Worse than infantry [15 November 1945]

[Editor: A medical orderly tells of his experiences in New Guinea during World War Two. Published in The Western Mail, 15 November 1945.]

You can always find some blighter worse off than yourself

Worse than infantry

by A.M. Beck

You hear that you’re to “go in” again with an infantry company. You’re a medical orderly, and it will be your job to assist with the care of the sick and wounded. You travel as far as vehicles can take you and bivouac overnight on the beach. You’re dragged out of bed before dawn, for your breakfast of bully beef stew; then you grope about in the dark for your gear.

You collect your load of medical equipment. No vehicle can go inland to the jungle, so everything has to be carried. The “boong train” will take a lot, but you’ve got to lump a good share, too. In addition to your personal gear, you sling a couple of haversacks containing first-aid materials over your shoulder; you pick up a dixie with a primus stove in it; perhaps two of you will carry a stretcher between you; or a pole to which are attached half-a-dozen water tins. You are not armed — you rely on the infanteers for protection — though some of your mates have “scrounged” rifles and ammunition.

You start off in file to join the infantry, but at the last moment a sergeant has found some more gear. You’re given another haversack or a large medical water-bottle filled (drinkable water may be scarce in there). You groan under the load; the straps of the pack cut into your shoulders.

“Worse than the blooming infantry,” you complain.

A new outlook

But then you join the fighting troops and you change your mind. There’s the “PBI” with their 0.303’s and boxes of “ammo,” besides a bigger load than you’ve got. There are some with those cumbersome Bren guns. There are four struggling with the base plate of a mortar that weighs 1251b and when the track gets narrower still, they have to cut it down to a two-man carry. There are are “sigs” with their bulky reels of wire.

“You can always find some blighter worse off than yourself,” you murmur apologetically.

You intermingle with the infanteers. They used to chaff you, good naturedly, back on the mainland about being “non-combatant,” but they don’t now. Perhaps they think they’ll need your help soon.

The long file commences its trek into the jungle. You wallow in mud above your ankles; you stumble over logs, wade through water, and balance precariously on a fallen tree that acts as a bridge. You sweat till your trousers and shirt are saturated. The narrow track seems to wind interminably through the foliage. You flop down when a halt is called and pull the chafing packs from your shoulders. You curse when it’s time to get up again.

The time drags on. Eventually you hear that there’s only a hundred yards to go, and you breathe a sigh of relief. You get to your area, dump the gear, and flop down. When you’ve got your breath you open a tin of bully for your dinner. Somebody’s made a “brew” of tea and your eyes glisten. There’s nothing to equal a mug of tea after such a trip.

But now you’ve got to work. You clear away bushes and vines; cut down trees to act as forks and ridge poles; erect tents for treatment centre, operating theatre and nursing ward. It’s raining heavily now — that steady, incessant rain so typical of New Guinea — and you become saturated. But you’ve got to work on, erecting tables and beds from bush materials, preparing operating gear and transfusion apparatus, unpacking the boxes containing drugs, bandages and instruments.

There’s a kitchen to set up, a store tent, incinerator and all other necessary equipment. You’ve also got to erect a bed and shelter for yourself. You can’t sleep on the ground because the mites are likely to infect you with typhus. By dark you’re nearly finished, and following another meal of bully, you go to bed. After such a day you sleep soundly.

Up betimes

In the morning you’re up early and after breakfast there’s more work to do. Then you watch the infanteers march out with their packs, and guns and grenades. Soon they’ll be close to the Japs – the enemy has been sighted only a few hundred yards up. You’ve got respect for these men. Theirs is the worst job in the world, but they do it magnificently. They lie in mud behind 0.303’s or Tommy-guns for days at a time. They advance on the enemy when he’s only a few yards away, but they can’t see him through that jungle. At night time they peer into the darkness watching for the form of a Japanese intruder. Their nerves become racked, but they carry on.

The day wears on and your work lessens. You think you’re getting it easy now. Then you hear that casualties are on the way. Quickly the theatre staff prepares for operations and the nursing orderlies arrange beds. You see the first team of “boongs” come in with a bush stretcher carrying a wounded man. You thank God for the “fuzzy wuzzies” as you watch them plod bare-footed through the mud, their black bodies glistening with sweat, carrying their burden with splendid skill and gentleness.

Now there are more coming maybe five or six casualties. These men marched out with you yesterday, and now you see them on those bush stretchers, helpless. One has a blood-stained bandage round his head, another a large dressing on the shoulder, and his shirt is saturated with blood; another has numerous smaller wounds caused by fragments of a grenade.

You and your mates commence to “prep.” the wounds. Others stand by the transfusion apparatus, and someone readily donates a pint of blood.

The wounded

You carry the first casualty into the theatre. He is given an anaesthetic, and the surgeon takes over, cutting away damaged tissue and muscles, removing the missile, setting broken bones. You work into the night. One after another is operated upon and carried back to the ward. Then you watch them as they “come out” of the anaesthetic. Some vomit; some kick and struggle; some act as though they’re drunk. They can’t make out what’s happened to them; but gradually they become rational.

You want to help them because you admire their spirit so much. You prop them with pillows to make them comfortable; give morphia to ease the pain.

They make light of their suffering; they’re grateful for everything you do, and sometimes, their only concern is that they may be causing you too much trouble. Their thoughts, too, are for their mates still back there fighting the Japs.

Patients’ fortitude

Few days pass, and gradually the patients gain strength. You could tell a dozen stories of their fortitude and sense of humour in spite of all they’ve been through. Then they’re evacuated. You watch the boongs carry them away and you talk among yourselves about what splendid fellows they are. The “PBI”. They’re the Cinderella of all the services . . . Meanwhile more coming in.

After several days the fighting is further on, and you’ve got to move, too. Time is precious when men are wounded. You pull everything down and pack the gear, and, again you march off with your load.

So it goes on. You’re just a medical orderly, an insignificant member of the huge military organisation. You’re always at the tail end of a ceremonial march on parade. You’re chaffed about being “non-combatant;” but you don’t care, for you’re glad to minister to these splendid, rough, swearing Australians, whose bodies have stood between the Japanese bullets and your own loved ones at home.

The Western Mail (Perth, WA), Thursday 15 November 1945, p. 61

Editor’s notes:
0.303’s = the .303 rifle was the standard infantryman’s weapon in the Australian army

boongs = a slang name for the natives of Papua New Guinea

boong train = a line of native Papua New Guinean porters, who were hired to carry equipment in the jungle for the army

dixie = an oval-shaped metal cooking pot with lid and carrying-handle for cooking; the lid could be used for baking and the pot was used to brew tea, heat porridge, cook stew or rice, etc. (origin of term, possibly from Hindustani “degchi”, a small pot)

fuzzy wuzzies = a slang name for the natives of Papua New Guinea

infanteers = infantry

PBI = Poor Bloody Infantry

[Editor: Corrected “your glad” to “you’re glad”; added full stops to end of “The “PBI”” and “your mind”.]

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