{WE PREPARED THE WAY}

In March 1944, the Chief Engineer at G.H.Q. Q. (Maj. General Hugh Casey) asked Wing Commander Dale if he would take charge of all engineering in the Aitape area, then being planned. Dale accepted and was given command not only of the Australian Works Wing but all three U.S. army aviation battalions, an engineer Battalion and a shore battalion. Non. 2, 6, and 7 A.C.S. had completed their engineer tasks at Newton Field, a successful operation on the Nadzab complex, where the Wing first came into contact with the U.S. 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, a unit which they supported in a later operation.


At Finschhafen, Wing Commander Dale put the engineer squadrons to work practicing loading and unloading the ships, which would take them to the Aitape beachhead.

No. 6 and 7 A.C.S. had been in the tropics for sixteen months, but could not be relieved because of the urgency of the operation.

The American Command had come to appreciate the efficiency of the Australian units and absorbed them into their 5th Task Force.

On the 19th April, 1944, eight hundred men of No. 5 A.C.S. and No. 62 A.C. Wing, embarked on L.S.Ts in a convoy of eighty ships and sailed for the Admiralty’s becoming separated in the night but reforming on the way to Aitape. The landings took place on 22nd April 1944, after a dawn coastal bombardment and straffing by aircraft. No. 5 M.W.S. with No.4 M.W.S. made a landing at Karake village, D +1 about six miles from Aitape, twenty three hours after the initial assault, by¬ passing 50,000 troops of the 18th Japanese army at Wewak, ninety miles to the east.

At quarter to 7 a.m., the first wave had landed and the H.Q. unit, No. 62, Works Wing landed after the first wave and came up to the perimeter, when the U.S. infantry thought that the Aussies had come to relieve them, as the Japanese resistance began to stiffen, but they were reassured when told that they were there to put in strips to provide air cover.

After the design staff had made their reconnaissance of the terrain, the Squadrons quickly proceeded to lay perforated steel matting through the kunai, twenty-three hours after the first assault. Fighters were soon in action as the R.A.A.F. and U.S.A.A.F. was ordered to harass enemy installations on mainland New Guinea and islands in the Arafura Sea and Geelvinck Bay. Tadji strip was in operation forty-five hours after capture!



The advance on Aitape and Hollandia by the combined amphibious force moved north through Vitias Strait, passed the Admiralty Group on the starboard side (captured a couple of months before), and then headed for the Japanese base of Truk. I believe we crossed the Equator before doubling back to head for a landing at Tadji, or Aitape as it was better known in prewar days.

The Officers of our unit were billeted with the LST crew, aft, and in the superstructure housing, the engines being down below. The mess deck and Bridge and Officer quarters were on the top deck and the other ranks were in long fore and aft corridor areas each side of the well deck in top and bottom bunks. Because we commissioned ranks were billeted at the control point, we knew pretty well what was going on. We quickly realized we were the bait on the hook. Of course, what we didn't fully appreciate was that the 5th American fleet was in the offing, it was only when we were approaching the land that all hell broke loose, and we realized we did have friends after all. It was like a 4th of July celebration, a naval bombardment with us between the guns and the target. However, it did clear the area, as there was minimal resistance when we did eventually get ashore.
An island a mile or two offshore and adjacent to the landing point received a particularly concentrated bombardment. It turned out it was a submarine base, although by this time the birds had flown. Undoubtedly there had been Japanese at the invasion point, but softening up over the previous two days by land based planes and carrier based aircraft from the 5th U.S. fleet had influenced the enemy to vacate the area.
Some 50,000 enemy troops headed south towards Wewak.

They were to return a few weeks later with a counter attack, but in the meantime our unit had moved out on the next exercise. The A.I.F troops, replacing the Americans was to bear the brunt of this counterattack. I understand their casualties were considerable.

To return to the landing, we went ashore at 7.30 about 1 hour after the American combat troops had landed. Any resistance had been taken care of by the time our people were ashore and as our main purpose was to restore the landing strip to a serviceable state, we left the fighting to our friends the Americans.

Our landing point was a gentle shelving beach, if my memory serves me correctly and adjacent to it was a hospital set up where the odd bods were apparently forced labour from already overrun Asian countries. They were still there in a completely dazed state, no doubt left to fend for themselves and had been the main sufferers from the naval bombardment.

Souvenir hunters always with us, quickly located an Officer's Mess, native constructed with a Kunai or thatched roof. Hidden hurriedly in the roof were a couple of dozen Officer's Ceremonial Swords. They quickly vanished, as did a truckload of Kirin or Satori Beer that fell to the lucky hands of 6 ACS. All these incidental happenings occurred while the more serious members were trying to get the equipment ashore.

There was no reason to believe that we would not receive a counterattack, particularly from the air as Aitape was well within range of the three bases of Wewak, Rabaul, and Truk, with Wewak being only about 100 miles South. However, it did not occur and we were able to settle in and restore the strip using steel decking for the first time. It was very quick and effective, particularly in swampy areas.

We did find that pilots had to be very careful of handling their machines because of a tendency to slip. Fighters had less trouble than the larger machines, if my memory serves me correctly after 40 years. There were many damaged machines on both sides of the landing strip. We approached them with great caution, fearing booby traps; but I believe the enemy was in too much of a hurry to vacate, thus saving us that particular problem. I don't recall any casualty from that particular risk.

Our unit set up camp along the beach about 3/4 miles from the strip. This beach was beautiful for swimming but I could have warned them, disastrous for sand flies. They made our stay in Aitape purgatory, particularly the more susceptible members of the Unit.

While our stay at Aitape was relatively uneventful, being between enemy activities, 7 ACS had a further tragedy, removed from enemy action and so more unfortunate. They lost a man, Whitaker, an Airman from the West Coast of South Australia, suspected of being taken by a crocodile. His name was perpetuated in the area at the time by a bridge over a local river. It was named Whitaker’s Bridge.

The amphibious landing, our first with shock troops, brought one thing positively to mind, particularly to we in charge: there was no way we could get at essential tractor or other spares when we wanted them. They were stowed away very often in unidentified boxes in the many tons of stores and equipment. By the time they were unearthed and issued, the machine could have been out of commission for days. It could have even more serious consequences.

An Equipment Officer, an employee of Woolworth’s Supermart Chain in peacetime was, as luck would have it, posted to our unit as the assistant Stores or Equipment Officer. He and I spent hours trying to solve what was a rather vital problem, particularly if the Aitape landing was to be the method of attack all the way to Tokyo. Thanks to a surplus of vehicular equipment we had a number of 4 wheel and semi trailer tray tops that we could spare. We also had a mass of building material, canite and the like, and so we went to work and built open up type shelves and cupboards identifying every piece by its true nomenclature and its exact location.

We also built up a mobile workshop, which added to a factory built Unit that had come up from South, making us immediately serviceable wherever we needed the facilities.

Our Works Wing's next assignment in the leapfrogging procedure was Noemfoor Island, the most westerly of the Schouten Group and still then part of Dutch New Guinea. Biak, the biggest island in the same group, had fallen to American forces a month before, as did Wakte Island on the mainland. This move forward by the Allied forces again cut off many thousands of Japanese troops and in the general strategy neutralized them; but they still presented a threat to the unwary, because they were not only desperate but were also dedicated to the Kamikaze principle of self destruction for the good of the Emperor and wouldn't surrender.