Wednesday 4 February 1942. At 1130 hrs we reached the bank of the Bulus River which formed the northern boundary of Tol Plantation. Whilst we were resting before crossing, a wild pig suddenly broke from the bush immediately behind us. Grabbing a rifle, Les Fawcett shot it dead, the crack of the .303 rifle echoing through the hills. Rumours were that the five landing craft had landed at Tol. If so, the rifle shot would certainly have announced our presence. It was decided therefore to move upstream about 50 yards, but to keep on the river bank so as to have a good view of anyone approaching from the other side. As it would be some little time before the pig was skinned and cooked, Mr Moody asked for two volunteers to go into the plantation and have a look around. Mr Hutchinson (Hutch) of the Agricultural Dept in Rabaul and I volunteered, saying we would be back in an hour.
Just as we were about to cross the river, Max ‘Smacker’ Hazelgrove and Laurie Robinson of the A/A Bty appeared, together with five others and asked if we could spare them any food. I told them we had just shot a pig – yes, they had heard the shot – and felt sure Mr Moody would help them. I directed Smacker to where he would find our party and waited until he returned, with some pig. Crossing the river with us, Smacker thanked me and we left.
After travelling some distance, we came upon a group of natives sitting by the side of the narrow track. ‘Hutch’ asked them what they were doing, to which one replied, “Sit down nothing”. He then asked, “Soldier bilong Japan he stop.” The native replied, “Soldier bilong Japan he go. Soldier all the same you fella, he stop. Master Naess, he stop along house bilong him.” (George Naess was the owner of Tol Plantation.)
Leaving them, we continued into the plantation and very soon came upon Alec Carter, lying in the middle of the track, doubled up with pain, suffering he said, with stomach cramps. When asked who he was travelling with, he said McMullen, Emery and Brown. Not feeling well, he had dropped behind and doubted if his friends knew he was sick. We made him as comfortable as possible, propping him against a tree, telling him we would catch up to his friends and have them come back for him.
Setting off at a brisk pace, we had not gone more than a few hundred yards when the track took a very sharp bend to the left. At the precise moment we reached the apex of the bend, so did a Jap officer. We would not have been more than a few yards apart. With the track so narrow, certainly not wide enough for three abreast, I stepped in front of ‘Hutch’ to allow the Jap to pass.
Neither looked at the other as we passed, even though my arm brushed against his. Having had only seconds to observe him as he approached, I noted almost every detail of his uniform – a khaki net over his steel helmet, gold epaulets on the shoulders of his light khaki jacket, a black leather belt, a sword on his left hip, a pistol in a black holster on his right hip, light khaki riding breeches, black leggings and black boots.
Immediately we had rounded the bend, I dared a quick look over my shoulder. Surprisingly, the Jap had gone on his way. I fully expected once he was behind us he would pull his pistol and order us to halt, or even shoot us. In all probability he was just as shocked seeing us as we were at seeing him.
Without a word I grabbed ‘Hutch’ and pulled him with me into the undergrowth to our left. A few feet further into the bush was a fallen log, behind which we crawled and waited. We did not have to wait long. Within a minute, where we had just stood, a patrol of twelve Jap soldiers marched past with fixed bayonets.
I motioned to ‘Hutch’ to stay still and put my finger to my lips. In a very short time we heard voices and one could almost guess the scenario that followed between the officer and the patrol leader. First, the officer, having continued around the bend, would have stopped, waiting for the patrol to catch up to him, fully expecting we would have been captured. Seeing that we were not, he would ask the patrol leader, “Well, where are they?” to which the patrol leader would say, “Where’s who, sir?” To which the officer would then say, “The two Australians I just passed – stupid!”
We then heard what were obviously orders being shouted angrily by the patrol leader, presumably telling his men to spread out and find us. I touched ‘Hutch’ on the arm and nodded my head to indicate we should retreat in the direction of the coast. Fortunately the area where we were was covered with heavy undergrowth and trees. We had not reached that part of the plantation where the coconut palms were planted in straight rows and the ground around them kept clear and well cut.
Turning around, we started to crawl, trying not to make any noise. It wasn’t long however, before we heard shouts and movement in the bushes to our rear – one of the patrol had obviously heard us. There was no point in crawling. It was run for your life. Crashing through the bushes, being hit in the face by low branches, stumbling but managing to keep on our feet, the chase was on. We heard rifle fire, bullets smashing through the bushes around us – they were firing at sounds. We continued to crash our way towards the coast until the firing stopped and we were no longer being pursued. Gasping for breath, we came in sight of the water. Reaching the tree line where it met the beach, I looked to the right and in the distance saw the five landing craft in the bay and the red roof of a house near the beach. Turning left, we ran, keeping inside the tree line until we reached the river we had crossed previously to enter the plantation.
At that moment we heard rifle shots in the distance. My first thoughts were that the patrol in searching for us had come across Alec Carter or Smacker Hazelgrove and his party, or maybe they had seen the smoke from the fire lit to cook the pig. Whatever the case, we had to get back to warn our party – if in fact we were not already too late.
Fortunately, where the Bulus River flowed into the bay the water was not deep. Wading across, we clambered up the bank into the protection of the thick undergrowth. Whilst this shielded us from view, it also slowed our progress and it seemed ages before we reached the track where the pig was shot.
All was quiet as we emerged from the bush, crossed the track and made our way to where our party was standing in a group. They had heard the rifle shots and put out the fire. A Jap patrol of six arrived at the river bank opposite but made not attempt to cross. Protected by thick bush, it had been possible for them to observe the Japs until they left.