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August 13, 2020

Victory in the Pacific – 75 years since the end of World War II

RSL LifeCare has been capturing the memories of our war veterans for many years as a way of honouring our residents’ individual service. This VP Day – the 75th since the end of World War II – we present four residents’ memories that illustrate the wide range of individual experiences of the Pacific War: a signalman in the jungle of Borneo, an aircraftman in Madang Harbour, a wireless telegraphist receiving vital code over the airwaves and a nurse at the receiving end of the sick and wounded…

Bob Waterer, RSL ANZAC Village 2016

 

Bob Waterer

The Battle of Balikpapan, Borneo, was the final campaign of Operation Oboe WWII – a last-ditch, desperate jungle fight to liberate British and Dutch-held Borneo. Bob Waterer was a strapping young signalman, selected for the task because of his great athletic ability. Here he remembers his war…

“In World War II the Manpower Office classified the baking trade as an essential service, so it took me three attempts to enlist successfully. Finally, in 1943, I was successful and after a year of training I was posted as an artillery signalman to the 54 Battery of the 2/4th Field Regiment, part of the 7th Australian Division. On Sunday 1 July 1945 the 7th Division took part in the most extensive amphibious landing undertaken by the Australian Army in World War 11.”

Bob Waterer 1945

“When we went into Balikpapan, it was huge. There were over 100 ships in the convoy – a huge affair. I was in the third wave that went into the beach, 8 minutes after the first. I was in the first wave of the landing barges, being loaded up with a wireless on my back, one battery the size of a car battery. We had to have two batteries to operate this wireless and the other bloke had the other battery. I had all my personal gear, I had one hundred rounds of ammunition, two hand grenades and by the time I got off the barge I was up to my waist in water. They had sides on these barges and all the blokes had to get under the sides for protection as we were running in, but I stood up the back with the bloke that was driving the barge, a big Yank, he was smoking a cigar, I wasn’t going to miss it in anyway.

“We had to go ten miles on the barges, from the ships to the beach. We were circling about half an hour, going around and around in circles watching the bombers coming over and dropping their bombs, that was a fascinating experience I can tell you, you see it in the movies but there’s nothing like the real thing. You’re watching the bombs dropping down and exploding and you’re thinking ‘there couldn’t possibly be anything alive there’ but they were there in tunnels and they really fought tenaciously.”

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Geez I know somebody’s going to be killed, I hope it’s not going to be me’. Once we were going in, the Yank said ‘Righto we’ve got 500 yards to go, 400 yards, 300 yards, 200 yards, 100 yards to go, 50 yards, ramp down…  GO YOU BASTARDS! All the best! Ha! And he said to me “good luck kid”. He wasn’t waiting. As soon as the ramp was down and the blokes were getting out he was backing out. He wasn’t waiting. I was up to here [points to ribs] in water; I was soaking wet and aww it was hard going up through the sand, and some of the poor buggers were seasick.”

“When we finished at Balikpapan we went out across the bay to a place called Riko River.  There were 36 Indian Ghurkhas that had been taken prisoner in the village of Riko and the 2/9th battalion went to rescue them, along with us. We only took one gun over but as a signaller I had to lay wire and maintain it, three miles of wire up the river. We had a native prow, about 18 feet long and three native paddlers from one of the villages. There were two of us; we went up the jungle river and you’ve never heard the jungle noises. All the orangutans and monkeys … it was scary I tell you what. I was scared … we didn’t know if there were Japs in the jungle and all the noises … and the Orangutans used to come down and swing on the wire (it was red and it attracted them) and break it.

“The Japanese were always after the signallers [so they couldn’t send the message back to the guns]. They’d let the other infantry blokes go past but they wanted me. But I’ve still got very good reflexes, I’ve had good reflexes all my life and we were well trained. The Japanese fought tenaciously and by 12 July the main objectives had been fulfilled and they were completely overrun. A month later the war ended.”

 

Joy Granger

Joy Granger

Australia had its own code-breaking operation, an “outstation” of England’s famous Blechley Park. Long-time RSL LifeCare resident Joy Granger worked in the intelligence unit in both Melbourne and Brisbane, where she learnt that both jammed signals and radio silence have the power to deliver devastating news…

“I was sixteen when I finished up at St Vincent’s College Potts Point and headed off to Business College, where I learnt to become a typist and stenographer. My first job was in the ABC newsroom and it was heaven. Working at the ABC, even though the information coming through from Canberra was censored (especially the casualty numbers from 1939 onwards), we received reliable information from other quarters such as visiting journalists who had been covering the war, and some of their stories would make your eyes pop. It was a fascinating place to work, especially at that time.”

“In 1939 I signed up for night classes to learn to be a wireless operator and in September 1941 I was recruited into the Air Force and sent to Melbourne to work as a wireless operator. My job was to receive the code, write it down exactly as I had heard it and then pass it on for decryption. It was hard and stressful work at times as you had to be sure that you had everything down accurately … and at speed.”

“A small group of us worked the London Watch for about two years. We’d regularly get dreadful interference from whoever was trying to stop the message by jamming it. The jamming also became increasingly worse as the Pacific Campaign waged. Several times I raised my voice to the Commanding Officer, most of us did. We all reached the stage of exhaustion from the long, long messages that kept coming through from London – but then something arrived to help us along the way. They invented a high speed recording machine and we’d put this machine on when we knew the message was going to be very long. The decrypters could then slow it down and work on it. It make a big difference because the messages were coming through at such terrific speed. Prior to having the recorder if you missed something you had to stop them and say “AA” – All After – and then tell them where you got to and they would repeat it. But all Hell would break loose because they were trying to get something through in a hurry and they didn’t want you stopping them.”

“One day in 1942 my CO told me to sit at a desk where they’d set up a temporary wireless station. He said “Sit there and record every single thing that you hear. It doesn’t matter what you hear, just record it.” So I sat there all day and nothing happened. At the end of ten hours the CO came back, took the headphones off and said, “thank you”. The next day we learnt that Timor had fallen to the enemy – a small group of our members had been working there and I had been listening for a message from them. But the Japanese got to them first. That was sad, it brought home to me exactly what it must have been like for some of them.”

 

Keith Joiner

Keith enlisted in 1944, aged 18, and was sent to work in Madang Harbour in northern New Guinea, unloading and loading ships and keeping watch for Japanese snipers taking pot-shots from the jungle edge…

“I enlisted in 1944 when I was 18, going firstly into the Army and then volunteering for the Air Force where I became a leading aircraft man. When I signed up the war had been going for a long while and everyone was worried. There were thousands of American troops coming through. The first ones were glamour boys – big uniforms and lots of money and plenty of girls – but the later troops were different; they were hardened and they treated us very well, particularly up in the islands.”

“After basic training we disembarked Australia on the troop ship SS Ormiston and sailed to Port Moresby where we learnt to fuse bombs, and then up to Finschhafen. It was a huge American Base and we worked on unloading. I was in a transport unit, the 7 TMO. From there we were sent with the American infantry landing barges up to Madang. The AIF 6th Division had landed in the Wewak Area and there was plenty of action.”

“I worked on unloading ships and planes coming into Madang Harbour. When it was really busy we’d work very long shifts, dozing in the hulls or trucks in between unloading ships. It was physically demanding work, but important because without supplies the front troops couldn’t make progress. As well as that, you can’t have a ship sitting in a harbour because they’re vulnerable from air attack so it was imperative we unloaded them as fast as possible. Occasionally I was also a stacker in the DC3s delivering supplies to other airfields in New Guinea. We’d deliver whatever we could fit through the doors – aircraft parts, medical supplies, and ammunition for the troops. The biggest danger in the DC3s was the tropical weather in New Guinea; sometimes it was very dangerous flying. After 18 months they pulled us out because we were losing too much weight. We had malaria and we were ill.”

“It was always an option that the snipers were around because of the proximity of the jungle so we did guard duty night and day. The Japs set fire to our fuel dump one night; there was a huge explosion and it took a while to work out what was going on. They weren’t after our ships or planes as much as our fuel, because without fuel our supply chain would be broken. On that night, luckily, all they set fire to were the almost-empty drums.  I used to do guard duty and on a full moon you’d stand there staring into the jungle.”

“It was a sad time coming home in a lot of ways, very emotional. In saying goodbye to each other, we were leaving people that we’d relied on night and day through intense, uncertain and exhausting conditions. Before climbing into the Catalina that was to take us to Los Negros we stood on the tarmac and saluted. Once up in the air I was in the machine gun part so I had a really good view. As far as the eye could see there were ships, all types of ships, taking troops home.”

 

Eileen McDonald – LHS Patient Ward in a canvas hospital Morotai. RHS Disembarking the Hospital Ship Manunda at Morotai

Eileen McDonald (nee Huett)

Eileen, who lived at RSL ANZAC Village Narrabeen for over twenty years, nursed both at home and overseas during the war, tending to the wounded and prisoners of war. Her experience taught her that nursing is a profession with a lot of good things and sad things in both war and peacetime. One thing, however, never changes: the human touch that comes from caring for another…

“In 1944 I was called up from the 113 AGH (Australian General Hospital) at Concord and sent to the 2/5 AGH, which was reforming at the Sydney Showground after serving in Greece, Crete, The Middle East, Eritrea and New Guinea. We didn’t know where we were going, you just accepted the ‘not knowing’ because that was simply the way it was during the war.”

“After we’d reformed we were told our destination was the Pacific island of Morotai, which had been captured by the American forces. Not long after we sailed from Sydney on the 2/1 Hospital Ship Manunda. It was a very nice trip up, but only an hour after arriving at our destination there was an enemy aircraft threat and we were all sent down to the bottom of the ship – that was terrifying. But overall it was an exciting time, we were with some very experienced nurses that had been nursing in hot spots on the other side of the world. They were supportive, they were just so sure of what they were doing. Nothing ruffled them, so there was that atmosphere.”

“The 2/5 AGH was stationed on the beachside down the bottom of Morotai. They had put the big tents up and the beds were in there and I remember raking floors and sweeping them out. We put the finishing touches to it, set the wards up with their equipment, and waited for the first patients.”

“The first ones came from Tarakan, Borneo; actually you could hear the gunfire because it was very close. Morotai is only 4 degrees off the equator, it was very close to Borneo. We never had advanced warning, they just brought them in.”

“It was very sad to see these lovely boys wounded and the old story of them wanting their mothers is true. In those moments you can only comfort them as much as you can. War is a terrible thing. It helped knowing that I was in a position to help. I used to make them omelettes, little things like that, it doesn’t sound much when you say it but it used to give them so much pleasure. You see, the everyday life of nursing in the army wasn’t much different to anywhere else, you were in a war zone, that was the only difference. It’s always been the human side of nursing that appealed to me.”

“When they brought the Prisoners of War into Morotai after the war it was with the idea of nursing them back to health so they could withstand the trip home. I remember one boy who came in, we’d decorated the wards with a green vine, around the tent poles. Apparently it was edible, well they brought this boy in and the first thing he saw was the vines. He was horrified to see it – all that vine being wasted. Another thing they would do was hide food in their beds. They couldn’t help it, they were beyond being able to comprehend or trust that there would be more [food]. It was terrible not only physically but mentally; they were scarred.”

“VJ Day (now called VP Day) was exciting but I don’t think we did anything special. It was wonderful, we knew it was coming soon because the Japanese were being driven back everywhere. It was a wonderful feeling afterwards too because life seemed to become, to some extent, normal. There were no more casualties, you didn’t have to anticipate a lot of casualties coming in a flood, which happened after some of the battles they fought.”

“My mother had a breakdown when I came home, my six brothers all made it back too. I was the last one home and when I arrived she just completely fell apart. I took her away for three week’s holiday and she picked up alright, she was ok, but it was just a reaction. We used to have our reunions after the war every year, but we never talked about the war. We talked about what we were doing now.”

 

AUTHOR HELEN JOHNSTON

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