New Guinea

Making Maps Under Fire: Surveying New Guinea in World War II

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

On January 2nd 1943, the Australian Navy corvette HMAS Whyalla was anchored deep in the Maclaren Harbour inlet on the Cape Nelson Peninsula in New Guinea. She had been brought in close to the shoreline and camouflaged with a bewildering array of branches, vines and bushes that were doing their best to hide 730 tons of steel ship from the Imperial Japanese Air Service, who at that stage still menaced Allied naval operations in the area.

Like a lightning storm a force of 18 Japanese dive bombers approached undetected and attacked in a terrifyingly determined manner. The Whyalla had field survey parties out on duty and her two tenders, the requisitioned trawlers HMAS Stella and Polaris, were sounding off the harbour entrance. Several bombs narrowly missed the Whyalla, which suffered damage from debris and two casualties – members of the bridge Oerlikon gun crew who were seriously wounded.

The splashes from these near-misses raised several tons of water which deluged the bridge and washed the commanding officer’s map sheets overboard. They were found floating on the surface sometime later and, although legible, the accuracy of the drawings was ruined and the work had to be replotted – an intolerable labour which evidently was only remedied by violent expletives against all Japanese and a torrent of oaths that promised the inflicting of epic reprisals.

The Royal Australian Navy Hydrographic Survey Service

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944 [Image courtesy Dowsett Memorial Library]

In September 1942 when the operations to evict the Japanese from their foothold at Buna were being planned, it was found that to reach Buna was no simple task. It was not possible to carry heavy equipment over the difficult Kokoda Trail, and seaborne transport was considered the only practical method for carrying sufficient men and equipment to the fighting area. Two sea routes were open to use by Allied shipping, one to the east and north of the Trobriand Islands was a deep-sea route, fairly clear of navigational dangers, but could not be used at that stage without exposing Allied forces to disastrous attacks from enemy aircraft and submarines. In addition, it was necessary to wait until sufficient amphibious craft were available in the area, as an attack to the north of Buna could only be made in force.

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

The duty of surveying the northeastern New Guinea coastline in preparation for the future campaigns was undertaken in November by two small vessels, HMAS Polaris and Stella, under the command of Lt-Commander G. D. Tancred and Lieutenant J. Cody, RAN. These two ships were joined shortly after by HMAS Whyalla, under the command of Lt-Commander K. E. Oom, RAN. On the personnel of these three vessels fell the arduous duties, during the following six months, of fulfilling the requirements of this surveying program, during which the surveyors and men worked hard for long hours, fixing and running lines of soundings, erecting beacons, and observing under hostile conditions.

As operations advanced northwards, the strength of the surveying service was augmented by the addition of HMAS Shepparton, and later in June 1942 by HMAS Benalla. In addition, a number of requisitioned tenders was assigned to the group and at the end of 1943 HMAS Moresby was commissioned for surveying duties. Thus, as time went on, the force increased considerably in numbers, with the consequent increase in the scope of the service’s abilities.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was later despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Once during late 1942, HMAS Cape Leeuwin had been assigned the duty of erecting the light on Mitre Rock, a notorious landmark on the northeast coast of New Guinea. This imposing rock, which is forty feet high, is practically inaccessible and only by erecting special ladders could the upper portion of the stone cliff be reached. A midshipman was sent to get up through the undergrowth and secure a rope to the summit by which access could be achieved. He had not penetrated far before he became aware of the million or so local inhabitants – a particularly vicious type of ant rare to the coast region which set upon him with carnivorous enthusiasm, being the first meat they had encountered on that barren rock in aeons. In order to get down he had first to secure the rope, and thus was forced to carry on to the top. When this excruciating task was done, the watchers below were startled to see the midshipman fling himself out of the undergrowth, shoot down the rope in a skin-burning slide and then, without pause, dive headlong into the sea. It was quickly discovered that no man could work on the top, and that even the locals, who were requisitioned to cut down the undergrowth, went on a sit-down strike and refused to do “work belong bloody Navy”. Finally the ants were only culled by burning off the rock’s top with the assistance of fuel oil, petrol and cordite.

The survey of the extraordinarily deep gulf of Milne Bay was also undertaken by the Whyalla and the other vessels. Some parts of Milne Bay had been surveyed by the surveyors of HMS Dart as far back as 1885, but much of it required re-examination by modern methods. This was especially emphasized by the most recent survey of the Killerton Anchorage, which had previously been examined by Lieutenants Dawson and Messum of the Dart in 1886. In the southern entrance, right on the leading line, a rock with only eight feet of water covering it was discovered.

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

On weighing anchor next morning and proceeding out through the eastern entrance in the first light of dawn, the Whyalla discovered an extensive reef by running aground on it. Where the previous surveyors had marked thirteen fathoms, was indeed a reef a hundred yards in width with less than three feet of water covering it. During the next forty-eight hours, until the Whyalla floated itself off the reef unaided and undamaged, the surveyors had time to ruminate on the problem: “…did the coral grow out of over seventy feet of water in that time, or were the oysters on the reef so good that the earlier surveyors wished to keep the news hidden from other hungry seamen?” In honour of this unique event the two discoveries were called Messum Rock and Dawson Reef, which – although contravening accepted principles in nomenclature and awarding honour to whom it was least due – gave a subtle feeling of satisfaction, if not an answer to the conundrum in question.

The part played by the Surveying Services of the Royal Australian Navy was acknowledged by the Allied leaders of the Southwest Pacific Area as an integral factor contributing to the success of their campaigns in New Guinea. These surveys were later published in a set of charts that would also become vital to the safe navigation of ships in that area, both during the period of amphibious naval operations and equally important in guiding merchant ships supplying the varied units in forward areas.

The survey group continued to work between the New Guinea mainland and the D’Entrecastaux Islands where they were within 11 miles of Japanese forces and under frequent air attack, taking shelter in the mangroves. HMAS Stella and Polaris also went on to survey the landing routes at Salamaua and Finschhaven under covering fire from the corvettes Shepparton and Benalla.

The group was much decorated for these ventures; receiving the battle honours Pacific 1942–45, New Guinea 1942–44, and Okinawa 1945.

 

Knighthood on the Quarter-deck

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

On the 4th of April 1581 Queen Elizabeth went down to Deptford where the English galleon Golden Hind had been taken and, after a magnificent banquet on board with Francis Drake as host, she made him kneel before her in full view of the people. She told him that the King of Spain had demanded his head and then continued, “I have a gilded sword with which to strike it off.” Instead, the Admiral received the flat of the blade on his shoulder and rose Sir Francis Drake, Knight.

Admiral Sir George Patey, KCMG, KCVO [by H.S. Power]

Admiral Sir George Patey, KCMG, KCVO [by H.S. Power]

Though it had long been the custom for distinguished naval oflicers to have conferred upon them the high honour of knighthood, either at an investiture at Buckingham Palace by the King, or abroad by their representative at an investiture on shore, it was not without precedent for the ceremony to take place on board one of His Majesty’s ships.

It was a rare distinction indeed, however, to receive the accolade on the quarter-deck.

It would be another three hundred years before a British Admiral was again to kneel on the quarter-deck before the Sovereign. This historic occasion is one of peculiar interest to the Royal Australian Navy because the rare ceremony took place on the quarter-deck of the battle cruiser Australia in the presence of the Prince of Wales, Sir George Reid (High Commissioner for Australia), and the ship’s company.

On 30 June 1913, King George V honoured the Australian Commonwealth by visiting the first flagship of the then newly-constituted Australian Fleet. Australia had shortly before commissioned at Portsmouth and was preparing to sail for Australia with the first HMAS Sydney. His Majesty was received on board with a royal salute, the officers were presented to him and, after inspecting the ship’s company at divisions, the King proceeded between decks to inspect closely the living quarters and internal arrangements of the battle cruiser.

On return to the quarter-deck King George was photographed with the ofiicers and then in the presence of the officers and crew, commanded Rear-Admiral Patey, the first commander of the Australian Fleet, to kneel before him. An equerry handed the King a sword, Admiral Patey received the accolade and rose Sir George Patey, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.

HMAS Australia passing under the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

HMAS Australia passing under the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

As the commander of the Australian fleet, Admiral Patey is remembered chiefly for his part in the Australian occupation of German New Guinea – the takeover of the German Pacific colony of New Guinea in late 1914 – and in the events leading to the destruction of German Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee’s squadron at the battle of Falkland Islands in December 1914.

In September of the same year he received the intelligence that the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had appeared at Samoa. Australia, with Montcalm, was charged with covering Encounter and the New Guinea Expeditionary Force from probable attack by the enemy cruisers, and it was not until this and subsequent tasks had been accomplished that Patey was free to consider the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst his immediate quarry.

Patey made his base at Suva, but when finally he was released to pursue the enemy ships it was too late for, fearing the approach of the battle cruiser, they decided to run for their home port. Passing through the Straits of Magellan they ran into the trap that had been set by the Royal Navy and were destroyed.

Admiral Patey remained in command of the Australian Fleet until 1915. He died in 1935.

Soldier Superb: Australian Infantry Training in WW2

Tough training made Australian soldiers tough fighters.

A revolution took place in military training in Australia in the early days of the Second World War. When the Australian Military Forces first went into camp in 1939 there was a feeling – in a naive Australian style – that their time there would be something more like football training, and that before long they would all join their British counterparts in adventures in the Middle East and North Africa.

That was before late 1941, before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, before Darwin and Broome and the threat of invasion became real and urgent; before Australian and Japanese had faced off in the jungle.

After that, the training began to grow steadily tougher and tougher. For the kind of combat encountered in New Guinea every man was taught and trained to make it his private war. The Japanese soldier was taught to die for his country. These men would be taught to kill for their country.

Lessons of the early campaigns of the war such as Libya, Greece and Crete were brought back by such men as Lieutenant General Stanley George Savige to be thoroughly examined and applied. Lt. General Gordon Bennett after escaping from Malaya, Lt. General Sydney Rowell returning from Kokoda, and many more officers from the New Guinea and other campaigns added new ideas to the education of the Australian soldier.

So training at Seymour, at Puckapunyal, at Ingleburn, in all the camps, took on a new form.

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Canungra, Queensland, October 1943. Members of an Australian infantry unit engaged in their training course at the Jungle Warfare Training Centre. In this photograph the men are practising taking cover and using small foxholes. [AWM 069405]

To rise to the challenge of enlistment in the Australian Military Forces at the outbreak of World War II, one would be met with training regime that changed a person. By the time your training was complete, you would be expected to run 250 yards and in stride jump from a trench and bayonet three standing; jump a log and bayonet three prone; leap a four-feet trench and bayonet six standing in pairs; jump a log through a double-apron fence of barbed wire; cross three rows of trip wire and bayonet three more standing; climb a seven-feet vertical hurdle of logs; drop four feet, climb an embankment and jump into a slit trench; fire three rounds at a target 30 yards away; throw grenades; leap from eight to ten feet into a river four feet deep; wade 20 yards and climb the opposite embankment; jump a final log and bayonet another three prone… in one minute 43 seconds.

You would train, wearing only shorts, to crash barbed wire to the ground and hold it down with your body while your mates went through. You would train, unarmed, to disarm an opponent of his bayonet and break his neck with your elbow. You would also train with a 60 pound pack, marching 25 miles in a day, carrying out military exercises such as tank hunting or a village raid on the way all while refraining from using your full water-bottle.

Training at the Jungle Warfare Training Centre at Canungra, Queensland (now the Australian Army Land Warfare Centre) then continued where normal battle training left off. One particular area of focus for the Australian jungle fighter was the development of point shooting – also known as target- or threat-focused shooting. They were to fire the Lee–Enfield SMLE Mk III .303 from the hip, and with deadly accuracy, at ten yards range. Close-quarters fighting made it hard to apply proper marksmanship techniques, which is why point advocated a less sighting-based style of shooting.

They were also trained to use the .22 calibre Owen submachine gun so that even with a number of fast-moving enemy soldiers attacking every round had to count. Absolute team-work was the first essential. First a section was allotted tasks so that every man in it is given the job to which he is best suited by nature, psychologically and physically. The man with the cat’s eye, always alert and a quick observer, becomes the scout. The husky to whose broad shoulders were assigned the additional ten pounds of the Bren gun became the Bren gunner.

060661

Canungra, Queensland, November 1943. Sapper Walters of the Australian Training Centre (Jungle Warfare) setting a booby trap on the mopping up course at the centre. [AWM 060661]

The jungle fighters were then shown the Japanese way with booby traps, and how to use them for themselves. The study of gelignite and grenade, fuse and delay; the use of ingenuity in making and applying traps out of the very jungle itself. They learned from the enemy that the right improvised trap in the hands of an enthusiast can be made an instrument of terror, can halt a unit through fear of the unknown, and plunge a bewildered enemy into panic.

They were schooled to work miracles of deduction when they were confronted with a reconstruction of an abandoned Japanese camp, the wreck of a barge on a beach, or a medical unit’s stores. They could tell the strength of the enemy, the name of the commander, his orders and intentions up to the time of his destruction or departure, the number of his casualties from wounds and disease, the length of his stay in the country and his prospect, if he still survives, of remaining; his physical fitness and morale.

Psychological endurance was also drilled through obstacle courses with full sound effects. With pack and rifle they marched, doubled, climbed and descended, crawled through streams and hollow logs, grass and barbed wire – but this time with the cacophony of battle ringing in the ears: gelignite bursting, machine guns barking, rifles and heavier weapons firing all around. Noise could not deflect a soldier from his purpose any more than mere danger.

They were taught to march increasing distances, to be able to carry 28 kilograms (61 pounds) as well as rifle or Owen gun 23 kilometres (14 mi.) through the jungle, sometimes up vertical slopes or down inclines equally precipitous. They trained to climb ropes with feet and hands, to negotiate improvised ladders; to cross streams or ravines by every conceivable type of bridge from a single wire, a sapling, or log, to a flying fox. To conquer fear of heights, the would cross such bridges at a height of 6 metres (20 ft.) or more where a slip, even in training, might mean death or maiming.

The jungle fighter’s training culminated in a trek, including the inevitable up and downhill climbs, but in the course of which not only was nerve and physical endurance tested to the uttermost, but also his intelligence and observation. Now they had learned to reduce pack supplies to prime necessities. To demonstrate living on emergency rations and availing themselves of indigenous foods, the edible fruits and plants and roots of the jungle and rain-forest trees and undergrowth.

These were the conditions that turned citizens into soldiers, workers into warriors. All these accomplishments, and “iron muscles, iron nerve, and the eyes of a cat,” would have entitled someone as long ago as 1942 to a place in the ranks of the Australian Military Forces, or in the A.I.F. in Australia.

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.

Landing at Scarlet Beach (Roy Cecil Hodgkinson)

Landing at Scarlet Beach by Roy Cecil Hodgkinson

This sketch by Roy Cecil Hodgkinson depicts the situation at the south end of Scarlet Beach in New Guinea on 22nd September 1943 – half an hour after the first wave of Operation Diminish had landed. ‘Diminish’ was the name given to the initial phase of the Huon Peninsula campaign of the Second World War, with Allied Forces from Australia and the United States landing at Scarlet Beach, about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) north of Finschhafen. The intended capture of Finschhafen would then allow the construction of air base and naval facilities to assist Allied air and naval forces to conduct operations against Japanese bases throughout New Guinea and New Britain.

As the first wave of landings headed for Scarlet Beach most of the transport craft drifted off course. At the point shown in Hodgkinson’s drawing when the landing craft came in, the beach was still under heavy fire. Hitting a small sand bar the landing craft shown in the sketch dropped its port ramp in very deep water. It was carried away and cannot be seen in the picture. The troops then disembarked by the starboard ramp. In the background, a landing craft in Siki Cove has landed its troops and is reversing to the open sea.

During the first day of the landings, Australian casualties were 20 killed, 65 wounded and 9 missing, all of whom were later found to be dead or wounded.

The landing at Scarlet Beach was the first opposed amphibious landing that Australian forces had made since the Landing at Anzac Cove in the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915.

From The Library.

 

 

Foundations of Victory: Australian & American engineers in WW2

In the steamy, malarial jungles of Dutch New Guinea, among the shattered palm groves and bomb-scarred coral islands, across the treacherous disease-gripped kunai grass plains of the Markham Valley, Australian and American servicemen sweated side by side in the summers of 1942-44, with record-breaking efforts against all odds to keep Allied aircraft strafing, pounding and cutting their way deeper and deeper into the now-diminishing Japanese Empire in the South Pacific.

Bases for Major-General Ennis Whitehead’s Fifth Air Force and the Australian First Tactical Air Force were being thrust by General MacArthur and the Pacific Command further towards the Philippines and Japan.  Behind the more spectacular exploits of the brave young airmen who piloted the fighting aircraft which had virtually cleared the New Guinea air of Japanese air power was a solid weight of personal bravery and endurance, engineering skill, modern construction machinery and co-operative Allied effort.

Noemfoor Island, Dutch New Guinea, 27 December 1944. Leading Aircraftman JA Harding of the No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron RAAF, at work in a coral quarry with a bulldozer. Coral was used for all roads on Noemfoor Island and made an excellent surface.

Noemfoor Island, Dutch New Guinea, 27 December 1944. Leading Aircraftman JA Harding of the No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron RAAF, at work in a coral quarry with a bulldozer. Coral was used for all roads on Noemfoor Island and made an excellent surface. [AWM OG1864]

These hard-bitten, battle-hardened, skilled workmen of two nations, whose work made the Allied South-Western Pacific air offensive possible, knew the strain of back-breaking toil in a treacherous, menacing climate. They worked in shifts twenty-four hours a day to reach the impossible datelines set by the men who needed the airfields to launch their efforts against the enemy. They knew the despair of working against time amidst the thud of bombs and crack of gunfire from a euphoric and ascendant foe. These sons of America and Australia laboured equally as hard, but with a quietly reserved triumph, to bring retribution on an enemy who, thanks in great measure to their own efforts, was now no longer commanding the New Guinea skies.

At Nadzab, in the Markham Valley, units of the Australian Airfield Construction Squadron broke a New Guinea record. Within twenty-seven days, working twenty-four hours a day, they turned a virgin area of kunai plains and sago swamps into a fully operational airfield with two strips, road system and dispersal bays. At Aitape they had a strip ready in forty-eight hours for Australian Kittyhawk fighters which would take off on a mission ten minutes after the last plane’s wheels had touched down. At Noemfoor Island in Dutch New Guinea, they had two operational airstrips ready twenty-four days after the US Task Force landed. Australian fighters were using one of them within a few days of D-day.

A Royal Australian Air Force engineer was the American Army’s Task Force engineer at Aitape and Noemfoor. He was Group-Captain W. A. C. Dale DSO, of Coonamble (NSW), a Citizen Air Force pilot who rose to Assistant Director of Works and Buildings with the Royal Australian Air Force Headquarters before his appointment in the field as commanding officer of all the Australian airfield construction units in New Guinea. Subsequently, as a US Task Force engineer, he was in a position which enabled him to work Australian and American survey, engineering and construction units as one complementary team in the herculean task of providing airfields, roads and docking facilities for areas previously devoid of all the foundations of mechanized warfare.

Finschhafen Area, New Guinea. 1943-11-09. Engineers of the 870th United States Engineer Aviation Battalion using a power saw to cut coconut palm logs for the decking of the new bridge which they are building near the Dreger Harbour end of a new airstrip.

Finschhafen Area, New Guinea. 9th November, 1943. Engineers of the 870th United States Engineer Aviation Battalion using a power saw to cut coconut palm logs for the decking of the new bridge which they are building near the Dreger Harbour end of a new airstrip.

Dale was given command not only of the Australian works wing but all American engineer units assigned, including three army aviation battalions, an engineer battalion and a shore battalion. His task did not appear to be an easy one . His men had first to reach the airfield and then repair it ready for the operation of fighter aircraft the day after the landing. The lack of adequate roads, airfields, ports and other facilities in New Guinea together with the rapidity of the advance was placing a tremendous burden on the engineering resources at their disposal . Not only were the forces in the South West Pacific short of the engineering units needed but there were shortages of certain critical materials, such as sawn timber and roofing. Consequently  construction had to be cut to its barest essentials.

On the 2nd July 1944, thirty minutes after H-hour (the specific time at which an operation or exercise commences) on the day of the Noemfoor landing, Group-Captain Dale, Wing-Commander Towers, Squadron-Leader Cobby and Squadron-Leader L. W. Jamieson of the RAAF No. 62 Works Wing were inspecting the Kamiri strip and planning its reconstruction. They landed under heavy mortar fire, and fighting continued to go on at the other end of the strip while they made their inspection. Once the South West Pacific war became mobile, airfield construction squadrons themselves became the shock troops of the RAAF. Each man was a trained soldier as well as a qualified tradesman or skilled construction worker.  The rifles that hung on the machines they worked were not ornamental. These men know exactly how to use them, and used them they would in the first few dangerous days of a new landing strip. At night, while the machines grumbled along on under the glare of fierce floodlights, unit guards squatted behind searchlights and heavy machine guns, ready to destroy any stealthy Japanese attempts to interrupt the vital works.

In Always First – The RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons 1942-1974, David Wilson says of the construction units: “Sometimes maligned, but never undaunted, these troops had made it possible for superior air forces to be deployed with imagination and operational effectiveness. One has only to peruse amap of the South-West Pacific to recognise the importance of airfields to the war effort. MacArthur’s leap frog strategy was restricted by the range of the strike aircraft available for operations, and air power was a potent weapon in isolating by-passed Japanese garrisons by cutting their supply lines, thus ensuring that they were militarily non-effective.”