“Tyranny was turned back at Turnbull Field”

The Australian, 01 September 2012

There are few events in our history as important, but as little known, as those that took place at Turnbull Field, 70 years ago this week.

More and more Australians know the story of Kokoda. Very few know the story of Turnbull Field. They should, because this is the place where the charge of Japanese land forces across Pacific was first stopped and pushed back.

70 years ago as a battle raged across the Owen Stanley Range, another battle raged at Milne Bay on the east coast of Papua New Guinea.

It was just as ferocious. The stakes were just as high. The conditions were just as terrible and the heroes were just as real.

The Japanese landed under the cover of darkness on the 26th of August. Their targets were three airstrips. Over the next few days they pushed the Australians back until they reached airstrip number 3 – Turnbull Field.

In the early hours of the 31st of August the Japanese attacked. More of that later.

Last weekend I visited this sacred bit of ground and I met some of the men who fought there. Men like Bill Hansen and Ed Jones. Meeting them is one of the real privileges of this job. They are modest men with extraordinary stories.

When Bill arrived at Milne Bay 70 years ago he thought it was hell on earth. It rained all the time, and malaria and dysentery were endemic.

It was also the place he met a friend he would have for the rest of his life. His name was Cliff. Before long Cliff was struck down by malaria and shipped home, but their friendship didn’t end there.

Cliff was taken to a convalescence camp not far from Bill’s house and he would visit Bill’s mum for dinner and write letters back to Bill telling him about the meals. I am not sure if Cliff was there for the food though, a few years later he married Bill’s sister.

In January this year Cliff passed away. Cliff and Bill were mates for 70 years and brothers-in-law for 61.

Mateships were forged here and mates were also lost.

Ed and his best mate Jimmy signed up to on the same day and were sent to Milne Bay.

It wasn’t long before Ed saw action. His unit was ordered to attack from a creek bed, straight into Japanese fire. He emptied two magazines into the enemy before being shot through the arm.

He said it was like being hit with a metal bar. He crawled back to the creek bed, fumbling with his good arm, trying to get his field dressing to stop the bleeding.

Then out of the jungle came an Australian soldier. He bandaged him up, gave him a wink and disappeared back into the jungle without saying a word. Ed says it changed his outlook on life forever.

Jimmy wasn’t so lucky. He survived Milne Bay, but he was killed months later at Buna.

Bill and Ed are two of thousands of Australians who served at Milne Bay in 1942. One of them was my grandfather. He was part of the 55th Battalion who helped build the airstrips. In early August he was struck down by malaria and evacuated back to Port Moresby.

In December he was sent to Sanananda. He was cut open there by shrapnel from a Japanese mortar. He survived, and so did the shrapnel. My grandmother kept it in a steel cigarette tin for the rest of her life.

We are a lucky country. We didn’t have to fight for our independence, but we had to fight to keep it. And fight we did at Turnbull Field.

Wave after wave of Japanese marines charged across that field that night and wave after wave were cut down and pushed back.

Historian Peter Brune tells the story of a Japanese soldier yelling across airstrip in pretty good english “it’s no use…we’re coming across”.

The reply from the Australian RSM was “pig’s arse you are”.

They never made it across Turnbull Field. This was as far south as Japanese soldiers ever advanced.

What happened at Turnbull Field 70 years ago is only one part of a much bigger story – Kokoda, Guadalcanal, the Coral Sea and Midway.

The story of all these battles is intertwined. Each affected the other.

But it is true to say that the myth of the invincibility of the Japanese land forces was first broken here. 70 years ago this week.

Tyranny was turned back at Turnbull Field – by men like Bill and Ed and their mates.

Lest we forget.