The 3rd Battalion AMF embarked for Papua New Guinea on 17 May 1942, 70 years ago. This blog is about the 3rd Battalion on the Kokoda Track.
From Port Moresby, 560 men went up onto the Track on 5 September 1942 and 110 answered the roll-call at Gona on 4 December 1942.
One of the survivors of that Campaign is Capt Bede Tongs MM. Unless indicated otherwise, the words are Bede’s as he tells the story, 70 years on.
Australia was at war and they were pretty grim times. The Germans were on a roll in Europe and even though something seemed to be stirring in the Pacific there was nothing definite. But we were preparing for war and we were preparing for war against the spread of Germany. And I could see it myself that whatever fell in Europe bought them closer to Australia. At that time America was neutral and that was it.
And therefore with that atmosphere anybody who was fair dinkum took to their training fairly seriously and we also were told that a well trained soldier was a survivor which made it more important to grasp the training that was offered and carried out.
We went up to Saltash about January 42 to May, about three and a half months. We went from Greta Camp to Saltash and in those days it was known as a Battle Station.
But then by the time we got up there in January 42 the Japanese were in the war. We were at Bathurst Camp in December 41 when the Japanese declared war. So we knew then the one we were going to fight were the Japanese.
Right from 1940 when I joined the 3rd Battalion we were on what was called the First World War establishment and the strength of a Battalion in those days was 1017 I am not sure if we got right up to 1017 but we got pretty close to it. In 1940 the Officers rode horses and we had horse transport. Some vehicles but most of them had been requisitioned from private enterprise. You saw a vehicle with ‘Billy Smith’s Bakery’ or ‘Jack Smith’s Butchers’ on the side. Eventually other Army vehicles came in but horse transport was there all the time.
They had a full complement of the 3rd Battalion there. Les Alexander and Billy Carter, the two 17 year olds I had in 10 Platoon were there. Some other young ones joined us later.
Each of the Companies were more or less isolated at Saltash. Where B Company was, the one I was with, our position was on the sand bed where Newcastle had some of its water drawn from underneath the ground. We could only dig down about 18 inches and you were more or less into the water itself as far as making slit trenches was concerned. Some of our activity was putting up barbwire entanglements which were left there permanently as a barricade to any invading forces that may have come across in that area up through the beaches.
There were huge mosquitoes in that area, called Hexham Greys. I didn’t see them anywhere else other than in that area. They were gigantic mosquitoes. When we were doing the barbwire entanglements, we had a fire bucket or a number of fellows with fire buckets with green leaves from the bushes to make as much smoke as possible to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Our accommodation was tents and at night time you had a fire bucket handy producing some sort of smoke. We had no mosquito nets. And our dress was khaki shorts and shirt and steel helmet.
We carried on normal training, weapons training and field craft and a fair bit of activity so we were still pretty fit.
The training was done by the NCOs and the Officers. They each had different lessons on field craft, weapons and general infantry activity. It was carried out by Officers and NCOs. The army pamphlets on the different subjects were good. Anybody who adhered to the Army pamphlets was heading towards survival because you were putting the pamphlet knowledge into practice to be a survivor.
Rifle range activity was good and everybody liked that. We went to the Stockton rifle range to fire live rounds which was pretty good as it was a very up to date range. The facilities there were spot on. In June/July 1941 the 3rd Bn had been issued with Bren Guns in place of Lewis Guns and new web equipment to replace the 14/18 web equipment. We had also been issued with new Thompson Sub machine guns, .45 calibre with Winchester ammunition. We practised firing those from suitable range as a close quarter weapon. We even had some odd live grenade practise. Throwing live grenades, it was a bit limited but still some. We had a fair amount of practice throwing drill grenades which are the ones without explosive, as part of our training which was intense.
We had a fair bit of bayonet training, with dummies and firing. but the bayonet training was always a pretty good physical exercise because there was a lot of determination and things like that.
The main thing with Saltash was battling the Hexham Greys and the number of barbwire entanglements we erected. There were different places Saltash, Hexham, Medowee. The Hunter River where we were was tidal and brackish water but about 30 feet from where the brackish water was, we would dig down and with a 44 gallon drum with the top out of it, make a container for water and the water we obtained there was fresh. We used the water from there to boil the billy and for washing and shaving and so on.
We didn’t seem to have any ‘bad boys’ as they called them, they behaved themselves well. There was no detention compound, everybody worked well and trained well. At times we had leave to go to Newcastle. We had to catch the ferry at Stockton and in those days the hotels traded from 6 o’clock in the morning to 6 o’clock at night. The idea was to have a drink at the Stockton Hotel and then catch the ferry but sometimes they would get carried away and the ferry would be on the way to the other side when they came out.
Newcastle people were all very nice to the soldiers. It was a good place to go on leave to. There was another hotel at Nelson’s Bay and in those days hotels were quite friendly. About every fortnight we could get a day off for local activity, no home leave until we got the final one. The last home leave had been Christmas 1941 When I went home to see Joan. Anybody who had to travel by train for a distance, it was a bit hard to be back on time.
The hotel at Nelson’s Bay was just off the road. Some of the fellows were in isolated patches and they were able to sneak off at times to the hotel. They had to keep an eye out for the Colonel’s battle-buggy as they called it, luckily the windows were clear and they could watch up the road but when the Colonel’s buggy came along up the road they would be scooting out the doors and out anywhere they could get to because he always pulled up and wanted to see if anybody from the 3rd Battalion was in the hotel. A couple of times myself and my friend Bob Taylor, the other Sergeant, would be there and the barmaid would say ‘There’s a tap-room there, boys!’ and she would open up the door and we would dive in so there was no-one in the bar.
We had what they call Regimental Police. There was a Sergeant, a Regimental Police Sergeant. We had a very wild fellow, he was a good bloke but if someone wanted to play up a bit he was branded a wild fellow. He came from around Mittagong way, he was wild but not dangerously wild, he was promoted to Regimental Police Sergeant and that tamed him down. He was spot on after that.
He couldn’t act independently, if an Officer or NCO called him to act he operated under their command, he couldn’t find something himself. He just couldn’t wander around grabbing people. That’s in the 3rd Battalion, I’m not sure what happened in other units. He was more like a figurehead, his presence was supposed to calm things down. We had no reason to call on him in B Company in my experience.
Commander of 10 platoon, let me think, they changed them a bit and we never saw much of any of them, it could have been a chap by the name of Jack Dovey, probably Lieut Jack Dovey. The Company commander was Captain Bill Nordsvan. Another platoon Commander was Lieutenant Bill Woodger. Probably even Col Kermode was another Platoon Commander. A, C and D Company seemed to have more consistent Platoon commanders who were with their Platoon. Generally if a Platoon Commander showed some potential they were transferred or used up somewhere else, seconded somewhere. That left the Platoon Sergeant in charge. Some were even at schools. They never attended many schools which was pretty sad because they needed that education on military activity. unfortunately, some of them thought they knew everything without needing to go to a school. In most instances the Platoon Sergeant was more capable than the Officer in charge of the Platoon. The Platoon Sergeant always conducted lessons according to the army pamphlets. I used to carry out lessons on weaponry and field craft and orders and so on. Generally an officer wandered around directing things, in some cases they participated.
We did a fair bit of fire and movement exercises which was pretty good because that stuck by us later. Training in open warfare formations, extended line and arrowheads. We even had mock street and village fighting with no structures. We threw a lot of practice grenades that was grenades without explosives in them which was pretty good practice for accuracy. We always stood up to throw them in practice. For live grenade practice there was a special grenade arrangement as we were in pits and the instructor would move to another section so the person throwing the grenade was the only on in the pit in case they dropped the grenade. It was pretty scary practice for some of them to throw a live grenade. Our early live grenade practice was all with the 7 second grenades but in the jungle in combat we had a 4 second grenade.
The chap who threw the grenade also primed the grenade. You unscrewed the baseplate and the different fuses were in a special container. The 7 second had a clear stem on the mechanism and the 4 second had a little red rubber band. The idea was at nighttime you could feel along it and if you felt this little band you had a 4 second fuse. Once they threw an odd grenade that was live they got into the swing of things and it was no problem.