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LCDR John Morrell BAND, US Navy Cross, RANR(S)

John Morrell Band (1902-1943), Naval officer, was born on 22 March 1902 at South Shields, County of Durham, England, son of John Oliver Band, master mariner, and his wife Margaret, née Morrell.  The family moved to London where young John's education at Enfield Grammar School was interrupted by trips to sea with his parents.  He followed his father into the Merchant Navy, gaining his first-mate's certificate in 1924.  When his venture as part-owner of a trading vessel was curtailed by the Depression, Band went to China and accumulated enough money to settle on a farm at Nyeri, Kenya.  There he bred Ayrshire cattle and did safari work.  In 1932 at Nanyuki he married Clara Violet Howes.

After his cattle died of disease, Band tried running guns and smuggling potatoes to Ethiopia, but was apprehended.  By the late 1930s he was sailing in coastal steamers in the Pacific and had bought land at Woorim on Queensland's Bribie Island.  Keen to be in uniform in the event of war, on 1 September 1939 he obtained an appointment as temporary Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve(Sea).

Between 5 October 1939 and 27 July 1940 he served in the armed merchant cruiser HMS Moreton Bay.  In November 1939 Moreton Bay took passage to Hong Kong from where she mounted patrols in north east Asia as far north as Vladivostok.  The primary objective was to intercept German merchant ships which might sail from Japanese ports in which they had taken refuge.  The work was monotonous and often arduous with long spells at sea in weather that varied from bright and sunny, to violent gales and snow storms.  In June 1940 Band was promoted Lieutenant and following Italy’s entry into the war Moreton Bay received orders to proceed to the East Indies Station before steaming via Cape Town for service in the North Atlantic.

At this juncture Lieutenant Band left the ship, taking passage to Colombo in SS Narkunda and from there returning to Australia where he joined HMAS Cerberus (Flinders Naval Depot) in July 1940 for training courses.  He remained in Cerberus until February 1941 after which he spent a short period in HMAS Lonsdale (Port Melbourne) before transferring to Sydney where he served briefly in HMAS Penguin and HMAS Platypus.

In April 1941 he joined the survey vessel HMAS Moresby remaining in her until August before spending a brief period in Penguin before joining the cruiser HMAS Hobart on 3 September 1941.  Band served in Hobart during the Battle of the Coral Sea leaving the ship in July 1942 to take up a shore appointment in Brisbane as the officer-in-charge of the naval wing at the combined operations training centre at Toorbul Point. 

The school instructed Australian and American soldiers and sailors in amphibious warfare.  Band was in his element, teaching landing operations to his students, and training them to be physically and mentally tough.  Over six feet (183 cm) tall, well built, part buccaneer and part gentleman, he had a ready, sardonic grin which he used effectively when deriding his juniors.  Although a strict disciplinarian, he could be charming and had a fund of stories about his adventures.

On 11 January 1943 Band was appointed an acting temporary Lieutenant Commander.  In July he received orders to proceed to HMAS Basilisk in New Guinea having been appointed as the officer-in-charge of the mobile base administration unit Fairfax situated in Port Moresby.  He was subsequently appointed the Port Director of Buna on Papua’s north coast in August.  There Band was praised for his initiative and efforts in transforming the port into a 24-hour-a-day operation through the installation of makeshift buoys and lighting.

Left: HMAS Watcher in the Basilisk Slipway. Right: The naval repair workshop at Basilisk.
HMAS Basilisk was a Royal Australian Navy depot base in Port Moresby,
first Commissioned on 1 January 1943.

On 18 September, a conference at the Australian 9th Division headquarters was convened to outline plans for the capture of the Finschhafen-Langemak Bay-Dreger Harbour area with a quick amphibious assault that would help to gain control of the east coast of the Huon Peninsula and thereby the Vitiaz Strait.  A New Guinea Force Intelligence summary of 15 September had put the strength of the enemy around Finschhafen at 2100 but after the fall of Lae the estimate was reduced to 350.  The disparity could not be reconciled and consequently field formations were given both figures.

Admiral DE Barbey, USN, Commander Amphibious Force South-West Pacific, allotted four APDs (high speed converted destroyers and destroyer escorts used as transports to support US Navy amphibious operations in World War II), 15 LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) and three LSTs (Landing Ship Tank) to the operation.  A further eight LCMs (Landing Craft Mechanised) were also made available from a US army boat battalion.  A boat battalion and half a shore battalion from the US 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment (EBSR) was also made available to aid in supplying the Australian brigade.

It was to the 532nd EBSR that Lieutenant Commander Band appears to have been attached as the officer-in-charge of the naval beach party.  It was responsible for carrying and erecting beach markers ashore that would guide the amphibious assault waves to their designated landing points.  The reason behind Band’s attachment to the American unit is unclear, but it is plausible that it was due to his knowledge of amphibious operations learnt during his time at Toorbul.

The date of the Finschhafen landing was set as 22 September and would comprise seven assault waves.  The 2/13 & 2/17 Infantry Battalions were assigned the task to land companies from each on Scarlet Beach to the north, Siki Cove to the immediate South and further south towards Arndt Point on the headland.  Scarlett beach was about 600 yards long, 30 to 40 feet wide with good firm sand suitable for receiving the larger LSTs.  At the northern end of the sandy beach was the mouth of the Song River.

Detail of Finschhafen Landings, 22 September 1943

The amphibious force left Lae at 7:30pm on 21 September and steamed toward its objective in calm seas under the cover of darkness.  At 2:45am on 22 September Reveille was sounded and the assaulting troops moved to their amphibious embarkation stations.  At 4:45am five escorting US destroyers bombarded the shoreline from 5000 yards, the flashes of the explosions lighting up the blackness of the beach and giving the barges from the APDs some idea of direction in the darkness.  The destroyers were using red tracer rounds and the bombardment was believed to have had a considerable impact on the defending Japanese.  When the naval gunfire ceased Wave 1 was dispatched comprising 16 barges carrying two companies from 2/17 and 2/13 Battalions.  It is unclear which landing craft Lieutenant Commander Band was embarked in.

As the barges proceeded to the shore in the pre-dawn darkness some of them veered to the left and consequently landed to the south of Scarlett Beach in Siki Cove.  From the beginning of the landing the Australian and American ‘amphibious scouts’ (mainly from the 532nd EBSR) had attempted to gather on Scarlett Beach from the various positions in which they had been landed.  Band leapt ashore and called his men to follow.  According to one account, a Japanese shouted, 'Who's there?' Band answered, 'The navy', and was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire and mortally wounded.  Despite his wounds, he continued to direct operations and saved a group of vessels from beaching in the wrong position.  Carrying his equipment to measure depths he floundered into the water in a desperate attempt to carry out his task.  He was subsequently taken to a field hospital, possibly one set up by the 2/8th Field Ambulance or the US 262nd Medical Battalion, where he died the following day.  Lieutenant Commander Band was buried in the Soputa War Cemetery, near Buna, on 24 September 1943.  After the war’s end he was reburied in the Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby.

Landing at Scarlet Beach by VX93432 Captain RC Hodgkinson, Jungle Warfare.
Australian War Memorial, Canberra ACT 1944.

It is unclear who witnessed and recorded the circumstances surrounding Band’s death but it is possible that it was either Lieutenant Herman A Koeln or Lieutenant Edward K Hammer, both of whom were US amphibious scouts.  During the fighting they linked up with Lieutenant C Huggett in charge of 1 Platoon, C Company, 2/13 Battalion and despite heavy Japanese opposition managed to set up range lights, flank markers, make a rapid survey of the beach and radio the result of their reconnaissance to the ships waiting offshore.

On 1 March 1944 details of Band’s death and heroism became known when the Australian Minister for External Affairs, HV Evatt, received a letter from Nelson Trusler Johnson, the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States of America based in Canberra, proposing that the late Lieutenant Commander Band be decorated for heroism through the award of a United States Navy Cross.

The offer of an award of a US Navy Cross to Lieutenant Commander Band was gratefully accepted by the Australian Government on 17 May 1944 and a presentation was made to his next-of-kin on 28 March 1945 by the Commander of US Naval Forces in Europe.

Lieutenant Commander Band was one of only three officers of Australia’s Naval Forces to be decorated with this prestigious award.

Sea Power Centre - John Perryman
Australian Dictionary of Biography
Hall of Valor Project