TREBLE CHANGE – 1 RAR SEPTEMBER 1972 A JURASSIC JOURNEY INTO PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Foreword by “Warrie” George Mansford (Brigadier retired). I remember it well. In fact I have the Exercise report somewhere in my study and no doubt it would take months trying to find it and you will want to know before such a time lapse.
As you know, although the war in Vietnam was drawing to a close in regard Australian commitment, 1RAR under command of Blue Hodgkinson was placed on notice for another tour of operational duty.
So it came to be the battalion commenced a very long and demanding phase training which (apart from distractions such as Cyclone Althea, searching for a lost helicopter in the Cairns region) culminated with the mandatory sub unit training at Canungra where you may recall B Company encountered the well-known General Westmoreland of Vietnam fame.
I cannot recall the date but at some stage when the battalion was on a very, very big high the official word came that it was all off. It was a huge disappointment particularly for the clean skins and Blue was most concerned. There was a conference and it was decided we would need a big challenge to distract the soldiers from such disappointments. Thus there were discussions with higher on the need to provide a significant challenge of an operational environment based on the reality that:
We had been earmarked to return to Vietnam for a third tour.
We needed a tough operational challenge preferably in a hostile environment which would take soldiers minds away from Vietnam, mischief and sex and provide a sense of individual and collective achievement.
Provide the base to continue to maintain, enhance unit preparation for war.
Thus Treble Change. From Vietnam (1) to New Guinea (2) and Wherever (3)
It was an immense success and to my mind as the Ops Officer and certainly Blue Hodgkinson (CO) and Jack Currie (RSM) thought the same.
The previous training in Canungra, the three exercises (Basch, Byrne and Berry) in the Atherton Tablelands, reinforced by much competitive training in Lavarack and not forgetting regular clashes at night while on leave with various civilian types provided a very sound base for New Guinea and Treble Change. It certainly reinforced the Maxim (Train hard, fight easy or how your train is how you fight.. (Take your pick). Blue was a great commander and there are such proud memories of young soldiers who wore the Blue Lanyard and Skippy badge. There it is! Warrie George Mansford (Brigadier retired)
TREBLE CHANGE. This article is dedicated to all my mates and leaders in 1 RAR who embraced me as one of their own. The article is but a consortium of yarns, anecdotes, memories, tall tales but true. Many of which are memories still fresh (as if it was but yesterday) and drawn from my meagre diaries and hand drawn pictures some 42 years ago.
To my old Platoon Sergeant, Phil (Butch) Buttigieg who is forever chiding me for my poor grammar, spelling mistakes, and punctuation, this article has been edited by Jeannette Bartlett (wife of Neil Weeks – Brigadier retired) and helped write the Spirit of Australia for “Warrie” George Mansford) has also kindly assisted with the editing. I thank them dearly for their support and assistance. If Butch Buttigieg finds any more errors after all of this, I swear I will bare my butt in Bourke Street, Melbourne. After all its all Greek to me. Duty First.
What was Treble change in 1972? For many it would be meaningless, but for us at 1 RAR (First Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment) it meant sheer hard work, challenging, exhilarating, exciting, boredom, testing of inner strengths, endurance, being resourceful and above all never giving up when the going was tough or the conditions became hard under extremely difficult terrain. It is of interest to note that unit histories (1 RAR in particular) have wrongly named it as “Treble Charge” and for the life of me, I wonder why those who wrote it did not bother to conduct the proper research by speaking to those who did in fact participate on this arduous and challenging piece of military entertainment.
Political reasons. Treble change was also a political statement on behalf of the Australian Government of the day. The Australian government (Liberal leadership) wanted to send a clear message to the future Government of Papua New Guinea that Australia could respond quickly and effectively should the occasion arise.
(It is of interest to note that Papua New Guinea was to obtain Nationhood within the next couple of years.) In fact everyone who happened to be serving in Papua New Guinea at the time received an award to mark the occasion under the Labor Government. It was also a time when the Australian people would vote for a change of Government some three months later. A government that would go down as the only one that had its Prime Minister sacked by the Governor General. (Buts that’s another story for people better qualified than I to report on it)
Dedicated to WW2 Diggers. Although this yarn is really dedicated to those who fought in New Guinea during WW2, it is also dedicated to all my mates and leaders in 1 RAR who embraced me as one of their own. Why? the reason is simple. We were fit, tested and were well prepared for the journey that was before us. The WW2 diggers were not equipped properly, nor had the required clothing, the jungle knowledge or the medical and health back up support that we had. The 39th, a Victorian Battalion in particular needs a special mention. It was they, who took the brunt of the Japanese offensive until relieved.
Australia’s Thermopylae. And yet, one cannot but help admiring what they achieved during WW2. After going through our area of operation in Papua New Guinea, I am forever in awe of what our predecessors achieved. I for one salute them. One could rightly call it “Australia Thermopylae”. Even now some 42 years later, I am still in awe of the Aussie digger who battled his way across the Papuan New Guinea hinterland and the numerous jungles not knowing if he would ever see home again. I am pleased to note that there were a few Australians of Hellenic background involved and serving as diggers.
Spartan & Australian WW2 Digger. “There are times in my life when I am of the belief that we Australians take freedom for granted”. People forget those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in order to live our lives free. The battles in Papua New Guinea will go down in the annals of Australian folklore that it was “But a few who held the Japanese at bay long enough to send reinforcements and win back a freedom that was about to be taken by force.”
Training exercises and planning. For months prior to flying over to Papua New Guinea, 1 RAR went on Exercises Byrne, Basch, and Berry. The funny thing about the names is that for 40 years I always thought that they were named Burn, Bash and Bury and that is why we always burned our rubbish, bashed it into small pieces and then buried it. It was not until 2012 when my wife and I visited “Warrie” George Mansford (The mastermind) in his stronghold and lair at Cairns that I was advised of the correct operational names.
Cobbers, diggers, mates and “bosses”. After all these years the only blokes that I can remember from our Company was Big Macka (Great Boxer), Victorian ex Bank Clerk and “Natio”), Col Bolitho (Victorian and “Natio”), Mal Maloney (Victorian – country lad and “Natio”), Bondi (Victorian – ex farmer and “Natio”), Jock Bryson (Victorian, nearly married his sister and good all round bloke to have as a mate) Glen Barlow (Victorian – had a couple of punchups’ with Glen – he was one of our Section Commanders), Ron Lovelock (went to Vietnam and then transferred to Catering Corps later to become a Victorian Tipstaff).
John (Jack my Italian cobber) Arena (Victorian went to C Coy and will not hold that against him. Ended up fighting the Victorian unions. A good all round bloke), Andy Pring (Victorian went to SAS, now a Policeman in West Australia – a real great bloke), Randall (Randy) Green, (Queenslander ex Golden Gloves champion and best forward scout I have ever come across – survived a severe automobile accident) Bill Davern (one of my best mates in the Battalion – lost track after we returned from Malaya – Singapore), Bloxsome ( a good bloke in the bush), Peter Thomas (Section Commander and a real good bloke), Lt Youll (Platoon Commander – a reasonable bloke who took matters far too seriously).
Then there was Major Barry French (Company Commander), WO2 Wayne Aitkenhead and WO2 Barry Tolley, Sgt John Chislett (who always made us laugh by calling us girls whilst a drill parade), CAPT John McCausland (Company 2IC), Rick Hollingdrake and Jock whose last name escapes me (both Section Commanders). Big Mick Strong (I had a punch up with big Mick and obviously I came out second best. He was tough as nails and unfortunately was murdered in a brothel whilst defending a young lady), Sgt Brian Todd (who waded into the ocean to rescue his fiancé from all the jelly fish – how he did not die on that day is beyond me) and many others like “Richo” (Chad Morgan) Richardson with his buck teeth, and yes even old Septimus our Shetland pony who was our mascot.
LtCol “Blue” Hodgkinson & RSM Jack Currie. LtCol “Blue” Hodgkinson made sure that training and more training became our entertainment, was always constantly challenging us, keeping us fit and trim to meet any potential action.
Then we had the mastermind behind it all, “Warrie” George Mansford (Operations Officer and loved by all); mind you he was the worst dressed officer we had ever seen, but brilliant in the jungle). Then we had our RSM Jack Currie (always the stern caring, disciplinarian and “matriarch”) who instilled into us, the meaning of “Duty First, family and look after your mates”.
No, I have not forgotten them and should I see them now I would not recognise them and nor would they remember me. Apart from a few, unfortunately over the years, I have lost contact with many of these fine men due to the different paths we travelled and it is a pity because I had made so many good friends in 1 RAR. Not being reposted back to The First Battalion after my posting to 6 RAR in Malaya and Singapore had finished, affected me greatly and I was bitterly disappointed. 1 RAR had become my family, my home and I knew that I had many friends still there despite all the National servicemen being discharge.
Pre-embarkation briefings. On the matter of intelligence and pre-embarkation briefs, we were subjected to a series of lectures regarding Papua New Guinea, its people, environment culture, customs and so forth. What to do and what not to do. The older and experienced diggers listened attentively but passively as if they had heard it all this before, while I on the other hand being still green and eager for my first trip overseas just lapped it up not knowing what else to expect.
Cultural briefs. As it turned out, it was a piece of useful but innate information compiled by our intelligence Gurus and submitted to the Platoon Sgts’ and the Section Corporals gave us lecture after lecture about what to expect when we went to New Guinea. Information that “was vitally important to the operation” such as: we were not to take any alcohol, dirty magazines, playing cards, pornographic material or anything that may upset the local people. The soldiers that could speak Malay were given additional language instructions in how to speak Pigeon English and we were also give a brief on some local jargon. In fact our introduction and indoctrination into to the customs, behaviours and characteristics of the people of Papua New Guinea was so intensive and so thorough that the fear of God was instilled into us.
Prior preparation. After all the preparations had been completed such as anointing and drenching all of our jungle greens with the mosquito repellent out of the small green plastic bottles, checked and double checked our weapons, webbing, boots, additional clothing, our cosmetics such as more mosquito repellent, Paludrine tablets, water purifying tablets, sun cream if any were smart enough to wear it in those days, soap for shaving and washing, boot polish for boots and Brasso mixing it with other liquids to make drink (for the foolhardy only).
We had conducted our quick reaction drills, navigation, survival training, silent signals and basic tactical manoeuvres peculiar to our section, Platoon and Company, I believe that we were ready to go. Once again being reminded by the endless lectures during CO hours on the evils of drink, bad women, drugs, pornographic materials, customs, behaviours, characteristics, language, cultures, need I say more. Only then did we depart.
The C130 Flight. “All expenses paid by the Australian government”. Imagine a flying block of metal stuck together with a thousand bolts. It was an awesome machine that was the pack horse of the Defence Department. The journey by C130 took us a few hours, flying over the high mountain ranges of far North Queensland, past Cook Town, Cairns, Thursday Island, the Straits between Australia and New Guinea, the vast sea and finally over the mountainous regions of New Guinea.
For those who have never been to Papua New Guinea, it is a beautiful land covered in mists and hundreds of mountain tops jutting up from the mists below, many who have captured the unwary and inexperienced pilot and sent them to their doom. I was more than just merely excited, I was elated that I could finally put to the test all of our training (entertainment as our CO and RSM would often say) in a harsh environment that was designed to push us to the limit of our endurance.
The never ending drone of the C130 almost drove us crazy but we managed to sleep through some of it while others like me were too bloody excited and looked at the wondrous nature of Papua New Guinea below. It was a bloody beautiful sight to behold and words escape me even now some 42 years later to describe the beauty of Papua New Guinea. It is still one of the most beautiful places for its raw and savage environment that is probably reminiscent of Jurassic period. (For those who are familiar with the movie “Jurassic Park”, this is about close that you can get to it.)
Papua New Guinea. It appeared that only took a couple of hours if that to reach the Papuan New Guinea mainland. Most of us were fast asleep on each other during the flight and eager to reach our destination. We had trained for months for this “holiday”. The C130 lurched to one side and we all moved to follow suite, lights went on we knew that we were approaching our destination.
As we began to approach Lae, the C130 began to descend and the Flight Master came around and told us all to buckle up as were approaching our destination. Everyone began to wake each other up and buckled up amidst the equipment that was in the centre of the aircraft, the straps all over the place, our rifles tucked between our legs, safe and sound and our webbing under our seats within easy reach of dragging them out. There were a number of pallets on the aircraft which probably held food, equipment and other items deemed necessary for an overseas exercise of this magnitude. The descent was rocky and we (me) held our steel tube seats with such tight finger grips that you could not pry them with a crow bar. Yes you guessed it, I was on the seat of my pants.
This was my first C130 aircraft and I just did not know what to expect. In fact I had to admit it even now, it was my first airplane flight I had ever made. One bump two bumps three bumps and sliding or rolling along the tarmac and slowly the roars of the C130 engines changing as if they were reversing resonated in our ears. in our ears.
If anyone ever asked what do you remember about the C130 the roar of the engines would be one of the. (One day I was to jump out of the bastards). The plane taxied around the tarmac until it came to a standstill and the rear doors began to unfold and fall back to the ground.
Before the rear doors had even slightly opened we were greeted with a huge gush of warm and hot air arising from the tarmac and the outside world. New sights and new smells greeted us as we looked to the rear like little children waiting for a lolly from their parents. The Flight Master at this stage beckoning us with hand signals to unbuckle ourselves and then handed responsibility over to the Army. Section Commanders took hold of their respective sections, we picked up our gear, and webbing weapons and anything else we may have brought along and slowly made our way down the ramp.
The heat that confronted us was bad enough and it was even worse to feel the heat from the aircraft engines as we walked to our staging area. It took some time to find our packs and other gear that we had so carefully prepared before hand and we were lucky that that our quartermaster as always was on hand to make matters easier. We were herded towards the edge of the tarmac strip and placed into our respective Sections and Platoons.
As per the normal routine we were told to sit down on our packs and wait until given the order to move out. (I hated waiting). A few of us were (tasked) volunteered to assist with the unpacking of all the gear and to remove equipment and other goods and matter from the pallets. What did we see when unpacking the pallets. I for one could not believe what I saw. I had to step back and watch the rest of the mob unpacking box after box of Johnny Black and red label whiskey. (So much for the no drinking policy).
Later we found out that the Army thought it best to take the whiskey over to Papua New Guinea where there was no customs nor stamp or Tax to be paid and therefore cheaper and more affordable to purchase. I love the way we Australians find solutions to beating our Tax man and I often wonder if we all take a secret delight when we hear of the Tax man has been beaten by the ordinary citizen in the street.
Later on in the day when were given some time off we went down to the local township of Lae and looked at the shops and markets. What we saw made me see red and pissed off at the hypocrisy of it all. The local magazine or retail store sold alcohol, pornographic material and playing cards. I may have been a young bloke but I was disappointed to see what I did see. I was real naive bloke I guess. Still we laughed it off and walked around the town getting to know the sights smells and to capture the essence of the moment in our military orientated and moulded skulls.
Jungle penetration. After a short period of acclimatisation at Lae, we were transferred to Finschhafen for the start of Treble Change. We had packed our secondary clothing and our parade uniforms, leaving them behind with the Battalion Quartermaster. He and his ever ready crew of dedicated men would support us during the exercise over the next few weeks. The jungle smells greeted us as we entered beneath its canopy and snuffing out the sun’s rays. As we made our way deeper into the dark realms of a jungle, we knew that the sun’s rays would not be penetrating down to our level on the jungle floor. The jungle was to be our home for a number of weeks. The deeper we went, the quicker we felt at home.
River crossings and crocodiles. We came across numerous streams and rivers and each one had to be crossed in a tactical fashion according to our drills. There was one time when the Company was spread out in single file and we had to cross this huge river. In doing so we were advised to monitor the water levels in case it began to rise suddenly as the river was subject to flash floods which could come upon us without warning.
In some of the rivers, we were warned to watch out for crocodiles, But as we were heading towards the high country the possibilities of encountering crocodiles appeared remote. Suffice to say we did not experience the surge of water and neither did we come across any crocodiles. Using our well honed jungle skills we made our way diligently and carefully across the river by stepping on the boulders, tree trunks, and through the rapids in the narrows.
Local natives. What I found of interest was to see on the left hand side of the river sitting cross legged on a tree trunk was an old man with a stick in his left hand a pipe of some sorts in his right. The smoke spiralling up into the blue sky. He did not pay any attention to us as his eyes were on his woman down at the edge of the river washing clothes.
On her back she had a baby in some form of a cloth that kept the infant secure, while around her a few other children were playfully skylarking in the shallows of the river. You could make out their childish laughter, the screams and the glees from splashing each other. Gosh I said to myself, I wish I could just jump in the bloody river and get drenched with my big pack and weapons, who would give a shit anyway.
Water carriers. We crossed the river and stopped at the other side for a rest, while selected water parties went down to the river to fill the water bottles up. All of this was done in tactical fashion with an escort and a number of carriers with the water bottles. These water bottles were strung together with our ropes we carried and when twenty bottles are strung together he eight is almost unbearable. I was “volunteered” as a “water mule” whenever the occasion arises and those who have carried numerous water bottles on their back along with their webbing and rifle know what it is meant.
While we were waiting for the water, the Officer Commanding (OC), Major Barry French (A great manager of men) asked around the Company whether they were prepared to climb to the top of the mountain while there was a couple of hours daylight or would they like to stay where we were for the night and start afresh tomorrow. I don’t why we were against staying where we were, but I think that l thought we were all very extremely tired and exhausted. We felt it better to get to the top of the mountain while we had the opportunity and not have to face a stiff climb the following morning. On return of the water carriers and their escort we began to make our way up the mountain. Each step we took was just pure agony as we had been marking like this for a number of days.
Mountain tracks. Half way up the mountain track we were passed by the same couple that we saw down out the river. The woman had finished her washing and the group was making their way up the mountainside. The first person we saw was the old man still holding his stick, still smoking and grinning all the way past us as he made his way up the track. Behind him came his woman. She had a child on her back, the infant at her breast and the washed clothes hanging in a bundle behind her beneath the child. The washing was kept to her by a string which went around her forehead. In addition she had one child by the hand and the other children walking behind her.
This entire group was making their way up the track behind the old man. I was stuffed and I don’t give a shit about telling anyone, now after all these years just how buggered I was at that moment. We, who were Australian soldiers had endured so much in training to get acclimatised, fit and ready for such a training exercise in an alien country found that we just could not compete with this woman.
What could we do but to put our heads down arses up and keep putting one foot in front of the other with our Self Loading Rifles (SLR) in our arms. I dared not look at the woman in case she could see that I was knackered. We never gave up and always helped one another when the going was great or appeared insurmountable. We were soldiers of the Australian army with a tradition that went back to the original ANZACS and we had learnt the hard way what endurance truly meant.
False crests I guess the consolation in all of the climbing was to hear the words we are near the top followed a few minutes later by the words it’s a false crest. How I hated hearing those words especially for us blokes who were near the end of the company. It wasn’t so bad for those near the front of the group, but I happened to always find myself near the rear and always at the bottom of the hill.
I hated false crests from our previous training in the Far North Queensland jungle highlands in the Atherton Table Lands and around the Cairns area. False crest after false crest just about pissed me off and I started to wonder whether the boss was taking us on a wild goose chase or had read the map wrong. Slowly but surely the sky would occasionally open up and the foliage would become thinner and the area appeared to open up in places.
We must be near the top I would say to myself but did not dare to mention my personal thoughts to the others in case they swore at my stupidly if I was wrong. Yep, a bloody false crest again. Well, what can I say, the expected two hour climb turned out to be approximately more than three hours and when we suddenly realised that we had reached the top. I don’t know where I got the additional reserve of energy but I straightened up and moved forward a little more enthusiasm and gusto from my previous condition of wanting just to sit down and rest.
Razor-back Ridges. Razor back ridges were worse, because that’s exactly what they were. Razor back trails at the top of a ridge leading to some God forsaken mountain crest where the “enemy” were holed up. Each of these trails were strewn with jungle undergrowth, of hidden roots, and thorny snake like hanging tree roots all waiting to tear at you and your clothes. If you did not follow the path which in most cases was only about 12 inches or quarter of a metre wide you would invariably fall to one side or the other and drop hundreds of feet below.
Native villages. We slowly moved forward past the sentries that had been posted to guide us through to our eventual harbour for the night. As we passed through the sentries we came across a native village located at the top of the mountain. These villages could be found all over Papua New Guinea with their head man in charge, surrounded by his clan and other family members.
Each village had its own garden that resembled the jungle itself and we had strict orders not to go amongst their jingle vegetable garden, no matter how dilapidated or jungle it may have seemed. Within in each village, there were long houses and there small houses each with its own fireplace, children running around, bright eyed, curly hair, naked, beautiful white teeth and wonderful smiles, laughing chatting and doing what all children do around the world, playing within their environment.
Like Australians eons before us, we gave whatever lollies or biscuits that we had to the children who took an instant delight to our offering and would follow us as we trudged along to our defensive positions for the night. Amongst the huts were the local natives (men) in a group were seen to be looking in our direction all the while smoking and leaning on their sticks or stave’s. Some were leaning on them with their arms wrapped around them while others appeared to be if resting with their toes stuck in between the sticks and their knees bent in an idling fashion.
The men were tall, wiry, and very fit, with grins on their faces while others had a very serious look and only grinned if you looked in their direction. The women on the other hand were cooking the evening meal. Meat was on the coals and what also appeared was some form of vegetable matter which I could not recognise. We even passed the woman who had been washing her clothes at the bottom of the mountain in the river and could recognise a number of the children who were watching us. Many of them were very shy and looked at us with such innocence and beauty so rare that one could not help but admiring their simple nature amongst the wilds of the country. Still it was their country and it was not our place to criticise and/or make judgments.
Before the light faded we went in to our defensive positions and sat on our haunches as we had been trained to do since day one of being an infantry soldier and the initial lessons were learnt at Ingleburn NSW. As the light faded and the night orchestra began to take over, the word stand down was given. Sentries were posted, passwords given and the rosters were placed with the appropriate sentries. We all hope that we would get an early piquet so that our sleep would not be broken and have a good night’s rest. That night I lay awake and looked at the night sky and my thoughts went back home to my family in Melbourne. Gosh I said to myself; (Instantly translating my thoughts from English to Greek and vice versa.
I could do that but I am just pulling the readers leg) what would the old man think of me now. I have finally equaled the old man in something. Dad had been a guerrilla during World War 2 and then had joined the Regular Army for six years. I remember the small kitchen in the peasant hut, sitting around the old fire which was cooking the evening meal for the family. Dad had returned from his service in the Greek Army and had come home to two little sons who did not recognise him and wondered why he was with our mum all the time. Yes the very early years and as a young child were fond memories and long before the family had migrated to Australia for a better quality of life.
Stand To – Stand Down. Being woken in the morning was not always welcome, especially when you have been slogging the day before in the mud and rain. Our weapons had been housed within our sleeping bag in order to keep them clean and prepared for battle. During the night we had all taken our turn for piquet duty and the first and last shifts were always the best. We would silently drop our hootchies and make our way to our shallow pits dug the night before and lay down watching our front. Watching for movement or any sign of the enemy in the morning while the mist was still rising is an eerie feeling and at the same time you struggle to keep warm.
Yes it does get cold at nights despite the tropical heat. The sun’s rays attempt to penetrate the canopy above and fail miserably. As the sun rises, so does the environment around us change and the nights orchestra ceases while the day shift of birds and animals take their place. We wait for the word to reach us. Yes we can see the Lance Corporal (Section 2IC) crawling towards us whispering “Stand Down. The magic words meant that we changed from a night routine to a day routine.
Morning routine. The following morning after stand to and stand down, the normal camp routine began. Half of the Company would light our stoves with our hexamine tablets and on top of the stove went our metal mugs filled with water for shaving, coffee and any breakfast that we wanted according to our hard rations. The other half of the company would be either on sentry, going to an “O” Group, or cleaning their weapons while their mates cooked a meal for them.
The cleaning of weapons was something that we all took seriously whether it was in the jungle or back in the barracks. It had been drilled into us so many times that we could strip our weapons down to their basic components and reassemble them just as quickly. We would all compete with one another to see which section was the best. This was not done just for sheer enjoyment but out of sheer professionalism and necessity to understand everything we needed to know about our weapons.
Sharing the burden. To give us the edge in any ensuring battles, we would put a match under the sear of the SLR so that it could appear fire as an automatic weapon. This was not allowed but it happened on many occasions to give the impression of a greater firepower than we really had) When we had finished cleaning our weapons we took over the cooking and our mates cleaned their own weapons. This enabled the section to be always prepared in the event of a contact. (We all cleaned our own weapons unless there was a good reason for not doing so) There were many things that we were not allowed to do, but being soldiers that we were, we always improvised and made the best of any situation we found ourselves in.
Military cuisine. Man I loved those hard rations and years later I missed them when the scientists and nutritionists felt that fresh food was a must. Some of the soldiers used to hoard their hexamine tablets and would use them to relax themselves when the time and inclination allowed them to go flying (hallucinating hexamine tablets and inhaling the fumes). Me, I just wanted them to cook my meals and boil my water and was not interested in flying high, (hallucinating).
As to our meal for the morning, breakfast was easy today, some biscuits with jam, a ham and egg tin, went well with our coffee, milk in a tube and sugar. If you were adventurous you could mix your breakfast bars with milk, jam, sugar and biscuits to fill your stomach. At other times, I can remember finding fruit and local vegetable that we put to good use within our section and thus supplemented our food resources. In any case the culinary recipes were made up as you thought fit for your stomach.
Breakfast was always a great time as you had time to eat, drink a cup of coffee, shave, brush your teeth (sometimes with coffee if you were in a rush) wash your body with a small towel or your curtain of sweat cloth and have a good long smoke. (If you didn’t smoke when you joined the Army, you ended up smoking anyway for most us.) With regards to washing our bodies we would make sure that we sponged or cleaned under our armpits, chests, fingers, necks, chest, face, hair, back, legs before we even started on our legs and feet.
Once all of our cleaning was completed, what did we do, we of course made ourselves “pretty” and put on our creams long before it became fashionable amongst the men of today who apply their creams and other smelly stuff to make them feel better. In our case our “pretty creams” were of a different sort. We put camouflage over our faces with the creams that we had been provided with. Failing the lack of cream we used shoe polish, failing that we used the remnants of any charcoal that may lay around and if all else failed we used a mixture of the soil, vegetation and water to paint our faces.
The trick was to blend in with the vegetation and the to ensure that the smell of our bodies was no different to that of the vegetation. If you wore shaving cream you could be smelled by some metres away and sometimes the smell your after shave could smelt some distance from you. We knew from experience that the smell of hexamine tablets burning, under the stove, food smells, and cigarette smell could be smelt and sometimes the odour off your body was identifiable as that being alien to its surroundings.
The rain. We had been suitably trained to meet any scenario under any condition and to prepare our bodies for immediate action. Trouble was that the tactical situation did not always give us the opportunity to look after our bodies as we should have. Small matters like airing our boots, putting powder on our feet, changing socks, underwear, washing between our legs.
Looking after the jungle sores through the various scratches received from the dense foliage and sliver razor like grass was not always possible. The heavy downpours and showers of rain certainly did not help our situation. One could say with some confidence that the rain could always be used as a barometer throughout the day. It would rain about morning during stand to, it would rain at about 9.00 am, it would rain at 12.00 pm, it would rain at 5.00 pm and if we were unfortunate which we always were with the weather, it would rain at night.
All this rain only made us more resourceful and eager to overcome any discomfort that we may have encountered. We were able to adjust our jungle rain jackets to catch water, be used as a makeshift hootchie for a quick nap in any break during our patrols. We learned and made up new techniques as we went along to suit the occasion. The rain just did not stop from the day we began the exercise until the day we boarded the C130.
For those (I must confess, like me) who did not open their boots and air their legs, change their socks and TRY and dry their boots were doomed. Those who did not make the changes would more than often find that the soles of their feet had the pattern of the green socks printed into them and the feet were water logged, very soft and pink looking. However after a few hours of fresh air and massaging of the toes and feet they were back to being new again with fresh socks. (I never carried underwear as I felt that it was far too much extra weight and anyway I need room for my tobacco.) So much for the breakfast routine.
WW2 Diggers. How the Aussie diggers during WW2 before us competed with the jungle on less rations, less equipment and less training than us was beyond me and I for one will always hold them in admiration and awe. They were tough buggers and Australia and its people have long underestimated their sacrifices and personal battles of a war that was close on the doorsteps of Australia. I don’t believe that enough has been written about their heroism, struggles of life and death in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
Once our morning routine had been completed we awaited our orders for the day. it came via the normal chain of command, that is from the Commanding Officer, Lt Col Hodkinson who held court with his Operations Officer (“Warrie” George Mansford) Company Commanders (Barry French and others), RSM WO1 Jack Currie and his CSMs (Wayne Aitkenhead, Barry Tolley and others), the support teams, Artillery, Engineers, Doctor and others as required.
From this group the Company Commanders and CSMs would give their own set of orders to the Company Platoon Commanders and Platoon SSgt’s and Medic if necessary plus any other additional members. The Platoon Commanders and Sergeants would then give their orders to their Section Commanders and 2IC in that order. Even down to our level as privates we had our pecking order as to who was the most experienced, knowledgeable, influential, stable and could be relied upon when the time arose. We were as one working towards the same objectives with the same zeal and exhilaration as on the first day of Treble Change.
It was then the responsibility of the Section commander to brief his section. The Section Commanders would also bring with them any news, letters, special directions and check that everyone understood the orders. The 2IC (Section Second in Command) was always considered the most hardest working member of the section as it was his responsibility to back up the Section Commander and provide him with support where possible. There were weapon checks, Paludrine checks, health checks, feet checks, water bottle checks, rations, batteries, ammunition, new silent signals if any, order of march, new responsibilities, and sometimes checks of another kind that ensured that the diggers knew what was exactly expected of them.
Visit by the Chief of General Staff. I forget the blokes name and all that I can remember is that he and about four other high ranking members of the Australian Army visited us deep in the jungles. It was pelting down with rain, our boots (GPs) were soaked and our feet were like lumps of raw meat. While we had stopped for this unscheduled and surprise visit, we used the time effectively to clean and oil our weapons as this was first thing we always did at any stop. Then food if at all possible followed by our hygiene matters.
At the time of the visit of the top brass, I had taken off my socks which were drenched and they smelled to high heaven. My toes appeared rotten and almost felt they were going to fall off. The stench must have been great to the top brass but we could not tell the difference. The top brass came to our little hootchie and asked how we felt. Our response was that “we were just great and enjoying the holiday in the sun”. (Mind you we had not seen the sun for weeks as the overhead canopy of trees and leaves had blotted out the sun’s rays.
He asked us if we needed anything and we all said we need more smokes and a beer. laughed and went onto the next mob next to us. We found out later through the jungle grapevine that he (top brass) was very pleased with the battalions training, morale and attitude and said that we were equal to that of the WW2 diggers who had fought in the same area. Whether his comments were a true account of his feelings after seeing us is a matter of conjecture, but in any case it made us all feel special. (Well I felt special anyway.)
Jungle Training. The training I received in 1 RAR was not wasted as what they taught me remains with me even today. Apart from training, tactics and otherwise, I learnt above all mateship, being there for each other, support for one another even under the most difficult of conditions (You didn’t have to like the bloke to help him), understanding and sharing of personal experiences, when to laugh, to cry, to drink, get drunk, party together and when to forget when it was required. Even now after all these years, I sit quietly in a corner with my latter day friends and allow my mind to drift towards those carefree days, wondering where they all are, while still observing my current environment around me.
As I grew older, wiser and gained rank, I retained the ethos, the culture and the positive characteristics of what I learned as a soldier in 1 RAR and many times to the detriment of myself. I always put first my duty to The Regiment above rank and anything else. This state of being caused me immense heartache, soul searching and the will power to keep going on when everything around me was falling apart.
Jungle Helicopter pad. I have digressed sufficiently from my tribute to those who trained to return to the main thrust of our little walk around Papua New Guinea. On this fine day, which it was, and it had not yet started to rain, orders came down from the top that a party from our Company was designated to cut down and level a small hill top so that helicopters could land and drop our rations, ammunition, water, mail take back any injured soldier and any other equipment. Well we only had our machetes to use as the battalion pioneers were nowhere near us at that stage. It just so happened that the CSM was able to obtain the support of the local natives in helping to cut down the hill top. Our group went to the hill top and began to level the ground alongside the natives.
Cigarettes, native tobacco and smoking in the jungle.During this fraternising period, we began to speak with the natives, share our cigarettes, and generally talk bullshit. During this period, two interesting things happened. The first one was when we exchanged cigarettes. I gave the local native one of my cigarettes and he gave me his which was a string of untreated tobacco leaf wrapped in newspaper of some sorts. It was a long cheroot and I had observed the natives smoking and it looked all right to me.
I looked at my opposite number and watched him inhale the whole cigarette in one. I just could not believe how he could do it as I thought that he must have lungs as big as a base drum (He apparently did walking around the highlands). OK, I said to myself; let’s see what your local weed does. I took up the cigarette that was prepared for me and inhaled just once like I would with a normal cigarette.
My face went yellow, green blue for a few seconds, my stomach began to swell and burst as if it was hit with a sledge hammer, my eyes began to water and I tried to gasp for air. Anyone reading this now would not believe unless they have tried the tobacco used by the highland natives. Until this day, I will admit that I don’t know how they smoke the bloody stuff other than to say that they are a much tougher bunch than I first thought.
During this episode my opposite number and his mates went into high pitched laughter, holding their stomachs and pointing at me at my expense. Naturally, I took it with good graces and did what any bloke would do, I started to wretch and vomit because the tobacco was so overpowering. Innovation and new methods.
At another jungle setting we found that most of us in the Section had run out of smokes. As much as we shared our smokes amongst us, we felt we had miscalculated our supply of tobacco. In my case I always prepared for the future, so I kept the majority of my (smoked) butts in a small pouch with my tobacco for a “rainy day”.
On this occasion having gone down to my last smoke (cigarette), I began to search for alternative means of relieving my dependency on cigarettes and tobacco. Like a good digger, I searched around our perimeter and found some leaves that “looked like tobacco”, similar to the ones given to us by the local natives. I crushed these leaves and added them to my little pouch of butts, then carefully stripping the butts of their tobacco contents, mixed them with the local leaves.
A the end of it all, I found that I had managed to create two big pouches of tobacco, enough to see me through the end of our “holiday” in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. All that I can say is that I must have been high for the remainder of our “holiday: because whatever was in those leaves I found had a remarkable effect on my stamina. In fact my mixture of butts and crushed leaves served the whole section quite well. I wish I knew what those leaves were so that I could market them.
Jungle tactics. We had been travelling for some time through the dense jungle, watching our arcs of fire, listening and focussing to our front, sides and to our rear while looking through the foliage, not at it for movement, unusual signs, flashes and/or activity. Apart from the jungle orchestra of birds, animals and the occasional wind sliding above the canopy of trees, we moved silently through the undergrowth using all of the jungle techniques that we had been taught by those magnificent men (our infantry instructors) who had experienced the gallery of a two way range.
Hand signals were the norm and as a section, we had created our own forms of signals that we used extensively throughout all of our jungle training. We even had signals for making fun of our superiors if they had pissed us off, signals for wanted to stop for a shit and relieve ourselves if and when we could, we had signals for about everything you could think of.
I guess it would be amusing to see a group of men talking to each other with hand signals and the messages being transferred from one man to another all along the line and only would be broken by two words depending on the occasion, they were: “contact front, contact rear, contact right, contact left”. If and when those words were heard the section automatically knew what to do and how to react in unison.
Suffice to say, training was at such a high level that it affected many in different ways for those who came back from Vietnam after being in the jungle for long periods. It was not unusual to hear stories of men dropping to the pavement, flat on their stomachs, whenever they heard the backfire of a car going by, yelling out “contact front”. This may have been embarrassing and unusual back then and the symptoms were not understood. Veterans of today have access to specialist who deal with such matters and such as Post Stress Traumatic Syndrome.
Amusing as it may sound, it was no laughing matter. I wonder whether our young veterans who are returning back from Iraq, Solomon Islands, East Timor, Afghanistan and other overseas areas will also have to contend with on their return. Only they will know and understand what they have gone through. I do hope that our Australian Government on both sides of the political fence truly understand that our veterans will need support and help that was not initially given to our Vietnam veterans.
Digression from ones tale is always a problem for me and I wonder whether that is how my mind operates. Still some digression is good for the soul while others can rightly accuse me of gibbering shit, talking too much, thinking on the past too often and not sticking to the subject.
In the jungle amidst the crawling insects, buzz of the myriad of flies, bugs and millions of mosquitoes, we more than often would be buzzed or attacked from above by low flying birds or by others squawking above our heads and making a nuisance of our habitat and home. Despite my focus on my environment, I would allow myself the luxury to think outlandish thoughts such as the screeching bird was in its death throes of being caught by a huge and imaginary python, devouring it as it slowly crushed it in its embrace. I shivered as I moved through the undergrowth, and pushing aside the hanging leaves and low lying foliage imagining if it was me being crushed and what would I do if I was in such a predicament.
We moved on, cautious as ever, using all of our senses, watching, listening, feeling the vibes to catch any changes in the environment, smelling anything unusual (we had lost our sense of own body odours as they had mingled with the jungle around us) and were constantly on a high state of alert and ready for action, heart pumping, rivulets of sweat pouring throughout our body, finger on the trigger, feeling the weight of approximately 40 kilos of webbing, pack and water, muscles straining and keeping alert for long periods of time.
It’s a difficult feeling to describe, and one can only say that it’s like watching a drama on the television set unfold in front of your eyes, knowing that some was about to happen and you were ready for it. The worst part is when it’s all over and you begin to relax that you realise just how adrenalin plays a big part in being constantly on the alert and stress slowly builds up with a person’s body without them noticing it.
In our case, high up in the highlands of Papua New Guinea we took on board all the challenges that we were confronted with and overcome all of them with the professionalism worthy of the ancient Spartans fighting at Thermopylae.
From the air we may have appeared like the numerous ants of every imaginable size that inhabited the jungle. Like snakes we slithered through the jungle undergrowth, mud, rain and heat towards our objective. I felt like an ant who crawling up the side of the tree with his heavy burden on his back ferrying food for a rainy day. All this under a canopy of annoying screeches of animals, bugs, birds, the heat and the sweat.
The mud, sludge and the pain. Mind you it rained in our part of the jungle at least three to four times a day and yet it was always welcomed to cool down our bodies from the heat that continually rose like a mist from the jungle floor. It only became a problem when making our way up a jungle tack that had became muddy from the man in front of us and by those who followed in our footsteps.
The mud during our climbs from one mountain to the next did not make it easy. I can still remember the agony of putting one foot forward a couple of inches, with my SLR (self loading rifle) placed down as a crutch to move one step and so forth until we reached the top. This method of climbing taxed everyone’s endurance and for once in my life, can thank my CO, officers and NCO’s (Non Commissioned Officers), for all the training I had received. This truly brought me to the very edge of my knees and yet I like many others in our Section, Platoon, Company and Battalion never gave up.
One could say that if it were possible to watch our movements, you would marvel at our progress and how silent we were in a jungle inhabited by natures animals. We were in fact one and with the jungle and at home. I would often say to myself that we, after all were Australians, the best trained jungle fighters in the world and I as a Spartan by birth was equal to the task. I could see the parallels and similarities between the ancient Greek Spartans and the modern Australian soldiers and I guess that gave me the additional courage to take risks in life.
The Coconut tree. At this point in time, it would have been at least the second week that we had been moving towards our target of Mt Sattleberg where we were to engage the “enemy” in a final assault, with a numerous small contacts here and there to keep us on our toes. We had sufficient rations to sustain us, none of it, of course was fresh. We were running short of water and for a short time, we were of the belief that we had lost our bearings.
Mind you, how would I know any way, as I was not responsible for navigating. Compared to the veterans from Malaya and Vietnam, I was still green behind the gills despite all my previous training. The Company stopped for a half an hour to regroup and allow the stragglers to reach us on the side of the mountain range. Whilst we were waiting some of us managed to roll a couple of smokes and share them out amongst each other, while others shared whatever water we had left.
As for me, I was bloody exhausted and with my pack and webbing still on me I collapsed on my back looking up at the canopy above, breathing in deeply and wiping the sweat from my face. Man I could do with a beer I said to myself and restrained myself from sipping on my meagre water supply left in one of my six water bottles. I did not feel like drinking the water as it still had the taste of the purification tablets when it reached down to the bottle of the water bottle.
When I looked up I saw half a dozen coconuts swaying in the breeze along with the trunks that were supporting it amongst the fronds that were growing out of it. “You little beauty” I said to myself, “fresh drink and food to go to boot”. Without asking for approval, I was soon scampering up the coconut tree just like a native. Mind you I was young fit, lithe and wiry at the time and I had been climbing trees since I was a youngster in our local park (Gladstone Park) in Windsor, Melbourne. This coconut tree could not be any different or so I thought.
Three quarters of the way up, I stopped for a breather and to look at the view. I was mindful of my mates below who were egging me to go higher and I was not about to tell them that “bloody shit it was high”. I held my breath and slowly dragged myself to the top attempting to clutch the nearest palm fronds. Each time I tried to grab one, the bloody coconut tree swayed. (or was it my mates below making it sway) In either case, I knew that I had better do something or could lose my grip and tumble down some thirty feet to the undergrowth below.
After my third attempt, I managed to grab one of the palms and haul myself to some degree of safety, or so I thought. Out of nowhere, I was immediately attacked by a horde of green ants, millions of them swarmed all over my body, inside my clothes, over my face, into my ears, eyes, mouth and right down to my GP boots (General Purpose). They bit me all over and yet, despite the pain, I put it aside for a few moments, enough to cut at least five to six coconuts down to my mates below.
I was beginning to feel a panic building up within me and knew that I had to extricate myself from my current predicament very quickly otherwise I would become a casualty of my own making. Letting go of the palm fronds, I placed my arms around the coconut tree and just slid down the trunk as fast as possible, tearing my hands and in the inside of my legs in doing so.
On reaching the bottom, I used whatever water I had left and cleaned the blood off my hands, brushing the ants off my body with a little help from my mates. The ants were everywhere and even a few weeks later I still found remnants of them stuck in my boots and in the eye sockets where my boot laced were. One could well ask was it all worth it? Too right it was. My mates in the Section and I had fresh coconut and coconut milk to sustain for a short while. Did I try to climb another coconut tree, “not on your “willy nilly”, I had learnt my lesson and one coconut tree experience was enough for me. Leave it to the natives, I said to myself as I lay down elated in one sense but bruised in another.
The axe. The other incident was when one of the natives who was very friendly towards us, loaned me a one of his axes to cut the vegetation. I thanked him for and hacked away at the vegetation until I had sweat going. During one of my frenzied attacks at the vegetation I broke the axe in two. I was perplexed as what to do. I went to the native and said that I was sorry that I had broken his axe. He looked at me and lost his cool, going back to his own group raising his voice, pointing at me and throwing his arms up in the air. Shit I said to myself I only broke his bloody axe, he can fix it with another axe handle. I offered to fix it using my poor command of the Pigeon English that I had picked up. Nope, it didn’t appear to appease him.
The CSM came over and brought along with him one of the PIR soldiers attached to the company to act as a guide. The guide explained that the local native wanted compensation for his axe and that if he didn’t get compensation he was going to get me. He didn’t explain what that meant, but looking at him in his native dress and the looks on his face, I had a rough idea that he didn’t want to take to the local pub for a beer. As it all turned out, we managed to collect money in coins as they didn’t apparently like the paper notes and gave the native his compensation.
Personally on my part I thought that we were robbed and that the native was a wily old bastard. We ended completing the levelling of the hill top just in time to get blow away by the rotors of the helicopter landing on our flat but uneven hilltop. It was strange to see modern aircraft so high up in the mountains.
Enemy camp. There was one night that we rested in a harbour position close to the enemy camp. The Company Commander, Major Barry French (bless his soul) wanted to make sure that the enemy were harassed and kept constantly on the alert during the night. The whisper went around for volunteers who would go out in the middle of the night towards the enemy (PIR) and harass them with firing any shots or getting close to them. I volunteered like a bloody idiot because I like what I was doing and it was still more of an adventure than anything else.
Battle preparedness. Out of the company a number of us were selected and we made our way towards the enemy camp crawling on our stomachs all the way. I realise that after all these years that it may be hard to fathom that we did this, but it was done and with stealth I may add. I must admit the battalion had trained us very well in all matters of jungle fighting and as Old “Warrie” George Mansford advised me many years later, that our Battalion was the fittest and well trained battle ready, to confront any conflict in the world.
After all the Battalion had spent the past three and half years overseas, with twelve months in Vietnam followed by another two and half years in Malaya and Singapore (During the latter half of the Malayan Confrontation with communist guerrillas) We were fortunate to have been trained to such a high pitch by these experienced jungle soldiers. I for one was not about to let my instructors and trainers down and always strived to achieve their high standards. Suffice to say, and with hindsight, it was probably better that we never had to face the horrors of war like those faced by our predecessors in WW2 and subsequent wars. Yes we were a tough bunch of soldiers from 1 RAR.
Harassing the “enemy” These days when you hear of harassment, we automatically think about it being related to women and the elderly but never about its battle aspects. In our case whilst in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, harassment meant denying the enemy the chance to rest and depriving them of sleep. We would take every opportunity to make their (enemy) lives hell on earth if need be and ensure that they made little mistakes which we would exploit to our advantage.
In one episode during the late hours of night when it’s natural to fall to sleep, we (my mate and I in this case) with the prior approval of our Company Commander, slowly crawled toward the enemy. It took hours and most of the night. As we came within twenty (20) metres of their position we began to yell and make noises that would upset them as we were told that the PIR soldiers were a superstitious lot and would become even more agitated than normal if harassed. All of a sudden flares went up, shooting all over the place, rocks were thrown both ways.
The earthquake. Yells and screams in pigeon English and generally there was mayhem. It is just as well that they did not have live rounds otherwise, we would not have dared to venture so close and be so daring. My mate and I in our little group crawled back from the enemy lines to hide behind a huge trunk of a tree that had fallen down some years ago as it was covered in moss and a mesh of jungle vegetation. We started to laugh at the commotion we caused and began to make plans to make our way back in the direction that we had come by the light of the moon. Just before we began to move off the ground beneath us began to heave and ho, the tree trunk began to move and I absolutely shit myself.
The first thing that came into my mind was scenes from the movie “The Lost World”. There was a scene where one of the main members of the cast stepped on what seemed to be a log only to find that he had stepped on a giant reptile. The same thought went through my mind at that very moment. I touched my mate and said fuck this lets get out of here right now. Up we jumped; we didn’t give a shit about any tactical withdrawal, no plans to remain concealed, no thoughts of doing what was correct under such circumstances and no thought about being captured by the enemy.
We just wanted to get out of there and ran as fast as our legs could carry us. We hit branches, vines, trees, foliage leaves, we tripped over rocks hidden amongst the foliage and over hidden roots as we made our way in the direction of the Company night harbour. We just didn’t give a shit if the sentries fired upon us nor did we care of were had forgotten the pass word for that night. All we wanted was to be in the safety of our own group.
After some hair raising running we somehow we were able to reach the safety of our own lines and lay down reaching our guts out and trying to force oxygen back into our lungs. The Section Commander put his hand on our backs and asked of whether we were all right. All we could do was to gasp and say that we were OK. After getting back our breaths we gave the section a brief and then told him about our encounter with the tree trunk and the earth moving beneath our bodies.
He began to laugh under his breath until he could not hold himself from crying. We didn’t get the joke and we didn’t think that it was funny that he was laughing at our expense. After all the events happened to us not him. After a short while when he had stopped laughing he explained to us that what we had experienced was an earthquake and that is common around these regions. So much for my “The Lost World” and reptile like scenario. “I was not as tough as I thought I was”.
A quiet place. During a lull in one of the many contacts with the Fictitious Enemy) (Pacific Island Regiment) we went into our defensive positions. Our section found a small grassy area and lay down looking out. A few moments of surveying our area we crawled to more defensive position only to fall down a hole. It turned out that this hole was an old Japanese fighting pit left over from WW2.
The reason that we surmised that it was Japanese was the helmet we found was of Japanese origin and there was a human skull, some metal equipment of unknown origin and other debris. We did not find this as surprising as we found out later that this particular area had been the scene of some very heavy fighting. I was overcome by the stillness and the serene beauty of it all. It was as if time stood still, there was no noise at all, not even a rustle of the trees. Stillness may have been due to the area being in a depression in the ground and the noises being above, but I preferred that the Creator above wanted a resting place suitable for those that had fought and fallen some thirty years before.
The night before we had all been briefed. The patrols had come in and provided valuable information on the enemy camp, their dispositions, strengths, morale and fighting strength amongst other vital pieces of information. Orders had come from the top on the plan of action and how it was to be executed. During one of the numerous patrols prior to the attack I remember walking through the jungle watching our arcs of fire and peering through the foliage and not at it, to seek out the enemy before they saw us.
In our Section we very fortunate that our forward scout was Randy (Randle) Green. Randy was a National Serviceman, a Roo shooter from Charleville, Queensland. Randy was an excellent boxer and we were told that he had represented Queensland in boxing. Randy and I had already come to blows at another place and time prior to New Guinea. Randy was an excellent shot, a keen observer of the bush, and had a vast store of knowledge regarding the character of the jungle and seemed to anticipate action before it even happened.
He had a keen eye for spotting out the unusual and it was a real treat on my part to have had the opportunity to learn from him as the second backup scout when I was given the opportunity. He taught me many things to watch out for, how to make less noise, to be ever watchful, never taking anything for granted and to be on guard at all times. One morning as we were going through the jungle, looking at our arcs of fire, Randy gave the thumbs down and it was instantly passed on down to the rest of the section. The signal for sunray was given and Lt Youll came down to speak with Randy. Randy had been uneasy and was unable to shake the feeling that something was up.
He was normally pretty good at picking up the unusual. However this morning his intuitive powers of observation could not provide him with the answers. Still Randy had moved forward with as much stealth that even a leopard or tier would have been proud of. Randy had asked for Lt Youll to move forward because he had observed a white Officer in a PIR (Pacific Island Regiment) uniform, sitting quietly in the glade having a smoke. The glade was really a small patch of open area that allowed the sunlight to stream though as if it was spot light. It was still early in the morning, the mist was rising, the dampness from the shower of rain we normally received began to dry up and be replaced by our sweat.
The ambush. During dusk we had moved silently into the ambush area, just as we had practiced it in a friendly area that was a well away from the ambush site. The ambush site had been selected by our forward scouts and patrols who observed that this particular track was being used by the enemy at night. Preparation of the ambush site had many aspects of only a few will be touched upon here.
Listening posts had put out, along both ends of the track which by the way was only about one metre wide, overgrown with jungle on both sides and one side falling hundreds of feet below into a gully strewn with boulders, rattan, undergrowth, dead leaves and God knows what animals lived there. The Killing zone had been well prepared, with claymores and trip wires connected to trip flares, communications lines stretched from one end to the other and connected to the ambush Commander.
Some went into the rear of the ambush site and rested while others watched the track and only being refreshed during the periods of change after an agreed period of time. The killing group was ready, additional machine guns in place, orders were passed around to take advantage of any opportunity that would enhance the ambush and bring about a success outcome. We were ready and laid down waiting for any sign of movement and noise as the light began to fade quickly due to the canopy above.
Waiting, waiting, waiting and more waiting. If there was something more that I hated than false crests on patrol, it was the waiting. I chuckled to myself on how many times I had heard hurry and wait. I believe that at least three hours had gone by and it was pitch black, so black was it that you could hardly see two metres in front of you. The night jungle orchestra came alive as if on cue and we strained our ears to hear anything coming along the track.
Fire flies danced merrily around our faces, bugs go into our clothing, blood mosquitoes galore and I could swear that a snake was wriggling into my greens (trousers). I knew from experience that this was not so and that it was my body sweat using gravity to find the quickest route down my body to reach the lowest end of my skin, which in my case it would have been my genitals and as such my concerns for a snake in my pants.
All of a sudden there was a roar, a flash, machine guns blazing, more flashes, claymore being simulated going off by or “Directing Staff” (DS), shouts orders, more shouts, rifles cackling and cracking, take your pick as it was all the same to me during this sudden uproar. Machine guns kept blazing and parachute flares soared above the killing zone seeking out the darkness and illuminating the whole ambush site. More shouts and orders, and all the while the machine guns are firing until we hear the order to “cease firing”.
We stopped and quickly went through our automatic unload and reloaded routine as we had practiced on many previous occasions. Touching the rifles barrels and/or even worse still touching the machine gun barrels was a real “no no” after firing. They were red hot and guaranteed to burn even the toughest of skins. We grunted with some degree of satisfaction that we in the killing group must have killed at least 30 of the buggers (enemy) and that it was a successful ambush.
The ambush Commander along with the Directive Staff (DS) went out to the killing zone to inspect it and view the supposedly dead enemy. Chatting amongst themselves what a great ambush it had been and how the coordination went according to the ambush plan. Were, they and the remainder of the ambush patrol in for a surprise? What they found was not the enemy but a gigantic pig – boar that was caught amongst the thickets, squealing at its tormentors and trying to get away.
How it did not come across us in the killing area is beyond me and I guess that the thick undergrowth and foliage reacted as a natural barrier that stopped the pig – boar from moving through us like a runaway steam engine. I cannot remember when we stopped laughing over this incident, but it broke the stress and strain that we were under for the past six hours. Mind you, we were all placed under strict orders not to repeat the results of the ambush other than to say it was a successful ambush with one enemy dead along with ‘captured” documents.
Well what happened to the pig – boar is anyone’s guess. We don’t know if the ambush commander left it where he found it, not wishing to be associated with such an unruly and unwilling enemy who would not talk under any circumstances or whether he released it from its misery and assisted it to escape unhurt. To this day I am not sure whether the ambush Commander can be charged with mutiny, treason, aiding the enemy or all three combined.
PIR soldiers. The Platoon Commander moved forward and went forward to speak to the white Officer. When this happened the whisper went out to stand down and to relax remain non tactical until the two Officers chatted about who knows what Officers talk about when they see each other. We found out later that the white officer was apparently a Pommie (Englishman) bloke serving with the PIR and was a Platoon Commander. When the order to stand down had been given, the PIR Officer stood up and gave a command in pigeon English to a group to come out of hiding.
On that command by the white Officer, I almost shit my pants. I turned to my right and stood facing a PIR black infantry soldier about three feet from my face. He was grinning from ear to ear, holding his weapon in an aggressive stance as if ready to pounce on an unsuspecting foe. Although he was black he still had camouflage cream on his face to take away the shine off it. He had blended in so well with the surrounding vegetation, not moving a muscle as movement would have given him away. (So much for me forgetting to look through the foliage and not at it)
To this day, I will always remember the immediate fright that I had on my face when confronted with the superb camouflage and silent movement techniques of the PIR soldier to remain hidden and undetected. In all of this time the PIR had been trailing us without our knowledge and this black PIR soldier had been watching me all this time. Yes my respect levels for the PIR soldier went up and for the rest of our time in Papua New Guinea that respect remained with me.
This was my first encounter with the PIR soldier in the field and it would remain with me for the rest of Army service. What I learnt on this day was to respect and not denigrate the enemy but to respect their strengths and try to find their weaknesses and to exploit them to our advantage. I am pleased in more ways than one to say that I am glad that I never had to put into practice or placed in a situation where I would have to apply the lessons I learnt that day (in real live situations) except in training.
Mount Sattleberg. Mt Sattleberg had always been our target from the beginning and each Company was tasked of emulating the exploits of the Battalions WW2. It was those Battalions who had climbed, fought and died amongst its many gullies, razor ridges, steep and elongated trails that snaked their way towards the top during WW2. As we began our final trek towards our objective, we were met at each crest with a hail of fire that was to supposed represent enemy fortifications similar to that of WW2. Each enemy outpost had to be taken and all efforts made to reach the top before a particular time.
I have stated this emotion and feeling elsewhere in the article that: I really and honestly do not know how our diggers during WW2 achieved such extraordinary results in bringing the demise of a formidable and determined enemy to its knees and forcing them to withdraw, in an encounter that has gone down in the annals of history. The blood bath that followed, stories of heroism, fighting in the dark and the shadows of the undergrowth, with bayonets, no ammunition and many times just hand to hand fighting is beyond me. It’s no wonder that the diggers were told prior to returning back to Australia, to put aside their hatreds of their enemy, to forget the horrors of war and try to get back to normal civilian life. So much for the debriefing and psycho analysis of a Nation of diggers who had witnessed almost hell itself.
In our case, we did what we had to do in coming close to and fighting our enemy in the best traditions of the Australian soldier. I know that I was no hero and even cowered under the roots of a gigantic tree whenever I heard the sounds of the simulated cannons going off near us. The smoke from smoke grenades, Machine guns (M60) and rifles chattering away at each other all attempting to silence the other, simulated hand grenades, shouts of orders being shouted above the din, confusion all added to the realism and made one feel that the environment feel so real that we just did not want to be there.
However it’s amazing what military discipline can do when we got the word to move through the jungle and make our way towards our intended target. We leap frogged using fire and movement in a jungle full of undergrowth is no easy matter and yet we still were able to achieve what we did. Luckily this was training exercise designed to test us under difficult environments and conditions and as near as our operational designers could simulate.
At one stage my mate and I who were at this stage “rear end charlies” were separated from the section in the dense undergrowth and attempted to climb the red earth mound that strutted out from the trail (rear of the enemy) and hit them from behind. In hindsight, it was a foolish thing to do, as one forgot that to be separated during close combat placed one’s self at risk of being shot at by one’s own mates. Luckily it was an artificial man made warlike environment that if the environment was real, I doubt very much that many of us would have survived.
In the end, when Company after Company had been thrown at the fortifications simulating our predecessors efforts, finally being rewarded with reaching the top and spreading out thinly hundreds of yards past the objective. We lay down looking towards our front at the fleeing “enemy” in readiness for any counter attack which luckily did not eventuate. We were bloody exhausted and our lungs were searing from the heat and lack of breath during to the final assault on the run and through the enemy camp onto the other side. I wondered why the bloody hell I had enlisted as a volunteer (regular) in the first place and did not remain a bloody electrician wiring homes, cranes, lifts and other electrical stuff “sparkies” are known to do. I guess it was the promise of adventure and the pure thrill of it. I am chuckling to myself writing this stuff some 42 years later.
After patrols were sent out to scout our front, piquet’s were posted, listening posts put out, claymores installed, trip wires put up and section machine guns manned was it was a time to regather our section, regroup, report any casualties, check ammunition, water supply, and a myriad of other logistic and administrative tasks that a Lance Corporal had to carry out. The Lance Corporal was one of the most busiest blokes in the section and we looked towards him to ensure that our needs were met in accordance with Section protocols and what was expected.
One with the jungle. We had been in the jungle for approximately three to four weeks and had yet to see the sun. We had climbed mountains, hills, waded rivers, trekked along razor back ridges, rained on every day, trudged through the mud, climbed coconut trees in search of food and drink. We had experienced earthquakes, native food, animals, bugs and insects of every kind, and nearly run out of smokes which in our case was catastrophic to say the least.
One of the many things we learnt during our jungle training was its environment and what roles we had to play in it. We learnt to adapt to the wilds of the jungle, roll in the mud and undergrowth, to smell like it, to listen to it, look like it, blend with it and above all be a part of it and never ever be afraid of it. We had also learnt to live off the jungle if need be, using survival skills that we had been taught in the Battalion.
We wiped our arses with leaves which made our butts itch for weeks, (because paper was useful for cigarettes), leeches on our bodies, tropical sores, raw feet from the constant rain, laughed, pissed on each other, played pranks, argued, fought amongst ourselves. But, when it came to do the job we had on hand we were forever disciplined and motivated as a team. We felt were unstoppable and bullet proof.
Some of the lurid and sick jokes we made about our mothers and sisters and the stupid things we would say to each other to keep our spirits up may by today’s standards appear sickening and immature, but when put into context, it was just us letting off steam during difficult periods of stress and hardship. I guess that is where a soldier to determine if he can handle the hardships or not. Being a soldier is not for everyone.
I guess at the end of the day, it’s no wonder the “Duty First” motto is still strong within us after so many years have passed. Like all good “holidays” they must come to a close and we were no different as we made our way towards the sea and the beach. Coming down from Mount Finschhafen and approaching our last hill before the sea the canopy above opened up down came a shower of suns rays.
Thalassa – The sea. As I came to the top of the hill and with the sun’s rays on my back, I looked ahead and saw the sea below it. At that very moment I said to myself “thalassa” (ancient Greek for sea) and knew that I was repeating what the 10,000 soldiers under Xenophon of ancient times had spoken when they had reached the Black sea after fighting the Persians for months in hostile territory. Suffice to say we slowly made our way back to Finschhafen in an orderly but non tactical fashion.
Section Commanders took their Sections close to the black sands of the beach and ordered their men to clean weapons and carry out their normally duties regarding hygiene and other essential non tactical tasks. Weapons were cleaned, and inspected over ten times, oiled and placed in a secure area, hygiene matters taken care of, personal issues considered and the Section prepared for a non tactical period of rest and recuperation.
Those lucky enough not to be detailed for other tasks were able to use the time to change clothing, polish boots, repair our webbing, write letters, have a brew (coffee or tea) and generally sit in the shade. We would not be idle long because we would be volunteered for some tasks that had to be done and in a hurry. The Battalion was preparing for the move back and equipment, materials, ammunition, whiskey bottles and souvenirs needed to be catered for. The whisky was being taken back and sold to the diggers at below Australian cost so that the DPRI (I never did get to understand what that meant, but it had something to do with Battalion funds).
Maintenance and repair.The rain still came down as usual and the work still had to be done, no matter what the weather was like. When most of the routine tasks had been completed the majority of our Company except for the piquet’s that had been placed to monitor and guard over our weapons made our way to our allocated areas. The Company Quarter Master Sergeant CQMS and his store man assisted by many of us, brought along the steel trunks which normally would hold our personal equipment and clothing, but in this case they were full of grog brought over from Australia. A welcome sight indeed!
Moo Moo. (BBQ – Papuan New Guinea style). Orders had come down from Battalion Headquarters that each Company had been invited to attend a Moo Moo in our honour. We didn’t (I didn’t have a clue) what a Moo Moo was.
Most of us thought that a Moo Moo was going to be some local tribal dance followed by some serious drinking. Nope that was not the case. Each Company had been allocated a particular area and was being catered for by a Section of the Pacific Island Regiment and local natives. What a “moo moo” is to a Papuan New Guinea native is what a “Hungee” is to a Kiwi and a “BBQ” is to an Aussie, but in the end they all the same but prepared differently and with different culinary results.
I had the pleasure of a participating in a Kiwi style Hungi some years later on my return from Malaya and Singapore. Those of whom were present watched the local natives with the assistance of the Pacific Island Regiment soldiers prepare the Moo Moo. The locals dug a huge trench in the ground, carefully placing the displaced dirt to one side. Then they laid down some large banana fronds all around the pit (trench). This was followed by some large clean river stones and placed upon the banana fronds. On top of the river stones more palm fronds were added which overlapped the pit.
The sacrifice. Like the ancient warriors of the past, a sacrifice was being offered which in this case was in our honour and not to some foreign and pagan gods of old. To honour our presence the natives of the area brought along a huge monster of a pig (swine) and had its throat slit. The poor old pig obviously had little to say about this despite pleas of clemency heard only by his squeals and thrashing about. The natives however were past masters at dispatching these animals and soon blood was all over us and into the pit.
They split open the pig and cut it into a number of pieces. The pieces of pig were laid down onto the banana fronds and the myriad of flies instantly congregated on top of the carcass, the blood and onto us. This did not bother the natives but it certainly left a sickening feeling in my stomach. Anyway, we were not about to embarrass our hosts and watched the whole scene with somewhat air of detachment while the local natives searched our faces for any signs of discomfort. They did not get the satisfaction and we did not give them anything to laugh about. They way they conducted the Moo Moo that is the procedure and ceremony would make you wonder whether they were sacrificing or giving an offering to Baal an ancient Phoenician God whose lust for human blood sacrifices was well know according biblical and ancient sources.
The sacrificial alter pit. After the flies had their gorge and fill of the blood and carcasses the natives covered the carcasses with more banana fronds and then began to cover to whole animal and pit with the dirt that they careful put to one side. On top of this mound they placed tree trunks, logs, brushwood and any other material that would create a bon fire. Some petrol was added to give the fire an incentive and bang goes your uncle the plumes of smoke rose high in the air and the odour of the burning petrol sting our eyes and made breathing somewhat difficult for a few moments.
The black smoke also trying to find a place to breath and thus looked upwards into the sky for some breathing room. We stepped back from the intensity of the fire as it was so strong that had we gone any closer we would have been consumed. Believe you me, I may believe in God but my name was not Daniel as in the bible and therefore also kept my distance.
After a few hours of this intense heat, the fire was allowed to die down and the natives began to clear the charcoal and debris from the mound. By this time we were pissed anyway even if it was only a few beers. As the natives dug into the mound and began to reveal the top layer of banana fronds, a sweet smell of burning flesh rose to meet our nostrils and we began to salivate and drool at the prospect of eating the meat. The first layer of banana fronds came off followed the second and there in front of us was revealed the flesh, cooked and ready to eat (or so we thought later).
The natives began to cut the meat up in pieces and began to distribute it to the soldiers. The meat was bloody delicious even thought there was no salt cooked with t. The CQMS had kindly provided us with the appropriate condiments and we ate the meat to our delight. Well done CQMS was all I could think at that time. With our belles full of meat and some grog we made lay down in front of the mound while others had lit their own camp fire and carried on their conversations. It was not unusual for groups to break off into their own Platoon or Section areas and have their own fires burning. (I for one would find out later what the after effects of the Moo Moo would have on my health). Now that matters had been settled, the Company could settle back and enjoy the remains of the day. Think of home, loved ones and normally any sweetheart we may have left behind.
For others, they might be going back to their hootchie and sleeping it off or having a quiet smoke with the mates under the stars if it was not raining and/or beneath their hootchies. It was not unusual to find a cluster of blokes under one hootchie sharing their experiences and basically talking shit. After a while each member would slowly drift back to their own hootchies they shared with their mate and fall into a deep slumber only to be woken for their turn on piquet.
Jackmen – (bludgers). Its important to note that we as soldiers would not embrace or acknowledge a new member until they had proven themselves in the Jungle. As such all new members of our group were monitored to see whether they could handle the hardships we faced as a group and section. We as individuals did not have to like each other as long as we did our job and shared the hardships along with everyone else. It was tough life but that’s what it took to be an Aussie soldier in our time. We didn’t like, acknowledge or even bothered with any “Jackmen” that we would find amongst ourselves that did come up to our standards expected. Few if any would return back to the barracks with broken noses, bruised egos and tarnished reputations. Those who did, soon found themselves posted outside the Corps of Infantry as we had no time for “Jackmen or the bludger” (See below for jungle justice)
Jungle justice. Traditionally whenever extensive training or an exercise was over, we would gather in our respective Sections, Platoons and Companies at night around a huge log fire and just drink piss (alcohol for the uninitiated), be merry and all the while elated that we had once again pulled through and maintained the ANZAC spirit, tell tall tales, laugh joke and just . During this period, justice would be meted out to the JACKMEN, others ostracised because they had not pulled their weight and others accepted because they had proven that could hack it when the going was tough.
I am pleased to say that although, by this time I had already proven myself back in Australia on numerous of other challenging exercises and training, Treble Change was to mean a lot to me as it would never get any harder than the challenges we faced and overcome during our time in Papua New Guinea. This is both a tribute and testament to those who trained and prepared us for war.
Like the eye of the hurricane and/or cyclone, it is quiet until you hit the edges, so it was with the aftermath of an exercise until the drinking started. After a few beers (We were only allowed two cans per person, but you always “borrow” your mates two cans if he did not drink them), we allowed our normal self control; and disciplined nature to relax.
This was the time when old scores were settled. Jack men received what they deserved, disagreement between mates would be settled, punch-up’s just for the sake it would occur to let off the steam and so forth. This form of jungle justice was illegal but it had its place in the Battalion and was effective in sorting out the men from the boys. It was also not unusual for some soldiers to be reported or transferred to other corps if they did not make the grade.
Those in command would turn a blind eye or pretend that it never happened. It was easier on everyone that way. But I must add that the Army (that is the diggers and those of the command structure) would not tolerate any form of bastardisation or ill treatment of any soldier. Anyone found guilty of such a crime was immediately punished or removed from the Battalion. Thieving from your mates was another crime that was never forgiven. (I have come across thieves before and they were dealt appropriately and were posted out of the Battalion)
Older diggers and their advice. I remember asking one of the older diggers who had served in Malaya, Vietnam and Singapore (which delete) what was the hardest exercise and jungle that he had ever to face. His response was that despite all of his experience, he had found the Papuan New Guinea experience the most taxing gruel lining exercise he had ever undertaken and that he went on to say that he had to find the hidden reserves of energy to see him through. He felt that the climbing of the mountains, the heat, the flies, the rain, the humidity and the endless walking through the jungle was enough to tax any fit soldier.
I said to him, then that the diggers in World War 2 did not have the luxury that we had in preparing, nor the equipment and yet they stopped a formidable foe (Japanese) from moving down south to Port Moresby and onto Australia. He agreed with me and said that they have must have been tough bastards to achieve what they did. After a few beers under my belt, my thoughts went back to my studies on World war 2 and the fighting spirit of the Australian soldier in Papua New Guinea. Whatever other thoughts were at the time, I will admit that they were good ones and a feeling of achievement and satisfaction crossed my mind.
However, the best explanation regarding Treble Change came from the mastermind himself, “Warrie” George Mansford:
|How well I remember Treble Change and the preparations and training for it. I would add with much unit pride that 1RAR was outstanding on that exercise which was very demanding, carrying heavy packs from early morning to late afternoon day after day for some two weeks in rugged and difficult terrain in adverse weather conditions. Our casualties were virtually nil and I can only recall one medical evacuation by chopper. (A digger with eye damage from a stick at night).|
The Trek back to Base.There was one story that was brought to my attention recently involving two friends of mine. Jock (Eddie) Bryson and Andy Pring. Both of these two fine gentlemen were in the back of the track on their way so I believe back to Finschhafen. for the end of the Exercise and the beginning of the Battalion parade and mixing with the locals. According to Jock, he said something to Andy and for whatever was said Andy took a dislike to and jumped off the truck and challenged Jock for a punch up. Jock was about to jump down when he was pulled back in by another bloke next to him.
This incident happened in front of the guard house and in front of the Military Police. It didn’t take Einstein to work out what would happen next. They both were taken into custody and thrown into the cells to cool off. Later on they were both let out and allowed to return to A Coy location. Everyone thought that it was over between these two, but no, they wanted another dance at the couples waltz and had another punch up on the parade ground in front of everyone.
In Finschhafen, we remained for a few days, recuperating, drinking piss, walking around the town, visiting the century where Australians of WW2 were buried, the country club where old diggers could be found and generally trying to no make nuisances of ourselves with the local people. Whilst in Finschhafen, we managed to scrub up and get the opportunity to put on our Sunday best uniforms, polish our gear, shine our boots, cleans our weapons and prepare for a march past the local RSL (country club) towards the cemetery.
The Parade. I remember well the hustle and bustle, the Platoon “mothers” (Sergeants’) with their underlings the Corporals running around making sure that everything was ready for the parade. Each Sergeant knowing full well that he was under the watchful eye of their CSM (Company Sergeant Major) who in their turn were under the watchful eye of all the “mother of all mothers” (Matriarch”) of the Battalion, the RSM, Jack Currie. Woe to any CSM that did not have his Company ready. Jack was also the Battalions disciplinarian, father confessor and executioner of all evil doers. Jack Currie our RSM may sound like a demon out of hell, but mind you, we would go to hell and back with him if he asked us to.
We all lined up in our Companies and marched through the town of Lae with bands playing loudly looked upon by the locals and visitors alike with admiration and awe. We felt proud and with our heads held high turned our heads to the right as we past the dais of official guests and our Commanding Officer, Lt Col Blue Hodgkinson. The parade like all parades affects me emotionally and it’s a parade that only those who have served and worn the uniform of Australia can understand. No matter what the uniform, no matter what the job you had the emotion was still the same as you represent your Nation and its people, paying a tribute to those who had gone before us.
The RSL (Country Club). I have told the following story elsewhere in other articles, but for the sake of posterity and for the record, it’s well worth reiterating here. It’s a yarn well worth repeating as it explains in a brief moment the respect and memories of soldiers from a bygone era, a respect that we as Australians must never take for granted. It was night and it could have been right after the parade.
Of this I am not sure and those who have a more vivid memory of that time can always remind me later. In any case I found myself in the local RSL which in fact was the locals country club with all its pre-W2 trappings and material trappings on the walls and behind the bar. I began drinking with a couple of mates and a bloke whom I did not know. We were in conversation with a couple of WW2 diggers who had served during the Papuan New Guinea campaign and had experienced the Kokoda track amongst many other battles. We were explaining to them the challenges we had faced and wanted to hear their point of view and how did they overcome the challenges that they had faced and what were the conditions were like in his time.
We were in conversation with a couple of WW2 diggers who had served during the Papuan New Guinea campaign and had experienced the Kokoda Track amongst many other battles. We were explaining to them the challenges we had faced and wanted to hear their point of view and how they overcame the challenges that they had faced and what the conditions were like in their time.
These two old diggers were probably in their late fifties or at the least early sixties but they both looked fit and well built. They had returned to Papua New Guinea after the WW2, working on government projects and other local jobs that were available. Both old diggers went on to speak mainly about the hardships they had faced, the conditions in which they had to operate, the mates they had lost, the jungle itself, the self sacrifice of the native population, the dedication, determination and tenacity of the enemy (Japanese) they had faced, but most of all they enlightened us about the dreadful conditions and lack of suitable tropical clothing, poor equipment, lack of suitable medical treatment near the battle areas and going hungry due to the difficulty of resupply.
We as young soldiers listened in awe to their tales of a bygone era and I for one, held them in high esteem. They did however say that they was pleased to see that the ANZAC spirit lived on in us and that we were emulating their generation in a way that maintained and enhanced the mystery and legend that surrounded the ANZACS of that bygone era. The old diggers even told us that in their time they also had doubts about themselves whether they could measure up to their forebears who had served in the Great War (WW1) and that they strived like we did not to let them down.
During the discussion the bloke who was no part of our group started to “mouth off” and said some silly things like, WW2 diggers were not as good as the modern digger and that what the WW2 digger the new generation could do just as well. There was suddenly an ominous silence amongst us as this bloke kept on with his gibberish, stating statistics and other material that he had access to or had read about. Slowly sipping on my beer, I said nothing as my instincts told me that this bloke whoever he was did not know what he was he was talking about and in any case was disrespecting those who had gone before us. Still drinking, I looked at the old diggers and I could see that they had trouble controlling themselves, they were livid and I thought that we’re in trouble!
Like all good tales, some good comes out of them, for suddenly the lights went out and the ode was solemnly read out. It was complete darkness and we were shut off from the outside world except for the incessant chirping and clicking of crickets, wails and song of the birds still wafting through the air outside the walls of the RSL (country club). While the ode was being read, I heard and saw in the dark, a scuffle, of boots being used, and punches being thrown at something looked like a sack on the floor. I knew from my days as a street fighter what was occurring before my very eyes and I said and did nothing and anyway he was not in our Unit or in our Corps.
After all, this was another form of jungle justice against an individual who should have known better. The lights went back on, I turned to my beer, took up the glass and looked around me. The two old diggers were still there, my mates were still there, and the two old diggers were looking at us intently, slowly sipping on their beer as if nothing happened.
We all smiled at each other, and I could swear that I saw a momentary glint of satisfaction on one of the old diggers eyes. It was but a brief moment, but it was there. One only had to look down and see that the sack as I thought I recognised in the dark was really the form of the bloke who was mouthing off. He gathered himself together, picked up his hat and sauntered outside and one would hope he returned back to his Unit wherever that was . He certainly did not wear the blue lanyard and was not of the Infantry Corps that’s for sure. (if he had been one of our own, we would have jumped and in and stopped him from making a fool of himself).
Tall, but true story. Would I lie to you, the reader?
Authors note. I have only skimmed the surface on our “holiday” to Papua New Guinea and maybe someday others can find the opportunity to provide a more polished account of all of our activities which is theirs to embellish the yarns within this article. I have attempted to paint a scenario as realistic as possible through my eyes and as previously stated above, it’s my tribute to my mates. Images from personal collection and Google images.
The Voice from the Pavement – Peter Adamis is a (not for profit) Journalist/Commentator. He is a retired Australian military serviceman and an Industry organisational & Occupational (OHS) & Training Consultant whose interests are within the parameters of domestic and international political spectrum. He is an avid blogger and contributes to domestic and international community news media outlets as well as to local and Ethnic News. He holds a Bachelor of Adult Learning & Development (Monash), Grad Dip Occupational Health & Safety, (Monash), Dip. Training & Assessment, Dip Public Administration, and Dip Frontline Management. Contact via Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or via Mobile: 0409965538
POST SCRIPT. Andy Pring left 1 RAR and went to SAS and remained until he joined the West Australian Police Force where he is still serving. In 2008 I had spoken to Andy Pring and his wife Olive in WA who laughed about our adventures. John Arena completed his obligatory three years and left the Army and is currently working with a major company in Melbourne.
John Arena who lives in Melbourne with his family, advised me in October 2008 to remind Andy Pring that had it not been for him running with him to prepare Andy for SAS, that Andy would never have got into SAS. Macka, Maloney, Bolitho and Bondi were National Service men who left as soon as their service was no longer required.
Eddie (Jock) Bryson lives in the Western suburbs of Melbourne with his wife Pam. Over dinner, with Eddie, he gave me his version of the events with his altercation with Andy Pring. Randy Green left the Army and became a Roo Shooter in Queensland, involved in a major car accident which almost cost him his life and now living in Toowoomba. Ron Lovelock changed corps to RAACC and retired after 20 years to become a Tip staff at the Melbourne Magistrates Court and since retired. Captain John McCausland left the Army and went onto a successful career in the Education System as a Business Manager and Bursar.
COMMENT: Dave Evans. May 12, 2009. I was in 1RAR from the time of the setting up of Aust Component until Feb 1976 when i finished my 6 years. i was also on Treble Change and was at that time in the Mortar Platoon as a radio operator and attached to Bn HQ for the tramp up into the hills from Finschhafen. The mortar platoon flew out of the helipad on the side of the mountain, gave a great view of the sea and those small islands. I particularly remember the flight down the coast with all the sunk ships, destroyed tanks and air craft from WWII. Many of your comments brought back memories of that exciting time. After PNG I moved to the Intelligence Section for 2 years and finished in 3 Platoon A Coy. I can remember the beer, brown and green bottle and what it did to your insides, the food, we swapped tea and sugar and a 10 cent coin with the locals for fresh coconuts and cucumbers. And the sweet mashed potatoes. Thank you again for bring back some good memories. Dave Evans 1RAR 1971-76; 2/1 & 1RNZIR 1977-82
BATTLE OF SATTELBERG
The history of the Battle of Sattelberg is shown below for those who are military enthusiasts. According to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Sattelberg
Sergeant Tom Derrick
Raising the Australian flag over Sattelberg mission
17–25 November 1943
JapanCommanders and leaders
2/13th Field Company
26th Field Artillery Regiment
3rd Company, 20th Engineer Regiment
20th Divisional Signals
Casualties and losses
49 men killed, 118 wounded
The Battle of Sattelberg took place between 17 and 25 November 1943, during the Huon Peninsula campaign of the Second World War. Involving forces from Australia, the United States and Japan, the fighting centred on the Sattelberg mission station which was situated atop a hill about 900 metres (3,000 ft) above sea level, approximately 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) inland from Finschhafen, New Guinea. Following the Australian landing at Scarlet Beach, a large force of Japanese had retreated inland towards Sattelberg. Holding the high ground, the Japanese subsequently threatened the Australian lines of communication as they proceeded to advance south towards Finschhafen, and as a result, in order to neutralise this threat, the Australian 26th Brigade was tasked with capturing the mission. Over the course of 10 days they advanced west from Jivevaneng up the southern approaches to the mission, reducing the Japanese position with armour, artillery and air support, before the Japanese finally abandoned Sattelberg and withdrew north to Wareo, having suffered heavy casualties and running low on supplies.
Following the fall of Lae in September 1943, the Australians continued their advance north along the New Guinea coast towards theHuon Peninsula, with the aim of securing Finschhafen, where large scale air and naval facilities could be constructed for operations that were planned to be launched in New Britain. On 22 September 1943, less than a week after Lae had been captured, Brigadier Victor Windeyer‘s Australian 20th Brigade was detached from the 9th Division by Major General George Wootten, the divisional commander, and landed at Scarlet Beach (north of Siki Cove), to the east of Katika and about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) to the north of Finschhafen.
A location map of New Guinea. Finschhafen
is shown on the north-east coast, opposite New Britain.
The landing was only lightly opposed and following this, the Australians began to advance south towards Katika where Japanese resistance was stronger, but was nevertheless overcome by the early afternoon. As the 20th Brigade advanced south towards their objective at Finschhafen, intelligence indicated that the Japanese were moving to the high ground to the west at Sattelberg, which was situated about 900 metres (3,000 ft) above sea level.Captured documents showed that three infantry battalions were being concentrated at an oldLutheran mission station that had been established at Sattelberg in the 19th century during the German colonial administration of the area. Concerned for the security of his lines of communication due to the presence of Japanese on his flank, the Australian brigade commander adopted more cautious tactics, while reinforcements were called for. Heavy fighting ensued but nevertheless Finschhafen fell to the Australians on 2 October.
Following this, the 9th Division was tasked with advancing towards Sio, further around the coast on the northern side of the Huon Peninsula. The Japanese in the area around Finschhafen were growing in strength, however, as a large number of the 4,000 to 5,000 men that had garrisoned Finschhafen had managed to escape inland, while the rest of the 20th Division, under the command of Lieutenant General Shigeru Katagiri, was in the process of being moved from Bogadjim, south ofMadang, to provide reinforcements. Wootten considered that the threat posed by this force meant that Sattelberg would have to be captured before the 9th Division could undertake its advance towards Sio.
Advance on Finschhafen. During the advance on Finschhafen, a company from the 2/17th Battalion, which had been tasked with securing the beachhead and the flank, had been sent to Sattelberg but had been unable to occupy it due to the strength of the Japanese force already there. As captured orders had revealed Japanese plans to breakthrough to the coast, it was consequently decided to place the company into a blocking position east of Sattelberg along the coast road around Jivevaneng. In this position, from 25 September onwards they were subjected to a number of attacks as they attempted to deflect attacks by the Japanese 3rd Battalion, 80th Infantry Regiment, which were aimed at breaking through to Heldsbach Plantation, directly south of the beachhead at Siki Cove. On 30 September the 2/17th were replaced by a company from the 2/43rd Battalion, and over the next couple of days, a whole battalion of Japanese surrounded the position and attacked it eight times. Four attempts by the Australians to relieve the company failed, before an attack on Kumawa by the 2/17th Battalion on 5 October cut the Japanese supply lines and provoked a strong counterattack, which subsequently drew pressure off the beleaguered company, and enabled it to be relieved on 7 October. As the threat of Japanese counterattack grew, the 24th Brigade landed at Langemak Bay on 10 October to reinforce the 20th Brigade. The following day, Wootten was able to establish his divisional headquarters at Finschhafen, and preparations began for the Australians to attack the Japanese force around Sattelberg.
Wrecked Japanese barges at Scarlet Beach
following a failed Japanese attack, 17 October 1943
During this time, the Japanese were also planning an offensive. On 10 October, the Japanese 20th Division’s commander, Katagiri, arrived at Sattelberg having trekked overland from Sio. After taking over operational control of the forces there, on 12 October he issued orders for an attack to commence on 16 October. This attack was conceptualised as consisting of two infantry regiments, the 79th and 80th, supported by three artillery batteries from the 26th Field Artillery Regiment, a company from the 20th Engineer Regiment and the divisional signals unit. As a part of this attack, the 80th Infantry Regiment would continue to make attacks on the Australian forces around Jivevaneng, while the 79th Infantry Regiment would drive towards Katika and attempt to break through to the coast to attack the beachhead at Scarlet Beach, where a seaborne assault would be made concurrently by 70 men from the Sugino Craft Raiding Unit.
The Australians, however, had learned about Katagiri’s plans and as a result, the 9th Division commander, Wootten, decided to put off his own offensive plans while the Japanese attack was dealt with. This came in the early hours of 17 October, and over the course of the following week heavy fighting ensued around Katika and Jivevaneng. Forewarned, the Australians were able to check these attacks with assistance from American support units, and by the time that the Japanese called off their offensive on 25 October, the Japanese 20th Division had suffered 352 men killed and 564 wounded,while the Australians had suffered 228 casualties. It was during the early stages of this fighting that an American soldier, Private Nathan Van Noy, from the 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, performed the deeds that resulted in him being posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
A map depicting Japanese operations
around the Sattelberg area between October to December 1943
With the 79th Infantry Regiment having lost around 50% of its strength and with ammunition and food running low (by the end of the month, they had been reduced to quarter rations), the Japanese divisional commander, Katagiri, made the decision to call off the attack in order to pull back from Jivevaneng and Katika and regroup on the higher ground further west around the mission. This order was passed on the morning of 24 October, and by the morning of 27 October the Japanese 20th Division’s subunits had managed to regroup to the east of Sattelberg. Following this, Katagiri received orders from the 18th Army commander, General Hatazō Adachi, who delivered them personally at Sattelberg, for the 20th Division to prepare to hold the mission and to engage in offensive operations in the immediate vicinity.
As a part of this plan, Katagiri decided that he would use the 80th Infantry Regiment to defend Sattelberg, and while the 79th would concentrate in theNongora area with the intention of launching a counter-attack upon the Australian forces advancing from Katika, near the Song River on 25 November. Around Sattelberg, the 80th Infantry Regiment was deployed in five key locations. Three companies from the regiment’s 2nd Battalion established a position at the 2,200 feature (known as “Saheki-yama” to the Japanese), and another three companies from the 3rd Battalion were positioned astride the Sattelberg road at “Miyake-dai”, or the 2,600 feature.
Another two companies were positioned to the south of the main position at “Yamada-yama”, while the remainder of the regiment was entrenched around the mission itself—the “Kanshi-yama”—where they had established a formidable “fortress”, and around the Japanese commander’s “keep” which was positioned on the 3200 feature, known as the “Katagiri-yama”. The strength of these forces was estimated by the Australian commander, Wootten, to be around 2,800 men in the immediate vicinity of Sattelberg mission, with a further 2,400 around Nongora and another 1,000 to the north at Gusika. These estimates were subsequently confirmed after the fighting.
In terms of air support, the Japanese defenders were supported by the 4th Air Army, with fighter and bomber aircraft from the 6th and 7th Air Divisionsflying close support missions against Australian artillery positions, carrying out bombing operations around the Finschhafen area and dropping supplies by air around Sattelberg and Wareo throughout October.
Allied preparations. Prior to the attack on Sattelberg, the Australians needed reinforcements. Although initially the Allied higher commanders were reluctant to provide these, on 25 October, the Militia 4th Brigade was detached from the 5th Division and placed under the operational control of the 9th Division. These troops were subsequently used in a defensive role around the beachhead to free up the rest of the 9th Division for the subsequent offensive operations.
The 2/43rd Battalion, from the 24th Brigade, was also brought up on 30 September, ahead of the rest of the brigade which arrived later in October. Nevertheless, by the end of September, the Allies perceived the situation around Finschhafen to be “reasonably secure”, and American engineer and construction units, including the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion, started to arrive in October. By December they had begun work constructing an airfield and other base facilities around Dreger Harbour. Following this, Wootten began finalising his plans for assaulting Sattelberg.
Because the 20th Brigade had borne the brunt of the fighting following the landing in September, the 26th Brigade, which had landed at Langemak Bay on the night of 20 October under Brigadier David Whitehead, was chosen to spearhead the attack. At the same time, the 20th and 24th Brigades, operating in the central and northern sectors, would continue patrolling operations in order to keep the Japanese off balance.
Australians from the 2/24th Battalion
prepare for a patrol, 15 November 1943
Support for the 26th Brigade’s attack would be provided by divisional assets, including Matilda tanks from ‘C’ Squadron, 1st Tank Battalion, whose presence the Australians took great lengths to keep secret, artillery from the 2/12th Field Regiment and later (after it was found that the 25-pdrscould not be transported up the Sattelberg Road), the 2nd Mountain Battery, and support-by-fire from the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion.
The 2/13th Field Company supplied engineer detachments to each battalion, while air assets were provided by the United States 5th Air Force and No. 4 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, which was an Army co-operation squadron that was equipped with Boomerangs and Wirraways, and provided aerial observation in support of artillery operations. Vengeance dive bombers from No. 24 Squadron, RAAF also provided support, while Japanese supply lines were also disrupted by Allied aircraft and PT boats.
Supplies for the operation were landed by American landing craft from the 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment and brought forward using vehicles or carried by local porters. They were then “dumped” around Jivevaneng and Kumawa, where they could be distributed to individual battalions.However, the heavy rain that had fallen at the end of October hampered the build up of stores and consequently delayed Australian preparations for the attack. As a result, their plans were not finalised until 15 November. At this time, Whitehead began issuing his orders.
The concept of operations called for the capture of the 2200 feature—so called by the Australians because that was its height in feet—first, before a subsequent westward advance to the mission. The 2/48th Battalion would advance west from Jivevaneng along the Sattelberg road supported by tanks from the 1st Tank Battalion, while the 2/24th Battalion would advance north-west across Siki Creek and capture the 2200 feature. The 2/23rd Battalion, which would hand over its defensive duties to the 2/4th Commando Squadron, would start further south from Kumawa, protecting the left flank, and after paralleling the Sattelberg road, they would marry up with the 2/48th at a position called “Steeple Tree Hill”, or the 2600 feature, by the Australians (“Miyake-dai” to the Japanese), where it was planned to halt for resupply and re-appreciation before undertaking the final attack. It was decided that tanks, which would provide direct fire support for use against the Japanese bunker systems that were believed to be around Sattelberg, would only be employed along the Sattelberg road, as considerable engineer support was required to move the Matildas into position in the closed terrain.
Initial Australian attack. On 17 November, fighting for the main position around Sattelberg commenced. The previous night, in order to prepare for the attack on the 2200 feature, the 2/48th Battalion captured Green Ridge, a small but albeit important feature, that dominated the Sattelberg road. The capture of the ridge secured a start line forward of Jivevaneng for Whitehead’s 26th Brigade to launch the first stage of their attack upon Sattelberg. The following day, the 2/48th Battalion handed over responsibility for the defence of the ridge to a company from the 2/23rd Battalion, and the attack was commenced, amidst heavy supporting artillery and machine-gun fire. In response, the Japanese artillery from Sattelberg fired a limited barrage onto the Australians on Green Ridge.
Matilda tanks from the Australian 1st Tank Battalion
move up towards the fighting, 17 November 1943
The terrain upon which the Australians advanced hampered their movement considerably. Consisting mainly of steep “razor-back” ridges and thick jungle which restricted the tactics that Whitehead could employ, the 26th Brigade employed infiltration tactics mainly, advancing on “narrow fronts” using columns of troops consisting of an infantry company forward, followed by a troop of tanks with an engineer section in support. Initially the Japanese were surprised by the presence of the Matilda tanks as their noise had been masked by the artillery and rocket barrage, and a number of positions were abandoned by Japanese soldiers who were put to flight upon seeing the tanks, however, as the day progressed the opposition stiffened and the defenders recovered after the initial shock.
Progress subsequently became very slow, and as the 2/48th Battalion approached “Coconut Ridge” (designated Highland 5 by the Japanese) at around midday, one of the Matildas was disabled when it lost a track to an improvised explosive device which had been placed under the road by the defending Japanese. Isolated from their infantry support, a small team advanced from cover to attack a second tank which had come up to support the first, and taking the machine’s gunner by surprise, they proceeded to place an explosive charge in front of it. Although the resulting explosion did not knock the tank out of action, it trapped its crew inside for the rest of the day.
Firing upon the Australians with machine-guns, mortars and grenades, the Japanese defenders upon Coconut Ridge held up the Australian advance. Throughout the rest of the day, the 2/48th Battalion undertook a series of flanking attacks in which at least 80 Japanese were killed, however, by nightfall the Japanese still held the ridge, and the 2/48th Battalion withdrew to a nearby knoll to reorganise, having suffered six killed and 26 wounded.Elsewhere, the other two Australian battalions had also found the going slow: the 2/24th had dug in east of the 2200 feature, while the 2/23rd had only managed to advance about half the expected distance.
The Japanese abandoned Coconut Ridge that night, while in the morning the Australians brought up three replacement tanks. At around 7:00 am, an Australian patrol scouted the ridge and an hour later a platoon attack was put in, confirming that the defenders had gone. As battlefield clearance operations got underway, the tanks that had been disabled the day before were also subsequently repaired, bringing the total number of Matildas available to seven. In the early afternoon, the advance was resumed, however, the Australians only managed to progress a further 250 yards (230 m) before they were halted by stiff opposition from Japanese armed with 37 mm anti-tank guns.
A number of these pieces were destroyed and at least 40 Japanese were killed or wounded, however, Japanese snipers inflicted a number of casualties upon the Australians, and although none were fatal it prevented any further gains as the 2/48th spent most of the day hunting the snipers in the trees. Elsewhere, in front of the 2200 feature and on the southern flank, only limited progress was made by the Australians, who suffered a number of casualties from Japanese 75 mm mountain guns before they were silenced by a bombardment by the 2/12th Field Regiment. At dusk, the Australians dug in less than 30 yards (27 m) from the Japanese defence line and sporadic fighting continued throughout the night.
That night, Wootten decided to take stock of the slow progress along the southern and central routes. Based on captured documents, Australian intelligence reports placed the number of Japanese troops around the mission at about 2,000 men. These men were believed to be from the 80th Infantry Regiment, which the Australians felt was close to exhaustion, and was unlikely to be able to withstand any further pressure. As a result of this information, Wootten decided to change the concept of operations. Although the 2/24th Battalion’s attack on the 2200 feature had originally been intended to serve as a holding action, the lack of progress by the 2/48th and 2/23rd encouraged Wootten to order the 26th Brigade’s commander, Whitehead, to concentrate his efforts upon the 2200 feature, turning the drive on Sattelberg into a “double-pronged” attack, with the 2/24th also attempting to break through to Sattelberg.
Soldiers from the Australian 2/48th Battalion
prepare for an attack, 17 November 1943
The following day, 19 November, the Australians came up against a series of prepared defences which further slowed their progress. Throughout the night the Japanese had dug a number of anti-tank ditches, about 6 feet (1.8 m) wide and 4 feet (1.2 m) deep, which Australian engineers had to fill before the tanks could continue. Progress was made, however, and amidst hand-to-hand fighting troops from the 2/48th managed to seize part of the 2600 feature (Steeple Tree Hill), after engineers under the command of Lieutenant (later Captain) Augustus Spry, helped clear the way through the use of two fougasses that were fashioned out of 4-gallon drums filled with petrol, which were exploded in order to stun the Japanese and provide a smoke screen while the infantry attacked.
The Japanese subsequently launched a counter-attack as dusk fell, but this was repelled with heavy losses: the Australians had 20 men killed or wounded, while the Japanese left behind 46 killed, as well as a number of machine-guns and mortars, as they withdrew from the position. The 2/23rd Battalion to the south, up against the same defensive system that was holding up the 2/48th, was also held up further, while on the northern route, the 2/24th found the 2200 feature unoccupied, but was unable to proceed further after they came under heavy machine-gun and artillery fire.
The fourth day of the assault, 20 November, brought no forward movement for the Australians at the 2200 feature as the 80th Infantry Regiment’s 2nd Battalion fought tenaciously to prevent the 2/24th from moving forward. Nevertheless, it was a different story for the Australians on the main road as the 3rd Battalion, 80th Infantry Regiment was forced back towards “Point 7”.
At the start of the day, the Australian 2/48th Battalion had only been able to advance a further 250 yards (230 m) before their progress was held up by thick scrub which delayed their tank support, however, to the south, the 2/23rd Battalion was able to move up the southern slope of Steeple Tree Hill and over the course of the afternoon gradually forced the defenders back. The 2/48th made slow progress but by 6:35 pm they reported that they had reached the summit of the hill and as night fell, the two Australian battalions were separated by about 300 yards (270 m). Caught between two groups of Australians, during the course of the night the two Japanese companies that had been holding the position abandoned it, and fell back towards the main defensive position at Sattelberg.
Japanese counter-attack. For the Japanese, the supply situation around Sattelberg was worsening. Although some supplies were successfully air dropped, the defenders were reduced to consuming only a third of the standard daily ration and Katagiri’s supply of artillery shells was very low, despite adherence to a policy of strict fire discipline. Given the desperate supply situation, which was made all the worse when the 24th Brigade cut the track between Gusika and Wareo, the Japanese 18th Army commander, Adachi, gave Katagiri approval to withdraw from Sattelberg after 20 November.
Katagiri subsequently ordered Colonel Sadahiko Miyake, the commander of the 80th Infantry Regiment, to inflict as many casualties upon the Australians as possible and then begin a progressive withdrawal to Wareo. Nevertheless, Katagiri was determined to launch a counterattack further to the north-east. When formulating his defence plans in October, he had originally intended to launch an attack from Nongora with the 79th Infantry Regiment on 25 November, however, with the Australians advancing steadily towards the main position at Sattelberg, Katagiri decided to bring this forward in order to take some of the pressure off the troops defending the mission. After moving into position on 21 November, the attack was launched the following day.
Wootten had predicted this though, based upon documents that had been captured by the Australians, and Brigadier Selwyn Porter‘s 24th Brigade had thoroughly prepared for the onslaught.The 79th Infantry Regiment crossed the Song River and attacked Scarlet Beach from the west, while the 2nd Battalion, 238th Infantry Regiment, which had been detached from the 41st Divisionattacked south from Gusika.
Using tactics of infiltration, the Japanese skirted around the lead elements of the 24th Brigade in an attack that was intended to roll up the Australian rear elements, however, the Australians in turn attacked the flanks of the Japanese units, mauling their supply columns and inflicting heavy casualties upon them. This had the effect of squeezing the strength out of the Japanese counterattack and forcing them into undertaking piecemeal attacks which were dealt with by the Australians with relative ease. As a result, although the fighting around Scarlet Beach continued until 28 November when the Japanese units that had been involved were withdrawn towards Wareo, it did not have the urgency to affect the 26th Brigade’s advance on Sattelberg and was largely broken up by 23 November.
Australian attack resumed
A casualty from the 2/23rd Battalion
is evacuated from the fighting
After being forced off Steeple Tree Hill, Miyake, commanding the main Japanese defensive unit, the 80th Infantry Regiment, decided to concentrate his defence upon the saddle at “Point 10” which was positioned to the west of the 2200 feature, at Sattelberg itself and on the 3200 feature to the north-west. An intense five day Allied aerial bombardment, which had begun on 19 November, had destroyed the majority of the Japanese guns around Sattelberg and the ammunition and food situation had become critical, even despite the arrival of several tonnes of rice at Wareo the day before.
Throughout 21 November, there was a lull in the battle as the Australians paused for resupply. However, by the end of the day Whitehead had made good his supply situation and the advance resumed the following day. In an effort to find the best possible route, the Australians sent out small reconnaissance patrols and based on the intelligence they gained Whitehead produced a new set of orders prior to stepping off on 22 November. The 2/48th continued to advance along the road; the 2/23rd were to break track beyond Steeple Tree Hill at a location dubbed “Turn-Off Corner” and advance around behind the mission, to attack the 3200 feature, while the 2/24th Battalion were to advance west, attempting to bypass the main Japanese positions in front of the 2200 feature via an adjacent saddle to assist in the capture of Sattelberg, while also sending a detachment further north to secure Palanko.
Following the fall of Steeple Tree Hill, the Japanese were less inclined to engage the Australian forces, nevertheless the advance continued to be frustratingly slow for the Australian commanders. The terrain over which the final part of the advance was undertaken was particularly taxing on the troops involved. Many of the slopes up which they were required to advance had gradients of at least 45 degrees, which meant that even reasonably short distances took considerable time to traverse. To make matters worse, near the junction of the Siki Creek, a landslide that had resulted from the Allied bombing, coupled with a number of land mines that the Japanese had planted, blocked the main road to Sattelberg, meaning that the soldiers from the 2/48th would have to make the final attack on Sattelberg without armoured support. In an effort to counter this problem, Whitehead determined that the tanks would be re-allocated to the 2/23rd, in the hope that a new route would be opened up by the engineers.
Although he was being pressured by the divisional commander to increase the speed of the advance, Whitehead was said to be reasonably happy with the progress that was being made by the 2/48th along the central route, although he had misgivings about the performance of the 2/23rd on the left and the 2/24th on the right. To some extent, the failure of the 2/24th to take the 2200 feature could be attributed to the importance on which the Japanese commander, Katagiri, placed upon its defence, however, Whitehead believed that the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Gillespie, was procrastinating and was being overly cautious in his tactics.
Nevertheless, it was later realised that the terrain which the 2/24th faced was more formidable than first thought and that in order for the battalion to make progress, they too, like the 2/48th, would need tanks. Some attempt was made by the Australians to bring these up from the rear areas, but ultimately the fighting around Sattelberg came to an end before this could be effected. On the brigade’s left, south of the main route, the pace of the 2/23rd’s advance had also caused Whitehead some concern. Indeed, Whitehead went as far to express this to the 2/23rd’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Tucker, who pointed out that his lack of progress had been caused by the large number of tasks that the battalion had been assigned, namely the competing demands to secure the flank while attempting to move quickly through broken country in order to make its scheduled rendezvous with the 2/48th.
On 23 November, Allied bombers attacked the fortress at Sattelberg, as well as defensive positions around Kumawa. The 2/48th, nearing their objective, cautiously began to probe the outer positions, while to the north, three companies from the 2/24th managed to reach the saddle that lay below the north-eastern approach to the mission, although there was still uncertainty as to whether or not the Japanese had withdrawn from the 2200 feature. To the south-west, the 2/23rd began skirting north around the main positions at Sattelberg, making for the 3200 feature. After they had struck Turn-Off Corner, the infantry from the 2/23rd were accompanied by engineers from the 2/13th Field Company, who were tasked with laying down a makeshift road, over which the tanks that had been re-allocated to the 2/23rd would traverse.
Final assault By 24 November the Australians were within striking distance of the mission atop the summit. A reconnaissance patrol the previous evening had provided the Australian commander with the idea to send a company from the 2/48th over the Siki Creek and attack the mission from the south-east up a steep escarpment that was covered in thick kunai grass, which offered an attacking force a degree of concealment. A red roofed hut stood at the point where the attack was aimed. This was about 300 metres (330 yd) below the Lutheran church that formed the main part of the mission. Around the hut, the Japanese had constructed a number of reinforced defensive positions and although they had not been damaged by the numerous aerial attacks that had been launched by the Allies during the previous week, it was believed that because the approach was so difficult, that it might be lightly defended.
The position on top of Sattelberg following its capture
During the morning, while a diversionary attack was made by the 2/23rd Battalion, and patrols from the 2/24th to the north attempted to break through, a company from the 2/48th, under the command of Captain Deane Hill, attempted to reach the summit at Sattelberg. Two platoons launched attacks during the early afternoon, but were beaten back by the 20 Japanese defenders that were dug in around the spur. Late in the afternoon, a third platoon, 11 Platoon, under the command of Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Tom Derrick, attempted another attack from further to the right of the position but it too was checked by machine-gun fire and lobbed grenades. As the light began to fade, Derrick reported his lack of progress to his company commander and was subsequently ordered to withdraw, so that another attempt could be made in the morning. Derrick’s response to this order was to obfuscate, however, and instead of withdrawing, he subsequently led his platoon forward, attacking 10 Japanese positions with grenades as his men supported him with Bren and Owen submachine-gun fire.
After stopping about 100 yards (91 m) from the summit, Derrick’s platoon continued to hold their position through the night. Elsewhere, the 2/24th Battalion reported that they were just below the crest of the 2200 feature, the last Japanese defensive position to the north, and that they would capture it the following morning, before proceeding on to their secondary objective at Palanko. Believing that the key to taking Sattelberg lay in having the 2/24th in a position to support the 2/48th’s final attack, Whitehead pressured for the tanks to get up to the 2/24th as soon as possible.
The following morning, at first light, spurred on by the example provided by 11 Platoon, reinforcements from the 2/48th came up to complete the capture of Sattelberg. Just after dawn, a heavy artillery barrage was brought down on the summit by Australian artillery in preparation for the final attack. At 8:25 am patrols were sent out from ‘B’ Company, 2/48th Battalion, and they subsequently reported that the Japanese had abandoned the position sometime during the night. Indeed, it was later established that Miyake, who had been in command of the troops gathered around the mission and had been given permission to abandon Sattelberg if the situation became untenable, had decided to withdraw from the position soon after Derrick’s attack.
Fifty minutes later, the lead elements of the 2/48th Battalion entered the main mission complex, which was found to be quite badly damaged. Finally, at 10:00 am, upon the insistence of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Ainslie, the 2/48th Battalion’s commanding officer, Derrick, was given the honour of raising the Australian flag over the mission, signifying that the battle had come to an end. Shortly after this, the tanks finally reached the 2/24th Battalion, and the 2200 feature was also captured. Upon completion of the flag-raising ceremony, a company from the 2/48th moved on to the 3200 feature, which had also been abandoned, while further to the west, the 2/23rd, along with the 2/4th Commando Squadron cleared Mararuo and in the process found evidence that the Japanese had withdrawn towards Wareo.
Australian troops move behind Matilda tanks
during a dawn attack around Sattelberg, 27 November 1943
During the fighting around Sattelberg, the Australians lost 49 men killed and a further 118 wounded. In the circumstances, this was considered to be light. Japanese casualties are unknown, but are believed to have been “heavy”: a large number of Japanese bodies were found during the advance on Sattelberg, while another 59 were counted around the 2/24th’s position on the 2200 feature, and captured documents indicated that the defenders had been close to starvation. A large quantity of weapons were also captured, including two 75 mm artillery pieces, three 37 mm anti-tank guns and 18Type 92 Heavy Machine Guns (colloquially known as “Woodpeckers”), as well as a considerable number of mortars, light machine-guns and assorted small arms.
Following the capture of Sattelberg on 25 November, the 26th Brigade continued to advance to the north. Further fighting ensued as they pushed on over difficult terrain to Wareo, where they arrived on 8 December. After the Australians took Wareo, the Japanese began to fall back to Sio, where subsequent fighting took place throughout December 1943 and early 1944.
For his actions during the final assault on the mission, Derrick was awarded the Victoria Cross—his nation’s highest military decoration. Derrick was the fourth soldier from the 2/48th Battalion to receive the award; by the end of the hostilities the 2/48th had the distinction of being the most highly decorated Australian Army unit of the Second World War. The following Australian units received the battle honour of “Sattelberg” for their involvement in the battle: 1st Tank Battalion, 2/23rd Battalion, 2/24th Battalion, 2/48th Battalion and the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion.