What I needed was a Jeep! The Inter Scout was good to drive, but the visibility was lacking and it took more than a few black hands to pull it out of the mud when she got stuck – stuck is the word for New Guinea mud.
I was posted to Lae and still had a couple of years to go, so I thought the effort of rebuilding a Jeep would be worthwhile. A few Jeeps were lying in yards around the town, but all were in sorry repair owing to the tropical conditions.
It was decided to get the mechanics of the operation under way and worry about the bottom later. I had heard of a few Jeeps at Wau – most had come over the Bulldog track (9,000 ft. at its highest point), a fantastic feat of engineering – the altitude and climate were more conducive to metal survival and maybe luck would be with us.
After a 50 mile trip from Lae we slithered and slipped down to the Eddy Creek Goldfields in the Scout. There before us lay the Jeep we had heard about in Wau. She had been chosen from about 200 in 1945 by an old miner who paid the standard 25 pounds. He said it had 800 miles on the clock when he got her.
Looking down on it as we descended into the valley I thought “kick it in the guts and drive her home!” The canopy was taut and tear free, the paint was original army green. Unfortunately when we got nearer the truth unfolded. The hood was taut alright – a beautiful bit of home sewing – 14 rice bags making up a quilt as good as Grandma made. Not only was it army green it had a suede finish – green mould – no metal left, just moss in the shape of a Jeep body.
Not a bad idea in some ways – don’t polish your car just water and fertilise it. The engine was about as good as the rest. Amazingly the chassis was spotless and straight and the wheels and tyres good, seats, bows, brackets and switches all present and correct.
Ten dollars changed hands and then the hair raising journey back over the mountains began. We had to climb then descend half as high again as Mt Kosciusko on a muddy road. 10 ft wide overlooking 2000 ft drops. The Scout, with chains on her feet and a tyre on the tailgate for breaking purposes for the Jeep, set off with a short tow chain. A blissful fool sat grinning at the Jeeps helm. By the time we got to Wau our brave volunteer had strained both eyeballs trying to impersonate two saucers, put a depression in the floor under the non-working brake pedal and still had white knuckles from gripping the steering wheel, to this day. By the time we got to Wau we had both used five years issue of adrenalin – all good fun.
A kindly truck driver carried her back to Lae where I had long since been making enquiries about bits and pieces. A turn of good fortune found us in an old nissan shed at a coconut plantation about 5 miles from town. Here we found everything we needed (except a body) A brand new engine was selected from a pile of packing cases. Exhaust systems were piled to the roof, hood bows and front axle assemblies were in a great heap outside. Almost every part was in abundance mixed with GMC and Dodge weapon carrier parts. None had been tropical proofed but, as they were undercover, the only damage was a layer of thick dry dust – no rust at all. Unfortunately, this source of supply has now been cut off as the Government have have acquired the land – no doubt an auction will be held at some date or, more likely, the local tip will get a boost.
After a bit of work and much “Test Driving” the chassis we were out searching for a decent body. Numerous trips up the Markham Valley (where it is very dry) only produced rust-free battered wrecks. A diving trip to Finschhafen only served to frustrate the search more. We swam along the piles of the wartime docks (there were several miles of wharves here) In the water off the edge of the now rotten wharves was every conceivable item of war – trucks, tractors, guns, rifles, crates of ammunition aircraft parts and whole jeeps were lying where they had been pushed off.
Unfortunately, though well preserved under the water any ferrous metal disintegrated on exposure to air. The water had not been deep enough and the oxygen content was sufficient to do the damage. Sadly we had to leave this huge museum with only a few brass and stainless steel souvenirs.
At last we got a good lead. The old Malahang airstrip near Lae had a dump on it. Following a mud map and making great use of pidgin english we eventually found the dump. The jungle had reclaimed what must have been a huge open area. It was true primary jungle i e overhead canopy nearly cutting out the light, little or no undergrowth with visibility about 40 yards. Here lay the remnants of a base which held several thousand men, a couple of hundred aircraft and hundreds possibly thousands of vehicles At the end of the war everything was either driven or bulldozed to this spot. The scrap merchants had been through collecting brass etc. and the locals had grabbed anything driveable, but it still left a vast pile of goodies. As the dump was quite close to the sea rust was fairly bad – the old blitz bodies suffering particularly badly. The aircraft parts were spotless – engine cowlings, wings, propellers – all made of corrosion resisting alloys.
Jeeps were everywhere but all terribly rusted. We picked up some good odds & ends – six jerry cans a couple of sets of chains, carbine carriers of a few Dukw bodies were as good as new for they had been protected from the rain. Still no jeep body. Then we came on a pile of gear about 20 ft high and 200 feet in diameter. Everything was here and, as it had been stacked off the ground, it was in fair order. We found a beautiful body sticking out of the heap but after half an hour’s work shifting junk (including a GMC chassis) we found that the heartless bulldozer driver who had made the pile had driven over the rear of the body.
A shout stopped us cursing and we ran across to wear a Thunderbolt wing (still with browning’s fitted) had formed a perfect shelter. In this “shed” was another Jeep body – absolutely complete. I think it had been lifted off the chassis for some work to be carried out and never replaced. What little rust there was required only light sanding, this find made the effort worthwhile – hood bows in place, seats in position though the canvas was rotten, gauges, brackets and original numbers on the side ( drilled in to prevent the prevalent offence of stealing and changing numbers ). Only one windscreen glass was cracked.
We stumbled and fell with the body back to the road and in a short time had the beast going, complete with American trailer purchased in Wau for $5.
She put in good service and when I returned to Australia I bought her with me. The Jeep is now running around on a farm in the Dalby district – probably one of the few jeeps in Australia to see active service.