The Kokoda Track: Ghost to coast

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30 June 2008
  • American troops at a signaller’s post, BunaAmerican troops at a signaller’s post, Buna“Fuzzy wuzzy angels” carry wounded American soldiers near BunaLieutenant General Eichelberger (centre) at Buna

GI sacrifices in a Papua New Guinea hellhole helped turn the WWII Pacific tide against the Japanese.

General Douglas MacArthur, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allies’ south-west Pacific forces, issued an order to the general of the US 32nd Division on November 29, 1942: “Take Buna or don’t come back alive”. Many didn’t. The hard-won Allied seizure of this Japanese Papua New Guinea beachhead saw some of WWII’s most ferocious fighting, under utterly nightmarish conditions.

The Kokoda Trail campaign of 1942 – which led to the fall of Japan’s Buna and Gona bases – is so venerated by Australians that many would be astounded to find New Guinea described in the US as “the forgotten war of the South Pacific”. Instead, the American memory is dominated by triumphs such as Coral Sea and Guadalcanal. And in Australia, while New Guinea is the best-remembered Pacific war theatre, the role played by US infantry there is likewise little known.
That now may change, with the 32nd Division’s dramatic story now the subject of The Ghost Mountain Boys, a new book and documentary by James Campbell, who retraced their steps on a 16-day trek through some of PNG’s toughest terrain. Just how tough can be seen in the reaction by veteran GI Stanley Jastrzembski, who told Campbell, “I would’ve taken an enemy bullet before going back into those mountains.”

As Japan’s swathe through the Pacific cut ever closer to Australia in 1942, Prime Minister John Curtin demanded Australian troops be returned from the Mediterranean and North Africa to defend their home turf. Our 6th and 7th Divisions came, but the 9th could not be spared, so as a compromise raw US 32nd Division troops – until then slated for Europe – were sent instead.

Like many of the Australian “ragged bloody heroes” of Kokoda fame, the 32nd recruits were militia, National Guardsmen from Wisconsin and Michigan. They arrived almost spectacularly unprepared for the soul-destroying harshness of New Guinea’s tropical wilderness. Ironically they had trained in Louisiana, where numerous swamps could have helped hone jungle fighting skills. But they did little more than march through farmlands, which continued upon their arrival in Australia. In New Guinea they carried leather toilet seats, but no insect repellent or waterproof containers to preserve matches or anti-malarial tablets. Inevitably, some 70 per cent of the division was incapacitated by tropical disease during the campaign.

In September 1942, Australian troops repulsed an enemy landing at Milne Bay on the south-east tip of New Guinea – Japan’s first land defeat of WWII. Having secured this vital stronghold, the Allies launched a three-pronged attack on Japan’s Buna and Gona bases. The Australians had by far the hardest job, having to fight the Japanese all the way across the Owen Stanley Range via Kokoda, and then take Gona. Most US troops were airlifted to the north coast, although reaching the battle zone was still a hardship with many GIs getting trenchfoot after long marches through swamps. The third approach was an overland assault on Buna by a single American battalion – the 2nd Battalion of the 32nd Division’s 126th Infantry Regiment – an expedition which saw them dubbed the “Ghost Mountain Boys”.

On November 16, the first of this thousand-strong US contingent headed into the mountains via the obscure Kapa Kapa Track, hardly ever traversed by outsiders before. About 50km south-east of the parallel Kokoda Track, it boasts even harder terrain and is almost a full kilometre higher in altitude, reaching about 3000m at Ghost Mountain, the soldiers’ nickname for Mount Obree, known locally as Suwemalla.

The original plan had them veering west onto Kokoda once across the Owen Stanleys, to harass or cut off the retreating Japanese. But forward scouting indicated it was impossible to travel fast enough for this, so the orders changed to covering the Australian flank before proceeding to Buna.

Unlike Kokoda there were no Japanese bullets to worry about, but the battle against nature was bad enough. Climbing an endless succession of steep razorback inclines, the Americans struggled to carry up to 36kg of field equipment and six days’ rations. Every day was an onslaught of stinging nettles, leeches and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Tropical downpours had them completely drenched and wading to the shins in mud. They couldn’t light fires to cook their rice and the bully beef made them ill. Soon they pretty much all had fevers, tropical ulcers or dysentery. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Geerds, suffered a heart attack and was replaced by Major Herbert “Stutterin’” Smith.

Ghost Mountain itself was “the eeriest place I ever saw”, according to Sergeant Paul Lutjens. Tramping along a narrow trail dropping thousands of metres either side, the troops found themselves enveloped in rain and steam, passing phosphorescent fungus and glowing moss. All was silent and still, except for the rush of an unseen subterranean river. “It was the strangest feeling I ever had,” Lutjens wrote in his diary. “If we stopped, we froze. If we moved, we sweated.”

After 42 days struggling some 200km over the mountains, famished and sick, the Ghost Mountain Boys were put under Australian command, along with the other two 126th Infantry battalions, to help capture a Japanese supply base at Girua (between Gona and Buna). But Major General Edwin Harding, the 32nd Division’s popular commander, had other ideas, wanting one battalion back to assist his 128th Infantry at Buna. Australian General George Vasey obliged, releasing the one he wanted least – the dispirited Ghost Mountain Boys, fever-ridden and exhausted by their mountain ordeal.

Buna and Gona proved harder nuts to crack than anyone had imagined. The 16km coastal strip was defended by 6500 Japanese, many freshly landed and all determined to fight to the death. Buna itself was surrounded by a tidal swamp barrier and heavily fortified with concealed machine-gun posts. Without tanks, sufficient artillery or flamethrowers, the Americans struggled to make headway. Food and medicine were also in short supply; malaria continued to run rampant. Having discarded their heavy steel helmets in the mountains, the GIs were easy pickings for snipers, and morale plummeted. Even so, the Ghost Mountain battalion made the first penetration of the enemy perimeter at Buna on November 30, driving the Japanese back several hundred metres.

MacArthur, safe in Port Moresby and ignorant of field conditions, saw Buna as a flimsily defended sitting duck and was furious at the delay. He sacked Harding, accused his troops of cowardice and ordered Lieutenant General Bob Eichelberger to take Buna immediately “regardless of casualties”. While a steely leader willing to risk his life with a conspicuous front-line presence, Eichelberger won the nickname Eichelbutcher for losing so many lives on fruitless frontal assaults.

As it turned out, Harding’s more cautious approach was vindicated. Eichelberger reverted to his predecessor’s tactics of small-unit, aggressive patrolling – and Buna did not fall until the tanks Harding so desperately wanted finally arrived. Although racked by disease, barely fed and inadequately armed, the Ghost Mountain Boys did not lack courage. Stutterin’ Smith was badly wounded by mortar fire while leading his men against a banzai charge. Sergeant Paul Lutjens, hit by a grenade and shot while fetching help for his surrounded platoon, crawled his way through under heavy fire. The deadlock was finally broken by an outstanding act of heroism on December 5, when Sergeant Herman Bottcher led an 18-man patrol through the jungle to the beach, fighting all the way. For a week they held off more than 1000 enemy soldiers with one machine gun, killing 120 and enabling the relieving 127th US Infantry – who arrived on December 13 – to close in and take Buna on January 2, 1943. Australian soldiers had already won Gona, and the campaign ended with victory at nearby Sanananda on January 22.

The Allies paid a high price for the victory, Australian and American, with casualty rates in some units near 90 per cent – mostly due to malaria. Of the Ghost Mountain Boys, just six officers and 126 GIs were still standing when Buna fell.

The mountain trail that tested them so sorely has largely retained its ghostly mantle, little visited by outsiders since the war. When James Campbell made the journey in 2006, he found locals keen for a Kokoda-style trekking industry, which may depend on the interest his book and documentary raise in the 32nd’s undeservedly obscure baptism of fire.

Lest we forget…

Theatres of war have become popular tourist attractions. The following Pacific stages are stark reminders of imprisonment, sacrifice and endurance against the odds.

New Guinea

Kokoda Track
Plenty will argue the toss over “trail” or “track”, but most agree Kokoda was our most vital WWII victory, saving Port Moresby and thus Australia from enemy designs. Every year, several trekking companies take some 2800 people on the arduous 96km pilgrimage, following the footsteps of the diggers and “fuzzy wuzzy angel” porters over the Owen Stanley Range. Check the trail’s website for updates.
Website

Singapore

Changi Museum
1000 Upper Changi Road North, Singapore.
Changi Prison became Japan’s main staging camp for POWs after the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942. From here, thousands went to various locations to be starved, beaten, tortured and worked to death. The museum, relocated in 2001, tells the tragic story and displays historical items such as prisoners’ belongings. Regular coach tours visit key WWII sites in Singapore. 
Website

Malaysia

Sandakan-Ranau Death March, Borneo
In 1945, Japanese soldiers force-marched 2434 POWs (mostly Australian) through 250km of dense Borneo jungle from Sandakan POW camp to Ranau village. All but six died. Today full (six- and 11-day) and part (three-day) tours along the route of this war crime depart from Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
Website

Thailand

Thailand-Burma Railway Centre
73 Jaokannun Road, Kanchanaburi.
An estimated 160,000 Asian forced labourers and Allied POWs died while building 415km of track under barbaric conditions, including 2646 of some 12,000 Australians. The museum also offers tailored “pilgrimages” to view the remnants of one of Japan’s most notorious war crimes.
Website

Source: Qantas The Australian Way April 2008
Updated: June 2008

David Levell

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