The Australian 7th Division had already seen service in the Middle East but were thrust back into the action on New Guinea. Here they joined the US forces in the drive for the major Japanese base at Lae.
The U.S. forces had parachuted in, followed by a large part of the Australian 7th Division who were airlifted to front line airfields. The operation began badly when over a bomber crashed into one of the transport planes killing the 11 man crew and 60 men in the transport, more died amongst 90 injured men during the following days. The remainder of the shocked airborne force had to carry on with the operation.
One man who landed in the remote jungle that day was Private Richard Kelliher, a man determined to prove himself. He had been arrested earlier in the campaign for running away from the front lines. In fact his section leader had sent him back for information – but the man had been killed. Without any witnesses to his version of events, Kelliher had to face a Court Martial. He managed to convince them, but was now determined that he would ‘show them’.
Kelliher probably should not have been in the ranks at all, he suffered from very poor health before joining up, the result of Typhoid and Meningitis. In June he had been hospitalised with Malaria contracted on the campaign.
It was only a matter of days later that he got his opportunity to ‘show them’, although it seems his motivation was largely to save a friend rather than any personal heroics. A concealed machine gun post killed five of his section and wounded three more, pinning down the remainder:
I wanted to bring [wounded] Cpl Richards back, because he was my cobber, so I jumped out from the stump where I was sheltering and threw a few grenades over into the position where the Japanese were dug in. I did not kill them all, so went back, got a Bren gun and emptied the magazine in the post. That settled the Japanese. Another position opened up when I went on to get Cpl Richards, but we got a bit of covering fire and I brought him back to our lines.
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to:—
No. QX 20656 Private Richard Kelliher, Australian Military Forces.
During an attack by this soldier’s platoon on an enemy position at Nadzab, New Guinea, on the morning of 13th September, 1943, the platoon came under heavy fire from a concealed enemy machine-gun post, approximately 50 yards away. Five off the platoon were killed and three wounded and it was found impossible to advance without further losses.
In the face of these casualties Private Kelliher suddenly, on his own initiative, and without orders, dashed towards the post and hurled two grenades at it, killing some of the enemy but not all.
Noting this, he then returned to his section, seized a Bren gun, again dashed forward to within 30 yards of the post, and with accurate fire completely silenced it.
Returning from his already gallant action Private Kelliher next requested permission to go forward again and rescue his wounded section leader. This he successfully accomplished, though under heavy rifle fire from another position.
Private Kelliher, by these actions, acted as an inspiration to everyone in his platoon, and not only enabled the advance to continue but also saved his section leader’s life.
His most conspicuous bravery and extreme devotion to duty in the face of heavy enemy’ fire resulted in the capture of this strong enemy position.