Taking on the Black Cat

26 April 2013

Bill Sherlock was a farmer from Victoria. When WWII erupted he became a soldier: first in Tobruk, then in Greece, then New Guinea.


On 28 January 1943 Captain Bill Sherlock and about 220 Australians were all that stood between a Japanese force of over 1,000 and the Australian airfield at Wau in northern New Guinea.

Their job was to stop the Japanese from reaching the airfield so planes carrying reinforcements could land. They were hopelessly outnumbered. By mid-afternoon the situation had become critical. Sherlock’s men were about to be overrun. That’s when he fixed his bayonet, dashed passed his men and charged into the enemy, killing four with his bayonet. The soldiers he led say Sherlock’s bravery inspired them. They continued to hold on. By late afternoon they were less than 30 men fit to fight. And still they held on.

As night fell Sherlock moved his men back to Crystal Creek. That’s where his luck ran out. The next morning he was cut down by machine gun fire.

Historian Phillip Bradley says “there was no finer or braver leader on this field of battle and his brave leadership had given…a chance to save Wau”.

Men like Bill Sherlock should not be forgotten. His actions mattered. 59 planes carrying over 800 troops landed at Wau the day he died. They were only able to land because of the bravery of Sherlock and his men. The troops that landed over the next few days stopped the last Japanese offensive of the New Guinea campaign. Over the next eight months they pushed the Japanese all the way back to Salamaua, along the Black Cat Track.

The battles that took place there were just as ferocious as those that took place on the Kokoda Track a few months earlier, and even more deadly.

The conditions were also just as tough and unforgiving. The official war historian, David Dexter, said troops found it difficult to find enough unpleasant adjectives to describe the terrain. The Lonely Planet guidebook today tells intrepid travellers the track is only suitable for “masochists and Israeli paratroopers”.

Unlike Kokoda though, the battles that took place on the Black Cat Track are not the stuff of folklore. They have largely been forgotten.

You might recognise this photo. People usually assume it was taken on the Kokoda Track. It was actually taken during the campaign to capture Salamaua. It shows Gordon Ayre helping his mate William Johnson cross a river after he was wounded by a grenade. Gordon Ayre won the Military Medal for outstanding courage in a number of battles on the track.

Leslie “Bull” Allen is another hero of the Black Cat campaign. He was like Simpson and his donkey – without the donkey. “Bull” Allen was a stretcher bearer. He won the Military Medal for rescuing wounded Australian soldiers at Crystal Creek and the US Silver Star for braving enemy fire to single-handedly carry twelve wounded American soldiers to safety at Mount Tambu.

In the lead up to Anzac Day this week I took a group of young people from Western Sydney to walk in the footsteps of these men. I was joined by Scott Morrison, who brought young people from his electorate in the Shire.

This was our third trek together. In 2009 we took young surf lifesavers from Cronulla and young muslim leaders from Bankstown across the Kokoda Track. The purpose was to show that if people from different political parties can be mates, so can people from different religions and different backgrounds.

Two years later we did it again – that time we trekked the Sandakan Death March in Malaysian Borneo, where more than 1000 Australian prisoners of war were marched to their death at the end of WWII.

This year we took on the Black Cat Track.

One of the young people with us was Jake Saloway from Blacktown. A few years ago Jake ran away from home and lived in an abandoned factory. He has battled with drugs and alcohol. With the help of his family and Father Chris Riley’s Youth off the Streets he is turning his life around. Last year he won Youth off the Streets highest award, the Barbara Holborow Award for outstanding achievement. When he finishes school he wants to join the Army.

We also walked with Jarrod O’Brien from Picton. Jarrod has worked as an aged care nurse helping veterans. Now he is training to become a youth worker in Macquarie Fields.

Also on the team were Amna Karra-Hassan from Granville and Lael Kassem from Guildford. They are two amazing young women: the co-founders of the first muslim women’s AFL team, the mighty Auburn Tigers.

All the young people we took to PNG have come back very different people. We asked each of them to walk in the footsteps of one of the soldiers who died on the track, and tell us his story.

It took us six days to get from Wau to Salamaua. And yesterday when the sun rose on Anzac Day we were at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Lae, where Bill Sherlock and 2,800 other men who fought and died in the Pacific are buried.

There Scott and I asked these young people to turn and face the field of tombstones and make a promise to do more than just remember them. We asked them to promise to live a life worthy of the sacrifice these men made for us.

That, I think, is what ‘lest we forget’ means. It is the least we can do.