Injury, illness, and loss

They [casualties] were very considerably worse than we thought. Not that they were all 'metal' casualties, but there was a lot of sickness, malaria, scrub typhus and all that sort of thing which accounted for a great deal of the casualties but there was those who were wounded and killed in action, yes.

Donald James Simonson MC, Captain, Platoon commander 39th Battalion. Listen to his account.

There’s no question that war is devastating for troops and civilians. However, the Second World War in Papua and New Guinea affected those involved in unexpected ways.

Troops entering the jungles were often ill-prepared for the terrain. Seasoned soldiers had the most experience fighting in the desert. Many new recruits, like those of Captain Templeton’s B company in the jungles of Kokoda, were young. They had limited combat experience before engaging the enemy.

The stress of combat combined with the difficult terrain, cold or intense heat and torrential rain, had effects on both physical and mental health, which, for some, stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

Both the Allies and the Japanese went to war in Papua New Guinea without the local knowledge of how to survive in the difficult tropical environment. They also didn’t have natural immunity to malaria. Combat conditions meant it was impossible to prevent exposure to injury, illness and loss.

The Japanese were better prepared to combat disease. A 1943 Australian study found them to be the 'most inoculated army in the world'. When the Allies interrupted the supply line, the Japanese were cut off from their medicine. This included their malaria treatments. They were affected by malaria outbreaks in Bougainville, at the Beachheads, on the Kokoda Track, and Wewak among others.

An outbreak of malaria and dysentery in November 1942 hit the Japanese hard. Their medical problems then started to outweighed those of Australians. Until the end of September 1942, the Australians had evacuated 1,752 sick men from the mountains against 343 Japanese. In Bougainville, 30,000 Japanese died of disease.

Studies by Australia, Japan and the US showed that the difficult, tropical environment of Papua New Guinea started affecting the troops' effectiveness within just three months. This was regardless of whether they have been in battle or not.

Insect and parasite-borne diseases such as scrub typhus, malaria, dengue fever were common due to damp, dense jungle environments where mites, ticks and mosquitoes thrive. Many troops contracted tropical ulcers as well. These are large, open sores that eat away at the flesh if untreated.

Gona was said to be the most malarial in the world. It’s been estimated that 85 to 95% of all Allied soldiers in the region carried malaria during the battle.

Where water quality, hygiene and sanitation were a problem, such as the Kokoda Track, dysentery was common. A dysentery outbreak that started near Ioribaiwa in August 1942 quickly spread along the Kokoda Track. The illness claimed 30 to 80 men each day in September and October. By 27 December, more than half of all Australians who had fought had been evacuated sick from the front line.

In the Markham Valley between 18 September 1943 and 8 April 1944, the 7th Division lost 204 men, with 464 wounded. Evacuations from disease totalled nearly 14,000 personnel.

During their time in Papua and New Guinea, the troops' rations didn't provide enough nutrients to combat the hard toll fighting took on their bodies. Getting enough supplies to the troops across rugged or swampy terrain was a constant challenge.

When they did receive supplies, their monotonous diet included:

  • tins of bully beef
  • camp pie
  • sheep tongues
  • haricot beans
  • tinned fruit
  • dehydrated egg powder
  • instant potatoes

The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables meant they were missing important vitamins. This hindered their bodies' response when hurt. Cuts and abrasions became ulcerous and took months, rather than days, to mend.

Because of the remote locations of the fighting, it wasn’t always possible to treat battle-related injuries in hospitals. Medical officers set up temporary structures with limited equipment at strategic places.

Carriers risked their lives to retrieve injured while under fire. They then transported injured troops on makeshift stretchers over steep, dangerous terrain. Other injured troops had to walk for hours or days with makeshift bandages, slings and splints, even soldiers with gunshot wounds.

It took great effort, not least by four stretcher-bearers, to rescue de Forest from the precipitous slope where he lay. By then he had eight wounds, but was conscious and concerned for the bearers. He died at the Regimental Aid Post. Another bearer in the battalion, Private Leslie Baird, risked his life to crawl out and attend a mortally wounded corporal on this day, only to be shot dead while applying a field dressing. His devotion exemplifies that of medical men throughout this taxing campaign.

Huon Peninsula 1943—1944, Australians in the Pacific War, Department of Veterans' Affairs, September 2005

The efficient evacuation of troops away from sources of infection, and the high standards of care by Australian medical forces, meant that many injuries were treated successfully. Plus, after the success of the use of penicillin during campaigns in Italy, use of it in Papua and New Guinea proved promising in keeping bacterial infections at bay.

Aside from wounds received in battle, men were also injured in their day-to-day life. There were:

  • drownings
  • lifting injuries
  • vehicle accidents
  • fires in tents
  • slips and falls
  • insect and snake bites
  • construction accidents
  • dental issues
  • rare crocodile bites

Captain Alan Watson was an Australian Army Medical Officer with the 2/4th Field Ambulance. He was a dental officer and an anaesthetist for the surgical team on the Kokoda Track.

In his war diaries, he wrote about giving 90 general anaesthetics for surgery during three weeks in October and November 1942. Between Myola and Kokoda, he treated 70 patients, performed 80 dental extractions and treated other dental conditions, some of which were incurred during fighting.

In tropical Papua and New Guinea, crocodiles were common inhabitants of the waterways. Sometimes, troops had no choice but to risk crossing infested rivers. Some Australians and Papuans sustained injuries or were killed by crocodiles.

The fighting went until it came to the Markham River which was infested with crocodiles. When the Australian and American soldiers got to the river they were faced with a dilemma: they couldn’t cross the river because of the crocodiles. Osborne Tonu said he would volunteer to cross first and then, if he died, they could decide what to do next. So he tied a bundle of four dry coconuts; two he tied to his legs and the other two on his chest area, and he floated on it to get to the other side of the Markham River and safely landed. So his mates said ‘OK, fine, we’ll do the same’, and as they were crossing, some made it and some didn’t; the crocodiles ate them up.

– Lomas Tonu Ani, Hanau village

In the swamp country which surrounded the area were large crocodiles ... Incidence of malaria was almost one hundred per cent. At Sanananda the swamp and jungle were typhus-ridden ... crawling roots reached out into stagnant pools infested with mosquitoes and numerous crawling insects ... every foxhole filled with water.

– John Vader, New Guinea: The Tide Is Stemmed, pp. 102–103

Our police boy didn’t come across with us and we yelled out to him why he didn’t come across, he pulled his lap lap skirt up and showed a great gash down the side where he said a crocodile got him, so he wasn’t going across there. So we had those sort of things to contend with.

– Keith Taylor, Army Ordinance Corps, 2/6th Independent Company

In the areas where most of the fighting took place, the terrain posed many challenges for the troops. The terrain included steep mountains, sheer cliffs, dense jungles, swampy marshes and fast-moving rivers.

Private Albert 'Khaki' Campbell, of the 9th Field Ambulance, carried an injured soldier for two days to get him help.

But this time I happened to be going up north, along the track, and I happened to be that night at Mission Hill. That's where this Bluey Lamb - it was night time, there was a storm, it was a severe storm - and he was out on the line with the other signaller and he left the track through Mission Hill and he slipped. He hit the bottom of the track then he went over the side of the cliff and he went down the bottom of it... So I got them and I went down and I got him and brought him back. The next morning, we started to carry him out. I did ask for any medical assistance I could get but nobody could come in - no doctors, no nothing. He was pretty badly hurt. I carried him all the next day down to Nauro... [then] the next day I carried him right out to Owens Corner.

Makeshift runways, mechanical failures, turbulent winds and pilot error were to blame for many aircraft accidents reported during the fighting in Papua and New Guinea.

Colin Lindeman of No. 75 Squadron RAAF recounted the day when one of the aircraft crew was killed after an accident on the airstrip.

I was leading the flight off on a pre-dawn strike against the Japanese cruiser that was still in the bay… It was pre-dawn. Of course, there were no aerodrome control, there was no navigation or landing lights because we were within shelling range and the official version is that my left oleo leg had collapsed which put the aircraft in an attitude of being very lopsided. I wasn't aware of this until I was well into my take-off run ... and at that time, with the Japanese so close, a Hudson aircraft was being moved away from the Japanese threat from the ... say, the northern side of the strip to the southern side and it, unfortunately, taxied across my take-off path and I hit it.

The sad part was that one of the aircrew ... one of the ground crew rather – there were no aircrew aboard the Hudson – but one of the ground crew, whether it was the bloke taxiing it or not, I don't know, but unfortunately one of them was killed. My aircraft was a complete write-off of course.

Lieutenant Colonel David MacDougal also tells his story of the day when a US Liberator crashed into Australian troops at the end of the Port Moresby airstrip called Jackson's Field. Bearing a payload of 500-pound bombs, four US aircraft were taking off in the pre-dawn darkness. Their engines struggled under the load. One crashed into a convoy of trucks, causing a cascade of explosions and the death of many men.

The personal impact of death and destruction often had to be swept aside on the battlefield.

Leslie Cook, of the 6th and 7th Division Signals, 2/14th Battalion relates his experiences.

When the first bullets go past, or the first shells explode, you aren’t initially that terribly frightened because you’ve been conditioned to noise, and this is noise. And it’s only when it starts having an effect on the people around you that you suddenly become aware that this isn’t playing any more.

He says people experience fear and loss in different ways. What was important was support from commanding officers and fellow troops in order to keep morale high among the men.

Donald Daniels of the 39th Battalion and 2/2nd Battalion describes the bond between troops.

I think it was the bond that was created firstly by enduring the track and getting over the track before we started. The teamwork, the association, the fact that we were militia and proving our worth.

For many, this sense of purpose pushed them through. When you know you might be heading into the last fight of your life, you want to know you’ve got someone by your side looking out for you.

Three mates from Cadell, South Australia, John Virgo, Bill Smyth and Jack Lines enlisted to fight in the Second World War. Sadly, like many others, their friendships ended suddenly when the war claimed their lives.

The last surviving friend, Sergeant Jack Lines, wrote to John Virgo's family. He shared the terrible news and provided some comfort.

After all, it wasn't just the men on the front line who felt the pain of loss.

'I find this letter the most difficult and painful letter I have ever written,' Bob told the Virgos. 'I felt it my duty and thought it would make it a little easier for you if I wrote and told you the circumstances of John's death. I have no doubt you have been informed by the military by this time. John was the best and most noble friend I ever knew, and his death was a terrible blow to myself and his many friends in this Battalion and we all wish to convey to you our most heartfelt sympathies.

'When John was promoted to Corporal, he was transferred to a different Platoon to myself, but still in the same Company, so when we went into action against the Japanese just after dark on the 27th of August I was not with John, but about 300 yards [275 metres] away on his left flank, so I did not know anything about it until the following day when one of the men in his section told me about it. He passed away about 11.30 that night, almost immediately after he was hit and just had enough time to say "Goodbye".'