Monolith A wonder on life's journey

13Oct/19Off

Escape from PNG: The Bulldog Track

Longer, higher, steeper, wetter, colder and rougher than Kokoda

The Bulldog Track

How a bunch of fugitive old miners and tradesmen discovered a vital supply route and survived one of WWII great escapes.
Roderick Eime learns about The Bulldog Track from the book by actor, Peter Phelps.

The legend of the Kokoda Track has long since entered the annals of Australian folklore. The decisive and protracted battle marked a turning point in the war against the invading Japanese but, despite its unarguable importance, the Kokoda Campaign runs the danger of overshadowing many other significant battles and exploits.

The Battle of Milne Bay, the Battle of the Coral Sea, the bombing of Darwin and the Australian triumphs in Borneo and Bougainville are just a few instances where our confrontations with the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and navy (IJN) had important influences on the final outcome of World War II in the Pacific.

Ships burning after the bombing of Darwin. February 19, 1942

So too, the many exploits of regular civilians and minor players in this massive conflict went overlooked, such as our earlier feature on the small ships, drawn from pleasure craft and fishing boats, that brought crucial supplies to our forces in the earlier stages of the war and the toll on the old men and boys who served on these tiny vessels.

Australian film and television actor, Peter Phelps, has authored one such book that tells the tale of his grandfather, Tom, who was too old to enlist but was still caught up in the cut-and-thrust of the New Guinea battles when he and 200 fellow civilian employees of the Bulolo Gold Dredging Company, with their escape routes blocked and their aircraft destroyed, had to flee from the brutal onslaught of the Japanese invaders as best they could.

Bulldog Bridge

The men hurriedly abandoned their mining site at Edie Creek (about 50kms SW of Lae) at 11 p.m. on the 4th of March 1942, destroyed everything they could and made their way south, over the treacherous Owen Stanley Ranges on a rough path that became known as The Bulldog Track, later described by the author, spy and newspaper journalist, Peter Ryan, as “longer, higher, steeper, wetter, colder and rougher than Kokoda.”

"They were civilians; gold miners, carpenters and all sorts of trades. So there was nothing documented about these guys," Peter Phelps explains. "It was such a time of war that a couple of hundred miners' story would just not be considered because it wasn't part of the war effort. But they were as brave as any soldier."

Tom and Una

Phelps delves into his family history and recalls the tales of his father and grandfather and the effect their experiences had on forming the strong fibre of the Phelps family who hailed from the Sydney suburb of Punchbowl. Researching the book was not easy either as very few records of their escape existed. One unlikely source came in the form of his grandfather's hat which Tom had kept with him throughout the ordeal.

Most of what information that was recorded was contained on his grandfather's battered pith helmet, along with a rudimentary map he'd scrawled on baking paper, recording dates and locations including where his dead companions were buried. That and a letter he wrote to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald in 1944, comprise the entire firsthand history of the Bulldog Track.

Tom Phelps passed this information on to the authorities when he finally reached Port Moresby and a vital supply road was built along the path he had surveyed. The road took eight months to complete and was hailed, at the time as one of the greatest feats of military engineering.

The Chief Engineer, W. J. Reinhold, later wrote "Every foot of progress made on this road exacted the ultimate in courage, endurance, skill and toil. Its construction took a toll from surveyor, engineer, labourer and native carrier alike."

During one five-month period of construction, more than two-thirds of the crew contracted malaria and it wasn’t until September 1943 that the first vehicles were able to make a clumsy passage along this perilous route.

Phelps Snr was also lavish in his praise for the native ‘bois’ who had guided them along the way, doubtlessly a vital part of their success and survival.

“This book is not a work of fiction,” writes Peter Phelps, “it is a tribute to the resilience and strength that saw my grandfather survive, and his family hold together while he was gone. It is a tribute to all those who survived the Bulldog Track.”

Doing the Bulldog Track

If you thought Kokoda was a pushover, then you could raise the bar with a trek along the Bulldog. While no commercial operator currently offers guided tours along the track, there is numerous notes and guides available to anyone who wanted to mount their own, self-guided expedition.

Situated some 200 km west of Port Moresby, the track crosses the Owen Stanley Range peaking at about 2600m altitude. It connects Wau in the Bulolo Valley with the Lakekamu River on the south side and can be done in either direction. The track will take you about a week to walk, depending on your level of fitness, plus about two days for the transport from Port Moresby to Lakekamu River.

You can find more detailed trekking notes at: www.real-adventure.info

Tom's letter
Tom's letter to the editor, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 29, 1944:
Sir—
The article by Edward Axford (SMH, 20/5/’44), on the building of the Bulldog Road, made known the part played by the men who blazed the trail from Wau and Edie Creek to the Papuan coast by way of Bulldog and the Lakekamu River. Being one of the original party who left Edie Creek at 11 p.m. on March 4, 1942, I can fully substantiate all he says in regard to the hardships endured. I was working on the Bulolo goldfields when the Japanese attacked New Guinea by air on January 21. They destroyed our company’s three planes on the ground at Bulolo, making our evacuation by air impossible. Two days later we proceeded by road to Wau in the hope of being evacuated by air. Again our hopes were dashed by being bombed twice in a week. Now hopelessly cut off from Port Moresby and our own people, we moved up the mountain to Edie Creek. It was from this place that we hatched our plans to go overland by this unknown trail in the hope of reaching the coast of Papua. So we set out a few nights later with very little food and a few of the natives, to whom most of us owe our lives. I should also like to express my gratitude to Dr Giblin, an elderly man, who did everything possible, under terrible conditions, for the sick and injured. We eventually reached the coast very much the worse for wear, I having lost 4st on the journey. We then walked 60 miles down the beach to Yule Island, and later by schooner to Port Moresby, where we gave all the necessary information to the authorities which probably prompted them to build the road. The task they performed can only be appreciated by those who travelled the trail through this country.
THOMAS PHELPS
Punchbowl
6May/19Off

Sattelberg: A VC for Australia’s toughest soldier


Thomas Currie "Diver" Derrick, VC, DCM

One of Australia’s true war heroes was a poet and butterfly collector.

The annals of Australian military history are chock full of tales of heroism and derring-do and every so often a new hero arises from these vast volumes. Words: Roderick Eime

Thomas Currie ‘Diver’ Derrick was one such soldier who rose to ‘rock star’ status among the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in WWII but has since faded from our memories.

26Jun/17Off

Australian migration of the Goldrush era (1851-60)


Europe in the mid 19th century was shambles. If it wasn’t famine and disease, it was unemployment and insurrection sweeping across France, Germany, Italy and even parts of Britain.

America too was effected, the throngs of immigrant refugees upsetting the delicate political balance in the lead-up to the catastrophic civil war that would forever divide the nation.

Filed under: History Continue reading
19Jan/17Off

Did an Australian adventurer and spy forewarn of the attack on Pearl Harbor?


Battleship USS West Virginia sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In background is the battleship USS Tennessee.

by Roderick Eime

The story begins aboard the 1929 round-the-world flight of the German airship, LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin.

A truly international contingent of media and privileged guests are enjoying the lavish facilities of Germany’s luxury airship as they complete their ground-breaking three week journey around the planet.

16Jul/16Off

Amelia Earhart Mystery: the theory that just won’t go away


Earhart and her Lockheed Electra

The Amelia Earhart mystery has gripped the imagination for almost 80 years and despite numerous searches and millions of dollars, no conclusive evidence has yet been found.

Many theories have been put forward over the years and just as many discounted, but one just keeps coming back. The idea that Earhart was forced down and captured by the Japanese in the Marshall Islands is as unpalatable as it is incredulous. But one researcher, Mike Campbell, makes a compelling case for this proposition.

8Nov/15Off

Historic aircraft wreck found. Is this the Wildcat of US ace, James E Swett?


On my last trip to the Solomon Islands in October, I was fortunate to make my first dive on some of the historic aircraft wrecks that litter the harbour near Tulagi in the Florida Islands.

I was introduced to Bob Norton, a Kiwi ex-serviceman and the new proprietor of the Raiders Hotel in Tulagi, a quaint and peaceful waterfront hotel in the little former British pre-war colonial capital in the Florida Islands, across Iron Bottom Sound from Honiara.

20Sep/15Off

Guadalcanal War Mystery Solved. Pilot’s remains recovered.


P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning of the type flown by Maj. Peyton Mathis

The Solomons continue to throw up mysteries from the turbulent years of WWII.

One mystery solved recently has been with the rediscovery of a P-38 Lightning fighter that crashed on 5 June 1944 while on approach to what was then known as ‘Fighter 2’ (Kukum Field). This airstrip is now the golf course near historic Henderson Field, the main airport from which Solomon Airlines operates.

Filed under: History Continue reading
21Jul/15Off

The True Story behind JFK’s PT-109


Former U.S. President and then U.S. Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy is seen aboard the Patrol Torpedo boat PT-109 boat during World War II in the Pacific theatre, in this handout photograph taken on March 4, 1942. (REUTERS/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Handout)

David Ellis and Roderick Eime

Only the more adventurous travellers make it to remote Gizo in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. It's a magical place with some of the world's best fishing as well as wreck and reef diving.

From Gizo you can venture a further 10 kilometres to a minuscule dot shown on most charts as either Kasolo Atoll or Plum Pudding Island. This sandy speck is better known in popular mythology as Kennedy Island – the place where a then 26 year old US Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, commander of the motor torpedo boat PT109 and future President of the United States, together with ten of his crew, waded ashore in pitch-blackness after their boat was rammed and sunk by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri on the night of 2 August 1943.

24Mar/15Off

Lifting the Shame of Savo Island

Heroes of the Solomons: Captain Frank Getting RAN


One of Australia’s most experienced and capable naval commanders was struck down in his prime during one of the most ferocious naval engagements of WWII. Was he later a cruel victim of a historical cover-up? Roderick Eime investigates.

The US involvement in the many battles of the Solomon Islands campaign are well documented through movies, documentaries and books. Yet, the substantial participation of Australian naval forces in that campaign is far less acknowledged.

When the Allied Forces began their landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 7 August 1942, they were supported by a massive combined naval force which included the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warships Canberra, Hobart and Australia.

HMAS Canberra proudly in Sydney Harbour pre-war

HMAS Canberra was a British-built County class heavy cruiser of the Kent sub-class commissioned in 1928. At 10,000 tons and 180m in length, she was slightly larger than the more famous HMAS Sydney which had already been lost during her mutually destructive engagement with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran on 19 November 1941. Sydney’s sister ship, the light cruiser, HMAS Perth was lost in the Battle of Sunda Strait in March 1942.