19th September 42
Dear Mother & Dad
After nearly a month without news it was good to get the mail today. Your letters of the 31st and seventh and two from Youngster written on the 1st and 8th of the month and surprisingly enough one from Mrs Laird written on the eleventh of April. They were all very cheerful epistles and particularly welcome just now. The time Mrs Laird’s letter took probably accounts for the fact that you haven’t heard from the Bank although I suppose they would write air mail.
By jove that property was certainly cheap wasn’t it. From twenty five I never dreamt it would go that cheaply or I’d have had a go for it when I was home. Catoes is certainly a good property but it would be out of my reach. Still there may be other land about.
I wrote you last week when we were anchored off a northern port but as I haven’t much confidence in the mail arrangements under such circumstances have no idea whether it would make the grade and as there’s a very consistent rumour that the airmail service has been suspended it will probably be some time before this one makes the grade.
When we got within sight of this dump we were quite surprised at the number of aircraft in the air. It was quite a bright spot. They lost no time getting us ashore and into a makeshift camp where we had a meal of bully & biscuits and curled up for the night. Just to remind us that there’s a war on, the Japs put on a small scale raid early in the evening and all night the drone of our planes filled the air but didn’t disturb our sleep unduly.
Whilst awaiting orders yesterday some of the chaps did a bit of reccy and acquired a case of beer which worked out nearly two bottles per man for the mob. Beer is a much sought after commodity in these parts, in fact to all intents and purposes this country is a temperance stronghold. But canteen prices for dry stuff are very reasonable. Of course once we get away from the canteen everything will be as scarce as gold but tobacco is 1/2 a two ounce tin and cigarette papers a penny a packet. Most of our bunch (the crowd who were left behind) made provision against being caught as they have always been caught before and went to amazing extremes to procure tobacco at 2/6 a tin. Still even at that it was good insurance to a smoker.
Four of us – Ned Turner, Snow Lewis, Harry Cassells and myself – located a shower which turned out to belong to an airforce crowd. They’re not airmen but something to do with the business – a good crowd of blokes – they invited us to dinner and we lairized with plates etc and tables. Quite a good meal too compared with army standards. We got the only news we’d had for a fortnight from what they call the ‘good guts sheet’, a printed page of foolscap distributed by the airforce.
Mrs Laird said they’d had a terrible winter and even in April it was still very severe. It’s certainly not wintery at all up here. In fact it’s powerful hot. Not the dry heat of the desert but a humid heat and of course it’ll get worse yet. Incidentally in other matters don’t take too much notice of what you read in the papers.
Well I’m afraid there isn’t any more news that I can write you just now. There’s a flood of rumours and I think some of them are pretty solid. We expect to join the unit tomorrow so letters may be very irregular. I’ll say cheerio now. Give my love to May & Anne and regards to Laurie and the boys.
Your loving son
PS If you happen to be down that way Dad will you get Rex Wedd’s address for me, and while I think of it do you happen to know whether Max Phillips has left home yet?
Composite Carrier group
New Guinea Forces
Anchored off a northern port
This comment seems to confirm my suspicion that the convoy stopped at Townsville, en route to Port Moresby. On the day he wrote that letter – September 10 – the rest of the Battalion was starting to move onto what has become known as the Kokoda Track (or trail). From The Footsoldiers: Initially 25th Brigade had been alerted to land, opposed or unopposed, at Milne Bay and assist in destroying the Japanese. By the time we were at sea Milne Bay force had gradually gained control of the situation. The Kokoda trail, on the other hand, was being lost to us, and the Japanese were in fact well down to the south-west slopes of the mountains and presenting a grave danger to Moresby. As a result our 25th Brigade was diverted to either attack or stem this Japanese onrush – as it turned out, none too soon. (p147)
Convoys to New Guinea
Laurie Ward (NX 113404) was with the 32 A/A Bty for about 15 months before joining the 2/33 in the Lae campaign. He sailed from Townsville to Port Moresby in early September on the Katoomba – so may well have been in the same convoy as Dad. Some of his wartime recollections are shared on http://indicatorloops.com/pm_ackack.htm and include the following:
I have no idea how many men were on the ship, but it was very crowded. They had quite a few decks and we were right down on a lower deck and you just slept on the bare floor or on the hammocks. You were allocated a place to sleep and swinging above you was a hammock to accommodate double the quantity of men. As we went down the stairs to that deck it had a sign above our heads at the bottom of the stairs ‘Cattle Deck’.
We were on the ship for three days in a convoy of 7 ships. The journey doesn’t normally take that long but in convoys during wartime their speed is governed by the slowest ship in the convoy and we had one that could only do 4 knots. We were guarded by a warship called a corvette and overhead from daylight to dark, a Catalina aircraft flew over, for spotting enemy submarines. During the voyage there was a submarine scare. The Catalina circled the warship and waggled its wings. The Corvette turned around very sharply and raced slightly to the rear and both the Catalina and the warship fired many depth charges. The result of this we will never know. We were never told any results of this action.
No time lost, getting us ashore
On arrival in Port Moresby things were very grim and serious because of enemy aircraft and the Katoomba pulled into the small jetty but before our arrival there we had been drilled on how quickly to evacuate the ship. Before entering the harbour all troops were lined up with their full equipment on and we all doubled very smartly, which was a run, off the ship, down the gangplank, clear of the wharves, mounted what few trucks there were and we were very quickly removed from he harbour area because of the danger of Japanese aircraft coming over. (reported by Laurie Ward – see http://indicatorloops.com/pm_ackack.htm)
Surprised at the number of planes in the air
From The Footsoldiers – Since February, Port Moresby had been bombed by up to eighty Jap bombers, and nearly every other day and on many nights, raids had taken place. Vessels were sunk in the harbour and some days before our arrival seven of the only ten Douglas transport planes had been destroyed on the strip at Ward’s Field at the Seven Mile. Two squadrons – the RAAF’s 75 squadron and an American Kittyhawk squadron – were all that constituted the air defences of Moresby (p 147)
The destruction at the Seven Mile airstrip was a disaster for the men of the 2/14th Battalion who had set off along the track in mid August and first engaged the Japanese at Isurava on August 26. They were relying on supplies being dropped at Myola – but the bombing of the transport planes at Seven Mile meant none arrived.
Image AWM 026271. Papua 18 August 1942 View of Seven Mile aerodrome near Port Moresby after a raid by 24 Japanese bombers. The casualties were one killed and thirteen injured. Four planes were destroyed and several damaged. In the picture are several transport planes which should have been dispersed.
Image AWM P05876.001
Bomb damage at Seven Mile Aerodrome near Port Moresby following a Japanese air raid.
Left out of Battle
The following extract from The Footsoldiers suggests that on arrival in Port Moresby, Dad’s section may have joined the others of the Battalion who had been Left out of Battle (LOB): Following 25th Brigade orders, the CO ordered that one warrant officer (the CSM, HQ Company) and twenty nine men were to be left out of battle, plus all the Carrier Platoon (less one Vickers gun) and all the Mortar Platoon (less one detachment) – a total of fifty six men under Lieutenant Matt Todd, all to be used for Port Moresby defence. (p145)
However, dad’s letters were not censored by Lieutenant Todd until October, so it is possible his section was otherwise engaged until then …perhaps they were accompanying Major General Morris on his tour of areas under his control –
Native children taking a keen interest in a Bren gun carrier, manned by Australian troops who were present as a cover patrol during the visit of Major General B M Morris, DSO….
The ‘good guts sheet’
Most likely the Moresby Army News Sheet (MANS) -which evolved into a 4 page news sheet called Guinea Gold : see http://www.ozatwar.com/raaf/whisperer/september2003.pdf
Don’t take too much notice of what you read in the papers
His parents were probably reading reports such as these :
‘The most serious threat to Australia since Japan entered the war’ – Hobart Mercury Sept 11, 1942 http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/25931981
‘World’s Worst Battleground’ – Hobart Mercury Sept 18, 1942 http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/25893574 ….Australians are fighting in these appalling conditions because if they do not fight in front of Port Moresby there will be no positions to fight the battle for Australia outside of Australia itself. The battle for New Guinea is on, and everybody knows it……