In March 1942 MacArthur abandoned the Philippines and retreated to Australia to lick his wounds and promise his return. The Japanese continued their advance across the western Pacific invading New Guinea to Australia’s north. During fierce fighting the Japanese pushed the Australians from the north of the island south along the Kokoda track crossing the 10,000 feet Owen Stanley Mountains. Losing New Guinea would open up Australia to Japanese bombers.
In response, MacArthur committed the 32nd Division to the campaign, instructing them to cross the mountains thirty miles to the south of the Australians and to engage the Japanese bridgehead at Buna. No such path existed. Rather they were expected to create a 120 mile route through dense jungle across steeply mountainous terrain. Unsuitable to vehicles, all supplies had to be carried by hand. The division were mainly national guardsmen and conscripts with no combat experience, jungle training or suitable equipment. Not unsurprisingly they suffered enormously before they ever engaged the enemy. MacArthur had little sympathy. He wanted to inflict the first land-based Japanese defeat of the war.
When they eventually reached Buna, they found an elite and experienced Japanese force that was well dug in. Rather than simply surrounding the encampment and starving the Japanese out, MacArthur ordered the American and Australian forces to take Buna regardless of cost. It was an arrogant, selfish decision by a commander completely out of touch with the terrain and conditions, which led to many needless deaths and woundings, with the time saved serving no strategic benefit.
The result was that whilst Buna eventually fell, the campaign had one of the highest casualty rates of the war. Out of nearly 11,000 men in the 32nd Division there were 9,688 casualties, 7,125 succumbing to a variety of debilitating diseases such as malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, scrub typhus and hookworm. Some regiments were decimated. For example, the 126th Infantry Regiment were reduced from 131 officers and 3,040 enlisted men, to 32 officers and 579 men when they were transported out in January 1943. In the whole campaign, across all allied services, 3,300 were killed and 5,500 wounded (compared with 1,100 killed and 4,350 wounded at Guadalcanal).
In The Ghost Mountain Boys James Campbell tells the story of the 32nd Division’s campaign in New Guinea, their trek across the Owen Stanley range and the eerie Ghost Mountain, and their struggle to overrun the Japanese at Buna. Campbell’s account is excellent on a number of levels. First, he does a very good job of personalising the story, tracking a number of Division members from senior officers to enlisted men, based on interviews, letters sent home and archival research. We get to know the men, their personal history and family circumstances. Second, he provides amble contextualisation with regards to New Guinea and its strategic position in the war, the history of the division and its campaign, the war in general and in particular MacArthur’s decision making. Third, by translating Japanese war diaries, he manages to detail the campaign from the Japanese’s point of view. Fourth, he manages to convey, with a great deal of sense of place, the geography, terrain and climate of New Guinea, helped in part by retracing the route taken. Throughout it is clear that he has great respect for the people and events he is documenting. The result is a wonderfully engaging narrative that provides a detailed overview of the campaign. Parts of the story have strong emotional resonance, especially the thread concerning the chief medic Simon Warvenhoven, whose love letters to his wife are reproduced throughout the story. In my view, this is military history at its best, working at different levels and registers to give the reader a real sense of the tragedy of war. A poignant but rewarding read.