| With gratitude to Graham King
"Nogat masta,” the guide whispered, “Emi goomie bot!” “Him he what?” I asked, seeing little cause for excitement. But Townsend grabbed my arm excitedly. “It’s a submarine,” he said tensely." (Microsoft Bing Image Creator)
Part 3: JUNGLE RADIO
SOMEWHERE IN NEW BRITAIN, 1943-44 - In another moment we had beached the canoe on a sandbar. I stepped out and faced the first white man I’d seen in five months.
He quickly came forward and introduced himself as Captain Ian Skinner of the Australia Imperial Force. He wore short khaki pants and knee length stockings and carried a carbine over his shoulder.
He directed the natives to build a fire, asked me I’d like a spot of tea and offered me a cigarette.
While we were having our tea and biscuits, I bombarded him with questions. What was his mission on the island? Did he think I could be rescued? How was the battle for New Guinea going?
An American submarine had landed him on the island to establish a coast-watching station and to radio information about the Japs back to Port Moresby.
The other two members of his party, John Stokie and Matt Foley, were back in the hills, setting up a watch post to spot enemy airplanes as they took off from Rabaul to bomb the allied bases on New Guinea.
He told me he and his two comrades had walked across the island in ten days and were just about out of food, though a supply drop by parachute was expected any day.
The plane was also supposed to drop a larger and more powerful radio transmitter than the portable set they had brought with them.
When I asked him again about my chances for being rescued, he smiled and promised to send a signal back to headquarters as soon as the radio was set up. But he said, with apologies, that any attempt to evacuate me immediately would jeopardize the position of his party.
I said I understood and then told him that, having been an amateur radio operator in peacetime, I’d be glad to lend him a hand operating the transmitter. He was very pleased with this information, for Matt Foley was the only signalman in the party.
As a matter of fact he thought it might be wise to set up a second station right here on the beach. Then I could stay here and relay information about barge traffic to the main station back in the hills, which, in turn, would send it on to Port Moresby. It all sounded good to me.
The next day Skinner set out from the beach to the station in the hills to get the portable radio set and some provisions. Since I was still too ill to travel fast, it was decided I should remain on the beach.
Before leaving, Skinner gave me some extra ammunition and a medicine kit with a good supply of quinine to suppress any malaria chills.
On the day he was scheduled to return, I paddled up the river a little way with Gabu and two other natives to meet him.
The afternoon faded away into twilight and no sign of him. I began to fear that his party had been overtaken by a Jap patrol when I remembered the extreme caution that Skinner had said he used in the jungle.
He always sent one native ahead of the main body. The native carried a spear and pretended to be hunting pigs in the event he met any suspicious people.
If he met any Japs, he shouted something in his native tongue which the Japs couldn’t understand, and thus signalled the danger to Skinner and the party in the rear.
Just as we had given up hope of seeing Skinner that night and were turning around to go back, we heard a strange whistle and one of Skinner’s native boys appeared on the trail. He said the others were close behind him bringing some cargo.
Skinner, he said, had stayed behind but had sent a note saying he would come as soon as he and his comrades received the first parachute drop. Bad weather yesterday had grounded the plane that was to supply them.
By the time the rest of the carriers had arrived and the cargo was loaded into the canoe, it was pitch dark. But we made the trip back to the beach without incident, unloading the cargo quickly and stowing it in the chief’s hut.
On opening the packages, I found a new uniform, some woollen socks, and a much need pair of shoes. The pants of the uniform were size 40 and were large enough for me and several of the natives together. But I kept them on and let the natives laugh.
In the food boxes were several cases of condensed milk, cheese, honey, corned beef, tomato juice, sandwich spread and a tin of plum pudding. There were also cigarettes, plenty of soap and shaving equipment, and a kerosene storm lamp. I went to sleep that night feeling that Santa Claus had just visited me.
After an early breakfast, the next morning we moved the cargo to a hut on the outskirts of the village.
The new location was on the edge of a bluff overlooking the river and could be reached only by wading. There were no trails to give away the hideout, and the jungle around the lean-to was thick enough to swallow a man ten paces away from the door.
In a few minutes the natives had constructed another lean-to several paces behind the original one. It was to serve as a cookhouse and living quarters for the natives.
My first meal in my new home was quite a contrast to the snails I had enjoyed in my first lean-to. ‘Cook-boy’ Gabu danced like a chef at the Waldorf when he saw all the different things he had to cook with.
And he had a right to dance like a chef. Except for an overdose of curry powder, his stew made from dehydrated vegetables and wild pig was excellent.
Apparently Gabu had learned to cook from the Australians who use curry powder as Americans do catsup and it was some time before I could convince him that ‘Master belong America’ did not like his dishes so spicy.
After lunch I went to the creek, found a quiet pool, and sat down to give myself a scrubbing with real soap. The first one in five months! When I had finished digging the dirt out of my pores my body seemed pounds lighter.
I had my first real shave in five months with a sharp blade and soapy lather. Then I dressed in the clothes that Skinner had sent me. Baggy as they were, they made me feel like a colour ad and I strutted proudly down to the village.
One morning Quali brought news that all ‘kanaka’ without exception were to assemble at a place called Buteolo to meet ‘number one Jap officer’. Evidently the Japs were worried about the natives giving out information to the Allies in the event of an invasion.
Lauo, the chief, afraid to put in a personal appearance for fear the Japs would torture him into informing on our coastal watching party, sent Gabu to the meeting with the message that he couldn’t come himself because of foot sores.
When Gabu returned a few days later, he said that the chief’s absence had made the Japs suspicious and that they were sending a patrol to the village to investigate. I scribbled a message to Skinner, informing him of the situation, and dispatched a runner.
Four days later Skinner appeared in camp, leading a line of natives carrying several boxes of supplies. He told me that the supply plane had dropped some chutes the other night, one of them holding a box which my squadron had sent me.
I rushed to open it, finding another uniform (only three sizes too large this time), a pair of GI shoes, two bottles of brandy (an attached note said quite plainly ‘for medicinal purposes only’), a carbine still covered with packing grease, and a copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron.
After unpacking my own things, I helped Skinner to get the portable radio set out of its box and operating. It had been set up only five minutes when a message from the Port Moresby Headquarters came through.
Skinner appeared very nervous and excited as he decoded it, and when he passed it over to me, I learned that the Moresby Intelligence had word that the Jap patrols were searching for us. The message further warned us to pack up and move inland until the danger subsided.
Immediately, we held a short conference with the chief. It was decided to transfer all of our equipment to a spot back in the marshes.
Loading a canoe as rapidly as possible, we left the beach, as we later learned less than an hour before a Jap patrol entered the village looking for us. But by that time we were safely in the Bayou country, the thickest most impenetrable jungle I’d ever seen.
Huge roots of sago palms stuck out of the water like octopus tentacles. When the canoe passed close to shore, vines and branches swiped our faces, covering us with cobwebs. Occasionally, a crocodile would glide off his resting place on the bank and come to investigate us. The mosquitoes were so thick it was impossible to brush them away.
About midnight, the paddlers guided the canoe up to a steep bank and unloaded the equipment. While some of the natives climbed tall trees to watch for patrols, the rest of us set up the portable radio and called headquarters at Moresby.
When we told them our position, they sent word to move further inland and urged us to be extremely cautious, for our watching station, if successful, would aid the Allied impending operations greatly.
We broke camp early next morning and travelled quickly by canoe for several hours until we reached a spot where the rapids made further journey by water impossible. We would have to go the rest of the way by foot.
The natives set a fast pace and, because I’d wrenched my knee when I slipped on a single log bridge, it was impossible for me to keep up with them. But I trailed along behind as best as I could, falling down on the slippery trail a thousand times and trying to forget the sharp pains in my leg.
Once when crossing the river at a particularly wide spot, we had to cut poles and form a long handrail to keep from being swept downstream in the waist-deep current. Many times the trail led through patches of knife-edged kunai grass, and along the ridge tops the hot rays of the noon sun turned the jungle into a devil’s steam bath.
When we reached our destination late that afternoon, I was completely exhausted and numb from the pain in my leg. But I felt better immediately when two white men and a cluster of natives came down the trail to meet us.
The white men introduced themselves as Lieutenant John Stokie and Corporal Matt Foley. By strange coincidence Stokie turned out to be the writer of the note that the native chief had carried when they found me.
He explained that, as the peacetime superintendent of a coconut plantation, he knew the natives and the country well, and had stayed behind when the Australians had evacuated Rabaul at the beginning of hostilities.
He had rescued the crew of a B-26 and escaped with them from the island in a Catalina flying boat. Then he had returned with Skinner and Foley to set up the aircraft spotting system.
The spotting station was located at one end of a high ridge overlooking the valleys of dense jungle below.
To the north lay the placid blue water of Open Bay where powerful field glasses could detect any Jap shipping en route from Rabaul to Cape Gloucester. Enemy airplanes on their way from Rabaul to Allied installations in New Guinea had to pass almost directly overhead.
At night we could see the searchlights across the sky as our own bombers unloaded over Rabaul. Sometimes we’d hear a B-24 overhead on the return trip to Port Moresby and watch the tracers squirt out from the trail gun as Jap night fighters tried to intercept it.
The main hut at the camp housed the wireless set and provided living accommodations for us. The roof covered with bundles of kunai grass, rotted quickly under the daily rains and had to be recovered almost constantly with fresh grass.
Nearby two bamboo-covered lean-tos served as ‘house belong wash’ and ‘house cook’. Shower baths were provided by a leaky bucket held by one of the native boys. But because water had to be carried from a spring half a mile away, we could permit ourselves only two showers a week.
After supper Matt showed me the wireless set and explained its operation. Transmission could be made either in voice or in code. A tiny gasoline generator supplied power for the batteries.
That night we tuned in on short wave and I felt a tingling sensation along my spine when orchestra music from a nightclub in San Francisco came back along the airwaves and reached me here in New Britain.
As Matt and I were working on the radio the next morning, a line of strange natives coming up the trail brought an alarm in camp and sent Skinner out to meet them. The visitors, who luckily turned out to be members of a friendly tribe, brought news of two Royal Australian Air Force men who were hiding with a tribe on the south coast.
They had lost their plane through Jap ack-ack but so far had managed to evade capture. The spokesman for the natives said that he didn’t know how long the airmen would be safe because the Japs, knowing they were on the island somewhere, were threatening the natives with torture unless they gave up the airmen.
Skinner packed a few things immediately and left early the next morning for the south coast, accompanied by two of his own natives and the visitors.
The next day a message was received from Moresby, saying that a supply drop would be attempted that night, weather permitting. We sent the natives out to gather dry wood for the signal fires and made the other preliminary preparations ourselves.
Shortly before midnight we followed a guide through the jungle to a nearby garden where the drop was scheduled to take place. The fires were arranged in a triangle with the apex pointing north. Then we stepped back in the bush and waited.
At five before twelve we heard the tell-tale drone of a twin-engine Catalina flying boat. I dumped a small tin of kerosene on one of the fires, and hastily stepped back. The sound of the plane soon broke into a roar and the ship sailed over us, tiny blue flames leaping from the exhaust stacks.
An Aldis Lamp blinked a recognition signal, and Matt answered in Morse Code with his flashlight. The plane then made a wide sweeping turn and headed back for us, flying dangerously slow for such a lumbering old crate on such hilly terrain.
While I was shaking my head at the cold-blooded nerve of the pilot, a small dark box came hurtling out of one of the side blisters of the plane, disappearing in the darkness for a moment, then reappeared again dangling from the shroud lines of a parachute. One of the natives let out a whoop and dashed for the spot where he thought it would land.
In the space of a few more minutes three more runs were made by the Catalina and thirteen parachutes were dropped.
We accounted for all except two, which had been carried beyond the area by a gust of wind. It would be impossible to find them until morning, so we quickly gathered the others while the natives worked feverishly to destroy any evidence of the operations.
By the sunrise, if a Jap patrol wandered into the clearing, it would find nothing but an old native slowly working his garden.
We were busy all the next morning unpacking the boxes. As we sorted out the packages, I found one from my squadron mates. There was a camera, a case of beans and a bottle of gin (no attached message of irony this time).
But best of all was some personal mail. I was flabbergasted; here I was two hundred miles behind enemy lines reading a letter from my mother saying that the War Department had sent her news that my return to military control had been reported.
Then there was some correspondence from Time magazine imploring me to take advantage of a new special subscription rate for servicemen since my subscription had expired. It advised me to slip the enclosed card in the nearest mailbox and it would take care of the rest.
The next morning the sound of approaching planes interrupted our breakfast. We identified the planes as Jap dive bombers, counting about eighty in all. We estimated their speed and course and flashed the news to headquarters in Moresby.
About three hours later we heard them returning. It was a wonderful sight. They appeared singly, by pairs, in no formation at all; most of them limping like wounded ducks.
One straggler puttering along with a knocking engine suddenly dropped its nose, plummeted out of control, and crashed in flames on the other side of the valley.
Altogether less than twenty of the original eighty planes were accounted for. Evidently our flash to Moresby had given our interceptors just the break they needed to send the Japs to hell.
A few days later Skinner appeared in camp bringing the two RAAF airmen from the south coast, Wing Commander Townsend and his gunner, Dave McClymont.
They told us they had been on a raid at Palmalmal in a Boston A-20 when some lucky ack-ack [anti-aircraft gunfire] knocked out their fuel system and forced them down over the water a few miles from a Jap garrison down the coast.
They got to shore in a rubber dinghy just a few minutes before a Jap patrol arrived on the beach. They took to the bush and after wandering about for about ten days were picked up by some friendly natives who hid them until they could get the news to Captain Skinner.
On Christmas Day we got the news that our forces had landed at Cape Gloucester. A few minutes later a huge flight of Jap dive bombers escorted by about forty Zeros passed overhead bound for Cape Gloucester.
We radioed the information immediately to Moresby and then short-waved to the American fighter control center where we could hear the loudspeakers warn the P-38 pilots of approaching Japs.
Then, tuning in to the American fighter beam lengths, we could hear their jubilant shouts as they spotted the Japs. We kept track of the progress by marking up a score every time one of our boys knocked a Nip out of the sky.
A few days later we got word that another Jap patrol was out searching for us. Apparently, the Japs were getting tired of sneaking in with their planes over American targets and finding that someone had tipped off the American interceptors.
One of the natives told us that three pinnaces of Japs had landed at Ulamona, about eight miles from our station. Inasmuch as it was only a question of a few days before they would stumble on our campsite, the two Australian fliers and myself started out with some guides and some supplies to find a new and safer hideout.
Skinner was to remain behind and send us runners occasionally with messages about the proximity of the Jap patrol. We set out with a heavy rain beating on our backs but, though travelling was difficult, we had the consolation of knowing that the rain would wash away our tracks and slow up any Jap patrols which might be in the vicinity.
We spent the first night shivering under a leaky tent; the wood was too wet to burn, and smoke would give away our position anyway. The next morning the rain had stopped but the jungle was so impenetrable we had to crawl on our hands and knees.
However, in a few hours we slid down a two-hundred-foot drop and discovered a perfect spot to pitch camp. We immediately put ourselves to work, cleaning rust from the guns, setting up booby traps with hand grenades, and stationing guards in strategic positions. When we had finished, we felt secure and got our first good sleep in several days.
A full week went by before we got our first message from Skinner, back at the aircraft spotting station. The message said the Japs had reached a spot about a mile below him but were afraid to cross the rain-swollen river and had turned back to the beach.
We were congratulating ourselves when another runner appeared with the information that one of the other coastal watching stations near Gasmata had been captured by the Japs.
One of the natives had turned traitor and directed a Jap patrol straight to the Allied hideout.
I looked at the natives standing around us and searched their faces for a tell-tale Judas look. But they were all smiling blankly, and I gave up my scrutiny. Good or bad, we depended on the natives for our survival in the jungle.
We were three days returning to the aircraft spotting station and when we arrived I was so exhausted I had one of my malaria attacks. That was soon over but was replaced by a sudden siege of dysentery. It left me too weak to eat.
I found a box of sulfa-gunandine, supposedly the remedy, but could find no directions for taking it. So I radioed Moresby for instructions. In a few minutes the reply came back – ‘Fourteen pills for the first dose’. I looked at the huge pills and shook my head. I sent back a query.
Once more the answer came – ‘Fourteen pills for the first dose’. I shrugged my shoulders, put my faith in radio and lady luck, and swallowed fourteen pills. The radio was right.
One morning, when I was back on my feet again and standing the early radio watch, I heard the Milne Bay station calling us: BAKER, FOX, CHARLIE FROM WILLIAM, GEORGE, KING.
Snapping on the transmitter switch I sent back an acknowledgement that we were ready to receive.
A twenty-three-word message came whistling over the speaker in dots and dashes. When I had finished taking down the code, Stokie sat down to help me decode it. Letter by letter the words began to form: ‘AIR…ME…N……N…CA…N…BE…E…VACU…A…TE…D’.
I didn’t wait to hear the rest of the message. I walked to the door of the hut and stood leaning on its frame. The tears were rolling down my cheeks.
Stokie came out a few minutes later with Dave McClymont and handed me the rest of the message: ‘AIRMEN CAN BE EVACUATED IF THEY CAN REACH MORH OF KORININDI RIVER BY FOUR FEBRUARY OTHERWISE TO REMAIN AT PRESENT BASE GOOD LUCK’.
I had no idea where the Korinindi River was, but I felt pretty certain that one person at least would be by it by February 4th. Today was 30th January, leaving five days travelling time if we started the next morning. I began at once to get ready.
Stokie brought out the maps and we searched for the Korinindi. We couldn’t find it. Perhaps we had made an error decoding the original message. We checked and rechecked the code and the message. But each time we got the answer KORININDI.
Then Stokie questioned the natives asking them if they knew any such river. But always the same answer, ‘Me no savee dispella water, Master Stokie’. Finally, we decided to call Milne Bay and get the latitude and longitude.
The reply came back – ‘FOUR DEGREES FIFTY MINUTES SOUTH…ONE FIVE ONE DEGREES FORTY MINUTES EAST’. We grabbed the maps again and I ran my fingers along the coordinates. My finger stopped in the middle of the ocean.
I began pacing the floor. But Stokie and McClymont turned on the radio again and began calling Moresby. In a few minutes came the word that our map was out of date. “Could they drop us another?” Matt queried. “Yes,” came the answer. We could expect a plane at dawn with the usual signals.
Early the next morning we scrambled down to the drop site. We waited for what seemed hours and then heard the distant sounds of an approaching airplane. But it was coming from the direction of Rabaul and it might be a Zero on a morning patrol.
What to do? Should we put out the signal fires and take a chance on getting them started again? Or should we let the fires blaze away and cross our fingers and pray that the approaching plane wasn’t a Zero?
The steady cadence of the closely synchronised engines echoed across the hills, coming closer and closer. “Sounds like one of ours,” Stokie whispered.
The hum of the engines of the plane had increased to a staccato roar now. In a minute we’d be able to tell. The plane came out of the rising sun with a rush and hung, silhouetted for an instant, against the sky.
Then Townsend grinned. He had seen the high single tail, the twin engines and the short wing spread. It was a good old Boston A-20, probably from his own squadron.
We heard the pilot throttle the engines back as the ship dipped to make a low approach across our signal fires. A white parachute burst against the sky over the clearing.
A native rushed across the clearing and grabbed the heavy black object hanging from the chute a minute after it had hit the ground. He brought it back to us on the run.
In another second, we had a new edition of Gazelle Peninsula spread on the ground before us. I spotted our camp site. Skinner ran his finger out from the grid-coordinates.
There it was in capital letters – ‘KORININDI RIVER’. It was thirteen miles east as the crow flies. Probably three times that distance by foot. The sixty-four-dollar question was “Could we make it in four days?”
I thought we ought to start at once. But Townsend wasn’t sure that going at all was wise. He argued with me.
“Suppose we don’t make it in time and wind up on the beach without food enough for the long trip back? What about the danger of being picked up by a Jap patrol? I think we ought to wait in the hills for a better chance.”
“What the hell,” I said, “I’m not turning down any chance to be rescued. Even if we don’t make it, it’ll be a nice walk.”
McClymont echoed my feelings and Townsend gave in like a good fellow. Then Skinner went into a huddle with the natives and after some bickering about fees succeeded in getting some of them to act as guides for our trek to the Korinindi.
We would have to rely completely on the natives as there were no trails. We filled our pockets with extra shells and some chocolate bars. Skinner and Matt gave me some letters to mail for them when I reached Australia. They and Stokie were going to stay behind and operate the station.
I walked over to them and shook their hands in farewell.
“See you in Sydney,” I said. Then I turned and started down the trail behind Townsend and McClymont and the rest of the safari.
That noon we paused at a spring to refill the water bottles and catch a few minutes rest. Then we started the hazardous climb up the other side of the ravine. Reaching the top much later we looked over to the other side – a stone’s throw away – and discouraged ourselves thinking of the trail over there where we had been four long hours ago.
Our present trail led along the ridge for a mile or so and then branched off. Our guide seemed confused about which way to go. A light rain was falling and, anxious to be on our way, we took one of the branches on a guess.
An hour later we were back where the fork began. Another hour wasted. We took the other fork and just before dark stumbled into the middle of a clearing. Our guide coaxed one of the natives out of a hut and sleeping accommodations were prepared for us.
The next morning, bolstered by a new guide picked up from the tribe we had stumbled onto last night, we set out for the beach. About three hours later we came to what looked like an impassable stream.
We questioned the possibility of crossing farther downstream. But the guide shook his head. When we got the answer through our string of interpreters, we learned that we would have been better off never to have come this way in the first place. We retraced our steps back to the clearing where we had spent the previous night. Morale dropped to zero.
That night, as we sat around the fire in our hut at our guide’s village, we heard the sound of running steps and a loud commotion outside. I reached for my carbine and took a strategic position.
“Japs?” McClymont whispered.
A dog sniffed at the edge of the door. We held our breaths as the sound of voices and footsteps came nearer. A single voice called out,
“Hey Mac,” I yelled. “It’s Lauo, the old chief.”
We scrambled out of the hut. There was my old friend Lauo and several others from his village. They had brought some food from the beach up to John Stokie at the watching station and learning that we were on our way up to the trail for rescue, they followed in order to say goodbye.
When I explained that the recent rains had swollen the rivers too much for safe passage and that our rescue would probably have to be postponed, they put their heads together with our guides. The Chief then came over to me and said he was confident that he could find a back trail that would take us over the rivers to our rendezvous in time.
They couldn’t start until morning, however, because they had been racing over the trail to catch us and were exhausted.
About an hour before sunrise a native came into my hut and told me it was time to be going. At noon we reached the banks of the river where we had been forced to turn back the previous day. It looked as swollen and dangerous as ever and I didn’t see how we were going to get across.
However, Lauo began barking orders and in the space of an hour a log bridge spanned the roaring waters. It was purely a makeshift affair and we had to use long poles in crossing to balance ourselves. But we made it.
The rest of the day we moved along at a swift pace, remaining on the trail for several hours in the evening. When we finally did bed down, we had reached the sago swamp land and Lauo said we would reach the mouth of the Korinindi by noon of the next day.
Fred Hargesheimer on the hurried trek to the rescue point with two other downed airmen in early 1944
Sure enough, by noon the next day, we reached what we thought was the appointed spot. A husky native policeman was on hand to greet us, having been sent by the other coastal watching station to guide us on the last lap. The last lap, I thought! Isn’t this the last lap?
Then I discovered that the exact place for evacuation was across the bay, two days journey by foot. By that time our rescuers would have given us up and returned to their home base. I knew we were going to have to get a canoe and paddle across the bay. That was quicker.
But none of the natives wanted to take a chance on carrying us across the bay in their canoes. Too risky, they said. Too many Jap patrol boats in the bay. But I pulled some razor blades and knives from my pockets and began to barter. The razors proved to be the necessary incentive. In a few minutes we had a good canoe and some strong paddlers.
We were half-way across the bay when one of the paddlers spotted a sail in the distance and identified it as part of a Jap patrol boat. We made some quick plans, finally deciding that Townsend, McClymont and I would lie in the bottom of the boat with our tommy guns ready.
When the patrol boat hailed us down, the boys would come up alongside it and then, at the given word, we would spring up and clean the patrol boat out with our guns. But for some strange reason, the patrol boat never hailed us down and we reached the other side with nothing damaged but our nerves.
We paid off the native paddlers and then sent them back across the bay, limiting our own party to the three white men and the native police boy who led the way. The sun had disappeared by now and we began to speculate on the way we would be rescued.
Thinking we would probably be picked up by a Catalina flying boat about midnight – the usual time for air operations – we took our time along the beach. Suddenly the native policeman pointed to a large black object resting in the water several hundred feet offshore.
“An island,” I said.
“No, no, mastah,” the boy whispered, “Him, he goomie boat!”
“Him he what?” I asked, still seeing little cause for excitement.
But Townsend grabbed my arm excitedly and I knew in an instant what a goomie boat was.
“It’s a submarine.” Townsend said tensely.
I looked again. There slowly rising and falling in the water was a huge sub, its conning tower silhouetted against the sky. We didn’t dare shout, but we ran as fast as we could to the beach opposite the sub.
From there we could discern a small boat, not coming toward us, but slowly moving farther and farther away. We signalled frantically, with our flashlight, but got no response. Could it be that we had missed our rescuers after all, and by only a few minutes? The lifeboat continued on its way.
Then Townsend took out his flashlight and, holding it horizontally by his side, pointed it straight at the sub and flicked it on and off several times. He paused and we waited for what seemed hours.
Then faintly but surely, came the answering flickers and we saw the boat turn and head back for the beach. Ten interminable minutes later a rubber dinghy rolled up on the surf in front of us. We ran into the shallow water, climbed aboard breathlessly, and helped turn it around back to the sub.
An American sailor holding an oar in the rear grinned and cursed mildly.
“Where in hell have you guys been? You’re a day late.”
Then we learned that somehow, we had got mixed up in our calculations. The sub had been here since late yesterday afternoon. They had finally given us up and were ready to leave when the crew caught sight of Townsend’s flashlight signals. I was too overcome with the excitement to be concerned over any inconveniences we might have caused.
The trip out to the sub nearly ended in disaster when a huge wave broke over the bow and almost swamped the dinghy. It seemed like hours before we finally pulled alongside the submarine.
Welcome hands hauled us aboard. Then they pushed us to the conning tower and told us to hurry down, as the sub made too much of a target and would have to get underway immediately. I half fell and half slid as I scrambled to the bottom of the ladder.
RAAF Wing Commander William Townsend and USAF Lieutenant Fred Hargesheimer pictured just before their rescue by USS Gato near the Korinindi River, New Britain, on 4 February 1944, seven months after Hargesheimer was shot down
A naval officer, in shirt sleeves, but wearing the silver leaf insignia of a commander, came over to us and shook our hands warmly.
“Welcome aboard,” he said. I was too breathless to do anything but nod my head. After eight months I was to see my own people again.
Now, eight years later, I have forgotten the hunger and the fear and even the loneliness of the weeks waiting beside the river; but I shall never forget the kindness and the brotherly love given to me, a stranger, in that savage land. Chief Lauo and his friends are my people, too.