Chapter 10: The First Two Weeks at Buna
On 16 November the troops east of the Girua River started for the positions from which they were to attack the enemy in the Cape Endaiadere–New Strip area. (See Map V.) The 128th Infantry moved out to the attack in early morning. Colonel McCoy’s 1st Battalion (less Company A which was still at Pongani) advanced up the coast from Embogo, crossed the Samboga River, and by nightfall was in position at Boreo, a creek mouth about a mile north of Hariko where General MacNider now had his headquarters. Colonel Miller’s 3rd Battalion, with Colonel Smith’s 2nd Battalion marching immediately behind it, moved up from Warisota Plantation—three miles west of Embogo—and Embi, scattered a small Japanese patrol at Dobodura that afternoon, and started for Simemi, its jump-off point for the attack on the bridge between the strips. The troops still at Pongani—Company A, 128th Infantry, Company A, 114th Engineer Battalion, Colonel Carrier’s 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, and Major Harcourt’s 2/6 Australian Independent Company—were to leave for the front the next day, in the same luggers which were bringing forward the supplies. Artillery was already in place. Using a Japanese barge captured at Milne Bay, General Waldron, the division artillery officer, had come in during the night with the two Australian 3.7-inch mountain howitzers allotted to the operation, their crews, and 200 rounds of ammunition. Waldron had left before daybreak for Oro Bay to pick up the 25-pounders that were waiting there. His executive officer, Lt. Col. Melvin McCreary, who had been put ashore at Hariko with the two mountain guns, had them assembled and ready to fire from an advanced position at Boreo that evening.1
General Harding Readjusts His Plans
The Disruption of the Supply Line
It was clear as the advance got under way that the 32nd Division’s weakest point was its supply line. Until an airfield was completed at Dobodura the division’s supply, except for emergency dropping from the air, would be entirely dependent upon the six remaining luggers or trawlers with which Colonel McKenny was carrying supplies up the coast from Porlock Harbor, as well as upon the Japanese barge General Waldron was using to bring in the 25-pounders from Oro Bay. The boats had thus far not been interfered with by the enemy, but Japanese naval aviation at Lae had marked the Allied coastal movements well, and struck the very day the advance began.
In the late afternoon of 16 November three of Colonel McKenny’s luggers—the Alacrity, the Bonwin, and the Minnemura—joined by the Japanese landing barge, which had just come in from Oro Bay, left Embogo for Hariko. The Alacrity was carrying ammunition, and the equipment and personnel of the 22nd Portable Hospital. The Bonwin was loaded with rations and ammunition, and the Minnemura, largest of the three luggers, held ammunition, rations, radio supplies, 81-mm. mortars, .50-caliber machine guns, and other heavy equipment not easily carried by the troops. The Japanese barge, also heavily laden, carried two 25-pounders, their crews, and all the 25-pounder ammunition for which space could be found. General Waldron and Col. H. F. Handy, an Army Ground Forces observer, were on the barge. General Harding, who was on his way to the front, was on the Minnemura, as was another AGF observer, Col. Herbert B. Laux.
The luggers and barge, protected only by machine guns mounted on their decks, were proceeding without air cover. Though it was still light, Allied fighter aircraft patrolling the coast had left for Port Moresby some time before in order to get back to their bases before dark. While the boats were rounding Cape Sudest, and a small lighter from the shore was off-loading ammunition from the Alacrity, which had stopped momentarily for that purpose, the flotilla was attacked by eighteen Japanese Zero-type fighters that appeared without warning from the northwest. The enemy planes gave the ships a thorough strafing. The troops aboard replied with machine guns and rifles but their fire was entirely without effect. In a few moments the barge and all three luggers were ablaze. The ammunition began to explode and all aboard had to take to the water. General Harding, General Waldron, and Colonel Handy swam ashore. Colonel Laux, who was no swimmer, got there safely in a dinghy which had been riding behind the Minnemura.
The luggers, the Japanese barge, and virtually all of the cargo they were carrying were a total loss. The lighter that had been loading ammunition from the Alacrity reached shore under fire. At great personal risk 1st Lt. John E. Harbert, a divisional ordnance officer, went aboard and took off the ammunition. Casualties were heavy. Colonel McKenny and twenty-three others were killed, and there were many wounded. The loss of life would have been even greater but for a number of daring rescues from the shore. Braving the enemy fire, the exploding ammunition, and the flaming debris, rescue parties under Colonel Carew, commanding officer of the 114th Engineer Battalion, and 1st Lt. Herbert G. Peabody, of Division Headquarters Company, saved the lives of many who might otherwise have drowned or burned to death.2
The next morning, in attacks which took place before the air force could intervene, four Zeros hit two of the remaining three luggers, one at Embogo, and the other at Mendaropu. The first lugger, the Two Freddies, was badly smashed up and had to limp back to Milne Bay for repairs; the
second lugger, the Willyama suffered even greater damage and had to be beached, a total loss. Only one small lugger, the Kelton, was left to supply the troops east of the river.
The loss of the boats was a catastrophe of the first magnitude. There were no replacement vessels immediately in sight, and artillery pieces, mortars, machine guns, and other essential matériel, which could not be replaced for days, had been lost on the very eve of the attack. The whole supply plan for the operation had been disrupted. Since the stores of rations and ammunition actually at the front where the troops could use them were in dangerously short supply, and the one small remaining lugger could not possibly handle more than a small fraction of the division’s immediate requirements, Maj. Ralph T. Birkness, Colonel McKenny’s successor, then at Port Moresby, at once arranged with the air force to have the most critically needed items dropped from the air.3
The dislocation caused by the loss of boats and cargo on 16 and 17 November forced General Harding to make some last-minute changes in plan. General MacNider was ordered to hold up his advance until the Kelton could come in and make up at least part of his supply deficiencies, and the troops at Pongani who were to have been moved to Embogo by boat were ordered instead to proceed to the front on foot. Except for the engineer company which was sent to Dobodura, the troops were ordered to Boreo where they were to join with Colonel McCoy’s battalion in the attack toward Cape Endaiadere.4
Colonel Smith Is Ordered to the Left
On 18 November, with the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 128th Infantry, in position at Boreo and Simemi respectively, General Harding set H Hour as 0700 the following
morning, 19 November. Three companies of the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, which were to be in division reserve, were ordered from Dobodura to Ango in order to cover the junction of the Soputa-Buna and Ango–Dobodura tracks until such time as the 126th Infantry could come in and take over the left-flank attack on Buna Village and Buna Mission. The remaining company, joined by the engineer company when it came in from Pongani, was to remain at Dobodura to help prepare an airfield there.
The diversion next day to General Vasey’s command of the 126th Infantry, even as it was marching from Inonda toward Buna to attack on Harding’s left, upset these plans. Robbed at the last minute of his left-flank force, General Harding had to commit his reserve, the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry. In ordering Colonel Smith to take Buna General Harding was well aware that he was sending a battalion to do a job to which a full regiment had previously been assigned. He had no other force available, however, and sent Smith forward anyway, hoping apparently that he might, with luck, do the job. The company at Dobodura was immediately ordered to Ango, and the battalion moved out on the 20th with orders to attack Buna Mission.5
The Battle Opens
The Attacks on the Right
Torrential rains that lasted all day began early on 19 November, the day of the attack. The troops were drenched to the skin, and all aircraft were grounded. At 0700, after the two mountain guns fired a few unobserved rounds, the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, under Colonel McCoy, moved forward from Boreo, and the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, under Colonel Miller, marched out from Simemi. Because of the supply dislocation, the men had only one day’s rations with them, and only as much ammunition as was immediately available—little more than a day’s supply.
Colonel McCoy’s troops, in column of companies, with Company C leading, crossed the creek mouth near Boreo, and began moving along a narrow, muddy path in the jungle about twenty yards inland. Their objective was Cape Endaiadere, two miles away.
Colonel Yamamoto was ready. He had had two full days to get his fresh, well-armed 144th and 229th Infantry troops into position. His main line of resistance, between 750 and 800 yards south of Cape Endaiadere, ran from the sea through the Duropa Plantation to the eastern end of the New Strip and past it to the bridge between the strips. (Map 9) At the immediate approaches to this well-built and strongly held defense system he had an outpost line of emplacements. Although not continuous like the main line, it was very strong because of its cleared fields of fire. It was covered by troops who manned concealed and cleverly disposed machine gun nests along the track at the lower (southern) end of the Duropa Plantation, and in the plantation itself.
The 1st Battalion made its first enemy contact halfway between Boreo and the plantation. It was met by heavy machine gun and rifle fire from hidden enemy
machine gun positions west of the track. The troops deployed and attacked, but the heavy overhead jungle growth made it difficult for them to use their mortars effectively and their grenades were of little use because they did not know where the enemy was or where the fire was coming from. The Japanese weapons gave off no flash, and the reverberation of their fire in the jungle made it impossible to ascertain their whereabouts by sound. To complicate matters, the Japanese made it a practice to rotate their weapons among several hidden positions, causing the inexperienced Americans, until they saw through the trick, to imagine themselves covered by automatic weapons from all sides.6
Maj. David B. Parker, an engineer observer who was present wrote:–
The first opposition from the enemy here was a surprise and shock to our green troops. The enemy positions were amazingly well camouflaged, and seemed to have excellent fields of fire even in the close quarters of the jungle. ... Snipers were everywhere, ... and they were so well camouflaged that it was nearly impossible to discern them. The enemy habitually allowed our troops to advance to very close range—sometimes four or five feet from a machine gun post—before opening fire; often they allowed troops to by-pass them completely, opening fire then on our rear elements, and on our front elements from the rear.
Major Parker was particularly impressed by “the deadly accuracy and strength of the enemy machine gun and rifle fire from their camouflaged positions.” He added:
... Our troops were pinned down everywhere by extremely effective fire. It was dangerous to show even a finger from behind one’s cover, as it would immediately draw a burst of fire. It was impossible to see where the enemy fire was coming from; consequently our own rifle and machine gun [fire] was ineffective during the early stages. ... Grenades and mortars ... were difficult to use because, first, it was difficult to pick out a nest position to advance upon with grenades, second, the thick jungle growth, and high grass, made throwing and firing difficult, and, third, because it was nearly impossible to observe our fire.7
Yielding a dozen or so yards at a time when strongly pressed, the Japanese covering troops gradually fell back. 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. Nor did it escape them that the bodies of the few Japanese left on the field were those of fresh, well-fed, well-armed troops—not, as they had been led to expect, the tired, emaciated, and disease-ridden survivors of the fighting in the Owen Stanleys. It was to be some time before they and their fellows recovered from the shock of finding that the battle was to be no pushover and that,
instead of a short and easy mop-up, a long cruel fight lay ahead of them.8
Colonel Miller’s troops had an even ruder awakening. As the 3rd Battalion approached the trail junction between the Old and New Strips, the Simemi trail degenerated into a narrow causeway with swamp on either side. Attempts to get the troops through an open area about 300 yards south of the junction were met by such intense fire from the western end of the New Strip, from behind the bridge between the strips, and from machine guns forward of the junction itself that no further advance was possible that day.
Nor could Miller do much to blast out the enemy with fire. He had no 81-mm. mortars; a large percentage of his grenades failed to go off; his .30-caliber ammunition ran dangerously low, and he had to call for a fresh supply to be dropped to him from the air.9 A member of the regimental staff recalled the situation in the following words:–
Miller had to attack through swamps which were sometimes waist and chest deep, and through which it was impossible to carry any but light weapons. Here too, grenades (Mills bombs obtained from the Australians) became ineffective when wet. One of Miller’s patrols threw seven grenades into a group of ten or twelve Japs whom they stalked only to have all the grenades fail to explode and to suffer about 30 percent casualties from return grenade fire.10
At the end of the day, Miller’s troops were still at the edge of the clearing south of the junction. The battalion had suffered heavy casualties, and made no further gain. As Colonel Miller himself put the matter late that afternoon, it had been “stopped cold.”11
Pinned down on a narrow front, out of rations, and with nearly all the ammunition expended, Miller’s troops made no progress whatever the next day. They were fortunate that Colonel Yamamoto did not counterattack.
McCoy, better supplied with ammunition, resumed his attack on the 20th. After a sketchy preparation which included some unobserved fire from the mountain guns and a brief bombardment of the Cape Endaiadere area by a few B-25’s and A-20’s, the battalion attacked from a point about 1,800 yards south of the cape. Company C was on the right, along the coast; Company B was on the left, a short distance inland. The enemy was as well hidden and as well prepared as before, but the Americans had a better idea by this time what they were about. Led by 1st Lt. John W. Crow, who was reported missing in action that afternoon, Company C succeeded in infiltrating and knocking out several enemy machine gun nests. The line moved forward several hundred yards—as far as it was to go that day.12
Rations and ammunition had been dropped at Hariko and Simemi that morning and by late afternoon had been distributed to both McCoy and Miller. In the evening, Colonel Carrier’s battalion and Major Harcourt’s Independent Company reached the 1st Battalion’s front and went into bivouac immediately to McCoy’s rear. The incoming troops, who arrived at the front exhausted after a twenty-five mile march from Pongani with full pack, were to join McCoy’s battalion in a further attack on Cape Endaiadere in the morning.13
The attack of 21 November was to be in greater strength, better supported, and better supplied than the efforts of 19 and 20 November. The plan of attack called for McCoy’s and Carrier’s battalions (the 128th Infantry troops on the right, and those of the 126th Infantry on the left) to move north on Cape Endaiadere on a 300-yard front. While the attack was proceeding along the coast, the 2/6 Independent Company would infiltrate the eastern end of the New Strip, and the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, from its position astride the Dobodura-Simemi track, would attempt to seize the bridge between the strips. The attack would be preceded by a heavy air bombardment, following which the troops would attack. The time of the attack would be communicated to the battalion commanders as soon as it was definitely learned from the air force when the bombers would come over.
The air attack, executed by A-20’s and B-25’s, took place at the appointed time, and a few enemy machine gun nests were knocked out from the air. However, no ground attack followed the bombardment. Because of faulty coordination—apparently an oversight on the part of regimental headquarters—neither Colonel McCoy nor Colonel Miller received prior notice of the bombardment or, for that matter, orders telling them when to attack. Worse still, one of the planes, instead of dropping its bombs on the Japanese, dropped them on some of Colonel Miller’s forward troops, killing four and wounded two others. Orders from regiment calling for an attack at 0800 were finally received by Colonel Miller at 0840, and by Colonel McCoy at 0850—forty and fifty minutes, respectively, after the air bombardment had ceased.
General Harding arranged to have the air force attack again at 1245. The air attack was to be followed by an artillery and mortar barrage, and the troops would jump off at 1300.
This time, no planes showed up for the attack. Fearing that it would not be able to complete the attack within the appointed time the air force had held its planes back rather than run the risk of again hitting friendly troops.14
Determined that there would be an attack that day, General Harding got the air force to try again. The air bombardment, as before by A-20’s and B-25’s, began at 1557 and was over by 1603. It was not a success. Most of the planes were unable to find the target area, and a flight of A-20’s that did overshot the beachhead and dropped its bombs into the sea. One B-25 unloaded its bomb load squarely in the midst of Colonel McCoy’s two lead
companies—Companies B and C—killing six, wounding twelve, and almost burying seventy others.
This accident had a most disheartening effect on the 1st Battalion. Some of the men withdrew from the line of departure, and their commanders had to order them to return. The attack finally got under way at 1630, after a short unobserved artillery preparation by the mountain guns and a brief barrage by the mortars. As soon as the advance began, it was discovered that the preparation had done the well dug in enemy little or no harm. Once again the troops had to attack an enemy who was virtually untouched by Allied fire.
The attackers had few heavy weapons. Most of their 81-mm. mortars and heavy machine guns either had been lost or had not arrived. All the mortar shells reaching the front—including the light 81-mm. mortar shell, the only shell available at the time for the mortars—were fused super-quick so that the shells went off on contact and had little effect against the Japanese bunkers. Forward observers were handicapped by the heavy jungle growth, Japanese camouflage discipline, and communications failures. The SCR 536, the small handset radio with which the mortar platoons were equipped, refused to work in the jungle.
The troops along the coastal track fought desperately with rifles, Thompson submachine guns, light machine guns, and hand grenades. They knocked out a few machine gun nests during the day, as did the Australian Independent Company which was operating near the eastern end of the strip. Otherwise there was little progress. Casualties were heavy. In three days of combat, Company C lost sixty-three men, including all four of its officers. Two sergeants, killed within a few hours of each other, commanded it on the 21st.15
Colonel Miller’s battalion failed even to reach the bridge between the strips. A twenty-round barrage by the 60-mm. mortars, fired without observation and with the aid only of a photomap, had followed the air bombardment. The troops had jumped off at 1628 and at first had made good progress. They moved through the clearing where they had been held up on the 19th and 20th, swept past the junction, and several of the lead platoons actually advanced to within a short distance of the bridge. At its approaches a withering crossfire completely pinned them down. The battalion lost forty-two killed, wounded, and missing in the attack and, try as it would, could not advance. At 1750, Colonel Miller ordered the troops to pull back to a less-exposed position south of the track junction.
It was clear by this time that the 3rd Battalion was not going to take the bridge. At 2015 that night Colonel Miller was ordered to leave one company suitably provided with ammunition and supplies to hold the existing position. The rest of the battalion was to march to the coast, where it was to operate thenceforward on the right flank, against Cape Endaiadere. The march was to be accomplished as swiftly as possible and in such a way that the Japanese would be unaware of the transfer. Company I, under 1st Lt. Carl K. Fryday, was chosen to stay
behind, and the rest of the battalion was moved back to Simemi early the following morning. By 1800 that evening the troops were bivouacked to the rear of the position held by Colonel McCoy’s battalion.16
The supply picture had brightened slightly. The airstrip at Dobodura opened for limited traffic on 21 November, and five additional luggers arrived on the scene from Milne Bay the same day. One of them broke up on a reef immediately upon arrival, but the remaining four brought in their cargo safely. With the Kelton, Major Birkness now had five luggers for the coastwise operation. There was still a chance that the division’s supply, disrupted though it was, could be put on an even keel.
The artillery picture had also improved. On 21 November General Waldron brought in the two remaining 25-pounders, their Australian crews, and 200 rounds of ammunition. Japanese Zeros came over just as the guns were ready to be emplaced and knocked the sights off one of them, putting it out of action for several days. This left only three guns—the two mountain guns and a 25-pounder—immediately available for the attack on the powerful Japanese positions in the Duropa Plantation.17
It had not taken General Harding long to realize that he was up against a strong enemy bunker line, and that the only way to reduce it in a hurry was with tanks. Judging correctly that the Duropa Plantation was suitable for tank action, he asked Milne Force (which then had some light General Stuart tanks on hand) to send three of them to Oro Bay by barge. General Clowes did his best to comply with the request, but when the first of the tanks were loaded on some captured Japanese barges—the only craft available for the purpose—the barges sank, taking the tanks with them. Advised that there was no way to get the tanks to him, Harding was left with the task of trying to reduce the formidable Japanese positions without armor.
Dissatisfied with the coordination between the various units of Warren Force, Harding ordered Lt. Col. Alexander J. MacNab, executive officer of the 128th Infantry, an experienced and aggressive soldier in whom he had great confidence, to report to General MacNider, under whom he was to coordinate the coastal drive. MacNab reached the front on 22 November and at once began laying plans for a stepped-up attack.18
One of the first things that MacNab did was to place all the available mortars at the front in battery, connecting them by field telephone with a central observation post in a tall coconut tree overlooking the front. It was not a very good observation post—a much better one was to be found later—but it gave the mortars and the artillery infinitely better observation than was obtainable before. Next morning the artillery pieces registered on the enemy positions along the coastal track and in the New Strip
area. The fire was to such good effect that, when Colonel McCoy’s and Colonel Carrier’s lead companies attacked that day, they were able to push the Japanese back against their main line of resistance. The 2/6 Independent Company, operating off the eastern end of the strip, also made a little progress that day. Ordered to hold tight, Lieutenant Fryday’s unit, Company I, 128th Infantry, still in position off the southwest end of the New Strip, remained where it was.19
General MacNider had come up during the afternoon from his headquarters at Hariko to observe the fighting. He was wounded at 1830 by an enemy rifle grenade while inspecting the front lines and was immediately evacuated. On General Harding’s instructions, Colonel Hale succeeded him as commander of Warren Force.20
The next two days, 24 and 25 November, were quiet. Colonel Miller’s troops relieved Colonel McCoy’s in the front lines, but no advance was attempted either day. The lull was being used to prepare for a coordinated attack on Cape Endaiadere and both ends of the New Strip, on the 26th, Thanksgiving Day.
This was to be a strong effort. Eight artillery pieces—six 25-pounders and the two 3.7-inch howitzers—would be in support, four more 25-pounders having been brought in by air on the 25th and emplaced near Ango. A dozen 81-mm. mortars and several more heavy machine guns would be available, as well as thirty-five planes—the largest concentration of aircraft for an attack to date.
The action would open with a thorough bombing and strafing of enemy positions in the Cape Endaiadere-New Strip area. When the air attack was over, the mountain guns would fire on Cape Endaiadere and the 25-pounders would let loose on the bridge between the strips and on the western end of the New Strip. The troops would start from a line of departure about 900 yards south of the cape. Colonel Miller’s 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry (less Company I), would thrust directly north along the coastal track and Cape Endaiadere. Colonel Carrier’s battalion would move out on Miller’s left. Colonel McCoy’s troops were to follow Colonel Carrier’s at an interval of 1,000 yards, prepared to push through them if necessary. The 2/6 Independent Company would continue attacking on the eastern end of the New Strip, and Company I, 128th Infantry, from its position below the track junction, would attempt to establish itself on the western end of the strip.21
High hopes were held for the success of the attack. General Harding left his headquarters at Embogo the night before to observe it personally. Having no motor boat for command use, he caught a ride on the lugger Helen Dawn, which was carrying ammunition to the forward dump at Hariko. About seven miles out the lugger ran onto a sand bar, and General Harding had to complete the remaining three miles of his journey in a row boat, with which, fortunately, the Helen Dawn had come
equipped. Harding arrived at Colonel Hale’s command post at Hariko at 0445. After visiting Colonel McCoy and Colonel Carrier in their command posts, he moved on to Colonel Miller’s CP.22
The attack went off as scheduled. It opened with strafing by Beaufighters and P-40’s, and bombing by A-20’s and B-25’s. At 0930, after a short preparation by artillery, mortars, and heavy machine guns, Colonel Miller’s battalion moved forward on the right. Fifteen minutes later Colonel Carrier’s troops jumped off on the left.
Allied preparatory fire had hit the target area but had done the enemy troops little harm. Retiring into their bunkers, the Japanese waited until it was over, and then emerged unscathed to meet the American infantry attack from hidden firing positions that commanded every approach.
Colonel Miller’s troops, coming up against the strongest section of the Japanese line, were stopped almost at once. They suffered fifty casualties by noon and could not move forward. Company K, which had sustained the bulk of the casualties, was pinned down completely, and Company L, out of contact with Carrier’s battalion, was immobilized. Japanese fighter planes from Lae which destroyed the Helen Dawn when they found it still caught on the sand bar succeeded in bombing and strafing Miller’s battalion despite Allied attempts at interception.
Carrier’s attack was also a disappointment, and narrowly missed being a fiasco. Moving through waist-deep swamp, Carrier’s lead troops, though following a compass course, seem to have misjudged both their direction and their distances. Turning apparently too sharply to the west, and then cutting too soon to the east, they managed to get themselves completely turned around. At 1400 Carrier reported that his troops were nearing the sea, and at 1503 he found to his embarrassment that they were coming out on the coast on Miller’s rear. Realizing his error, Carrier resumed the attack, this time striking toward the Duropa Plantation. He made some minor gains against strong enemy opposition, and by morning the two battalions presented a continuous front to the enemy.
Nor did the Australian Independent Company and Company I, 128th Infantry, to the east and west respectively of the New Strip, make any gains that day. Both were stopped in their tracks almost as soon as they tried to move forward. The attack on which so much hope had been placed had been a complete failure.23
The next day, Allied aircraft in the course of bombing Japanese positions along the New Strip dropped a string of demolition bombs on Lieutenant Fryday’s position
southwest of the strip. Three men were seriously wounded, and Fryday temporarily pulled his company back into the jungle, south of the position from which the first attack of the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, had been launched on 19 November.24
The Attack on the Left
Things had gone no better on General Harding’s left flank. Colonel Smith’s 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, had begun moving from Ango toward Buna during the morning of 21 November. The battalion’s orders were to advance on Buna Mission by way of the Triangle, the jungle-covered track junction from which the Dobodura-Buna track forked to Buna Village and Buna Mission. Captain Yasuda, whose Yokosuka 5th, Sasebo 5th, and supporting naval pioneer troops totaled more than double the strength of Smith’s battalion, was ready. He had a series of concealed machine gun positions south of the Triangle covering the track, and an elaborate system of bunkers in the Triangle itself. There was heavy swamp on either side of the Triangle, and the bunkers had the effect of turning it into a position of almost impregnable strength. Strong bunker positions in the Coconut Grove north of the Triangle, and in the Government Gardens northeast of it, lay astride the trails leading to the village and the mission, both of which were also honeycombed with bunkers.
Yasuda’s defensive position was excellent. His short, secure, interior lines of communication enabled him to concentrate almost his full strength at any threatened point and, when the threat passed, or he chose to withdraw, to use the same troops to beat off another attack elsewhere.
The 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, moving forward toward the Triangle along the Dobodura-Buna track, knew nothing of the Japanese defenses in the area and very little about the terrain. At 1330 Sgt. Irving W. Hall of Company F, leading the point, caught a swift glimpse of an enemy machine gun about fifty yards away. Coolly turning his back on the gun so as to give the impression that he had not seen it, Hall motioned his men off the track. Before the Japanese knew what he was up to he turned around and fired a burst at them from his submachine gun. In the heavy fire fight that ensued, the point suffered one casualty.25
Stopped on the trail by apparently strong enemy positions, Colonel Smith at once began flanking operations. Company G was ordered to move out on the right and Company F on the left. Company H was given orders to engage the enemy frontally, and Company E went into reserve.26
At 2130, Colonel Smith reported to General Harding that he had run into opposition at the junction and that, while he was moving forward slowly on either side of that position in an attempt to flank it, he was being delayed by heavy swamp which was causing him more trouble than the enemy. General Harding immediately asked New Guinea Force to reinforce Smith with a battalion of the 126th Infantry from the other side of the Girua. Harding pointed out
that it could march directly to Buna via the Soputa-Buna track.27
General Herring quickly acceded to General Harding’s request and ordered the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, across the river. Maj. Herbert M. Smith, commanding officer of that battalion, reached Colonel Smith’s command post at 0930, 23 November. The two 2nd Battalions thereupon took the name of Urbana Force, and Colonel Smith, as senior officer present, took command. To avoid confusion in radio messages, General Harding designated Colonel Smith as White Smith, and Major Smith as Red Smith.28
The terrain Urbana Force had run into, especially on the right, was (as Colonel Smith had already intimated to General Harding) appalling. The main track was
deep in mud, and Company G, 128th Infantry, attempting to advance on the right, hit stretches of swamp in which the troops sometimes found themselves up to their necks in water. Company F, 128th Infantry, met better terrain on the left but discovered that Entrance Creek, which paralleled the left-hand fork of the Triangle, not only was tidal and unfordable but seemed to be covered by enemy machine guns at every likely crossing.29
Company G’s experience in the swamp had been particularly wearing. The men had moved out into the swamp to the right of the Triangle in the late afternoon of 21 November. As they made their way eastward, darkness fell. The acting company commander, 1st Lt. Theodore Florey, decided to go on, but the swamp kept getting deeper. Since there seemed to be little chance of reaching dry ground before morning, Florey finally called a halt at 2100. The company spent a miserable night. A few of the men were able to find perches on the roots of trees, but the rest waited in the mire for morning. Wet to the skin and in need of sleep, the men started moving again at daybreak. After a slow and difficult march, they hit dry land at about noon. Taking their bearings, the troops discovered that they were on one of two kunai flats running southeast of the Triangle, and that only about 200 yards of sago swamp lay between them and the flat adjacent to their objective.
Though he now had a company in position to strike, Colonel Smith had grave doubts whether an attack from that quarter would be practicable. Reports from Company G, from the Ammunition and Pioneer Platoon, which was carrying rations forward to it, as well as from wire-laying parties of Headquarters Company, which were having a difficult time laying wire on the right, convinced him that it would be virtually out of the question to try to supply Company G in the terrain in which it found itself. Since the reports from Company F were much more favorable and indicated that the swamp on the left of the Triangle was never more than waist-deep, he decided to pull Company G back from its untenable position on the right and concentrate his entire force on the left where the going, though far from good, was obviously much better.30
On 23 November Colonel Smith sent a message to division headquarters informing it of his plan. The supply route to Company G, he wrote, was “neck-deep in mud and water,” and he asked permission for the company’s withdrawal.31 After waiting until about 1400 for a reply and receiving none, Smith ordered the company to pull out of the swamp and report to him for further orders. So ordered, the company severed its wire connection with battalion headquarters and started for the rear. Division headquarters had received Smith’s message about 1400 and, because of an error on the part of the decoding clerk, understood it to say that the supply route to Company G was “knee-deep in mud and water,” and not, as Colonel Smith sent it, “neck-deep.” The headquarters replied at 1425 that Smith was under no circumstances to withdraw,
but was instead to proceed with the attack.32
Colonel Smith sent a messenger to intercept Company G and return it to its former position. Having only limited knowledge of the enemy positions he was supposed to attack, he asked division for a delay of a day or two in which to learn more about the enemy and the terrain, and perhaps find a better route of supply to Company G. Division would not give him the time. At 2045 it informed him that there would be an air strike on the Triangle at 0800 the next morning, 24 November, following which he and Major Smith were to attack.33
At 2330 the two Smiths held a staff meeting at Colonel Smith’s command post, 1,200 yards south of the nearest Japanese positions below the Triangle. There they worked out a plan which envisaged simultaneous thrusts at the Triangle from left, front, and right. The three-way attack would be preceded by air bombardment and strafing scheduled for 0800, and the troops were to jump off as soon as the air attack was over. Four 25-pounders which had just reached Dobodura that day would fire from Ango in support of the attack as soon as they got the range.34
The attack opened at 0800 the next morning with an attempt by the air force to strafe the Triangle. Twelve P-40’s made one pass over the objective and missed it altogether. No bombers followed the fighters, and there was no attempt by the P-40’s to try to hit the Triangle again, since they apparently thought they had executed their mission.
Because the air attack had been a complete failure, the ground attack was held up to give the air force a chance to try again. It was arranged that this time eight P-39’s and four P-40’s would attack at 1355. There was to be no bombardment, since no bombers were available.
At the appointed time only the four P-40’s showed up. Instead of strafing the Japanese in the Triangle, they strafed Colonel Smith’s command post. Fortunately only one man was wounded in the strafing, and he only slightly, but the Japanese positions in the Triangle were left completely untouched.
After the last of the P-40’s had finished strafing his command post, Colonel Smith waited a few moments to see if any more planes would follow. No more planes arrived; so he ordered the attack to begin without further support from the air force. Following a short mortar preparation, principally by the 60-mm. mortars (the two battalions then had only two 81-mm. mortars apiece and little ammunition for them), the troops jumped off at 1428. At 1437 the 25-pounders at Ango found the range, and joined in the attack.35
On the left, Company E, 126th Infantry, began by swinging wide around Entrance Creek; then it moved north about 400 yards and turned northeast. Just as it had finished covering another 400 yards and was approaching a small bridge over the creek
northwest of the Triangle, a strong Japanese force struck with accurate machine gun fire. The troops dug in at once in foxholes which immediately filled with water. They went no further that day.
Company F, 126th Infantry, though soon joined by Company H, Colonel Smith’s heavy weapons company, did little in its frontal attack on the Triangle. It moved forward about 300 yards, only to find heavy barbed wire entanglements strung across the track. The enemy covering the wire was laying down intense fire. Having neither wire cutters nor the materials with which to make Bangalore torpedoes, the Americans dug in and requested engineers with explosives to clear the way.36
Companies E and G, 128th Infantry, on the right, fared worst of all. Using newly found short cuts through the deep swamp, Company E managed to reach the kunai flat in much less time than Company G had taken to reach it after its groping efforts of 21 November. The men of Company E therefore joined up with Company G in plenty of time for the attack.
Leaving its weapons platoon on the flat with Company E, Company G under Lieutenant Florey started moving northwest through the sago swamp to flank the Triangle. A little less than 200 yards out, the leading platoon came upon a small grassy area, just outside the Triangle, where it surprised a group of Japanese working on what appeared to be an antiaircraft position. The Americans opened fire, but there were more Japanese about than they thought, and the company, after suffering several casualties, was forced back into the swamp. Attempts to maneuver around the grassy strip were unsuccessful because of intense automatic weapons fire which greeted the company at every turn. Darkness found the troops pinned down at the edge of the strip, where the slope of the ground leading into the swamp afforded them a little cover.
While the main body of Company G was held up just outside the right-hand fork of the Triangle, the Japanese from the Government Gardens moved forward to within firing distance of the kunai flat held by Company E and the weapons platoon of Company G. They attacked just as it was turning dark, killing one man and wounding five others and greatly disheartening the troops on the flat, most of whom were under enemy fire for the first time.
The weapons platoon of Company G had had two days to get its weapons in order after its march through the swamp, and Company E had been on the kunai flat five or six hours, long enough for it to do the same. But the Americans apparently lacked oil, and parts of the equipment were wet, and they may have been negligent. Whatever the reason, when they were caught in the open, with the sounds of Japanese yells coming from a short distance away, the men tried to hit back at the unseen enemy as best they could, only to find that their weapons would not function properly. “ ... Mortars fell short because increments [the propelling charges in the mortar ammunition] were wet. Machine guns jammed because web belts were wet and dirty and had shrunk. Tommy guns and BAR’s were full of muck and dirt, and even the M1’s fired well only for the first clip, and then jammed because clips taken from the belts were wet and full
of muck from the swamp.”37 Low on ammunition, completely out of food, and fearing that they had been ambushed, the troops pulled back hastily into the swamp, leaving some of their crew-served weapons behind them.38
Colonel Smith in the meantime had been in communication with Company E by telephone. Learning that the Japanese attack had driven the company off the flat and into the swamp, he ordered the troops to remain where they were until he could come up in the morning and give them further instructions. At that point the phone went dead, and Smith could make no further contact with the two companies.
Company E was at this time strung out in a single file all the way back from the kunai flat, with the weapons platoon of Company G somewhere in the middle of the line. At the far end of the line, nearest to battalion, was the executive officer of Company E, 1st Lt. Orin Rogers, and at the head of it, nearest to the flat and the dead telephone, was the commanding officer of Company E, Capt. A. T. Bakken.
Shortly after darkness fell, an order passed along the line to Lieutenant Rogers to move back to the battalion command post. Rogers assumed at the time that the phone at Captain Bakken’s end of the line was working again and that there had been a change in orders. He nevertheless made it a point to ask if the order had come from the captain. The answer came back a few minutes later that it had. Thinking no more of the matter, Rogers started the lead troops back to the command post. At the other end of the line, Captain Bakken had also received an order to move to the rear. Knowing that the phone near him was out, he assumed that a messenger from battalion headquarters had delivered such a message to Lieutenant Rogers. Just to make sure, he asked whether the message had come from battalion headquarters. The answer came back (again via the chain method) that it had, and the entire column started moving to the rear, the weapons platoon of Company G with it.39
The rest of Company G, under Lieutenant Florey, still pinned down just outside the grassy strip leading to the Triangle, had sent a runner back with orders to the weapons platoon to bring up more mortars. The runner returned with the report that Company E and the weapons platoon were gone. An officer was sent back to the kunai flat to check. When he returned with confirmation of the report, Company G, after waiting for further orders and receiving none, also began to move to the rear.
Company E, 128th Infantry, and the weapons platoon of Company G reached Colonel Smith’s command post in the early morning hours of 25 November, and Company G, except for a few stragglers, arrived there by 1007. At 1020 Colonel Smith, who only the night before had informed General Harding that he had instructed the men to remain near the edge of the kunai flat until morning, gave “faulty communication”
as the reason for their return to the rear in apparent contravention of his orders.40
Because the men were exhausted and hungry, and also because he did not believe that an attack on the right would succeed, Smith decided against ordering the men back into the swamp. His decision, as he himself phrased it, was “to abandon for the time being any action on the right and concentrate on the left, and to continue patrolling on the right in the hope of finding a more suitable route forward.”41
Though he now shared Colonel Smith’s views about the impracticality of an attack on the right and the need to make the main effort on the left, General Harding had gone one step further in his thinking. A study of the trail which led from the left-hand fork of the Triangle to Buna Village and Buna Mission had convinced him that it would be possible to bypass the Triangle and at the same time take both the village and the mission, if troops could be gotten onto the large grassy area northwest of the Triangle through which, in his own phrase, “the left hand road to Buna” ran. He therefore ordered Smith to contain the Triangle with a portion of his troops and to deploy the rest in the swamp south of the grassy area in question, preparatory to seizing it and moving westward on Buna Village.
Smith began deploying his troops in accordance with this tactical plan early on 26 November. Company F, 128th Infantry, and Company G, 126th Infantry, moved into the area west of the bridge over Entrance Creek which had been occupied and patrolled by Company E, 126th Infantry, since 24 November.42
The troops had scarcely begun moving when General Harding, who had for some time felt that the attack on the Urbana front was not being pressed with sufficient vigor, ordered his chief of staff, Col. John W. Mott, to that front. Mott’s instructions were to take strong action when he got there and, if he thought the situation required it, to take command.43
Colonel Mott reached Colonel Smith’s command post on the afternoon of the 27th. Surveying the situation quickly, he came to the conclusion that he would have to assume command and did so at once. He relieved the captains of Companies E and G, 128th Infantry, of their commands and ordered them to take patrols into the area forward of the kunai flat from which the Japanese had driven Company E and the weapons platoon of Company G two days before. In addition, he ordered Companies E and G under their new commanders to retrieve their abandoned weapons on the kunai flat. They did so by sundown, but Company E returned without one of its mortars and had to be sent back a second time to get it.44
Mott at once prepared to attack. He adopted a suggestion made to him by Major Smith, that the attack on the grassy strip leading to the village be mounted initially from two smaller grass strips just south of the larger kunai patch, and made his dispositions accordingly. Major Smith’s battalion was ordered to assemble near the Girua River, directly below the two strips that Smith had proposed as the jump-off point for the attack. Company F, 128th Infantry, occupied the area west of the bridge over Entrance Creek. Companies G and H, under Colonel Smith, were ordered to take over the positions south of the Triangle in order to contain the enemy there. Company E, left in reserve, was deployed around task force headquarters.
Mott reported his dispositions to General Harding on the evening of 28 November, and the division commander approved them. Following a suggestion from General Herring that he try night attacks, Harding ordered an attack on Buna Village that night. Pleading that he was not ready to attack, Mott asked for a twenty-four-hour delay. Harding granted his request, and the attack was set for the last night of the month—29–30 November.45
The Attacks of 30 November
Integrating the Attacks
On the Warren front, a two-day lull had followed the reverse of 26 November. On the 28th General Harding ordered Colonel Hale to prepare to attack the next day. A report that evening, subsequently found to be false, that the Japanese were making a ground attack on Dobodura caused General Harding to postpone the attack to the early morning of the 30th. (Map 10)
Both Urbana Force and Warren Force were now scheduled to attack on the 30th, Urbana Force a few hours before Warren Force. Each was still suffering from the most acute deficiencies of supply, all but one of the luggers that had come in on 21 November having by this time either gone aground or been destroyed by the enemy.46
Colonel Mott’s Attack
Preparations for the attack on the Urbana front were complete by evening of the 29th. In a large coconut tree that overlooked the front, Colonel Mott had an observation post connected by telephone with the artillery at Ango and the mortars. Both artillery and mortars were registered on the objective—the large grassy area just north of the two clearings below which Urbana Force was preparing the attack. Mott’s command post was a hundred yards behind the most forward element of Company E, 126th Infantry. His aid station and part of a collecting company were in place near the Girua River.
The final details of the attack were worked out with Major Smith. The troops would move off toward the main strip as soon after midnight as possible. A thirty minute mortar and artillery preparation would be laid down on the strip. Immediately afterward the men would proceed to their objective in darkness. Lacking white
material for armbands, even underwear, the men would have to keep in close contact with one another. Companies E and F, 126th Infantry, would attack in a northeasterly direction and occupy the main strip, making sure that they first secured that part of it which was nearest to the Coconut Grove, a small coconut plantation immediately north of the bridge over Entrance Creek. Company G, 126th Infantry, would attack along the track and take Buna Village. Company F, 128th Infantry, after being relieved in its present positions by Company E, 128th Infantry, would proceed to Siwori Creek, seize the crossing near its mouth, and outpost the area between the creek and the Girua River. Company H, 128th Infantry, would be immediately behind Companies E and F, 126th Infantry, and would support them with fire. Company E, 128th Infantry, operating immediately to the right of Company E, 126th Infantry, would clear the Japanese out of the Coconut Grove. Company G, 128th Infantry, under Colonel Smith, would operate south of the Triangle and thus cover the track, the artillery at Ango, and the rear of the forces attacking toward Buna Village.47
The jump-off was delayed. Enemy fire from the strip, flares from enemy aircraft that flew over the area during the night, the rising tide in the swamp, and the confusion attendant upon moving so many men through the treacherous swamp terrain in the dark held up the attack for several hours.
Robert H. Odell, then a lieutenant and platoon leader in Company F, 126th Infantry, has this recollection of the matter:–
As soon as it was dark, preparations began. When these were completed, we each grasped the shoulder of the man in front, and slowly shuffled forward in the pitch black of the night. Our only guide was the telephone wire leading to the jump-off point, and the troops in the foxholes along the way who had been holding the ground recently captured. There was no trail and consequently several hours were required to travel as many hundreds of yards. We all had bayonets. Rifle fire was forbidden until after the attack was well under way. Japs encountered along the way were to be dealt with silently.
At 0400, Companies E, F, and G, 126th Infantry, finally attacked. It was still dark, and about one hundred yards out, they made their first enemy contact—a line of machine gun posts dead ahead. At that moment, Odell recalls:
All hell broke loose. There was more lead flying through the air ... than it’s possible
to estimate. Machine gun tracers lit the entire area, and our own rifle fire made a solid sheet of flame. Everywhere men cursed, shouted, or screamed. Order followed on order. ... Brave men led and others followed. Cowards crouched in the grass literally frightened out of their skins. ...48
The attack gathered momentum. The two companies—E and F, 126th Infantry—overran the enemy outposts and gained their objective—the eastern end of the main strip. There they found and dispatched an indeterminate number of Japanese, and began to consolidate.49
Company G, 126th Infantry, which was to have taken the track to Buna Village as soon as it gained the western end of the strip, accomplished only part of its mission. Led by its commander, 1st Lt. Cladie A. Bailey, it overran strong enemy opposition on its part of the strip but lost its way when it tried moving toward the village. When daylight came, the company found itself in the swamp along the northern edge of the strip.50 Finding Company G out of reach, Colonel Mott immediately assigned Company E, 126th Infantry, to the task of taking the village. Moving directly on Buna Village by way of the main track, the company attacked at 0600. About 300 yards out of the village, it ran into a well-manned enemy bunker line and found itself unable to advance because of enemy crossfire.
On Major Smith’s orders Capt. Harold E. Hantlemann of Company H came up with Lieutenant Nummer, commanding officer of Company F, and some troops from Headquarters Company. Putting Hantlemann in charge of the mortars, and Nummer in command of front-line action, Smith made a determined effort to take the village. Preceded by the heaviest concentration of mortar fire yet seen on the Urbana front, the second attack met even fiercer resistance than before. Again the troops could make only slight advances. When the attack was finally called off that afternoon, they had taken considerable casualties but gained very little ground.51
Company F, 128th Infantry, which had been given the task of securing the left flank of Urbana Force from enemy attack and cutting the enemy’s land communications between Buna and Sanananda, succeeded in its mission. It secured the crossing over Siwori Creek and outposted the trail between it and the bridge over the Girua River. The troops east of Siwori Village had already killed several Japanese from Buna who had tried to cross the bridge, presumably to get to Giruwa or Sanananda.
The other companies of the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, had been less successful. Company E, attacking from the southeast end of the strip, failed to take the Coconut Grove, and Company G had very little success in its attacks into the southern tip of the Triangle. Both were subsequently ordered by Colonel Mott to contain these
objectives and to make no attacks upon them until otherwise ordered.
In the mop-up of the large grassy strip, the troops overran a Japanese headquarters area from which apparently a considerable number of troops had very recently fled. The place consisted of a headquarters building, an infirmary, and several huts containing weapons, ammunition, food, and medicine. The two main buildings had bunkers to the rear with which they connected by tunnels. The buildings were of canvas and frame construction and had wooden floors covered with floor mats. When overrun, the headquarters building was strewn with military documents, codes, and diaries, and contained a large radio set which took eight men to carry. After removing the papers, the radio, the food, and the medical supplies, the buildings were burned to the ground and the connecting bunkers blown up.52
Colonel Hale’s Attack
The attack on the Warren front, though more heavily supported than that on the Urbana front, was even less successful. By this time General Waldron and his second-in-command, Colonel McCreary, had opened an artillery command post at Dobodura and had established firing data for all known targets in the area. The Australian artillery consisted of the eight 25-pounders and two 3.7-inch mountain howitzers of the Manning, Hall, and O’Hare Troops. The Manning Troop, four 25-pounders, was north of Ango; the Hall Troop, the remaining 25-pounders, and the O’Hare Troop, the two mountain howitzers, were at Boreo. A flight of Australian Wirraways had just arrived from Port Moresby to aid the artillery in its spotting of enemy targets, and one 105-mm. howitzer of Battery A, the 129th U.S. Field Artillery Battalion (the only U.S. field piece to be used in the campaign) had reached Dobodura by air the day before with its crew and 400 rounds of ammunition. The gun, under command of Capt. Elmer D. Kobs, was emplaced at Ango on the 30th, too late however to take part in the attack.53
General Harding, more than ever convinced that it would take tanks to clean out the enemy bunker defenses in the Duropa Plantation, had meanwhile continued to plead for armor. He radioed General Johns of the Combined Operational Service Command (COSC) on 27 November and asked him to do his best to get the tanks at Milne Bay to him. He suggested that Johns try to get some of the Japanese landing barges captured on Goodenough Island in the hope that they might prove big enough for the task. New Guinea Force replied for Johns that there were no barges anywhere in the area big enough to carry the tanks, and that they were sending him Bren carriers instead. Thirteen carriers, tracked, lightly armored reconnaissance vehicles mounting
Bren machine guns, arrived with their crews at Porlock Harbor from Milne Bay the same day, 27 November. Advised that at least four of the carriers would reach him in the next couple of days, Harding immediately drew up plans for their use by Warren Force on the 30th.54
The plan of attack on the Warren front called for Colonel McCoy’s battalion (reorganized into two rifle companies and one heavy weapons company) to move straight up the track in column of companies, with Company A leading. The advance would be on a 350-yard front, and two of the Bren carriers would spearhead the attack. Colonel Carrier’s troops with the two remaining Brens leading, and the 2/6 Independent Company on its left, were to strike westward in the area immediately below the New Strip preparatory to a break-through in that area. Besides the Australians and the Bren carriers, four 81-mm. mortars from Company M, 128th Infantry, would support Carrier’s force. Colonel Miller’s battalion, less Company I, would be in reserve, ready to assist either McCoy or Carrier, as required. Company I would remain in its blocking position astride the Dobodura-Simemi track, a few hundred yards south of the bridge between the strips.
H Hour was to be 0630. Between H minus 15 and H Hour, the 25-pounders would lay down fire on the southwest end of the New Strip. Thereafter they would fire on the woods northeast of the strip to knock out known Japanese mortar and artillery concentrations. The 3.7-inch mountain guns would first fire a preparation on Cape Endaiadere and then switch to local support of Colonel McCoy’s advance. The air force, then fighting off an enemy convoy bound for Buna, would bomb and strafe enemy positions whenever it could find the planes to do so.
Because of an acute shortage of shipping at Porlock Harbor, the Bren carriers failed to arrive as scheduled, and the attack was launched without them. The 105-mm. howitzer was not yet ready to fire and took no part in the attack. Nor was there the usual preliminary air bombardment, since the air force was still busy with the enemy convoy.
The 25-pounders, the mountain guns, and the mortars opened up at 0615, and the troops jumped off at the appointed time, 0630. Allied bombers, after successfully chasing the enemy convoy back to Rabaul, joined in the fray at 0900. At 0945 there was a further friendly artillery barrage, and at 1345 and 1448 Allied planes came over again, strafing and bombing.
Despite this support, Warren Force made very little progress that day. Pressed tightly against the Japanese defensive positions and without tanks or enough heavy artillery using projectiles with delayed fuse to demolish the enemy fortifications, the Americans could make little headway. The troops fought desperately, but could not get through the enemy’s protective fire.
Company A, 128th Infantry, leading the attack along the coast, advanced less than a hundred yards when it ran into a massive log barricade which Colonel Yamamoto’s troops had thrown across the trail. Automatic fire from behind the barricade and from concealed positions on its left soon
brought the company’s advance to a complete halt. The artillery at Boreo was unable to reduce the barricade, and sustained fire from 81-mm. mortars and from a 37-mm. gun brought up specifically for the purpose seemed to make no impression upon it. By noon Company A had been definitely stopped, and the men began to dig in, in the intense heat of the day. When Company A was relieved by Company B that night, it was about 900 yards south of the Cape. Its right flank was still in front of the barricade, and its left, which had not kept up, was curved almost all the way back to the line of departure.55
Colonel Carrier, on McCoy’s left, facing west, had fared a little better. Ordered to infiltrate the eastern end of the New Strip with a view to striking along its northern edge, Company B tried to fight north into the fork but was stopped by enemy fire from a strongpoint dominating the spur and the strip. Company C, with the Independent Company on its left, was to flank the strip by advancing westward along its southern edge. It advanced to about the center of the strip before enemy fire became so heavy that it too had to dig in. Except for the slight progress on Colonel Carrier’s front, the attack had again failed.56
The situation was serious. Despite repeated attacks on it, the Japanese line stood intact. In the two weeks since the 32nd Division had marched out so confidently on the enemy positions at Buna, it had sustained 492 battle casualties but had made not so much as a single penetration of the enemy line.57 It was obvious that something would have to be done to intensify the attack.