The Ghost Mountain Boys

By JAMES CAMPBELL

It wasn’t the enemy Japanese that caused most of the American casualties during the horrific battle for New Guinea in late 1942, but the nightmarish conditions on the South Pacific island. New Guinea was largely unmapped, hellishly hot, filled with swamps, thick jungle, crocodiles, mountains, and unpredictable natives. As Campbell shows in this eye-opening account, New Guinea “was the perfect incubator for a host of debilitating tropical diseases,” including malaria and dysentery. As one Michigan soldier bluntly said, “If I owned New Guinea and I owned hell, I would live in hell and rent out New Guinea.” Campbell’s narrative follows the brutal experiences of the U.S. Army’s 32nd Division, as it marches across this unforgiving landscape and then assaults the Japanese army at the Battle of Buna. Using countless interviews with American troops, as well as diaries and letters, Campbell vividly paints a portrait of suffering, fear, endurance, and ultimate victory. Many of the casualties, Campbell explains, could have been avoided if U.S. commanders like General Douglas MacArthur had properly prepared and equipped the 32nd. U.S. troops suffered a stunning casualty rate of over 90%. The vast majority of these casualties were from tropical diseases, and Campbell criticizes Army brass for not providing the 32nd with jungle warfare training and (incredibly) not even supplying them with insect repellent to deter malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Yet these embattled men achieved the first great U.S. victory of the Pacific War, shattering the “myth of Japanese invincibility” and saving Australia. Campbell’s narrative skillfully reveals how right General Sherman was: “War is hell.” -