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by James Campbell
Crown  2007
336 pages
index, photos, maps, notes
ISBN: 9780307335968
Cover Price: $25.95

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The Ghost Mountain Boys
Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea
The Forgotten War of the South Pacific

"Ghost Mountain Boys" is the story of the U.S. Army's 32nd Infantry Division, a National Guard unit primarily of men from Wisconsin and Michigan. Their 121st Infantry Regiment made a forgotten forty-two day trek across the Kapa Kapa Trail before being thrown into the Battle of Buna.

Author James Campbell superbly presents the history of the Division after interviewing surviving veterans and traveling to Papua New Guinea to walk in their footsteps himself.

The book begins with the Japanese landing on the north coast of New Guinea and their offensive along the Kokoda Trail. This background is intercut with the stateside training of the 32nd Division, told in the diaries and letters of the veterans who become the primary 'characters' of the book. Many knew each other prior to enlistment, and shared a bond of hardship forged during the depression. None would be prepared for what they would experience in New Guinea.

Part two deals with the arrival of the 32nd in Australia, deployment to New Guinea and trek to the Buna battlefield. When the Division arrived in Australia, Japanese troops had advanced to within thirty miles of Port Moresby. Fearing the worst, the Division's 128th Infantry Regiment was flown to the combat theater, a first for the Army.

MacAurthur feared the Kokoda Trail might remain in Japanese hands, and sent the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment along a rough parallel track, further to the south. The Kapa Kapa Trail was accessible only by foot, requiring all supplies to be carried by the men and native porters.

Attempts to drop supplies were ineffective and men discarded most of their personal gear when they became sick and exhausted. Jungle gave way to steep mountain peaks as the trial reached an altitude of 9,000' around Mt. Suwemalla, nicknamed "Ghost Mountain". Luckly, the 120 mile trek was only made once, as the remainder of the Division was transported by air to new airfields developed on the north coast near Buna.

Part three covers the Battle of Buna. The weary survivors of the trek were immediately thrown into battle, along with the rest of the Division. Attacking the entrenched enemy manning extensive fortifications, they experienced tremendous casualties, and the battle developed into a stalemate.

Equally frustrating was the distrust Americans and Australians commands had for each other, resulting in a failure to cooperate. The weather, terrain and lack of supplies made Buna a desperate situation for both sides. Frustrated, MacAurthur replaced commanding General Harding with General Eichelberger. Although the Japanese were cut off from resupply, they continued to defend tenaciously. Allies soldiers were forced to clear each bunker and gains were often measured only in yards until 'Bloody Buna' was finally captured.

Campbell's research tells two largely unknown stories: Buna and the Kapa Kapa Trail. His narrative is focused on members of the 32nd Division and members of the 128th that made the nearly impossible trek. He effectively inserts command level background, diaries and other research to provide the reader an appreciation of the entire battle. “Ghost Mountain Boys” is an impressive book about the Army's first offensive against the Japanese in New Guinea.

James Campbell interview on Pritzker Military Library

Review by  Justin Taylan

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Last Updated
May 23, 2017

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