Bougainville in World War II (4) – The War

The war on Bougainville can be divided into stages, each sharply different: from January until August 1942, few Japanese arrived and they rarely came into direct contact with the remaining Australians; from August 1942 to July 1943 the coastwatchers provided critical reports on Japanese aircraft and shipping while major battles were fought in the Solomons; in mid-1943 the Japanese briefly dominated all Bougainville; from November 1943 to October 1944 the Americans held their base at Torokina and fought off Japanese counter-attacks; and from October 1944 to the end of the war the Australians took over from the Americans and began the recapture of Bougainville.

The Japanese did not occupy Buka Passage until 30 March 1942, five weeks after they landed at Rabaul, and after they had established their first base in the British Solomons. Until mid-1942 there were rarely more than 50 Japanese on Bougainville. In July a small detachment controlled Kieta for a few weeks, but it was not until December that the Japanese came back. For much of Bougainville, Japanese occupation was only effective from 1943 when the build-up of the Japanese Army, Navy, civilians and auxiliaries reached its maximum of 65,000. (The largest number of foreigners on Bougainville was probably early in 1944 when the Americans had over 60,000 inside the Torokina perimeter — a total of about 130,000 foreigners to 50,000 Bougainvilleans.) No battles were fought on Bougainville until the end of 1943: for Bougainville the war began with threats and rumours, Europeans leaving, minor movements of aircraft, ships and troops, and only isolated violence. It was a long, gentle and yet, unsettling introduction.

At Buka Passage most Bougainvilleans welcomed, or accepted, the arrival of the Japanese. Many outsiders have assumed that they saw in the Japanese the fulfilment of the prophecies of Pako and Sanop and that stories must soon have been circulating that the Japanese ‘king’ was coming to issue cargo to the people. But Read thought that most Bougainvilleans had been entirely pragmatic: the Australians were gone, some had left in panic, and the Japanese were obviously the new power in the islands. Because it was uncertain how long the Japanese would be dominant, prudent people simply had to make their accommodation with them. Any hope that the Japanese might be more tolerant and generous was soon destroyed. Labourers conscripted by the Japanese were less likely to be paid, and slight resistance could provoke fury. The elderly chief at Lemankoa in the north of Buka refused to come in to collect his Japanese armband. Buka people brought him in and a Japanese soldier cut his throat in public. The Japanese flogged other Buka leaders thought to be uncooperative. But some people still disappeared when the Japanese were in the area, and — in the light of later events — no one should be surprised that Japanese surveyors found that their marker pegs were pulled out. Saposa Islanders from north-west Bougainville even sent a surveyor’s flag to Read’s camp just to show him what they were doing.

The police, because they were trained, had rifles, prestige and the backing of either the Allies or Japanese. They had power and choices. Mackie found that Corporal Sali from Talasea (New Britain), ‘an excellent type of man’, attached himself to the Australian soldiers. Later Mackie learnt that Sali had had a disagreement with Read, and ‘it seemed that Mackie was collecting all Read’s disgruntled police boys’. The police could also choose to work for the Japanese. Seven left their posts within days of the first Japanese raid, and although some of them were approached by their fellow policemen, they had had enough of the Australians. Four of the seven were from Bougainville, and may have felt that their first loyalty was to their home communities. In March 1942 Read sent Corporal Auna, another Talasea recruit, to carry a radio part to Mackie on Buka. But Auna had taken part in looting that he was supposed to prevent, and he knew that he was likely to be punished. He took the package to Mackie and then went to the Japanese and led them to the Australians. Only the intervention of Usaia Sotutu and his followers enabled the four Australians to escape.

When the government officers and the troops were enforcing their war-time morality, the police had more power than they did on violent pre-war frontiers. In August 1942 at Tetakia in north Bougainville some people found and kept the contents of a parachute dropped to supply the Australians. The police decided who was responsible and while Mackie carried out the formal enquiry and decided on the punishments — a house burnt, people fined and given up to 20 strokes with a cane — it was the police who carried them out. The Australians warned villagers that they would be executed if they helped the Japanese, and when some people guided the Japanese to troops near Inus plantation, the Australians lined the village, told them the guilty would be killed and then instructed the police to shoot one of the men who led the Japanese. Calling in a bombing raid on defiant villagers made punishment more impersonal, but it was still the police who lit the marker fires and then ran for their lives as soon as they heard the aircraft coming. In April 1942 Sergeant Waramabi from the Sepik and Constable Sanei went to a store dump near Katsinkoveri on the Bonis Peninsula, and found some bags of rice had been stolen. Attempting to recover them, the police were attacked, Waramabi was killed, and the wounded Sanei escaped. Compared with peace time, this was an extraordinary act of defiance, and from then the police were determined to even the score.

In 1943 when the Japanese were in pursuit of the coastwatchers, the police carried out feats of endurance and daring, walking vast distances and negotiating with villagers who might well betray them. Finding two men on a track, the police suspected that the Japanese had posted them there to keep watch. Forced to walk in front, one made a break for the jungle, the police fired at him, and probably missed, but the other was shot immediately. Some of the clashes with the Japanese and their Bougainvillean allies were brief but violent. At the attack on Read’s post at Aita in the central north in mid-1943 a ‘battle royal’ was waged — ‘the air was filled with automatic rifle fire, the bursting of grenades; and finally, the raking rattle of heavier machine guns’. The Bougainvilleans with the Japanese knew many of the men with Read and they called out to them by name. On Bougainville there was intimacy between enemies.

Nineteen police came off Bougainville by submarine in July 1943. All except one was from another district, and that one was from Nissan. Among those police who stayed were three from Bougainville, but others were from New Britain, the Sepik, Madang, Morobe and New Ireland, some of whom were married to Bougainvilleans. For the police, the struggle to survive on Bougainville or the voyage out, the reception in Guadalcanal, and the transfer to other units (some in Australia), was a continuation of extraordinary experiences.

For the people of Bougainville the first 18 months of war were a prelude only, but there was no doubt the old values had been turned upside down. Frank Burns, the manager at Teopasino plantation, surrendered to the Japanese at Buka Passage and he was seen working on the grass-cutting line before he was shipped to Rabaul. Some property belonging to Chinese settlers, planters and the government was looted, and the people who did the looting, having reason to fear the return of the Australians, were pushed towards the Japanese. The people guiding the Japanese to Stuart’s hideout were those who had looted Mabiri and stolen pigs on Tenakau, and Stuart accepted that they wanted him out of the way. But across Bougainville the looting was sporadic; and it was often done after places had been abandoned and when goods were likely to be destroyed by bombs or neglect, and when Japanese foraging parties were known to be shooting plantation cattle and stripping and destroying the contents of buildings. Frank Roche, one of the Kupei miners, stayed because he said he had valuable equipment to look after, but people from the coast north of Kieta led the Japanese inland where they captured Roche, led him like a dog on a rope till he was exhausted, and then one of the Japanese beheaded him. Tom Ebery and the Chinese trader Mack Lee were killed in similarly humiliating circumstances. Two Chinese women were said to have been raped to death by Bougainvilleans. George Stevenson, the pre-war patrol officer from Kangu, returned to work with the coastwatchers in 1943 and was ambushed and killed attempting to set up an observation post in the south. In another combined Bougainville and Japanese attack on a camp one Australian was killed and three taken prisoner. The Japanese increased their pressure on Bougainvilleans by executing some men who admitted they had carried for the Australians. The Australians responded with violence and subtlety. In June 1943 two Bougainvilleans returned by submarine with relief troops. On New Britain when the Japanese landed, the two Bougainvilleans had been conscripted by the Japanese, taken by ship to Buna, and forced to carry in the Kokoda campaign. Rescued by the Australians, they had been sent to Australia and were now expected to tell their fellow islanders of the Allied victories in Papua and of the power of the Allied armies yet to be directed at the Japanese on Bougainville.

The Australians were strongest in their condemnation of a group of Bougainvilleans from the Kieta area known as the ‘Black Dogs’. Eric Feldt said that they ‘raided inland villages, pillaging, raping, and murdering. They combined with the Japanese to wipe out the last of the remaining Europeans and Chinese’. The Australians thought they had been influenced by Tashiro who had returned with the Japanese forces. After Kerosene, Stuart’s bosboi, was captured and taken to Kieta, he certainly learnt about Tashiro’s authority. Tashiro demanded to know where the Australians were, and when Kerosene could not tell him, Tashiro had him tied to a post of Wong You’s store and beaten every day with an axe handle. The Kieta Black Dogs travelled widely, and a resurgence of tribal warfare added to the general turbulence. Stuart, attempting to avoid Japanese patrols, went into rough country near Mount Bagana and there a mission teacher told him that already people had been killed in local raid and counter-raid.

The Australians thought that their strongest allies on Bougainville included New Guineans from other districts, the Seventh–Day Adventists and the Methodists. The link between the Fijian Methodists and the Australians was particularly strong. In fact the Australians conceded that many of them would not have survived, let alone operated successfully for nearly 18 months, without the Fijians. Read, who did not praise easily, recommended Usaia Sotutu for an award because of his ‘courage, initiative and loyalty’. When Stevenson was shot it was Sotutu who had dashed to his side and given covering fire until his rifle jammed. Even then he had only left when he was certain that Stevenson was dead. Sotutu operated right across Bougainville, from Buka and north Bougainville with Mackie and Read to Buin with Mason. Some mixed race people, particularly Anton Jossten and Bobby Pitt, took risks for the Australians. But it was not simply a result of minority groups tending to join the Australians — in fact the minority groups were often in a position where they had to commit themselves more fully to one side or the other, not necessarily the Australians. And some peoples from nominally Catholic areas assisted the Australians. Read said that the American, Father Lebel of the Marist Mission, became his ‘best and most helpful friend on Bougainville’. Lebel’s meetings with the Australians were known to Bougainvilleans — and aided by them — as were other contacts between members of the Marist Mission and the Australians. But in most areas there was not a simple choice of villagers siding with one side to the exclusion of the other. In Buin some people were in the invidious position of working for the Japanese on the new airstrip during the day and carrying for the Australians at night. Private Alexander ‘Sandy’ McNab said of Korp37 the Tultul of Namkerio village in the north-east:

He was always up to some mischief and he was one of those guilty of looting our first parachute drop. He was also one of the leaders in the attack on our cook boy Kene, when he got into trouble over village women. However when he got the opportunity to betray us to the Japanese he remained loyal. Being the foxy old bugger that he was he may have concluded that we were getting on top of the Japanese in the war and decided to back the stronger side!

That statement may be interpreted to mean that Korp (Read says Kop) was acting bravely and opportunistically on behalf of his people.

From the American landings on Guadalcanal in August 1942 and the beginning of high-casualty land, sea and air battles, Bougainville had been important in the war. Japanese bombers flying from Rabaul and supported by fighters staging through or operating from fields on Bougainville (because of their shorter range) were seen or heard by Read, Mason, the troops and their islander allies. Read on north Bougainville could give over two hours warning to the forces on Guadalcanal. That was time for ships to put to sea, disperse and be at high speed; troops on crowded beach heads to take cover; and for fighter aircraft to refuel, rearm and climb so that their first attack was from above the Japanese. That was the significance of those brief reports: ‘17 fighters now going yours’; and ‘Can hear many planes going yours via East coast. Think heavy jobs’. But from early 1943 the Americans had secured Guadalcanal and were preparing to advance into New Georgia in June. The Australians, hunted by greater numbers of Japanese, more Bougainvilleans turning against them and their main purpose served, had to get out. On 31 December 1942 an American submarine picked up Huson, Falkner, the two Campbells and 26 other people including 14 Marist Sisters and three mixed-race girls. Others left on 29 March 1943 on the submarine that landed some soldiers and took out others: three Marist sisters, 24 Chinese women and children, and one mixed-race woman and her two children. The last of the Australian servicemen, and more Chinese, Fijians, police and 27 other New Guineans were evacuated on two submarines in July 1943. The Japanese then had uncontested control of the land of Bougainville — but the sea and the sky were being claimed by the Allies.

To November 1943, the Bougainvilleans had seen aircraft after aircraft take off from Buka and up to 60 aeroplanes flying overhead; in the south they had seen over 60 Japanese ships gathered for the battles in the Solomons; and they had watched the gradual increase in the numbers of Japanese soldiers and the building of gun pits, new airfields and the landing of hundreds of vehicles. But it was the arrival of the Americans at Torokina that changed the material signs of war and brought major battles to the Island. Father Miltrup at Piano in the south did not meet any Japanese in October 1942, and had few encounters with them until 1943. But once the heavy Allied aerial bombing began as a prelude to the American landing the Japanese applied severe restrictions, and malnutrition, malaria, accusations of spying and constant bombing were, Miltrup said, beyond the ‘limit for frayed shattered nerves’.

In the early American planning for the war it was assumed that the recapture of Rabaul was essential and that that operation would be the major battle in the south-west Pacific and the major demand on resources. In early 1943 the proposed bases in the Trobriands, Woodlark, the Huon Peninsula, Bougainville and New Britain were all seen as stepping stones on the way to Rabaul, but in mid-1943 the Joint Chiefs were gradually convinced that Rabaul need not be recaptured. In spite of General Douglas McArthur’s arguments, by August it was decided that Rabaul would be encircled, battered into impotence, and left in Japanese hands. In June 1943 the Americans began developing air bases on Kiriwina and Woodlark, in September the Australians captured Salamaua and Lae and were planning to land at Finschhafen; and in August the Americans, having taken New Georgia and Vella Lavella, were ready to advance to Bougainville. By then they knew that what they wanted was not a battle, not recovered territory, but simply one more base in the circle being put around Rabaul. Torokina was chosen because it was lightly defended, the Japanese would take a long time to gather the force needed for a counter attack, and it would provide an air and sea base within striking distance of Rabaul. The later landings in west New Britain (December), Nissan (February 1944), Manus (February 1944) and Emirau (March 1944) completed the encirclement of Rabaul.

Torokina demonstrated to Bougainvilleans the material wealth of the Allies, particularly of the Americans, and the destructive power of the machines of war. Within a fortnight of the opening assault on 1 November the Americans had landed 34,000 men and 23,000 tonnes of goods at Torokina. That was just half the number of men who were later to be inside the Torokina perimeter. The American-held base was a semi-circle with about six miles of beach frontage and extending a maximum inland of five miles towards Hellzapoppin Ridge. Emphasis was placed on airfield construction, and by the end of December 1943 three strips were operational, including one long bomber field. With the airfields were taxiways, standing areas, hangars, over 20 other buildings, and thousands of tonnes of fuel. The tank farm included one giant tank, 20 smaller tanks, and five miles of overland pipeline from tanker moorings. On 19 December over 70 aircraft left Torokina for Rabaul. There had, Admiral Halsey said, been ‘neither bull nor dozing at Torokina’. Just the clearing of the space on which the quartermaster was to place his stores required six bulldozers and 20 dump trucks. The hospital was housed in 70 Quonset huts. Torokina’s own saw mills provided much of the timber; the bakeries cooked fresh bread daily. Soon the multi-laned roads were crowded with a variety of military vehicles. Three tennis courts, a baseball diamond and Loewe’s Bougainville (the outdoor picture theatre) made ‘Empress Augusta Bay … about as pleasant a beachhead as one could hope for’. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Randolph Scott, Carole Landis and other stars entertained the troops, putting on up to five shows on the one day. And it is at Torokina that there are the most persistent stories of Japanese climbing trees or sneaking through the perimeter to watch films, baseball games and concerts.

By 8 March 15,000 Japanese had slogged and scrambled their way to launch a counter-attack on the Torokina perimeter. Against more numerous troops in prepared positions and supported by tanks, artillery and aircraft, the Japanese had no chance. Admiral Halsey said the Japanese attacks were ‘savage, suicidal, and somewhat stupid’. In 17 days of fighting they lost 5,000 dead to the Americans’ 263. Whole swathes of rainforest — as on South Knob Hill — were blasted clean by American artillery. Soon the Australians were bringing Bougainvilleans to look at the might of the Allied base at Torokina. As a manifestation of the power of men and machines to construct and destruct, Torokina as base and battleground was an awesome sight — even to the Americans who were expert at the making of both.

By a strange twist, black Americans struggling for equality in the armed services suffered a sharp reversal on Bougainville. In the segregated American army black soldiers served in separate units, usually with senior white officers, and most were in labour, transport and service units. But on Bougainville black units were used in combat — a black artillery unit served successfully, and following the defeat of the Japanese counter-attack black infantrymen went into action. After an early engagement in which it performed well, one company believed it was under heavy attack and began firing wildly. Some men threw their weapons away, and most casualties were a result of Americans shooting Americans. In spite of the fact that white units had behaved equally erratically in the jungle, that only one company of the 93rd Division was involved and that the Fijians had already demonstrated their skill as soldiers on Bougainville, all black American troops were condemned, and were not again used in combat in the Pacific. Bougainville had gained a place in the history of American race relations.

After the landings at Torokina the Allied soldiers were more diverse. Apart from the many black and white Americans, the Fijian 1st Battalion landed at Torokina within three weeks of the first landing, and by January it had met up with Usaia Sotutu at Ibu in central Bougainville. Two squadrons of the New Zealand air force operated off the Torokina strips; New Zealand ground troops were in the invasion force that took Nissan and later the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) operated off Nissan. The Australians returned with the Americans in the Australian New Guinea Administration Unit (ANGAU) and the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB), the organisation then controlling the coastwatchers and the ‘M’ Special Unit. Much of the work beyond the perimeter fell to Australians, Fijians and Papua New Guineans. Many of the men in the AIB had been in Bougainville before: Ken Bridge had been a patrol officer at Buka Passage, Sandford, Stuart and Mason had been planters, Wigley had been with the 1st Independent Company, and Yauwiga was with the returning police. After the Australians took over at Torokina in October 1944, the Papuan Infantry Battalion and A Company of 1 New Guinea Infantry Battalion operated on Bougainville.

The brief radioed reports of Bridge, Stuart, Sanford and others have survived and are retained in the Australian War Memorial. The following are summaries of Paul Mason’s reports sent from inland of Kieta from November 1944.

17 Dec 1944: Mason said he was feeding many women and children. They were too weak to walk to Torokina, and he asked for a food drop. It was dropped a few days later.

19 Dec 23: ‘Nips’ from Moroni went to Orai to collect food, and returned carrying seven with arrow wounds.

27 Dec: Japanese at Sipura were on a ridge, surrounded by villagers. Bougainvillean scouts working for Mason were ready to light signal fires to guide an air strike.

28 Dec: The scouts lit the fires but the Japanese realised what was happening, lit other fires, and confused the attacking aircraft.

10 Jan 1945: Scouts returned from Reboine with a man said to have been responsible for killing Tom Ebery. He was sent to Torokina.

3 Feb: Scouts returned from the Koromira area where they induced the people to kill their pro-Japanese leader and desert the enemy.

23 Feb: The Bakapan people killed seven Japanese. The Japanese burnt their village.

1 March: Villagers in the central Luluai Valley counted 42 Japanese dead after they opened up on them with a captured Light Machine Gun and grenades.

9 March: A patrol back from Koromira–Toimonapu area said that the Japanese there had not killed pigs or poultry and the people were still friendly to the Japanese. Villagers killed 22 Japanese from Wida and Kovidau and through to Isini.

31 March: A village leader of Moroni was said to have betrayed four men of Kusira who had helped an ANGAU patrol. The Japanese executed three of the men.

6 April: Scouts reported a continuous battle in the Bovo River area between Japanese and villagers.

12 April: Two village men guarding women were shot by Japanese. The Japanese ate one.

6 May: Allied planes bombed Auda near Koromira killing 13 and wounding 45 people who were working for Mason. Auda was then an ‘unrestricted’ area and the pilots did not know that Mason’s people had moved there.

8 May: The Japanese at Oria called ten villagers in to pay them. Instead they opened fire on them and just three wounded escaped.

Equally revealing of the confused, sporadic violence on Bougainville in the last year of the war are the interrogation reports by Australian New Guinea Administration Unit (ANGAU) officers of Bougainvilleans who had been living in Japanese controlled areas. Rolf Cambridge, then in ANGAU, questioned Na’aru of Tonui in Siwai who said that Taetae took food to three Japanese who were living alone. When Taetae did not return, the people searched for him and saw the Japanese cooking parts of him and cutting flesh and storing it in a haversack. They told the Japanese leader at Sinanai, and he came back with them, and found the three men with the uncooked flesh. He told the people to assemble at Sinanai where the three Japanese were shot in front of them. At Labaru the Japanese stole food twice and on the third day the people waited for them and killed two. Told by other villagers what had happened, the Japanese then surrounded Labaru took all the men away and shot two of them.

Released Indians and Ambonese provide another insight into the confused and turbulent war. Gopal Pershad Jah said he had left Madras with the Indian Army, was captured by the Japanese in Singapore, and then shipped to Bougainville in 1943. In his group, 25 had been killed by Allied bombing, 39 had died of illness and nine were executed by the Japanese. In one interesting exchange in north Bougainville Major Jack Costello, who had served on Bougainville in the pre-war, arranged for a Bougainvillean to carry a note to an Indian prisoner of war. A Fijian working on the docks at Torokina wrote the message in Urdu and the Indian had enough Tok Pisin to explain that if he escaped others would be executed in punishment, and the Indians could not escape as a group as some were too ill to travel. The Indians reluctantly said that they had to stay with the Japanese.

Those few Japanese who wished to abandon both the war and their commitment to the ideal of the Japanese soldier had to make a difficult mental and physical crossing. Two sides and marauding Bougainvilleans were likely to kill them before they could reach Allied soldiers who would accept their surrender. Kawaguchi Yoshiharu had served in China, but was called up again and sent to New Guinea, and in June he was posted to the front in north Bougainville. Previously two of his friends had tried to surrender. They had gone forward waving the documents saying that they would be well treated if they came forward and gave themselves up to the Australians. But the Australians had opened fire, killed one, and the other, who was wounded, crawled back and a Japanese officer found him with the pamphlet and shot him for attempting to desert. Kawaguchi therefore decided that the only way was to steal a canoe and paddle along the coast to Soraken where he could surrender to Australian troops well behind the frontline and not carrying loaded weapons. And after a two-day trip he surrendered and lived.

To the surprise of Australians other Japanese found safe ways to end their war. One Japanese stopped an Australian driving a jeep, jumped into the front seat, whistled, two of his mates jumped in the back, and the driver then drove them into camp. Peter Medcalf who fought with the 15th Battalion on Bougainville stated the attitude of the frontline soldier: ‘Taking prisoners was not only impractical, it was downright unpopular’. The troops had scant concern for the conventions of war, because they ‘were in the extermination business’.

In November 1944 A Company of 1 New Guinea Infantry Battalion (NGIB) left Camp Diddy near Nadzab and sailed for Bougainville. Under Australian officers and senior non-commissioned officers, the company went into action in south-west Bougainville on 16 December, killing four Japanese and taking one prisoner. In a savage encounter at the Hupai River on 26 December 18 Japanese were killed and Corporal Barofa was awarded the military medal after dragging a dying Australian sergeant clear of Japanese fire then taking command of half the patrol. Separated from the rest of the company one platoon carried out long patrols from a base on the Numa Numa Trail. Replaced by the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB), A Company joined the rest of 1NGIB on New Britain.

The companies of the PIB were spread across the Australian fronts from Bonis to Buin. Fighting in the last months of the war, the Papuans encountered some Japanese already suffering from severe deprivation. On 9 August 1945 near Rusei in the Siwai the Papuans saw signs of a Japanese dragging himself along. When they caught up with him they killed him. Further along the track they found two Japanese, killed one and the other fled in ‘record time’. They set an ambush and one Japanese carrying potatoes was shot, and soon after seven Japanese entered the trap and five died. But where the Japanese were in strength, still healthy and holding strong positions, a different war was being fought. Recognising the skill of the NGIB and PIB in the jungle, Australian units asked them to carry out reconnaissance patrols before attacks and to locate forward observation posts for the artillery. At times individual and small groups of Papuan and New Guinean soldiers were instructed to carry out dangerous tasks that the Australians themselves were reluctant to do. The Papuans and their officers were irate when Australian troops failed to act after a patrol report and the PIB had to ‘recce the same ground time after time’. The Australians countered with the complaint that Papuans and New Guineans sometimes deliberately guided them away from Japanese positions.

In the last year of the war Australians in New Guinea were fighting in the Sepik, on New Britain and on Bougainville, and their greatest commitment was to the campaign on Bougainville. The necessity for those final battles on Australian territory has long been doubted. In April 1945 Harold Holt told the House of Representatives that the campaigns against the Japanese in New Guinea were costly in terms of money and lives, and the Japanese were no threat to Australia. He said that the ‘terrible price’ was unjustified and Australia should ‘be content to contain the enemy where he is’. The troops themselves knew that they were not fighting to win the war — those battles were being fought by the Americans further north — but were fighting a ‘politicians’ war’. In fact it was more a ‘generals’ war’, Sir Thomas Blamey, commander-in-chief of the Australian Army, even ridiculing the idea that the Japanese in Bougainville were impotent. But faced with criticism, the government chose to defend Blamey and so it shares responsibility. At the time, the argument in defence of the policy was that Australia needed to continue to fight in New Guinea to strengthen its position in the post-war peace talks, and to liberate the New Guinean peoples on whose behalf Australians had accepted international obligations. The Australians also pointed out that in the Philippines, the Americans were clearing their own colony of all the Japanese. The policy on Bougainville was, both generals and politicians agreed, to destroy the enemy where that could be done with relatively light casualties, and to progressively free New Guineans from Japanese rule and release Australians from armed service.

Nearly all the Australian troops sent to Bougainville were militia units, most of them from Queensland. The distinction between militia and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was declining, but the militia still felt that the ‘glamour’ and publicity went to the AIF, and some men were still conscious that they had been ‘chocos’ (the chocolate soldiers) and ‘koalas’ (not to be shot or exported) and that some of them had been branded failures in the fighting in Papua in 1942. So, in spite of having doubts about why they were there and having tough battles (such as at Slater’s Knoll) dismissed as ‘mopping up’, the militia units often fought tenaciously. Their casualties were testimony: the 25th battalion suffered 215 casualties (dead and wounded), the 58/59th suffered 209. The 58/59th casualties were made up of 49 killed and 160 wounded and another 80 evacuated because of illness and accident. That was one third of the original battalion strength of just over 750. In north Bougainville on what was then called Part Ridge, Frank Partridge won Australia’s last Victoria Cross of the war and the first given to a militiaman.

Where fighting early in the war in Papua and New Guinea had been dependent on carrier lines and lightly armed, probing patrols, on Bougainville the forward troops could often call upon observer and strike aircraft, artillery and tanks. Particularly in the south, bulldozers cut rough roads, and troops operated from a road head serviced by jeeps and tractor trains — tractors pulling eight or so jeep trailers. The physical impact of battle on people and environment was greater than in most of Papua and New Guinea. By August 1945 the Japanese had been pushed into the Bonis Peninsula, the east coast and around Buin. Many Bougainvilleans had been liberated, but it was the liberation that had caused so much of the stress. The Australian policy of napalming Japanese gardens, and bombing and strafing buildings and concentrations of people beyond their own front, increased accidental deaths, forced more Bougainvilleans into the bush, and made it more likely that the Japanese would seize village garden produce, pigs and fowls. Bougainvilleans, still intensely aware of allies and enemies among their own people, were caught between the predatory Japanese and the violence of the Australian policy to destroy all Japanese.

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