“We had some hellish fights around Isurava. Everybody thought they might die there, and a lot of guys did. It’s a funny feeling – ‘Am I gunna die? Am I gunna die? Am I gunna die?’ You forgot about that once the fighting got going... Then it was bullets, bullets, bullets.”
It was at the battle of Isurava on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea that Jim Stillman remembers one of the most terrifying experiences of his life. “I was in a trench one night with a good bloke, Headley Norman. The sun had just set and it was a bit hard to see. Next thing I knew, a Jap jumped into the trench beside me.”
Jim, who describes himself as a ‘left-hand batsman, left-foot kicker and right-hand bowler’, collared the guy.
“I had my left arm wrapped around his neck and had him by the shirt front when another Jap jumped in the other side! I swung my other arm around his neck and grabbed his rifle.” All out of spare arms, Jim didn’t dare let go. Headley shot the invaders, saving Jim’s life. “It was either they die, or I die,” he says with a faraway look in his eye. It came down to the only equation that equals survival in war.
Only a few months later, Headley Norman, just 18, was shot and killed by a sniper at Gona on the northern beaches of PNG. “He was a great bloke, Headley,” says Jim. Years later, Jim made a point of contacting Headley’s family so he could describe the heroic acts of his good friend.
Some of Jim’s most powerful memories are of the sounds he heard while jungle fighting; where your capacity to hear an enemy often outweighs your ability to see one through the impenetrable foliage or the darkness of night. The rustle-rustle-rustle of Japanese cutting through the scrub at night, the sounds from artillery fire as it left the distant hills and, shortly after, the shock of an explosion nearby. This is what constitutes the night terrors of those who fight wars.
“The fighting was all the time, not just during the day. You were never in one spot long enough to get a good rest. They also had a couple of 90ml mountain guns. One of their mortars was on a ridge and we hated it. I went out on a couple of patrols to try to find and destroy it, but they’d fire a few shells then move them and we never could find them.” Jim recalls how a Japanese shell landed near the trench of two boys from the 39th. The shell did no visible damage to their bodies but they were dead, completely drained of colour.
The desperate situation soon became even more ominous. Jim remembers his commanding officer Colonel Ralph Honner telling them one morning that the Japs had broken through the line. “We were running short of ammo, so we fixed bayonets and cleaned them out. We lost a few good men – but they lost more. It was shocking.”
After constant bombardment and the arrival of enemy reinforcements, it looked as if the Japanese would finally completely encircle the 39th Battalion and finish them off. Almost miraculously out of the jungle marched the long-anticipated AIF 2/14th to reinforce them. Jim and his battalion were finally relieved of duty.
But would they take their well-earned rest? No. They decided not to leave the 2/14th to face slim odds alone – staying on to fight with their brothers of the AIF at Isurava.
By the end of August there was no holding the enemy back. Once again, the Australian troops were forced to fall back in a fighting withdrawal to Eora Creek, Templeton’s Crossing, and finally Efogi by September 5.
“We would ambush the Japanese as they came along the track, then send some more back to set up another ambush. Each time we ambushed them, it slowed them down considerably…. We had several groups doubling back through each other and keeping the Japs busy while we evacuated the wounded. I was on rearguard as one of the strongest and fittest. We were about a day behind the Aussies who were heading back and they never caught up to us.”
Exhausted, Jim and his comrades were finally sent back down the track to Koitaki to rest. Those of the 39th who had survived the six long weeks in battle now resembled scarecrows.
“It had been a can of bully beef and some of the old army biscuits and that’s all we had every day for weeks. After a while they used to send dozens of natives up the track with food, but we got very thin with little food and then there was the malaria, dengue fever, dysentery… Lucky I escaped Scrub Typhus. A lot of boys died from Scrub Typhus.” There were not enough men from the original 39th left to re-form the battalion, but their spirits were unbroken.