Chapter 14: Warren Force Takes the Initiative
On 18 December, the day appointed for the tank-infantry attack in the Duropa Plantation-New Strip area, New Guinea Force ordered the construction of a road from Oro Bay to the airfields at Dobodura. Engineer troops to build the road and port detachment troops to operate the port left Gili Gili for Oro Bay the same day in the K.P.M. ship Japara.1 Such a road, in conjunction with the port, would make it possible to base bomber and fighter aircraft north of the Owen Stanley Range for the first time. It would serve to seal off Port Moresby from attack and help write the doom of the Japanese garrisons in the Huon Peninsula. The establishment of the port and the construction of the road—prerequisites to the enjoyment by the Southwest Pacific Area of the fruits of victory at Buna—were, in short, being undertaken even as the victory was being won. With tanks finally on hand for the reduction of the Japanese positions in the Duropa Plantation and behind the New Strip, that victory could not be far off.
The Advance to Simemi Creek
Preparing the Tank Attack
As General Harding had concluded in November when he first asked for tanks, the Australian tank men found the plantation area and the New Strip entirely suitable for tank action. The plan of attack on the Warren front therefore called for the main body of the tank squadron, closely followed by two companies of the 2/9 Battalion, to attack in the Duropa Plantation, straight up the coast to Cape Endaiadere. The 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, was to mop up immediately to the rear. After taking the cape, the attackers would then wheel west to the line of Simemi Creek and emerge on the enemy’s rear by securing a bridgehead across the creek near its mouth. The New Strip would be attacked simultaneously from south and east. The 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, was to move on the bridge between the strips from its position immediately to the south of it. Preceded by the rest of the tanks and supported by the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, another company from the 2/9 Battalion would meanwhile attack at the eastern end of the strip, cut through the dispersal bays, and advance on the bridge between the strips via the northern edge of the New Strip. (Map 13)
A heavy artillery and mortar preparation was to precede the attack. Augmenting the 105-mm. howitzer south of Ango, the 25 pounders on either flank, and the two 3.7 inch mountain guns just below the western end of the New Strip, at least one 25 pounder was to be moved up close to the dispersal bays at its eastern end in order to
bring the bunkers in that area under direct fire. The 2/10 Battalion (which was expected to arrive on the night of D Day) was to take over the 2/9 Battalion’s bivouac area and be committed to action upon order from Brigadier Wootten.2
At 1800 on the night of the 17th, X Squadron—seven tanks, less one tank in reserve—began moving up to the line of departure. The sound of aircraft was to have covered the rumble of the tanks as they moved up to the starting line, but the planes did not materialize. Instead, the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 128th Infantry, laid down a mortar barrage to drown out the roar of the motors and the clank of the treads. The expedient was successful. Even though the Japanese had patrols very close to the area in which the tanks were arriving, no alarm was aroused.3
The American troops were then pressed up tight against the Japanese line, in most cases less than fifty yards from the nearest enemy bunker. They were to withdraw about 300 yards to the rear, just behind the Australian line of departure that was marked that night with white tape. Thus the attacking Australians and supporting American troops would not be endangered by the close-in artillery and mortar preparation, and both the infantry and the tanks would gain maneuver space in the attack.4
The First Day
The attack went off as planned. Early the following morning between 0600 and 0645 the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 128th Infantry, withdrew quietly 300 yards to their appointed positions. At 0650 Allied air began bombing and strafing, and every artillery piece and mortar on the front opened up on the enemy positions. During this ten-minute preparation the 2/9 Battalion under its commander, Lt. Col. Clement J. Cummings, passed through Colonel MacNab’s and Major Clarkson’s troops and arrived at the taped-out line of departure just forward of the Americans. At 0700 the artillery and mortar barrage ceased, the planes stopped bombing, and the Australians with tanks in the lead moved out.
Three companies of the 2/9th—A, D, and C—were committed to the attack; the remaining company—Company B—was left in reserve. Companies A and D, and five tanks pushed straight north up the coast, on a two-company front. After jumping off with the other companies, Company C spearheaded by two tanks wheeled northwestward and attacked the enemy bunkers in the area off the eastern end of the New Strip. As soon as the Australians had left the line of departure, Colonel MacNab’s and Major Clarkson’s troops began moving forward north and west in support of the attacking Australians. Major Beaver meanwhile kept up a steady pressure on the bridge area at the other end of the strip, supported by fire from
the 3.7-inch mountain guns of the O’Hare Troop.5
Even though the heavy artillery and mortar preparation failed to destroy the enemy bunkers, the coastal attack on Cape Endaiadere was a brilliant success. Taking Colonel Yamamoto’s 144th and 229th Infantry troops completely by surprise, the tanks and the fresh Australian troops advancing behind them made short work of the Japanese positions in the plantation which had so long held up the attack on the coastal flank.
As Colonel MacNab, who was on the scene waiting to go in with his battalion, described it,
The tanks really did that job. They apparently completely demoralized the Japs ... [who] fought like cornered rats when they were forced into the open [as a result of] having their fires masked when the tanks broke through their final protective line. ... There were few holes knocked in the bunkers except where the tanks stood off and blasted them at short range with their 37-mm. guns.6
The two Australian companies took heavy casualties as they overran the successive Japanese positions. Two tanks were lost—one to a Molotov cocktail, and the other when its motor failed as it skirted a burning enemy dump, but so well did the attack go that the Australians had reached the cape within the hour. Without delay they headed west and began moving on the next objective, Strip Point, with the three
remaining tanks. About 500 yards west of Cape Endaiadere they encountered a new enemy line whose bunkers and blockhouses had escaped the artillery bombardment. Here they again met stiff resistance. They fought hard to reduce this new Japanese strongpoint but could advance no farther that day.
Colonel MacNab’s battalion had meanwhile pushed forward. There were more Japanese left in the coastal area than expected, and the opposition was relatively heavy. The battalion finished mopping up by evening and established an all-around defense perimeter in the plantation extending from its former front line to a point just below Cape Endaiadere.
The attack on the enemy positions off the eastern end of the New Strip had not gone as well as that on Cape Endaiadere. Company C, 2/9 Battalion, and the two tanks were stopped in their tracks only a short distance from the line of departure. Reserves were called for. Company B, 2/9 Battalion—Colonel Cummings’ reserve company—was brought up, and the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, was ordered in on both flanks. Despite these reinforcements, the Japanese still held to their positions, and soon put one of the tanks temporarily out of action by damaging its vision slits with machine gun fire.
At 1600 the three tanks from the north flank and the tank that had been in reserve were committed to the action. Again the two Australian companies attacked, supported as before by Major Clarkson’s battalion. After two hours of bitter fighting, they finally overran the strongpoint. It was found to be made up of twenty pillboxes, several of them of concrete and steel construction. Pulling back just in time, the enemy troops less a small rear guard withdrew along the northern edge of the strip to bunkers near the bridge. Their position, as well as that of the engineer and antiaircraft troops whom they reinforced, was now extremely precarious. The whole bridge area and the few still-unreduced bunkers south of the bridge had been under heavy fire during the day from Major Beaver’s mortars, the mountain guns of the O’Hare Troop, and the 105-mm. howitzer south of Ango, which for the first time in the campaign had ammunition to spare.7
The 2/9 Battalion lost 160 men in the day’s fighting 49 killed and 111 wounded—and the tank squadron lost two of its seven tanks, but the day’s gains had been decisive. The enemy’s line in the Duropa Plantation-New Strip area had been broken, and his defenses had been overcome in the area east of Simemi Creek.
As the mopping up proceeded and the construction of the enemy bunkers in the area was examined, it became apparent that infantry, with the weapons and support that the 32nd Division had, could probably never have reduced the enemy line alone. General Eichelberger put his finger squarely on the difficulty in a letter to General Sutherland. “I know General MacArthur will be glad to know,” he wrote, “that we found concrete pillboxes with steel doors, interlocked in such a way that it would have been almost impossible for [infantry] unassisted to get across.” Two days later he made his meaning plainer when, in the course of praising Brigadier Wootten for doing a fine
job, he added, “I am glad he has the tanks to help him. I do not believe he or anyone else would have gone very far without them.”8
The Push Westward
On the evening of 18 December Brigadier Wootten was given permission to use the next day for regrouping his troops, and later the same night the 2/10 Battalion, less two companies, came in from Porlock Harbor by corvette. The incoming troops took over the bivouac area previously occupied by the 2/9 Battalion, and went into brigade reserve.9
The 19th was comparatively quiet. Two Australian 4.5-inch howitzers (the Stokes Troop), which had been flown in on the 18th, went into action south of the O’Hare Troop below the bridge, and several
concentrations were fired during the morning on newly located bunkers in the bridge area.10 The two Australian companies that had been operating off the eastern end of the strip moved north to join the rest of the 2/9 Battalion in front of Strip Point. Then, as Major Clarkson’s troops moved forward along the northern edge of the strip to join Beaver’s men in front of the bridge, the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, faced west, and began moving with the 2/9 toward Simemi Creek, its right flank in contact with the Australian left.11
The corvettes brought in the rest of the 2/10 Battalion from Porlock Harbor that night, and the Japara came into Oro Bay the same night with U.S. troops and cargo. Troop commander on the Japara was Col. Collin S. Myers, who upon arrival became Commander COSC, Oro Bay. The ship carried 750 tons of cargo. Also on board were additional port battalion troops and an advance echelon of the 43rd U.S. Engineers, the unit which was to build the road between Oro Bay and Dobodura.
The Japara had brought in a number of Australian ponton barges for use in unloading operations. The barges were quickly lowered over the side, piled high with cargo, and pushed to shore, where they were subsequently used as a floating dock. Unloading was accomplished in record time, and the Japara was out of harm’s way before daylight.12
Early on 20 December, following a heavy artillery preparation, the 2/9 Battalion with four tanks attacked the enemy positions east of Strip Point. After a fight that lasted all day, the enemy opposition was overcome, and the 2/9 Battalion and units of the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, operating immediately to the south, began moving forward to the right bank of Simemi Creek. Company I, on the far left, ran into a sizable Japanese force before it reached the river bank. A heavy fire fight ensued, but the company, with the aid of Company C, 2/9 Battalion, on its right, cleared out the enemy pocket and pushed on to the bank of the creek. By the end of the day only a small finger of land, extending into the mouth of the creek, remained in enemy hands.
Thus far, the M3 tanks had performed well. West of Strip Point, however, the terrain turned very marshy, and the tanks, fourteen tons dead-weight and never noted for their tractive power, began to bog down. One had to be abandoned, and a second was mired so badly it could not be extricated until the following day when the attack on the Japanese in the finger at the mouth of the creek was resumed.
In the New Strip area the last pocket of Japanese resistance was mopped up on 20 December. The Clarkson and Beaver forces made contact early in the morning and by noon had succeeded in clearing out the last of the enemy bunkers in front of the bridge.
Fighting a skillful delaying action,
Colonel Yamamoto had by this time managed to get the bulk of his remaining troops, mostly from the 229th Infantry, across the creek. They had made the crossing at two principal points. Those who had fought in the New Strip area used the bridge, and those who had survived the Duropa Plantation-Strip Point fighting forded the shallows at the mouth of the creek. Colonel Yamamoto took great pains to guard this crossing, for it was the only place along the entire length of the creek where troops could readily wade over. A Japanese strongpoint on a tiny island at the mouth of the creek was heavily reinforced, and emplacements sited to fire across the shallows were set up on the west bank of the creek to deal with any attempt by the Allies to cross at that point.13
Crossing the Creek
It was not immediately clear how the Allies were to cross the creek. Tanks could not negotiate the shallows, and an attempt to have troops attack in that area would cost many lives. An assault across the bridge, which was 125 feet long and spanned not only the creek but heavy swamp on either side of it, seemed the best solution. But this too presented difficulties since the Japanese had blown a large gap in the bridge and were covering it with several machine guns and forty or fifty riflemen.14
A patrol of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, attempted to cross the bridge just before noon on 20 December. Intense fire drove it off before it could even reach the eastern end.15 Later in the day, a few men of the Ammunition and Pioneer platoon of the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, under their commanding officer, 1st Lt. John E. Sweet, tried to put down a catwalk across the hole in the bridge, under cover of smoke shells from two 37-mm. guns. With two of his men, Sweet moved out in the face of the enemy fire and started laying the catwalk, only to find that it had been cut about six inches too short.16
Seeing the failure of the attempt to close the gap in the bridge, Colonel Martin at once proposed a second attempt, this time
with the aid of one of Brigadier Wootten’s tanks. While the troops were laying the catwalk, Martin suggested, the tank would suddenly engage the enemy bunkers at the other end of the bridge and draw their fire. Brigadier Wootten had other plans for the tanks and the idea was dropped.17
Only one practicable alternative remained: to have troops cross the creek on foot and neutralize the enemy forces at the western end of the bridge when they got there. At best, this would be a difficult feat, since the creek, except at its mouth, was very deep, and the approaches to it were through heavy swamp, full of prickly, closely spaced sago palms eighteen to twenty feet high.18
Ordered by Colonel Martin to find a crossing, Major Beaver sent a patrol into the creek late that afternoon. The men tried crossing at a point just north of the bridge. Japanese fire almost blew them out of the water and forced them back to their own side of the creek. Beaver tried again late that night, this time picking a spot south of the bridge. Company B, 126th Infantry, was chosen to make the crossing, but its attempt also failed. The water was too deep and the enemy too alert. At dawn Colonel
Martin called the whole thing off. It was clear that there was no crossing to be found in the bridge area.19
The Australians Find a Crossing
Strong efforts to find a crossing were being made downstream. Brigadier Wootten had assigned Company C, 2/10 Battalion, to Colonel Cummings on the 19th, partly to carry out that task and partly to make up for the heavy casualties Cumming’s battalion had suffered the day before. Wootten had also ordered Colonel MacNab to look for a crossing in his area, but his troops tried hard and failed. The 2/10 Battalion, less the company with the 2/9 Battalion, moved up to the front at noon on 20 December, and its commander, Lt. Col. James G. Dobbs, immediately gave his troops the task of finding a way across. At 1500 the following day, after the most difficult kind of reconnoitering during which the men were sometimes forced to move in water up to their necks, a patrol of Company A, 2/10 Battalion, found a practicable crossing at a stream bend about 400 yards north of the
bridge. Moving cautiously through the creek and the treacherous swamp beyond, the troops emerged on the other side at a point just below the lower (or eastern) end of the Old Strip, and there they consolidated. Except for a few strands of barbed wire, no signs of the Japanese were found in the area.20
The rest of the battalion began crossing at once, using as a marker a galvanized iron hut on legs, which the Japanese had apparently used as a control tower. By the following morning most of the battalion’s riflemen were across the creek. Except for a few mortar shells that fell in the crossing area from time to time, they met no opposition from the Japanese.
The crossing by the 2/10 Battalion continued through 22 December. By then the 2/9 Battalion, the attached company of the 2/10 Battalion, and four tanks had finished the task of clearing the Japanese from the east bank of Simemi Creek. Several enemy
machine guns were still active on the island at the mouth of the creek, but, since they were difficult to get at and had only a nuisance value, Brigadier Wootten decided to ignore them for the moment.21
The Repair of the Bridge
Final preparations for repair of the bridge were completed during the 22nd. The engineer platoon charged with its repair—the 3rd Platoon, Company C, 114th Engineer Battalion—had finished gathering and hauling the needed timbers and other materials to the bridge site. The timbers, mostly coconut logs, were to be put in place, and the bridge secured for the passage next day not only of troops but also of tanks. Major Beaver’s troops and those of Major Clarkson were standing by ready to cross, and four tanks of the 2/6 Armored Regiment were moving toward the bridge to be in position to cross as soon as it was repaired.22
By first light the next morning, 23 December, the 2/10 Battalion, except for Company C which was still with the 2/9 Battalion, was across the creek. Colonel Dobbs, whose troops were now to the rear of the Japanese in the bridge area, at once sent two companies southward to clear them out. Apparently warned in time of the Australian approach, most of the Japanese pulled out of their bunkers before the Australians arrived. By noon the few that were found had been killed, and the Australians were able to report “the bridge and 300 yards north neutralized.” The bridge was still under fire from emplacements on the southwest side of the Old Strip, but these could be dealt with later when the repairs to the bridge were completed, and the Americans and the tanks crossed.23
The platoon of the 114th Engineer Battalion had begun working on the bridge as soon as it turned light. Despite heavy enemy fire, first from the bunkers at the other end of the bridge and then from the Old Strip when the Australians cleared the enemy out of the bridge area, the work proceeded speedily and efficiently under the able direction of 2nd Lt. James G. Doughtie, the engineer officer in charge. Cool and imperturbable under fire, Doughtie was everywhere, directing, encouraging, and steadying his men. By noon the repair of the bridge was well advanced. Half an hour later Doughtie had a catwalk down, and in ten minutes the leading platoon of Company B, 126th Infantry was on the other side of the creek. It was quickly joined by the rest of the battalion. The 1st Battalion 128th Infantry, was to cross later in the afternoon; the four tanks, as soon as the bridge was completed and found capable of bearing their weight. The 2/9 Battalion and the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, were to remain in position and hold the coast. It was understood that
Company C, 2/10 Battalion, would be returned to Colonel Dobbs’ command when the mop-up east of the creek was completed.24
The Fight for the Old Strip
The Situation on the Eve of the Attack
As soon as they crossed the bridge, Major Beaver’s troops began moving toward the strip. Enemy fire from flat-trajectory weapons and mortars was heavy, and progress was slow. Colonel Martin joined the troops at 1530. They tied in on Colonel Dobbs’ left at 1745 and took up a position along the southern edge of the strip. The last drift pin was driven into the bridge an hour later, and Major Clarkson’s battalion was across the creek and had moved up on Major Beaver’s left by 1920. The plan now was to have the tanks cross the bridge and join the infantry early the next morning. Upon their arrival, the 2/10 Battalion, with the two American battalions in support would attack straight up the strip. The force would jump off from a line drawn perpendicularly across the strip from the galvanized iron hut or control tower where the Australians had established their first bridgehead on 21 December.
Colonel Yamamoto had had time to man the prepared positions in the Old Strip area and appeared to be holding them in considerable strength. The area was a warren of trenches and bunkers. The Japanese had dug several lines of trenches across the width of the strip and their trench system extended from the swamp to Simemi Creek. There were bunkers in the dispersal bays north of the strip, in the area south of it on the strip itself, and in a grove of coconut trees off its northwestern end.
Nor did Yamamoto lack weapons. He was well provided with machine guns and mortars, and he had at least two 75-mm. guns, two 37-mm. guns, and, at the northwest end of the strip, several 25-mm. dual and triple pompoms—a type of multiple barrel automatic cannon much favored by the Japanese. Near the northwest end of the strip and several hundred yards to the southeast he had in position several 3-inch naval guns in triangular pattern connecting with bunkers and fire trenches. With still another 3-inch gun north of the strip, Yamamoto was in an excellent position to sweep the strip with fire provided his ammunition held out.
It had been known for some time that the Japanese had 3-inch guns on the strip, but the artillery believed that they had been knocked out. The fact that the air force had not received any antiaircraft fire from the strip for several days seemed to confirm this belief. To be on the safe side, it was decided to commit only three of the four tanks. The fourth tank would be kept in reserve until the situation clarified itself.25
At dusk of the same night, 23 December, two armed Japanese motor-torpedo-type boats—which may have been the same boats that brought General Oda to Giruwa the night before—rounded Cape Endaiadere and sank the Eva, an ammunition-laden barge at Hariko, as it was being unloaded by the troops of the Service Company, 128th Infantry. The two Japanese boats then machine-gunned the beach at 2250 with .50-caliber tracer ammunition. The Service Company answered with small arms fire from positions just off the beach, but the boats got away before heavier weapons could be brought to bear upon them. Taking no chances, Colonel MacNab at once began strengthening his beach defenses lest the Japanese try something of the same sort again.26
While the Japanese were shooting up Hariko with little result, further down the coast at Oro Bay the Bantam, a K.P.M. ship of the same class as the Karsik and the Japara, came in with two more M3 tanks, and 420 tons of supplies. The ship was quickly unloaded and returned safely to Porlock Harbor before daybreak.27
The Attack Opens
Early on 24 December the tanks crossed the bridge and moved up to the Australian area on the northern side of the strip from which the main attack was to be launched. After an artillery preparation with smoke, the troops jumped off at 0950 from a line of departure approximately 200 yards up the strip. The tanks and two companies of the 2/10 Battalion were on the far right, one company of the 2/10th was on the strip itself, the 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry, under Major Beaver, was immediately to the left, and the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, under Major Clarkson, was on the far left. Beaver’s mission was to protect the Australian flank; Clarkson’s to comb the swamp for Japanese and destroy them.
During the first hour the attack went well, but it ran into serious trouble just before 1100. The dual purpose 3-inch guns opened up on the thinly armored M3’s and quickly knocked out two of them. The third tank went the way of the first two when it turned over in a shell hole a few moments later and was rendered useless by enemy shellfire.
With the tanks out of the way, the enemy guns and pompoms began firing down the center of the strip. Company A, 2/10 Battalion, had to move from its position on the strip in the center of the Allied line to the Australian side of the runway. For the next two days no Allied troops could use the strip itself.
Forward observers located one of the enemy’s 3-inch guns on the left shortly after it had fired on the tanks, and the artillery promptly knocked it out. Because the observers were unable to locate the remaining guns, Brigadier Wootten decided to commit no more M3’s to the attack until he knew definitely that all the enemy’s 3-inch guns were out of action. Without tanks the attack moved slowly against enemy machine gun, mortar, and pompom fire.
A light rain during the afternoon further retarded the fighting. Urged on by Colonel Martin and Major Beaver the latter’s troops pulled abreast of Colonel Dobb’s force by nightfall. The Allies had gained about 450 yards in the day’s operations and were about 650 yards up the strip on either side of it. On the far left Major Clarkson’s troops had
met no Japanese, but heavy swamp crippled their movement early in the action. They were then ordered out of the swamp and put in line along the southern edge of the strip, immediately to the rear of Major Beaver’s force. Clarkson’s men were to follow Beaver’s, mop up behind them, and ultimately take their place in the front line.28
On the east side of the creek relative tranquility had descended. The last vestiges of Japanese opposition were overcome on 23 December, though not before Colonel Cummings had been wounded in the breast and arm by a shell fragment from the other side of the creek. Colonel MacNab, whose CP was just below Cape Endaiadere, took command of the sector. Because Company C, 2/10 Battalion, was no longer needed in the area, it was detached from the 2/9 Battalion and ordered across the creek to rejoin its parent battalion.
The 2/9 Battalion and the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry, improved their Cape Endaiadere defensive positions. The Australian battalion occupied the east bank of the creek and the shore from its mouth to Strip Point; the American battalion took over defense of the coast line from Strip Point around Cape Endaiadere and south to Boreo. With no fighting to do for the moment, the troops in this sector took time to clean up. Those along the coast were permitted to swim. Some of the soldiers even began amusing themselves by catching fish, using Mills bombs to subdue them.29
The Fighting on the Old Strip
On the Old Strip, meanwhile, there was the bitterest kind of fighting. Attempts by patrols of the 2/10 Battalion to take ground from the Japanese during the night were unsuccessful. The enemy troops in foxholes forward of the bunkers were too alert and determined.
At 0515, Christmas morning, Company C, 2/10 Battalion, reverted to Colonel Dobbs’ command and, on Brigadier Wootten’s order, was sent to the far left of the
Allied line. Its instructions were to move through the swamp and threaten the enemy’s right flank while the Americans and the rest of the 2/10 Battalion continued their efforts to push forward frontally. Brigadier Wootten also ordered two platoons of the 2/9 Battalion to the bridge, where they were to be available when needed for action on the strip.30
The Allies attacked at 0700 after a ten minute artillery smoke barrage. Throughout the day Company C, 2/10 Battalion, made very slow progress in the swamp, and the American and Australian companies farther to the right had little success against the well-manned enemy bunker and trench positions. Company C, 126th Infantry, Major Beaver’s leading unit, had scarcely left the line of departure when it was stopped by a hidden enemy strongpoint somewhere to its front, and Major Clarkson’s battalion on Beaver’s left had the same experience.
Colonel Martin, who was still in the front lines lending a hand personally in the conduct of operations, at once ordered a patrol of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, into the swamp with orders to come in on the enemy’s rear. The patrol returned with a report that the swamp was impenetrable. Convinced that troops could get through the swamp if they had the will to do so, Martin asked Clarkson for an officer with “guts” to take the assignment. Clarkson picked 2nd Lt. George J. Hess of Company A for the task. Hess left the battalion CP about 0900 with fifteen men. Swinging to the left, he and his men worked their way through the swamp, sometimes sinking waist deep in mud. Colonel Martin went about halfway with them, gave his final instructions, and returned to the American line. By early afternoon, the patrol had cut its way around the Japanese right flank and established itself on dry ground on the Japanese left rear without being observed by the enemy.
Colonel Martin spent the rest of the afternoon in the front lines trying to get troops through to the position held by Hess but was not immediately able to do so.31 Heavy fighting developed all along the front, but there was little change in dispositions except for the flanking movements on the left. By late afternoon the Allied line was a shallow V, with the runway still open and the point of the V, east of the area where Yamamoto had most of his 3-inch guns emplaced.
The Japanese had meanwhile discovered that there were American troops in the dense undergrowth on their right rear. They started sending mortar and small arms fire in that direction, but were slow in organizing a force to drive them out. Company C, 128th Infantry, under 1st Lt. Donald A. Foss reached Hess’ position before nightfall. Except for intermittent area fire, the unit met no opposition from the enemy. Colonel Martin, who was with the incoming troops, ordered Foss to launch an attack the next morning on the nearest enemy
emplacement about 100 yards to the northeast.32
By the following morning, 26 December, after a very difficult march through the swamp, Company C, 2/10 Battalion, was in position on Lieutenant Foss’s left. After a ten-minute artillery preparation, the two companies attacked the enemy from the flank at 0702, in concert with the troops attacking from the front. After close-in fighting, two Japanese guns were taken, one by the American company and the other by the Australian company. The guns, installed on concrete bases, were sited so that they could command all approaches from south and east. Each was surrounded by a 4½-foot-high circular earth embankment, so overgrown with grass that it was impossible to distinguish it from the surrounding kunai grass except at very close range. Bunkers and flanking trenches connected with it, but the enemy guns had run out of ammunition.
Because the left-flank operations gave more promise of success than frontal assault up the strip, Brigadier Wootten decided to reinforce his left. Company A, 2/10 Battalion, crossed the runway and took up a position in the left center of the line on Major Beaver’s right, leaving Companies D and B to deal with the opposition to the right of the strip. Company C, 2/10 Battalion, thereupon flanked farther to the left to deal with an especially formidable concentration of bunkers on up the strip. Company A, 2/10 Battalion, and the two American battalions with it, were left to overcome the strong enemy positions south of the strip.33
Except for this movement on the left flank, little change occurred on the front. The center of the line was still about 650 yards up the strip. The line itself had the appearance of a sickle: the Australian troops on the far right formed the handle; the Australian and American troops in the center and left center, the blade; and Company C, 2/10 Battalion, on the far left and thrusting northward, the hook.34
Late that night, while the Japanese on the Old Strip unsuccessfully counterattacked Company D, 2/10 Battalion, on the far right, the Japara came into Oro Bay for the second time. It brought in another troop of M3 tanks, the remainder of the men who were to operate the port, and the rest of the engineer troops who were to build the Oro Bay-Dobodura road. Unloading proceeded rapidly, and the ship left before daylight.35
After an unsuccessful raid on Dobodura early on 26 December, fifty-four Rabaul-based Japanese aircraft, staging through Lae, raided Buna again the following morning. The raid netted little. Allied losses on the ground were three killed and eight wounded, but the enemy was intercepted by twenty fighter planes of the Fifth Air Force and lost fourteen aircraft. The Allies lost one P-38.36
The 3.7-inch howitzers of the O’Hare Troop below the bridge ran out of ammunition on 26 December and could take no further part in the fighting. However, a 25-pounder of the Hall Troop, emplaced early on 27 December at the southeast end of the strip, more than made up for the loss, for this weapon finally broke the Japanese defense of the Old Strip. The gun had excellent observation of the enemy positions on the strip, bringing observed direct fire upon them. Using armor-piercing projectiles with supercharge at about a 1,000-yard range, the 25-pounder not only knocked out one of the remaining enemy pompoms but, with the 4.5 howitzers of the Stokes Troop, forced enemy troops out of their bunkers by fire alone—a feat that only the 105-mm. howitzer had previously been able to accomplish.37
Clearing the Strip
Thus by 27 December the fight for the strip was in its last stages. Allied artillery fire and pressure on his right flank forced Colonel Yamamoto to begin withdrawing to the plantation area around Giropa Point, though a desperately fighting rear guard tried to keep the fact of the withdrawal from Warren Force as long as possible. The Australian companies moving on the Japanese positions at the head of the strip from either flank met appreciably less resistance. In the center the Australian and American troops who, up to this time, had been meeting the most fanatical Japanese opposition noted a similar weakening.38
The advance went slowly during the morning of the 27th but accelerated during the afternoon as the 25-pounder took its toll of enemy positions. At 1615 Colonel Martin reported that the enemy was on the run. Progress thereafter was rapid. Companies A and D, 2/10 Battalion, and Major Clarkson’s battalion, aided by elements of Company C, 2/10 Battalion, had things their own way that afternoon. They squeezed the Japanese out of the last line of trenches across the strip and cleaned out a large bunker as well as an even larger dispersal bay to the rear of the trenches. At nightfall the troops in the center—Company A, 2/10 Battalion, and Company A, 128th Infantry—were working on a main enemy bunker behind the dispersal bay—the last organized enemy position on the runway.39
The line was rearranged during the evening. The company from the 2/9 Battalion, in brigade reserve, was ordered across the bridge to be available on the strip in case of need. Stretched across the upper third of the strip, the troops were now advancing on an 850-yard front that extended from the edge of the swamp on the left to Simemi Creek on the right. The men were abreast—Australian and American units alternating. From left to right the line was held by Company C, 2/10 Battalion, Company B, 128th Infantry, and Companies D and B, 2/10 Battalion, with the other tired and depleted units in close support.40
That night the Australian freighter Mulcra came in to Oro Bay with a troop of M3 tanks and 400 tons of cargo. As it unloaded and got away, the Japanese in the dispersal bays at the head of the strip again counterattacked Company D, 2/10 Battalion, on the far right. The Japanese fought hard but, as had been the case the night before, were repulsed with heavy loss.41
Although Brigadier Wootten still had four tanks on hand, and seven more were on their way from Oro Bay, he no longer needed tanks for the reduction of the Old Strip. Heavy fire of all kinds was still coming from the dispersal bays at the head of the strip, and still heavier fire from the enemy positions in the Government Plantation immediately to the rear, but in the area through which the Old Strip ran and on the strip itself, there was little but sporadic rifle fire. Organized resistance in the area collapsed by noon of 28 December and the troops began mopping up.
It was a bloody business. The remaining Japanese, cornered and hopeless, fought to the end. Hand grenades tossed into their holes would be tossed back, and the Allied troops always had to be on the alert for frenzied suicide rushes with sword or bayonet. Some of the bypassed enemy troops had taken refuge in trees. In at least one instance, three Japanese were shot out of a single tree. In another case half a dozen Japanese troops were cut down carrying M1’s and wearing American helmets and fatigues. A few Japanese on the far left tried to escape by taking to the swamp; they were picked off one by one by troops ordered by Major Clarkson into the swamp for that purpose.42
The Allied troops stabilized their line by noon, 28 December, with Company C, 2/10 Battalion, on the far left, within 200 or 300 yards of the belt of coconut palms forward of the point. The other companies made only slight gains as they came under extremely heavy fire from the dispersal bays and enemy emplacements among the trees of the plantation. A further attack late in the afternoon by Company C, 2/10 Battalion, though supported by artillery, failed. As evening fell, the Japanese began counterattacking. They struck against the center of the line at 1940, while Company C, 128th Infantry, was in the process of relieving Company A, 2/10 Battalion. Joint action by both companies repulsed the attack, and the Australian company took up a new position on the left.
At 2300 the Japanese in the dispersal bays at the head of the strip unleashed their third blow in three nights at Company D, 2/10 Battalion, on the far right. Once again they were repulsed. About twenty Japanese, who had apparently been caught inside the Allied lines, managed to reach the command post of Company C, 128th Infantry, at 0400 the next morning without being detected. They attacked in the dark with grenades and bayonets, some yelling, “Medic, Medic,” the call used by American wounded. Several men who were asleep in the command post area were bayoneted by the enemy, and other Americans, mostly without weapons, were killed in hand-to-hand encounters. By the time the Japanese were driven off they had killed fifteen men and wounded twelve, including Lieutenant Foss, Company C’s fifth commander in the five weeks since the fighting began. Since Foss was the company’s only remaining officer, 1st Lt. Sheldon M. Dannelly, commanding officer of Company A, 128th Infantry, which was on C’s right, took command of Company C. Only five of the raiding Japanese were killed.43
The enemy’s counterattacks had gained him no ground. The Old Strip was firmly
in Allied hands. Warren Force was within easy striking distance of Giropa Point, last enemy stronghold on the Warren front. The next step would be to take the point and clear the area between it and the west bank of Simemi Creek. This step—a climactic one which would put the entire shore between Giropa Point and Cape Endaiadere in Allied hands—Brigadier Wootten was to lose no time in taking.