Voices from the air, p.15

Voices from the Air, page 15


Voices from the Air

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  24 December 1942 Had the wind up properly and was all set to clear out in a hurry – curse the recorder. However they let up and in a few minutes I started recording again. Got some of the shots passing overhead. Things quietened down after a while & I took the opportunity to pack up and clear out. I never want to get any closer to this ruddy war than where we got this morning.11

  That night Edwards and Leggett were shaken awake by the crash of bombs falling. Len grabbed his tin hat and dived into a slit trench. As he went, he saw Dudley, shocked into action and doing the same, but stark naked. It provided a rare moment of laughter afterwards.

  On 1 January, Leggett positioned himself to watch the final stages of the fighting, which he recorded later in his story, Buna Busted.

  The sun had been up an hour when I slid off the bonnet of an American jeep loaded with ammunition and continued my way along the side of the aerodrome to a tall gnarled tree 500 yards from the Japs’ pill boxes at the end of the runway. This tree had been an observation post but it had changed hands. Our artillery fire control officer was up on his platform by his telephone and I clambered up the Japanese-made ladder to my look out just below him, some 70 feet from the ground. The artillery officer was on the phone to his guns directing their fire and reporting progress.12

  Artillery and mortars firing smoke bombs laid heavy fire on the Japanese pill boxes and trenches in the coconut plantation next to the airfield.

  We saw one and then two tanks moving slowly between the palms surrounded by a thin veil of smoke as they fired point blank into the enemy’s pill boxes with their cannons and as their gunners turned their heavy machine guns on targets they’d picked out. Behind the tanks came the infantry cautiously taking cover behind the coconut tanks or close up to the tanks . . . Tanks came out to refuel and replenish ammunition and others went in. Progress reports came in on the telephone line that the enemy were trying again to set fire to the tanks with improvised Molotov cocktails and small land mines on sticks, but the tanks and infantry were now ready for this and closely supported one another. While this was going on walking wounded began to make their appearance on the track passing our lookout. American and Australian stretcher bearers were bringing back stretcher cases, jeeps were taking ammunition and food up forward and fifty yards away just off the track seemingly unconscious of the noise and activity around them two Americans stood bareheaded while a padre knelt by an open grave and read the burial service.13

  The next day ‘saw the finish’ as the tanks and infantry moved in on the last Japanese defences. Leggett again watched from his lookout as tanks fired shells into the pill boxes.

  Then our infantry were seen moving up behind the tanks. Five took shelter behind the foremost while one ran forward with something in his hand that glinted in the sun. That was the tin container of the engineers’ improvised bomb. He reached the pill box hurled the bomb inside and then ran to safety. We waited. Nothing happened and then the pill box was hidden by a cloud of sand and smoke and less than two seconds later the roar of the explosion reached us in the tree. As the tanks and infantry moved from pill box to pill box this was repeated and soon it became difficult to see clearly through the drifting smoke from bursting bombs and burning pill boxes. But before this happened I saw one of our infantry clap his hand to his shoulder and retire behind a tank, where one of the others seemed to bandage the wound for him.14

  With word that American troops had captured the Buna headland the fighting was over and Leggett walked through the coconut plantation where some Australian soldiers were picking off Japanese snipers and others were resting among the devastation and carnage. That night Leggett wrote his story of the battle – and a letter to Molesworth: ‘Imagine me typing this and the accompanying script by the light of a torch bulb and crouched in a three-foot-six slit trench to shade the light, at the same time trying to shelter from rain. It’s a queer life.15

  Buna was the first time since the Middle East and North Africa that the portable recording equipment had been used on the frontlines of an active ground battle. The conditions couldn’t have been more different from those in the Western Desert. Leggett wrote again to Molesworth, this time from Dobodura, inland from Buna:

  We fought our way out of Buna through flooded tracks of rich endless black mud when a kindly American colonel was persuaded to lend us some natives to carry the gear through the bog to a point where we were able to make arrangements for another party to take over. I think we covered four miles in eight hours. Edwards actually walked about three miles more to find some of the natives who’d loitered on the second trip while I was going ahead to arrange accommodation and the second part of carriers.16

  One night at Dobodura, heavy rain flooded the camp area and the recording gear and it took Edwards two days to dry it out. Under such conditions, Leggett was grateful for Edwards’s patience and skill that sustained the flow of recordings from the front. They went on together to record a series of interviews, including accounts of the battles from the American commander, Lieutenant General Eichelberger, and the Australian commander, Lieutenant General Herring.

  News from the Beachheads

  Haydon Lennard had been with the troops on the north coast and filing news for almost two months when he wrote to Frank Dixon from Buna at the end of December 1942:

  I started off at Kokoda and must have covered at least 400 miles since then – all of it on foot – humping the ‘bluey’ in true Digger style. I’ve met a wonderful lot of chaps – the pick of Australia these AIF lads – and made some very good friends. I’ve also learned that it’s impossible to report this war without getting out into the field and seeing for one’s self what’s going on.17

  It had been a hard campaign and Lennard was ready to pull out as soon as the fighting at the beachheads was over. ‘Operations out here knock the very hell out of one,’ he wrote to Dixon. All the other correspondents who had started out with him had already gone back to the mainland, ‘one of them shot up and the rest sick with malaria or one of the hundred-odd other complaints in this god-forsaken country.’18

  The final beachhead at Sanananda was captured in January 1943 and in the last days Lennard trekked behind the advance troops through the swamps to the coast, with other war correspondents and an Army public relations officer. They watched the fighting as Australian soldiers pushed from Wye Point towards Sanananda, and as rain swelled the tidal swamps to waist-deep overnight.19 Much later in the war, Lennard would describe the horrendous conditions at the Papuan beachheads.

  I’ll never forget the tragedies that I saw at Gona, Sanananda and Buna. I saw brigades become battalions, battalions become companies and companies become platoons. I saw a mortar platoon go out and it never returned. Later we found them. Every man was dead, killed as he fired from his position. We suffered terrific losses from casualties and disease. Small groups of Aussies held the front lines under impossible conditions, with their fingers bleeding, wounded and diseased from filth and heat. Militia, later supported by AIF, fought heroically at Buna. They killed 600 Japs at Cape Endaiadere and another 700 at Giropa Point. But they went through hell to hang on.20

  Lennard returned to the mainland for a break. The war correspondents swung between periods of adrenalin and tedium at the warfront, and for Lennard, the interregnums of life at home, where his marriage was failing, were increasingly challenging. He was also suffering from severe attacks of malaria and showing signs of strain from his extended time in the field. He was admitted to the 113th Australian General Hospital – the military repatriation hospital at Concord in Sydney – for a course of malaria treatment. About a month later he had a serious argument with a colleague in the ABC newsroom and was suspended from work. Immediately afterwards, he returned to hospital and then spent several weeks at a Red Cross convalescent home with around 30 other malaria patients. When he was discharged from hospital he apologised to the colleague he had offended and was reinstated.

  This Writes Finish to the Papuan Campaign

/>   This writes finish to the Papuan Campaign – a campaign which, although relatively small in scale, stands unique in the annals of warfare for sheer human suffering and endurance against fiendish geographical conditions.21

  With the end of the campaign for the beachheads Leggett and Edwards were soon busy recording interviews in Moresby and at some of the camps around the town. However, both of them had found the constant work in the field very demanding. When Edwards returned home he would need a month’s sick leave to recover and Leggett too had found it a test of endurance. ‘I’m eager to shake the dust and the mud of this place off my feet. It’s given me malaria, dysentery (twice) and a hernia, to say nothing of such minor ailments as prickly heat most of us enjoy at one time and another. I was able to arrange matters so that these afflictions rarely interfered with my work but the strain has been telling.’22 By this time, Dudley had been away from home, and his wife Dawn and children, for nearly twelve months.

  The coda to Leggett’s first assignment in New Guinea was similar to Lennard’s as he struggled with malaria and general ill health. Even a few months later, after he had returned to work, Dudley was stricken by further attacks of malaria that left him shivering and shaking so badly that he was afraid to move. He went into hospital for a hernia operation at the military hospital in Melbourne, where he caught up with other patients from the New Guinea campaign, including the war photographers George Silk and Cliff Bottomley, but his ill health persisted, now diagnosed vaguely by the doctors as dyspepsia.

  As Leggett, Edwards, and Lennard returned to the mainland, the cost of the Papuan campaign was being counted. Almost 1300 Australians were killed and more than 2200 wounded in the fighting for the beachheads, which were the last battles in the Papuan campaign. By the end of January 1943, through the fighting at Kokoda, Milne Bay, Buna, Gona, and Sanananda, more than 2400 Australians were killed, more than 3400 wounded and 29,000 evacuated due to illness. More than 1200 Americans were killed along with 150 Papuans serving with the Allies. Around 13,600 Japanese were killed in the failed attempt to capture and hold strategic locations in Papua.23

  There was little time to reflect on the losses or the achievements: the New Guinea campaign was soon to begin.

  Chapter 11


  Port Moresby appeared very wet and green from the window of the plane, as Peter Hemery flew in on his first war assignment away from mainland Australia. It was little more than six months since Hemery’s last field assignment in the flat dry landscape of the Northern Territory, and he was struck by how mountainous it was in New Guinea. Hemery’s trip was a brief break from reporting with the field unit at GHQ in Brisbane. In early April, the news from GHQ was mostly about New Guinea, foreshadowing the coming campaign that would be fought to the north on the other side of the New Guinea mountain ranges. At a GHQ conference attended by Hemery, General Blamey warned that the New Guinea campaign depended on the Allies retaining air superiority and MacArthur gave a similar warning that Allied and Australian security could be measured by the operating range of Allied bombers over the seas to the north.1

  On 17 April, Hemery gazed with keen interest from the courier plane at his first sight of Moresby harbour and the stilt villages along the edges of the water. ‘Just too good to be true. Could hardly realise I’m here,’ he wrote in his diary. He noted the airstrips tucked into the valleys and the camps on the hillsides, and when he landed was struck by the great heat and humidity and the frenetic pace of war activity: ‘The traffic is incredible, just an unending stream of vehicles running bumper to bumper.’2

  This was the military build-up to the coming Australian and American offensives. In the four weeks he was there, Hemery reported news, visited staging points over the mountains and gathered material for stories to be recorded when he returned to Brisbane. Military briefings at Moresby gave intelligence of the Japanese strength at bases along the New Guinea north coast and Hemery’s diary noted the estimate of 8000 to 10,000 Japanese troops at Wewak and 5000 to 6000 in the Lae/Salamaua area.

  Hemery returned to the mainland and in June, two months after the war correspondents at GHQ had listened to the cautionary assessments of Blamey and MacArthur, Prime Minister Curtin gave a more optimistic assessment of Australia’s position:

  I do not think the enemy can now invade this country . . . We are not yet immune from marauding raids, which may cause much damage and loss. I believe, however, we can hold Australia as a base from which to launch both limited and major offensives against Japan.3

  Public fears of an immediate Japanese invasion of Australia had already eased but Curtin’s markedly more positive message did not go unquestioned by some in the press, nor by the ABC. The 7 pm ABC bulletin included some commentary from the ABC’s GHQ correspondent, Haydon Lennard, immediately after the news of Curtin’s statement.

  . . . only two months ago General Blamey warned Australia that 200,000 enemy troops and an immensely powerful air force was massed in the near north. Lennard says it is natural to ask what has happened in the meantime for Mr Curtin to be able to say he is satisfied Jap pressure against this country will be thrown back on the enemy.4

  Lennard’s commentary was not an isolated view, but the ABC was criticised for questioning the leader of the country during a time of war. The ABC backed Lennard’s right to send commentary as background – this was Canberra journalist Warren Denning’s advice to Frank Dixon – but he also advised that the commentary should not have been broadcast.

  . . . we should have kept entirely out of any controversy arising from the Prime Minister’s statement. Whether it was right or wrong it represents the studied opinion of the leader of the Australian Government. In our position as a national news service I think it was entirely wrong to question the authority behind the statement.5

  Lennard was mostly unrepentant: ‘If ABC war correspondents are to refrain from commenting on any subject or reflecting any views held by others because they might be opposed to a Minister of the Crown, then I will naturally be expecting instructions on those lines.’6

  Somewhere, Anywhere in the South West Pacific – Kiriwina

  Secrecy was paramount as Allied forces carried out amphibious landings ahead of the New Guinea offensives. Peter Hemery and other war correspondents at GHQ knew nothing of their destination before they set out to cover one of several simultaneous landings. ‘All we knew was that two islands were going to be occupied somewhere, anywhere in the South West Pacific.’7

  There were heavy skies over the sodden airfield at Milne Bay on 25 June 1943, when the war correspondents arrived at the staging area for the American landings at Kiriwina Island and Woodlark Island. The landings on the islands off the easternmost tip of Papua were the first Allied amphibious operations in the South West Pacific area. They took place simultaneously with landings at Nassau Bay and New Georgia and were part of efforts to isolate Rabaul – the most important Japanese base in the South West Pacific – and to secure a coastal toe-hold for the Allied offensives in New Guinea. When Hemery saw Milne Bay it was the same rain-soaked, malarial place that Leggett and Edwards had endured the year before after the failed Japanese invasion. The signs of the Japanese attacks were still visible, but in recent weeks, more roads had been cut through the mud, new camps and supply dumps had been established and an armada of landing craft assembled.

  The shores of that not inconsiderable bay were lined right over to the far point with seagoing landing craft drawn right up on the beach, and moored to the trees of the jungle fringe. I’ve seen a lot of things tied to trees . . . horses, dogs, even a tractor which some suspicious farmer had chained up . . . but it’s the first time I’ve seen a sizeable ship tied to a tree . . . For mile after mile we drove along the beach . . . At first you tried to count the landing craft moored at regular, but widely spaced intervals along the shore. It was nearly impossible.8

  Although there was no Japanese force on Kiriwina and Woodlark, there were
real fears of Japanese air or naval attacks on the convoys, and it was a sometimes anxious journey for the blacked-out convoy, as Hemery described in the story of his landing ship heading for Kiriwina.

  I was on the conning tower . . . what would be the bridge of an ordinary ship . . . when a lookout sighted a ship on the horizon, bearing our way. ‘That will be our destroyer escort . . . I hope,’ said Ensign Joe Calvin, our skipper. We had no definite instructions as to where we would meet our escort, and in these waters, the approaching vessels could easily be enemy . . . The gun crews, standing continuous alert by their guns, quickened. But, a minute later, a Morse lamp flashed from the vessel. She was the first of our escort.9

  Yet again, GHQ scooped the correspondent in the field. The news story of the uneventful landings was released by GHQ before Hemery had a chance to file ‘spot’ news from Moresby. Hemery vented his annoyance in a letter to the ABC director of Talks, Molesworth.

  The arrangement was that there would be a delayed release of at least 18 days from the day of the actual landing. This would have given the field men a chance to file their stories on return from the islands, when the material would have had an even chance of release with the despatches of the GHQ correspondents. It was another prime example of the field man being left ‘out on a limb’.10

  There was no love lost between Hemery and the ABC news correspondent at GHQ, Haydon Lennard. They were competitive personalities and it would have been salt in the wound for Hemery as Lennard reported the GHQ communiqué while Hemery was forced to file his feature stories from Port Moresby over the following week or so. All his stories were read by announcers back in the ABC studio and an aggravated Hemery was listening in Moresby as some of them went to air – ‘Heard “Embarkation” through a storm of static read by bloody awful announcer, who made a sermon of it.’11


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