Buna: A Nightmare Come True…

By John K. Richards, 163RCT

             It was late in 1942. My regiment was summoned to offer support for the already beleaguered forces at Buna. We came up in the form of a regimental combat team detached from our division and were to be under control of the 7th Australian Division. Our tiny convoy hove within sight of New Guinea's rugged outline on Dec. 27th. To us, who had only heard reports of its characteristics, it was a revelation of something even more foreboding of evil than we had expected.

            The cold, grey dawn slowly became interspersed with streaks of warm greens and yellows, finally terminating in an orange splash against the horizon. We began to pick up the colors of the hills now and from that the contours of Moresby Harbor and its surrounding vegetation. The picture looked very grim to me. I didn't relish the thought of slogging over those terrible-looking hills, nor did I anticipate hacking through dense jungle. In short, I wished to hell I was back home in my little white bed. Oh, well, I guessed that if we had any luck at all we might fly over that mess. After all, the Air Corps was up here, wasn't it?

            My guess was right. We flew over the worst mess of mountains and jungle that I think I shall ever see. GREEN . . . God, how green we were ... and how we would come to hate the very color. We struggled through forbidding foliage of every description. The trees were gigantic, with roots which fanned out like huge talons clutching at the sodden morass of stinking mud. Mud another wicked weapon in the hands of Mephistopheles - sucked at our shoes and clothes like some ravenous, shapeless monster.

            The lead of our column had its difficulties, hacking through thick, sinewy vines with their seemingly brittle machetes. But the tail-end of the column suffered even more, for by then the mud had been churned into amass of discarded equipment, food, ammunition and the severed ends of vines and branches - and it had become even deeper. We literally swam through it.

            One boy remarked, "I had an awful nightmare once. Dreamt I was swimming through an ocean of s ... , Christ, fellas, who'd think a dream like that could come true?!" And nightmare was the word for it. Clouds of stinging inseets came up into our faces whenever the dripping leaves of plants were disturbed. The humidity bore down upon us like weights four times the load we carried, and perspiration poured off our faces and bodies until we had visions of complete dehydration. Everything fought our futile efforts to move and even to breathe.

            We had terrible days of rain, stifling heat, battle and sickness. Of the two existing elements of war, the jungle and the Japs, we felt sure we could beat the latter. But the jungle still remained our unconquerable mystery - fantastic, beautiful - and deadly.

            Memories of these tribulations came flooding back to me with a surge of pride-pride in the efficiency of my unit, and pride in my fellow man, able to laugh and wise-crack under even the most trying situations. Like the lad from Detroit, lying next to me in a foxhole. It was pitch black, grenades were shattering the eerie silence and occasionally a mortar shell would jar dirt loose around and under us. This lad heard one of the night noises coming from his right flank. He got up on his haunches (as he told me later, because I couldn't see it), crept quietly out of the hole; moved toward the noise and opened up with his tommygun.

            The gun crackled and flamed for an instant, then I heard his rapid slithering back to the foxhole as a fusillade of enemy bullets poured into the area where he had just been. Then a grenade followed in exactly the same place. I felt him beside me and could almost see his grin in the dark as he said, still out of breath, "The quick or the dead!"

            This is only one example of the many things that left an ineradicable mark on my memory. Humor under stress, the reassuring touch on the arm by a comrade next to you - especially when things were pretty tough. And last, but not least, the stouthearted grins of your buddies coming out of the line on blood-spattered litters. All this and more have convinced me that I live in two worlds, one with ordinary mortals, the other composed only of men who learned the full meaning and beauty of life in combat.