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.
Station 22 – Bloody stalemate and ‘The Climax of the Papuan Campaign’
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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 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.
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.
December 1942: Three wounded Australians, all from NSW and serving with the 55/53rd Battalion, make their way out of the front line to a first aid station. Identified left to right; N212796 Private (Pte) William Henry Walker, NX140964 Pte Keith Edward Beckmann and NX153939 Pte Bruce Robert Chadwick. The men were wounded during the Battalion's attack on Japanese entrenched astride the Sanananda Track on 7 December 1942. This image is proudly reproduced in the Walkway's Education Centre. (AWM 013857).
January 1943: Men of the 2/7th Cavalry Regiment in a fox hole, a forward section post less than 30 meters from Japanese positions, surrounded by mud and water. The photographer who took this picture could hear Japanese soldiers talking, but could not see them. (AWM 014211)
An Australian with an Owen Gun in the dense jungle in the Sanananda area. (AWM 014185)
Sanananda area. Sergeant S. Cumming of Brisbane (left), and Private D. Page of Grafton, NSW (son of Sir Earle Page), both members of 2/7th Cavalry Regiment, in a fox hole with weapons at the ready. (AWM 014212)
December 1942. Australian and American troops pushing a trailer full of equipment near Sanananda. Australian and American forces fought together at Sanananda, which cost the Allies approximately 2,100 casualties. (AWM 013866)
January 1943: An artillery attack on Japanese pillboxes is planned at Sanananda by Colonel H.M. Lindstrom, Lieutenant J. Lewitz of Sydney and Captain C. S. Showman. Both Windstorm and Showman were officers with American forces who jointly worked with Australian forces in the area. (AWM 014238)
January 1943: Australian soldiers and Papuan bearers on a typical 'road' in a muddy swamp between Buna and Sanananda. It was among these conditions that exhausted troops fought, slept, died and defeated the Japanese at Sanananda in this type of tidal swamp. (AWM 014173)