The True Story of the 1st Independent Company by Sandy McNab
Here I am, the old dog with a bone! I have come to the conclusion that I must write my version of what happened to the 1st Independent Company in Bougainville. I condensed it as much as I could, got the salient facts on paper and gave myself writer’s cramp …
In early 1941 a kilted soldier named Freddy Spencer Chapman visited the battalions in Bathurst NSW calling for volunteers to join a hush-hush unit. He had plenty of applications from frustrated 8th Division men.
The first batch of us arrived at Wilson’s Promontory in May 1941 and, after six weeks’ intensive training, were ready to travel to Guroke to join in the commando raid going on there. Instead we found ourselves on the Zealandia heading for the tropics.
The original plan was to be based in Rabaul. It would have been ideal for our unit, as there was plenty of jungle and mountains for operations. But the army heads acted as they always do and, when halfway to Rabaul, we got a message to proceed to Kavieng on New Ireland.
When we got there confusion reigned—no-one knew we were coming. Eventually, we found accommodation and life got back to normal. Then the powers-that-be delivered the final kick in the guts to us, and split the unit far and yonder. We were stretched from Manus to Kavieng, Namatanai, Buka Passage, Tulagi, and Vila in the New Hebrides—273 men spread over thousands of miles!
No. 3 Section of No. 1 Independent Company finished up on Buka Island, where life was idyllic before Japan came into the war. They attacked us on 23 January 1942 with six planes. We managed to shoot one down and, after the rest went away, we demolished the airstrip and evacuated the unit to Bougainville, which was only separated from Buka by a passage 800 yards wide. Buka Island was too small and had no fresh water for the section to survive. Buka was only forty miles long and Bougainville about 140 miles.
Lt Jack Mackie, our officer, had made plans for the move and had established supplies at Rugen in the hills of Bougainville. From the coast it took us a day to stagger up to Rugen—a journey that would take us a couple of hours once we got fit after living in the mountains for some time.
The Japs initially only visited the area and, after looting some plantations, they left. Jack Mackie set about covering the island with observation posts. He set three men at Kessa on the north coast of Buka, men at Buka Passage, four at Numa Numa, four at Kieta and four at Buin on the south coast. He had a roving headquarters: himself, a medical sergeant and me. We travelled a lot on the schooner, Malaguna.
With things not looking too bright, the sergeant diagnosed himself with appendicitis and the army sent a Catalina flying boat from Tulagi to evacuate him and he was never replaced. As we were low on supplies, Mackie appealed to our platoon at Vila and they sent the schooner, Ruana, with two of our mates, Shorty Bateman and Les Goodger, to take care of that.
When our headquarters at Kavieng was attacked, they told us they were going off the air and we should take orders from the 2/22nd Battalion in Rabaul, but when we tried to contact them, they were off the air, too.
There settled an uneasy peace over the island. But at the end of March 1943 the Japs got fair dinkum, and soon all our outposts were chased off the coast. Meanwhile, we had moved our HQ from Rugen further up in the hills to Mutahi, a Seventh-day Adventist village. What a man the village head Okera was! He couldn’t do enough for us. He built a camp for us in the bush where we would be safe. Jack Mackie then set about the task of getting the section, scattered all over the place, to combine at Mutahi.
At the time Coastwatcher Paul Mason asked Mackie could he spare a couple of men to go with him to establish an observation post at Buin. So Jack sent our Corporal Signaller Jack Wigley and Sapper Slim Otton with Mason. Eventually, Mackie got the section altogether at Mutahi and he was a much happier man to have them in one place again.
There was not much food, no medicine and no medical staff. We mere mortals wondered what we were doing there. Jack Mackie always kept us busy, doing all the tracks in the mountains until we knew the highways and byways like the back of our hand.
On 7 August 1942, it became clear. The Yanks landed on Guadalcanal and the air was full of Jap planes hurrying down the coast, while out to sea many Jap ships of all sizes and shapes headed down ‘The Slot’ carrying supplies and troops to join the fray.
Now No. 3 Section’s purpose was revealed. We had established observation posts where we could watch the sea lanes and, as the bombers from Rabaul could not take fighters with them because the return trip was too far, they had to pick up fighter escorts from Buka airfield, which took them over us. If Coastwatcher Jack Read did not pick them up, we would, and get the message to Read because he had the radio.
We used to give them two hours’ notice of the planes arriving, and the US Air Force had plenty of time to prepare a welcome and be up in the air waiting for them. They shot them down like flies. As for the ships, we would give about two days’ notice of their arrival and they too got a hot reception.
So there we were, earning our keep at last and getting a plane once a month to feed us. We had the satisfaction of seeing a few straggling Jap planes limping back to Buka, and the same for the very few ships that made it back. The battle raged furiously until the Japs were beaten and Guadalcanal was safe and secure.
Meanwhile, as this was going on, Paul Mason with Jack Wigley and Slim Ottin down south were doing excellent work and reporting any planes or ships the north missed.
One fly in the ointment was that Commander Eric Feldt, in an act of lunacy, put Jack Reid in charge of the whole island, including our section—an untrained government official put over Lt Jack Mackie OIC of No. 3 Section. Reid came down from his camp far back in the mountains to exert his power and tell us what he had planned for us. He was soon sent back to the mountains, being told we had no intention of taking any notice. Jack Mackie was our officer and that was that.
After Guadalcanal was secured, Mackie looked at the situation. Half his section was very ill and the natives were being put under enormous pressure by the Japs. So, on 22 February 1943, Mackie sent out this message:
Army Moresby from Mackie: If enemy contacts or occupies Teop, my position on Bougainville will be hopeless and value nil. Native problem acute. My movements now confined to area from Inus to Raua. If forced to take to interior, reception of stores will be impossible. Have good knowledge of most areas on island and suggest immediate evacuation to preserve same. Accept no responsibility as to fate of Section if nothing done. Acknowledge immediately.
We had to get Read to send this message, which he did. But added his own message, stating the situation was not as dire as Mackie reported and that, under the circumstances, No. 3 Section was of no practical use on Bougainville except under more experienced leadership. It would be wrong to construe that as derogatory to Lt Mackie, who I hold in high esteem.
Read pointed out the AIF had by then spent eighteen months continuous service in the jungle, and were susceptible to imaginary grievances that inevitably sprang up against their superiors (whom they felt had abandoned them) and against each other. Read believed many of these problems could have been alleviated by activities like short patrols, but this was against army defensive training.
I say this was a lot of garbage. Read did not know about us. He had no contact with us, staying in his camp high in the hills—with us always between him and the enemy. Read arranged with Feldt to have a relief section sent because he had an idea of covering the whole of Bougainville with observation posts, and was confident that with a fresh AIF squad he would achieve this aim.
So the die was cast. Our second-in-charge, Corporal Don McLean, told me he and Mackie received a message stating: Your job is done, come home!
As Guadalcanal was now secure, other messages were relayed to us:
From Admiral Turner, US Navy: Large share credit of our success against enemy due to splendid men in coast watching service.
From General Patch, US Army: Your magnificent and courageous work has contributed to success of operations on north Guadalcanal.
Our two coastwatchers, Mason and Read, would not have survived a month without No. 3 Section’s protection and No. 3 Section wouldn’t have lasted a week without the loyalty, courage and care of the local people of Bougainville.
On 29 March 1943, half the section boarded the US submarine, Gato, and half stayed to familiarise the new men with knowledge of the land and the people. With only a month to do it, it was an impossible task. On 29 April 1943, we, the last of No. 3 Section, boarded the Gato on our way to our beloved Australia. As soon as we left, the grapevine knew and the Japs and a lot of the natives moved into the hills and started harassing the new boys.
After six weeks, Read had to radio that the situation was so bad coastwatching was impossible, and they should be evacuated immediately. So what was accomplished? Half the relief section had been captured and either executed or taken prisoner.
Before we left we had to arrange a supply drop to let the new men know how to manage the operation. But, just as Mackie had forecast, because we couldn’t arrange a drop on the coast, we had to arrange it in the hills. The plane crashed and, eventually, only two of the crew got off the island. So that was a Catalina flying boat lost.
In the meantime Mason had led a party to the south. He had the idea he would return to Buin, but the southern part of the island was swarming with Japanese, and they soon found Mason’s party and killed Lt Stevenson, another coastwatcher. Mason and the party had to flee northward, being harassed all the way. They eventually linked up with the rest of the group just in time to board the submarine and evacuate.
This sad ending would have been avoided if they had taken heed of Jack Mackie’s appraisal of the situation. And I am sure not one coastwatching report got out in the six weeks.
I am convinced that Jack Read had the ambition to be on the beach when the Americans landed. This is the man who early in the piece remarked, ‘If there is only one man left alive on this island it will be Jack Read.’
Comparison of the strength of No 3. Section and the Relief Section:
No 3. Section: one officer; two section corporals; one corporal cook; one signal corporal; one engineer corporal; two signallers; one engineer; two lance corporals; fourteen privates. We had one medical sergeant who was evacuated early.
Relief Section: one officer; eleven sergeants; two corporals; five engineers; five signallers; two privates.
I don’t know who selected this section and I venture to say whoever it was had no knowledge of army protocol on the workings of a section. I must say many of these men finished up great mates of mine and they were all good soldiers.
But eleven sergeants in the one section, the mind boggles. And only two privates. Everyone knows the privates do all the work.
By the end of the war, the decorations won by members of No. 3 Section were: four US Silver Stars; one British Empire Medal; three Military Medals; three Mentions in Despatches.
Sandy authored the history of the 1st Independent Company: McNab, Alexander, 1998, ‘We were the first: The unit history of No 1 Independent Company’, Australian Military History Publications, Loftus, NSW
This article was previously published by the then Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Society (integrated into PNGAA January 2013) in Memorial News 23, February 2011