Battle of the Beachheads

Australian victories at Milne Bay (25 August – 7 September 1942) and Kokoda (21 July – 16 November 1942) destroyed Japanese plans for capturing Port Moresby but 9,000 Japanese remained entrenched in the eminently defensible northern beachheads of Buna, Gona and Sanananda.

The weary Australian units, who had pushed the Japanese across the Owen Stanley Range, were called upon to attack and capture Sanananda and Gona, even though many units were down to one-third normal strength. Two regiments of the American 32nd Division were given the task of capturing Buna.

The untried American 128th Regiment launched their attack on Buna and nearby Cape Endaiadere on 19 November 1942 but failed against experienced Japanese troops. A day later the Australian 25th Brigade attacked Gona, while the 16th Brigade advanced up the central Sanananda Track. These attacks also faltered.

Walking wounded in the Sanananda area, possibly a member of the 2/7th Cavalry Commando assisted by QX16184 Corporal A G 'Scrap Iron' Arthur.

Japanese aircraft had inflicted a serious blow three days earlier, on 16 November 1942, when they destroyed an American convoy carrying heavy weapons and supplies. The sinking of these vessels increased the importance of air transport and engineers established two airfields behind the Allied front before 21 November 1942.

PAPUA, GIROPA POINT. AUSTRALIAN MANNED M3 GENERAL STUART TANKS ATTACKING JAPANESE PILLBOXES IN THE FINAL ASSAULT ON BUNA. MEN OF D COMPANY, 2/12TH BATTALION, FIRE ON 25 JAPANESE (NOT SEEN), USING BREN MK 1 MACHINE GUNS AND SMLE NO 1 MKIII* RIFLES, WHO ARE FLEEING FROM A WRECKED PILLBOX 150 YARDS AWAY. THE PILLBOX WAS DESTROYED BY THE GENERAL STUART TANK SHOWN HERE. IN THE FOREGROUND ARE PRIVATE J. SEARLE AND CORPORAL G. G. FLETCHER. THIS PHOTOGRAPH WAS TAKEN DURING THE ACTUAL FIGHTING.

An ‘air bridge’ flew men and bulk equipment from Port Moresby while a fighter ‘umbrella’ protected the transports from Japanese fighters. Allied air superiority over the beachheads was soon established when Japanese Mitsubishi Zero and Nakajima Oscar fighters, based at Lae and Salamaua, encountered superior American Lockheed Lightnings.

PAPUA. ALLIES ATTACK BUNA. A SIGNALLERS' POST, MANNED BY AMERICANS, AT A FORWARD AREA IN BUNA. (NEGATIVE BY G. SILK).

Lacking air-cover, resupply became a serious problem for Japanese troops. Food and medical supplies began to run low and a malaria epidemic took hold. The spirit of the Japanese, however, remained defiant and further Allied offensives stalled as the Australians and Americans also succumbed to exhaustion and malaria.

NEW GUINEA. REINFORCEMENTS FOR THE BUNA AREA. THIS IS THE FIRST TIME AUSTRALIAN TROOPS HAVE BEEN FLOWN INTO ACTION. GENERAL SIR THOMAS BLAMEY WISHES THE TROOPS "GOOD LUCK". (NEGATIVE BY G. SILK).

The heroes of the early phase of the Kokoda Campaign, the understrength but rested 21st Brigade and the 39th Battalion, were now flown into the beachheads sector with a reformed 30th Brigade, comprising 36th, 49th and 55th/53rd Militia Battalions. These men relieved the exhausted 16th and 25th Brigades but took terrible losses in the fighting that followed. The men cleared the area nonetheless. On 9 December 1942, the 39th Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner (1904 - 94) sent 21st Brigade HQ the famous signal: ‘Gona’s gone.’

The Australian 18th Brigade, meanwhile, was brought up from Milne Bay to assist the Americans attacking Buna. Australian soldiers and tanks crossed the Simemi Creek and delivered the coup de grace to the Japanese at Giropa Point on 1 January 1943. The Allies now turned their attention to the last bastion, Sanananda. It fell on 22 January 1943.

The Battle of the Beachheads had been the bloodiest of all the Papuan campaigns. The Australians had lost 1,261 killed and 2,210 wounded, the Americans 734 Killed and 2,037 wounded. Total Japanese casualties in Papua for the period between July 1942 and January 1943 were 19,250.

NEW GUINEA. GONA. AUSTRALIANS ON RECONNAISSANCE IN THE GONA AREA FOUND THIS PIECE OF PACKING CASE MARKED "A.I.F. MALAYA". EVIDENTLY AUSTRALIAN MATERIAL CAPTURED IN MALAYA IS BEING USED AGAINST US IN NEW GUINEA. (NEGATIVE BY G. SILK).

-Neil Sharkey

Buna, Gona and Sanananda