80 years ago, on 22 January 1943, American and Australian forces ended their first major campaign of WWII in the Pacific. It was also their first success after suffering a string of losses throughout the Pacific, as the Japanese quickly occupied Allied strongholds such as Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies.
In the Southwest Pacific Area, the Japanese Army’s strategic goal was the capture of the Papuan capital city of Port Moresby. By taking it, the Japanese hoped to sever the sea lines of communication between the U.S. and Australia, cutting the vital supply lines.
Japan’s first attempt was by sea, launching a strong Naval Task Force into the Coral Sea. However, the Japanese were dealt a setback. The Japanese lost naval superiority in the Battles of Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942) and Midway (4-7 June 1942), forcing them to attempt to seize Port Moresby by land. Occupying Buna in the north of Papua, the Japanese Army attacked south through the mountainous, heavily jungled trails over the Owen Stanley Mountains, over 13,000 ft in elevation. The Allies moved quickly to interdict, pushing troops piecemeal into battle as they arrived in theater. Both sides fought hard for control of the Kokoda Trail, a jungle path that crossed the Stanleys and entered Port Moresby from the north.
In addition to the horrendous terrain, Soldiers on both sides had to contend with other challenges that made combat in Papua a living hell. The thick vegetation limited observation to a few yards, making it difficult to effectively engage the enemy at a distance with supporting arms. The weather also complicated operations. At low levels the high temperatures, humidity and rainfall wore down combatants; at higher altitudes the temperatures dropped. Rainfall averaged ten inches a day, turning trails to muddy bogs and swelling streams to rivers. Soldiers could not stay dry and their clothes rotted off their bodies. Sharp Kunai grass 7 feet high cut skin, opening wounds that wouldn’t heal. Mosquitos, leeches, and disease attacked voraciously.
The Army also had to develop new ways of sustaining the force. Trafficability was bad, forcing troops to manpack food, water, and ammo, wearing them down. The high heat turned rations rancid, leading to development of better jungle rations. Creative use of boats, airdrops, animals, and porters were developed to keep supplies moving forward. The experience gained in this campaign carried over to later campaigns, allowing Army logistics to perform at a high rate of success. They also learned the value of airfields.
The first American troops (32nd and 41st Infantry Divisions) arrived incrementally and reinforced Australian defenders, worn out from months of combat. They were organized into a new I Corps command under MG Robert L. Eichelberger. Soon, the combined effort began achieving success against the enemy. By early August, the Allies had secured Kokoda and were using its airfield to push the Japanese back toward Buna. In early September, a Japanese flanking attack at Milne Bay was repulsed, strengthening the Allies’ situation. A multiple-axis attack in October pushed the Japanese back into Buna, leading to a drive in November by the newly-arrived 127th Infantry Regiment. In late December the Japanese had been pushed out of Buna into Sanananda, where they would fight on until surrendering on 22 January, bringing the Papua Campaign to an end.
The Army’s entry into the fight had been costly, but they learned a lot. The Papua veterans suffered greatly; in the 32nd ID alone, 66 percent suffered from some sickness. More than 650 had been killed in combat and another 2,500 wounded. Artillery planners learned new ways of providing effective support. The value of airfields and air support was reinforced, as were new means of employing naval gunfire by attacking forces. Most of all, the Army relearned the value of proper preparation and training of troops before they were committed to battle. The lessons of Papua were disseminated to train every Soldier entering the Pacific Theater in the tactics, techniques, and procedures needed to be successful in combat against the Japanese.