Max Woods, Agriculturalist in Peace, Engineer in the Battle for Australia.
Sapper MG Woods, 14 Field Coy, Royal Australian Engineers, AIF
My first military experience commenced at Hawkesbury Agricultural College during first year there in 1938. The college was home to the Fourth Cavalry Mobile Veterinary Sector designated to operate in conjunction with the Australian Light Horse formations.
This was a militia unit. We did regular drill and attended a camp at Camden Park. I became a corporal and was give a role as a farrier. At the end of third year, 14 December, 1940, I was discharged, having served for 2 years and 26 days. Early in the third year (late January) we did a three month stint at Wallgrove in conjunction with three Light Horse Regiments.
At the end of this camp the 4CMVS and the regiments rode into Parramatta for a ceremonial parade. The direct route – through fences, over paddocks, was taken, both going and returning. This was probably the last major parade into the city by Light Horse.
In 1941 I joined the NSW Department of Agriculture and was stationed at Wagga as a Livestock Officer. Towards the end of that year a call up arrived to rejoin the 4CMVS which was under the control of Major WJ Murphy who had had the sector at HAC. I found myself stationed at Cowra and saw Italian POW's disembark from a train near the campsite to the east of the town and then marching into the compound near where – years later – I went to work on the Soil Conservation Research Station. The Italians marched up the hill singing, obviously with great gusto, as their dangerous war was over.
My serious war was about to begin. On 18 November 1941 I joined others from units training at Cowra and arrived at Sydney Showground where I received my NX54871 Australian Imperial Force Number, my medical examination and supplementary kit.
Shortly afterwards, a group of us were despatched to a training camp on Tamworth Showground as a member of the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE).
On 8 December 1941 war with Japan began after the attack on Pearl Harbour. My brother Harold, then a member of the 2/20th Battalion, was despatched to Malaya. He was a Lieutenant, became wounded before Singapore fell and was in hospital there when the Japanese occupied the island. While fighting was still taking place the Japanese entered the hospital and killed all those on the ground floor. Harold was one floor up and lived to be a prisoner in Japan for the long years before the end of the war. Singapore fell on 15 February, 1942.
Not long after my joining the RAE at Tamworth a draft was made of troops to go to Malaya. I was in that ill fated group, but was withdrawn, due to insufficient training!
Training was stepped up at Tamworth. Some of us were sent down to Werris Creek to work on a huge dump of petroleum.
Men coming into Tamworth were from many trades well suited for future roles from the Engineer's motto "We make and we break".
Possibly in April, a group of us were drafted into the 14 Field Company, RAE. This was a militia unit made up of mainly young men who had been conscripted into the army. Those of us who were volunteers and belonged to the AIF were somewhat reluctant to have been given roles in a militia formation.
The Company had been involved in coastal defence installations and had trained at Greta. We were stationed at Hexham for some time and had to contend with the huge Hexham grey mosquito which was in plague proportions. The sand in the camp contained fleas in number as well.
The Company moved back to Greta, and later left Australia for Port Moresby on 2 June 1942. Our equipment, including trucks, was placed on train and forwarded to Brisbane through the coastal scenery.
After a short stay in Brisbane we were suddenly given orders to embark on an American Liberty Cargo vessel – the "John Jay". This was no luxury cruise but it was a "never to be forgotten" voyage. We moved out of the Brisbane River in convoy with a slow Dutch merchant ship and a Corvette escort.
Our quarters were in a hold just below the deck with our sleeping area and our gear packed in side by side. Already in the influence of the tropics, these quarters became unbearably hot. Attempts were soon made to deflect air down but there had to be the right air conditions blowing over the deck to achieve this.
Under us were stored many items of cargo including trucks and fuel and war equipment. Then we became aware of two similar structures – one on each side of the craft and towards the stern. These were designed with covers over trough like features in which sea water flowed – one was designed as a toilet and the other to wash dixies. The cookhouse was on deck – just as well we did not have stormy weather, let alone a cyclone! Water for all purposes was in limited supply.
Sweaty bodies, sea spray and dirty clothes added to the damp towels, induced some trial schemes to improve the situation – someone secured his towel to a rope and threw it overboard with an interesting result. The thrust of water eroded the towel away and the residue was largely enclosed with the knot. One interesting feature of similar treatment for unwashed dixies was an interesting fat pattern on the surface when they were hauled aboard.
We had to mount guard on the bridge – searching the sea for any sign of a periscope. It was easy enough to imagine one of these. Fortunately the seas were reasonably calm and even the roll of the ship caused few to be sea-sick. Our passage up the reef area was at least one interesting aspect with numbers of small islands here and there. We were warned not to throw anything overboard as this could indicate the passage of a ship. Tight security had to be maintained – absolute blackout at night.
Then we reached the passage into Port Moresby and there were lights everywhere. In the morning the wreck of the bombed cargo vessel MV Macdhui could be seen along with bomb strewn buildings ashore.
We disembarked and moved out to our camp area where nothing had been prepared. It was an area of Kunai grass and a more familiar species, Kangaroo grass, in which grew somewhat stunted trees. We were issued with a mosquito type one man "tent". It was some job to get settled on the grassy site particularly when one fellow found he shared his bunk with a snake. This was our introduction to the six mile camp site before we were able to live in tents and the locality had some appearance of order.
Moresby had been a small town and administrative headquarters of Papua New Guinea. There had been substantial buildings, a good anchorage with wharves and water supply. It may have been reasonably comfortable apart from its dry tropical heat, isolation, but now all had changed. Before we arrived it had been garrisoned by mainly militia troops and had become a focus for Japanese air attacks. It had anti aircraft guns mounted on higher ground near the town but the series of air raids had caused considerable damage and the Macdhui was a smoking wreck on a reef in the harbour.
When we arrived there had not been a recent air raid. Then a couple of days afterwards a flight of Jap bombers came over. We were given warning by the succession of three rifle shots fired in sequence to indicate air raid, and to rapidly send the warning far and wide.
Then the bombs fell down towards the town and apparently a stack of bombs was hit as a huge explosion followed. We had stood and watched this first air raid – then we realised the danger, particularly when we saw the evidence of the power behind fragments of "Daisy Cutter" bombs that exploded above ground and cut a swathe all around with metal pieces even penetrating engine blocks.
There followed urgent action to dig slit trenches – all the digging implements in the camp were in use until the hard unyielding earth was opened out for the desired shelter. At last we were in a danger area and Port Moresby was a focus for Japanese planes – there was no longer any reason for complacency or to try to define our roles, as these were now clearly defined.
Once our campsite was organised and we had tents for shelter, working parties began to work on salvage tasks with wrecked houses to secure materials for the construction of new buildings. As these were being made the materials being utilised came from buildings demolished in the same order as those being built so that the flooring, joists and bearers were the first removed. Many houses were bomb wrecked and some had personal effects belonging to their owners scattered around. I found some letters written to someone by a writer who had had dealings with Jack Hyde the noted explorer.
House wrecking had its hazards – a near intact house was in the process of demolition and being two-storey (said to have belonged to a German pre-war) needed to be reduced to nearer ground level. It stood on brick pillars and a truck driver was using a sledge hammer to weaken one of them prior to attaching a steel rope to it and a truck to speed up demolition. Suddenly the support gave way and the entire building slid to the ground with even the roof reasonably intact and no one hurt.
There were many bomb wrecked houses. Many had been further wrecked by some irresponsible troops – fittings like stoves and bath tubs broken. This wreckage was not confined to houses. The administrative HQ of the peace time authority containing the records of many past transactions in land, and a range of documents required to govern the area, were strewn deeply over the floors of the building with many torn.
The Anglican Church had not been bombed but the inside fittings had been badly damaged. Strangely the church was not used while services were held outside – apparently it needed to be re-dedicated!
Japanese air raids were usually spotted by coast watchers near the Japanese air strips (probably aircraft carriers). Warnings were relayed by three rifle shots so that everyone was warned.
Whenever a raid developed there was an evacuation of the town area as this locality with its remaining facilities and the wharf were target areas. The evacuation meant a deserted area most likely to be attacked. This resulted in trucks loaded with troops scampering into the sand dune areas outside the town boundaries.
Nearby on the elevated hill overlooking the town a heavy anti aircraft battery had been established. The guns exploded with an ear damaging sound.
In periods of inactivity the gunners, strategically situated to view the traffic arteries around the foreshores were able to perceive the actions of some truck drivers who would stop their laden vehicles to quickly deposit a case or two of a favoured canned food stuff, in the Kunai grass adjoining the road. These supplies were being moved from a wharf in another point some distance from the main wharf. Then, well organised, one or more of these gunners would move down on a salvage operation and the selected cases would be moved to safe keeping in their cook house. It became known to the writer that the main activist was a contemporary from my year at Hawkesbury Ag College. In one guess his identity became clear – he was adequately qualified to keep his company well rationed.
The 14 Field Company became engaged in a wide range of activities. I had had orderly room duties back in Australia and was given similar duties in Port Moresby. Fortunately these ceased – apparently my protests were heeded!
Our arrival in Port Moresby was at a critical time. The Japanese began to bomb Lae and Salamaua on 21 June 1942 and in July landed at Buna and Gona over the Owen Stanley Range from Port Moresby. On 26 August Japanese forces landed at Milne Bay nearer to Port Moresby but by 6 September all strong Japanese resistance had ceased. This was a significant defeat .
From the attack at Buna-Gona, the Japanese made a strong attempt to cross the Owen Stanley Range towards Port Moresby and reached a point only 40 air miles from the objective. This attack did not succeed but it was in mid January 1943 that the Japanese were driven out of Buna after their retreat back over the range.
With danger from sea invasion of Port Moresby a section of the 14 Field Company became engaged in the construction of two six inch naval gun emplacements overlooking Bootless Inlet, lying to the east of Port Moresby.
At the site there were razor back ridges with crests only a few metres wide and steeply sloping sides. Tracks had to be widened to later take D8 Caterpillar bulldozers used in hauling the guns. Nearby were two cone shaped formations only a little wider than the tracks. These had to be enlarged for the gun emplacements. They had to be enlarged by taking off the over burden. To confuse any Japanese reconnaissance planes this had to be done under camouflage netting. The debris was tipped into native dugout canoes used as troughs to convey the material down the hillsides where it was sprayed with waste oil. The sites had to be drilled and explosives used to loosen the material. Each explosion blew up the camouflage nets which were then replaced. My job was on the drill or jack hammer – noisy, hard, dirty work.
Then the cement emplacements for the guns had to be made. This consisted of a central pivot with thick concrete traverse for the tail piece to move around curved embedded rail line. It was a difficult job getting all the material on the site. The rails were not accurately curved and this had to be corrected on site before being embedded in the concrete.
The D8s brought up the guns – six inch naval flat trajectory weapons and probably old. There were skilled Sappers who made a good finished product. At the same time quarters for the gun crews were being established on the steep hill sides where levels had to be dug to allow one site below the other and the covering tents erected at rakish angles.
Many of the crews who were to man the guns worked with us and were engaged in sites for the ammunition as well as their quarters. While the work proceeded some of us wondered how the guns, with their flat trajectory, non howitzer use, could shell the inlet over the rising ground that lay ahead. Apparently the artillery men themselves did not realise that this was to be a problem until it was discovered that the guns could not shell potential targets. So then the D8s came back and took the guns away and, fortunately, the Japanese were defeated in their attempt to invade at Milne Bay!
While engaged on this work one morning before a work shift a few of us explored a way to a spot overlooking the Seven Mile airstrip. It was the usual practice for bombers to take off before the raiding aircraft arrived. An air raid developed while three Mitchell bombers were taking off from the strip. A bomb pattern fell on the strip with the first aircraft escaping untouched. The next sustained total damage while the third emerged from the smoke and dust obviously damaged but still flying. It landed at another drome so we heard later, but with some loss of life.
One night a Jap "Betty" bomber dropped a stick of bombs aimed at a searchlight battery below our camp. Later we heard that the main troop area "stood to" that night as a bomber or bombers had been over the area several times and there was a scare paratroopers may have been dropped.
When we were returning to base we could hear loud explosions and an officer pulled our vehicle over when we passed the area where the explosions had been happening all day. The officer wanted to know if the locality had been cleared – a nearby ammunition dump had been on fire all day while he waited to take some troops through the area!
One of our tasks was to work on a large food dump some distance inland, which was being badly damaged by the weather – even sugar had been stacked in the open. This dump was on the road leading into the mountains.
Trucks laden with infantry were going forward to high points beyond Rona Falls. I remember watching these fellows and wondering what lay ahead as the Japanese were coming over the Own Stanley Range – and of course what may be our next move.
Shortly afterwards we did move up by truck. On the way there was one spot on the mountain road where there was an extremely sharp hairpin bend. To get beyond this obstruction it was necessary for the truck to go forward and then go back before being able to get around. Everyone dismounted while the driver performed a skilled manoeuvre. The mountain fell away sharply and way down there was a truck which had gone over the ledge. A few well placed bombs on this road would have caused enormous supply difficulties. Later, engineers widened the road.
We were taken up past the falls to work on a track suitable only for mules – and which went through rubber plantations on the Eastern side of the main Kokoda track and which the Japs were said to be using. We were assigned to make the track accessible to jeeps and were given eleven days to do the work on eleven miles of road.
This was our first experience of tropical rain forest with its tangle of large and small trees thrusting up for light and leaving few vacant areas in the canopy. There was an increasing tension, alertness and realisation of approach into an unknown arena. The jungle, largely silent during the day except for a few wary birds, became alive at night. Any disturbed earth glowed with phosphorus induced light while a myriad of fireflies crisscrossed the moisture laden air carrying with them glowing trails in the darkness. Then the mosquitoes had their turn while there were sounds strange and new, as a wild chorus of insect and animal sounds emerged. One of these was such a good imitation of a dog that we were, wrongly, linking the noise with a native village rather than from a frog.
At one stage I had a fungus (mushroom type) that I used as a crude torch to see into my spare kit.
We had ground sheets but no tents. The afternoon rainfall was usually heavy and mostly finished before dusk but at other times it rained during the night.
We had been given the task of widening the mule track to take jeeps so that supplies could be moved forward. There were few other troops in our vicinity but we did not know what lay ahead so we toiled away keeping our rifles loaded and within reach. Sometimes an infantry patrol went through and once one of these sighted movement ahead. These fellows dived into the jungle and a stalemate had to be resolved – that was their job. Later it appeared only a few Australian troops were up there.
We were only a small detachment and our first night in the jungle was one to be remembered. We slept on the ground near to the next one to take over guard duty. Through the night someone was awake. But in the morning there was no ambush – we did not encounter any Japanese.
Then the 2/1st (16th Brigade) came through and moved ahead to our great relief. These fellows were back from the Middle East and were said to be one of the most highly decorated units – said to jingle when on ceremonial parade! These troops were to encounter the Japs as they retreated to the Buna area. Harry Bosler, married to my cousin, was one of these but I did not see him as they passed.
Early in our jungle experience we could hear the 25 pounder artillery to the west where these armaments were used to halt the invaders at Ioribaiwa and Imita Ridge from where the Japs began to retreat.
We were committed to make a mile a day on the track. A previous attempt had failed as a small bulldozer was nose down on a steep slope and apparently unable, at that time, to be salvaged. We used picks and shovels in lieu of a dozer.
In places the jungle was only penetrable if a path was slashed into it. There were tall trees reaching up for light in the canopy, while vines were entangled and also reaching to the treetops.
On the main Kokoda track horses and mules were being used to move supplies forward. There were brumbies down the range towards Moresby and I heard that troopers from my old 4th Cavalry Mobile Veterinary Sector were engaged breaking in these animals – this has not been verified but these horses may have been better in the jungle than the horses that were brought into use. By contrast the mules were well adapted for the work. The mules were switched over to our track and being mules, were hard to manage after their previous routine was altered. One of these, loaded with tinned butter, bolted our way with tins flying everywhere, I managed to corner the runaway and hand it over to the handler – we did manage to find a few cans which were useful for frying yams or sweet potatoes.
We made a camp on a bend of the Musgrave River. There was a natural clearing with a canopy of vines and trees. Most of us managed to erect some kind of shelter using a framework covered with banana leaves and we used our ground sheets on the wet earth. Usually it did not rain at night so we usually hung out our wet clothing and slept in our blankets. Wet nights were an annoyance as it was very difficult to stop leaks. Ours was a three man structure.
One night I heard someone call my name. This was a device the Japanese used so I kept silent although it was most unlikely Japanese, other than lost strays, would be there. I recognised the voice of Geoff MacIntyre. All my clothes were saturated and hanging outside so I pulled on my sodden boots and moved toward the one man structure Geoff had made. Then I recognised the friendly grunt of a pig. I searched in the dark for a piece of wood and fortunately found one. A rather large pig appeared in the gloom and, no doubt, it was surprised to receive a couple of reasonably hard hits.
It had terrified Geoff when it grunted near his head and under his shelter. When the situation was stabilised we decided to go down to our "kitchen" to see if our visitor had raided our supplies. Nearly all the biscuits had been eaten or damaged and a few tins of “bully” had teeth marks in them. If the old barrow arrived again, it probably thought we would open the cans for it! Obviously it came from a village somewhere, it did not appear again and we never located its village.
Early one morning we woke to gunfire giving us a few minutes of tension as we dived for our rifles. But it was a solitary soldier who had fallen into the river and wanted to dry out his machine gun.
We completed our job and were given a rest day. We had reached a remote rubber plantation – a reminder of the pioneer adventurers back in Australia. This was a good reason to search for fresh food. A few of us arrived back at dusk to find that most of the detail had left. We were to have a meal and leave to go back to our starting point about twelve miles away. Each man had to take some item of gear with him. We cooked some sweet potatoes or yams in butter and we may have found a pawpaw – little value in our search. We gathered up our gear, left our banana leaf shelter and set out, the last to leave. My item of gear was a 10 pound sledge hammer to carry as well as my rifle and kit.
It was a dark night. The track had been used by a few jeeps and mules and many troops. It was slippery and muddy and here and there small streams crossed it. Just before it got really dark a fellow came back looking for a pick he had discarded so I realised my hammer was to remain with me for the rest of the night. It was never my intention to discard it but I had difficulty in carrying it – it bent the wrist, hurt the shoulder and got heavier all the time.
Along the track fellows were boiling the billy and my group decided to drink the tea but to keep on the move. We began to pass people who had stopped to rest and who had great difficulty to get going again. Here and there a length of bamboo inserted into a spring of fresh clear water provided a source for tea making or simply for a drink.
It was a memorable route march – poor visibility, mud underfoot, slippery mud that could easily cause one to fall into closer proximity with it. There was a realisation that a reserve of physical endurance existed, despite extreme fatigue, and was there when needed.
So somewhere in the early morning we reached our destination. Stragglers were coming in after sunrise in a state of exhaustion. Such then was the end of our day of rest.
With the new day there was no rest. We had to clean ourselves, shave, tidy up our gear which meant getting rid of surplus mud on it, on us, and on our clothes. The dawn was clear and fresh and someone burst into song – something about “Arise to welcome the dawn – the dawn is breaking”.
Trucks could get to where we were. So then they moved us towards Owen’s Corner. Nearby was a sawmill which was to be significant to some of us later. This was the track beyond MacDonald’s Sawmill – the portal to the Kokoda Track where so many of those troops we had seen pass by us to go up the mountain before – many never to return.
At Owen’s Corner there was a two stage "flying fox" – an ingenious construction of a timber platform, securely anchored long lengths of rope linked to a similar construction down the slope and from there a construction to the third structure. Here the slings were unloaded of their cargo for the second and last time. This was clever work of the sappers before us to move supplies down that long slope. The in-between spaces had to be avoided as the slings rushed down and swung near the ground. This was a truly ingenious structure to move supplies only a relatively short distance but was well worth the effort to construct for such was the terrain and there was worse beyond. This was a tribute to the “riggers” and others who had made it.
Nearby there was evidence of the passage of many troops – places where there had been camps and crude kitchens, discarded shelters and gear and boxes of grenades and other ammunition.
We made camp at the bottom of this steep incline at a spot where the clear swift waters of the Goldie River was spanned with a bridge that had been built from the bank to a large rock and slightly changed direction to reach the other bank.
When we were on our first location we could hear the 25 pounders in action. Here we realised that a gun had been man handled down this hill side – from tree to tree, winched with block and tackle until it was best situated to fire on the Japanese who had reached the end of their advance and were about to be recalled.
We now had to prepare this track to move forward supplies.
Bridges had to be made to support Jeeps and later the design was altered to take an American ten wheel truck. So the Goldie River bridge had to be strengthened by anchoring a stay in the rock bed then to the down-stream side bearer.
The stream could rise feet in just a minute or so and it caught Ted Shaw swimming one afternoon and he was flushed down stream. Fortunately for him vegetation had bridged the stream and he was able to grasp it as he progressed down and we rescued him.
At our camp site we always had trouble making fire – always difficult to find any timber dry enough to burn. One device was to shred small pieces and arrange them into a cone. With a little cone a small piece of paper set alight under this caused a flame to build up a larger fire. Then we discovered a green tree which burnt readily – a convenient and cherished asset for our cooks.
There were numerous small streams – water was in abundance and so was timber. At one memorable site a small stream had to be bridged. Nearby stood a tall tree just strategically placed, and strong enough for bearers. Going up to the tree top were sturdy Lawyer vines, so it was decided to fall the trees across the stream using the vines as guide ropes. As the tree fell Bill Cahill yelled “timber” – and then the tree spun out of the vine rope control and cracked down at right angles to the stream in a tangled mass of vegetation. Right there was a 7th Division HQ tent and the tree top did not improve it as living quarters. Then out of the tangle emerged an extremely shaken and more extremely irate Sergeant with the best vocabulary of invective in the Australian army and a talent unequalled in carrying on the tirade. Later, when the man became rational, we were able to sort out the mess and get back to bridge building. The tent had been so well hidden in the jungle and we had no knowledge of its position.
To pave the roads tree saplings about six inches to eight inches diameter and ten feet long were cut and placed down side by side. The abundance of water in the soil soon turned it to mud after the passage of a few Jeeps and soon a heavy truck’s front wheels would push between the saplings piling them up in front and the back wheels pushed the inner wheel saplings into a mess no Sergeant’s language could describe. The corduroy roads had been constructed by another company of Sappers and we were able to improve them – we actually did our best to drain the liquid mud away.
There were many big trees to remove. Bill Cahill evolved his technique of placing sticks of gelignite well under them and because they were shallow rooted they were relatively easy to blow over but sometimes the tree would simply be blown upwards and then landed still upright. Bill would usually shout “fire on”, light the fuses and everyone had to seek cover. Once he lit one not far enough from the cook house and the resulting explosion ended with a small lump of mud landing in Captain Iredale’s cup of tea.
We had acquired tent flys at this stage. These were able to shed the rain but if they were touched in a heavy downpour the rain would pour over whoever was so careless. Beds were works of art. I had one made from half a dozen lengths of saplings laid side by side. Bill Cahill had one ready made by some enterprising previous owner. It consisted of bamboo lengths somehow secured in a framework a little off the ground. Bill was always hard to wake up in the morning and a reasonable way to get him on his feet was to pull out one or two bamboo lengths. The result was a collapse with the occupant receiving an awakening shake up – but once he slept on and was found to be lying on a tin of something under his back. He took some time to gather muscle tone!
Somewhere I gathered a palliasse and made an above ground bed using four fork sticks then slipping a slim sapling into each side of the palliasse and securing it in the fork sticks.
Troops were still going up the track in small numbers, others were coming out as well and at one stage the 2/1st Pioneers came out, exhausted and stretched over miles. A Salvation Army Padre had a tent well up the track. He had a young native helper who brought up water from a nearby stream. They always had water boiling and each fellow coming out was able to get a cup of tea, a biscuit and paper to write a letter.
Once a big Military Policeman brought out a Japanese prisoner – a small bedraggled man. The young native wanted to do him over but his boss gave the prisoner a hot drink and a biscuit – an example of practical Christianity. There were very few prisoners.
In most of my time on the Kokoda Track I was driving a Caterpillar D2 tractor. The task was to haul timber off the road. It required alertness to avoid signal wires that were lying on the ground or over debris on the side of the road. Now and again the machine was invaluable in pulling a vehicle out of a liquid mud bog hole.
We were not employed for a long period on this work as the Japanese were retreating back over the range and supplies were getting in by aircraft. Native carriers were not needed in the numbers used previously. I had a few days in a field hospital. My ailment was a severe fever very much like malaria but called “Low” fever. Possibly it was Malaria as I had bouts of it for years.
Many of us got "Dobies" itch which produced a mass of pustules under the armpits or around the groin. It could erupt into raw patches. Talc powder put on frequently seemed to help but the treatment was Blue Dye which stung severely.
A fungus developed on my chin and upper lip which became painful and annoying. I had permission not to shave.
We used Atabrine against Malaria. At one stage we were issued with Quinine – bitter unpleasant stuff. Atabrine over time gave us all a yellow skin tint. Dysentery was an ever present menace. We had to wear long trousers and we had to keep them enclosed at the ankles with gaiters to exclude a mite which carried the disease which was very serious – scrub typhus. Small wounds often developed into nasty sores if not properly treated.
Working in humid tropical heat caused all of us to perspire freely – some perspired excessively and these people carried sweat rags to wipe off the perspiration and then to wring them out. Salt had to be used to replace that lost in perspiration. Even if it was not raining clothing was often damp with perspiration.
And then the mosquitoes! Strangely they varied from place to place and time to time. At one stage it was a comical undertaking to have a clean up in the late afternoon in the clear running stream. It was necessary to get clothes off, dive into the water, get out and frantically soap up if any soap was available, then jump in again, wash, then get out and without using a towel put clothes back on again. Usually in the afternoon the rain poured down in volume, mostly without wind.
Early in the campaign getting supplies of food and ammunition to the men engaged in fighting the Japanese was a major task. Our latest job was to get these essentials as far forward by mechanical transport as possible. Papuan carriers, bare footed and remarkably sure footed undertook their totally essential role in carrying difficult loads under terribly trying conditions – endless mud and slippery tracks and a weary succession of climbs up steep inclines and down steep declines – and when the supplies reached a destination acting as stretcher bearers bringing out wounded men.
Looking back at the role of the Infantry in constant contact with the resolute enemy this was a remarkable feat of arms and a desperate struggle in that awesome place.
Again, viewing the onrush of the Japanese, it must have been planned to invade Port Moresby by sea to link up with the thrust over the mountains. How it was envisaged to capture Port Moresby by transporting all the requirements of an advancing army over that terrible terrain is beyond belief. To run all the hazards of a rain soaked mountain with a narrow mud caked track, the tangled jungle off the track, coupled with disease, hunger, exhaustion, lack of replacement of fit troops, little possibility of evacuation of wounded men as the penetration advanced and to be engaged in pushing opposing forces back at the same time was difficult to comprehend. To bring a force of fit fighting men down to the vicinity of the objective with adequate arms and equipment for such a task is difficult to understand.
Then again, why was the narrow roadway up the mountain never bombed from the air?
Perhaps the Japanese never expected to encounter the stubborn resistance of the outnumbered Australian fighting men who were under the command of a remarkable World War I Brigadier, Arnold Potts.
After our road and bridge building in the mountains we moved back to our camp at Hanarbarda. Shortly afterwards we were told that we were going to man a sawmill. Bill Cahill, Arnold Smith, Harry Brent, Ernie Midson (truck driver), Reg Davis (cook) and I were detailed to go back up into the jungle forests near where we had been previously.
There were a few others there including Norm Scott (engine driver), “Blue” Jenkins (tractor driver) and two or three experienced sawmillers with an eccentric Sergeant in charge. All of these people were from other units.
Down the road a civilian owned mill existed. It was adjoining a rubber plantation, newly establishing an extension on an older area and the mill known as MacDonald’s.
Our mill was established near a clear flowing, fast stream. The plant was driven by a single cylinder MacDonald Super diesel engine. We were back in the land of torrential rain, basalt soils and the capacity to produce a wide range of mud from liquid to just plain mud. Perhaps the setting on the edge of primeval jungle with views to the south was to be our habitat for several months – we were given our real estate whether we liked it or not. Apart from the NCO in charge who seems to have vacated the field after a couple of weeks we were without an NCO – but the work of the mill went on notwithstanding.
We had a detail of Papuans, who had been carriers to help in the operation. Shelter had to be made for them and they gathered together the material. In their own capacity they were craftsmen and soon the building began to take shape. It was built using material out of the jungle – weaving together fairly light timbers, tying together with cane and thatching the sides and roof with Kunai grass to shed the afternoon deluge. From memory their names were Seno, Parimo, Dour, Mywari (Charlie), Gaideorpa, Ipy.
Our Sergeant went to the stream one afternoon, washed and left his towel. He went to recover it and found it missing so he went in to the boys’ hut and saw his towel. His demand for it was rejected as the new owner claimed it had been lost and found and he owned it. The true owner retrieved it and then put his badge of authority on all he owned. Three stripes were even on his underpants as the natives claimed the towel was not his as it had no three stripes on it!
We were given authority to take equipment from Macdonald’s mill so that ours became reasonably well equipped.
To operate successfully we needed a bridge so we hauled two, perhaps three, lengthy poles and embedded them firmly across the water in each bank. Somehow we decked it with flitches, or outside cuts from the sawn logs to make a decking. It was a masterpiece considering the poor equipment we had for bridge building and it served the purpose to access good timber. The bridge sagged when the Caterpillar D4 tractor passed over and it did not comply with any regulations except our own.
We had several other smaller bridges over lesser streams. These were simply bridged with logs lying side by side and utilising two to take the weight as the tracks passed over them. Sometimes the log being hauled would push one of the other logs out of position, usually forward, and it was a hair-raising episode to make the safe ground beyond the bridge.
Once a tractor slipped off the bearing logs and had to be hauled over by the other machine.
Our regular tracks soon became bog holes. If the ground was stirred enough some of these quagmires were deep enough to cover a large log. Our cheerful “dogman” who followed the tractor had the task of fixing the slings to the logs for haulage. Now and again Mywari or “Charlie” had the task of again fixing on a sling in the bog hole – which of course dented his good cheer but provided a wonderful blend of invectives usually out of sequence.
Because the clay under the surface mulch was fine particled it became extremely slippery when the surface was disturbed. Haulage meant using block and tackle to get over even small rises, or one tractor would pull the log up the slope as it went down. On the down slope when hauled by a tractor, the logs could slip out of the slings and race ahead, sometimes to be lost when they came to rest in an inaccessible location. At other times the steel slings would get caught in the tracks.
It was a dangerous occupation. The trees were felled by Ossie Smith and Harry Brent and the log then prepared for tractor haulage by the natives. Often the fallen trees would be held up by canes, tangled in the canopy which meant that the axemen had to watch for tree branches being dislodged from behind. Limited numbers of millable timber existed in any one area but after these had been felled and hauled out the area was left with a near impenetrable tangled mess of residues and vines. In a relatively short time decay attacked these residues and young trees quickly grew up through the debris. We cut a great range of timber which made straight lines hard to find. There were wide ranges of timber with a variety of beautiful colours and smells. One tree had a perfume like a cooking plum pudding – we thought something had happened to the cook! We cut one notable tree and the largest one – a cedar. A spring board was cut into it and a perspiring axeman cut a large scarf on one side then gave it to the Papuans to cut the other side. They erected a platform of flimsy timber and cut their way through. Some beautiful planks were cut from it and we understood it was used for coffins.
One episode is worth recording. There were frequent small streams and sometimes their origins could be located as clear running water. At one such place we were drawing logs around a large tree and the track became a sloppy mess. Bill Cahill stopped his tractor near mine while we decided on a plan to haul out nearby timber. Suddenly the large tree fell with the trunk parallel with the tracks on my tractor and only inches away. Bill’s tractor was poised on the edge of the hole where the roots had been. We had to constantly be aware of hazards. Once “Blue” Jenkins had the experience of a log being hauled fouling another standing sapling which came into the driver’s cabin. “Blue” had to sit holding the steering levers until someone cut the engine power.
We had experienced men in the mill. They had labourers to stack the timber and these boys did that job very well. When a load was ready Ernie Midson had the task of taking it all the way through the mud until he got on better roads towards Port Moresby, then he came back with supplies.
Some of the cedar was used for fittings in our kitchen. I brought home a small blister of knotted wood and after nearly sixty years have given it to our daughter Kim Rabbidge who has had a small drawer made in it while a propeller has been placed on it – made from the “belly tank” discarded by a Jap zero fighter plane over Port Moresby.
Our boys could sort and stack timber. They were experts at docking the fallen logs and in cutting tracks for access by the tractors. Left to their own devices they got jobs done – once I wanted some flitches moved to make a track for log haulage near the mill. Two of them lifted a heavy piece of timber at one end while Dour was my helper at the other. We carried the flitch to where it was needed but it then became a stalemate on how to get it off our shoulders. Then the other two put their end on the ground but old Dour could not manage to shed the load with me and somehow slumped down with the timber over his back. Great fun to the other two leaving me to take the weight to release Dour and to be taught a lesson to leave it to them in the future.
Once or twice these fellows put on a concert for us. We made a fire using old tyres, mill waste and diesel oil. They sang and danced and illustrated their life as fishermen in their home village but the most significant was the graphic portrayal of their experiences on the Kokoda track – heavy loads, long trips and their ideas of the fighting – graphic pictures with Japanese snipers in the tree tops – bang, bang, bang and a Japanese sniper had been located.
Not far from the mill rubber was still being produced. A fascinating process of clearing the jungle was to partly scarp the trees on the same side with this large cut on the side designed towards where the trees would fall. When a selected area was ready trees were cut to fall into the mass and this would cause a “domino” effect with a mass becoming a tangled mess of impenetrable vegetation. At the first opportunity, after the rare few dry days, the area was burnt. The result, a tangled mess, now remained as a major collection of tree trunks. Rubber trees were planted in orderly rows in their midst and the incredible onslaught of decay reduced logs to crumbling residues in a very short period while the rubber trees flourished. Some mill logs could be salvaged but the few cedar trees resisted the onrush of decay.
A couple of miles from our camp were native gardens and a village. The gardens were cleared, used and then discarded to be replaced by new ones. We established a trade – canned goods for fresh fruit and some vegetables. The village had been under the influence of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Its population consisted of older people and youngsters with older to adult boys – the girls having been moved somewhere else.
In another village a family had a sewing machine but no needles. I wrote to my Aunts who sent up a packet and possibly some thread.
These people were some distance away but they got the needles through our contacts. Some time later a delegation arrived at our camp asking to see me. There was some speculation why they wanted me. Then they produced a collection of their garden produce in thanks.
On one visit to the closer village a woman sat isolated under shelter and dabbed with white paint like material – misery seemed her only companion but there was activity in the village as she was about to come out of mourning and different groups were dispersing to gather food for a feast to mark the occasion.
Tropical jungle is unyielding and unforgiving to anyone lost. Once a group of us, in rare leisure, went exploring a native track. It took us to a tree growing up a cliff face and provided us with access to lower ground when we used it. Then someone shot a cuscus to take back to the boys. Suddenly we were lost. There were native pads and we reasoned it would be preferable to follow one up a ridge and this eventually took us back to an area where we had been logging. We saw little animal life – one or two birds of paradise, a python sixteen feet long and a few pigeons during our time at the mill. On our trip of exploration the only animal we saw was a cuscus – at times someone tried to shoot big pigeons on the edge of a cleared area when they returned to feed. If any were shot they fell into the jungle and were not retrieved.
We had requests from the army authorities in Port Moresby to increase our output but they did not send up equipment to ensure we could haul in more trees – we needed tractors fitted with winches and we needed a better motor than the one cylinder MacDonald super diesel. At this stage our motor cracked a cylinder head which was replaced from an engine used in a quarry at Port Moresby (perhaps the whole engine was replaced).
Our older Sergeant did not exercise much control and he was to leave us. We then became a rare organisation – a mixed unit group – without an NCO. There was compensation, then, for our isolation and retreat in the jungle when we were not under regular discipline. We worked in tropical rain forests and still worked in the rainfall that commenced about three most evenings. Our boots were never dry and the nails began to fall out.
Usually the nights were rain free – not always, and the dawns were magic with crystal clear skies, cool temperatures and a washed country side.
Most afternoons the jungle streams rose sharply and just as sharply fell away. We were transgressors in this relatively stable ordered environment and as a consequence we created the mud that followed our activities. Once on the Kokoda track I saw a Blitz Wagon (Australian Army truck), an American ten wheel truck, a tractor and a Jeep all bogged in the one mud-hole and waiting to be hauled out.
Our boys had been allocated to us by the Australian New Guinea Administration Unit, which was manned by men who had lived on the island before invasion.
These people could speak Motuan and pigeon English. Our team got along with a better understanding than they had with the Administration. They worked well with us and responded to good care and the heavy jobs seemed to go along much easier when they sang. Sometimes we could join in when they sang some of their mission taught songs.
Old Dour had his own form of singing – or more correctly a drone with few variations. He would squat on a stump to give his rendition and no doubt in a later era he could have been a rock, or perhaps a stump singer!
At one stage a Don R (despatch rider) came up to our camp with a warning that a Guba was about to occur. This was a tornado like episode. It was a warning to keep out of the jungle until it passed. Wherever we had been logging, trees on the perimeter of that partly cleared area were easily blown down in the subsequent Guba-force wind.
One day the Japanese raided Port Moresby with a large number of bombers and fighters. They bombed fuel dumps with some results and this was the last serious raid they carried out on the base. On their way back they passed overhead and we saw our fighters attacking them. A Lightning fighter dived on a bomber which went on a long steep glide and nosed into the jungle away in the ranges where it may still be undiscovered.
Eventually the timber work finished and we went back to our base camp at Hanabarda. We had moved from tropical rain forest with a nearly daily heavy rainfall and the relentless mosquitoes, the humidity and the constant perspiration, to the dry heat of the rainfall sparse coastal plain. This was a relatively short distance down the range – a transition from mud to dust. We were no longer free agents, remote from the bondage of routine.
Our company had been assigned to build a major installation of oil tanks including three of 1,500,000 gallon capacity and seven 500,000 gallons.
With Bill Cahill I was detailed to learn the art of bulldozer operations as a forerunner to work on the oil installations. We went to work with skilled operators from the 2/1st Mechanical Equipment Company, to learn to handle a large petrol powered Allis Chalmers Model L dozer. This machine had a powerful capacity to shift the earth and we operated in the excellent gravel pits winning road and airstrip making material.
Gravel could be won by ripping and pushing it between two gravel windrows, down-hill, for loading into a truck placed under a wooden structure with an opening above to allow the gravel to flow out into the vehicle. We worked making roads as well until finally the work on the fuel installations began.
Sites had to be cut out of the steep hillsides to help improve the security of the storage. When erected these were protected from bombs by a steep slope above, a surround of a semi-circular mound of debris pushed from the site. The major danger then was a direct bomb hit. The tanks were sited for protection and access to a nine hundred metre long pier on which fuel and water pipes had been laid. These led to the small wharf and anchorage in the harbour from which large oil tankers were able to discharge their cargo while taking on water.
Other ships could take on fuel, diesel or petrol, water and supplies.
The Company built a multi filling fuel station where several trucks could be serviced at one time. When fully operational and when the fuel supplies were fully available, these fuel carriers plied day and night to supply the various aerodromes.
At the same time a fuel pipeline was constructed over the hills direct to the main aerodrome. This had to be operational when the air and land offensive was to begin in the Ramu Valley over the range from Port Moresby. There was drama in getting the pipes welded on time.
Preparing the sites of the fuel tanks kept the Allis L tractor operational twelve hours each day. Bill and I each did a six hours shift. The first site was on a very steep slope. Some distance up was a starting point to come out at the site lower down. The heavy ripper was lowered into the ground at this point and it helped to rip the gravel for the next push. The big trouble was that the ripper was likely to foul loose stones which once or twice tipped the ripper over to become a problem getting it upright again on more level ground. The dozer had to be kept in line with the slope and not across to ensure stability.
Later, work in the tank sites was removing rock that was loosened by blasting – hard work on the operators and on the machine. This part of the regular operation was on more level ground unlike the initial work which sometimes required the machine to be driven on less steep slopes to arrive at even steeper slopes at the starting point. When the sites were prepared the tanks were constructed inside the large space bounded by the steep surface and a large dam wall consisting of the rock and gravel removed from the area.
A team of skilled welders assembled the tanks from sheet steel plates curved in a machine on the site. These welders were highly skilled and could do vertical welds with ease. The large tanks required timber framework to support the roof requiring, once again, competent tradesmen from within the Company. The welders were a separate group and not 14 Field Company.
Adding to the complex tasks and mentioned earlier, was the pier. This was made from a Eucalyptus species known as “turpentine” which had reached the area from the mainland. These were high quality poles of considerable length to enable them to be driven into the seabed and to project some distance above the top water level. On the smaller end they were capped with a steel wedge to allow easier penetration when driven down by a pile driver which pounded the steel ringed larger end until the desired depth was reached.
A steel constructed launch powered by a petrol motor was designed and made to haul the poles into position. They were hauled up in a vertical position by the pile driver which held them in that mode while they were driven down. Many of these, when released, sprang into positions that were far from vertical. This meant that means had to be found to bring them into line to be able to deck the pier.
When an additional wharf was built the same difficulty arose and when the wharf was about to be decked, after the piers were pulled into position for this purpose, a cargo ship berthing at the adjoining wharf accidentally bumped the structure which released many of the piers to their previous positions. The pier had a small wharf at its extremity and on each side were dolphins, or mooring posts consisting of about five or six poles drawn together with the centre one the mooring post. A tanker used one of these to pivot around with the result that the dolphin became detached leaving broken poles under water and a need for repair to ensure the safety of other ships.
All the tanks were connected by pipelines for filling and discharging into and out of the tanks. The tanks were tested for leaks before filling with fuel. This was done by filling with sea water. On one occasion the discharged sea water drained back to its source and in doing so passed through a camp site. This water contained a residue of petrol and caught alight – possibly from a discarded but still burning match. The resulting flame entered the fuel tank and the following explosion did considerable damage.
Laying the pipelines sometimes needed some dozer work. Once I was instructed to clear an area which appeared to be of unstable soil under tidal influence. I warned of the danger. However the task was to proceed and the dozer began to sink in an alarming way. The machine was stopped and fortunately the sinking ceased. It was just at the change of shifts so that I was able to say, "Here you are Bill (Cahill), you can get it out". Naturally, he was grateful! The army had a system for salvage. A number of steel posts were driven into firm soil while being linked with steel cables. Using block and tackle the dozer was coupled to two tractors which were able to haul it out.
In construction the pier was linked to a small island and then to a roadway constructed to the shoreline by pushing gravel from the island to fill between the stone walls each side. A narrow road already existed and carried pipelines for oil and water. Joe Pratt, a miner by trade, had a group working with drills on this island to win a lot of good gravel following the explosion which brought down a huge volume of material which fell over the existing road and the pipes which were covered with timber. The task for the dozer operators was to push the gravel forward to widen the road. There were big rocks in the spoil that had to be pushed out of the way after they had been separated from the gravel mass. Many were embedded well above the level of the operation of the dozer and presented a carefully planned operation to prevent their rolling down on the machine. Care had to be taken not to rupture the pipelines.
Mentioned above. The road was still intact and adjoined the Hanabarda Village but the Fifty five years later (May 1997) with my son Ross, I revisited Port Moresby and the site pier with its pipelines had been demolished and so too had the storage tanks.
Some years ago my cousin, the late Jim Henry of Nowra, took me to visit a friend of his, CH Payne, who had been a war artist in New Guinea. To my amazement, he had a painting of the island, the pier with its pipelines and the road. I now have a duplicate.
A good many indentured Papuan labourers were employed around Port Moresby. They came from as far away as the Fly River and our group on the oil distribution outlet were unused to the practices of army engineers. They were required to use wheelbarrows to remove aggregate for concrete making but these were out of their experience and proved too difficult to manage. The result was to use discarded tins which they filled and carted to the site, emptied and repeated on and on. These fellows were tribal natives probably moved from the Fly River for the first time. They wore lap laps or “arse grass”, had pig tusks in their noses and large wooden combs in their hair. The experience of moving by ship or truck into entirely new areas, with everything unexperienced before, presenting learning tasks, strange food and tools, must have been a major experience in their lives. They were making major contributions to the war effort.
After the construction of the fuel tank, my last task on the dozer was winning gravel in a large quarry adjoining the supply road which edged the harbour and which serviced a wharf used by the Americans and I believe built by them. It was a major transport artery to the west of the town.
One morning as I was being transported to start my 6am shift there was a fire ahead. It was a Mitchell bomber lying wrecked with one engine detached and only a few yards from a tent. Five men were killed and above the wreckage, a little distance behind, was the shattered tree trunk, just ten or twenty feet too tall as the craft made its run for the airstrip a short distance away. The aircraft had been in combat but the loss of twenty or thirty feet in altitude decided its fate.
On another morning I was left with the dozer and my early morning shift. Soon a stockpile of gravel was ready. The work was only a few yards from and above the road. A large round stone was dislodged by the blade and appeared to be rolling towards the road. I stopped the machine, stepped on the boom arm, my foot slipped and I pivoted with my foot under the track. This put a severe strain on the knee joint which was to cause trouble and still continues. I managed to get back on the machine and work until others arrived and took me to the 2/5 Australian General Hospital. I was placed in a ward with others who had leg injuries.
My knee injury was to keep me from a return to my unit for several weeks.
The ward consisted of soldiers from a wide range of units. On one side of my bed was an infantry man who had been hit by a bullet that still had not been removed and he had a leg injury. Frequently at night the episode in which he had been hit invaded his sleep pattern and he lived it over again with shouted warnings. On the other side a fellow had a leg injury that may have saved his life. He had been in a forward area and had sustained a knee injury when he tripped over a tent peg. He had been in Africa where he contracted sleeping sickness, a serious disease which resulted in his discharge. Later he enlisted again and while he was in hospital developed scrub typhus, another serious disease for which good nursing is essential – and he was in hospital.
I missed a picnic the Sister was preparing for her patients and was sent up the range to a convalescent camp in the jungle. When my stay ended here and my knee had improved, I was transported back to Murray Barracks and then to the unit.
It was the end of dozer driving and I was given a job on a compressor. We had been in New Guinea since June 1942 and it was now the end of 1943. Part of my Section had been sent to work on the Wau Bulldog Road to give access to the Wau area. It was a nightmare task, carved through a forest covered in moss. It was a remarkable engineering achievement and when it was completed the danger from the Japanese no longer existed.
My old friend the late Geoff Gumley was in this episode from where he wrote me a letter written on the label from a jam jar.
So now we were reaching the end of our time in New Guinea. No doubt the 14 Field Company AIF had made major contributions towards the war in the South Pacific. The oil installation was an essential part of the campaign, particularly in the air war which had reached a significant role with the American and Australian Air Forces constantly increasing strength. There was great significance in the supply of equipment. Oil was a critical factor – even our Allis L used high octane aviation fuel! Tankers were regularly discharging three or four million gallons through the pipelines on the pier.
We had built a wharf which was in near constant use. We had built roads, made gun emplacements, worked on the Kokoda Track, manned a sawmill, built a small powerful launch, constructed a critically important oil installation and had contributed a weary succession of days of toil from the day of our arrival. There was no job beyond the skill and learning of someone from Sappers through to NCO’s and Officers. Thinking back over the tasks undertaken and the success of the outcomes, it is apparent that the people in command had multiple engineering skills. Our Officers were Major DH Powell in command, Captain R Iredale, and Lieutenants Hardy, R Stewart and L Haining.
Then in February 1944 we gathered on our wharf to board the “Kanimbla” for our return to Australia. It took hours to get on board to allotted quarters. These were so different to those of our voyage to New Guinea. We had bunks, one above the other and a comfortable voyage with good food.
The ship seemed to cast off from the wharf with no apparent warning and in seconds was in mid stream, suddenly a Lieutenant, very agitated, appeared on deck. Perhaps he was visiting friends and now he was being carried away. His frantic signals for an unlikely rescue subsided and no doubt, from then on, he was AWOL.
At Cairns the Kanimbla took on a number of assault craft for the coming assault on Borneo. The ship was armed in a transformation from passenger service to armed merchantman. We tied up at Cairns and could look over the town but could not leave. Then the tide receded, the view diminished and no doubt the vessel may have been nearer the seabed – such are the tides.
We disembarked at Townsville early in the morning and boarded a troop train for the trip to Brisbane. It was a long tedious trip – that night, the two following days and finally sometime during the third night we were in Brisbane. Most members of the Company lived south of the Hawkesbury River and soon departed for Sydney. Those of us living north of the river were left behind.
The small group remaining were left in a staging camp waiting for transport. Our kit bags had been taken from us when we went north and were supposed to be available on our return. There was some story they had been lost in a fire but a long time later mine caught up with me – maybe after discharge.
We were then to be issued with clothes, particularly field service uniforms and great coats. Those fortunate enough got issues of light weight good quality clothes – until the supply ran out and once again I paid the price for having a name near the bottom of the alphabet. Months later, in the midst of winter I managed to get a uniform and a great coat.
After some days we joined a trooper, to Wallangarra, with no toilets. At lunch on that station details were given the tasks of helping to wash up – to my consternation I was confronted with a large pile of dishes.
Eventually I arrived at Glen Innes and got a bus to Inverell and finally went out to my relation’s property, “Dunvegan”, north of the town. Leave nearing the end, I reported to join the 14 again but with a couple of others we were informed we had to report back to Brisbane as we were AWOL. Then once again there was a long delay before we were sent back to Sydney.
By this time the Unit was in training at Kapooka, near Wagga. Training was an extraordinary experience. After nearly two years on active service we found ourselves being drilled by people who had not had that experience. The Army has systems for everything and one of these was how to use a pick! Strike, break, rake! After having moved thousands of cubic yards of soil in major constructions we were being told how to do it.
One episode is worth recording. A Sergeant named "Sandy" Irvine of 2nd/1st Mechanical Equipment Company listened to a story told by a Major on how the "Golden Staircase" was constructed on an early stage of the Kokoda Track. It was a long length of steps made from timber and was a work of some merit. Somehow the Major got some of it wrong and Irvine pointed this out. Naturally the Officer reacted and demanded, "What do you know about it Sergeant?" "I was the man in charge, Sir".
So the monotony of training life loomed ahead. The Army was in the process of recruiting a group of specialists as food technologists and as inspectors of supply. The role was to apply emphasis on the supply and delivery from the factories and fresh food people of the huge range of products an army needed. It meant the examination of huge stocks of stored food held in the depots everywhere to ensure their continued quality.
I applied for transfer and my Hawkesbury Diploma of Agriculture meant an easy transfer as the Unit was being recruited from people with this qualification. My transfer was to a school at Sydney University with accommodation at Randwick Racecourse.
There were close friends, Bill Cahill and Geoff Gumley particularly, and there was regret leaving them and the 14 Field Company but the new task fitted with my experience and possible future career. Looking back over all the years the work of the 14 Field Company AIF was a major contribution to the war effort. It was remarkable how self sufficient the Company was – any task produced people with the necessary experience and skill.
Some Random Recollections
We went to see a movie show now and again. One of our camp sites was used for this purpose. It was a good location for hundreds of troops for miles around. The screen was free standing and the images could be viewed from either side – when viewed from the wrong side everything was back to front. One night a Jap “Betty” bomber fixed the well illuminated screen in its flight path. Search lights picked out the bomber but the stampede to get away to cover knocked the screen over. We knew the area well because we had faithfully gained from the reluctant soil a series of slit trenches. We were beaten to the use of them as they were filled with American Negroes. And indeed they were occupied three times, no doubt by the same people. These episodes followed the "Betty" going away after the loss of a target and returning when the show started again.
When the screen was erected for the third time the aircraft, despite the guns and search lights, released a string of bombs. These exploded towards us but the release was too early. It was an interesting night with irate technicians getting good practice re-erecting the flattened screen.
A Mitchell bomber returning in early morning from its deadly mission and bearing signs of an encounter, came down towards the waters of the harbour. It was so close to home base as it dropped towards this last landing. It flicked the water then sped on to touch down again. Finally it lay there in the water as small boats came to the rescue. The plane floated and five men emerged to reach the shelter of a boat – then the aircraft sank. It is possibly still there in Moresby Harbour.
Outside the narrow passage to Port Moresby two Japanese submarines lay in ambush. Two cargo ships were proceeding south and outside the entrance when one was torpedoed. The destroyer HMAS Arunta had these ships in convoy. Suddenly the Arunta performed a series of violent high speed manoeuvres leaving in its wake a pattern of depth charges seeking a hapless submarine. The Arunta’s Captain was given an award for this action and only one submarine may have escaped. The cargo ship limped, severely listing, back into harbour where it was patched and then left for repairs in Australia.
For viewers on high ground it was a spectacular display of power and deadly purpose. Underneath a desperate submarine shattered and doomed carried its crew into the silence of a living coral resting place.
The Flying Fortress came limping in, crippled, but flying – only just. Two engines were silenced, another was peppered with bullet holes but it made home base.
Catalina flying boats were based in the harbour. They flew out, usually near sunset. Heavily laden they needed a long take off, they returned to base nearly 24 hours later.
This is how I found Alex Cruikshank who had escaped from Malaya and from the stories about him I knew he was recovering in hospital and he had been in the 2/20 Battalion with my brother Lieutenant Harold Woods.
Between the hospital wards were multiple seat latrines. These had been made as long trenches deeply excavated then boarded up and furnished with multiple seating. The earth was used to secure the structure. One day a runner came into the ward with a message for the Sister in charge. He was greeted with loud cheers and references to an escapade at the ten-holer. It appeared that a cone of earth at that device had subsided taking Alex down with it. Told his name, I met Alex, but he knew little of my brother. A sequel to this episode was a fellow, loud in recording the dilemma of Alex, and who had a broken arm. Next day he broke the other in a similar fall!
It was near Christmas 1943. In our jungle convalescent camp one enterprising person (perhaps he was a staff member) felt the need for a brew of “Jungle Juice”. He went off somewhere and came back with a copper pipe, probably from a vehicle and with a primus. He had a drum of fermenting material, scrounged from somewhere, as it contained a mixture of sugar bearing dried fruit. A cleared area of Kunai grass gave a desired hideaway for a clandestine still. After all these efforts something went horribly wrong. The heat from the primus was more than enough to drive off the alcohol – it burnt the material. The result must have been more than catastrophic with a near undrinkable outcome.
The American Negro was sitting with his legs dangling over the pipe culvert. He was pointing up so we stopped and joined him. Apparently an air raid was brewing but nothing eventuated. Then after some time the American bent forward and called to his mate, "What do you see in there, Sam?" The voice from the culvert, "I see nothing".
Mention should be made of Gordon Clegg, a bushman of extraordinary ability who worked on the Bulldog Road. An American Airforce pilot had parachuted into the jungle and Clegg was despatched to find him. With an incredible ability to find his way he located the pilot and brought him back – no doubt saving the man’s life. It is not difficult to imagine the relief of the pilot who must have been fortunate to have made a safe landing in the most inhospitable environment he could ever have imagined.
Max Woods NX54871 February/March 2003
Max Woods 1915 - 2016 A Man of the Soil and Conservation
Max Woods was a lifelong environmentalist, a passionate advocate in soil conservation and sustainable use of energy in agriculture. Many farm organisations in north-west NSW have his fingerprints all over them, benefiting from his insight.
In 1936, when conservationists were a rare breed and "greenies" unheard of, Woods had his first article on soil conservation published. That was just the beginning.
His first marriage proposal to future wife, Gwen, arrived by letter from New Guinea during the war: "Would you like to marry me? I need someone to darn my socks." Perhaps, not surprisingly, that proposal failed.
Woods was born in 1915 in Narrabri, the elder of two sons, to Eliza and Albert Woods, a cycle agent.
Albert died of the Spanish flu just before Christmas 1918.
Eliza, Max and brother Harold moved to Dunvegan, Eliza’s family’s property at Oakwood, north of Inverell, where the boys were raised in a large extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles. They rode their horse, "Larrikin&quor;, to school, double-banked and bareback.
Later, Eliza and the boys moved to Inverell, where Eliza bought a small house, which was close enough for the boys to walk to school.
Max left high school after three years and went back to Dunvegan to work on the farm. He became involved with the Farmers and Settlers Association and saw his first demonstration of soil conservation. He decided he needed further formal education and studied at Hawkesbury Agricultural College in 1938. By 1940 he had a diploma in agriculture. Hawkesbury was indelibly woven into the fabric of his life, with life-long friendships forged there.
After college Woods joined the Australian Imperial Force and served for four and a half years, two spent in New Guinea with the 14th Australian Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers.
On return to Australia, he studied at Sydney University to become an army food technologist, looking at the quality of food for troops.
After discharge from the army in 1946 Woods joined the Soil Conservation Service.
In 1949 he joined the Soil Conservation Service in Inverell and city girl Gwen Matterson, who accepted his second proposal, became engaged to the public servant with a pushbike.
They were soon upwardly mobile – after their wedding in 1950 in Strathfield they set off for Inverell in a new Morris Minor.
"I appreciate so much that she came to live in the scrub," he said after her death in 2009.
Gwen was pregnant with her firstborn, a son, when they learnt they had won a soldier-settler block in a ballot, part of Newstead North Station.
They named their property at Swan Vale Warrawee – Aboriginal for "rest awhile" – but there was never much rest. The land was completely undeveloped, a single paddock of about 600 hectares. They became 20th-century pioneers, living in a garage for 18 months with an outdoor cooking fire and "jam-tin" shower before moving into their newly built house. Warrawee was transformed into a showcase rural property of best farming practice.
They remained on the property almost 30 years, before retiring onto acreage outside Glen Innes. Retiring off the land simply meant Woods could devote himself fulltime to environmental matters for the next 30 years.
In the mid-1960s Woods, his friend Jack Black, and a forwardthinking journalist, David Sommerlad, began instigating groups that addressed the issues of "landcare", soil and water degradation, about 25 years before Landcare came into formal existence. He was pivotal in the early groups – the Darling Conservation Association and the Bannockburn Conservation Group – both of which had an early demise but which morphed into a new, smaller, more intimate group focused on the natural resources and people of the MacIntyre Valley.
With the introduction of the Catchment Management Act in 1989, the Northwest Catchment Management Committee was started with Woods as inaugural chairman.
He had a long involvement with the University of New England in Armidale.
In 1966 he became the first producer member on the Faculty of Rural Science, remaining on the faculty 34 years.
He became an inaugural fellow in 1991 and an Honorary Master of Rural Science in 2004.
In 2006, 70 years after publication of his first article, he stood before a House of Representatives standing committee arguing the need to reinstate specialist soil conservation services. Aged 95, his views were sought and published on the food-versus-fuel debate.
Approaching his centenary in March last year, when pressed for his secret to longevity he quipped with his characteristic chortle: "Keep eating!" Others would attribute his longevity to the therapeutic benefits of belly laughs, and to staying "involved".
He ate a tub of chocolate yoghurt as he waited for paramedics to take him to hospital, where he died 36 hours later, on 19 June.
He is survived by his children Ross, Susan and Kim, and grandchildren Matterson, Laughlan, Strath, Harrison, Simon, Sabrina and Jack.
A memorial service to celebrate his life was held at St Clement’s Anglican Church in Mosman on Monday 27 June at 11am.
Susan Woods Giordano