I wrote in my last post of how I visited Alotau a while back to catch up with my Aunt and Uncle. After they left, I had another day or so to look around Alotau and the Milne Bay area. One of the main points of interest for me was to visit the historical sites from the Battle of Milne Bay.
The Battle of Milne Bay took place from 25 August to 7 September in 1942. The battle is especially significant because it was the first time in WWII that the Japanese lost a major battle and had to withdraw.
Now, to understand the context of this, one has to appreciate a little of the events before that. On 7 December 1941, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour and given the Americans a bloody nose. They then swept through Singapore and a series of other key military bases of the allies in South East Asia. The Japanese were sinking battleships, shooting down aircraft and defeating armies everywhere they went. Now they were threatening to take the South Coast of Papua New Guinea and an invasion of Australia would inevitably follow.
So Milne Bay took place at a time when the Japanese were looking pretty much invincible and the outcome of the war was anything but certain.
Sadly, there aren’t too many relics preserved from the Battle of Milne Bay. However, there are some memorials around Alotau that are worth a look. This one was being used to hold up a couple of teenage boys when I arrived.
My interest in this plaque in the middle of town seemed to be enough to scare the lads off.
On closer inspection, it provided a good summary of the battle, including the context and outcome, plus a table of losses from all of the opposing military forces. The Australians had 167 Killed and the Americans 14, with 206 Australians wounded. The Japanese lost 625 killed and 311 wounded.
The objective of the Japanese attack was to take the airfields. On the 25th of August, they landed a battalion of Elite marines (called Kaigun Rikusentai) with tanks in support.
As with most of the fighting in Papua New Guinea, the Battle of Milne Bay took place in thick jungle like this.
Turbull Park now stands where Number 3 airstrip was located during the war, and a key location in the Battle of Milne Bay. The sign at the entrance to Turnbull Memorial Park, may possibly be the least appropriately designed war memorial sign on the planet.
The airstrip was renamed Turnbull Field after Squadron Leader Peter Turnbull, who was killed during a strafing run attacking the Japanese troops on 27 August 1942.
This is the memorial to Peter Turnbull.
The Japanese initially made good progress inland, pushing back Australian militia troops. However, they didn’t have it all their own way. Units of the veteran Second Australian Imperial Force were brought in and fierce fighting followed.
It was here at Number 3 Airstrip that the tide of the battle turned. The 7th and 18th Australian Infantry Brigades, supported by air power from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) an the US Army, stopped the Japanese troops on 28 August.
There is also a small field gun in the park with a plaque.
It commemorates the sacrifice of the Australian troops from the 61st Battalion Queensland Cameron Highlanders lost in the Battle of Milne Bay.
The Japanese force had been stopped but still remained a threat and the battle continued. This humble garden marks one of the most significant locations in Australian military history.
It was at this point that the final Japanese defeat took place.
And a Victoria Cross was awarded.
In the course of the battle, Corporal John Alexander French was killed in action. For his bravery, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – the highest military honour for Commonwealth forces. It was the first Victoria Cross to be awarded in the South-West Pacific campaign.
“Jack” French’s VC was won for the type of selfless sacrifice that is the stuff of legends. On the 4th of September, the Australians attempted to outflank a Japanese position but were pinned down by fire from 3 machine gun posts. Jack French ordered his comrades to take cover and then single-handedly took out two of the machine guns with grenades. He then charged the third position, firing his Thompson submachine gun (“Tommy Gun”), killing the Japanese troops firing the gun. However, Jack French was shot in the assault and died near the third machine gun position. The Australian soldiers were then able to advance and complete the attack.
This tasteful memorial right by the water includes a pictorial history of the battle as part of the displays.
Including this description of the Japanese defeat and a picture of a destroyed tank.
There are some other interesting relics of the battle scattered around town.
This Bren Gun Carrier is sitting in the front yard of one of the larger hotels.
The Bren Gun Carrier was used extensively by allied Forces as a light armoured vehicle – usually to carry soldiers equipped with the Bren light machine gun.
Some captured Bren Gun Carriers were even used by the Germans in the European theatre.
At the airport, there is a Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun.
It is a fairly benign-looking piece of kit just sitting there near the departure lounge.
But it wasn’t so many years ago that these things were firing in anger as the Japanese aircraft attacked Allied positions.
There is also the remains of an allied pontoon. It was used for bringing supplies ashore from ships.
The remains of the pontoon lay rusting where they were constructed over 70 years ago.
There is a small village right nearby and the local children like to play on the ruins.
And they’ve done a great job of recycling them into an outhouse with a spectacular view.
Men to the left. Women to the right.
The kids spotted my camera and then burst into action.
They followed me up the beach, desperately trying to get in as many shots as they could.
They are terribly cute.
The women of the village wash their clothes in the pools by the sea.
It looks like hard work.
While the children swim nearby.
These ladies were doing their laundry in basins by the water’s edge.
Then drying them on the rocks in front of their house.
The houses are made of woven leaves in panels attached to a frame.
The water comes from a fresh water well.
My local tour guide took me to visit a family that she supports.
They have a daughter named Blanche who is deaf. Deaf people are very vulnerable in this society but Blanche has learned to sign and is very independent. She opened a coconut for me to drink.
Blanche, like most people in PNG, is fond of betelnut.
It’s a quaint little village. People live simple lives but seem very happy.
Except for this little boy. I don’t know what he’s grouchy about.
All the chicken is free range in Alotau.
The children seem to be free range too.
Some of the houses are impressively large.
Most are on stilts to avoid heat and protect against floods.
There are little shops like this one where the proprietor demonstrated the techniques of chewing “buai” (betelnut).
I also visited this incredible school.
It felt like I was going back a hundred years in time.
The children do most of their work on blackboard slates (just like in “Anne of Green Gables”).
But they drew their “World Environment Day” pictures on paper and stuck them on the wall.
The school bell is an old gas cylinder strung up in a tree that the teacher whacks with a stick to bring the children in.
The childcare programme for the teachers is very simple – just bring your kids along with you.
I also had time to take a look around the stores in downtown Alotau.
The supermarket stocks all kinds of bizarre candies that I’ve never seen before.
Plus bush knives. Plenty of bush knives.
No Levi’s jeans available here, but plenty of “Red Joe Jeans”.
It is a mystery to me why people who live so close to the sea are so fond of poor quality tinned fish.
There is almost no fresh food available in the supermarket.
But there’s no shortage of frozen chips and margarine.
Or pictures of the last supper.
This was my favourite store – it stocks all manner of solar technology.
I was most impressed with this unit – a self-contained suitcase that opens out to reveal solar panels that charge during the day that charge an internal battery. It has power points built right in so that one can use it to run any appliance straight from the case. These sell for around US$500. Perfect for this environment where mains power supply is unreliable and doesn’t extend far beyond the main town centres.
At the pharmacy was where I saw the best product though – “Horny for Him Goat Weed Libido Boost”. Just 105 kina (about US$35, which is a substantial amount for most people in PNG). One could buy 100 coconuts for the price of boner.
My exploration of Milne Bay drew to a close and it was time to fly back to Port Moresby. There is another memorial at the airport. The airport is named in honour of Squadron Leader Bob Gurney from Corowa, New South Wales, who was killed in action in 1942.
The security guy let me load up all my stuff on the conveyor belt for the x-ray machine and put my valuables in the little trays. Then he handed all of my stuff back to me over the top of the machine because it’s broken. Only in PNG.
The departure lounge has souvenir t-shirts. I wasn’t overly tempted.
But I did like the way the ground crew used a luggage trolley to lay out the traffic cones on the runway.
And the luggage tractor. That was cool.
Until next postcard…