This commemorative publication is a part of the series; Australians in the Pacific War. This book is about the little known campaign between Wau and Salamaua in Papua New Guinea.
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Few military campaigns involving Australian forces have been as long or demanding as that waged between Wau and Salamaua, on the northern side of Papua New Guinea, during World War II. This book is about that relatively little known campaign. It began in March 1942 when Japanese forces landed at Lae and Salamaua, on the northern coast of what was then the territory of New Guinea (administered by Australia, along with the territory of Papua). Over eighteen testing months, Allied forces fought and eventually conquered strong Japanese forces in the area with a series of significant land and air actions, including the Battle of Wau in late January 1943 and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in early March 1943.
Most of this long campaign was fought in or over immense mountain ranges. These mountains and the tracks that criss-crossed them were so challenging and taxing that they matched the very worst encountered anywhere else in 'the islands'— including the famous Kokoda Track. As the Australian official historian, David Dexter, noted of the terrain between Salamaua and Wau:
One of the most difficult and unpleasant areas ever to confront troops lay before the Australians. Troops found it difficult to find enough unpleasant adjectives to describe the country, which, for the most part, consisted of rugged mountains clothed with dense, almost impenetrable jungle, and in the higher areas with moss forest ... Gloom and eerie stillness, clouds which frequently descended upon the mountains, rain, towering trees and drooping vines, which shut off the sunshine when it did eventually break through the clouds, sodden earth and rotting vegetation, all combined to add a touch of the primeval to the battlegrounds of this part of New Guinea.
In addition to the hardships faced by the ground forces, many difficulties were encountered by Allied air and sea forces over the mountains, along the coast and in the seas between mainland Papua New Guinea and the island of New Britain, where the Japanese main base was located at Rabaul. For all involved, it was one very long and testing campaign.
Before the war, the area bounded by Salamaua and Wau was relatively prosperous. Gold mining companies at Wau and nearby Bulolo, located in the Wau–Bulolo Valley high in the mountains, employed hundreds of Europeans (mostly Australians) and New Guineans in industries such as farming, banking, stores and transport. Salamaua shared in the prosperity, as it was built up to support the gold mining; said to be the most beautiful township in the islands, it was on a narrow isthmus, with the sea lapping both sides. Further north along the coast was the township of Lae, at the head of the Markham River.
When Japan entered the war in December 1941, authorities and local residents realised the area was vulnerable. European women and children in townships and on plantations were evacuated. Chinese also lived in the area but neither they nor New Guineans, many of whom were from other areas, were included in official evacuation plans. Some Chinese, aware of the enemy's ill treatment of their countrymen during the Japanese campaigns in China, left anyway.
Most European men in the area stayed on. Many had joined a local militia force, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), raised in September 1939. The NGVR had detachments in several townships, and they soon got their first taste of action. On 21– 22 January 1942, the Japanese invaded New Ireland and New Britain, capturing most of the 1100 Australian troops of Lark Force defending these islands, and Japanese aircraft raided Lae, Salamaua and Bulolo. Lieutenant Steven Lonergan, NGVR, recalled the attack on Lae:
... the roar of aircraft was followed almost immediately by bursts of machine-gun fire. Single-engined planes were coming towards us at low level and high speed ... only 50 feet [15 metres] above the ground. As they flew across the town with machine-gun and cannon in action a formation of nine Mitsubishi two-engined bombers ... came in from seaward.
Few buildings in the townships and villages nearby went undamaged. A Hudson general reconnaissance bomber of 24 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and about forty civilian aircraft at various airfields were destroyed on the ground. A civilian pilot was killed.
After the air raids, almost all the remaining European civilians and Chinese left the area. Most trekked inland to Wau, and eventually walked all the way to the south coast over the rugged Owen Stanley Range. Others left Lae and Salamaua in sailing vessels that hugged the coastline to reach safety. Only members of the military, government patrol officers and some missionaries stayed on.
Most of the NGVR's early recruits were 'old hands'—European (mostly Australian) men who had lived for some years in the territories of Papua and New Guinea. World War I veterans played a leading part in forming and training the unit. Enlistment at first was voluntary but when Japan entered the war Australians of service age who had not enlisted were called up, and some Chinese volunteered also. Some of the unit's members were bushmen, while others came from townships and mining settlements. They served alongside members of the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU), a military unit comprising former patrol officers and other 'old hands' with wide experience of the territory and its people. This unit supported operations by employing New Guineans for tasks such as supply carrying. Some men volunteered to serve instead as coastwatchers.
On 8 March 1942, Japanese forces landed at Lae and Salamaua. Signalmen of a RAAF signals station at Salamaua sent news of the landing to the Australian headquarters at Port Moresby. The NGVR and RAAF personnel then destroyed buildings and equipment and withdrew into the mountains, where observation posts and supply dumps had been prepared. Outnumbered and lightly armed, they could only observe the enemy and engage in guerrilla warfare.
The Allies responded to the landings with air raids that heralded many determined attacks during the campaign by Australian and American aircrews. Hudsons of 32 Squadron RAAF based at Port Moresby struck first. Squadron Leader Deryck Kingwell and his crew scored a direct hit on a transport ship, which caught fire. Heavy cloud and poor visibility prevented Flying Fortress bombers of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) attacking also. Over the following days, Hudsons continued bombing the airfields at Salamaua and Lae. On 10 March, the American aircraft carriers USS Lexington and Yorktown, off the south coast in the Gulf of Papua, launched 104 fighters, torpedo-bombers and dive-bombers to attack ships off Lae. Eight Fortresses also attacked. The Americans sank one light cruiser, a minesweeper and a cargo ship.
At first, the Japanese showed little inclination to move inland from Lae and Salamaua, preferring to build up their bases, construct new aerodromes and prepare defences. NGVR troops occupied observation posts in the mountains overlooking the bases and reported on enemy activities. Their information was used in the planning of air raids. One of the most audacious was flown on 22 March against Lae by nine Kittyhawk fighter pilots of 75 Squadron RAAF. Five Kittyhawks swept in at low level to strafe and bomb the airfield, with the others flying top cover. Two Kittyhawks were shot down; one pilot was rescued by NGVR troops after evading enemy patrols, but the other was killed. Hudsons also continued raiding the bases. In addition, Catalina flying boats of 11 and 20 Squadrons RAAF conducted raids and reconnaissance patrols over the bases and the seas north.
The dangers and the courage of aircrews was illustrated time and again, with several aircraft shot down and many others returning to base damaged. On 31 March, for example, Squadron Leader Kingwell was flying a reconnaissance mission over Salamaua when three Zero fighters attacked. In the ensuing 12 minutes of combat, the Hudson was hit repeatedly by cannon and machine-gun fire; in reply, its gunner shot down one Zero and perhaps a second, and Kingwell possibly shot down the third with his front guns. The Hudson limped home—Kingwell with splinters of glass in his eyes, his co-pilot with bullet wounds to his left wrist and both thighs, and another crewman shot in the foot.
In May 1942, the 2/5th Independent Company, Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was flown from Port Moresby to Wau to reinforce the NGVR. The 2/5th's men were trained commandos. Their flight across the mountains in transport aircraft of the USAAF and Australian National Airways (hired by the military) was hair-raising, as aircraft were buffeted by wind currents and the jungle-clad mountains appeared ominously close through breaks in the cloud. The landing at Wau was hazardous also, as its grass airstrip was short (about 900 metres) and sloped several degrees so that aircraft had literally to land uphill. Having come to a halt, the pilots were keen to have their aircraft turned around quickly in case of an air raid. Trooper Andy Pirie recalled:
Flying only two or three minutes apart ... [as] each plane touched the ground and taxied up, the next plane would be landing behind it. When our plane reached the end of the airstrip, the pilot immediately kicked the tail of the plane around to face take-off, and yelled: 'Everybody. OUT!'
The NGVR and 2/5th Independent Company together formed Kanga Force, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Norman Fleay, a veteran of the Middle East.
Kanga Force continued observing the enemy and conducting guerrilla warfare. Limited supplies of weapons and rations constrained its activities but Fleay ordered a raid on Salamaua. On 28 June, six parties entered the enemy's defensive area under the cover of darkness. One party raided the airfield while others attacked positions in the satellite villages of Kela and Chinatown. Lieutenant Tom Lega, NGVR, recalled the attack on Kela:
We jumped over the sea wall and raced across the road shooting two sentries who just stood dumbfounded. We hurled sticky tank grenades reinforced with a kilo of gunpowder in through the windows and doors of buildings. The blast was so severe it blew us over like ninepins. We charged through doors, shooting and bayoneting anything that moved. We picked up some [enemy] weapons before we pulled out.
Three Australians were lightly wounded in these attacks but the guerrillas estimated they killed more than 115 Japanese and destroyed six houses, three trucks, a bridge and a bicycle. They also seized weapons and documents for intelligence staff to examine.
Another raid on Heath's Plantation, on the Markham River, inland of Lae, was less successful, as dogs alerted the Japanese of the raiding party's approach. A firefight ensued and the officer leading the party was killed. The guerrillas withdrew, suffering no further losses.
The enemy responded to these raids by stepping up patrols. The Australians won a small victory in July when they repelled about one hundred Japanese attempting to enter Mubo, a village used by Kanga Force as a forward base. Like the Australians, the Japanese employed New Guineans to guide their patrols and carry supplies. The Australians worried that they were losing local support, as they had little money to pay New Guineans and could offer scant protection.
To compound the Australians' problems, their health declined markedly after many weeks living and patrolling in the mountains at the end of tenuous supply lines. The only army-issue food reaching forward posts was tins of bully beef and M&V (meat and vegetable) and rice. This diet was monotonous and unsustaining. Some men could not stomach the rations, resorting to eating local vegetables, and dietary deficiency diseases and diarrhoea were common. In addition, because it was impossible to stay dry, boots and clothing rotted, and an epidemic of contagious skin diseases broke out. Sick men made the hard climb to Wau for treatment and rest. The morale of those who stayed was tested but still was 'generally good'.
In August 1942, the Japanese pushed inland from Salamaua and took Mubo, which was one-third of the way to Wau. Fearing the enemy would keep advancing and take the Wau-Bulolo Valley, Lieutenant Colonel Fleay ordered a 'scorched earth' policy, but the destruction of buildings and supply dumps at Wau and Bulolo was premature. The Japanese halted at Mubo. The preoccupation of both sides was battles elsewhere, notably on the Kokoda Track, at Milne Bay and Guadalcanal. The Japanese were content to push the Australians away from Salamaua and await reinforcement before advancing on Wau. Over the following months, there were dozens of clashes between opposing troops and many air raids by Allied aircrews.
The Allies suffered a serious setback early in 1943 when the Japanese significantly reinforced their garrisons at Lae and Salamaua. On the night of 5–6 January 1943, a Catalina crew of 11 Squadron spotted four transports and some destroyers steaming from Rabaul to Lae. The airmen bombed and sank one transport. Over the following two days and nights, Allied aircraft, including Beaufighter strike-fighters of 30 Squadron RAAF, continued attacking. Boston bombers of 22 Squadron RAAF meanwhile bombed Lae's airfield to prevent enemy fighters based there from covering the fleet. But the remaining ships got through with some 4000 reinforcements and supplies. Beaufort torpedo-bombers of 100 Squadron RAAF and Hudsons of 6 Squadron RAAF attacked as the ships returned to Rabaul, but unsuccessfully.
The situation in the mountains deteriorated further that month, as the Japanese were now determined to take Wau. The 2/7th Independent Company joined Kanga Force, giving it an injection of fresh troops, but the force was still not strong enough to block a determined push by the enemy. Fortunately, the 17th Infantry Brigade, whose 2000 troops had been kept out of other battles as a reserve force, was then allocated to Wau's defence. Its 2/5th, 2/6th and 2/7th Battalions were veterans of earlier campaigns in Libya, Greece and, in the 2/5th's case, Syria. During 1942 they undertook jungle warfare training in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and at Milne Bay after the battle there was over.
An airlift of the 17th Brigade began on 14 January 1943. With twenty-five to thirty troops in each aircraft, it would take several days to deliver the whole brigade. Private Frank Casey, 2/6th Battalion, the first battalion to leave Port Moresby, recalled the airlift:
It was a trip that scared the pants off most of us ... looking out of the windows and seeing the wings of the plane shaking, the clouds, and now and then a glimpse of the dense jungle-covered mountains below was enough to set us thinking that land was a far safer place to be.
On landing, they encountered men of Kanga Force:
The sight of those commandos nearly made our eyes pop out. Many of them were sporting different styles of beards and moustaches. Their excuse was that they had no razor blades, and also the theory that in the jungle a bearded face did not stand out so clearly.
The new arrivals dubbed the guerrillas 'the Beards and Bullshit Boys', but this changed once they realised the difficulties Kanga Force had faced over many months. Also, razors were distributed.
The Japanese meanwhile had renewed their advance. The Australians hoped for good weather to complete the airlift of the 17th Brigade but it took six days to deliver just the 2/6th Battalion (twenty-eight officers and 535 other ranks) because bad weather impeded flights on several days. Fortunately, for most of the next week good weather enabled the Allies to fly in bulk supplies and more troops.
Brigadier Murray Moten, commander of the 17th Brigade, took control of Kanga Force. He deployed troops on the two main routes into the Wau–Bulolo Valley: the Buisaval and Black Cat Tracks. His infantrymen found the trek forward over muddy, steep tracks challenging, but they were determined to take up positions and hold the enemy. But the Japanese surprised the Australians by using a long forgotten, overgrown track—dubbed 'Jap Track'—to advance on Wau. By 28 January, the Australians were engaging in a determined fighting withdrawal.
The Australians occupied new defensive positions closer to Wau. The most important feature, and objective of the enemy, was its airfield. If this was lost, the Allies could not land reinforcements or supplies, and Kanga Force would have to attempt a hard and probably costly counter-attack. Luckily, good weather on 29 January enabled the rest of the 17th Brigade to be flown in, with a record sixty flights delivering 814 troops. The fighting was hard, and medical troops, including those of the 2/2nd Field Ambulance, were hard pressed to recover and treat dozens of wounded men.
The Japanese continued pressing against the Australian perimeter, but good weather held out, enabling American aircraft to deliver more troops and then, on 30 January, some guns and gunners of the 2/1st Field Regiment. So close to the airfield were enemy troops that shots fell among the gunners as they unloaded equipment and stores. Their guns were assembled and in action in about two hours. With artillery now targeting Japanese positions, and Beaufighters strafing them, the enemy faltered. Australian troops counterattacked. Wau was saved.
The battle continued with further counter-attacks and patrolling. The Japanese had made a bold drive against Wau, pushing troops hard to climb the mountains with limited supplies, and they were in no condition to attempt a second major assault. As the Japanese retreated, they mounted a rearguard action, resulting in further costly fighting. More Australians arrived to take part in the counter-attack. Corporal Garth Neilson, 2/3rd Independent Company, recalled:
We commenced the pursuit of the Japs towards the Black Cat gold mine, ambushing and harassing all the way. The weather was terrible, it rained most of the time and we ploughed through mud over the tops of our boots. Iron rations of bully beef were our constant diet.
Neilson was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for gallantry in this campaign. Other men stood out for soldiering that was solid and skilful but did not earn them decorations. Captain Cam Bennett, 2/5th Battalion, recalled one man who proved invaluable in the fleeting, close-quarter engagements typical of jungle warfare:
Private [Edwin] McMaster ... was ... a snap shot, a kangaroo or rabbit shooter from Moree I think, who could put a rapid bullet through any little bit of a Jap he saw, even if it stuck out for only a moment.
Australian attacks were aided by artillery fire that 'softened up' enemy positions and harassed retreating troop columns. Wirraway army co-operation aircraft of 4 Squadron RAAF, which had a flight based at Wau, flew tactical reconnaissance and artillery spotting sorties. As the enemy withdrew, field guns (artillery) were dragged forward but soon the Japanese retreated beyond the Wau–Bulolo Valley, and the mountain tracks were too steep and narrow for troops to continue dragging the heavy guns forward.
In February, Japanese aircraft made several raids on Wau. One of the most spectacular was on 6 February, when the airfield was targeted. The pilot and observer of a Wirraway were lucky to escape as bombs fell around them, destroying their aircraft. In reply, gunners of the 156th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Australian Artillery, shot down a bomber and two fighters. Troops and airmen on the ground enjoyed a grandstand view of the aerial battle that developed when USAAF fighters joined the fray.
By the end of February 1943, the Japanese had withdrawn to Mubo. The Australians developed their supply bases at Wau and Bulolo to support a planned advance to the coast. Sappers of the 2/8th, 2/14th and 15th Field Companies and 2/25th Field Park Company maintained the airstrips at Wau and Bulolo and repaired roads and tracks. There was not much remaining at Bulolo, as Sergeant Len Ralph, 306 Radar Station RAAF, recalled:
... the scene around the airstrip was one of total destruction. The most prominent building, the maintenance workshop, had been reduced to a heap of rubble, as were other structures ... Perhaps the most eye-catching heaps of rubble were what was left of the three [civilian] Junkers aircraft [destroyed in the air raid of 21 January 1942], which were lying on the edge of the strip.
Radar and anti-aircraft units were needed as air raids occurred intermittently.
To the south of Wau, a major but little known engineering project was begun in support of the campaign. More than 1000 Australian engineers together with Papuan and New Guinean labourers were put to work building a road over the Bulldog Track, which crossed the Owen Stanley Range from the south coast. The track had been used as a supply line for much of 1942, with Papuan and New Guinean men carrying bundles of supplies, but barely a trickle got through. Allied commanders decided to boost this supply line's capacity by building a road for lorries to deliver supplies to Wau. Construction began in January 1943, with sappers of the 14th Field Company and Papuan labourers de-snagging the Lakekamu River, used by small vessels to carry supplies upstream from the sea to the start of the Bulldog Track.
In February, road-works began in earnest. Sappers of the 9th, 14th, 2/1st, 2/9th and 2/14th Field Companies, 3rd and 2/4th Field Squadrons and 2/1st Mechanical Equipment Company, along with pioneer troops of the 2/7th Battalion and a few other troops, joined the project. The road's construction entailed months of challenging and strenuous labouring in cold, wet mountains that tested the physical and mental fortitude of sappers and labourers alike. The project's commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Reinhold, remarked on the conditions:
... the cold and wet ... are continuous and intense and the saturated moss, as a sponge, collects and exudes moisture. And yet men camped under leaky tent flies and lived in these nightmarish surroundings for many months where, at 9,000–10,000 feet, wood was of poor burning quality, sodden and rotten, food consisted of hard rations, and the tea supply, affected by the damp, was always mouldy. Working nine hours a day, nearly always seven days a week ... [they] have shown what can be done by good men under the stress of an ordeal.
Blasting and cutting rock, removing earth, felling trees and laying gravel, they pushed the road over the mountains. Four sappers were killed in construction accidents. Finally, in August 1943, a Jeep track was opened, and the upgraded road for trucks was completed on 23 September 1943. It was an impressive engineering achievement deserving of remembrance but, unfortunately, the project was badly conceived because time was against them. The campaign was over by the time supplies began flowing over the 'Reinhold Highway'.
Allied aircrews also continued their part in the campaign by attacking enemy bases, supply lines and sea lanes. Australians mostly flew in RAAF squadrons, with some aircrews attached to USAAF bomber squadrons. On 1 March 1943, one of the most notable aerial actions of the war was sparked when an American bomber spotted a Japanese convoy sailing from Rabaul into the Bismarck Sea. Next day, the convoy, which was making for Lae, was attacked by American bombers and shadowed by Australian Catalinas. The ships carried several thousand troops and supplies. Allied commanders were determined to inflict a further major blow on the enemy by destroying the convoy.
The morning of 3 March opened with attacks on the convoy by Beauforts of 100 Squadron while Bostons of 22 Squadron bombed Malahang aerodrome near Lae to prevent fighters based there taking off. Meanwhile, more than ninety Allied aircraft were flying north to attack the convoy. USAAF Flying Fortresses bombed from high level to break up the convoy, and ships were then singled out by waves of aircraft attacking at low level. Beaufighters of 30 Squadron swept in low, strafing warships and transports to disable the ships' bridges and suppress anti-aircraft fire. George Graham, an airman who discussed the battle with participants, described their strafing runs:
You've gone around behind the warships but they're still banging away with their big guns, pom-poms and ack-ack. You can see tracers whipping by. A cargo ship is in the sights. She is camouflaged and has goalpost masts. She looks blurred at first, but then comes into focus. The first thunder of fire [from the Beaufighter's four cannons and six machine-guns] ... jars at your feet, and you see the tracers lashing out ... Then the plane is banking round again and a fresh target is lining up in the sights ... You're going in —hard and furious. The great hull of the ship is looming up at you, grey and black and forbidding. Again the guns begin their violent stammer, again the flashing of tracers. The shuddering beat of the explosions gives the scene a grey flicker. The acrid smell [of cordite] is in your nostrils. You seem suspended in an unwholesome moment of fear and delight as you watch the stream of bullets whang over the decks. You see the black smoke rising and you are still diving to meet it until everything is a black smudge—and you say a quick prayer. And then you feel that wrench upwards again as the plane sweeps miraculously up. And the ship passes below the fuselage in a dark blur.
The Beaufighters were followed in by American Mitchell bombers using new tactics of 'skip-bombing'—dropping bombs from so low that they bounced off the water and slammed into a ship's side before exploding. Seventeen direct hits were claimed, leaving ships burning and listing. A second wave that included Bostons of 22 Squadron and Beaufighters struck that afternoon. All eight transport ships and four destroyers were sunk.
A 'terrible yet essential finale' followed as Beaufighters, Bostons and Mitchells swept to and fro over the Bismarck Sea and Huon Gulf for several days seeking out and destroying barges and rafts crammed with survivors. The RAAF official historian, Douglas Gillison, commented:
It was grim and bloody work for which the crews had little stomach. Some of the men in Beaufighter crews confessed to experiencing acute nausea. The realistic and grimly objective comment from one of their flight leaders was that every one of these troops was an enemy pledged to kill his opponents and so every one the Beaufighters' guns prevented from getting ashore was 'one Jap' less for the army to kill.
Few of the 6000 Japanese troops in the transport ships made it ashore on the mainland. Over half, along with hundreds of sailors and merchant mariners, perished. Survivors were picked up by Japanese warships and returned to Rabaul.
Allied squadrons also continued bombing Lae and Salamaua. 22 Squadron gained a particular reputation for bravery and skill attacking at low level. Missions were extremely dangerous, as fighters could be encountered and anti-aircraft batteries were strong and experienced. The actions of Flight Lieutenant William 'Bill' Newton and his crew stood out, as they pressed home low-level attacks with unprecedented vigour. His subsequent commendation noted:
Disdaining evasive tactics when experiencing the heaviest fire, he always went straight to his objective. He carried out many daring machine-gun attacks on enemy positions, involving low flying over long distances in the face of continuous fire at point-blank range. On three occasions, he dived through intense anti-aircraft fire to release his bombs ...
On 16 March 1943, Newton led a raid on Salamaua in which he dived through intense antiaircraft fire to bomb a supply dump with devastating accuracy. When pulling out of the dive, his aircraft suffered four direct hits that severely damaged both wings and an engine, and punctured the fuel tanks, but Newton nursed the stricken aircraft 290 kilometres back to base. The next day, Newton endeavoured to repeat this performance:
His target, this time a single building, was even more difficult, but he again attacked with his usual courage and resolution and flew a steady course through a barrage of fire. He scored hits on the building but at the same moment his aircraft burst into flames. Flight Lieutenant Newton maintained control and calmly turned his aircraft away and flew along the shore. He saw it as his duty to keep the aircraft in the air as long as he could in order to take the crew as far away as possible from the enemy position. With great skill he brought his aircraft down on the water. Two members of the crew were able to extricate themselves and were seen swimming to the shore ...
Sergeant Basil Eastwood was killed in action but Newton and Flight Sergeant John Lyon were captured and executed—as were many Allied airmen captured in New Guinea. For his valour in the air raids, Newton was honoured with a posthumous Victoria Cross. It was the only VC awarded to an airman in the South-West Pacific Area.
In the mountains, the Australian counter-attack had slowed, as Kanga Force waited for more reinforcements and supplies. On 23 April 1943, Major General Stanley Savige assumed command and that day Kanga Force ceased to exist. Its units came under the command of Savige's 3rd Division, strengthened by the 15th Infantry Brigade and other units. The 15th Brigade comprised the 24th, 57th/60th and 58th/59th Battalions (AIF)—the bracketed AIF being the result of a quirk in the system by which militiamen could transfer into the AIF (while staying with their unit) and if most of the men in a unit did so then it could be considered nominally an AIF unit. They became known as 'brackets AIF' units.
By the end of April 1943, the Japanese had retreated two-thirds of the way to the coast but it would take months of hard fighting for the Allies to push the Japanese back to Salamaua. The 2/7th Battalion was in contact with enemy forces on the main track near Mubo, while the 2/3rd Independent Company operated closer to the coast, harassing the Japanese supply line. Meanwhile, the 24th Battalion was sent north into the upper Markham Valley to guard a route between Lae and Wau.
The campaign took on added importance when Allied commanders planned to capture Lae, a more important objective. General Thomas Blamey, the Australian commander of Allied Land Forces, believed the attack on Salamaua might weaken the Japanese at Lae by diverting enemy troops to defend Salamaua.
The determination of the Japanese to withdraw no further than Mubo was shown on 9 May when an enemy force counter-attacked and a company of the 2/7th Battalion was surrounded. It had to fight hard to hold its ground. The Australians had only small arms and light mortars along with a couple of howitzers from the 1st Mountain Battery (AIF) for fire support. The Japanese also attacked the 2/3rd Independent Company. Having resisted these counter-attacks, the Australians renewed their advance in late May when more units reached the forward area.
The Australians had now adopted a lighter 'tropical scale' of clothing and equipment, but it was still quite cumbersome, as the official historian, David Dexter, noted:
... they wore their jungle green uniform (boots, socks, gaiters, underpants, trousers, shirt), also 'hat fur felt' as the famous Australian [slouch] hat was officially known, clasp knife, identification discs, webbing equipment, field dressing in the right hip pocket and a tin of emergency rations in the left, water-bottle on the right-hand side, one tin of emergency rations, one field operation ration, one day's ordinary ration (usually bully beef and biscuits), mess gear, and six Atebrin tablets [for malaria prevention]. The pack held a spare pair of boots, two pairs of socks, one singlet, one shirt, one pair of underpants, one pair of trousers and a mosquito net. One blanket in a groundsheet was wrapped outside and over the top of the pack and a steel helmet was strapped on to the pack. Fifty rounds were carried by each rifleman, 100 rounds in magazines by each Tommy-gunner, and 100 rounds in magazines for each Bren gun ... [and] all ranks carried one No. 36 grenade with a 4-seconds fuse (usually carried hooked on the webbing belt by the lever) ... Such were the possessions of the Australian soldier as he battled with the Japanese in the murky jungle and precipitous hills of the backbreaking areas round Mubo and Bobdubi.
Some troops carried even more, including equipment for mortars or grenade launchers. Others carried medical, signals or engineering equipment and supplies. New Guineans employed by ANGAU personnel carried the heaviest and bulkiest equipment, ammunition and rations. Troops and carriers alike trudged forward under heavy loads over steep and muddy tracks, enshrouded by the dank and murky jungle. Signalman Lloyd Collins, 3rd Division Signals, recalled the trek:
... there was little conversation. You neither had the time nor the inclination. Talking required energy and energy was a scarce resource. When passing a mate you sometimes glanced at his face, a face dull from fatigue and dripping with perspiration. You saw his sticking clothes, his muddy boots and trousers. You noticed the heavy pack and you could hear his heaving breath as he struggled past. Then, as you pitied him and felt sorry for his plight, you realised that you looked the same to others. Even though no words were spoken the silent glance conveyed sympathy and understanding.
Coming the other way were sick and wounded troops, often carried by New Guineans. They were treated by medical troops in the forward area and sent rearward if hospital treatment was called for.
Towards the end of June, the 2/6th Battalion began pressing ahead. It had first to hold out against a determined counter-attack at Lababia Ridge. The fighting over several days was difficult, as repeated attacks on Australian positions were fended off, but finally the 2/6th and 2/5th Battalions were able to recommence the advance.
The 17th Brigade's efforts were assisted by those of other troops attacking elsewhere. The 58th/59th Battalion and the 2/3rd Independent Company mounted successive attacks against Bobdubi Ridge, astride the enemy's main supply line. The battalion's troops, mostly young and inexperienced, faced an unexpectedly hard fight. The Japanese were well dugin, occupying a series of pillboxes. The Australians gained experience and confidence in jungle warfare, and after a fight lasting twenty-nine days took a formidable objective, Old Vickers Position. They would stay in the forward area, ending up spending seventy-seven consecutive days here. More than 200 men of the 58th/59th were killed or wounded.
On the night of 29–30 June 1943, there was a significant development in the campaign, when the American 162nd Infantry Regiment landed on the coast at Nassau Bay and began moving inland to link up with the 17th Brigade. The Americans also brought mountain artillery.
Australian seamen also supported the campaign by moving men and supplies along coastal supply lines. Between 21 February and 4 March 1943, four corvettes, HMA Ships Ballarat, Bendigo, Echuca and Kapunda, and Allied merchant ships moved 3200 American troops to Oro Bay, near Buna, so they could embark landing craft headed for Nassau Bay. The corvettes continued escorting merchant ships and assisting with troop transport in potentially dangerous waters. On 8 March, enemy bombers attacked the Bendigo and a merchant ship, the Samuel Jacob, sinking the latter. Able Seaman Wally Eves of the Bendigo recalled:
... as the two ships crept closer to the coast ... on that glorious tropical afternoon nine Japanese bombers ... escorted by twelve fighters ... attacked the convoy. With that peculiar sound like wind blowing through an aperture a batch of bombs fell from the clear blue sky. Some landed near Bendigo but five scored hits on Samuel Jacob which had moved up close astern of the corvette, sending flames and clouds of brown and white smoke billowing into the air. Bendigo's anti-aircraft guns began firing madly but the planes were so high it was a waste of effort and we watched in grim silence as the aircraft disappeared into the blue haze of distant sky.
Five Dutch crewmen were killed and two Australian soldiers among the 153 survivors rescued by the Bendigo died of wounds.
On 11 April 1943, the corvette HMAS Pirie was also targeted by enemy aircraft that got beneath the 'top cover' provided by Allied fighters. Leading Telegraphist Harry Cottrell wrote of the experience of men below decks:
They could hear the 12 pounder, almost above their heads, blasting away; the thudding of the Oerlikons; the rapid fire of the Lewis guns; the rattle of the endless chain on the ammunition hoist, above the for'ard companionway, on the coaming, steel on steel; the muffled sounds of shouted commands and warnings from the upper deck and bridge; the cannon fire of the aircraft as they dived in to attack; the roar of the plane overhead followed by explosion of the bombs in the water alongside the ship, lifting it.
Bombs and cannon fire struck the corvette. Seven men were killed and others wounded. Although few had seen action before, and most were on their first sea posting, Lieutenant Commander Charles 'Beryl' Mills reported that 'the whole Ship's Company, by their courage and steadiness, are considered to have upheld the best traditions of the Naval Service'.
Further along the coastal supply lines, members of the Australian Army's 1st Water Transport Group and also Australians serving in the Small Ships Section of the United States Army's Transportation Service carried troops and supplies. The 1st Water Transport Group lost its first vessel on 19 May when enemy fighters attacked and sank the AS28.
In the mountains around Mubo, Allied troops slowly pushed back the enemy. During July 1943, the 17th Brigade took Mubo after hard fighting but many Japanese escaped down jungle tracks. As the 17th Brigade pushed on, it reached the area held by the 58th/59th Battalion and 2/3rd Independent Company, whose troops joined the onward advance, fighting alongside the brigade's 2/5th, 2/6th and 2/7th Battalions.
Fighting in the mountains was extremely challenging. Muddy tracks and the enveloping jungle that hid enemy positions tested men physically and mentally. A 3rd Division report noted:
Such conditions of rain, mud, rottenness, stench, gloom, and, above all, the feeling of being shut in by everlasting jungle and ever ascending mountains, are sufficient to fray the strongest nerves. But add to them the tension of the constant expectancy of death from behind the impenetrable screen of green, and nerves must be of the strongest, and morale of the highest, to live down these conditions, accept them as a matter of course, and maintain a cheerful yet fighting spirit.
Casualties in infantry and commando units mounted, and men in support units also struggled to keep going. Among the hardest worked men were signals troops: wireless sets used in the forward area were heavy and hard to maintain in the damp conditions, and further back, linesmen had a terrible time erecting and maintaining signals lines across sheer mountains and deep valleys.
The food situation made matters even worse. Men in forward positions had to eat unpalatable field rations for days on end because they could not light fires to cook dehydrated meals so close to the enemy. Living conditions were primitive, but to hardened troops they were at least bearable. Signalman Collins watched infantrymen come out of the line to rest:
They had all suffered privations and endured the hellish hardships of jungle fighting. Their clothes were stained and discoloured from perspiration, torn and ragged. They were tired to death and hungry and yet, without complaint, stood in the heavy rain and quietly ate their meal. These men, boys in years, knew hardship as few of the world's soldiers had known it.
While resting, men took great interest in American 'biscuit bombers', also known as 'kai bombers' (kai being a local word for food), dropping supplies in clearings. Though many bundles missed the drop zones and fell into the jungle, this slender aerial supply line was vital. Captain Bennett and others believed that 'dropping really won the war for us in New Guinea'.
The advance continued for many weeks against stiff opposition. The better trained and experienced 17th Brigade and 2/3rd Independent Company led by example. A third Australian brigade, the 29th, arrived and advanced closer to the coast. Its 15th, 42nd and 47th Battalions received fire support from guns of the 2/6th Field Regiment during a series of hard actions. Troops of the Papuan Infantry Battalion also patrolled and fought on this front. Further inland, Australian and American troops continued attacking and patrolling as the advance continued past Komiatum and Mount Tambu. Casualties kept mounting from battle, sickness and disease, stretching front-line units and medical services.
A final push on Salamaua was made by troops of all three Australian brigades— the 15th, 17th and 29th—and the American 162nd Regiment. The enemy retreated and finally abandoned their positions. Salamaua fell on 11 September 1943. Sergeant Stanley Benson, 42nd Battalion, recalled the scene of destruction:
Not one building in Salamaua had been missed by bombs. A few on the isthmus still stood, with walls blown out, roofs holed by strafing, but there was nothing to inspire pride of possession. Only yards separated the holes where bombs had landed and it was a wonder that any of the buildings managed to remain upright. Everywhere the stink `of the 'Pongo' [enemy dead] hung in the air.
Apart from some mopping up, and a pursuit of fleeing Japanese by the 15th Battalion, one of the hardest and least known campaigns of the war had ended.
Sources quoted in this text include:
- Cam Bennett, Rough Infantry, Warrnambool, 1985, pp.159–60
- SE Benson, The Story of the 42 Aust Inf Bn, Sydney, 1952, p. 116
- Lloyd Collins, The New Guinea Narrative, 2001, pp. 55, 60
- HH Cottrell, The HMAS Pirie Story, Sydney, 2000, p. 43
- David Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives, Canberra, 1961, pp. 21, 51
- George Turnbull Dick, Beaufighters Over New Guinea, Point Cook, 1993, pp. 84–85 (quote by George Graham)
- Ian Downs, The New Guinea Volunteer Rifles 1939–1943, Broadbeach Waters, 1999, pp.149–50, 208 (quotes by Lieutenants Tom Lega and Steven Lonergan)
- Wally Eves, HMAS Bendigo, Morley, 1995, p. 52
- Ron Garland, Nothing is Forever, Sydney, 1997, p. 75 (quote by Corporal Garth Neilson)
- Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939–1945, Canberra, 1962, pp.694–95
- David Hay, Nothing Over Us, Canberra, 1984, p. 254 (quote by Private Frank Casey)
- Ronald McNicoll, The Royal Australian Engineers: 1919 to 1945, Canberra, 1982, p. 174 (quote by Lieutenant Colonel William Reinhold)
- AA Pirie, Commando—Double Black, Loftus, 1996, p.41
- Len Ralph, Golden 306, Melbourne, 2001, p. 20
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