Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
The 7th Brigade & the Kaigun Rikusentai
The Kaigun Rikusentai were hard bastards, elite marines from the naval ports of Kure and Sasebo who had bloodied their bayonets in China and the Philippines. Yet to be bested in battle, they finally met their match in the mud and rain of New Guinea.
In the early hours of 26 August 1942, a thousand of them landed on the northern shore of Milne Bay, under orders to capture and secure the airstrips. Confronting them were five battalions of Australian militia supported by a handful of RAAF Kittyhawks.
A malarial sinkhole cut by streams and soggy with sago and mangroves, Milne Bay had vital strategic significance. Port Moresby, the hinge on which Australia's defences hung, lay a scant 230 air miles away. A Japanese victory would outflank the fighting at Kokoda and seal its fate.
Caught on the hop, the defenders were initially pushed back. While reinforcements were hurried forward, Kittyhawks hammered the marines from treetop level. The battle raged in a confusion of skirmishes and flanking movements fought in gusting rain and jungle mists. More marines landed, backed by naval gunfire. By the second night, they had reached No. 3 Airstrip, supported by two tanks and yelling phrases in English. Australian machine-gunners broke their impetus and the Japanese pulled back to regroup in the darkness.
The decisive engagement came at 3 am on 31 August. As the Kaigun Rikusentai massed for attack among the palm trees beside the airstrip, flares lit their position. Artillery and mortars pounded them and a storm of rifle fire tore into their frontal charge. As wave upon wave rose to replace the fallen, they too were cut down. Just before dawn, "three bugle calls rang loud and clear," sounding the Japanese retreat.
Bitter fighting continued for another week, the marines setting lethal ambushes and murdering prisoners as they retreated towards their landing area. On 6 September, tails between their legs, they began to evacuate.
Over the next three years, units of the Kaigun Rikusentai fought do-or-die battles on dozens of Pacific islands. But the tide had turned. Japan had suffered its first defeat on land and "the invincibility of the Japanese army" had been shattered.
Despite delivering a victory, the Australian field commander, Major General Cyril Clowes, was belittled by his superiors, MacArthur and Blamey. Lacking friends in high places, he was sidelined for the rest of the war.