A soldier’ story
15 May 2020
MELBOURNE - Recently I have been involved in a project with a Papua New Guinean colleague to investigate the service history of some ex-servicemen buried at Port Moresby’s 9 Mile Cemetery.
During the course of this project, the history of one of the names evoked memories of my own father’s service in World War II.
I was fortunate that I had a father who tolerated my obsession with his military service and which began from a very early age.
I read his battalion history book from cover to cover many times, so much so I broke the spine.
Much later, the book triggered serious conversations with him; including that most insightful of young boy's questions, "Dad, did you ever kill anyone?"
His was a measured and positive response.
Part of the reason I went to Papua New Guinea as a kiap was to see the battlefields that my father fought on.
I had the good fortune to be posted to those areas, however the one that probably had the most impact on his life, Gona, I never got to visit, although I came reasonably close on one patrol.
Towards the end of his life, my father asked me to join his Battalion Association and put my name forward for the vacant secretary's position, which I did.
I held that office for eight years and spoke to many heroes. I have also been honorary historian for the Association for the last 20 years. I write the eulogies for delivery at members’ funerals and obituaries for publication in our newsletter.
I have also undertaken some research at the request of Patrick Lindsay for his books and for his television show, In Their Footsteps, as well as research for other authors.
The problem with military history is that it can become an obsession, particularly when one’s own military ambitions come to naught.
To explain my father’s story, I need to briefly explain Army organisation and movement during that period of the war in Papua New Guinea.
During World War II, the overseas Australian Imperial Force (AIF) component of the Australian army had four divisions, numbered 6, 7, 8 and 9.
Amongst other support troops, each division had three infantry brigades. Each brigade had three battalions and each battalion had about 750 troops split into four infantry companies each of 120 men with the remainder in a headquarters company.
This consisted of a number of support platoons including mortar, machinegun, signals, transport, anti-aircraft and anti-tank, pioneer and carrier. The battalion headquarters group had medical and intelligence personnel as well as the command group.
Each battalion had a band of about 50 members. Apart from their role in ceremonial events, the band members were non-combatants who performed medical and stretcher bearing roles when the battalion was in action.
A tragic story relates to the 2/22 Battalion sent to Rabaul to garrison the town against Japanese invasion.
The battalion was raised in Melbourne and the Brunswick Salvation Army Band volunteered to be the battalion's band. Most of the battalion and the band were captured after the Japanese invasion on 23 January 1942.
The captured men lost their lives when the prison ship Montevideo Maru was sunk on its way to Hainan later that year.
When my father transferred his pre-war enlistment from the Citizens Military Force (CMF) to the AIF in 1940, he was posted to 2/14 Battalion which was one of the three battalions in 21 Brigade in the 7th Division.
Because had had a driver's licence he was attached to the carrier platoon as a driver.
Carriers were a tracked vehicle referred to as a universal weapons carrier but more commonly called a bren-gun carrier, as shown in the image at the top of this article.
After service in the Middle-East and the Syrian Campaign, the 2/14 Battalion was the first of the AIF troops to return to Australia and then travel to Port Moresby to relieve the militia troops who had first met the Japanese landing at Buna.
The infantry companies marched overland to Isurava and took over from 39 Battalion during a strong Japanese attack.
On 29 August 1942, Private Bruce Kingsbury of the 2/14th was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross becoming the first to be so on what was then Australian territory.
However, as the various battalions arrived in Port Moresby, it was realised that existing military formations and equipment were largely unworkable for infantry warfare in jungle conditions.
Battalion elements were then detached to form separate groups and only infantry and signals travelled along the Kokoda Track.
The carrier, mortar and machinegun platoons were detached from each battalion to form the 7th Division Carrier Group.
This consisted of about 80 Bren gun carriers each including a three man crew and armed with a Vickers machinegun, a Bren gun, three Thompson sub-machineguns, three rifles, and a two-inch mortar together with bombs, 100 hand grenades and 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
This group formed a mobile fighting force to patrol the coastal perimeter around Port Moresby and became the last line of defence should the Japanese break out of the Owen Stanley Mountains and advance to Moresby.
Its headquarters was at Four Mile (now known as Murray Barracks) but, as Dad told me, its units ranged wide in their patrolling, as far as the Sogeri Plateau.
After pushing the Australians all the way back to the last ridge before Sogeri, and with Port Moresby at their mercy, the Japanese were ordered back to the north coast because the Americans had invaded Guadalcanal and the Japanese Command considered this had become the priority, not Port Moresby.
Also, by this stage, the Japanese were struggling to get supplies for their fighting on the Kokoda Track.
Fresh Australian troops chased the Japanese forces back to the north coast, where they formed strong defensive perimeters around Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
The remnant Australians from the first Kokoda phase were returned to Port Moresby to rest, recuperate and reinforce. But not before one last indignity.
By this stage of the war, Australia’s General Blamey had been ordered to Port Moresby by the overall commander, America’s General MacArthur.
Blamey directed the retiring forces to parade at Koitaki on the Sogeri Plateau and delivered an infamous address to them. He told them “it is not the hunter with the gun that gets shot but the rabbit that runs,” or words to that effect.
The way his words was interpreted by the troops that day was unmistakeable and Blamey had to be hurriedly ushered from the parade dais when the men’s anger became apparent.
Later that day he further compounded the issue in the Officers’ Mess by telling the officers that they had been soundly defeated by an inferior enemy.
The advancing Australians retook Kokoda and approached the entrenched Japanese on the north coast.
An American regiment approaching Buna was put into complete disarray by strong Japanese resistance.
Reinforcements were required and MacArthur offered a fresh US regiment to assist the Australians but Blamey famously declined by saying he would prefer to put his faith in the half-strength 21st Brigade than the US troops.
At this point insufficient reinforcements were coming from Australia and Dad transferred back from the carrier group to the battalion as an infantry corporal.
His brigade was ordered to reinforce the north coast offensive with Gona as its objective and moved to Ward’s Strip ready to be flown to Popondetta.
When Blamey arrived in Port Moresby he had a disagreement with force commander Lt-General Rowell and replaced him with Lt-General Edmund Herring (later chief justice Sir Edmund Herring).
Herring addressed a brigade parade at Ward’s Strip prior to its flight to Popondetta and made the statement, “Soldiers should expect to die!”
Dad told me that, at those words, the men revolted and commenced to “count him off” meaning that if he wasn’t off the parade ground at the count of 10 they would take matters into their own hands.
In fact, Dad said that behind him he heard the sound of a rifle bolt being worked to bring a round into the breech.
When the battalion arrived on the north coast, it was given an objective east of Gona Village. But it was given no time to reconnoitre and assess the enemy strength and positions.
Ordered to attack, the men on either side of Dad were shot and killed from a hidden machinegun post.
Eventually the combined forces took Gona. It was a hellhole frequently described as the worst battlefield anywhere in World War II.
The Japanese had used putrefying dead bodies interspersed with bags of mouldy rice to build defensive ramparts. The stench was unbearable but there was worse to come.
Apart from the Japanese dead, the troops had to recover and bury their own dead. The Pioneer Platoon were the battalion engineers and were not only responsible for preparing defensive positions but also had to dig the graves for the fallen.
It was not uncommon for brothers to serve together in the same unit, so it was here that one brother was killed. The Pioneer brother, named Hec, would not let anyone assist him. He dug the grave and then walked out to recover his brother’s body.
Dad said it was the saddest thing he had ever seen as Hec walked back carrying his brother’s maggot-ridden body and gently placed it in the grave.
One of the officers was severely wounded at Gona and Dad was one of a party that went into a swamp to recover him. Word got back to Australia that this officer, Charlie, had been killed in action. However, he was evacuated to Australia and survived his wounds.
Charlie was a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club and his name was placed on its honour roll for the dead. After the war, every time he went to the MCG, he would get a whisky and toast himself. Dad recounted the story, and I witnessed the aftermath at a battalion reunion one year.
It was at the reunions that Dad and Charlie had a little ritual. Dad would approach him and say, “Charlie, I saved your life at Gona,” and Charlie would reply, “So you did, Bill. Let me buy you a beer,” knowing that drinks were free at the reunion.
Dad suffered from malaria at frequent times in PNG and was evacuated to field hospitals. But he continued to serve with the battalion into the Markham-Ramu Campaign.
Finally, as the unit was moving towards Shaggy Ridge he fell ill one more time and was evacuated to Australia in late 1943. He was medically downgraded and transferred to the Pay Corps in Melbourne where he spent the rest of the war.
But pride is a wonderful and driving emotion. At the end of the war, when he was discharged in 1945, my father was asked what unit he would like shown on his discharge certificate.
Like many soldiers, he replied 2/14 Battalion because it was far better to have a famous battalion on the certificate than an insignificant base unit.
My father died 14 years ago but there’s not a day goes by that a question springs to mind that I would like to ask him it but he’s no longer here to answer it for me.
As I came to know these veterans and to talk with them, my respect grew.
It didn’t matter whether the soldier was a cook at a base unit or a frontline soldier, because they were all the same when they enlisted.
Every man enlisted with the knowledge that he could be posted to a front-line unit where his life could be in danger.
This was further brought home at the annual reunions where the camaraderie was obvious regardless of which part of the battalion in which the person, regardless of their rank or how long they were with the battalion or what medals they were awarded.
To my mind they were all heroes.
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