By Mark Matsunaga
January 22, 1943: The two-month Battle of Buna-Gona ends, giving the Allies a hard-won foothold on the northeast coast of New Guinea’s Papuan Peninsula. The battle marked the shift of General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Area Command from defense to offense and helped to ease Japanese pressure in the nearby Solomon Islands, where U.S. forces are fighting hard on Guadalcanal.
At Buna-Gona, the Japanese fought more tenaciously than any previously encountered, and this battle presaged the fierce contests to come in the Pacific.
After pursuing retreating Japanese forces across the Owen Stanley Mountains in the Kokoda Track campaign, Australian “diggers” and American GIs faced well-fortified positions in the coastal villages of Gona and Bunda, and between them, Sanananda Point. The initial attacks were mounted by the veteran Australian 7th Division and the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division, a former National Guard outfit from the Midwest that had only arrived in theater a few months earlier. Three weeks into the attack, I Corps commander Robert Eichelberger relieved the 32nd Division commander and other senior officers. The attack was later reinforced by units that include the 41st Division’s 163rd Regimental Combat Team and an Australian squadron of M-3 Stuart tanks.
New Guinea was a green hell for Allied and Japanese soldiers, with unbelievably thick jungles, impassable rivers and swamps, exotic fauna from bugs to crocodiles, and diseases from malaria and dysentery to gangrene and jungle rot. Illness felled more troops than combat. And the fighting at Buna-Gona took place during the wet season, characterized by frequent, staggering torrents of rain. Resupply was often impossible for both sides in the early stages of the battle and never improved for the Japanese, who resorted to cannibalism by the end. The stench of unburied corpses forced some troops to fight wearing gas masks.
For the Allies, the Battle of Buna-Gona was one of the costliest battles of the Pacific War. Allied casualties included nearly 2,000 killed in action, more than the total on Guadalcanal, where twice as many U.S. troops were committed, over a longer period. More than 10,000 other Allied troops were wounded or sick. While some Japanese troops escaped up the coast, Japan lost an estimated 8,000 troops at Buna-Gona.
The Allies learned much from the battle, including MacArthur, who would develop a strategy of leapfrogging past enemy strongholds, a strategy that led his Southwest Pacific Area to have the lowest casualty rates of all in World War II.
Eight months after the battle, Life magazine – the nation’s leading visual media outlet in those pre-television days – was allowed to publish a photo taken in January by Life photojournalist George Strock showing corpses of GIs on the beach at Buna. It was the first time in World War II that government censors allowed publication of an image of American dead on the battlefield. Its release required the personal approval of President Franklin Roosevelt.