General Tomitaro Horii (1890-1942) was the Japanese commander during the fighting along the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea. He had been posted to Japan’s Pacific empire sixteen months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, taking command of the elite South Seas Detachment on Guam during August 1940.
After the Japanese entry into the war Horii and the South Seas Detachment defeated the Australian defenders of Rabaul (23 January 1942). Horii’s command was then increased by the addition of Yazawa Force, veterans of the successful invasion of Malaya, and the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment.
Horii’s troops joined the naval expedition that was heading around the eastern tip of New Guinea, heading for Port Moresby. This expedition had to be cancelled after the battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942). Instead of landing at Port Moresby, on the southern coast of New Guinea, Morii had to disembark at Buna, on the northern coast. The 15th Independent Engineer Regiment landed first, in late July, while Horii did not arrive until late in August.
The only route from Buna to Port Moresby was the Kokoda Trail, a one man wide foot trail that crossed the jungle-clad Owen Stanley Mountains. A small Australian force (Maroubra Force) had been sent to Kokoda in late June, and the first fighting on the trail came on 23 July, at Awala.
The early fighting on the Kokoda Trail saw the Japanese advance guard push the Australian defenders back to Deniki. A second attack on 13 August saw the Japanese advance another five miles, and by that point the Japanese High Command had decided to turn the probing attacks along the trail into a full scale offensive, aimed at Port Moresby.
On 22 August General Horii moved up to the front, and at dawn on 26 August launched a major offensive. Over the next two weeks Horii pushed the Australian defenders of the trail back over the Owen Stanley Mountains, until on 14 September the Australians reached Imita Ridge, the last ridge before Port Moresby, which was now only 32 miles away.
This was the furthest south Horii would reach. By the start of September the Japanese didn’t have the resources to continue the advance to Port Moresby and to reinforce the troops fighting on Guadalcanal. Horii was ordered to stop his advance once he reached the southern foothills of the Owen Stanley Mountains. Four days after the Australians withdrew to Imita Ridge, Horii’s orders were changed again. He was now ordered to hold his advanced position south of the mountains as long as possible, but to make the Buna-Gona beachhead his main defensive position.
On 25 September the Australians launched a counterattack. The Japanese defence was weakened by the long supply chain over the mountains and by the movement of some troops back to the coast, and until 8 October Horii was forced to retreat. The retreat was skilfully conducted, and Horii organised skilful delaying actions at Templeton’s Crossing, Eora Creek and at Oivi on the Kumusi River.
The Australian 16th Brigade began their assault on the Oivi position on 4 November. After six days the Japanese were forced out of this position, and began a retreat back towards the mouth of the Kumusi. On the night of 12-13 November, while attempting to cross the Kumusi River on a raft, Horii drowned. His death was confirmed by the High Command ten days later, and he was posthumously promoted to lieutenant general. He was replaced on New Guinea by General Hatazo Adachi.