Courier Mail, The (Brisbane), 24/08/2002, pg. 34

With Australia again considering sending troops into war, Amanda Gearing reports on the anniversary of one of our nation’s most significant battles of World War II

TODAY marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Milne Bay, when Australian and American troops defeated Japanese forces in New Guinea in the first land defeat of the Japanese in World War II.

Survivors of the battle were not welcomed home from the war. But Australian Defence Force chief General Peter Cosgrove will salute more than 100 veterans of the 25th Battalion tomorrow at a ceremony in Toowoomba to honour their contribution to securing Australia’s freedom.

JAPAN’S Imperial Forces surged across the Pacific, capturing Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines.

As they swept into Papua New Guinea in March 1942 and took Lae, on the north coast, Australia’s defence forces were quickly marshalled to try to protect our territory of New Guinea.

The next advance of the Japanese was a two-pronged attack on Port Moresby, one overland via the notorious Kokoda Track and the other, a sea attack, on the southern tip of New Guinea at Milne Bay, where they wanted to establish an airfield. The airfield would become a strategic base to launch attacks on the Australian mainland.

Milne Bay was also the focus of Australian efforts to establish an air base to guard our sea lanes and to protect Port Moresby from the advancing forces.

Both the Japanese and the Allies knew they needed an air base to achieve supremacy in the Pacific. Milne Bay became the site of a bitter 10-day battle in unmapped jungle that began 60 years ago today.

The 7th Brigade and 18th Brigade arrived first, followed by troops from Brisbane and the Darling Downs, to build the base and three airstrips across coastal swampland and coconut plantations. They were to have only a fortnight before the Japanese began air raids and six weeks before they invaded.

Torrential rain prevented earthworks and the airstrips were built by felling 19,000 coconut palms into mangroves and deep mud.

Former 25th Battalion infantry soldier Errol Jorgensen, now 81, who left his job as a plasterer in Toowoomba to go to war, recalled: “We worked 24 hours a day in three shifts. Some cut down the trees and we came along behind them laying the matting on top of the mud.

“The conditions were terrible. We were working in torrential rain with mud up to our knees. We wore shorts and rolled our sleeves up because of the heat.

“Malaria hit a lot of men in the first week until we got into trousers.”

Toowoomba butcher Ernie Bain was a signals commander and was still setting up communications from the field headquarters to each company when his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ted Miles, told him a convoy of Japanese ships had been sighted.

On August 24, 1942, a Japanese convoy of 120 men left Rabaul for Milne Bay. A coast-watcher reported seven enemy barges off the coast.

Australian and American troops were prepared for landings on the north or south shore of the bay or directly against Gili Gili wharf.

Brisbane’s 61st Battalion was stationed around No. 3 strip with the 2/10 Battalion to back them up while the 9th and 25th battalions covered the shore between the No. 3 strip and Gili Gili wharf.

The Japanese troops landed at Goodenough Island the next morning and RAAF Kittyhawk squadrons 75 and 76 destroyed the barges drawn up on the beach, stranding the troops.

THE same day, a second wave of Japanese troops was spotted heading for Milne Bay, and early on the morning of August 26 the ships began firing on Milne Bay.

The Kittyhawk fighters attacked the Japanese barges as they landed throughout the day, forcing the invasion forces to hide and giving the Australian infantry time to prepare a counter-attack that
afternoon.

“The Japanese landed in the middle of the 61st Battalion, the boys from Brisbane,” Jorgensen said. “Our 25th Battalion was lined up from the road to the beach wearing respirators in case the Japs had nerve gas.

“At five o’clock they gave us the signal to go and meet the Japanese. It was raining and dark and we met them at 10 o’clock at night.

“I got behind a big coconut tree and my mate Joe was coming over to me when he copped a grenade. The company got orders to retreat but our section didn’t get the word.

“We were trapped behind the lines. As we were getting out of there, I found a mate shot in the stomach. Another mate we saw tied to a tree — they had cut off his fingers and stabbed him with bayonets.

“After that we decided not to take prisoners. We grew from boys to men in a couple of hours.

“To escape, we swam out to sea and got back to our lines but we were nearly shot by friendly fire as we came ashore.

“Only the shape of our steel helmets saved us.”

The Japanese pushed forward on August 27, with two tanks causing heavy Australian casualties. Japanese troops overran the 2/10th Battalion and two companies of the 25th Battalion fought a delaying withdrawal to hold No. 3 airstrip.

Sniper jungle fighting continued for the next few days.

Expecting an attack across the airstrip, Australian troops prepared mortar positions and found they needed a phone connection to help direct mortar fire.

Signals officer Ernie Bain came along the following day to check the signal platoons and was asked to set up a phone line which improved the effectiveness of mortar assaults on the attacking Japanese.

“I had found an American phone, they were better than our ones,”
Bain said. “I had it over my shoulder and when Lieu Schindler saw it he asked me to run out a line and set up a phone for the spotter.

“I didn’t even have a roll of cable, but we got some and put out a line from the mortars to the edge of the airstrip.”

At 3am on August 31, Japanese troops were given the order to storm No. 3 airstrip. They ran forward in waves, with many killed by landmines around the airstrip and others by mortar bombs and artillery fire.

“The phone line made it easier to direct the angle and the range of the mortars,” Bain said. “They had communication and they put the mortars right on target.”

The spotter, Lieutenant Acreman, was awarded a Military Cross for his bravery.

After three attacks directly across the airstrip failed, the Japanese moved north of the airstrip but were headed off there by the 61st Battalion.

As dawn arrived, three bugle calls rang out, calling the invaders to retreat.

Next morning, some Australians crossed the airstrip.

“There were bodies everywhere and arms and legs and heads hanging from the trees,” Jorgensen said.

“The Japanese had gone, leaving their wounded and dead behind.”

Toowoomba ham smoker Stan Alford was among the troops burying the hundreds of dead enemy soldiers.

“We tied ropes around their ankles, dug holes with bulldozers and dragged them to the holes,” Alford said.

“It took several days and by the end, we would tie up the feet and when we got to the hole we only had a pair of legs because the bodies were falling apart.”

AUSTRALIAN troops pushed Japanese positions back in the following days.

The remaining 600 Japanese troops were evacuated on September 6 and 7.

Many of the troops who fought at Milne Bay returned later and fought in the Bougainville campaign. Of the 7500 Australians who fought at Milne Bay, 167 were killed.

Japanese casualties were estimated at more than 700 at Milne Bay and another 300 drowned after the sinking of a Japanese merchant ship in the bay.

60th ANNIVERSARY

COMMEMORATION PROGRAM

IN Toowoomba Diggers will march in the 25th Battalion’s final street parade at 10am, arriving for a ceremony at Mothers’ Memorial in East Creek Park at 11am. This will be followed by a civic reception to honour members of the 25th Battalion at Rumours International from 12.30pm.

TODAY

10am: 25th Battalion Association members to unveil a plaque on the Suncorp Metway call centre in Margaret St, marking the site of the army drill hall where thousands of soldiers were trained.

11.30am: 25th Battalion Association last annual dinner.

TOMORROW

10am Combined street parade of 25th Battalion veterans and the current 25th/49th Battalion from the intersection of Ruthven and Margaret streets to the Mothers’ Memorial in East Creek Park.

Defence Force chief General Peter Cosgrove will take the salute at East Creek Park and give the address at a remembrance ceremony.

Civic lunch for veterans and their families at Rumours International.
General Cosgrove will propose a toast to Milne Bay veterans.

3.30pm: Official opening of a new Milne Bay display at the Milne Bay Military Museum in O’Quinn St, Toowoomba.

`Sixty years ago, 25 Battalion was involved in a desperate mission to defend the Australian territories of Papua and New Guinea from the advancing might of the experienced Japanese Army. These young Australian men would show a proud nation that they were equal to the task. Their legacy from Milne Bay is that they inflicted the first major defeat on the Japanese on land in World War II. It is a proud record. We honour them, their service and their memory.
We, as a nation, are in their debt, while we in uniform continue to draw inspiration from them.’

— General Peter Cosgrove, Chief of the Australian Defence Force

Copyright 2002 / Courier Mail