In the remote jungles of New Guinea the Australians and Americans had fought three hard battles in late 1942 and early 1943. The struggle for Buna, Gona and Sanananda had been fought in appalling conditions with no quarter given. Of the Americans and Australians captured by the Japanese not one was found alive – many were found dead as a result of torture or bayonet practice.
These struggles were already fading from general memory in 1944 and the jungle was rapidly reclaiming the evidence left on the ground.
Weldon E. ‘Dusty’ Rhoades was the personal pilot of General Douglas MacArthur. On the 14th February he was on New Guinea and had the opportunity to go out and visit the the Sanananda Point battlefield:
We drove about thirty miles in a jeep after I had outfitted myself with proper clothing and a gun. (Two Jap stragglers gave themselves up only last week, although this battle was fought fifteen months ago.)
On our way we visited the American cemetery, which is located in a beautiful valley and is well kept, but which has all too many graves marked unknown. And in it lie only about 60 percent of our dead because the others could never be found in the dense jungle.
We also visited the nearby Jap cemetery, which represents only a token effort on the part of the Australians to abide by international covenants. All of its dead are marked unknown, and what few grave markers have not been stolen by souvenir hunters have been drilled with many bullet holes by our own troops.
We came, finally, to the battlefield, and we set out through the dense jungle on foot. All of my ideas of warfare were upset immediately. This battleeld has never been cleaned up and still remains much as it did when the battle ended.
The opposing front lines averaged only about fifty to one hundred feet apart, and the jungle growth was so thick that rifles were almost useless. All of the fighting, except for sniping from the trees, was done by mortar fire and hand grenades. The Jap pillboxes and our own foxholes are still there, although the jungle is rapidly obliterating the scars.
The bones and skulls and equipment of the Jap dead lie about in great quantities, and even these last traces will not survive much longer. It gave me a strange feeling to probe among and walk over these bones of what had once been fanatical Jap soldiers, bent on the destruction of our boys for some strange reason which they probably never understood.
Before the battle, if they had suspected that they would come to such a ignominious and unknown end here in this lonesome, stinking jungle, I wonder if they would have been quite so eager to die.
I’ll have to admit that I had no great compunction in walking over skulls. They seemed little different from animal remains. Our boys were in this battlefield for twenty-eight days, and the superior number of Japs was finally defeated, more by the will of our men to win than by any other factor.
Some idea of the casualties at the battle comes from the History of the 32nd Division:
The 32d Division had 690 officers and men killed in action or died of wounds, 1,680 wounded and 62 missing in action. In addition, 17 died of battlefield injuries and 287 others had to be evacuated because of battlefield injuries. Viewed in cold-blooded comparison with battle casualties of some divisions in other theaters, these losses were relatively low.
What makes the achievements of the Division noteworthy from the statistical point of view is its continued progress during this period in spite of 7,125 nonbattle casualties and the fact that many men who remained on duty were actually sick. COL Warmenhoven, the Division surgeon, had the temperatures of 675 men taken shortly before the end of the campaign. These men were from all three combat teams and the check was made to get a picture of the health of the whole Division.
The results showed that 53 percent of the group were running temperatures between 99 and 104.6 degrees. Malaria was the principle cause. (Malaria was also difficult to cure and, in spite of the best medical efforts 2,334 officers and men had to be dropped from the strength of the Division in September 1943 as unfit for combat.)
“The 32d Division never had more than 11,000 officers and men in the combat area. The total casualties nearly equal this number. The hardest hit regiment – the 126th Infantry – entered combat with 131 officers and 3,040 enlisted men; it had 32 officers and 579 men for duty at the end of the campaign.
For more on the battle itself see 32nd Division Association.