Tuesday, November 07, 2006

James Campbell on the trail of the Ghost Mountain Battalion

A dream came true for American author-adventurer James Campbell when he walked a forgotten World War 11 trail recently.

Campbell and his team, however, consider themselves lucky to come out in one piece and tell the story as the trail covered some of the most-rugged, leech-infested and inhospitable terrain in Papua New Guinea.

People living along the trail have seen little to zilch government services since Independence on September 16th, 1975, and the team was feted liked royalty at every village.

Campbell was accompanied by American writers –adventurers George Houd and Dave Musgrave, Hong Kong-based German photographer Philipp Engelhorn, and four Papua New Guineans from local video production company POM Productions.

Fifty-eight year old American journalist George Houd, from the Chicago Tribune, was a serious casualty with a badly-infected foot but survived to tell the story.

This forgotten WW11 trail - used by American troops in Papua New Guinea - will be the subject of a book and a television documentary set to be released in 2007.

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”.

Campbell is an author currently under contract to write a book of non-fiction set in Papua New Guinea for Random House/Crown Books.

The book concerns a group of National Guardsmen - the Ghost Mountain Battalion - who fought the Japanese at Buna, Papua New Guinea, 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.

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”.

Author-adventurer Campbell repeated 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”, in late June and mid-July this year.

The entire trail had 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 June 2007.

“The film will come out late next spring, May, June,” Campbell tells me.

“I’m doing an article for Outside magazine that will come out next spring also, there’ll be some more radio interviews and TV interviews, and George (Houd) will probably do a piece in the Chicago Tribune on traveling to Papua New Guinea

“So you can see, it’s going to be a big, big deal and we hope that this trail will eventually become popular.

“We hope that it will not only bring Australians who have done the Kokoda Track and want to do something different, but even Americans who are half a world away.

“Maybe they’ll be inspired to come here and do this trail, not only those who are interested in WW11 history but also those who are interested in wilderness, remote places and pristine places.

“I don’t know if it will eventually become another Kokoda Track, however, I’d like to think that it has some kind of potential as a national historic trail, and also bring some attention to some of these forgotten villages.

“You know, they haven’t been visited since Independence, not even their elected representatives have been there.”

Houd, who considers himself a survivor, says: “Since the Australians quit patrolling, no-one goes up there anymore.

“They (villagers) kind of long for the old days when Australian patrol officers would come, and there’d be medical help, there’d be dispensing of justice where complaints could be lodged, but that doesn’t happen anymore.”

Campbell’s team started their trek at Kwikila in the Central Province and ended at Popondetta, from where they went to Buna.

They had to leave out some parts of the original track used during WW11 because of the time factor, however, were able to capture some remarkable footage of the area, including interviews with those who remember WW11, flora and fauna, virgin rainforest and the eerie, mist-covered Ghost Mountain.

“The moss at Ghost Mountain was amazing,” Campbell recalls.

“That was the top of Ghost Mountain, which was 3150 metres.

“Everything was dripping in there; everything was kind of decorated with moss.

“It was dark.

“An eerie place, that’s why they called it Ghost Mountain.”

The experience, however, had made Campbell and his team all the more richer.

“It all made us appreciate what the soldiers accomplished,” he continues.

“Really, for Americans, it’s a forgotten part of WW11 in the South Pacific.

“When they think of WW11 in the Pacific, they think of Guadalcanal, they think of the Philippines, but many people don’t know of those fierce battles fought in New Guinea.

“Papua New Guinea is one of the last great wildernesses of the world, the people are wonderful and took great care of us, and we loved it.

“We didn’t love it at the time, ha, ha, ha; we hated it at the time.

“However, I think everybody feels a sense of satisfaction and a sense of pride.

“Who knows what it will become?”

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