To have a mate, you've got to be a mate

Name: John Tesoriero
Date: 1943-1945
Unit: 2nd Corps Signals
Location: New Guinea

When the chips are down, enemy air raids are a constant menace, the climate is debilitating and you're missing your family at home, that's when you need a mate.

And if you want a mate, you have to be one to somebody, according to Signalman John Tesoriero, who served with 2nd Corps Signals in New Guinea for the last two years of the war.

New Guinea was a place where friendships were formed, sometimes cut short by death or illness, but those that survived often went on for many years.

Having survived three days of sheer bedlam at the Sydney Showgrounds after joining the AIF, John Tesoriero did what everyone is advised not to do - he volunteered.

"They asked for volunteers for the Signals School and with the prospect of being in the infantry, I literally leaped forward," he wrote in his book, Signals, written in February 2000.

"They required 90, many more than this volunteered so they chose the group on our civilian occupations. I was the second name called."

After attending the Marconi School of Wireless in Sydney, he spent some time in Queensland on the Atherton Tablelands before finally boarding the SS Canberra and arriving in Port Moresby on 14 July.

From there they flew to Dobadura in a Douglas Dakota C47, crossing the Owen Stanley Range,

"over spectacular wild country half shrouded by clouds."

Dobadura became the main forward base on the northern side of the island with some 15 airstrips belonging to the US 5th Air Force as the centre of activities.

"We worked the signals office in regular shifts soon after our arrival, noting how extremely busy it was," John wrote. "I didn't mind the night shifts as the temperatures were more comfortable.

"Our tents were the regulation Aussie type but here we had the advantage of raised floor boards because of the regular downpours and flat ground. General health became a problem here with a few cases of malaria appearing and skin ailments all round.

"Work details in the oppressive heat were hated but necessary if we were to have any sort of living environment, worse when they called us out after completing a night shift.

"One episode calling for some laughter at my expense involved a particularly dirty job digging a trench for a new latrine. We broke off for lunch after getting down about 7 feet [about 2.2 metres] or so. When all the tools were passed out, I was last in the trench and instead of getting a hand to be pulled out, there I stayed while the party moved off to the tents.

"To make matters worse, someone went to my pack and taking out my Kodak Box Brownie, came back to take a photo of me sulking in the depths of the trench. To miss a meal would be too much so I tried climbing out by digging my steel-shod boots into the soft sides of the trench and used my shoulders to work my way up, possible only because the trench was narrow. So, to the consternation of my tormentors, I appeared for lunch anyway."

In September 1943, the unit moved to Lae, boarding their ships at Buna. After travelling up the coast, they landed two nights later.

"Our ship seemed to be drifting to the beach, but it must only have been minutes, it seemed hours," John Tesoriero wrote. "Finally, with a strange whispering sound we slid ashore on the coarse sand. It was now 0130 hours. The doors whirred open and the ramp went down. Outside was total blackness but we stumbled out into some water, black sand, then squeaking through thick layers of pebbles, up a steep bank to higher ground and were told to stop and dump our personal gear.

"A few parked trucks on the beach lit the scene with their headlights as we scurried backwards and forwards to join the furious activity to unload the ship. There was no other word to describe the crazy, hectic activity.

"At the entrance to the doors, an American officer stood shouting orders to 'Go, go, go', mixed with abuse at some unfortunates who were already weary. Trucks drove off the ships to park at the back of the beach, not knowing what to do next. Their lights added to the dramatic picture. No moon, no stars this night, just stabs of light from vehicles.

"The ships themselves were totally blacked out. Loud alarm bells rang in the holds as lifts brought down more vehicles from upper decks, making it dangerous for the teams of men working below.

"We were confused by all the orders coming from every quarter. When the vast hold of our ship was cleared, it quickly backed away and slid into the darkness. Then we discovered why the panic, those ships didn't want to be caught sitting up on the beach in daylight. Japanese air power wasn't finished yet and those LSTs would be sitting ducks, despite their considerable armament.

"While we collapsed absolutely exhausted onto the pebbles, a line of vehicles arrived out of the darkness. They were field ambulances carrying wounded men from the 9th Division assault on Lae just a matter of days ago. They were loaded onto one of the LSTs. We slept where we fell. Not even the light shower which fell onto our faces before dawn made any difference.

"Morning light revealed a scene of total confusion as far as one could see in the early mist along the beach. The LSTs had gone, fulfilling their mission in unloading troops and supplies in darkness and safety. Heaps of crates and equipment lay everywhere, trucks parked at crazy angles where they could find space in the darkness.

"We were a little north of the Lae township, at Malahang Beach. Just inland, overlooking the beach, we made out a big hill blasted by aerial bombing, which they said was honeycombed with caves containing Japanese supplies, big guns pointed out to sea, and a number of enemy troops. The effective bombing had sealed up many enemy in its shattered mess."

While waiting to find out where their new headquarters would be and with heavy rain making the roads impassable, the troops camped on the beach, guarding their supplies as best they could and wandering through the ruins of the Japanese camps.

"Personal trinkets and papers lay everywhere in the ruins and the boys picked them up for souvenirs," John wrote. "Books, records and messages lay in a carpet in what must have been some sort of HQ, also to our surprise, many articles of women's clothing and personal bits and pieces which verified our suspicions that Geisha were at the base."

Eventually, the troops moved to their new camp at Yalu and established a signals office and communications centre. Daily patrols were sent out to look for signs of Japanese troop movements or stragglers left behind by the pace of the war.

On one occasion, John Tesoriero's skill with a rifle made him famous overnight.

"For some unknown reason I sighted on a bird on the wing and no one in that group was more surprised than me when it fell like a stone at our feet," he wrote. "At the same moment, we saw a plane coming down from a great height, tumbling like a leaf, no smoke or fire as we imagined.

"Then a white parachute carrying the pilot swung down slowly. It was an American plane, an Aircobra we thought at the time, and then two similar aircraft flew tight circles around the pilot as he came down. Those kids could toss those planes around, it was incredible flying.

"Anyway, my mates were shouting a lot of nonsense while this went on, such as 'Wow, what a terrific shot! The bird and the plane with one bullet.' No matter that it was one of ours that fell from the sky. We learned later that the pilot was rescued."

The weather was a constant factor to be reckoned with. Between the camp and the Lae-Nadzab road was a river which provided all their water supplies and was regularly used by the troops to cool off in the heat of the day.

"That same river nearly took us all away one night after heavy rains," John wrote.

"We awoke to the sound of heavy rain pounding on our tents, not too worried as we were three feet (one metre) off the ground and deep drains had been dug around the tents. But a gurgling sound made us light lanterns to find a torrent flowing through our makeshift cots. These had been built up high to escape the crawlies, thank goodness, for the torrent swept through the camp carrying away anything at or on the ground.

"For days after we found equipment far out into the jungle, such as boots, socks etc. What was recovered required a lot of restoration work from the mud.

"We never worked so hard physically as the days we spent out clearing the bush and erecting poles for linesmen to get that first line through to Nadzab.

When the time came for their next move, they were able to drive out along a bitumen road, a far cry from the deep mud and slush they had encountered on their journey to Yalu.

It was dark when they arrived at the Yalu River staging camp and after dumping their gear in tents, they headed out to see a film about a mile down the road.

"During the show rain fell, increasing in volume so we couldn't hear the sound track and despite our wet weather slickers and hats it became obvious that the night was hopeless so we headed for home," John wrote. "Easy said, but where was home?

"The rain teemed down, we couldn't see the road at all except when the occasional truck came along stabbing the complete dark with its headlights," John wrote. "Then we discovered why both sides of the road had six-foot [2 metre] ditches dug along its length, they were now raging torrents. I could see disaster if one slipped into a washaway like that.

"Each camp we passed along the road was accessed by a solid bridge. This was another mystery solved. Finally a familiar road sign and we turned into what we guessed was our staging camp. I don't remember the name, nor do I think it deserved one in decent English.

"We found our tents. When I say 'we' it can be taken for granted that Vic Wilson or Jack Hall or Dan Daly, any one of our mates from 5 Ops, we always did things together. We could have cried for our tents were awash with whatever gear left on the grass, wet, wet, wet. This included our made up beds. Next morning, unbelievably, the sun shone from a clear hot sky and steam arose from our wet gear as we sorted it out to dry."

The unit eventually ended up at Busu Camp where a favourite pastime was listening to Tokyo Rose on their powerful wireless sets.

"It was amazing how she mentioned units of ours and named officers and their locations, all wrapped in flimsy propaganda," John wrote. "But we did enjoy the music, all the latest hits."

Not long after they shifted again - this time to Torokina near Bougainville where they established a huge telephone switch exchange jointly operated by US Navy personnel.

Early in 1945, the section was awarded a Mentioned in Despatches for its good work.

"We figured it must be for surviving the Yalu episode, we weren't told exactly," John recalled. "Captain Roby did the decent thing and pinned it on one of the boys instead of himself - as was the fashion with a lot of officers who accepted decorations 'on behalf of the men'. Ted Pickard was the lucky recipient, a popular choice as Ted was one of the most efficient and conscientious of us."

Jon recalled the role of the carrier pigeons in the war.

"Pigeons did wonderful work on Bougainville where other communications were bad because of the weather extremes," he wrote. "They were targeted by enemy sharp shooters but unit records say they never failed their task.

"Towards April 1945, the usual latrine wireless, from our very well built 12-hole convenience, took on an exciting new note. Two very exciting new notes in fact. First it said a crowd of AWAS Sigs were coming up. Girls! Real live ones and a big barbed-wire compound was being built to house them.

"The other news flash was more important. The good news was that 5 Ops and 5 W/T sections were to be returned to the mainland, actually to be transferred out of 2 Corps Signals and become part of the new group, 1st Australian Independent Signals Group. This title meant nothing to us at the time but it was very significant in future tactical planning."

The section boarded the SS Katoomba and sailed for Australia.

"Then came the bright sunny morning and before us the high rock mountain behind Townsville, Castle Hill, covered in red Bougainvillea, what a welcome! We glided by Magnetic Island with its golden beaches and thick groves of Hoop Pines and finally alongside the familiar wharf at Townsville.

"The wharf was packed with civilians and military people welcoming the return of a packed troop ship. From their point of view it must have been an event. For us, it was material for tears of joy."

During the train journey south, they heard of the end of the war in Europe and that Hitler was dead and travelled in to Brisbane to join in the celebrations. On arrival in Sydney, they were granted four weeks leave to catch up with family and friends.

After that, they were sent to Bonegilla in Victoria for more training. Even when the Japanese capitulated the training continued and they all waited for the day when they would be free of the army. For John, this came on 18 June 1946.

Afterwards, he stayed in touch with many of his mates, meeting them at reunions organised by the 2 Aust Corps Signals Association. John summed up his time in New Guinea.

"Mateships forged in war are forever and age isn't a consideration when we are together. When I hear them arguing or laughing over old times, all I hear are the young voices of yesteryear," he wrote. "Some members have ailments but we patiently wait and listen because this is our old mate who was once a fit young man facing the worst possible scenario with a laugh and a purpose.

"The story of 5 Ops goes on, while ever some of us can front up to our monthly parade at Kirribilli, or stagger round the streets on Anzac Day. We like to think of our gatherings as unique but firmly believe it goes on just the same with all units of the 2nd AIF and the other services.

"Despite the many name changes they laid on our section, we'll always be 5 Aust Telegraph Operating Section AIF. And we come from 2 Aust Corps Signals AIF. May that story go on for ever…."

The material for this article was supplied by Mark Tesoriero from New South Wales

Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), To have a mate, you've got to be a mate, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 29 September 2021,
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