Now I don’t know a lot of you by name, but I know you.
We met at Isurava. We fought there together and every step of the way here.
Now we are relieved and we will leave the battle.
And every day the enemy supply line stretches further. He suffers now as you have suffered.
The battle we fought for the track may have just saved your nation. At Imita we will stop him.
Brigadier wants you to know … your gallantry, your courage, your fortitude are an inspiration.
And I want you to know that you are some of the finest soldiers that I have ever seen.
You have seen things in this place that no man should witness.
Some of these things you must forget. But history will remember you, and in the years to come others will wish that they had your conviction.
And remember … remember the glory is not the exhortation of war, but the exhortation of man.
Mans nobility, made transcendent in the fiery crucible of war.
Faithfulness and fortitude.
Gentleness and compassion.
I am honored to be your brother.
Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner's speech to his men (39th Militia Battalion) after their stand on the Kokoda track, Menari village 6th Sep. 1942. Read his story.
When Japanese forces captured Rabaul on 23 January 1942, it brought the war in the Pacific to our doorstep.
For the next three years, Allied forces, including Papua New Guineans, fought the Japanese on the ground, in the air and at sea.
For many, it was a baptism of fire. A coming of age under extraordinary conditions. Friendships were forged, and lasting memories made, both good and bad.
From the gruelling jungle campaigns of Kokoda and the 'bloody ridges', to the airborne landings at Nadzab and Wau and the amphibious assaults on Lae, Finschhafen and elsewhere, the Allied forces faced a determined foe. They fought with heart and soul, and a great deal of courage. Though they emerged as victors, it was not without cost.
As the US Army Centre of Military History describes it:
The New Guinea Campaign is really the story of two Allied armies fighting two kinds of war—one of grinding attrition and one of classic maneuver. During the attrition period, from January 1943 until January 1944, Australian infantrymen carried the bulk of ground combat while the Americans reconstituted, reinforced, and readied themselves for the maneuver phase of the campaign. During attrition warfare characteristic of eastern New Guinea ground operations through the seizure of the Saidor in January 1944, the Allies suffered more.
As Captain Bill Graydon of the 2/16th told the Australian War Memorial, 'Mateship meant everything'.
Australians are known for their loyalty to mates, and mateship. And never more so than in battle.
When we think of mateship in battle, we think of young men acting selflessly to protect their fellow troops. Their mates.
John Virgo, Bill Smyth and Jack Lines grew up playing footy together in country South Australia. They signed up and fought alongside each other in Egypt before being sent to New Guinea. John was the first to be killed, at Milne Bay on 27 August 1942. Bill Smyth died four months later on 24 December 1942 during the Battle of Buna-Gona.
In a letter to John's father, Charlie, Jack wrote:
I never make any bones about it once I get any of them in my sights. I got 3 in a dugout one day and remembered what they had done to poor old John and Bob and lots of other cobbers and done them over quickly ... I remember in the last big show an incident that will erase any sympathy from my mind in a future date.
Quite a number of Japs sang out that they would surrender and when we went to collect them they opened fire on us. Fortunately we were expecting something of the sort and only a couple of lads were wounded. I won't tell you what we did to them. I reckon you can guess.
Mateship was more than just friendship. In the Second World War Official History, Chapter 6 – Withdrawal to Ioribaiwa, an unnamed officer of the 2/4th Battalion remembers:
Gradually men dropped out utterly exhausted—just couldn't go on. You'd come to a group of men and say 'Come on! We must go on .' But it was physically impossible to move. Many were lying down and had been sick. . . . Many made several trips up the last slope helping others. We began to see some of the tremendous efforts the troops were going to make to help the lesser ones in.
The campaigns in Papua and New Guinea were marked by extraordinary acts of courage.
The 39th Australian Infantry Battalion was a militia unit, raised in Melbourne in 1921. With very little military training, they were dismissed as 'Chocolate Soldiers' who would melt in the heat of battle.
In 1942, the men of the 39th ended up in Port Moresby for garrison duty, to occupy and guard the area. In June 1942, they were sent to the Kokoda Track to block the advancing Japanese. Heavily outnumbered, the 39th held off the enemy until they could be relieved by more battle-ready troops.
Their actions inspired A. E Lockrey to pen The 'Chocolate Soldiers' of New Guinea.
... Dark terrors are there in the lurking, In shady concealment they hide, But the defiant Chocolate Soldiers Have suffered and bled and died.
In July 1943, while fighting in the Wau-Salamaua area, Lance Corporal Keith 'Digger' McEvoy ordered an assault under heavy fire. After jumping a barricade, he moved closer towards the Japanese. With five of his men wounded, only one could follow.
I noticed I had one man with me and he had the light of battle in his eye and was shouting above the din, “Come on Mac, let’s go through the b-s”.
McEvoy's actions forced the enemy to withdraw so other members of the company could move forward. McEvoy continued to harass the Japanese through the night. By morning the enemy had withdrawn.
'Digger' McEvoy received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his 'dash and courage of the highest merit'.
Later that year, during the Battle of Lae, Private Richard Kelliher and his platoon came under very heavy fire from a concealed Japanese machine gun. Private Kelliher risked his life, leaving his post and hurling two grenades at the machine gun. He killed several enemy soldiers. He then grabbed a Bren gun and finished the job. Finally, Private Kelliher then rescued his wounded section leader, which he accomplished under heavy fire from another enemy position.
I wanted to bring Cpl. Richards back, because he was my cobber, so I jumped out from the stump where I was sheltering and threw a few grenades over into the position where the Japanese were dug in. I did not kill them all, so went back, got a Bren gun and emptied the magazine in the post. That settled the Japanese.
Another position opened up when I went on to get Cpl. Richards, but we got a bit of covering fire and I brought him back to our lines.
He survived the war and received a Victoria Cross for his actions.
Fellow Victoria Cross Recipient Corporal John French was not so lucky.
Late on the night of 25 August 1942, a force of 2,000 Japanese marines landed to capture Milne Bay facilities. The Battle of Milne Bay had begun.
After several days of intense fighting, the Japanese retreated, with Australian infantry forces in pursuit. On 4 September, Corporal French, of the 2/9th Battalion, charged and captured three enemy gun pits, one after the other. French died in action at the third pit.
His Victoria Cross citation reads, in part:
The advance of the section, of which Corporal French was in command, was held up by fire from three enemy machine-gun posts, whereupon Corporal French, ordering his section to take cover, advanced and silenced one of the posts with grenades. He returned to his section for more grenades and again advanced and silenced the second post. Armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, he then attacked the third post, firing from the hip as he went forward.
There were other times the Australians at Milne Bay faced a determined Japanese attack.
On 14 April 1943, 188 Japanese aircraft attacked Milne Bay. A force of 24 RAAF Kittyhawk fighters responded to the attack. At least three Allied aircraft were shot down, while the Japanese lost seven.
In September that same year, Australian forces travelled by sea from Lae to Scarlet Beach, in a move to take the Japanese base at Finschhafen. Poor intelligence meant they were not aware of the size of the Japanese force in the area. It would be the first opposed amphibious landing by Australian troops since Gallipoli in 1915.
As Corporal Jack Craig of the 2/13th Batallion remembers it:
The second wave hit the beach and the ramps crash down with a thud. There is no time lost getting on the beach this time as there is 'shit' flying everywhere. Some have not made it and lay on the beach on ramps dead or wounded.
Earlier in 1943, the Allies had successfully defended Wau Airfield from Japanese attack.
The Japs were mortaring the strip and we went into action straight away ... it took us about 4 or 5 days to really clear them out of there. ... It was really on for young and old ... the first time I'd been in action and a lot of others too.
- Corporal Noel Anthony Carey, 2/3rd Independent Company (later 2/3rd Australian Commando Squadron). Listen to his story.
The jungle terrain of Papua and New Guinea meant Australian troops were often engaged in hand-to-hand combat. In an interview for the Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, Captain Reginald 'Reg' Walter Saunders of the 2/7th Battalion—the first Indigenous Australian to be commissioned in the Australian Army—compares the war in New Guinea to that of his time in Africa and Europe:
It was a different war. It was much more personal and much closer – many of you often fought at six feet ... And oh there was a lots of close little encounters in war ... you had to be quicker than them. Quicker than the Japanese. You had to react quicker, everything you had to be different, you know. If you let him call the shots you were a dead duck.
The most famous of all Papua New Guinea battlegrounds is the Kokoda Track. Between July and November 1942 the Japanese advanced across the Owen Stanley Ranges to take Port Moresby. Australian troops engaged the enemy in a series of battles along the track, both in the Japanese advance and retreat. One such battle was at the village of Isurava
They were met with Bren-gun and Tommy-gun, with bayonet and grenade; but still they came, to close with the buffet of fist and boot and rifle-butt, the steel of crashing helmets and of straining, strangling fingers.
- Ralph Honner, 'The 39th at Isurava', 1956.
A less well-known, but no less difficult, campaign was that of the push from Wau to Salamaua. Known as the 'Bloody Ridges', thousands of Australians, Papua New Guineans, Americans and Japanese fought and died over several months as the Allies advanced across rugged mountains to reach the Japanese base at Salamaua. As David Dexter writes in The New Guinea Offensives:
Such conditions of rain, mud, rottenness, stench, gloom, and, above all, the feeling of being shut in by everlasting jungle and ever ascending mountains, are sufficient to fray the strongest nerves. But add to them the tension of constant expectancy of death from behind the impenetrable screen of green, and nerves must be of the strongest, and morale of the highest, to live down these conditions, accept them as a matter of course, and maintain a cheerful yet fighting spirit.
US forces were often fighting next to the Australians across Papua and New Guinea. In his memoir, Our Jungle Road to Tokyo Commander of the 8th US Army, General Robert Eichelberger recalls the attacks at Buna:
It was a spectacular and dramatic assault, and a brave one... Behind the tanks went the fresh and jaunty Aussie veterans, tall, mustached, erect, with their blazing Tommy-guns swinging before them. Concealed Japanese positions – which were even more formidable than our patrols had indicated – burst into flame. There was the greasy smell of tracer fire ... and heavy machine-gun fire from barricades and entrenchments. Steadily tanks and infantrymen advanced through the spare, high coconut trees, seemingly impervious to the heavy opposition.
In the Markham Valley, during the Battle of Kaiapit, bayonets and grenades saved the day. A report in the Melbourne Argus quotes Lieutenant Derek Watson, of Victoria:
... our commanding officer decided to meet the Jap counter-attack and enveloping move by direct assault. So we fixed bayonets and went in. It was a rifle and grenade show. We would pin the Japs in their foxholes with grenades and then rush them. They would not attempt to get out until it was too late.
The Australian and US air forces both played a key role in the Allies' success in Papua and New Guinea. They not only took part in air battles, they supported land forces with ground attacks. They also airlifted troops to battle such as that at Wau, dropped supplies to troops on the ground, and took part in the airborne landings Nadzab.
When Japanese forces started to bomb Port Moresby in February 1942, RAAF Kittyhawks, based in Townsville, flew to help the land-based anti-aircraft batteries and machine guns.
The US Air Force soon joined in, and the Battle of Port Moresby lasted more than 18 months before the Allies achieved air superiority.
Unfortunately, it was not always easy to tell the difference between a Kittyhawk and a Japanese Zero, as Flight Lieutenant Arthur Tucker of No 75 Squadron soon found out.
I found myself, by some magical magnetism or something, attacking the bomber, the rear bomber on the starboard side. I got quite close to him, and I fired a burst and saw the rear gunner's compartment - which is just back behind the base of the rudder and between the elevators - disintegrate ... And then I was fired at by other aircraft... guns from the formation, and I broke off. And then I saw an aeroplane go ... er, a fighter, going down with smoke coming out of it, and I swung in and took an early shot at him and then realised that it was a Kittyhawk.
During the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in March 1943, Allied air power, including 13 Beaufighters from No. 30 Squadron RAAF, destroyed Japanese plans to reinforce Lae by sea from Rabaul.
Academy Award-winning cinematographer Damien Parer documented the battle.
At the time, Sydney Morning Herald said of Parer's footage:
The newsreel pictures... are among the most dramatic to be screened in Sydney. They offer a thrilling bird's-eye view of the bombing and machine-gunning of the Japanese convoy by Australian and American pilots. Many of the attacks were made by pilots flying above the enemy at only mast-high levels. The grim determination behind this great aerial attack is seen in more than one vivid scene.
See the battle footage on YouTube.
History remembers the Papua and New Guinea Campaign as one of jungle combat along the Kokoda Track, or air power over Port Moresby, Milne Bay and the Bismarck Sea. Yet the naval contribution was just as important.
HMAS Hobart and HMAS Australia were key to the Allied success during the Battle of the Coral Sea. While both sides claimed victory, it soon became clear that this naval battle stopped the Japanese from occupying Port Moresby.
As Jack Langrell, crewman aboard HMAS Australia, remembers it:
All of a sudden all hell broke loose so I quite realised then this was definitely the Japs coming in. I turned around to go down the hatch I’d come up, only to find it was securely locked. I was caught on the upper deck, so I just stood behind the turret. One of the Japanese torpedo bombers would have been 100 feet from the ship’s side and level with the upper deck as it passed down the port side. Unbeknown to me they were spraying the ship with machine-gun bullets.
- Chris Coulthard-Clark, Action Stations Coral Sea, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1991 page 96
The US Navy provided support to Australian forces during the amphibious landings at both Scarlet Beach and Lae.
Captain Edmund 'Ted' Lecky, of the 9th Division Signals, wrote to his father about the experience of landing at Lae:
The landings in these businesses are rather impressive — first the dim outline of a hostile shore in the dawn and the sole thought in everyone's mind — Are the bastards there to meet us', then the rather impressive and very effective pasting of the beach and environs by the navy's five inch guns, then a hell of a pause — about ten years—waiting your turn to go in.
In addition to their role in battles at sea, or coming under attack while escorting supply convoys or landing troops on beaches, Australian naval vessels provided naval gunfire support for troops ashore and performed the dangerous job of sweeping for mines in the ocean. Cruisers, destroyers and the Bathurst Class corvettes provided support such as:
- naval gunfire support
- amphibious sea lift
While the efforts of the ground and air forces are well known, Allied success depended on the naval campaign against Japanese supply lines and its convoying of troops and supplies.