New Guinea, Pearl Harbor, and the ever-resourceful NGVR
By Susan Prior
This year, 2017, marks 75 years since the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (the NGVR) was mobilised against the Japanese. In the greater scheme of things, and across the whole arena of World War II, this unit played a relatively minor role, albeit a highly strategic one, fighting under extreme hardship – such is the terrain of New Guinea.
Because of its minor-league status, the NGVR often gets overlooked, forgotten in the clamour of heroic efforts that, rightfully, demand our recognition. But in a corner of Brisbane, in the suburb of Wacol, is an unassuming museum dedicated to this unit, chock full of memorabilia, records and artefacts. It is the only museum in Australia dedicated to this militia-style battalion and its successor the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (PNGVR), and I can highly recommend a visit.
Assembled on a sausage-sizzle budget and a couple of modest government grants, this tiny museum – occupying one of five remnant historic army buildings that are facing-down the creeping industrial landscape of Wacol – is gladly open to the public for a $3 entry fee. And a gold-coin donation for the cuppa that comes with a smile and a personal guide around the exhibits by either museum curator John Holland, or secretary Colin Gould.
Here is a small insight into the NGVR and their role in World War II.
New Guinea sits just to the north of Australia, only 150 km away from the mainland’s most northerly jumping-off point of Cape York, with a hopscotch of islands sprinkled across the Torres Straits in between. Running east to west across this island’s spine are the New Guinea Highlands populated by traditional tribal communities. Today, Papua New Guinea is the eastern end of this island, with Indonesia controlling the western end – Western New Guinea.
In the Highlands the terrain is precipitous, and the climate humid; leeches are plentiful, and to this day many areas are accessible only by foot.
The NGVR was formed in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II as a militia-style battalion, the only Australian army unit to be raised, mobilised, fought and disbanded – in 1943 when it had served its purpose – wholly overseas. By 1940, the unit had 23 officers and 482 other ranks. At all times this unit was in the Australian Army Order of Battle, in other words, it was a front-line unit.
When war first broke out, many Australian ex-pats wanted to return to Australia to enlist. This would have left New Guinea very short of manpower for day-to-day activities; so to work out who was staying and who was leaving the men drew straws. ‘Horrie’ Harris, who was employed by the Bank of New South Wales in Wau, was one who drew the short straw and stayed behind, instead joining the NGVR to ‘do his bit’ for the war effort. Horrie recorded his story for his family, and it was kindly lent to me by his daughter Viv Rogers when I researched this story.
The NGVR was made up of a mixed bag of recruits; they came from as far afield as Europe, England, New Zealand, Australia and Asia. Some were running or working in the gold mines, others on plantations, and still others worked in the service industries – like Horrie – or for the government, all supporting the ex-pat community in New Guinea. Many of them had served in World War I and were too old or unfit to sign up for the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), and so enrolled enthusiastically for an initial two-year period and the meagre allowance of £1 a year.
The Australian Army sent the khaki fabric for their uniforms, which were then made up by Chinese ex-pat tailors. Australia also supplied them with felt hats, bandoliers, leather belts, boots, puttees and their own brass insignia.
Initially head-quartered at Rabaul, the NGVR had no radio, no submachine guns, no grenades and no mortars. Arms consisted mainly of World War I–era .303 rifles and some Vickers and Lewis machine guns. By 1941, the seriousness of the war overseas had drawn many of the NGVR’s younger and fitter members into the AIF.
Puttees, or leg wraps, are the long strips of cloth that are wound around the soldier’s leg from ankle to knee, affording support and protection. The word is derived from the Hindi word patti meaning bandage.
They were under-resourced and had minimal training. Getting supplies from the regular Australian Army was near impossible, so when civil control was handed to NGVR, ever-resourceful, they cleared towns like Lae of all non-perishable food, medicines, beer – and anything else they could lay their hands on – and took these into the hills, creating stores to keep themselves going.
And so they began a guerrilla warfare against the Japanese.
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; the very next day the Japanese flew a reconnaissance mission over Rabaul on the island of New Britain, to the north of the main island of New Guinea. It was this same day that Major General Basil Morris assumed command of NGVR, placing it on full-time duty. The expatriate women and children were evacuated from New Guinea by Christmas Day 1941. After a persistent bombing attack by the Japanese over a period of more than two weeks, the unit was mobilised on 21 January 1942, just before the Japanese invaded Rabaul on the 23rd. The Japanese swiftly overcame the 1400-strong Lark Force comprising the 2/22nd Battalion AIF, its supporting detachments and 80 men of NGVR – taking control of the town that day.
With the invasion of the main island around Salamaua and Lae imminent, the remaining civilians were evacuated, with the last of them leaving Salamaua on 24 January, 1942.
By March, Japan had advanced to the main island of New Guinea, occupying the towns of Lae and Salamaua, and strategically placing itself with the aim of capturing Port Moresby to the south, and then on further, of course, to Australia.
Here is the story of one campaign undertaken by Kanga Force, with men from the NGVR and the 2/5th Independent Company.
According to Corporal Horrie Harris, our bank teller from Wau, on the night of 29 June 1942, Captain Norman Winning decided ‘it was time to raid the Japanese’ base at Salamaua. He had 71 soldiers: 50 from 2/5th Independent Company and 21 NGVR. It was to take place at 0312 hours. The men broke up into small parties of between six and ten, each with a job to do.
Here are Horrie’s recollections of that skirmish:
‘Before moving in to help Commando*, a Jap face appeared at the window of the house next door, so as I ran for the house I gave the area a quick burst of Tommy Gun fire to stop any interferences … we got the job done amid some fairly close shelling.
‘When we were withdrawing at dawn, the enemy appeared in great strength about half a mile away on our left, and the fearless Norm Winning was tempted to attack them. I must say I was more than glad when he decided not to, as we were greatly outnumbered with 71 of us and approx. 400 of them, and the enemy were eager to tangle with us.
The word was whispered back along the line of attacking troups, ‘There is a guard on the corner of the drome**,’ in other words ‘Keep quiet’.
One of the NGVR chaps, a first War man, old and hard of hearing, when the message was whispered to him, said out loudly, ‘What was that?’
The guard disappeared and when the lads got into position to commence the assault, the enemy gave them a warm reception.
We returned next morning via Komiatum to Mubo. The raid was a great success, with only three wounded on our side, and large losses to the enemy. We left the Japs in a most disturbed state of mind, and no doubt feeling anything but safe … I believe this was the first offensive action in New Guinea.’
*2/5th Independent Company, ** aerodrome
The Japanese lost at least 100 men in the raid. A week later they mounted a retaliation, sending a large fighting force of some 90 men up to Mubo, a distance of about 16 km as the crow flies from Salamaua.
Horrie continues with his story:
‘When the enemy appeared at the end of the small Mubo Airstrip, approx. 400 yards away, they were too obvious and only trying to draw some fire to ascertain where our troops were. The lads withheld their fire, and presently a large number of Nips came out into the open and up the track, and when nice and close they copped the lot from the NGVR and Commandos. The enemy retreated to Salamaua in the darkness carrying their wounded with the troops chasing them up.
The Japs carried their flag very prominently, which they lost, and is now, I believe in the Lae Museum.’
Over the next few months the fighting continued, with the NGVR often in hostile terrain. They were scattered in small sub-units along the leech-riven tracks that ran inland from the coast to the New Guinea Highlands, particularly around the Salamaua–Lae–Wau region. By April 1943, with numbers dwindling because of sickness – many suffered ailments caused by poor diet and the tropical climate, including beriberi and malaria – the exhausted NGVR were disbanded.
They had done a fantastic job, with limited resources. As a unit, they displayed resourcefulness by developing their own strategies and by using their home-turf knowledge of the language, the tribes, and the terrain.
It is believed that somewhere between 600 and 850 men served with the NGVR in the four years it existed; there are 95 names of those who were killed or died while serving with the unit listed on the Shrine of Memories in ANZAC Square, Brisbane.
The NGVR and PNGVR (formed after the war, in 1951) Military Museum is situated on 1.5 hectares of land in Wacol, Brisbane, formerly part of Camp Columbia and used by the Americans during World War II as a storage depot and training camp. Other sections of this tract of land went on to become the Wacol Migrant Hostel, and then the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre.
The museum, thanks to a herculean effort on the part of a group of volunteers, was officially opened in February 2006. Everything in the museum, right down to the fridge to store the milk for the cuppa John will give you, has been donated. It is a treasure trove of fascinating objects, from bully beef tins to old phones, examples of uniforms to stories of heroism.
If you are in Brisbane, it is definitely worth an hour of your time to visit. Don’t be put off that there are no formal opening times for this fascinating museum. Give John a call and he will be happy to make a time to show you around and give you a cuppa, whether it is just for you or a group.