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Stories About Some of the Many Heros of Kokoda
3 Mar 2012
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Corporal John Metson, British Empire Medal, 2/14th Australian Infantry battalion

 

John Metson having served in North Africa and Syria, was sent to New Guinea in August 1942 to stem the Japanese overland advance on Port Moresby.

 

The Japanese broke through the Australian defence line near the village of Isurava in the Owen Stanley Range and after four days of fighting, John Metson with his ankle smashed by a bullet, was one of many cut off in the jungle from there Battalion.  Stretchers were made to carry the wounded constructed from bush poles and vines, requiring eight men, already loaded down with their own equipment and weapons to carry each stretcher.  John Metson, to spare his comrades the burden of carrying him, said the he would crawl.

 

The party set off from Isurava in the darkness hoping to rejoin the Battalion, but the Japanese had already cut off that route and were firmly entrenched across the main track at Alola.  Forced to turn away from the main track, the Australian party crossed Eora Creek to the eastern side of the gully where they tried for almost two weeks to find an alternative route to rejoin the Battalion, without success.  The party then turned back along the eastern side of the valley until they reached the village of Sangai in the lower foothills on the northern face of the Range.

 

By now, the men had been on the move for three weeks, and all this time, John endured the agony of his smashed ankle and his entire body aching from prolonged crawling, his cheerful fortitude all the while an inspiration to all around him.  Desperately short of food and getting weaker each day it had become apparent that if they continued to carry the wounded, no-one would survive.

 

The huts at Sangai offered protection for the wounded from the constant rain, and some food could be obtained from the village garden there.  So it was decided to leave the stretcher cases, and with them John Metson, while the rest of the party pushed on with all possible speed to get help.

 

Having got to help after two weeks, they sent an aircraft back to the village (which was behind enemy lines and now inaccessible to the Australians except from the air) to drop supplies and food to the men who had stayed at Sangai.  The village appeared deserted, and a month later when the tide of battle had turned in Australia’s favor, a ground patrol went to the village where they found the body of John Metson and the other wounded men.  Unarmed and unable to defend themselves they had been murdered.

 

For all those that fought with him, John Metson will be remembered for his fortitude, his determination not to be a burden to others, and his cheerful acceptance of the awful situation into which he had been trust.

 

Lieutenant Stan Bissett, Military Cross for repeated acts of valor and leadership

 

Stan was born in Balaclava Melbourne, and had three brothers and a sister.  He was a fitness fanatic and excelled at tennis, cricket, football, and gymnastics.

 

As a young lad he was selected to go to England with the Australian Rugby Union team in September 1939, where he met the King and Queen, but never played in England because they arrived there the day before WWII was declared, and the tour was called off.

 

Back home, he joined the 2/14th Battalion. His older brother, Hal (known throughout the Battalion as Butch) had already joined. They were both pretty good marksmen having grown up in the Victorian countryside and having shot many a rabbit over that period.  They went with the battalion to the Middle East and fought in Syria, but after Pearl Harbour was bombed everyone was keen to get back home to defend Australia against the Japanese.

 

They were sent up the Kokoda Track to relieve the 39th Battalion, who had been fighting the Japanese for weeks and were holding out against the enemy at Isurava.  By this time Stan was an intelligence officer, a lieutenant, in charge of a section of 12 men. Butch, also a lieutenant, was a platoon commander.  They had experienced some stiff climbs in some of the rugged mountains in Syria, but PNG was much worse, with the weather and thick mud appalling. The men perspired so much they were completely dehydrated by the end of the day and had to be issued with salt tablets on a daily basis.

 

By the time they got to the village of Efogi they felt they had conquered the worst of the terrain and got their second wind. They were still a fair way from the enemy and the fellows were much happier and morale was at a high level. When they got to the dry lakes of Myola near the top of the range, they found to their dismay that none of the supplies they had anticipated had been dropped by the transport planes.  They’d practically used up all their rations they had carried up the track so the brigade commander, Brigadier Arnold Potts, sent an urgent message to Port Moresby for more supplies.

 

They reached Isurava by August 27 and gradually started taking over the exhausted 39th Battalion's positions. The next day the main battle with the Japanese started. They started attacking in fierce human waves. Australian troops were vastly outnumbered. They had been expecting about 1.500 Japanese, but by the time they got to Isurava the Japanese strength had grown to four times that and they were coming in wave after wave. All the Aussies had were the 546 men of the 2/14th and remnants of the 39th Battalion.

 

Butch and his platoon were sent up to the higher ground, to a position the Japanese aimed to capture so they could overlook the battlefield. In two days Butch's platoon of about 35 men was confronted by 11 Japanese attacks. In each attack there were over 100 Japanese.  They lost a lot of people and Butch got a burst from a Japanese machinegun through his stomach when he was going around distributing grenades. He was badly wounded, but Stan didn't learn about it until several hours as he was busy doing his rounds as intelligence officer.  He got within 30m of Butch's platoon and then came across one of his Bren gunners who had lost his hand when a grenade he was throwing went off prematurely, so Stan whizzed him back to the medical aid post.

 

Later, he heard Butch had been hit and stretcher bearers were bringing him back. So he went up the track and caught up with them. They laid Butch down about 15m off the side of the track and could see there was no hope for him. By then it was about 10 o'clock at night. The doc gave him some morphine and Stan sat with him for six hours.  Butch was quite conscious at times and they talked about Mum and Dad, their good times and bad times, what they did as kids.  Stan sat with him until about 4am, when Butch died and they buried him beside the tack.

 

Stan continued to fight in PNG, with his only war wound being a Japanese sniper successfully slicing off a little of his eyebrow when he poked his head out too far from a foxhole.  He lived a long and healthy life (till 98 years of age) and had four kids.

 

The local eccentric doctor – Geoffrey Vernon

 

Dr Geoffrey Vernon was the enigma of the Kokoda campaign.  He was a courageous, complex, and eccentric character who wandered the length of the Kokoda Track many times over, tending to the soldiers and the carriers that came across his path.  An intellectual giant who loved to talk about the classics and history and wrote a lot of short stories as well as a committed smoker (using anything he could find to wrap tobacco when papers run out).

 

When war started in New Guinea, Vernon was 59, a long time resident of the Pacific, and a veteran of World War 1 where he won a military cross for bravery under fire, and was as deaf as a post from injuries sustained at the time.  After several attempts to enlist in the army, with him claiming he was 52, and the army thinking ‘he was nearly 70, though he looked more like a very active man of 80’, he was signed up as a medical officer in the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, given his valuable knowledge of the local customs.

 

On the war front, it was written that ‘Doc Vernon arrived out of the fog, with some instruments and dressings in two triangular bandages.  He nearly got shot when first seen owing to his unregimental dress. He had shorts, which were really strides rolled up; a blue pullover with the arms tied around his neck and hanging down his back; a felt army hat, worn as no hat ever should have been worn, and a long newspaper cigarette in his mouth.  He addressed the captain saying ‘I heard there was some action up here and thought you may need some assistance.  Where do I start?

 

The first battle for Kokoda resulted in the casualty of the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Owen.  Doctor Vernon took stretcher bearers down to the front line to find Owen, lying in a narrow firing trench with a gunshot wound to the head.  The CO was struggling violently, but Vernon managed to get him back to the hut.  As Doc Vernon was operating, the hut was under fire from machine guns and bullets were whizzing through the roof.  As Doc Vernon was deaf, his assistant pointed upwards instead of speaking and the Doc said, “Yes, it is raining heavily isn’t it”.

 

Throughout the Kokoda campaign, he suffered badly from debilitating fevers.  When the Australians retook Kokoda in November 1942, the carriers found an old Japanese bike and wheeled Vernon into the village so he didn’t have to walk the last distance.  After the war, Vernon returned to his rubber plantation in Eastern Papua and a few years later succumbed to malaria that had dogged him through the war, aged 63.

 

The Chaplain - Albert Moore, Salvation Army Chaplain, 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions

 

As a chaplain in the Salvation Army, Major Moore was a non-combatant in New Guinea, but he was actively involved in supporting the Australian war effort from amidst the jungle battlefield.

 

During the war Albert Moore was the driving force behind the establishment of ‘coffee and comfort bars’ throughout PNG to lift the spirits of the exhausted and wounded troops in the midst of a depressing jungle trail with the enemy not far away.  He was assigned 15 natives who kept supplies coming – at times providing troops with 45 gallons of hot coffee a day, despite the difficulties of keeping things hot with only kerosene tins and a couple of urns, and hundreds of scones (from the oven he made with a biscuit tin buried in the ground that sometimes contained the yummy added ingredient of weavels!).

 

The story goes that Albert would lay out his scarce and valuable line of cigarettes for exhausted and battered men returning from violent fighting, as well as those on their way there.  In true ANZAC spirit, the soldiers going in to battle would usually say ‘leave them there for the fellows coming out, they will need them more than I do’ and those coming out from battle would do similarly and say ‘leave them there for the chappies going in, they will need them more than I will”.

 

Private Bruce Kingsbury – “first Australian soldier to be awarded the Victorian Cross in the South Pacific”

 

Private Bruce Kingsbury of the 2/14th made a unique individual contribution to the Kokoda campaign and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces.  Kingsbury was the first Australian soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the South Pacific.

 

On 29 August 1942, during the Battle of Isurava, Kingsbury was one of the few survivors of a platoon that had been overrun by the Japanese.  He immediately volunteered to join a different platoon, which had been ordered to counterattack.

 

Eyewitness accounts say “he rushed forward, firing the Bren gun from his hip through terrific machine-gun fire, and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy. Only after he swept through enemy positions with his fire inflicting an extremely high number of casualties upon them, did he come to grief being shot dead by the bullet from a sniper hiding in the wood”.

 

Kingsbury’s actions had a profound effect on the Japanese, halting their momentum, and delaying them long enough for the Australians to fortify their positions.  His act of bravery also served as an inspiration to the Australian troops.

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