‘Th­ese bul­lets are real’

The Bat­tle of Milne Bay, from Au­gust 26 to Septem­ber 7, 1942, was one of the most sig­nif­i­cant bat­tles in New Guinea dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Not only did the Al­lies drive Ja­panese Im­pe­rial Forces back but they se­cured strate­gic air fields at Milne Bay

Central Queensland News - - READ - A dis­play to com­mem­o­rate the 75th an­niver­sary of the Bat­tle of Milne Bay has been es­tab­lished at the Milne Bay Me­mo­rial Li­brary and Re­search Cen­tre, in the old Sandgate Drill Hall at the Cherm­side District His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. Go to www.mil­nebay­bat­tle­centr

RICHARD McKenna’s child­hood was tough. He left school at age seven to work as a “billy boy” – some­one who stokes a fire and puts the tea on – and gen­eral farm­hand around the Miles district, about 200km north-west of Toowoomba.

He was a re­silient, prac­ti­cal lad, good at im­pro­vis­ing and a crack shot. It turned out to be the per­fect ed­u­ca­tion for Milne Bay.

Just af­ter mid­night on Au­gust 31, 1942, 22-year-old Richard sat crouched in a damp, roughly dug hole be­hind a three-inch mor­tar, which is a base plate at­tached to a long-bar­relled gun, po­si­tioned on one side of num­ber three air strip at Milne Bay.

A three-inch mor­tar weighs more than 50kg and each shell weighs about 5kg.

It was a par­tic­u­larly black night but at least there was a break in the drench­ing rain that had cov­ered the ground in thick, ooz­ing mud.

He sat with his crew of five, hot and un­com­fort­able, as they waited for in­struc­tions from com­mand­ing of­fi­cer Lt Aubrey Schindler, who was cam­ou­flaged in a palm log 50m away.

Di­rectly op­po­site, on the other side of the air strip, was a pla­toon of en­emy ma­chine gun­ners.

Richard clearly re­mem­bers that night, 75 years on.

“They never stopped fir­ing at us all night and I said to my crew, ‘Keep your heads down, this isn’t a Hol­ly­wood movie – th­ese bul­lets are real.’ But we were mostly too busy to talk,” he said.

“We were scared at first but then self-preser­va­tion kicked in and all we wanted to do was get as many Japs as we could.

“Back then the mor­tars didn’t have night sight so we had to load the shells and po­si­tion the bi­pod by feel.

“We needed Aub’s in­struc­tions about where to aim the bar­rel.”

Richard reck­oned Lt Schindler was mar­vel­lous but he re­lied on his bat­man, “Ham­mie”, who bravely con­veyed mes­sages up and down the strip.

“How Ham­mie didn’t get shot up is a mir­a­cle,” he said. Like many veterans, Richard does not like to talk about the “bad stuff” from the war.

But he qui­etly re­called the af­ter­math of that first skir­mish. “In day­light we could see the dam­age we’d done,” he said. “The Japs with­drew and took their in­jured with them but left their dead be­hind.

“We buried them. We treated them with re­spect, you know, but I later found out they didn’t treat our boys the same.”

With the en­emy in tem­po­rary re­treat, every­one was able to rally and the Al­lies repo­si­tioned along the en­tire length of the air strip.

Richard and his crew were sent to de­fend the only ac­cess road to the area. They re­mained there for days with­out a break while RAAF squadrons at­tacked re­peat­edly over­head.

“We didn’t have much time to chat or think about things – al­though I used to think about my mum a bit, she was a won­der­ful cook,” he said. “We didn’t go hun­gry be­cause we had sup­plies.

“We used to eat ‘dog bis­cuits’ and jam and there was al­ways plenty of bully beef or those her­rings in tomato sauce (we called them gold­fish). It was fairly prim­i­tive.

“We were busy the whole time and it rained ev­ery day.

“I had to carry boxes of shells through the mud and my knee went but I strapped it up, you know, you have to keep go­ing for your mates. I was only aware of what was hap­pen­ing at my post but I was told later the Japs tried to take the strip three times and each time we beat them back.

“Even the Amer­i­can engi­neers work­ing on the air strip – who were strictly non-com­bat­ant – stayed and fought with us. They were armed to the teeth.”

Only af­ter the Ja­panese re­treat that started on Septem­ber 5 was there time to as­sess in­juries and Richard’s knee got him a trip back home on a hos­pi­tal ship.

The re­treat ended on Septem­ber 7.

Ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial web­site, of the 2800 Ja­panese who landed, only 1318 re-em­barked.

It was es­ti­mated that up to 750 lay dead around Milne Bay and the ma­jor­ity of the re­main­der were killed try­ing to es­cape over­land to the Ja­panese base at Buna.

Al­lied deaths in­cluded 167 Aus­tralians and 14 Amer­i­cans. Richard con­tin­ued in the army work­ing around south-east Queens­land and fin­ished his for­mal ed­u­ca­tion at night school. He be­came the se­nior drafts­man at Evans Deakin Pty Ltd. Richard of­ten talks to stu­dents about his ex­pe­ri­ences at Milne Bay and he is pleased that young peo­ple are in­ter­ested in what he did and why he did it. He is one of a small num­ber of veterans still alive who fought in the bat­tle.

“Any­one who wants to take your coun­try, well, you fight for it, don’t you? I was de­fend­ing Aus­tralia,” he said.

PHO­TOS: ALLY MARTELL, CON­TRIB­UTED

◗ Richard McKenna, 97, served with 25th Bat­tal­ion at the Bat­tle of Milne Bay; (inset) Richard and Myr­tle McKenna on their wedding day.

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