2/3 commandos. 8 section. C Platoon. Missing in action.
I had driven Dad to the Anzac Day March. He had just had another series of chemo for his cancer so I walked with him to the assembly area…much to his annoyance. A big guy, I cant remember his name, he looked well over 6 foot, saw Dad coming and his face broke into a huge grin.”There ya are ya old Bastard. Billy Tree Climber Hart!”
The Wau airfield was under heavy attack when the 2/3 Command Company flew in. The Japanese had been halted on the Kakoda Track, but if they could take Wau they could still strengthen their hold in New Guinea and would have air capabiity to threaten the capital Port Morsbey. The 17 Brigade were in place and fighting the main Jap force east of the airfeild. These were seasoned campaigners. They had already seen fierce action in the Middle East. But for the 2/3 this was their first plane flight and their first taste of combat. They flew in, 16 at a time, underfire and went straight into action. Welcome to the war.
Some days later the 2/3 had their first major offensive. it was an attack on a copse… a heavily wooded island formed at the junction of two streams. It was the only time that the entire company of 270 men would participate in a single action together. They fixed bayonets and advanced in a line. Some of the men of the 17 Brigade watched from the airfield high above the action. The men of the 2/3 heard them cheering as if they were spectators in the grandstand of the MCG.
They advanced in a line behind an artillery barrage. When some of the shells fell short and the men hesitated, their commander George Warfe yelled “They wont hurt you! They’re ours!” This certainly wasn’t commando tactics in jungle warfare. It looked much more like a field attack in France in WW1. They would learn.
After the japanese were driven back from Wau the 2/3 commandos were ordered to follow them up the various tracks. C Platoon were given the Jap track, an old track not used since the turn of the century, recut by the Japanese in their advance on Wau. The track was crude, muddy, slippery as shit and straight up and down. Some sections were so steep that a man , fully laiden with weapon, amunition and meagre rations would need to pull himself through the mud with the assistance of vines and ropes using just his arms, his legs trailing uselessly behind as his feet could find no traction. When he reached the top of the razor back ridge he would literally fall over the other side, sliding in the mud and wondering if he had the strength to stand or if he should just lay there and die. It was an almost impossible task to walk the track, let alone fight a retreating army who were continually setting up ambushes whenever an opportunity presented itself.
Dad spent his 21st birthday on those tracks. Someone stuck a lit match in an open tin of bully beef for him. It didnt really matter. Even if it were a birthday T Bone steak he couldnt have eaten it. A few days before he was pushing the but end of his tommy gun into the ground to try to get some traction as they climbed yet another slippery mountain. As he pulled himself up the ground beneath his feet gave way. His mouth, open, sucking wind from the exertion of the climb, came down onto the Cutts compensator at the dangerous end of the weapon. The force of the fall ripped out gum and 4 teeth from the top right side of his jaw.
The army resignation to fate was summed up in the phrase, “When ya number’s up, ya numbers up and there’s nothin’ you can do about it”. This remained true for everyone… except those who went as forward scout on the Jap track in 1943. Their numbers came up a damn sight more than was reasonable. One of Dad’s mates, Barney Baron picks up the story…
You’d feel your way along the track as silently as possible. When you heard something you would pass word back to the Lieutenant. The word always came back. “Go through ’em!” A few times of this and I was jack of it. “No bloody way. Bring up the Bren Gun.” We killed about 8. We missed one but our sniper fixed him up.
Then we ran into about a hundred japs and had patrolled into their ambush. They killed Maxie Coen. Fred Wallace was forward scout. He yelled out, “Get out! Theres hundreds of them!”
I told our blokes to get off the track and we would go around their flank . Well we got off the track but we were quickly lost in the dense jungle. I said to the Lieutenant that i’d take a compass bearing on the track and try to stay with it. After about a day we came to the Jap track again. But we were running into Japs again and they were too strong for us. I tried to fix a bearing on Black Cat (an old mine that was Company HQ) After pushing back trough the dense jungle for a while I sent Bill Hart up a tree to see if he could see anything. He came down and said “Just Jungle. Bloody miles of it!” Someone said “Throw the compass away” But I stuck with it. (from “Nothing Is Forever”. A history of the 2/3 Commandos)
The compass heading proved true. After 3 days lost in the jungle they came out at the Black Cat Mine. They were dehydrated and ravenous. The cooks put on a stew for them that went in one end and came out the other. They rested up that night and were sent out on patrol again the next day.
The sun felt hotter than was usual for an anzac day march. Some of the old WW1 codgers would struggle a bit. Dad had always had a thick head of hair but this year it had thinned quite a bit from the chemo.
“A man could end up with a sunburned skalp!” he said. The big man looked down at Dad’s 5 foot 9 inch skinny frame and focused on the top of his head. He pulled the slouch hat off his own almost completely bald head and placed the oversized fur felt on top of Dad’s. Dad looked up and laughed out loud. “Ya silly bugger! Ya balder than I am!”
“Billy Hart” he replied “You carried me for three day when we were lost in the jungle. Now you WILL wear my bloody hat!”
There’s something about good samaritans in that. Or maybe its just about mates.