Chapter 3

ARRIVAL DOWN UNDER

WHILE WAITING TO be deployed, a portion of the division stayed at Fort Ord and the Dog Track Pavilion while the rest of the men were put up at a large convention center and rodeo venue called the Cow Palace in San Francisco. According to Stutterin’ Smith, the Cow Palace was a miserable, concrete “monolith” as cold and “drafty as the North Pole,” and the men hated it. They were forced to sleep draped over stadium chairs and in horse stalls that reeked of manure. But the stopover was essential. Before shipping the division overseas, the army needed to take care of some last-minute business, including issuing extra uniforms, M-1 rifles, new helmets, and modern howitzers to replace the World War I artillery that the division had been using for two decades.

Before shipping out, lots of the men took advantage of San Francisco. The sightseers climbed Telegraph Hill and admired the Golden Gate Bridge. Most, though, just wanted to have a good time. That meant beer and women in Barbary Coast saloons or Chinatown. If they were going off to war, they were going to have one hell of a party first.

Simon Warmenhoven had just been promoted to major, and he was in the mood to celebrate, too. Instead of going with the other men, he sent Mandy a telegram, announcing the promotion, and then wrote her a letter.

Dearest Lover:

I looked at your picture so long last night—Anyway, I had a dream about you…I saw you just as plain as if you were standing in front of me, you wore a black dress with white trimming around the collar and your pretty blond hair…I didn’t even get to kiss you tho…Oh, Mandy darling, I miss you so, so much…I’d just give anything to to be with you…to feel your warm lips on mine. I hate to think how long it is going to be before I’ll be able to do that again…Before closing—Dearest Lover…again let me tell you, I love you so very, very much…It’ll be like being married again when I see you…My love to the girls—and the grandest wife and most thrilling lover.

Lovingly, Yours Always, Sam

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On April 19 the 32nd Division, filled out with over three thousand “selectees,” mostly privates fresh from basic training, crammed into seven Matson Line cruise ships, that had been semi-converted to troop carriers. At 5:30 p.m. three days later, the overloaded vessels pulled anchor, escorted by two corvettes and the cruiser Indianapolis.

When the 32nd left Fort Mason’s wharves, it enjoyed the distinction of being the first American division in World War II to be moved in a single convoy. As the California coastline receded, though, the men had no sense of their place in history.

The ships steamed by Alcatraz, and the men joked that they would gladly trade places with any of its prisoners. When they reached the Presidio they heckled the “soft” garrison soldiers who were staying behind to guard the coast and enjoy the niceties of civilization. With the Golden Gate Bridge in sight, Stanley Jastrzembski grew nostalgic. There was no turning back now. Secretly some of the guys hoped that the transports’ smokestacks would not clear the bridge. When they did, Jastrzembski watched the city disappear in the distance. Already he was dreaming of his return home.

No one seemed to have any definite answers about where they were going. Rumors swirled through the ships: Hawaii, some said; others were convinced it was Alaska, or the Far East, New Zealand, India, Fiji, or maybe Australia. Stutterin’ Smith, now the 2nd Battalion’s executive officer, had slipped a map into his duffel prior to leaving California. Using his compass, he plotted the ship’s course—Hawaii first, and then an abrupt turn to the southwest. Smith ventured an educated guess: Australia. Not long after, Division Headquarters confirmed his assumption.

They were at sea for three weeks. By the hundreds, men unaccustomed to the pitch and roll of a ship at sea fell ill and spent much of their time leaning over the ship’s rail.

“It’s mind over matter, boys,” Captain Medendorp asserted as he walked the deck.

It was not the thing to tell a bunch of seasick men. Days later when Medendorp’s stomach began to roil and he, too, was standing at the rail retching, many felt that he had received his just reward.

The ships were filled far beyond capacity, and the men had to endure long lines everywhere they went—to the dining room, the showers, the latrines. At night, they bedded down wherever they could. Most slept in “standees,” pipe frame bunks piled four or five high in converted staterooms, parlors, party rooms, and the ballroom. According to Carl Stenberg, the ballroom was dubbed “Stinking Sock Alley.” Those who had it worst, though, slept on sheets of plywood in the bowels of the ship. As the convoy approached the equator, men vied for space on the deck to avoid the stifling heat.

The officers, though, enjoyed a bit of pampering. They slept two men to a stateroom, dined at tables set with fine china and silverware, and were treated to sumptuous meals because the ship’s food locker was still full of fare that would normally be reserved for its paying civilians.

Although officers held mandatory orientation courses emphasizing Australia’s people and customs and staged battalion conferences, the men still had lots of time to fill. They spent their days doing calisthenics, walking around the ship’s crowded deck, writing letters home, singing, and watching the sea. The novelty of flying fish, ocean-wandering albatross, gliding hundreds of miles from land, and moonlit nights did not last, however. The “Abandon Ship” drills and fire drills and the “Order of Neptune” ceremony, performed when the division crossed the equator, provided some excitement. But it was the poker games—instigated in some cases by Gus Bailey—and the craps games that did the most for the men’s spirits.

For General Edwin Forrest Harding’s staff, it was get-acquainted time, and they liked what they saw. The division’s new commander had an agile mind. He could quote T. S. Eliot or Tennyson or Kipling, or discuss astronomy and history like an Ivy League professor. But he did not put on airs. He had sparkling eyes and a midwesterner’s common touch. And there was no one who understood the modern military better than he.

Harding had written the book on it. When George C. Marshall went to Fort Benning to become the school’s assistant commandant entrusted with updating the army, he brought his friend Forrest Harding with him as an instructor and put Harding in charge of Benning’s influential Infantry School publications. In 1934, Harding edited Infantry in Battle, which disseminated across the world the school’s new ideas on modern military strategies. The triangular division was one of those ideas, and no one understood its simple genius better than Harding did. Unlike the square division of World War I, which was designed for attrition warfare, the smaller triangular division, consisting of three regimental combat teams and a simplified command structure, emphasized agility, adaptability, and a lower casualty rate.

On May 7, the convoy crossed the International Date Line, and eight days later the ships docked at Port Adelaide in South Australia in the early afternoon. The 32nd Division had traveled 8,500 miles in twenty-one days.

Throngs of Australians turned out to greet the division. As the men walked down the gangplank, they received a hero’s welcome that rivaled MacArthur’s. Some of the men expected “to be met at a primitive wharf by aborigine porters on kangaroos.” What they got instead were young Australian women who swooned at the handsome American GIs.

“I could get used to this awful quick,” Willie La Venture said, winking to his best buddy Stan Jastrzembski. La Venture and Jastrzembski had been through a lot together, but they had never seen anything like this reception. They had not even fired a shot in defense of Australia, and already they were being celebrated as heroes. According to Jastrzembski, “Young women were throwing flowers, blowing kisses, waving handkerchiefs, and crying.”

The adoration was short-lived. Officers herded the men onto trains as swiftly as they could, and shortly after six that evening the division was bound for one of two camps outside of Adelaide—the 126th went to Camp Sandy Creek, and the 127th and 128th went to Camp Woodside, thirty miles from Sandy Creek. Two hours after leaving Adelaide, the battalions arrived at the appointed camps in the dark of the night without lights to guide them. Both Sandy Creek and Woodside were under strict blackout orders.

“Damn, it’s cold,” Jastrzembski said, stepping off the train. “It’s like winter. I thought Australia was supposed to be warm.”

“Where are the beaches and the girls?” someone asked.

“They’re here, all right,” another guy said. “The army’s gonna surprise us.”

The following morning they were not joking around. Camp, they discovered, was a bunch of tin warehouses and huts with canvas roofs and no insulation. Their beds were nothing more than burlap bags filled with straw.

The various units spent the next week getting settled. They worked fast because company commanders were eager to get them on their feet again. After three weeks at sea, the men had grown soft, and because of the seasickness, many had also lost weight.

By late May, the division began its “toughening up” anew in South Australia’s gently rolling farm country. “Toughening up,” at least initially, meant basic, no-frills road marches. Eventually, as the men regained their strength, they performed scouting, field, and patrolling exercises, and put in lots of hours at the rifle range.

Like many of the men of the 32nd, Stanley Jastrzembski was dumbfounded to find himself in Australia. Jastrzembski was twelve years old before he ever even left Michigan. He was a small kid but wiry and athletic and did the high jump and broad jump for the Polish Falcons of the National Polish Alliance. When the Falcons were invited to LaPorte, Indiana, for a regional track meet, Jastrzembski accompanied the team. Although he won two medals in LaPorte, he will always remember that trip for another reason: The Muskegon team stayed in a hotel. There, Jastrzembski took a bath in a real bathtub for the first time in his life.

Although the division was being prepared for battle, the men felt more like wide-eyed sightseers on a tour of “Down Under.” Adelaide had a powerful draw on them. A city of roughly a million people, it offered abundant entertainment. According to Stutterin’ Smith, who was no puritan, soldiers quickly learned to indulge in the “Aussie penchant for having a good time.” The men learned to “Give ’er a go” Australian style, whether they were drinking flat Aussie beer or chasing Aussie women. The Americans were well paid—they would be awarded 30 percent raises when they went overseas—especially in comparison to their Australian counterparts, and they “spent with abandon on food, drink, and girls.”

Prostitution was legal in Australia, and in May 1942, venereal disease became a serious problem for the 32nd Division. These were pre-penicillin days. Warmenhoven had to hospitalize soldiers for thirty days even for cases of gonorrhea. With the help of local public health officials and the police, however, division medical officers set up prophylactic stations across the cities and towns frequented by the troops.

Warmenhoven clearly had his hands full, but he still found time to write Mandy.

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Tuesday Nite 8:00 PM.

June 2, 1942

Dearest Lover:

Before I forget to mention it, from now on, send all your letters air mail…seems that if you send it air mail, it is then taken across the ocean by these bomber planes…I’d sure feel so much better after hearing from you…that old heart starts aching for news from the loved ones way back in the States…I keep wondering about you all. I suppose Ann is quite a walker by now, isn’t she? I remember so distinctly when Muriel first began to walk, how after she got into it, how she used to run all the time up and down the rooms, then every once in awhile she’d take a nice spill on the slippery floor in the kitchen…I suppose pretty soon you’ll be going to the cottage. Sure would love to spend a weekend with you out there, lover—so many sweet and fond memories are contained in the cottage…I suppose that you’ve read all about the big air raid over Germany by 1000 bombers…Well, those Germans certainly have it coming to them. Don’t feel sorry for them at all…isn’t it awful the way they are murdering those poor Czech families because of the attempted murder on that ‘butcher’ Heydrich…if the Russians can keep up their present tempo, and a few more such air raids over Germany, I then think that Germany won’t last long anymore. Then they can all concentrate on Japan and that phase of it will be simple enough. Sure hope I don’t have to stay out here too long.

Yours Forever, Sam

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Six days later, he wrote again:

Monday 4:30 PM.

June 8, 1942

To My “One and Only”

My first letter from home…to-day. I’ve read it over and over and almost know it by heart. This certainly was quite a letter, honey. And so my Mandy is going to have another little “Warmy”…I sure was thrilled to read about it sweetheart, altho I must honestly say, not surprised. Remember the last time I examined you, I think that was around March 20…I hoped then that you would be pregnant—I didn’t like to say anything about it then because I just had a premonition that after I would leave you there, I wouldn’t be seeing you again for a long time…Well Darling…I’d sure be tickled to have a son…The thing that makes me feel bad is not being home with you to watch them grow up…I’ll bet when I get home he’ll say, “Momma, who’s that man?”

There’s a lot of things I could write about…if I were sure that you were the only one reading them; So many places you’ll have to read between the lines…so much I’d like to tell you…whatever may happen to either one of us, always know this my darling, I’ve always most sincerely and most deeply loved you…I’ll be so anxious to hear from you all the time now, darling—I’ll be praying for you. Give Muriel and Ann a hug and a kiss for me—and Mandy, darling—all your Warmy’s heart’s true love…

Forever yours, Sam

The soldiers that Warmenhoven treated could hardly be blamed for their casual attitude about their training. They were doing what came naturally to young men: They were living day-to-day, making the best of a situation over which they had no control. War might be just around the corner, but they would deal with that when the time came.

Had they been privy to the intelligence that showed that Japan coveted the island of New Guinea, they might have reacted differently. As early as May 19, as the regiments were settling into Camps Sandy Creek and Woodside, ULTRA, the name for the Allied code-breaking system that had cracked Japanese and German wireless codes, revealed that the Japanese army planned to attack Port Moresby via a mountain route from the north coast.

On June 9, when Allied Intelligence again notified MacArthur that the Japanese were contemplating an invasion of New Guinea’s Papuan Peninsula, he alerted General Blamey, his Commander of Allied Land Forces. “There is increasing evidence,” he wrote, “that the Japanese are displaying interest in the development of a route from Buna on the north coast of southern New Guinea through Kokoda to Port Moresby. From studies made in this headquarters it appears that minor forces may attempt to utilize this route…”

Blamey directed MacArthur’s inquiry to Major General Basil Morris, who at the time was commander of New Guinea Force and also head of ANGAU (Australia New Guinea Administrative Unit), the military government that ran New Guinea after Japanese planes bombed Port Moresby. Morris replied that there were ANGAU officers, native constables, two Papuan Infantry Battalions (a unit made up of natives), and a company from the Australian Infantry Battalion patrolling the area around Kokoda.

Blamey followed up with another message instructing Morris “to take all necessary steps to prevent a Japanese surprise landing along the coast, north and south of Buna, to deny the enemy the grasslands in that area for an airdrome, and to assure that we command the pass at Kokoda.”

Morris replied, “Re the Japs, I don’t think you need to worry about them. It is not likely they will want to commit suicide just yet.”

Despite Morris’ assurances, MacArthur was concerned. The Allies had just finalized their own plans for seizing New Guinea. Operation Cartwheel called for a powerful two-pronged attack by MacArthur’s ground forces and the U.S. Pacific Fleet. MacArthur’s troops would sweep through New Guinea by land while the navy moved up through the Solomon Islands by sea. Operation Providence stipulated that Australian troops and American engineers would march over the Kokoda track to Buna and prepare the area for the arrival of a main Allied landing force, which was to make the trip from Port Moresby. That force would travel around the tail of the Papuan Peninsula and then north up the coast in a series of small coastal steamers. The main body was to arrive in mid-August and prepare Buna for antiaircraft defense and begin construction of a large airbase at Dobodura, fifteen miles inland.

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The resounding booms to the north on the evening of July 21 puzzled Captain Sam Templeton. A thunderstorm? How could it be? The sky was a cloudless blue.

Templeton had no time to investigate. After receiving a directive from Allied Headquarters in Brisbane, General Morris had ordered him and a company of Australian militiamen to cross the mountains via the Kokoda track and defend the Kokoda airfield from a possible Japanese invasion. On July 21, they picked up twenty tons of supplies at Buna, including machine guns, and with the help of native carriers were transporting those supplies back to Kokoda.

As Templeton and his party made their way toward Kokoda, one of his sergeants was urgently trying to relay a message: “A Japanese warship,” he said, “is shelling Buna…to cover a landing at Gona or Sanananda. Acknowledge, Moresby. Over…”

Despite sending out repeated warnings, the sergeant received no reply. In the meantime, three coastwatchers forty miles northwest of Buna picked up the message and relayed it to Port Moresby.

The following day, Templeton learned what had happened from native constables who had witnessed the shelling and had traveled all night to Awala, where the track begins its climb to Kokoda.

The Japanese landing terrified the natives. Arthur Duna, a Buna villager, described the scene:

As if you had a dreamlike spirit chasing you and you want to run; [but] you cannot run and the spirit catches you. It was just like that. There was a great panic. That afternoon you have to run away from where you were at the time of Japan landing. There was not time to go to your village to gather your family or collect your valuable belongings. Wife ran naked without her husband and children. Husband ran naked without wife and children. A child ran without his parents and even if he was with his small ones, he deserted them. All ran in different directions into the bush. All ran like rats and bandicoots in the kunai grass. The night fell and each individual slept either in the grass or under trees. The soil was your bed and the rotten logs your pillow. You go to sleep wherever you happened to run into.

The Japanese invasion force made camp east of Basabua at 3:30 a.m. on July 22. By 6:00 a.m. on July 23, the men were moving again, eager to reach what they thought was a road running from Buna to Kokoda. After taking a wrong turn, the force did not arrive at Buna until fifteen hours later.

Led by Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama, the invasion force was made up of elite soldiers who had fought in Shanghai in 1937, Guam in December 1941, and Rabaul in early 1942, and nine hundred men of the Tsukamoto Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hatsuo Tsukamoto, part of the superbly trained 144th Infantry Regiment.

The 144th was assembled in Kochi City, a country town situated in the verdant hills at the mouth of the Niyodo River on the island of Shikoku. Its members were hardened, enthusiastic volunteers, the sons of farmers and tradesmen.

Rounding out the force were soldiers from the 15th Independent Engineers Regiment, who doubled as combat infantry; mountain and antiaircraft artillery units; a force of highly skilled naval shock troops; one hundred Formosan troops, praised for their fearlessness and endurance; fifty-two horses; and twelve hundred native conscripts from Rabaul.

Yokoyama’s orders came directly from Japan’s South Seas headquarters in Rabaul. Initially his mission was to reconnoiter the presumed “road” running from Buna to Kokoda and Kokoda south to Port Moresby, and to put the first portion in a condition to handle vehicles, packhorses, and bicycles. However, by the time he departed Rabaul on July 19, that mission had changed. Yokoyama’s men were now considered an invasion force.

Leading the advance guard of the invasion force was Colonel Tsukamoto, a “thundering old man” with a great affection for sake. On the afternoon of July 24, he was at the head of a long line of men bound for the government station of Kokoda. Kokoda was an outpost with huts, native gardens, a school, and a small hospital, situated on a plateau in the northern foothills of the Owen Stanley Mountains. Kokoda also possessed a strategically important airfield.

Seizo Okada, a war correspondent assigned to the invasion, described the march inland. “The unit continued to walk with single-mindedness…Each man is required to carry provisions for thirteen days in his backpack, comprising 18 litres of rice, a pistol, ammunition, hand grenades, a spoon, first aid kit…”

A patrol of scouts from the Tsukamoto Battalion traveled lightly and even faster than the rest of the battalion. Its objective was “to push on night and day” to Port Moresby.

While the Japanese soldiers marched on Kokoda, engineers remained behind to solidify Japan’s hold on the north coast. They built an airfield and fortified the beachhead with antiaircraft guns and a system of reinforced and interlinked bunkers. Some of the engineers also constructed a palm log road from Buna to the inland village of Soputa; the Japanese plan was to build a vehicle base and radio station there. Clearly, they were still under the illusion that the Kokoda track was navigable.

Yokoyama’s engineers toiled tirelessly in torrential rains. When trucks stalled in channels of thigh-deep mud, soldiers were turned into pack mules. They worked around the clock carrying supplies from the coast. Sleep was a luxury, and when they did rest, they did so in riverbeds, where they risked being swept away during flash floods. “Our duty to reach the front line,” one Japanese engineer wrote, “would not let us rest for one moment.”

They completed the Buna-Soputa passage in just three days. It was an incredible achievement, though it received little recognition. The Japanese soldier was expected to endure misery, fatigue, hunger, and disease.

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The Japanese had beaten MacArthur to the punch, but even as they stormed ashore, MacArthur and his advisors dismissed the invasion as a minor threat. Brigadier General Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s head of intelligence, clung to the notion that the Japanese would penetrate inland only as far as they needed to build airfields. The airfields, Willoughby argued, would allow Japanese pilots to attack Port Moresby and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia, and could support a possible seaborne invasion of Port Moresby and Milne Bay. But a major land assault on Port Moresby was inconceivable.

Ten days after Yokoyama landed at Basabua, General Marshall contacted MacArthur. Keeping Port Moresby in Allied hands and reestablishing Allied control over Papua’s north coast, he insisted, was of paramount importance. MacArthur reassured Marshall that he was doing everything in his power to secure New Guinea.

MacArthur had just ordered two Australian Infantry Division (AIF) brigades to Port Moresby. Comprised of seasoned soldiers, the brigades had returned from the Middle East in late March 1942. Upon arriving in Australia, however, most of the soldiers were sent to Queensland to perform menial labor, finishing airfields and fortifying the coastline, thus forfeiting valuable training time, so when they arrived in Port Moresby in mid-August, they lacked the skills for jungle fighting. They had the wrong equipment, too. For example, instead of jungle green, they wore bright khaki-colored battle gear; instead of pants to keep away the mosquitoes, leeches, and chiggers, they had knee-length shorts similar to the ones they wore in the deserts of North Africa. And in a land where every additional pound was a burden, they carried too much weight in their fieldpacks.

MacArthur was not ready to send in the 32nd yet. As Colonels Yokoyama and Tsukamoto marched inland, the American division was thousands of miles from New Guinea, traveling by train from South Australia to a tent encampment called Camp Tamborine. Situated in semi-tropical country thirty miles south of Brisbane, Camp Tamborine was fifteen hundred miles north of Adelaide. Rather than launching into jungle training exercises the moment they arrived at Tamborine, the troops had to build the camp from scratch. Soldiers who should have been learning to patrol and to maneuver at night were forced to cut down and clear trees and dig latrines.

It was weeks before the division was able to drill again. Watching the Red Arrow men, Harding remembered that General Marshall had counseled him against taking over the division. The 32nd, Marshall said, was poorly trained and rife with Midwestern small-town politics, enmities, and allegiances. At the time, Harding thanked his old friend for the advice and accepted the division anyway. The chance at his first field command was too attractive to resist.

As soon as he was able, Harding implemented a live-fire infiltration course called the Sergeant York and set up commando, sniper, and tommy gun schools. One of his most capable instructors was a man named Herman Bottcher.

Bottcher was not new to Australia. Though German-born, Bottcher left his native country at the age of 20, bound for Sydney, Australia, in May 1929. As he roamed the city looking for employment, he studied a German-English dictionary. Eventually he found a job as a carpenter on a sheep station in New South Wales. While there he saved his money and nursed a dream of coming to America. In November 1931, when he landed in San Francisco, that dream became a reality.

With sixty dollars in his pocket, he took a room at a hotel on Third Street and searched for work. Jobs were few, so he traveled south to San Diego. Nine months later he had saved enough money to get back to San Francisco, where he took a job in San Francisco’s Crystal Palace markets and attended classes at night at San Francisco State College. Four years later, he was off again, lured to Spain by the Civil War, where he enlisted with the International Brigade. He spent two years fighting with the Loyalists, rose to the rank of captain, and was twice wounded. Attempting to re-enter the United States, he was detained by Immigration officials at Ellis Island. After questioning him about his political affiliations, Immigration eventually let him go. Bottcher returned to San Francisco, where he worked as a cabinetmaker. The day after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, Bottcher enlisted, and less than a month later he reported to Camp Roberts, California.

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No one would have known from watching the 32nd that MacArthur was preparing to transport it to New Guinea. The majority of the division’s training consisted of twenty-five-mile marches through the modest terrain of the Mount Tamborine area; field exercises, where men lived in tents and ate from mess kits; compass and first aid courses; and pulling sentry duty along the coastal beaches. The kinds of small-unit activities that worked in the jungle were not stressed. Harding understood their importance, but how could he teach sudden attacks and withdrawals, infiltrations of the perimeter, and night assaults when the division was lacking in basic field skills and conditioning?

Although the 32nd had earned high marks in the Louisiana Maneuvers, since then it had been on the move—Louisiana to Fort Devens to San Francisco to South Australia and now Camp Tamborine. In twenty months it had participated in only a few night training exercises. The men knew little of stream, swamp, or river crossings. They understood nothing about living and fighting in the jungle, or the effects of extreme humidity on the maintenance of weapons. And they had almost no practice with live fire. Nevertheless, many of the soldiers were under the illusion that they were “tough as nails” and ready to do battle with the Japanese.

In contrast, the Japanese trained for war in what military historian Geoffrey Perret calls “tropical dystopias.” During the 1930s, the Japanese Imperial army sent recruits to the rugged island of Formosa. The training there was intense, rigorous, and designed to inure soldiers to suffering. In the process, the Japanese army learned some very basic lessons: Do not overburden soldiers; provide them with light weapons and light loads; give every soldier a headband to absorb sweat that would otherwise pour into his eyes; do not confine troops’ movements to trails; and use the jungle and the element of surprise to outwit and outmaneuver the enemy.

The Imperial army also simulated island landings. Crammed into the holds of ships, soldiers were deprived of water and forced to endure unbearable heat. Then they were dumped onto beaches under combat conditions. Meanwhile, Japanese engineers developed barges with innovative bow ramps that could carry and quickly discharge men and even light tanks. By late in the war, the barges were already obsolete; but early on, the innovation afforded the Japanese forces a technological advantage over the U.S. Army.

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The thirty men whom Templeton had sent back to investigate the Japanese landing first sighted Tsukamoto’s scouts a few miles from Awala, well inland from where the Japanese had disembarked—they were clearly moving fast. The bayonet blades of their long-barreled .25 caliber Arisaka rifles and Type 38 bolt-action rifles gleamed brightly in the glare of the tropical sun.

Templeton’s platoon fell back to the village of Wairopi on the Kumusi River. At 9:00 a.m. the following morning, the platoon received a message from Templeton instructing it to retreat to Oivi. Ten of the men remained at Wairopi. They cut the cables of the wire-rope bridge that spanned the river, sending it tumbling into the current. Then they lay in wait for Tsukamoto’s scouts.

The Kumusi roared through a deep gorge en route to the coast, but Tsukamoto’s scouts were superbly conditioned men. Upon encountering the sixty-foot-wide river and the remnants of the bridge, they plunged into the current and fell into the Australian ambush. Templeton’s men killed fifteen Japanese. The scouts kept coming, though, and eventually the small Australian force fled.

Back in Port Moresby, General Morris, despite his earlier insouciance, was scrambling to get enough troops to Kokoda to stop the Japanese short of the village and its airstrip. Four of his companies, however, were still south of the mountains. Even if they had been able to walk round the clock, it would have taken them days to make Kokoda. Aware that he could not get the battalion there in time, Morris chose instead to fly in the battalion’s capable commander, Lieutenant Colonel William T. Owen. Owen assessed the situation and made a rash decision: He would torch Kokoda, leaving little for the Japanese.

The following day, Owen recognized his mistake: He was handing Kokoda and its vital airfield to the Japanese without a fight. Owen returned to Kokoda with a scanty force and waited among the burned remnants of what had once been a flourishing village. Smoke rose from the charred buildings, creating a ghostly impression in the misty morning light.

At 2:00 a.m. on July 29, with wispy clouds veiling a fat moon, four hundred of Tsukamoto’s men plunged into the jungle void. Screaming like wild animals, they scaled a nearly vertical hill and stormed the Australian stronghold.

In the chaos of the battle, Owen was shot. The battalion medical officer and a number of stretcher bearers rushed to his side, but a bullet had lodged in Owen’s head and brain tissue oozed out of the wound. Owen had survived the bloody January 1942 Japanese invasion of the island of Rabaul only to fall dead to a sniper’s bullet in the first large-scale battle on the New Guinea mainland.

When the generals at GHQ in Brisbane learned of the loss of the Kokoda airfield, they insisted that the airstrip be recaptured. On August 8, Australian forces attacked, catching Tsukamoto’s surprised troops off guard. By afternoon, Kokoda was back in Australian hands.

For two and a half days, Tsukamoto’s men threw themselves at the Australians. Second Lieutenant Hirano, a platoon leader in Tsukamoto’s battalion, was unnerved by the fierceness of the Australian defense. “Every day I am losing men,” he lamented. “I could not repress tears of bitterness.”

On the evening of August 10, as a heavy fog fell over the yawning Mambare River, Tsukamoto’s forces sprang out of their trenches and rushed the Australians. “The stirring and dauntless charge,” wrote Hirano in his diary, “is the tradition of our Army and no enemy can withstand such an attack.” He was right: The Japanese soldiers overwhelmed the Australians.

The following day, what should have been a celebration turned into a dour ritual. Though the Japanese were again in possession of Kokoda, they were forced to gather up their dead. Lieutenant Hirano found time to make an entry in his diary. “The bloody fighting in the rain during the last few days seems like a nightmare,” he wrote. Then regaining his defiance, he added, “I swore to the souls of the warriors who died that I would carry on their aspirations.” The next morning, he wrote in a more sentimental vein, “The day was beautiful, and the birds sang gaily. It was like spring.”

Six days later, on August 18, 1942, with Colonel Tsukamoto in possession of Kokoda, the main body of Japan’s famous Nankai Shitai (South Seas Detachment), including its commander, Major General Tomitaro Horii, landed at Basabua, right under the nose of unsuspecting Allied air units.

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