Reliving memories of Ghost Mountain

Weekender

“My grandfather used to tell me how difficult the Kapa Kapa trail was, but he always said good things about the people of PNG.
I’m here to visit in honour of him, and experience some of what he went through during the war.’’

By NATHAN LATI
Donna Wilson is the granddaughter of Carl Stenberg, a corporal in the US Army who was part of the 32nd Division that marched on the Kapa Kapa Trail with the 2nd Battalion to secure Buna from advancing Japanese troops through the Kokoda Trail.
Having heard all the stories of her grandfather’s fond memories about PNG, a country which seemed so far away in the Pacific Ocean from United States she never gave up her hope of visiting the country one day. Despite the distance and other negative stories she heard of PNG, her interest was fixed when she was young and she planned to visit the country whenever the opportunity arose.
She had a firm belief that her grandfather had fought in Papua New Guinea but was not sure with the details of WWII history and the 2nd Battalion until when James Campbell wrote his book “The Ghost Mountain Boys” and she learned about the trail that runs across the mountains and valleys.
Campbell had the chance to meet with families and friends of some WWII veterans from Kapa Kapa Trail and talked more about how difficult the trail was for the soldiers in the past and it’s a challenge now for trekkers to do the full length of the trail within a maximum of 20days. It was an opportunity for Wilson to learn more about the trail from Campbell.   Sadly, the retired and veteran Corporal Stenberg passed away in 2016 after a short illness when he was 97 years old. Wilson, while looking after his grandfather on the sickbed and seeing how frail he had become and thinking of everything he had done in his life; had one hope, which was to visit PNG and walk the Kapa Kapa Trail in honour of her grandfather.
Those moments near her grandfather’s sick bed changed her mind completely to make a final decision to visit PNG and walk the trail which her grandfather had walked through during the WWII.
This trip was her courage to let her grandfather’s legacy live on since he was one of those few people who have sacrificed their lives under 2nd Battalion fighting for the Buna front campaign and a place now exists as Bloody Buna in Northern with many soldiers unaccounted.
With anticipation of getting a chance to connect with tour operators of Kapa Kapa Trail, Wilson was able to establish links with Getaway Trekking and Adventure’s lead trekker Peter Gamgee. With the assistance of Gamgee, Wilson prepared herself for Kapa Kapa Trail and in July she landed in Port Moresby to begin the 20-day trek.
She brought with her grandfather’s WWII issued armycCompass that he used on the trail. The compass was tied onto a cord and placed around her neck as a necklace which reminded her of many things her grandfather endured on the trail.  On the resting day at Loronu, the last village of the Central province, I quietly asked Wilson for a quick chat to get her views about the trail and share with me her experiences as a granddaughter to one of the soldiers of WWII known now as ‘Ghost Mountain Boys after Campbell’s book.
Despite her emotional stance on the trail which we all respected, this is what she has to say to me; “The he trail was tough as my grandfather had said, even tougher than I had expected but it was also beautiful and the people were more wonderful than I have imagined. My grandfather always spoke kind-heartedly about the people of Papua New Guinea and how much help they gave during the war. He said they really were angels and the soldiers could not have done it without their help.’’
Wilson could not say anything further because it is understood that realities were coming into play for her in memory of her grandfather at some stage on the trail.
While among the group, we all had the same experiences on the trail like before because nothing has ever changed for the communities on the trail. The carriers and guides have made it possible for Wilson and the group to complete the trail and the local villages were prepared to welcome the group open-heartedly.
Life on the trail has been always the same for the people. The difficult terrain with high peaks and deep valleys are not easy for road construction to give access to the villagers of the trail.
Whiles in Buna, Wilson and I had a final chat and she has expressed her own sentiments in the varying experiences being a trekker now and a soldier on the trail before. There are two different groups of people and things were totally different but experiences are similar at some stages.
Being poignant with what she was to say, she remarked sobbing, ‘‘It was a relief for us to get to Buna and know that we have made it to the end but we need to take some time to think about the soldiers who have fought there.
They made it across the mountains like we did but we had time to rest and recover, instead they went into battle field or kept alert throughout the trail for enemy’s attack.’’
Undoubtedly, the trail was indeed difficult for Wilson and few of us who were first timers on the trail but thinking back to those times in 1942, it had to be so much harder than what we have done without any anticipation for safety and security like the soldiers must have experienced during WWII.
Wilson has a new appreciation for her late grandfather knowing what he went through in PNG. But she openly thanked the wonderful people who live on Kapa Kapa Trail and helped her grandfather who returned to America alive rather than being recorded on the missing-in-action list.

  • Nathan Lati is a product development officer for PNGTPA and he accompanied Wilson and the team for the entire trekking trip from Gabagaba in Central to Buna in Northern last month.

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