Kokoda Track Foundation Dinner 2013. Ralph Honner Oration. Capt Bede Tongs MM

Thank you Patrick, thanks Dr Gen Nelson, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and fellow soldiers of the Kokoda Track and as Patrick mentioned, from 10 Platoon of B company 3rd Battalion tonight is Lt Colin Richardson, Owen Baskett and myself. We were all members of 10 platoon in the battle at Templeton’s Crossing.

Now, I’ll talk about survival first. My survival is alertness, sense of humour and being with lovely people as tonight. That’s survival.

Firstly, I want to pay my respects to the four Front Line Battalion Commanders who paid the supreme sacrifice in action for this great country of ours, Australia, in the Kokoda Track and Beyond Campaign. And to all gallant Australian’s in the Navy, Army, Airforce and gallant people of Papua New Guinea who died for our great country.

Our gallant Battalion Commanders who died:

Lt Col W T Owen 39th Battalion. Mortally wounded in action at Kokoda on 29th July 1942, aged 37. Buried at Bomana War Cemetery.

Lt Col A S Key 2/14th Battalion. Captured at Eora Creek in August, died 10th September 1942, aged 36. Commemorated on the Memorial Plaque at Bomana War Cemetery.

Lt Col K H Ward, 53rd Battalion. Killed in Action at Eora Creek on 27th August 1942, aged 39. Buried at Bomana War Cemetery.

Lt Col J Miller. Previously Second in Command 2/1st Battalion and then given Command of 2/31st Battalion from Lt Col Dunbar On 7th November 1942, died from illness, scrub typhus, Gona area, 14th December 1942, aged 38. Buried at Bomana War Cemetery.

They were all young Commanders.

Jungle warfare was a young Soldier’s war, a young Commander’s war.

It is no place for a Commander to be miles behind the Firing Line, away from where the real action is being carried out, carrying a shiny leather swagger stick, saying ‘Tally Ho the Fox!’, ‘Jolly Good Show!’, ‘Some more ice in my whisky!’

Commanders at all levels need to be where the Front Line Soldier expects him to be, close to the action. Allowing for various levels to be in a safe area where applicable.

Leadership comes from the very top. When command is mentioned the name and position of the General needs to be mentioned. For the Soldier to lay down his life he responds to orders known to have originated from an Officer he has complete trust and confidence in.

One who, besides asking, is not afraid to do.

In most instances, Soldiers look on Command as something mythical, something without substance. That is why it is important for names and positions to be always mentioned. Also for the General to show more appreciation of the Soldier’s efforts in the field, through Liaison Officers or such and personal effort.

I was selected to attend a number of Army Schools and Courses also attended by Officers and NCO’s from various Units. The main one was the Eastern Command Training Course at Studley Park near Camden in June 1941. The Instructors were AIC Soldiers, the Australian Instructional Corps. The course included instruction on supporting arms and weapons, all Infantry tactics, operational orders, appreciations and other battle plans.

Selection for courses continued when I was a Sergeant in the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion, the Commanding Officer Col Ian Hutchison MC. Col Hutchison’s daughter, Mrs Susan Ramage, a keen supporter of the Kokoda Track Foundation, is here tonight. Col Hutchison selected me to attend the 16th Brigade Tactical School. The Officer in Command was Major Charlie Green of the 2/2nd Battalion. Later Lieutenant Colonel, he Commanded the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in Korea, however he died of wounds in October 1950 from a wound caused by shrapnel from an artillery shell.

The Schools gave a technical side to Leadership. As a Front-line Platoon Commander, I adhered to the following:

NEVER ASK A SOLDIER TO DO WHAT YOU WOULD NOT DO YOURSELF

LEAD BY EXAMPLE

APPLY THE ART OF WARFARE

KEEP SMILING AS THERE IS STRENGTH IN A SMILE

MAINTAIN ALERTNESS

HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE YOUR ENEMY

RESPECT YOUR ENEMY

LEAD FROM THE FRONT

EXPLOIT SUCCESS

NEVER REINFORCE FAILURE

KEEP UP THE MOMENTUM

MY FAITH WAS MY STRENGTH

It is with firepower not men’s bodies that modern battles are won. I trained my Platoon Soldier’s in what was known as Fire and Movement. The firepower from a Front-line infantry Platoon was intense and deadly. Jungle warfare in virgin jungle 20 to 25 paces apart. anybody who has been in the jungle, the virgin jungle, it is 20 to 25 paces apart.

The Japanese Service Rifle was .256 calibre and had 5 bullets in the magazine. Our Service Rifle was .303 with 10 bullets in the magazine. The Bren Light Machine Gun used the same 303 rounds as our Rifle and had 25 rounds in the magazine. The Thompson Sub-machine Gun – the one the gangsters used in America – was .45 calibre with 15 rounds in the magazine.

We also had Hand Grenades with a 4 second fuse and 2 inch Mortars. They were all very effective in the hands of determined, trained Soldiers. My Soldiers were always ready for action, instant action, there was no time to think about it.

THERE WAS INSTANT ACTION BETWEEN YOUR EYE AND YOUR TRIGGER FINGER. You saw something and you fired, otherwise the other bloke got you.

The 3rd Inf Bn advanced onto the Kokoda Track on 5th September 1942. Our Bn Commander Lt Col Paul was 53 years of age. The first decent climb in the mud and slush near Uberi he could go no further.

We were fortunate when our old Commander was replaced by a young Commander, Lt Col Alan Cameron who was 33 years old, an active CO. Col Cameron had temporarily led the 39th Battalion between the death of Col Owen and the arrival of Col Honner.

Twice a year I attend an Army Reserve Officer Training module at RMC Duntroon where the participants learn about the Isuarava Battle. The mud-map shows the placement of the 39th Battalion at Isurava as Col Cameron had set it up and Col Honner adopted that plan for the battle.

When Col Cameron returned from Isuarava he took over the 3rd Battalion. We worked well together. He knew I would do what was asked of me and more and I knew that he would back me up against unreasonable or incompetent leadership.

Soldiers of the 3rd Bn were critical of High Command for allowing a Commanding Officer 53 years of age to be in Command of a young Soldier’s Unit, in a young man’s war.

I was 22 years of age when I went onto the Kokoda Track. My father George Tongs, was with the 13th infantry Battalion. He landed at Gallipoli 22 years of age on 25th April 1915. These are replicas of dad’s medals, he went on to be wounded at Quinn’s Post in 1915.

The youngest soldier in the Bn was Joe Rorkin (Rovkin) of Sydney, Joe was a volunteer 16 years of age. He was wounded in action at Templeton’s Crossing on 18th October – on the 18th of October – but died on 10th November from his wounds.

The oldest soldier was George Clark. George was 61. I was good friends with George. He had been a regular soldier in England. In 1912 he arrived in Perth as an Instructor with the 16th Infantry Battalion, he went to war with the 16th in 1914 and returned after the end of the war in 1918. He continued to be a regular soldier in Perth. In 1939 authorities in Perth knew his proper age. He arrived in Sydney and sailed with the 2/1st Bn to the Middle East.

George Clark’s story to me from there on is in the Middle East there were a number of 14-18 soldiers and at a parade they were ordered to wear their Campaign ribbons, seeing there were so many 14-18 soldiers amongst them. When the inspecting officer came to George Clark, besides having 14-18 ribbons, he also had ribbons from the Boer War which was fought from 1899 to 1902. George would have been 18 years old in 1899.

George was sent back to Australia immediately and somehow managed to join the 3rd Bn and saw action with us on the Kokoda Track.

We were fortunate to have an old soldier with us. At one instance on Ioribaiwa Ridge, when we were being shelled by a Japanese artillery piece and had some casualties, George was wandering about saying, ‘Don’t worry boys, it’s only a 2 pounder.’

The inspiration gained from that old soldier was great.

There were two types of orders that I would receive. An unreasonable order or an impossible order. I would not obey an unreasonable order. I would and did obey impossible orders given by Colonel Cameron.

An unreasonable order. The 3rd Inf Bn led the advance from Ioribaiwa at the start of October 1942. We came to the village of Naoru and later in the afternoon, our Company Commander said, ‘On reaching the next village, Menari, tomorrow a number of huts were still standing and because of the bad hygiene of the Japanese, they had to be burnt.’

Next morning, 5th October, before we left, this Company Commander added a rider, ‘No eating before one o’clock.’ We left at about 0700 hours. At about 10.30 we arrived at Menari. I had 32 soldiers in 10 Platoon and they were good. We immediately set about igniting the existing structures. About half past eleven, I discovered a clean 4 gallon bucket and said to two soldiers, ‘Take this down to the creek, bring up a couple of gallons of water and boil the billy.’

A little while later we made some tea and I was giving 8 soldiers at a time a drink of tea as they had been working very hard and our morning ration of bully beef and biscuits was all we had had to eat. On the second issue of tea, an irate Company Commander came up and said to me ‘Sgt Tongs, didn’t I tell you no eating before one o’clock?’ I said. ‘This is not eating sir, we are just having a cup of tea.’ He said to me, ‘Tip it out!’ I said  ‘I’m not going to tip it out.’ He said again ‘Tip it out!’ which I refused to do. He ordered a soldier close by to tip it out, the soldier shook his head.

The  Company Commander was walking over to where the tea was warming near a fair batch of coals, it looked as if he was going to kick the bucket of tea over with his foot. But in the meantime the remainder of the Platoon was closing around in a semi-circle. Nobody had ordered them to do so but they were doing it. They were closing in and if the company commander had tipped that tea over he would have been thrown into the fire without any hesitation whatsoever.

He walked away and when he did some bright spark offered him a mug of tea. He didn’t even shake his head, he just stormed off.

That was one of his unreasonable orders, I don’t have time to give other examples.

I was given impossible orders by Colonel Cameron.

On the afternoon of 5th of October, the afternoon of the tea incident, the Bn runner found me at about 1700hrs and said, ‘Colonel Cameron wants to see you at Bn HQ.’ I went up and Colonel Cameron said to me ‘Bede the Japanese have disappeared on the Track.’ He repeated, ‘The Japanese have disappeared on the track. I want you to take a patrol forward and find them.’ He was very definite in using the word ‘find’.

He said, ‘The patrol leaves tomorrow morning at 0700hrs consisting of eight soldiers, two to come back one full days march from Menari.’ Then he talked to me about the route out from where we were at Menari. Up through Efogi, North Efogi, Kagi, head towards the track between Kagi and Templeton’s Crossing. He said. ‘Find the Japanese and report their position and strength.’ I saluted him and said ‘Yes Sir.’

On all my exploits with the Platoon, if I knew something in advance of an activity the following day, I never told the soldiers, I let them have a good night’s rest and told them after first light the next morning.

After stand down the next morning, I selected the eight. I’d already worked out who I was going to take. There was no problem with these fellows, they were all good and keen to go. I said ‘At 0700hrs we move forward on this patrol, get your ammunition and rations from the QM.’

These eight soldiers were raring to go, they were pretty well jumping out of their skin. We saw the Colonel and he wished us well. I saluted him and away we went. Every step those soldiers took was taking them closer to the Japanese and a step away from their own protection.

On the way to Kagi, on Brigade Hill, we went around a bend and there were some skeletal remains of Australians, probably six or eight, in stretchers on the side of the track. They looked as though the carrying party had been ambushed or hunted off because the stretchers were in line with one another and the skeletons in the stretchers were just bones with bits of khaki. Up in the mountains, between the rats and the large cockroaches it didn’t take much time for a skeleton to be cleaned.

We left the identification discs on them because I knew other soldiers would eventually come to look after them.

We went on from North Efogi and we climbed a pretty fair climb to Kagi. As we were going up to Kagi, we came across eight or twelve Japanese on the right-hand side of the track. They all appeared to be dead. They had no water, they had no weapons. At times the Japanese either deserted or cast aside [their own soldiers] they always looked after their front-line troops though. These fellows had probably been deserted.

We were still on the move and as our patrol went away one Japanese sat up with a grenade in his hand but luckily there was another patrol from the 3rd Bn coming behind led by Sgt Hogan. He detached a couple of soldiers. The Japanese was too weak to throw the grenade and they took the grenade from him, cleaned him up and I believe he was rescued and taken back.

The patrol of Con Hogan’s was to go from Kagi to the left through the Seregina Valley and link up to Alola. I believe that if that patrol had been carried out to completion, we would have successfully outflanked the Japanese.

I took my patrol into Kagi, there were two huts still standing and in one hut – we always approached these things carefully – as I approached the hut, a man from Buka, over New Britain way, came out, he was moving pretty well, but inside the hut were two other Buka bois, one had been shot in the instep the other had been shot in the foot and they couldn’t move as their legs were so badly inflamed and they said that when they became too sick to work, the Japanese shot them. They could speak English and said they were lucky because the Japanese generally shot them dead.

We put some field dressings on them and we were able to tell the patrol of Con Hogan and that got word back and those Buka bois were saved.

We kept going. From Kagi not much cover and you go slightly down before you start to climb again so we were very vulnerable. All we could do was to space ourselves out and hope that there was far enough distance between each one of us. We kept going and we passed the junction where the track went over into the Myola valley.

At about 5 o’clock in the afternoon on the seventh we decided it was time to stay and camp. We had camped at North Efogi on our way through on the first night. In the meantime we’d had a fair bit of torrential rain coming down and so we just moved off the Kokoda Track into a position in the jungle where, without being seen ourselves, we could observe the track forward and the track we came along.

At this stage there was myself and six soldiers. I had sent two back to inform the Battalion where we were. So there was just myself and six soldiers. We never tried to light a fire because we didn’t know where the Japanese were. Another thing it was very heavy rain. So all we did was move into the jungle, any word that was spoken had to be whispered because we weren’t too sure where the Japanese were but we formed a sort of  hollow circle and had some bully beef and biscuits and then we still had two sentries all night.

At dawn we moved off again at first light, the heavy rain had stopped. We had our meal of bully beef and biscuits and water and got going. We were extra cautious from here on. We had gone about two and a half hours and then the forward scout George Webb signalled me – my scouts were always volunteers there was no limit on the scouts time. I never put a limit on a scout, I told him he had all the time that he wanted to take.

Some patrol Commanders and other commanders limited Scouts to ten minutes, whatever it was, which was not the right way to go, because the scout was more interested in when his ten minutes was up than being alert. in one instance a forward scout was sent out as punishment by an officer. Needless to say, that scout was killed. Any scouts I used where always volunteers and there was no time set.

I never lost a Forward Scout or Second Scout in all my engagements with the enemy as a Platoon Commander with the 3rd Battalion on the Kokoda Track or in the Aitape-Wewak Campaign with the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion.

The formation I used was the forward scout, the second scout then myself, we were always taking as much cover as we could off the track but at the same time moving forward and George Webb gave me a signal to close on him.The signal to close was a clenched fist on top of his steel helmet. I went up to George and he pointed to a bump just off the track, and on this muddy bump were five squats as we called them. there were trees with large leaves.It appeared the Japanese were sitting there as a listening post. There was nobody there when George spotted the squats.

I got word to the rest of the soldiers to expect that the Japanese were about 150 yards further up the track, to be extra careful. So we took more cover in the jungle and we went forward and roughly at about 150 yards we were in the jungle just off the track far enough not to be hit by anything that was fired directly down the track. We were in the jungle and prepared for action, then all of a sudden we saw the Japanese as they saw us. We were only about 20 paces apart. they were on a ridge and we were going up the ridge towards them. Our immediate action was to engage the enemy and open up with rapid fire. That meant rapid fire from the rifles and the Thompson sub-machine gun. In this instance we had no Bren Gun with us.

We were fired on by the Japanese pretty well from right in front and we eased up a bit and they started firing again. I worked out there were approximately forty Japanese in that area. We gave them more fire and having discovered what I had to find out – their strength and location – we just faded away into the jungle. We had no casualties. I am not to sure whether we inflicted any upon the Japanese, if any. However, we disengaged from them on the morning of the 8th and we were still two days away from our Battalion. Myself and six soldiers.

When we disengaged we were very cautious on our route back, we pretty well went back along the route we came and got back to the Battalion on the afternoon of the 9th October and then of course Col Cameron saw us straight away and shook hands with all of the patrol and thanked them. I told him what we had found out which he was thankful for.

A little later he said, ‘Bede I want you to go back as a guide to ‘A’ Company patrol led by an Officer and they will be leaving pretty well straight away.’ So on the 10th I was on the move again. There was over 20 soldiers and a Lieutenant, and Sgt Armstrong was the Platoon Sergeant. But to cut a long story short eventually we came close to where the Japanese were on the squats. The squats were still there but there were no Japanese.

I said to the Lieutenant in charge of the Platoon, ‘The Japanese are only about 150 yards up the track, if I were you I’d take the two forward scouts off the track and let them have more cover as they move forward.’

He was a Lieutenant, I was a Sergeant. He looked at me and said This is my platoon, I’ll do as I wish.’ He wasn’t a very popular fellow anyhow but I tried to talk to the two forward scouts but he told me in no uncertain manner it was his patrol. I was unable to warn them to take more cover. As they advanced further forward there was a burst of fire from the Japanese position and the two forward scouts were killed.

One Section went forward and then Sgt Armstrong and I went through the jungle and we observed the two scouts bodies on the track. We were able to extricate the section of ten men.

We went back and this Lieutenant was really on the move. He didn’t carry out his instructions to fight the Japanese as he had been ordered by the Commanding Officer.

We eventually got back to the Battalion, they were on the move and were near North Efogi on the way to Myola and the first thing Colonel Cameron said to me was, ‘What gives, the two forward scouts killed!’, and I said to him, ‘The Officers no bloody good sir!’ All Col Cameron said was ‘He isn’t, is he?’  So that Officer was sent back from the 3rd Battalion, back to Port Moresby.

The thing there is that the fair dinkum soldier went forward with a chance of being killed and the Officer who had not performed was sent back out of the firing line and he survived.

But that was one of those impossible orders when Col Cameron said earlier to take the patrol forward and find the Japanese.

I was never idle. I was on patrols, attack, defence, close-quarter fighting 20 to 25 paces apart. On 18th October 1942 we were in action against the Japanese which we started on the 17th. the element of surprise was gone. We could hear them talk, they could hear us talk. They had one grenade which they used to tap, and sometimes you would hear this ‘tap, tap, tap’ and some of my fellows get very cheeky and would call out, ‘have a go you little so and so.’ And he’d oblige.

When we advanced onto the Kokoda Track on 5th September we went on through to Ioribaiwa. Col Cameron got our Company to go to the Spotter’s Hut which was about four hours to our left.

Not long after, I was involved in the extrication of the remnants of 2/14 and 2/16 Battalions. we bought them back to Ioribaiwa.

Another one, I was on a 5 day patrol from Imita Ridge back to Ioribaiwa. The Lieutenant in charge, Bill Dullard, of the first Section. I was in charge of the second Section. Bill Dullard went to the left, he was killed and three other Soldiers with him. I went to the right and we engaged the jJapanese. I had no casualties.

As I mentioned on the 17th october we started this attack at Templeton’s Crossing. we were pressing the Japanese back to Eora Creek. We were still in contact with them until Tuesday, the following tuesday the 20th. At 1700hrs a Platoon from the 2/1st Battalion came and relieved my 10 Platoon.

That’s where I met Col Cullen, later General, Paul Cullen. Col Cullen at the time, he always thanked me for setting up this firm base for the 2/1st of the 16th Brigade to go into Eora Creek.

When we got to Alola, I led a patrol along the foothills of Mt Thumb to protect the left flank of [the] advance of the Australian’s into Kokoda.

During that patrol, Col Cameron had mentioned that we [would] climb over the foothills of Mt Thumb, 8600 feet high. I looked at him and he said ‘It will be cold up there’ because our dress was khaki shorts and shirt and grey army pullover.

I came into a little village, there are a lot of stories there, but anyhow. We came into there and I was confronted with 18 papuans with bows and arrows. I had sixteen soldiers with me.

It was a bit of a rough confrontation for a while but anyhow we all ended up friends. I asked them the way to Kokoda they pointed it out and we arrived in Kokoda.

And then we went on to fight at a place called Oivi where the 2/3rd Battalion and 16th brigade were already engaged in a fight. Col Ian Hutchison was in command of the 2/3rd Battalion. He was very pleased to see us there to contribute to the battle.

On the 10th of November Col Cameron said to me ‘Bede, take your Platoon on patrol and find the left flank of the Japanese.’ A lot of patrols had been out and could not find anything so away we went and I found them about three hours later. One of my Sergeants was wounded.

The next day was the 11th November 1942, in those days it was known as Armistice Day and I led 10 platoon in the attack on Oivi and I also thought, my dad who had been wounded at Quinn’s Post, was in the war to end all wars and here was I, myself on this Armistice Day 42 leading this attack. Aanyhow it was successful.

We crossed the Kumusi river and then Col Cameron said to take a patrol up the Kumusi looking for stray Japanese. I came across some Americans and some time later I swung around a place called Popondetta where I left some of the soldiers who were sick.

On the morning of 29th november I saw Capt Dan, he was the Regimental Doctor. You had to have a temperature of 104 degrees before you could be evacuated from the front-line on account of the shortage of soldiers.

I don’t know what my temperature was. He pinned a tag on my shirt and told me to report back to the Field Ambulance at Popondetta about 30 miles away.

I was flown out from Popondetta for Port Moresby the morning of 30th November.

I was admitted that day to the 2/2nd CCS at Koitaki, I had malaria, scrub typhus and yellow fever. But I was still around.

560 men of the 3rd Battalion went on the Kokoda Track on 5th September, 110 answered the role call on 4th December at Gona Mission, when the 3rd Battalion was taken out of action. There was a lot of sickness. There were 53 killed in action, died of wounds, died of illness and close on 102 wounded.

People have asked me why do I keep going back to Papua New Guinea. I have been in New Guinea 9 times, Kokoda 8 times. The last time with my son Garry in November last year.

I landed there on 27th May 1942. I met these lovely Papuan people, there has been an evolution in the meantime, but all the time to me they are such lovely people and we can never thank them for how they helped us and died for us in those grim days of the Kokoda Track campaign and beyond.

To give you an idea how the country and people affected me, I passed that enthusiasm on to my son Garry who was fifteen years old when he first visited Papua New Guinea. And then later my wife Joan and I went up when Garry and his wife were in Mendi in the Southern Highlands.

I mentioned that I fought in the Aitape-Wewak campaign, 2/3rd Battalion.

I have also been able to experience being on the Track with my son and grandson David. In 1983 we trekked the Track, my grandson David was 12 years old, I was 63 and Garry was 37.

I was in Savaia, the village of Savaia where I was confronted with the Papuans, early in November last year and they made me Honorary Chief of Savaia. pigs teeth and all sorts of regalia, which was pretty good. We’re going back again. We took up some things for their school, chalk, exercise books, pencils, pencil sharpeners and so on. Stainless steel cooking utensils for the lovely women of Savaia and I’m looking forward to us both being there for the opening of the new Kokoda College next year.

We support The Kokoda Track Foundation and it is amazing the amount of activity and work that Dr Genevieve Nelson is doing and Patrick Lindsay.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen.

2 responses to “Kokoda Track Foundation Dinner 2013. Ralph Honner Oration. Capt Bede Tongs MM

  1. Where does Captain Stan Atkinson fit into this as he led the B company from May 1942

    • Good evening, Craig.

      Sorry for the delay in replying, it has been a bit busy since
      Anzac Day. Yes, that is correct, Captain Atkinson commanded B Company in the Kokoda Campaign. Are you related?

      Kind regards
      Garry

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