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Diggers look back on New Britain WW2 ordeal

BY ELISE SNASHALL-WOODHAMS

Norm Furness & Sam BlabySURVIVING A WORLD WAR, a POW massacre, repeated bombing and three months of jungle life is no mean feat.

That’s exactly what members of the 2/22 battalion faced when they were shipped to Papua New Guinea during World War II.

Norm Furness and Sam Blaby [pictured] are two of four remaining survivors of what they label a “bugger-up” of military proportions.

The men were among 1,400 soldiers sent by the Australian Army to Rabaul in 1941.

When the Japanese invaded the New Guinea Islands in 1942 the 2/22 battalion was among the first to engage with the enemy.

Both men said the assault from the Japanese was extraordinary, first from the air, then on land.

The Australians were under-equipped, using antique equipment from World War I.

“They blew our good guns to pieces in 20 minutes,” Sam said. “Australia sent training aircraft up as fighter planes, but the first time the Japanese flew over they blasted them out of the sky.”

When the Japanese forces landed there were 10 Japanese soldiers to every Australian. The allied forces quickly realised the situation was hopeless. Norm and Sam had no other choice but to retreat deep into the jungle if they wanted to survive.

“The order was given, every man for himself, and that’s what you had to do,” Norm said. “You would eat anything that crawled; rats were great, almost as good as chicken.

“It was three months of jungle food. I was 12 stone six when the Japanese landed; when I left the island I was nine stone.”

For those that chose to surrender to the Japanese, their fate was even worse. More than 100 men were massacred by the Japanese after they gave themselves up.

The rest were put on the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru which, days into its voyage, was sunk by the Americans.

More than 1,000 Australians were killed, the nation’s biggest loss of life in a single action. Of the 1,400 soldiers that had landed on the island three months earlier, only 300 made it back to Australia alive.

When Norm landed in Cairns on 28 March 1942, he said the feeling was “marvellous”.

Source: Bendigo Advertiser, 11 November

Comments

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Peter Ball

Cpl Ken Ball A Company 29th/46th Australian Infantry Battalion remembers New Britain well and the Tol Plantation , not enough space to describe the rest of his experience on the Island New Britain

Tamsin Claypole

I think my grandfather Stanley Woodham may have been involved, does his name ring a bell with anyone?

Juanita Hansford

My grandfather Stanley Charles Howard was a soldier in the 2/22 Battalion and I am eager to hear anything of him.

Ross Wilkinson

53 and 55 Battalions were separate CMF units based in Port Moresby before the Kokoda Campaign. 53 Bn was formed in Sydney in October 1941 and sent to Port Moresby without telling the men where they were going. They thought that they were being sent to Darwin.

The unit was given home leave before embarkation and over 100 men failed to return or went “awol” (absent without leave) requiring the immediate transfer of untrained replacements from the recruit depots. This was to have a significant effect on the morale of the unit and its battle performance on the Kokoda Track.

After arrival in Port Moresby and before the Japanese landed on the North coast, the various CMF battalions were not able to undertake any battle training as they were utilised in a range of manual labour tasks around Port Moresby such as unloading ships, building and maintaining roads and preparing defensive positions and laying barbed wire entanglements.

The battalion was sent up the Kokoda Track to assist the 39 Bn after the initial Japanese landings at Buna and Gona. After several setbacks 39 Bn established a defensive position on the Track at Isurava which it held for two weeks before a major Japanese attack.

The AIF had arrived and two battalions, 2/14 and 2/16, were sent up to relieve 39Bn. 53 Bn was included in this group. The force arrived in the middle of a major attack and were outnumbered by about 5:1.

53 Bn was tasked to outflank the Japanese through the Abuari-Missima area but were unable to operate effectively or with the necessary vigour required in battle.

Its commanding officer, Lt-Colonel Ward was killed in an ambush going forward to an area he believed that the battalion had secured.

So poor was its performance that it was finally ordered out of battle and to return to Port Moresby. As a result it was then always referred to as “that mob!”

This became the title of the Battalion History written by Frank Budden in 1973. Whilst I do not recall reading of any order "Every man for himself" this is where it most likely would have occurred.

The battalion was amalgamated with 55 Battalion and went back into action as the 55/53 Battalion for the North coast battles of Buna/Gona/Sanananda where it performed very creditably whilst suffering heavy casualties.

It then returned to Australia to the North Queensland area to rest, rebuild and train. It undertook garrison duties there for two years until it was sent to Bougainville and again performed well against the Japanese until peace was declared.

In September 1945 it was sent to Rabaul as a garrison/peacekeeping force until January 1946 when it returned to Australia and was disbanded.

June Young

I have been trying to find info re the 55/53 Battalion I believe was in New Britain.

After reading the article, Every Man for Himself, I believe this is what was told to the men by officers and after returning to Australia there was to be an enquiry and court martial.

The building where details were kept was burnt down before the full enquiry took place in Sydney. Can you enlighten me re this please.
____________

It was the 2/22nd Battalion that was deployed to Rabaul in 1941. After the Japanese invasion, some troops made it back to Australia but most died either on the Montevideo Maru prison ship or in two separate massacres in New Britain.

There was an inquiry held during the war and no officers were found to be culpable although questions remain about the inadequate strength of the defending force and their preparedness to engage in jungle warfare - KJ

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