Some of the nights were quite cold up in the hills. We’d have a minimum of gear with us because we were travelling light and didn’t have many carriers. So we had this big flag, but of course Banjo was in charge of the flag and he used to wrap himself up in it at night and use it as a blanket. We used to say, “we’ll tell the bloody king. He won’t be happy about that.” So Banjo had the extra blanket, the flag.
Edmond Jones, 1st New Guinea Infantry Battalion, 2nd/9th Battalion. Read more about his story.
Men joining the defence force expected that life during war would be difficult. But nothing could have prepared the troops who served during the Second World War for the harsh realities of living in Papua and New Guinea.
When the war began in Papua and New Guinea, Australian officials underestimated the extent to which the topography and tropical conditions would impact the troops.
Gruelling treks through the jungle covered mountains, mosquito infested swamps, river torrents and tall kunai grass were made worse by the constant rain.
On the Kokoda Track, the troops found themselves navigating steep, muddy slopes that buried their feet to their ankles. They fell into the mud as they clambered up hand over hand to engage an enemy they couldn’t hear because the rain and undergrowth muffled their approach.
When it wasn’t raining, the tropical heat made the water evaporate into steam, and mist blanketed the mountains. This impacted their visibility in the gloomy jungle, making it hard to for troops to see through the mist.
Severe storms also affected flights, hampering support for ground troops and supply drops during the campaigns.
When Australian troops were on active duty, on the battlefield and patrol, they were forced to improvise with their sleeping, eating and bathing quarters. This meant they often spent weeks and months in the same clothes, shoes and limited blankets, because the delivery of food, medicine and ammunition was prioritised.
On the Kokoda Track, men would bunker down at night under makeshift huts topped with banana leaves, if they were lucky. Often they fell right where they were due to exhaustion from a hard day’s trekking with their rations and ammunition.
Papuan carriers helped with supplies, but also existed on meagre rations in extreme weather for weeks on end.
A carrier carrying only foodstuffs consumes his load in 13 days and if he carries food supplies for a soldier it means 6 1/2 days' supply for both soldier and carrier. This does not allow for the porterage of arms, ammunition, equipment, medical stores, ordnance, mail and dozens of other items needed to wage war, on the backs of men.
– Lieutenant Bert Kienzle
In a lot of areas malaria was rife. At the beginning of the war, the troops had little protection against the mosquitoes, such as proper clothing, mosquito proof netting and effective mosquito repellent cream. To make matters worse, torrential rains turned the landscape into seas of water and mud.
Camp conditions, such as those at Port Moresby headed by the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) were far more comfortable. There, off duty troops, injured and rehabilitating men, medical officers, cooks, and others slept in stretchers in tents and buildings erected out of local materials.
However, the servicemen and women still worked long days, sometimes without electricity under constant threat of air raids.
When we were in Aitape [on patrol]… because of the length of time it took, we had to stay out overnight. And we actually camped at the side of a river. And of course it poured during the bloody night, and I finished up….my boots, I had taken them off and they had floated away somewhere, I never saw them again. And I still had to get back to camp, without any shoes, without any boots. So I did the best I could. I wrapped grass and stuff and whatever around my feet so I could get back. There was no other way. But the fallacy was, don’t ever camp at the side of a river, in New Guinea, especially. I learnt a lesson then.
— Reginald Bradsworth, 17th Brigade, 2nd/6th Battalion, 6th Division, Battalion Intelligence
The Allies realised they needed more infrastructure such as roads, bridges, buildings and airfields. Australian soldiers, worked with US Engineers and Papuan labourers to construct buildings from local timber, jungle vines and thatching.
[From Milne Bay] we walked up the coast. There was no roads (as far as I could remember) up there, up along the coast anyway. There were a few roads inland, but most of the tracks that we used during the New Guinea campaign were those that were made by the pioneer companies. They used to cut trees down and put logs across crossings and muddy patches and all that. Used to rain a lot in New Guinea. When it rains there it really rains.
– Stanley Keetly, 9th Division Signals
Recreation and entertainment across Papua and New Guinea were vital to troops’ morale. It also gave Australian and US troops a chance to interact, discover cultural similarities and develop the sense of camaraderie they needed to fight alongside each other.
Amenities or recreation huts were set up across the country. However, access for the troops varied and depended on their station and role at the time of the war. When Bruce Watson, was stationed at Milne Bay, this is what he said in an interview about his recreational time:
We were flying seven days a week. Some of the fellers played cards but not all. Les Jackson always had a card game going which I think was very expensive for the young pilots, which also did annoy me quite frankly because he was a very, very good card player and he took advantage of all the young pilots. But no there was literally no recreation whatsoever. You couldn’t even organise say a game of cricket. There was nowhere where there wasn’t water or mud so you could never have put a temporary wicket up… I think it was mainly that you could go and have a swim in the river or you could just go for a bit of a walk.
— Bruce Watson, 32 Squadron RAF, 457 Squadron RAAF, 75 Squadron RAAF
Aside from cards, troops enjoyed a range of activities and simple comforts from home, such as:
- cinema nights
- listening to the radio (popular music, and the Australian Dick Bentley Show, as well as the American Bing Crosby Show)
- playing assorted games and relaxing with coffee, biscuits between combat
- playing musical instruments
In November 1942, a small unit in Port Moresby set up a printing press to publish the first newspaper, Guinea Gold. The troops welcomed the news. It was said this paper was at the centre of allied recreation in Papua in 1943.
During the campaign in the Pacific, there were a range of festivals and events that occurred, including:
- sports and beach carnivals
- swimming carnivals
- cycling and swimming championships
- native festivals (such as this one in Finschhafen)
In January 1943, the Australian Army Canteen Services opened a club equipped with kitchen, lounge, dining areas and dance floor opened at Ela Beach.
Not knowing if they’d see their family and friends again, many service men and women decided to write home with updates.
Getting packages and mail from loved ones was the highlight of their day.
Many kept diaries of the day-to-day conditions and events.
Others wrote poems about their experiences.
Wiliam Dutton, 3rd/28 Radar, 75 Squadron wrote many verses during his service. He recalls that after the battle of Milne Bay, he penned ‘The Heroes of Milne Bay’. He dedicated the poem to the officers and NCOs (Non Commissioned Officers) and men of the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) who fought at that battle.
We shall remember them, battle stained and torn, Into that jungle of death, on that rainy dawn, Gallantly they fought through hell and swamp, Their progress sure and slow, In mud and filth, they battle on against the cunning foe, Low in the stagnant mangroves throughout the night they lay, Waiting for these yellow swines, their one and only prey, Lurking down in every palm these green clad fronds did lie, But still our boys went forward in spite some would die, Their courage and valour was only theirs and life so dear to pay, Those gallant lads that fought so well in the battle of Milne Bay.