17th Australian Brigade (and M Company 162 Infantry): Australian Siege of Mount Tambu and Tom Boothby's Siege (M-162)      

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

          This history honors mainly the Australian's heroic siege of Mount Tambu in the Salamaua Operation. It also honors the volunteer attack of Yank Tom Boothby (M-162) in the second Aussie attack on that un-stormable mountain.

In their final attempt to conquer Papua, the Jap army got as far as Mubo Strip on the Komiatum mountain track southwest of Salamaua. After the Aussies retook Mubo Strip, the Japs fell back to a final defensive line to hold Salamaua. This line ran from Boisi before Roosevelt Ridge to Mount Tambu, then Komiatum Track and north to the mountains above Francisco across River.

About two miles southwest of Roosevelt Ridge, Mount Tambu actually guarded the Japs' right flank on that ridge. Aussies and Yanks must defeat the Tambu Japs if we wanted to overrun Roosevelt Ridge and seize Salamaua.

First combat for the Tambu area began on 9 July 1943. The 2/3rd Australian Independent Company* believed that it was merely pursing small bands of Japs fleeing from Mubo Strip down Komiatum Track. But strong Jap forces halted two aggressive patrols near Goodview Junction - a ridge on Komiatum Track about three-fourths miles west over heavy, rugged jungle to Mount Tambu.

Recoiling from their two patrols, the Aussie Independent Company realized that they faced a new and powerful enemy instead. They heard chipping and digging. All the Japs they fought were well clothed, well fed, and only lightly equipped as if stripped down for battle.

Before them was Lieutenant Colonel Matushi's 1st Battalion 66 Infantry; it had retreated in full strength from Mubo Strip before the Aussies' great attack of 7-8 July. Other Jap opponents were die-hard men of 66 Infantry's 2nd Battalion. They had fallen back from Mubo after battle on 7 July. Among these were Lieutenant Usui's Company. From 87 men on 1 July, he was 10 to 46 men on 10 July - grim men ready for death.

            And on 15 July began the Aussie attacks on Mount Tambu. On that 15 July, Captain V M Walters' Company of 2nd Battalion 5 Infantry arrived at a point 500 yards from the top of a spur running south from Mount Tambu. Reconnaissance was lacking. Walters' 60 men intended merely to occupy Mount Tambu and push off the Nips holding it.

The jungle mountain complex of Tambu was formidable - an oblong area of four jungle humps, about 300 yards north to south and 150 yards east to west. Because of Jap concentrations northward and the rough jungle ridges, attacks must fight up the longest way over the southern humps.

Actually, Tambu was four jungle-covered humps, or "knolls" as the Aussies named them. First, a southern pair of humps blocked the way side by side, "Eastern Knoll" and "Western Knoll." Next obstacle was the single "Northern Knoll," about 100 yards north over jungle no-man's land. Approach to the southern three humps was over fairly level jungle bench land. But there still loomed ahead "Tambu Knoll," the fourth and final hump.

"Tambu Knoll" was the real Mount Tambu that would stop all Aussie and US attacks. It stood up across a deep ravine with an almost sheer drop to the south. The Knoll itself had a gentler slope up which no attack ought ever to come - a gentle slope with a grazing field of fire. Such was Fortress Tambu, which held out some five weeks longer than Roosevelt Ridge.

At 1700 hours 16 July, Aussie Captain Walters' 60-man Company struck Mount Tambu from the south. One platoon went against "Eastern Knoll" finally up a steep, razor-backed spur which Jap positions strongly held. Here Jap fire pinned down Lieutenant KJP McCoy's Platoon. But on the left flank of McCoy's Platoon, Sergeant WL Tiller's Platoon did better. In front of his men, Tiller wiped out a Jap machine gun crew. After hand-to-hand combat of Tiller's Platoon killed 20 more Japs, "Eastern Knoll" was captured. (Tiller would be killed seven days later.) And Lieutenant ER Reeve's Platoon took "Western Knoll," in an action unreported.

North of the twin captured knolls was the single "Northern Knoll" above 100 yards of jungle, and at 1800, night was closing in. Captain Walters had to consolidate his new positions hurriedly, but his platoons carried no entrenching tools. Luckily, however, the fleeing Japs had abandoned pillboxes and weapons pits to protect 100 men.

That night, the Japs counter-attacked Walters' Company eight times. Crawling to 10-15 yards before the Aussies, they rushed the holes with screams and the heaviest small-arms fire which Walters had ever known. The Japs fired 120 mortar shells that night. Yet mortars, a fire-hail from light and medium machine guns, and even shells from a mountain gun - all failed to break the die-hard Aussies. Although they conserved ammo, riflemen were down to five rounds apiece and the Bren gunners to two magazines when morning came. With daylight arrived Captain LA Cameron's Company to support Walters - with also a detachment of3- inch mortars. With Cameron's Company also came a Yank fighter, M Company 162 Infantry's Tom Boothby. To give depth to the defenses, Cameron dug in on a knoll 300 yards back.

At 1200 that second day, the Japs struck Walters' Company once more, but with replenished ammo, notably 3-inch mortar shells. Walters' Company held their ground. At 1800, some 200 Japs hit Reeves' Platoon on "Western Knoll," but his 20 men repulsed them.

Meanwhile, two Aussie 3.7 inch mountain guns had been positioned near Buigap and Bui Eo Creeks to the west. On 18 July, with help from these little guns and the mortars, Walters cleared a Jap pocket, and made 80 yards more into Jap ground. (Aussie Historian Dexter does not say when "Northern Knoll" was captured, but perhaps the capture occurred in this 80-yard gain by Walters. But past "Northern Knoll" "Tambu Knoll" loomed past a deep ravine. It would hold out for a month.)

By now, Colonel TM Conroy, Aussie Battalion Commanding Officer, realized that Mount Tambu was a stalemate. His men could not storm Tambu without heavy losses, and the Japs would not withdraw. (During 16-19 July, the Aussies had lost 14 killed and 25 wounded, in return for an estimated 350 Jap casualties.) Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Savige of 3rd Division waited until 75 mm and 105 mm guns could be positioned to prepare for the next Tambu attacks.

By 23 July, US and Aussie guns were in place to start the next great attack on Mount Tambu. Before dawn 24 July, Captain Cameron and Corporal J Smith crawled up to only 15 yards from Nippo pillboxes to reconnoiter them. Cameron counted seven machine guns in two defense lines on both sides of the track. So steep and narrow was the slope that just one platoon could attack at a time. To his left, Cameron saw sharpened bamboo stakes, and decided that the Japs hoped for an advance from the west that their machine guns could enfilade. Cameron still thought that a wide flank maneuver of two companies to the right could clear Tambu, but he had little time for a thorough recon. He had to order a frontal attack, with his lead platoon, while the others slanted off behind in support.

In this attack was AWOL Yank Tom Boothby (M-162). Fiercely independent, he had gone AWOL to join the Aussies. Although Captain Newman of C-162 knew that Boothby was delinquent, he sent some 12 "C" men with Boothby to gain experience. Corporal J Smith of Cameron's Commanding Officer took a liking to this Yank maverick and instructed him for combat.

There was a 15-minute field artillery preparation for this Aussie attack. US 75s of C 218 Field Artillery now on Green Hill fired 240 rounds, and the Aussie 3.7 mountain guns fired 120 shells. Mortars also fired in this 15-minute preparation.

Then the attack began - with 59 of Cameron's depleted Company against an estimated 400 Nips on Mount Tambu above him. Supported by his Battalion's Vicker’s machine guns, Cameron hoped to drive a wedge into the double line of seven machine guns in pillboxes, then roll up each flank. Then Lieutenant H H Martin's 3rd Platoon would advance and clear off the Tambu summit.

Cameron was harshly wounded in the first Jap fires; 26 pieces of bone would have to be cut out of him. Now he had to place Lieutenant Martin in command of the Company, and Martin had to give his own platoon to Corporal Smith, with American Boothby beside him. And Smith and Boothby remembered that Cameron had ordered that there would be no retreat from this attack.

"Follow me!" ordered Smith. With Yank Tom Boothby and an unknown C 162 man, he led a small charge ahead of his Aussie Platoon almost to the summit of Mount Tambu. Soon this three-man forlorn hope was crawling on their bellies side by side in the semi-clearing under the Jap guns. They urged the rest of Martin's Platoon to come on out from beneath some jungle cover to come up on line and charge beside them.

But from the rear, Lieutenant Martin halted the attack. He had lost 16 men - three of them killed outright. He had no reserves, and he ordered a withdrawal.

Now in the high tide of battle - in the magic of combat - Smith and his two Yanks did not believe Martin's order when it was passed up to them. For Cameron had said there would be no retreat. The three men charged into the Jap fires. The C 162 man was killed instantly. Forty wounds - nearly all grenade fragments - stopped Smith. Boothby was wounded, but charged on.

Flanking a pillbox, a Japanese guard shot at Boothby three times, but missed all three shots. Boothby's rifle riddled him. Boothby topped the pillbox, lobbed in a grenade and finished the four Japs inside.

But now Boothby was alone in that line of pillboxes that could soon kill him. "What next?" he called back among the Aussies still undercover. They repeated orders for him to fall back. Somehow or other, Boothby got back out of there alive. Despite his 40 wounds, Corporal Smith bore another seriously wounded man back to aid station. Smith himself died four days later.

While Cameron and Martin's attack failed, Lieutenant Walters' Company had tried to strike from west of Mount Tambu. They saw 115 Japs hiking east to reinforce Tambu, but were not then in a position to fire. When Walters' men did try to move, heavy fire blasted from ambush on a razor-back 300-500 yards west of Tambu. Walters retreated them back to their line of departure.

On 30 July, the Australians made their final attempt to storm Tambu. But this time, US Colonel Taylor's 1st Battalion 162 Infantry attacked, while Cameron's little Aussie Company secured his left flank. Aussie 17 Brigade's General MJ Moten estimated that the Jap garrison was now about two companies strong among the mass of pillboxes.

At 0905 after heavy field artillery fire, two Platoons of C 162 attacked that 60-foot wall of shell-torn jungle with its triple tier of pillboxes. The two "C" Platoons knocked out the first pillbox line, but were then pinned down. C's reserve Platoon then attacked but failed. An A 162 Platoon tried to spring the Jap lines but failed. Colonel Taylor had a hard time to rescue his four platoons down under fire. Out of 135 men actually engaged in 162's onslaughts, we lost nine killed, 36 wounded. Mount Tambu still held out.

Taylor's 162 Infantry had made the last great attack on Mount Tambu. Then the Aussie generals decided that the best strategy would be to cut Japs' supply lines into Salamaua. They would seize Komiatum Spur to cut off both Mount Tambu and Goodview Junction Japs.

At first, the Japs held firm at Mount Tambu and Goodview Junction. They day after 162's Tambu defeat, 300 Japs moved down Komiatum Track. On 4 August, Bennet's Aussie Company was expelled from Hodge's Knoll which he had just taken at the Junction. Jap figures were that 112 men still held Tambu.

Then on 16 August heavy US and Aussie field artillery blasting helped the Aussies to clear Goodview Junction and nearby Komiatum Track. In 3 days, a total of 1180 shells - 800 of them from our 105s - struck Tambu at the same time. The Aussie generals complimented themselves on their well- planned offensive. (They did not know that on 15 August, the day before they cleared the Track, that Jap General Hidemitsu Nakano had already ordered his men to leave the Komiatum - Mount Tambu -Roosevelt Ridge line for a shorter final defense line before Salamaua itself.)

Because of General Nakano's order, the Mount Tambu siege ended quietly. On late afternoon of 18 August, a 162 patrol worked its way almost to Tambu crest and saw signs of partial evacuation. On late morn of 19 August, a Platoon of Captain George's A Company topped Mount Tambu and shot a few stragglers. The Japs had dug in deeply, often 10 feet underground. We found also the bodies of four men still left from the 30 July attack: A Company's Cpl Russell E Lewis, C's Pfc Joseph M Balisteri, 186 Infantry's attached Sgt Harold W Elliott, and Medic Cpl Bryan D Hurley.

Aussies, Yanks, and Japs had heroically attacked or defended Mount Tambu. And M 162 Infantry's volunteer Boothby was one of those heroes.

The 2/3rd (pronounced 'second third') Australian Independent Company was, as its name suggests, an independent unit that was at no time in its existence part of a larger battalion. The 2/3rd Coy was roughly 267 strong at full strength Within this number, it had its own small medical, engineer, pioneer, and catering sections, in addition to the three 'fighting platoons', each of which were 67 strong at full strength. For the Salamaua operation, the 2/3rd Australian Independent Company was temporarily under the command of the 15th Australian Infantry Brigade. After that campaign, the 2/3rd was 'brigaded' with two other commando squadrons (as they had by then been renamed), into a cavalry commando regiment. This parent body, however, performed an administrative function only. The prefix '2' denotes the Second Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.), to differentiate it from the Great War A.I.F., and the suffix '3' marks the unit as the 3rd such company raised and trained.

CREDIT: Direct cause of this history is Joe Bradshaw's letter of 31 August 1983 from Australia. Here Bradshaw (2nd Battalion 162 Headquarters) tells the story of Boothby's fight; he had the story from Boothby and Aussie witnesses. Australian David Dexter's the New Guinea Offensives recounts the Mount Tambu Siege, but Dexter has no story of Boothby's attack of 24 July 1943. Some background comes from my Jungleer story of May 1959, "162 Infantry Assails Mount. Tarnbu." Report of General Nakano's withdrawal order is from General MacArthur's Japanese Operations in the Southwest Pacific. Chester Clark (116 Medics) reported on the last Yank corpses on Mount Tambu in a letter of 21 November 1983.