Ronald Burton SMITH

SMITH, Ronald Burton

Service Number: QX16533
Enlisted: 28 July 1940
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: Independent Companies
Born: Warwick, Queensland, Australia, 13 March 1918
Home Town: Flagstone Creek, Lockyer Valley, Queensland
Schooling: Allora State School, Queensland, Australia
Occupation: Farmer
Died: Died of wounds, Kavieng, New Ireland, New Guinea, New Ireland, Pacific Islands, 4 February 1942, aged 23 years
Cemetery: Not yet discovered
Memorials: Australian Commando Memorial, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Helidon War Memorial, Rabaul Memorial, Toowoomba Roll of Honour WW2, Toowoomba WW2 Roll of Honour Book, Toowoomba War Memorial (Mothers' Memorial)
Show Relationships

World War 2 Service

3 Sep 1939: Involvement Private, QX16533
28 Jul 1940: Enlisted
28 Jul 1940: Enlisted Private, QX16533, Unit: 2/26th Battalion
28 Jul 1940: Enlisted Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Private, QX16533
10 May 1941: Transferred Private, Independent Companies
12 Jul 1941: Embarked Private, QX16533, Independent Companies
21 Jan 1942: Wounded Private, QX16533, Independent Companies, Campaign: New Guinea - Kavieng
4 Feb 1942: Discharged

Help us honour Ronald Burton Smith's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Sue Smith

Ronald Burton Smith was my late husband’s Uncle and it is my honour to write a brief history on his life and war service.

Ron was born on the 13th March 1918 in the town of Warwick QLD, the 5th child and 4th son to William and Ellen Smith.  Between 911 and 1928 the family increased to include 6 more brothers, Joseph (Eric), William (Len), Frank, Milton, Lindsay, Aubrey and 2 sisters, Estelle and Dorothy.  The family lived at Maryvale on a stud jersey farm called “Eldon” from 1912 to 1921 at which time they moved to Allora.  They remained there until 1930 so Ron’s primary schooling was at the Allora State School.  The family were forced to move again after their home burned down so from 1930 till 1941 the family owned a farm at Flagstone Creek near Helidon called “Greencliffe” 

Ron worked on the family farm until he enlisted in the Army on the 28th July 1940 at Toowoomba aged 22.  His service number was QX16533, his rank a Private and his unit the 2/26th Battalion.  He commenced his training at Grovely QLD 2 days after enlisting but a month later was taken sick and granted leave for a week.  In mid- December that year he was posted to No. 3 Infantry Training Battalion at Grovely and 2 months later was promoted to Lance Corporal.  Shortly after his promotion in February 1941 the battalion moved to Bathurst NSW to join other battalions as part of the 8th Division.  At the end of March he was admitted to hospital with mumps and after 3 weeks convalescing, he rejoined his unit in mid-April. 

On the 8th May 1941 Ron volunteered to serve his country in a very special way.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the Australian Army did not possess any "special forces" units.  Late in 1940, the British government sent a military mission to Australia to investigate the possibility of establishing a number of such units within the Australian Army.  The British proposed the establishment of independent companies that would receive special training in order to take part in combined operations and various other tasks, including "...raids, demolitions, sabotage, subversion and organising civil resistance".  Acting on British advice, the Australian Army began raising and training the 1st Independent Company in March 1941.  Formed from volunteers from all branches of the Australian military, they were initially modelled upon the British Army Commandos and began training at the 7th Infantry Training Centre, Guerrilla Warfare School, at Wilson's Promontory, Victoria.  This site was chosen for training this “Top Secret” elite unit because it was relatively isolated, mostly surrounded by sea making it an ideal place away from prying eyes.  It was mostly unsettled National Park so it contained a considerable range of commando training environments – mountains, plains, seascapes, sand dunes, mud flats, swamps, rivers, eucalypt forests, coastal scrub and open grasslands.  The following is an extract from an article and describes in detail what the 1st Independent Company was all about and the calibre of the men who served in this unit.  Ron was one of these unique men. 

“During 1941 and 1942 eight Australian and two New Zealand Independent Companies trained at Wilsons Promontory.  A company comprised 273 soldiers with each one having a higher proportion of officers than regular army units – a Major commanding, five Captains and eleven Lieutenants.  It consisted of three platoons, each of 60 men commanded by a Captain.  Platoons contained three sections each with a Lieutenant in charge.  Independent Companies also had medical staff, engineers or sappers, a transport section, a signal section.  Intended to operate independently of larger army groups, they carried a wider assortment of weapons.  All members had to have completed basic training prior to recruitment and were expected to display initiative, a spirit of adventure, and superior military skills.  Recruits had to be young and exceptionally fit physically.  Other Army commanders were directed by Headquarters to send forth the names of only their best soldiers.  Each Independent Company undertook its commando training in two parts.  First the officers and NCOs received six weeks of intensive training from instructional staff.  In turn the officer cadre trained the ordinary ranks at No 1 and No 2 Camps for another intensive six weeks.  Once this was completed the Independent Companies were formed from the soldiers who stayed the course.  Training involved a strict timetable of lectures, field exercises, physical endurance tests, air-army co-operation exercises and amphibious naval exercises.  A typical training day could include fieldcraft experience, demolitions, a hill climb and swim, physical exercises and weapons training.  The day’s program commenced at 8.00 am, finishing at 8.30 pm.  Night lectures or a night march which included wading the Darby River in battle order might follow.  Exercises were undertaken in full battle dress with full packs using live ammunition and simulating war conditions.  Men were taught how to blow up buildings, bridges, communications facilities and army vehicles as well as how to use field radios and co-ordinate activities to meet up with pre-arranged air drops of food and ammunition.  Camouflage was studied, as was ambush, these being backed up with lectures on commando tactics and infiltration techniques.”

In mid-May his rank reverted to that of a Private and upon completing their training, the Company was granted 10 days pre-embarkation leave.  Ron no doubt would have returned home to visit his family in Queensland and his fiancée.  They would not have been aware of the importance of Ron’s role in the war because his unit, being part of “Special Forces”, was “Top Secret” so he would not have been at liberty to tell them of the dangerous mission he was about to undertake. 

Commanded by Major James Edmonds-Wilson, the 1st Independent Company was part of “Lark Force”, an Australian Army formation established for service in New Britain and New Ireland in New Guinea.  It was deployed to Rabaul and Kavieng to defend the strategically important harbours and airfields.  The objective of the force, was to maintain a forward air observation line as long as possible and to make the enemy fight for this line rather than abandon it at the first threat as the force was considered too small to withstand any invasion.  In the event of an invasion of New Britain by the Japanese, the 1st Independent Company was under orders to resist long enough to destroy key airfields and other military installations such as fuel dumps, before withdrawing south to wage a guerrilla war.

The 1st Independent Company embarked from Sydney on the 12th July 1941 aboard HMAT Zealandia.  They had a stopover at Brisbane on the 14th for a day then while enroute to Rabaul, where they were supposed to be stationed, their orders were changed.  The main body of the company was sent to Kavieng while other sections were sent to Namatanai on New Ireland, Vila in the New Hebrides, Tulagi on Guadalcanal, Buka on Bougainville, and Lorengau on Manus Island to act as observers and provided medical treatment to the inhabitants.  There was a stopover in Rabaul on the 23rd for a day before the Company disembarked at Kavieng on the 24th July 1941. 

In mid-November 1941 Ron was evacuated to Rabaul to the 2/10th Field Ambulance suffering from malaria and it’s from here on that the story gets interesting. 

The Company consisted of 3 Platoons.  Each Platoon had 3 Sections and each Section consisted of an Officer and 18 ordinary ranks.  I have learned from Ron’s Red Cross casualty card that he was with “C” Platoon.  Ron’s service records confirm that he did not serve at Buka or Lorengau so he was with the Section of “C” Platoon at Kavieng.

From the unit war diaries I found the following extract from page 79 of the Operations and Instructions Manual June 1941-February 1942 in regard to “C” Platoon’s role in the event of an evacuation:

3.        “C” Platoon being only one Section strong (the other two Sections being stationed at BUKA and LORENGAU) will be responsible for the defence of the area between point X where “B” Platoon defence line intersects the beach and point W where “A” Platoon defence area ends.  This will give KAVIENG area an all round defence, as the country to the south is impenetrable. 

6.     In the event of withdrawal the Signal Section and all HQ personnel will move first.  “A” Platoon will move second and withdraw through “C”    

        Platoon and be covered by “B” and “C” Platoons.  “C” Platoon will then withdraw followed by the right flank of “B” Platoon.  The Section at the aerodrome will be the last to withdraw although if position becomes untenable they may withdraw to positions south of aerodrome. 

7.     From whichever direction the attack comes, “C” Platoon holds the vital line of withdrawal, and must defend it, which is through country practically impassable except on tracks which have been thoroughly reconnoitered and mapped by this Company.

Around 7.20am on the 21st January 60 Japanese planes attacked the airstrip at Kavieng and its surroundings.  While trying to find safe harbour the Company’s requisitioned ship, the Induna Star, was damaged during the air raids and ran aground on a reef.  Major Wilson realised that if there was an invasion by the Japanese their positions were untenable so he ordered the evacuation of essential personnel and some of the Platoons to a camp set up at Sook where there were supplies for a month for 2 sections.  Only a small party of the 1st Independent Company remained in Kavieng under the command of Major Wilson.  They were initially instructed to disperse and fight a guerrilla war against the Japanese but after discussions between the officers they decided they would destroy the airfield and any installations useful to the Japanese and then withdraw towards the main force at Sook and escape to Rabaul on the Induna Star.

The Induna Star had been refloated so Major Wilson had a month’s supply of rations loaded onto her and ordered her skipper to take her to Kaut Harbour and await orders there.  Around 8pm that evening the Major was notified that a Japanese force of 1 carrier and 6 cruisers has been spotted in the vicinity of Rabaul.  The next morning, the 22nd January, all communications were lost with Rabaul.  That day was spent preparing for an enemy attack and getting supplies on the tracks to their rendezvous at Sook and Kaut.  

In the early hours of 23rd January 1942 the Japanese invaded New Britain and New Ireland, including Kavieng and Rabaul.  The Lark Force numbered 1,400 in total against the Japanese force of 5,000 so the Australian troops were hopelessly outnumbered and completely overrun.  The Commander of Lark Force, Lt. Col. John Scanlan, gave the order “Every man for himself”.  Approximately 400 men fled into the jungle but many were subsequently recaptured.  Around 300 men survived a punishing trek through dense jungle - battling malaria, dysentery, tropical ulcers, leeches, exhaustion and malnutrition, to eventually escape on small boats and return to Australia.

The Company regrouped at Sook then on the 28th January they withdrew further south to Kaut where they helped with the repair of the Induna Star.  On the 30th January, with around 130 men aboard, the Induna Star slipped away down the west coast of New Ireland, hiding by day and travelling by night.  A small party of commandos, comprising about 14 men under the command of Corporal Rogers, were out of contact at this time somewhere in the south of New Ireland and therefore not aboard when the Induna Star departed.  The Induna Star reached Kalili Harbour in the early hours on 31st January but after learning that the 22nd Battalion in Rabaul had ceased fighting and had been taken by the Japanese, it was decided to sail for Port Moresby.  Early the next day they anchored at Gilingil Plantation where they lay hidden all day.  That night it was overcast and with a favourable wind blowing, Major Wilson decided to make straight for Woodlark Island.  All was going well until mid-morning on the 2nd February when the Induna Star was spotted by a Japanese plane 70 miles south-east of Rabaul.  The ship was strafed and bombed, crippling the vessel and resulting in the deaths of four commandos.  The Japanese pilot must have radioed for help as later that day a destroyer appeared to escort the ship to the Japanese garrison in Rabaul, where all aboard her were imprisoned.  These prisoners were placed aboard the Montevideo Maru on the 22nd June 1942 to be transported to Japan.

Of the 1,000 plus Australian soldiers taken prisoner, around 160 were massacred on or about 4 February 1942 in four separate incidents around Tol and Waitavalo near Rabaul.  Six men survived these killings and later described what had happened to a Court of Inquiry.  The Australian government concluded the prisoners were marched into the jungle near Tol Plantation in small groups and were then bayoneted by Japanese soldiers.  At the nearby Waitavalo Plantation, another group of Australian prisoners were shot.  The Officers and medical personnel were transported from Rabaul to Japan on an earlier ship but at least 800 soldiers and 200 civilian prisoners of war, most of them Australian, lost their lives on 1 July 1942, when the ship on which they were being transported to Japan, the Montevideo Maru, was sunk off the north coast of Luzon by the U.S. submarine USS Sturgeon which was unaware that the ship was carrying POWs.  All 133 men from the 1st Independent Company aboard the Montevideo Maru perished. 

So what happened to Ron?

Was he still in the hospital at Rabaul when the Japanese invaded on the 23rd January 1942 or had he returned to his unit in Kavieng and was there when the invasion happened on that same day?  In either case, several scenarios are possible…was he taken prisoner, was he executed, was he aboard the Montevideo Maru when it sank, was he part of Corporal Rogers’ party of 14 or was he one of the few who managed to escape into the jungle? 

PERSONAL NOTE: At this point I need to say that the story told to me by my husband about his “Uncle Ron” is that he went missing while serving in New Guinea and no one knows what happened to him…not even the Army.  He was never seen or heard of again so his parents and siblings all died not knowing his fate.  Keep that in mind as you read on. 

The last entry in Ron’s service records simply states “Missing. Believed P of W. No dates.  However, in 1946, after the war had ended, that was changed to “For official purposes presumed dead.” along with the 4th February 1942 as the date of his death, a presumption made by the Army because he was still missing and hadn’t been seen or heard of since the invasion in 1942.  Ron’s Red Cross casualty card states “Last heard of in Rabaul Military Hospital”.  

After spending considerable time researching and reading numerous documents and war diaries I could only confirm some things that didn’t happen to Ron. 

From the POW Nominal Rolls handed over by the Japanese Government to the Australian Government in 2012, I could confirm that Ron’s name was NOT on the list of those executed while escaping or those executed on the 4th February.  Nor was his name on the list of those who drowned when the Montevideo Maru sank.  However, I still had not been able to find an answer to the question “what happened to Ron?”  I was lead to draw two conclusions...that he must have been one of the 14 men in Corporal Rogers group or that he was one of the few who managed to escape into the jungle on the day of the invasion. 

Then…on the 9th August 2020…while researching what happened to Corporal Rogers’ party, I read the following extract from “People of the Plaque” written by Jim Ridges who has lived and worked in Kavieng for the past 40+ years.  Jim was a long time PNGAA member and was a passionate historian who was tireless and prolific in documenting the history of the New Guinea islands.  I’ll let him tell the story.

“After aircraft from six Japanese carriers had attacked Pearl Harbour Hawaii they disappeared into the Pacific supporting the Japanese rapid advances in Asia. By 21 January 1942 four of those carriers were close enough to New Ireland that in the early morning about 60 bombers and fighter planes from the Kagi and Akagi attacked Kavieng, concentrating on the wharf area, Chinatown, and the recently built Kavieng airstrip, but strafing everything else.

At least one Chinese, Tung Sing, died that day and was hastily buried and others were injured, some seriously, including five of the commandos from the 1st Independent Company who were taken to the Catholic Mission hospital at Lemakot after treatment at Kavieng hospital.

Of the five seriously wounded who went to Lemakot, two recovered, Privates Tole and Carter, and were sent by the Japanese to Rabaul in March 1942 with Sister Dorothy Maye, the Government nurse who had stayed on in Kavieng after other women were evacuated. Two others, Privates R B Smith and R J Munro were taken back to Kavieng hospital by the Japanese for operations but died soon after, and the fifth, Private George Anderson died at Lemakot on 6 February and was buried there.”

After 78 years the mystery is solved…we have found “Uncle Ron” and now know what happened to him. 

Sadly, this discovery has far come too late for his parents and siblings.  His youngest brother, Aubrey, was the last remaining member of the family and he died in December 2019. 

It is reasonable to assume that Ron and Munro were buried in the cemetery at Kavieng, however, over the remaining 3 years of the war Kavieng was bombed frequently and was all but obliterated, therefore, it’s also reasonable to assume that the graves in Kavieng were destroyed. 

The effectiveness of the 1st Independent Company was minimal because it was spread over thousands of kilometres.  It was in effect sacrificed, being unable to resist any determined Japanese force of any size.  Not one of the men stationed in Kavieng survived the war, only the officers who had been sent to Japan.   

After Ron’s disappearance, his father and his fiancée both made enquiries to the Army in 1942 with the hope of finding out what happened to him but to no avail.  I can’t explain why the Army couldn’t determine his whereabouts as he was in Kavieng Hospital when he died and then was buried so there would have been records of both of these events.  No doubt the Mission would have had records of the casualties in their charge as well.  Jim Bridges obviously found some records to be able to specifically name the 5 commandos who were seriously wounded on the 21st January and taken to Lemakot…and he was then able to report on what happened to each one of them.  Whatever the reason, I am thankful that we now know that Ron wasn’t captured and executed, that he didn’t drown when the Montevideo Maru sank and that he didn’t die alone, starving and sick in the jungle.  I’m so thankful that we now know that he was being cared for and that he didn’t die alone. 

Ron's mother was sent the “Mother’s & Widow’s” Badge in 1946.  

Ron had two brothers who also served in WW2.  Milton was in the RAAF and was killed in a flying accident in England in June 1944.  Thirteen days after his death he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross having flown 30 combat missions over Europe.  The other brother Len, my father-in-law, served in the Army within Australia and was discharged in 1943. 

Ron’s name appears on the 14th Panel of the Memorial at the Rabaul War Cemetery in New Guinea and, along with all those who served in the 1st Independent Company.  It’s also on the Australian Commando Memorial at Tidal River VIC where Ron did his training.  His name appears, alongside that of his brother Milton, on three memorials in Helidon QLD and on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra ACT. 

Ronald Burton Smith was awarded for service in WW2 the Australia Service Medal 1939-1945, Australia Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-1945 and the 1939-1945 Star.

NOTE OF THANKS: I wish to pay tribute to Jim Bridges, the author of “People of the Plaque” who passed away on the 7th January 2020.  Without his tireless, meticulous research and documentation, our family would never have known the fate of Ron.  We are, and will always be, forever grateful to Jim for bringing us closure and peace of mind. 

Respectfully submitted by Sue Smith August 2020