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Young America
Sept. 16, 1942, p.8
New Guinea Commandos, by Howard Fast

They blew up their rubber boats and paddled across the swamp.

By Howard Fast


THIS story didn't get into the papers — but it should have.

It's the story of a young American soldier who was handed a job that couldn't be done — and did it.

It happened in New Guinea, the big island north of Australia that looks something like a turtle on the map. After the Japs overran the East Indies last spring, they landed on the north coast of New Guinea to set up bases before making a stab at Australia. And that was bad. If Australia should fall, Japan would control the whole Far East. So American forces were rushed to New Guinea to stop the Japs.

The Americans landed on the south coast of the island, and the world waited for fireworks. None came — for a very good reason. New Guinea happens to be just about the toughest proposition on earth. Picture a thick, tangled, steaming jungle; picture high, steep, trackless mountains. Combine jungle and mountains, throw in blazing heat, add the constant danger of headhunters and cannibals, wild animals and snakes and poisonous insects — and you've got a faint idea of New Guinea.

It wasn't long before Japs and Americans agreed on one thing. New Guinea couldn't be crossed.

*   *   *

So there they were, each force on its own side of the island, marking time. And the U. S. Army wanted to know — had to know — what the Japs were up to. That meant observation. Planes could fly across, but you couldn't see anything from a plane; the jungle is like a roof. Finally it was decided to send a party in on foot.

Twenty men were picked; and at their head was a captain of Army Engineers named — well, we'll say Jones.

"Call him Jones or Goldberg or Marino," said the colonel who told us the story. "He's twenty-four, a graduate of Stevens Tech. We chose him because his life's ambition was to build roads."

Yes, back home that had been Jones's dream. But he'd never imagined anything like this — a place where a squirrel could hardly squeeze through. He and his men had only about 200 miles to go, as the crow flies. But no white man had ever crossed that 200 miles. The colonel gave them their orders — get through if possible, see what the Japs were doing, locate their bases, make careful maps and then come back. If the party met trouble, they were to strike quick and hard — like the Allied commandos who raid the coast of Europe.

The colonel handed Jones a map, and the map had nothing on it between the two coastlines. Jones, who was red-headed, just grinned and said, "Funny, I remember seeing New Guinea in the movies — and now I'm exploring the place on my own hook."

He wasn't worried, you see. He was an Army Engineer.

Still, nobody was feeling overconfident when he took his 20 men and set out. The first day they made fair time, squirming between giant trees and through dense underbrush, sweating and slapping at bugs. But that very evening disaster struck. Without warning, savage headhunters sprang at them from ambush — and one American was killed and four others wounded.

It was easier going the second day, because they stumbled onto a trail made by wild pigs. They followed that several days, bent double most of the time because there wasn't room to stand upright. Then the trail pinched out and they had to hack their way through nine miles of almost solid bamboo forest. After that their second brush with hostile savages seemed almost tame.

They came to a swamp that was supposed to be absolutely impassable — stretches of soft mud broken by open water. Somehow they got through the mud, and they handled the water by blowing up their rubber boats and paddling across it.

But beyond loomed the mountains — the rocky spine that runs the length of New Guinea. They rose straight up; you could see why the Japs, who'd been trying for weeks to cross them from the other side, were baffled. Jones didn't know one thing about mountain-climbing, but he was an engineer and he knew explosives. He set the men to blasting footholds in the rock with dynamite, rigging ladders, blasting the rock again. In 48 hours they reached the hump of the range.

On the other side they found an advanced Jap base.

*   *   *

Jones and his 19 men, wounded and all, crawled up on that base. There was an ammunition dump and about 3,000 gallons of gasoline. Jones had been told to avoid trouble, but he reasoned it would be no trouble to set a dynamite charge under gasoline. The Japs were sure the nearest American was 100 miles away. They never knew what hit them.

But Jones was after information, primarily. The next day he and his men located two more Jap bases and marked them on the map. They couldn't resist burning an unguarded food cache, and the Japs caught them at it. There was a fight; a good friend of Jones's, a corporal, was killed. After that the survivors lay hidden for two nights within a mile of a Jap barracks.

Then they went on with their work. They were near the coast now; Jones sent men in both directions to spot supply depots, troop concentrations and airfields. Meanwhile the wounded had to be cared for, and guarded against a surprise Jap attack.

Finally they were through — except far getting back to their own base. They moved by night, slowly and painfully, until they were miles from the Japs. They inched their way over the mountains, down the other side, across the swamps, through the jungles.

And then it was over. They'd made it.

*   *   *

Jones kept a record of the whole terrible trip, and some of his notes show the kind of man he was. Of the first meeting with headhunters, the one where they buried a boy from Kansas, he wrote simply: "Repulsed attack." After touching off those 3,000 gallons of gasoline, he noted: "Located Jap base. Removed it." Coming back those 200 slow miles from the north coast was, he said, "Only tedious. We had more wounded, but we knew what we had to face."

Yes — just a small, tedious affair. A routine job, such as the Army expects you to do all the time. Just part of the bigger job of holding New Guinea till stronger Allied forces could come and throw every last Jap out of there.

"Stuff like this won't win the war," Jones said.

But the colonel of Engineers said stuff like this darn well would win it.