Monday, May 30, 2016

Remembering Dad And The Battle of Buna Gona

U.S. infantry wade through New Guinea swamps en route to join the Battle of Buna Gona

New Guinea head hunter and Dad - months before he fought at Buna Gona. Right: Photo taken after his honorable discharge and before traveling to San Francisco, then Milwaukee.

As a young person, it was always somewhat of a mystery to me why I couldn't get my dad to watch war movies (mainly WWII) with me, whether 'Sergeant York', 'To Hell and Back' or 'Destination Tokyo'. He simply wanted no part of them, despite himself having fought in World War II. Of course, only much later - on reading his war diary (now in my sister's possession) - did I finally grasp the primary reason: he'd seen too much of actual battles to want to relive any part of them in fiction.

The worst was the Battle of Buna Gona among the most savage of the Pacific theater, and in many historians' minds even bloodier than Guadalcanal.  Those interested who wish to read an excellent account of the battle can go here:

From the above link, picking up after the fiercest fighting:

"Scattered fighting continued over the next few days, as the last surviving Japanese strong points were mopped up. Casualties on both sides were high – the Allies buried 1,400 Japanese dead, while the Allies lost 620 dead, 2,065 wounded and 132 missing, two thirds of them in the three regiments of the 32nd Division and the rest in the 18th Brigade. In all the Papuan campaign cost the Allies more men than the fighting on Guadalcanal.

Buna, Gona and Sanananda were the first battles in which Allied solders attacked Japanese troops who had had time to dig in."

One of the more recent accounts appeared in a WSJ book review (Feb. 6-7), entitled 'Hell in the Pacific' and noted:

"For the soldiers themselves it was a living hell. Mr Duffy (book author of 'War at the End of the World') quotes correspondent E.J. Kahn Jr. describing the Americans he met who were serving with the 32nd Division during the fight for Buna: 'They were gaunt and thin, with deep black circles under their sunken eyes. They were covered with tropical sores....often the soles had been sucked off their shoes by the tenacious, stinking mud. Many of them fought for days with fevers and didn't know it."

Dad was one of those who had contracted Malaria and 'fought for days'. Then, after the battle, had to be evacuated to a medical station At one point, as I recall from his war diary, 'They pronounced me dead and pulled the cover over - when I managed to wiggle a toe'.  That was what rescued him, so that he could recover, re-enter the war, then finally get to see the woman he'd been corresponding with for over 7 years - by May, 1945. (My mom).

The diary itself  featured magnificently illustrated images of the explosions from bombs dropped by Japanese Zeros and mortar rounds - all done from memory while recovering in the Port Moresby hospital.  I regret now that while visiting the folks in April of 2001 I didn't secure the diary or at least make photocopies of the pages.

As one Aussie told me back in September, 2014 while on a train back from Schynigge Platte to Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland: "Even photocopies would have made a splendid addition to our section on the Battle of Buna".  This was for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Indeed, it would have. Dad never discussed his experiences at Buna Gona, but he had rendered them as art in his war diary using colored pencils. My sister promised one day to have the diary published including Dad's art work, and I do hope she follows through - if for no other reason to finally share those events with all members of the family (now pretty well fractured after a political falling out back in November, 2014).

In the meantime, Dad's sacrifice will be remembered today, including how he battled for his family after returning and dealing with malaria symptoms.

At my dad's funeral in July, 2009.

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