Green Hell, 1943

In late January 1943, the Americans and Australians declared the Papua peninsula (the far eastern end) of the island of New Guinea “secure.”  For over a year they had been struggling to eject the Japanese from a battlefield like no other in the world.

The Japanese, who had arrived on the lush yet desolate island at the end of 1941, had thought to conquer the island in a week. Port Moresby, the largest city, was still holding out six months later, and the Japanese had simply run out of rations, healthy men, and working heavy equipment.  When the first Americans arrived, the Wisconsin National Guardsmen were fresh out of training camp and thrown into the impenetrable jungle.  Though Douglas MacArthur, the controversial commander and mastermind of the New Guinea campaign, has been credited with its successful clearing, it nonetheless took nearly three years.

William Manchester, in his magisterial biography of MacArthur, called New Guinea “green hell,” and by most accounts it certainly was.  It rained in most parts more than tree hundred inches a year; the growth rate of some of the more notorious vines and branching trees was measured at more than a foot a week.  All metals were rusty, always; electrical equipment often had to have blowers to keep from shorting out during operation. Ammunition notoriously misfired, especially artillery.  Motor vehicles were too large for most of Papua’s roads.  The soldier’s war in New Guinea was an odd mix of 20th century hardware with 19th century reliability and 18th century tactics pressed into the demands of a 20th century global strategy.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War by John D Beatty and Lee Rochwerger examines New Guinea in a context of examining Japanese planning, operations and execution amid material shortages and over-extended supply lines.  Called one of the best books of its kind, it’s available at fine booksellers everywhere.

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