Buna was a small village on the north coast of Papua, and the administrative headquarters of the district.
There were several coconut plantations, but much of the area was cut by small creeks and interspersed with fetid swamps and jungle.
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Buna was a small village on the north coast of Papua, and the administrative headquarters of the district. There were several coconut plantations, but much of the area was cut by small creeks and interspersed with fetid swamps and jungle. After the Japanese landed on 21 and 22 July the area became a major supply base supporting their advance over the Kokoda Track for an overland attack on Port Moresby. Buna was to be the scene of grim fighting involving Australians from 18 December 1942 until 2 January 1943.
As at Gona and Sanananda the Japanese had established a series of strongly constructed and fortified bunkers during October – November, 1942. These were well camouflaged and sited to provide mutual fire support. The positions defended the new and old airstrips and westwards right back to Buna village.
The initial attack began on 19 November by two battalions of the 32nd U.S Division under command of General Harding and supported by 2 guns each of the 2/1st and 2/5th Australian Field Regiments. Despite sustaining heavy casualties, the US troops, known as Warren Force, made little progress. The 2/6th Australian Independent Company reported to the 1/128 US Battalion on 21 November in a supporting role and patrolled vigorously, finally being withdrawn from action on 11 December. Their casualties totalled at least 20 killed and 13 wounded.The American casualties for the period numbered almost 500. On 1 December General Eichelberger replaced General Harding. In early December Battalions of the 126th and 127th US Regiments were added to the troops of the 32nd Division already in action and gradually the Americans began to have success in which the Australian artillery played an important role.
Air support was provided by numbers 4 and 30 Squadrons RAAF, by means of a radio hook up between ground forces, planes overhead and RAAF Headquarters at Popondetta.
To reinforce the Americans, the Australian 18th Brigade, under Brigadier George Wootten was brought forward from the general area of Milne Bay in early December. Warren Force was then brought under Wootten’s command. Wootten’s main support troops were 8 tanks from the 2/6th Australian Armoured Regiment and 25 pounder artillery from the 2/1st and 2/5th Field Regiments plus some engineers and the 2/5th Field Ambulance.
On 14 December the western American column known as Urbana Force entered Buna village after its Japanese defenders were ferried away at night. Two days later Wootten launched the first phase of a thrust from the east, aimed at capturing the area between two airfields dubbed ‘New Strip’ and ‘Old Strip’ and the sea.
On 18 December the 2/9th Battalion attacked at 7 am following an artillery barrage and immediately struck heavy opposition at New Strip, where it lost 11 officers and 160 men. Australians gained their first objective next day and continued to advance. Six days later this phase of the operation came to an end.
The next phase, which began on 24 December, was carried forward by the 2/10th Battalion supported by the only four tanks which were still operational. A battalion of the 126 US Regiment, moving on its left flank also provided support. The advance began well but faltered under heavy fire which quickly accounted for all four tanks, however, 700 metres were finally gained. This was due in no small way to Private Timothy Hughes, an Aboriginal soldier of 2/10th Battalion, who silenced some key Japanese defence posts with grenades and tommy gun. For this action he was awarded a Military Medal.
On 25 December a 25 pounder from the 2/5th Field Regiment, known as ‘Carson’s Gun’, was sited between the airstrips and west of the bridge over Simemi Creek, and created havoc in Japanese defensive posts. A former Japanese observation post in a 25 metre high banyan tree was established by Captain Tom Handran-Smith of 2/5th Field Regiment. Among those who manned this observation post was Major (later Sir) William Hall, the battery commander. An attempt to resume the advance on 29 December also foundered.
On 1 January 1943 – after the arrival of a fresh battalion, the 2/12th, from Goodenough Island and six more tanks another effort was made. This attack swept through the open plantation, dealing with one Japanese bunker after another, and by 2 January had reached Giropa Point. In their short action the 2/12th lost 12 officers and 179 men. This completed the capture of the Buna area in conjunction with a fresh attack by Urbana Force which captured the old government station.
The bloody operation had cost the Allies 2,870 battle casualties – 913 of whom were among Australian units. The 18 Brigade suffered 863 casualties including 306 killed. A minimum of 1,390 Japanese were killed – this number being counted bodies and exclusive of those killed or buried alive in destroyed structures. 900 of the enemy dead were in the sector under command of Brigadier Wootten. No more than 50 prisoners were taken which was stark testimony to the savagery of the fighting and the determination of the Japanese defenders to accept death rather than surrender.
December 1942: Australian troops of 2/7th Cavalry Regiment at Cape Endaiadere advance through mud and slush on Buna. The photo shows the inhospitable conditions faced by the troops, who marched through swamp that went from ankle deep to waist deep. The troops often only ate once a day, and battled fatigue together with lack of basic hygiene. Front left is Dave Herbert, behind him at far rear is Fred Oughton, second from right Bill Paton and far right Blue Dawson. (AWM 013971)
A Beaufighter aircraft of No. 30 squadron RAAF (400270 Flying Officer Robert J. Brazenor, pilot; Observer Sergeant F. B. Anderson) on a flight close to a rocky outcrop in a valley in the Owen Stanley Ranges during an operation in late 1942. The RAAF's contribution to the fighting around Buna and other locations was invaluable to the eventual Allied victory in the campaign. (AWM OG001)
December 1942: American Engineers building a log bridge which allowed tanks to attack the main Buna airstrip. (AWM 013982)
January 1943:. Australians waded through this swamp to attack an airstrip at Buna. The swamp and surrounding foliage is typical of the country through which Allied troops advanced on Buna. (AWM 014012)
Preparing the way for further tank attacks against Japanese positions at Buna. Australian infantry laying felled coconut trees across a boggy area. (AWM 013951)
An Australian mountain battery shelling positions at Buna. All equipment usually needed to be transported overland, usually by the troops themselves. (AWM 013973)
Following the capture of Buna, troops inspect an abandoned Japanese plane that had been strafed by the Allies when they attacked the Buna airstrip. (AWM 014042)
November 1942. During the Australian-American advance on Buna, two American soldiers dress the wounds of an Australian. American forces did not fight on the Kokoda Track itself, but were involved in the assaults on Buna, Sanananda and Milne Bay. Elsewhere they provided anti-aircraft groups at Port Moresby, Milne Bay and Buna, as well as vital air support in these locations. (AWM 013953)
January 1943: One of the bullet-riddled buildings at Buna mission, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the Papuan campaign. In the foreground is (left) General Sir Thomas Blamey and (middle) Lieutenant General Robert Eichelberger (commander of American forces at the time) who inspected the battlefields around Buna. (AWM 014101)
25 December 1942: George Silk's iconic image which has come to define many of the aspects of the New Guinea campaign. Here Private George C. 'Dick' Whittington (QX23902) is being helped along a track through the kunai grass towards a field hospital at Dobodura on Christmas Day 1942. The Papuan native helping him was later identified as Raphael Oimbari. Whittington was with the 2/10th Battalion at the time and had been wounded the previous day by a sniper in the battle for Buna airstrip. He recovered from his wounds but sadly died of scrub typhus at Port Moresby on 12 February 1943. After being identified in the 1970s, Oimbari became an advocate for acknowledging the contribution of the Papuans. Interestingly, Silk's photo was originally censored at the time by the Australian Department of Information, but its publication in the American magazine 'Life' in 1943 was the beginning of it becoming a powerful image that defined the New Guinea campaign. (AWM 014028)
George Silk, taken outside Gona. Silk had previously been to the Middle East, North Africa, Greece and Crete, before being sent to New Guinea. He produced many iconic images of the troops and conditions along the Track, but he often clashed (like his fellow photographer, Damien Parer) with his employer, the Department of Information, who censored his iconic image taken on Christmas Day 1942, by refusing to publish it. Disgruntled, the following year he joined the US magazine 'Life' (which had published the iconic photo), and was assigned to the European theatre. He died in 2004. (Image: State Library of NSW PXA 644/285)
September 1942: A contemporary aerial reconnaissance photograph of the Buna area, showing the position of Buna aerodrome and the new airstrip. (AWM 106524)
The enlistment photo for SX1570 Private Timothy Hughes, MM, 2/10th Infantry Battalion. Hughes was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry during the advance of the battalion, and supporting American units against Japanese positions along old strip in the Buna area, on 26 December 1942. (AWM 067723)