When war came to Milne Bay

Dr Peter Wil­liams ex­plains the World War 2 conflict

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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.

1 2 3 4 56 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.

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