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Pacific Odyssey: Goodenough Island in MacArthur’s Wake

This article is Part VI of a series that describes a journey from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. For Part I, please click here.

Off Wagifa Island, Goodenough Island, D’Entrecasteaux Islands, Papua New Guinea. In autumn, 1943, the First Marine Division (including the author’s father) staged its forces on Goodenough for the assault on New Britain. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

The rhythm of my days on board the “SV Chemistry” was unchanging. In the mornings, with the sun up at 5:30 a.m., I came on deck at 6:00 a.m. for coffee and to read on my Kindle. With the others I ate breakfast, which was a procession of lovely local fruits, including a near endless supply of mangoes (of which I could never get enough). I showered and then, over hot coffee (another pleasure of the “Chemistry”, as Luciana is Brazilian), I typed letters and notes on my computer.

Some mornings, if we were in clear shallow waters, I swam after breakfast. Other days, when the seas were cloudy (they were never dirty, except in Milne Bay), I decided against tempting either fate or sharks. During mid-day, when we were under sail, I stood at the rail and admired the tropical landscape, or talked to Gavin as he stood on the bridge with the wheel.

Lunch, as with all the other meals, was delicious, and I never grew tired of sitting in the shade, during the later afternoons, and reading. I am sure that in my four days on the “Chemistry” I read four books, as an awning on the back deck made an ideal nook in which to idle in a deck chair. Conversations with whomever was passing on deck also took up much of every day, and the topics skipped effortlessly from Gallipoli and sharks to pirates and the Kokoda Trail.

* * *

It was the middle of the afternoon when we dropped anchor off the south coast of Goodenough Island, in a beautiful inlet between several small communities and the island of Wagifa. The Marines, in 1943, had their staging area about five to eight miles north along the east coast, and I had thought we might moor for the night closer to the main town of Bolubolu.

Gavin preferred to anchor in this broad cove, which was the right choice, as almost immediately we made friends with many of the islanders who paddled out to the boat, either to trade goods or have a conversation. These canoe welcoming committees were scenes that Margaret Mead, Captain James Cook, or Herman Melville would have recognized as part of their own experiences in the Pacific.

Almost instantly I made a local friend, Thomas Frank, who paddled out to the “Chemistry” with his small children. I was at the rail of the boat when he arrived, and I asked him if there were any boats going the next morning to the PNG mainland, about twenty miles away across the wide bay. I had heard that banana boats connected with a shuttle bus that could, in turn, drop me at the airport in Alotau, from which I would be on my way to Cape Gloucester.

A man of compassion and integrity, Thomas immediately said that it would be possible for me to make the crossing the next morning. And all through the afternoon and early evening, before it got too dark, he paddled by the “Chemistry” to say that he was working on my connection to the mainland. He mentioned that he and his brother had a banana boat, but that I would go over with one of his friends, as their boat “lacked petrol.”

During our talks, Thomas introduced me to his friends and to his children, who were often in the throng of kids floating off our transom, watching life unfold on the catamaran. They howled with laughter when Luna (the ship’s dog) barked at them, and some of the braver boys paddled with their canoes through the gap under the catamaran.

At our last meeting that evening, Thomas said I should be ready to go at 7:00 a.m. I gave him $30 for the fare, figuring he might need front money to convince one of the ferrymen to pick me up.

* * * *

That night, the five of us on the “Chemistry,” with Luna patrolling the decks, ate dinner in the darkness on the aft deck. The meals on board were always varied and delicious, and when Dave was lucky with his fishing lines (not always the case, as we liked to tease him), we had a grilled local fish to go with the cold beer.

I fussed with my backpack, to have it ready the next morning, and slept with the alarm set for 5:30 a.m., so that I would have time to shower before the banana boat left for the mainland. I preferred leaving Goodenough in the morning as I thought the water in the straits would be calmer. I had taken to heart the email message from Aaron Hayes that read: “The seas between Alotau and Goodenough and between Goodenough and Fergusson Island can be very rough (my most scary ever small boat crossing, huge waves, tiny boat, no life jacket).” And just in case, I was traveling with an old lifejacket that I had purchased for $10 the summer before while visiting my sisters in New York.

That night I did wonder if I would ever see Thomas or my $30 again, but, true to his word, he was there alongside the sailboat at 7:00 a.m. saying that the banana boat would arrive any minute. He gave me his home address so that we could write letters to each other once I was home. He said: “You can write to me at the primary school or at the church, and I will get it.”

Later he remembered that he had not given me his phone number, and he came back to give it to me, and I gave him mine. He also said that the boat crossings were in a flux because the head teacher at the school was “on the mainland”—although I never made the connection between teaching and ferry services.

Figuring that my banana boat would come in a moment, I could not do much of anything except sit on the deck beside my backpack and wait, as if for a departing plane. I had said my thanks to Gavin, Luciana, Dave, and Patsy, and they, in turn, had wished me well with the rest of my travels. So I was in a form of travel purgatory, neither here nor there.

By 10:00 a.m. there was still no banana boat in sight, and I could tell that Thomas was worried. He had promised me a crossing, and now he was not delivering. I am not sure that local islanders in Papua New Guinea have the equivalent of “saving face” (as is true in Japan), but I could tell that he still felt badly not to have delivered on the boat to the mainland.

At 1:00 p.m. Thomas came to the boat to explain that he would be returning my $30. He said that there we no boats going today (a Friday) to the mainland. Maybe, he suggested, on Monday or Tuesday? The problem was that no one on Goodenough who had a boat had any fuel. He said that the boats that did have fuel were elsewhere. He said that fuel was a huge problem in the islands around PNG. When there was fuel, generally no one had money to buy it. And when people had money, there tended not to be any fuel for sale. Thomas did not say, “Well, it’s complicated,” but he implied it.

* * *

For the rest of the afternoon, I kept thinking that, out of the blue, a boat heading from Bolubolu to the mainland would appear on the horizon and off I would go to Alotau.

The day before the harbor had been alive with banana boats, although I confess that a few of them did look like pirate ships. But as this afternoon receded, I no longer was keen for a boat to show up and offer me passage, as the rule I had set for myself was to sail early in the morning over calm seas. Nor did I want to set off with non-Thomas-approved strangers, as darkness was approaching, even if I had a red whistle and a flashing light to go along with my lifejacket.

By 4:00 p.m. I had in my mind called it quits on the passage. After talking it over with Gavin, who was generous and accommodating in all of our dealings, I decided to stay with the “Chemistry” for two more nights and to sail with it to the island of Kiriwina, in the Trobriands, where a guide book on the boat said there was an airport with service three times a week to the mainland.

The downside of such a decision was that the schedule for the rest of my travels would be compromised. But at least I would get to see Kiriwina, where the father of a college friend, Judy Rader, was posted during the war with his PT-boat squadron. And then I would fly to the mainland and resume my trek toward Cape Gloucester. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t a fatal blow to my dreams; and I didn’t need a whistle to set it in motion.

I returned by backpack to my bunk and unpacked some of my things, including my toothbrush and bathing suit. And then I rejoined the conversation on the “Chemistry,” although I felt like a guest who has said his goodbyes at a cocktail party, only to return an hour later and mumble something about “car trouble.”

* * *

While waiting for my banana boat to come in, I had finished reading James P. Duffy’s War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945, which proved an excellent companion to William Manchester’s MacArthur biography and is set across Papua New Guinea, including in the islands through which we were sailing.

In it, for example, I was pleased to find a long account of the battle for Milne Bay in which Duffy writes:

The Japanese invasion of Milne Bay was to be a pincer movement. The main landing was to take place inside the bay at a place called Rabi, some three miles east of Gili Gili along the north coast. From there the invaders were to attack along the coast directly into the Allied base. This force was composed of 612 members of the Kure 5th Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF), 197 men from the Sasebo 5th SNLF, and 362 men from the 16th Naval Pioneer Unit. The second force, which was coming down along the northern coast from Buna, was made up of 353 men from the Sasebo 5th SNLF. This group would move in barges during nighttime hours; its orders were to land at Taupota in Goodenough Bay, directly north of Milne Bay, and march overland less than ten miles to attack the Allies from the rear. In all, 1,524 Japanese would strike what they believed were a few Australian militia companies. In reality, they faced ten thousand men, over half of whom were combat veterans….

Australian newspapers hailed the victory as a “turning point.” Virtually everyone cheered the performance of the militia members who stood their ground against experienced combat veterans. Strategically, it essentially put an end to Japanese efforts to capture Port Moresby, and allowed MacArthur to focus his mind and his forces on driving the enemy completely out of New Guinea.

With the others on board, I tried to put on a brave face and said that I could make up for the time lost by doing other things, but truth be told, I am an impatient traveler and love nothing more than when my plans run to the perfection of a Swiss railway clock (the model for the watch that I wear on my wrist, a gift from my son Henry).

I knew that by sailing toward the Trobriands I might no longer be able to detour to Cape Gloucester, which I was now beginning to think would require almost a week to get there, as none of those advertised ferries were actually running to a schedule. There might be the equivalent of Thomas’s banana boat—someone’s idea of the good news that a foreign tourist wished to hear. But I was beginning to suspect than there was neither the boat nor the “petrol” to get me to Cape Gloucester.

* * *

At least by staying on the “Chemistry” I was not cosigned to the hands of local pirates and, after we left at dawn the next morning, I also got close to the shore where the Marines had their forward base in autumn 1943.

My father never talked about Goodenough Island in great detail. It had been a pause (for training and combat ship-loading) between two epic battles, those at Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. He had never said anything, good or bad, about the weather on Goodenough, and whenever his stories touched on the D’Entrecasteux Islands, he would accelerate the discussion and then describe the fighting on New Britain, where his C Company, First Marine Regiment, was in the first wave to capture the airfield, much as they were the first to overrun the Japanese runway on Guadalcanal. (He would say: “Colonel Cresswell [the battalion commander] thought a lot of C Company. I would have taken it as a compliment except that he was forever sending us on difficult missions, and there is nothing combat troops hate more than to leave their familiar lines.”)

One thing that I know about his time on Goodenough Island is that, while there, and in the lee of the large volcano that dominates the center of the island, he did a lot reading about France in World War I. While he was stationed at the cricket ground in Melbourne, he must have discovered a well-supplied bookseller and loaded his sea bag with histories of the earlier war.

Because he wrote his name and the place where he finished reading a book on the inside of the front cover, I know that while on Goodenough he finished reading Arnold Zweig’s Education Before Verdun, Jules Romains’s novel Verdun, and other French histories and novels of the Great War in the trenches. Clearly he formed a bond with those French soldiers who liked to say: “I was there; I did Verdun” (“J’ai fait Verdun”).

Although he did not explain the connection at the time, on our first family trip to Europe in spring 1970, he rented a car in Luxembourg and drove the family across the French border to Verdun, where on a windy springtime day we wandered among what remains of Fort Douaumontand its nearby trenches.

While we were thinking about World War I, I am sure his mind was on Goodenough and the books that he had read in the shade of the palm trees that encircled the forlorn Marine outpost in tropical seas.

* * *

It was also on Goodenough Island that Marine Corps battle planners butted heads with those of General MacArthur, who at his headquarters in Port Moresby had the idea to attack the airfield at Cape Gloucester by using paratroops.

Looking over MacArthur’s plans, the Marines made the point—learned the hard way in over five months on Guadalcanal—that the jungle might not be forgiving to men arriving from the sky, and that the way to ensure victory was to overwhelm the Japanese garrison on West New Britain through a surprise landing and by deploying sufficient troops (“well armed men” as they were sometimes called) to overrun and hold the airstrip.

To be fair to MacArthur, he revised his battle plans and let the Marines have their way. He also said to the troops, after they had left Goodenough and were approaching New Britain: “I know what the Marines think of me, but I also know that when they go into a fight they can be counted on to do an outstanding job. Good luck.” And compared to other amphibious landings in the Pacific, New Britain saw relatively few casualties among the assaulting forces.

Overall, Marine Corps officers in the First Marine Division did not, as he suspected, much care for MacArthur personally, but I am not sure many dug deep enough into his record to come to the conclusion, which Manchester does in his biography, that MacArthur’s men generally took fewer casualties in combat than did Eisenhower’s forces in Europe.

What did my father think about MacArthur? He was not a figure that we often discussed, although I can recall him being dismissive of the general’s histrionics and nurturing the prejudice that MacArthur, especially on Guadalcanal, left the Marines in the front lines longer than he ever would have deployed an army division. That said, as an officer who served in the occupation of Japan from 1945-46, my father was grateful that MacArthur managed the peaceful transition of power.

To the Marines in New Guinea, MacArthur was a figure as remote as some of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, and of little concern to men on the sharp end with the Japanese Imperial Army. As my father said late in his life: “Keep in mind, those of us on the front line practically considered anyone back at regiment [regimental headquarters, usually about 400 meters from the front lines] a conscientious objector.”

* * *

MacArthur was also part of the most celebrated summit to take place on Goodenough Island, in December, 1943, just before the Marines went ashore at Cape Gloucester (which is about 250 miles northwest of the D’Entrecasteaux chain of islands).

The meeting was between General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, and his sometimes obstreperous Far East commander, Douglas MacArthur. According to James Duffy, the purpose of the meeting between the two four-star generals was not to agree strategy in the Pacific but to send a message to President Franklin Roosevelt that neither military man would brook his political meddling in their operations, and Roosevelt was a known meddler.

Just prior to his meeting with MacArthur on Goodenough, Marshall had been with Roosevelt at the Cairo Conference, with Winston Churchill and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China. Immediately afterwards, Roosevelt and Churchill flew to Tehran and met with the Soviet general secretary, Joseph Stalin. Fearing plots, Stalin did not travel very far.

It was in Cairo that Roosevelt agreed with Churchill that General Dwight Eisenhower, not George Marshall, would be the supreme allied commander of the Normandy invasion. Marshall had craved the allied command in Europe, but Roosevelt felt that he was too important in Washington, where he was the public face in Congress of the Roosevelt administration (that would run for reelection in 1944).

Upon getting the news from Roosevelt that he was to remain “chairborne” in Washington, Marshall decided to decamp, unannounced, from Cairo and fly halfway around the world to Goodenough Island, where he and MacArthur (who also had contempt for Roosevelt) conferred for parts of two days and then departed. What they said hardly mattered. What mattered was the symbolism of the meeting—that two generals were tired of Roosevelt’s ways.

Duffy writes: “It is unfortunate that minutes were not kept of this one and only meeting between MacArthur and Marshall during the entire war. All we know about what transpired comes from memoirs of various participants.” But in Manchester’s book I did come across this exchange between the two generals:

At one point during their Goodenough lunch, his host began a sentence, “My staff—” and Marshall cut him short, saying, “You don’t have a staff, General. You have a court.” It was true, but it was equally true that the Chief of Staff had been off horseback riding when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and tactful officers never reminded him of it.

As the “Chemistry” cruised past the flatlands that once were home to the Marine Corps base and an airfield, I thought of what a triumph it was for the United States to win the Second World War, despite the political maneuvering between its allies, not to mention that between its generals and politicians.

* * *

After sailing past Bolubolu—the sad, Paradise lost, main town of Goodenough—and along airfield (mostly it was hidden behind a phalanx of palm trees), we set a course through the reefs to Fergusson and Kiriwina islands.

Until I made this sail in the D’Entrecasteux Islands, I had no idea that reefs and shoals were such a navigational hazard in the Pacific. From the deck of the yacht, the sea had the azure calm of a Pacific paradise. But it took all of Gavin’s skills as a captain (with his eyes shifting between the water and GPS charts) to steer a safe course from Goodenough to Kiriwina, as in between there were literally hundreds of rocks and coral outcrops just below the water’s surface.

In addition to the lurking reefs, there were many tiny, deserted islands, of the kind that often appear in New Yorkercartoons. (Possible caption: “At least I don’t have watch Wolf Blitzer…”) They had a palm tree or two and were no bigger than a tennis court, and I saw dozens as Gavin kept the “Chemistry” fixed to a channel that he had gleaned on one of his electronic charts.

I wondered how large warships had managed to navigate at night during World War II, as it was in waters such as these that the battle of Coral Sea was fought in May, 1942, as a prelude to Midway. In terms of numbers, the Japanese were the winners in the Coral Sea, but, even that early in the war, Japan was the loser in any battle that depleted its capital ships. Only the United States could win a war of attrition. Some of the battleships sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor were back in service in less than six months, while Japan never got over its losses at Midway.

It took us most of the day to sail to Kiriwina, and in the late afternoon, before it got dark, we dropped anchor next to a small uninhabited island called Muwo, which was astride the channel into Losuia, the principal town of Kiriwina.

During much of the day, we had tried to lock onto a cell phone tower on Fergusson Island, so that our family and friends would know where we were. Mostly the reception was one bar, and I did worry that my wife might think that I had vanished in the manner of Michael Rockefeller, the governor’s son, who in 1961 disappeared off of the south coast of Papua New Guinea, perhaps into the pot of cannibals.

* * *

In between reading several books about the WW II land campaigns in New Guinea, I went back to the (near-endless) William Manchester biography of Douglas MacArthur, which makes the point that one of the greatest offensives of the war was that along the north coast of New Guinea, where the army (fighting alongside the Australians who did much of the heavy lifting) drove the Japanese out of a number of coastal towns, including Buna, Lae, and Madang.

Manchester describes the general’s attention to detail in planning the landings. He writes, in the gushing style of the biography:

By the late spring of 1943, the General probably knew more about the geography of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands than any other man before or since. He had familiarized himself with the area’s coral reefs, its tidal tables, its coves and inlets, its mountain passes, and its rainy seasons; he could pinpoint existing airstrips and land shelves where new strips could be hacked out of the kunai grass; he could identify targets within the range of P-38s (which could fly 2,260 miles on a tank of gas), P-40s (2,800 miles), and B-17s (1,850 miles carrying a 3,000-pound bomb load). In addition, MacArthur understood the enemy: the strength and disposition of his forces, his supply lines, his capacity for reinforcement, the quality of his equipment (high), his morale (higher), and his courage (highest of all)…

In the last days of June, MacArthur unleashed three blows: Halsey’s invasion of New Georgia by marines, Krueger’s occupation of Kiriwina and Woodlark islands northeast of Papua by GIs, and a landing at New Guinea’s Nassau Bay, just south of Salamaua, by Australians under their own commander, Edmund F. Herring.

Actually, it was the Australians who reclaimed the offensive on New Guinea, first at Milne Bay, but more decisively along the Kokoda Trail, which is one of the epic encounters of the war. The series of battles began with the Japanese landing men around Buna and Popondetta (north coastal stations) and pushing inland, across the Owen Stanley range, toward Port Moresby.

Their hope was to surprise the garrison there by attacking from the mountains, through which there were only a handful of jungle tracks, all of which went up and down the ravines and gorges of the nearly impassable terrain (made worse by the abysmal climate of rain and heat).

The Japanese got close to Moresby, near a place called Imita Ridge, where the Australian resistance stiffened. Then the Australians managed—it required feats of endurance and courage—to push the Japanese all the way back to Buna.

Duffy describes the Japanese mindset at Kokoda when they set out with tanks and trucks on what they thought was a road through the mountains to Port Moresby:

Meanwhile, the Japanese, convinced of the existence of a route from Buna to Port Moresby, decided that the theoretical road could accommodate motor vehicles. The basis for this was an account penned by an English explorer, discovered by Japanese officers in occupied Manila, of his time spent on the northern coast of New Guinea. The explorer reported learning of a road from the coast across the mountains to Port Moresby. Though he failed to describe the road in any detail—in part because he had not seen it and was only recording something told to him—the Japanese military planners took the story as completely accurate and planned their assault based on its misinformation….

Commenting on these reports after the war, the U.S. Army noted, “Actually, the Buna-Moresby road was nothing but a native trail which alternately ran through jungle swamps and over precipitous mountains. Throughout the entire campaign the use of vehicular transport was out of the question.”

The reason that it was called the Kokoda Trail (sometimes the word Track is used, and the correct term can be argued about for hours among Australians) is that there was a small airstrip near the mountain town. Duffy writes: “According to Australian military historian Peter Williams, the Kokoda airfield was central New Guinea’s ‘most important feature. Whichever army held the [air]strip could fly in reinforcements and supplies while denying the same to the enemy. In the long run the army that held the Kokoda strip was best placed to win the mountain campaign.’”

The estimates of the casualties around Kokoda are frightful. By some accounts, the Japanese landed 13,500 men in Buna to march overland and take Moresby. In the fighting, some 6,500 were lost, but another estimate says that only about 1,000 men were eventually evacuated from Buna. Disease and starvation claimed the balance of the men. Duffey writes: “Japanese survivors later referred to the Kokoda Track as ‘the path of infinite sorrow.’”

Less successful for MacArthur and the Allies were the American and Australian attacks against the fortified positions around Buna, the coastal town.

The fighting took place in late 1942 into early 1943, and it is the biggest disaster of World War II that you have never heard about. MacArthur designated the army’s 32nd division to make the attack, but then landed the men without sufficient training or weaponry (notably tanks or amphibious armor that could get through swampland).

In the first phases of the drawn out battle, the Allies lost more than 2,000 men, resulting in MacArthur relieving the commander of the 32nd and sending in his place his deputy, General Robert L. Eichelberger, with the grim instructions: “Bob, I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive; and that goes for your chief of staff too. Do you understand?”

Personally I have a hard time believing that even MacArthur could issue such suicidal orders, but if he did, I am sure they were catnip in the hands of his public relations department. It made for better press than the more obvious conclusion that MacArthur was beaten badly in the early days around Buna.

In making my own plans for the north coast, I had searched both in Alotau and on Goodenough Island for a coastal boat or ferry that might take me from Milne Bay along the coast to Buna, so that I could see what remains of the battlefields. (I am sure the jungle has blotted out most of the Japanese trenches around Buna, those that caused so many Allied casualties.)

In Alotau, when I asked in town, people said that there were no boats that made the connection. On Goodenough, when I spoke to my friend Thomas, he said that he could arrange to take me to Buna, but that the trip, in a banana boat, would take five days, and that the cost “for petrol” would be $1500.

Neither option sounded appealing, just to inspect malarial jungle similar to what I had seen at Milne Bay and in the D’Entrecasteaux.

* * *

Early on Sunday morning, just after dawn, Gavin weighed anchor (his powered windlass impressed me, as in all my sailing I have struggled with pulling anchor chains up by hand), and we motored in the direction of Losuia, again as if navigating through a mine field.

In places the channel to the port was only several meters deep and wide, which made no sense to me, as in my planning I had read about cruise ships calling at Kiriwina. Gavin explained that they would have anchored off the island’s west coast in deep water, and ferried to shore any passengers interested in exploring the island.

Although I wasn’t traveling with a particular guide book, I did have with me stacks of papers, which I had copied from histories, war diaries, travel books, guides, and the internet. Some of the papers that I had clipped spoke of Kiriwina as a tourist destination.

One description said that the hotels and lodges on the island were popular, and that Australians, in particular, liked to come to relax by the sea. Those passages gave me hope that I would find a flight connection to Port Moresby, or least a pleasant place to stay overnight. But the slow, methodical approach to Losuia and the rusting hulls in the harbor made me think more of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (“I couldn’t have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life…”) than that I was putting ashore in a Caribbean resort.

Yet again I said goodbye to Gavin and Luciana, Dave and Patsy. In the small skiff Gavin dropped me at the wharf in Losuia, where there was a crowd of travelers hauling bags of goods in the direction of a small ferry headed to Alotau. When I asked them how long it would take, one of the men on deck said cheerfully, “Two days, maybe three.” The boat already had the look of a craft, top heavy with passengers and goods, that was primed to roll in a swelling sea.

The moment I began walking down the Losuia wharf with my backpack, a man approached me and said he could arrange a ride to a guest house. We walked up the main street (garbage was everywhere) to a house with a gate and several cars parked around the garden. I was introduced to the cars’ owner, who said something about working for the municipality or the water company, and he gave keys to my minder, who drove me to the Losuia Lodge, which is about a mile from the town center.

The road was little more than a widened dirt trail, and on either side of the street there were traditional wooden huts and children playing by the roadside. The village scene was not that of a Pacific paradise but of third world poverty on a remote, forgotten island.

* * *

At the lodge’s small front desk I asked the indifferent clerk on duty about a room for the night, and with a deadpan expression she showed me several. As I could not tell the difference between the ones costing $70 and those costing $100, I chose the cheaper option, which was a room with two single beds and several fans, none of which worked.

When I asked about the power supply in the hotel, the clerk said it would come on that night. Nor, she said, did the hotel (or the island for that matter) have a working cell or internet connection. She did say that there was a flight tomorrow morning to the mainland.

Most of the other guests at the hotel looked like longer-term tenants, perhaps using the lodge while working at jobs on the island. Most seemed to be Japanese or Chinese, and several were engrossed in lengthy, sometimes argumentative, discussions in the lobby, as if a drug deal was going bad.

As my room, without a working light, was gloomy, I took my computer and books to a verandah near the sea and worked there for much of the afternoon. I organized my receipts, typed my notes, sorted highlights on my Kindle, and started another book, this one a history of PT-boats in World War II—Robert J. Bulkley’s At Close Quarters.

It seemed like the place to be reading it, as Kiriwina’s main contribution to the war effort had been the presence of its airstrip (now the island’s airport) and its PT base, which was located on the north end of the island (away from the reefs around Losuia). It was from a base on Kiriwina that my friend’s father, Lt. Commander Joseph Ellicott, commanded PT-131. He won a Silver Star for shooting down a Japanese plane off the south coast of New Britain, which is about 150 miles to the north.

I had bought the Bulkley book as it is mentioned in William Doyle’s PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy, an excellent account of the familiar story, published in 2015. Doyle does not add a lot of new facts to the story of PT-109’s sinking (off the shore of Gizo Island in the Blackett Strait), but he’s a good writer and he has unearthed new material from the Japanese side, including the revelation (to me anyway) that as a member of Congress, and later as president, John F. Kennedy made repeated efforts to get in touch with the commander of the Amagiri, the Japanese destroyer that rammed and sank the PT-109.

In 1951, Kennedy had the opportunity to meet with Captain Kohei Hanami, who was living on “a family farm at Shiokawa, a remote hamlet in Fukushima Prefecture more than two hundred miles northeast of Tokyo.” But on that trip Kennedy became ill (in fact he almost died), and he never did meet Captain Hanami.

As president, Kennedy dreamed of a trip to Japan and a reunion of the two crews from PT-109 and the Amagiri, but the only time he thought he could go there was after his re-election in 1964. Fate yet again intervened, and he never did meet his opposite number on the Amagiri, but the two men did exchange several heartfelt letters.

* * *

Bulkley was a naval officer who served with distinction around islands such as Kiriwina. At Close Quarters is a labor of love, extolling the patrol torpedo boats that captured public imagination (at least after Cliff Robertson starred as Lt. (jg.) John F. Kennedy in the Hollywood version of PT-109).

Kennedy himself wrote the introduction to Bulkley’s book, making the point that a dynamic navy needs ships of varying sizes and capabilities, and that the idea of a high-speed, maneuverable boat, armed with torpedoes, made a lot of sense. In practice, however, PT boats were vulnerable to attacks from heavier armed ships and from fighter planes, which limited their war efforts to nighttime patrols, even though many of the boats lacked radar. No wonder casualty rates were so high in their ranks.

Doyle’s book is better than Bulkley’s in explaining how it was that PT boats were not a more successful weapon in the fight against the Japanese. Ideally, they should have been able to hide among the small islands and reefs in places such as New Guinea and the Solomons, and from those lairs strike at the Tokyo Express, which brought men and supplies down the Slot from Rabaul to battlefields like Guadalcanal.

The problem for PT boats in action was that they lacked the firepower and armor plating to engage anything much larger or faster than a coastal barge. And on the night when PT-109 was sunk, the mission assigned to the squadron of PT boats operating from Rendova was foolhardy—conceived by career officers from Annapolis who understood little about the patrol boats’ strengths and weaknesses.

No wonder that, as president, John F. Kennedy had contempt for many senior officers in the Pentagon. When he said in the 1960s, “They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and their split-second timing, but it never works out,” he might well have been recalling the orders that sent him into the Blackett Strait on August 2, 1943.

Of the mission that night, Doyle writes:

PT 105 skipper Richard Keresey summarized the dismal results of the skirmish: “Fifteen PT boats ventured out into Blackett Strait to attack four Japanese destroyers, the best odds PT boats ever had. We fired thirty-two torpedoes, including four from my 105. We hit nothing! The destroyers kept right on going straight down Blackett Strait and then straight back a couple of hours later.” He added, “when the 109 got in the way, they ran over it.” Similarly, naval historian Commander Robert J. Bulkley, Jr. noted: “This was perhaps the most confused and least effectively executed action the PTs had been in.” Years later, John F. Kennedy dismissed the night’s events as a “fucked up” series of events.

By most accounts, the problem that night with Kennedy’s squadron (he was not its leader) was that the lead boat withdrew to Rendova early in the action, and that left the rest of the boats (between Gizo and Kolombangara) on their own, with little guidance and no radar.

Bulkley writes: “Eight PT’s fired 30 torpedoes. The only confirmed results are the loss of PT 109 and damage to the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. The Amagiriwas not hit by a torpedo, but vibrated so badly after ramming the 109 that she was unable to proceed at high speed. The chief fault of the PT’s was that they didn’t pass the word. Each boat attacked independently, leaving the others to discover the enemy for themselves.”

On Kiriwina I thought how much I would have loved to have a lunch with my friend’s father, Joseph Ellicott, or some other PT skippers, and to hear their stories of missions across the nearby waters. But at the Losuia Lodge my only link to the American past was through my Kindle and my imagination, both of which were running low on power as I wondered, through the long afternoon, how I would get off godforsaken Kiriwina Island.

* * *

Aside from reading, during my afternoon at the Losuia Lodge I swam in a pool that was carved from the coral at the water’s edge (think of a swimming hole with razor-sharp coral around the edges). At one point I went for a walk in the neighborhood but after a while turned back, as I felt out of place wandering past women washing clothes in ditches and children kicking soccer balls in dusty front yards.

Kiriwina might have a tourist trade, but I did not find it—paradise as a clothes line. At least I knew that the flight the next morning departed around 11:00 a.m. and that a car would be leaving from the hotel to the airport just after breakfast. But no one knew how I could buy a ticket, and without an internet or phone connection I could not log into the reservation system of Airlines PNG. Apparently the cell tower had been out for a week, and some of the men who I had seen arguing in the hotel had come to the island to fix it.

I slept fine in my dreary room. At one point, all the lights and the fans switched on with a blaze, as the promised power was restored during the night (as if part of some nightmare).

Breakfast was lukewarm tea and white-bread toast. While sipping tea in the lobby, I asked another traveler in the breakfast area about the flight and where I might buy a ticket, and she told me that the agent for Airlines PNG worked at the hotel.

I hustled outside to track down Rebecca, who was very nice but said: “We have a problem. The flight is full.” Then she said the next flight wasn’t until Friday. My heart sank. I could not stand the idea of idling without the internet in a dreary lodge for another four days, as the rest of my trip slipped away.

I chatted up Rebecca as best I could, but in the end she had no answer. She suggested that I come to the airport in the second car. She was going out earlier and, by the time I arrived, would know better the headcount for the flight.

My ride to the airport was a shared taxi, and we were about five in a mini-van. By chance, the driver went through the main part of town, and even stopped at the wharf, where I could see the “Chemistry” at the same mooring where it had been the day before, when we arrived. I had thought that Gavin would have sailed to a nicer harbor, but there in front of me was the catamaran.

I waved and shouted, as I had in Alotau, and in a few minutes Gavin showed up on the skiff to say that they were using the stop in Losuia to shop for supplies and to clean the boat. I explained about the possibility of a full flight and said—if no place was found for me—rather than wait another four days for a flight that I would prefer to return to the “Chemistry” and head in whatever direction they were sailing.

Gavin was fine with my improvisation and said that they had no plans in particular, except to sail toward the Amphlett Islands, which we had seen on the horizon when we cruised from Goodenough to Kiriwina.

* * *

Gurney Airport, along Milne Bay in Alotau, had been trim and proper, with its several war memorials by the runway and a waiting room. But the Kiriwina airport, on the outskirts of the town, was a mob scene.

Opposite the small airport there was a large public market, and beside the fence around the terminal there were dozens of men and women milling around, awaiting the arrival of the flight from Moresby and Alotau or perhaps just there for planespotting.

I was reminded of news dispatches from some troubled spot in the world, from which the only way out was on an evacuation flight. But this was a scheduled flight on a Monday morning, although panic seemed to be in the air.

A guard admitted me through the locked gate, and inside the airport terminal I found Rebecca and her cohorts seated at plastic tables in the middle of the waiting room, as if preparing to sell lemonade. Her deal to me was this: If I could pay two hundred American dollars in cash for a ticket, I could have a seat to Alotau, where there were daily flights to Moresby.

I went through my wallet to the place where I had hidden dollars for just such an emergency, and I paid over the money (to the airline, not Rebecca). I would have preferred a ticket to Port Moresby, but didn’t feel I was in any position to bargain (or for that matter to ask for a window seat or frequent flyer miles).

With my boarding pass in hand and my backpack (and lifejacket) checked to Alotau, I headed to the market to do some shopping, and I came away with several straw baskets that (I hoped) would later fit into my backpack.

* * *

The flight was about an hour late. While sitting outsideon the ground,in the shade of a palm tree, I heard from some fellow travelers that domestic political violence was the reason why Kiriwina Island was down to only two flights a week.

Apparently, some months before, a rebel had planted a small bomb on the runway (think of patchy blacktop rolled into the coral and jungle), and after that explosion, the airline had cut back its service to Kiriwina. And until repairs were done to the runway,the airlinecould only land smaller Dash-8 planes, which limited passengers to twenty-eight.

There was some talk, at least among those seated near to me in the shade, of a third weekly flight, onethat wouldflydirectly to Port Moresby. But no one sounded hopeful,either about the proposed schedule change or, in general, aboutPNG politics.

The country has two airlines (and feeder service, sometimes called level-three airlines). But the country’s politics are hostage to a variety of colonial and corporate interests, which can get by without roads, ferries, and infrastructure for the rest of the population.

When the arriving flight landed, everyone rushed the runway fence, as if they were not quite sure that there would seats for everyone with a boarding pass. Before boarding we had to wait until the luggage was removed from the arriving flight, which included in its hold a large coffin (wrapped in garbage bags) that several men (without saying anything to the airline staff) hoisted on their shoulders and carried to the roof of a nearby car.

The flight to Alotau took less than forty minutes (sailing had taken us four days), and I was not able to see much of the Amphlett or D’Entrecasteaux islands, as clouds were covering most of the route.

Obligingly, the plane did fly right over the “Chemistry,” and later Gavin wrote to say that they had waved at the plane, hoping I was on it. I was heading back to Alotau where I should have been, according to my schedule, on Thursday afternoon or Friday. Now it was mid-day on Monday, and I had no idea how or when I would get to Moresby. My dreams about Buna, Kokoda, and Cape Gloucester were slipping over the horizon. But then Melville writes inMoby-Dick: “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

Next up: Back to Port Moresby and then to Rabaul on the eastern end of New Britain. To read other parts in this series, please click here.

More articles by:

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including, most recently, Reading the Rails.

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