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Buka Island, No. 3 Section, ’A’ Platoon,
First Independent Company, Australian Imperial Force

Written mainly by Private McNab (author) from his memory and diary, the diary of the late Lieutenant Mackie, plus recollections from Corporal McLean, Sapper Otton, Private Francis and Private Randall.

No.3 Section, A’ Platoon, was initially based at Kavieng, New Ireland, north of Rabaul on New Britain, getting acclimatized to the tropical weather and while other sections were detached to the outer island outposts kept up their army training. Then at the beginning of October 1941. No.3 Section received marching orders to relieve No.9 Section, C’ Platoon, under Lieutenant Leverett on Buka island. The islands of Bougainville and Buka are separated by a narrow sea passage about one kilometer wide with vicious current rips propelling canoes crossing at twelve knots, and were often carried way off course before reaching the intended other side. Buka island is about 50 kilometers long by some 20 kilometers wide, most of the jungle clad island is flat with low hills rising to 400 meters in the south, with approximately a population of 7,000 indigenous people. The main island of Bougainville was some 200 kilometers by about 65 kilometers in area, mostly covered in lush tropical jungle, high mountain ranges rising to approximately 3500 meters that extended down the middle of the island, plenty of running fresh water, and an indigenous population of roughly 60,000 people, plus a couple of dangerously active volcanoes.

No.3 Section embarked at Kavieng wharf, onto the Company’s ship, the Induna Star, travelled by sea over to Rabaul, spent a few hours there looking around town, and late in the afternoon continued the trip of a couple of hundred miles across the rough open Solomon Sea to Buka island. All except Private McNab seemed to have developed a sort of sea-sickness that night with a rough swell abating, and as landfall was sighted the next day everybody recovered some colour to their gloomy faces. It was 4 October 1941 as the Section settled into the camp established by No.9 Section behind the Buka airstrip next to Chinatown, and were found to be comfortable quarters indeed. The peaceful days stretched the monotony of doing lazy duty in the gun pits around the airstrip, it was an idyllic existence soaking up the sun for the Aussies, as there were no enemy for thousands of miles and the real world war seemed to be elsewhere. On occasions there was entertaining party functions organized by the local planters and government officials. At this time Ken Bridges was Assistant District Officer (ADO) in charge of the Government Station at Sohana island in the Buka Passage, under him was Patrol Officer Jack Keenan, the Medical Assistant Frank Green and an agricultural expert Eric Guthrie. There was also a couple of Catalina Flying-Boats and their maintenance men stationed nearby at Sorekan on the northwest coast of Bougainville island. In late November the respected Ken Bridges was replaced by ADO Jack Read, who’d never been in the region before, and unfortunately became a liability and a menace in perilous times as a coastwatcher on Bougainville island as the Japanese military forces thrust into the South Pacific becoming embroiled in the Guadalcanal campaign with the US Navy.

No.3 Section learnt on the fateful day, 8 December 1941, that the Japanese had invaded Malaya, bombed Hong Kong, plus sunk a British naval vessel in Chinese waters, and as a consequence the Commonwealth of Australia, part of the British Empire, was at war with Imperial Japan. That night the Diggers stood to for guard duty in the long-ago prepared gun pits seriously and a night mobile guard was tasked to patrol the perimeter of the camp and airstrip, also booby-traps and tin cans half filled with coral were placed in certain positions to warn of any enemy approach along the various tracks that criss-cross that area of the island. As Christmas 1941 came and went, almost unnoticed, due to the machinations of the isolated Section working smoothly with military stickler NCO McLean on the job, the families of several Japanese were gathered to be interned under guard on Sohana island for eventual passage to Australia on the Assa Kassa via Rabual. These civilian war prisoners bought food from the local Chinese traders, and would always order a few bottles of beer for the Australian guards, this ensured that the food order was not only approved but delivered without delay. The port of call by the Assa Kassa gave the opportunity for the evacuation of many non-essential Europeans, particularly the women, and although some insisted on staying, especially the Roman Catholic nuns, and those few ladies owning plantations, situated on the islands were a constant worry when the Japanese did arrive. It was rather gloomy start to the New Year of 1942, yet suddenly a bag of mail arrived, no one knew where it came from, perhaps an overnight delivery by Catalina, but to the soldiers on the remote tropical island it sure was a boost to their morale. The next day, Friday the 2 January, Lieutenant Mackie received orders to prepare the aerodrome for demolition, and only having 360lbs of explosives nine large craters would have to do when the time came. The destruction of the airstrip was allotted to the Section’s Engineer Corporal, Dolby, and his team readied the ‘drome for demolition, plus placed hurdles of logs and pipes here and there for that extra deterrent against any aircraft landing. So you can imagine the distaste at higher orders to clear the runway the following day for an aircraft to land from Rabaul. An Australian-made Wirraway arrived, with Flight-Lieutenant Brookes at the controls, he inspected the airstrip, suggested some improvements and flew off. Luckily later that afternoon six Japanese four-engined flying boats appeared to the north, lurking around for victims, the Section manned the gunpits preparing for action, yet to their amazement the enemy veered away and disappeared over Hahela island, and if the Wirraway was still around and sighted on the ground the Japanese aviators may have given the airstrip their full attention instead of being intimidated by the potential miniscule anti-aircraft firepower of the few outnumbered Australian machine-guns.

No.3 Section on 4 January heard reports telling of Japanese warplanes raiding Rabual, the war was indeed coming closer to Buka island. On Monday 5 January the garrison was alarmed to hear heavy gunfire close-by, so Corporal Lovett-Cameron and Private McNab were sent to investigate this single sound of action, and as they nervously and slowly crept through the jungle undergrowth to the open shore line they saw the inter-island steamer Malaita exiting the passage east on its way to Rabaul under the captaincy of Bill Wilding. It was learnt later that he’d acquired an 4-inch gun for the defence of his ship and was getting in some firing practice while steaming through the Buka passage. The next day an important message from the military authorities in Australia instructing that an extra shilling a day was to be put in the Section soldier’s paybooks and they began to make plans on what to do with this intended great wealth. Anyway Rabaul was raided again that day, apparently the inter-island steamer Malaita was the target, which would have gave Captain Bill Wilding something real to shoot at. By Wednesday 14 January the Section started preparing for the inevitable move to the larger island of Bougainville, taking advantage of the store-keeper Mr. Chin Yung’s trip to Baniu, army stores and supplies were unloaded at Raua, carried inland to Rugen and Corporal Warner set up the first hide-out in the jungle crusted hills. A week later the war moved closer to Buka, when a Japanese Serial-43 Flying-Boat flew directly over the airstrip, this time the Australians opened up with the anti-aircraft weaponry, consisting of one Vickers medium machine-gun, two Bren light machine guns, numerous .303 rifles, two Thompson sub-machine guns and a few .45 revolvers. That same day Kavieng was raided and bombed by about 100 Japanese warplanes, also enemy cruisers, transports and aircraft-carriers were reported east of Rabaul, even Manus island was attacked by nine enemy aircraft. Finally by 22 January news was heard of the Kavieng garrison that evacuated the town at 2230hrs the previous night, and No.3 Section radio operator, Signalman Brown, tried to contact Rabaul, the Company HQ somewhere on New Ireland, and No.4 Section on Manus island, but there was no responses.

No.3 Section the next day was now split into three parties by the commanding officer, Lieutenant Mackie, the first group were to move at dawn across the Buka Passage onto Bougainville, stay at Bonis plantation and then move to the village of Ratsua. The second group was to follow one hour later, and the third group, unless otherwise ordered were to remain at the airstrip until 1200hrs, then set demolitions and destroy the camp, move across to Bonis on Bougainville and await further orders. At first light on 23 January the plan to evacuate Buka island was carried out. Around mid-morning three unexpected visitors were seen approaching from the south-west, two were low winged monoplanes and the other a biplane single float seaplane, and one proceeded to attack targets on Sohana island, then flew onto bomb and strafe with machine-gun fire Chinatown and Hahela Mission on Buka island. Another enemy warplane went and attacked the flying-boat base at Sorekan, dropping bombs, but the Catalina’s and air-maintenance crews had dispersed from the area the previous day. The Australians began to shoot back with machine-gun fire leaving one Japanese warplane pouring with smoke from the engine as it flew off. Another raid was expected by the high altitude four-engined flying-boats circling around like predator sharks, yet the all-clear was sounded at 0930hrs. With an imminent landing thought to happen soon, as the Japanese warplanes did not bomb the airstrip, Lieutenant Mackie issued the order for the demolition party to destroy the ‘drome and the explosions went off nicely. The RAAF bomb dump was set with explosives and timed to ignite in an hour. Lieutenant Mackie established an Observation Post (OP) at Lemonmanu on the north tip of Buka and another to watch over the Buka Passage from the Bougainville side. Two OPs were set up on the eastern coast of Bougainville, at Numa Numa and Kieta, and one OP near Buin on the south shoreline with good views of Empress Augusta Bay plus the picturesque Bougainville Passage and the many of the smaller islands of the British Solomons were clearly visible. Apart from being spread thinly this deployment of the Section gave the best coverage for observation and to get to know the island and inhabitants.

No.3 Section in the meantime settled into the area of operations, exchanged gifts with the locals feasting on food given, visited the various plantations, got in contact with No.2 Section on Vila training the New Hebrides Volunteer Defence Corps and rounded up Nippon and Nazi sympathizers. First Independent Company had been issued official orders warning of missionaries who still lived in the old German colonial areas, particularly Buka island, as many thousands of natives were not under government control, yet Private MacNab found all were most helpful in the early stages of the Japanese invasion until enemy threats of dire punishment discouraged any assistance. On 25 January the government officials vacated Kieta and upon staying at Woodlark island headed for Australia where they reported erroneously that Bougainville island had been occupied by the Japanese. Although it wasn’t until 31 March that the Japanese did amphibiously raid Kieta. Meanwhile back at Buka the Japanese had not arrived, in fact it wasn’t until the 9 March that eight Japanese ships visited Soraken and found nothing. During this spell in the Japanese offensive Lieutenant Mackie and a few of the Section met Mr. Kennedy, District Officer based at Segi island and Mr.Cooper, Assistant Medical Officer from further down the Solomons. They had all gathered at Faisi island in Bougainville Passage to rendezvous with a Catalina flying boat and after a short chat, as the aircrew were getting anxious about being spotted by patrolling enemy warplanes, they eventually sailed away to their respective bases.

No.3 Section, and in particular Buka island, was being targeted on 9 March by enemy forces, for Japanese warships had visited Kessa, again, on the north-west coast of Buka, also the observers at Lemonmanu had tales of lucky escapes from patrolling Japanese soldiers at this time and seaplanes were launched from enemy naval vessels patrolling the off-shore waters. There was also rumours that the airstrip at Buka had been occupied. Unfortunately Read, the ADO reported the Japanese house-call at Kessa to Port Moresby, then was passed onto Australia where someone released the information to the newspapers, and of course the Japanese radio monitors picked up the broadcast and blamed the two Europeans found there. The Japanese returned to Kessa on the 14 March, Percy Goode was tortured and shot dead, and the other a Catholic Missionary, Dr. Hennessy was taken away as a prisoner. Soon Lieutenant Mackie was off on a walkabout around Buka to show the flag, and themselves, to the restless natives, assuring them that Australian soldiers were not afraid of the Japanese and braver sentiments about intending to remain and stay in charge. It was during this tour of duty that the Roman Catholic priests at the village of Lonahan told of the Japanese occupation of Buka Passage. Lieutenant Mackie and Private McNab decided to investigate, and as they approached Malasang village, hoping to spy the Passage about five miles away, they were stopped by Hobart, a Police Boy who told the Australians of the large enemy force that landed at Chinatown and were now about two miles down the track headed this way. With no need for explanations the two Diggers turned and not wanting to leave boot tracks took off their soldiers footwear so as to appear that bare-footed natives were travelling the track, then it started to teem with rain drowning and washing away any tell-tale signs.

No.3 Section was being slowly squeezed from Buka, the Japanese had permanently occupied Buka Passage, established aircraft patrols from the repaired airstrip, had units occupying the local plantations, had requisitioned a schooner, and mounted guns and searchlights on Sohana island too. The future looked insecure for No.3 Section soldiers still on Buka. Yet escape they did with the help of a Fijian missionary, Usiah Sotutu, and the bravery of his Methodist villagers feeding and hiding the last Australians on Buka a few miles from the enemy guarded Passage. The handful of escapees boarded a small sail boat at dusk and also propelled by paddling, with Usiah’s natives in canoes scouting ahead, the Australians reached Saposa island off the west coast of Bougainville near Sorekan. Where they were transferred into large canoes, with over a dozen broad shouldered paddlers, and a fast voyage was enjoyed as the distance between them and the enemy widened. What seemed impossible, the Australians on Buka had escaped from the clutches of the Imperial Japanese without casualties. It was now 14 April 1942 and the Sons of Nippon were well and truly established on the small and flat Buka island, the next phase of No.3 Sections successful south seas activities for the next thirteen months, due to Lieutenant Mackie's planning and leadership, was about to begin on Bougainville.

Lieutenant Mackie afterwards served with M Special unit until the cessation of hostilities, awarded an American citation for gallantry in action, kept his commission in the Australian Army and served in the Korean War, he retired as a Lieutenant-Colonel.
Corporal McLean was later promoted to Lieutenant and served in M Special unit.
Private McNab was exempt from active service due to contracted tropical illness and served with support units.
Sapper Otton was awarded an US Silver Star "For gallantry in action in the South-West Pacific Area during April 5, 1942 to December 1, 1942 and served in M Special unit.
Corporal Dolby went to M Special unit and eventually received an MBE for operations conducted with that commando formation.
Corporal Lovett-Cameron also volunteered for service with M Special unit.
Lance-Corporal Warner went to M Special unit too and was eventually awarded the Military Medal.
Usiah Sotutu returned to Fiji, enlisted in the Fiji Military Forces as a Chaplin and returned to Bougainville in 1946.

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Copyright Graham Donaldson 1999-2000