Battle of Milne Bay with Karl James

Battle of Milne Bay with Karl James
Mat McLachlan
September 3, 2019
Karl James
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Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to a special bonus episode of Living History. As you’ve heard me talk about on previous episodes, our World War 2 cruise of New Guinea is coming up in August 2020 and we’re going to visit Milne Bay, we’re going to visit Rabaul but most importantly we’re going to have a conference on board the ship with some of Australia’s leading World War 2 historians, and one of those leading World War 2 historians joins me now. It’s Dr. Karl James from the Australian War Memorial. Karl, thanks for coming on the show.

Karl: Hey Mat. Thanks for having me.

Mat: The cruise… I’m really looking forward to it. I know that all the historians I’ve spoken to are looking forward to it. It’s just a great opportunity to get up to a part of the world that is not particularly accessible and you wouldn’t normally go to. Are you looking forward to coming and exploring New Guinea with us?

Karl: Oh, 100 percent! I’m really looking forward to it and I’m a little bit disappointed I still have to wait another year before we embark on this fantastic project. You just touched on the idea of us having these historians on board, having a conference and then exploring some of these battlefield sites at Milne Bay and then Bita Paka and Rabaul, and the neat thing I think we will have for this experience which will make it different to going to a normal history conference is that we can have these talks and presentations talking about the Battle of Milne Bay or the Pacific War in 1942, and then we can just go ashore and explore it and see it. So it’s one thing to discuss the Battle of Milne Bay with a PowerPoint presentation and photographs and images, but then to get on this little boat, go off to the deck, walk up and down… well, it’s Ace Road in Milne Bay, but to see the Bay for yourself, it’s going to be pretty exciting.

Mat: The other thing that I think is going to be great the nature of having a conference over several days on a cruise ship is at the end of a day after having walked the ground or participated in the conference, you’re going to see the historians. If you’re a passenger, you can go up to the historians in the bar and buy them a beer and tell them the story, so I think we’re all looking forward to that as historians interacting with people and hearing their stories. When you go to a conference, there’s a big separation between the speakers and the audience. You might get to ask a question at the end of a session, but that’s about it. But here we’re all going to be in it together and so there is a real feeling of camaraderie that’s going to come through on this ship. We’ve picked this team of historians. You and I have worked very closely to put this conference program together and to pick the right historians, and we’ve picked people who are going to enjoy having a beer and telling stories at the end of the day. It’s just going to be really exciting.

Karl: Oh yeah. We’ve known each other for many years so obviously you and I brought someone – Pete Dean’s my great mate and Keiko Tamura is a fantastic historian. I used to work with Keiko here. The historical community is quite small and the people who are taking part in this trip, as well as being respected colleagues they’re also friends, so that will be quite exciting and it’s nice traveling with your mates. There will be lots of good discussion and I think having the ability to discuss an idea, discuss a concept, taking some time out having a look at the battlefields at Rabaul, at Bita Paka at the cemetery there, as well as looking at Milne Bay, but to reflect upon what was said in the lecture theatre for example. have a look at the ground itself, think about what was there, what was experienced and then to have that time to reflect upon it say in the evenings, and then discuss it with traveling companions, with friends, with other historians. That’s when the really exciting bit happens because then things start to sink in. You can ask any questions and it starts to make sense and then having a group of historians on the trip, we’re there to be approachable. We’re all pretty easy-going. Just come up and have a chat. We’re here, we want to learn and we learn by asking questions because we learn and share experiences, so this isn’t really going to a sort of static lecture presentation so you have the presenter just talk to the group. This is a two-way interaction. It will be different to what I’ve experienced in the past but I’m really looking forward to that exciting conversation.

Mat: It’s going to be great. One of the key destinations that we’re visiting is Milne Bay. Now it’s not a cruise and I’d love to be doing a cruise that visits every key battlefield from the New Guinea campaign and that’s obviously beyond the reach of what we’re doing but we’ve got two pretty important ones there in Milne Bay and Rabaul. You’re an absolute expert on Milne Bay. Talk to me about that battle. I mean, we as Australians talk about the first time the Japanese were defeated on land. It’s got an iconic place in Australian military history. Is that deserved? Is Milne Bay the battle that we make it out to be?

Karl: Oh absolutely! So the Battle of Milne Bay took place in late August/early September of 1942. It’s in the southern tip of Papua. Three airfields were in the process of being developed by the Allies and the Japanese wanted to take Milne Bay. They wanted to secure the airfields as a way to support their overland operations along the Kokoda Trail. Likewise from the Allied point of view, they wanted to secure Milne Bay because that would secure the eastern approaches, the eastern seaborne approaches across the Coral Sea and to protect Port Moresby. so strategically Milne Bay is quite significant for the defense of Port Moresby and the fighting of Papua in 1942, and then once you get down to the battlefield itself. So the Japanese invade. It was a small amphibious landing, takes place at night. The Australians are very much on the back foot because the intelligence is limited. The conditions itself in Milne Bay are very hard to get around at that time. It was raining constantly. There were very little roads, poor internal lines of communications that made moving troops difficult because the Australians didn’t have enough vehicles and the road itself would just become a sea of mud, and also the Australians were on the back foot because while they know the Japanese have made one amphibious landing, what’s to stop the Japanese from coming into the bay another night – which they did – and then deploying another force say in the reserve or behind the Australians, and so in many ways the Australian Commander General Klaus is very much operating… sorry, the Australian commander General Clowes is operating in the dark and he doesn’t really know what’s going on for the first few days of the battle. He once comments that the fog of war was never so thick as what it was at Milne Bay and so it’s quite a key fighting action.

After several days the Australians do get on to the offensive. They pushed the Japanese back across the bay and the Japanese forces are withdrawn in early September by sea. Overall, the battle lasts about a week and the general characteristic is the Australians are operating during the day, the Japanese are operating by night. One of the key elements, the decisive factor from the Australian point of view was a very close cooperation with the Air Force. You have Australian Kitty Hawks flying and strafing what is thought to be Japanese positions. It’s sometimes said that Australia machine guns and shells from the Kitty Hawks were flying into the jungle itself, shooting up the Japanese positions. You have got the Japanese use of tanks so it’s a pretty nasty vicious action itself, and it’s also the first decisive defeat of a Japanese amphibious force during the war. So from a military history point of view, the battle is key. it’s one of those key moments in the fighting in Papua, and when you go to Milne Bay today itself, it is actually one of those Pacific War battlefields that makes a lot of sense really easily, because it is in the Bay, you can see just how big it is, how expansive it is.

You have the mountains on one side, that very narrow coastal strip and it’s easy to put yourself into the feeling of 1942 thinking how do you move your forces around because the Bay is long and narrow but it’s too far to walk. How do you move forces when you don’t have a number of vehicles, when the small craft you have have been shot up and destroyed by Japanese maritime activity already? How do you move your forces around and you can see that it’s a bay and you know that the Japanese control the sea is still being contested, so you know the Japanese can come in at any time at night and deploy another amphibious force anywhere else. So it is one of those unique places where going to Milne Bay, it’s easy to make sense of the battlefield, what happened there and it just clicks. It is as simple as that. I went there the first time is like, oh yeah I really kind of get it now. It’s a little bit like Anzac Cove. You don’t need a lot of background information to make sense. You do get the vibe really easily.

Mat: Isn’t it great visiting a battlefield like that where everything just falls into place? Gettysburg was like that for me as well. You read about it, you understand it and I’m not even saying here that you have an encyclopaedic knowledge on the battle, but you just kind of know what went on and as soon as you walk the ground, it all falls into place. I’m really looking forward to going. I haven’t been to Milne Bay. I’ve been to Rabaul, not to Milne Bay and I’m really looking forward to going there and walking the ground. It’s going to be absolutely fantastic and still from what I’ve heard, some good sights to see from the fighting.

Karl: Oh yeah. So there’s still an element… the modern-day road cuts across one of the air strips that was built during the war during the campaign. Number three strip so that’s where the climactic moment of the battle came. So the Japanese got to the outskirts of one airstrip. They making their way across and were cut down. There was a temporary battlefield memorial that was built after the action where over 200 Japanese soldiers are buried. That memorial is still there. You can still see the cut-out of the airstrip. The modern-day road follows closely the wartime road. It’s not exactly the same alignment but it’s pretty close. you get the river crossings; the river crossings are still there and that’s actually a bit of an easy way to orientate yourself to the ground because while the roads move, the river’s still in the same place-ish and that’s where the Australians largely had their defensive lines because once you get anything… well, this is actually a fairly wide river so that’s a natural defensive position then going to set up behind it.

Likewise some of the early positions where the Japanese invaded where they’re landed, some of the landing beaches are still there-ish. You have a rough location of where French was awarded the Victoria Cross. It’s not exact. There’s a wartime marker to him and it’s in that vicinity because I think it’s actually now probably under a small Industrial Estate but you do get the sense of the battle and the area, and there’s also post-battle Milne Bay became a major Allied base and major American base. You still get some of those relics there, both at the sea as well as deeper into the jungle.

Mat: One of the most I think evocative items in the collection of the Australian War Memorial is the Japanese tank that was captured at Milne Bay. I’ve seen that famous photo of the tanks pushed off the side of the road but then when you see it up close, they look so little in the photo. They look little and not intimidating at all, but when you see it up close and you see the gun on the front machine-gun mounted on it, a tough bit of kit. It wouldn’t have been fun to face in the job.

Karl: Not at all, and imagine it’s dark, it’s night, it’s raining really heavily. You’re an Australian infantryman. You’ve dug in and so what does that mean? You’ve basically dug a muddy hole in the ground. It’s raining. You hear this noise thundering towards you. you know we don’t have any tanks so that’s the sound of advancing Japanese tanks and the Japanese use the lights on the tank like searchlights, so the same way Australians use a spotlight to go ‘roo shooting, that’s what the Japanese do, lighting up the Australian positions to engage with their tanks. We now know with hindsight that there were two. The Japanese landed two of these Ha-Go tanks.  However 75 years ago if you’re a digger in the Second 10th Battalion, you don’t know that. You just know you have this dark lumbering vehicle coming out of the darkness spotlighting even amongst the rains, confusing. you have it the fear of noises behind you. Have the Japanese already infiltrated your position? Are we going to be cut off? Are we being surrounded? It was terrifying and some of these soldiers – soldiers from the 18th brigade, for example – they’d already fought. They were combat veterans. They had fought at Tobruk in 1941 so these weren’t necessarily inexperienced soldiers. The 18th Brigade was a bunch of veterans and they’re operating alongside the 7th Militia brigade and they are the young conscript soldiers of the militia so there’s a real mixed bag of experiences, and the neat thing is with those tanks from Milne Bay in those photographs. We have one of the tanks from Milne Bay is on display here at the Memorial. We have a pretty good sense of knowing exactly where that photograph was taken so we know where the Japanese abandoned those vehicles, and then where they were subsequently captured from Milne Bay.

One interesting little footnote of Milne Bay is it was a great source of intelligence for the Allies, so in addition to capturing the two Ha-Go tanks, there are other pieces of Japanese  equipment uniform that was captured. There’s a flamethrower, machine guns, bulletproof vests so it actually turned out to be a great information coup for the Allies.

Mat: Just broadly Karl, the New Guinea campaign in general particularly since say the 50th anniversary, there’s been a lot of study that’s been done, a reinterpretation of the importance of Kokoda and New Guinea. Is there anything more to say about the New Guinea campaign? Are there any new stories to tell, or have we pretty much told the story of New Guinea?

Karl: There are always new stories to tell. We’re talking about a campaign where there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of servicemen from Australian, American, Japanese as well as those Papua New Guinean voices. We are yet to come to terms with their experience of the war so these were men and women who were rounded up and worked for the Allies. They worked for the Japanese. They were dispossessed, they lost their land, traditional communities were broken up. There are any number of new experiences and new stories, new questions that we’re yet to learn.

True, some of the battles have been well discussed so for example, Kokoda has been discussed at length but we haven’t really done the deep work with Milne Bay. The beachhead bouts of Buna-Gona and Sanananda for example always just included almost like as a footnote and then once we move into those 1943 battles around Lae, Salamaua, Finschhafen, Sattelberg and the like, maybe one or two historians have discussed it in detail. The official historian John Coates, Philip Bradley. Philip Bradley has done a lot of work on the New Guinea campaign but that’s pretty much about it, and even then we’re still focusing on largely an Australian Army experience. The services aren’t there. We don’t really bring in the New Guinea experience and still there’s only been about a handful of people who have really grappled with the Japanese sources. So there’s lots to discuss and lots to think about from a historical point of view.

Mat: That’s what I’m most looking forward to about the cruise. We’re not just going to focus on the two destinations we are visiting – Milne Bay and Rabaul. We’re not just going to focus on a small aspect. This will give us the opportunity to discuss over the course of the conference the New Guinea campaign in some detail, and also the Pacific War. The context is always vital when you discuss these things and I think that’s something I’m really looking forward to is your interpretations, the discussions, the conversations we’re going to have about the New Guinea campaign and the Pacific War in general. It’s going to be great. I can’t wait.

If you’re listening to this and you want to come along and hear more of what Karl’s got to say I think this has been a great taste of how great the cruise is going to be. Please visit our website at to find out about the cruise. It’s filling up very quickly but there are still cabins available. It’s going to be a wonderful experience. If you’re interested in the Pacific War, I encourage you to come along. It’s going to be absolutely brilliant. Karl, can’t wait, as you say. We have still got a year to go. I mean, I’m impatient but it’s going to be a great journey. Wonderful to have you onboard and thank you very much for joining us today to discuss it

Karl: No worries, Mat

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