Despite comparisons to World War II first-hand accounts on the front lines such as Band of Brothers and Hampton Sides critically acclaimed Ghost Soldiers or to other similar experiences thereafter in Vietnam, Ghost Mountain Boys: Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea – the Forgotten War of the South Pacific is a story that stands on its own. The men of 32nd Division endured the war experience unlike any other that had already been fought within or outside of American shores, and their story, man against nature and defeat the enemy came second in the months from July 1942 to January 1943.
Ghost Mountain Boys revisits that Eastern front of the war within the South Pacific and the road towards liberating the Philippine islands and General Douglas MacArthur’s call to return to the islands that originally was planned to end within two years but dragged on to four. While the Northern most and Northwest islands of the South Pacific were commanded by the fleets of the United States Navy led by Admirals Nimitz and Halsey, and early advancements in the Southwest quadrants in Guadalcanal by the US Marines, at the helm of the strategy in order to deter Imperial Japanese armies and navies in the southern most islands and coastlines of New Guinea, Port Moresby, Buna-Gona-Sanananda campaigns, the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) was commanded by General Douglas MacArthur and allied forces from Australia. MacArthur would command the air and army, Halsey would command the sea. However, further assistance would not be by Australian Army General Sir Thomas Blaney but by the “Bataan Gang,” members of his senior staff; this would lead throughout the New Guinea campaigns as an underbelly of bitterness between American and Australian upper echelons. Aside from General MacArthur’s role in the campaign, Generals George Kenney and Robert L. Eichelberger also had their contentions about the war. In spite of the rivalry that generated, the generals had much more to deal with regard to the climate, geography, natural terrain, and most importantly unfamiliar diseases and illnesses that soldiers were not accustomed to being exposed to in a tropical region; the major enemy would be dysentery and malaria and the undaunted muddy and wet forests and swamps that soldiers treaded through and became casualties to rather than the Japanese forces that fought back. Eichelberger near end of the Gona campaign, described the experience within his historical memory a scene out of the US Civil War as a result of the losses that occurred in one day of fighting as well as his view of the battle as a “poor man’s war” due to the lack of the Marines’ presence in New Guinea and tanks and artillery (289).
Campbell does an exceptional job to depict the landscape and the conditions that thousands of American, Australian, and Buna and Papua inhabitants that helped to assist in the campaigns endured. Through their words written in diaries, journals, and letters back home, readers will understand why the war in New Guinea became a forgotten war. Not in the sense that it was not remembered but rather one that those that survived or their families during the time believed may have been best forgotten. One may imagine 25 years later, parallels to the war in the Pacific to Vietnam.
Australian find it hard to accept that they were not the only force to defeat the Japanese in the New Guinea Campaigns. The casualties suffered by the US forces were close to 10 times that suffered by the Australians as attested to in this excellent book. We have to ask ourselves as Australians why is it that the US efforts are today virtually unknown by the Australian public. Today the Kokoda Trails battles are starting to rival the Gallipoli legend in the public mind, so if this trend is to continue the full story needs to be told. The place names like Suwari, Jaure and Natunga should rank with Ioribaiwa, Menari Myola and Kokoda. In the 1960s the Kokoda Trail was used for training, and I well remember a very damp night on Ioribaiwa ridge followed by a very spirit filled stand-to just before dawn. At that time some of the trees had deadly fruit, rusted grenades that were originally on the ground connected to trip wires. If you believe in ghosts this was the place to be. I was profoundly effected by that experience. For anyone who had to face that jungle, Australian, American and Japanese we must have respect. People today walk the Kokoda trail as a "must do", an almost rite of passage. I challenge them to then do the Ghost Mountain walk - it is much harder. Perhaps if young Australian people do the Ghost Mountain walk then they will have the full story and see the price the American youth of that time paid for their countries alliance to Australia.
There is a roadside monument in my area dedicated to the 32nd US Infantry Division. The monument lists all the campaigns the 32nd fought in WW1 and WW2. The Battle for New Guinea (Buna) is among the honors.
The 32nd ID was a National Guard outfit recruited in Wisconsin and Michigan. Along with 17 other National Guard Divisions the 32nd was activated for federal service in the summer of 1940 as the war in Europe raged on.
Once the US entered the war after Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 it was decided that the US and Great Britain would pursue a "Hitler first" policy which meant the majority of US assets would be routed to Britain for an early cross channel invasion of France.
Japanese ambitions in the South Pacific interfered with the policy and the US had to divert Marine and Army units to the Pacific.
Since two excellent Australian Divisions were fighting in North Africa in 1942 it became necessary for the US to send an army division to help protect Australia from a possible Japanese invasion. The 32nd was selected for the mission and it fell under General Douglas MacArthur's command who had set up his HQ in Australia after the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese early in 1942.
The Island of New Guinea was under Australian jurisdiction and had a small Australian garrison drawn from militia units. The Japanese eyed New Guinea as a place to invade in order to try and cut off Australia from outside help. Some in the IJA thought it might be possible to actually invade Australia once New Guinea was captured.
Once the Japanese invaded New Guinea it started one of the most brutal campaigns of World War Two. The 32nd ID was sent to New Guinea with the objective of retaking the island along with the Australians who were already engaged with the Japanese.
Here is an entry from the Ghost Mountain Boys by James Campbell that describes what the Americans and Australians were up against:
In 1942, when the 32nd Division arrived in New Guinea, the island was still terra incognito. It's interior was largely unmapped, its coastline a puzzle of coral reefs, its swamps and grasslands a breeding ground for disease, its climate as pernicious as any ever encountered by an army. In New Guinea, MacArthur neglected warfare's most important lesson: The island was his enemy, yet he remained only vaguely aware of the hardships his troops would confront there. (page 73, The Ghost Mountain Boys)
The terms Ghost Mountain Boys refers to an infantry battalion of the 32nd ID. Their initial mission would be to hike over the 10,000 foot Owen Stanley Mountains to protect the Australian right flank in the battle for New Guinea.
The first part of the book documents through letters, diaries and the official records just how difficult that hike was. As the above quote states the island itself was more the enemy than the Japanese.
The 32nd was ill prepared to fight the kind of jungle warfare that would be common in the Pacific in the years to come. More men died or were disabled from a myriad of jungle swamp diseases than would die or be wounded from the Japanese Army.
MacArthur, safely from his HQ in Australia was oblivious to the facts and essentially ordered the 32nd to do the impossible without giving them the necessary support. MacArthur relieved officers who he didn't think were aggressive enough totally disregarding the obstacles they had to face fighting both nature and the tenacious Japanese who suffered just as much as the allies did from the unforgiving island. It was the men in the ranks who suffered the most from MacArthur's lack of concern.
Campbell includes excerpts from Japanese letters and diaries that give insight to the fact the Japanese suffered as much as anyone else if not more since their supply situation was even worse than ours!
The book draws much needed attention to the little known campaign for New Guinea since it began at roughly the same time as the US Marines fought their epic on Guadalcanal. While the American pubic were keenly aware of the Marines plight on Guadalcanal they were largely ignorant of the 32nd's sacrifice on New Guinea.
My wife's father was a medic in 1943-44 and served at a rear area hospital in the Australian controlled part of New Guinea. He contracted dengue fever that turned his hair white and affected his nerves. He received a disability from the Army but the effects of New Guinea plagued him until his death in 2000. New Guinea was a help hole even for medics who served in rear area hospitals. Campbell's book helps us remember the sacrifice of the men who served there.