New Guinea at last
We landed at Buna on the north coast of New Guinea on the 12th of December, 1943. We went a couple of miles along the coast to Cape Endaiadere where we set up our gun near the beach with hundreds of palm trees behind us. This was the site of some very heavy fighting by part of my old unit, the 2/7th Infantry Battalion. The battle for Buna was one of the fiercest battles fought by our troops in New Guinea. The Japs were dug in on two peninsulas and chose to fight to the last man. The never surrender and take no prisoners-policy of the Japs gave them an edge early in the war but our troops adopted the same policy and soon started to beat the Japs everywhere they met. The conditions must have been terrible for the infantry troops on both sides in New Guinea. The conditions were as deadly as the enemy.
Sergeant Jock Taylor (who featured in the trains episodes in Greece), was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his efforts at Cape Endaiadere where although badly wounded he overcame a Japanese strong post. When the attack by our forces was held up by a strong Japanese fortified position, Jock went forward in an armoured Bren Gun carrier until close to the post. When the Jap fire disabled the carrier, Jock unclipped the Bren and leapt out to assail the position. A burst of enemy machine gun fire almost severed his left arm but Jock kept going with bren and grenades until he subdued the enemy post thus clearing the way for the infantry unit to continue their advance.
Jock's arm was saved by various operations and no doubt raised many glasses when after the war he married a widow, owner of a pub. Jock had been evacuated from Crete before the German assault because of foot injuries, made worse by landing heavily on the deck of the destroyer, which explained his presence in New Guinea instead of being with the rest of the boys in a P.O.W camp in Germany.
Soon after getting dug in, we were shifted to a new site to protect the Buna wharf from possible air attack. We were also providing protection for shipping in Buna Bay. Most of the time at the wharf there were supply ships unloading war material for the army and the American air force. Also in the bay, which was quite extensive, was the Allies "secret weapon". A fairly large ship which could carry a large number of landing barges. When the ship reached an island to be invaded it would partly submerge and allow the barges, already loaded with troops, to sail out and rush to the shore. This overcame the problem of small relatively slow landing barges having to sail long distances to make a landing, while all the time being open to enemy attack.
We had two tents, mine was hidden under a huge Mango tree only about 50 yards from the wharf. At night when the flying possums would come to feed on the fruit they invariably dislodged the ripest fruit which would fall on the tent. it only took a second to race out and pick them up. They were delicious. Flying foxes occasionally visited our tree but usually were too shy to visit so close to the tent.
Almost all the coconut palms in this area were topless. We felled several to provide a clear field of fire. When it was discovered during the battle for Buna that the enemy snipers were using the palm trees to fire on our troops the Aussie Beaufighters were called in. They swept along the rows of palms with their cannons and machine guns blazing and shot the tops off almost all of them. The Beaufighters were known by the enemy as "Whispering Death" because of their ability to sneak in at treetop height, be onto their target before the sound of their approach was heard. It kept the enemy very nervous. The Beaufighters were also a very heavily armoured plane.
We were camped very near the beach and around our area there were the remains of what had been Japanese trenches while behind them on the edge of the beach was a fortified position made of logs and soil. Unfortunately for them it was originally built facing out to sea, thus was not so effective from inland. Seemed a bit like our defences in Singapore. Having some rubbish to bury we one day started to dig a hole in the bottom of the shallow depression that had once been a Jap trench. We stopped and went elsewhere to dig when we came across the bones of what had been a Japanese soldier. When we reported our find we were told that after the battle for Buna there were so many dead Japanese soldiers around that the best they could do to prevent disease, was to dump them all into the trench and bulldoze the sand over them. Their whereabouts was recorded and eventually they would get a proper burial.
There was a canoe made from the belly tank of a Lightning fighter which we had inherited with our camp site. I used to paddle about in it a lot. One day we were watching some chaps in a rowing boat throwing explosives into the water out near the edge of the offshore reef. One of our crew suggested that two of us should paddle out in our canoe and ask for some of the fish they must be getting. We set off with me in front position thus I was not able to see how he was paddling. Just before we reached the fishermen I discovered my inexperienced companion had been filling the back of the canoe with water at every stroke. I found out when our craft went down stern first. It was about 200 yards to shore, much further than I had ever tried to swim before. We made it to safety and, as we rested on the beach, the chaps in the rowing boat landed. They told us that they had not been after fish but had been trying to drive away a school of sharks. I think that we may have been swimming a lot faster had we known that fact while we were in the water. We were sorry to lose our canoe.
One morning we awoke to find water everywhere. It was the time of a King tide. Because we had destroyed the natural sea barrier of sand dunes the sea just rolled in, pushed by a strong north-easterly wind. I found it somehow eerie to stand outside my tent and look at the sea stretching all the way to the horizon. Water was up to three inches deep everywhere for an hour or so then as quietly as it had come the water disappeared out to sea and into the sand. Within another couple of hours there were few signs to show that the sea had ever been anywhere but in its rightful place. At any time our area was only a few feet above high tide level.
To avoid boredom and keep our minds ticking over on things other than military, we were offered classes run by the Army Education Unit. We had heard of this group, set up by the Labor Government of the day, being busy in Australia and were surprised to find them prepared to go as far afield as New Guinea. As they offered a course on future trends in agriculture I was interested and joined in. The first lecture which half a dozen of us attended was quite interesting and dealt with crop types and land use and such things. The next lecture involved how to improve the efficiency of farming from a national viewpoint. To be brief, it called for an alteration to land ownership and the farmers being moved into towns and travelling to work on their own and other farms as decided by committees. As this smelled very like Communism I lost interest and did not attend the next two lectures. I realise that I should have stayed to find out just what their complete agenda covered. I was to meet these people again back in Australia.
At this stage of my career I was promoted to Lance Bombardier which meant that I had to change to another gun crew, becoming their Number One. All positions of a gun crew are designated by numbers. Thus if you are being told to take over the duty of aiming the gun, you are told merely to be number two or three. The person at Number One is the person who actually loads and fires the gun on the orders of the Bombardier. On the order to fire he sets the control lever to single or automatic as instructed, then fires the gun by standing on a pedal on the platform, at the same time placing shells into the auto loader at the rate of two shells per second which is the rate of fire of a Bofors gun. In action Number One never looks up to see what is occurring around him but concentrates on his job. He is too busy anyhow to think about anything else. I had been emergency number One for more than a year and had used the opportunity to prove that I could do the job.
While we were at Buna each gun crew had to do its own cooking with supplies sent out from Battery Head Quarters. We took it in turns to be "camp poisoner". It became my job every three days to deliver the supplies to all gun sites. Where you get a group of men together a fair deal of nonsense is sure to take place. There was one lad who had recently joined our crew. He was the subject of a lot of harmless jokes and took it in good part. One thing that he fell for repeatedly was at meal times. It was noticed that he could not stand anything of an indelicate nature while he was eating. One of the boys would get a few currants and by rolling them between his fingers make them appear very like mouse droppings. A couple of these added to the new boy's plate would see the lad off his food for that meal. Especially if he noticed some of the same on our plates being ignored as we ate. I was afraid that the lad would suffer malnutrition until the Sergeant intervened and declared that the joke had run it's course.
I enjoyed the change of activity, getting to drive a Jeep and call at every gun site including my brother Stan's. Stan was a Bombardier of a gun crew stationed near Cape Endaiadere. Getting to his site meant a run along the beach which could be tricky at high tide. On one occasion Stan and I worked it so that we had a day off together. We took an all day hike along the Kokoda Track where it ran out between Buna and Gona. I will bet we enjoyed it a lot more than the troops who walked it from the other end. Some miles back at the foot of ranges we came upon a lone grave on the edge of a small clearing. It was surrounded by an iron fence a couple of feet high, similar to what one would see in old cemeteries around Australia. We could only speculate as to the story of that lonely grave which would soon be swallowed by the jungle surrounding it and probably never be seen again.
We shot down a couple of coconuts for lunch. We were both carrying Owen sub-machine guns.
There was a wild pig which used to visit various camps at night causing an awful mess if no one disturbed her. So the decision was made to catch the so-far unseen visitor. The members of the gun crew next to ours rigged the top of a truck which was covered with heavy netting, placing inside some scraps of vegetables. The rear gate was held up in such a way that, as soon as the food was disturbed, the gate would close. A real trappers effort. Around midnight a terrible racket broke out. They rushed out with torches and lights plus the lights of the Jeep which had been strategically placed. They all rushed out and, just as fast rushed back, as they had caught the biggest, fiercest pig that had ever been seen. It was a huge sow. They had also trapped four young pigs each about a foot high. This, of course, made the sow twice as mad and twice as dangerous.
When it appeared that she would wreck the trap the Sergeant brought out his rifle and shot her. The young were also dispatched. What to do with all that bacon and pork? No problem, it was mentioned to a native. By the bush telegraph about 50 locals appeared within minutes, tied the lot to poles and disappeared, singing loudly as they headed for their village back in the hills, passing our gun site on the way. There was one group of people who were not the slightest bit pleased. The A.N.G.A.U. people (Australian New Guinea Administration Unit), who employed the natives in such work as repairing roads and spraying for mosquitoes, were upset because, with enough meat to last three or four days their workers would not appear for work until it was all gone. Which just proves that you cannot please everybody. But it certainly pleased the Fuzzy Wuzzys.
Inland from where we were at Buna was Dobadura, the largest air base in the Pacific area at that time. When the Allied forces attacked New Britain the amount of air activity was unbelievable. They took off in waves with the bigger bombers, four engined Liberators and a few Flying Fortresses, going first and circling to gain height as smaller bombers, Mitchells and Bostons rose to join them. When at least 200 aircraft were up the whole armada flew off. Soon afterwards the faster fighters took off to get there first to clear the skies of enemy opposition. All day more planes flew north. A few hours after the first planes left they started to return. As they swept in low over us we could see that some were damaged no doubt by Anti-Aircraft fire. One plane, a Lockheed Lightning fighter came in very low, losing height all the time, with one engine stopped and one wheel down. It did not reach the base at Dobadura but crashed and burned in the jungle soon after passing us.
This strength of the American air forces made life a bit dull for us. We would get an air raid warning and stand to our guns ready for some action but invariably a phone call would come through, "Don't fire, our fighters are up and have the situation in hand." We were lucky to even see the enemy and only then at a distance. They were always too busy fighting for their lives to worry us.
When it rained in New Guinea, which was often, it was the real tropical stuff that fell in buckets then, in a matter of minutes, would clear away to clear skies and bright sunshine. At Cape Endaiadere it rained almost without fail at 1500 hours (3 pm) each day. So reliable was it that crews would put the covers on the guns mid-afternoon without waiting for the rain to start. We worried more about the guns getting wet than ourselves. If we received a drenching the climate was so hot that our clothes dried on us in a few minutes.
One big worry for the forces in the tropics were the two diseases, Scrub Typhus and Malaria. It was known that there were more casualties from disease than from enemy action. Our Unit right from the start instituted very strict rules against infection. At one hour before sundown everyone had to wear long trousers tucked into socks and shirt sleeves buttoned at the wrist. All exposed skin had to be treated with insect repellent. Tents were sprayed nightly on retiring and we all used mosquito nets. We also daily took an Atabrin tablet which did not prevent Malaria but prevented the symptoms from appearing. Just how effective these precautions were is shown by the fact that I do not recall hearing of a case of either disease in our Battery.