William Hurtle SCHMITT AM

SCHMITT, William Hurtle

Service Number: SX9929
Enlisted: 27 July 1940, Adelaide, South Australia
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion
Born: Cowell, South Australia, 30 April 1918
Home Town: Tumby Bay, Tumby Bay, South Australia
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Stock & station worker
Died: Natural Causes, Adelaide, South Australia, 6 May 2015, aged 97 years
Cemetery: Not yet discovered
Memorials:
Show Relationships

World War 2 Service

27 Jul 1940: Enlisted 2nd AIF WW 2, Adelaide, South Australia
27 Jul 1940: Involvement 2nd AIF WW 2, Private, SN SX9929, 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW2
7 Jun 1941: Involvement 2nd AIF WW 2, Private, SN SX9929, 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, Syria - Operation Exporter
7 Dec 1941: Involvement 2nd AIF WW 2, Private, SN SX9929, 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, Australia's Northern Periphery
15 Feb 1942: Involvement 2nd AIF WW 2, Private, SN SX9929, 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, Prisoners of War
22 Nov 1945: Discharged 2nd AIF WW 2

Bill Schmitt: ex-POW leader



SX9929 Pte William Hurtle (Bill) Schmitt

Born : 30 April 1918, Cowell SA
Enlisted : 27 July 1940
Discharged : 22 November 1945
Died : 6 May 2015, Adelaide


Bill Schmitt, who has died aged 97, was forced – by wartime incarceration in Changi – to remain in the ranks, but rose to high office in the post-war years.

He applied his natural charm and intelligence to advancing the cause of former prisoners of war through leadership of the Ex-POW Association of Australia. Bill had become national president during the 1980s, subsequently succeeding Sir Edward (‘Weary’) Dunlop as patron following the heroic military surgeon’s death in 1993. These considerable achievements were recognised in the 1994 Australia Day honours list, in which William Hurtle Schmitt was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

His grandfather, a German immigrant, was a blacksmith by trade; his father, Lincoln, worked as a ganger on the railways. Bill was educated at Ungarra, near Tumby Bay, in the north-eastern parts of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, and clearly had the potential to advance his studies. However, the grim economic realities of the time meant that, on turning 14 in 1932, he had to seek employment. His father had managed to hang on to his own job, but only with a £1 reduction in his weekly pay packet; the family therefore could not afford to send the young Bill away to high school. Instead, he joined a local stock and station agent, yarding sheep and ‘pencilling’ at auctions. It was a line of work that eventually, long after the war, would see him achieve a senior position in the agriculture sector.

In the meantime, he yearned for some adventure – and found it with the outbreak of war. Before enlisting, Bill sought the counsel of an uncle, a World War 1 veteran who had won a Military Medal while fighting on the Western Front. His uncle’s advice: join the machine gunners because “they’re not right up the front like the infantry”.

His initial taste of action, against the Vichy French, occurred at Quoneitra, in Syria. It was a shock to a young man more accustomed to the wheatfields and beaches of country South Australia. He was immediately confronted by women and children caught in the battle, “running from their homes, crying and screaming”. From there, he was part of the successful advance that effectively ended the Syrian campaign of 1941. Then, early in 1942, came the military disaster of the Dutch East Indies.

Pte Bill Schmitt was among the 636 members of the 2/3rd Australian Machine Gun Battalion who embarked, from the Suez Canal, on the Orcades. Their kitbags, Vickers guns, vehicles, and stores were loaded onto a fleet of small freighters, bound – so it turned out – for Australia. The Orcades, meanwhile, made its way to Java via Sumatra. As Bill himself would discover, on eventually reaching Batavia (now Jakarta): “I had a rifle, five rounds of ammunition, and the clothes I stood up in. It was hopeless – the biggest mess-up you’ve ever seen.”

Ordered to “split up” and avoid capture if at all possible, Bill and three others entertained the idea of commandeering a boat. “But the Japs were all around us,” he said, “and the natives dobbed us in.” On March 9 1942, he became a prisoner of war. Herded into the bowels of a ship and after a foul four-day voyage – allowed on deck only to defecate over the side – the captives were landed in Singapore. There, Bill fell victim to amoebic dysentery. He was admitted, therefore, to hospital at Selarang Barracks, Changi. This episode was life-threatening in one sense but life-saving in another; for he remained in hospital while the bulk of the battalion were despatched as slave labourers on the Burma-Thai Railway.

Nevertheless, on leaving hospital, he immediately encountered other perils: malaria (14 bouts during his years of captivity); shortage of food; exposure to the tropical sun while sent outside the camp on work parties. The absence of protective clothing, ever since the Java debacle, was a constant handicap. Bill developed severe sunburn, and was rescued from his predicament only by the initiative of a fellow prisoner who gave him a shirt from the Changi concert party’s storehouse.

The capricious treatment administered by the guards posed an even greater threat to his welfare. In one singularly violent incident, Bill had caused offence by his inability – after so much illness – to lift a full shovel-load of dirt on an airstrip construction project. An infuriated guard beat Bill to the ground, knocking him unconscious and breaking multiple ribs. The lingering discomfort troubled him for years. “But I still had the strength to souvenir my cell-door number,” he would recall, long afterwards.

At Japan’s surrender, and having unscrewed that number, he was flown to Brisbane in September 1945. The journey was interrupted only by an encounter, at a Borneo airstrip, with the entertainer Gracie Fields. She endeared herself to the old lags of Changi and the Railway by walking over to them, singing Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Good-bye. From Brisbane, where “beer was a high priority”, Bill travelled by train to Adelaide, was “in and out of hospital for a year with malaria”, and secured a job with Elders, the pastoral company that had taken over the agency for which he had worked before the war.

He also found time to get married. Invited to a ‘welcome home’ dance at Cummins, Bill met a local telephonist, Joan Heinze. As his daughter Sue Allard was told, years later: “Everybody was saying to Mum, ‘You’ll be going home with him tonight’.” It was an accurate prediction; Bill and Joan were married on April 24 1946.

The post-war years proved to be a time of deserved, if long delayed, reward for William Hurtle Schmitt: advancement at work, to regional manager (finance) for Elders; the birth of three children; high office within the ex-POW association; leading the Australian delegation of former prisoners to Singapore, at the 50th anniversary of its fall, in 1992; delivering lectures, on his wartime experiences, to university students; and, accompanied by Sue, visiting Japan. There, he found “nothing but politeness and generosity” – and even an apology, for all that brutality during incarceration, from a senior government official. As a consequence, he was able to say: “It’s all behind me now. I’ve forgotten about it.”

As the life of Bill Schmitt ebbed away at a Daw Park care unit over these past few days, distinguished friends recorded personal farewells. A former Governor of South Australia, Sir Eric Neal, was among his bedside visitors; and a former Governor-General, Dame Quentin Bryce, telephoned the Schmitt family to express her admiration for this remarkable ex-digger.

Acknowledging the life and service of Bill Schmitt, the president of the RSL (SA-NT), Brigadier Tim Hanna, said: “Australia has lost a courageous soldier, leader and highly regarded adviser on veterans’ matters, gentleman and staunch family man. His ability to forgive has been a hallmark of his life.”

Read more...
Showing 1 of 1 story