Bloody stalemate and “The Climax of the Papuan Campaign”

Papua. Sanananda Area. 1943 -01-25. Men of the 2/7th Cavalry Regiment in a fox hole, a forward section post less than 30 yards from the Japanese positions, surrounded by mud and water. The photographer who took this picture could hear Japanese soldiers talking, but could not see them. (AWM014211)

Sanananda Point, half way between Buna and Gona on the northern Papuan coast, was an uninviting desolate area. However, it formed the centre of the main Japanese defensive position in the final battles of the Papuan campaign. The Japanese commander concentrated most of his force in this area and took personal command here. Unlike Buna and Gona, where the defences were mainly on the coast, in the central sector, the defences were placed along the track which left Wairopi and passed through Popondetta and Soputa before entering an area of swamp some seven kilometres from the coast. The Japanese positions astride the track were protected by deep camouflaged bunkers made of logs and placed in depth behind each other. Major General Vasey’s 7th Division crossed the Kumusi River on 16 November with Brigadier Lloyd’s 16th Brigade (2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions) heading for Sanananda. By 20 November they were through to Soputa, but then struck the first Japanese defences at the

Exhausted 18th Brigade fought, slept, died and most importantly defeated the Japanese at Sanananda tidal swamps such as these. (AWM 013971)

Cape Killerton track junction. The Japanese fell back to their next position; but after crossing the Owen Stanley Ranges and fighting several intense battles, the Australians were sick with malaria and other tropical diseases and under strength. The 7th Division was reinforced by a regiment of Americans which moved around the Japanese and established a road-block, known as Huggin’s Road Block. The 16th Brigade was relieved by Brigadier Porter’s 30th Brigade consisting of the 49th and 55/53rd Battalions and later the 2/7th Cavalry Regiment (without vehicles) and the 36th Battalion. These units conducted a series of determined attacks, but without heavier support could not eject the Japanese from their bunkers. The problem was that when the Allies by-passed the Japanese positions, the Japanese did not withdraw and it became extremely difficult to supply the Australian positions which could only be reached by circuitous routes through the swamp.

Papua, Sanananda. 1943-01-22. An Australian with an Owen Gun in the dense jungle in the Sanananda area. (AWM 014185)

Gradually the Allied force north of the Owen Stanleys was built up. Airfields were built on the flat areas around Dobodura and Popondetta, whilst Major General Vasey’s headquarters was at Soputa. The headquarters of 1st Australian Corps under Lieutenant-General E.F Herring, was established at Popondetta, before later moving to Dobodura. After the campaign, the airfields in this area would be used to support the offensives of 1943. Reliant on air transport, the troops fighting at Sanananda were always short of supplies and ammunition. On 22 December the Australians at Sanananda were further reinforced by the 21st Brigade (each battalion down to less than company strength) and the 39th Battalion; but the Japanese positions could not be eliminated. Porter’s 30th Brigade engaged the main Japanese position with Dougherty’s 21st Brigade at the road-block. By this time the largest number of troops on the Sanananda Track were from militia units rather than the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The militia units bravely threw themselves into attacks against well-concealed Japanese positions and lost heavily. The 55/53rd Battalion casualties alone numbered 264 and when the number of evacuations due to sickness are added, the total casualties were 542, which was greater than the Battalion strength at the beginning of the campaign. In an effort to break the stalemate, the 18th Brigade brought its tanks and remnant troops around from Buna; but it too failed to make progress. However, unknown to the Australians the Japanese, who were sick and starving, had been ordered to withdraw. The 18th Brigade and a new American Regiment renewed the attack. In a flanking operation to the north, the 18th Brigade reached the sea and all Japanese resistance ceased on 22 January 1943. The Australian units in this sector sustained over 1,400 battle casualties and the Americans 700. Nearly 2,000 Japanese were buried. The victory at Sanananda marked the end of a six month Papuan campaign, during which the Japanese employed about 20,000 troops of whom more than 13,000 died.