I want you to remove all officers who won’t fight. Relieve regimental and battalion commanders if necessary, put sergeants in charge of battalions and corporals in charge of companies – anyone who will fight. Time is of the essence, the Japs might land reinforcements any night. I want you to take Buna or not come back alive.
General D. MacArthur to Lieutenant General R. Eichelberger
Buna, Gona and Sanananda are known as the Beachheads, a 25-km stretch of the north coast of Papua New Guinea. The Beachheads area was the main base for the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track.
The Battle of the Beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda formed the final stage of the campaign in Papua from mid-1942 to early-1943.
By November 1942, Australian troops in Papua were exhausted from fighting their way across the rugged Owen Stanley Range. US forces were sent to reinforce the Australians. They had no combat experience and had not been trained in jungle warfare.
General Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied forces in the South West Pacific Area, pressured commanders for a quick victory, no matter the cost. The Allies woefully underestimated the strength, condition and resolve of Japanese forces on the Beachheads. This underestimation led to the early failure of attempts to seize their objectives.
Geography and terrain
Following defeats at Eora Creek and Oivi-Gorari on the Kokoda Track, Japanese forces retreated to the Beachheads. They occupied three key positions at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
The jungle and tidal swamps made the Allies' difficult task, even harder. Water height varied. Troops could be up to their ankles or their necks. Areas not dominated by swamp comprised impenetrable jungle and dense scrub. Kunai grass covered drier areas and grew to more than 2 m tall. These grasses trapped the heat in humid conditions. Temperatures would often reach 50°C in the grass.
It was the wet season. Intense daytime heat combined with humidity and tremendous rainfall made conditions uncomfortable and ripe for tropical disease. The troops' other enemy, disease, took more casualties than the fighting. The geography of the area affected all aspects of warfare, including the movement of troops and the provision of ammunition, rations and other supplies. Importantly, the terrain allowed the Japanese to construct highly effective defensive positions, which were so well concealed that advancing troops didn’t see them until they were right upon them.
The terrain worsened the overall condition of troops. Conventional tactics and fire support didn't work, so operations had to be adapted.
Movement and transport were difficult. The only 'road' was a track that ran between Soputa and Sanananda. It was boggy during the wet season. Initial advances were abandoned after patrols couldn't find routes through the dense terrain.
There were no ports available and no airstrips for Allied use until they built some. Both the Allies and the Japanese struggled with serious logistical limitations on the movement of supplies, including ammunition and food.
The Battle of the Beachheads, also known as the Battle of Buna-Gona, was the largest and longest battle fought in Papua. Of the 27,000 Allied forces, 6,419 were killed or wounded. Casualties to illness far exceeded this number. Japanese casualties were fierce. Of 11,000 men, only 3,400 survived.
Find out what happened during Battle of the Beachheads.