In the spring of 1942, when corregidor fell and i joined the Marines, a glance at a global map would have convinced an impartial observer, were there any left, that our side was losing the war. Indeed, one could have argued persuasively that the Allies had already lost it. Hitler was master of Europe. He ruled an empire larger than the United States, with conquests stretching from the Arctic waters in the north to the Libyan Desert in the south, from the English Channel in the west to within a day's march of the Caspian Sea in the east. It seemed that nothing could stop Erwin Rommel from seizing Cairo and the Suez Canal. Certainly the Americans couldn't. Thus far they had been an ineffectual ally. They had no troops in the field. They couldn't even serve, in their President's phrase, as a valuable “arsenal of democracy.” U.S. merchantmen were being torpedoed nightly in the Atlantic — 1,160 that year — often within view of their Atlantic seaboard. Too few were reaching Murmansk or English ports with tanks or munitions to tip the scales. An imminent linkup between German and Japanese armies, probably in India, appeared to be inevitable.
American eyes were riveted on Europe. Asia and Oceania, on the other hand, mystified them. They mistook Singapore for Shanghai and thought it was a Chinese city. Most of them were unaware that Hawaii is closer to Japan than to the Philippines. Later, men on Iwo Jima would get V-mail from relatives who thought they were fighting in the “South Pacific,” although Iwo, like Lower California, is over seventeen hundred miles north of the equator. To this day, few GIs and Marines have the remotest idea of where they fought. Even Australians, whose very survival was threatened by Hirohito's legions, are baffled by the geography of the Pacific.
Allied commanders had some knowledge of it, however, and they were almost overwhelmed by the task confronting them. They estimated that recapturing lands lost to the foe would take at least ten years. The Rising Sun was blinding. The Japanese empire dwarfed Hitler's. It stretched five thousand miles in every direction and included Formosa; the Philippines; Indochina, Thailand, and Burma; Malaya, Sumatra, Borneo, Java, and the Celebes; the Kuril Islands, the Bonins, Ryukyus, Marianas, Carolines, Palaus, Marshalls, and Gilberts; northern New Guinea; two Alaskan islands; most of inhabited China; and almost all of the Solomons. In less than six months the Nipponese had taken a gigantic leap toward a Pax Japonica, conquering lands which had resisted penetration by the Western powers for over a century. Like the tsunamis, those undersea tidal waves which break with unpredictable force upon distant shores, the Nipponese blitz had swept up a million square miles, almost a seventh of the globe, an area three times as large as the United States and Europe combined.
These were golden days for the conquering soldiers of Dai Nippon. A neutral onlooker writes that they found “lush realms, with snow-white beaches, frond huts, coconut palms and dark-skinned people who wore sarongs, grass skirts and loincloths called lap-laps. … The [Japanese] went fishing in the lagoons or streams, using camouflage nets as seines. They played cards and swam. They climbed palm trees to gather coconuts, and exchanged cigarettes and canned goods for fresh fruit — bananas, papayas and mangoes. Until the shipping lanes were cut off … vessels from Japan brought news, letters, movies, dancers, singers, and packages filled with snacks and other amenities. Particularly welcome were the so-called ‘comfort women,’ prostitutes who volunteered for service in the battle zones to help ease the tensions and improve the morale among the troops.” To the Japanese, Southeast Asia was a treasure house, “the land of everlasting summer.”
Their leaders were dazzled. They had never anticipated such successes. At the time of Pearl Harbor they had expected to lose a quarter of their naval strength in their first offensives. Instead, they had won their new imperial realm at a cost of twenty-five thousand tons of shipping, less than that of the Arizona alone. The largest Nipponese warship to go down had been a destroyer. In Tokyo, Hirohito — who had acquired 150 million new subjects — told his Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal: “The fruits of war are tumbling into our mouth almost too quickly.” His elated generals and admirals had no such misgivings. They knew they had broken the myth of white supremacy. They had surpassed the Allies on every level. Their strategy was superior, their tactics more skillful, their navy and air force larger and more efficient, their infantry better prepared and more experienced. In amphibious operations, as Gavin M. Long has pointed out, “their landings of whole armies on surf beaches were of a magnitude only dreamt of in the West.”
Now they confronted an unimagined, stupendous choice: whether to lunge eastward toward Hawaii or southward into Australia. They tried both. The eastward drive was turned back at Midway. Down Under was another matter. As early as February 1942 an armada of 243 carrier-borne Japanese planes had demolished the Australian port of Darwin. The next Jap step would be to acquire enough island airstrips to throw up an umbrella covering massive landings on the heavily populated southeastern coast of Australia. The Diggers were desperate. Having underestimated the Nipponese before Pearl Harbor, they now swung the other way. To the average Australian, glued to his Philips radio and listening to reports that enemy hordes were coming closer and closer, the Japs looked invincible. MacArthur was in Melbourne because Australian Prime Minister John Curtin had asked FDR for a symbol of U.S. commitment to protect his country. There, and in New Zealand, terrifying posters showed a bestial, snarling Jap soldier hurtling across the sea, the rising sun at his back, and in one hand, a crumpled map of Australia. Across the poster was printed: “The word now is MUST.”
The chances that it could be done seemed slight. Never had a nation been more naked to aggression. Apart from seven Wirraways, training planes resembling Piper Cubs, its defensive air force — Kittyhawks and Gypsy Moths, with fabric-covered wings and wooden propellers that could be started only by spinning them by hand — had been almost annihilated by Zeroes over Malaya. Defending infantry were middle-aged men carrying .303 bolt-action, single-shot rifles, with magazines holding five cartridges, originally issued during the Boer War. Primitive machine guns resembled nineteenth-century Gatling guns, and where the Japanese were expected, there were two old naval six-inch guns and three obsolete three-inch guns.
Except for one brigade of the Sixth Division, crack Anzac troops were still in the Middle East. These veterans of Greece, Crete, and North Africa were frantically boarding transports and would soon be homeward bound, but the Japanese were much closer; the crisis would have to be resolved without them. MacArthur found the Australian government crippled by defeatism. In Melbourne its generals were wedded to what they called “the Brisbane Line,” which would be fixed along the Tropic of Capricorn, actually just above Brisbane. Beyond the line, the great western and northern regions of the continent would be sacrificed. Plans had been drawn up to scorch the earth there — destroying military installations, blowing up power plants, and burning docks. This would have left the Australians with the settled southern and eastern coasts. But MacArthur correctly guessed that the southeast was precisely where the Japanese intended to come ashore. He again threatened to resign his commission unless the concept of the Brisbane Line was scrapped. Prime Minister Curtin yielded, but his people despaired, believing that the last hope of saving their homes had been lost.
Before the invasion, the Nipponese needed to sever Australia's supply lines to the United States and build a staging area. To achieve the first, they were building airfields in the Solomon Islands. The staging area would be New Guinea's Port Moresby, three hundred miles from the Australian coast. The Battle of the Coral Sea — actually fought on the Solomon Sea — had turned back a Jap fleet which had been ordered to capture Moresby by sea. Then the Japs seized a beachhead at Milne Bay, halfway to their objective. MacArthur pored over maps and decided that Moresby would be the key to the campaign. He said: “Australia will be defended in New Guinea,” and: “We must attack! Attack! Attack!”
But where? In the tangled, uncharted equatorial terrain, the two suffering armies could only grope blindly toward each other. Some offshore isles were literally uninhabitable — U.S. engineers sent to survey the Santa Cruz group were virtually wiped out by cerebral malaria — and subsequent battles were fought under fantastic conditions. One island was rocked by earthquakes. Volcanic steam hissed through the rocks of another. On a third, bulldozers vanished in spongy, bottomless swamps. Sometimes the weather was worse than the enemy: at Cape Gloucester sixteen inches of rain fell in a single day. And sea engagements were broken off because neither the Japanese nor the American admirals knew where the bottom was.
The Allies were slow to comprehend the Solomons threat, but by the late spring of 1942 they had brought New Guinea into full focus. The world's second largest island (second to Greenland), New Guinea stretches across the waters north of the Australian continent like a huge, fifteen-hundred-mile-long buzzard. As you face the map, the head is toward the left, southeast of the Philippines. The tail, to the right — at about the same degree of latitude as Guadalcanal in the Solomons — is the Papuan Peninsula. Both armies had come to realize that whoever held this peninsula would command the northern approaches to Australia. In taking Milne Bay the enemy had nipped the tip of the tail. That troubled MacArthur, but didn't alarm him; he could count on the Australians to dislodge them; the threat wasn't immediate. Meanwhile, however, another Jap force had anchored off Buna and Gona, villages on Papua's upper, or northern, side. Their purpose was obscure. Between Buna and Gona on the north and Port Moresby on the south loomed Papua's blunt, razor-backed Owen Stanley Range, the Rockies of the Pacific, rising tier on limestone tier, its caps carrying snow almost to the equator and its lower ridges so densely forested that some spurs resembled paintings by Piero della Francesca. To send an army over these forbidding mountains, upon which more than three hundred inches of rain falls each year, was regarded as absolutely impossible. MacArthur sent two of his ablest officers to Moresby, directing them to study its defenses. They came back full of assurances. The city was surrounded by water and impenetrable rainforest, they said. They omitted one detail. Either because they hadn't seen it or because they regarded it as insignificant, they failed to mention a little track that meandered off into the bush in the general direction of the Owen Stanleys. Soon the world would know that winding path as the Kokoda Trail.
Anyone trying to grasp the nature of the fighting which now lay ahead must first come to grips with its appalling battlefields and the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. The first task is difficult, the second almost impossible. It is a striking fact that you could drop the entire landmass of the earth into the Pacific and still leave a vast sea shroud to roll, in Melville's words, “as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Geographers usually divide Oceania into three parts — Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia — but these terms are confusing and largely irrelevant to the campaigns of World War II. The foci of action in 1942 were New Guinea, the Solomons to the east, and, between them, the Bismarck Archipelago, whose two chief islands, New Britain and New Ireland, resemble the letter J inverted and on its back, with New Britain as the shank and New Ireland as the hook. In the Allied grand strategy, the Pacific would ultimately be divided into two theaters of war. On the left, MacArthur would drive north through New Guinea to the Philippines. Meanwhile Chester Nimitz and his fellow admirals, having stopped the Japs in the Solomons, would lunge across the central Pacific, hopping over a chain of islands: Tarawa, the Marianas, Iwo Jima, to Okinawa. At that point the twin offensives would merge. Okinawa would be the base for an American invasion of the Japanese home islands, with Nimitz commanding the fleet and MacArthur sending the GIs and Marines ashore. None of this, however, was envisaged in that first desperate year of the war. The geography must be mastered first.
Names on maps of the southwest Pacific, where the first battles were fought in 1942, are deceptively familiar, for most of them are those of Western explorers, European statesmen, and their European homelands, such as the Owen Stanleys (for an English voyager of the 1840s); the Shortland Islands (after John Shortland, a sixteenth-century British sailor); Bougainville (for Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a Frenchman after whom the bougainvillea creeper was also named); Finschhafen and the Bismarcks (German); and, more obviously, New Georgia, Hollandia, and New Hanover. New Guinea was christened by a Spaniard, Ortiz de Retes, and Papua — originally “Ilhas de Papuas” — by a Portuguese, Antonio de Abreu. Now and then a native name, like Kapingamarangi, Mangareva, or the Solomon isle of Kolombangara, suggests the primitive force in the greenery, in the dazzling glare of liquid sunshine that conceals a shimmering Senegalese blackness which, in turn, in its very quiddity, gleams with an ultraviolet throb. Conrad, writing of Africa, put it well. It is the heart of darkness, the lividity at the core of the most magnetic light.
In the view of World War II GIs and Marines, most of what they had heard about the South Seas was applesauce. They had expected an exotic world where hustlers like Sadie Thompson seduced missionaries, and Mother Goddam strutted through The Shanghai Gesture, and wild men pranced on Borneo, and Lawrence Tibbett bellowed “On the Road to Mandalay” while sahibs wearing battered topees and stengah-shifters sipped shandies or gin pahits, and lovely native girls dived for pearls wearing fitted sarongs, like Dorothy Lamour. Actually, such paradises existed. They always have. Tahiti, forty-six hundred miles east of New Guinea, is one of them. In 1777 Captain Cook's surgeon's mate wrote of seeing there “great number of Girls … who in Symmetry&proportion might dispute the palm with any women under the Sun.” Another visitor noted the plays enacted by Tahiti's arioi sect, in which “the intimacies between the sexes were carried to great lengths.” These dreamy islands could have been matched elsewhere in 1942. What young Americans in the early 1940s could not understand was that the local cultures, delicate and ephemeral, could not coexist with engines of death and destruction. GIs put down natives as “gooks.” To the Diggers they were “fuzzy-wuzzies.” White men who live among them, or have traveled widely in the islands, call them “indigenes,” or sometimes “blackfellows,” names of simple dignity to which they are surely entitled. It is true that theirs was, and for the most part still is, a Stone Age culture. The first wheel many of them saw was attached to the bottom of an airplane. It is equally true that their simple humanity would prevent them from even contemplating a Pearl Harbor, an Auschwitz, or a Hiroshima, and that their devotion to wounded Australians during the war won them the altered name of “fuzzy-wuzzy angels.”
Before the war, before the great colonial empires began to come unstuck, indigenes were ruled by lordly Europeans who called themselves Residents and lived in enormous Residencies. Some of these buildings survive. In central Java, for example, you can find the ruins of what was once a Dutch Resident's Residency, a huge bungalow on the brow of a hill with a high thatched roof supported by Doric and Corinthian pillars, so as to form a broad veranda. Once the householder answered to the name of “Tuan.” Today, in his abandoned, walled-in, wildly overgrown garden are areca palms, fruit trees, and roses, a blowsy tribute to one man's faith in white supremacy.
It was a mighty force in the floodtide of imperialism. Here, “Out East,” as the British put it, a European who would have been a clerk or a shopkeeper at home could become, because of the color of his skin, an absolute monarch. His native vassals — and he had swarms of them — were each paid four cents a day. He wore a pith helmet and immaculate white ducks, and dined well; in Sumatra's thirty-two-dish rice banquet, each successive dish bore a ball of rice topped by a different delicacy, among them fried bananas, grated coconut, duck, sausages, chicken, and eggs. If he was single, he hired a mistress by the week, and if he was permissive, he allowed her to use his private bidet. His sports were polo, golf, and tennis — in Singapore alone there were six golf courses and two thousand tennis courts. On vacation he could visit “B.N.B.” (British North Borneo), “F.M.S.” (Federated Malay States, also a crown colony), Hanoi's opera house, which was large enough to seat every European who might want to come, or Saigon's famous theater, the most celebrated in the Far East, where a young entertainer named Noel Coward made his dramatic debut in Journey's End, a play which, had his audiences but known it, foreshadowed the end of their way of life. In Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, the French are not, of course, remembered with affection. Neither are the Dutch in the Malay Barrier. During World War II Sukarno was a Japanese puppet, and his seventy million fellow Indonesians thought none the less of him for it.
On the other hand, New Guinea's indigenes have warm recollections of Caucasians and treat them with great respect. In 1942, even before the triumphant Japanese had settled in, one black tribe from the interior crossed two hundred miles of hills and strand forest to join the thin line of Australians defending Moresby. Had the Japs been friendlier, they might have converted some of the Papuans. Instead, like the Nazis in the Ukraine, they alienated potential friends by barbaric policies. Islanders who failed to bow deeply to all Japanese were slapped in the face — a custom in the Nipponese army, but a mortal insult in New Guinea. Moslems' skullcaps were knocked off with rifle butts. Use of the English language, or even pidgin, was forbidden. Blackfellows had to carry ID cards and armbands signifying Nipponese ratings of their degrees of trustworthiness. The Japanese language and Greater East Asia propaganda were compulsory in schools. So ruthless were Hirohito's secret police in pulling out the fingernails of uncooperative natives that their jeering query, “Do you need a manicure?” triggered fear and resentment throughout Papua. The Japanese simply did not understand these people. They thought they could gain face by humiliating their European and American POWs. Nips carried a pamphlet written by one Colonel Masanobu Tsuji which told them: “When you encounter the enemy after landing, think of yourself as an avenger come at last face-to-face with his father's murderer. Here is the man whose death will lighten your heart of its burden of brooding anger. If you fail to destroy him utterly you can never rest in peace.” The consequence of this was a brutal treatment of prisoners beyond any laws of war — the 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai was based upon a real incident — which aroused the compassion of the gentle natives around Port Moresby.
Americans seem to have a special place in native hearts. When the Japs had conquered Manila, General Homma ordered a victory parade, the music to be provided by a local band. An audience of natives was rounded up. The tunes were greeted with scattered applause until the last one, which triggered a standing ovation. Homma, startled, smiled in all directions. He didn't know the Filipino musicians were playing “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
So there are still parts of the black world where the white man is welcome. Nevertheless, anyone who wants to know the lay of the land in the islands needs a key friend, who has other friends, who have friends here and friends there — a cordial net of human relationships which makes all things possible. The first friend is the important one. Finding him in Papua New Guinea is not easy. The inhabitants speak 760 languages, not counting dialects. During my recent visit to Port Moresby a defendant and a string of interpreters had to go through seven languages to enter his plea; the horrified judge, foreseeing what this would mean in a trial, dismissed the prisoner. Often communication can be achieved only in bastardized pidgin. If a blackfellow wants to say “my country,” it will come out “kantri-bilong-mi” (country-belong-me). And he will be right; since 1975 Papua New Guinea has been an independent nation, though economically it is still a colony, with an Australian sitting beside virtually every key official, making recommendations which are almost always accepted.
My first friend of a friend in New Guinea is barrel-chested Sir John Guise, the independent country's first native governor-general, now retired and living in Moresby. He receives me in his modest four-room home of cinder block painted light green. The chairs are plastic; the floor, linoleum; the only appliances in sight are a stereo, a Banks radio, and a floor fan, all powered by batteries. This is the life-style of a man who presided over a nation as large as New England, the Middle Atlantic states, and West Virginia combined, populated by three million Papuans. Unless they are living in old European Residencies, the political leaders in the emerging nations of the southwest Pacific live more frugally than the mayor of a typical American city. Sir John waves me to a chair and takes one himself. He is chewing betel nut, which, if you are unaccustomed to it, is an unsettling experience for the spectator; every time the chewer opens his mouth his gums appear to be hemorrhaging. I first encountered it in India. The effect on the user is much like marijuana's. Under its influence, Sir John looks in my direction with what we in the Marine Corps called a thousand-yard stare; then the stare shortens until his eyes are locked into mine. He speaks of his people and their lands, and his voice is incredibly deep, like thunder rolling down the vault of heaven. His complexion is cordovan, skin rippling over knotted tendon and stretched muscle. The impression is of an immensely powerful paterfamilias; and as word of his visitor spreads through the neighborhood, his home, and then his chair, are in fact surrounded by indigenes, all of whom are related to him.
Our mutual acquaintance has warned me to be neither obsequious nor condescending toward Sir John; either will bring a curt dismissal. But the warning is unnecessary. Empathy is the first gift of a successful interviewer. In the Marine Corps men who picked up the ways of the Orient were said to have gone “Asiatic.” I went Asiatic with the ease of a chameleon shifting from San Diego brown to Guadalcanal green. Similarly, I have an imitative ear. At one time or another I have picked up a dozen accents as quickly as a born linguist picks up languages, and my pidgin is workable, but the thought of 760 languages stuns me. I cannot cope with them. That is one reason why I have come to Sir John.
He understands, and asks how he can help me. I tell him I want to see the old battlefields of Kokoda, the Kumusi, Buna, Gona, Lae, Salamaua, Madang, Aitape, and also Rabaul, the Japanese stronghold which MacArthur bypassed. “Forget Buna and Gona,” he advises me. “There's nothing there now.” The other visits can be arranged, he says. I make my second request, for a night trek in the jungle, to compare it with similar bush I have seen in the Solomons, India, and Indochina. I want to understand what fighting in it was like. He replies that one rainforest is like another. Not so, I counter; the others lacked mountains. He grins and asks, “Do you really think you can climb the Owen Stanleys at your age?” I am startled. The thought that I couldn't had never occurred to me. I say uncertainly, “I stay in shape.” He laughs heartily, and I hollowly. Then he speaks briefly to his flock, starting a chain of events which takes me into deep jungle and exceeds all my expectations but one. The exception, of course, is the one Sir John spotted. I simply cannot make it up the ridges. Burdened with equipment in a creel on my back, drenched with sweat, my thighs afire, I repeatedly take breaks in the heat and watch, mortified, while my guides, and even native women and children, scamper effortlessly to the top. I remember that during the war we all vowed that if we lived through it we would bury our weapons in our backyards, sit in rocking chairs on our porches, watch the rain, and tell the guns, “Rust, you son of a bitch, rust.” And here I am again, ten thousand miles from my rocker, staggering under the weight of other gear. Oh, Lord, how could I have forgotten?
If the trails are wide enough I ride in a rented Land Rover. But I prefer traveling by sea. My companions, who vary in number from two to five, conjure up ancient launches, praus, and, on a memorable overnight trip, an outrigger powered by a square sail overhead. Among my two hosts that day is a pawany, a kind of witch doctor who has given me a feathered juju to ward off evil spirits. In a Walter Mitty mood I remember Frank Buck and “Bring 'em Back Alive.” Actually I could bring back a large zoo if there were some way to capture the species I see in the bush and the savannas of Papua and the Bismarcks, but perhaps it would be wise here to put the fauna in its proper setting, which is quite as spectacular as the creatures it supports.
One begins at the beach, where the light is so silvery that if the sun is overhead you cannot look directly at the sand, and where, at sundown, the deep blue water turns briefly to liquid gold and then to a Homeric wine red. If you are gliding in aboard a native boat, the only offshore sound is the splash of scurrying flying fish arrowing in on their prey. Below our canoe, myriad creatures, easily visible in the lucid water, provide an endlessly changing kaleidoscope: giant turtles, jewellike banded angelfish, translucent jellyfish waving their tentacles, slimy water snakes, minnows clustered like butterflies, squirrelfish, groupers, lionfish, pipefish, lungfish — the liquid spectrum widens and deepens, like the heaven here at night beneath the Southern Cross. Then there are the colors of the underwater rock: amethyst, scarlet, emerald, salmon pink, heliotrope, lilac, all as pale and delicate as those in the wardrobe of an eighteenth-century marchioness. The very air has the sensuous feel of a rich, soft fabric. You sense that you are approaching Eden, or an Eden run amok, a land so incredibly fertile that its first heady scents, as you wade through the restless, lacy surf, have the effect of a hallucinatory drug.
The coconut trees, lithe and graceful, crowd the beach in their ordered rows like a minuet of slender elderly virgins adopting flippant poses, simpering in the zephyr that never quite dies while sunlight, piercing their leaves with the playful malice of a Persian cat, splashes the ground in ever-changing patterns of light. Inland from the endlessly pounding surf, depending on the beach you have chosen, are sago swamps, fronds of shade acacias, flaming yellow cannas, aromatic white calophyllums, and the slender elegance of incredibly tall bamboo forests, or great mango trees, their fruit purplish red or yellow among the massive leaves. (On the northern shores are rubber trees, each with a tap to catch its milky sap, displaying their chevroned bark in cool columns and green silence. In Rabaul, once a name which terrified a million Allied fighting men, one sits in the Kaivanu bar on Mango Avenue and tries to count the hundreds of varieties of sprays of spider orchids and other magnificent herbaceous epiphytes that crowd the shade trees with pink and white frostings of thick blossoms.)
It is like a romantic mirage. Traveling is part of my trade, and I have seen more of the world than most men. Western Europe, which most Americans want to visit, is, I think, a disappointment. I have lived in the Ruhr; it is like Pittsburgh without jaywalkers. My rooms in London were a half-block from George Raft's gambling casino in one direction and, in another direction, a few blocks from Hugh Hefner's local Playboy Club. In Paris I passed an American drugstore on the Champs-Élysées every day. But except for India I know of no land so enchanting as the beaches and lagoons of the South Pacific. Among the mangroves in the lowlands, each trunk sheathed in vines, one hears an endless concert from screaming cockatoos, crowned pigeons booming through the leaves on their whirring wings, and clamoring myna birds. A staggered swarm of fifteen-inch-wide butterflies hangs in the air like a dazzling mobile. In the red hibiscus one glimpses a spectacular bird of paradise, Papua New Guinea's national emblem. Over a nearby stream a kingfisher squats on an overhanging nipa branch, the bird's vivid blue reflected in the water. As you approach, it darts away with a flashing glitter of jeweled wings, and you move on, drawn by the feathered rapids of white water upstream. The rivers of the South Seas are a marvel in themselves. Inland on Guadalcanal's Kokumbona there is a liquid cascade which we called Mydick Falls — christened by Blinker Reid, the point man on one of my patrols, who saw it first and gasped, “My dick!” — but that torrent is dwarfed by the roaring current of Papua's Fly River, navigable for 560 miles, whose volume of water is so great that it could provide hydroelectric power for all Papua and Australia.
Streams, the arteries of commerce, support villages at their mouths, often within sight of the beaches. The typical village has a score of bell-shaped huts on stilts to provide coolness and protection from floods, the thatched roofs rising high, like hives. Approaching one of them, crossing the Yumi River over a shaky bamboo bridge, my companions and I find beached canoes, dugouts, and frail sampans with rattan hoods. Next we hear the squealing of little black pigs and then the sounds of men and women, all of whom, we discover, are wearing lap-lap shorts. The fishermen, their day's catch in, are asleep on woven mats. Other men, and children, are planting taro, pandanus (screw pines), yams, and sago palms, chanting as they do so. Two young women are nourishing baby pigs. Beside a pile of tropical fruit, which resembles a Ghirlandajo picture, a group of older women are busy sorting out huge bunches of bananas, bolts of tapa, kava bowls, and necklaces of shells, beads, bones, dogs' teeth, sharks' teeth, and, incredibly, Pepsi-Cola bottle caps. Other women are working on stalks of the very useful sago palm; the trunk provides flour for cakes and porridge, and the fabric from the huge, branching single flower, twelve feet across, will make bunchy skirts which, dyed in rich, deep colors, are worn for festive occasions.
One of the indigenes, sleeping in the feathery shade of acacias, stirs, yawns, and approaches his visitors. Evidently he is the headman, or “big man.” He is a tall, striking figure, his wiry hair dyed with lime, his satin skin the color of coffee, a string of red berries at his throat, and, behind one ear, a flower like a tongue of crimson flame. Alas, there is no way to communicate with him. The visitors cannot speak his tongue, and he has no pidgin. One would like to ask why anyone bothers to work at all here. This is the ultimate dolce far niente existence. There is no need for clothing or shelter; the breeze from the water is perpetually steady; and an exotic diet is always within reaching distance. Apart from the yams, pandanus, and sagos, there are fruit and paste from the spreading green bread-fruit trees, coconuts, dried green bananas, sugarcane, arrowroot, dried skipjack (tuna), dried akule (reef fish), and assorted nuts and gourds.
Of course, the Papuans do not think of themselves as blessed. People never do. Everyone wants something that others have. Rousseau's “noble savage” craves the comforts and appliances of Western technology. Beginning in 1942, Moresby natives have seen what they, with their belief in sorcery, can only interpret as magic rituals. They have observed white men open refrigerator doors and remove delightful containers. So they build imitation refrigerators of wood, paint them white, and peek inside from time to time, looking for snacks and tinned beer. It doesn't work? Never mind; they remember Australians or Americans ordering them to fetch a batch of papers quickly: “Hurry up, chop-chop, me kickee ass bilong you.” Then the white man would riffle through the papers, pick up a tube, and say a few words. As a result, a plane soon landed bearing marvelous freight. The native is no dummy. He can imitate any rite. He puts together a facsimile of a telephone with tin cans and string. He shuffles papers and speaks into the can; then he searches the sky, predicting, “Moni i kam baimbai” (“Money he come by and by”). But the moni doesn't kam, and neither does the plane. So he tries to perfect his ceremonies, building more replicas of refrigerators and phones, convinced that sooner or later he will get it right. Frustrated, a New Hanover tribe formed a “Lyndon B. Johnson cult” in the 1960s. Even in New Guinea people knew that nobody was more effective with gadgets and telephones than Lyndon Johnson. They adopted a motto, “Yumi Lakim Johnson” (“We Like Johnson”). They wanted the President to become their “numbawan bikpela long kantri” — “number one big fellow of the country,” meaning chieftain of their own country. Somehow they amassed sixteen hundred dollars for a one-way ticket from Washington to Moresby and sent the ticket to the White House. Johnson didn't arrive. “Basman ino kam” (“Bossman he no come”), their leader regretfully told them. It seems a pity. LBJ would have made a marvelous king of the blackfellows, and he would have enjoyed the job immensely. There would have been no antiwar demonstrations, no prickly congressmen, no Bobby Kennedy. And like every other foreigner to visit the narrow shelves of land along the beaches of the South Seas, he would have been enchanted by the closest thing to paradise on earth. Even pidgin, once it has been mastered, can be a source of constant delight. The Lord's Prayer begins: “Papa bilong yumi Istap Antap” (“Father on top belong you and me”). Apollo 14 was “tupela igo daun wokabout long mun” (“two fellow he go down walk along moon”). A woman's vagina is “bokis ilong missus” (“box belongs to girl”). Johnson would have loved that, too.
Why, then, does the mere mention of the southwest Pacific cause the men who fought there to shudder? Why does so genteel an author as Herman Wouk, whipped into a white-lipped rage at the mere thought of Guadalcanal, write that it “was and remains ‘that fucking island’”? Why was combat there considered — correctly — worse than Stalingrad? These days Peace Corps volunteers on the islands, believing they are dwelling in an idyll, are baffled by the area's reputation. Over and over they ask me for an explanation. But my words are inadequate. Plainly they are unconvinced. Therefore I tell them to do what I did in my Papuan explorations: “Move a thousand yards inland. Just be sure you take a compass and leave a Hansel-and-Gretel trail behind you. If you don't you will die.”
That is literally true. Indeed, the distance may be, not a thousand yards, but fifty feet. You lose all sense of direction, and the chances of a successful return are virtually nonexistent. In the 1960s an airliner crashed in Puerto Rico's celebrated rainforest, which was used to film the Tarzan movies. It took three years for search planes to find the wreckage. If the jungle has seduced you into entering it — and it is seductive — you are so bewildered by the masses of green enfolding you that you are, in effect, blinded. During the war infantrymen sat between the buttresses of banyan roots and watched Japanese patrols passing within eight feet. Unless Japs stumbled over them, they were quite safe. The jungle was helpful then, but there is little else to be said for it. Having lived in it, I can understand why Papuans believe in witchcraft and seek to ward off evil spirits by wearing enormous headgear with bird of paradise feathers, or tattoos, or tusks in their pierced noses, or by plastering themselves from head to toe in gray mud, or by painting their faces in red and blue stripes with dyes extracted from New Guinea shrubs. One will do most anything to put a hex on the jungle. And the Papuans, of course, have lived in it all their lives. One of their valued wartime skills was the gift of telling, from the snap of a twig, whether an intruder was an animal or a Jap. Australians swore, and still swear, that the natives are born with this sixth sense. At all events, they had it in 1942 and the Allied soldiers didn't.
Leaving a Grimm brothers' spoor in our wake, blazing a trail, so to speak, for the time when we shall retrace our steps, my two companions and I plunge into the wild verdure and presently find ourselves in a green fastness. I am struggling through festoons of vines and the bramble hooks of creepers which reach as high as my bush jacket and ensnarl me, again and again, while I wade between soaring kanari trees overgrown with vines and moss. The sunlight can barely filter through the foliage to the rotting leaves and mud beneath my boots. The luxuriant, entangled undergrowth is both pestilential and sinister. The Yumi is somewhere near — I can hear echoes of its rapids, but cannot guess where they are coming from. As we blunder onward, one of the indigenes steers me away from the quicksands of a herbaceous swamp. The heat is unbelievable. Rain falls briefly, only making the air steamier. As the sun reappears you have the impression of being in a hothouse, sultry, humid, breathless, and seething. You have the feeling that everything around you is growing rapidly, with a savage violence.
This is virgin jungle, the climax forest, the primeval slime. In the time of Tacitus all Germany was covered by a vast Hercynian forest, so dense that a man could walk from Poland to the Rhine without once glimpsing the sun, but wooded Germany at least had a net of trails. There are few here, and if unattended they are quickly reclaimed by the relentless foliage. In Papua the pathless green masses stretch in all directions among the mangroves, nipas, and kanaris. We progress slowly through the buttressed grandeur of the trees, cross a little glade of scrub and sharp kunai grass — less humid here, but the sun is brutal — and take a break in the shade of a bamboo marsh, where shoots rise in their slender elegance to great heights, and the green filtered light speckles the riotous growth. Then, having caught my breath, I become conscious of the rainforest's endless noise.
There is the inevitable myna bird, of course, making a terrific commotion. Next comes the harsh chatter of the insects, kept out of reach by our smelly Cutter ointment but buzzing and snapping just the same. In nearby treetops I hear the twittering of sunbirds delicately coquetting with the parasitic flowers that grow upon the boughs of the kanaris. Cicadas are singing their grating song. Bullfrogs croak. The chik-chak gives its harsh; penetrating, and chillingly human cry. Finally the chorus is led by the shriek of a fever-bird, rising like an endless oriental melody to which one listens with growing exasperation.
We hoist our packs and tunnel onward under the breathless flush of the late afternoon. By now my bush jacket is drenched, my vision obscured by my own sweat. The stench of rotting vegetation is nauseating. Progress is slow; the effort it exacts is exhausting. Again and again I pass gigantic trees swathed in luxurious ferns and lichen like bridal veils cascading down, and echoing, wind-haunted ravines, and wet green ridges, and treacherous morasses. The jungle is mysterious, trembling. I become obsessed with the illusion that some evil animal is six feet to my left, crashing as I crash, awaiting his chance to pounce. Since one of my guides would have heard any creature there, my fear is probably groundless, but it is not entirely unreasonable. Stealthy cannibals still flourish in Papua. And New Guinea's animal life would give the bravest man pause. Hideous crabs scuttle underfoot. Reptiles are coiled around tree limbs. And somewhere in this green hell lurk scorpions, bats, baboons, spiny anteaters, ratlike bandicoots, cassowaries, wild boars, and crocodiles: an awesome menagerie which seems to justify the irrational conviction that a menacing beast is close, and coming closer. This is the kind of jungle I learned to fear and hate in my youth, a soggy miasma of disease-bearing insects, snakes, precipitous slopes, mire, swamps, heat, humidity, landslides of falling rock, and rushing rivers to cross, rivers whose creatures include bloodsucking leeches with circles of tiny teeth, like lampreys, who feast on your anus and your genitals. There is horror everywhere, everywhere, and angst.
And thirst. Above all, thirst. Ordinarily it is odors that are most evocative of the past, but here, with me, it is a raging obsession with water. We always left on patrol with two full canteens hanging from our web belts. During breaks, when you could have gulped down a quart, you had to limit yourself to two sips. That was called “water discipline.” I didn't forget it in planning this return to the Pacific. Abercrombie and Fitch having chosen this extremely inconvenient time to go out of business, I assembled my equipment at Hunting World and L. L. Bean, and I included canteens. But a man in a rainforest, unable to collect more than a few drops during cloudbursts, can never fully slake his thirst. So now I beg my two guides to lead me to “wara,” and after a heroic surge through a prickly thicket of ferns, we approach the banks of the Yumi.
Already I am swallowing dryly, anticipating relief; if I try to speak, I think, I will bark. But first I must master a little piece of tricky footwork. Sharp rocks stand between me and the rapids. One misstep, one misplaced grasp, could mean a slide down to oblivion on the land side, or into the torrent on the other. Helped by one Papuan in front and one behind, I make it, drop prone, and plunge my face into a turbulent eddy, drinking and cooling my face at the same time. I feel foolish until I see that my blackfellows are doing the same. Then I loll wearily against a sheet of stone, gasping and enjoying my first real view since entering the forest. The creek is pleasant, restless, rippling. In the distance I can see what was obscured in the bush, a blue outline of the mountains, lying range upon range, as far as the eye can see. Our rest here, as vitality once more surges through me, is enhanced by a diversion. One of the Papuans chuckles and points. On the far bank, in a patch of muck, a drove of Leaping Lennies has assembled to entertain us. These bizarre creatures, resembling pancakes with big eyes, are the color of the muck they live in. They scuttle about, gamboling on their flappers like an unorchestrated parody of Busby Berkeley choreography. There is just one problem. The comic relief leaves a bitter afterthought. You turn away with the queer feeling that the mud itself has come alive, and that eerie impression lingers and lingers.
Overhead three puffs of cloud grow, merge, and darken. Huge drops of rain begin to pelt us. Scarcely dry from our perspiration, we are soaked as, at my urging, we continue upstream. The water, which until now has been throwing back a thousand flickering reflections of sunlight, is gray, turbid, rocketing over its stony bed with tremendous force. Dusk is almost upon us. Soon we must camp. But our progress is interrupted by the lead guide, who holds up a warning hand. Around the bend an enormous kanari tree is swaying. Its roots having been undercut by the current, it is held tipsily erect by a weakening cradle of creepers. Approaching it at this point is out of the question, so we watch for an hour, riveted, until the creepers give way and the massive trunk crashes through puny bush and scrub and hits the Yumi with a booming roar, forming a shallow dam. Behind it the water builds and builds, and, in minutes, flows over the bole. The indigenes take a deep, hissing breath, then laugh. I don't laugh. At Cape Gloucester we lost a hundred Marines to huge falling kanaris. I wondered then, and still wonder, how this was phrased in Marine Corps records. “Killed in action” was an honorable end, meaning that a Marine had died for something, but how do you officially describe the end of a man who died because a tree fell on him?
On the bank about a hundred yards upstream, among nipa palms, mangroves, and sagos like huge bunches of ostrich feathers, we find a shelf of moss and break out our packs. My gear includes a waterproof sleeping bag, and after bolting down a prepared meal of curried rice — cold, but vastly preferable to C rations — I change clothes under the shelter of a beetling rock. The blackfellows don't mind the wet. Sogginess is a norm for them. Darkness falls swiftly in the tropics; I am still squirming in my bag, beneath jury-rigged mosquito netting, searching with my haunches for hip holes in the lichen, when we are abruptly plunged into total night. I cannot even find my pipe, but I am too tired for that anyway. In my weariness I expect to drift off quickly, but the day has brought back too many bad memories, each to be sorted out, rewrapped, and tucked back in its sheaf of sorrow and rationalization. And then, just as I am beginning to doze, the moon appears and the jungle's night shift starts to waken. At first the only sound was the quick water of the serpentine river below and the dripping rain among the trees overhead. Otherwise I lay in the silence of centuries, undisturbed even by a breeze in the cassias. Now the rain stops. The sky clears. I spot the Southern Cross and a three-quarter moon tracing its broad path on the river. A tree is delicately silhouetted against the sky. The air is fragrant with the scents of flowers on boughs, and fireflies, sparkling dimly, dart here and there in their silvery flight.
Suddenly my whole body is whipped taut in a single spasm: nearby some marsupial, probably seized by a snake, shrieks in panic. The shriek is succeeded by the loud singing of a bird, mellifluous and rich, and for an instant, with a catch at the heart, I think of a New England thrush. Moments later a humming grows around me: cicadas and mosquitoes are testing my netting. In the lunar light a huge cockroach stalks leisurely among them. Unalarmed, they continue trying to home in on me, pitiless and menacing, their cumulative drone having the effect of a note drawn out on a distant organ. Above them, night birds pass with a whirring of wings. One of them settles on a nearby branch. It is again a fever-bird, and from its perch it starts its solo, first blaring three notes in a descending chromatic scale, then four, then five. The varying notes of the scale succeed one another with infuriating persistence. Against my will I feel I must count them, and because I have no way of knowing how many there will be, listening becomes an ordeal, filing my nerves. Then, running under this psychic agony, there is a growing awareness of something hotly passionate in the jungle, a sense that the whole rainforest is watching me, that just a few yards away in the lush wilderness a macabre war is being waged, and that I, defenseless, will be the winners' prize. Suddenly I recall my Virginia nanny threatening me with the bogeyman — “the yamayama man” — in a Victorian music-hall song:
If you don't watch out, he'll catch you without a doubt,
If he can!
Maybe he's hiding under that chair, ready to pounce on you anywhere; Oh, run to your mama, here comes the yama-yama man!
The child within us never vanishes. And neither does man's atavistic fear of the dark. Buried in our memory banks, too deep to reach by reason, lies the conviction that hideous, hairy specters, black robed and carrying bloody scythes, lurk beneath treetops, writhing in the night, waiting for the dark of the moon, when they will pounce, and shred with their jagged teeth, and devour. And this barbaric apprehension grips me here, in peacetime, in the company of friendly Papuans. In battle, darkness can strip men of their sanity. With a start I remember that it was on just such a night as this that Sergeant Major Michael J. Powers, USMC, lost his mind.
Periodically our skipper, Captain “Buck” Rogers — an Englishman whose parents had been tortured to death by Japs in Hong Kong, and who bore an astonishing resemblance to the comedian Terry-Thomas — would break out the company, and, while we stood at rigid attention in the compound, would read us the findings of certain courts-martial arising from sexual indiscretions in the U.S. Navy, of which, of course, the Marine Corps is a part. Typically he would inform us that, “in violation of Specification Seventeen, Chapter Two, Naval Courts and Boards, one John Smith, boatswain's mate first class, U.S. Navy, did indecently, lewdly, and lasciviously convey to one William Jones, a private, U.S. Marine Corps, an indecent, lewd, and lascivious proposal, as a result of which the said John Smith did take the penis of the said William Jones in his, the said John Smith's, mouth.”
At about this time a balloon would appear over our heads, inside of which a saw was being thrust through a log of wood, with the caption “Zzz.” We knew nothing about said John Smith and said William Jones or any of the others whose shame was described to us in those formations. Their felonies would have been committed somewhere far away, perhaps on the North Atlantic or in the United States. It didn't matter where; the findings had to be proclaimed in ringing tones to every navy man around the world, and the offenders packed off to Portsmouth Naval Prison. The punishments were staggering: the usual sentence was eighty-five years in prison. As unsubtly as possible, we were being warned that no matter how horny we got, we couldn't go down on each other. It mystified us. Youth is more sophisticated today, but in our innocence we knew almost nothing about homosexuality. We had never heard of lesbians, and while we were aware that male homosexuals existed — they were regarded as degenerates and called “sex perverts,” or simply “perverts” — most of us had never, to our knowledge, encountered one. (The battalion surgeon, a urologist in civilian life, did nothing to enlighten us. He was a strange man. He worked constantly on his memoirs, to be called Troubled Waters.) There were stories about students hitchhiking home from campus and being picked up by men who, once the car was again under way, would try to stroke their thighs. But these accounts were usually second- or thirdhand hearsay. There was so much excitement (and apocrypha) about heterosexuality that we seldom gave its inversion a second thought. Had we been told that practitioners of oral sodomy wanted to live together openly, with the approval of society, and insisted on being called “gay,” we would have guffawed. That just wasn't one of the rights we were fighting to protect. We weren't exactly prejudiced. It was, literally, mindlessness. We hadn't thought about it. That didn't make it unique. We weren't fighting for the emancipation of housewives, either, or for the right of blacks, who performed menial, if safe, tasks far behind the lines, to bleed alongside us. Like most soldiers in most wars, we were fighting for the status quo ante bellum. And like the others we were doomed to disappointment.
On one point we were clear: perverts were limp-wristed, effeminate, and, when they could get away with it, transvestites. Before we sailed for Guadalcanal, when we were billeted stateside in Linda Vista, California, we were solemnly told that all queers in California wore red neckties and hung out at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, a myth we all accepted. Finally — and there were no exceptions — they always lisped. Therefore the other NCOs and I laughed when our sergeant major told us, in a drunken moment (and an unusual one, because liquor was generally reserved for officers; enlisted men, including sergeants, got beer), that he had slept with men. Mike Powers was in the regular Marine Corps, a professional soldier; he had served in Nicaragua, Haiti, and on Gibraltar. It was at Gibraltar that he had, by his soused account, violated Chapter Two's Specification Seventeen almost nightly. His lovers had been civilians, he said, some of them distinguished European civilians. When he retired from the Corps he was going to write a book about his affairs with them. Like the battalion surgeon he had a working title. It was Famous Cocks I Have Sucked.
We didn't take him seriously, partly because in the Marine Corps there was a constant rivalry to see who could be the coarsest. His behavior was in many ways regrettable, but always in macho ways which, we thought, were the exact opposite of homosexuality. Six feet two, blond and virile, he was heavily muscled and deep-voiced. As a soldier he seemed to have just one flaw. He seemed to suffer from a sense of unreality, as did so many regulars of the Old Corps. Otherwise he was a poster of a Marine. His strength was extraordinary. He could juggle a twenty-pound Browning automatic rifle (BAR), tossing it from hand to hand as though it were a drum-majorette's baton. He laughed easily, drank gallons of beer, told entertaining (if unbelievable) stories about his coal-mining family in Kentucky's Harlan County, and was very tough on the men. He was a great one for corporal punishment. If he disliked a private, he would bloody his nose, and sometimes knock him out, with his huge fist. He had a sadistic streak, too. He would take a man down to the beach and order him to fieldstrip his Mi, bury the parts in the sand, then reassemble them — whereupon Mike would put him under arrest for having a dirty rifle. Another of Mike's tricks was to break out a platoon and order one rifleman to climb a tree and toss down the apples. But the tree was a Samoa palm; it had no apples. So Mike would tell the rest of the platoon to help the poor guy up there by throwing stones to dislodge the apples — in other words, to stone their buddy.
A grizzled gunnery sergeant in the Twenty-second Marines told us that our sergeant major had been a Parris Island drill instructor in the early 1930s and had been busted for ordering his platoon to masturbate by the numbers (hut! two! three! four!). So he was peculiar, but hardly depraved. He seemed to be a born leader. Thomas Aquinas once raised the issue of choosing between a proud man and a pusillanimous one. Take the proud one every time, he advised, because you will be sure that he will at least do something. Powers certainly did things. He seethed with energy. On a long march he would dart from the head of the battalion to the tail and back, running easily while the rest of us could hardly trudge slowly under the weight of our packs and equipment, rumbling threats at the weary and later putting them on report. The most dreaded sentence was “P and P” — “Piss and Punk”; that is, bread and water. Those who got it were sealed in a one-man privy for seventy-two hours. Quite apart from the diet, such confinement in the equatorial heat was both cruel and unusual, but when Mike recommended it, Lieutenant Colonel Krank, the battalion commander, always saw to it that it was imposed.
Some of us correctly guessed that Mike had a hold on Krank. Later, on Okinawa, we learned what it was. The colonel was an alcoholic, and Mike had a friend in a port battalion up at the Point Cruz dock who provided him with whiskey by the case. On Okinawa our supply dump took a direct hit from enemy artillery. The colonel had to fight the rest of the battle sober. It was hard on him, and he saw to it that it was hard on us, too, though no worse than under Mike at his worst. Afterward, wiser to the ways of deviates, I marveled that we hadn't taken Mike at his boozy word. We should have known by experience that all mesomorphs didn't prefer women. The most spectacular example was a colonel who had been one of the great heroes of Guadalcanal. This exemplar of heroism was caught flagrante delicto, his penis rammed to the hilt in the anus of a corporal. Because of his fame (and perhaps his rank) he was spared imprisonment. He was allowed to resign and, the last I heard of him, was a major general in Chiang Kai-shek's army. Maybe that was worse than Portsmouth.
Mike's departure from the battalion had nothing to do with his sex life, unless you believe that all sodomites are cowards, a bit of apocrypha which is discredited by, among other evidence, the colonel's decorations. Our strutting, bullying, powerfully built sergeant major just couldn't stand the strain of concentrated enemy shellfire. He could take small-arms fire, and once he demolished a Nambu light-machine-gun nest with a grenade. But artillery turned his bowels to water. Here, up to a point, he had my sympathy. There is a certain fairness — if anything in battle can be fair — in one rifleman fighting another. Each has a chance, and can improve his luck with skill and suppression of natural fear. But there is something grotesque and outrageous about a man safely behind fortifications, miles away, pulling a lanyard and killing other men who cannot see him, let alone reach him. Most artillerymen are at least vulnerable to counterbattery fire. Even “Pistol Pete,” as we called the big Jap cannon on Guadalcanal, had been reached by the 105-millimeter howitzers of the Eleventh Marines. But as the war progressed, the number of enemy fieldpieces multiplied.
The climax approached when we moved on Dakeshi. Our problem there was complicated by the preoccupation of our gunners with their own ideas about how their huge weapons should be used. One of them bragged to me that they had mastered TOT — time-on-target — fire. Each morning at dawn they hit eighty-two road junctions behind enemy lines simultaneously. I asked why. “Well,” he said, “at least we take out eighty-two Jap MPs every day.” But what needed taking out were those big Nip guns. Our guys eventually did it, but meanwhile we were being pounded around the clock, especially after dark, the enemy theory being that men deprived of sleep are sluggish fighters.
During one of the worst nights I was dug in behind a natural parapet, a long, yard-high ridge of earth, in so deep a hole that my greatest worry was of being buried alive. Barney was on one side of me and Rip Thorpe on the other. Behind us, to our rear, was a large field of mud. For once I welcomed rain. That field's slimy porridge absorbed a lot of the shell bursts. Dry ground would have been worse, and exposed rock the worst of all, because a projectile landing on rock shatters it into splinters which are as lethal as shrapnel. It wasn't really heavy stuff that night; their batteries were firing the Kyunana Shiki Kyokusha Hokeiho, or “97 model high-angle infantry gun.” It actually could fire our 81-millimeter mortar shells. In fact, we were told, during a daring shore-to-shore raid behind our lines three days earlier, the Nips had stolen crates of our shells from the Eleventh Marines supply dump. And so, infuriatingly, we concluded that we were being punished by our own ammo. Despite the fact that we had been hit by much bigger slugs, this barrage was ghastly because it never stopped. Incoming mail warbled overhead almost without pause, and the concentration was so accurate that I had to dig myself out seven times. I kept calling to Barney and Rip, passing the word for every man to sound off so his buddies could hear him. There wasn't much I could do for a casualty, but a corpsman had given me sulfa powder, morphine syringes, and dressings. I couldn't expect him to move up in this. Besides, the battalion aid station was taking a beating, too.
At 2:00 A.M. by my watch the firing stopped, like great tolling bells that are suddenly silenced. That was predictable. The Japs were giving us a respite, not out of pity, but in the hope that we would emerge, move around, and empty our bowels and bladders outside our foxholes. Then their next fusillade would catch us in the open. The Germans had introduced that tactic in World War I, and it was typical of our racism that we believed the Germans were responsible for this piece of professionalism, too. Just as Mac-Arthur thought the planes that attacked him on the first day of the war were piloted by Nazis, so were we convinced that Nazi artillerymen were commanding the Jap batteries. Anyway, we weren't deceived by the lifting of barrages. We shored up the walls of our holes, lit cigarettes, and muttered words of encouragement to each other. It was during this lull that we realized something was wrong to our right. A hysterical voice, like the sound of flawed chalk on a blackboard, sang out: “Halt! Who goes there, friend or foe?” Rip whispered, “Jesus, are we being infiltrated?” But that was impossible. The Japs had been shelling the fields in front of us, too. And just then a flare blossomed overhead. I peered over my little parapet. I had a good field of fire, and nothing stirred there.
Then the voice was raised again. It had dropped a register and sounded like Mike's, though that seemed impossible. The voice cried again, “Who goes there?” One of my wags — I think it was Bubba — answered, “Benedict Arnold.” Nervous laughter rippled along the line. Next the shrill voice said tremulously, but with rising volume, “Knock off beating the bishop, guys; get ready to charge.” That was followed by a giggle which turned into a gale of laughter. This was trouble. I had seen combat fatigue, and recognized the signs, but couldn't believe they were coming from an Old Corps sergeant major. And I couldn't think what to do. I decided to do nothing. I wasn't going to risk my life, certainly not when the rationale for it appeared extremely dubious. But moments later I realized that I had to act. Muttering voices came from my right, and Barney, after listening to a mumble from the man on his other side, told me: “Fix bayonets. Powers is going to attack. Pass the word.” Rip said, “Powers is snapping in for a survey” — “survey,” in this context, being the Marine Corps equivalent of an army “Section Eight”: a discharge on grounds of insanity.
I was in a fix. In this sector I was next senior to Powers, but the gap between a buck sergeant and a sergeant major is roughly comparable to that between a platoon leader and a lieutenant colonel, and I was notoriously insubordinate. Yet this was an illegal order if there ever was one. Only an officer could make such a decision, and there were no officers on our starboard flank. That's why Mike was there, the seasoned NCO capable of dealing with any replacements who panicked. No one had foreseen that Powers himself might panic. Nevertheless, that was the only explanation, and when I heard another babble of shrill giggling coming from him, I knew I had to take over, meanwhile reaching somebody with enough rank to end this madness. I told Rip: “Pass the word, but add that I'm countermanding the order.” Then I told Barney: “Pass the word. We're not going to attack.” The two muttered messages went off, the first to port and the second to starboard, diminishing as they moved away and picking up volume as the replies came back. Barney's arrived first. He said tersely, “Powers says you're yellow and you're to put yourself under arrest.” Then Rip picked up the word coming from the other direction: “Mister Murphy says to relieve Powers and get him back to battalion.” That solved one problem and raised another. It meant moving a six-foot-two, 230-pound six-striper when the Japs were going to lay another volley on us any minute. I crouched there behind the parapet, trying to think. Barney asked, “What are you going to do?” I said, “Nothing until after the next delivery.”
And here it came, rumbling overhead and sounding like the old Superchief, dropping in the mud and detonating with a great roar, spattering everyone from the mortarmen to us with muck. The next one fell short. They had us bracketed again, and after that the shit hit the fan, with screams from the wounded which could scarcely be heard under exploding shells, with men praying at the top of their voices, presumably in the hope that God could hear them if they were loud enough, with Rip and Barney and me checking with each other after each close burst, and they then checking those on the sides away from me. Briefly I forgot Powers. The only life I wanted to save was my own. When I did remember him, I savagely hoped that he'd gone off on his crazy charge alone. Maybe it would work. Maybe a hundred thousand Japs would lay down their arms at the sight of him and he'd win the war single-handed. The President of the United States would personally award him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Yowzah.
Then the barrage died again and I could hear him. He was sobbing now. I priggishly disapproved; a Marine is supposed to cry inside; he can be afraid but can't bring shame upon himself by showing his fear. The fact is that I wanted to weep myself, and I wondered whether I could ignore the word from Murphy and let things drift. But Murphy hadn't forgotten me; word again came down, repeating his order, and then a green flare burst overhead, lighting my path to Mike. No excuse now. I wiggled out of my hole and scooted along our line till I got to him. He was spread-eagled on the ground outside his foxhole, shaking uncontrollably, first shrieking as I once heard a horse shriek, then blubbering and uttering incomprehensible elementary animal sounds. Next to him was a three-man hole: kids; boots just off the boat. “What's the matter?” one of them asked anxiously. I said, “You people give me a hand.” I told each which arm or leg to hold. I said, “We're going to put him away.”
It was a slippery, confused trip through the muck. Twice we got lost; the blooming flares, which were signals to the howitzers, saved us each time. Powers bawled on, a broken, maundering hulk of a man. Just as the Jap gunners started working us over again, we rounded a little mound of earth and stumbled into the dimple on the reverse slope which served as the battalion aid station. A Coleman lantern gleamed faintly. It was like a grotesque scene from a Durrenmatt play: bodies, severed limbs, and gouts of blood every where. The noise of our loudmouthed sobber attracted the attention of the battalion surgeon, who came over, wiping his bloody hands on his bloody apron. He stared, incredulous. I doubt that he had ever seen waters more troubled than the sergeant major's tears. He asked, “That's Mike Powers?” I said, “It was.” He said, “I thought you'd crack before he did.” I said, “So did I” Then a gentle, shy corpsman named Bobby Winkler came over, a sloe-eyed, fawnlike youth with the longest lashes I have ever seen on a boy. He stooped over the sergeant major, stroked his forehead, and said soothingly, “There, there.” Powers whimpered. I felt sorry for him, the prick. His mewling died away. Winkler said to us, “I'll take care of him.” I said to my three replacements, “Let's take off.” We made it back to our holes just as the new deliveries began to soar in.
I never saw Powers again, but I know what happened to him. Long afterward I was bedridden in San Diego's Balboa Park Naval Hospital. Every morning a doctor and two nurses made their rounds accompanied by a wheeled cart we called the “agony wagon” because the doctor took various glittering steel instruments from it to probe your wounds. Mercifully, the reading of official proclamations — when we were supposed to “lie at attention” — immediately followed doctors' rounds, the tedious ritual thus coming while we were too distracted by pain to care. Usually I could tune it out entirely, but one day, through a red haze of suffering, I heard the officer of the day declare that one Michael J. Powers, a sergeant major in the Marine Corps, had been sentenced to eighty-five years in Portsmouth Naval Prison for indecently, lewdly, and lasciviously taking into his mouth the penis of one Robert F. Winkler, medical corpsman second class. Winkler was also sentenced, but I cannot remember his term. So that, I thought bitterly, is how Powers had repaid him. The stories Mike had told us while plastered had been true. He really had been a sodomite at Gibraltar. Now he would have plenty of time to write that book. I wondered whether he would include Winkler in it.
In a many-colored vision of splendor, the waters of the Yumi gleam with the rays of sunrise. “Tulait [dawn]!” cries one of the blackfellows, greeting it, and though I try to roll over for another forty winks I am jolted into a sitting position by the hammering of a woodpecker and its sardonic laugh as it darts from tree to tree, mocking my sluggishness. We break camp quickly and return to the village, our boat, the sea, and Port Moresby. After a day's rest I am ready to tackle this end of the slimy, zigzagging, seventy-eight-mile-long Kokoda Trail. As I wait for my Avis Land Rover a betel-nut-chewing Papuan, striking up a conversation, tells me, “Mipela Niugini i laik kisim planti ren” (“We New Guineans like to get a lot of rain”). I tell him, “Gut,” and it is in fact a good thing, because whether he likes it or not, even here, at the driest spot, the annual rainfall is seldom less than 180 inches. At a junction here called MacDonald's Corner one can see what appears to be an ingenious monument to seventy Australians still missing in action nearly forty years after the fighting. It is a sundial so constructed that as the sun moves overhead, a shaft of gold shines directly on each engraved name. The concept, like the similar memorial on Bataan, is moving, but the cloud masses overhead mock it. Few rays reach here.
If you hire a sturdy vehicle with four-wheel drive, you can turn north from Moresby's Island Hotel, turn right at MacDonald's Corner, and writhe through quagmires until you reach a bump in the road known as Owers Corner. There you park in a checkerboard of puddles, for there, ten miles from Moresby, the trail begins. “The Track,” GIs called it; to the Diggers it was “the Bloody Track.” You find it today much as it was then. In slippery ravines you stumble over tree roots, and for every two steps forward, you slip back one. One battalion took seventeen hours to hack its way through a third of a mile, all the time under such heavy fire that the mud was bloodstained along its entire length. At Ioribaiwa Australian engineers built what they mordantly called the “Golden Staircase,” which survives today — four thousand twenty-inch steps, held together by roots, up a twenty-five-hundred-foot ridge and down and up again, each step hacked into clay, much as mountaineers cut traverses in ice. Now, as then, the air here is hot and extremely humid. Overhead, shrouded in clouds, loom jagged peaks, one, Mount Victoria, as high as 13,368 feet. Below, the jungle is studded with bottomless bogs. Often the trail is covered with waist-deep slop.
Presently you come upon relics of the war: rusting bulldozers sprawled along the way, corroded helmets, the disintegrating remains of Caribou transport planes and Mitsubishi bombers, and gas masks. The Japanese gas masks were used to diminish the stench of the rotting corpses they piled up to form barricades of flesh. (We sliced sections from the masks' rubber tubing to rim our dog tags, so the clash of metal on metal couldn't be heard at night.) Abruptly you are aware of a reedy, singing sound nearby. You can't place it; you have never heard anything like it. A thinly forested plateau edges westward here, and you struggle through it, toward the source of the odd sound. Then, weirdly, you come upon it. Evidently there was once a grassy airstrip on the plateau. Parked there in tidy rows, worthless since V-J Day, are thirty P-38 Lightnings and B-24 Liberators, wingtip to wingtip. Their thin skins deteriorated long ago. What you hear is a breeze singing through the naked struts and ribs of the abandoned fuselages.
Back on the trail, you realize that the jungle is opening up. Obviously others have beaten this track recently, and in large numbers. Signs of civilization appear: repaired Quonset huts, a hydroelectric installation, and a bridge formed of Marsden matting, those steel links, like gigantic erector-set strips, which we used to lay down landing fields in the bush. Around a corner, you come upon a Salvation Army hut. There are other such hostels along the trail; on weekends Papuans like to fly to Kokoda, a more negotiable clearing near the middle of the path, for hikes. What was Gethsemane for soldiers is recreation for native youths. One wonders whether they can grasp 1942's excruciation here. Probably not; like the Peace Corps volunteers, they avoid the rainforest itself and are rewarded by the pleasures on its periphery. You can tell them about the horrors at the heart of the jungle, but words are inadequate. You cannot show them photographs, because photographs of the bush are meaningless. One picture here is not worth a thousand words; it is not even worth one. So they gambol along the Bloody Track, sublimely ignorant of what was, in Samuel Eliot Morison's words, “the nastiest fighting in the world.”
Shortly after sunset on Tuesday, July 21, 1942, Japanese troopships began landing 14,430 Nipponese infantrymen on the northern coast of the Papuan Peninsula. They were watched from the hills by the “Maroubra Force,” a handful of native militiamen led by Basil Morris, an Australian who had remained behind to radio news of developments around Buna and Gona. Each Jap, Morris reported, wore a camouflaged uniform, a steel helmet plumed with leaves, and green paint smeared on his face; each carried, in addition to his weapon, a machete and a sharp shovel punctured with holes to stop damp earth from sticking to it by suction. The Australian noted that about two thousand of the Nips were stripped for action. Although Morris had no way of knowing it, these were Colonel Yosuki Yokoyama's shock troops, the elite of Major General Tomitaro Horii's South Seas Detachment. When they began climbing toward him, Morris assumed that they were merely patrolling. To his astonishment he saw them manhandling mortars, machine guns, and fieldpieces up the slimy, zigzagging Kokoda Trail.
In Brisbane, MacArthur's headquarters, it was still an article of military faith that no army could cross the Owen Stanley Range. George H. Johnson, perhaps the shrewdest war correspondent there, had assured his readers that an enemy offensive over the mountains was out of the question: “The track is impossible for mechanized transport, and so it seems unlikely that the Japs can hope to attempt an overland invasion of Moresby by pushing southward through the mountains.” Johnson was chided by MacArthur's staff for even raising the possibility. The handful of Australians stationed on the trail seemed unnecessary. The steep, slippery, root-tangled path, flanked by seven-foot-tall blades of kunai grass, was drenched by torrential downpours. The few plateaus were fields of reeking mud. The very air savored of rot and stink lilies. The track was the width of a slim man's shoulders; at places, such as the cold, twenty-seven-hundred-foot “Gap” in the Owen Stanleys, it ceased, in effect, to exist. Donkeys couldn't climb it; neither could mules. Even if successful, an army would have to advance single file. Then there were the rivers. The Kumusi River would drown the strongest swimmer; natives called its intersection with the path “Wairopi” — pidgin for the wire rope from which a precarious footbridge was suspended. The trail, what there was of it, was grim all the way. One Australian officer called it a “track through a fetid forest grotesque with moss and glowing phosphorescent fungi.”
But the Japanese, having conquered Malaya, Borneo, Java, Sumatra, the Philippines, and the Solomons, believed that no terrain was impassable. And they were contemptuous of the defenders. At that time only a few hundred Australians stood between them and Port Moresby. They had routed ten times as many Diggers at Rabaul. Preceded by Yokoyama's crack jungle troops, Horii's men leapfrogged their battalions forward, trading lives for progress. How many of them perished in this heroic endeavor will never be known. Many succumbed in the rivers, and others disappeared in quicksand or plunged into gorges. Sometimes it would take an hour to cut through a few yards of vegetation. The first man in a file would hack away with his machete until he collapsed of exhaustion; then the second man would do the same, and so on. In that climate the life expectancy of the men who lost consciousness and were left behind could often be measured in minutes.
Once the two forces collided, the Australians were no less heroic. They knew that every day, every hour they held the enemy in check brought reinforcements closer — their fellow countrymen from the Mideast and the Americans racing toward Port Moresby from the opposite direction. The Diggers did what they could. In the fourth week of the campaign an Australian lieutenant colonel, William T. Owen, destroyed the Wairopi bridge by ripping out the locknuts that secured its cables; then he dug in with a single company to make his stand. The Nips built a bridge of their own, and on August 7, the day the Marines landed on Guadalcanal, Owen was killed while throwing a grenade. The Maroubra Force, beefed up to 533 men, fell back on the village of Deniki. Here the Diggers actually threw the foe back, but, vastly outnumbered, and running low on rations and ammunition, they then retreated another five miles, to Isurava. After three days of fruitless banzai charges, the Japanese again did the impossible. Until now fighting had been confined to the trail, the problems of advancing through the jungle on either side being considered insuperable even by them. But at Isurava Jap volunteers slipped into the trackless rainforest and penetrated the Diggers' flanks. The defense cracked. The Australians fell back through the frigid Gap, and back farther, until on September 17 the Nipponese seized Ioribaiwa, within sight of Port Moresby. There their commander decided to pause. Six hundred miles to the east, on Guadalcanal, the plight of the U.S. Marines was even more desperate than the Australians'. Once the leather-necks had been driven into the sea — and Horii had no reason to doubt that would be their fate — the Japs on that island could be shipped across the Solomon Sea to reinforce him here.
By now the condition of his troops was almost indescribable. “Let the jungle beat the Japs,” said the Australian general Sir Thomas Blamey, and the jungle had just about done it. Riddled with scrub typhus and dysentery, their bloodstained uniforms torn to pieces, the Nipponese were no longer the superb force which had begun to mount the Owen Stanleys in July. One of them wrote in his diary: “The sun is fierce here. We make our way through a jungle where there are no roads. … Thirst for water, stomach empty. The pack on the back is heavy. My arm is numb like a stick. ‘Water, water.’ We reach for the canteens at our hips from force of habit, but they do not contain a drop of water.” Horii, issuing his last rice ration to his fevered, emaciated troops, said of them that “no pen or words can depict adequately the hardships suffered.” A Japanese war correspondent wrote of Jap “infantrymen without rifles, men walking on bare feet, men wearing blankets of straw rice bags instead of uniforms, men reduced to skin and bones plodding along with the help of a stick, men gasping and crawling on the ground.”
In the 1870s Count Luigi Maria d'Albertis, a European explorer, had written that it was easier to climb a Swiss alp than an ordinary hill in Papua. Now both armies had crossed, not ordinary hills, but the worst of the Owen Stanleys, and along the way they had, when not fighting, built machine-gun nests, dug mortar pits, and climbed trees to snipe at the enemy. The Japanese were starving, cannibalizing their dead comrades, whose bones were then picked clean by jungle ants. One of these skeletons lay half-buried beside the trail, with its hand thrust out. It says much about the hardening impact of such combat that when the Australians passed this horror on their way back to Buna, each grasped the dead hand and said, “Good on you, sport.”
They, too, were hungry, with as many as twenty men sharing a single tin of bully beef. One new officer later wrote of them: “Physically, the pathetically young warriors … were in poor shape. Worn out by strenuous fighting and exhausting movement, and weakened by lack of food and sleep and shelter, many of them had literally come to a standstill.” Johnson described them as “thin, haggard, undernourished, insect-bitten, grimy, and physically near the end of their tether. They were fighting on fighting spirit alone.” In the dense terrain of matted vegetation, marshland, and steep gorges, constantly threatened by ambush, flanking, infiltration, and treetop snipers, they aged rapidly and came to look more like tramps than soldiers. Their helmets had rusted red. Their dashing, broad-brimmed felt hats were caked with mud. Sores erupted on their genitalia. Their uniforms rotted on their backs. The flesh on their feet, swollen by endless slogging, peeled away when they removed their socks. And American GIs, now arriving at last and entering the lines, shared their fate. In the sodden, suffocating heat they fell prey to jungle rot, dysentery, dengue fever, and malaria. They hadn't been issued tents or proper weapons. Like the Diggers and the Japs, they lived on short rations.
Yet they and their Australian allies retained their sense of humor, one of the best indexes of morale. They joked about the five M's — mosquitoes, mud, mountains, malaria, and monotony. The first, the “mozzies,” as Aussies called them, were considered the worst. It was at Templeton's Crossing, where the trail was nothing but a steep, greasy clay ravine, down which soldiers slid, braked by vines they gripped as they went, that a Digger first spun the yarn about the Bofors AA gunner who caught a mosquito in his sights, mistook it for a Zero, and opened fire. And it was in the piercing chill of the Gap — fires were forbidden — that another Aussie told the tale of two mosquitoes lifting the netting over a tasty mess sergeant, studying his dog tag to identify his blood group, and debating whether or not to eat him on the spot or take him into the jungle, an argument which ended when one said he should be devoured here: “If we take him into the bush the big chaps'll grab him.”
Allied leaders were grimmer. “It looks at this moment,” President Roosevelt wrote MacArthur, “as if the Japanese Fleet is heading toward the Aleutian Islands or Midway and Hawaii, with a remote possibility that it may attack Southern California or Seattle.” In his reply, the general correctly stated that the Nips' chief goal now was “New Guinea and the line of communications between the United States and Australia. … If serious enemy pressure were applied against Australia … the situation would be extremely precarious. The extent of territory to be defended is so vast and the communication facilities are so poor that the enemy, moving freely by water, has a preponderant advantage.” As MacArthur saw it, he himself had no choice. He had to push Horii's army back across the Owen Stanleys in head-on fighting, with none of the brilliant sweeps and double envelopments which were to establish him as the war's greatest commander. This would be his bloodiest drive: 8,546 Allied soldiers lost. It was small consolation that the Japanese lost 10,000 men, and that Horii, their leader, drowned in attempting to recross the Kumusi, though MacArthur did take satisfaction in what he called Horii's “ignominious death.”
After two weeks of deadlock at Ioribaiwa, the momentum shifted to the Allies. On the fifth day of toe-to-toe slugging, Horii disengaged north of the Imita Ridge and began withdrawing. The terrain was just as merciless going the other way, with the additional handicap that the worst of what Australians call “the Wet” — the rainy season — was upon them. The orderly retreat of the Japanese suddenly turned into a rout. Abandoning their weapons and trampling one another underfoot, they fled northward. Elsewhere the Diggers of the Seventh Division and the American GIs of the Forty-first and Thirty-second divisions might have fallen on their rear, but the precipices of the Owen Stanleys made that impossible. And at the end, at Buna, Gona, and, between them, Sanananda Point, the regrouping Nips made a savage, murderous last stand. MacArthur's men, having hacked their way through Papua's dense rainforests, forded its deep rivers, shinnied up its banyan trees for observation, scaled its cliffs, and descended the slopes of the foothills on the far side of the mountains, debouched on a low, flat coastal plain of coconut plantations, missionary settlements, and clusters of thatched shanties. Awaiting them was a desperate army — seventy-five hundred Japanese in front of Buna alone — trained bush fighters at home in the tangled swamps and kunai patches of the Buna plain, entrenched in coconut-log bunkers sheltering Nambus with interlocking fields of fire. Enjoying good lateral communications, they were easily reinforced by fleets of destroyers from Rabaul. In the early weeks of the battle American warplanes from Moresby were turned back over the Owen Stanleys by prodigious cloudbursts in the mountains. Japanese pilots faced no such obstacle; swarms of them flew down from Rabaul's teeming airdromes, making life even more miserable for the drenched Allied soldiers. It says much of the terrain that at one point one of MacArthur's field commanders, a two-star general, had to swim two miles to reach his troops.
Gona was overrun in the second week of December 1942, and Buna and Sanananda in January 1943. “No more Bunas!” MacArthur vowed. The key fight, however, was for the air overhead. In early March B-24s and B-17s of the U.S. Army Air Corps won the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, sinking at least eight transports bringing enemy reinforcements from Rabaul to Papua. The few Japanese who reached New Guinea from the lost ships had to swim ashore. Tokyo wrote off Papua. Having retaken Milne Bay, MacArthur now seized one Japanese stronghold after another: Wau, Salamaua, Lae, Nadzab, Madang, Aitape, Wewak — bastions which the enemy had thought could hold out for years. Part of the reason for the Allied successes was superior generalship and improved aircraft. But neither of these was responsible for the victory in the Owen Stanleys. That was the feat of MacArthur's finest military weapon, the unsung infantryman, the GI and Digger who endured the cruel jungle and outfought the Japanese man for man. The Allies were, quite simply, better soldiers than the enemy's.
Those of us who fought in the Pacific believed we would be remembered, that schoolchildren would be told of our sacrifices and taught the names of our greatest battles. But we didn't anticipate the velocity of postwar history; didn't realize that events would succeed one another more and more rapidly, in a kind of geometric progression, swamping the recent past in an endless flood of sensationalism; didn't know that instant celebrities would glitter blindingly and then disappear overnight. One of them, Andy Warhol, has prophesied: “In the future, everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.” The fame of most Papuan clashes didn't last even that long. Readers ignorant of New Guinea, preoccupied with the European theater, flipped past newspaper stories of the remote struggle and remembered only the name of MacArthur, who had seen to it that his own name dominated communiqués from the southwest Pacific.
It would be inaccurate to say that names of the old battlefields mean nothing out there today. The truth is more ironic. Incredibly, tourism has become a major industry in New Guinea. Places which were dreaded in the early 1940s have acquired new identities. In tourist brochures Lae, for example, has become a city offering every visitor “an air-conditioned fun time”; one brochure reveals that it now “feasts both the eye and the heart with its abundant evidence of prosperity and civic pride” in “a lush tropical setting” which “encourages golfers to both enjoy and practice their favorite sport.” Rabaul is also endowed with an eighteen-hole golf course; the former Japanese stronghold is “beautiful and spectacular … with its magnificent harbor” that “could hardly be more spectacular,” and visitors are encouraged to explore the twelve miles of Rabaul caves which once sheltered crack Nipponese regiments. Madang “looks like everyone's dream of a Pacific Island resort — and when you land, you are not disappointed.” Milne Bay offers “idyllic atolls” and “sun fun.” Truk, beneath whose waters Hirohito's Fourth Fleet lies rusting (it may be viewed through glass-bottomed tourist boats), offers “air-conditioning in Eden … the waters of the vast lagoon are smooth and clear, a skin-diver's dream, a water skier's delight, a fisherman's paradise.”
It is as though European veterans were invited to “Ski at Bastogne!” or “Surf at Anzio!” The circular for Wewak, where MacArthur bypassed thirty-five thousand Japanese troops, is more evocative; it is said to possess “one of the most remarkable reservoirs of animal, reptile, insect and bird life anywhere.” New Guinea's overall recreation slogan comes even closer — “Papua: it's like every place you've never been” — though in my case even that is inapplicable. New Guinea is very much like another place I have been, a Solomons island which James Michener described as “that godforsaken backwash of the world”; which was known as Pua Pua to the natives; which the Japanese called Gadarukanaru, “KA,” or “The Island of Death”; which Americans knew as Guadalcanal; and which we Marines who served there simply referred to as The Canal.