ABC correspondent broadcasts stories of bravery

Name: Ken Sanderson
Date: 1942-1943
Unit: Men of Australian Cavalry Regiment
Location: New Guinea

There were many tales of valour from the fighting in New Guinea during World War II. Typical was the story of 22-year-old Ken Sanderson.

He deliberately charged a Japanese machine gun nest and wiped it out but died in the process. His daring attack undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades.

ABC radio correspondent, Dudley Leggett, discovered the story during interviews he carried out with Australian troops in New Guinea after the event. He described the scene leading up to the battle.

"This is the story of brave men told by their comrades," Leggett said in his broadcast. "But first let me describe without exaggeration the background to these tales of great courage these men will tell you.

"On the road to Sanananda the Japs held a series of perimeters bristling with machine guns and snipers over an area sometimes 200 yards by more than a hundred [183m x 91.4m]. They were hidden in the jungle and protected by swamps.

"When our troops attacked them, withering fire poured from the hidden defences and some of our attacks ended before the enemy's lines were gained. It was too much for the bravest flesh and blood.

"But the Australians rarely retired. They went to ground and dug in as close as 30 yards from the enemy. Many of them lay in water for days, fighting back. They were grateful for our artillery that shelled the enemy day and night with satisfying accuracy. But they couldn't sleep. The Japs mortared them.

"The flesh itched and cracked in the water and mosquitoes swarmed around them. They patrolled the enemy, worried him, cut his lines of supply and slowly reduced him. But they suffered casualties too.

"Just before dawn on 19 December 1942, an Australian cavalry regiment fighting as infantry, went into its first action. They fought on foot in this primitive land of jungle and swamps. They attacked along the sides of the road between Japanese perimeters and pushed forward for nearly half a mile until they were brought to a standstill by what proved later to the core of the Jap's defences.

"But the Japs in the two perimeters they had passed, although caught by surprise, had not let them pass lightly and when the two forward squadrons took stock of the situation they found that they had been cut off from the other half of the regiment.

"In fact, a small party had been chopped off by the heavy cross fire from these perimeters and had had to take cover in the ditch at the side of the road about 40 yards from both perimeters, where they eventually had to remain for 10 days.

"The forward squadrons formed a small perimeter of their own, and, surrounded by the enemy perimeters and living on starvation rations, harried the Jap by aggressive patrols and fire for five days until the rest of the regiment could reach through the jungle.

"Then this reduced cavalry regiment maintained its isolated position for another 16 days until switched into an attack on another enemy perimeter. They made themselves a bitter thorn in the flesh of the strong enemy positions about them, raiding them, mortaring them, sniping them and gaining valuable information by fighting patrols. They showed a spirit typical of Australian fighting men in the front line.

"Lt Thomas was second in command of that forward perimeter during those first five days and he will tell you about Cpl Oswin Kenneth Sanderson, of Toowoomba, Queensland, who lies buried on the road to Sananda.

"When we started our attack from Huggin's road block on 19 December and pushed forward in the scrub along the sides of the road, Cpl Sanderson was in the second troop," Lt Thomas said.

"Suddenly a machine gun opened up and shot a man in front of Sandy as he was crawling over a log. Sandy went over the log fast to see how this man was. And the first man in Sandy's section came over the log and lay beside him.

"Sandy then tried to draw the enemy's fire by firing his rifle. He apparently estimated that the machine gun was about 30 yards away and he threw two grenades where he thought it was.

"Then he took his companion's Owen gun and stood up firing to see what damage his grenades had done. He dropped down quickly and grasped his rifle and said to his mate, 'Come on. There are only two of them. We'll get them.' He jumped up straight away with his bayonet fixed and dashed forward. The post proved to be only five yards away and he was on it before his mate could catch up with him.

"He came to grips with the Japs and there was a terrific mix-up. I saw it and you couldn't tell just what happened, but in the melee the post was wiped out and Sandy was killed.

"I'm pretty sure that if it hadn't been for him, the gun would have made a mess of our troops. I think he was responsible for allowing the squadron to get forward."

Other examples of heroism under fire contained in Leggett's report included the stories of Sgt Lionel Oxlade and Trooper Hook, recounted by Major Reading.

"When our forward squadrons ran into Japanese defences on the first day and had to withdraw to make our perimeter, Sgt Oxlade's troop was cut off out in front," he recalled. "They were all under heavy fire but Oxlade personally contacted every one and got them into a small perimeter. Then he went out alone at night to find where the rest of the regiment was. He found the perimeter made by the two forward squadrons and immediately went back and brought his troop out. It was a jolly good show.

"Trooper Hook saw his troop leader fall after being shot and went over to see if he could help," Major Reading said. He was wounded but kept on crawling under fire. Hook was wounded again but refused to be evacuated. Later in the day he was taking a message across ground under fire and was wounded again in the arm.

Then, for five days he continued to do his duties and everything that was required of him until the rest of the regiment got through to the perimeter."

Another brave man was Sgt Peter Sargeant, who led a number of patrols over several days to plot the Japanese positions. Corporal Pratten, who was on patrol with Sgt Sargeant, recalled some of the events.

"We walked across a native garden and went down the track and into where the Japs were expected to be and ran into them cooking their tea and chopping wood," he said. "It was too risky to shoot at them there - anyway we wanted to find out how far their perimeter went and so we came out of that place without letting them know we were there.

"The sergeant was game. He kept going in himself at different places to see where the perimeter was and had to shoot one Jap trying to get round us. Not satisfied with that, he went in towards the Japs further along. He did that a number of times, wandering about in the swamp and then finally led us back to our perimeter."

Captain James was a witness to the bravery of Lt Arch Shilliday, who took his patrol to attack the Japanese positions but came under heavy fire.

"When he attacked the only way of letting the squadron know was to call out to them and during the attack her was calling out to them but the squadron was further away than we thought and they didn't hear him," Captain James said. "The Japanese perimeter was very strong and their fire was terrific but Shill took his patrol right into their position.

"It was a good piece of work. He went in fast, had a smack, made a swing and brought his troop back. It was all over in half an hour and they killed about 10 Japs. They probably killed more but he said he wouldn't claim any more. He only had three of his men wounded and they walked" back under their own steam."

When Captain James needed to get in touch with the rear squadron he asked Cpl Ham Morton to do the job. "Ham and the two men with him, Trooper Geo Chesworth and Trooper Geo Hancox were to reconnoitre a route for the rest of the regiment to come up to us and to explain the situation in our perimeter to regimental headquarters," Captain James said.

"We gave him every detail we could about our stores and equipment, information we had gained about the enemy and the advantages we had by being in that perimeter," he added. "He [Cpl Morton] set off with his two companions at 8 o'clock that night and at 4am he arrived in the other perimeter where our headquarters were, after passing through a very strong Japanese perimeter where his two companions were killed and he was badly wounded.

"When he arrived at headquarters he was wounded in three places but he refused treatment until he'd given all the information he'd been sent with to the acting commanding officer.

"It was through his effort that the regiment was able to congregate by leaving the road and making between two other Jap perimeters. Morton had proved that the left side of the road was impossible."

Captain James also reported on the valour of Trooper Wally Gray who gave his life to save another.

"He was in a troop I sent out to attack one of the Jap perimeters and they were pinned down inside the perimeter by machine gun and snipers. A few were wounded and a couple killed and then one of the corporals right out in front was badly wounded," Captain James said.

"But just at that time the troop had decided to withdraw. However, they didn't like leaving the corporal out there so Gray said he'd get him, and he went forward, seemingly quite oblivious of the Jap fire. He sat down by the side of the corporal who was apparently bleeding from nine bullet wounds, and applied a tourniquet and bandaged him up. Then a bullet hit Gray and killed him. Due to Gray's attention, the corporal recovered enough to crawl back himself. I feel sorry for Gray."

Corporal Ned Connell was another who gave his life deliberately to save others, according to Captain James. Connell was wounded and fell to the ground.

"Some of the boys saw him fall and started to go over to him but he sang out 'Don't come over here. I'm pinned down. You'll all be killed.' However, they continued to move towards him and he sang out again but they took no notice of him. So Connell jumped up and threw himself at the machine gun and was killed."

"That was a story of brave men," Dudley Leggett concluded. "There are thousands like them in the front line. But most of their stories will never be uncovered from the confusion of the battlefield. Only the stones of the desert and the trees of the jungle will know them. These men really know the cruelties of war and what reward do we give them?"

The material for this article was supplied by Mrs Daphne O'Donoghoe from Queensland


Last updated: 3 June 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), ABC correspondent broadcasts stories of bravery, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 2 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/abc-correspondent-broadcasts-stories-bravery
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