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Pacific Kiwis: being the story of the service in the Pacific of the 30th Battalion, Third Division, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force

Chapter Sixteen — The Commando Raid

page 88

Chapter Sixteen
The Commando Raid

A general mobilisation order had been issued to the whole of the brigade. The 35th Battalion from the north-eastern and the 37th Battalion from the north-western sides of the island returned and made their camps on the north of the Juno River. Rumours were rife as to future movements although the only official information given out was that the 30th Battalion had been assigned a special task which would be carried out in the near future. In the mean-time conferences were held to decide what gear to take and how to carry it, what weapons and how much ammunition. The strength of each platoon was to be 25 which meant that several men in each platoon, much to their disappointment, had to be placed on the LOB (left out of battle) list. Practise in forming perimeters both by day and by night was carried out at the Mumia and Juno beaches. Every man learned his position in the assault boat, his companions on his right and left flanks in the perimeter, the ammunition carried by his section mates and where it was carried; every man learned, too, the number of paces to take in from the bush line, the whereabouts of his platoon commander, and finally once having dug in, not to move one's fox-hole in any circumstances.

There was little one could do now except make certain of one's job by asking questions, relax and await D minus one day. The colonel addressed the men on 25 January and said—'Briefly your task is this-—to disembark from destroyers at midnight into assault boats, land on a certain island which the Japs are using as a staging point for barges, dig in and wait for daylight. You will then, all going well, be split into small groups and go as protecting parties to men having specialist reconnaissance duties. At midnight we will rendezvous with the destroyers and come home.' A sand table map page 89in relief of the island to be raided was shown to all those taking part in the raid and this confirmed what was unofficially known—that the scene of operations was to be Nissan Island, in the Green Islands group. Air reconnaissance and patrol torpedo boats had shown that' the Nips were using these islands as a staging point on the barge route from Rabaul or New Ireland to Bougainville.

Those from the 30th Battalion who were to take part in the operation, which was to be under command of Colonel Cornwall, were A, D, and C companies, one platoon from B company, mortar sections, the reconnaissance section, some members of the intelligence section, attached personnel from the signals platoon, a medical officer and orderlies and the padre. D minus one day was 29 January, when the troop assembled at Juno beach and were taken by LCPs (landing craft personnel) to the destroyers. The APDs (army personnel destroyers) which transported the men were the USS Talbot, "Waters and Dickerson. A conference was held aboard the Talbot in the afternoon when executive navy and army officers assembled in the ward room to discuss and confirm details of the raid. That night a practise landing was carried out. It was intended to land on Juno beach but this plan was abandoned, for after milling round for some time no one could decide just which part of the coast was Juno. Eventually a landing was made on the more easily discernible Mumia beach, after which the craft returned to their destroyers. Many of the men slept on their life-belts on deck rather than, in the crowded quarters below.

Next morning, 30 January, the convoy, consisting of seven vessels (three APDs and four escorting destroyers) sailed from the Vella Gulf, through the Gizo Strait, passing Ganongga on the port bow and up the west coast of Vella Lavella … We are making 18 knots and soon Mono and Stirling Islands fade from view on our starboard quarter. After lunch we know we are off Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, for towering above the land mass is the active volcano of Bagana with its peak shrouded in clouds. Two patrol torpedo boats from their Bougainville base join the convoy. The men sit round tailor-wise playing bridge or checking up on their equipment and weapons. Tea time comes and the mess queue trails its length in and around corners on the deck, and men seek places to rest their food tray.

'This is good stuff,' says Shorty. I'm gonna back the old dray in page 90for some more.'

'Plenty more cawfee fellers,' drawls a sailor from Texas.

It's make-up time and mates in turn smother each other's face, neck and hands with green combat paint.

'Now you're all positive of your boat station aren't you?' asks a platoon commander of some of his men.

'Sure, sure we're right sir.'

'The smoking lamp is out on all weather decks,' comes over the ship's speaker system. As dusk turns to darkness most of the men make their way below but some continue to yarn from some unseen corner of the deck. Down below in the quarters only the dim red lights are burning and glowing cigarette ends rise and fall. Some men are resting, others yarn; several are being sick into the cardboard rubbish boxes. The hours pass and at 11.30 pm comes the call the troops have been waiting for.

'Gear on!'

'Set condition one able,' comes over the speaker system from the bridge. These are the code words to move to the decks. The troops feel their way to their boat stations, hanging on to the man in front.

'Lower all boats to the rail.' The coxswains get in and the boats sink with them to the water. The troops clamber over the ship's side into the assault boats.

'Cast off,' and the boats move away from the mother ship.

'Go on in—I order you to go through,' shouts Commander J. Macdonald Smith, USN, from the first LCP to the patrol torpedo boat commander. Twelve assault boats follow the wake of the boat in front. In the first assault boat the troops crouch, huddled on the floor. The coxswain curses a section corporal who is sick over his legs. You know you are through the lagoon entrance for it is calmer now.

'Quarter right,' orders the commander to the coxswain.

'Quarter right it is sir,' replies the coxswain.

'Fifty yards to go,' says the commander.

The keel of the boat grates on the bottom like sandpaper on wood. The ramp drops with a clatter. The colonel jumps off, stumbles, calls out, 'It's deep.' The commander follows and then the platoon runs up the beach into the bushes. Soon all you can hear are shovels slipping through the sandy soil with a sound like ripping silk. A coconut falls among the fox-holes and somebody sniggers.

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One's first reaction at daylight was to take a look round and see what sort of a place one had landed in. The vegetation was like any-other tropical isle but the central lagoon was something new. Natives wearing religious medallions ventured not without nervousness into the perimeter. They quickly realised they were among friends and gave any information asked to the intelligence officer who questioned them in pidgin English. After a reconnaissance section had made certain that there were no Nips in the Pokonian plantation, parties were detailed to accompany the specialists on their duties. Platoons from D company went across the lagoon to the Tangalan plantation. From aerial photos American Air Corps executive officers had considered that this would probably be a suitable territory for an airstrip. A reconnaissance of the plantation of the proposed landing field area, which stretched from coast to coast, was made by American airfield engineers who had with them protective patrols. The natives reported that to their knowledge there were no Japs in the vicinity. Later in the day a Ventura bomber from an RNZAF squadron flew overhead and dropped a toilet roll from the plane. Everybody regarded this as a joke but the incident had its sequel. Some time later the war correspondent who was on Tangalan at the time met the crew of the Ventura.

'Did you get our message?' the pilot said.

'No—what message?'

'Didn't you pick up that roll of toilet paper?'

'Yes of course we did. And a raw joke that was.'

'That wasn't a joke. It had a message rolled up in the centre telling you to look out for Japs from barges approaching the south coast. We felt sorry for you chaps down there and thought we had better put you wise.'

Actually a message to this effect from the commander of the task force was received later in the day by the commander of the raiding force, Colonel Cornwall.

Seeking suitable places for LSTs, American naval officers took soundings along Pokonian beach and also over at Tangalan. B company platoon went to Barahun Island but on return said that the only thing of interest there was a native with an advanced case of elephantiasis. With no immediate evidence of Jap resistance one began to think that there was no enemy in the area. That this was not so was proved in the morning by a tragic episode. While taking page 92soundings near the shore in the lagoon the members of one reconnaissance team had their interest attracted by a peculiar rock enclosure on the shore. It was decided to investigate this and just as the boat neared the land a rifle was discharged in the bush. Not knowing whether it was our own or enemy troops the coxswain hastily reversed the engines and pulled out. A landing was then made further up the lagoon. Meanwhile a landing craft containing, among others, members of the battalion special reconnaissance section under Lieutenant Pat O'Dowd, Commander Smith and an American public relations officer, had landed at the Roman Catholic mission. They had gone ashore and proceeded along a path leading out of the mission. Somewhere in the jungle voices were heard and it was assumed they were natives, although in the light of events which followed in subsequent weeks, they were very probably Japs. The party returned to the mission beach and the coxswain, who was lying off shore, brought the barge in and the men filed aboard. The craft then headed back to Pokonian but when about a thousand yards from the beach-head Commander Smith, who was examining the shoreline through binoculars, saw what he thought to be a comouflaged barge. He decided to investigate. Let Lieutenant Robert T. Hartmann, USN, the public relations officer who was in the barge and later on returning to American published his impressions of the commando raid, tell the story.

'… In we went again crouching low. It's a good thing we were, for the moment our bow hit that quiet little strip of sand all hell broke loose. In considerably less time than it takes to tell, the air filled with lead. Over the side—not ten feet away—was an expertly camouflaged Jap barge. Alongside was another. The Japs —two of those barges would carry about one hundred—had dug themselves pill-boxes in the coral cliffs that rose steeply from the beach behind the hideout. They were in the overhanging trees also. On their first burst of heavy machine gun fire they killed the coxswain. They knocked out both of our bow gunners before they got off a shot. In fact, they hit everybody forward of the motor,— except Commander Smith—who was standing without a helmet up by the ramp. He was the only one left who knew how to run the boat! I was crouched just behind one of the natives, just at the centre of the boat. All the time the Japs were pouring machine-gun and rifle crossfire into us from all directions, including above. Our page 93boat was stuck on the beach and the occupants were dropping like flies. The New Zealand officer (Lieutenant O'Dowd) fell wounded. Another murderous burst from the machinegun not ten yards away cut down one of the overhanging branches and covered the stern half of the boat. Through this two of the New Zealanders, with as much guts as I ever hope to see, were pouring fire from their tommy guns back into the inferno. One Jap dropped from a tree but there was no noticeable let-up in the deafening fire we were taking.

'Commander Smith had ducked down at the first burst but he had his back to the coxswain and didn't know he was dead. He kept shouting, "Back 'er off—back 'er off! and he finally looked round at the shambles and saw that nobody was left to back 'er off but himself. Cool as a cucumber he crawled back to the wheel, keeping below the gunwales. He got the thing in reverse after anguished seconds that seemed eternities. The wounded gunner summoned his last strength and tried to help. The Japs were still pouring it into us and no one will ever shake my belief that it was pure miracle that prevented them from killing every soul in that boat. After a couple of agonising tries the boat slipped off the sand and floated. Up to that moment I was quite sure that we would all be killed and was praying only that God would receive us properly. Now I began to pray that God would get us out of here—but it wasn't over yet. Commander Smith was backing off blind and taking a quick peep over the side now and then. Any minute were were likely to hit one of the innumerable coral heads and be stuck again, but we missed them somehow. The enraged Japs kept on firing until we were a couple of hundred yards off shore but after we got out of point blank range they didn't hit anything. We heaved the branch over the side and pacthed up our wounded as best we could. The boat looked like a slaughter house. Our boat suffered more than 50 per cent casualties and everyone forward of me had been hit.'

Lance Corporal A. Walker and Private L. J. Bishop had also been wounded as were two of the Green Island native scouts who were with the party. In addition to these were the American casualties including Commander Smith who was slightly wounded in the arm. For his gallantry in the face of the enemy in exposing himself at close quarters in order to get away 15 rifle shots, Private John H. Jefferis, of the reconnaissance section, was later awarded the page 94Military Medal. The members of the reconnaissance section con' sidered that with their aimed shots they had killed four Japs. The wounded were taken ashore and placed under the care of the medical officer, Captain P. Wishart. The colonel ordered the mortar crews to lay a barrage on the Jap barges with the intention of sinking them and preventing their further use. A defensive stop line was formed right across the Pokonian plantation from coast to coast. Commander Smith took a barge and party and returning to a point in the lagoon off the Jap barge area had the machine gunners fire into the Nip positions.

Lieutenant O'Dowd died from his wounds in the early afternoon and was buried in the plantation. With their tasks completed over at Tangalan the reconnaissance parties of D company arrived back on the beach at Pokonian. With his full force now assembled at Pokonian, Colonel Cornwall felt at liberty to evolve a set attack on the Jap positions. The mortars who had previously been shooting at 1400 yards moved closer to their target and at 600 yards put down a further barrage. Major A. B. Bullen was ordered to take two platoons in two barges and land 100 yards right and left of the Japs while four landing craft under Commander Smith carrying machine gunners and rifle bombers were to give covering fire and then they themselves would make a frontal attack. It was the intention, too, to destroy the barges with demolition charges and for this task an engineer officer accompanied the party. The two infantry platoons had landed and hardly had the craft under Commander Smith begun to move in firing grenades and machine-guns than the cry went up, 'Condition red—condition red—Jap planes." The coxswains revved their engines and zigzagged in all directions as six Jap fighter planes peeled off, the leading edge of their wings spitting red tracer bullets, spattering the water into miniature geysers and clipping through the flimsy sides of the craft like a rip saw.

Back on Pokonian the alarm was given—'Take cover—take cover —air raid.' You could hear the drone of low flying aircraft coming closer and closer. 'Get to hell off the beach with those barges,' roared an American officer to the coxswains of the remaining boats and they had the unenviable task of reversing their craft into the lagoon and taking evasive action. You could see the small 50 pound bombs leave the Zeros and fall in diagonal flight towards the water. Small cascades of water flicked round the barges as the strafing planes page 95passed overhead. You could see the Nip pilots turn their heads to look down on the beach as they roared by.

'Hell,' said Bill afterwards, 'I didn't see them—I was well down in the old fox-hole.'

'It will be our turn soon,' everybody thought as they lay in the fox-holes in the plantation. Some in their eagerness scooped sand out of their trenches with their hands, others with arms like flails shovelled deeper into their slit-trenches to get more protection. The barges were still being strafed while one badly aimed bomb fell somewhere on the seaward side of the coast. Why the Zeros failed to make another run and strafe the beaches is a mystery, for had they done so, casualties would have been certain. The combined fire power of the barges had certainly prevented the Nips from coming in too low and forced them off their strafing run. Commander Smith's frontal attack on the Jap positions had been frustrated by the attacking aircraft. That there were Japs in the area round their barges still, was proved by the fact that they fired on the commander's craft as they had moved in just prior to the strafing. For his action in returning fire against the Japs and later manning a machine-gun and, regardless of his own safety, continuing to engage enemy air' craft until they were dispersed, Private W. T. A. Aylward was later awarded the Military Medal.

Just before dusk the barges returned and picked up the two platoons which had been landed near the Jap positions. Then, joined by the other craft, they all returned to the beachhead. None of the assault boats had been sunk, but some were holed with small calibre bullets, including the one containing the demolition charges and TNT. One of the American crew of one of the barges died from wounds received in the strafing and another was wounded. Private E. L. Hosking of A company was also wounded.

It had been part of the original plan to remain on Pokonian beach that night until it was time to leave and make contact with the destroyers. Fearing that Jap planes would return and bomb the beach it was decided by Colonel Cornwall, after a conference with the American naval officers, to leave before dark in the barges and hide along the foreshore of other parts of the lagoon. 'Prepare to withdraw,' was the order given to the troops who gathered up their equipment and awaited the word to go aboard the barges. A check was taken to see that everybody was accounted for and that nobody page 96was left behind. The loaded assault boats then headed over to Barahun Island where cover was taken along the foreshore inside the lagoon. With a receding tide it was necessary intermittently to reverse the barge engines to prevent them from being stranded. After the Jap plane attack the colonel had sent a wireless message— 'Request air cover—being heavily strafed.' This signal was acknowledged from Torokina airfield, one of our Bougainville air bases. For five hours the men lay cramped and huddled on the floors of the barges. Far away in the distance could be heard the drone of a plane—probably one of our night fighter planes. When the order was given to move out of the lagoon one of the barges found itself unable to move and the 40 men had to jump over the side and bodily lift the craft into deeper water. There was no moon, of course, for this had been the guiding principle in choosing the date for the raid.

The 12 barges, in line ahead, passed through the narrow channel separating Pokonian and Barahun Island and headed out to sea. The water was considerably rougher than in the lagoon and the boats nosedived into the troughs and reared on to the crests of the waves, flinging spume over the crowded occupants. Ahead, somewhere in the darkness is heard a shout and for two seconds a red light shows. The lights of home were never more welcome than that fleeting flicker which tells us that we have made our rendezvous. The boats lift and drop at the destroyer's side as the men wait for the top of the rise to leap to the net and clamber up over the ship's side. An American officer is crushed between barge and ship and his agonised scream makes one's blood run cold. Eager hands pull him to safety. How good it it to feel the steel decks beneath one's feet and below in the quarters to drink icecold water and later a cup of hot coffee. As you lever yourself into your bunk space you know from the vibration that the ship is under way. You send up a prayer of thankfulness and think, too, of those lonely graves under the palm trees on Pokonian.

Next morning, with traces of green paint on their faces and in their hair that soap and water would not remove, the men set about cleaning their salt-sprayed weapons. The convoy hove-to off Empress Augusta Bay while some American officers were transhipped on to patrol torpedo boats. At four o'clock in the afternoon the convoy sailed through the Vella Gulf and stood off Juno beach, its mission completed. The operation had been successful, for everything that page 97had been asked for had been done. The total casualties had been our own—one killed and three wounded, while the Americans lost three killed and several wounded. The curtain had fallen on the first act but the final scenes were still to be played.