When war came to Milne Bay
Dr Peter Williams explains the World War 2 conflict
In August and September 1942, Milne Bay was the scene of Japan’s first defeat on land in World War 2. The Japanese aim was to capture Port Moresby by a two-pronged attack: one along the Kokoda Trail and the other via Milne Bay, where their objective was Gurney Airport. Then called No. 1 strip, Gurney Airport was built in 1942 by US Army engineers. A Japanese invasion force came by sea from Rabaul and landed in Milne Bay. After two weeks of fighting, known as the Battle of Milne Bay, the Japanese were defeated by Australian soldiers and airmen. The remnant of the Japanese force was evacuated to Rabaul by sea. The half dozen encounters that make up the Battle of Milne Bay, took place along what is now a 12-kilometre drive from Wanaduela Bay to Gurney Airport. At the time there was nothing along this route but a muddy track and villages dotted here and there on a narrow coastal flat, hemmed in by the bay to the south and the Stirling Range and thick forest to the north. In the late 1960s a new town, Alotau, was built here and the provincial capital moved to it from Samarai. Through the streets of Alotau, the scenes of this fighting can still be traced. War historian Peter Williams takes us on the journey.
Not long before midnight on August 25, 1942, Eli Dickson was woken by a noise he could not have heard before. It was the grinding sound of two Japanese tanks coming down a landing barge ramp onto the beach at Wanaduela Bay, three kilometres east of Alotau (No. 1 on map).
Moments later, Japanese soldiers were in Dickson’s village, rounding up the men and asking for directions to Gurney Airfield. Some villagers fled into the bush, but others, including Dickson and Tom Maioro, were pressed into service as guides and carriers.
The Japanese brought 1300 troops by sea from Rabaul for the simple task of capturing the airstrip and defeating the 500 Australians they believed were present. This was a serious
miscalculation by the Japanese, because there were in fact over 4000 Australian fighting troops present, with another 4000 Australians and Americans tasked with building airstrips, a port, warehouses and all the essentials of the large military base they were constructing at Milne Bay.
With Maioro as an unwilling guide, the Japanese moved quickly westward along the coastal track in a thunderstorm, entering what are now the southern suburbs of Alotau.
Fording the Golianai River they came to Cameron’s Springs (No. 2 on map), where the first clash of the campaign took place. The site can still be seen, 100 metres south of Sanderson Bay, where Cameron’s Springs gushes from the steep-sided hill near the road. This was the foremost Australian position, lieutenant Bert Robinson and 14 men holding the narrow gap between the bay and the hillside.
At 1am on August 26, the four Japanese scouts leading the column encountered Robinson’s sentry, private Wallace Whitton, a clerk from Yeerongpilly in Queensland. Unsure in the rain and the dark, Whitton called out to challenge the unknown men, who shot him dead. Robinson’s party then killed the four Japanese.
Unharmed, Maioro took to the bush and ran back to his village. Within minutes the Japanese tanks came north along the road, shooting into the scrub on either side, prompting Robinson to fall back to KB (Koebule) Mission.
At dawn a dozen Australian fighter aircraft, P-40 Kittyhawks, took off from Gurney and within minutes were over Wanaduela Bay, where the Japanese had landed. They were led by 25-year-old squadron leader Peter Turnbull, once an electrician from Armidale in NSW, now an Australian fighter ace with 12 kills. They strafed the landing barges, then the supplies and ammunition stacked on the beach, destroying much of it. The Japanese plan was thrown into disarray by this loss of essential equipment.
The following day, the Japanese advanced towards KB Mission where the 560-man 2/10th Australian Infantry Battalion was dug in waiting for them. Turnbull was again in the air and spotted the two Japanese tanks moving along the road curving around Sanderson Bay, near where the Battle of Milne Bay memorial, a
The Japanese tanks came north along the road, shooting into the scrub on either side.
black three-metre high granite column, now stands (No. 3 on map). Turnbull swooped down to attack. Hit by fire from the ground, he was killed when his plane failed to pull out of the dive and crashed in a gully 200 metres east of where Alotau general hospital now stands (No. 4 on map).
The night after Turnbull’s death, August 27, the Japanese attack on KB Mission commenced. The Japanese tanks, moving along the track in a rainstorm, burst into the Australian position, illuminating the defenders with searchlights and opening fire. Having no way to stop the tanks – their anti-tank guns could not get past the boggy road to their rear, and their antitank grenades malfunctioned in the wet and the heat – the Australians were driven back.
One hundred men, Australians and Japanese, died alongside the road here. The Koebule Primary School grounds mark the centre of the scene of fighting.
The Australians retired to the last good defensive position before Gurney Airfield. This was No. 3 strip, a half completed airstrip four kilometres east of Gurney. The ground cleared of trees offered a good defensive position as the Japanese had to charge across the clearing to get at the Australians on the far side.
Throughout the battle heavy rain made all movement difficult and turned the track along the coast to slush. The worst area was between Rabe and No. 3 strip. This was fortunate for the Australians, because it rendered the track impassable to vehicles. The two Japanese tanks became bogged in the mud near Rabi village, and were abandoned (No. 5 on map).
On August 29, 700 Japanese reinforcements arrived by sea, bolstering Japanese numbers to 2000 men. The next day was quiet, as the Japanese reinforcements marched along the coast to
join their comrades facing the Australians across the strip.
At 3am on August 31, five days after the Japanese landed, they attacked No. 1 strip. Charging across the half-completed runway, they were cut down by the defending Australians, helped by a small group of American engineers. In an open grassy park beside the road, a remnant of the land cleared to build the airstrip, a plaque announces: ‘ This marks the westernmost point of the Japanese advance. 83 unknown Japanese Marines lie buried here’.
It was now the Australians’ turn to go on the offensive, driving the Japanese back towards their landing place.
The final chapter of the battle for Milne Bay took place a kilometre south of Cameron’s Springs at the ford of the Goilanai River.
A hundred metres south of the post-war bridge the road forks to either side of a small park containing two memorial signs. This was the scene of the last serious fighting of the Battle of Milne Bay, on September 4, 1942. Not far from the park, corporal John French was killed while capturing three Japanese machine gun positions and earning the only Victoria Cross awarded in the battle (No. 6 on map).
The Japanese had already decided to withdraw and on the night of September 5 their ships once again entered the bay, evacuating the remnant of their force to Rabaul.
The two-week Japanese occupation of Milne Bay cost them 700 lives, and as many again wounded.
The Australians lost 167 dead and the Americans 14. The combined total of Allied wounded was almost 400.
There is one more story of the battle, concerning one of the wounded. Most nights Japanese warships entered the bay to bombard Gurney, sometimes encountering small craft the Australians were using to move men and supplies along the shore.
On the night of August 28, the searchlights of Japanese destroyer
Urakaze illuminated one of these boats, opened fire and sank it. A wounded survivor, leading aircraftsman Jim Donegan, drifted ashore near Divinai village, in the Japanese-controlled area of the north shore.
He was found by local people and taken to their village. There he was placed in the care of a mission-trained nurse, Maiogaru Taulebona. She tended his
The two-week Japanese occupation of Milne Bay cost them 700 lives, and as many again wounded. The Australians lost 167 dead and the Americans 14.
wounds and fed him. When a Japanese patrol came through the village she hid him under a canoe.
When Donegan was strong enough, Taulebona placed him in a canoe, concealed him under a pile of vegetables, and paddled him through the night westward to the Australians. After the battle she was awarded the Loyalty Medal and told she could take as a reward several items from an Australian supply dump. Nurse Taulebona chose a bicycle, a rain cape, a pair of sunglasses, seven yards of bright red material to make skirts, and a carton of aspirin. Dr Peter Williams is a historian living in Canberra, Australia. He has visited the battlefields of Papua New Guinea, interviewed Australian, Papuan and Japanese veterans and researched in all three countries. His books include The Kokoda Campaign
1942: Myth and Reality, and Kokoda for Dummies.
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6 Stopped in their tracks ... Australian infantrymen examine two bogged and abandoned Japanese light tanks south of Rabe. The tank on the right is now at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
War bird ... a Royal Australian Air Force P- 40 Kittyhawk at Milne Bay's Gurney Airfield in 1942.
In the theatre of war ... (from left) corporal John French; squadron leader Peter Turnbull; nurse Maiogaru Taulebona.
High and dry ... days after the battle, a Japanese landing barge sits aground in Wanaduela Bay. The remains of the barge can still be seen today at low tide.