Appendix 1: After Alola
THIS appendix briefly describes the experiences of several groups of Australians who were cut off in the Owen Stanleys in late August and early September 1942.
In Chapter 6 it was described how Colonel Key and other parties of the 2/14th were cut off during the withdrawal from the Alola area on 30th August.
One of these included Captain Buckler and some of his company. When the wounded Sergeant Gwillim reported in the darkness that he was not able to clear the track Captain Buckler decided to follow the line of Eora Creek along the lower ground. At 8 p.m. he and his men plunged into the dark bush. They carried two men on stretchers, three wounded were walking and Corporal Metson, shot through the ankle, was crawling. Metson refused to be borne on a stretcher. “It will take eight of you chaps to carry that thing,” he said. “Throw it away; I’ll get along somehow.” Nor would he be carried on another man’s back. He bandaged his hands and his knees and crawled on over the mountains, through the mud and the rain.
Early the next morning the party overtook Privates Rockliffe,1 Boys, Adam2 and Blair3 who had carried through the night on a stretcher a wounded sergeant from the 39th Battalion. Lying in the bush they found, a little later, Private Mayne,4 who had been carried on Lieutenant Green-wood’s back to a place of temporary safety and had then crawled away into the bush and hidden himself there so that he would not burden his comrades.
For four days Captain Buckler led his men along Eora Creek cut off by the advancing Japanese from the track above. In those few days he moved only as far as he could have moved in a few hours on the track. On the 4th he gave the following orders to Lieutenant Treacy:
I want you to leave tomorrow with two men; travel to Myola to contact the unit, obtain medical supplies, food and native carriers, and return here with them. If the unit is not at Myola push on till you find it.
This party will remain here for four days after your departure and search for native foods. If at the end of that time you do not return, I shall leave two men here for a further two days, and the rest will make for the coast, after moving north to the Kokoda Valley. ...
Treacy left next morning with Privates Rockliffe and Avent.5 During the following days they passed through many Japanese bivouac areas,
sometimes just avoiding death or capture, sometimes lying hidden as they watched their enemies moving in numbers near them, sometimes killing Japanese who seemed isolated from large groups. They were living on rice which they took as a result of these killings. They were desperate men who killed both as a duty and for food. Often they ate dry rice as they walked although it was generally mouldy. On the 10th they suddenly encountered a party of eight Japanese face to face. The constant wet had affected all their weapons except Treacy’s pistol. With it the officer killed three of the enemy soldiers, but Rockliffe was shot through the leg.
The track was too dangerous for them now so they left it, probably between Templeton’s Crossing and Myola, and plunged into the wild country to the east. They were worried about Buckler and the rest but could do no more than they were doing. They shot a pig and its flesh sustained them for many days. On the 21st they met a patrol from the 2/6th Independent Company and were given food and help. They arrived at Dorobisolo next day, rode with the stream down the Kemp Welsh River, and so rejoined their battalion on 2nd October.
Buckler’s party, meanwhile, had waited for five days before retracing their steps towards Sengai half-way between Kokoda and Wairopi. It was easier travelling in that direction, warmer, more cultivated with more native food, and the fugitives thought that other Australians were operating in the area. They lived mostly on the boiled tops of sweet potato plants and water. Cold and pain racked the wounded. In the cold nights they tried vainly to sleep in the dank bush wearing soaked clothes: Corporal Metson was still crawling, half-starved but unbeaten. After ten days of this they reached Sengai.
The natives there welcomed and fed them, sheltered them, and advised them about the country which lay ahead. His people would care for the wounded, the native chief said, if Buckler wished. There was much rough country still to be traversed.
In the fighting at Isurava Private Fletcher,6 a medical orderly, had
shown himself to be a brave and devoted soldier. During the days and nights since the 30th August he had nursed the wounded and sick with great care although he was weak himself and, like the rest, always hungry. Now he volunteered to stay at Sengai and look after the seven men whom it was decided to leave there for the present. On 21st September their friends paraded before Fletcher’s little group and the order “Present Arms” was given. It was at once a salute and, had they but known it, a final farewell for later the Japanese came and killed these helpless men—the chivalrous Fletcher, young Metson who for nearly three weeks had crawled through the bush, Mayne who had crawled away to die rather than burden his comrades, and the others who had endured so much.
But this was hidden from Buckler and Butler and their 37 men as they dropped down to Wairopi, then headed upstream along the swiftly flowing Kumusi. Buckler himself pushed on ahead at a swifter pace than the main body could manage, his idea being to bring out news of his party and fly in help to Fletcher at Sengai. He met American troops on the 28th and Lieutenant Nichols7 of the 2/6th Independent Company on the following day. Nichols’ men at once sent help to Butler and his party who then climbed the main Owen Stanley Range and reached Dorobisolo on 6th October. Only two more days of walking lay ahead of them before they dropped down the Kemp Welsh River by raft to the American camp at Kalamazoo. But, with safety at last in sight, Private King8 died at Dorobisolo.
It was strange that the wild circle of their wanderings should have brought Butler’s main party and Treacy and his two men to the same point of exit from the Papuan mountains within such a short time of one another, after they had set out in opposite directions.
After Colonel Key and his battalion headquarters group were swept off the track in the vicinity of Isurava Rest House on the 30th August, they split into smaller parties which were to try to make their way up the line of the creek to Alola or to the 2/16th Battalion positions on the right flank.
Veale.16 This group was ambushed about 3rd September and further divided with Lang, Scott, Jones and McGillivray forming one separate party.
These four men then attempted to make their way back alone to the main Australian forces. Jones and McGillivray, finally overcome with exhaustion, hunger and exposure, died, but the other two went on, daily growing weaker. On the twentieth day after the ambush, wasted by their struggle, they were as desperate as starving wolves. They saw a Japanese walking down the track carrying two packets of Australian biscuits. Scott bailed him up with his pistol. The Japanese saw the weakness of the gaunt figure and tried to cut him down with a machete. Scott warded the blow with a shrunken arm while Lang, with all the feeble strength he could muster, hurled a piece of wood at the enemy soldier, giving Scott time for a shot which finished him off. They took the biscuits and staggered on. Eighteen days later a party of Australian engineers picked them up.
Lang said that Key and the five men with him were already suffering from hunger and exposure when he saw them last. But only scraps of their story can be pieced together from that point.
For the 10th September 2nd-Lieutenant Hirano, a platoon commander of the I Battalion of the 144th Regiment, recorded in his diary:
Captured Lieut-Colonel Key and four others. Though questioned the prisoners stubbornly refused to speak. Tied them securely for the night and decided to send them to the battalion commander tomorrow morning.
Key and his men, in their last extremity, were still giving everything of themselves to their comrades and their duty. For the others the long silence closes there but the pen of the Gona priest, Father Benson, adds a little to the story of Key himself.
It was October or November; Benson was being held prisoner by the Japanese at Buna and, at the time of which he writes, was attending a medical dressing station for treatment.
... During my last visit ... a tall, gaunt Australian, with the star and crown of a Lieut-colonel on his shoulder straps, was brought in. He had a nasty leg wound. He was an emaciated skeleton; evidently he had been alone in the jungle for a very long time. We greeted each other with the raising of a hand. As softly as I could, I said:
But before he could reply Fujioka clouted me over the head and roared: “Benson! Speak no!”
Next day the interpreter came on behalf of the officer and asked if I could lend him any books. I was glad to send him my entire library. This interpreter .. . told me that the Lieut-colonel was so weak that he could only drink liquid out of a tin. I asked for his name but the interpreter could not tell me; and soon after I heard he had been taken to Rabaul.17
It seems certain that this was Key. He had seen his first duty as a prisoner—not to speak. Just as clearly he must have seen the prisoner’s
second duty—to escape. It seems likely that he achieved this, continued his struggle to return to his own forces, was wounded and recaptured.
Also in Chapter 6 it was mentioned that Lieutenant McIlroy and 20 men were sent out on 1st September to watch the track along the ridge west of Eora Creek to Kagi and to remain there for three days or until relieved.
McIlroy and his men set out carrying three days’ rations. They followed the main track for half an hour, guided by a native, thence swung west. After three more hours’ walking they found themselves on a ridge astride a track which led to the village of Seregina. They were misled then by a confusion of faint pads which seemed to fade into bush after a short distance.
For the next four days, making for the main track between Templeton’s Crossing and Myola, the patrol struggled through the bush. Most of that time they climbed steadily. Tumbled rocks, valleys and falling water forced detours on them. Since their first night out their clothes and blankets had been soaked. The mountain mists rose out of the valleys in the morning. Rain fell in the afternoons.
On the morning of the 6th they ate the last of their food. That same day they found a track which led generally east. In the afternoon rain they took yams from a native garden. They could hear firing from the left but could see nothing as the mountains blocked their view. As they ate their yams in the evening two soldiers, who had been cut off that day from Lieutenant Bell’s patrol of the 2/27th, joined them. The newcomers had tobacco and were the more welcome on that account.
On the 9th the patrol reached the village of Hailo, which they had seen amongst the rising mists on the previous day. The natives, Seventh Day Adventist Mission converts, were kind. They fed the tired and hungry men on yams, taro, bananas, paw paw and sugar cane and gave them a but in which to sleep. Next day they guided the soldiers along a track which led to Menari.
In the early afternoon Corporal Waller,18 Privates Bell,19 Roberts,20 and Smith,21 having no groundsheets or blankets, moved to reach Menari before the afternoon rains came. As they swung on to the main Efogi–Menari track they were surprised by a Japanese machine-gun post covering the junction. Waller and Bell were killed, it is thought, in trying to move back to warn McIlroy, but Roberts and Smith got through to Ioribaiwa where they rejoined the battalion on the 14th.
Meanwhile McIlroy himself, with one of his sections, had moved to reconnoitre the track junction. The Japanese engaged him and wounded
one of his men. McIlroy then withdrew but could not regain contact with the rest of his patrol so that he and seven men were left alone. Knowing now of the Japanese strength and their advance along the main track McIlroy avoided it, moving on a parallel course through the bush. He did not get far, however. His men were weak from travelling in the rough country and the native foods did not sustain them. The wounded man was weak and another one of the party injured his leg so that he had to be carried.
On the 16th, therefore, Lance-Corporal Gedye22 with Privates Brown23 and Cahill,24 and Private Matschoss25 of the 2/27th, were sent ahead. They were to try to reach the Australian positions and send back help. But Gedye’s party met trouble. Treacherous natives attacked them on the third day after they left the others, killed Cahill and Matschoss, and dogged Gedye and Brown—the latter with a spear wound in the back.
It was not until 3rd October that the two survivors reached safety.
Meanwhile McIlroy, who had kept one man with him to help care for the two casualties, had been forced to remain where he was. Again the natives were kind, digging yams and taro for the Australians and drawing water for them daily. On the 30th, however, the soldier with the injured leg died. His friends buried him in the wild loneliness. Sad but freer, McIlroy then moved off once more with the two remaining members of his own original patrol and two more men of the battalion who had been in the bush since the fighting at Isurava and had recently joined him A friendly party of mission natives who had been waiting patiently guided them for the next three days.
On the 4th they left the natives and struck out for the Brown River. But the going was still hard. On the 5th the five men shared a small piece of taro and a little fish about four inches long. On the following day they came out on the banks of the river and they followed it down. They were picking green paw paws to cook when a patrol from the 2/6th Independent Company found them.
In hospital McIlroy learned of the fates of various members of his patrol who had become separated from him Of the main body with which he had lost contact on the 10th September seven had linked with another isolated party under Sergeant Irwin and had arrived spent and worn at Uberi on the 21st September. But there was no word of the four other men who had been with that group.