To Shaggy Ridge
The 1942-43 defeats of the Japanese at, Kokoda, Milne Bay, around Buna and at Wau opened the way for the Allies to plan and mount the advance on the major objective of Lae, New Guinea. This large Japanese base sat on the coast near the mouth of the Markham River at the southern end of the Huon Peninsula. By capturing this area, the Allies would be able to develop airfields in the Markham Valley to support subsequent advances along the north coast.
In May 1943, General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces in the South-West Pacific Area, issued a directive for the attack on Lae. Australian forces were to capture Lae, and then continue with two advances at the same time, one around the coast of the Huon Peninsula and the other inland following the Markham and Ramu Valleys. The latter would culminate with the capture of one of the key features, Shaggy Ridge.
Ahead of the land attack Allied bombers mounted a strong campaign against the Japanese base and lines of communication, weakening the defences. The first action by Allied troops was a paratroop drop, the first in New Guinea, on 5 September 1943. The American 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, and some gunners of the Australian 2/4th Field Regiment, were dropped over the Markham Valley, and seized an abandoned airfield at Nadzab. Work quickly commenced to prepare the airstrip for transport aircraft to land more troops.
Australians of the 7th Division were to be flown by American transport planes from Port Moresby to another airfield at Tsili Tsili and then march into the Markham Valley. However, tragedy struck on 7 September 1943 when a bomber taking off from Port Moresby crashed into men of the 2/33rd Battalion's D Company, who were waiting to board aircraft for the flight to Tsili Tsili. The 11-man American crew and 60 Australian troops were killed, and a further 92 Australians were injured; more died later from their burns and injuries. The shocked survivors were flown to the front.
With the 7th Division concentrated in the forward area, the advance began on 9 September 1943 with the 2/25th Battalion leading the 7th Division's movement out of Nadzab towards Lae. Four days later, Private Richard 'Dick' Kelliher, a 38-year-old Irishman in the 2/25th, came to the fore in a clash with Japanese machine-gunners pinning down his platoon. Kelliher later explained:
I wanted to bring [wounded] Cpl Richards back, because he was my cobber, so I jumped out from the stump where I was sheltering and threw a few grenades over into the position where the Japanese were dug in. I did not kill them all, so went back, got a Bren gun and emptied the magazine in the post. That settled the Japanese. Another option opened up when I went on to get Cpl Richards, but we got a bit of covering fire and I brought him back to our lines.
[Kelliher quoted in Reconquest: New Guinea 1943-1944, Australian Army, Melbourne,1944]
Kelliher was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honour in the British Empire.
The 7th Division pressed on. Meanwhile, the 9th Division sailed towards the forward area, and landed on the coast north of Lae. The two divisions were then in a race to claim the honour of capturing Lae. It was almost too close to call. Men from both divisions were entering the shattered base from opposite ends when they linked up on 16 September 1943. Most of the Japanese garrison had escaped into the mountains, beginning what for many was a 'death march', as with little food and few medical supplies they struggled to reach the northern side of the Finisterre Range.
The 9th Division was instructed to advance around the coast of the Huon Peninsula, as the 7th Division advanced along the Markham Valley and into the mountains. For the men of the 7th Division, it was the beginning of months of hard mountain warfare, as they crossed the Finisterres. The mountains were so steep in some areas that Australians, New Guineans and Japanese risked falling over the edge of escarpments to their deaths. One such place was Pallier's Hill, which was attacked by the 2/14th Battalion in October 1943. Corporal John 'Bluey' Whitechurch remembered:
We could see [the Japanese] now and opened fire on their heads as they bobbed up above their foxholes … Somebody gave a shrill blood-curdling yell that startled even us, and was partly responsible for some of the enemy running headlong down the ridge in panic. Unable to stop at the edge of the cliff, they plunged to their doom hundreds of feet below.
[Whitechurch quoted in Mark Johnston, The Markham and Ramu Valleys, Canberra, 2005, p.8]
It was hard to get artillery forward, so air support was a vital. One of those flying in close cooperation with the army was Flying Officer Alex Miller-Randle, 4 Squadron RAAF, piloting Boomerang aircraft on tactical reconnaissance sorties and 'leading in' Allied fighter-bombers. He remembered:
Flying up a valley close to treetops was extremely dangerous because it was very difficult to judge the incline, [which was] often greater than the aircraft's maximum rate of climb, so that even with full throttle the plane could not climb out of the valley. Furthermore if the valley sides were … narrowing sharply, it was very easy to misjudge the point where there was enough turning space left. … There were many times when I thought I had misjudged it and came out with heart pounding.
[Alex Miller-Randle quoted in Mark Johnston, The Markham and Ramu Valleys, p.9]
By Christmas 1943, the Australians were nearing the end of the Markham and Ramu Valleys campaign, having reached Shaggy Ridge. This was one of the most imposing of many ridgelines encountered. Once it was captured, the way was clear to the coast. Lieutenant Robert 'Shaggy' Clampett, 2/27th Battalion, wrote of the ridge that was named after him:
There seems to be a bit of talk about old Shaggy Ridge which I must say is a beauty, and he has a few scars on it at the moment from Mortar and Arty [artillery] bombs. It is as steep as hell on both sides and is only flat for a couple of feet on top …
['Shaggy' Clampett quoted in Mark Johnston, The Markham and Ramu Valleys, p.10]
The tracks approaching Shaggy Ridge and climbing up its side were so narrow and steep that the 7th Division's commander, General George Vasey, remarked, only half-jokingly: 'The 7th Division will advance on a one-man front. Anyone disobeying this order will break his bloody neck.'
It took weeks of successive attacks on the Japanese to take Shaggy Ridge. The battalions of the 21st Brigade who had borne most of the fighting, were relieved for a rest and, in late January 1944, the ridge finally fell to men of the 18th Brigade.
The Australians pushed on, gradually making their way down towards the coast to link up with troops fighting their way around the Huon Peninsula's coastline. The 15th Infantry Brigade took over the campaign, pushing on to link up with troops who advanced inland on the Huon Peninsula. By the start of February 1944, the last objectives in this area were taken. It was then left to troops of the 8th and 15th Brigades to push on along the coast.
This was the first time a complete Australian infantry division had been brought into action entirely by air. Major General George Vasey, commander of the 7th Division, modified the original campaign plan by deciding that instead of marching overland through remote and exhausting country to the Markham Valley, the division's main body, the 25th Brigade, would be transported by air from Port Moresby. The old airstrip at Nadzab was prepared in just two days and on 6 September more than forty transport aircraft landed there.
However, disaster struck early on 7 September as the men from the 2/33rd Battalion's 'D' Company sat and waited in trucks at Jackson's airfield for their flights out of Port Moresby to Tsili Tsili and on to Nadzab. A US Liberator bomber taking off from the airfield struck a tree and ploughed into five of the parked trucks. Every man in the parked trucks was killed or injured, many suffering horrific burns. Sixty Australians died and ninety-two were injured. Those who died were buried in Port Moresby (Bomana) War Cemetery.
Despite the tragedy, the surviving officers in the battalion decided to continue on and the 2/33rd Battalion landed in Nadzab that day.