The Australian Soldier in New Guinea – Jungle Genius

During the New Guinea campaigns of World War II, Australian soldiers coined a phrase which described what it took survive the conditions they endured – Jungle Genius.

In warfare, the word ‘jungle’ can mean so little or so much. In New Guinea, ‘jungle fighting’ did not mean merely battling with mortars and high trajectory guns over impenetrable forest and moss walls against an enemy less than a grenade’s throw away or ambushing him from vine-laced screens of undergrowth. It meant wading neck-deep in the black ooze of the sak-sak swamps, plunging blind across a beach by night, bayonet high, into the inscrutable silence of the fringing bush, picking your way over the sole-searing cracked rocks of a dry river bed, open as the day to the fire of the commanding hills, nosing your way – grenade in hand – over the one-man fronts of the razor-back.

Stretcher bearers carrying a wounded mate down along a muddy track north of Gusika while men of militia 29th/46th Battalion plod up a steep grade on their way to contact the Japanese.

Stretcher bearers carrying a wounded mate down along a muddy track north of Gusika while men of militia 29th/46th Battalion plod up a steep grade on their way to contact the Japanese. [AWM 016298]

Jungle Genius was an infinite capacity for taking pain. It was an acquired resiliency to the thousand blows that the enemy and nature could inflict in the miasmatic stronghold of tooth and claw. It was the faculty to fight on when the soldier’s head was whirling with malaria, when his bones cracked with dengue, when his stomach was drained with dysentery, when his tongue was sandpaper-parched with the curse of the hard, hot kunai country. Jungle Genius was the grit to endure his boots and clothes waterlogged, soaked with sweat and ooze in the mountains of mud; when fear is in the trembling of a leaf, and murder rather than mercy rains from the heavens; when nothing is what it seems except a trick by a cat-cunning enemy. Jungle Genius was above all the power not only to conquer these terrors but to tame them to one’s will and need, and to enlist them as allies and use them as ammunition against the enemy.

1943-01-27. Papua. Allied advance on Sanananda. Water, mud and slush are almost the Allied troops’ inseparable companions in Papua. For weeks the Allies had been advancing, some times up to their thighs in mud. Ploughing their way through the inevitable mud Americans carry small arms ammunition to the forward areas.

1943-01-27. Papua. Allied advance on Sanananda. Water, mud and slush were the Allied troops inseparable companions in Papua. For weeks the Allies had been advancing, some times up to their thighs in mud. Ploughing their way through the inevitable mud these Americans carry small arms ammunition to the forward areas. [AWM 014244]

It is because Australian soldiers acquired these peculiar qualities – albeit at appalling cost and by bitter experience – that the trail from Salamaua to Saidor, up the north-east coast of New Guinea, became littered with enemy corpses. Some of these, indeed, were cut down by bomb, shell, bullet and bayonet, but many perished in their agonies of thirst and starvation, of dysentery and fever, or fell miserably into the pitfalls of mountain gorge and stream and swamp, too weak to save themselves. Meanwhile, the Australian soldier learned to slip like ghosts through enemy positions, to sink his supply barges and cut his life-line on the land, to snipe from great heights keeping him day and night in a perpetual sweat of panic. Australians learned all this, learned it the hard way.

Jungle fighting didn’t come naturally to the Australian. With a very British respect for conventions – notwithstanding an adventurous background and the free and easy life of the open spaces – the Australian soldiers had put their ideas for administering and acquiring sudden death into a neat compartment, accepting a dignified code of rules for the exchange of shot and stab. They were astonished to find that the Japanese Imperial warrior didn’t fight that way. It took the disaster of Malaya and the loss of a entire proud division to teach the Australian Army that Tojo and Churchill weren’t mates. Australians learned and the Americans learned.

“In the early, untried days on the Kokoda Trail the we thought we knew all the answers. What a lot of rot it was We said, this Atebrin. Who was going to dose himself with yellow pills six times a week and dye his good Australian integuement an unhealthy gamboge that made him look like a Jap, just because some fussy M.O. flattered himself he had devised a dodge for beating the mozzies? And who was going to dope his drinking water with chlorine till it smelt like an out-patients’ department and tasted like a Sydney man’s idea of the Yarra? What could be healthier to drink than the water of this pellucid mountain stream? And what pansy thought up this idea of dusting yourself with baby powder. Who did he think we were — the Dionne Quins? And what was the objection to wearing shorts, anyhow? Weren’t they ideal Wear in this humid and tropical heat? And as for dolling yourself up in green shirts and pants like Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, blimey, Teddy, did they want to make a Russian Ballet out of us altogether, or what? Well, we lived and learned. And some of us died and didn’t.” – from Soldier Superb by Alan Dawes

1943-08-04. New Guinea. Making the best of not altogether ideal conditions Australians built this camp in the jungle on a hillside near Mubo. [AWM 015395]

By the time they had crossed the Owen Stanley ranges, a New Guinea soldier would as soon go without his rifle as his Atebrin (anti-malarial medication), they would go thirsty all day rather than drink unchlorinated water, invariably carried foot powder – preferably baby powder – in their packs and watched their toes as well as their clothes for any sign of rot or infection. Shorts were completely banned even for day wear. In the somewhat rarefied military atmosphere of Port Moresby, jungle green was the proudest badge the fighting Australian sported. Indeed, in New Guinea one would only see an Australian in any other scheme of decoration when they were bathing nude in streams or sea or rolling yellow in the mud on some wet mountain side.

These, then, were just the outward and visible signs. They symbolized a tremendous awareness, on the part of staff and soldier, of the significance of the jungle as foe and friend – an awareness which became the basis for evolving a scientific approach to the problems of war in the tropics. It was clear that by war’s end, medicine had also fought magnificently in the Pacific Islands campaigns – not only in healing, repairing, curing and comforting, but in arming the soldier in particular against the diseases of body and soul that lurked in the New Guinea jungles.

Jungle warfare presented new complexities every hour, new fields for ingenuity and resource. The Australian soldiers in New Guinea excelled in it because they added the fruits of training and experience to instinct and “some vestige of sub-conscious memory.” Also, they were not above learning from an otherwise despised but undoubtedly practised adversary, and not too proud to watch and emulate their humble native Papuan allies, those “erstwhile head-hunters, masters of the wiles and ways of man-tracking, have contributed not a little to the mental equipment of ‘man-belong-a-Sydney’, who has educated himself to walk and see with feline stealth, to lie dog-prone holding his breath, to go long stretches without food and water and find them in wild places, to observe the enemy from the  movements of bush and bird.”

Above all, the Australian added to his stock-in-trade the means to surprise and stun his enemy.

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19 comments

  1. A brilliant depiction of what the soldiers endured during what seemed like endless battles and obstacles. Survival through all this was remarkable.

    Like

    1. And vice-versa. Remember that these battles were also part of the defense of the Australian mainland after Japan swept through the Pacific and even hit our soil – Darwin bombed in 1942, not long after Pearl Harbor (by the same Japanese battle group, incidentally).

      Liked by 1 person

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