The Japanese Landing
The Japanese first landed at Waitutu near Gona on 21st July 1942. They shelled the beaches and 2000 Advanced Force troops were the first to come ashore. They were under the command of Colonel Yokoyama. They had with them pack horses and 1200 natives who were captured in Rabaul and shipped to Papua. The force included engineers, medical staff, artillery units and anti-aircraft units. They were well prepared.
The Japanese sent forward 200-300 advanced force special naval landing party shock troops, todays equivalent of the American navy seals. These troops were highly trained and extremely brutal soldiers. After the war they would be accused of war crimes, although with fatality rates of nearly 100%, prosecutions were scarce.
The first contact was made with these troops at Soroputa on the 23rd of July 1942. The Australians were grossly undermanned and quickly fell back to Kokoda to defend the airstrip and await reinforcements.
Brief Overview of the Kokoda Trail Campaign
During the year of 1942 a small Australian Army is all that stood between the only free nation in the south east pacific and the might of the conquering Japanese Army. The odds have since been debated but the story that happened on the Kokoda track in Papua New Guinea saw the legendary Kokoda Spirit being propelled along side the legends of Gallipoli. Kokoda was the world war 2 equivalent of the disaster that the Gallipoli campaign is known for.
These young men faught in the Owen Stanley jungle who not only battled the Japanese but wage war against the terrain, the climate, the disease and the physical exhaustion that Papua New Guinea hands out. The Diggers held their own, turning and inflicting many casualties on the Japanese with the severe lack of medical supplies, food, clothing and ammunition.
The Kokoda campaign stretched these young men’s will and physical endurance to breaking point.
Kokoda is a story of the young 39th Battalion Militia and Ralph Honner who held the defensive barrier against the Japanese until the relief of the AIF arrived.
When the 21st brigade arrived this brought with them the world war 1 hero and who some to this day still claim he was the man to save Australia (or Port Moresby). Brigadier Arnold Potts.
Potts’s men of the 21st brigade were unable to hold the Japanese at Isurava thus deployed the fighting withdrawal for a period of 3 weeks, stunning the Japanese advance long enough for the arrival of reinforcements.
Many fine soldiers lost their lives in the battle that was dubbed the battle for Australia at the time. The likely hood of the Japanese reaching Australia and capturing it would have been slim, but for the first time the diggers were defending their own country. The Japanese had no plans on capturing Australia during 1942 but to isolate Australia by holding Port Moresby was their real aim.
As the Australian Army grew in numbers the Japanese were pushed back over the Owen Stanley’s in many bitter encounters finally being defeated at Gona, Buna and Sanananda pushing them into the sea or scattering them to the north.
Kokoda has many stories of selflessness and bravery, including Bruce Kingsbury who was honored with the award of a VC.
Stan and Harold “Butch” Bissit are names that will for ever live on with the tail of two brothers who went to war together but only one returned.
MacArthur and Blamey sat in their office’s with no little concept of the terrain the war that was occurring in. The Kokoda Track saw many young men lose their lives defending Australia.
Blamey later criticised the troops performance at the Koitaki rubber plantation sports field on 9th November 1942, that they had been defeated and he had been defeated and Australia had been defeated, referring to them as running away like rabbits.
Come and adventure Kokoda with Escape Trekking Adventures and learn the history and stories of the Kokoda trail tours.
Buna, Gona & Sanananda
The entire Northern Beaches campaign was fought in the most terrible conditions. Mosquito infested swamps surrounded by razor sharp kunai grass which grows up to 2 meters high.
The strength of the Japanese spread across their coastal strong hold of Buna, Sanananda and Gona for this part of the campaign was in the order of 9,600 troops. 7,000 of these were engineers and medical staff.
The allied effort (American and Australian troops) was 7000 men on all costal fronts. Many of these troops were Militia and the American equivalent the National Guardsmen. All of whom had very little training.
Private Kevin Barry, 55/53rd Battalion describes one of the unorganised attacks the Militia carried out. “So out we go and they say charge–into the jungle we go… and all of a sudden the shit hits the fan. Machine-guns; and I’m going along and I can hear this and I’m hanging on to the rifle and I’m shit scared–then in the next minute I’m up in the air–lost the rifle, lost my tin hat–hit in the shoulder… that was the sum total of my wartime experience”. That Battalion lost 130 men in that assault, Cited in Peter Brune’s, A bastard of a place, p. 565.
The Japanese once landing in July 1942 went about strategically building a coastal fortress, a place of supply and refuge for the conquest of Papua. The type of defences where not like Roman times with castles and walled perimeters but they built on the high and dry areas in swampy conditions, on the boarders of kunai grass fields and in foliaged jungle approaches. Many of the dry land approaches where heavily timbered jungle, which allowed Japanese snipers to climb trees, concealing themselves and attacking unaware Australian patrols and attacks.
Artillery was used successfully at Gona by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner set all of the fuses on the artillery to be delayed so they would not detonate until they penetrated the soil. This allowed his men to be right on top of the Japanese at the end of their bombardment. The Japanese, unaware of the delayed fuse took refuge from the bombardment and were caught still taking cover when the 39th attack arrived on top of them. This occurred after many lives where lost notably the 21st Brigade who stormed the Japanese pill boxes with a sducidal determination not seen before. Many believe this was as a direct result of General Blameys Koitaki address to the Brigade after they where relieved from the Kokoda battle with fresh troops. There was uncalled for accusations of cowardice levelled at the Brigade.
Buna found the sighting of artillery with observers very difficult and employed wirraways (light aircraft) to act as observers to sight the guns on to their targets. The Japanese soon realised what the air craft where up to and aggressively targeted them (it was a dangerous affair for the pilots).
The Japanese defences at Buna were strategically positioned with fastidious perfection. As the Australians approached they found well hidden pill boxes that were self-supporting and covered each approach with machine gun fire. More Japanese snipers were in trees, hidden under logs and had every bit of ground covered. Throw in to the mix the antiaircraft guns and it would have been the most frightening sound for an infantry man or a tank crew to hear.
The anti aircraft guns used by the Japanese where the type 88. These guns delayed the Allied advance on Buna.
MacArthur and Blamey pushed for an early finish to this battle, MacArthur was quoted saying “instead of attacking in 100’s attack in 1000’s”. This shows how little he knew of the conditions his troops where engaged in. It would have been impossible to launch an attack of this size with the approaches that were available.
The 2/9th attacked with 4 M3 tanks from Semeni Creek side of old strip on the 24th December.
Brigadier George Wootten had very little information of the Japanese positions and their guns, however he sent the men in anyway. The Japanese waited for the troops to come into full view and opened up with heavy machine gun and mortar fire, then one by one the antiaircraft guns positioned horizontally picked off the 4 M3 tanks in again a short period of time and halted the attack.
More tanks arrived from Milne Bay as the Australians slowly captured some ground on the eastern side of the old airstrip but doing so took huge casualties and lost more tanks. The 2/10th was reduced from 500 men to 130 men in a matter of days as they eventually took possession of old strip by the 2nd of January 1943. The American’s on Urbana front reached their objective in capturing the Buna Government station at the same time as the Australians did on Warren front .
Sanananda is sandwiched in between Buna to the east and Gona in the west. The Japanese had a ring of defences around the coastal village and a few outposts on the approach road to Sanananda. The road was also the site of Huggins road block and James road block. The road was mostly raised above the swampy lands that infest the coastal approaches of the Oro province. This was the last Japanese post to fall as part of the Kokoda Trail and Beaches campaign and was fought between the 15th November 1942 and 22nd January 1943.
Both the Australians and Americans launched heavy assaults at the position with little reward other than a mounting toll of casualties and lives. General Vasey stormed out of one officers meeting after he believed good mean and lives where continually being lost by unimaginative strategic plans by these offices. “hadn’t we learned anything from the Somme” (WW1 battle where 1000’s of lives where lost approaching over exposed terrain at machine gun posts).
In the end the Japanese simply just pulled out from the 14th to the 22nd of January 1943 slowly extracted their forces. They did not leave without a fight though. Those too sick and frail to go to Lae stayed and fought to their death costing many allied soldiers their lives. It was now clear that the Japanese were pulling out of Sanananda but MacArthur refused to wait and continued to send allied troops in to speed up the victory. This impatience cost many allied lives.
Kokoda campaign casualties
|Battle’s of Kokoda Trail, Oivi/Gorari|
|Killed in Action||569|
|Missing presumed killed||66|
|Died of wounds||67|
|Wounded in action||898|
Beach head campaigns
|Battle’s of Northern Beaches|
|Killed in Action||997|
|Missing presumed killed||65|
|Died of wounds||228|
|Wounded in action||2,210|
Kokoda Chronological History
Japanese first landed at Waitutu near Gona on 21st of July 1942
First Kokoda engagement was on the 28th of July 1942
Second Kokoda Battle 8th-10th of August 1942
Deniki Battles 10th-14th of August 1942
Isurava Battle 14-30 of August 1942
Eora/Templeton’s Battle Japanese Advance 31st August- 4th of September 1942
Brigade Hill 6th-9th of September 1942
Ioribaiwa Battles 11th and 19th of September 1942
Australian counter attack from Ioribaiwa 19th and 27th of September 1942
Second Eora/Templeton’s Battle 12th-28th of October 1942
Oivi/Gorari Battles 3rd–11th of November 1942
Gona Battle 18th of November-9th of December 1942
Buna Battle 16th November 1942-2nd of January 1943
Sanananda Battle 15th November 1942 to 22nd of January 1943