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Manus Island, experience of No. 4 Section, 'B' Platoon,
First Independent Company, Australian Imperial Force

This chapter is based on the recollections of Lieutenant Palmer, Lance-Corporal Normoyle, Sapper Kerr and Private Coker


  The map of the Dutch East Indies 1941-1942
The map is courtesy of Graham Donaldson

No.4 Section arrived on Manus Island in early November 1941, conveyed on the Indus Star, 70-ton vessel powered by a three cylinder Ruston marine engine, speed about eight knots, purchased by Major Wilson from Oscar Rhondahl of Kokopo, ancestor of the Queen of Rabaul, for 10,000-pounds, which included the half-German skipper and Chinese engineer. The new arrivals replaced a small medical reconnoiter patrol of No.8 Section, that had garrisoned the island for a short while during August to November 1941, and were transferred back to Kavieng. The main town Lorengau, on the north-east coast being the administrative centre consisted of fifteen houses and three shops, the residence had no cars, so there were no laid roads only dirt tracks. A small airfield serviced the island and more importantly there was an AWA radio station with a tall steel mast, plus two dumps of aviation fuel stored in 44-gallon drums. The government post at Lorengau was staffed by a District Officer, a Police Master and an operator for the wireless radio, as most of the European men and all the European women and children had been evacuated due to fears of German raiders in the vicinity, and of the inevitable war with Imperial Japan. The first task was to make the airstrip serviceable and hundreds of natives were employed for this work, given shovels, wheel-barrows and the trunks of coconut trees for use as rollers. After a few weeks the task was completed, the coral encrusted surface of the hardened airstrip was 1200 yards long and 100 yards wide and there was much feasting and celebrating when finished. Yet no allied planes landed at this time during the hostilities.

No.4 Section settled into three allocated huts, gun pits were dug and reinforced with coconut tree trunks, with one Bren light machine-gun and one Vickers medium machine gun for the airstrip defence, and another Bren-gun to hopefully protect the wireless radio mast. On one Saturday morning a Lockheed Hudson bomber flew low over the airstrip and although the warplane did not land the reason for such an out of the way visit was a mystery. Yet with hindsight, considering elsewhere a Hudson light bomber only just safely landed on the short airstrip at Kavieng, New Ireland, perhaps both warplanes were looking to see if the airfields were suitable. The base on Manus Island was visited by three Australian Catalina flying-boats on 12 January, they had their fuel tanks 'topped-up' so they could complete their bombing mission against the Japanese military base at Truk. One of the soldiers commented that they often see the Catalina seaplanes in the distance, an airmen replied "That's not us, we hardly ever get this far north" So whose airplanes had they been seeing? Anyway the Catalina's mission was unsuccessful and they returned on the 15 January for another sortie against the enemy base at Truk. On this occasion for some reason the Australian airmen left an air-gunner behind, Terry Deagan, and he became an attached member of the Section.

No.4 Section suffered the first Japanese air raid on Sunday 25 January, everything in sight was bombed and strafed by two or three single-engined enemy floatplanes coming in at tree top level, the radio mast being the main target. After each raid, three on this day, the incident was reported to Port Moresby, but when there was no radio transmission after later air raids there was no further consecutive bombings. The AWA radio operator complained about the restrictions on him sending reports and claimed the island was not under military control, so the theory was that the Manus radio transmissions were attracting the bombing raids, and who knows what else. Apart from one native killed, and headaches inflicted on all the anti-aircraft machine-gunners, which overall shot down two enemy planes, the bombing raids by the Japanese did little overall damage. The Australian force on Manus Island was now aware that Kavieng and Rabaul had been taken by the Imperial Japanese and began burning buildings and destroying anything of use to the enemy. With the thought of an imminent landing by approaching enemy forces at any time all supplies were moved from Lorengua to the village of Bulihat a few miles into the jungle. Detailed plans were laid for the destruction of the aviation fuel dump. Private Coker commented the exercise involved "A hand-grenade, and run like hell, did the trick!" Over the next few weeks there was intermittent attention by the Japanese Air Force, then the Japanese Navy started courtesy calls offshore. On 8 April 1942 an Imperial Japanese force consisting of a light cruiser Tatsuta, destroyer Mutsuki and a troop transport ship Mishima Maru entered Lorengau harbour, and several hundreds of enemy soldiers, Japanese marines of the 8th Special Base Force, swarmed ashore onto Australia's mandated responsibility. With little and limited resources the Australian Independent Company Section smartly withdrew to prepared positions in the tropical green jungle clad terrain of Manus Island, and waited for the news of a promised evacuation by the appropriate authorities, it never arrived.

No.4 Section had set up an Observation Post, it was established far down the track from the HQ at the village of Bulihat, in a couple of native huts, manned by one police boy and two soldiers, who were relieved once a week. On this occasion Private Coker, and police boy Private Joe Little from Bougainville with his wife too, observed the activities of Japanese warships offshore in the picturesque harbour. They looked over the misty bay and using binoculars observed the transport feeding two barges full of enemy soldiers, the Japanese destroyer moving close along inshore and the Nippon Navy cruiser sped past ploughing white wash from the bow, and even though they were hostile Private Coker commented they were "fine looking ships." The enemy cruiser launched its recon seaplane, bombing the nearby plantation that was owned by a Malayan, and spent the rest of the day flying around trying to locate the Diggers of the AIF detachment. The next day, 9 April, an apparently looted launch full of Japanese soldiers, with a machine-gun mounted on the bow, entered the bay, and the following morning the loaded launch landed about 20 heavily armed Japanese at the bombed plantation. The next day the transport, and the two Japanese warships exited the bay and headed out to sea.

No.4 Section was rallied for an introductory counter-attack against the Japanese, Lieutenant Palmer being struck with multiple illnesses wanted to lead the two patrol offensive, yet collapsed along the track and was carried back to camp HQ. His citation for the Military Medal partly reads "he was unable to walk for several weeks for severe septic infection on his arms and legs, weakness due to several attacks of malaria." Lance-Corporal McLean took command of the four man patrol, soon coming to the Lutheran Mission and found it firmly in Japanese hands, they eluded the enemy and after a few narrow escapes returned to camp HQ. The second patrol under Lance-Corporal Normoyle, three soldiers and an air-gunner, avoiding the main tracks, the patrol crept through the jungle to an enemy camp and that night gained valuable information on their adversaries arms and equipment. Then daylight appeared, and unfortunately the small Aussie patrol was seen by the Sons of Nippon, and a heavily armed group of about fifty began to chase the commandoes. Yet the Australians had been on the tropical island for months on short rations and were not as fit and healthy as they could have been due to such privations, so the Japanese welcome party eventually caught up with them. Here the Australians decided to sell their lives dearly and then the strangest thing happened. The Japanese detachment was led by an officer of the warrior class, small in stature, dressed in an immaculate uniform, with white gloves and armed with the traditional samurai sword, and with the black shinny boots looked like he'd just stepped of a ball-room dance floor. Brandishing his pistol the Japanese officer stopped the advance, perhaps thinking that the enemy were trapped, and gave his men a break for a cigarette smoke. So close were the Japanese the jungle screened Australians dared not breath, and when it looked like the Japanese were about to escalate the engagement and rid themselves of these pesky Australians, a miracle occurrence disrupted the enemy's plan. It was a tropical storm downpour, so hard and heavy it cut visibility to nil and created such a noisy roar the outnumbered and entrapped Australian patrol were able to execute their escape without incident. Until shortly after when an enemy ambush sentry was seen by the Australians who retraced their steps and faded into the green clad terrain. Lance-Corporal Normoyle and his merry band of intrepid adventurers had to detour on a wide arc, as more Japanese patrols closed in on them and after four exhausting days, sustained on four packets of biscuits, the five-man patrol returned to a warm welcome by the convalescent Lieutenant Palmer.

No.4 Section had a similar experience with heavenly providence opening up intervening in another patrol. This time the scouts were forward on a track with very little cover on either side, and upon hearing Japanese voices quickly approaching, all the two forward point-men could do was ready their weapons and wait to surprise the enemy with a last ditch stand in the open. Sapper Kerr recalled that at that moment there was an arrival of the most vicious rainstorm he'd ever experienced. It blotted out the landscape with its squall of rain, allowing the Australians to disappear unnoticed into the water soaked jungle. By now the Australian unit was running low on supplies, and although the military hierarchy had promised to send a surface craft for evacuation, the presence of the strong enemy naval forces in the area obviously made the operation impossible. The sick Lieutenant Palmer in the meantime, not to be a burden on his withdrawing troops because of the enemy pressure prepared for an overwhelming Japanese attack. He placed a chair in a position commanding the main approaches to the camp, armed with an Australian-manufactured Vickers machine-gun, four fully loaded rifles and a stack of grenades, and told his men of his determination to remain alone until overcome by the enemy. Anyway he was eventually convinced to join the move out by being transported in a chair borne by native carriers, and the Section depending on their own resources had prepared for evacuation beforehand with the hiding of a launch and a ketch at different locations along the island's southern coastline.

No.4 Section at 0800 hours on 12 April prepared to vacate the vicinity, forward Observation Post personnel were ordered in from guarding the track, as Private Coker thought that for two blokes it was "a most hazardous occupation" The evacuation party consisted of the District Officer Vertigan, Patrol Officer (or Police Master) Hamilton, the AWA wireless radio operator Taylor and twenty-six members of the Australian Army, the RAAF air-gunner, plus a few native bearers. After five days of hard marching over the jungles and hills of Manus Island they reached the south coast near where the launch Fidelis was hidden. The local natives told the Australians that the ketch Edith, a further twelve miles up the coast, was under the guns of a patrolling Japanese cruiser which kept a searchlight shining on the vessel at night in case of escape. Then typical of Lieutenant Palmer he decided he'd have to try and extricate the ketch from under the nose of the Japanese himself. He left Sergeant Griffith in command of the Section and accompanied by three police boys, in two canoes, rowed off into the gathering gloom. He arrived at the hiding place of the ketch, and indeed the Japanese were illuminating the area with their searchlight. Then while Lieutenant Palmer, still suffering from malaria, thought of what to do, the enemy made a blunder, they turned off the searchlight! So he scrambled aboard, raised the sail and gratefully departed into the darkness. Equally inexplicable was that when the Japanese discovered the ketch had gone they did not pursue the missing watercraft.

No.4 Section and evacuees split their number between the two boats, ten on Fidelis the rest on Edith, and their landfall objective was to reach Bagabag Island to the east of Karkar Island, which is off the northern New Guinea coast north-east of Madang. The sea journey was fortunately uneventful and upon arrival at Bagabag Island AWA operator Taylor set up his radio to contact Port Moresby and to get information on recent Japanese dispositions. The reply was to avoid Madang, as it was occupied by the Japanese, and the best course to follow was to land a little east of Bogadjim, infiltrate through the enemy positions and head for Mt. Hagen. An easy enough proposed plan on paper no doubt but the reality of the journey was immense. This small group traveled some two hundred miles through Japanese patrolled waters and disembarked from their escape boats at Bogadjim, Astrolabe Bay, northern New Guinea, near Madang, where the evacuation party met a young American missionary, Harry Dott, who in 1943 was callously executed by the occupying Japanese. They also met the large red-headed bloke named 'Bluey' Harris, who requisitioned the Edith and set a course across the Bismarck Sea to rescue those of the ill-fated AIF 2/22 Battalion group of Rabaul that were still roaming the jungles of New Britain looking for an escape route. Harris was to be killed in an ambush, March 1944, when operating with an Allied Intelligence Bureau party that went ashore at Hollendia, Netherlands East Indies.

No.4 Section soldiers suffering from poor health, recurring malarial attacks, and with Lieutenant Palmer on a stretcher, headed bare-footed out of Bogadjim to begin their epic journey across wilderness New Guinea. After three days of travel they reached the Upper Ramu River valley, passing over the Finnisterre mountain range. On 5 May they struggled through many flooded rivers and over the Bismarck mountain range finally arriving at the Mt. Hagen camp on 16 May where they met with many civilians that had been evacuated from Manus Island some six months previously. It had been a fine display of Australian audacity, fortitude and courage for such a small unit in such tropical conditions to complete an arduous journey, often repeated by others escaping the Japanese gauntlet across the razorback jungle clad mountains of Papua-New Guinea and the island dotted waters of the western Pacific in the dark days of 1942. As the Manus Section party wearily marched on through the village of Goroka their weapons were passed over to their sister Independent Company defending the airstrip at Wau. And from the New Guinea misty highlands the Manus evacuees flew in separate flights to Horn Island at the tip of Cape York peninsula on the north-east coast of Australia, then some were flown home and others went by Thursday Island aboard the Wandana, and at Cairns on 22 May 1942 No.4 Section was dispersed as everybody left for a well deserved leave.




Note The Japanese invasion forces assigned for Manus Operation (April 1942) consisted of two parts:
Invasion Force
30th Destroyer Division with light cruiser Yajoi and destroyers Mutsuki and Mochizuki
transport ships Seikai Maru and Mishima Maru
Covering Force
6th Cruiser Division with light cruisers Aoba, Furutaka, Kako and Kinugasa
18th Cruiser Division with light cruisers Tatsuta and Tenryu

The elements of the 8th Special Base Force (probably platoon size) were lifted by transport ships Seikai Maru and Mishima Maru. The Japanese troops landed at Manus Island on 8 April 1942 and at Hermit Island, west of Manus Island on 10 April 1942.


Note The 2nd Maizuru Special Naval Landing Force was deactivated on February 1st, 1942, became a unit of the 8th Special Base Force. This was an interim unit. It would become the 85th Guard Unit on April 10th, 1942.

Note Remember that the correct usage was the "Unit of the Special 8th Base Force". This was the old 2nd Maizuru SNLF.

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Copyright Klemen. L. 1999-2000
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942

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