The Tide Turns
The decisive moment: Oivi-Gorari 10 November 1942
As a result of the decisive defeat suffered by the Japanese at Oivi-Gorari they abandoned their plan to take Port Moresby and turned their attention to holding their base at Buna-Gona...
After the recapture of Kokoda on 2 November, 7th Australian Division, under the command of General George Vasey, turned east towards the sea. The next Australian objective was to take the main Japanese base in Papua at Buna-Gona. The Nankai Shitai, commanded by General Horii Tomitaro, stood their ground at Oivi to prevent this.
By the capture of Kokoda airstrip Vasey had gained a huge advantage. Previously the Australians, attacking through the mountains, were inadequately supplied by Papuan carriers or inefficient air drops. Now they had an airstrip just 16 kilometres from Oivi. Food and ammunition was no longer scarce and wounded were flown to Port Moresby in a half-hour flight as opposed to a ten-day carry.
The 7th Division committed 3700 men at Oivi-Gorari. Its two brigades, with seven infantry battalions in all, had been weakened by earlier fighting in the mountains and were reduced to two thirds strength.
For the first time in Papua all Japanese fighting troops were assembled on one battlefield. Also reduced by casualties and sickness, the Nankai Shitai was able to muster 2800 men. They were divided between 41 Infantry Regiment and 144 Infantry Regiment both with attachments of engineers and mountain artillery. On the hills above Oivi 41 Regiment was in an entrenched position carefully prepared several weeks before. They had seven guns and their task was to halt the Australian advance. With them was one battalion of 144 Regiment. Further east in reserve at Gorari was the rest of 144 Regiment and behind that again was the Nankai Shitai headquarters. From Gorari 144 Regiment could move to directly reinforce Oivi, or to either flank should the Australians succeed in getting around the Oivi position.
Unaware that the Japanese planned to make a stand the Australian 16th Brigade was surprised to encounter 41 Regiment on 4 November. For the next three days the Australians attempted to break into this position, or to work around its flanks. Neither succeeded. The Japanese position on Oivi Heights was far too strong for 16 Brigade. Fortunately they did not have to try again, for on 7 November Vasey ordered a halt to attacks on Oivi as events had unfolded favourably for the Australians elsewhere.
The other Australian brigade, the 25th, had been heading east on a track parallel and to the south of 16th Brigade. Led by 2/1st Battalion, which was attached to 25th Brigade, they were to seek a way into the Japanese rear. On 6 November this battalion, though it lost a day by missing the Waju track junction and having to retrace its steps, was ready to turn north towards Gorari. Vasey decided to throw his main weight, four infantry battalions, behind the route discovered by 2/1st Battalion while the three battalions in front of Oivi pinned the enemy there.
Horii was soon aware that there were Australians advancing along the southern track. He moved his reserve, the main body of 144 Regiment, towards them. At Baribe 144's commander, Lt Col Tsukamoto Hiroshi, selected an all-round defensive position astride the track. There Brigadier Ken Eather's 21st Brigade encountered them on 8 November. The brigade was able to surround Tsukamoto with two battalions while the other two pressed on north towards Gorari. On 9 November the 2/33rd Battalion fought 1/144, which Horii had ordered back from Oivi to hold Gorari. The other Australian battalion turned east from Gorari and attacked the Nankai Shitai headquarters. Horii came under their fire while directing a counterattack of headquarters personnel.
Video: Veteran Interview
... Kokoda veteran Paul Cullen commanded 2/1st Infantry Battalion during the Australian advance. He recalls witnessing hand-to-hand combat at Oivi-Gorari...
It was obvious to Horii that his entire position was compromised. Worse still, early in the morning of 10 November the Japanese were much too disorganised to respond efficiently to Horii orders to retreat the whole force east beyond the Kumusi River. Tsukamoto never received the order but decided for himself that the only option was to cut his way through the surrounding Australian infantry. This, at great cost, he succeeded in doing. Colonel Yazawa, commanding at Oivi, ignored Horii's order to serve as a rearguard while the rest of the force retreated. Instead he slipped out of Oivi undetected by 16th Brigade, took his regiment north across Oivi Creek and, avoiding contact with the Australians, eventually made it to the coast.
The Australians lost 121 dead and 225 wounded. While at least 430 Japanese were killed and about the same number wounded this is not the only measure of the magnitude of the Japanese defeat. All 15 Japanese artillery pieces were lost as, in the chaos of retreat, none could be got back across the Kumusi river. These guns had given the Japanese a great advantage in the fighting in the Owen Stanley Range and were to be sorely missed by the Japanese in the fighting to come at Buna-Gona.