A savage battle on New Guinea was fought by men near the breaking point before it even began.
From the safety of Port Moresby, New Guinea, Gen. Douglas MacArthur watched in impotent fury. Offensives on the two fronts flanking Buna, on the opposite coast of the Papuan peninsula, had yielded nothing but bad news. Making matters worse, the Japanese landed more troops on the night of November 24, 1942. The next day, two senior commanding officers of the Australian forces on the island, Gen. Thomas Blamey and Lt. Gen. Edmund Herring, paid MacArthur an unexpected visit at Government House. In the course of their conversation, both generals lobbied for bringing in reinforcements. They wasted no time being polite—they were unimpressed with the 32nd U.S. Infantry Division, they said. They preferred to use Australian troops.
The next day, MacArthur sent two operations staff officers to the front with strict orders to observe what they could and to report back to him. One of them arrived at the Warren front, east of Buna Government Station, the day after Thanksgiving. Everyone there knew by looking at his purposeful way of walking and his pressed uniform right off the quartermaster’s shelf that he was from HQ. The men did not bother to put on a show for him either. Untrained and unequipped for jungle warfare, nearly nine hundred men of the division’s 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry—led by Company E, with Companies F, G, H, and Headquarters following at 1-day intervals—had just completed a grueling 42-day, 130-mile march north across the Owen Stanley Mountains. They were sick and tired, and their morale was low. According to E. J. Kahn—a former New Yorker staff writer who was on the staff of the 32nd’s commander, Maj. Gen. Edwin Harding— they were “gaunt and thin, with deep black circles under their sunken eyes. They were covered with tropical sores and their jackets and pants…tattered and stained. Few wore socks or underwear. Often their soles had been sucked off their shoes by the tenacious, stinking mud.” To make matters worse, after a full week of fighting, they had nothing to show for their efforts.
General Harding didn’t need visits from staff officers to know his head was on the chopping block. The attack he had scheduled for the last day in November was for all the marbles. Harding’s chief of staff, Col. John W. Mott, had already been sent to the Urbana front near Buna Village to invigorate the attack. Looking at the men there, he must have wondered about their chances.
Cpl. Stanley Jastrzembski, a wet-behind-the-ears Polish kid from Muskegon, Michigan, was riding out another fever. The rumbling in his ears sounded like a train roaring through a valley. He had a temperature of 103 degrees and no quinine. Soon the chills would come. Then his teeth would rattle so wildly they would feel as if they were going to fall out of his mouth. Between the anticipation, the malaria, and the dysentery that had been with him since the 2nd Battalion’s march across the mountains, he could no longer control his bowels. He had not bathed in a month and could barely stand the smell of himself. He stank like rotten meat. “Dear Lord,” he prayed, “give me the strength and courage to continue.”
Even as Jastrzembski uttered these words, he knew that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other American soldiers spread across the front, weakened by fatigue and dysentery and burning up with fever. With almost no quinine to soften the effects of malaria or bismuth to treat stomach ailments, Doc Warmenhoven and his staff could do little for the soldiers. If a man came back to a portable hospital with a high fever, a medic might allow him to lie down on a litter for a few hours, but unless he was at death’s door, he was expected to fight.
The men of the 2nd Battalion understood the importance of what was coming. Some of them were going to die. Their tongues swelled, their skin felt too tight, their eyes were bloodshot. Tense and plagued by spasms of diarrhea, guys ran back and forth into the bushes to relieve themselves. Those who could eat, ate perfunctorily. Fires were forbidden, so they spooned out cold tinned baked beans and ham and eggs. Jastrzembski emptied a K ration box into his mouth. He gagged, but then worked up enough spit to swallow the crackers. A trickle of rain fell. He turned his helmet upside down to catch what he could.
Maj. Herbert Smith—commander of the 2nd Battalion and fondly known as “Stutterin’ Smith”—looked around at his men, some of whom were only half his age. He was not a man given to outpourings of emotion, but goddamn, he loved these boys. And that Gus Bailey might have been the best of the bunch. Lieutenant Bailey, the commander of Company G, never lost that twinkle in his eyes. A haze of cigarette smoke hung over the 2nd Battalion’s camp. Men fieldstripped their rifles, oiled them and wiped off the excess oil, sharpened their bayonets, and chain-smoked cigarettes down to stubs to dull their anxiety and temper their hunger pangs. They were new enough to war that they had not developed any of the superstitions or rituals that experienced troops rely on to keep them safe.
As Gus Bailey waited for orders to move out, he must have wondered how he would ever tell Katherine about the hatred he felt. If it were not for Japan, he would be lying in her arms or holding Cladie Alyn, the son he referred to as the “little one” in his letters home. Jastrzembski was fighting off demons, too. Like all soldiers, he would come to hate the hours before battle. He was glad of two things, though. First, he was out of the mountains. Under no circumstances would he ever make that march again. He wouldn’t do it, couldn’t do it.
Second, he was grateful that he was not out on guard. The guys on the posts had it the worst. They were in a no man’s land, close enough to heave a stone and hit an enemy sniper. Jastrzembski knew that they were dug in like rodents, watching the jungle, hugging the inside of their foxholes. Though they had been issued watches with glow-in-the-dark dials, they made sure to cover them. They could not even smoke. A sudden light would draw fire from both sides—enemy and friendly. At night in the jungle, even the fireflies were not safe.
On the night of November 29, a messenger from battalion headquarters navigated his way through the thick swamp to deliver the news—the attack would kick off at midnight. Lt. Robert Odell, the platoon leader of Company F, recalled some of the details of that night: “We each grasped the shoulder of the man in front, and slowly shuffled forward in the pitch black of night. Our only guide was the telephone wire leading to the jump-off point, and the troops in the foxholes along the way who had been holding the ground recently captured. There was no trail and consequently several hours were required to travel as many hundreds of yards. We all had bayonets. Rifle fire was forbidden until after the attack was well under way. Japs encountered along the way were to be dealt with silently.”
When a Japanese plane flew over low and dropped flares, the men froze. They hugged trees or pressed their bellies into the mud. It became apparent to Stutterin’ Smith that because of the terrain, his troops would never be in position by midnight. In some places the jungle was so dense that they were forced to crawl on their hands and knees, pushing like wild pigs through a tangle of vines, creepers, and bushes. When they came to a swamp too deep to wade, some men laid down a log. Hundreds of soldiers had to use that one log, and it took hours for all of them to cross.
Following Gus Bailey, the men of Company G shoved clips into their rifles and sneaked toward the track that led to Buna Village, their movements drowned out by the din of crickets and croaking frogs. Once they arrived at the jump-off spot, the men lay down in the kunai grass. Jastrzembski could feel the dew. He was close enough to hear the Japanese talking, the cadence of their conversations.
The Japanese did not know where G Company was, but they knew something was up. They were firing over the Americans’ heads. Every fifth bullet was a bluish-white tracer. It looked to Cpl. Carl Stenberg as if a long, brightly lit clothesline had been strung across the kunai field. It seemed unreal and for a few minutes he wondered if what he saw was really happening.
To Stenberg’s right, Jastrzembski tried not to make a sound. Hours before, weakened by malaria, he had wondered if he would be able to walk, much less fight. Now his body was alive with fear. He breathed as quietly as he could, but it was quick and raspy like the last gasps of a dying man. If the Japanese had not heard him, surely, he worried, they could smell him. He felt the dysentery rumbling in his gut, and he prayed he would not shit his pants. A mosquito buzzed at his ear. Jastrzembski swung at it, and then cursed himself. It was a rookie mistake. Had the Japanese heard or seen him, they would have splattered bullets through the long grass.
Finally, at 4:00 a.m., four hours later than planned, Jastrzembski heard the unmistakable click of bayonets being fitted into rifle barrels. The clouds had cleared, revealing a luminous night lit by a huge moon, and he could hear the men of Companies E and F run forward, yelling like crazed Japanese soldiers drunk on sake.
For the men of Company F, it was their first bayonet charge. So much adrenaline surged through their bodies, they felt as if their veins would burst. A flare went up, lighting their faces white and blue. One hundred yards out, they smacked into a line of surprised Japanese machine gunners. It was the first time Odell, who helped lead the assault, had ever fired his M1 rifle. A Japanese soldier sprung to his feet, and Odell dropped him. Then, according to Odell, “All hell broke loose. There was more lead flying through the air…than it’s possible to estimate. Machine gun tracers lit the entire area, and our own rifle fire made a solid sheet of flame. Everywhere men cursed, shouted, or screamed. Order followed on order….Brave men led and others followed. Cowards crouched in the grass literally frightened out of their skins….”
Just behind them, Sgt. Paul R. Lutjens and the men of Company E joined F Company, running at the Japanese, soon close enough to use their bayonets, slashing and stabbing and swinging the butts of their rifles. Outmanned, many of the Japanese fled their bunkers, leaving the Americans to storm the Japanese outposts.
One of the huts was filled with the scent of perfume, and there, lying on woven mats, were six Japanese officers. Next to them were bowls of warm rice and a washtub with soapsuds. The officers reacted as if they had been awakened from sleep. Perhaps they were drunk; perhaps, finding themselves confronted by a band of bearded and bedraggled American soldiers, they thought they were dreaming. Or they were sick with fever. Whatever the case, the officers did not make a move to defend themselves. According to Lutjens, they were “so startled they just buried their heads in the mud, like ostriches.” Lutjens and his men unleashed a fury of bullets, killing all but one of the men where they lay. One officer tried to stand. They filled him with lead, but the officer just wouldn’t die. He tried to rise two more times before he finally toppled over.
Then the Americans stripped the shacks, taking watercolor prints, fine silks from China, lacquer boxes from the Philippines—proof that the Japanese were part of a veteran naval landing force—blankets, silverware, clothes, cigarettes, whiskey, cans of meat, and fourteen rolls of Japanese writing paper. The Americans thought the rolls were toilet paper and celebrated—they had had no toilet paper for nearly two months. Odell grabbed a Japanese bayonet, and from that point on he never went into battle without it. They also found personal pictures, photos of Japanese soldiers in civilian dress surrounded by their wives and children. If some of the men felt a pang, a stab of doubt or mercy, it did not last long. Their motto, according to Lutjens, was, “If they don’t stink, stick ’em.” So the Americans moved among the Japanese bodies and plunged their bayonets into the corpses. Setting fire to the huts, they watched them burn and then they blew up the Japanese bunkers.
When Gus Bailey finally called Company G into the battle, Jastrzembski, Stenberg, and Pfc. Sam DiMaggio leaped to their feet and ran toward the Japanese outpost. It was hard to shake the feeling that they were on a suicide mission. American machine gunners firing tracers set the field ablaze. Men ran screaming and shooting through the fire. From afar, it must have had a kind of horrible beauty—the black night glowing and crackling with burning grass, the whip and whine of bullets ripping through the trees, the cold, metallic twang of 50mm and 60mm mortar shells.
Stenberg was part of the 4th Platoon’s 60mm mortar squad. As a forward observer, his job was to protect the mortarmen. In New Guinea’s thick jungle, though, high trajectory mortars often were not much good. So now he was out front, a regular rifleman. He pressed the trigger and felt the Tommy gun buck in his hands. It was his kind of battle, close in. All he had to do was to pull the trigger and he was bound to hit something, leaving behind enemy soldiers with gaping holes in their chests.
Unable to see more than two or three feet in any direction, no one knew where anyone else was. Squads were cut off from one another. Stenberg heard the lashing of a machine gun and saw three Company G men go down in front of him. His ears rang from the muzzle blast. Jastrzembski felt a bullet skin his leg. It was a searing pain, like being cut with a hot knife. Then he realized that he was only ten feet from a Japanese pillbox, and felt an electric jolt of fear. Before a bullet could tear open his chest, he jumped to the side like an acrobat, grabbed a grenade, pulled the pin, and threw it at the pillbox.
All around him he heard the sickly smacking sound of bullets entering flesh. He saw the flashes of Arisaka rifle barrels. One of those bullets knocked down his buddy Willie La Venture, the shot tearing open his belly. Jastrzembski ducked as low as he could, ran to La Venture, and cradled his head in his hand. Bullets sizzled through the long kunai grass and kicked up dirt just in front of them. La Venture begged for water. “All he wanted was water,” Jastrzembski remembers. Jastrzembski pressed his canteen to his buddy’s lips. La Venture gulped at it. Seconds later, Jastrzembski saw the water pouring from the hole in his belly. He could not wait around, though, even for his best buddy. Calling for a medic, he jumped to his feet, retched, and left La Venture lying there. It was the hardest thing he ever had to do.
Stenberg blasted his way through the enemy’s first line of defense, but when the rest of Company G caught up to him and tried moving on Buna Village, the men lost their way. As daylight crept into the jungle, Gus Bailey realized that they were mired in a swamp at the northern border of the grass strip, and called off the attack.
Stutterin’ Smith, who was in the front lines with his men, recognized that a breakthrough was possible and ordered Companies H and F and some troops from Headquarters Company to resume the attack, but by early afternoon he saw the handwriting on the wall and reluctantly called off the assault. His men had made little progress since those early gains of the morning’s offensive. But he still had reason to be pleased. They had driven the enemy back hundreds of yards and, in the process, had achieved their objective: the first breakthrough in the Japanese perimeter.
That still didn’t mean much in the big picture, however: Buna Village and Buna Government Station had not been touched. It didn’t mean much back in Port Moresby, either, where MacArthur was already making plans for a change in leadership.
Even before the battle was underway on November 29th, MacArthur ordered Maj. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, I Corps commander, to report to him. Eichelberger arrived the next day. MacArthur had great faith in the general. If anyone could remedy the situation at Buna, it was Bob Eichelberger.
The 32nd Division’s troops were sick and tired and poorly trained for war in the jungle, but that was no excuse for cowardice, MacArthur told Eichelberger, citing the reports of his operations staff officers. Eichelberger was to relieve Harding and his commanders on the Warren and Urbana fronts, or MacArthur threatened, “I will relieve them myself and you too.” MacArthur continued testily, “Go out there, Bob, and take Buna or don’t come back alive.”
By 1:00 p.m. that same day, Eichelberger took command of all U.S. troops in the Buna area. The next day a medical officer reported to Eichelberger on the condition of his men. The troops, he said within earshot of General Harding, looked like “Christ off the cross.” Considering their depleted condition, he added, the men were carrying on heroically. It was difficult for Harding not to feel a degree of satisfaction. It was what he had been saying all along.
The men of the 32nd had been subsisting on short rations for well over a month. Because fires were not allowed at the front— the wet wood sent up billows of smoke and attracted too much attention—they ate their rations cold. Their feet swelled and bled. Their fingernails and toenails fell off. They were suffering from jungle rot, malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, ringworm, dehydration, and heat prostration. And there was a shortage of everything they needed to stay healthy—quinine, salt and chlorination tablets, bismuth, and vitamin pills. Because of the sand, mud, water, and humidity, they could not depend on their weapons either. BARs, M1s, and machine guns jammed. Spare parts were nearly impossible to find. Soldiers who had lost their entrenching tools were still waiting for replacements.
Under extreme pressure for results, Eichelberger did not waste any time ordering his first attack. The plan was a basic one. Stutterin’ Smith and his men would close in on Buna Village, while Lt. Col. Herbert Smith’s men from the 128th got in position to deflect a counterattack from Buna Government Station.
At 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, December 5, Eichelberger’s attack began with nine B-25 bombers swooping in on Buna Government Station. Artillery and mortars pounded Buna Village. Some of them landed short of the village and burst in the trees just above the heads of Paul Lutjens and his men. Had the shells landed twenty feet shorter, Company E would have been wiped out by friendly fire. Half an hour later, the barrage ended. Then, according to Lutjens, “it was deathly still.”
The troops waded into the jungle. The Japanese were flinging mortars, and Lutjens took cover in an artillery shell hole as rounds crashed through the trees and burst. Shrapnel flew and splinters of wood cut the air. Everywhere around him men lay plastered to the ground in rain puddles.
After waiting out the mortar bombardment, Lutjens and his men were back on their feet. They had advanced only twenty yards when Japanese machine gunners opened up on them. Bullets struck flesh, and six men fell. Blood clouds floated in the air. Though one of his men, Sgt. Harold Graber, had taken out a bunker before he himself was killed, there were still Japanese everywhere, and Lutjens’s platoon was surrounded.
East of the trail, Staff Sgt. Herman Bottcher, Company H’s platoon commander, looked sternly at Jastrzembski and DiMaggio. “I want eighteen men,” he said. They didn’t dare say no.
Per instructions from Gus Bailey and the Company H commander, Capt. Harold Hantlemann, Bottcher had already scouted the approach to Buna, where the Americans had run into murderous fire from snipers, machine gunners, and roving patrols. If he and his men could get around the interlocking bunkers and pillboxes, they could isolate the village from Buna Government Station.
It was late in the afternoon. Already the fruit bats were gathering in the sky. Like the late-day rains, the men could always count on the bats. They left their treetop lairs and swirled through the forest canopy on wings the size of a hawk’s.
Ahead Jastrzembski saw it—a pillbox. What the hell were they going to do now? He had no sooner said the words than he saw Bottcher bent over at the waist zigzagging with slabs of mud stuck to his boots. He slipped a grenade through the firing slit of the pillbox and dove into the jungle. Jastrzembski watched with relief as the grenade exploded.
After taking out the pillbox, they forded a tidal creek, holding their guns high over their heads, knowing that one Japanese machine gunner or one well-tossed grenade could take them all out. They watched for crocodiles, too—Buna’s rivers and creeks were full of crocodiles dining on dead bodies.
Scrambling up the muddy banks of the creek, the men discovered a large dead snake rotting in the sun. The stench was overwhelming. Then, following the creek north, before they knew it they were at the edge of the beach, and suddenly Japanese soldiers opened fire on them. In less than five minutes, three of Bottcher’s group were dead and four more wounded. As the sun disappeared, they dug in. Bottcher radioed back to Gus Bailey, telling him that they were at the beach smack in the middle of Buna Village and the Government Station.
Bottcher and his men had not taken Buna, but they had broken the stalemate. In a matter of hours they had gained more ground than anyone had on either the Urbana or the Warren front in the two and a half weeks since the battle began.
Capt. Jim Boice, the regimental intelligence officer, had not heard yet and had already written in his diary that the assault on Buna “was not successful.” And back at the command post, General Eichelberger was fretting over the day’s failures. News from the Warren front was that the all-out attack had failed miserably. Twenty minutes into it, the recently delivered Bren gun carriers—small, tanklike vehicles—bogged down in the mud and got stuck on the coconut palm stumps of the Duropa Plantation. The Japanese assaulted the carriers with machine guns, an antitank gun, hand grenades, and “sticky” bombs.
By the time Eichelberger wrote to MacArthur’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Richard Sutherland, later that evening, though, his mood had bounced back. Bottcher’s breakthrough had redeemed an utter failure on both fronts. Eichelberger was now full of praise for the men of the 32nd, saying “the number of our troops that tried to avoid combat today could be numbered on your fingers.”
When the main Japanese bunker, at the southern edge of the village, at last fell on the afternoon of December 9—to a patrol of men from Company E—Eichelberger was heartened by the news. To his eye, the men were fighting now like real soldiers.
One Japanese soldier noted the change. Early on he’d written that “the American is untrained, afraid, and stumbles about in the jungle….They fire at any sound or shadow, wasting ammunition, giving their positions away….They are like scared children who cannot learn….We can kill them all….” By mid-December he wrote, “The enemy is very hard to see in the jungle….Enemy tactics are to hurl heavy mortar fire on us and rush in close behind.”
While the men of the 32nd Infantry Division had “learned their business,” as the official army historian said, three weeks of constant fighting had exacted a toll. After twelve all-out attacks on Buna Village during that time, Stutterin’ Smith’s 2nd Battalion was barely capable of holding the ground they had won. Companies had been reduced to the size of platoons, platoons to the size of squads. Companies E and F each had fewer than fifty soldiers left to fight, a quarter of their original strength. The battalion that had crossed the Owen Stanley Mountains with nearly nine hundred soldiers now had fewer than three hundred men left.
After victory on the Papuan Peninsula was finally achieved on January 22, 1943, MacArthur issued a final campaign communiqué declaring that “the utmost care was taken for the conservation of our forces….” Privately, however, he’d made a resolution against a “head-on collision of the bloody, grinding type.” There would be, he said, “No more Bunas.”
Reprinted from THE GHOST MOUNTAIN BOYS: THEIR EPIC MARCH AND THE TERRIFYING BATTLE FOR NEW GUINEA—THE FORGOTTEN WAR OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC. Copyright © 2007 by James Campbell. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.