Voices from the air, p.21

Voices from the Air, page 21


Voices from the Air

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  Fire Down Below

  At dawn on 22 April, the American convoy of more than 200 ships and 50,000 troops surprised the Japanese garrison at Hollandia. From the deck of a warship, John Hinde watched as the glare of Japanese shore lights was overtaken by the first light of dawn and then by the flash and thunder of the bombardment from the Allied armada. ‘Breath-taking arches of rocket fire’ were followed by bombing runs by Avenger and Dauntless dive bombers from the aircraft carriers and suddenly huge columns of smoke and flame arose from Japanese fuel and supply dumps on the beaches. Hollandia was captured with few casualties and on shore Hinde saw his first Japanese – two frightened prisoners.

  They seem determined not to show it, but their hands shake a little and their eyes have a curious submissive pleading look for everyone they pass. They are halted near me. Under international law I’m not allowed to question them in any way but I give one of them a cigarette. His eyes become more humble than ever. He bows twice rapidly, bows again when I light it for him. He doesn’t smile.44

  Further on, past more shattered remains of the huge Japanese supply dumps, he sees his first dead Japanese. ‘He lies quietly face-down, his forehead resting easily on one hand; but the top of his head is gone and there is a gaping wound under his left shoulder.’45 Hinde walked up the track from the landing point, heading for Hollandia itself, about 12 miles away. After a few miles’ hard trekking, he sat down for a rest and leaned against a rock beside the track. Ten minutes later, having decided instead to take a boat round the coast to Hollandia, he headed back the way he had come. Within a hundred yards he was passed by some American soldiers and almost immediately afterwards he heard shooting behind him on the track. ‘I went back to see what had happened and they’d shot a sniper in a tree across the track, just a neat 50 yards from where I’d been sitting in full view. I don’t know why he hadn’t shot me. I was alone. He could have just picked me off.’46

  Fire Down Below was a report by Hinde (written several months later) about his experiences on the beach at Hollandia, two nights after the landing. A tired Hinde had returned to the main beach with several other correspondents, where they camped for the night at the centre of a supply dump – a line of American and Japanese stores that stretched along the shore for around three kilometres. They were eating a meal with the men of an American shore battalion and around 100 local villagers were also camped nearby when they heard the sound of a plane.

  The buzz of talk all along the beach died down. Even the natives stopped to listen. We could hear the undulating note of the engines out over the bay. It seemed too late for one of our own carrier based dive bombers to be out. Then suddenly a Bofors gun opened up from an anti-aircraft emplacement right beside us. It was the only gun that fired, and that made our sector the unhealthiest place on the beach. The bombs were probably already on their way as our group made for the slit trench. They came in without a sound and bracketed us – one about 20 yards each side of the trench. Concussion shook the wits out of us and when we came to, a pile of ammunition on our left was ablaze . . . It was pretty bad out of the trench. Bombs and shells were exploding at the rate of roughly one every two seconds, and the shrapnel was thick, though at that range most of it was passing overhead. The pressure wave of the original bomb had nipped off the crest of the parapet at my end of the trench and slapped my head like something solid. It left me confused, and when I really came round I was racing up the beach bent double, carrying one corner of a stretcher. All around the cry was going up for doctors . . .47

  The wounded were treated in scratch dressing stations by untrained men until medics could make their way around the burning, lethal dump. Various parts of the dump along the beach exploded throughout the night, letting loose a ‘storm of rockets and tracers and metal fragments’. Fuel fires raged and Hinde saw ‘a single 50 gallon drum hurled intact straight out to sea. It turned over and over like a giant depth charge, and burst right at the end of its flight in a horrid ball of flame and sooty smoke’. The next morning a large explosion flung a foot-long metal fragment two miles out to sea, where it landed on a Higgins boat. Hinde was ‘scattered mentally’48 after the blast, which damaged his hearing and one of his eyes, leaving him with problems that would plague him for many years. He was chain smoking at the time – up to 100 cigarettes a day – in part to cope with the stress.49 The dump burned for four days and all his kit was destroyed. Several months later he drew up a list of the lost items for a compensation claim. It covered all his equipment such as his typewriter, and his personal possessions and reading matter – including, appropriately, a copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

  I’m a Little Browned off

  Shortly before the Hollandia operation, Hinde had undertaken his first operational assignment: covering the unopposed American occupation of Emirau Island, north of New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago.

  Emirau was essentially a sideshow, but as GHQ correspondent, it fell to John Hinde to make the most of the story, However, he could only get as close as Guadalcanal in the Solomons, and it proved a depressingly frustrating first operational assignment, as his plans for a shortwave voice channel and other avenues for filing his stories all fell apart. ‘I broke my blank heart to get this out today’,50 wrote Hinde to a colleague at the ABC. The voice link failed, his credit authority to send telegrams was not recognised and he was coming to the realisation that there was no hope of making any recordings at Guadalcanal.

  I’m a little browned off at the moment. When I come out I hope to bring some recordings with me . . . As a matter of fact I don’t really believe any more that anyone has a recorder on this island. Or if they do have one, it doesn’t work. Or if it works I won’t be allowed to use it except while I’m standing up in a hammock drinking gin through a straw. (That would be something to do with malaria control.) The enclosed script will be stale by the time it reaches you; but someone might like to use it just the same. It was a good script this morning and would have fitted nicely into News Review, with a few handy bits for the news department as well. When I think about it I would like to cry; but it makes my face blotchy.51

  The typically acerbic yet humorous letter from Hinde could not disguise his desperate disappointment, yet the trip to Guadalcanal did unearth a remarkable story from Bougainville.

  Journey Across Bougainville

  John Hinde’s script Journey Across Bougainville, voiced in his later recordings with an engaging and patient tempo that suited the narrative of the tragic story, was perhaps his most memorable wartime tale. It was the story of Siti Korovulavula,52 a Fijian infantry lieutenant, and an American pilot, Lieutenant Chuck Cross, who were stranded in the heavily forested interior of Bougainville after their light plane ran out of fuel and crash-landed. Their tragic journey across the Japanese-occupied island and Siti’s thirty-two days in the jungle was a tale of courage, endurance and remarkable compassion.

  Lieutenant Cross had had no jungle experience and so he asked Siti to take complete control. But first, he made one tragic decision. He decided that they had landed on the east side of the island when actually they were on the west.

  ‘If we’re on the east side,’ Siti decided, ‘we keep the ocean on our left and then we’ll be heading south. Sooner or later we’re bound to find a familiar land mark.’ And so they set off heading north instead of south, and from then on their daily story was one of storms and fog which made it impossible for them ever to check their position with the sun. For days they climbed precipitous shoulders with the fog swirling round them, shivering with the cold of the 5,000 feet altitude. There was water everywhere. It rained endlessly, and every valley was noisy with streams that made their going still harder. They could find no food in the mountains and every day found them getting weaker and weaker. Down on the coast they might have found food but they knew there were Japanese on the coast as well, and so they stuck to the mountains.

  After a time Lieutenant Cross became ill. Siti carried him part of each
day, and the rest of the time Cross got along as best he could, leaning on Siti’s shoulder. On the sixth day, living on nothing but water, Cross fell exhausted. Siti decided the only thing to do was to start a fire by friction. The fire would warm their soaked bodies and it would also give them a chance to eat, because Siti had discovered some bush taro – a species that is poisonous unless it is cooked.

  On the ninth day of walking, crawling and sliding through the hills the weather cleared a little and Siti climbed a tree to make a survey. What he saw brought him down thunder-struck and shaken.

  From his tree he’d seen Buka Island across the passage at the north end of Bougainville. For the first time the two men realised that they had been heading north instead of south. Now they were on the fringes of the main Japanese stronghold in the northern Solomons. Behind them the clouds lifted slowly and in the dim distance they saw 10,000-foot Mt Balbi – an active volcano – sending up its plume of smoke close to the spot where they had crashed. As a landmark, it was nine days too late.

  The two men just sat for a while and then they turned back over the terrible country they had just crossed. The American grew steadily weaker and for five days Siti carried him almost every yard of their journey. On February 9th – fourteen days after the crash – they reached the foot of Mt Balbi and then the American boy decided be could go no further. He was crying by that time with weakness and discouragement. Siti said, ‘I can carry you some more’ and he picked up Cross, but found his own knees were buckling under him. He tried again but he couldn’t manage it and after a while he found that both of them were crying.

  In the end, they managed to talk it over and Cross forced Siti to go on ahead . . . By the 11 February Siti was so weak that he often had to sit down on the slopes and slide. On the 11th alone, he fell into five streams, and once the same day he fell over a cliff and down a waterfall. Other days were nearly as bad, and I don’t believe that any ordinary man could have even kept moving, let alone held his sense of direction.

  And yet at the end of all these weeks without food, the battered Fijian lieutenant climbed a hill and saw what appeared to be a coconut tree on another hill two miles away.53

  After ‘32 days of hell’ Siti reached safety, but later search parties failed to find any sign of Lieutenant Cross.

  Hansa Bay

  The hard-working Fred Simpson saw little of his family in 1944 as he reported from New Guinea. In May, he was in Port Moresby when one of his daughters, Claire, was given approval to travel to the United States to further her career as a violinist. International civilian travel was difficult during the war but the conductor Eugene Ormandy wanted to bring Claire to Philadelphia, from where she would go on to the Juilliard Graduate School, and after graduating, to an international career in London. From Port Moresby, Fred sent Claire his blessings and a bible with a note that read:

  . . . this in common, we all must have the energy to seek beauty and strength wherever it can be found – and whatever the cost – and to know it when we find it.54

  It was a touching note from Fred, who had encouraged the same discipline and strength in his daughters – his ‘family of artists’ – that he also demanded of himself in the field as a war correspondent.

  The Australians now pursuing the Japanese along the New Guinea coast had reached Madang and by June 1944 were close to taking Hansa Bay, a major Japanese base between Madang and Wewak. Fred Simpson was in the field with the troops when they heard that a group of Indian POWs had escaped from the Japanese and were somewhere in the jungle ahead of the Australians. The Indian soldiers had spent six weeks on the move through the jungle and, when they were finally found, they were ill and exhausted.

  Fred flew in aboard a light three-seater ‘Flying Jeep’ to the rough jungle airstrip cut by the Indians, which appeared from above as a slash of green dotted with pools of rainwater, in the endless landscape of dark water swamps, trees and kunai grass. Fred was ‘never very much at this saluting business’ but as one of the first outsiders to meet them, he was greeted with a salute by each of the Indian soldiers.

  I salute in return. Each man steps forward and in the handshake between us there is the bond of sympathy and comradeship. As if to cement it the left hand is brought across by each man to make the handclasp firmer. It’s almost a Livingstone and Stanley scene. They are very sick. Under their brown skins is the pallor of intense hardship. The Australian military clothing they are wearing cannot hide the thin bodies. The momentary effort of saluting was a matter of military preciseness. There is the gait of sick and weary men as they make their way back to the huts which house them.55

  It had taken days for the soldiers to attract the attention of Allied aircraft, and then another thirteen days before an American pilot and an Australian sergeant were finally able to land and reach them. Four of the group had died from illness during the jungle trek, and now, whenever the weather lifted, those remaining were slowly being evacuated, the sickest first. The site of the airstrip was days away from any of the Australian forward patrols and, during the few days he spent there, Fred went on patrol against the Japanese in the surrounding area. For obvious reasons his musings about the hand grenade and the Owen submachine gun he carried on patrol were censored from his story Stalking the Jap.56 The censor’s blue pencil also removed references to Fred practising his Owen gun technique, covering a bend in the trail with one of the light plane pilots, and standing guard with one of the Indian soldiers. Just as he had done on Dead Man’s Trail between Sio and Saidor, and on the ridges around Sattelberg, Fred immersed himself in the life of the soldiers at the front and forged strong bonds with the men, but he was aware of the prohibition against correspondents carrying arms and it’s not known why he thought it would pass censorship on this occasion.

  The Two-Man Mobile Studio

  Fred Simpson and Len Edwards were the closest the ABC had to a mobile strike force for recording in the field. They travelled mostly in planes or jeeps, but there were times when they had to walk and if there were no native porters they shared the recording gear between them. On these few occasions, despite the clever modifications Edwards had made to create lightweight recording gear, they each shouldered more than 30 kilograms in equipment and their personal packs. In August 1944, they were featured in an article in the ABC Weekly.

  The recording gear has been erected on barges, sailing ships, corvettes, bombers, and even in a travelling ship. Once Simpson wanted to describe zebu oxen, as they were being driven by a native Malay driver. The cord attached to the microphone was not long enough, so Edwards placed the equipment in a jeep, which was driven slowly and Simpson walked between the zebu oxen and the jeep recording his impressions. For an actuality talk on food resources in New Guinea, Simpson and Edwards took their gear to fish traps established by the Army and Air Force. They waded through mud and water and perched their gear on top of a steel trap, so that the sound of the splashing of the fish in the trap and the remarks of the soldier-fishermen would be the real thing. A recent recording was made in a small motor boat, speeding along at 20 knots, and recording against a very strong sea movement is anything but easy. To obtain a recording using a group of five men, it takes Simpson six hours, apart from travelling time, to make a four-minute disc. During the past nine months he has travelled nearly 20,000 miles in all sorts of conveyances, from the smallest air crafts, the flying jeep or Piper Cub, to the giant four-engined trans-Pacific Douglas C-54, as well as in bombers on operational flights. Recently in Sydney investigating new equipment, Simpson is taking back with him to New Guinea apparatus by which the voice is magnetically recorded on wire about the width of a single woven strand in the average electric light wire. If it is necessary to delete any part of the recording, the wire can be run back and the magnetic impression of the voice removed. By this method two hours’ recording can be done on one coil of wire.57

  Back in the Field – Aitape

  By the time the Americans landed at Hollandia and Aitape in 1944, Haydon Len
nard had recovered from the injuries he received in the plane crash at the end of 1943 and was ready to return to the front. In July, the Japanese launched a strong attack against the American forces at Aitape, and Lennard was assigned to cover the fighting as the ABC’s number-one operational correspondent. Lennard’s priority was to file any urgent news flashes and to send expanded background stories of around 400 words.

  The attack by thousands of Japanese on the Driniumor River on 11 July succeeded in breaking part of the American line, but at the cost of a shocking loss of life. Lennard’s later press telegrams from Aitape reported:

  Driniumor River is now full of enemy dead and is so polluted that troops on its banks have to dig seepage holes for their water. Scores of enemy bodies – bloated by the tropical sun – are floating down the stream and the stench from the eastern bank is a continuous reminder that hundreds more are lying there in the jungle undergrowth.58

  His reports told of hand-to-hand fighting, of some suicide attacks on American artillery posts by Japanese with gelignite and grenades strapped to their backs, and of the torrid conditions hunting for the Japanese in the swamps and jungle beyond the main American lines on the Driniumor River.

  All day long patrols are hunting them down. Snipers are hidden in undergrowth or tied to trees and an ambush can occur at any moment. Every man who goes into the jungle knows that his next step may be his last. Tracks are only a few feet wide and almost smothered by steaming jungle through which it is possible to see only a few yards. It is grim warfare indeed, surpassing any blood and thunder picture Hollywood could produce.59

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