Patrol from Menari – to find the Japanese.

(Originally presented at The Military Historical Society of Australia at the MHSA 2002 Biennial Conference, 5th and 6th October, 2002.  Published in ‘Sabretache’, Vol XLIV, March 2003, Number 1. pp 3-10)

On the afternoon of the 5 October, I received word to report to the CO, Lt Col Cameron. He said, “Bede, the Japanese have to be located as there is no sign since they withdrew from Ioribaiwa.” He asked me would I lead a patrol along the Kokoda Track through Kagi, Templeton’s Crossing and beyond to find the Japanese. I answered, “Yes Sir.” He then detailed the object of the patrol, strength, route and drew a sketch map on the back on an Army signal form. Patrol to leave Menari at 0700 hrs on the 6 October.

Lt Col Cameron had been in the forward area on the Kokoda Track with the 39th Battalion and the 53rd Battalion. This enabled him to pass on information of importance regarding the general topography and approximate timings between villages and strategic points.

It was to be a reconnaissance patrol, strength eight men, two men to return with a report on progress one complete day’s march from Menari. The sketch map listed Menari, Seventh Day Adventists Ridge (generally referred to as Mission Ridge), Efogi, Kagi, Templeton’s Crossing, Eora Creek, Alola, Isuarava, Deneki and Kokoda. During the briefing, Lt Col Cameron was suffering an attack of malaria, however it did not delay the issuing of orders for the task ahead.

My orders were to keep going until I found the Japanese, report on location and approximate strength. I was also to protect the left flank of a fighting patrol from the 2/25th Battalion, strength 53 men and commanded by Lt Barnett with Lt Cox. Their route was from Efogi by branch track to Myola then Templeton’s Crossing to find and fight the Japanese.

Also in my orders was to keep an eye out for the CO of the 2/14th Battalion, Lt Col Keys and a party from his Battalion. His group was missing after an encounter with the Japanese in the Isuarava/Alola area around 30 August. Lt Col Cameron shook hands with me and wished me good luck. I saluted him and returned to B Company and my 10 Platoon area. I saluted the eight men–all good, solid performers. Members of the patrol were Corporal Barry Flint from Queanbeyan, my Second-in-Command; Lance Corporal George Webb, Griffith; Privates Fred Carman, Bombala; Jack Roberts, Queanbeyan; Ted Miners, Bombala; Graham Todman, Mudgee; J C Baker, North Coast and Dick Mason, Sydney.

Extra rations were collected. The Regimental Quartermaster was always kind to me when on patrol. He would say, “Bede, take as much as you and your boys can handle.” Ammunition checked and replenished where necessary, some extra four second hand grenades. We had to travel as light as possible. Even so, we carried all our worldly possessions. There was no leaving anything behind as the Battalion was on the move.

Field dressings were checked. I carried some spares. We had no specialist in first aid or stretcher bearer with us. Unfortunately, my own training in first aid was practically nil. During our army training we were so busy being taught how to kill that survival was left to the luck of the draw. I was always concerned about my lack of knowledge in being able to deal with a wounded soldier, such as stopping bleeding. We also had an issue phial of morphine in a small wooden case. I was told not to inject it for head wounds but otherwise it was in order. I still have my issue phial in my possession. The phial carried on the individual soldier was to be used on the particular person if necessary.

The members of my patrol were informed of the task ahead. The route was explained.

We had been under attack before by the Japanese. At least four of us had taken part in the successful 58 man volunteer patrol from Imita Ridge to Ioribaiwa Ridge in September when we clashed with and killed some Japanese.

All members of the patrol knew it was to be no pushover and I said, “We keep going until we contact the Japanese, as ordered by the CO.”

Prior to leaving Menari at 0700hrs, on the 6 October, there were three smokers in the patrol with little or no tobacco. I asked Warrant Officer Jarrett who was with ANGAU, and who had a Papuan carrier party in the village. “Have you any spare boong twist tobacco, as my soldiers who are about to go on a long patrol have none.” He answered, “Yes, I have some but unfortunately it is packed away and the cargo boys are just about to move.” The Warrant Officer said he was taking supplies to an aircraft spotter somewhere out from the village of Kagi. He said, “If you can arrive in North Efogi the same time as the carriers, I will unpack the boong twist and give your boys some.” I thanked him and said that we would do our best. I thought, `That’s goodbye to the tobacco,’ as whoever heard of a group of Australian’s racing a Papuan carrier team. However, we arrived in the village a quarter of an hour ahead of the carrier team. Warrant Officer Jarrett was as amazed as we were. The patrol smokers received some sticks of boong twist and expressed their gratitude.

Back to the patrol moving out of Menari. It was an enthusiastic group, the high morale was as if the boys were going on a picnic. Yet all members of my patrol, since early September, had witnessed the tragedy of jungle warfare–walking wounded with blood and mud soaked dressings, some being led and aided by less disabled wounded. Walking wounded who normally would have been stretcher cases and had probably been walking for up to seven days. They were walking because they knew the Papuan carriers were stretched to the limits of human endurance. Even so, these carriers were still able to smile, and protected the Australian soldiers with banana leaves or similar.

The soldiers coming back had been tested beyond any normal type of combat. This included the terrain, shortage of rations, limited ammunition and the Japanese enemy with victory after victory as their driving force.

With that background and knowing we were going to make contact with the Japanese the best thing to have on one’s side was high spirits, high morale and a sense of humour.

We were told that it was a reasonably safe journey to Kagi but be careful after North Efogi, even so our order of march was two forward scouts with Thompson Sub-machine Carbines, then me and members of the patrol. The last man was nominated as dragman whose job was to get away and report to the Unit the fate and location of the patrol, if the patrol was ambushed or attacked.

As a small patrol of nine men, we were able to keep up a pretty good pace. We also had the incentive to reach North Efogi on or about the same time as Warrant Officer Jarrett and the Papuan carriers.

The Kokoda Track showed signs of much movement. The Japanese had left imprints of the familiar split-toe footwear in the hardening mud. There was another type of boot with the steel heel protector, a little over half a horseshoe, whereas the Australian Army boot had a full steel horseshoe. We were experts in detecting signs of movement left by the Japanese.

The patrol faced a super test. As things stood by the time we made contact we would only be seven men strong. Two runners would have been dispatched with word of our progress once we were one full day’s march from Menari.

Along the part of the Track, especially the Mission Ridge area, where the 21st Brigade AIF troops had made a gallant stand causing many Japanese casualties the unburied remains of Australian Soldiers were a disturbing sight. Some remains were still in stretchers in line one behind the other on the Track, wounded or sick had met death, the stretcher party having been ambushed or attacked whilst on the move. They would have been shot or bayoneted to death. Identification discs were on the skeletal remains. We left them there as I knew authorities moving forward would be the best ones to secure the discs.

Along the Track to Efogi and beyond, bodies of our troops were on or near the Track. The Japanese advance had been costly to both forces. No doubt the gallantry of these Australian troops had taken some of the momentum out of the Japanese advance, enabling a build up of additional troop resistance further back along the Track.

As a member of the 3rd Battalion, I witnessed the introduction of the 25th Brigade AIF at Ioribaiwa Ridge, the withdrawal to Imita Ridge and the fight forward. Now as we passed fallen Australian comrades, our step became more resolute, determined the tide on the Kokoda Track had turned. Late afternoon we moved into the jungle and camped for the night.

Another patrol from the 3rd Battalion was close behind us. Next morning, as we commenced the steep climb up to the village of Kagi, the patrol led by Sergeant Con Hogan with Sergeant Len Griffiths their role being to proceed from Kagi into the Seregina Valley in the search for Lt Col Keys, CO of the 2/14th Battalion AIF, also to report on the track Seregina to Alola.

A number of Japanese bodies were on the right hand side of the Track on the climb to Kagi. The bodies were in a deplorable state, fly blown and apparently victims of dysentery by the added stench and visible filth. The steep climb to Kagi must have been too much for their spirit and bodies. The number of dead was approximately sixteen. There appeared to have been no water available to them so they must have died a painful, lingering death.

I would like to record that the Japanese were glorious in victory but devastated in defeat.

I have spoken to Sergeant Len Griffiths regarding the patrol he was with on the approach to Kagi. (Sergeant Con Hogan was killed in action at Templeton’s crossing in October with the 3rd Battalion.) My patrol had continued to climb to Kagi, Sergeant Griffiths was just passing the last group of what appeared to be dead Japanese, when a soldier amongst the bodies sat up with a grenade in his hand, about five paces away. Sergeant Griffiths, who was the dragman, said he shouted a warning to the patrol, but the Japanese was too weak to throw the grenade. When the soldier was confronted and disarmed, he was found to be fly-blown from dysentery. He was eventually evacuated.

My patrol reached the village of Kagi. I directed the forward scouts to skirt the right side of the nearest hut as this direction proved the most cover from any enemy still in occupation. Many huts had been destroyed by fire and only charred black upright timbers remained. An odd grass covered structure however was still standing. Having made sure no Japanese were visible in the village, I investigated the nearest hut, approaching with caution, covered by two patrol men, my service rifle on the hip and ready to fare. A native came to the doorway, not speaking but with a wide grin on his face. He put out his hand for me to shake, which I did. A conversation in Pidgin English started and we learnt he was from Rabaul and had deserted the Japanese. We found inside the hut two more Rabaul natives who had been shot by the Japanese. One through the instep of the right foot and the other through the calf of his leg. Both were incapable of walking, the wounds badly inflamed with pronounced swelling. They were pleased to see we were Australians. As we applied field dressings to each wound we were told they had been brought from Rabaul by the Japanese and forced to work as carriers and in this case, on becoming ill and unable to carry, were deliberately shot by the Japanese.

They went on to say that in most cases the sick native was shot dead. The third native said he deserted the Japanese to care for his friends and they managed to reach Kagi and the shelter where we found them. The friend of the wounded had provided water and vegetables from native gardens. We gave them some tins of bully beef and three packets of our army biscuits.

My patrol moved forward from Kagi, our haste slackened and extreme caution was the order. In the far distance the tree covered mountains was distinct narrow gap, the famous Kagi Gap. With many spells during the climb and hopefully no hindrance from the Japanese, we would be passing through it in a few hours. The Track goes down a little after leaving the village and as there was not much scrub for a few hundred yards it was not good for concealment. All we could do was space ourselves further apart to make a less easy target. We came across the isolated remains of an Australian soldier. The skull bare of any coveting and looking closely I found a bullet hole to the back of his skull. He was probably doing the best he could to outdistance the Japanese when a well-aimed shot on this straight stretch of track caused his death, no identification discs were on his skeletal remains–Mr Billy.

We started to climb steadily, the Track skirted a native garden of some size. All edible food had apparently been removed. The track surface had hardened. We had many breathers short spells always moving into the bush a little off the track and making no noise. We knew that being so far out from any Australian force we were very vulnerable from the front, rear and odd side tracks, right and left–even with all the jungle covering us from view we felt like the proverbial `shag on a rock’. However, morale was high, spirits high, our sense of humour intact. Corporal Flint carried a small tin of meat extract, from where he obtained it I do not know, but the objective was to boil the billy at Kokoda and brew the contents.

The village of Kagi seemed to be a long way behind, we were now in the Kagi Gap, slightly misty at an altitude of 7000 feet. Beautiful green ground fern about 9 inches high with worn foot track visible an area of beauty and quiet. Nine pairs of human feet could not disturb the tranquillity, I thought for a second of a comparison with heaven. I soon put that thought out of my head as it was a bit too close to possible reality.

The soldiers in the group were at their peak of excellence–members of the 3rd Battalion at their best. There were no moans, disgruntled talk or remarks, we all knew every step we took on this part of the Kokoda Track we were one step closer to the Japanese–our objective.

The two forward scouts did not ask to be changed. Lance Corporal George Webb was the number one scout, our formation was as we had left Menari. As we proceeded I nominated various places such as the odd prominent bump, suitable large tree or clump of jungle along the track. The objective of this was to identify rendezvous points (RV) in case we became separated through ambush or similar surprise attack. All my patrol knew their response on making contact or being fired on by the Japanese–go to the right hand side of the Track no matter what. Whenever I took a patrol out against the Japanese they were always told a definite movement on contact. The ideal one was to go to the high side of the track, the important lesson is for a definite move to be nominated early because it is too late to nominate right or left when the action starts a split second can be the difference between life and death.

The altitude and freshness of air was invigorating, the hardened track showed no visible signs of recent movement except at damp areas.

The time of day was creeping towards time to call a halt, we had been awake since stand-to at North Efogi at 0430 hrs. On the go since 0700 hrs with never a dull moment. Our bodies were starting to say `watch it, don’t walk into a Japanese trap now’. We approached a fair sized creek with water flowing rapidly. Fortunately a tree trunk spanned from bank to bank. We observed from cover to make sure no Japanese were waiting. One of the scouts crossed and looked around. I decided we could camp after such a gruelling but satisfying days activity. After filling our water bottles we withdrew along the track approximately 200 yards to a reasonably snug position in the jungle growth but still able to observe the track from both directions.

I decided we would light a fire and boil up for a well-earned drink of tea. Speed was essential and in a short while enough tea was brewed to share.

Low cloud or mist settled over us. I don’t like the word `shroud’ to describe the mist but it was a dense white protector as far as we were concerned and any smoke from our fire was mixed with the eerie dense semi-transparent friend.

With only nine men we formed an all-round defensive position, a kind of hollow centre and circle. I decided one sentry at a time was sufficient. The mist covering the Track was in our favour. Phosphorous sticks glowed in the damp jungle also an odd fire-fly entertained us. Each one of us was in touching distance of a boot of the next soldier which was the method used for communication and waking up the next sentry for duty.

Not a twig was snapped or leaf ruffled as we blended into the damp jungle. We wrapped our half grey army blanket and ground sheet around one’s body and slept until it was your turn to be sentry. The nights silence was interrupted by the ever-present drip, drip of accumulated moisture dropping from leaf to leaf high up in the tree tops–the call of an odd night bird and off in the distance some jungle giant crashing through trees and undergrowth to earth and so the night passed.

No fire for breakfast just bully beef and army biscuits, quietly pack up and wait for a little better visibility on the Track before moving forward.

Two of the patrol were to be despatched to take word of our progress back to the 3rd Battalion Headquarters message giving condition of the track, signs of enemy movement and the condition of the patrol. Seven of us set off after waving silently to the two runners departing in the opposite direction. No thought crossed my mind that I would never meet up with them again.

From here our progress was slow. The forward scout set the pace. As far as I was concerned, he had all the time he thought fit. I had experienced forward scouts being thrust into death. Never under my command but when I had moved with a patrol who had been commanded by another.

We never met any Papuan people. It was better for us that no native people were on the move as we could treat any movement to our front as suspect. It was formation as yesterday, right side of the track–blend into the tree and scrub growth as best we could. The going was hot. We had to be careful with our water bottles as we did not know the distance to the next refill although we were pretty sure it would rain at about 1400hrs.

The Kokoda Track wound its way up and down and through picturesque heavy jungle with thick undergrowth to the edge of the foot pad. A section we advanced through was unusually interesting. A stand of high pandanus palms with mist seeping through the supporting roots a scene which seemed to belong to another planet. The trunk appeared to be balanced with no visible means of attachment to the numerous slender root structure as the density of the mist smothered the point of joining. Towering up into the mist were very tall beautifully, straight pandanus palm trunks–a vision I’ll never forget. I saw this again in 1980 and 1983.

The patrol kept any thoughts about this wonderland to themselves, we all knew any noise–even a spoken word–could be our undoing. Every ridge or bump ahead of us now was being approached with all the skill we knew. I always believed in `never underestimate your enemy.’ The ideal places on the Kokoda Track for an ambush or solid defensive position was the high ground and we were starting to climb again steadily but on the way up. We were wet through with perspiration and the torrential downpour commenced. We never unrolled our groundsheets and splashed along the track trying to control our tan issue army boots to avoid taking a header into the mud. Tropical downpours are noisy and visibility was down to about two yards. We kept moving. Our service rifles carried in the slung position but reversed, rifle muzzle pointing down. A little ungainly and not as fast for being bought into instant action, however it was better than having a barrel full of water.

On patrol when approaching a suspect area, weapons were carried in a ready for action manner for instant use. The seven man patrol was wet to the skin as we had been many times since the 3rd Battalion’s entry into the Owen Stanley Ranges, however the downpour was starting to ease, but the squelching mud still existed and as we moved forward the moisture on our clothes mined from rainwater to perspiration. The visibility on the track was greater so extreme care was the order.

Some signs of the Japanese having been on the track, even after the heavier rains was starting to show–broken branches, the odd footprint, tree roots which crossed the track showed fresh scars. There was also the feeling that something would soon be happening. I decided we would take a spell and moved off the track into the jungle. After a breather, we adjusted our bootlaces and pulled up our socks–that is, those who had them, checked the lacing on our yankee-type gaiters, wriggled our shoulders to cope with the always-there web equipment shoulder traps, the weight of our full haversack which caused the shoulder straps to bite as though intent on severing one’s arms at the shoulders and away we went. The patrol was in good spirits. Good-luck bid to first and second scout whose answer’s were, “She’ll be right Bede,” we silently advanced.

In the distance to our right we could hear short bursts of automatic fire and rifle shots, the time was 0815. I thought Lieutenant Barnett and the 2/25th patrol must have contacted the Japanese in the Myola area. From then on our advance was extremely cautious, blending into the jungle growth on the right-hand side of the track all weapons ready for instant action. The track had widened to approximately two yards. Footprints–the split-toe type–were fairly fresh.

The forward scout signalled to me using the close on him signal, his clenched fist placed on top of his steel helmet. The members of the patrol moved silently into the jungle growth just far enough to be able to maintain visual contact with each other. I moved up to the forward scout and he pointed to the reason for his signal. On a pronounced bump were five neatly arranged large green leaf squats were apparently a Japanese standing–or sitting–patrol had been, by all appearances, a short time ago. It was the first time I had come across the use of leaves to sit upon by the Japanese. A good idea but this certainly gave us the message that the Japanese were not very far away. The members of the patrol were informed of the evacuated Japanese squat and we continued our advance. I undid the flap of my equipment basic pouch–the one in which I carried two hand grenades with four second fuses. I also carried another four grenades in my haversack on my back.

We crept silently forward off the track still in visible contact with each other. Strangely enough, the jungle undergrowth had thinned, not cut about by the Japanese. Fortunately for us there were large trees which we took advantage of for cover from view and fire. I estimated the Japanese who had presumably occupied the green leaf squats would have been approximately 150 to 200 yards forward of the Japanese main defensive position and apparently had heard us approaching or just by chance withdrew to their main position.

Whichever way it was, the whole seven of us would soon be in contact with them. We closed our spacing but were slightly staggered to give each man a field of fire unobstructed by his friend in front. The forward scout, Lance Corporal George Webb, signalled enemy in sight at the same time a burst of fire from a Japanese light machine gun. The shots appeared to be on our left down the track. Our two Thompson sub-machine carbines and each rifleman started firing. It was rapid fire–our usual reaction on contact. I also threw a grenade.

The time was 0900hrs. Understandably the Japanese replied with intense fire from a front similar to fire from a full strength platoon. I noticed some movement to my left front which I interpreted as defence in depth. There was Japanese machine gun fire to our left and down the track. Some bullets started cracking over our heads and I gave the order for the two scouts to pull back. George Webb was occupied in firing his Thompson sub machine gun, when all of a sudden he exclaimed, “The bloody thing won’t work!” I called out, “Come back, George!” Luckily a sturdy tree was handy for him to take cover the Japs were starting to concentrate fire in our direction.

The .45 calibre Tommy Guns we took into action were nearly worn out through use in training, especially the H-piece or lock which caused a stoppage. The drill was to hit the body part on the top near the actuator a smart heavy blow with your right hand. Faulty cartridges often caused misfires. I never had a misfire from the numerous .303 rounds fired from my faithful Lee-Enfield service rifle.

However, George Webb was taking cover and called, “The bloody thing still won’t work!”, and we wanted him back. He was approximately two and a half yards from me, a long way in the jungle. Another hand grenade was thrown and the rest of the patrol fired rapid fire into the Japanese position as George made a successful dash back to us.

We immediately broke off our engagement and kept in the foliage. Machine gun and rifle fire was still coming from their defensive positions and was cracking overhead. We kept moving until we arrived at a position I had pointed out on our move forward. We had a welcome spell. We badly needed a breather. The seven man patrol was a happy group, still in one piece.

Our orders had been successfully carried out, although we were still in no mans land. We had located the Japanese on the Kokoda track, the first contact on the Kagi–Templeton’s Crossing track made by any Australians since the Japanese retreat from Ioribaiwa Ridge.

As members of the 3rd Infantry Battalion we were justly proud of this achievement. We made our way back along the track pausing at various points I had indicated on our move forward. We were always ready to counter any Japanese who could have followed us. Through the Kagi Gap we were on a downhill track and eager to re-join our Battalion. We kept up a pretty fair pace, always in proper formation.

All of a sudden the forward scout signalled halt. We all immediately took cover, I went forward to the scouts, protected by foliage, I looked down the straight stretch where there appeared to be movement seventy yards along. After some time a figure moved onto the track. He was an Australian soldier with a Thompson sub-machine carbine. He disappeared as he had appeared–silently and quick in movement.

As patrol commander I was working out how I was going to let our forces know we also were Australians. Undoubtedly they had been informed about a patrol from the 3rd Battalion being on the Kagi track. I had experienced being fired on by Australians earlier, a devastating experience coming under fire from your fellow Australians. One successful way I found to stop then firing was from a well protected position start swearing as only an Australian Digger can. The words, `Stop firing, you bastards, or we’ll open up on you!’ Generally there was no immediate result, the call would be repeated a number of times. The Japanese used words spoken in English but were suspect as only an Australian can use the word `bastard’. The greeting generally was, on meeting up with the attackers, `thank goodness you mob are rotten shots, none of us were hit.’

Now back to the seven man patrol, knowing it was an Australian soldier we had observed, I called out, “We are Australians, you silly bastards!” No shots were fired, a few more calls including, “It’s a patrol from the 3rd Battalion!”

After a time an Australian soldier appeared, immediately moved on to the track and waved, more troops came onto the track, my patrol moved forward. On reaching the Australians we all had a happy greeting. They were a group from the 2/25th Infantry Battalion. They were impressed with the information and expressed admiration for the 3rd Battalion recce patrol. They said they had not been sure who was coming down the track. The Officer said only when he heard the word `bastards’ coming through loud and clear did he know it was Australians.

We carried on to Kagi were we met up with a 3rd Battalion Signal detachment with a 108 wireless set, then kept moving until we reached our Unit near Efogi North. Our CO, Lt Col Cameron was very pleased, he asked me to express his thanks to my patrol members, which I did. I gave my report to the CO, Adjutant and Intelligence Officer. All were pleased with the success of the operation.

On re-joining 10 Platoon and B Company we were looked on as something special. My good friend, Sergeant Bob Taylor organised a dixie of tea for each. Bob was happy about our safe return. After our tea we immediately set about shaving our couple of days growth of whiskers.

The 3rd Battalion was preparing to move forward, via Myola. No rest in sight, a little later in the day I received a message to report to our CO Lt Col Cameron, addressing me as Bede he said, “I want you to go back as guide to where you found the Japanese, with a Platoon from A Company. The fighting patrol is to move out next morning.”

Here I go again, I also believed in the process of elimination, the more you stick your head out, the less chance of being able to pull it back in, however.

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