No Names - No Pack Drill
Copyright 1989 by Ernest Bywater
Cook’s Tour - all Expenses Paid
We embarked on a little Dutch tramp called the ‘SS Bonteko, ‘ big enough to carry about 350 troops, but there were 700 of us packed on board, plus all of our equipment. The ship seemed to be more under the surface than on top. We slept on the ‘tween-deck with a sheet of three-ply for a bed, laid on the decking. Every fourth wave came in through the side-ports in heavy seas, so we learnt to count to three, then stand up to avoid a drenching. Eventually, Kanga and I found a hatch cover on deck with a loose canvas cover, and after dark we would crawl under there for the night. It was better than the open deck.
On our way north the ‘Bonteko’ had to call at Bowen to take on water, fuel, etc., and we were told we could go ashore for a few hours. However, most of us were broke, and were not due to be paid until we reached New Guinea, so the prospect of going ashore wasn’t very inviting. Benny W., who ran the Crown and Anchor games and two-up on deck, came to the rescue by offering the Major enough cash to pay those wanting to go ashore about 30/- (thirty shillings) each, with the paymaster to repay him from the next pay issue. There was a big cheer for Benny that day!
The crew of the ‘Bonteko’ were a mixture of Indians, Timorese and Malayans, with the Indians doing the cooking. They kept live fowls and goats wandering about below decks. There was no love lost between the Indians and the others. I was passing the galley one day and saw a cook mixing a big bowl of rice and other junk while sitting on the floor. He told me it was for the deck crew, and spat into it. I was glad we had our own cooks!
Welcome to Buna
We survived, much to our surprise, and found ourselves anchored off Buna. We were put ashore by landing barge and went about establishing camp just off the beach. Some of us took over a deserted native shelter and were just settling in when the air-raid warning sounded. There were some old Japanese fox-holes near the beach, full of dirt and spider webs, and on seeing them Billy P. said, “You wouldn’t catch me using one of them!” When the first bomb exploded, Billy outstripped everyone to dive into the nearest fox-hole. The bombs fell behind us in the swamp, doing no damage, and we stood near the beach watching the dogfight between the US Lightnings and the Jap Zeros over the bay.
The Zero was a first class fighter plane and could out manoeuvre a P38 in any situation, and we saw at first hand the method the Yanks had devised to handle them. One Lightning would engage a Zero, and force it into a dive. The Zero pilot knew he could pull out of the dive quicker than the P38, and come out on the Yank’s tail. However, a second P38 would be following in and pounce on the unwary Zero as it came up, raking it with gunfire. When the Zero’s numbers began to dwindle, they broke off and fled. The boys still aboard the ship had a moment of consternation when an object came hurtling down at them, but it proved to be only an empty belly tank.
There was a field bakery just near us, and the Sergeant invited us over that night to hear Tokyo Rose on his radio. Imagine our surprise when she came on air and said, “How did the 133 AGT enjoy their welcome to Milne Bay this afternoon? We’ll be back later, boys.” We wondered why we rated a mention, and how she knew about us so soon, but I thought the bombs were really intended for the wharf at Buna.
Kanga and I rigged up a length of camouflage netting between two of the hut poles, with two sticks as props in the centre, to form a double hammock. When the first bomb sounded I flipped out onto the floor, leaving Kanga without his counter-balance. He descended straight to the ground with a thump on his tail-bone that rattled his teeth. He wasn’t very amused.
Outside our native shelter were four logs set in a square. We were told they marked a mass grave of Japs, which was why it was infested with rats. One night Cook D. awoke with a blood-curdling yell. He said he had felt a hand over his face, but it proved to be a large rat which had got under his mosquito net and bit his toe.
Where we were camped you only had to dig a hole a foot deep and you encountered water, so we had no latrine pit. Instead a walkway was built out from the beach with a T-piece across the end, with three holes cut in it. Over the holes were placed three half forty-four gallon drums, also with holes in them. It was at first embarrassing to sit out over the ocean, in the open air, in full view of every passer-by along the road which ran along the beach, including jeeps carrying nurses on a sight-seeing trip.
One Sunday we had a rest day, and Kanga and I and a couple of others decided to spend it in going for a ‘look-see’ up the Kokoda track. It was some time since the infantry, of whom my brother was one, had fought their way through here, but some Provosts warned us to keep our eyes open for stray Japanese. We laughed and trudged on regardless. I was very surprised to come across the remains of a Chevy car with Jap markings on it. We eventually found what had been a Nip camp beside a stream, and the stench of death was still overpowering there. It was enough to make us decide we had seen enough, and we turned back. We had seen no Japs, and noises in the jungle were most likely animals. However, a day or two later, an almost naked Jap staggered up to our cook-shack looking for food, and collapsed. He weighed about 5 1/2 stone. We wondered how many more like him were out there in the jungle slowly starving, and I’m afraid not too many of us cared.
Milne Bay - 1943
The sun was a golden ball of fire,
The sky a copper sheen;
The turbulent sea of yesterday,
A placid, carpet green.
We sweltered in the Tropic heat,
And cursed, or prayed for night
To come, with its fragrant coolness,
Bringing us sweet respite.
Away across the sparkling bay,
Past scanty strips of sand,
The rugged ranges reared o’er all,
Their ramparts, proud and grand.
But, their wild, barbaric splendour,
‘Neath it’s tangled coat of green,
Withheld so many sad memories,
Of grim, bloody battle scenes.
They remember the sons of Australia,
Who had willingly shed their blood.
To wipe out the Japanese menace.
And they cherish the crossed bit of wood.
In neat rows, in secluded clearings,
Mute pleas to those who remain;
Asking that we do not fail them,
That their sacrifice be not in vain.
We were not long at Buna, when we were moved on to Lae. We established our camp on the old Malahang air strip, which was covered with five feet high kunai grass, a few miles inland from the wharf, which was a pontoon job reaching straight out from the beach. A road was being cut through to the air strip being built at Nadzab, per medium of American machinery, and our intended job was to cart supplies to Nadzab and load them onto ‘biscuit bombers’ to be dropped to the troops advancing up the Ramu Valley towards Shaggy Ridge. While the road was going through, we were busy stocking supply dumps from ships which moored at the floating wharf. The Captains of those ships felt like sitting ducks, and were always in a hurry to leave again. The Captain of one US Liberty ship complimented us on giving him a faster turnaround time at Lae than he had ever had elsewhere.
Routine Order 103, Item 403 of 12 January 1944 states:
1. Master of “Robert Stuart” advised this HQ prior to departure of his vessel from Port of Lae that discharge of cargo and clearance of Port Area was the most expeditious he had experienced, even including the Port of San Francisco which is considered to be one of the fastest working ports in the world.
2. Comd this HQ desires that this appreciation be conveyed by Unit comds to all Officers and Aust Troops who carried out the work of discharging the cargo from this vessel and clearance of the Port Area.”
Note: Routine Orders were issued by the Area Command.
One drop area used up the valley was ‘drop-X, ‘ and it could only be approached from one direction, which meant encountering an air-pocket. Each run, some of the drop crew came back very air-sick, and the drivers were sometimes asked to act as replacement ‘kickers-out.’ One trip was enough to kill off any novelty of it.
When we went overseas, my motor-cycle was replaced with a jeep. When our jeeps were off-loaded at Lae they caught the eye of the Colonel-in-Charge at base HQ and he promptly commandeered them, so I was doing my Don/R work in a 30 cwt Chevrolet blitz. This did not make for a good rapport between the Major and the Colonel, especially when the Colonel refused to hand over the jeeps when formally requested. Afterwards the Colonel used to pull our drivers up and book them for all sorts of pin-pricking reasons and send the charge sheets to our OC. These invariably were filed in the WPB. We were told to try to avoid provoking the Colonel when he was on the prowl. The Major said: “You are doing a good job, and I’ll back you all the way. I won’t book you for what you’re doing wrong, but if you’re caught doing it, I’ll throw the book at you.”
It was hot work driving a steel bodied truck in the tropics, so we wore giggle-jackets with the sleeves torn out, and open to the waist. We also removed truck doors. It kept us happy, so he ignored it.
We carried the stores for Base HQ, some of which ended up in ‘C’ Platoon’s kitchen. On one of the CO’s rare inspections he walked into the kitchen, eyed the shelves filled with breakfast cereals, tinned salmon, jams, etc, and asked the cook where they came from. The cook said, “Fairies, Sir. Come in the night. I get up in the morning and there they are.”
The Major eyed him seriously and said, “If those fairies could call at HQ’s cook-house in future, I might forget what I’ve seen.” The fairies obliged.
I spent my first Christmas in New Guinea in the 106 CCS with dengue fever. The Red Cross parcels arrived and all the patients had Christmas dinner in the mess-tent. Except me. I couldn’t move. Every muscle and joint ached, and it was even agony to roll my eyes. In my solitude the padre walked in and left me a packet of cigarettes, lighting one and putting it my mouth. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it tasted like stale straw and made me feel like throwing up, he was so solicitous. I had two bouts of dengue, and found it worse to bear than malaria.
Our second Christmas was much more enjoyable. There were wild pigs in the swampy jungle behind our camp and a couple of the fellows decided it would be nice to have pork for Christmas dinner, so they sneaked out one night and shot one. The butcher said it was fit to eat, but the Major insisted it had to be passed by the First Aid man. It was, though I don’t know how the RAP Sergeant would qualify as a meat inspector. I elected to stick to the bully beef and M. and V. hash. The cook used to soak the ‘peas blue’ overnight and after cooking they had small white shoots on them.
Kanga sat next to me, enthusing on the pork, assuring me it was O.K. to eat. I picked off a pea shoot with my knife and deposited it on the table beside my dixie, then calmly went on eating. After two more shoots were deposited on the table, Kanga noticed my action and glanced down at what looked like three maggots, and looked at me calmly munching. He leapt up and rushed out, coming back to retrieve his dixie and toss out his dinner, calling me a ‘filthy cow, ‘ plus other remarks. It was a merry Christmas though, under the circumstances.
Our kerosene lamps were fair enough, but some of the boys in ‘C’ Platoon decided that they could be improved upon, so they ‘acquired’ a Briggs and Stratton charger motor from a workshop nearby. The motor was concealed in the jungle behind their tent lines and wires run into the tents, fitted with headlamp globes. Each night the faint purring of a motor would be just hearable up at HQ lines, and inevitably the OC was moved by curiosity, and the jig was up. However, once the Major’s tent was wired up, life went on unhindered.
A vehicle maintenance ramp and raised hut
The Major’s tent was erected on a raised platform some ten feet above ground, next to the Quartermaster’s store. Drums of kerosene were kept outside the Q-store almost under the Major’s eyrie, and there we filled our hurricane lamps. One night somebody tried to fill a lighted lamp and started a blaze that threatened to barbecue the Major before it was safely extinguished.
Kanga, Honey, I and three others shared a tent which we had set on a pole platform we had built some three or four feet above the soggy ground. Facing us was a tent on ground level occupied by, amongst others, Jimmy L., the fire piquet. He still awoke at dawn, lit the fires, and then woke the cooks. One morning he woke up, rolled over and reached for his tobacco, looked up and saw a Jap looking at him from the tent door. Jim fell out of bed, grabbed his rifle, and commenced firing through the door. The first shot woke us, and we were off our cots and flat on the floor as the following shots whistled through our tent. Fortunately, Jim had only five rounds in his rifle. When these ran out he continued kneeling there, pulling the trigger and shouting, “Bang! Bang!” The Jap, of course was long gone. Jim’s tent-mates calmed him down just as the 2IC arrived to find out what was going on.
I always folded my pants and placed them on the floor beside my bed. I picked them up and donned them, to find a neat row of three holes down the legs where a bullet had gone through the folds. It had to be the first shot, as by the second, I was laying on top of those trousers. That was the last we saw of poor old Jim. His nerves had finally cracked, and he was sent home after a spell in the 2/7 AGH.
Not long after poor Jim’s unfortunate episode, the Regimental Sergeant-Major visited our tent one morning. Kanga and I were busy doing our laundry and cleaning up, but Honey was flat on his back on his bunk, as usual, spine-bashing.
WO2 Keith E. was known as the Wicket-Keeper, because he never missed anything, and nothing got past him. The rest of us were ‘standing-to’ beside our bunks, but Honey snoozed on until the RSM spoke, then rolled over and blinked at him. The Wicket-Keeper said: “Stay there Honey. Don’t let me disturb you. I’ve come to tell you I’m being sent home to attend Officer’s School, and I’ve come to say goodbye. I can’t go without shaking hands with the only fellow whoever beat me. No one will ever make a soldier out of you.”
The Wicket-Keeper’s farewell remarks to Honey were prompted by Honey’s recent performance on night piquet - or should I say, lack of performance?
From 1800 hrs (6:00 p.m.) to 0600 hrs (6:00 a.m.) six piquets each did two hours on duty, with the last man making sure certain people with early duties to perform, were woken up. This was after Jim L. had departed to hospital.
One night Honey was second last piquet, and 0600 hrs had come and gone with no cooks woken and no fires lit. The last piquet swore that no-one had woken him at 0400 hrs, so the weight of the RSM’s wrath descended on Honey, who was informed he would be on duty for a week as punishment. After two more late breakfasts occurred in the week, the Wicket-Keeper gave up in disgust, unable to think of a solution to the problem of teaching Honey discipline.
Honey on leave
Note: The word hours was abbreviated to ‘hrs’ in the Army. AGH is the Army General Hospital. WO is a Warrant Officer. A dixie is the compartmented metal meal tray used for meals, they were usually issued to each individual and they had to care for them by cleaning them after each meal. RSM is the Regimental Sergeant Major, the senior Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in the unit.
The Scenic Drive
We were taken across the bay from Lae to Labu, and half of us drove up to Wau, a trip that could be hair-raising. The road, 96 miles, over the range was cut out of the side of the mountains, a one-way job that twisted and turned, snaking its way up to a plateau, then twisting off again to Wau. Ravines were crossed on swinging bridges - flat wooden floors suspended on cables, which dipped as you drove on, and seemed to form a wave ahead of you.
A typical swinging bridge
On our initial trip up to Wau, my little Blitz was loaded with the Officer’s kitchen gear and supplies, and kept stopping with carburettor trouble. The Major left a mechanic with me with orders to bring up the rear so we could attend to any other trucks needing help, and eventually we were chugging along behind two other ‘sickies.’ Our slow progress found us at night-fall only two thirds of the way up the range, so we deemed it safer to stop for the night at the next wide spot in the road, as our masked headlamps did not provide much vision. We squeezed the two trucks into a bay cut into the cliff on our left, and I parked opposite them, leaving just enough room for a jeep to sneak through. We tied a tarpaulin between the two trucks for shelter, and settled our hunger by ‘liberating’ some of the officer’s tucker on my truck.
We were just settling down when a slight noise caused me to look outside. Across the road from us, silhouetted against the sky, was a group of natives about five feet tall, with long bows and spears about seven feet long. We had heard about these fierce little head-hunters, called Kuka-Kuka, and I realised that my rifle was across the road in its clips in my truck. However, after a short inspection they disappeared as silently as they had come. We did not sleep too soundly that night, and were glad to see dawn break.
On the Road from Wau to Lae
(sung to the song ‘Road to Mandalay’)
There’s a road winds o’er the Stanleys,
through the swamp and to the sea,
Where the mountainside keep slipping
and the rains come tumbling free.
From the barges on the river, to the convoys on the sea,
It was sweat and strain and struggle.
There was no turning back;
There was no turning back.
On the road from Wau to Lae,
You could see it any day
All our drivers worked like niggers,
And received no extra pay.
On the road from Wau to Lae,
The convoy made its way
We are running for the Divvies, they are coming out some day.
Down from Kiandi it comes awinding,
through Bulolo rich and fair.
Then we pushed it through to Sunshine,
and the MEC camped there.
O’er the hills they went to Muning, over Zenag’s lofty plain,
Where the road winds up the plateau
then down the gorge again
To the jungle and the rain.
Now the toughest work is over,
And the best is still the worst;
Still the drivers had their heartaches
and the road was soundly cursed.
When the river rose at Wampit; washed the road and bridge away,
Though their leave was in the offing,
those drivers had to stay,
On the road from Wau to Lae.
Never take me back no more,
to New Guinea’s muddy shore,
Won’t you leave me back in Aussie
with the one I adore.
Give the damn place to the natives,
let them have it is what I say
I’ve had my fill of fair New Guinea,
And the road from Wau to Lae.
Miner’s huts, Wau
At Wau we camped in some old miner’s shacks at the top of the old air-strip, and our mechanics set up shop in the old hangars. The Wau air-strip was not flat; it ran downhill at an angle of about 60 degrees. The Yanks shunned its use, and one who had to land there because of engine trouble was weak at the knees when he stepped out of his plane. Taking off straight at the face of the mountain, banking sharply to miss it. A squadron of Aussie Boomerangs used the strip for a time, and one day one of them had his throttle jam as he landed. He raced off the top of the strip and buried his propeller in the engine of a truck at the side of the road outside the hangars. Scottie was in the back of that truck replacing floor-boards, and he bounced around like a ball. He thought another truck had rammed him, and staggered up cursing the driver. Seeing a plane hanging over him, he promptly subsided. He was lucky to get away with a dislocated shoulder.
One day Bill P. had his truck parked on the road in front of the hangars being worked on by a mechanic. I don’t know what Bill was doing under the truck, but it suddenly rolled forward over Bill’s shoulder and headed off down the slope. A couple jumped into another vehicle and chased after it, but couldn’t get near enough to climb aboard it. A road ran across the foot of the strip, bordered by a deep ditch. On the other side of the road there was a house facing straight up the air-strip, and it was occupied by Area HQ. The people in that house, on seeing the driverless truck careering at them at about 60 mph, shot out of there like rabbits from a warren. The run-away hit the ditch, sheared off its front wheels, and slid across the road, stopping in the front yard of the house. A lot of questions flew back and forth that day.
Incidentally, it was this same truck that later almost brought me to grief on a bridge. One day I had to take the truck from Labu up to Wau, and had Banjo, a mechanic, with me. The engine was using oil copiously, so to save continually stopping to refill the sump, we finally jammed a five gallon drum in the open windshield with a tube running to the engine. Towards the end of the trip Banjo was spelling me at the wheel. It was almost dark and raining. As Banjo swung onto the last of the suspension bridges, the front wheels slid off the wooden tread and up against the six-inch baulks of timber lining the edge. Banjo strove to straighten the steering, but the rear wheels slid across too, and the truck gently leaned over against the supporting cable, the weight tilting the bridge over on an angle. I was sitting staring down at the rocky river bed a hundred feet below me. We scrambled out of the driver’s door and studied our predicament. Banjo went off and found a bush pole with which to prise the front wheel away from the bridge side, but we couldn’t get enough leverage. Next I found a rock which I jammed between the pole and baulk. I got into the truck and edged slowly forward as Banjo threw his weight against the pole to stop it sliding forward too. Gradually, the wheel gripped and followed the pole onto the bridge proper, to the sound of cheers from two officers and their driver at the far end of the bridge. They had arrived in the middle of our struggles, noted the tilt of the bridge, and promptly reversed back to safety, from where they called useless advice. They were sure we were going to end up in the river in a mangled heap.
As the road wound its way up to Wau it passed through the Bulolo Valley, and alongside the road stood a giant gold dredge machine. When the Company evacuated, they left the machine just as it stopped, with its conveyor-belt of buckets reaching high into the air, and rusting from lack of use.
The Engineer Unit who maintained the road were camped at Bulolo, and some of them were soon climbing up the buckets and investigating their contents. Gold nuggets were sifted from the gravel, but getting it back home would be a problem. However, Aussie ingenuity is never defeated. I was told on good authority, that the gold was melted and cast in the shape of small spanners, and painted black, to be carried home as part of a tool-kit. Rings and other trinkets were made too, I believe. A good trade was carried on with passing Yanks in gold rings at 10 pounds each, until one of the Yanks found out his ‘solid gold’ ring was 90% copper.
Nearby Edie Creek was replete with rubies and emeralds, but I still came home with only my deferred pay.
Across the valley from where we were camped at Wau, on the mountain opposite, there was a gold mine called the ‘Black Cat, ‘ which was said to be one of the richest known mines. The owners for some reason didn’t seem to trust the Aussie soldiers, and a guard of Papuan Infantry Brigade native soldiers, was stationed at the mine. They, however, were not happy doing the job because of the local head-hunters, and complained that one or two of their men had disappeared while they were on night duty. So, they were replaced by Aussies, who were very strictly supervised. I never heard of anyone taking gold from the mine, but I would not bet on it.
We used to send a convoy out from each end of the road each morning, and they met on the plateau for lunch, which was the only place in the 96 mile trip where they could pass each other. We set up a cook tent on the plateau to provide lunch, and the half a dozen men there reckoned it was the loneliest spot in New Guinea.
A young bloke who acted as our unit barber had the job of taking supplies up to the plateau lunch point in a jeep, and ran off the road one day. He steered the jeep to the bottom of the slope, dodging trees and large rocks, arriving safe and sound at the bottom, but as he jolted to a halt a large drum of sugar bounced out of the back and landed on his head, giving him concussion.
While down at the Labu end, we were camped right at the beach, and enjoyed the chance of a swim. The surf looked inviting, but we soon found that the rollers were huge dumpers. Banjo got dumped very hard and came up minus his dentures. No amount of diving or searching could find them. The next day Banjo went onto the beach for one more forlorn try, and there were his teeth, lying on the sand grinning at him, having been washed up during the night.
At Labu our tents were pitched between the road and the swamp. Back in the swamp we could hear what sounded like cows bellowing, and found out it was crocodiles. After that, any rustling noise behind our tent was promptly investigated.
The Wau road was often closed by landslides and a company of Engineers were in permanent residence to keep it open. A workshop at Wampit, up the road where it came down into a valley, then climbed again, was kept busy, too. Once on a sharp bend, a truck slid off the road and poised half over a steep slope. The following truck hooked a cable onto its rear end to pull it back, but it suddenly slid over, dragging the second vehicle with it. The first driver leapt to safety, but the second steered his truck down a steep slope in the trail made by the first, which bounced over rocks and pushed down small trees all the way to the creek 150 feet below, ending in a mangled wreck. The second truck was driven along the creek to Wampit. That was the only truck we had written off. The unit which had been on the road before we went there had smaller vehicles, and had lost most of them over the side.
We had our share of adventure on that road, too, and I don’t think any of us were sorry to see the end of it when we were moved out eventually.
The Dying Convoy Driver
A young convoy driver lay dying,
By the side of the Wau Road one day,
His cobbers had gathered around him,
To carry his fragments away.
The old ‘Blitz’ was piled on his wish-bone,
The steering-wheel wrapped around his head.
He wore a spark-plug on each elbow.
Twas plain he would shortly be dead.
He spat out a valve and a gasket,
And stirred in the sump where he lay.
Then to his wondering comrades,
These brave parting words did he say;
‘Take the piston-rings out of my larynx,
An intake valve out of my neck.
From the small of my back take the crank shaft,
There’s a lot of good parts in this wreck.
‘Take the manifold out of my short-ribs,
The generator out of my brain.
Remove from my kidneys the cam-shaft,
And assemble the engine again.
I’ll be riding a cloud in the morning,
No Wau Road before me to cuss.
So shake the lead form your feet and get busy,
There’s another lad needing this bus.’