10 Platoon Patrol (16 men) from Alola to Kokoda. November 1942.

After the success of the Australian Forces at Templeton’s Crossing where the 3rd Infantry Battalion was the main participant, there was movement further along Eora Creek.  Units of the famous 16th Brigade pressed on chasing the Japanese on the right flank of Eora Creek and beyond to Oivi.  The 25th Brigade moved on to Gorari.  After a nights rest at the village of Alola, the main body of the 3rd advanced on a left flanking movement from Alola through Naro to Kokoda, despite an attempt by Brigadier Eather to slow it’s progress.

The role of 10 Platoon now was to patrol.  The CO sent the runner from BHQ to see me at B Company.  On reporting to the CO he explained the object of the patrol was to proceed along a rarely used native track which skirted Mt Thumb, came out of the high moss jungle-country and eventually reached Kokoda.  The CO told me that the Japanese may make use of this track from the direction of the Yodda Valley and menace the Australian left flank of the movement on Kokoda.  Information regarding the track was sparse.

I had 16 men all up and we still had out Platoon Bren guns (3), Thompson Sub machine carbines, 1 per section (3), 2 inch mortar and approximately 6 bombs.  The remainder carried the trusty .303 rifle with a good supply of ammunition, plus our ever reliable HE36 hand grenades with a 4 second fuse.  Amongst our weaponry was one HE36 grenade discharger cup.  I always carried a few .303 Ballistide cartridges for grenade discharge activity.   We had our normal ration issue for 5 days.

10 Platoon was in fine fettle, lithe and lean and with high morale.  I think the Platoon was happiest when on a definite role, which had been proven at the capture of Templeton’s Crossing when we were a Platoon in attack and against numerous savage Japanese counter attacks.  We won the battle and were now well blooded.

The village of Alola was a pretty place resting on the western side of Eora Creek, very high up and a long way down to the creek.  Across the valley was the village of Abuari with Missima further on to the east.  The 16th Infantry Brigade AIF were on the move through Abuari and Missima on the right flank of Eora Creek keeping the pressure on the Japanese.  A small banana plantation in Alola was the starting line for the 10 Platoon Patrol.  Lt Col Cameron told me to expect to climb over approximately 8600 feet through the moss forest on Mt Thumb.

For the first 3 hours, the native track was clear and fairly well used and then, like native tracks from villages, pretty well disappeared with only a human foot wide.  Going up we needed to have more breathing spells as perspiration was soaking us, even though the air was starting to get the crispness of higher altitude.  The track got to a stage of only being visible on tree roots, mainly through the healed scars of the bark which at some stage had been hacked off. Fortunately at the time of progress the scars were not fresh nor did the track show any recent signs of use.  We knew not to be over confident with these signs.

With extreme care and observation, using all our knowledge of bushcraft and the experience of close to 6 weeks of living and fighting in the Papuan jungle, knowing the ferocity of the Japanese, we advanced while proceeding cautiously.

I cannot express too strongly my admiration for the members of my 10 Platoon, Platoon Sergeant, Barry Flint and three section Commanders.  Proven brave and gallant soldiers.  The first days progress was drawing to a close.  We were now in amongst the moss jungle.  There was an eerie greenish light with the canopy of trees very high up and moss about six inches in length projecting straight out from the trees trunks and from the base of the trees to at least 10 yards up, moss on the trunks amongst the branches and on the tree branches.  A ‘ghostly sight’, one of the Platoon soldiers remarked.

We had no chance of lighting a fire and the altitude made us very cold.  We used all the clothing each one carried to try to keep ourselves warm.  We wore khaki shorts and shirt, Army pullover, had our 1/2 grey army issue blanket and a spare shirt which was wrapped around ones knees and issue groundsheet.  Dawn was welcome as we knew we would be warmer on the move.

The second day in the moss forest jungle, there was a damp, foggy mist and still the eerie greenish light mixed with some rays from the beams of penetrating sunlight.  The going was slow, as we had to watch our step and if you did not step into the available tree root next in front, you would sink up to your knees and sometimes to your waist in decaying leaf mould.  Probably centuries old.  I have often since thought it could have been disastrous if one or more of the Platoon had sunk out of sight.

We just had to be very careful as the roots were very wet and slippery.  It was hard, tough going especially for the soldier carrying the LMG Bren. We all shared a turn in carrying (a Bren weighed 23 pounds) and with the projecting pieces of metal, it was an awkward weapon to shoulder.

At times for an extra steep climb, each Bren was dismantled into the basic groups of barrel, body and butt.  Fortunately, being only a group of 16 we were able to keep up, meaning no stragglers, something which occurs with large numbers in a single file column.  In mountain and jungle, movement could become spread out.  The tail end of a column always has a job to keep up, even on flat, dry country going, let alone the mud slush and steep climbs of the Papuan tracks.

We were pleased to see more daylight penetrating the jungle and less moss on the trees.  These characteristics meant that we were gradually leaving the moss forest behind, and were more on the way down. Even the track became more recognisable and slightly wider, but with no fresh marks indicating enemy activity. Here again came the strangeness of Papuan jungle tracks.  A real track when approaching or leaving a village and then it virtually disappears.

Of all my activities in the Owen Stanley Ranges Kokoda Track, the Patrol through the high moss forest was the quietest, most tranquil and eerie march experience.  We were all wet, cold and hungry.  Wet to our waist through slipping into damp leaf mould, wet shirts through perspiration and brushing against wet moss, tree leaves and branches.  The physical effort of movement in the Papuan jungle going up or coming down made one perspire even though your clothing was being more or less water cooled.

The thick, long moss really tricked us as a method of estimating whereabouts and direction.  In the Southern Hemisphere the most moss growth is on the south side of a tree, up in the moss forest jungle the moss was the same length and density all around the tree trunk.  We still had the odd glimmer of sunshine to use for direction but scarred roots were our real direction of the track.

At approximately 0800hrs on our third day out from the village of Alola, 10 Platoon came down out of the moss jungle and entered a small native village.  Our main concern being to light a fire and have a meal of whatever we could concoct from the rations we carried plus, of course, a drink of tea.  The village was checked out and found to be unoccupied but the inhabitants could not be far away.

Two upright timber posts were side by side and freshly covered in Japanese characters, signifying the Japanese had been in the Village and somehow or other, two had died.  Our CO appeared to have been correct in assuming the possibility the track could have allowed the Japanese to menace the advance of the Australian troops toward Kokoda.  A fire was lit and the billy was boiled.  The drink of tea, plus bully and biscuits, was strengthening and delicious.  No cooking was possible.  Being a well-trained infantry Platoon, all members were alert at all times, with the various weapons ready for instant action.

My intention was to push on to Kokoda as soon as we had eaten.  This village was high on the mountainside and the view across the Yodda Valley was magnificent.  At last we were leaving the tortuous Owen Stanley Range behind, also leaving behind many comrades.  We all took a deep breath in readiness for the continuing task ahead.  We could even see a transport plane way off to the right in the direction of Kokoda.

Kunai grass grew around the village on three sides, the fourth being the jungle from where we had just come.  Looking between the four huts in the village, a track about a metre wide ran through a green patch of kunai grass and disappeared at a bend approximately 200 metres away.  As I looked down the kunai track just coming around the bend in the track was a scruffy looking fawn dog, as most of the village dogs looked.

Members of 10 Platoon spotted the dog.  We realised human beings weren’t that far away.  I called out to stand to.  The immediate response was all weapons at the firing position from the hip.  Take it from me, these men could really use their respective weapons from the hip, the success at Templeton’s Crossing proved that.

We were spaced about three paces apart in the village clearing, in a semi-circle.  The dog proceeded to come towards us along the track into the village and was approximately 30 paces away when a light tan-coloured arm came out of the kunai grass and dragged the dog out of sight.  Our battle reflexes took over.  Our trigger fingers took up the position learned in some training ‘bullring’ when we were taught holding aiming and firing.  I had trained the men of 10 Platoon to be very accurate when firing their service rifle from the hip at close quarters and we had tough active service in real battle up our sleeves now.

No sooner had the dog been dragged into the kunai grass than eighteen Papuans stood up, armed with bows and arrows.  They formed a semi-circle just under 30 paces away.  Just about chest high in the kunai grass, the bows taller than the bowmen.  Each bow had an arrow pointed in our direction.  As patrol leader and Commander my first thoughts were, ‘I don’t want to kill these people’, knowing full well that some of us would also be casualties.

In a split second many thoughts went through my head, including the sturdiness of the Papuans and how to communicate with them.  My well disciplined men were as steady as a rock.  Needless to say, so were the bowmen.  For communication in this nasty situation, I recall the first words one of my Platoon uttered was, “We’re Australians. We’re on your side!”

I stumbled through some imperfect Pidgin English, “This fella bilong Australia, we all bilong friends bilong Papua New Guinea bois.”  No response from the bowmen.  More of the Platoon tried to get the message across to them, mainly with ‘We are not Japanman!’

I do not know precisely how long the confrontation went on but it seemed a long time, I called:  “We’re your friends,” many times.  No one broke and squeezed their trigger which would have been tragic for both parties.  Suddenly one of them called out and at the same time all the bows were lowered and arrows removed.  Our stance never changed.  Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of some movement on the track toward the village.  I looked again and the women and picaninnies were coming up the track.

I knew that the possibility of a fight had ended so I said,  “Platoon, lower your weapons, but be alert.”  The villagers came toward us as we tried again to be friendly.  We offered a couple of tins of our scarce bully beef and a few army biscuits.  I had some salt and broke off a leaf from a broad leafed plant and poured some salt on it.  I wet the tip of one finger with my tongue and tasted it, the lead man did the same. He smiled, followed up by a noise like a grunt.  The rest of the bowmen gave noises of approval. I knew then the confrontation was over.

They accepted our couple of tins of bully beef and a few biscuits.  The women, who wore grass skirts, and the picaninnies were friendlier than the bowmen.

I had worked out how the two Japanese graves were in the village.  The bowmen had got them.  I tried to get a conversation going with the headman, mainly how far to Kokoda.  It seeped through a little as he pointed in the general direction to where we had observed a ‘biscuit bomber’ circling.

The sun was bright, we were all refreshed after our drinks of tea, bully and biscuits and the bloodless confrontation with the villagers.  On speaking about this to learned Papuan New Guinean scholars they knew about their existence, but had never actually seen the moss forest.

As for the salt, WOII Jarrett of ANGAU told me when we were back at Menari to carry some salt for trading and difficult situations. The salt was obtained at the supply dropping ground at Myola.

The patrol moved on from the village, with waves and cheers from both sides.  There was no let-up on preparedness.  The formation was two forward scouts (with Thompson SMGs), Platoon Commander and Platoon HQ with the 1st section Bren Gunner and his No 2 with PLHQ, then the 3 Sections. Although light on in numbers, we were still acting as Infantry Platoon Sections.

We felt great being out of the jungle we had known since the early days of September.  Mud slush, very little sunshine.  Now we had the sun beaming down on us as we went through the stretch of kunai, and downhill.  The track was firm.  No mud, no tree roots to watch out for.

We did not know how the advance on Kokoda was progressing, nor the whereabouts of any Japanese troops, but somehow a feeling of no distraction, at least as far as Kokoda.  Through being in the Owen Stanley Ranges with the lack of sun, we could feel the sun hot on our lily-white skin and we appreciated our dress of khaki shorts and shirts.  Dress we had found to be very much light on at night time in the moss forest and other high mountains on the Kokoda Track.

We found the valley track interesting, mainly because of the terrain and being able to see such a distance.  We were accustomed to the dim and at times very dark, jungle, where visibility was only a few paces.  The pace we were moving at was much faster than our mountain advance but full alertness was maintained at all times.  Aircraft activity was visible as we came closer to Kokoda and we could hear the noise.  It was a great sight and a great feeling for me.  With the Kokoda aerodrome, wounded and sick soldiers now had a better chance of survival, not to mention a more adequate supply of ammunition and food.

There was no incidence of the enemy on our way along the Track from the village to Kokoda.  Australian Infantry were now visible and we knew then that the Japanese were further afield.  There fluttering in the breeze was our Australian Flag, flying high, what a sight!  We gave a cheer and onlookers understood our glee.  No doubt they had cheered earlier.

I asked regarding the occupation and was told that Kokoda had been occupied on the 2nd of November by the 3rd Battalion and the 2/31st Battalion.  It was now the 4th of November.  We moved across the Kokoda Plateau and a creek leading into the Mambare River on our way to re-join the 3rd Battalion.  It was good, fast going through rubber plantations.  It appeared as though troops we came across were anxious to press on as a matter of urgency to catch the Japanese.

My Platoon caught up with B Company of the 3rd Battalion on the morning of 5th November.  However, as the action had moved so far since we left the village of Alola, Lt Col Cameron told me we had done a good job but tough work was in front.  He listened with interest about our confrontation in the village and said that it was still unknown country.  He said there was no need to write a patrol report. Looking at me in a conspiratorial manner, he said, “We know, don’t we.”

Capt Bede Tongs MM

The sequel.

Bede didn’t know the name of the village he had entered on the 4th, so we decided to find it when we went back to Kokoda in February this year, 2012.  After some discussion with Priscilla Ogomeni, who operates a guest-house in Kokoda, we decided that we should try the village of Savaia, not that far away by vehicle.

After some discussion, two of the older men joined us in the village.  One of them told the story of Australian or American soldiers coming into the village and that the men of the village were watching the village from the kunai, observing.  And then “my father’s dog started to walk down the track and gave them away.”

We had found the village, although we were in the new Savaia, the old village begin further up the ridge.  We thanked them and the next day when two of the men came into Kokoda, gave them beanies, exercise books and pencils.  Not long after arriving back in Australia from the trip, we received a message saying that the villagers were cleaning up the old village for Bede to visit ‘next time he came to Kokoda.’

On 4 November 2012 we returned to Savaia, 70 years to the day that Bede was there on 4 November 1942.

Garry Tongs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s