Battle of the Beachheads

1942 stands as one of the most significant years in Australia’s wartime history. As Australians fought in defence of our shores, there were major battles in Papua (now a part of Papua New Guinea): along the Kokoda Track, at Milne Bay and at the Beacheads of Buna, Gona and, in early 1943, Sanananda.

31 January 2020

After Kokoda was secured in November 1942, the fighting moved to the Beachheads where Australians and Americans joined together in attacks on the Japanese positions at Buna, Gona and Sanananda in late 1942. With increased supplies, reinforcements and air support, they took all three strongholds by January 1943.

In the first three weeks of fighting the Allies made little progress, with infantry attacks on the Japanese only resulting in a high number of casualties. Expecting a depleted Japanese force, Allied troops instead found a force with up to 9,000 men which had been strengthened by reinforcements.

Of the Allied troops first brought in to the attack, the 16th and 25th Brigades were down to one-third of their normal strengths and were worn out after fighting their way across the mountains. Meanwhile American soldiers from the 32nd Division were not adequately trained for jungle warfare and had no combat experience.

The battle opened on 19-20 November with simultaneous attacks against Buna by the Americans, Gona by the Australians and Sanananda by both Australians and Americans. Encountering well-defended bunkers and well-armed enemy troops, the attack faltered on all fronts.

The Allies built airfields so that reinforcements and supplies could be flown in from Port Moresby. Allied aircraft and artillery bombed and shelled the Japanese positions, but the Australian and American troops continued to suffer heavy casualties in attacking them.

The battle for the beachheads dragged on into the middle of January 1943. It seemed that the Allies could only surround and starve out the Japanese, but suddenly in the middle of January it became clear that the Japanese were evacuating the survivors by sea. By 22 January 1943, Japanese resistance had ended and the campaign in Papua had been won.

The Allied victory at the Battle of the Beachheads marked the end of the fighting in Papua. It was also seen as the passing of the threat to Australia. More than 10,000 Japanese died in the Papuan Campaign, with the majority killed at Buna-Gona.

Commemorations

The service and sacrifice of Australian, Papua New Guinean and Allied service personnel in the Battle for the Beachheads are commemorated at the Popondetta Memorial in Papua New Guinea.

The Port Moresby (Bomana) War Cemetery in Port Moresby contains the graves of more than 3,800 Allied service personnel from the Second World War, including more than 3,300 Australians and the remains of more than 700 unidentified servicemen.

Facts

Australians who served

  • About 56,000 Australians were at one time or another involved either in Papua or in sea or air operations there.

Major Units

  • Australian 7th Division
  • American 32nd Division
  • 16th, 21st, 25th and 30th Brigades

Casualties

  • More than 1,200 Australians died
  • More than 2,000 Australians were wounded
  • More than 1,000 Americans were killed
  • Over 10,000 Japanese died from January 1942 to January 1943.

Specific medals

  • Pilot Officer John Archer received the United States Silver Star for his actions in shooting down a Japanese fighter near Gona in December 1942.
  • Among the many honours for the Battles at the Beachheads was the Military Medal awarded to Private Timothy Hughes, an aboriginal soldier from South Australia for his actions during the seizure of the Buna strip.

Cemeteries

  • Popondetta Memorial, Popondetta, PNG
  • The Port Moresby Memorial to the Missing, Bomana War Cemetery, Port Moresby, PNG
  • Port Moresby (Bomana) War Cemetery, Port Moresby, PNG

More information