and Colonel McKenny was planning an even more advanced dump at Hariko. General MacNider, in turn, planned to move his headquarters to Hariko as soon as there were boats available for the movement.55
Artillery was to be Australian. A two-gun section of 3.7-inch mountain artillery was at Embogo, and four 25-pounders had reached Oro Bay. The crews were under 32nd Division command. Reinforcements, consisting of the 127th Regimental Combat Team, less artillery, had at last begun loading at Brisbane for Port Moresby on 14 November.56
The Americans were now finally in position for the forthcoming attack and the Australians soon would be. Up to this time the campaign had cost the latter 2,127 casualties,57 but the enemy was back at the beachhead on which he had landed in July. His back was to the sea, and the noose around him was being drawn tight.