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DayForce - Bougainville Campaign

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Unit/ Formation: Landing Craft Units

Location: Bougainville

Period/ Conflict: World War II

Year: 1944

Date/s: Monday 18th December 1944

A first-hand account from Jack Eaves RM CH\X 111853. Bowman LCA 994 The Jaba river Operation, Bougainville. Part of X Force. The Commander of 2nd Australian Corps requested from the Flag Officer Commanding 'X' Force the loan of 4 LCA’s for an operation up the Jaba River with the 29th Australian Infantry Brigade. The army’s LCM’s and LCVP’s being too deep a draught to cross the bar at the mouth of the river.

HMS Empire Battleaxe, Landing Ship Infantry (Large), August 1, 1944, Greenock. © IWM (A 25062).]

Two LCA’s from each HMS Empire Arquebus (536 Flotilla) and Empire Battleaxe, (537 Flotilla) were selected and under the command of Lieutenant H.E. Day RM, of HMS Empire Battleaxe, were prepared and proceeded at first light on the 19th December.

At 0800 hrs on the 20th, 'DAYFORCE' as it became known, moved in single line ahead, eastward across Augusta Bay for the Tekessi River. Following their guide, an Australian launch, stolid looking and unromantic in contrast to the low green shapes of the LCA’s. To Port lay Bougainville, hazy in the morning mist, it’s mountain range thick with dense scrub, it’s flats covered in steaming jungle. The hills were Japanese territory, and the flats dominated by them represented the tiny perimeter which had been consolidated for more than a year.

By 1000 hrs the force had crossed the bar at the mouth of the Tekessi River and reported to the Australian Brigadier at his HQ. We had come prepared for any emergency, Lewis Guns, Rifles, Medical Supplies, Camp Gear, Motor Mechanic, Wireman, and a Marine Shipwright.

The LCA were forty four feet long, ten feet wide, flat bottomed and weighed ten tons. They were designed to carry a platoon of 30 to 33 men in three rows of ten or eleven men on three thwarts running the length of the main part of the boat.

Beyond the Tekessi River, the Australians had infiltrated along the coast as far as the Jaba River and were reported to be scouting the Tuju River. Patrols had been confined within the coastal strip and the Brigadier was anxious to know whether the Jaba river was navigable inland as far as the patrol, which was operating on the left bank, the limit would be a sign 'JAPS AHEAD'. He was also interested in the Tuju, about four miles beyond the Jaba, but was questionable if the sand bar at its mouth could be crossed by LCA’s.

An aerial photograph of the Buka Passage between Bougainville (left) and Buka (right) islands in the Solomon Islands in 1943. Two Japanese airfields are visible, Buka airfield (center) and Bonis airfield (left)

Bougainville rivers flow fast, coming down from the hills, fed daily by thunderstorms and with a 4-knot race, pile up sand barriers at their mouth. The Jaba is 40 yards wide in the flats and with the dense jungle on either side makes it difficult to locate from seaward. We found out when we hit the sand bar and poled and pushed into the estuary.

It would have been ‘happy hunting grounds’ for the R.M.O.C.U, and a quick finish for the coxswain who was ‘shaky’ in seamanship. The river was alive with snags, branches of sunken logs sticking above the water, with other logs whizzing past every other minute. The deeper water was obviously to be found at the outer edge of the bends and the current flowed round with its complement of torn up tree trunks sweeping on into the dense jungle. By pole soundings and good luck, we struggled 5 miles inland, located the patrol on the bank and then turned back for the Tuju.

The mouth of the Tuju lay 4 miles down the coast, Australian patrols had reported that the mouth was clear of the enemy, and we spent an hour there before eventually finding a channel through the sand bar, we then returned and made our report. At first light the following morning the real job began, a ferry service was established between the Tekessi, and the Jaba rivers.

All day a constant stream of troops, stores and ammo, moved up the Jaba, the north bank had been cleared of the enemy, but it was known that a Japanese strong point was located in the swamps of the south bank beyond the forward elements. The Japanese appeared to be fairly well supplied with small arms and machine guns. Although they had lost most of their artillery when counter attacking the perimeter the previous March. A landing was made on the Southbank, behind the enemy position, and a small force moved inland to start a pincer move to outflank the Japanese, it would have to be by river.

The following morning two LCA’s were loaded with the New Guinea movement. On the north bank the left flank was held up by dense jungle, it had taken a company two hour to move 200 yards and it was realised that the infantry had to be moved up by river. The 'JAPS AHEAD' sign (a 4ft target painted white with a red ball in the centre) was sighted about 100 yards up river from our start point. As far as we were concerned this was 'H' Hour, the Lewis guns were ready and, in the bow, sat a New Guinea boy watching the dense jungle like a hawk. It was said that the New Guinea native could smell a Jap before he could see them.

The coxswain watched the river for anywhere in the dense jungle the Nips could be sitting with his 'Wood-pecker' trained on us. At times the craft jammed on the sand bar and stuck. Then every man jack went over the side and pushed like hell. Occasionally we saw a crocodile, parakeets, and butterflies with 6-inch wing spans. Someone remarked that they were big enough to be paratroops- that crack carried us a mile up the river. After landing our troops, we returned downstream with wounded and some prisoners. You cannot beat the Jaba on the run, there is more danger on the way down than on the run up, the fast current forced us to keep the engines at full astern to minimise the impact should we hit a snag, and we hit them hard and often. During this period there were no casualties among the LCA crews, but one craft had to be abandoned.

On the 29th December, two craft from HMS Empire Mace were sent to augment the small flotilla, and the sunken craft replaced. The newly established drop off point was now fed by the river service, and a daily trip was necessary. Each trip had its troubles, we knew where the enemy were said to be located and precautions were taken to cover the well deck of the craft as a counter against grenades (we hoped that they would bounce off into the drink), this subsequently found to be a worthwhile precaution because 4 days later reconnaissance patrols confirmed the Japs had been where we thought they were.

No grenades were ever thrown at us or shots fired, perhaps credit for this should go to the silent running of the craft. Attacks on us were confined to dive-bombing mosquitoes and infiltrating ants, the ants made their most violent attack one trip when the river rose to full flood in a thunder storm and swept our LCA into the bank, the crash bringing down an ant nest on to the head of the coxswain who spent the rest of the trip cursing, searching, and scratching.

This was far more frightening than when a battery of Australian 25 pounders began a bombardment of the river bank only a few hundred yards from the craft. As exploitation progressed, troops were ferried further and further up the Jaba river until the Japs were cleared out of the area. On the 6th January, our job was done, 'Dayforce' returned to their parent ships where on inspection one craft were found to have 15 fractures in her bottom.

This story, one of those small events involving the Corps and so often overlooked was compiled from the appendix to the official report of the Flag Officer Force 'X' as supplied by RMAQ members Jack Eaves and Tony Cude.

Read More/ Web Link:

The story of 2 marines on HMS Battleaxe here

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