Aircraft Wreckage is Found
Not long after “D” Company settled into their bivouac campsite at Kalai Plantation, they were issued their first patrol order. The patrol was designated as a “fighting” patrol but the main objective was to seek evidence of Japanese activity and also to carry out reconnaissance of the terrain. The patrol was to be in an area still active with Japanese troops in a no-man’s land between the two armies. The Japanese were reported to be carrying out probing patrols in small parties south of the Mevelo River and potentially into “D” Company’s assigned area.
This Australian army reconnaissance “Patrol A1” of 20 men and a New Guinean policeman acting as a guide, operated in this area between Australian and Japanese lines in April 1945. At their first night camp on the 15th April 1945, a section of two men crossed the Yarras River to “clear their front” as to Army practise, to make sure there were no Japanese in the vicinity. The Yarras River was a fast moving but very shallow tributary from the low-lying valley between the Nakanai and Bainings mountains. As soon as they crossed, a shot rang out from a Japanese rifle and the section leader heard the bullet pass by his head removing his jungle beret. He saw movement in the bushes ahead of him and fell to the ground while raising his weapon. He fired off two rounds from his Lee-Enfield rifle. There was a scream and he knew that someone had been hit. He had seen two Japanese in uniform with one native and surmised a companion dog from the incessant barking. It had been a close call, and he and his No.2 in the section returned to their camp back across the Yarras River. They whispered the password “Shilling” to avoid a mistaken, and potentially fatal, identification as they crossed back into the camp’s security perimeter. It was now dark and at the patrol leader’s conference they decided to cross the river in the morning and pick up the trail of the Japanese. They tried to alert Company Headquarters of the incident but the “208” Morse radio set they were carrying appeared to be malfunctioning.
In the morning, Warrant Officer Keith Nurse and three enlisted men crossed the river and found the site where the exchange of rifle fire had occurred. They found the two spent cartridge cases from the Lee-Enfield and saw traces of blood on the jungle vines further on. After a quick few words among the leaders, the whole 20-man patrol set off along an ill-defined track, trailing the presumably wounded Japanese.
Meanwhile, their Company HQ had come to the realisation that because of no contact being heard during the 15th April on their first day of the 4-day patrol, as per the stipulated 3-hourly reporting schedule, Patrol A1 must have an unserviceable radio. They organised a contacting patrol of two men from another section of “D” Company and two New Guinean policemen to find and provide Patrol A1 with a replacement radio set. This contacting patrol set off by jeep at 5:30 am before first light on the 16th April. They left the jeep near the Yarras River and with their knowledge of where the Patrol A1 path was, they quickly set off to find and meet up with the Patrol A1 ahead of them.
The original patrol had set off from their overnight camp and they journeyed for one and a half miles before the contacting patrol successfully caught up with them and handed over the new radio at 9:30 am on April 16th. On the way back, the contacting patrol discovered Japanese footprints over the footprints left by the men of the A1 patrol. The Japanese may have seen the contacting group but let them through, probably hoping to ambush the main patrol on their return. The “footprints over the Patrol A1 footprints” event was reported to Company Headquarters when the contacting team returned to base several hours later.
Patrol A1 progressed along their pursuit trail with their replacement radio, oblivious to the fact that they were either being followed or that they may be ambushed on the way back. They kept on through the jungle following the footprints of the small party of Japanese who had fired on them the day before. They could see that one man was being carried or dragged by the marks left behind in the muddy riverbank. The prints ended at the river and the hull mark of a canoe was left in the mud at the river’s edge. The Japanese had gone across the river and likely alerted more Japanese on the other side of the river. Possibly these additional Japanese soldiers were the creators of the footprints seen by the contacting team on their way back to base earlier in the day.
The patrol continued their mission until they came to a sharply angled riverbank that would expose them to possible enemy fire from across the river. This sharply angled bank stretched for some 500 metres. They decided to climb the bank in the cover of the jungle foliage instead of exposing themselves to what might be across the river. This action led them up and over a hill into another small river valley, which they initially thought was the same river that they had just left. By now it was getting dark and they made night camp on a ridgeline just above the river to their front. The radioman laid out an aerial wire in the lower branches of the trees and at last they had could hear their Company Headquarters but still could not establish two-way communications with their base.
Because of the contacting team’s observations concerning the Japanese footprints seen over the footprints of Patrol A1, headquarters had been trying to radio the 20-man patrol for some time to alert them to the possibility of an ambush. They finally succeeded on the night of 16th April when Patrol A1 was radioed that they were being followed and to be alert for a possible ambush on their return trip. At the usual patrol leader’s conference, they decided to return back to their camp at Kalai Plantation by a different route – a route different to their specific orders. They set off at first light on the third day (April 17th) and followed the river to the southwest for about one half mile. They then realised that the river was veering to the northwest which was opposite to their intended direction. They reversed themselves and climbed a very steep hill to the south and rested at the top for about one hour. Lieutenant Ken Backhouse, the senior in charge of the patrol, decided to take a compass heading to the east that would bring them out of the jungle at what his map told him was a large “elbow” on the Yarras River where he estimated their camp on the night of the 15th April had been.
The jungle they had entered was very wild, although the hill they had to cross is not very high. It had folds and gullies and several ridgelines, steep climbs and descents, no water, dry creek beds up high and very tall trees. The top of the tree canopy reached 200 feet or more. Working at the head of the patrol was a New Guinean policeman named “Illip”. Illip kept moving ahead looking for the best way through. At the top of the hill, they found an old track that led to the southeast and this was followed. Where the foot-track was overgrown, they hacked their way through with razor-sharp bushknives.
Around mid-afternoon on the 17th of April, the point man, a Corporal Don Angwin, saw what he thought was a Japanese gun emplacement in front of him at 10-to-15 feet distance. He dropped to the ground, rifle at the ready expecting at any moment to be shot at. When nothing happened he focused and saw that the vines covering over the mound ahead of him was hiding something metallic. He saw a round hollow tube about three or four inches diameter. He had thought it was a gun but behind the tube he could make out what looked like an engine – the cooling fins of an engine. He signalled for Backhouse to come forward.
Lieutenant Backhouse and Warrant Officer Nurse both came forward to see what the unplanned stop was about. The corporal pointed to the vine-covered mound. The patrol leaders both moved forward to inspect the object and signalled for the remainder of the patrol to take up defensive positions. At the rear of the patrol a rearguard party automatically went into defensive posture as the patrol had stopped. The warrant officer cleared off the vines covering the unusual object.
The object was an aircraft radial engine with an unpainted aluminum nacelle (engine cover) tilted down at the front and one third buried in mud. The nacelle had burst open. The propeller was also unpainted and was of a narrow chord (width). Only one propeller blade was seen in a 12 o’clock position and was bent backwards over the front cowl ring. The front face of the cowl ring was heavily corroded with finger size holes with the typical look of corrosion lacework. There was no serious corrosion on the sides of the nacelle sheet metal. There were rivets “all-around” the front lip of the front cowl ring. They were “ugly-looking” and protruding rivets. The interior sheet metal surfaces were painted in a yellow paint. At the rear of the nacelle behind a large sheet-metal disc, were some tubes, which were twisted and torn. These tubes were painted black. The nacelle was about five feet in diameter and about the same in length. There was tubing at the rear of the engine inside the aluminum sheet nacelle covering and from this tubing hung a small metal tag. The tag, about the size of an American “dog-tag” was removed. Warrant Officer Nurse looked at it and saw a string of letters and numbers. He did not remember whether they were stamped or engraved. The alpha-numeric tag meant nothing to him but he considered it a means to identify the engine. He stuffed the tag into his shirt pocket intending to submit it with the patrol report when they returned to base. He also recalled the words “Pratt & Whitney” either in words or on a badge on the engine wreck or possibly on the tag.
Lieutenant Backhouse walked from the engine for about “thirty yards” to another, larger vine and tree debris covered mound. He saw some airframe wreckage, consisting of a metal fuselage structure, the wings, one engine (still attached), some glass and a round, black shiny object. The starboard (right hand side) wing was bent upwards about ten feet from the tip and the cockpit area is smashed backwards to the wing leading edge. There was a round hole in the jungle canopy about 30 to 40 feet across above the wreckage and the breaks in the tree limbs looked old. At that time, the patrol was at, or near the top of a hill and under the jungle canopy. It was dark, slightly misty and with light rain falling.
Due to the message in Morse Code received the previous night informing them that they were possibly being followed, the patrol did not stay long at the aircraft wrecksite, perhaps ten minutes at the most. The rearguard team was given orders to remain for thirty minutes and then race after the eastbound patrol. After descending off the hill and crossing the Yarras River, and after approximately anther two hours, Patrol A1 camped for the night and finally contacted their Company Headquarters by radio. They reported their Grid Reference (GR) coordinates at that time. Company and Battalion Headquarters were relieved to hear from them as they had been out of two-way communications for three days. When finally making two-way communications, they mentioned that they had been fired on the first night out, but their Headquarters assumed they were being fired on at the time of their one-way radio call and reported this (inaccurately) in the battalion records. Patrol A1 stated that they did not need assistance in these radio transmissions.
On the last day, 18th April, they returned to their base at 5:00 pm. The patrol had taken four days and they had exhausted their food on the third day. They had been issued with 36 tins of bully beef for the twenty men. The patrol leaders, Lieutenant Ken Backhouse and Warrant Officer Keith Nurse, completed the patrol reports. Their situation report included the mention of aircraft plates on the last entry.
On their return to their company base at Kalai Plantation on the evening of the 18th April 1945, their patrol report was greeted with some urgency, which was apparent from the signals (messages) that went back and forth between their Company Headquarters, the 11th Battalion and from 13th Brigade. This urgency was probably due to the small skirmish that had occurred on the evening of the 15th April and because of the scarcity of information concerning the terrain. Certainly, there was an officer from 13th Brigade Intelligence Section who was waiting for the Patrol A1 observations. He wanted to be informed in detail on the terrain they had encountered – he was the chief topographer, Captain Mott.
Within a week of the patrol’s return to base, two American officers, possibly identified as aviators at the time, reportedly visited the “D” Company area at Kalai Plantation requesting to speak to Lieutenant Backhouse about the aircraft wreck. Lieutenant Backhouse was not available as he was out on another patrol when they arrived. For some curious reason these two US Army officers could not wait and departed. They departed after presumably travelling a long way to get there and for a long time I assumed that they had come from a liaison office at a headquarters unit such as those based at Port Moresby nearly 450 miles away.
Five and a half weeks after their patrol, while the men of “D” Company were waiting for a barge to take them to the Unamitki River, an officer from Battalion Headquarters approached them. He reported that the Americans had replied to the Australians concerning the wrecked engine (and aircraft), and stated it did not belong to the US Army Air Force. The message was (paraphrased) “It is not one of ours. It is a Wasp engine and is probably from a civilian aircraft.”
In April 1945, General Douglas MacArthur was already out of New Guinea. It was now a backwater issue. The mopping up of Japanese forces was left to the Australians while MacArthur went on to the Philippines. Major units of the U.S. 5th Air Force had already left. As far as can be gathered from records, all forward U.S. Army units also had departed for the drive on the Philippines and had been replaced with Australian units. However, we do know with certainty that Company “B” of the 594th Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment (EB&SR) were at Jacquinot Bay under the command of the 5th Australian Division, 1st Australian Army. The importance of this unit will be shown later in this intertwined story.
The war ends shortly thereafter, and the matter rests for 45 years…