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Our Jungle Road to Tokyo
Robert L. Eichelberger
Published by Logos, 2017.
Our Jungle Road to Tokyo by Robert L. Eichelberger. First published in 1950.
Cover, interior design and editing © Copyright 2017 Logos Publishing. All rights reserved.
First e-book edition 2017.
CHAPTER ONE | ON OUR WAY
CHAPTER TWO | SUMMONS TO BUNA
CHAPTER THREE | THE BITTER DAYS AT BUNA
CHAPTER FOUR | SANANANDA
CHAPTER FIVE | AUSTRALIA AND THE AMPHIBS
CHAPTER SIX | MY WARD MRS. ROOSEVELT
CHAPTER SEVEN | FIGHT FOR THE HUON PENINSULA
CHAPTER EIGHT | UP THE LADDER TO HOLLANDIA
CHAPTER NINE | WE BUILD THE AIRFIELDS
CHAPTER TEN | OPERATION FERDINAND
CHAPTER ELEVEN | BIAK: BATTLE OF THE CAVES
CHAPTER TWELVE | THE NEW EIGHTH ARMY
CHAPTER THIRTEEN | LEYTE CAMPAIGN
CHAPTER FOURTEEN | THE DASH FOR MANILA
CHAPTER FIFTEEN | FIFTY-TWO D-DAYS
CHAPTER SIXTEEN | MINDANAO
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN | GRAND TOUR
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN | THE MOUNTAINS OF LUZON
CHAPTER NINETEEN | JAPAN: PEACEFUL INVASION
CHAPTER TWENTY | JAPAN: OCCUPATION
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE | JAPAN: THE FUTURE
Further Reading: Manila Espionage
AMERICA’S WAR IN THE Pacific began in defeat and humiliation. Every American knows that. I have set myself, and I hope without immodesty, the task of telling, in some part at least, the story of the fight of the Army Ground Forces from Australia to Japan. It is a story well worth telling, and a great deal of it has never been told at all. There is glory enough in it for everyone—a great Navy, a gallant Marine Corps, an Air Force that flew in everything from fabric first cousins of box-kites to B-29s. It was amphibious warfare—and a new kind of amphibious warfare; every military arm was important and interdependent.
Some of the Pacific history has been written, but little of it has been concerned with the men I commanded—the ordinary, muddy, malarial, embattled, and weighed-down-by-too-heavy-packs GIs. They waded through the surf, they struggled through the swamp mud, they pushed the trucks out of quagmires with their shoulders, they cut the tracks which ultimately became roads leading to the airfields they constructed. They were the true artisans of the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific which led ultimately to the Philippines and Tokyo. They called it—The Hard Way Back.
In late August of 1942 I found myself flying the ocean to Australia, a passenger for the Great Unknown. I was fifty-six years old, a major general, a professional soldier, and not unused to the unexpected; during the First World War, supposedly headed for France, I had ended up as assistant chief of staff to an American expeditionary force in the bleakness of Siberia.
Army wives must be heroines, and they earn no ribbons for it. Husbands are here today and gone tomorrow, and the decisions of the High Command sometimes must seem capricious as a crystal ball. After thirty-one years of married life, my wife showed the first signs of incipient revolt when I kissed her good-by near a misty and overcast airfield outside San Francisco. It was a difficult parting for us both.
“When there is a war,” said Miss Em in a masterly bit of understatement, “you always seem to go to the queerest places.”
There were twenty-two members of my I Corps staff with me as we swept out over the Golden Gate in a B-24 bomber. A few benches in the bomb bay had converted it into a transport plane; with each bench went a guarantee of personal discomfort which was paid off in part when we arrived in Honolulu next morning, stiff and sore but glad to get there. From Honolulu it is a four-hour jump to tiny Palmyra Island. As we landed at Palmyra another plane came in from the south with General Pat Hurley, former Secretary of War, and Prime Minister Peter Fraser of New Zealand as passengers. I spent an interesting and profitable evening with them. My Southwest Pacific education had begun.
The next morning we were off for Fiji. After a long over-water hop we came down at Nandi Airfield. Here it was decided to bypass the usual stop at Noumea and strike straight for Australia. It was rough going. At one time we went to eighteen thousand feet to pass over a storm; we had no oxygen, and the temperature in the plane dropped below zero. Nevertheless we landed at a field eighty miles north of Sydney without ill effects, and then we were shuttled by another plane to Brisbane. There we went to Lennon’s Hotel, and to bed.
General MacArthur and his family, as well as the senior members of his staff, lived at Lennon’s Hotel, and next day I called to pay my respects to him and to renew my acquaintance with Major General Richard K. Sutherland, his chief of staff. I had known Sutherland at Fort Leavenworth and as a General Staff officer in Washington. Both my chief and Sutherland greeted me cordially.
My knowledge of the Australian situation was, of necessity, slight. I had had only a few days of orientation at the War Department after receiving my surprise orders. I did know there were 110,000 American soldiers in Australia, and that most of them were supply or engineering troops of one sort or another. There were only two combat divisions. The 32nd Division was at Camp Cable, thirty miles south of Brisbane. The 41st Division was at Rockhampton, three hundred miles to the north. Rockhampton had within easy access ideal training areas: hills, jungles, open country, beaches. When Generals MacArthur and Sutherland asked me where I wanted to be stationed, I chose Rockhampton.
While the Rockhampton headquarters was being set up, the senior members of my staff and I flew to Sydney and Melbourne to familiarize ourselves with the Australian and American organizations and personnel with whom we would work in the future. The Services of Supply commander at Melbourne was Major General Richard Marshall, who later became Deputy Chief of Staff; he is today president of Virginia Military Institute. Everywhere we were received warmly, but only a completely insensitive person could have failed to detect the rivalries and animosities and mutual suspicions which hid behind the clasped hands of Allied military friendship in both Melbourne and Brisbane.
This was understandable. No one had a toehold on right or wrong. Unkind Australians pointed out that the Americans had lost the Philippines. Unkind Americans pointed out that the British and Australians had lost Singapore. General MacArthur was not there by choice. The Australian government had directly requested the American government to assign him to the post of Allied Commander-in-Chief and he had left the Philippines by the order of President Roosevelt himself.
The truth was that both Australian troops in Australia and American troops in Australia were orphans of the storm. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had decided that the all-out effort must be made in Europe, and the realization of that fact tended to make the two nationalities poorer instead of better friends. The Allied agreement for integration of forces, I quickly found out, was laudable in purpose but difficult in practice.
Under the agreement Americans commanded Allied Naval Forces and Allied Air Forces. At the time of my arrival these Americans were Admiral Herbert F. Leary and General George Kenney, newly arrived. Allied Ground Forces commander was Sir Thomas Blamey, who was also Australian Army commander. On most of the Allied staffs some effort had been made to achieve a paper balance by the alternating of Australian and American officers. Because of diplomatic necessity everyone professed fealty to the unified command, but it was evident even to a newcomer that both Yanks and Aussies were restive in the fraternal bonds.
I had received a rather oblique warning about the explosive Australian situation when I had a last talk in Washington with General McNair. Up until that time he had been my boss. Both of us knew that several senior American Army officers had abruptly returned from Australia. Lesley McNair was not a very communicative man, but it was always well to listen when he talked. He said only, “Don’t bounce back.”
One of my predecessors had the title of Commanding General of U.S. Armed Forces in Australia, or (briefly) USAFIA. This resounding title struck me as inexact and likely to create misunderstandings. When General George C. Marshall back in Washington told me I was the heir apparent, I inquired, “Actually, isn’t General MacArthur in command of American troops out there?” Marshall laughed and said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, he is.”
A short time after my arrival in Brisbane I received a letter from the War Department addressed to me as Commanding General, U.S. Army Forces in Australia. I returned it through channels asking that I be addressed by my correct title: “Commanding General, I Corps.”
As my staff and I made the customary courtesy calls in Australia, we found the chain of command both odd and interesting. The 32nd and 41st Divisions and assorted auxiliary troops belonged to I Corps. In turn, I Corps became part of the Australian First Army, commanded by Sir John Lavarak. I reported to Sir John at Toowomba and was received courteously by that offensive-minded professional soldier. He told me that many Australians were gravely concerned about the possibility of Japanese invasion at a time when he believed they should be organizing their resources and morale to mount an offensive against the Japs. He was highly critical of some of his own country’s officials and contemptuous of any strategic plans which called for gradual abandonment of northern Australia and concentration of effort on the defense and protection of the great cities and populous areas of the south.
The attempted integration of Australian and American troops at times produced curious results. Sir John laughed about the fact that he had an American officer at Toowomba who was supposed to be his operations officer. I had been told before leaving Washington that General MacArthur had asked for key American officers to assist the Australians with their staff work. The Australians didn’t think they needed much help from anyone. Many of the commanders I met had already been in combat with the British in North Africa, and, though they were usually too polite to say so, considered the Americans to be—at best—inexperienced theorists.
At Camp Cable I encountered a situation that was little less than fantastic. The 32nd Division was assigned to the American I Corps for offensive training and to the Australian II Corps for defensive training. This was a military conception entirely new to me and, of course, quite impracticable. On a day when I paid a visit to observe artillery firing, Australian staff officers arrived to look over defensive techniques. The 32nd went through its paces for them too. Out of the recollections of a Sunday school boyhood there came to me a cogent bit of Scriptural wisdom: “Man cannot serve two masters.”
When I took up housekeeping at I Corps headquarters at Rockhampton I realized at once how fortunate had been the decision to locate there. Although I did not know it then, it was to be my home for many months—a home to leave for the bloody and difficult New Guinea campaign, and a home to come back to when victory had been achieved. There friendships were formed that still surmount the barrier of distance and the passage of time.
Rockhampton is a city of about thirty-five thousand in the valley of the Fitzroy River. Located midway between Brisbane and Townsville, it is almost exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn, and the climate is admirable. During the Australian winter (our summer), temperatures may drop on the coldest days to forty degrees Fahrenheit. There is hot weather in summer, but I recall only two nights when I chose to sleep on the veranda of my house. Australian beaches are the most beautiful in the world, and Yeppoon Beach, only a few miles away from Rockhampton, is one of the finest. Lonely, yes, but beautiful.
Rockhampton is in a cattle and sheep country, and the town’s largest industry then was a packing plant. I quickly discovered it was a wide-awake, enterprising community which had been settled by people of Scottish descent. Distrustful of Commonwealth officials, fearful of a Japanese invasion, many of the leading citizens had evacuated their families and their possessions to the south or to the interior. When the 41st Division moved into camp nearby it received a warm welcome. Americans were popular as the community’s protectors. Not long ago I received notice of services to be held in a chapel built by the Yanks; this ceremony commemorates annually the help and friendship of American troops during the war. Rockhampton remembers.
At that time Rockhampton turned over to I Corps most of the first floor of the modern City Hall to use as offices. The city fathers also permitted us to put up two temporary office buildings nearby. A house of tropical construction atop a jutting ridge was rented as living quarters for me and some members of my staff. It was a rambling one-story structure built on stilts, and it had a veranda ninety feet long. We outraged our Australian landlord by screening all the windows, and were prevented from screening the veranda only by his obvious distress. There are flies and mosquitoes in Australia, but Mr. Grant, like many Australians, was unalterably convinced that “fly-screens” keep out the air.
At the time I reached Australia the Japanese were at the peak of their power. Except for setbacks in two naval battles, their movement southward had been a procession of triumphs, truly one of the most astonishing advances of history. In a period of months they had sunk a large section of our fleet at Pearl Harbor (I had seen the dead hulks as I passed through Hawaii), taken Singapore, captured the Philippines, overrun Java and Indo-China and oil-rich Borneo. They owned everything above tidal reef from Yokohama to Rabaul, and they had invaded the north coast of New Guinea with the idea of seizing Port Moresby, the Australian outpost there. They had superiority in the air and on the sea.
It can be said without fear of challenge that military and naval aggression never before achieved control of so many thousands of miles of land and ocean in so short a time. Eastward the Japanese controlled half the Pacific, southward they were halted just above Australia, and westward they had gone overland to the mountain barriers of the Burma front. They were in possession of the wealth of the Indies, areas rich beyond imagination in oil, rubber, rice, and all the natural resources necessary to the prosecution of modern war. China, an ancient enemy, was effectively isolated from Occidental Allies. It must have seemed to the cold, patient dreamers in Tokyo that the long vision was almost at hand—Japan would become Asia.
It is not surprising that, as the Japanese enveloped a thousand bays and sea channels and marched down the island steps of the Solomons, Australians decided that the next step would be an invasion of their mainland. Documents captured after the end of the war, however, seem to indicate that an Australian invasion was never part of the Japanese plan; the aim, instead, was to separate Australia and New Zealand and to cut the supply line from the United States. Airfields were to be built from which land-based Jap planes could sink and harry our transports.
This is the situation the American Navy met and dealt with in the South Pacific area. The Battle of the Coral Sea in May of 1942 was a battle of planes and carriers. In addition to heavy casualties among other craft, the enemy lost the carrier Shoho. We lost the carrier Lexington, which could ill be spared. But the Japanese were shoved back on their haunches, and we did get a respite of two months while our transport ships came through. Shortly afterward the Navy won the decisive Battle of Midway in the Central Pacific. Much of this happened before I ever set foot in Australia, but no one had to tell me that our sea line was our life line. It was a slow trickle of supply, but it meant the difference between inertia and activity, airplanes and no airplanes. Fighter planes don’t fly the Pacific; they come in crates.
By midsummer of 1942 the Japanese were again on the march. They had established at Rabaul on New Britain Island a large and powerful feeder base, and, under sea and air protection, their transports streamed south from there in two roughly parallel lines. To the east they moved down the Solomons, building airfields as they went. To the west convoys rendezvoused off the coast of Papua. Despite savage blows by Allied Air, they landed eleven thousand men in the Buna-Gona area on July 21.
The Papuan peninsula lies at the lower end of the great island of New Guinea and directly across the Coral Sea from Australia. Papua was considered a part of Australia, as distinct from the rest of British New Guinea, which Australia had governed since World War I under a League of Nations mandate. The capital of Papua is Port Moresby, garrisoned at the beginning of the war by a few militia troops. The Battle of the Coral Sea disposed of an initial Japanese attempt to capture Moresby from the sea. Now, from the beachheads at Buna and Gona, the enemy decided to try again—overland.
Moresby, on the south coast of Papua, and Buna, on the north coast, are only a hundred and twenty miles apart by airline, but between them lies the Owen Stanley mountain range, and some of the most difficult country in the world. The highest peak of the Owen Stanleys rises to more than thirteen thousand feet. Australians with a knowledge of the terrain believed an overland expedition impossible and the Owen Stanleys impassable. The Japanese, as they had proved in Malaya, were hard to convince. General Horii’s experienced jungle fighters swept out of the coastal swamps and into the foothills, climbed the steep mountains, and started down the southern slopes. The Australian militia troops steadily fell back before them. On September 14 the Japanese were on the Imita Range, only twenty miles above Port Moresby.
The repercussions of this Japanese advance were many in Australia. In the scattered villages of the north there was understandable anxiety, and in the south, where horse racing continued as usual, there was considerable perturbation. To the Allied Air Forces the preservation of our advance airfields in the vicinity of Moresby was vital. Heavy bombers with their long cruising range could base in Australia, but George Kenney’s fighters and light bombers, which steadily kept the Japanese off-balance, needed the forward outposts.
General MacArthur had already decided to take the offensive. The 7th Australian Division, which had fought in North Africa, was to be sent to New Guinea along with American troops. On September 14 I was in Brisbane and at about nine in the evening General MacArthur called me to his hotel apartment. I had a forty-five-minute interview with him and, immediately afterward, wrote down an informal report on our conversation, which is still in my files. General MacArthur told me I was to go to New Guinea about October 1 and that I would be, in effect, a task force commander. I was to have the 32nd Division, and I was to capture the Buna-Gona area.
I asked whether his chief of staff had been informed of this plan. He answered in the negative but added, “I’ll tell Sutherland in the morning.”
Nothing ever came of this. General Sutherland informed me the following day that General MacArthur’s plan—it was detailed enough to include even the specific trails which my regiments were to follow—had been abandoned. But two regiments of the 32nd Division, the 126th and the 128th, did go to New Guinea.
In Washington I had read General MacArthur’s estimates of his two infantry divisions, and these reports and our own inspections had convinced my staff and me that the American troops were in no sense ready for jungle warfare. It was true that we were newcomers, but I had expected to learn lessons in jungle training in Australia. And it seemed to me that our troops in training were just being given more of the same thing they had had back home.
My opinion was not popular. I am sure it would not have been popular with the troops themselves. I told Generals MacArthur and Sutherland that I thought the 32nd Division was not sufficiently trained to meet Japanese veterans on equal terms. After an inspection—and this must be in the War Department records somewhere— I gave the 32nd Division a “barely satisfactory” rating in combat efficiency. This, I hasten to add, meant no criticism of the gallantry or the willingness of the GIs in that Middle-Western outfit.
I was to lead these troops later, and I recall one soldier who told me that in twenty months of service he had had only one night problem. He asked me how he could be expected to be proficient in night patrolling against the Japanese under those conditions. I had no answer. Training is a dreary job for soldiers, but it is amazing in war how much proper and intelligent training helps not only to win battles but to keep men alive.
Anyway, by September 25, the 128th Infantry and a detachment of the 126th had been flown into Port Moresby—without their artillery. This was the first major movement of American troops by air in World War II, and General Kenney deserves great credit. He not only used all his own transports; he drafted into service all the transport planes on Australian civilian airlines.
Three days later (when the rest of the 126th Infantry arrived by boat) the 128th was already opening a road in the Goldie River valley, and elements of the 126th were attempting to work their way up from Moresby over the almost impassable Kapa Kapa Trail.
The Japanese advance over the Owen Stanleys, from a military point of view, was a triumph of discipline and rugged determination. Allied air strafing undoubtedly made the maintenance of supply difficult, but I imagine that the inefficiencies of Japanese headquarters planning were equally guilty in the situation. Fortitude is admirable under any flag, and those Japanese foot soldiers had it. They pressed on—ill and empty bellied. They had no way to evacuate their sick and wounded. Sanitation was wretched, and they suffered from tropical fevers and exhaustion.
There is a limit to human faithfulness and fervor. Men must be rested and fed. The Japanese reached the Imita Range, and there a halt was called. Now, on orders from Tokyo, a rearguard was left behind, and the retreat began. Soon the Australians knew that the Japanese were attempting to retire over the same difficult mountain trails they had chosen for their offensive. General Blamey, the Allied Ground Forces commander in New Guinea, sent the 7th Australian Division in pursuit.
This was not the first failure of the Japanese in New Guinea. In late August a small seaborne expeditionary force had landed at Milne Bay, which is located at the southeastern tip of Papua. Enemy intelligence officers did not know that the Australians had strongly garrisoned Milne Bay and constructed airfields there. The invading Japanese found themselves faced, to their surprise, with a numerically superior force, and after several days of fierce fighting the invaders were virtually annihilated.
There are two routes overland from Port Moresby to the Buna area. One is the Kokoda Trail, which the Japanese had followed. It is the longer, but permits the footsore traveler to get through the Owen Stanleys at the Kokoda Gap, where the altitude is sixty-five hundred feet. The other route is the Kapa Kapa Trail, which is more direct but climbs over the backbone of the Owen Stanleys at the height of nine thousand feet.
The 7th Australian Division pressed after the Japanese over the Kokoda Trail while a part of the American 126th Infantry Regiment challenged the steep wilderness of the Kapa Kapa Trail. Both expeditions could be supplied only by airdrop, and Kenney’s fliers again did an excellent job in the misty, treacherous reaches of the Owen Stanleys. For the troops the going was slow and the going was difficult. General Blamey’s plan called for a junction of the two Allied forces on the other side of the mountains and then the assault on Buna and Gona. The Americans did not make contact with the enemy—rugged nature was enemy enough. Old New Guinea hands told me later that no expedition of white men had been over the Kapa Kapa in half a century. The log of the 126th seems to bear this out: in many places the trail was so overgrown that the soldiers had to chop their way through. A tough assignment for youngsters whose knowledge of mountains and jungles came mostly out of the movies!
Under the curious Allied chain of command, the troops of I Corps passed over to Australian control when they touched New Guinea soil. I flew to New Guinea with three of my staff officers in late September and made a brief inspection visit; at that time the Americans were not yet in combat. With a considerable section of the 32nd Division gone, I concentrated at Rockhampton on stepped-up jungle training for the 41st Division. During October I received my promotion to lieutenant general. This, I suppose, should have made a career officer happy, but, to tell the truth, I wasn’t happy at all.
I knew the road to Tokyo would be long, and I felt that a responsible commander should be learning Japanese methods of warfare and getting firsthand information on problems which were certain to engage American attention throughout the foreseeable island-to-island campaign ahead. I was sure that I had plenty to learn—and the best way for a general to learn is to go up where the bullets are being fired. Then he doesn’t have to take other men’s opinions on what the problems are. He finds out for himself.
When the decision was made to send the 32nd to New Guinea I had suggested that I go with them, taking along an advance section of the I Corps staff. The main purpose was to enable I Corps to plan intelligently a training program to fit other troops for combat against the Japanese. General MacArthur told me he favored the idea but since Sutherland was opposed the answer was no, and that was that.
By the beginning of November the Australians and Americans were ready to strike against the Japanese strongholds on the north coast of Papua, and Generals MacArthur, Kenney, and Sutherland went forward to establish an advanced Allied headquarters at Port Moresby. The opinion in military circles apparently was that our first ground victory against the Japanese was immediately in the offing. A fortnight later, accompanied by Colonel Rex Chandler, my deputy chief of staff, I flew to Moresby to observe our troops in combat. This journey was made with the hearty approval of General MacArthur, and his chief of staff had been so informed.
My experience there was a baffling one. I saw General Ennis Whitehead, who commanded the Air Forces at Moresby and was in charge of the airlift. Whitehead was a good friend of mine, and when he remarked that he was going over the Owen Stanleys next day by plane, I said, “Going over the mountains? How about taking me along?”
“I’d like to,” said the rough, gruff Whitehead, “but Sutherland says he’s going to run you out of New Guinea tomorrow.”
This was surprising news to me, and I was a little incredulous. I had talked to General MacArthur earlier in the day, and he had said nothing about a hasty departure. I immediately called on General Sutherland. Had General MacArthur, Sutherland inquired, told me that I was to return to Australia and pick out a campsite for the incoming 25th Division? (Incidentally, the 25th Division never did come to Australia.) Of course General MacArthur hadn’t, but Sutherland was chief of staff and I understood.
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll pick up a ride in a bomber tomorrow.”
“He wants you to go on the courier plane,” said Sutherland, “and you should be at the airfield at four tomorrow morning.”
I had no quarrel with the courier planes. They were well-worn, two-engine Lockheeds and looked like accommodation cars on a whistle-stop railroad; they carried everything from rope to cable wire, and passengers sat on benches. Even the toilets were loaded with freight. I had flown in worse planes before, and I was to fly in many less stalwart later on. However, I recalled with some amusement that Sutherland had once told me that he would never essay the stormy and treacherous air currents over the Coral Sea—it was called “the graveyard of planes”—in anything except a four-engine job.
It was storming when Chandler and I reached the airstrip in the early morning darkness. But orders are orders, and we took off. Actually, at the time, I think I was more entertained than angry. I was then, for whatever it meant, the second-ranking American Army officer in the Pacific, and I was being given a monumental brush-off. I was amazed by General Sutherland’s thoroughness. Air Force friends had advised me that the courier plane passed directly over my headquarters and would drop me at Rockhampton. Once aloft, the pilot reported that he had orders not to land at Rockhampton. Chandler and I were to be carried on to Brisbane, three hundred miles to the south, still in our jungle clothes.
Fate took a hand. At Townsville in Australia we dipped down to pick up a number of sick American soldiers. Their stretchers were placed on the floor of the plane. One of them was a very ill medical officer who was being rushed to the hospital in the custody of another medical officer. Because of the storm, the pilot swooped up to a high altitude, and there was melodrama in our cabin. The able-bodied doctor suffered a heart attack, and the ill doctor rose from his stretcher to give his colleague the hypodermic which probably saved his life. The pilot of the plane wirelessed ahead to Rockhampton for an ambulance and made an emergency landing there. Both sick men, I am glad to report, survived that extraordinary tussle with death, and Chandler and I got off at Rockhampton too.
General Sutherland had been rather explicit with me at Port Moresby and had gone to considerable pains to clarify I Corps' function: my officers and I were not headed for combat; our job was to train troops; and the training role was to be ours from then on. Neither Sutherland nor I knew that, in two weeks' time, I would take over American command in the embattled swamps of Buna.
BUNA WAS THE FIRST Allied Ground Force victory in the Pacific (the Buna campaign was ended before the fall of Guadalcanal), and it was bought at a substantial price in death, wounds, disease, despair, and human suffering. No one who fought there, however hard he tries, will ever forget it. I am a reasonably unimaginative man, but Buna is still to me, in retrospect, a nightmare. This long after, I can still remember every day and most of the nights as clearly as though they were days and nights last week.
Buna Village and Buna Mission are godforsaken little places on the inhospitable northern coast of New Guinea. A few score native huts and the coconut plantations around them represented, before the war, Buna’s sole claim on an indifferent world’s attention. The climate there is insufferable; the man-made gardens on the edge of swamp and jungle are only judicious scratchings of the rich earth near the ocean: the Australian planters (before they were dispossessed by the Japanese) didn’t want to get very far away from the sea breeze which alone made life tolerable. In times of peace a package of used razor blades might be—in terms of barter—a reasonable price for a native hut in Buna Village. But Buna cost dearly in war, because possession of the north coast of New Guinea was vital to future Allied operations.
“Were the Buna and Sanananda campaigns really justified?” an acquaintance asked recently. “Why didn’t you just by-pass the Japanese garrisons and leave them there to starve and rot?”
The question shows a profound ignorance of the situation as it existed in 1942. It is true that later in the war we successfully bypassed many Japanese garrisons, cut across their sea and land supply lines, and, in the words of the callous amateur strategist, left them “to starve and rot.” But that was at a time when we had secure bases from which such operations could be maintained, when we had achieved air superiority and were on the way to supremacy at sea as well.
At this same time, it should be made clear, the Allies were also dealing with another Japanese offensive in the Pacific, the drive down the Solomons. This theater of action was under Navy command with headquarters in Noumea. The area was called “South Pacific” to differentiate it from “Southwest Pacific,” where General MacArthur was Allied chief.
In the Solomons, operating on a shoestring and with heavy losses in fighting ships and planes, Americans were seeking to maintain a precarious foothold on the advanced beachhead at Guadalcanal. I still recall the dismal August day when Admiral Leary told me the results of the Battle of Savo Island. We had five heavy cruisers and a group of destroyers there to protect our Guadalcanal transports. The engagement lasted eight minutes. The Japanese had no losses. We lost four of our cruisers—the Quincy, Vincennes, Astoria, and Canberra (Royal Australian Navy). The fifth cruiser, the Chicago, was damaged. It took considerable optimism in those days to believe we were on the winning side of the fight.
It was a poor man’s war in the Pacific, from the Allied point of view, when the Battle of Buna was fought. The miracles of production managed by American factories and American labor were slow to manifest themselves Down Under. We were at the end of the supply line. There were no landing craft for amphibious operations; indeed, because the Japanese had air control in New Guinea waters, no naval fighting ship of any size was permitted to enter the area. The Japanese had gone into the war fully prepared; in 1942 it was they who had the specially designed landing craft for amphibious campaigns, the equipment, the ships, the planes, and the battle experience.
Supplies for the Buna campaign came either by air or by small coastal luggers (and many of these were sunk by enemy action), which traveled at night. Supplies often were transferred, once they arrived off Allied-held beaches, to native canoes manned by what our troops called “Fuzzy Wuzzies.” These dark-skinned natives working under able Australian straw-bosses, or foremen, carried the supplies overland pack-a-back or on long two-man poles. In the beginning seven quarter-ton trucks and three one-ton trucks represented our total motor transportation. Why? There were no roads through the jungles and swamps.
It was a poor man’s war in a good many other ways. Army censorship concealed from the American public, as it very properly attempted to conceal from the Japanese, how weak we were. When I arrived in Australia, as I have said, there were two American combat divisions present and undergoing what was called jungle training. It was not until May of 1943—nine months later—that another American combat division arrived. This may answer the question: “Why didn’t you relieve those tired men in New Guinea and send in replacements?” There were no American infantry replacements in Australia.
I shall comment only briefly on the first days of the New Guinea campaign. As it happened (and as it often happens in war), the Allies were under a number of misapprehensions concerning the Buna terrain, the strength and temper of the Japanese soldiers and marines, and the vulnerability of Japanese positions. We had been encouraged by Japanese failure to take Milne Bay, and we knew that only a remnant of the force which had threatened Moresby had survived Australian bullets and the natural hazards of the return trip across the Kokoda Trail.
Because of these Japanese reverses, I was told, Allied headquarters originally expected that Buna would be taken almost without opposition. But fresh troops had been landed there, most of them veterans of the Jap campaigns in China, Malaya, and the Philippines. Actual fighting at Buna started on November 20. So ill-informed was the Intelligence Section of our 32nd Division that enemy strength east of the Girua River was estimated at only three hundred when there were about three thousand men there. It is perhaps not surprising that aerial photography failed to disclose the location and strength of the Jap defenses; in a dense jungle where a bunker or entrenchment cannot be seen from thirty yards away, aerial photography must be swallowed with a full shaker of salt.
Back at Rockhampton, on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, we of the I Corps got our first hint that the campaign was not going well. An alerting message came through from General Steve Chamberlin in Brisbane. General Byers, my chief of staff, was swimming thirty miles away at Yeppoon Beach, and I was obliged to send for him by messenger. Byers decided on his motor trip back to Rockhampton that Buna had gone wrong and that General MacArthur was about to select me to take over combat command.
Perhaps Byers was clairvoyant. The date was November 29. Sure enough, at midnight, orders came through that I was to take off at dawn for Port Moresby. Two C-47 planes, one of them MacArthur’s own, were sent for me and my staff. I was permitted to take along six officers, one civilian, and nine enlisted men.
We flew the Coral Sea and landed at Moresby late in the afternoon. I was met at the airstrip by a staff officer who told me Byers and I were to sleep at General MacArthur’s headquarters. This was the big, comfortable structure which had been used by the civilian Australian governor, in happier times, as both home and office. There was fine tropical furniture, a library, and, still more important, a breeze. This was the chain of command at the time: General MacArthur, of course, was Allied commander; General Sir Thomas Blamey, Australian, was Allied Ground Force commander and commander of New Guinea Forces; Lieutenant General Ned Herring, Australian, was commander of Advanced New Guinea Forces, which meant all Allied troops in the forward areas; and Major General E. F. Harding, commander of the American 32nd Division, commanded American forces in the Buna area.
Byers and I were conducted to a sweeping veranda where General Sutherland sat at a desk, grave-faced. He had just flown back over the Owen Stanley Mountains from Dobodura, and it was plain that his report on conditions at Buna was responsible for my abrupt summons. General MacArthur was striding up and down the long veranda. General Kenney, whose planes were to do so much to make the ultimate victory possible, was the only man who greeted me with a smile. There were no preliminaries.
“Bob,” said General MacArthur in a grim voice, “I’m putting you in command at Buna. Relieve Harding. I am sending you in, Bob, and I want you to remove all officers who won’t fight. Relieve regimental and battalion commanders; if necessary, put sergeants in charge of battalions and corporals in charge of companies—anyone who will fight. Time is of the essence; the Japs may land reinforcements any night.”
General MacArthur strode down the breezy veranda again. He said he had reports that American soldiers were throwing away their weapons and running from the enemy. Then he stopped short and spoke with emphasis. He wanted no misunderstandings about my assignment.
“Bob,” he said, “I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive.” He paused a moment and then, without looking at Byers, pointed a finger. “And that goes for your chief of staff too. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
Well, that was our send-off, and hardly a merry one. There were conferences and briefings until late at night, but there really wasn’t much information to be had at Moresby about our forthcoming job. Perhaps I should say here that our campaign maps turned out to be inaccurate and obsolete; it is significant of the confusions of that early war period that, several months after the Buna campaign was ended, I found to my wrath that new, large-scale aerial maps had been made by the Air Forces before the campaign was even well started. I never saw them. Somehow they had been lost in the shuffle.
I told General MacArthur that I would take off after breakfast, and I did. That breakfast of orange juice, bacon and eggs, fruit, was the last good meal I was to have for a long time. General MacArthur and I joked at the table about old days in Washington, when I had served under him as Secretary, General Staff. After breakfast he put an arm around my shoulders and led me into his office.
“If you capture Buna,” the Allied commander said, “I’ll give you a Distinguished Service Cross and recommend you for a high British decoration. Also,” he continued, referring to the complete anonymity under which all American commanders in that theater functioned, “I’ll release your name for newspaper publication.”
Ribbons and publicity are well enough, but I soon was to find myself fighting against invisible jungle veterans in places where, short of the mandatory summons of duty, neither my soldiers nor I would have stayed a day for all the pretty ribbons of all the nations of the world. It takes many days to tramp over the mountain trails to Buna, and it is several days by sea. It took only forty minutes for us to go by plane. My staff and I landed at eleven a.m. on December 1. Forty minutes from Moresby—but when the stink of the swamp hit our nostrils, we knew that we, like the troops of the 32nd Division, were prisoners of geography. And like them we knew we would never get out unless we fought our way out.
A great deal has been said and whispered about the 32nd Division, and much of it makes no sense. The 32nd which “failed” at Buna was the same 32nd that won the victory there. No one else did. Later, rejuvenated and retrained, the division went on to establish a superior combat record in the Philippines campaign. The 32nd originally was a Wisconsin-Michigan National Guard outfit. It went into New Guinea “high” on itself, full of confidence, but quite unprepared and untrained for the miseries and terrors of jungle warfare so alien to the experience of boys from the clipped green lawns and serene streets of the small-town Middle West. Almost all troops are afraid in battle because almost all men are afraid. That is where leadership comes in. There were men and officers who failed at Buna. But any historian will be hard put to discover in this war a division which earned, and deserved, so many citations and decorations for individual bravery. The record is there. And often beside the printed citation is the sad and significant little star which means “posthumous.”
To understand the 32nd, one must remember what it had gone through. One detachment had made that grueling and exhausting march over the Owen Stanleys on the Kapa Kapa Trail. Other units of the American force had been flown from Moresby in October to points east of Buna and then had trudged on foot to their present positions in the swamps. Two battalions of the 128th Infantry had tried to go overland from Wanigela Mission (an old Australian landing field) to Pongani; the rains started, as they regularly do at that time of year, and those battalions got nowhere. They found themselves bogged down in the Musa River valley, which had become an impassable quagmire. Subsequently they were carried to Pongani by an improvised ferry service of small coastal boats.
Although the 32nd did not have its baptism of fire until mid-November, these troops even then were riddled with malaria, dengue fever, tropical dysentery, and were covered with jungle ulcers. I’ll give you personal testimony. Shortly after I arrived in Buna I ordered the medicos to take the temperatures of an entire company of hollow-eyed men near the front. Every member—I repeat, every member— of that company was running a fever. Yet to evacuate all those with fever at Buna would have meant immediate victory for the enemy. I had to encourage most of those troops back into combat.
Sick troops can fight: Colonel (later Major General) Clarence A. Martin, a brilliant commander in the field, fought throughout the entire campaign with a malarial fever well above the human boiling point. No commander wants to make sick troops fight, but, hard as was my decision, there was no alternative. If the Japanese could not be driven from their comfortable coastal positions, and quickly, the whole Buna Force would meet defeat and death in the swamps. Retreat back over the mountains was impossible.
I was well aware of the importance of the Buna area to the Allied cause. We needed it to provide ourselves with sea-level bases from which to attack main Japanese strongholds by air. Rabaul—where there were about one hundred and fifty thousand of the Emperor’s soldiers—was 400 air miles away, Faisi 500 miles, Lae 167 miles, Salamaua 147 miles. Subsequently there were ten airfields in that hard-won region which helped to make possible Australian advances against Lae, Salamaua, and Finschhaffen—each invasion a seven-league stride on The Hard Way Back.
That was much later. My first day at Buna was spent in a series of conferences, learning what I could from the officers already there. It was a mélange of information that I got, much of it incorrect. Too many of the officers who reported to me had never been up front with the doughboys. The military positions at Buna, however, can be described in a few words. The Japanese occupied a coastal perimeter extending from Buna Village to the coconut plantation at Cape Endaiadere. This was in all not more than three miles in length, and sometimes as shallow as five hundred yards in depth, but it was all on dry land. A good military road extended the whole length of the beach so that Jap troops could be moved quickly by motor to points of concentration whenever an American attack took place.
The Jap utilization of terrain was admirable. At their back was the sea (no danger from that quarter in those days); their left flank also rested on the ocean while on their right were two unfordable streams—the Girua River and tidal Entrance Creek. Almost the entire Japanese position was in a coconut plantation in which they had built up a series of concealed bunkers and connecting trenches which took weeks, and artillery and tanks, to penetrate. In front of the enemy were the morasses where Michigan and Wisconsin boys hunched themselves above water on extruded tree roots to eat their rations. Since American advances from the morasses could only be made on a few known trails or tracks, it was simple enough for Japanese machine guns to cover them with fields of fire.
When I went to the front on December 2, I couldn't find a front. I had been told the day before that our men were within seventy-five yards of Buna Village and attacking. I knew that four hundred artillery rounds had been laid into the troubled sector. When I came back that evening to my headquarters tent on a creek bank at Henahamburi, I wrote to General Sutherland in Port Moresby:
“The rear areas are strong and the front line is weak. Inspired leadership is lacking. In a circuit of Buna Village I found men hungry and generally without cigarettes and vitamins. Yesterday afternoon the men immediately in contact with the Japanese had had no food since the day before. About four o’clock the rations arrived, two tins of C ration!”
Our troops were divided, because of swamps, into two units—the Urbana Force on the left and the Warren Force on the right. That same day I sent two of my staff officers, Colonel Martin and Colonel Gordon Rogers, to observe the attack on the Warren front. There was no more reality to the purported attack on the Warren front than there had been on the front I saw. The attack had been ordered, and it could be entered on the headquarters diary, but it didn’t exist. Here is what Colonel Rogers, then I Corps intelligence officer, wrote me about his inspection trip:
“The troops were deplorable. They wore long dirty beards. Their clothing was in rags. Their shoes were uncared for, or worn out. They were receiving far less than adequate rations and there was little discipline or military courtesy.... When Martin and I visited a regimental combat team to observe what was supposed to be an attack, it was found that the regimental post was four and a half miles behind the front line. The regimental commander and his staff went forward from this location rarely, if ever.
“Troops were scattered along a trail toward the front line in small groups, engaged in eating, sleeping, during the time they were supposed to be in an attack. At the front there were portions of two companies, aggregating 150 men.
“Outside of the 150 men in the foxholes in the front lines, the remainder of the 2000 men in the combat area could not have been even considered a reserve—since three or four hours would have been required to organize and move them on any tactical mission.”
This was Rogers’ picture of the situation at the time. Eventually it turned out that his report was not entirely accurate. For instance, the regimental command post, although distant from one part of the front lines, was actually fairly close to the vital Japanese positions at Cape Endaiadere.
Two things were imperatively necessary: reorganization of the troops and immediate improvement of supply. The latter assignment I placed on the capable shoulders of Colonel George De Graaf, I Corps supply officer, who throughout the rest of the campaign performed prodigious and sometimes ruthless feats of magic to bring in food and medicine and clothing by air and sea.
But of De Graaf, more later. Men in the front lines were half starved and what rations they had they were eating cold. They had been told that the cooking of rice to augment their tinned food would draw enemy fire. I changed all that. Hot food and warmed stomachs are elemental as morale builders and well worth the hazard of a sniper’s bullet. Anyway, our troops were clearly visible to any Japanese who wanted to look at them; it was only the Japanese, high in the trees, low under tree roots, and secure in concealed bunkers, who were invisible to us.
Reorganization began at once. Brigadier General Albert W. Waldron, artillery officer of the 32nd, succeeded General Harding as division commander. I replaced some ranking officers. There is a legend that corps officers sleep between sheets in the rear areas while field officers sleep on the ground. It didn’t happen that way at Buna. Several of my corps officers quickly assumed combat commands. Even one of my aides was soon leading troops. I am sure no lieutenant general ever had a smaller personal staff. Toward the end, because of illness and wounds, it seemed that my staff might be reduced to Sergeant Clyde Shuck, my secretary, and Sergeant Thaddeus Dombrowski, my orderly. There was no time at Buna for protocol.
The first thing I found out was that troops in the front-line positions had no trustworthy knowledge of Japanese positions. Our patrols were dazed by the hazards of swamp and jungle; they were unwilling to undertake the patrolling which alone could safeguard their own interests. To get accurate information was almost impossible—and yet men die if orders are based on incorrect information.
Actually, this long after, I’m inclined to believe that the men were more frightened by the jungle than by the Japanese. It was the terror of the new and the unknown. There is nothing pleasant about sinking into a foul-smelling bog up to your knees. There is nothing pleasant about lying in a slit trench, half submerged, while a tropical rain turns it into a river. Jungle night noises were strange to Americans—and in the moist hot darkness the rustling of small animals in the bush was easily misinterpreted as the stealthy approach of the enemy. I can recall one night hearing a noise that sounded like a man brushing against my tent. It turned out that a leaf had fallen from a tree and struck the canvas side. The stem of the leaf was as thick as my thumb. It measured two and a half feet long by one and a half feet wide.
Then, too, there was the understandable but exaggerated fear of snakes and crocodiles. I never saw a crocodile in that whole region of creeks and bayous, and the only snake I saw was satisfactorily dead. The geographies report that snakes and crocodiles live there, but, if so, the war must have prompted them to emigrate to calmer and more peaceful places.
It was obvious that there was need of personal leadership. Two members of my staff, Colonel John E. Grose, I Corps inspector general, and Colonel Martin, my operations officer, had had combat experience as infantrymen in World War I. I placed Grose in command of Urbana Force on the left, which was committed to the capture of Buna Village and Buna Mission. Martin took command of Warren Force on the right, which had one flank on the sea.
Although the two forces were only two or three miles apart as the crow flies, liaison between them could only be managed by walking over roundabout native trails; and, as a result, distance became not a matter of miles but of hours. Trails were narrower than your two arms outstretched—I carried a big Japanese knife to cut my way through undergrowth—and jeep transportation was out of the question except for short distances on a few trails. It took six or seven hours to walk from one flank to the other and sometimes during the rains, as I can testify from personal experience, the traveler walked up to his hips in water.
One result of this lack of communication and the density of the jungle was that companies and platoons were as scrambled as pied type on the floor of a printing office. There were breaks in the chain of command, and any assay of the situation added up to confusion. I stopped all fighting, and it took two days to effect the unscrambling of the units and an orderly chain of command. While jungle fighting is usually and necessarily carried on independently by small clusters of men, they must know where they are going, and, more important, why.
We attacked all along the line on December 5. Our artillery and mortar fire failed to neutralize enemy positions, and there was heavy resistance. On the Warren front, five Bren-gun carriers leading the attack on our right were knocked out thirty minutes after the jump-off. Throughout the day our troops there hammered determinedly away, but by nightfall our gains were negligible. Long after dark the litters of the wounded continued to stream down the difficult trails toward the field hospital.
I went to the Urbana front with a party consisting of, among others, General Waldron, Colonel De Graaf, Colonel Rogers, and Captain Daniel K. Edwards, my senior aide. Edwards, a North Carolina boy, had been with me for a considerable time and my regard for him was akin to that of father for son. Rogers and Edwards had already distinguished themselves a day or so before. Rogers, unable to recruit volunteers for patrol, had snaked his way through five-foot, knife-bladed kunai grass to discover that the Old Strip, the original Jap airfield, was comparatively undefended. Edwards had crawled forward to look into Buna Village, and he had brought back our first concrete information about enemy positions there.
I watched the advance from the forward regimental command post, which was about a hundred and twenty-five yards from Buna Village. The troops moved forward a few yards, heard the typewriter clatter of Jap machine guns, ducked down, and stayed down. My little group and I left the observation post and moved through one company that was bogged down.
I spoke to the troops as we walked along. “Lads, come along with us.”
And they did. In the same fashion we were able to lead several units against the bunkers at Buna Village. There is an ancient military maxim that a commander must be seen by his troops in combat. When I arrived at Buna there was a rule against officers wearing insignia of rank at the front because this might draw enemy fire. I was glad on that particular day that there were three stars on my collar which glittered in the sun. How else would those sick and cast-down soldiers have known their commander was in there with them? They knew, being sensible men, that a bullet is no respecter of rank. As I wrote to General Sutherland that evening: “The number of our troops who tried to avoid combat today could be numbered on your fingers.”
The snipers were there, all right. On one occasion all of us were pinned to the ground for fifteen minutes while tracer bullets cleared our backs with inches to spare. Fifteen minutes, with imminent death blowing coolly on your sweat-wet shirt, can seem like a long time! Later a sniper in a tree opened fire at a range of about fifteen yards. My companions returned the fire with tommy guns, although, in that green and steaming jungle, they couldn’t see the sniper. Someone scored a direct hit.
The afternoon, all told, was eventful. I wanted to take Buna Village and I had thrown in my last reserves under the very best commanders I could find. The observation post was at a junction of two native trails, and as we attempted to advance from that junction point we encountered, in no man’s land, other snipers in and under trees. Their expertness in concealment is well known; obviously they had been there for several days. During those days, for inexplicable reasons of their own, the Japs had held their fire, allowing litter bearers carrying the wounded to pass in broad daylight and ignoring any of our troops who made targets of themselves. Doc Waldron had gone some fifty yards ahead of me along the right-hand trail when a sniper drilled him through the shoulder. General Waldron’s wound did not seem like a grave injury when he was carried to the rear, but it eventually ended that fine soldier’s military career. After a long siege in hospitals and subsequent return to duty, he was retired for disability.
Edwards and I went forward along the left trail, seeking a favorable spot to observe enemy activities in the village. I had watched a Medical Corps sergeant cross this trail several times to go into the high grass to look for wounded. The corpsman had not been fired on, so Eddie and I headed for a big tree with luxuriant overhanging branches, which, we thought, might provide both concealment and a view of the near-at-hand Japanese positions. Suddenly a bullet (the type technically called a disruptive cartridge) whizzed past my stomach and struck Edwards in the side. It was like a slow-motion picture; slowly his knees began to bend and then he fell forward, calling to me to keep cover. I dropped to the ground automatically when he was hit.