1st Battalion 162 Infantry and Australian 2/6 Battalion: Australian Guides into Nassau Bay

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

Lieutenant Burke's Australian soldier guides almost failed to light in 162 Infantry on the night that Colonel McKechnie's 1st Battalion landed at Nassau Bay. But this near-failure was not the Aussies' fault. They had to cope with Japanese nearby on an unknown mountain jungle coast. Finally, the Australians accurately guided Colonel Mack's force ashore because of hard labor, Australian bravery, and good luck.

On 2 June, 27 days before 162 planned to land, Aussies of 2/6 Battalion (Second Battalion of 6 Infantry Regiment) began labor for the US beachhead. They had to get hitherto unknown information. They had to find a suitable landing beach in Jap country. They had to find the right ground for a whole battalion with field artillery to deploy and dig in under a probable Nippo assault, as soon as they landed.

Hardest of all, they had to find a safe track through the swamps and jungles of the Bitoi River Delta and across the spurs of Lababia Mountain and across Tabali Creek to the beach. Because of the danger of alerting the Nips, they had to arrive at the beachhead neither too soon nor too late.

Although Australians were out-posted at Napier Village some five miles inshore, they faced an evidently strong Nippo force north of the Bitoi River South Arm. An attempt to displace those Nips would prematurely reveal 162's plans for a surprise landing. Small, brave Aussie patrols had to find the safe route and the proper landing place.

On 2 June, Lieutenant Burke, Sergeant Ellen, and three other 2/6 Battalion Aussies left Napier Village to reconnoiter into Jap country. The five-man patrol sometimes followed the track on the Bitoi South Arm and sometimes broke through jungle cover to hike around foothills and spurs. They finally halted on the last of the spurs two miles from the coast. Although they could see Nassau Bay from here, Burke reported that a proposed signal fire from Lababia Ridge could hardly be seen from Nassau Bay. (Originally, the Aussies had planned to light 162 Infantry ashore with bonfires from the Ridge.)

After Burke returned to Napier, Brigadier Moten ordered Burke to take a day's rest and then keep on searching for a 162 Infantry landing place. On 7 June 1943 at 0800, with only Sergeant Ellen, Burke left Napier again. Following a route which they had already blazed to the Ridge, they first hiked down a dry creek bed from Napier for the first hour. Then they hiked southeast and crossed the mountain spur through a saddle about 2500 feet high. In five hours, they had crossed the head of Tabali Creek far above Nassau Bay. The creek was easy fording here, but impossible to follow through jungle to low ground.

Now they hacked their way east through swamp and jungle towards the coast. In four hours, they came to Tabali Creek again, to where it had bent to parallel the coast about a mile ahead. On that night of 8-9 June, they camped beside the Tabali - among swarms of mosquitoes, and drowned by heavy rains. (Tabali Creek was near where Lieutenant Brown's C 162 Platoon was overrun after the landing.)

Next morning, Burke and Ellen swam across Tabali Creek in that flood that had risen overnight. Ten feet deep, it was now 40 yards wide and slow moving. Then they marched 1-1/2 hours through the swamp and arrived at a clearing 100 yards from the coast. Here they discovered where Colonel Mack was to land. It was a clearing some 400 yards long and 100 yards wide all the way to the water's edge. They found signs of a Jap shore-side camp, and abandoned weapon-pits riveted with rotten timber. A faint trail led north and south.

The flat beach looked right for flat-bottomed landing craft to slide across. The beach bank was some 10 feet from the water's edge, and six feet above the beach level. That bank would be fine protection for landing craft if an Aussie Platoon held the beach. Burke and Ellen quickly returned to report to Napier - in a nine-hour trek to arrive safely on 9 June.

Burke reported that their route to the coast was fine. The beach was right for a perfect landing. No Japs occupied the area, although they might be patrolling it regularly. MacKechnie Force might use the mile-long coastal strip to Duali for motor transport.

While Burke and Ellen were scouting towards the coast, Brigadier Moten sent out another patrol towards the sea. Also from 2/6 Battalion, Lieutenant Gibbons and Corporal Fisher left Napier on 7 June, the same day that Burke left, and followed the trail along the south side of the Bitoi eastwards.

Next morning at 1100, observers on the ridge above Napier heard heavy mortar and machine gun fire from the direction where Gibbons and Fisher had gone. Twenty-four hours later, Fisher wearily returned to Napier without Gibbons. After sleeping on the first night 1-1/2 miles from where they clearly heard the surf, they scouted on east at 0630 on a well-defined track. After seeing fresh Jap footprints, they still stole along the track for 10 minutes more.

Five yards before Fisher, Gibbons suddenly halted, turned, and said, "Jap." He moved back towards Fisher. Fisher saw the Jap behind a banana tree. He was Superior Private Koike. Koike fired; Gibbons was mortally wounded. Fisher fired back, and believed that he hit Koike. Gibbons waved Fisher to run. Fisher leaped into the shelter of the brush and did not come back out on the trail for 100 yards. He saw Gibbons staggering on the track, and then disappear. He never saw Gibbons again.

Japs were moving west towards him on the track, and firing machine guns and mortars wildly. Fisher zigzagged 300 yards back along the track. When he fell into a fresh weapon pit, he knew that Japs must be ahead of him. He crossed to the north side of the track and reached the Bitoi South Arm.

Sick at heart with that hopeless hunted feeling, Fisher saved his life by taking off into the Bitoi South Arm. It swept him downstream. He floundered into a swamp and got lost in it. Yet, although almost in shock, Fisher managed to survive to return to his cobbers at Napier. (As for Jap Superior Private Koike who had killed Gibbons, he received a letter of commendation from 3rd 102 Regiment's Major Takamura. The letter credited him, however, for slaying two Aussies, instead of Gibbons alone.)

And so, in a week's recon patrols, Aussies had found a suitable landing beach for 162 Infantry. They had also found their rugged route to the beach to light in MacKechnie Force when 17 beached in the dark. Meanwhile, Americans like 162 Infantry's I & R and Papuan scouts had led McKechnie to believe that the beach was unguarded except for patrols. It lay between a 75-man Jap detachment at Duali on the north and 300 at Bassis Villages on Cape Dinga to the south. To Aussies also, it seemed that they had a perfect landing area, and an easy trip to light MacKechnie in.

Early on 29 June - MacKechnie' s landing was due that night - Burke's Platoon stood at the edge of a horrible 1,000-yard swamp west of Tabali Creek. For two hours, they waded and splashed through that swamp, sometimes ankle deep, some-times thigh deep - and fighting not to fall and foul their rifles. Sometimes, they had to lift themselves from the deep mud by slapping their rifles crosswise in the reeds and kicking loose.

After this sweating 1,000 yards, they reached firm ground before dark and dropped to rest near deep, dark Tabali Creek. It was said to be a crocodile infested stream. They had to inflate a rubber life-boat. They hoped that jungle noises would drown the wheeze and whistle as they blew up the rubber.

In pitch black, Ellen and Molloy first ferried the Tabali and out-guarded them while the boat was hauled back for the other 24 men, two at a time. As they crossed, the eternal New Guinea rain poured down.

Although Platoon Leader Lieutenant Urquhart urged the Commanding Officer to head for the beach at once, Burke delayed. The beach was still Jap country. He wanted to do all that he could to avoid a fight from any chance patrols of Japs. And Brigadier Moten had ordered them to make no beach recon before the scheduled landing time. This calculated risk further jeopardized the US landing. At 2195, the 26 men started for the beach, but they found that the night jungle was more difficult than expected. The beach was just 500 yards off and they could hear the waves, but they almost failed to reach it.

In the pitch blackness, to keep in contact, each man had to grasp the bayonet scabbard or the shoulder strap of the man before him. Creepers, vines, undergrowth, fallen logs hampered them. They became a stumbling, straining, cursing serpent of men. The distant rumble of the ocean lured them on, but they never got any closer. They halted and listened - to jungle frogs, to rain drumming their shoulders, and to unreachable rumbling breakers.

They had already blundered too far south, and now found that they were moving in a circle. Burke thought that the amount of metal on the 26 men - rifles, grenades, and bayonets - had deflected the compass needle. Time was slipping away, and they seemed about to fail to arrive on the coast in time to guide in Colonel Mack.

            Then Corporal G.L. Smith took the initiative. He went to the front and hacked the bush. At intervals he flashed his light back to guide the others. Behind him, Corporal Stephens led the men and guided Smith left or right while he held his compass on a 90-degree azimuth.

Although Burke knew the danger of having a Jap patrol spot the flashes, he knew no other way to attain the beach on time. The roar of the surf grew louder. After a patch of even thicker jungle, they found a half-cleared area about 2315 hours, and heard the spent waves washing back down to sea.

            Smith shouted. They topped a low sand-dune and heard the deafening thunder of the billows under a heavy gale. Stephens heard the ocean open up with a million-horse powered roar and swallow the men and the whole world in its noise.

With Ellen, Smith and four others, Burke drove straight for the beach. They separated from the main body during that last dash for the sea. Burke's six men came out well south of the ideal landing place. Without worrying about Jap patrols, they raced north to the right position.

Breathless and sweat-soaked, Burke's men were already five minutes late for the appointed time to light the signals. As planned, they placed the lights on a big sand bank - two red lights 600 yards apart on the flanks and a white light centering the other two lights. Burke estimated that the waves were 10 feet high, but he hoped that the lights were high enough for 162' s pilots to see them.

For half an hour, Burke's small party waited. Then many dark figures approached up the beach from the south from the direction of the Japs' Bassis Villages. Burke feared that these were Japs, but they turned out to be the 18 other Australians with Lieutenant Urquhart. Urquhart's men had also come out too far south on the beach, then hurried north and begun to signal with just two lights.

About 0130, the Aussies heard US engines throbbing up the bay. The leaders of the first wave saw only two signal lights, which were probably Urquhart's (And Colonel MacKechnie believed that only half the 600-yard landing area was lighted.)

Farther out at sea, Devenney of 1st Battalion Communications saw two little flashlights blink from the beach. He heard a rifle shot. Both lights blacked out. Now the north light flashed in Morse, "Let's go!" The first 162 wave crashed into the beach.

So far as can be told now, the first barge wave had mostly made for a position to the south and bunched together. There eight of these 11 barges landed and broached and were battered by the waves. Burke then moved all the lights 200 yards north to try to save the second wave of barges, but they broached also and were wrecked.

But some 770 surf-soaked Yanks of Colonel MacKechnie's command were safely ashore to fight. No Jap patrols had attacked. The 2/6 Aussie Battalion had accomplished their mission, and Lieutenant Burke and his men are honored for guiding 1st Battalion 162's Combat Team into the first beachhead of the Southwest Pacific.

 

CREDIT: Most of this history is a rewrite of David Dexter's The New Guinea Offensives, published in Canberra by Australian War Memorial. Useful also was Colonel A.R. MacKechnie's Report of Operations. As always, I have made various additions; that is, explanations, amplifications, or clarifications, since Dexter was not writing for a North American audience.