Terry Gleeson (NX58765) Early Years
TERRY – EARLY DAYS
TERRY – EARLY DAYS
Although my Birth Certificate shows that I was born on the 2nd September 1921, the correct date is 3rd September. My mother told me that, so it must be right. The Hospital in Griffin Street, Camperdown was still there a few years ago. My early years until I was about 16 years of age, were spent at Newington College, Stanmore where my Dad was the Groundsman/Caretaker. The College was a full boarding school, and a small farm was located in the college grounds to supply the college kitchen. The farm had about 9 cows, 3 horses, a large number of hens, a duck-pond with ducks, plus fox-terrier dogs to combat the rats. There was also a large vegetable garden. It was Dad’s job assisted by us kids to operate the farm. After a few years, the farm was phased out. That did not relieve us of work though, as we had to help with maintaining the college grounds, marking the Ovals for events like cricket, athletics and football. During the school holidays we would help paint the rooms in the college building and in our spare time we would do gardening. In that time, I learnt how to milk a cow, ride, shoe and drive horses, paint, concreting and many other tasks.
The other side of life at the College was the beautiful grounds, a swimming pool, tennis courts, cricket pitches, athletic track and football grounds. The outside world was tough though. The Depression years were in full mode, massive unemployment, people being evicted from their homes, starvation, and the whole country suffering terribly. Our family at the college were insulated against this. Dad had a regular wage and we grew every vegetable we needed. There was a downside to life at the college though, because it was a private, fully enclosed college, outsiders were not permitted to enter the college grounds, so if you wanted to play cricket, football, or swim with your mates, it was not allowed. I always felt a great sense of isolation. Although I had great times with my brothers playing every type of sport, and wonderful fishing and camping trips with them, I never experienced the companionship of a mate until I joined the Army, and there I formed bonds with men that sadly I never experienced after the War.
My first school was St. Michael’s at Stanmore, but because of finance, I left and attended Stanmore Commercial School. My parents had a struggle to pay the school fees for my six sisters who were educated at St. Michael’s. Strangely, my first years of Primary were held in the Chapter Hall at Newington College, only a few yards from my home. The anti Catholic/Irish feelings were rife during those years, and I remember clearly that only non-Catholic children were selected from Stanmore School to march over the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the opening in 1932. I was top of my class in History and Geography, but had pretty ordinary gradings in the rest. I left school at the age of 15 after sitting for the Intermediate Certificate, which was the age when most left school. I did not like the Protestant environment at school, raising the flag every day, singing “God save the King” and “Land of Hope and Glory” – no “Queen of Heaven” to see me though the trials and tribulations of school life.
During school years, I used to go away to Brookfield, near Dungog, to stay with my Aunt Nellie, Mum’s sister. She was married to an Irishman, Tom Walsh, and they had a dairy farm on the banks of the Williams River. They were the most fulfilling days of my life, surpassed only when I married Marie. I often think of the small hill where I used to stand and look down at the farm and recall Sir Walter Scott’s poem “breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never to himself has said, :”This is my own, my native land. 7)
On leaving school, a whole new life started. I commenced employment at E.M.C.O. at Waterloo, now known as EMAIL. It was all electrical work, which was good, but my heart was in Brookfield, and I dearly wanted to be a farmer. At 16 years of age, I started playing Rugby football with Petersham 1st Grade Juniors, our home ground being Newington College. I played outside centre and enjoyed some success, and was picked in the Metropolitan side. I reluctantly gave Rugby away to concentrate on Athletics as a member of Botany Harriers Club. I had won the N.S.W. titles for the Mile and 880 yards in record time. The Gleeson family moved from the college about this time, 1938, and we took up residence at 24 Wemyss Street, Marrickville.
War broke out on my 18th birthday and in January 1940, I won the N.S.W. State Senior Mile Championship. Recruitment for the Armed Services was in full swing, and I tried to join up, but was knocked back because of my age. 21 years was the Enlistment age, and I looked about 16 years old. Eventually, on nth July 1940, stating that my age was 23, I was accepted into the 2nd A.I.F. at the Military Depot, where the Sydney Football Stadium now stands. My last Will and Testament was witnessed by Lieutenant Cutler, later Sir Roden Cutler, V.C. and Governor of New South Wales. My actual age was 18 years, two months short of my 19th birthday.
In November, 194o I was invited to Melbourne for the Fighting Forces Athletic Championships to be held on the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was the first time that professional and amateur athletes had competed against each other. By a strange coincidence, all Australian and State Champions were in the Armed Services. Sir. Donald Bradman was an Army Officer and was in charge of the Army athletes. To me, he was a colourless individual and seemed insignificant next to some of the famous athletes who ran that day. Ted Best, Australian Sprint Champion, later Lord Mayor of Melbourne. Sir Hubert Opperman, Olympic Cycling Champion, Len Sprague, Stawell Gift winner, and Gerald Backhouse, 1 Mile and 880 Yards champion of Australia and also an Olympian, were some of the champions who ran that day. Within 12 months a number of the athletes who competed that day had lost their lives in the Second World War.
The Carnival was promoted by the Melbourne Sporting Globe Newspaper, and a crowd of 45,000 were in attendance. Patron of the Games was the Prime Minister, Sir. Robert Menzies. Before the Carnival, a number of “high profile” athletes made guest appearances on ABC Radio, at the YMCA and at the Sporting Globe office. I spoke at the ABC and made a guest appearance at the South Melbourne Cricket Ground, and at each appearance we were given a carton of cigarettes, as the Carnival was being promoted as “Fags for Fighters Fund”. I came home loaded with cigarettes, and of course, started smoking. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me, photos and interviews for the papers, being driven everywhere.
On 3oth November 1940, I lined up in the 880 yards Championship, against a chap named McDonald, Australian Professional Champion over 880 yards and the Mile, and Gerald Backhouse, Australian Amateur Champion, among other very good athletes. I won the race in record time from McDonald and Backhouse, Less than 12 months later, Backhouse lost his life in a bombing raid over Germany. He was a wonderful friend to me and gave me invaluable advice relative to athletics. (My prize for winning the Fighting Forces Championship was a mantel clock presented by Sir. Robert Menzies. We had it in our home for many years.)
On returning to Army life in Sydney, I was transferred from Infantry to a Signals Unit, a transfer that I resented throughout my Army career. We did our Infantry training at Newington College, and at Undercliff along the banks of the Cooks River. It was tough and hard, but I loved it. My first camp was the Sydney Showground: we would march out the Paddington Gates up Moore Park Road and into Centennial Park, where we were given all sorts of training. Later I was sent to Royal Park Camp, Melbourne where I did a course at the Melbourne Technical College. My brother Jim was with me, and we competed in Athletics at Olympic Park, where we had great success. I managed to win the Victorian State 880 yards Championship.
On leaving Melbourne, we went to the Showground camp at Tamworth in New South Wales – this was in 1944 and after rigorous training, we marched through the streets of Tamworth and boarded a troop train to Sydney, travelling along the goods train line that is now the Light Tramway System which passes Star City to Cockle Bay (Darling Harbour), where a ferry took us to the Queen Elizabeth berthed at Athol Bight opposite the Taronga Zoo. A convoy consisting of the Queen Elizabeth, Queen Many and either the Mauritania or the Aquitania, left Sydney in July 1941.
Our first stop was Jervis Bay in New South Wales, then Fremantle, Western Australia, where we stayed for a week, then off to Trincomalee, Ceylon, and before reaching Ceylon, one of the ships mentioned above, Aquitania or Mauritania, left our convoy and went to Singapore. Our final port of call was Port Tewfik. We boarded a troop train in Egypt and travelled alongside the Suez Canal, and then to the outskirts of Cairo. I have never experienced such filth or human misery before in my life.
People used the streets as lavatories and the stench was unbearable. It was our first experience of War – there were wounded soldiers from the desert, evacuees from Crete and Greece, enemy planes in the sky – it seemed so unreal. Later we crossed into Palestine to a place called Hill 69, where we did our training for the desert. I thought that I was going to die, chlorinated water and dreadful food, the heat and flies, plus the hard training, after such a long sea journey was very tough. We went back to Egypt into the desert where our Unit, the 2/3 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment provided protection for the fighter planes used to strafe enemy positions. The planes were located behind sand-bagged walls to protect them from enemy attacks and the violent sand storms. Our gun positions were only protected by a metre high sand bag partition , and a slit trench.
The Signal Unit had to provide a telephone connection between gun positions which were often damaged by trucks running over them, or by enemy action. A Wireless signal post would be set up well in front of the airfield to give warning of approaching enemy aircraft. This was usually the first casualty. Our Unit was in bad shape at this time, one of the Batteries was captured in Crete, one was besieged at Tobruk, and the remainder were using captured Italian guns instead of Bofors.
Eventually, we moved from Egypt to Hill 95 Palestine, where we had a great time We did all the tourist trips to Bethlehem, Dead Sea, The river Jordan, Garden of Gethsemane, Mosque of Omar, Way of the Cross and Jerusalem. We were able to play cricket, Rugby and there was a movie theatre. Also the Battery from Tobruk rejoined us. It was so moving when they marched in, many of them walking wounded. Many had lost their lives, some had won medals, and some were captured.
Our next move was to Beirut, Lebanon where we were camped in the Marshal Foch Barracks, Rue de Lyon, Beirut, near the American University. What a change from Egypt and Palestine! It had been a French Protectorate and was a beautiful place, lovely Catholic churches, great food and people. Free French soldiers were everywhere, mostly drunk, singing their national anthem. Late 1941 we were moved to Aleppo in the mountains near Turkey, as the Germans were expected to come through from Iraq and Turkey into Lebanon and Syria. Whilst there, I saw snow for the first time. Then a miracle happened, Pearl Harbour was bombed and America came into the War.
We were hurriedly withdrawn from Lebanon and went back to Palestine, then a mass exodus to Egypt where we learnt that Singapore had fallen. We were shocked and couldn’t believe it as the Japanese Ln-3been regarded as inferior human beings and poor soldiers. We then went to Port Tewfik, where we boarded the “Andes” and were told that we were going to Burma. What a difference we saw at Port Tewfik, bomb damage everywhere, sunken ships in the Harbour, burnt-out tanks and utter devastation.
We left Port Tewfik on the Andes, a beautiful ship used on the South American run, and designed for the tropics. We were escorted by HMAS Australia, and enemy submarine action was very heavy. We slept in hammocks and were not allowed on deck at night. There were a number of ships in the convoy, and one unfortunate ship was directed to Java, where they berthed and the Japanese were waiting for them.
They were captured without firing a shot. Just on dusk one night before being confined below deck, HMAS Australia turned sideways to our ship and flashed a message which we had no trouble reading – it said “Farewell, Andes, hope the troops have a safe return to Australia.” This change in direction was brought about by Prime Minister Curtin, overriding the British Prime Minister Churchill, who had directed us to Burma. It wasn’t quite pandemonium on board at the news, as the war situation was very grave, and we no longer had an escort.
We arrived at Fremantle, but we were not permitted to land. A Band was playing non-stop on the wharf. Army officers at the wharf asked us what we wanted most. Everyone on board roared “bread” which we had never had in the Middle East. Loaves of fresh bread were thrown to us and we gorged ourselves on it. The memory of that day has never left me. Food on the “Andes” was desperately short, and the troops were in an emaciated state when we reached Fremantle – it was no pleasure cruise.
After leaving Perth, we headed east and berthed at Adelaide, but I have no memory of that. We disembarked and went by troop train to Adelaide, the date being St. Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1942. A massive crowd of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel were present and a number of military bands. We were overwhelmed at the reception, and felt quite humble until a Sergeant Major roared out to us “Clear off the station you scruffy lot, General MacArthur has arrived.” Unknown to us, the famous General was on our train, and the reception committee was for him.
We were billeted in private homes around Adelaide. Four of us went to the Emery family in Campbelltown, just out of Adelaide on the banks of the Torrens River. They were vegetable farmers and grew many vegetables, but mainly celery. They were wonderful people and they treated us well. God know what they made of us. One day, Norm Smith, Dan Toohey and myself went for an exploratory walk and noticed this unusual building in the distance. As we approached, it became apparent that it was an hotel. It was the Windsor Hotel, Gilles Plains, and owned by Tom Amoy and his wife Gladys. Outside was this lovely young schoolgirl, Janet Amoy, aged 10 or 12 years. She informed us that the pub wasn’t open, and that they had no beer. That was the start of a wonderful friendship with the Amoys which still exists. Tom and Gladys are now both deceased, but Janet is still going strong in Adelaide.
Because of the war, beer and petrol was short, but we were able to get an increased quota for Tom because of the Army being billetted nearby. Also we supplied him with Army petrol. I spent many happy times with them and when we left Adelaide it was like saying goodbye to your family.
We travelled by troop train to Perth and en route one of the trucks caught fire, and when the driver sprayed the fire extinguisher onto the flames, the whole lot exploded. Someone had sabotaged the extinguisher by filling it with petrol. A check on all the other extinguishers revealed that they had also been sabotaged, no doubt being 5th column activity.
We arrived in Perth minus one of our Batteries which had been despatched to Milne Bay, where the Japanese Army suffered their first defeat of the war. It was a glamorous war in Perth, as we provided Anti-Aircraft defence to the American Catalina Base at Crawley Bay, also similar defence to the American Submarine Base at Fremantle. We were billeted at the Perth University, and meals were provided by the American Navy. We had never tasted food like it. We eventually moved to Moora, about 180 kilometres north of Perth, where there was a massive Army concentration, as intercepted radio messages indicated that the Japanese Army would attempt to land at Jurien Bay. This was 1943 and the tide of war had turned against the Japanese who were suffering heavy losses of shipping and aircraft. At this time, out 8th Battery was being formed into an Airborne Unit, and I was selected for training at a signals school at Fremantle. The course lasted 3 weeks, and I came second in the class and received specialist pay.
We were on a high at the thought of being an Airborne Unit, but our hopes were dashed when the planners realised the impracticality of using Airborne troops in jungle terrain.
I spent Christmas Day 1943 at Berkshire Valley, inland from Moora, and it was a very happy experience. Trips to New Norcia and playing cricket and Rugby against various Army Units. We had a very talented cricket team, and we suffered our first defeat at Berkshire Valley by a N.S.W. Army Unit. Next day, 6 of the team who beat us were killed by a premature mortar explosion. Several other soldiers were also killed, and a Memorial has been erected in their honour by the Moora RSL, on the Berkshire Valley Road.
At this stage, our Unit started to break up. Some went to the Islands, some to Geraldton, Onslow, Exmouth Gulf, Corunna Downs near Marble Bay, and Noonkinbah near Derby. My friend Reg Farrant went to the RAAF and I said farewell to some of the greatest men I have ever known. I have never met their equal since.
I was flown to Corunna Downs near Marble Bar in a DC3, to help set communication lines between ack-ack guns protecting No. 73 Operational Base. The 380th Bomber Group of the United States Air Force, and No. 25 Squadron, RAAF, flying Liberator bombers used this base to bomb Indonesia. About 4 p.m. every day we would watch the young pilots and crews, laughing and joking as they boarded their giant bombers, and the roar of their engines as they took off, then the relief we all felt when they returned safely from their mission. It was no picnic at Corunna Downs, unbearable heat, no fresh food, brackish bore water to drink, and utter isolation. Later I flew in a DC3 to Noonkinbah, about 200 kilometres inland from Derby, where there was a similar base used to bomb Indonesia.
It was a big improvement on Corunna Downs, the beautiful gorges and the Fitzroy River were nearby, and I visited Derby and Broome. We eventually left there as the wet season was approaching. We travelled in a massive convoy through terrible desert and spinifex country, no roads until we reached the railhead at Meekatharra, some hundreds of kilometres from Perth.
Our stay in Western Australia had come to an end, and it was with mixed feelings that we left. We never felt frustrated by not being sent to the Islands, as we all felt that we would all take part in the final massive invasion of the Japanese mainland. The Atom bomb on Hiroshima put paid to all that.
After leave in Sydney, we went to Logan Village, Queensland to do a 3 month jungle training course – it was 3 months of torture. Bed at 9 p.m. then out of bed at 11 p.m. then march and run about 10 miles through a dark jungle, through creek beds and back to bed, then up again at 6 a.,m. climbing and jumping out of trees.
No one objected to the training, as we all realized that the task ahead of us was going to be tough. About this time, the Army got stricter with the grading of the troops – if you didn’t measure up, you were graded B.1. and down the scale, which meant that you were not fit for active service. All of us fit men thought that it was great, but it was sad to see some of the troops struggling to meet the physical demands. If you had work or trade skills, you were given immediate discharge. It was devastating to the troops who fell into that category, but it was merciful, as they had become liabilities.
Leave was only granted on Sundays, from 9 a.m. and as we were camped 3 miles from Logan Railway Station, I was the only one who initially went on leave, as you had to walk to the railway station, and of course, back at night. I used to go to Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral at 11.a.m. and I found out through a parishioner, that athletics were conducted every Sunday at Lang Park, now known as Suncorp Stadium, home of Queensland Rugby League. It was only an open field in those days, and only a handful of athletes competing in every event. I met Hugh Moriarty there, Sports Editor of the Brisbane Courier Mail.I was treated like royalty, and through his radio programme and newspaper articles of which I was the main focus, athletics really took off. Athletes from the Services and civilians turned up, and the crowds, starved of entertainment because of the War, came along too. Eventually, we transferred to the Brisbane Exhibition Ground to accommodate the crowds. Quite a few of the soldiers from Logan Village would come to Brisbane to compete. One who stands out is Frank Washbourne. Frank fancied himself as a walker, and he did very well. Returning to civilian life, he became a member of Kew Harriers, and later President of the Club. He was a member of my Army unit, and a Rat of Tobruk. After the athletic meeting, we would all go to the Salvation Army Chapter Hall, listen to the sermon, sing a few hymns, have a free meal and return to camp about 9 p.m.
Our training completed, we boarded a troop train for Sydney, travelling to Darling Harbour, along the goods train-line which is now the Light Rail System, on which I had previously travelled when I went to the Middle East. It was a different feeling this time. Now we were seasoned troops, and best of all we were winning the War on all fronts. There was no great drama leaving Sydney Harbour. The people of Sydney had become quite used to troopships on their way to War after 5 years of hostilities. I can’t remember the name of the ship, but we sailed unescorted by warships. We sailed along the coast of New Guinea, being under the protection of land-based Allied aircraft. Eventually, we arrived at Hollandia, which was the capital of Dutch New Guinea – it is now controlled by Indonesia, and is known as Irian Jaya. It was the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur. The troops couldn’t believe the scenery- huge volcanic mountains and impenetrable jungle; it was our first experience of that sort of terrain and it was awe-inspiring. We were in and out of various Islands to avoid Japanese submarines, and at one stage we berthed at Biak, which was a giant harbour for warships. We had no idea where we were going, and one day there was great excitement on the ship – the War in Europe had ended. We had a party of sorts, and it was great fun.
Our final stop was an island called Morotai. It is located in the Halmaheras group of islands, and on the main island of that group was an active volcano: it was a fascinating sight to see a volcano in its active state. Also on that island were located the Japanese 14th Army, who were fully equipped with everything an Army needs, except fuel and food. They were completely cut off by the Allied Navy and Air Forces.
At Morotai, there were no wharves, so we had to clamber down the side of the ship on a rope ladder. It was quite hilarious, and some lost their footing and fell into the sea -steel helmets came adrift and landed on the heads of troops below, also a few rifles were lost. The Island of Morotai is pear-shaped, and some months earlier American troops landed, and after casualties on both sides, secured the neck of the island, and put up a huge barrier rampart of coral, sand and coconut trees. On one side the Americans built a runway, from which bombers and fighter planes took off at various times to attack Japanese positions.
On the other side of this barrier, there were thousands of Japanese troops, who were completely immobilized. We could see Japanese in the distance tending to their gardens, as they were without food and medicine. The American policy was, why endanger soldiers lives fighting an enemy who was already beaten. The Australian policy was completely different, as evidenced in the book “The Unnecessary War” by Peter Charlton. The Australian Army at this stage was not needed, as the American General MacArthur did not want to be burdened with the responsibility of having Australian troops under his command, as he had a surplus of American troops. However, the Australian Generals under the command of the egotistical General Blarney did not want to be left out of the War, and against the advice of the Americans, resumed hostilities against the massive Japanese Army on Bougainville. They had already been neutralized by the American Army. This action caused hundreds of deaths among Australian troops, and achieved no purpose.
The plan for the Australian Army on Morotai was to invade British North Borneo, and capture the oilfields on Balikpapen, Labuan, Borneo mainland, and Tarakan, and after wards to capture Singapore and Malaya. It was only a sideshow compared to the American plans to invade the Phillipines, Okinawa and the Japanese mainland, and the Americans had no desire to risk American lives on British territory. However, plans for the invasion of Borneo had been made and there was no turning back. Back on Morotai, there was great activity, but I was not involved, apart from patrols and guard duty. Every day, Australian troops in full battle gear would march out of camp towards the harbour, so I followed them, and was amazed at the sight of LCIs, LCTs and LCMs and various warships. LCI stands for Landing Craft Infantry, LST for Landing Craft Tank. The troops were boarding these vessels, and I was determined that I was going with t hem, so back to camp I went, dressed in my full battle gear and told my brother Jim what I intended doing. He was non-committal, so off I went to the harbour. When I got there, all of the ships except LST 636 had loaded and berthed away from the shore. An American Marine was guarding the ramp, and I marched straight past him and was never challenged. A few minutes after boarding, the LST pulled out into the harbour. This was the ist June 1945. I did not feel any apprehension by my act of stowing away, rather exhilaration. The scene was unbelievable, hundreds of ships of all shapes and sizes. Some were being prepared for the landings at Tarakan and the Phillipines.
Eventually on the 4th June 1945, we left Morotai in a convoy of 85 ships, commanded by Admiral Royal in U.S.S. “Royal Mount”. All of the LSTs, LCIs and LCMs were American ships, and the escorting vessels were USA cruisers, “Boise” “Nashville” and “Phoenix” and HMAS ships, cruisers “Hobart” and “Arunta” whilst three other Australian ships “Manoora, “Kanimbla” and “Westralia” were in the convoy. Conditions on the LST were not good. ‘The ship was only small and contained about 500 troops. There were only 2 salt-water showers, and 6 latrines. The only fresh water issued was for drinking. We were confined to the upper deck with no cover, and were drenched by tropical downpours. A lot of the troops suffered from heat-stroke and malaria. In his book “The Unnecessary War” Peter Charlton wrote “in almost six years of war, the writer has never seen troops subjected to more deplorable conditions. ” Once at sea, we were informed of our target. Maps were produced which showed great detail, and we were familiar with our responsibilities. No-one took any notice of me of course. anew a lot of them, but as there was no roll-call I was never questioned. However, I used to spend a lot of time talking to our Padre, and one day he asked me what Unit I belonged to. I could have fooled him, but I couldn’t lie to a priest, so I told him, after swearing him to secrecy. Father was quite concerned, as he thought that I might get killed in the landing, and no one would know who I was. I told him I wasn’t worried about that, and Father said “What about your family” Eventually, Father said that he would sound out the skipper of the ship. Later he came back and said that the skipper would place me in the brig and take me back to Morotai. Later, Father worked out a plan with a Lt. Fraser that when we landed, I was to report to him and he would place me under “Open Arrest” and attach me to his Unit. Sadly, I can’t recall the priest’s name, but I will always remember him wading ashore in water up to his neck.
Although conditions on board were not good, I loved the journey. Off Mindinao, an oil tanker refuelled the ships, that was the 7th June, and the next day 12 PT boats joined us for the run into Borneo. As dawn broke on the 9th June 1945, the convoy, after a journey of 1100 miles, was anchored in Victoria Harbour, Labuan. What followed was the most exhilarating experience of my life. First of all, Father wanted us to go to Mass, but we were too wound up. It is hard to describe the scene. Just off-shore, the rocket ships started firing hundreds of rockets against the shore defences, followed by mortar fire. Then the Naval bombardment followed which was most spectacular, as the Americans use gunpowder to fire their shells, whilst the Australian Navy uses cordite. One burns black and the other white, which was a spectacular sight, especially as the ships recoiled many feet backwards when firing. Over a period of 7o minutes, at spaced intervals, rocket fire, Navy shelling and bomber raids were carried out. The range of fire was increased from the beach, every 100 yards until it reached B00 yards when firing ceased. At the height of the firing, a lone Japanese fighter bomber came hurtling through the barrage and dropped a single bomb close to our ship, which dislodged us a few feet. You could clearly see the pilot, who got clean away.
Then came the big moment, our LST charged to the shore, but did not go up to the beach, as the skipper was wary of getting stuck on the coral. Down came the ramp, and we jumped up to our necks in water. It was utter chaos, the smell of gunpowder and cordite was overpowering. As I reached the beach, I noted a 44 gallon oil drum sitting on a wooden stand without a mark on it. I thought that if they missed that, they must have missed a few Japanese. The landing was unapposed, by that I mean that there were no prepared shore defences, as the Japanese had prepared a defensive position situated inland, known to us as the “Pocket”. It measured 2000 by l00o metres, and it was here that the Japanese Army made its final stand. Although there was chaos on the beach, it was organized chaos. Bulldozers, graders and water pumps were unloaded by the RAAF to repair the Airstrip and to pump water out of the bomb craters caused by Allied bombing. Field guns of all calibre were being unloaded. Field Hospitals and field kitchens, tanks, bren-gun carriers, all of these being unloaded on a beach devastated by bombardment, and at the same time subjected to enemy fire.
I had surrendered to Lt. Fraser and was put under the charge of a Sergeant, with a small group who had to lay a telephone line from the beach to the airstrip. Besides carrying half a mile of cable, you carried all your possessions as well. Eating utensils, toilet facilities, field dressings, rifle and ammunition, clothing et. It was dark when we reached the airstrip, the sky was alight with machine gun fire and artillery. The Japanese fire was easily identified by its peculiar sound, and was dubbed “The Woodpecker”. We put up 2-man tents and attempted to settle down, but because of a number of casualties to our troops, we were ordered back to the beach, where we took shelter in one of the landing craft.
The next day, we came across a deserted POW camp which had contained Australians. Some of them had carved their initials and army number into the coconut trees, others had scratched a message to their loved ones on their metal eating utensils, known as dixies. We were overjoyed, as we thought that we would soon be rescuing them. Sadly we learned later that they had perished on the Sandakan Death March. The Japanese responsible were later hung at Labuan by the Allied War Commission.
Our duties were to lay a telephone cable to enable gunfire from artillery to be directed at the Pocket. These Observations posts gave the range to the gunners who would then fire. Damage was caused to the cable by Army trucks, Matilda tanks, bombing from the air by Allied planes, and sabotage by Japanese who infiltrated our lines in nuisance raids, and were quickly eliminated. I remember seeing a number of Japanese dead, lying outside a small Hospital, all shot presumably by their own Army. It was rather sad to go through their possessions and see photos of their families, and then see them buried in a mass grave. Some of the things done to the bodies was terrible, especially gold teeth, which was a prized souvenir. The Pocket held out for a week, and we worked under extreme danger, as it was continuously bombed by medium Liberator bombers, previously stationed at Marble Bar. Then followed Beaufighters firing rockets. Although we were some distance away, we had no warning of their approach, and the blasts and concussion was frightening. After the planes left, the Navy would fire much heavier shells, then our Artillery would fire 25 pounder shells at the Pocket. As soon as the firing stopped, the Japanese would commence return fire. Our position overlooked the Pocket, and one day a Matilda Tank made a frontal attack, and when about 100 metres away, the engine failed, and there was a mad scramble for safety. Eventually the Pocket was taken, and we were on a hill overlooking the area, which was absolutely devastated for a mile square. Every coconut tree, vegetation and land feature had been obliterated. A handful of Japanese soldiers, dressed only in loin cloths came out of the bunker, totally disorientated – one was leading a monkey which appeared to be bomb-happy. I was only a witness, and was not involved in the action. The area was sealed off and bull-dozed, so I don’t know how many Japanese were entombed. Shortly before this, we stripped some equipment from a Japanese ‘mess area. There was rice everywhere, and the Japs would sneak back to retrieve the rice as they were starving. As we were loading the timber we had taken, we saw a section of 2/28th Infantry running towards us. They were quite excited and wanted to know where the Jap kitchen was located. They told us there were a lot of Jap stragglers about, and to keep clear of the kitchen. Off they went, and as we drove off, a truck carrying RAAF personnel pulled up and asked us where the Jap kitchen was, as they wanted some timber for flooring their tents. We told them of the warning by the 2/28th, but they just laughed. A provost had been stationed on the track to prevent servicemen from entering the area, but when a sudden squall of rain hit, the provost ran to his jeep to get his ground sheet, and the RAAF men scrambled to the kitchen area. As we drove off, rifle fire broke out and the RAAF men were killed or wounded. We were ordered out by the 2/28th, and the casualties caused to the RAAF personnel was never verified. Another time, we were laying lines, when I experienced this strange feeling. My hair stood up on my neck, and I knew I was in danger. I did not want to alert the other linesmen until I assessed the situation. I eventually saw this Japanese soldier squatting in a foxhole with a rifle across his body, his face caked in mud and staring straight at me. I could see that he was badly wounded and dying. I called out to the other linesmen and we dragged him out of the foxhole, but he was beyond help. One of our soldiers had a camera and various photos were taken. I souvenired his water bottle which I still have in my possession. Later, other troops arrived and directed a flame-thrower into the foxhole, which is a terrible thing to see.
It was a strange experience at Labuan, you were in the front line, and yet there was normal activity going on, with the villagers still living there. You would see the women washing their clothes in the fast-flowing streams, children following us around, oblivious to the danger of booby traps, and all sorts of military fire, Allied and Japanese. Then in a clearing you would see the temporary graves of our Australian troops who were later removed for a proper burial. Sporadic and daring raids were carried out by the Japanese soldiers who were starving. These raids were carried out at night, and you could never relax. I had an unusual task to carry out, in looking after an official artist who would sketch a scene where some action had taken place. I did this on a few occasions, but I have no recollection of his name. Every day I was fully occupied,. and we laid communication lines all over the island, the Japanese by this time had been defeated. I never served with my old Unit, the 2/3 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment in Labuan. They had a problem because their A.A. guns were useless, as there was no enemy aircraft to fire at. The guns were converted to artillery shells, but I don’t know that it was very successful. I can’t remember the signal unit I served with, but I do remember the officer who was in charge of us. He was Lt. Harry Cummins, a Scotsman who had been a member of the Palestine Police, a British semi-military civilian Police Force trying to keep peace in Palestine between Arabs and Jews – this Unit being disbanded at the outbreak of World War 2.
Harry was a born leader and he had a presence about him that made you feel good to be part of his team. He was always out in front, and appearing impervious to danger -calm and deliberate in every order he gave. I have never forgotten him, and I still have the same respect for him after all those years. We met again shortly after the War, and Harry had a guesthouse in Cairns, Nth. Queensland. As I was writing these memories, I learnt that Harry passed away a few years ago.
About this time, morale in our group was low, the idea of exposing yourself to danger didn’t appeal to some of our men. To be fair, they were very young, 18 to 19 years old, and they had only been in the Army about a year. As a result, it was the same team who went out each time, but it all came to a head on one occasion when we had to secure a cable which was laid over a creek which became a raging torrent after a tropical storm. The debris in the creek would foul the cable, and we had to repair it. It was decided that the safest time to repair it was at night. During the day, two coconut trees of suitable length were cut down to string the cable over the creek. None of us was happy about the task as it was dark and the night sky was lit by tracer bullets, and every insect created was attacking us. Tempers became frayed when the same team was selected for the operation. Insults were hurled at those staying behind. I complained bitterly to Lt. Cummins, and he then directed everyone to assist in the task. Previously the coconut trees had been secured on opposite banks of the creek, and we all took off in a sullen mood. What happened after that is etched in my mind forever. We had a Sergeant whose nickname was “Jojo the dogfaced boy” He was the one who had to climb the coconut tree and secure the cable. He was wearing steel calipers on his legs which were used for climbing trees. He went up the tree and secured the cable and climbed down, crossed the creek and prepared to climb the other tree. He was moaning about the mosquitoes biting him, so someone poured a bottle of army insect repellant over his head and shoulders. Up the tree went Jojo, and three-quarters up the tree he let out a blood-curdling scream and dropped the pliers he was carrying. They landed on the head of the soldier who was steadying the coconut tree, as it was coming adrift. Then he lost his balance and fell in the creek. Next down came the coconut tree with Jojo still attached, and landed in the creek. It was pandemonium, as we thought Jojo had been shot. When we realized that it was the insect repellant that had travelled down to his back passage that had caused him to scream, we all fell about laughing. It was unreal. Night-time in a war zone and there we were crying with laughter. Actually I laughed so much I wet myself. It broke up the tension between us, and it was the end of animosity. I never saw Jojo again, and I was told he lost his life shortly after.
My time at Labuan came to an end when two M.Ps came to the camp to escort me back to Morotai. Lt. Cummins would not allow the Provosts to take me, undertaking to deliver me to the ship himself the next morning. Next day, Lt. Cummins drove me in a jeep to the beach area, where I boarded a Liberty ship bound for Morotai. It was an emotional farewell as we had become very good friends. Liberty ships were the first welded ships ever built – they had no rivets. They were mass-produced and took only 6 days to assemble and were used to transport troops. After the War, all remaining Liberty ships were sunk. Showers were located in -the upper deck and the toilet was an open trough on. the side of the ship, with hundreds of backsides pointing out to sea. There was only one meal a day, and a K Ration to ease the hunger. there were a number of Japanese POWs in the hold of the ship,and one night a terrible accident occurred. A soldier fell into the open hold and fell about 3o feet, suffering dreadful injuries. His cries of agony were dreadful to hear. No lights could be shown, as we were unescorted, and Japanese submarines were still active in the area. There was no Doctor on board, only an Army Medic. Eventually he reached the injured man and the most amazing sight was revealed. The dying soldier was being comforted by the POWs who were visibly distressed. Morphine was injected which quietened the soldier down. Sadly he died before reaching Morotai. A few weeks later the War ended.
On reaching Morotai, I went before an Army Tribunal where I pleaded guilty to being AWOL and was fined Five Pounds. So my sojourn came to an end. The campaign was known as Oboe 6. The casualty figures for the fighting on Labuan/Brunei Bay was 114 Australians killed, 221 wounded. Japanese casualties were 1500 killed by direct military action and 1800 killed by guerillas on other activities. 140 tons of shells were fired into the Japanese “Pocket” over a period of 5 days. On Balikpapen, 229 Australians were killed and 634 wounded. Japanese casualties were 2000 dead and 63 taken POW. 10,000 rockets and 23,000 naval shells were fired at the Japanese. At Tarakan, 235 Australians were killed, including Lt. Derrick, V.C. 669 were wounded. Japanese dead were 1540 and 200 surrendered. The total killed in the Borneo campaign was 578 Australians, which is over a hundred more than Australians killed in Vietnam.
Reference to Army activities in Western Australia can be found in the book, “Australia’s Forgotten Army, 1941-1945” by Graham McKenzie-Smith. The above campaigns in Labuan, Borneo, Tarakan and Balikpapen, British Borneo can be found in the books “The Unnecessary War” by Peter Charlton, and “On Target” the history of my Unit, 2/3 Light A.A.Regiment, where my name is mentioned in Pages 331 and 341.
My involvement in the Borneo campaign was the greatest adventure I have ever experienced, from the very day I stowed away until my return to Morotai, it was total euphoria. I never had one regret. The fine I incurred was my last in the Army, the first being in 1941 when I was at Tamworth. We were told that we were going overseas within a few weeks, and all leave was cancelled. That night, the whole camp went AWL, and boarded a train for Sydney. We boarded a train at Central a few days later to return to camp, minus tickets. When we got to Werris Creek, the Police and railway staff kicked us off the train which was a long way from camp. Eventually, an empty coal train came along and we all scrambled aboard. It was a nightmare of a trip, freezing cold, and when we arrived at Tamworth we were covered in coal dust. I was fined Forty Dollars, which was a lot of money considering I was only on 3o cents a day. My next transgression was in Beirut when I was standing outside the Marshall Foch Barracks in the Rue de Lyon, where I was camped, when the Pommy MPs asked me for by leave pass. I told them I didn’t need one as I was camped at the Barracks. They didn’t believe me, and next minute I’m on my way to a military prison where I only stayed a few hours, as other soldiers had seen me being taken away, and I was soon released without a charge, or an apology.
My next involvement was on my 21st birthday. I was camped at Pearce Airfield, outside Perth W.A. when an Army staff car arrived to pick me up and take me to Bassendean where a party had been arranged at our camp there. When we got to Guildford, the boys stopped outside the Hotel and went into the pub for a drink. I stayed on the footpath outside. Next minute, the Provosts pulled up and asked for my leave pass. I couldn’t get through to the ignorant bastards that I didn’t need a pass, as I was in transit. They wouldn’t check inside the pub, and I was carted off to a lock-up in Stirling Street, Perth, where I stayed for a few hours, being released without being charged. The 21st party in North Road Bassendean that night was a great success.
Life back at Morotai was an anti-climax after Labuan, I met up with my brother Jim who had been to the Phillipines with the American Army, also I saw Reg Farrant, an old Army mate who had transferred to the RAAF and had been shot down over Kuching, Borneo. Reg had escaped capture by the Japanese by travelling over 300 miles in 21 days, through dense jungle. He was an officer then, and we had a great reunion.
One night I was on guard duty, and alone in a particular section armed with a Boyd Anti-tank gun, a heavy calibre gun. My job was to look out to sea, as there were reports of Japanese attempting to land on Morotai from the Halmaheras in search of supplies.
My position was not far from an open-air entertainment area where Gracie Fields, a famous English artist was entertaining hundreds of troops. In the harbour there were ships of every shape and size. All of a sudden, the sky was ablaze with rockets, machine guns and heavy Navy shells. Pandemonium reigned. The troops listening to Gracie Fields panicked and took off en masse, as they thought the Japanese were attacking. There were some terrible injuries caused by barbed wire, men falling into trenches, and some broken limbs. I went for cover and remained well hidden. I had done all I was going to do for King and country. It transpired that the Atom bomb had been dropped in Japan and the Americans had intercepted radio messages that the Japanese were seeking Peace, so they starting firing guns in celebration!
On the 15th August, 1945 when hostilities ceased, the Americans starting firing all their guns and rockets again, and although there was some panic, it was mild compared to the first occasion. Although the surrender had not been formalized the War was virtually over. A whole change had taken over, no more training, and the Army had to find ways to keep us occupied. There were Boxing Tournaments, Swimming Carnivals, and Athletic Meetings. Everyone was so restless, as they wanted to go home. I started training at the Naval Barracks, as I was hoping to be home for the State Championships early in 1946. However, I was doomed to stay at Morotai for some time. This was because the Dutch wanted to buy all of our surplus signal equipment, and I was one of the group of six who had to supervise the disposal of this gear, which consisted of cable, switchboards, telephones, etc. We would load it onto their trucks and in doing so, I learnt to drive fork-lifts, graders and cranes.
While we were supplying the Dutch with signals equipment, the Yanks were loading their LSTs with jeeps, typewriters and all items of Army gear and dumping it at sea. It appalled us to see the Army equipment they dumped: they would not allow you to take any of it. By this time, the place was overrun by Japanese POWs. They were unescorted, and worked unsupervised on the wharves. They were good workers and not in the least bit sullen. They used to play Rugby amongst themselves, and were quite good. At one stage, we were going to play a match against them, but the atrocities against our Australian POWs were coming to light and the contest was cancelled.
About this time, I was interviewed for Radio Australia by Talbot Duckmanton, a War Correspondent. He was a Newingtonian, and knew me well. He later became head of the ABC and was knighted. I was interviewed about my prospects of winning the State Title when I returned to Australia, which incidentally I did win.
On the morning of 2nd September 1945, my 24th birthday, we received news that the formal surrender had been signed in Japan, and a week later I witnessed one of the most memorable events in my Army life. It was the surrender of the 14th Japanese Army, which was held on a Sports Field at Morotai on the 9th September, 1945. It was stage-managed better than a Hollywood production. The RAAF had flown to the main island of the Halmaheras and fuelled the plane of the Japanese General, and escorted his plane back to Morotai. At one end of the field stood General Blarney and his staff. The Japanese General and his orderlies had to walk the full length of the Oval to Blarney, where he bowed, and the terms of surrender were read to him. He accepted the terms, and handed over his sword. Blarney then gave him a verbal blast, saying “I do not recognize you as an honourable and gallant foe” Blarney refused to shake his hand and turned his back on the Japanese entourage. There were hundreds of troops present, and we cheered like mad.
Adjusting to life after hostilities might seem idyllic, but it was traumatic. We all wanted to go home, but of course, a soldier signs up for the duration of the War and 12 months thereafter. There were no roll calls, no drill, no supervision at all. After attending to the Dutch, I would train for athletics at the Navy Base. The area was sand and coral, and the footwear was an old pair of sandshoes. Everyone thought that I was mad, training in such dreadful conditions, but it paid off a few months later when I won the State 880 Yards Championship on the Sydney Cricket Ground. Somehow we came in possession of a sailing boat, and we had some wonderful trips to the small islands around Morotai. My brother Jim was an expert sailor, having been a crew member of an 18 footer sailing in races from Sydney Harbour to Broken Bay. He was the skipper of our boat. Sometimes the natives would tell us of Japanese being on the island, and we would notify the personnel responsible for their capture.
One day we returned from a sailing trip and found our camp deserted, and completely dismantled. Panic set in as we grabbed our few possessions and headed for the Harbour. There a wonderful sight greeted us. The troopship “Westralia” was berthed and being loaded with troops. We were soon processed and went aboard. The trip home was beautiful. The ship was fully lit at night, so unlike the war days, no submarines, although we did come across a few floating mines which were sunk by gunfire.
We berthed at Walsh Bay in the Harbour and there was a Band to greet us. I cannot remember the date, but it would have been January 1946, because we were given a weeks leave and told to report to the Commemorative Building, Sydney Showground, where I was honourably discharged from the Army on 22nd January 1946.
After the “Westralia” berthed, we were told to make our own way home. Some were given rail vouchers. I caught a tram to Enmore and walked home. No counselling to the wounded and war weary. Trauma had not been heard of in 1946.
Entering civilian life at War’s end was a difficult experience. One of the great paradoxes of War is that while most soldiers have little affinity for what they have to do in the Army, they suffer withdrawal symptoms when it ends. For the soldier who has to endure months and even years of living on the edge, the end of War brings a sense of let-down, and that special bond you share with fellow soldiers is broken and nothing ever replaces it. I have never met the equal of the men I knew in the Army. War’s end also caused a lot of anti-social behaviour. Alcoholism and depression. I experienced first-hand the difficulties married ex-soldiers had adjusting to family life when I was a Constable stationed at Newtown. Called to domestic arguments, where children resented their father trying to enforce discipline. He was a virtual stranger, and I saw many men reduced to tears at their inability to handle the situation.
After years of having nearly every decision made for you, the effect of a return to home life was trauma-tic. Buy your own clothes, pay board, find employment. ‘Those who found it too hard, re-enlisted in the Armed Forces and served in the occupation of Japan.
A month after being discharged from the Army, the NSW State Titles were held at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 24th February 1946. I won the 880 yards in record time, and when that time was converted to 800 metres it qualified me for Olympic selection. My only fan that day was Mollie Whelan, a beautiful girl I had known for many years from my Brookfield days. She was a terminally ill patient at Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick and suffered from tuberculosis. Sadly I never saw Mollie again after that day as she died a few weeks later.
Although I won many more athletic honours, my running days were numbered. Trying to combine employment with athletic training was too demanding, and although invited to run in New Zealand and South Africa, I was not interested. It was time to think of work.
I had always wanted to become a policeman, and had enjoyed a happy association with the Police Athletic Club, competing against them regularly. I enquired in 1946, but they had difficulties in getting recruits, because of the Manpower shortages, poor wages, and the 44 hour week. Everyone else had a 40 hour week, plus there was no payment for overtime worked.
So I joined the Postmaster-General’s Department. I had to pass an exam and then do a -training course at Homebush, where I was graded as a Cable-joiner. I was stationed at Stanmore Depot, and worked joining underground cables around Stanmore, Petersham and Marrickville areas. I loved the work, and couldn’t have been happier. However, things changed when I became proficient in my work. Pressure was being put on single men to transfer to the Katoomba area in the Blue Mountains, and also to New Guinea. The conditions, as far as pay was concerned, were terrific, but I was enjoying the stability of home life and did not want to leave. My prospects for advancement were good. I was made permanent, the next step being a Leading Hand, and then eventually an Inspector.