The death of Captain Bede Tongs on 14 January 2015 saw the demise of the last Kokoda Track hero of the bitter fighting across the Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua New Guinea in World War 11.
The 3rd Battalion spent the longest period fighting on the Track. Tongs’ account of his platoon’s desperate struggle is considered to be the best account of such an action, according to the historian of the Battle History of the Royal NSW Regiment, 1939-1945 by Major General Gordon Maitland.
In October 1942, Tongs, a platoon sergeant, found himself in command after his commander had been badly wounded in the chest. "Now I was IT", he wrote.
Paul Ham in his book Kokoda quotes Sergeant Tongs whose patrol came across the "devastating sight of numerous Australian bodies lying about a clearing. Six stretchers in a line "holding their skeletal remains. The soldiers on the stretchers had either been bayoneted or shot. We left the identity discs on the bodies for those people moving along behind us," he said.
Later Tongs determined to silence a Japanese light machine gun close to Eora Creek.
"After I commenced crawling down the fire lane I realised that this was the most dangerous thing I had tackled in my life," he said.
"My rifle was in my left hand. A four second fuse grenade with the pin removed and striker lever depressed in my right hand. Both my hands were scratched y the twigs and saplings cut by the Japanese near the fire lane.
"I saw the Japanese gun position roughly camouflaged earth, the two gun crew looking intently to their left, one of them with his finger in the trigger.
"I was looking down the barrel of their LMG – it was like looking down the barrel of a 75mm artillery piece as it was only 10 paces away.
"I let the grenade lever go towards the ground making sure it did not fly off into the air and possibly give me away. I held it for approximately one second then threw with less than three seconds left.
"I burrowed into the moist ground, moss and ferns. An exploding vibration occurred. Some Japanese fire from another quarter was crackling over my head. I threw another grenade, got to my feet and should have been eligible as a starter in the Stawell Gift foot race, the speed I joined my men."
He fixed his bayonet to his rifle (soldiers of 10 Platoon had already fixed bayonets) and called the two forward section leaders to "Get stuck into the bastards".
"There was no stopping the attacking platoon now, they were as a machine firing, moving, cursing, yelling. Morale was high."
The momentum of the attack was kept up until they came to limit of their advance. The platoon had to consolidate, dig in to prepare to fight any counter attacks.
Their digging was interrupted by a Japanese counter attack – "Banzai yells and savage noises – even a bugle call –from our front. Rifle and intense machine-gun fire, grenades exploding."
Night came and the Japanese retired. The next day fresh Australian troops from the 2/2nd battalion joined the attack.
He was awarded a Military medal for his action.
Bede Tongs was the second of eight children born in the town of Narranderra, on 27 June 1920. He grew up in the town of Whitton where he attended Whitton Pirmary for his early education, and later travelled to Leeton where he attended Leeton High School until he was 14y years old.
When he left school he was employed as a burr cutter on Wilga Station, fifteen kilometres from Whitton and worked as a rouseabout in the shearing shed at shearing. His dream was to be a carpenter.
In 1936 he became an apprentice carpenter at Whitton followed by employment in 1939 in Canberra. It was as a carpenter he met Sylvia Joan, his wife to be, at a dance in Tharwa. But war intervened.
He fought on the Kokoda Track and in the Aitape-Wewak campaign. During leave he and Joan were married at a small gathering at St Johns Church, Reid.
Tongs returned to his work as a carpenter after the war and later worked as a Building Inspector and Senior Building Technician for what is now the ACT Government and was then the Department of the Interior.
Tongs joined the 3rd Infantry Battalion CMF (Citizen Military Force), Werriwa Regiment, Canberra in 1948. In 1953, as a Captain in the CMF, he went to Korea as a Front-Line Observer for Eastern Command.
Also in 1953, Bede became President of the 3rd Inf Bn Association, which had been meeting since 1947. Hew returned to Papua New Guinea nine times.
Tongs was reported as saying: "I was fortunate in having two Commanding Officers who had faith in me and I returned that confidence through my commitment and actions. I was with Lt Col Alan Cameron DSO and Bar, MID on the Kokoda Track and Col Ian Hutchison DSO, OBE, MC, ED in the Aitape-Wewak Campaign."
He was an ambassador for the Kokoda Track Foundation and author of ‘Poems of an Infanteer’, published by Nerrigundah Publishing in 2011, with a foreword by his old friend, General Maitland.
On 9 June 2014 in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, he was granted the Medal of the Order of Australia.
He is survived by his devoted son, Garry, four grandchildren and one great grandchild.