When the Japanese bombed Magang: Bob Emery

(As recorded on tape on 1 May 1996 and published Una Voce, September 1996, page 13. An edited version is contained in Tales of Papua New Guinea, page 56).

Bob Emery, a long-time member well into his eighties, wrote to us saying he was disappointed no-one had written an article in Una Voce about the bombing of Madang. When we suggested he should do it, he was rather dubious, so we suggested he do a tape. Many of us would wish we had Bob’s recall!  By way of introduction, Bob enlisted in the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles when it was formed in 1939. (He was NG 2001 in the NGVR.) He was developing a plantation just out of Lae and in 1938 had started a dairy. In 1941, realising the war was heading his way, he answered a call for volunteers to go to Madang as the Drome Garrison. The garrison consisted of three Europeans and 10 local constables – their sole armament was a Lewis gun for ack-ack purposes. They travelled to Madang on the Burns Philp ship, the Montoro, and moved out on to the drome with their supplies and the Lewis gun. This is Bob’s story, with very little editing.

The first thing we had to do was build a store out of bush materials for our supplies – we had enough food to last about five years. It was quite a job looking after the supplies without refrigeration. We erected three tents for our own use, and dug a deep well close to the camp and got good drinking water. The Chief of Police in Madang, Tom Upson, provided us with a large supply of kalabus labourers and they seemed only too pleased to have a change of scenery.

Our next job was to put posts on both sides of the runway so that nothing could land other than on the runway, and then put movable obstructions on the runway itself. These would be moved by us when an approaching plane identified itself to our satisfaction. That was all done with the help of the kalabus labour.

We also had to go to Alexishafen where the Roman Catholic Mission had their own drome. We put their drome out of commission altogether by digging holes all up and down the runway and putting tree trunks in the holes for posts. All this work was done with shovels and picks and crowbars, and the timber was cut with axes – we had no modern labour-saving devices like bulldozers or chainsaws.

All these jobs took a lot of time, but we had nothing else to do. Our written instructions – I was the NCO in charge there – said we would receive prior notice when one of our New Guinea planes was coming, and when it came it would come in on a certain bearing at about 3,000 feet, fly straight over the drome so that we could identify it, then if we were satisfied we were to remove all the obstacles and let the plane land. If we weren’t satisfied we were instructed to use our Lewis gun. This was all very exciting but anyway things were very quiet there for August, September, October, November. Once a month we went up to Alexishafen to check that the drome up there was out of commission. The Mission pilot, Johnson was his name, had now moved to Madang and was flying for the Mission from Madang under our supervision. Around late December or early January a plane came over very high, it was just visible with a pair of binoculars. It spent quite a long time just going round in a big circle up above Madang, droning away, but we’d had no notice of this plane so straight away I sent a radio to headquarters telling them of an unidentified aircraft and its location. The District Officer at Madang then was Ward Oakley, his No 2 was Mark Pitt and the Police Master was Tom Upson.

We had always kept our Lewis gun mounted down in a gun pit which we had dug as per instructions right alongside the edge of the drome. This pit was about seven feet deep and about seven feet in diameter, with a step around the bottom edge so that you could get up on the step and look over the top. In the middle of the gun pit was a post and the Lewis gun was mounted on top of the post in such a way that you could shoot up in the air. We made a regular practice, first thing in the morning, of taking the Lewis gun down there and mounting it ready for action.

Well one day in January – I can’t think of the date now but it could be verified because it happened all over New Guinea on the same day – we hear these aircraft coming and there were so many and you could just hear this drone and the air was sort of vibrating with the drone of the aircraft, there was obviously more than one. I was down in the gun pit, and the only other member of the Garrison was my cook boy and he got down there with me. I had a pair of field glasses and we were trying to work out what these aeroplanes were.

After a while, it was a very clear sunny day, I could see them, very high up, they were so high there was no chance of identifying them, you could see they were silvery looking planes and according to the information we had, the Japanese didn’t have any aeroplanes like that so we just reckoned they must be Americans or something, they couldn’t be Japs anyway. While I am looking there was three, then there was three more, then there was three more, there was nine altogether. While I was watching them right up there, all of a sudden I noticed that around them were small objects which were circulating around like a flock of mosquitoes and then all of a sudden I heard the whistle of what was the first bomb and that showed us whose aeroplanes they were. Anyway the first bomb lobbed right alongside our gun pit. The gun pit shook, and great clods fell down and bits of rock and lumps of trees flew through the air, but that was only the first of a stick of bombs which dropped and gradually went further away as they went on. After they had gone past I stuck my head out of the hole and I could put my hand in the edge of the crater, and the crater was nearly big enough to put a house in, that’s where the first bomb lobbed.

Well, this was rather nerve-shattering for me because I wasn’t used to it and anyway I was on my own because the rest of the Garrison, the Europeans, were over in Madang doing some shopping or something; and the cook boy, he looked at me and I looked at him and I said , ‘You better shove off quick, mate, quick,’ and I didn’t have to repeat that, and then I thought, well, it’s no good me shooting at these things with this Lewis gun, because they were too far away, I reckon they were up about 30,000 feet, so I decided to get out of that gun pit because I could see that I was right in the bull’s-eye, and head for home … I headed for the scrub and I remembered I better go back and bring that Lewis gun with me, so I went back and got the Lewis gun off the mounting and a few panniers of ammunition and hung them round my neck and I headed for the scrub again, but this time bombs started to land again; all that had happened was the planes had gone up and done a u-turn and come back again, and the bombs they were dropping now were grass-cutters and I spent that part of the raid just lying on the ground with the head down while they dropped that lot, and I finished up off the drome a bit later on under a big rock where I reckoned I might be reasonably safe for a while.

I could look across towards the Madang township itself and there’s great clouds of black smoke going up there. I knew that there was a brand new big cargo shed on the wharf at Madang – it was built out of white corrugated asbestos which would make a very visible target. I also knew that there were two big stores full of copra which hadn’t been shipped away because the shipping hadn’t been running like it used to, so I came to the conclusion that it must be copra burning.

About this stage of the game the aeroplanes that had been dropping the bombs had left, there was dead quiet. Well, they made a terrible mess of our camp and there were great bomb craters all the way along the aerodrome. A couple of hundred yards from our camp on the drome there was a big galvanised iron hangar where you could store a couple of aeroplanes and I knew that Johnson, the Mission pilot, had a small utility in that shed. The shed was still standing but there was a great bomb crater right alongside it and all the dirt and stuff out of the bomb crater had lobbed on the roof of the hangar. It must have looked as if they had hit the hangar but actually they hadn’t.

Well, I am scratching myself and looking around to see what we had left. The only thing I could think of now was, if that’s the Japanese airforce, well the army would be here very soon because there was nothing to stop them from sailing straight in and tying up to the Madang wharf – only us with the Lewis gun. But I couldn’t see that we would stop much, so I thought the most important thing we could do was to get as much food out into the bush as we could because we would have to retreat into the bush and we had nothing there, so I walked down to the hangar to see what the utility there was like – it was a Ford Anglia, a very old job but it used to go alright, you had to crank it to start it – and sure enough it was in there and it wasn’t touched. So I cranked it up. Now the owner had left that morning to take cargo into Mt. Hagen or somewhere right up in the mountains so I borrowed his utility and took it down to our camp and put my camping gear in straight away, and loaded it up with a couple of bags of rice and a couple of cases of meat and soup and flour and sugar and coffee, as much as I could load – we had plenty of it there and all that had happened was that one side of the shed had got blown off but the stores were still there. There were two ways to get to Madang, you could go across by boat from the end of the drome straight across to Madang which was only about 10 minutes’ rowing, or you had to go round a road 6-8 miles through two or three plantations to get there, so I started driving along the road.

The first place you came to was Wogau (Wogaul?) plantation. Well, when I got to Wogau plantation I couldn’t see much sign of life and I pulled up there and a local was there and I said, ‘Where’s the boss?’ – the boss was Bill Cahill. And he said, ‘Istap’, so I walked across to the house and I could hear a dickens of a lot of noise in the house, voices, and there’s the population of Madang all sitting down inside the house. They got out before I got there. I was met at the door by Bill Cahill – he had a bottle of Scotch in one hand and an empty glass in the other which he half filled and gave to me. He said, ‘Here, get this into you’. Well, I drank this half a glass of neat whisky and I tell you what, it did me good. I wasn’t a whisky drinker but it restored my nerves a bit. I said to Bill, ‘Is it alright if I store some stuff here, I want to go back and get more.’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, you put it in the shed over there, it’ll be alright’, and I looked into the room where all the talking was going on and there’s the rest of the Garrison, my Garrison, so I grabbed my two blokes and left the mob there talking. We went back and spent the rest of the day carting food out to Wogau plantation and getting it away from the drome.

We all met that night and decided we were going to sleep in the plantation – it was about two or three miles from the drome. When it got dark that night we went across to the town because I had been too busy go get there up until now and there I met Gordon Russell who was the manager of Burns Philp. Gordon had received a big official-looking document about three days prior to this bombing – it came from Headquarters, and he had been made the Commanding Officer in charge of the whole Madang Garrison and I was his No. 2. So I went and saw Gordon and there was about, oh I don’t think there would have been any more than about 10 or 12 Europeans in the town, all the women and children had been evacuated prior to this, a few weeks before. All the Europeans were in the hotel which had a few bullet holes through the roof but nothing much else, quenching their thirst, and the illumination was a couple of hurricane lamps, but I was a bit more interested in what was going on down town so I walked down to the wharf.

The copra stores were burning and they burned for about a fortnight, the flames made a roar as they poured up, and if you were anywhere near the fire you couldn’t hear any engines, you couldn’t hear aircraft, all you could hear was the fire. Anyway I walked down to the wharf, and the brand new customs shed had been very badly wrecked but up at one end of the customs shed there was a small enclosed room that had a hole blown through the side of it. I stuck my head through the hole in the wall and that must have been the place where they put the cargo before it was cleared from customs, and there was a stock of caddies of trade tobacco which had never been touched. Well, I know enough to know this, that if we had to go into the bush, you couldn’t get anything more valuable than this trade tobacco if we wanted to get on with the locals. I went promptly and found Gordon Russell and showed it to him and we put that trade tobacco under lock and key. While we had that, we were able to pay locals who worked for us very well and we made a practice of doing that. Where they used to carry a 50lb load for four hours and get a stick of tobacco, we gave them two sticks you see – after a week or two they were coming for miles to get in on this bonanza.

Well, that was a very good thing, getting that tobacco, but we still didn’t know when the Japanese invasion was going to come in, and it didn’t seem to worry anyone very much, only me, or if it was worrying them I couldn’t see much sign of it. Anyway they all camped that night out of the town, Modilon plantation I think it was, and we went back out to Wogau plantation where we had all our stores, and the next day Tom Upson turned up with all the kalabus labour and handed them all over to me, and a couple of police boys, and said, ‘Here you are, you can give these blokes something to do.’

So straight away we started shifting food inland, a day’s carry. Well the first day was to Amele where we stored it and we sent about 50 boy-loads of stuff there and back. Amele was a Mission station with a hospital, a Lutheran Mission I think it was. They were very cooperative, but we had to cross the Gogol there at Amele and from then on every day’s carry we would build a camp and put a couple of Europeans at each camp and their job was to pay the locals when they arrived in the afternoon with a load of cargo, give them their two sticks of tobacco and off they went, and the next day another mob would arrive and shift it up to the next place, and we kept this up for a month or two shifting this cargo, but all the time we were doing it we are expecting the Japs to sail into town and tie up, but they didn’t for some reason or other. I shifted about half the groceries and one thing and another from Burns Philp and W R Carpenter’s inland. These stores had been damaged quite a lot – the walls had been blown off in places and the rooves had been machine gunned. A lot of the stores finished up in the Upper Ramu near Kainantu. Well, I thought that was a pretty good job doing that. We heard later a high ranking ANGAU official reckoned there was a lot of looting done in Madang – well, he wasn’t there, and if shifting that cargo out inland where the Japs couldn’t get it, if that was looting, well we were looting – I don’t think we were…

We didn’t get any more bombings for a while, we just kept on shifting all this stuff out of the town, day and night. We kept out of the town during the daytime because we reckoned if they come over again they’ll come over in the daytime. And those copra stores kept on burning, there was nothing we could do about that. The main big wireless station, AWA, had been wrecked, and the main AWA operator wasn’t in the best of health. He was evacuated with two or three other elderly men inland to Kainantu and they were flown out to Australia. In our Garrison we had two other Europeans, one was Dick Vernon and the other was Peter Monfries. Peter Monfries was a wireless hand in peacetime and he had his own little station, and he fixed up the wireless transmitting apparatus that was floating around Madang from AWA. In a few days he was in radio contact with Bulolo and Wau and everywhere else, and from then on we started getting orders by wireless from Port Moresby. Prior to this, Port Moresby didn’t even know we were still there, they didn’t have a clue. I think we made a mistake getting in touch with them myself.

We were in Madang for a few weeks after the first big bombing raid and we were expecting the Japanese to sail into the harbour any time and so we had been working all this time getting stores out of the town, inland. Now we had a very good carrier line organised, everything had to be carried on men’s backs, there were no trucks, although we used a truck from Madang around to Wogau plantation and from there on the stuff was carried. So what shifted all this cargo was a few caddies of trade tobacco, which I thought was pretty good. By now the copra stores had stopped burning, all the copra had been burnt.

We were getting the news from Australia on an old-time Philips receiver we had there which worked off a car battery. That is the only way we could find out what was going on in the rest of New Guinea. One day we got a message from Moresby saying, ‘Commandeer small ships, fuel for a long journey, await further instructions’. Well, we commandeered the Totol and Andy Kirkwall-Smith took over there with Mr Radke who was the skipper and I got on to another boat, a smaller boat, the Win Non, which was owned by a Chinese storekeeper from up the Sepik, Choo Leong. We fuelled them up and hid them and awaited further instructions.

A week or two later we get instructions: ‘Proceed Lutherhafen, contact Harris, travel at night, hide during day.’ Well they didn’t have to tell us that – that was the only way we were going to travel anyway. So Kirkwall-Smith went off in the Totol, and Choo Leong and myself and another bloke whose name I can’t remember went off in the Win Non. It was only a small boat, it could carry about 15 ton of cargo and we had it filled up with rice and cases of meat and stuff like that, and we travelled at night down the coast from Madang and hid during the day. The second night we pulled in very close to Sialam and looking out to sea you could see the top of what looked like an island over towards New Britain and we took a bearing on that – by now we had found out that Lutherhafen was a small anchorage on the end of Umboi Island. We sailed across there at night and that was a pretty nerve-racking trip because it got very rough. Anyway we got there. The Japanese had got complete control of all this area, air and sea and land – well, they didn’t have all the land under their control, yet – so we had to be pretty careful.

We arrived at Lutherhafen about 10 o’clock in the morning and there was the Totol and on it now was Blue Harris who used to be the kiap in Lae, who I knew quite well. He took me off the Win Non, and we shifted all of our cargo on to the Totol. Blue Harris sent the Win Non back to where it had come from and kept me with Kirkwall-Smith and himself and another chap, Ron Chugg, who was a wireless operator, on the Totol. That night we steamed up the North Coast of New Britain and just at daylight we pulled in to Iboki plantation where there was quite a good anchorage. The river came out there and there was a wharf that you could pull right up alongside – we took the boat in and hid it up under the mangroves which grew right down to the water’s edge.

We were getting closer and closer all the time to the Japanese, we were well aware of that, and when we went ashore we found there was about three or four hundred men, refugees, who had got this far from Rabaul. The man in charge was J K McCarthy. These refugees were army blokes, a lot of them, the CO of the army was there, and there were a few civilians and a few NGVR. A lot of these army fellows were in very poor physical condition and some of them hardly had any clothes. They had left in such a hurry and they had come through some terrible country from Rabaul – there is no road coming down this way to where we were – but they had been helped along the road by McCarthy’s outfit and small boats, and here they are all gathered here. They seemed to have plenty of food because there were cattle on the plantation which they were butchering, and rice.

We hung around there for three or four days waiting for further instructions . We had to get our instructions from Harris of course, and Harris told us he couldn’t get any instructions from McCarthy. McCarthy was in touch with Australia and was trying to organise air transport, well it was pretty obvious he wasn’t going to get that, or air cover, and I didn’t think he was going to get that either because we didn’t have enough aeroplanes, we didn’t have any that could compete with the Japanese, not up where we were. After a few days they had found out that there was a Burns Philp’s small ship over at Witu Island about 60 mile offshore. It was in good going order, and had been heading for Rabaul when the Japs took Rabaul so they just pulled in and tied up at the wharf waiting to see what was going to happen. The Japs knew they were there and they told them to stop there and wait for further instructions. McCarthy and Co sent a boarding party over there and took over this boat with the captain and crew. They found the boat was in good enough order to go down to Australia with all these refugees, so we shifted the whole lot from Iboki plantation to Witu one night on the Totol, and another boat, the Bavaria, which had come from Finschhafen. They camped there for a couple of days while they filled up the boat with rations, and they decided to head for Australia. Well, I didn’t think they had much chance of getting down there because they had to go past a gap between Rabaul and New Guinea – Buna and Samarai – where they would be exposed during the daytime.

Anyway, we were told that we could go back to Madang. Now while we were over there, to start off they were thinking about shifting some of these refugees down to Lae, but the Japs landed in Lae while we were there and they also landed in Finschhafen and Buna, so that was out. We got this news over the air from Australia – they didn’t mention Madang and we decided we’d go back where we came from, we knew there was plenty of food there anyway. So Kirkwall-Smith, Radke, Ron Chugg and myself went back, travelling at night, to Madang, and we sneaked in there very cautiously and there were no Japs there. The other boat headed for Australia and I didn’t think they had much chance of getting there. Well, anyway, they got there. I’ve seen men that were on the boat since, and they reckoned they steamed all night and in the morning they expected to be very much exposed to the enemy but it was a very cloudy morning and drizzly rain most of the day, and they just kept on going and that’s how they got past. Well you never know your luck, do you.

When we got back to Madang – we had been away for a couple of weeks – there was no-one in Madang at all. When we left to go, the NGVR was there under Gordon Russell. We were a bit short of some rations and we fossicked around in the town and got a few things, we had plenty of rice and meat and stuff like that, but we were getting a bit short of tea and sugar and coffee and tinned milk, you know, the luxuries. So we moved out to Siar plantation, not Wogau where they used to be, but Siar.

The first thing we did at Siar was get the kerosene refrigerator in the house there working, then we butchered a nice young steer – there were plenty of cattle on the plantation – and sent a message down to Siar village telling the locals that we could let them have some nice fresh meat if they wanted it, in return for fresh vegetables and fruit. We cut up a few nice steaks for the three of us and put them in the fridge, and eventually the natives brought us up a great heap of bananas, pineapples, kau kau, taro, oh every fresh vegetable you could think of and also some shellfish. They were very happy to get the fresh meat, so that was quite a good thing.

We decided we’d have a couple of days spell before we did anything else. The next day, it might have been two days, a runner turned up from Bogadjim. The NGVR had moved there from Wogau plantation, and Gordon Russell was on his way up to see me and tell us what was going on. Well, when they arrived they were very pleased to see us and we told them about our adventures. While we were at Aboke, an army bloke who was one of a party who had surrendered to the Japanese at Tol plantation, had escaped and the rest of them were tied up and massacred and used for bayonet practice. And it didn’t sound very nice – this bloke who had escaped was wounded in the wrist. Several accounts of this Tol massacre have been written up by various people, so I won’t attempt to describe that, but it made you very determined not to surrender, or it did me anyway. So I told them all about that, and a few other odds and ends, and Gordon said that what he was doing down there was checking up on the road . You can go inland from Bogadjim, there’s quite a reasonable sort of a foot road inland from there. In the meantime the supplies from Madang were still moving along the old road but they weren’t moving very fast and he wanted me to go along and try and shake them up a bit. So I packed up and left the next morning with a couple of locals.

The cargo wasn’t moving as fast as it should be, mainly because the Europeans who were supposed to be supervising were getting a bit bored with their job or something. But they didn’t get much news of what was going on, and I was able to tell them a few things including the Tol massacre – that spurred them on a bit and things started moving a bit better. When I got three days inland I came to where Monfries was – he was a bit the same way but I managed to cheer him up a bit too. He used to get messages every day and he would send a police boy back down to Gordon Russell with anything of importance. On the second day I was there Monfries said, ‘Here’s one for you’. It said, ‘Sergeant Emery report immediately NGVR Nadzab’.

Well, as far as we knew, the Japs were in Lae, and Nadzab was about 18 or 20 miles from Lae, and they could drive a truck up as far as Heath Farm which was about a third of the distance, so I felt a bit wary about this order. But anyway I wanted to see what was going on, because that was where my farm was, down near Lae, so I packed up plenty of supplies. It took about 30 carriers to carry my supplies because I was going to take my time and I expected to have to feed myself when I got there. And off I went. I left the direct track to Nadzab at the head of the Ramu and went up to Kainantu to see Ron Brechin and while there I ran into Ned Rowlands, a miner who had been mining in that area for a long time. He was a bit old and he decided that he was going to come down with me to Nadzab and join the army. Well he didn’t have to, but that’s what he wanted to do. So we walked on down that way – it took us a few days.

Eventually when we got to Nadzab we found Major Edwards now, who was the CO, and another chap who the last time I saw him was the storeman with New Guinea Airways, and he was now a Captain, Captain Lyons, and oh, there were Lieutenants who weren’t even in the army when we went up to Madang. I got there round about April, May. The Fifth Independent Company was brought in at around that time and I spent up until October 1942 working with the 5th Independent Company when I got wounded by a little dust-up with the Japs and was evacuated, wounded. Now I think that just about tells you what happened in Madang. Mind you, there’s a lot of detail that I could put in which I haven’t yet.

Now the big thing that doesn’t come through on the tape is how lonely we felt. If you look at the map, Madang is right out on the far edge, one of the closest places to the Japanese Empire and here we were rescuing groceries and stores and one thing and another right under their noses, and taking them inland and getting away with it. It was only a bit of organisation and we shifted a dickens of a lot of stores right inland, right to the head of the Ramu River. Those stores came in very handy for other people later on. Now, if we hadn’t done that, well, the Japs would have got the lot. Like I’ve said once or twice already, all they had to do was steam in and tie up at the wharf and help themselves, and I can never understand why they didn’t. Anyway, this warfare business seems to be a very funny business, you never know what’s going to happen next.’

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