Chapter 14: Pursuit
ROUND Salamaua the 5th Division rested after its final efforts to trap the retreating Japanese. Only the 15th Battalion was now required to chase the fleeing enemy rearguard. It advanced rapidly along the coast hoping to catch up with the remaining Japanese south of the Markham River. Two companies, under the command of Major Jenyns,1 left the area north of Busama by barge on 14th September, landed between the Buang mouth and Sugarloaf, and there found signs of a hasty evacuation not one hour old. The attempt to speed up the chase and get ahead of the retreating enemy had apparently just failed.
Struggling ahead from the knoll west of Bukuap, which they had reached the previous evening (13th September), the other two companies under Major Lack2 found the map hopeless. Gorges and razor-backs predominated; the track had not been used for a year and was overgrown by ferns and lawyer vine which had to be cut away; the numerous weapon-pits had been dug by the enemy before the last seasonal growth. Finally Lack decided that he could not adequately feed his 173 men who were already having only one meal a day. Accordingly, he sent one company back to the coast and gave the few remaining emergency rations to the other one, which continued along the mountain route before being forced to return.
Advancing along the coast Jenyns passed many weapon-pits and much equipment. The Japanese as usual had tunnelled and dug like rabbits. The country was ideal for defence and the enemy’s choice of ground and siting of defences were excellent. Offsetting this, however, the battalion noticed practically no improvements to roads and ports. The enemy’s living quarters along the coast were filthy.
Coastal natives who were now coming in from the hills said that the Japanese had left the area by barge, and the Bukuap natives stated that the Japanese, when evacuating Salamaua, walked to Busama and the Buang mouth where they were picked up by barges and taken to Lae. There was no other information available to Milford because no Allied troops were established on the coastal track during the Japanese evacuation.
On the 15th General Milford instructed Lieut-Colonel Smith, of the 24th Battalion, to send his Buang patrol to the coast. After finding signs of a recent evacuation of the Japanese position at the Buang mouth, a patrol from the Buang base joined Jenyns’ force which had earlier met its first opposition between Sugarloaf and the coastal lake and had killed seven Japanese. The 24th Battalion’s Buang patrol took no further part in the
fighting. Colonel Smith described the joining of forces – “Thus weakly ended the unhappy Buang period.”
Between the mouth of the Buang and Sugarloaf, and indeed as far north as Labu, the enemy had abandoned very strong positions which commanded the narrow coastal strip and were protected from the landward side by swamp. Throughout its series of frustrating attempts to reach the coastal track the Buang patrol had been forced to cut its way through the jungle, thus giving itself away to the Japanese, who were always able to reinforce a threatened spot. Having plenty of barges the Japanese could land or evacuate at will. It was seen later that the Buang patrol had been outnumbered nine to one. Therein lay its measure of success: it had managed to tie up a large enemy force which could have been used more effectively elsewhere.
Interrogation of a prisoner indicated (wrongly) that the enemy had abandoned his positions at Markham Point on the night of 13th–14th
September, and General Milford ordered Colonel Amies of the 15th to advance rapidly to the Markham, destroy any enemy along the way, and link with the 24th Battalion at Markham Point. The 15th Battalion, however, was not to cross the wide Markham River. By 17th September the battalion was in occupation of Labu 1, Labu 3, Busan, and Sugarloaf, and thus was deployed in one large ambush covering all likely approaches to the coast.
Before dawn on the 18th Captain Proctor’s company at Labu 1 saw a party of at least 30 fully-armed Japanese trying to escape in folding boats across Labu Lagoon. When fired on the Japanese rowed to the shore and disappeared into the jungle. At 5.10 a.m. these Japanese attacked Proctor’s company in an attempt to break out of the ring. Three attacks were made in the next hour, the third reaching the edge of Proctor’s perimeter where it was stopped by the Australians’ bayonets in hand-to-hand fighting, some of it in the defenders’ weapon-pits. After this fierce fighting the enemy were driven off leaving 13 killed, including a captain and a lieutenant. One prisoner was taken – a man of the II/238th Battalion, who stated that he had withdrawn from Markham Point with about 100 other Japanese on the night of 16th September, hoping to reach Salamaua, as their supplies were no longer arriving from Lae. They had received no information that either Lae or Salamaua had fallen.
It thus became increasingly apparent that the Japanese from Salamaua had escaped and that the force being pinned by the 15th Battalion was the Markham Point garrison. All attempts to capture the strongly-dug Markham Point position had failed, and it was not until the 18th that Captain Bunbury’s four platoons of the 24th Battalion found it abandoned – probably from late on the 16th. By the very persistence of its attacks, however, the 24th Battalion had prevented the Japanese – of the II/238th Battalion – from hampering the advance of the 7th Division towards Lae.3 After the war General Adachi said that only two men of the company of the II/238th detailed to make a stand at Markham Point escaped to Finschhafen.
During the morning of the 18th Lieutenant Farley’s forward platoon fired on about 20 enemy troops, believed to be the remnants of the force which attacked Proctor, killed nine of them, and sent the remainder fleeing into the jungle. After patrols north of Labu Lagoon had seen small enemy patrols heading south on the morning of 19th September Lieutenant Edwards led a patrol across the mouth of the lagoon to the north where it found 7 Japanese in some huts and killed 6 of them. An Owen gun was recaptured, and maps showing the enemy positions from Madang to Lae and estimates of the positions of the 7th and 9th Australian Divisions were found.
When natives reported 53 Japanese at Bowamu on 24th September patrols of the 15th led by Lieutenants Tewksbury,4 Oxley5 and McCullough6 approached Bowamu from the north, east and south respectively, hoping to surprise the hungry and exhausted Japanese. With visibility only six feet, one patrol fired into the village before the others were ready, with the result that only the Japanese trail leading west from Bowamu was found. On 25th September the three patrols, now known as Hunt Force, set about their task of finding the vanished enemy, but without catching them. By 25th October the 15th Battalion was in Lae except for one company in the Markham Point-Tari area.
Lieutenant Smith’s7 Papuan platoon had deduced by 15th October that the enemy had doubled back on his tracks. When the Papuans arrived at Markham Point on the 16th they killed five Japanese. Three days later they saw a dead Japanese floating down the Markham. Two patrols to the west and North-west found Japanese tracks converging on the south bank of the Markham where there were signs of a rough camp used by about 30 Japanese. Four dead were found at this spot and a one-man raft was found on the river bank. Across the river was another raft capable of taking four or five men. Here Japanese tracks headed to the North-east. Doubtless some few remaining Japanese may have joined the general flight of the 51st Division over the mountains.
By 16th September two units of the 9th Division were on the trail of the Japanese escaping from Lae. The 2/4th Independent Company, in the kunda bridge area with two platoons on the east bank of the Busu and one on the west, had been ordered to hold the bridge. As mentioned, information from five captured Chinese indicated that about 60 Japanese had camped on the west bank the previous evening and inquired the way to Boana, Sio and Madang. By dusk on the 16th the 2/24th Battalion reached the Sankwep and made contact with the rearguard of the Independent Company.
On the 17th, when the 2/24th Battalion was strung out between the kunda bridge and the junction of the Busu and the Sankwep, some of Lieutenant Hart’s men of the 2/4th Independent Company were reconnoitring north along the west bank of the Busu. From the natives the men learnt that many Japanese had passed north into the mountains on the preceding days. They saw the usual signs and smelt the usual smells of a Japanese trail and towards the end of the day they saw a band of enemy troops disappearing to the north apparently in a weak condition. The men of the Independent Company were at this stage inclined to think that the Japanese were little worse off than themselves for the 2/4th were at the end of a difficult supply line and were subsisting mainly on
captured Japanese rice, and vegetables from the villages. On the 18th Hart, with a fourth section added, prepared to wipe out the enemy party, now estimated at about 100. This estimate was doubled next day when Hart counted 200 climbing a saddle at the 800 Feature. Because of the rugged terrain it was impossible either on the 18th or the 19th to get near enough to engage the enemy.
The two leading companies of the 2/24th Battalion on 18th September reached Musom 1 and 2, and Gawan, where the leading company reported finding a well-sited and concealed enemy position for about 50 men on the Gawan razor-back. This position, if manned, could have held up an advance. A Japanese straggler captured next day at Gawan said that it had been occupied by 50 Japanese until a few days before. The pursuit grew closer on the 20th and 21st. A platoon of the 2/24th attacked some Japanese at Kwupsanek and wounded three although all escaped into the undergrowth. In order to bring heavier fire power into the area where the Independent Company had seen the enemy rearguard of 200, Captain Mackenzie’s8 company of the 2/24th was sent north to reinforce Hart. All day on the 20th Hart’s reconnaissance patrols followed the trail and gathered information about the enemy. They discovered that the Japanese were suffering from dysentery and that they had a number of wounded and sick with them.
By 5 p.m. on 21st September, when Mackenzie’s company joined Hart’s platoon on a spur leading to the 800 Feature, the Independent Company had counted 329 Japanese ahead of them. The main body of enemy, heavily loaded and substantially armed, had been moving slowly during the day following a small stream towards a saddle, leaving a rearguard camped beside the creek overlooked by Hart’s position. In between these two enemy parties the sick and wounded were progressing laboriously. Hart deduced that after passing the saddle the Japanese would probably go down a creek to the Busu, move upstream to the crossing, and thence to Boana. He thought it possible, however, that they might, as an alternative, advance up the west bank of the Busu to its headwaters, or bridge the Busu north of the crossing before making for Boana.
To assist the 2/24th with deep patrolling Lieutenant Bruce’s platoon was detached from the Papuan company destined for the Finschhafen landing and sent north. Bruce’s orders were to occupy Gawan with two sections and patrol to Mililuga; the third section, stationed at Musom, would patrol the Boana Track.
At the same time units of the 7th Division were also trying to prevent the enemy’s escape. On 15th September a patrol of paratroops from the III/503rd US Parachute Battalion met a large enemy force withdrawing up the Bumbu River north of Lae and engaged it with sporadic fire. Natives reported that large bands of Japanese had passed north along the river valley earlier on the 15th. Because of the difficult terrain
communications had to be by runner, with the result that it was not until 4.10 a.m. on the 16th that divisional headquarters learnt that the enemy was in greater strength than at first thought and that the Bumbu route might well be the main Japanese line of withdrawal.
By 9.30 a.m. one of Vasey’s liaison officers, Major Mackinnon,9 had raced orders to Dougherty to move to the Yalu area and take under command the III/503rd Battalion. Leaving instructions for the 2/16th to follow, Dougherty and two of his staff jumped into a jeep and bumped rapidly towards Yalu. Accompanied by an escort, Major Owens10 immediately left Yalu on foot to cross the Atzera Range and find out what was happening on the Bumbu. That ubiquitous Angau guide, Major Duchatel,11 led the 2/16th into the area and then left Yalu for the range to discuss matters with the Angau officer in the area, who stated that no Japanese had been seen in the Atzera Range itself.
At 3 p.m. Dougherty was led by paratroops along the track running North-west across the range, and by 6.30 p.m., when he met the returning Owens on top of the range, Dougherty had learnt from the natives that many enemy troops had passed along the valley before the arrival of the paratroops on the 15th. They seemed to think that the Japanese were heading for Boana and would probably use the three log crossings across the Busu farther north. When Owens reported all quiet on the Bumbu, Dougherty decided to move forward on the 17th to the III/503rd and also to send the 2/16th North-east in a final attempt to intercept the enemy. If the situation allowed, and if it appeared that the enemy had successfully bypassed the Americans, Dougherty would send Tolson’s battalion back to Yalu.
By 10.30 a.m. on the 17th Dougherty had ascertained from Tolson that the Americans were not in contact with the Japanese and did not know their whereabouts in the Bumbu Valley. An American patrol was accordingly sent down the valley towards Lae to find whether that part of the route was clear. After a mile and a half the patrol met a small enemy party and dispersed it, losing one man killed. As this appeared to be the last of the stragglers Dougherty felt that no good purpose would be served by keeping the paratroops in the area, and ordered them to Nadzab.
Throughout the 17th the 2/16th Battalion followed a track along Munum Waters. Guided by Duchatel, Lieut-Colonel F. H. Sublet reconnoitred ahead of his battalion but saw no enemy. As the natives also reported no enemy in the area it seemed futile to go farther. At 5.15 p.m. Owens rang Sublet to inform him that the Western Australians had been allotted another task in the Markham Valley. Brigade headquarters arrived at Mac’s Camp in the Nadzab area on the 18th and the 2/16th a day later.
While the 2/16th Battalion had been attempting to trap an enemy who had already escaped along the tracks north of Lae, the 2/14th was attempting a similar task along the tracks north of Nadzab. Resuming their advance on 16th September, the Victorians marched steadily north up Ngafir Creek all day. It was the same story on the 17th, except that the track into the Saruwaged mountains was steeper and signs of the enemy’s hasty and recent use of it were more numerous. For the night the battalion camped on a kunai ridge one and a half miles South-east of Gumbuk.
At 9.55 a.m. on the 18th, Lieutenant Simmons’12 platoon forded the Busip River west of its junction with the Bunbok. Approaching the Bunbok the platoon was fired on from three directions by what was obviously a Japanese rearguard covering the site of a wire-rope bridge which they had destroyed, and one man was killed. Supported by covering fire the platoon was extricated. Even without enemy opposition it would have been impossible to cross the raging Bunbok; both rivers were in flood and the Bunbok was unfordable. Colonel Honner kept a standing patrol on another of the Busip crossings about 300 yards west of its junction with the Bunbok while two companies prepared to cut tracks north from the crossing along the east bank of the Busip, keeping the west bank of the Bunbok under observation for a likely crossing place. Enemy could be seen on the far bank of the Bunbok as the companies explored trails to its west bank.
By the afternoon of 19th September a patrol led by the adjutant, Captain S. Y. Bisset, discovered a likely crossing place about a mile and a half north of the river junction where the Bunbok was fordable for half its width and the other half could be bridged by the trunk of a tree. By 6.30 p.m. a tree overlooking the river had been felled but it failed to bridge the gap, and thus there was no crossing on the night of the 19th and the Japanese were able to get farther ahead of their pursuers.
During the battalion’s advance into the northern ranges wireless communications had failed and the laying of telephone cable had not kept pace with the battalion’s advance. Dougherty felt that there was need to occupy Boana as soon as possible and, once there, patrol to the east. At 1 p.m. on the 18th therefore he sent a liaison officer, Captain Holley,13 to order the 2/14th, after the occupation of Boana, to cut the probable enemy route of withdrawal through Lumbaip, Bambok or Kemen. After a rapid trip Holley arrived with his message at 5 p.m. on the 19th, shortly before the abortive attempt to cross the Bunbok. At this stage natives reported large numbers of enemy in Boana.
While Holley was racing north Dougherty was having misgivings about the wisdom of using the 2/14th in a pursuit role particularly as it, like the 2/16th, was required for a more important role up the Markham Valley. The maintenance of the battalion was also a problem, as the supply of native carriers was limited in the Nadzab area. Vasey signalled to Herring
on the 19th: “Track Ngafir to Boana up to Owen Stanley standard and is 17 hours march at least. Water is scarce. Would be glad permission to withdraw this battalion.” Herring replied: “2/14th Battalion may be withdrawn your discretion. Should leave what you consider sufficient detachment give warning any approach your flanks by enemy forces. Will arrange relief earliest possible by units based Lae.”
By 10.30 a.m. on the 20th the 2/14th succeeded in getting a bridge across the deep channel of the Bunbok. As the main body of the battalion was crossing Dougherty’s signal cancelling the battalion’s present role and ordering its return to Nadzab was received. During the recrossing of the Bunbok one man slipped and was drowned in the swift torrent. By 3.30 p.m. on 21st September the battalion was back at Camp Diddy. The 2/14th Battalion had been hotter on the trail than any other unit engaged in the pursuit and, had it continued through Boana, it might have caught the retreating enemy.
When Lae and Salamaua fell an immediate problem was the redistribution and reallocation of the troops and the creation of a great Allied base at Lae where stores could be accumulated for further blows against the enemy. During the final assault on these Japanese bases 25 Australian battalions, 3 American battalions, and 2 Independent Companies, with their quota of supporting troops, had been used. The administrative problem was a heavy one. Tentative plans had been made for the 9th and 7th Divisions to exploit their success at Lae by further assaults round the coast and up the Markham Valley, respectively. Ad hoc plans were also ready for the 5th Division to mop up in the Salamaua and Lae areas. Even so the initial task of pursuing the enemy north from Lae and Nadzab had fallen to the 7th and 9th Divisions and this meant that, as far as the pursuit north from Nadzab was concerned, the chase had to be abandoned when it was most promising.
When Herring visited Milford by motor torpedo boat at Salamaua on 14th September and found that the town would be quite useless as the site of the huge base which the Allies had in mind, he decided to concentrate on Lae and to leave only a small garrison at Salamaua.
At a meeting on the 18th Herring warned Milford to prepare for a move to Lae where he would supervise the establishment of the base. Milford welcomed this task. Signalling Herring on 20th September he outlined his understanding that he would be responsible for the layout of the base but not for the American portion of it. He also warned that the Americans intended to use their equipment solely for their half of the base, leaving the Australian side a series of camps connected by muddy tracks. Milford concluded his signal:–
The acceptance of stores until some roads are available will be extremely difficult. There is practically no Australian engineer mechanical equipment now available at Lae. ... The need for Australian engineer units with heavy mechanical equipment is therefore extremely urgent especially tip-trucks, gravel loading equipment and graders. The construction of access roads to ... depots involves a very large road construction program.
Lae was a small place with few port facilities. Several attempts had been made before the war to make a wharf in the little cove but the sea bed sloped steeply and always the Markham eventually came down in flood and the wharf slipped into the sea. Only after several failures did the American engineers manage to make a pile wharf which stayed put.
At the outset the road to Nadzab was usable only by jeeps and the Malahang-Butibum track was soon churned into deep mud. Along the Bumbu was a mere jungle track. First priority was given to a direct road to Malahang where many combat units were situated.
Some weeks passed before the engineer units with heavy mechanised equipment arrived, and in the meantime Milford had to struggle along with the few pieces of mechanical equipment held by the 59th Field Park Company. Until port facilities were developed everything had to be landed on the open beach from landing craft of the Engineer Special Brigade. Their orders forbade them to be within 20 miles of Lae at dusk and dawn, and on some nights there was not enough time to unload the few craft that were serving the base and they would depart with urgently-needed stores still on board. Each night the arrival of the landing craft marked the beginning of a few hours of intense activity. Stores were loaded on to trucks, hurried off the beach to a near-by area for sorting and thence sent to temporary depots concealed in the jungle. By dawn or soon afterwards the area round the beach was completely clear.
Milford and his headquarters moved to Lae on 22nd September. On the 23rd General Blamey returned to Brisbane, and General Mackay arrived in Port Moresby to take charge of New Guinea Force. In order to avoid any repetition of the confusion caused by divided Allied command during the advance on Salamaua, Herring clearly specified Milford’s tasks. Lae Fortress would be established under Milford’s command and would control all Australian and American base installations, the port at Lae, and the Lae and Malahang airfields. Milford would also have operational control over all military forces within the fortress area, although he would not disturb the execution of the general plan of local commanders of Allied air and naval forces and the American base, nor would he have authority over the “striking forces” proceeding through his area. The western boundary between Lae Fortress and 7th Division would be a line running north and south through Nadzab. The eastern boundary was at present unspecified but the southern boundary was as far south as Nassau Bay. As well as the 15th and 29th Brigades Milford would also have under command the 4th Brigade.
Milford was warned that he would later be responsible for delivery of supplies and stores to places determined by I Corps. “The situation that will obtain,” stated Herring’s instruction, “will be similar to that existing in the Buna area.” Buna had of course been one of the main Allied bases from which the invasion of Lae had been launched. Milford’s chief task would therefore be the development of the Australian base while the near-by American USASOS (United States Army Services of
Supply)14 commander would be responsible for the development of the port, airfields and the Markham Valley Road.
With their formidable mechanical and earth-moving equipment the Americans of the “USASOS Advanced Base Lae” had the main engineering tasks to perform. The rough boundary between the American base and the Australian “Lae Base Sub-Area” was the Bumbu River with the Australians looking after the eastern sector.
In a final report the work of the American engineers in the Lae–Nadzab area was described thus:
The airborne engineers who landed at Nadzab on 5 September 1943 had cleared the kunai grass and done a little grading; 2 days later the first transport strip was ready for use. By the end of the month three dry-weather runways were finished and the two airborne engineer battalions had begun work at Gusap, up the Markham River Valley. More US Engineer and RAAF troops arrived shortly to commence the permanent improvement of these facilities. At Lae another 2-day record had been made, for, on 18 September, the Army Engineers had repaired the runway and lengthened it to 5,000 feet.15
Describing the port construction and road building finally achieved, after some months, the report stated:
Two Liberty ship wharves, one petroleum pier, and one small ship wharf were built at Lae. ... The principal road project was the one connecting Lae and Nadzab where troops were dependent for supplies on air shipments. An engineer aviation battalion began improving the primitive track and jungle trail late in September. The project was completed in record time on 4 October, but unfortunately the same drainage oversights that had earlier plagued the airfield workers now haunted the road crews. Stretches of the road were already impassable on the completion date. Two days later, with the road closed, work was resumed; on 15 December it was opened to all-weather traffic, this time in operational condition.16 Considerable engineer effort was expended on access roads in the Lae–Nadzab region.17
Each morning Milford would meet his engineer commander – Lieut-Colonel Bell18 – to discuss the day’s work. To overcome the problem of mud and slush Milford decided to build a road about seven miles long looping northwards between the Bumbu and Malahang. Offshoots from this looped road led to huge store depots tucked into the jungle. The building of the road was quite a feat. Usually Bell would have about 1,000 natives clearing the undergrowth, more clearing the big trees, more clearing the final strip, before the bulldozers put the finishing touches to levelling and draining. In order to conquer the mud it was necessary in some places to corduroy the road on top of three feet of gravel.
The building of this road and the huge store depots to supply the inland operations were among Milford’s main tasks in Lae, just as the port and the airfields were the principal tasks of the Americans. By the time Milford handed over command of the “Lae Fortress” to his artillery commander, Brigadier Moriarty,19 on 3rd November to assume duty as the senior general staff officer of New Guinea Force, the base at Lae was on the way to becoming one of the principal storehouses for present and future operations.
In the meantime troops had to be provided to continue the pursuit of the fleeing enemy and to guard all approaches to Lae. For the present General Wootten would continue to operate in the Gawan-Musom area. On the western flank General Vasey requested the “immediate release responsibility defence of Nadzab area”, so that the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion then at Camp Diddy could then move west. Vasey concluded that the only course would be to dispatch the 18th Brigade to Nadzab. As General Kenney had already pointed out that he would be unable to supply by air any more troops in the Nadzab area and Markham Valley it was decided that the 18th Brigade would not move forward until the Nadzab-Lae road was finished. After the completion of this road, supply of the three divisions in the Lae–Nadzab area by sea would be a relatively simple task. The making of the road took much longer than was expected and, in the meantime, the 7th Division continued to be supplied by air and the 9th by sea direct from Buna.
To enable Vasey to advance farther west it was decided that Milford would take over the Nadzab area in the near future, and ultimately control the whole Lae–Nadzab area from the Erap to the Mongi, largely by use of the Papuan Battalion and a system of observation posts. In the immediate future, however, it would still be necessary to cover the approaches from Gawan-Musom-Boana, while the feasibility of actually occupying Boana was still being considered. Some of the scattered units of the 15th Brigade were the most readily available for the task in the Nadzab area, and units of the 29th Brigade were given the task round Lae.
Wampit and Tsili Tsili Forces now ceased to exist. The 24th Battalion was ordered to Nadzab, and the 57th/60th gathered at Tsili Tsili. By 30th September a company of the 24th had relieved the 2/2nd Pioneers at Camp Diddy and the remainder of the battalion began to gather in a new camp on Ngafir Creek. Sub-units of the battalion, which were reunited for the first time since May, had assembled by launch, native canoe, aircraft and foot. At the same time the 57th/60th had been flown from Tsili Tsili to Nadzab and guarded the western approaches to Nadzab until it concentrated at Moresby on 21st October.
From the captured evacuation order of 8th September and other evidence, Milford knew that the enemy who had escaped from Lae were attempting to cross the mountains of the Huon Peninsula towards Sio on the Rai Coast. The general direction of the retreat was shown by the places named in the Japanese order as those where medical facilities would be available – Melambi River, Boana, Melanpipi, Iloko and Ulap. The first main stage of the journey would be either to Musom or Boana and thence to Kwambelang, Dengondo and the Rai Coast. There had already been ample evidence that Boana and Musom had been used.
Milford’s Intelligence staff estimated that, at the end of September, there were about 200 scattered and disorganised Japanese north of Gawan-Musom, 300 in the hills between Musom and Boana and about 50 south of the Markham. Milford decided to establish standing patrols at Hopoi, Musom, Gawan, Boana and Camp Diddy and to patrol the tracks Yalu-Musom, Nadzab-Camp Diddy-Boana, Erap River-Boana, Musom-Lumbaip-Kwambelang-Boana, Gawan-Bungalumba-Bilimang, Busungo-Gawan.
From 21st September the 2/24th Battalion and 2/4th Independent Company, with the platoon of Papuans, were pursuing the 329 Japanese counted by the Independent Company’s patrol. On the 22nd the Independent Company could not find the main enemy force although one section shot four Japanese along a mountain track leading west from the Busu. On the 23rd the pursuing troops again missed the main enemy body although 20 stragglers were killed. The Australians were astride the enemy escape routes from Yalu but the mystery of the disappearance of more than 300 Japanese seen two days previously was not partially solved until a patrol from the Independent Company found a newly constructed bridge across the Busu two miles up from the regular crossing.
As there were indications that the enemy had been across the saddle separating the 800 Feature from another feature Lieut-Colonel Gillespie sent a platoon from the 2/24th Battalion across it on the 23rd while the remainder of his force advanced west along a creek running into the Busu south of the 800 Feature. The route along the creek had signs of large enemy encampments. Next day the patrol from the 2/24th reported seeing a log bridge upstream from the main crossing – the one discovered the previous day by the 2/4th Independent Company. Gillespie then ordered Captain Monotti’s20 company and Lieutenant Hart’s platoon of
the 2/4th Independent Company to advance up the west bank of the Busu, across the 800 Feature, and clear the area to the new bridge.
On the 25th Monotti and Hart advanced to the bridge through deserted enemy camps. Five Japanese stragglers were shot by Hart’s platoon making its total 24 for this patrol and 51 since the landing. At 10 a.m. the troops reached the bridge which consisted of two spans each of an 18-inch log with a 6-inch log pinned on each side with bayonets to provide a foothold. Hand rails were attached on each side. From it, on the east bank, was a well defined track leading North-east up a creek and then steeply up the 2,500 Feature. Three natives who were apprehended at the Japanese bridge stated that they had been carrying for the Japanese, who had crossed the bridge a week earlier; the natives had deserted three days ago because they were not fed. The Japanese force for whom they had been carrying numbered over 200, and although the Japanese had only about two days’ rice and were suffering from dysentery, they were still clinging to their machine-guns and lighter weapons. The bridge had apparently been built about a month before. As there was no reason for all the troops to remain in an area from which the Japanese had escaped a week before, and as supply was a great difficulty, Monotti and Hart withdrew, leaving a platoon to cover the bridge.
North from Nadzab patrols from the 2/2nd Pioneers had been guarding the approaches to Camp Diddy along the Boana Track and on 23rd September one patrol actually penetrated as far as Boana. One of the first men to arrive there after the Japanese had left was Warrant-Officer Bird of Angau. Soon after the 2/14th Battalion was relieved Bird continued along the trail right into Boana itself. Describing his lone patrol he wrote:
Boana by the way is in a hell of a mess. Nippon pulled out not later than Monday last [20th September] – a hell of a party of him. It rained here Sunday night and he left after the rain cutting down bridge at Gumbuk on his way. If the battalion had gone to Boana Sunday it would have had a warm welcome. Gun positions of very strong construction commanding road and ambush positions about wherever he could put them. At the mission a big gun position being built – one finished – an excellent job. ... Have posted a few notices here and there in good pidgin that we have Lae and that the Kiap is walking his bloody legs off looking for them. May help a bit when they are found by kanakas and when they pluck up enough courage to go near enough to read them.
By the end of the month the 24th Battalion relieved the 2/2nd Pioneers. Thus, by 30th September, the guarding of the approaches to Lae was in the hands of the 2/24th Battalion, while the 24th Battalion was guarding the Nadzab approaches.
At the beginning of October the main activity in the 2/24th’s sector centred on the Papuan patrol’s attempt to harass and destroy stragglers moving north along the Lumbaip-Kemen track. It reached the track junction near Lumbaip where a broad much-used track ran north to Kemen. A feature of the terrain was the bare rocky slopes of the hills which enabled the patrol leader to observe the track through binoculars for
several miles in each direction. He could even see parties of Japanese moving into Kemen and occupying buildings there. The patrol then prepared an ambush at the track junction and in two days killed 23 Japanese.
The enemy had no fight left in them and invariably scattered when fired on, abandoning packs and equipment. The withdrawal in this area did not appear to be well organised and consisted mainly of parties of 10 to 60, usually led by an officer and without flank or any other protection. The Japanese were careless about lighting fires at night even when they knew their pursuers were close. Very little rice was carried by the hunted men who were living mainly on native foods, occupying the native villages along their route until they had eaten all the food. Little ammunition was carried and only one man in six had a rifle, although each carried grenades.
According to the natives the Japanese were making for Madang north along the Sanem River Valley and thence across the Saruwaged Range. This route did not accord with the one laid down in the captured withdrawal order. The supply dumps at Melanpipi, Iloko and Ulap were not along this route which would emerge on the north coast a long way from Sio. It seemed that the Japanese who were now apparently heading up the Sanem Valley had been prevented by the Australian occupation of the kunda bridge area from using the route via the kunda bridge, Musom, Melambi River and thence across the mountains to Iloko.
By 14th October it was clear that any further operations against the enemy remnants would take place in the Sanem River Valley. The 26th and 15th Brigades were therefore given the tasks of mopping up in the Kemen area as far north as the line Baindoung to Orin, with the inter-brigade boundary being the Sanem River. Gillespie’s intention was to mop up in the Lumbaip-Baindoung area. To do this he sent one company to Kemen and established his headquarters at Musom 1. No sooner had he done this than the 26th Brigade was given 30 hours’ notice to move. By 16th October the advanced party of the 42nd Battalion arrived and the relief of the 2/24th Battalion began.
When fresh reports from Angau that the Japanese were in the Sanem Valley reached Brigadier Hammer, he ordered Colonel Smith to send a company of the 24th Battalion into the Boana area to destroy the enemy.21 On 8th October Captain Whitelaw’s company set out along the muddy track to Boana.
Supplies were dropped on the old Boana airstrip on the 11th. After this Lieutenant Thomas22 collected three days’ rations and set out that day for Bawan where natives and Angau reported a strong force of Japanese. The platoon, guided by a Wampagnan native, approached Bawan by moonlight. Climbing hand over hand up a rocky cliff face which led to a small plateau on which Bawan was built, the men reached the top at 4.30 in the morning and saw a fire burning.
Silently half the platoon covered the northern entrance to the village and half the southern. The moon had set. The platoon waited for first light and the signal to attack. At 6.10 Thomas gave the signal – a solitary shot – and the Australians poured a heavy fire among the awakening Japanese. Despite the surprise, the Japanese fought with spirit, using mainly grenades. They had no chance. Fourteen were killed in a few minutes, and one killed and one captured in the pursuit. The prisoner was a private of the III/238th Battalion, who stated, probably fairly accurately, that about 7,000 survivors of the 41st and 51st Divisions had left Lae for Sio about 14th September. In the next three days patrols of the 24th killed 30 stragglers and found 6 dead.
Whitelaw’s company now became the sole spearhead of the 5th Division. Other units in the northern hills were mere garrisons whose daily patrols sometimes found some unfortunate Japanese straggler who had been left far behind by the main body which, by mid-October, had largely arrived in Sio and Kiari.
Whitelaw’s men resumed the chase on 16th October. As distances lengthened so supply and communication problems became more pressing but these were partly overcome by recruiting natives from each village to act as porters to the next. On the 16th a patrol killed five Japanese found in a native garden, and another two in a hut. Local natives reported that some 18 Japanese were in Tewep; the platoon poured a deadly fire into the huts and killed 17. Since arriving in the Sanem Valley the 24th Battalion had killed 80 Japanese and taken 3 prisoners. At this stage Smith pointed out to Hammer how difficult it was to satisfy the demands of various southern headquarters for prisoners:
Have impressed Whitelaw necessity taking prisoners. However, two men have been wounded in approaching huts in this endeavour and some Japanese have invariably escaped when party held up at point-blank range. Only hope is sick.
The dearth of prisoners ceased on 21st October when Whitelaw’s headquarters encountered a Japanese sergeant who was able to speak and write perfect English and was used to capture four other Japanese in the vicinity. Standing on a high position he called out to his companions to come and surrender and be well treated, or stay where they were and be shot. Four Japanese quickly surrendered. Voluntary surrender such as this had not previously happened in the Australian Army’s campaign against the Japanese.
The sergeant stated that the Japanese were in four groups. He was in the second as was General Nakano himself. The Japanese had moved along a very rough and steep track running along the east side of the Atzera Range, the object being to move overland to Sio and thence by barge to Madang. It was planned that the trip would take twenty days, but because of the weight only ten days’ rations were carried, mainly rice and tinned food. All troops were consequently on half rations.
At one stage the Japanese were halted for three days while the sergeant’s company built a bridge across the Busu. Soon afterwards he became ill; he could not state definitely the route taken by the first and third groups. The route taken by the second and fourth groups, however, was via Hanobmain, Baindoung and Avin and thence across the mountains to Sio. As the climb became more difficult the
weaker men began to discard weapons, shovels, blankets. Each man retained one grenade, however, with which he was to take his own life rather than be captured by the Australians who were stated by Japanese officers to be cruel torturers.
On 27th October Captain Bunbury’s company relieved Whitelaw’s which began the journey to Ngafir Creek where rumours that they had many trophies of the chase spread like wildfire among the free-spending Americans. The spirits of the outgoing company were high. Since the mopping-up campaign began the battalion had killed 155 Japanese, taken 13 prisoners and found 115 dead. Of these Whitelaw’s company had killed 145, taken 12 prisoners and found 115 dead. The thirteenth prisoner was taken by Bunbury’s company on the 27th when the fittest Japanese yet encountered was found asleep under a hut in Bangdap.
Whitelaw ascribed much of his success to the cooperation of the natives. In the early stages his platoons cleared each village after careful reconnaissance and movement by night. In the later stages, however, natives would quickly guide the Australians to the enemy’s hideouts. On the approach of patrols many of the Japanese would hide and come back on to the track after they had passed. Several Japanese were thus killed by Australian rearguards moving well back. Lieutenant Thomas’ platoon killed 46 Japanese in this manner, against 49 by Sergeant Jackson’s23 and 47 by Lieutenant Robinson’s.
“The area can now be considered clear of all but a few stragglers,” stated an Intelligence summary of the 5th Division at the beginning of November, referring to the Sanem Valley. Thus Bunbury’s task was merely to garrison the Sanem Valley and Boana and the chase was nearly at an end except for the interest of the 24th and 42nd Battalions in finding the Japanese tracks over the northern mountains.
On 29th October Bunbury was instructed to send a patrol along the Sio Track in the wake of the Japanese. Lieutenant Barling was chosen for the task and was accompanied by Sergeant Brack24 from his platoon, Sergeant Cowen25 from the signallers and Corporal Langford from the Intelligence section. The patrol’s specific objects were to ascertain how far it was possible to proceed along the Avin-Sio track and to mop up stragglers. It departed on 1st November from Avin and on the 2nd reached Toocoomwah. “Village stinks with dead Japs in the area,” reported the patrol leader. Later in the morning two Japanese armed with grenades were killed in a near-by garden. After lunch the patrol followed a track from the gardens down to a large creek. Crossing the creek the track was broken by landslides and was very difficult to negotiate. The four men climbed steeply up rocks and across loose earth, then through gardens and jungle until they reached a camp of the retreating enemy.
The site, which had originally held about 1,000 Japanese, was macabre. Many corpses were lying about. Apparently they had perished from cold or starvation, or both. Even weapons had been stripped of their wood to make fires. There was no food in this cold wilderness or beyond. After climbing a hill with a grade of 1 in 1 the patrol reached a grassy spur where it established wireless contact with Baindoung. In intense cold the men camped on a hillside about 6,500 feet up.
Guided by a local luluai the patrol left along the Sio Track early on the 3rd, but a quarter of an hour later the track disappeared in a sheer impassable drop. According to natives the track followed the Sanem River Valley to its headwaters and thence over the range to Sambanga, but was broken in two more places before the head of the valley was reached. The Japanese could hardly have chosen a more pitiless route. As there was little point in attempting to negotiate the giant landslides the patrol returned to Avin. Thus the curtain came down on this chapter of the tale of the 51st Japanese Division.
One last patrol, this time of three Papuan soldiers led by Sergeants Macilwain26 and Duncan,27 left the platoon base on 8th November on a ten days’ patrol for Bungalumba and Mount Salawaket. The only information available about the track came from old natives who remembered the track as boys but said that it had not been used by the natives for at least twenty years. There were no bridges and no huts, leeches would prevent lengthy halts, and it would be difficult to light fires because of the perpetual damp. The luluai of one village stated that even hill natives would die of cold on top of the mountain and that the Madang natives who accompanied the enemy as carriers would certainly have died. In spite of all this, ten natives volunteered to cross the mountain with the patrol to act as guides and rebuild bridges, provided they were given shirts and trousers to keep out the cold. Nothing further was heard from the patrol to the cold mountain until a runner returned to Musom from near the top of Mount Salawaket. He reported that the patrol had climbed to approximately 10,000 feet and “found that a select party of Japs, well organised with food, etc., had crossed the range” on the way to Iloko and Sio.
For the remainder of the year the 5th Division supplied garrisons and working parties for the Lae base. The troops were constantly patrolling without much chance of meeting any Japanese. A description of three interesting patrols will serve to conclude the story of the 5th Division in Lae.
On 21st October the commander of the 24th Battalion instructed Captain Peck to fly to the newly-cleared Boana airstrip and look after the lines of communication to the forward company. Peck left Nadzab in a Piper Cub at 11.30 a.m. on 23rd October, but when it did not arrive at Boana during the next three hours, some anxiety was felt. Although
patrols searched along the probable route of the plane, nothing further was heard until the night of 28th October when the doctor boy of Dzenzain reported to the 24th Battalion’s adjutant with a message handed to him by a native child. The message, signed by Peck, was:
To 24 Aust Inf Bn. Badly burnt both legs, broken jaw, 2 bad eyes. Picked up by party of natives. Pilot killed and buried. Boy starting 4 day trip Sunday. Might make it.
The natives carrying Peck on a stretcher were met at Old Munkip by medical officers on 29th October. Although very weak he was able to tell his story of the devotion and compassion of the mountain natives. The plane, flying through heavy rain, had crashed into the mountain killing the pilot instantly and throwing Peck into a stream. He walked down the stream and slept in a hut during the night. On the morning of the 24th he could not walk and so began to crawl, but had gone only a few yards when natives found him.
Having found the crashed aircraft the natives had removed and washed the pilot’s body, buried it, and placed his gear in a hut constructed over the grave. Thinking that there was too much gear for one man the natives began to look for another. They soon found Peck, washed him, tended his injuries and carried him to a village. In case he should die Peck gave his rescuers a letter so that searchers would not think the natives had killed him. On the 25th he wrote the message which was received at Boana three days later. At first the natives were frightened to send a runner or move Peck because they feared the Japanese were in the area. The appearance of two police boys on the 26th reassured them, however, and they carried Peck out from the wilderness of mountains, arriving at Badibo on the 28th.
Many other Allied servicemen in the island campaigns owed their lives to the natives who rescued them from the gloom of jungles and the horror of wounds. Doubtless many lost or wounded Japanese soldiers had been similarly treated. Reduced to fundamentals it was the kindliness of the native which often caused him to guide the lost and succour the wounded so tenderly.
An epilogue to the Peck story resulted from the Americans’ determination to recover the bodies of their dead for re-burial in a cemetery before eventual removal to the United States. On 13th November a patrol from the 24th led by Corporal Knight28 and including three men of the battalion, one police boy and 13 natives left Nadzab with a casket to recover the body of the pilot, Lieutenant Harry H. Dunham. On the third day the patrol met the tul tul of Souse who led them to the Erap River gleaming some 3,000 feet below. A hand and rail bridge had been built that morning by the tul tul. Knight commented:
A first class job had been done, hand rail and all. Then we looked up at this sheer face of rock. ... It was about 14 feet high, the natives had built ladders and placed them against the rock. A great job had been done so up we went. How
they got the casket up is beyond me. They had big pieces of vine which they took out in front with about 6 boys on it pulling all the way, with 6 or 7 boys behind pushing It was marvellous. We never thought such a thing was possible.
After this crossing the patrol climbed 8,000 feet sometimes on hands and knees and sometimes using more ladders which the natives had prepared. When the exhausted Australians reached the village of Norwal on the top they found a new hut with beds built for them.
At Norwal the patrol met a native called Gartan who had found Peck. Knight had some difficulty in persuading natives to accompany him to the plane two hours and a half away as the track was so dangerous. The route led round a patch of rock running around the side of a mountain without any track. The patrol feared to slip into the river so far below, but when “Marys” ahead made footholds the rock was safely negotiated. Finally a sheer razor-back with a track only a foot wide led precipitously down to the Erap. Cutting its way through scrub, climbing over landslides and wading waist deep in water the patrol finally came to the pilot’s lonely grave close to the river. Knight reported:
They had planted flowers around the grave which was very decent of them. ... The natives had put leaves over him to keep the dirt away. They think of the least little things.
The plane itself was still poised on a rock hanging on its left wing and one wheel 30 feet over the river. The natives did not like Private Gee29 venturing into it as it might fall into the river below; Gee entered the plane along a limb, but when the tul tul pointed to the gathering storm and explained the danger of the Erap flooding between its cliffs which were 300 feet high, the patrol hastily gathered its possessions and the casket and body and began the terrible climb out of the river area.
On the 17th the patrol had labour set-backs after leaving Gartan’s village. These natives could carry no farther. They had already carried out Peck. Knight later explained how this had been overcome:–
Things looked black for us. Then the doctor boy came up and said his baby was sick. A mosquito had got him so Private Gee said he would go and see what he could do so he took some atebrin with him but when he saw the baby was only a month or so old he knew it couldn’t take an atebrin. The doctor boy seemed to think he could but they tried by different ways but all failed so Private Gee hit on a great idea. He told the doctor boy to tell his wife to take it then the baby would get the effect of it. Well he had to show the doctor boy what he meant so he got the baby, put it on the breast of its mother and then the doctor boy woke up. He was very pleased and gave us some boys for our trip after dinner.
The remainder of the patrol was uneventful.
During the advance of the 22nd Battalion round the coast from Lae to Finschhafen a force of Japanese had been bypassed and had taken to the hills. On 15th October the commander of the 4th Brigade, Brigadier Edgar, learnt from Milford’s headquarters that on the previous day natives
had seen about 200 Japanese along the Mongi River between Kaming and Butala, apparently moving towards the coast. Edgar was ordered to send a force of not more than two companies to destroy or capture any enemy in the Mongi River area.
Edgar issued his orders on the 16th to Lieut-Colonel Cusworth30 of the 29th/46th Battalion. Under the command of Major Tilley31 two companies and two Papuan sections were detailed for the task. Tilley Force departed from Lae in LCVs on the morning of the 17th. A platoon landed on the beach south of Hopoi and, after collecting about fifty carriers, on the 18th began a trek along the coast from Hopoi to Bukasip where the remainder of Tilley Force had already landed. Despite native reports of a large Japanese force along the Mongi River down to the coast no contact was made by patrols operating east and west from Bukasip. On 19th October the force moved west to Butala and established a new beach-head nearer the Mongi’s mouth. Here it was joined on the 20th by the coast patrol whose only excitement had been the sight of crocodiles and the crossing of the swiftly flowing Mongi in small Japanese boats with wire cables which had been found near the beach.
On the 20th also patrols began to penetrate inland when Captain Eames’32 company and a Papuan section moved to the Buga area. Patrols scoured the area and the creeks and tracks round the Mongi but found no signs of Japanese. When the remainder of the force moved into the Buga area Eames went farther north. A patrol to Kaming was followed on the 24th and 25th by the arrival of the remainder of the company which for the next few days patrolled the steep tracks in the Kaming and Sambeang areas. By 27th October Tilley Force was camped on the Mongi where the men enjoyed the blessings of a clear mountain stream. On the same day one platoon arrived at Wamuki in the far north. By the 29th Tilley Force had completed its task without finding any Japanese. There had been an enemy force of about two companies of II/80th Battalion along the east bank of the Mongi down to the sea. Tracks found by the 9th Division south of the Mape River seemed to indicate that these companies had withdrawn to Sattelberg even before the fall of Finschhafen on 2nd October. On 3rd November Tilley Force arrived back at its beach-head and on the 8th it rejoined the battalion at Finschhafen.
As well as clearing out the remaining Japanese from the Lae–Nadzab area and building a huge base, troops of the 5th Division, here as at Milne Bay, had also set a standard of malaria control which achieved splendid results. The ADMS of the division, Colonel Lovell,33 considered that the 24th Battalion in particular had achieved remarkable success and held up its record as an example. Throughout the Salamaua campaign
this battalion had been dispersed over a large area, rendering the control of malarial precautions a difficult task. Colonel Smith decided to institute a campaign of rigid anti-malarial discipline when over 50 cases of malaria occurred in three weeks in the Sunshine area. He made it imperative not only for platoon commanders or senior NCOs to supervise the actual swallowing of atebrin tablets by each of their men, the application of mosquito lotion and the wearing of gaiters and long sleeves, but to report the carrying out of these duties every night personally or by telephone. Each malaria patient admitted to hospital was interviewed and the evidence used against the soldier’s immediate commander if necessary. Sleeping under nets was rigorously enforced by inspections at all times of the night.
The proof of Smith’s methods was contained in a message to NGF from Moriarty on 6th December:
It will be noted that the strength of 24 Aust Inf Bn over a period of seven months during which time the battalion has mainly been operating as an independent force, has only decreased by all reasons from 766 all ranks to 615 all ranks. It is considered that the case of 24 Aust Inf Bn proves by a standard of supervision that the application of individual protection can control and reduce the malaria incidence within a unit or force.
Indeed, having beaten the Japanese in the largest operation yet undertaken by the army, the Australians here and elsewhere were also on the road to defeating the mosquito.