Heading North

Soon after returning from leave the Unit moved back to Perth where we packed up and boarded a ship, the well known "M.V.Koolinda", a small ship of about 3000 tons. We sailed to Onslow, a town almost 1,000 miles (1600 kms) north of Perth. The jetty where we landed was one of the longest in Australia being three quarters of a mile long (over a kilometre). On the way to Onslow the ship called at Carnarvon and we were permitted to go ashore for a look around. It was a typical small tropical-type town also with a long jetty. They shipped a lot of bananas and plantains from there. We were told that along with Broome these towns had long jetties because of the huge tides encountered on the West Coast of Australia. Broome had 28 feet tides and coastal ships like the "Koolinda" had specially reinforced hulls that allowed them to rest on the bottom when the tide was out. This happened at Onslow also during periods of high and low tides.

I found Onslow a most interesting place with a few wrecked pearling Tuggers along the beach. The Army had wrecked the Tuggers in case the Japs invaded down the west coast. There were heaps of pearl shells against some of the buildings. The shell was of very inferior quality but most had some parts that were useful for making souvenirs, the purpose for which we wanted them. Apart from the Mother of Pearl we used metal from crashed aircraft for our hobbies. Most aerodromes we met had, at least, one crashed plane nearby. The frames of the aircraft consisted of an aluminium alloy which the Americans called Durall. Fairly soft and easy to work but would take a fine polish. We taught each other by copying and trial and error to make such things as rings, brooches, serviette rings and butter knives.

Some of the more talented made quite intricate pieces of jewellery. Besides what we could buy from shops, we were also able to buy or swap with American engineers to get small files and sand paper. During the war years, shops had very little in the way of tools and equipment for sale. The Army and factories working on Government orders had first priority. To get coloured material for inlaying we combined tooth brush handles and mother of pearl. If you were lucky enough to have a tooth brush of a strong colour it would grow progressively shorter until one would be cleaning one's teeth with a brush with a one-inch handle. Black was the most sought-after colour as it went well with both metal and pearl. It was just as well we had loving and generous girl friends and parents to keep us supplied with toothbrushes.

Some of the things we made we sold to Yanks or to our own people who didn't have the skills or the energy to make their own. If we were selling to a Yank, the metal, naturally came from a shot down Japanese plane. That made it more valuable as supplies were short and everyone wanted a Jap souvenir.

We also used the sails from the Tuggers as floors for our tents. Not such a good idea as twice we found a snake had made a home under there. There was a chap in my troop named Jack (Snakes) Clark. Before the war he had lived at Barmah Lakes near the Murray River. He was well known to Melbourne and Sydney Zoos for his ability to find and catch snakes. He could smell a snake if it was in the vicinity and would catch it with his bare hands. He could kill a snake by cracking it like a whip if he had to but preferred to release them. He really admired them and enjoyed playing with them. There were a lot of snakes at Onslow and Jack Clark was in his element. He often had one in a bag hanging outside the tent. If he caught one under three feet long and rather slim he would calm it for a few minutes, then coil it in his hat and place it on his head. Around the camp lines he usually wore a pith helmet which had a bit more room than an ordinary hat. He could clear a tent of visitors just by walking in and putting his hand up to his hat. It was he who, each time discovered that we had a snake under the floor. We who shared a tent with him pretended we were not afraid of snakes, thus he didn't bother us with his pets. I, like most people, did not like them at all. The area surrounding the fighter strip which we were there to protect consisted of miles of sandy country covered with a thick mat of coarse spinifex grass about two and a half feet high. It was a natural haven for snakes.

In our area there were two large sand dunes covered with the wiry grass and some scrub. On arrival we dug a weapon pit for our Bofors on top of the dune that overlooked the fighter strip. The landing strip was an area of coral reef graded smooth. The tyres of the fighters used to make quite a squeal as they touched down. Fighter aircraft take off and land at a fairly high speed. During peak tides which occurred each month there would be several inches of water on the strip for an hour or two. It was spectacular to see a fighter land or take off in a cloud of spray.

The west coast mail plane (a Dragon Rapide) also used our strip on its weekly rounds. The town of Onslow was only about one mile from where it landed. The fighter aircraft were again, Kittyhawks, this time of a famous Squadron (number 76) which had gained glory in Europe and in New Guinea at Milne Bay. It was there that our troops, ably supported by the Kittyhawks, inflicted the first defeat of the war on Japanese land forces. The myth of Japanese invincibility was exploded and they had very few victories from that point on.

A well known Victorian footballer, Bluey Truscott, was in command of 76 Squadron. He, at that time, was Australia's top Ace with almost 30 enemy aircraft to his credit. His skilful and fearless flying was typical of the fighter pilots who though heavily outnumbered faced and turned back the German air power over England when nothing else stood between Hitler and his complete victory in Europe. Half 76 Squadron was based a couple of hundred miles south of Onslow at Exmouth Gulf. It was there that Squadron Leader Truscott was killed on a training exercise when he misjudged in a dive at a Catalina and struck the water.

Keith Truscott in his Kittyhawk
Keith Truscott in his Kittyhawk

One day, two of the Kittyhawks were engaged in ground strafing practice. They took turns in diving and firing on each other's shadow as they flew over the ocean. Returning to base they made a dummy attack on planes parked beside the strip. As they pulled out of their dive instead of peeling off in different directions, they both turned in the same direction, colliding as they passed over my head. Fragments of aircraft and ammunition sprayed over the area as the propeller of one aircraft chewed into the wing of the other. One plane struggled on, losing height to finally crashland in a mangrove swamp a few miles away without harming the pilot. Only the skill of the experienced pilot enabled him to avoid a bad outcome. The plane was later recovered. The other plane which had a badly damaged wing did a half roll and dived upside down into the top of the next sand dune, exploding and setting fire to the surrounding scrub. We Anti Aircraft men were the first to arrive on the scene. We found the pilot some distance from the plane amid the fire. We pulled him to a clear space but he was, of course, dead.

The engine was buried about eight feet deep in the sand. The plane would have hit the ground at a speed in excess of 250 M.P.H. (400 Kms). I happened to be the sentry on lookout duty on our gun at the time and had been watching them all the while. I had observed the entire incident. Because of this, I was called to give evidence at the Court of Inquiry convened by the Air force. I was later told by my Commanding Officer that my evidence had helped clear the surviving pilot of any blame for the incident.

About this time we were put on high alert as a Japanese submarine was seen off the coast with a landing barge on its deck. A landing in our area was a distinct possibility. We learned post-war from Japanese records, they did actually put a fighting patrol ashore on the Western Australian coast somewhere north of Broome but found it so inhospitable that they never bothered again. It could be wondered why we were wasting time at such a quiet place when there was a war going on elsewhere. At that time the Japanese had been stopped in their advance in the New Guinea area. It was thought probable that they would try an attack down the west coast of Australia towards Perth. It must be realised that Java, where the Japs had a big base, was only a little further from Onslow than was Perth. Broome was being heavily attacked by bombers, presumably as a preparation for an invasion. Our fighters would have had to bear the brunt of stopping such an invasion and would need us to protect their home base. The cunning Japanese had a nasty habit of following our aircraft home from any action, then shooting them up on the ground as they attempted to refuel and reload.

In a spirit of co-operation our unit fortnightly sent a truck to a large sheep station about 70 miles away to pick up a load of sheep. The town butcher and an airforce butcher would slaughter the animals. Our troops, the airforce personnel, who numbered over 300, as well as the town population shared the meat. The system worked well. I once went along for the ride on the truck getting the sheep, was given a drive on the way back, my first try at an Army four wheel drive vehicle. I lacked an Army licence. The North-South Highway on which we drove for most of the way to get the sheep consisted of two wheel-tracks. These after heavy rain became two streams which in the wet season became impassable. When the wheel ruts wore down so that the underside of vehicles dragged, they just chose a new line to one side, which then became the new highway.

On the way to the sheep station the driver, who regularly made the trip, stopped to point to what appeared to be a moving cloud above a line of trees a mile or so ahead. When we reached the trees we found that the cloud was made by thousands of budgerigars which at that time were nesting. As we disturbed them going by, the number and noise was unbelievable. The line of trees, which marked a then dry creek bed, stretched for miles. We noted that once we entered the home paddock of the station, which was fenced, it was 35 miles to the station homestead. While we saw quite a number of sheep it seemed to me there were more kangaroos and emus. There were a couple of white station managers and about eight black stockmen running the station. They admitted that wages for the stockmen were low but pointed out that the extended families of these men amounted to more than thirty and the station provided provisions for them all.

On another trip to get firewood we reached the Ashburton River where we found an all steel bridge which looked the type of bridge one would find on a busy highway in Victoria. Certainly not one with only a dirt road leading to it, miles from anywhere. There was no water flowing under the bridge at the time but locals in town told us, although it was thirty feet to the bridge, in the wet season the water reached the decking. The river when we saw it consisted of a series of long waterholes. The building of an all steel bridge was because the white ants would quickly devour anything built of wood that touched the ground.

While in Onslow we held two excellent free concerts in the town's public hall with the performers drawn from Air Force, Army and the townsfolk. The pretty young school teacher and the publican's twenty year old daughter were very popular players. I played the front half of a horse in one play and the villain under the bed in the other. Some of the musical items were first class. Our Sergeant Cliff Ross was the organiser of the Show plus being Director, Master of Ceremonies and fill-in artist with singing and guitar. He was really very talented. Cliff Ross became close friends with the publican, Mr. Clark, and did him a few favours which led to our whole gun crew being shouted a dinner at the hotel.

Towards the end of our stay the Kittyhawks were replaced by Australian built Boomerang fighters. They were not a bad plane but were not sent far afield. Though they proved to be effective against bombers, they were found to be too inferior to the Japanese Zeros to risk them against those fighters. At that stage no fighters in the world could match the Zeros in a dogfight but the Boomerangs did really valuable work in New Guinea supporting our troops in the jungle. With their heavy firepower and ability to fly slowly and at very low altitude they often rescued our ground troops from sticky situations. Even the lowly Wirraway excelled as an Artillery spotter.

Boomerang fighter
RAAF Boomerang fighter

After five months at Onslow during which time I can honestly say we enjoyed our experience, we boarded the "Chunking", a miserable little 2000 ton vessel. As the name suggests it was of Chinese origin and had fled Singapore with a load of refugees. It moved us to Exmouth Gulf which was an American flying boat and submarine base. They knew it under the code name of Potshot. It was about 200 miles nearer to Perth than was Onslow. We arrived at Onslow on. 22st January 1943 and moved to Exmouth Gulf on 2nd June 1943. There was no wharf at Exmouth Gulf. All supplies and equipment went ashore on large floating platforms towed by launches. The platforms were pulled up to the beach at high tide and unloaded by six wheeled drive trucks pulling around them while the tide was out. They were then refloated on the next tide, so long as they were unloaded in time.

Timing was vital to keep things moving but the Yanks knew how to hustle. When the ships crew, who were also wharfies, tried a go-slow a Yank officer grabbed a tommy gun and ordered them out of the hold of the ship or he would shoot them. I think he meant it, the crewmen thought so too as they moved out without a word and were silent while a gang of Yanks unloaded their share of the cargo. We could only stand and grin. Wharfies were not our friends during the war.

As it took us almost six hours from the time of boarding the raft, or whatever one chose to call it, until we were safely ashore, the Yanks thought that this was rough living. They took some of us to their mess tent for a meal. To us, what an eye opener that was. They turned on fresh meat and fresh vegetables and preserved fruit and icecream. Left to our own resources we would have probably had bully beef or tinned meat and vegetables. No wonder many American soldiers fell by the wayside when things got really tough. Their life during postings such as Potshot was too soft to prepare them for the tough conditions encountered in the northern islands. They had a row of large household refrigerators that ran for at least 30 feet along one side of the mess tent. Men seemed able to go to the fridges as they wished.

Once we had our gun in position and dug in, things were a bit quiet so some of us managed to get time off to go shooting, mainly for roos. There was no shortage of ammunition as Station Owners would give us all we needed so long as we got rid of some roos. They were a pest in that area, even worse than at Onslow. It was strange, but while I was in the Infantry, it was almost impossible to get bullets to just fire as one wished. One had to account (in triplicate) for every round with which one was issued. Yet we could cadge any amount we wanted from airforce or artillery personnel. It seemed the wrong way round to me. Of course, when we went into action there were no limits on ammunition for an infantry man.

The area surrounding Exmouth Gulf was geologically some of the oldest land on earth. The rocks were weathered and broken, hence, the name of the hills to the south of us were the Rough Range, the highest point being Mount King. It was a temptation to go there and explore at every opportunity. We found that there were rare rock wallabies there. They could race up and down cliffs and gorges that we were not game to climb. It was an interesting place to visit, but, I would hate to live there.

Toward the end of July after only six weeks at Exmouth Gulf we were moved again. The heavy rains had started and the whole area had become a quagmire, we were forced to winch our gun and truck out onto high ground. This time we moved back to Perth where we became a new unit. From that time on we were to be an independent unit. The 2/8th Australian Light Anti Aircraft Battery (Airborne). We were to train at loading our guns and equipment on and off D.C.3 transport aircraft (the Americans knew them as Douglas Dakotas). We were to be moved by air in some future activity in the islands up north.

On the 24th July 1943 we entrained for Victoria and, in my case, crossed the Nullarbor Plain for the sixth time. Not a very comfortable or interesting trip. Yet I learned a lot about it as the time of year was different each time, the difference in the scenery was incredible. The first crossing showed green grass stretching to the horizon. Some time later the grass was gone and the familiar desert had taken the place of the green. On the last trip thousands of rabbits were along the line dying of thirst and hunger. In search of water they converged on the Fettlers towns which dotted the line at regular intervals in those days. Outside each town was a large pile of dead rabbits. The people gathered them each morning from around the houses and placed down wind. There were plenty of dogs but they just ignored the bunnies, having always lived with the millions of them. We heard how every year, when the rain brought the grass, the rabbits started to trek west but usually perished in thousands as the summer sun burnt the feed and dried up the water. These rabbits were so desperate for water they tried to drink the hot water dripping from the steam engine.

I have referred to the Fettlers homes as towns. This could be a little misleading as they were only settlements consisting usually of five or six houses facing the railway lines with no shop except the one that came fortnightly by rail. The fettlers kept the lines in order and cared for the water tanks and windmills. It must be remembered that at that time all the trains were hauled by steam engines. Fuel and water had to be available at regular intervals for the long haul from Perth to Adelaide. There was one windmill with a thirty-feet span which was pumping very hot water from hundreds of feet down.

After crossing the continent we paused for a few days in Melbourne for a spot of leave. Then on to Sydney for one day then on again to Brisbane where we stayed for a few days in a park on the outskirts of the city. It was while at this park that Jack (Snakes) Clarke caught a snake which was over six feet (2 metres) long. As it was a poisonous one, he was ordered to kill it. This he proceeded to do by cracking it like a whip. What a fuss when the head flew off and struck a bystander in the face. One would have thought the Japs had landed. I'm sure that Jack would have been charged with something had there been a rule in the book covering flying snakes.

While, at that park, I saw the sort of unselfish bravery exhibited by some airmen. An American fighter plane was over the suburbs of Brisbane when it developed engine trouble. The pilot was in touch with his base and informed them of his emergency. He was told to "bail out". He answered that he felt unable to do so as he was over houses and facing towards inner suburbs but would try to reach an open area. By the time he was clear of the built up area it was too late to jump as he was now too low. He tried to land in our park. While avoiding our huts he crashed into some trees. His plane exploded and burnt on impact and he was killed. That his caring for others cost him his life cannot be denied. We did not even learn his name.

From Brisbane we went into what may well have been our best camp. We went to Helidon which was the site of a famous spa situated at the foot of the Atherton Tablelands and only a few miles from Toowoomba. The latter was a quite large town or rather it was a city. The Spa produced large quantities of mineral water which in peace time had a large market, even some sold abroad. As the factory was closed for the duration of the war all the water ran to waste but first was channelled through a large swimming pool in which our Unit spent a lot of leisure activity. Our tents were pitched among a stand of tall young gum trees.

After a few weeks we were off again, this time to Townsville. We spent only about ten days in that dusty camp. Just enough time for me to get a bad case of conjunctivitis. A few days of treatment and wearing dark glasses, then I was okay in time to catch a boat for New Guinea. Before this however, while still at Helidon, we were relieved of our gun tractors, the ones with which we had been issued in the Middle East. They were four wheel drive vehicles known as quads which looked a bit like armoured cars. They had seating inside for eight with lockable doors all around the outside for ammunition. It can be imagined how we felt when these tractors were replaced by little American Jeeps. We put the Jeeps through some pretty hard tests but were forced to admit that they could do the job. Of course it would have been quite impossible to load one of our big trucks into an aircraft.

The ship on which we sailed to New Guinea was the Motor Vessel "Katoomba".

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