.Flying Officer David Dickson, Aircraftman Eddy Dillon, a flight sergeant and five other ex members of 5MWS arrived at Lae in an unusual mode of transport. A Japanese barge, a survivor of the Bismarck Sea Battle in March 1943, was salvaged from three metres of water off Wataluma Beach. As the four-cylinder kerosene engine was refurbished and the electrical system modified to use a Ford coil, a 12-volt battery, and a magneto as a distributor, Dickson saw the barge as an ideal method of transporting tools and equipment to Lae. A trial run was made to neighbouring Fergusson Island where:
We went down the north east coast of this equally lush timber covered and mountainous island, till we came to an inlet that led into a tidal estuary extending quite a way inland. This was a deep water estuary teeming with fish and had a secluded village at the end of it with what appeared to be people who hadn't realised there was a war going on just outside their own particular territory. We left it as we found it and headed for the outside world.
The mariners were now ready. Loaded with lathes, drilling machines, welders, and small hand tools, the barge departed from Bola Bola and headed across Ward Hunt Strait for the New Guinea mainland. The plan was to head for Collingwood Bay at sunset and reach Cape Nelson at dawn. The crew proudly flew the Union Jack to identify them as friends later Dickson discovered that the flag was completely unknown by the Americans. 36 After buying fresh fruit and vegetables from natives at a mission station in Collingwood Bay, the barge set course for Cape Nelson. About 16 kilometres off shore, Dickson was navigating by moonlight when his attention was directed `... at something moving towards us almost on a collision course, coming from the west or out of Collingwood Bay. It needed no nautical knowledge to identify it a periscope, at least 2 metres of it, travelling at about our speed of eight to ten knots ... It had to be Japanese.' 37 Dickson feared that, being in a Japanese barge, the submarine may surface to contact his crew, and ordered a rapid return to the shore. The incident was reported when the barge and crew arrived at Oro Bay next morning and it was confirmed that it was probably a Japanese submarine that had been sighted. With the dominance of Allied air power, the Japanese had resorted to using submarines and barges to attempt to run supplies to her beleaguered outposts along the northern New Guinea coastline. Dickson called at Salamaua, where he had spent ten years as an engineer with the Bulolo Gold Dredging Company before the war, before sailing on to the hive of activity that was Lae. Here Dickson off loaded their valuable cargo. The barge, now surplus to unit requirements, was `swapped for a brand new Jeep from one of the American outfits'.
This, and later deployments of Australian construction units were to develop an airfield complex in the Nadzab area of the Markham Valley. On 5th September 1943 American and Australian parachutists landed on the airfield at Nadzab and the 2/4th Australian Field Regiment and the 2/2nd Australian Pioneer Battalion deployed to prepare the airfield. On 7th September 1943 elements of the US Army 871st Engineer Aviation Battalion landed on the airfield and by 11th September the strip had been extended to 1,500 metres to enable the Australian 9th Division to be flown in to participate in the Markham Valley campaign, which resulted in the fall of Lae on 16th September. Of greater long term importance was the development of an extensive airfield complex to enable long-range missions to be flown against Japanese targets along the north coast of New Guinea.
On 7th March 1944 General MacArthur issued instructions for landings to be made at Hollandia and Aitape to exploit the Allied successes in the Admiralty Islands and the growing weakness of the enemy in western New Guinea. The bold projection of force to Hollandia, 805 kilometres to the west of Lae was known as Operation `Reckless'. US Navy aircraft carrier support was required to cover the initial landing, but such support would be available for a limited time. Therefore it was imperative that a simultaneous landing be affected at Aitape 185 kilometres east of Hollandia. Engineer intelligence observed that the Japanese had commenced the construction of three airstrips near Aitape during December 1943. The capture, development and exploitation of these facilities would enable Allied forces to prevent by passed Japanese units in the Wewak Hansa Bay Madang area from moving north to attack Allied forces and shipping at Hollandia. The importance of the airfields is exemplified by the fact that the engineer units accounted for over 5,000 (some 40 per cent) of task force numbers.
Wing Commander Dale was advised verbally of his appointment as Persecution Task Force Engineer on 3rd April 1944 and commenced planning at the Task Force Headquarters at Finschhafen. A detachment of 13 Survey and Design Unit under Flight Lieutenant A.J. Fowler, using aerial photographs and other intelligence information planned the airfields, camp sites, lines of communication and attendant aerodrome services. For the operation Dale had a combat battalion (plus one company), one shore battalion, one boat and shore regiment and three airborne aviation battalions of the US Army, and the RAAF works wing consisting of three mobile works squadrons, a survey and design unit, one works maintenance unit and a supply unit under his contro1. In preparation for the landing 6MWS and 7MWS commenced loading LSTs at Lae on 8th and 6th April 1944 respectively. The latter participated in a practice landing at Lae on 10th April. The trial was successful with the exception that a proposed bivouac area was untenable due to swampy ground. As the force withdrew, tragedy struck. Leading Aircraftmen Armstrong, Roberts, and Dumschat of 7MWS were killed on 11th April when an elevator used to lift light vehicles to the upper deck from the well deck on LST 122 malfunctioned and they were crushed; four others were injured.
7MWS personnel who had, despite the possibility of Japanese attack, worked under floodlight. The airstrip was declared serviceable on the 24th and two Lightning fighters landed at 9.45am.
Due to the urgent requirement to have fighter aircraft flying operationally from the airfield insufficient attention had been paid to the drainage of the fighter strip. Heavy overnight rain rendered the strip unserviceable on 25 April. To overcome this problem the engineers worked overnight to commence the laying of steel mat along the whole 1,189-metre strip. The fighter strip was completed on 15th May, 15 days before the bomber strip was declared useable. In addition, the engineers were responsible for building a 105-metre long box girder bridge over the Raihu River and the development of port and road facilities. The overall standard of the workmanship was high. During May 1963 John Lessels and Peter Ashley visited Tadji whilst undertaking a reconnaissance to recommend a site for a second major airfield in Papua New Guinea. After 20 years:
The pavements were made of thick and compacted coral, with a surface of pierced steel planking ... Through the planking was growing a thick mat of grass, which created a surface in effect of reinforced grass. The strength of the pavement and the length of the runways were such that they would sustain usage by most aircraft, no matter how high the weight, and tyre pressure. The ride ability would leave, however, something to be desired. Japanese troops were within 14 kilometres of the airfield, and there was always the possibility of enemy infiltration through the Allied defence lines. Although no casualties could be attributed to enemy action, there were incidents, which kept the men on the alert. Lindsay Hodges wrote in his diary on 25th April 1944 that `a machine gun had opened up on a Yankee camp behind us, bullets flying right through our camp. A Jap had crept into a fox hole where they had installed a machine gun ... he shot one yank.' Japanese aerial resistance was negligible. On the same night a Liberty ship was hit by a low flying enemy bomber but this was the only damage inflicted.
After serving at Noemfoor 7ACS was ordered to return to the mainland. Plant was transferred to 4ACS during August 1944 in preparation for the move. The first party of 52 personnel was flown south early in September. More personnel were flown south as air transport became available and the unit was relocated at Ransford on 19th September. The Squadron moved to Mount Martha for defence training on 15th October 1944 before moving to Randwick Racecourse on 30th January 1945 and commenced loading the John Marshal on 19th February. A detachment of 102 airmen and four officers (Flight Lieutenants K.W. Storey and D.R. Dickson and Flying Officers D.G. Aitken and J.T. Inkster) to be based at Emirau and Green Islands and the advance party of the squadron headquarters boarded the ship on the day of departure, 25th February. Arrangements were made for small parties of squadron personnel to travel by rail to Cairns and then by air to the Solomon Islands.
On 26th March 1945 the Squadron took over the maintenance of the Piva airstrip on Bougainville from the American CB unit. By this time the Squadron had planned to deploy detachments to Tadji. In conjunction with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the Squadron maintained airfields at Bougainville, Green, and Emirau Islands, and 75 personnel to meet this commitment raised the strength of the unit. The Tadji detachment departed from Sydney by rail on 24th April to be followed by Flying Officer C.R. Stoneham and 35 troops three days later. This group boarded the Katoomba at Cairns and proceeded to Bougainville, where the remaining personnel and equipment aboard the William A. Henry on 31st May joined them. The voyage was uncomfortable due to the lack of deck space and facilities aboard the ship. The whole deck and hatch areas were covered with cargo, barges and equipment, causing the messing staff untold difficulty. They were forced to work on top of piles of cargo and to drag hot meals under barnacled and coral studded barges. The men had to negotiate the same obstacles to reach serving tables and to eat their meals. Men were confined to the holds during the heavy seas encountered during the last four days of the voyage and the fetid atmosphere aggravated seasickness. Recreational activities were impossible due to the lack of space. When the men arrived at Bougainville they discovered that no domestic facilities were ready for them.
A detachment was established at Jacquinot Bay on 6th June 1945 and the Otto Mears arrived four days later with equipment. By July 1945 the Squadron had detachments based at Aitape, Emirau Island, and Bougainville to undertake maintenance on the airfields and roadways. The detachment at Jacquinot Bay was to undertake major construction work. The duties were mundane and routine, but the news that most of the troops at Bougainville would be home by the middle of January 1946 raised morale considerably. However, words and actions did not result in the outcome expected. However when January 1946 came morale deteriorated as the promise of discharge was not met. In March the unit moved on the Crusader to Lae where the Rapopo airstrip was surveyed and road maintenance undertaken.