Victory at Milne Bay
Soon after the fall of Corregidor in May 1942, with the surrender of 11,000 United States troops there and 50,000 elsewhere in the Philippines, the Japanese planned to attack Port Moresby. They proposed an assault overland across the Owen Stanleys, combined with a sea-borne attack from Rabaul. These forces were to be protected by an airfield at Milne Bay, which was to be captured, and by the airstrip being built on Guadalcanal.
This move began with landings at Gona and Buna in July. On 23 July, the enemy forces moving inland clashed near Awala with the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the 39th Militia Battalion. The Australians, resisting bitterly, were thrust back through Oivi, Kokoda and Deniki. By 14 August, a withdrawal to Isurava was underway.
In the meantime, Australian Headquarters had decided to build an airfield at Milne Bay, and to garrison the area in anticipation of attack. General MacArthur’s plan was for a defensive front.
The 7th Militia Brigade was sent to Milne Bay and was followed on 25 July by No. 75 and No. 76 Royal Australian Air Force Squadrons, with Kittyhawks. Advance parties of the 18th Brigade A.I.F. and a battery of the 2/5th Field Regiment arrived on 12 August.
At Milne Bay, on the extreme eastern tip of Papua, a Japanese convoy with two transports carrying 2,000 marines, was attacked by air, but most Japanese troops landed. An additional 700 arrived later.
There was heavy fighting mainly for the airstrips that were strongly defended by the Australian units. An Australian counterattack from 1 September drove the Japanese back, and the enemy evacuated about 1,300 men on 4 and 5 September. Australian casualties numbered 373. No further Japanese attack was made in the area. This first land victory against the Japanese was hailed as destroying the legend of Japanese ‘invincibility’.
Extract from Australian Defence Force Journal. Australia Remembers 1939-1945. Department of Defence, Canberra, 1995.