EXTRACT FROM VERN STONE 5ACS WAR DIARY
We were embarked on board a ship loaded with our equipment such as graders, tractors, etc. and on Saturday 25th July 1942 we left the shores of Melbourne in the S.S. Abel Foster bound for God knows where in the deepest of fogs. Through the heads of Port Phillip Bay we sailed in a convoy of seventeen ships. At 3 a.m. that following morning we went through the rip between Portsea and Queenscliff. Water, water, water. That is all we've been seeing for the last three or four days. In the very distance sometimes can be seen the Australian coast.
The only decent sight I've seen in the last 5 days is our passing of Wilson's Promontory, That rugged and weather-beaten piece of land is an awe inspiring memory for the sailor. It is a sight I'll never forget a great convoy heading through the narrow gap between the mainland on one side and a precipitous mountain island on the other. Great rocks throw spray high in the air and water worn caves make the coastline irregular and gruesome. It certainly would be an ideal coast for a shipwreck. The mountains come dangerously down to the waters edge with no sign of any beaches, only rows and rows of rocks.
As the days pass by we laboriously and slowly wend our way up and around the east cost of our island continent. We pass Sydney where the greater portion of our convoy leaves us. Four ships are left and our escort consists of a destroyer and a small corvette. These accompany us to Brisbane where I am writing from now. We seem to be unlucky, as our instructions don't seem to allow us to disembark at any capital cities.
Lookout watch came my way today, eight hours in twenty-four with four of them done in the middle of the night alone on the bows. It was a lonely night and my thoughts often turned to home as I gazed across the waters.
As we neared the Tropic of Capricorn the change in the atmosphere was noticeable although the rain has followed us all the way up from Victoria.
We hear that our escort successfully sinks a submarine...
The convoy has dwindled considerably since we have slowly passed the capital cities. After two more days of a little quicker traveling we sail into the magnificent port of Townsville. With much disappointment upon learning that we were not disembarking at this beautiful town, we dolefully made up for that with our gazes fixed on Magnetic Island. This atoll is one of the most exotic places I have ever seen.
Great high hills rear their summits into low-lying clouds. These hills are covered in lovely green pinus growth. Intermingled amongst the trees are giant rocks. These boulders strewn along the shoreline are like huge monuments of stone to some tropical King of beauty. Here and there, as if to stop these rocks from becoming monotonous to the sightseer, a most entrancing strip if beach stretches its length between a valley or under the shadow of a hill.
How we wished our Superiors would grant us the opportunity to explore this beautiful blessing of Gods handiwork. But it wasn't to be so we just had to be satisfied with looking at it. After two boring days of waiting in the harbour we put out to sea once again without even having felt the now longed for wish for feeling land under our feet again.
Heading north once more the heat is becoming very oppressive. One would hardly think it was the middle of winter. The great rugged coast of Northern Queensland is our constant companion all the time. A whale is seen spouting here and there. The second night out from Townsville our able ship ran aground on the Barrier reef. Luckily enough there was no damage done to our hull but we were caught hard with coral reef under our mid-ship. Excitement, not without a little nervous tension was in most of our minds. For just on twenty hours we were marooned on this unfriendly bit of natures hazard.
Eventually a passing ship came to our aid and with much grating and grunting we were pulled over the danger with a huge length of rope and much strain on our ships forward and rear anchor winches. With great cheering and bellowing the boys thankfully gave our recent resting place a hearty goodbye.
Another two days saw us depart the now looked for coast of Australia and we neared the coast of New Guinea. Port Moresby was our destination and a little excitement was felt at the thought of possible air raids. We sailed into that much spoken of yet little damaged place on the seventh of August 1942. It was exactly 10-45a.m. when our ship dropped anchor about a mile off the jetty.
The feeling of being a long way from dear ones made home seem the best thing in the world, but I wasn't given time to ponder thoughts in that direction.
A corvette unloaded us with full marching kit, consisting of webbing, rifle, ammunition, gas mask, water bottle, and tin hat. On reaching the jetty the order was given to disembark. We were glad to get our feet on to solid land once again but believe me we weren't glad for our next movement.
Loaded as we were, and adding 4 blankets, we marched from the pier to our huts in the heat of the tropical midday sun - a distance of about a mile and a half. It was as hard as hell. Most of us all but gave it up but we managed to just hang on until we arrived. We were all spent.
Our long and eventful journey had come to an end. How glad we were to get our weary bodies on to land and to have a refreshing shower and a good rest. Never have I enjoyed a shower so much before. Tea, telegram to home and then to bed. With joy our heads were at last put to the pillow for a well-earned sleep.
The following morning we woke to discover our new surroundings. Scattered are the huts and houses. Great bare mountains in every direction. In the centre of these great hills is the harbour, which is a haven amongst the dust and sweat of the hills. Tall coconut palms line the shore in some parts of the bay. These tall giants are lovely to look at and very shady underneath but there aren’t enough of them. Port Moresby isn't exactly an island gem but in the cool of the evening it is a pleasant and not undignified little town.
The days were hot and long. We cannot tell one day from the next. For the first couple of days on shore we had all the disagreeable hours of unloading the boat. My particular job, together with two pals, was to assemble an "invasion" barge for our use. It makes one think of what may happen next. Some pleasant hours were spent in the Recreation hut. This home in the wilderness was quite a beautiful place. It is under the direction of the Padre who is a very likable person. The first Sunday night I went to the church service in the little chapel and enjoyed the procedure immensely.
As the days go by I get the opportunity to see quite a bit of Port Moresby. Our Company is preparing to move out about 10 miles from town. Five days later we arrive at this burg and I went out in a truck to erect tents for our homes to be.
What a place it is. Grass six feet high and it stretches for miles and miles. The hills are steep and tall. Low scrub, dry creeks, and dusty roads all go to make the place very uninteresting and barren. These days seem very long and tiring. Thursday 13th August ends the first week in Port Moresby. It seems a lot longer.
During the early days we worked like the very devil. Never before have I felt so tired of night time. The heat of the atmosphere seems to make a person drowsy and lazy but we haven't been given time to appreciate a good rest. Our equipment in this mobile Unit consists of many heavy types of machinery. Tractors, bulldozers, graders, ploughs, and a lot of other types of mechanical implements have to be assembled and a lot of experience came my way. It is very hard yakka though and we are all glad when evening comes.
The native villages around this part of New Guinea are nearly all deserted. Queer towns of bark, palm leaves, and logs are built on high piles over the water on the shores of the beaches and these are the quaint homes of the natives.
The brown man himself is a very cheerful fellow but very lazy. He does little work unless driven to it. His dress consists of loincloth of many colours. Sometimes he discards this also. His skin is a deep brown and their fuzzy heads finish their appearance to a tee. Before I leave this climate I imagine I'll be something of a nigger myself. The sun has played havoc with my skin already only I'm going red instead of brown. But time will tell I suppose.
Thoughts of home are always cropping up and the few letters that have arrived so far have been devoured many times.
On the 15th August, a Saturday, our unit moved on to a place where we are about to commence our first job. Leaving Moresby in a convoy of trucks we journey about ten miles to our new campsite. How sorry we were to leave town when we sighted this dirty, filthy place. Dusty tracks, no water, no light, nothing. The road in is one of the roughest and dirtiest it has ever been my bad luck to ride on, across gullies of dead or burnt scrub, over sides of hills and through creek beds. But only once was they’re anything nice to see and that was about two miles from Moresby. The road there is bitumen and winds around a mountain overlooking the sea. It was a beautiful sight. Great coconut trees tower their leafy heads along the roadside while on looking down far below to the sea numerous islets and inlets off the coast create a vastly different impression to what one sees after reaching the other side of the mountain.
Our camp has now been made as homely as possible under the present conditions. My tent mates are two good pals and after a lot of hard laboring in the heat, we got our tent into something like a comfortable one. The dust lies over everything and we sleep on the ground but we get along in a fashion.
Mail from home has been very scarce and the men are getting cross. We don't seem to be able to get any across from the mainland. The Sunday after we arrived out here several of us went back into town to church. The trip back in wasn't unpleasant. The evening was coming on and the scrub changes appearance altogether in the moonlight. The service was altogether an inspiring one and I totally enjoyed myself. The singing was good and afterwards I had a relaxation in an armchair. Quite a different atmosphere than one gets out here in this godforsaken hole.
Our first air raid experience came rather suddenly on the Monday. The less said about it the better. The boys got a little scared at seeing °Tojo" flying in a marvelous formation of 24 planes above our heads. When the ack-ack started we dived for trenches and tin hats. Shrapnel fell in a few places, one piece hitting our C.O’s car but with little damage, when bombs dropped about a mile or two away at a place called the seven-mile Drome things really started to happen. Great explosions and clouds of smoke flew high into the sky. It lasted for just on quarter of an hour. The chappies were not a little bit frightened. For my part I enjoyed the fun but wouldn't have liked it much closer.
And so life goes on day by day. The very next day there is another scare when the siren goes and plane engines can be heard in large numbers but nothing happened as far as we can discern.
It gets hotter and more oppressive every day. The flies and mosquitoes are a bit of a nuisance but our good old nets save us a lot of trouble with them. A water bag stowed away in my kit by my father was a blessing. It’s quenched many a dry and parched throat.
Our job is being carried out with great gusto and not a bit of labour. We are building a landing strip 300 feet wide and 6000 feet long. It is a rush job because we believe that our boys are waiting to transfer some planes here as soon as possible.
Many little adjustments to tractors and machinery have to be made. A portable workshop we fitted up was a bit of class! Our bathroom is one that if seen by civilization would be a grand joke. It is right out in the open. No towel racks or anything to hang your clothes on. A slight improvement has been made though as, instead of having a hand pump for the water we have secured a machine driven one. It helps quite a lot.
A few more raid scares have been had but the majority of us are getting used to them now.
At last the mail system has come good again and I think I have created a record with seventeen letters in one week, I wasn't a little surprised, not much anyhow. Washing days are the things I don't like, as if it isn't hot enough standing over a copper. But clothes have to be washed and it's not much good growling.
The work in building this Drome is quite a great undertaking. The landing strip has been cleared and leveled by graders etc. and the monotonous job of carting gravel has started. Luckily our gravel supply is quite handy. A solid hill of beautiful brown gravel is only 300 yards at the most from one end of the Drome. Trucks work from six in the morning till six at night shifting 1000 yards a day, which is a very good effort. It has been calculated that 20,000 yards will be needed to complete one half of the strip, so the job looks like lasting at least 40 days. However in the three weeks work on it I have been amazed with the rapidity of the progress. Our boys are certainly doing a job worthy of credit.
A lot of repair work and maintenance on the machinery is also necessary under the conditions the machines are used. This is more in my, line of the task. Owing to some reason or other I've been promoted (or demoted please yourself) to the job of turner for the outfit. A new lathe makes it a pleasing job. But all jobs get monotonous when one remembers how far away he is from the ones he loves. But the job must go on and those things that a man would have must be pushed aside until this blasted war is brought to a showdown.
With the coming of September the rainy season suddenly catches up on us. Talk about water three or four inches in half an hour. But they say it gets worse so I'll just wait and see.
My first parcel arrived from home during the last week of August. Whacko!! Were the boys pleased and so was I. You should have seen the goodies in it. Never before have little shortbreads made such a rapid disappearance. Much thanks was tendered to the thoughtfulness of mother.
The A.C.F. kindly presented our mess with a battery set wireless. The first music I've heard since leaving home has brought back happy memories but not without thoughts of sadness. Also this well appreciated fund has given us soap, chewing gum, tobacco, etc., etc., all of which has been accepted gratefully by us lonely but cheerful boys of the S.W.F.
Payday brings yet another thrill to us here in the outskirts of Moresby. One pound is all we can draw because of a shortage of money on the island, but even that is often too much. The last week or so it has gone a bit quicker than usual as a limited amount of chocolate came our way. The old lousy bags were quickly opened to get a small stock of this delicacy. The boys certainly made short work of the supplies.
Mobile picture shows are a great boon to this place. I've had the privilege to go and see two of these shows and the patronage that is forthcoming to these outfits is amazing. The mob that gets down to the screen is about 5000 strong. With the crowd consisting of Yanks, Aussies, and Boongs the humour runs very high.
Another air raid came our way on the 7th September. 26 beautiful and shiny Jap bombers, accompanied by many Zeros laid their eggs not more than a mile and a half away. The ack-ack retaliated with a successful hit. A streak of flame and smoke came out of the tail of one of the intruders and the cheers the boys sent up were very encouraging for the gunners. I have since heard that the plane crashed into the mountains before getting too much further.
A feeling of proud achievement came upon us on 9th September when the first planes landed on our landing strip. Built in record time, the C.O. had reason to skite about "his boys". Three P40s landed at half past four on the semi completed Drome and the boys greeted them as the wheels touched down on the gravel runway. The first to touch down was "Bluey" Truscott.
The very next day though a much bigger thrill was awaiting us, ten Beaufighters came roaring the message of welcome to their new home. Down they came, one by one. From the heights of a nearby hill we watched them dive in to get the feel of the place, then in they came to make perfect three-point landings. A feeling comes to a chap when things like that happen. To know that if we hadn't been there to make repairs to broken machinery and to keep the wheels turning these planes would still have been back in Australia.
Our division or flight of this squadron is the only one that works 10 hors a day. This is an absolute stupid arrangement to work this long in the tropics. Six-hour shifts are the hours worked by the other flights. When the long hours were necessary we didn't mind the work but now that things have eased off to a certain extent a fair thing would be for our Officers to show a bit of consideration for our conditions. I have only had two days off since landing on the Island and the boys are starting to kick up a bit.
Many of the blokes are starting to crack under the strain. The food isn't too good and you can't work on stomachs that aren't getting enough good tucker. Every day for at least one meal there isn't any sugar, jam or bread and the other food are usually covered in flies. But it’s not my policy to moan so I had better change the subject.
The last two days have been of great excitement but not without a certain touch of sadness. Last night, whilst sitting peacefully in our tents, a place where mosquitoes were keeping us company in droves, a Douglas D.C.2 droned overhead. Lights were blazing from its landing gear and we watched to see it land. Suddenly there was blackness from where we were watching and then a terrific explosion followed. Flames sprang into the air and then a second explosion followed. The plane had misjudged the landing area and had crashed into the hill exactly opposite our tent door.
Poor Devils. Five men burnt to death and the plane was on its first journey to our new Drome. To think that the chaps in it never even saw the place they were coming to. Life is hell like that. My cobber went over to see the remains of it this morning and he said the smell of burnt flesh was horrible. A few souvenirs were collected but it is surprising how quickly they disappear.
After all that excitement we were quite contented to remain calm for a while but it wasn't to be. After a hot night I woke to a hot and oppressive morn. After a mornings work I was lucky enough to get an afternoon off. About 2-00p.m. a terrible explosion rocketed into the air. The noise was terrifying, for quite some time no one new what it was and I thought it was ships shelling us. Then a second one went off. Clouds of smoke went into the air like some great umbrella being opened. A bush fire was raging about a mile away and had caught on to an ammunition dump. And what a dump! 1000 pound bombs by the ton and did they go up. The noise was absolutely deafening. Standing in front of my tent more than a mile from the dump the blast blew my tin hat off.
Talk about a row. My cobber got thrown to the ground as he was of standing at the end the Drome not so far from the actual dump and he certainly caught a shock. Life has proved that things aren't all peace and quiet and things happen like this to break the monotony.
The days roll along - everyone bringing with it more dirt, dust, heat, and toil. Drome is nearing completion. Bluey Truscott and his boys visit us again then hop off down to Darwin to do there bit there.