And over the hill the guns bang like a door

And planes repeat their mission in the heights.

The jungle outmaneuvers creeping war

And crawls within the circle of our sacred rites.

I long for our disheveled Sundays home,

Breakfast, the comics, news of latest crimes,

Talk without reference, and palindromes,

Sleep and the Philharmonic and the ponderous

I long for lounging in the afternoons

Of clean intelligent warmth, my brother’s mind,

Books and thin plates and flowers and shining spoons,

And your love’s presence, snowy, beautiful, and kind.


Chapter 6


ON SEPTEMBER 15, two days before the Japanese climbed onto Ioribaiwa Ridge, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 126th U.S. Infantry broke camp at 4:00 a.m. and assembled at Brisbane’s Amberley Airfield. The men were issued ammunition. The men’s newly dyed fatigues, sporting a mottled green jungle design, clung damply to their skin. Green burlap hung from their steel helmets.

Even at that early hour, the men were edgy with anticipation. Sergeant Paul Lutjens had written that “it was quite a shock walking up that gangplank” when the division loaded onto the ships leaving California. But now the adrenaline really pumped through their young bodies. This was it, what they had come ten thousand miles for. No one uttered a word until somebody with a timely sense of humor—it might have been Sergeant John Fredericks, another Big Rapids man—started whistling an old cavalry bugle call, and the men were still chuckling when Captain Melvin Schultz appeared. Schultz would not say much about where they were going, not that Lutjens or any of the others expected him to, but it did not take a genius to figure out that they were being airlifted to New Guinea. For many of them, the flight to New Guinea would be the first of their lives.

Though Melvin Schultz was Company E’s commander, he was raised in Muskegon, Michigan, and was regarded as something of an outsider. It was First Sergeant Paul Lutjens of Big Rapids, Michigan, who often ran the show. Lutjens was an affable but physically imposing man. He was also devoted to Company E. Twice during training in Louisiana he refused a commission because he did not want to leave his friends.

Like Lutjens, nearly 50 percent of Company E’s men were from the Big Rapids National Guard unit. In fact, many of the guys had joined together, continuing ties of friendship that went back to childhood. Mostly it was a reason to drink and play poker and avoid the realities of life at the tail end of the Depression. Lutjens was one of the few who was employed, but work in a factory was not exactly the kind of thing a guy dreamed of doing. In other words, few of the men seemed destined for greatness. If someone had asked the people of Big Rapids if Lutjens and his crowd were going to amount to anything, they might have shaken their heads—“They’re not bad boys, really, but no more than a few of them will do anything with their lives.”

For the men of Big Rapids, mostly beer-swilling party boys by their own admission, joining the National Guard during peacetime was just something you did. Lutjens simply liked the look of the uniform. “When I got my first uniform…” he said, “I was just in my second year at high school and I thought I was pretty big stuff. I wore out the mirror in the hall downstairs admiring myself…” According to Lutjens, Big Rapids had a “swell” armory, too, and large dances were frequently held there. Lutjens confessed, “…We used to worry a lot more about the dances than the drill.”

A lot of the new guardsmen, like Lutjens, were underage. Rules said that inductees had to be at least eighteen. The National Guard, though, did not care who you were, or how old you were, “as long as you had a pulse,” joked one former guardsman. “Its philosophy was, ‘If the body is warm, we’ll take it.’” Anybody could be a weekend warrior—postmasters, bankers, teachers, mechanics, cooks, factory workers, the unemployed.


On the afternoon of September 15, the men of Company E, a platoon of engineers, a medical officer, and four aid men, divided into groups, a dozen to a plane.

“We were pretty tense and mighty afraid,” Lutjens remembered. “Some of the men sort of sat in their seats and just gulped like Li’l Abner. But most of them got into a colossal crap game, right on the floor of the plane.”

The men of Company E imagined that they were going straight into combat, jumping off the plane and storming the Japanese amidst a barrage of bullets. It would be dramatic stuff, something to make the folks back home in Big Rapids proud. After an uneventful flight across the Coral Sea, the Douglas and Lockheed transport planes neared Port Moresby, and Lutjens took a moment to look out the window. “There were big fresh-looking craters on the landing strip down on the edge of the jungle. Over on one side were the smoking ruins of two planes that had evidently just been hit by Japanese bombers,” he wrote. But when the planes reached Seven Mile Drome outside of Port Moresby, the men disembarked with their bayonets sheathed. There were no Japanese to be found.

A blast of hot air nearly brought Lutjens to his knees. In the back of the transport truck, he was already writing in his diary. “September 15, 1942, 5:30 P.M. Temperature 115 degrees. Japs twenty miles away. New Guinea weather is hotter than the lower story of hell.” Even Fredericks, a former farmer accustomed to toiling in the hot sun, was barely able to stand the heat.

Fredericks, like the others, must have wondered how he had ended up in New Guinea. He and his buddies did not know anything about the jungle. What he knew was that it was full of things that could kill a man: Japs; blood-sucking bats; rats as large as collies; wild boars; snakes; crocodiles; moniter lizards over six feet long; diseases that could make a man’s scrotum swell up to the size of a pumpkin; and hungry cannibals who enjoyed the practice of eating living meat. They would tie a live captive to a tree and cut off chunks of flesh, as they needed it. And the heat, God, the heat—would they ever get used to it?

For a moment, Lutjens and the others were able to forget about the temperature. When their truck passed a group of Australian soldiers and a small group of American pilots, they were cheered heartily. Lutjens and the boys from Big Rapids were enjoying their new role. Back home, nobody had expected much of them, and now they were being treated like avenging heroes.

The following day, Captain Schultz woke the men at 5:30 a.m. and ordered Lutjens and Staff Sergeant Henry Brissette to assemble the troops. Lutjens smelled the sea and felt the sticky salt air on his skin. Even in the morning, the heat hung over the land like a blight. To the north, the Owen Stanleys rose menacingly out of bulky, dark gray rain clouds. Their steep, forested slopes were visible for a moment. Then they were gone, obscured by fog.

The entire company was loaded onto trucks. The men were probably looking to Lutjens for an explanation, as if to say, “Hey, what’s up now, Lootch? Are we finally gonna get into it?” If Private Swede Nelson was anything like people described him, it would not have mattered to him where they were going as long as there was a fight in the offing.

The trucks took the men southeast along the coast until a few miles later the dusty road dead-ended at a patch of gum trees with drooping leaves. Captain Schultz bellowed at the men to get out on the double. Schultz looked up and down the road, making a mental picture of the land. Then he cleared his throat and spoke. The men listened, hanging on his every word, still trying to picture their first brush with combat. What Schultz had to say, though, was a huge disappointment. Company E’s mission was to build a jeep road from Tupeselei, a few miles southeast of Port Moresby, to Gabagaba on the southeast coast. After Schultz delivered the news, the men groaned and complained. This was bullshit! Anything but beating the Japs into submission would have been an anticlimax. But building a road? They were fighting men, not engineers.

Real engineers of the 91st U.S. Engineers, an all-black unit that had been formed at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, joined the men of Company E that day. Although the 91st was a legitimate engineering unit, it was no better equipped than the men of Company E. Using picks, shovels, axes, saws, machetes, and their hands to hack a road for forty miles along the coast, the engineers and Lutjens’ men worked shirtless in mosquito-infested coastal jungles, sago swamps, and broad, sun-soaked savannas.

It was the job of Lieutenant James Hunt to drive a truck rigged with a winch and to locate usable sections of the trail. Hunt was a communications specialist who had flown over with Company E. Upon arriving in Port Moresby, however, Captain Schultz informed him that his services would not be needed. He was to act as a rifle platoon leader, which meant for the time being that he was nothing more than a road builder.

While the rest of the men of Company E worked on the road—largely an upgrade of a native trail, known as the “Tavai track” that linked the southeast coastal communities to Port Moresby—Lutjens and Privates Barney Baxter and Arthur Edson reconnoitered the territory between Tupeselei and Gabagaba. Undoubtedly, some of the guys griped that Lutjens, Baxter, and Edson had received the plum assignment, but the truth was that few of them would have traded places with Lutjens or the others. New Guinea was a dangerous country, and no one knew whether the reconnaissance patrol would encounter Japanese, or headhunters, or man-eating crocodiles. Although the three patrolmen were probably relieved that they would not have to build a road, it is equally certain that none of them felt particularly lucky about the assignment. Writing in his diary, Lutjens admitted to being scared.

Baxter, like Lutjens, was from Big Rapids, Michigan, a typical Midwest town in the middle of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, surrounded by farms and woodlots. Edson was the woodsman of the bunch. He had left Saranac, Michigan, at the age of fourteen to work as a lumberjack in Michigan’s wild Upper Peninsula, and later settled down in the U.P. to run a 120-acre beef farm. All three of the men were acquainted with the outdoors; none of them, though, had spent a single day in the jungle.

“Started through the jungle today,” Lutjens wrote. “It is ten times worse than you can imagine…. Wearing green head-nets to keep off mosq…. They damn near smother you.”

That night Lutjens, Edson, and Baxter camped somewhere along a coastal trail, perhaps outside of a small fishing village called Barakau. Their first tropical sunset must have struck them as spectacular—the blazing sun falling swiftly below the horizon, searing the blue sky with streaks of orange and red.

Later that night they were awakened by the sound of a dog’s frantic barking. Were Japanese soldiers creeping through the dark sago swamp that bordered the beach? It was what every soldier would come to dread most—the night maneuvers of the Japanese soldiers. Lutjens might have clutched his hunting knife. The army did not issue decent knives, so Lutjens had brought his all the way from Big Rapids. If a Jap was going to jump him, he would be in for the fight of his life. If Lutjens could, he would cut him from his lower abdomen right up to his throat. He would cut him like a big buck, snapping his sternum with a swift stroke.

When the Japanese troops did not rush them, Lutjens, Edson, and Baxter grabbed their M-1s, pressed their bodies into the soft sand, and searched the dark, ready to send a burst of bullets into the night. While they scanned the jungle, they heard something: It sounded like the snapping and crushing of bones. A yelp followed, and then silence. That now familiar adrenaline was slamming through their veins.

Lutjens woke with a start the following morning and searched for a sign that a Japanese patrol had been in the area that night. Just ten feet from where Baxter and Edson were lying, Lutjens saw something that chilled him—the tracks of a very large crocodile. Then Lutjens and the others pieced together the details of the previous night. The crocodile had caught a dog and had chosen to eat it not far from where they were sleeping. Better to take a Jap bullet than die a slow death in the jaws of a crocodile.


As Lutjens reconnoitered the coast, the news that General Horii had captured Ioribaiwa Ridge shook General Headquarters in Brisbane like the impact of an artillery shell. The Japanese army was now only thirty miles from Port Moresby.

MacArthur immediately called Prime Minister Curtin. The Australians, he said, did not have enough fight in them. They had forfeited every major position along the Kokoda track and had forced the Allies “into such a defensive concentration as would duplicate the conditions of Malaya.” MacArthur did not mention Bataan, but the implications were clear—Bataan had fallen and now he was in danger of losing New Guinea, too. Only six months before in Bataan, MacArthur’s army had been pushed up against the South China Sea. Now the Australian army’s back was up against the Gulf of Papua. With the specter of Bataan still haunting him, and his career hanging in the balance, MacArthur informed Curtin that he would send American troops by air and sea to prevent New Guinea from being “stitched into the Japanese pattern of quick conquest.” By the end of September he hoped to have forty thousand men in New Guinea. “If they fought,” MacArthur continued, “they should have no trouble in meeting the situation. If they would not fight, 100,000 would be no good.” MacArthur then requested that General Blamey be sent to New Guinea to take command and “energize the situation.” Curtin was in full agreement.

MacArthur ended the conversation on a note of self-pity—a quality that he had revealed on other occasions, and one that was as much a part of his enigmatic emotional make-up as his extravagant self-confidence. “Must I always lead a forlorn hope?” he asked the Australian prime minister.

On September 18, only hours after speaking with Curtin, MacArthur mobilized two of the 32nd’s three regimental combat teams—the 126th and 128th U.S. Infantries. The plan was to send the 126th minus its artillery team by ship to New Guinea. The 128th would leave Australia via the airfield at Townsville in what would be the first mass movement of troops by air in Would War II. Originally, MacArthur was opposed to the idea, but General George Kenney, MacArthur’s Commander of Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific, convinced him that in the time it would take to move the men by ship, the Australians might already “be behind barbed wire at Port Moresby.”


While his buddies were building the coastal road, Lutjens arrived in Gabagaba. It had taken him, Edson, and Baxter five days to cover the thirty-five miles from Tupeselei. When they reached Gabagaba (which the soldiers mispronounced as Kapa Kapa), a beautiful village of hibiscus-and bougainvillea-lined walkways, tall, graceful coconuts, and thatched huts built on stilts over the shallow water of a small protected bay, they set up temporary headquarters near the village’s wooden wharf.

Although Gabagaba was a small coastal village, the people were familiar with the war. Less than forty miles from Port Moresby, the villagers heard the frequent Japanese bombing raids on the town, and had been buzzed by Zeros. Just weeks before Lutjens arrived, a village elder and his wife were working in their garden southeast of the village when they saw a plane drop into the sea. The old man and woman left the garden and paddled out to the wreckage in an outrigger. There they discovered an American pilot hanging on to a piece of the plane, trying to stay afloat. The old man dove in, grabbed him, swam to the dugout where he and his wife managed to lay him in the narrow boat, and then they paddled back to the village. After a week of convalescing in the village, the pilot made his way to Port Moresby on foot and by boat, and two weeks later flew over the village and airdropped food as a thank-you.

The war also had a much more tangible effect on the village. ANGAU officers who were organizing carrier teams for the Americans were already in Gabagaba preparing for the possible American march over the Owen Stanleys. Hundreds of native carriers would be needed, and the officers would eventually recruit all able-bodied men from Gabagaba and area villages. They considered any male with hair under his arms—the ANGAU officers literally lifted the arms of a boy to see if he qualified—old enough to work. Those who balked at the prospect of carrying for the Americans were conscripted at gunpoint. Often, the only people left in the villages were old men, women, and young children.

Gabagaba was not as primitive as Lutjens had expected. An Australian expatriate ran a bakery out of the village, and had Lutjens and his men wanted to, they could have enjoyed fresh-baked bread every morning. Far from being the murderous headhunters that Lutjens must have expected, the villagers of Gabagaba—a Motu word meaning “small drum”—were shy, gentle, and kind-hearted.

Though Lutjens does not mention it in his diary, while he and Privates Edson and Baxter waited for the road builders to reach them, they probably had time to enjoy village life. Gabagaba was part of a world they had never even imagined. When the tide was in, children paddled around the bay in little outriggers, chattering and singing, or used the wooden ladders to their houses as diving boards. The Motuan women, unashamedly bare-breasted, wore grass skirts and bore striking face and arm tattoos. When they were not nursing their babies, young mothers carried them in colorful, beautifully woven string bags, which they fastened to their heads with tumplines. The bags hung to their hips, so that when they walked the babies swung gently back and forth. When not tending to their children or working in the garden, the women spent much of the day cooking over fires on open-air porches.

Until they were pressed into duty as carriers, the men went off each morning on fishing excursions. When they were not fishing, they accompanied the women to the jungle, where they tended small garden plots with long wooden sticks. As fascinated as Lutjens would have been by the people of Gabagaba, the villagers, especially the children, were surely drawn to the Americans. Frank Gabi was four or five at the time the first Americans came and remembers them passing out biscuits and lollipops in return for papaya, sugar cane, and coconuts. In the short time the American’s were there, the villagers grew accustomed to them and began to call them their tura—friends.

Lieutenant James Hunt, who, along with a platoon of men, went ahead of the roadbuilders to guard the growing supply depot, describes the scene at Gabagaba:

Although the plan was to build the road suitable for truck traffic, supplies were already being moved to Kapa Kapa by small coastal boats which could not come close to shore but were unloaded some distance at sea onto native outrigger canoes, which transported their load to shore. Some items, such as oil drums, were merely dumped into the water and pushed to shore by the natives. A large group of natives were assembled for this purpose and made their camp near the beach. The village consisted of native huts built on pilings or stilts in the ocean, all connected by narrow walkways.

During our stay in Kapa Kapa, the natives discovered that a slap on an empty oil drum made a drum sound very pleasing to them. They assembled one evening at the beach and put on quite a show using several oil drums with some impromptu dancing and merry making which we enjoyed very much.

When the men of Company E and the 91st U.S. Engineers arrived in Gabagaba, they were exhausted from their road-building exertions, and took a day to recuperate before Captain Schultz gave them their new orders: MacArthur wanted the road extended from Kapa Kapa to a rubber plantation four miles inland at the village of Gobaregari on the Kemp Welch River.

After Company E and the 91st U.S. Engineers set up camp in the village of Gabagaba, it did not take long for trucks and jeeps carrying supplies to rumble in from Port Moresby. The Americans had suddenly transformed a quiet village of four hundred into a major operations base. The people of Gabagaba were frightened at first by the big trucks and the roaring noise. Soon, though, emboldened by their relationship with Lutjens, Baxter, and Edson, the villagers mingled with the new arrivals, doing their wash for them, gathering food, and teaching them a few basic Motu phrases like “Good morning”—Dada namona—and “Good night”—Hanuaboi namona. In return, the Americans good-naturedly gave away their remaining Australian shillings, reasoning that where they were going the money was worthless to them anyway.

As interested as the villagers of Gabagaba were in the men of Company E, they were fascinated by the black men of the 91st Engineers. The people of Gabagaba had been living under the imposition of the Australian colonial administration for over three decades, an era known still as “taim bilong masta.” Although the Australians governed less harshly than other colonial administrations, the divisions between white and black were clearly defined—natives were laborers and white men were their bosses. The natives were expected to work when told to. When they saw the men of Company E and the black engineers working side by side, they imagined that in America black men and white men lived in a kind of harmonious equality. What they did not know, of course, was that the U.S. Army units were racially segregated and racial tension ran high, much as in American society in general. While black men were allowed to serve as engineers, they were not allowed in the infantry.

While the rest of his company and the engineers took a much-needed break from their road building efforts, Lutjens and Sergeants Henry Brissette and Hubert Schulte made a reconnaissance upriver. Word was that MacArthur wanted a road to Gobaregari in order to convert what was a rubber station into an advance base for the overland invasion. It was Lutjens’ job to figure out if it could be done.

After scouting the area, Lutjens, Brissette, and Schulte were eager to get back to Kapa Kapa to deliver their report. The notion struck all of them at the same time—why walk two days to the coast when they could use the river? If they could build a raft and float down the Kemp Welch, they might be able to make Kapa Kapa before nightfall.

The raft was not a thing of beauty, but the question was, Would it float? When they shoved it into the water, the river was flat and calm, and once Lutjens got over his astonishment that the raft had not sunk, he found himself admiring the scenery. That is when he felt a jerk. His muscles tensed and his pulse raced. The raft rounded a bend, and the current quickened. Up ahead, the course was studded with boulders.

The three men frantically tried to pole their way to the riverbank, but the raft spun round and round, out of control. Lutjens grabbed for a log, and then they heard it—Crack! They had hit a large rock. The collision shot the raft into the air, and hurtled the men into the river. Schulte surfaced first and swam to safety. Brissette grasped a floating log and was kicking for the riverbank when he saw Lutjens caught between two rocks in the middle of a powerful whirlpool. Laying his chest on the log, Brissette straddled it, and pushed himself back into the current. When he passed the whirlpool, he caught Lutjens by his helmet. Gripping Lutjens’ helmet as tightly as he could with one hand, he used his other arm to paddle. When he reached the bank, he pulled Lutjens out of the water and they both collapsed in the mud at the river’s edge.

It was night by the time the men regained their strength. Now they had to confront the reality of their situation: They were weak, wet, and growing cold, and their only choice was to walk. Plunging into the jungle, they used the sound of the river as their guide. They had not been walking for long when they spotted the light of a campfire tended by a lone native hunter. The Americans approached him carefully, and Lutjens, who had the most experience with natives, mimed their experience, the building of the raft, turning over, swimming to safety. Then Lutjens asked the most important question—could the man guide them to the coast? Somehow Lutjens was able to get his point across. He offered to give the man his pocketknife if he would be willing to lead them back to Kapa Kapa. The native hunter agreed.

In the dark of the jungle, the native man led the way, expertly navigating through a maze of knee-deep swamps, fallen trees, and a tangle of limbs and vines. Lutjens was amazed by the man’s ability to find his way. Without his guidance, setting off through the jungle might have been a deadly decision. Lutjens and his party, holding hands and single file, made six river crossings that night, and each time the native hunter unerringly found sandbars on which they could walk, avoiding the river’s deep holes and the fast current. When one of the men stumbled, the native man, hardly half the size of Lutjens, would tighten his grip and hold him up. Lutjens later remembered that the man’s hand was “like steel.” In the early hours of the morning, the hunter led Lutjens and others to the army encampment. Lutjens thanked the man for his service and gave him his pocketknife, and the man trudged off into the jungle.

Lutjens, Brissette, and Schulte were exhausted, and their legs were covered with cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Later that morning, Lutjens consulted with Captain Schultz, informing him of the difficulties a road building crew would encounter upriver. Schultz radioed Colonel Quinn, who had just arrived in Port Moresby. Quinn did not deliberate long. Company E and the 91st U.S. Engineers would have to hack another road through the jungle.

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