- Wright, Ken
- WWII operations, History - WW2, History - Between the wars, Biographies and personal histories, Naval Intelligence
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Throughout the war in New Guinea, there was a general unwillingness at all levels of Allied Command to use the natives as combatants. Tens of thousands were however conscripted to be used as carriers where they earned the enduring nickname of, ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.’ There were several Papuan Infantry Battalions and one in particular acquitted itself well in the fighting. Many were used for scouting and patrol duties. So when Wright’s message arrived at GHQ, explaining the natives were prepared to join the Australians there was considerable debate as to the best course of action. Although it was against Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt’s ‘Ferdinand’ principal, it was thought that now was the time to hit the Japanese while they were still reeling from Allied attacks and permission was granted. Wright’s party had become guerrillas.
Wright requested delivery of one hundred twelve gauge repeating shot guns, ammunition in the form of buckshot cartridges, hand grenades and additional rations to help feed the families of those away fighting. A few days later the requested supplies arrived. With Japanese forces slowly disintegrating under the relentless American onslaught and sickness undermining any determination to resist, the four hundred mile trek to the safety of Rabaul became the preferred option for thousands of Japanese. As the word ‘retreat’ was not in the Japanese language, the Emperor’s troops, when it was militarily expedient, began ‘changing direction’ or ‘advancing to the rear.’ In this case, the Japanese began to advance to the rear towards Rabaul via Cape Hoskins.
Retreat to Rabaul
The first indication the Japanese were still interested in the operations of the Coastwatchers was a report from the guerrillas scouts that a force of about one hundred Japanese troops were at the village of Kokiso arranging guides and bearers for a patrol into the mountains. The enemy troops were reported as different from the usual soldiers seen by the natives. Another report on 7 February said that twenty Japanese and thirty natives had arrived in one of the friendly villages. An ambush was planned for the following day. The attack was over in minutes and it was Simogan who claimed the three enemy lives lost in the engagement. The rest of the Japanese decided it was not the time to stand and fight and returned to the coast. The guerrillas had just taken on and beaten a detachment of the much vaunted Imperial Marines.
Before long fifty Imperial Marines were reported to be camped in the hamlet of Umu and a call to GHQ resulted in Boston bombers from RAAF 22 Squadron attacking the Japanese position. Native scouts now began reporting large enemy troop movements along the road towards Rabaul. The Japanese had initially begun their advance to the rear in an orderly and controlled fashion without stragglers for the guerrillas to use their hit and run attacks against. The RAAF carried out strafing attacks along the road and any staging camps the enemy had set up. These attacks were made within prearranged zones so the guerrillas would not be accidentally strafed as well. For the moment, the natives had to be content with a kill or two here and there if the opportunity presented itself. Over time the road became a killing ground when better pickings were to be had. The daily tally of Japanese deaths began to average about twenty a day.
In the middle of March, a transmission had been received that the group was being relieved on April 8 and repatriated back to Australia. Captain Alister McLean, a former New Britain planter, was to replace Wright and was bringing with him a complete party. Ferdinand guerrillas were now a force of some importance. By the beginning of April, they had killed more than two hundred Japanese and controlled the mountains of central New Britain. They were well supplied and could call in air support if necessary. The group even had their own flag, a Blue Ensign with a yellow ‘F’ for Ferdinand superimposed upon it. The Nakanais were greatly impressed by this flag. It was an emblem of honour only to be flown in times of great occasion and that time was April 7.
At one of the small ‘Ferdinand’ bases Lou Searle had arranged a going away party. A big crowd had assembled. Before the party began, the Australians in a heart felt speeches, thanked all the natives for their efforts for the Allied cause. The party then got underway with sing-sings and dancing with the dance leader draped in the ‘Ferdinand’ flag while the Australians opened a bottle of rum and joined in the festivities. While the party was in full swing with the sing sing continuing long into the night, security was still maintained.
Return to Australia
In less than two months they had killed 256 Japanese with the lost of only one of their own. The success of the three hundred guerrillas may not have been much compared to trained soldiers of the Allied forces but it was extremely important that the Nakanais had kept the enemy out of the food–rich mountains at very little cost either in manpower or war material. Had the Japanese been able to have established themselves in the mountains, it would have been very costly for the Allied forces to remove them.