Ted Kenna, VC: Reg Yates

Rob and Alan Kenna, sons of the late Ted Kenna, VC, and their brother-in-law Ian Day visited Wewak, Dagua and the Sepik River during 28 March-8 April 2012 with Reg Yates of “Kokoda Historical” as guide. The group flew to Port Moresby and Wewak and stayed at Alois Mateos’ SurfSite Lodge just across from Boram airport with fine views of Wewak harbour.

The first part of the visit examined the battlefields. We identified the ridgeline or spur along which Pte Ted Kenna’s A Company, 2/4th Battalion, 6th Division AIF advanced to seize the former Wirui Mission, (usually called “Boystown” nowadays) on 15 May 1945. We walked onto the top of nearby Mt Kawakubo (named after the Japanese commander; above Koigin village) where Ted Kenna was severely wounded in the face and back on 5 June 1945, some 3 weeks after being awarded the Victoria Cross. Later we visited Dagua near Tokoku Pass where Lt Bert Chowne, MM of 2/2nd Battalion, 6th Division AIF was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross on 25 March 1945.

The second part of the visit was a simple adventure, with some physical effort! We were driven for 4 hours to Pagwi, on the Sepik River, for a 2 hour motorised dugout ride up-river to Ambunti Lodge, also owned by Alois Mateos. The following day we travelled further up-river to Yambon village, hired two 30′ dugout canoes and paddles and set off paddling (with a River Guide steering each dugout from the stern) for half a day to the far side of Wasu Lagoon and stayed at Wagu Guesthouse.

That evening, by motor canoe, we went looking for baby crocodiles. A spotter with a powerful torch stood in the bow, backed by a hunter with a multi-pronged spear; when the spotter saw red eyes amongst the reeds the helmsman closed on them and the hunter speared the baby croc through the meaty part of its tail (which does no lasting harm and heals readily). One small croc was returned to the river; the other, about 40cm long was bagged and handed over to the local croc farmer. Next morning we paddled 15 minutes to see Raggiana Birds of Paradise chorusing and preening in the forest canopy atop a nearby knoll. Then another half day paddling via a short-cut back to Ambunti Lodge; beers all round; we bought traditional Sepik carvings and souvenirs from local women.

During the third part of the visit we paid our respects to Ted Kenna and Bert Chowne as Victoria Cross recipients in the 6th Division AIF Aitape-Wewak Campaign, 1944-45, with a simple ceremony involving Lt Col Steven Dom, Commanding Officer 3rd Battalion, Royal Pacific Island Regiment, PNGDF, and his staff from Moem Barracks, representing Warrant Officer Yauwiga and Sergeant Major Simogun and all the local people who were guides and carriers or fought alongside the Australians during the war. A wreath was laid at the Memorial on Mission Hill and tribute paid, “Lest we forget”. Pork roast lunch and beers followed.

The visit closed with an invitation to a round of “Mongrel Golf” from expat Chris Rose, whom Reg Yates had met some 20 years previously at Tari, which led to a helicopter ride next morning, courtesy of Tod Petherick of Niugini Helicopters, over Wirui Mission, Cape Wom (site of General Adachi’s surrender) and Wewak Hill, including Kenna Avenue. The actions of Ted Kenna, Bert Chowne and 6th Division AIF are well remembered in Wewak. We thanked our generous hosts and flew to Moresby and home.  A description of the two Victoria Cross actions follows:

Adapted from The Proud Sixth by Mark Johnston; Cambridge University Press:

“19th Brigade troops were embroiled in hard fighting at Wirui Mission, a steep hill nearly 100 metres high, covered in thick kunai grass and overlooking (Boram) airfield. With tank support the 2/4th Battalion captured its eastern slopes and summit (destroying 6 Japanese artillery pieces with obvious fragment damage, still on site today) on 14 May but the Japanese kept firing from bunkers on the north-western slopes. The next day, as 2/4th Battalion’s A Company sought to eliminate these bunkers, several men were hit and its leading section became pinned down. Private Ted Kenna, who was with the supporting section just 50 metres from the bunkers, stood up in the kunai grass, in full view of the enemy machine gunners and fired his (Bren) light machine gun at them. (Bullets passed through his clothing but missed him. He said to his No 2 gunner, “They’ve got a bead on me. Give me your rifle!”) with which he was a crack shot. With 4 bullets he silenced the enemy (machine gun) post. Then, taking the Bren again he silenced a second (machine gun) post. A photo in the above book shows one of the Japanese machine gun posts. Two dead Japanese were also found there, one of whom had been shot between the eyes. Seizure of Wirui Mission allowed the Australians to (dominate Boram airfield and) secure the Wewak coastal plain.”

Also, 2 months earlier:

“The 2/2nd Battalion had the important task of clearing these Japanese (in well-prepared positions south of But, pronounced as in “put”) who threatened the flank of the advance on Wewak. Some of the campaign’s toughest fighting ensued, especially around Tokuku Pass. On 25 March the leading platoon advancing on one narrow ridge near Dagua was pinned down. Lt Bert Chowne, MM (well regarded as a fearless leader) was commanding the reserve platoon and now took action. Running up the steep track, he threw grenades that knocked out two machine guns. Then, firing his submachine gun from the hip, he led his platoon in a charge that took the feature and, after he had killed two more Japanese, cost him his life. Chowne was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first for the 6th Division. That the award came so late reflected not the lack of valour in the Division’s men, but excessive parsimony in their senior officers.”

 

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