UNCLE BILL’S STORY
Preamble: When World War II war broke out, Uncle “Bill” (Lindsay), my mother’s brother, was one of 14 children in a large Irish/ Australian family living on the the Western Plains of New South Wales (Australia). So he and his brother Hector were just a couple of Aussie farm boys who went off to fight the Japanese in New Guinea. This is Uncle Bill’s story and it came about because when he retired he applied for his veteran’s benefits and, for what ever reason, he was refused. He went to his local Member of Parliament and asked her to pursue the matter on his behalf. As part of that process she asked Uncle Bill to document his military service. This is the documentation he provided
(Note: I have scanned and retyped the original document for inclusion in this blog. I have made minor corrections in punctuation and spelling but out of respect for Uncle Bill I have restrained myself as much as possible from tampering with the grammar and syntax – these are his words and this is his story)
NX154125 STAFF SERGEANT McGRATH L.T.
I dedicate this little bit of history to Valerie my beloved wife and best mate of 53 years gone, in recognition of the contribution she made to my rehabilitation to a peaceful and productive life style
We had one son, Gilbert, married to Judith, three grandsons, Jason, Bradley and Scott; Jason Married Lisa and they presented us with our beautiful Great Grand Daughter Kate.
MY LIFE IS RICH AND FULL OF PRIDE
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
I was inducted into the CMF (Citizens Military Forces) at the Liverpool army camp in New South Wales (in the 1940s this would have been just on the outskirts of the city of Sydney), where I had three weeks of preliminary training in weaponry and general discipline. We were taken out to the Liverpool Anzac rifle range and issued with five rounds of live ammunition to fire at fixed targets 500 yards away. In the four and half year in the army those were the only live rounds I ever fired. I got four bulls eyes out of the five shots (I had been shooting rabbits on the farm from the time I was eight years old and if I came home with less rabbits than bullets I fired then it was a case of “please explain…..”)
I was then assigned to Army Ammunition Ordinance at the big Moorebank ammunition storage area in New South Wales, along with one hundred other country blokes. We were tossing those heavy high explosive artillery shells and 100 pound ammunition case around like chaff bags. The Officer in Charge decided that he would have to send some of us to an ammunition high explosive school so as we could learn just how dangerous it was to be throwing this stuff about. Myself and six others of our group joined one hundred others from all over, for six weeks at a special ammunition training school at Liverpool. The group consisted of University Graduates, Practicing Engineers, Chemists and people from all walks of life. I was seated in the back row of seats between two Irishmen with about the same academic skills as myself. We could not spell most of the names for the various chemicals used in the make up of high explosives and gases , etc, and made do with abbreviations and symbols. We were known as the IRA bench for the duration of the school, the top marks scored 95 out of 100, our bench averaged 76, mainly because of answers to practical field questions. In the Chief Inspector’s summary of his class on the final day, he qualified me as a diamond who would call a bloody spade a shovel, I would be an excellent NCO, but never an officer or a gentleman. The whole class roared with laughter. He was right. I spent the next four years as a Staff Sergeant Ammunition Examiner, where as the top marks became Inspecting Ordinance Officers in the base ammunition depots.
I was in the staging camp at Ingleburn, waiting to be sent to New Guinea when the Japanese raided Sydney Harbour in their midget submarines. At the end of July 1942 I was in Port Moresby and the little ship SS Malatia that delivered us was torpedoed on the way back to Australia. I was to experience my first bombing raid within twenty four hours of arriving in Port Moresby. Our Anti-aircraft gunners brought down six of the Japanese bombers which did a lot of damage to the port loading and docking facilities (welcome to war young man) and things were looking bad on the Kokoda Trail at that stage and I discovered I was the only ammunition expert in New Guinea at the time.
On the twenty sixth of August 1942 the Japanese landed at Milne Bay in strength, the 2nd and 18 th Brigade of the 6th Australian Division of the A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Force) supporting the C.M.F. battalion troops and elements of the R.A.A.F (Royal Australian Air Force) fought a savage battle and inflicted the first defeat by the allies against a Japanese land force in this war. In the meantime an A.I.F. Infantry Brigade returned from the Middle East were sent up the Kokoda Trail still in their desert uniforms and with desert equipment . It was a totally different type of war and enemy, they were pushed back, but with the support of another A.I.F. Brigade and two weary Battalions of C.M.F. ,who had fought the Japanese all the way from Buna (New Guinea), the enemy advance was brought to a halt at Ioribaiwa Ridge, only forty air miles from Port Moresby. Here the Japanese were forced to dig in and build defensive fortifications in a hurry because our supply lines were so short and his became too long. Our forces had replenished their resources with another A.I.F. division and 25 pound artillery were brought into action and the tide was turned.
Under a fierce artillery barrage and a frontal attack by Australian infantry the Japanese were forced to retreat from Ioribaiwa Ridge defences in panic with a great loss of life and equipment. Our troops pressed on regaining the villages of Nauro, Efogi, Myola and Kagi. Our troops were fighting in appalling conditions, the rarefied air at six thousand feet dragged at their lungs; their feet were as lead in the morass resulting from incessant rains. Their supplies were arriving by air wrapped in army blankets and thrown out of airplanes flying at one hundred and eighty miles per hour three hundred feet above the ground. Fair enough for food supplies but shocking for ammunition supplies. Enter one staff sergeant McGrath. L.T.
I had been cooling my heels at the large base ordinance depot about nine miles out of Port Moresby for the one month I had been in New Guinea, when I received word from headquarters that I was to report to Brigadier Lloyd at Templeton’s Crossing post haste. No mention of why or what for (Top Secret) except I was to call into 2nd 25 battalion headquarters at Efogi on the way. I armed myself with an American Thompson machine gun and a 45 caliber Webbly pistol and 100 rounds of ammunition, because there were rumors of trouble with American ammunition up front and I needed some way to test fire it. So with my emergency food rations and all my personal gear I had quite a load.
At Owers Corner about twenty miles out of Port Morseby the vehicle road ended on the top of a mountain. I felt terribly lonely when I watched the jeep disappear back down the track and turned to look at what lay ahead of me, a deep valley immediately in front and below me and great mountains piled on top of one another in the background as far as I the eye could see. I felt so tiny and helpless standing there because there was no other human being in sight in all that massive landscape. It was now mid-day so I thought I might as well have something to eat now and that would be one less tin of bully beef in my pack.
I loaded my pack and equipment and slung my machine gun into comfortable position and went over the edge and down that slope slipping and sliding as I went. One hour later I reached the bottom of the valley but the going was very muddy and up and down a lot, but reasonably wide and quite a bit of timber had been cleared along either side. I wandered about for the next two hours as I scrambled along the trail until I topped a rise and there was a twenty five ponder gun and crew busily dismantling it. When I got my mouth working again the first thing I said was “how in the hell did you blokes ever get this thing here?” “in Bits and pieces”, they replied, “with a lot of gut busting and help from the natives. We did have two guns and seven hundred rounds of ammunition at one stage. We had a lot of pleasure delivering the ammunition to the Japs on IoribaiwaRidge and retreated out of range and the other gun has been dismantled and taken out.” they wished me well as I went on my way thinking “hell” those fellows were talking about shifting twenty tons of gear in and out of there. Some how my pack did not feel as heavy now. By the time I had climbed the twenty four hundred steps to the top of Ioribaiwa Ridge it was getting dark so I called it a day, ate another tin of bully, spread my ground sheet and blanket on the ground and with my backpack for a pillow I settled down to sleep.Down came the rain in buckets, the place I had smoothed off to lie down was now a running steam. Fortunately, as soon as it started to rain heavily I had picked up my gear and moved to a place between the roots of a large tree and was able to use my ground sheet as a tent and keep things reasonably dry, except the blanket. It had become saturated as I was erecting my shelter. It was a long night. I never realized how noisy it could be in the jungle, with birds knocking things out of the trees and wild pigs rooting around in the dark. I was so tired I did eventually get a reasonable sleep and was on my way again at daylight, because I had a long way to go. I left the wet blanket behind because it was not cold in the mountains, just less humidity and a wet army blanket is very heavy.
As the crow flies the distance to Efogi was only some twelve miles, but when I had to climb for three hours to reach the top of a mile high mountain and then spend two and half scrambling down to the creek at the foot of it on the other side, two of those mountains were enough for me in one day. I had eaten one tin of bully beef for breakfast and would have one for tea, and decided that I had better have only one meal a day until I was sure where my next meal was coming from. What made my day much brighter was the fact that I caught up with the remnants of the 2nd 14th and 2nd 16th A.I.F. battalions on their way back up to the front. They were now known as Char Force and were moving up to reinforce the 2nd 25th Battalion who were resting and reforming at Elfogi after being relieved by elements of the 16th Brigade in action at Templeton’s Crossing, where the Japs were dug in and fiercely resisting any further advance by our troops.
Next day we climbed for nearly four hours to get out of that gorge before we came out on top of a plateau that was reasonable going until we reached the 25th Battalion camp site at Efogi. I reported to their commanding officer and asked why had I been ordered to report to him on my way forward . He replied “in the hope that you may be able to help us with our problems with the American 45 caliber ammunition. With several of our Thompson sub-machine when fired in action, one round does not have enough power to clear the barrel and others pile up behind it swelling the barrel of the gun and rendering it useless and leaving the operator defenseless against the attacking enemy. We never had this problem until we started getting our ammunition by air dropping “. I asked him ” Where is his ammunition stored and who is looking after it? I would like to see it and fire a few rounds to get the feel the power of it. I have a Thompson sub-machine gun with me for that specific purpose. We had heard rumors at base about some ammunition problems “. He pointed out to me where I would find the corporal in charge of their ammunition supplies.
I introduced myself to the corporal and told him why I was there. He took me to a shelter he had constructed to protect the ammunition from the elements and I congratulated him on the good job he had done. Some of the wooden cases had been only slightly damaged and the rounds of 45s were still in their cardboard cartons. It was easy to see that they were undamaged and had not been wet at any time. It was the hundreds of loose rounds in another box that I was most interested in, I went through them picking out the suspect rounds and putting them to one side, except one which I slipped into my pocket. I then showed the corporal what I was looking for, any distortion, any looseness between the round and the cartridge and any green stains showing around the joint. I chose a round I considered was in good condition and loaded it into the gun aimed at tree about fifty feet away and fired, the sharp sound was clear and the recoil good and the impact on the tree hard. I then picked up the round with the most green stain on it, but appeared to undamaged otherwise. When I fired the round it was a dull bang, the gun recoil was weak and the round hit the tree about three feet below where I had aimed and barely broke the bark. Then I got the corporal to fire six rounds I had graded to let him feel the difference and notice the sound of the various stages of deterioration in the rounds. By this stage we had quite an audience of chaps interested in what was going on. I puled the round out of my pocket and said to the chaps to gather round, see the heavy green stain on the cartridge case around the joint with the bullet and feel the slight movement in the joint. No way would I load that round into my gun. And when one chap asked why? I said “because the Americans use Nitro-Cellulose as a propellant and it deteriorates rapidly when exposed to water. Your 303 ammunition uses cordite as a propellant and stands up to the elements much better. However, I would advise you to check every round of 303 ammunition at your disposal for any distortion, by un-clipping each round and fitting it into the barrel of your gun (especially the Bren Machine gun) and the re-clipping them before restoring them in your pouches. Especially if the crates have been broken by air dropping, which is apparently quite common”.
The next day was mostly downhill to the swampy little valley where Myola was situated, but it had taken the best part of six hours from Efogi. My pack was much lighter now as I was down to my last tin of Bully, I had left the Thompson gun with the blokes back at the 25 th Battalion to replace one of theirs that had buggered up and the 100 rounds of ammunition that went with it. I still had my pistol and I was traveling about twenty pounds lighter now. I had two cut throat razors in my pack but I had not had a shave since leaving Port Moresby, but all the blokes i had met up here so far had beards in various stages of growth. The only good thing about those mountains there were no mosquitoes up there, around Port Moresby they nearly ate you alive day and night and we were issued one quinine tablet per day to protect us from Malaria. They did not issue me with any on this trip because they were in short supply.
Myola was the main dropping ground now for fighting troops at Templeton’s Crossing, the airplanes were dropping the supplies in the swampy ground where the mud and six inches of water softened the impact of the supply crates wrapped in army blankets. (Still no parachutes for the ammunition supplies. The place was a hive of activity when I arrived there, hundreds of natives were clearing the jungle on a strip of level ground along side the swamp , to make a landing ground for a light aircraft to land with our new general “General George Vasey”. I got the bad news that our three inch mortars were blowing up in the barrels of the guns when they were fired. Two crews and their guns had been vaporized at Templeton’s Crossing and there was a ban on the firing of them for the time being. This meant our troops had no artillery to counter the Japanese mountain gun. Apparently this was the last straw for our General Tubby Alan, according to the signal blokes, Generals Douglas McCarthur and Thomas Blaney had rung Tubby and asked him what the hell was holding up the advance at Templeton’s Crossing . Tubby had just got the news about the mortars blowing up and he blew up as well, and telling McCathur and Blaney to get off their backsides and take a stroll up the trail and bloody well see for themselves. He was immediately told he was being replaced by General Vasey and to prepare a landing strip for the General’s light plane to land. So it was when I arrived there at Myola, that the airstrip was finished the same day.
The change over of generals was the least of my worries, how the hell was I going to prove whether the mortars had faulty detonators, or were they being prematurely armed by the shock of impact when hitting the ground or trees or whatever? I did not even have a screw driver, a vice, or a spanner of any sort with me to enable the separation of the fuse from the main body of the bomb. I was not allowed to communicate with the base ordinance people about the problem. Too many ears might hear what I was saying and undermine the general morale of the troops. The same reason why I was not given any information when I was ordered to report to Brigadier Lloyd at Templeton’s Crossing when the first one blew up five days ago. I was feeling quite forlorn and desperate , when a Sergeant from 6 thdiv salvage approached me and said I know what you are here for. With the help of the fitters and their tools we have been able to separate some of the fuses from the bombs and set up a means of testing the fuses for pre-arming, by removing the safety caps and setting the fuse up in a hole in the ground with a pulley and a rope suspended from an over head tree branch, dropping a weight on the fuse to drive the firing pin home. we had one go off out of twenty, “you beauty” I said, it had to be pre-armed to do it and clearly mark the bombs before the carriers take them to the front . “Have you any spare tools I can take up to the front with me?” “No” he said “tools are so scarce up here we had a hell of job getting the use of them for one day. Would you be agreeable to signing your name to a written suggestion and sketch we could send to base by dispatch runner requesting the base ordinance to unscrew the fuses from the bombs, undo the indent retaining screw, insert a nail, replace the screw and stamp a cross on the fuse body to indicate what had been done and drop the fuses separate from the bombs?” I agreed it was a good idea and signed it without hesitation. To this day I have never heard whether there was anything done about it because the war moved on so quickly after that.
I was an hour out of Myola on my way to Templeton’s Crossing when I heard our new general’s light plane flying in to land. The going had been reasonably easy for the first half hour, along the flat ground next to the swamp, then the little valley turned into a gorge and then it was up and over the mountains again. I was meeting quite a few walking wounded now, the further I went the more I met. Blood stained bandages around their heads, legs and bodies, arms in slings, with that haunted look of suffering and a wane smile on their lips. It was steep, rough and very mussy going, I had been swearing and cursing the trees, the mud, and the steep climb but after meeting a few of these blokes and a couple of stretcher cases on the way up with native bearers slipping and sliding with their incessant good natured chatter and always managing to keep that load on their shoulders, stable and reasonably level at all times, I thought what the hell have I got to complain about.
I came off that mountain on a nice bit of flat going along the edge of a fast flowing stream, I though “you beaut”. The track went through a patch of bush around a bend and then into open ground again and there in front of me was sight I will never forget as long as I live. There he was hobbling towards me ever so slowly, the top of his head swathed in bandages, his left arm bandages from wrist to elbow, his left leg in plaster from ankle to thigh, with a stout crooked stick in his right hand, he was progressing about 12 inches per step. I stood to one side as he shuffled past, I was too dumb founded to speak, there was a faint smile on his lips, and a strange peaceful far away look in his eyes, he looked at me but I don’t think he saw me. I stood and watched him until he shuffled out of sight into the patch of bush I had just come through and thought “God I wish I could walk with you, I can not, but I have a strange feeling that God is”. I was certain now that what ever came my way from now on I would take it on the chin without whinging . About a mile further along the track I came to an advance medical dressing station where quite a few casualties were having their wounds attended to. It was obvious that I was getting close to the field of action, I asked one of the orderlies “How far was it to brigade headquarters” , he said “about 200 yards away”. I said to the orderly, “about a mile back I met a chap with one leg in plaster hobbling along with only a crooked stick for a crutch, stretcher bearers must be scarce?” He replied that “the chap had copped a burst of machine gun fire yesterday and we had him on a stretcher ready to move out this morning when a chap with severe head and chest wounds was brought in, he insisted that the other chap have his stretcher, got off and hobbled away”. (His chances of making it to Myola are very slim, you probably met one of the stretchers he was supposed to be on, before you met him). To this day I do not know whether that soldier made it or not, but he has ever remained an inspiration to me when things have gone bad for me or mine.
The first chap I met at brigade headquarters was the Mortar Platoon sergeant and he had the fuse of of a three inch mortar bomb in his hand. I said that is good if you have the tools for dismantling the fuse from the bomb, he said no, this one sent forward to us by the sergeant with the 6th div salvage at Myola. In that case I said it is not prematurely armed, took it from him and undone the safety cap reached around behind a small tree and drove the safety pin home, even though the sergeant was pleading with me not to do it. I explained to him the discussion I had with that sergeant back at Myola and asked him did he have a screw driver so I could show him what I was talking about. A screw driver ? you could not find one of those things this side of Port Moresby. He showed me where I could find the Brigadier. I approached Brigadier Lloyd and threw him a salute, he smiled and said “We do not bother with those preliminaries up here sergeant”. I introduced my self and said “I was ordered to report to you here sir but was not told the reason why”. It is only since I reached Myola and talked to the sergeant at 6th div salvage that I had any indication of the enormity of the problem with the mortars, I told him of our discussions and the urgent request we had forwarded to base concerning the pre-arming of the fuses. He said “Good work, you will stay with me and work on the problem.”
I found a little unoccupied slit trench near the butt of a big tree, it had about 6 inches of water in the bottom of it. I scooped the water out with my eating Dixie and found some bark and dry twigs to cover the muddy bottom and rigged my ground sheet to keep the water out of it, when the inevitable rains came tumbling down at four o’clock every afternoon. I was issued with one tin of bully beef, a mug full of broken dog biscuits with a spoon full of sugar on top of them and told, if you pour a little bit of water on them you could imagine you are having Uncle Toby’s rolled oats for breakfast, that is your rations for this day and will be the same every day for the foreseeable future, depending on the weather letting the planes get through. The dog biscuits were packed in steel containers the size of four gallon kerosene tins, but when they were air dropped these containers generally looked like some one got stuck into them with a fourteen pound sledge hammer and there would not be one whole biscuit in the container.
As I sat in my lonely little fox hole with the rain beating down on my ground sheet cover, I could not help thinking “God, why is it you create so much rain where it is not needed? and not get any on the drought stricken farm back on the Lachlan and had to watch all our fine milking cows and farm horses die of starvation” (strange thoughts in a strange place). I thought I had these same cloths for the last six days now and when they were not wet from rain they were wet from sweat, I must wash them tomorrow when I am close to the creek and not moving onto other places. So I went off to sleep and woke at daylight to find I was sitting in six inches of water. I completely unpacked my haversack for the first time since leaving Port Moresby to find my two spare sets of clothing were a mess of wet green mold and would have to be washed too. My cut throat razors were all rusted up and beyond repair, luckily nobody, except the Brigadier, was shaving themselves up here and a lot of blokes had nice beards. It was said that the Japanese were referring to them as the bearded bushmen.
Before doing anything else, I checked to see if my wallet and note book were still okay in their water proof pack, they were and the fountain pen was still okay. I drew a cut away version of the three inch mortar fuse and showed it to the Brigadier when I got a chance (he was a very busy man with officers from his various units coming and going and him constantly barking orders into the phone). I had the feeling that something big was going on here and I had to wait for an hour before I got a chance to speak to him. I showed him the sketch and detailed the workings to him and explained what happened for them to become pre-armed by air dropping. I demonstrated the method we had suggested to base to prevent the pre-arming of the fuses regardless of how hard the impact and they should be shipped separate from the bombs with the necessary tools to re-assemble them back on the bombs. I said to him if I had only known the problem I could have brought a set with me, they are not very heavy, with the fuse detached from the bomb all that is needed is a good strong little screw driver to unscrew this screw to check the position of the de-tent pin. At that moment a panting runner came running up to report that the Japanese had retreated in front of the attack that had been launched that morning.
Everything else was by the board, pack up and move forward with the utmost speed. Within half an hour we were all on our way with the Brigadier leading the way. We had to climb for a couple of hours to reach the top before we were on the down hill side again. There was more than one dead Japanese soldier lying across the track and we had to step over them. I did not see any of our own dead but we had lost quite a few. We could plainly hear the rifle and machine gun fire down at the foot of the mountain when the Brigadier decided to make camp and it was getting late by the time he had established his headquarters again. The Japanese had retreated to strong positions on the other side of the wide flowing Eora Creek so it was obvious I would not be washing any clothes in the creek this day. I had to dig my own little fox hole in the pouring rain to sleep in this night. The day had been very exciting and tiring.
I awoke at dawn and thought thank God for that Darwin Cape. It was a waterproof cloak that had a collar and a single button at the neck, no sleeves, it just draped over the shoulders and down to the knees. Although your clothes may be saturated, if you pulled it tightly around you, it acted a bit like a wet suit and trapped the heat of your body inside it. I had collected some water in an old Billy can off the ground sheet I erected to keep the water out of my fox hole. I had enough water to fill my water bottle and pour a little over my dog biscuits. I looked at the tin of bully beef and thought no, I had better save that for mid-day, because once I opened it I had to eat the lot, bully beef does not keep in this climate once the tin is opened. There was little or no chance our daily rations were going to improve in the near future.
I set up my camp about 100 yards below Brigade headquarters, as I made my way up there I passed a group of soldiers talking. I said good morning and they acknowledged the greeting. I had proceeded another twenty yards when there was a deafening detonation and I was blown off my feet. I picked myself up, and looked around. There was no five blokes. Just a few arms and legs scattered around, no heads, no bodies. A couple of chaps came from nowhere to console me and check whether I was injured in any way. I assured them I was ok physically, but mentally I was shattered. I asked What happened? They said a Jap mountain gun shell glanced off the limb of a tree and dropped straight down among them, they suffered no pain. “Are you sure you are all right?” ” Yes” I said. I will sit down behind that big tree for a while and get my brain back together. I sat there for a few minutes thinking this is war, this is my moment of truth. Last Sunday the Catholic Padre held a church service at Efogi and I knelt down in the mud with the rest of them and prayed that God would protect me (Why should he protect me?) those five blokes just vaporized may have been much more deserving to live then me. God has got nothing to do with this bloody business and I am never going to pray for his protection again. I am going out there to take whatever comes my way no favors asked. There was still the occasional mountain gun shell hitting the side of the mountain in our general area. It was obvious the Japs had not zeroed in on our headquarters yet, I got to my feet marched up the track and reported to the Brigadier.
He saw what happened down there , “Are you feeling okay?”, I said yes, except I am burning up with terrible anger. I am not achieving anything here. Can I have your permission and go down there and shoot a few of those bastards. The Brigadier smiled and said “That is the best way to feel, but you are to stay here with me until we solve this problem with the mortars, that is what you have been trained for”. At that precise moment a mountain gun shell skidded to a halt in the mud between us , it was still hot the steam was rising off it. He calmly said “Get rid of that thing laddie before it goes off and kills somebody”. The shell was steaming but not smoking so there was no time fuse, I bent down and picked it up and I could see that the firing pin was bent so it must have glanced off the limb of a tree, so I very gently carried it fifty yards away and placed it gently down between the roots of a large tree. I had no means of destroying it so I marked the tree with a bayonet by gouging the bark off in a rough arrow pointing down and thought some poor innocent native may be unlucky enough to set it off one day if it is not destroyed. I could not help thinking , is God keeping an eye on me whether I want him to or not? Not a word was said by anybody when I rejoined the group, I asked the Brigadier if he had hard anything from base about the mortar problem? He replied, “Unfortunately, we have only one line of communication out here with the change over of generals and supreme commanders, McCarthur and Blaney setting up headquarters in Port Moresby, they are fighting the war from down there”. I said “I have an idea how I can test those mortar bombs for pre-arming without removing the fuses. It is risky but so is everything else around here”. I explained how I was going to do it and the risk was mine only and the mortar crews were not to fire any bomb unless it came from my stockpile, because I had no means of clearly identifying them “Alright give it a try sergeant, best of luck for us all”.
I decided the big tree next to my little camp was as good a place as any to carry out my experiment as it was far enough away from anybody else not to endanger them if things went wrong. It was a simple operation, they delivered about twenty bombs to my site about ten yards from the base of the big tree. I would take them one at a time, unscrew the safety cap an the firing pin would pop out to its full extent. Then I would place the tail fin of the bomb against the solid root of the tree on the side away from my campsite and my bomb stockpile, so as it could not shove away from me. I had previously trimmed a stout green stick about four feet six inches long and one inch in diameter, so as I could reach around the tree, place the end of it firmly on the protruding firing pin, with draw my head and shove hard enough to seat the firing pin. Knowing that if it was pre-armed the tree would protect me from the direct blast, but the sound and the air pressure of the displaced air could blow my ear drums if nothing worse. The dicey thing was replacing the safety cap on the bomb not knowing for sure if I had driven it home to its proper seat or just not hard enough to penetrate the detonator if it was pre-armed. I look back now and think I must have been mad. Anyhow I did the stock of bombs and reported to the Brigadier that they could not have been prematurely armed or I would not be standing there reporting to him. The next thing I saw the mortar platoon setting up their gun about 100 yards down hill and to one side of me about the same distance. I thought they know they are going to be a prime target for the Japs once they start firing, so I am going to get into my little hole in the ground until I see what happens. They fired one shot to judge the range and must have been pretty well spot on because they got away six or seven very smartly, then I heard the detonation. “hell” not another one in the barrel? No the Jap mountain gun had zeroed in on their smoke sign very quickly and had landed one close enough to severely injure one of the crew, who was screaming as the stretcher bearers were carrying him up the hill. The clouds had closed in and the rain was pouring down as I went up to the advance dressing station to find out just how bad things were with the gun crew and the gun.
When I arrived at the dressing station an orderly was going around asking everybody if they had any silver coins on them. I had three shillings and six pence on me that I had in my pocket when I left Port Moresby. Apparently the gunner had suffered a head injury that left a portion of his brain exposed and unsupported and the surgeon wanted the silver to make a plate to replace the portion of missing skull. I was told the gun was okay and they had landed some shells right among the Japs and were set to give them every round I had tested when they copped the near miss. They were preparing to set the gun up further back up the hill behind headquarters. I thought everything else could wait I have got to see this doctor perform his little miracle. I took turns holding the ground sheet tightly over the doctor and his patient. He had an assistant using a small blow-torch playing the flame directly on the silver coins in the steel army dixie while he was measuring and shaping a mold he had made out of what looked like mud and plaster of Paris. When the silver coins had melted he spread it in the mold with the back of an old army spoon and trimmed it around the edges with a little pair of tin snips he had and while it was still soft used a strong needle in it around the edges. As soon as it was firm enough he scraped all the internal and external sides as smoothly as possible before fitting it in position on the skull. He had to rim little pieces off here and there with a hand operated little drill he drilled holes in the skull to match the holes he had pierced in the silver plate and he stitched it in place. All this time it was pouring rain and the Japs were lobbing their mountain gun shells indiscriminately around the mountain side in anger at our mortar attack. What I had seen this doctor perform in little over half an hour was unbelievable in those sort of conditions. All these deeds and actions I had witnessed in these last few days will never appear in history books because people who perform them did not believe that they had performed anything special.
Another dawn, another day, the food ration has not improved, the distant rattle of spasmodic machine gun fire echoed around the mountains. It was easy to pick the heavy slow thud of the Japanese machine gun we called the wood pecker, against the short sharp bursts from our Bren gun. I thought while I am sitting here eating my crushed dog biscuit there are men dying down there. The mortar crew had set their gun further up the mountain, after temporarily being put out of action below me yesterday. I heard them fire a couple of ranging shots and then several rapid fire rounds and I was thinking you beauty, when I heard the horrible loud detonation in their area and thought, God, those bloody Japs are spot on with their mountain gun. I hurried up there to find out what happened. The Brigadier called me over as I went past and said “I am sorry to have to tell you that we have just lost another gun crew and the platoon sergeant said it was one of you rounds”. I said “bloody hell there must have been a mix up somewhere when they re-established because there was no way in the world that those bombs could have been pre-armed or they would have detonated when I replaced the safety caps”. The Brigadier said “you had better go up there and talk to them and remove any dangerously damage rounds from the area”.
With a heavy heart I made my way up there expecting to see shattered bodies in the ground and a pair of boots lying either side of it and I thought how strange, when I went to pick them up, (God, their feet are the only thing left of them). These blokes must feel like shooting me, and right at the moment I did not care if they did. There was no sign of movement around the shelters, they would naturally be in a severe state of shock with this episode on top of yesterdays. There were several badly damaged bombs laying around, so I gently picked them up and placed them behind a big tree several yards away. I left the boots untouched where they were, to be buried at an appropriate time and place by their mates. So I returned to headquarters non the wiser.
I told Brigadier Lloyd what I had done and agreed it was best that I had not imposed myself on them at that stage. I asked the question, “sir if they are prepared to set up another gun for me, I would like your permission to fire it on my own? I am sure it was not one of my bombs that blew up, I would be quite happy to fire any number of them after testing them the way I did those. The chance of the cause being a faulty, or deteriorated detonator is only feasibility after long insertion in salt water”. He said if we had another gun I would be tempted to take you up on your offer. “Sir they flew General Vasey into Myola and I believe they are flying some of our badly wounded out , could that plane be used to bring in some fuses and tools for us to fit them to the dropped bombs. This business must be putting immense pressure on our boys down there in the front line, they have only got rifles, bayonets, a few Bren guns and hand grenades. Surely our country can afford a few parachutes to drop these sorts of supplies, or the Yanks can lend us few to do it.” He gave a bit of a chuckle and said, “there is a World War going on, and we are only small fry here, go back to your shelter and relax sergeant, I am not holding you responsible for the misfortunes that have befallen us here and I do not think the mortar crew will either”.
I could no longer hear the sounds of war from the sides of the other mountains, everybody must be having a bit of a break. I had told one of the officers at Brigade headquarters that I was having trouble sleeping, with all these problems of the mortars weighing heavily on my mind, he gave me a packet of cigarettes and said try one of them tonight. I said I have never smoked in my life, all the more reason they will help you, he said. I had one last night and I slept well, but it took two to put me off this night.
I woke up next morning to the news that the 2nd and 3nd battalion had fixed bayonets, and walked in on the Japs and kicked them off that mountain (that’s why thing were so quiet yesterday). This was something the Japs had never experienced before. The third battalion had lost 100 ranks and two officers killed in the action, they were not ordered to do it they just went and did it.
We did not have anymore worries about the Jap mountain gun on the opposite mountain firing point blank at our positions, the 2nd 1st and 2nd 2nd Battalions were engaged in fighting for the next mountain and the village of Alola so Brigade headquarters stayed put for the time being. After the last twelve hectic days everything was peaceful in our immediate area. Food rations were still the same and strangely enough the stomach settled down to the diet and was reasonably content.
It was a hot clear morning, so down to the foot of the mountain and have a look at EuraCreek. It was a fast flowing creek about a chain wide, a big tree had fallen across it and was forming a bridge, by the look of the many bullet scars on it, any one crossing would really have to hurry. I looked up at the towering mountains either side and realized how exposed it was as I slowly walked across it an wondered how many had died in the attempt. I could hear some body coming down the mountain, on what used to be the Japanese side, so I ducked into the bush to one side with my pistol in my hand and waited. Before they came into view I heard an Australian voice say “take it easy mate”, I nearly fell ass over head then. I had time to put the pistol away and step out of the bushes before they came into sight. There were two of them with a pole on their shoulders with an army blanket laced together on it and a load of something in it. They came to a stop in front of me and said “good day mate, we will have a spell here before we cross the creek” and they gently eased their burden to the ground, slipped the pole out of the blanket and exposed the wounded soldier’s head and shoulders. I said “native bearers scarce are they ?” “No, they are not used in the fighting zones and only take over when the wounded are cleared at the advance dressing station for the trip out. We are using this method because the action that was on here yesterday was mostly off the beaten track, straight through the jungle with fixed bayonets, it would be impossible to get to them with an ordinary stretcher. Well we better be on our way, how are you riding mate?” “Like a pig in a poke replied the soldier” with a weak little smile on his face . They hoisted him on their shoulders and walked that round log bridge as if it was three feet wide. I thought you never hear much of the front line stretcher bearers and the chaps that have to bury the dead. I unpacked my haversack and found the small cake of soap and thought I will strip off, get into the creek and give myself the first wash I have had in the last twelve days, wash the cloths I had been wearing and hang them on the branches of a small tree while I wash the other spare clothes. It all went to plan until I went to wash the mold off my spare cloths, they just fell to pieces in my hands when I went to scrub them with my piece of soap (so go the best laid plans of mice and men). I did not even have a towel to dry myself on. I looked at my naked body, my arms were brown from the elbow down, my legs brown from the knees down to where the tops of my gaiters came, and the rest of me was a white as a lily. It was a hot day so I climbed back into my damp clothes before I got sun burnt. I was not very happy to think that I carried about ten pounds weight of wet clothes around all that time, but at least the ones I was wearing seemed to be in reasonable condition at the moment. God knows when I will get another lot.
By the time I got back up the mountain to headquarters I was saturated with sweat again, everyone up there was really excited about the advances the three battalions were making but were also feeling humble about the losses they had suffered. The Brigadier told me one of the chaps who delivered the bombs to the mortar that blew up yesterday said that there were other bombs from Myola delivered to the gun at the same time as he was delivering ones from my test site and there was a real mix up and nobody was sure which was which because there was no way to identify them. This made me feel better about the shocking accident, then he said I got word today that some safe fuses and a new gun were being delivered by plane to Myola this day and would be delivered to his headquarters within the next two days, weather and carriers permitting (the mortar platoons morale received a big boost with that news).
There was plenty of action around Brigade headquarters for the next few days with runners reporting back on the progress of various units in action against the Japs defending the village of Alola in the next mountain range beyond Eora Creek. On the twenty ninth of October we received word that the new mortar gun and safe fuses would be delivered the next day as they arrived at Templeton’s Crossing this day.
The next day, the thirtieth of October, I asked the Brigadier permission to go and meet the carriers coming up from Templeton’s Crossing, as I had nothing else to do. He knew how keen I was to get my hands on those fuses and to fire the gun to prove to the fellows my faith in them being safe. I set off at 9 am and met the carriers about an hour out. The sergeant from 6th div Salvage was with them and was most upset with me for losing the mortar gun and crew, but calmed down when I explained the full circumstances of that accident and the fact that the Brigadier had acknowledged that I had put my life on the line by testing those bombs the way I did and no way could any of them be pre-armed. He said you were mad you bastard, I said I know I was, but the circumstances demanded that something be done and those few rounds the fellows got away were landing in the right area, according to them. We can only hope they caused a bit of panic among the Japs and encouraged our boys to go in with bayonet and kick them off that mountain.
We were only a quarter hour out from our Brigade headquarters when two zeros flew in low over us and opened up with their machine guns, but luckily they were heading down the hill away from us and their bullets were only trimming the branches from the trees overhead. We could only hope our headquarters were not copping it. The native carriers had gone bush and it took half an hour to get them back on track. Headquarters were not there any more, just a couple of fellows packing up the last of the gear. Apparently not long after I left that morning the Brigadier had got word that our boys had over ran Alola and kicked the Japs off that mountain with Bayonet and were in hot pursuit of him towards Kokoda. We stayed there that night and thought we will catch up with them tomorrow. Three days later we were in Kokoda, which had fallen the day before without any resistance . We had not caught up with 16th Brigade because they had taken the easterly track to Oivi in hot pursuit of the retreating Japanese forces. I never saw Brigadier Lloyd again in my life, I have always been sad about that because he was a terrific soldier.
Kokoda was like a bee hive, it was General Vassey’s headquarters now and we were all informed that the chin and lower lip was to be clean shaven every day here after. Some of the fellows had beautiful beards and pleaded for permission to keep them until they went home. Off they had to come, we were all issued with safety razors, I had never used one before and I cut myself about more than I had ever done with a cut throat razor. There were no changes of clothing being issued at this stage they said, there were too many other important things to come first, like erecting tents and such. We did get an extra tin of Bully Beef ration and some whole dog biscuits that we broke up anyhow as it was the best way to eat them
There were hundreds of natives working on the air airstrip digging drainage around the edges and spreading gravel around soft spots in the middle, those people had to get off to the side in pretty quick time whenever a plane came into land. One plane landed and unloaded the tracks of a bulldozer, the next plane landed and unloaded the engine at the opposite end of the field. It was interesting to see the natives work on this, they never stopped chattering all the while they tied a stout log to each side of the bulldozer engine, twenty five of them lined up each side and with much yelling and shouting hoisted the thing on their shoulders and marched the full length of the field and gently put it down. I said to the chap in charge of them, “you had to tell them how to do it?”. “No I did not. I just told the head man what I wanted done and that took me longer then it took them how to work out how to do it.”
I tried to contact my superiors back at Port Moresby to find out whether I should hop on one of the returning planes with the wounded or proceed forward to the fighting zone where they were still throwing ammunition out of air planes wrapped in blankets. Also had they done anything about pre-arming of the three inch mortar fuses. The signals sergeant said they would try but the demands on communication lines were extremely heavy and I might have to hang around for a few days until things settled down a bit.It was good to see the wounded being flown out, I could not help thinking about the chap with his leg in plaster.
It was all hands on deck unloading the supplies from aircraft and building proper storage shelters. We were surprised that the Japanese air forces did not seem to be interested in the activity here. An American Mitchell Bomber had flown low and fast over us yesterday with a couple of Jap Zeros hot on his tail firing their guns , but the tail gunner was giving them back plenty of the same and the bomber was flying too low for the Japs to come up underneath him, in thirty seconds they were gone from sight. This morning there was the usual hive of activity on the air strip when we heard the approach of a fast plane, when we spotted it, it was an American Sabre Fighter, with wheels down coming in low from the eastern end of the strip, The natives working on the side of the field ran across in panic, the plane was about to touch down, but when the pilot saw what was happening he aborted the landing and climbed away. He turned about three miles out to come back into land and then his plane just dropped out of the sky from about three hundred feet up, no sign of a parachute. I thought what a tragedy, by not risking the possibility of injuring or killing any of those natives and aborting that landing, he has run out of petrol and sacrificed his own life. Just another casualty of war, his next of kin will never know of his noble sacrifice. We quickly formed several search parties and get out there and find him as quickly as possible in the hopes that by some miracle he might still be alive. It was thick jungle out there and although the plane only appeared to be a mile out when it crashed, it was over an hour before the first party reached it, the rest were close behind. The poor fellow had released his parachute, but it never had time to open properly and strangely he was lying on the top of the wreckage, with no visible signs of injury with the chute draped around him like a shroud. His body was carried back to the airstrip and buried next to some of our own, “a hero among heroes”.
Meanwhile the war raged on the 2nd / 3nd Battalion had caught up to the Japs and run into strong opposition. They were quickly joined by Brigadier K.W. Eather and his 21st Brigade troups from Kokoda and Brigadier Lloyd other two Battalions the 2nd/1st and 2nd/2nd. The battle raged from the 4th to the 10th of November. Enemy casualties were heavy, five officers and five hundred other ranks killed. Ours were reasonably light by comparison, one hundred and twenty two dead. At this stage I was still at Kokoda and we were getting some newspapers and some of the fellows were getting some mail, I did not get any and I wondered why because my mother and sisters had been writing regularly before before I left Port Moresby. So I got busy and wrote a few short notes to let them know I was alive and kicking. None of us were happy about the way the newspapers were screaming about how the Australian troops were holding up the Americans who had gone in on another track around the Owen Stanley’s and could not advance any further until lour lot caught up. We were getting very little publicity because the Yanks had requisitioned our best man Damien Parer and we had a Yank supreme commander and Australia was full of Yanks with pockets bulging with money and many of them would never fire a shot in this war. Most of the Americans who fought and died in the Pacific never saw Australia. To put it bluntly I think both Balamey and Macarthur treated us as very expendable items in on their road to glory.
There was still no change of clothing for any of us and our daily rations had changed very little, it was now over three weeks since I left Port Moresby and there were no facilities here for washing clothes.
On the 11th of November I received word from base to proceed forward to the front line area post haste as they were still having trouble with their small arms ammunition, even the 303 rounds were giving trouble in the Bren Guns. The sergeant from the 6th division salvage said he was moving his lot forward next day and I was welcome to join them. The mortar guns and fuses had been sent on to the 16th Brigade but he had not heard whether they had reached them or been used in the battle for Oivi and Gorari where the Japs were using their mountain guns of various sizes
The going was very heavy, the track was plowed up and the mud knee deep in places and it was impossible to get off it as the jungle was very dense on either side. The one good think was there were no mountains, it was just undulating. We passed through Oivi and Gorari and could only guess how vicious the battle had been by the shattered trees and shredded jungle, hundreds of graves and scattered enemy equipment lying around. Every Australian grave was easy to pick, because they had a little cross on them and a Japanese steel helmet for every Jap soldier they were known to have killed, the most we saw on any one grave was 25, (he must have been a machine gunner or grenade thrower, I would say grenade thrower because of the shattered state of the helmets). At Gorari a bayonet charge had finished off the enemy. We camped overnight at Gorari, it was not many miles from Kokoda, but I think the break at Kokoda had soften us.
We finally caught up to the rear guard of the 16th Brigade at Wairope on the Fumusi River, they had been dropped back to the rear for a spell, because they had been in the thickest part of the fighting. It was their job for the time being to protect the wire rope bridges and flying foxes that their engineers had erected across the river, which was 300 feet wide and flowing at ten knots in this area. How they got those bridges across there was a remarkable achievement. They consisted of three half inch diameter wire ropes, the top two were parallel about three feet apart, the bottom one formed the apex of an upside down triangle, round bush timber formed the timber triangle frames lashed to the wire ropes and to each other in the form of a cross to form rigid supports, split bush timber slabs were lashed into the crotches of these triangles to form the walkway of the bridge. It was late afternoon and after one look at the bridges I said to the platoon sergeant do you mind if I join you on this side tonight, so as we can tackle the bridge in a fresh state of mind and body. He gave a little laugh and said I can see your point of view, quite a few get wet.
We were just getting ready to settle down for the night when three be-ragged American soldiers wandered into our camp and said “God dam!, are we sure glad to see you boys. Can we camp here with you boys tonight?”
“Yes, the infantry sergeant said no problem, except I advise you hide those tin hats, because if you go out a bit to have a leak one might mistake you for a Jap and you would be a dead man.”
“You’re joshing me”, one of the yanks said in a very quiet voice,”we have seen too many helmets that shape and we love to see holes in them .” The older yank of the three said “I get your point, were your men involved in that mess a few miles back there a few miles, that must have been a hell of a fight . How long did it last?”
“Six bloody long days” the sergeant said in almost a whisper. The yank said all I can say is we are mighty pleased you are on our side.
I said ” We have been copping a lot of propaganda from the Australian press and the top brass about us fellows holding you fellows up in your advance on another track south of here. We had one general replaced over the alleged problem”. In a chorus the three yanks cried “We have not fired a shot yet in this God-dam war yet, some of us marched in and some of us were flown in to an old deserted landing strip about fifteen miles south of here a month ago and have been sitting on our hands ever since.”
“You blokes fair dinkum?” the sergeant asked. “If your fair dinkum means truly then yes and we are mighty pissed off about it” the yank replied. “There is nothing worse than sitting on your bums and hearing all the problems you Aussies have had on the Kokoda trail and not been able to do a God-dam thing to help”.
Next morning when the yanks were about to depart the infantry sergeant said to them “Your boots are about to fall off your feet, go along to that tent there and tell the corporal that I said to fit you out with a new pair of boots each. We had a lot dropped to us yesterday”. They came back to us a quarter an hour later all fitted out with their new boots all smiles and full of appreciation. “Those guys back at camp are going to go green with envy when they see these boots”.
We were down in the low undulating country now, the humidity and mosquitoes were about equivalent to Port Moresby, even at 7am the sun had a lot of sting in it, I said “I do not know what the rest of you are doing, but I am going for a swim and wash my dirty clothes even if I have to put them back on wet”. The infantry sergeant said “We have been doing that since we have been here, unless you are a good swimmer stay close to the edge, because I am not diving in after you.” We had our swim and washed our clothes and got straight back into them knowing they would be wet with sweat all day anyhow. The sergeant asked us if any of us needed new boots, I said “No, mine are nicely run in thank you, but if you have any excess clothing I would be happy with a spare set “. He gave a bit of a laugh and said “Sergeant you should know that an army marches on their boots and stomachs, so they even bury you with your boots on. Clothes are for dressing up on parade in the front of generals”.
So it was across the bridge, two at a time, by the time we reached the middle the bottom ends of each timber triangle were dipping into the water and the force of the water was making the bridge sway dangerously, so we put more distance between each other and made it across okay. When we were all across safely, we paused to think of three thousand other blokes who had crossed before us with all their gear and the twenty good swimmers who swam across fully clothed with their guns an ammunition slung on their backs, to form a protective patrol on the enemy side while the bridge was built.
It was the 16th of November when we reached Dobodura, the Yanks had moved in by boat and air in force, two days before we arrived there. At that time it was a dropping ground for them and we could not believe our eyes, everything was dropped by parachute. Different colored chutes for different types of stores. I could not help it, I shook my fist at the sky and yelled “you rotten bloody mongrels Douglas MacArthur and Thomas Blamey you did not have any parachutes to drop our ammunition supplies for the past two months”. The other said they knew how you feel, but we have enough wars on our hands without you starting another one McGrath. We ate well that night, fresh bread, eggs ham and bacon cooked in lard. We each grabbed a silk parachute and slept in the nude with it wrapped around us like a sheet. Unfortunately too many others were doing the same thing and the Yanks we complaining about their disappearing chutes so we had to hand them back the next day. Strangely, all that rich food did not sit in our stomach all that well.
On the 18th of November I received orders to report to the 21st Brigade dropping grounds as quickly as possible. The track was bogged up and very heavy going. In places the mud was knee deep. Where ever I could I got off to one side or the other, on one occasion, tripped over something, I felt around to see what it was, got hold of it and pulled it up it was the pedal of a push bike still attached to a complete bicycle. I had heard that the Japs used bicycles to get around on when they first invade Buna Mission and had even ridden them as far as Kokoda before the heavy traffic bogged up the trail. When I got to the 21st Brigade dropping ground the planes were in the middle of a drop. Supplies wrapped in army blankets, bouncing off the ground and tree stumps it was hard to believe after what I had just left behind. I could feel nothing else but absolute disgust for our noble leaders. I hope to hell they still not dropping those bombs with the fuses attached and I wondered whether they had done anything about preventing the fuses from pre-arming.
I was directed to Brigade headquarters, the brigadier was in conference with the general but his second in command was there and told me their main worries were the odd jamming of the 303 rounds in the magazines of the Bren guns in the rapid fire situation. Which was generally in the close up do or die encounters and was most detrimental to the moral of the troops engaged. I said to him “I cannot understand why you are still getting your supplies thrown out of airplane wrapped in blankets, because I just came across from Dobodura and the Yanks are getting all their supplies dropped by parachute.” ” We know that sergeant, they are fighting the same enemy, but a different war to us, even though we have the same supreme commander, and what is this business about being wrapped in blankets? ” (they must be running out of them, only half our stuff is arriving wrapped). I told him about the 3 inch mortar problem at 16th Brigade and whether they had suffered any of the same disasters. We were notified of a complete ban on them, but not to reason why, he said ” What was the reason?” so I told him. That was bloody shocking he said, no wonder they kept mum about it”. “Who is looking after your ammunition supplies Sir? I would like to have a look at them and maybe test fire a few rounds that appear damaged or deteriorated in some way or other.. He directed me where to go and ask for the sergeant armourer. I found him sorting a heap of loose 303 rounds. I introduced myself (Lindsay McGrath) and explained why I was there and could I have a look through the ammunition with him. He said, “Tom Duncan here, and I am only too happy to have somebody to help share the responsibility of passing the ammunition for action”. I told him what I would be looking for, damage to the rim of the cartridge, any small dents in the body of the cartridge, any damage to the bullets themselves and any green stains around the joint of the bullet to the cartridge. After going through one hundred rounds each of us had three or four rounds we were suspicious of, I said to him “I think it is more likely to be the distortion of the round than anything else. Have you got a spare Bren gun barrel and magazine that we can trial fit them into?” “No problem there” he said, “we have plenty of those around”. When he came back with it, I said “Try your four rounds for fit in the barrel”. There was one out of the four that would not slip into the breach easily and would not go more than half way home, so we did not force it. We could not visually see the problem at first, so we opened a box that was not completely busted open, got a clip of five out, removed one of the rounds and laid it along side our faulty round and it was very obvious that the bad round was a fraction shorter than the good round. What had happened the bullet had been driven back into the cartridge case about one sixteenth of an inch and had swelled the cartridge case fractionally and that is why it would not fit down in the gun breach. We tried one of the crook rounds I had picked out, but it would not fit because the bullet was slightly out of line with the cartridge which showed up clearly when place alongside the good cartridge.
It was getting dark now and I said to Tom, “I would like to try every round out of this broken box in the Bren gun barrel”, but it was going to be dark soon. Tom said “I have a good pressure kerosene lamp, what say we have a bite to eat and we will get a couple more gun barrels and a couple more blokes and we will check as many as you like tonight and tomorrow because one of our battalions is getting ready to move on Gona tomorrow on the 20th which is the day after”. There is 1,000 rounds to a box, I asked Tom “How many rounds would a battalion in action use up in a day?” “Well it depends on how tough the opposition is and how many there are, but I do know on occasions in the not too distant past they have used up to 50,000 rounds when things were really hot”. We did 500 rounds each that night and decided to call it quits for the night. Tom said “You can eat and bunk down in our shelter if you like”. I accepted the offer as we were walking back to his shelter, I said “Tom could you possible rake up about 20 of those spare Bren gun barrels?” He said “I know what you are thinking, but getting the spare fellows might be the more difficult part, see you in the morning”.
I did not get much sleep that night, because in the badly damaged box we found six distorted rounds and in the lightly damaged box there was two. Eight out of 2,000 might not sound like many but when you consider that those duds could cost eight lives at least that is eight lives too many. When we had eaten our tin of bully for breakfast, I said to Tom, “We will go and discuss this problem and our proposed solution with the Brigadier and ask for his authority to proceed with it” The Brig gave us the go ahead and said “Do not hesitate to call on me if you run into any obstacles, physical or verbal, because we need things to go right for us tomorrow”.
Tom said “Those bodies we are looking to this job, I am going along to the chaps that control our native carriers and see what they think about using some of their boys for this work. Because if we can train them we wont lose them up the front tomorrow. Why not give it a go?” I agreed, they are quite nimble and quick about most things.
Tom came back about an hour later with six natives , their boss said for us to show these fellows what you want done and how you want it done and leave them the job of showing the rest in their own way. So we went through the procedure several times, remove the clips of five rounds from the box, remove each round from the clip, fit it into the gun barrel, if it would not fit like the dud ones we let them try, put it to one side. The ones that fitted into the breach of the barrel, put them back into clips of five and pack them neatly back in a spare box. we only had to show them a couple of times and they were doing it quicker than we could and they were laughing and chattering away, like it was a real fun thing, By the time they had done a thousand rounds each their eight hours were up. (Legally we were not allowed to work the natives any longer than eight hours). We took them back to their compound and manage to arrange with their boss man, “as they call him”, for two shifts of twenty boys a day as it was a life and death matter we were dealing with. He said “You blokes are stretching the rules, you will get me bloody hung if some of the base brass gets to hear of it”. The Brig has given us the nod, that will protect our asses if necessary. We reported to the Brig that we only had 8,000 rounds cleared to deliver to him. That will be sufficient he said as we are only sending out fighting patrols to test the enemy strength at Gona tomorrow, I will issue an order that they deliver all their existing ammunition supplies to your site and rearm themselves with your tested rounds.
The 2nd/31st battalion and the 21st brigade took Gona the next day with only token resistance, but they had to move out of it and retire to the 21st brigade dropping ground. Bad weather had closed in and the planes could not deliver their supplies and the bombers could not bomb the Japanese positions. The Japs moved back in and re-enforced their strong defensive positions with more fresh troops who had been ferried down the coast by barge that night. This gave us a chance to get our crews fully organized with the sorting of our stock of 303 ammunition, (35,000 rounds ready to go). Our native boys were doing terrific job and enjoying doing it. They were getting an extra stick of bong twist “tobacco” and a tin of bully per day as a bonus.
The skies cleared and over came the biscuit bombers in force. Our crew was off to on end well clear of the actual cleared dropping ground, four planes had dropped their loads, when two late comers were spotted coming low and fast, they were more than half way up the drop area before they started releasing their loads, so we took off and scattered to one side or the other. One service man was running at an angle instead of directly to one side when he got hit fair in the middle of the back with a bundle of something. I was only twenty yards away and was the first to reach him, blood was bubbling from his mouth and he was screaming for (Christ’s sake shoot me? for Christ’s sake shoot me) and threshing wildly. There was no doubt he was dying a terrible death and if I had of had a gun with me I would have granted his wish and to hell with the consequences. I took him five minutes to die, others were there to try and help him as well as me. God at home on the farm you would not let a dog die like that. A container of dog biscuits had hit him.
There was feverish activity all round, the Brigade was preparing its three battalions for an all out assault on the Jap defensive positions around the village of Gona. They had all been issued with our tested ammunition and we had a reserve of 20,000 rounds. When the attack was launched on the 23rd of November by the 2nd /31st, 2nd/33rd and 2nd/25th battalions (all about half strength), total of 1,159 men. At full strength these battalions would have totaled 2,100 men.These men had been in the field of battle since early September so it was now eleven weeks of action, with no change of clothes and a lot of them riddled with malaria of one form or another. Some of them reported to have insisted on going into action with temperatures in excess of 104 degrees. They fought with great dash and courage and encircled the enemy positions but could not penetrate the enemy’s strong positions because of intense artillery and mortar fire.
My teams were now sorting ammunition from early morning to late at night (sometimes midnight, depending on how bad was the damage was to the ammunition boxes and their contents). We were committed to producing a minimum of 50,000 rounds a day. It was strange, unreal, there in the light of two high pressure kerosene lights with this circle of native men laughing and chattering away as they sorted the rounds with their quick nimble fingers , some of them hill tribesmen with bones through their noses, pheasant feathers in their hair and pigs teeth necklaces. I was constantly on the move around them as they wanted my opinion on something by holding up a hand and asking “boss”? Before they finished for the night I went around to each one and gave him his stick of Bong twist and tin of bully beef and just said the word “good”. (I had been told by their white boss never to put a hand on them in any way, especially the Hill Tribesmen). Tom had to go back full time to his own duties of keeping the guns firing now that three battalions were all in action. So there were long days for me and I was starting to feel the strain, I still had the same filthy clothes on and I deliberately covered my arms and bare portions of my legs with mud to stop the mosquitoes from driving me mad. I could not smell the natives, but I bet they could smell me. My shelter against the elements, a glorified Aboriginal Gunya with my Darwin Cape draped over it. “Bed”. a ground sheet, two army blankets damaged from the air dropping under me, my half empty haversack for a pillow, five minutes and I was dead to the world. Blokes up the front would be sitting in their little fox holes with their guns and grenades in hand , some with wounds from the day’s fighting knowing if they were lucky they would be doing the same thing tomorrow. They we relieved by another A.I.F. brigade on the 25th of November . This brigade had been heavily engaged in the original fighting retreat from Kokoda. reformed by the remains of the 2nd/14th and 2nd/16th, 2nd/27th battalions plus the 39th C.M.F. battalion who were the first Australian to confront the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail. There numbers were greatly depleted from the original battles over the Owen Stanley’s during July and August, so they had been in the fighting zone for five months, without reinforcements of any consequence. This Brigade was in the charge of Brigadier I.N. Dougherty. They moved into action at Gona on the 25th of November, with a furious rain of Mortar Artillery, assisted by heavy aerial bombing they launched one of the most conclusive and costly assaults of the campaign. Our troops suffered heavy causalities but nothing could stop them, once again they finished off the Jap defenders with bayonets after fourteen days of continuous fighting. The day before Gona fell our officers could see though their binoculars that the Japs were wearing gas masks and they wondered why hoping to God they did not have gas as our troops had thrown their gas masks away long ago. When the final shots were fired and they moved into clean up it was easy to see why the Japs were wearing gas masks. The stench was terrible, they had not buried any of their own or our dead and bodies were pile up everywhere, they had even used the bodies of their own dead in the construction of earth works and bunkers, in other cases corpses had been used as fire steps in their dugouts and were half submerged in the mire. In 48 hours our troops buried 650 dead Japanese soldiers in the area.
The pressure had really been on my crew for eight days straight we had been flat out for sixteen hours a day, (no such thing as week ends off in war), we often did not know what day of the week it was. I had been feeling crook all day and by the time I finished that night I was getting cold shivers, I did not sleep at all, I wrapped myself in the two old blankets I had been sleeping on and I was still shivering and sweating at the same time. I was first down at the advanced dressing station that morning, the field ambulance corporal took my temperature and said, with a bit of a whistle “104.5, you have got malaria sergeant and all I can give you is two aspros and you are going to have to walk out. You will not be on your own though, I have a chap here who was skewered through the side by a Jap sword yesterday. It is about ten miles out to the jeep road, but if you take your time you will make it . Take short rests often, you will be flown out from Poppondetta air strip to Port Moresby direct, you will be in 9th A.G.H. Hospital tonight with a pretty little nurse fussing over you. Just keep that in mind and I am sure you will make it”.
I only have a hazy recollection of that trip out, we were sort of propping each other up and when we fell over in the mud it was very difficult getting back on our feet. I can remember meeting General George Vasey somewhere along the track, he was going the other way, he stopped and asked us how we were going and did we think we could make it the other two miles to the jeep road. We both said we will make it if we have to crawl on our hands and knees, the General said that is the spirit lads and went on his way. Strange I had not asked him his name but the wounded chap was in worse shape than me, he had lost a lot of blood, finally he could go no further. I left him sitting propped against a tree, when ever I felt like tossing it in I thought of that chap with his leg in plaster. Luckily I only had a quarter of a mile to go to the jeep road and some chaps saw me coming and came to my aid, two of them went back to pick the wounded chap up and so we made it. I can remember being carried from the jeep to the plane on a stretcher, I had never been on plane before in my life. I lay on the stretcher looking out of the porthole window as those mountains drifted by under neath, this was Heaven looking down Hell. Thirty five minutes after take off we were landing in Port Moresby.
We were loaded onto an ambulance and taken the 9 miles out to the 9th A.G.H. That orderly was right, there was actually two pretty nurses there, they were very efficient and bossy.
“Out of those filthy rags, phew, they pong, how long have you had those things on? ” “About nine weeks I think, but I have washed them a couple of times.”
“Well its under the shower for you and we will give you a good scrub up.”
“I am quite capable of washing myself thank you.”
“So be it, we will leave you to it and then you are on your own.”
I woke up next day in a stretcher with white sheets and two blankets on me ,a soft voice said, “So you have come out of it at last, we were quite worried about you at one stage. You managed to get out of your clothes and turn the water on, lucky you, we were there to catch you when you fell, so we gave you a good scrub while we were at it and were surprised to find out that were actually white under all that dirt.” She held out a small glass with some clear liquid in it and said “Take this , it is quinine, do not sip it, gulp it down quickly and I will give you this boiled lolly to suck after it.” I said “God, it must be crook if the army supplies lollys to take after it”.
“Just think of it as the liquid of life and you will be happy for more.” she said. It was that bitter that the skin on your lips dried out and cracked by the time the course was finished , but that terrible fever was gone. The hospital was really crowded, up to five thousand patients per month, the bunks were two tiers high and now I was on the mend I had to get in the top bunk and let the really sick ones have the bottom. Those nurses did a fantastic job and some how they always seemed to manage a smile for everybody.
I had lost a lot of weight in those seven days since I left the old dropping ground outside Gona, the nurses told me that the wounded chap was in another part of the hospital and was doing okay.
By this time Gona had fallen to our troops. the 16th brigade and remnants of its three battle weary battalions and the 21st brigade had been repatriated to Australia. The 39th battalion was back in action with the two fresh A.I.F. Brigades who had fought at Milne Bay and the initial retreat over the Kokoda Trail.
I did not get out of hospital until Christmas 1942, my elder brother Hector had recently arrived in Port Moresby as a driver batman for some high ranking officer in ammunition ordinance. That is how he knew where to find me, I told him I did not think he had a chance of claiming me for his unit as I was a trained specialist ammunition expert and I did not know of any others in New guinea at the time, besides I was interested in what I was doing. I would appreciate it very much if he could get his boss to chase up where my mail had gone to because I had not received any for nearly three months. Two days later he was back to see me again and brought my mail with him and he told me he found out that there was no way he could claim me, and that him and his boss were going back to Australia next day. He said I will tell them all at home that you are okay, I asked him not to mention that I had been in hospital with malaria, as I was being shifted out to a convalescent camp next day. It was two years before I saw him again.
There were twenty letters in the bundle he brought me, I read them through from the oldest date till the latest. Apparently some of them had been sent back to them marked missing, where a bouts unknown. I was busy writing for a couple of days before I finished writing them all . It was good to know that everything was alright on the home front. After two weeks in the convalescent camp I was progressing fine and getting involved in light sporting activities as I was warned that the medication I was on could have adverse effects on my body if I overdid it. I woke up one morning feeling as is some body had been sticking the boot into my lower body. My urine was like black coffee and the pain was shocking when I passed water, they rushed me back to the 9th A.G.H. and the first doctor who examined me thought I had Black Water Fever and I did not like the way he said it (like as if he was passing a DEATH SENTENCE). When he sought a second opinion, this doctor asked me what medication I was on and what was I doing the day before I fell ill, when I told him, he turned to the other doctor and said I believe this soldier has Plasmeqine poisoning, take him off medication and give him plenty of fluids for the next two days and he will be okay. That made me feel better straight away. I spent a week in hospital this time before they sent me back to the convalescent camp. This time I took it very quietly and was transferred to the big base ammunition storage area two weeks later, classed as fit for light duties. I had been out of action for nearly two months
The last battles were being fought for Samananda and the last Japanese resistance was over come on the 22nd of January 143 after tremendous sustained fighting by the 18th Brigade A.I.F. who lost 96% of its strength through sickness, hardship and battle, absorbed 1,000 reinforcements. This is a record of both the first and second A.I.F. and unsurpassed in the annals of war. The C.M.F. 39th Battalion , that had been the first Australian troops to fight the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail chased the 400 remnants of the Japanese army up the coast where they tried to escape from Samananda and killed 200 of them before the rest of them fled into the jungle and was seen and heard no more. The tide of war world wide had turned our way long last, the enemies were on the defensive. The 9th Division A.I.F. had arrived back in Australia after their tremendous victory at El Alamein with the British Army, November 1942.
Japanese bombers were still raiding Port Moresby occasionally at night, our big ammunition depots were about twelve miles outside Port Moresby and we had a ring side view of the proceedings. But what goes up must come down and there were a lot of shrapnel from the exploding anti-aircraft shells thudding into the ground here and there and I think the old tin hat could give one a false sense of security.
All the ammunition used in the various battle zones of New Guinea was distributed through this base depot so it was always a hive of activity, fourteen hours a day. I was asked to give a few lectures on what it was like on the receiving end, especially on air dropping without parachutes. Sometimes I got carried away with my disgust of the generals in charge for dropping our ammunition without parachutes when all the time the Yanks had plenty of them to drop luxuries to their own troops. I did not spare the details of the cost of lives to our fighting troops on the Kokoda Trail, when they were forced to use bayonets to kick the Japs off those mountains. I was also stressing the fact that there was lots of dangerous ammunition lying around on some of those dropping grounds and could be killing natives at a later date. The Colonel in charge of all stores in New Guinea heard about what I was saying and ordered me to appear before him. (I thought “hell, me and my big mouth”)
“Sergeant I have been hearing some of the things you have had to say about our higher command and they are bordering on insubordination to some degree. The method of delivering the ammunition on the Kokoda Trail was experimental and it left a lot to be desired, but it is gone and done with now and the less said about it the better. Consider yourself reprimanded sergeant and we will get on with the real reason I called you before me. This business about the dangerous ammunition scattered along the trail, I am concerned about the quantity of that must be there , how much of it is dangerous, and how much of it is worth salvaging. So I am going to send you back over the trail with a team of twenty native carriers to gather it together at the various dropping grounds , if it is scattered about and separate it into serviceable and non-serviceable quantities and report back to me when it is done so as I can asses what is the best thing to do with it. Sergeant, you will report straight to me and nobody else when you return. Is that clearly understood?”
This strip was a picnic compared with my previous trials and tribulations on these mountains. I did not even have to carry my own main pack, only a pistol and 25 rounds of ammunition, in the little haversack on my back there was two one pound slabs of gun cotton and their primary charges, in my ammunition pouches in front was six feet of blue gun powder time fuse and two detonators wrapped in cotton wool and sealed in a tobacco tin . I was determined that I was going to find the tree where I had placed the un-exploded Jap shell and the damaged mortar bombs under, and detonate them with the gun cotton slabs so that they would never be a danger to anybody anymore. But when we got to that area in the mountains at Eora Creek, in those six months the jungle had restores itself to the extent that even with the assistance of the natives, we cold not find those marked trees or any other evidence of where the brigade headquarters and my own little fox hole had been. I was completely disoriented and upset about not being able to find and destroy those shells. The only place where there any sizable stocks of ammunition was at Myola and Kokoda and most of it was three inch mortar shells , similar to the ones that had been blowing up in the barrels of the guns. The small arms ammunition was in a very deteriorate condition also. When I reported to the Colonel I recommended that it all be destroyed where it was. He said “Leave it with me sergeant and if it has to be destroyed you will very likely get the job.”
I had been back at the ammunition depot for a month and it was the 28th of March when I received word that I was going to be sent to Wau, where the Japs had been repelled in their attempt to over run our forces and capture the airstrip there. Base was setting up a forward ammunition depot at Wau and the 17th Brigade A.I.F. was getting their supplies air dropped as they pushed the Jap forces back over the mountains towards Salamaua on the coast. It was a similar type of operation to the Kokoda Trail. The first plane I was on had to turn back to Port Morseby because it had to fly between two mountain ranges that were over 12,000 feet high and the weather had closed in. It was said that these were the highest mountains in New Guinea and on rare occasions we have known to see snow on them.
Two days later we made a successful landing at rstrip. It was a most unusual air field in the fact that the top end of it was three hundred feet higher then the bottom end and it was only three hundred and fifty yards long from one end to the other. The Japs had got to within 800 yards of the bottom end and the planes copped quite a bit of small arms fire as they flew in low over them to land. It was said that some of the pilots dropped hand grenades out the cabin window as they flew in low over the Jap positions.
When I reported to the captain in charge of establishing the ammunition storage area, a small plateau over looking the Wau air strip about a mile away, I was pleasantly surprised that there were three blokes there that I had served my original training at Liverpool with. It was quite a happy occasion for me. They had elevated stretchers and you could sleep with one blanket on at night, something I had not done for eight months.
In the first week I was there the Japs bombed the Wau area but nowhere close to our depot, but as we looked up from our slit trenches we could see the bombs leaving the planes and hear the swish noise as they fell through the air. When planes are flying level and they are dropping their bombs overhead, you know they are not going to land on you. Our Bofors anti-aircraft guns made it pretty hot for them. There was no air craft on the air strip at the time so they only blew a few holes in the ground.
Next day I got my first call to the 17th brigade dropping ground in the forward area and there was no mention of what the problem was. I thought here we go again, but instead of carrying guns and ammunition I took a few handy tools with me and this time only two tins of bully beef , as the dropping ground was only twenty miles up the track. The first ten miles or so was a roughly built Jeep track that was only used to get the the wounded stretcher cases out. There was only two Jeeps available they had been flown in the same as everything else in this isolated area. This country was mountainous but with sort of rolling big ones without the steep gorges and ravines of the Kokoda Trail. The track was not bogged up either, I met one stretcher case with the usual native carriers, and several walking wounded. I made good time and was at the dropping ground by early afternoon. This was A.A.S.C. (Australian Army Service Corps) dropping ground, not a brigade one, I found out when I reported to the captain who was the officer in command. I asked what was the specific problem? He replied all our supplies are being dropped by parachute, but occasionally the chutes fail to open properly the loads crashed into trees and the containers break open. When it is food supplies we do not worry but when it is ammunition, especially mortar ammunition, we cannot afford to take chances as you only know too well the problems on the Kokoda Trail.
I was glad I fetched those tools with me and in the one week I was there, there were only two parachute loads that had to be thoroughly tested , one containing Mortar bombs and the other was mixed small arms. None of the bombs were pre-armed and only two rounds of 303 ammunition failed the Bren Gun barrel test. I suggested to the captain, that instead of me hanging around all the time, he should wait until there were three or four suspect ammunition parachute loads for me to look at and then give me a call, as there was plenty to keep me busy back at Wau. He agreed with that as long as I came running when he wanted me.
So it was back to Wau, my mail, my comfortable bed and my cooked meals. Yes, we had our own cook and he did a very good job with the limited variety of food he had to work with . Bully Beef, powdered eggs and dehydrated mutton. This dehydrated mutton was packed in four gallon steel containers and looked like mouse dirt and was supposed to cook up like mince meat. I think mouse dirt would have had more flavor. Our cook had good contacts among the natives. He probably bribed them with a tin or two of bully beef (they loved the stuff) anyhow we never went short of paw paw, bannas and yams.
In all the time I was in Wau the Japs only bombed the airstrip four times. On one occasion the fighter escorts with our transport planes arrived at the scene at the same time and it was a joy to watch those Jap planes get out of there in a hurry with a fighter on their tails all guns blazing. There was a big cheer went up when we saw two of them fall out of the sky.
I was spending one week up on the forward dropping ground and one week back at base alternately, my 21st birthday had come and gone. The dropping ground was now five miles further away because our troops had kicked the Japs off another mountain. So now I was doing about fifty miles a fortnight and by the middle of May had gone though two pairs of boots since I first arrived in Wau. I was back at the base when the Japs put on their last air raid on Wau airstrip, this time their bombers had fighter escort. Once again they were unlucky, they only had time to make one bomber run when ten Yank P38 lightning fighters hove on the scene, so the dog fight was on and we had a ring side seat. There were planes zooming and diving all over the place, I was sitting on the edge of my slit trench when this Jap Zero came screaming up the side of the hill about twenty feet above the ground and straight towards me, I could clearly see his face under the helmet and goggles for that second before I fell backwards into my slit trench and he was gone. For all the fuss and shooting we only saw one plane fall out of the sky and it was a P38. We were all happy when we saw the pilot bail out, before his burning plane disappeared out of sight behind our mountain.
So the search was on. In the first day the plane wreckage was found, so everybody was concentrating their search within a mile radius of that and making plenty of noise in the process because the jungle was bloody thick and nobody wanted to get lost themselves. On the third day one small group paused for a breath under a huge tree and one of the fellows roared out at the top of his voice “Where are you planted you stupid Yank bastard, you must have heard us looking for you?” They thought they were hearing things when they heard a weak voice come back, “I am up here”. There he was hanging by his parachute high up in that tree. The word quickly spread and in one hour we had him down out of the tree. The first thing the poor fellow said was “Those were the sweetest God Dam words I ever heard in my life you Aussie Bastard. I have heard you yelling and cooing in the distance for the past two days and I was frighten to make any noise in case you were Japs.” A week later we received some newspapers that described the bombing raid and in blazing headlines and the score line was six Japanese planes without loss to ours. No mention of the poor bloody Yank and his ordeal.
By the end of May I had been up to the forward dropping ground and back to base again. Things were really heating up and something big was in the wind. A Yank construction mob had been flown in with their road construction gear and had constructed another landing strip at Bulola a few miles away and our own army construction crews were building a road in from a place called Bulldog on the south coast of Wau over some incredible country. In the meantime the 17th Brigade had pushed the Japs back another five miles and the dropping ground was now that much further away from me.
I received a call to go forward the dropping ground on the 2-6-1943. It was a full thirty mile march now, the road had not been extended any further, there were to many other more important works in progress. The new dropping ground was a narrow partially cleared strip on top of the mountain overlooking the battle going on at the bottom in a place called Kitchen Creek. The Japs held the mountain at eye level with us and were causing problems because the transport planes had to fly over or past his mountain and some of their drops were missing our strip on both sides and crashing into the jungle. One plane had mistakenly dropped his load on the Jap mountain. We were out of range of the Jap small arms and mountain gun fire here on the dropping ground.
While he was telling me about it, I heard the roar of approaching planes, he said “stand and watch this”. Three Boston Bombers with RAAF markings on them, flying fast and low about 400 yards apart went screaming down our mountain side, stood on their tails and at the bottom let their bombs go at the very last moment and went screaming up the other mountain side with all guns blazing just skimming the trees. They flew around in a circle and when each one of them passed over head they dropped a bag of something , and everyone gave them a wave, they waggled their wings and went on their way. The captain said they had been doing that every day since we set up here, those bags will be full of goodies. Sure enough I got a couple of tins of tobacco and a quarter pound block of chocolate for my share.
So I went about my work salvaging and checking the stray parachute loads of ammunition for the next three days. The bombers gave us a buzz and the Japs a hell of fright each day. Things were really heating up down there in the battle for the creek with small arms fire rattling on and off all day. I said to the captain “I think I will stay up here with you for at least a couple of weeks this time as it is a long march back to base and it looks as though big things are building up for a big battle in the near future.”
“Do you know something definite he asked?”
“No sir, just a gut feeling”
The battle for Kitchen Creek had been won and the Japs were battling to hold the top of his mountain now. We were out on the dropping ground cleaning up the remnants of the late airdrop of yesterday afternoon, 15-6-1943 when four Beaufort fighters flew past, one behind the other in the valley slightly below our mountain top. We could plainly see the pilots in their cockpits so we madly waved our hats at them. Now we knew why the Japs called those plane “whispering death”, we never heard them coming, they were just there, each of those things carried four 20 millimeter cannon and six 303 machine guns. We watched them until they disappeared behind the Jap mountain and then went on with our work.
Fiver minutes later some one screamed out , “They are going to do us over”. There they were about a half mile out and coming in fast in single file, it was every man for himself when we saw the sheet of flame burst out of the leading one I dived for shelter behind a tree stump about three foot high and two foot in diameter. The noise of those exploding cannon shells, the rattling machine guns, the sound of ricocheting bullets and the roar of the planes as they passed overhead was mind numbing. I dodged round and round that tree trunk for the next twenty minutes as they kept coming around and around from different directions, thankfully coming in line behind each other and passing about 50 feet above me. As the last one passed over I would stand up and keep an eye on which direction they were coming from next time. There was no more than thirty seconds between the last one passing over and the leader coming in again. In those brief seconds I could see no sign of any other living soul and the jungle edge was too far away. Finally, it was over and there was no sign of them. I was covered in dirt and threaded bark when I looked at that stump it had been hit by quite a few bullets but no cannon shells, thank God. The top of the hill resembled a plowed paddock, as I stood there people started to show up from slit trenches, behind logs and the edge of the jungle in ones and twos. Luckily the camp facilities were all located down the side of the mountain well hidden in the jungle, as it was never wise to have your camp close to a dropping ground at any time. I was feeling crook and shaking like a leaf, some of the other chaps laughed and said you look like how we all feel. There was a head count and only one native had been hit in the hand by a bullet and it took the signals people twenty minutes to get onto Port Moresby to pull those RAAF fighters off us. It was said that this was the first attack mission this group had carried out since arriving in New Guinea and they were going to give us half an hour going over if they had not been called off. That was the one and only time that I ever experienced being done over by the RAAF but it was quite frequent for the Yanks to do it around Buna and Gona.
Seeing nobody was hurt to any great extent we all felt a bit sorry for the RAAF boys as it would be so easy to mistake one mountain top for another. We could imagine how they would feel until they found out that nobody was killed or badly injured.
I was not injured but I knew what I was in for before I went down to the forward ambulance station. The orderly took my temperature and said you must have run too far and too fast up there because you have a temperature of 104 degrees. I said “I was bloody frightened but I had only done ten yards round and round a stump and I know what is wrong with me, because I have had it before. I told him of my previous episode of Malaria and where I got it.” He said “I was only joking, your in real trouble mate because all our stretcher bearers are flat out keeping up with the wounded up front and all I can give you is one quinine tablet and a couple of aspro. It is ten o’clock in the morning now, do you think you can make it by nightfall to the end of the road? There may be a jeep there that can give you a lift the rest of the way.” I said “I am at least one quinine tablet better off and I have not got a badly wounded bloke to help support and the track is much better so I will see you some other time.”
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I was traveling very light with only my few personal possessions, no gun and no food. I did not hurry and took plenty of short breaks. I knew this track so well from the many times I had traveled it and I felt quite confident that I could walk the last part in the dark if I had to. I only fell over a few times and it was just getting dark when I reached the end of the Jeep road. Not a soul or sign of a jeep in sight, I sat down to rest and think about it but I was getting those violent shivers again. I thought the effects of the quinine tablet had worn off, so I took the two aspro, got to my feet and thought the hospital is on this road only about seven miles down and the road surface is nice and solid, not bogged up at all, not like that muddy track from Goa. I thought I had gone about half the distance when I thought I was seeing things, it looked like headlights flashing occasionally. In my confused state of mind I did not realize they were flashing occasionally because of the bends in the road. I collapsed on the road in relief when that jeep came around the last bend and was there in front of me. The driver got out and helped me into the front seat next to him. He said “You must have just missed me because I had two walking wounded just before sundown and one of them was in a bad way so I had to take him down as quickly as possible. We had received word that you were going to try and make it out today, so I turned around and came back as soon as possible”.
I said “How far do I have left to go? ”
“A bit over four miles” he said, “and by the look of you I do not think you would have made it”.
I spent two weeks in hospital and was then sent up to a convalescent camp at Eddie Creek which was right up in the mountains above Bulolla, the alluvial gold fields of New Guinea. Eddie Creek was the place where all the gold in the valley originated from and was discovered by a prospector called Shark Eye Parks. He had a glass eye that never blinked and that is why the natives called him Shark Eye. The place had a lot of walking wounded and the ones that were recovering from flesh wounds were spending their time washing a bit of gold in the creek about a quarter mile from the hospital. After a week there I decided I have a go. One of the orderlies lent me his washing pan and off down the creek I went. I was having no success and kept moving down the creek a bit further until I got some color. I was really concentrating on a pan full that showed some promise when I got this strange feeling. I looked up and there were two of the biggest hill tribesmen I had ever seen, just standing there and looking down on me . They had great bones through their noses, feathered head dresses like American Indians and even bows and arrows slung on their backs. I had never heard a sound, they never said a word, just stood there looking at me so I got to my feet, gave them a weak smile and walked away without looking over my shoulder. God, they had given me a scare (some of these hill tribe were said to be cannibals).
Big things were happening back in the valley since the completion of the new airstrip down in Bullola. There were plenty of jeeps running around and the food supplies were plentiful, it was even no trouble to get a change of clothes, so we were told up in our rest camp. Two days after my scare with the natives (they were strays too, nobody else around the camp had even seen them). I was awaken in the morning by blokes packing their gear and rushing about. I asked them “What was this all about?” Two or three of them answered the question “The bloody Japs had cut off and surrounded one of the companies from our battalion and they needed every man they can get to rescue them before the bastards kill them all as they are running out of ammunition”.
“Well what about me? I can fire a gun”.
“Thanks mate, we appreciate your offer, but you have never been involved in fighting these bastards before, you do not know their tricks and would be lucky to last five minutes and some of our blokes could get killed trying to protect you. No insult intended, you were trained in a different field of war”.
In the year I had been in New Guinea I had never seen one of our soldiers crying before, but here was two of them. One of them was recovering from a left hand amputation and the other only arrived yesterday after two weeks in hospital suffering from malaria. They were begging to go, because they had their best mates in the company that was surrounded, and they broke down when refused. I felt so inferior and useless in the presence of men like these. It was unbelievable the loyalty they had for each other. Three days later we heard that the ambushed company had been rescued after bitter fighting and the Japs had been pushed back with heavy losses on both sides.
I returned to my unit at the end of July, the big build up of supplies was on in earnest now. The Jap was too busy defending his own position to spare aircraft for bombing raids on us. The 15th A.I.F. brigade was now operating out of our area to the north on a different track to the 17th brigade and a supply road was following them. There were no calls for me to go forward to dropping grounds as parachute dropping of supplies had become very precise. We were busy recovering and destroying the ammunition the Japanese had left lying around when they were forced to retreat. Plus the odd bomb that had not exploded on impact, some times this was a bit dicey when they were buried in the ground from impact. Fortunately there were very few land mines used in this jungle warfare.
Bullola was the richest alluvial gold field in the world prior to the war, they flew everything into Wau by the German Junkers airplane, the heaviest load they could carry was three tons. There were three six hundred ton dredges there with there supporting water turbine power stations. It was absolutely amazing what had been achieved here in this remote region. The civilian population destroyed everything else before they were evacuated ahead of the Japanese advance. In their spare time some of the blokes had managed to salvage quite a bit of gold off the dredging plates of the dredges. Some of the fitters had sets of spanners made out of pure gold and painted them black so when the time came they could take them back to Australia with them. A couple of ex-jewellery engravers from the Anti-Aircraft batteries were making plenty of money out of gold rings with American unit color patches inlaid in them for twenty American dollars each (especially now there were no air raids they had plenty of spare time).
Through August into September the battles raged for Lae and Salamaua. The 7th and 9th Australian divisions joined in the fray. The 7th division A.I.F. had flown into Nadzab and the 9th division A.I.F. had made a seaborne landing sixteen miles north of Lae, so it was a race between these two famous divisions to see who was going to enter Lae first. In the meantime the 15th and 17th brigades of the A.I.F., supported by an American detachment had captured Salamaua. Our ammunition supplies were now being transferred to Nadzab and Lae battle areas by air from our Bullola air strip. Those fellows up front were certainly consuming a hell of a lot of ammunition each and every day.
Lae was occupied on the 16th of September by the 7th and 9th Australian divisions. The 7th division then diverted back to Nadzab where it struck out up the Markham and Ramu valleys. The 9th division had embarked from Lae and landed on the beaches six miles south of Finschhafen, the fighting was so bloody here that it became known as “Scarlet Beach”.
Meantime back at Wau, our main pastime was cleaning up the area and making sure that there were no dangerous explosives lying about to kill civilians when they moved back in after the war. Some of the stuff we were finding had been partially buried or submerged in water for some time. Had a bit of a scare one day some one had brought in a steel container that had some rusty looking hand grenades in it . I said to the corporal “put that one aside for the time being and I will have a closer look at it later”. The engineers had built us a study steel framed shed about 60 feet long and clad with corrugated iron with hinged flap windows along one side. There were 22 fellows working in there sorting the stuff into the various categories for disposal and I was continually up and down the length of the shed answering their queries and checking their work. Right along side me a bloke yelled “I have accidentally released the firing pin on this grenade and I heard the ping of the spring striking home”. I did not stop to think I just snatched the grenade out of his hand and hurled it out of the nearest window and yelled “Hit the floor” as I took the other bloke down with me.. It did not go off. I was angry with the bloke and said “You can go down the creek and don’t bloody well come back without it”. When he brought it back an hour later I said “Where did you get that grenade from?” He took me to the box that I had requested put aside for closer examination at a later date. The corporal said “This chap was not her at the time”. I said “Alright back to work and I will have a look now and see why that grenade did not go off. I dismantled them and found most of them were ready to go but there was three of them that had water in them and this had wet the gun powder four second fuse between the firing cap and the detonator and that is why they had not gone off. (Four seconds is not very long).
Late in November I received a telegram to say my dear old dad was dying. I immediately applied for compassionate leave and was surprised when they granted it to me. The jeep road through the mountains to Bulldog had been open for quite some time and we were only getting the occasional plane landing in our area now so it was out by jeep. This was indeed an extraordinary engineering feat. The shear cliffs in some places were a thousand feet straight down off the edge of the road. Being a left hand drive I was extremely glad it was the driver looking down them most of the time. The moss forests, with trunks of trees like solid walls twenty feet high on either side with six feet of solid moss on the tops With the swamps and creek crossings I do not know many miles it was but it was late afternoon when we arrived at the river landing place. There was a sailing ketch there unloading materials and equipment and they would be leaving early next morning for Port Moresby for various reasons. We got going early next morning and it took three hours to reach the sea. . I am no sailor, we were traveling on engine power which suited me as the ocean had a minor swell. It was late in the afternoon when the ketch hove too and dropped anchor about half a mile off the beach of a little island. The skipper said we would be spending the night, when he walked away, when some one said “Whose for a swim?” In two minutes we were all out of our clothes and into the water. “Race you to that island” and we were off, we swam and swam and were glad when we felt that sand under our feet , looked back out to the boat, hell it was a mile away. We barely had time to lay down in the sand when this mob of native woman and children appeared running out to greet us. We all took to the water until it hid our privates at least and waved to them from there. After a few minutes spell we headed back to the boat. The captain gave us a blast. He said he yelled at you silly buggers to tell you that there were sharks in these water and that is an out of bounds missionary island.
Next day we were in Port Moresby. It had changed a lot since I last saw it nine months ago. I was taken out to a transit camp near one of the airfields and told I would be put on the first flight available to Australia. I was there two days so drew the first pay I had drawn in six months. As I was not a gambler, tobacco was free from the red cross parcels and there were no shops where I had been for the last six months. On the third day a CD.3 aircraft landed there for fuel after his direct flight from America en-route to Townsville. The pilot said he would take twelve people as long as we were prepared to sit on his spare fuel tanks. No problem, we each grabbed a couple of spare army blankets to use as cushions. I think from memory it was about a four hour flight. We were wishing it had flown all the way to Brisbane to save us that three day train trip. We were taken out to the Townsville staging camp and put on a train for Brisbane next day. I wondered whether my poor old dad was still alive or not as I had received no word since leaving Wau. I finally made it home twelve days after I had left Wau, just a week before Christmas. Dad was very weak and the first thing he said to me “hello son, at least I got you home from that hell”. We both had a bit of a weep (God, I was glad I made it. How come he keeps looking after me like this?). Dad even managed to sit up and have a bit of Christmas dinner with us. All the family was there, they had come from all over. I had not tasted a meal like that since I was last at home eighteen months ago. My eldest sister Eileen was a beautiful cook.
Dad had brightened up that much that I asked him if he would mind me going up to Singleton to the the Galagher family for a few days as the eldest daughter Doris was my girl friend at the time. Not at all he said, give them my love when you get there, especially to the one called Possum. Doris and I had never reached the passionate stage. It was more the girl next door type of thing, a cuddle and a peck on the cheek and we had never made any commitments to each other. But I was very fond of her and she had been writing nice warm friendly letters to me all the time I was away. So I was really browned off when she informed me, after I had been there a couple of days that she had another boy friend and she was going to the local New Year’s dance with him. I had not been involved with any other girls all the time I had been in the army, even though I had plenty of opportunities before I went overseas. An old friend Les Easter was sympathetic with my state of mind when I said to him that from now on it is love them all and marry none for me. He said get away from here and come up to my place at Hebden and share New Year’s day with my family. So it was that I met his family, his wife, his baby son, mum dad,and sister Valerie, Louise, Elisabeth. One look into those big beautiful brown smiling eyes and I was smitten as no girl before or since has ever done. New Year’s day 1944 she condescended to kiss me and it was a kiss the like of which I had never received before. The feeling was mutual, because we stole a few more of them before we had to say our good byes. I had known that girl for just twenty four hours, but any thought of loving them all and marrying none was gone from my mind forever. She promised to write me regularly where ever I might be until she saw me again. That was the only verbal commitment we made to each other at that time. We knew in our hearts that there was more to it than that.
I returned home to my family at Menagle 2-1-1944. Dad was about the same as when I last saw him and I was able to inform him that the Gallagher family were all in good health and sent him their love, hoping he was on the road to recovery once again. I never mentioned anything about Doris’s new boy friend because that part of my life was irrelevant now. I had one week of my leave left and I spent every bit of it with my family. It was obvious that the old dad was losing his grip on life, but he was not losing it without a fight. Came the day I had to report back to Victoria Barracks for my leave had expired I gave him a cuddle and a kiss on the cheek and said thanks dad for getting me home , what ever happens from here on I will never forget that. (he whispered back me neither).
I was in the staging camp at Townsville when I received the telegram informing me of my father’s death ten days before (he passed away two days after I last saw him). I reported to the camp commandant and informed him of my father’s passing away. He asked me did I honestly think that my presence at home at this late stage would be of any great comfort to my mother as she was surrounded by so many members of her own family? I agreed it would be best for me to proceed back to my unit at Wau, New Guinea as soon as possible, because the war was raging on up there and I was very thankful that the army had granted me leave to see my father.
I did not get back to my unit at Wau until the end of January 1944 and things were quiet there and the war was being waged a long way away in the closing stages of ShaggyRidge and Finchhaven-Satelberg-Wareo Campaigns. In early February 1944 the 7th and 9th divisions were relieved by the 10th A.I.F. division and two Brigades of the 6th A.I.F. division, plus artillery batteries and Pioneer battalions. The 7th and 8th divisions were returned to Australia for a well earned rest. There had been a lot of nice mail waiting for me when I arrived back at my unit, especially from one, Miss Valerie Easter. Her letters were so sincere , high spirited and full of family news and high hopes for the future. I read them and re-read them a dozen times and marveled that this girl had one brother with the 9th A.I.F. division, one brother in field ambulance, one brother in Armored Corps and a newly found boyfriend all soldiering on in New Guinea at the same time and remain so cheerful and hopeful for the future. I leant later on that she had tried to join the army herself and was terribly disappointed when she was refused because of high arches to her feet.
There was nothing doing in Wau now at all and to fill the time we had cleaned up the whole area and transferred all our ammunition stocks to other airstrips near the battle zones of Shaggy Ridge and Satelberg. By the end of February I was fed up with it and said to my commanding officer that I wanted to transfer to the A.I.F. He said that would be foolish because we had every chance of being sent back to Australia in the near future and not being sent away again because the war was moving away from Australian territory. I said all the time I had been in New Guinea I had been attached to A.I.F. units in action where the fighting is and I felt that I was contributing a little more to the war effort and it looks like this war has a long way to go yet. Fair enough he said if that was what I really wanted to do I will authorize your application form and send it in. but we should be back in Australia before the transfer come through.
I was probably very foolish but I had got used to being where the action was and the element of danger attached. I wanted a break away from ammunition even if it meant going back to Private and half pay. Besides Valerie Easters three brothers were all in the A.I.F. and I was getting to the stage where this girl was becoming the most important factor in my life. Not that she really knew or cared that I was C.M.F, it was just that my contribution to the war effort at that stage was practically nil.
It was towards the end of April that I received word that I was accepted into the A.I.F. and was to return to Australia, have three weeks leave and then report to Victoria Barracks for transfer to the 6th Division Salvage Company on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland. The chaps in the ammunition company were not all that happy because we had been through some rough times together . However, they understood how I felt. I was that happy I think I sat down and wrote a letter to my beautiful Valerie straight away to tell her the news and asked her if she would consider marrying me, because there was no real doubt in my mind that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Of course our commanding officer had to censor all our letters, he said best of luck to you sergeant with your love life and your future in the army. The blokes all said you will be sorry, see you after the war, have a good trip home and all the best of luck with your girl and her family, can’t help wondering what she sees in you?
So, it was home to Australia, first stop Roseville, Yarrawa via Denman because that was where my beautiful Valerie lived. I got a taxi out from Denman and met their vehicle on the way in to pick me up from the train at Denman. It was a small table top truck, her father and mother were in the front seat and Val was sitting on a car seat on the back. It was great to be able to cradle her in my arms once again, to feel the warm of her body, to look into those smiling eyes and feel the soft passionate response of her lips under mine. If heaven was like this, who cares about dying? I had never felt so happy in my life before. It was beyond description, especially when she told me that she accepted my marriage proposal and wanted to be my wife. Val and Bill is what we chose to call each other the rest of our lives. Her parents did not know anything about our marriage plans at that stage. I plucked up the courage to ask her parents if I could have their permission to take Val down to meet my people at Menangle and was pleasantly surprised when they agreed without question, because they had only known me for a few days. We had a whirlwind trip around my relatives from Menangle to Cowra and even Gooloogong in the central west where my grandmother McGrath lived and Val fitted in where ever she was taken. There was quick trip down to Sydney to chose the engagement ring for her to display to my mother and sisters. Sister Eileen said it is your 22nd birthday today Bill, 6-5-1944, I made a cake for you 21st but you did not get home to eat it so I saved it and we will share it with you and your little bride to be now. That was typical of dear sister Ikey, as we called her from the time we were babies. my sister Myrie traveled back to Denman with Val and I, because I wanted he parents to met at least one of my siblings before I approached he father for permission to marry. Of course Val was not wearing her engagement ring. I followed her dad around the mountain helping him carry his rabbit traps as he set them. He only had about two left when we finally plucked up the courage to say, Mr. Easter can I have your permission to marry your daughter Valerie when the war is over? Well, well, I thought there must have been something weighing heavily on your mind all evening son, because of your fidgeting about and some of the vague answers to my questions about your service overseas. He thrust out his hand and grasped mine and said yes you have mine and her mother’s permission to marry our daughter Valerie any time she chooses. We would have never let you take her down to your people if we had any doubts about your genuine love for her. He had a bit of a wry smile on his face when Val produced the engagement ring, and said that is what I call confidence.
My leave was up on Monday, so they took me and my sister Myrie to Muswellbrook on Saturday morning to catch the train to Sydney. The half hour we had to wait for the train was the longest half hour of my life. It was heaven coming home to my beautiful girl but it was shear hell leaving her and not knowing what was in store for me when I joined my new unit in the A.I.F. . Val was terrific, no hysterics, no sobbing, just a couple of tears rolling down the cheeks as she kissed me goodbye and murmured I will be here for you regardless how long it may be.
I had the rest of the week with my family and reported to Victoria Barracks on the Monday morning. They informed me that there was a troop train leaving Central Station on Wednesday morning at 9am sharp and I could have a 48 hour leave pass until then and it was my sole responsibility to be on it when it left. So it was back home to my family and friends for another two days any how. Val’s parent’s did not have a phone on their property so I could not ring her her up and let her know what was going on, any how it was bad enough one of us knowing we could have had another two days together if I had brought her back down to my family’s place. Just wishful thinking.
So it was I spent the next six days on various trains before we were off loaded at Atherton, North Queensland. At that time the 6th, 7th and 9th A.I.F. divisions were all at various locations on the Atherton Tablelands reforming and training in jungle warfare and sea born landings. The Australian Owen machine gun was standard equipment for our infantry now. I reported to my new unit 6th Div Salvage. I had been attached to this unit for a while in Gona, Bruna area but the ones I had met there were not with this unit now. So they were all new faces and there was a red headed Lieutenant in charge and, guess what? I was still S/Sergeant McGrath L.T. ammunition expert attached Corps Troop, exactly the same as I was in the C.M.F. which meant I could be sent wherever I was required by other units. I do not know what made me think I would be in a different category when I joined the A.I.F. . The main thing they were handling here was the delivery of all cookhouse slops to the Italian pig farmers around the area, salvaging and recycling used empty equipment and ammunition packages, empty beer bottles and food containers. A full division consists of 15,000 troops scattered in various brigades and battalions over quite a large area so the boys were kept busy. I took on the quarter masters store looking after our units own supplies, including the canteen supplies but time hung heavy on my hands. I had plenty of time to write long letters to my beautiful girl. The lieutenant was complaining about having to read them. So I said to him I am an old soldier now, I am not going to put anything in my letters that is going to jeopardize the security of this operation that is going on up here. We both know it is training for something big and bloody for these three divisions. My fiancees’ brother is serving in the 9th division and I would like a couple of days leave to go and look him up in the near future. I got my leave pass and never heard any more complaints about the length of my letters to Val. I caught up to Royden Kenneth Easter who was a Warrant Officer with C company 2/13 battalion 9th division. I had to wait outside the assembly area until he dismissed his company for the day. I was very impressed with his precision and discipline during the proceedings. When he was off the parade ground I intercepted him and introduced myself. He looked me up and down and with a big smile on his face said “So you are this god like creature I have been hearing so much about in my little sisters letters”. I laughed and said “Well I’ve got her in the Angel category so that makes us a heavenly couple doesn’t it?”
He said come over to the tent lines and you can spend the night with us as one of our chaps is away sick at the moment. He introduced me to the two other chaps that were in his tent, “This is Sergeant Diver Derrick and this is Warrant Officer Frank O’Toole meet my future brother in-law S/Sergeant Lindsay McGrath”. I was among real soldiers here. R.K.Easter DCM, Diver Derrick D.C.M. both won at El Alamein. For some strange reason Frank O’Toole produced a pad and pencil and said to me “I want to draw that face. Can I?” I looked at Roy thinking that this was some sort of joke, he said “You ought to be flattered, he is very good at it, you do not have to pose, just carry on like as if he was not here and he will have it done in five minutes”. Which I did and I could not believe the likeness when he had finished and presented it to me. They took me over to their sergeant’s mess for a meal and a couple of beers and kept me laughing at their humorous stories until it was time to retire for the night. I left early next morning because they had to be on the job with their troops on parade. A week later I was traveling down to the town of Atherton in a Blitz truck with a driver and two blokes in the back to pick up canteen supplies for my unit when we were forced off the road by a big low-loader carrying a crusader tank going the other way. The edge of the road gave way and it rolled over and down the embankment. We finished upside down but, think goodness, even the blokes in the back only had a few scratches on them. But next day I was back in hospital with bloody malaria again. They classed it as a relapse brought on by a combination of the tropical climate and the shock of the accident.
In this case it was a milder form of malaria and I did not have the trauma of staggering through the jungle for miles, the climate at Atherton was mush milder and I was on the liquid Quinine much quicker. So I was out of the hospital and in a convalescent camp in twelve days and back at my unit within three weeks.
The mosquitoes were a minor problem on the tablelands. It was the fleas that feasted upon us there. We had duckboards and bags full of straw to sleep on with one blanket over and one blanket under. Each morning we would hang our blankets on a line over a trough of water and get anything up to fifty fleas out of each blanket, drowned in the water. You would be on parade and the bloody things would be tracked in your socks under the gaiters and the Sergeant Major would let a roar out of him if he spotted you jiggling at all. As soon as the parade was dismissed everybody was busy getting their boots and socks off as quickly as possible. The hygiene people sprayed the the camp area with kerosene twice a week but it did not seem to make much difference to the number of flea in the beds.
I was getting an average of two loving, bright cheerful letters a week from my beloved Val. She was even out catching rabbits to help finance her glory box, as well as helping her mother in the house and her father with the farm work and droving stock to water and from one farm to another. I sent her ten pounds in a green envelope to help her buy her wedding frock but it went astray somewhere in the system. The green envelope in the army was like the registered mail in civilian use. It was posted uncensored and tracked through the system. It was eventually found, allegedly overlooked in the bottom of a mail bag.
So all the training activities went on day after day, the locals putting on the occasional dance on a Saturday night and we were all welcome to join their week end sporting and church activities. There was no dissention between soldiers and civilians at all. The families, mostly of Italian descent were very sociable friendly people and our sixth division salvage lot got along particularly well with them because they used to get all the slops free for their pigs. Christmas was coming up and our lot was promised a couple of suckling pigs for dinner plus a few bottle of Italian home brewed wines. I was often in Atherton to pick up supplies for our canteen. With Christmas only two weeks away I plucked up enough courage to go into a ladies wear shop to buy my beautiful Val something for that great day. Luckily a middle aged woman shop assistant asked me what she could do for me and when I said I wanted to buy some modern under wear for my fiancee, she said what age and what size is she, Small Woman, Woman or Out Sized? I mumbled something about not having got around to measuring her yet but your young assistant in the background looks to be about her size. Oh that one, she is a small size, I will get her to serve you if you like. No thanks I am quite happy with you. I am looking to buy her some of the best you have got in panties, step-ins, singlets and stockings and I will have to rely on you for size, color and quality (she is a brunette). Val got them in time for Christmas and she said she was very happy with my choice.
Christmas Day arrived and we all feasted on baked suckling pig and vegetables topped with plenty of wine. We all staggered happily off to bed and then it was on. There was not enough room on the toilets and anyhow in most cases there was not enough time to make it that far. Those poor Italians, their ears must have been burning off. Either the pork had not been cooked enough or it was just that our stomach were not used to such rich food and wine and we had over gorged ourselves. We had one hell of a mess to clean up the next day.
Early January rumors were flying thick and fast. Curtin and Blamey had jacked up on the Yanks using our three divisions as shock troops for the invasion of Iwo Jima and the Philippines and we were to remain under Sir Thomas Blamey’s command but we would all be going to different theaters of war in the Pacific region in the near future. This turned out to be true.
Our sixth division finished up at Aitapie New Guinea, the seventh and ninth divisions finished up at Balacpapan and Borneo. Our sixth division relieved three American divisions. They had been there for eight months and had been hard put to retain their perimeter ever since. As one Yank officer said to us, there are 22,000 God-Dammed Japs in those mountains and every one has a gun in his hands, I cannot see how one division is going to round them up or maintain your position here even. They sneaked down on us through the surf one night and we were almost out of ammunition before we managed to beat them off. When the main body of Yanks moved out they left all their heavy equipment behind them and about 200 of their maintenance people to look after it and make sure we did not confiscate it. They did not seem to worry or care about their ammunition they left it lay wherever it happen to be when they pulled out. Knowing that our guns could not shoot their ammunition as we were equipped with the Australian Owen gun now, and our rifle ammunition was 303. So now I was back with high explosives again as it was my responsibility to salvage and destroy this American ammunition, half buried in their gun pits or submerged in water in their old fox holes. Their land mines were worse because they did not bother to hand us proper accurate sketches of where they laid their minefields (only their approximate positions). As our infantry battalions moved in and consolidated their positions I was getting calls from all over the place about dangerous ammunition lying around. Some of it was in really bad condition, the Amoral or what we called muck metal in the body of their fuses turned to powder as it corroded, in the worst cases the detonators were exposed to view. If there was not a hole handy I got the fellows to dig one and then they would spread out around the area to make sure no one strayed into the safety zone while I gently unearthed the rounds and carried them one at a time, placing them gently on top of each other and neatly side by side until I had them all neatly stacked with as little air space between them. Then I would place a slab of Gun Cotton, with intermediate charge and a three minute gun powder time fuse on top of it, signal to the chaps that I was about to light it, walk out to where they were 150 yards away and we would all lay flat on the ground. Occasionally we copped a bit of dirt and dust. All the stuff that was not in bad condition, like artillery shells and land mines we transported back to our salvage area by the small truck load.
One day the Lieutenant said to me “What are you going to do with all that stuff?” The brass cartridges are the only things worth salvaging off the rounds of artillery and those land mines are a real problem. I said to him “Do you want me to get rid of them?”
” Of course I do and the sooner you do it the better, those things give me the creeps”. There was a big bomb crater close to the edge of our area and the edge of an uninhabited patch of jungle. It was probably made by a big naval shell or a big Yank bomb when they were doing the Japs over with before we landed. Anyhow it was about fifty feet in diameter and twenty feet deep. So whenever the chaps had a little spare time I had them carting the land mines to this hole and stacking them neatly side by side and on top of each other. There was no risk as all the firing devices had been removed from them and destroyed before they were brought into the yard. There was only the bulk explosives left in them (about five tons of explosives in the lot). When I had the Gun Cotton slab, primary charges and time fuse ready to light I sent all the chaps out in all directions to warn people to stay well clear of the area , because in ten minutes time it is going to be detonated and it is going to make quite a noise. I gave them five minutes and then lit the five minute fuse. I walked over to the lieutenant’s tent office about three hundred yards away and said to him ” Those land mines are about to go”. “What do you mean they are about to go?” Crack, crump, boom” there was dirt showering down on the tent for a couple of minutes. The lieutenant had thrown himself on the floor of the tent. I had to admit it was the biggest explosion I had ever set off in my life. The lieutenant was white as a sheet and he snarled at me “If you ever do that to me again McGrath I will have you court marshaled”. The bomb crater was now 70 feet in diameter and thirty feet deep and quite a few trees on the edge of the jungle patch have been up rooted and splintered and spread around the area. We heard later that General Stevenson was having his mid-day siesta at his headquarters a mile away and fell out of bed in shock and there were people racing around all over the place trying to find out what had caused the terrific blast. When they came to our site the lieutenant told them we had be recovering and storing land mines near the edge of the jungle and there must have been an old un-exploded aerial bomb buried there and it had deteriorated to the extent where it spontaneously detonated and set off the mines as well. Fortunately his staff had all been well away from the area, but were still in a state of shock and he had given them the day off to go for a swim in the sea. When they had gone, I said well done sir, I could not have put it better myself. “Don’t think I lied to protect you” he snarled “It was my backside that I was solely interested in protecting”. I just waited until the next time he wanted me to do him any favors.
I was being tormented on all sides about the number and size of the letter I was receiving and writing to my fiancee. I was busy drawing plans for the house we were going to build when the war was over and we were married. All the blokes, and even the lieutenant had his input to the design and size. They all wanted to know did my girl friend know that I was one of fourteen kids and I was always talking about how much I was like my dad.
The war had moved on and our infantry was sticking it right up the Japs and pushing them back into the mountains around Wewak. We had a new general now, General Robinson, “Red Robbie” behind his back. He did not waste time asserting his authority. A new broom sweeps clean and general disciple had been slipping a little under the easy going General Stevenson. We were getting some good entertainment troupes from Australia and even Gracie Fields from England. We spent all our spare time swimming in the surf and of course our poor nation could not afford to supply swimming costumes to the troops. We knew that night she was going to perform for us but we did know when or how she was arriving. A special stage had been built in a hollow surrounded by a low hill for the visiting entertainers. There were thousands of soldiers there that night. A couple of preliminary acts came on first but every one wanted Gracie and the noise was deafening when she came on. She just stood there throwing kisses at the crowd until they quieted down, then she said “I am honored to be in your presence. As you know the road from the air field to here runs just in the edge of the jungle and in view of the beach and I was spell bound by all those beautiful bronzed bodies in their snow white swimming trunks”. It took about ten minutes for the laughter to stop and then she held that crowd for the next two hours with her singing and her gentle suggestive jokes. She received encore after encore until the general got on stage and thanked her and said this wonderful lady had traveled a long way to entertain us, three cheers and let her go.
Ammunition was causing problems again up at the front again, but were minor ones generally to do with storage and delivery, but I still had a lot of rugged marching to catch up with the forward companies and I was warned to keep a sharp eye out for stray Japs because they were becoming desperate and were doing strange things. I was on my way back from the front one day and I could hear some one whistling as they approached from the other direction, so I ducked behind a tree with a rifle at the ready and waited. When he hove into sight he was a Salvation Army bloke with his bag of goodies on his shoulder and I made out that I was doing up my fly as he went by with a cheery good morning. I thought those blokes were having a bit of fun at my expense with their wild tales about mad Japs wandering around the hills.
I had traveled four about another hour when I came to small clearing, I saw a face peering fleetingly out of a tick patch of bush in front and to the left of me before it disappeared. I hit the ground rolling for the protection of the jungle with the rifle in my hands cocked with my finger on the trigger. This fellow came screaming and running towards me frantically waving his empty hands above his head. I leapt to my feet with my rifle thrust forward. I still do not know why I did not shoot then but he stopped about three feet from the muzzle of my rifle, it must have been the look in his eyes. I jabbed him in the midriff with the rifle and indicated that I wanted him to turn round and march ahead of me with his hands on the top of his head. He kept trying to tell me something but I was too worried about the thought that others may be in the vicinity and open up on me any second. What with trying to keep him on the end of my gun and looking around for any sign of movement as we proceeded slowly along for the first hundred yards it would be hard to say who was the most frightened, me or my prisoner. After that I stayed about two yards behind my prisoner and only prodded him with my rifle occasionally when I wanted him to speed up. I was even starting to feel very pleased with myself for having captured a Japanese soldier. We had traveled about five miles when we met a captain going the other way. The first thing he said was “Good show Sergeant, you have found the other Indian prisoner of war who managed to escape from the Japanese. We got his mate yesterday and he told us that this fellow was out there somewhere looking to give himself up”. The first thing I felt was a great over whelming joy that I had not panicked and shot him. I had my first good look at his calm face now and realized that although he had straggly beard he did not have Asiatic eyes. remembered then that it was something about his eyes that stopped me pulling the trigger in the first place. The captain was telling me now that the other fellow was in the field hospital and to drop this fellow off there as I went past. The captain went on his way and I offered my hand to the Indian who took it with a smile all over his face. If he could understand English he did not let on to me. I handed him my rifle and said here carry this for me before I end up shooting some innocent bastard. He slung it over his shoulder and went ahead of me skipping down the track like a kid let out of school early, and I do not think I have ever felt more light hearted in my life. What a tragedy it would have been for both of us If I had shot him. When I got back to my unit I told them about the episode and they all had a good laugh at my expense.
It was the captured Japanese ammunition that was causing some problems with salvaging and destroying now instead of the American discards. There was a little stockpile of two inch mortar bombs that we had come across and I had transferred to our yard for a closer look at the components of them in my spare time for there was something unusual about them that I thought needed clarifying for future reference. I carried one to within 100 feet of my tent and commenced dismantling the propellant charges and the ignition firing device from the bottom end. The top end was filled with a wooden plug that had a knot of strong string flush with the top of it. I was suspicious of that so I borrowed a wood chisel from our carpenter and gently split the wooden plug and removed it bit by bit without putting any strain on the string . I could see inside the bomb a bit now and it was plain that there was a parachute folded neatly and tightly in there. I thought this is some sort of parachute bomb or flare. I will go and have a smoke and think about how I can attach s bit of small rope or wire to pull that ‘chute out of there from a safe distance away. I was deep in thought as I turned away and had only taken two steps when I heard a voice say “Look there is a little parachute in there”. As I swung around I yelled “Don’t touch that bloody thing”. Crack, bang, whoosh and I was blown off my feet. I picked my self up and ran over to the chap lying on the ground. It was private Ted Kylie, he had his left hand blown off at the wrist and a lump of steel sticking out of his stomach. I yelled out to get a doctor fast. I knelt down and cradled his head and shoulders in my lap and tied my handkerchief around his left arm as a tourniquet, not that it was bleeding much, the force of the blast had sealed the main arteries. He was fully conscious and said to me, “My belt is too tight, will you loosen it off for me Bill?”. The lump of steel was sticking out of his stomach below the belt line so I undid the belt and the poor fellow said “That does feel better thanks”. The doctor and the stretcher bearers arrived on the scene and took charge, I started to walk away and the doctor said ” You had better come too”. I said “I am all right doc”, he said “That is strange then, what is that blood doing dripping off both your hands?” I had not felt anything but I had shrapnel wounds to the right shoulder and left biceps.
It was only fifteen days past my 23rd birthday, but I felt like an old man waiting there to hear how Ted got on with his operation before they took me in for minor repairs. It was a long three hours. They told me the operation was successful, but they had to remove a section of his main bowel. It was late afternoon by the time I woke up in the main ward. Ted was in a bed almost opposite me in the tent ward, but he was under heavy sedation and otherwise okay. When I woke up the next morning I was surprise to hear Ted talking to the bloke in the bed next door to him. I got up and went over to him to ask him if there was anything I could do for him, he said “Would you write a letter home to my people and let them know that I had been injured but I am quite well and should be back on my feet in no time?”. The doctor told me different, he said “If by a miracle he does survive he will be an invalid all his life”. I was discharged on the fourth day and wished him a speedy and safe trip home to Australia. He said, “I will be all right mate and do not blame yourself Bill, for what happened to me, it was just my stupid curiosity”. Poor Ted, we were burying him the next day. I was suffering so badly from neurotic depression they transferred me to the 104 CCS NYD 31-5-1945 and discharged me from there on 2-6-1945 and admitted me to the 2/11 AGH on 3-6-1945 for few days in quiet isolation to recover my wits then discharged me to the 3/14 field ambulance 14-6-1945 then transferred me from there back to 2/11 AGH with Malaria MT on the same day. They discharged me from 2/11 AGH 21-6-1945 and returned me to my unit by 3/14 field ambulance 24-6-1945.
I had eleven days to settle back in at my old unit before it was off again, attached to different units every other week, scattered all around the mountains chasing the remnants of the Japanese forces. We had some 150 millimeter field guns that could send their high explosive missiles for twenty miles into the mountains. A bit different to the old Kokoda Track. The Japanese were not offering any massed targets as they were scattered in small groups but getting very desperate now , they were unable to replenish their food and ammunition supplies by submarine any more. I was back at my home unit 6th div.salvage when the news was flashed around the world that America had dropped an Atom Bomb at Hiroshima in Japan and had obliterated the city one day after my beautiful girl’s twentieth birthday 5-8-1945. All the blokes were cheering and shouting “beauty”, but I could not help feeling very despondent about it. One of the chaps asked “What is wrong with you McGrath?”. I said, “Why the hell did they have to drop it on a civilian city. What was wrong with Naval, Air Force and Army bases. If we ever believed we had God on our side, we have really done him in this time burning women and children by the tens of thousands”. They said “What do you think they would have done if they had of developed the Atom Bomb first?”. Well I said “We all know they are filthy barbarians do we not?”. Some how I could not help feeling very sad about it. Especially when they dropped an even bigger one on Nagasaki a couple of days later and the full extent of the massive destruction of those two cities and the enormous loss of civilian life and the slow agonizing death awaiting tens of thousands of others. But it brought this horrible war to an abrupt end and possibly saved millions of lives in the short term. On the 15-8-1945 all hostilities ceased and this bloody stupid war was over long last.
Things moved very fast after that and we will never forget the day that the entire 6th div and all its auxiliary troops lined both sides of the air field and the little Japanese generals, with their swords hanging from their belts had to march up the middle of the air strip from one end to the other. As they approached each section our soldiers presented arms in a very impressive and precise fashion. Our general and his staff were waiting at a table, draped with an Australian flag at the far end of the air field where the Japanese generals had to unbuckle their swords and place them on the table and sign the necessary papers. They were escorted back down the full length of the field and back to their units to organize the surrender of their troops.
In the seven months since our division had taken over from the American forces , we had suffered 720 causalities, killed over 7,000 Japanese soldiers and chased them over thirty miles through the mountains and swamps. When the surrender was complete we had 14,000 prisoners. So the Americans were right when they told us there were 22,000 God Dam Japs in those mountains and they all had rifles. Our 6th division had about 9,000 infantry fighting men and 5,000 support troops of all descriptions (including me).
We could only watch the world wide joyous celebrations on the newsreels once a week at our outdoor picture shows and listen to them on the two way radio at our amenities tent. We were not overjoyed at the news that 28,000 Australian-American war brides were to get priority on the available ships, above all others. I suppose they wanted to get them out of Australia before any deserted husbands in our services got home and started another war. I received the first joyous letters from my beautiful Val, who was so happy about everything. Her three brothers and her fiancee had survived that long war without any serious injuries or handicaps. She was determined to line me up at the altar as soon as possible after I arrived home. How could any sane man resist that sort of invitation from a beautiful lady like her?
We had to assemble for Sir Thomas Blamey’s final passing out parade on the air field where we had taken the Japanese surrender. Him and his entourage flew around for half an hour before he landed, made his grand speech and then disbanded us as a fighting unit from that day on wards, but we would still be responsible as individual units under the command of General Robinson to carry out our duties as directed until they were in transit to Australia. The infantry battalions were to get first preference on available boats which were mostly American under American control, but he was sure that we would be treated fairly. I had never heard 15,000 blokes laugh out loud at one time in my life before.
So the big cleanup was on. The Japanese had lot more ammunition left than we thought and they had to show us were it was. They had a lot of mines laid here and there that we did not know about either. It was our aim to not leave any dangerous explosives laying around that might cause death or injury to the natives in the years to come. I was hospitalized with MT Malaria once again, 17-9-1945 to 28-9-1945. Fortunately, I was back at base this time and was back on my feet in eleven days. I think my constitution must have been weaken because I was suffering re-occurring bouts of dysentery until 14-10-1945.
All the fighting men had gradually been repatriated to Australia by this time but there was still some three thousand of us left in the Wewak area and no mention of any boats on the horizon. One morning late in October we were amazed to see this giant air craft carrier drop anchor about two miles off shore. Quite a few of us were waiting at the Jetty when this fast motorized launch swept in and tied up in a flash, out steps this naval officer in his spotless white uniform, adorned in ribbons, medals and gold braid and a monocle in his right eye. He threw us a salute and announced I am an officer in command of his Majesty’s ship Illustrious I wish to communicate with your commanding officer as soon as possible.
I was the only NCO there so I stepped forward and threw him my very best salute and said “Sir, brigade headquarters is about ten minutes from here, so if you wish one of our drivers will take you there in a jeep and bring you back here when you are ready to come”.
“Thank you Sergeant. Coxswain you will return to the ship now and be back her eleven hundred hours sharp.”
“Aye, aye sir”, in ten seconds the had un-tethered the launch and they were away to the ship. I do not know what the officer said to the driver but they took off with wheels spinning and dirt flying as if they were in a hell of a hurry.
We were all arguing about what rank that officer would be in the navy and finally agreed that no matter how big the ship may be, he would still only be captain. Anyhow, we were going to hang around to see what transpired. We saw the launch leave the ship ten minutes before the hour, as he swerved in to tie up at the jetty the jeep pulled to halt in a cloud of dust and the officer stepped onto the launch and threw a salute at us and this time we returned the complement as the launch sped away. I thought those buggers must have time their trips out to the second to be able to time their return trips to the second like that (real professionals). The driver was really excited. It was a madhouse up there at headquarters. That Naval Officer is a Rear Admiral and it appears that he took it on himself to call in here and offer to take 2,000 of our blokes home to Sydney if the Brigadier could have them in on his ship in two hours because he had a rendezvous with three of his cruisers and two of his destroyers who were picking up people at Rabaul. We had plenty of landing craft and truck transport and our old brigadier was no slouch at organizing either. Those 2,000 blokes were on that ship with fifteen minutes to spare. Some of the chaps got letters from their mates a couple of weeks later and they said those navy blokes would not let them do any duties at all, waited on them hand and foot and even laundered their clothes for them. They were sailing up Sydney Harbor 72 hours after they weighed anchor at Wewak. The Rear Admiral really bunged it on sailing by his fleet up the harbor line astern, with flags flying and hooters blaring and all the troops on deck. The cunning bugger was letting old Sydney know that the Yanks were not the only ones who fought in the war at sea.
Those of us left behind were green with envy. My unit 6 div. salvage was on that boat, just my luck I was transferred to ammunition ordinance just the week before and our lot were to be among the last to leave this horrible place. The Yanks were long gone, they got rid of their equipment the easy way. They would load a big Bulldozer on the landing craft first and every thing else would fit on at a time, trucks, jeeps, ammunition and storage equipment , put to sea and when they got to deep water push the lot out the front with the Bulldozer. Uncle Sam did not want all that stuff to glut the home market. All our transport had to lined up in neat rows half a mile long with batteries removed so as the natives could not start them and go careering around the place, wrecking the gear and killing each other. At last it was all done and there was nothing left for us to do. Christmas was here with us once again. No suckling pigs this time and no shops to buy a gift for my beautiful girl. She was very disappointed that I was not going to home for a while yet, but pleased that I was getting it easy now.
The monotonous weeks dragged on but finally our boat appeared on the horizon and we embarked on the good ship Duntroon 26-01-1946. We called in at Port Moresby to pick up a few more stragglers. We sailed up the Brisbane River 4-02-1946, we lined the decks and a few passing boats tooted their whistles and some factory workers waved out the windows. After all the war had finished six months ago. So we did not expect to marching up Brisbane streets. We were transshipped onto a train at Brisbane which delivered us to Sydney where we were transshipped to a train for Puckapundle Victoria. I was from NSW and the rest of them were Victorians (bad luck).
I could not ring my fiancee and tell her what was happening to me back in Australia, because her family did not have the phone connected, so while we were waiting on the Sydney platform for the train to Victoria I wrote her a short note, telling her it could be a week before I got to see her. Not to worry and to proceed with the wedding preparations full speed ahead and if she had no objections I wanted to get married in my army uniform. One of the guards on the platform got me an envelope and promised he would see that it was posted.
I got my leave pass at Puckapundle, Victoria for forty eight hours to travel back to Sydney on 12-2-46. I reported in at Victoria Barracks and was there for two days waiting to pick up my kit bag containing all my original issue of service clothing, including the full kaki uniform and winter underwear that had been kept in storage for me while I was in the tropics. Before I left Wewak I had procured a complete new outfit of jungle green battle dress, boots, gaiters, hat, webbing belt, socks and underwear. It was the best dressed I had been in all my time in New Guinea. We had left a shed full of that clothing behind when we disembarked to come home. I was issued with a three week pass and back pay of 150 pounds on the morning of 17-2-1946. I missed the morning train that left Central Station for Armidale that passed through Muswellbrook about midday and connected with the Denman-Merriwa train. I had to wait for the afternoon to Wallangarra which passed through Muswellbrook about 8 pm and I would get a taxi to take me out to Val’s parents farm at Yarrawa. When I got off the train at Muswellbrook I could not get me a taxi to take me out to the farm at Yarrawa until after midnight. A woman was running the taxi service and she would not take me out there until her mate finished her shift and could accompany her. I said “Alright then I will sleep on the seat in the railway waiting room until you are ready and I do not care if I have to wait until day light”. It was one am when they woke me and said they were ready to take me out. I was amazed when both of them sat in the front seat. I thought hell if they were scared of me the younger one should have sat in the back because of the way she was carrying her handbag it was obvious that she had a pistol in it.. Sitting there in the back seat I thought they are lucky I am not a baddy because I could bang their heads together that hard they would never know what hit them. They must have been really scared when I got them to turn off the road and through a farm gate and when we came to another gate I realized I was in the wrong place. I apologized and got them to turn around and go to the main road. I explained I had never visited the farm in the dark before and we had to pass the dance hall before we turn off a mile further on. It was about 2 am on the morning of 18-2-1946 that I held my beautiful girl in my arms for the first time in twenty one months. It was feeling of indescribable joy for both of us because of all those long months never knowing if we would ever see each other again. Strange as it may seem to people of this day and age we never even thought of going to bed with each other then because we were getting married in a few days time and it would be a sacred thing then.
Val and her family had everything organized and there were only a few things we had to tidy up together. Such as the church proceedings, the publishing of the Banns, my decision to change from the Roman Catholic faith to High Church of England, who to invite and how many of my family would be available and the photographers and the taxi transport to and from Muswellbrook. I traveled down to see my mother and sisters for a few days at Menangle near Campbelltown, NSW. They were really surprised to see me as they had only just shifted back to Menangle from Canowindra. I think Val and her mum were pleased to get me out from under foot for those few days because they had so many things to organize and they were handicapped by not having a phone at their house they had to travel a mile to one of the neighbor’s place to phone and send and collect their mail.
I spent four happy days with my mother, brothers and sisters. They were no longer dairy farming as two brothers and two sisters had married and gone their separate ways and I was away at war. Mother was living on a Widow’s Pension and the remaining younger ones were all out working in various occupations and paying their own way. Mother and five others were all coming to Val’s and my wedding on 2-3-1946 at Denman. Val and her parents were pleased about that news when I returned to Yarrawa two days before the wedding because they knew then exactly how many they had to cater for at the breakfast in the old Yarrawa hall. If all of my crew had of been available and wanted to come the old hall would not have been big enough, but Val’s parents would have been.
The great day arrived. I was banished down to the next door neighbor’s place because I was not allowed to see the bride all dressed up until she stood by my side at the altar. Two of Val’s brothers turned up, they were both civilians now, we were joined by two of my brother in-laws and my eldest brother Theo who were booked into the local pub for the night. Of course it was off to the pub for a couple of beers. I said to Vivian, the eldest one who had been in the field ambulance, “I do not feel very well, I think I have got a case of Malaria coming on and it might be better if I do not have any alcohol”. He put his hand on my forehead and said “You are running a bit of a temperature. It is probably only fright, but you are lucky because I carry a few quinine tablets with me. Here take two and wash them down with a beer. We will get you to the alter if we have to carry you. There is no escape for you”.
My Brother in-law Don Pry was my best man and Val’s only sister Violet (Mrs Pritchard) was her Matron of Honor. Don and I seemed to be a long time standing there with the preacher before the organist started playing Here Comes the Bride. I turned around to watch her progress up the aisle and she looked beautiful, sort of floating along towards me and I was so uplifted with pride and joy that this beautiful girl was about to commit her life to me I was no longer conscious of my dull old uniform. “I was King and she was my Queen”. We made our vows to each other before God and the congregation and we were wed for life.
The Kokoda Track campaign or Kokoda Trail campaign was part of the Pacific War of World War II. The campaign consisted of a series of battles fought between July and November 1942 in what was then the Australian Territory of Papua. It was primarily a land battle, between the Japanese South Seas Detachment under Major General Tomitaro Horii and Australian and Papuan land forces. The Japanese objective was to seize Port Moresby by an overland advance from the north coast, following the Kokoda Track over the mountains of the Owen Stanley Range, as part of a strategy to isolate Australia from the United States.
Japanese forces landed and established beachheads near Gona and Buna on 21 July 1942. Opposed by Maroubra Force, then consisting of four platoons of the 39th Battalion and elements of the Papuan Infantry Battalion, they quickly advanced and captured Kokoda and its strategically vital airfield on 29 July. Despite reinforcement, the Australian forces were continually pushed back. The veteran Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) 21st Brigade narrowly avoided capture in the Battle of Mission Ridge – Brigade Hill from 6 to 8 September. In the Battle of Ioribaiwa from 13 to 16 September, the 15th Brigade under Brigadier Kenneth Eather, fought the Japanese to a halt but ceded the field to the Japanese, withdrawing back to Imita Ridge.
The Japanese advanced to within sight of Port Moresby but withdrew on 26 September. They had outrun their supply line and had been ordered to withdraw in consequence of reverses suffered at Guadalcanal. The Australian pursuit encountered strong opposition from well prepared positions around Templeton’s Crossing and Eora Village from 11 to 28 October. Following the unopposed recapture of Kokoda, a major battle was fought around Oivi and Gorari from 4 to 11 November, resulting in a victory for the Australians. By 16 November, two brigades of the Australian 7th Division had crossed the Kumusi River at Wairopi, and advanced on the Japanese beachheads in a joint Australian and United States operation. The Japanese forces at Buna-Gona held out until 22 January 1943.
Australian reinforcement was hampered by the logistical problems of supporting a force in isolated, mountainous, jungle terrain. There were few planes available for aerial resupply, and techniques for it were still primitive. Australian command considered that the Vickers machine gun and the medium mortars were too heavy to carry and would be ineffective in the jungle terrain. Without artillery, mortars or medium machine guns, the Australians faced an opponent equipped with mountain guns and light howitzers that had been carried into the mountains and proved to be a decisive advantage. Australian forces were unprepared to conduct a campaign in the jungle environment of New Guinea. The lessons learned during the course of this campaign and the subsequent battle of Buna–Gona led to widespread changes in doctrine, training, equipment and structure, with a legacy that remains until the present day.
In consequence of the rapid Japanese advance and the perceived failure to quickly counterattack, a “crisis of command” resulted, in which manoeuvring by General MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the South West Pacific Area and General Sir Thomas Blamey, commander of Allied Land Forces, resulted in the sackings of three high-ranking Australian officers. The generalship of MacArthur and Blamey has been criticized for unreasonable and unrealistic perceptions of the terrain and conditions under which the campaign was fought – to the detriment of the troops committed to the fighting. The Kokoda Track campaign has been mythologised as Australia’s Thermopylae and incorporated into the Anzac Legend even though the premise of a vastly numerically-superior enemy has since been shown to be incorrect
A total of 13,500 Japanese were ultimately landed in Papua for the fighting during the campaign. Of these, about 6,000 or two regiments, were directly involved in the “forward areas” along the Track. Against this, the Allies assembled approximately 30,000 troops in New Guinea, although at any one time no more than one infantry brigade, or approximately 3,500 troops, were involved in the fighting for most of the campaign. In terms of total troops committed over the course of the campaign, author Peter Williams estimates that “more than twice as many Australians than Japanese fought on the Kokoda Track“.
Another Post Script: In recent years the Kokoda Trail has become an intense level hiking trail. Rick Antonson wrote a book exploring his walking of the trail.
Walking with Ghosts in Papua New Guinea: Crossing the Kokoda Trail in the Last Wild Place on Earth
“Rick Antonson has traveled to parts of the world that are not simply exotic but sometimes damned near inaccessible. He has climbed to the summit of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey, traveling beyond to Iraq and Iran and Armenia. He has undertaken an improbable overland journey to the ancient city of Timbuktu, an enlightening look into efforts to preserve the city’s priceless manuscripts. Now he has traversed the notorious Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea, a country some call “the last wild place on earth.”
The trail is a narrow, 60-mile footpath featuring rough jungle, 6,000 feet in elevation change, and punishing weather extremes. In a country unfairly locked in Western misperceptions, the track is inhospitable terrain yet home to hospitable indigenous peoples, who live among the rusting reminders of the Japanese, Australian, and American armies that clashed in some of the deadliest protracted combat of World War II.
In Walking With Ghosts in Papua New Guinea, Antonson shares a journey of physical and mental endurance in his inimitable way, in the company of a mixed band of resolute adventurers, blending fascinating historical context with the tribulations of unexpected discoveries in faraway lands.”