Long green shore
From the last Christmas of the Second World War, until that war ended … the Sixth Australian Infantry Division fought an obscure but at times bitter and bloody campaign along the savage north coast of New Guinea.
[John Hepworth, The Long Green Shore, Sydney, 1995, p.ix]
The Aitape-Wewak campaign was the final Australian military campaign on mainland New Guinea. It ran from November 1944 to the war's end in August 1945. Dubbed a 'forgotten campaign', it was fought by the 6th Division, Australian Imperial Force (AIF) with air and naval support. Like all of the jungle campaigns, it was challenging and casualties mounted steadily from battle and disease.
American forces had bypassed the Japanese 18th Army base at Wewak in early 1944, taking Aitape, developing a base there and repulsing a major Japanese attack. The Americans were content to hold Aitape and not advance far towards Wewak. There was little or no strategic gain to be had in doing so as the Japanese force based at Wewak no longer posed a real threat – cut off, short of supplies, and weakened from battle and diseases.
In mid-1944, General Douglas MacArthur, the American Commander-in-Chief of Allied forces in the South-West Pacific Area, secured an agreement from the Australian government for Australian forces to take over at Aitape. Australian units began arriving in October 1944. After patrols and probes of the enemy's westernmost positions, in December the 6th Division began two parallel advances – one along the coast towards Wewak and the other into the Torricelli Mountains towards the Japanese supply base at Maprik.
One way to learn more about a campaign or battle is to view it through the eyes of a participant. World War II, like most major conflicts, produced classic war literature. The likes of Lawson Glassop's We Were The Rats (Tobruk), Donald Charlwood's No Moon Tonight (Bomber Command) and Betty Jeffrey's White Coolies (Australian nurses in captivity) have been read by successive generations.
Another veteran of the war who turned his service into the basis of a novel was John Hepworth. He wrote The Long Green Shore, based on his experiences as soldier in an infantry battalion in the Aitape-Wewak campaign, shortly after the war but it remained unpublished until 1995, after his death. Sections of the book are quoted here to illustrate the Australians' experience in the campaign.
Hepworth's novel begins with the voyage by troops of the 6th Division to Aitape. One of the novel's central characters, Pez, views the shoreline from their troopship:
At first glance the green bank of palms and jungle growth seemed solid. But as Pez gazed he saw the long palm-leaf buildings take shape under the camouflage of trees … You could pick out ant-swarms of activity where they were loading cases on trucks at the food dumps and the flow of movement in the marshalling yards on the beach … Inland, the hazy, fanged, green mountains piled up into the mist of distance. Thick white cloud lay in the valleys and trailing scarves of it clung on the climbing jungle trees of the mountainside.
The soldiers of the 6th Division were a mix of men who had fought in 'the islands' before in 1942-43, some others who had fought only in the Middle East before that in 1941, and finally reinforcements who had never seen combat in any theatre of war.
For the old soldiers it was another move – there had been plenty like this before, they knew what was coming. But the new men could sense the breath of the unknown and mysterious enemy – the shadows of the long green shore – and violence and death they did not know but had often dreamed about.
Trekking towards outlying enemy positions, they began adapting further to the jungle, learning the sounds of local animals and what saplings were useful for erecting shelters when setting up camp. They also honed the skills of moving and fighting in the jungle.
To become the animal that steps quietly and is sensitive to the flutter of movement or the whisper of alien sound, that can sleep in the rain and suck enough strength from an hour of sun.
While advancing eastward, the troops waited for the first clash with the Japanese. In Hepworth's novel, this occurred while crossing a stream, which was always dangerous when the enemy was in the area, perhaps behind the tree line on the far shore.
It was a solitary machine-gun. The bullets came pattering over the water like recurrent bursts of hail. There was a horrible dream quality about it. You couldn't, in that moment, imagine that these drops falling in the river, skipping like stones, were really deadly.
Several men were killed or wounded in this ambush. As the unit pushed on, more casualties were suffered in successive clashes. The enemy rarely could be seen until opening fire on the Australians. Nerves became frayed as the men tried to anticipate where and when the next action might be.
For days we probe through country where a handful could hold up an army – but never a hostile shot is fired against us. Then, suddenly, we will stumble on a machine-gun nest, or a sniper ...
Other troops, including artillerymen, followed in the rear of the infantry to offer support. Their work often was arduous and sometimes dangerous.
Way back behind us, the Gunners … are bringing up the guns. They tie ropes and chains to the twenty-five pounders [cannons] and drag them along by animal force … straining and groaning inch by inch through the treacherous soft places – cheering and laughing breathlessly as she rumbles slowly but steadily behind them on the good going.
There was also some naval and air support. Sometimes, those on the ground stared skyward watching Australian bombers, transports or light aircraft heading for home – knowing that the airmen would have the luxury of showers, a mess and comfortable beds upon return to base. The only way an infantryman could access these was to be wounded or fall sick and be evacuated.
Sickness caused many men to be evacuated. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes proved the most insidious of enemies, capable of inflicting many more casualties than could the Japanese.
The Atebrin [anti-malaria tablets] hadn't stopped it much, though we took the little yellow tablets faithfully twice a day. Harry Drew went down, Regan followed him. We met the Log one afternoon coming down from the hill – he was shivering violently from cold and the sweat was beaded on his brow. Back he went.
The sick and the wounded were returned to the base hospital at Aitape. Men fighting along the coast could be evacuated in watercraft. In the mountains, some men spent weeks being carried by New Guineans along rough jungle tracks. Some men were fortunate to be flown out in small aircraft.
On the trip down he crouches near the window and with hot, heavy eyes stares at the meaningless drift of jungle and shore that flows beneath him – the long green shore that so painfully and darkly they had fought and marched along. All the weary weeks it had taken them and now it passes in a brief twenty minutes.
As the Australians closed on Wewak, they encountered Indian troops who had been brought to the islands as prisoners of war.
A young man he was, but he looked ancient and bone-thin with the dirty-grey pallor of starvation shining through the Punjab copper of his skin. He had crouched all night in the rain outside the sentry lines and came in half an hour after dawn, waving a piece of cloth and crying: 'Master! Master! Don't shoot – Indian! Indian!
About 3000 Indian prisoners of war captured in Singapore in February 1942 had been shipped to Wewak. Those still alive were emaciated and weak. Most of those the Australians encountered had escaped, seeing reaching Allied lines as their only hope of living. Some died in the attempt.
On 10 May 1945, after an amphibious landing added to the number of troops closing on Wewak, the Japanese base fell. Fighting continued inland around Japanese strongholds until the war's end.
'She's over,' the sig wires said. 'I tell you she's all wrapped up – she's buggerup finish – she's ridge!' But nobody really believed it.
Many of those who took part in this campaign, including Hepworth, considered it unnecessary. They felt it was hard to justify the deaths of more than 440 Australians and the wounding of over 1100 others when, strategically, the campaign made no difference to the outcome of the war.