“Were the Buna and Sanananda campaigns really justified?” an acquaintance asked recently. “Why didn’t you just by-pass the Japanese garrisons and leave them there to starve and rot?”
The question shows a profound ignorance of the situation as it existed in 1942. It is true that later in the war we successfully by-passed many Japanese garrisons, cut across their sea and land supply lines, and, in the words of the callous amateur strategist, left them “to starve and rot.” But that was at a time when we had secure bases from which such operations could be maintained, when we had achieved air superiority and were on the way to supremacy at sea as well.
At this same time, it should be made clear, the Allies were also dealing with another Japanese offensive in the Pacific, the drive down the Solomons. This theater of action was under Navy command with headquarters in Noumea. The area was called “South Pacific” to differentiate it from “Southwest Pacific,” where General MacArthur was Allied chief.
In the Solomons, operating on a shoestring and with heavy losses in fighting ships and planes, Americans were seeking to maintain a precarious foothold on the advanced beachhead at Guadalcanal. I still recall the dismal August day when Admiral Leary told me the results of the Battle of Savo Island. We had five heavy cruisers and a group of destroyers there to protect our Guadalcanal transports. The engagement lasted eight minutes. The Japanese had no losses. We lost four of our cruisers — the Quincy, Vincennes, Astoria, and Canberra (Royal Australian Navy). The fifth cruiser, the Chicago, was damaged. It took considerable optimism in those days to believe we were on the winning side of the fight.
It was a poor man’s war in the Pacific, from the Allied point of view, when the Battle of Buna was fought. The miracles of production managed by American factories and American labor were slow to manifest themselves Down Under. We were at the end of the supply line. There were no landing craft for amphibious operations; indeed, because the Japanese had air control in New Guinea waters, no naval fighting ship of any size was permitted to enter the area. The Japanese had gone into the war fully prepared; in 1942 it was they who had the specially designed landing craft for amphibious campaigns, the equipment, the ships, the planes, and the battle experience.
In battle the margin between victory and defeat is often narrow. Under the terrific pressures of combat, officers and men alike tend to forget that the enemy is hard pressed too. Sometimes just plain stubbornness wins the battle that awareness and wisdom might have lost. That’s what happened at Buna. The Japanese morale cracked before ours did. Major Schroeder was one of the brave, stubborn men. He was killed in the very attack that won us the sea.
Several days of hard fighting followed. On January 2 a coordinated attack was made by both the Urbana and Warren Forces. More tanks had come in to spearhead the Warren Force attack, and the Urbana Force had succeeded in surrounding the Mission. Before nightfall we controlled the entire coastline east of the Girua River. I find that I wrote that evening: “At 4:30 p.m. I crossed the bridge (from the Island), after C Company had passed, and I saw American troops with their bellies out of the mud and their eyes in the sun. ... It was one of the grandest sights I have ever seen.”
Organized resistance ended on January 3, but for many days thereafter our soldiers were hunting out Japanese stragglers in the jungle and swamps. Almost all resisted capture and had to be killed.
27 August 2017
Southwest Pacific Campaigns in 1942
From Our Jungle Road to Tokyo, by Robert L. Eichelberger (Gorget Books, 2017; first published 1950), Kindle Loc. 609-28, 1153-63: