This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Dad and I went back to Milne  Bay in Papua New Guinea in 2000 where he had served with E Battery Australian Heavy Artillery in 1942. It was a memorable trip, especially for Dad, as we were the first non-locals to visit the isolated spot on the  southern arm of Milne Bay where he and his mates had installed their 155mm gun, and were left to live on hope and bananas (according to Dad).

This story first appeared in The Age in September 2006.

The water is transparently deep: porpoises play around the bow, flying fishes skim metres ahead of the sturdy Masurina workboat rumbling close to the southern arm of Milne Bay. This is the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea, where the last ridges of the Owen Stanley’s subside into the Coral Sea. If the island of New Guinea is shaped like a great bird of paradise, Dad and I are sailing among the tail feathers, searching for the place where he did his bit in World War Two.

The battle of Milne Bay had been magnificently won in August and September 1942 by the Australians, mainly the 18th Brigade and 75 and 76  RAAF Squadrons. It was the first defeat of the Japanese on land in World War Two. But the war wasn’t over by a long stretch. The fighting on the Kokoda Track did not reach its grim conclusion at the beach heads on the northern coast until early 1943. The Americans were engaged in the bloody mess on nearby Guadalcanal.  Costly fighting in New Guinea continued until 1945, and the Japanese fortress at Rabaul, north of Milne Bay, was never taken.

Many less celebrated units participated in the aftermath of the battle of Milne Bay, including Bombardier Jack Hutchinson’s pod of 155mm artillery pieces – E Battery Australian Heavy Artillery.  For all the proper celebration of heroes and medallists in war, tens of thousands of other Australians also served and suffered, volunteering for the Second AIF, going where they were sent and doing what they were ordered to do.

According to Dad they were dumped, duped and diseased  and left to fend for themselves in a tropical backwater called Dawa Dawa.  We were looking for the evidence that E Battery had been there.

I wanted to go back to Milne Bay with my Dad, not to vicariously experience what he had experienced in the war – no-one can do that – but to be with him in a place that was significant in his life, where he turned 21.

I’d been to Milne Bay before, after walking the Kokoda Track, and if I’d avoided being shot at I had experienced a couple of things first hand that Dad and his comrades endured at Milne Bay – malaria and dengue. Early in the war malaria was an even bigger cause of casualties than the Japanese, and Milne Bay was where it was at its worst.

Milne Bay is where New Guinea meets the Pacific – it’s a bit like the Whitsundays. The enchanted islands lie nearby in the China Strait – Samarai, Sideia and Kwato.  And like all battlefields I have travelled to for Pilgrimage – Gallipoli, Fromelles or Korea – Milne Bay is extraordinarily beautiful and peaceful.

E battery arrived in Milne Bay on 6 November 1942 aboard the former Dutch East Indies trader the SS Tasman. It was raining, it was always raining. Next day the two guns, weighing some 10, 500 kilos, were unloaded straight onto the beach at their allocated position – a spot  called Dawa Dawa about half way down the southern side of the bay, guarding the main Australian positions from Japanese naval raids.

Aboard the workboat 60 years later we scanned the shore for Dawa Dawa – it’s about an hour from the major town in the area, Alotau which was established in the 1960s because Samarai was too small.  When you go to ‘Milne Bay’ you are travelling to the bay itself, to the town of Alotau, and land at Gurney airport.

The ridge above Dawa Dawa has a distinctive undulating shape, a grove of coconuts on the shoreline, and the stain of the river leaching into the bay. There, at the end of the coconuts, the entrance to the river, and on the other side, a steep denuded hill. The familiar approach brings the memory back.

We stepped ashore on the grey, stony river bank. A couple of canoes were already there, a mother and child, and two other baggy shorted barefoot children busy doing nothing.

“It was a swamp when we got here in 1942, like the whole area. It was a mozzie farm.”  Dad had malaria three or four times during the war.

“They didn’t tell us a thing about malaria before we got here, only after it was too late.”

“No supplies, nothing. We changed the labels on some American crates in the ship – and scrounged their C rations. That’s all we had for weeks, C rations and bananas we traded for cigarettes.”

Dad bored directly into the bush. It was late in the morning, the river quiet, the air humidly buzzing with unseen insects. One exhausted brown butterfly dropped onto a bright green leaf.  We took a path from the river parallel with the beach towards a couple of rows of old coconuts. There was a hill behind.

“The OP (Observation Post) was up there it must have been up there,” muttered Dad, the years flying backwards to when he was here 1942, when he’d carried kero tins of water up the hill to the BOP, the Battery Observation Post for the two big guns on the beach. That’s when he ‘did’ his knee, carrying the water, he says. He’s got a new knee now, but we won’t test it on the hill.

A slender man in a check shirt came the other way, curious, and a crew member explained what we were looking for. Oh that stuff, he seemed to say. Just go back to the river, turn left towards the mouth, and there’s some cement there. That was where the camp was. Further round the point, more cement. Cement was everywhere. Take a look. Then he waved us away, and we retraced our few steps.

Some children sat on a long log, an uncurious man untangled a fishing net, women chatted. No tourists come here, it seems. These locals aren’t that interested in a couple of old white guys tramping up the beach. They weren’t here in 1942. Dad thinks there was a village nearby – there is one today up the river, but while he can remember buying bananas, he doesn’t remember anyone around the camp of his unit.

There must have been people here to buy bananas from.  It started at a cigarette for a bunch, he remembered. “Later it was a carton, but we were very grateful. The army dumped us here and we didn’t get any supplies for months. We might have starved for all they cared. Harrumph. Used to fish with hand grenades. Harrumph.”

Wallace, a grizzle haired, wide smiling proprietor of the guest house on Samarai whom we met later, was a child at Dawa Dawa during the war. His village was the one up the river.  He told us he used to watch, and sing a welcome to the Australian soldiers. After the initial threat of the ‘Japans’ winning the Battle of Milne Bay, the locals drifted back to their villages all around the Bay. Wallace played with fuses for the 155 mm shells, sold fish, gave away coconuts, and played around the camp. Dad can’t remember any of this. Wallace does. He says Dad and his mates saved him from the Japans.

He remembers a song, and sings it  over a dinner of vast slabs of local mackerel –  “eeeh aaah eeeeh ahhhh you came to Dawa Dawa with your big gun ….” Dad doesn’t say much. It’s not so much that he doesn’t want to talk about the war. He just doesn’t remember. It was such a long time ago.

At Dawa Dawa we came to a rough concrete slab, a metre or so above the level of the grey sand sloping down to the river. The river end of the slab was broken, the sand beneath it eroded by the flooding river since the war. The whole beach had dropped by over a metre, courtesy of the power of river fed by an annual rainfall of ten or eleven metres. They’d had a metre of rain the day before we arrived.

A light of confusion and recognition lit up Dad’s face. It was the kitchen, the floor of the camp kitchen. It was right here, the tents were back there, camouflaged under the bush, the guns, the guns were around the corner. We sat on the kitchen floor, pictures. It might be different but it was also familiar. A year camped in this place, the smells perhaps, the quietude, view across the Bay to Bou 20 kilometres away, a blue smudge on the horizon.

“We strung a telephone wire across the mouth of the river”, he says looking doubtfully at the distance. “There was a searchlight on that hill over there and the wire went up to Kana Kope 20 kilometres up the coast.” It’s a lot wider now. It’s all washed away.

What of memory. What of this place, the jungle under the old coconut plantation, the ankle snapping hidden drainage ditches, regrowth but the same. Dad doesn’t want to chance his new knee in there. Tents in there, surely not under the coconut trees, but near by, back from the kitchen slab.  What stories sitting around slapping mozzies at night. What routine. What food, what danger.

The Hundred Bomber Raid, April 14, 1943.  That was the last big one. They dropped a load on the battery at Kana Kope, but mainly they were after the airfields and the port at the head of the bay, at Gili Gili. 44 Kittyhawks buzzing around, and three Australian corvettes in the harbour, Whyalla, Wagga and Kapunda. The former  Dutch East Indies freighters Van Heemskirk and Van Oothoorn attacked, Van Heemskerk blew up.  The Japs were still in their fortress at Rabaul. We never got them out of there. Anyway, after the Hundred Bomber Raid  Admiral Yamamoto was flying back to Bougainville, when he was shot down by the Americans, out of Guadalcanal. That was the end of the bloke who devised the raid on Pearl Harbour.

Daily life at E Battery at Dawa Dawa was filled with the chores of survival. Ordered to camouflage the guns to look like a local village in December 1942, Dad remembers chopping palm trees, building blast walls, grenading the fish.

We walked around the beach, 200 metres from the river mouth. Sand between the stones. Coconut logs, storm debris, shells. The coconut palms rustling close to the shoreline. A line of reef a hundred metres out, some fossicking fishers on it.

And in front, a 20 metre ellipse of cement, with a rusting rail in it – Number One Gun, says Dad. It’s the Panama mount – the actual gun emplacement, still here. It’s a rail so the big thing could traverse through 200 degrees or more. A coconut log bisects the circle, pointing the gun barrel straight across the bay. A knowledgeable local must have put it there, remembering what the shape was. Number Two Gun was a further 50 metres along the beach, but was in the water. The whole beach had been washed from under the emplacements.

It’s exciting for Dad, this was evidence that the things he does remember did happen. The mud, the malaria, the black American engineers, the boat he sailed around Milne Bay up into the China Strait, Sideia and Samarai.

He was 21 here, there were guns, there was a war. It’s not just a story.