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Extreme nonfiction
James Campbell's books explore the limits of human endurance
on
Campbell
engaged native guides, and a documentary film crew, to travel with him through
the jungles of New Guinea in the summer of 2006.
Campbell engaged native guides, and a documentary film crew, to travel with him through the jungles of New Guinea in the summer of 2006.
Credit:Philipp Engelhorn / Courtesy James Campbell

"Coffee?" asks James Campbell, who looks like he could use some himself. It is a Friday morning in early June. Aidan, the oldest of his three daughters, celebrated her ninth birthday last night by inviting some friends to the family's spacious Lodi home for a sleepover. The house is now quiet - Campbell's wife, Elizabeth, is upstairs with their youngest daughter - but the first floor remains festooned with colorful crepe streamers. Campbell, 45, laughs and shakes his head as he staggers into the kitchen. Daisy, the family rottweiler, follows.

"It's cowboy-killer coffee," says Campbell, who brews a potent pot. One sip confirms it might knock a cowboy off his horse. This is robust coffee, suited to an adventurer who provides for his family by writing about people pushed to the extremes of human endurance.

Settling into a chair on his screened-in porch, Campbell has the look of a man who has flirted with his own limits. He has just sent off the corrected proofs for his new book, and appears relieved of great burdens. The Ghost Mountain Boys, published by Crown and released this month, is Campbell's second book. His first, published in 2004, is The Final Frontiersman, Campbell's acclaimed account of his cousin Heimo Korth's subsistence in a pitiless Arctic landscape.

Whereas Final Frontiersman is set in the remote wilderness of contemporary Alaska, focusing on one family's struggle to eke out an existence on inhospitable tundra, Ghost Mountain Boys transports readers to the steaming jungles of New Guinea during World War II. It relates the shattering saga of U.S. troops - many of them National Guardsmen from Wisconsin - assigned to march 130 miles across New Guinea through tangled, swamp-riddled jungles and over the rugged peaks of the Owen Stanley Range and then - despite exhaustion, malarial fevers, malnutrition, dysentery, jungle rot, skin lesions, lack of training and insufficient supplies - engage the entrenched Japanese soldiers on New Guinea's north coast.

Yet despite the contrasts in subject matter and settings, both books are about the human capacity for courage in the face of debilitating fear, incapacitating physical distress and relentless setbacks. And both benefit from Campbell's devotion to what the Utah-based environmental writer Terry Tempest Williams calls "ground-truthing" - going to a place to investigate it firsthand.

As part of his exhaustive research for Ghost Mountain Boys, Campbell assembled a documentary film crew to retrace U.S. troops' grueling 130-mile march across New Guinea. If he could not suffer the soldiers' terrible wartime ordeal, he could at least revisit the arduous terrain, experience the conditions they confronted, observe the overgrown vestiges of their battles.

Six hours into the 2006 expedition, Campbell took a bad fall on a steep, slippery slope and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. The physical pain was excruciating; the emotional setback was worse.

"It was really scary," Campbell recalls. "I thought my trip was over, the book over."

Campbell had trained hard for this traverse, lugging an 80-pound pack up and down a hill in Lodi while pushing a loaded wheelbarrow. "It was hubris," he says now. "I'd forgotten how hard New Guinea is."

Retreating for medical care, Campbell rejoined the party after a few days, pushing on through dense tangled jungle, swampy boot-sucking mud, razor-sharp kunai grass, mosquito swarms, leeches, hazardous river crossings and what might be called cowboy-killer air - thick, hot and dripping with humidity.

Why?

"God only knows," Campbell says with a self-deprecating laugh. "Sometimes I regret the inspiration." But his tone suggests he relishes this expedition, which while not recounted directly in the book proved essential in writing it.

"You want to get it right," he says, turning serious, "particularly in narrative nonfiction."

Campbell read more than 100 books as part of his research for Ghost Mountain Boys. He conducted countless hours of interviews with U.S. survivors of the campaign and the sons and daughters of the fallen. He read the soldiers' letters and diaries. Through the National Archives in Washington, D.C., he obtained translations of diaries written by Japanese soldiers who were fighting off Allied troops - finding poignancy, poetry, even a kind of terrible beauty in their accounts.

But only by retracing the U.S. battalion's slogging traverse of New Guinea's Kapa Kapa Trail - and revisiting the remnant battlegrounds near the island's north coast - could Campbell impart the impressive degree of detail that informs Ghost Mountain Boys.

It was a grueling endeavor. The trail, which Campbell hobbled on with his wounded knee, was so consumed by jungle as to make it almost impassable. The sole on one of his hiking boots came unglued, essentially rendering it a penny loafer. Another member of the party "had to be airlifted out because he had big festering sores the size of my hand," says Campbell, brandishing one of his large paws.

Campbell himself returned home from the expedition 16 pounds lighter, with a fever of unknown origin. He suffered horrible dizzy spells. It took him a month to recover.

"Certainly, there are times I wish I'd become an environmental lawyer," he jokes. But any ruefulness is fleeting.

James Campbell's career choice was clinched at an early age.

"My parents tell a story that when I was nine or 10, I marched downstairs to announce I was gonna be a writer," says Campbell, the oldest of four siblings. His youngest sister grew up to become a psychologist, like their father; his oldest sister is a lawyer, and his brother a social worker. Their mother was a homemaker, though Campbell says "great mom" is a more accurate description. His parents reside in Beaver Dam.

"I feel very lucky," says Campbell. "We're all really close."

Born in Neenah and raised in Appleton, he developed an early attraction to wilderness, due in part to his proximity to Wisconsin's north woods. He was also an avid reader, "fascinated by tales of adventure."

After graduating from Beaver Dam High School, Campbell attended Yale, getting an undergraduate degree in history and English. Afterward, he migrated to Chicago, where he worked for one year at an ad agency, then took a job at Rolling Stone, where his responsibilities ranged from fact-checking to promotion to sales. When his brother Jeffrey graduated from college in 1989, the two hit on the idea of lighting out for Papua New Guinea. James asked his boss for two months off. "He said, 'Pssh, yeah, right.'" So he quit.

Jeffrey Campbell says the trip underscored his brother's attention to detail: "He really did a nice job of planning. He likes to do things the proper way." More than that, it showed his passion for exploration. "He's willing to take risks," notes Jeffrey. "He always had this adventurous spirit and imagination."

That first New Guinea excursion seeded the idea for Ghost Mountain Boys. "You can't spend any time in New Guinea without stumbling over World War II history," Campbell says. Hiking in the mountains, he saw the wreckage of crashed planes. "We went scuba-diving there, and you can see the caverns where the Japanese used to hide their submarines." Along the coast, the twisted skeletons of sunken boats littered the ocean floor.

"I started to get interested in all this World War II history," he says. When he discovered that the 32nd U.S. Infantry Division in New Guinea was made up largely of soldiers from Wisconsin and Michigan, the wheels began to turn.

Campbell returned to Rolling Stone as an editorial assistant and fact-checker in New York. Then he made his way to Boulder and spent the next several years earning a master's degree in English literature and creative writing at the University of Colorado - and an MFA at the nearby Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

To pay his way through graduate school, he worked as a landscaper and carpenter, plowed snow in the mountains and got a job with the Colorado Wildlife Federation.

It was in Boulder that Campbell met Elizabeth. The couple married in 1995 and honeymooned in Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea, where Elizabeth was stricken with malaria. Some honeymoon. Campbell winces, shifting in his chair, at the uncomfortable memory of seeing his wife suffer.

The couple settled in Chicago, where Campbell freelanced, writing an article for Islands magazine about climbing New Guinea's second-highest peak. "I knew that at some point I wanted to write a book about New Guinea," he says. "It was this kind of slow opening up, the story working on me and impressing itself on me." Later, they moved to New York, where Campbell continued to freelance and took a job with Spin magazine.

Here he rekindled his friendship with fellow writer Logan Ward, who'll be at the Wisconsin Book Festival to promote See You in a Hundred Years, an account of the year he and his family spent on a farm, forsaking all conveniences that did not exist in 1900. Says Ward, "We both share a love of adventure and nature and, I think, look to book projects for a reason to explore the world."

In 2000, when Aidan was two, the family relocated to Lodi. Campbell was attracted by the nearby Ice Age Trail, the trout in the river and Susie the Duck - the town's mascot. Plus, "Lodi has an interesting mix of people."

By this time, Campbell had retained David McCormick as his agent. "Jim has a great nose for a story," says McCormick, a partner at New York's McCormick & Williams agency. "That was clear from the start."

Campbell continued to freelance, writing for Wisconsin Trails and, later, Audubon, Backpacker, National Geographic and other magazines. His byline now appears regularly in Outside. (The magazine's May issue carried his account of the New Guinea trek.)

Soon after he finished Final Frontiersman, Campbell attended a 32nd Division old-timers reunion at Fort McCoy. "I met some of the guys there, and then of course they referred me to some other guys." As word of Campbell's interest spread, families of soldiers killed in the battle for New Guinea began contacting him.

Reading the soldiers' letters and diaries, Campbell was stunned by the longing and vulnerability of their accounts. "I think we tend to think of soldiers as maybe not emotional men, and they are," he says. "They have the same emotions we do. And certainly, these guys experienced it tenfold."

By the time they engaged the Japanese soldiers in battle, Campbell marvels, many of the U.S. soldiers had lost one-third of their body weight. "How did they do it?" he asks. "That amazes me, how they went on. How they found not only the physical fortitude but the emotional fortitude to keep going, to keep believing and hoping, when the circumstances were just so dire and desperate and your buddies are dying and you're living in swamps and you've got no food."

Campbell himself is a big, strong guy, standing six-foot-one and weighing 230 pounds. "Perfect size for a linebacker and rugby player," he notes, "but not built for distance." He played football in high school, and later rugby. Both took a toll. His knees bear the scars of six operations - four on his right knee, two on his left.

"I guess I've always had a high threshold for pain," he understates. "I've always enjoyed pushing myself, both physically and mentally and emotionally."

This might explain his admiration for others who push the limits. "We live in tame, homogenized places," Campbell laments, "and there's still wild places in the world, and I want to see them."

He pauses. "I love Lodi. I love small towns. I love Madison. But I get bored and need to go to remote places," he says. "I've always been attracted to the human experience in the face of extremes, that almost desperate sense of exhaustion."

His first book, Final Frontiersman, chronicles his cousin's perseverance against a harsh landscape to find his version of the American dream in Alaska. Drawn there in 1975 from Wisconsin while still in his 20s, the idealistic Korth outlasts his own early ignorance, severe conditions, a relentless series of setbacks and a crushing tragedy to reinvent himself as a subsistence trapper who finds love, a family, redemption and peace in the midst of wild and beautiful isolation.

In both that book and Ghost Mountain Boys, Campbell is dealing with the outer limits of human fatigue, "the kind of fatigue that just dissolves your will. First it breaks you down physically, and then it devours your will. I'm sure you've felt it. I know I've felt it before, where you just think, 'I can't walk any more.' And then, how do you go on? What propels you?

"Of course, [Jon] Krakauer wrote about that in Into Thin Air. Other people have too. But that's always amazed me. And in Heimo's case, in Final Frontiersman, Heimo's been doing it for 30 years. And these guys [the Ghost Mountain Boys] did it for a long time. You know, after we crossed New Guinea, we got to go back to a motel and clean sheets and we got to drink beer. These guys went directly into battle. That's an experience, obviously, I couldn't replicate, nor would I want to, an experience difficult to imagine."

In Ghost Mountain Boys, Campbell begins by providing some context on the war in the South Pacific, and introducing his principal characters. Then he sends readers off with them into nearly impenetrable jungles, over the rugged mountains, through mosquito-infested swamps and finally - exhausted, starving, feverish, covered by leeches and festering ulcers, short on artillery, sometimes armed only with bravery and bayonets - into relentless battle.

Some of the soldiers fall to Japanese snipers. Others charge enemy bunkers because - despite certain death - it is the right and necessary thing to do. And some sustain terrible wounds or die in combat because of bad tactical decisions made by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Campbell doesn't blink. Agony, desperation, the sound of bullets hitting jungle foliage inches from a soldier's ear - he captures it all in terrible detail. It is a shattering read, as feelings of devastation and loss grow greater with each succeeding chapter.

Why, I ask Campbell in a second interview at the Roxbury Tavern in late August, was the story of the Ghost Mountain Boys so long forgotten?

"I think the veterans are asking that," he replies. "They've been asking that for 50 years. When I started approaching them, they were so grateful. They said, 'Finally, someone is writing this story.' So all these men who'd locked up their emotions and their stories were suddenly willing to open up to me. And it was really a revelation. It was a great experience, and sometimes an incredibly emotional experience, as you can imagine.

"You know, these guys, I'd get together with them and at first they'd be laconic and maybe a little bit tough, and two hours later, we'd all be crying. And I think, you know, the battle in New Guinea was overlooked perhaps because of larger, bloodier battles, but certainly not more important battles."

How did Campbell protect himself from the intensity of the story he told?

"It was hard not to become emotional, and I sometimes did," he says. "But you know, you tap into that, this spring of emotion and information and sometimes repressed memory, sometimes well-concealed or well-hidden memories. And of course that's what I wanted. I didn't want to tell - and I hope I didn't tell - an ordinary war story."

How important was having traversed the Kapa Kapa Trail - since renamed the Ghost Mountain Trail - for himself, compared to all the interviews he conducted and all the books, diaries and letters he read?

"Certainly, my experience there was invaluable," he says. "It allowed me to describe the mountains and the land and the feeling in the jungle and get leeches on me and...have your crotch go" - he growls out the next word for emphasis - "rrraw, you know?"

Campbell's routine as a writer is well-established. He rises early to write on his computer until it is time to wake the girls - after Aidan, Rachel is five years old and Willa is nearly two. He makes their breakfast and takes the oldest two girls to school. "I'll come back and write a little more, then I'll spend the afternoon editing."

He relies on Elizabeth as his first editor. She has professional editing experience, is a writer herself, a former teacher but at the moment a stay-at-home mother. "She has a great eye," he says, and excels at bolstering his morale. Writing is a solitary process, riddled with moments of doubt that can erode enthusiasm.

"Occasionally, you'll write a great page," Campbell says, "but the next morning you'll write 10 bad pages." His wife reminds him that "you've gotta celebrate the little achievements along the way, like finishing the first chapter."

In the end, all those little successes add up to one big one. The Ghost Mountain Boys is a featured selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, as well as the History and the Military book-of-the-month clubs. Campbell has also gotten "great blurbs" for the book by the likes of James Bradley, Alex Kershaw and Hampton Sides. Dean King, author of Skeletons on the Zahara, calls The Ghost Mountain Boys a "literary monument" to the 32nd Division, and a reminder "of what a privilege it is to be an American."

Now that the book is finally out, Campbell will be on a three-month book tour that includes an appearance at the Wisconsin Book Festival. He's already pitching ideas for his next book to his publisher, some military-related, others adventure-oriented. There is also the documentary: He is working with Chicago's Compass Point Productions to shape 50 hours of footage into a feature-length production, and is starting to write the script. PBS and Discovery Channel have expressed interest. An eight-minute trailer posted on Campbell's book website, ghostmountainboys.com, suggests that the documentary, when finished, is going to be a knockout.

And there is always the next adventure. "I'd love to go back to New Guinea and take my kids," Campbell says. He muses for a moment. "Sometime during college, someone told me to never confuse making money for what you love. I probably wouldn't be a very pleasant guy if I didn't get a chance to do this sort of thing every once in a while."

Campbell sightings

Wisconsin Book Festival
Saturday, Oct. 13, noon
Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Wisconsin Public Radio
with Larry Meiller
Monday, Oct. 15, 11-12:30 pm

Madison Public Library
Mifflin Street branch
Tuesday, Oct. 16, 7 pm

Lodi Public Library
Tuesday, Oct. 23, 7 pm

Waukesha Public Library
Wednesday, Oct. 24, 7 pm

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