Chapter 14


FROM THE SAFETY OF Port Moresby, MacArthur watched in impotent fury. Offensives on both the Warren and Urbana Fronts had yielded nothing but bad news. Making matters worse, the Japanese landed more troops on the night of November 24.

The next day, Generals Blamey and Herring paid MacArthur an unexpected visit at Government House. In the course of their conversation, both generals lobbied for bringing in reinforcements. MacArthur proposed calling in the 41st Division, which had been training in Australia for over six months. The Australian generals wasted no time being polite—they were unimpressed with the 32nd Division, they said. They preferred to use Australian troops. For Blamey and Herring, who remembered MacArthur’s remarks about the efforts of their troops on the Kokoda track two months before, it was sweet revenge.

According to General Kenney, who was staying at Government House at the time of the Australian generals’ visit, the accusation that the Americans wouldn’t fight was “a bitter pill for MacArthur to swallow.” Kenney did not bother to defend the 32nd either; in fact, he was openly critical of the division’s commanders, who, he said, were unable to inspire their inexperienced troops. MacArthur was all ears. As a career army officer he did not have much faith in National Guard officers. In fact, the only one he trusted was General Hanford MacNider, and MacNider was recuperating in Port Moresby after being wounded by a Japanese rifle grenade while observing the fighting on the Warren Front.

The day after the generals’ visit, 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 knew by looking at his purposeful way of walking and his pressed uniform right off the quartermaster’s shelf that he was from HQ, “a typical, theoretical staff officer” devoid of “practical knowledge” of combat operations. The men did not bother to put on a show for him either. They were sick and tired, and their morale was low. According to E. J. Kahn, a member of Harding’s staff and a former staff writer for The New Yorker, 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.

After consulting with War Department observers, the HQ man was convinced that there was not only a lack of leadership on the Warren Front, but that the men had no fight left in them. The observers told him of soldiers who refused to advance, relying instead on aircraft, mortars, and artillery. He heard stories about men who in the heat of battle abandoned their weapons and fled into the jungle. Two days after arriving at the Warren Front, he was back at Government House, where MacArthur was awaiting his report.

The officer’s assessment was damning, and exactly what General Headquarters wanted to hear. GHQ wanted to make changes and now it had the evidence it needed to justify them.

What the observer had omitted from his report was that without more troops, heavy artillery (especially 105 mm howitzers, which were ideal for destroying pillboxes and bunkers), tanks, flamethrowers (which marines at Guadalcanal were using with great success), grenade launchers, and bangalore torpedoes, the Japanese bunker system was virtually unassailable.

General Harding’s head was on the chopping block, and he knew it. He had already dispatched Colonel John W. Mott, his chief of staff, to the Urbana Front. Mott’s orders were clear: Do what he needed to do to invigorate the attack. Mott wasted no time asserting his authority, or according to some, his ego. He relieved two of the 128th’s company commanders.

Mott also held a conference with the two Smiths. Earlier Colonel White Smith had convinced General Harding that redirecting the efforts of the two battalions toward Buna Government Station instead of Buna Village might energize the stalled advance and drive a wedge between the Japanese positions. However, when Mott asked Colonel Smith if he had a plan for doing just that, Smith confessed that he had not.

Mott then turned to Stutterin’ Smith. Did Major Smith have a plan? Smith said he had been thinking about it since Colonel Smith had proposed the idea. Though there was nothing ingenious about it, in his opinion throwing troops at the Triangle was a recipe for disaster. Japanese defenses were too strong. The key was to move troops into position on the far west side of the Triangle and stage an attack from there, behind the main Japanese position, while simultaneously striking at the head of the Triangle. They might catch the Japs by surprise. Mott was impressed enough to adopt the plan, and he and Smith hashed out the details. He also told Smith that he would soon get a chance to put it into action: General Harding had scheduled an attack on both fronts for the last night of the month, November 29–30.

Meanwhile, Harding was in the process of moving his headquarters and staff from Embogo on the coast to the inland Allied airfield at Dobodura. Fifteen miles from the coast, with a trail running on the left to the Urbana Front and on the right to the Warren Front, Dobodura was the logical choice for the new headquarters.

Dobodura was an area of broad grasslands that a tribe of coastal natives had inhabited to avoid the attacks of a neighboring coastal tribe. “Dobo-duru,” the native name, mispronounced by the Americans, literally meant “under the shade of the dobo tree.” Hoping to alleviate supply problems at the fronts and to free the Allied effort from its dependence on a depleted, vulnerable, and inefficient fleet of luggers, the Allies were converting Dobodura into a huge airstrip.

By the time Harding and his party left Embogo at 9:00 a.m. on November 29, the tropical sun had already burned off the morning mist and was beating down on the coast. It was a hot, tiring walk, and Harding and his sixty-man crew stopped often. Agile native climbers gathered coconuts in the tops of trees, and Harding and his men replenished their energy with the sweet juice. Late in the afternoon, they took a swim in the Samboga River. At dusk, they finally arrived at Dobodura.

General Herring’s senior liaison officer was there to greet them. Herring had just opened up an advanced headquarters behind the Sanananda Front, and had sent out his liaison officer to make contact with the Americans. That evening Harding learned that General Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, would also be paying him a visit.

It didn’t take Harding long to grasp what was going on: MacArthur’s triumphant script, which he had written from the comfort of his breezy veranda, was in jeopardy of being undone. And MacArthur, the stage manager, was not at all happy.


The attack that General Harding had scheduled for the last day in November was for all the marbles. All the men realized it, especially Smith’s Ghost Mountain boys, whose return Harding had fought so hard for.

Looking at them, Colonel Mott must have wondered why. Stanley Jastrzembski, the 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. He fumbled with his field pack, searching for the sweater he had picked up weeks before in Laruni. 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. Prayer was their only recourse. 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 this attack. 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.

Then there were the men who did not bother with water or food at all. A handful walked back and forth as if in a daze, wearing a blank look that soldiers would instantly recognize as the “Buna stare.” These were the “psychotics,” men broken by hunger, disease, exhaustion, and the grind of combat. Some had willed themselves to forget everything they loved—the taste of cold beer and Sunday suppers, what it was like to be with a woman, the rumbling engine of a fast car, the slap of a ball hitting a catcher’s mitt, the smell of fresh-cut alfalfa. Others obsessed on the smallest of details—keeping their mess kits sparkling clean, their boots tied as tightly a possible, figuring out the numerical combinations of their serial numbers. Anywhere but New Guinea, company commanders would weed out these men as fast as they could. Bizarre behavior was a sure-fire ticket off the front line, so much so that men affected or exaggerated their symptoms. At Buna, though, what company commanders needed more than anything else was warm bodies to throw at the Japanese bunkers.

Looking around at his men, some who were only half his age, Stutterin’ Smith must have wondered how many of them would survive the attack. Smith 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. Bailey 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. The 2nd Battalion might have been short on food, but there was no shortage of “coffin nails.” The smokes were enclosed in their field rations and each GI was given a liberal supply. “Just like the fuckin’ army,” someone said. “No goddamn food, but all the cigarettes you want.”

They were new enough to war that they had not developed any superstitions or rituals that experienced troops rely on to keep them safe. Soldiers were writing letters back home just in case, or reading letters from home. Mail drops were made at Laruni, Jaure, and Natunga and some guys had a stack of letters that they read and reread until they had memorized them. As Lutjens said in his diary after receiving two letters from home, “No one will ever know what they mean to me.”

From the folks back home the soldiers learned that things were tough there, too. People could not buy tires, so everyone was forced to learn how to recap and retread. To save on gas, they coasted down hills and never let their cars idle. Nobody went for Sunday drives anymore. Paper, especially toilet paper, was hard to come by. The Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller were doing their best to make the deprivation bearable. Still, Uncle Joe was forced to do without his morning cup of coffee and the butter he loved so much. Women could not find silk stockings and were wearing the hemlines of their skirts higher in a kind of brazen “patriotic chic” to conserve on material. Canning companies were working around the clock to produce enough canned peas and sweet corn for the soldiers. Farmers collected urine from their horses, which was being used to make penicillin. People were saving and collecting everything they could—scrap iron, newspaper, rags, grease, tin cans—to be salvaged and sent to factories for military use. Children were harvesting milkweed seedpods, which, because they floated, were used in life jackets. Wives and girlfriends, sisters and mothers were rolling bandages to meet their Red Cross quotas. Everyone with a son or daughter serving overseas flew a blue star flag. A gold star meant that they had had a son or daughter killed in action.

Some of the guys were writing letters to their wives or sweethearts, encouraging them to get on with their lives. They could barely make their hands shape the words: “I love you, Darling. Please know that I love you. But I ain’t coming home. I got this feeling I’m never coming home.”

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. Woozy with fever, he laid his head back and studied the incandescent Southern Cross that was partially obscured by ragged clouds. 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.

In the swamp northwest of the Triangle, Lutjens and his men had been pinned down for a week. They were tired, hungry, and antsy, especially Sergeant Halbert Davidson, the boxer, who resented the fact that he had been sent out on a fact-finding mission and confined to a wet foxhole for seven days. One day he left his foxhole and slipped over to the company’s flank, crept up on two Japs, and killed them with two short bursts from his rifle. Captain Schultz could hardly punish him. The Japanese already knew they were there, so it was not as if Davidson had given away Company E’s position. Besides, according to Lutjens, Davidson “was that kind of guy. He couldn’t bear not to shoot at them. He wanted to win the war.”

On the night of November 29, a messenger from battalion headquarters navigated his way through the thick swamp to deliver Company E the news—the attack would kick off at midnight. Schultz assembled Lutjens and his other platoon leaders. They huddled close together, lighting their maps by scraping phosphorous from a log.

After the meeting Lutjens retreated to his diary. There was a woman: Frances “Lorraine” Phillips. They had gone to high school together back home in Big Rapids. Lutjens believed that she was “out of his league,” but he loved her still. Now, on the night before the battalion’s first big push, Lutjens wrote her (although the letter is dated “Nov of 1942,” from the text it’s safe to assume that he wrote it on November 29). It was a letter he would probably never have the chance to send.

To a girl I love.


You will never know what you have meant to me since I have known you. I guess I’ve loved you since the first day I saw you 10 years ago. Many times I have tried to drive you out of my thoughts knowing how hopeless it was. Just to know that one day you smiled on me gives me courage to face most anything…You probably don’t even know I’m alive. Many a night, lying in the mud and hell of this country you have been my consolation and friend my courage and my life. The only time I would ever think of saying this is now when my life means nothing. Forgive me for taking this unforgivable privilege and please don’t laugh…If I do come through this everything will go back as it was. Never would I dare to mention this. Only God will know.

What Lutjens and the others did not know as they prepared for battle was that many of the Japanese soldiers were on the verge of despair, too. A captured diary from the Buna battlefield illustrates the mood of the Japanese troops: “Nov. 28. Very beautiful morning. Can this be a blood-smeared battlefield? As usual enemy planes bombed us. None of our planes appeared. At last our lives are becoming shorter. Look at the fierceness of the enemy mortar fire, which bursts near us. Today the word that the Buna crisis is imminent has reached the ears of the Emperor and he has asked that Buna be defended to the last man.”

In response to the Emperor’s request, the Japanese began to organize suicide squads. A Corporal Tanaka writes, “Today, Nov. 30th, Battalion Commander Yamamoto and subordinates organized a suicide squad…. Death is the ultimate honor. After my comrades and Iare dead, please bury us in your leisure time. I ask this because it is dis-honourable to remain unburied. Please take care of your health and serve your country.”


Back at the Triangle, Stutterin’ Smith’s companies began to move out.

Lieutenant Odell recalls 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.

The attack was scheduled to kick off at midnight, but it became apparent to Smith that because of the terrain his troops would never be in position in time. 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 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.

Pieces of his life flashed by. At the age of five, he had been bitten by a dog. The bite was bearable, but it was the pain of the rabies shots that made him cringe all over again. He remembered the time his brother threw him from a boat to teach him to swim, the sickening feeling of swallowing lake water as he sank. He remembered setting fishing nets on Lake Michigan late into the season; the way his wife Frances walked; the little apartment she rented with his sister; how she had “proposed” to him in November ’41 when he was home on leave from Camp Livingston. Frances had been keen to marry; Stenberg resisted. It was not that he did not love Frances—he had no doubt that she was the one. But with war imminent, he did not want to leave her behind to mourn a dead husband.

Now, he could not get Frances out of his head. What was she doing? Did she miss him as much as he missed her? Was she thinking about him? The thought that he might never see her again scared him. It had been just days before that he had seen his first dead man. Walking back to an aid station, he had seen a guy leaning against a tree. He was not moving, and did not seem to be breathing. Stenberg lifted up his chin and saw the handiwork of a Japanese sniper. The man had been shot through the mouth. The bullet had exited at the back of his head.

Back home, Frances was working seven days a week at Continental Motors. On the night of their anniversary she went out for a beer with one of the other army wives. “To my anniversary,” she thought when she raised the glass to her lips. It was a small gesture, but it was important to her to observe the day. The truth was, her anniversary was no different from every other day. She would go home tired and write a letter to Carl and feel lonely.


To Stenberg’s right, Stanley 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. The pounding of his heart sounded to him like the hammer of a Juki machine gun. 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, the stench of fear and nearly two months of accumulated filth. 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.

Jastrzembski, a devoted Catholic, said a prayer. At home when he needed good luck, he went to Saint Michaels and lit a candle. But now all he could do was to say a simple Hail Mary.


Platoon sergeant Don Stout lay in the grass, cursing himself. Bailey had offered to make him a liaison officer between Company G and battalion headquarters; it would have kept him out of situations like the one he was about to face.

“What do you think?” Bailey asked him after proposing the move.

Stout considered it for a moment. “You know, sir,” he said, “I’ve trained with these guys for a long time. I walked for forty days with them. I think I’ll stick it out with them.”

Bailey, of all people, must have understood. As he lay in the long grass, though, ready to charge the Jap position, Stout wished he could take back everything he had said.


Finally, at 0400, 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. Jastrzembski noticed a faint taste of metal on his tongue as he listened to the men of Companies E and F run forward, making the first charge, 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. For Robert Odell, who helped lead the assault, it was the first time he would ever fire his M-1 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 menled and others followed. Cowards crouched in the grass literally frightened out of their skins…”

Captain Erwin Nummer of F Company was one of those brave men. Hit by a Japanese grenade fragment, Nummer popped up off the ground, crying out, “It doesn’t hurt, fellows! See, they got me and it doesn’t hurt at all!”

Just behind Nummer, Lutjens and his men 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 Japanese 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, whisky, 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.

If Lutjens and the others felt avenged, it was only momentary. The memory of seeing friends “blown to bits just a few yards away” was one he would never forget. And the trail back to the battalion aid station, according to Lutjens, “was so slimy with blood of the wounded…that you could hardly keep your balance.” He wrote later that he saw “men coming back with their faces shot away and their hands where their chins had been, trying to stop the flow of blood.” Men “with their guts sagging out…yelling in pain.”

When Bailey finally called for Company G’s attack, Jastrzembski, DiMaggio, and Stenberg 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 50 mm and 60 mm mortar shells.

Don Stout could see the kunai grass bending one way as Company H, the battalion’s heavy weapons company, fired on the Japanese using water-cooled .30 caliber machine guns. The grass would bow in the opposite direction when the Japanese returned fire.

Stout ran forward like everyone else. It might have been miles or hours—to him, distance and time had lost all meaning. As the company neared the Japanese, the men lunged with their bayonets. They were so close they could feel blasts of hot air from the muzzles of Japanese rifles.

Stenberg was part of the 4th platoon’s 60 mm 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. He knew a grenade had a killing radius of thirty-five yards, so he threw himself to the ground just before it blew.

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.

Jastrzembski 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 the company caught up to him, and Company G 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.

Jastrzembski leaned against a tree, lifted his pant leg, and inspected his wound. Luckily, the bullet had only grazed him. Then, looking around, he spotted a Japanese flag lying in the mud. He walked over and grabbed it. Goddamn Japs had just killed his best buddy. At least he could steal their precious flag and stuff it in his pocket like an old snot rag.

Stenberg stumbled forward, his legs weak but still able to carry his weight. Then he sat down in the long grass and finally exhaled, taking a moment to thank his lucky stars that he was still alive. Then he wondered how his best buddies, Sergeants George Borgeson and O’Donnell O’Brien were doing. He and O’Brien had joined the Guard at the same time. Their serial numbers were one digit apart. In November of 1941, while back home in Muskegon on leave, O’Brien and Borgeson, still in uniform, were groomsmen at his wedding. O’Brien was a tough Irishman. If the Japs tangled with him, he would give them a run for their money.

In front of Stenberg, a man moaned in pain. When Stenberg approached him, he realized that it was his buddy Jim Broner, one of the two Broner brothers in Company G. Broner was a sergeant in the rifle platoon and had been shot through the leg. It was a deep wound, and the flesh around the bullet hole was shredded. Stenberg took his bag of sulfa powder and dusted the wound and stood guard over Broner, watching for snipers in the trees, waiting for a medic. When the medic arrived he shot Broner up with a half grain of morphine, hurriedly dressed his wound, then gave him two sulfanilamide pills. Ten minutes later, litter bearers carried him out. If they could get Broner back to a portable hospital before he lost too much blood, his buddy had a good chance of keeping his leg.

Doc Warmenhoven and his staff, working round the clock in blackout tents just behind the front lines, were performing miracles with sodium pentathol and blood plasma. Plasma had saved dozens of lives. It came in a tin can in powdered form and was mixed with distilled water and injected into a soldier’s vein via a needle and rubber tubing. Because it was universal, a doctor did not have to wait for blood typing. If the litter bearers could get Broner out of the jungle, Warmenhoven could pump plasma into him as fast as he could slice open the can. He would operate right there, sterilizing his instruments with a small stove or canned heat, kneeling over a canvas stretcher draped in bloody sheets and soaked in disinfectant, in a tent that smelled of burned flesh and of feces, because guys often had their bowels ripped open by mortar rounds. While bullets struck the surrounding trees and perforated the tents, they continued working. In one week they had performed almost seventy major surgeries, including amputations and serious chest operations, saving soldiers who in World War I would have been left for dead.

When Colonel Mott discovered that Bailey was out of position, he called on Lutjens and Company E to take Buna Village. Shortly after sunrise, Lutjens led his men down the main track in the direction of the village. Three hundred yards out, Company E slammed into a Japanese bunker and was stopped dead in its tracks. Although Company E’s assault failed, Stutterin’ Smith, who was in the front lines with his men, recognized that a breakthrough was possible. Sensing victory and a speedy end to the battle for Buna Village, he ordered Companies H and F and some troops from Headquarters Company to resume the attack. He knew the assault would require mortar support.

Putting Captain Harold E. Hantlemann, commanding officer of Company H, in charge of mortars, he instructed Captain Nummer of Company F to initiate the charge. It is what the men loved about Smith—his moxie, his ability to think on his feet, his willingness to be at the front with the privates and the corporals. Smith knew it was his job to make the men believe. The only way to do that was to be right there with them dodging bullets, risking his life.

While Nummer led his men down the main track in the direction of the ripening sun, “Handy” Hantlemann, a former star offensive guard at the University of Iowa, directed a fierce mortar barrage. Hantlemann sported a long, disheveled black beard and looked more like a swarthy pirate than a captain in the U.S. Army. The mortars sent hot shrapnel flying everywhere, but the Japanese were ready for them and stopped Nummer well short of the village. Still, Nummer and Company F punched away at the Japanese for much of the morning.


Herman Bottcher, now in charge of a platoon, saw a Japanese sniper pick off six of Company H’s men. Spotting a rifle barrel jutting from the leaves of a nearby tree, he raised his tommy gun and touched off the trigger. The Japanese sniper fell six feet and then bounced as the rope he had used to tie himself in tightened around his ankle.

Elsewhere, another Japanese machine gunner sprayed bullets through the jungle.

“We have to take him out,” Bottcher told his men. Next thing his men knew, Bottcher grabbed two grenades and was crawling through the long grass. Poking his head up, he saw the machine gun sticking out of a trench. After throwing the grenades, he began pawing at the dirt, digging down as deep as he could. The grenades blew and things went nuts. Bullets flew over his head. Damn Japanese are shooting high, Bottcher thought to himself. Then he realized it was his own men, shooting in the direction of the detonated grenades.

When the firing stopped, Bottcher crawled back to his men, grabbed his machine gun, and returned to scout the enemy trench. He found three Japanese, all dead, crouching with their faces buried in their arms. Bottcher realized that they had heard the grenades hit. With no time to roll out of the trench they had tried to save themselves by covering their heads and faces.

By early afternoon Stutterin’ Smith saw the handwriting on the wall and reluctantly called off the assault. The morning’s offensive had been successful, but his men had made little progress since those early gains.

As the Americans dug in, some Japanese soldiers staged a counterattack. One of Lutjens’ men, Private Johnny Combs, caught them in the act. With his back against a tree for support, he leveled his tommy gun and took out all sixteen attackers.

The battlefield, Lutjens remembers, was littered with bodies: mostly Japanese, but Americans, too. It was a sight he would never forget. Among the dead were two Company E men who had made the mistake of trying to take a small group of Japanese as prisoners. Pretending to surrender, the would-be prisoners machine-gunned their captors.

Despite Company E’s losses, Lutjens felt relieved that many of his best buddies had made it through the battle. Art Edson had survived. Edson had been with Lutjens since their scouting trip along the coast. Together they had also made the walk from Natunga to Pongani to establish contact with the 128th. The return trip had been especially rough on Lutjens, who was sweating out his first malaria attack. Had it not been for Edson, who encouraged, prodded, and sometimes dragged him, Lutjens might never have made it back to Natunga.

Stutterin’ Smith had reason to be upbeat, too. His Ghost Mountain boys had driven the enemy back hundreds of yards. In the process, they had achieved their objective: the first breakthrough in the Japanese perimeter.

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