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The Forgotten Diggers of Wau. New Guinea in World War 2

Captain Sherlock with a section of the newly arrived 10 platoon and some commandos, immediately
led a bayonet charge and recaptured 9 platoon’s overrun position.

By 1525 the attack on Wandumi was still going on and at 1535 Brigadier Moten sent a signal to head quarters in Port Moresby. “Enemy attacking in force Wandumi, about 4 Hrs from Wau. Our company isolated this area, sending company from Wau to Wandumi to support. No reserve force left in Wau. You must expedite arrival of troops this area.”

1540hrs Sherlock reported “little amo and out of mortar bombs, only 40 men left.”
1700hrs “game was on again, more people coming over the hill, Japs now engaging our position with grenades and mortars.”

Around 1800hrs Capt Sherlock’s last message was received “Don’t think it will be long now. Close up to flank and front, about 50 yards in front. Have contacted Duffy.”

Major Duffy’s 2/5th Battalion was the reinforcement company that Brigadier Moten had sent from Wau, they went straight into action and the surviving group withdrew through them. The next day saw the group fragment in all directions totally outnumbered and the Japanese bypassing them on the way to Wau.

Allan Smith remembers Captain Sherlock with several others in his final stand. Alan was on a log bridge crossing the river and two Japanese machine guns opened up; he fell into the river but was saved. Sherlock and the others now over the Bulolo River charged the two Japanese machine guns. Sherlock killed one but he and one other soldier were killed and several others were wounded by the second machine gun.

Lt Colonel Jim Wood’s commanding officer of the 2/6th battalion’s after action report stated, “A serious situation, which would have probably led to the loss of Wau and the valley was averted by the splendid stand of A Company under Captain W.H. Sherlock (killed). This stand enabled reinforcements from Port Moresby to be landed in Wau. By the 30th the bulk of the Brigade and supporting Artillery had landed and were in action with the Japanese a few hundred meters away.

The battle for Wau raged on until mid February and approximately 1,500 Japanese and more than 100 Australians gave up their lives.

A medical report on the commandos at the end of the tour. Courtesy David Buckwalter. AWM 2nd 5th AIC 035
A medical report on the commandos at the end of the tour. Courtesy David Buckwalter. AWM 2nd 5th AIC 035

As a result of the defeat of the Japanese at Wau, Australian forces were able to fly in many more troops and establish a solid base in Wau. Over the next eight months Australian forces pushed the Japanese out of the hills between Wau and the coast and in September after amphibious landings by the 9th Australian Division and a brigade of US soldiers the Japanese abandoned the mainland base in New Guinea at Lae.

Without Captain Sherlock’s few this would not have happened and the war in New Guinea would have extended by perhaps another year.

David Buckwalter’s military history research tips 
I believe military research has an extra degree of difficulty, as a researcher who has not seen active military service suffers a big handicap. He or she will not understand the terminology, tactics and military service culture. As an veteran from the Vietnam War, most of the military jargon was drummed into me, which you never forget.

During WWII most unit names were prefixed by the word “second” to denote Second World War rather than first. First world war units were disbanded after the conflict and re-raised 20-odd years later. An infantry unit is always referred to as a battalion so the fifth infantry unit was known as the 2/5th Bn, Bn being short for battalion. The commando units were modelled on the British system and the training differed from the infantry in that they were tasked to hit and run, get information or destroy infrastructure. The infantry was trained to take and hold territory. The British called the commandos independent companies as they operated independently from the brigade or division. Thus, the Fifth Independent Company was the 2/5th AIC, Australian Independent Company.

In researching this campaign I have had the benefit of the research department of the Australian War Memorial (AWM). I also sourced secondhand books on the internet on specific military units. Searching out veterans of the campaign I am researching is one of the best sources of information, but not easy. I also have travelled to the area of conflict three times so far.

This puts a picture to the words, and without this the story becomes very difficult to describe. And last but by no means least, an unlimited amount of time and obsessiveness is a necessity for any historian.

The difficult terrain of the Wau-Mubo, June 1943. Courtesy Australian War Memorial. AWM ID 015154
The difficult terrain of the Wau-Mubo, June 1943. Courtesy Australian War Memorial. AWM ID 015154
Wau Valley's low cloud layers made flying incredibly difficult. Courtesy David Buckwalter.
Wau Valley’s low cloud layers made flying incredibly difficult. Courtesy David Buckwalter.

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