There is a roadside monument in my area dedicated to the 32nd US Infantry Division. The monument lists all the campaigns the 32nd fought in WW1 and WW2. The Battle for New Guinea (Buna) is among the honors.
The 32nd ID was a National Guard outfit recruited in Wisconsin and Michigan. Along with 17 other National Guard Divisions the 32nd was activated for federal service in the summer of 1940 as the war in Europe raged on.
Once the US entered the war after Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 it was decided that the US and Great Britain would pursue a “Hitler first” policy which meant the majority of US assets would be routed to Britain for an early cross channel invasion of France.
Japanese ambitions in the South Pacific interfered with the policy and the US had to divert Marine and Army units to the Pacific.
Since two excellent Australian Divisions were fighting in North Africa in 1942 it became necessary for the US to send an army division to help protect Australia from a possible Japanese invasion. The 32nd was selected for the mission and it fell under General Douglas MacArthur’s command who had set up his HQ in Australia after the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese early in 1942.
The Island of New Guinea was under Australian jurisdiction and had a small Australian garrison drawn from militia units. The Japanese eyed New Guinea as a place to invade in order to try and cut off Australia from outside help. Some in the IJA thought it might be possible to actually invade Australia once New Guinea was captured.
Once the Japanese invaded New Guinea it began one of the most brutal campaigns of World War Two. The 32nd ID was sent to New Guinea with the objective of retaking the island along with the Australians who were already engaged there with the Japanese.
Here is an entry from the Ghost Mountain Boys by James Campbell that describes what the Americans and Australians were up against:
In 1942, when the 32nd Division arrived in New Guinea, the island was still terra incognito. It’s 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. (page 73, The Ghost Mountain Boys)
The terms Ghost Mountain Boys refers to an infantry battalion of the 32nd ID. Their initial mission would be to hike over the 10,000 foot Owen Stanley Mountains to protect the Australian right flank in the battle for New Guinea.
The first part of the book documents through letters, diaries and the official records just how difficult that hike was. As the above quote states the island itself was more the enemy than the Japanese.
The 32nd was ill prepared to fight the kind of jungle warfare that would be common in the Pacific in the years to come. More men died or were disabled from a myriad of jungle swamp diseases than would die or be wounded from the Japanese Army.
MacArthur, safely from his HQ in Australia was oblivious to the facts and essentially ordered the 32nd to do the impossible without giving them the necessary support. MacArthur relieved officers who he didn’t think were aggressive enough totally disregarding the obstacles they had to face fighting both nature and the tenacious Japanese who suffered just as much as the allies did from the unforgiving island. It was the men in the ranks who suffered the most from MacArthur’s lack of concern.
Campbell includes excerpts from Japanese letters and diaries that give insight to the fact the Japanese suffered as much as anyone else if not more since their supply situation was even worse than the Americans and Aussies.
The book draws much needed attention to the little known campaign for New Guinea since it began at roughly the same time as the US Marines fought their epic on Guadalcanal. While the American pubic were keenly aware of the Marines fight on Guadalcanal they were largely ignorant of the 32nd’s sacrifice on New Guinea.
My wife’s father was a medic in 1943-44 and served at a rear area hospital in the Australian controlled part of New Guinea. He contracted dengue fever that turned his hair white and affected his nerves for life. He received a disability from the Army but the effects of New Guinea plagued him until his death in 2000. New Guinea was a hell hole even for medics who served in rear area hospitals. Campbell’s book helps us remember the sacrifice of the men who served there.