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August 11, 2020

Hidden Treasures – Ray Cunningham

When Japan entered the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Australia was caught off guard. With its fighting forces on the other side of the world, a hasty scramble ensued to gather enough men to defend New Guinea and halt Japan’s offense in the Pacific. Ray Cunningham, then just 18, shares his story…


I was born on the 21st September 1923 and was 18 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, so I was called up to join the Citizens’ Militia Forces (conscription was effectively introduced, when all men aged 18–35 and single men aged 35–45 were required to join the Citizens Military Forces). I was put into the 2/14th Field Company Engineers and trained as a soldier, then given additional training in the engineering unit. We sailed for Papua New Guinea in June 1942 and headed into the jungle on the Kokoda Track. As engineers our job was to build bridges across streams and steps where it was too steep to climb the slippery hills. With a lot of men coming and going it became awfully muddy and difficult. Sometimes we laid down corduroy so they could climb up the steep sides. It was hard work and we didn’t have any machines, just our hands and a few shovels and axes.



I didn’t know where we were half the time. In the end the greatest help we had to beat the Japanese was the terrain. It broke them up as well as it broke us up. So difficult … as well as the insects and diseases you run into.

We were often on our own. We had an experience one night: we were a section of 12 men and we camped on a high rise, which is not a wise thing to be camped on, but we had to stop for the night and we only had one automatic weapon to defend ourselves with. We were awfully touchy, we’d take turns keeping watch and nudge one another for their turn. We weren’t very close to the action but we’d hear the shooting, we’d hear the ping ping of someone shooting not very far away.

In my unit, we admired the blokes that were bushmen and had experience. My mate Maurie was from Cessnock. One evening Maurie and Bluey had to go down to get some water before nightfall. Off they went, Maurie from the bush and Bluey – a real towny from Surry Hills – and they didn’t come back. We were alert all night long and dead silent. Eventually they turned up in the morning, with Bluey all talk talk talk, but it was all praise for Maurie. They’d reached the river, filled their cans with water, and then started to argue about which was the way back. They were lost, and it was Maurie who’d insisted they stay put until light. Maurie had kept calm, but Bluey had panicked – he was a panicky sort of fellow! But he was so grateful to Maurie, if it wasn’t for him they wouldn’t have made it back alive. We sure did celebrate when they turned up in the morning, we were so relieved.

One of the biggest impressions I got from that time was from the Papuans. I got to appreciate them; many of them were conscripted from the coastal villages and sent up into the mountains, they were just as green as we were from Australia. It was hard for them to come up into the mountains because they were coastal boys. Toward the end of my time in Papua I was very friendly with some of them and kept in touch with one man in particular, Keke Mareva, who spoke good English.

Once we were back in Port Moresby we were retrained and equipped with bulldozers, graders and the like and got involved with the oil installations and port construction. We put a jetty right out into the centre of the harbour so ships could get in. We built oil tank sites and facilities for Port Moresby itself.

We were brought by ship back to Australia in 1943. I’ll never forget sailing through the heads into Sydney Harbour on the Kanimbla. We were so excited to be coming home, but we were all shivering cold because we were used to the tropics. They sent us to Wagga with just shirts, no jumpers, makes me cold just to think about it!

We were sent up to Queensland, re-equipped and put back into the Pacific, this time to Morotai as a staging location for the final push into Borneo. There were two campaigns on the western side, Balikpapan and Tarakan, and we were going in on the east at Labuan. I had a bulldozer and I was seconded to the artillery. They wanted a bulldozer at the bow to make sure the landing craft was high and dry and to clear a landing space for the artillery. I had a good winch, but we had a good dry landing. I cleared the obstacles the Japanese had put there and what had been blown away by our artillery before we landed. Then I got to work clearing the rubble from the destroyed town and preparing a spot for our prefabricated fuel tanks, so a fuel source could be established. There was a lot of work to do.

We were in Labuan when the atom bombs were dropped. I have a vivid memory of that week. The bombs were dropped and there was heavy apprehension, would they surrender? When? How? What would happen with us and all the Japanese where we were? The rumour was that it would happen on the 14th and all the Navy ships had fireworks ready to celebrate. That night there was a terrific storm on Labuan, it drenched everything and everyone, including the fireworks. We were thinking a lot about God and the atom bomb, wondering if this was going to be the end of the world. There were so many rumours going around. I’d been doing a lot of praying and trusting, but I didn’t know what to believe, none of us knew what to think.

On the 15th we woke up to the news that there was no surrender yet, the fighting continued. But later that day we heard that it was, finally, all over. We had to secure enclosures to bring the Japanese in. We had to round them up and get them to surrender their weapons, their guns and swords, quickly. That was a tense period. They were not predisposed to surrender and go home. At night the locals would come and throw stones at them. We learnt a little about the poor fellows too. There were 5,000 Japanese that had to be rounded up and brought up to Labuan. Mainly, they were hungry. They’d been short of rations; everyone was short of food in that last year of Japanese occupation.


Ray at home 75 years after the end of WWII

I was in Labuan until December 1945. One night an officer came up to me and said ‘We’ve got a spare seat on a Catalina going back to Australia and we’ve decided to put you on it’, so the next morning I was off home, just like that. We flew across Borneo to Balikpapan, then to Darwin, then to Cairns and the eventually we landed in Rose Bay.  Flying over Borneo slowly, at low altitude over the mountains, was tremendous. It left a huge impression on me, partly because I thought I would never be back. Little did I know, I’d later spend 40 years living in Borneo, but that’s another story….


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