Initial Allied Offensive: Northeastern New Guinea (June 1942-January 1943)

World War II New Guinea
Figure 1.--The Allies even before Guadalcanal began building forward air bases at Mile Bay at the eastern tip of New Guinea (June 1942). Milne Bay was a manificent stragically placed natural harbor, but the Australians inintially wanted for air bases. Australian infantry seured the area which had not yet been seized by the Japanese. It was to provide protective air cover for Port Moresby. American engineers built the air field and anti-aircraft gunners provided protection from air attack. The Japanese responded slowly, but decided they needed such a strategically placed base. Pitched battles were fought with a Japanese landing force (September). The Japanese suffered heavy casualtis and were forced to withdraw. It was the first decisive battle against a Japanese ground force in the Pacific War. As the fighting moved toward Buna, Milne Bay with its excellent harbor began to take on the role as a vital rear area supply base. Here we see an American soldier, we think part of the Enginner unit that built the air bases with native children at Milne Bay. There are countless photographs of Ppuans taken in during the war. Some were taken by military photographers and a few by reporters. Many were taken by GIs with cameras like the one here. And these show a degree of frienship and trust even intimacy between the Allied soldiers abd Papuans.

The battle for New Guinea began at the far eastern tip of New Guinea and would contunue all the way along the norther coast. One of the longest campigns of World War II, over 1,500 miles. The Allied campaign to retake the island began in the souutheast because the supply situation was better than furthur west along the coast. The nval situation was still insecure, bt began to improve with the Battles the Coral Sea and Midway (May-June 1942). The first tenative Allied Step was a Milne Bay whene Australian troops landed and quickly built a small airfield (June 1942). The Japanese did not immediatly react, but did attempt to take the expanding base (September 1942). It would be the first unequivocable Japanese land defeat of the Pacific War. The Australian successe in New Guinea were being replicated by Aneican succes in Guadalcanal where the Japanese made their major effort. Ferocious naval battles occurred off Guadalcanal. After securing Milne Bay, the principal target became Buna where American infantry entered the fight for New Guinea for the first time. The Allies had substanial supply problems and against the well-entrenched Japanese, the going was at at first slow. Flawed leadership and MacArthur's failure to appreciate the situation were additional problems. The naval and air battles in the Solomons has seriously deplted Japanese forces (August-Novenber 1942). As a result there were no heavy naval battles off eastern New Guinea as was the case of Guadalcanal. Thus the increasing Allies naval and air dominance meant that the Japanese could not hold Buna, but thy could exact substantial casualties on the the still largely inexperinced and poorly supported Allied forces. The Australians in particular suffered heavy casualties.

Milne Bay (June-September 1942)

Milne Bay is a large bay at the south-eastern tip of New Guinea. It is 35 kilometers (km) long and over 15 km wide. It is a sheltered deep-water harbor, of obvious strategic importance as Japanese forces moving south began to make contact with Allied forces. The Australians had not planned to make a stand at Milne Bay, but instead were planning a continental stand in Australia itself. American involvement in the war fundamentally changd the regional balance. America could not get supplies through to the enbattled forces in the Philippines, but transports from America were landing toops and supplies and building air strips in Australia and the Pacific Islands protecting the sea lanes between America and Australia (Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa, and others). So Gen. MacArthur began planning offensive strokes. This was lready underway when the U.S. Pacific Fleet cut the heart out of the Japanese First Air Fleet at Midway (June 4). A small party of Australians and Americans began searching for a suitable sight where an air base could be built in estern New Guinea (June 8). Allied GHQ, South West Pacific Area, authorized the construction of air bases around the head of Milne Bay (June 12). A small Allied garrison (two infantry companies and a machine gun platoon from the Australian 15th Brigade sailed for Milne Bay from Port Moresby (June 22) and landed (June 25). Company E of the US 46th Engineers arrived to begin constructing an airfield (June 29). And in comparison to the subsequent Japanese construction efort on Guadacanal, was soon operational. Before the Japanse took note and began air attacks, the Allies had a functioning air base. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) quickly moved Squadrons 75 and 76 equipped with P-40 Curtis War Hawks (the Australians called them Kittyhawks) and Squadron 6 Squadron with the Lockheed Hudson. Knowing that the Japanese would respond the Australians strongly reinforced the garrison (July). The first reinforcemnts were the 7th Militia Brigade (July). It was joined by the more experinced 18th Brigade (August 21). The Australians along wih the American 709th Airborne Anti-Aircraft Battery totaled around 8,700 men not counting the approximtely 700 RAAF contingent. The Japanese encountring opposition and logistics problems ovr the Khoda Trail, decided to take Milne Bay where the airfild there could be used against the Australian units defending Port Moresby. Japanese inyelligence was one of many weaknesses. And they failed again at Milne Bay. They had no idea of the extent to which the Australians had built up their defenses. Headquarters in Tokyo ordered anattack on Milne Bay and the details were approved (August 20). Some 1,500 troops were assigned to seize Milne Bay. They were to land at Aabi and seize Air Field No. 3. It was to be a pincer attack. Some of the troops were to be transported from Buna by barge. The other troops were to come from New Ireland by transports. The operation commenced (August 24). Austrialian coastwatchers immediately spotted the barges and P-40s sispatched from Milne Bay destroyed them. The RAAF was less successful against the transports which landed the Japanese force 3 miles east of Rabi. ThevJapanese force included Type 95 Ha Go light tanks which fared poorly. The Japanese had some success against the Militia troops they first encountered, but began to take serious caualties encountring the more experienced 18th Brigade especially when staging frontal attacks, just one of many examples of the incomptence of Japanese commanders. Reinforcements landed, but could not crack the Australian defenses. The Australians launched an offensive and drove the Japanese back. overed by a naval bombardment, the Japanese withdrew at night (September 5-6). The evacuation was done at night so that the Allies air units could not attack the ships. he same was happening in the Solomons Slot at the time. At this point the Japanese focus shifted to Guadalcanal. Milne Bay began as a forward air base to protect Port Moresby, became a massive logistical base to supply the drive west along the northern coast of New Guinea.

Buna-Gona (November 1942-January 1943)

After the Allied successes at Milme Bay and the Khoda Trail, the fight for northeastern New Guinea became a protracted fight for Buna. Buna was the principal Japanese position, but there were also positions at Sanananda and Gona to the west. It was at Gona that the Japanese Army demonstrated its capcity for barbarity. Gona was the site of an Anglican church and mission. The Japannese Army landed (July 21-22, 1942). Three missionaries were seized at the mission (Father James Benson, May Hayman, and Mavis Parkins. The two women and a 6-year-old boy were beheaded on the beach. Father Benson was sent to Rabaul where he survived the War. American an Australian bombers sank the Japanese transport off Gona, Ayatosan Maru during the landings. It was in the Buna-Gona campaign that for the first time the material superiority of the United States began to transform the battlefield, although there were serious logistical shortcomings. While the American logistical effort was perhaps the orst of the War, the Americans and Australians unlike the Japanese were not starving. The Japanese retreat down the Kokoda Trail turned into a rout. The survivors headed for Buna. The Japanese commander attempting to reach his troops along the coast by canoe drowned. It was clear to both the Japanese and Americans that the fight for northeastern New Guinea would occur at Buna. And both sides raced to build up their forces. The Japanese had an important advantage, the terrain inland that the Allies had to move through was swampy or covered by dense undergrowth. This made the ground nearly impassable except on the few trails which the Japanese heavily defended. The Japanese engineers built some of the most impressive jungle fortifications in the Pacific to cover the few approaches. The survivors of the Kokoda Trail debacle were reinforced by newly arrived elements of 5 Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Forces (Japanese Marines -- SNLF) which made an effective stand behind the defenses. Some 700 replacements for 144 Regiment were landed by five destroyers northwest of Buna (November 20). A battalion from 229 Regiment were landed by three destroyers at Buna (November 21). The Americans moved forces toward Buna from Milne Bay. Coastal transport craft carrying General Edwin Harding, ammunition, and other supplies was attacked by 18 A6M Zeroes which killed 24 men and destroyed most of the supplies (November 19). Harding had to swim ashore. The Americans moved two regiments of 32 Division up the coast on foot from the southeast. Another American force made the grueling trip along the Jaure Trail (southeast of the Kokoda Trail). MacArthur filed to underand the situation. To make mattersworse, the American units assigned to take Buna were inexperienced and poorly supplied, lacking artillery and tank support. The lack of commuication between American front line troops and hedquaters was perhaps the worst of the War nd was most due to MacArthur's imperial additutde. The American offensive began (November 19). And made initially no progress while sustaining heavy losses. The well-situated Japanese bunkers could not be bypassed and were basicallu impervious to infantry small arms and mortars. A grenade thrown into the firing slits could destroy the bunkers, but given the fire power from the bunkers and supporting defenses, this was unlikely. The first Allied success occured outside of Buna. They captured what has ben called 'the real prize' -- the Dobodura plain (November 20). Dobodura was a large area of unforested and firm ground set in the middle of the jungle. Itvappears to be a fossilized river bed. It proved to be ideal for quickly building airfields. This enabled reinforcements and supplies to be flown in and wounded evacuated. Dobodura would become a major Allied airfield complex in the New Guinea campaign. Some progress toward Buna was reported (November 30). Heavy casualties were taken especially by the austrlains, because MacArthur pushed poorly equipped troops. Meanwhile the Japanese continued to renforce Buna despite strong American air cover. Elements of 21 Independent Mixed Brigade (Yamagata) arrived along with 500 troops northwest of Buna (December 2). Getting supplies into the Buna defenders was becoming nearly impossible. The Allied attack basica ground to a halt again, enfuriaring MacArthur (December 5). A small American detachment reached the north shore east of Buna (December 6). The Japanese suffered heavy casualties in a frontal counterattack. Buna village was finall taken (December 14). The Japanese continued to resist around Buna Government Station where they were dugin. They were, however, cut off and starving. There was some resort to cannibalism which occured in many cutvoff Japanese garrisons. Ordered not to surrender, it was the inevitable result. After American tanks and artillery reached the front, the Japanese strong points began to fall. Elements of 163 Regiment began to relieve the exhausted Australians at Sanananda (January 2, 1943). Buna Station was stormed. It took, hoever, three weeks to mop up the many remaining Japanese strong points (January 22).


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Created: 11:19 PM 3/22/20180
Last updated: 11:19 PM 3/22/2018