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The 35th Battalion

Chapter Ten — Initiation to Battle

page 84

Chapter Ten
Initiation to Battle

(The following story, reprinted from Kiwi, concerns the escape of two platoons of the 35th Battalion from superior enemy forces after a six day hell of fighting on Vella Lavella.)

Two days before the expected contact with the main body of Japanese, a party of fifty-odd men set out from headquarters to sit on a main trail leading from the enemy positions to the inland hills. Their objective was the top of a long ridge running 1,000 yards up from the coast, where they were to guard against possible enemy escape from the enveloping movement of the main force. A native guide showed the two platoons, under command of Lieutenants Albon and Beaumont, the way in. Though they marched all day Sunday, they were still an hour from the trail at dusk and reached it on the following morning, when they established themselves as firmly as possible on either side of the track and began the patient task of watching and waiting.

The track here was well worn. It had been used by the Japs trekking into the Marquana Bay-Timbala Bay area ever since the American invasion of the island a month previously, and much of the undergrowth had been smashed down, leaving a few clearings in the midst of which grew tall thick trees with flange-like roots forming natural protective fire positions. Beyond the radius of twenty to thirty yards, undergrowth closed in once more. There was no view through the forest which showed either the sea or any landmarks.

Here on the Monday morning, our native guide saw forty Japs close to our objective. He was very excited, and counted their numbers on his fingers. Two sections were taken up the track ready to receive the enemy, but by midday, when all were in position the approach of between ninety and 100 Japs froze them to the ground. The enemy came in parties of various sizes. They carried rations and page 85arms, and passed within six feet of the troops without the slightest sign of being aware of their presence. The troops could not open fire, because they were greatly outnumbered and were split at that stage into two parties, one on either side of the track.

They stayed where they were until about four o'clock, when a clatter in the gully announced a Jap attack on one platoon. The Japs had made a mass attack, jumping from tree to tree, and letting go with all they had, light machine guns, grenades, and rifles. The platoon held them off with steady rifle fire and as soon as opportunity presented, the other platoon got a few bursts into the enemy's flank which allowed the platoon to rush over to the other side of the track and form a united defence. They poured a few magazines into the Japs who faded into the trees, losing several dead.

Here the story is put in the words of Lieutenant Beaumont who later led the men down to the shore from which they were rescued:

'They surrounded us as we lay on the side of a hill in a perimeter about twenty by thirty yards and roared round us shouting at the top of their voices and belting grenades and machine gun fire at us. They charged again, and we fired only when we saw a target. We tossed grenades behind trees and into hollows, and the Jap retired for half an hour. Then he came again, and one man, probably an officer, stood upright to take a look at us. Possibly he thought we were all dead, and he called out something. But we changed his shouting to a scream and no other Jap stood up to get the same fate.'

'Fortunately we were left alone all night, though we could hear the Jap moving round us, and talking now and again. But he did not come in. We were short of rations now. We had had to abandon them in the first moments of the Jap attack. Our haversacks were lost too, and all that was left was what each man could carry in ammunition. Some did not even have their water bottles. The next day the Jap tried again, and every day until Friday, until the troops were so weak that they knew that remaining in their present position indefinitely would be fatal. On the Thursday, Lieutenant Albon and two men made a dash through the Jap lines to get word to headquarters, but the party on the ridge could wait no longer. They had taken sufficiently heavy toll of the enemy to make him extremely cautious. A score Japs lay dead outside the Kiwi perimeter.'

'So we cut poles for stretchers and prepared to fight our way page 86to the coast, carrying the wounded with us. We had buried some of our dead; our losses in killed were very few. The morale of the wounded and the unscathed was wonderful. Not a moan came from any of the wounded men. Those who could walk or help themselves did so. They needed water badly, but we had none to give them. We hoped to find some nearer the coast, and they had had nothing to eat for days.'

'So on the Friday we fought our way out, through 1,000 yards of jungle track between us and the coast. We had plenty of fighting on the way, but it was better than sitting waiting to be picked off, and growing faint from hunger and thirst. It was wonderful how the men responded to the decision to get on the move. They brightened up, laughing as they fought down the hill, giving the Jap everything they had and taking good care of themselves. We had a few casualities, but nothing compared with what the enemy took.'

'At the bottom, still inside the Jap positions, we hauled the stretcher wounded through mangrove swamps of black mud oozing deep to our knees. There wasn't a groan from them. We managed to collect a little water after we had formed our new perimeter on the fringe of the bush—enough from a hole scraped in the mud and from the hollow of a tree stump to fill three water bottles. Two we reserved for the wounded. One I handed round among the rest. We had fiftyone in our party then, six of them wounded. When the one bottle had been passed round its allotted 45 men and came back to me there was still water in it. That will show the spirit of the men.'

A perimeter was finally established on the shore edge. It was a case of backs to the sea but at least there was a hope of attracting attention from this position. That afternoon a barge which was spotting artillery fire sighted the party who were waving madly. An attempt was made to get the barge close in shore but the coral ledge projecting nearly 300 yards off shore made this impossible. However, their position was now pinpointed and hopes of rescue prevailed. The rescue would be hazardous, for here was the focal point of the Jap lines, so central, in fact, that when an enemy aircraft dropped rations during Friday evening, a parachute fell in the centre of the perimeter. Thus, the troops enjoyed their first meal in five days from the fish cakes, plums and oatmeal of the Jap emergency food packets.

page 87

On Saturday, the sixth day, a barge returned with a rescue party on board. As it grated on the coral ledge off shore an artillery barrage was laid down just outside the perimeter of the beleaguered troops while the main body of troops endeavoured to force their way overland in support of the rescue.

One of the beach party crawled and swam towards the barge. Flashes of fire came from the screening bushes as two more of the beach party slowly crossed those 300 yards. One man reached the barge and an officer climbed over the side to help him in. He was shot from the shore as he leaned down to help the swimmer. A transport driver, who had volunteered to go with the original patrol and had been the life and soul of the besieged party, clambered on board and manned a machine gun. A Jap bullet grazed his head and he fell to the bottom of the boat unconscious. On recovering he manned the gun again but was killed while his first bursts were peppering the bush on shore. The barge could not wait any longer and returned to to its base.

Another rescue party was organised. Five men, including two officers, planned to swim ashore behind the protection of life jackets and haul in a rope by which at least the wounded could be evacuated. The barge moved in again, and the five men, vividly recollecting the fate of the first attempt, set out on that perilous crossing of the coral ledge. One stopped for a moment on the way to free the rope from a shelf of rock. He was the sole survivior. None ahead of him, who came directly into the Jap fire, reached the shore, though Lieutenant Griffiths, who, only two days before had gallantly led a platoon from a dangerous pocket under heavy fire, scrambled within a few yards of his goal before he fell. The third, and successful venture, was postponed until nightfall, when selected swimmers from a host of volunteers dragged a rubber dinghy and a canoe to the shore. Two barges lay off at the edge of the coral, and though the procession of men took three hours to move from the beach to the barges, every man was safely evacuated before midnight.

The night of the rescue the shore party heard the barge engines about eight o'clock. Remembering the fate of the members of the rescue party who had died trying to reach the shore during the afternoon, they waited in suspense. The barge engines had stopped. There was no sound. They could see nothing in the blackness of the night. And then, six feet from the shore a head appeared, and another, and page 88the dim outline of a canoe and rubber dinghy. A rope from the barges was secured, and first out were those who had been wounded. They were laid carefully in the two small craft. Their escort took knives to fight off the sharks. Then a dozen at a time the rest of the party slid into the water, crawled and swam to the boats. The perimeter on shore grew smaller, until at last six men, armed with grenades, remained. They slipped away unmolested. Clothing, watches, personal gear, were left on shore. Only the soldier's greatest friend, his rifle, Tommy gun, or Bren gun went with him to safety.

The next evening the men of those platoons approached the padre with a request that they hold a short service of thanksgiving at their deliverance. Behind a thatched Methodist church in the native village of Iringila, where before the war New Zealand missionaries took the Gospel to the Solomon Islanders, fifty men listened in the peace of a Sunday evening to a simple practical talk on the text of 'Greater Love Hath No Man Than This, That a Man Lay Down His Life For His Friend,' and joined together in the singing of the Doxology … 'Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.'