Kapa Kapa Trail: Wikis


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The Kapa Kapa Trail is a steep, little-used, mountain trail that stretches from the Kapa Kapa village on the south coast of Papua New Guinea, across the extremely rugged 10,260 feet (3,130 m) Owen Stanley Range, to the vicinity of Jaure on the north side of the Peninsula. Also known as the Kapa Kapa-Jaure Track, the trail runs parallel to but 30 miles (48 km) to the southeast of the more well-known Kokoda Track. Because the track is very steep, difficult, and unimproved, it has been hiked by very few non-native individuals. One notable exception was during World War II when 900 members of the United States 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division trekked across it in 42 days.


Name origin

The name "Kapa Kapa" is an English mispronunciation of Gabagaba, the coastal village where the route begins on south coast of Papua New Guinea.[1]

32nd Infantry Division march

Japanese thrust along the Kokoda Trail 22 July - 16 September 1942

During the early stages of World War II, Australian Army units in the Kokoda Track campaign were under increasing pressure from Japanese forces that had advanced to within 30 miles (48 km) of Port Moresby. On 9 September, the Australian 6th Division's 16th Infantry Brigade was ordered from Australia to Port Moresby. The 25th Brigade, which had just arrived in Port Moresby, was immediately pushed to the front. General Sydney Rowell felt he could contain the Japanese with the extra troops, but MacArthur was anxious to flank the Japanese. He asked his staff to plan a flanking maneuver that would push the Japanese off the mountains more quickly.[2]

Other Japanese units were routed to seize Samarai, an island south of Milne Bay, from which they would launch a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby. When they found that the Allies were building up Milne Bay at the southernmost tip of New Guinea, they chose to attack it instead. This effort was blunted by a vigorous Allied defense, and the Japanese withdrew on the night of September 4-5, 1942.[3]:64


Decision to flank the Japanese

Since the 32nd Infantry Division had to move to another camp in any event, General Douglas MacArthur felt they should be the first to move to New Guinea. The 32nd Division's commanding General Edwin Harding told MacArthur he didn't believe the Division was ready, as it had received limited training and virtually no jungle warfare training. MacArthur nonetheless pressed Harding for a unit that could be moved to the front. Harding told MacArthur that the 126th Infantry Regiment commanded by Col. Lawrence A. Quinn was the best-trained and best-led, and it was selected for the task. The unit was ordered to prepare to move immediately, and a Brisbane cleaning establishment was given the task of dyeing the men's khaki battle fatigues a mottled green to prepare for jungle action.[2]

First route impractical

Brigadier General Hanford MacNider, in charge of the G-4 (Logistics) unit in MacArthur's headquarters group, learned almost immediately upon his arrival in Port Moresby that the previously chosen route to Wairopi across the peninsula, proposed by headquarters staff, was not practical. It traversed the Australian's rear area and a region where the soldiers could be cut off by the Japanese. It was also so mountainous that the only way they could receive supplies would be by air. An alternative route was then considered: an eighty-five mile trail, from Port Moresby along the coast to Kapa Kapa (a mispronunciation of Gabagaba, the coastal village where the route begins)[1], thence inland via Kalikodobu, Arapara, Laruni, to Jaure. From Jaure other minor trails would lead the soldiers to Wairopi and Buna.[2]

They was extremely little intelligence available about the route. The natives avoided it as they thought it was haunted, especially at the crest. No white man had crossed using that route since 1917. The troops could be supported logistically by land and sea for about a third of the distance, but it had offered a very serious challenge: a 9,100 feet (2,800 m) mountain divide. The Australians didn't think it was practical for men on foot to cross.[2]

New route surveyed

General MacNider dispatched an advance detachment led by Captain William F. Boice (Division S-2) and Lieutenant Bernard Howes to survey the Kapa Kapa Trail, roughly parallel to but about 50 kilometres (31 mi) south of the Kokoda Trail, toward Jaure.[4] They, along with six men from Company E of the 126th, and some forty native porters, begun the survey of the trail in October, 1942. The men soon learned that the dye applied to their uniforms in Australia caused the material to trap heat.[5]

In a first for World War II, the rest of the 128th Infantry was flown from Australia to New Guinea, the greatest distance the Air Force had airlifted men up to that time.[2] Battery A of the 129th Field Artillery, 32nd Division had been sent to New Guinea, while the remaining batteries remained at Camp Cable in Australia. In another first, the four gun sections were the first howitzers flown into a war, first landing at Port Morseby. Then one-half of Battery A, 129th Field Artillery, was air-lifted over the Owen Stanley Range to Buna, becoming the first U.S. Army artillery flown into combat in the Pacific in World War II.[6]

Members of the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 32nd Division, in an Army Bantam Jeep crossing a river on the southern portion of the Kapa Kapa Trail in Papua New Guinea during October 1942.

Though poorly equipped and unprepared for the task, engineers and soldiers had managed to build a road from Port Moresby along the coast to Kapa Kapa, and thence inland about 14 miles (23 km) miles to Nepeana. Parts of it were unfinished, though Bantam Jeeps could travel over it as far as Nepeana. The remaining 14 miles (23 km) miles to a base at Kalikodobu, nicknamed "Kalamazoo" by the GIs who had a hard time pronouncing the local name, were so steep and rough that natives were recruited to carry the supplies inland. At Kalamazoo, Major Baetcke was in charge of completing a forward supply base at Arapara, inland another 30 miles (48 km) miles by trail. The 32nd Division established a Command Post at Kalamazoo in early October.[4]

March started

Beginning on 14 October, 900 troops of the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry, 114th Engineer Battalion, 19th Portable Hospital, and the 107th Quartermaster Company, commanded by Lt. Col. Henry A. Geerds, left Kalamazoo over several days on foot, assisted by several hundred native porters. So rough was the journey ahead that they became the only Americans to cross the extremely rugged 10,260 feet (3,130 m) Owen Stanley Mountains on foot.[4]

Allied advance across Owen Stanley Range 26 September - 15 November 1942.

They were charged with making an extremely difficult trek inland over the Kapa Kapa Trail toward Jaure, where they were to flank the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail. The total distance over the mountains to the Japanese positions was over 130 miles (210 km), and most of the trail was barely a goat path.[4]

It was grueling march on a line paralleling the Kokoda Trail, and the men who made it will remember it forever as a living, wide-awake nightmare. For forty-two days they climbed, scrambled, clawed and suffered—many times cutting their own trail through some of the most awesome territory in the world.

The Battalion was commanded by LTC Henry A. Geerds, who suffered a heart attack several days out. The Battalion was then taken over by Major Herbert M. Smith of Neillsville, Wisconsin. Smith led his men through eerie ghost forests where phosphorus lighted the trees and they sank to their knees in mud. It didn’t take them long to decide that there were items in their full-field equipment they could do without. They cut their blankets in half. They dumped their mosquito nettings at the side of the trail. Though it rained unrelentingly every afternoon and night they discarded their rain coats. Each man kept one uniform—the one he had on. They abandoned their shaving equipment and other toilet articles, keeping only their tooth brushes—with which they tried to keep their rifles clean.

Day after day the Battalion plodded through some of the worst and wildest jungle in the world. They went through waist-deep streams and along trails that were waist-deep channels of mud. Half the time they could not see the sky—only matted leaves and vines. It would take five or six hours to go a mile, edging along cliff walls, hanging on to vines, up and down, up and down. Men got weaker and began to lag back.... There wasn’t any way of evacuating to the rear. Everyone was driven on by the fear of being left behind.

Their bones ached and dysentery had hit almost every man. They were filthy and caked with mud, and washed themselves only when they happened to be crossing a river. They climbed to 8,000 feet (2,400 m), to the top of the gap through which they stumbled over the Owen Stanleys. It took them seven hours to crawl the last 2,000 feet (610 m) They couldn’t march for more than 15 minutes without lying down and resting.[7]:46-7

Difficult terrain

Dense forest jungle on mountain spurs of the Owen Stanley Range, Bulldog Track, Papua New Guinea

The men found themselves utterly unprepared for the extremely harsh conditions found in the jungle. The Kapa Kapa trail across the Owen Stanley divide was a "dank and eerie place, rougher and more precipitous"[4] than the Kokoda Track on which the Australians and Japanese were then fighting. Chiggers, fleas, sand flies, leeches, and mosquitoes found every inch of exposed skin.

Immense ridges, or "razorbacks," followed each other in succession like the teeth of a saw. As a rule, the only way the troops could get up these ridges, which were steeper than along the Kokoda Trail, was either on hands and knees, or by cutting steps into them with ax and machete. To rest, the men simply leaned forward, holding on to vines and roots in order to keep themselves from slipping down the mountainside.[4]

One group lost its footing and slid 2,000 feet (610 m) downhill in 40 minutes; it took them eight hours to climb back to where they began.[8]

Earns nickname of The Ghost Battalion

Their field craft showed the lack of training, and malaria, dengue fever, and dysentery quickly struck hundreds of men. Their rate of advance compared to the Australian soldiers was considerably slower.[9] It rained every day, and beginning on 15 October they were drenched by five days of steady rain.[8]

Finally reaching the vicinity of 3,080 metres (10,100 ft)-high Mount Obree, known locally as 'Suwemalla', which they nicknamed Ghost Mountain, they crossed the highest ridge to reach Jaure on 25 October 1942.[4] Captain Boice, scouting ahead, had reached this village on 4 October.[3] They began to depart from Jaure on 28 October and reached the Natunga area on 2 November. They spent more than a week drawing rations, helmets, boots, and other equipment before pushing on to Gora and Bofu, which they reached on 12 November.[4] On 20 November 1942, after almost 42 days on the trail, crossing exceedingly difficult terrain, including hogback ridges, jungle, and mountainous high-altitude passes, E Company was the first to reach Soputa near the front. The remainder of the Battalion trickled in over the next few days.

As a result of the extremely difficult march and the decimated ranks of the unit, the battalion earned the nickname of The Ghost Battalion.[3]

Immediately enter combat

The attempt to flank the Japanese failed. The troops never encountered a single Japanese troop on their trek and were unable due to the terrain to offer any support to the Australians on the Kokoda Track. The Australians were by then preparing to attack the Japanese who had retreated all the way to the fortified Buna coast.[7]

By the time the 2/126th Infantry Regiment completed their trek, they were considerably under strength.[9][4] Seventy percent of the 900 men had contracted malaria. Meanwhile, on 14-18 October, the US 128th Infantry Regiment had been flown to Wanigela, where they began to hike overland north towards Buna. The US 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment were flown on 8 November to Fasari where an airfield had been located, and they began moving towards the coast and Pongani. The US 1/126th, 128th, with the Australian 2 Battalion, 10th Infantry Brigade, engaged the Japanese on 18 November at Buna-Gona. Despite the extremely poor condition of the 2/126th, General MacArthur was desperate for men to put on the line, and he ordered them to the Buna-Gona front on 20 November.


  1. ^ a b Campbell, James (May 2007). "Chasing Ghosts". Outside Magazine. http://outside.away.com/outside/destinations/200705/papua-new-guinea-1.html. Retrieved 2009-02-08.  
  2. ^ a b c d e Samuel Milner (1957). "United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific. The Japanese Offensive Collapses". http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-P-Papua/USA-P-Papua-6.html. Retrieved 2008-11-15.  
  3. ^ a b c Campbell, James (2007) (in English). The Ghost Mountain Boys: Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea—The Forgotten War of the South Pacific. Three Rivers Press. pp. 378. ISBN 978-0307335975.  
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Samuel Milner (1957). "United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific. Victory in Papua". http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-P-Papua/USA-P-Papua-7.html. Retrieved 2008-11-15.  
  5. ^ Bagley, Joseph. "My father’s wartime experiences: Francis G. Bagley, Company B, 114th Combat Engineers, 32nd US Infantry Division". Remembering the war in New Guinea. http://ajrp.awm.gov.au/ajrp/remember.nsf/Web-Printer/8F59F4E6312F259ACA256CCD000E1292?OpenDocument. Retrieved 2009-02-08.  
  6. ^ "1st Battalion - 120th Field Artillery Regiment". http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/1-120fa.htm. Retrieved 2009-02-07.  
  7. ^ a b Blakeley, Herbert W., Major General, Retired (n.d.), The 32nd Infantry Division in World War II, The Thirty-second Infantry Division History Commission, State of Wisconsin  
  8. ^ a b "Papua -- The U.S. Army Campaign of World War II". U.S. Army. http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/papua/papua.htm. Retrieved 2009-03-28.  
  9. ^ a b The 32nd 'Red Arrow'Veteran Association. "The 32nd Infantry Division "The Red Arrow" in World War II". http://www.32nd-division.org/history/ww2/32ww2-1.html. Retrieved 2008-10-20.  



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