Pacific Odyssey: Puddle Jumping in New Britain

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

A map of wartime New Guinea. In this series, the author goes from Port Moresby to Milne Bay, Lae, Hoskins, Rabaul, and Guadalcanal. Cape Gloucester is on the western tip of New Britain. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

Although my get-out-of-town ticket from Kiriwina was only to Alotau, my goal was to travel on to Port Moresby, which is where the plane was headed after a short stop at Gurney Airport to drop off and collect a few passengers. Rebecca had told me that I would need to see the agent on duty in the airport to buy another plane ticket. (Travel in Papua New Guinea is a series of one-way adventures.) But when I hustled off the plane and found the agents in the terminal, the last thing on anyone’s mind was selling me a seat on the continuing flight.

For a while two or three men in yellow vests—more luggage handlers than agents—showed some interest and quoted me a price to Moresby. But when I tried to pay with a credit card, no one knew how to operate the payment register (one of those hand-held devices that waiters bring to your table).

So we switched the negotiations to cash. I had PNG Kina notes, but not in the correct denominations, and the airport had no change. I offered to pay in dollars, which were acceptable on Kiriwina, but by that point I had become a nuisance, along the lines of “This would be a great airline if it didn’t have any passengers.”

In the end, the yellow vests clerks walked away from the desk, closed up the plane’s door, and waved away the flight with those orange sticks, much the way, in my mind, I saw the rest of my trip to New Guinea’s battlefields disappearing on the murky horizon. I wasn’t no longer a castaway on Kiriwina, but now found myself waylaid in Milne Bay.

* * *

At least by now Alotau was familiar, and when I walked back through the front door of the Napatana Lodge everyone on the staff was happy to see me again. They assigned me the same empty backpacker room—the lovely screened porch, with views of the water and a large desk—and, before venturing into town in search of the internet on which to buy a plane ticket, I ate fish soup and drank cold beer (with the company of the hotel cat) as part of a late lunch celebrating my escape from Kiriwina.

The International Hotel in Alotau sold me access to the internet for $5, and I sat there for several hours in the late afternoon, trying to figure out the next steps of my travels. I could book a flight the next day to Moresby (nearly all flights in PNG start or end there), but to get to Lae or Rabaul, as a next step, would mean spending another night in Moresby, something I wanted to avoid.

Before making a ticket decision, I checked my incoming emails, to see if any of the travel operators I had written had any ideas about Cape Gloucester. Aaron, from Ecotourism Melanesia, had written to me:

Here’s what I dug up so far:

> Local PMVs [personal motorized vehicles, aka a truck] travel from Kimbe [large town on New Britain, but still a hundred miles from Gloucester] town to place called Garu. [Four to five hours.] From Garu a motorised dinghy would have to be used to get to Gloucester. [At least five or six hours.] The Gloucester lady says crime wouldn’t be a problem in the Gloucester area, but winds and rough seas can be at times. My guess is it would be K30-K40 by PMV and K100-K150 by dinghy. I’m not…. [There the message ended, as if kidnappers had dragged Aaron away in mid-sentence.]

In earlier correspondence, Aaron had described a twice-weekly ferry service from Lae, the large town and port on the north coast, to Cape Gloucester. But now I was reduced to a banana boat from Garu to Gloucester, assuming I could get to Garu on that trail through the jungle. In all, it looked like a week’s proposition, maybe more. At least I might get the chance to wear my lifejacket, or try out my whistle.

Little by little my grand plans for Papua New Guinea were fading away. I had not succeeded in finding a boat from Goodenough either to Alotau or Buna, and now I would have to backtrack (for more than a week) from Kimbe if I wanted to visit Gloucester. It seemed daunting. As my father would have joked: “Will you be on the roster after Cape Gloucester?”

Even though I had given myself a month in the Pacific for what I knew would be difficult travels, with the slow progress that I was making I would not have time to stop in Gloucester and then connect to either Rabaul or make it to my outbound flight from Honiara, on Guadalcanal in the Solomons.

In retrospect, I should have invested all of my spare cash in Gavin and the good sailing ship “Chemistry,” and seen how far I could get. But he had said that the prevailing winds, at that time of year, would have made it difficult for him to take me to Cape Gloucester and still pick up his next charter party in Alotau. So I was on my own, at the International Hotel in Alotau, which was nowhere.

* * *

After several hours of brooding over the computer (I paid out another $5 to extend the connection), I booked an air ticket to Rabaul, on the eastern tip of New Britain. Instead of booking a direct flight (there were none from Alotau), I decided to take a flight from Port Moresby that would make stops along the way in Lae and Hoskins, the airfield for Kimbe.

In this way, especially on the flight from Lae to Kimbe, I might be able to see Cape Gloucester from the air. And as I would be flying on a small propeller plane the length of New Britain, I might also learn something about the landscape of the Marine campaign that slogged through its rain-soaked jungles. In his remembrance my father would say: “It just never stopped raining.” In his MacArthur biography William Manchester writes: “On New Britain sixteen inches of rain fell in a single day.”

It was like booking a flyover of Gettysburg or Normandy, but it was all I could manage from an internet cafe on Milne Bay. I consoled myself by thinking that I would get a good visit in Rabaul and that, for my next trip to New Britain, I would have a much better understanding of the local topography.

It felt like a defeat, but I weighed it against having made it to the D’Entrecasteaux and Trobriands islands, places I never imagined that I would visit. And I now understood why the war in the Pacific was called a “War of Distances.”

* * *

My travels hit rock bottom on my layover at Jacksons International Airport in Port Moresby, where I checked into a nearby hotel called Airways. I had been looking for that bank of airport telephones that make direct calls to local hotels when a tout, with a fistful of hotel brochures, approached me.

I was skeptical about the sidewalk sell but did need a hotel, and Jacksons was yet another stop on my route that did not include wifi connections, preventing me from booking on my own through the internet. Suddenly I was back in 1989, wandering around a strange airport, trying to find a place to say.

In laminated brochures, all hotels are appealing. I booked Airways because it had a pool, air conditioning, and an airport shuttle bus. Had I gone into downtown Port Moresby, the cab ride would have cost $30 each way, and I would have paid $200 for the room—a lot for a stopover in Papua New Guinea.  

My problems began after I had checked into the hotel (the room was dirty but I could have overlooked that) and asked to have or buy the code for wifi, the reason I was there at all. (The tout had assured me that the internet connections were blazing fast.) Instead of passing over the code, the clerk said that the hotel had a policy of only letting guests who had booked online use the internet. Walk-ins from the airport, such as myself, could do without connections.

I huffed and puffed, and asked the see the manager. After about twenty minutes (like Buddha with his laptop, I sat brooding on a sofa in the lobby), I was told that, exceptionally, I could use the internet for one hour. The manager refused to come out of his goldfish bowl of an office to speak to me, but would occasionally peek through his blinds at me, as if someone else was whispering to him: “No, it’s that crazy guy on the sofa.”

* * *

The puddle jumping flight to Rabaul was scheduled to leave early in the morning but it wasn’t until after 10:00 a.m. that we took off. While we were waiting, the public address system in the waiting room comforted the passengers by explaining that one of the pilots was missing. (“Ladies and gentlemen, Air PNG wishes to inform you that….”)

Whether with one pilot or two, we flew through high cloud banks over the Owen Stanley range, which from the air looked like a vast green carpet, with jungle trees in the place of wool stitches. I tried to see foot paths through the valleys or over the peaks, but sooner than I wanted the high sierra of PNG was lost in the mist.

I had arranged the stopover in Lae so that, as the plane approached Nadzab Airport, I could see the from the air the peaks of the surrounding hills and mountains, which figure so prominently in Peter Ryan’s Fear Drive My Feet, one of the classics of Australian war literature.

During the Second World War in New Guinea, Ryan was stationed around Lae with the constabulary forces. An Australian from Melbourne, he was nineteen years old and had learned, from his father, some of the rudiments of pidgin, the local dialect.

His mission was to patrol the hills around Lae and to report on the sympathies of the local tribes and the movements of the Japanese army, whose forces were dug in around the coast.

Ryan spent several years in the bush, and his memoir captures the grim conditions on the ground in New Guinea. He writes: “But this vast landscape in which nothing moved or spoke was eerie and rather frightening. It was not the peaceful quiet of a friendly countryside, but brooding, malevolent, full of watchful eyes.” On behalf of the Australian government, Ryan watched the mountains the way coast watchers had their eyes on the sea.

I first came across Ryan’s memoirs in the 1980s, when I was traveling to Australia for work and would go on Saturdays to local bookshops. I read the book then, but reread it now, to prep for my flight over what is called the Huon Peninsula, which is the mountainous head of a dragon staring in the direction of New Britain (a long island off PNG’s north coast).

Ryan got to his post there by traversing the Markham River, which from my window seat appeared as a murky, sandy estuary at the base of tall mountains. In the memoir, however, it’s the dividing line between the low country—the broad valley around Lae that includes the airport at Nadzab—and the high country, where Ryan was often patrolling.

Of the Markham River, he writes: “All the hazards of a sea voyage were to be had in a trip across this incredible stream – reefs, islands, currents, waves, and sand-banks – any one of which might have wrecked us.” Once he was in the high ground, he blended more contentedly with his surroundings. He writes: “[The rushing waters] were, in another sense, like a gate, for each time I crossed the Markham on my way to the mountains I felt I had passed through a door into another life.”

Compared with many memoirs of the Second World War, Ryan’s book is light on scenes with blood and guts. His enemies were the climate and landscape, and he counted it a victory whenever he persuaded a local tribe to alert him to the movements of the Japanese in the lands around Lae.

Ryan writes: “We knew neither where we would come out nor the name of the first village we would find. For all we knew, the Japanese might be waiting in force for us, and all we would earn, at the price of the endeavour of this nightmare journey, would be a miserable and lonely death, which we might have found more easily by staying in the Wain” (one of the districts). In effect, the book is one long patrol through the coastal mountains around Lae.

Ryan lived off the land, trading salt and trinkets to local tribesmen in exchange for fruit and meat. He camped in the wild and, every so often, he returned to an Australian base to report on what he had seen or heard. His personality was perfect for the missions undertaken, in that he did not mind the solitude of the bush nor the miserable conditions. He writes:

After his mosquito-net, the bed-sail is probably the New Guinea traveller’s most useful item of furniture. It consists of a double sleeve of canvas about seven feet long and three feet wide. Two stout poles are inserted along either side to make a rough stretcher, and the poles are supported at the ends by a couple of stout sticks lashed together at the top like shear-legs. The result is a tightly stretched canvas bed, cool and springy, raised two or three feet off the ground. It can be erected in a few minutes, and the canvas is practically no weight to carry. Moreover, in the daytime, on the track, it forms a useful waterproof wrapper for blankets.

Here and there, Ryan got sick or just tired, but mostly he was on the run, one or several steps ahead of pursuing Japanese patrols, who feared that the bush watchers would alert Allied air forces to their troop concentrations.  

* * *

At the time of Ryan’s memoir, General MacArthur’s men (American and Australian) had captured Kokoda and Buna and were beginning to leapfrog up the north coast of New Guinea toward Lae and Madang, both of which fell during 1943, when Ryan was in the high mountains.  

Ryan accomplished his missions with cunning and bravery, and unlike many footloose in the war, he appreciated the surroundings through which he was moving. He writes: “The Wain country was to be my home for many months, and I grew to love it all. It contains many beautiful sights, but I have always had a specially soft spot in my heart for Gain village, possibly because of the contrast with the hot, flat, mosquito-ridden Markham. The house-kiap, a little apart from the village, was set in a grassy clearing on the hillside, whence one looked across the deep valley of the Upper Busu River towards tiers of blue mountains rising ever higher as they receded into the distance.” 

Had the American armies in Iraq or Afghanistan had the equivalent of the Australian constabulary forces in the desert, they might have saved themselves many months and years of reconnaissance trying to figure out which side the locals were on. Ryan makes clear how minimal was the investment to harvest useful intelligence. He writes: 

Perhaps the blame, in the final analysis, should be placed on the Australian governments, of whatever political colour, which, before the war, had consistently starved the Territory of funds and forced district administrators to manage on shoe-string budgets. It was the legacy of that sort of patrolling which was now making it difficult for us to have any influence, in any real sense, on the people, though my stay at Bawan had convinced me how ready they were to be friends once an interest was taken in them as individuals and not just as entries in the village book, to be censused and, probably, censured. 

He was even sympathetic to villagers who could not make up their minds about allying with the Australians or the Japanese. As Ryan points out, neither colonial army was indigenous to New Guinea. He writes of one wavering tribesmen: “But even if he had been playing ball with the Japanese, who could blame him? The war was not of his making. If, for some reason unknown to him, white men and yellow men wanted to fight like animals in his country, what was more natural than for him to work for the safety of his own people? Until it became clear who was going to win the war, a sensible politician would speak softly to both sides.” 

Fear Drive My Feet ends with a chase scene through the jungle in which the Japanese pick up the scent of Ryan and his bearers, and it reads like the jungle equivalent of The Thirty-Nine Steps, although instead of fleeing across the Scottish borders, the Australian party fords streams and hacks through jungle.

In one of these firefights, Ryan’s colleague and friend Les Howlett is killed, and his loss became, to Ryan anyway, a senseless tragedy of the war. He writes: “I realized then that I did not really hate the Japanese – that I did not hate anyone. I realized that war accomplishes nothing but the degradation of all engaged in it. I knew that Les Howlett’s death had been in vain, that the loneliness of spirit and suffering of body I had forced myself to endure had been to no end, and that the selfless devotion of my native companions had been, in the final analysis, purposeless.” 

Until he was killed, Les is an almost mythical figure of the constabulary, someone who, on his own, could find remote paths through the jungle or over the high mountains to the coast. At one point he and Ryan had this exchange: 

‘ ‘‘Damp rusts men as it rusts rifles; more slowly, but deeper” ’ quoted Les. ‘I can’t remember who said that – can you?’ ‘No. But he must have been a soldier.’

Les’s death leaves Ryan numb, just as many deaths across the contours of World War II left other men bereft at the loss of a friend or mate. Ryan recalls coming in the from the jungle, having eluded the Japanese who killed his friend: “Nobody said anything much, and I sat there dully, staring at the swamp. I had no sensation of joy or relief, though I knew in a remote and abstract way that I was now safe. I had no thoughts, no feelings whatsoever. I felt neither grief on account of Les nor anger at the Japanese or Chivasings. Nor did I feel any sense of warmth or companionship towards the soldiers who were now preparing water for me to wash, and giving me articles from their own scanty clothing to cover my nakedness.”

* * *

The book ends with Ryan back in Moresby, trying to recover from his years in the jungles. He needed to draw new clothes and gear, as his were lost in his escape from the Japanese. He writes about the conversation his quartermaster:

After a few days I went to the store to get new clothes. I was wearing a woollen shirt, a pair of ragged green shorts, and some old sandshoes, but no hat or socks. All of these had been given me either at Kirklands or Wampit. ‘Where’s your paybook and your other papers?’ demanded the quartermaster. I explained the fate of my clothes and papers and other possessions. ‘Good God, man, that’s no excuse!’ he snapped. ‘Don’t you realize it’s a crime in the Army to lose your paybook? You can’t be issued with any equipment here without a paybook.’ I didn’t argue, but let the district officer arrange a new issue of clothing for me. But I started to wonder all over again if wars were really worth the trouble.

I am sure that the scene Ryan describes would have resonated with my father, who like Ryan spent many months over three years in the jungles of New Guinea (and the Solomons) and who would have brushed up against the same military officialdom.

In my father’s case, he liked to tell the story of what happened to him during Christmas 1944, when he had his first leave in the United States since May 1942. Since then he had fought through three bitter campaigns on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu.

At one point during his leave, he met friends at the West End Bar, which was adjacent to the campus of Columbia University, where my father graduated with the class of 1940. While he was at the West End and dressed in civilian clothes, military police swept through the campus bar, searching for draft dodgers.

For whatever reason my father had no ID with him proving that he was a major in the Marines, and, of late on Cape Gloucester, executive officer of the 1st battalion, First Marines. The MPs scoffed at what they deemed to be a preposterous claim, pointing out that he was only twenty-five years old, and they arrested him. He spent the night in a military brig.

I never did hear who was called at Marine headquarters to straighten out the confusion, but years later my mother said to me, in a low confessional voice, “I think it’s safe to say that he was a little angry,” much as he was on being discharged from active duty in late 1946, when a warrant officer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard charged him for his service revolver, which had gone missing during his three years of front-line fighting.

I have no idea if the Marine quartermaster said: “Good God, man, that’s no excuse!” But I can easily imagine my father nodding with approval at the last lines in Ryan’s memoir, when he writes: “Man is very brave. His patience and endurance are truly wonderful. Perhaps he will learn, one day, that wars and calamities of nature are not the only occasions when such qualities are needed.”

* * *

As my plane circled over the Markham valley and approached Nadzab Airport (it is at the head of the valley, about twenty-five miles from the center of Lae), I got to see where, in the World War II battle for the airstrip, MacArthur had authorized the use of paratroops, who jumped close to the airfield and overran the Japanese garrison that was guarding it.

It was one of the first uses of paratroops in the Pacific war, and MacArthur watched the operation in person from a plane circling above the drop zone. To his detractors, his involvement was a circus stunt that accomplished nothing; to his supporters, it was another example of MacArthur’s personal courage and his ability to think in three dimensions about the war in the Pacific.

Had I gone into Lae, I am sure that I would have visited the Lae War Cemetery, which is next to the Botanical Gardens, and then tried to track down the schedule for the coastal ferry, M.V. Chebu, which in my obsession over getting around Papua New Guinea had become something of a great white whale.

After the MV Rabaul Queen sank in 2012, there was no ferry service between Lae, Rabaul, and Bougainville until a Chinese investment company entered the Chebu into service around 2015. Now it’s “on the line” between Lae and Buka (in Bougainville) but despite months of searching, I was never able to determine its weekly schedule.

I knew that it called at Kimbe and Rabaul, but I never could find out when, despite reading numerous posts to TripAdvisor and the Lonely Planet websites.

Such was my obsession with the Chebu that I joined the community of a marine traffic website, which uploaded to my computer (in real time) the positions of the Chebu.

Whenever I called up the satellite website, I could see the location of the Chebu around New Britain. Sometimes it was in Rabaul; other times it was at sea near Lae. I kept notes about its positions, but they never allowed me to verify, as Lonely Planet claimed, that the Chebu departed Lae at 11:00 a.m. every Sunday. Nor did they ever suggest a stop in Gloucester, which today is no more than a village. As Herman Melville writes in Moby-Dick: “Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock.”

In Lae, I would also have gone to the Lae Yacht Club and looked up the general manager, who has the delightful name of Basil Snowball. He had been very kind to me, at least in a series of emails, when I was searching for a connection between Lae or Finschhafen (just down the coast) to Cape Gloucester, across the Vitiaz and Dampier straits. I had thought that perhaps a boat from the yacht club could ferry me across these rough waters (better a fishing than a banana boat, in my mind).

In his emails, Mr. Snowball had said he was not aware of any ferries that stopped in Gloucester. Nor did he think I would have much luck finding deck passage on a steamer. He did say that he knew of fishing boats that could be chartered, but he estimated that the cost would be $1500 a day, and that I would need two days for my excursion.

I left off our correspondence thinking that I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding affordable transportation (something on the lee side of $1500) out of Lae, which was another reason I was bypassing the city and flying toward Kimbe.

* * *

Had I been on the flight deck of my Airlines PNG plane to Kimbe, I would have asked the captain (presuming he wasn’t the one missing) to give Finchhafen a fly-over.

The old German trading port is about fifty miles east northeast of Lae, and in September and October 1942 Australian forces took the town and nearby Cape Cretin from the Japanese, giving the Americans another forward base from which to stage their attack on Cape Gloucester and its airfield.

Some guide books hint that Finschhafen has retained its German accents, although the entries (as with my email correspondents) are divided on how easy it is to visit the town.

Other websites talk of a regular coastal ferry service from Lae to Finschhafen, taking about four to five hours. But I had downloaded messages suggesting that there was no ferry service and that only private banana boats make the coastal run. In any case, no one indicated that there was a connection between Finschhafen and Cape Gloucester, despite their proximity.

I was interested in Finschhafen because the First Marines, after leaving Goodenough Island, staged themselves near Cape Cretin before the attack on Cape Gloucester. I am pretty sure, but was never positive, that my father was among this landing party.

In speaking about his campaign medals during the war, he would say: “We made three combat landings but they gave us credit for four, including Fischhafen. We landed there but the Aussies didn’t need us. They were a good outfit.”

I have no doubt that medals were given to the First Marines for their presence (however briefly) at Finschhafen. As Napoleon pointed out, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”

Some forward elements of the First Marine Division were at Finschhafen during the September fighting, but I do not believe that my father was among them, as his war record indicates that he only made a ten-day stop there, in mid-December, on his way from Goodenough Island to the D-day landings at Cape Gloucester on December 26, 1943.

His record for December 1943 reads as follows:

Company C, Company Commander; 13, embarked aboard LST 452 and sailed from Goodenough Island, D’Entrecasteaux Islands, Territory of Papua, Australia; 14-15, at sea; 16, arrived and disembarked at Nascing Alatu, New Guinea; 25, embarked aboard LST and sailed same day; 26, arrived and landed against Japanese enemy forces; 27-31, participated in action against enemy forces at Cape Gloucester, New Britain.

For a long time I was unable to find the location of Nascing Alatu. I even wondered if it might have been Alotau. But in a Medal of Honor citation for PFC John Fardy (who won it when he was serving with C Company, First Marines, on Okinawa in 1945), I came across the following passage:

Attached to Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines [my father’s company] upon his arrival at Goodenough Island, D’Entrecasteaux Islands, early in December 1943, PFC Fardy left with that unit about a week later for Nascing, Alatu, New Guinea. The stay there was a short one also, for the 1st Marines left Finschafen on Christmas Day 1943, for their December 26 landing on enemy-held Cape Gloucester, New Britain. Within two months of the time he left his home shores, the former draftsman was involved in a battle for an enemy airdrome on an island rarely heard of before.

From this account, I was able, for the first time, to link Nascing Alatu to Finschhafen, and later (on a satellite map) I found a village by the name of “Nasingalatu,” located 7.6 kilometers south of Finschhafen, on the coast (near Buki).  

Finally the pieces of the puzzle that I had been working on for years were falling into place. Everything in front of me, as well, matched an official Marine Corps history of the campaign on New Britain, which reads: “Six weeks later [from late October] a detachment of Combat Team B moved to Finschhafen…”

And if I had had the resources of the U.S. navy behind me, I might also have followed in their footsteps, instead of giving Finschhafen and Gloucester a flyover.

* * *

My flight crossed Ryan’s Huon Peninsula and flew on a direct course to Hoskins, which is on the north coast of New Britain, equidistant from Cape Gloucester and Rabaul.

Before boarding the plane, I had badgered the check-in agent to give me a window seat on the left hand side of the plane. When she asked why, I explained about my father and Cape Gloucester, and she placed me in seat 1A. But even with an unobstructed view to the north, I was not able to see Mt. Talawe (which dominates the area) nor anything about Cape Gloucester, which remained hidden in the mists.

I should not have been surprised. After all, Ryan writes in his memoir: “Damp, green, dim, unreal, it made the journey like a combination of a bad nightmare and a scene from one of Grimm’s fairy-tales.

The American campaign on New Britain, at least for my father’s C Company, lasted for four months, but the heavy fighting was over in the first two weeks, after the 1st battalion, First Marines, took the aerodrome on Cape Gloucester.

Again it was C Company that took the runway, but when it came time to award medals for the achievement, the battalion commander, Walker Reaves, said: “Hell, Nick [my father] won one last time. [Meaning on Guadalcanal.] Let’s give one to Hal Jennings.”

Jennings commanded A Company and was a close friend of my father’s for the rest of their lives. Whenever I heard either one tell this story, both of them would laugh. Neither thought much about Reaves and his habits of command, even though the career officer himself won a silver star for having “taken” the airport. His citation reads:

Assigned the difficult mission of defending the left flank of an assault force which was attacking across a low coastal plain while his battalion’s zone of action ran through the hilly, swamp-infested jungle, Lieutenant Colonel Reaves brilliantly led his men across the treacherous terrain in the face of concentrated enemy machine-gun fire from cleverly concealed pillboxes. Disregarding the constant hostile fire, he skillfully directed his assault formations effectively and employed supporting artillery and auxiliary weapons to maintain pace with the main body of troops.

But to hear my father or Hal Jennings tell the story, Reaves was nowhere near the airfield when it was captured.  

* * *

After the airstrip was taken, the job of the Marines was supposed to be over, and the army should have garrisoned the battlefield on West New Britain. But MacArthur left the Marines on New Britain until the end of April.

For the first few weeks, after the landing, there was heavy fighting around the airfield and inland from Borgen Bay (especially around Hill 660). But after that New Britain became a battle of endurance between the Marines and the weather, which consisted of non-stop rain and humidity.

The weather would have matched this description in Ryan’s memoir: “The heat, too, grew more and more oppressive. It was the sort of heat one sometimes finds in big laundries or in other places where there are large quantities of boiling water. Though we were now almost down to sea-level, and the heat and humidity could not have got much worse, I nevertheless had the strange feeling of going ever downward into an inferno.” Look up any picture in any book about the fighting on New Britain, and all you will see are men or tents in the jungle, flooded with rain.

After the taking of the airfield, my father had another coming-of-age moment about a month later, when he was given command of a patrol to explore through the jungle south of Mt. Talawe and to link up with another patrol from the 7th Marines that was pushing toward the volcanic mountain from the coastal village of Sag Sag.

No Marine patrol had gone along the trail that cut south in the lee of the mountain, and my father’s orders were to be gone no more than five days and, if possible, to link up with the patrol coming from the other side.

His description of the patrol is far different from the one that appears in the official histories. In The Campaign for New Britain, Lt. Col. Frank O. Hough writes, after first describing their progress on the first day out from the perimeter:

The next day, however, told a different story for the Stevenson patrol. Hardly had their men got off to a good start along their difficult route than a hidden machine gun opened up on the point at a range of about 30 yards near Mt. Langla. Only a small volume of rifle fire supported it, leading to the belief that no more than six or seven Japanese had set the ambush. The advance guard deployed and drove these off in a brief fire fight, without loss to the Marines, nor to their opponents so far as they could tell.

The patrol proceeded more cautiously after that, but was ambushed again at about 1500 in almost precisely the same manner, and quite likely by precisely the same Japanese. This time the advance guard reacted more quickly and killed two of the enemy before the rest took to their heels. With his men tired and short of water, Stevenson did not attempt to pursue but selected favorable terrain and set up an ambush of his own for the night.

On 24 January the patrol pushed on to a point about 1,500 yards south of Mt. Munlulu, where it was suddenly pinned down before a strongly situated enemy force estimated at platoon strength, stiffened with two heavy machine guns. Unable to neutralize this fire, and unable to close with it—or even see—the Japanese positions in that rugged terrain, Stevenson finally managed to break contact and fell back to more favorable territory in hopes that the opponents, encouraged by their success, might feel optimistic enough to attack him.

My father’s second in command on the patrol, Captain George Dawes, said later that, in his opinion, this Japanese force had 2-3 platoons and 3-4 heavy machine guns.

On the fifth day of the patrol, under orders to bring it back, my father returned to the Marine perimeter. I never heard the account in detail, but in snatches of conversation over the years my father said that his superior officers (perhaps the same Walker Reaves?) were critical of him for not having cleaned out the Japanese on the trail and for not having managed, in five days, to locate the Parish patrol coming from Sag Sag.

My father’s take on these criticisms was that they were coming from officers in tents far from Mt. Talawe, for whom the only reality was some markings on a field map. He said to me:

Yes, I heard what they were saying, and I didn’t much care for it. In their minds I was proceeding through the jungle on a marked trail, but very quickly, after leaving the base, we were cutting our way through dense thickets, where visibility was less than ten yards. When shots were fired, because of the acoustics, it was very hard to tell where they were coming from, and I saw no reason to lead a patrol (mine) into an ambush.

What made him most proud about the patrol was that none of his men were killed or wounded. He said, “I know it didn’t impress my superiors, but it’s how I measured my success on that patrol. Besides, if, miles from the perimeter, we had sustained heavy casualties, our mission would have ended right then and there, as we would have had to carry the wounded back to base.”

Later in life, in reflecting on the war, he liked to say:

I learned how to do my job and do it well, but I also learned how to do it without getting myself or a lot of my men killed. And the reason the men liked serving in C Company is because it had a reputation for not taking needless casualties. And it also had a reputation for getting the job done.

* * *

From near the airfield on Cape Gloucester, C Company was shifted along the coast to garrison duty at Iboki Planation. By that point in the campaign, February 1944, the Japanese forces were not manning a particular sector or ridge line, but had scattered into the jungle in small numbers, and it was the job of the Marines to track them down.

It meant near-endless patrolling in the jungle more than it meant large scale firefights, and all the men on New Britain began to weary of the rain, heat humidity, and the missions to an interior that might well have been a heart of darkness. (Or as Conrad writes: “Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing to know was what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.”)

Despite those conditions, my father liked to say, later in his life, that the campaign on New Britain was one of the most efficient Marine operations in the Pacific war. He said that the division suffered relatively light casualties—about 500 men died on New Britain, as opposed to more than 1,500 deaths on Tarawa—and that New Britain had lasted months longer than many other campaigns.

He thought the plans to capture the airfield were realistic, although he did laugh when relating that they came ashore on D-Day directly into a swamp. (“We had to ‘sleep’ that night standing up in water.”) On the maps, behind the landing beaches, were the words “Damp flat.” If the Japanese had opposed the landings, which they did only sporadically, it would have been a disaster.

My father’s only dealings with the senior Marine commander, William Rupertus, on New Britain came at Iboki Planation, when the general inspected C Company on a visit to the front. My father later said:  

He was an unpleasant man. Completely by the book. Regular officer. He took over from General Vandegrift. A get along, go along guy, that sort of thing. Not really up to the job. He was lucky to have an excellent staff and so many veterans from Guadalcanal, and the regimental and battalion commanders were mostly excellent. Look at Gordon Gayle. Or Lew Walt. When Rupertus inspected the men at Iboki, he was always pointing out something wrong with how they were dressed or how they were standing. These were men who had had been fighting in the jungle for months. They hated all that chickenshit.

The First Marine Division would pay for Rupertus’s incompetence in the next campaign, at Peleliu in the Caroline Islands, where he ordered these same men, with dire consequences, directly into a stone wall, otherwise known as Bloody Nose Ridge.

* * *

It was on one of the patrols from Iboki that C Company captured a man who had been at Columbia University at the same time as my father. The prisoner was brought back to a hut that served as the company headquarters, and my father said, “All the men crowded around us, peering in through the windows, figuring I might deal with him as if he were a traitor.”

Instead, my father began the interrogation by saying, “Well, both of us are a long way from the subway stop at 116th Street.” In perfect English, the captured man spoke about having been a student at Columbia and being in Japan for summer vacation when war against the United States was declared.

For my father and the other officers in C Company, the challenge was how to get this man safely back to regimental intelligence, some fifty miles to the west at Cape Gloucester.

Some junior Marine officers feared that if he fell into the wrong hands “back at regiment” he would be killed, an indication how some prisoners were handled, even by American troops. “I cannot tell you what happened to him,” my father said later. “I hope he made it.”

This empathy for one of his enemies might explain something about how, in his professional life, my father worked very well, for decades, with several Japanese trading houses. When friends would ask, “Does it bother you to do business over there?” he would answer: “Occasionally, on the metro, I have a moment of frisson, surrounded by so many Japanese. But I’ve gotten over it.”

* * *

When the plane landed at Hoskins Airport, I felt frustrated that I would get no closer, on this trip anyway, to Cape Gloucester than the tarmac of this runway about a hundred miles to the east.

At the same time, in the last fifteen minutes of the flight, we had flown low over the contours of New Britain—rivers slicing through the dark jungle, and volcanic mountains on the horizon—and just before landing we had crossed over a plantation that might well have been that at Iboki. (Palm oil plantations have a way of looking the same, with their neat rows of trees and dirt roads in between.)

For some reason, as I was taking pictures of the land around the Hoskins Airport, I recalled a story from my father’s close friend, Everett Pope. He was a fellow officer of my father’s on Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester, and was often attached to C Company with his heavy weapons platoon.

On Peleliu, Pope succeeded my father as the C Company commander, and in that battle (on Hill 100 in the face of Bloody Nose Ridge) Pope won the Congressional Medal of Honor for holding an exposed position all night, in the face of numerous Japanese counterattacks.

Once, in talking about the patrolling on Cape Gloucester, he spoke about moving past a dead Japanese soldier who was propped against a palm tree.

The patrol ignored the dead Japanese, but later, when it returned and walked past the dead man, Pope noticed that several of his gold teeth had been pried from the man’s mouth.

When Pope told me this story he was in his late seventies, but he still flashed with anger that an American marine, especially one under his command, could have committed such an atrocity.

We were sitting on the porch of his summer house in Maine, and Pope said, while shaking his head: “I just don’t understand it.” It was as if the defilement of the corpse had happened yesterday.

In his celebrated memoir of the Pacific War, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, E.B. Sledge writes that it was common among the men of the First Marine Division, at least in those battles, to collect the body parts of dead Japanese. On their side, as if to intimidate the Americans, the Japanese desecrated dead American soldiers and Marines in the most unspeakable manner.

In his reintroduction to the paperback edition of the Sledge memoir, the essayist Paul Fussell (Wartime, Doing Battle, and many other books, including The Great War and Modern Memory) writes:

“Something innate died at Peleliu,” Sledge writes. One of the many casualties there is his initial innocence about human evil. Without turning mechanically pessimistic or cynical, Sledge is obliged to complicate and deepen his understanding of human possibility when he watches a fellow Maine use his Ka-Bar knife to extract gold teeth from a wounded but still living Japanese, who kicks and writhes as the Marine goes to work. Frustrated and impatient, the Marine finale eases his task by slicing his prisoner’s cheeks ear to ear, which, as it makes him gurgle in his own blood and thrash about, exposes the teeth nicely. Watching this, Sledge learns what every generation would learn if it could see its youth engaged in infantry fighting. As a Marine sergeant told Philip Caputo during the Vietnam War, “Before you leave here, sir, you’re going to learn one of the most brutal things in the world is your average nineteen-year-old American boy.” 

By the time Sledge got to Okinawa, and the Shuri Line (of World War I proportions), he was more accustomed to the horrors of battle. He writes:

In disbelief I stared at the face as I realized that the Japanese had cut off the dead Marine’s penis and stuffed it into his mouth. My emotions solidified into rage and a hatred for the Japanese beyond anything I ever had experienced. From that moment on I never felt the least pity or compassion for them no matter what the circumstances. My comrades would field strip their packs and pockets for souvenirs and take gold teeth, but I never saw a Marine commit the kind of barbaric mutilation the Japanese committed if they had access to our dead.

It was an odd memory, I know, to have at the Hoskins Airport at the base of the stairs leading up to my flight, but I was looking at the same jungle that Everett Pope had patrolled in March and April 1944, as the Marines’ campaign on New Britain, came to an end.

Next up: Rabaul on the eastern end of New Britain. To read other parts in this series, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.