Chapter 2: Marking Time
“I AM anxious to increase the garrison at Wau–Bulolo as soon as possible by flying in approximately 1,500 troops,” wrote General Mackay on 18th April to General Kenney, the commander of the Allied Air Forces in the South-West Pacific Area. “After these have arrived,” he continued, “about 600 troops will be relieved and brought to Port Moresby, leaving the garrison of Wau–Bulolo approximately 6,500. ... The total number of plane loads required to carry the above personnel with their weapons, ammunition and limited stores is 103.” These words emphasised the dependence of the Allied Services on one another in New Guinea. Merchant ships, guarded by the navy, carried troops and war materials to Port Moresby but, without the use of air transport, the Wau–Bulolo area could not have been held in January 1943. Against great difficulties engineers were building a road to Wau from Bulldog on the Lakekamu River but this would not be ready for some time. In the meantime the only practicable way to reinforce and maintain the Australians in the Wau–Bulolo area was over the Owen Stanley Range in American air transports guarded by Allied fighters. Possession by the Allies of the DC-3 transport aircraft was thus a big factor in enabling the Australians to hold their positions in the forward area against the Japanese who had more accessible bases at Lae and Salamaua.
Mackay’s Intelligence staff estimated that enemy strengths in New Guinea included between 9,000 and 11,000 men at Wewak, between 6,000 and 8,000 at Madang, about 5,500 in the Lae–Salamaua area, with smaller detachments at Vanimo, Aitape, Bogia, Saidor and Finschhafen. Mackay thought that the Japanese were determined to strengthen their grip on the North-east coast of New Guinea by using the divisions stationed in the Wewak, Madang and Lae–Salamaua areas, and by preparing airfields for bombers at Wewak and for fighters at Madang and Saidor. He believed that they would now try to build up the Lae–Salamaua area by developing the old coastal route from Wewak to Lae with barge staging points between the main areas, and that, when their communications and airfields improved, they would attack in the area south of the Markham or against the Australians’ forward positions in the Mubo and Missim areas.
Mackay therefore on 20th April directed General Savige to keep the enemy away from the airfields at Wau, Bulolo, Bulwa and Zenag; to prevent them from entering the Wau–Bulolo–Partep 2 area from the east, north and west; and to deny them a secure base for developing operations south of the Markham River particularly in the Wampit and Watut River Valleys. He also made Savige responsible for developing the Wau–Bulolo area into “an active operational zone for mobile defence in such a manner as to facilitate offensive operations”. Mackay finally warned Savige
that “Salamaua is a strongly defended area and no attempt is to be made at present to capture it by siege tactics”.
One of the most difficult and unpleasant areas ever to confront troops lay before the Australians. It posed an immense supply problem. Endurance and determination in generous quantities were needed from the troops themselves, while a high degree of ingenuity was required from those responsible for planning and organisation. The troops found it difficult to find enough unpleasant adjectives to describe the country, which, for the most part, consisted of rugged mountains clothed with dense, almost impenetrable jungle, and in the higher areas with moss forest. Occasionally hills covered with kunai grass, such as those in the Snake Valley, stood out against the jungle background. Gloom and eerie stillness, clouds which frequently descended upon the mountains, rain, towering trees and drooping vines, which shut off the sunshine when it did eventually break through the clouds, sodden earth and rotting vegetation, all combined to add a touch of the primeval to the battlegrounds of this part of New Guinea. When the wind blew it raised a sour unclean smell of decay from the vegetation which, season after season, rotted in the all-pervading damp. Clothing was perpetually wet with rain and perspiration; the ravages of insect pests, notably mosquitoes and leeches, were enough to call out the blasphemous superlatives of the sorely-tried Australian soldier.
The tropical rains of many centuries had cut deep ravines and, as a result, any movement entailed constant negotiation of watercourses and steep descents on tracks hardly meriting the name, with correspondingly steep ascents to follow. After many bitter and exhausting experiences the troops learnt to measure distance in hours not miles. Time taken in one direction might be far different from time taken in another, depending on the lie of the land. The soldier’s life was governed by the tracks around and along which all operations took place. Mostly they led through the jungle of trees and undergrowth, but sometimes through moss forests or the stifling kunai. As the track became worn the troops had to wallow along in mud up to the knees and perhaps over them, stumbling now and then over hidden rocks and roots, and for support clutching vines and branches which often broke off rotten in their hands.
The report of the 3rd Australian Division said:
Such conditions of rain, mud, rottenness, stench, gloom, and, above all, the feeling of being shut in by everlasting jungle and ever ascending mountains, are sufficient to fray the strongest nerves. But add to them the tension of the constant expectancy of death from behind the impenetrable screen of green, and nerves must be of the strongest, and morale of the highest, to live down these conditions, accept them as a matter of course, and maintain a cheerful yet fighting spirit.1
The Japanese shared such opinions. A company commander of the 115th Regiment wrote of the overpowering jungle: “One advances as if in the dark.” A senior staff officer on the headquarters of the 51st Division described the characteristics of the jungle thus:
All the tall trees are entwined by vine-like plants, which make them either die or fall. There are many fallen trees which frequently become an obstacle to movements. During the rainy season they collect water on the moss, and the vines grow luxuriantly in every direction, twisting among withered trees. As for the surface of the ground, it is covered with leaf-mould, and moss grows on the network of exposed roots. No matter to what high place one climbs, the eye can penetrate only a short distance, and since one cannot depend on this to see the form of the mountains of the vicinity, it is difficult to orient the actual terrain with maps. One can rarely see more than 100 metres through the jungle, so, when one is crawling up on the enemy, it is not difficult to come within 20 metres. Consequently when perceiving the approach of the enemy, it goes without saying, one must be alert for any rustling of foliage, and must make good use of one’s ears, just as at night.
In these conditions the human element played a big part for it was important to keep the fighting soldiers fit and cheerful. They were wet most of the time, and tended to become depressed and ill. Brigadier Moten had already decided that the main way to keep them interested and fit was to place rest camps where they could sleep dry, have a hot meal or two, and wash themselves and their clothing, close behind the forward positions. He established such a camp at Edie Creek, where it was cold enough at night for four blankets, and there the men gained appetite amazingly and even put a little weight on lean frames.
The main route from Wau to Mubo was via Summit, which as its name implied was the highest point on this track, 6,400 feet above sea level, and Guadagasal. After leaving the kunai-covered spurs to the south of Wau the track entered mountainous jungle. To Mubo the track was reasonably well graded. The Mubo Valley in this region was a deep wedge-shaped cleft in the jungle-covered mountains with Observation Hill rising sharply to the north. East of Mubo lay Lababia Ridge – an unbroken almost perpendicular wall of jungle. North of Lababia Ridge were the precipitous enemy strongholds of Green Hill2 and the Pimple3 while north again and across the Bitoi River was the jungle clad Bitoi Ridge running west to Buigap Creek. North again was the mass of Mount Tambu which could only be approached along narrow razor-backs with almost perpendicular drops on each side. Stretching out like three fingers to the North-east, north and North-west of Mount Tambu were three large ridges; only one was yet named – Komiatum Ridge, a long sprawling feature separating Buirali and Buiwarfe Creeks and finishing at their junction. West of Mount Tambu lay the Komiatum Gap separating it from the Pioneers Range at whose northern extremity lay Bobdubi Ridge. Goodview Junction, on Komiatum Gap, was the watershed between Buigap and Buirali Creeks. The main Salamaua–Komiatum–Mubo track, after leaving the valley of the Francisco River, travelled up the valley of the Buirali east of Bobdubi Ridge and on to Komiatum Ridge where it ran mainly through open kunai patches. It then went over Goodview Junction and down the valley of the Buigap to the Mubo area.
From the Saddle another track ran along the crest of Lababia Ridge and then down the eastern slope of the ridge at an angle of very nearly 60 degrees to Napier at the junction of the Bitoi and Buyawim Rivers, whence the low-lying delta of the Bitoi spread eastwards towards the coast at Duali and Nassau Bay.
The Missim area was dominated by Bobdubi Ridge which rose from the U-shaped curve of the Francisco River. Its whole length was cut and broken into many smaller features; an area described in the 3rd Division’s report as “a country of razor-backs and panoramas of Salamaua”. To the west Uliap Creek ran north to join the Francisco; some conception of the nature of the country could be gained from the fact that the main North-south track in this area ran in the bed of the stream itself. In the Missim area two main routes led west towards the interior. From Malolo, north along the coast from Salamaua, a track led to Hote and thence via Bobadu and across the Kuper Range to the Bulolo Valley. The other route branched from the Salamaua–Mubo track to cross Bobdubi Ridge and follow the Francisco River inland to Missim. As this track was under observation from the Salamaua area in many places, when the 2/3rd Independent Company arrived in January they covered it with a post known as Meares’ Camp,4 and cut a concealed route eastwards from Missim along the south side of the Francisco. This track crossed a series of ravines and ridges and the going was very rough. It passed through Base 3,5 Jeffery’s OP, Vial’s OP6 and finally Namling on Bobdubi Ridge.
When General Savige with the headquarters of the 3rd Division took command of the Wau–Bulolo–Mubo–Missim–Markham area he inherited dispositions and the tactical situation from Brigadier Moten, who had been commanding the troops in this area since January. Before going to Wau Moten had received instructions from the. Commander-in-Chief, General Blamey. He wrote later:
At that time the C-in-C also gave me a forecast of future events which included the capture of Lae by a combined amphibious and land move. ... The C-in-C stressed that to assist the Lae operations Kanga Force would, in addition to its main role of the defence of the Bulolo Valley, threaten the approaches to Salamaua with a view to drawing Japanese troops from Lae into the Salamaua area.
The Japanese withdrawal from Wau ceased when they reached the Mubo area. Moten had then decided not to drive them out of Mubo, but to control the area by offensive patrolling forward from a line running
between Guadagasal and Waipali, thus maintaining a threat to Salamaua without prejudicing his main role of protecting the approaches to Wau from Mubo. His main force was the veteran 17th (Victorian) Brigade, engaged recently in the defence of Wau. After the Japanese retreat Moten had decided that the danger of attack on the Wau–Bulolo valley had shifted from the Mubo to the Markham area. He had therefore sent the 2/6th Battalion to cover the approaches from the Markham while the 2/5th Battalion faced the Mubo area, and the 2/3rd Independent Company, which had joined in the fight for Wau after having been part of the garrison of New Caledonia, went to the Missim area. Early in April the 2/7th Battalion had relieved the 2/5th and was supported by a section of the 1st Mountain Battery.7 The 2/5th and the 2/7th Independent Companies were on their way out and the first battalion of the 15th Brigade, the 24th (from Victoria), was on its way in towards the end of April.
Moten had been worried about his right flank and had attempted to gather information about the area stretching from his main forward positions east towards Nassau Bay. On 12th April a patrol from the 2/5th, which included Sergeant Saunders,8 an aboriginal member of the 2/7th, had left Napier to reconnoitre about Duali and raid enemy positions there. As a result of this and further reconnaissance the company at Napier was ordered to clear up the villages south of Duali on Nassau Bay. When moving towards Duali on 21st April, however, the force was ambushed and, although no casualties were sustained, it withdrew to the river junction at Napier. A Japanese Intelligence report described the action thus:
The patrol of 9 men that set out at 0750 hrs on the 21st on a reconnaissance in the vicinity of Buyawim River encountered 30 or 40 enemy troops about 1,300 m. west of the river mouth. The patrol was immediately reinforced by 22 men, and repulsed the enemy.
Moten then ordered the commander of the 2/7th, Lieut-Colonel H. G. Guinn, to place a senior officer in charge at Napier. Major St E. D. Nelson took charge but reported that no Japanese had been in the area “since Adam was a boy”. On 23rd April Guinn was ordered to make and maintain contact with the enemy in the Bitoi junction–Duali–Nassau Bay area, patrolling to the coast if necessary; and he was also asked for a new plan for clearing the enemy from this vicinity.
The main Australian defensive line ran through the Saddle–Waipali–Buibaining area. Company positions at Napier, Lababia Ridge and Mat Mat were outpost bases from which continuous aggressive patrolling was
carried out against the enemy positions. No-man’s land included the southern slopes of Observation Hill, Garrison Hill, Mubo Valley, including the airfield, Vickers Ridge and a small area on Lababia Ridge between the Australian company position and the Japanese positions on Green Hill and the Pimple. Since their retreat from Wau the Japanese had dug themselves in well on the Pimple, Green Hill and Observation Hill, but otherwise they were quiet. They did little patrolling but were apparently content to allow the Australians to control no-man’s land.
Soon after taking over the Mubo area Guinn was working on a plan whereby a company, supported by artillery, mortars, machine-guns and aircraft, would destroy the Japanese in the Green Hill–Pimple area. On 22nd April Moten informed Guinn that his plan was approved. “You will attack and consolidate Green Hill,” Guinn ordered Captain F. B. Pringle, the company commander on Lababia Ridge.
Thus, when General Savige arrived to command all troops in the area, arrangements were ready for an attack by the 2/7th Battalion on the Pimple and for extensive patrolling to the east. From divisional headquarters there was telephone and wireless communication to all units except the 2/3rd Independent Company, the Lae observation post,9 and Bena Force,10 which were connected by wireless telegraphy only.
On 25th April Savige issued his first operation instruction from his headquarters at Bulolo.11 He instructed the 17th Brigade to prevent the Japanese from entering the Bulolo Valley from the Mubo area, secure the Mubo–Guadagasal–Waipali area, and gain control of the coastal area immediately south of the Bitoi River. The 2/3rd Independent Company (Major G. R. Warfe) was to prevent the Japanese from entering the Bulolo Valley through the Missim area, and secure the Missim–Pilimung area as a base for raids towards Komiatum and Salamaua. Lieut-Colonel F. G. Wood’s group (2/6th and 24th Battalions) was to prevent the Japanese from entering the Bulolo Valley through the Markham and Partep 2 areas, establish a close defence of the Bulolo and Bulwa airfields, and patrol forward to the Markham.
Strangely, Savige knew nothing of the plan for the big offensive although Moten did. Using his own observations, but also relying largely on the knowledge and experience gained by Moten and Lieut-Colonel Wilton,12 his senior general staff officer (who had been attached to Kanga Force in March) and others, Savige by 29th April decided that he must establish firm bases as far forward as could be maintained and also harass the enemy by vigorous patrolling designed to open the way for raids on supply lines and defended areas. He divided his area into three operational areas – Mubo, Missim and Markham – and three areas with fixed defences (Wau, Bulolo and Edie Creek). To all his units he emphasised that the 3rd Division’s defensive role should nevertheless be an active one. Thus Moten’s task would be mainly to secure the Mubo–Guadagasal–Waipali area but also to control Lababia Ridge, Mat Mat, and ultimately the Pimple, Green Hill, Bitoi Ridge and Observation Hill, by aggressive patrolling and a series of limited offensive actions. Warfe, as well as holding the Missim area, would be expected to raid the Komiatum Track, and Wood to patrol aggressively to the Markham River.
Facing the four battalions and one Independent Company of the 3rd Australian Division was Lieut-General Hidemitsu Nakano’s 51st Japanese Division, also under strength. Lae and Salamaua were still occupied at the beginning of 1943 by the 7th Naval Base Force approximately 2,500 strong. The Japanese force actually arrayed against the Australians in the Salamaua area on 23rd April consisted of the remnants of the 1,500 troops from 1 and II Battalions of the 102nd Regiment which had arrived in the Lae–Salamaua area in January 1943, attacked Wau, and then withdrawn to Mubo. At the end of February III/102nd Battalion was dispatched to Nassau Bay to secure the left flank against either a seaborne or coastal attack. With headquarters at Komiatum Major-General Teru Okabe commanded this force.
Aboard 8 transports and 8 destroyers which had been attacked by Allied planes in the Bismarck Sea at the beginning of March had been part of the 51st Division, principally the 115th Regiment and the 14th Field Artillery Regiment. All ships were sunk with the exception of four destroyers, but about 1,600
survivors reached Rabaul and 2,000 reached New Guinea out of about 7,000 troops of the 51st Division aboard. The 115th Regiment appears to have been reduced temporarily to a strength of little more than one battalion. This Japanese disaster prevented another attack on the Wau area, possibly by way of the Snake River Valley. Many of the survivors, however, were sent to the Lae–Salamaua area where they reinforced Okabe’s force.
While the 2/7th Battalion was preparing for an attack on the Pimple the 2/3rd Independent Company was patrolling from the Missim area and making ready for raids against the Japanese line of communication between Salamaua and Mubo. After leaving the flat ground at the lower reaches of the Francisco River, the enemy supply line climbed up Komiatum Ridge to the saddle dividing the Buirali from the Buigap. The 2/3rd already controlled Namling but this village was located on Bobdubi Ridge and was separated from Komiatum by a gorge. The problem was to find means of crossing or getting round this obstacle to approach the Komiatum Track.
The first to succeed was Lieutenant K. H. R. Stephens. With the assistance of a young native as guide, he and his section made their way to the top of the Pioneers Range west of Mount Tambu and approached the Komiatum Track along the saddle.13 He found the Komiatum Track guarded and set an ambush. On 21st April his men waited tensely in positions along the track while several small groups of Japanese passed by. After several hours a party of about 60 came in sight; Stephens gave the signal to fire, and reported killing 20. This successful raid was a reward for weeks of exacting work which had brought the 2/3rd through very difficult country into a position threatening the lifeline of the enemy forces in Mubo.
Kanga Force’s last message to Warfe was: “2/7th Battalion attacking 24th and 25th April. Commence your offensive on 24th April to harass enemy supplies or troop movements down Mubo Track so as not to spoil 2/7th Battalion’s Anzac party.” (The 25th April was Anzac Day.) Warfe immediately ordered Lieutenant J. R. Menzies’ platoon which had taken over in the Namling area to be ready to attack and destroy enemy parties using the Mubo Track and then to strike towards Komiatum. It was not until his wireless made contact with the 2/7th Battalion on the 25th that Warfe realised that what he had been led to believe was a large-scale attack in the Mubo area was only a limited operation.
All interest was now concentrated on the 2/7th Battalion’s pending attack on the Pimple and Green Hill. Captain Pringle informed his company that there were 30 to 40 Japanese on the Pimple, an unknown number on Green Hill, and a small force in Stony Creek. The attack would start from Vickers’ Ridge Track and the company would move in two columns: one consisting of two platoons under Lieutenant Dinsmore14 and a detachment of 3-inch mortars would travel from the junction
The final part of the approach he used became known appropriately as Stephens’ Track.
of the Jap, Vickers and main Lababia Tracks along the Jap Track towards the Pimple; the second, consisting of the third platoon and company headquarters, would move north from the junction of Vickers and Laws’ Tracks, along Laws’ Track – a difficult and almost unknown trail – to encircle the Pimple from the west. The first attack would be made astride the Jap Track.
A message of good luck to the company and an injunction to “remember Anzac” were Colonel Guinn’s final words before the attack to capture the objective of Phase One – the Pimple15 – began at 10.30 a.m. on 24th April when four Boston aircraft began a twenty minutes’ attack on Green Hill, Stony Creek, Observation Hill and Kitchen Creek. At this time patrols from Captain Tatterson’s16 company at Mat Mat began a move designed to deceive the enemy by crossing and recrossing the kunda17 bridge; patrols also investigated the approaches to Observation Hill. One patrol crossed Buiapal Creek and climbed Observation Hill to a position previously occupied by the enemy. Ahead they saw a clearing in which was a tree with a platform. This observation post probably accounted for the fact that each time a patrol had left Mat Mat, a shot had been fired from Observation Hill.
After the air strike the two columns set off, covered by sporadic mortar fire, and with the signalmen keeping up the telephone line along the Jap Track. By 1 p.m., however, all concerned realised that the steep and precipitous Pimple was a natural fortress which could be held by a few good troops. Dinsmore’s forward platoon under Lieutenant Worle,18 after advancing to within 100 yards of the Pimple and firing twelve grenades from a discharger, was pinned down by the enemy’s machine-guns in front. These were guarded on the flanks by light machine-guns which were in turn guarded on their flanks by snipers. Worle’s right section was out of contact and nothing was seen or heard of Pringle. Guinn then sent Major Nelson along the Jap Track with an extra platoon at 1.40 p.m. Nelson reported that he thought the situation was under control. As there was still no news of the left column, however, the adjutant, Captain Dixon,19 went forward and at 3.25 p.m. he found it pinned down about 400 yards from Dinsmore’s position and west of the northern end of the Pimple. Here Pringle was forced to remain for the rest of the day. During this period a Japanese called out: “I can control you from here. I have got you surrounded. Surrender at my terms.”
At 4.30 p.m. Guinn ordered an “all in show” to drive out the enemy. Nelson reported half an hour later that Pringle was still held but that the remainder of the force was making good progress towards surrounding the Japanese machine-gun positions; he decided to attack with one platoon
along the track and one on each flank. Unfortunately the platoon in the centre broke into two columns, both of which swung too far to the right and left where they joined up with the flanking platoons. As darkness was coming on Dinsmore, who had suffered some casualties, reported the confusion to Nelson who ordered him to hold the ground he had gained until next morning. The situation report for that day described the Japanese ambush position as being 400 yards in depth with the enemy well dug in. Seven Australians had been wounded and all that could be said for certain was that two Japanese had been killed.
After dusk on 24th April cries for assistance were heard. Sergeant Russell,20 the medical NCO attached to the company, immediately moved through the undergrowth and discovered one of the Australians lying seriously wounded close to the enemy machine-gun position. Russell found it impossible to move the wounded soldier before attending to his wound. Returning to the undergrowth he lit a cigarette and hiding it from the enemy he returned and successfully stitched the soldier’s wound by its glow, then lay with him throughout the night, thus saving the wounded man’s life.
On the morning of 25th April Guinn, who had come forward to Lababia, advised Pringle to make more use of artillery and mortars. In the morning three Bostons again strafed and bombed Green Hill, and at 12.45 p.m. the mountain battery fired on the Pimple. Artillery support was necessarily limited, as Moten had been forced, because of scarcity of ammunition, to limit the artillery support to 50 rounds a gun. The forward observation officer, Lieutenant Colless,21 directed the firing of 74 shells into the Pimple area during the day. Taking a telephone almost up to the Pimple he remained ahead of the infantry directing fire for an hour, while the enemy was firing in his direction and he was in grave danger from his own shells.
The situation report at midday said that “owing to strong enemy defences and dense undergrowth in ambush area impossible to dislodge enemy with company weapons”. Acting in this spirit Pringle sent his Intelligence man, Lance-Corporal Robertson,22 along Laws’ Track with instructions to tell Lieutenant Tyres23 to withdraw his platoon from the west side of the Pimple. Robertson was killed before he could inform Tyres, who had seen Japanese moving towards the Pimple from Green Hill at first light. Tyres was forced to withdraw when he ran low in ammunition after about 60 Japanese from Green Hill had attacked and tried to encircle his position. He fought a delaying action and then reported to Pringle that the Japanese in the Pimple area were being reinforced.
By 6 p.m. it was obvious that the attack had failed and that the enemy had even gained some ground, through no fault of the attacking troops but simply because the difficulties in attacking such a position as the Pimple had been underestimated. Flaws in planning were also apparent. Reconnaissance before the attack had not been of the intensive nature required to pinpoint enemy positions. Lack of intercommunication by telephone line or wireless between the two attacking columns had resulted in lack of coordination and that hopeless feeling of impotence caused by plans going wrong and no one knowing where they had gone wrong. Runners were too slow and very vulnerable. With proper intercommunication Robertson would not have been used as a runner, or, if it had been necessary to use him, he would have been warned of the strong enemy force approaching from Green Hill. This lesson was well learnt: the hard-working signallers accompanied most patrols in future, and more attention was paid to the detailed aspects of intercommunication in any planned attack. Another flaw was the lack of ammunition dumps well forward, and this was partly responsible for Tyres’ withdrawal. Another lesson which the Australians were gradually learning was that only direct hits by the supporting aircraft and artillery were of much value. Australian casualties were 7 killed and 11 wounded, while it was possible to claim only 3 Japanese killed for certain. The password for the Anzac operation happened to be “Calamity”.
On the morning of the 26th Moten arrived in Guinn’s area from Wau to see for himself the country in which his troops were fighting. He believed it was too costly to assault positions like the Pimple, which should be bypassed. While he had been commander of Kanga Force, Moten had decided that his vast area and the time it would take to carry out extensive reconnaissance of it would preclude his leaving Wau. Bearing in mind his main task of preventing enemy movement into the valley of the Bulolo he had decided to watch three known approaches from Mubo. Having now seen the Skindewai Track he was satisfied that it was adequately covered. He was not happy about his left flank at Waipali which could be easily bypassed. The 2/5th Battalion was therefore retained at Wau and patrolled along the two approaches (Jap Track and Black Cat Track) from Waipali. Moten remained convinced that the best position for his headquarters was still at Wau. Savige, however, thought differently, and by declaring Wau a defensive area, endeavoured to influence a move forward of the 17th Brigade headquarters.
Meanwhile in the northern area Lieutenant Menzies was ready to strike at the Komiatum Track. Leading a patrol on 25th April he headed north from Namling (the opposite direction from that which Lieutenant Stephens had taken) and boldly followed the remains of an old graded track reputed to have been cut in the days of the German occupation (the Bench Cut Track). Reaching the river flats near the junction of the Francisco River and Buirali Creek he found the enemy’s supply line and began to lay an ambush. It was successful and he reported that he had killed 18 of a Japanese party of about 60. Warfe immediately ordered
Lieutenant Crawford24 to repeat “the tea party” farther south. Coming soon after Stephens’ success Menzies’ ambush gave added confidence to the 2/ 3rd Independent Company. This was the type of fighting for which they had been especially trained and they were delighted at the opportunity to exercise their skill.
An Intelligence report from General Nakano’s headquarters, captured later, stated that “at the north end of Komiatum the Provisions Transportation Unit ... encountered enemy of unknown strength armed with automatic rifles”. Reinforced by 20 men from Salamaua, the Japanese, according to the report, repulsed the Australians, who left 44 dead, while the Japanese lost 5 killed and 5 wounded.
This mendacious report which claimed more casualties than there were attackers was typical of the Japanese tendency to exaggerate the number of casualties inflicted in jungle warfare.
Crawford had been patrolling along the southern heights of Bobdubi Ridge and had established Dierke’s OP (named after a native boy) overlooking the Komiatum Track. On the 28th he set out to find a new way of crossing the valley separating Bobdubi Ridge and Komiatum Ridge. No route seemed feasible and he was obliged to continue south to Stephens’ Track on the saddle of the Pioneers Range. The enemy supply line was accessible at this point but, as Crawford feared, precautions had been taken as a result of Stephens’ ambush. Near the junction of Stephens’ Track with the Komiatum Track he made contact with an enemy position.
Leaving the remainder of his section twenty yards behind, Crawford, Sergeant Carr,25 Corporal McRae26 and Private Taylor27 moved forward to investigate. The Japanese opened fire, killing Taylor instantly. Carr escaped back to the section. McRae was hit in the leg and fell down a steep bank, and Crawford jumped over the bank where he found that McRae had a broken leg. Corporal Lamb,28 who had been left in charge of the remainder of the section, then moved forward with a sub-section and the medical NCO, Corporal Good,29 to investigate. Firing his Tommy-gun from the hip, Lamb led his men in an attack which killed four Japanese who were examining Taylor’s body. After finding Taylor dead, Lamb withdrew to a pre-selected ambush position to avoid being outflanked by the Japanese.
Crawford, leaving his Tommy-gun and rations with the wounded McRae, set off to find his section and return with more men to carry McRae out. Unable to find his section he returned to where he thought he had left McRae only to find that the wounded corporal had disappeared. A
long burst of Tommy-gun fire followed by a long burst of Japanese light machine-gun fire was assumed to have been his farewell note. Warfe, however, ordered that a search be made for McRae, and Crawford’s men set out again from Wells OP They had reached a patch of sugar-cane near Namling when they heard a familiar voice suggesting they need not take life so seriously as there were no Japanese for miles around. McRae had rigged up a splint for his leg and had worked his way backwards in a sitting position, using the palms of his hands and the seat of his pants for propulsion – a remarkable 80 hours’ feat of endurance and determination.30
By the end of April the Independent Company was spread over a large area with two platoons forward probing the north and south ends of Bobdubi Ridge, and the third in reserve in the Missim area. Warfe had soon realised that the force holding Bobdubi Ridge virtually controlled the Salamaua–Komiatum–Mubo track from the west during daylight. Information from his reconnaissance patrols and from natives led him to believe that Bobdubi Ridge was held only lightly by the enemy. Therefore on 27th April he obtained permission to “bash Bobdubi” in order to protect his lines of communication from Missim to Namling – a rather flimsy excuse as the Japanese held only the northern part of the ridge near the bend in the Francisco and in the southern or Namling part Menzies and Crawford had the run of the area. Bobdubi Ridge was a tempting target and the thrustful Warfe could not resist the opportunity to stir up trouble. Savige was aware of the great effect that the capture of Bobdubi Ridge would have on the Japanese, and eventually granted the request, but forbade heavy casualties and stated that not more than one platoon must be used at a time.
In the coming attack Menzies’ platoon would secure the Namling area; Lieutenant J. S. Winterflood’s would secure the Hote and Missim areas and form the company reserve; and Captain Meares’ platoon would capture Bobdubi Ridge. At Savige’s suggestion Crawford was kept in a suitable position to ambush enemy movement between Mubo and Komiatum, which might take place as a result of a forward move of the 2/7th Battalion, due to attack Green Hill and the Pimple again on 2nd May.
In the Mubo area on the morning of 28th April an Australian patrol found the Japanese positions on the Pimple unoccupied and moved in, at the same time sending a runner back with the information. Unfortunately the Japanese returned in strength and forced the patrol to withdraw but not before some of the patrol reached the top of the Pimple and observed the location of weapon-pits and machine-gun positions and the accuracy of the bombing, shelling and strafing. Guinn deduced from this episode that the Japanese must have anticipated an air strike at the usual time and withdrawn, returning when they realised that no strike was to be made.
Casualties in the forward company, now commanded by Lieutenant Dinsmore, had been increased by faulty bombing by Allied planes when,
on 27th April, a stick of bombs killed one and wounded five. By 30th April Captain Tatterson’s company had relieved Dinsmore’s, and Captain Barr’s31 company had taken Tatterson’s place on Mat Mat. The fourth company, now led by Captain Baird,32 was on the Saddle.
On 1st May Guinn gave Tatterson’s company an opportunity to dispose of the Pimple when he ordered it to “attack and consolidate Pimple area”. Guinn estimated that there were 40 Japanese there with at least three machine-guns. A plan for air support was carefully worked out whereby aircraft would bomb the Pimple every day until 2nd May when, instead of bombing the Pimple, they would make deceptive passes over it, dropping bombs on Green Hill well ahead of the attacking infantry. The mountain battery would complete the deception by firing smoke concentration on the Pimple each day. It was hoped that the Japanese would have vacated the Pimple on 2nd May just as they had done on 27th April.
Shrewdly conceived though it was, the plan went astray. At 10.25 on the morning of the 2nd six Bostons strafed Green Hill and the junction of the Bitoi and Buigap Creek and, as a further deception and a signal for Tatterson to advance, the mountain battery fired four rounds on to the Pimple area. Tatterson’s company left its start-line but soon afterwards the right-hand platoon was fired on. It became apparent that the Japanese had indeed vacated the Pimple during the air strike, but had moved not back but forward on to the southern slopes. The men were forced to withdraw after two had been killed and three wounded.33 In spite of the failure of the attack at least one Japanese staff officer was impressed for he wrote in his diary:
Enemy’s use of combined strength of air and land, especially on 2nd May, is well organised.34
As the result of this second failure to capture the Pimple, Moten on 4th May received from divisional headquarters a statement of policy for operations in the Mubo area with which he entirely agreed. It said that the securing of the Mubo–Guadagasal–Waipali area and the implication that Lababia Ridge, Mat Mat and ultimately Observation Hill must be controlled, called for aggressive patrolling and a series of minor limited
offensives. Attacks should not be made against prepared enemy positions in circumstances under which heavy casualties would be incurred without commensurate results. Such positions should be outflanked, neutralised and isolated from sources of supply and water, and the enemy should be constantly harassed by raids, ambushes and fighting patrols.
Shortly before the 2/7th’s attack on the Pimple on 2nd May Wade warned his company that the attack on the northern part of Bobdubi Ridge would begin on the 3rd. Meares’ platoon concentrated in the Bobdubi area and Warfe joined them with a small headquarters. Meantime Stephens was moving with his men from Namling down the Bench Cut Track to cut off the enemy on north Bobdubi Ridge from the rear.
On 3rd May Lieutenant Lillie’s35 section moved forward along the main track to Salamaua and Meares with the rest of his troops headed for the high ground farther south. Lillie found New Bobdubi occupied and moved towards Old Bobdubi – two huts near Centre Coconuts – but in the afternoon he was stopped by fire from Centre Coconuts, where the main Missim–Salamaua track crossed the north end of Bobdubi Ridge. The Japanese then withdrew towards the crest of the ridge at Centre Coconuts. Warfe reported that the attack was “proceeding according to plan”.
By 1 p.m. on the 4th May Corporal Muir’s36 section occupied a position about 50 yards south of South Coconuts and set up a Vickers machine-gun on a position later known as Old Vickers. Five hours later his men attacked and gained South Coconuts, about 200 yards from Centre Coconuts. Old Vickers was the key position on the northern portion of Bobdubi Ridge; from it Muir could see Salamaua, the mouth of the Francisco and part of the track to Mubo. That afternoon the Vickers kept up harassing fire on any enemy movement. Signs of the enemy’s determination to hold the ridge were apparent in the evening when 21 Japanese reinforcements were observed approaching Bobdubi Ridge from the direction of Salamaua. Before dawn on the 5th a counter-attack forced Muir’s men to withdraw from South Coconuts but they held Old Vickers.
Lieutenant Erskine’s37 engineer section, armed with a Vickers gun, was operating along the Bench Cut behind Stephens, and at midday on the 5th fired on about 60 Japanese moving towards Salamaua from Komiatum and killed about a dozen. At 2.30 p.m. Warfe, with whom was the company’s medical officer, Captain Street,38 set up a Vickers near Gwaibolom39 where they could observe about 250 yards of the Komiatum
Track from a distance of 700-800 yards, and opened fire on a party of about 80 Japanese moving south along the Komiatum Track, probably killing 15. The Japanese, dismayed by this long-distance fire, blazed away wildly, obviously thinking that they were being ambushed by troops close at hand.
Although it seemed that the enemy firmly occupied the Coconuts, Warfe remained confident that he could gain his objective without costly frontal attacks. The need to establish contact with Stephens and to cut the enemy from their base was, however, becoming urgent if the attack was to succeed. Accordingly, on 6th May, the second-in-command, Captain Hancock, accompanied by Private Pinney,40 reconnoitred the enemy’s rear. They found Lieutenant Stephens in position commanding the enemy’s approach from Salamaua ready to attack any Japanese using the track. On the way along the bank of the Francisco they found an approach to high ground at the northern extremity of the ridge. Next day Hancock led a patrol along this position. Finding that North Coconuts was unoccupied and commanded the enemy positions in Centre and South Coconuts, Hancock established Lieutenant Leviston41 there. As Lieutenant Egan’s42 signals section linked Leviston and Stephens by telephone cable to headquarters, the enemy was virtually surrounded and coordinated pressure could be brought to bear from four directions.
Early on the 7th Erskine ambushed Japanese moving along the Komiatum Track and killed ten. At 8 a.m. Meares began a heavy mortar bombardment of Centre Coconuts. Under cover of this fire Corporal Muir led his section forward, found the Japanese had withdrawn because of the fire and immediately occupied Centre Coconuts. An hour later the Japanese, thoroughly aroused, counter-attacked three times, but were driven back, losing seven killed. It was not until 10 a.m. that they were able, with the aid of mortars, to force Muir to withdraw. Next day, however, the enemy received a severe blow from Stephens’ men, who had been waiting for several days in trying conditions – in the unrelieved gloom of dense forest, on flat marshy ground, heavy with mosquitoes, and in earshot of the enemy. At dawn about 60 reinforcements for the Centre and South Coconuts positions were seen approaching from Salamaua. The Australians went into action, killing about 20 and wounding many before the affray was over.
Warfe, who was fast becoming a legendary figure, was now at his full tide of success and confidence and, according to Savige, was “ready and willing to fight the whole Jap force”. So ambitious were his plans at this time (they included a raid through Malolo to Mission Point), that Savige felt constrained to warn him: “You must appreciate that your
troops must conform to a wider plan governing the whole area. Premature commitments in the Salamaua area could not be backed at present by an adequate force.”
On 5th May Major Smith43 of the 2/6th Battalion was appointed to command the 24th which had its first action the same day. A four-man patrol led by Corporal Gray44 crossed Deep Creek, a slow-moving stream 40 feet wide, along an 18-inch wide log. The route was then over hilly country, and down a spur to the Markham. Following the river to the east the patrol came to a small clearing. Gray crossed it safely but as a second man crossed the enemy fired from a spur on the right and wounded him – the 24th Battalion’s first blood. The remainder of the patrol covered the two men’s withdrawal. This was the first of many patrols by the 24th Battalion towards Markham Point – a timbered spur descending from the Hertzog Mountains through the swampy river flats to overlook the Markham River.
Away on the right flank of this tangled and heart-breaking battlefront, Lieutenant Troon’s45 platoon of the 2/7th Battalion and Lieutenant R. Watson of Angau were patrolling on 3rd May towards the coast from Napier. In an old native garden east of Napier they met two natives – the doctor boy and tultul46 from Duali. Watson learnt from them that the Japanese were now occupying the shores of Nassau Bay to Cape Dinga and were in strength on both sides of the Bitoi overflow near its mouth. The Japanese were short of food and were supplied by pinnace from Salamaua. After learning that 20 Duali and Salus natives had left for Salamaua via Lokanu to carry cargo for the Japanese from Salamaua to Mubo, and Japanese wounded from Mubo to Salamaua, Watson sent the tultul to bring the natives to him. When they arrived Watson proposed to the luluai a plan of evacuation protected by an Australian patrol. The natives agreed and the withdrawal of the people of the two villages was completed without incident on 5th May; 105 natives who might otherwise have assisted the Japanese were quartered in the Guadagasal area. This was typical of the valuable work of Angau. In this case, besides playing a humanitarian role, Watson had gathered the first definite information, admittedly second-hand, of enemy movements and dispositions in the swampy malarial lands round the Bitoi’s mouths and along the coast.
The stalemate in the Mubo area caused General Mackay on 6th May to send General Savige a letter in which he stated that, without altering the role of the division as set out on 20th April, the situation required further examination. The Australian force was small for the large area in which it was operating; it was difficult to supply even this force, entailing as it did a four-day carry for native parties or precarious air dropping; and the problem of reinforcement depended on the availability
of transport and fighter planes, the weather, and the condition of the landing strips. “Japanese forces in and around Green Hill, Duali, villages to south of Duali, Komiatum and other places seem to be tenacious and stout fighters,” wrote Mackay, “and ... appear to hold their own with our troops.” He added that the Australians seemed to have no advantage at present in the forward Mubo area in number and use of light machine-guns, medium machine-guns, mortars and small arms, although they possibly had a slight advantage in the presence of a section of 3.7-inch howitzers and a distinct advantage in aircraft. This, however, was offset by the fact that targets such as infantry posts were very difficult to find and hit in the exceedingly rough country. “Unless our attacks, raids and skirmishes are properly organised, supported by fire superior to that of the enemy, and fully driven home in a determined manner, they fulfil no useful military purpose,” he added. “Unsuccessful attempts against the enemy tend to lower our own morale and raise his.” Mackay then directed that patrolling should continue forward of the Guadagasal–Waipali area, but positions in strength forward of this line neither could nor should be maintained; small enemy parties should be harassed and destroyed.
After receiving Mackay’s letter Savige called for an appreciation of the situation in the Pimple area by Guinn. On 7th May Guinn reported that the enemy’s strength in the Mubo area was approximately one battalion with one company in the Green Hill–Pimple area, part of a company on Observation Hill and the remainder in the Kitchen Creek area and north along the Buigap. The enemy had established himself on commanding ground with well-dug and concealed ambushes on the main approaches and a strongly-defended position on the Pimple, and had lightly cleared fire lanes to enable his machine-guns to prevent rush tactics and the use of grenades by the Australians. Guinn pointed out that the Jap Track was the only feasible approach to the Pimple as Laws’ Track was a very rough bush track cut by patrols. He proposed a company attack supported by aircraft and artillery; in other words, the same sort of attack which had failed twice before.
The outline plan was again based on the classical approach by two platoons forward and one platoon in reserve. On the morning of the 7th bombing and strafing straddled the Pimple east and west – a useless procedure as hits not directly on the target did little damage – and then one mountain gun shelled the Pimple to cover the movement of Captain Tatterson’s company to an attacking position. Forty yards from the enemy position in dense jungle the right flank platoon was held up by sniper fire. A section sent to neutralise this opposition was confronted by precipitous slopes with enemy fire positions overlooking the only line of approach, and was pinned down, as were the remaining two sections. The left platoon was held up by enfilade fire 35 yards from the enemy position. Tatterson then sent the third platoon in a wide encircling move to the left, but the Japanese pinned it down by enfilade fire 30 yards from its objective. To complete the mortification and discomfiture of the company
heavy rain began at 2.30 p.m. and developed into a tropical downpour. The position was hopeless and the men were withdrawn after dusk.
“The Pimple is now a Carbuncle”, ruefully signalled Guinn to Moten. The 2/7th Battalion had lost 12 killed and 25 wounded in attacks on the Pimple. It was indeed strange that these pointless attacks should continue, despite the views held and orders given by force, division and brigade commanders.
The unsatisfactory state of affairs in the Mubo area was exacerbated by the rate of medical evacuations, about 70 a day, largely with dysentery and malaria; this called for rigid anti-malarial precautions and hygiene measures. It was also reflected in a message from Moten on 8th May: “Essential that your patrols be imbued with a determination to find the enemy and then keep him under constant observation.” Moten suggested that patrols should continue until the enemy was contacted, after which standing patrols of three to four men should be left in the area to maintain observation. Ten minutes later, Guinn, ever-mindful of his battalion’s honour, replied “patrols fully realise responsibilities”.
At 8.15 a.m. on 9th May a booby-trap suddenly exploded in front of the defensive perimeter of Tatterson’s company, 400 yards south of the Pimple on the Jap Track. A reconnaissance patrol investigated while the company stood to. It was 15 minutes before movement was noticed and another 15 before the enemy opened up on the company’s right flank. At first Tatterson thought that the shooting came from a Japanese patrol, but as it increased he realised that this was a strong attack; the enemy made no attempt to conceal his movements and seemed to be feeling for weak spots. Most of his fire was inaccurate and struck the trees up to 12 feet from the ground. Guinn and his runner, carrying 1,000 rounds of 9-mm ammunition forward, arrived at Tatterson’s rear platoon. Realising that the Japanese were trying to encircle the company Guinn rang Tatterson and instructed him to send a small force back along the track to keep it open. Japanese progress was slow and steady. While
Guinn was talking to Tatterson by telephone at 3.30 p.m. the enemy cut the track and severed the telephone lines to the rear.47 As a result a platoon under Sergeant Hubble48 was sent forward to assist the encircled company and occupy a defensive position in its rear, thus bridging the dangerous gap. However, an enemy force astride Tatterson’s line of communication pinned down Hubble’s patrol. Lieutenant Newton’s49 platoon was sent out to extricate Hubble. Major M. P. O’Hare’s 1st Mountain Battery then shelled the Pimple area which was as near as the guns dared shoot because the forward company had been close to the Pimple and might have moved since losing communication. The battalion’s medical officer, Captain Peterson,50 who had been with Tatterson, was retiring up the track towards the Lababia camp when he was fired on and forced to return to the embattled company.
As speedily as possible all available troops concentrated in the Lababia camp area. That night Guinn signalled Moten that he was confident of restoring the position in the morning. Next morning, however, two fighting patrols sent out by Captain Baird, who was in charge at the Lababia camp, were unable to break the enemy ring. The Japanese appeared to be in strength on all sides of Tatterson, and it seemed that the enemy on Observation Hill were being used to aid the Japanese from the Pimple in a general attack on the Australians in the Mubo area. At 8.15 p.m. on 10th May Guinn admitted in a signal to Moten that the situation was “grim”. He emphasised that one battalion was too small to carry out effectively the role assigned to the 2/7th. Moten urged that a strong position should be maintained at the Lababia camp and that relieving parties should be properly coordinated under resolute leaders with good communications. On 11th May Guinn watched the departure from the track junction of Baird’s relieving force of about 60 men, accompanied by Major O’Hare as FOO, with orders to “blast a way through even if it takes all your ammunition”. At 2 p.m. the welcome news was received that they had reached Tatterson.
The remainder of the battalion now learnt the story of the gallant stand. After being completely surrounded on the afternoon of 9th May the company withstood a “fairly solid attack” (as Tatterson called it) from its right flank. Australian booby-traps, good fire control, and the judicious use of grenades forced the enemy to withdraw with casualties. It was now obvious to the defenders that the enemy plan was to keep their forward platoon and right flank engaged while attempting to crush the Australians with a stronger force from the high ground to the right rear. By 4.50 p.m. the Japanese had set up two medium machine-guns (known to the troops as “Woodpeckers”) in this area. At dusk the forward platoon laid
telephone lines to company headquarters. “This proved to be a great help,” wrote Tatterson in his report, “as movement especially to the forward platoon in daylight was not healthy.” Next morning the enemy fired machine-guns and mortar-type grenades, but most of the machine-gun fire was more than head high and many of the grenades failed to explode because they struck trees, forcing the ignitor set out of alignment and causing the firing pin to jam. During the morning an attack from the rear was beaten off. In the afternoon of the 10th the enemy made his most determined attack, again from the rear. Using all his weapons and increasing the din by loud orders, yelling and screaming, he poured in heavy fire for an hour and a half. Only his riflemen got in close and the entrenched defenders drove them back. The next attack, later in the day, was beaten off by steady and accurate fire on a slightly smaller scale from the same position. No more fighting occurred until, at 7 a.m. on 11th May, the Japanese fired heavily into a section area on the right flank, but made no attempt to follow on. Just before this five mortar bombs had been fired by the enemy to the east and west and into the centre of the Australian position. These may have been a signal for withdrawal, while the firing on the right flank section may have been used to cover the withdrawal.
The relieving force found the men in the best of spirits and full of fight. There was great jubilation in the battalion and elsewhere. Tatterson, slightly wounded, had carried on throughout the defence and inspired his men to remain steadfast. A typical example of the resolute courage of the surrounded troops was supplied by Private Waters,51 a Number 1 Bren gunner. His position had been subjected to sonic of in:, fiercest enemy fire during the action. On the afternoon of 9th May three enemy machine-gunners engaged in a shooting match with the Australian Bren gunner and, in spite of damage to themselves, they managed to shoot away one of the Bren’s bipod legs and the sights, but this did not prevent Waters from continuing to inflict casualties until on the morning of 10th May enemy fire damaged his flash eliminator and wounded him in the arm, forcing him to hand over to his Number 2. Another Number 1 Bren gunner from the same platoon, Private Bowen,52 during the morning of the 9th, kept firing his Bren from an almost untenable position after his Number 2 had been wounded. Two enemy light machine-guns tried to silence Bowen and his Bren, but this determined infantryman killed both enemy machine-gun crews instead. Even the cook, Private Tyrer,53 from his cookhouse weapon-pit shot a Japanese who thrust aside a bush and peered at him. Guinn reported that a conservative estimate of Japanese casualties was 100, including 50 killed. Australian casualties were about 12.
Guinn now reorganised his forward positions. Tatterson’s company was to occupy a position in depth on the Jap Track, while Baird’s, with
an additional platoon, was to occupy the track junction and Lababia camp area. The two-company defensive position was planned by Guinn in the light of all the lessons learned. Cleared fields of fire were developed, trees of all sizes being felled; section positions were sited and given mutual fire support, and were fully dug with connecting crawl trenches. Artillery defensive fire plans were coordinated with O’Hare.
The wounded were still coming out along the Lababia Track. Corporal Allen54 of Angau had been of great assistance during the operations, controlling native stretcher bearers and carriers with a coolness which maintained order among the natives.
When the Australians had been halted at Mubo after their advance from Wau the Japanese commander, Major-General Okabe, thought that his Australian opponent had reached the end of his tether and was unable to keep his troops adequately supplied. He therefore determined to build up his forces until he thought that the time was ripe to deliver a counter-attack with the object of regaining the initiative and perhaps having another crack at Wau. In late April and early May Okabe moved more troops and supplies up the Komiatum Track towards Mubo to prepare for an attack which was launched on 9th May by troops from I and II Battalions of the 102nd Regiment and parts of the 115th Regiment against Tatter-son’s company; 440 men from the 102nd Regiment’s total of 1,070 were available for the attack. General Nakano in an address stated: “In the fighting near Mubo, 7 Company of the 102nd Infantry and a part of 8 Company of the 115th Infantry penetrated the enemy’s positions, but the others did not rush in after them, and in spite of the great success 3 Company of 115th Infantry was having in breaking up enemy reinforcements, the others lacked the spirit to take advantage of this, and as a result there was no great victory to celebrate.”
Tatterson’s defence raised the spirits of the 2/7th Battalion, but the lack of success in operations round the Pimple was discouraging to the troops and worrying to the leaders. The failure caused a natural shuffling of responsibility between division, brigade and battalion commanders, none of whom at this stage fully understood the difficulty of attacking Japanese in entrenched positions concealed by the jungle. Irritation was evident when Savige urged Moten to move his headquarters forward from Wau to a position where he could be more thoroughly in the picture. Savige stated that the recent repeated attacks on the Pimple indicated that his instruction was either not understood or that Moten was not complying with it. “It is obvious,” he wrote, “that any aggressive action by patrols decided on should be directed towards the ‘soft spots’ rather than against a position which is known to be strongly defended such as the Pimple.” Moten, as already indicated, agreed with this principle. When Savige signalled him asking him where his headquarters would be to control his forward operations, Moten replied, “Wau”. Such relations could not continue. Moten went to Savige’s headquarters at Bulolo where the two officers had a frank but friendly discussion. Savige made it clear that Moten was no longer responsible for the defence of the Wau Valley itself but only had to prevent enemy entry into the valley from Mubo, as stated in Savige’s order of 25th April. Moten moved his headquarters forward
to Skindewai. Differences of temperament did not prevent the two men from working thereafter in harmony and mutual confidence.
On 12th May Moten made his plan based on his belief that the Japanese (who, he thought, numbered 700-800 in Mubo–Komiatum, 500 round Nassau Bay and 1,500-1,800 in Salamaua) would probably maintain a defensive role round Salamaua and Mubo. He decided that he would continue to use one infantry battalion forward while one company would secure control of the coastal area south of the Bitoi to Nassau Bay by raids. The other battalions would be retained in reserve.
Both Savige and Moten were concerned about the right or southern flank. There were persistent reports of enemy activity in the Duali–Nassau Bay area but, so far, patrols from the 2/5th and 2/7th Battalions had been unable to provide any real information except that the area was very swampy. At this time Moten did not contemplate any operations at Nassau Bay but he wanted to check on enemy movement and maintain control south of the Bitoi River. He therefore chose from the 2/6th Battalion a company which had gained skill in reconnaissance while patrolling the Markham area from January until April, and ordered its commander, Captain W. R. Dexter, to establish a patrol at Napier. On 12th May the company came under command of Guinn who received permission to station one of its platoons at Napier and use the other two to strengthen his carefully-dug positions in the Lababia area where Tatterson’s company was relieved by Captain Barr’s from Mat Mat.
Major Takamura, the Japanese commander of III/102nd Battalion in the Nassau Bay area, was equally concerned at the lack of any real information about the Australians in the Napier and Lababia areas. To coincide with the main attack on 9th May, he was ordered to “capture the high area on the right bank of the Buyawim River fork” on the same day. The battalion left early on the 9th to “advance to the neighbourhood of the native village 5 kilometres west of the Bitoi River mouth, and reconnoitre the enemy’s situation and terrain in front”. By 1 p.m. Takamura reached the village, but was worried about rumours of Australian movement ahead. “It seems,” he said, “that a small enemy force is advancing.” He again ordered his battalion to “reconnoitre the enemy’s situation and terrain in front of them”, but “early tomorrow morning” would do. The next morning he was undecided. “Putting together various information,” he wrote, “it seems there is evidence that some of the enemy have sneaked to the area east of the fork at the mouth of the Bitoi.” He now decided that it would be better to “hold firmly the important points on the right bank of the Bitoi mouth”.
Takamura’s battalion had been turned back by rumours of the small Australian patrol which was daily moving along the track from Napier. It was extraordinary that the Australians and Japanese did not meet along the track in this period. Australian positions in the Lababia area might well have been endangered had III/102nd Battalion been urged forward by a more resolute commander. By 19th May Takamura recorded that his battalion’s role would be “to continue its present mission as Nassau Bay guard”. He now had fresh anxieties for “on the sea at our guard sector before dawn on 16th May two boats like armoured MLC entered Nassau Bay and reconnoitred an area some 100 metres off shore”. Again on the 17th and 18th a craft of the same type was seen off shore.
Major Warfe, meanwhile, had been tempted to make an all-out assault on north Bobdubi Ridge, but his orders were to avoid casualties, and
indeed, the diversion of native carriers to man stretchers would have placed an impossible strain on his already-stretched supply line. He was content, therefore, to keep the enemy under constant pressure by harassing fire from Vickers, Brens and 2-inch mortars, and occasionally to carry out grenade and sub-machine-gun raids. On the night of 9th–10th May Lieutenant Egan carried out a “terror” raid on the enemy, using flares, screaming and yells. On 11th May the enemy seemed unnaturally quiet and a patrol found the entire Coconuts vacated. It was promptly occupied. The 2/3rd Independent Company now held Bobdubi Ridge, if extremely lightly, from the Coconuts in the north to Namling in the south. Determined to make the most of the situation Warfe turned his attention to the Komiatum Track. Late on 11th May parties of Japanese were observed moving south towards Mubo. Lieutenant Erskine’s Vickers gun accounted for five of them. The enemy was better prepared this time, however, and retaliated with heavy machine-gun fire from Komiatum Ridge. Warfe promptly moved the sappers under cover of darkness to a new position near Gwaibolom. Next morning, when they opened fire on 80 Japanese moving south along the Komiatum Track, the enemy retaliated with a mountain gun. A new weapon in the experience of the 2/3rd, its distinctive sound effects were a little disconcerting. The sappers duly reciprocated with their Vickers. Eventually these broadsides across the ravine between Komiatum Ridge and Bobdubi Ridge subsided – in both cases probably for lack of ammunition.
The men of the Independent Company now thoroughly appreciated their Vickers medium machine-guns, which were not on the establishment of an Independent Company but which they had acquired in New Caledonia. Warfe had four of them in action – one at North Coconuts, one at Old Vickers, one at Gwaibolom and one at Graveyard;55 the two latter, about 1,200 and 2,000 yards away respectively, dominated Komiatum Ridge. As the enemy seemed to have two mountain guns, a heavy mortar and two medium machine-guns against the Independent Company Warfe brought forward two more Vickers and arranged to have a 3-inch mortar and ammunition dropped from aircraft.
From 3rd till 12th May the company had performed outstanding work. It became obvious, however, that the Japanese, at grips with the main Australian force in the Mubo area, could not tolerate such an impudent threat to their flank. Lieutenant S. G. Jeffery’s section east of Bobdubi Ridge astride the Missim–Salamaua track repulsed sharp Japanese attacks on the 12th and 13th. At 9 a.m. on 14th May, the Japanese, roused in the extreme, sent a reconnaissance plane over Bobdubi Ridge, and at 12.15 p.m. began heavy shelling and mortaring of the Independent Company’s positions on the ridge. The counter-attack was on in earnest when, at 12.20, the Japanese, advancing along the Salamaua–Bobdubi track, ran into Jeffery’s booby-traps. The section engaged the enemy, numbering between 100 and 200, but overwhelming odds forced the Australians to withdraw step by step to South Coconuts.
Between 12.45 and 4 p.m. the length of Bobdubi Ridge was heavily engaged by an 8-inch gun, sited east of Kela Hill and known to the troops as “Kela Kitty”, and mortars near the junction of the Salamaua–Bobdubi–Komiatum tracks. By 4 p.m. fighting was taking place at numerous points from the north foot of Bobdubi Ridge to Gwaibolom, a distance of 2,300 yards. The remainder of the Japanese force, estimated at one battalion, fanned out after passing the track junction. At 3.30 p.m. Lieutenant Stephens’ section was ordered to try to outflank the enemy’s left flank, while a section under Sergeant Carr was ordered to attack the enemy’s right. Before this movement began Captain Meares’ headquarters on Old Vickers was overrun by about 200 Japanese advancing from a southerly direction and withdrew to the flat ground south of New Bobdubi, covering approaches from the south. Carr’s attempt to move downstream along the Francisco River and turn the enemy’s right flank was frustrated when he encountered a large enemy force which caused him to withdraw and secure the track at the foot of the north end of Bobdubi Ridge. Stephens was withdrawn to Warfe’s headquarters at New Bobdubi to guard the kunda bridge and cover any withdrawal.
When it became apparent that the Japanese were moving north down the ridge from Old Vickers and would probably then attack towards the kunda bridge, Warfe decided that retention of his positions would cause heavy casualties, and that he would probably have to withdraw his five attacking sections across the bridge, knowing that his third platoon around Namling and Wells OP remained in a good position to harass the enemy’s supply route to the south. At 5 p.m. he ordered the withdrawal of all valuable stores from the Bobdubi area west across the kunda bridge.
As the Australians would have to fight until dusk to get their stores across the Francisco, Captain Hancock, at 5.30 p.m., led sections commanded by Lieutenants Leviston and Allen56 into a counter-attack from north to south up Bobdubi Ridge. Meeting severe small arms fire at close range and heavy mortar fire from the south, the sections were unable to move forward and Hancock held them at Centre Coconuts with the other two sections (Lieutenants Jeffery and Barry57) now concentrated there. This force held its ground until nightfall, and suffered casualties. Enemy pressure was severe and the position could only have been held longer at serious cost. Warfe therefore ordered the withdrawal of the company to the kunda bridge area. By 8.30 p.m. all sections and valuable stores had been extricated.
A feature of the fighting had been the comparison between the enemy’s inaccurate small arms and artillery fire and his very accurate mortar fire. Warfe estimated the Japanese casualties at 72 against 3 Australians killed and 8 wounded. It was disappointing that the forces available and the difficulties of supply had prevented further advantage being taken of the
daring capture of Bobdubi Ridge, particularly as the next attempt to capture the ridge would undoubtedly meet far stiffer opposition.
Late that night Warfe again received instructions from Savige to avoid casualties. If necessary the company might be withdrawn to a firm position. Savige warned that an unknown number of aircraft had landed at Lae during the afternoon of 14th May and might be used against the company next day. At the same time Savige asked New Guinea Force for an air strike on the aircraft at Lae on the night 14th–15th May or at first light on the 15th. At 6.30 a.m. on the 15th the Independent Company, except for the platoon at Namling, withdrew to Meares’ Camp.
As anticipated, at 8.45 a.m. on 15th May, 20 Japanese dive bombers gave the Independent Company a grandstand view when they bombed and strafed the kunda bridge and Bobdubi village, causing neither damage nor casualties. An hour later 10 dive bombers and 20 fighters attacked the same area, and three dive bombers attacked Hate and killed three natives. At 3.30 p.m. to the great delight of the Australians 34 twin-engined bombers and 30 Zero fighters attacked in error Japanese positions from the mouth of the Francisco to Kela.
The 2/3rd Independent Company had indeed worried the enemy and had given them what Savige described as a “salutary lesson”. Captured documents indicated the Japanese fear of guerilla attacks. The 2/3rd Independent Company was proving that a small, mobile, well-trained force was as necessary in jungle warfare as the battalions with their heavier equipment and hitting power. Its exploits and the fact that it was commanded by an officer from 17th Brigade were helping to raise the brigade’s opinion of Independent Companies in general. Realisation of the fact that more compactness and mobility were necessary was evident on 9th May when Savige received a signal from New Guinea Force that General Blamey had approved the reorganisation of infantry battalions on a new tropical war establishment.58
All the Japanese commanders from Adachi himself to Nakano and Okabe considered it essential to recapture Bobdubi Ridge. When the Australians got their first real foothold on the ridge on 7th May about 40 men under Lieutenant Gunji of the 102nd Regiment were opposing them. One Japanese diarist noted on 9th May that the “trend of battle situation is turning to worse”. Reinforcements were sent to the Bobdubi area. By 10th May 70 naval men from Salamaua reached the area east of Bobdubi Ridge and 10 men from the ill-starred 115th Regiment. Lieutenant Ogawa of the 115th was then rushed forward with about 70 men from Markham Point and Captain Okura of the 102nd Regiment led forward from Salamaua one infantry company, one infantry gun platoon and one machine-gun platoon to reinforce Bobdubi. Altogether about 400 men (330 infantry and 70 navy) were finally available to attack the Independent Company, which the Japanese estimated at 300-400 men. The whole attack was under the command of Lieut-Colonel Sekine with Ogawa commanding the northern flank and Okura the south; on 11th May the date for the attack was fixed for 14th May. That day the main Japanese body attacked from its left flank on to the higher southern slopes of Bobdubi Ridge while Ogawa at 8.30 a.m. led his company plus a platoon
on the right flank with orders to capture Coconut Ridge and advance towards the kunda bridge. The naval contingent held the front.
General Nakano was not particularly pleased with the efforts of his troops, and, in his “address of instruction” on 17th Ma), stated: “In the attack at Bobdubi, although a certain group was advancing on a height on the enemy’s flank, instead of really carrying out the attack in such a way as to prepare the way for an assault by our main force, they went no further than a vain firing at the enemy with their weapons. The spiritual and physical strength which was worn down in the Wau campaign is at the present time still lower, but I believe it can easily be restored if the officers will take the initiative, set an example and command as leaders of their men.”
The 51st Division was reorganised into three groups as from 16th May: Salamaua Defence Force, Mubo Defence Force and Nassau Defence Force under Major Komaki, Lieut-Colonel Maruoka and Major Takamura respectively.
From 15th May the 17th Brigade concentrated more on aggressive patrolling in all sectors than on actual attacks. Strong patrols daily harassed the Pimple and the area north of the Pimple. On Observation Hill constant patrolling combined with intelligent siting of booby-traps almost paralysed movement by the Japanese outside their positions. By the time brigade headquarters opened at Skindewai on 17th May the enemy was getting little respite and was closely confined.
All was quiet on the Mubo front except for this patrolling, and by 18th May Major Dexter’s company of the 2/6th was linked with Captain Barr’s of the 2/7th on the Jap Track. Considerable boat activity near Lababia Island and Duali aroused interest among the newcomers in view of their role in that direction. On the same day Lieutenant Urquhart’s59 platoon established a standing patrol at Napier. During this change-over period booby-trap accidents increased in number and caused Guinn to signal all sub-units instructing them that there must be greater care and supervision.60
As with his southern flank Savige was also anxious about his northern flank in the Hote area. Therefore early in May a company (Captain Whitelaw’s61) had been detached from the 24th Battalion and placed under divisional command. Two of its platoons were to guard the lines of communication between Powerhouse and Pilimung and the third (Lieutenant Looker’s62) was to take over in the Cissembob–Bugasu area to provide left flank protection for the 2/3rd Independent Company. One section was detached from this platoon at Pilimung where it came under command of the Independent Company. On 17th May the platoon took
over a position established by a section of the Independent Company at Cissembob. A Vickers machine-gun crew with their gun remained under Looker’s command. From this post the whole track along the ridge to Hote, 1,000 yards away, could be observed.
There had previously been no contact here, and or for the first two days the platoon patrolled uneventfully to the east. Early on the 19th, however, a patrol was ambushed when moving up a steep kunai-covered ridge about 500 yards beyond Hote along the track to Malolo. When the patrol returned about 10.30 a.m. and reported one man missing, Looker immediately led another patrol to the scene of the ambush where he found the missing man unscathed. Looker returned to Cissembob at 4.30 p.m. and soon afterwards counted 170 Japanese moving into Hote from the east.
Before dark the enemy could be seen moving around in Hote and preparing a meal. That night the Australians in Cissembob, keyed for what they knew would be their first action, spent an eerie, sleepless night. Fifty yards forward along the Hote Track Looker set a booby-trap consisting of a grenade in a jam tin attached to a string across the track. At 3.30 a.m. on the 20th a runner arrived from Missim with orders from Warfe to send two men with a Bren to cover Dovers’ Junction. Looker also sent three men to cover a track leading from Daho about 900 yards along the same ridge as Cissembob. To defend Cissembob against 170 Japanese he now had 24 men. The core of his defence was the experienced Vickers gun team which was guarding the main Hote Track. Looker and an Owen gunner were with the machine-gunners, and two depleted sections watched the flank.
The booby-trap exploded at 5.30 a.m. About 10 minutes later, when light was dawning, Japanese could be seen creeping up the main track about 700 yards away. The Vickers gunners and riflemen opened up on them and swept them from the track, the Vickers knocking out three Japanese machine-guns. “Things were pretty lively for a while and we
fired on all movement,” reported two of the gunners, Privates Crossley63 and May,64 after the action. It was not long before the Japanese pinpointed the Vickers, and, after working out its arc of fire, they rapidly moved large forces with machine-guns to the right and left flanks and kept another force maintaining pressure along the track. The Vickers, however, continued to inflict casualties and, among the riflemen who were in a position to shoot, Private Gibson65 killed three Japanese and George, a native, two.
At 9 a.m. Looker and Private Hetherington66 of the Vickers crew were observing through a telescope with Private Greene.67 of the 24th Battalion on the left, when an enemy machine-gun opened up from a distance of 25 yards and wounded Hetherington and Greene. “We think he must have got through early in the piece,” reported the other Vickers gunner. Looker immediately silenced the Japanese gun with a grenade, remarking to Greene as he did so, “That cleaned out the bastards, Danny.”
By 1 p.m., when the position was becoming desperate, the Japanese were seen moving up a razor-back to the left and were occupying ground overlooking Cissembob. Threatened with encirclement, Looker heeded the general instructions to avoid being committed to heavy action if casualties were likely. He therefore ordered a withdrawal and instructed the gun crew to render the gun useless. Crossley and May removed the lock, slides and firing pin, and then withdrew with the men of the 24th Battalion. The gunners had fired over 6,000 rounds and were estimated by Looker to have killed at least 30, his own men killing another 20. Once the withdrawal began, some of the men moved off so quickly that the four men carrying the unconscious Hetherington on a stretcher found themselves left behind except for a small rearguard, including Looker, and the Vickers and Bren gunners. Progress was slow and the carriers exhausted as they struggled on towards Ohibe. “During this running fight,” reported Looker, “all men were under very heavy fire, but once again it was brought out what rotten shots the Japanese were. Not one of our boys were hit, and believe me things were hot.”
About 500 yards along the exposed track the enemy began firing heavily from Cissembob. When it seemed that they would pursue the Australians, and that no more men were available to carry the stretcher, Crossley and May took it down the side of the razor-back ridge into the concealment of the jungle 50 feet below. Looker was reluctant to leave the gunners, but decided that it would be best if they hid until dark when he would send back a carrying party from Ohibe. He did this, but in
the meantime Corporal Dovers68 of the 2/3rd Independent Company, who was stationed with Looker’s third section at Dovers’ Junction, decided to investigate what all the firing was about. Along the track to Cissembob he met the watchful gunners, returned to his base, collected six men from the 24th Battalion and carried Hetherington out, reaching Ohibe at 5 a.m. on the 21st. This carry was typical of the many arduous and selfless journeys performed by devoted men, white or black, throughout the battlefields of New Guinea.
Warfe had already sent Stephens with his section from Bobadu to take command in the area. Patrols from the combined force found Cissembob deserted on the 22nd and Hote on the next day, when Looker promptly reoccupied it. Within five minutes of arriving there the Vickers was once again usable. Other stores which had been abandoned and were now recovered included seven days’ rations, the wireless set and the telescope.
Early in May the Japanese estimated that there were 150 Australians in the Hote area. Nakano believed that he must guard this northern flank and on 11th May portion of Major Nishikawa’s III/115th Battalion was warned to prepare for an attack.
The 20th May was a hectic day also for the divisional staff as they tried to plug the gaps caused by the Japanese advance to Hote. General Savige feared that the enemy might advance to Sunshine through Ohibe, Dali and Jari. Although supply difficulties were considerable, he decided to send forward two platoons from the 24th Battalion – one along the track from Powerhouse to Pilimung and another from Sunshine via Jari and Dali to secure the tracks leading to Jari, Kwatomane and Yasingli. Both came under Warfe’s command on 24th May. On 23rd May Savige decided to rest the Independent Company in preparation for future raids against the track to Mubo, and in order to lull the enemy on Bobdubi into a false sense of security. At 7 p.m. that day Warfe received a message ordering him to reorganise and rest his force “with a view to more active operations in future”.
In the latter part of May Guinn was both driving and nursing his tired battalion. In a signal on patrolling issued to his companies on 23rd May he expressed his disappointment that “recent patrol reports in some cases have not been sufficient to plan future operations”. One patrol which refuted this opinion was led to the Observation Hill area by Corporal Ericson69 to cover Corporal Naismith70 on a booby-trap expedition. Naismith had a reputation as a booby-trap expert and was keenly interested in his gadgets.71 In the upper approaches to Kitchen Creek he
found an enemy tent where he set five traps. Twenty-five more were set on all tracks leading into the area. At dawn the first of these was heard to explode and later a whole series of explosions was heard.
On the same day as Guinn issued his patrolling signal Savige decided to restore the 2/6th Battalion to Moten’s command to relieve the 2/7th. The staff estimated that the relief would take 10 days as the track could maintain only two companies travelling at one time. The forward move of the 2/6th began on 27th May, the day on which 15th Brigade headquarters and the first company of the 58th/59th Battalion arrived in Wau. The arrival of the 15th Brigade had been delayed because of the shortage of aircraft and rations. It was an example of how the supply problem dictated the scope of operations.
Before the 2/6th moved into action again Colonel Wood informed the men in his standing orders what they were to wear and carry. These orders were based on a divisional instruction of 29th April and were the result of the pooling of ideas and experiences by the various units which had fought in the jungle against the Japanese. The term “tropical scale” meant to the troops that they wore their jungle green uniform (boots, socks, gaiters, underpants, trousers, shirt), also “hat fur felt” as the famous Australian hat72 was officially known, clasp knife, identification discs, webbing equipment, field dressing in the right hip pocket and a tin of emergency rations in the left, water-bottle on the right-hand side, haversack on the left-hand side and pack. The haversack contained one tin of emergency rations, one field operation ration, one day’s ordinary ration (usually bully beef and biscuits), mess gear, towel, anti-mosquito cream,73 toilet gear including shaving gear, and six atebrin tablets. The pack held a spare pair of boots, two pairs of socks, one singlet, one shirt, one pair of underpants, one pair of trousers and a mosquito net. One blanket in a groundsheet was wrapped outside and over the top of the pack and a steel helmet was strapped on to the pack. Fifty rounds were carried by each rifleman, 100 rounds in magazines by each Tommy-gunner,74 and 100 rounds in magazines for each Bren gun. Eighteen bombs of high explosive and six bombs of smoke were carried for the 2-inch mortar. Six No. 36 grenades with 7-seconds fuses were carried for the grenade discharger while all ranks carried one No. 36 grenade with a 4-seconds fuse (usually carried hooked on the webbing belt by the lever). Anti-tank rifles and Bren tripods were not carried unless ordered. Such
were the possessions of the Australian soldier as he battled with the Japanese in the murky jungle and precipitous hills of the backbreaking areas round Mubo and Bobdubi.
The last important patrols of the 2/7th took place on 27th May, when Lieutenant Mackie75 with fifteen men left at midday to reconnoitre the Pimple area. When approaching Tatterson’s old position he heard a rattle of tins. A shot followed and Private Pincott76 fell to the ground. The patrol moved off the track and Private Sanders,77 while taking aim from behind a tree, was shot in the back by a Japanese who immediately ran back to his own troops after firing the shot. Mackie, trying to move forward, was shot in the shoulder seven yards from Sanders. A runner was then sent to Barr’s company, and Lieutenant Fietz78 with 10 men reinforced Mackie’s position, but attempts to advance were frustrated by enemy fire. A Bren set up to draw the enemy fire was successful, but jungle echoes made it impossible to tell whence the fire came, even though it was estimated to be not more than 25 yards away. At this stage Pincott called out to his comrades to wait until dark before attempting rescue. Late in the afternoon the patrol saw a Japanese moving towards Pincott, who threw a grenade which killed the Japanese. After dark the patrol reached Pincott and Sanders but found them both dead. Other patrols from Barr’s company into the Pimple area heard the usual Japanese sounds – talking, rattling tins, chopping – but no enemy was seen.
From the Lababia Ridge–Napier area two patrols from the company of the 2/6th Battalion already there departed for the east on 23rd May, after the bombing and strafing of Duali and Nassau Bay by six Bostons and six Beaufighters. The Duali patrol under Corporal McElgunn79 returned two days later, having heard Japanese in the dense undergrowth leading to the Duali area. Sergeant Ellen80 and Privates Arnott81 and Shadbolt,82 three very experienced scouts, comprised the other patrol which blazed a difficult route as far as the dry creek bed, then scrub-bashed east to the last ridge overlooking Bassis and looking across Nassau Bay. They found evidence of previous Japanese occupation of the ridge, and, in the distance, Japanese seemed to be camped on the shores of Nassau Bay.
In the north of Savige’s divisional area the 24th Battalion – the first militia battalion to fight in the area – after a month was beginning to settle down. There was now no rushing to slit trenches when enemy aircraft flew overhead, nor was there any dearth of volunteers for patrols.
Hidden physical disabilities, particularly of the older men, were soon found out by the mountains and swamps, and it became necessary to change three company commanders because of their physical condition. Major Smith was sure that a militia battalion could successfully take over the operational role of an AIF unit provided it cut its teeth in a quiet area and he was determined that the 24th Battalion would be able to play its part.
Captain Peck’s83 company bore the brunt of the battalion’s patrolling during May. As the company’s front was 30 miles long by 10 miles deep, it was only possible for the troops to be spread thinly on the ground. One platoon was responsible for watching and patrolling along the Markham River between Mount Ngaroneno and Naragooma some 15 miles to the west; another covered an area of 10 miles from Ben to Markham Point, while the third remained at Wampit with company headquarters, changing fortnightly with forward platoons. By good discipline the incidence of malaria was being reduced. A second company during May occupied positions at Partep 2 dug by the 2/6th Battalion. The third company (Captain Kennedy’s84) was sent to the Missim line of communication at the specific request of Savige who was worried about getting the 58th/59th Battalion over Double Mountain – one of the worst tracks in New Guinea. Savige depended on Kennedy to erect rest areas and provide hot meals at the end of each day’s march.
The 24th Battalion was learning fast. One outstanding patrol under Corporal Bartley85 reached the coast between Lae and Salamaua at the mouth of the Buang River. Bartley, accompanied by Privates Milne86 and Hillbrick,87 a native guide and a native carrier, left Partep 1 on 17th May to reconnoitre the mouth of the Buang River and the Sugarloaf area for signs of enemy activity and to glean information from natives. His five-day patrol was typical of many being carried out in the New Guinea battle areas by troops who needed the fitness of mountain goats, the endurance of bulldogs, and the courage of lions.
The patrol’s route from Partep 1 through Mapos and Lega to the mouth of the Buang lay along an ill-defined and overgrown track, in parts boggy, in parts very rocky, and most of it infested with leeches. Dense jungle crowded in on all sides and obscured the sun overhead. The remainder of the patrol’s experiences resembled those of other reconnaissance patrols – enemy footmarks; planes overhead, seen or heard, Allied or enemy; broken-down huts; no natives; patrol of 12 Japanese moving north along the beach track; torrential rain; jungle; foul track; excellent guide; patient carrier; an object out to sea which might have been a submarine but the patrol had no binoculars; fireless meals;
mosquitoes; incessant damp. Bartley arrived at the river mouth on 19th May and left it soon after seeing a Japanese patrol, arriving back on the 21st. He concluded that there was little Japanese movement inland from the Buang mouth, that the enemy patrol was in all probability the Lae–Salamaua patrol which, according to the Angau representative at Mapos, Warrant-Officer Sherlock,88 split at the mouth of the Bwussi River, one half moving inland to Bwussi village in search of food and one patrolling to the mouth of the Buang. He concluded his patrol report with a tribute to his guide Olum without whose knowledge of the area the patrol would have been unable to negotiate the country to the coast via the Buang. Similar tributes had been paid to many a Papuan or New Guinea guide during the campaigns. Patrols such as Bartley’s found it difficult to send back messages about their progress. To overcome this lack Major Smith suggested to divisional headquarters that pigeons should be used, but three weeks were needed to orient pigeons and in that time the tactical situation might have changed.
Between the time Savige took command in the battle area and the end of May his headquarters estimated that the Japanese had suffered 380 casualties-323 killed and 57 wounded. The 3rd Division in that period had lost 20 killed and 58 wounded.
During April and May Japanese reinforcements had arrived in the Lae–Salamaua area to join the 102nd Regiment, naval troops, and survivors of the Bismarck Sea convoy already there. About 1,000 troops of Colonel Katsutoshi Araki’s I/66th and II/66th Battalions formed the bulk of the new arrivals. About 200 more men from the 115th Regiment also arrived; 200 gunners from the 14th Artillery Regiment, 150 sappers from the 51st Engineer Regiment, and 200 others made up the total of 1,750. Thus, by the end of May, three regiments (66th, 102nd and the depleted 115th) of the 51st Division were available to oppose the 3rd Australian Division. Large convoys were now out of the question and about 400 of these troops had been landed at Lae by submarine, 40 being landed from each vessel at a time. Other troops from Rabaul were taken by barge or destroyer to Cape Gloucester whence they went in barges to Finschhafen. From Finschhafen some went by barge to Lae while others marched overland. By 23rd May General Nakano had ordered Araki to work out a plan for assembling supplies and ammunition in the Mubo area in preparation for another attack.