THE AMERICAN FORCES were firmly entrenched in Townsville long before we arrived.
Army, Navy and Air Force servicemen and women were there in large numbers. Their uniforms were so much smarter than ours, they were paid considerably more and to make things irksome they were idolised by the bulk of available Australian women.
They had absolutely inundated Townsville and, in fact, commandeered all the dance halls and entertainment venues where it was quite frequent for us to be denied entrance—even having doors slammed in our faces, when we sought to gain entry.
It became obvious that it was getting out of hand when the Americans pulled knives and pistols on us. We made full account of ourselves and levelled the score.
Unfortunately we were then confined to barracks and denied entry to town until we were loaded onto the MS Tasman destined for Port Moresby.
The voyage of the mercantile ship was without hostilities except for the passing overhead of Jap bombers resulting in a scramble to rig our only anti-aircraft deterrent - Bren guns. Not a shot was fired. For this weapon’s defence against aircraft we would have needed shoulder-high stable tripods, similar to those used in the movie industry, not the flimsy rotary limitations of the Bren’s midget bipod.
I will always remember our arrival at the Papuan area of Milne Bay. As we skirted along the coast, the relief of hugging the shoreline and seeing undulating fields of tall grass and savannah country right there within swimming distance was comforting indeed, despite the likely attack from salt-water crocodiles.
We collected another battalion (the 55th) of 300 troops. They were destined for Port Moresby, as we were. We headed there at dawn the next day.
Port Moresby was a dry, grey, dust-covered ghost town full of war vehicles and army personnel. We were transported to Six Mile (six miles out of town I surmised) and spent our first night in what I would classify as a dry donga in Australia (a dry creek bed).
We were on the doorstep of New Guinea. A part of my duties as one of the Intelligence Section was to use my drawing abilities to produce panorama sketches of the land surrounding the camp.
Most of us made a point of being friendly with the Americans. They were interesting and we were also amazed by, and envious of, their superior equipment, particularly clothing and rations. Even their weapons seemed to have the edge on ours.
Between chores, while we were waiting for movement orders, several of us hitched rides on Yankee vehicles driven by Negro soldiers, to Jackson’s airfield to ogle the bombers and fighters taking off on sorties then landing on their return.
Some aircraft did not return. Others limped or staggered home badly damaged. Our Australian aircraft were few and far between—just a handful of Boomerangs, and Wirraways— Australian-made, low-winged, monoplane aircraft powered with radial engines.
We were told to be ready to be transported to Wau to reinforce the 2/5 Company and join the operations in the Wau-Mubo—Salamaua area. From our bivouac at Six Mile we witnessed the Japanese bombers making their run over Jacksons.
They were at an incredible altitude and were only just visible as tiny silver dragonflies. After they had passed over we then heard the thunderous detonations of their bombs and of anti-aircraft fire from the direction of Jackson’s airfield.
Several of the men of our Company huddled together after that event to discuss the menacing advance of the Jap troops at Kokoda. There were reports that the enemy had managed to bring a mountain gun up over the Owen Stanley Range to Kokoda.
Rumours were rife that the Japs may over-run Moresby in spite of resistance, so a small group of our ranks decided to bury food, weapons, ammunition and equipment in case a retreat should be forced, in which event the group would make for Daru. This was chosen because it is the closest southernmost point of Papua New Guinea to Cape York Peninsula, the northernmost tip of Australia.
It was said, that because of coral atolls and small islands between those two points, that one is never out of sight from land if journeying from Daru to Torres Strait Island. Incidentally, after the war I know of several others of our unit who, like me, revisited the site near Jacksons Airfield only to find that the cache was impossible to relocate.
Doubts immediately spring to mind such as did some members of the group recover the contents as soon as the word came through that our forces were repelling the enemy? This represented a good haul of marketable contraband!
Was the whole burial observed by the local indigenes? Did they excavate as soon as we moved on? Did one of us who had an accurate record of the buried goods call after the war and collect? Is the stuff still there.
Daru as an escape route was chosen for it is obviously negotiable by canoe inclement weather. Torres Strait islanders with their frizzy hair bear witness to a hereditary tie to Daru and so does the frizzy hair of quite a few islanders, indeed some aborigines on the mainland of Australia.
Australia was the only logical escape route in case one was needed. I am reminded of a popular quip that was the going thing during this period namely — “In case we lose, Heil Hitler! (But only in case we lose!).”
This new environment was of special interest to me apart from the battle operations. Even though the entire landscape between Port Moresby and the Owen Stanleys had been turned into a dust bowl, in a few areas where the Laloki River and the Brown River flowed through the terrain, there were amazing creatures and plants that intrigued me. While my fellow troopers were stomping on centipedes and spiders, zapping bugs and wogs and squashing massive stick insects and rhinoceros beetles, I went out of my way to save them when I could and sketch them if I had a chance.
I clearly remember the very first New Guinea insect that really astonished me. It was a tiny creature less than the size of a housefly. It clambered around a twig, seeking, I suppose, to distance itself from me, then with the speed of a leaping grasshopper it shot into the air. At the apex of its metre high flight it suddenly unfurled a gossamer parachute, like a dandelion seed from its abdomen and floated to safety beyond my reach.
Wherever there is water there are usually dragonflies and in New Guinea these are myriad. Like the cicada and the butterfly their airborne stage in life is brief by comparison with their early development prior to sprouting wings. The dragonfly lays its eggs on the surface of the water. Surprisingly, sometimes one can witness two dragonflies flying in tandem, one above the other; these are either insects mating or, romantically, the male dragonfly is supporting the female in her egg-laying circuit of the pond to make certain she does not fall foul of the water.
Their offspring develop into deadly little creatures that lurk on the bed of the pond and prey on tadpoles, tiny fish and invertebrates, such as prawns. At the right time, often when a thunderstorm is imminent, one can observe hundreds of these creatures climbing up bull rushes, shedding their embryonic shells and emerging as an imago, a complete adult.
With the threatened onset of rain they flit speedily to the shelter of the forest and wait there until it is fine. They get confused in a city situation. I have seen them lay eggs on the shiny bonnet of my car, mistaking it for water! Cicadas conversely lay their eggs in a branch of a tree during the brief few days above ground granted to them. When the young hatch they drop to the ground then tunnel themselves into the soil where they live up to ten years or more before they emerge and change into a winged insect. Their food is the sap of the tree roots.
I often chuckle when I remember the ancient Chinese saying: “Fortunate are the cicadas, for they all have voiceless wives.” I am also envious in my search as an acceptable mate, to realise that months or even years, passed before (and if) I found a partner. Cicadas get it over with in a single day!
Plants only flourished along the river banks and bordering areas in the Moresby basin, they were mostly those that I had seen in Australia but I assumed that the ones I recognised were plants like monsterio, staghorns and ferns. These were probably introduced to Australia or were the result of the prehistoric land bridge between PNG and Australia. Who knows?
I had little chance to climb the trees. Festooned on their branches were infinite numbers of small ferns, orchids, lichen and moss. Just a single, two-metre-long branch in the forest must have contained hundreds of species of unknown plants. The land in Moresby is mainly savannah country except, as I have said, near the rivers. Most of the trees in the open areas are Eucalyptus.
Because of my brush with people like Jessie on Wee Baa in Queensland who felt that there was something queer about anyone who took an interest in creepy crawlies, I did not discuss my interest with my fellow soldiers for fear of ridicule. I had enough nicknames without being called Bugsie, Birdbrain, or Wormaniser.
Incidentally there was an occasion when one of my men called me Bindieye. He often passed me and with a broad grin and said, ”Gidday Bindieye” and carried on.
This was a trifle familiar, and I took it in good fun until while I was in the mess line, he repeated the greeting. There was obvious mirth from his pals and I was ready for it.
I tapped him on the shoulder as he sat with his mates. He twisted his head sideways to look up at me. ”Hi! B… Eh Corporal,” he said.
In a very loud voice while pressing my face close to his I said “Hear this you six foot stack of bugger-all, once more of this Bindieye shit and you’ll be on fatigues for the duration. I am aware that the Bindie is a small prick in the grass of every lawn. So shut your bloody trap or suffer!”
Rations were once again minimal, which led to various scavenging patrols organized to correct this (by those who will remain anonymous). The patrols brought forth a bounty of stolen goods from our Seventh Division supply dumps.
The patrols were wide ranging enough to include the American stores with their luxury supplies. These included untold numbers of cases of canned peaches and pears. We were in fact stealing from ourselves.
Several of our number condoned this by criticising our Australian Government for its lack of provision. At no stage later did we profit by this rotten attitude. How could you stomach causing the death of our supporting forces by looting their food supplies, weapons and amenities?
I sometimes in my reverie, regard this as one of the great disappointments in the otherwise glory of our unit’s victories.
“Gidgee! Don’t rock the boat,” one of my men implored. “It is survival of the fittest you told us!”
“It’s incestuous cannibalism! We are eating the resources of our allies.”
“We have been trained to live off the land,” he protested.
“It’s supposed to be Japan’s ill-gotten gains that we commandeer, not ours!”
Among a few of our numbers I divined some allegiance, yet there were a worrisome many of those who supported plunder, compared to those who did not and this was distressing.
I suppose I tried to rationalise this as being the soldier’s proof of superiority in his winning by his prowess. It was nonetheless sheer greed. And it was traitorous. It was the last time it happened. The majority of my friends supported me in my resolve.
There was also a time when some of our less ethical troopers were producing fake Japanese flags and head bands for sale to the Yankees. The headbands were painted with copied Japanese characters. It was claimed that these were from deceased Jap air-crew and soldiers. Japanese women made these and gave them to their servicemen to protect them in battle. There was a ready sale of them to Americans on active service.
All this of course was put aside with the demands on our unit to patrol the battle-fronts and to probe for enemy incursions to our defences. These campaigns are faithfully recorded in the New Guinea Offensives by David Dexter and The Purple Devils by S Tregellis Smith. We were placed under the command of 7 Division Headquarters, we were first given the task as a covering force to the 7 Div HQ in the Mount Erima area.
With the Japanese advance we were deployed to cover the Goldie River Valley to block any attempt of encirclement. We found ourselves short of rations, mainly because air droppings were were being attempted for the first time and quite often rations were lost owing to inexpert packing and bad aiming causing food and other supplies being ruined by bursting. Parachutes get hung up in tall heavy jungle, so they could not be used.
Apart from long distance patrols to the Goldie River and the Brown River we were employed to anticipate possible avenues of infiltration by the enemy to outflank our forces. Around 12 September, 1942, we were on active service on the Kokoda track.
We were part of the Kokoda track campaign in its early stages and as protective and offensive patrols we were sent out on both the left hand and right hand flanks of the Kokoda track. We were attached to a newly formed Militia unit called the Colonel Honner Force, this was a special battalion of 500 men. They were all around 18 years of age and inexperienced, and had little training in the New Guinea type of country, but made good account of themselves during the battle at Sanananda.
We got the job of leading them to an intersection of the Owen Stanley Track, Some of our patrols extended for hundreds of miles, with each man carrying ten days rations as well as ammunition and weapons. This was sometimes at heights exceeding 10,000 feet whilst doing track reconnaissance.
Our arms were either Thomson sub-machine guns with 150 rounds of ammunition, or Lee Enfield .303 rifles with 100 rounds. One rifleman with a cup discharger carried 50 rounds and three 7 second grenades. Each man had two 4 second grenades.
On 12 October 1942 as soon as it appeared that the enemy’s thrust on the Kokoda track was arrested we finally got our movement orders after three months fighting, to proceed to Wanigela by air (code name HATRACK) to join HATFORCE and link up with the 128 Regiment US Infantry.
We were about to be plunged into the battle for Buna on the north coast. From Wanigela we were to march to Pongani, a distance of approximately 60 kilometres, preparatory to an assault on Buna-- possibly another 50 kilometers’ march.
This was to be in conjunction with the Americans, using a strategy named “Logistics.” That was the first time I had heard the word.
I think it is interesting that, at Wanigela village where we were asked to bed down for the night in the coconut grove, a small native boy named Paulius approached me; in Pidgin English he explained that sleeping under a coconut tree is equivalent to a death wish. One ripe nut, one sharp gust of the wind and ”SPLATT!”
I informed Lieutenant Blainey of this and we relocated our tents. This Paulius fellow would later become important in my life, as the PNG Minister for Information: when the war was over. He was Paulus Arek.
We left Wanigela the following morning and headed up the coast towards Pongani. Owing to the lay of the land on this coastal strip we were faced with the ordeal of crossing countless small rivers and creeks that drained this northern shore. The route was through heavily wooded jungle, for this was on what is considered to be the wet side of PNG. The prevailing south-east winds that blast the southern side of the Owen Stanleys are swept up over the ranges and dump their load on the northern side of the island.
Port Moresby, on the south side, is a dust bowl by comparison. To me the wet side of the island is preferable in several ways; it is cooler in the jungle, making long marches more tolerable than wading through miles of Kunai grass exposed to the blistering sun and the enemy.
The route close to the coastal strip was an agonizing trial because of the nature of the land. It immediately swept up into high hills and mountains, each feeding a strong river or stream, the largest being the Musa River of about 300 metres wide where we crossed with the aid of riverside native villagers’ outrigger canoes.
All of those hazards were right across our path and each had to be forded, waded, bridged or swum.