Inspiring People

Author, James Campbell

James Campbell

James Campbell is a native of Wisconsin. He received his B.A. from Yale University and M.A. from the University of Colorado. He has written adventure travel, environmental, and military history pieces for Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Islands, Backpacker, Audubon, Coastal Living, Field and Stream, Sports Afield, Military History and many other magazines and newspapers.

For his first book, The Final Frontiersman, which won one of two nonfiction prizes at 2006 Midwest Booksellers Choice and was named by Amazon editors as the #1 Outdoor Book of 2004 and one of the Top 50 titles of the year, he logged hundreds of miles on foot and snowshoe across Arctic Alaska. His fascination with New Guinea (which he has visited five times) and the war in the South Pacific led him to the story of the 32nd Division and the Ghost Mountain Boys.

In 2006, he followed the footsteps of the Ghost Mountain Boys across New Guinea -- a journey that historians describe as "one of the cruelest in military history" -- and shot a documentary film in the process. No one from outside New Guinea had ever attempted to retrace the soldiers' route. He discovered a wilderness and mountain villages largely unchanged in sixty years.

The Color of War: How One Battle Broke Japan and Another Changed America is his latest book.

James lives in Wisconsin with his wife and two daughters.


I admire people who actually live the adventure. I admire people who work hard to produce something that will be a significant contribution to others. Author James Campbell is someone who does both of these things. His latest book The Color of War is a tale of wars, really, that reveals an overlooked piece of American history that leaves the reader with more questions, perhaps, than answers.



DR: Reading about you and about The Color of War made me curious about The Ghost Mountain Boys and about how writing that book was, in part, the inspiration for the African American part of the story in The Color of War. Is that right?

JC: Well it was to a certain extent, yeah. The ghost mountain boys were white soldiers from the mid-west who were ordered, by General McArthur, to walk across the mountains of New Guinea. However, when I was in Port Moresby recuperating from that trek that I did retracing the route of the ghost mountain boys in order to write that book, I was talking with two professors, born and raised in New Guinea, at the University in Port Moresby and they said:

"Have you ever heard of the 96th engineers"? and I said, "No", and they said

"The 96th engineers were an African American engineering unit that built wharfs and piers and roads and air strips all over the island of New Guinea. And I thought "My Gosh! I know about these ghost mountain boys (the men who made this trek), I know about the war in New Guinea, but I didn't know about this African American support group that encountered many of the same things that the ghost mountain boys did – disease, 106 degree climates with horrible humidity and crocodiles -when they were in the swamps building roads, etc. I thought, when I came back, that I would have to learn more about these people and this engineering group.

When I returned and tried to do some research, there was almost nothing written about them, nothing written and no oral history. I was struck by the lack of historical record. {That} led me onto the pursuit of the African American story in World War II. I was struck by the lack of oral and written record for the Black Americans who participated in World War II.

DR: With that, can you tell me about The Color of War?

THE COLOR OF WAR

How One Battle Broke Japan and Another Changed America
by James Campbell

"A fine account of a little-known milestone in the battle for civil rights." - Booklist

"Excellent battle narrative and black history rolled into one." - Kirkus Reviews

From acclaimed World War II writer James Campbell comes an incisive account of July 1944, the cataclysmic month of victory over war in the Pacific, and the spark of a whole new struggle on the homefront.

In the pantheon of great World War II conflicts, the battle for Saipan is often forgotten, even though it was “as important to victory over Japan as the Normandy invasion was to victory over Germany,” according to historian Donald Miller. For the Americans, defeating the Japanese came at a high price, and Saipan was war at its absolute grimmest. THE COLOR OF WAR: How One Battle Broke Japan and Another Changed America (Crown, May 15, 2012) is the first ever account of this forgotten story.

On the night of July 17, 1944, as Admirals Ernest King and Chester Nimitz were celebrating the end of the battle for Saipan, the Port Chicago Naval Ammunition Depot, just 35 miles northeast of San Francisco, exploded with a force nearly that of an atomic bomb. The men who died in the blast were predominantly black sailors who had toiled in obscurity, loading munitions ships with ordnance essential to the U.S. victory in Saipan.

Instead of honoring the sacrifice these men made for their country, however, the Navy blamed them for the accident. And when the men of Port Chicago refused to handle ammunition again, the Navy launched the largest mutiny trial in naval history—a trial that attracted the attendance of Thurgood Marshall and foreshadowed the imminent fight for Civil Rights across the country.

By weaving together the dual narratives of this overlooked WWII story with extensive research and first-hand Marine interviews, Campbell paints a gripping picture of July 1944, the explosive month that changed everything. As David Maraniss paralleled the frontlines and the homefront of the Vietnam era in They Marched into Sunlight, James Campbell juxtaposes a victorious and intrepid America with the nation’s deep scars of segregation. THE COLOR OF WAR masterfully captures this critical moment in time, when war was won in the Pacific, but a whole new struggle was born at home.

Click here to buy the book.

JC: Well the story was influenced by the 96th engineers and my discovery that this engineering unit had suffered so in accomplishing many of the things they did on the island of New Guinea. My publisher, Random House/Crown, wanted my first book of a two-book contract to be another World War II book and I thought, "Well we all know about The Great World War II mythology, The Good War and The Greatest Generation. Studs Terkel, the wonderful Studs Terkel, wrote a book The Good War and I think he also coined the phrase "The Good War" and "The Good War's Underbelly". And, I discovered that there really is an "ugly underbelly" and we only know part of the mythology as Americans.

We have forgotten the experience of African Americans who took part in World War II and served so many different roles. That is tragic in some ways and heroic in some ways but if fills out the picture or a portrait of World War II that a lot of Americans don't have.

DR: I was stunned about that. Just doing my own personal mini-research, I started asking people that I came across if they knew about the Port Chicago mutiny trial and nobody that I asked had ever heard anything about it and I asked Black people and White people and people of different ages. No one had ever heard anything about it. What are your thoughts about that in relationship to your book and the potential significance of The Color of War?

JC: Well I think that that story in particular, the Port Chicago story, the explosion and the alleged mutiny and what Thurgood Marshall called "the show trial", is maybe more illustrative than any other story, and a story that does not fit neatly into the mythology. I thought for that reason it was a story to concentrate on because many of the men, the African American sailors who were sent to Port Chicago, had enlisted in the Navy because they thought they could serve their country. I guess in a more heroic way they were hoping to serve aboard submarines or destroyers. Well they were sent to The Port Chicago Naval Ammunition Depot in Port Chicago California, just outside of San Francisco and were made to load Liberty and Victory ships with ordnance. They'd never been trained to handle ordnance of any kind. Many were frightened of it and many felt, very early on, that one day Port Chicago was going to explode, and one day it did.

Obviously a narrative theme of racism runs through the entire book. Racism was rampant during that "Good War" era and it's something I think that a lot of people don't know about. A lot of people don't know about how Blacks in America were belittled, beaten and humiliated and hanged and declared guilty of mutiny. It's just a story, again, not to be redundant, that people don't know about and I didn't know about before I wrote this story. That's what drew me to it – the whole story as opposed to a portion of the story that fits very heroically or nicely in this great mythology of World War II.

DR: I'm wondering, James, what do you hope, if you hope this at all, what do you hope the impact of this book might be culturally.

JC: You know that's an interesting question. If we are informed as Americans, we are informed about our history, both good and bad. It will hopefully allow us, or inspire us, to be better Americans. It will help us to struggle to achieve the ideals of out constitution, which we've historically fallen short of and in some cases, far short of. I think this story in particular, is kind of, oh I don't know, maybe a slap in the face. It's kind of a wake up call that we perhaps, in America and as Americans, have still a long way to go. We've come a long way but we still have a long way to go.

DR: See, interestingly enough in discovering The Color of War, first of all I was surprised that I had never heard this story before, but also it left me a little bit pessimistic and hopeless about how far we have come or should I say that we haven't come so far at all in the realm of civil rights and equality. On the one hand I am grateful to have the information but on the other hand it feels like "Oh my God! Nothing has gotten better. It feels like we are backtracking these days. What are your thoughts about that?

JC: Well I think that the military eventually, as I say in the book, became a strong advocate, maybe out of necessity, maybe out of realization, a strong proponent of egalitarianism. Certainly The Civil Rights community kind of gathered around the issue - the mutiny issue and the trial of the port Chicago 50 - and coalesced around that. I think that trial lent a lot of steam to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in America, yet today, obviously we are still confronted with many of the same issues and certainly with the upcoming election I think those issues again have been brought to the forefront in sometimes a very unsightly way.

I do think certainly the military has come a long way. It has provided opportunities for a lot people in general but certainly for under-privileged Americans. It has provided an opportunity for education etc. Nevertheless, as you say, we sure have a long way to go and sometimes, sure, it's hard not to be pessimistic.

DR: You mention the "ugly underbelly" and so I am wondering to what degree you feel there still exists an "ugly underbelly" and if so, what is it and to what degree do you feel the military is a reflection of where we are as a country with regard to social issues overall?

JC: The opponents of integration in World War II, certainly that is the argument that they used to oppose integration. They said that the military was just part and parcel of a similar discrimination that existed throughout the United States. It was a social evil, a social construct that the military also observed. They did not consider themselves to be agents of social change but they turned out to be, somewhat reluctantly, agents of social change.

The fight to integrate the military during World War II, as I said, lent a lot of force to The Civil Rights Movement in general. With the upcoming election, these kinds of subtle and not so subtle, racist depictions and themes are coming out again. It's disturbing to me. I am a White American male and I grew up in a little farm town but I certainly was never raised like this. The people I know were not raised to believe that anybody is not entitled to full rights of citizenship in America or to believe that any group of people, because of the color of their skin, might be less than we are.

DR: Do you see your self as more of a journalist, historian, or someone who makes social commentary? How do you see your self with regard to your writing?

JC: Well, I'd like to think I'm all of the above, including a story-teller. This was by far the hardest thing I have ever done - to try to tell the story of The Good War but also The Good War's" ugly underbelly", this kind of racist theme that ran throughout the war and a generation was a very, very difficult thing to do. To tell it in a way that was both meaningful and entertaining, and I guess instructive and educational, was really hard to do. To make it both a book that an academic could read but also one that someone on the street could pick up and say "Wow! This is a good story", was hard to do.

Yeah! I meant it to be a cultural commentary. I meant to wake people up and say we've heard so much about The Good War and I believe that that mythology is true and I believe that this generation of men and women dedicated themselves to the United States and to the war effort but, there is a big part of that story that hasn't been told. That was a real motivation. I wanted people to understand that and as I said, if we understand the good and bad of our history, that makes us better citizens of the country.

DR: So you don't mind the political passions that your book will likely drive up in people?

JC: Well, not only do I not mind, I hope it does. I am sure that I'd be taken to task by a lot of different people but I hope that it causes some self-reflection and maybe even some anger. That's fine.

DR: I just want to comment that you do such a good job of helping people like me to handle all of the information – the bibliography and the notes...

JC: The copious notes...

DR: The maps and all of that stuff really just helps the reader go through this dense information and this rich story. I'd also like to say that I would love to see this as a movie...

JC: Of course I would too. Unfortunately I think the new movie about the Tuskegee Airmen didn't do well...I haven't even seen it...

DR: I haven't seen it either.

JC: I don't think it did very well and this again - the story of the African American contribution to World War II - is not a marketable thing. Sadly.

DR: Well this is a great story. Do you mind if I ask you what you might be working on next? I would imagine that it is going to be fascinating.

JC: I don't know. There are so many stories that I want to write. Nicholas Kristof wrote a story about a young man from southern Sudan, one of the lost boys. This boy was one of the found boys. He eventually made it to Yale. He is a freshman at Yale. Against all odds he ended up at Yale. I would love to do that book, his story. However, Tracy Kidder wrote that book and he might have just cornered the market...

I recently did an article for Outside Magazine about a sailing trip I did through Micronesia. I went with the worlds last star navigators sailing through Micronesia. They navigate entirely by the stars. They sail in these sailing canoes made of mahogany and breadfruit and they navigate without compass, without GPS. They live on these tiny little islands in Micronesia, the Caroline Islands, which is actually just south of Saipan. It was a remarkable thing. There would be a tiny island of one hundred and fifty people separated from the next island by seventy miles and that's the closest neighbor to these people. They have managed to maintain this culture. They call themselves the people of the sea and they have managed to maintain this seafaring culture that has not been affected by the outside world and I was thinking of going to live with them for a year and also bring my family. So, that's a possibility.

I would like to go back to a story that is a bit more like The Final Frontiersman a bit more of an adventure story or a travel story. We'll see. There are a ton of stories to be written about out there but unfortunately I only have one life. If only I had three more lives ahead of me...

DR: Well on that note James can you tell me, a hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

JC: Oh my gosh! Nobody has ever asked me that. I'd like to be remembered first and foremost as a good dad, a good husband, a good man to my friends and family and gosh, I would love to be remembered as somebody who wrote books that were important.


Thanks James!

The Ghost Mountain Boys

"James Campbell's THE GHOST MOUNTAIN BOYS is one of those rare World War II tales that really do deserve to be retold. Thoroughly researched and expertly written, this engaging narrative will please both military historians and readers looking for an exciting odyssey of extraordinary courage and determination."
--Alex Kershaw, author of The Longest Winter and The Few

"The boys of Wisconsin and Michigan who crossed the hellish jungles of New Guinea and laid down their lives in MacArthur's crusade for the Pacific—and their wives, sweethearts and children—can finally rest easy. James Campbell's Ghost Mountain Boys is the literary monument they deserve. As riveting as Black Hawk Down and as gut-wrenching as Ghost Soldiers, Campbell's account reminds us of their endurance, sacrifice, and heroism--and also of what a privilege it is to be an American."
--Dean King, author of Skeletons on the Zahara

"The Buna campaign in New Guinea was one of the most awful slogs of World War II and one of the least reported. Now we are fortunate to have James Campbell's outstanding Ghost Mountain Boys illuminate the heroes of the 32nd Division."
--James Bradley, author of Flags of our Fathers and Flyboys

Click here to buy The Ghost Mountain Boys.



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