Chapter 13: On the Sanananda Track
A NETWORK of tracks covered the area between the Kumusi River and the coastline. From among them General Vasey selected two of the main threads, approximately parallel, as separate axes of advance for his two brigades. He told Brigadier Lloyd to make for the sea at Sanananda Point with his 16th Brigade, by way of Isivita, Sangara, Popondetta and Soputa; and Brigadier Eather to travel the left axis—to Gona, through Awala, Hagenahambo, past Igora Store, over the Amboga River at Amboga Crossing, and through Jumbora. The 25th Brigade crossed the river first and set out for Gona, but the 16th Brigade crossed hard behind them.
Lieut-Colonel Edgar’s 2/2nd Battalion, spearheading Lloyd’s advance, began to pass over the turbulent river just before midnight on 15th November, swinging high through the bush darkness on the two flying-foxes which the engineers had hastily erected, or gingerly picking a way across the single-log bridges above each of which a single wire provided a swaying means of balance. The whole battalion was across by 8 a.m. on the 16th. At 10.30 they moved forward for Popondetta from the point where the upper and lower tracks diverged beyond the bridge, with a section well forward and the companies following each other in single file. Brigadier Lloyd’s headquarters marched behind them, followed by the 2/3rd and 2/1st Battalions in that order.
The day’s slow march covered about six miles of foot track. The track crossed a number of small streams and deeper creeks, through which the men sometimes waded waist deep, and wound through forests which seemed to hold the heat and press down the humid air. The 2/2nd halted for the night at the little village of Mumun. The men of the three battalions were tired. A hungry, arduous, two-months-long mountain trail lay among the mists and cloud-tented crags behind them. Now they had had a night of hazardous river crossings and a day which had pressed down their sweating loads. Their food supply was uncertain as they had received no rations that day.
On the 17th, through seemingly virgin forests and secondary growth, the track undulated onwards in conditions similar to those of the previous day. Heavy afternoon rains made it a quagmire, turned the area into a vast steam bath, and so flooded the creeks as to change their crossing from an inconvenience into a positive hazard. These exacting coastal conditions told so heavily on the men in their weakened condition, which was aggravated by a shortage of food, for again no rations reached them in the day, that fifty-seven of the 2/2nd alone fell out gasping beside the track. Friendly natives helped where they could, handing fruit and sugar cane to the soldiers as they plodded through the villages and often assisting the weaker ones across the streams.
As the 2/2nd, still leading, bivouacked in a native village, with Sangara Mission still about an hour and a half ahead, torrents of rain swirled down during the hours of darkness.
That day General Herring had received some news from General Blamey of the climactic naval battle of Guadalcanal, which, spread over the period 12th–15th November, represented the peak of the naval war of attrition round the Solomons. Both Japanese and Americans sustained heavy losses, but though the battle was later, in retrospect, seen to be decisive, its results were then still uncertain. Blamey wrote Herring that the Japanese were assembling air forces for attack; indications were that they were gathering troops and destroyers to land reinforcements at Buna. It was imperative that both the Australians and the 32nd American Division, then approaching Buna from the south, should push on with the greatest speed to seize the Buna sea-front and destroy the Japanese remaining in the coastal area.
Lloyd urged his brigade forward for Popondetta on the 18th. The rain had ceased. The streams had shrunk once more to fordable dimensions. Though the shortage of rations was becoming acute, promises of droppings at Popondetta heartened the men. Intelligence of fresh enemy landings seemed to have been borne out when news came during the day that about 1,000 additional Japanese were thought to have been landed in the Buna area the previous night and another 1,000 would probably land during the coming night.
Despite the need for haste, however, Edgar, canny from experience of this dangerous game of pursuing Japanese through the bush, did not relax
his caution, and night was approaching as he reached Popondetta. Again heavy rain was falling as the 2/2nd tried to make camp, while the promise of food was beginning to dance like the Blue Bird before his men, as no supplies had been dropped at Popondetta but word came that some would be waiting at Soputa, a good seven miles ahead. With that news Lloyd had orders also to leave one battalion to guard the Soputa dropping ground while the other two pressed ahead to Sanananda to cut there the coastal track which led to Buna.
At this stage Edgar asked to be relieved of the lead in order to give his tired men some relief, and early on the 19th Major Hutchison led the 2/3rd through to form the new advance-guard. His role was unequivocal for, as one of his officers recorded later,
Here it was that Brig Lloyd, standing like Napoleon, said, when asked the day’s objective, ‘The sea!’ So the battalion started for the sea.1
The morning was not far advanced when the 2/3rd began to gather in Japanese stragglers. By 10.30 a.m. their first prisoner was being escorted back to brigade headquarters; soon another was being sent after him and the battalion diarist saw a third, “a naked, emaciated creature”, squatting on the side of the road under guard. But these were mere flotsam and jetsam in an army’s wake. It was midday before Captain Fulton’s vanguard company caught their first sight of armed foes, who slipped swiftly out of sight. About the same time Fulton found four trucks abandoned on the road. Although the Japanese had tried to render these unserviceable some of the Australians had one in working order within an hour. Hutchison then halted his men for lunch. Soon after he resumed the advance he lost one man to sudden fire from the bush. Captain Walker swung his company to the right and Captain Gall broke bush round the left, in the quick attempt at envelopment which had now become classic in bush warfare. But the small rearguard evaporated and, more cautiously now, the Australians’ advance was resumed at 2 p.m. Two hours later, however, Fulton’s company, near Soputa, ran sharply against more defiant opposition. Once again Walker and Gall flung wide, but darkness caught their men still groping and, with practised speed, they dug in among the trees.
Early on the 20th, tentative Australian passes eliciting no response from what had been Japanese positions, the 2/3rd took up the pursuit once more and, after an uneventful half-hour, began breakfast. The smoke from their damp fires was rising when Lieut-Colonel Cullen, now ordered forward, led the 2/1st past them about 8.30 a.m., animated by fresh news that the 25th Brigade was only one mile south of Gona and that the Americans were approaching Buna. About a quarter of an hour later his leading men broke out of the narrow bush-enclosed track into a large, open kunai patch through which the track wandered northwards. Very soon afterwards volleys scattered them. Effective artillery fire quickly convinced Cullen that he was coming against strong positions and, when
lack of telephone cable forced him to establish his headquarters on the track itself, in the timber just short of the kunai, shells slashed into his headquarters area, sending great divots of the damp earth flying.
Meanwhile, however, he himself had hurried forward to the leading company—Captain Burrell’s. Quickly assessing the situation he told Burrell to try to maintain his thrust along the track; he would send Captain Catterns’ company to test the Japanese left. But very soon afterwards, with his usual quick aggressiveness, he broadened his plan. He took Catterns away from his company, leaving Captain Prior to take charge of the right-flank quest, and placed Catterns in command of the two remaining rifle companies (Captain Simpson’s and Lieutenant Leaney’s), telling him to swing far to the left to clear the kunai patch completely and fully exploit the timber cover so that he could burst from the thick growth on to the rear of the Japanese positions and settle himself there astride the track. Success in such a move, he thought, would cause the defenders to fall back—as they usually did under such circumstances.
As swift and determined in action as his commander, Catterns was on his way by 9.30 a.m. Whether or not he succeeded it was certain that this remarkable young leader, and his grim band of 90 men, would shock the Japanese.
With Catterns still deep in the undergrowth which framed the kunai, Burrell was gaining ground slowly along the track. Lieutenant McCloy’s was his foremost platoon. Their skill and determination was hard for the Japanese to match. So careless was McCloy himself of what the enemy might do that, at one stage, observing from a distance of some 300 yards the movement of an enemy soldier who had escaped his forward scouts, and that this soldier was picking off his men, he stood among the plunging machine-gun and rifle fire to aim three carefully-considered shots. He killed with the third.
With three companies thus busying themselves Prior skirted Burrell’s right, keeping to the thick bush, in execution of Cullen’s earlier orders. His movement had been delayed and it was not until 11 a.m. that he was clear of Burrell’s area and not until 12.30 that he came against the Japanese left flank. He proceeded then to smash through their outpost line but was finally held against their main positions, only some thirty yards separating attackers and attacked.
Close to Prior was the company quartermaster sergeant, Miller. When one of the riflemen was severely wounded and lying under heavy fire Miller brought him in. Later, a corporal, shot through the stomach, was lying in a forward and exposed position, beyond a bare area that was flailed by criss-crossing fire. It seemed impossible to help him while the daylight lasted, though the cries of the poor fellow’s agony were demoralising even to that hardened company whom much fighting had taught to accept wounds or death as their lot. Not only did Miller go forward to what seemed certain death and give the wounded man morphia and dress his wounds, but he returned to cover, had a stretcher made and set off back again, with a brave stretcher bearer, Corporal Kemsley.2 It took the two twenty minutes to crawl to the dying soldier, the stretcher dragging behind them. Then all three came back through the storm of fire. As though these deeds were not enough for him, Miller went out again in the late afternoon and brought back yet another wounded man. All the other soldiers felt the inspiration that flowed from him.
Soon after 2 p.m. Cullen told the brigadier that Prior and Burrell were in difficulties, that he considered the Japanese were employing two mountain guns, two medium machine-guns, one heavy and several light mortars, while he could not even guess at the number of light machine-guns. He began to worry about Catterns and asked Lloyd for more assistance. The latter said that he would send an American company (from Colonel Tomlinson’s incomplete 126th Regimental Combat Team, the leading troops of which were then approaching Soputa) to help Catterns when it arrived. With this Cullen had temporarily to be content. He tried to strike a blow by bringing his 3-inch mortar into action about 2.15 p.m. Twenty-one accurate rounds silenced a medium machine-gun which had been firing from the edge of the kunai ahead, but a quick backlash whipped the Australians as twenty-nine artillery rounds fairly caught the headquarters group. (The victims were puzzled by the remarkable accuracy of this fire until they discovered later that it was directed from an observation post in a near-by tree.)
By this time the other two battalions of the brigade were backing Cullen closely. With alacrity Hutchison’s men had doused their breakfast fires when the 2/1st had drawn such accurate shots so quickly after passing through them, and they were now dug in to give depth to the leading battalion. Farther back along the track the 2/2nd were relieved not long before 2 p.m. by the first Americans to arrive and the 2/2nd
then closed in on the 2/3rd’s rear. Scarcely had they done so when Lloyd told Edgar to send two companies to help the 2/1st and these, commanded by Captains Bosgard3 and Blamey, reported to Cullen at 4.30 p.m. Cullen sent them to his right to strengthen Prior’s outflanking attempts there, but darkness forbade more than a mere link with Prior. As darkness approached echoes of heavy firing came from the closed northern reaches of the track. Then the listeners knew that their comrades, Catterns and his ninety, had closed in.
These had made a very wide detour to approach the main track at a point about two miles in rear of the Japanese front. Silently and in closed-up single file they forced their way through tangled undergrowth and swamp. The sound of Japanese guns and mortars warned them at first how wide of the open kunai to keep and then, as the day lengthened, guided them as they swung right towards the enemy positions. About 6 p.m. Corporal Albanese4 and the leading section crossed a faint pad roughly parallel to the main pathway. The pad showed signs of recent use. Nearby ran a small stream which was obviously being used as a watering place.
Stealthily Catterns and Albanese crept forward through the silent bush. They stopped when they were overlooking a party of Japanese on their left. These were huddled over fires cooking their evening meal of rice. Some grass huts were nearby and, through further trees, there was much movement on what was evidently the main track. From the right the
watchers could hear the gun which was causing the main Australian force so much trouble.
Catterns’ group was a small one—ten officers and eighty men; it was too small to split, with one half going against the gun and the other on to the prime objective, the track. The Japanese were obviously occupying main positions and were therefore in strength. The Australians had no communication back to their battalion and so could not call for help either then or later. They had no means of getting the killed or wounded away from the scene of any fight that might develop. It was obviously a situation that called either for complete withdrawal or boldness of the most calculated kind, and concentration on one single purpose. Neither the leader nor his men could think easily in terms of withdrawal under any circumstances. Therefore they would attack. They would get the gun if they could, but their main object was to slash their way to the track and hold on there.
They were quiet, and still unseen by their foes, as they assembled, each company in extended order, five paces between each man. Leaney’s men were on the right astride the little stream; Simpson’s, on the left, used the foot pad as a start-line. At a sign from Catterns they began to move forward through the silent evening. Their slow advance through the darkening bush seemed implacable. They drew close to their unsuspecting enemies. Still they made no sound. Still their steps had a deliberate slowness, cat-like and intent. Scarcely 50 yards separated the two forces when suddenly the Japanese saw them.
So great was the impact on the Australians of the thunder of their own fire crashing into that silent place almost as one shattering report that, for a moment, the shock of it felled them to the ground. And then they were up again, hurling forward straight for the centre of a main defensive position. They smashed through apron fences of vines. They hurdled networks of trenches. They were fighting like wild cats in the very midst of the surprised defenders, some of whom, rallying, manned gun-pits and cut swathes through the attackers. But there was no stopping the assault and these Japanese died at their guns. Soon the huts were afire. They blazed high. Grenades exploded in the fires and scattered flames and sparks. Dead and wounded littered the area. Those of the defenders who were able to do so ran into the bush, some of them screaming.
Later, Catterns’ men estimated that they killed at least eighty in that first assault. But they lost heavily themselves. Among their dead were five of the ten officers—Simpson and Leaney (the company commanders), Lieutenants Wiseman, Owen5 and McClure6—all notable fighting men who had been foremost on almost every occasion of their battalion’s long fight across the mountains. These, with the other dead and wounded, were gathered as the scattered attackers reassembled to the side of the
main track where Lieutenant Murray,7 who had taken Leaney’s place, was already organising the defensive position. The wounded were laid round a big tree which had thick roots spreading out from it like little walls. Quickly the others began to dig in so that soon a sausage-shaped perimeter was developed with the remnants of what had been Simpson’s company manning the northern end and Murray’s men in the south.
As the night advanced they dug deeper. To the east they could hear more of their enemies in another main position. The noise of trucks slowly fading northwards told the story of the evacuation by the Japanese of their own casualties. And, during the night, the Australians increased these by another fifteen who were ill-advised enough to try to pass along the track in the dark.
With the dawn of the 21st the Japanese, now in possession of detailed knowledge of Catterns’ positions, acted swiftly. They fell upon the Australians from three sides at once, having already harassed them throughout the night. The Australians, not only skilful and resolute in holding their fire until the most telling moment, but forced to do so because they had used up most of their ammunition in the previous evening’s assault, broke the attacks.
Corporal Albanese, already marked for his contempt of danger in scouting ahead of the initial advance and a leading part he had played in the previous night’s rout, was equally gallant in the defence. Corporal Ledden8 was so aggressive in meeting the attackers that he was definitely known to have killed eight and was thought to have accounted for many more. Lance-Corporal Fletcher9 was holding from a weapon-pit on the left flank. As the attackers pressed forward in the shadowy dawn he waited until they were a mere 10 to 15 yards away. Then he leaped from his pit to meet them, hurled a grenade, and as they fell or reeled from that explosion tore them with sub-machine-gun fire. During the next two hours the whole of his section was either killed or wounded. He was wounded himself. Wounded again he then lay in the open for half an hour, swept by fire, but still shouting encouragement to his fellows nearby and urging them to positive and aggressive defence.
The Japanese, smarting under the blows already dealt them, and determined to clear this pocket from their midst, kept attacking throughout the day. They were like Red Indians circling a covered waggon.
In the crude daylight the Australian wounded, stacked round the big tree which had seemed to offer reasonable shelter the night before, were no longer protected from the encircling attacks. Many were wounded again from the fire which thudded intermittently round them as they lay. Some were killed.
With the others round the tree was Private Soltan,10 his leg badly broken by a gunshot wound the night before. When, however, during the darkness, a threat effervesced from the right flank, he dragged his roughly bandaged but unsplinted leg some 15 yards in that direction to lend his feeble strength to the defence. Throughout the entire day which followed he lay exposed, passing messages, hurrying ammunition along, reporting assaulting movements, urging his friends to greater efforts, and this though he was twice more wounded—in the other leg and in the body.
As this brave soldier endured the day on the one side of the defences, another, equally brave, was becoming a pivot on the opposite side. He was Private Varnum,11 who by 10 a.m. was the only unwounded man along 30 yards of perimeter. A Japanese medium machine-gun was sited only 15 yards from him. It kept exploding almost in his face. He was later wounded, but he kept his Bren in action through all the hours of bitter daylight.
Catterns’ men were not forgotten by the others farther back, however, as this desperate day progressed. Although he did not then know it, he had already done what he had set out to do, for the main Japanese force, outmanoeuvred and outfought, had fallen back during the night. The 2/1st followed behind them until 8.30 a.m., and was then ordered to halt to allow the 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions to pass through in that order.
Colonel Edgar sent Captain Bosgard groping to the right with two companies while Captain Fairbrother duplicated this movement on the left. Captain Gall’s company of the 2/3rd came forward along the track in an attempt to push along that narrow cleared space to reach Catterns. Soon, however, the Australians found that the Japanese had resolved to give no more ground.
On the right Bosgard led his own and Captain Blamey’s companies wide. Their way took them through some 3,000 yards of bush and swamp, although they were only about 400 yards from the main track. Though the Japanese fought them vigorously they pushed into a large supply dump area which contained about two tons of “good clean rice”. After that, however, they were held. Then they dug their most advanced weapon-pits (only 30 to 50 yards from their enemies’) in the comparatively open spaces of a derelict banana plantation on the forward side of a small stream.
On the left Fairbrother had been having a similar experience though his detour was rather more shallow. Of the events there Sergeant Caling12 later wrote:
We moved by dead reckoning through jungle, swamps and a belt of shoulder-high kunai grass to the forming-up place for the attack. The start time was 3 o’clock on a hot, muggy afternoon—November 21st, 1942. We advanced on compass bearing, but after about 100 yards we ran into a swamp, and were soon wading through
mud and slush up to our waists. Luckily, the Jap didn’t get on to us while we were in there!
We eventually got through the swamp and hit low jungle again—and after about 100 yards of it we struck the Japs.
He was well prepared for us, being well dug in with fire lanes cut for his machine-guns. My platoon ran into a couple of these guns and we had to go to ground until the platoon commander decided to leave one section there to engage him, while he took the other two around on his flank. But he ran into further trouble; we suffered five casualties which we could ill afford ... at this stage, as our platoon was only 18 strong. We then had word from company headquarters to withdraw about 40 yards and take our place in a two-company perimeter. It was at this stage that Pte Tom Harvey13 showed outstanding courage and carried three wounded men out from right under the Japs’ noses. ...
We withdrew about 20 yards in the jungle and formed our perimeter. Then our mail came up while the wounded were evacuated back to the regimental aid post. I was particularly lucky with the mail as I received a parcel that contained 12 ounces of tobacco, together with papers and matches. At that time this was better than first prize in the lottery, as we had been weeks without a smoke.
The rain came with darkness and we spent a miserable night. 100 per cent security—that is, all hands awake and alert—was maintained all night.14
Meanwhile Edgar’s men had made fleeting contact with Catterns’ beleaguered companies, and Gall later renewed this contact as he pressed along the main axis. Though the whole area of the roadway was under Japanese fire a signals wire was run through from the main Australian positions, a telephone, ammunition and a small quantity of biscuits sent up. Soon the Japanese cut this wire, however, and so the main Australian force could not get sufficient information to form a true picture of Catterns’ difficulties. But a message did get through to him to expect relief from 7.30 p.m. onwards.
When night came again (21st–22nd November) rain came with it, beating out of a sky which was split by lightning and shaken with thunder claps. By this time Captain Lysaght’s company of the 2/3rd had moved forward to relieve Catterns and, in preparation for this, had joined Gall and Cullen’s advanced headquarters which had been established in Gall’s area. Soon after dark Catterns himself came out to meet Cullen. They discussed the situation and decided that the relieving company should not move into the area Catterns was vacating but settle just in rear of it. (As it transpired this was, perhaps, an unfortunate decision as the holding of Catterns’ salient might have made subsequent operations easier. At the time, however, it seemed wise.)
In the early darkness Catterns’ walking wounded began to come through. Lieutenant McCloy gathered all the men he could muster. They manned twelve stretchers. He led them forward into the position which had been so hard held. Three of them were lost as they moved through the bullet-swept night gently collecting the scattered wounded.
When the final cost of Catterns’ little epic was tallied up it was found that, out of a total of 91 all ranks, five officers and 26 men had been
killed, 2 and 34 wounded, leaving only 24 unscathed. But the sortie had not only forced the defenders out of the positions where they had held the 2/1st initially on the 20th but also out of another completely prepared defensive position farther north (but still south of the termination of Catterns’ dagger-like thrust). Indirectly, also, it resulted in the capture of the field piece which had so worried the Australians. Next day this was found buried where the Japanese had been forced to leave it when they withdrew, and there was ammunition buried near by. The Australians later used the weapon effectively themselves.
The position now, in the darkness of 21st–22nd November, was that Bosgard and Blamey of the 2/2nd were immobilised well to the right of the track. Their own right flank was completely in the air. On their left were some hundreds of yards of empty bush between them and Gall and Lysaght of the 2/3rd who were astride the main axis. Another gap, some hundreds of yards wide, intervened between the two latter and Fairbrother of the 2/2nd, who was out to the left with his own and Captain Ferguson’s companies. The rest of the 2/3rd were crowding up behind the main positions to give depth. The remnants of the 2/1st were now in rear, their total strength reduced to 17 officers and 202 men.
During the day General Vasey had moved his headquarters from Popondetta to Soputa and had instructed Colonel Tomlinson to send a group of American officers forward to the 16th Brigade to get the picture from those hard-fighting men.
This 21st November was the day which MacArthur had set down for a forward movement on the whole front Buna–Sanananda–Gona; on which “all columns” were to be “driven through to the objectives regardless of losses”. The Americans at Buna had not been able to comply with the orders. At Sanananda, for the moment, the Australians could do no more. Since starting across the mountains the 16th Brigade had lost almost one-third of their strength in battle alone-25 officers and 536 men (11 and 160 killed). Their losses had reduced their initial strength of 99 officers and 1,770 men to 67 and 974, and these were ill and worn and hungry.
It was now to be seen whether the fresh Americans of the 126th Regiment could change the course of events on the Sanananda front. Colonel Tomlinson set up his command post at Brigadier Lloyd’s advanced headquarters. The plan was that the 16th Brigade would attempt no further move forward until the 126th Regiment had secured the Soputa–Sanananda–Cape Killerton track junction which lay ahead. And the Australians were content to sit back for a while and watch the Americans. There was a very real interest in their observation and a certain sardonic but concealed amusement. The Americans had told some of them that they “could go home now” as they (the Americans) “were here to clean things up”.
Certainly Colonel Tomlinson’s one thought was “to attack”. He explained to Lloyd’s liaison officer, Captain Williams,15 that he proposed “a
double enveloping movement” which would “squeeze the Japs right out”. But he had little concept of the difficulties that would face his men in a flanking move through the swamp and bush. Nor did he realise (as the Australians did from bitter experience) how stubbornly the Japanese could refuse to be “squeezed”.
Immediately before he actually entered the Sanananda fighting Tomlinson’s II Battalion had been taken from him. In response to General Harding’s request General Herring sent this battalion back across the Girua to strengthen the main American effort. They left Soputa on the 22nd. At 9.30 a.m. on the same day the III Battalion, Major Bond commanding, came up into the 16th Brigade area, detouring right and left to close on the Soputa–Sanananda–Killerton track junction by way of flanking tracks. Major Richard D. Boerem, with Companies “C” and “D” (less one platoon) of the I Battalion, pressed along the track itself to a point just beyond Lysaght’s, the forward Australian company. From that time onwards for the rest of the day the position of the American companies became generally obscure. Captain Bevin D. Lee, with Company “L”, had swung right. But his position was never as uncertain as that of the two companies on the left—Captain John D. Shirley’s Company “I” and Lieutenant Wilbur C. Lytle’s Company “K”. Shirley swung wider than Lytle but, after the two left the main axis, nothing more was heard of them for the rest of the day by their worried colonel, or the watching Australians.
Tomlinson had planned his attack for the 23rd. But, as the day wore on, the positions of his companies were still unknown to him. On the right Lee was reported to be moving forward but enemy fire and sharp thrusts apparently disorganised him to some extent. He finally took up a position that was virtually an extension of the Australian right-flank positions where Bosgard and Blamey had their men dug in—and with whom one of his platoons had already joined after the company had been temporarily scattered.
The Australians themselves were not quite sure what was brewing. Bosgard had reported to Edgar that there seemed to be a stronger force opposite him than there had been the previous day, and that the volume of fire sweeping his positions seemed to have increased. He thought his opponents might have been reinforced the previous night. A vigorous assault on his positions (in which he himself was wounded in the face) lent colour to this theory, although the attackers were well held. Further than that, he was becoming uneasy about the volume of water gathering in his pits. He feared for the health of his men. But it was some consolation that the Japanese opposing him were on even lower ground. To the left there was greater uncertainty. Captain Fairbrother was acutely aware of extensive Japanese activity on his own left. But Edgar could do nothing to assist him, so Fairbrother’s men patrolled or lay in their water-filled holes and shot at any Japanese who appeared.
And farther left again, apparently, the Americans under Lytle and Shirley, were groping into the thick and swampy bushland. During the
morning Tomlinson had some news that these were approximately 1,000 yards north of the 16th Brigade and still moving northwards. The Australians doubted this. Later Tomlinson agreed that they should attempt to “fix” his companies with prismatic compasses bearing on signal lights fired by Lytle and Shirley into the air. They did this. Then it was revealed that the Americans had circled round in the swamp and bush and arrived back at a point less than 400 yards from 16th Brigade headquarters.16 Although they had planned an attacking movement on to the track for 3 p.m. this day they then had to abandon the project in favour of a continuation of their enveloping movement.
The entry into action of the Americans was not the only new development in the Sanananda area. The “Blackforce” detachment of the 2/1st Field Regiment (Major Hanson commanding) began to land at Popondetta on the 23rd, where the 2/6th Field Company had arrived on the 19th and, on a site selected by Lieut-Colonel McDonald, had at once set to work building an airstrip. At first they had no mechanical equipment to help them and faced the task of making a strip at least 1,400 yards in length on ground which was completely covered by kunai grass about 6 feet high. Colonel Canet17 (Vasey’s very able chief supply officer) loyally supported them by making available all the native carriers he could muster and, directed by the engineers, these worked so vigorously that in one day they cut a 1,600-yard swathe through the kunai. On the 21st the first Douglas transport touched down on the new strip, which made it possible to bring the field guns so quickly into action. So Hanson with Captain Wade,18 Lieutenant Finlay19 and 23 men, 2 guns, 2 jeeps, 200 rounds of ammunition and stores, landed in six transports about 9
a.m. on the 23rd. (Within a short time a complete troop was assembled and thus the artillerymen had four guns with them.) Immediately on landing Hanson assembled his guns and hurried them over the ten miles of track to the Soputa area. By 5 p.m. he had fired his registration shots and his men were eagerly accepting action. The infantrymen were pleased to see them. They had had no artillery support since the beginning of their journey across the mountains. They listened approvingly to the sharp “crack” of the 25-pounders and told one another that it was “like old times”.
The 24th began auspiciously for the Americans and Australians. Allied aircraft assailed the Japanese coastal positions from Buna on the right through Sanananda to Gona on the left. The 16th Brigade diarist recorded that “the ground actually shook at times with the bomb blasts”. His satisfaction was apparently a little tempered, however, when he had to record that “in one particular instance one stick of bombs actually fell behind our forward companies”. But the error was quickly rectified, and the next run brought bombs crashing accurately down on their proper targets. Later Hanson’s men harassed the Japanese with their artillery fire.
Still the infantry had to slog it out on the ground. On the right there was little change. Blamey took over the Australian command there from Bosgard. Captain Lee with his Americans accepted the sharp give and take of the skirmishing round the dump area. On the left Fairbrother’s and Ferguson’s men squirmed unhappily in their water-filled holes. A platoon from the 2/1st joined them in their misery. The Americans Lytle and Shirley were still struggling through the scrub and swamp somewhere nearby. Later in the afternoon these two reported that they were in contact with one another. Plans were accordingly laid for them to attack the known enemy positions in their vicinity on the 25th. But late in the day probing enemy pushed them back into the swamp in some disorder.
Apart from this a separate new movement was now under way. The previous night a composite company from the 2/3rd Battalion had been formed under Captain Walker. Their orders were to break bush round the left flank until they cut the track which branched left to Cape Killerton. They would then swing right again to cut the main track about one mile north of its junction with the Killerton Track, which junction was the present American objective. From that position they would be able to lend strength to a hoped-for thrust by the 21st Brigade from the Gona side and to back up the American efforts. The patrol was to stay out for six or seven days if necessary. And with these instructions Walker set out at 9.45 a.m., Lieutenants Boyer20 and Sayers21 and ninety-one men constituting his party. They carried four days’ hard and three days’ emergency rations.
There was no significant tactical change on the 25th. On the divisional level much planning was going into the construction of airstrips so that more men and more materials could be flown in more quickly. Popondetta was emerging as the key airfield. General Herring passed orders on to Vasey to concentrate his constructional effort there for the present. He was to extend the existing strip and build three additional strips as quickly as possible. To enable this to be done and because of the bogginess of the site work on a strip at Soputa was to be discontinued temporarily.
On the battalion level a severe loss marred the day on the right of the track. The heavy mortars of the 126th Regiment were concentrating on the central Japanese area. One bomb, erratic in flight, landed squarely on Captain Blamey’s headquarters. That brave young leader was mortally wounded, one of his men was killed, and five were wounded, including the brigade major of the 16th Brigade, Dawson,22 Captain Lee (the American company commander), and two other American officers.
On the left the only movement of note was the continuing effort of Lytle and Shirley, their companies now merged, to reach the track. Major Bond, chafing against the indecisive nature of this movement and urged by Colonel Tomlinson, personally took command there himself, determined to force an issue.
On the 26th the American attack which had been working up since the 22nd moved forward behind an intense mortar and artillery barrage. It began in the morning as a coordinated drive from the right, along the track, and from the left. On the right Company “L”, now commanded by Major Bert Zeeff, gained some 350 yards but lost heavily in doing so, and by 3 p.m. it was halted, with a heavy machine-gun firing into its left. On the track itself heavy machine-gun fire held Boerem as he tried with scant success to root out the defenders there. Behind him shells were chopping into the American rear echelon. Left of the track Bond’s men still struggled with the bush and with vigorous feelers from the Japanese right.
For the Australians the day was marked by a loss similar to but even more extensive than that of the previous day. An American mortar bomb fell on a platoon in the forward central position. It killed five men and wounded eight; only two in the platoon were left unhurt.
At 5.30 p.m. Brigadier Lloyd had news from the special patrol of the 2/3rd which had set out round the left on the 24th. Lieutenant Boyer, who had carried on when Captain Walker was forced to return with a sprained ankle, sent word that he had reached the Killerton Track at 11.30 that day, but swamps blocked his eastward move. By this time, however, Lloyd had sent another patrol (from the 2/1st Battalion) into the same general area searching for additional information. General Vasey was chafing at the delay and was anxious to know whether he could get a really large body of troops round the left to cut the Sanananda Track in the vicinity of Cape Killerton.
Now illness was beginning to make even more alarming inroads than formerly among the Australians. Malaria was widespread and daily becoming more so. Scrub typhus, a killer, was almost common Brigadier Lloyd determined that his “absolute maximum for any move forward but not for any sustained action that may be asked of them” was 79 officers and 942 men, including 4 officers and 91 men in “B” Echelon and 10 and 100 temporarily retained in the regimental aid post for the treatment of sickness.
The forward medical arrangements at this time were still in the hands of Lieut-Colonel Hobson and his 2/4th Field Ambulance. Until the crossing of the Kumusi River casualties were sent back to Kokoda where the 14th Field Ambulance took over the Main Dressing Station as the advance continued, whence the more seriously wounded and sick were flown to Port Moresby, and where the lighter cases were held for treatment and subsequent return direct to their units. Hobson’s men established staging posts at intervals along the two routes of advance forward from the Kumusi (to Soputa and to Gona) and, on 21st November, formed a Main Dressing Station at Soputa to serve both the 16th and 25th Brigades. Within four days they were then holding at the MDS and in their various staging posts 638 wounded and sick. They themselves were hard pressed for men and it was only by the exercise of much administrative ingenuity and by continued effort that they were able to meet their commitments. Their position improved greatly, however, after the beginning of air evacuation from Popondetta about the 23rd. Jeeps were landed for them, a captured sedan was converted into a motor ambulance and, for the first time in the Papuan campaign, motor vehicles were used for medical work forward of the road-head near Uberi. But the Japanese struck them a heavy blow on 27th November. After a low reconnaissance three days earlier of the areas near Soputa where the MDS and the American Clearing Hospital were sited, 13 Zeros bombed and strafed each medical centre. At the MDS, sited in a clearing by the roadside and practically void of cover, 22 Australians were killed; about 50 were wounded including patients, members of the field ambulance, visitors to the hospital, and natives. Among the killed were two well-loved Australian medical officers, Majors Vickery and McDonald,23 both of whom had done outstanding work during the campaign across the mountains. At the Clearing Hospital six Americans were killed.
A large part of the 27th was taken up with attempts to sort out confusion as to the exact positions of the American companies. The Americans themselves reported that Zeeff, on the right, having advanced some 350 yards, was in rear of the Japanese. Of Boerem’s two companies in the vicinity of the track itself one was reported to be 100 yards forward of Captain Lysaght of the 2/3rd Battalion, and the other 200 yards to Lysaght’s left front. But the Australians held rather different opinions.
Captain Herwig,24 who had come forward with an additional company of the 2/3rd to strengthen the left front near Lysaght, suggested that Americans who had been digging in beyond him the night before had pulled out during the darkness without warning him. When this disturbing report was made to Colonel Tomlinson he at once sent staff officers scouring the bush to locate his companies. But some confusion must have continued for Herwig reported at 9 p.m. that the Americans had not advanced as they claimed and were to his rear.
Shortly before this, action had flared up once more on the right. There was fierce Japanese mortar and small-arms fire in the early darkness. Hanson’s field guns added deeper notes to the uproar as they brought supporting fire down in front of the Allied infantry. The main volume of the Japanese attack fell on Zeeff’s men but it also viciously flicked the Australian right and, in doing so, killed Captain Bosgard, who had taken over again on Blamey’s death, as he lent his brave and experienced presence to his forward platoons. Thus, within three days, both of the Australian commanders in that area had been killed—a bitter loss which their battalion could ill afford.
At this time the movement over the range of General Herring’s advanced headquarters was proceeding and it opened at Popondetta at 8 p.m. on the 28th.
On the actual front the infantry were still shaking themselves out and the commanders maturing their plans. The only sharp clash took place on the right where Americans of the III/126th Battalion ambushed and routed an enemy patrol killing, they thought, about eight. That morning Lieutenant Boyer brought in his special patrol from the Killerton Track. He confirmed the reports he had sent in previously. He said that he had paddled through swamps for two days before he cut the Killerton Track on the 26th. The spreading marsh prevented him from cutting across to the Sanananda Track. He had followed the Killerton Track southwards. Near the area where the Americans under Lytle and Shirley had clashed with the Japanese on the 24th four of his men fell to sudden fire from an enemy whom the Americans had apparently made watchful in that locality. The Australians carried the wounded back into the swamp. Just after midday on the 27th they struck the track the American wide left-flanking movement had followed and it led them back.
Boyer’s discouraging news was confirmed by reports from the 2/1st Battalion patrol which Vasey had had sent into the same area on the 26th. Swamps and vine thickets had so hampered that patrol that it was now on its way back. Clearly no large body of troops could work round the left as General Vasey had hoped—certainly no farther to the left than the track which the Americans were using.
That night an extreme quiet settled on the Sanananda front. It was as though the opposing sides were brooding in the darkness. A red flare climbed high into the darkness from the coast’s edge, hung and then
fell reluctantly. The rattle of spasmodic machine-gun fire welled distantly through the shades from the Buna front.
With the 29th another indecisive day passed. Then came the 30th, scheduled as the day for the culmination of the American efforts. This time the men of the 126th Regiment were to make their principal effort on the left of the track, with a coordinated attempt to move forward along the track itself, and a move in unison by Zeeff’s Company “L” on the right.
The early morning was broken by small-arms fire from both sides, Australian artillery fire, and shots from a Japanese mountain gun. At 8.30 a.m. the Australian 25-pounders began their task of softening the Japanese defences. A Japanese gun opened in reply and small-arms fire began to whip more stingingly through the bush. Australian and American mortars added to the din. A few minutes after 9 the American attack began. For some little time the fire sounded intense to the Australians. Then it died to spasmodic bursts. It seemed as though the bush had swallowed the attack. But, as the 16th Brigade diarist recorded,
in this particular type of fighting the temporary [loss of] contact with companies was no new experience and news of the success or otherwise of our friends was eagerly awaited.
As the day waned, however, the anxious Australians knew that, on the right, there had been some edging forward but no marked progress; on the track itself Boerem’s companies were stopped almost dead where they stood; but on the left there was more to record.
The previous day Major George Bond’s men had been feeling the Japanese right flank about 1,000 yards west of the track. They were joined there then by the anti-tank and cannon companies under Captain Alfred Medendorp (who had come down from Wairopi) and by Major Bernd G. Baetcke, who was sent forward by Colonel Tomlinson to take over command and push through to the track next day. He began this movement, directly east, at 9.10 on the 30th with Major Bond in command of the main attacking force—Companies “I” and “K”. Captain Shirley led the advance with Captain Roger Keast’s anti-tank company assisting him. The second rifle company covered the movement, drawing heavy Japanese fire as they did so. The Cannon Company was in reserve.
The Japanese right flank gave to the initial assault. About that time Bond was severely wounded but the deliberate movement towards the track went on. A number of minor skirmishes followed. About 5 p.m. the leading scouts reported a Japanese bivouac area ahead of them and astride the track. Shirley led his company into a bayonet attack. Captain Keast was supporting him closely. Lieutenant Daniels,25 a forward observation officer for the Australian artillery, thrust to the front. The attackers drove in strongly. After they had bayoneted a number of Japanese Shirley’s men set up a perimeter defence astride the track. But the defenders took a toll. Daniels was among the killed.
Thus, after more than a week of indecisive skirmishing through the bush, the position which was to become well known as “Huggins’ Road-Block” was established on the Sanananda Track, just south of the Cape Killerton track junction. It was driven into a weakness between two main positions—the one immediately fronting the main Allied forces trying to push northward along the track, the other lying north again of the area in which Shirley established his perimeter.
The establishment of this road-block serves as a measure of the Americans’ ability at this time. It had taken them nine days to achieve it. Their task was closely comparable with that which Captain Catterns had carried out in one day with roughly one-third the American strength, with no support, with very worn men and with the infliction of much greater casualties on the Japanese. And the Americans were fresh troops against whom the resistance on the track itself was only a fraction as strong as that which Catterns had met. But the latter’s men had learned swiftness in action. They were the hardy and cunning survivors of many difficult days in North Africa, Greece, and the Owen Stanleys. They had confidence in one another. They were determined. Their leaders were tried men who held their appointments because they had been proved many times. They had learned to match the Japanese in the latter’s chosen form of warfare. The bush was becoming their familiar habitat. By comparison the Americans seemed soft. They had had no opportunity to grow battle-wise in action. Some of their leaders were as bewildered as the men. Though many of the Americans were individually brave, as units they had neither the determination nor the skill to drive through difficulties to their objective. They, men of a nation which had grown great through self-reliance, had apparently to try to learn how to recapture this quality, which their machines (temporarily no use to them) had taken from them.
So December came with the stalemate on the Sanananda front barely eased—despite the arrival of the Americans. The main Allied positions resembled a horseshoe with the ends pointing northwards. On the right extremity Zeeff’s company was still located, with the wasting remnants of the two 2/2nd Battalion companies to the left rear and closer to the track, on which Boerem’s Americans were being closely backed by shadow companies of the 2/3rd Battalion (totalling 12 officers and 288 men). On the left extension of the horseshoe the two 2/2nd Battalion companies, also wasting fast, were still holding to their water-filled holes. To their left front was a platoon of the 2/1st Battalion. Slightly north of a line which might have been drawn from one extremity of the horseshoe to the other the road-block had been established. Major Baetcke, with Company “K” and the Cannon Company, was still in the bush 1,400 yards to the west of the road-block. And on the track which bisected the horseshoe’s arc, enclosed but not sealed by these Allied positions, were the most southerly of the Japanese positions.
The first few days of December saw the road-block party holding fast against continuing Japanese attacks. It was in a precarious position. The garrison, consisting of Company “I” and the anti-tank company, with a
light machine-gun section from Company “M” and a signals detachment, in all now numbering roughly 250, was in a relatively open space among bush and swamp, approximately oval shaped, some 250 by 150 yards in extent. Tall trees and thick bush surrounded it. Within this cover attacks could be mounted in safe concealment. From it they could erupt with stunning force. There was no supply line except that which could be driven by force and guile through Japanese-held territory. In some respects it was Catterns’ story over again, with the defenders raked by fire and circling attacks exploding continuously in upon them, except that Catterns’ ordeal had ended after one night and one day while that of the Americans was to drag out during a weary succession of days and nights.
Originally Baetcke had planned to settle his whole force in the roadblock area, but Boerem’s failure to progress along the track on the 30th had, in Baetcke’s opinion, rendered this plan too risky. He therefore prepared to remain where he was (with Company “K” and the Cannon Company) as a base from which communications and supply to the almost beleaguered group might be maintained. On 1st December Captain Meredith M. Huggins in charge of a ration party reached him and Baetcke sent him on to the road-block next day. Scarcely had Huggins arrived there with his supplies, however, than Shirley was killed. Huggins at once took command.
Colonel Tomlinson hoped to be able to close the gap between his main force and the wedge formed by Huggins’ force. But, for the present, his plan came to nothing Major Zeeff, who was ordered forward on the right of the track, made ground by hard fighting but lost so many men that he was finally checked. Tomlinson then ordered him back. Simultaneously Boerem had been trying to make ground along the track, but again his men were stopped almost where they stood.
In this situation there was obviously little need for Tomlinson himself and his headquarters in front of Sanananda. General Herring therefore agreed that he might rejoin the main 32nd Divisional group. This he did on the 4th with most of his headquarters, leaving Baetcke in charge of the Americans on the Sanananda Track and under Brigadier Lloyd’s command.
That day General Vasey came down to Lloyd’s headquarters to discuss a further American attack planned for the 5th, and with him Lieut-General Eichelberger, who had then just taken command of the Americans before Buna; General Herring; and Brigadier-General Willoughby, chief of General MacArthur’s Intelligence staff. It was decided that Boerem would lead frontally once more in an effort to clear the main axis and the country to the right. At the same time Baetcke would attempt to push through the Japanese right-flank positions to the track and then swing north to join Huggins. Captain Burrell of the 2/1st Battalion and Lieutenant MacDougal of the 2/3rd would accompany the Americans in the dual capacity of advisers and liaison officers. All the mortar and artillery fire which could be brought to bear would be laid down to cover the assault. The Americans would carry three days’ hard and two days’ emergency
rations to be supplied by Lloyd. Their own supply arrangements were not considered suitable for the sort of operations which it was hoped would develop.
At 7.15 a.m. on the 5th the guns opened, and American and Australian mortars joined in. Soon afterwards the American movement began. The first report from them did not come until 9.40 a.m. A message then reached Lloyd from Boerem that the frontal attack had gone to ground along the rear line of the artillery concentration. Boerem said that he was trying to reorganise for a second attempt at his objective.
At 11.30 he expressed the opinion that
his troops were somewhat disorganised. They had evidently become scattered in the thick undergrowth and it was taking some time to get them reorganised. They had passed through only one vacated enemy position, a LMG pit with timber overhead cover, but were now held up by a gun approximately 50 yards to his front whilst there was one LMG slightly further back and one on his right flank.26
Meanwhile Baetcke, having reached the limit of his northward movement through the bush parallel with the track, had swung eastward towards the track on a bearing of 110 degrees. But, for all practical purposes blind in the heavy kunai which closed round his men, after struggling on for about 200 yards on this bearing he was beaten by a destructive fire.
So once again the attack faded out. Two men were killed, 63 were wounded and 25 were missing at the end of the day. A bare 100 yards was gained near and to the right of the track by Boerem’s men and the Japanese had fended off Baetcke’s smaller band without undue disturbance to themselves.
The plight of Huggins and his men was therefore still as desperate as before. The Japanese were giving them no rest. On the same day as the main attack failed Huggins himself was badly wounded and a supply train, some 60 strong, was blocked by a determined Japanese ambush only 300 yards from the little garrison.
By this time the concern of the American high command about the apparent lack of decisiveness on the part of the American troops engaged was manifest. General Willoughby went forward during this day’s attack to watch his countrymen in action. On his return he closely interrogated Lieutenant MacDougal who was not only an experienced and dashing officer, but an unusually outspoken one. MacDougal was very blunt regarding what he considered the Americans’ lack of fighting qualities. Willoughby not only did not resent but appeared to appreciate the Australian’s frankness.
Now, however, the struggle along the Sanananda Track was entering a third phase. First the tired 16th Brigade had used up its last dregs of strength against the stubborn Japanese. Next the fresh and confident Americans had drained both their freshness and their confidence. The Australians of the 30th Brigade, most of them still unblooded, would now
open the third round. Lieut-Colonel Kessels27 had his 49th Battalion at Soputa by nightfall on the 4th, 24 officers and 481 men strong. The 55th/53rd Battalion landed at Dobodura and Popondetta next day, and by the morning of the 6th had completed their movement to Soputa. (The third battalion of the brigade—the 39th—had gone to Gona.)
The 49th and 55th/53rd Battalions were approaching their first action as units. The 49th, of course, was the original battalion of the Port Moresby garrison so that the period of its service in New Guinea went back to before the outbreak of the war with Japan. Despite this it had never yet been committed. It had been moved about in the changing plans for the defence of the Port Moresby area. This had involved it in monotonous months of labouring at the digging and building of defences of all kinds. Interspersed with this had been a total of some months of labouring on the wharfs and at varied maintenance tasks. Perforce training had been sporadic and incomplete. Only air raids, the promise of action as the Japanese threat had welled close through the mountain mists, and uneventful patrols had highlighted the long period. The temper of the men was uncertain, partly because of their history, partly because they had divided minds about the nature of the service that might fall to their lot. Their approach to the problem of enlistment in the AIF well illustrated this.
On 28th August 12 officers and 138 men comprised the actual AIF strength of the battalion. Twenty-five officers and 185 men had volunteered to transfer from the militia to the AIF but the transfers had not yet been gazetted. The militiamen had received with resentment a notification, subsequently cancelled, that on enlistment in the AIF the letter “M” would be inserted in their army numbers to mark them out from original members of the volunteer force. This alone held many back from offering for unrestricted service. By 9th September enlistment figures had not altered so that of a total battalion strength of 37 and 818, only 40 per cent were then serving members of the AIF or volunteers for that force. (The officer response was 100 per cent.) By 28th October the percentage had increased only to 53 per cent.
The battalion commander, Lieut-Colonel Kessels, had had long militia training. He had been commissioned since 1922. Most of his commissioned service had been with the same battalion. A stiffening of experienced AIF officers had come to him about the middle of the year and soon afterwards.28
Even more curiously composed and shaped was the 55th/53rd Battalion. This had been formed on 26th October by the amalgamation of the 55th and 53rd Battalions. The 55th had arrived at Port Moresby with
the 14th Brigade at the end of May, had not been committed before and had suffered the boredom and frustration of Moresby garrison life. The second component of this composite unit had been the ill-starred 53rd Battalion which Brigadier Potts had sent out of action at the most critical stage of the mountain fighting. It had then done labouring work for a while before it went out of existence as a separate battalion—at which time it numbered 29 officers and 581 men. Some of these went to the new unit; others were allotted to other infantry units from their own States; others again, on the score of age or for similar reasons, went to service units then in New Guinea. Ninety-eight picked men had previously gone to the 39th Battalion.
Lieut-Colonel Lovell29 led the composite 55th/53rd to the forward areas. Thirty years old, he had been a militia officer since 1935. An original officer of the 2/1st Battalion, he had been commanding the 55th for only a few weeks before the formation of the composite battalion. None of his company commanders had served overseas. Indeed, the 55th/53rd, as it approached its first action, lacked cohesion and training as a unit.
With this battalion and the 49th General Vasey proposed to relieve the worn 16th Brigade on 6th December. On 30th November the brigade had numbered only 67 officers and 795 men. Since crossing the Kumusi it had lost 13 officers and 143 men in action and the numbers of sick actually evacuated from the units totalled 18 and 344, although
it became a tradition that a man would not go back until his temperature rose to 103 degrees (wrote a member of the 2/2nd Battalion later). Even when a man was evacuated it involved an all day march back to the Popondetta airstrip.
Another recorded that
all had illnesses of one kind or another, mostly malaria; the physical hardships of the campaign, and the prolonged lack of sufficient food, had told on everyone. It was physical effort enough to walk around in safety at Battalion HQ; it required incomparable morale to stick day after day in the rifle company positions.30
An officer of the 2/3rd Battalion wrote:
One man arrived at the RAP looking very sick. The MO, ‘Aspro Joe’ Joseph,31 said ‘How do you feel?’ Not as hot as I was last night, Doc.’ The MO then took his temperature. It was 106.2. This man had walked for 1 ½ hours to reach the RAP.32
Captain Dunlop33 has left a general picture of some of the less spectacular sides of the 2/2nd Battalion’s day-to-day routine, listing these among his chief impressions:
The weather, which alternated between hot sun and heavy rain. Both phases were uncomfortable everywhere; they were hell for the forward troops, who spent the three weeks either burning in hot sun (with no daytime shelter in forward pits) or in feet of water.
The maintenance difficulties. Ammunition had constantly to be carried out, and a reserve built up with companies; hot food had to be cooked well in rear and got out to companies; the normal rations had to be distributed; stretcher parties were constantly needed—not only for wounded, but for the many men who refused to come in until too weak to walk. ...
The team spirit of the whole Brigade at that time must be mentioned. Not only did HQ Company and Battalion HQ do more than ever before to help rifle companies, but carrying parties were provided by Brigade HQ, 2/1st and 2/3rd Battalions regularly and without question, and more than willingly.
That the Q arrangements mentioned briefly above worked as smoothly as they did was due to the efforts of Capt McPherson34 and Lieut Richards,35 both too ill to walk, with one stationed at one end of the supply line and one the other; Sgt Asher,36 who established a kitchen in rear, and others such as Sgts McDonald,37 Hain38 and Cpl Brewer39 who organised the supply and issue generally and handled the native carrier line. The last stage of the food’s journey to forward companies was, of course, in the hands of the Companies’ Q’s, and S-Sgt Bright40 (in bare feet because his feet were too sore to wear boots) and Sgt O’Donnell41 in particular, were untiring.
No man will ever forget the fifty-bed hospital—there is no other way of describing it—run by the RAP just in rear of Battalion HQ, which looked after not only our own sick and wounded, but literally hundreds of US and other Australian troops who used it because of its position and because of its first-class organisation under Captain McGuinness42 and Sgt Nicholas.43
It was clear that this spent formation, willing though it still was, could do no more to affect the course of events along the Sanananda. Track. Between 3rd October and 6th December (when its relief by the 30th Brigade began) it lost about 29 officers and 576 men in action.46 Fifty-six
officers and 922 men had been evacuated through sickness. The total of these figures represented approximately 85 per cent of the strength with which it had set out on the campaign.
By the evening of the 6th the 55th/53rd had relieved the 2/3rd Battalion except for a small party of thirty-three under Major Hutchison. The 2/1st Battalion was, however, still in a protective position round the guns and most of the 2/2nd still remained forward. These, together with the Americans in the area, Brigadier Porter was empowered to take under his command. It was envisaged that both of these groups would remain generally static while the two fresh militia battalions attacked on the 7th and, with this end in view, Porter placed the militiamen forward along the track. He planned to clear the Japanese from the area south of the roadblock with the 49th Battalion on the right of the track, the 55th/53rd on the left. In the absence of a third fresh battalion he would send only one battalion at a time into the actual assault while the other attempted to divert Japanese attention.
A night of drenching rain was followed on the 7th by morning sunshine which lighted the swamps and wet bush. After standing-to in the uncertain dawn the 49th Battalion pulled back along the track to allow the guns and mortars to register. There they waited to go in behind the barrage. Each man was carrying five days’ rations (two days’ hard, three days’ emergency), two grenades and 100 rounds of ammunition, and a groundsheet. About two men in each section carried Owen guns; it was the first time the battalion had used them.
When the registration shoots were finished Colonel Kessels moved his men back to their previous positions. For a few minutes they waited while the barrage fell ahead of them. Through it the morning sun shone, and back through the exploding curtain Japanese fire whipped into the waiting men and struck a number of them down even before they began to move. At 9.45 a.m., as they went forward through the bush, Captain Forster’s47 company led on the right with Captain Bryce’s48 abreast on the left. Captain Noyes’49 company followed behind Forster’s and Captain Thorn’s50 behind Bryce’s. All were quickly swallowed up in the bush.
Soon they began to lose very heavily. Forster’s men pressed on for some hundreds of yards and overran a number of Japanese positions. Forster himself was wounded but Lieutenant A. R. Tolmer51 (who had himself been slightly wounded the previous afternoon) carried on. He got one platoon some 700 or 800 yards forward until they linked with Lieutenant Moore’s men of the 2/2nd, who had been forming the right forward extremity of the Allied horseshoe.
On the left Bryce’s company were being badly torn by fire from Japanese positions sited on the left of the track; Bryce himself was wounded. Lieutenant Unsworth,52 his second-in-command, took over, although wounded himself, and carried on until he was killed. Lieutenant Hughes53 was killed at the head of his platoon. The company seemed to lose direction slightly and veered too far to the right in the shrouding bush until finally all their impetus was gone.
Between these leading companies and the second wave Colonel Kessels was moving. With him he had some of the pioneers and anti-aircraft platoon under Lieutenant Wylie.54 He was the controlling link. But the most vital part of his system had failed. He had virtually only physical communication with his companies. It was originally intended that these should each have a 108-wireless set. When, however, five minutes before the start of the attack the sets had not arrived, the company commanders were told to take telephones and cable instead, but finally, though they had the instruments, at least three of the companies had to go forward without line. This lack of communications, the thick bush and the confusion of battle, made it almost impossible to synchronise the movement of companies as had been planned. As a result the gap between Forster and Bryce in front, and Noyes and Thorn in the rear, inevitably widened from the planned 200 yards. When Noyes and Thorn finally pushed ahead they were some 500 yards in rear of the forward companies and the Japanese had time to recover in some measure from the first onslaught before meeting the second.
On the right, part of Noyes’ company tangled early with Thorn’s men on their left. Both groups there were held and badly cut about. The rest of Noyes’ company staggered ahead with a great volume of fire pouring into them from their left, although, strangely, few of them saw any Japanese. By the time they had covered about 800 yards only about 35 out of the original 98 in the company were still with the commander. All of the platoon commanders were down. But Noyes stayed in this new position for five hours until, having decided that the day was lost, he brought his men back.
In the vicinity of the track Thorn’s men had at first pushed strongly ahead. Then fire slashed murderously through them from Japanese positions which had lain motionless beneath the first wave, and, in enfilade, from the left of the track where other positions commanded the left flank of the attack. Thorn himself was killed together with two of his lieutenants, Forster55 and Morrison,56 and many of his men.
And so the attack of these brave companies crumbled. But since the
second phase of his plan was not necessarily dependent on either the success or failure of the first, and as indeed it might well redeem the position, Porter went ahead with his plans for an attack by the 55th/53rd Battalion.
While most of the remaining men of the 49th were still carrying on a scattered and flickering fight, about 2 p.m. Porter ordered Kessels to return. Kessels was then preparing to dig in his own headquarters group, some 40 strong, about 600 yards forward of his start-line, and still trying to establish firm contact with his companies. His own group had suffered with the rest. Lieutenant Wylie was among the casualties; he had been hit in the head and was missing. (Some ten days later he was to report back after wandering half-unconscious behind the Japanese all that time with Lance-Corporal Butler57 helping him.) Kessels arrived back while Lovell was still finalising his plans for his own attack. It was agreed that the 49th companies would remain as they were while the 55th/53rd took a hand.
Lovell had already committed Captain Gilleland’s58 company well to the left of the track in a diversionary attack, synchronised with the 49th Battalion attack. It had gained approximately 80 yards. Now he ordered Captain Reid’s59 and Major Spring’s60 companies forward. He gave them their orders orally. He knew little of the Japanese dispositions and so these orders were simple: “55/53 Bn will attack enemy positions astride the road.” He suspected that three machine-gun posts were sited near a “big white tree” which lay ahead of him and just to the right of the track. He could be quite certain that there were other posts to the rear of the tree. He told Reid, therefore, to go forward on a bearing of 20 degrees, clean out the positions to the right of and behind the “big white tree” and then exploit along the track. Spring was to follow the same bearing until he reached the track, cross, and range through the Japanese positions on the left of that vital cleared strip.
At 3.15 p.m. the two companies moved ahead through hampering undergrowth. Soon they were in the thick of fire from cleverly concealed positions. The heavy growth and their own inexperience caused them to bunch in little groups which made them good targets. Sharpshooters picked them off. Spring’s men became confused and yawed to the right, where a number of them came up with what remained of Captain Thorn’s company of the 49th. As a result only one section instead of the whole company crossed the track, and these few were held on the other side. This failure apparently laid Reid’s men bare to fire which held them in scorching enfilade and struck many of them down, including Reid himself. Reid
then sent his second-in-command (Lieutenant Dellaca61) back to Lovell with this news. To relieve the situation Lovell then ordered Gilleland to send his men diagonally across the road towards the white tree, from the position they had previously acquired well to the left of the track and in which Lieutenant Haan and some fifty Americans had relieved them about 4.15 p.m.
With night coming on the men of the 55th/53rd began to consolidate their slight advance approximately 100 yards in front of their morning positions. On this line the colonel regrouped the three companies, placing Gilleland in command of them. Their attack, like that of the 49th, had failed, and the cost was heavy. At the end of the day 8 officers and 122 men were listed as killed, wounded or missing, and, significantly in view of later developments within this battalion, the losses included 28 NCO’s.
Now that it was clear that the day was quite lost, all the Australians could do was try to resolve the confusion as best they might. What was left of Kessels’ companies came slowly back in bewilderment. None could say then just what their losses were but obviously only a threadbare unit was left. Those who could be reassembled were organised defensively into one company to the right of the big white tree under Captain Noyes. Early next morning Noyes was able to report that he was firming there with a total strength of 118-11 from Forster’s company, 9 from Bryce’s (the two companies which had led the assault), 60 from his own company, 38 from Thorn’s. About 40 men were still out with Tolmer. Since the companies had each begun with 90 to 100 men it seemed that the casualties might total 250. (Much later a final tally set the figure at 14 officers and 215 men—between 55 and 60 per cent of the actual attacking force and nearly 48 per cent of the battalion.)
By that time Lovell had brought up his fourth rifle company, fresh and still whole, and had it astride the track on Noyes’ left. Extending farther to the left was Haan’s small group of Americans. Lovell had withdrawn Reid’s and Spring’s survivors well to the rear and had Gilleland protecting his own headquarters. As for the rest of the troops still in the area: wide to either flank the attenuated 2/2nd Battalion still formed the horns of the Allied crescent; ahead, through the country yet held by the Japanese, the road-block continued to endure; west of the road-block the two American companies still lay over the flanking track in the bush as a base from which to supply the road-block; the balance of the Americans were well behind the forward positions on the main track.
So the third round along the Sanananda Track opened much as the first two had done. The 16th Brigade operations had virtually ended in stalemate; the Americans had failed to resolve that; and now the militiamen had intensified it. Even for experienced battalions the heavy blows which the 49th and 55th/53rd had sustained would have been almost stunning. Their final effect on the previously untried newcomers
had yet to be revealed. Thus far what these had attempted, and the manner of it, was greatly to the men’s credit.
The immediate effect, however, of the repulse of the latest Australian attacks, was to usher in a period of comparative pause and further preparation which was to last for about twelve days. Generals Herring and Vasey agreed that, apart from offensive patrolling, no further big-scale attacks should be undertaken for the time being.
Accordingly the 30th Brigade settled to a policy of patrolling and edging forward where possible. Of this period Brigadier Porter wrote later:
Since our first assault, we have used a ‘stalk and consolidate’ type of tactics, combined with fire concentrations on enemy positions, as discovered. We have patrolled deeply and over wide areas. Several raids have had the effect of killing some enemy, but his well-constructed MG positions defy our fire power and present a barrier of fire through which our troops must pass. We have attempted to seize these in failing light, but they are too numerous to deal with by other than an attack in great strength. One of these attempts silenced one MG but others supported from flank positions. On the latter occasion own troops avoided fixed lines by crawling back to cover in the bad light.
In these conditions a method used in the trench warfare of 1914-18 and earlier was introduced when the Australians tried sapping forward to known Japanese positions, though without any marked success. Also they tried the expedient of bringing forward a six-pounder gun (from the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment). They thought that perhaps it would damage the low, heavily-roofed and well-concealed strongpoints in a way which neither mortars, nor 25-pounders, nor aerial bombs, had done.
There was, however, no disguising the fact that temporarily the Allies were fairly held along the Sanananda Track. Brigadier Porter defined his intention as:
To position minimum troops on present front for purposes of security and holding frontally. To maintain maximum troops in hand for mobile offence and for conservation of health and energy.
This he declared as being “based on a continuation of ‘stalk and consolidate’ plus holding present front with strong posts mutually supporting”. Such orders from the dashing Porter were as expressive of baffled impotence as barley water is of the weakness of a sick man. And this temporary sense of bafflement could be detected from the highest to lowest levels in both Australians and Americans.
On the highest levels, it is true, some minor evidence of an aggressive policy could be assembled. The air forces could be turned loose with a certain vigour on the defenders; but the physical effects of these assaults on the stout front-line posts were small; nor could the pilots determine the general areas for attack with any certainty; on the 9th, for example, an ambitious program had to be called off after the first bombs had almost demolished the Salvation Army coffee stall nearly a mile behind the most forward Australian track positions. Again, the amalgamation of Numbers 1 and 2 landing strips at Popondetta on the 13th to create “Popondetta Main”, providing four landing surfaces, seemed encouraging; but this
was important only in relation to what could be achieved by the fighting troops actually in contact. Again, General Herring’s rapidly maturing plans to fly over from Port Moresby the 2/7th Australian Cavalry Regiment and the 36th Battalion suggested the possibility of a decisive inflow of fresh troops; but, in bringing these units across, Herring was “scraping the bottom of the barrel” for the garrison commitments at Port Moresby and Milne Bay, and the front-line commitments at Buna, Sanananda and Gona, had almost exhausted his supply of infantry.
In the fighting units many of the troops were literally staggering from weakness as they tried to carry on the fight. Others, though not so weak physically, were beginning to show worrying signs of unwillingness to go forward.
The men of the 16th Brigade (now down to a fighting strength of 50 officers and 488 men) fell completely into the first group. On the 9th the 2/3rd Battalion, totalling a mere 130 all ranks, were ordered forward once again to relieve the 2/2nd, although their medical officer emphasised to Vasey that they were quite unfit for that service. The 2/2nd, still in the positions on either side of the track where they had been first stopped, were in even worse plight, the whole battalion being little more than 100 strong. The men themselves were so weak that, as they came slowly back on the 10th, they could not carry their automatic weapons. Lieut-Colonel Stevenson, who had returned to the 2/3rd Battalion a little time before, replaced them with two scratch companies formed from the survivors of his rifle companies. Major Hutchison took the right of the track with some 46 all ranks, Captain Herwig the left with about 59 all ranks.
Into the second group fell mainly an unduly large number of the 55th/53rd Battalion. In an attempted two-platoon attack in the early morning of the 13th the men were generally irresolute. The battalion diarist noted that their officers
had great difficulty in moving troops forward whilst dense undergrowth made maintenance of control and direction difficult. Troops were prone to go to ground and thus prevented themselves from being extricated by fire and movement.
Later in the day the platoon which had led on that occasion was sent again to attack a troublesome strongpoint. Within half an hour they had withdrawn. The attack had to be called off though the platoon had not sustained any casualties.
Nor did it seem that, as a group, the Americans outside the road-block were noticeably more resolute. Within the blockade the wretchedness of the men was increasing daily. On the 6th and 7th attempts to break through to them with supplies had failed. Early on the 8th, however, Lieutenant Peter L. Dal Ponte fought his way in. He remained in command then and sent the wounded Huggins back with the returning supply party that night. The latter reported from hospital that the Japanese had made frequent attacks on the garrison from different angles: that they were well clothed and in good physical condition; some of them got close enough to slit trenches during attacks to be grasped by the ankles and
pulled in, and two Japanese officers had been killed in that fashion. He said that supplies were low and fever was raging; 225 men were left in the garrison of whom perhaps 125 were in fighting condition. When a second party got through to the road-block on the 10th Dal Ponte sent back word of increasing discomfort, although the Japanese determination seemed to have waned as no attacks had taken place in the preceding two or three days. After that no supplies reached Dal Ponte until the 14th. By that time he was almost out of ammunition.
How far this situation could have been relieved by more determined efforts on the part of the Americans outside the beleaguered area is a matter for conjecture. On the 12th Colonel Pollard,62 who had taken over from Colonel Spry as General Vasey’s chief staff officer after Spry had been wounded on 27th November, accompanied a supply party towards Dal Ponte’s position. He reported subsequently that the party came under fire from light and heavy machine-guns and rifles about twenty minutes’ march from their objective; that it then returned without delivering its supplies; that it made “no real attempt to force passage or overcome Jap opposition”. Representations to this effect were made to Major Boerem who, since Baetcke had been sent back to hospital with fever on the 7th, was now commanding all Americans in the area.
On the same day Vasey seriously examined the entire question of holding the road-block.
Question now arises regarding usefulness of road-block owing to the fact that American troops in occupation consider they no longer have necessary numerical strength to carry out offensive patrolling and for some days have been completely inactive. Whilst this continues main object of the post will be to deny its occupation to the enemy and obviate necessity of having to overcome further opposition in this area in subsequent operations. In addition, evacuation of the position would undoubtedly be retrograde step and would be a morale raiser for the Japs. The American forces in the positions on the western side have now been in occupation for some weeks and their physical condition is suffering as a result of fever and the fact that the whole force needs to be relieved in order that necessary reorganisation may be carried out. Whilst relief is highly desirable it is by no means a matter of necessity. Owing to the complete inactivity of these troops the occupation of these positions astride the L of C serves no useful purpose and could be dispensed with unless troops activated.63
Perhaps the implications concerning the two western companies were too harsh for the same pen continued:
Positions on the western side of Soputa–Sanananda track occupied by American troops are all under water, the whole area now being a swamp due to heavy rains. Troops are unable to lie down on ground anywhere in position. Practically whole track used as L of C to road-block is through knee-deep marshes. With the coming of the wet season maintenance of any force operating to west of Soputa–Sanananda track would at best be most difficult and in all probability impossible.
None the less, whatever the reasons, Brigadier Porter did not find it
easy to fit the Americans into his planning at this stage. In assessing the whole situation on 25th December he wrote:
Huggins’ Force is still in posn astride the road, isolated and severely dissipated. This force has accounted for numerous enemy who attacked it; but it is incapable of acting offensively. The whole of the remainder of US tps have been engaged in carrying rations to it—either as carriers, escort of picquets on the route in. At other times they merely occupy our rear perimeter. Any effort to induce them to occupy a forward position or take the offensive raises objections on the part of their commander.
Not only were these men tired and discouraged. Their numbers were sinking rapidly. On 10th December their entire “effective” strength west of the Girua was 635. They had lost 50 killed, 198 wounded, 80 missing and 249 had been evacuated sick. However grisly the comparison it is worthy of note that the losses in battle by the Americans in nineteen days were less than similar losses by the two Australian militia battalions in one day—on the 7th. And the total strength of these two battalions was little more than two-thirds that of the Americans.
It was clear that the Allied position along the Sanananda. Track was one of wary discouragement when the 2/7th Australian Cavalry and more militiamen prepared to enter the scene about the middle of December.
The Australian leaders now well knew that there they were facing the main Japanese strength on the Papuan coast. In actual fact the Japanese probably were deploying about 5,500 men, including hospital patients, in front of Sanananda at the beginning of the coastal fighting. After the death of General Horii, command west of the Girua River had fallen to Colonel Yokoyama On his right, at Gona, he sited an improvised force. On the Sanananda Track he gave the most forward positions, about the Sanananda–Killerton track junction, to Colonel Tsukamoto who mustered there about 1,700 men: the remaining strength of his own I/144th Battalion; a detachment of the III/41st Battalion; some of the 15th Independent Engineers; about 700 Formosan naval labourers. Behind Tsukamoto, where Huggins’ road-block was later established, were a company of III/41st Battalion, a battery of mountain gunners and some anti-aircraft gunners, and the main body of the 15th Independent Engineers, about 300 strong. At Sanananda itself Yokoyama set up his headquarters, with him the balance of the 41st Regiment, his cavalry troops, a mountain battery and some naval construction troops.
Strenuous efforts were made by the Japanese to reinforce these troops during late November and early December. On 22nd November the 21st Independent Mixed Brigade (Major-General Tsuyuo Yamagata), its nucleus being the 170th Infantry Regiment, arrived at Rabaul from Indo-China. Some 800 men of this force, mainly of the I/170th Battalion, set out from Rabaul in four destroyers on the night 28th–29th November. They lacked air cover, however, and, rounding the western tip of New Britain into Vitiaz Strait, fell a prey to Allied aircraft who drove them back to Rabaul. There Yamagata himself arrived in time to join his own second echelon, of which the III/170th Battalion was the main unit. They struck
southwards through St George’s Channel, covered by aircraft which managed to drive off several Allied air attempts to destroy the convoy, and reached Basabua early in the morning of 2nd December. Before they could unload, however, they were once more under heavy air attack and were forced northward in the darkness. At the Kumusi River mouth the ships began to unload but the aircraft kept at them. About 300 soldiers were lost in the landing but the remaining 500, with considerable supplies of ammunition and equipment, finally linked with those survivors of the Oivi–Gorari fighting who, having escaped down the river after their defeat and having been organised at the river’s mouth by Colonel Yazawa, still remained there. Yazawa himself, with the greater part of his tattered force, had been picked up in barges which Yokoyama had sent along for them. Yokoyama realised that, ill, exhausted and with comparatively few weapons and no supplies, they were in no condition to fight their way down the coast to him at Sanananda. Although Allied aircraft inflicted some losses on this movement Yazawa himself got through to Sanananda with probably 400 to 500 men, and added these to the Sanananda forces. Soon a third attempt was made to land the 170th Regiment on the Buna–Gona coast. The I Battalion, which had been driven back on its first attempt, set out once more from Rabaul on 9th December with the small balance of the III Battalion and some ancillary troops. Next day, however, Allied aircraft attacked with great determination, set fire to three of six destroyers making up the convoy, and shot down a number of the escorting fighters. The ships turned back again for Rabaul. On the 12th, however, the battalion started out once more, Major-General Kensaku Oda accompanying them to take over as Horii’s successor. This time they made for the mouth of the Mambare River, 30 to 50 miles north of Sanananda, where, apparently, it had been decided to open a new beach-head: one to which ships could come without being forced into the narrow waters lower down the coast where an offshore reef almost paralleled the beach. There a well-concealed base could be established and small craft could ply with supplies and reinforcements to the main battle-front; and there sick and wounded could be staged. Bad weather covering them Oda and the I/170th reached the Mambare mouth without loss and there, with everything in readiness for a quick landing, rapidly unloaded in the darkness of the morning of the 14th. By the time the Allied aircraft located them after daybreak, all of the 800 men were ashore with most of their gear and most of the numerous small watercraft they had brought with them. The destroyers got clean away. Though the attacking aircraft managed to sink a few of the small craft and some of the supplies which, still wrapped in waterproof coverings and lashed to buoys so that they would wash in with the waves and the tides, were still floating about off shore, the Japanese losses were small.
So mid-December found the main Japanese force, now totalling about 6,000 men, including sick and wounded, remaining firm along the Sanananda Track. Although General Blamey was sending fresh units to that sector, he had decided to strike his next main blow at the Japanese
before Buna to resolve that flank before attempting again to reduce the Sanananda positions. At the same time, however, a compact Japanese force was building up on the Australian extreme left flank, though events at Gona had markedly affected the way in which this force could be used.