Black Cat Track - Remembrance
Over the years I have had the pleasure of accompanying many relatives of Veterans that served in the territories of Papua
and New Guinea, during the Second World War, on their pilgrimages to PNG. One such trip, and one of the more memorable, was that of the McRae’s.
Lex McRae and Cat Muir are the son and granddaughter of Corporal Keith ‘Blue’ McRae. Blue McRae was a commando who served with the 2/3 Independent Company during the Second World War.
In 2013, Lex and Cat made the pilgrimage to walk the Black Cat Track and visit the surrounding area. They paid tribute not only to their father/grandfather who fought and was wounded in the Wau-Salamaua campaign of 1943, but also to pay their respects to their uncle, Tom McRae who was killed on 7 April 1945, while serving with the 2/7 Infantry Battalion and is laid to rest in the Lae Military Cemetery. This is the story of ‘Blue’ McRae and his family’s pilgrimage seventy years after the battle.
Corporal Keith ‘Blue’ McRae was a distinctive kind of infantry solider, he was a Commando. Soldiers that were expected to perform at a higher level than that of other soldiers. The word Commando was first used in the Boer War, where Boers fighting against the British Empire forces, developed small independent troops, known as Commandos that would live off the land and harass their enemy by surprise before disappearing back in to the Veldt. Commandos would prove to be highly successful especially against a superior enemy force.
Before becoming a commando, Blue was working in the town of Camperdown, south western Victoria. His job as a herd tester meant that he was in what was classified as ‘Protected Industry’. This meant that he was ineligible to join the Second AIF as his vocation was considered vital to the home front. However Blue would not let a little thing like that stop him from serving his country.
He gave up herd testing and headed for the big smoke; Melbourne, where he managed to enlisted in the 2nd AIF. First training at Royal Park with the 6th Infantry Army Training, then on to Darley were he ended up volunteering to join an Independent Company, the Commandos.
“Six men including myself from Country areas for that group volunteered to go to an isolated and independent training camp at Foster on Wilsons Promontory for three months where we were specially trained in all aspects of military warfare.”
An Independent Company is comprised of around 320 Commandos and during the Second World War, men like Blue carried out their intimal Commando training at No. 7 Infantry Training Centre, at Tidal River, Wilsons Promontory, Victoria. This location was selected due to the nature of the terrain along with its remote location. The name of the training centre purposely left out the words independent, commando or special, thus hiding the true nature of the type of training that was going on.
“We were divided into sections of 22 men and each section was divided into two sub sections. I was held in the third company formed".
Blue’s 2/3 Independent Company was originally going to deploy to Timor as reinforcements to the 2/2 Independent Company, however Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese on December 7 1941, thus bringing the United States into the war. Instead Blue and the 2/3 were deployed to the French territory of New Caledonia, an island in the southwest Pacific that the Japanese had not invaded.
There Blue and the other members of his unit, kept a close eye on the movements of the Japanese war machine. They were also tasked with preventing the island, which at that time was the biggest nickel mine in the world, falling into enemy hands.
Blue and his unit would spend 12 months of the war, living off local produce supplemented by army rations. After being relieved by US Forces the Australians returned home.
“We came home to Australia for three weeks leave before heading to New Guinea”
It was now ANZAC Day 1943 and Blue and the 2/3 Independent Company had successfully completed two raids against the Japanese in the vicinity of Komiatum Track. Three days later, Lieutenant (LT) Crawford was tasked with taking a patrol out and again raids the Komiatum Track; this was a rouse to draw the Japanese away from Bobdubi Ridge.
LT Crawford had four men with him, Sargent (SGT) Carr, Corporal (CPL) Keith ‘Blue’ McRae and Privates (PTE) F. Taylor and J. Taylor. When the patrol approached the intersection of Stephens Track they discovered the enemy. Lt Crawford moved closer to gain a better understanding of the enemy’s strength. However the Japanese had spotted the Australia patrol and were lying in wait ready to ambush them.
As PTE F. Taylor moved forward he was heard to yell out “BOOBBY TRAP” before he dived over the ridge. The enemy let loose with a hail of bullets from their machine gun. PTE J. Taylor was killed and SGT Carr only narrowly managed to escape. Unfortunately for Blue he copped a bullet in his leg and rolled down the side of the steep track. LT Crawford was close behind and found that Blue’s leg had been shattered.
After doing all that he could do under the circumstances, LT Crawford had no choice but to leave Blue with his Tommy Gun and some rations, before heading off to get help. Another group of commandos heard the shots in the distance and CPL Lamb went off in aid of Crawford and his men, taking medical orderly Roly Good with him. Making their way through the thick jungle, four of the enemy were observed searching the bodies of PTE J.Taylor.
Immediately CPL Lamb gave a burst form his Thompson Sub-Machine Gun, killing the enemy outright. There was no sign of the other men including Blue. Lamb withdrew his party before more of the enemy arrived.
The sound of Lamb’s action was heard in the distance by LT Crawford but he was unable to link back up with Lamb and the others. Crawford had no choice but try and go back and tell Blue what had happened and inform him that he would now have to go further, all the way back to the original rendezvous point in order to get help.
By now Blue would have been in considerable discomfort and the conditions of the jungle only added to his situation. Moving silently through the difficult, narrow and winding jungle track, the now unarmed LT Crawford made his way to Blue’s position. The sounds of the rain hitting off the canopy above and the calls of the native birds passing overhead was enough to have anyone feel on edge. Suddenly the familiar jungle sounds were broken by the crack of machine gun and rifle fire including the distinct sound of the Thompson.
When the guns fell silent, LT Crawford assumed that the enemy had killed Blue, as he was unarmed he had no option but to turn around and make for the rendezvous location. The remainder of the original patrol had been waiting further back along the track in order to see if any survivors had made it out. The patrol were pleased to see LT Crawford who immediately informed them about Blue, who Crawford had believed to have been killed.
Together these men then returned to Wells Observation Post (O.P), their original starting point. When the Commanding Officer (CO), Major George Warfe heard of the action, he could not be completely certain that Blue had been killed, so he ordered a search party to go and look for him. LT Crawford formed a patrol and returned to the site of the ambush. As Crawford’s patrol cautiously moved through the jungle, they heard a voice sing out,
“Don’t take life so seriously, there are no Japs for miles”, the voice was Blue.
He had been crawling backwards on the palms of his hands and had made and improvised splint of lawyer vine and sticks. Although looking very much the worse for wear, with his trousers ripped and his wounded leg fly blown, Blue could still raise a smile from his fellow commandos.
The rest of the 2/3 Independent Company came to learn of Blue’s incredible test of endurance in the jungle. Without food and ammunition and wounded with his badly shattered up leg, Blue had managed to apply first aid and crawl backwards through the dense jungle. Often he would have to crawl over logs and even dig under obstructions across the track. Blue hydrated himself by squeezing the moisture out of moss.
“For 80 hours of sheer hell he crawled on his hands and backside a foot at a time”
There were no forms of modern communication, no radio, no satellite phone; he could not even light a fire for fear of giving his position away to the enemy. With no friendly forces nor native villages for miles around, he had but only one person to thank, his CO, if not for Major Warfe ordering Crawford to go back the probability that Blue would have perished in the jungle was extremely high.
Roly Good, the medical orderly commented that Blue had set his leg with his makeshift splint, so well that it didn’t need resetting. Blue certainly was the man of the hour within the 2/3 and he gave hope to others who may have found themselves in a similar predicament.
For Blue his war was over, carried out over the track by the tireless efforts of the native carriers. Blue returned back to Port Moresby then to Townsville.
‘One little chap walked beside me with a big banana leaf to keep the rain off my head…sent back to a big field hospital at Port Moresby…were going back home by ship but the plans were changed when the Australian Hospital Ship the Centaur was sunk by torpedo…next day we were flown back to Townsville’.
After the war Blue returned to farming and purchased a dairy farm at East Framlingham before retiring in 1980 and moving to Terang. In his retirement Blue was very involved with the Terang RSL ensuring that people would never forget the fighting in New Guinea. Blue passed away in 1996.
In the isolated jungle along what we refer to as the Black Cat Track, trekking with Blue’s son and his granddaughter was a memorable experience. Walking in the footsteps of a soldier, reading extracts from his diary and talking with the people who knew him best, really brought to life the story of one man’s war.
At the end of our pilgrimage we visited the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Lae, here we paid homage to all of those who lost their lives in the Wau-Salam
aua Campaign including a very special visit to the grave of VX57201, Corporal Tom McRae, Blue’s brother.
‘Lest We Forget’