For the synthetic rubber, see the article on Rubber.

Photograph of Stuiart tank and Australian infantry at Buna

Library of Congress. Via

Buna (148.401E 8.668S), on the northeast coast of New Guinea, was a small village with a tiny anchorage and grass airstrip in 1941.

The war would probably have passed it by, had the Japanese not gotten faulty intelligence that there was a road from Buna across the Owen Stanley Mountains to Port Moresby. 15 Independent Engineer Regiment and 1 Battalion, 144 Regiment, along with other supporting elements (totaling 1900 troops and 1200 native laborers from Rabaul) landed on 22 July 1942 after Allied aircraft set one of their transports afire. Most of the remainder of South Seas Detachment (Horii) came ashore on 18 August. The road turned out to be a primitive jungle track, the Kokoda Trail, but the Japanese made use of it anyway, managing to push to with a few miles of Port Moresby before their offensive was called off because of the need to divert resources to Guadalcanal.

The Oro District, in which Buna is located, is inhabited by the Orokaiva, a warlike culture whose former practice of ritual cannibalism in connection with genocidal tribal warfare is well-documented. Although some of the Orokaiva had  converted to Christianity by 1942, many others remained extremely hostile to Europeans, and they initially cooperated with the Japanese by providing laborers and scouts and by turning in escaping Allied civilians and soldiers. In one notorious incident, Orokaiva warriors captured a group of nine civilians fleeing from Sangara (148.100E 8.823S), mistreated them, then turned them over to the Japanese, who beheaded them. The youngest victim was a six-year-old boy.

Later, as a result of Japanese brutality towards native women, the Orokaiva turned against the Japanese.

The Siege of Buna

Under pressure from Australian infantry, the Japanese retreat down the Kokoda Trail turned into a rout in which their commander was drowned while attempting to reach his troops along the coast by canoe. However, the terrain inland of Buna was ideal for defense, consisting mostly of swamps or dense undergrowth that was nearly impassable except on the few trails approaching the coastal villages. The Japanese engineers at Buna had built some of the most impressive jungle fortifications in the Pacific to cover these approaches, and the survivors of the Kokoda debacle, reinforced by newly landed elements of 5 Yokosuka SNLF, were able to rally behind the defenses.

Both sides now raced to build up their forces. On 16 November a group of four coastal 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. Harding was forced to swim to shore. The next night a group of 700 replacements for 144 Regiment were landed by five destroyers northwest of Buna, and the night after that a battalion from 229 Regiment were landed by three destroyers at Buna. Meanwhile the Americans had marched two regiments of 32 Division up the coast from the southeast, and another American force had made the grueling trip along the Jaure Trail, which was located southeast of the Kokoda Trail.

On 19 November 1942, the Americans began their attack on Buna, having vastly underestimated the opposition. The infantry had no artillery or tank support, and no progress was made until 30 November. The Japanese bunkers could not be bypassed and were all but impervious to infantry small arms and mortars. A bunker could be reduced only by pinning down its occupants with heavy fire so that an infantryman could approach closely enough to put a grenade through the firing slits. Most soldiers only tried this once. 

The Japanese continued their reinforcement effort, bringing in elements of 21 Independent Mixed Brigade (Yamagata) in the face of strong air opposition and landing 500 troops northwest of Buna on 2 December. The Allied attack nearly ground to a halt again on 5 December. However, a few American troops reached the north shore east of Buna on the 6th, and the Japanese suffered heavy casualties in an unsuccessful counterattack. Buna village finally fell on 14 December.

The Japanese were well dug in around Buna Government Station, but they were cut off and slowly starving. Some resorted to cannibalism. After Allied reinforcements of tanks and artillery finally arrived, the Japanese strong points began to be reduced one by one. Elements of 163 Regiment began to relieve some of the exhausted Australians at Sanananda on 2 January 1943. Buna Station was stormed the same day and the remaining strongpoints were mopped up by 22 January.

MacArthur has been criticized for pressing the American and Australian divisions involved to attack without proper support from tanks or heavy weapons. At one point, he sent Eichelberger to relieve a division commander with the instructions: “Go in there Bob, and take Buna, or don’t come back alive!” — colorful, dramatic, and in violation of the Articles of War and all military sense. It was not MacArthur’s finest hour. Allied casualties during the campaign were 600 Americans and over 2000 Australians.

The Allies might never have been victorious at Buna but for the fact that they captured the real prize of the campaign on 20 November: the Dobodura plain. Dobodura (148.365E 8.765S) was a large area of unforested firm ground in the middle of the jungle, most likely a fossil river bed, that was suitable for rapid development of airfields. Reinforcements and supplies could be flown in and wounded taken out. Dobodura would eventually become a major Allied airfield complex.


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