Courage Under Fire: Growing up in the South Pacific of WWII Pt 3

The Papuan Campaign

Fred L Jacobs

On September 28, 1942 Fred would have been with the rest of the men of Co. E at Bootless Bay where they bivouacked. The rest of the 32nd Infantry Division would arrive at Port Moresby by air on September 29, 1942.

During this time a battle plan was being developed for an attack on the enemy. General MacArthur and Australian, General Sir Thomas Blamey, hatched a plan which would see the Australian forces drive the Japanes forces down the Kokoda Trail. The combat leaders wanted to send the entire 32nd Division to march over the mountains to flank the enemy in the area of Buna. Less hasty minds understood the journey would have a negative effect on troop readiness. Eventually MacArthur and Blamey decided on splitting the force. Only one battalion would march across the mountains. The rest would be transported.

Allied Advance Across Owen Stanley Range
26 September-15 November 1942

When the final plans were drawn it would be the men of the 2nd battlion of the 126th regiment that were ordered to slog across the Owen Stanley Mountains on the Kapa Kapa Trail . Fred’s unit was included in those who would march. Straight-line distance, from Port Moresby to Buna is 120 miles.

Kapa Kapa Trail

Members of the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 32nd Division, in an Army Bantam Jeep crossing a river on the Kapa Kapa Trail on Papua New Guinea during October 1942.

By all accounts, the Kapa Kapa trail was more mountain goat path than feasible option for troops to travel. The men of the 2/126th would blaze their own trail. The troops would deal with unrelenting rain. They would cut their way through jungle brush. Often, the mud on the trail was so thick the men sank to their knees.

October 7, 1942 a detachment from Co. E was sent on an advance guard team for the leg of the trip from Nepeana to Jaure. The remainder of 2nd Battalion would follow on October 14, 1942. Company E would once again be leading the way.

The march across the Owen Stanley Mountains was brutal. Fred Jacobs would spend 42 days in a nightmare world as he and the rest of the 2nd Battalion cut a trail through some of the world’s most dense jungle. They suffered their first casualty on the march within days when commander Lt. Col. Henry Geerd died of a heart attack. Major Herbert Smith assumed leadership from the fallen leader. The men marched on.

Lieutenant Paul R. Lutjens of Big Rapids, Michigan was a platoon leader in Company E. Undoubtedly Lutjens experiences are very close to what Fred would have experienced. The men may have been in the same platoon. Lutjens recollections are as follows:

Company E was a day or so ahead of the rest of the battalion and Lutjens, for most of the way, was out in front of Company E.  His detachment moved in single file along the muddy jungle trails, each man three or four yards from the next one.  It didn’t take them long to decide that there were items in their full-field equipment they could do without.  They cut their blankets in half.  They dumped their mosquito nettings at the side of the trail.  Though it rained unrelentingly every afternoon and night, they discarded their rain coats.  Each man kept one uniform – the one he had on.  They abandoned their shaving equipment and other toilet articles, keeping only their tooth brushes – with which they tried to keep their rifles clean.

“What difference did it make, washing your teeth, if you could clean your rifle?”

Lt Lutjens

“Day after day the Battalion plodded through some of the worst and wildest jungle in the world.  They went through waist deep streams and along trails that were waist deep channels of mud.  Half the time they could not see the sky – only matted leaves and vines. It would take five or six hours to go a mile, edging along cliff walls, hanging on to vines, up and down, up and down. Men got weaker and began to lag back.  It would rain from three o’clock in the afternoon on, soaking everything.  The rivers they crossed were so swift that if you slipped, it was just too bad.  There wasn’t any way of evacuating to the rear.  Everyone was driven on by the fear of being left behind.

“Their bones ached and dysentery had hit almost every man.  They were filthy and caked with mud, and washed themselves only when they happened to be crossing a river.  They climbed to 8,000 feet, to the top of the gap through which they stumbled over the Owen Stanleys.  It took them seven hours to crawl the last 2,000 feet.  They couldn’t march for more than 15 minutes without lying down and resting.  They crossed at a place called Ghost Mountain [Mount Suwemalla] to which Lutjens devoted a few lines in his diary.

““It was the eeriest place I ever saw.  The trees were covered with moss a half a foot thick.  We would walk along a hogback, straddling the trail, with a sheer drop of thousands of feet two feet on either side of us.  We kept hearing water running somewhere, but we couldn’t find any.  We could thrust a stick six feet down in the spongy stuff we were walking on without hitting anything real solid.  It was ungodly cold.  There wasn’t a sign of life.  Not a bird.  Not a fly.  Not a sound.  It was the strangest feeling I ever had.  If we stopped, we froze.  If we moved, we sweated.”

– Lt Lutjens

“The men were gaunt and down to a shadow – eyes sunk deep in their heads.  On the highest point in the trail there stands a simple monument to mark the grave of a doughboy who died on the road to Buna.  His epitaph, such as it was, was carved into the soggy pages of Lutjens’ notebook:

““Today we lost PFC.—–, who died at 2:00 p.m.  Dysentery and fever . . . a damn good man.  The trip was a little too much for him.”

Lt Lutjens

The harrowing march across the Owen Stanley Mountains was trying not just for the men on the ground. Their march was deadly from the air too. The men had to be resupplied by air drops during the journey. On November 5, 1942 the C-47 Broadway Limited crashed into the Owen Stanley Mountains near Natunga. All the men on board were killed. The men of the 126th were able to locate the crash site and recover the remains of all those killed later on the same day.

The 2/126th would emerge from their mountain trek on November 20, 1942. The men staggered into Soputa battered and bruised for their troubles. To a man they suffered from jungle rot, malaria, dengue fever, and near starvation. They were worse for the wear. They would get a few days to catch their breath before being sent into battle. The battle of Buna Gona was raging and bodies were needed at the front.

Follow me for the next installment in my series on Fred Jacobs and his service during World War II.

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