Monday 28 May 2012 by Emma Campbell. 13 comments

The Pacific war campaign fought by the Australians on Bougainville in 1944–45 has long suffered from a poor reputation: during its first few months, the operation was disparaged by politicians and the media as “mopping-up”; for decades afterwards, it was criticised as “unnecessary”.

But in his new book The Hard Slog, Australian War Memorial historian Dr Karl James argues that the arduous fight that involved more than 30,000 Australians – 500 of whom were killed – against the Japanese on the South Pacific island was both important and successful.

“Bougainville was one of the largest campaigns the Australians fought during the Second World War, and it’s certainly the most controversial in terms of the debate over its necessity,” says James. “But they did the job they were meant to do, and they did it with minimal casualties.”

Private Gordon Atwell of the 42nd Battaltion checks over the mechanism of his Vickers gun, at Mawaraka, 20 January 1945. Private Gordon Atwell of the 42nd Battaltion checks over the mechanism of his Vickers gun, at Mawaraka, 20 January 1945.

The Japanese invaded the Australian Mandated Territory of Bougainville in 1942 as part of their sweep across the South Pacific. They remained there unchallenged until November 1943, when the Americans landed on Bougainville as part of the Allied counter-offensive to regain domination of the South West Pacific Area. 

The Australians were brought in to relieve the Americans a year later. The war was expected to continue until at least 1946, and so aggressive operations were planned for Bougainville and New Guinea with the aim of freeing up Australian manpower for future operations against Japan, or for employment on the home front. However, critics claimed that Australian forces were being “whittled away” on a more or less “face-saving” task in New Guinea and Bougainville.

“By 1945 the Americans in the central Pacific were pushing toward Japan, having landed in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, whereas the Australians were still in the jungle in New Guinea, Bougainville and Borneo, and seem to have been sidelined from the main game rather than being at the forefront of Allied operations,” James says. “There was a lot of resentment and frustration within Australia during 1944-45, with critics wondering why we weren’t in a more prominent role.”

It was a slow and gruelling effort, fought with limited resources and in difficult tropical conditions. Over nine months Lieutenant General Stanley Savige’s Australian II Corps made tedious advances; actions were fierce, but on a small-scale, and the patrolling was constant.

“The war the infantry knew was one of patrolling along stinking, humid jungle tracks and putrid swamps in an intimate, personal war of section patrols and the occasional company-size attack,” James writes. “The strain of constant clashes with the Japanese and harassing artillery fire eroded the men’s morale.”

But it was even worse for the Japanese. “The Japanese experience of the campaign was one of deprivation, desperation and defeat. In the most extreme instances, a few even resorted to cannibalism.”

A patrol from the 42nd Battalion crosses a log bridge as it works its way through the oppressive jungle. A patrol from the 42nd Battalion crosses a log bridge as it works its way through the oppressive jungle.

The Australians suffered just one defeat during the Bougainville campaign, at the Porton Plantation in the island’s northern sector. An amphibious landing on the night of 8–9 June 1945 went awry: the landing was in the wrong place, an essential supply barge was grounded on the rough coral that surrounded the beach, and the Japanese were able to get in reinforcements that gave them control over the area. Dozens of Australian troops were stranded on the beach, and when rescue craft were sent in to get the men, they also became stuck on reefs. Men tried to swim through the shark-infested water to safe ground. When the ordeal was over, 27 men had been killed or were missing, and 69 were wounded.

The Bougainville campaign came to an end when the Japanese surrendered on 15 August 1945. The objective set by senior Australian commanders for “destruction” of the Japanese had not been fulfilled, but II Corps could claim to have controlled about two-thirds of Bougainville. About 65,000 Japanese occupied the island when the Americans arrived in 1943; at surrender, there were just over 23,800. The Australians had killed 8,789 Japanese during the nine-month campaign, and the Americans estimated they had killed about 9,890. Many thousands of Japanese had died from sickness and disease. Australian deaths on Bougainville numbered 516, and another 1,572 were wounded.

While the Bougainville campaign did not change the outcome of the war, nor help it end any sooner, James says its importance lay in fulfilling the Australian government’s political and strategic agenda “of having Australian forces actively involved in the liberation of Australian territory”. It also ensured a favourable postwar position for Australia among its allies, and in the distribution of the spoils of war.

“The war ends, fortunately, just before the Australians make that last attack on the big Japanese base at Buin. I think that had that happened, we would have seen the outcome of the campaign as being quite different. We would have had heavy casualties for little gains. Because the war ended when it did, I think you can judge it to be a successful campaign.”

The Hard Slog: Australians in the Bougainville Campaign, 1944–45, by Karl James, is published by Cambridge and available at the Australian War Memorial bookshop or online at /shop/


Jeeps and trailers loaded with members of the 58th/59th Battalion make their way along the muddy, corduroyed Buin Road near the Ogorata River, 18 July 1945. Jeeps and trailers loaded with members of the 58th/59th Battalion make their way along the muddy, corduroyed Buin Road near the Ogorata River, 18 July 1945.


Paul Atwell

Dr Karl James - just a brief note to let you know that Pte. Gordon Atwell (as per photo above) is my father. I have an original copy of the "Story of the 42nd" by S.E. Benson and it's terrific to see his picture in your book too - I will surely be ordering a copy. In fact, it would be nice to obtain a signed copy. Thanks very much, might hear from you in the near future.

Colin Twomey

Good to see the recognition Australian troops endured in this campaigne. I feel that very little recognition of my fathers battalion, The 55/53rd has been given as they suffered losses and sickness along with all units engaged in battles with the Japanese that outnumbered them in every contact. The Battalion was decimated at Sanananda in New Guinea and after recuperation were reinforced by fresh troops and aquitted themselves in further conflict. The Mice Of Moresby are a very proud battalion and only 6 veterans were able to march in Sydneys Anzac March this year. Lest we forget.

doug wood

Dr karl -- thanks for bringing focus to the Bougainville campaign-- I will track down your book . I lived in Arawa 1978-1981 when managing the Coopers practice which looked after the BCL mine and smaller businesses in the Province. I travelled widely and saw the evidence of the war in Buin-- Yakamotos plane wreckage -- and on Torokina in the west, now Empress Augusta Bay. Best wishes, Doug

Lindsay Riddick

I am presently living in Arawa, Bougainville. I am researching the History of Tunuru Mission near Loloho and generally of the Catholic Missionaries in Bougainville. The WWII period is absolutely fascinating. I would be keen to hear from people such as Doug Wood who were present during the mining period or from anybody who can assist with information. I am writing a small book about Tunuru Mission. Other information would be stored, if contributors agree, at the new Library "Haus Stori" currently under construction at Arawa. This is planned to be a cultural resource centre and small museum for the people of Bougainville. If you can assist please contact me at

Ron Atwell

Just finished reading The Hard Slog. Absolutely enjoyed it and expect I will read it over a few times to come. Great work and recognition for those unrecognised heroes.

Ray Pescud

Hello, I write to you to share about my father, Leslie Maurice Pescud, who was in the 31st/51st Battalion during WWII. He fought in the battle of Porton Plantation on Bougainville. In 2009 I travelled there after speaking to several of the men who were there also, I spent 2 weeks there with the villagers of Chabai and Ramsua. The chiefs of the village of Ramsua gave permission and assisted me in placing a plaque in memory of my fathers unit and the service men who fought there. The villagers now care for the site and the memorial to honor those who fought there and who died in the battle. My wife and I travelled there again in 2010 to participate in the memorial service that they now hold in June each year. The plaque was paid for by us as a tribute to my fathers unit and those who fought with him at Porton. The people of Chabai and Ramsua now care for the site and have taken the story of the battle into their own history to tell the next generation, as is their custom. Kind Regards Mr Ray Pescud

Peter Ball

Its great that a book on Bougainville has been published , the men of the 3rd and 11th divisions are so un-remembered . My Dad served in the 29/46 Battalion , I'd surely like to see a book written about the Australian 5th Division in New Britain Kind regards Peter Ball

Tony Rowe

Dr James....Thankyou for this wonderful addition to our understanding of Australia's Military History. My father served on Bougainville, flying Biscuit Bombers (12 AUST Air Maintenance Platoon) dropping supplies to the PBI. Again, thank you for giving us a understanding to a previously neglected campaign

Shane Marsterson

Hi Dr Karl James and others, My father, James Samuel Marsterson, fought and survived the battle at Porton. He has told us about it many times, along with the other skirmishes, usually during Sunday night roast dinner gatherings. Dad has recently turned 90 and is still battling. I'm keen to get a copy of the book and give to him. He has been interviewed and contacted about it a few times, but I don't think they got all of the details. To me, it was a "mini Gallipoli" type situation, yet they were not recognised for their efforts. I'll remember the reason they were sent in there, his portrayal of the spray of machine gun in front of him on the beach, troops having to walk over the wounded who were laying on the bottom of the barge in water, the barge gunner flapping on the deck after being shot in the neck and dad making his way out into the sea after Captain Downs said every man for himself. Blue Reiter was in the forward group who actually got into the plantation and took out a machine gun post. He was dad's Leutenant and good mate who also survived to tell us what he told the commanding officer when they walked along the beach after the "biggest military stuff up he had ever been involved in".

Craig Marsterson

30/07/12. Shane and I discussed this with dad, 31st51st BTL. The whole thing was a total ballsup ,because General Blamey was in the area, hierarchy had to put on a show! Sent in at low tide, no wonder the barges ran aground! Thank God that the squadron of NZAF Corsairs strafed japs. A coxswain off one of the barges was picked up 8 miles away, by a boat fishing,with BLAMEY. He's got a lot to answer for that RAT.

Craig Marsterson

Jim Marsterson is still going at 93,still got the remnants of the Owen gun that saved his life.

Greg Haines

My father Leslie Thomas Haines fought in the 9th battalion he told me stories about his experiences on the island Boganville and other islands in the pacific. They went through a lot more than people realise. It is good to see someone write a book on what these men went through and achieved. Thank you Dr Karl James my three sons have never met my father but they are all very proud of him and all march for him every Anzac day and all attend the Dawn service every year. PS I also found some very interesting photos of him on patrol in the jungle on the War Memorial site that i never knew existed.

John Dyson

My father was in A company of the 31/51st Battalion who landed at Porton Planatation. He only ever spoke to me once about that disastrous event and then only briefly. I have just ordered Karl James' book so I can get a better understanding of what they went through.