Questions over the fate of Captain Sam Templeton were recently revived after an elderly Japanese veteran, Kokichi Nishimura, made a number of rambling and conflicting claims over the issue.  In one report he claimed to have killed Templeton himself. In another he claimed to have witnessed his killing. Later he claimed he buried Templeton around eight days after he had been killed!  His latest ‘correction’ was probably due to the fact that offical Japanese records revealed that his unit, the 2/144th Battalion, did not arrive in the area until a week after Templeton was either killed or captured by the Japanese Yokoyama Advance Force.   These, and a number of other fanciful claims Nishimura has made over the years, do not stand up to scrutiny. His eccentricities have led to his estrangement from his  battalion association in Japan and from his family. Military historians would regard him as an ‘unreliable witness’.  Carl Johnson who published a history of the 39th Battalion (Mud over Blood. History House, 2006) provides the most authentic report of Templeton’s fate.

So what happened to Uncle Sam?

‘Without doubt, one of the 39th Battalion’s most revered senior officers was Captain Samuel Victor Templeton.  On joining the battalion at Darley as a lieutenant, Templeton was posted to B Company and later, after further promotion, became the Commanding Officer.  He was, as were many of the original officers of the battalion, a veteran of the First War.  He had served with the Royal Naval Reserve as a junior gunnery officer with the Adriatic Squadron during 1918-19.  He had also been involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1917 and after the First war experienced action during the Spanish Civil War as a member of the International Brigade, a band of volunteers from all nationalities who had made their own passage to Spain to fight the Communists.

‘He gave his age when joining the Australian Army in 1940 as thirty-nine.  This was common practice by those who were over-age for active service during the Second War.  The age requirement for enlistment stipulated one had to be thirty-nine or under to gain entry – hence the term of the day, ‘thirty-nine liars’, as many veterans lied about their age to fulfil enlistment requirements.  Sam was born on the 12th April 1900 in Belfast, Northern Ireland but immigrated to Australia in the 1920’s.  He gained employment with the Victorian Railways, later leaving to become manager of Corns Pastrycooks.  In 1931 he joined the 5th Battalion, the Victorian Scottish Regiment with whom he gained his commission on the 25th October 1939.  On his enlistment he was a married man, with one son residing in East Brighton, a bayside suburb of Melbourne.

‘After training at Darley, Lieutenant Templeton sailed with the battalion on the ‘Aquitania’ where he volunteered to assist in instructing personnel in gunnery training.  Here he drew from his experiences with the Royal Navy during the previous war to train crew to operate the ship’s defences.  After arrival in Moresby he, along with his comrades suffered the daily grind of life in the tropics.  Over the next months the battalion gradually lost many of their senior members as the realities of service in tropical conditions took its toll.  Many were either sent to non-combatant units or sent back to Australia and designated B Class.  Templeton was one of the few that remained.  He gained his captaincy and was made Commanding Officer of B Company.  Those interviewed that served under him speak highly of his professionalism and soldiering qualities.  He was a strict disciplinarian, but fatherly to those under his command.  By the time B Company had been chosen to be the first of the battalion to face the Japanese, he had gained total respect and loyalty from those under his command.

‘During the seven-day hike across the Owen Stanley’s, Captain Templeton was an inspiration to his men, who were mostly half his age.  Some recalled how he would go up and down the line of men as they toiled under their equipment.  He would encourage them as they went and helped those who were finding the going tough by carrying their rifles.  Jack Wilkinson, who was amongst the first company to cross the mountains, noted the following in his diary: ‘7/7/42, Made Ioribaiwa.  Had carriers for our packs and just as well.  Felt the trip more than the first day.  Two long hills to climb.  Missed out on tea as I was with last of the troops.  Had a job to get some of them to make it.. ‘Uncle Sam’ came back and helped me about half way up the last hill.  Was carrying four rifles and three packs and had doubts about making in myself.  ‘Uncle Sam’ insisted on carrying all my gear as well as that of others’.  Another member of B Company recalled seeing Sam at one time during the trek with at least four rifles over his shoulders.  It was thought by some under his command, that given the fact he was continually going from front to rear of the column to keep the men going, that he actually travelled double the distance as the rest of the company.

‘After arrival at Kokoda, Captain Templeton set off for Buna to make sure that the company’s stores and heavy equipment had arrived safely.  Prior to their departure for Kokoda, and advance party had boarded the schooner ‘Gili Gili’ under the supervision of B Company’s quartermaster, Sergeant Allan Collyer.  After his return to Kokoda, the sounds of battle could be heard coming from the north.  The Japanese had started their invasion of New Guinea by accomplishing landings at Buna and further around the coast at Gona and Sanananda.  Templeton sent forward 12 Platoon under Lieutenant Mortimer, 11 Platoon under Lieutenant Seekamp was to follow and 10 Platoon under Lieutenant Garland was ordered to remain at Kokoda to defend the small airstrip in order that reinforcements could be landed.  Lieutenant Seekamp’s 11 Platoon had been posted to hold the village of Awala, whilst 12 Platoon was ordered to protect the track between Awala and Kokoda near the village of Goirari.  The battalion’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Owen arrived by plane at Kokoda where Captain Templeton was waiting to meet him.  After the CO’s arrival, both officers then headed off to join the two advanced platoons of B Company.  Meanwhile these platoons had been engaged in rearguard actions, including a successful ambush, which Seekamp’s men had laid on the unsuspecting Japanese at Awala.  By the time Templeton and Owen turned up, 11 Platoon had fallen back on the village of Goirari.  The reinforcements had been requested and these were expected at any moment.  Owen before leaving to return to Kokoda to meet these, ordered the advanced platoons of B Company to make a stand 800 yards east of Goirari.  After dispersing his men, Owen left to meet the reinforcements.

‘After his departure, the ambush of advancing Japanese at Goirari was effected.  However given the overwhelming force of the Japanese who were about to overwhelm the 39th’s positions, these two platoons had to be withdrawn to a new defensive position.  The two platoons broke contact and fell back on the little village of Oivi, to await what was hoped to be at least one fresh company of the 39th to reinforce the depleted ranks of B Company.  Instead of a company, the plane which arrived at Kokoda carried only half of one platoon of D Company – this was 16 Platoon under Lieutenant McClean.  Owen quickly ordered these to go forward to join 11 and 12 Platoon, who were now holding onto their positions at Oivi.  The Japanese made the first of their assaults on the 39’s men at Oivi in mid afternoon, just after Lieutenant McClean’s men had arrived and been dispersed.  It was believed that the other half of 16 Platoon had already landed at Kokoda and it was with the aim of meeting up with these, that Captain Templeton left the defensive position at Oivi to guide in the rest of 16 Platoon under Sergeant Morrison.  He left his second in command, Captain Stevenson, and Major Watson (the Commanding Officer of the P.I.B) to take control of the three platoons in his absence and set out alone to meet the rest of 16 Platoon which he believed as about to arrive.

‘It has been mentioned in several books that within moments of Captain Templeton leaving, ‘a burst of fire’ was heard from the direction he had gone and that was the last that was ever seen of him.  However some believe that this burst of fire was instead a single shot probably fired by Templeton himself.  Sergeant Martorana of 12 Platoon recalled that at the time it was heard, he had just approached Major Watson to ask where Templeton had gone.  On being told that he had gone to bring in the rest of 16 Platoon he remarked, ‘that doesn’t sound like Sam’.  At least two other members of B Company heard the single pistol shot and felt certain that Captain Templeton had walked straight into a group of Japanese along the track and that he must have fired on them.  They did not hear any return rifle fire, and assumed he had been captured.  A member of B Company who went out after Captain Templeton and followed him a short distance, was ordered by Templeton to return to the position, as he wanted no escort.  Within moments of this man doing as ordered, he heard the single shot and then heard the Japanese calling out, ‘Corporal White’.  Sergeant Martorana as soon as he heard the shot believed his captain was in trouble and asked their guide Sanopa, along with Private Evans and Luxmoore to come with him to see if they could find Captain Templeton.  After getting near to the spot where the single shot had come from, Sanopa halted them saying that ‘he could smell them’.  Within moments of the four dispersing to the side of the track they could see large groups of Japanese advancing towards them.  Without hope of outgunning these, Sergeant Martorana ordered all to return to Oivi. This they did and made it safely back unmolested.  Captain Templeton’s body was never located.  The Japanese advanced en masse, and the defensive perimeter of the 39th which was threatened with being outflanked, was hastily withdrawn to fall back on the Kokoda Plantation where it engaged the Japanese in the first real battle of Kokoda.

‘Headquarters Southern Command received news of the disappearance and probable death of Captain Templeton and an official telegram was sent to his wife, Doris at East Brighton.  His personal effects, which had been left at Kokoda prior to his last actions at Goirari and Oivi, followed later.  For a time his army file was closed.  The search for his body was officially abandoned and his official fate was amended to read, ‘Missing in Action 27th July 1942’ and for official purposes ‘Presumed Killed in Action’.  During the later campaigns in the north of Papua some Japanese intelligence reports were captured which included references to the Yokoyama Advanced Force’s operations during the Yokoyama Advanced Force’s operations during August at Kokoda.  One of these caused the fate of Captain Templeton to be re-examined and a new investigation to be started.  When one of these captured reports was translated it read in part:  ‘Yokoyama advanced groups entered battle with 39 Australian Battalion led by Captain Templeton.  2 Prisoners.  One of them was Captain Templeton.  5 more Prisoners.’  Queensland L of C Area Records Office received this report in February 1943.  As well, another Japanese Intelligence Report was entitled, ‘Enemy Terrain Situation’, and included details which had been taken during the interrogation of a captured Australian captain taking prisoner in the Kokoda area.  This information included the number of Australians that confronted the Japanese advance, and in part read, ‘That a battalion of about 1000 men, commanded by a colonel had arrived in that area some 10 days before.  In addition there were believed to be 500 to 600 Papua New Guinea troops with European officers along the Mambare River.

‘There is no doubt that the captured officer was Templeton and it is assume that after his capture, he endeavoured to bluff his captors into believing that the strength of the Australian force in the Kokoda area was vastly larger than it was.  It was his last effort to delay the Japanese from totally overwhelming the 39th’s positions at Kokoda.  He had given them a totally false estimate, which was some ten times the amount that there really was.  By doing so, it forced the Japanese to re evaluate their position and gave his comrades some time to regroup and be reinforced.  This was a brave move on his behalf.  It had been assumed that after his capture, the Japanese dispensed with him, after gathering all the useful information his captors felt they would obtain.  There are certainly several instances when the Japanese executed their prisoners soon after interrogation.  However there was possibly one more sighting of him shortly after this period.  When some members of the 39th Battalion Association returned to New Guinea in 1967 for one of their first pilgrimages to the former battleground, a local villager who had lived in the area during the campaign of 1942 approached one of its members.  The villager spoke of an Australian captain who was a prisoner and was in a cage on his own at Oro Bay on the coast.  It was presumed that the captive was waiting to be transported to Rabaul, as other captured officers from the New Guinea area had been taken there in 1942.

‘There are no captured Japanese documents to prove or disprove this, but it must be remembered that captured officers were of great interest to Japanese Intelligence.  It is unlikely that an officer would be so quickly done away with, if there were any chance of securing more information that would assist the Japanese later.  It would be more likely that the first interrogation which he was submitted to, was to gather information about the immediate area and the Australians that confronted them, and that he was possible taken back for transportation to Rabaul for more thorough interrogation after this.

‘However, he definitely did not survive captivity and his official date of death is still unknown.  Army Records kept his file open and marked it, ‘Missing in Action and Believed Prisoner of War’ until July 1945, when it was amended to read, ‘Believed Deceased on or after the 27th July 1942’.  Captain Templeton faced his captivity as he commanded his company – with great resilience and by placing the welfare of his men and fellow officers before his own.  He assisted the rest of his comrades by slowing down the Japanese, by making them more cautious of what lay ahead of them at Kokoda and may have saved many lives. Had the Japanese advanced swiftly and with the knowledge that only a mere hundred or more Australians were before them, then the two thousand or more Japanese would have had a swift victory.

‘What of the other prisoners whom the Japanese had claimed to have captured?  The soldier reported captured at the time Captain Templeton was taken prisoner, was more than likely Private Sydney Moffatt, who disappeared the previous night.  He had been sent out as a runner from the advanced platoons, to report back to Kokoda during the action at Goirari and no trace was ever found of him.  For the other five, of whom all are undoubtedly B Company men, there are two explanations.  After Templeton went missing it is said a small patrol was sent out to locate him.  These as well were never seen again, although this group may be confused with Sergeant Martorana’s small group who went out after him and were forced back.  The second theory is that when the beleaguered platoons at Oivi extracted themselves to regroup at Kokoda, it could be that some did not get the message to break contact.  This was a belief that Sergeant Martorana held, interviewed some sixty years after the battle.  The order to withdraw had been passed around from man to man, but he believed that a few may not have received the message and so were left behind in the confusion.

‘Examination of the battalion’s nominal roll reveals that eight of B Company were missing, believed dead, and have no known graves.  At least two of these, (Privates Holness and Priestly) can be discounted as one was last seen badly wounded, and the other is believed to have been blown clear over the escarpment at Kokoda when his weapon pit received a direct hit.  What is known is that the Japanese made no mention of them by name, and having already captured a senior officer, would have had little use for private soldiers who fell into their hands.  An advancing army, fighting in such a terrain, has little resources for prisoners.  It must be presumed therefore that these members of B Company were put to death soon after capture, maybe in sight of Captain Templeton in an attempt to extract information from him.  We cannot tell exactly how these men died, but we do know that they all lived to the high ideals of their country, and died in its defence with staunch courage.’

Carl Johnson
Mud over Blood
History House, 2006