War – No. 2 PD at Bradfield Park (October 1944-December 1945)

Late in October (1944) I was posted. A fair dinkum signal had arrived from RAAF Headquarters in Melbourne, and I was off to New Guinea. I had been posted to Air Defence Headquarters at Madang. I was overjoyed. No problems with my clearance this time for I soon had that fixed up. I seem to remember that I had to wait a week or two till my replacement arrived and was brought up to date with the work that I had been doing. It was farewell time after nearly three years in 14 Squadron where I had fitted in easily and had made many friends, some of whom I still see from time to time.

For me there had been fun times and sad times. New friends were made and old and new friends were lost. Then we took it all as part of the job with the nation, silent in its sorrow, bearing its losses and accepting restrictive regulations and community shortages, united in the common cause. Today when I remember so many who did not come back I say to myself, “What a waste.” At the time, to join up was the right thing to do and we must never forget those who never came back. Somebody’s quote has a message, “You have many rights but not the right to forget those who died that you might be happy.” Governments should also remember that.

RAAF Madang, Northern Command HQ, 1944. Source: AWM

What lay ahead for me was not on my mind after my posting. Early in November I was off on pre-embarkation leave and headed for Kalgoorlie. Mum and Dad were glad to see me and so were my many friends including the Bennetts. I had a chat with my old mates at the Post Office and other people who I met uptown when I went looking for other friends to chat about my posting.

When we returned to Perth (from Bunbury with the Moore family) I had to report on 1 December 1944 to No. 5 PD (Personnel Depot) which I remember as being in Salvado Road in Subiaco/Wembley. There I had to wait for movement orders and transport to No. 2 PD at Bradfield Park near Sydney. On 1 December, but not then known to me, I was promoted to Flight Sergeant. I would have to wait till I got to Madang to get that news and have my new rate of pay entered in my paybook which we carried with our other documents on posting to a new unit.

The next day (after farewelling Joan and the Moore family) we were trucked to the Perth railway station and put aboard the train for Kalgoorlie. It was not easy for civilians to get seats on trains during the war because of the constant moving of service personnel around Australia. We de-trained at Kalgoorlie and were taken to Parkeston to begin the next leg of our journey. We may have had a chance to get into Kalgoorlie but I doubt it as there was a large number of troops to put on the train and too many to let loose on the town. I think relatives and other people were able to come out and farewell us. It was close to town.

The train pulled in and we were lined up like Brown’s cows, and not in Ayrshire, Friesian, and Jersey order, but Navy first, Army second and Air Force next. There were standard trans-train sit up carriages and cattle trucks as our options. Your resting place for the two or three days would depend where the train stopped as it now came in. The brakes went and I found my left eye staring at carriage steps and my right eye at a cattle truck. There was no hesitation there as the chaps behind me surged forward. It was a case of up the steps and find a seat. First door to the left and there we were eight to a compartment. Our first meal was tea and we all piled out when the train stopped about five o’clock. The Army were well organised and there was not much waiting around. We had our own “eating irons’’ with us so it was a matter of lining up and getting your fair share of the tucker. No menu.

We then washed up our dishes, took time out for a comfort stop, and got back onboard the train. Now there was time to fill. Some of us knew each other or had served in the same units at different times, so we all chatted away till someone brought the cards out. We then settled down to the business of winning some petty cash.

Sleep time was mutually declared about nine o’clock so that we could make the bunk arrangements. They were four on the floor, two on the seats, and two up on the narrow luggage racks. I took a rack, padded the wire with my greatcoat, and hoped for the best: a reasonable rest and no falling out if the train stopped suddenly. It was nothing to write home about and I was glad to take the floor the next night where you put your feet under the seat and tried to avoid cracking your head under the opposite seat. Sometimes someone had to answer a nature call and step on and over his mates to get out only to find that when he got back the floor sleepers had moved about in their sleep and pinched most of his bed space. Those were the days. Well, no more on that trip which took us through Adelaide, Bendigo, Melbourne, and on to Sydney. The boys in the cattle trucks included my friend Jack Booth, if I recall it right. He was one of the Booth family associated with trotting in Fremantle. Jack told me later the cattle trucks had more space but with many more men it was not too good. Any complaints? Nobody listened. We all arrived OK.

From the Sydney Central Station, we were taken to 2 PD out at Bradfield Park. There we were allotted huts and given bedding and blankets. A meal at the mess and a good night’s sleep and we were ready to be on our way again. But it was not going to be as easy as that for we were formed into squads and put back into training and given a toughening-up course. Soon we were marching along the local roads in charge of a Flight Sergeant, George Bachrach, who hailed from Bassendean in my home State. We sang the current war songs as we marched and the locals were probably getting used to hearing the strains of “Kiss me goodnight, Sergeant Major” and “Roll out the Barrel” as we swung along the highways. No barrel from George but he used to stop often to rest us when he found a spot where we were well back off the road in the bush. He then would produce a set of plastic cards tailored to a new game of chance. I think the cards had race results or something on them for there certainly were quoted odds that you could win if you were lucky. The cards had small section cutouts so when someone shuffled the cards the cutouts matched up differently each time there was a shuffle. You put 2 bob (20c) on your choice and won or lost. Sometimes George let someone else be the banker and he would have a bet. It was a lot of fun and nobody lost very much.

We had a few days of instruction on health care in the jungle and at the same “school” did some survival jungle training climbing up and down gullies with rifles and machine guns, and finding our way about the Bradfield bush. My army training helped a bit here. Health care in the jungle included lectures on malaria and dengue fevers and how to give the mosquitos as little chance as possible to get at your blood. Dermatitis (”Dermo”) was to be avoided.

One thing we had to do at 2 PD was to return our winter uniforms and other heavyweight clothing. We were then issued with new sets of topical gear and the extra equipment required for northern areas. We were given the chance to go into Sydney over a couple of days so we would make our way to the nearby station and head into the city. It was my first time in Sydney since we left there in 1928 when we moved to Adelaide. If I had thought in my RAAF days that I would be writing this story I would have rushed out to my old schools and photographed them along with the houses we had lived in. They all would have still been there, but not today.

War – Townsville and Cairns (January-February 1945)

On 14 January I was on my way north, posted to No. 1 Reserve Personnel Pool (1RPP) at Townsville. I was taken out to the Rose Bay flying boat base and flew up on a Sunderland flying boat. In Townsville I reported to 1RPP at Garbutt. There were several hundred airmen located there awaiting transport to battle zones all over New Guinea and the SW Pacific.

We were billeted in small huts that held four airmen. They were built under big mango trees and the flying foxes used to keep us awake half the night while they chattered and ate the fruit. I never thought about trying the mangos and nobody else seemed to be keen on them. Perhaps it was because we were well-fed at the mess where it was all in together. One thing we had to do was to parade each morning and some of us be allotted for work squads. It was a hit and miss affair and when they started picking airmen out and “draftees” started moving towards the NCO to be in charge, others drifted out of the ranks and eased themselves between the sleeping huts which bordered the parade ground.

Interior of Sergeants’ Living Quarters, Townsville, ca 1940s. Source: AWM

I stood fast being a good sergeant and was promptly picked to take a party into Townsville to load some stores. At least I got the front seat of the truck but behind me were about six fellows who were all strangers to me. They were not keen on any hard work really and I read in my mind that they were sick of 1RPP, and were breaking their neck to get up north somewhere. Well, it was a bit of a struggle and more so when we stopped near a pub. They asked me if they could pop in for one or two. I hesitated about that but they put their heads together and suggested that they might not load any more stores if they stayed thirsty. It was not the right way to go but we were heading for lunch time so I gave them ten minutes and no more and everybody was happy. The moral of the story was not to get caught again. NCOs were plentiful.

The next day’s parade saw me join the “drifters” and we would keep out of sight till the parade was dismissed. It got that way that when the “drifting” started it looked a bit like footie fans leaving their game early when their side had lost. It became so obvious that the local Warrant Officer had service police and guards posted on the edges of the parade to slow the boys down. I had been doing a bit of Japanese down south and had brought my exercise book notes up with me. On the next parade I waited until the working parties were being called out and then moved out of the ranks and walked straight up the parade ground past the WOD. One had to be positive and take a calculated risk it would work.

It was a few days before he woke up to me. As I walked past him the WOD, a veteran of the RAAF who probably knew every trick in the book, stopped me and said “Sergeant, I’ve noticed you walking off parade this week. Where are you going?” No trouble with the reply, “It’s my Japanese lessons, Major”. “I didn’t know we had Japanese lessons here, Sergeant.” “It’s just that I do them up in the recreation room, Major”. He gave a knowing smile and said, “OK, Sergeant, carry on”. I did some study and then went to town.

What can I say about Townsville? It was hot and humid and wet and it was just like the Darwin that I came to know so well later on. I remember the newsagent’s shop there where I would buy my papers and books, and postcards to send to the family and to Joan. She was writing to me at Madang but also sending letters to Towns­ville. The RAAF postal service was very good. As soon as you moved further up your letters would be sent on to the next unit.

Back at Garbutt we battled to fill our time in but there was an answer to that. I was walking around on one of my first nights there and was attracted by a sound I easily recognised. The sound of dice being rattled in a shaker. It was a game on. I went into the hut to find Jim Carroll there. He had just arrived up that day. I sat in on the game, a very small one with sixpenny bets, and promptly rolled a few sets of heads which broke the school.

Jim and I decided to go over to the big two-up game on the other side of the 1RPP boundary fence, seeing that I was in form. When we got there we found a big crowd of players dressed in a variety of uniforms from the various Australian and Allied forces. It was big, but when I got the kip I promptly tossed tails. Bang went my winnings from the small game and then I had to bet with my own money. All ranks were players and I did see one or two Air Force officers from WA there. On one night “JF”, a young Squadron Leader from WA, was at the game when it was raided by the MPs and he was one of those nabbed. It cost him six places on the seniority list but he overcame that, and in later years he went on to reach a much higher rank in the RAAF. In fairness to him, no name, no pack drill. Jim won a few pounds but I lost a few bob.

It was the wet season and in the weeks I was there we had plenty of rain and I had never seen anything like it. It poured and poured and swirled around the huts which had been built off the ground level a little. We were in shorts then and on a couple of days we had to wade through the water to get our meals which we had in the higher-set mess. We had to improvise a little till the water settled and I remember shaving with boiling hot tea to get a decent shave. When we were coming across the Nullarbor I used tea or coffee when hot boiling water was not available without a lot of trouble. I was never wrapped up in cold water shaves.

Jim Carrol I and I messed together but not for too long. He was posted to Dobodura, near Buna. My best wishes went with him. Jim was an armourer handling bombs. He had been a bank clerk in Bunbury, the main centre in our South-West area. He knew his job well in regard to bombs, but he was also a wizard with figures.

I was at Townsville for six weeks and it was frustrating when you wanted to get to your new unit. Air transport was at a premium out of Townsville and I was finally sent up to Cairns by rail. Along with three other chaps we occupied one of those funny small rail cars but it was an experience for us as we rattled along the line on a nice sunny day. The countryside was great what with the canefields and the tropical fruits growing along the line. We filled up on these at our stops along the way.

We all found that our documents envelopes had been left unsealed for some reason, so curiosity got the better of us. The paper from our first intelligence tests on enlistment were there and I was pleased to find that I had enough brains to get through life with some chance of success. I scored well in several tests but would probably have missed out on Mensa. My promotion records and recommendations were there and I was happy with them, but I still did not know about my promotion to Flight Sergeant. My conduct was recorded as VG (very good) right along the line from my first days, and my trade and supervisory efficiency all well reported on. What more could I ask? Warrant Officer was the next step but it would be a while before that could happen. Time would tell.

Service Records, Earl Douglas Cash, W10261 – Aptitude Test Results, 8 March 1943. Source: NAA Item 587148953

Cairns was a nice place and I dreamed of returning there some day in the future. I forget where we were quartered but when I knew we would be there a few days I gave the town a good look over and from that I can remember Hide’s Hotel and Comino’s Cafe where I had a snack or two. I think Camino became a big wheel in business circles in the town after the War. The main street was lined with toilets, for servicemen from all the Allied forces were in Cairns in good numbers, on postings, on leave, or awaiting transport up or down. We were free every day so I used to go down to the port harbour, which I toured again as recently as 1988.

War – ADHQ Madang (February-May 1945)

A RAAF flying boat squadron was based on the harbour (in Cairns) and I made friends with the RAAF launch crew who manned the “FOLLOW ME” launch that led all flying boats up the harbour to their take-off point, and guided incoming flying boats to the docking area. It was great doing that nearly every day but when you are on a good thing it seldom lasts long. My movement order was issued and I was off to Port Moresby. It was a flying boat again, this time I think it was a Martin Mariner. The trip was uneventful, no Zeroes about, and I duly reported in to the Movements Officer at Jackson airstrip, which was about seven miles from the town. It certainly was a busy place. There were planes everywhere with trucks and personnel moving here and there right around the airfield. It was something like a beehive with everybody having a job to do and doing it. I was billeted there for a night or two and then I was off to Lae in a DC3 (Douglas Dakota). Lae was 200 miles from Moresby. The weather was not too bad with some rain and clouds about and it was a bit bumpy. The flight took about two hours.

My stopover at Lae lasted two or three days and I hitched a ride here and there to have a look at Lae which had been recaptured by our 7th and 9th Divisions, and Allied forces, in September 1943. One place of interest was Lunaman? Hill which was right near Lae. It had a big caves area. The Japanese had occupied a large cave which went well back into the hillside. When our troops took Lae, the Japanese in the cave would not surrender. Various military tactics were used to try to get them out as their snipers were able to potshot our men, but it was no use. The Japanese, and there were many, were determined to stay in the cave and meet their ances­tors there. Their choice was obliged by our Allied commanders and the cave entrance and hillside were blasted with explosives. The Japanese who had already died in the cave and those who would not come out were entombed by the blast. That was what they told me.

Japanese tunnel in Mt. Lunaman in Chinatown. Source: Wiki

I was billeted alongside the airstrip and a short walk from the bay. I was heading for the bay one night with someone when we were challenged by a guard, “Halt, who goes there?”, to which I replied, “That’s bloody Jim Wilson’s voice”. A voice from the dark called back, with our old card game phrase, “Can I have a heart for a zac?”.It certainly was Jim Wilson, another armourer from 14 Squadron. He was waiting at Lae for transport and had been put on the guard duty roster to keep him occupied. I still see Jim a couple of times a year and we often go through that routine again as a reminder of our night at Lae. Jim passed on some news about other 14 Squadron chaps passing through Lae and then we went on down to the water while Jim resumed his guard post. We had a couple of nights sitting in the beach area and getting the breeze as the waves hit the shore. Peace and not War.

In the day we were able to go to the old town area and look around or buy something. Once we went to Malahang Beach, five miles from Lae, and went aboard the beached wreck of the Japanese supply ship Myoko Maru which had been put out of action by our bomb­ers when the Japanese landed at Lae in 1942. I would now be called a graffiti artist, because I made sure that my visit to Lae was on record forevermore. From somewhere I got a white substance or paint and printed “DOUG CASH KALGOORLIE” in letters a foot high. I do remember well seeing that ship stuck in the sand and I still have a good photo of her. I can recall climbing up its side to get on board to take her over for a few minutes. I understand that in later years people still saw my handiwork. Lae became a memory the next day when I boarded a DC3 Douglas Dakota for Madang.

Myoko Maru Wreckage, Malahang, ca 1945. Source: AWM

It was about 100 miles (160km) to Madang and the one-hour flight was over some rugged country. Deep valleys and dense jungle with the occasional open space where there was a native village. We flew fairly low and I was able to get a good look at the sort of country that could surround me at Madang. It was all interesting. We made it safely to the airstrip and I was soon in a jeep taking me to my new unit, Air Defence Headquarters (ADHQ). We turned into a coconut plantation and there ahead of me was my new home.

I reported in at the orderly room to find that everyone had given me up for lost for it was now three months after my first posting to Madang on 1 December 1944. ADHQ had been what had happened to me in that time. The orderly room F/Sgt saw I had only three stripes up, no crown, and told me that on my way I had been promoted up a step to Flight Sergeant, on 1 December 1944. His name was Jack Shooter and he handed to me the biggest bundle of letters that I had ever seen. One letter was from Roly to say that he had been posted to Lancaster Squadron No. 218 RAF in February. I was glad to get good news of him. One always worried.

Most of the letters were from Joan who had been writing five or six times a week to Madang, as well as letters to my temporary homes at Bradfield Park, Townsville, and Cairns. The letters were numbered and later I spent hours reading them in the tent. Jack took me to my tent nearby which I had to share with three others. The bunks were canvas stretchers and we had space for hanging up our gear. On the short walk back to the orderly room and the stores section Jack told me about the beer ration for all personnel. When I told him that I did not drink he asked if he could have my ration and I let him have it. It was three weeks before I woke up that he was not drinking it. He was selling it to the Yanks for 10/- ($1) a bottle and sometimes more depending on the current market. We had a good laugh when I told him that I would collect my ration and go into business for myself. My pay was then 9/- (90c) a day. 

Tent Lines, Madang Base, 1944. Source: AWM

Our “camp” consisted of tent lines and the adjacent facilities, a medical first-aid tent, and the stores and administrative huts, Quonset style. There was a native village within walking distance and the locals were regular visitors. They would have fruit and vegetables to sell, and the occasional chicken. We were not too keen on a daily diet of herrings-in-tomato sauce and the Army “dog biscuits” and baked beans, so the locals were our salvation.

A small tin of Vesta wax matches could be exchanged for a “hand” of bananas, and an old mosquito net for a chicken. I would do a trade and hang the bananas from the tent ridgepole. There were dozens of bananas on the bunch and each day I would turn them around and pick the ones at perfect ripeness, that is when they are yellow-skinned, firm rather than hard, and the odour of ripeness is there. None went to waste as my tent mates Alan Breeze, Brian Bryan, and Bill Calder helped out. Bill was from the South Fremantle Calders, and he was always passing on fatherly advice to me based on his life and wartime experiences. Other friends were Jack Shooter, Pat Aldridge, and Aub Davis. The Sergeant Medical Orderly was Arthur Backhoder and we became friendly after I had to pay a visit to the F.A.P. later.

Sometimes a few of us would take on the jungle and make our way uphill and downhill along muddy tracks to the local village. It was hot and steamy and muddy but it was worthwhile. We would chat away, in pidgin, to the natives and get to understand each other. On one occasion we went over to visit the native hospital to see a child who had fallen into a fire. The patients were all being well treated but the interesting thing was that their families stayed and slept in and around the hospital. They fed the patient and looked after all their needs other than the medical care.

We had a bit of fun in the tent lines from time to time. There had been stray Koreans wandering about and they could be Japanese as far as we were concerned. We had rifles and bayonets just in case but nothing serious happened. All the unwelcome visitors were caught except one. I returned to my tent one afternoon to find a large black snake on my bed. He was not inclined to move so we grabbed our bayonets (not the.303s) and between two or three of us chopped his head off. Any other foreign visitors might have met the same fate but we were never put to that test after that.

One of our friends from the village brought me over a nice chook, like a white leghorn, and some veggies, and departed with a mozzie net. No time like the present and I boiled up some hot water on our little outdoor fireplace, and plucked the chook. Into a big pot went the chook along with everything edible that we could find. Greens, tinned tomatoes, yams, and anything we could get from the mess to help turn the water into soup with a cooking chicken floating in it. The four of us had a right royal feast with tinned fruit as the encore.

We had movies to entertain us and these were shown outdoors every second or third night. Rain or not we would sit on the ground, a chair or box, and watch the latest movies. The National Anthem, God Save The King, would start the show, and we would see King George the Sixth on screen, and then Franklin D Roosevelt. Cheers greeted their appearance, and then it was all, “What about Joe?”. The screen would stay blank and everybody would get their little frustrations of the day out of their system by “What about Joe?”, “Joe for King”, “Where’s Joe?”. The projectionist would no longer ­keep us in suspense and a picture of Joe Stalin would fill the screen. Tumultuous cheering, and booing, would break out and then in a minute or two it was on with the film. We would just sit there in pouring rain and think little about it. If you sat under a coconut palm you needed to take care, as now and then a coconut would drop down. A steel helmet was the only answer to that.

Open-air Cinema, Madang, 1945. Source: AWM

Luckily I had arrived close to the end of the wet season and did not get drenched at the pictures for long once the dry season, from March to November, arrived. Once the weather fined up we had the chance to visit local villages and see how the indigenous people lived. Under the eye of the ANGAU administration the local population lived in small villages averaging about two hundred or so inhabitants. Each settlement had a head man known as a luluai and as I recall it he was easily identifiable by his cap with a red band. It was the sort of cap a train guard might have worn. I was told that the husband and wife have separate huts. The older sons live in the communal hut and young children with the mother. Most work in the gardens planting in the dry and harvesting in the wet. The many types of fruit and veggies are then stored.

One of the letters I got soon after arriving at Madang was from Roly who was still kept busy flying Lancasters over Europe. He was now with another Lancaster Squadron, No. 218, which was now at Chedburgh. Previously it had been based at Woolfox Lodge and Methwold. 218 Squadron was earlier formed as the “Gold Coast” Squadron and also originally named in the same pattern was No. 97 Lancaster Squadron which was designated the “Straits Settlements” Squadron. Ken Foxcroft flew with No. 97 which had Wellingtons, then Manchesters, Hampdens, and Lancasters.

There was not the same easily seen operational activity at ADHQ as there had been at No. 14 Squadron. No aircraft except the DC3s bringing in stores and equipment, and our mail. Everybody looked for letters. I still had plenty to go on with but was glad to get more. We had quite a bit of spare time after work hours and I can remember taking it easy one weekend when the WOD or the welfare officer came through the tent lines giving us some free advice. His line was that “spine-bashing” was not good for us and we must be up and about taking part in sport and other physical pursuits. He was calling out for footballers and struggling off my camp bed, I put myself in for a game. Never volunteer?

Straight into a match on the Sunday playing against an Army team. Underdone, outweighed, and outmanoeuvred. The local oval was well-grassed and soft underfoot as would be expected in such a place. We did a lap or two while having a kick-to-kick warm up and then we were positioned ready to go. I was looking forward to a good game as I took up the rover’s spot close to the circle. The whistle blew and the game was on. One of the opposing ruckmen, who was built like a tank, simply ran straight through the centre and kicked me full in the shin. I went down like a log. What a mess! There was blood and mud everywhere, and on top of that it hurt. There was no mucking about, the game had to go on, so I was carried off and taken back to the ADHQ First Aid Post. Arthur Backholer examined my leg, cleaned it up, and sent me off to the RAAF Hospital at 2MRS (Medical Receiving Centre).

At 2MRS a quick examination, and then X-Rays. A cracked tibia was the verdict and I was straight onto the table to get stitched up. Lord protect me from volunteering for I was blessed with a doctor named Gabriel. Wing Commander Gabriel was the man who supervised another cleanup and then he sewed me up. All’s well that ends well? Not this time. A day or two back in the hospital ward and my leg was in a poor state. In no time it became swollen like a football from my foot up to the knee and worse could be expected. They did their best to ease the pain but finished up putting me on morphine. Once or twice a day the medical orderlies had the job of putting massage pressure on my leg, from ankle to knee, to force the infected fluid it held out through the now open again wound. That was nothing to write home about. One side-effect of the morphine was that it made it hard for me to write letters and the nurses used to help me out with that often. It meant that Joan was getting my letters home written in another girl’s handwriting. I think they both enjoyed the joke. The letters were lost in a house move later so no repeats here.

Next to me was a chap named McKenzie from Sydney. I am not sure what his problem was but we were soon chatting away about Sydney and Perth, and the Air Force. He was an actor by hobby and was interesting to talk to. We were not allowed out of bed to go to the pictures held next to the hospital wards and had to find ways to fill our time in. When we were feeling a bit better we would find out what film was being shown and then next day fill in our time by discussing it as though we had seen it the night before. With his acting ability and my co-operation we did such a good job that the nurses going by believed that we had sneaked out and attended the film show. The little extra services that we had been getting slowed up and I was back to writing my own letters.

McKenzie was released well before me so he missed being in the hospital when one of the frequent local earthquakes gave the hospital a real shaking. I was still confined to bed and could only lay there as coconut palms crashed to the ground and onto the roof. All sorts of things crashed to the floor in the hospital but nothing too bad happened. The volcanic island of Karkar is close to Madang and I think it was just acting up again. The locals were used to it but it was my first experience of such things, other than the tremors of the mine cave-ins on the goldfields.

Soon after that I started to improve and the general opinion was that as the oval was used by the locals for everything, the mud that got into the wound had infected it with a variety of germs. I know the hospital staff were hoping that the infection did not get any worse than it did. I had been in the hospital for what seemed to be weeks when they let me return to my unit where I had dressing treatment for a while from Arthur Backholer at the FAP.

War – Admiralty Islands (May-August 1945)

Well I was soon to be hearing music and song somewhere else for in early May I moved up to the Admiralty Islands, and our Fighter Director Post at Momote airstrip on Los Negros Island. I think it was after Victory in Europe Day on 8 May 1945. I flew up on a DC3 and the trip would have taken two and a half hours. It was over the ocean all the way and I can recall my first impressions when I looked down on the islands. The water was clear as crystal and it was easy to see the deep and shallow waters, and the clear outlines of the reefs and the sandy shores.

Forbes Advocate, NSW, Tuesday 8 May 1945, page 1 – European War Ends. Source: Trove

Trees and coconut palms grew down to the waterline. It was great. We touched down on Momote airstrip where I was met by a stores truck which picked up the equipment and stores we had brought up. Once loaded up we drove to our Fighter Director Post base where I reported in to the orderly room. I was there to supervise the equipment section where there was a Sergeant, Dave Morris, and two LACs. The key personnel were the technical men most of whom were Senior NCOs so we had a small Sergeants’ mess to relax in at the end of the day. My sleeping quarters were part of the stores hut buildings so that was very convenient especially in rainy weather. I recall that on washing day I was able to look across the water to give myself a rain forecast. To dry or not to dry?

Los Negros Island, 1944. Source: AWM

The Japanese forces had occupied the Admiralty Islands early (April 1942) in the Pacific War but the Americans hit back late in February 1944 when they landed strong forces on Manus Island. The Japanese were soundly defeated and the Americans set about establishing a large naval base to support their forces as they moved closer to Japan. The boys that I came to know at the US Base Hospital 15 told me that the US 44th Seabees (a construction unit) soon followed the troops in and set to work clearing campsites ready for setting up the new base. The advance party for establishing the hospital arrived on 27 April 1944 when there was still plenty of rain about. Everybody had to pitch in to help get things cleaned up. They then had to pick up a saw or a hammer and become carpenters as they helped to erect the many huts required for accommodation, stores, administration, and the hospital itself. The job was done by 15 July 1944 (my 25th birthday) and their first patient was checked in the next day. Later I came to know many of the Yanks well, especially Homer T Domaingue who was a Chief Petty Officer at Base Hospital 15. He hailed from Springfield, Massachusetts.

Souvenir of Base Hospital Fifteen, 1945. Source: Not Known

Most of this activity took place over on Manus Island. The Momote airstrip was on the much smaller island of Los Negros. By the time I arrived there in 1945 one of the biggest naval bases in the world had been established. The main areas on Manus Island were Lorengau, Lombrum naval base, and Seeadler Harbour which was blessed with plenty of deep water sitting as it did within a circle of reefs and tiny isles. For a change of diet two or three of us used to go over to the American base, there were over 30,000 men there, and eat at their mess. When we came down the chow line the man behind the servery would say “Are you guys Aussies?” to which we would all reply, “Too bloody right”. That would get us two more corn cobs, or more ham, or two more scoops of ice cream. They were happy to let us use their PX store, almost a travelling “KMart” store. It was great. The Americans were genuine and always ready to be friendly and we reciprocated.

Manus Island, the largest in the Admiralty group, would have been about 60 miles long and half as wide. Lorengau, Lombrum and Seeadler were about 18 miles (30km) from Momote by road and to get there we took a jeep and drove over the bridge across the Loniu Passage which separated Los Negros from the main island. It was a South Pacific holiday in itself as we slowed down and then stopped to take in what we were seeing about us as we gazed down (NOTE: in the 21st Century, Manus Island has a much darker history). The view from above up on the bridge was breathtaking as we were well above the water. The water was that clear that you could almost see right to the bottom. You could see way out across the Bismarck Sea to the South and glimpse the many smaller islands, such as Lou, Baluan, and Rambutyo. If there had been no bridge then we could have crossed the waters of Seeadler Harbour by boat from the NW tip of Los Negros over to Lombrum as some US sailors and airmen did.

We used to swim in the shallow waters of the beaches but ignored the occasional sea snake that swam by. Ignorance is bliss. Not so foolish today. Now and then we went over to Manus to join the Americans, and have a swim before going up to their mess for lunch or whatever. The first time we did that we found the long beach crowded. It was like Leighton on a hot day except that bathers were not required. It was men only. Half of them would have been coloured servicemen, and probably all of the swimmers could have been enlisted men. The officers and the US female personnel would have had their own separate beach elsewhere, with bathers to be worn as an “Order of the Day”. Guards could have been posted to deter sightseers. 

Back at Momote we filled in our spare time with one thing and another. Bridge at night in the stores hut and sometimes rummy or euchre. I do not recall any gambling on the unit. We were less than thirty altogether in the FDP and winners and bad losers may not have been a good working combination. The Sergeants’ mess was more for recreation purposes as we all ate together. We did have our own small bar and the NCOs had a fun night now and then. I recall being there one night when the conversation turned to fitness and somehow I bet 10/- that I could carry our Sergeant Brown once around our recreation area. “Brownie” was fairly hefty, not very tall but solid. There I was 9 stone (57kg) and there was Brown at around 77kg. There was only one way to try to do it and that was the fireman’s lift. A few deep breaths and then I took hold of him and put him across my shoulders and set off. It was a struggle but I made it and was duly paid off.

Mess Tent, Momote, 1944. Source: AWM

On another occasion I was involved in a different challenge. Dave Morris and I had gone up to the US Chief Petty Officers Club alongside the Momote airstrip to get a few bottles of Coca Cola. We had a coke or two there and then our conversation with the bar manager led to him saying to Dave, “If you two can drink a case of coke I’ll give you a case free”. Dave wanted to take him on but not me. Finally I was persuaded and we set about drinking the 24 bottles of ice-cold Coca Cola. We never made it and had to call it quits with about ten bottles still to go. We paid our bill and went back to base. So far, so good. During the night I woke with terrible pains in my stomach to find Dave in the same boat. We tried everything but no relief. By now we had realised that the ice-cold coke had been too cold. The pains lasted another 24 hours despite the remedial advice of the First Aid Post man. In the old days the North American Indians cured stomach pains by drinking ice-cold water from mountain streams but the freezing coke struck us down. We just suffered it out till we came good.

One thing I did enjoy at Momote were the programmes put out by the Voice of America and the Armed Forces Radio broadcasting service. “This is the Voice of the Admiralties, Station WVTD, and this is Bob Schwomeyer”. It was really a lifesaver for everybody. The world news got very wide coverage, the local island news and information was helpful for everybody, and the hit show programs from the US were really something. Music requests sessions were popular and you found that the songs you liked were the favou­rites of most servicemen. I had the chance to go over to WVTD several times and talk with Bob and his crew, along with Dave Morris, and later in the year I was given a number of long-play records featuring numbers by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and many other stars. I had never seen a 33 rpm record before and though I have many more of later vintage, I still have the WVTD set.

We must not forget that church services were held every Sunday and there were many times that we joined the Americans at prayer in their open-air chapel. We returned to the same spot on as many nights to see the films, and if there was rain we just sat there and listened and watched. This was usually on Momote. Not always.

 

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