TWO generations afterwards, World War II in New Guinea means simply Kokoda to most Australians. Perhaps also Milne Bay, where the Japanese were first defeated. But the memory tends to cloud at mention of Buna, Gona, the Markham Valley, Shaggy Ridge and Scarlet Beach, Finschhafen - all great Australian victories in impossible conditions - and Salamaua. Yet it was in Salamaua, in the early hours of June 29, 1942, that Australian commandos struck the first blow in the Pacific land war.
The raid has been acclaimed as a copybook action for its diligent scouting, meticulous planning and audacious, multi-pronged attack against an enemy force 10 times the attackers' strength. All without loss of life.
The Japanese, well fed and complacent, were surprised and humiliated by a puny Australian force that had struggled for days over the jungle ranges with weapons, ammunition and heavy packs, then camped and planned their raid under the noses of the enemy. The response, to reinforce the base, tied down thousands of troops that would otherwise have been thrown into the Kokoda and Milne Bay battles a few months later.
Today Salamaua is little more than a couple of native villages and some holiday shacks for expatriates and tourists. But in the 1930s it was the Australian administration's district headquarters and a thriving commercial centre. From its airstrip, the three-engined Junkers cargo planes flew huge gold dredges into the Bulolo valley, piece by piece. At the time, that was the biggest commercial airlift in the world. All ended with the Japanese landing on March 8, 1942, virtually unopposed, bringing the enemy one step closer in its plan to isolate and neutralise Australia.
When the Australians had to abandon Salamaua, a handful of pre-war residents - patrol officers, clerks, miners and traders - were hastily co-opted into the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles and went bush to keep an eye on the invaders. They became the scouts who lived in the hills overlooking the Salamaua isthmus, noting and recording the defences and habits of the enemy. They were so close they could hear the bell ringing to warn of an air raid. Damien Parer took his famous photograph of the isthmus from their observation post.
In mid-1942, the only fit, trained troops Australia had in the area were about 450 men of the 2/5th Independent (commando) Company. Too small a force to draw the Japanese into battle, their task was to harass the enemy at their bases of Lae and Salamaua.
The task of planning and leading the attack on Salamaua went to captain Norman Winning, a wiry red-headed Scot instantly nick-named "the Red Steer", a dynamic, inventive born leader. NGVR sergeant Jim McAdam, who I knew in his later life as director of forests in the PNG administration, led his scouts up to the houses where the Japanese were sleeping to assess the enemy strength. Then, as silently as they had slipped in, they returned to the Australian forward base, only 5km from Salamaua, to transfer their vital intelligence to a sand model of the Japanese base. With Winning, they planned the raid down to the last detail.
Starting at 2pm on June 28, seven sections moved out through thick bush, native gardens and pit swamp to get close to their targets: the airfield, wireless masts, a strategic bridge and troop billets. One team lugged a heavy 3-inch (7.6cm) mortar that would keep the Japanese on the isthmus pinned down. The rest were armed with Tommy guns, rifles and a few Bren guns. Every man had two grenades and a pistol and carried extra ammunition. But their most devastating weapon was their homemade "sticky bomb", an anti-tank grenade wrapped with packs of the explosive TNT.
The night was black. It rained heavily but at midnight the moon broke through. At 3.14am, one minute before zero hour, almost everyone was in position. A Japanese sentry walked out to relieve himself and found himself staring at a blackened-face commando. He screamed the alarm and was immediately cut down by a burst of machine-gun fire. The raid was on. Years later, the men of the 2/5th told their stories of that night in a series of laconic anecdotes for the unit's war history Commando Double Black.
Corporal Bernie Davis's account: "I raced up the steps of the building, tore it open and hurled my sticky bomb inside, yelling: 'Share that for breakfast, you bastards!' The bomb went off, blew the door off its hinges and sent me somersaulting into the garden. Some of the surviving Japanese were escaping through a trapdoor in the floor. Squatting on the ground was an enterprising Aussie. He was calmly killing the enemy one by one as they landed on the ground. He looked like he was stacking bags of wheat under the hut, until the supply of Japs ran out."
Don Suter, NGVR: "Our mortar unit fired 36 bombs. One of them fell directly on the most important target, a strongpoint at the neck of the isthmus. Fifteen Japanese were in this post."
Sergeant Mal Bishop was wounded as he threw his bomb into one of the old Chinese trade stores: "The next thing I knew was a severe blow on the right shoulder, which put me down on my knees. I scrambled to my feet when my bomb went off."
The blast blew him across the road into the sea: "The next recollection I had was of being picked up out of the water by one of the native helpers. He was pushing my Thompson sub-machine gun into my hands and yelling: 'Masta! Kill'em Japan!"'
After three-quarters of an hour of destruction, killing 120 of the enemy, two red flares signalled the withdrawal. Ken "Andy" Knox was covering the pullout with his Bren gun. His mate Cliff Biggs, refilling the magazines, complained: "You're firing a bit low, aren't you? My face is covered in mud. I reckon you're hitting the ground about a foot in front of the bloody gun." "Stop your bloody grizzling, Cliff, and say a bloody prayer," replied Knox. "That mud is from the Japanese bullets coming towards us."
The great prize of the operation was a bag of documents a Japanese pilot was trying to fly out when he was killed. They contained the plans of the landings at Buna and Milne Bay. Pre-war skiing champion Bill Harris ran back 50km over the mountains in two days to deliver them to Kanga Force HQ. The warning enabled Australian divisions to be recalled from leave and rushed to reinforce Milne Bay.
The commanding officer of Kanga Force, Lieutenant Colonel Fleay, who never left Wau, was awarded the DSO for personal gallantry. Not one of the men on the Salamaua operation, the first and most successful commando raid of the war, received a decoration. The surviving men of the 2/5th are still asking why.
Geoffrey Luck was a reporter in Papua New Guinea for seven years.