Sapper recalls years fighting in New Guinea

Name: Bill Stanbury
Date: 1943-1946
Unit: 15th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers
Location: New Guinea

Sapper Bill Stanbury had an eventful war. It started off badly in December 1942 when, after being refused pre-embarkation leave, he went Absent Without Leave, in a bid to see his wife as she was about to give birth to their first child.

After three weeks dodging the Provos he gave himself up and spent time in a variety of jails before being sent back to Wagga, where he was fined 10 pounds for his troubles. His son Rex was born while he was locked up but he didn't see him until September 1944.

After that, Bill Stanbury was sent on a 24-day jungle training camp at Canungra, which included an 80-mile [135km] forced march over the mountains in three days with just emergency rations to eat. Shortly afterwards he found himself boarding a ship to New Guinea.

As a member of the 15th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, he spent much of the war in New Guinea in transport and helping to build roads and bridges. Later he sat down and wrote about his experiences for his family to share.

It was about a five-day trip to Port Moresby. We arrived there about 9pm and the Japs had just bombed the harbour.

We had several day and night air raids during this time, one was named Jackson's after Squadron Leader Jackson who shot down several Jap planes but was unfortunately shot down and killed.

I met up with three chaps from Ballarat when I joined the 15th, including Graham Barnett - I've been mates with him ever since. After a short time driving the utility, I was put on driving trucks, Chev 4x4 and Yankee 6x6 drives.

We did a lot of driving at night (no lights while raids were on). There were plenty of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights around Moresby and they did a great job picking up the Japs when they came over.

It was strange if you were in a tent and the spent shrapnel would land on the tent fly and slide off. One of the worst things to watch when on night duty would be the heavy 4-engine bombers coming back from night raids possibly on Rabaul or up the NG coast to Wewak or one of the Jap dromes right up to Holliandra in Dutch New Guinea. Some nights the unfortunate Liberator or Fortress would be returning from a raid with possibly one or two motors on fire and would crash just before making the strip. There would be a ball of flame and that was it.

There was a big cemetery at Moresby - 32 American airmen were buried there in one week.

A section of our unit was sent up to a place called Rouna Falls at the foot of the Owen Stanley Ranges where the Kokoda track started. We spent a few weeks there working on the track.

The roads around the airstrip were causing a visibility problem for the aircraft pilots with the dust. We were mixed up in a couple of Jap raids on the strips while we were there. There were several ships sunk in the harbour.

I happened to be near the strip the day the first squadron of Thunderbolt fighters arrived. They were great planes, 400 miles per hour and it wasn't long before the Jap raids on Moresby and surrounding areas slackened off.

About October we were told we were to be moved as a Brigade (approximately 5,000 in a Brigade) and were to be flown over the Owen Stanley Ranges, but to where we did not know. The assembly point was near the aerodrome. At this same spot a few weeks previous, a bomber taking off, loaded with bombs had crashed into the camp and killed 70 Australian soldiers.

Finally early one morning, we boarded transport planes (DC3s), 21 fully equipped troops to each plane. The Owen Stanley Ranges are about 14,000 feet high and the planes had to circle for ¾ of an hour to gain enough height to fly through what was called The Gap, a section of the Ranges about 200 yards long but 1000 feet lower than the rest of the range. Fighter aircraft escorted us in case the Jap fighters were on the other side waiting for us.

Once through the 'Gap' we came down to jungle height for the rest of the journey. It was more difficult for the Japs to see us down low and we were happy with this as it was difficult to get your breath up high (no pressurised cabins in those days).

We landed in turn at a muddy airstrip at a place called Dumpu. We jumped out with our gear and the plane took off straight away for the return flight. Some had to wait a while to take wounded and bad malaria cases back with them, which made us realise we were in the thick of it.

Dumpu was in the Ramu Valley with the Bismark Ranges, 14,000 feet, on one side and the Finisterre Ranges, 12,000 feet, on the other. It was in the latter where the famous battle for Shaggy Ridge took place.

It was our brigade's job to relieve the brigade that had pushed the Japs back in that area. Our platoon's first camp was near a river called Meni. Its course came out of the mountains and fed into the Ramu River. There were no roads in from the coast so everything had to be brought in by air.

Further down the valley was a place called Nadzab. The Yanks by that time had built a fighter base and they used to fly cover for transport planes and bombers that came up from Moresby to bomb the Japs in the mountains.

One morning, early, three Jap planes sneaked up the valley machine gunning the camps; we were right in their path. They gave us a good going over but only caused light casualties for their effort. Some of us never had time to make it to our air raid trenches so we jumped into the river. I can still see the Jap pilot grinning as he sprayed our tents. Every bullet was a tracer (coloured red) so you could see them in flight.

The camp next to us was an advanced dressing station and hospital and they had quite a few casualties from the raid. A point of interest - these planes were known as Zeros, their full name being Mitsubishi Os - hence the name Zero.

It was about this time that 25 American Mitchell bombers attacked a Jap stronghold with 75mm cannons fitted to their aircraft. I mention this because it was the first time 75s had been fired from an aircraft in the Pacific. You could see the plane ease up when they fired.

The rainfall in this area was in the 200 to 300 inch [500cm to 760cm] range. The feeder rivers out of the mountains flowed very fast when it rained which was nearly every day and night. Our platoon was given the job of building a suspension bridge over the Faria River. It was important to get the job done quickly to get the wounded out.

Prior to the bridge being built it was necessary to take them out of the mountains by native carriers from the forward areas and then by jeep ambulances. These were jeeps with racks on them that could carry four stretcher cases. Before the bridge was built it was necessary to take them across the river by pontoon and load them onto the jeeps on the other side and take them down to Nadzab hospital (about 40 miles).

The Ramu Valley in Papuan language means Valley of Death. It was about a mile wide with the river wending its way down the centre. The river could be about 100 yards wide after heavy rains in the mountains and the other times you could walk across it.

One night while we were camped on the Meni River, three Jap bombers came in low to bomb Dumpu airstrip. The Bofor anti aircraft guns opened up on them and hit one. It crashed behind our camp. When daylight came we went to find the wreck. We found the Jap pilot hanging by his neck in the fork of the tree and the rest of the crew was burnt.

After about a month we were moved up into the mountains. We carried everything we had, including equipment and personal gear, which consisted of a spare shirt, pair of trousers, toilet gear, half of a small tent - you shared the other half with another chap, ground sheet, gas cape, one blanket, eating gear (spoon and dixie), rifle plus 50 rounds of ammo, bayonet, scabbard, service knife, 2 hand grenades, writing paper and pencil.

It was all walking from now on, no roads just tracks. From one point to the next wasn't known in miles but how many hours of walking. Our infantry had pushed the Japs beyond Shaggy Ridge. The name of this particular ridge (there were many others) came from its capture by an infantry company led by Captain Clampett whose nickname was Shaggy.

Our job was to cut new tracks and bridge the streams so as the native carriers could get supplies up to the forward area. There were also a lot of supplies dropped from the air by parachute. About 5000 feet up there was a plateau about the size of a couple of football fields, there was a fantastic view out over the valley.

One morning an estimated 400 Allied planes went up the valley on bombing raids flying about 2000 feet above the river, a sight never to be forgotten. We actually looked down on the planes as they flew up the valley.

I must admit it was damn scary in the mountains day and night. At times the Japs were not a long way from our perimeter. Anyway the Japs were finally pushed back over the mountains to a place on the coast called Bogajim. A small party of our platoon including Graham Barnett had to return to the Dumpu airstrip to load some stores onto a transport plane and we flew with them to a place called Saidor on the New Guinea. coast. From there we went by landing barges and landed at Madang (a 13-hour trip) but there was not much opposition as most of the Nips had moved out.

From there we moved up to Nagarda coconut plantation and made camp. We remained there for some weeks doing road work. We did about a mile of tracks through swampland and corroded it with coconut tree logs. The plantation was owned by Lever Bros and Burns and Philp and I believe the Australian Government had to pay them 5 pounds compensation for every tree destroyed whether cut down or destroyed by gunfire.

The rumour was going around the camp that our Brigade was to be relieved and would possibly go back to the mainland. This did happen. About a month later we were returned to Madang and boarded a Dutch ship named the Van Hueitz (which was later sunk).

We arrived back in Australia September 1944. One thing that lives in my memory was the big crowd to welcome us at Townsville; one elderly lady gave me an apple and orange, put her arms around my neck and cried.

We travelled by troop train to Melbourne and were given 30 days leave. It was great to see Dorothy [his wife] and Rex, who I saw for the first time (aged 20 months). After I was home a couple of weeks I got an attack of malaria so I spent a few days of my leave in the Base Hospital.

When our leave was up we were sent to a camp at Watsonia where we were smartened up in marching drill and general discipline as the whole (31st Brigade) was to march through Melbourne (6,000 troops). The march took place about October 1944 from the top of Swanston Street to Flinders Street. It was estimated 80,000 people were there to watch the march.

We then went to Wagga to do a 24-day Engineer Refresher Course after which they gave us three days leave, as we were to be sent away again. I had another attack of malaria at Wagga, the whole tent full went down on the same day.

After our three days leave we were sent back to Royal Park compound I copped malaria again and finished up in Heidelberg hospital and then to a convalescent camp.

Our next out of Australia destination was to Bouganville Island. We travelled on the Armed Merchant Ship, Katoomba. We had good naval escort and our ship got the message that one of our destroyers chased a Jap submarine but whether they destroyed it we didn't find out.

We landed at a place called Torokina on the southern end of Bouganville. The Yanks had landed there and set up a base and our Brigade was to relieve them. They had pushed the Japs back and set up a perimeter at about 14 miles deep. They built two airstrips and set up a base like a township plenty of good roads and any amount of equipment to look after them.

They had plenty of troops and artillery on their perimeter and it was our job to relieve them when all our Division had arrived. Then they were to leave Bouganville to make another landing further up on another island.

The Americans said they had no intentions of pushing up Bouganville any further. When they heard that Blamey and the Australian Government were going to take the whole island they reckoned it was bloody stupid. Anyway, they eventually pulled out and left us to it. This was supposed to be a mopping up operation but in the few months that were left before the war finished, the Australians suffered 1500 casualties pushing the Japs back up the Buin Road.

One of the first jobs our unit (15th Field Coy) had handed to them was to build a Bailey Bridge at Coombes Crossing. These bridges were a great bit of engineering. They were assembled on one side of the river and moved across as it was assembled. Our blokes made a good job of it, but the Japs didn't show much respect for it. The bridge was just completed and they laid a charge under one end and blew it up.

Along with other unit drivers, I was put on driving supplies up to the infantry. We drove what was called Jeep trains - two trailers behind each Jeep. The track was that rough and muddy we hardly got out of low gear in four-wheel drive. This was a pretty dangerous job as the Japs often set up ambushes.

The infantry had a hard fight all the way, progress was slow and there was plenty of opposition. One particularly big encounter was at a place called Slaters Knoll; it was on the bend of the Puriato River. When the battle was over our bulldozers dug two big holes and 132 Japs went into one and 82 in the other. There was a lot of fighting all the way up the road - when I say road it was really only a native track with very thick jungle all around.

During an incident in the latter part of the war on Bouganville Island, our infantry (15th Brigade) with a platoon of our 15th Engineers attached, had pushed the Japs over the Piviato River and were attacking them up the Buna Road.

The Japs set up a very strong defensive position on the bend of the river (this position was later called Slaters Knoll) The battle went on for some time and our men were in a nasty situation. The Japs had got behind our lines and tapped the signallers wire that kept us in contact with headquarters so the Japs knew what messages were being sent down the line from the forward area and, likewise what was being sent up from headquarters.

The situation became very serious but fortunately, three Matilda tanks were being unloaded at Motupena Point which was about three miles from where the battle was being fought, but the Australians didn't want the Japs to know the tanks were on the way up to clean them out. Now why I mention this, the Commander of the tanks was named Captain Arnott. Knowing the Japs would be listening on the line, Headquarters sent a message on the line to deceive them - 'Arnotts Biscuits are on the way'. The tanks took the Japs by surprise and cleaned them out and relieved the infantry.

The story was that the Japs were starving but this was not so. They had taken over native villages further up and had acres of garden growing in the valleys.

Crossing the rivers was a major problem but with a great effort from our blokes we finally got bridges (although they were a bit rough)) and crossed the Orgorata Hongorai and got through to the Hari River.

From there things started to get a bit tougher. Our supply line was getting longer and the Japs were getting shorter. There were a lot of Australian lives lost from here to the end of the war.

Five of our unit, including Max Thompson from Ballarat, were killed and several wounded when a 37mm mountain gun hit them. The Japs had hollowed out a big tree and grew vines all around it. The barrel of the gun was about 3 feet (1 metre) long but it was deadly.

In this encounter, one of our bulldozers took a direct hit. We had it towed out by another dozer under heavy fire and more casualties.

Our own artillery that had moved up had to turn some of their guns around and fire back over us to try and clean them out. I was unfortunate enough to drive over a land mine that the Japs had laid during the night but it was a bit of a fizzer and only blew the tread off the front tyre. It was about this time that I got a telegram to tell me I had a daughter, Lorraine.

The beginning of July 1945, heavy rains set in. In eight days of continual rain we had 40 inches [102cm] and it slowed the war up, which was fortunate for us as we were not having things all our own way at the time.

The Japs were moving patrols behind us causing trouble on the road we had built. They ambushed one truckload of troops and killed seven and several were wounded.

The good news for us (our unit) was we were to be relieved. On 6 August we moved back down to base (Toukina) and on the way I met Ken Miller and have been mates with him since. He had been granted compassionate leave and was boarding a boat to go home.

We got our first beer ration and with the dropping of the atomic bombs we had plenty to celebrate.

The end of the war was a great feeling for all concerned. I must mention here that we had to consider ourselves very fortunate that the end came so quick, the Japs were a lot stronger than the Australian Army heads had thought.

In the final analysis, the strength of the Japanese Army that surrendered numbered 32,000. The Australian intelligence's estimation was between 12 and 20,000, so they really had us in trouble when it all finished. The Japs were not keen to surrender; it was about three weeks before they all came in.

We had aircraft flying over the jungle with "Japan has surrendered" painted on the bottom of their wings in Japanese. In a detailed investigation after the war, the conclusion was reached that 8,500 Japs had been killed by the Australians on Bouganville and 9,800 died from malaria and other illnesses.

We were a long time getting home. I didn't arrive till January 1946 and saw Lorraine for the first time. She was seven months old. I was discharged form the army at Royal Park late January 1946.

The material for this article was supplied by Miss Lorraine Harris of Victoria, daughter of Sapper Bill Stanbury


Last updated: 3 June 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Sapper recalls years fighting in New Guinea, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 September 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/sapper-recalls-years-fighting-new-guinea
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