I Was There! - At Cape Gloucester We Crashed Our Way Ashore
Covered by Australian and American naval units, U.S. troops effected a landing at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, on December 26, 1943. Operations were witnessed by Kenneth Slessor, Australian Official War Correspondent, who gives here an awe-inspiring account of the great assault.
From the flag deck of an Australian destroyer I watched 3,000 Allied shells blasting a fringe of the coast at Cape Gloucester into a wilderness of elemental fire and earth. Australian and American warships battered a gateway for the invasion troops with 130 tons of naval high explosive. As the fog of the last shellburst curled up to meet the vertical smoke pillars from innumerable bombs, we saw the long lines of American assault craft driving to the beach.
After the terrific bombardment which pulverized Japanese defences on the beaches of New Britain, American troops swarmed ashore at Cape Gloucester on Dec. 26, 1943 and firmly established a beachhead. Above, Marines manhandle a jeep through shallow water after unloading it from a landing craft; in the background is an "alligator", a general utility land-and-water transport vehicle. Photo, Keystone.
"Good luck to you, Yanks!" said an Australian boy next to me, hooded and helmeted at his Oerlikon gun, and that was what we were all saying in our hearts. At 7.45 a.m. a signaller with telephone clamped to his big brown ears, grinned as he said "O.K." in acknowledgment of a message. "The first wave is ashore without opposition", he told us.
It was still dark, with stabs of tropical lightning, when the guns started at 6 o'clock. The huge peak behind Cape Gloucester loomed through floating shelves of cloud like a swathed and ghostly Fujiyama. One star, as white and brilliant as a flare, made a channel in the dark water. The warships, which had been poising stealthily in their picked positions since 4.30 a.m., opened their mouths with a crash of noise and incandescence which came as a physical shock.
From my post close behind Bib, the port gun of the destroyer's forward turret, it felt as if a fist had punched me on the side of the face. It was hard to hold a pen to paper and take notes on the successive waves of explosion as Bib and Anzac and Aussie, Yvonne and Yvette, the destroyer's other guns, added their uproar.
Two American warships, outlined in black against the first trickle of dawn, were belching wisps of flame to our left, and another Australian ship lit us with sheets of intense naphtha-white to our right. In the deceptive dimness, Cape Gloucester seemed to be almost under our bows instead of six or seven miles away. The shells burst in leaping points of incandescence. Suddenly two daubs of twisting red flame licked up from the shore. Perhaps they were fuel stores or ammunition dumps; perhaps buildings; but they were only fires now. A double boom of broadsides from the cruisers came like the thump of a big drum between the sharper and more splitting bark of the destroyer's open guns. At intervals a white tracer shell went probing up the heights behind the landing area like a star torn loose.
As dawn filled the sky with a light as cold as steel, the Japanese on the shore – if any still remained – must have peered from their burrows at a terrible semicircle of fighting ships. Now it was possible to see a line of American landing craft, a whole alphabet of assault boats waiting in the distance for their moment to come surging in. They looked as tiny as water-beetles against the huge cloud-shapes which filled the sky behind them. Two cruisers began to take form in the west, their masts and turrets poking from balls of dark-red smoke. You could see the bombardment area quite clearly.
Spouts of white vapour were rising from the shellfire like a terrace of hot springs. Away on a rocky point to the east, six magical palm trees appeared, blowing and bending on stalks of smoke. With sunrise, every man in our ship glanced for a moment to where a sailor was running up the Australian battle flag, the Blue Ensign, which flies only when the guns fire. The Oerlikon gunners, hooded like Bedouins, in their anti-flash gear, nudged me and pointed at the mast. We began our second run from west to east. A double bell rang on the bridge before each salve, giving us a fraction of a second to brace ourselves and push cottonwool into our ears before the ship plunged with the shock.
Films of smoke, as brown and transparent as tortoiseshell, blew over the flag deck. The smell was more like that of burning nones than of cordite. Soon after seven o'clock a cloud of American bombers swept high overhead as majestically as a fleet of liners. Even through the din of gunfire we could hear the heavy concussion of their bombs as columns of dust and smoke swirled up from the flat undergrowth behind the beach. After them came a swarm of Mitchells swooping low over the landing area and leaving a swollen screen of smoke in their wake. I could see no sigh of anti-aircraft fire from the shore.
Daylight showed the wreck of a Japanese destroyer lying on the knife-edge reefs which fringe the coast – one reason why the bombardment force did not approach closer than six miles. I pulled the plugs of cottonwool form my ears as a signaller with telephones shouted the message for which we had been waiting: "Everything going all right. No fire from shore. Landing will take place in five minutes."
The line of assault craft was moving as he spoke. I could guess what the huddled men in them were thinking as they furrowed as calmly as suburban ferries to the beach head. I remembered, too, how beautiful the destroyers had seemed as they hovered on the outskirts of the Finschhafen landing. Soon the invasion craft had raced into the distance and were visible only as grooves of foam. The guns stopped. For a moment there was a strange silence on sea and land. We strained our eyes into the white dazzle of haze which hung between us and the beach, trying to picture the broad snouts of the barges pushing through the sand, and the men jumping and wading and surging up that tiny arc of territory several miles away.
"First wave is ashore without opposition", said the signaller. Drifts of smoke still rolled over the beach. "Well, we will give them a nice Christmas present", said a gunner. A signaller pressed the telephone to his ears and spoke again: "Beach wreck, second wave now landing." Ten minutes later a bombardment force turned out to sea in anti-aircraft formation, destroyers screening cruisers on each flank. The Cape, with its faraway vagueness of mist and cloud and the lingering smoke of explosions. Down on the gun decks there was a clatter of empty shell cases being collected. The Navy had done its job and departed with the happy feeling that the men on land were doing theirs.
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