Col's return to PNG
By COLIN LEE
I HAVE just been privileged to go on a tour of the New Guinea battle fields where I served some 63 years ago, sponsored by the kind generosity of two chaps from the Burrum River area north of Maryborough.
This was an experience of a lifetime, one I can recommend to all Australians interested in our history.
One of the first sites visited was the Port Moresby War Cemetery where there are 3779 graves of those who gave their lives in the defence of Australia.
Six hundred and twenty five of these young Australians died in the battle of the Kokoda Track and some 1640 others were severely wounded.
As I stood there and gazed over the seemingly endless rows of headstones of so many of our finest young men, a great wave of emotion swept over me. With a heavy heart and tear-filled eyes, I had to turn away and be on my own. I served in New Guinea with these men ? they rest on foreign soil, while I returned to a full life blessed in so many ways.
Next we flew by helicopter over the Kokoda Track. Many younger and more fit people are now walking the track or part of it over a five to 10 day period, finding it a most rewarding challenge. We touched down at Kokoda Village where we were welcomed by Jeff and Priscilla Ogomeni and a guard of honour made up of 12 natives in their traditional dress of colourful grass skirts and headdress.
They were playing on long wooden drums and chanting a welcome. Being a veteran I was given special attention wherever we went. The people there are grateful to those who served in the New Guinea campaign. This heartfelt welcome was followed by a special lunch, with fresh tropical fruits.
On our journey back we touched down at several sites along the track, including Iswrova where the 2/14 Battalion had been under heavy fire from the Japanese who had broken through the defences and were in a position to deliver a terminal blow to the Battalion. The Bren Gunner Lindsey Bear could no longer see for blood on his face, so handed the gun to Bruce Kingsbury who charged into the enemy, thus stopping their advance and saving the lives of many of his comrades who were then able to regroup. Kingsbury's life was then taken by a lone sniper. For his sacrifice he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The battle along the Kokoda Track, which lasted from July 25, 1942, till November 13, 1942, should forever be remembered as not just another military campaign. Like our Anzacs at Gallipoli, it is part of our tradition, born at Anzac Cove and born again in the wild steep mountains of the Owen Stanley Range in New Guinea. Gallipoli is a symbol of the Anzac spirit in World War I, the Kokoda Track is the equivalent in World War II.
The one difference was that these young men were defending Australia from invasion ? in the words of Ralph Honner, former CO of the 39th Battalion: "They died so young, they missed so much, they gave so much, their hopes, their dreams, their loved ones, they laid down their lives so that their friends may live, greater love hath no man than this."
After visiting the Track we flew to Milne Bay, the area where the Japanese suffered their first defeat on land in September 1942.
This was where I, along with 123 other gunners, rushed to boost defences in the first week of October and where we stayed for the next 17 months on anti-aircraft defence.
Milne Bay was a short, fierce and decisive battle where a series of apparently unconnected events and factors combined to bring about a decisive victory for the Australian forces. I have a first hand account of these events that will not be found in history books, which I am more than willing to share with any interested person.
Again at Milne Bay, as on the Track, one man made the supreme sacrifice that helped turn the tide of aggression.
Corporal French's section was pinned down by the enemy machine gun positions. Corporal French ordered his men to take cover, charged the positions with two grenades and an Owen gun and silenced the three positions before being fatally wounded. He was awarded the first Victoria Cross in the South Pacific. His fiancee said of him, "We do not know the worth of our quiet boys until they are called upon to do something big." I understand she never married.
The 75th and 76th squadrons of Kitty Hawk fighter planes, P40s, played a vital role in the Milne Bay campaign. Operating from Gurney Field, they were hardly airborne before they were over the enemy positions and harassing the enemy constantly. Squadron leader Turnbull gave his life there and No. 3 strip bore his name. This was the point where the enemy was finally halted and defeated. I do feel that few people in Australia know or understand how close Australia came to being invaded, how many bombs were dropped on northern Australia, or how much shipping was lost on our coast -? and of all the thousands who served in New Guinea and the South Pacific. How much we owe to just so few, those brave men who so gallantly stopped the enemy from reaching Australian soil. Had they gained a foothold in Australia we would not be the country we are today. While in Milne Bay we stayed at the Masurina Lodge, owned and run by Chris Able, third generation from the missionary who arrived in 1897 and formed the Kwato Mission which is still there today and continuing to do such wonderful work for the people of that area of New Guinea. The Able family I met there are really lovely people.
At Milne Bay I stood again in the old gun pit where we had our 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun on the western end of Gurney field. A Bofors gun is now set up as a memorial at the airport terminal.
Next we went to Lae and Salamoa. Much history to be seen at Lae, including the War Cemetery where there are so many 18 year olds buried. Comparing their army numbers with mine and the date they died, many would have only been in the Army 12 months or less, and now they rest in foreign soil. Please never let us forget these wonderful men, they gave their lives so that you and I may enjoy the life we have today.