Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Kokoda Track, part 3--The Fight for Papua

Part 1: Intro, Terrain        Part 2: The Retreat from Kokoda

The Air Battle for Papua New Guinea
"I often wondered what MacArthur's reactions were when he read that a thousand planes took off from England to bomb a German base, when he himself at the start could rarely send more than a half dozen planes on a bombing mission to New Guinea . . . the maximum number of planes he was able to muster for one raid during 1942 was thirty-one and this was late in the year when the boys gave Rabaul a good going over."                     --Pat Robinson. p.34

Pat Robinson was a correspondent who beat MacArthur into Australia in 1942. He was the first U.S. correspondent in New Guinea and had a particular interest in the air battles and the men who fought them. His contention is that the local waters belonged to the Japanese, so MacArthur had no Navy support. He made the Air Corps do what a Navy generally did: control the maritime areas and the flow of materiel.
"Our boys would leave Townsville, often in the middle of the night, go up to Moresby, a four-hour flight, refuel there, and immediately take off for one of the Jap strongholds. No matter how hardened some of them may have become, they always showed the effects of the nervous strain of these missions. Fourteen or fifteen hours of almost continuous flight, with an ackack barrage and perhaps a dogfight thrown in . . . . I have seen some of them drop into their beds . . . others were so keyed up they couldn't sleep at all."  p. 45.
Once in Moresby, a pilot flew to protect his plane from Japanese strafing. He flew to protect his airfield from Japan's assault. And then he flew daily supply drops on the Track and/or Allied assaults. Robinson reports elsewhere that sometimes pilots and crews would go out, come back to refuel, go back out again--sometimes six missions before day's end. There were just not enough planes.

(Note: Costello agrees about the planes, but unlike Robinson, he's got no brief for MacArthur. Bergerud says the Pacific land war was not a general's war. It was fought and commanded by the officers who were actually at the front: Lieutenant-Colonels, for instance.)

The Land War for Papua New Guinea
With the embattled Australian 39th fighting a rearguard action to the Gap with scattered reinforcements from the 7th Australian Division, their backs against the slopes (C). The Japanese outflanked them at Isaruva along the Kokoda Track, putting them 50 miles away from Port Moresby.

Geoffrey Lyon, a young officer in the 21st Brigade of Australia's 7th Division said: (B)
It was a war of shadows. . . . before I went up the track a chap came down who was wounded. He said, 'I haven't even seen a Japanese yet.'  [The Japanese] had superior training and a more profound understanding of jungle warfare. At headquarters, Ours and MacArthur's, we profoundly underestimated the size of their force.
(Australian War Memorial 026852, near Uberi Village, pulling artillery up the track)

By August 25th, MacArthur learned the Japanese were going to attack Port Moresby with another landing of soldiers at Milne Bay (to the East). He sent in the 18th Australian military brigade and 1300 American soldiers by air for reinforcements to the Port Moresby area and tried to bomb Japanese carriers bringing more troops into Milne Bay. They were unsuccessful, but Port Moresby now had sufficient Allies to stop the invasion, killing 2000 Japanese soldiers and ending that threat. Some of those soldiers and some other efforts could now be turned to the bloody Kokoda Track.

On September 5, General Horii's troops were still advancing toward Port Moresby, but now their supply chain had lengthened, and the jungle began to defeat them. On September 17, they took Ioribaiwa on the Kokoda Track. And on September 18, Tokyo ordered them to retreat to Buna. They wanted some of his troops to reinforce Guadalcanal. (C). The war advanced again, back up the Kokoda Track, with the Australians pushing the Japanese this time.

General Horii mounted defensive stands, reinforced by troops from Buna. By October 21, they built bunkers on Eora Creek and held them for a week against the 16th Australian infantry, who had dragged artillery pieces by mule and native bearer through the jungle. On October 28, they lost Kokoda. They then made a stand at the Kumasi River, the same river that the Australians had left in July (Wairopi). The wooden Japanese bridge, built when the Australians cut the rope one away, had been bombed to splinters. General Horii drowned there, trying to cross.

The Golden Stair
(P02423, Australian War Memorial archive, the Golden Stair)

No discussion of the advance up the Kokoda Track is complete without mentioning the Golden Stair. "Near the village of Uberi, which served as an Australian supply depot in September of 1942. Logs were laid in a kind of staircase (held by stakes at either end), rising 1200 feet the first three miles, drops 1600 feet almost straight down, and then rises another 2000 feet in the last four miles." (B).

The stairs varied in height from 12 to 18 inches. Some of the logs were not securely staked. Therefore, those that climbed did not step on the logs, but beyond them, into the mud behind each log. Naturally the rear of any formation was stepping into nothing but soup. (B). Geoffrey Lyon again:
"Don't tell me about the golden stairs. We started in the morning and I finished abut 9:00 at night on my hands and knees. I wasn't worth a bumper. But we made it."
The Battles for Buna and Goa (November 15, 1942-- January 22, 1943)
On November 17th, MacArthur launched a new offensive to take Buna and Goa, with the Americans fighting for Buna and the Australians for Goa. At "Bloody Buna" the supply, the communications, and the sickness ripped through the troops. The front was completely demoralized and refused to advance.

In Australia, MacArthur (according to (C), wearing a pink silk bathrobe and eating lettuce when he wasn't screaming on the phone) finally sent General Eichelberger, who discovered none of the American troops had eaten in over a day, nor eaten anything hot in ten days. For both armies, the arrival of better artillery helped morale immensely. The renewed American assault began again on December 5. (C)

The casualty rate in the battle for these two towns was higher than that of Guadalcanal. (W). Some parts of the 7th sustained a 67% casualty rate. It was a brutal sign of things to come.

As I mentioned in part 1, the Guadalcanal Campaign (August 7, 1942-February 9, 1943) remains the symbol of American sacrifice in the Pacific. This fight for New Guinea, especially its land war, is the one that touches the Australian people. Which was the most important?  The Japanese believed that each was part of the other--a pincer action from both East and West in the Solomon Sea. (B). In both cases, the Japanese lost. The offensive started to shift from Japan to the Allies in the Pacific.

Costello maintains that the U.S. Navy built the supply chain/route over the first year, a more dependable and constant run from California to the Pacific Theatre. That in 1942, most Allied soldiers at the front did not eat turkey for Thanksgiving. That in 1943, they all did. The fight for New Guinea, for Guadalcanal and Tulagi, occurred in the year before the turkey dinners, the malaria medicine, or the replacement parts for planes showed up.

The sea is a kind of terrain, a three-dimensional one, with submarines underneath and planes above. The jungles of the Pacific are a concentrated three-dimensional terrain. The land works against you: you might be sucked down any minute. You might be bombarded by a Zero or a horde of mosquitoes. This is the terrain where Australians and Americans met that impossible, vertical corduroy road called the Golden Stair on the Kokoda Track. The Track led to a gold mine. But in 1942, it led to privation, horror, sickness, death. They ran, walked, climbed, and crawled up it anyway.

Now you can hike the Kokoda Track with a tour guide. It takes four to twelve days. It is a popular pilgrimage for patriotic Australians. For so many fine reasons.

The End

Bergerud, Eric. Touched With Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific. Viking, 1996.
Costello, John. The Pacific War, 1941-1945. Quill, 1982.
Robinson, Pat. The Fight for New Guinea: The Story of MacArthur's First Offensive. A Random House Wartime Book, 1943.
Wikipedia, where linked and The Battle of Buna-Gona

Photos are from the Australian War Memorial via the Anzac Day Organization. According to the site, the proper use of AWM photos ALWAYS includes the photo number. They can be reproduced for commemorative purposes. You can get more on their proper use at the site listed above.


The Observer said...

Ann T:
All I can say is wow. These men are the bravest ever.

Great posts!

The Observer

Slamdunk said...

I enjoyed your series and learned some things--imagine that from time on the Internet.

I had to laugh about your MacArthur description: eating lettuce in the pink bathrobe.

My dad, the career Marine, hated MacArthur, but he always had to swallow his tongue when mom was around since the General was from mom's homestate of Arkansas.

Now that I think about it, the only two people that dad ever tempered his words when describing (with mom in the room) was MacArthur and Elvis--who mom also liked.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
I can never fully assimilate the hardship this must have been. Brave to the max.

Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.

Dear Slamdunk,
Both Costello and Robinson lovingly detail MacArthur's effect on Australian speech coverage in the press, although, Robinson called them inspiring and Costello called them bombast. I'm inclined to bombast myself. And I think Robinson may have overstated his admiration, given that he wanted more support for the Pacific Theater.

Even Costello says MacArthur had his work cut out for him.

Thanks very much,
Ann T.