Pacific Kiwis: being the story of the service in the Pacific of the 30th Battalion, Third Division, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force
Chapter Twenty — The Engagement at Tanaheran
The Engagement at Tanaheran
Quite close to the fox-holes filled in by the companies, Captain J. F. B. Stronach, of the brigade carriers platoon, was making a reconnaissance with a view to selecting a suitable camp site for his unit. Jeeps, troops and bulldozers had passed in the vicinity on the same morning and on the previous day, and to all intents and pur' poses the area was clear of the enemy. It was near lunch time and the carriers commander decided on a swim and then to have lunch. A few minutes later one of his men wandered over towards the cliff down which the 30th Battalion companies had clambered to have a swim on the previous day. Suddenly a shot rang out and the man realised he had been fired on from within the trees. Thinking that a lone Jap sniper was lurking somewhere in the nearby jungle, two of the carriers sergeants gathered together some men and moved over to stalk the Nip. They were met with bursts of machine-gun fire and two men were wounded. It was promptly realised that the enemy were there in some strength.
Attracted by the sound of firing Captain Stronach had by this time returned and, gathering as many men as he could from various units, formed a perimeter near the Jap positions. As yet no estimate could be given of Jap numbers nor with any certainty could his positions be pointed out for, being the wily jungle fighters they are, the Nips fired only when our forces did. Then, too, the enemy was using a small calibre high velocity bullet, and it was hard to distinguish the explosive crack on landing and the report on being fired. A machine-gun platoon under Lieutenant E. Ryan, who had also been in the vicinity making a reconnaissance, was brought into the action and the gunners poured hundreds of rounds into the bases of the pandanus and sprayed the tops of the trees, hoping to dislodge snipers.page break
At two o'clock in the afternoon two tanks were brought up and they poured their canister fire in to the enemy area, clearing the undergrowth and giving the riflemen and gunners better visibility. An attempt had already been made by Captain Stronach and some of his men to rescue Corporal R. Stannard who lay wounded in the field of fire, but although they crawled within a few feet of him the intensive knee mortar and machine-gun fire compelled them to withdraw. The corporal, who lay partly camouflaged by fallen branches, was located by Sergeant Beetham who went in with the enemy fire playing a staccato effect on the armour of his tank. The wounded man climbed up on the back and the tank backed out. Two more tanks joined battle with fresh supplies of ammunition and blasted and ripped the vegetation with their howitzers. Just after mid day Colonel Cornwall received information that an action was taking place in the vicinity of Tanaheran and he ordered his adjutant to ring D company, whose camp was near Tanaheran, and inquire if they had any knowledge of the reported action. No phone communication could be made and the adjutant, Captain Biss, taking a line party with him, dropped men off at points where bulldozers had cut in. He continued to Tanaheran and reaching the village contacted Captain Stronach.
'I'm told there's a battle going on here/ said the adjutant.
'My b——oath there's a battle going on.'
'Why aren't the Japs firing.'
'Because they only fire when we do.'
As if to confirm the captain's words a fusilade of machine-gun bursts, from both sides, shattered the lull. Soon after this Private Beban, of the machine gunners, was hit while firing his vickers and he died from his wounds. It was agreed by the two officers that infantry reinforcements were needed and Captain Biss dashed through the village up to D company to inform the colonel by 'phone of the seriousness of the situation. Communication was eventually made with the colonel and he ordered Major Bullen, the commander of B company, to move his platoons to Tanaheran and take over the command of the offensive. Only two platoons were available to go, number 15, with Captain Peter Adams in command, and number 14, commanded by Sergeant G. H. Reesby. Number 16 platoon, under Lieutenant R. Jessup, was at the time on beach patrol. Feverishly the D company men gathered their weapons and ammunition and page 116hurriedly moved to Tanaheran, where Major Bullen conferred with the carriers and tanks officers. Even now it was difficult to say how many Japs were opposing them, but judging by the volume of fire coming not only from the cliff edge but also from snipers in tree tops, their force was still a formidable one. Major Bullen asked the tank commander, Major Rutherford, to withdraw his vehicles in order that he might lay down a mortar barrage on the enemy posi' tions, following which he would move his infantrymen in to a closer assaulting point. In the meantime eight Japs who had escaped over the cliff edge and were making their way northwards were ambushed by a section of 16 platoon. Corporal L. G. Ratcliffe, who was in charge, personally accounted for six of them with his tommy gun and the remaining two were killed by others in the section.
The barrage by the battalion mortar platoon (Lieutenant G. Hamilton in charge) having been completed, the battle commander moved his platoons forward—the machine gunners on the right fiank, 14 platoon in the middle, and 15 platoon on the left flank. An advance of 50 yards was made in bounds, with murderous exchanges of machincgun fire on both sides. Our men flung their grenades and the Japs retaliated with longer range knee mortar bombs. Private P. Priest, with a burst from his bren gun, dislodged a Jap sniper in a tree top. Lieutenant Ryan was wounded at this stage; his platoon had reached a point where they could no longer advance except at the expense of heavy casualties. Major Bullen, sittting at the base of a tree, shouted his orders to his platoons. He had to shout to make himself heard above the din of battle and each command brought in his direction bursts of rifle and machine gun fire from the Japs who made him their priority target. Each order was carried out implicitly and not a man wavered. The platoons had now reached a position varying from 30 to 40 yards from the enemy. Grenades spat dirt and vegetation into the air and the small calibre Jap bullets cracked against tree trunks and gouged their way through coral.
Light was fading fast—in 20 minutes it would be dark—it was now or never. The major made his decision, and shouted—'When I give the order "throw"—every man throw a grenade and get up and charge—we're going in.' He waited to give them time for the throw.
Hardly had the explosions subsided than a rough semicircle of soldiers staggered to its feet and charged, firing tommy and bren guns from the hip, tripping over pandanus roots and coral humps, cursing and shouting, oblivious to all except the task of killing every live Jap. Captain Peter Adams and Private H. V. Whyte fell dead as the assault commenced. It was the end for the Japs as the infanteers overran their positions, viciously ripping fire into every Jap to ensure that he was a dead 'un. Victory's elation was tinged with sadness caused by the loss of gallant comrades. In addition to those killed, Lance-Sergeant Archie Patton and Private Ted Ivey had received serious wounds, from the effects of which both subsequently died. Less seriously wounded were Sergeant G. H. Reesby, Corporal G. B. Ironside, and Privates G. I. Mundell, L. R. Willis, and W. C. Topping.
And so was ended the bitter engagement of Tanaheran, ably begun by Captain Stronach and directed to a successful conclusion by Major Bullen whose men showed in an exemplary manner that when called to to carry the training of months into effect they had more than proved their merit. C company was ordered forward to form a perimeter for the night near the scene of the conflict, barely having time to get into position before darkness fell. Many of the company had only time to hear a garbled account of the day's events and the possibility that Japs would infiltrate through the jungle during the night was to them not a remote one. Again it rained and the troops had only coconut fronds with which to cover themselves. Somewhere a machine-gun stuttered in the distance. Paddy, when he changed his position in his fox-hole made a noise like a herd of elephants, but Mac snored on oblivious to everything. Somebody in a pleading stage whisper said, 'Fer ——'s sake give him a poke, will you.' Early next morning D company and the machine gunners came along to view the battle scene. Japanese dead in grotesque positions lay in humps among the jagged coral and pandanus roots and you formed the opinion that they had been used as human parapets by their surviving mates. All appeared to be dead until one Nip opened his eyes and, making an appraisal of the situation, quickly tapped a grenade, placed it against his chest and blew himself over the cliff to the land of his fathers. Strewn in the area were blood stained field dressings, ammunition and weapons. Some Nips had apparently escaped over the cliff by tying puttees together and using page 118them as a rope. All told 52 dead Japs were counted in the area and on the beach below, in addition to which were eight killed by the section of 16 platoon. Souvenir hunters promptly seized rifles, hilt encrusted swords three feet long worn by the officers, and rising sun flags taken from the insides of helmets and from the khaki clad bodies where they were worn under the uniform next to the skin.
Since there was a possibility that some of the Japs may have escaped along the coast C company was sent to patrol the cliffs and search the caves on the beach below. At various points along the beach and reef evidence was found of the Jap occupation over the past two years. Here was a camouflaged hideout for a sentry and close beside it a petrol drum strewn with fronds; there on the floors of caves wooden water buckets and empty sake bottles. Tracks at some places led over the cliff sides and these probably were the points of contact for Nip barges calling to refuel or discharge and take on passengers. No one can say just why the now annihilated Jap garrison had left the mission area to take up the position it did. Possibly these men had hoped to be taken off in the night by a barge coming from the island of Feni or New Ireland. The jungle plays tricks with one's imagination and over the past few nights, when dug in near the coast, some soldiers had sworn they had heard the sound of barge engines approaching the reef. Continuing on its patrol C company came on a large beached barge which had been shot up by our planes or naval forces. Nearby, behind some huge rocks in a ravine, was a primitive bivouac area and it was in this area that A company had killed some Japs two days previously. Suddenly forward scouts saw two Japs run into the cave of a pylon shaped rock. Closing in a section threw grenades inside but it was too dark to see the results. Corporal Albert Cockle, with his American carbine taken from the Jap camp on Gizo, and Corporal Fred Dixon went and in and fired bursts into the ledge of the cave. Two dying Japs were pulled down—both of them naval men. Their pockets were filled with the kernel of coconuts.
The patrol then returned, one platoon doing a quick dispersal off the track when it came upon a Jap reclining on the flat of his back with his knees up. Nobby had pushed forward his safety catch when Archie noticing a fair number of flies round the sleeper said, 'Don't shoot— the b——d's dead.' Further along in the depressing dingi-page 119ness of the jungle the Japs had constructed hutments from bamboo and betel-nut palm trunks, and whimpering in the corner of one of them lay a litte foxy-eared mongrel waiting for his Jap masters who would never return. For the part they played in bringing the Tanaheran engagement to a successful conclusion, Major A. B. Bullen was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Sergeant G. H. Reesby was decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The citation to Major Bullen's award stated that 'his action in organising and directing the attack, regardless of his own personal safety, was an inspiration to his men and an outstanding example of splendid leadership.' Sergeant Reesby who, in the absence of his officer, commanded the platoon earned the highest praise from his battle commander 'for the manner in which, with complete disregard for his own safety, he controlled and led his men.'