Meanwhile, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, was determined to seize Buna as part of the Allied design to neutralize the Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain Island. During the fall of 1942, troops from the Australian 7th Division and the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division moved by land and airlift to the Buna area. Because of the reluctance of Allied naval commanders to risk exposing their heavy ships to air attack or the treacherous reefs, MacArthur's divisions had no naval gun support and no transports to carry heavy artillery or tanks. Thus, for fire support, these troops had to depend on aircraft, which proved ineffective, and light guns and mortars, the shells of which bounced off the log walls of the Japanese bunkers.
The Allied attack began on 16 November. The Australians made some limited progress in their assaults on Gona and Sanananda. But at Buna, the 32nd Infantry Division faced a tactical nightmare and was stopped in its tracks. Lacking sufficient men, forced to cross nearly impassable swamps and jungles, and encountering murderous machine-gun fire, the division made no headway over the next two weeks despite suffering heavy casualties. High humidity and temperatures as well as jungle diseases added to the hardship.
Convinced the troubles at Buna were the result of poor leadership in the 32nd Infantry Division rather than a lack of proper weapons or the strength of the Japanese positions, MacArthur relieved its commander and turned the battle over to the I Corps commander, Major General Robert L. Eichelberger. Many men in the 32nd believed that MacArthur had done little to support them and did not understand the situation at the front. A resourceful commander committed to the welfare of his men, Eichelberger led from the front and came to be regarded as one of the best Allied commanders in the Pacific. He restored Allied morale and improved the logistical situation. In early December, U.S. engineers were able to open an airfield near Buna, significantly improving the Allied supply situation. The Australians moved in some artillery by air, and they also managed to move in light tanks by coastal barges. The tanks, although few in number, proved invaluable. The fighting was bitter, but on 9 December, the Australians took Gona. The more heavily fortified Buna resisted U.S. pressure, but on 14 December, the Americans took Buna Village. By 2 January 1943, all of the Japanese in the American sector had been eliminated, and on 22 January, the Australians wiped out the last Japanese pocket at Sanananda.
The cost of the Buna operation was high. Almost all of the Japanese defenders were killed, and on the Allied side, the Australians lost 2,000 dead and wounded and the Americans 2,400. Another 2,900 Americans were hospitalized as a result of disease. Yet for the Allies, Buna was a significant victory, for it provided airfields to support additional offenses in New Guinea and also taught valuable lessons about Japanese tactics and jungle fighting.
John Kennedy Ohl
Gailey, Harry A. MacArthur Strikes Back: Decision at Buna—New Guinea, 1942–1943. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.; Luvaas, Jay. "Buna, 19 November 1942–2 January 1943: A ‘Leavenworth Nightmare.'" In Charles E. Heller and William A. Stofft, eds., America's First Battles, 1776–1965, 186–225. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.; Mayo, Lida. Bloody Buna. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.; Milner, Samuel. United States Army in World War II: The Pacific Theater of Operations—Victory in Papua. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1957.