COREY, William Thomas
|17 June 1940, Adelaide, South Australia
|2nd/43rd Infantry Battalion
|Riverton, South Australia, 7 August 1917
|Gilberton, Walkerville, South Australia
|Adelaide High School
|Heart attack, Adelaide SA, 10 October 2018, aged 101 years
|Not yet discovered
|Payneham RSL Honour Board, The Motor Cycle Club of SA Honour Roll
World War 2 Service
|17 Jun 1940:
|Enlisted Private, Adelaide, South Australia
|17 Jun 1940:
|Enlisted Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Private, SX5389, 2nd/43rd Infantry Battalion
|18 Jun 1940:
|Involvement Private, SX5389, 2nd/43rd Infantry Battalion
|10 Apr 1941:
|Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SX5389, 2nd/43rd Infantry Battalion, Siege of Tobruk
|22 Nov 1945:
|Discharged Private, SX5389, 2nd/43rd Infantry Battalion
|22 Nov 1945:
|Discharged Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Private, SX5389, 2nd/43rd Infantry Battalion
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Biography contributed by Don. Corey
This eulogy was delivered in four parts by Bill's daughter, Dianne Skull and son, Don Corey on 19 October 2018.
Dad was born in the hospital at Riverton in August 1917, during World War I. But he lived his first 10 years in the small country town of Tarlee. This was the place that shaped the man he was to become. Let me paint a picture.
No electricity, therefore no refrigeration, no lights; no tap water, only water collected from the roof of the house into a tank, no cars in his family, no TV, shared bedrooms (6 kids), Saturday night baths in shared water, hand me down clothes, horses and carts for transport but with the freedom to roam around the town at will. They did have a phone with a manual exchange – this meant someone could hear all the conversations. He said he spent many hours at the railway yards behind his house watching trains come and go, loading and unloading goods and stock and grain. He loved it when Sir Sidney Kidman’s cattle from up north would be unloaded from the train at Tarlee and walked to the sale yards at Kapunda. His mother didn’t like him being there with the rough stockmen who swore a lot, but he couldn’t stay away. He was always playing with a ball and sometimes a bat made from a piece of old wood lying around. He loved watching the blacksmith make or repair whatever was needed by the farmers.
He played in the creek amongst the reeds catching yabbies. And in the season collected mushrooms.
His school consisted of one class room of about 30 girls and boys, with one teacher and his daughter as his assistant, who taught all classes one to seven.
When he went to school he was told by his strict Methodist mother, Muriel, not to walk past the hotel as the devil lived in there, and he regularly attended Sunday School. He knew all the Bible stories as a good son would. He had 3 older brothers, Jack, Aleck and Ken, who he always had to compete against. He had an older sister, Hilda, and a younger sister Muriel. He stayed at his mate’s farm on weekends and generally had a very carefree childhood. He knew all the people from the district. After the World War I swaggies (mostly returned veterans) would call by and they would chop wood for a meal provided by his Mum. Nothing was wasted in Dad’s day – a habit he had difficulty breaking as indicated by the number of plastic bags he kept just in case.
His father, Arthur was the local butcher taking meat to the various homes in the district with a horse and cart and cutting up meat on the back of the cart. Those at the end of the run got what was left over.
Their house in Tarlee eventually became the well known Grasshopper Restaurant but that has recently stopped trading.
His parents both descended from Pioneers to our State. His mother’s grandmother, Marion Baird, arrived in the colony of SA in 1837 as a 13 year old (a year after it started) and she raised his Mum. His dad’s mother’s family arrived in 1840.
He always described his life as a simple life and a very happy secure and loving one.
At age 10 his family moved to Gilberton, Adelaide for the benefit of their children but a few years later the Depression came and his father went back to Riverton to work as a butcher for his cousin Bert Roberts, returning to Adelaide some weekends.
Dad attended Walkerville Primary School for Grade 6 and 7, and then Adelaide Boys High obtaining his Intermediate certificate in an era when most didn’t get past Grade 7.
He spent many hours at the nearby Gilberton Swimming Pool which was the River Torrens dammed up, where reeds had to be cleaned out each year. He played Aussie Rules footy, tennis and cricket.
He rode motor bikes. He learnt to sail at Port Adelaide through a neighbour Stan Medwell who was a local boat builder. This was the start of a life time love of sailing. I recall him saying the first time they took him out in the boat his job was to bucket water out of the boat. They would tell him he was scared and he said no he wasn’t. He was, but he learned how to overcome his fear to be part of the team.
Upon leaving school he was offered the opportunity be a butcher at Powell’s butcher shop at St Peters. He worked there until he enlisted in June 1940.
· Dad enlisted in the Army on 17 Jun 1940. He had originally wanted to join the Navy due to his love of the sea and sailing but he saw an Army recruiting office and decided on the spot to join the Army. His elder brother Jack also enlisted in the Army but he saw service in a different region and was to become a POW on the Burma railway and in Changi prison after the fall of Singapore.
· Dad was amongst the first to join the newly formed 2/43rd Infantry Battalion at Woodside. He remembered the cold miserable weather and early morning starts. He said he knew nothing about the Army so it was a surprise for him when he found out the rank system and quickly learned that as a Private at the bottom of the ladder he had to do whatever an NCO or officer asked him to do or suffer the consequences.
· He often spoke about mates from the 2/43rd Battalion. They came from all walks of life and vastly different experiences, skills and knowledge yet they all came together as one when faced with the challenges of war. After the war that mateship bond continued and grew and was reinforced annually at the ANZAC Day march and in earlier days the 2/43rd Annual Picnic.
· After almost 6 months of training the battalion left for the Middle East. Initially they landed in Egypt then moved to Palestine.
· In March 1941 the battalion deployed to Tobruk. His first tasks were guarding Italian POWs, putting up barbed wire defences and digging his own pit, one of many, that was to become home for the next 8 months. The weather was extremely hot, water was scarce – 2 pints every alternate day at some stage, dust was a constant hazard along with flies that caused dysentery, spiders, scorpions, rats and fleas. He says he only had the luxury of two washes in 8 months in the sea.
· He, along with his fellow soldiers adopted, with typical Australian humor, the title bestowed upon them by Lord Haw Haw – the Rats of Tobruk.
· A favorite story he told was about a rat that he found living in his pit. He was determined to kill it so after lying in wait with his bayonet waiting for the rat to appear from his hole he had second thoughts. Why kill something that was not doing him any harm and like him was only trying to survive? So the rat lived! That typified dad – he had no bitterness towards the German or Japanese soldiers as they, like him, were fighting for their countries and he had no personal animosity towards them.
· After the siege of Tobruk ended in October 1941 the battalion returned to Palestine then Syria for more training and some well earned R and R.
· In July 1942 the battalion deployed to El Alamein. Dad noted that it was evident that the Americans had now joined the allies as there were now more tanks, aircraft and artillery as well the supply chain provided more food, fuel and ammunition than was available in Tobruk during the siege period.
· When the battle of El Alamein commenced on 23 October 1942 dad recalled the noise and sky being lit up from the 1000 guns and hundreds of aircraft. Only a few weeks ago when Adelaide had a series of lightning strikes and thunder claps dad told me it was a little bit reminiscent of El Alamein.
· Dad then spent the rest of his time in Palestine before returning back to Australia on the Queen Mary in Jan 1943. Whilst excited about travelling on such an illustrious ship he was not excited about sharing with the other 11000 male soldiers also on board!
· The battalion was granted leave and dad recalled them marching from Torrens Parade ground up King William St then Unley Road to Daws Road. Some 200,000 watched the march.
· Mid 1943, the battalion moved to Atherton in FNQ where they learnt how to convert from desert to jungle warfare and amphibious landings. Dad always said he preferred the heat and openness of the desert rather than the wet, humid and confined conditions in the jungle.
· In August 1943 the battalion was deployed to Milne Bay in New Guinea and in September to Lae and then to Finschaffen. He now had to carry all his gear with him and he experienced his first amphibious landings. He didn’t like jumping off a ship into water as the depth was always greater than expected.
· The romantic vision of beaches surrounded by coconut trees soon disappeared as it rained and rained and they were walking in six inches of water. Then the mosquitoes attacked.
· He had swapped the pests from the desert with mosquitoes and after five months was hospitalized with dengue fever and was eventually evacuated back to Australia. Subsequently he was also hospitalized with malaria in Brisbane. This was the last time he was hospitalized until some 70 years later.
· In Jun 1944 the battalion returned to FNQ and in April 1945 sailed to Moratai in the Philippines then to Borneo and Labuan Island in Brunei Bay and Beaufort.
· He recalled feeling helpless whilst sailing to Moratai as there were 5000 men on board and from 5.30pm until daylight the next day they had to remain below deck in cramped blackout conditions. Imagine the heat and smell of this confined space and the inability to evacuate in a hurry.
· The only other time he felt helpless was whilst flying in a DC3 to Port Morseby when they encountered turbulence and he thought they would crash. This was confirmed by the 19 year old American pilot. Strangely he never said that he felt helpless in an Army environment despite the horrors he had faced. Death was not something dad feared in war. He believed that those who were killed didn’t suffer but it was the descendants back home – the wives and children and extended families who did suffer and needed support for many years thereafter.
· In April 1945 the war in Asia ended and he returned to Australia and was discharged on 22 November 1945. On discharge he had pay deducted for loss of his rifle whilst evacuating on a barge from Borneo. The deduction not only included the cost of his rifle but also the cost of the magazine, sling, oil bottle and cleaning tool!! A final thank you for his service?
· He had celebrated his 23rd birthday in Woodside, 24th in Tobruk, 25th in El Alamein, 26th in New Guinea, 27th in Atherton and 28th in Borneo.
Dad arrived home from Borneo three months after the war had finished.
A couple of hours after reaching Hampstead Barracks he was a civilian again after 5½ years of army life living with men and yet he was a stranger in his own street . He told me as he was walking up his street a lady ran to him with open arms, but she was disappointed to find out he wasn’t her husband - apparently he never did return to her.
But Powell’s butcher shop was looking for staff and within a week they encouraged him to return to work which he did.
Dad always maintained that he didn’t know how to talk to the opposite sex. But one of his friends asked Dad to escort a girl names Iris Sullivan home one night after the dance at the Druids Hall, Collingswood. He did. He said goodbye. Next time he saw her he asked her to the pictures. She went. Next time Mum decided to wear her 21st birthday brooch to show she was old enough for him (he was 28). Mum wanted to be engaged at the Shell Company Ball. So they got engaged and Dad said if they were engaged they might as well get married. And they did on 19th October 1946, which he always maintains was the best thing to happen to him as didn’t have time to dwell on his wartime experiences. I think romance was a bit lost on Dad.
Everything was in short supply after the war and so the newly married couple lived with Dad’s parents for 4 years. Within 12 months they had their first child, a son, Donald, who was spoilt by all the attention placed on him by doting parents and grandparents.
Dad bought a run down business in the trade that he knew – his own butcher shop on Glen Osmond Road in which he worked for the next 25 years, making a good and honest living. Every customer was a friend to Dad and he went to great lengths to please them. He trained two apprenctices. Mrs Charlton, who is here today, was one of his faithful customers.
With the assistance of a war service loan they built a new house in Frewville, opposite the Glenunga ovals, and a short walk from his business on Glen Osmond Road. In 1951 I was born, a couple of months after moving into their own home.
Upon returning home Dad joined the 2/43rd Battalion Club and he maintained contact with his mates over the years to the present day. He would look forward to Anzac Day because he was going to see his mates again. He said he often couldn’t sleep for several nights before Anzac Day as the anticipation of seeing old mates was so great. Anzac Day was the only day I saw Dad a little tipsy. I can remember one year him throwing his hat in the door before entering because he wasn’t sure of the reception he was going to receive. He never missed a March.
Dad prospered sufficiently in his business life to ensure that both my brother and I had a good education. He always encouraged us to do well, and to be involved in sports, etc. With the advent of the supermarket butcher shops began to decline and Mum ended up helping in the shop.
Dad eventually sold the butcher shop and worked for about 5 years in Hamilton Laboratories – a pharmaceutical company and a complete change for him. But when grandchildren finally started to arrive he retired. Julia, Michael, then Lee and Keyte, and finally Matthew.
Dad bought his own sailing boat, Nomad, and spent 25 years as a member of the Royal South Australian Yacht Squadron racing most Saturdays in summer with his faithful crew, Ralph Cranwell and Len Norman.
Mum and Dad also liked to visit my family in Quorn and help on the farm, particularly at shearing time. With friends Dot and Keith they brought their caravans and Dad and Keith would spend all day in the shearing shed working very hard as my late husband Mark was a hard task master.
My brother Don’s marble was drawn in the lottery of conscription in the 1960s. Dad’s advice to him was twofold. If you can, become an officer (Dad could never reconcile the differences of rank, but he learned to live with them for 5 and a half years); and don’t join an infantry battalion. Through hard work Don was able to follow his advice.
After Dad retired he sold his boat and bought a caravan in which he and Mum spent many years visiting various parts of the State with friends like Hazel and Jim and the Roadrunners Caravan Club and Dot and Keith.
He was a Justice of the Peace for about 20 years, and he always made himself available when asked to Parkside Hospital to assist in the admission of patients in his role as a JP.
They moved from their home of 43 years to a retirement village. There Mum and Dad joined in with the Village activities, Dad being on the management committee and attending social events.
Mum died in March 2007 of bladder cancer.
· Around the time when mum died, dad had started to visit schools talking to students about the war and the early days of South Australia. After her death these activities began to increase largely as a result of Simon Kelly’s encouragement. He spent a lot of time at Rostrevor College and over the coming years he visited many Catholic schools including St Aloysius, custodians of the 2/43rd crosses and St Michaels. As well he formed an association with Endeavour College where he opened the new Anzac Pavilion earlier this year. Just four weeks ago he was at St Michaels addressing history students.
· In fact he spent so much time involved with Catholic Education that he was bestowed as an “Honorary Catholic” an honour that would have had his mother, a staunch Methodist, turning in her grave!
· He also formed a relationship with St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral where the battalion’s colours are laid up. He addressed the Anzac Day Vigil Mass with the Archbishop on two occasions.
· Dad strongly believed that all humans are capable of doing good if they are given the opportunity. Having encouragement, role models and a positive attitude is what he endeavored to promote when addressing school children in particular.
· In the early 2000s, the numbers of 2/43 members started to decline so dad picked up the baton in his early 90s and assumed the responsibility for ensuring that the battalion’s history was kept in the public domain. He had a 5 year period when he was president of the 2/43rd Battalion Association and during that time he ensured the future of the club by allowing wives and descendants to join the activities. The club still meets on a monthly basis with an average of 20 attending each month.
· I mentioned earlier about dad being deducted pay for the loss of his rifle. Well, in December 2008 he was able to recoup that loss from 63 years ago. He was invited by Veteran Affairs to attend the dedication of the Brunei- Australia Memorial in Brunei. He told the story of chatting with a person from Brunei at a dinner when the person said he had received a surprise that day and that he was to be promoted to Chief of the Armed Forces. The following day at the formal function he came up to dad in full dress uniform and renewed their conversation. Dad was astounded that he had been speaking to such an important person! Always humble!
· In April 2011 dad become the subject of an ABC Landline program when he traveled on a special ANZAC journey on The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin. He was able to march on ANZAC Day in Alice Springs the only time he had missed a march in Adelaide since returning from the war.
· In October 2012 Veteran Affairs invited him to attend the 70th anniversary of the battlefields of El Alamein and to commemorate those who died there. Unfortunately they were unable to visit Tobruk in Libya due to security concerns at the time. Dad was able to visit the war cemetery and take photos of the graves of relatives of his good friend Bill Denny.
· The Queens Birthday Honours list in June 2014 recognised dad with an Order of Australia for his services to veterans and their families and to the community. This honour was certainly high amongst the many highlights of his life.
· He attended the 75th anniversaries of the siege of Tobruk and the battle of El Alamein in Canberra and the 70th anniversary of Victory in the Pacific in Brisbane.
· A further high honour that was bestowed upon him was to cut the ribbon for the official opening of the ANZAC Memorial Walk on 23 April 2016 together with the Governor and the Premier.
· Dad was invited to celebrate his 100th birthday at Government House in August 2017. This was an honour for both himself and his family. I’ll never forget how he had the media sitting around on the floor of the reception room listening to his stories like school children around their teacher.
· He also has an enduring connection to Government House. In August 1998 he planted an Aleppo pine tree to commemorate those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice. In December 2015 an official plaque was unveiled by the Governor and Sir Eric Neal who was the Governor at the time of the original planting.
· Another place where he will have an enduring connection is at the Tobruk Ward of the Flinders Medical Centre where his image was affixed to the centre lift doors on 1 December 2017.
· There are so many more events and activities he was involved with such as the Wish Me Luck Exhibition, Remembrance Day ceremonies, the RSL Oral History project, Royal Society for the Blind, Morialta United Church weekly luncheons and work with the Ice Factor Program where he attended a function within the past four weeks.
· I’d like to acknowledge my sister in helping run his social calendar that tended to take priority over our own most of the time.
· Lets not forget that during these last 10 years dad’s family has continued to expand – spouses of grandchildren Marcus, Annelise and Grace and new great grandchildren Will, Eddie, Ava, Charlie, Mabel and Isla. Mabel and Isla being born just this month.
· From a humble beginning as a boy from the country to an infantry soldier in WW2 then a pretty normal life as a husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather to a mentor and public speaker in your 90’s you have left your mark with all those you have touched. You remained humble yet you inspired. You mixed with leaders at the highest level yet you remained just Bill.
· Farewell dad, farewell SX5389, we will ALWAYS remember you.
Celebration of the Life of Bill Corey OAM
Detailed Order of Service
Arrival of guests
Welcome & General Introduction
Ladies & gentlemen,
On behalf of the family, I welcome you to this Celebration of the Life of William Thomas Corey OAM.
My name is Simon Kelly and I have the privilege of being your MC for this afternoon’s proceedings.
I first met Bill and his wife, Iris, at the Lord Mayoral Reception in 2005 to mark Australia Remembers, the 60th Anniversary of the end of World War Two.
At that event, representatives of South Australian units and battalions were presented with commemorative frames – the top half being the Adelaide City Council/Lord Mayor’s certificate – the bottom half being relevant artwork prepared by school children.
The frame Bill received on behalf of the 2nd/43rd Battalion included a drawing of desert warfare from Mary MacKillop College students at Kensington.
Coincidence or otherwise, it was a sign of the involvement Bill was to have in future years not only in the Catholic sector but also in Departmental and Independent schools. His gentle wisdom, his unassuming yet engaging manner and his empathy for others have touched the hearts and minds of the young people he has met and indeed, all of us as well.
Today, ladies and gentlemen, also marks the 72nd anniversary of Bill and Iris’s wedding. They were married for 61 years until Iris’s passing in 2007.
When asked at interview once about returning to civilian life, amongst other things, Bill said, in a melancholy voice, “Fortunately I met a young lady and it made all the difference.”
Bill’s devotion to Iris was matched by the love and pride he had for their children, Don and Di, their grandchildren and their great- grandchildren, now six in number.
Introduction of Julia
Grand-daughter Julia will now provide a reflection on behalf of the grandchildren and great grandchildren
Grandpa/Great Grandpa Reflection
Introduction of first reader, Lee Corey, grand-daughter
The family and close friends have been touched by the number of texts, emails and calls following Bill’s passing.
One such email came from Helen O’Brien, former Director of Catholic Education, now retired, currently in Italy.
An extract reads: He was a truly wonderful man who has left a legacy of goodness amongst all of us. And yet it would have been entirely understandable if he had been sad or bitter from his early life experiences. But Bill was always better than that. A true model for all of us.
Bill always looked for the good in people, found the silver lining in difficult circumstances and maintained a positivity that was infectious.
He used to carry with him a poem called ‘A Smile’. While that well-worn piece of paper has eluded searchers to date, the following reading by granddaughter Lee, captures the sentiments Bill held so dear.
Reading #1: Smile poem - Lee Corey (G/d)
Introduction of Don & Dianne
I now invite Bill’s children, Don and Dianne to come forward to deliver the eulogy.
Introduction of second reader, Keyte
The second reading is a poem from an unknown source and is entitled “Feel no guilt in laughter, he’d know how much you care”
It will be read by granddaughter, Keyte.
Protocol: The Ode, Last Post, Minute’s Silence, Rouse
Ladies and gentlemen,
Shortly I will ask those of you for whom it is comfortable to do so, to stand for The Ode which will be recited by Bob Boscence, who succeeded Bill as President of the 2/43rd Battalion - and to remain standing for the Last Post, Minute’s Silence and Rouse.
Our bugler is Musn. Michael Bampton from the 10/27th Royal Australian Regiment.
If it is comfortable for you to do so, please stand.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
Please be seated.
In a few moments time, we will follow the family from this room and join them in further celebration of Bill’s life.
On the way, we are invited to place a tribute of rosemary on the casket. Veterans and current serving personnel are invited to place a poppy.
Rosemary is an emblem of fidelity and remembrance.
The red poppy is symbolic of sacrifice and remembrance.
(Gesture to family) Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
William (Bill) Corey wrote this autobiography when he was 85 years old, and most recently turned 100 on 07 Aug 2017.
I would like to record some of my impressions of five and a half years in the army during World War II.
My army number was SX5389 joining up in June 1940. I became an original member of the 2/43rd Battalion, in fact from the first day as they lined us up. There were about one hundred and fifty of us, the first 90 were told we are A company and the remainder B company. As the days went by more men, as they joined were allotted to us and formed the other companies.
After a few weeks we left Wayville showgrounds for the army camp at Woodside, where our real training began.
This was when real army life began and civilian life became a memory.
Woodside camp was a very cold place, also wet, and as we were living in tents it was not very comfortable. Wet and cold weather, different disciplines to live by didn’t help to make us very happy at first, we also came from different backgrounds and had to eat, sleep and live in close quarters with quite different thoughts and ways of life. However one soon learnt that we all had faults, but we all had good in us and even the roughest generally had something going for them. Eventually be became like brothers and even to this day we have a special feeling for each other that can’t be found in ordinary life and I guess that would apply to anybody who faced so many extraordinary dangers together.
We always seemed to be getting injected against some disease, which we have never known or thought about, innoculation against small pox. These knocked us about on top of the Woodside flu and under different conditions to a nice comfortable home where Mum looked after us. Another difficulty was always being told what to do. Great coats will be worn or great coats will not be worn was a typical joke, we had no say. Meals were at certain times, eat whatever was dished up to us, instead of I like this or that. If you didn’t like it, bad luck, because there wasn’t anything else.
Giggle suits were the clothes we wore, looked like prison clothes, but I guess were practical, easy to wash and we soon got used to them.
Anyway after a couple of months it was surprising how fit you felt, the training was physical, the food was worked out to be the right diet (even if we didn’t think so) and I guess the outside living helped too.
Well, six months went by and we then found ourselves on board the Mauratania bound, for where? We mostly felt it was for the Middle East and that’s where we were destined to spend the next two years.
We left Melbourne in December 1940 and proceeded to Fremantle where we embarked the Western Australians, had a day’s leave to enjoy Perth and most to taste West Aussie beer and then we were off to Ceylon. After a day’s leave in Colombo we were transferred to another ship as it was too dangerous to take the big ships on the next stage to Egypt.
We went from a big luxury liner to a small overcrowded horse and troop transport used by British troops in World War I and then in India. A lot of the meat, which was local beef, and fish was condemned and tossed overboard. This left us very short of food and by the time we arrived at Port Tewfick (Eygpt) we were nearly out of food and water. However our cooks did a tremendous job under very primitive conditions, in turning out reasonable meals.
It was a big convoy and while they zig-zagged across the ocean we were tail end Charlie always being and going in a straight line just to keep them in sight. A perfect target for subs. I enjoyed the sea travel, many people who know I had fifty years of sailing yachts have asked me why I didn’t join the navy. Well, at the beginning of the war I tried, but they were only accepting men who had been in the navy reserve, later of course they were accepting anybody. One day after coming back from the Port Naval establishment I thought the war would be over before I got there, so I joined the army and the war kept going for another five and a half years.
However luck followed me and I’m still here.
We arrived at Port Tewfick and had our first air alert and our first casualty, one of the boys fell down the iron stairs when we were ordered below, and broke his leg.
After a long and weary trip on the primitive train we arrived in the early hours at a desert camp in Palestine and spent the next couple of months training before going to Libya to take over from the Sixth Division, little knowing what we were in for.
This was when the war really started for us and we were then destined to serve in several different areas, namely Tobruk (Libya), El Alamein (Egypt, Lae and Finchafen (Papua New Guine), Labuan Island and on the mainland to Beaufort (Borneo).
I was one of a small number who saw all these campaigns and finished up in Borneo until I left there in November 1945.
All of these places were so different and for man who only served in one of these places had no idea what it was like in the others. We continually had new men joing the unit as reinforcements for we were always losing men, through being killed, wounded, sickness or transfer to other units.
Before talking about Tobruk I’d like to say we were also sailors because of the huge amount of sea travel. For soldiers who are supposed to be on land, we did a lot of travelling by sea, probably more than some of the land based sailors.
Our first voyage was on the RMD Mauretania, a big majestic ship, the last of the big liners built for the Atlantic run. I had travelled on the Katoomba, Kanimbla, and Taroona in first class cabins before the army days but this time those cabins were only for the officers and sergeants. We were conducted to our sleeping quarters only to find a hammock slung in position on the main deck. We left Melbourne bound for Fremantle to pick up more people and to join the convoy for the voyage to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
What a shock our next ship was, the Nevassa, only a displacement of 8000 tons, an old troop ship belonging to the British East India Steamship Co. However we arrived at our destination, Port Tewfick (Egypt) nearly out of food and water but in one piece.
Our next trip was on a couple of real navy vessels. The Nizam was a new Australian destroyer and the Latona was a British mine laying cruiser. I was on the Nizam. We embarked from a sunken ship in the harbour of Tobruk in complete darkness (no moon). Then we were off out of the wreck littered harbour and headed for Alexandria (Egypt).
Once again we were farewelled with an air raid, but the bombs fell west of the town. It seems incredible now but the sailors were amazed and thought it odd to see us hopping into beautiful white bread on jam as a truly gastronomical delight. We had a submarine scare just before reaching Alexandria, otherwise a very happy and uneventful trip for all of us. I say that because generally they used to be attacked by aircraft. In fact two of our Australian destroyers were sunk with bombs on one of these trips.
The next trip home was on the Queen Mary, an enormous passenger liner come troop ship. She was quite easy to get lose on, but it was a wonderful feeling on such a magnificent ship. We went from Egypt to the Maldive Islands to refuel then to Fremantle where a number of troops disembarked before setting sail for Sydney and home. We went south of Fremantle until it seemed near the South Pole because it was so cold and it was February, The reason being that subs were operating south of South Australia. We had some leave, then trained it to North Queensland where we were embarked upon amphibious training off Trinity Beach (Cairns) with the American Boat and Shore regiment.
Our next ship was the HMAS Manoora which transported us to Milne Bay, New Guinea, and our first experience of climbing down rope nets, a somewhat hazardous experience, particularly for troops encumbered with full gear and rife. Out next trip was from Milne Bay to Buna on a landing ship tanks (LSTs) where we prepared for the real thing a beach landing behind enemy lines, the first Australian troops to do so since Gallipoli.
Back with the Americans on LCIs (landing ship infantry) for the landing at Lae, we travelled all night to land early in the morning. We waded ashore without any trouble.
After Lae we boarded LCTs back to Buna where we went ashore for about an hour then walked aboard LCMs to take us out to the three destroyer transports (APDs) to be taken to land at Finchhafen, where we were welcomed with an air raid by a couple of Jap bombers.
Our next trip was from Finchhafen to Townsville aboard an American victory ship Thomas B Corwin. There was another air raid as a farewell gesture from the Japs. Crowded conditions and absence of facilities and amenities on board this cargo ship, tropical heat and a cyclone in the Coral Sea combined to make it one of the most unpleasant trips the Battalion experienced.
1945 and off again, this time to Moratai on board the purpose built American troopship General H W Butler. Again this trip was not pleasant. The reason being that there were 5000 troops on board in tropical conditions, two meals a day and severely restricting blackout restrictions forcing us to remain below decks from 5.30 pm to day light next morning. The smell was unbelievable. The invasion fleet for Brunei Bay was an inspiring and impressive sight. It comprised 85 ships. It was a seven day voyage westward through the Balabac Straights and into the South China Sea, then southward to Lubuan Island. I was on board the HMAS Manoora, some of our chaps were on LSTs.
The end of the war saw us coming home in a variety of ways. I came all the way from Labuan Island to Townsville on a slow old LST (landing barge) an uneventful but slow trip.
We arrived in this Libyan port after several days board trucks and sleeping beside them at night. We had tinned food and biscuits for food (mostly bully beef and hard biscuits).
There was a bitumen road all the way, built by Mussolini, and in reasonable condition, in fact it was the only way to travel for vehicles. Our first job was to guard the prisoners of war, not a hard job as they were Italians (several thousand) and were quite happy to be fed and out of the war. They knew they were to be sent to South Africa or Australia, and they also told us the Germans were coming and would retake Libya. How right they were. A couple of the companies had the job of detonating hundreds of Italian hand grenades, some didn’t have safety pins and as soon as they were touched or kicked they exploded. Our first casualty was the armourer, who had his hand blown off.
Water was very scarce, at one stage a water bottle (quart) every other day. We did have a cup of tea at meal times, so living in a hole you have dug in the ground, no trees or anything to be in the shade of one was always thirsty. Tomake it worse the flies were unbelievable. I thought we had all the flies in Australia, but these flies were deadly because they had been breeding on dead bodies and so dysentery was really bad. I’ll leave it at that because if I went into detail you’d nearly have it yourself.
Another job was putting up barb wire defences, these never stopped anybody (wire cutters) but I think they helped to make you think it was a defence.
One day working on this wire I said to one of my mates, are you married? He said he was and as he’d come from Curramulka, I asked him where his wife came from. He said Gilberton, my ears pricked up so I asked him her name, and he said Merle___. I knew her, she only lived a couple of streets away from my home, in fact we both went to Walkerville school.
Strange thing but his wife worked in an office in Adelaide and a young girl was working there too, and she used to think Merle was funny, always writing letters to her husband in the Middle East. Well that young girl happened to meet me five years later and we have now been married for 56 years (at time of writting) and we also had been to Walkerville school, but she being younger we were there at different times.
Easter found us surrounded and the seize of Tobruk had begun. There was the red line which was the front line, and a blue line which was just behind the red. So there was always a period in the front (red) then change with another on the blue. This didn’t always mean a rest because we were always changing into a new position around the perimeter and we knew by now why Australian soldiers were called diggers because every time we shifted it seemed we had to dig new holes. His artillery could shell just about anywhere in the area and his air force could do just as they pleased because after the first few days what hurricanes we had had been shot out of the sky, after that we didn’t have any aeroplanes.
One Canadian pilot who cam down in our area broke his leg but that was his second parachute jump in one morning. So after that the Germans patrolled, bombed, machine gunned at will because there was no opposition, even at night he would have a plane continually flying around mainly I think to annoy and perhaps get on our nerves. After an hour or so he would drop some bombs I think at random, then disappear but then another would come in and do the same thing. This went on all through out time there.
I believe we had about 1100 air raids, these could be one or I think the biggest was about one hundred and fifty. I remember plainly the Tobruk area wasn’t very big and the whole sky seemed to be filled with planes in batches of three. They did a blanket bombing.
We used to fire on the planes when they were very low, just for fun really because you would have had to be very lucky to bring one down. Sometimes we would get an order not to fire on a plane because it would be one of ours bringing a message for HQ from Egypt, so on one of these days a plane came weaving across the area and as it got close I could see the pilot in his cockpit so I waved to him, then he’s just above me and it’s a German plane, two big crosses on his wings. Too late to worry.
Another time Cyril and I were at the food dump collecting the batallion rations when a plane came over and started his machines guns so we promptly flattened ourselves in this fine dust, probably six or more inches deep. The bullets went all around us but not in us so after he’d gone we got up and I started laughing, Cyril had wet himself and the fine dust just stuck to him. I know it was serious, we all react to incidents a little differently.
With dive bombers they always come in with sun behind them, but we got quite used to them so could judge where he was going to bomb so you could watch the planes, see them release their bombs and watch them go over your head quite safely. I wouldn’t say that I’d do it today. The English anti aircraft gunners used to bring down a fair number of these dive bombers.
The so called rest area for battalions was in this area where these guns were placed. We were there once, there wasn’t a square inch in that area that wasn’t covered with shrapnel. The first night we slept there the gunners said to go into a tunnel which had been made by the Italians for storage. In our casual way we said the old Aussie saying “she’s right George”. Anyway our kitchen was blown up that night so the next night we were in the tunnel (one killed).
Most of the battalion time was taken up by patrolling no man’s land at night time, some were to reconnoitre, others were fighting patrols. Our worst time for the battalion was on 3rd August when B Company and some of A had a bad time early in the morning they attacked and lost 28 killed and 77 wounded in a very short time.
Our RAP sargeant and our padre hoisted a white flag on the front of a vehicle, went forward and was met by a German officer. He agreed on a truce to allow our ambulance to pick up the wounded. A very unusual event, and it had a sobering effect on all the rest of us although we were not involved.
Dust or sand storms were another difficulty, one thing it was the same for the enemy as for us. On some days there was no movement at all because you couldn’t see a thing.
I remember coming out of my hole to have a wee, walked a couple of yards away then turned around, missed the hole and wandered around for a long time before finding it again (about 2 hours). The water supply improved a bit, but it wasn’t ever of good quality, in fact it used to stink when you pulled the cork out of your water bottle. The food situation also improved as ships brought in new supplies.
As we were travelling on the road to Tobruk we were escorted by the air force flying gloster gladiator biplanes, unbelievable to think these obsolete machines were still operating. Talk about committing suicide, land mines were everywhere and it’s a wonder there were not a lot more casualties. I found myself in amongst them twice and I can tell you I was glad to get out. Even though the tracks were taped it was easy in the dark to get off the tracks and when you were getting shelled it made it worse.
We used to receive mail from home regularly, in fact as time went on everything improved, even to getting some canteen supplies. However I think all the men were sick of the patrolling with a steady number of casualties, however the policy of patrolling no man’s land by night and day through the months of the siege had meant that, although technically we were likened to being in prison, the axis besiegers outside were more on the defensive than the garrison inside.
Towards the end of our stay most fellows became a little edgy thinking I’ve been here all this time, hope I make it out. Around this time I was on the back of a truck with 4 or 5 other chaps and half a dozen empty 44 gallon drums (used for water) we were returning form the fig tree area on a pitch black night, turned onto the road, then immediately tipped over the edge, the drums went flying and so did we. Fortunately none of us were injured, but we had to walk about 4 or 5 miles back to our area. Fortunately the Germans couldn’t have been listening because they had this position set with their guns, all they had to do was fire and they were spot on.
On the way in some Polish troops called us to halt and they wanted to know the password which none of us knew or remembered. Things weren’t going too good until one of the lads started swearing, when one of the Poles said “Aussies, Aussies, OK”. Fancy an Australian being recognised by swearing. We had reinforcements at times, brought up by the warships, in fact everything or body was brought in or taken out by the Navy, otherwise we could never have been able to stop the enemy from taking us prisoners.
We had 51 killed or died of wounds, 156 wounded, 4 prisoners of war, 236 injured in accidents and 367 in sickness (many more who just carried on).
Everyone could tell different stories, especially on those patrols, these are just some of mine.
We did have some fun, Australians have a pretty good sense of humour, discussions or arguments whatever you like to call them, we didn’t wash because we didn’t have any water, cut each other’s hair with blunt scissors, sharpened razor blades to have a shave and believe it or not if you tied your shorts or shirt to a peg and let be blown around in the sand or dirt they became clean. Spiders, scorpions, fleas and rats used to get into our blankets so it paid to give the blankets a shake before using them. One could go on and on with difference experiences, but we will leave Tobruk at that and move on.
After spending Christmas in Palestine, the battalion moved up to Syria. During this period in Palestine we had an enjoyable time, playing sports, even had a race meeting with donkeys, and going on leave and seeing all the biblical places. I always say I had a drink of water from most of the places mentioned in the Bible. It is incredible that these places are still there, the old cities have changed very little, also the way of life in the old city of Jerusalem. Probably have lately, with all the fighting between Jews and Arabs.
We have route marches to keep us fit and some of these were over the old battlefields of World War I.
Everywhere you go in the Middle East there is some historical history which fascinated me so I used to go to see as much as possible. I can still remember most of the places, such as the Sea of Gallilee, Mount of Olives, Christ’s birth grotto, the Holy spot where Christ was interred and rose from the dead, walked down the old cobble stone street where Christ carried the cross, also in Egypt, the pyramids and all their historical places. Actually the battalion moved to Lebanon and constructed defence positions. The news of the fall of Tobruk shocked all of us, the South African and English troops surrended and the Germans and Italians were soon down into Egypt and the Ninth Division was recalled to the North African desert once more to help stop them from taking the whole of the Middle East with its oil supplies.
I was with a group who were called LOBs (left out of battle) for the first month so was not at El Alamein where the axis troops were stopped. I spent this time just outside of Alexandria, I think we were about 50 miles from the front line.
This was a lot different from Tobruk, even if we were back in the desert. Firstly we were not cut off, we had more supplies, water, food and better armed, but still we lived in holes in the ground. Another thing was that we had an air force, we watched many air battles in those clear blue skies, sounds terrible today that we cheered as we saw enemy planes being shot down, unfortunately we saw many of ours come down too. Mistakes were made too, such as a squadron (18) of Free French hurricanes machine gunned us at ground level, and I believe there were only two casualties. It seemed unbelievable that the bullets could miss you because you could see them all around you as you lay on the ground.
I spent all my time at Alamein on supplies; mine fields, shells and aircraft were the biggest worry.
The night the offensive to start pushing the Axis out of Africa started on 23rd October at 11.40 pm.
At this stage nearly 1000 guns opened up at exactly on the second and continued for 15 minutes, it was a sight and sound never to be forgotten. The flashes from the guns and the parachute flares in the sky lit up the area like daylight. Then suddenly it stopped, the silence was eerie. About five minutes went by and it started and again and the fighting began.
Before this hundreds of our aircraft pounded the enemy with bombs, they did this all day long for several days, it made you wonder how anyone could have survived, but survive they did and fought and resisted until they finally retreated.
I’m sure anybody who was there (either side) will never forget El Alamein. The battalion casualties were 104 killd or died of wounds, 225 wounded, 31 POW and five died of other causes.
We moved back to Palestine at the beginning of December, my memory of this period was Christmas Day in Palestine again. Brigade sports, donkey races, and some leave. I had seven very enjoyable days in Cairo and when I got back to camp we were about to move back to Australia.
The trip back to Australia was very pleasant, overcrowded and only two meal sessions a day, with about 11000 on board it was an enormous job feeding everybody. To pass the time away I volunteered to work in the butcher shop, those of us who worked in the food area lived very well, we were eleven decks down, equal to eleven stories in a building, so if we were hit by a torpedo we wouldn’t have had a hope in hell of getting out. Anyway I enjoyed the experience and it helped to pass the time and also to listen to the experiences of the crew.
One of the all time memories was sighing Sydney Harbour early one morning. Unbelievable, wonderful sight and home after 2¼ years away. Another was coming through the Adelaide hills and sighting Adelaide city. After home leave we were off to North Queensland for jungle training, jammed into rains, with hardly any room to move, we finally arrived at the Atherton Tablelands out from Cairns. Here we were dumped in the scrub and told this is where we make a camp, quite different from the desert. We did landing exercises from barges on Trinity Beach, out from Cairns and a popular holiday beach these days.
Then it was off to Milne Bay and our first encounter with New Guinea. The Japs had been cleaned out of this area but gave us an idea what we were in for, the beach surrounded by coconut trees looked lovely that romantic vision soon disappeared as it rained and rained as we had never seen rain (sheets of water) and we were walking around in water about six inches deep, then the mossies attacked. Anyway we were not there long when we moved by boats up to Buna to prepare for our landing behind the Jap lines at Lae. It was to be the first landing by ship into enemy territory since Gallipoli (by Australians).
We camped adjacent to the beach in a coconut plantation, it was the scene of some fierce fighting between Aussies and the Japs, there was plenty of evidence, it certainly gave us an idea of what was to become our life for the next six months.
We landed very early in the morning, waded ashore and straight away pushed on towards Lae about 15 miles away. Just as well as the Japs bombed the beach head and I believe about sixty Americans became casualties. It was supposed to be the dry season but I thinks somebody had forgotten to tell that to the man up top because it poured and you have to see to believe how those rivers flow down from the mountains out to sea. At a guess about 20 miles per hour, the Busu formed a river out to sea, the barge fellows said you could get fresh water up to about a mile out to see.
We had our first killed while waiting to get across the Buso - Frank Cotton, a cousin of my sister in law, Joyce. I had been talking to him and had just left to return to my section when a shell came over and hit him. I think he was the only casualty.’
Lae was a complete mess, the air force had flattened it, of course there placed like most tropical towns were not very solid.
Lae was right on the coast with a big hill behind it and in this hill were several caves, probably dug out by the Japs, anyway another lad and myself were looking at one wondering whether to look inside when a Jap came out with his hands up holding a bayonet in his hand. We intended to take him prisoner, but two big Americans came running out calling out let us shoot him Aussie. They had revolvers in their hands and kept on calling let me shoot him. Anyway my mate who had an owen gun became a bit confused, pulled the trigger and at about 2 years away filled him with lead. The Jap didn’t have a shirt on, so you can imagine the sight.
After Lae we were on the landing craft again this time for Finschafen. We had just landed when three Jap bombers gave us a hot welcome but I don’t think anyone was hurt.
The rain continued to pour down, we flopped around in mud and the only movement was on tracks and thick jungle. Everything we possessed was what we had on, anything surplus was thrown away because you were so exhausted at times that you swore you couldn’t keep going. If you weren’t wet through with rain you were wet through with sweat. The heat drained all the life out of you as our numbers became less, the stress also became worse because fewer of you had to do more and it wasn’t any joke doing night shifts in listening positions.
The trouble with moving along tracks and not being able to see was you could hear and every noise made you a bit jumpy. On one such occasion four Japs came around a corner in a creek. I whispered to my mate they were Japs, anyway they hadn’t seen us until the leader, an officer, saw me. I’m still here and he’s not. As it turned out I shot the four of them with a rifle while my mate who had an owen gun just froze.
After five months in the jungle I was pretty flat and weak with dengue fever and was flown back to Port Moresby in a DC3 cargo plane, quite an experience over those mountains. After coming out of hospital I had a couple of weeks in a convalescent camp up in the mountains. It was a wonderful climate there even needing blankets at night.
Travelling back to Queensland, after leave at home, I went down with malaria, in fact this happened a second time both times finishing up in hospital at Warwick (Queensland). After the war I had a few minor attacks, but nothing since.
We spent about eighteen months on the Atherton Tablelands before embarking on our last campaign, Borneo.
We did a variety of exercises out in the bush, trained at Cairns for more landing training (amphibious) which was a change from bush work.
Inter battalion cricket and football matches were played, these were very popular with considerable betting going on the football matches. I had played in the battalion team but at this stage was captain of the B team which got beaten by a couple of points in the grand final. We also had inter company athletic sports days.
At the beginning of April 1945 we were off again, once more to sail the seas. This time we were off to Moratai, an island south of the Philippines, on board the General Butner, a specially built troop ship, I think more suited to carrying Americans across the cold Atlantic. There were about 5000 on board, two meals a day and the most sever blackout restrictions we’d had. We were shut down on 5.30 pm and not allowed up top until after daylight next day. The only lighting down in those holds were a couple of blue lights which meant nearly a black out. The bunks (canvas) were 4 high with only a minimum space in between. We would lay naked and the perspiration would wet the canvas because we were in the tropics which are bad enough without being locked down in the dark hold of a ship. We had a sub scare off New Guine, thankfully nothing happened as there would have been no hope of getting out.
One other time of feeling helpless was when I was flying back to the unit at Finschafen from Port Moresby where I’d been in hospital. The plane appeared to drop thousands of feet, it was on its side and as it was a cargo plane (DC3) it didn’t have seats so we were tossed all over the place and when it appeared we were to crash into the jungle it flattened out and the current lifted the plane straight up like being a lift. When we landed the pilot (an American about 19 or 20) came out and informed us that it was nearly all over but he’d managed to keep the plane’s nose up and that saved us.
I remember feeling quite calm and thinking there was nothing one could do so I had no feeling of panic.
At Moratai there were thousands of troops, seventh and ninth divisions to land on Borneo, a division of black yanks guarding the perimeter, and flying fortresses and fighters seemed to cover the air strip and the harbour full of ships. We were camped a few miles out the perimeter and used to walk into the pictures most nights.
One of our lads had a brother on Moratai, he was a fighter pilot. One night he told Bill he’d take him back in a jeep, when they arrived at the perimeter he stopped and said where is your camp? When Bill told him about another four or five miles he didn’t believe him, because they told us stories of how Japs used to come in a steal food and all sorts of stories. Actually our lads patrolled over a big area of Moratai and never saw a Jap, I think they were happy to stop at the other end of the island.
The invasion of Brunei Bay was the operation and our job was to take Labuan Island and secure the northern part of the area. It was an impressive sight to see some eighty five ships moving westward through the Celebes sea and into the South China seas to finally land on the beach on Labuan Island.
All hell seemed to be let loose on the beach, naval gunfire, aerial bombing and rocket barges, anyway enough to send the Japs away and so we landed. It was a wonderful feeling, after climbing down those rope ladders into barges and the sight was unbelievable, also the noise.
This was the first time we had come upon local people. I remember seeing a couple of white men, who I later found out were actually Eurasians. I had never seen them before, European fathers, Malay mothers.
The battalion moved over to the mainland after cleaning up the island. The troops progressed fairly fast and eventually arrived at Beaufort. Tom Starcevich received a VC from the action just outside of the village. I arrived at Beaufort by barge so had an easy ride to that sport. Local people were a great help to the troops, they had had a bad time with the Japs and were so happy to see us and give the officers information about Jap positions.
This operation had its moments but alongside our other campaigns we had the lightest casualties. That doesn’t mean it was easy and the risks are always there and for those killed or wounded it is never good especially to one who was killed after the fighting ceased. When the fighting died down a children’s carnival was organised for the children and people of the district around Beaufort.
People walked in from miles away, it was wonderful to see the people having so much pleasure, jeep rides, slippery dips, see saws, races, some of the children had never had any fun in their young lives, they were a bit shy at first. Then the gaiety of the situations took over. The cooks made lollies, cakes, buns, bottles of cordial, etc one wondered where it all came from.
The Malay Opera Co and the Chinese Dramatic Society put in shows, drums and music filled the air. It was wonderful to just watch their faces and see the joy of being free after years of domination of the Japs.
I didn’t realise it until years after that the bomb was dropped on my 28th birthday, 7th August. Talking of birthdays, I had my first one at Woodside 22, second in Tobruk (Libya) 23, third at El Alamein (Egypt) 24, fourth at Finschafen (New Guinea) 25, fifth on the Tablelands (Ravenshoe) 26, sixth at same spot 27, and the last one at Beaufort (Borneo) 28.
Every year is a good year, but I often think how I missed the important years of my life, the twenties when most people are establishing themselves and back in that period getting married and starting families.
Anyway I’m 85 now (at time of writing), and still healthy, and over the years had that wonderful friendship of mates from the 2/43 infantry battalion. I had 5 years as President and several more as a committee man of the 2/43 battalion club.
I’ve also been blessed with a great family and a successful business life, good health and many years as a happy yatchsman.