Even long and comprehensive single-volume histories of World War II tend to spare only a page or two, sometimes only a paragraph or two, for the fighting that happened 8,300 miles from London on the beautiful beaches and in the steamy jungles of New Guinea.
The Japanese landed thousands men there in January of 1942, and the Allies responded by sending thousands of troops (shored up by additional thousands of Dutch, Australian, and New Guinea forces) under the command of one of the best-known American generals of the entire war. The fighting lasted for almost four years, and all of its commanders considered it a crucial turning point in the war, and yet the entire operation is often relegated to also-ran status in broader historical accounts.
Historian James Duffy's new book, War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight for New Guinea, ably redresses this imbalance with a meaty, engrossing narrative history of the New Guinea campaign. In his introductory paragraph to his End Notes, Duffy mentions, “When I read a book, I generally use two bookmarks: one for the last page I've read, and one for the page housing the corresponding source notes.”
Since careful readers invariably make careful writers, this is reassuring. His account has an understated elan very different from the grandiosity of the previous best account of the subject, the eighth volume of Samuel Eliot Morison's "History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II," titled "New Guinea and the Marianas, March 1944-August 1944," and he makes full use of sources not available to Morison. This will likely stand as the definitive account of the New Guinea campaign.
As naval history buffs will know, that campaign came a whisker away from being the chronicle of a defeat. The Japanese first landed on New Guinea in January of 1942, carried along as part of the wave of conquests they'd carried out throughout the Pacific that winter, and the two large Japanese armies converging on the Papuan capital of Port Moresby had a larger and far more ominous objective in mind: furthering the damage the Empire was doing to the Allied cause (and the British Empire) by attacking and conquering Australia itself.
In those first tense months, the only thing that stood in the way of those determined Japanese forces was a handful of hardscrabble Australian volunteer units who fought with desperate, nearly-overwhelmed courage in New Guinea's Owen Stanley Mountains and managed to check the enemy advance long enough for larger reinforcements of Australian and American forces to arrive.
Adding to the nightmare, shaping it and acting virtually as a separate character in Duffy's narrative, was the environment of New Guinea itself, a “military nightmare” made up of “towering saw-toothed mountains, densely covered by mountain forest and rain forest, [alternating] with flat malarial coastal areas made up of matted jungle, reeking swamp, and broad patches of knife-edged kunai grass four to seven feet high,” all of it populated by crocodiles, snakes, lizards and more than six hundred species of birds, “including the five-foot-tall cassowary, known to kill a man with a single swipe of one of its daggerlike clawed feet.”
Duffy quotes actor Errol Flynn about his brief time as a gold prospector in this country: “You tried to sleep, and fought off mosquitoes, leeches, bugs, giant roaches, even New Guinea bats, night bloodsuckers. I have seen Central Africa, but it was never anything like the jungle of New Guinea.”
The vertical, densely-forested terrain drastically increased the difficulties not only of fighting but also of reconnaissance and air resupply. And into this logistical horror show US Army Chief of Staff George Marshall sent General Douglas MacArthur, who'd been driven out of the Philippines in March of 1942 and was eager to retake them from the invading Japanese. MacArthur saw immediately that New Guinea must be the hinge of that door swinging open.
The MacArthur who emerges from these pages is every bit as strategically brilliant as he's been portrayed by historians like Morison or William Manchester, but Duffy also consistently finds a warmly sympathetic human being under the commander's habitual “victory or death” bluster. At one point when MacArthur is attempting to talk General George Kenney out of taking the risk of personally observing a troop-drop, Kenney objected that “they were my kids and I was going to see them do their stuff.” As Duffy relates, “The General listened to my tirade,” Kenney recalled, “and finally said, 'You're right, George, we'll both go. They're my kids too.'”
Through a combination of superior air power, steadily-improving supply chains, and the sheer fighting tenacity of the Australian, New Guinean, and Allied forces, the momentum of Japan's sweep of conquest in the Pacific was halted and turned just north of Port Moresby, and the long and brutal island-hopping Allied slog toward the Japanese home islands ground into motion. It would be Douglas MacArthur who would accept Japan's surrender in September of 1945, but that journey began with the war at the end of the world.