War on New Guinea, Part 3
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
We began our story in Part One and continued it in Part Two.
Drugs and Food
Militia soldiers, many of them fresh 18-year-old conscripts with minimal training and little resistance to tropical diseases, had suffered terribly from malaria, dengue fever and other tropical diseases. Though the Militia battalions carried a strong medical establishment on paper, many of the doctors had no experience with these illnesses. And so young soldiers went into the bush wearing Queensland shorts and open-collared shirts or often no shirts at all - this made them slightly less miserable in the thick air and oppressive heat, but exposed huge swaths of flesh to mosquito attack.
Imperial Force battalions, having prepared for malaria before shipping out to North Africa, issued their men long tropical-issue trousers (though they retained their khaki uniforms rather than the more jungle-friendly green) and insisting they take their quinine regularly. They also forbade their troops to walk barefoot, to avoid the endemic hookworms found in New Guinea, and cautioned them not to scratch insect bites to avoid tropical infections. Battalions of both Australian branches shipped out with plentiful mosquito netting - white, civilian-issue netting, easily visible to Japanese snipers.
Japanese jungle training had prepared their troops for the hazards of the tropics, and they appear to have dosed themselves with quinine regularly - when they received supplies of the drug. The Japanese conquest of Java had cut off Allied supplies of the anti-malarial drug, and synthetic replacements and production from new Costa Rican plantations would not be available until 1944. Militia battalions appear to have received quinine - they simply did not always take it while Imperial Force troops dutifully swallowed theirs.
Troops of both sides also faced deadly missiles in the form of five-pound coconuts, falling from the top of 60-foot trees without warning. An unknown number of soldiers were killed by coconuts, but they provided desperately needed food to the Japanese and, from the Australian point of view, the makings for equally desperately needed illicit alcohol distilled by the Diggers even in the worst wilderness. A standing order required Australian troops to wear steel helmets at all times to protect them from falling fruit.
With motor vehicles unable to move more than a few miles from Port Moresby, the Australians depended on Papuan carriers to haul their supplies up the trail and bring the shocking numbers of wounded back - many of whom were required to stagger down the trail despite grievous injuries. Morris invoked his emergency powers to cancel all native labor contracts in the territory, impressing the Papuan workers into service military work (usually as carriers). Horses and mules confiscated from local plantations could only manage the first stages of the trail, after which human muscles had to take over. The Papuans disliked the work and deserted often; they also disliked Australian rations and insisted that the Army supply them with sweet potatoes and bananas instead.
Lt. Theodor Kienzle, the local planter and miner assigned to oversee native labor, pointed out that human carriers could not provide enough food to keep a significant force supplied at any distance up the Trail - the carriers had to eat as well, so part of their loads consisted of their own rations. A carrier could carry enough food to feed himself for 13 days, but he needed eight days to reach Kokoda - thus only 38 percent of his load could be devoted to food for the soldiers plus the arms, ammunition, medical supplies and other gear moving up the Trail. And that assumed that the carriers could be fed from resources gathered at Kokoda. Air drops of supplies would be vital to the campaign, Kienzle reported, even if the carriers kept working - and desertion continued despite improved pay and working conditions.
At the start of the campaign, Morris had only two American transport planes to support his command. American pilots proved reluctant to land at Kokoda due to fears of the Japanese, the Australians claimed. Two full squadrons arrived later and began to move supplies to a dry lake bed near the trail, but the American flyers and Australian logistics officers appear to have confused which lake bed would be used and large amounts of desperately-needed food and ammunition sat unretrieved. Attempts to drop supplies directly to the front-line troops usually failed, with containers bursting on impact. Even fighter planes were used to drop food, using their detachable fuel tanks to hold food and ammunition.
The Japanese had neither of these options available, and they stood at the end of a long, vulnerable supply line stretching back to Japan. Supplies unloaded at Buna or Gona were carried all the way to the front lines by sweating soldiers, forcing Horii to detach to good part of his force just to supply the rest. About 1,200 native carriers were conscripted in Rabaul and suffered alongside the Japanese, but few locals were found to join the effort. Before long the Japanese began to starve, leading to one of the more horrid war crimes of the Pacific conflict: the Japanese killed and ate Australian prisoners of war.
“We found them with meat stripped off their legs and half-cooked meat in the Japanese dishes,” recalled Corporal Bill Hedges. “I was heartily disgusted and disappointed to see my good friend lying there, with the flesh stripped off his arms and legs; his uniform torn off him.”
Return to Kokoda
Horii’s force was in no shape to continue its advance, and despite being “only 30 miles from Port Moresby,” it might as well have been half a planet away. Whether Imperial General Headquarters fully understood the situation is unclear, but on 14 September they ordered emphasis shifted to the campaign on Guadalcanal and a few days later Horii received orders to break off his continuing attacks and pull back to the beachheads on the north coast. Conflicting orders would issue forth from Tokyo over the next several weeks, but Horii simply ignored most of them and conducted a fighting retreat.
“Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” carry a wounded soldier of 39th Battalion.
On the Australian side, more fresh Imperial Force troops - finally outfitted in jungle green uniforms - continued to arrive. Many more transport planes had been made available, and supply services had become far more organized. MacArthur also sent two regiments of the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division to Port Moresby, one to help garrison the port and the other to take an alternative track across the Own Stanley Range and strike the Japanese in the flank. American troops were necessary, “Dug Out Doug” implied, so that he could be sure there would be at least some Allied soldiers on New Guinea who were willing to fight.
Some Australian leaders apparently shared MacArthur’s view of the “ragged bloody heroes.” Both MacArthur and Australian Prime Minister John Curtin pressed Blamey to fly to Port Moresby and take personal command of New Guinea Force. Australia’s top soldier did so, and in October paraded 21st Brigade, including the battered 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions. Blamey berated the Diggers for what he called a disgraceful series of defeats, demeaning their courage with the observation that, “it’s the rabbit who runs who gets shot, not the man holding the gun.”
Some Australian officers believed the Americans simply misunderstood the understated language Australia inherited from the British Army. “I am more convinced than ever,” Gen. George Vasey of 6th Australian Division wrote, “that our reports need to be written in Americanese. They don't understand our restrained English.”
The Australian advance began on 1 October, and the Diggers found hastily-abandoned Japanese positions with bodies and broken equipment strewn along the Trail. Evidence showed that the Japanese had been reduced to eating leaves and roots, while suffering from widespread dysentery. Soon evidence would also mount that they had been eating Australians. On prior battlefields, the dead of both sides had been left where they had fallen and the advancing Australians now finally buried them.
With a much larger force struggling back up the Trail, the Australians needed far more supplies even with the addition of more aircraft. Pressed to find Papuan carriers, they ignored Canberra’s restrictions and rounded up every able-bodied man in the Angua tribal villages along the track. They also forced carriers deserting from the Japanese to serve their liberators.
Fresh - and quite stylish - Diggers on the Kokoda Trail.
The Australians finally made contact with the Japanese on 8 October, and a single platoon dug in across the Trail held up the entire brigade trying the push past it. For several days the small group of Japanese repulsed Australian attacks, until an angry Blamey sent Maj. Gen. Arthur “Tubby” Allen of 7th Australian Division a stark order: “Your advance appears much too slow,” Blamey radioed. “You will press the enemy with vigour. If you are feeling strain personally relief will be arranged. Please be frank about this.”
The Japanese had dug carefully camouflaged single-man fighting positions that the Australians had to take one by one. Slowly they ground forward, but as they took one line they found new ones 300 to 500 yards behind them. Despite their exhausted, starved state the Japanese still built extremely effective interlocking field fortifications and held them with great determination. Yet all that Allied leaders could see was the disparity in total numbers on New Guinea and wonder why the Australians were not rolling over the Japanese.
Brig. John Lloyd’s 16th Brigade relieved the 25th Brigade on the 19th, after a send-off from Port Moresby overseen by MacArthur himself. “Lloyd, by some act of God, your brigade has been chosen for this job,” the American commander told him. “The eyes of the Western world are upon you.” After spending about an hour on the Trail’s lower reaches, MacArthur left.
The next day the fresh troops began to make a difference, as Japanese defenders broke and ran for the first time. On the next day the Diggers pushed forward to find Japanese positions empty of live defenders and littered with abandoned weapons and equipment. The key position at Templeton’s Crossing had been taken, but the broken battalion of 144th Regiment had fallen back through its sister battalion, now holding a line at Eora Creek.
With MacArthur now bombarding Blamey with messages impugning Australian leadership and physical courage, the Australian general in turn ordered Allen to press ahead at any cost without taking time to work around the open Japanese flank. Lloyd’s brigade launched a frontal assault across the creek just before dawn on 22 October. The Japanese met them with withering mortar and machine-gun fire, and only suicidal acts of bravery got the Australians close to the commanding heights held by the Japanese. They then dug in less than 30 yards from the enemy, and for the next several days the Australians and Japanese engaged in a constant, brutal struggle with grenades, bayonets and their bare hands,
Finally on the 28th, 2/3rd Battalion turned the Japanese left flank in no small part due to the crazed attack of Cpl. L.G. Pett, “five feet of dynamite” who single-handedly knocked out four Japanese machine-gun positions. He died of his wounds a week later. “Before this Eora Creek fight the men had been saying that the Japanese wouldn’t run,” recalled an Australian lieutenant. “Eora Creek proved that he would.”
Unimpressed, Blamey relieved Allen, replacing him with Vasey of 6th Australian Division, while on the Japanese side Horii’s 41st Regiment had made it back to the beachheads and he now ordered his 144th Regiment back across the Kusumi River. While crossing the Kusumi, Horii’s horse was swept away and he decided to take a native canoe downriver with his staff in order to get to work on the beachhead defenses as quickly as possible. A surge in the river swept the tiny craft out to sea, and Horii and his senior officers were never seen again.
Kokoda fell to the Australians on 2 November, and they pressed down to the beaches against little opposition. But there the Japanese had prepared themselves for a fanatical final defense, and the following Buna-Gona campaign would take many weeks and cost thousands more lives.
Australian losses totaled 625 dead, over 1,100 wounded and 4,000 sick; the Japanese suffered about 6,500 killed. The disparity is much less than the numbers imply, however, as few if any Japanese sick and wounded survived. “Australia’s Thermopylae” would become a national rallying point, an equivalent to the Great War sacrifices at Gallipoli. For the first time, Australia itself had been threatened by a foreign enemy, and the Diggers and Chocos held their ground and pressed the Japanese back.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published far too many books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold only eats lizards and dog chow.