Wednesday, May 24, 2006

On the trail of the "Ghost Mountain Battalion"

A forgotten World War 11 trail used by American troops in Papua New Guinea will be the subject of a book and a television documentary in 2006.

This trail – like the Black Cat and Bulldog Trails in Morobe Province – played an equal, if not more significant role, than the Kokoda Trail but has now taken the backseat.

The trail, between Gaba Gaba in the Central Province and Buna in the Oro Province, is a march that military historians have called "one of the cruelest in military history”.
James Campbell (pictured above) is an author currently under contract to write a book of non-fiction set in PNG for Random House/Crown Books.

The book concerns a group of National Guardsmen - the Ghost Mountain Battalion - who fought the Japanese at Buna, PNG, during WW II.

This group made a grueling, 120-mile march from the coast just south of Port Moresby, PNG, through the jungle and lowland swamps, over the Owen Stanley Mountains and back down through the jungle, before reaching the coast at Buna.

It took the men 42 days to cover the 120 miles, and when they reached Buna, they were a shattered unit, ridden with malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, jungle rot, and scrub typhus.

This summer (April/May 2006) author-adventurer Campbell, who chronicled the life of one of Arctic Alaska’s last wilderness families in his award-winning book, The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness (Simon & Schuster/Crown Books), will repeat the epic trek that Sergeant Paul R. Lutjens describes in his journal, a march that military historians have called "one of the cruelest in military history”.

The entire trail has not been hiked since the men of Company E did it in 1942.

Campbell's book about the experience and the ensuing battle - an ordeal that has been largely forgotten by history - tentatively titled The Ghost Mountain Boys: Across New Guinea with WW II’s Heroic 2nd Battalion, will be published by Random House/Crown Books in January 2007.

"One green hell." That’s how the 1st Sergeant Paul R. Lutjens of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment, described his company’s savage journey across New Guinea during WW II.

The 2nd Battalion, of which Company E was part, was assigned the most grueling mission of the entire Southwest Pacific campaign: to march from Papuan Peninsula's south coast to its north coast, a straight-line distance of only 150 miles.

What lay between the men of the 2nd Battalion and the north coast, though, was a no-man’s land of some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth.

The 2nd Battalion began the journey just outside of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Its route north led the men through thick jungle, over the rugged, mist-shrouded Owen Stanley Range and back down through more jungle and lowland swamps with fetid, chest-high water.

It took the men of Company E 42 days to cover the 150 miles, and when they reached the north coast, they were a shattered unit, exhausted and starving, ridden with malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, jungle rot, and scrub typhus.

Nevertheless, General MacArthur sent them directly into battle.
In its struggle to reach Buna, the Ghost Mountain Battalion was assisted by a large group of Papua New Guineans, who served an indispensable role as guides and carriers.

Later, these same men - men from villages all over the Papuan Peninsula (especially from Gaba Gaba and Buna) - served as scouts and litter bearers, carrying wounded American GIs from the battlefield to portable hospitals and to the airstrip at Doboduru for transport to Port Moresby.

The Australians on the Kokoda Trail called these men "fuzzy wuzzy angels”.
The American soldiers referred to them simply as their "saviors”.

“The trail, I think, will draw American tourists to PNG and trekkers in general, especially those who, having done the Kokoda, are searching for another challenge,” Campbell told me.

“I also think that the trail will be great for rural development, doing for the villages along the route what the Kokoda Track has done for Uberi, Efogi, and especially Kokoda.

“I have met with the village councillors of Gaba Gaba and Buna, and talked with them about what this trail could mean to their respective villages, talked with them about organizing capable young men to serve as carriers and guides.

“Both seem very excited about the prospects.

“However, my grand vision for the trail extends far beyond the boundaries of Gaba Gaba and Buna.

“My idea is to allow people to recover from the trials of the trail in the lovely village of Buna and then to encourage them to head south, following the path that led the U.S. Army north.

“A list of other historically significant sites would include Pongani, Oro Bay, Tufi, Wanigela, and Milne Bay.”

In April/May 2006, Campbell and his team will retrace the trek of the Ghost Mountain Battalion.

He will be accompanied by a talented team of documentary filmmakers, which is currently negotiating with the History, Discovery and National Geographic Channels to distribute the film of their journey across PNG.

He will also be doing weekly dispatches from the trail for National Public Radio and is now exploring the possibility of doing daily computer dispatches from the trail, which will be transmitted to schools across the world, bringing the story of the WW II battle for Papua and that of modern day Papua New Guinea to people who know every little about either.

“The story of our trek will also appear in a major international magazine, most likely National Geographic or National Geographic Adventure,” Campbell says.

Campbell will also be setting up an expedition website.

Finally, his agent will be negotiating with a major magazine in which the book will be excerpted prior to publication.

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