Ted Kenna never considered himself a hero but there is no doubt he will be remembered as one, SINCLAIRE SOLOMON reports.
WEWAK’S best known war hero Private Edward Kenna, aged 90, died recently without ever returning to the place he helped liberate from Japanese occupiers more than 60 years ago”
Pte Kenna was the last living Australian World War II
recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry “in the face of the enemy” that can be awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces”
The Aussie digger, who died in a Victorian nursing home on July 8, received the VC for his courage in a battle at Mission Hill, Wewak, East Sepik, in May 1945”
Sadly though, Pte Kenna’s passing went largely unnoticed in the town which local population was divided in their loyalty on who the enemy was”
In June 1942, when he enlisted as a digger, the Japanese had been in entrenched in Wewak for about six months, having invaded the previous December” He was assigned to the 2/4th Battalion for the Wewak-Aitape campaign, and eventual fame in Wewak, in October 1944”
Wewak was dragged into the war, it appeared, rather late, due to circumstances rather than because it was a primary goal of the Japanese who saw Wewak, Hansa Bay and Madang as forward bases where Japanese troops could land and then travel south-east to reinforce the retreating 18th Army in the Lae and Finschhafen area”
However, the plan backfired, driving the Japanese westward until they made their last stand in Wewak which resulted in the total destruction of the town and surrounding villages, including my father’s Mengar village, by Australian and American bombers”
The Aussie plan for the recapture of Wewak was approved on April 30, 1945 – a brigade to attack and capture Wewak and Cape Moem areas, Kenna’s 2/4th Battalion to destroy the enemy in the Cape Wom, Yarapos and Wewak Point areas, another battalion was to capture Mission Hill, a commando regiment was to take my mother’s Saure area and a commando squadron was to sail round the back of Mushu and Kairiru islands and move inland from Dove Bay”
The recapture plan started on May 10, at about 6am, when an artillery barrage from near pre-war Mengar village started. By 8am Wewak Hill was in the hands of Australians with two dead. Mission Hill was the next objective. On May 15, the Australian forces had reached the top of the hill but many Japanese were still entrenched in bunkers further to the west and were able to inflict much damage.
On May 16, it was the job of Pte Kenna’s company to silence the machine guns and capture the hill, which was the Japanese headquarters. The rest, as they say, is history.
History records: “Pte Kenna’s platoon was ordered forward to deal with the enemy machine gun post, so that the company operation could proceed. His section moved as close as possible to the bunker in order to harass any enemy seen, so that the remainder of the platoon could attack from the flank. When the attacking sections came into view of the enemy they were immediately engaged at very close range by heavy automatic fire from a position not previously disclosed. Casualties were suffered and the attackers could not move further forward.
“Pte Kenna endeavoured to put his Bren gun into a position where he could engage the bunker, but was unable to do so because of the nature of the ground. On his own initiative and without orders, Pte Kenna immediately stood up in full view of the enemy less than 50 yards away and engaged the bunker, firing his Bren gun from the hip. The enemy machine gun immediately returned Pte Kenna’s fire and with such accuracy that bullets actually passed between his arms and his body. Undeterred, he remained completely exposed and continued to fire at the enemy until his magazine was exhausted. Still making a target of himself, Pte Kenna discarded his Bren gun and called for a rifle. Despite the intense machine gun fire, he seized the rifle and, with amazing coolness, killed the gunner with his first round.
“A second automatic opened fire on Pte Kenna from a different position and another of the enemy immediately tried to move into position behind the first machine gun, but Pte Kenna remained standing and killed him with his next round.
“The result of Pte Kenna’s magnificent bravery in the face of concentrated fire, was that the bunker was captured without further loss, and the company attack proceeded to a successful conclusion, many enemy being killed and numerous automatic weapons captured.
“There is no doubt that the success of the company attack would have been seriously endangered and many casualties sustained but for Pte Kenna’s magnificent courage and complete disregard for his own safety. His action was an outstanding example of the highest degree of bravery.”
Pte Kenna’s story should have ended there but just three weeks later, he was nearly killed again when he was hit in the jaw by a bullet. And so began another, more personal and just as enduring chapter in his life, when against the odds, he survived the gruelling
10-day hike out of New Guinea and the trip back to Melbourne. With a putrid bandage holding his face together, the first nurse to touch him was his future wife, Marjorie Rushberry.
He returned to Wewak in 1995 with the widow of another VC winner, Lt Albert Chowne, to unveil their plaque on Mission Hill, the place which made him famous worldwide. The road on Wewak Hill, around the Armistice Day memorial, is named Kenna VC Rd while further west, at Cape Wom Memorial, another plaque reminds my people of Pte Kenna and Lt Chowne’s valour.
The Kenna name popped up again in Wewak on Sept 13, 2005, when Australian Governor-General Major-General Michael Jeffery, himself a former Wewak resident, visited Cape Wom for the commemorative ceremony of the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender, “on this very site, itself with Mission Hill the scene of bitter fighting”.
“This site also commemorates acts of supreme bravery under heavy fire by men such as Lt Albert Chowne and Pte Edward Kenna, who each won the Victoria Cross, the nation’s supreme award for valour.”
Mr Kenna’s youngest daughter, Marlene Day, was with her father when he died. She says while her father was remembered as a war hero, he did not see himself that way.
“He was very modest really. If you asked him he’d just say ‘I was doing my job’,” she told an Australian reporter.
“He didn’t talk a lot about it. He talked about the fun times, the mateship, but not much about the actual war.”
Australia’s political and military leaders gathered at a state funeral in Melbourne on July 17 to farewell an Australian and Wewak hero and a “man of valour” for his remarkable act of bravery on Mission Hill in 1945.
Ted Kenna never considered himself a hero, but there is no doubt he will be remembered as one.
Edward ‘Ned’ Kenna VC (July 6, 1919-July 8, 2009), Wewak farewells you, RIP.