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Under the Knife on New Guinea

By Irving A. Bunkin 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: February 01, 2011 
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This photo of Bunkin, attending to a wounded GI, appeared in Life magazine and gave his family a clearer picture of his experiences in the Pacific.
This photo of Bunkin, attending to a wounded GI, appeared in Life magazine and gave his family a clearer picture of his experiences in the Pacific.

What follows is the previously unpublished combat diary of Dr. Irving A. Bunkin, a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps who served as a battalion surgeon in New Guinea and the New Guinean island of New Britain in 1943–44. Thirty years old at the time, Captain Bunkin had graduated from the University of Virginia, received his MD from New York University College of Medicine, and then enlisted in the U.S. Army.

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The diary begins on December 6, 1943, with Bunkin anticipating his first experience in combat. "It has been made known to us that we are definitely a part of a TASK FORCE," he writes, "which will leave in the immediate future to make the first attack upon the island of New Britain."

He goes on to describe his part in the landings at Arawe—also known as Cape Merkus—on the southern coast of New Britain, on December 15, 1943. The mission assigned to the 112th Cavalry Regiment, to which Bunkin's medical unit was attached, was to seize a location to serve as a PT boat base; it later emerged that the operation was in fact a diversion for a larger amphibious assault on December 26 by the 1st Marine Division at Cape Gloucester, on New Britain's northwestern coast. It was also an audacious undertaking, a ?ercely fought contest at the height of the monsoon season, in ferociously hot and humid conditions.

Although Bunkin was necessarily vague about his location in his letters home (he signed one "Your erstwhile reporter in the S.W.P. [southwest Pacific] Area"), his family unexpectedly discovered exactly where he'd been serving in January 1944, when the latest issue of Life magazine arrived at the home of his older brother, Leon. In an article titled "American Casualties at Arawe," Bunkin is shown attending to a severely wounded man aboard an LCT. "He helped take the beach, but in so doing he almost lost his life," the article says of his patient. "Now an Army doctor is trying to save that life for him."

At the time, Leon C. Bunkin was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, working with Enrico Fermi's team developing electronic switches for atomic bombs—and wrestling with his moral objections to the project. That disappeared when he read how the Japanese were targeting structures marked with a red cross.

Dr. Bunkin also struggled with the ethics of a brutal war. "Guys whose lives he saved were blown up in his face," says his nephew, Mitchell Bunkin. When a medical facility came under attack, "he was the only guy who could run." It haunted him, and he returned home a shattered man. Mitchell's mother Betty—Irving Bunkin's sister-in-law—later found him attempting to destroy all his memorabilia from the war, including the diary. She secreted it away for safekeeping, revealing she'd done so only after the doctor had recuperated a year or two later. He went on to a successful medical career, specializing in obstetric patients who were considered lost causes. He died in 2004, at the age of 91. —Donald L. Miller

(The diary has been condensed from the original, and was only lightly edited for readability.)

December 10th, 1943
We have been informed of the exact location of our objective: The Arawe Peninsula on the Southern coast of New Britain. The landing site is directly North of Finschhafen on the New Guinea coast and about 30 hours trip by boat from Goodenough Island where we are located. The entire peninsula is about one mile wide and approximately three miles long. It is several miles to the West of the abandoned Japanese Arawe Airdrome, in which vicinity it is estimated that there are 15,000 Japanese troops. Our beachhead will be about 500 yards wide, on the Southern border of the peninsula, and we are to proceed inland immediately onto a plateau covered with cocoanut groves.

Despite the fact that we are medical personnel, we have been issued fire arms. Never having fired a pistol in my life and actually being afraid to hold it, I gave mine to a young private in my group and assigned him as my personal bodyguard. I was assigned the duty of setting up immediately, after entrenching with my own group of twelve men, all youngsters, a first-aid station and point for evacuation of wounded about 75 yards inward from the beach. This location, tactically speaking, is regarded as "the hottest spot" to be located at. This site would naturally be the area of heaviest bombardment and strafing by the enemy because it is at this point that our supply depots are to be located.

Why intelligent men put forth such energies, make such stupendous sacrifices and expenditures in wealth to settle global disputes, in this day and age, sort of tickled me. Was there no other intelligent way for thinking people to iron out their problems? But this is being very naïve. Despite my resentments as regards the motives of Fascism, Nazism, and Japanese policy (not overlooking many of our own past performances at home and abroad) I still felt silly scampering over the side of a ship, sneaking up on a strange shore, digging a small hole and then hiding in it. Simply, I didn't possess a hating spirit or desire to kill. Certainly, a year ago, I would have bet my last possession that I would never be where I am at the moment. Boats, guns, aeroplanes, etc. even out here, forever remind me of a little boy playing with tin soldiers on the carpet in the parlor.

December 13th
General MacArthur is now in the vicinity to inspect the troops composing this task force. At 8 a.m. orders were received to break up the camp and prepare to embark sometime during the afternoon.

At 4:30 p.m. we were loaded into trucks, taken to the landing pier, and then transferred to the assault boats. There were thirteen of us in our group, I being the only officer. Thirteen men leaving on the 13th of December.

The latest intelligence reports inform us that one of the small islands just outside our landing point has had a tremendous influx of enemy troops and is now heavily fortified. Troops are also infiltrating into the peninsula as well as into areas to the west and east of our landing point.

Most of the officers are grim, worried, and serious. The idea of being the first of the American troops to land on New Britain is no comfort to one's peace of mind. The casualties among these first assault groups is always enormous.

December 15th
I awoke at 2:45 a.m. and was just able to get in a hurried breakfast of one fried egg and coffee.

At about 4:30 a.m., with my group of twelve medical aid men, I climbed over the side of the troop transport into the small landing craft. After cruising in small circles for about 45 minutes we then made for the direction of the tip of the peninsula, which was about five miles away. At about 6 a.m. our naval escort sent down a terri?c barrage upon the peninsula, which, if there was any life present, would certainly have annihilated every form of it.

The naval barrage having been performed, about 25 large American bombers, B-24s and B-25s, arrived and, at a low level, strafed either side of the peninsula. The purpose of this was to remove any snipers who might be waiting up in the trees for us. During all this spectacle of gun play by both the Navy and our air arm, there was no noticeable opposition by the enemy on the shore.

My group landed in the first wave at exactly 9 a.m. The beach was no more than about ten feet wide and from that point on inward there was dense jungle. Once having landed, I set the aid station up about 100 yards to the right of the landing site in a shell hole which was full of water. We chopped down small cocoanut trees to make for a roof and threw cocoanuts and cocoanut leaves into its base in order to cover up the water and mud. Meantime, casualties had begun to arrive on the beach from various points and we placed some of these in a recently abandoned Japanese pillbox.

On my way towards this point, which was about 20 yards from the water's edge, a wave of Japanese dive bombers and Zeros swooped down upon us. I got a fleeting glance of them just above me and jumped into a shell crater which was full of water, in time to be more or less safely shielded from several other Japanese planes which swooped down upon us. I waited for bullets or pieces of shrapnel to tear through me at some point. If you were to die, well, that's all there was to it.

I had been neither panicky nor apprehensive during the actual landing maneuver. But all of this changes when suddenly the enemy is raining death down upon you in the form of bombs and unmerciful strafing. It was not so much death itself that I feared, but instead the actual stroke of death. While lying close to the ground behind a tree, hugging the dirt, trying to get all of myself beneath a helmet, I was very consciously awaiting the impact of a bomb fragment, or a stream of bullets to be ripping through my back or legs.

Never before in my life had I prayed. I didn't know how. However, at this moment I did pray almost hysterically to God for protection. I screamed loudly at the top of my voice. Everyone else must have been praying, but I didn't hear them. Could He have heard me above the din of the fire of our own guns and that of enemy aerial bombing?

I also prayed to my Mother. Why I invested my Mother with the miraculous powers of protecting me at so great a distance I do not know. Sigmund Freud would say that I was rushing back to the warmth and protection of the womb. But I continued to pray to her anyway. And I was to witness a miracle performed. I am as positive of its having occurred as I am conscious at the time of this writing. Bullets ripped the ground all around me and through the trunk of the tree immediately above me. It stood out like a small coffin shaped area enveloped by fire. I remain unscathed. This was a miracle in the truly spiritual sense. God had heard me. Others a short distance from me had been cut to pieces. Loops of bowel hung out of gaping abdomens, fingers and faces were torn away.

Shortly thereafter, while tending two severely wounded men in this aid station, another wave of planes swooped down upon us. At this point I was so panic stricken that I crept, after much difficulty, under the stretcher of the patient nearest me and buried myself in the stinking mud under him. I prayed again and again.

Immediately thereafter I learned that these planes were our own P-47 fighters which were being fired upon, misjudged as being enemy aircraft. By this time I was thoroughly soaked with mud up to my chest and had to struggle to get out from under the stretcher with its patient on it.

The patient lying next to him was badly injured, with compound fractures of both femurs, arm, and a bullet wound through his chest. His condition was quickly growing worse, mainly due to the rapid bleeding which undoubtedly was going on in his lung. I therefore began to set about treating his shock by administering dried blood plasma to him, but before this could be accomplished, a medical officer representing the Sixth Army ordered me to escort a large group of wounded back to Finschhafen, New Guinea, on an LCT boat. Taking as much equipment as possible, along with six men whom I chose at random, we made quickly for the boat which was now strewn with severely wounded, along with the two I was tending in the dugout.

On board the boat I immediately began administering first aid to the wounded men. Original dressings were removed and new ones applied. The whole was a distressing and dismal picture; shrapnel wounds of the face, scalp, arms, and legs, and direct bullet wounds of the hands and feet. The young chap who had received the bullet wound in his chest died several hours later. I had him promptly transferred to the shore to be buried. I noticed that his home address was close to mine and I removed one of his identification tags for my own keeping, hoping that if I ever returned home alive, I would visit his mother and tell his story for him.

A surgery ward, safely located away from the front lines.
A surgery ward, safely located away from the front lines.

All but two of these wounded men were members of the unit which had made its assault in rubber boats at the base of the peninsula under cover of darkness. This attack took place about two hours before the actual shelling and about four hours before the main force landed. Its mission was to attempt to take any Japanese who might be there by surprise and thus shut off the escape of any who might attempt to leave the peninsula, and also to prevent infiltration onto it from the mainland. None of these men ever reached the shore. They were either killed outright, drowned, or severely wounded. A few survivors were picked up in the water several hours later by a sub chaser.

With us on board were a group of war correspondents who had accompanied us on this mission. I doffed my hat to each of these men for their courage as non-combatants who are interested in presenting a true and accurate word picture of dramatic scenes like this to the reading public back home. There were small groups of these men; photographers, moving picture men, writers, and artists recording the scenes for posterity. They came in with the assault troops. The photographers were taking pictures of our activities while treating the men.

At about 9 a.m. the next morning we reached Finschhafen, evacuating the mildly wounded by plane and taking the very serious cases to the 54th Evacuation Hospital.

The next morning, after a good night's sleep, full of frightful dreams, we had an early breakfast, washed some socks in the ocean, and then began searching for colored snail shells on the beach.

December 18th
This morning we returned to our landing point on New Britain. Just as we reached shore an air alert was sounded. The Commander of the beach party promptly directed me to my beach evacuation medical station.

When we got to the area, a ghastly sight confronted us. Slit trenches had been dug over a wide area surrounding our aid station. Seriously wounded men, naval and army, lay in each of them, most covered with mosquito nets. There were bullet and shrapnel wounds of the extremities, back, chest, and face. Every rank from private to Colonel had been wounded.

During the two days that I had been absent, Japanese bombers severely bombed and strafed our installations and the naval craft out in the bay. One small naval vessel which had been escorting us into the harbor had received a direct hit and promptly went down. Only one of its men was killed and all the others were suffering from shock and shrapnel wounds.

While part of the rear echelon of my own company was landing on the second day, its ship was bombed and strafed and five of our men were injured. The evacuation hospital which had set up on the middle of the peninsula began to operate that night. An unfortunate direct hit on the operating tent killed two Sergeants immediately and wounded one of the medical officers.

One of my own men suddenly developed an acute hysterical state and lay on the ground in a semi-stuporous condition, with hands, mouth, and legs twitching. He had suffered no gross physical injury, and all sedatives which we offered him were of no avail. I was to see this very same condition manifested in many of the men, but in varying degrees.

This emotional state turned out to be our most serious medical problem, and there was very little that we as doctors could do for it right there in the heat of combat.

That night we returned to our fox holes and slit trenches and tried to get some sleep. I placed a stretcher at the bottom of my slit trench in order to protect myself from the mud and water in it. This first night, I did not sleep. There was a mysterious silence which was frequently interrupted by shots, probably at snipers who were being discovered in trees nearby. A number of snipers had already dug themselves into deep caves on the side of the cliffs and could not be dislodged. During the day, these snipers remained quiet, but would come out boldly at night and wander directly into our area. Those who had been shot were found to be underfed, and carrying narcotics on themselves, little bits of some form of meat sausage, and cans of salmon or other fish.

Our infantry troops have shown themselves to be a very rugged and brave outfit. They have done an excellent job in chasing practically all of the Japanese from the peninsula. All of this, of course, has been done at tremendous sacrifices.

December 19th
Today is Sunday. We crawled out of our slit trenches at about 7 a.m. and opened several boxes of jungle ration. It contains the following: one can of powdered milk, several boxes of crackers, one box of raisins, one can of peanuts, four packets of chocolate powder, three small bags of granulated sugar, several small tins of meat, a few tins of powdered coffee, and a package of toilet paper. This entire package is wrapped in a waterproof container and must serve for four men for one day.

I prepared a mixture of powdered chocolate, coffee, and sugar, using the peanut can as a cup, and then heated it up over a tin of "canned heat." Following that, we dug a water hole, striking clear water after digging down about three feet. This we used only for washing and shaving, taking our drinking water from a well the engineers had dug nearby.

I now have a telephone in my dugout connecting me with the headquarters on the beach and the main medical installation farther up on the peninsula. We are praying for the arrival of more troops, guns, supplies, and the hope that other points on New Britain will also be invaded so that the Japanese will have to disperse their land and air forces and thus not be able to strike so hard at this one point. Much of our ground unit has been decimated as a result of continuous patrol activity.

We have a daily code word which is used at night. All men must be in their slit trenches after darkness. Anything moving, or any sound heard in the darkness, is fired at by our sentries. Falling cocoanuts, an occasional bird, or the land crabs which are molesting us usually are the signal for mistaken fire. We don't take any chances.

December 20th
Last night was a very exciting one, full of the dangers and mystery of this jungle warfare.

Our landing point is surrounded in front and to the sides by small pin point islands for several miles. Our artillery has been shelling these places consistently in order to destroy any gun positions which may be there. Scouting parties in small armored barges are making reconnaissance trips to these various points in order to ferret out any Japanese who might be observing our movements.

About one half hour after we had gotten into our slit trenches for the evening, my telephone rang requesting immediate medical care on the beach. Several of our scouting barges had been ambushed by a group of about eight heavily armed Japanese barges which promptly shot the boys up quite a bit.

We were in constant two-way communication with our barges. After a very tense hour, we guided them into the beach with dimmed lights. Five of the men coming off these boats had been badly wounded. We took them promptly back to our small aid station and placed each of them down in a slit trench and administered whatever first-aid we could.

Not only was working in this inky blackness most difficult, but also hazardous. Our sentries were shooting at every sound and movement in the jungle. To overcome the possibility of being shot by our own men we carried on our work amidst lots of shouting, cursing, and shuffling around. Such commotion we believed certainly would not be mistaken as the enemy. Besides, no Japanese soldier could curse the way we did.

One of the men had his entire hand and wrist shot into small splinters. I tried, while dressing it, to hide the wound from him. He undoubtedly will require an amputation. Another was shot through the chest and lung, and the next morning began to cough and spit up blood. The others had multiple penetrating gunshot wounds of the legs and buttocks. The amazing thing to me, thus far, is that of all of the horribly wounded treated by me, none showed any fear, panic or manifested any self-pity. They were courageous, inquisitive as regards the condition of their fellow-wounded, and exceedingly calm and co-operative, despite their pain. Their only wish, however, was to be quickly evacuated from New Britain, back to New Guinea.

Today a huge supply of rations has arrived and thus we now have fruit juices of various kinds, dehydrated potatoes, salt, sugar, and sausage. I had my first bit of solid food today for lunch: two sausages and a few slivers of canned peaches. This is all not quite like Mother serves.

The land crabs, insects, falling cocoanuts, and an occasional huge rat help disturb what little sleep we do get down in the damp hole in the ground. In addition to these visitors, a desperate Jap brazenly stalks into our area and tries to steal food. They have already stolen considerable supplies which were dropped to us by parachute from the bombers. Such nerve!

An infantry officer told me this morning that practically all of the Japanese nests have been cleared off the ridge, which is about 200 yards away from us. Our flame-throwers have arrived and charred them out. The trained native New Guinea soldiers who we have with us have also done a good job at hacking small groups of Japanese to pieces.

This morning I managed to wash a pair of socks and a pair of shorts in my helmet. And I also took a shave at the bottom of a slit trench. Peace, it is wonderful! There is no place like home. Habit being such a part of one's daily life, I shall have to dig myself a grave when and if I get home alive, and sleep there nights. I wonder what a bed is like.

December 27th
At this moment, I am on an Australian Hospital Ship being evacuated to the recently captured Japanese base at Lae, New Guinea. I am taking the opportunity now to write down the course of events during these past six days.

December 21st was about the worst day we had on Cape Merkus. Our beach medical station and other installations were repeatedly bombed and strafed. We spent most of our time in our slit trenches. Several times during the day we tried to get the wounded out of the trenches near our station onto LCTs in order to take them away from New Britain. But this could not be done. The Japanese were continuously harassing us despite our air cover.

I had had practically no sleep and almost nothing to eat during the previous four days, and was maneuvering about on will power alone. My men were shaking and upon the verge of tears at all times. Despite all this excitement and sense of danger I managed to smuggle out a V Mail letter with one of the officers who was going back to New Guinea. It was a letter to my folks that all was well and peaceful, the weather glorious, and above all I was having a grand time.

I shant be punished for these lies, I know.

At this point, I was barely able to stand up on my feet. Fortunately, another officer who had been sent down to help me out (I was alone up to this time), realized that I was of no value for the time being, and he suggested that I seek out my own company's headquarters which was located about one and a half miles up toward the front line of defense. However, I stayed over night still in this same dugout, and it was during this night that our area was subjected to the most terrific bombing we had yet been presented with.

Several of the bombs landed so close to us and the concussion was so great that I was practically lifted out of the slit trench. There was a full Colonel in the medical corps occupying the slit trench with me that night. We clung to one another knowing that this was the end. The bombing planes came down so low over us that it was possible to hear the bomb-bay doors swinging open just before the release of the bombs.

The morning of the 22nd, still dazed and jittery, I managed to get back to our Collecting Company Headquarters and tried to get some rest. I tried hard to relax, but still could neither eat nor drink. I saw to it immediately that the twenty enlisted men who were with me on the beach were also brought back and replaced with fresh crews. All were pretty much battered emotionally when they returned.

On the 24th, the commanding of?cer suggested that I go back about a mile to a better point of security in an underground shelter which the evacuation hospital had built. There I got some rest, and felt somewhat secure, but was still weak and apprehensive.

Bunkin with his typewriter on New Guinea.
Bunkin with his typewriter on New Guinea.
On the 25th, Christmas Day, little pieces of turkey were passed out to the men. PT boats had shuttled back and forth from New Guinea during the preceding night to tender this feast to us. Fancy eating Christmas turkey on New Britain down in a mud hole! Four of the officers in this dugout climbed out early in the morning and sang Christmas Carols. To hell with the snipers!

The morning of the 26th I was taken back to New Guinea aboard a PT boat. This trip was by far the most frightful experience I had yet experienced, especially in this present state of complete exhaustion. Three LCTs arrived that morning with food supplies, and, like clockwork the Japanese dive bombers arrived on the scene. They attacked our PT boat and another which lay a short distance from us. Only one bomb of the many that had been dropped hit its mark. This bomb went through the top of the PT boat, came out through the side, and then exploded in the water, the wave created by it almost turning over our ship. The skipper of the vessel was the only one who had been wounded.

The terrific roar and fire from these planes coming down at us, the hail of fire coming from our own ship, and that from the shore at the planes, was so great and so sudden that, in panic, I dashed to the bottom floor of the PT boat just over its motors. I was thinking at the time of the five torpedoes and the depth charges which this ship carried.

One lucky hit and we would have landed in Kingdom Come, certainly not identifiable.

Just after this scene, a young fifteen year old chap came over to me and handed me a cigar. He was celebrating his first conquest, having shot down his first Zero. I must have been a sorry sight at this time trying to a hold a cigar in my hand nonchalantly while quivering like a leaf in the wind.

Our boat had gotten caught on a reef during the night before and it was thus necessary for us to limp forward on only one propeller at about seven knots an hour. Hence, in mid-ocean, somewhere between Cape Merkus and Finschhafen, we transferred to another PT boat and made a quick trip back. We landed at Dreger Harbor, ten miles from Finschhafen late that afternoon and stayed overnight at an evacuation hospital. The next morning we took off in this Australian Hospital Ship bound for Lae.

While waiting in the harbor to pull out we could see our P-47 fighters returning from Cape Merkus. Quite a few of them buzzed the airfield before landing and put the plane into a belly-roll, this being the sign on returning that he had shot down a Japanese plane.

I have had additional news this morning that the First Marine Division has landed at Cape Gloucester on the northwest coast of New Britain. This is what we had been waiting for. Our task force had served the purpose of acting as a diversionary force for their landing. We were the expendables. As I also later learned, it had been expected that we were to be pushed back into the sea.

Good luck to the Marines!

Irving A. Bunkin established a medical practice after returning home from war as associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. He lived his last years with his wife, Anke, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he died in the summer of 2004. When HBO's The Pacific aired last spring, Bunkin's family gave his war diary to historian Donald L. Miller, who was a consultant for the series, to edit and publish. Miller holds the John Henry MacCracken Chair of American History at Lafayette College, and is the author of nine books, including D-Days in the Pacific.


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2 Responses to “Under the Knife on New Guinea”


  1. 1
    Patience says:

    Thank you for sharing your loved one's (Dr. Irving A. Bunkin) diary of his time spent in New Guinea during WWII. It sounds like he really went through a lot and thankfully made it home in one piece despite the horror and tragedy surrounding him.

    My Dad (Robert E. Osborn) also was there, Captain in the Army… and would have been 25-26 at the time. I remember seeing a case full of letters that he had written home during the war and his time spent in New Guinea and the Phillipines. He also did not want us to see them as children and I never did get to read them. So wish I could see what he wrote home to his Mother and Dad.

    • 1.1
      Mitch Bunkin says:

      Thanks so much for your comment about my uncle. I'm sure he would be gratified to know how many people were touched in a positive way by his story in World War 2 Magazine.
      Kindest regards.
      Mitch Bunkin



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