The war on Kitava: Caroline L Cameron

“Japanese Grave”. The words on the map record in stark simplicity a man’s lonely resting-place on an obscure island in the Solomon Sea. The Japanese was a pilot who had run out of fuel, ditched his Zero, and had made a remarkable journey by canoe attempting to reach his countrymen on the north coast of Papua New Guinea.

The map was a sketch of points of interest drawn by American Lieutenant R.E. Fullenwider. The Pacific War had brought him to Kitava, thirty kilometres east of the largest island of the Trobriand group, Kiriwina. Only a fly-speck on a map, just seven kilometres long and five kilometres wide, Kitava was nonetheless vulnerable due to its location. On the morning of 22 January 1942, the reality of war hit home when a Japanese plane flew over and dropped three bombs. Two fell in the sea and one on land. On the east coast of Kitava, the cargo steamer Admiral Wiley had run aground on 13 June 1940. It was still visible and possibly the Japanese were trying to bomb her, not knowing she was a wreck. Three days later, Kitava was again bombed.

The only white resident on Kitava, Tasmanian-born Cyril Cameron, who had established a coconut plantation in 1912, left. Cameron was not lacking in courage, as his days as a patrol officer in the Kukukuku region prove, but man is no match against bombs. Late on the afternoon of 26 January, he was picked up from a small launch near Kiriwina. With him were Mr Brewer, a resident magistrate, and Reverend Keith Morgan. Their local knowledge of the numerous reefs was appreciated by the captain, Eric Howitt, of the Government schooner Leander, which was sailing to Samarai with evacuees from New Britain fleeing from the rapidly approaching Japanese forces.

The Trobriands were close to the direct line from Rabaul to Milne Bay, and in the months that followed Japanese aircraft flew overhead and Japanese ships sailed close by. Two Australian army spotters set up a watching post on Kitava to monitor the activity. The Spotters were mainly recruited from the army already in Papua. The aim was to provide warning of attacking aircraft: the air warning system. The Spotters had an association with the RAAF, but were not part of it as the Coastwatchers were of the navy. The Spotters were initially within ANGAU—the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit—an army unit. By the end of 1942 the name of the unit was the New Guinea Air Warning Wireless Company and it was under the command of Signals within New Guinean Force.

In May, Japanese ships passed by Kitava on the way to the Battle of the Coral Sea. Wreckage from the battle washed up on the beaches for several months. Patrol Officer Eddie Stanton, based at the government station, Losuia, on Kiriwina, kept a record throughout the war of his experiences. Edited by Hank Nelson, it was published as The War Diaries of Eddie Allan Stanton (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1996). In his diary Stanton reported large quantities of American biscuits, coffee and benzine washed up at Kitava. “Evidently, the Japanese have blasted American shipping in the Solomons.”

On 25 August, Kitava Island spotters A.A. Buchanan, P.N. Auguston and Ventry reported several enemy destroyers. The sighting was important, as the weather was too poor for accurate air reconnaissance. A large Japanese convoy was sailing to the Battle of Milne Bay and defeat. From September, the Allies were on the offensive. Amongst the wreckage in the sea floated survivors from downed aircraft and sunken ships.

On 2 October 1942, Japanese pilot Petty Officer Shigenori Murakami, through lack of fuel, landed his aircraft in shallow water off Gawa Island. From Gawa he made his way westwards, stopping at the tiny islands of Koeawata, Digumera, Iwa and then Kitava; a distance of sixty-five miles by native canoe. He landed at Lalela beach on the afternoon of 7 October, about three miles from where Australian army spotters Pt John P. Nagle and Pt Robert Ventry were situated. Murakami spent the night in a canoe house, a native boat-shed built to protect their precious ocean-going kula canoes.

Early the next day, the spotters demanded Murakami surrender. Murakami fired all the bullets from his automatic through a hole he had made in the canoe-house wall. The spotters retaliated with their 303s. Murakami’s body was taken to Lt Whitehouse (ANGAU) at Cameron’s house. He had died fully clothed: helmet, glasses, gloves, and overalls. There was a map on his body with a fanciful record of how he had landed in the sea and swam for two days. Murakami was buried with his feet towards Japan. It is regrettable his survival and determination had to end the way it did.

In recent years there has been considerable effort by certain individuals to locate, exhume and repatriate the remains of Japanese servicemen. However, it seems Murakami’s family does not want to. The family refused to accept the photos recovered from his body. The photographs are of two beautiful women, one with a child, who they do not know.

In June 1943, Kiriwina, within range of Rabaul, became a busy air base for the Allies, with the arrival of many units of the US Fifth Air Force. On 2 August 1943, Gordon Steege moved from Goodenough air base with 73 Wing (76 Squadron P40s, 79 Squadron Spitfires, 114 Mobile Fighter Control Unit and support units, 77 Squadron remaining at Goodenough) onto the still under development south strip on Kiriwina. 75 Squadron, after a spell in Australia, later moved onto Goodenough (under command of Flight-Lieutenant Atherton) to be along with 77 there under command 73 Wing.

Steege about to fly a P40 (Kittyhawk).
Note top of palm trees blown off.

A Japanese photo reconnaissance aircraft—a high speed, high-flying “Dinah” (Mitsubishi) with two engines and a crew of two—was shot down off Kitava by an RAAF Spitfire. Somehow the flag from that aircraft floated to the surface and was recovered. It is now on display at the Australian War Memorial.

Kitava is the only high island in the Trobriand group and an American radar station was established there to give warning on low-flying enemy aircraft. Lt Fullenwider with his unit of about forty men of 11th Platoon, Company D, 565th Signal Air Warning Battalion, landed on Kitava on 30 August 1943. The main body landed from a LCT (landing craft tank) embarked from Kiriwina north jetty. To begin with, the Americans were quartered in Cameron’s house.

A good well was dug in the vicinity of Cameron’s house. Fullenwider recalls: “I had not given much thought to available water and we began to suffer from lack thereof. I called a chap from the mountains of North Carolina and told him what I had in mind. I told him to get a forked stick and go find water. ‘Ah don’t know whar I can or not, Sah.’ The chaps I sent with him were from New York City. When they came back I did not have to be told. ‘Geez, Lieutenant. We saw it but we don’t believe it!’  An ample supply of good portable water was found, about six feet deep.”

Although the roof of Cameron’s house was sound, the weather was gradually rotting it away and the walls in and out were gone. Fullenwider found a photo of “a vevella sans grass skirt. I took it as I didn’t want to debauch my younger troopers.” The Trobriand culture of free love was well known through the published works of the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. However, Fullenwider states that he saw no evidence of “Yank dalliance”. “The only such that I knew of involved a coastwatcher and arguably the fairest lass I saw. When the result of this became evident, ANGAU packed her off to gaol in Kiriwina. There was a native who used to come into our camp who had a jaw eaten away with yaws. This had a better effect on celibacy than any sex-education lecture I could have given.”

The engineer detachment was attached to Fullenwider. “I told them what I wanted done and where, the how was up to them. Four projects were done: a road blasted through the coral wall, construct a jetty and an air strip, and remove some trees at the radar site.”

Gordon Saville, a sergeant in ANGAU, gives a graphic description of the road-blasting in his book King of Kiriwina (Cooper, London, 1974). “I was invited over to enjoy the fireworks, and lay beside the American Lieutenant as he set off a spectacular sequence of blasts up the hill. The explosions tossed clouds of dust and debris high into the air. … The Allies on Kiriwina knew how vulnerable they were to attack and were extremely jumpy. Making bangs on Kitava without warning everybody was, therefore, a hazardous activity, and by an unlucky coincidence three RAAF Spitfires were flying near Kitava just as we began blasting. As they passed overhead, boom, up went the first charge; then, crata-boom cerump, the second, followed by about a dozen others. It made a lovely display. We just lay there with our hands over our ears, enjoying the bangs and not paying any attention to the fighters.”

Saville continues: “But the pilots had no idea what was happening below, and radioed back to Kiriwina that they had been fired on from Kitava, presumably by a Japanese invasion force. … We were climbing up the hill to see how much earth the blasting had shifted when there was roar of aircraft from the west, and a wing of bombers came over and began letting drop high explosives at random around the island….”

“We threw ourselves flat. Bombs fell all around us. I pressed my face into the ground and the blast of the explosions thumped the soil against my teeth and into my mouth. The American Lieutenant was screaming down his radio: ‘For Christ’s sake get a message to ground control at Kiriwina and tell those mad Air Force buggers that we are not Japanese.’ The radio did not work; the radio never worked on Kiriwina when it was needed. Eventually the Beauforts ran out of bombs and left us. It was the nearest I came to being killed in the war,” Saville claims, “but nobody was killed, and the bombs cleared far more of the jungle than the engineers’ explosives had done.”

Fullenwider’s response is a polite speculation that Saville’s story “Must have come from a long weekend at Lennons” (a hotel in Brisbane patronized by servicemen). In his email of 21 February 2010, he writes: “Will relate blasting as I remember it. I consider it a low-level event. Have had, in my younger days, experience in blasting. The Lieutenant in charge used minimum charges, as far as I am concerned. Had he used charges as Saville indicated, we would have had debris on the roof of Cameron’s house; the distance wasn’t all that far.”

Air Commodore G.H. Steege, DSO, DFC, retired, was 73 Wing Commanding Officer, being all RAAF units on Kiriwina, from 2 August 1943 to March 1944. His email of 5 February 2010, was not so restrained. “This bastard Gordon Saville is a bloody liar. Kitava was never bombed by ‘a wing of Beauforts’ or even one Beaufort.” He was incensed by the bombing lie. In a subsequent email, Steege says, “I regret my lifelong friend Bob Fullenwider and I have only now been introduced to Saville. If we had seen his account when it was first marketed it would have been a pleasure to expose him.”

On 23 September 1943, Steege flew a Tiger Moth onto the tiny airstrip Fullenwider had cleared on Kitava, to meet him and see his radar unit. “To my embarrassment, after flying P40s [Kittyhawks], I came in too fast, overran the tiny strip into low scrub, burst a tyre and tore fabric under the lower mainplanes. With Bob and his men providing material and help, it took us all day to repair the tyre and sew up, patch and dope the fabric under the wings. In late afternoon, I just cleared the scrub on take-off for Kiriwina.”

Kiriwina was briefly a strategically important airbase. Steege explained that “General G.C. Kenny (USA) went into Kiriwina and put 73 Wing there to develop the forward refueling base for P38s necessary to escort his growing force of B24s when he had enough for planned decisive strikes on the Japanese major base at Rabaul. In October 1943, one hundred P38s from mainland New Guinea landed on two strips on Kiriwina. They were refueled, the pilots given a coffee and sandwich beside their aircraft (Vegemite was thrown away!) by 73 Wing units and took off in one hour, to join with one hundred B24s overhead en route to Rabaul. After a couple of repeats of these concentrated strikes, and US South Pacific Naval Forces denying sea access to Rabaul, Japanese offensive capability from that huge base was neutralized and Rabaul isolated.” Steege concluded: “Kiriwina was an essential element in these decisive strikes which were then switched to the Japanese base at Wewak on the mainland of New Guinea. MacArthur was then able to bypass Rabaul and go into the Admiralty Islands.:

Fullenwider was transferred in November 1943, and his unit left soon after, early in 1944. In April of the same year, the Australian army spotters on Kitava were withdrawn. Stanton’s entry for 7/4/44 stated: “The Japanese peril has passed, their job is done. A couple of men on a tiny island with a radio was a tough assignment. … They did a good job … & they deserve much praise.” In September 1944 the remaining Americans left Kiriwina.

Soon after the war ended, Cameron returned to Kitava. He restored his neglected plantation, rebuilt his house and lived there until his death in 1966. Jungle has reclaimed the airstrips and there is no trace of the jetty. The islanders, and occasionally westerners from cruise ships, walk up the road made by the Americans from the beach landing to Kumwagea village. And not far from the beach landing lie Murakami’s remains. Murakami’s grave will remain as a piece of history in that remote lovely island for a long time to come.

Note: September 2010 marks 67 years since Lt-Col. Bob Fullenwider was posted to Kitava. He turned 95 in June. Gordon Steege will be 93 years in October.

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