News & Events

Side by side…Bougainville 1944


This piece was written by Charlotte Turner (Year 12) and read at the 11am ANZAC Day Commemorative Service:

The Department of Veteran Affairs reflects on Bougainville states “The campaign on Bougainville Island was one of the most costly land campaigns in the Pacific for Australia. More than 500 died and more than 1500 were wounded. Many felt this loss of lives was unnecessary, for the campaign made no difference to the outcome of the war. All it achieved was to push back the Japanese into smaller areas of containment. It has for this reason remained one of the most controversial campaigns.”

When one trawls through various resources trying to find related material and evidence concerning Bougainville, there is a void of detail and information. As if the whole affair has been forgotten.

As an Australian student who is ending their secondary education, I have never heard of the Bougainville Campaign. Of course, we all know of the ANZAC Legend, the Digger, the heroics of World War I at Gallipoli, France and Beersheba and in World War II of the Rats of Tobruk, the efforts in the Middle East, Europe and the defence of Australia across Kokoda. But nothing about Bougainville. I didn’t even know where it was, or that the place was ever under Australian dominion. Initially, I could not understand why Australian’s would fight there.

When I approached grandparents and people who were alive or fought in World War II the response was mixed. Many were frustrated by the futility of the campaign and the direction taken by those in charge within the army and government of the time. Some blaming the “Yanks” and MacArthur for leaving a mess for the ANZAC’s to clean up. A family friend who has lived in the Solomon’s for decades has regularly reflected to my father on the devastation caused across the Islands by the Japanese invasion, locals estimating that a third of the population were decimated by the Japanese invaders.

On limited research I discovered Australian soldiers were first at Bougainville in 1942, observing Japanese movements for the United States. The US forces left in 1944 and had lost over 800 soldiers and many more wounded. The US remained only to keep a base on the coast and leave the Japanese to hold the jungle interior. The “US strategy was to let the Japanese “wither on the vine” in the hinterland. Unbeknownst to them, there were approximately 60,000 troops situated on the island according to Japanese sources.  The intention was that attrition would win out and they would run out of supplies.

General Blamey stated in October 1944, that Australian forces intended to “free the territory and liberate the natives”.  When Australian soldiers attacked initially in the Bougainville campaign they were widespread and had little knowledge of the Japanese presence or how well they were established. Early attacks didn’t penetrate the Japanese positions on high escarpments. It quickly became known as ‘the war of the shadows’; with soldiers patrolling in the constant darkness of the jungle canopy, fighting in the horrendous conditions, suffering constant heat and daily downpours during the monsoon and struggling for supplies and any respite.

Combat operations in Bougainville ended with the surrender of Japanese forces on the 21st of August 1945, nearly a year late, and the Japanese Empire surrendered on the 2nd of September 1945.

In total, 516 Australians were killed and another 1,572 wounded during the campaign. An estimated 8,500 Japanese were killed in combat, while disease and malnutrition killed another 9,800 and some 23,500 troops and labourers surrendered at the end of the war.

Of the casualties suffered during the second phase of the campaign, historian Harry Gailey wrote: “it was a terrible toll for an island whose possession after March 1944 was of no consequence in bringing the war to a close.  The Australian soldiers performed so well when they were aware that what they were doing was in the larger sphere, unnecessary and unappreciated at home, says much for the courage and the discipline of the ordinary Australian infantryman”.

In contrast, Australian historian Professor Karl James has argued that the 1944–1945 Bougainville campaign was justifiable; given that, it could not be known at the time that Japan would surrender and there was a need to both free up Australian forces for operations elsewhere and liberate the island’s population. Of the civilian population, according to James, it is estimated that up to 13,000 of the pre-war population of 52,000 died during the war. Hank Nelson estimated that 25 percent of the civilian population died during the campaign, with most deaths occurring after 1943. Reports were circulated of the Japanese being forced to cannibalism due to starvation after their supplies were cut.

Professor Karl James, who is an expert in the Bougainville campaigns noted in his research:

“The Bougainville campaign was one of the largest operations conducted by the Australian Military Services formed during World War II. Over 30,000 Australian men and more than a hundred women served on the island from September 1944 until March 1946. Yet Bougainville has received scant attention from historians. Only 3 books deal specifically with the “final campaigns”. Historian Peter Stanley states Bougainville should not be known as the ‘unnecessary campaigns’. The final campaigns should be called the ‘forgotten campaigns’ for they deserve their place in the military history of Australia. ‘If Australian’s died to take a little island of little value they deserve to be remembered all the more’.”

Graham Seal describes the ‘Digger’ as an ordinary bloke who was doing his job, a temporary bearer of arms and an uneasy wearer of uniforms

Just as the Digger and ANZAC did in the famous campaigns, the same can be said at Bougainville. ANZAC’s were hand in hand with the people of Bougainville. Fighting for the freedom that our Diggers defended and still defend today. Side by side.

Charlotte Turner, College Captain