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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 Nineteen — Sirot Action and Mainland Skirmishes

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Chapter Nineteen
Sirot Action and Mainland Skirmishes

Of the two islands at the entrance to the lagoon, Barahun had been cleared while Sirot Island remained to be searched. What appeared to be two small boats had been observed close in to the shore on the lagoon side of Sirot and reported by a naval vessel. Captain D. Dalton, the commander of B company, received a warning order that on the morning of 17 February, he was to land his men on Sirot Island, and that he would have attached and under his command the following additional troops: the 4th Field Security Section, 14th Brigade Defence and Employment platoon, one platoon of the 14th Brigade medium machine gunners and one section of the 144th Battery.

Next morning after the 144th Battery, firing from Pokonian, had laid a seven-minute artillery barrage down on the beach-head near the middle of the island, the troops made an unopposed landing from their craft. The natives were observed frantically paddling away from the beach-head in their canoes. The commander moved his men into the small village where several fowls and a pig had been killed by the shelling, and formed his rear headquarters. A very frightened native was questioned in pidgin English as to whether there were any Japs on the island. He was definite in his reply that there were no Japanese on Sirot. The commander, leaving the machine gunners platoon at his rear base, moved the remainder of his forces across the island to the seaward coast, a distance of about 350 yards. The intention was to search the northern half of the island first in a manner which you might liken to a rolling-pin running round the sides of a circular pie-crust. The patrols set page 108off, fanned out in extended order, keeping visual contact with each other on the right and left, although as progress was made the jungle became thicker and this became more and more difficult to do. Suddenly the platoon on the left flank, the brigade defence platoon under Lieutenant E, G. Taylor, saw through the undergrowth ahead some people who because of a similarity of dress might have been our own troops. It was promptly realised they were Nips and they were fired on but in extraordinary quick time the enemy leapt to their defensive positions.

Visibility through the very thick jungle was difficult. Because of the fact that the platoon on the left flank near the sea coast had found it easier going than the other platoons, the line of advance, instead of being straight, was curved. Jap sniper bullets cracked through the trees and both the defence platoon and No. 10 platoon especially (Lieutenant R. Howatson) found that moving about was a perilous business. The Japs at an early stage decided to retire to more tenable positions and as they did so Sid Andrews, firing his rifle as rapidly as he knew how, could be heard yelling, 'Look at the b——ds—look at 'era running.' Unemotionally, without any striving for effect, Corporal P. A. Davidson, the leader of one of Lieutenant Taylor's sections, has told his story of his part in the Sirot fight. 'I took my section through,' he said, 'and ran into the Japanese. We surprised them. The first I saw were two Japanese backing out of a bivvy. I saw they were Japanese by their tin hats and I hit them with my to my gun. As I fired I went to cover and one Japanese dashed to my right. I knocked him down, then my bren gunner got into action. He had fired several magazines when a Japanese officer rushed to a tree. He leaned round the side of the tree and shot the bren gunner with his pistol. The bren had jammed as a bullet had gone through the front of the magazine. The Japanese officer threw a grenade at me. One of my men fired two quick shots with a rifle and then I knocked the officer down with my tommy gun. I ran forward about five yards to a clearing between the trees and threw a grenade. There was nothing doing then for about 10 minutes. Then I saw a Japanese moving on his stomach trying to get one of my to my gunners. As he came through a clearing about two feet wide in the trees, I gave him a burst. He rolled over on his side and I gave him another in the chest. We waited then for two hours without a move. I then threw two page 109more grenades and then asked my chaps if they were game to go in with me but there were only five of the chaps left with one man wounded. It was not enough to go in with. We then withdrew from the area and our platoon commander picked us up as we with' drew.'

Meanwhile the advance of the other platoons had been halted on the sound of shooting. Information was difficult to obtain because Lieutenant Taylor's platoon was pinned down and he had lost contact with Corporal Davidson's section by reason of the casualties this NCO had suffered among his men. The battle commander had received the very disconcerting signal that it was thought there were about 150 Japs on Sirot. This information came to him because of the following incident. A soldier who had been wounded in the initial stages of the fight had in his delirium wandered away from the perimeter and was observed on the beach by a passing barge of the 57th Battalion whose occupants picked him up. The wounded man gave a garbled account of the action, mentioning in his story the words, '150 Japs., This information was sent back to brigade head' quarters and from there it was forwarded to Captain Dalton. By using number nine platoon to probe the flanks of the Jap resistance pocket the commander was able to satisfy himself that at least in the immediate vicinity there weren't that number of Japs.

In a very much longer time than it takes to tell, for it was now getting on to 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the commander was able to confer with his platoon commanders, and he decided to put his whole force through the area and shoot the Japs up. Number eight platoon (Sergeant N. Goodall) replaced the badly shaken defence platoon and the force manoeuvred into position for the advance. Grenades were thrown and on the signal of a whistle the whole force closed in, firing bren guns, tommy guns and rifles. No one could have stood up to the concentrated hail of bullets which went into the Jap positions round the flanges of the banyan trees. In a short time it was all over and 15 mutilated Japs were counted in the area. They were all big men with magnificent physique and the boys revised their impression that all Japs were little 'uns Judging by the green state of the wood in their hutments, the Japs had just finished constructing their bivouac area. Next morning the patrol of the northern part of the island was completed and a further dead Jap was found. Our own five dead were removed and the enemy casualties were buried.

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Later in the afternoon a barrage from Pokonian plantation was brought down by the artillery on the area near the Jap assault boats. Two platoons under Captain D. Lawford and Lieutenant F. Allen went down to make a reconnaissance but the only evidence found was that the Japs had frequently used the area as a staging point Another platoon cut across the island and searched the southern seaward side of the coast with negative results. A camouflaged canoe with natives in it was seen making over the mainland of Nissan, but whether there were any Japs in it or not is a matter for conjecture. The fact that some rifles were found later by 'Tich Lewis and Jim Kelly in the deep waters of the channel suggests that at some time Japs may have made their escape. In an action in which the extremely thick jungle made communications so difficult, the men proved themselves steady and reliable when under fire for the first time and earned the praise of their officers. Five men were killed, all from the brigade defence platoon, and three were wounded, one of whom was Private T. H. Watts, of B company. For his gallantry in action on Sirot Island, Corporal Davidson was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Meanwhile on the mainland of Nissan the three companies pushed on through the jungle opposite the Tangapat peninsula. A company, on the seaward side of the island, reported having seen at dusk at a distance a party of 10 to 12 Japs carrying what appeared to be a stretcher but was later assumed to have been a machine-gun with bicycle shaped carrying handles. That night pigs roamed within the perimeter and their snorting and high-pitched squealing, combined with the curses and abuse hurled at them from aroused sleepers, must have given any Japs in the vicinity the impression that the New Zealanders were using a secret weapon. Just a little before the break of dawn a sound of scuffling was heard near the cliff and a voice cried—'Help! Help!' A Jap, apparently lost, had wandered into the perimeter and in stumbling over a fox hole had fallen on a wooden pick handle which he used to belabour Shorty the occupant of the trench. Shorty closed with the Jap and gave him a shove towards Sergeant Tom Pagan, who lashing out with his feet caught him in the lower regions and pushed him over the cliff. The Jap saved himself by clinging to the jagged edge and attempted to pull himself up, but Snowy Shaw spared him the trouble by letting him have a burst of tommy gun bullets, and he let go to fall fifty or page 111sixty feet to the reef below. When daylight came blood bespattered rocks on the cliff edge told their own story. No other contact had been made by C or D companies. Various huts had been passed in which the Japs had stored old clothing and other rubbish and which had been, incidentally, well rummaged by soldiers in search of souvenirs. Hot tea and stew came forward for the evening meal which, after 'K' rations, was welcomed with enthusiasm.

Next day the companies reached the Tanaheran area and in the afternoon dug their fox-holes. Plans were changed, however, and orders were given for the companies to move along the track leading to the Roman Catholic mission, near which the native scouts said there was a Jap bivouac. It was the intention in the morning to lay down an artillery barrage in the suspected enemy neighbourhood. Fearing that the companies had moved too close to the area and might themselves come under their own artillery fire, the commanding officer gave instructions to withdraw along the track some distance. Bivouac was made for the night near a native village clearing and where digging in the guava covered scrub was found to be very much easier than had been previously experienced. Artillery 25-pounders and 3.7 howitzers ranged on their target before darkness fell. It rained again, as on the previous night, and troops lay huddled under the scanty cover of so-called waterproof capes, in fox-holes into which the water drained. Few could sleep under such conditions but some did, and not only slept but snored too, in reverberating tones which you felt sure the Japs up to a mile away must hear.

At 0730 hours of the following morning the 25-pounders, the howitzers and our own battalion mortars opened up on the mission area. Our mortar platoon alone 'pooped off' roughly 900 bombs in the half hour barrage at the completion of which the companies moved oif towards the mission. It was hard going pushing through the undergrowth on either side of the track and difficult, too, to keep contact with troops on the flanks. C company suddenly found itself in the Jap bivouac area. Just how long since the Nips had evacuated their primitive huts is a matter of opinion although it could have been only a few hours. Their departure must have been sudden, for the neatly packed valises of the soldiers lay on the floors of their sleeping quarters in orderly rows. Avid souvenir hunters pulled out the contents which consisted silk pyjamas, blade razors, writing materials, letters from the homeland, Jap paper money, excellent page 112rubber raincoats and, to some fortunate searchers, a Japanese flag. Every Jap soldier on leaving his hometown takes with him a small flag on which are inscribed in Jap characters by his family, relatives and friends, good luck legends. In addition some wear 'the belt of a thousand stitches' in which each separate stitch has been worked by a girl or woman of his homeland. They had obviously taken only the minimum of gear, for some rifles and bayonets, cooking utensils, binoculars and bags of rice had all been left. The patrols carried on and shortly came into the mission area to join the 35th Battalion men who had in the past four days moved round the island from Tangalan plantation. Tanks rumbled down the track in the rear of the 30th Battalion and no doubt they were just as disappointed at the anti-climax as were the infanteers. The mission buildings were in a state of ruin, having been the target for strafing fighter planes and bombers in previous months. The Catholic Fathers had long since been taken from the island by the Japs and their fate is still unknown. There was nothing more to be done in this area and the troops started to move back to Tanaheran passing on the way the Jap camp, which by this time looked like a jumble sale on market day, with American and New Zealand soldiers poking round among the abandoned gear.

Back at Tanaheran an opportunity for a swim was given and this was done by climbing down the thick pandanus roots from the cliff to the reef below or by 'shining' down an old rope that the Japs had used at some time for the same purpose. Some of the lads wrote hasty notes on recently acquired Jap note paper, while others clustered round the base of a coconut tree to pick up nuts being thrown down. Max looked up and shouted, 'Chuck us one down, Bert.' Bert threw one and Max looked up just in time to catch it on the nose. After he came to he was taken away to hospital with a suspected broken nose. 'J' type rations were on issue to the troops now and they were a big improvement on 'k' type. They were not individual rations but were shared by two or four men and the principal items included dried apricots and peaches, one pound tin of peanuts, a packet of raisins, a tin of powdered milk, biscuits, cocoa or coffee, candy, chewing gum and 30 pieces of toilet paper. Small fire blocks were on issue for the heating of a mug of water to make hot cocoa or coffee.

Late in the afternoon number five platoon of A company under Lieutenant G. Primrose was ordered to patrol the cliffs for a distance page 113of a thousand yards. On reaching the spot close to where the Jap was pushed over the cliff, they were fired on, Shorty Davis receiving a slight wound. The platoon returned the fire and killed two Nips, the remainder being seen to scurry over the cliff-side down a ravine. On returning to Tanaheran the patrol commander reported the incident and orders were given for the company, less one platoon, to move back to the scene of the skirmish with the Japs. Again they were fired on by the enemy and our men killed a further two Japs. The remaining platoon of A company was now ordered to join the rest of their company, and by following the telephone wire, for it was now almost dark, they were able to locate the company and take up a separate perimeter close by. Nothing untoward happened in the night and when daylight came the platoons thoroughly searched the area but without seeing any of the enemy. The company then retraced its steps to Tanaheran and, in the light of subsequent events, that they did not come into contact with Japs was remarkable.

Meanwhile, overnight, D and G companies had occupied the stop line, dug in hard coral ground, running from the cliffs and stretching inland. From somewhere in the perimeter in the night a grenade was thrown, sending a shower of dirt and twigs into neighbouring fox-holes. Further down the line rifle shots rang out. You tensed in the fox-hole, chewing hard on your gum and felt for your rifle. Where every coconut and dead frond that falls, each lizard that darts over crackling leaves, is the imagined stealthy footfall of a Jap, the jungle plays havoc with a man's nerves. Pigs abounded on the island but they at least identified themselves with their rooting and snorting, when they wandered in and round the perimeter. Next morning, 20 February, the companies filled in their fox-holes and moved back along the road pushed through by bull-dozers, to areas near which they would be making their permanent bivouac area. While the men were drying clothes, digging fox-holes or cleaning their weapons there occurred an incident, with subsequent important events, for an account of which it is necessary to return to Tanaheran.