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Chapter 19: The Victory

For the student of military history, the Papuan Campaign is most noteworthy for the tactical aspects of its final or beachhead phase, for it was at the Buna–Gona beachhead that the Allies, for the first time in World War II, encountered and reduced an area fortified and defended in depth by the Japanese. Although the attack was from the landward, and succeeding campaigns generally from the sea, the basic tactical situation was the same—the Allies were attacking and the Japanese were defending an elaborately fortified area. The essential difference was thus not that Buna was a land operation while the succeeding operations were amphibious; it was rather that in later campaigns the attacking troops hit the beachhead better prepared and supported, with a variety of tactics and weapons for the speedy reduction of the Japanese positions. In the Buna area, on the other hand, poorly supported Allied infantry attacked again and again in vain; the action took on the aspect of a siege, and starvation was a significant factor in the enemy’s final collapse. American conduct of operations was to profit from Buna as from few other campaigns, and the profit was to accrue not only in the negative sense, but in the positive sense as well.

The Campaign in Review

The Time Element

Contrary to the final headquarters press release on the subject, the Papuan Campaign had been neither cheaply won nor conducted on the supposition that there was “no necessity of a hurry attack.”1 In the perspective of succeeding Pacific campaigns, the picture, especially in the final beachhead phase of operations, had been rather one in which the troops suffered heavy casualties while being hastily pressed forward in repeated attacks on prepared enemy positions with little more in the way of weapons than

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their rifles, machine guns, mortars, and hand grenades.

Throughout the fighting, General Eichelberger had been a man under pressure. Told by General MacArthur on 30 November that “time was of the essence,” on 13 December that “time is working desperately against us,” and on 25 December that “if results were not achieved shortly the whole picture [might] radically change,” General Eichelberger had pushed the attack in every way he could.2 On 18 December, though able to report progress, he nevertheless made it a point to assure General MacArthur that he “never forgot for a moment that we have not much time. ...” On 30 December, when General Herring asked him why he did not let his troops “take it easy since the Australians were not going to do anything today or tomorrow,” Eichelberger had replied that he had no intention of doing so, for he had always considered that “time was the essential element of the attack.”3 Whether GHQ realized it or not, hurrying the attack had become the leitmotiv of the campaign.

The Losses

During the six months that the Australian ground forces had been in action, they had committed seven infantry brigades and one dismounted cavalry unit of battalion strength.4 Though there were times when elements of as many as four brigades were in the line, the Australians usually had no more than three brigades (roughly 7,000 to 7,500 men) in contact with the enemy at any one time. Sometimes they had as few as two and, during the opening weeks of the campaign, less than two.

The American ground commitment, dating from mid-November 1942, was four infantry regiments—the 126th, 127th, 128th, and the 163rd Infantry Regiments, a total of just under 15,000 men. During most of the period that the Americans were in action, they had at least three regiments at the front, though until the arrival of the 127th Infantry in early December there had been only two. There were almost no replacements, and the strength of the units fell steadily until, in a few instances, they were near the extinction point when relieved.5

The campaign cost the Australian ground forces, 5,698 battle casualties—1,731 killed in action, 306 dead of wounds, 128 dead from other causes, and 3,533 wounded in action.6 American ground casualties were 2,848—687 killed in action, 160 dead of wounds, 17 dead from other causes, 66 missing in action, and 1,918 wounded in action.

Of the 66 Americans missing, the 32nd Division lost 62 and the 163rd Infantry lost 4. Other losses sustained by the 32nd Division but not included as among the killed, wounded, or missing were 211 from shell

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shock and concussion, and 287 from battlefield injuries.7

American Battle Casualties, Less the Missing

32nd Division


D of W

D of O/C


126th Inf 266 34 5 728
127th Inf 182 29 3 504
128th Inf 138 25 4 434
Div. Troops 16 0 5 14
602 88 17 1,680

41st Division

163rd Inf 85 12 0 238
687 100 17 1,918

All together 3,095 Australians and Americans lost their lives in the campaign, and 5,451 were wounded. Total battle casualties were 8,546.8

Australian losses had been so heavy that brigade after brigade had seen its battalions reduced to company strength and less before it was relieved.9 But if the Australian units had suffered severe attrition, so had the 32nd Division. General Eichelberger put the situation to General MacArthur in a sentence. “Regiments here,” he wrote in mid-January, “soon have the strength of battalions and a little later are not much more than companies.”10 The casualty reports bear out General Eichelberger’s observation. Out of their total strength in the combat zone of 10,825, the three combat teams of the 32nd Division had suffered 9,688 casualties, including 7,125 sick,11 a casualty rate of almost 90 percent. The 126th Infantry, hardest-hit of the three, had 131 officers and 3,040 enlisted men when it entered the combat zone in mid-November. When it was evacuated to Port Moresby on 22 January, 32 officers and 579 enlisted men were left—less than a full battalion. The regiment as such had ceased to exist.12

A detailed strength report of the 126th Infantry Regiment as of 20 January 1943, two days before it was returned to Port Moresby, was as follows:

Regt Offrs EM 2nd Bn Offrs EM
Hq Co 7 39 Hq Co 2 45
Serv Co 3 12 Co E 1 16
At Co 0 10 Co F 1 22
Can Co 0 14 Co G 1 27
Co H 1 16
10 75
6 126
1st Bn 3rd Bn
Hq Co 4 86 Hq Co 3 27
Co A 2 69 Co I 0 17
Co B 2 62 Co K 0 18
Co C 2 52 Co L 1 14
Co D 0 17 Co M 2 16
10 286 6 92

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The amount of sickness during the campaign had been crushingly heavy. With only a few thousand more troops in action, the Australians had 15,575 cases of infectious disease to the end of 1942 alone, including 9,249 cases of malaria, 3,643 cases of dysentery, 1,186 cases of dengue fever, and 186 cases of scrub typhus.13 The Americans, out of the 14,646 troops committed in the combat area, had a total of 8,659 during the course of the campaign. There were 5,358 cases of malaria among the almost 11,000 troops of the 32nd Division who served in New Guinea—4,000 first attacks, and the rest recurrences. In addition, the medical record showed 17 deaths from scrub typhus, and 2,147 cases of “miscellaneous disease,” including dysentery and dengue fever.14

When the troops reached Australia, a check of their physical condition revealed that each man had suffered a sharp loss in weight, that 563 were still suffering from diarrhea and dysentery, and that 1,200 had hookworm. Anemia, exhaustion, and malnutrition had taken heavy toll: one out of every five had a low blood count, and one out of every eight had poor hemoglobin.15

The diarrheas, the anemias, and the hookworms yielded to treatment, but much of the malaria did not. Neither rest, suppressive drugs, nor special care proved of avail in more than half of the cases treated. The patients got worse instead of better. Relapse followed relapse until finally the men had to be dropped from the division in September as unfit for combat. The total number dropped at the time was 2,334 officers and men,16 all of them casualties of the campaign just as surely as if they had been wounded in battle.

With the story presumably the same in the case of the Australians, the conclusion is inescapable that the fighting in Papua had been even costlier than had at first been thought, and that the victory there, proportionate to the forces engaged, had been one of the costliest of the Pacific war.

The enemy had suffered much heavier losses. The Japanese committed between 16,000 and 17,000 troops to the campaign. They successfully evacuated 1,300 men from Milne Bay and 300 from Goodenough Island. An estimated 1,000 sick and wounded were returned to Rabaul from Basabua during the period that Japanese ships were still making the run there, and about 2,000 men, including sick and wounded, managed to get out by sea and on foot during the closing days of the campaign. The Japanese had thus successfully evacuated about 4,500 men, and lost approximately 12,000.17 Of the latter number, the Allies buried 7,000 and took 350

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Japanese prisoners at 
Dobodura eating canned rations supplied by Australian soldiers

Japanese prisoners at Dobodura eating canned rations supplied by Australian soldiers. These prisoners were brought in by 163rd Infantrymen

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prisoners.18 The Japanese apparently buried the remaining 4,500 or 5,000.

Starvation As a Factor in Operations

Starvation had worn down the enemy troops and had contributed directly to their final defeat. The evidences of cannibalism that the Australians and the 163rd Infantry encountered on the Soputa-Sanananda track, and the emaciated enemy remains the 127th Infantry found scattered about in the Giruwa hospital area were indicative of the level to which the Japanese had been reduced during the closing weeks of the campaign. How greatly their resistance was undermined by starvation during the weeks immediately preceding was another matter not so easily determined.

When Gona fell on 9 December, the Australians found some moldy rice and a little ammunition left—enough for only a few more days of fighting. There had still been a little food and ammunition on hand when Buna Village was overrun on 14 December, but very little food and virtually no ammunition was taken when Buna Mission fell on 2 January. The Japanese had received their last two ounces of rice on 12 January, two days after the 163rd Infantry had found indisputable evidence that some of them had already been reduced to cannibalism. As each successive position on the front fell, it became evident from the horrible emaciation of the corpses of those who had defended it that they could not have held their positions much longer even had there been no attack.

Maj. Mitsuo Koiwai, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 41st Infantry, the only field grade officer of the South Seas Detachment known to have gone all through the campaign and survived it,19 when interrogated at the end of the war, said, “We lost at Buna because we could not retain air superiority, because we could not supply our troops, and because our navy and air force could not disrupt the enemy supply line.” When he was asked about the effectiveness of the Allied attack, he agreed that it had been skillfully conducted and then added an observation which had apparently been in the minds of most of the Japanese at the beachhead: “Tactically the Allied coordination of fire power and advance was very skillful. However we were in such a position at Buna that we wondered whether the Americans would by-pass us and leave us to starve.”20 It was clear that starvation had been a potent factor in the final reduction of the beachhead and that, had the Allies not been so determined to reduce it by direct attack, hunger would in due course have accomplished the same thing for them.

Artillery, Air, and Naval Support

The artillery had not played the part of which it was capable in the campaign, mostly because not enough pieces of the right type for the task in hand had been sent forward. Though more artillery was repeatedly and urgently requested by the

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American commanders on the scene, only one artillery piece at the front had been capable of knocking out a Japanese bunker with a single direct hit. This was the 105-mm. howitzer of the 129th Field Artillery Battalion, commanded by Captain Kobs, but even this piece had had too few shells for more than intermittent firing. Had there been more 105’s at the front with enough shells and delay fuses (or, as General Waldron suggests, a few 155’s similarly provided), there might have been no need to bring in tanks; countless lives might have been saved, and the campaign might have been appreciably shortened.21

The air force had played many roles in the campaign, most of them well. Its transports had moved whole regiments and brigades to the front. In addition to evacuating some 6,000 Australians and American sick and wounded, it had flown out other regiments and brigades that were returning to Port Moresby for rest and rehabilitation. It had delivered 2,450 tons of rations, equipment, and ammunition to the troops at the front. It had carried out some seventy-two support missions, using 568 aircraft, 121 of them in close support of attacking ground troops. Ceaselessly reconnoitering the coasts and searching the sea, it had disrupted repeated attempts by the enemy to reinforce and supply his beleaguered beachhead garrison.22

The logistical accomplishment of the air force had been superb. The luggers and the freighters (including the K.P.M. ships) had, it is true, brought in by sea more than three times the tonnage that had come in by air.23 It was nevertheless a fact that the attack could not have been sustained without the airlift, especially during the critical days in November and early December when seaborne supply had been reduced to the merest trickle because of the destruction of the luggers.

The reconnaissance of the coasts and of the sea, the sustained attacks on enemy convoys seeking to reinforce the beachhead, and the frustration of the enemy’s efforts to establish supply bases at the mouth of the Kumusi and Mambare Rivers showed the Fifth Air Force and the Australian air units brigaded with it at their best. Nor was there anything to criticize in the way the air force spotted for the artillery, or intercepted enemy aircraft over the combat zone. Both tasks were done admirably.

The quality of its direct support of ground troops was something else again. Even the statistics of this activity are unimpressive—121 sorties flown, 40 tons of bombs dropped, and 97,000 rounds of .30-caliber and .50 caliber ammunition fired. Though this was light support at best, it brought in its train another difficulty. In far too many instances the pilots bombed and shot up Allied troops instead of the enemy, with grievous repercussions on troop morale.

There were good reasons for these frequent mishaps. The Fifth Air Force had at the time too few planes for all its multifarious activities; many of its pilots were

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inexperienced; and the only planes available for air-ground cooperation were in general not suited to do the kind of precision bombing required. Not only were the pilots unable to recognize the Allied front lines from the air, but air-ground liaison was virtually nonexistent. It was indeed so bad that there had not been a single instance during the fighting of a pilot’s having successful radio contact with the troops on the ground.24

As the fighting went on, and it came to be realized that the available aircraft, while excellent for area bombing and the interception of enemy aircraft, could not be relied on for the pinpoint bombing of enemy positions under attack by the frontline troops, the air force was called upon less and less for direct air support. The decision not to use air for the direct support of the ground troops because of the close quarters at which the battle came to be waged was a source of regret to the ground commanders who could have used the air arm to excellent advantage had it been capable at the time of greater discrimination in its bombing and strafing. “I wish,” General Eichelberger wrote in late December, “we had some precision dive bombers that could lay the bombs in a barrel. The greatest weapon we have is our air force and I do not like to see it used so little. I realize we should be willing to take a certain number of losses. If I could be sure nineteen bombs out of twenty would drop on the Japanese I would be willing to have the twentieth come in on our own troops, rather than not use air.”25

The fact that between 22 December, the date of General Eichelberger’s letter, and the end of the campaign not a single request was made by American forces in the field for direct air support26 was an indication of how much the air force had yet to learn about its direct-support responsibility.

The role of the Allied Naval Forces in support of the beachhead fighting had been small. Admiral Carpender’s reluctance to send his ships into the waters around Buna had from the first ruled out the possibility of a more active role. In the end, except for the activity of the motor torpedo boats, the actual naval support of the fighting at the beachhead was restricted to a single mission—the transfer there by corvette of the successive echelons of the 18th Brigade.

What the Campaign Taught

On the tactical level, the most important lesson taught was that existing tactics and techniques would have to be developed to a high point of perfection to reduce the kind of strongpoints planted in jungle terrain with which the Japanese had so long held up the Allied advance. By the end of the campaign, a beginning had been made in developing tactics and techniques which, with good artillery support, usually proved effective. The first step was to have patrols “fix” the position of the bunker. Next, the artillery would drive all the enemy troops in the immediate area into the bunker and perhaps stun them. Just before the artillery fire lifted, the infantry would attack under cover of its own fire so as to catch the enemy troops in the bunker before they could get into firing position. The enemy could then be finished off by grenades or the ammonal

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blast bomb devised by the Australians, flipped into the bunker. Such devices as satchel charges, effective flame throwers, jellied gasoline (napalm), all used in later Pacific operations, were not available at Buna, but the experience there helped to establish the need for them and undoubtedly hastened their development for use in subsequent operations.

The campaign emphasized other lessons, some as old as warfare itself. It drove home the point that troops should be trained in the kind of warfare they are called upon to fight; that they should be habituated to overhead fire during the training period; that they should enter combat “as hard as nails.” Although the amount of artillery that general headquarters provided was always far less than the U.S. commanders on the scene regarded as necessary, the campaign demonstrated the soundness of General Harding’s and General Waldron’s representations to that headquarters that the artillery could go into the jungle with the infantry and, what was more, could be used effectively in jungle terrain. The campaign established that artillery, provided it was of the right kind, was one of the best weapons a commander could have when faced with bunkers of the type that the Japanese had built in the Buna–Gona area.

The campaign made clear that there would have to be better communication between ground and air, and that to be useful in the jungle walkie-talkie radios would have to be greatly improved. It established the effectiveness of the sound-power telephone at ranges of up to two miles. It demonstrated that the .37-mm. antitank gun with canister was an excellent antipersonnel weapon and that rifle grenades were highly effective against enemy troops in trenches or dugouts. The campaign also established the need of a lighter and simpler weapon than the M-1 rifle in jungle warfare—a need that the carbine, had it been available to the troops at Buna, would have met.

On the medical side, the campaign underlined the need for better distribution to the troops of such items as chlorination pellets, vitamin pills, salt tablets, and the like. It suggested the wisdom (following the successful experience with it on Guadalcanal) of thence forward using atabrine as a malaria suppressive. But even more important, the campaign instilled in the troops and their commanders an awareness of the necessity for the most thoroughgoing malaria discipline. The rigid malaria control measures, so much a feature of subsequent operations in the Southwest Pacific, were in large measure the fruit of the Papuan experience.

The campaign also drove home the lesson that, as a general rule, field kitchens and sterilizing equipment should go with the troops and that failure to bring them forward might jeopardize the health of the entire command. It reaffirmed the age-old lessons that to be effective in combat the troops could not be allowed to go hungry and that they needed such minimum amenities as occasional hot meals, a little variety in the ration, and a chance to rest and clean up after being too long in action.


On the strategic level, the victory in Papua had been a bitter anticlimax, partaking more of tragedy than of triumph. The Japanese had seized the Buna–Gona beachhead on the night of 21–22 July 1942 before Allied troops could fortify it. A bloody and long drawn out campaign had ensued. When it finally ended on 22 January 1943,

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the only result, strategically speaking, was that after six months of bitter fighting and some 8,500 casualties, including 3,000 dead, the Southwest Pacific Area was exactly where it would have been the previous July had it been able to secure the beachhead before the Japanese got there.

But whatever the cost, the Southwest Pacific Area had finally broken the Japanese toe hold in Papua; it had added the airfields at Dobodura and the port of Oro Bay to its other bases and could now embark upon a more aggressive phase of operations. The hour of the Japanese garrisons in the Huon Peninsula and in western New Britain had struck.