Writer Retraces Wartime Trek Across New Guinea

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Author and adventurer James Campbell is trekking across Papua New Guinea, following the path of the 2nd Batallion of the 126th U.S. Army Infantry, circa 1942. He tells Scott Simon about the trip.

JAMES CAMPBELL: I'm out in the jungle. I'm not entirely sure where.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

That's James Campbell, the author and adventurer. He's in Papua, New Guinea following a 130-mile trail leading to the Owen Stanley Mountains, some of the roughest terrain on earth. The terrain has been known as Devil's Country. Mr. Campbell trained for more than a year to make the trek. He started a couple of weeks ago and has had a hell of a time getting through. Here's what he told us last week.

CAMPBELL: Well, on Thursday we made it to the top of the mountain. And the trail off was very, very steep, very spotty. And the descents are even harder. They're slippery. You grab on anything you can. And, of course, everything has a thorn on it. Or you grab on to something and it's a stinking nettle.

SIMON: Now, you might wonder a man of sound mind and body, not to mention a man with a credit card and a plane ticket home, would take such a perilous walk. Why would he risk Devil Country, teeming with mosquitoes, jagged limestone rocks, crocodiles, swamp rats, and burrowing ticks? James Campbell is trying to live up to what a U.S. infantry battalion managed to do with little or no support.

In 1942, soldiers were under orders from General Douglas MacArthur to cross those mountains and try to surprise the Japanese army. James Campbell spoke with us again on Thursday.

CAMPBELL: We're in a place called Popendetta, which is kind of a booming, provincial town near the north coast, about, oh, eight hours walk from Buna.

SIMON: What kind of shape are you in?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CAMPBELL: Not much good for anything right now. My knees are about to explode. I have leech bites up and down my legs. I have something here called salat, which is a lot like poison ivy, up and down my legs. We had to get one guy out early - three days early, because he had some very, very serious infections in his legs. But everybody is exhausted. Everybody has a variety of ailments. The amazing thing about the jungle is you spend two days there and you think, oh, I can do this. It isn't that hard. But after a week, and after 10 days, that's when the jungle exacts its revenge.

SIMON: Hmm. Now, you were emulating the sacrifices and audacity of the Second Battalion of the 126th U.S. Infantry. What was their objective in Papua, New Guinea in 1942?

CAMPBELL: Well, MacArthur wanted to - had this grand plan where he wanted to send some guys across the mountains. The Australians were fighting the Japanese on a parallel trail, called the Kokoda Track. And the objective of the Second Battalion was to come in over the Owen Stanley Mountains, head down something called the Kumusi River, and essentially surprise the retreating Japanese on the Kokoda Track, and wipe them out.

SIMON: Now, they were mostly National Guardsmen from Wisconsin and Michigan.

CAMPBELL: Exactly. National Guardsmen, ill prepared for the journey.

SIMON: How long did it take them?

CAMPBELL: Took them 42 days. And when we arrive in Buna, it would have taken us 16 days.

SIMON: But they were also carrying packs, though, weren't they?

CAMPBELL: They were also carrying packs. And I tried to carry a pack for a while and it was just - it was an impossibility. So we had carriers to carry our packs, though one American did carry his pack for half the route.

SIMON: When you mean a carrier, you mean somebody who's helping you.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, somebody who's helping from the villages. Actually, the Second Battalion had 400 carriers, and 800 guys made the crossing; had 400 carriers to help them with ammunition and food.

And we had carriers from the various villages. And, of course, you know they grew up in the jungle, so they know how to find dry wood in the middle of rain. So we were fighting with fires, and then they'd come in and show us very quickly how to build a fire.

SIMON: You've talked to a number of people who made this trek. Right?

CAMPBELL: Yeah. Oh, I have. Yeah, a number of the veterans.

SIMON: And I understand that it was different eras, and different missions, and all that sort of thing. But what's sort of condition were they in?

CAMPBELL: Oh, they were in horrible condition. They did it during the rainy season. We're doing it during the dry season. During the rainy season, it can rain from two o'clock in the afternoon, all night long. And then the trail becomes just a pig wallow. I don't know how they did it. They were exposed to mosquitoes. And by the time they got to Ghost Mountain, malaria hit. And they also had dysentery, so they were sick. Some of the guys were marching with 103-degree temperatures. Other guys, they cut the back out of their pants because the dysentery was so bad.

SIMON: Mr. Campbell, now that you've just about done it, what have you done? What did you prove?

CAMPBELL: I think it was important for me to historically kind of authenticate what these soldiers did to bring attention to what they accomplished, and their heroism. It's a forgotten period of World War Two, and I think very, very few people know...

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

CAMPBELL: Excuse me - that these soldiers made this crossing in this incredibly treacherous country. And you know, they certainly didn't want to be here. As you said, they were young men, largely from Wisconsin and Michigan, who'd never ever seen mountains before. And suddenly they were in the midst of Papua, New Guinea. And I don't know how they did it.

SIMON: Hmm. When will you be done, Mr. Campbell?

CAMPBELL: We will be done this afternoon. And we will be in Buna. And, of course, after we arrive in Buna, we'll come back to Popendetta and stay in a guesthouse. And we will have a soft bed and a Coca Cola, or a Sprite, or whatever. And the soldiers, of course, didn't have that. They marched over the mountain.

SIMON: Yeah.

CAMPBELL: They were sick, and then they marched immediately into war.

SIMON: Mr. Campbell, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CAMPBELL: Yeah. Sure, Scott. Thank you very, very much.

SIMON: James Campbell is a contributor to Outside magazine and the author of The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska's Artic Wilderness. He spoke with us Thursday from somewhere along the Devil's Trail. The soldiers of the Second Battalion 126th Infantry who survived the march then had to fight the Japanese. Many of them died. The U.S. Army calls the battle the first great land victory in the South Pacific in World War Two.

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