'If I had my time over, I'd do it all again'

26 August 2020 by Claire Hunter

Lloyd Birdsall

Lloyd Birdsall remembers watching Japanese bombers flying overhead in New Guinea, and listening to the sounds of the planes as bombs fell from the sky.

“They dropped bombs right through our camp on what they call 14-Mile Airstrip,” he said.  

“About 20 planes came in, and they followed the airstrip loaded with bombs.

“We were in holes in the ground of course, and the ground shook and trembled and what not. They punctured holes in our water tanks, and put holes in our trucks and tents and things, but there was not a single casualty. It just shows how inaccurate bombing can be.

“We don’t know whether they were going for the airport, or whether they were going for us, but when the ground trembles, and the dirt starts falling, you say, ‘Is the next bomb going to be mine?’ And that’s a bit scary.”

Lloyd Birdsall

Lloyd Birdsall during the Second World War. Photo: Courtesy Lloyd Birdsall

A signalman during the Second World War, Lloyd was called up two weeks after his 18th birthday and transferred to the AIF when he turned 19. He served with F Section Signals, attached to the 14th Field Regiment in New Guinea and the 2/9th Armoured Regiment in Borneo.

“It was a big adventure in lots of ways, and I’m glad I did it,” he said.

“I used to look after communications – radio sets, and telephones and all that sort of thing; whatever was needed – and if I had my time over, I’d do it all again.”

Lloyd was living with his parents in Abbotsford when he was called up in 1942.

“I was an apprentice electrician, so they made me an electrician in the army,” he said. “I didn’t know anything, but I soon learnt.

“We were thrown into a heap, you might say, with very limited training, and I was issued with a pistol with five bullets.

“I never used them, but that’s all they gave me, and that’s all I took into battle with me.”

Anhui

On 25 June 1942, Lloyd sailed for New Guinea aboard HMS Anhui. Japanese midget submarines had entered Sydney Harbour to attack Allied shipping just a few weeks earlier, and the men were nervous as they made their way out the heads, up the coast, and on to Port Moresby.

“We landed on the 5th of July 1942, and it was a bit mysterious,” he said.

“We arrived at 5 o’clock at night and by the time we got off the ship it must have been nine or ten.

“They loaded us up onto trucks and took us out about nine miles from the harbour to goodness knows where … and the next morning at 8 o’clock, 23 Japanese bombers came over and gave us a fright,” he said.

“They’d come over every morning at 8 o’clock, as regular as clockwork, and we would see these silver planes flying right over the top of us.

“They blew up two petrol tanks and broke a couple of planes at the airport, but I didn’t go down there to find out what happened.

“We dived for the ground; and we had a hole dug for the next morning – that was the first operation we did: we dug a hole to get into.”

Golden Stairs

Soldiers and a native bearer climb the "Golden Stairs" rising towards Imita Ridge. Each step was battened at its edge by a rough log. These were sometimes broken and therefore treacherous, cradling mud and water from afternoon rains.

Kokoda

Papua New Guinea, October 1942. Men leading pack horses and mules loaded with supplies down the precipitous curving track from the end of the road down into Uberi Valley over which troops and supplies were taken to Australian forward positions in the Owen Stanley Ranges. In the foreground is a 25-pounder gun that is being man-hauled through the valley to Imita Ridge. 

guns

Papua and New Guinea, September 1942: 25-pounder guns of B Troop, 14th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, being pulled through dense jungle in the vicinity of Uberi on the Kokoda Trail.

He was in Port Moresby when Japanese troops landed near Gona on the north coast of Papua a few weeks later.  

“It was a little frightening,” he said.  “We thought the Japanese would be turned back, but we used to go up to the tent and listen to the radio and find out the Japanese were getting closer to us all the time.”

He remembers climbing the “Golden Stairs” on the Kokoda Trail as Australian forces fought to prevent the Japanese from reaching Port Moresby, and then pushed them back over the rugged Owen Stanley Range.

“The Golden Stairs were 1,100 steps carved into the side of Imita Ridge,” he said.

“They were just heaps of mud held together by rough logs. Going up you were slipping and sliding all over the place, but coming back down the stairs was even worse because when you put your foot down, and put your weight on it, you weren’t able to stand; your foot would shoot forward and down you would come on your backside.

“I saw many of our wounded being brought back through the mud being carried back on stretchers. I saw them being put onto jeeps that had stretchers spread across – one across the bonnet and one across the rear; both wounded and sick. And I have visions of the jeeps with chains on the tyres ploughing through the mud, pushing a wave of mud in front of the bumper bar.”

guns

Uberi area, Papua, 1942-09. Australian soldiers cut down trees to widen a section of the Kokoda Trail from Owers' Corner to Uberi so that 25-pounder field guns can be dragged forward along the track to fire on Japanese positions.

Kokoda

Papua New Guinea, October 1942. Men leading pack horses and mules loaded with supplies down the precipitous curving track from the end of the road down into Uberi Valley over which troops and supplies were taken to Australian forward positions in the Owen Stanley Ranges. In the foreground is a 25-pounder gun that is being man-hauled through the valley to Imita Ridge. 

He couldn’t help but think of his mates fighting in the infantry.

“When I was called up, my mates were called up too, and they all went into infantry,” he said.

“Being an electrician, my job was to maintain communications, but the radios were no good in the mountains; they were useless – there was too much blockage – and the equipment we had was just not good enough.

“I met some of my mates up in Port Moresby, and I asked for a transfer to the infantry section to be with them, but our OC said, ‘You can’t go, you’re a specialist signalman,’ for which I have been eternally grateful.”

As the Japanese drew nearer, they could see the lights of Port Moresby in the distance, but Ioribaiwa Ridge was as close as they would get. In September, the 14th Field Regiment hauled two guns into firing positions near Owers Corners and began bombarding the Japanese positions on Ioribaiwa. The terrain was almost impassable for infantry let alone artillery.

“Our observation post was on Imita Ridge, and our guns were at Owers Corner firing over the top of us,” Lloyd said.

“We had to cut a two-kilometre track through the jungle to get the guns to Owers Corner, and we were firing onto the Japanese on the other side of the valley.

“The infantry said it was the sweetest sound you ever heard; they had been listening to the Japanese gun all the way, so they were quite happy to hear the old 25 pounder open up on it.”

25-pounder guns

New Guinea, September 1942: 25-pounder guns of B Troop, 14th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, being pulled through dense jungle in the vicinity of Uberi on the Kokoda Trail. Members of the regiment are being assisted by the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion.

guns

New Guinea, September 1942: 25-pounder guns of B Troop, 14th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, being pulled through dense jungle in the vicinity of Uberi on the Kokoda Trail. Members of the regiment are being assisted by the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion.

It was the only Allied field artillery used on the Kokoda Trail, and it helped halt the Japanese advance just 48 kilometres from Port Moresby. The Australian infantry’s tactic of a fighting withdrawal had worn the Japanese down and the logistical difficulties of maintaining a long line of communications back to Kokoda meant the enemy was in poor condition. On 24 September, they began their own withdrawal back through the rugged Owen Stanleys.

“They had no word in their language apparently for retreat, so the order was given to advance to the rear,” Lloyd said.

“You have to remember, by the time the Japanese got to Ioribaiwa, they were starving. Their lines were stretching, their ships were being sunk, and they were not getting supplies.

“They always had plenty of bullets and ammunition – they never run out of them – but they were living on a handful of rice a day and they were at the end of their tether. 

“By the time they got to the doorstep of Port Moresby, they were really knocked up, no doubt about that, and we were bringing in more supplies, more troops, more goods, more everything by this time.

“Eventually the infantry pushed them back, but it was a bit worrying I suppose; I always remember what the conditions were like when the troops were actually fighting in this rain sodden ground further advanced from where I was.”

guns

Papua New Guinea, September 1942: A gun crew of the 14th Field Regiment with their 25-pounder gun in action position in the Owen Stanley Range.

After the Japanese retreat at Kokoda, Lloyd was sent to Milne Bay. “I really thought I would go mad in Milne Bay,” he said. “I thought it was the most God-forsaken place on this earth; it was nothing but rain and mud and mosquitos, and more rain, and more mud, and more mosquitos. It was a terrible place; and I hated it.”

Conditions were difficult at best, but the men made the most of what they had. He laughs as he tells how they acquired much-appreciated food and supplies from the Americans.

“I was pretty lucky,” Lloyd said.  

“Being with the artillery, I lived in a tent, but we pinched enough stretchers from the Americans to make ourselves quite comfortable. We raided their camp, and finished up pinching 30 stretchers in one night.

“We knew when they’d all gone to the mess, so we snuck in to the back of their tents, tipped everything off of their stretchers on to the floor, took them, and then bolted out the back gate.

“We thought World War III was going to start, but they never chased us … so we lived in a reasonable amount of comfort.”

“The worst part of it was the food; it was always plentiful, but the choice was always bloody awful – the same old repetitive ‘gold fish’ stew.

“It was herrings in tomato sauce, and baked beans, plenty of tins of corned beef, and melted butter that you’d tip out and pick up with a spoon.

“It was all in tins because there was no refrigeration, and the food was atrocious. At one stage I went on a bit of a midday strike; I never ate anything at all in the middle of the day so that I was hungry enough to eat what they served up at dinner time.

“The Americans though had everything – trucks filled with butter and bacon and beef and fruit salad and all that sort of stuff …

“We’d say to one of the [American] blokes, ‘Any chance of getting a box of tinned fruit,’ and they’d say, ‘Which one of you is the officer?’ Anyone of us would say, ‘I am,’ then you’d sign a bit of paper, and they’d give you this box of Australian fruit.”

Lloyd Birdsall

Wondecla, Queensland, February 1945. Group portrait of Signal Maintenance Troop, 2/9th Armoured Regiment. Lloyd is pictured in the back row, third from left.

After 20 months in New Guinea, Lloyd returned to Australia in 1944. He was attached to the 2/9th Armoured Regiment, looking after the radios in the Matilda tanks, and sailed for Moratai on Anzac Day 1945 in preparation for the Borneo landings. He landed on Labuan Island in June 1945.

“It was amazing to see the amount of ships that we had at the landing,” he said. “These rocket firing ships cruised in front of us firing these rockets by the hundreds, and it was terrifying to see.

“I landed on Brown Beach at about 9 o’clock in the morning as part of the second wave of landings. I was driving a jeep with a trailer and all my equipment, and in front of us there was a tank and another jeep. It flooded, and the tank had to push this jeep onto its side. He didn’t want to stop – he was getting full of water, and we were about four feet deep or something at this stage – so he pushed the jeep out of the road so we could keep going.

“By this time, the Japanese had been pushed right back to the far end of the island … but later that night they attacked the waterfront. They came through at the side of the camp, and we could hear all the guns going off as they raided an American army base.

“They came up through the swamps which nobody thought they would do, and that was their last little fight.

“I remember we had one pilot who used to come and just circle around and let us know he was there, and on this particular night, the first night of the landing in Borneo, this plane came over … and we could hear him going around. He flew around for about five minutes, and nobody did anything, but when he came around about five minutes later, every search light was following him, so when they lit up, everybody was on him, and every gun too, and boom, that was the end of him… he just disappeared in a puff of smoke … and that was the first night we landed …

“The Japanese formed themselves up in what we called ‘The Pocket’ – a couple of hills shaped like a figure eight.

“They had dug tunnels all through there, like rabbit burrows, and we pounded them with guns and tanks for two weeks, but we couldn’t get them out.

“They were shelled for days and days and days, but every time you’d shell their position, they’d run through these burrows and come up somewhere else, so we brought a flame thrower tank in … and that was the end of it – in ten minutes it was all over.”

Labuan

Labuan Island, Borneo, 10 June 1945. A general view of LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank), which carried the invasion forces, on the beach on Labuan Island.

Labuan

Labuan Island, 13 June 1945. Landing Ship, Tank (LST) 590 in the unloading position at a pontoon. The 3-ton trucks ferry the cargo to shore via the pontoons.

Lloyd was still on Labuan Island when heard the war had ended in August 1945.

“It was a Sunday night and I was writing a letter to my mother about half past six,” he said. “I’d been to the mess hut, and we had a little makeshift table outside our tent – a bit of a rough old table made out of sticks and what not – and I was there writing a letter. All of a sudden, guns started going off, and people started shouting and carrying on, and I was like, ‘What’s all the fuss? What’s going on here?’ ‘The war’s over,’ they yelled. ‘The war’s over; you can go home.’ So that was the end of that, and I remember it very well.”

It would be another five months before he finally made it home. He returned aboard the Kings Point Victory.

“It was fitted out as a troopship with bunks down in the hull, and it was stinking hot down there,” he said. “I was lying on my bunk looking up, and I saw a square tube and a brown hatch. Being an electrician, I always had a screwdriver on me, so I opened it up. It turned out to be the air-conditioning so each night I’d take the panel off and we’d have our own air-conditioned corner of the ship; then in the morning I’d put the cover back so that they wouldn’t find out. I kept waiting for someone in the engine room to complain the air-conditioner wasn’t working, but they never did and we didn’t get caught.”

He remembers arriving home in Sydney after three years of war.

“I got into trouble for that too,” he said, laughing once more.  “I landed at my mother’s at one o’clock in the morning and went down the side of the house. The back veranda had a bed on it, so I just threw all my gear down, and lay on the bed. When she got up at about 6 o’clock, there was all my gear, and me asleep, and did she go off the boiler … She was quite upset I didn’t wake her up.”

tank

Labuan Island, North Borneo, 10 June 1945: Matilda tanks of B Squadron, 9 Troop, 2/9th Armoured Regiment, moving east soon after the Oboe 6 landing.

tanks

Labuan, Borneo. 10 June 1945. Australian manned tanks and infantry approaching Victoria town following landing operations on Labuan Island, British North Borneo.

tank

Labuan Island, North Borneo, 13 June 1945: A Matilda tank of the 2/9th Armoured Regiment passing the airstrip, a few minutes after its capture.

The war though would continue to have an impact on Lloyd’s life. He was struck down with malaria two months after he arrived home.

“We were at Central Station and I was sitting outside in a jeep,” he said. “It was a nice sunny day, and I started to get colder and colder, and then I started to shiver…

“I’d served in New Guinea, and Borneo, and Milne Bay – the worst place in the world – and blokes were going down five times in a row with malaria and dengue fever, but I didn’t get anything until we came back to Australia.”

When he was struck down with malaria again in June, his mother feared the worst. “I was out for about three days,” he said.  “My mother was in a terrible panic – every half hour she would come in and check to see if I was still alive – but I survived, and I’ve never had that since.”

Lloyd was discharged in 1946, but like many veterans, he found it hard to adjust to civilian life after the war.

“I went into the army at 18, and I was nearly 23 when I got out,” he said. “That part of a boy’s life is the time you leave school, and you get a job; you have money, and you start to live a life, but I missed all that. I was told what to do for almost five years, when to get up, when to eat, and when I got out, it was a bit hard to go back to civilian life.”

Lloyd finished the apprenticeship that he started before the war, and married in October 1949. He has returned to New Guinea twice, and volunteered as a guide for school groups at the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway at Concord in Sydney.

“I like to think of, the good times, rather than the bad times,” he said.

“I look at the real soldiers – the blokes who won the Military Cross, and my uncle who won the Military Medal and the Military Cross – and I look back at my life; I didn’t do anything other than what I was told, but everybody plays a little part – every truck driver, every bloke that unloads the boats, and every little bit counts for something.

“I never did any heroics or anything like … but I enjoyed, in general terms, my military career, and I would have done it all again.”