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Bloody Buna

The Battle for the Beachhead New Guinea 1942-43


David W. Cameron

Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2023

Paperback        440pp     RRP: $32.99


Reviewer: Rob Ellis, May 2024


David Cameron, author of more than 20 books on various aspects of Australian involvement in both the First and Second World Wars, has, in this case, produced a detailed and well-researched volume on one of the most significant battles of the Allied campaign against Imperial Japanese forces in New Guinea, at the end of the first year of Japan's attempts to establish its 'Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere'.

The re-capture of Buna was the first joint American-Australian land forces operation in the South-West Pacific Command under its  Commander-in-Chief, General Douglas MacArthur. The American commander in the field, Lt-Gen Robert Eichelberger, in his reports to Gen MacArthur, claimed that “...the 32nd Division alone took Buna – No one else did”. The American troops involved were the three Infantry Regiments of the 32nd Division, which was without its artillery (except for 1 x 105mm howitzer), anti-aircraft unit and armoured vehicle component. 

The Australian Brigade Group (the equivalent of one American regiment), was made up of three Australian battalions, part of a battery of 25-pounder [87mm] gun-howitzers, and a part-squadron of light 'Stuart' tanks. The Royal Australian Air Force provided most of the Allied air cover, making frequent attacks on Japanese positions. It was Australian-crewed 'Dakota' transports that flew in supplies of all types. RAN freighters and small ships also  provided substantial logistic support to both American and Australian troops.

Eichelbgerer overlooked that during the six weeks of the campaign, the US units took 1,954 casualties from a force approximately 4,900 strong, whereas the Australians lost 863 casualties from a force that numbered, at most, approximately 1,400. 

In this battle Australian troops were rewarded with one Distinguished Conduct Medal, two Military Crosses and 2 Military Medals. Members of the somewhat larger American contingent received two Congressional Medals of Honour, and nearly 30 Distinguished Service Crosses, (as well as one  Silver Star, awarded to their senior officer, Lt-Gen Eichelberger).

The Japanese forces in the Buna-Sanananda area were believed to have numbered, at most, 8,000 men [although this included some Korean 'indentured' labourers]. In the area of the battle of Buna it is estimated that about 3,500 troops were committed. Dead Japanese, counted after the battle, numbered 1,580,  and many others were never found. There is no estimate of wounded or missing;  only a very few were captured. Post-war Japanese estimates were that the losses in the area reached 70%  of the troops committed, so that it is possible that total Japanese casualties in and around Buna, in killed, wounded and evacuated sick numbered in the region of 3,800 to 4,000. [Replacements were brought in during the battle so the total committed was larger than the estimate given above]

Throughout the six weeks of this campaign there was bitter fighting for every inch of terrain occupied by the Japanese, and their bunkers were well-sited to give fire-support to each other, so each bunker, weapon-pit and trench had to be painstakingly cleared by troops who were often tired, hungry and exhausted by six weeks of hard fighting with little or no relief from the on-going stresses of fighting in a swampy jungle environment. It is no wonder that some of the inexperienced troops of one American battalion broke in the face of strong Japanese defences and had to be temporarily withdrawn for re-organisation and reinforcement.

Throughout this battle, the pressure on the troops was extreme, and many had to be evacuated due to sickness, as well as from battle wounds, There were continual changes of command, especially at platoon and company level, as junior officers became casualties.  At one stage, an Australian infantry company had only one of its six officers fit for active service, and all three platoons were commanded  by Sergeants.

At no stage did the Japanese give ground unless out-numbered or out-fought, and the Australian and American troops found it difficult to gain ground in a battle that was fought over a small triangular area no more than six kms long and two kms deep, covering an estimated 4.5 square kms of jungle, swamp, head-high kunai grass and coconut palm plantations, and intersected by muddy creeks.  There were no roads – only narrow tracks, often knee-deep in mud.

Few or no details are given of the numbers of troops involved, beyond some estimates of the strength of the often under-strength units involved in particular actions, or of the casualties suffered in total during the battle, which lasted from 19 November 1942 to 3 January 1943 – just short of eleven weeks of poor rations, almost continuous rainfall, lack of rest or sleep, and constant danger from artillery, aircraft and an enemy dedicated to fighting to the death to hold ground.  A timeline for the period of the battle, and of events leading up to the initial action would have made it easier to follow the ebb and flow of the action and give perspective to particular incidents of attack and counter-attack.

The book appears to have been written as a resource for researchers interested in the New Guinea Campaign, and the country over which it was fought, but unfortunately the few maps are hand-drawn (it would appear) and not easy to follow. Some locations are identified only by a 6-digit map reference numbers, but the maps in this book do not have the numbered grid lines which would enable the reader to identify any particular location, which makes it difficult to follow the course of action on the maps.

There are occasions when the focus of this book slides away from its main theme  - the recovery of the village of Buna and its missionary centre, and becomes involved in minor issues, which are not necessarily relevant to the main theme of the book. For example is it relevant to the description of the battle for Buna, to know that Private Stanley Martin, aged  29, had been a stockman in civil life before joining the 2nd AIF, or that Corporal John McKitterick had been a motor mechanic before enlisting. However, this information on age and pre-war civil occupation is given for almost all the Australian personnel named as having been involved in the battle, but American personnel are mentioned only by name, rank, appointment and unit.

This reader noted that the situation was complicated by the tendency of the senior American officers to dominate the command structure, despite the fact that many Australian officers were of equal rank and had more experience in combat and were better- trained to manage troops in jungle conditions, which their American opposite numbers were not. Also, some Americans of lower rank had little or no combat experience, whereas many of the Australians had fought in North Africa or had fought their way across the Owen Stanley Ranges against strong Japanese resistance.

Also, the author recognises the difficulties of command of troops, especially when the officers and other ranks of the larger contingent are not necessarily as experienced in combat, or in dealing with an alien environment than are those of the smaller force, which in this case was providing almost the entire support of artillery and armoured fighting vehicles,  as well as aerial support and logistical transport.

This is a book for the serious student of the New Guinea campaigns, to be read along with Raymond Paull's classic Retreat from Kokoda, (Heinemann, Melbourne, 1958) the story of the 39th Battalion of the CMF in Mud over Blood, edited by Carl Johnson & Owen Jenkins (History House, Blackburn, Victoria 2006), and Paul Ham's Kokoda (Harper Collins, Melbourne, 2004), and the many other books and archival papers mentioned in Mr Cameron's extensive bibliography.


The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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