Jon Diamond, MacArthur’s Papua New Guinea Offensive 1942-1943 Images of War (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In MacArthur’s Papua New Guinea Offensive, Jon Diamond takes us into the heart of a brutal battle during World War II, fought by under-trained soldiers in a vicious environment across almost impossible terrain. Along with the victory at the neighbouring island of Guadalcanal, the Papua campaign marked the zenith of Japanese Imperial ambitions in the Pacific and the turning of the tide in favour of the Allies.
Diamond begins with an overview of the early Pacific War, beginning with Japanese expansion across Asia after Pearl Harbor then focusing on the campaign in Papua New Guinea. That put them in reach of Australia, but they would need to take Port Moresby on the south of the island, which was held by the Australians. When MacArthur arrived to take command of the South West Pacific Theatre, he was tasked with capturing Buna on the north of the island to establish an airfield. The Japanese beat him to it and tried to push over the Owen Stanley Range to Port Moresby, so began the brutal fighting on the Kokoda Trail connecting Port Moresby to Buna. This was conducted against the backdrop of the failed Japanese effort to defend nearby Guadalcanal that put the Japanese on the defensive around Buna. The Australians turned to the offensive with the under-trained Americans pushing in too with engineering and air support. They took Buna then pushed on along the coast to drive the Japanese out for good. Winning was a relentless slog against the elements, disease, and of course the redoubtable Japanese, very few of whom survived. Mixed in with the narrative, there is a chapter on terrain, weaponry, and fortifications that all favoured the defenders, particularly in ground unsuitable for tanks. If that was not enough, the Japanese became experts at constructing concealed bunkers that had to be taken the hard way, man to man. Diamond also considers the commanders and soldiers on both sides.
The Images of War series depends on the collected photographs alongside the narrative to make the books work. In this case, there are too many photos included from the Burma front, the Philippines, the Doolittle Raid, and Guadalcanal, but those from the Papua campaign are informative. Many of the photographs show the awful conditions these men had to fight in – mud, tall grass, rivers, jungle, more mud – and the incredible efforts of soldiers and engineers to overcome them. Diamond includes photographs of the major commanders and soldiers, the latter mostly marching or resting, but there are some excellent combat photographs too, particularly of the Japanese: the deterioration of the soldiers on both sides as the battle wore on is evident. Diamond does not forget the Papuan natives who risked their lives for the Allies and made such an important contribution to victory.
This account of the Papua New Guinea campaign does not break any new ground, but Diamond tells the story well, and the accompanying photographs are useful visual aids for understanding the hell these soldiers went through. There are more detailed books that describe this campaign, but as a primer, Diamond’s MacArthur’s Papua New Guinea Offensive does the job more than adequately and is well worth reading.