Jumping into history with the 2/4th Light
25 April 2022
COLONEL ARTHUR BURKE
BRISBANE - ‘Jump, you bastards, jump!’ Ian George (Robbie) Robertson exited badly and plummeted head first downwards.
Then he heard a loud crack and was wrenched upright and upwards. His parachute snapped open and blossomed in the cool air.
For only the second time in his life, this young soldier experienced the exhilaration of floating above the earth.
For several minutes, it was difficult to believe he was in the middle of a war.
“And this is my first time into action,” he mused.
Gunner Robbie Robertson (VX 50978) had just jumped into history -- one of 31 young Australian artillerymen who parachuted with two artillery pieces into New Guinea’s Nadzab airstrip in support of the 503rd US Parachute Infantry Regiment’s advance to secure the landing ground to support the Allied advance eastwards to capture Lae.
But this was no time to be daydreaming. Two hundred meters was not that high and now the ground was rushing up to greet the young paragunner.
Stop any oscillation, grab the shrouds and turn into the wind, feet together, knees slightly bent and –‘Oh, what the hell were the other two steps?’ he muttered.
Then he was down, rolling, smacking the release buckle and lying still - it was over. He leapt to his feet and was guided through head-high kunai grass by Lieutenant Pearson’s voice on the megaphone.
Johnnie Pearson gathered his flock around a cane pannier from which they drew their weapons then allocated search arcs to find the pieces of the guns and other equipment.
Only Gunner Lidgerwood had been injured in the drop, unfortunately landing in a tree and hurting his shoulder.
Sixty years ago this was the Markham Valley on Sunday, 5 September 1943.
At 10.15 am, six squadrons of US Mitchell B–25 strafers led an armada of 302 aircraft.
Each aircraft’s eight .50–calibre machine guns swept the carpet of kunai grass ahead of their bays disgorging 60 fragmentation bombs.
Six A–20s then obscured the scene with smoke and at 600 metres 96 voices screamed, “Stand up! Lock up! Check your equipment! Stand in the door… jump!”
The C–47 transports (better known postwar as DC3s) spawned three battalions of US ‘Sky Soldiers’.
On each side of the columns of C–47s and about 300 meters feet above, fighters hugged their protégés whilst brother aircraft at 2,000 meters provided an interim umbrella below the top cover boys up in the sun, staggered from 4,500 to 6,000 meters.
The securing force had been launched for the 7th Australian Division’s air landing.
Sergeant Wally Murnane and his detachment were the first to find a complete set of gun parts.
Their squat little baby 25-pounder Short was quickly assembled and brought into action.
“Hit the ground!” somebody screamed as an ammunition box that had broken loose from its parachute load hurtled over their heads and crashed into the grass nearby.
It was 3.15 pm and two Fortresses were delivering 192 rounds to fuel the hungry guns.
It was hard to believe that less than a month ago, Lieutenant Pearson had approached Gunner Robertson, his friend from the reinforcement ship that had taken them both to join the 2/4th Field Regiment AIF in the Middle East in September 1941.
“Robbie,” he confided, “There’s a delicate mission coming off… I can’t tell you about it, but would you like to volunteer?”
The duo had arrived in Syria too late to see action. The months of waiting on the Brisbane Line when their unit had been recalled to Australia had whetted their appetites for their slice of the war.
Robbie was a good signaller and visions of a submarine drop behind enemy lines began running through his mind. “OK!” he said, “Count me in.”
Back at Nadzab strip, a new challenge faced the 2/4th’s Light Section - fire.
The Americans, desiring to enlarge the airstrip quickly, had chosen to burn the kunai grass rather than cut it by hand.
Fanned by the breeze, this was soon out of control and only the bushmanship of some of the Gunners saved their position from being destroyed.
In truth, the Gunners were quite disappointed that the landing had been unopposed by the Japanese and their Shorts had not been called in to support.
In response to General Thomas Blamey’s 30 July 1943 instruction for the capture of Lae–Nadzab, Lieutenant General Edmund Herring, commander of New Guinea Force, ordered the 9th Division to capture Lae from an amphibious landing east of Lae whilst the 7th Division was to establish itself in the Markham Valley west of Lae by an overland and airborne operation.
The 503rd US Parachute Infantry Regiment was to secure Nadzab for the 7th Division’s 25th Brigade to air land then advance east to Lae.
On 8 August 1943, the commanding officer of the 2/4th Field Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Alan Blyth was ordered to support 25th Brigade.
He approached Major General George Vasey commanding 7 Division and proposed parachuting a two–gun section of the new 25 Pounder Shorts to support the 503rd Regiment. Since the Americans did not have any guns suitable for para-drops, Vasey agreed.
That first night all the para-gunners gathered around Murnane’s gun and stores. (The second gun’s parts had been scattered about a mile away and it was not until the second day that Sergeant Jimmy Thompson and his crew brought it into action.)
Robertson describes their utter exhaustion by nightfall and how they “slept like the dead in silken parachutes” after enjoying the luxury of American rations that night.
Early next morning Robbie and Lieutenant Frank Ross joined a forward US company and they moved into the hills to Gabsonkek as a blocking force against attack from the north.
“We only fired two gun rounds at a Japanese pill box,” Ian recalled.
Lieutenant Frank Faulkner and a signaller joined the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion protecting the southern flank.
When Robertson reported to his battery headquarters as directed by Lieutenant Pearson, he was part of a group “coming from all directions… even two of the blokes from my own tent were there, but none of us had disclosed our secret orders,” Robbie recalled.
The Commanding Officer had selected four lieutenants (Johnnie Pearson, Frank Ross, Frank Faulkner and ‘Puck’ Evans) and invited them to choose about ten “good all round men” from each of their batteries.
Then began a week of tough physical training - forced marches, running along the beach, climbing ropes, tumbling.
Next the men were told to parade with their gear and were spirited off in trucks.
Only as they entered the lines of the 503rd US Parachute Infantry Regiment did they begin to realise what might be in store for them.
Ross and Robertson’s company north of Nadzab began patrolling.
Captain Don Moorhouse had arrived overland with the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion and supplies of signal cable.
Robbie was flat out laying miles of line back to the guns when a cheerful officer walking by made a remark to him about Short 25 Pounders.
Ian looked straight up into the eyes of the 7 Division commander. General George Vasey told him he was “doing a good job”, encouraged him to “keep it up” and then wandered off along the track, completely alone.
When Lieutenant Pearson reported to Colonel Kinsella, commander of the 503rd Regiment, the latter was amazed that the Gunners did not know their mission.
He insisted on addressing them and offered an ‘out’ for anyone to withdraw. “Not one man took a pace out of the ranks,” Robbie recalls proudly.
Twenty-four hours of hard training later, 33 would-be para-gunners made their first jump from 360 meters at the 30-mile airstrip outside Port Moresby.
“An horrendous feeling” crept over Gunner Robertson and he “had to pluck up his utmost of courage” as he moved into the doorway in acknowledgement of ‘Stand in the door!’ yelled by the jumpmaster.
The battery commander and observer parties from 54th Battery and E Troop guns arrived on 8 September and 25th Brigade stepped off for Lae.
The Light Section of para-gunners did not take part in this advance but remained in support of 503rd Regiment who continued to maintain a secure perimeter around Nadzab as it built up into a major base. Lae fell to the 7th Division on 16 September 1943.
Three men, including Lieutenant Evans were injured in the one and only practice jump at the Port Moresby Airfield.
Lieutenant Alan Clayton volunteered to replace Evans and jump straight into action with the other 30 ‘experienced’ para-gunners.
Their journey to the intermediate Tsili Tsili airstrip on ‘Z’ Day was uneventful. Their frustration mounted during a two–hour wait for a call forward which did not eventuate until the 2IC of the 503rd landed in his light aircraft and said, “What are you doing still here? -- GO!”
The Douglas transports roared into life and during the ten–minute hop to Nadzab climbed to 180 meters.
The red light came on above the jumpmaster. “Stand up! Lock up! Check your equipment! Stand in the door!”
The light went green…. “Jump, you bastards, jump!”
Retired Colonel Arthur Burke was Honorary Historian of the 4th Field Regiment RAA. He dedicated this article to the four officers and 27 soldiers who were the first Australian Gunners to parachute into action in the South-West Pacific theatre of World War II on 5 September 1943
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