Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A history of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas
Chapter XIII — New Georgia—Jungle Fighting In Earnest
New Georgia—Jungle Fighting In Earnest
Captain Tripp's patrols were prepared to move at an hour's notice, and during these anxious moments the commandos packed round the wireless transmitter while the intelligence sergeant deciphered each message that arrived. The suspense was relieved when the "Operation Order" arrived. on 24th June. D day for the commandos was to be 2nd July; this gave the NCOs seven days in which to discuss the plan of action and make additional adjustments to their equipment for the assault on New Georgia.
The Operation Order was very comprehensive and had the initial movements of the unit detailed; but the New Zealanders, from past experience of operation orders, discussed the situation from every angle and provided for every contingency. This provision of conditioning their minds against unexpected changes made the commando very adaptable during the campaign later on. These very well laid plans anticipated the capture of Munda airfield within ten days, but it subsequently took 35 days; they also assumed that the Onaiavesi Passage would be used only in the initial stages, and that enough territory would be secured in a few days to allow an easier supply route to be taken; this assumption eventually proved to be wrong as the passage had to be used for the whole thirty-five days of the campaign. In theory two regiments of 43 U.S. Division were to form a four thousand yard front on the Bariki River, then sweep forward onto the Munda Field. The commandos were to patrol from the right flank to the Munda Field, behind the Japanese lines, and keep the Americans informed of any outflanking attempt on the part of the enemy. It was estimated that there were over five thousand Japanese garrisoned within a four mile arc of page break page 106Munda Field. This foreknowledge of the enemy's strength was exceedingly valuable, and was the result of the work of a New Zealander, Captain D. G. Kennedy, D.S.O., a member of the Solomon Islands Civil Administration, who had been on New Georgia throughout the Japanese occupation. He kept the American Command supplied with details of the Japanese movements up to the last minute before the American attack took place.
The small intelligence section of First Commando was hard pressed to provide maps for each patrol leader, but it was helped considerably by the generosity of 43 U.S. Division. As the commandos used maps to greater advantage than any other infantry unit, the Americans supplied them with more than their quota of the latest hasty-terrain and photo maps. The New Zealanders studied the maps and photos, until they had a complete picture of the Munda area in their minds.
The commandos were to carry all their equipment on their backs, and each man was allowed a certain amount of discretion as to what he carried besides his five days' rations.
The unit could not obtain green dye for the light khaki battle-dress issued to the Fijians, so they were supplied with American camouflaged jungle-suits. This was a very necessary precaution, apart from the camouflage value, as there was the danger of looking like the Japanese. They wore New Zealand leather boots, which were found to be superior for all round purposes; the canvas and rubber jungle-boots used by the Americans made the feet sore after a few hours walking. Tin hats and respirators were taken as far as the beachhead, but they were not worn on patrol. The New Zealand type of steel helmet is not as good as theAmerican one in the bush; though it is useful in air-raids, for protection against the falling shrapnel that showers down from anti-aircraft barrages. The New Zealand tin hat flops about too much and destroys vision when scrambling through the undergrowth; and unless it is well covered it also rings out like the Bells of St. Mary's when hit by branches — silence is golden in jungle warfare. The commandos bristled with automatic weapons by this time, and they had plenty of confidence in them because of the amount of practice they had had on Guad-page 107alcanal —ammunition was plentiful in the forward areas. They carried Owen guns, rifles, pistols, and grenades.
On 1st July the radio news announced that the American Forces had landed on Rendova Island just off the mainland of New Georgia and about six miles across the water from the Munda Field. The American forces had wiped out the small garrison of about sixty Japanese and had established a headquarters in this Island. To the commandos waiting at Aola it seemed that they had been left out of the show, and that by the time they arrived on the scene all the enemy would be gone. A few days later, however, their keenness to fight the Japanese was more than gratified: the commandos' dream—though it turned out to be a nightmare—came true. On 2nd July, an American destroyer, the U.S. Talbot arrived at Aola Bay and half the unit embarked. There was a storm during the process, and the commandos were soaking wet before they scrambled out of the Higgin's boats on to the destroyer. This was unfortunate as the clothing was destined to stay in a wet state for the next few weeks. At this time the drenched clothing did not worry the commandos; they were elated at the prospect of events which would at least break the monotony of the life they had been leading. The party comprised twenty-three New Zealanders, two Englishmen, seventeen Tongans, eight-seven Fijians, and one Solomon Islander.
The eleven-hour voyage to New Georgia was an experience in itself. The destroyer travelled on her own and relied on her speed to get her out of trouble. Three Japanese warships headed towards the Talbot late in the afternoon, but eventually turned away from her course. The commandos sat on deck and thoroughly enjoyed the turn of speed. They also enjoyed three of the best meals they had had for a long time, and they joked about the American Navy feeding them up for the kill.
At midnight the Talbot hove to outside the Onaiavisi Passage, which was the entrance to the Roviana Lagoon. The commandos climbed down the rope ladders into the Higgin's boats—they were so loaded with equipment that if any one of them had fallen into the sea he would have sunk like a stone to the bottom. They landed on Baraulu Island where page 108they met some Americans who had landed the night before. The Americans had frightened a Japanese machine-gun detachment away from the passage entrance; fourteen of the Japanese had retreated eastwards along Baranlu Island, and the others, estimated at about sixty, had retreated westwards along Sasavele and Roviana islands. There had been little action yet, but two men had been accidently shot during the night. It was too dark to distinguish friend from foe even if touching one another, and it was necessary for only one trigger-happy person to discharge his rifle for the whole camp to begin blazing at any dim shape that moved. The commandos sat on the water's edge waiting for daylight to reveal their surroundings.
The commandos' first job was to clear the small islands of Baraulu, Sasavele, and Roviana before crossing the lagoon to the mainland. Some local natives were on the spot with their canoes, and the Tongan patrol, with a New Zealand sergeant, took advantage of these to speed across the Roviana Lagoon to the other end of Baraulu Island to cut off the retreating Japanese; this was on 3rd July. It was no easy task persuading the Solomon Islanders to carry the commandos across the lagoon for they were obviously scared. Nevertheless, Ken Crass succeeded after protracted arguments in pidgin English, and they set out in three boats. The sun was shining out of a clear sky, and it was difficult to believe that war was so close, and that Japanese were lurking somewhere in the dozens of little jungle-covered islands about them; the lagoon was glassy calm. Then suddenly there was a roar of aeroplanes sweeping over the lagoon, and the commandos' hearts stood still for a moment as they strained their necks and their eyes to identify the craft. The planes turned out to be American, and a moment later the commandos witnessed the spectacle of dive bombers going into action over the Munda Airfield a few miles away. The commandos counted dozens of planes as they dived down through the Japanese anti-aircraft flak; they could even see the bombs dropping, it was such a clear day. Not one of the planes was shot down. The fireworks were over in a few minutes, and the canoes paddled on until they reached the north-eastern end of Baraulu where they landed. The Solomon Islanders would not page 109wait with the canoes unless six of the Tongans stayed behind to protect them; this reduced the patrol to twelve men. The patrol continued on foot around the easternmost tip of the island until it reached a deserted village where the Japanese were suspected to be. They surrounded the village and gradually closed in, but an intensive search revealed that the enemy had already escaped to the mainland. The patrol then returned to the canoes and paddled back to the passage just before dark. If they had not managed to return to the American camp before nightfall, they would have had to wait until the morning to return, because the American guards could not afford to take chances on men approaching from the enemy's direction in the dark.
The same day Captain Tripp and the remainder of the commandos set off in a westerly direction on Sasavele Island, and continued as far as Sturdy Point on Roviana Island without sighting the enemy. They bivouacked the night there, and were joined by a platoon of Americans who came along the coast by Higgin's boat because they said that they could not keep up with the commandos walking. This party, now about a hundred and thirty strong, continued to the western extremity of Roviana Island, where they found ample evidence of a very recent hasty retreat by the Japanese. The Americans proposed placing field guns on this point, which was only three miles from Munda Field, and a wireless message was sent back to U.S. Headquarters saying that it was safe to bring the guns forward. To save time it was intended that the commandos should return to the Onaiavisi Passage in the Higgin's boats that brought up the artillery. They were in the middle of embarking when the Japanese started shelling them from Munda. Lieutenant Masefield got his patrol away in one of the boats, but Captain Tripp and the rest were forced to take cover in the bush. Ben Masefield got back to the Passage the same day, but Captain Tripp's party decided to walk, and it was noon of the following day before they reached the Passage. No one was wounded by the Japanese shells.
In the meantime the American forces had landed on the mainland at Zanana, seven miles from Munda, without opposition. Captain Scherrer, intelligence officer for 43 U.S. Divis-page 110ion to which the commandos were attached, made the beachhead with some of his intelligence staff and a reconnaissance platoon—a party of about forty men. The original plan included many more assault troops, but as these were held up, Captain Scherrer used his initiative. Knowing that the Japanese had been taken completely by surprise on the outer island, Captain Scherrer was right in his assumption that the Japanese would withdraw their small detachment at Zanana in the same way as they had withdrawn their detachment at the Passage entrance.
A battalion landed at Zanana the day after Captain Scherrer and a New Zealand sergeant also landed and reported to Captain Scherrer on 4th July. Communication was poor between Zanana, the Passage and the Force Headquarters on Rendova Island, and the New Zealander had to explain what was happening on the outer islands to hold up the commandos. Captain Seherrer was anxious to move forward while the Japanese were off balance, but he was waiting for the commandos to feel out the Japanese positions.
The Japanese had retreated to their main defence positions around the Munda Field, but one Japanese had been captured the first day. Because Captain Scherrer had nowhere to put this prisoner over night, he and another officer had slept with their arms around the Japanese. When the New Zealander arrived on the scene the next morning the prisoner was pleading to be shot. The Japanese could not speak much English, and it seemed that he distrusted the excellent treatment he was receiving: most Japanese prisoners in the Guadalcanal campaign had been nervous at first, but they soon became calm when they realised that they were not going to be tortured.
The American battalion decided to move forward to the Bariki River on 4 July and the Tongan platoon, which was brought across to the mainland, went forward with the battalion. The battalion made a track through the swamp along the coast to the mouth of the Bariki, a distance of three miles. A patrol of five Japanese attacked one American company on the way and the Americans mowed the enemy down before they could do any damage. These five Japanese had crept to within three yards of the Americans yet they were page 111killed before they could throw their grenades. The Americans got such a shock at their first success that the company commander was a bit dazed and he asked the New Zealand sergeant, who was escorting the Tongans up to the river, what to do next. The New Zealander, like the rest of those present, felt pretty squirmish in the stomach but, having a naturally ruddy complexion compared with the pale Americans, he appeared to have all the confidence in the world. The bodies of the Japanese appeared as pathetic as the wax like animals in a butcher's shop. None of them were over five feet and their limp delicate hands appeared incapable of wielding a lethal weapon. The New Zealander searched the bodies for identification discs and documents which were sent back to Force Headquarters for the language section to deal with. One American got a sabre from the Japanese officer who was killed but most of the men were not feeling like collecting souvenirs.
After the American battalion had set up a perimeter defence system on the eastern bank of the Bariki, the Tongan Patrol reconnoitred the immediate vicinity and bivouacked in front without seeing any enemy. They awoke next morning to find that some Japanese had spent the night quite close to them. The Tongans and the Japanese realised what had happened at the same time and both parties took cover to give themselves time to size up the situation. In taking cover a Tongan and a Japanese dived behind the same tree. In the excitement of the moment the Japanese was not quite sure what nationality the Tongan was so he asked the Tongan whether he was Japanese or American. The Tongan wasted no time in answering with a bullet. The rest of the Japanese withdrew at the sound of the shot and the Tongans returned to the Battalion's headquarters. They reported the location of the enemy party but nothing further, was done about the matter.
After seeing the amount of supplies that the battalion had abandoned on the wayside as it ploughed its way through the mud to the Bariki, the New Zealand sergeant returned to Captain Scherrer, who was still at the beach-head, and suggested that supplies should be taken along the coast in the native canoes. A message was sent to the Onaiarisi passage page 112for Lieutenant Masefield to bring the canoes and his patrol.
Across to the mainland where he arrived at mid-day on 5 July. Captain Scherrer proposed to establish an advanced headquarters in the upper reaches of the Bariki River and, if possible, to set up his wireless transmitter on. high ground for better reception. With this in view a party comprising thirty commandos and a dozen Americans set off along the Munda Trail at one o'clock. They were compelled to advance in single file along this well-defined track because of the gear they were carrying: in addition to their personal equipment the Americans were carrying the wireless transmitter, receiver, and generator, and the commandos were carrying extra gear belonging to the Tongans. The party had hardly covered a mile in the silent jungle when all hell broke loose. The enemy had a machine gun set up on the track and opened fire on the Americans who were in front at the time. The Americans threw grenades and went to ground and the Japanese withdrew along the track about a hundred yards, probably to get into a better position to assess the strength of the opposing force. Ben Masefield took advantage of this lull in the fighting to organize the commandos attack. After a quick whispered conference he took the lead and the New Zealand NCOs took charge of the flanks. They then went forward again with the Americans in the middle. Ben Masefield got his first shot in at a few yards range and the fighting continued at close quarters. The Japanese threw many grenades which, made a tremendous noise but hurt no one. The commandos withheld their fire as much as possible while they tried to work round the enemy's flank, but each time they closed in the Japanese withdrew. The commandos formed a closed perimeter with each man keeping two or three yards contact with the man on either side of him. They advanced in this circular formation to guard against ambushes. Visibility was limited to less than ten yards in this part of the jungle and the men in the rear could tell when the fight was working round to their side only by the direction of the bullets cutting the undergrowth about them. There seemed to be about fifteen Japanese and although they did a lot of yelling out, they exposed themselves so little that it was impossible to get a proper bead on them.page 113
The commandos had trained themselves to shoot only when they had something to shoot at and their silence had the Japanese bluffed. The enemy could see them creeping round their flanks and they threw everything they had at the commandos—there were grenades and rifle and machine gun bullets everywhere—it seemed amazing that anyone could avoid being hit with so much lead flying about. But the dark, dirty, stinking jungle does have its compensations in providing cover from fire and view. The Japanese would not hold to their positions and it was obvious that they kept retreating for fear of being outflanked: they were mystified by the commando tactics because they were used to the Americans methods. The Americans usually go forward behind a blaze of fire, just shooting at anything, and count on their firepower to get them through.
The aim in this type of fighting is to outflank the opposition while safeguarding yourselves against ambushes. If it is not possible to get at your enemy from the side, you have to root him out from behind cover with grenades. Rifle fire from the front is not effective with such good cover as the jungle affords, but a grenade thrown past the tree concealing an enemy will probably get him with the cross, burst.
The commandos continued to try to work their way around the side of the Japanese but the enemy kept retreating about a hundred yards at a time. The commandos stacked the surplus gear near the track in the hope of speeding up their advance to catch the Japanese but the enemy retreated faster and faster after each engagement. When it was nearly dark the commandos decided to pursue him no longer; it was too late to set up their headquarters in the upper reaches of the Bariki so they turned off the Munda trail to the mouth of the river where they made their headquarters with the battalion that was bivouacked in the swamp.
The fight had lasted intermittently for three hours, with the commandos pushing the Japanese back nearly two miles, yet the commandos fired less than a hundred rounds and threw about five grenades; The Japanese, on the other hand, fired something like a thousand rounds and threw over twenty grenades; they may have been using a two inch mortar as well but the commandos could not distinguish the sounds of page 114the various Japanese weapons with certainty at this stage. There were also the distracting noises of bombs dropping on the Munda area in the distance, and there were two thunder-storms during the afternoon.
The Fijians were bewildered by. the noise of the battle but they had had enough training to do the right thing automatically, and they followed their six New Zealand NCOs very well considering their emotions. They were badly shaken late in the afternoon when one of their number, Emosi, received a bullet wound in the shoulder. They were quite certain that Emosi was dead and they would not go near him. A New Zealand sergeant rushed over to the wounded man, stopped the flow of blood, bandaged him up and got him to his feet, much to Emosi's own surprise. The other Fijians then came forward and made a stretcher to carry the wounded man to the battalion aid station.
The Europeans in the party also felt the mental strain of their first encounter, but at no stage did they lose their self control. They of course had the advantage over the Fijians, in that their minds were fully occupied in controlling their sections. Having to worry about others prevented them from worrying about their own self-preservation — a bit. The Americans and New Zealanders also had behind them a background of general education: they knew that there was a limit to the machine-gun fire; they knew when the Japanese were reloading and when to take risks; and they also had the comforting thought that the American battalion was not so very far away. The Fijians had no means of orienting themselves: they could not read maps, and as far as they were concerned they were just in a clump of jungle miles and miles from home. They left it entirely to their New Zealand leaders to guide them in the right direction until they became familiar with the locality. The fear aroused in them because of Emosi's wound was understandable, because in training they had had no way of gauging the difference between a shot that would kill and a shot that would merely wound.
It is not known what casualties the enemy suffered that afternoon beyond some wounded: the commandos escaped with their one casualty principally because of the poor marks-page 115manship of the enemy and the inferiority of the Japanese grenade.
When it was decided to head off south to the mouth of the Bariki River, there was no time to go back along the track to get the extra gear. Some Tongans went out to get their packs at daylight next day but found a number of Japanese guarding them. There were not enough Tongans in the party to attack the enemy, so the packs were not recovered until several days later when the Japanese were pushed back from this area.
The battalion had settled down in its bivouac in the swamp unmolested by the enemy. This battalion was waiting for two other battalions to get into position on the Bariki before it started any action. However, the two other battalions were held up on Rendova Island for three days, reforming after the severe casualties they had sustained in an air-raid. These battalions had just landed on Rendova on 1st July, when Japanese bombers caught them before they had dug their fox-holes. This was indeed a stroke of misfortune for the Americans; it upset the whole time-table, and when the attack eventually began, the Japanese had recovered from their surprise.
On 6th July Ben Mase field led a patrol into enemy territory behind the Munda Airfield. This patrol crossed many tracks en route but saw no enemy. They finally set up a bivouac overlooking the Bairoko-Munda trail which would be the route of enemy evacuation or reinforcement, depending on what the Japanese decided to do. Thus this patrol, living five miles inside enemy territory, was to send back information that would give the Americans the key to the whole progress of campaign.
During the morning Captain Tripp's party arrived at the Bariki, and unit headquarters was set up inside the American perimeter, which became the front line a few hours later. It had been hoped that commando headquarters would be set up apart from the American units, so that the men could get some sleep when they returned from their long patrols behind the enemy lines. This idea had to be abandoned because communication was poor, and the commandos had to report the results of their reconnaissance directly to the American com-page 116manders in the front line, otherwise the information would be old and useless before the Americans could act upon it.
The American battalion intended sending out a company to clean out the Japanese that the commandos had fought on the Munda trail the previous day, but they delayed doing this until the afternoon. By this time the Japanese had recovered from their surprise and, with reinforcements, had firmly established themselves on a knoll a few hundred yards north of the battalion, and on the same side of the river.
Several commandos guided the American company to the enemy on the knoll, and the fight for Munda really began. A regular front could not be maintained in the thick bush, and there were small groups fighting in all directions. The enemy got right in behind the battalion bivouac and showered the area with lead; they also cut the telephone wire leading back to the beach-head. There were no troops stationed within the three mile stretch between the beach-head and the battalion on the Bariki to prevent this infiltration. Three Tongans, Inukia'agana, Mahe, and Vave, killed five of the enemy and helped to carry back the wounded Americans. Vave received bullets in the calf of each leg and two in the upper arm, yet he returned to the first-aid station unassisted.
A New Zealander leads his patrol of Fijians behind the Japanese lines on New Georgia Island. From an original painting by Russell Clark, an official war artist.
On 7th July the battle continued at daylight. The Americans tried to shift the enemy from his prepared positions on top of the knoll with mortar bombs, but when the infantry withdrew to allow for the barrage, he followed them down the hill, then returned to his dug-outs as soon as the barrage was lifted. Thus any advance that day was not possible.
During the previous night Japanese snipers had penetrated the battalion bivouac and had concealed themselves in trees; an. easy thing to do during the thunder-storms which were so frequent. These snipers would lie doggo in the day-time until the shooting on the perimeter rose in a crescendo, then they would have a pot-shot at someone well exposed in the clearing. These snipers were not exceptional markmen but they produced the desired effect on morale. They were so cunningly concealed with green nets draped over them, that it was not always possible to see them when looking straight up at them; even the Fijians with their remarkable eyesight found it difficult. The Americans found shot-guns useful for locating them: a burst of buck-shot up each tree exploded any theory that the Japanese are indifferent to pain.
Two commando patrols went on a six-hour reconnaissance of the enemy positions beyond the Bariki, and one of these returned with a negative report while the Other brought information of Japanese reinforcements coming around the American flank. The density of the bush and the nature of the country may be gauged by the fact that these commando patrols were operating only a few hundred yards apart, yet one patrol penetrated several miles into enemy territory without seeing a single Japanese. Patrols returning with negative reports supplied just as important information to the American Intelligence as the patrols that struck the enemy: it was necessary to know where the enemy was and where he was not. It was the intention of the American force to advance where there was no enemy, because they could not move three battalions, lock, stock and barrel, through the jungle, if the men had to do a lot of fighting at the same time. All patrols required the same skill and daring. The usual practice of a long range patrol, was to leave the Bariki travelling several page 118hundred yards back towards Zanana, then turn north behind the fighting area, cross the Munda trail, then turn west and march by compass and map to the area beyond the Bariki and behind the Munda Airfield. The commandos could prowl around the Japanese bivouacs without being detected, more freely four miles inside the enemy's area, where he least expected them, than they could a few hundred yards from the fighting area.
The second American battalion arrived at the Bariki at the height of a battle on 7th July, and when this unit heard the shooting on the flank it rushed into the first battalion's bivouac. The Americans manning the perimeter defences, thought it was a battalion of Japanese charging them through the undergrowth from the rear, so they stampeded towards the river. Some Fijians and a couple of New Zealanders, not knowing what it was all about, foolishly did likewise. This mob might have been still going if Captain Tripp had not stopped the rot. Though he could not see the cause of the panic, Captain Tripp stood up with some of his NCOs Avho held their ground. He then yelled out above the din of battle "Get back in your bloody fox-holes and stay there!" Such was the command of his voice that he stemmed the tide, and they all returned to their positions; no doubt mortified when they discovered that they had been frightened by their own comrades.
The American battalion had run out of rations and the small commando unit supplied them with all it could spare. The first of the commandos' reserve supply of ammunition and food was brought along the coast in the native canoes. When the canoes reached the mouth of the Bariki, the Solom on Islanders, hearing the noise of the battle, jumped out and fled through the swamp back to the beach-head. The New Zealand NCOs, who could handle canoes as efficiently as any native, carried on up the river and the rations were shared with the American units, some of which had been without rations for twenty-four hours. The first lot of wounded were evacuated in these canoes, and in the next few days the commando quartermasters ran a transport service that was pre-eminent until the American engineers made the Munda trail into a jeep road.page 119
On 8th July three commando patrols went out beyond the Bariki river, and Ben Masefield sent back a report from the Bairoko trail.
The third American battalion arrived at the Bariki, and the Japanese were finally pushed off the knoll and back across the river. The Americans were now astride the Munda trail. Commando headquarters shifted to 169 Regimental Command Post near the Munda trail, and the next day two commando patrols went out and located the positions to which the Japanese had retreated, about a thousand yards to the north-west of the American camp.
The same day one of the Fijians, who was helping the quartermaster at Zanana, assisted some Americans in the capture of five unarmed Japanese who had swum in from an island in the Roviana Lagoon. These prisoners were weak and hungry, and had been part of the force that had eluded the commandos when the unit first landed on the outer islands.
The campaign was now a week old, and after a brilliant start in the first few days, it had settled down to a war of attrition with no spectacular successes. The Americans had been pounding the Munda area day and night with shells from the artillery based on Rendova Island six miles away; at night the Navy stood off Munda Point and helped the artillery; and in the day-time American dive-bombers penetrated the Japanese ack-ack to keep the airfield well out of working order. The effect of this softening up process did not, as it was hoped, drive the enemy off the island, but forced him into the jungle where he fought desperately with the American infantry. The little artillery possessed by the Japanese was almost knocked out in the first few days, but enemy mortar fire was very effective. Mortars were the heaviest weapons that could be used near the front line because artillery or bombs from a distance Avere bound to hit friend and foe alike. Mortar observers on both sides had to climb trees, but even then they could see very little, and fire could be directed only at a few favourable targets. Later in the campaign, when the fighting was in the less thickly wooded area around Munda Airfield, artillery was used to greater advantage.page 120
The Japanese soldier was prepared to die for his country if he had to. Nevertheless, he went to great pains to dig himself in and camouflage his positions. Commando patrols had to get right into the enemy bivouacs before they could see them. The Japanese snipers remained in the most uncomfortable positions for hours waiting for their enemy to move into their field of fire, but their attitude appeared to be one of resignation to their fate rather than well directed courage; on many occasions they threw away their lives pointlessly. They seemed small minded and depended on their officers to plan an attack; but they did not need the presence of their officers to carry out orders. The individual cunning they showed in harassing night tactics was probably taught them by their officers, because they were mostly stereotyped. The tactics continued to be effective because new men were arriving in the American lines every day, and all the foreknowledge in the world would not dispel the cold shivers that ran up your back for the first few nights of the actual experience. The Japanese who made the night attacks were a specially trained company, and in later weeks when these men were killed the ordinary Japanese infantry tried to do the same but they were notably unsuccessful.
The special Japanese company was helped by the fact that the American battalions had been in the same bivouac for several nights in succession, and so many saplings had been cut down to make shelters that the area was now an immense clearing which was easy to locate. This Japanese company captured some American grenades which it used to advantage too.
The Japanese were slower at changing their tactics than the Americans, and they were more vulnerable to surprise; this was probably due to their former easy successes where they always did the attacking, and had no need to be on the alert for counter attacks. The enemy was so badly caught off balance in the first few days of the New Georgia operation, that he did not have his artillery ranged on the narrow Onaivisi Passage through which thousands of troops poured. It was later found that the Japanese anticipated a frontal assault across the Munda Bar.
The usual reaction of the Japanese infantry on contact, page 121was to fight back agressively irrespective of the size of the opposing force, but their determination was not inexhaustible. Their reputation for audacity rests on a few exceptional cases. The snipers who had the extreme boldness to squat in trees inside the American bivouacs, were the exception to the rule; but a soldier needs to experience only one incident of this nature to stimulate his imagination and keep him cautious. The Japanese had not changed over from the 25 calibre to their later 7.7 millimetre weapons, and consequently their small bullets more often wounded than killed. The enemy sometimes yelled out to scare his foe, but this trick was only effective on the first encounter; after that it served to give his positions away. At times he threw grenades when there was no particular target, apparently demoralising his opponents with the noise alone. On occasions he cut off the tips of his bullets to make them more deadly and shorten the flight; the idea being that if he surrounded an enemy party there was less danger of hitting his own men. In the jungle there is no front line as there might be in open country. Infiltration made it a mix up of little fights everywhere. It was really guerrilla warfare all the time, and the commandos found that the most suitable fighting unit was about fifteen men, although situations varied considerably and sometimes larger numbers could be used. For reconnaissance work the number required to be as small as possible, but temperament had to be considered, and these patrols usually comprised at least four men. One man could move most freely around enemy bivouacs, but very few men had the self-possession necessary to do so; besides, one man's interpretation of what he saw might be coloured by his imagination, and a companion provided a check on it.
Fighting in the jungle is an eerie, terrifying experience, and it was especially so for many of the Americans who had not conditioned their minds to the claustraphobic influence of dense bush, apart from the warfare. To the New Zealanders and Fijians the jungle was second nature, and they felt more confident in its protection than if they had been exposed to open warfare such as in the desert. Even so, it was a nightmare at times.
It is difficult to describe the mixture of emotions that well up inside you during your first jungle battle: later ex-page 122perience dulls the senses somewhat. Fear predominates, though you can suppress it to some extent and show an outward calm—even force a grin at the next fellow. The worst periods are the lulls of a few minutes between exchanges of fire. The mind is in a state of excited, unpleasant expectancy; sweat oozes from every pore, and the muscles are tensed until natural fatigue forces them to relax. At moments of relaxation the mind seems to go blank and you want to go to sleep: this period probably lasts only a split second yet it seems hours. Another burst of machine-gun fire from somewhere and you are wide awake again, hugging the ground behind a tree or log with your heart-beats suddenly doubled. If fire is kept up for several minutes you become innured to a degree, and if there is no visible opponent to shoot at, you begin to take risks to see what is going on. In dodging from tree to tree the odds are a hundred to one that the enemy will miss you with his fire, but if you do it too often your ninety-nine chances must dwindle sooner or later.
Queer thoughts run through your brain—such as noting the dirt under your finger-nails; wondering what the lizard under your nose is thinking of the war situation, and so on, yet contrary to expectation you never think of home and mother. The only consistency in the heterogenous collection of thoughts is their relation to the present situation, and even this does not seem real at times; bullets whine past, but you cannot see them or feel them; you just see leaves slowly toppling over when their stems are severed. You can not tell how close you are to death until it is touching—then it is too late to worry.
Jungle warfare becomes a very personal affair between yourself and the enemy, who is so close at times that you can almost see the whites of his eyes. If you catch sight of his face once, the features are indelibly printed on your mind; and if you see it a second time it seems that you have known the man for years. In fact jungle warfare is so much of a man to man affair, that it strikingly reveals the true nature of war—murder.