The New Guinea jungle was a boiler room. A slanting sun sifted through the dense canopy. Ahead, our native guide, Berua, and his tattooed wife, Bima, led the way, walking along a cliff that fell thousands of feet into a murky valley. Behind me a line of muscled young men sang call-and-response folk songs in haunting four-part harmony.
Nursing a fascination with New Guinea since my first trip in 1989, I was back on the island for a fifth time. Accompanied by a small expedition team and film crew, I was trying to repeat a little-known World War II march, a tragic episode in the battle for the Southwest Pacific.
In October 1942, General Douglas MacArthur ordered 1,200 untrained, poorly equipped American troops from the 32nd Infantry Division to cross New Guinea’s Papuan Peninsula. Historians consider the march one of the cruelest in modern military history. In 1942, New Guinea was terra incognita. Its interior was rugged and unmapped, its vast swamps and grasslands a breeding ground for disease, its climate pernicious.
No one had hiked the route since the soldiers cut their way across the peninsula more than 60 years ago, and I was advised not to attempt it. The terrain was still too rough, the rivers too fast, and the tribes unpredictable.
A week and a half after setting off from the south coast, we approached the spine of the Owen Stanley divide, the midpoint in our crossing. The faint hunting trail rose precipitously. We climbed through deep, leech-infested mud, grabbing at roots and vines. Squawking indignantly, giant hornbills fled their treetop sanctuaries with a whoosh of their great wings.
As we crested a peak, the clouds cleared, and I got my first glimpse of the island’s tortured topography. Errant 9,000-foot ridgelines ran in almost every direction. Ahead of us lay a summit the soldiers came to know as Ghost Mountain. As we entered the realm of the cloud forest, where everything seemed suspended in perpetual twilight, it began to rain, an icy onslaught that left the porters agitated. Ghost Mountain, they believed, was haunted by masalai, evil spirits that swirled back and forth across the misty, trackless ravines.
Here in the cloud forest the American march almost collapsed. “You can hardly realize how wild and ghostlike this mountain country is,” wrote 1st Sgt. Paul Lutjens in his diary. “Almost perpetual rain and steam.… We have been traveling over an almost impassable trail. Our strength is gone. Most of us have dysentery. Boys are falling out and dropping back with fever.… We seem to climb straight up for hours, then down again. God, will it never end?”
After five weeks on the trail, the exhausted soldiers limped out of the mountains and arrived at the north coast battlefields of Buna and Sanananda. The peninsula’s north coast was a maze of stinking, tea-black swamps, 8-foot kunai and elephant grass and viciously spiked nipa and sago palms. Military historian Eric Bergerud called it “some of the harshest terrain ever faced by land armies in the history of the war.”
Saddled with dysentery, malaria, jungle rot and trench foot, the soldiers were, in Bergerud’s words, “battered, filthy, longhaired, gaunt, festering wretches.” Yet they went directly into battle, slashing and lunging with their bayonets.
The Japanese positions were nearly impregnable. Bunker and trench systems protected all of the inland approaches to Buna and Sanananda. The camouflaged bunkers were reinforced with coconut logs, I-beams, sheet iron and steel oil drums filled with sand. They opened directly onto fire trenches or were connected to them by crawl tunnels. Mortars, artillery and air bombardment proved ineffective, so American soldiers were forced to rush in and try to push grenades through firing slits, a feat that took a lifetime of good luck. According to Major Herbert Smith, “Many more failed than succeeded.”
Japanese machine-gunners drove back the 32nd Division time and again. The soldiers took refuge in hip-deep swamps, clinging to the weblike roots of mangrove trees, always on the lookout for enemy snipers, giant long-haired rats and crocodiles. Captain Alfred Medendorp agonized. His men were out there “between the lines where they could not be gotten,” wounded soldiers crying out for help and dead bodies bloated by the heat. At night a breeze came in off the Solomon Sea, cooling the jungle; a mixed blessing, it also carried the stench of rotting corpses.
After eight weeks of fighting, the 32nd Infantry Division finally managed to dislodge the Japanese from the coast in late January 1943. It was a costly victory. Percentage-wise, fatalities approached the worst battles of the Civil War. MacArthur resolved never again to force “a head-on collision of the bloody, grinding type.
“No more Bunas,” he pledged.
The combined victory at Buna and Sanananda was psychologically and strategically momentous. Together with the fall of Guadalcanal, it destroyed the myth of Japanese invincibility. And it broke Japan’s hold on New Guinea, ensuring the security of the Australian continent and the American supply line to it.
Today Buna and Sanananda are quiet villages where people still practice subsistence fishing and farming. The fierce battles fought there are forgotten now. But these were the starting points, the first land victories of the South Pacific campaign that would propel MacArthur’s army north to the Philippines. It was, in fact, the 32nd Division to which General Yamashita surrendered near Kiangan on September 2, 1945. “It was entirely fitting,” a general wrote, “that the 32nd Division should receive the vanquished enemy. At Buna, they had won the battle that started the infantry on the jungle road to Tokyo.”
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.