Hell at the End of the World - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Hell at the End of the World
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War-End-World-MacArthur-Forgotten/dp/0451418301">War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight for New Guinea, 1942-1945
By James P. Duffy
(NAL Caliber, 436 pages, $28)

War at the End of the World is the latest entry in NAL Caliber’s fine line of books on military history. In his eighteenth book, most of them on military history, James P. Duffy tells the story of the almost four-year series of battles for control of New Guinea and the seas around it.

This unglamorous campaign is largely forgotten now. But it was very important to the Allies’ overall Pacific strategy. Had the Japanese prevailed in New Guinea, and they tried very hard to, Australia would have been effectively cut off from the United States and would have been unavailable as a staging area for the island-hopping campaign that eventually led to Allied victory in the Pacific. Aside from the considerable value of Australia itself, taking the southern Pacific without Australia would have been a bit like taking back Europe without England. (Picture invading Fortress Europe from New Jersey.)

Most with even a passing familiarity with World War II recognize names from the European Theater like Normandy, Bastogne, Stalingrad. From the Pacific the familiar names are Guadalcanal, Coral Sea, Midway, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Leyte. A few might pick up on Rabaul and Port Moresby. But what about the importance of Buna, Lae, Gona, Milne Bay, Medang, Wewak? Remember them? Didn’t think so.

Americans, Australians, and members of the New Guinea volunteer forces fought, too often died, and eventually prevailed in these now forgotten places, veterans would say Godforsaken places, in some of the worst conditions of the war. These long and strenuous efforts were under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur.

New Guinea may not have the worst climate and the most human-unfriendly terrain on the planet. But if it doesn’t, it would take a while to think of what place would deserve these honors. It’s brutally hot year round. The rain just doesn’t stop in the rainy season. The dense jungle is nearly impenetrable and full of flora capable of cutting flesh. Raging rivers are dangerous to cross. If this weren’t enough to discourage moving about the interior, the high and rugged Owen Stanley mountain range divides the north from south. Some of the locals are rumored to be cannibals.

If New Guinea is not congenial to humans, malarial mosquitos find it most accommodating (so do crocodiles, leeches, giant cock roaches, and blood-sucking bats). So troops of both sides had to fight malaria, typhoid, black water fever, and other tropical diseases as well as a hostile enemy. Thousands died of disease on both sides. Nothing in war is pretty, but this was particularly ugly.

The late actor Errol Flynn (OK, movie star probably describes him better than actor) had been to New Guinea on a gold-prospecting trek before the war. His take: “I have seen Central Africa, but it was never anything like the jungle of New Guinea.” New Guinea may not be, as Duffy styles it, the end of the world. But you can see it from there.

Most know that MacArthur fetched up in Australia after being ordered to leave the fortress at Corregidor in the Philippines before the Allies were forced to surrender to Japanese forces there in the spring of 1942. When he arrived Down Under he found not much in the way of Allied military forces and was obliged for the next years to make do with less than he would have liked because the Allied overall war strategy was to defeat Germany before concentrating on the Pacific. As the war started, America was woefully short of trained warriors and war material. The country overcame these shortages in dramatic fashion during the war, but MacArthur and his needs were never anywhere near the front of the line.

MacArthur made do and fought a series of successful engagements, mostly in coastal areas of New Guinea, that eventually expelled or bypassed Japanese forces, and provided the air and naval bases necessary to the eventual re-taking of the Philippines.

Duffy tells the story of this pivotal part of the war in clear prose and in great detail. Perhaps more detail than some would want — I’ll admit that while reading End of the World, the campaigns and landings began to blend one into the other. But readers with a serious interest in military history will appreciate the thoroughness. (All the books in the NAL Caliber military series share this strength/weakness. Those with a keen interest in military history will thrive on this and would likely find other items of interest at the publisher’s website.)

Duffy’s treatment is apolitical. He has no agenda other than to tell the story of a grueling and critical part of the Allied war effort in the Pacific, and of the brave men who fought it. He does this well.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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