Pacific Saga: the personal chronicle of the 37th Battalion and its part in the Third Division's Campaign
Chapter Eight — Action on Vella
Action on Vella
Some weeks before the New Zealand landing on Vella Lavella, a regimental combat team with Seabees of the US army had landed with the object of seizing an area at Barakorna for the construction of a fighter strip. At the time of our arrival, the combat team had progressed as far as Kokolopi on the north-east coast, and to Supato on the west coast. The Seabees were in process of making the fighter strip. The APT base was being established in Lambu Lambu Cove and the US navy had also established a boat pool at Barakoma. Lieutenant Jocelyn, of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve, had been put ashore prior to the American landing. He had organised a band of coast-watchers and scouts of natives. He worked from an aerie in the centre of the island and, being equipped with a wireless transmitter, was able to report enemy shipping and troop movements.
|(1)||The 14th Brigade Group, less the 30th Battalion, shouid move north and eliminate all enemy resistance.|
|(2)||At the conclusion of the above operation and after the arrival of the 30th Battalion, to clear Gizo Island.|
|(3)||Preliminary moves to commence on 21 September.|
Waiting in the heat on Juno River beach to embark stores for Nissan Island
The same landing craft beached off Tangalan Plantation as the stores are unloaded
Above: A ration dump at Tambama during operations on Vella Lavella.
Left: Men of the battalion clusion of the action.
Below: A Japanese barge photographed at the con-captured during operations and named 'Confident' is anchored off Maravari
Men of the 37th Battalion probed through the jungle on the right flank during the action on Vella Lavella. Above are some of the guerillas with a Japanese flag. On the right is a picture of mortars in action. Below that Captain R. A. Stokes is shown with some of those who captured the Japanese barge At the foot of the page is Lieutenant D. J. Law with a patrol
From a pictorial point of view D company's area on Nissan was an idyllic grove of palms on the edge of the lagoon.
Below: The transport platoon photographed on Nissan Island
The enemy was known to be armed with rifles, machineguns and mortars, with possibly heavier weapons in selected strong-points. He could rely on air support from Shortland. Information was somewhat vague, making it difficult to form an accurate estimate of the actual opposition likely to be encountered. In the circumstances, it appeared necessary to employ a force which would be deemed sufficient to deal successfully with the estimated maximum amount of resistance and to avoid undue delay in completing the task. The employment of the two battalion combat teams which had already arrived was therefore envisaged. Each team could act independently, if necessary, as each contained a proportion of all arms and services. The brigadier now had a pretty problem to solve. No roads existed. There were, however, foot tracks along which men could move with difficulty in single file. These trails, which had been used by both natives and Japanese, followed the coast line between the various landing beaches and native villages.
Generally speaking, the coastal area comprised a flat strip varying in depth from 100 yards to one mile. Beyond this strip the ground rose abruptly towards the central ridge which varied in height from between 2000 and 3000 feet. Apart from a few coconut plantations, the country was overgrown with heavy jungle forest, through which it was impossible to see more than a few yards. It was in the midst of this almost impenetrable jungle that the Jap had disposed his detachments. How then, was he to be got out It was obvious that any attempt to shift him by purely overland movement of combat teams would prove a most difficult and hazardous enterprise. Moreover, an operation of this description might well take some weeks as it would be necessary to construct a jeep trail behind the forward elements in order to ensure continuous supplies of food, ammunition and equipment. The solution found by the brigadier was to turn the operation into a partially amphibious one, involving the use of small boats of the type used in landing operations. These boats could page 68be used initially for the movement of personnel, equipment and supplies to a preliminary beach head. Subsequently they could be employed to move combat teams by bounds round the coast as soon as patrols working overland reported each bound clear of the enemy. In the event of enemy positions being located within any bound, it would, of course, be necessary to employ an appropriate force to deal with it before another forward bound could be attempted. It was considered that, by moving in this way, combat teams would arrive on each bound comparatively fresh and always with sufficient supplies to enable the move to continue. Moreover, the evacuation of casualties would be simplified by the avoidance of long and arduous carries overland.
There were two feasible courses open. Firstly, a landing could be made on any one flank with the whole force which, by sheer weight of numbers and fire superiority, combined with an early and determined advance, might hope for decisive results within a reasonable period. If, however, the enemy chose to fight delaying actions in the thick bush, it might take weeks to get to grips with his main body. Moreover, he would be free to choose the ground when the final action did take place, because with one flank protected by the sea and no interference with his rear, he would have comparative freedom of manoeuvre. The second alternative involved the execution of a pincers movement, working inwards from the outer flanks of the area of operation. This plan contained certain obvious advantages. The composition of combat teams was ideally suited for this type of operation in that each was completely self-contained for fighting and administration. There was every likelihood that a converging movement of the two combat teams would eventually force the enemy into a small pocket where he could be encircled by infantry and destroyed by artillery with minimum loss to ourselves. The success of the operation would be dependent on our ability to secure two suitable beach heads within striking distance of the enemy forces. From intelligence reports, verified by a special reconnaissance, two such places in Paraso Bay and Mundi Mundi did exist and for the moment were unoccupied by the enemy. One drawback to the pincers movement was the possibility of a Jap movement inland when he realised he was being driven into a trap. This was more apparent than real, because in doing so he would have to discard equipment page 69and food. In addition, by keeping to the coastal area he could hope for evacuation. The pincer operation was decided upon.
During operations on Vella Lavella the 37th Battalion took the right flank of the pincer movement. Its movements are indicated by the light arrows beginning at Maravari
The composition of the combat team was as follows: The 37th Battalion; 35th Battery (Major Conlan); A troop, 207th Light AA Battery (Lieutenant McDonald); A troop, 53rd Anti-tank Battery page 70(Lieutenant Kerr); detachment 20th Field Company (Lieutenant Syme); detachment 16th MT Company (Captain Wilson); HQ company, 22nd Field Ambulance (Captain Clouston); and a detachment of divisional signals (Lieutenant Stewart). The boat allocation was six LCVs and one LCM, but never on any occasion did we have this scale. Five days' supplies and two units of fire were to be taken forward. Supplies and ammunition were required to be kept at this level. The jumping off places for the combat teams were Mundi Mundi for the 35th Battalion and Paraso Bay for the 37th. A narrative of events until the action ended tells the story of the slow move round the coast:
The guerilla platoon, under Captain Adams, moved from Maravari to Paraso Bay by LCV. Lieutenant Stokes, LO, at brigade, and one member of the intelligence section accompanied the party. They were to return and report at the end of the day the feasibility of using Paraso Bay as a beach head. The platoon reached the bay at 11.15 am and was met by a party of native scouts. A short reconnaissance disclosed recent traces of Japs. The bay was unsuitable as a beach-head for the whole force.
D company, under Captain Edwards, moved up. In view of the adverse report, the company commander was instructed to go ashore at Paraso, learn the situation ahead, and push on to a more suitable landing. Meanwhile the guerilla platoon had reconnoitred as far forward as Boro in Doveli Cove without making contact with the enemy. Captain Edwards thereupon set sail for Boro and landed without incident. A Jap straggler was picked up at Paraso Bay.
Troops moved forward were combat headquarters, detachment 22nd Field Ambulance, A company, part of HQ company and detachment of divisional and brigade signals. D company patrols reported enemy traces. A patrol back to Paraso Bay discovered and destroyed an enemy food dump. An enemy plane, which was nicknamed 'Washing-Machine Charlie', dropped bombs in the Paraso Bay area at 5.30 am.page 71
Troops continued to move up, bringing with them two 25pounders. Patrol reports were negative but native scouts reported the presence of 40 Japs in the area of Tambama Bay. Paraso Bay was again bombed early in the morning. The enemy had apparently spotted us going in but were not aware that we had moved out.
An overland patrol reached Tambama village. An estimated number of 15 Japs had passed through the day before, making for Warambari Bay. A boat patrol reconnoitred Sorezaru Point and Sanusukura Bay. A food and medical dump was discovered in the latter area. The food was destroyed and the medical supplies brought back. 'Charlie' again bombed Paraso Bay in the early hours.
The move up of the combat team continued. It was a slow business. Boats which broke down could not be replaced and each boat could only make one return trip a day from Maravari. A fighting patrol, consisting of the guerilla platoon and one platoon from A company, were landed in Sanusukura Bay with instructions to search the area on the north of Tambama Bay and to report on the prospects of using Tambama Bay as the next bound. The patrol was to return next day. The usual raid on Paraso Bay took place. Each morning as 'Charlie' passed over us we lay in our fox-holes dreading to hear the swish of descending bombs. When explosions were heard from the Paraso direction, we breathed again, realising that 'Charlie' was still on a false scent.
The move to Boro of the combat team, together with rations and ammunition, was completed. At 5 a.m. the fighting patrol, which had bivouacked the previous night at Tambama Point, sighted a Japanese lugger coming through the entrance to the Bay. The story is narrated by Lieutenant Barnes: 'On the night of the 26th, Captain Adams, Lieutenant Stokes and myself lay in our bivouac and complained of our hard luck in being always a jump behind the Jap—little did we realise what was in store for us. In the early grey hours of the morning, we heard the sound of a motor out to sea.
page 72We looked out, and there, heavily camouflaged by green foliage, was a lugger making its way past the point into the bay on our left. We recognised it at once as being Jap. We could hear them talking. Plans were quickly made. My platoon was to stay at the point and pour all our fire power into the ship should she attempt to leave. The guerilla platoon, with Captain Adams and Lieutenant Stokes, moved towards the head of the bay to attempt the capture of the ship. Years seemed to pass as we waited for something to happen. Then it came—the whole sky and ground seemed to shake with gun fire. I could tell that there were far heavier guns in action than we possessed. It seemed as though we might be needed. I left eight of my men with two brens at the mouth of the bay in case any of the Japs tried to escape by boat and the rest of us made our way as fast as possible in the direction of the firing.
'We learned the rest of the story on our arrival. The other platoon had located the ship. It was anchored close inshore and was ominously quiet. Whilst the rest of the platoon covered him, Captain Adams waded out and climbed on board, only to find the the ship deserted. Thanks to a lucky chance, the Japs had gone ashore without leaving sentries. The whole platoon boarded her and prepared for battle. It was now 8 a.m. The Japs were observed returning to the vessel by boat from the other side of the bay. They were called on to surrender, but replied by opening fire. Everything then opened up on them, including their own 20 mm gun on the ship. This was the gun I had heard from the point. It was the end for them. Those who did not fall victims to bullets were dealt with by our temporary allies, the crocodiles. Fourteen Japanese were accounted for. There were still a few left on shore and I was asked to take a patrol and round them up. Although we were fired on by the invisible enemy, we could not locate them. In the afternoon I tried again with better luck. They opened up on us at 15 yards' range with a machine gun, rifles and grenades. However, they were too ambitious. They aimed at our heads and missed with their first shots and we were able to go to ground also. Hidden as they were among the roots of a large banyan tree, they presented a difficult target. One of the patrol and myself were blown off our feet by Jap grenades. I remember saying in a surprised tone, "The swines are using grenades." That brought me back to earth and to the realisation that we also had grenades. I sent Sergeant Hillis round page 73the flank to get himself into a position to use grenades to the best advantage and then it was all over. We found that one of the victims was the captain of the ship, complete with despatch case—at least his despatch case was complete.'
So ended our first contact with the enemy—a total bag of 17. Unfortunately, we were not unscathed. Private Rees was shot while operating one of the Japanese guns from the ship, and he subsequently died of wounds. Corporal Riddell was killed. Both soldiers were buried at Boro. The engines of the ship proved to be beyond the understanding of the victors so she was towed back to Doveli Cove by four landing craft. She proved to be a good prize, being loaded with food, clothing, medical stores, arms and equipment. Valuable documents and charts were also aboard. One chart showed the Japanese barge routes from Kolambangara and Choiseul to the Treasuries, Shortland and Bougainville.
Plans were made to move more of the combat team from Boro to Tambama Point. Due to breakdowns and the necessity for maintaining supply and fuel boats, four boats only were available for the move.
29 September - 3 October
This period was occupied in moving, searching the country to the south of Tambana and reconnoitring Susulautolo Bay as the next bound for the infantry. The only incident of note occured on 2 October when two Japs attempted to stalk a water reconnaissance party at Susu Bay. One was killed and the other escaped into the jungle. The 35th Battery was now in a position from which it could link up with the 12th Battery, which was the 35th Battalion combat team and could support any forward moves of the infantry. Water was a problem. There was no running supply and holes had to be dug in the ground. The water obtained was brackish and contained sediment. The result was diarrhoea among the troops.
Infantry occupied Susu Bay without incident, and the arduous searching of the country ahead continued. The CO went to brigade headquarters at Matusoroto. The brigadier instructed him that patrol page 74searching could cease and he required a beach-head established at Warambari the following day. Pressure against the 35th Battalion CT was lessening and there was a distinct possibility that the Japs might pull out from Timbala Bay and establish themselves at Warambari. It was essential, therefore, for us to get there first.
The CO returned to Susu Bay at 9.30 am with three boats from the 35th CT. We were now down to two boats of our own. The reefs guarding Warambari Bay had not yet been reconnoitred, but a native who knew the passage and a suitable landing place in the bay was loaned to us by brigade HQ. At 11 am C company, commanded by Captain Maurice Morgan, left Susu Bay. It was a bright sunny morning and the war seemed far away. The assault boats arrived in Warambari Bay at 11.45. Nothing could be seen of the surrounding terrain because of heavy jungle right down to the water's edge. Everything was still and quiet save for the regular throb of the engines. The leading boat was guided inshore by the native pilot and the troops quickly and quietly disappeared into the jungle. Their job was to see whether we had been forestalled and, if so, to make sure that the enemy did not interfere with the landing of the rest of the company. We had been told by the CO to be prepared for anything. We were. After what seemed like hours, but in reality was only a few minutes, the patrol reported back that the immediate vicinity was clear. Quickly the boat was unloaded to make way for the other boats, which in their turn unloaded troops and supplies. Each boat contained one platoon plus two days' rations and reserve ammunition for the platoon. The men went off to take up positions to defend the landing.
After hastily establishing his headquarters, the company commander started off to the forward platoons to tie up the defences. On his way round he was greeted with the news that some Japs had been spotted slinking through the tangled undergrowth. Things were beginning to happen. A patrol, led by Lieutenant Sanders, set out to round up the Japs. Let an eyewitness tell the story. 'Every' is quiet. Then suddenly bedlam is let loose. The rat-tat-tat of an enemy machine gun is heard. It sounds close. It is joined by the bark of a bren and rifles. Wounded start to come in for attention. Accounts of the enemy are graphic. Minutes go by and shooting page 75is spasmodic. A report is received that the patrol has run into a cunningly concealed machinegun nest protected by snipers. The patrol cannot get close enough to use grenades. We now hear the sound of more boats approaching, which indicates that B company is coming to join us. The boats are signalled in and the first one has Captain Phil Morgan on board. He takes over the duties of beach-master. The fresh troops move into position quickly. There are now sufficient troops on shore to hold the beach-head and also take some aggressive action. A platoon, under Lieutenant Shirley, is sent out with orders to destroy the enemy. Our fellows have not far to go, but the hardest part is to get there. By the increase in the enemy fire it is obvious that the original party has been joined by others. A second machine gun can be heard. Enemy snipers are at work. Their technique is to wait until there is a racket from the machine guns and then get away one or two aimed shots, thus making their detection difficult. One cannot see them as they are up large trees, well screened by foliage. The crack of their rifles is unmistakable. They are causing casualties within the perimeter, one victim being Captain Keith, who was hit in the thigh while recon-noitring his company area.
'Lieutenant Shirley has succeeded in flushing the enemy and has driven him back a distance of 100 to 150 yards from the perimeter. The Japs have, however, secured an excellent position among logs and tree roots. The ground between Lieutenant Shirley and the enemy is comparatively open and he is unable to manoeuvre without suffering heavy casualties. A second platoon, under Lieutenant Bartos, is ordered to go in on Shirley's right. In the meantime, more troops and stores are coming ashore and a strong perimeter is built up. At 5. 30 pm the last boats come in, and as dusk is approaching the two platoons are withdrawn into the perimeter and the FOO, Captain Williams, directs artillery fire on to the battle area.'
The guerilla platoon was given the task of locating tree snipers, and towards late afternoon one was located and suitably dealt with by a bren gun. During this action we lost five killed and six wounded. The enemy losses were later verified as 20 killed. An appreciation of the situation at the end of the day was that we had run into 30 or 40 Japs who had been sent from Marquana to guard the back door and oppose any landing at Warambari. It appeared that they were in a bivouac area a few hundred yards from the shore line page 76when the first boats arrived. This gave C company time to get ashore before the enemy could get down to the water's edge. We were lucky. In view of the 35th combat team's situation reports of 5 October, when no opposition was encountered, it was thought that the enemy was withdrawing from south Marquana and making his way to Warambari. The plan for the following day, therefore, was to straighten our defences and find the whereabouts of the enemy main force.
The day was not without its humorous side. During the early part of the afternoon, Captain Morgan was anxious to get information as to the numbers he was up against. He questioned a wounded man and received the reply, 'There are … millions!' Water, again, was a problem. Wells dug in the ground produced salt water, so supplies had to be ferried in from Tambama. This was our fifteenth day of fox-hole life and we were a motley looking crew. Unshaven and with filthy jungle dress, we wondered whether we would ever become civilised again. However, apart from dysentery, which was beginning to cause casualties, we were in good shape and heart.
The Jap bivouac was subjected to artillery fire, following which B company, under Lieutenant Hobbs, combed the area on the south side of the bay from the beach head to the head of the bay. At 7.30 am a Jap machinegun opened up on an incoming boat from a position towards the southern point of the bay. The gun was subdued during the afternoon by a patrol led by Lieutenant Law. This patrol encountered the enemy shortly after 9 am, and the subsequent manoeuvring ended in a stalemate—the slightest movement on either side bringing a hail of fire. Lieutenant Law decided to stay where he was and account for as many Japs as possible. Four of the enemy were shot, including those operating the gun, and the patrol lost two killed and one wounded. The patrol was successfully withdrawn at nightfall and rejoined early next morning, bringing the wounded man with it.
Contact was also made with the enemy in the direction of the Jap bivouac area by a patrol under Lieutenant Nicholls, and in the ensuing skirmish he lost his life. Conspicuous bravery was shown by Corporal Dunlea and Lance-Corporal Barbour, who retrieved the body of their officer under fire from the enemy. During the day, page 77odd shots were coming from the northern side of the bay and the area was subjected to mortar fire. By the end of the day the position was still obscure. The 35th CT had lost contact with the enemy and we had not located him in strength. The guerilla platoon (Captain Adams) moved into the Jap bivouac area just before nightfall and sat on the track to Marquana. During the night there was considerable air activity, bombs being dropped in Tambama Bay and down the coast line to Marquana. One landed very near the guerillas. The enemy obviously did not know our exact location. The artillery of both CTs concentrated on the Maraziana area during the night.
7 — 8 October
The main movement was a sweep of D company (Captain Edwards) round the coastal strip to Mende Point. Jap bivouac areas were found on the coast in the vicinity of Mende Point, but no enemy were encountered. Signs on the beach indicated that considerable numbers of the enemy had been there the previous night. The 35th CT occupied the eastern side of Marquana Bay, and 37th CT patrolled the coast line towards Maraziana Point and inland towards Marquana. All patrols reported no contact; only dead Japs and abandoned equipment were found. At 9 am on the 9th, the leading companies of each CT met and the brigade commander indicated that the action was over. From subsequent information received, it was ascertained that the balance of the Japs remaining on the island had been evacuated on the night of 6 October.
And so ended our first campaign. We had now completed 18 days of fox-hole life—18 days of arduous patrolling with nerves taut, not knowing what lay in the jungle and mangrove swamps ahead; 18 nights of sharing with land crabs stinking muddy holes scooped out of the ground, wondering whether the Jap bombs would be more accurately placed tonight; 18 days and nights of continued wetness through mud, rain and swamp, or sweat. Our casualties were nine killed, one died of wounds and seven wounded. The estimate of enemy accounted for was fifty. Every unit in the combat team did all that was asked of it, and advanced dressing station, under the direction of Captain Clouston, functioning particularly efficiently. The native guides assigned to us did good work, particularly Batra and Johnny Visilu. Without their aid, patrols could not have covered the ground they did. Their sense of direction through trackless jungle was uncanny.