The Making of ‘In Memory of Bull Allen’
Our story begins after Kokoda.
For most of 1943, in a mountainous and jungled region of what is now Papua New Guinea, Australians and Americans (with the help of the New Guineans) fought a hard campaign against the Japanese. Battles took place on razorback hills and on muddy tracks as the Allies pushed the Japanese north towards the coastal base of Salamaua. This became known as the Wau-Salamaua campaign.
On the 30th July 1943, US forces attacked a knoll called Mount Tambu. It was a failed attempt to capture a Japanese-held strategic point. But it resulted in one of the most extraordinary single acts of Australian bravery in World War 2. This story, Bull Allen’s story, is one of a number of forgotten tales about a forgotten aspect of Australia’s involvement in Papua New Guinea after Kokoda.
This article provides some context to the story of Bull Allen on Tambu, and explains how my production company Wind & Sky Productions came to make the short documentary ‘In Memory of Bull Allen’, and what I learnt through making it.
Context: The War
PNG is topical in Australia these days for different reasons, but in the early 1940s it was an unpleasant locus of intense fighting between the Japanese and the allied forces of America and Australia. This was the South-West Pacific Theatre of War, where Generals MacArthur and Blamey vied, with more or less friendly rivalry, for military success against a Japanese enemy which had invaded South Eastern Asia with devastating swiftness in 1941 and whose troops fought with ruthlessness and near- fanatical courage.
When we think of the Australian involvement in Papua New Guinea most of us think of Kokoda. The attack and initial defeat of the Australians at Kokoda in 1942 and subsequent campaign along the Kokoda Track looms large in the Australian psyche as a foundation moment borne in suffering, akin to the Gallipoli story of World War 1, although unlike Gallipoli the Kokoda story ends in victory. But our story begins after Kokoda, when in 1943 Private Leslie ‘Bull’ Allen, of the 2/5th Australian Infantry Battalion, already war-weary from Syria and Libya, landed in New Guinea to partake in the military campaign to retake Lae and Salamaua.
What Allen Did
Leslie Allen was a tall, strong stretcher-bearer, a medic responsible for looking after the wounded. He was already legendary for the lengths he would go to rescue casualties from the line of fire.[i] His nickname ‘Bull’ derived from his notorious football-playing technique. In July 1943 Bull’s company was in the foothills of Mt Tambu, a strategic high point near Salamaua occupied by the Japanese, who by this stage had been pushed back and were becoming increasingly desperate to maintain their hold on the country. Australian troops of the 2/5th, in a courageous bid, had taken the lower ground around Tambu off the Japanese and on 24 July tried to take the mountain and failed with heavy casualties.[ii] [iii] The military hierarchy ordered another try for Tambu, and this time American troops, fresh off the boat, were brought in to attack the mountain.
On the 30th July the US 1/162nd Battalion attacked the mountain and fared no better than the Australians had the week before. They got into trouble very quickly in the face of Japanese snipers, machine guns and mortar fire and suffered heavily with fifty wounded. Military historian David Dexter describes the terrain around Salamaua and Lae as “One of the most difficult and unpleasant areas ever to confront troops” requiring “endurance and determination in generous quantities” [iv]. The land around Tambu was murderous, muddy, damp and steep-sloped, and two US medics were killed trying to retrieve the wounded from the active battlefield.
At this point Allen, who was in the area as part of the residual Australian presence, walked up, alone, into the battlefield, which was still active, and started bringing back wounded, one at a time, by hoisting them up and carrying them over his shoulders. He went in and out in this way at least twelve times, stopping eventually from exhaustion, with holes in his sleeves and holes in his hat from the machine gun fire which had grazed him several times. [v] [vi]
Allen’s actions in rescuing the wounded at Tambu were extraordinary. He was under no obligation, apart from his own compassionate impulse, to risk his life in a US action and save men he had known only for a few days. The US recognised this and awarded him a Silver Star, one of their highest gallantry awards.
What Allen Was Like
Allen was born in Ballarat in 1916 and had a hard upbringing. His father was a strict and unpleasant man, and Bull and his siblings spent some time in an orphanage, not because their father died but through poverty – a sad and not unusual story in the time of the Great Depression. Allen learnt his trade – farm work – at the Ballarat Orphanage Farm and before the war was a farm labourer, joining up at age 23 because he was out of work and needed the money. [vii] [viii]
Once joined up, Bull showed his larrikin streak and impatience with rules and regulations. Stories abound from his time in the Middle East of his willingness to buck military convention.[ix] But he was revered by his fellows for his commitment to rescuing the wounded, whatever it took. Though seemingly invincible, and stoic and calm in the face of gunfire, Allen suffered psychologically from the trauma of war. He spent some time in hospital in the Middle East for ‘anxiety neurosis’, the condition they called ‘shell shock’ in world war one, and a state we would call PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – today. After Tambu, the psychological impact on Bull was severe and he started displaying volatile, erratic behaviour .[x] He eventually was discharged from the army for medical reasons, and by the time he got home in 1944 he had lost the power of speech. Family legend has it he was unrecognisable when he got back, and it took him six months of recuperation on his uncle’s farm in Warrenheip before he could talk again. [xi]
Allen recovered to get married, raise a family, to work and to retire in Ballarat. But he lived with those invisible psychological scars of war trauma the rest of his life.
Wind & Sky Productions Make a Film
The Ballarat RSL commissioned Wind & Sky Productions to make a film about Allen to raise awareness of a local hero they felt had been forgotten by the community. Financing came from the RSL, from Wind & Sky, who donated considerable in-kind production time, with funds also donated by Bill Allen, Bull’s son, and by Doug Sarah. The RSL’s only directive was that we had to consult the Allen family and respect their wishes in the making of the film. We had several preliminary meetings hosted by the RSL with the Allens and David Cranage and started slowly to build up a knowledge of each other and a trust that we could work together to tell Bull’s story.
The challenge for Jary and I was to tell the story of Bull within a short documentary format, and we quickly realised that we couldn’t tell everything. Our aim became to tell enough about Bull to encourage viewers to learn more about him from other resources.
We drew inspiration from the famous photograph taken of Bull on Mt Tambu, carrying a wounded American soldier over his shoulder. This photograph, taken by war correspondent Gordon Short, is far better known than Allen himself, and we decided our approach would be to tell the story behind the photograph, to relay the events of the 30th July 1943, but also to give the sense of Bull having led a complete life before and after the war.
Bull died in 1982 and we knew it would be difficult to find and interview surviving eyewitnesses to Tambu within our modest budget. So we focussed instead on members of the Allen family telling their experiences and retelling stories they had heard told of Bull’s action. We filmed a group interview with David Cranage and members of the family over one morning at the Bull Allen Bar, next to the RSL headquarters in the George Hotel. The interview day was a very moving event for everyone as the family took time to reflect on their memories of their father. We were also lucky to get access to Phillip Bradley, the only Australian historian writing about Salamaua-Wau, and who generously gave us an interview.
For visuals we had a wealth of black and white photos from the Australian War Memorial (AWM) archive to draw from, and some special photographs from the Allen family, but the story really started to come alive when we discovered the public domain US wartime newsreels on the FedFlix collection on the Internet Archive. The trembly black and white footage showing actual live action from New Guinea and Mt Tambu was what we needed to take the viewer back to that moment.
The really magic discovery was to find actual wartime footage of Bull, in New Guinea, in 1943, around the Salamaua-Lae area. The film footage had been catalogued in the AWM archive under a Leslie ‘Allan’ and the simple mis-spelling of his name meant it didn’t come up under a standard search for Bull. As far as we could tell, no-one knew this footage existed. Certainly the Allen family didn’t know, and it was a very special day the day we first showed it to them. The silent footage, which depicts Bull eating a meal at the camp, gives us an immediate link to the man in that time. Played over the credits accompanied by a rich, melancholic orchestral tune I had written and never found the right use for until now, the footage acts as an eloquent and moving end to the film.
What I Learnt
The process of making the film, for me, was an education in many things. I was someone who had avoided thinking about and reading about war my whole life. I didn’t like war stories. I felt ambivalent about telling a story of heroism in war. But the more I became involved in Bull’s personal journey through his war, and as I gradually grew to know the Allen family, and witnessed their and the RSL’s reverence, and kindness, and empathy, I realised I couldn’t not be touched by this. I realised that war, regardless of my personal perspective on the reasons for it, impacts and has impacted people’s lives, leaving deep markers in society and in individuals. And to ignore that part of our social history would be an injustice.
So I hope this film helps spread awareness about the significance of the Australian campaigns in New Guinea after Kokoda in general, and about Bull Allen himself, specifically. I hope we can embrace a concept of heroism which allows us to recognise and honour psychological wounds.
Everything about Bull, his bravery, strength, his larrikin streak, his utter commitment to his comrades, is so appealing, it seems astounding he hasn’t become a household name. Perhaps it’s time that changed.
Allen Family, 2012, personal interview by Jary Nemo & Lucinda Horrocks with Bill (Floyd) Allen, Les Allen and Eleanor Johnson, Ballarat, November.
Bradley, Phillip, 2012, Hell’s Battlefield, Allen & Unwin, NSW.
Dexter, David, 1961, The New Guinea Offensives, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
NAA (National Archives of Australia), ‘ALLEN LESLIE CLARENCE : Service Number – VX12513’, Service Record, Series Number B883, Service Number VX12513.
Film: In Memory of Bull Allen http://www.windsky.com.au/bull-allen/
‘Australia’s War’ – Bull Allen: http://www.ww2australia.gov.au/pushingback/bullallen.html
Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/allen-leslie-charles-clarence-12130
Internet Archive FedFlix Collection: http://archive.org/details/FedFlix
Australian War Memorial Collection: http://www.awm.gov.au/search/collections/
[i] Allen Family, 2012, personal interview by Jary Nemo & Lucinda Horrocks with Bill (Floyd) Allen, Les Allen and Eleanor Johnson, Ballarat, November.
[ii] Dexter, David, 1961, The New Guinea Offensives, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, pp.162-69.
[iii] Bradley, Phillip, 2012, Hell’s Battlefield, Allen & Unwin, NSW, pp. 254-57.
[iv] Dexter, David, 1961, The New Guinea Offensives, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, p.21.
[v] Bradley, Phillip, 2012, Hell’s Battlefield, Allen & Unwin, NSW, pp. 257-60
[vi] Dexter, David, 1961, The New Guinea Offensives, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, pp.165-66.
[vii] National Archives of Australia: Leslie Clarence Allen Service Record, Series Number B883, Service Number VX12513.
[viii] Allen Family, 2012, personal interview by Jary Nemo & Lucinda Horrocks with with Bill (Floyd) Allen, Les Allen and Eleanor Johnson, Ballarat, November.
[ix] Allen Family, 2012, personal interview by Jary Nemo & Lucinda Horrocks with with Bill (Floyd) Allen, Les Allen and Eleanor Johnson, Ballarat, November.
[x] National Archives of Australia: Leslie Clarence Allen Service Record, Series Number B883, Service Number VX12513.
[xi] Allen Family, 2012, personal interview by Jary Nemo & Lucinda Horrocks with with Bill (Floyd) Allen, Les Allen and Eleanor Johnson, Ballarat, November.