Chapter 13: Buna: The Second Two Weeks
The 32nd Division’s supply situation, hopelessly inadequate in late November, began to improve in early December. There were many reasons for the improvement. Airdrops and emergency movements by sea had staved off disaster, and the arrival of supplies which General Harding had requisitioned some time before helped the division to overcome the most pressing of its logistical difficulties. The opening of additional airfields at Dobodura and Popondetta, the completion of the Dobodura-Simemi jeep track and other tracks, the arrival of a new flotilla of luggers to replace those which had been destroyed in November, the establishment of a separate service organization at Dobodura known as ALMA Force, General Eichelberger’s efforts, the efforts of Col. George DeGraaf, his quartermaster officer, and the continuing efforts of the division’s supply officers—all these things helped to improve the situation, and, for the first time since operations began, the pipeline began to fill.1
The Attack of 5 December
Regrouping the Troops
On both the Warren and Urbana fronts the inspection of 2 December found the Allied units, in the words of General Eichelberger, “scrambled like eggs.” He at once ordered them regrouped and reorganized. On the Warren front, Company I, 128th Infantry, which had been operating under Colonel Carrier’s command off the southwest end of the strip, was returned to Colonel Miller, and Company A, 126th Infantry, which had been under Colonel McCoy’s command off the southeast end of the strip, was returned to Colonel Carrier. Colonel Miller’s 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, was disposed to the right of the strip and took up position in an arc extending from the sea to a point just below the dispersal bays at the eastern end of the strip. Colonel McCoy’s 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, moved in on Miller’s left, just below (south of) the strip, and Major Harcourt’s 2/6 Independent Company covered the gap between Carrier and McCoy. Warren Force had no reserve, but each battalion held small reserve elements out of the line.
On the Urbana front, units of the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, which had been outposting Entrance Creek north of the Coconut Grove rejoined their battalion and the Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, in front of Buna Village. The 2nd Battalion,
128th Infantry, took over the sector following the west bank of Entrance Creek. Company F, 128th Infantry, continued as before to hold the blocking positions between the Girua River and Siwori Creek.2
During the previous week the average daily ration for troops on both fronts had consisted of a single can of meat component and an emergency bar of concentrated chocolate, just enough to subsist on. Though the stockpile of rations was still short, the men ate their first full meal in some time on 3 December, and preparations began for a scheduled attack the next day.3
The New Commanders Take Over
When Colonel Martin went forward to the Warren front early on 3 December to take command, he discovered first of all that the troops “had little in the nature of weapons and equipment of what was normally considered necessary to dislodge an enemy from a dug in, concealed position.”4 His forward CP, he found, was “a single shelter half suspended horizontally about five feet from the ground, under which the CP telephone rested against a log on the ground.” Maj. Milton F. Ziebell, the regimental S-3, had with him, Martin remembers, a printed map “inaccurate for artillery fire,” and “half of a small writing tablet, the kind selling in ten cent stores for a dime, and a pencil.” When Martin asked the adjutant for his files, the latter “patted the pocket of his denim jacket which was a shade of black from the swamp mud, and said that he was keeping what he could there.”
Colonel Martin set himself to improve conditions, despite the prevailing “lack of almost everything with which to operate.” One of the first things he did upon taking command was to call an officers’ meeting at which he told his officers that the men “would be required to do all they could to better their conditions, their personal appearance, and their equipment.” Sanitation would be improved. More attention would be paid to the care of equipment, and officers would cease commiserating with the troops and abetting them in the “feeling sorry for ourselves attitude” that he had noticed during his inspection the day before.
The command was to be informed, he said further, that there would be no relief until “after Buna was taken.” Martin knew that this news would come as a shock, “but I was certain,” he adds, “that after the shock was over, the troops knowing their task would fight better than those just hanging on and continually looking over their shoulders for relief to come.”5
Unlike Colonel Martin, Colonel Grose had little opportunity to inspect his forces before he took command. He came in by air from Australia on the morning of 3 December and made a hurried inspection of the Urbana front that afternoon. Next day when he took command, he found Colonel McCreary supervising a reorganization of the positions, and he asked General Eichelberger to postpone the attack for a day. General Eichelberger granted the request, though with considerable reluctance, and
the attack there and on the Warren front was set for 5 December.6
The Arrival of the Bren Carriers
Late on the evening of 3 December a section of five Bren gun carriers arrived by boat from Porlock Harbor. The rest of the cargo included forty tons of food and ammunition, a shipment that was particularly welcome inasmuch as Warren Force had run out of rations that day. The carriers were quickly unloaded and given to Colonel Martin for use on the 5th in the attack on the Japanese positions in the Duropa Plantation. As soon as they could, Colonel Martin and Colonel MacNab gave Lt. T. St. D. Fergusson, who commanded the carriers, a briefing on the terrain. They stressed the likelihood that his carriers might be “bellied” by stumps and other obstacles in the plantation area. The next day, MacNab sent Fergusson and 1st Lt. David Anderson, commanding officer of the regimental Reconnaissance Platoon, to make a daylight reconnaissance of the area. Though under no illusions about the risk of the attack, Fergusson reported that he believed his carriers could negotiate the ground. To provide
insurance against unforeseen contingencies he requested additional automatic weapons for his men, and was promptly given all the weapons he asked for.7
Sending the thin-skinned vehicles, open at the top and unarmored below, against the formidable enemy positions in the plantation area was a desperate venture at best. The least the Americans could do was to give the Australian crews, who were to spearhead the attack, all the weapons they could use.
Reorganization and regrouping were completed on 4 December. Fortified by an unwanted and much-needed two-day rest, the troops received rations and ammunition and prepared to resume operations under their new commanders.
Colonel Yamamoto’s forces and those of Captain Yasuda were ready. Yamamoto had the bulk of his relatively fresh 144th and 229th Infantry troops in the plantation and at the northeast end of the New Strip. The rest were holding the bridge between the strips, together with the troops of the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment and of the 47th Field Antiaircraft Battalion
originally assigned there.8 Captain Yasuda had his Yokosuka 5th and Sasebo 5th Special Naval Landing troops, supported by naval pioneer units in the village, the Triangle, and the mission. The Japanese had thrown back every attack thus far, and they were ready to continue doing so.
The plan for the American-Australian attack scheduled for 5 December was embodied in a field order drawn up the day before by General Waldron. Warren Force and the five Bren gun carriers, supported by elements of the Fifth Air Force and the artillery, were to attack the Japanese positions in the Duropa Plantation-Buna Strips area at 0830. Their objective encompassed the entire area east of a line drawn along the coast southwest from Strip Point and extending inland to the Old Strip. Urbana Force, also supported by artillery and air bombardment, was to jump off at 1000 with the mission of taking Buna Village. Both attacking forces were to make an all-out effort.9 (Map 12)
The Attack on the Right
On the Warren front Colonel Miller’s battalion was to be on the right, nearest the sea. Colonel McCoy’s battalion was to be on Miller’s left, and Colonel Carrier was to be on the far left, with the 2/6 Independent Company intervening between him and McCoy. Company L and the Bren carriers were to attack straight up the coast on a 200-yard front. Company I was to follow in column on Company L’s left rear, and machine gun crews of Company M were to be disposed along the line of departure and immediately to the rear to clean out snipers in trees and give direct support to the advance. Colonel McCoy’s leading unit, Company A, 128th Infantry, was to move in on Company L’s left and attempt to cross the eastern end of the New Strip. Colonel Carrier’s 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, was to advance northward against the bridge between the strips. Patrols of the Australian Independent Company were to make whatever gains they could in the area between Carrier and McCoy.10
Between 0820 and 0835 on the morning of 5 December, six A-20’s bombed and strafed the area between the Old Strip and Cape Endaiadere. The artillery began to fire at 0830. Supported by mortar and machine gun fire from Company M, the Bren carriers and Company L left the line of departure at 0842. They immediately ran into heavy fire from a barricade near the coast, and from concealed positions on their left front and left. As had been feared, the Bren carriers bellied up badly on the uneven stump-filled ground and their progress was slow. As they rose high in the air to clear stumps and other obstacles, they were easy targets for enemy machine gunners. To complete the job, the Japanese tossed hand grenades over the sides, threw “sticky” bombs that clung to the superstructures, and scored several direct hits with an antitank gun. Within twenty minutes they had knocked out all five vehicles—three just outside the Allied lines and two within their own. The carrier crews suffered heavily. Lieutenant Fergusson was wounded, and thirteen of
the twenty others in the carriers were killed, wounded, or missing.
Fergusson’s second-in-command, Lt. Ian Walker, heard of the disaster shortly after it happened. From his post at the rear where he had been attending to the housekeeping needs of the platoon, he left for the front on the run, accompanied by a single enlisted man of his command. Covered by fire from Company L, 128th Infantry, the two men methodically removed the guns and ammunition from the three closest carriers. Walker then ordered the enlisted man back, took up a submachine gun, and went forward alone toward the two remaining carriers intending to recover their guns as well. Before he could reach the nearer of the two carriers, he fell mortally wounded. The Japanese succeeded in stripping the gutted hulks of the two carriers that night before a patrol of Warren Force sent out to recover the guns could get to them.11
In attempting to support the Bren carriers in their disastrous attack, Capt. Samuel M. Horton’s Company L, 128th Infantry, had also been hit hard. The center platoon
suffered so many casualties during the first half-hour of the fighting that it had to have help from the left platoon, which was itself under heavy fire. A platoon of Company I had to plug the resulting gap on the left before the attack could continue.
The men tried to push forward but were unable to. They were blocked, not only by the heavy fire that came from behind the still-unreduced log barricade a few yards in from the coast and from the hidden and carefully sited strongpoints in the plantation, but by the intense heat of the morning. Man after man of Colonel Miller’s battalion gave way to heat prostration. By 1010 the battalion had gained less than forty yards, and it could make no further advance that day.12
A few minutes after the 3rd Battalion attack, the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry began its move. At 0855 the eighty-three men of Company A, under 1st Lt. Samuel J. Scott, pushed off in the Y-shaped dispersal area at the eastern end of the New Strip. Company B was on Scott’s left rear, waiting to go in. Company D was disposed along the line of departure, supporting the advance by fire. Scott’s troops moved slowly and cautiously through the tall grass. Despite the heat and heavy casualties from enemy fire, they made good progress at first, and by 1100 most of them were across the lower arm of the Y. There they were halted by rifle grenade, mortar, and machine gun fire from three directions. By noon Japanese action and heat prostration had cut deep into Company A’s strength, and Company B, under 1st Lt. Milan J. Bloecher, had to be ordered in on its left to relieve the pressure.13
Company B reached the southeastern end of the strip two hours later at a point just west of the dispersal area occupied by Company A. Setting up light machine guns on the left to cover the strip, Bloecher tried to move his men across, but without success. As the men crawled out of the sheltering tall grass into the heat-ridden strip, heavy enemy fire from bunkers and hidden firing positions in the area immobilized them. Those who managed to get halfway across the strip could move neither forward nor back. Since further advance was impossible, the company began to consolidate at the eastern end of the strip.
Company A was meanwhile having an even rougher time than in the morning. At the center of the Y the troops encountered almost point-blank fire that came at them from three directions. All attempts to cross the northern prong of the Y failed. Men who tried to advance were caught in the enemy’s crossfire and either wounded or killed. By late afternoon the situation was seen to be hopeless, and Colonel Martin ordered the company to pull back as soon as it could. That evening he relieved it.14
At the western end of the strip Colonel Carrier’s battalion did little better. The two companies in attack—A on the right and C on the left—moved out against the bridge between the strips at 0850 and at first reported good progress. Aided by the mortars and the detachment’s 37-mm. gun, they succeeded in knocking out seven enemy
pillboxes during the first two hours of fighting. With the enemy fire from the pillboxes suppressed, the troops began to close on the bridge, only to be halted by heavy fire from front and left when they were only 150 yards from their objective. Artillery fire was called for, but it proved ineffective. The Japanese fire only increased in intensity.
Colonel Carrier’s troops, suffering from the heat like the companies on the right, made repeated attempts to advance, but the enemy fire was too heavy. Frontal attack was abandoned; Company B relieved Company A, and an attempt was made to cross Simemi Creek in the hope of flanking the bridge. The attempt was given up because there was quicksand reported in the crossing area and the creek was too deep. At the end of the day’s fighting the Japanese still held the bridge between the strips, and Colonel Carrier’s troops were dug in about 200 yards south of it.15
The “all-out” attack of Warren Force had failed all along the line, and Colonel Yamamoto had the situation in hand.16 As Colonel Martin put it in a phone call to General Byers that night: “We have hit them and bounced off.”17
On 4 December Colonel Tomlinson and 126th Infantry headquarters moved from Sanananda to the Urbana front, and advance parties of the 127th Infantry—which was also to be committed to the Urbana front—began reaching Dobodura.18 By this time the troops in the line—the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, and the Cannon Company, 128th Infantry—had had a little rest. They would now have another chance to finish the job that they had not been quite able to complete on the 2nd.
The plan of attack called for the Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, to attack at specified points on the perimeter of Buna Village. Having suffered very heavy losses during previous attacks, Company F would be in reserve. The Cannon Company would remain on the left of the 126th Infantry and continue as before to support its operations. Colonel Smith’s 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, on Major Smith’s right would complete the investiture of the left bank of Entrance Creek. Air and artillery bombardment would support the attacks. From positions behind the large grassy strip west of Entrance Creek, eight 81-mm. mortars would fire on the village. The troops of Company F, 128th Infantry, from their positions on the west side of the Girua River, would fire upon it with two 81-mm. mortars, a 37-mm. gun, and an assortment of light and heavy machine guns.
Colonel Grose went to the front early on the morning of 5 December. After getting the men into line and making a final check of their positions, he returned to his CP about 1015 to find both General Eichelberger and General Waldron there. A number of other officers were present including
Colonel DeGraaf, Colonel Rogers, Colonel McCreary, Colonel Tomlinson, Lt. Col. Merle H. Howe, the division G-3, and General Eichelberger’s aide, Captain Edwards. The attack had opened at 1000 with a raid on the mission by nine B-25’s. Eichelberger and his party were briefed on how the action was progressing and then went forward to observe the fighting.
After the B-25’s hit the target area, the artillery and the mortars began firing on the village. At 1030 the fire ceased, and the infantry moved forward. The Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, attacked along the east bank of the Girua River. On its right Companies E and G attacked abreast, with Company H supporting the attack with fire. Pivoting short from the line of departure, the units fanned out against the enemy perimeter, and Companies E and G in the center hit directly against the village.19
The Japanese commander in the area, Navy Captain Yosuda, had a few hundred men in the village—enough for his immediate purpose. With the help of the bunkers, barricades, and trenches available to his men, he could count on holding the village for some time, even though it was his least defensible position.20
The attack met strong opposition. On the far left the Cannon Company ran into heavy fire when it emerged onto an open space south of the village. The company sent out patrols to flank the enemy, the mortar men on the west side of the Girua River began firing on the village to relieve the pressure, and a platoon of Company F, 126th Infantry, under 1st Lt. Paul L. Schwartz, moved in to reinforce the Cannon Company. None of these measures worked. The enemy fire continued, and the company could not advance.
Late in the afternoon Maj. Chester M. Beaver of the divisional staff took over command of the company. Organizing a patrol with Lieutenant Schwartz as his second-in-command, Beaver managed to clear out the enemy positions immediately to the front and then crawled through muck to bring his patrol to a point just outside the village. Beaver and Schwartz had to withdraw when night fell, but by the following morning the Cannon Company and the Company F platoon were on the outskirts of the village, the position they had tried in vain to reach the day before.21
Company E, under Captain Schultz, also met tough opposition from the entrenched enemy. By dint of hard fighting, the line moved forward until it reached the Japanese main line of resistance about fifty yards from the village. There the advance was stopped completely, and the troops had to dig in.
That the company pushed even that far in the face of the heavy enemy fire was due principally to the able leadership of two platoon leaders, 1st Lt. Thomas E. Knode and 1st Sgt. Paul R. Lutjens, who were severely wounded as they led their men in
the day’s fighting. The combat performance of a member of Lutjens’ platoon, Sgt. Harold E. Graber, had also helped to push the line forward. When the platoon was pinned down, Sergeant Graber leaped to his feet, fired his light machine gun from the hip, and cleaned out a main Japanese strongpoint which had been holding up the advance—an act that cost him his life.22
Company G, under Captain Bailey, was also finding it difficult to make any progress. Disappointed that the attack had bogged down just outside the village, General Eichelberger took direct control of operations. He called Grose forward to the observation post and sent Colonel Tomlinson back to the command post. Then he ordered Company F to pass through Company E and take the village. Colonel Grose immediately protested the order. Instead of committing Company F, his last reserve, to the center of the line, Grose had hoped to use it at a more propitious moment on the left. He told General Eichelberger that there was nothing to be gained by hurrying the attack, that it was the kind of attack that might take “a day or two,” but General Eichelberger had apparently set his heart on taking Buna Village that day and overruled his protest.23
Summoned to the observation post, 1st Lt. Robert H. Odell, who had taken command of Company F a few days before, was, as he put it, “surprised to see a couple of generals—one a three star—in addition to the usual array of majors and colonels.” To continue in Odell’s own words,
The Lieutenant General explained what he wanted, and after a brief delay, I brought up the company and deployed accordingly. Pravda [1st Sgt. George Pravda] was to take half the company up one side of the trail, and I the other half on the other side. We were given ten minutes to make our reconnaissance and to gather information from the most forward troops which we were to pass. It was intended that we finish the job—actually take the Village—and [it was thought] that we needed little more than our bayonets to do it. Well, off we went, and within a few minutes our rush forward had been definitely and completely halted. Of the 40 men who started with me, 4 had been (known) killed, and 18 were lying wounded. We were within a few yards of the village, but with ... no chance of going a step further. ... [Pravda] was among the wounded, and casualties were about as heavy on his side.24
Scarcely had Company F’s attack in the center been brought to a halt when electrifying news was received from Captain Bailey on the right. Instead of continuing the profitless attack directly on the village, a platoon of Company H under S. Sgt. Herman J. F. Bottcher, which had been attached to Company G, had pushed north from its position on the far right. Knocking out several pillboxes en route, Bottcher had successfully crossed a creek under enemy fire and by late afternoon had reached the beach with eighteen men and one machine gun. Bottcher, an experienced soldier who had served with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, ordered his men to dig in at once on the edge of the beach. Attacks followed
from both the village and the mission, but Bottcher and his riflemen, with Bottcher himself at the machine gun, made short work of the enemy. The beach on either side of Bottcher’s Corner (as the position came to be known) was soon piled with Japanese corpses, whom neither friend nor foe could immediately bury.25
Bottcher’s break-through completed the isolation of the village. The Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, less Bottcher’s platoon, were now pressed tightly against its inner defenses, and the troops at Bottcher’s Corner made its reinforcement from the mission extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Colonel Smith’s 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry had meanwhile invested the entire west bank of Entrance Creek except for the Coconut Grove. It was now in position to reduce the grove as well. With the village cut off and Entrance Creek outposted along its entire length, the early fall of the village was assured, provided the Japanese did not in the meantime succeed in their attempts to evict the attackers, particularly those at Bottcher’s Corner.26
With Colonel Howe, his G-3, General Waldron had been pushing the assault personally in the right center of the line. During Company F’s attack he received a shoulder wound and had to be evacuated. On General Eichelberger’s orders, General Byers, his chief of staff, succeeded Waldron as commander of the troops at the front.27 Colonel Bradley, whom General Waldron had chosen to be his chief of staff, continued to serve in the same capacity under General Byers. Colonel McCreary, for two days commander of Urbana Force, and before that deputy to General Waldron when the latter was division artillery commander, took command of the artillery and mortars on the Urbana front.28
General Eichelberger and his party departed for the rear about 1800, less Captain Edwards who had been wounded and evacuated earlier in the day. Colonel Grose was left to reorganize. While he had not taken kindly to the way General Eichelberger had thrown Company F into the battle against his protest, Grose had nothing but praise for the way the troops had performed. “The battalion’s men,” he wrote that night in his diary, “have been courageous and willing, but they have been pushed almost beyond the limit of human endurance.” They were, he continued, “courageous, fine
men,” and all of them had given him “the utmost cooperation.”29
Although the troops had not taken the village, General Eichelberger, who, with members of his staff, had taken a personal hand in the battle, had revised the opinion he expressed on 2 December that they lacked fight. Writing to General Sutherland the next day, Eichelberger noted that the troops had fought hard, that morale had been high, and that there had been “much to be proud of during the day’s operations.” General Herring, he said, had praised the bravery of the 32nd Division highly. As far as he personally was concerned, Eichelberger went on, General MacArthur could begin to stop worrying about its conduct in battle.30
Colonel Martin Softens Up the Enemy Line
The New Tactics
The complete failure on 5 December of the attack on the Warren front had satisfied General Eichelberger that the enemy line was too strong to be breached by frontal assault. In the course of a conversation held two days earlier with General Herring at Dobodura, he had learned that he could very shortly expect the arrival of tanks and fresh Australian troops for action on his side of the river. He decided therefore to try no more all-out frontal assaults on the Warren front until he had received the tanks and the promised reinforcements. Meanwhile he intended to do everything possible to weaken the enemy line.31
General Herring had suggested late on 5 December that Eichelberger try pushing forward on the Warren front by concentrating on the destruction of individual pillboxes and machine gun nests which lay in the way. This job, General Eichelberger assured Port Moresby the next day, he had “already decided to do.” Since the Japanese line on that front had been found to be very strong, he added, he would make the main effort for the time being on the left, “while containing the Japanese on [the] right.”32 Instead of making frontal infantry assaults, which had gotten Warren Force nowhere, the troops now were to soften up the enemy line by attrition and infiltration, and to make the final break-through with the tanks when they arrived.
General Eichelberger’s orders to Colonel Martin were therefore to have his men begin vigorous patrolling in order to locate and pinpoint the individual enemy positions. As soon as they located an enemy strongpoint, they were to destroy it. The troops were to move forward by infiltration, and not by frontal assault. On 7 December Colonel Martin explained the new tactics to his battalion commanders. There were to be no more all-out attacks. Instead there was to be constant patrolling by small groups. After the artillery had worked over the enemy emplacements, the patrols were to knock them out one at a time, with mortar, grenade, and rifle. They were to subject the enemy line to constant probing. Instead of rushing ahead, they were to feel their way forward. Every
effort was to be made meanwhile to make the men comfortable. They were to be given their pack rolls if they wanted them, fed hot food, and allowed to rest.33
Intense patrolling became the order of the day on the Warren front. The 37-mm. guns and mortars fired on the bunkers as they were located, and the artillery, aided by Wirraways now based at Dobodura, joined in. But the 37-mm. guns and the mortars were too light to have much effect on the bunkers, and the 3.7-inch mountain howitzers and the 25-pounders using high explosive shells with superquick fuse proved little more effective. Because it had a higher angle of fire and its shells had delay fuses, the 105-mm. howitzer was much better suited to the task, and soon proved itself to be the only weapon on the front which was effective against the enemy bunkers. By comparison, the 25-pounder with its flatter trajectory had only a limited usefulness. Not only was it often unable to clear the trees, but it could not drop its projectiles on the bunkers as could the 105.34 General Waldron put the matter in a sentence. “The 25 pounders,” he said, “annoyed the Japanese, and that’s about all.”35
The 105-mm. howitzer could have been even more effective had it been properly supplied with ammunition. But shells for it were very slow in coming forward. After having fired the initial few hundred rounds with which it reached the front, the 105 had to remain silent for days. On 6 December the I Corps ordnance officer at Port Moresby wrote to the front as follows: “I’ve been burning the air waves since 2 December to have 800 rounds of 105-mm. ammunition flown [to you]. The stuff has been at Brisbane airdrome since the night of 3 December. ... The General asked for 100 rounds per day for 10 days starting 5 December, and there isn’t a single damned round here.”36
Ammunition for the 105 finally began reaching the front during the second week in December, and then (apparently because of the priority situation) only in small amounts. Thus, for much of the time when it could have done most good, the 105 stood useless while artillery pieces less suited to the task tried vainly to deal with the Japanese bunker defenses.37
Colonel Martin wanted to move up a few of the artillery pieces for direct fire on the bunkers, but Warren Force had too few guns on hand to risk any of them so far forward. The arrival by sea on 8 December of two more 25-pounders then made it possible to shift the pieces. The two 25-pounders were emplaced just north of Hariko, and the O’Hare Troop (the three 3.7-inch howitzers of the 1st Australian Mountain Battery at Hariko) took up a new position about one mile below the bridge between the strips, completing the move on 11 December. Even though the howitzers at once
began hitting Japanese positions behind both strips with greater effect than before, they were still able to make no apparent impression on the Japanese line, so well was the enemy entrenched.38
Throughout the battle the enemy had been achieving excellent results with grenade launchers. Impressed by their effectiveness the troops on the Warren front found time during this period of attritional warfare to experiment with rifle grenades. The experiments were conducted with Australian grenades since no American grenades were available. Using Australian rifles the men found the few grenades on hand very effective. The small supply soon ran out, however, and they received no more during the campaign.39
The situation on Colonel Carrier’s front during this period was one of unrelieved hardship.
The positions occupied by the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry [General Martin recalls], were almost unbearably hot in the day time as the tropical sun broiled down, the grass shut off all air, and held in the steaming heat. Due to enemy observation any daylight movement among the forward positions had to be by crawling which added to the misery from the heat. There were cases of heat exhaustion daily, and some of the company commanders strongly urged the battalion commander to permit the troops to withdraw about 300 yards in day time to positions where there was shade, and reoccupy the forward positions at night.
Martin overruled these requests. He felt that to allow daily withdrawals would contribute nothing to the harassing and softening up of the enemy, “would be psychologically bad” for the troops, and “would hurt the rebuilding of their offensive spirit.”40
The infantry attackers made few gains anywhere along the Warren front. Colonel Carrier’s troops met repeated setbacks in their efforts to cross the bridge between the strips, and the forces under Colonel Miller and Colonel McCoy moved ahead only a few yards.41 The fighting had settled down to a siege.
With the fall of Gona, it became clear that the enemy’s beachhead garrison could no longer be supplied easily by sea. But the Japanese could still use the air lanes. On 10 December twenty medium naval bombers flew nonstop from Rabaul and dropped food and ammunition onto the Old Strip. This flight was the second—and last—air supply mission ordered by the enemy headquarters at Rabaul.42
On the same day, the 10th, Major Harcourt’s 2/6 Independent Company was returned to the 7th Division, and there were other changes on the Warren front. The three battalion commanders had begun showing signs of wear. When Colonel Carrier, who was suffering from angina pectoris, had to be evacuated on 13 December, General Eichelberger decided the time had come to change the other battalion commanders. Major Beaver replaced Colonel Carrier in command of the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry. Maj. Gordon Clarkson of I Corps took
command of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, in place of Colonel McCoy, who returned to division headquarters. Colonel MacNab, executive officer of Warren Force under General MacNider, Colonel Hale, and Colonel Martin, successively, changed places with Colonel Miller to take command of the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, and Miller became executive officer to Colonel Martin.43
The attritional type of warfare ordered on the Warren front did not advance the line much, but the relentless pounding by the mortars and artillery and the sharp probing forays of the infantry were having exactly the effect intended by General Eichelberger—wearing the enemy down physically and softening up his defenses for the final knockout blow.
Urbana Force Makes Its First Gains
The Capture of Buna Village
Though relative quiet had descended on the Warren front, bitter fighting had continued almost without cease on the Urbana front. The Japanese in the village were virtually surrounded. Fire was hitting them frontally and from across Buna Creek, but they held their positions with extreme tenacity, and it began to look as if it would be necessary to root them out of their bunkers individually as had been the case at Gona.
The 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, was reorganized on 6 December. Colonel Grose had been promised command of the 127th Infantry, which was then on its way to the front, and left the reorganization to Colonel Tomlinson and Major Smith. He himself attended to supply matters and to the readjustment of the positions held by the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, on the right. Feeling that it was really Colonel Tomlinson’s command and that there was no use in having two regimental commanders at the front, Colonel Grose asked General Byers when the latter visited him that afternoon that Colonel Tomlinson be given the command. Byers agreed. Grose returned to the rear, and Tomlinson (who formally took command the next day) went on with preparations for an attack scheduled to be launched the next morning.44
The attack was to have better artillery support than before, with all the guns east of the river scheduled to go into action,45 and the mortars also were to be used more effectively than before. Finding that the infantry could not control their mortar fire in the dense jungle, Colonel McCreary adopted an innovation in the use of mortars, based on artillery practice. He consolidated the seventeen available 81-mm. mortars on his front into one unit, made a fire direction chart from a vertical photograph, and by observation and mathematical calculation fixed the position of the mortars in relation to the Japanese positions. He formed the mortars into three batteries, two
of six guns, and one of five guns. After adjusting the mortars and training the crews in artillery methods, he spent “the next two days 60 feet up in a tree less than 200 yards from the Jap forward elements, throwing hammer blow after hammer blow (all guns firing at once fairly concentrated) on the strong localities, searching through Buna Village.”46
The attack was to be mounted by the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, less the troops at Bottcher’s Corner. Companies E and G were to attack on right and left, and the weapons crews of Company H, would support the attack by fire from a position to the right of Company G. The troops at Bottcher’s Corner would hold where they were, and Company F would be available as required for the reinforcement of the other companies. The Cannon Company, 128th Infantry, now in regimental reserve, would take up a holding position in the area immediately below Musita Island, and the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, would continue to hold on the 126th Infantry’s right.
The strike against the village was to be in the early afternoon of 7 December, but the Japanese moved first. At 0600 in the morning, they attacked the troops at Bottcher’s Corner from both the village and the mission, but Bottcher’s machine gun and the rifle fire of his troops (reinforced by a fresh platoon from Company H) broke up the attack.47 Urbana Force telephoned the following description of the action: “Bottcher opened fire on the Buna Mission force first, stopping that attack. He then turned his gun on the Buna Village force, and stopped that attack. During the attack, Bottcher was shot in the hand. He was given first aid treatment, and is now commanding his gun.”48
The story might have had a different ending had it not been for the alertness of Cpl. Harold L. Mitchell of Company H, who had joined Bottcher’s little force the previous day. Acting as a forward outpost, Mitchell detected the enemy force from the village while it was creeping forward under cover of the jungle. Just as it was about to launch its attack, he charged at the Japanese suddenly with a loud yell and bayonet fixed. Mitchell so surprised and dumbfounded them that instead of continuing with the attack they hesitated and momentarily fell back. His yell alerted the rest of the force, with the result that when the Japanese finally did attack they were cut down. Mitchell escaped without a scratch.49
The flurry at Bottcher’s Corner over, Companies E and G jumped off at 1335 after a fifteen-minute artillery and mortar preparation. They met heavy opposition and made little headway against an enemy that held with fanatic determination. To encourage his troops in their attempts to advance, Major Smith moved to the most exposed forward positions. Less than an hour after the attack began he was severely wounded. Captain Boice, the regimental S-2, who had made the first reconnaissance
of the trail to Jaure, immediately replaced him as battalion commander.50
The attack made no progress whatever. At 1430 Company F was committed in support of Company E and Company G, and the remaining platoon under Lieutenant Odell was ordered to Bottcher’s Corner. The line still did not move forward, and the only success of the day—a very modest one—was registered by Odell’s platoon.51
Odell’s orders had been to move onto the fire-swept beach and clear out two suspected enemy outposts: one northwest of Bottcher’s Corner; the other closer to the village. The first outpost gave no trouble—the enemy troops in it were either dead or dying. The second was a different matter. Odell’s platoon, down to a dozen men, began closing in on the objective, when it found itself faced with about fifteen Japanese in a hastily dug trench. As the platoon edged forward, one of the Japanese called out in English that he and his fellows would surrender if the Americans came over to them first. The men (as the battalion journal notes) treated the offer as a “gag.” They stormed the trench and mopped up the Japanese, but heavy fire from the village ultimately drove them back to the Corner.52
The Japanese kept on trying. An attempt that evening by Captain Yasuda to send boats through to the village from his headquarters in the mission was frustrated when Sergeant Bottcher detected the leading barge and set it on fire with his machine gun. The barge was pulled back to the mission, a blazing hulk. After that rebuff the Japanese made no further attempts to send boats to the village.53
On 8 December the companies attacked again. Artillery, mortars, and machine guns opened up at 1400, and the troops started moving forward at 1415. Colonel McCreary’s mortars laid down fire as close as fifty yards to the front of the battalion’s advance elements, but the Japanese line still held, and the attack was beaten off once again.
The day was marked by a futile attempt to burn out a main Japanese bunker position on the southern edge of the village which had resisted capture for several days. The bunker was on the corner of a kunai flat, with dense jungle and swamp to the rear. It could neither be taken by frontal assault nor flanked. Two primitive flame throwers had reached the front that day, and one of them was immediately pressed into use. Covered by the fire of twenty men, the operator managed to get within thirty feet of the enemy without being detected. Then he stepped into the open and turned on his machine. All that came out of it was a ten or fifteen-foot dribble of flame which set the grass on fire and did not even come near the Japanese position. The operator, two of the men covering him, as well as the chemical officer in charge, were killed. The operation, as reported to Port Moresby that night, had been a complete “fizzle.”54
The same evening Captain Yasuda made his last diversion in favor of the beleaguered troops in the village. While the Japanese in the village counterattacked on the left with about forty men, a second force of between seventy-five and a hundred men
moved from the mission by way of the island and hit the right flank of the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry. The force from the mission advanced to the attack screaming and yelling, but the battalion’s mortars and machine guns beat it off in short order. “Our heavy weapons quieted them down rather fast,” was the way the battalion journal described the action.55
Colonel McCreary continued his “hammer blows” against the village next day, but the Japanese still held their positions. During the afternoon, 1st Lt. James G. Downer, now commanding Company E, led a patrol against the same bunker position that the flame throwers had failed to reduce the day before. Covered by fire from the rest of the patrol, Downer moved out against the enemy positions alone but was killed by a hidden sniper just before reaching it. Downer’s body was recovered and the fight for the bunker went on. Enemy fire slackened by evening and the bunker finally fell after costing the attackers heavy casualties and several days of effort.56
By this time the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, had launched twelve futile attacks on the village. Its companies had become so understrength that they could do little more than hold their positions. Companies E and F each had less than fifty effectives left, and the whole battalion totaled about 250 men. Its relief had long been overdue, and the task of delivering the final attack on the village went therefore to the fresh 3rd Battalion, 127th Infantry, which together with regimental headquarters had completed its movement to the forward area by air on 9 December.
Colonel Grose, as he had been promised earlier, took over command of the regiment the same day, and Lt. Col. Edwin J. Schmidt, the regimental commander, became his executive officer. On 11 December, Companies I and K, 127th Infantry, relieved Companies E and G, 126th Infantry. Company I took up a position at Bottcher’s Corner between the village and the mission, and the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, moved into a reserve area along the supply trail.57
Companies I and K began probing the Japanese line at once. They made small gains on the 12th and consolidated them. On the 13th the village was subjected to heavy fire from the 25-pounders at Ango, and a heavy mortar concentration was laid down in preparation for a final assault the next day. The Japanese—by that time down to about 100 men—apparently had a premonition of what was coming. They evacuated the village that night and made for Giruwa. Most of them appear to have gotten through.58
Early the next morning, 14 December, a
thorough preparation by 25-pounders and mortars was put down on the village. Leaving a small holding force at the corner, Company K moved forward against the village at 0700. Company I was in support on Company K’s left flank, and one of its platoons covered Company K’s left rear. The advance continued steadily and cautiously. There was no opposition. By 1000 the entire area was overrun. Moving slowly and warily because they feared a trap, the troops soon discovered that none existed. They found no Japanese anywhere in the village. After all the bitter fighting that had raged on the outskirts, the village had fallen without the firing of a single enemy shot.59
The village was a mass of wreckage. Its few huts had been blown to bits; the coconut palms in the area were splintered and broken by shellfire; and there were craters and shell holes everywhere. The bunkers still stood, despite evidence of numerous direct hits registered upon them by the artillery. The Japanese had left little equipment and food behind: a few guns, some discarded clothing, a supply of canned goods, and a store of medical supplies.60
Thus anticlimactically had Urbana Force taken its first objective. The Coconut Grove remained as the only position on the left bank of Entrance Creek still in Japanese hands. This labyrinth of trenches and bunkers was next.
The Reduction of the Coconut Grove
Lt. Col. Herbert A. Smith, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, had been told by General Byers a few days before that he would be called upon to take the Coconut Grove when Buna Village fell. Smith and his executive officer, Maj. Roy F. Zinser, lost no time therefore in preparing a plan for its reduction. Since the jungle fronting the grove was split by an open grassy area, the plan called for one company of the battalion to attack on the right under Smith and a second company to attack on the left under Zinser, whose unit was to make the main effort.
About 1300 on 15 December General Byers came to Colonel Smith’s CP, west of the grove, and told him he was to attack at once. Smith’s battalion numbered about 350 men at the time, but they were scattered along a 1,750-yard front all the way from the apex of the Triangle and along the left bank of Entrance Creek to a point just below Musita Island. Not counting a platoon of heavy machine guns from Company H which was to play a supporting role, Smith had less than 100 men immediately available for the attack: about 40 men from Company E; about 20 men from a Company F platoon; 15 or 20 men from Battalion Headquarters Company; and about 15 men from the Regimental Cannon Company who happened to be in the immediate area. Smith requested more troops, and specifically asked for the rest of Company F, which was then in the Siwori Village area protecting the left flank. General Byers found it impossible to give Smith the men he asked for, and the attack was ordered to begin at 1500 with those he had available.
Smith divided his available strength in half. He gave Zinser the platoon of Company F, most of the troops from Battalion Headquarters Company, and a few men from the Cannon Company detachment. He himself took Company E and a few men
from each of the other units. The two forces moved out quickly to their respective points of departure. At 1510, with the troops in position and ready to go, Colonel McCreary’s mortars opened up on the grove.61
The mortar preparation, about 100 rounds in all, hit the target area but had little effect. As one who was there recalls, it merely “blew a little dirt from the Japanese emplacements.” At 1520 the mortars ceased firing, and the troops moved out on right and left with the help of fire from the platoon of Company H.62
The Japanese had the approaches to the grove covered and laid down heavy fire on the attackers. Progress was slow, but Colonel Smith’s forces were pressed up tight against their objective by nightfall. A heavy rain fell during the night, drenching the troops and filling their foxholes with water.63
Zinser’s force took the initiative next morning. Running into a particularly troublesome bunker, it pressed into use a flame thrower of the same type that had worked so badly the week before in front of Buna Village. The result was the same: the flame thrower “fizzed out and Japanese shot it up.”64
After reducing this position with grenades and small arms fire, the troops on the left discovered a very large bunker which commanded the American approaches to the grove. Since the enemy strongpoint was accessible to both of them, the two forces began converging on it from right and left, clearing out intermediate obstacles as they went. In this fighting Major Zinser demonstrated conspicuous leadership, but it fell to two men of Company E on the right—Cpl. Daniel F. Rini and Pvt. Bernardino Y. Estrada—to clear out the main position. Rini and Estrada, members of the same squad, had been in the forefront of the company’s advance. The climax came when Rini, covered by Estrada’s BAR, got close enough to the main bunker to jump on top and knock it out.
That morning Colonel Smith had been watching Rini and Estrada from a position thirty or forty yards behind them, occasionally helping them with fire. Just as Rini reached the bunker, Smith was called to the phone tied to a tree about twenty-five yards to the rear to talk to Colonel Tomlinson. He had scarcely lifted the receiver when he heard shouting from the direction of the main bunker.
I sensed [he recalls] that this was probably the break we were looking for, so I told Colonel Tomlinson that I must get forward and see what was happening. I arrived just in time to see Corporal Rini on top of the big bunker and the rest of the squad closing in on it. Later I learned that Rini, after working up as close as he could, had suddenly made a dash, jumped on top of the bunker, and leaning over had pushed hand grenades through the firing slits.65
Realizing that he would have to move fast to take full advantage of this turn in the fighting, Colonel Smith ordered all-out attacks on the remaining enemy positions. Charging at the head of a squad, Smith cleared out a bunker in the center, and Capt. Joseph M. Stehling of Company E did the same in an attack on his right. The bunkers fell in quick succession, but Corporal Rini and Private Estrada were both
killed in the mop-up which their valor had made possible. Rini was shot by a wounded Japanese to whom he was trying to administer first aid, and Estrada fell not long after while helping to clear the last enemy position in the grove.66
The fighting was over by noon. Thirty-seven Japanese were buried by the following day, and more were found and buried subsequently. The cost to the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry, was four killed and thirteen wounded.
Booty included 2,000 pounds of rice and oatmeal, a number of kegs of malt and barley, a quantity of small arms, several light machine guns, and a hut full of ammunition. One wounded Japanese sergeant was taken prisoner.67
As soon as the grove was captured, Colonel Smith sent patrols over a footbridge built by the Japanese across Entrance Creek and the Ango-Buna track bridge. Though the latter span lacked flooring, its piling and stringers were still intact. The patrols met no opposition, and two heavy machine guns were immediately emplaced covering the approaches to the bridges. Late in the afternoon, while the engineers were repairing the track bridge, an enemy attempt to mass troops in the Government Gardens, presumably for an attack on the newly won beachhead east of Entrance Creek, was frustrated by fire from the heavy machine guns both east and west of the creek.68
General Eichelberger wrote General Sutherland that night that he was “delighted” with the way Colonel Smith’s battalion had performed in the day’s fighting. The battalion was now “high” in his favor, Colonel Smith had “developed into quite a fighter,” and the men had “a high morale.” “As a matter of fact,” he added, “the boys are coming to life all along the line.”69
The Scene Brightens
The Situation: Mid-December
General Eichelberger was right. Despite considerable losses, widespread sickness, and severe physical discomforts, the troops were giving an increasingly good account of themselves. By 11 December, after having been in action for only twenty-one days, the two task forces east of the Girua River had lost 667 killed, wounded, and missing, and 1,260 evacuated sick.70 Troop morale had touched bottom during the first week in December and had stayed there for a few days after. By mid-month, however, a distinct improvement had become manifest. A report on morale in the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, submitted to Colonel Martin on 13 December, noted that the men were tired and feverish, that their physical coordination was poor, that they complained of the
food and of the difficulty of getting rest at night. The same report nevertheless commented that their “spirits” had “livened-up” considerably during the preceding few days.71
There were good reasons for the upswing in morale. The fact that the troops had by this time learned their business had a great deal to do with it. More food and rest, the arrival of the 127th Infantry, the victories on the Urbana front, the receipt of mail for the first time since the campaign began, and the knowledge that tanks and fresh Australian troops were coming had boosted morale still further.
The supply situation was improving. More luggers were becoming available, and General Johns of the Combined Operational Service Command (COSC) had already decided to send large freighters into Oro Bay. The airlift was beginning to bring in truly impressive tonnages. On 14 December, for example, the air force in seventy-four individual flights between Port Moresby and the airfields at Dobodura and Popondetta brought in 178 tons of high-priority matériel. This was a maximum effort that was never equaled during the rest of the campaign, but it indicated what the air force could do when it extended itself and the weather was favorable.72
The rapidly growing airlift, the opening of a fourth field at Dobodura, regular nightly deliveries by the luggers, and the completion by the engineers of additional jeep trails to the front had done more than merely make good the supply shortages that had so long afflicted the 32nd Division. They had made it possible for the first time to begin stockpiling food and ammunition for a sustained offensive effort.73
There were other improvements. The sound-power telephone, pressed into use at this time for fire control purposes, was proving itself highly efficient within a two-mile range, and the introduction of the new 4-inch-to-1-mile Buna Map, in place of the improvised Buna Target Plan No. 24, was already paying the troops dividends. With a more accurate base map, improved communications with the forward observers, and observation from the air, the artillery was beginning to give an even better account of itself. From time to time, it was executing fire missions on bunkers adjacent to the bridge between the strips, and on those flanking the dispersal bays off the northeastern end of the New Strip. It was laying down harassing fire on the enemy front and rear. Direct hits were chipping away at the bunkers, but except in the case of the 105-mm. howitzer, using shells with delayed fuses, artillery had little effect on the enemy bunker positions.74
On the more strongly defended Warren front what was needed, in addition to more effective artillery support, was special equipment for the reduction of bunkers. Such equipment—routine later on—was simply
not to be had at Buna. It was expected that the tanks, when they finally reached the front, would make up for these deficiencies.
The Arrival of the Australians
Early on 7 December General Herring and his chief of staff, Brig. R. N. L. Hopkins, visited General Eichelberger’s headquarters at Henahamburi to make arrangements for the reception of the Australian troops and tanks that General Eichelberger had been promised on 3 December. General Blamey had chosen Brig. George F. Wootten of the 18th Brigade (then still at Milne Bay) to command the incoming Australian force. General Eichelberger at once offered to put Wootten in command of Warren Force with Colonel Martin as second-in-command—an offer which General Herring promptly accepted.75
General Blamey had discussed the matter with General MacArthur the day before. The two commanders had agreed that the operation would require at least a battalion of troops from Milne Bay and a suitable number of tanks from Port Moresby. Since General Blamey did not have enough small ships to move the battalion, he asked General MacArthur to prevail upon the Navy (which up to that time had been unwilling to send its ships into the waters around Buna) to provide corvettes or destroyers to get the troops forward. On 8 December—the same day that Brigadier Wootten was ordered to report to General Blamey at Port Moresby—the Navy agreed to provide three corvettes for the purpose, and New Guinea Force issued its first orders relating to the movement the following day.76
The orders provided that one troop (four tanks) of the 2/6 Australian Armored Regiment at Port Moresby, and the 2/9 Australian Infantry Battalion at Milne Bay, were to be sent to Buna. The tanks were to go forward in the Dutch ship Karsik, a 3,300-ton, four-hatch freighter of the K.P.M. Line; the Australian corvettes Colac, Ballarat, and Broome were to carry the troops. The Karsik was to pick up supplies and ammunition at Milne Bay before moving on to Oro Bay where it was to be unloaded on the night of 11–12 December. The three corvettes would touch at Milne Bay on the 12th. After taking on brigade headquarters and the 2/9 Battalion, they would make a speedy run northward and rendezvous the same night off Soena Plantation just below Cape Sudest with landing craft from Porlock Harbor which were to ferry the troops and their equipment ashore.77
Brigadier Wootten reported to General Blamey on 10 December and received his instructions. Blamey had decided by that time to send another troop of tanks and another infantry battalion to Buna. Of Brigadier Wootten’s two remaining battalions, the 2/10th was at Wanigela and Porlock Harbor, and the 2/12th was at Goodenough Island. Blamey therefore intended to draw the additional battalion from the 7th Brigade, which was still at
Milne Bay. However, at Brigadier Wootten’s request, the 2/10 Battalion, the 18th Brigade unit at Wanigela and Porlock Harbor, was substituted. This change in plan made it necessary to move the battalion of the 7th Brigade to Wanigela and Porlock Harbor before the 2/10 Battalion could be sent forward to Buna. The change-over began immediately in order to permit the 2/10 Battalion to reach Buna by the night of 17–18 December.78
Brigadier Wootten flew to Popondetta at dawn the next morning, 11 December. After conferring with General Herring and Brigadier Hopkins, he and Hopkins flew to Dobodura where they met General Eichelberger. Wootten spent the afternoon reconnoitering the Warren front, and that night, while he slept at General Eichelberger’s headquarters, the Karsik came into Oro Bay.
The Karsik had in its hold four light American M3 tanks (General Stuarts) belonging to the 2/6 Australian Armored Regiment. It carried also a seven-day level of supply for the 2/9 Battalion. Maj. Carroll K. Moffatt, an American infantry officer serving with the COSC, supervised the unloading. He had just reached the area from Milne Bay with six Higgins boats (LCVP’s) and two Australian barges, the first Allied landing craft to reach the combat zone. The actual unloading was done by troops of the 287th U.S. Port Battalion who had come in on the Karsik. They did the job quickly, and the ship got away safely before daylight. The tanks were transferred to specially constructed barges (which had reached the area a few days before), towed to shore, unloaded, and hidden in the jungle. They were reloaded on the barges the next night and then towed by luggers to Boreo. There they were landed, run into the jungle, and hidden at a tank lying-up point a few hundred yards north of the village.
Brigade headquarters, the 2/9 Battalion, and the commanding officer of the 2/10 Battalion (who had flown in from Wanigela the night before) left in the Colac, Broome, and Ballarat early on 12 December. Traveling at high speed, the ships reached the rendezvous point off Cape Sudest late that night to find Major Moffatt and the eight landing craft waiting for them.
Unloading began at once, but scarcely had the first seventy-five men, including the two battalion commanders, stepped into the two leading LCVPs when the captain of the Ballarat, the senior officer in charge of the corvettes, learned that a “large” Japanese naval force, was moving on Buna from Rabaul. He immediately pulled the corvettes back to Porlock Harbor with the rest of the troops still aboard.79
The two loaded landing craft let the troops off at Boreo, and all eight craft made for the Oro Bay area, their hiding place during the day. Just before they reached it, they were bombed by patrolling Australian aircraft, which mistook them for Japanese—an understandable error since the pilots had not been told to look out for Allied landing craft, and the Allies had up to that time had no landing craft of any
kind in the area. One LCVP was sunk, and another had to be beached, a total loss. Nine crew members were wounded, and one died before he could reach a hospital.80 The corvettes returned the following night. Instead of rendezvousing with the landing craft off Cape Sudest as planned, the corvettes landed the troops at Oro Bay, a full day’s march away. The Japanese naval force was still in the area and unaccounted for, and the corvettes had no intention of running into it, especially with troops aboard.
The Australian troops reached Hariko the following night. The next morning—15 December—they moved up to their permanent bivouac area about a mile north of Boreo and a quarter-mile inland. That night the Karsik came in again to Oro Bay, with 100 tons of cargo and a second troop of tanks. As in the case of the first tank
movement, the four tanks were put aboard barges, towed to Boreo, unloaded, and moved up the beach to the tank park. With the first four tanks they were organized into a composite unit: X Squadron of the 2/6 Armored Regiment.81
On 16 December Advance New Guinea Force moved to Dobodura from Popondetta. General Byers was wounded while in the front lines during the attack on the Coconut Grove, and General Eichelberger, as the only U.S. general officer present, took command of the American forces at the front.82 The next day, 17 December, after consulting with General Eichelberger, Brigadier Wootten took over command of the Warren front, and Buna Force set 18 December as D Day.83
General MacArthur had been urging General Eichelberger to speed his preparations,84 and Eichelberger had done his best to comply. The attack General MacArthur had asked for was now ready. Warren Force was to move out on the 18th with tanks; its successive objectives were Duropa Plantation and Cape Endaiadere (including a bridgehead across the mouth of Simemi Creek), the New Strip, and the Old Strip. Urbana Force was to attack on the 19th—D plus 1. It was to storm the Triangle, cut through to the coast, and seize the track junction between Buna Mission and Giropa Point, thereby isolating the one from the other, and exposing both to attack on their inward flanks.85 Captain Yasuda and Colonel Yamamoto were now each faced with a double envelopment, and both were about to be caught in a pincers from which there was no escape.