William Hurtle (Schmitty) SCHMITT AM

SCHMITT, William Hurtle

Service Number: SX9929
Enlisted: 27 July 1940
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: Ungarra SA
Occupation: Stock & station worker
Died: Natural Causes, Adelaide, South Australia, 6 May 2015, aged 97 years
Cemetery: Not yet discovered
Memorials: Ballarat Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial, Tumby Bay RSL Portrait Memorials
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World War 2 Service

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

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.”

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Biography contributed by Geoffrey Stewart

William (Bill) was born at Cowell on 30 April 1918 to Francis Frederick Lincoln (Linc) Schmitt and Sybil Schmitt (nee Goodes).  His father was a ganger on the railways.  He was the eldest of 5 boys in the family. 

Bill went to school at Ungarra, leaving at the completion of Grade 7 in 1931. He undertook whatever work he could get, working mainly on local farms as a 14 year old lad, until he managed to get a job with Sheehans at Tumby Bay and then with Elders.  He remained in this employ until he enlisted.

In Juyl 1940 both he and his brother, Murray, went across to Adelaide on the “Minnipa” and enlisted in the Army at Wayville (SA).  Bill undertook his recruit training at Wayville before being allocated to 2/3rd Machine Gun (MG) Battalion.  He then undertook further training at Warradale (SA) and Woodside (SA), before entraining for Sydney.

On 10 April 1941 he embarked on the “Isle de France” bound for the Middle East.  In May 1941 he arrived at Hill 95 in Palestine before being sent into Syria.  He remained in Syria until January 1942.

In late January 1942 he embarked on the “Orchidy” bound for Summatra:  before boarding, the battalion had been stripped of all its weapons and the troops had only marching order (basically the clothes that they were wearing).  All of their equipment, weapons, echelon bags and such were loaded onto another ship, never to be seen again.  On arrival at Summatra on 10 February 1942 he went ashore at Heoostafen; he and a few of the troops were given weapons from the ships store and the remainder were advised to “cut themselves a stout stick and wait for someone to drop and to grab their rifle”.  It was found that the Japanese were already entrenched here so it was back onto the ship and off to Batavia (Djakarta) for a night landing to secure the airport.  The next morning his unit location was bombed so it was off to Boetenzorg – it was here that they had their first contact with Japanese ground troops.  The troops of 2/3rd MG and 2/2nd Pioneer Battalions (about 1000) began a strategic withdrawal, but the Dutch capitulated and blew the radio transmitter, so the Australian’s had no communications with their senior Headquarters.

On 9 March 1942, Bill was captured.  He was taken to Leles, then to Garoet and finally to Bandoeng, where the Prisoners of War (PoW) were held and concentrated.  In January 1943 about 1000 PoW were taken by train to Makasura, then by boat to Singapore arriving on 10 January 1943.  During the trip Bill had contracted amoebic dysentery, so was taken to hospital where he almost died, whilst the remainder of the PoW were taken to Thailand.

After recovering from the disease he was taken to the infamous Changi prison.  This prison was built to house 600 inmates, but 6000 PoW were held there.  He was put to work building the Changi airstrip.  Again he almost died, but this time as a result of allied air raids on the airstrip.

On 30 August 1945 he was released.  It was decided that those that had served in the Middle East would be sent home first, but again difficulties arose.  He boarded an aircraft on 20 September 1945 bound for Australia, but the aircraft had engine trouble, so a day later he landed in Balikpapan (Borneo).  Bill and his mates had only the clothes they stood in varying from lap-laps to home made shorts, so when they landed in Balikpapan they received the first hot shower they had had in 4 years (with soap!) and were issued with a new set of  US uniforms.  From here the aircraft flew to Moratai and then to Maraukee, but on this leg the aircraft was caught in a fierce electrical storm and had to put down in Beok (PNG).  It was then an uneventful trip, refueling at Maraukee and Townsville before arriving at Brisbane.  Bill then traveled by troop train to Melbourne where he again met with his brother Murray.

He then traveled to Adelaide and was given a weeks leave whilst repatriation checks were completed before being given a further months leave to return to Cummins to see his mum and dad: he took his discharge on 22 November 1945.

On 22 April 1946 Bill married Joan Heinze at Port Lincoln.  They had 3 children, a boy and 2 girls.

Bill continued his repat and got a job with Welford builders before again gaining employ with Elders.  He was certainly mobile in this job, working at Adelaide, Tumby Bay, Cummins, Kapunda, Cleve and Keith, before finally returning to Adelaide.  In December 1978 he retired and settled into his house at Mitchell Park in Adelaide.   But in retirement he could not stop – in 1995 he was awarded an AM because of the untiring work that he had undertaken for veterans and POW welfare.  Even at the age of 93 he was still heavily involved and was a member of the Veterans Advisory Council that reported directly to the minister.

In his younger days he was a keen sportsman, playing cricket and football for Tumby and after the war tennis.

He was a member of the RSL and Secretary of the Tumby Bay Sub Branch.  He attended the opening ceremony of the RSL building in Tumby.

 Bill died in May 2015. He is buried in Adelaide.


Post Script.

Bill tells a story of how the RSL at Tumby was funded in its early days.  In fact how many clubs were funded on the Peninsula at that time.

Crops were sown on various farms and the farmer would get half for providing the land whilst the club would get the remaining half for sewing and reaping the crop.  It happened that the “townies” contribution to this scheme was the sewing of the bags in which the wheat was transported. Each person was expected to sew 100 bags in a day.

One day in the middle of summer it was Bills turn to sew the bags.  He and his mate, Bob Fitzgerald , duly arrived at the Tumby Bay hotel to be transported to a farm, out near Lipson.  The publican of the time noted them outside and surmised that they were off to bag sew, so gave them a flagon of beer to slake their thirst during the day.

Bill states that by morning “smoko” the beer was gone, it was as hot and dusty as hell and he had sewn 8 bags.  In the paddock next to him he could see a professional bag sewer working away, so Bill went over and asked him how much he charged per 100 bags; he replied 15/- ($1.50).  Bill said OK, gave him 15/- and said there are 92 to sew over there.  He walked back, told his mate what he had done, hitched a ride back to town and went to the pub.

His mate had said that it was too expensive to pay to have the job done and continued on in the field.  About an hour after Bill arrived at the pub his mate walked in and ordered a beer.  Bill asked how he had finished so quickly, and his mate answered that he had paid 15/- to the same bag sewer to finish his remaining 90 bags.

No doubt they spent the rest of the day recuperating (in the hotel) from this ordeal!  


Medals and Decorations

Order of Australia                                                                                          

1939-45 Star                                                                                                  

Africa Star                                                                                                     

Pacific Star                                                                                                    

Defence Medal

War Medal 1939-45

Service Medal 1939-45