Extract from the book Always First by David Wilson
The Defence Program of General Headquarters, South West Pacific Area requires an immediate construction of many more aerodromes in the New Guinea Area to permit the building of air strength sufficient not only to defend that Area ... but also to permit an offensive being launched ... [These will] involve amphibious operations ... in which aviation engineer troops will necessarily play a vital role.
Supplement No. 3 to War Cabinet Agenda No 117/1942 dated 9 October 1942
While 1MWS was preparing to deploy to North Western Area, notification was received that a detachment would be created for special duty to North Eastern Area. The officer selected to command the detachment was Flight Lieutenant T.M. Scott. The adjutant of 1MWS, Flying Officer Bill McCaughan, recalls the haste under which the unit was raised. Equipment had to be provided and 250 men made ready for embarkation on 25th July 1942. Purchases were made of D 6 bulldozers, small tipping lorries and road rollers even a heavy duty rock crushing plant which the Air Force `did not pay for until November of the following year'.' The perseverance and energy of Scott and his men resulted in the detachment embarking on the Abel Foster on 24th July. McCaughan remembers that there was a last minute problem. Scott inspected the accommodation in the hold of the ship and declared that it was below standard for the accommodation of 250 men. After soliciting the support of the Director General of Medical Services for his protest, Scott prevailed. As a result Pilot Officers G.W. Barlow and K.W. Orr led 65 other ranks onto a train, which departed from Melbourne for Townsville on 26th July.
The Abel Foster sailed from Melbourne on 25th July, travelling direct to Townsville. The members of 1MWS participated in boat drill and shooting practice with rifles and machine guns. The submarine threat was not to be taken lightly and unit members undertook lookout duties. On the night of 31st July an escort dropped six or seven depth charges on a suspected submarine. Next day the ship approached Townsville and Syd Kildea, for one, had his bag packed in anticipation of disembarking. However, he was disappointed. The Abel Foster anchored off Magnetic Island. Two members of the unit were sent ashore by naval launch and hospitalised on 3rd August. Another launch brought sailing orders that afternoon and the Abel Foster sailed for a still unknown destination.
The ship steamed north at full speed. For those not on duty a concert was arranged on deck. It was an idyllic tropical evening until 11.30 pm when the ship struck a reef. McCaughan and Scott shared a cabin, and were asleep when the Warrant Officer Disciplinary, Sergeant G.E. Hunter, knocked on the door. With due formality he requested: `Mr. Adjutant. I present the compliments of the engineering officer Flight Lieutenant Eastgate and would you kindly inform the commanding officer that we are aground'. McCaughan's initial reaction was one of incredulity until Hunter pointed to the reef light, which was `practically on our bows'. Despite the efforts of the crew, the ship remained fast. At dawn the crew and passengers felt vulnerable to any marauding enemy aircraft or submarine. In an attempt to lighten the stern the men manned winches and man handled ingots of lead ballast from the lower aft hold to the bow. The men in the hold battled against oppressive heat and stinging perspiration. Col Doughan, one of the men manhandling the ingots along the deck remarked that, `after carrying 20 or so, you were buckling at the knees'.
At 8.45 am a small vessel was sighted to the north. By noon the Karoona lay alongside and preparations were being made to tow the Abel Foster into deep water. Under the persuasion of both ships' engines, and the acclaim of the passengers, the Abel Foster slipped off the reef after being stranded for 16 hours. The ship had suffered no damage, and it proceeded at full speed for Port Moresby, arriving during the morning of 7th August 1942. However, it ran foul of another reef and the men transferred to a corvette before being
landed at the wharf and marching three kilometres under a hot tropical sun in full military gear to quarters at the operational base, Port Moresby. The Abel Foster finally berthed on the afternoon of 8 August and unloading commenced late in the afternoon. The detachment, which had staged through Townsville, arrived on the Matsuka on 11th August 1942.
Flying Officer Edwards surveyed the Wards airfield site. However, an American engineer had visited the area earlier and commented favourably on the site. A construction gang had been employed to gravel the strip, which was useable 14 days later. This later became the foundation for the Wards aerodrome. The fact remains that 1MWS (Special Works Force) commenced work on Wards airstrip on 17 August 1942. The task was required to be completed by 10th September, but this was later extended by five days. The urgency was reinforced by the arrival of the advance party from No. 30 Beaufighter squadron on 4th September and the arrival of the majority of the squadron aircraft on the 12th. Progress on the project was hampered by inadequate equipment and sickness, such as dysentery and childhood disease like chicken pox and mumps. Syd Kildea and Charlie O'Bree were hospitalised suffering from the former, and Alex Brading and Harold Wilson with mumps. The unit, depleted in numbers by an average sickness rate between nine and ten per cent, worked a 12 hour day using inadequate equipment. As Edwards was to recall later:
When our unit first arrived at Moresby we had two D 6 bulldozers (medium), two D 6 tractors with six cubic yard carryalls, two caterpillar graders, one Malcolm Moore grader and one Barford Perkins roller of about 1890 vintage. This was soon called the Bastard Perkins roller ... There were also 23 tipper trucks of which ten were new and the others had done 20,000 to 30,000 miles [32,200 to 48,300 kilometres]. The graders had all been impressed and the only new machines were the caterpillar tractors and carryall...
On 11th September instructions were received to construct a new strip 45 metres to the west of the strip on which the squadron had been working. This airstrip was 1,829 metres long and 30 metres wide. On 5th October construction commenced on twenty-four B 24 Liberator heavy bomber dispersal bays and associated taxiways. In addition, on 29th October the unit started constructing water pipelines from wells in the Waigani swamp, and it was obvious that, due to the lack of fit men and the paucity of equipment, the Special Works Force required assistance to complete the construction. On 3rd November, Colonel Sverdrup from Allied Air Headquarters and Colonels Matthews and Yoder, US Army Engineers, visited the construction site and arrangements were made for a US Army Engineer unit to be attached to 1MWS. Construction equipment was obtained from US Army sources and the manpower problem was alleviated with the arrival of `B' company 2/1st Pioneer Battalion on 13th November. This unit remained at Wards until 30th November. In the meantime a company of the 96th US Army Engineers arrived on 22nd November.
The lack of manpower and equipment was the reason for the delay in completing Wards airfield. On 20th November 1942 Flight Lieutenant Scott wrote to Group Captain Packer, Commander, RAAF Headquarters Forward Echelon, that `with the unit at full strength ... it is thought possible to repeat the work ... that took 22 days in 15 days.' The efforts of the enemy were of nuisance value by comparison. Although the Port Moresby area was bombed on numerous occasions during the period November 1942 February 1943, there was only one occasion when serious damage was suffered at the field. On 27th January 1943 three enemy aircraft bombed the Beaufighter dispersal area, causing the destruction of one of the twin-engine fighters. There were no personal casualties.
There was one notable incident, which involved members of 2MWS during the unit's stay at Wards. At noon on 18 October 1943 Corporal F. MacRae and Leading Aircraftmen G.G. Dean, L.J. Milligan and J. Roberts were driving along the Baruna Road. At the same time Lieutenant Rosenbloom from the USAAF 36th Fighter Squadron was turning his P 39 Air cobra onto his final approach to land at Wards. To the horror of the watching men in the truck, the fighter rolled over onto its back and plunged into the slope at the northern end of the airstrip. The fighter burst into flame on impact. Dean sped to the burning aircraft, and the three passengers, MacRae, Milligan and Roberts leapt off. Milligan doused his overalls with water from a nearby water truck and joined MacRae and Roberts in an attempt to free the pilot. The heat forced potential rescuers to retire twice, but still the three Australians persevered. Exploding ammunition added to the hazard as Milligan, using a piece of engine cowling as a shield from the heat, led MacRae to the cockpit, where they succeeded in tearing the left cockpit door from the aircraft. Rosenbloom was still strapped into the cockpit.
The crash truck and fire tender arrived. MacRae commenced spraying the cockpit with foam as Milligan and Roberts continued their attempt to release Rosenbloom. The nozzle broke from the hose. Undeterred, MacRae directed foam to suppress the fire in the cockpit, before handing the hose to Dean and joining Milligan and Roberts. Milligan, in the meantime, had obtained a pocketknife from a bystander and was able to cut through the pilot's harness and the three airmen were able to extricate the pilot from the inferno. The men were exhausted from their efforts, and Milligan received minor burns to his hands and arms. For their heroism MacRae was awarded a British Empire Medal, Milligan a Mentioned in Dispatches and Roberts a `commendation'.