Captain Bede Tongs OAM MM, who passed away peacefully yesterday morning aged 94, was one of the heroes of the WWII Kokoda Campaign in PNG in 1942.
In recent years, as an Ambassador for the Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF), Bede worked ceaselessly to keep the Kokoda story alive and to improve the lives and futures of the descendants of his beloved Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, his comrades during the Kokoda campaign.
Bede spoke at schools, RSLs, clubs and functions around Australia – always accompanied by his beloved and devoted son Garry – and visited PNG many times, always taking a keen interest in the work of the KTF and delighting in meeting Papua New Guineans of all ages.
In 2013, at the age of 93, Bede brilliantly delivered the Ralph Honner Leadership Oration in front of a 350-strong capacity dinner in Sydney.
Bede was a wise and compassionate man with a remarkably active and nimble mind right to his final days. I have never met a Digger to match Bede’s extraordinarily detailed recall, not only of his time on the Kokoda Track – where he remembered actions down to the minute – but also right through his final years when he retained an amazing capacity to remember people’s names and their personal stories.
Born Bede George Donald Tongs at Narrandera NSW on 27 June 1920, he worked as a burr cutter and rouseabout before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter in Canberra. He joined the 3rd Militia Battalion in February 1940, the unit that spent the longest time serving on the Kokoda Track
As a 22-year-old sergeant during the Australian advance at Eora Creek-Templeton’s Crossing, Bede took control of his platoon after its officer Lieutenant Colin Richardson was hit in the chest and was evacuated.
Bede positioned his men for an attack based on ‘fire and movement’ and ordered them to fix bayonets. Rather than expose his men to a frontal attack on the Japanese positions, Bede crawled along an enemy fire lane alone and destroyed a machine-gun position with grenades. His action opened the way for his men to take the Japanese position and earned him the Military Medal for bravery.
Bede led his men through to see the Australian flag flying again over Kokoda, arriving there on 4 November 1942. He served with the 3rd Battalion through the battles for Oivi and the beachheads before Bede was evacuated from the beachheads back to Moresby suffering from malaria, scrub typhus and yellow fever. He recovered and, after the 3rd Battalion was disbanded in 1943, Bede joined the 2/3rd Battalion, being commissioned in the field in the Aitape-Wewak Campaign. He went to Korea in 1953 as a frontline observer for Eastern Command.
In his Ralph Honner Oration Bede said: “I landed in PNG on 27th May 1942. I met these lovely Papuan people. There has been an evolution in the meantime, but all the time to me they are such lovely people and we can never thank them for how they helped us and died for us in those grim days of the Kokoda track campaign and beyond.”
Bede was an accomplished poet and wrote many poems commemorating the sacrifices of his comrades and the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels who fought and died alongside them.
He will long be remembered for his many kindnesses and his great understanding of the needs of the people of PNG. The Kokoda Track Foundation will name a wing of the Kokoda College Teaching College after him.
Lest we forget.