FRONTLINE – W.W.2 Extracts from Lance Corporal David Wigg – Part 1.
1942 a Japanese seaborne advance was carried out from Rabaul and some 13,000 Japanese were landed in a month, in the Gona-Buna area, coastal villages on the North coast of New Guinea, opposite the track to Kokoda.
The only troops there to meet them were a few hundred of our troops- the 39th Militia Battalion. Their average age being about 19 years. These were poorly equipped and had scarcely received any training and had no experience. The Japanese that landed were the world’s best jungle fighters, some were veterans of 8 years experience fighting since the 1930’s, in China and down through Indo China.
Our poor inexperienced youthful boys fought bravely and desperately and gradually fell back to Kokoda. The enemy advanced strongly and took Kokoda and the small airstrip there. Our troops had radioed, of course, for help, and were told the Air Strip was vital, so our troops recaptured it! The Commanding Officer of the 39th was killed about this time and they were deprived of veteran leadership. A few planes turned up over Kokoda strip, with reinforcement troops, but in the confusion they decided the drome was in the hands of the Japanese, and flew back to the safety of Port Moresby.
The hopes of the 39th Battalion were dashed, and their only choice was to fall back on the slopes of the Kokoda Trail proper, to Deniki. They desperately resisted, staging ambush after ambush. The Japs were experts at jungle camouflage, wearing green/grey uniforms with nets over helmets and face, twigs and leaves entwined. They were also suitably equipped, with light, high powered small bore rifles, ideal for jungle warfare and most of them trained marksmen- snipers.
Our poor men were encumbered with the slow firing massive ‘303’ rifle designed for W.W.I, trench warfare!
It is important to understand that our side had no supply system for food and ammunition, or for treatment and evacuation of their wounded. The misery and terror of the 39th Battalion is better imagined than described. The Japanese performed best in the crashing, blinding thunderstorms, raining an inch every five or ten minutes. They infiltrated around our tiny defence positions, firing small 2” (50mm) mortars and creating panic among our troops, and by firing across gorges with their ‘mountain gun’, an efficient small artillery piece that could be dismantled, carried, and reassembled in a few minutes. Our men had no artillery, no shelters, hardly an axe or a shovel – graves were dug hastily with bayonets and ‘tin hats’.
The 14th Field Ambulance – serving the 14th Brigade, had been in Port Moresby since the first week in June 1942.The Head Quarters of the unit was at Bomana, 12 miles inland, running a Main Dressing Station.
The medical situation up on the Kokoda Trail was chaotic. I was part of the Medical Light Section, two doctors (Captains) and 14 other ranks, including a Sergeant, sent up to the front from the Head Quarters of the 14 Field Ambulance
At this stage I had just turned twenty. We set off from Port Moresby and went by jeep up to the start of the track, and then set off along the Kokoda Track, carrying all our gear.
The medical group (which I was with) proceeded up the Track for several days, over very rugged mountain terrain and it proved very heavy going. We trudged through waist deep odorous swamps, up knife-edge ridges with sheer drops either side for hundreds and hundreds of feet.
Rations and medical supplies all had to be carried, so from the start food was light -on. Natives do not live in the deep dark jungles, but at Nauro and Menari, mountain clearings, I saw the unspoiled character of the jungle and village life. I thought these two open places were the most beautiful I had ever seen, surrounded as they were by banana palms, coconut palms , betel nut palms, poinsettias etc, all adding to the picture. The Party left one Officer and 7 other ranks at Templeton’s Crossing, to form a Convalescent Camp and staging Post, to care for the wounded on their way to Port Moresby. The remaining Officer and seven other ranks of which I was one, proceeded to Isurava where they established a main dressing Station, in a native rest house. It was constructed of rough jungle timbers, with a roof thatched with Kunai grass cut from jungle clearings and no floor. Isurava was near Deniki, where the 39th Battalion was in combat with the Japanese and was the scene of some of the fiercest and most desperate fighting of the New Guinea Campaign.