Voices from the air, p.16

Voices from the Air, page 16

 

Voices from the Air
 



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  The New Guinea campaign had begun in earnest with the Nassau Bay landings but Hemery was in Moresby when he received news that his wife Norma was ill in the final days of her pregnancy; he rushed back to Melbourne. The doctors did not expect the baby to survive and Norma was also very weak but a son, Peter, was born on 27 July. There was little time to spend with his family and within a few days Hemery was sent back to Port Moresby with Bill MacFarlane and the field unit recording gear.

  At GHQ, Haydon Lennard was still battling with bouts of the malaria he had contracted when he was in New Guinea. He wrote to Syd Deamer at the ABC – ‘I have been having mild attacks every six or seven days since my return here but in the last few weeks they have become more regular and much more severe. The last two have been less than 24 hours apart.’ Lennard went back into hospital and had recovered by the end of August, in time to travel to Port Moresby with GHQ for the start of the New Guinea campaign near Salamaua, on the north coast.

  Bombs for Lullaby and Mortars for Cockcrow – Salamaua

  ‘I love this life,’ confided Bill Marien in his diary, ‘but I do so miss Peg and Elizabeth Anne.’12 Marien’s wife and young daughter had been on his mind in the days since his arrival at Nassau Bay, south of Salamaua on the New Guinea north coast. He was camped in a hole in the sand topped by a mosquito net that did nothing to keep out the rain, but despite the discomfort and the thoughts of his family at home, Marien was thriving on the adventure of reporting from the front. He had been working in the Sydney newsroom since his assignment to Timor at the end of the previous year, and when he finally flew into Port Moresby in early July 1943, just after the first Allied landings at Nassau Bay, he was happy to be returning to the field.

  Bill stayed at St Percy’s, the nickname for the war correspondents’ house just outside Moresby – ‘St Percy’s School for Young Gentlemen,’ he quipped in his diary. He covered the news briefings at HQ for several days and was waiting at the airport for a flight to the north when wounded from the fighting around Wau and Nassau Bay were flown in. Talking with the wounded was probably his first contact with soldiers from the frontlines. Conditions were hard in the steep bush-and jungle-clad terrain at the front, and among the returning men was one soldier who ‘had gone mad’ and mutilated himself.

  A few days later, having made it across the mountains and then by landing craft along the coast, Marien stepped on to the beach at Nassau Bay – ‘I steeled myself for a jolt. Instead we landed almost gently. The ramp flapped down and we ran up the beach. It was Timor all over again except no one got wet. It was quite dark and the beach was crowded. We were led in by two discreet, veiled lights. Dossed on the beach because not permitted to venture inside. Guards ordered to shoot to prevent Japs infiltrating.’13

  The American and Australian troops then pushing towards Salamaua were helping to draw Japanese forces and attention away from the more vital target of Lae, the important coastal base tucked beneath the arm of the Huon Peninsula a further 30 kilometres or so to the north. Marien’s news stories from the Salamaua campaign were not archived but excerpts from his diary reveal something of these days behind the frontline.

  13 July 1943 Dull steamy day, soaking wet but good stories. Bombers overhead again to Salamaua and while we are shaving by the river we hear the crump of their bombs. Before we have finished the bombers come out through the ack-ack curtain and one, a B-25, hits the sea. Impossible to get to the crew through the surf in the only available boat, a native canoe . . . in the evening a Jap prisoner is brought in. He is naked and menaced by a guard with a tommy gun.14

  Moving from the camp to forward positions to gather stories, Marien might have to walk six kilometres each day to deliver his stories to the military courier, which would carry them back to Moresby and then by another plane to the mainland. A few days after he first wrote of Peg and Elizabeth, he was again thinking of his family.

  17 July 1943 Lying on my back in the dark and cooling undergrowth I watch the moon rising full and bright. Can’t help thinking of Peg and my daughter. All around is the quiet drone of subdued conversation. A Yank under a native hut is playing a mouth organ softly. It doesn’t seem like war. But the Japs are only 12 miles away and we are to move in a few minutes by barge to within 5 miles of Salamaua.15

  Marien was very soon settled beside a jungle track just south of Salamaua, and much closer to the fighting. For much of his time so far on the New Guinea north coast he had slept without much shelter and under frequent rain – once in six inches of water. The troops in the most forward positions often endured worse conditions, but outside Salamaua Marien experienced the roughest and wettest night he had known and in the morning his hands were ‘completely white and puckered horribly’ from the water. It took days before he could dry out his stinking clothes. Trekking towards the village of Boisi, Marien now passed abandoned Japanese positions. ‘From here on to Boisi, the stench of shallow Jap graves hastily dug is overwhelming . . . Jap and Yank shells overhead roar exactly like an express train a mile away on a still night. From Boisi ridge beyond village, rifle, machine gun, tommy gun and mortars are continuous.’16 Around this time an intelligence summary provided Marien with the text of a captured Japanese order for troops to withdraw.

  All units to leave the present location will thoroughly consider counter-intelligence and burn each scrap of paper or documents and all articles must be destroyed so they will be of no use to the enemy. It is expected this will be done in an orderly manner and there will be a withdrawal without panic so that nothing will remain to sully the military renown of the Imperial troops.17

  In a hiatus before the expected battle for Salamaua, Bill and the Daily Mirror correspondent Barry Young returned to Moresby, travelling the first leg on a barge back to Nassau Bay, ‘crowded with the walking wounded and stretcher cases – one young man had been shot through the shoulder, arm and lung and had contracted pneumonia – but the trip was deadly silent except for the throbbing of the underwater exhaust’.18 At Moresby, after several weeks in the field, Marien was distressed to find that many of his stories had been delayed.

  Our stuff should have been back in Moresby within thirty-six hours but it was held by a foolish fellow halfway, at Morobe. Consequently it was up to five days old when it hit Moresby. However, I should like to hear how it got through and how it was used. Where we were I was cut right away from communications of all kinds. Sicily and Mussolini were news to me when I returned.19

  He obtained an assurance from the army that communications would be faster in the future and stood by for a quick return to the Salamaua area. The renewed Australian involvement on the battlefront in New Guinea now required a re-think by the ABC and plans were made for more correspondents in Port Moresby.

  In early August, a few weeks before the influx of the other ABC correspondents, Marien went aboard the B-24 Liberator bomber Star Duster on a bombing raid against the Japanese at Salamaua.

  7 August 1943 The great plane handles as easily as a modern car. Soon we’re high over Moresby and jockeying into formation. Above us the Eager Beaver, to our left the Liberty Belle . . . Below us was country so rugged as to be almost unbelievable. We hit the coast just below Nassau and below me I saw spread out the whole coastline to Boisi. That’s where I had been with the boys for 3 weeks and I am going back in a few days. Soon we were going in on our run over Salamaua. We were at 6000 feet – the lowest daylight bombing over Salamaua yet.20

  Marien manned one of the waist guns on the third bombing run and shot 200 rounds of red tracer down onto the houses below. Return fire from the Japanese hit the plane in the tail and nose and destroyed its antenna but it was otherwise undamaged. The use of weapons by war correspondents was contrary to the rules of war and their accreditation, but carrying a weapon was commonly a condition of accompanying troops into combat. With the lines so blurred, the camaraderie with troops or air crew also gave some correspondents the opportunity and licence to use weapons. Peter Hemery was also in Moresby and had been
tasked with writing a news story about Australian soldiers in New Guinea voting in the Australian federal election. Marien may still have been smarting from the delays that cruelled his earlier stories but he felt the ABC was prioritising a soft story over the war news: ‘I’m disgusted with them. Men can fight and die up here but to be news they must vote.’21

  Marien returned to Nassau Bay a few days later aboard a PT boat on night patrol from Morobe. In the brief time he had been away, the camps and supply dumps had expanded even more – and he found that his previously ad hoc movement on military transport was now a little more regulated, as the military administration issuing travel authorities had caught up with the frontline. ‘After mucking about,’ he commented, with apparent resignation, ‘they now have movement control – the paper war has arrived.’22

  At Boisi on Tambu Bay, just south of Salamaua, he shared a dugout beneath a native hut with another correspondent, Hal O’Flaherty of the Chicago Daily News, and the Australian photographer and newsreel cameraman Bill Carty. There was no fixed, linear front on the ridges and mountain trails leading to Salamaua; instead Japanese defences at strategic positions blocked the Australian advance through the rugged terrain.

  Around this time, a Japanese raiding party tagged as a ‘suicide patrol’ slipped through the Australian lines at Mount Tambu and headed for the coast, where it ambushed an Australian patrol. As was common in most reporting of Allied deaths during the war, Marien’s later story for the ABC avoided the details but his diary recorded that the Australians had been shot, bayonetted and bashed to death. Australian troops were also killed in other attacks by the Japanese patrol.

  16 August 1943 After breakfast, 7 am, learn of Jap raiding party’s 4 am attack on 25 pounders. Walk the five miles back double quick with Catholic padre Steele. Signs of the battle still fresh. Two dead Japs close to gun and command post. They went through the Australians’ kits and got clear away with nearly everyone’s personal gear.23

  For three nights, while the Japanese force roamed the surrounding terrain, Marien, O’Flaherty and Bill Carty took turns to stand guard at their somewhat exposed dugout at Boisi, at the end of the Mount Tambu track. Japanese shelling too was a constant threat and one evening before his overnight guard duty Marien took an Australian gunner suffering from shell shock down to the hospital. It was a tense few nights – ‘Just now shots going off. Dog killed in cemetery. Been playing about at night and keeping people trigger happy and unhappily awake. He was with me on guard last night.’24 The members of the Japanese patrol, estimated to be 118-strong, were eventually killed or captured. Marien’s story of the ‘suicide patrol’ was an insight into the twilight world of jungle and bush warfare but also gave a morale-boosting assessment of Allied forces on the offensive in New Guinea: ‘. . . when his armies surged northward with barely a check, myths of the Japanese superman swept Allied countries. Everyone believed it – even the Jap himself. But since those cheap and early victories the myth has been punctured.’25

  Japanese shelling of the Australian positions was frequent and deadly. One night 15 Japanese shells struck the camp at Boisi. Four soldiers sleeping little more than 10 metres away from Marien were killed outright and two others died on the way to the field hospital. In the morning Marien moved out of the dugout and away from the beach. He noted in his diary that he was sorry to leave the nearby streams that had been so handy for washing and bathing. ‘Was not sorry however after looking at the four mangled bodies of the lads who had been hit.’26

  Each day brought more Japanese bombing or shelling; it marked Marien’s sleeping and his waking. On 23 August he noted in his diary: ‘Two bombers, four bombs for lullaby and mortars for cockcrow.’27

  As the Australians drew nearer to Salamaua around the end of August, the weary soldiers of the 2/5th and 2/6th Battalions were coming back from the frontline. For several nights Marien watched the troops passing through under heavy rain, singing as they walked, though some were so exhausted that they collapsed. He and the other war correspondents made room for as many as possible in their tent. A day or so later, before the fall of Salamaua, Bill too left the front and headed back to Port Moresby. En route at Dobodura he joined the fire-trucks and crowds of soldiers gathered at the air strip to watch a belly landing by a B-25 bomber that had been shot up on a raid over Hansa Bay and was coming in on only one engine – ‘a great show, no-one hurt,’ he remarked. He’d had little luck getting a lift with the Australians but he found the Americans proved much more flexible about travel and he finally hitched a ride on an otherwise empty US transport plane back to Moresby.

  Dear Sir, I have been informed that on Tuesday 21 September at approximately 7.45 pm a broadcast was given from 3LO by a war correspondent on some of the happenings on the trails on 17 August around Salamaua. We have been notified by the Minister of Army of the loss of our only son on 17 August who was a commando in 213 Independent Co but have no further details. The manager of local station 2LM states by writing to you I may be able to obtain a copy of script of that particular broadcast.28

  Throughout August, while Marien had been in the field near Salamaua, Peter Hemery had been reporting news and recording features from Port Moresby, and flying on bombing raids. On one raid to Wewak Hemery’s plane was ambushed by a Japanese zero fighter and Hemery manned the starboard waist gun. It’s not clear if it was a matter of necessity or opportunity: ‘. . . eventually managed to get few rounds away. Pretty plane bright green (with) red cowling. Amazing sight as it attacked following 24 – sheet of flame from nose as loosed cannon. Pulled up on one wingtip as met fire (from) both ships, and fell out diving groggily for clouds. We claim probable.’29

  At this stage Hemery was not only writing for the ABC and the BBC but had also started sending reports for American news agency the International News Service, INS, without the approval of the ABC or Army public relations – a decision that would soon lead to a confrontation.

  The necessity of recording meant Hemery’s days were often longer than other correspondents’ and little changed until the end of August, when he joined the convoy at Milne Bay heading for the attack on Lae.

  Paratroops at Nadzab

  The Japanese base at the port of Lae on the Huon Peninsula garrisoned by around 10,000 troops, was a major objective for the Allies. In early September 1943, American and Australian paratroops landed at Nadzab in the Markham Valley, inland from Lae. With airstrips secured in the valley, the 7th Australian Division was flown in to spearhead the push towards Lae from the west while troops of the 9th Division would fight their way along the coast. Peter Hemery would cover the Lae offensive from the coastal landings and Bill Marien would report with the troops attacking overland to the sea.

  In Port Moresby, Dudley Leggett now had the task of overseeing the disparate group of independent-minded ABC correspondents preparing to cover the Lae campaign. Peter Hemery was already en route to Lae when Leggett arrived but Marien was on base and Leggett found him quick and generous in his co-operation. Marien flew on the first drop over Nadzab with American paratroopers in one of the 87 transport planes, part of a formation of almost 240 transports, attack bombers and fighters. He described the operation in his diary.

  5 September 1943 As far as one could see the planes stretched in the sky. We went over the range and at 10.30 the mission was complete. The men jumped 22 in eight seconds. I handled the bundle and dropped it . . . We dropped from less than 500 feet – very low altitude. The whole 1650 men were dropped in 3 minutes. The green field was a mass of white & coloured chutes for acres & acres. I pulled in the rip cords, 15 feet of canvas strip which automatically opens the chute, and came back to 17 mile drome . . . Wrote 1500 words and recorded with Leggett at night.30

  A few days later, Leggett wrote the story of the Australian gunners who dropped into the Markham Valley with their field guns, the first Australian ‘paratroopers’ in action.

  These men are not paratroops. They belong to an AIF artillery ground unit if I may put it
that way. They began training only thirteen days, repeat thirteen days before they leapt into space over the Markham Valley . . . Gun parts were ready to be pushed out. Packed carefully, padded, attached to special chutes. Then they were away and the boys watched their precious cargo float and swing to earth . . . Left foot forward, hands grasping the sides of the doorway the first man was ready. Go, yelled the jumpmaster and whelted the buttocks of the jumper in case the order was drowned by the plane noise. In a few seconds they were gone. They would have their guns assembled and ready to fire within a matter of minutes after touching earth.31

  With airstrips now open at Nadzab, the Australian 2/33rd Infantry Battalion was waiting at Jackson’s Field in Moresby to embark for the front when a Liberator bomber crashed into their trucks, killing 60 soldiers and injuring more than 90. Marien had made some good friends in the battalion and he feared that they were among the dead until he heard that it had been another company at the airfield, not his friends’. Marien was now regularly recording voice reports as well as reporting news, while waiting for his own flight to Nadzab.

  7 September 1943 At lunch time heard recording of paratroopers’ story & hoped Peg listening in too. Maybe she was. Anyway doing two more tonight. Must get on with packing. Wrote to Peg. Bill MacFarlane thought the stories excellent and said the recording best I had done.32

  When Marien landed at Nadzab for the Lae campaign a few days later, Peter Hemery was already with the convoy landing the first troops of the 9th Division on the coast just east of Lae.

 

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