Chapter 29.


It was the 22nd April and we had been on patrol in this wild country for almost five weeks.

The noise of the landing lasted all day with little cessation in the bombing and shelling but, surprisingly, by nightfall only an occasional isolated rifle shot and, now and again, some sporadic machine gun fire could be heard.  The landing had apparently met with very little resistance.

We had expected the opposition to be limited as for some days the natives had been saying that a lot of the Japs were already making their way westward along the coast and the information of this exodus had been forwarded to HQ and from there, we hoped, passed to the Task Force.  Obviously attacks on Aitape and Wewak, to the east, had been successful and the garrison at Hollandia knew they would be next on the list and were getting out while the going was good!

Now we could relax we thought.  The danger was over!  A couple of days walking and we would be with the Americans.  But, we were mistaken and in a few days we would be fighting for our lives!

Although most of the enemy were fleeing westward, along the coast, for some reason many were coming south in our direction.  Why, it was hard to understand, though I guess they were just trying to get away from the U.S. troops.

They were everywhere, though only in small groups of five or six, and we had to be very much on the alert if the operation was to progress to a successful conclusion with no casualties.

So for the next ten days, in spite of this added danger, we decided that it would be best to stay in the area but to keep away from the tracks as much as possible.  Being only a small party, contact with large numbers of the enemy was to be avoided at all costs as we had no wish to become casualties at this late date!

In a short while it became apparent that the stragglers, as to be expected, were very short of food and were starting to eat anything that seemed remotely edible.  They descended on the native gardens and stripped them of all vegetation and when nothing remained, must have realised their only chance of survival was to move along the coast with the intention of contacting their own troops further to the west.  It had finally dawned on them that there was very little likelihood of help in going south and from then on we were often forced into contact.

The denuding of the native gardens also meant that we were going to be on short rations and more time had to be spent digging for taro roots and collecting and cooking a few other edible plants that the constables knew about which fortunately grew in this area.  The plants were okay and, if one liked spinach, could be eaten with little trouble and at least it was filling!  It is significant that when food is scarce we tend to put our aversions behind us and are more than willing to give almost anything a try especially if it means the difference between a full stomach and starvation!

Our original instructions were to avoid trouble, but now it was easier said than done, and we found ourselves in the middle of the enemy's escape route.  There were signs that many hundreds had already passed along the route because they had beaten a path through the bushes about fifteen yards wide and stripped much of the undergrowth of their leaves in search of anything remotely edible.  There were still plenty more to come and we had to be very much on the alert.

Goodness knows where they would end up!  We reckoned that most would eventually starve and die, in the rugged and inhospitable country to the west, before they reached the next Jap outpost on the coast at Tandjong Sarmi some seventy miles away.

But there were plenty of them wandering aimlessly in our area and we had our hands full protecting ourselves.  They had not all gone to the west!

Fortunately those we did contact were in only small groups, of two or three, and very much a disorganised rabble.  The almost complete absence of officers was very apparent and we thought that perhaps they had their own escape route!

Our party, though small in numbers, were experienced soldiers, and backed up by the constables, were far from defenceless.  We were more than ready to give a good account of ourselves now that the enemy could not be avoided and in the next few days that's just what we had to do!

During those last days we accounted for some fifty-two of the enemy, without loss to ourselves, though a few times there were close shaves.  We were lucky to always meet small parties who were greatly surprised, and that gave us the advantage.

On one memorable day we surprised fourteen, of the sons of Nippon, resting in a ramshackle native hut close by a small creek.  It was clear by the absence, once again, of any lookouts and the noise they were making, that they were completely unaware of our party.  So unaware that they did not even hear the noise I made when attacked by big black hornets, while creeping up on the hut!

We were uncertain of the enemy's numbers though by the voices there seemed to be at least a dozen.  If this was correct we would have to be very careful as we would not be able to commit more than nine of our party to the assault.  This would leave three policemen as a guard against a surprise attack from other stragglers and to keep an eye on our packs etc.  Our nine would then attack the hut and hope to take the occupants by surprise and to make sure, Bob sent Wunius in a wide arc round to the right to try and get a view of the front of the hut to see if there was a sentry.  In the meantime we retired about 50 yards further away to await Wunius' return.  He was back in less than fifteen minutes and reported that there was no guard and, though there was a lot of talk going on, he had been unable to see how many were inside the hut.  The lack of a sentry was good news and obviously meant they were not expecting any trouble and would be off guard.

So, very cautiously we moved, and despite the hornets, crept to within ten yards of the hut on the side away from the creek with Neville a little in advance.  He moved further ahead and crouched behind a rock five yards from the hut and held up a grenade as a warning and waved for us to back away and take cover.  We needed no second warning as grenades are multi-directional and will just as easily kill friend as foe if one is not careful!  He pulled the pin, counted to three, and threw it through a hole in the side of the hut and ducked back behind the rock.  Almost immediately the grenade detonated with a satisfying roar and a couple of seconds later we emerged from cover and were amazed to see the entire side of the hut had been blown out.  Apparently the grenade had exploded before hitting the ground and all the Japs looked to be either dead or badly stunned.  A few were showing some movement but were not capable of retaliation and a few bursts of Owen fire was all that was needed and then Sam, just to make certain all had been accounted for, ran to the doorway and needlessly let loose half a magazine from his Owen — a waste of ammo!

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