The second week of December is an important period in Australian history, and also in my own. For it was in December 1942 that Australian troops were gearing up for the next phase in World War II after the invading Japanese had been driven back over the Owen Stanley Range in Papua New Guinea.
So much has been written about Kokoda, from tales of the “ragged bloody heroes” — barely trained militiamen who blunted the Japanese thrust — to the hostile terrain itself, that the subsequent events have largely been overlooked. Within months of the relief of Kokoda, Australian and American troops were engaged in the first offensive land battle of the Pacific War, a turning of the tide that would eventually triumph in Tokyo Bay three years later.
In all the sentimental pride in the Kokoda campaign, what has often been ignored was the infighting within the Australian and United States army high commands, so vicious that at times it was detrimental to the conduct of the war itself. I’m not Robinson Crusoe in asserting that the ultimate cause of the perpetual back-stabbing among the generals was the seething ambition of General Douglas MacArthur.
Disparaged as ‘Dougout Doug’ by the US troops he left behind to become prisoners of war in the Philippines, and shamed by his midnight flit to Australia, this supreme egotist was in no mood to be tied down in the foetid jungles of New Guinea while former subordinates of his, like General ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, were about to take a huge step onto the world stage.
MacArthur, as is well known, never visited the Kokoda front and so had no appreciation of the conditions faced by the scratch force that Australia had put into the field. So, he would show these ‘cowardly’ Aussies how American super heroes would fight: thus, Buna was to be a wholly American show that would put MacArthur’s fighting credentials up there in lights.
Buna, on the north coast of Papua, was the Japanese forward staging post for the New Guinea invasion and, naturally, its garrison was well-armed, well dug-in and self-sacrificially determined to hold out. Inexperienced Americans were no match for them. So that’s where my family’s small brush with history came in. On December 7, a small transport vessel, the SS Karsik dropped anchor in Port Moresby harbour and took aboard four thinly-armoured tanks and 26 men of the 2/6 Armoured Regiment, the spearhead of an Australian force destined to pull MacArthur’s chestnuts out of the Buna fire.
The Japanese had had months to prepare the defences of their bridgehead, using a complex interlocking system of bunkers constructed from felled plantation palms, big enough and sodden enough to make them impregnable to infantry assault, aircraft bombing or artillery fire. Five hundred American deaths in a few days proved that. The Australian tanks, however, were the game-changer, being able to sally up close to each bunker and fire shells through the gunnery slits, before the supporting Australian infantry would deal with any survivors. Dirty, dangerous work for all concerned, especially as the fearless Japanese were not going to throw in the towel once they overcame their shock at seeing Allied tanks on the battlefield.
(I’ve sometimes thought there is a great film script in Buna, about the juxtaposition of the self-indulgent ambitions of the generals far behind the lines with the hellish terror of fighting in a tiny tank — the Nazi tank scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade shows the potential.)
Confusion reigns on all battlefields and Dudley McCarthy’s Official War History of the first day at Buna — December 18, 1942 — is no exception. Tanks were knocked out in suicide attacks by Japanese soldiers (‘knocked out’ being a euphemism for blown up, incinerating the occupants), but which tanks and which personnel were actually engaged was shrouded in mystery.
My father drove one of the tanks that day and his was blown shy-high by a limpet mine stuck to its side and the crew barely escaped with their lives. But he was a very reserved man so it is to my enduring embarrassment that I never asked him to tell me what actually happened at Buna, and how it felt, and all the rest of it. I was too busy getting on with my own puny life to realise that under the same roof as me was someone who had participated in one of the seminal events of modern history, which I was then studying at university!
Twenty years after his death, conscience drove me to revisit the issue and discover what did happen that day in December 1942. Fortunately, quite a few Buna survivors were still alive and I spoke to many but, believing that the war diary and other records of the regiment had been destroyed by flood damage in the War Memorial annex in Canberra, I had no context to judge the significance of anything I was told. Later, when the history of the unit was eventually written, it was revealed that the regimental records had not been damaged and thus the names of the original 26 who sailed in the Karsik were known: and so the notes I had taken from those interviews of a decade before acquired real flesh and blood.
So it was that when I went to the War Memorial one Sunday morning in the Two Thousands to pay my respects to its special Buna exhibit, what might have been an interesting visit for a military history buff, took on huge personal significance. Because the centrepiece of that exhibit, I found, was the recovered, refurbished turret of one of the tanks burned out on December 18, 1942. And, further, the curator’s note explained that it was tank No. 2033, nicknamed ‘Captain Gore’, commanded by Lieutenant Grant Curtiss.
I could then place my hand on that icon of the past, almost as an act of communion, and say that the crew members who served their country and its people that day in tank No. 2033, do indeed have names that deserve to be remembered. Vale Grant Curtiss, Allan Gosson, Rod Jones, ‘Strawb’ McDonald and Vern Wise.