The Bulldog Track: A grandson’s story of an ordinary man’s war and survival on the other Kokoda trail by Peter Phelps, Hatchette Australia, 2018, 276 pages. My copy from Kmart for $A15
TUMBY BAY - When Bertie Heath flew his Junkers G31 transport plane from Port Moresby to Bulolo on 21 January 1942 he was tailed by three Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes scrambled from Madang.
As Bertie made an uncomfortable landing at Bulolo the three fighters peeled off and continued up the river to Wau in the next valley.
A short while later they returned to Bulolo, joined by two more fighters and two Aichi D3A bombers from the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku lying off Salamaua.
Together these aeroplanes began a clinical destruction of Bulolo. It took them just 15 minutes.
Over the next few days the Bulolo miners were organised into units of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, rechristened as Kanga Force.
Expecting the arrival of Japanese airborne troops at any moment, the men set about systematically destroying any remaining infrastructure that could be useful to the Japanese invaders.
While this was happening there was a problem about what to do with the 230 miners too old or unfit for military service. Among them was the author’s grandfather, Tom Phelps, aged 45 and with a crook leg.
The plan involved these miners walking the 30 kilometres from Bulolo to Wau where they could board aeroplanes for evacuation. Unfortunately, when the men got to Wau, it had also been bombed and the airfield damaged and aircraft destroyed. There would be no escape by air.
The only option now for these men was to walk south towards the Papuan coast.
They set off in small groups, Tom Phelps being in the first batch to leave accompanied by carriers, including Tom’s highland friend, Una Beel.
The military also had it in mind that the old trade track the men took might also be a useful supply route for Kanga Force based in Wau to harass the Japanese on the coast.
The walk south over extremely rugged terrain was largely uneventful. The men had an uneasy contact with the aggressive ‘Kukukuku’ people at one point but nothing came of it.
When they reached the old mining settlement at Bulldog on the Lakekamu River they built rafts and floated downstream, eventually meeting canoes sent for them by the Catholic missionaries at Terapo.
From there they travelled to the coast and trekked east 100 kilometres along the black sand beach until they were opposite Yule Island. It was there that Una Beel and the other carriers said goodbye.
The miners were taken to Yule Island by lakatoi and spent a few weeks there before being picked up and put aboard the MV Malaita for the trip to Australia.
Tom Phelps recorded his Bulldog Track experiences in indelible pencil on the pith helmet he wore. He also made a rough map on greaseproof paper. It is these inscriptions that his grandson, Peter, used to reconstruct Tom’s experience.
The Bulldog Track did prove to be a viable supple route for Kanga Force as it made its deadly raids on Japanese coastal positions.
The supplies were originally carried by boat and then on foot. Because of the difficult terrain and high altitudes, the carriers on this supply line had much harder going than the carriers on the Kokoda Trail.
However, in an unparalleled feat of engineering, a vehicle road was cut from the river port at Bulldog 114 kilometres through to the Wau Valley. Over this road, three-ton trucks transported vital supplies to the fighting forces at Wau.
There was none of the fierce fighting along the Bulldog Track that characterised Kokoda to the east, but according to soldier and writer Peter Ryan, who walked the track, it was “longer, higher, steeper, wetter, colder and rougher than Kokoda”.
Peter Phelps tells two parallel stories in this book. The first is about his grandfather Tom and the second is about his family and especially his father, George, who remained at home not knowing what had happened to the men from Bulolo and Wau.
Peter spent a couple of years as a young boy in Port Moresby with his family in the late 1960s.
Because there was no fighting along the Bulldog Track and because the only other source of potential aggression from the ‘Kukukuku’ people was subdued, the drama in Tom’s story is not great. Hard as it may have been, slogging through the mud, cold and rain tends not to lend itself to great spectacle.
To balance this out the author has interspersed the narrative with scenes from the home front and the anxiety his family was experiencing.
While I can see the author’s intent of combining his grandfather and father’s accounts, this method of creating suspense in the narrative tends to be a bit overplayed and ultimately becomes distracting.
It’s almost as if more detail has been extracted from the home front because the detail on the trek was necessarily thin.
Perhaps a broader historical context would have been more useful, especially the design and construction of what became the Bulldog Road.
You can trek the Bulldog Track nowadays, although there’s a kink in the middle around some mining operations at Hidden Valley. If you are really enthusiastic you can also add the Black Cat Track from Wau to Salamaua.
The author, who is an Australian actor, has done a good job given what he has had to work with but just for the record there’s no Eli Beach in Port Moresby, it’s Ela Beach.
There are some interesting photographs but a map would be a useful addition to any reprint.