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Lying due north of Australia, New Guinea is among the world’s largest islands. In 1942, when World War II exploded onto its shores, it was an inhospitable, cursorily mapped, disease-ridden land of dense jungle, towering mountain peaks, deep valleys, and fetid swamps. Coveted by the Japanese for its strategic position, New Guinea became the site of one of the South Pacific’s most savage campaigns. Despite their lack of jungle training, the 32nd Division’s Ghost Mountain Boys were assigned the most grueling mission of the entire Pacific campaign: to march 130 miles over the rugged Owen Stanley Mountains and to protect the right flank of the Australian army as they fought to push the Japanese back to the village of Buna on New Guinea’s north coast.

Comprised of National Guardsmen from Michigan and Wisconsin, reserve officers, and draftees from across the country, the 32nd Division lacked more than training—they were without even the basics necessary for survival. The men were not issued the specialized clothing that later became standard issue for soldiers fighting in the South Pacific; they fought in hastily dyed combat fatigues that bled in the intense humidity and left them with festering sores. They waded through brush and vines without the aid of machetes. They did not have insect repellent. Without waterproof containers, their matches were useless and the quinine and vitamin pills they carried, as well as salt and chlorination tablets, crumbled in their pockets.
Exhausted and pushed to the brink of human endurance, the Ghost Mountain Boys fell victim to malnutrition and disease. Forty-two days after they set out, they arrived two miles south of Buna, nearly shattered by the experience.

Arrival in Buna provided no respite. The 32nd Division was ordered to launch an immediate assault on the Japanese position. After two months of furious—sometimes hand-to-hand—combat, the decimated division finally achieved victory. The ferocity of the struggle for Buna was summed up in Time magazine on December 28, 1942, three weeks before the Japanese army was defeated: “Nowhere in the world today are American soldiers engaged in fighting so desperate, so merciless, so bitter, or so bloody.”

First Sergeant Paul Lutjens of the 2nd Battalion’s E Company admitted, “No matter how much our officers and non-coms talked about combat, we couldn’t help but think they were talking about somebody else.”

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 blast of hot air nearly brought Lutjens to his knees. In the back of the transport truck Lutjens’ 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.”

“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.”

On October 13, the day before Company E set out, Lutjens made a brief entry in his diary: “Been three weeks in New Guinea… I’m afraid it will become much worse than this. We are now starting into the foothills of the Owen Stanley Range… We are going to carry six days’ rations – one pound of rice, one handful of green tea, a little sugar and two cans of bully beef. Plus our field equipment.”

Lutjens described what would become an ordinary day: “We’d start at six in the morning by cooking rice, or trying to. Two guys would work together. If they could start a fire, which was hard because the wood was wet even when you cut deep into the center of a log, they’d mix a little bully beef in a canteen cup with rice, to get the starchy taste out of it. Sometimes we’d take turns blowing on sparks, trying to start a fire, and keep it up for two hours without success. I could hardly describe the country. It would take five or six hours to go a mile, edging along cliff walls, hanging on to vines, up and down, up and down. The men got weaker; guys began to lag back. It would rain from three in the afternoon on, soaking through everything. The rivers we crossed were so swift that if you slipped it was just too bad. It was every man for himself. No one waited for anyone else, unless he was hurt. An officer stayed at the end of the column to keep driving the stragglers. There wasn’t any way of evacuating to the rear. Men with sprained ankles hobbled along… If they hadn’t made it, they’d have died.”

“One day, I swear, I saw gold nuggets in the bottom of a stream,” Lutjens would later recount. `There’s gold nuggets, but what the hell’s gold, you can’t eat it. It must have been a beautiful country, but all you could see was mud and the guy’s feet ahead of you… The only time anybody really commented on anything would be when he fell down, and then he would cuss because it was so hard to drag yourself back up.”

The native carriers, who had been such a great help on the jungle trail, now balked. Lutjens understood their fear. Ghost Mountain, he recalled, “was the eeriest place” he’d ever seen. “The trees were covered with green moss half a foot thick. We would walk along a hog’s back, straddling the trail, with a sheer drop of thousands of feet two feet on either side of us. We kept hearing water running somewhere, but we couldn’t find any. We could thrust a stick six feet down through the spungy stuff… without hitting anything real solid. It was ungodly cold. There wasn’t a sign of life. Not a bird. Not a fly. Not a sound. It was the strangest feeling I ever had. If we stopped, we froze. If we moved, we sweated.

“You can hardly realize how wild and ghostlike this mountain country is. Almost perpetual rain and steam…We have been traveling over an almost impassable trail. Our strength is gone. Most of us have dysentery. Boys are falling out and dropping back with fever. Continuous downpour of rain. It’s hard to cook our rice and tea. Bully beef makes us sick. We seem to climb straight up for hours, then down again. God, will it never end?”
According to Lutjens, by the time Company E reached Jaure, “We were down to a shadow. Our eyes were sunk deep in our heads. We were gaunt as wolves and just as hungry.”

Private Art Edson, who had scouted the coastal route to Gabagaba with Lutjens, took a moment to write his sweetheart.

Dearest Lois,
I take the chance to drop you a line as I may not have the chance again for a long time, as we are no some where in New Guinea… This island is the Hell Hole of the world. I never expected to see natives used for pack horses or dressed like you see in shows, grass skirts and that is all… Have seen quite a few crocodiles and have shot a couple. We shot a snake today, nine feet long. Will write more as soon as possible.
Love Forever,

Lieutenant James Hunt, who had helped Company E build the coastal road, writes of one terrible climb. Exhausted, he lay down and closed his eyes. “When I opened them, “ he writes, “I was surrounded by a small group of native men, who were silently watching me. When I started to move, they helped me to my feet, took my pack and assisted me on the way. I had stopped within a few hundred yards of the top of a hill, and when we reached it one of the men climbed a coconut tree and got a fresh coconut, which their leader opened so I could drink the milk, which was cool and refreshing. They then went with me down to the bottom of the hill to our camp site… I thanked them and gave each one a cigarette, which pleased them greatly. I then lay down on a canvas litter… The afternoon rain started…, but I was so exhausted I just lay there in the rain.”

Herman Bottcher describes the mood at Jaure that had seized everyone, soldiers and carriers alike. It was electric. “The Owen Stanleys were behind us and far in the distance we could see the beautiful green lowlands of the Buna Peninsula. We were overjoyed – particularly the faithful native porters… We made our first comfortable camp, and the natives gathered coconuts, green bananas, squash, taro roots, sugar cane, paws-paws, limes… We had an orgy of eating and they stayed up all night, dancing and beating on the tom-toms… We had accomplished the… march with only about twenty casualties… one man died. From the medical standpoint alone, our officers believed it was one of the most remarkable expeditions ever accomplished…”
Stanley Jastrzembski says, “Everybody had malaria, and everybody was throwing stuff out of their packs. The guys with quinine pills were popping them like gumballs. Things got really bad when guys started getting dysentery, too. Then we all damn near died. I had `jungle guts’ so bad, I could scrape the crap off my legs with a tin ration can. Some guys had to go thirty times a day and all that came out was blood.”

The food and water didn’t help the situation. If there was not a nearby stream or river, men drank from muddy jungle puddles. And often when they reached camp, they were so tired they didn’t bother to cook their rice. “We just soaked it in water to soften it and then ground it up in our mouths like animals. It was hell on our bellies,” says Jastrzembski.

By the time Company E reached Jaure, Company G was already in Laruni. At the dropping grounds, operated by the Wairopi Patrol’s Captain Roger Keast, whose knee was still mending, Company G picked up sweaters and replenished its rations. “God, what a gift the sweaters were, “ says Stan Jastrzembski. “The jungle got so cold at night.”

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