THE FRONT LINE GROUND TROOPS OF THE R.A.A.F.
When the Japanese began their southward advance in 1942, it was obvious that Australia would eventually come under attack, so there was a rush to build airfields at our most vulnerable points. The R.A.A.F. began to form its own construction Units when civil construction contractors could not be used outside of Australia. So as not to confuse these Units with the mechanical engineers of the R.A.A.F., they were not called 'civil engineers’, which actually they were. As in the Australian Army they had their engineers doing practically the same work, except the building of advanced airfields. These new squadrons were called M.W.S. (Mobile Works Squadrons) a name which many did not like as it gave the impression of Labour Battalions. The title, later in the war, was changed to A.F.C. (Airfield Construction Corps), which was not a true description of our work as we also had built full sized wharves on Goodenough Island. Roads, bridges, camp sites, houses (250 at Nadzab) were built with our own saw milling at Nadzab also at Ferguson Island, and for the timber and piles for the two large wharves on Goodenough Island. These Units served from Darwin to Port Moresby, The Solomon Islands, Milne Bay, and right through to Balikpapen where they were when the Japanese surrendered.
During 1942 the Japanese had air superiority and regularly raided Port Moresby and Milne Bay, being seldom really challenged in the air. I can recall one such raid on Milne Bay in mid January 1943 when eighteen Japanese bombers came over and picked out targets such as fuel dumps, American heavy bombers on revetments, with no resistance, and ineffectual anti aircraft fire. Everybody seemed to be asking "Where are our fighters?" There were some American Lightnings here, the boys called them "the Fishing Fleet" they seemed to put to sea when the Japs were about. The Americans were building up their heavy bomber squadrons and were bombing Rabaul regularly, day and night. General Kenney, the commander of the American 5th Air Force and also the R.A.A.F., wanted advanced air bases, which would bring Rabaul within easy range of our fighters, which could then accompany our bombers and stay with them over the target area for some time. Three Islands were chosen. Goodenough Island, although only about sixteen miles long and five miles wide, had three mountain peaks higher than Mount Kosciusko, Kiriwina Island, a flat low coral atoll, and further out towards the Solomons, Woodlark Island.
Goodenough Island had been occupied by a small Australian force, which had been wiped out when the Japanese used Goodenough as a base from which to attack Milne Bay in August 1942. The Japanese had built up a fleet of barges and intended to use these barges to land a force on the eastern side of New Guinea and to make their way down to Milne Bay and to attack the rear of the Australian defenders.
The R.A.A.F. became aware of this and their Kittyhawks attacked and destroyed this barge fleet, so the attack on the Australian rear could not take place. The R.A.A.F. also sank the Japanese troop transport "Nankai Maru" with three hundred Japanese Marines on board. Also the Kittyhawks put out of action Japanese light tanks, straffed the advancing Marines, shot Japanese snipers out of the trees and destroyed Zeros that tried to land on the strip. They had also dropped a 1000-pound bomb right amongst the Japs, which buried itself in the mud and failed to explode. I saw it later but hurried away from it as it might still explode. From this it can be seen what a great part the R.A.A.F. played in winning the Battle of Milne Bay. Without it the battle would have no doubt been lost. The balance of air power was very fine at this time, but as the Americans were building up their squadrons and supplying the R.A.A.F. with planes, the balance was gradually being tipped in our favour. ii.
Stung by the increasing air raids on their bases, the Japs replied in mid April 1943 with large daylight raids on Port Moresby and Milne Bay. At "the Port" they were met with a powerful air defence and at Milne Bay, where I was on the strip and had a front view of it all, 105 Jap planes came over, bombers, dive bombers and fighters. I heard our anti aircraft fire and I looked up and saw the sky full. of Jap planes. Suddenly (as described elsewhere) I saw an American Lightning fighter charge into them. I saw a Jap bomber on fire coming down over us with the rear gunner still firing his machine gun. It crashed in the jungle, then the Lightning came down, trying t o make the strip with one prop dead and the other engine running roughly. Our Kittyhawks were taking off so the American turned his plane over on to the rough area where the plane crashed and burned. He was a hero. We were told later that he had been grounded in” the Port", but when he heard of the imminent attack on Milne Bay he had taken off and come down. Had he lived he probably would have been court martialled.
Our official figures were 33 Japanese planes destroyed. All we knew was that the Japs then confined their raids to hit and run raids at night. A side effect of this raid was that when we lined up at the 'D.I.D.' (Defence Issuing Depot) for our rations, there was usually a rush to get ahead in the line between the Air Force the Army and the Navy. The morning after the big raid, the Catering Sergeant and I (as driver) went in to get our rations and were greatly surprised when an Army man yelled out "after yesterday make way for the Air Force"! We went to the head of the queue.
Our Mobile Works Squadrons moved out to Goodenough in April 1943 and began work on the twin strips at Vivigani, one fighter, and one bomber. On 17th May, 1943, Vivigani was first used. Australian Commandos were acting as bodyguards for the Air Force and they rounded up many Japanese, especially after our victory in the Bismarck Sea. Strips were built at Kiriwina and Woodlark Islands.
The Japanese reaction to these moves was much less than expected. The High Command then decided to make Goodenough Island into an important base and we were given the job of building two big wharves, enabling Liberty Ships to work all holds. I was appointed senior N.C.O. We had a sawmill Unit on Ferguson Island and almost daily I would go over with an American launch towing a barge (as described elsewhere) and with native labour load and bring back timber for the wharf. I had some experience of being left over on Ferguson one night, of the towrope breaking and of almost being wrecked on coral reefs.
When we completed one wharf (as described elsewhere) American Marines began, arriving by Liberty Ship from the Solomons and together with their tanks, trucks etc. were transshipped onto L.S.Ts. (Landing Ship Tanks) from ramps we had built. On one occasion an American Reporter asked me to” please stand aside" as he was filming "the occupation of Goodenough Island by brave American Marines". Many of those boys never saw home again!
We had completed the two strips. Our men worked twenty shifts of eight hours per week. Only eight hours were set-aside for fitters to service the machines. We built dispersal bays and revetments at the ends of the strips. Some of the pilots complained that in the tropics it was a bit too far to taxi, but this dispersal plan saved many of our planes from destruction on the ground. A Japanese report after the war was "our heavy loss of planes on the ground
(especially in the But and Wewak areas) was due mainly to our lack of the,
necessary machinery to build dispersal areas and revetments around our air
strips, whereas the Allied planes were much more dispersed, therefore much
less vulnerable to our attacks".
One thing that did upset our plant operators, dozers, graders etc.,was that their remusters had not come through and they were only being paid six shillings a day (later six shillings and sixpence).They had to contend with air raids, heat, dust, mud, disease, poor food and newly arrived "six week wonders" (officers who had taken a six week course at an Officers Training School,
then turned loose on the unsuspecting troops).They were not night owls, we did not see them between sunset and sunrise, but they would come out at about the change of shift (8 a.m.) and start finding fault with men who had worked hard since mid night amid noise, fumes, dust and heat and perhaps an air raid or two. The Shift N.C.Os., of whom I was one, were responsible for the lives of their men, for good work from their men, levels etc. and the care of machinery. At about 8 a.m. this N.C.O. was wanting a shower, some breakfast and then to try and sleep in the noise and heat of the day. To have "a wonder" drive up and say (as one did to me) "what is that man doing lying down there ",I answered "Sir, he is one of my dozer drivers, I work two to a dozer, two hours on and two hours off he has just completed his two hours on ","Well" he replied "get him to do something else like picking up those loose rocks ",I said "We have fifty native labourers coming on shortly to do that ",it showed how little they knew about handling men. One quick turn and they could tear off a track and then have to sit down and wait while the mechanic replaced it. Another hazard we had was when the squadrons began to come in they then had sentries who thought that there were Japs behind every bush, and one night when I was taking over from the other shift N.C.O. he said "look at this" and showed me the dashboard of his truck. It had been holed by a burst of "Tommy gun" fire. He said that he had not seen or heard any guard until the shooting. Our C.O. went over to see the C.O. of the Kittyhawk Squadron who said "The guard was only doing his duty". Our C.O. said "We have been working our guts out for months to get the strips ready then your trigger happy cowboy tries to kill one of our men" "did he expect to see a Jap driving an Air Force truck running around the strip with his lights on?" Anyhow we were all told to be very careful.
Our system of air raid warning was that, on the control tower at night there was a green light showing. The shift N.C.O. had to watch that if it turned amber Japs were in the vicinity, if it turned red Japs were close, if it went out Japs were here!
The trouble was with the Radar, the mountains were between Rabaul and us, and so the Japs were not picked up until they were right on us. One night I was riding a big "Harley Davidson" motorbike between two gangs I had working at each end of the strip. As I approached near to our planes I remembered the trigger-happy guards and slowed down. A guard yelled "Who goes there" and I replied " General Tojo"! He stepped out and we had a bit of a laugh. We heard a plane and he said "one of ours?" I said "No one of theirs get in your trench"! I could see my gang still working under the generated electric lights, the green light went out, I felt like diving into a trench but knew that I had to warn my men. As I drove towards them I kept switching the headlights on and off. I was relieved when their lights went off. When I reached them we lay in a ditch, we saw and heard bombs exploding and I said "that is very close to our camp!" After a while the green light came on. That was the "All Clear" One of the men asked "Where were you Sarge when you heard the plane?" I said "Talking to a guard near the planes." He then said " You were in more danger than we were with those nervous nelliesl" We all laughed. When the new shift came on at 8 a.m. they said "We were lucky last night we were watching a picture show near our camp, and the next thing we knew there were bombs exploding just over the hill from us". The mob panicked, the projector was smashed, and fences knocked down. The only casualty was a guard who was temporarily deafened by a bomb blast near to him. I said "Thank the Lord for that picture show. The Jap pilot evidently saw the lights and so bombed it, otherwise it may have been on our gang working under the electric light".
In November 1943 we were told to pack up as we were moving. We hoped that it was to Australia, but we were not told where. At about 6 p.m. on 1st December, 1943 we sailed out from Goodenough on two L.S.Ts. Two L.S.Ts. from Kiriwina joined us. We knew that we were going north, sorry in some ways to be leaving Goodenough, but leaving it a much better place than when we first saw it.
We arrived at Buna where we made part of a Convoy of seven L.S.Ts., four American destroyers, and three sub chasers. Daylight next morning we approached Lae, the air raid alarm sounded and we were all ordered below deck. The ship's crew manned the guns. The L.S.T. ran up onto the beach and dropped its large front ramp door. I was first off with a dozer driver. He packed and rolled sand against the ramp and our trucks began rolling off. The ship's Captain said "Half an hour then I pull out regardless" and (as described elsewhere) I saw an Officer coming along the beach. He was a Wing Commander. After I had saluted him he asked me "Who is in command Sergeant?" As I had not seen any other Officer or W.O. about I replied, "I am Sir”. He looked a little surprised then said "There is an air alert on, get them off the beach as quickly as possible." He then moved off.
As the trucks moved out the drivers asked " Where do we go Sergeant?" and all I could say was "follow the truck in front". When the last truck came off, the L.S.T. pulled outland I jumped in the last truck. We drove out of where the town of Lae used to be. It had been blown to pieces. A mile or two out we came to an old Japanese camp and saw our Unit there. I went in and was told that the road ahead was a bog and we would stay overnight in the Jap kunai huts. I asked the W.Os. and Sergeants why had they "shot through". They said that they were told there was an air raid expected and to get off the beach as soon as possible. I asked "What about the men and the trucks?" The only scare I had was when I heard a plane just above me but was pleased to see that it was an American Lightning. I reported to the CO that all vehicles were off safe and sound and he was pleased. I then told him about the Wing Commander and he was not too pleased about that but realised that it could have been worse if I had not been there. He was my friend from then on. I was promoted to Group 1 Flight Sergeant on 1st April 1944. We had great trouble getting through to Nadzab where we were to build two airstrips, roads, houses, and camping areas, also dispersal areas. We were to seal the strips with crushed blue metals rolled well and sprayed with bitumen tar to make them all weather strips. We had to build the strips as the Yanks were getting so many planes they were finding it difficult to have enough strips to house them. They had taken all the cleared area and we had to practically carve our strip out of jungle. We wanted our fighters up there to support our Army Divisions, which had taken Lae and were now fighting in the Finschhafen and Dumpu areas. We worked well and had fighters in 26 days a record. I had to build a "chinaman" to feed large blue metal river stones into the stone crusher. The metal was for surfacing the strips. We cut timber for the houses, made roads and dispersal areas and General Kenney was highly delighted. So much so, that he made the Wing Commander I met on the beach a Group Captain Dale and put him in command of all engineer Units, American (white and black) Air Force Engineers and R.A.A.F. Mobile Works Squadrons.
At the landing at Aitape on the other side of Wewak, later on, I and my gang had just finished work on the "chinaman", turned out our lights, when the Japs came in and Units with their lights on were bombed and straffed with casualties. We were lucky. Another morning five German aircraft flew by Japs straffed our camp. Bullets kicked up dust all around us. I made for the jungle. An American Douglas transport plane came over and the Japs shot him up. Pieces of fabric floated down on me and leaves chopped up by the Douglas' prop as the pilot flew through the tops of the trees. He saw the strip we were building (No.4) and put the Douglas down on it. Before the plane had stopped rolling the pilot and his offsider had jumped out and rolled into the ditch, his only injury was a bullet burn across the back of his hand. His offsider had a Thompson sub machine gun and he said to us " I tried to have a shot at the Japs but the Bloody gun wouldn't fire”. He pointed the gun in the air and pulled the trigger and it began to fire we ducked for cover. He said, " That was the trouble I forgot to take the safety catch off”.
I was sent down to Lae where we built a slipway for our Sea Rescue boats. The Japs had gathered a large number of planes around Wewak. Nadzab was to be their target but we got in first and destroyed most of their aircraft on the ground. I came home very sick in May 1944 and spent four months in 113 A.G.H. Concord before being discharged from the R.A.A.F. as Medically Unfit for Further Service on 31st Decembers 1944.
63370 FLIGHT SERGEANT E.H.EDWARDS