Battle of Buna, Sanananda & Gona

The battles of Buna, Sanananda, and Gona was the final battle involving Australian troops following fighting in the Owen Stanley Range. The Allies had hoped it was going to be a battle that would be easily fought and won because the Japanese had lost most its force along the Kokoda Track. As the 16th and 25th Brigades had decisively defeated the Japanese in the battle of Oivi/Gorari it seemed it would be an easy road to the coast.

Allied commanders Generals Douglas MacArthur and Thomas Blamey had grossly underestimated the strength of the Japanese and overestimated the capability of the Allies. The Japanese had been heavily reinforced with an estimated 9000 men in dugouts ready to fight to the death. The 16th and 25th Brigades who initially confronted the Japanese were a third of their strength and the US 32nd Division hadn’t been trained in jungle warfare and lacked battle experience.

The battle began on 19th November 1942 with simultaneous attacks against the Japanese. The US launched attacks against Buna, the Australians against Gona, and both the US and Australians against Sanananda. The Allies were confronted with a series of well-fortified and camouflaged bunkers defended by enemy troops armed with heavy machine guns and mortars. Consequently, all Allied attacks made very little progress.

Hindered, the Allies constructed airfields in the area to fly in reinforcements and supplies from Port Moresby. The air support was much needed and played a very significant part in the battle. Fighters kept Japanese aircrafts at bay so Allied aircrafts could safely deliver troops and supplies. The only limitation was the bad weather often experienced over the ranges which either meant aircrafts couldn’t fly or only a limited flights were undertaken. These delays caused considerable food and ammunition shortages for the troops.

Australian and US casualties continued to mount despite Allied aircraft and artillery bombardment of Japanese positions. Apart from being killed and wounded due to enemy fire, many men fell victim to tropical diseases such as Malaria and had to be evacuated.

The 21st and 30th Brigades along with veterans of the Kokoda Track were flown in to relieve the battle-weary 16th and 25th Brigades by the end of November. Gona was captured by 21st Brigade on 9th November after repeated attacks and sustaining heavy casualties. The 18th Brigade who fought at Milne Bay reinforced the Americans at Buna who despite making some ground also suffered heavy casualties. With light Australian Stuart tanks in support, the brigade made continued progress but at the cost of hundreds of casualties.

As the battle continued into mid-January, the only place still occupied by the Japanese were areas around Sanananda. Little progress was made by 30th Brigade’s inexperienced militiamen and troops. The 18th Brigade was moved to Sanananda to take over the fighting from the 30th after clearing Buna of remaining enemy pockets. The tanks couldn’t be employed due to swamps in the area which stalled the attack.

On 22nd January 1943, all fighting in Papua ended and the campaign was won. Instead of being surrounded and starved to death, the Japanese had evacuated its survivors by sea.

Click here to lookup our guided tours of the Buna, Sanananda and Gona battle sites. The tours mostly include a village stay, meeting the lovely locals, and learning a bit about their customs and traditional lifestyle.