During the last years of the war with Japan, thousands of Australian men and women served in Australia's largest military campaigns in the islands north of Australia: on the mainland of Papua New Guinea and its islands of Bougainville and New Britain, and in Borneo. Six Australian divisions, supported by the RAAF and the RAN, were in action against the Japanese and most Australians were confident that the Allies would be victorious.
In late 1944, the Australians took over former American bases in northern New Guinea, on Bougainville and on New Britain and the troops were determined to defeat the large numbers of Japanese forces which remained there. The Japanese, despite having been cut off from their supply base at Rabaul, and often having to rely on their own resources for survival, refused to concede defeat and they continued to fight the Australians in long and bloody battles.
In New Guinea, between November 1944 and August 1945 the 6th Division fought in the Aitape-Wewak region. On Bougainville, the Australian 3rd Division, together with troops from the 11th and 13th Brigades, conducted demanding patrols interspersed with some sharp fighting, including the bloody battles at Slater's Knoll in March and April in 1945. Meanwhile, the 5th Division undertook difficult operations on the island of New Britain, pushing the Japanese back towards Rabaul.
In 1945, Australian forces launched three military actions against Japanese-held Borneo: at Tarakan, at Labuan-Brunei Bay and at Balikpapan. These were the biggest and final Australian campaigns of World War II.
Since 1945 there has been much controversy about these final Australian campaigns in which more than 500 Australians died and over 1400 were wounded for little apparent strategic gain.
The Nightingales of New Guinea
The Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service was founded in July 1940. RAAFNS nurses were posted to Medical Receiving Stations (MRS) and other units including hospitals at RAAF bases around Australia. Later during the war they served in receiving stations at Port Morseby, Milne Bay, Madang, Morotai Island and Labuan in Borneo.
In February 1944 the RAAF started intensive training for nurses selected for Medical Air Evacuation Transport Units (MAETU). The women were subjected to tests in altitude physical-fatigue and instructed in water survival skills. The RAAF used Douglas C-47 aircraft for the evacuation flights and RAAFNS sisters were responsible for the loading and positioning of patients in strap-in litters as well as their medical care during the trip. The wounded and sick men were brought back to base hospitals in New Guinea or, if they required special treatment, they were flown to Australia. They also flew prisoners of war home from camps in South-East Asia after the Japanese surrender. Two of the MAETU sisters died in air accidents in New Guinea shortly after World War II.