Bede, can you please tell us a little about your life before joining the Army.
I was always gainfully occupied. I wanted to be a carpenter. I was apprenticed to a builder in my home town Whitton came to Canberra and worked as a carpenter on good money which I enjoyed. I met a lovely girl Joan at a dance in Tharwa. Life was great.
Why did you join the Army?
In 1940 I was called up as a universal trainee being 20 years old. I made the best of the situation from there on. Transferred to AIF in Port Moresby.
Prior to the war, were you in the militia? If so, what sort of training did you receive? Individual. Collective. Resources etc
No. You had to have private means of support or similar. As mentioned, I was gainfully occupied. Where I grew up, no militia depot in the area.
Which Bn were you sent to? Did you have any say in this?
3 Inf Bn AMF. No, I would have preferred to be in the Engineers being a carpenter. On making many friends in the 3rd Bn, I wanted to stay there.
3 Inf Bn AMF Kokoda Track
2/3 Inf Bn AIF Aitape -Wewak
Did you have other family members in the Army?
Yes. Cpl Alf Tongs 56 Inf Bn AIF, later 2/1 Pnr Bn Balikpapan Borneo.
Pte Reg Tongs 2/20 Inf Bn AIF POW Malaya Japan.
My father No 1071 A Coy 13 Inf Bn AIF, WIA 13 May 1915 at Quinn’s Post, in a war to end all wars, 1914-18.
When were you told that you were going to New Guinea?
14 May 1942 at Saltash, Medowie area where14 Bde were. Given final leave, report back to wood chopping arena Sydney Showground 1200hrs 17 May 1942. Embarked on troopship Van Heutz 17 May 1942 Arrived Port Moresby 27 May 1942. Saw Joan and her family in Queanbeyan. No time to go home to see family in Whitton. Dad came to Sydney.
How did you feel about that?
Australia was at total war. I was a Sergeant, in most instances Platoon Commander10 Pl B Coy 3Bn. My father said, “For survival, learn the Art of Warfare,” which I did.
Arriving in New Guinea
When did your unit land at Port Moresby?
27 May 1942. (Tropical paradise?). By transport to Bootless Bay to set up defensive position and training, in kunai grass. Unloaded ships, guarded airstrips, trained in savannah bush.
What sort of support was there at the time?
(Gen McArthur bought the American war machine with him, helped to save Australia.) Australia was at total war. We looked on things as a continuation of the 1914-18 war. (CO 3 Bn 1914-18 vintage.) Fortunately we had been bought up to War Establishment, Bren LMGs, .45 Thompson Sub-machine Guns, web equipment, Bren Gun Carriers, etc,
Were you physically and mentally prepared to meet the challenge?
Yes. (Bully beef and biscuits amazing food!) We were young, well trained as infantry. An infantry soldier is adaptable, we could use our infantry weapons effectively. We were not trained for jungle warfare. We soon became adapted. (Learnt some from the Japanese – we thanked them.) Using our weapons as infanteers. Our survival.
What stories had you heard about the Japanese as jungle fighters?
Very little. Unstoppable. Maj Gen Gordon Bennett left Malaya with supposed story how to beat the Japanese? Told by Lieut at Moresby: Japs all short stature, wore glasses, fired small calibre weapon. Also unbeatable. (We proved him wrong.)
What equipment were you issued?
The going equipment of the time. .303 Service Rifle, .303 Bren LMG, .45 Thompson Sub-Machine Gun. HE36 Hand Grenade. 2 inch Platoon Mortar. Bn Mortar Pl 3 inch Mortar. MMG Pl Vickers .303. (All good.)
What were your initial thoughts on seeing the terrain and experiencing the tropics?
We were young with many friends. Australia at total war, the tropics our station. We would have liked to fight in savannah country, however, I became accustomed to jungle warfare. (I liked the jungle, tree orchids, colourful butterflies, foliage.)
Were you able to do any training before moving forward?
Yes. (3 Bn) Mainly for open-type warfare. Savannah country out from Moresby. No jungle (thanks to brilliant command in Moresby). Plenty of .303 for rifle and Bren practice, .45 Sub-Machine Gun.
Your first CO was LTCOL Paul, who was a WWI officer and fell out near the ‘golden stair case’. Was physical robustness vital in leaders?
Yes. In Australia CO rode a horse. In Moresby area rode around in ‘battle buggy’ (as troops called vehicle). We marched to keep fit. Troops queried CO.
Col Paul 53. Col Cameron 35. Bede 22. My Dad at Gallipoli 22 in 1915.
On the Track
Initial contact intense Japanese fire, stay in cover then open up with your intense rapid fire (A winner)
Principles of War
Vital. Lead by example. Lead from the front. Respect your enemy. Fire power not men’s bodies modern battles were won. Exploit success. Never reinforce failure. Keep up momentum.
Were you always aware of the aim of the mission and did you receive clear and frequent orders?
Yes, from my CO Lt Col Alan Cameron direct. I would and did always obey impossible orders. I would never obey an unreasonable order. Many of these unreasonable orders came from my Company Commander, never from my CO.
How much did your section and platoon spread out once you were on the Track?
Very little fighting on Track. Mainly virgin jungle. On Track single file, distance between soldiers as warranted. Forward scout, second scout then me (CO Pl). Always ready for instant action.
Was there close cooperation between the sections and platoons in terms of supporting each other?
Yes. As much as jungle density allowed. Mainly close quarter fighting, 20-25 paces from enemy in jungle. I never lost a forward scout in the Kokoda Track and Beyond Campaign 3 Bn, or with 2/3 Inf Bn AIF Aitape-Wewak campaign.
Were you able to deceive the enemy as to the location of your actual position?
Enemy hard to pinpoint, to deceive. That is, to deceive them, you had to know where they were. As Platoon or Patrol Commander, once found, we got stuck into the bastards. No pussy-footing, which proved the way to fight.
Were you able to adapt rapidly to the ever changing conditions?
Yes. Our firepower on contact was accurate and successful. Rapid fire.
Did your morale change while you were on the Track? If so, why do you think this was the case?
No. Australia was at total war. We never lost our spirit to win.
Principles of Leadership
Were your officers and SNCO well trained and proficient in their duties?
The one’s who had stuck to Army pamphlets and trained and attended schools and courses were good.
Some Officers thought they knew everything, were discarded and were a menace to have around for front-line activity.
Do you think that the officers in the battalion tried to learn new things and adapted to the changing conditions?
The intelligent one’s did.
Did the officers lead by example and aim to set the standard?
Did your battalion get AIF officers allocated to it? If so, what qualities did they bring that were not as evident or good in the militia officers?
No allocation of AIF Officers. Some 16 Bde soldiers told me they were surprised to see Officers in Port Moresby area who had been sent back from Battalions in the Middle East as SNARLERS. (Services No Longer Required.)
Were the officers able to give clear orders and explain the overall situation?
Not really. NCO’s were main. Most jungle action was instant. I always had set things for the Pl to do for example, when we sprung an enemy ambush, go to right side of Track. I knew then where all my soldiers were. Very little time to talk and jungle thickness for deployment and passing messages. By knowing what to do there was instant action between one’s eye and trigger finger.
Were the soldiers looked after by their officers?
In most instances. NCO’s generally closer to the soldiers.
Did you have the opportunity to use your own initiative?
My survival and members of my Pl’s survival was through me and my initiative. I applied my training from good Army courses and Army pamphlets and it worked.
Were the officers clear and decisive in their actions?
My chief Officer contact was Lt Col Alan Cameron, CO 3 Inf Bn. I was a friend of his, even though we first met on the Track. I always obeyed his orders.
Did you experience any bad officers in the 3rd Battalion? If so, why were they bad officers in your estimation?
They never had the stomach for a fight. Lacked moral courage. One of our first B Coy OC. The other Pl Com A Coy patrol, Mount Bellamy.
Do you think the officers expected more from you than you could deliver?
The only Officer I had full confidence in was Lt Col Alan Cameron CO 3 Inf Bn and I delivered everything he expected and more.
Did you feel that you were part of a team or just a group of individuals fighting together?
As an infantry battalion team. As Pl Comd, 10 Pl, I was in sole command and worked with 3 Bn CO.
To the best of their ability, did the officers keep you informed?
The CO 3 Inf Bn and Intelligence Section were my informants. I was a good friend of IO and I Sgt.
Battle of Gona
10 Pl B Coy 3 Bn. After crossing Kumusi River 18 November 1942, Col Cameron said to me, “Bede take your Pl up Kumusi for stray Japanese. After 2 days go to Popondetta to find out where 3Bn and join.” I re-joined 3 Bn 26 November 1942.
When did the 3rd Bn arrive at Gona? What day did your battalion attack? Why was it unsuccessful? How would you describe the Japanese defences?
I was told 3 Bn at Gona Mission area and Jumbora area. 24 November. I do not know of their activity. Col Cameron told me the 3rd was always in their allotted position. Brig Dougherty, Brig 21 Bde (later Sir Ivan) always praised the 3rd Bn. On re-joining 3 Bn I had malaria, scrub typhus and yellow fever. Sent back to Fld Amb Popondetta. No evacuations under 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
What was the battalion’s strength in officers and men on arrival in new Guinea. What was your strength after the battle of Gona?
On arrival in Port Moresby, close to 1,000 soldiers (World War 1 establishment.) 5 September 1942 560 advanced onto the Kokoda Track. 4 December 1942 Gona Bn withdrawn, 110 answered the roll call.
I was evacuated back from Popondetta strip by biscuit bomber USA ‘Chatanooga Choo Choo’, to 2/2 CCS Koitaki for treatment. Then to Con Depot. Back to Australia January 1943. (Recovered from malaria, scrub typhus and yellow fever.) `
What were your thoughts when you engaged the enemy for the first time?
Our infantry training came to the fore. Rifle range, assault courses, live ammunition training and practice. I am going to survive. We had good weapons. Firepower not men’s bodies, put into practice.
Did you feel any grief for killing Japanese soldiers?
No. We agree to no quarter after seeing a decapitated Australian’s skeleton. We carried out the Law of the Jungle, kill or be killed.
Did you lose any close friends on the Track?
Yes. Every 3Bn Soldier KIA, DOW or Illness was my friend. My very best friend, Sgt Bob Taylor was KIA Gona 29 November 1942. 3 Bn withdrawn from action Gona 4 December 1942.
What sort of medical treatment did you need and what did you get?
Our Regimental doctor Dr M Dan and his orderlies were efficient and did their best under adverse circumstances. We had what medication was prevalent at the time but could have had more.
How were you resupplied once on the Track?
Survival supplies. Command at Port Moresby was cursed by Soldiers on lack of quantity to allow for dropping in jungle terrain. Loss, also variety. Luckily ammunition kept up. More hand grenades would have helped.
You have commented that whilst the 3rf Inf Bn was in a position to enter Kokoda Village, but the Militia were held back so that an AIF Bn could be the first to enter the village. How did this make you feel?
As spoken by 3rd Bn Front-Line Soldiers, whose life was on the line. Front-Line Soldiers were not fools. On leaving Alola, 3 Bn was ordered by Brig Eather, 25 Bde, to Kokoda through rough terrain. Bush-bashing the 3 Bn Soldiers called it. Known in the 3 Bn that an AIF Bn was to be first into Kokoda. (2/31 Bn) However, when B Coy 3 Bn came out of the jungle onto the top end of Kokoda Airstrip, Col Cameron ordered them back into the jungle and to wait until 2/31 Bn Soldiers could be observed in Kokoda area. (Afternoon of 2 November 1942.). The Australian Flag was raised in Kokoda on 2 November 1942 by Pte Merv Shea, 3 Bn, of Yass.
I did not go from Alola to Kokoda with the rest of the Battalion. The story of my patrol from Alola to Kokoda via Savaia village (1 to 4 November 1942) can be found at wp.me/p2pRor-2s
Re-joined 3 Bn near Oivi on 5 November 1942. 3 Bn then joined the 2/3 Bn in the battle for Oivi until 11 November 1942. My Platoon, 10 Pl, occupied Oivi.