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Pacific FrontOctober 1942

Australian soldier

Keith Ross
He arrived in New Guinea as part of an Australian division, tasked with pushing back the Japanese in some of the most arduous and dangerous fighting conditions of the whole war.

Keith Ross’ words are read by Simon Burke.

Testimony Transcript

Laurence Rees: Keith Ross joined the Australian army as a teenager. 

Words of Keith Ross: When you volunteered and you went in the army they gave you some choices; ‘Would you like to go in artillery?’ And I thought, no, I don’t like the sound, too much noise. And then, ‘Would you like to be a Provo, a policeman, you know, Military Police?’ I said, no, we don’t want to do that. And then they said, ‘Would you like the Medical Corps?’ No, you know, we’re supposed to put people in hospital not go and look after them. And after that they said, ‘Well, okay, all the rest of you guys are infantry.’

Laurence Rees: After training in Palestine and Ceylon, Keith Ross and his unit were sent to fight the Japanese in New Guinea. 

Words of Keith Ross: When we finally got to New Guinea it was nearly a year after the Japanese had come into the war, and they’d got down to New Guinea, and nobody had told us what Japanese tactics are like, what their uniforms are like, what their psychology was like, nothing, and nobody taught us to hate the Japanese. When we got to New Guinea I remember looking out through the porthole and I looked at this dreadful place with all these great mountains and the clouds, you couldn’t see the top of the mountains for the clouds. And when we started actually going on patrol in Milne Bay we started to realise what a dreadful place it was. Lots of disease, about 90 per cent malaria, and that’s where I got my first dose of malaria. And also hardly any animals. The natives didn’t have the protein and that’s why there were lots of cannibals in the history of New Guinea. The people would fight wars between each other, there were only a few people would be killed, but they’d eat them, and they called them ‘long pig’. The human being was long pig. 

Laurence Rees: Keith Ross became sick on arrival in New Guinea, and it was only after several weeks that he was told he was well enough to trek through the jungle and rejoin his unit.

Words of Keith Ross: So I kept on going and I was told that I’d know where the place was - just follow the track through the swamp. So, anyhow, in the early morning of the fourth day I got crook, I got diarrhoea, I got dysentery and I had malaria fever. So I just about passed out. So I lay down on the track and I didn’t know there were Japs all over the place there, so I lay down on the track and I went to sleep, and later I woke up and I was warm. And I looked out on the track and there were snakes everywhere, they’d come out to enjoy the sunshine. And I was so crook I didn’t care, I just lay down and went back to sleep again, woke up and they were gone. So I tidied myself up a bit and I picked up my rifle and along I went, and finally I came to this place right in the middle of the swamp where my section was, there was only about eight guys. The job was to know if the Japanese started coming down that track to attack the town.

The thing was in New Guinea to get round behind them, get round their rear, and when they know that you’re behind their rear then they’ll withdraw. So it’s a matter of push, push, push all the time. But they got a big shock in New Guinea, a big shock. It was the worst territory they’d ever fought in. A standard tactic of ours, because we were pushing them back, was to send out the patrols. There’d be a forward scout and he would determine how far you could go on, on his intuition, on his smell, on his sight and sound, and then we’d stop at that point, but we knew that they were there and we would dig in into position and then of course they would make an attack on our position. And when that was over and invariably we had been quite successful, we would then go out amongst the dead, the dead and the wounded. And on one occasion I went out on my own to a lot of them, and these were Japanese marines, and the officers had white scarves and white gloves in the middle of the bloody jungle. I mean, they’re supposed to be their elite, their elite force, but they didn’t give us any more trouble than the army guys did. 

And once you’d done that and the battle was over then you had to go out and contact them again, and then the whole thing started over again. It was just a series of travelling along the tracks, you know, till we made contact with the enemy. There’d be a battle and then after that they’d retreat. They would retreat further up the track, we’d follow them up the bloody track until they dug in again and then so on right through the campaign. 

The strain of doing the patrols especially if you were the point patrol, if you were the forward scout. And I saw a friend of mine just before he was killed. I said, ‘Where you going?’ He said, ‘Oh, I'm going on the forward scout,’ he said, ‘I'm going to do some scouting.’ And I said, ‘Well you be careful down there, there's a lot of them down there.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I'll be alright.’ Anyway, he was dead 20 minutes later, and he hadn't gone very far out of our position before he got killed. So there was that sort of strain and also night time when you're getting people throwing hand grenades and mortaring at night time.

Laurence Rees: Keith Ross says that he hadn’t been taught to hate the Japanese soldiers before he arrived in New Guinea. But this soon became his predominate feeling for them.

Words of Keith Ross: They were cannibals. One of the officers - he was a very nice bloke, a very efficient guy - was shot and left on the track somewhere and they found his body later, went out and looked for his body and then his rump had been cut off. Nobody told me what a lot of bastards they were. Nobody. You found that out for yourself. And we had no respect for them at all because we did not consider them as being good soldiers, we considered them, you see, as animals. And that’s the way we regarded them.