EXTRACT FROM DON NORTHMORES RECOLLECTIONS
THE NOEMFOOR ISLAND OPERATION
In June, 1944, MacArthur ordered the seizure of Noemfoor Island in the Schouten Group, Geelvinck Bay, and Dutch New Guinea. The code name for the action was "Operation Table Tennis", commanded by Gen. Krueger’s 5th Task Force, with Group Capt. W. Dale appointed to command engineer operations, e.g. No. 4 and No.5 M.W.S., as well as 1178th (U.S.) engineers and associated units, including the R.A.A.F. Marine Sections.
The assault took place on 2nd July, 1944; it began with intense on shore bombardment when three cruisers, twenty-two destroyers, and three rocket ships opened fire. A few minutes before the actual landing, Liberator bombers laid down a bombardment of several hundred 1,000 lb. bombs on the beach defenses.
When the infantry landed, Kamiri airfield was quickly secured and half hour later, elements of No. 62 Works Wing landed across the reef and lagoon in alligator tanks, where they came under mortar fire; two Americans were casualties but the Australians were fortunate.
The Wing party assessed the immediate engineer tasks, when the infantry reported that a prisoner had informed them that there were 5000 enemy troops on the inland; the Commander of the Task Force (General Krueger) called in the 503rd Parachute Infantry Battalion (1,400 men) to ensure the operation's success.
It was then that the decision to get Kamiri strip operational within five days was taken and a new 9000 feet bomber strip would be constructed at Kornasoren
No. 5 M.W.S. landed with heavy equipment D + 3., (6th July) , and immediately set about the tasks, forming and manning their own perimeter, and commencing the task of building twin 7000 ft. strips at Kamiri. The island came under air attack at night but the round the clock construction continued without casualties. This was the furthest west base in the S.W. Pacific no other Australian troops were so far advanced. The "Fighting Fifth", as the unit was nicknamed at the time, further distinguished themselves by taking twelve prisoners,
On the 18th July, 1944, orders were received that the unit's name was to be changed to No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron, under the command of 5th Task Force (U.S.A), General Krueger.
He gave 5 A.C.S. the Order of Battle nomenclature of “15th TASK FORCE ENGINEERS”, a fact that was flattering at the time, but was not appreciated by the men when it become evident that it was American official policy to refer only to 'Allied' troops in their press communiqués, so as to conceal from the American public Australia's part in the war.
Various incidents: occurred while the operations proceeded and are worthy of mention. The Japanese garrison was forced back beyond the Perimeter, which the unit helped to man around the clock. At night, they sent raiding parties through our lines foraging for food and some suicide groups attacked the anti aircraft gun emplacements. On one occasion, firing commenced at night, when American guns traversed our section of the perimeter, repulsing what they imagined was a Japanese foray, but when the cooks came on duty early in the morning, they found one of their number had been killed in the fusillade. We were not happy about this incident.
In the meantime, some of our members made good friends with men of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment and it were our privilege to know some of them very well. They had a lot of time for Australians since there experience with the 7th Division at Nadzab, and also the Wing's association there . . .
During this time, all survey and design duties were taken over by the Wing and the Squadron personnel were transferred for this duty.
A group of several men were dispatched by D.U.K.W. to land opposite the Japanese strip at Namber, then being fought for by the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment. On arrival in the evening on the beach, the men were assigned to perimeter positions where the Japanese opposed then on the opposite aide of the strip. One of our numbers Cpl. Maher, was lucky when he stretched a trip wire on a booby trap and made rapid strides before falling flat and so escaped injury.
A report was brought in by a patrol that one of their missing men had a "steak" cut from his thigh when the patrol found him. This indicated that the Japs were starving.
On inspection of the terrain, it was decided that this strip was unsuitable for further development mainly due to a law mountain at one end, and the detachment returned to report. Three of the airmen in this section were: [SGT. RON HEMPEL MELBOURNE; CPL. GEORGE MAHER SYDNEY; CPL. LEO ARIES ADELAIDE.]
Another survey group was exploring the terrain in the jungle near Kamiri strip in heavy rain. Suddenly, Flt/Lt. Norm Ray who was in front on the track, held up his hand to halt, and they could smell smoke. On moving forward, they saw several Japs under a tent fly, with a small fire burning. On the signal, all opened up with sub machine guns and rifles.
The whole group and tent collapsed but one Japanese, in terror, ran towards Cpl. Len Owen on the track. Cpl.Owen said later that he froze on the trigger and there was one lucky Jap and a shaken Aussie. Seeing the enemy at close quarters for the first time is not easily forgotten.
At this period, Tokio Rose was broadcasting to us nightly, as this was the most advanced Allied base in the S. W. Pacific. She would play us popular music, even a few Bing Crosby records. Then she would say, "Hello,: all you Americans and Australians on Noemfoor; we know there are 10,000 of you there and we are coming over in force tonight to blow you into the sea:"
The night raids never attained this kind of intensity, but were a nuisance none the less, as they interrupted the night crews on strip construction, and they always seemed to hit a petrol dump.
In another incident, L.A.C. Roy Cardwell encountered a Jap Officer and two privates; in the exchange of fire, the officer was killed and Roy Cardwell souvenired his sword and the battle flag he carried, thus getting his photo in the “Melbourne Sun”.
The Kornasoren Heavy Bomber Strip was completed with taxiways, roads, and water supply and Augas tanks in record time, using the round the clock method and the new Le Torneau heavy and median hydraulic dozers, graders, scrapers, rollers and trucks.
Liberator squadrons were soon operating on distant targets in Indo China, crossing Borneo and unloading any remaining bombs on Labuan Airfield, North Borneo. They would take off at dawn and return at dusk, sometimes coming in with motors faltering, running out of fuel. The heavily bombed up aircraft would run down the strip in the dim morning light with a crew of eight or nine men; sometimes, the load was too much for the heavily laden aircraft, and they would rum off the over run into the jungle and blow up. At those times, the men would go very quiet, listening to the exploding ammunition, knowing that nine men had just sacrificed their lives.
An Australian Liberator Squadron, "Jolly Rogers" from their logo on the aircraft, operated here with the 119th Heavy Bombardment Group, as well as the Boston Squadrons.
Another incident involved Flying Officer T.H. Jacklin, of Mackay, Queensland, and a Kittyhawk pilot who, with his squadron, daily flew sorties to the New Guinea mainland Japanese bases, with a 250 lb (113 kg H. E. bomb slung between the landing gear On one trip, his starboard wing tip was blown off by ack ack fire and he flew home across 200 miles of sea and landed safely "on a wing and a prayer", as he remarked later when receiving congratulations from all who witnessed the landing.
On 9th September, 1944, at Noemfoor Island, a B24 bomber crashed into the lagoon soon after taking off from Kornasoren, half a mile off shore. Despite the fact that the aircraft was fully bombed and leaking petrol, which posed a danger of fire, four airmen from No. 5 A.C.S. swam out to the crashed aircraft and rescued the crew. Three rescuers came out in a native canoe to bring the crew out. As a result, the London Gazette dated 1st May, 1945 promulgated the following
awards:¬ L.A.C. Churchill B.E.M. L.A. C. FlanneryM. I. D. L.A.C. Thompson M. I. D. L.A.C. Welsh M. I. D.
In October, 1944, the Senior Chaplain on the island, Padre Esmond New (of later Korean War fame) was accompanied by several others on a trip to Manokwari Village at the southern end of Noemfoor Island. Although it was outside the perimeter, it was considered fairly safe for the Padre to contact the village chief and establish the condition of the villagers.
On arrival, the party was made welcome and the Chief brought forward an eleven-year-old boy, Alex from what had been s Dutch mission on the New Guinea mainland Manokquari. He had escaped in a small outrigger canoe and had a harrowing tale to tell and through the Padre, who spoke Malay. According to the boy, the Japs had taken several young girls and passed a telephone wire through the Achilles tendon of their right ankle, and left then tethered thus under a tree, for use of their soldiers at their leisure. He did not disbelieve this story, as anything was possible where the Japanese had control.
When operations at Noemfoor were completed in November, 1944, a war cemetery was dedicated at a memorial service where Americans and members of the R.A.A.F, who fell, were buried.
Shortly afterwards, another joint ceremony commemorating the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina’s birthday was conducted at Kamiri, where the R.A.A.F. ensign was flown alongside the Dutch and American flags.
Information was received that Queen Wilhelmina had offered to pay all Australian troops who had helped liberate Dutch territory, a gratuity of one guilder per day, whilst serving in such territory as well as granting the Dutch campaign medal for that theatre of war.
A “grateful” Australian Government a decision that astounded declined the offer, on our behalf,, and later, enraged the men concerned. It was suggested that the Government had received a sum: of £4,000,000 although no official notice denied nor confirmed this.
Similarly, No.3 A.C.S, was denied the right to wear the ribbon of U.S. Philippines Campaign awarded to them by the American Command; our authorities ordered the ribbon stripped from their uniforms on return home.
The area was now secure, alleviating the constant strain imposed upon the men by frequent moves, nightly raids and constant red alerts, when a welcome short break occurred while awaiting the coming Borneo campaign. . No. 62 A. C. Wing had moved across Geelvinck Bay by landing craft at night to Biak where they set up their workshop and a transit camp for troops moving northward and had selected a suitable site for No. 5 A.C.S. staging camp, for that unit to commence strip maintenance in the meantime. The move was completed by 31st December 1944.
Prior to leaving Noemfoor, we had fare welled friends of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, who expressed their good wishes to Australia generally, and, since they had not been relieved in over three years in the Pacific Theatre, now knew they would never get to see Australia. They broke camp one night in October 1944, and we shook hands all round, as they boarded aircraft at dawn, bound for Corregidor and Bataan in the Philippines.
No. 4 and No. 5 A. C. S, now began the maintenance task on Sorido, Borokoe and Mokmer strips, which were situated on the wide coral shelf below the limestone cliffs running to Bosnek. It was here in April, 1944, that U.S. marines and combat engineers landed in the face of fanatical resistance, when the enemy, entrenched in the high cliffs fought with bravery against what proved to be overwhelming odds. The Americans suffered heavy casualties and the evidence of the battle was all around, even to the remains of the Japanese hospital in a coral grotto, where their commander had finally set up his headquarters for the battle.
It was announced in the New Year of 1945 that we would be moving to Morotai to stage while the convoys formed for action in Borneo, when Australian forces of the three services would combine for the first time under the Australian 9th Division Command.