Train the arm and school the eye.

Steel the heart to ice-lipped death.

They are God’s who learn to die

Having learned life’s shibboleth.


Umi yukaba, mizuku kabane,

Yama yukaba, kusamusu kabane,

Okimi no he ni koso shiname.

Kaerimi wa seji.

(Across the sea, corpses soaking in the water,

Across the mountains, corpses heaped upon the grass,

We shall die by the side of the Lord.

We shall never look back.)


Chapter 12


ON NOVEMBER 16, the Australians had just completed their crossing of the Kumusi River at Wairopi and began marching on Gona and Sanananda, northwest of Buna village via the Buna-Kokoda track. On the coast, the 128th moved out, too, in the hazy light of a tropical morning. The men lined their dog tags with rubber tubing so the clang of metal on metal would not give them away in battle. In addition to their packs, they carried canteens, knives, first aid kits hooked to their belts, cigarettes, Zippo lighters, two extra bandoliers of ammo per man, and hand grenades.

After weeks of idleness, they were happy to be on the move at last. One officer remembered the mood as “like the eve of a celebration to come. We were to go in to ‘raise the flag’ and there was to be a great victory for the American forces with very little effort on our part.”

For the first time since landing on the north coast the men appreciated the island’s luxuriant beauty—the picturesque coastline with its regal coconut palms, waves lapping at the sandy beach, a blue sky stripped of clouds, the first bands of sunshine filtering through the trees.

It was a puzzling thing to see—soldiers moving into battle without a touch of gravity, hardly conscious of their own mortality. Gangly young men, soaked to the bone, chuckled and gibed with each other and told jokes, the raunchier the better, raising their voices not to overcome rampaging fear, but to deliver punch lines. Though they were tired from having walked twenty miles through knotted jungle with bad feet, fevers, and oozing sores, and though they were hungry after the previous night’s meager dinner of rice and boiled, under-ripe papayas, they believed what they had been told: The beachhead was lightly defended, they would mop up, they would kill a few starving, near-sighted Japs, take a few scalps maybe, knock out some gold fillings, and push on up the island’s north coast toward bigger battles and then get back to civilization as quickly as they could. Once home, they would drink, race fast cars, date every pretty gal they could, take baths every day, eat until they could not stand, and sit on their front porches and wave to passersby.

Despite their initial cockiness, by the afternoon the men were beat, and they, too, rid themselves of everything they considered nonessential. But even after lightening their loads, they struggled in the 100-degree heat. By nightfall it was all they could do to wade a waist-deep creek. After crossing, they made camp at the creek’s mouth, near the village of Boreo, just north of coastal headquarters at Hariko.

Just behind the encampment, soldiers were assembling two Australian 3.7-inch mountain howitzers, which would provide long-range artillery for the attack. Using a captured Japanese barge, General Albert Waldron, Harding’s artillery officer, had brought in Australian mountain guns and two hundred rounds of ammunition early that morning. It was a daring move. He and his crew put ashore in an area that had not yet been scouted by Allied troops, unloaded, and then headed back down the coast to Oro Bay to pick up General Harding and his party, the members of a portable hospital unit, two 25-pounder field pieces, 81 mm long-range mortars, .50 caliber machine guns, rations, radio supplies, and ammunition. Harding and Waldron and his party were expected to arrive later that night.

By the time Waldron made Oro Bay, the supplies had been divided among three ships: the Alacrity, the Minnemura, and the Bonwin. Waldron’s barge was loaded and then all four ships departed for the front. The cruise north was a pleasant one. It had been over a month since a Japanese plane had been sighted along the north coast, and the crews of the various ships were relaxing for perhaps the last time before going into battle.

Just off Cape Sudest, General Harding, who was aboard the Minnemura, was enjoying dinner with the captain and its crew. It was nearly dusk, and the sky throbbed with the rich shades of a tropical sunset. A slender native boy stood at the bow of the ship, throwing out a plumb line and shouting out the depths. Angelfish gathered around the line, and the sea was radiant with color. Off the starboard bow, the black fin of a shark broke the surface of the water. In the distance, the Alacrity, the largest ship in the convoy, was already dropping anchor off Hariko. The Alacrity towed a barge and carried most of the ordnance, forty native carriers, and the twenty-nine-man hospital team.

Harding was sipping a cup of coffee when suddenly he heard the far-off sound of airplane engines. As the drone of the engines grew louder, everyone thought the same thing—Are they ours? The Minnemura’s captain stood and searched the rose-colored horizon with his binoculars. When he saw the blunt noses, he knew—Zeros! The Minnemura’s skipper swung the ship toward shore. The captain grabbed an ammunition belt and lunged for the machine gun mounted on the port deck. The native boy no longer shouted out depths. He had slipped silently over the side of the boat. Moments later, eighteen Zeros with red balls on the underside of their silver wings appeared out of the evening sky.

The Zeros buzzed overhead and kept on going as if on a bombing mission in some far-off place. Everyone on the boats held his breath, wondering if the planes would return. Without Allied aircraft escorts, which had already left for Port Moresby in hopes of making it over the Owen Stanley “hump” before darkness, the ships were sitting ducks.

Minutes later, the Zeros materialized out of the southern sky. They came in fast and low, bent on destruction, strafing the Bonwin, the third ship in the convoy. Aboard the Bonwin, men were hugging the decks inside the main cabin. Incendiary bullets ricocheted off barrels and wood planks. Though they were unaware of it, a fire fueled by burning gasoline was making its way to the main cabin, which was soon engulfed in flames. The ship was going down.

Three Zeros then attacked the plodding barge. The pilots were making one run after the next, “spewing tracer bullets,” according to Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Hollenback, who from the beach watched the attack unfold. When the bullets tore into gasoline drums, a surge of black smoke shot into the sky and surrounded the barge. It did not take the men long to realize that they were goners if they stayed aboard. Anyone who was able to swim, including General Waldron, dove as far from the barge as they could with bullets smacking around them.

Aboard the Alacrity, crewmen were firing back with .50 and .30 caliber machine guns and rifles. It was a futile fight. In less than a minute, the Alacrity was ablaze. Men hurled themselves into the water. A bomb fell among the natives, who had abandoned ship at the same time, and killed all but twelve of them. A chaplain stayed aboard long enough to toss over hatch covers and oil drums that the men could use to stay afloat. A lieutenant remained aboard ship, too, trying to subdue the fire and save what he could. Then he dove overboard and he and a number of men struggled to pull the boat to shore as bullets broke the water.

Lastly, the Zeros fell upon the Minnemura, which had run aground on a reef. Harding had grabbed an M-1 and was hiding behind boxes of C-rations. The pilots were making one pass after another, firing tracers and dropping bombs, and Harding was shooting back. The boat’s captain, though hit in the leg, filled the sky with bullets. He fired until his machine gun jammed. When the stern of the ship and a fuel tank were hit and fire swallowed the lugger, Harding and the captain dove overboard.

The water was filled with screaming men and blood from the wounded, which pooled and then dissipated like the rings of a rising fish. To escape the strafing, those who could swim dove under the water, ripping their legs, chests, and bellies on the coral. Those who could not swim flailed their arms and struggled to stay afloat or grabbed and clung to pieces of wreckage. Phosphorescence swirled around them.

Risking their lives, some men on shore pushed a life raft into the surf and paddled out to the boats. They picked up General Harding, but when Harding realized that there were nonswimmers who were likely to drown without the aid of the dinghy, he tore off his clothes, plunged into the water, and swam for shore. Whenever the Zeros fired he dove under and held his breath for as long as he could. The guys aboard the raft hauled in several wounded men, pulling them over the lip of the dinghy. Then they went to search for more. When the dinghy was full, they turned the boat toward the beach. Exhausted men, for whom there was no room in the dinghy, threw their arms over the side gunwales and were tugged to shore, where officers mobilized rescue parties, sending out small boats to search among the burning wreckage for survivors.

That night General Harding was able to assess the scope of the damage. Fifty-two men, including twenty-eight native carriers and Colonel Laurence McKenny, the division quartermaster, were killed in the attack. McKenny had been aboard the Bonwin when it ignited, and either drowned or burned to death. In addition, one hundred men were wounded. According to Lieutenant Colonel Hollenback, doctors “operated all night long on the men, mostly with abdominal wounds, sewing up the bullet holes in their intestines.”

The following morning, Harding realized the full extent of the catastrophe. In addition to the human toll, he had lost tons of supplies, including rations, artillery shells, the two 25-pounders, and the 128th’s heavy weapons. Now he would be entering battle with no mortars or artillery.

Under normal circumstances, a division would have dozens of 105 mm howitzers plus another twelve 155 mm howitzers. Harding had made numerous appeals for bringing in the big guns. Each time, however, Headquarters rebuffed him. The division, GHQ argued, did not have the means to transport them, or to keep them supplied once they had been delivered. The argument carried General Kenney’s imprint. Kenney was working behind the scenes, and he was determined that Buna would be an Army Air show. It was a classic turf war, and Kenney triumphed. “The artillery in this theater flies,” he said.

Later that morning, Zeros disabled two of the three remaining Oro Bay luggers that were hauling supplies to the front. Harding, though eager to carry out the attack, had to concede that his battle plan had been dealt a terrible blow.


Despite the disaster, and after much deliberation, Harding delayed the advance by only two days, scheduling it for 0700 on November 19. If intelligence estimates of Japanese troop strength were accurate, it was better to attack before Rabaul was able to send in more men.

At 0700 on November 19, 1942, the Australian mountain guns roared, signaling the start of the attack. Then two columns of troops moved out into the wet and blurry morning, trudging forward from Boreo along a muddy, tree-covered coastal trail, staying off the beach to avoid detection by Japanese reconnaissance planes. As the men of the 128th marched into battle, rain slashed diagonally through the forest canopy.

Two squads led the charge, grenades hooked by their spoons over their belts, safeties off, fingers on the thin metal of their triggers, ready to snap off shots at the slightest movement, the slightest sound, their eyes flaming like wildfire. The same question kept tracking through every man’s head: How will I do once the shooting starts? They all prayed that they would live to see another day. But they also prayed that they would not disgrace themselves.

The Japanese knew that they were coming, and because of the delay had two extra days to prepare their defenses. The night before, the Japanese had whetted and sharpened their bayonets, oiled their weapons, inspected their machine gun belts to make sure they would not jam in the heat of the battle, and checked their firing lanes.

Since landing in mid-July, engineers had been busily fortifying the area. The Japanese had established a series of masterful positions along a narrow eleven-mile front, extending from Gona on the west to Cape Endaiadere on the east.

The Japanese defense of the beachhead was built around three main positions. One was at Gona, the other along the Sanananda track, and the third was in the Buna area from the Girua River east to Cape Endaiadere, a promontory just west of Cape Sudest and the American’s coastal headquarters at Hariko.

Girua, located just up the coastal trail from Buna Village, was the main Japanese base with a supply dump and hospital. It was defended by a variety of positions and packed with bunkers, blockhouses, and trenches. Farther south, for miles along the Sanananda track, the Japanese established a main position and a handful of forward outposts. All the positions were situated on dry ground, surrounded by tangled, stinking, crocodile-infested sago, nipa, and mangrove swamp.

Beginning east of the mouth of the Girua River and continuing southeastward, the Japanese line of defense cut through a coconut grove and then turned southward to the trail junction where a track forked to Buna Village on one hand and to Buna Government Station on the other. The area between the forks became known as the Triangle. An offshoot of the Girua River called Entrance Creek bisected it. Sweeping north, the Japanese line enclosed the Triangle and then turned eastward to the grassy area known as Government Gardens. From the gardens, it led south and then east through the main grassy area to Siremi Creek, near an old airstrip. Continuing southward, it enclosed the bridge over Siremi Creek between the old strip and a new airstrip. Then, making a right-angled turn to the new strip, it followed the edge of the strip to within a few hundred yards of the sea. Cutting sharply northeast, it emerged on the sea at a point about 750 yards below Cape Endaiadere in an area of coconut palms known as the Duropa Plantation.

In the Siremi Creek area the only dry ground was occupied by the two strategically important airfields, one called Old Strip, which was bombed relentlessly by Kenney’s pilots; and the other called New Strip. Although the airfields were primitive, MacArthur coveted them. In Allied hands, they would serve to check any further Japanese threat to Port Moresby. They would also aid an Allied advance along New Guinea’s north coast and make bombing raids on Rabaul far more practical.

Access to Buna and the airstrips, however, was almost impossible. By water, Buna was protected by a maze of shallow coral reefs. By land, it was surrounded by a swamp, only three feet above sea level, reaching far inland. The natives used the few dry areas for gardens of taro, yams, sugarcane, bananas, and breadfruit. The drier areas outside the perimeter of the swamp were barely more accessible. They were covered with coconut palm plantations and broad fields of golden kunai and elephant grass. The elephant grass grew to heights of ten feet, and both grasses were razor sharp.

In the area east of the Girua River, the Japanese had erected hundreds of impregnable coconut log bunkers between eight and thirty feet long. In designing them, the Japanese engineers had attended to the smallest of details. The bunkers were reinforced with coconut logs, I-beams, sheet iron, and forty-gallon steel oil drums filled with sand, and camouflaged with earth, grass, rocks, and more logs. Because of the high water table, engineers constructed them seven or eight feet above ground and carved out firing slits in them. The entrances were positioned so they could be covered by troops in adjacent bunkers, and they were angled to protect soldiers from hand grenades. The bunkers opened directly onto fire trenches, or were connected to them by shallow crawl tunnels.

Bunker and trench systems protected all of the inland approaches to Buna Village and Buna Government Station. The approaches, in turn, were honeycombed with enemy emplacements.

Colonel Yokoyama, the commanding officer of the 15th Independent Engineers, took charge of all the Japanese forces west of the Girua River. Captain Yasuda, the senior naval officer, took command east of the river.

The Japanese line at Buna left the 32nd Division no room to maneuver, and forced the Americans into swamps, putrid with decay, or onto paths where the Japanese could concentrate their firepower. The situation clearly called for an amphibious assault using shallow-draft landing craft, but all available Higgins boats had been diverted to Guadalcanal.


As the men of the 128th closed in on the Japanese positions, the jungle, according to Robert Doyle, a Milwaukee Journal reporter assigned to the 128th, “was as quiet as a church.”

Another hundred yards down the trail, the 128th met a hailstorm of fire. Men were scythed by Japanese machine gunners, by snipers who used a smokeless powder and were tied into the tops of trees with enough water and food to last them days, and by riflemen hiding in their bunkers. The Japanese shells made a small flash, so the Americans could not tell where the shots were coming from. If a tribe of headhunters wielding spears had attacked, the Americans could not have been more shocked. They had stumbled directly into the enemy’s kill zone.

One scout took a bullet to the head. His killer was only four feet away, invisible in his camouflaged bunker. When the men saw the scout go down, they scattered. They dove from the trail and fired wildly. Bullets ripped through the jungle. Men cursed, “I can’t see the bastards!” It did not take long before wounded soldiers were sobbing, “I’m hit, I’m hit!” Then came the awful “Stretcher bearer!” It was the first time any of the men had ever heard the call. Those who survived the war would always remember it.

A medic was jumping from one man to another, opening his pouch to get at first aid supplies, and dusting gaping wounds with sulfa powder to fight infection. The jungle was full of injured soldiers, blood-spattered vines and ferns, shards of shattered bone, and strings of bloody intestines hanging from gaping holes in men’s bellies. The Japanese snipers were especially fond of the gut shot. A gut-shot soldier would act like a decoy—he would cry out for help, drawing in more soldiers.

Japanese troops continued to rain down lead on the bewildered Americans, who clutched trees, hid underneath sprawling mangrove roots, and dug down into the muck. But every movement, every muscle twitch drew more fire from the Japanese. Some men were on their bellies, heads down, crawling forward blindly, bumping into dead bodies strewn along the trail. In no time the bodies would swell in the tropical heat, and then the flies and the maggots would find them.

A soldier sprinted forward. When he finally stopped, he realized that he was standing on the roof of a Japanese bunker. Before he could mutter “Goddammit,” a bullet ripped into his arm. Instinctively, he hit the ground and rolled off the bunker and kept rolling. It must have seemed like a miracle. When he came to a stop, he was alive and there was a medic at his side.

An engineer observer watched it all.

The first opposition from the enemy was a surprise and a shock to our green troops. The enemy positions were amazingly well camouflaged, and seemed to have excellent fields of fire even in the close quarters of the jungle…. Snipers were every where…. The enemy habitually allowed our troops to advance to very close range—sometimes four or five feet from a machine gun post—before opening fire; often they allowed troops to bypass them completely, opening fire then on our rear elements, and on our front elements from the rear.

Our troops were pinned down everywhere…. It wasim possible to see where the enemy fire was coming from; consequently our own rifle and machine gun [fire] was ineffective…. Grenades and mortars…were difficult to use because, first, it was difficult to pick out a nest position to advance upon with grenades, second, the thick jungle growth, and high grass, made throwing and firing difficult, and, third, because it was nearly impossible to observe our fire.

It was “the longest [day] of my life,” said one of the American soldiers. “We were surrounded by the terrible din and confusion of battle—the clatter and clang of rifles and machine guns.

“The parade of injured GIs was heartbreaking to watch…. The walking wounded struggled past us…. A few were being carried on litters, and some were left where they died, until the next day when they could be taken care of by special burial squads.”

Eventually, the chaos ended. The sun was dropping fast. Unaccountably, the Japanese did not launch a massive attack. If they had, they would have caught the Americans back on their heels, disorganized and dispirited.

As it was, the Americans had a chance to lick their wounds, recover some of the dead bodies, and assess their losses. The Japanese had stopped them in their tracks, mauled them, and the Americans had little to show for it—nothing more than thirty feet of lousy jungle.

The Americans did not take any chances with the few Japanese soldiers who had tried to slip around behind the advancing army and were killed. They bayoneted them or shot them again. Native carriers sent out to collect the enemy dead were instructed to slit their throats before moving them. The Japanese were known for their tricks. Wounded soldiers would lie among the corpses, feigning death, “playing possum,” and would open up on a squad or platoon after it had passed.

Most of the Americans could not resist the chance to view the dead Japanese. They were stunned by what they saw. What they were looking at were not the gaunt corpses of men who had fought and starved in the mountains. These were strong, well-armed physical specimens, and the Americans went from thinking they were fighting “a few sick Japs” to believing they were in combat against “jungle supermen.” Sergeant Roy Gormanson of Company A said, “I always thought that the Japanese were small people, but then I saw my first dead Jap. He was six feet one or better.”

The reality was that despite a formidable Allied air presence, the Japanese had succeeded in landing nine hundred fresh troops at Basabua on November 17. These were probably the soldiers that Gormanson had come upon. Many of them were from the 144th Infantry and the 3rd Battalion’s 229th Infantry, a unit whose two sister battalions were fighting on Guadalcanal. The 229th was made up of experienced jungle troops who had fought in China, Hong Kong, and Java. All nine hundred men were deployed east of the Girua River in the Cape Endaiadere-Duropa Plantation area, under colonel Yokoyama, who formerly was in charge of the Sanananda-Girua area, west of the river.

As curious as the Americans were to see the bodies of Japanese soldiers, they were unnerved and frightened at the sight of their own dead. Some of the men avoided the corpses. The shock that they had experienced in their first battle had turned into a kind of despair—to look upon a dead friend might mark them for death in the next battle. Others came to pay their last respects before the bodies were covered up. Many cried. A handful turned bitter and made silent promises to themselves that they would pretend to fight, but when the bullets were spraying across the jungle, they would crawl behind a tree. They had no intention of dying in some godforsaken place.

Others vowed revenge. In future battles, they would kill like machines and afterward take souvenirs. It was a barbaric ritual, but one that became commonplace. These men rifled through the pockets of the Japanese dead, scrounged through their packs taking whatever they could: photos, flags, insignias, sabers, pistols, hara-kiri knives, money, diaries, even boots and the split-toed tabi shoes that many of the Japanese soldiers wore. Some would cut open the mouths of the dead from ear to ear. Then, with the butts of their rifles they would smash a dead man’s teeth and take his gold crowns. Some cut off fingers and kept them for good luck. One guy cut the ears off a Japanese soldier and kept them.


That evening, after rounding up the corpses, the soldiers of the 128th dug in. The medics, who had been shot at all day, removed their red crosses and arm brassards and began dyeing their white battle dressings green. Japanese snipers loved to zero in on the white bandages.

None of the men slept. It was raining, and they wrapped themselves in leaky raincoats or shelter halves. Their foxholes were filled with water. And their minds played tricks on them, too—vines became gun barrels, trees skulking Japanese soldiers. Dead buddies came back to life. Cicadas and crickets shouted obscenities.

The Japanese were on the move, too. Ray Bailey, a platoon sergeant with Company B, remembers stringing up triplines that night. He and two of his buddies—they called themselves the “Three Musketeers”—used C ration cans and grenades. They pulled the pins on grenades and then crammed the grenades into the cans, knowing they had only five seconds—One Mississippi, Two Mississippi—before the grenades splattered their guts all over the jungle. Once in the can, the grenade handles would not budge. If a Japanese creeping through the jungle hit the string they had tied to the handles, the grenade would come tumbling out of the can and trigger the detonator.

Bailey and his buddies thought that they would sleep easier after setting the triplines, but the Japanese had other ideas. “They had one of our guys,” Bailey says. “He was hollering. They were torturing him so we could hear and there was nothing we could do about it.” The day before, the Americans had brought in a Japanese prisoner. “We never felt any hate against him,” Bailey recalled. “But after that, everyone vowed they would never bring in another Jap prisoner.”

Back at his headquarters at Embogo, Harding was stunned by the 128th’s defeat. Allied Intelligence had seriously underestimated the number of enemy soldiers at the beachhead, maintaining that the Japanese army had only fifteen hundred “effectives,” when in actuality its troop strength numbered nearly 6,500 fighting men. To make matters worse, Harding was still reeling from the news he had received that afternoon: He would have to forfeit his 126th Infantry Regiment to General Vasey, who wanted it west of the Girua River on the Sanananda track, a move that had MacArthur’s blessing. While the 128th attacked from the east, up the coast, Harding had hoped to use the 126th as his left-flank force in a head-on advance on Buna Village and Buna Government Station. It was a classic double envelopment, intended to squeeze the Japanese out of their bunkers through overwhelming force. Now, only a day into the assault, he had lost a whole regiment to the Australians, and was forced to commit his reserve, the 128th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion. Still he would be short of men.

Colonel Clarence Tomlinson, the new commander of the 126th, was equally puzzled by the news that his regiment would be fighting with the Australians. He tried to reach Harding, but failed to make radio contact. Unwilling to move without confirmation, he radioed Port Moresby instead. Port Moresby informed him that the order was legitimate, and early on November 20 Tomlinson set out for Popondetta, accompanied by Captain Boice. Late that afternoon, Tomlinson and Boice reported to General Vasey. Vasey, in turn, sent Tomlinson and Boice and the entire 126th on to Soputa.

Late in the afternoon on November 20, after slopping through thick mud for more than half a day, the 126th arrived at Soputa and received their orders. They would have a day of rest and on November 22 they would be committed to battle. Though wet and hungry, they were still feeling cocky—they would show the Australians how to fight! The exhausted Australians, whom they had been sent in to relieve, could have been offended by their brazenness; instead, they merely smiled knowingly. Dudley McCarthy, an Australian historian who witnessed the arrival of the Americans, wrote that, “…the Australians were content to sit back for a while and watch the Americans. There was a very real interest in their observation and a certain sardonic but concealed amusement. The Americans had told some of them that they ‘could go home now’ as they (the Americans) ‘were here to clean things up.’”

The following day Tomlinson and Captain Boice scouted the front, and that evening met with the 126th’s battalion commanders to discuss plans for the next morning’s attack. Their only map was a vague, sub-par, one-inch-to-one-mile sheet, which did not contain descriptions of the terrain ahead, so the advance was going to require a good amount of guesswork. Tomlinson and Boice were certain of one thing, though: The fighting was not going to be easy. Heavy jungle and swamp lay at the junction of the Soputa-Buna and Soputa-Sanananda tracks west of the Girua River, and the Japanese were dug in and waiting.

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