The Ghost Mountain Boys: Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea--The Forgotten War of the South Pacific

The Ghost Mountain Boys: Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea--The Forgotten War of the South Pacific

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by James Campbell

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Lying due north of Australia, New Guinea is among the world’s largest islands. In 1942, when World War II exploded onto its shores, it was an inhospitable, cursorily mapped, disease-ridden land of dense jungle, towering mountain peaks, deep valleys, and fetid swamps. Coveted by the Japanese for its strategic position, New Guinea became the site of one of the… See more details below


Lying due north of Australia, New Guinea is among the world’s largest islands. In 1942, when World War II exploded onto its shores, it was an inhospitable, cursorily mapped, disease-ridden land of dense jungle, towering mountain peaks, deep valleys, and fetid swamps. Coveted by the Japanese for its strategic position, New Guinea became the site of one of the South Pacific’s most savage campaigns. Despite their lack of jungle training, the 32nd Division’s Ghost Mountain Boys were assigned the most grueling mission of the entire Pacific campaign: to march 130 miles over the rugged Owen Stanley Mountains and to protect the right flank of the Australian army as they fought to push the Japanese back to the village of Buna on New Guinea’s north coast.

Comprised of National Guardsmen from Michigan and Wisconsin, reserve officers, and draftees from across the country, the 32nd Division lacked more than training—they were without even the basics necessary for survival. The men were not issued the specialized clothing that later became standard issue for soldiers fighting in the South Pacific; they fought in hastily dyed combat fatigues that bled in the intense humidity and left them with festering sores. They waded through brush and vines without the aid of machetes. They did not have insect repellent. Without waterproof containers, their matches were useless and the quinine and vitamin pills they carried, as well as salt and chlorination tablets, crumbled in their pockets. Exhausted and pushed to the brink of human endurance, the Ghost Mountain Boys fell victim to malnutrition and disease. Forty-two days after they set out, they arrived two miles south of Buna, nearly shattered by the experience.

Arrival in Buna provided no respite. The 32nd Division was ordered to launch an immediate assault on the Japanese position. After two months of furious—sometimes hand-to-hand—combat, the decimated division finally achieved victory. The ferocity of the struggle for Buna was summed up in Time magazine on December 28, 1942, three weeks before the Japanese army was defeated: “Nowhere in the world today are American soldiers engaged in fighting so desperate, so merciless, so bitter, or so bloody.”

Reminiscent of classics like Band of Brothers and The Things They Carried, this harrowing portrait of a largely overlooked campaign is part war diary, part extreme adventure tale, and (through letters, journals, and interviews) part biography of a group of men who fought to survive in an environment every bit as fierce as the enemy they faced.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Campbell brings to vivid life one of the more forgotten, grislier campaigns of World War II, the Buna Trail campaign in New Guinea. The Japanese were trying to get a foothold on the south coast of the island, opposite Australia. The American Thirty-second Infantry Division had the job of driving them back over the Owen Stanley Mountain. It succeeded, at the cost of more than 10,000 casualties, four-fifths of them from tropical diseases contracted in the face of heavy rain, astonishing depths of mud, rugged terrain, perpetually rancid weather, shortage of supplies (including medicines), and, not incidentally, the Japanese. The most poignant part of the book consists of the letters of an army surgeon who eventually committed suicide, but every part of the book entitles it to a berth in WWII collections.
—Roland Green
FiftyPlus magazine
Campbell has crafted a compelling war history, one that reads as a page-turner.

Library Journal

Campbell's unit history and actual retracing of a National Guard battalion nearly destroyed in "Bloody Buna" is an absorbing account of the climax of the New Guinea campaign, perhaps MacArthur's worst-managed battle and a terrible ordeal for the seasoned Australian and raw American troops who fought there.

—Edwin B. Burgess
Kirkus Reviews
Campbell (The Final Frontiersman, 2005, etc.) recreates the horror endured by Allied soldiers during the brutal New Guinea campaign of 1942-43. Overshadowed by Marine heroics on nearby Guadalcanal, New Guinea combatants suffered triple the casualties and even worse conditions. The author builds his story around the 32nd Division, formed in 1940 but only minimally trained when it was abruptly sent to Australia, where it received no preparation for jungle fighting before moving to defend southern New Guinea in September 1942. In a bitter irony, two thirds of Japanese forces marching from the north through trackless jungles and freezing mountains died in the attempt, and the starving, disease-ridden remnants were already retreating when the 32nd began its advance. Fewer Americans died in the struggle north, but the story of their suffering makes painful reading, and the ragged, gaunt soldiers who survived had left most of their equipment behind. MacArthur assured local commanders that few Japanese remained when, in fact, they were numerous and protected by superb fortifications. Victory came after two months of ghastly fighting under terrible tropical conditions by soldiers who were short of supplies, malnourished and sick. The 32nd Division suffered 90 percent casualties. The book succeeds best describing events far from the battlefield. MacArthur's genius was evident only in the publicity releases pouring from his headquarters. Directing the campaign from a distance (unlike the Marines' Vandergrift at Guadalcanal), he ignored the immense difficulties of terrain and climate, rejected good intelligence when it contradicted his prejudices, repeatedly ordered poorly prepared units intosuicidal attacks and then announced he'd won victories with minimal casualties. Despite a plethora of material including letters and diaries from both sides, Campbell recounts the fighting as Sunday supplement fiction, describing the action in purple prose as his soldiers snarl invented dialogue and engage in passionate internal monologues. Readers who tolerate the overheated cinematics will discover a gripping story.

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Meet the Author

In 2006, James Campbell mounted an expedition to New Guinea and retraced the route of the Ghost Mountain Boys. He discovered a wilderness largely unchanged in more than sixty years. Campbell is the author of The Final Frontiersman and has written for Outside magazine as well as many other publications. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife and three daughters.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Chapter 1

Escape to the South

On the night of March 11, 1942, Douglas MacArthur was preparing to flee the island of Corregidor, headquarters of the Allied forces in the Philippines. Only fifteen miles across the North Channel, his army was trapped on the jungle-clothed Philippine peninsula of Bataan.

MacArthur, his wife, his four-year-old son Arthur, Arthur's Cantonese amah, thirteen members of MacArthur's staff, two naval officers, and a technician gathered at the destroyed Corregidor dock. Corregidor rose dramatically from the waters of Manila Bay. What had once been a luxuriant green island was now a devastated, crater-ridden monument to the fury of the battle for the Philippines. Major General Jonathan "Skinny" Wainwright emerged from the shadows.

"Jonathan," MacArthur said, "I want you to understand my position very plainly. I'm leaving for Australia pursuant to repeated orders of the President . . . I want you to make it known throughout all elements of your command that I'm leaving over my repeated protests. If I get through to Australia you know I'll come back as soon as I can with as much as I can. In the meantime, you've got to hold."

Wainwright assured MacArthur that he would do everything in his power to hold Bataan. He wiped the tears from his eyes and MacArthur's jaw quivered. Then MacArthur composed himself and shook Wainwright's hand. "When I get back, if you're still on Bataan, I'll make you a lieutenant general."

Wainwright said simply, "I'll be on Bataan if I'm alive."

MacArthur's long personal crusade to return to the Philippines in victory had begun.

Lieutenant John "Buck" Bulkeley, a naval commander, had already inspected the four escape crafts--mahogany-hulled PT boats, seventy-seven feet from bow to stern, powered by big Packard engines. That said, the PT boats were still risky. After three months of combat, the engines were overused; the boats were fast, but not fast enough to outrun enemy destroyers. To make matters worse, the party would have to travel hundreds of miles over poorly charted waters, using only a compass, crude maps, and dead reckoning. MacArthur, though, could not be dissuaded from his plan. He had already refused to go by submarine--getting a sub to Corregidor would simply take too much time, time MacArthur did not have. Besides, he loved the PT boat, and that was how he wanted to leave the Philippines. The Japanese navy was watching for him, and MacArthur understood the implications. His wife and child were aboard Bulkeley's boat with him. And Tokyo Rose had been broadcasting threats--if captured, MacArthur would be hanged in public in Tokyo's Imperial Plaza. The Japanese, though, would never take him alive. He had two highly polished derringers and two cartridges that he planned to use as a last resort.

It was a moonlit night, and as the boats moved toward Mindoro, south of Corregidor, Lieutenant Bulkeley felt a growing apprehension. They were nearing the Japanese blockade. Pummeled by strong easterly winds, the seas churned, and visibility was poor. MacArthur, Arthur, and Arthur's nurse, lay below, miserably seasick. Arthur was running a fever and MacArthur retched violently. Though also sick, MacArthur's wife Jean tended to both her son and her husband. In the rough seas, the boats became separated, and from that point on, it was every crew for itself.

One of the four PT boats reached the rendezvous point in the Cuyo Islands and waited in the morning mist for the arrival of the others. Suddenly, the commander of the first boat sighted what he thought was a Japanese destroyer speeding toward them. He ordered five hundred gallons of gasoline jettisoned and pushed down on the throttles. Still the other ship gained on them. Realizing he could not get away, the commander reversed course and readied the torpedoes for firing. He was prepared to give the order when he recognized the oncoming ship as Bulkeley's vessel.

After the near mishap, MacArthur and his party waited for the third PT boat (the fourth boat had broken down en route). It was a hot, sultry day, and they bobbed like castaways on the water among the sandy coves and palm-fringed, volcanic islands. Two hours later, the third PT boat limped into the inlet. MacArthur now had an important decision to make. The plan was to meet the submarine Permit. At that point, they had to choose--submarine or PT boat. MacArthur was tempted to travel the rest of the way by submarine, but Bulkeley pointed out that Tagauayan, where they were to assemble, was three hours away and that they would never be able to get there in time. MacArthur was getting antsy. Knowing that there would be planes waiting to transport them to Australia, MacArthur decided to make directly for Mindanao in two of the original four PT boats.

Less than an hour after leaving, MacArthur heard the lookout shout, "Looks like an enemy cruiser!" Bulkeley drew in a deep breath when he saw the faster warship's imposing outlines. Then he calmed himself and waited for the inevitable. But the inevitable never came. The seas were rough and the PT boats lay low in the water, surrounded by whitecaps, and skidded by the cruiser without being spotted.

Hours later, in the waning light of the afternoon, they saw the hulking silhouette of a Japanese warship. They cut their engines and hoped they would be mistaken for native fishing vessels. The ruse worked. They had averted disaster--again.

On a clear night, illuminated by the moon, they continued across the Mindanao Sea bound for Cagayan on Mindanao's north coast. When they arrived at the Del Monte cannery in Cagayan in the early morning of March 13, they knew that they had slipped through the Japanese blockade.

But now the group faced another potential disaster. The plan had been to reach Cagayan by water and then to fly directly to Darwin on Australia's north coast. However, as MacArthur watched one war-weary B-17 land, he grew furious and refused to let anyone board. He had expected four reliable planes, not one dilapidated B-17.

For nearly four days MacArthur and his party risked discovery while his Commander of American Forces in Australia tried to secure navy planes. Everyone was tense, especially Major General Richard Sutherland, MacArthur's chief of staff. Sutherland fumed that they were sitting ducks. A Philippine informant could easily betray them to the Japanese, who were on the south end of the island and regularly patrolled north. On the evening of March 16, two of the navy's best Flying Fortresses landed.

Hours later, as the two bombers crossed the Celebes Sea, enemy fighters appeared out of the darkness. Terror swept through the planes. Had they made it this far only to be gunned down by enemy pilots? They could do only one thing--continue to fly their course. As he watched, the Zeros inexplicably turned back. Then MacArthur knew that they had finally escaped.

When the Flying Fortresses landed forty miles south of Darwin at Batchelor Field, two DC-3s were waiting to transport the group to Melbourne. However, MacArthur refused to fly. His wife had been very sick on the flight, and out of concern for her, he did not want to board another plane. What eventually convinced him not to travel by train was his son's condition. Authur remained very ill; his doctor did not think that he could make the long overland journey. After considerable discussion, MacArthur finally agreed to fly.

When they landed in Alice Springs to refuel, the rest of the crew went by air to South Australia; MacArthur, though, insisted now on traveling by train. But the one that serviced Alice Springs had left the previous day, so arrangements had to be made to bring in a special train.

When it arrived the next day, MacArthur, his wife and son, the amah, and General Sutherland boarded. For three and a half days and over one thousand miles, the slow, narrow-gauge train chugged through the vast, sun-scorched Australian outback to Adelaide. Nearing the city, MacArthur's deputy chief of staff boarded the train and delivered a wrenching blow: The general would not lead a great army against the Japanese. In fact, he would be fighting a shoestring campaign.

Months before, Roosevelt and Churchill had met in Washington, D.C., and together they settled on a "Germany first" policy, determining that the Atlantic-European theater would be the main focus of operations. MacArthur was nearly speechless at the news. "God have mercy on us" was all he could say.

Approaching Adelaide, MacArthur was forced to compose himself. At the station, the gathered reporters were eager to know: He had fled the Philippines; yet his men were still there fighting. Did he have anything to say? MacArthur was tired and still distraught from Sutherland's news, "a lonely, angry man," according to his wife. But he wanted to send a message to his army and the people of the Philippines to let them know that they would not be forgotten. It was then that he delivered his famous words: "The President of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines and proceed for Corregidor to Australia for the purpose, as I understand it, of organizing the American offensive against Japan, a primary object of which is the relief of the Philippines. I came through and I shall return."

On March 18, a day after he arrived in Australia, MacArthur learned the whole truth of America's "Germany first" policy: His U.S. ground troops would be limited to two divisions. He protested to General Marshall "No commander in American history has so failed of support as here."

MacArthur already felt as if Roosevelt had betrayed him in the Philippines. Now he felt betrayed again. His hope for a quick victory against the Japanese in New Guinea evaporated.

. . .

When MacArthur came to Australia, not only did he not have a great army to lead, but he was being asked to protect a country that was powerless to protect itself. In a show of extreme loyalty, Australia had sent its land, sea, and air forces to join England in its fight against the European Axis in Africa, Greece, and the Middle East.

Australia's national security and twelve thousand miles of its coastline were left to the Australian militia, a group of poorly trained, poorly equipped home guardsmen. Australian officials feared that Japan would invade, and the Australian press shamelessly fueled these fears. Thousands of Sydney residents fled the city for the Blue Mountains fifty miles to the west; people in Darwin, Cairns, and Townsville abandoned their homes.

A month before MacArthur arrived in Australia, the country's growing sense of vulnerability became a reality. Japanese planes bombed Darwin, killing 250 people and destroying nine ships and twenty aircraft.

A feeling of paranoia seized Australia. The Japanese had roared through Hong Kong, Malaya, Guam, Rabaul, Singapore, Java, the Dutch East Indies, and Burma. Eventually, what Japan would call its "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" would cover the entire coastline of Asia, extending from Manchuria to Rangoon, and would include the Pacific in a line running south from the Aleutian Islands. It would occupy one-sixth of the earth's surface. The Australians feared they were next.

On February 3, Japan bombed Port Moresby, New Guinea's largest city, for the first time. By early March, Japanese forces occupied Salamaua and Lae, two cities that were part of Australia's New Guinea mandate. The invasion was staged from Rabaul, a small town on the island of New Britain, four hundred air miles off the New Guinea mainland, which the Japanese had overwhelmed one-and-a-half months earlier despite valiant opposition from the Australian forces garrisoned there. The Japanese transformed Rabaul into their South Sea base. With a magnificent harbor and two airfields, Rabaul held one of the largest collections of troops outside of Japan.

After the Japanese landed in New Guinea, Allied headquarters in Australia did its best to anticipate Japan's next move. Would Premier Hideki Tojo's army invade Australia? Whatever Japan's plans were, there was no denying the reality--Australia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands were the last major positions still left to the Allies in the Southwest Pacific.

On February 17, 1942, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall ordered the transfer to Australia of the 41st U.S. Infantry Division. The 41st's mission was to protect Australia's ports and air bases and to provide garrisons for the defense of its eastern and northeastern coastal cities. Despite the imminent arrival of the 41st Division, when MacArthur landed in Australia in mid-March 1942 he began lobbying for more troops and more planes and ships, especially aircraft carriers.

MacArthur combined his obsession with returning to the Philippines with a suspicion that the political powers in the U.S., especially the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the demands and influence of the navy in the Central Pacific, were depriving him of the resources he needed to wage a war (only 9 percent of U.S. supplies went to the Southwest Pacific). He complained that he was "always the underdog, and was always fighting with destruction just around the corner." To an extent, MacArthur's fears were justified. MacArthur and the navy brass were openly hostile to each other. Both lobbied for a finite supply of resources, for which the navy was often given preference.

Australia's Prime Minister, John Curtin, had been waging his own personal campaign for troops for months, entreating Great Britain for its help before MacArthur ever set foot in Australia. Britain, though, had thrown herself full force against the Germans, and Churchill maintained that he did not have the troops to spare. In desperation Curtin turned to the United States.

The day after Pearl Harbor, Curtin allied Australia with the Americans, declaring that Australia was "at war with Japan." On December 23, 1941, he wrote to Roosevelt and to Churchill: "Our resources here are very limited. It is in your power to meet the situation. Should the government of the United States desire, we would gladly accept an American Commander in the Pacific Area."

At the same time, Curtin demanded three divisions from Australia's Imperial Forces sent home at once. When Churchill told him that his request was impossible to fulfill, Curtin persisted, and eventually won the return of two out of the three. Churchill argued that to remove the 9th Division from the Middle East would jeopardize the British line. He then suggested to Roosevelt that if the Prime Minister agreed to leave the 9th Division in place, the United States should send to Australia another U.S. Army Infantry division. Marshall chose the 32nd.

A full seven months later, as the Japanese Imperial army ascended a high ridge overlooking Port Moresby, MacArthur dispatched two of the 32nd Division's three regimental combat teams to New Guinea.

. . .

Although MacArthur came to Australia in defeat, no one would have known it from his reception. One of the most decorated generals of his time, a man who during World War I was called by America's secretary of war "the finest front line American general of the war," had arrived to defend Australia in her hour of need.

From the Hardcover edition.

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