Chapter 12: Assault on Lae and Nadzab
ON the last day of August the commanders of the three battalions of the 20th Brigade, and of the 2/23rd Battalion which would also be under Brigadier Windeyer’s command, issued their orders for the landing east of Lae, but, in the interests of secrecy, without specifying where the landing would take place. The 2/13th Battalion would land at and capture “Yellow Beach” on the right flank; the 2/15th Battalion would capture the right-hand half of the main landing beach – “Red Beach”; the 2/17th Battalion would capture the left-hand half; and the 2/23rd Battalion would land on Red Beach immediately after the other two and lead the advance to the west. Soon after landing, the 2/13th and 2/15th would send patrols to link up between Red and Yellow Beaches, while the 20th Brigade would proceed to capture their first, second and third objectives, known as “Bardia”, “Tobruk” and “Benghazi”.
On 1st September two battalions of the 26th Brigade – the 2/24th and 2/48th – were loaded into six LSTs together with bulk stores. Next morning reveille for Windeyer’s battalions was at 5 a.m. Two hours later they moved in boat groups to Stringer Beach where all loading took place. It rained as the troops were leaving Milne Bay. “Standing there on the beach we must have looked like mobile sponges,” wrote a diarist. A newspaper correspondent, describing the embarkation, wrote:
Roads and tracks were swarming with green shirts. They resembled nothing so much as the long lines of chlorophyll-coloured ants that march up and around the trees of the rain-forests of New Guinea and North Australia. Packs that bristled with jungle knives, axes, and spades; MT bashing the mud under loads of ammo and HE, guns and gear, everything from a bullet to a bulldozer, it was all there, a perfect picture of the battle eve.1
At 9.30 a.m. eighteen LCIs were ready to embark the battalions and divisional headquarters. As each landing craft approached the shore the rain-soaked green-clad assemblage of troops reshuffled into another pattern. Webbing was slung on, then haversacks and blanket rolls. The usual badinage ensued and then the voice of authority took over and the troops detailed to travel in each approaching craft moved forward and embarked.
The 560 men comprising the two forward companies of the battalions which would form the first wave of the assault landing on both beaches then embarked on barges which would take them to the four APDs. “We trundled aboard, somewhat in the fashion of overloaded donkeys, carefully picking our way lest our feet slip,” wrote one participant. The assaulting troops were now told where they were going, and the hitherto-anonymous Red and Yellow Beaches of their training landings and the sand models became pinpointed as specific beaches east of Lae.
Engineers and artillerymen mainly embarked on three LCTs. Bulk stores were loaded on 7 LCTs as well as the 6 LSTs carrying the two battalions of the 26th Brigade. The bulk tonnage loaded on each LST. weighed 84 tons, including vehicles on the tank deck and anti-aircraft guns on the upper deck. The LCTs were each loaded with 120 tons of bulk stores and ammunition.
At 1 p.m. on 2nd September the convoy, in an order inverse to the speed of its components, rounded East Cape and steamed up the Papuan coast towards Buna and Morobe. “Never before had the Solomon Sea witnessed such a fleet; few waters had ever seen one so strange to old seamen’s eyes,” wrote the American naval historian.2 “Long lines of ships formed a formidable but inspiring sight,” wrote the diarist of the 2/13th Battalion, “giving complete feeling of confidence.” The diarist of the 2/48th Battalion wrote: “All were heartened by the size of the convoy as destroyer after destroyer took up the position of protecting the huge convoy of the 9th Aust Div. Every man is keen and looking forward to the first meeting with the Japanese. They have heard so much about the enemy’s methods – and they wonder, but at no time is there any doubt as to the result.” An hour before sunset on the 2nd the destroyer-transports which had departed from Milne Bay later than the other ships caught up with the rest of the convoy. The sure onward movement of the ships against the gathering gold of the sunset was an unforgettable sight.
At 6.30 next morning the convoy moved into Buna. Here, all except the troops on the destroyers and LSTs disembarked. Voyaging in the LCIs and LCTs was not comfortable, and the planners had provided that the troops in these craft should disembark from their cramped quarters for a short period of exercise and hot meals. The LCIs were not designed to provide meals, and some units had come prepared to supplement their own standard rations – M. and V., bully beef and biscuits. The 2/23rd Battalion, for instance, had spent £160 from regimental funds to provide itself with canteen goods for the voyage. The assaulting troops on the destroyers, however, were treated like kings by the American crews. On the Gilmer, for example, the American cooks took one look at the Australians’ rations and advised them to “dump the whole damn lot overside”. Roast beef then took the place of bully beef; the ship’s canteens were opened to the men and American cigarettes were distributed. “A more generous, friendly, goddam crew it would be hard to find,” wrote an Australian soldier.
By 3 p.m. on the 3rd all troops embarked again and now all were told of their exact destination and objectives. The secrecy maintained from the beginning had been excellent and the furphies3 about the 9th’s destination being Salamaua, Madang, Wewak or even Rabaul were now laid to rest. Heading north from Buna the troops, seasoned but excited, cleaned their
weapons and repacked their gear, while maps of the area east of Lae were issued to officers and sergeants.
Two hours after dark the convoy was joined off Kakari Point by some 50 craft carrying the Shore Battalion of the 532nd EBSR, commanded during the actual landing by Lieut-Colonel E. D. Brockett, which would provide amphibian scouts to land with the first wave of infantry, erect markers on both Red and Yellow Beaches and make a beach reconnaissance.
As the convoy steamed steadily north, the thoughts of this well trained and superbly fit division of Australians went crowding back to a similar night 28 years ago when another division of Australians was steaming towards a hostile shore. The simple words written by a private soldier typified the thoughts shared by all: “Not since our forefathers landed at Gallipoli had an Australian force made an opposed landing by sea. Could we the 2nd AIF uphold the gallantry shown by those men?”
During this night men gathered on the decks of the destroyers to yarn and pass the wakeful hours sitting in groups, leaning over the rails or “spine bashing” (lying down). In the LCIs the excited anticipation of what the morrow would bring prevented many men from sleeping and there was much talk and laughter in the hot and sweaty holds. Although intercept wireless had picked up an enemy reconnaissance plane reporting the presence of the convoy in the Buna area, the voyage through the night to the landing beaches was uneventful. Towards the end of the voyage the headquarters ship Conyngham with Admiral Barbey and General Wootten aboard left the convoy and steamed ahead to identify the beaches. Difficulties expected in landing on the correct beaches during darkness had been the main reason why Barbey had considered impracticable Wootten’s request to approach during darkness and land at dawn (5.15 a.m.); and had substituted a pre-landing naval bombardment to make up for lack of surprise.
Reveille on the 4th was at 4.30, when the assault troops were given hot tea or coffee and a meal. The first glimmerings of dawn revealed the convoy sailing west along the south coast of the Huon Peninsula. It was soon apparent to the infantry that the navy had not missed the mark. Soon after first light, about 5.50, Conyngham identified the beaches. “Clumps of coconut palms and a river bend were the main aids to identification,” wrote Barbey later.4
Most of the soldiers in the destroyers were on deck when the dim outline of the hostile shore appeared in the pre-dawn. Even the old campaigners were suddenly quiet and the atmosphere was tense. Half an hour before the landing the ships’ bells or horns sounded a warning to get ready and all troops were ordered below. The horns continued and slightly frayed the nerves of some until the 9th Division’s own dog howl competed with the horns and relieved the tension. The assaulting waves donned their equipment and gave a final check to their weapons. Loaded as they were, there was scarcely room for them to move when they were standing
waiting in the holds shoulder to shoulder with blanket rolls protruding from around the packs.
“Away the landing force” came the order through the amplifiers, and the assaulting troops climbed up the companion-ways, out from the murk and stench of the holds into the fresh air and grey light of dawn. Here the disciplined assembly waited while the destroyers changed course at 6.15 a.m. and made at full speed for the shore. Three minutes later two destroyers were in position off each beach and lowered their landing barges (eight LCPs to each beach), into which the troops clambered down cargo nets.
Five destroyers manoeuvred into position and at 6.19 began shelling the jungle-fringed beaches from two miles and a half out to sea. One soldier, going into action for the first time, asked an old soldier what the strange smell was. “Just cordite from the shells,” replied the veteran, “you’ll get used to that before long.”
The bombardment consisted of dispersed fire. Wootten had felt all along that a swipe of fire like this would be more damaging to Japanese morale than a series of concentrations. During this bombardment the barges of the first assaulting waves, each carrying about 30 men, formed into line and roared off towards the beaches. In the barges the platoon commanders ordered the fixing of bayonets and the cold steel clipped on with an aggressive sound. Overhead the shells of the naval bombardment screamed and then thudded and exploded along the green fringe of the jungle. When there was no return fire from the shore many who had been crouching low beneath the gunwales gazing at the outline of their bayonets against the pale sky raised their heads to watch the shelling.
The naval bombardment ceased at 6.25 a.m. when the landing barges were 1,200 yards from the shore. As the barges revved their engines and moved towards the shore the machine-guns on each barge raked the jungle fringe. Then the barges bumped the shore and lowered their ramps. Down them rushed the green-clad men in single file. At the water’s edge they spread into line and raced across the narrow strip of sand for the jungle’s fringe.
From the deck of an LCI in the third wave Brigadier Windeyer watched the scene and prepared to land 15 minutes after the assaulting troops. “Distinguished both as a scholar and a soldier – a combination not uncommon in the history of the Australian Army,”5 Windeyer had risen to command the Sydney University Regiment by 1937, and in 1940 had been given the task of forming and commanding the 2/48th (South Australian) Battalion. He had led the battalion in the siege of Tobruk, and, in January 1942, had been appointed to command the 20th Brigade which he had led at El Alamein.
Describing the landing on Yellow Beach, the diarist of the 2/13th Battalion wrote:
B and C Coys have been lowered in their barges from the APDs and are heading off in perfect line and formation for the shore. Some miles to the west the
barges for Red mission appear to be the same distance from the shore as our barges. LCIs have spread out into their landing formation approximately 1,500 yards offshore and moving slowly in. First wave hits the far shore in correct formation and place. The gun crews on the barges rake the fringe of the jungle with fire a few seconds before landing. B and C Coys encounter no enemy opposition and move off their barges to their allotted tasks very quickly.
These leading troops of the 2/13th landed one minute after H-hour (6.30 a.m.). The leading troops of the 2/15th and 2/17th Battalions landed one minute later, and on this beach, too, there was no opposition. The battalions quickly moved off the beach towards their first objectives inland. Three minutes after landing with the first wave the American shore battalion erected beach markers on both beaches to guide the later waves. The assault troops from the APDs were followed at approximately 15-minute intervals by waves of LCIs (15 to Red Beach and 3 to Yellow Beach), which landed 3,780 troops.
Half an hour after the initial landing, LCTs (3 on Red Beach and 2 on Yellow) began unloading Australian artillery and engineers. Five minutes later the fifth wave, comprising 7 LCIs, approached Red Beach. Suddenly, when these trim craft were about 100 yards from the shore, 6 Japanese fighters followed by 3 bombers, flying at 1,500 feet, strafed and bombed the LCIs, which had dropped their stern anchors. The bombers dropped 12 bombs, one of which exploded on the
deck of LCI-339 just forward of the bridge, killing the commander of the 2/23rd Battalion, Lieut-Colonel Wall,6 a company commander, Captain Reid,7 and 5 men, and wounding 28 including 6 officers. LCI-341 received a near miss which blew a large hole in the ship’s side and flooded two compartments. The LCIs were so crowded that men were unable to obey their first impulse and throw themselves flat, but could only crouch and hope for the best.
The captain of LCI-341, finding his ship listing to port because of the gaping hole through which the water was pouring, shouted “Every man to starboard.” Under their weight the ship gradually righted itself and beached without further trouble. By the skilful handling and determination of Ensign James M. Tidball, LCI-339 landed on time and disembarked the troops. Tidball radioed the flotilla commander, who ordered him to abandon ship. The crippled LCI remained on the beach for a week, a target for Japanese airmen, before it was towed clear, and then it drifted on to a reef.
After the excitement of the fifth wave the American shore battalion, about 1,060 men, and its equipment were landed on Red Beach from LCVs, LCMs, and LCTs. From the first of the landing craft, tractors, road graders, wire mesh to make passable roads over sand and swamp, and power-driven saws to fell palm trees for corduroying roads, were unloaded. The unloading parties cleared stores from Red Beach and established dumps inland, while Australian and American engineers pushed the roads ahead.
At 8.14 a.m. the six LSTs began to unload. Describing the scene, the historian of the 2 ESB wrote:–
As these ponderous hulks drove to the beach even the longshoremen working frantically in their unloading of the smaller craft stopped to view these monsters as they magically opened their bows and dropped immense ramps slowly to the edge of the surf. ... Ton after ton of equipment was unloaded and, interspersed with the vehicles and materiel, companies of infantry filed out while artillerymen rode guns drawn by tractors.8
Commending the unloading of these craft, Barbey wrote later:–
Unloading of LSTs, each containing 400 men, 35 vehicles and 80 tons of bulk stores, was excellent. One LST was unloaded in 1 hour 42 minutes. Unloading of the remainder was completed within 2 hours 15 minutes.9
On the other hand, the seven bulk-loaded LCTs, which landed at 8.25 a.m., were not unloaded and ready to withdraw until 2.30 p.m., mainly because insufficient troops were assigned for unloading.
By 10.30 a.m. the last of 7,800 troops had landed, and when the last LCT retracted and Barbey headed south, 1,500 tons of stores had been beached. Most of the landing craft of the 2 ESB, when unloaded, had
immediately retracted from the beach and set off to Morobe for extra supplies. About twenty, however, remained on the beach for use in emergencies and for moving supplies up and down the beach.
Ashore the infantry were expanding the beach-heads without opposition. In spite of the failure of wireless sets to function efficiently – the failures included a breakdown in communications between Wootten and Barbey – the battalions had been so well briefed and rehearsed that they pressed towards their objectives without hesitation.
On Yellow Beach, Lieut-Colonel Colvin’s10 companies of the 2/13th quickly moved inland and along the beaches. One patrol found signs at the southern end of the Bulu Plantation that about thirty Japanese had recently fled towards the hills. There were no further recent signs of the enemy, and at 2 p.m. patrols of the 2/13th and 2/15th met at an unnamed river known as Suez between the Bulu River and Red Beach. During the afternoon patrols advanced north and east without opposition. Everywhere the natives had departed from their villages, leaving their food and belongings and their fires burning. Two natives, captured later in the afternoon, stated that the only Japanese in the area had been at Ted’s Point. The natives were told to send word to the villagers who had gone bush that they should return to their villages and bring some boys to headquarters in the morning to work.
From the main beach three miles to the west equally rapid progress, with no opposition, had been made. The 2/15th and 2/17th advanced through thick rain forest, mangroves and some patches of kunai as they quickly reached their objectives. While Lieut-Colonel Grace’s11 2/15th Battalion protected the beach-head Lieut-Colonel Simpson’s12 2/17th at 9 a.m. began to advance towards the Buso River in two columns. Two companies under Major Broadbent13 advanced north and then west across the Buso to an area north of Aluki 2 and about four miles north of
the coast. The other companies were led by Simpson North-west through trackless and scorching kunai and dense rain forest across the Buso to a position about 1,000 yards east of Aluki 1.
Wootten was most anxious to speed the advance towards Lae to prevent the Japanese from preparing organised resistance east of the Busu River, particularly in the Singaua Plantation where there were excellent defensive positions. Because the 2/17th was farthest west on 4th September, Wootten placed it under the command of the 26th Brigade, whose task was to pass through the 20th Brigade and advance on Lae. Behind the 2/17th, the 2/24th and the 2/23rd moved through the hot coastal plain towards the Buso. By last light they had crossed the river and moved a short distance along the coast.
While the three leading battalions settled down for the night with sentries and standing patrols watching alertly to the west, General Wootten informed Brigadier Windeyer, and Brigadier Whitehead14 of the 26th Brigade, of the plan for the 5th. Whitehead would secure a line from Tali in the north to the western side of Singaua Plantation by a double advance, along the coast and inland from Aluki 2 to the Musom-Tali area. The 2/17th Battalion would lead the advance to the Buiem River where the battalions of the 26th Brigade would pass through.
Japanese aircraft became active late in the afternoon. At 4.30 p.m. 4 bombers escorted by fighters attacked Yellow Beach without success. Over Red Beach about 5 p.m. 9 Japanese aircraft appeared, set fire to an ammunition dump, did further damage to the two stranded LCIs and inflicted 14 casualties on the American shore battalion. The Japanese commander in Lae meanwhile had asked Rabaul for help and had begun establishing defensive positions along some of the river banks east of Lae. At Rabaul General Imamura, the commander of the Eighth Area Army, sent 80 aircraft to help, but they were delayed by fog over New Britain. At 1 p.m. the radar of the destroyer Reid, stationed off Finschhafen with its fighter-director team on board, picked up three large groups of aircraft estimated at about 70 flying from New Britain. Reid directed 48 Lightnings to the scene, and 23 Japanese aircraft were believed to have been shot down for the loss of two Lightnings. Reid, which had already done such an invaluable job, shot down one of three planes which attacked her.
Although the air force provided an air umbrella over the convoys going to and coming from Red Beach, it could not prevent all enemy aircraft from breaking through towards Morobe. Four dive bombers attacked the destroyers guarding the retiring convoy, scoring near misses on two, including Conyngham. At 2 p.m., when the six LSTs of the second landing group were 25 miles off Cape Ward Hunt, Japanese torpedo and dive bombers attacked. Six dive bombers attacked LST-473 and scored two
hits and two near misses. Eight Americans were killed and 11 Americans and 26 Australians wounded. LST-471 was attacked by two torpedo bombers. One torpedo hit the port side, wrecking the ship’s stern, killing 43 troops and sailors, and wounding 30. Among the casualties were 34 killed or missing and 7 wounded from the 2/4th Independent Company – a calamitous loss for a small unit. A vivid description of this attack was written by a man in a company of the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion, who was on LST-471:–
1355. Some planes sighted very high and right in the sun. They’re probably ours. No, they’re peeling off. General alarm sounded; all men below deck. All AA opens up, with ship zigzagging violently. With a shrill whine ... dive bombers dive on the convoy with the sun behind them. In the distance two large explosions occur on the water, followed by clouds of black smoke; [it] appears as though our fighters have got in amongst them. The leading plane is now flattening out at about 300 feet, and you can see the red circles on the wing tips. The bombs are falling. ... They are not going for our ship but further astern. Four bombs are falling directly down on 473. The first two strike the water very close and the next two hit on the stern, with violent explosion and smoke can now be seen rising from her. Poor blighters – wonder what their casualties are? The other dive bombers miss the remaining LSTs, but bracket a little sub-chaser. She disappears behind columns of water and spray, but comes through unscathed. Spotters have now reported bombers only about 100 feet off the water on the starboard beam, and all guns open up on them as they approach. One is coming straight for this ship only 50 feet above the water. A torpedo seems to float down to the water and hits with a splash. The aircraft seems to rise a little and is just about on us. We are all expecting to be raked with MG fire but none comes. The AA fire seems to be hitting her everywhere, and as she roars over the LST the port wing dips slightly, exposing the belly. Every gun is on her and she just banks over on the starboard wing and hits the water 100 yards off the starboard beam of the ship, falling to pieces. ... Just at this moment there is a terrific explosion ... and the LST lurches violently, throwing everyone off their feet. We are hit! ... Wounded are now staggering up from the after hatchways, covered in blood. Our mess orderlies, who had been in the kitchen, come out looking like niggers, and covered with white sticky dough, and such things as beetroot slices plastered about them. ... An inspection of the crew’s quarters aft revealed a most ghastly sight. All lights had been extinguished by the explosion, and in the pitch blackness, with the air like a furnace from escaping steam, the inspection party kept tripping over dead and wounded, who were quickly brought up on deck. On opening the bulkhead door a huge hole was seen in the stern of the ship, with the sea pouring in. The magazine had gone up when the torpedo hit. This deck was a mass of twisted, jagged steel plates strewn all around with most shockingly mutilated bodies and human remains. ... The work of the ship’s medical officer was beyond praise. He worked for hours on end in the sweltering heat, doing amputations, blood transfusions, and operations of all kinds, assisted only by medical orderlies.
The four remaining LSTs continued to Red Beach where they arrived at 11 p.m. The commanders of the two crippled LSTs, Lieutenants Rowland W. Dillard (473) and George L. Cory (471), were able to keep their craft afloat until LSTs 452 and 458, returning from Red Beach, were diverted to their assistance and took them in tow. By what Barbey termed “excellent seamanship” the four LSTs reached Morobe where the cargoes and troops were transferred to the two undamaged LSTs, which waited to join the third landing group.
On the 5th the advance continued to east and west with no opposition from the enemy, though the going was very heavy. From Yellow Beach the 2/13th Battalion occupied Buaru. Leading the advance to the west, Simpson’s southern column, when west of Aluki 1, found a track which was wet and boggy, but even so was infinitely better than the steaming kunai and jungle. Broadbent’s northern column had lost communication with Simpson on the previous day when its wireless set had disappeared in the Buso and when the telephone line had been broken in several places by troops moving along the narrow track. A patrol, however, made contact with the southern column at Apo in the mid-afternoon. Broadbent reached the Buiem River near Tali and Simpson advanced through Apo Fishing Village to a position near the eastern end of the Singaua Plantation.
Behind the 2/17th came the 2/23rd and 2/24th following the 2/17th’s signal wire. As the battalions were becoming mixed, Lieut-Colonel Gillespie15 of the 2/24th let Major McRae16 of the 2/23rd (now in command of the battalion) pass through and bivouacked south of Apo, where Whitehead had placed his headquarters. Late in the day the 2/23rd advanced cautiously from Apo past the 2/17th and along the beach to a position just west of the Buiem. Because of the difficult and boggy track the battalion had been unable to reach the Burep River as it had hoped. McRae therefore decided to send a small standing patrol forward to the mouth of the Burep while his three companies dug in west of the Buiem (the fourth having moved north to take over from Broadbent).
After a tiring march through the jungle all day Sergeant Lawrie’s17 platoon set out at dusk to establish a standing patrol at the mouth of the Busu River – about 4,000 yards west along the coast. At 2 o’clock in the morning a well-equipped company of about 140 Japanese passed by Lawrie’s outpost heading east – to engage the 9th Division. Lawrie attempted to warn the battalion, but found that his wireless set would not work. The Japanese were now occupying his return route but it was imperative to send back a warning and Corporal Fairlie18 and Lance-Corporal Schram19 volunteered to take a message back. Stripping themselves of all arms and equipment, and accepting the grave risk of approaching their own battalion unexpectedly in darkness, the two men hurried east ahead of the enemy. To evade detection they waded in the sea for some time. Weary but determined, and still ahead of the enemy, they arrived at the 2/23rd’s position in Singaua Plantation at 4.30 a.m. and gave the alarm.
Behind the advance of the infantry the engineers bulldozed a track from the Buso to Aluki, fit for three-tonners as well as jeeps, although it was understood that heavy rain would make the track impassable. After the landing of the second group there were 1,800 tons of stores in the area – enough for twenty days.
Back in Buna, now a very busy port full of landing craft and ships going and coming from the beaches, General Herring watched the 24th Brigade embarking on twenty LCIs at 8 a.m. on 5th September. Five LSTs, also proceeding towards Red Beach, were joined at Morobe by two more.
Soon after 11 p.m. the first wave of the 24th Brigade began to disembark. An hour later the second wave moved towards the shore. Unloading at night on to a tiny congested strip of beach was naturally confusing and difficult, but it was probably unjust for one battalion diarist to write of “scenes of indescribable confusion and brigade spread over half the countryside”.20 It was not long before the battalions had been led by their guides, who had accompanied the earlier waves, to assembly areas about 1,000 yards inland.
That night General Wootten issued his orders for the 6th. The 26th Brigade would secure crossings over the Busu from the mouth northward and would reconnoitre as far north as the kunda bridge; Brigadier Evans’21 24th Brigade would advance west and take over the coastal sector from the 26th Brigade, which would then “passage” to the north. Down on the coast McRae ordered Captain Dudley’s22 company to advance at first light along the track already taken by Lawrie’s platoon and secure the track up to the Busu.
At the end of August there was much activity at Port Moresby and Tsili Tsili as General Vasey made his final preparations for the assault on Nadzab. Preparations were afoot for Lieut-Colonel Lang’s group of 602 pioneers, 126 engineers, and 760 native carriers to leave Tsili Tsili on 2nd September and march for three days, over Major Kidd’s route, to Kirkland’s Dump. A small advanced party under Captain Dunphy of the 2/6th Field Company would set out on 30th August to improve the track. A third party, consisting of 90 engineers and 60 pioneers, would embark in Lieutenant Wegg’s23 20 folding boats at Tsili Tsili on 4th September; 10 would sail by night from the junction of the Watut and the Markham Rivers to Kirkland’s Dump where they would be met by
Lang’s force. The remaining 10 would leave the river junction at H-hour on Z-day, when Lang’s force would begin to cross the Markham.24
In Port Moresby the American paratroops were ready and eager. For eight months the regiment had been training for just such an operation as was now ahead. With his battalion commanders and some of his staff, Colonel Kinsler flew over the Nadzab area on 31st August. Information, maps, air photographs and the large and accurate model of the operational area kept in a big marquee by the Intelligence staff of 7th Division were closely studied, and meteorological reports were obtained to determine prevailing winds over the jump areas. These proved very accurate; they stated that the wind in the Markham Valley was peculiar in that until 11 a.m. daily, it blew down the valley and then suddenly changed and blew up the valley.
It was decided to use a formation of six planes in echelon right rear with thirty seconds between elements (Lieut-Colonel George M. Jones wrote in the 503rd’s report). This formation was practised by the 54th Transport Wing on D-3, D-2 and D-1 days. As all pilots were veterans and knew each detail of the jump areas, main consideration was at this time given to the formation flying. As each battalion had a separate jump area, it was decided to fly in three battalion columns. The Fifth Bomber Command, who were to furnish our air support, and the Fifth Fighter Command, who were to furnish fighter protection and to lay smoke during the dropping, also practised their phase of the operation extensively as split timing was necessary between these two units.
At one stage it seemed that the paratroops would not have immediate artillery support. Then Lieut-Colonel Blyth of the 2/4th Field Regiment “submitted a revolutionary idea to the GOC to use the new short 25-pounders in a paratroop landing”.25 The idea was accepted by Vasey and a note was sent to the three batteries calling for volunteers for an intensive physical training course, but saying no more than that. From 17th August these went through a tough course, and Blyth arranged with Kinsler for their further training with the newly-arrived parachute regiment. At the end of the course 4 officers and 30 men were selected to be placed under Kinsler’s command, and on the 22nd Lieutenant Pearson,26 of the 2/4th Field Regiment, who would lead the impromptu paratroop detachment, joined the Americans. Next day the other three officers (Lieutenants Ross,27 Faulkner28 and Evans29) and the men moved over to Kinsler’s regiment where they were given specialised training by American jump-masters. When Kinsler found that the men had not volunteered as
paratroops, he asked any man who wished to withdraw to take a pace forward. All stood still. On 30th August Vasey and Blyth watched the artillery paratroops carry out a practice jump with one of their guns at the Thirty-mile Strip. Evans and two men were injured in the jump. Lieutenant Clayton,30 who replaced Evans, had his first jump on Z-day, an experience shared with some men who also missed the trial jump.
On 3rd September Kinsler issued his final orders. Major Britten’s I Battalion and regimental headquarters would land on field “B” with the task of capturing the Nadzab airstrip, beginning work on it, and guiding the Australian pioneers and engineers to Nadzab where they would come under Kinsler’s command; Lieut-Colonel Jones’ II Battalion would land on field “A”, capture Gabsonkek, and block all approaches from the north and North-west; and Lieut-Colonel J. J. Tolson’s III Battalion would land on field “C”, capture Gabmatzung, and prevent enemy penetration from the east. The artillery detachment, in four aircraft each with an American jump-master, would jump to field “F” one hour after the main landing, and establish gun positions. To create a diversion, 22 aircraft would drop dummies into the jungle south of Yalu six minutes after the authentic landing.
On 31st August Brigadier Eather of the 25th Brigade issued his orders. Lieut-Colonel R. H. Marson’s 2/25th Battalion would arrive in the first aircraft and would lead the advance on Heath’s Plantation. Lieut-Colonel Cotton’s31 2/33rd Battalion and Lieut-Colonel E. M. Robson’s 2/31st would follow in that order and be ready to advance east. The 54th Battery would be prepared to engage targets east and North-east of Nadzab and the 2/5th Field Company would work on the Markham Valley Road.
Elaborate emplaning tables had been drawn up by Vasey’s staff. Each aircraft had a serial number, and, as far as the infantry was concerned, each carried about 5,000 pounds, comprising 20 men and stores. The artillery faced complicated problems. With the meagre information that each plane-load would not exceed 5,000 pounds, it was left to the artillerymen to work out the details. Apart from their eight 25-pounders, five
jeeps and trailers, ammunition and heavy wireless gear, the gunners would travel light.
On 22nd August Vasey handed over the responsibility for emplaning the division to Brigadier F. O. Chilton of the 18th Brigade who appointed Captain Seddon,32 his staff captain, as “chief controller”. They arranged that units would assemble in “plane-loads” in company areas and be conveyed to battalion assembly areas by trucks on whose doors was marked the emplaning serial number of the occupants. As the loaded trucks arrived at the marshalling park they would be met by Seddon’s staff, who would send them forward to airfield assembly areas. At the airfields they would be met by emplaning officers, who would send the trucks to individual dispersal bays for loading onto aircraft, as shown in the accompanying diagram.
Immediately south of the Markham all was in readiness. At Vasey’s request the Papuans patrolled between Mount Ngaroneno and the mouth of the Watut on 4th September. On receiving the patrol’s report that there were no traces of the enemy south of the Markham, Captain Chalk sent an “emergency ops” signal, as instructed.
Lang’s force, which arrived at Babwuf on the 1st, set out next day along the track, now much improved by the efforts of the advanced party. It was an arduous trek but no one fell far behind, the men being spurred on by Lang’s warning that anyone who dropped out would have to find his own way back. By 5.30 p.m. the last of the column arrived at Waime where a camp was made. On the 3rd the column climbed steep kunai hills and then skirted the foothills on the south side of the Watut’s eastern swamps to the camping ground previously reconnoitred. At 4 p.m. on the 4th the march ended at the Markham near Kirkland’s Dump.
Preparations for the crossing, already begun by Captain Dunphy’s engineers, were soon well in hand, and guides were stationed half a mile above Kirkland’s to watch for the boats which had departed from Tsili
Tsili earlier in the day. Half an hour after midnight one boat, guided by Lieutenant Snook, arrived, followed in the next three-quarters of an hour by six others which had missed the right channel. One boat passed Kirkland’s and landed about 400 yards below the crossing place, and the other two boats were sunk by snags on the trip from the mouth of the Watut. All occupants but one were rescued and transferred to other boats.
After months of patrolling and observing, occasionally enlivened with skirmishes, the 24th Battalion was at last to participate on 5th September in an all-out company attack on Markham Point which had long been a thorn in the side of the Australians. Originally it had been used as a dump for Japanese engineer stores for use in the construction of a road from the Markham to Wau. Several patrols of the 24th had reached the general area of Markham Point, but, even so, it was difficult to pin-point weapon-pits and gun positions.
Colonel Smith’s planning for the attack had ill fortune from the start. At the end of August New Guinea Force had advised that 18 planes would drop rations and ammunition in the Wampit and Gabensis areas. Wampit Force was entirely dependent on air supply but the air dropping program in the few vital days before the attack was bewildering to the 24th Battalion. On 2nd September 9 planes dropped supplies without warning at Zenag, a four days’ carry from Markham Point. Next day 3 planes dropped supplies at Wampit and 3 at Gabensis. As a result Smith had 2,200 boy-loads scattered over his wide area waiting to be lifted forward. A further blow was delivered when the Angau representative told Smith on the 2nd that, of the 150 Markham carriers promised, he could “rouse” up only 90 including “Marys”! Even this number was rapidly reduced when the carriers realised that Markham Point was the destination.
Smith planned to leave Wampit early on the 3rd to supervise preparations for the attack. Late on the 2nd he received a telephone call from Partep 1 where Major Fleay said that he had a message from Port Moresby which he had to deliver personally. Smith went back a half day’s march to Timne where he met Fleay early on the 3rd and received the message that the date of the attack had been advanced from the 5th to the 4th. Smith rapidly set out for Markham Point and arrived exhausted at Deep Creek on the afternoon of the 3rd much too late to supervise any preparations for the attack.
Meanwhile, the company commander, Captain Duell, was disposing the four platoons which he had been allotted for the task of capturing Markham Point. New Guinea Force had forbidden concentration of the striking force in the area until the latest possible moment in order to prevent the Japanese from becoming suspicious. Lieutenant Childs’33 platoon, however, had been reconnoitring the area while the other three platoons moved forward towards Markham Point. The original plan was that the platoons
would be in position by 3rd September, giving them the next day to survey the ground over which they would attack on the 5th. Now, however, this was changed and there was no chance of any reconnaissance of the area by the other three platoons.
Smith’s late arrival led to a chain of events which denied the attacking platoons the control and coordination necessary for success. As instructed, Duell remained at Deep Creek to meet Smith. The assaulting platoons had already moved off incompletely briefed towards their start-lines when Smith arrived, and in the little daylight left there was no chance of the battalion and company commanders following them. Duell’s plan was that Childs’ platoon would capture Southern Ambush and advance to the Japanese camp, Lieutenant Young’s34 platoon would then pass through and capture the River Ambush, while Lieutenant Baber’s platoon protected the company’s base at Deep Creek and Sergeant Bartley’s platoon guarded the mortars near the Golden Stairs. Because the guide got lost, the men did not reach their assembly areas south of the Japanese defences on the main spur, and camped at the junction of the main and kunai spurs some 40 minutes away. Smith and Duell moved forward towards the start-line in the early morning and arrived there after the first platoon had left its start-line.
At first light on the 4th, Sergeant Boyle,35 who had the best knowledge of the area and was guiding the platoon, struck a land mine which wounded him and killed the leading scout. Swinging west to avoid any more mines, Childs and two of his sections advanced along the western slope of the main spur. Lack of opposition soon convinced Childs that he had gone too far, and, changing direction, he clambered up the hill with Sergeant Blundell’s36 section on the left and Corporal Gray’s on the right. In extended line the two sections advanced upwards through areas cleared by the enemy above.
So silent had been the advance that several Japanese were still in bed when hit by the fire of the Australians as they scrambled into the outer defences, but soon the attackers were subjected to very heavy fire. Childs, wounded in both legs, and Gray’s section, inside the enemy defences, fought gallantly, but were surrounded and cut off from the rest of the
platoon.37 On the left, Blundell was the first man to reach the outer defences. Killing two Japanese, he jumped into one of the inside trenches where he was cut off alone from the remainder of his section on the rim. For several hours the wounded Childs, the remnants of Gray’s section and Blundell exchanged fire with the enemy. Their opponents seemed to number between 150 and 200. Unfortunately the third section had become detached from the others.38 Unseen, it had reached within grenade-throwing range of the rear of the enemy busy firing at the other two sections, but took no action to relieve the pressure and returned to its start-line.
As no word had been received from Childs’ platoon, Duell took Young forward to look for them. By skirting the western slopes of the spur they were able to enter the outer Japanese defences without being fired on. Here Duell met two of Childs’ men who did not know where the rest of the platoon were. Duell decided that Young’s platoon could enter the position by the same route and, leaving Young just outside the area cleared of growth, he sent the platoon forward to join him. The platoon could not find Young, whose body was discovered later.
Inside the Japanese defences the Australians were suffering such heavy casualties that Childs decided to withdraw. Corporal Stevens39 covered his platoon commander’s withdrawal to a spot where he was able to hear a message from Childs to fetch the third section. Disregarding enemy fire, Stevens ran back across the cleared ground to the start-line where he led Young’s platoon towards the fight. All attempts to reinforce Childs were unsuccessful because of the enemy’s enfilade fire, but they did manage to cover the withdrawal of Blundell and his section by 2 p.m.
The survivors of Gray’s section and Childs held on until darkness when they began to creep back through the lines. Both badly wounded, Childs and Private Walker40 assisted one another as they crawled painfully through the kunai. Twelve men had been killed or were missing; six were wounded. In return for these heavy casualties the remnants of the platoon estimated that they had killed at least 18 Japanese.
Duell was now ordered to “contain” the stubborn enemy at Markham Point. Before attacking again Colonel Smith decided to request an air attack, but he was surprised when the enemy positions were strafed by Allied aircraft on the 5th. He had not been informed of this attack and could not profit from it.
In Port Moresby, on the beaches east of Lae, and along the south bank of the Markham, all who had anything to do with the assault on Lae had early reveilles on 5th September. By 7.30 in the morning the American paratroops were loaded into 82 Douglas transports and the Australian
gunners into five more; the bombers and fighters were warming up; the 2/17th Battalion was leading the 9th Division’s advance on Lae; the pioneers and engineers at Kirkland’s Dump were ready for the crossing; Chalk’s Papuan company was concentrating near Sheldon’s Crossing; and Duell’s mortars were firing into Markham Point.
It took 45 minutes for the air armada to assume correct flight positions after the first C-47 rolled down the runway. Meeting the fighters over Thirty-mile Strip the transports flew to the north, crossing the Owen Stanleys at 9,000 feet, where the troops were intensely cold because the doors had been removed from the aircraft. About 10.15 a.m. Lang’s men saw the aerial armada overhead.
General Kenney, who accompanied the paratroops (as did MacArthur) described the approach to Nadzab:
Three hundred and two airplanes in all, taking off from eight different fields in the Moresby and Dobodura areas, made a rendezvous right on the nose over Marilinan, flying through clouds, passes in the mountains, and over the top. Not a single squadron did any circling or stalling around but all slid into place like clockwork and proceeded on the final flight down the Watut Valley, turned to the right down the Markham, and went directly to the target. Going north down the valley of the Watut from Marilinan, this was the picture: Heading the parade at one thousand feet were six squadrons of B-25 strafers, with the eight .50-caliber guns in the nose and sixty frag bombs in each bomb bay; immediately behind and about five hundred feet above were six A-20s, flying in pairs – three pairs abreast – to lay smoke as the last frag bomb exploded. At about two thousand feet and directly behind the A-20s came ninety-six C-47s carrying paratroops, supplies, and some artillery. The C-47s flew in three columns of three-plane elements, each column carrying a battalion set up for a particular battalion dropping ground. On each side along the column of transports and about one thousand feet above them were the close-cover fighters. Another group of fighters sat at seven thousand feet and, up in the sun, staggered from fifteen to twenty thousand, was still another group. Following the transports came five B-17s, racks loaded with 300-pound packages with parachutes, to be dropped to the paratroopers on call. ... Following the echelon to the right and just behind the five supply B-17s was a group of twenty-four B-24s and four B-17s, which left the column just before the junction of the Watut and the Markham to take out the Jap defensive position at Heath’s Plantation, about half-way between Nadzab and Lae. Five weather ships were used prior to and during the show along the route and over the passes, to keep the units straight on weather to be encountered during their flights to the rendezvous. The brass-hat flight of three B-17s above the center of the transport column completed the set-up.41
The three paratroop battalions landed on their assigned dropping grounds, met no opposition, and proceeded towards their assembly areas. This was a difficult task because the pit-pit and kunai were from six to ten feet high and very entangled, making walking difficult. The grass and the burning heat of the valley combined to delay the assembling of the battalions but, two hours after the jump, just as Lang’s force was crossing Dunphy’s bridge, the paratroops were in position, patrols were out along all approaches to Nadzab and work had begun on the strip.
In accordance with plans the five aircraft carrying the gunners of the 2/4th Field Regiment landed at Tsili Tsili. An hour later the artillerymen
were again in the planes making the ten-minute flight to Nadzab. They barely had time to perceive Lang’s force, spread out below on both sides of the Markham and along the sandbank in the centre, before they were coming in over the dropping grounds at 600 feet and the jump-masters called: “Stand to the door.” “It was an exceptional man who did not get a sinking feeling in the stomach at that order,” recorded the unit’s historian.42 Lieutenant Pearson was first out, quickly followed by the others in the first two aircraft. Equipment tumbling out of the next three aircraft was followed by the “pushers out” as the planes passed over for the second time.
The strong breeze along the valley, already noted by Kinsler, resulted in the gunners being landed too far west by the pilots who, in any case, overran the jumping ground. Some men landed in trees, including the only casualty – Gunner Lidgerwood,43 who injured his shoulder. The scattering of the gunners and their equipment over a large area in tall kunai prevented the assembly of one gun until a detachment found a complete set of parts and selected a gun position on the edge of the kunai facing open country ahead. While the gunners were searching for the parts Lieutenants Faulkner and Ross, equipped with American portable wirelesses, joined the forward American platoons, but in order to maintain surprise they did not carry out their registration fire until next morning. At 3.15 p.m. two Fortresses, flying at great speed, dropped 192 rounds of ammunition. Although the aim was good, several of the boxes tore away from the parachutes. After all the hard work and courage of the gunners, their services were not required in the unopposed landing.
As the first planes flew over Kirkland’s Dump at 10.15 a.m. a detachment of the 2/6th Field Company under Lieutenant Frew,44 and Captain Garrard’s45 company of the 2/2nd Pioneers, which would establish the bridgehead, prepared to leave their hiding places under the trees. At the selected crossing place the Markham was about 400 yards wide and flowing in four channels. Three of these channels were fordable, but the fourth or main channel was about 210 feet wide, 15 feet deep and had a surface current of 7½ knots.
As the paratroops began dropping from the transports seven of Wegg’s boats moved from their hiding places above Kirkland’s Dump, picked up Garrard’s party, deposited it on the north bank of the Markham and then moved down to the crossing place where they anchored after some difficulty in the fast stream. During the crossing by the leading company the remainder of the 2/2nd Pioneers waded through the Markham to a large sandbank by the main channel. The eighth boat ferried Lieutenant Frew’s party across to erect sheer-legs on the opposite bank. Two parties
under Lieutenants Waterhouse46 and Frew, working from opposite banks, lashed together sections of decking consisting of three poles each 3 inches in diameter and 35 feet long, and placed them across the folding boats. At the same time rubber boats were inflated ready to be dragged across by cable. This smaller rubber boat bridge could not be erected until the last eight boats from the junction of the Watut and the Markham passed downstream.
The folding-boat bridge was completed by 12.30 p.m. and, by 3 p.m., the engineers and Papuans had followed the pioneers across. The native carriers then crossed by 5 p.m. In the lead as the force marched towards Nadzab was Lieutenant Gossip47 whose task was to lay out the Nadzab airfield. Captain Moorhouse,48 of the 2/4th Field Regiment, had marched with Lang’s force and now pushed on rapidly with telephones and wire for Pearson’s jumpers. The trip took longer than expected because of the soft clayey mud on the north bank, and the head of the column did not begin to arrive until 5.45 p.m., when Lang immediately conferred with Kinsler whose paratroops had burned the kunai from the airstrip before dusk. The medical officer of the 2/2nd Pioneers, Captain Putland,49 assisted the Americans by setting the broken legs of paratroops and treating several less severe injuries.
Chalk’s Papuans, who had successfully carried out their task of picquet-ting the south bank of the Markham near the crossing places, moved up the Erap River after crossing the Markham. At 5.15 p.m. the company climbed from the stony bed and camped on the banks of the Erap, where they apprehended a local native for use as a guide to Chivasing and the western approaches to Nadzab.
By the night of 5th September the major Allied offensive of the New Guinea campaign was in full swing. South of Lae the 5th Division was closing in on Salamaua; east of Lae the leading platoon of the 9th was observing the first Japanese encountered by that division; west of Lae a mixed force of paratroops, pioneers, artillerymen, engineers and Papuans was in occupation of Nadzab and awaiting the arrival of the main body of the 7th Division. Under such pressure General Nakano’s 51st Division, already badly shaken, was likely to crack.