Chronology of the War in the South West Pacific
Japan entered the war in the Pacific with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.
The Japanese war machine was deemed to be invincible as they rapidly defeated the allied forces in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies as they advanced towards New Guinea.
Japan’s strategic objective was to establish a ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ by securing natural resources and protect it by preventing American forces using Australia as a base for counter-attack.
There was some dispute over Japanese intentions for Australia. The navy wanted to launch an invasion force whilst the army wanted to segregate the Americans by controlling the island chain to our north.
Japanese naval forces were turned back from Port Moresby in the battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and were defeated at the battle of Midway in June 1942.
The Japanese High Command then decided to capture Port Moresby with an overland advance across the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea.
The scene was set for an epic battle for survival across some of the most inhospitable jungle terrain on the planet.
7 December 1941 (8 December in Australia)
Japanese attack the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Honululu and land troops in British Malaya. On the same day the 49th Battalion (Militia) under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Kessels, disembark in Port Moresby.
3 January 1942
39th and 53rd Battalions (Militia) disembark in Port Moresby. Australian 30th Brigade under command of Brigadier Hatton was established. These Militia troops were deemed to be ‘ill-equipped, inexperienced and unfit for battle’. More than 30,000 seasoned veterans from the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) retained in Australia.
21 January 1942 – Madang, Lae and Salamua Bombed
Japanese bomb Madang, Lae and Salamua as a prelude to an invasion of New Guinea.
Major-General Tomitaro Horii’s South Seas Force, the Nankai Shitai, comprising 5,300 troops attack Rabaul. Horii’s troops were seasoned veterans having previously served in Manchuria and Guam. Horii rode a groomed white thoroughbred horse. Australian 2/22nd Battalion group withdrew into the jungle in an attempt to evade and escape the Japanese.
Japanese aircraft attacked Bougainville
29 January 1942
Japanese Imperial Headquarters issue a directive to Admiral Yamomoto: ‘The army and navy working together will occupy Lae and Salamua as quickly as possible. At the proper time the navy, independently, will occupy Tulagi and secure a seaplane base. If possible the army and navy will work conjointly and occupy Port Moresby, after the occupation of Lae and Salamua’.
3 February – Air Raids on Port Moresby
Japanese commence air raids on Port Moresby. This caused widespread panic amongst the native population. Major-General Basil Morris assumes command of the civil administration in New Guinea.
4 February 1942 – Massacre at Tol Plantation
150 Australians captured and massacred at Tol Plantation, Rabaul. Private Cook survived despite being bayoneted 11 times and left for dead. Only 360 of the 1200 Australians from the 2/22nd Battalion Lark Force survived the invasion of Rabaul. No plans were made for their reinforcement or evacuation by higher command. Gull Force at Ambon and Sparrow Force on Timor suffered the same fate. These three militia battalions were sacrificed by an unprepared government. They were untrained and poorly equipped. There were no reinforcement plans and no evacuation plans for these and any of the other ‘bird’ forces that were part of the Malay Barrier plans.
19 February 1942 – Darwin Bombed
Japanese aircraft bomb Darwin twice. Over 250 people killed. They were the first of Another 64 bombing raids over the Northern Territory and three dozen more in north Western Australia and Queensland.
3 March 1942 – Air Raid on Broome
Broome straffed by long range Japanese fighters. 70 to 100 killed, mainly refugees from the Dutch East Indies
8 March 1942
Japanese Nankai Shitai forces land at Lae and Salamua.
21 March 1942
Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) established. No 75 Kittyhawk Squadron, RAAF, commanded by Squadron Leader John Jackson arrives in Port Moresby. Jackson was killed on 28 April in a dogfight against Japanese Zeros. He was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross but did not live to receive it and the Port Moresby International Airport was named in his honour.
18 April 1942
General Douglas Macarthur, US Army, appointed Commander-in-Chief of the South West Pacific Area. Ordered ‘to hold Australia as a base for future offensive action against Japan’, and to ‘prepare to take the initiative’.
4-8 May 1942 - Battle of the Coral Sea
Japanese naval forces attempted to invade Port Moresby by sea. Turned back after engaging American and Australian naval forces in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
4-7 June 1942 - Battle of Midway
Japanese naval forces suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Midway. Japanese High Command abandoned plans for a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby and the planned occupation of New Caledonia, Samoa and Fiji.
24 June 1942
Maroubra Force (comprising the 39th Battalion, the Pacific Islands Battalion and supporting logistic elements) was formed for the task of preventing any Japanese movement in the direction of Port Moresby ‘via the gap in the Owen Stanley’s near Kokoda’.
7 July 1942
Lieutenant Colonel Owen, former Company Commander from the 2/22nd Battalion who escaped from the fall of Rabaul, appointed to command the 39th Battalion.
8 July 1942
19 July 1942
Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama leaves Rabaul with a force of 2000 troops. His orders were to land near Basabua (east of Gona), advance rapidly to the ‘mountain pass south of Kokoda’ and examine the track leading to Port Moresby.
21 July 1942 - Japanese Landings at Buna and Gona
Japanese Yokoyama Advance Butai of 5,900 troops land at Buna and Gona beachheads in preparation for their advance on Port Moresby via the formidable Owen Stanley Ranges. Vanguard strikes out immediately towards Kokoda on foot and bicycles.
22 July 1942
Yokoma Advance Butai (1/144th Battalion led by Lieutenant-Colonel Tsukamoto) contact the forward elements of B Company and the Pacific Islands Battalion at Awala. Australians forced to withdraw to Goiari. Remaining companies of the 39th Battalion depart from Port Moresby to march across the Kokoda Trail.
24 July 1942
Lieutenant Colonel Owen joins Captain Templeton in Kokoda.
26 July 1942
Australian reinforcement platoon lands at Kokoda airfield and quickly moves forward to Oivi. Captain Sam Templeton killed. Australians, under sustained attack, withdraw to the Kokoda plateau to find it deserted. Continue their withdrawal to Deniki.
27 July 1942
Colonel Owen, Commander of the 39th Battalion, re-occupies Kokoda with a small force of 80 men.
28 July 1942
Two aircraft circle Kokoda airfield with reinforcements from the 39th Battalion but return to Port Moresby without landing.
29 July 1942 - Battle of Kokoda
Japanese 1/144th Battalion launch their first attack against B Company, 39th Battalion on the Kokoda Plateau. Colonel Owen killed in action. Australians forced back to Deniki. Townsville bombed by Japanese aircraft.
30 July 1942 – Port Headland, Darwin and Horn Island Bombed
Australian reinforcements from the 39th Battalion arrive in Deniki. Port Headland, Darwin and Horn Island bombed by Japanese aircraft. Darwin more heavily bombed than Pearl Harbour.
31 July 1942
Japanese begin probing the 39th Battalion position at Deniki.
3 August 1942
Lieutenant Bert Kienzle discovers dry lake beds and recommends supplies be delivered by air-drop to support the forward units. The area was considered ‘tabu’ land by Koiari natives and did not have a name. Kienzle called it Myola, from the name of the wife of Major Elliot-Smith, Officer Commanding, Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit. Myola was an aboriginal term meaning ‘break of day’. The lake beds are extinct volcanoes that later burst their sides to form Eora Creek.
6 August 1942
Australian forces at Deniki build up to around 500 under the command of Major Alan Cameron. Cameron estimates between 300-500 Japanese at Kokoda and plans an attack to recapture the station.
7 August 1942
8 August 1942
39th Battalion launch a counter-attack on Kokoda and recapture the plateau.
11 August 1942
Lieutenant General Rowell arrives in Port Moresby as Commander, 1st Australian Corps and assumes command of all land forces in New Guinea. Major General Morris appointed to command the Australian New Guinea Administative Unit (ANGAU). Major General ‘Tubby’ Allen appointed to command Kokoda campaign forces.
12 August 1942
Japanese reinforcements arrive. Lieutenant-Colonel Tsukamoto’s 1/144th Battalion attacks Kokoda. Australians withdraw to Deniki.
13 August 1942 - Battle of Deniki
Up to 2000 Japanese from a reinforced 1/144th Battalion attack Deniki. Australians forced back to Isurava on 14 August.
14 August 1942
2/27th Battalion disembarks in Port Moresby and held in reserve.
15 August 1942
Lieutenant General Rowell visits troops and confides, ‘I don’t think that I’ve ever given any troops a tougher job than this’.
16 August 1942
Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner MC arrives at Isurava and assumes command of the 39th Battalion. Main body of 2/14th Battalion begin the trek to Isurava. Japanese destroy transport planes during a bombing raid on 7-Mile airfield in Port Moresby.
17 August 1942
1942 Main body of the Japanese South Seas Force departs Rabaul for Buna and Gona. Main body of the 2/14th Battalion begin the trek to Isurava.
18 August 1942
Brigadier Porter establishes an advance HQ at Eora Creek and positions the 39th and Pacific Islands Battalions at Isurava and the 53rd Battalion at Alola. Major General Horii lands at Buna-Gone beachhead.
18th Brigade AIF reinforces 7th Militia Brigade at Milne Bay - allied troops in the area now number more than 8,800.
21 August 1942
Major-General Tomitaro Horii in command of 13500 troops. Only the Owen Stanley Ranges and a thin line of Australian troops stand between him and his objective of Port Moresby. Allied force at Milne Bay reinforced by arrival of 18th Brigade and a second Kittyhawk squadron.
23 August 1942
Brigadier Arnold Potts MC assumes command of Maroubra Force comprising the 39th, 53rd, 2/14th, 2/16th and 2/27th Battalions. 2/27th Battalion held in reserve in Port Moresby because of the threat to Milne Bay.
24 August 1942
Honner assesses the condition of his men at Isurava: ‘Physically the pathetically young warriors of the 39th were in poor shape. Worn out by strenuous fighting and exhausting movement, and weakened by lack of food and sleep and shelter, many of them had literally come to a standstill'.
25 August 1942
39th and 53rd Militia Battalions occupy defensive positions on eastern and western sides of the Yodda Valley. Japanese amphibious force of 2000 marines conduct night landing at Milne Bay in preparation for attack against the 7th Infantry Brigade (Militia), 18th Brigade (AIF), 75 and 76 Squadrons RAAF. Bitter fighting erupts as Australians defend their positions then launch strong counter-attacks to force the Japanese onto the defensive. Heroic, almost suicidal, air support by RAAF pilots helps turn the tide.
26 August 1942 - Battle of Isurava
Japanese strategy to invade Port Moresby begins with co-ordinated attacks on the Australian defensive positions at Isurava and Milne Bay. Japanese 1/144th Regiment ordered to: ‘advance along the (eastern) side of the valley, deploy to the south of Isurava, block the Australians withdrawal, and annihilate them’. Lead elements of the 2/14th Battalion AIF arrive at Isurava to relieve the gallant but exhausted 39th Battalion. General Horii’s attack was about to be launched, and together Militia and AIF were to engage in actions as ferocious as any in the First World War, and in which these Aussies would equal the high standards of bravery, fighting ability and mateship set by the original Anzacs on Gallipoli. The significant difference was that in 1942 the Australians were fighting in defence of Australia.
27 August 1942 – Battle of Isurava
Lieutenant-Colonel Ward, Commanding Officer of the 53rd Militia Battalion, killed in action on Abuari-Missima track. Major Japanese attacks at Isurava ‘met with Bren-gun and Tommy-gun, with bayonet and grenade – but still they came, to close with the buffet of fist and boot and rifle-butt, the steel of crashing helmets and of straining, strangling fingers’. Although outnumbered by 6:1 the Australians did not yield.
28 August 1942 – Battle of Isurava
Lieutenant-Colonel Key, Commanding Officer of the 2/14th Battalion arrives to take command of the Isurava defensive position. Lieutenant-Colonel Honner remains with his battle weary troops to support the 2/14th Battalion. First time in Australia’s history that AIF and Militia forces fight side-by-side on Australian territory (at Isurava and Milne Bay) in defence of their homeland.
29 August 1942 – Battle of Isurava
General Horii, frustrated by his desire to annihilate the Australians at Isurava commits his reserve to the battle. Japanese breakthrough the Australian position and menace Battalion HQ. Private Bruce Kingsbury, leading a desperate counter-attack ‘rushed forward firing the Bren gun from his hip through terrific machine-gun fire and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy. Continuing to sweep enemy positions with his fire and inflicting an extremely high number of casualties on them, Private Kingsbury was then seen to fall to the ground shot dead by a bullet from a sniper hiding in the wood.' Kingsbury posthumously awarded the first Victoria Cross on Australian territory. Lieutenant Butch Bissett’s platoon repels eleven separate attacks before he is machine gunned and later dies in the arms of his brother, Lieutenant Stan Bissett. Corporal Charlie McCallum kills 40 attacking Japanese as he covers the withdrawal of his mates.
30 August 1942 – Battle of Isurava
A bitter day for the 2/14 Battalion with 10 men killed,18 wounded,172 missing (including the Commander, the Adjutant, the Intelligence Officer and the Regimental Sergeant Major). Captain Buckler and 41of his men cut-off from the Battalion – thus began an epic 42 day survival march through the jungle. Brigadier Potts, Commander of the 21st Brigade, orders a withdrawal to Eora Creek.
31 August – 5 September 1942
2/14th and 2/16th Battalions conduct heroic fighting withdrawal through Eora Creek, Templeton’s Crossing and the Kokoda Gap to Efogi. Major Steward, Regimental Medical Officer of the 2/16th Battalion records his observations of the men of the 39th: ‘Scarecrows with gaping boots and ragged uniforms, expressionless faces and deep-sunk eyes, weekend by malaria, dysentery and lack of food, but still used in rifle companies against a numerically superior enemy enjoying heavier support weapons’.
3 September 1942
Japanese commence night evacuation from Milne Bay.
4 September 1942
Corporal John French of 2/9th Battalion attacks two Japanese machine-gun posts at Milne Bay. Killed in action in front of the third position. Posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
5 September 1942
2/27th Battalion with 560 fresh troops dig-in on Mission Ridge, south of Efogi. 39th Battalion hand over their automatic weapons and withdraw towards Port Moresby. 3rd Battalion (Militia) move forward to cover the rear supply lines of the 21st Brigade.
6 September 1942
Remnants of 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions prepare defensive positions on the hill to the rear of Mission Ridge. Brigadier Potts has a total of 1000 troops to prepare for the decisive battle of the Kokoda campaign on Brigade Hill.
7 September 1942 - Battle of Brigade Hill
A procession of lights moving down from Kagi in the pre-dawn darkness indicates a large Japanese attacking force of 6000 troops forming up for ‘the battle of the Owen Stanley Ranges’. General Horii commits three battalions from his 144th Regiment to a dawn attack against the 2/27 Battalion. Orokaiva natives lead a Japanese engineer party and machine gun company up the valley to the rear of the Australian position.
At Milne Bay the Japanese complete the evacuation of their invasion force. This is their first defeat on land. British General, Sir William Slim of Burma, later said, ‘We must not forget that it was the Australians who first broke the spell of invincibility of the Japanese army.’
8 September 1942 – Battle of Brigade Hill
All three battalions, 2/14th, 2/16th and 2/27th under sustained attack from superior Japanese forces. Brigade HQ also under attack and fighting for survival. Corporal Charlie McCallum DCM killed in action as part of a rescue mission for Brigade HQ. Heroic leaders, Captain Claude Nye of the 2/14th and Captain Brett Langridge of the 2/16th also killed in action. Brigade HQ, 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions withdraw to Menari. 2/27th Battalion forced into the jungle on the old Menari track to begin a 14 day struggle for survival with 15 stretcher cases through inhospitable jungle terrain. The Regimental Medical Officer allowed maggots to remain on the wounds of the walking wounded and stretcher cases at the only alternative to preventing gangarene. Rations were reduced to less than a can of bully beef per man per day. Towards the end they only had enough energy for four hours movement in a day.
9 September 1942 – Battle of Brigade Hill
25 Brigade AIF arrive in Port Moresby. 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions continue fighting withdrawal.
10 September 1942 - Withdrawal to Ioribaiwa Ridge
Brigadier Potts relieved of Command of the 21st Brigade by General Blamey. Replaced by Brigadier Porter.
11 September 1942
Brigadier Eather, Commander of the 25th Brigade comprising the 2/25th, 2/31st and 2/33rd Battalions arrives at Uberi with the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion and 3rd Battalion in reserve.
13 September 1942 – Battle for Ioribaiwa Ridge
25th Brigade established on Imita Ridge. Eather initiates an aggressive patrolling program to regain the offensive. 3rd and 2/31st Battalions advance to Ioribaiwa Ridge.
14/15 September 1942
Japanese penetrate the Australian positions and split the Australian defences on Ioribaiwa Ridge which was one of the last defendable positions before their objective of Port Moresby. Brigadier Eather advises Major General Allen that it would ‘take all my time to stabilize the position for the present.’
16 September 1942 - Withdrawal to Imita Ridge
Brigadier Eather requests permission to withdraw to Imita Ridge to consolidate his Brigade. General’s Allen and Rowell supported Eather’s decision but advised him that, ‘There will be no more withdrawal from the Imita position, Ken. You’ll die there if necessary. You understand that?’ Withdrawal precipitates an emergency meeting of the Australian War Cabinet. Prime Minister Curtin orders General Blaymey to Port Moresby to report on situation. United States Air Force in Port Moresby ordered to prepare for evacuation. Japanese occupy Ioribaiwa Ridge and observe the lights of Port Moresby in the distance. ‘The sight elicited an emotional response: officers were reduced to tears and embraced. There were the usual ‘Banzai!’s – Long Live the Emperor’. The campaign had extracted a heavy toll on their forces. Of the Nankai Shitai’s 6000 combat troops, only 1500 – at most – remained. Japanese were overstretched with supplies almost exhausted and their line-of-communication extending back to Buna-Gona.
18 September 1942
Japanese Imperial GHQ in Tokyo orders General Horii’s South Seas Force to withdraw to the Buna-Gona beachhead due to the strategic imperative of defeating the Americans on Guadacanal in the Solomon Islands, 1000 kilometres from Port Moresby.
21 September 1942 - Beginning of Australian Offensive to recapture Kokoda
Australian 25 pounder artillery guns positioned at Owers Corner fire on Japanese positions on Ioribaiwa Ridge. The first time in the campaign that Australian troops had artillery support which was ‘music to our ears’! Brigadier Lloyd, Commander of 16 Brigade comprising the 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions disembark in Port Moresby.
23 September 1942
General Blamey arrives in Port Moresby to ‘take personal command’ of New Guinea Force.
24 September 1942
Order from Japanese Imperial GHQ relayed from ‘General Hitoshi, Commander of the Southern Army in Rabaul: “Stop attacking Port Moresby. Withdraw from present position to some point in the Owen Stanley Range which you consider best for strategic purposes”. Japanese begin withdrawal from Ioribaiwa Ridge. Leave fighting elements on ridge to cover withdrawal. Wounded too big a burden to carry back – all shot on their stretchers.
26 September 1942
Australian artillery pounds Ioribaiwa Ridge in preparation for an attack planned for the next morning.
28 September 1942
25th Brigade re-occupy Ioribaiwa Ridge unopposed and prepare for offensive operations.
4 October 1942
3rd Militia Battalion reach Brigade Hill. Australian dead from the battle were lying on stretchers, some were found in tree tops. Others were sitting in their trenches, with their weapons – haversacks still on their backs. In the bed of Efogi Creek lay the remains of Horii’s famous white horse.
5 October 1942
Japanese prepare concealed defensive positions between Templeton’s Crossing and Eora Creek.
8 October 1942 - Battle for Templeton's Crossing
Advance guard of 2/33rd Battalion make contact with forward defences of the Japanese position at Templeton’s Crossing.
11 October 1942
2/33rd Battalion ordered to ‘seize Templeton’s Crossing’. Australian advance in area hampered by lack of supplies, shortages of native carriers, impenetrable terrain and the disposition of Japanese defences completed camouflaged from view. Local commanders were also hampered by unrealistic demands from ignorant armchair generals in Australia.
15 October 1942
2/25th Battalion patrol discover mutilated bodies of Australian soldiers who had been cannibalized by the Japanese who were now surviving on starvation rations.
17 October 1942
Japanese Nankai Shitai withdraw from Templeton’s Crossing to prepare a third line of defence on razorback range overlooking Eora Creek village. This proved a formidable obstacle with two infantry battalions, a battery of Mountain Artillery, a company of Engineers and signals and medical personnel.
20 October 1942
Brigadier Lloyd, Commander of 16th Brigade assumes command of the battle and relieves Brigadier Eather’s 25th Brigade. 2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions fight their way through to Templeton’s Crossing.
21 October 1942
16th Brigade continues advance and discovers that Japanese have withdrawn from their second defence line. The fight for Templeton’s Crossing had been won.
22–28 Octboer 1942 - Battle for Eora Creek
Japanese establish a third defence line – a strong, fortified position on a razorback ridge dominating Eora Creek. The position contained concealed weapon pits with overhead protection and the line bristled with Jukis and light machine-guns sited to provide enfilading fire covering all approaches. General Horii planned to hold the line until the 28th. Brigadier Lloyd, hampered by a lack of supporting fire and supply problems continues probing Japanese positions. Armchair Generals (Macarthur and Blamey) apply pressure on General Allen and Brigadier Lloyd to break through the Japanese position. Both totally ignorant of the conditions at Eora Creek. The Australians advanced through impenetrable jungle into the face of withering fire; crossed hazardous mountain rapids; conducted bayonet charges and used lobbed grenades at close range before driving the last line of Japanese from the position on 28 October. During one action, Corporat Pett, described as ‘five feet of dynamite’ knocked out four Japanese machine gun posts single-handed (he later died of wounds on 6 November). General Blamey relieved General Allen of Command the day before the breakthrough. Replaced by General Vasey.
2 November 1942 - Kokoda Retaken
Australian troops re-enter Kokoda. Japanese if full retreat towards the Kumusi River.
3 November 1942
Australian troops conduct a parade on the Kokoda plateau and raise the Australian flag.
10/11 November 1942 – Battle of Oivi - Goiari
Australians charged with the memory of the cannibalization of the mates and the Tol massacre meet the Japanese units responsible for the atrocities. Ferocious against the Japanese using rifle, bayonet and grenade wiped out the defenders to a man at Oivi and Goiari. The Australians lost 7 men killed in the attack which killed 580 Japanese soldiers. Whilst Milne Bay was the first land defeat of the Japanese, Oivi-Goiari was the first decisive strategic land victory of the Pacific War. It broke the Japanese hold on the track and forced them back to the coast. One brave American historian dared to suggest it was the ‘turning point’ in the Pacific War:
‘Japan did not lose the ground war in the South Pacific in any single place. There was no equivalent of Waterloo or Staningrad . . . Yet if I were to pick one place where the war turned irrevocably against the Japanese, it was at Oivi-Goiari on November 5, 1942 . . . The Australians inflicted a massive defeat on crack Japanese troops at small cost to themselves. Rarely would the Japanese fight Australian troops in open battle in the future. When they did the result was defeat.’
11 November 1942
General Horii and some senior staff attempt to cross the flooded Kumusi river on a raft to escape the advancing Australians. Raft swept out to sea. General Horii drowned. End of Kokoda campaign.
12 November 1942
Beginning of the Buna-Gona campaign which culminated with the fall of Gona on in January 1943.
In the war against Japan 17,501 Australians were killed in action, 13,997 were wounded and 14,345 were taken as Prisoners of War.