Chapter 8: To Templeton’s Crossing
At the beginning of October the Australians were pushing once more across the Kokoda Track after the advance of the 25th Brigade from Imita Ridge to Ioribaiwa. As they pressed on into the mountains intense fighting continued on and round Guadalcanal, 770 miles to the east. It was clear that the Japanese had decided to finish the Guadalcanal campaign before reinforcing New Guinea substantially; equally clear that Japanese capture of the smaller island would be followed by swift concentration against the larger one, although it was not then known that the Japanese had actually planned to take Port Moresby by the end of November.
Despite the worrying naval situation created by the torpedoing of the battleship North Carolina and the destruction of the aircraft carrier Wasp on 15th September, the Americans had succeeded in running in to Guadalcanal a large convoy which landed useful reinforcements (notably the 7th Marine Regiment) and much needed material of all kinds on the 18th. They were still not strong enough, they considered, to attempt to drive their enemies off the island and remained on the defensive round the vital Henderson Field.
This primitive strip
lacked adequate dispersal facilities, revetments, fuel storage tanks and machine shops. All aircraft had to be loaded with bombs by hand, and refuelled from gasoline drums by hand pumps.1
None the less, Brigadier-General Roy S. Geiger, commanding the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, was maintaining an average of about fifty operational aircraft at the field by the beginning of October. Japanese ships hesitated to come within their radius by day. Japanese destroyers took to running down the coast by night and landing troops under the lee of the island in small groups to make their way overland to join the force concentrated against the American defences.
These defences took the form of a 22,000-yard perimeter which enclosed Henderson Field by running south along the Ilu River on the right, then turned west through roughly-wooded ravines and ridges south of the airfield, crossed the Lunga River at right angles, and touched the coast between Kukum and the mouth of the Matanikau River.
After a sharp repulse to probing American forces round the mouth of the Matanikau late in September General Vandergrift began to fear that that area, outside his perimeter, might become an “Achilles heel”. He therefore thrust sharply into it early in October but news of impending major Japanese operations caused him to withdraw his main attacking
force (which had lost 65 killed and 125 wounded) on the 9th. His men counted 253 Japanese dead but learned later that they had inflicted heavier casualties than those.
Now the navy, on which the stranded marines depended completely, again entered the Guadalcanal scene.
It is necessary to remember that as of October 10, 1942, there seemed a very good chance that we would lose [the war]. Coral Sea and Midway, yes; our naval air fought those and it covered itself with glory. The submarines were doing well. But the rest of the Navy, in fact the Navy as a whole, had not looked good. Oklahoma and Arizona had left the fleet forever at Pearl Harbour; Lexington, Yorktown and now Wasp were gone, Saratoga and North Carolina were in for repairs. In the Java Sea we had lost a heavy cruiser and a whole division of destroyers; at Savo three cruisers more, and our destroyer loss now stood at fifteen ships. What had the Japs paid for this? The carriers of Midway, another one at Coral Sea, two cruisers downed by submarines and a few destroyers—not a Jap ship was sunk by the surface Navy. They were ahead.2
The navy determined to attempt to stop the nightly naval bombardments which were trying the Americans in the Henderson Field area and to give some pause to the flow of reinforcements. For this purpose, and to protect the left flank of a convoy carrying the 164th Regiment—an army formation—into Guadalcanal, Rear-Admiral Norman Scott, with 4 cruisers and 5 destroyers, put out from Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. Scouting aircraft reported to him on 11th October that they had discovered a Japanese naval force moving south to Guadalcanal. Sailing to intercept, Scott was off Cape Esperance, the northernmost tip of Guadalcanal, just before midnight—in the waters of the disastrous Savo Island Battle of the night 8th–9th August. Pips, representing Japanese ships, leaped on to the American radar screens. Scott’s ships gained a seven-minute advantage as they opened fire over the dark waters. On the islands the marines, remembering the previous battle, listened apprehensively as the noise of gunfire rolled across the sea. But this time the ships which burned high into the night were Japanese. Of the heavy cruisers Furutaka was sunk and Aoba badly damaged. (In Aoba the Japanese force commander, Admiral Goto was mortally wounded.) The destroyers Natsugumo and Fubuki went down. Scott lost only the destroyer Duncan and had two cruisers and one destroyer damaged. Next morning Dauntless dive bombers plummeted down on the big destroyer Murakumo as she struggled to help the badly mauled Aoba and sank her.
But, in tune with the see-saw nature of the war’s fortunes at Guadalcanal, the high American excitement which followed this battle was quickly sobered. While the 164th Regiment was landing at noon on 13th October Japanese airmen rained bombs on Henderson Field from a height of 30,000 feet. Surprised, the American fighters could not reach interception level. More bombers struck again at 1.30 while the defending fighters were being refuelled and further serious damage resulted. But worse came with the night. A naval force, including two battleships, stood offshore and pounded
the American positions. The attackers reported that explosions were seen everywhere and the entire airfield was a sea of flame
Forty-one Americans were killed, over half the 90 aircraft operating from Henderson Field were destroyed or damaged and the field itself was smashed into temporarily unusable rubble. After the warships had gone Japanese 15-cm howitzers (“Pistol Pete” to the Americans) which, despite the naval and air opposition, had been landed west of the Matanikau, continued to register on the airstrip.
Still staggering from this onslaught the defenders had news on the 14th that seven 9,000 to 10,000-ton transports, escorted by warships, were bound for Guadalcanal. Fortunately they had by this time laid down a smaller strip, which, though rough and grassy and unmatted, was to serve them well while the main field was out of action. From this the surviving planes took off to meet the new threat. By the night of the 14th they had sunk one transport and the darkness was shot through with flames from another as it burned on the surface of the sea. But dawn of the 15th showed the remaining transports and their escorts unloading off Tassafaronga Point, some ten miles west of Lunga Point. General Geiger then had twenty-seven planes operational but scarcely enough fuel to get them into the air. His men scoured the surrounding bush for small supplies which might have been overlooked, and drained the wrecks of aircraft which lay about. Their search yielded about 400 drums which represented approximately two days’ supply. By 11 a.m. they had sunk another transport and set two more afire. The rest of the ships then put out to sea once more but, it was clear, not before they had landed much material and many additional men.
The first of the land actions which all these preparations had presaged opened on 20th October. The Japanese then struck vigorously at the Matanikau positions on the 21st and 23rd but were repulsed for the loss of 25 marines killed and 14 wounded. Early on the 25th they attacked again—but on the south of the perimeter this time. There the I/7th Marines were holding a long front thinly, but though a few of their positions were overrun in the first wild minutes they broke the initial attacks. Reinforced with infantry the marines held against a series of new attacks until dawn.
The 25th was a day of heavy air raids and bombardment of the American positions by “Pistol Pete”. Rains had turned the airstrips into bogs and Geiger’s men were earthbound during the first part of the day. Japanese warships ranged up and down the shore. As the day went on, however, the sun dried up the worst of the mud and the defending planes could take the air. By last light they claimed to have shot down twenty-two of their attackers. Then the Japanese land forces struck again, but, broken, the attackers withdrew again at dawn.
The failure of these attacks marked the end of the ground phase of the Japanese October offensive, for the attackers withdrew east and west soon afterwards. They had suffered heavily. Vandergrift’s headquarters estimated
that some 2,200 had been killed although other estimates placed the Japanese casualties as high as 3,568 in two regiments alone.
Over 1,500 stinking Japanese corpses lay in front of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, and the 3rd Battalion, 164th Infantry The latter regiment reported that it had completed the nauseous task of burying 975 enemy bodies in front of K and L Companies.... American losses had been light by comparison. The 164th Infantry lost 26 men killed and 52 wounded throughout October.3
But before the Americans had time to savour this victory—before, indeed, it was assured—events at sea seemed once more to swing the balance. While the Japanese land forces were still attacking, news came that their navy was out in force, manoeuvring off the Santa Cruz Islands. The ships (as was subsequently learned) numbered 4 aircraft carriers, 4 battleships, 8 cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 28 destroyers, 4 oilers and 3 cargo ships. At Pearl Harbour Admiral Nimitz had received Intelligence of their approach and had sent Rear-Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid racing to the Santa Cruz waters. When Kinkaid finally stood out to meet the Japanese he was commanding two carrier groups. In one force he had the carrier Enterprise, the new battleship South Dakota, one heavy cruiser, one light anti-aircraft cruiser, and eight destroyers; in another, round Hornet, two heavy cruisers, two light anti-aircraft cruisers, and six destroyers. Kinkaid’s strength was therefore considerably inferior.
On the morning of 26th October his searching aircraft located the main enemy forces but not before the Americans had themselves been picked up by the Japanese scouts. In the Battle of Santa Cruz which followed Kinkaid lost Hornet and the destroyer Porter, and Enterprise, South Dakota, the light cruiser San Juan and the destroyer Smith were damaged. He lost also 74 aircraft. On the other hand no Japanese ships were sunk although several (including two carriers) were damaged and more aircraft than the Americans had lost were probably destroyed. Although the Japanese fleet then returned to Truk that was because of the failure of the operations on land.
General Hyakutake’s plans for the use of his XVII Army had continued to be based on an underestimate of the American strength on Guadalcanal which, after the arrival of the 164th Infantry, numbered more than 23,000. His basic concept was that Major-General Kawaguchi’s forces still remaining on Guadalcanal would secure the area of the Matanikau mouth and enable the establishment of artillery positions from which Henderson Field could be bombarded. Additionally he played with the idea of an amphibious assault. His men would “capture the enemy positions, especially the airfield and artillery positions, at one blow”. After the reduction of the American positions the Japanese would seize other islands in the southern Solomons, intensify their attacks on New Guinea and take Port Moresby by the end of November.
Hyakutake’s main strength for the Guadalcanal operations would be drawn from the 2nd and 38th Divisions. The 2nd Division contained the 4th, 16th and 29th Regiments; the 38th contained the 228th, 229th and 230th.
By mid-October most of the 2nd Division and two battalions of the 38th Division were on Guadalcanal in addition to the veterans of the Ichiki and Kawaguchi Forces. The total Japanese strength there then numbered some 25,000 men including field, anti-aircraft and mountain artillery, a company of tanks, and ancillary units.
The Japanese Navy was cooperating with the army to the fullest extent. The force which Admiral Scott had mauled off Cape Esperance on the night of 11th–12th October had been running down to neutralise Henderson Field to provide greater safety for the landing of more troops and supplies. But meanwhile the greatest naval force the Japanese had assembled since Midway was gathering at Truk and Rabaul.
On land Hyakutake’s plans were nourished by the belief that American spirit and strength were waning. He told Lieut-General Masao Maruyama, commander of the 2nd Division, to attack the American positions from the south with his main force on a date tentatively fixed as 18th October. While Maruyama pushed inland from Kokumbona (west of the Matanikau) to his start-line Major-General Tadashi Sumiyoshi, the XVII Army’s artillery commander, would operate in the Matanikau area a force consisting of the 4th Infantry and two battalions of the 124th, tanks and field and mountain artillery. And at that time plans were still extant for a landing through the American seaward defences by the 228th Infantry.
General Kawaguchi would command Maruyama’s right wing consisting of one battalion of the 124th Infantry, two battalions of the 230th Infantry, mortars, guns and ancillary detachments. Major-General Yumio Nasu would command the left wing made up of the 29th Infantry with support in mortars, guns and the like similar to that allotted to Kawaguchi and the 16th Infantry in reserve. Kawaguchi and Nasu would attack northward simultaneously from east of the Lunga to capture the airfield and annihilate the Americans.
The Japanese, however, made a whole series of costly errors in executing these plans: their attacks were not coordinated; when Sumiyoshi attacked in the Matanikau comer, Maruyama, preparing for the main attack in the south, was still struggling into position over a difficult track which exhausted his men and denuded him of all his heavy support weapons; when Maruyama himself attacked, Kawaguchi’s battalions on the right wing lost direction in darkness and rain and crossed behind the 29th Regiment which formed the left wing. Several of the senior Japanese commanders were killed. But perhaps the greatest Japanese mistake was their underestimate of the strength of the forces opposed to them. Certainly they outgunned the Americans from their positions west of the Matanikau and had the almost unhindered nightly assistance of naval units; the majority of their men were fresh while Vandergrift’s forces (with the possible exception of the new arrivals) were weakened by
malaria, dysentery, malnutrition and arduous service. But the Americans were waiting in positions they had been preparing for more than two months; they had local air superiority which hindered Japanese preparations and limited the amount of material they could land; they had had time to prepare elaborate artillery support programs covering the lines of approach to their positions; roughly equal in numbers to the attackers they would normally be able to smother any breakthrough which shattered their perimeter at any point.
The failure of the ground operations cut the substance from beneath all the Japanese naval planning. The large force to which Admiral Kinkaid had given battle off the Santa Cruz Islands had been waiting to exploit and consolidate General Hyakutake’s success ashore. But Hyakutake’s delay in getting into position for the final assaults had so worried the naval commanders that they had sent an anxious message on the 24th or 25th saying that the fleet would be forced to retire for lack of fuel if the attack were not carried out immediately. When the assault was broken the navy had no alternative but to cancel their own plans.
It was in the light of the situation which developed in Guadalcanal during this difficult month of October that General MacArthur and General Blamey had to plan their operations in New Guinea. Even if the Guadalcanal forces continued to hold they had to be prepared for a Japanese change of plan which would aim merely to contain the Americans in the south while changing the emphasis to the New Guinea axis. Much more likely, however, was an American collapse in the Solomons.
On 16th October General Marshall radioed MacArthur:
Have examined charts of Japanese naval surface concentrations in Bougainville ports and to the south, especially the Shortland Islands—Faisi area, totalling 5 or 6 BB8 [Battleships], 3 carriers, many cruisers and DDs [destroyers]; another Carrier Task Force operating south and southeast of Guadalcanal not located; we have only 1 carrier at present in SOPAC; Japanese outranged our artillery on Guadalcanal, keeping airfield under constant bombardment from land, with occasional bombardment from ships; their naval superiority is preventing reinforcement and re-supply, especially gasoline; situation most critical. ...
In his reply on the 17th General MacArthur reviewed the operations in his own area and concluded:
It is now necessary to prepare for possible disaster in the Solomons; if we are defeated in the Solomons as we must be unless the Navy accepts successfully the challenge of the enemy surface fleet, the entire SWPA will be in the gravest danger. ...
President Roosevelt himself was even more outspoken. The Pacific War Council, in a record of its meeting on the 21st October, noted:
The President said that in the Solomons it was no use saying we were not in a hole. There had been excellent cooperation from the services in Australia, and the New Guinea area under the Australian command had become more and more tied in with the other command. Actually cooperation between MacArthur and Ghormley was not very good. The attack in August had been brilliantly carried
out but, looked at now, it seemed questionable whether it was not too far from a supply base to be permanently tenable. Further, only one air field had been occupied, and perhaps an attempt should have been made to secure another on the north side of New Guinea. The United States had a large number of troops in Guadalcanal, but the Japanese had launched a major operation with far greater forces than we could put there or maintain.
Even at the beginning of October MacArthur knew that every day saved in New Guinea was important. On the 1st he defined his plans:
... Our Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area [will] attack with the immediate objective of driving the Japanese to the northward of the Kumusi River line.
The New Guinea Force will:
1. Advance along the axes Nauro–Kokoda–Wairopi and Rigo–Dorobisolo–Jaure–Wairopi and/or Abau–Namudi–Jaure–Wairopi with the objective of securing the line of the Kumusi River from Awalama Divide to the crossing of the Kokoda–Buna Trail, both inclusive.
2. Occupy and hold Goodenough Island and the north coast of South-eastern New Guinea south of Cape Nelson in such force as to deny these areas to the Japanese forces.
3. Upon securing these objectives, all land forces will prepare for further advance to secure the area Buna–Gona upon further orders of this Headquarters.4
On 5th October Blamey wrote to MacArthur throwing a hard light on the pivotal problems of the New Guinea operations:
The object of the New Guinea Force is to drive the enemy out of South-eastern New Guinea and Papua. The capacity of the force to do this is limited mainly by two considerations –
(a) communications to permit the movement of the necessary troops
Preparation of adequate communications is a matter involving the making of roads under the most difficult conditions of terrain and requires time. Supply is dependent –
(i) on the development of communications
(ii) on the amount of sea supply which can be made available
(iii) on the amount of air supply which can be made available.
For the moment air supply is paramount.
The first line commitments are—
(a) Wanigela—one infantry battalion (720 troops);
(b) Kokoda front—one infantry brigade (front line), total 4,600 troops;5 one infantry brigade in reserve; 2,000 native carriers.
(c) Kanga force-650 troops; 1,300 native carriers.
(d) To this should be added the troops of the 32nd US Div advancing along the Rigo–Abau route. It is proposed to press the advance with a force of approximately 1,000 troops and 600 native carriers.
Every effort will be made by these means to press the advance on BUNA on all three fronts.
The total number therefore to be supplied by air are –
(i) troops—approximately 7,000
(ii) native carriers-3,900.
Difficulties of supply and communication may make it impossible to coordinate the advance in the three directions. The order of priority will therefore be--
(a) Advance Kokoda Route-7th Australian Division.
(b) Hatforce 24 [the Wanigela force principally 2/10th Battalion].
(c) 32 United States Division.
The effort which can be made by Hatforce will of course be small and the difficulties of terrain which face the 32nd United States Division are very considerable.
The calculated weight required to be dropped by air is at the rate of 10-lbs per man per day. As a result of experience this includes 30 per cent estimated losses and a proportion for carriers and includes necessary general supply and ammunition. When landing can be substituted for dropping, the calculated weight is 6.6 lbs per man per day. The calculations of the United States and Australian forces approximate very closely.
In addition to this daily requirement, it is essential that reserve supplies be gradually accumulated. First to a total of 21 days and later to 30 days. It must be foreseen that there will be frequent days, particularly during the wet weather, when air supply will not be possible at all. This may extend to a considerable period.
Details of requirements in air transport are summarised below. These details were determined at a conference attended by –
CG Adv Ech 5 AF [Commanding General Advance Echelon 5th Air Force] (Brig-General Walker).
CG 32nd US Div (Major-General Harding).
GOC NGF (Lieut-General Herring).
General Walker authorised me to say he concurs in these conclusions.
Effect of Roads. The speed with which roads can be pushed forward to take jeeps or 11-ton four-wheel drive trucks is a material factor in reducing requirements for air supply. For example, the completion of the road OWERS’ CREEK-NAURO, by-passing UBERI and the IMITA Ridge, will reduce requirements for 7th Australian Division by nearly half, i.e., to a daily total of approximately 25,000 lbs.6
32nd US Division is commencing reconnaissance to extend roads towards their objective.
Effect of landing instead of dropping. If aircraft can land instead of dropping supplies, a saving in weight to be transported by air of about 30 per cent is to be anticipated.
The ability to land at KOKODA a/d will reduce 7th Australian Division requirements by 16,000 pounds to a total of 32,000 lbs daily (not including reserves).
Supply by sea. Every effort is being made to establish a small craft supply route from MILNE BAY to WANIGELA. The success of this will reduce air transport requirements by 5,000 lbs daily (not including reserves) but it may be some time before it is effective, and it may always be precarious.
Employment of carriers. Native carriers are required to lift supplies forward between air dropping grounds and forward troops. The number of carriers required is based on lifting supplies for two daily stages. The number of carriers available are only sufficient for this purpose, and the heavy wastage rates, together with the increasing difficulty of collection and distribution, makes it virtually impossible to maintain sufficient carriers in the field to carry from road or pack-head and so reduce air transport requirements. Certain stores, including fuse caps and other
explosives, wireless spares and medical equipment cannot be dropped. These of course are carried throughout from road or pack-head to forward troops. As an example of the impossibility of materially affecting air transport requirements, it is calculated that the maintenance of troops between UBERI and KOKODA without any supply by air, would require 10,000 carriers.
Summary of Air Transport requirements in New Guinea area
|Total maximum daily weight in lbs (not including reserve)||Minimum daily weight in lbs (not including reserve)||Remarks|
|Wanigela||5,000||Nil||5,000 lbs including additional weight for AA ammunition. Nil after establishment supply by sea.|
|32nd United States Div.||10,000||5,000||5,000 lbs up to LARUNI; 10,000 lbs on arrival JAURE.|
|7th Australian Division||48,000||32,000||Reduction on employment of KOKODA drome for landing aircraft.|
|Kanga Force||5,000||4,300||Minimum estimated for present force with aircraft landing at Wau. Maximum including 7th Independent Company.|
|Daily average increase to build up reserves||34,000||20,600|
|Grand total average daily air transport requirements||102,000||61,900||Reserves on basis 21-30 days.|
To give effect to General MacArthur’s intentions General Blamey planned to maintain General Rowell’s intention that the Australian 25th and 16th Brigades would continue the advance across the Kokoda Track with the successive objects of capturing Kokoda and the aerodrome there to facilitate reinforcement and supply; of securing the line of the Kumusi River; and of closing on Buna. At the same time one battalion of the 126th United States Infantry Regiment would strike up from the South-east, by way of Jaure, either to Wairopi or Buna (in accordance with the developing situation) and another force would move on a third axis Wanigela–Pongani (on the coast between Wanigela and Buna)–Buna. The main force on the third axis would be a battalion of the 128th Infantry which, having been flown to Wanigela, would press on along the coast to Pongani to join there with two battalions of the 126th Regiment which would be flown direct to Pongani or its immediate vicinity. The three forces would converge on the Japanese positions in the Buna–Gona area.
At the beginning of October action in accordance with these intentions was, naturally, most advanced along the first axis—the Kokoda Track. Patrols had already found Nauro unoccupied and had gone on toward
Menari. The 3rd Battalion led the advance of the main body on the 1st. Behind it the 2/25th moved out from Ioribaiwa on the 2nd with Major Marson7 in command. The other two battalions were to follow on succeeding days.
The 3rd Battalion found evidence of hasty Japanese withdrawal: bodies and equipment lay along the track. By the early afternoon of the 2nd the leading company was at Menari and was continuing to Efogi without opposition. Colonel Cameron reported that the area between Ioribaiwa and Nauro seemed to have been occupied by some 2,000 men; that his troops had buried twelve Japanese on whom there were no signs of wounds; that there was evidence that the invaders had been reduced to eating wood, grass, roots and fruits which were known to be inedible, and that dysentery was rife among them. He found the bodies of two Australians, one bound to a tree, one decapitated.
The 3rd Battalion, except for Captain Boag’s company which went ahead towards Efogi, spent the 3rd and 4th clearing dropping grounds at Nauro. Marson passed through to bivouac half-way between Nauro and Menari. On the afternoon of the 4th Boag reached Efogi and reported it clear. He said that carriers who had been working for the Japanese told him that their most recent masters had fallen back to Kokoda. Cameron’s main body reached Menari on the 5th and, by the end of the next day, Marson was pressing on towards Efogi. Both battalions had patrols working well ahead and on the flanks. On the 5th Marson had sent out Lieutenant Barnett8 and Lieutenant Cox9 with 53 men, carrying five days’ rations, to try to reach Myola, contact the Japanese if possible and determine their strength. Cameron’s patrols were working round towards the Myola–Templeton’s Crossing area through Kagi on the left.
The men of the 2/33rd Battalion, moving behind Marson and Cameron, were clearing distressing evidence of the fighting which had taken place between Menari and Efogi nearly a month before. On the 7th they buried there the bodies of some 55 Australians as well as many Japanese dead; next day they buried 20 more.
On the 8th it seemed that the Australians had overtaken the Japanese rearguard. Both Barnett, and a patrol from the 3rd Battalion under Sergeant Tongs10 which had moved via Kagi, encountered Japanese between Myola and Templeton’s Crossing. Barnett was not successful in dislodging what he estimated to be a Japanese platoon holding astride the track. Wounded himself and having lost two other men wounded and one killed, he fell back on Myola. Tongs, with only a section on a purely reconnaissance mission, likewise fell back.
By this time Eather had the main strength of all four of his battalions disposed along the track between Menari and Efogi. Menari was in use
as a dropping ground and one of Cameron’s companies had already prepared an area at Efogi for the same purpose. Eather ordered the remainder of the 3rd Battalion to join this company at Efogi North on the 9th; Lieut-Colonel Buttrose would lead his 2/33rd Battalion through Efogi that day to cover the main track from Myola; on the morning of the 10th the 2/25th would swing left to Kagi to cover the approaches through that area and the 2/31st would come forward to Efogi North.
Eather’s battalions seemed to move slowly after this contact. By night-fall of the 10th Lieutenant Cox (who had taken over Barnett’s patrol) was still not making progress against the Japanese rearguard. The 3rd Battalion was in a defensive position at Myola; the 2/33rd was in the same area; the 2/25th was bivouacked at the Kagi–Myola turnoff; the 2/31st, in rear, had arrived at Efogi.
The slowness of the 25th Brigade was due mainly to two factors. Firstly, Eather was trying to nurse his men against the heavy demands the nature of the country itself was making on them; secondly he was greatly worried about supply.
Shortage of carriers remained one of the biggest problems. The effects of this were not so grave while the 25th Brigade was operating in the Imita Ridge–Ioribaiwa area, despite the fact that no air dropping grounds were available and not merely because the supply line was so much shorter, because the Pack Transport unit was at work forward from the jeep-head to Imita Ridge. When, at the end of August, reserve supplies along the track fell very low, special efforts were made to increase the carrying capacity of the troop. It was then reorganised as a section of a Pack Transport company, and did excellent work until the end of the packing period despite difficulties of track maintenance, shortages of men, exhaustion of animals, epidemics of strangles and infectious nasal catarrh among horses imported from Australia, and shortage and disrepair of pack saddlery (which, until 60 new saddles arrived from Australia about mid-September, consisted mostly of plantation equipment held together only with great difficulty as the work went on).11
When Eather’s advance began he tried to build up dumps as he went forward but only 900 natives were available forward of Uberi from the beginning of October and sickness and desertions decreased this number daily. The supply of carriers was running out, although the men of Angau were doing all they could to maintain it, casting away the pre-war principles which restricted the numbers of natives who could be recruited for work from particular areas, and building up a vast problem of native administration for the future. The maximum recruitment figure permissible in pre-war days from some of the areas from which recruits might most conveniently be fed on to the Kokoda Track was 8,830. By 9th October Angau was already maintaining 9,270 from the same districts and had to undertake to provide 4,000 more. The drastic recruiting policy bore
heavily not only on the conscript carriers themselves but on their family, village and tribal groups. Food production fell away and the many tasks which were normally the lot of the able-bodied men remained undone.
In the early stages of the 25th Brigade’s advance carriers were usually allotted on the basis of 90 to brigade headquarters and 40 to each battalion, with a large pool which worked under divisional arrangements. One Angau representative moved with brigade headquarters and one with each battalion, to control and work the carriers. In the units the natives carried the heavy weapons and their ammunition, reserve ammunition, medical gear, and signals equipment; they assisted to supply the battalions from the forward supply dump, which was usually about half a day’s march to the rear.
After a battalion was committed to action the strain on the carriers increased. Each stretcher case required 8 natives to move him back to the nearest advanced dressing station. This probably represented half a day’s work. While the natives were carrying wounded they could not, of course, carry supplies. Action also interfered with their work in other ways. Carriers could not then be sent right forward to battalions, and this obliged the units to draw supplies themselves from dumps established in their rear. During the nightly halts the carriers had to be camped as much as 2 or 3 hours’ walk to the rear where they were not open to Japanese attack, where their noise could not be heard nor their fires seen by the Japanese.
The soldiers themselves were generally more burdened than the carriers. In the 25th Brigade each man carried up to five days’ rations (2 days’ hard and 3 emergency), half a blanket, a groundsheet, soap, toothbrush, half a towel, half a dixie, a water-bottle, his weapon and ammunition. One shaving kit was usually carried by each three men. Within each battalion weapons and ammunition were usually carried as follows: each rifleman carried his own rifle and 100-150 rounds of ammunition; one 3-inch mortar with 15 bombs was carried by natives when these were available, at other times by the mortar crew assisted by other Headquarters Company men and sometimes by men of the rifle companies; one Vickers machine-gun, with 2 or 3 belts of ammunition, was carried similarly to the mortar; one Bren gun a section was carried in turns by each member of the section with 10 magazines a gun distributed among the members of the section; 2 sub-machine-guns a section were carried by the gunners with 5 magazines and 150 loose rounds a gun; one 2-inch mortar to each platoon was carried by the mortar members with 12 rounds a mortar distributed throughout the platoon; 2 grenades were carried by each man. Each battalion carried with it also 5 carrier loads of medical gear; cooking gear; 2 picks and 2 axes; 1 machete and 1 spade a section; and signals equipment consisting basically of six telephones and six 108-wireless sets.
The demands thus made on soldiers and carriers alike, and the slow toilsome nature of maintenance by purely human means, would have crippled the Australians had they not been able to look for supply from the air as they advanced deeper into the mountains
Very early in the Papuan operations it became clear that supply by air demanded an integration of effort by three main groups—the forward ground forces; the base supply organisation; the aircrews. To the first of these fell the tasks of selecting the dropping areas and (where necessary) clearing them, devising and utilising appropriate signals to guide the aircraft, gathering the stores which were dropped and distributing them as required.
In the base supply organisation appropriate forms and recognised procedures were developed rapidly. The use of air transport demanded administrative organisation to handle the assembly of bulk stores in depots, transport to airfields, loading of planes, staffing of supply dumps, calling forward of stores and personnel at correct times together with the checking and clerical work necessary to such projects. No precedent was available on which to base a system or organisation but, as the campaign developed, so did a satisfactory system evolve, mainly through trial and error. This necessitated the cooperation and combined working mainly of the Staff Duties section of the General Staff, the Quartermaster-General’s Branch, Supply and Transport, Ordnance, Engineer Stores, Medical and Salvage Services, and the Transport Group of the Advance Echelon of the Fifth Air Force.
The combined method of working which developed depended initially upon the receipt at the base each day of an urgently signalled statement of holdings, of demands in order of priority for the next day, from the forward formations. Staff Duties then decided the priorities, balancing the daily demands of the forward formations with all other relevant factors. “Q” Branch calculated on that basis the number of plane-loads involved. If the total number of aircraft could not be made available by Fifth Air Force, appropriate adjustments were made by Staff Duties to their priorities. “Q” Branch then prepared plane-loading tables and an outline plan for air supply for the following day. Various supply agencies (Army Service Corps, Ordnance, Medical Stores and Engineer Stores depots) were then ordered to have the necessary stores ready for dispatch at an airfield rendezvous by a certain time. At the loading points personnel of special detachments loaded and checked the stores on to the aircraft, posted a guard in each and prepared the necessary manifests. As each aircraft took off its departure was notified to Headquarters New Guinea Force over a direct line from the airfield.
Theoretically, the time program involved in this procedure allowed for the receipt of demands from the forward formations in the afternoon of each day, the completion of the Staff Duties calculations by the late afternoon, the completion of the initial “Q” estimates and lodgment of demands for aircraft by the early evening, and the preparation of the loading tables and outline plans for flying by the late evening. More often than not, however, the staff work involved went on at a frenzied pace almost to the moment of the departure of the aircraft in the early mornings and, as the campaign mounted towards its successive climaxes, the demands made on the staffs involved (particularly the Staff Duties and “Q”
personnel) were so intense that many of the officers were worn out by the strain of the responsibility and long hours of work.
In these early days the difficulties which were continually manifested seemed limitless. Troubles associated with the nature of the transport medium itself were constant: there were always too few transport aircraft and the numbers available not only varied from day to day but could vary from hour to hour; the numbers available were in turn conditioned by the availability of fighter escorts, by the weather, and by enemy air activity. Communications channels from forward areas were limited and always overloaded so that there were serious delays in the exchange of vital supply information between the New Guinea Force Headquarters and the forward headquarters. Rapid changes in the operational situation constantly necessitated last-minute changes in the involved supply arrangements and plans The percentages of recoveries from air droppings were low, varying from a maximum of about 80 per cent to a minimum of 10 per cent. About 20 per cent of the tins burst when tinned meat was dropped in corn-sacks. Biscuits packed in blankets, shattered on impact. Every round of small arms ammunition dropped had to be laboriously tested when recovered to ensure that it would not jam in the breech of a weapon during action; premature explosions by dropped mortar bombs caused such frequent casualties that, for a time, the dropping of these bombs was discontinued.
Important factors in the preparation of supplies for air dropping were the availability of packing materials, simplicity of packing procedure, protection of supplies and the effect of the weight of packing on the effective payload of transports. Blankets were sent forward as wrappings on some commodities. Copra sacks were sometimes used for packing until regular supplies of corn sacks arrived from Australia. The type of packing materials governed the procedure of packing, which in turn dictated the labour requirements. Because of shortage of labour the packing procedure had to be as simple as possible. Cumbersome and heavy wrappings did not necessarily prevent damage from the first impact with the ground. The principal value of wrapping was as binding for the contents. Effective binding reduced the subsequent damage from bouncing and simplified recovery.
In the final analysis, however, the success of the air-dropping programs depended upon the skill and courage of the aircrews who carried out this monotonous and dangerous work. Their first task was to locate the actual dropping area. In the early stages pilots made many mistakes because they could not recognise ground features from the sparsely detailed maps which were all that were available. Such mistakes were later lessened, however, through the use of Angau guides who had worked in the areas involved and through the development of very simple methods of ground to air communication; e.g. burnt patches on the ground or the use of logs in the formation of leading or dropping marks. In similar fashion the actual technique of dropping developed through trial and error. In this connection the most important factors were the nature and condition
of the dropping ground, the speed and height from which packages were dropped, the accuracy of dropping and the packing and wrapping of items. The most effective height for air dropping from Douglas transports was found to be between 300 and 400 feet. Dropping from lower levels at high speed resulted in excessive smashing of packages and heavy losses through the scattering of stores over wide areas.
Ideally, it was learned, cargo should be stacked in the open doorways of Douglas aircraft from which the entire door-pieces had been removed, with the heavier and more bulky items placed at the bottom of the stack. As the aircraft made successive runs over the dropping areas, at the most effective heights, “pusherouters” (who had safety belts fastening them to the interior of the aircraft) thrust the stack outwards with their feet on the flashing of a signal from the pilot.
On 2nd October Eather had told General Allen that a program of air droppings must be quickly instituted. This had begun on the 4th with drops at Nauro but the percentage of supplies lost was high. By the end of the 5th Eather’s instructions to retake Kokoda had been modified by reference to maintenance as a limiting factor. He was told to concentrate on covering Kagi and Myola; that his brigade would be relieved by Brigadier Lloyd’s 16th Brigade as soon as possible after he was in position beyond those areas. Lloyd himself arrived forward on the 5th to discuss plans with him
On the 7th Allen signalled Lieut-General Herring (who had arrived at Port Moresby on the 1st in succession to General Rowell):
Implementation of air-dropping programme causing gravest concern. Under present system it would appear that air force cannot supply planes necessary to assure dropping of 50,000 pounds daily weather permitting. (2) 50,000 pounds daily covers maintenance only and does not repeat not provide for building up a reserve. It does however allow for 30 per cent wastage due to destruction by dropping. Actual daily requirements for delivery to units etc for maintenance is 35,000 pounds. (3) Understood it is intention to build up 21 days’ reserve supplies ammunition etc forward under existing system. This is quite impossible as supplies etc dropped during first two days of programme less than 50% of requirements for daily maintenance only. (4) Unless supply etc dropping of 50,000 pounds daily plus additional to build up reserve is assured complete revision of plans will have to be made and large proportion of troops withdrawn to Imita Ridge position. Any attempt then to hold a determined enemy advance Kagi–Templeton’s Crossing–Myola area and to occupy Kokoda will be jeopardised beyond all reason.
The next few days saw an accelerated program of air supply and, on the 11th, Eather ordered Buttrose of the 2/33rd to seize Templeton’s Crossing. Buttrose sent Lieutenant Innes12 forward with a platoon to relieve Cox but Innes reported the Japanese positions too strong for him to handle. Captain Copp13 then moved forward with the rest of the company. On the same day, guided by Sergeant Tongs to the point of Tongs’ previous
contact, Lieutenant Heron,14 with a platoon of the 3rd Battalion, was repulsed by the Japanese south of Templeton’s Crossing, losing two men At this moment there came to General Allen at his Command Group headquarters at Menari a sharp reminder that General Blamey was growing restless:
Your order definitely to push on with sufficient force and capture Kokoda. You have been furnished with supplies as you requested and ample appears to be available. In view lack of serious opposition your advance appears much too slow. You will press enemy with vigour. If you are feeling strain personally relief will be arranged. Please be frank about this. Dropping arranged only at Myola 12 rptd 12 Oct. As soon as you can assure more advanced location will arrange to drop there.
Next day Allen replied:
My outline plan ... is designed to capture Kokoda as soon as possible. Apparently it has been misunderstood. Nothing is being left undone in order to carry out your wishes and my brigade commanders have already been instructed accordingly. The most serious opposition to rapid advance is terrain. The second is maintenance of supplies through lack of native carriers. Reserve supplies have not repeat not been adequate up to 11 Oct. Until information of recoveries today am unable to say whether they are yet adequate. Rate of advance does not entirely depend on air droppings. Equal in importance is our ability to carry forward and maintain our advanced troops. Notwithstanding that men carry with them up to five days’ rations maintenance forward of dropping place is still necessary. This country is much tougher than any previous theatre and cannot be appreciated until seen. From all reports the worst is north of Myola. The vigour with which we press the enemy is dependent on the physical endurance of the men and the availability of supplies. Our men have pressed so far with vigour consistent with keeping them fit to fight. With regard to my personal physical fitness I am not repeat not feeling the strain. I never felt fitter nor able to think straighter. I however feel somewhat disappointed on behalf of all ranks that you are dissatisfied with the very fine effort they have made.
While this exchange was taking place Allen told Eather to aim to keep in touch with the enemy by patrols; to consolidate in the area Eora Creek–Myola–Kagi with one battalion disposed at Eora Creek, two at Templeton’s Crossing and one at Kagi; to secure Alola as quickly as possible for use as a dropping ground. The 16th Brigade was to defend Myola, to prepare there a landing ground for light aircraft, and to be ready to move through the 25th Brigade to take Kokoda.
On the 12th the 2/33rd and 2/25th Battalions were converging on Templeton’s Crossing, the one along the main track, the other along the track which ran forward from Kagi. In rear Dunbar was moving his 2/31st towards Kagi and Cameron was holding the 3rd Battalion at Myola.
Soon after midday Buttrose arrived at the point where the Japanese had been holding across the track between Myola and Templeton’s Crossing. There the track passed along the crest of a narrow ridge, densely covered with thick bush of which bamboo was the main constituent. This
dense growth was almost impenetrable except by means of a few narrow pads which the Japanese had well covered. The defenders held tenaciously from one-man pits which were effectively camouflaged with branches, leaves and grass. Only a well-placed grenade could be relied on to silence the occupants of these pits and, since each pit was only about 2 feet 3 inches across, a direct hit by a grenade was difficult to make. The Japanese moved their automatic weapons frequently from one position to another and the Australians found the origins of hostile fire hard to pinpoint.
Buttrose found that Copp had driven his enemies back about 300 yards for the loss of three men wounded. Two of his platoons were then holding across the track while Lieutenant Innes was trying to move through the dense bush and rugged country on the left flank. Soon Innes returned, one of his men dead, and said that he had come against about 20 Japanese digging in some 300 yards in rear of their forward positions. Buttrose was planning now that Captain Archer should move frontally with his company against the defenders while Copp held where he was and Captain Clowes’ company broke a way round the left flank to take the obstructing positions in the rear. But, by nightfall, little progress had been made against the stout defences, which were so sited on the narrow ridge as to force any attack to be a laborious uphill climb. Archer’s assaults had failed to move the defenders and darkness found him still facing them with Copp to his rear. There was no message from Clowes although Archer reported that his men had heard firing from the Japanese rear. Four men had been killed and nine wounded in addition to the earlier casualties. Meanwhile the 2/25th had bivouacked between Kagi and Templeton’s Crossing.
On the morning of the 13th Archer began once more to probe. Still there was no word from Clowes. Late in the morning Lieutenant Power15 took a platoon along a track on the southern side of the Japanese and
surprised them. His men captured a heavy machine-gun and estimated that they shot 30 Japanese for the loss of 1 man killed and 4 wounded. But again Archer was held. Early in the afternoon Clowes reported back with the news that he had met opposition the previous day. He had attacked at dawn of the 13th along the ridge which was lightly but effectively held for about a mile from Templeton’s Crossing. Night brought cold rain driving across the gloomy mountain sides and dripping from the bush. Buttrose had lost another man killed, one officer and 11 men wounded and one man missing; but he was determined to clear the ridge next day. He would use Copp’s men to attack along the track while Power attempted to repeat his brilliant little performance of that day.
While the 2/33rd was thus trying to claw the Japanese out of their holes the 2/25th had met opposition. Thrusting forward from Kagi towards Templeton’s Crossing their forward scouts were fired on. Captain O’Bryen’s company and Captain Butler’s16 then pressed up to find that sharpshooters, accurately sniping, screened holding positions and that steep ridges hindered their attempts to outflank. Butler’s men forced some of the holding strength off high ground on the left of the track but did not win much ground.
A grim aside that day focused attention on the savagery of the Owen Stanley fighting and the desperate plight of the retreating Japanese. A section leader17 of the 2/25th, on patrol, found a parcel of meat which inspired in him distasteful suspicions. He brought it back to be examined by Captain Donnan,18 the battalion’s medical officer. Donnan reported:
I have examined two portions of flesh recovered by one of our patrols. One was the muscle tissue of a large animal, the other similar muscle tissue with a large piece of skin and underlying tissues attached. I consider the last as human.
Two days later Lieutenant Crombie19 signed the following statement:
I was the officer in charge of the burial party of two 3 Battalion militia personnel killed on 11 Oct 42 and, on examination of the bodies, found that one of them had both arms cut off at the shoulders and the arms missing and a large piece cut out of one thigh as well as one of the calves of one of the legs slashed by a knife. The other body also had a large piece cut out of one of the thighs. These mutilations were obviously made by a sharp knife, and were not caused by bullets or bayonets. The men’s deaths were caused in one case by a burst of MG fire in the chest and the other in the head.
Buttrose, despite his determination, had not been faring well on the 14th. Profiting by their lesson of the previous day the Japanese anticipated Power’s move and blocked him. Before midday Copp was back in Archer’s holding position reporting that two of his platoons on the right of the
track had been strongly counter-attacked while Lieutenant Warne’s20 platoon on the left had been held early and, trying to edge forward, Warne himself had been killed. The climax to Buttrose’s troubles came when heavy rain prevented the air strafing attacks which had been planned. He had lost 4 more men killed and 19 wounded and his strength was steadily draining But new hope arrived with the 3rd Battalion; it would attack from the left flank next morning.
It seemed that the 2/25th Battalion was settling to a similar experience to the 2/33rd’s. It was sparring for an opening in the wild bush and, although Captain O’Grady21 with his fresh company took over from Butler, no progress was made.
The 15th, however, opened more brightly. On the main track the 3rd Battalion swung round the left of the 2/33rd as planned, but only the hot ashes of recent fires remained in the Japanese positions. Captain Beckett then hurried on towards Templeton’s Crossing with instructions to swing back from there on to the Kagi Track and fall on the rear of Marson’s enemies.
The afternoon saw the 2/33rd Battalion ploughing and slipping a burdened way through mud towards Templeton’s Crossing, with the 3rd Battalion men sliding behind them. They brushed with an enemy ambush party then bivouacked at the first crossing of Eora Creek where the track was sunk deep in the stream’s gloomy rift. They lay among the strewn bodies of the 21st Brigade’s dead in the cold, wet night.
Forward from Kagi, Marson was heartened by the news that Buttrose’s way was now clear. Eather ordered him to push on. But, almost immediately he attempted to do so, with O’Bryen’s company leading, O’Bryen was checked. Butler drove on through O’Bryen’s holding position with mortar support. (Of the twenty-seven mortar rounds which were fired, however, eight failed to explode, additional proof to that which had been furnished earlier within the brigade by the killing of mortarmen through premature bursts that many bombs dropped from the air became defective.) Butler’s way was then barred by barricades of timber and wire. He fell back having lost men for no gain.
Bombs from friendly aircraft were falling ahead of them when the 2/33rd prepared to press on to Templeton’s Crossing on the 16th. Soon after midday Clowes, who had led his company forward earlier, reported that he was halfway between the previous night’s bivouac area and Templeton’s Crossing, and hard on the heels of the enemy, the ashes of whose fires seemed to have lost only about one hour’s warmth. Buttrose then led the rest of his men on. He was with Clowes again at Templeton’s Crossing before the middle of the afternoon and found that that vigorous officer had been pushing a small delaying party of Japanese before him from ridge to ridge. Soon after 4 p.m. Marson’s leading elements affected
the convergence on Templeton’s Crossing which had been aimed at earlier. On moving into attack in the morning Marson had found—as Cameron had done on the main track on the previous day—that the opposition had melted away.
In conference, Buttrose, Marson and Cameron now decided that Cameron would take his battalion forward some hundreds of yards from Templeton’s Crossing and cover the track, Buttrose would place his battalion to the right and Marson would cover the left flank. Thus Cameron sent Captain Beckett’s company forward as a leading patrol. By 5.30, however, Beckett was closely held and was digging in before Japanese waiting about 500 yards farther on. Cameron then moved the rest of his men to Beckett’s rear. While this was happening the 2/25th had come under mortar fire and Marson himself and two of his men were wounded.
The 3rd Battalion had an uneasy night. Then, on the morning of the 17th, Captain Atkinson’s company struggled over ridges and broken hillsides through hampering bush growth to attack round Beckett’s right flank. When his men were almost in position soon after 1 p.m.
They had first to dispose of a machine-gun and Tongs did it. He crawled up a fire lane, under fire, and tossed a grenade which lobbed right in the pit. The two Japs in the pit were blown clean out and sprawled one on each other—dead. That started the ball rolling. The men got excited and began yelling and whooping.22
So they burst their way into a strongly defended position, capturing arms, equipment and documents, and consolidated on Beckett’s right. Atkinson told later of two soldiers who went about their radically different tasks with courage and coolness. One of his platoon commanders, Lieutenant Richardson,23 was shot through the chest and lay huddled behind a tree breathing through the hole the bullet had made:
When Richardson was shot, Downes,24 a country lad, always with his pipe in his mouth, tried to spot the sniper. I went down to bandage Richardson. The sniper had a go at me. The bullet went between my pack and my back and hit my dixie. Downes saw the muzzle blast, moved out into the open to see better, and shot him. Then he calmly went back behind a tree, took his pipe from his mouth, turned round to the boys and said “Well, I got the bastard!”
We had one stretcher bearer, Dwight,25 and he used to go out whenever anyone was hit and would go where others wouldn’t go. He got one man out of a forward pit, going under fire for some yards, lifting him, putting him on his back, and then running 150 yards under fire.
Soon after they had pressed home their successful attack Atkinson’s men were fighting hard against counter-attacks. By 6 p.m. Atkinson and Beckett had had 7 men killed and 11 wounded. By that time the other two rifle companies, under Captain Boag, were in position for the night farther on the right of the track. They had made a wide encircling movement, fell on a surprised enemy late in the afternoon, and killed, they claimed, thirty.
For the other two battalions the day was fairly uneventful under spasmodic mortar fire. Brigadier Eather established his headquarters within Buttrose’s perimeter. From the 2/25th Marson was sent out with his wounds leaving Major Millroy26 commanding a battalion with a total strength of 25 officers and 401 men.
By this time General Allen was operating from an advanced headquarters at Myola. There, on the 17th, he was stung by a message from General Blamey:
General MacArthur considers quote extremely light casualties indicate no serious effort yet made to displace enemy unquote. You will attack enemy with energy and all possible speed at each point of resistance. Essential that Kokoda airfield be taken at earliest. Apparent enemy gaining time by delaying you with inferior strength.
Allen replied at once:
25 Bde has been attacking all day and enemy is now counter-attacking. Will advise when situation clarifies. Serious efforts have been made to dispose of enemy and energetic steps have been taken at each point of resistance. This action will continue. Battle casualties since contact with enemy are killed Offrs 5 ORs 45 wounded Offrs 10 ORs 123 but I respectfully submit that the success of this campaign cannot be judged by casualties alone. Lloyd’s 16th Brigade starts move forward 18 Oct to continue pressure. Until dropping ground further north is established possibly Alola there is no alternative once Lloyd’s brigade is forward but to base Eather on Myola and Efogi North. In short with the carriers available I can only maintain three battalions forward in contact with enemy. Respectfully suggest you defer judgment until you receive Minogue’s27 report or until a more senior staff
officer can come forward and discuss situation with me.28 The severity of the conditions under which the troops are operating is emphasised by the fact that the net wastage by sickness alone in 25 Bde is Offrs 24 ORs 706 and 16 Bde Offrs 1 ORs 38.
On the same day Allen had ordered the 16th Brigade to relieve the 25th. Lieut-Colonel Edgar’s29 2/2nd Battalion was to relieve the 2/33rd, which was to return to Myola and take over there from the 2/1st (Lieut-Colonel Cullen30) which would then move forward. The balance of the relief was to be arranged mutually between the two brigades.
But the events of the 18th rather forced a modification of that planning. On the 3rd Battalion front Boag’s two companies lost direction in a further movement and emerged into Atkinson’s area. An active enemy kept Cameron on the alert throughout the day consistently testing and probing at his front and harassing him with effective sniping. Boag was to form a firm base on the battalion’s right flank for an attack by two companies of the 2/25th Battalion under Captain Blundell31 but some lack of coordination manifested itself and the attack did not take place. Blundell had two men killed during his manoeuvrings.
During the day the 2/2nd began to relieve the 2/33rd. Eather became uneasy, however, seeing the Japanese pressure on the 3rd Battalion as a prelude to an attack on the right flank. As night came therefore he decided that the relief of the 2/33rd would not continue as arranged, and Edgar was warned by Lloyd to be ready to move at first light on the 19th to high ground to the right of and slightly forward of the 2/33rd. It was arranged that the 2/33rd would remain in position until the afternoon of that day by which time the 2/1st, of which an advanced party had already arrived, would be forward to take over from him.
On the 19th the position threatened to become acute. In the vicinity of Atkinson’s right flank positions Boag lost 2 men killed and 5 wounded in hard skirmishing. Cameron hoped to gain some relief by attacking with elements of Captain Jeffrey’s32 company from Atkinson’s general area. Although, however, Jeffrey’s men thought they had silenced some machine-guns and put about fifteen of their well-concealed enemies out of action, 4 of them were killed and 6 were wounded and they achieved no finality.
Lieut-Colonel Edgar, at this stage, was manoeuvring on to the right flank of the 2/33rd Battalion with the dual purpose of extending Buttrose’s
right and pushing forward strong patrols to give some protection to the strained right of the 3rd Battalion which was still resisting counter-attacks. It was obvious that it would be difficult for Cameron’s men to hand over and extricate themselves. Lloyd planned with Eather to relieve them with the 2/1st Battalion while the 2/2nd Battalion attacked. By nightfall Cullen had arrived in the 2/33rd Battalion area in preparation for the execution of this plan. The 25th Brigade diarist recorded:
2/25, 2/33 and 3 Bn personnel now quite exhausted and relief almost imperative.
At 7 a.m. on the 20th Brigadier Lloyd became responsible for operations in the forward areas. That day, while the 2/2nd launched fierce attacks which were designed to clear the position, the 2/1st took over from the 3rd, but it was not until almost nightfall that the 2/1st was in a position finally to accept responsibility for the area. Even then rest for Cameron’s tired men who had fought so well did not follow immediately as they remained in reserve behind the 2/1st ready to play a further part if the still confused situation made that necessary. The 2/33rd and 2/25th were more fortunate, although the 2/25th lost a number of men wounded during the day from enemy mortar fire. By 5 p.m. Lieut-Colonel Stevenson’s33 2/3rd Battalion had relieved both these units. The 2/33rd moved back at once to an AASC dump area near the first crossing of Eora Creek; the 2/25th was ordered to follow them next morning.
Plans for the employment of individual battalions fluctuated somewhat in the next few days. Eather’s brigade remained in position in the area just to Lloyd’s rear. The 3rd Battalion was held forward on attachment to the 16th Brigade, waiting to protect Alola after it had been captured and prepare dropping grounds there; the 2/25th remained at the AASC dump; the 2/33rd was hard at work on supply duties in the Myola area; the 2/31st was held forward of Kagi on the junction of the Alola and Templeton’s Crossing tracks, ready to move forward at short notice. All four battalions were seriously depleted in number, the strengths of the three 25th Brigade battalions on the 23rd October being:
On the 20th October (on relief by the 16th Brigade) the total casualties in the 25th Brigade were listed as:
The care of these sick and wounded men was a heavy task.
In preparation for the advance of the 25th Brigade the jeep-head near Uberi had been developed as the basic divisional medical post. Lieut-
Colonel Chenhall34 used the headquarters group of his 2/6th Field Ambulance to set up a main dressing station there with one surgeon—Captain Leslie35 from the 2/9th General Hospital—attached, and accommodation for 200 light casualties. The remainder of the 2/6th were allotted to forward posts to serve the advance as far as Nauro. From that point on to Myola, it was planned, Lieut-Colonel Hobson36 and his 2/4th Field Ambulance, who had arrived from their training areas in Queensland on 17th September, would take over the forward duties. As a preliminary they became responsible for staging duties at Ilolo until relieved by a detachment of the 14th Field Ambulance. Major Vickery,37 one of the 2/4th officers, relieved Major Humphery38 (who had taken over from Major Magarey earlier) on 25th September as senior medical officer to the forward troops.
As planned, Hobson took over from Chenhall when the advance reached Nauro. By that time, however, since there had been no battle casualties and there were then comparatively few sick or injured men on the track, the extensive arrangements which Chenhall had made at Uberi were seen to be unnecessary. Chenhall then prepared to move his field ambulance forward to assist Hobson’s.
When the 25th Brigade and the retreating Japanese had clashed vigorously south of Templeton’s Crossing, wounded men poured into Hobson’s main dressing station now established at Myola. It was still hoped that many sick and wounded men could be flown out from that area where engineers had been hard at work improving the strip at Myola No. 2. The airmen were reluctant to use the strip, however, their leaders claiming that the hazards were too great. The landing ground was rather short in comparison with those used for the larger type of transport and, facing the take-off end and not far from it, was a hillside which forced a quick climb and sharp banking. In the mountains swirling thrusts of air up and down were common and an aircraft, caught by one of these at a critical moment, had little chance of avoiding a crash. So the available hospital accommodation at Myola was severely taxed as casualties mounted and Leslie, who had come forward, and the other medical officers were committed to extensive major surgery for which they had insufficient facilities.
While events along the Kokoda Track had thus progressed to a stage which looked like being climactic in the Templeton’s Crossing–Eora Creek area, considerable movement had been taking place along the two other axes which General Blamey had defined as lines of advance on Buna from the South-east and South-west.
During his period of command General Rowell had written to General Blamey’s headquarters on 20th September:
The question of any move along the north coast towards Buna is directly associated with the provision of landing craft and continuous fighter cover during movement.
Blamey’s visit to Milne Bay on the 24th September had, however, resulted in an attempt to overcome such difficulties by flying troops to Wanigela (and later he planned a more extensive project than the one he had originally considered). On 5th October 61 plane-loads of men and material were flown to Wanigela and a force (Hatforce) which consisted mainly of 2/10th Battalion and a battery of American .5-inch anti-aircraft guns was established there. This was doubly interesting—as a forward step and as the first large-scale operational move of ground troops by air in the Pacific war.
To link the operations of the 126th and 128th United States Regiments with this venture, and to provide for the American overland advance which had been planned, the task of the 32nd U.S. Division was formally defined by New Guinea Force on the 8th October:
The role of 32 Div is to attack the enemy at Buna from the east and South-east.
The division was immediately to reconnoitre and develop the routes leading to Jaure from Rigo and Abau, connecting laterals between the main routes from each of the two latter points, an overland route from Abau leading to Wanigela by way of the Musa River. It was to establish a system of supply by means of small watercraft through Abau. It was to locate and maintain at Jaure a force not exceeding two battalions (since maintenance difficulties precluded the establishment there of greater strength). The definition of its action beyond Jaure was left until later. It was to leave one regiment at Port Moresby—to fill an emergency role there—which would be available later for the execution of the main divisional plan.
These instructions were altered somewhat and added to within a week. Brigadier-General MacNider was appointed to command the Wanigela force. He was ordered to consolidate Wanigela as a sea and air base for supplies, to exploit forward to Buna by sea and land, to institute and develop small craft supply routes from Wanigela to Pongani.
On 14th October the air move from Port Moresby to Wanigela of Colonel Alexander J. MacNab’s 128th Regiment and the 2/6th Australian Independent Company (less patrol detachments operating in the vicinity of the Kokoda Track) began. Within two days the movement of most of the American regiment, and the Independent Company, had been completed. A troop of the 2/5th Field Regiment with four 25-pounders, a light anti-aircraft detachment of 6 Bofors and an American platoon with three .5-inch anti-aircraft machine-guns were warned for movement by sea to Wanigela as soon as transport became available.
Upon arrival at Wanigela Major Harcourt,39 who commanded the Independent Company, lost no time in pushing his men off on the overland route to Pongani. Harcourt was an intrepid officer whose forty-seven years seemingly had done nothing to lessen his zest for living, his energy, or his physical endurance.
Scarcely had Harcourt with his men crossed the Musa River than that stream flooded widely. The trails foundered in the several miles of water which spread near its mouth. MacNab’s battalions were cut off from the overland route. They began then to ferry to Pongani in 20-ton supply luggers of which the first two had arrived at Wanigela about the middle of the month. The leading luggers, however, which arrived off Pongani on the morning of the 18th, were bombed there by American aircraft which mistook them for Japanese and some casualties resulted. Despite this the ferry movement continued during ensuing days.
Meanwhile the difficult movement of the 126th Regiment over the third axis which led through the wild mountains of the centre of Papua had begun. An advanced detachment of the II Battalion had followed the reconnaissance party over the Jaure Track early in the month. About a week behind them went the rest of the battalion which was arriving at Jaure by the 22nd. They were accompanied by 200 native carriers in charge of Sergeant Smith40 of Angau, who also acted as a guide. These Americans had no contact with any Japanese and found no indication that they were exploring that flank. The difficulties of the Jaure Track were such, however, that no move was made to send any additional units of the 126th behind the II Battalion.
Thus, as the end of October approached, the Australians and Americans were definitely, if still slowly, converging on the Buna–Gona area along three lines of advance. Whether they would achieve their purpose of driving the Japanese out of Papua before the Japanese strength then levelled at Guadalcanal could be diverted against them was another matter.