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The 31st of March 2021 marked 100 years of service to Australia. Some years ago, I took a tour of a small military museum in Toowoomba dedicated to the Battle at Milne Bay in Papua Guinea. 

One of the Militia units that held the Japanese at Milne Bay was the 25th Battalion from Toowoomba and the Darling Downs, originally raised prior to the First World War. From Milne Bay, the 25th Battalion went on to fight in Bougainville, clearing the Japanese from one of their last strongholds north of Australia. . source 

“Some of us may forget that, of all the Allies, it was the Australians who first broke the spell of invincibility of the Japanese Army.”
- Quote from Field Marshall Sir William Slim, Commander of WW2 Commonwealth forces in Burma (and later Governor General of Australia).

And that first fracture in the Japanese Land Forces strength came at Milne Bay in September 1942.

The predominantly Australian force spent two weeks defending the airstrip that was crucial in the war against the Japanese in the region. The army units were ably supported by two squadrons of RAAF Kittyhawks who were based at Milne Bay. The Japanese had been hugely successful in the Philippines and in South East Asia - a victory in New Guinea would cement their strength in the Pacific. Port Moresby had a significant allied presence and an allied airfield. It was therefore essential to the Japanese plan that they secure this airfield at Milne Bay so that they could gain a foothold to assault Port Moresby.

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What must have angered them, of course, was the decision to establish an airfield at Milne Bay was made because the allies had intercepted and decoded a Japanese communication that discussed the importance of setting up an airfield at Milne Bay. The allies realised that they needed to take the initiative and subsequently landed Australian troops in the area in June 1942 with the express purpose of building an airfield. 

US Engineer units, assisted by Australian troops and local Papuan villagers, started building an airstrip, a wharf and the construction of roads. The coconut palm plantations were cleared and an innovative American ‘Marston Mat’ runway was laid.  This comprised pierced steel planks ('PSP') 0.25 inches thick but lightened with dozens of circular holes stamped through the structure.  The planks clipped together to provide a firm surface in order to overcome the soggy conditions that were unavoidable in a heavy rainfall area.

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A Kittyhawk taxies over 'Marston Mat' pierced-steel planking laid on the mud at Milne Bay. 

Within 6 weeks, this team of unlikely heroes managed to work through mud, mosquitoes, malaria and supply shortages; blistering oppressive humidity and heat  - all the while under a veil of secrecy should their mission be exposed to the Japanese and bombed before completion. By the end of June, 35-tonne radar aerial had been constructed using makeshift tools and a whole lot of ingenuity and hard work. The Radar Station was ready to go by the 8th of August, but,  because of the surrounding mountainous terrain,  it could only provide warnings of medium to high-altitude attacks.  So our boys set up a network of ‘coast watcher’ observer units, equipped with radios, and relied on old fashioned visual sightings to warn of any impending attack. 

Back in Queensland, the 75th Squadron were rebuilding their strength under the command of Squadron Leader Les Jackson.  There was a core of experienced pilots for the RAAF Kittyhawks  and these men had fought the Japanese over Port Moresby. They were ably back up by some veteran RAAF pilots who had been sent from service in England. 

The 76th Squadron, a new Kittyhawk squadron had been sent from Townsville in Australia. Led by Peter Turnbull, who had already seen action in Port Moresby and the Middle East.  These pilots were also experienced men and even included the Spitfire ace 'Bluey' Truscott. 

When these newly arrived pilots splashed down at Milne Bay I use that word deliberately for splashdown they did. Into a quagmire of mud  They were soon joined by detachments of Hudson reconnaissance bombers from the 32nd and 6th Squadrons.  RAAF personnel numbers at Gurney Strip rapidly built up to over 600.

Incredibly, without the Japanese having any clue what was going on, by August there were around 7,500 Australian personnel and 1400 American personnel on the ground. All preparing for the inevitable: the attack once the Japanese became aware of what had been going on " below the radar. "

The allies luck ran out on 4th of August and the Japanese started mounting aerial assaults.

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By 24th August the threat had become a full on attack and Japanese landing barges were sighted north of Milne Bay. 350 Japanese Marines were marching towards Milne Bay. The Kitty Hawks swept into action and bombed the landing craft and destroyed the Japanese supplies, thus leaving the Japanese Marines stranded. On the 25th, a convoy comprising two transports carrying more than 1000 Japanese Marines, accompanied by a strong naval escort ,  was observed heading from Rabaul. 

A planned strike by B-17 bombers from Northern Queensland were unfortunately unable to find the convoy as rain clouds obscure their vision.  But the Hudsons and Kittyhawks from Milne Bay could fly under the clouds and dive bomb and strafe the enemy forces. A Hudson managed to hit one of the troop transports with a bomb, but , when darkness descended that night, the convoy kept coming.  Things were looking grim. By dawn on the 26th, the Japanese were on the doorstep. 

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A stranded landing-barge and wrecked stores litter the Japanese landing site.

The Australian Kittyhawks were immediately on the defensive and destroyed the barges and supply dumps.  Between the ground troops, the kittyhawks and the American B-25 and B-26 bombers, the Japanese had been denied their much-needed supplies of fuel and regular supplies.

At dawn on the 27th of August, the Kittyhawks were again strafing the enemy. 

The attack went on. And on. 

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Japanese Val dive bomber

The death of the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Peter Turnbull when he crashed during a low-level strafing mission saw the command of 76th Squadron pass to " Bluey"  Truscott.

When darkness fell, the Kitthawks were unable to fly. This gave the Japanese troops time to regroup and they commenced using their tanks to attack the ground troops. However, the relentless mud became a blessing as the Japanese  had to abandon their bogged down tanks.

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By dawn the following day, the Kittyhawks were back in the air, They were taking off and often firing on the enemy before their landing gear was up. The Japanese, by now, were within 3 km ( roughly a mile ) from the airfield. It was the extraordinary teamwork between air and ground troops that, in many respects, saved the day.  The boys on the ground let off flares and smoke shells in the area that the kittyhawks needed to bomb. This proved to be a brilliant strategy because the Japanese troops were reluctant to fire on the ground troops and expose their location. The ground troops moved forward.

By the 29th of August there were around 9,500 ground troops at Milne Bay.  There was also a new Japanese naval threat that was spotted approaching Milne Bay.  This convoy was made up of a cruiser and eight destroyers that carried a total of 750 Japanese reinforcements.  The poor visibility made it impossible for the Kittyhawks to respond. By the 30th, the kittyhawks were once again able to do their job and set about the task of strafing the enemy. The Japanese lay low in the jungle and waited for reinforcements. They arrived later that night.

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Australian at Milne Bay

By 9am, on the morning of 31st August, the end was nigh for the Japanese and victory was the allies to be had.  The kittyhawks were keeping the Japanese pinned down with their constant aerial bombardment and this allowed the ground troops to push forward. By the 5th of September, the pivotal Japanese supply base had been captured; the Japanese Navy had started evacuating their surviving troops and left their dead in the ruins of a failed campaign. 

There is absolutely no doubt that, without the support of the RAAF Kittyhawks, the men of the Australian Forces on the ground would never have been able to pull off the impossible. The defeat of the Japanese in one of the most pivotal battles in the Second World War South Pacific defense.

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‘Polly’, an authentic Milne Bay Kittyhawk,  displayed in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. 

The advancing Japanese Army retreated because the defeat at Milne Bay had scuppered their plans to launch an attack on Port Moresby. Without the Milne Bay airstrip, they could not defeat Moresby and take control of New Guinea.And then control of the entire theatre of war in the South Pacific. 

When I cast my mind back to that day at the Milne Bay Museum in Toowoomba, when I first learned about this forgotten battle and forgotten heroism, I often wonder why we, as a Nation are choosing to forget the bravery, the teamwork and the sacrifice that has been made so that we can live the lives we enjoy today? Why are we so quick to forget our unsung heroes, our finest hours, and our indomitable Australian spirit?

As ANZAC Day approaches, we must always remember to NEVER FORGET.

 

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