Chapter 5


BEFORE THE NANKAI SHITAI clambered up Ioribaiwa Ridge, General MacArthur was confident that the reinforced Australians would be capable of halting Horii’s progress on the Kokoda track, and made plans for an offensive on “three axes.”

On the first axis, the Australians would engage Horii’s army in a “frontal action” on the Kokoda. The third consisted of “large-scale infiltrations from Milne Bay along the north coast of Papua.” But it was the second axis that was so bewildering. This one called for an American flanking movement that would penetrate and cross the Owen Stanley Mountains. In other words, MacArthur proposed to send a large group of American soldiers over the very mountains that a month earlier he believed would prevent the Japanese from reaching Port Moresby. The basic blueprint was for American troops to duck in behind the Japanese line on the Kokoda track, catching the enemy army by surprise. Then the combined American and Australian force would converge on the Buna coast with the third axis.

On September 11, MacArthur informed General Blamey, Commander of Allied Land Forces, of his intentions, and a day later dispatched a plane to Port Moresby. The plane carried Brigadier General Hanford MacNider and a very small group of intelligence and supply men, including Captains Jim Boice and Alfred Medendorp. The group’s task was to make arrangements for the arrival of the first American infantry unit to set foot in New Guinea.

MacArthur made the decision to send the 32nd to New Guinea despite General Harding’s objections that it was not yet ready. In a letter that foreshadowed the eventual clash between MacArthur and Harding, Harding wrote his wife Eleanor, “I prefer to get a crack at them [the Japanese] when the time comes…. When I go, I hope it will be with plenty of power—air, land, and sea—enough to make sure that none of those I am taking along with me will be sacrificed needlessly.” Not long after, he wrote his mother, “I want to bring back as many of the Red Arrow lads with me as I can. That ambition won’t be furthered if we move before we are good and ready to go.”

Harding was not surprised by MacArthur’s decision. In late August 1942, while the Japanese advanced down the Kokoda track, MacArthur showed up at Camp Tamborine (re-named Camp Cable by Harding for the first casualty of war in the South Pacific) with all of his colorful ribbons and medals, “decorated like a peacock,” according to a member of the 32nd Division who was on hand to see him. It was not an impromptu appearance.

At Camp Cable, MacArthur delivered what Stutterin’ Smith called a “gung-ho and inspired talk” full of the kind of grandiose language for which he had become famous. From MacArthur’s speech it was apparent that he, too, may have understood that the 32nd was far from battle ready. So instead of emphasizing the soldiers’ training, which was clearly lacking, he appealed to what the Japanese would have called their “seishin,” their will to fight.

“The Jap,” MacArthur told the men, “is no easy enemy. He is a hard fighter…. He gives no quarter. He asks for no quarter…. All Iask of you men when you go into action is that each of you shall kill one Japanese. If you do, we will win. But if, when you are hard pressed, you begin to look for a position in the rear, or begin to think it beyond human endurance to continue to fight, you will not only be destroyed physically, but you will lose your reputation in the eyes of your friends and your country…if a man has the fighting courage, even if he has poor equipment, poor training, and if he has the fighting spirit, he will win. Always, the fellow wins who fights to the end, whose nerves don’t go back on him, who never thinks of anything but the will to victory. That’s what I want of you men—and that’s what I expect.”

MacArthur finished his speech by invoking the image of a benevolent God watching over the men. “It won’t be very long now, probably, before you are in action,” he intoned. “It is possible that I won’t see a great many of you again; but I want you to know wherever you go, it will be my hope and prayer that Almighty God will be with you to the end.”


Despite their proximity, the island of New Guinea (the world’s second largest) and the continent of Australia have little in common. Created by the explosive tectonic forces of the Pacific Ring of Fire, New Guinea is geologically a much younger, more dramatic land. A series of immature volcanic mountain ranges run down the middle of the island like a bulging spine, spilling out toward the coast in a series of lesser but still imposing peaks. Rugged interior ridgelines rise to fifteen thousand feet and then fall off almost perpendicularly, only to rise again.

As the Americans would discover, New Guinea is also a land of staggering topographical contrasts. Savannas and vast malarial swamps of mangrove, sago and nipa palm, cane, and spear grass dominate the coastal region. Farther inland, savanna and swamp give way to grassland openings, mountain-fed rivers, and a lowland hill forest of garamut, nutmeg and fig trees, magnificent Araucarias, rosewoods, mahoganies, walnuts, and Pandanus pines adorned with vines and creepers. Between eight thousand and ten thousand feet lies an eerie forest of oak, beech, bamboo, red cedar, and pine, covered in mosses, lichens, and luminous fungi, surrounded by swirling clouds of ice and rain. Higher yet, the trees disappear and are replaced by fields of alpine flowers, shrubs, and staghorn ferns.

Shaped like a large prehistoric bird, New Guinea sits perched atop Australia with its head jutting to the northwest into the Maluku Sea and almost touching the equator near the Indonesian island of Halmahera. The attenuated tail dangles in a southeasterly direction into the Coral Sea just above Australia. One of the wettest places on earth, New Guinea is affected for half the year by unstable air masses, moving down from the north on the monsoon. For the other half, it is subjected to the stray airflows of the southeast trade winds. The monsoon and trade winds bring constant rain—in some areas over two hundred inches a year—carving a tangle of trackless ravines into the great volcanic ridges.

The rain also brings abundance. New Guinea is home to an unparalleled diversity of butterflies, birds, plants, strange marsupials, crocodiles, ninety species of snakes—including the taipan, death adder, Papuan black, and python—and over three thousand varieties of orchids. Although botanists have discovered around 1.5 million species on the planet, some speculate that there may be three times that many “undiscovered” plants on the island of New Guinea alone. The island also contains over eight hundred of the world’s languages, esoteric tongues of largely unknown origins, which evolved among people living in isolated universes of ravine and swamp and mountaintop.


The first European to encounter New Guinea was Jorge de Meneses, a Portuguese governor from the Spice Islands, whose ship was caught in a monsoon on a voyage from the Malay Peninsula. In 1526 he landed on the island of New Guinea and christened it “Ilhas dos Papuas” from the Malay term “orang papuwah,” meaning “fuzzy-haired man.” In 1545, Ynigo Ortiz de Retes, returning from the Moluccas to Mexico, sailed by the island and named it Nueva Guinea either because he thought its natives resembled those of African Guinea, or because the island was exactly opposite Guinea. Centuries later, New Guinea still remained largely untouched by outsiders.

The obstacles of terrain, climate, and disease successfully repelled the world’s colonial powers and their appointed adventurers. Those undaunted by the endless swamps, by the island’s impenetrable mountains and cloud forests, by the threat of malaria, scrub and murine typhus, filariasis, and leishmaniasis, were deterred by something else—New Guinea’s reputation for being inhabited by cannibals who ate the bodies of their dead parents as a gesture of love and headhunters who punctured their enemies’ skulls and sucked out the brains.

Headhunting and cannibalism were vital customs in New Guinea. Although the Australian territorial government outlawed the practice of headhunting as early as 1920, it was impossible to enforce. Cannibalism was also discouraged, though with little success. Along the Fly River, for instance, west of Port Moresby and the Gulf of Papua, if an enemy was killed in battle, warriors would often cut up the dead body and pack the flesh into bamboo logs for easy transport. Back at the village, the flesh would be cooked with sago. Some speculate that the people ate human flesh out of necessity because of the paucity of protein, a lack that was particularly acute in the Highlands. Among certain tribes, human flesh was eaten in the belief that the strength of the deceased would be transmitted to the living. Headhunting also served a variety of purposes. Heads taken in battle were often preserved as a means of communicating with the spirit world, for initiation rituals, and as trophies, which warriors displayed to enhance their standing in the villages. Even among tribes that did not take heads, the belief that the skulls and bones of dead relatives possessed magical properties was common. In the Sepik River region of New Guinea, a widow was obliged to stay in a hut with the body of her dead husband until the flesh had rotted from his skull and bones.

Although cannibalism and headhunting were not practiced by all of the tribes, much of New Guinea was populated by an intensely territorial and martial people, who were mistrustful of outsiders. Even tribes living along the same river system engaged in near-constant payback skirmishes, fueled by a simple principle: an eye for an eye. If one tribe stole a pig from another tribe, the offended tribe would be honor-bound to stage a raid and take a pig. If in the process, the raiding tribe killed a man, they could expect that the death would be avenged.

Because of the warlike reputation of its people, New Guinea became a place where for centuries imagination and invention substituted for hard facts. However, by the mid-1800s, whalers and sealers were plying the plentiful waters of the “cannibal islands” traders, searching for pearls, tortoise shells, sandalwood, ebony, wild rubber, copra, and bêche-de-mer, explored the mainland; and ruthless “blackbirders” rounded up young men as slave laborers for Peruvian mines and South Pacific sugar plantations. Given the burgeoning interest in the island, the world’s powers could no longer ignore New Guinea. Emissaries from Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands ventured there, and many of the expeditions ended very badly.

One of the first recorded disasters occurred in 1782. The captain of the Northumberland, a Dutch ship that was cruising off the coast of New Guinea, sent ten men ashore, not for the purpose of exploration, but for water and vegetables. “They came down on us like unto a half moon, men, women, and children, such as could take a bow and arrow into their hands,” wrote the only survivor. “They came down into the water then fired their arrows as thick and as fast that we could not see for the darkness of their arrows…. They carried one of our boys out of the boat and cut him through the middle and throwed his bowels into the air. I perceived them broiling the remains of poor Mr. Sayce.”

A century later, bona fide explorers fared no better. At age thirty-two, Otto von Ehlers joined the German East Africa Company and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Following his service in the company, he began a series of journeys to Zanzibar, Bombay, Kashmir, Nepal, Burma, Ceylon, Hong Kong, Canton, Peking, and Korea, and wrote of these adventures in flashy, self-aggrandizing travel books. When he came to New Guinea in 1895, it was said that he stood proudly “on the pinnacle of his success.” If anyone could conquer New Guinea, Von Ehlers surely could.

On August 14, von Ehlers set off with forty-one native porters and W. Piering, a German police master stationed in northern New Guinea. Von Ehlers immediately noted the terrain, which was unforgiving—a cruel, endless succession of ridges and valleys. Up and down, down and up, his team struggled for days hacking their way through the thick jungle. Rattan thorns ripped at their clothes and exposed skin, and leeches either fell from the overhanging trees or slithered upward from the ground, attaching themselves and later dropping off, leaving small exposed wounds, which were soon infested with red maggots. Von Ehlers’ face and body were covered with infected sores, and Piering could walk only with the help of two carriers. Nearly forty days into the trip, the team’s food ran out. Von Ehlers finally agreed to let Piering kill his beloved mastiff, though von Ehlers refused to eat any of it. The team then subsisted on grass shoots and young leaves. Already weakened by hunger, both men came down with dysentery. When the porters became too weak to carry their loads, the team abandoned much of its luggage. Days later, they arrived at a large river. Von Ehlers ordered two of the porters to construct a raft, having decided that he and Piering and the two porters would abandon the others and float to the coast, leaving the rest of the porters to do whatever they could to survive. Von Ehlers’ cowardice was aptly rewarded, however, when the two porters killed him and Piering and continued on, though they, too, later got their comeuppance, when they were beheaded by the Gaib people.

By the early twentieth century much of the work of exploration was being done by prospectors and missionaries, many of the latter of whom were fueled both by an explorer’s sense of adventure and a desire to spread God’s message. Initially, however, most of the missionaries confined their proselytizing to the coast. Those who dared to set foot in New Guinea’s interior never made it out.

The terrifying stories did not discourage the Reverends James Chamlers and Oliver Tomkins of the London Missionary Society, two ardent men of God. Although they knew the reputation of the Fly River people—who they had been told were practicing cannibals and did not greet outsiders kindly—they set off in 1901 from Daru to bring God’s word to the benighted people. Only two weeks into their trip, they were captured by a river tribe and beheaded. They were then cut into pieces, and cooked with sago and yams.

Thirty-four years later, over half a century after much of the Amazon basin had been mapped, Australian gold prospectors stumbled across a previously undiscovered society numbering seven hundred fifty thousand people in what was thought to be an uninhabited area of the island (today’s Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea). Using stone tools, these people had been practicing a sophisticated form of agriculture for almost ten thousand years, making theirs one of the oldest agrarian societies in the world.

In 1942, when the 32nd Division arrived in New Guinea, the island was still terra incognita. Its interior was largely unmapped, its coastline a puzzle of coral reefs, its swamps and grasslands a breeding ground for disease, its climate as pernicious as any ever encountered by an army. In New Guinea, MacArthur neglected warfare’s most important lesson: The island was his enemy, yet he remained only vaguely aware of the hardships his troops would confront there.

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