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