After the loss of the Bismarck Sea convoy the previous March, the Japanese command in Lae had seen the writing on the wall and made contingency plans for evacuation. As part of those preparations, the engineering unit of Lieutenant Masamichi Kitamoto had orders to blaze a land route across the Huon Peninsula to Lae. At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Kitamoto had run for Japan. Now he would again be asked to use his legs for his country. A week after the loss of the Lae convoy, his fifty-man detachment from the 30th Regiment Independent Engineers crossed the Vitiaz Strait from Tuluvu, on the western tip of New Britain, and landed on the New Guinea mainland. With a native guide, the heavily burdened engineers set out to cross the Saruwaged Range to Lae. ‘It was just like climbing a slide from the bottom to the top,’ Kitamoto wrote later. ‘You had to bend forward deeply to bring the centre of gravity before you. It was as if someone had put a heavy weight on our heads and [was] pulling our legs at the same time.’ It only got worse: ‘The incline kept going up and up into the skies. Our legs grew stiff and we gasped for breath . . . Gazing at the clouds below us, we continued the march up the sharp incline . . . It was so cold that it seemed that our hands which grasped the rocks to pull us up would become frozen.’ At 4500 metres, Kitamoto’s engineers crossed a summit higher than Mount Fuji in Japan. Almost as testing was the descent down the other side. The expedition to Lae took three weeks, but when Kitamoto reported to Lieutenant General Hidemitsu Nakano’s headquarters on 3 April, just a month after the Bismarck Sea debacle, Nakano had his escape route.
Now it was mid-September, and the Japanese situation in Lae was desperate as Kitamoto again reported to Nakano’s headquarters. When the young lieutenant entered, Nakano was in conference with his key officers, poring over a map spread across the table. Kitamoto soon learned that Nakano had ordered a retreat: there would be no final battle for Lae. Civilian employees had already left, beginning their trek on 4 September. For the troops who remained, there were two potential routes: across the Saruwaged Range to the north coast, or through the foothills of the Finisterre Range, parallel to the Markham Valley. Having traversed both, Kitamoto was asked for his opinion. ‘The second plan is impossible,’ he told Nakano, knowing that Allied aircraft could easily interdict a route through the kunai grass that covered the foothills. Kitamoto continued: ‘The first plan is difficult, but there is still some chance of success. If I had to make the final decision I would choose Plan 1. However, the sacrifice will be great.’ The die was cast: the order was issued.
The first group of Japanese soldiers, about 2000 naval troops including Kitamoto’s men, set off from Lae on 12 September, making their way inland along the west bank of the Busu River. They formed one of four groups, totalling 8650 men, headed for the high mountains with enough rations to last ten days. Intermediate supply dumps were established north of Gawan and at Iloko. The first and third groups went into the mountains via Gawan, the second and fourth groups via Kemen. Kitamoto’s engineers led the way, setting up signposts and repairing the track as they went. They crossed the Busu about 3 kilometres upstream from the now fallen kunda bridge. General Nakano travelled with the second group, which halted at the Busu for three days while a new bridge was constructed. The final organised group left Lae on 15 September.
Shigeru Horiuchi, a twenty-two-year-old private with III/238th Battalion, had arrived in Lae only a week before the Australian invasion. Since then, his unit had gone through ‘two weeks of hell,’ under constant attack from Allied bombers; ‘even the officers were trembling in funk holes and had no taste for fighting.’ Horiuchi’s company did not leave Lae until 17 September, but Horiuchi was soon forced to drop out because of a leg wound. He was captured a few days later sheltering in a native village 25 kilometres north of Lae.
In the first days of the trek, 200 men had died, mostly wounded and sick. ‘The mountains were only 500 metres high and this much casualties,’ Kitamoto observed with dismay. ‘How many will die before we clear Mt. Sarawaket, which is 4500 metres high? The sharp precipices rising before us will take many victims.’ Once the track began to rise, ‘the soldiers helped each other along, the strong carrying the rifles of weak men. However, as they grow tired, even the strong began to discard their rifles.’ Kitamoto ordered that any discarded weapons should have the chrysanthemum insignia filed off because ‘it was humiliating to throw away the arms that belong to the emperor.’
As the men weakened, the incidence of malaria increased and more men dropped out. In the first 1500 metres of the climb after leaving Kemen, 500 men died. Steep precipices dropped away on both sides of the track. ‘After we escaped the clutches of the enemy we were confronted by nature,’ Kitamoto wrote. Those who lived also confronted the corpses of those who died. ‘Using the dead bodies as stepping stones and clinging to the slippery lichen-covered rocks, the men made their way up the mountain. Fresh red blood ran from the mouths of the dead when they were stepped on and their glassy eyes stared us in the face.’ Approaching 4000 metres, the cold bit hard into lightweight tropical uniforms; though exhausted, the men were afraid to fall asleep lest they freeze to death. Another 800 men died crossing the top of the range. ‘The screaming voices of the men who slipped from the log bridges to their death in the canyons below, the wailing cries of the men who could move no more and were asking for help . . . it was a sense of hell, something quite out of this world.’
By now the rations had gone. Starving, some men ate human flesh. As he approached the summit of Mount Saruwaged, Kitamoto saw that ‘in the shadow of the rocks, three soldiers had pinned a trooper to the ground while one of them stabbed him in the heart with his bayonet. There were no signs that the dead man had asked the others to kill him. The remaining three soldiers cut slices of the dead trooper’s thigh and began to devour the human flesh.’ After Kitamoto shouted at them, ‘the men looked in my direction, flies that gathered about dead meat swarmed about their faces but they had no strength to drive them away. They had become mad with hunger and fatigue.’ Kitamoto covered the corpse and moved on.
In the end even Kitamoto’s strength gave out, and he was carried to the coast on a stretcher. He reached Kiari, some 20 kilometres west of Sio, twenty days after leaving Lae. Staff Officer Sugiyama told him: ‘I wish to bow my head in gratitude for your strong legs. Your legs saved the whole division.’ Once he recovered, Kitamoto headed back to the top of the range to help the stragglers reach the coast. The last stretcher case was brought in on 15 November. An 18th Army report showed that of the 8650 who had left Lae, 6417 survived—a loss of over 25 percent. Most of the survivors staggered into Kiari suffering from malnutrition and malaria. Although only 1271 of them were officially classified as ‘sick,’ Kitamoto wrote that all the men ‘were a group of invalids . . . in no condition to fight.’
Even on the coast, safety was not assured: three men died as they rested on the beach, crushed by a falling coconut tree. ‘At second look, I discovered that they were the men who became mad and ate their comrade during the march,’ Kitamoto wrote. His right-hand man, the native guide Rabo, also knew what these men had done. ‘Those soldiers no good,’ he told Kitamoto as he stared at the three dead men. ‘They eat friend. God punish them.’ As Rabo turned away, Kitamoto felt a shiver run down his spine.