Horace the Horse
Internal demons were attacking Laurie again. He kept telling himself to forget it, just do your bloody job and stay alive. The only way he could keep his revulsion for killing under control was to put it out of his mind. His way to cope with the war was to be almost zombie-like when he went into battle, as if he couldn't have any thoughts about the dead enemy. The result of the war and the battles meant nothing to him except he was closer to the terrible conflict ending. Nightmares had started a week ago. The dead were coming for him. They gathered around him, pointed after rising out of their graves and brushing the dirt from their clothes. The worst was the German he bayoneted at Tobruk. When the German screamed, Laurie screamed and woke up. He would then lay awake too frightened to go to sleep again.
Laurie O'Leary marched behind the rest of the section down the jungle track. The only original members left were Corporal Gerry Blum, Shortie Winters and Laurie. Malaria and dengue fever had devastated the numbers and all areas of the 2/43rd were now under-strength.
Through the rain, Laurie saw movement in a tree to the side of the track, removing the canvas cover from the breech area of the three-o-three he sighted down the telescopic sight. He stopped marching and rested the rifle in a small tree fork. He waited patiently for movement then fired. A Japanese crashed out of the tree as the rest of the section went to ground. The Nip was still moving, but a burst from an Owen gun ensured he was dead.
Firing started from trees along the track, the section returned fire. The Japanese patrol had obviously waited for the sniper to start. Rifle fire and machine gun fire echoed through the jungle, a bullet crashed into a nearby tree as Laurie ducked for cover. There was another bloody sniper. Laurie slipped his bayonet onto his rifle as he searched the jungle in his vicinity. He didn't have to wait long. He heard the noise to his left and turned as a man lunged for him with his sword. He never thought he would have to fight against a sword. Laurie set himself to meet the enemy with his rifle and bayonet. The Japanese couldn't stop and impaled himself as he rushed. The sword slipped past Laurie as blood squirted and hit him in the face. The man had a horrible look on his face as he realised the bayonet was through his body; he placed his hand around the blade as pain convulsed him. Laurie twisted the bayonet and the scream was like a banshee from hell. The momentum of the charge had taken them to the ground. Laurie found the trigger and fired, the impact at such close range forced the Japanese soldier onto his back. Laurie placed his foot on the man's stomach and extracted his weapon then looked into the soldier's pleading eyes as he plunged the bloody blade into the man's throat.
Laurie extracted his bayonet, and then rolled away from the bloodied Japanese. He had blood on his face, in his eyes and on his uniform. He was disgusted at the gore and blood but he had no time to worry about it. He thumbed another round into the breech as a bullet thudded into the ground near him. Laurie wiped the blood from his eyes, but he couldn't see the sniper. There was firing in the jungle to his right and he crept slowly in that direction. Behind a tree with a good view of the section was a Japanese firing his rifle. The dense jungle and the noise of gunfire covered Laurie's approach; he crept behind the enemy and blew his brains out from point blank range.
Now for the sniper, thought Laurie. He looked for the muzzle flash in the trees. There was a lull in the firing. He heard a noise from behind up about forty feet. Laurie fired. The sniper crashed out of the tree onto the track where Laurie shot him again. Without the sniper, the contest was more even. Soon the fire from the Japanese stopped as they took casualties. The jungle was silent, Laurie approached the rest of the section, two were dead and three wounded. ‘Shit, you O.K? Is that blood yours or theirs?' said Gerry.
‘Theirs, I got one with the bayonet, he came at me with a fuckin' sword, it was a bit messy,' said Laurie.
‘I saw that sniper, I thought he was goin' to get you, but he missed, that was a big mistake.' said Gerry.
‘You look like fuckin' Dracula. Did y' get a good feed?' quipped Shortie.
‘Watch out, I might like some of that arse of yours,' said Laurie.
Shortie adopted a limp wrist pose, ‘Now saailor, I never thought you were like that,' purred Shortie.
‘There's some dead Japs in the jungle. What d' we do about ‘em?' one of the other men asked.
‘Leave ‘em. They might be waiting for us and the bastards' booby-trap their dead. We have to get our own dead and wounded back,' said Gerry. They hastily made litters.
Command issued information that they were expecting a Japanese landing on Scarlet Beach, with an advance down the coastal area in the 2nd 28th Battalion area. For this to happen the enemy had to take North Hill to secure their supply lines.
The seaborne attack came on the night of the 16th October. Fire from troops of the 2nd 28th and USA detachments greeted the Japanese. The enemy raiders carried automatic weapons as well as grenades and flame-throwers. Intelligence estimated that some seventy Japanese had landed and about thirty crossed the River Song and penetrated into the 2/43rd's area. Reports came that the enemy were approaching the North Hill area.
Corporal Blum checked his troops. They were in defensive positions in the head high grass. ‘How are you, Killer?' he asked Laurie O'Leary.
‘What's this killer bit?' Laurie responded.
‘The boss reckons you're a killer. He wants to recommend you be mentioned in despatches.'
‘That's bullshit, it won't keep me alive.'
‘It would be an honour.'
‘Whatever you say, I fuckin' hate this war. I just want to do my bit and get out of this army as soon as I can.'
‘Ok, ok. I'll tell him. He reckons it's an honour for us as well as you.'
They spotted the kunai grass moving as the Japanese came into their line of fire. The agreed signal to attack would come when the Bren gun in the centre of the section fired. They waited as the moving kunai signalled the approach. When the enemy was about ten yards away, the Bren started, followed by the rest of the section. The sound in the grass was deafening as the remaining Japanese returned fire.
Suddenly, a streak of flame leapt towards the defenders, scorching some of the wet grass. Laurie had a grenade with the pin out in his hand. He let go of the handle, then counted to four and yelled, ‘Grenade,' as he threw it at the source of the flamethrower. The explosion silenced the enemy. The Japanese withdrew through the kunai. Laurie heard the occasional burst from Owen guns as the Australians came across Japanese. They found five enemy bodies in the grass.
The rest of the battalion moved into the North Hill area and completed the defences around Scarlet Beach with the rest of the 24th Brigade. The Japanese counter attack had failed and now after the capture of Lae and Finschhafen the Australian's objective was to capture Sattelburg and drive the Japanese completely from the Huon Peninsula.
Laurie rested the binoculars on the floor of the Pabu lookout as he watched the Japanese on the Gusika Wareo track and looked over to Gerry as he sketched the scene before their eyes. Laurie was watching the enemy move their wounded eastwards towards the coast, while enemy reinforcements dragged a gun, probably a 75mm-camouflaged with bush, west in the direction of Wareo.
‘Gees, you're good, Gerry. What do you do with your drawings once you've finished?' asked Laurie.
‘Send ‘em home. If I live through the war I want to do a series. I've got a lot of sketches, some of them I want to build up into paintings. I want to have a complete record of where I've been in the war.'
‘Why don't we just blast ‘em, Killer?' It was Shortie next to Laurie as he watched the procession in front of him.
‘That would give the position away. It's better to use this post for information.'
‘They look rooted.'
‘They've been in the jungle for a long time, it's taking its toll.'
‘It's taking its toll on us too. A lot of blokes are crook,' said Shortie.
‘Are you okay?'
‘I'm OK,' said Shortie. ‘How about you?'
‘I'm a bit crook too,' said Laurie.
Later in the month, the Japanese attacked the 2/43rd Battalion again. The brunt of the attack came down the coastal track at D Company. The attack was two pronged, with the other prong down Surprise Valley.
Japanese mortars slammed into the ground near the section's dug-in area. ‘Got any targets, Killer?' Shortie asked.
‘Yeah, about six near the clearing.'
The diggers had cleared the kunai grass around their perimeter and the enemy had to cross to attack the company. The Japanese machine gunners started to blanket the company positions. Laurie picked his target, an officer directing operations about hundred and fifty yards away. He waited for him to stop moving, squeezed the trigger and his target jerked then collapsed onto the ground.
‘Killer O'Leary strikes again,' pronounced Shortie.
A bugle sounded, then the Japanese started yelling.
‘They're comin',' yelled Gerry.
The yelling column came into the clearing as withering fire from the Brens, Vickers, Lewis guns, Tommy guns, Owens and rifles caught them and cut them down. The enemy withdrew. Australian officers shouted, ‘Attack, go after them now!' Firing as they went the Australians quickly crossed the clearing and were on to the Japanese before they recovered. The enemy died as the machine guns blanketed them and they were in wild retreat as the Australians came at them with cold steel. As they started to enter Surprise Valley, Laurie and the rest of the section heard the calls to return to their positions.
‘I bloody enjoyed that,' said Shortie as he came to a stop with the rest of the section.
Laurie prodded the dead Japanese with his bayonet. Somehow he felt sorry for the enemy because the Australians forces were so superior it hardly felt like it was a contest. But they still kept coming to their deaths.
‘I hope all this stupid killing stops soon,' said Gerry.
‘I wish it would stop too,' said Laurie.
‘It's all right for you bastards, but I'd rather be fuckin' winnin' than fuckin' losin',' replied Shortie. The Japanese withdrew back into Surprise Valley and dug in, the Australians advanced and attacked the Japanese positions, then withdrew.
There was fierce fighting during the Japanese counter attack on the 24th Brigade in late November 1943. The Australians defeated the Japanese objective to take Scarlet Beach. D Company stopped the attack down the coast, as the rest of the battalion stood in the way of an attack from the west.
The 2nd 32nd Battalion had a torrid time on Pabu. A Company from the 2/43rd arrived on the 28th November. The next day, the remainder of the battalion moved out to Pabu. Below, and along the track to the west were large patches of kunai grass, fringed by jungle on all sides. This area of kunai, when viewed on aerial photographs, resembled the shape of a gangling animal character created by Walt Disney, Horace the Horse. Hence, this area of kunai became known for military purposes as Horace the Horse.
‘A' Company advanced in a westerly direction from Pabu towards Horace's head. Laurie saw the signal to stop and take cover; he waited and then slowly moved towards the front of the section. He heard shooting to his right; Gerry was crouched behind a tree when Laurie reached him.
‘I think they've ran into Japs,' said Gerry.
‘Sounds like a real shit fight,' said Laurie. ‘Are we goin' to join in?'
‘Yeah, but I'd like to get around the flank and come in from another direction. The Japs are dug in,' Gerry signalled the section to move to the left.
Carefully the section traversed the ground until Gerry signalled them to stop. ‘There's a machine gun nest ahead.'
The gunner was visible, but at least a hundred yards away. The Japanese were not as alert as they should be. Laurie took aim and fired as the Japanese's head exploded when the bullet caught him in the face. The section bolted for the nest with the Owen gunners firing as they ran. The other gunners were not able to fire before they were caught by machine gun fire. Laurie landed a grenade on the nest. The explosion lifted bodies and flung them about like misshapen dolls. Bullets started to flick up dirt around them; there was a cry as a bullet hit one of the section. ‘There's another nest!' yelled Shortie as he flung himself to the ground.
‘We can't stay here. We need a diversion!' yelled Laurie. The other nest was about seventy-five yards away.
‘We can throw a couple of grenades at ‘em. Then you two with the Brens can set up in the nest we just cleared and blast shit out of ‘em while we get to shelter and circle around them,' said Gerry.
Gerry nodded to Laurie. They removed the grenade pins, let go of the levers, counted to two, then stood up and threw the grenades as far as they could. They landed near the nest and exploded showering the Japanese with dirt. The Bren Gunners dived into the ex Japanese nest and started firing. The rest of the section dived for shelter as the Brens kept the enemy busy. The Brens and the Japanese exchanged fire as the rest of the section moved around the nest. About thirty yards from the enemy, Laurie said to Gerry ‘Try an air burst.'
‘I hope this bloody fuse is set right,' said Gerry as he removed the pin and let the handle go. One, two, three, four, five -- he threw the grenade and dived for cover. The grenade sailed through the air and exploded just above the nest. The airburst sent lethal shrapnel into the Japanese. Another enemy machine gun fired at them and two of the diggers were hit.
‘Shit, another one,' screamed Gerry. They scrambled back along the ground and reached cover.
‘Look, he's behind that big rock, on that small hill!' cried Laurie.
‘There's too much clear ground. We can't get close. He's got us pinned down,' yelled Gerry.
‘We're goin' to need help to get out of this,' said Laurie.
‘Let's hope he gets careless and you can pick him off.'
They stayed there pinned down for most of the afternoon when they heard fighting on the right flank; grenades and mortars were being used against the Japanese. One of them stood up to run. Laurie shot him. Then they saw Australians moving around the nest. The 11th Platoon had attacked from the right and cleared the Japanese. ‘A' Company had taken casualties and was ordered back to Pabu. On the way back, Laurie counted thirty-seven enemy dead.
Next morning, ‘A' Company moved out from Pabu to advance to the lakes via Horace the Horse. During that day, together with ‘B' Company they captured all of Horace the Horse. They settled down for a night of torrential rain, in pitch darkness; the troops did their best to dig in with poor tools or with tin hats and bayonets, often among the roots of the trees. It was both frustrating and exhausting so the men lay out in the slush, with perhaps a tin hat for a pillow and a gas cape the only protection from the wind and rain. When not on sentry duty, they endeavoured to snatch a little sleep.
On the fifth of December Battalion H.Q, ‘A' and ‘C' Companies returned to the North Hill area. Later ‘B' and ‘D' Companies joined them. ‘A' Company occupied the Pino Hill area. The battalion was now responsible for the defence of North Hill once more. The brigade's tactical role at Finschhafen was virtually at an end. The 20th Brigade passed through and pursued the enemy northwards towards Sio. The 26th Brigade, after an eight-day operation, captured Sattelburg and finally cleared the area to Wareo.
Laurie relaxed during Christmas 1943, looking forward to returning to Australia. He was worried about his lingering illness. He reported to the Regimental Aid Post with a headache, temperature, muscle pains, joint pains, sore throat and a rash. Medics said he had Dengue fever. It didn't go away.
The 2/43rd Battalion's initial strength on landing at Scarlet Beach had been seven hundred and six, then reinforcements in September and December made eight hundred and six men. Of that number, fifty-six were killed, eighty-six were wounded, and sixteen were wounded but stayed on duty. A horrendous number of six hundred were evacuated sick.
On the 31st of January 1944, the troopship Thomas B. Corwin landed the 2/43rd Battalion at Townsville finally back on Australian soil.