As the Imperial Japanese Army advanced through the Southwest Pacific in the summer of 1942, New Guinea became a target of Japanese expansionism. A principal objective of this thrust was the valuable Port Moresby, just 340 miles from the Cape York Peninsula of Australia. If Japanese forces were able to capture the port, they would have a base to launch an eventual invasion of Australia. After landing near Gona and moving over the Owen Stanley Mountains, Japan began their campaign for Port Moresby on August 13, 1942, with over 11,000 soldiers.
Australian troops held the line against the Japanese advance at Port Moresby until the arrival of the US 32nd Infantry Division on September 28. The Allied defense from then on became an Allied counterattack, which pushed Japanese forces from around the port, back over the Owen Stanley Mountains, to near the original Japanese landing site at Buna Village by late November 1942. Here, 1,800 Japanese defenders used the harsh terrain to make the battle of Buna a 45-day long slog from November 19, 1942, to January 2, 1943.
During this Allied offensive, two soldiers, Kenneth Gruennert and Elmer J. Burr of Wisconsin, posthumously earned the Medal of Honor. On December 24, Gruennert single-handedly put an enemy pillbox out of action before being struck down by sniper fire, allowing his unit to be among the first units to break through Japanese defenses at Buna. His citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty. On 24 December 1942, near Buna, New Guinea, Sgt. Gruennert was second in command of a platoon with a mission to drive through the enemy lines to the beach 600 yards ahead. Within 150 yards of the objective, the platoon encountered two hostile pillboxes. Sgt. Gruennert advanced alone on the first and put it out of action with hand grenades and rifle fire, killing three of the enemy. Seriously wounded in the shoulder, he bandaged his wound under cover of the pillbox, refusing to withdraw to the aid station and leave his men. He then, with undiminished daring, and under extremely heavy fire, attacked the second pillbox. As he neared it he threw grenades which forced the enemy out where they were easy targets for his platoon. Before the leading elements of his platoon could reach him he was shot by enemy snipers. His inspiring valor cleared the way for his platoon which was the first to attain the beach in this successful effort to split the enemy position.”
That same day, Elmer J. Burr was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless sacrifice to save his commanding officer:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty. During an attack near Buna, New Guinea, on 24 December 1942, 1st Sgt. Burr saw an enemy grenade strike near his company commander. Instantly and with heroic self-sacrifice he threw himself upon it, smothering the explosion with his body. 1st Sgt. Burr thus gave his life in saving that of his commander.”
Both Gruennert and Burr’s sacrifice, among other American and Australian soldiers, culminated in a victory at Buna that prevented Japanese occupation in southeastern New Guinea and an eventual invasion of Australia. You can learn more about Gruennert and Burr in the Richard C. Adkerson & Freeport-McMoRan Foundation Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries at The National World War II Museum.
By Andrew Good
Andrew Good is the project manager at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy and obtained his Masters of Arts in History from the University of New Orleans in May 2022.