75 Years Ago: End of the First Test

By the end of January, the Buna-Sanananda operation was winding down.  It had cost the US and Australian forces dearly to remove a well dug-in Japanese contingent from the North Coast of Papua New Guinea.

In the absence of any recent updates (was ill over the break, and missed the crucial updates that should have happened on the blog page), here are two re-posts from FB (the “book of face”) to the blog, which I did make, originally dated 21 and 31 December 2017, respectively.  The first is a reminder of what our guys were enduring through Thanksgiving and Christmas 1942, seventy-five years earlier.

75 years ago this month, a group of South Carolinians were already in action on the ground against the Japanese in Papua New Guinea, as part of the Allied effort to push the enemy off the North Coast of the Papuan peninsula. At and around Buna and Sanananda, these Americans faced the most miserable conditions imaginable. Untrained for jungle warfare, they fought as members of a thrown together division composed of Reservists, Regular Army, draftees, all layered onto a core of Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard.

The South Carolinians had only joined the unit in February of 1942, just shortly before they began a series of moves that led them to the West Coast, then on to Australia. From November ’42 to January ’43 they were deployed against well trained and battle-hardened Japanese Army and Marines in well dug-in positions along the North Coast.

Advancing through the jungle from the opposite side of the peninsula was necessary due to the lack of landing craft and know-how necessary to make an amphibious assault, as became the norm afterwards. The jungle debilitated the two initial infantry regiments long before they ever reached the enemy positions, so the 32nd Infantry Division entered combat already sick, starving, and with clothes and shoes in tatters.

The lessons of jungle warfare, essentially the playbook for the rest of the war, were learned the hard way, like those of the USMC in the contemporary action going on at Guadalcanal roughly the same time. Maybe more so, because of the shortfalls in planning and strategy in New Guinea. The 32nd sustained over 90% casualties across its three regiments, including five of the initial thirty-two South Carolinians killed in action. Yet they managed to win a victory, the first such on land against the Japanese, who up to that time had seemed unbeatable.

A lot of attention the last week or so has been devoted to the Americans at Bastogne and in the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge). Lest we forget that we are at the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Pacific “island hopping” campaign as well.

The book, 32 ANSWERED: A SOUTH CAROLINA VETERANS’ STORY, is not only the comprehensive tale of these South Carolinians who found themselves in combat in the jungles of Papua NG, but is also the latest and most exhaustive treatment of the Buna-Sanananda campaign to emerge. Please consider reading about this horrible campaign and the average American guys who experienced the loss and disruption of their peacetime livelihoods to go to war, not knowing they would be gone for 654 days (the whole span of the Pacific war, with little or no hope for rotation–there were no “tours” of duty under Gen. MacArthur), and some never to return alive.

They endured the rotting jungle and a deadly ruthless enemy for all of us through Thanksgiving and Christmas of ’42, and New Years’ Day ’43, for our freedom. Never forget that.

 

The second one is in reference to a particular image that is one of the most famous from the war.

[image is not public domain, but claiming fair use for educational purposes.]

WWII U.S. CASUALTIES BUNA GONA

75 years ago today, these three American soldiers were killed. LIFE photographer George Strock snapped this picture at some point a couple of days later. The soldiers by that time were already becoming buried in the surf.

Today, many who see this picture for the first time may assume that they were hit and killed immediately after exiting the apparent landing craft directly behind them. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. The partially- submerged craft behind them was a JAPANESE landing barge, one of several beached along this one stretch of the Papuan coast just west of “Buna Mission”, beyond a sand-spit that ran between “Buna Mission” and “Buna Village” (in the background treeline). There were no amphibious landing craft at MacArthur’s disposal this early in the Pacific theater. The men in question who gave their lives were actually at the end, not the beginning, of a long and rigorous period of combat when they were hit. They had already trekked or were airlifted in from the south coast, and had endured the misery of rotting, damp, malarial jungle and swamp, even before they met a well dug-in enemy on the north shore of the peninsula.

In the darkness of that early morning, exactly75 years ago, elements of E Company 127 and F Company 128 (green, largely untested American troops, a put-together force of regular army, reservists from South Carolina and neighboring states, fresh draftees from the West Coast, and all built on a core of Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard) tried an assault on “Buna Mission” by wading the shallows of the spit. Although noise discipline was supposed to be in effect, someone threw a grenade into one of the old Japanese barges. When it detonated, the element of surprise was lost, and these men came under fire from enemy positions in the Mission and on the beach just ahead. No casualties are listed in the official narrative, but this was the only action at Buna that took place near the barges, and these men likely were killed in this incident.

The picture was so shocking to the LIFE editors and to the censorship office in Washington DC that it was held back for nearly nine months after the end of the campaign. Finally, the censors allowed it to be released, to allow the public to see what the war effort was working to end.

Never forget that Americans were in combat 75 years ago, there in Papua New Guinea.

What we also know, from the 32 book research, is that this event directly preceded the ascendance of one of the South Carolinians to the leadership of this very same company, E 127.  According to Colonel Eddie Grose’s diary, Lt. Powell A. Fraser got the company back into shape after it had lost its nerve and had been relegated to perimeter guard duty only.  In the next days, Lt. Fraser would support another South Carolinian–Lt. Tally Doyle Fulmer–who had by default and by attrition taken over command of C 127.  Each of these two officers would receive the Distinguished Service Cross for their leadership in some of the final operations on the left flank of the Buna action, and leading to a push toward Giruwa and Sanananda further up the coast to the west.  [NOTE: This occasion was described in an earlier post on here, titled “The Moral Conscience of a Leader,” dating from 17 May 2016.]

The events of the Buna campaign are thoroughly covered in 32 ANSWERED, so no need to recap them here.  There was some limited correspondence that has survived (but not much) from the actual weeks of combat, and it is also included in the 32 book.  Some new items from the Dannelly collection have not been mentioned, but will be hopefully in the next post.  Much more material, as yet unpublished, exists from the weeks after the campaign.

[JHC]

21 January 2018

One thought on “75 Years Ago: End of the First Test

  1. Well done Joe. Thank you for the update. The story behind the picture draws attention to facts so often over looked, and rarely spoken of. Mistakes were made by ground troops, and many times those mistakes resulted in loss of life. War attacks from many angles, and many sides.

    Like

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