The Jindabyne hills, with their distant snow fringed heights – is the last place that you would expect to find a monument commemorating a tropical battlefield. Even in the November heat of an Australian summer, there is still some hint of white on top of the highest peaks of these Snowy Mountains. Yet it is only by comparing the elevation of these distant hills to those found in the Owen Stanleys – that one may draw some comparison between the ski region of Jindabyne with the steaming heat of the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea.
But there is one other thing that these two places have in common – and that is the men of the 3rd Infantry Battalion, AMF (Australian Military Forces). And there is a touch of irony that a Militia unit labelled as “Choco’s” should wear a Battalion colour patch with the ‘chocolate brown’ over green. But in the words of their most vocal spokesman and supporter – Captain Bede TONGS M.M. “They were good, real good!” And their deeds on the Kokoda Track proved that the chocolate brown on this colour patch did not run or melt in the heat of battle.
But there are two points which I found historicially significant about the 3rd Infantry Battalion. First of all; this band of Militia men was the longest serving unit on the Kokoda Track. Information from 3rd Infantry Battalion historian – Garry Tongs (son of Bede TONGS) indicates that the men had de-bussed from lorries just past Bisiatabu and marched through Ower’s Corner on the 5th of September, 1942. As they began their journey across the Owen Stanleys, the main body of the battalion was still heading past Uberi near dusk on the evening of the 5th of September. Author Lex McAULAY indicates that the 3rd Infantry Battalion began arriving at Ioribaiwa by the 6th of September, 1942 and this was confirmed by Garry, however the main body did not reach this location until the 7th. The 3rd Infantry Battalion, AMF were not relieved from Gona (on the northern beaches) until the 4th of December, 1942 – placing them in the front line for practically 3 continuous months.
The second point in question is the fact that the Australian flag; actually raised over Kokoda Village on the 2nd of November, 1942 after the village was liberated….was in fact raised by a Militia man of the 3rd Battalion. This soldier was Merv SHEA – service number N244191 from Yass in New South Wales (The World War 2 Nominal Roll indicates that his real name was Phillip Mervyn SHEA) Bede TONGS indicated that whilst the 3rd Infantry Battalion was in a position to enter Kokoda Village; the Militia were held back by their commanding officer (Lt. Col. Alan CAMERON) so that an AIF Battalion could be the first unit into the village. Hence the men of the 2/31st Battalion -25th Brigade were the first to enter Kokoda on the 2nd of November. This original flag from 1942 is now in the possession of Soc KIENZLE (son of the legendary Bert KIENZLE) and Gary Traynor from Medals Gone Missing had the honour to meet Soc in November 2009 – who showed him this important relic (wish to know more – please see our story on Soc Kienzle coming soon).
IMAGE LEFT: The Australian Flag being raised at Kokoda Station on the 3rd of November, 1942. The actual soldier who is raising the flag is believed to be a member of the 3rd Militia Battalion; Private Phillip Mervyn SHEA from Yass.
So on the 7th of November, 2009 – the surviving veterans of the 3rd Infantry Battalion (AMF) held their annual flag raising ceremony at the memorial built on a hill at Jindabyne East. From a very large area of recruitment, these men of the “brown over green” were drawn from the Snowy Mountains – right through the Monaro to Goulburn and down to the Far South Coast of New South Wales. From ‘so many’ to ‘so few’ – this gallant unit could only muster six amonst her ranks on this particular day; however the day was well attended by family, friends and ex-members of the Werriwa Regiment from the 1950’s onward.
IMAGE RIGHT: The six veterans of the 3rd Infantry Battalion who could attend the ceremony at the memorial near Jindabyne. The veterans are from left to right:- Len GRIFFITHS (from Canberra) Don WILTON (from Bemboka) Bede TONGS MM (from Queanbeyan) Vern CLEMENTS (from Bega) Allan MADDEN (also from Bega) and Milton ALCOCK (from Bemboka) Carrying the standard which bears the unit Battle Honours was Kenneth Sanderson (who made the trek with Kokoda Historical in 2008) and Corporal Stuart Coates who is currently serving with ‘C’ Coy, 4/3 RNSWR in Canberra.
IMAGE LEFT: The memorial itself was unveiled on the 2nd of November, 1991 and the unit has been conducting this flag raising ceremony on an annual basis, ever since. Note the Australian Slouch Hat, cast in bronze which adorns the top of the monument.
People from far and wide, travelled to be part of the occasion and special guests included Nene Pendergast; who – with members of the GOLBY family (in honour of their father, Bob) – saw that this memorial was built. Dr Mike Kelly AO, MP was also present and as he has family ties with the 3rd Infantry Battalion, he expressed a desire to one day – walk the Kokoda Track. In fact, the ceremony was well attended by persons who have tackled the distance between Ower’s Corner and Kokoda village and this was commented upon by Bede TONGS during his address. Bede has always availed his time to any modern day Kokoda trekker; and Gary Traynor from Medals Gone Missing still recalls their first meeting in 2002 when Bede and Garry Tongs met him at Canberra Airport. Since then, when the trekking company ‘Kokoda Historical’ leads a group over the Owen Stanleys – Gary Traynor ensures that the story of the 3rd Infantry Battalion is told.
IMAGE RIGHT: The plaque which bears tribute to the 3rd Battalion, AMF. Of note is the short verse which was written by Bede TONGS:- Pause a moment – Free to gaze upon this wondrous scene. Bow your head, give thanks. As you recall what might have been. If Australia’s sons had not bled and died. Amongst the mud and green.
A barrel from a Japanese Mountain Gun (Model 92 Infantry howitzer – 70mm) from the Kokoda Historical Collection was brought to the function on a makeshift carriage. This relic proved of interest to the crowd and an empty shell casing that was brought back from Eora Creek was a reminder to the men of the 3rd Battalion of their time at Templeton’s Crossing. Bede informed listeners that his unit came under fire from this type of gun until the Japanese positions were captured above the Eora Creek village site.
IMAGE LEFT: Bede TONGS inspects the barrel of the Model 92 Japanese Mountain Gun. The wheels and train are not authentic and are merely present to display the barrel of this relic. It can be seen by the very short length of the barrel, how mobile these weapons were. The gun could be broken down into individual pieces and carried by it’s crew – which made it very suitable for the Kokoda campaign. It was not until Australian 25 pounders at Imita Ridge brought their fire to bear upon the Japanese dug in on Ioribaiwa; that the diggers had a long range weapon capable of hitting back.
These type of Japanese Mountain Guns had hammered the Australian troops throughout the campaign, since late August – when they were first used during the battle for Isurava. Whilst our diggers lacked mortars in sufficient numbers to make a difference during the withdrawal, it was not until the Australian fight forward that mortar crews could answer the fire of the Japanese artillery.
IMAGE RIGHT: Dr Mike KELLY AO, MP inspects the shell casing of a Type 92 Japanese Mountain Gun. The length of the projectile to this particular round was disproportionate in size to the length of the shell casing; however even with it’s small charge – the round had a range of between 2800 and 3050 yards.
After the flag raising ceremony, the crowd retired to the township of Jindabyne where a wonderful lunch was served up. Funds and contributions raised on the day were donated to the Kokoda Track Foundation, to benefit the continuing education of two children who live in one of the villages along the Kokoda Track. Garry TONGS joked that some money may also go towards the purchase of some chickens for the village and appreciation was shown to the K.T.F. for the efforts they are making to improve the life of the indiginous people along the track. It is high time that Australia makes a more concerted effort to help the people – who helped our diggers during World War Two.
The tradition of the 3rd Infantry Battalion, AMF is being carried on by the men and women who are currently serving in ‘C’ Coy (Charlie Company) of the 4/3 RNSWR (Royal New South Wales Regiment) which is an Army Reserve unit based in Canberra. The number “4/3” signifies an amalgamation of the 4th Battalion and the 3rd Battalion; and this unit proudly carries the Battle Honours which adorn the Militia 3rd Infantry Battalion standard. However, the 4th Battalion was a Sydney based unit whose colours were ‘white over green’. Despite the fact that ‘C’ Company is based in the recruiting area of their Second World War forebears of the ‘brown over green’ – the 4th Battalion colour patch is currently worn on all 4/3 pugerees. A fact which has always disappointed me. Alpha Company (A Coy) is still based in Sydney and Bravo Company (B Coy) is stationed in Wollongong. Whilst it is appropriate that these two units carry on the tradition of the 4th Battalion Colour Patch, it would be nice for the Canberra unit to re-adopt their region’s colours of ‘brown over green’.
Whilst many men of the 3rd Infantry Battalion, AMF later transferred over to the 2/3rd Battalion, AIF (Australian Imperial Force) diggers such as Bede TONGS and Owen BASKETT still regard the 3rd Militia Battalion as their ‘home unit’. Merv SHEA (the soldier who raised the flag over Kokoda) remained in the Militia – transferring to the 36th Infantry Battalion, AMF.
Speaking about Bede TONGS, his mate Owen BASKETT told Medals Gone Missing “That man was a natural soldier. He was born to be in the Military”. I have written about Bede and Owen previously (please see the story: Bede Tongs MM & Owen Baskett – 3rd Militia Battalion) however enough cannot be said about what these men did in the steaming jungle of New Guinea. We often hear of the exploits of the 39th Militia Battalion termed “Those Ragged Bloody Heroes” and justifyably so. What they accomplished was beyond all human endurance. And the determination shown by the men of the 21st Infantry Brigade AIF is one of the most inspiring accounts that I have ever read. However there were other units on the Kokoda Track which are rarely recognised. The 53rd Infantry Battalion had a very unfortunate start in the campaign – through absolutely no fault of the men themselves. The time and effort put into training these men before sending them into action, is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of the Australian Army. These same men were later sent to the hell of the beach heads (55/53 Battalion fought at Sanananda) and they acquitted themselves as well as any man who fought in the New Guinea campaign. The 49th Battalion and the 36th (both Militia units) were also engaged at the beaches and their deeds when compared to the AIF are certainly on par.
IMAGE LEFT: Bede TONGS, MM and the standard of the 3rd Infantry Battalion. It is also worthy to note that the 3rd Militia Battalion and the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion (AIF) fought side by side at Oivi. To my knowledge, this was the only action in the history of the Australian Army – that units of the same designated number – served alongside eachother.
However I cannot help but feel that the 3rd Battalion has been somewhat “short changed” by the historians. Bede has written a comprehensive story about this gallant band of men and I look forward to the telling of their story, when it is published.
They may have been branded “Chocos”; but one thing is for certain – the chocolate in this colour patch did not run or melt in the ‘heat of battle’.