FRONTLINE – W.W.2 Extracts from Lance Corporal David Wigg – Part 2.
As stated in part 1, the Japanese had advanced from Buna to Kokoda, Australians had regained the airstrip and lost it again, when the Japanese brought up large reinforcements. Hopelessly outnumbered, with scarcely a heavy machine gun and no quick fire automatic weapons in the early stages, we faced elite jungle fighters beautifully equipped.
Light Australian reinforcements, and the Medical Light section to which I was attached, headed into this situation. We constructed operating theatres in the form of Bush shelters, to treat the wounded as they came in from the front line, with beds constructed from jungle poles and blankets around them. The battle line was only twenty minutes’ walk from our dressing station, and we could hear the enemy mortar bombs and mountain-gunshells passing overhead.
Large numbers of soldiers were carried in from the battle line, and the 39th Regiment Medical Officer urgently tried to operate in preparation for the 10-day trek back to a general hospital at Port Moresby. Natives, affectionately called “Fuzzy-Wuzzy-Angels”, transported the wounded. Eight natives carried one soldier on a huge litter, made from bush poles and a blanket sling. Overworked and underfed, they still cared for our wounded with extraordinary devotion. They protected their charges from heavy rain; often using a banana leaf to shield their faces. However, many men died and there was extensive sickness on this journey.
The beleaguered 39th Battalion were now being reinforced by the 2/14, veterans fresh from the Middle East. These at least had some “Tommy Guns’”, but the contrast between desert warfare and jungle fighting is unimaginable! One of these seasoned regular army men collapsed, exhausted and declared – “Dig, I’ve fought these Japanese for 2 weeks and my mates have died all around me, and I’ve never seen one of them!” The veteran unashamedly wept with frustration!
A rough operating table set up, the patient anesthetised, the emergency operation just begun, and the medical team would have to flee for their lives! The terror of these times cannot be suitably told – unforgettable were the screams of the wounded we couldn’t carry, being tortured by the Japanese in a bid to draw rescuers into their ambushes. This led us to risk our lives if in any way we could carry each wounded man out.
The closest I got to the north coast during this time was between Deniki and Kokoda, during the early part of our withdrawal. I agreed to accompany three soldiers from the 39th into no-man’s land to bring in a badly hurt mate – a dangerous undertaking. We managed to find him somehow; badly wounded in the legs. The darkness and difficult terrain made it impossible to ‘four-handed carry’. The others carried weapons so I picked up the wounded man and carried him on my back, up the precipitous slopes, in cloying mud, at 2 am. I stumbled and would have fallen many times but the others pulled me up and saved us both from disaster several times. We finally made it to Isurava rest house, the 14th Field Ambulance dressing station and operating theatre, completely exhausted. On arrival, I found my leggings were full of the soldier’s congealed blood.