Buna was General Douglas MacArthur’s first offensive campaign against Japanese troops in World War II. As supreme commander, Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA), MacArthur expected American soldiers to seize the Japanese forward base at Buna, on Papua New Guinea, speedily and without many casualties. After all, the SWPA intelligence officer, Brigadier General Charles Willoughby, assured MacArthur on the eve of the operation that there was ‘little indication of an attempt to make a strong stand against the Allied advance.’ The battered Japanese forces were closely defending the airstrip at Buna and had established an embarkation point to the west of the base–all pointing to a general withdrawal by sea. MacArthur and the officers and men of the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division, the unit ordered to take Buna, therefore expected a quick victory. They were told–and they believed–that Buna would be a pushover, taken in a few days from the emperor’s understrength and already badly mauled forces. Unfortunately for the American soldiers, no one told that to the Japanese defenders.
|GIs and native porters cross the Sambago River during the advance toward Buna. For the untried American soldiers of the 32nd Division’s 126th Infantry Regiment, the grueling 40-day march to reach the battlefield was a supreme test of endurance.|
Since mid-July 1942, Imperial Japanese army and naval troops had been fighting Australian militia and Regulars along the Kokoda Trail, which was little more than a dirt track running from Buna to Port Moresby–about 100 miles as the crow flies. However, on the ground any march along the trail became a twisting trek whose meandering course through jungle and across the towering Owen Stanley mountain range added at least another 30 miles to the distance. Although the Japanese army’s 144th Infantry Regiment had steadily driven the outnumbered Australians back toward Port Moresby, the Japanese now found themselves at the wrong end of a long supply line running through dense jungle, steep mountains, razorback precipices and gluelike mud that soon exhausted the strongest of men. Still, the tough Japanese infantrymen pushed forward nearly to the Imita Range, from where they could see distant searchlights probing the night sky above their objective, Port Moresby.
Rather than order the regiment to seize the objective, however, the Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) in Tokyo directed it to withdraw back to Buna. Faced with the desperate situation in the Solomons, where U.S. forces were going on the offensive, IGHQ had opted to consolidate its Papuan forces at Buna and put its main effort into retaking Guadalcanal. Orders in hand, the 144th grudgingly recrossed the Owen Stanleys, this time pursued by the Australian 7th Infantry Division, which had been rushed to the Pacific from North Africa in response to the Japanese advance.
While those intense seesaw battles raged, American Maj. Gen. Edwin F. Harding was preparing his untried 32nd Infantry Division for combat. Orders issued in late 1941 had originally slated the division for the European theater, and its artillery regiment had already been sent to Northern Ireland. With the war in the Pacific heating up, however, the rest of the division, awaiting shipment at Fort Devens, Mass., suddenly found itself en route to warmer climes. After arriving in Adelaide, Australia, on May 14, 1942, the 32nd had its training program disrupted by the cold, wet, wintry weather of southern Australia. Then, in mid-August, the division deployed north to Brisbane, where the warmer weather improved spirits and training conditions. Just about the time the 32nd had settled into its new camp, orders arrived to move north still again–this time to New Guinea.
At this early stage of the Pacific campaign, there was not enough shipping available to transport the division’s personnel and heavy equipment simultaneously. As a consequence, most of the unit’s heavy 81mm mortars and its regimental artillery were left in Australia. Likewise, there was little combat engineer support. The few platoons of engineers that were available had deployed without such basic equipment as axes, shovels and block and tackles, on the assumption that coastal barges would carry those items and their heavy construction equipment to Buna by sea. In addition, the Americans had none of the specialized clothing and equipment characteristic of later Pacific campaigns. They lacked insect repellent, and, despite the fact that they were entering a rain forest, had not been issued waterproof boxes or pouches. Once they were in the field, the men discovered that the constant tropical downpours fouled fuel for cooking, and their diet was reduced to unheated tinned rations eaten from unwashed mess kits. Still, American officers believed it would be a brief operation and the immediate deficiencies would soon be corrected by aerial and seaborne resupply.
The plan of attack called for a dual advance, one pincer advancing overland across the mountains to strike the Japanese from the west, the other swinging around the eastern tip of New Guinea by sea, landing about 25 miles southeast of Buna, at Oro Bay, and then advancing north along the coast to seize the Japanese base. The staff college aphorism that no plan survives the first contact with the enemy had tragic application at Buna. On the morning of November 16, 1942, a Japanese navy patrol plane reported enemy cargo ships entering the harbor at Oro Bay. Early that same afternoon, 30 Japanese land-based navy bombers struck the landing area. Lost along with the vessels during the attack were the division’s reserve ammunition, 81mm mortars, heavy machine guns and engineering equipment. If things were not going according to plan for the amphibious force, the overland prong of the American advance, which had begun on October 6, was degenerating into a nightmarish approach march that lasted more than 40 days in some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable.
One of those who endured that march was Lieutenant Robert H. Odell, recently assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division. Odell found himself leading a small group of men to join the battalion, which was headed for Buna along a track running about 130 miles from New Guinea’s southern coast to its northern coast. The routine was to march for one hour and rest for 10 minutes, repeating that cycle day after day. The GIs trudged through 6-foot-high kunai grass under a blazing sun and into jungle so thick that the vegetation seemed to block out the air. Torrential rains quickly turned the track into a muddy bog, torpid streams into roaring torrents, and the humid, equatorial climate soon began to rot uniforms. ‘In New Guinea,’ an Australian officer told Odell, ‘it rains every day for nine months, and then the rainy season begins.’ Wet boots had to be walked dry, otherwise the leather would shrink, making them unwearable. Fleas, leeches, sand flies and mosquitoes bit every inch of exposed skin.
Trail discipline was dreadful, and the track was littered with discarded equipment, gas masks being among the first items of government-issued equipment to go. Odell’s party further lightened its load by tossing away mess kits. For the remainder of the campaign, a single spoon was the sum of the lieutenant’s eating utensils. Weapons–rifles, pistols and Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs)–shone, though, because they were cleaned and oiled daily for reasons of life and death. A blanket, shelter half and mosquito net were the other essentials.
In addition to the many discomforts, there were the mountains themselves. The Owen Stanleys rise to heights of 8,000 feet in places. Soldiers struggled up steep slopes and then stumbled down ravines, only to repeat the exhausting climb on another slope just a stone’s throw away. Four or five of those climbs and descents could take up an entire day. The men were supposed to receive airdropped supplies at established dropping grounds, but even if the deliveries arrived (which was never guaranteed), about half the boxes were generally damaged beyond recognition from being pushed out of the transport plane at low altitude without parachutes to retard their fall (medical supplies were the exception). After 70 miles and two weeks of plodding along winding trials, Odell’s group reached a dropping ground, only to find that it had just been abandoned. They managed to catch up to the rear elements of their regiment the next day, missing two meals. They were still 60 miles from Buna, but at least they were out of the mountains.
After Odell reported to regimental headquarters, the 2nd Battalion commander, Major Herbert M. Smith, gave him command of a platoon in Company F. ‘Here I was commanding a platoon for the first time in my life,’ Odell later recalled. The march continued, but now the men began to glimpse the detritus of the retreating enemy–signs lettered in Japanese, abandoned equipment and graves. Finally, in late November, Odell’s party arrived at the 2nd Battalion’s assembly area at Bofu. They were now within striking distance of Buna but still had little idea what they were up against. They soon learned, as Odell recorded, that ‘the hardships thus far encountered were nothing compared with the hell that was to come.’
Opposite the 126th Infantry, the Japanese had their backs to the sea. They defended a shallow perimeter less than a mile deep, whose 3 l/2-mile-long front line formed an arc with flanks anchored on the sea. To get at them, American forces would have to attack through swamps, some waist deep, and marshy ground, which denied units space to maneuver and slowed any forward movement to a crawl. To further complicate matters, the well-dug-in Japanese defenders covered every approach with interlocking bands of fire from mutually supporting, well-designed and expertly concealed strongpoints sited on high ground–or in this case dry ground.
Unable to dig deep shelters because of the 3-foot-deep water table, Japanese naval construction battalions had laid out hundreds of coconut log bunkers, most mutually supporting and organized in depth. Some large bunkers were even reinforced with steel beams, while a few steel-and-concrete pillboxes were sited near the now abandoned airstrip about a mile from Buna Mission, the site of a small compound of administrative buildings. Earthen blockhouses, capable of holding 20 or 30 men, had been built where terrain and tactical advantage permitted. Throughout the perimeter numerous smaller field fortifications were placed in terrain thick with trees or jungle vegetation. Given that firing slits were placed only a few feet above ground, and with the bunkers themselves rising only 6 to 8 feet above the surface and well-camouflaged by natural vegetation, the deadly Japanese emplacements were almost invisible until the traps inside spewed forth a stream of machine-gun or rifle fire at the unsuspecting Americans.
Unfamiliar with the state of Japanese defenses, Lt. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, glibly referred to these fortifications as ‘hasty field entrenchments.’ Although Sutherland did fly to the front for a conference on November 30 with the 32nd Division brass, the truth was that no senior officer from SWPA headquarters had ever seen the ground that they were now ordering Harding’s men to cross. Besides ignoring the restrictions that the formidable terrain placed on maneuver, and dismissing the imposing Japanese defenses, SWPA headquarters also grossly underestimated the enemy’s determination to hold Buna no matter what the cost.
It was true that the 144th Infantry was in bad shape. Bloodied, pushed back across the Owen Stanleys by the Australians and Americans, the surviving Japanese infantrymen sought refuge at Buna. A machine-gunner scribbled in his diary on November 17: ‘Our food is completely gone. We are eating tree bark and grass.’ Two days later, the same soldier recounted: ‘In other units there are men eating the flesh of dead Australians. There is nothing to eat.’ But contrary to MacArthur’s estimates, more than ‘a few sick Japs’ held Buna.
The Japanese may have been riddled with casualties and disease, but there were still about 5,500 fighting troops from various army and navy units around Buna. Facing the 126th Infantry alone was the Yokosuka 5th Special Naval Landing Force, about 400 tough naval infantrymen augmented by another 600 naval construction troops. Beginning on the evening of November 17, Japanese destroyers had carried 2,300 fresh troops from Rabaul, New Britain, to Buna. Among the reinforcements was the 3rd Battalion, 229th Infantry Regiment, 38th Division, a veteran outfit that had seen service in China, Hong Kong and Java. Furthermore, the Japanese commander, Maj. Gen. Tomitaro Horii, unlike his American counterpart, also had some artillery–75mm naval guns, 37mm anti-aircraft guns–and heavy machine guns. Nevertheless, on the 16th, General Willoughby had confidently asserted that the enemy’s situation at Buna was so desperate that even reinforcements could not save the day. Whether the enemy made a suicidal stand or fled into the jungle, he said, ‘the seizure of the Buna area is practically assured.’
|American soldiers swap Japanese souvenirs. Odell observed that the items found on the Japanese revealed they were hardened veterans of campaigns in China, the Philippines, Java and the Solomons.|
Such an outcome would have been welcome news to the officers of the 126th, who on the night of November 25 were holding a council of war in the pouring rain. Company F caught a break. Because of its long overland march, it would serve as battalion reserve. The next day, however, plans changed because of reports, later proved false, of a Japanese ground thrust against Allied lines. Instead, Odell’s company would shift to new positions and fight alongside Australian infantry on Buna’s western flank. Complicated by a difficult river crossing, the move–about five miles in a straight line–took two days of slogging through the twisting, crisscrossing jungle trails and marshy ground. Finally, the GIs reached their assembly area just behind the front lines. Orders banned fires, which might give away positions, so added to the list of miserable conditions were cold rations. The standard ration, when available, was a hardtacklike biscuit, three chocolate bars and a can of Australian preserved corned beef. The meat, known among the men as ‘bully beef,’ was reviled by the troops, and some who tried to choke it down even vomited. Japanese snipers made even the shortest walk nerve-racking, and any speech was necessarily in hushed tones. As they readied for action, the men threw what was left of their packs into a company dump. While they were fighting and dying, others would loot their few remaining possessions.
By nightfall on November 28, the men of Company F had armed themselves with rifles, submachine guns and pistols, as well as a bayonet, two hand grenades and a minimum of 200 rounds of ammunition apiece. Officers wore no insignia of rank, and it was a court-martial offense to salute or even to call an officer by other than his last name. Heavy beards and generous applications of mud concealed white faces from enemy eyes. Prewar maps were generally useless, simply showing green spaces marked’swamp’ or ‘jungle,’ and the scale of aerial photographs was too large to help tactical planning. Constant patrolling to identify landmarks and enemy outposts became the routine. According to Odell, the green American soldiers learned the universal lesson of front-line infantrymen: ‘It isn’t so simple to any but the masterminds directing operations from command posts 300 yards to the rear.’
The masterminds even farther to the rear in Port Moresby wanted Buna taken, and taken quickly. MacArthur was upset and humiliated by reports that during an earlier attack against the perimeter’s eastern flank American soldiers had dropped their weapons and run from the Japanese. A real leader, he believed, could get the men moving and take Buna. MacArthur determined to relieve General Harding if that proved necessary, and dispatched his I Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, to Buna with the authority to make that decision. While Eichelberger was en route to the battle area, Company F was slowly moving forward for an all-out frontal night assault on Buna.
Just after dark on November 29, Company F’s officers and men made their final preparations to reinforce the attack on the main airstrip outside the village launched earlier in the day. Preparations completed, they shuffled forward in the pitch-black night toward their attack positions. Since they had no white cloth for armbands, each man grasped the shoulder of the soldier in front of him, with only a telephone wire leading to the jump-off point to guide them through the darkness. It took several hours for the single file to grope its way forward several hundred yards through the black and trackless terrain. Armed with an M-1 rifle, a weapon he had never fired in his life, Odell then learned that his platoon would spearhead the attack. But, as usual, things did not go according to plan. The Japanese were nervous that night, and requested that aircraft drop flares to illuminate the approaches to their positions. Meanwhile, with the enemy on the alert, the Americans were moving to the wrong jump-off point–understandable considering the darkness and tension, but a factor that further delayed the attack.
Finally, at 0400 hours on November 30, Company F rose from what little cover the men could find and advanced. Moments later the company hit a Japanese outpost and a firefight erupted. Odell wrote: ‘There was more lead flying through the air at that moment than it’s possible to estimate. Machine-gun tracers lit the entire area, and our own rifle fire made a solid sheet of flame. Everywhere men cursed, shouted, or screamed. Orders followed on orders and some counterorders. Brave men led and the others followed. Cowards crouched in the grass literally frightened out of their skins. How we got going I’ll never understand, but somehow or other, we did–and that’s all that mattered. We broke out of the woods and onto a grassy field approximately 300 yards long.’
The first time Odell fired his rifle was at a Japanese soldier rising up to meet Company F’s assault. It took 2 l/2 hours of night fighting with rifles, grenades and bayonets to drive the Japanese out of their bunkers and back across the field. Just before dawn Company F secured its gains. Although it suffered high causalities, remarkably few men were killed. Four men around Odell were wounded, but he emerged without a scratch despite numerous close calls. During the inevitable mopping up after the battle, GIs stripped Japanese dead in search of intelligence, useful equipment and souvenirs. Combat intelligence captured included Japanese code books, documents and a radio so large it took eight men to remove it from a bunker. The most practical trophy was the gun-oil case carried by Japanese soldiers, because it was waterproof, compact and contained the lubrication the GIs needed to keep their weapons operable. Others took more grisly souvenirs, including gold teeth and, on one occasion known to Odell, a pair of ears.
Such savagery was common on both sides. In the course of its attack that night, Company G overran a Japanese headquarters whose several huts were outfitted with large mosquito netting, blankets, pillows, bedrolls, shelter halves and floors and roofs. Wooden containers half-filled with recently cooked rice testified to the hasty departure of the previous occupants. Odell recalled that a ‘few [Japanese] who must have been ill with fever were left in their beds, and shot before they knew what was happening.’ One Japanese officer tried to rise from his bed three times before he was finally gunned down for good. Souvenirs were plentiful in the huts, as Company F discovered when they followed behind. Odell confiscated a Japanese toothbrush, canned meat that unlike the Australian-issued bully beef actually tasted good and several Chinese watercolors. In addition, he picked up a Japanese bayonet. Thereafter, Odell’s combat load was a bayonet in one hand, a hand grenade in the other and a pistol stuffed in his rear pocket.
Higher headquarters had told Company F that Japanese marines–that is, special naval landing force units–opposed them. In the huts was the proof–stationery emblazoned with an anchor with a flower in the center and a five-pointed Japanese star. The GIs also understood that they were up against veteran troops. ‘These boys had been around,’ wrote Odell. He figured that they had been to China, from the prints he confiscated; the Philippines, because of matchboxes labeled ‘Philippine Match Box Co.’ and several U.S.-manufactured fountain pens; and Java, because of the Dutch currency discovered on the corpses. Translations of diaries revealed some of the troops had also been in the Solomons.
As it happened, Odell’s assumptions were wrong on two counts. First, his company had battled not only naval troops but also the army’s 3rd Battalion, 229th Infantry Regiment. Second, when overrunning the headquarters area, in the darkness and confusion Company G had demolished a Japanese field hospital, which accounted for the Japanese shot in their beds. As far as Company F was concerned, the men had taken their objective. Now they had to hold it.
The first rule was that no American moved at night because edgy soldiers fired at anything disturbing the darkness. Whispering a password in the pitch-black night was as good a way as any to get oneself shot in reply. Three soldiers fell victim to friendly fire, one fatally. The company also had to tend to its wounded on the spot because casualties could neither be moved from the exposed forward position to the rear nor could medical doctors risk coming forward to treat the men. In fact, the Japanese, surprised by the 126th’s night attack and suffering significant losses, did not press any serious counterattack. This was not, however, the story that the 32nd Division’s chief of staff, Colonel John W. Mott, attempted to pass off to higher headquarters.
During the night of December 1-2, Mott notified Harding that the Japanese had launched a furious counterattack, which his troops had repulsed. In truth, there had been no counterattack, and battalion journals reported only red and white flares to the north of Buna (where Japanese reinforcements were landing), occasional heavy friendly artillery fire, and two men killed and three others wounded.
Eichelberger arrived at the 32nd Division’s headquarters late on the morning of December 2 and, along with General Harding, moved forward to see the results of the action Mott had described. Mott warned the party not to come forward to the front because of intense firing as his troops attacked the Japanese lines. Instead, he returned to the command post to assure Eichelberger that his attack was proceeding as planned. But Eichelberger was already angered by the condition of the GIs he saw on his way to Mott’s command post. Front-line discipline had vanished. Dirty, disheveled soldiers were milling around aimlessly well behind the front lines. Several men who appeared not to be wounded were waiting at an aid station. When the general asked why, they told him that they had been sent to the rear for a rest. No one seemed to be in charge.
Word soon arrived at the command post that the attack had failed. Eichelberger then went forward to see the situation for himself. By that time, the Japanese were reorganizing after repulsing the piecemeal attacks, and Eichelberger drew no enemy fire. The general was further upset by what he regarded as the infantry’s questionable dispositions, poor siting of machine guns and overall lack of aggressiveness. His mood darkened further when the 126th’s regimental commander told him that, contrary to Mott’s report, there had been no counterattack the previous night. Later that day back at Mott’s command post, when Harding tried to defend his chief of staff’s conduct to Eichelberger, the corps commander promptly relieved them both. General Eichelberger now made plans for his own attack on Buna.
Company F, of course, knew little of what had happened, only that high-ranking officers had been relieved. Odell wrote that ‘during the 17 days and nights I was in action we had no less than 6 (the 7th finished the job) different Colonels commanding the task force to which we belonged; four different Generals commanding the division (two of whom were wounded); and three changes each in our battalion and company commanders, not to mention numerous changes of lesser importance.’ Odell’s men had also been given a reprieve. After days of fighting, they were designated as the reserve for the attack set to begin on December 5. In reserve–a mere 200 yards from the frontmost American foxholes–the men set about refitting, resting and reorganizing themselves. On December 2, Allied aircraft bombed and strafed Company F’s positions in three separate attacks; the first and longest attack lasting two hours. Only two GIs were wounded by flying shrapnel, but the psychological toll left two men demented, and others collapsed in nervous exhaustion, ‘crying like children or shaking from head to foot,’ according to Odell.
The Japanese hunkered down in bunkers opposite Odell suffered every bit as much as the Americans. The men in the positions, one Japanese staff officer reported, were subject to air and artillery bombardment all day long. Even in the front lines, the men refused to fire at enemy aircraft in order to avoid being bombed. There was little time to sleep day or night, and the troops were confined to flooded foxholes for weeks on end. A line officer wrote in his diary of seeing several of his men go mad ‘before my eyes’ because of the constant pounding, and another staff officer regretted the ‘wretched sight’ of Japanese casualties having to prop themselves upright to avoid drowning in their bedrolls during the continuing, unremitting rainstorms.
The day of the mistaken air attacks, Odell took command of Company F. The company commander had been wounded during the November 30 night attack, but refused evacuation and opted to stay on the line. Two days later, he was so weak from his untreated wound that he could hardly stand, and the next morning he struggled back to the aid station. Combat and disease were slowly and steadily whittling down Company F. Unit morning reports counted 163 effectives when their march over the Owen Stanleys began in late October. A total of 140 officers and men went into combat in late November, and by December 2 the unit was down to 106 effectives. Opposite them the same whittling effect had left a Japanese rifle company with only 34 men available for front-line duty from the original 112 assigned. For the Japanese, no replacements were available.While Odell’s men regrouped, General Eichelberger, heeding the advice of a regimental commander, had stopped all fighting for two days as he reorganized his new command and laid out his plans to seize Buna Village, the small settlement located 1,000 yards from the mission. On December 5 Eichelberger launched the assault that he expected would capture the village. When the 2nd Battalion’s attacks got nowhere, Company F was thrown into the fight.
‘Summoned to the advance Command Post,’ Odell recalled, ‘I was surprised to see a couple of generals–one a three-star–in addition to the usual array of majors and colonels. The lieutenant general explained what he wanted and after a brief delay I brought up the company and deployed accordingly. The new lieutenant was to take half the company up one side of the trail, and I the other half on the opposite side. We were given 10 mins. to make our reconnaissances and to gather information from the most forward troops which we were to pass. It was intended that we finish the job–actually take the village–and that we needed little more than bayonets to do it. Well, off we went, and within minutes our forward rush had definitely and completely halted. Of the 40 men who started with me, four had been (known) dead and 18 were lying wounded.’
The other half of the company suffered similar losses. Only yards from the village, Japanese naval infantry, fighting desperately from pillboxes, bunkers, barricades and trenches, had stopped Company F cold. Even Eichelberger accepted that no more could be done that day.
While Company F absorbed fearful losses, a platoon of Company H, attached to Company G, maneuvered around the heavily fortified Buna Village and fought its way through from the beach, thereby cutting the Japanese defenses in two. The 18-man platoon then proceeded to fight off Japanese counterattacks from both directions at dawn on December 6. Later that day, Company F was ordered to send a 10-man detail to reinforce the salient. Odell was once again a platoon leader because a captain, formerly assigned to Company F but lately serving as assistant battalion commander, had returned to take command of the company. Odell’s detail was to extend the American line from the beach to the sea, a nasty job that required the GIs to clear the beach of two Japanese outposts whose approaches were completely exposed to enfilading enemy fire.
The small band tried to provoke the Japanese into revealing their positions on the American flanks by spraying automatic-weapons bursts into the jungle and tossing grenades in the direction of the Japanese outposts. No return fire erupted, but none of the men wanted to cross the open beach to reach the enemy outposts. Odell decided that he could not order his men to attack until he had personally led the way. With bayonet in one hand and hand grenade in the other, he half ran and half crawled the 20 yards to the first outpost. No one fired at him, and the only Japanese he found in the outpost were dead or dying. Then Odell ordered three of his men to dig in at the outpost, but when they reached it, a wounded Japanese soldier lunged at them with a shovel. He was too weak to get to his feet, and several rifle bullets made certain that he would never rise again. The rifle reports alerted nearby Japanese to what was happening and, with surprise lost, prevented Odell’s party from taking the second, now reinforced, outpost that was several yards closer to the Japanese-held lines. His tiny band, however, had reached the sea and cut off Buna Village from reinforcements.
Aware of the danger, the Japanese from Buna Mission organized a counterattack against the American salient. Heavy machine-gun and rifle fire announced the assault, but the fire was high, passing over the GIs. ‘It was quite a sensation,’ recorded Odell,’stretched out in a foxhole (8 inches deep in water as one of the minor difficulties–sand in your clothes, rifle, etc.) watching the leaves of the trees and bushes above your head rapidly assuming the appearance of cheesecloth.’ Suddenly eight or 10 rifle grenades exploded near the outpost. Then about 40 to 50 Japanese, screaming war cries, smashed into the outpost. The Americans managed to hold, but just barely. By this time everyone left was ‘pretty jittery’–Odell was unable at one point to stop his body from shaking–as they crouched in their water-logged foxholes. They could hear Japanese infantry crawling in the bush around their perimeter and answered with hand grenades and machine-gun fire. A Japanese hand grenade put the machine gun out of action and killed the gunner. Three Japanese were bayoneted within the American lines. Despite the darkness, Odell called for reinforcements, who arrived three hours later. They were all from the cannon company and were more jittery than what was left of the Company F platoon. Fortunately for the Americans, the Japanese were spent, and the rest of the night passed without serious fighting.
Over the next three days and nights, there were so few men left in Company F that they were fed into the battalion line as fillers. The company had ceased to exist for practical purposes. The troops were so close to Japanese lines that they could hear the enemy talking, but the attacks of December 7 had used up the enemy reserves. By that time, of the 6,000 Japanese troops at Buna and nearby Giruwa, 2,000 were dead and another 500 to 600 hospitalized. On average, 20 Japanese died of illness every day in December, as the cut-off troops subsisted on a half-pint of rice per day. ‘Even regimental and battalion commanders,’ lamented one Tokyo staff officer, ‘do not play their proper roles and lack spirited morale.’ Junior officers were racked with malaria and other jungle diseases. Some were so exhausted and sick as to be comatose in their foxholes. Others, ravaged by illness, tried to command but were too weak to do so. Still, the Japanese clung to Buna and remained determined to defend their field cemetery to the death.
The surviving Japanese still manned strong bunkers that blocked the GIs’ final adva enemy talking, but the attacks of December 7 had used up the enemy reserves. By that time, of the 6,000 Japanese troops at Buna and nearby Giruwa, 2,000 were dead and another 500 to 600 hospitalized. On average, 20 Japanese died of illness every day in December, as the cut-off troops subsisted on a half-pint of rice per day. ‘Even regimental and battalion commanders,’ lamented one Tokyo staff officer, ‘do not play their proper roles and lack spirited morale.’ Junior officers were racked with malaria and other jungle diseases. Some were so exhausted and sick as to be comatose in their foxholes. Others, ravaged by illness, tried to command but were too weak to do so. Still, the Japanese clung to Buna and remained determined to defend their field cemetery to the death.
The surviving Japanese still manned strong bunkers that blocked the GIs’ final advance into Buna Village. Company F would not make that final push, for on December 11 it was finally relieved. A roll call counted 38 effectives, and even adding company cooks, artificers and so forth, after pulling out of the line and reaching the first ‘rest area’–a swamp two miles from the front–only 52 men were mustered. The fresh 3rd Battalion, 127th Infantry, whose men were ‘clean, husky, healthy, and well equipped,’ according to Odell, traded places with the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, whose dirty, disheveled, debilitated, gaunt, heavily bearded veterans had launched 12 vain attacks against Buna Village over a period of two weeks. The village would not fall until December 14, and the Buna area would not be secure until January 3, 1943.
Fourteen hundred Japanese were buried at Buna alone. As of January 6, 1943, the 32nd Division had lost 353 men killed, 1,508 wounded and 93 missing. On January 9, a few days after Buna Mission was taken, Eichelberger summed up the campaign: ‘While I must admit that there were certain things our troops did that I never want to remember, I do feel General MacArthur should take a great deal of pride in what was a very savage operation.’
This article was written by Ed Drea and originally appeared in the September 2002 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!