Archive number: 139
Date interviewed: 12 May, 2003
You are listening to the interview audio
So David I believe you are a Queenslander, tell us about your early days in Queensland?
I was brought up in the bush in Queensland; my father had a cattle property half way between Gympie and Maryborough where we lived there until I was
fourteen, then I went to boarding school from the time I was eight, in Brisbane, there were not schools in that part, it was quite amazing today to go back and see the development. We can’t find the old property anymore; it has been so cut up and cut up again. My son and the family went up there last year for a holiday and I gave him a map where I though he might find it and he couldn’t find it,
it was now pineapple farms and avocados and that sort of thing. Then we moved to Brisbane. I lived in Brisbane until I joined the air force, I was nineteen when I joined the air force I was in reserved occupation, I couldn’t get away, they didn’t want me, they wouldn’t allow it. I worked for a shipping company
and shipping people were important people, so I tricked them I resigned.
It has always intrigued me that reserved occupation because I was wondering what’s to stop somebody from joining the air force.
Well you could, my manager was a very fine man and he tried to talk me out of it, he said “You are working for the shipping, which is just as important as being in uniform”, but then all my friends
had joined, it was a peer pressure thing, I think. In later years I’ve become an anti war person, I can’t see the point in a war. As I said, I went into the air force at nineteen and came out at twenty-three and I reckon I lost some of the best years of my life. I was a boy and I came out of it a seasoned veteran.
You never went back, you never regain that loss, it’s the early twenty. Then I worked for Trans Australia Airlines, that’s how I came to live in Melbourne from working at the old Eagle Farm to working here at Essington Airport.
Give us a brief sketch of your career please David, the air force?
Well I joined originally as a wireless operator and qualified to be what is called an air operator which is an ordinary WT [wireless telegraphy]. But I didn’t like it. Listening to Morse code on the earphones was a pretty boring sort of a procedure and I happened to hear about radar and the fact that it was something new and something different
and it appeared to me, so I appealed for remustering when I was accepted and I was in one of the early courses at radar school in New South Wales. Quite amazing really because it was in such infancy and there wasn’t much equipment to train us on. It was the only course in the air force where we were on three shifts, eight hours,
so that we had equipment to work on, otherwise it was useless.
It’s very unlike the armed forces to be that organised, isn’t it?
They were. Radar was terribly well organised because the people that organised it were all fairly intelligent academics, fellows that were university professors or university lecturers that sort of thing,
they knew what they were doing because it was something that Logie Baird, he was the inventor of it and not many people knew much about it. They actually had people coming out from England from the RAF [Royal Air Force] to train us at Richmond while I was there. We had two fellows from the RAF when I was there and from there it fast tracked
into radar operations.
And where were you posted initially once you became a radar operator?
I went to Milne Bay that was my first radar installation and we were taken across by ship from Port Moresby and we went half way around the Pacific before we got to there.
Was that in order to confuse the Japanese?
Dodging Japanese submarines because you must remember
the Coral Sea Battle had only happened just a short time before and there were still Japanese things all over the place you know. Anyhow, from Moresby they flew us down to Milne Bay in this very primitive. You wouldn’t believe that a military organization could be so primitive. I have a
photograph of the area signals which was under some palm fronds.
It looks just like a bush?
That’s right yes. The radar station that was fine, it had English gear which was stupid in a way because it was always getting wet, it was not water proofed and it should never have been in the tropics and that is another story. Typical air force really because although radar
as a section of the air force was terribly well organised, the people that were responsible that were responsible for getting the equipment and getting the stuff to a radar station, they weren’t as well organised and we arrived up there and we had three native built huts once again made out of platted palm fronds, dirt floors. It rained every day of the week,
mud up to your knees and food which was very minimal, it really was. You look back and I think one of the things that you have to thank the Yanks for because they eventually got involved in the war in New Guinea, basically they were wonderful on supply,
organise food, tents, stretchers, because I might add when we got there we didn’t have a stretcher to sleep on, ground sheets on the floor until we got clever and got old straw, bags that we called palliasses and we stretched these things across some poles and lifted ourselves off the ground and
we were a bit more comfortable and when the Yanks came along we managed to get some fresh food.
Instead of bully beef and M and V?
Yes M & V. Yes meat and vegetables put out by Tom Piper. Tom Piper M & V and I don’t think any of us were able to look at another tin of it for the rest of our lives.
You’re not the first person that has said to me.
I bet I’m not.
They were monotonous. We did have something like rolled oats, so for breakfast there was a thick porridge. And the tea was dreadful stuff, I don’t know where they got the stuff, but you drank it because you couldn’t drink the water because it was so heavily chlorinated, it had to be of course, and everybody got malaria, there were not enough quinine tablets to go around.
I was very fortunate I only had a very light attack of it and it didn’t seem to affect me terribly. Dysentery was another big problem, a very big problem because the hygiene was pretty minimal and you didn’t know what it was to have a hot shower of course, there was a bucket with holes in it which you pulled from a rope over the top of a pole
but it didn’t worry us very much. You had another bucket and a cake of soap, you didn’t have soap powder or anything like that and your clothes, they were clean, but they had a strange odour about them after a while. And of course you never threw away cigarette butts you kept them and
recycled them into cigarette paper, made another cigarette out of it, cause you smoked like a chimney, that was the funny thing about it, food was minimal, but there was always cigarettes.
I’ve also heard from medical people that the first thing they would give a wounded person was a cigarette, a vastly important commodity.
Yes, I suppose when we were on duty and we were on duty for eight hours in a sealed
atmosphere, hot and humid with a fan blowing, with a noisy cell from an electric motor over your head grinding away constantly, a hum from the cathode-ray tubes, some of them were about three feet high and they used to get terribly hot and you smoke because it was the only thing
to do, the boredom was terrible, because there was no aircraft in the sky, there was nothing. There was just a trace going backwards and forwards on the screen or just one going around. There was a circular one which gave you the bearings and the horizontal one was for the range. You’d go through perhaps two packets of cigarettes in a shift.
Is that two packets of twenties?
Yes, twenties. Craven A’s they were, they were top of the
range stuff. And then when the Yanks came we got things like Lucky Strikes and Marlboros.
Tell us then David how long were you in Milne Bay?
From September ’42 to April ’43.
Was it pretty much under constant bombing attack all the time?
Yes and no, there would be a lull
perhaps three or four weeks and we wouldn’t see a Jap aircraft, we would see them on the screen that they were coming, we had about a three hundred mile range, in today’s radar that is very small but today you have radar that will bend over the horizon. I’ll tell you a bit more about that later. April 13th
’43 is a day that I will never forget for two reasons. My father died and it was the day of the heaviest raid in any part of New Guinea by the Japs and there were some three hundred Japanese twin engine bombers came tried to blast the hell out of Milne Bay but they didn’t succeed, we had very good air cover, Lockheed Lightning and Kittyhawks,
wonderful both the American, most of the Australians, but the Kittyhawks were American. Quite a few bombers never made it back to Rabaul; they were smoking wrecks out on the pacific somewhere. I got a signal that afternoon that came through from headquarters in Brisbane to say my father had died,
so my CO [Commanding Officer] said “You had better pack your bags and head down to strip and see if you can get an aircraft”. I left New Guinea, I never went back, I was posted out after that.
Where did you go after that?
I went back to Brisbane, I had passionate posting because my mother was not well and I am the only child in the family, I had to sort of organise things, help reorganise my father’s business,
they were making bits and pieces; they had a couple of contracts to make of all things hand grenades. I got posted to Brisbane and I was in the fighter control at Brisbane for a three months and then I was sent down to radar school, advance courses in radar which
was very interesting. It was a very fascinating thing to be in radar, it was quite uncanny really that you could sit in front of a cathode-ray tube or a television tube as they are now and not actually see an aircraft but you would get the echo from an aircraft three or four hundred miles away.
It was quite remarkable to think of a time before that because for our generation radar has always
been in existence but for someone like yourself to have seen it?
Before that they relied on visual spotters and the hearing audio type, they were massive, they looked like, you might have seen those adds for His Master’s Voice the gramophones with the big trumpet, well they had them mounted up on poles and they could pick up
What was coming only about twenty or thirty miles away.
It’s no time at all, is it?
No, because then along came this wonderful invention called radar and then of course radar is what saved Britain, because the radar people picked up the Germans crossing the channel passed it on to the control units that put the Spitfires into the air and that’s what really saved Britain.
Did we have radar at that stage?
Not as good as the British.
Was jamming used by anybody at that stage?
You could jam it, what we called confetti would jam it, only pieces of aluminium strips very simple stuff. So I went to this course to give absolutely accurate that specified particularly
to train people to give absolute accurate tracks of aircraft, it was a filtering course and when you came out that you were then posted to an operational base, surprising we were all NCO’s [Non-Commissioned Officers] but we were lords of the manor, but when we put a track on the operations table for the controller to read for his
pilots they couldn’t argue with us, we had people. We had one particular fellow when I was in Darwin, we had some shocking arguments and that was the late John Gorton [Prime Minister of Australia]. He’d been grounded. All the pilots in these fighter control or operation rooms were all grounded pilots
most of them, well they were pilots, there were wings, left, right and centre but they couldn’t fly. Funny characters, John Gorton was one of them.
It must have been amazing as an NCO to be telling these guys “No Sir”?
You got a big head about it and by this time I was a sergeant and sergeant were pretty important people, we had your own sergeants’
mess and you didn’t take any muck from the officers. You could argue and you stand up and say “I don’t like what you are doing”.
We’ll talk about that in more detail later on. We were in Darwin?
Yes, there was an enormous unit in Darwin, the local operations centre for fighter control. It was the centre for aircraft
in and out of Darwin, all sorts of aircraft. It was the radar installation. We had over one thousand on strength in the unit but never more than six hundred at one time, the rest of them were all out on the radar stations and were brought in because the radar stations up there were so isolated that they couldn’t keep the guys on them for two or three months, they would go potty.
Was it one guy by himself up there?
Oh no, there would be about sixteen or seventeen people, there would be a cook, a clerk of sorts and the rest would be technical people, mechanics and a motor mechanic to keep the generators going and the poor guy he used to be on call twenty four hours a day and they were all serviced by aircraft
made of fabric and wire, they were a good aircraft but nasty to fly in and it was formed. I arrived there just after it had been formed, I got posted to. I broke this wrist and I was out of action for about three weeks and I didn’t get up there in time, which was lucky for me as I didn’t get involved in the early construction.
But it didn’t take long to discover that I was pretty useful with my hands and designated as the assistant barracks officer, so apart from my normal duties I was rushing around organising buildings to be put up.
Just what you need after a shift?
It was good, it kept you occupied,
actually all the guys had other duties to do which was probably a good thing and then see they might stay on in strength, perhaps a month or six weeks and they’d be taken out and the others brought back in.
How long were you in Darwin for?
From August 1944 till August 1945,
those dates aren’t quite accurate but that is in round figures.
So were you in Darwin for VJ Day [Victoria over Japan] ?
No, I was in a jeep which broke a steering link and turned over, put me into hospital. I wasn’t driving, I was the passenger and I got a pretty bad bash on the head and they thought I might have something wrong with me, so I had a medical evacuation to Brisbane.
By this time the air force and I weren’t the best of friends. I came back to (UNCLEAR) military hospital and I thought “This is going too good, I am going to get out of this air force”, but I was very lucky the WAAAF officer [Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force] was the adjutant of the hospital for that section was an old girl friend of mine. So I homed in on this,
can you get me out of this thing? That was how I remember when we met this morning about the nominal roll being incorrect, they posted me out of the hospital to a unit which had no use for me. The stores depot and that’s where I got my discharge from them, my discharge came through on VP Day [Victory in the Pacific].
I was in for about three weeks before I got out at a place called Posting on VP Day. I was out of the air force and I was quite happy about that.
What did you do straight after the war?
I went with a cousin of mine and we bought a property in the Darling Downs, we grew wheat and had some cattle and generally mucked around doing not very hard work.
We just enjoyed life.
You must have had good people working for you then?
No. It was ourselves only about four hundred acres. By the middle of 1946 most of the people were out of the services and Brisbane became a very attractive place to be in. There were all sorts of wonderful things happening.
So you had a good few years after the war then?
Yes, then I, my cousin and I decided to sell, we were not destined to be on the land, we both came from families that had been on the land, it wasn’t our cup of tea, he went on to become a solicitor, he went off and had rehab [rehabilitation], I didn’t, I went off and did a rehab course in engineering.
What did that lead to?
Not till I got to Melbourne actually. I got a job with TAA [Trans Australia Airline], when they first started all the personnel of TAA were ex air force from the pilots down to the air crew.
Really, so TAA started very much post war then?
Yes straight after the war, 1947-48.
Was it run any better than the air force?
No it was run very well. Lester Brain who was the general manager was an ex QANTAS [Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service] man and he really was spot on, wonderful airline, they were all old air force aircraft that flew DC3’s they ran all over Australia and they did a wonderful job. And when I was transferred from
out of the old Eagle Farm Airport down here to Melbourne to Essendon and I hadn’t been here long and I discovered, the social life when you are working in an air line is not funny because there are weird hours, you might start at 4am one morning and the next midnight or something, your social life was nil.
I bumped into a friend one day on my day off and he was working for a very big engineering company called Malcolm Moore and I made some comment that I wanted to get out of TAA and he said “Why don’t you come down and see the boss? They are recruiting trainee engineers”, so I went down and in forty eight hours
I was an engineer with Malcolm Moore, best thing I ever did because I got a wonderful grounding in heavy engineering. We made, there are still some cranes around made by Malcolm Moore, road graders and bulldozers and God knows what else. I got my diploma whilst I was there which in those days was
quite an achievement from what was then the old Melbourne Institute of Technology, now RMIT and not long after I got my diploma there was a new company starting, very well known name, it has become a house hold name called Ramset, Ramset Fasteners and they were just starting up, an old air force mate of mine was their first sales manager,
he said “Why don’t you come over and have a talk? They are looking for people to start up the factory”, which I did and I became their first production manager. I knew nothing about guns because that’s what a Ramset is, it is a gun.
I’ve used several Ramsets.
We learnt the hard way. I was with that organization for many years.
Went through all different sections, Sidchrome it was part of. It became Sidchrome Ramset, today of course it doesn’t exist any more. Sidchrome is now owned by an American firm and Sidchrome Spanners are made in Taiwan and Ramset is owned by ITW, which is a Chicago based company, they are still made in Australia but all the personnel are American,
which is very sad, it was a wonderful company. And it all happened and that would make a story in its own and I won’t. It is a story, believe you me. I didn’t stay very long; I went and worked for the opposition.
Were you ever involved in any ex services men’s associations?
Never. I don’t know why. I had no great. I think one of the things that turned me off in going into them was the fact that they were very dominated by ex-army personnel and they had a lot of people particularly straight after the war that were still the executives
of the RSL [Returned and Services League], old guys from the First World War and they were totally different breed to our war.
In what respects?
Well, they never got over the fact that they either survived Gallipoli or they survived France. And my father-in-law was a survivor of both of those fights in the First World War; he never really survived because he always had something wrong with him. He didn’t show it
and he didn’t let you know about it. In Queensland the guy who ran the RSL, he was the president, he was a very dictatorial person and I didn’t like that. He wasn’t democratic, he was autocratic.
Did you feel after the war that the last thing you wanted to do was join another organization where people (UNCLEAR)?
Yes, I think so. You saw some of your friends and of course being an air force we were not posted as a unit, we were posted individually all over the place, it didn’t matter what your mustering was to stay in any one place like Darwin was quite a record.
Transient sort of organization and you didn’t make a lot of lasting friends not like the army, you joined a battalion, a machine gun company, artillery, they all stayed together for the whole war and they became a family, you had no family in the air force.
Everyone like you said posted
and also there is a great turn over with deaths in aircrews and so forth?
In air crews the turnover was enormous not in Australia over in the other side in England on the continent it was enormous, but here it wasn’t so bad, there were some very fine guys killed. Some of my school
friends killed sometimes in their first flight particular if they were fighter pilots and the Japanese fighter pilots were pretty good and if these fellows hadn’t had experience and they got against a Japanese Zero, that was it.
It was an incredibly short life span for a fighter pilot, wasn’t it?
Yes I mean people like Bluey Truscott
who was at Milne Bay I think you can safely say he and 78 Squadron [actually was 76 Squadron], I think you can safely say that he made it very uncomfortable for the Japs and he was a wonderful pilot, a fantastic pilot but hopeless at landing. I can see it now; they either used to let Blue up after a scramble the rest of the boys
would let him come in first or else they would let him stay up till last because when his altimeter cut out he had no sense of height. He would neutralise his controls and he would come down and bounce off the matting. Quite incredible to see it, actually that is what killed him, he was killed over in Western Australian, they were doing some training runs in a drogue, a dummy
pulled behind a Catalina I think it was and quite close to the water and he came in on a dive, didn’t realise that he was so close to the water and he actually powered into the water and when they pulled him out he was still strapped, he was just drowned, his aircraft just went straight in. He was wonderful, a great guy it was such a shame and a great pilot.
Did you know him personally at Milne Bay?
Yes, he was a real character. Those fighter pilots at Milne Bay were real rascals, that’s why most of them survived by being totally undisciplined, they really were, but they were great fellow they really were. Great characters, all young, they were the same age as we were. They were only just out of their teen age.
It is amazing to think that the war was just fought with kids isn’t it, eighteen years old?
Yes of course that’s right. I remember when I was posted to Darwin and the CO of that big unit in Darwin, he was a wing commander and he was only a year older than I was. He was a grounded pilot, he had been in the Battle of Britain, he was a Spitfire pilot and he was grounded.
A terrific pilot, a wonderful administrator, he had that wonderful ability.
It forces you to grow up at a rate of knots, doesn’t it?
Oh yes. You go in and you suddenly find yourself with some sort of responsibility and some sort of rank which gave you responsibility and you just grew up rapidly, it was quite amazing really
and that is why so many fellows I think when they came out of the services, not just the air force, but all the services, they were pretty well lost, they didn’t know where they were. There was no such thing as counselling when we came out, “Here’s your discharge and hoo roo do your own thing”.
Do you think that their minds were, their heads were, like they had the heads and minds of older men’s bodies, innocence?
That’s right, it was very hard to settle down. I was very. I think when I said when my cousin came out and I bought that small property on the Darling Downs, and I think that was a way of coming back to earth physically and spiritually because
it gave you a chance to slow down and forget about the need to be on duty all the time. It was strange and I think it did hit me later on, it was not immediately. I was working for TAA and I couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to go to work
and I just suddenly fell apart at the seams and I took leave and sort of sorted myself out. There were so many people like that, in the Middle East, the siege of Tobruk and they were brought back from there and the next thing they were up in New Guinea fighting the Japs, no leave of any description you know.
It always struck me as the most extraordinary thing about the survivors of war, is that you are trained to do this incredible job and you put in these incredibly stressful conditions and the end of it they say “see you later”?
That’s right, that’s right, it is quite amazing,
one moment you are in a stressful situation and you are on duty and you have an enormous responsibility and then you are posted and discharged and you go through a medical examination and it was pretty minimal I might add, you could have had something terribly wrong with you, like diabetes and they wouldn’t even know it. You were given your discharge and you were given a voucher for a suit of clothes
and your final pay, your deferred pay, well you were lucky if you got it six months later and you had to fight for it, that’s true. I ended up, I had a file of letters, copies of letters to Department of it wasn’t Vet[erans’] Affairs then,
Repatriation Commission and they didn’t want to pay up, I don’t know why, they didn’t have the money I suppose, they couldn’t get a grant through Parliament. Six months later I finally got my pay and then it wasn’t very much then anyway.
I think the government after World War Two had the idea, OK the war is over let’s move on
but the way that they applied that philosophy to returned servicemen was quite awful I think?
Yes, it really was. Australia lost the best Prime Minister that Australia ever had when Curtin died, a wonderful guy, it didn’t matter what colour the politics he was just a wonderful person. He died and of course Chifley became Prime Minister [Francis Michael Forde actually had a short stint as Prime Minister following the death of Curtin. Chifley came next], no idea what was going on
and he didn’t know what to do, he was hopeless and he wanted to do all these wonderful things like nationalising the banks, it became a very [?] until things stabilised under Menzies [Prime Minister] anything to do with government was horrible. I was involved with a friend of mine in Brisbane; he came back having worked in America in the air force,
he was in Washington and he managed some wonderful contacts and he became the agent in Queensland for a company fairly well known called Beechener[?], they make chewing gum and chocolates, it would have been a wonderful thing and he approached the Australian Government to get a licence and he was knocked back and they were supposed to be looking after ex-servicemen.
It was disgusting. They had no concept of the need to really look after us blokes.
On that sad note we will stop the tape.
Interviewee: David Maxwell Archive ID 0139 Tape 02
I have to tell you some of the more funny things that happened at Milne Bay because it was a quite amusing.
We will get to Milne Bay.
They were not sad things, they were funny things, I had that capacity, that’s why I survived the war. I was able to wipe out the unpleasant side of it.
I think that is a good survival tactic in any field.
I’d like to take you back to Queensland to the cattle ranch you grew up on, what was it like in those days?
What memories do you have of that time?
Memories, a wonderful freedom,
we had a beautiful property, it was basically my father used to store cattle, river frontage, wonderful pastures, plenty of water, and he’d bring these cattle in there and fatten them up and send them to the market in Brisbane. He had a contract with a couple of big wholesale butchers and I had
a pony, a beautiful little Welsh Cob, a dog and I’d get up in the morning and if I had nothing to do I would put the saddle on the pony, I was only about three or four years of age and off we’d go.
What was the pony called?
Gleam, he was a champion, his real name was Golden Gleam, a stallion, Welsh Cobs are the pit ponies, beautiful horses.
Are the stallions as rough and ready as stallions go?
Oh yes, he could be a bit stroppy at times but he was never stroppy with me, we had a rapport, we were buddies.
What was your dog’s name?
Oh I have forgotten his name. Codger, he was a black kelpie and he was another constant companion. My mother used to say she never had to worry about me as long as I had the dog
because if any thing had happened to me he would have got back to the house and alerted somebody or he would have stayed with me. He was that kind of dog. It was wonderful, and then of course I did schooling by correspondence.
Was that radio correspondence in those days?
No post. Once a week you got a swag of stuff in the mail and
I was supposed to sit and do all this stuff cause I didn’t do it and I used to get into terrible trouble and my mother used to get very upset. I must have done it all right because I was accepted into boarding school when I was eight years old. My reading level was supposed to be very good, my maths was appalling, it never did get better.
How can you have appalling maths and be an engineer?
Well you get away with it.
Get someone junior to do all the maths.
Dad was an engineer and he went on the land. His love was engineering really and he taught me at a very early age how to handle a slide rule, kids today know how to run a computer and I knew how to run a slide rule.
Well that was the computer of the day, wasn’t it?
Well yes it was and very accurate, terribly accurate, if you had a decent size about fifteen inches long you could do anything.
How many decimal places could you go to on something like that?
Six decimal places.
You don’t need to be more accurate than that do you?
Were you on the farm during the depression?
Yes, mind you Queensland was a better state to live in during the depression because it was all primary industry. It still had a viability, the cattle industry was fairly viable and there was sugar, it never went backwards, it went forwards during the depression, cause you could produce sugar in Australia
better and cheaper than anywhere else in the world but I do realise, I used to see the effects of the depression and it has stayed with me all of my life. My grandparents, my maternal grandparents lived in Sydney, we used to go down to visit them from time to time and we’d drive the car. If you had a car
you were reasonably well off, that was the sort of yardstick. Drive down from Queensland the roads weren’t roads, they were tracks through the bush, it is quite surprising to think of what the highways are today and what I knew as a boy.
And what those rickety old cars would have been like on those roads too?
If you go to one of these rallies of
veteran or vintage cars you can see the old touring cars, with narrow wheels and fabric tops and they used to bounce around all over the place.
No air conditioning?
No open sides. Talking about the depression you’d get to Newcastle, you’d be coming down from the New England
Highway in New South Wales, you wouldn’t be aware of the depression and you would get to Newcastle and you couldn’t help but see it. On the hillsides around the mines there would be little shanties made out of flattened forty four gallon drums, pieces of hessian with an outside fire place somewhere
and that’s where these poor families were living and it wasn’t just one or two there were hundreds of them particularly around Newcastle because the mines closed and they were living in mine houses and the mine owners wouldn’t let them live in the houses and kicked them out and there were empty houses and these poor fellows were living and working on the dole, two days work a week for about thirty shilling or something like that.
The government used a lot of men on the susso [sustenance – the dole] on relief to build roads, didn’t they?
They did all sorts of stuff like that, going back to Queensland my school that I went to as a boarder, it needed a lot of work, playing fields to be constructed and so forth and my father had come down to Brisbane and decided to come over to the school one afternoon to see me and he was coming down the hillside, which was a pretty hilly spot.
It was after school and I was down playing cricket with some of my mates and we had what they called relief workers working on this hill side digging out what was to be an amphitheatre to speak to one of them on the hill side and I was a kid, how old would I have been? Ten and you get very embarrassed and I wanted to sneak away and my father talking to one of those relief workers
and he said something to him when he arrived down the hill and he said to me “Don’t ever let me hear you speak like that again, he’s got more engineering degrees than I’ve got”. He was a famous man and he had been an engineer on what is now called the Story Bridge over the Brisbane River. Do you know Brisbane at all? You know the one that has the concrete arc and that was the second bridge built across the river and this man
he was the engineer in charge of it and when it was finished he couldn’t get a job and the only way to keep his family was to get relief work. It made me realise, it brought back to me at school and we had boys at school that would suddenly disappear, at school next day they weren’t there or their dads had got a job
miles away and that’s what the Depression was like, it was a pretty horrible situation.
I’ve no doubt about it.
I left school when I was sixteen and a half and in those days you left school and you didn’t go on much further, you get yourself a job.
I was lucky I had a job to go to in the Adelaide Steam Ship Company and some of my pals they left school in what was called the “Junior Year” and they didn’t get a job for about twelve months, it was OK, there was Mum and Dad at home but I had a job and earning a wonderful twenty two shillings a week.
Not a bad wage for a sixteen year old then, wasn’t it?
No, it wasn’t bad and working in a shipping company you get miles of overtime so you really got more than your twenty two shillings a week.
That’s great overtime, is not hard at that age, is it? I’m interested in talking a little bit more about your childhood before we get to work. You joined the air force, were you always interested in planes?
Tell us about that interest?
I grew up in the aviation era, I grew up in those days when those wonderful people were literally flying with string and wire, people like Heinkler when he came back and he landed after his trip from England and he landed in Bundaberg, his old home was historic
and he landed at Gympie in the racecourse in this little aircraft and we all turned up to see him and then on my interest was stimulated in aircraft and then when dad went back to Brisbane back into his engineering business he did work for the early QANTAS it was based in Brisbane,
and I was taken by Dad to see the first airmail take off from Brisbane - the Empire Air Scheme as they called it and the Duke of Gloucester inaugurated this flight. I was still at boarding school and I got special permission.
Dad came and collected me and of course when I got back I was the envy of all my friends, you know, “You lucky blighter, you got out to see this and we were still working”.
Must have been a thrill for you?
Yes it was, then there was the Centenary Air Race from England to Melbourne and every kid followed that and cut every photograph out of the newspapers.
It would be harder to follow in those days not having the media that we have now, was it all radio and print?
Mostly print, there was a fair bit of radio in the thirties, it was pretty good but most of it was print media. It became a sort of an,
if you didn’t collect photographs of the Melbourne Centenary Race there was something wrong with you. Then to further stimulate my interest in flying, my father’s partner was a pilot. He had his private licence, so I used to go up flying with him in and old Puss Moth.
What’s a Puss Moth?
That’s the older version of a Tiger Moth.
Crikey, what was that like cause Tiger Moths are pretty old?
It was a biplane
two seater, so was a Puss Moth, they were a bit smaller with a different engine in them.
That would have been a thrill?
Oh yes, open cockpit, goggles on and the wind blowing in your hair.
Did he do loop the loop, did he do any tricks while you were up there?
No, if he had done that with me I think my father would have killed him. So I could fly an aircraft and I did fly aircraft.
Did you tell your dad about that?
Oh yes he knew that.
What was the cockpit like in that old Puss Moth?
They were open, there was no cover and the pilot had a little bit of a windscreen, it was about nine inches high, it didn’t do much to keep the wind out, the back cockpit was wide open
and the communication was via voice tube.
Just a rubber tube?
Yes and the noise was extraordinary, the exhaust ports of those engines, just that long coming straight out you know, well aircraft don’t have mufflers. There was one lot of engines that came out,
very famous aircraft was the Beaufighter and the Beaufighters had sleeve valve engines, quite different was a side valve or an overhead valve, it was a sleeve that runs inside external to the piston quite a different concept and they had mufflers
not to reduce the amount of noise but to reduce the amount of oil that was flowing out because you burn oil and you put mufflers on those, beautiful engines, wonderful aircraft. The Bristols, they had the same thing, they had sleeve valve engines. Flying is a lovely sensation.
What was in those Puss Moths?
Was there any instrumentation in the cockpit?
There was a rev [revolutions] counter, an alt [altitude] meter, a bank and turn indicator, a couple of dials to give you engine temperature and oil, fuel gauge and not much else,
there were seat belts, a harness that come over and it hasn’t been altered very much that harness, they are still much the same. They were pretty primitive things. To start them you swung the propeller.
I guess when you were sixteen and half did you given any thought when you were leaving school to becoming a pilot or joining the air force then?
No, really I didn’t have any ideas for that at all and then when the war broke out it wasn’t much later than that the service that I wanted to go to was the air force, there was no question about that, my father said the “navy” and I said “Nothing doing”.
Was your father in the First World War?
Yes, the First World War.
Did he ever talk about his experiences in the war?
No, never. It was a closed book to him.
I will say this much, his naval service is what killed him. He was a very ill man when I was in New Guinea and I knew that he was dying, that was another problem that you had to cope with and according to his doctors he had a severe form of septicaemia blood poisoning but in hindsight looking back
I realised that he had a form of asbestosis because in the engine rooms of all ship all the lagging around the steam pipes was asbestos and whiting, white clay and he did talk about that he said sometimes when he came out of the engine room he would be covered in white dust, snow white, that was it, was that’s what killed him. He wasn’t a smoker,
it wasn’t smoke that killed him, he was only sixty-three when he died which is quite young really.
It’s amazing, I think being in the engine room of a ship during war is one of the toughest places to be in and the First World War was so much more primitive, it must have been horrific?
All steam, most of them were coal fired, stokers down in the, firing them, you have only got to go down the road and look at the Castlemaine
down the road here and they were my war ships and the engines in that Castlemaine originally were coal fired. They were transferred to oil but originally they were coal fired.
So why did he want you to join the navy do you think?
Well I suppose he thought that I worked in a shipping company, his original background was war service navy
and he wanted the same as him I think.
What was his attitude to war; did he come out a pacifist or an anti-war person?
He didn’t want to be involved in it, he was one of four brothers who went to war and dad was the eldest and the next one down went into the army and eventually he got into the old [Australian] Flying Corps and
served over in I think it was called Mesopotamia in those days, now he was only eighteen months younger than my father and when he died he was eight two, so it just shows that it was war service that killed dad I’m sure of it.
Did your uncle every talk about his war service?
they never swapped stories or anything, it was very strange.
Did you think, or did you ask about it as a boy or did you learn very quickly?
No, my two cousins, well they used to say well, one is deceased and the other is alive and we used to see a lot of one another and they said they never ever got their father to talk about his war experiences, he had a couple of albums of photos
quite interesting stuff, funny old aircraft that they flew in those days, they were really weird.
What were they flying in Mesopotamia?
Vickers, what was the other one? Some of them were tri-wings.
I’m just trying to get a picture of your father’s attitude to war, like what he might have said when the war was building up?
He didn’t want me to go to war. I had to work on him for quite a while to get him to sign the document, because you had to get your parents to sign if you were under twenty-one then.
And you would have been when war broke out, seventeen or eighteen?
Well, I had to wait a year and half and by this time I was in this occupation which was considered to be essential industry and the only way I could get out of it, when I wrote out a letter to say that I was resigning. I played a dirty trick in a way; I had an old school mate who had
polio and therefore was not eligible to do any service and he joined the Department of Munitions and they had a very big munitions factory in Brisbane making ammo, 303 and also shells and he managed to get me a temporary job in this munitions factory, so my excuse for leaving Adelaide Steam Ship Company was to work at the munitions factory and they couldn’t
but when I got to the munitions because my friend was in the administrative staff, I was able to join the air force and forget about it.
Very sneaky operations?
Well a lot of fellows did the same thing, a whole lot of industries were declared essential industries but they still wanted to join their mates.
Lets talk about the Adelaide Steam Ship Company, what did you do, what was your job?
I suppose I was designated a shipping clerk but you did everything, from working on the wharves arranging for crew, getting wharf labourers to work on the wharves, a multitude of jobs.
Were all your mates joining up around you?
I suppose you felt frustrated?
Well yes, in my particular school if I look at the [Australian] War Memorial and I look at all of those that joined up and those that died or killed in action, they were all around the years 1930 to 1939 most of them,
there were some older ones but the basic ones were in my group of people and we just stuck with your friends I suppose, well it was the same thing for the guys that went away to Vietnam I suppose they didn’t want to go to Vietnam but if there was one or two blokes unlucky enough to get the lottery
they went too because they wanted to be with their buddies.
Were there blokes at the Adelaide Steam Ship Company who thought you were a mug [a fool] for going, because in this job you could stay there and keep out of it?
Not at all. Nearly all my age group right across the company all managed to get out into the services.
I have spoken to other chaps who were in reserve occupations and there were a few fellows there who had purposely
got a job there, so they wouldn’t have to go, did you come across that?
Oh well there was some of that happened, there was no question about that, and they wanted to do something worthwhile, they had something wrong with them but they might have had bad eyesight or diabetes or something like that and couldn’t be accepted into the services and they got a rough time because
the person in the street didn’t think anything was wrong with them and “Why is Joe Blow not in the services? He looks quite a fit young man and what’d he do working in an office”, which was wrong. Cause this friend of mine that worked in the munitions factory, he had a slight limp but he couldn’t possibly had served in any service, but he was a great bloke, he was a terrific character and he did a job and
he felt that was a way of my service.
The person who makes the bullet or gun is just as important as the bloke who fires it.
So it was essential service. Let’s talk about the thirties and you were a sixteen or seventeen and half year old lad working in an office as a clerk, what are you hearing about the war in Europe, what is coming across the air waves?
Oh, well it happened before the war broke out. 1936 and 1938 there was a constant stream of stuff that came out both on BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] short wave as it was then and in the print media and it got so bad that most of us used to collect things about it.
There would be special renditions of newspapers, Chamberlain [British Prime Minister] had gone over to see Hitler and tried to straighten things out and all this sort of thing, There was a constant stream of stuff and it was propaganda of course no doubt about that, so much so that we were brain washed, that if a war broke out we would have to go over there.
It obviously worked, they did a good job on you?
Yes. You see there again what we have just been through, what we have just been through in the last few months, putting our hand to say “We would fight with George W. Bush” [US President] and taking our Australian soldiers over to the Middle East and if you look at it, it is not our war. Well it was only that Australia was tied into the ‘Mother Country’,
you know it was funny in that era our parents used to talk about going home. Might have been Australian born, my mother was the third generation of Australian born and dad was second yet they would still talk
about going home, because Australia was basically part of England, it really was.
And did you consider yourself an Australian or a British subject?
No, I always considered myself an Australian always; I never could quite understand that sort of concept
that we were British, we might have been a part of Britain, we might have been a colony, we were not, we were Australian, we were unique until the big migrant surge after the war it was a hodgepodge [a motley assortment] of basic English, Scottish and Irish who became
Australian, they intermarried and became Australian, with an accent that is different to start off with.
And this off to the side for a moment, that accent developed in a very short time in less than one hundred and fifty years, the Australian accent?
Oh yes it was quite remarkable really. It is funny that because you see
American accent particularly in the East Coast of American if you look at it is Irish, but because we had the mixture of the four parts of England it sort of amalgamated to what is our Aussie accent of today.
Now back to the war in Europe, what were they telling you about Hitler and Nazism?
Well, he was doing some awful things there is no question about that, his persecution of the Jews and we were getting refugees coming to Australia, the ones that managed to get out and they were coming to Australia in ’38 and ’39 in large number, some of them came out earlier than that because they got away from Russia during the Russian Revolution and one very famous Australian family came out
from Russia in that period was the Smorgon family, they came out from Russia and look where they are today, look where they are today, great people.
I know David Smorgon.
Great people, an awful lot came to this country, it is very wonderful when you think about it. We were
I suppose you sort of got to the stage where there was a degree of hatred of Hitler; there was no question about it. He was sort of in a way if you look at Saddam [Hussein] today the hatred that has built up about him, but he was only in a small way compared to what he was.
After the war when I was growing up there were lots of news reel footage of Hitler making his speeches and he was always betrayed and he looked like a
man on the edge, were people in Australian and Britain seeing that same news footage pre war?
Yes. I had a strange experience over that. At school my best friend at school was German and came to Australia and was naturalised, his father was a doctor and we had an option of learning German at school, so I put my hand up and thought it might come in handy.
My mate did German because it was his second language and his father used to take us to the German Club because it was a way of learning conversational German, so that was OK. Our names must have been put on some sort of record and we started to get stuff sent out from Germany by the Hitler Youth
Movement. Magnificent publications, I can see them now, they were really fantastic and that was OK it didn’t bother me, it was rather interesting to see their propaganda put over. When I was in radar school one morning I got called and I had to go and see the
adjutant and I wondered what the heck I had been up to and I couldn’t think of what it might be. So I went to see him and he said “You are in trouble”. I said “What do you mean?” “We have information that you have got some connections with Germany”. I thought “What the hell is he talking about?” I just couldn’t think, the penny just didn’t drop. So I asked him “What it was all about?” and “Because you are in radar
there was a strict security check done and it has been discovered that you have got some connections with the German Youth Movement”. The penny dropped and I said “That’s when I was at school and I was learning German” and I said “You’ve got in on my papers that I have an understanding of German”. “Oh OK, but that won’t satisfy them the services will want to investigate”.
I was sent down here to Melbourne and I met up with a couple of guys, I wasn’t under arrest or anything under surveillance and I got before this. I had never seen but I had heard about the scrambled egg officers with all the gold braid above their caps and I was petrified and so I just explained
exactly how it happened and they thought “Oh all right”, so I got straight out from this interrogation I managed to get the Post Office, the Elizabeth Street Post Office and I rang my father and told him and he said “Oh I will fix it”. Dad was a pretty well known character in Brisbane and he had a fair amount of influence around the place and he fixed it
How did he do that?
He happened to know the guy who was the chief of intelligence in the northern area, he was a mate of dad’s.
Crikey, you wouldn’t want to be known as a German sympathiser would you?
No, well what dad did was, I had all these wonderful journals sent out and so dad immediately took them and burnt them and I’m sorry because they would have been historical
but dad wasn’t going to take any chances.
If we could just talk very quickly, when you decided to join up, what were the thoughts running through your mind - peer pressure?
Well, we were all under the impression that the war would be over in a short time anyway. But you must remember when I joined up the Japs had already
and there was a totally new entry into the equation, the Australian service folks that were in the Middle East were being brought back to fight in New Guinea with the exception of those caught up in Malaya, it was a totally different story and Australia was under threat and a lot of people never realised
how close it came, it was that close.
I’ll look forward to talking to you about that later on. As you were hearing about the build up in Europe and Hitler and Nazism, did you hear about the Japanese build up in Asia?
Yes we were and there it was of course that anybody thought that the Japs would declare war on the
United States but the only reason they did was because they were sold a bill of goods by Hitler who was promising them all sorts of things if they came in with him. That was what happened, because remember that the Japanese were our allies in the First World War, there is that famous painting in the War Memorial in Canberra with the Japanese cruisers escorting our troops ships going over to Gallipoli
Yes, I read an extract from a nurse’s diary and she wrote “It is nice to look out the porthole and see the Japanese ships by our side”.
So it was quite a strange thing what happened, because later on they became fanatical but the Japanese today I’ve had personal dealings with them in business life and they are a wonderful race of people, they are not a bit like the Japanese which were the service personnel, which weren’t highly
educated, they were just peasants, they had not been educated at all and didn’t know anything better unfortunately, because the Japs are nice people.
Interviewee: David Maxwell Archive ID 0139 Tape 03
David, we got up to you being in the Adelaide Steam Ship Company and we are hearing all about the propaganda and so forth, and the Japanese, tell us where you were when war actually broke out in Europe?
It was, we were sort of living on the edge of a precipice for quite a long time cause it was going to happen and nobody knew when or what day it would happen. It was no great surprise when it came about they had invaded Poland and France and England went galloping off to the Poles’ assistance and it didn’t work.
War sort of was a bit of an anti climax in a way because we thought “The thing would be over in a matter of months and get Hitler and his crowd off the face of the earth” and it didn’t happen like that.
Well, it is quite surprising that propaganda bit because the English armed forces had been pretty well run down?
Did no one take that into account when they thought about wiping Hitler off?
War was declared in 1939, there was a great rush of people to join the services and it was a godsend for a lot of fellows because there were fellows unemployed, the depression was still with us and there was not much money around, the money sort of came to spend money on a war, it sort of appeared from nowhere.
It fizzled out for a while and nothing seemed to happen. Who would have thought that Hitler would invade France because they had this wonderful Maginot Line, but of course that the engineers that designed it, the strategist didn’t realize that they had the guns facing the wrong way.
Where were the guns pointing?
Well they were pointing into France instead of out of France, but that happened
when Hitler came into Russia there was a whole lot of sieged guns that were pointing the wrong way, just bad planning, bad management. Then of course all of a sudden they lost Dunkirk and all those thousands of British soldiers managed to scramble across the English Channel
and that was when the war started and the blitz on England started, fortunately by this time it got awfully busy in those few months and they managed to get a few aircraft clobbered together and a few radar stations on the coast and so that helped us
and then of course the Australians got involved in it, particularly the army across the north of Africa to fight the way.
Were you itching to join up at this stage?
Oh well, I suppose it was in the back of your mind you didn’t sort of make your mind up, you didn’t make a decision,
you were hoping that you would hear that “The Germans had capitulated” or something and then of course the Japanese were into it and that was different story.
Just before we get to the Japanese involvement, as a boy who was very interested in the air force and in aeroplanes did you follow the Battle of Britain closely?
Oh, with what the information you go, yes you did. By this time of course censorship had become
part of the thing and censorship was quite amazing and you didn’t realise how bad it was until you were in the services and you’d get or something would happen for instance an air raid on Darwin or Townsville and you knew it and it would come through on the news reels two or three weeks later,
it was kept very quiet.
It is quite remarkable that they could keep it that quiet?
Well, the local people, the local service men and women they knew about it. The Coral Sea Battle was a typical example when that was big things of the war and that wasn’t announced officially until a fortnight afterwards. And yet all the people out and around
the coast between Townsville and Cairns were terribly aware of it because the American ships that were damaged actually came in at Mission Beach, they repaired them and pulled them back into deeper water. It was one of the things that nobody knew about it.
The Bismarck sea battle which was a totally air to sea battle by the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] and the Americans and that was off the coast of New Guinea, between New Guinea and New Britain, now we knew about that of course because we were plotting the aircraft that were taking off and that was not announced by the official information people
until about a week later.
And this would have been part of the Official Secrets Act which you would have been a party to?
Yes. It was quite a funny thing this Official Secrets Act because serving in radar you aware of it the whole time and you were on leave and someone would say “What do you do? and I would say “Radio”. They immediately thought you were running a broadcasting station somewhere.
We weren’t allowed to say you were in radar or how it worked. Mind you by the time 1944/45, it became very much an everyday household word because people were aware of it and around the coast line here there were stations right amongst civilians in Sydney,
one out on South Head and one up at Palm Beach at the mouth of the Hawkesbury and there were some in Queensland right up the coast, one just outside of Brisbane, Morton Island, Caloundra, one on Fraser Island,
and so they were, they were terribly aware of it, they knew what a radar was.
Well, it’s pretty hard to miss, those aerials would be quite high I assume?
Well, you can’t miss a great big aerial, the aerials would be as high as that wall rotating around all the time and you happen to have to have a radio nearby and every time it went by it gave out buzzzzzz.
Did you get anyone complaining, old ladies; I don’t know what it is?
Well, we probably did. It was quite strange that there was this Secrecy Act and everybody knew about it anyway.
Well, we will have a chat about radar in a little while, I’m looking forward to having that chat,
I’d just like to talk about your enlistment time. What did your dad say when you enlisted?
He knew I was going to enlist, he knew I was going to do something and then when I got the official papers and I said “I want your signature on this”, he didn’t hesitate, he wasn’t happy, but he didn’t hesitate.
Did he give you any words of advice?
No, not really.
I had a great relationship with my Dad, it was more like a big brother relationship than a father and a son and he trusted me to do the best I could and look after myself I guess.
How old was he when you enlisted?
He was only about sixty-one.
Sixty-one or sixty-two cause he died at sixty-three, he died in 1943. He knew what war was all about because he had First World War experience; he never talked about it, never.
He was a fairly quiet sort of guy; he did a lot of community work. Very deeply involved in politics, more local government than actual state or federal politics, he could get very vocal over that sort of thing, but he was a quiet sort of a guy.
So your dad signed your papers, what was it like when you got to your first training camp, was it a rude shock?
Not really, having been in boarding school for years, going into a training camp wasn’t much different than school. I did my initial training in Maryborough in Queensland in home territory, I knew the town
well and it was quite a pleasant place, the climate was nice. The only thing that was a rude shock was every morning I had to get out of bed at five o’clock. No, it was all right and every recruit was a pincushion for the medical, you know you were inoculated for this
and that and one of the big things in those days was to inoculate you against smallpox, a scratching on your arm up here and rubbing your virus into it and “Right oh, on your way” and several days later the guys were passing out because of this very violent reaction to it and I’m still going on merrily, no problems with me, I had a sore arm
but I didn’t even know I’d had it and it ended up one morning at five o’clock I was the only person that turned up on the parade ground, all the rest were in sickbay. I had no scar nothing, so immediately I was whizzed off to the medical section and they give another lot because the second lot didn’t take either. So then the penny dropped for the medical person and he said “Were you brought up amongst cattle?” I said “Yes”, and they said “Oh you will be all right”.
I’d had an immunisation because Queensland cattle get cattlepox and it’s not a dangerous disease and they do get it and our cattle, I must have had it as a kid and was immune to it.
Did they tell you what they were giving you all the injections for?
Oh yes we knew, Typhoid, Cholera, Tetanus,
they gave you one lot and the next lot you had to go and have another series of them. You couldn’t do what these fellows did on the [HMAS} Kanimbla, say “No, we don’t want it”. There was no option.
What was your training like, did it seem to you to have enough instructions and up to day equipment or was it a very rushed job with World War One surplus?
A very rushed job,
they had these drill instructions and the whole object of it was you were marched and counter marched, five o’clock in the morning, you had breakfast, you were on parade, and then these route marches and then they gave you some training on how to fire a 303 rifle, four or five rounds and you were supposed to hit the target, you had never handled a 303 rifle before in your life and there are bullets going everywhere.
The fellow we had who was in charge of our squad, I’m sure he had suicide tendencies I think because he got this great idea on showing us how to make hand made bombs, a whole lot of two inch galvanised water pipe about a foot long
and he got some sticks of gelignite and some fuses and he took us out to a paddock out the back of the drome at Maryborough and he said “Right, we are going to practise making these bombs and throwing them” and of course you can imagine what a stick of gelignite going off in a piece of pipe, they were flying across the ground, nobody got hurt and I often wonder
how lucky we were. He was an absolute ratbag, he was stupid. This is the sort of training we got and then we were taken from Maryborough Queensland down here to Point Cook, shock, and the weather.
The weather, what time were you down there?
Yes, the weather, it was probably June or July, it was freezing cold and Point Cook in Melbourne is the coldest spot
in Melbourne without a doubt even to this day and we nearly died if not from anything from being frozen.
When did they say to you, I mean when did you work out your air crew, your ground crew, when did you work out what you would be training for?
Well, I was heading to be a wireless operator air and that’s what I was heading for. I was classified as A1
for air crew. A whole lot of people like that, they weren’t actually taken as an intake as air crew, they were taken in like that a lot of fellows called observers and they were not taken in as air crew originally, they were later on and they had a different serial number because the serial numbers of the aircrews started with a four. When I was at Point Cook
I didn’t, well it didn’t grab me, I think I thought that there was something that I could do better and I heard this story filtered down the usual grape vine stories that came through, this radar, how good it was and how interesting it was and I immediately went to the orderly room and said “I want an application to re muster” and because it was
that they wanted people they didn’t object, they wanted people.
How did you go about applying for something that does not officially exist?
You could do that, you could transfer into all sorts of things. You normally had to transfer into what they called your mustering and I was category two which was the second highest in the air force, category one was pilots and
category two were people technically inclined engineers, wireless mechanics and things like that. They didn’t quite accept it, so the next thing I knew I was at Richmond in Sydney. I struck better weather and I was trained in shift work, shifts
they didn’t have the stuff to train us with.
Tell us about that?
It was quite strange, I got there and I was allocated to a particular course number, I was told that I wouldn’t need to attend lectures until eight o’clock that night and I thought “Good, I have a day off, I can do what I like”. So eight o’clock we front up and there were about ten of us and that was our introduction by a man name O’Hara,
nice bloke, cluey bloke, he was an ex professor of electrical engineering at Sydney University and he was a really cluey bloke. So we did it until eight o’clock at night until two o’clock in the morning and we went and had a mean [?] and back to the barracks and some sleep and the next day it was the same and we had four days on each shift
and it was pitch black at night, there wasn’t a light anywhere, it was a total black out, there were slit trenches everywhere and you had to watch where you were walking and I can remember walking back one night with this bloke and I said “I think we had better watch where we are walking, there are trenches around here somewhere”. “Where is that?”
It is always the way, isn’t it?
Down he went, I will never forget that and he went down with a thud poor guy
and I stopped and helped drag him out of that. It was a funny existence really and having family in Sydney when we had leave I go and visit and they would say “What are you doing?” I would say “I’m doing an operator’s course.” and “What are you going to go out and do a broadcaster’s course or something”.
So tell us, you are at radar school
and when did they tell you about the Secrets Act and what did that actually entail?
Well, when you went into radar school the first thing you had to do was sign the secrecy documents.
What did they say roughly?
You were not allowed to disclose to any person even a member of your family what or how radar words or what it did.
And what sort of penalties did you expect if they found out?
And likely prison sentence?
Oh yes, I never heard of anybody that every got it, I think everybody recognised.
The Japanese didn’t have radar did they?
Well, they had a sort of radar but it wasn’t very good, a copy of the German radar, they didn’t have their own, it wasn’t very effective and our stuff was terribly effective and eventually the American’s got in
and got some good stuff, but the best Australian radar that was operating in Australia was Australian designed, Australian made and called the LWAW [Light Weight Air Warning], designed here by a man called,
anyhow he worked for AWA [Amalgamated Wireless Australasia] and was also a lecturer at the city in electronics and he and a few other guys designed this Light Weight Early Warning Radar, it was a pretty rough and ready sort of thing but by Jove it worked.
I’d like to know about that,
was that developed at the Dover Heights Base at Sydney?
The radio physics laboratory at Dover Heights, that’s where it was developed.
And it was based on British radar?
Yes it was based on the COL [?] Mark 5 which was a British, which was one we had in New Guinea which was a pretty cumbersome thing and it had to have a special structure to house it,
whereas the LWAW could be operated off the back of a truck, covered in and it was a great development particularly in Australia because we had to get these radar stations in to some pretty horrible places, we dropped in off an aircraft.
The American’s picked it up later on in the war, didn’t they? LWAW.
Oh yes, the Americans specialised in air to sea radar, and the very small stuff I actually operated an air to sea radar when I was in Darwin, very clever things they were, they had the Liberators, they had a big bulbous nose out the front made for it and the antenna was out the front
The big development was over the range, over the curve of fixed aerials, they weren’t rotating aerials and the very first one constructed in Darwin while I was there and the second one was put in the back of the Gold Coast and that was more of an experimental one, it wasn’t for defence purposes, that was sort of to fine tune it,
whereas the one at Darwin was originally developed to assist to what was going to be the second front of landing troops in Singapore under Mountbatten.
And when was that scheduled for?
That was scheduled for about the time Hiroshima and the Americans, they sort of
were in first.
I don’t think anyone would complain about that, would they?
No, but this one that was constructed in Darwin because it came under our influence and our unit, these fellows came out from England RAF technicians, they selected a site and we had to send working parties to clear it,
no trees for miles and all that sort of thing, we had to run a power line from our big power line out to it and I was in charge of those working parties and I was given guys with crosscut saws and axes to cut these trees down and had to find poles to put power lines up and they were guys that had no idea on how to handle an axe than to fly to the moon and of course they didn’t like doing it, it was not their job.
Couldn’t they find a bulldozer or something?
Oh no, the air force didn’t run those sort of things. The air force was truly, just going back to Milne Bay we had no refrigeration, you wouldn’t believe it to send you to the tropics there was nothing to keep anything cold or fresh,
this is a short little story about one of our fellows, Earl Brunt and Earl had bright red hair because naturally he was called “Bluey” and he was the best scrounger that every existed and he found out that an American unit and it transpired that later on they were the torpedo mob that [US President John] Kennedy was involved with and they had come into
East Cape at Milne Bay and established a camp for a short time and they left all their gear behind because that is what the Yanks did, they never took anything home and he heard about this big refrigerator that was down there, so we got a truck and a couple of other blokes and they go there and bring the refrigerator back and wow we had a refrigerator and we had it for about six weeks and one day a team of American MPs [Military Police] arrived
and they said “You have a piece of stolen property” and they took it back.
You couldn’t hide it?
It was too big, it was one of those four door things, a great big commercial refrigerators it was. I think eventually our CO did put up such a scream about it that the air force did find us a refrigerator of our own. No, these men who were on the working party,
they were radar personnel back from their outstations for recreation purposes and they suddenly found themselves every morning being put on parade and they didn’t like it.
Not in Darwin in that heat with an axe?
Well, it didn’t worry me I was a Queenslander you see. I suppose that was why they gave me the job of running it.
You said this radar was a fixed antenna radar and it could look over the horizons?
Yes, that’s right it was the forerunner of what they have today.
Describe its range of operation then?
Well they had four massive masts which had been prefabricated and shipped up to Darwin and they had a network of wire on shorter poles which radiated out, four poles were the north, south, east, and west on the
correct points of the compass and that was established by theodolites and what have you and the grid underneath it had a relationship to north, south, east, and west, now the transmitters were terrible powerful things, they were massive and it needed I forget how many kilowatts of power, we didn’t have enough
power that we ran out, from out station was only sufficient to give them auxiliary power and they had to bring these great big generators out for them and away it went and we were all tickled pink about this and we were all in the operations hut and that was something that they actually brought prefabricated, it was the first thing that we,
well they were really get their act, by then the war had been going for a long time and we were all in there and away it goes and we were getting directions back and we were switching directions and focused it on Singapore and it had a range of over a thousand miles and what we were putting out was four hundred miles and this thing could suddenly take you over the horizon and we weren’t getting aircraft,
we were picking up ships and the experts said “We will have to do some adjustments, we will have to lift the lobe” and a radar lobe is a distinct piece of energy, which you can control the size, we’ll lift the lobe and no, we were still getting ships, we wouldn’t pick up aircraft at all and they went back to the drawing board as the saying
goes to find out what was wrong. By the time I’d left Darwin that thing was still not working properly, thank God they didn’t make it, the take off for the invasion and it was subsequently discovered and I was talking to some of my old mates afterwards that it was very close to Rum Jungle, which we didn’t know was radium, it was radio active ground,
so the radio active ground was interfering with the ray which was only a few feet above the ground because after the war they found Rum Jungle and it became one of the big uranium mines of Australia. So over the range radar with the horizon, so that was why we could only pick up ships and not aircraft, but nobody knew about it, it was nobody’s fault,
it was, nobody thought to check with geiger counters, it didn’t enter into the equation.
Let’s talk about that, if this was the peak of radar, what was the first radar you worked on, what was that like?
The first one I worked on was an English one which was at radar school,
it was pretty primitive, a very small aerial, a very narrow lobe and a very slow response on its echo very slow.
What does that mean in layman’s terms?
Well with radar you have a gap system of transmission, it is a spark gap which opens and closes and it closes to transmit and opens to receive
and it is the same aerial that is transmitting as receiving and when the lobe goes out and hits an object be it a ship, a hill or an aircraft the gap is opening and closing the whole time, and the pulse is pulsing out and hits this object and pulses back and it works, so that it waits for that split second to become a receiving aerial and it is transmitted onto your screen,
that’s how it works
And having a slow opening and closing, how does that affect your work?
You are not aware of it, you hear it going this flick, flick, flick it is very fast, it microwave or it was the first of the big microwave ever to be used and this aerial was very slow but then the COL Mark 5 [?] which was the English stuff,
the one that was used for the Battle of Britain, we got quite a few in Australia and they were very good, extremely fast.
And what was your screen you were looking at, was it square, round?
Well there were two, one was square and one was circular, the square one gave you the horizontal, the range, the mileage and the round one was your bearing, a central point
and the trace rotated around and it and it lit up.
That’s the classic one you see in the movies, isn’t it?
That’s right, I mean they have never changed it, mind you they are all digital today but they are still basically the next generation to what we had.
You were talking about the aerial system using one aerial instead of the two I think the British used initially?
they had a thing which was called the GCL [Geosynthetic Clay Liner], the GCL was used basically in England for (UNCLEAR) it had two different aerials, it had a transmitting aerial and receiving aerial and they worked, they were shaped fairly narrow and they were curved, they were only about six feet in length,
they didn’t turn, they rocked up and down and they synchronised, so that the transmitting aerial and the receiving aerial rocked just a split second behind, so that it got the return echo.
Was it an Australian innovation to have the one aerial?
No COL’s has one aerial, but our aerial was much much
better, you didn’t miss a thing with ours.
This is something I read, tell me if I’m wrong please, correct me did the Australians develop a scanning technique as opposed to a flooding technique?
I suppose you could say so, I don’t know. The ones that we operated you did hear about it and there were some,
the Americans sets were more like that than ours.
What’s the difference between a scanning beam and a flooding beam?
Well, when it floods it is a total without being rotating, it takes an angle and transmits into that area and everything in that area comes back, whereas a rotating type thing as it picks up the thing in its rotating it comes back.
I see so the scanning
was what was used in Australia?
The scanning, how can I explain that? See you could stop that aerial, it wasn’t rotating all the time, you had controls and you could stop it like that bingo, the break was instantly and then you could inch it
forwards till you actually got on to that aircraft or that particular group of aircraft that was actually scanning the track, so that you actually had an accurate distance and an accurate bearing.
Was it used as a broad lets see what’s in the area tool or was it used for specific objects?
Oh yes that right, all the time.
That radar you had
initially, what was the range on that?
Oh, about two hundred miles and the GCL was smaller still that was basically on a height thing not on distance on the height of where is that aircraft up there sort of thing, how many feet above the ground level.
On that note they talk about planes flying below the radar so radar sat quite high above the ground, did it?
Well basically it was fairly high above the ground, it was set basically to get aircraft between one thousand and ten thousand feet, which was the basic ceiling.
Interviewee: David Maxwell Archive ID 0139 Tape 04
Getting back to radar on these earlier models used in training, what would come up on the screen a blip?
Yes a blip, you could tell if it was a ship or an aircraft.
By the way it behaved.
A ship aircraft would come up much wider and slower in its pulse and aircraft, a single aircraft would come up very narrow, almost a straight line off the trace and it would go up and down very quickly because it was travelling and that was causing the echo to travel at a different speed and you could tell
how many aircraft by the width of it.
Fairly accurately, it was a lot of guesswork, it was very funny how to operate these things and told how to maintain them and we were sent out to do the job and by sheer experience you learned how to read the trace. Every radar was different,
they all had a little bit of character of their own and it all depended on where they were located, their location up on a cliff they got a wonderful, they might be fairly low down and it was a different story because you got very little shipping low down. From up in the air because you could drop your lobe up and down if you wanted to pick up shipping. One of the things I told
Brad [Archive researcher] about the story about the Centaur being sunk, why they never picked up, it’s interesting.
We’ll get to that, I was reading about it the other day. With this radar the earlier one say if you picked up a plane or a ship at three or four hundred miles away, your range is that wide could you narrow the range of the radar as it came in,
so that you could see things in greater detail?
It’s always that wide?
Well, the shipping would only be centimetres wide and you could tell if it was one or two ships because sometimes you’d get separate ones or side by side, you got this definite aircraft echo and you got this quickly pulsing echo, the number of aircraft would increase the
distance of the width of it and you might have fifty or sixty aircraft and the width of the total aircraft would perhaps be a centimetre.
Did you work in centimetres or inches then?
Both. It was very confusing. The reason that centimetres were used was for accuracy. They eventually, these clever people
at Dover Heights they developed this little gadget, it was like a compass the astronauts used to get a range and altitude it was quite clever, it had three disks, it was
like a slide rule I suppose and you could feed into that what you estimated your height was the speed, and the direction and from that you could get a very, very accurate pathway.
And when did that come in?
Oh very late in the war, when I went back and did my second filtering course at Richmond.
Now one thing I was thinking of with radar
other than you knowing you have your own fighters or bombers in the air, is there any way of knowing if they are friendly or otherwise.
Which is indication friend or foe. That worked on every RAAF, British, or American aircraft, they had this little box and if it was hit my radar it triggered off automatically
and sent out a little pulse and you know when it did because that little echo went bing and it just widened right out and you just said “Oh forget about that”.
Could you then take off the screen?
No, as long as it was there you got that every time.
Was there a way for the Japanese or Germans to fake that response?
No, they didn’t really, you would have thought that would have worked that out but they didn’t. The only thing they had was what they called scatter, and scatter was these aluminium strips they used to drop out. A thousand echoes and you wouldn’t know what it was or where it was, it would be a diminishing height and it would upset the whole operation of your radar.
What would happen and did this ever happen to you
if you had planes that all of a sudden dropped below radar height, what did you do then?
You knew they were coming and you had picked them up and you would then do a bit of guesswork.
What would the guesswork format take?
Well you knew they were travelling in a certain direction and you knew they were heading for a certain target that you just sort of, and you could
ask, we always had some sort of ground people and they could go out and actually have a visual that wouldn’t’ drop out of radar until they were close to a coast line or something and you could actually pick them up and you would often ask for someone to go and give you a visual.
What about planes picked up at the furthest reach, what was it four hundred, could you tell if it was a Zero or a bomber?
No, you couldn’t tell although you could, you got used to it after a period of time, a bigger aircraft gave you a deeper echo and fighter aircraft, mind you, you would never pick up fighter aircraft at a big distance because they didn’t come with fighter escorts as a rule unless they were off aircraft carrier, basically they were only bombers,
you’d pick up your own fighter aircraft but you wouldn’t pick up the enemies.
Did you know that if you picked up one four hundred miles away, how long did it take to get to where you were and you knew their air speed and so forth?
You would calculate the speed on your scale because you see there were three people in that room, there were two on the screen and one on the plotting table
and the plotting table was like a large draftsman’s table with a moveable setsquare on it and you would put the top of the plot and from them you could calculate the distance between the plots and that’s when centimetres came in. It was more accurate using centimetres than using inches. You could get your speech very close, say perhaps within ten knots.
And how much warning would that give to say someone, like an hour a half hour?
Half an hour on an average.
And that would be enough to scramble fighters?
Oh yes, plenty. They would have to alert the fighters, someone would wind up the sirens and the people who weren’t involved would climb into the slit trenches. I don’t know what we would have done without slit trenches.
Can you remember the first time you used a slit trench?
In Milne Bay I can’t remember, I remember it was night, I could have, initially it was a bit of a shock to the system, you expected it to happen any tick of the clock and when it did happen I was off duty and I had to scramble out and find myself in a slit trench.
Then it became second nature.
Did you every find anybody because obviously radar was a secretive occupation, did you ever find anybody who was asking you too many questions about it?
Oh yes, the worst one’s asking the questions were the army blokes, once again it was very hush hush with the boys on the
ack-ack [anti-aircraft] guns they had radar, but anyone else from the army boys didn’t know what it was about, they had never seen it or knew it existed
And their questioning would be fairly innocent, just interest?
Yes that’s right, they wanted to know what it was all about and you would just say “You can’t talk about it”.
Did you ever come across anybody who had sinister intentions?
No, I don’t think so, I don’t ever recall that, the Yanks reckon when I was in Port Moresby that they caught a German spy and he was there to see what he could find out from the Americans, they had airborne radar at that time and they didn’t even argue with him, I think they took him out behind
the nearest coconut palm and shot him I think. Oh the Yanks were like, they didn’t muck around you know. They didn’t ask too many questions?
I guess that is the nature of war - strike before they strike?
Yes of course, it hasn’t changed. Quite frankly when you think
in this last little skirmish, I was very much an antiwar person because I could not see the future in it.
Let’s divert from radar for a moment and let’s talk about that, what did war do to your thoughts about war and then the progressive (UNCLEAR)?
Ah, it did a lot of things to me when the Vietnam War came on,
I couldn’t’ see the point in it at all. I had a young fellow who worked for us who got the marble [was called up for national service]and he was called up, clever bloke, nice guy and we went away to Vietnam and he came back an absolute wreck you couldn’t say anything else,
he got married and the first child was born as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange and she was like a vegetable and he had a second child and it was born with a deformed arm and that was it and he just went right off, he left his job and just went to the pack [fell apart]. I was always grateful for the fact that my son Paul was just that little bit young enough
for Vietnam. If Vietnam had gone another year Paul would have gone into the lottery. I had it all organised that he would never pass his medical.
How did you have that organised?
Oh that was easy.
Can you tell us about that?
Well, you see they got to the stage in the Vietnam War where they were getting very conscientious of sifting any hidden disease like diabetes,
you can actually go onto a diet that will give a blood sugar count which indicates you have diabetes and that’s what a lot of doctors were doing, under control, they would go up for their medical, they would get through the test, then of course your sugar is high, you’re unfit, no one wants you, the moment that happened they were no longer
to be called up, they would then get a medical controlled reduction to get them back to normal again. I know dozens and dozens of people who didn’t want their sons to go and I don’t blame them. War is a stupid thing.
Well that war in particular….
Well this is the thing that happened in Iraq,
is a colonial thing in a way. Americans once again have set themselves up as the liberators of the world sort of thing and it doesn’t always work?
Liberation at a price would you say?
Well, it is terribly obvious what George W. [Bush] and Cheney [vice president of the USA] his offsider were so deeply involved in the Texas oil industry, Cheney is the head of Halliburton and
the mob that moved that were already there in Iraq restoring the oilrigs because that is what Halliburton does. Operators of mechanical services to the oil industry. So it was pretty well, I believe it was all a commercial thing.
This present war, well it is hard to argue against that point?
The reconstruction contracts will be quite enormous, won’t they?
Of course and you know how they could possibly say that Australia’s small commitment to it, it had been established that we belonged to the Coalition of the Willing.
You know he has promised Australia a free trade agreement, that’s all pie in the sky, I can’t imagine the American Congress agreeing to that because they will lose too much in the way of their grain and that’s the other thing that the Yanks supply to the world.
On this topic of war
I think war I really do, well how many wars have been terribly successful,
you know the war that I was in this war that we are talking about which two nations came out on top the two nations, Germany and Japan became the economic leaders of the world. So that it doesn’t seem right does it?
The fellows that came out of World War One, the lucky ones or perhaps unlucky
they survived in a shocking state, they thought they had fought the war to end all wars, do you think after World War Two, did you think the same?
Of course we did. We thought and of course how long after our war did the Korean thing start?
What did you think when that started, here we go again?
Well it was ridiculous, why did we go away for? And a lot of fellows that went to Korea were folk that had been in our war
and they stayed on and they get over there and they get killed. They survived our war and they got to Korea. I had a mate who stayed in the air force, he made the air force his career, he survived about a week of Korea when he was shot down.
It must have been like déjà vu, it is another nine years now, was that the feeling, it would spark off another war?
Yes you know there are all these crazy things that have happened although we haven’t been involved in them out here although Australians have got a great habit of going to war with the Falklands thing that were not only killed but were maimed for life. That was Maggie Thatcher’s
[Prime Minster of England] thing. She was the Iron Lady.
We talked about your friend who was unfortunately affected by Agent Orange and that’s similar in way to the attitude of the government to returned servicemen in World War Two, to the way you would be given the briefest of medicals and signed off as A1 and be demobbed and it might not happen for a couple of years?
You know that is exactly right, I recall before I came to Victoria and I was still living in Brisbane, a very nice young guy who had been in the army, he had been in the Middle East and New Guinea, he was married and he had two kids, he lived in the next suburb to me and I used to see him on the train
and I remember this particular evening he threw a terrible turn on the train the sort of epileptic type and I helped a couple of other fellows calm him down and we got him off at the next station and got an ambulance and he went to Greenslopes Military Hospital, that was all right. We thought he had just had a bad turn and that was all right.
About six weeks later he had been discharged and I forget what he did, he worked in a warehouse of some description in Brisbane and he went back to work and he came home and he threw one of these turns and he nearly killed his wife and then of course he was put into Greenslopes and put into the psychiatric ward and then they suddenly discovered that the poor
guy, he was suffering from his war experiences and so almost taken over his mind. I never knew what the outcome was, they kept him in the psychiatric thing for a long time, now they should have found that out when he came out, not wait for two or three years. This is what went on, this was not an isolated case, this was right across the board. A cousin of mine she was a nurse
and she was an army nurse, when she came out she went back to nursing in Warwick in Queensland her home town and she used tell us awful stories that were sent home and from a point of their mental capacity should never have been discharged, if they had been given some sort of medication, some sort of control they would have been all right.
They went from a battlefield to an armchair in a number of weeks.
That’s right and they had seen some terrible things happen and as I said before when I have seen something not very pleasant, I have had the ability to sort of, I haven’t forgotten it but I don’t let it become an obsession, it doesn’t sort of become an all controlling thing with me you know.
I’m not a loner, I can just close it off but a lot of people can’t.
Many would say that is an ability to keep things in perspective?
And I guess if you have been through terrible things on the battlefield it is easy to lose perspective?
Yes it also helps a lot when you are under stress, you don’t lose your cool, you can cope with stress in a
situation, you just don’t run off in an tangent and waving your arms around screaming. Mind you some times twenty-four hours later you might get a fit of the shakes because it suddenly hits you.
When you say twenty-four hours you might get the shakes, are you referring to experiences you might have had?
Yes that would happen
suddenly, you would go to bed twenty four hours after an air raid and would have a bit of a cold sweat and you would think of that must have been something I ate or something and then you just, well it was no use dwelling on that so it was OK.
That is a remarkable facility to be able to do that, a lot of people would like to be able to do that?
Oh a lot of people had it. There was a fellow who came to us as a replacement; he should never have been sent anywhere. He was a musician and he was sent up to New Guinea and he went through radar school; one of our guys had very bad malaria
and was shipped out and he came as a replacement and this guy arrived and he came up by ship all the way and by this time things were getting a quieter and I’m talking February 1943 and he arrived and he was a wreck, an absolutely physical wreck, he couldn’t stand up, he was a basket case you’d call him and I remember our CO took one look at him
and said “I think we had better ship him back”, and he did and he went down to the airfield and the first DC3 going to Townsville they put him on board and shipped him home and I saw him years later, he was a Brisbane bloke, he came from Brisbane and I said to him “What happened to you? Did you get scared?” He said “No I just couldn’t help it”. He wasn’t mentally programmed to go into an operational area.
It would be very hard to be programmed?
Yes, a lot of people, this is quite true, because a lot of fellows who won quite high awards like VC [Victoria Cross], DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross], DCM [Distinguished Conduct Medal] and all that sort of thing, they won them because at the time it wasn’t actually an act of bravery, it was an act of survival
and the mind took over and we have got to go in there fighting to survive.
Many would say that’s what bravery is, you are scared but something takes over and you go through and do it?
That’s right. I know that is a fact that the medal my aunt had and I had the VC when I was doing this thing with the last one in Canberra,
they actually did a complete check on his war record this fellow and he had a wonderful record when he won his VC in France, he was so frustrated he just got to a terrible stage where he thought “Bingo I have got to get out of here and take some Germans”, which he did.
For the sake of the tape can you tell us that story about your aunt’s book and so forth?
Well she went to England, she won a scholarship to learn singing in England just before the First World War broke out and she went with a chaperone, she was only sixteen years of age and war broke out and they were stuck there, so these students of the Guild Hall plus their teachers formed a concert party under the
British Red Cross I think it was and they used to go around to these camps in southern England to the Australians, who were either preparing to go to France or who had been brought out of France for respite and she had this autograph book and these used to get all these people from these various battalions to sign the book and then
there must have been someone who she had connection with because they would show some beautiful little art work in battalion colours that sort of thing and one of the people she got was this Sergeant Brown, who was a VC and he wrote a separate little story in this book and gave her his miniature with the crimson ribbon and it was stuck in the book and he survived and he went back to France,
survived and came back to England before he was rehabbed, got in touch with Rene again then signed the book again saying, “I survived Sergeant G Brown”, VC, VC DCM he was, he had the lot. So this is what I had and I gave it to Vet[erans’] Affairs and they researched his history. He stayed in the army after
in the First World War became a disciplinary warrant officer and instructor and never wanted to rise above a warrant officer which was a fine rank to have and he went away in the H Division to Malaya and when the Japs were coming down the peninsular he said to his CO, “OK,
I’m going bush.” and he took as many hand grenades and rounds of ammo that he could possibly carry and disappeared and to this very day he is listed as missing in action.
What an incredible story, that’s amazing?
Yes it is an incredible story, isn’t it? And there is a photograph of him around here in the RSL just up here in Ferguson and they have got it as Corporal Brown but he was Sergeant Brown.
Was he a Williamstown boy?
No, they have just got in the RSL, they have got a whole lot of VC winners and he’s there. It’s an incredible story.
You mentioned that he was a warrant officer and didn’t want to rise above warrant officer; you said that is a good rank.
Yes, that was a wonderful rank in the army.
Were there certain ranks more respected than others obviously?
The highest rank was non-commissioned
and you were, a lot of non-commissioned rank was just as good as a commission.
Cause you might well encounter a warrant officer or a RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] or a sergeant who has got a wealth of experience whereas a lieutenant still has soap behind his ears? Was a lieutenant very much a poor man’s officer?
That is the case, a lot of the RSMs and warrant officers
were fairly elderly in the sense that they were much older than the officers in the units that they belonged to. They know more about running the show than sometimes the CO does. The CO would ask their advice.
What sort of a rank would an officer have to obtain before he would start to get some respect from the men?
Oh, major up
lieutenant and a captain were only one jump above a sergeant or a staff sergeant and in the air force it was a sergeant or a flight sergeant.
I often imagined in a battle situation whether you are on a boat if you have a green lieutenant or captain in charge and you’ve got a sergeant
with battle experience the men would be looking for the sergeant for leadership not the officers?
Of course they would take notice of the sergeant more than what the officer said.
Would that create friction?
Of course then what would happen, they were not obeying an order because the officer concerned gets a bit you know, they might have given the wrong order but they are not going to, on that they did that
you found that I did mention before when I was in Darwin all of that were filterers, there were six of us, there were only six of us in the whole unit and when anything happened it looked like the enemy were coming over and people didn’t realise it but the Japs were still coming over in 1945. They weren’t bombing but they were coming over
on reccie [reconnoitre] flights, coming over from Timor, they were only up the track, they didn’t have far to go. You would plot this aircraft as accurately as you possibly could and send up the Spitties and we had Spitfires in Darwin at that time and the controller who had the microphone, who had direct control to the fighters and he’d tell them
height and I think John Gorton was one of these and John Gorton was a squadron leader by this time and he was a bit conscious that he was a squadron leader, it was like the Prime Minister of the country and he didn’t have many friends and he didn’t make friends very easily
and he used to delight in arguing the point with the filterer on duty. I think it was just a point of asserting authority, I know more than you.
And I suppose you can’t be told what to do by a sergeant, I suppose?
That’s exactly right and we were all sergeants that was an automatic thing that was part, well you had to control people you had to have the authority to control
in the one at Darwin, we had about eighteen people around the table and another wireless operators around the walls looking up the information about Morse, so we had thirty-six people that we had to control.
When John Gorton or someone would say, “Sorry David that is not the right way”, what were they questioning?
Oh that you weren’t giving the right height angles as it called and of course we had a combined sergeants’ and officers’ mess in this and you’d meet him afterwards and you would have a beer and it would all be forgotten.
It’s business not personal?
Would the language be blue, choice this is for the record and we are all adults here, so you don’t have to be shy about language, what did you call him or what did he call you, what would be said?
To each other you mean?
Oh you might say “You stupid bastard, listen to what I’m bloody well telling you, you take instructions from me”, it wouldn’t get any worse than that, it would get heated at times. There was another fellow I think. I had him once the whole time I was there and I think his name was Dale and all the other filter blokes hated him, absolutely hated him and he would not recognise that he was wrong,
he was a flying officer and he was bad news, he was grounded for some reason and I think I have a fair idea it would have been for insubordination.
I also assume while you and Gorton are arguing the fighters are scrambling and getting closer?
Oh well you wouldn’t continue it, you would just say “That’s it”
and forget it because you had to watch the table all the time, you were up in a pulpit and you’re looking down at your table and the other table, you had no time to argue the point. If Gorton got stroppy that’s it, take it or leave it and swear at him at the same time.
And he would swear back I assume? How old was he at that stage?
He was older than most of us, he was an older guy where most of the average age was the early twenties, John was in his late twenties.
An old man?
That’s right, nudging thirty.
That’s old for the air force in those days, isn’t it?
There were a few like that, not too many, you’ve got fellows that were group captains that were permanent air force characters in their mid twenties. Derek King was one that was a school mate of mine and he went straight into the air force before the war and he was a very nice fellow and he became a group captain
of the, he was the CO of the big Liberator Wing in Darwin near the Adelaide River and he was only twenty six when he was commanding that.
Twenty six year old, wow?
Of course they were brilliant fellows, he went on to become 2 IC [Second in Charge] of the air force in Australia and never came out that was his career. He was a great bloke, very well liked, very popular, he could take control of an aircraft or stay on he ground, he was a practical bloke, a pilot as well as being a very good administrator.
Well, it always helps if you are telling someone to do something that you can actually do it too?
Cause that was where the air force failed dismally was with paper work, it was shocking till only the other day and I did this stir over my nominal roll and they sent me down from Canberra, the photocopies of what I should have had years ago when I applied for my record
and I don’t know where they found them but they are so badly written, all hand written you can hardly decipher it. So that really, it doesn’t mean much at all. The navy records are on file cards handwritten in pencil, it is incredible.
Interviewee: David Maxwell Archive ID 0139 Tape 05
Tell us about the sinking of the Centaur?
Right it happened at night as we all know and the Centaur was a hospital ship well and truly lit up under International Law and it was sunk by a Japanese submarine off Moreton Island off Brisbane, a great loss of lives as we all know. I was on duty
and I made a great mention of it and it actually went into the log book as to why the radar stations and there was one at Caloundra about twenty miles away, one on Point Lookout on Stradbroke Island, which was about another forty miles away and one on Fraser Island but had a far better range because it was up so high, right out on the end of Great Sandy Cape,
no one reported it, not one reported sighting a ship, you could pick up a submarine they would echo, and the next morning the CO called me into his office and he said “What went wrong?” And I said “Something is wrong with those radar stations, some is terrible wrong, they are incorrectly tuned or people are not paying attention to what they are doing”.
So a couple of days later he called me and another chap who had come back from New Guinea, a chap called Wilson “You two guys are on special assignment, you are doing a report on those three radar stations the night of the Centaur sinking”. We were stripped of any rank and we went back to being AC 1 [Aircraftsman]
What is an AC1?
The first rank in the air force and we were posted as rookie operators
to first of all Fraser Island.
Yes, no one knew what we were, just two rookie operators. So away we go and on Fraser Island prior to the war a ship was wrecked and it is still there today and it was being towed to Japan but surprise, surprise the towrope broke
and it went and beached itself on Fraser Island and they couldn’t get it off again. It was funny; you could almost read later on the build up. Anyway this thing was on Fraser Island and it used to come up as an echo every time the radar went around, bingo, up would come, so these operators got so blasé about it they didn’t stop to think as well as the echo coming up from the Maheno there was echo’s coming up from submarines
who were using the Maheno as a screen.
How close to it would they have to be to it to come up as the same blip?
Oh you could tell cause it starts to move, if you watch it properly you can tell, every time the aerial went around and got the Maheno like that it didn’t move that’s fine, if you were watching that screen properly and there were other things in the vicinity, it would start to see movement up or in and out one or the other.
We found out that was right so we managed to wangle a couple of days off duty and we went for a walk down the island, we get down almost right down to the Maheno and surprise, surprise, there’s footprints in the sand and we didn’t know what they were but they led from the beach into where these wonderful fresh water streams that Fraser Island
is famous for you see, so that’s all right and we put this into our report and we came back and surprise, surprise about three days later we were posted you see. I think the blokes started to wonder by this time. Then I went to Caloundra and Wilson went to Point Lookout and discovered there,
well Caloundra was out of tune they weren’t, no one had woken up to the fact they were all ladies, all WAAAFs operating it and they didn’t understand that they could change the lobe, they just left it there and away it went so they got no echo. Point Lookout was problems with the transmitter. So we came back to fighter control and wrote out our report
and a week later we were interviewed by the investigating people and it was decided there would be no action taken against these operators because a) they were inexperienced and b) what was the point of it? They were disciplined or shifted and their postings came through and a whole new crew came onboard and they were scattered and that was the story of the sinking.
It never never hit the storybooks; it never got any publicity, one of those quiet things that was quietly swept under the carpet because really we were at fault. If the air force had been on the ball there was a good chance that the navy boys would have got the submarine, as a result the sub got away.
In later years they tried to establish
which submarine had sunk it because it was a war crime and the Japanese were unable/unwilling to tell?
That’s right, it was a full-blown sub.
Did they every trace or find out about the footprints on the beach?
They sent a company of commandoes to do a thorough search of it and that came out in the inquiry
and convinced that they were, that the Japanese had beached, they must have realised that the Maheno was doing a wonderful thing for them.
Would it not have been the case if these fellows had been watching the screen properly the approach to the Maheno would have been seen, so they must have missed all that?
They were just so, they had never been in what you would call actual war operations,
young guys that has been sent up to Fraser Island, they were bored out of their minds, nothing to do, they had been left there too long and the air force had not learned its lesson that you can’t leave people on radar stations for too long. They become mentally unable to cope with it.
Oh it would be impossible to stare at a radar screen all day every day without
losing track of what you are doing?
Well you imagine that you are sitting in a darkened cave which it really is, noise all the time, a steady humming noise, you were sitting at a cathode-ray tube, one that’s going that way and another going that way and over in the corner is the plotter and they keep rotating all the time, they don’t stay in the once place
and he has a little light over his plot and that is all you can see and there are three cigarettes glowing and it gets terribly hot at night, if it has been a hot day. It’s understandable.
Could radar only pick up subs on the surface, couldn’t it?
So if these subs approached that wreck underwater
then came up?
They would keep under water, if the lobe was low enough and the fact that there was so much steel in the submarine there was no question of not getting an echo back, you would get something. I’ve seen them. When we were in Darwin there was a British submarine stationed in Darwin permanently, it was used as a rescue ship bringing these commandoes off
those islands and that’s what its purpose was and our radar stations used to pick it up regularly.
What happened after the sinking of the Centaur, were ships posted out there?
Oh yes, the coast became swamp with navy for a while, look they got away with it, look at what happened in Sydney Harbour, those midgets got in, they never found the mother ship,
it was out there somewhere, but it was far enough out to be out of radar range on surface range.
Midgets come off a cruiser on a crane, is that how it worked?
They came off a mother ship, a big submarine, shot out of them like they shoot a torpedo. They weren’t such midgets were they?
If you see one you realise that there wasn’t too much room for the two poor guys on board, but the one that sunk the Centaur was a full-blown sub and they never caught it.
I’m just looking at my notes here, sixty-four people out of three hundred and thirty two people survived?
It was a shocking thing to all of us, it was
one of the terrible things that should never have happened.
Was there a feeling of responsibility on behalf of the radar division?
I think the only person who was on duty that night that felt anything and I’m not saying this to blow my own trumpet but I was the only person who had actually been in operations under these conditions,
I was the only person that knew that something was wrong that those three radar stations did not pick the submarine up.
Did anybody else?
The funny thing about it is they plotted the Centaur that was on their log but they didn’t, they weren’t paying attention, they were inexperienced you know.
Did they find out in later years, what had happened do you think?
Oh I think they must have because all of a sudden they were scattered, they were sent their merry way all over the place.
Do you think that was typical of that time, did they put the wrong people in the wrong jobs?
Well that was sort of a foregone conclusion, there was a heck of a lot of people in the wrong job not only in the air force but all the services.
It is amazing how it would roll in with so much inefficiency?
Well of course
the war rolled and won because a) the American coming in when they did and they were spot on with equipment and not so much good fighting men but their equipment was absolutely superb and there was a certain small nucleus of people who did know what they were doing and did their job in a proper way and they
were the ones that made up for the ones, well we will serve out the war and hope for the best sort of thing. There were those that were conscientious and there were a lot of them, basically in radar, every radar bloke wanted to see the thing done properly, there were pretty few that weren’t. These were young and experience people.
It is crucial, it is such an instrument of the whole armed forces?
It was for civilians and everyone else. In this operations in Brisbane when the Centaur was sunk, not only were the three services represented, there were civilians, there were two police inspectors always on duty, they controlled the civil defence you see.
Do you know where the Centaur was coming from and going to when it was sunk?
It was coming out of Brisbane going south and I don’t know where it was going to. It had been in Brisbane and had gone out past Cape Morton and was heading down the coast.
So it had only just set off when it was sunk and I believe it was only the second operation?
that’s right, it was apparently a brand new unit.
From there any communication from ship to shore describing what had happened “We’ve been hit?”
Not that I recall, the navy would have picked that up but we didn’t get it at all. All we knew was that it disappeared from sight, the Moreton Island people picked it up.
They should have, you see initially they thought it wasn’t a submarine, they thought it was a mine that it hit, subsequently it was proved it was a torpedo.
And it was pretty much swept under the carpet and didn’t hit the newspapers.
I’ve searched and I’ve been through all sorts of things but nothing has ever been disclosed about it.
There was a lot of stuff like that. There was some wonderful things happened, blokes did some courageous things, the results would be good and you would never hear about it only those around would know. It was time and time again and the army blokes would tell you about that, they had more instances of that in the army than we did.
The air force did some wonderful things, the guys that were in the air force in the Middle East, they did some incredible things. One fellow I knew he came back to Australia, he trained in Rhodesia, and they were shipped straight out of Rhodesia up to the squadron up to Mersa Matruh[?] somewhere up along the coastline there,
and he was shot down but he got his aircraft down with the crew and they survived, so they were walking home and in the process of walking home, they came across an ammunition dump, a German ammunition dump so they very smartly set to work and destroyed it and the only way I know about it, the pilot
he actually came and worked for me when I worked at Ramset and we were swapping stories one day at lunch time and that was never ever recorded as far as I know.
That’s incredible, well on that note.
Interviewee: David Maxwell Archive ID 0139 Tape 06
Ok, we will definitely go back and cover Milne Bay but I just want to go back and cover a few things from yesterday. The first thing was I wanted to know what Brisbane looked like when you were a young chap because I don’t think Brisbane had as good a time as when the war was in full swing, it’s been a fairly dull old place ever since perhaps?
Well Brisbane, well of course pre war
it was really a large country town, there is no question about that, it might be on the bottom but it wasn’t very large you know, if you lived five or six miles from the centre of the city you were out in the bush. It was like that. My father brought a property; it was just an investment property in the market garden centre of Sunny Bank
and that was exactly eight miles from the city and it was farms and if you go to Sunny Bank today it is one of the most prestigious suburbs, two and half storey houses in that part of the world. There were dirt roads, there was very little sewerage, you know there was the pan system,
Were the houses on stilts even then?
Oh yes, all the houses were on stilts, I suppose seventy percent were on stilts in some of the suburbs, some of the inner suburbs they were close to the ground. The original parts of Brisbane built on the principle of places in England and Scotland, all built straight on the ground with a cellar.
Did it have a distinction about, I mean Queenslanders have always had a distinction about themselves
being, well they might be Australians but they were Queenslanders first?
Oh no, I think that is true in a way. It’s a very different lifestyle living up there, well not so much now but it used to be. It changed since Expo, Expo changed it dramatically. If you knew Brisbane before Expo
you didn’t know it after because it had so changed. The South Brisbane, that whole area before Expo was the pits, there were wharfs along the river, there were coal stores, umpteen hotels, just derelict houses and it was really a terrible place.
Now there is a beach?
So it hasn’t changed, I was last in Brisbane to have a good look at it in ’94, we stayed there for a few days and I managed to get around, I drove up in the car, went to some of my old haunts and they had disappeared from site. The old family home is still there,
the old place that we went to when we came from the country it is still in Chelmer, still up in stilts, half the property has been sold off because we had a tennis court and a big paddock for the cow. That was the sort of thing that happened in Brisbane, people had back paddocks and they had a cow. It was a semi rural place really.
Could you still see some of Lloyd Reese’s influences there because he was responsible for some of the architecture.
Unfortunately some of the lovely early architecture has been lost. Some of the old beautiful buildings in the latter part of the eighteen-century and the ninetieth century they have disappeared from sight. The one is famous for having disappeared is the one that Jo Bjelke-Petersen [former premier of Queensland] didn’t like the look of, the Belleview Hotel, he could see it out of his window from Parliament House and at 2 o’clock on a Sunday morning
they moved in with a big ball and chain and flattened it.
In terms of war there was all that business of the Brisbane Line, do you think Queenslanders had a totally different view of what was going on?
Oh totally, absolutely.
Have you got any idea of the sentiment that prevailed at the time?
When I came back from New Guinea and I told my mother how close
we came to being invaded she almost called me a liar, that is not the case, that is not what we were told the media by censorship, they kept the population of Brisbane pretty much in the dark. They did talk about the Brisbane Line and they were to evacuate and to go as far as Tenterfield and the main highway between
Wallangarra and Tenterfield today and if you know where to find them you can still find the tank traps on the side of the road, big concrete tank traps still on the side of the road. They were quite prepared to evacuate and hand it over because there was no point in trying to save it.
There were historians that will say categorically that we were never going to be invaded by the Japanese?
Of course there were particularly down south.
When I came down to Melbourne in 1944, when I came down for my posting, when I eventually got to Darwin and I was talking with my friends here that I knew and they didn’t have any connection with anybody in the services and they didn’t believe how close it was that we were nearly invaded. It was so close it didn’t matter
The information that you were receiving in Darwin and Milne Bay was everybody very certain that that was imminent?
Oh yes I’m quite sure we didn’t let it enter our consciousness possibly but we knew that if they didn’t hold the Japanese across that air strip at Milne Bay we were past tense because the only thing the air force could do was to take to the hills.
Fortunately, because the New Guinea natives were so wonderfully friendly to the Australians they would have made sure that we would have survived, they would have looked after us.
Did they give you enough training in case you had to do that?
No, that was the silly part about it, they sent you up there with no training, you had a rifle or a side arm, a forty-five revolver, it wasn’t even a magazine fed side arm.
How may shells? There were seven or eight and what you had to do was stop and fix them up again. There was absolutely no training, it was quite crazy. And some of the army fellows that came up there that were reinforcements for the 18th Brigade which was the force at Milne Bay and they turned up with reinforcements about the same time that I arrived there when most of the fighting was over.
They had little or no training, they were conscripts, they would be given about two or three weeks marching drill, that’s about all they were given and given a rifle and “Righto, you are a reinforcement” and they were sent up there to be the most wonderful troops that ever existed, they were fantastic, quite remarkable.
I was reading an article which said they sent in these inexperienced young men
as cannon fodder and kept some of the men from the 9th Division back to send in afterwards but it was the guys amongst the front line that put the cat amongst the pigeons?
Yes, there were so few in the front line really, there weren’t hundreds of men but they were so disciplined although they didn’t appear to have discipline, it was a self-discipline about them that was quite remarkable.
Lets talk about Milne Bay then how
soon after the main battle, when did you arrive?
About a week.
And what did you find when you got there?
Well it was absolutely chaos, the quartermaster store that had all the food in it had been blown up, there wasn’t much there, there was just basic food that was all they had. One airstrip was still operating and one was where the fighting took place, so that had to be completely restored
and the other one hadn’t been completed and it was a sea of mud. The mud at Milne Bay was incredible, it was at least eighteen inches deep, you could sink a tank in it.
It was the end of the wet season when you got there, wasn’t it?
It was the end of the wet season twelve months of the year at Milne Bay. It never dried up, it was just wet, wet
and wet and it didn’t take long, it was remarkable how quickly it took to get things organised. The American stuff was wonderful they had bulldozers, front end loaders that our fellows just didn’t have. They didn’t know about them, it was quite surprising; they turned up with all this wonderful gear,
in a matter of a few days they had the mud swept aside and roads built from a quarry up in the hills and put some new Marsden matting down on the air strip and 22 Squadron arrived to operate out of there, they were Hudson bombers and it sort of came back to some sort of normalcy. Then what happened, a Jap cruiser came up one
night, steamed right up the bay, the Manunda hospital ship was in the bay and they came up and they used the Manunda as a shield, it was only about half a dozen pieces of artillery in the place and they couldn’t fire because they would hit the Manunda, so they just fired shells at random all night, it was so funny it really was, they had no clue what they were aiming at.
So what would your position have been then with a Jap ship coming up the bay, what do you do in those circumstances?
We didn’t know because we were about three miles away from the water front and we can imagine the jungle is pretty thick but also it was a very large coconut plantations, it was one of the largest in the world owned by Lever Bros
at Milne Bay, so there were still thousands of coconut palms and we were in amongst the coconut palms and all of a sudden there were screaming shells whistling over our heads and speaking for myself, for quite five minutes I didn’t realise what it was cause you had never experienced that before. It was quite eerie really,
there were a few guys that got a bit nervous about that, with a bombardment from the air you have a pretty good idea and you can hear them whistling you know that they are not coming near you. This wretched cruiser he had sunk the Yenchung which was a cargo ship that was attached to the wharf, it wasn’t a wharf as such it just had ropes,
and it turned on its side and rolled over and it stayed there for the rest of the war and they used it as a wharf, they used the side of the ship as a wharf, and they took off next morning and disappeared, mind you it was chased by a couple of squadrons from Moresby but they didn’t get it.
Before they sent you over and you were spending your time in Darwin, did they give you an idea of what you were in for?
Oh I suppose we were, we knew what was going on from talking to the guys that were coming back and it was in one day and we were young enough to look at it as a bit of adventure but I never personally,
I never thought I was walking into some fatal situation, I felt that I would always come back all right.
Why is that, because even if you weren’t a rifleman and you weren’t facing the enemy within any distance, the war is so fraught with so many dangers?
Because I was brought up in the bush and I understood the bush
and knew how to disappear into the bush if necessary and I felt if anything came to the worse I could disappear into it and knowing that the natives were so friendly there would be no problem.
That was just luck, wasn’t it?
Oh sheer luck. They loved the Australians and they couldn’t stand the Japanese and the reason for it was the Japanese used to poach fish from around the shores of New Guinea and the crews
would come ashore and the Papuan New Guinea people are a highly moral people, a high sense of morality and because the Japs would try and take the women they hated them for it because that was totally foreign to their beliefs and behaviour, they are quite remarkable people really, mind you some of them up in the mountains were still cannibals but that was the way they lived,
you can’t condemn them for that, they had been like that for generations.
I wondered about that because it was sort of a common story that there was cannibalism amongst the New Guinea tribes, you never met anybody who fought in the services that came across that?
Oh no never, they treated the Australian servicemen almost as Gods they looked up to them.
Most of the Australians would have been taller than them anyway?
That’s true they were.
Was there any stories going around that if you did have to go bush up into the mountains you would be scared of being eaten?
Yes, we were told that if they broke through, that we just had to take off, they had set charges around the base of the radar and it was just a matter of flicking a switch, electronic detonators and gone and that was the end of it and we would have taken off.
All we had would be our back pack, the air force pack was pretty minimal like these things the kids wear today to put their school books in and a pouch hanging down the side and you couldn’t carry much in that.
Did you have a personal kit along with your army kit that you kept close by?
When we went on embarkation to New Guinea you handed in all your personal stuff which was put into a store until you came back and all you had was your issue of clothing, blankets, a pair of boots, terrible boots they were and a felt hat, a towel and the wonderful thing called a housewife, you’ve heard about a housewife have you?
A housewife is a little roll about four inches in diameter and it was rolled up and inside that was some cotton, some wool, a pair of scissors and some buttons and it was called “The housewife”. We had a rifle, a 303 rifle.
The date I had on mine was 1917, it came out of the First World War.
Did you ever fire it?
Only to test it.
And the pistol, did you ever have to use that?
No, I didn’t get that until I got to sergeant rank and I never ever used it. When I was orderly sergeant I would put it on as it was part of the routine.
So when they sent you over you were saying yesterday you couldn’t be guaranteed spending any length of time with your friends or staying together, did they send you over as a unit though?
No. The air force didn’t have the initial people that went to establish a thing like a radar station or a signal station, there would be four or
five people sent together in an advanced party and they would be there and the rest of them would come in dribs and drabs as air force records would pluck your name out and post you. You got some sort of transport and you got there. Oh hit and miss it really was and later on as the war progressed, they got their act together and it did progress.
I was going to ask you to give me some examples of things the Australians
were really appalling at and really good at, American had a lot of equipment but Australians were brilliant at manpower?
The Australians had an enormous capabilities to, I don’t know why we could build something out of nothing and the guys would work
that hard to put in slit trenches or defences almost instantaneously and do it without a lot of direction from their NCO’s and officers and it was just something built into Australians.
And what, were Australians really not very good at all?
I don’t know, they were good at most things,
when the American turned up and they had all this wonderful earth moving equipment which the average Aussie had never seen, he had heard about them, for about half a day the chaps from the army they were sort of a maintenance section and within half a day they were driving road graders and things like that
for their lives, the Australian knack I suppose.
And possibly farming, I suppose?
Yes farming, that’s right, yes there were so many of us that had land experience. We became wonderful pilots, Australian pilots to this very day are world renowned, they just take to the air like it is a natural thing to do.
So first of all what did they send you on over to New Guinea, did they fly you in?
I went over on a boat to Port Moresby, it was the old, the thing that had been requisitioned, it was the Maroona, it used to run between Melbourne and across to Tasmania. It rolled and pitched and it was a terrible journey, fortunately I don’t get seasick, quite a lot of the guys on board were very sick I think, I said yesterday
instead of going direct from Townsville to New Guinea, I think they went half way around the Pacific then back again trying to dodge the Jap fleet that was hanging around and then we went from Port Moresby down to Milne Bay on an Oxford an little twin aircraft. The organization of sending
personnel around Australia to the island till around the middle of 1943 was pretty hit and miss.
Did any get lost along the way trying to get to their postings?
No, I don’t think so, again it was the Australian ingenuity and you knew there was an air strip, you would go down to the airstrip and say “You wanted to go” and you got a ride and you did it.
The air force did it, they were our mates.
I was reading about Milne Bay and it said one of the reasons it succeeded was the accurate strafing by the RAAF, by the fighter pilots?
78th Squadron [actually was the 76th] were absolutely superb, there is no question about that, they were fantastic, they were working under the most shocking conditions, the aircraft were kept
in the sky by the mechanics, I don’t know how they did it sometimes, they had nil equipment, they had no workshop, they simply had hand tools, they were cannibalising one aircraft to keep another one in the sky until they managed to get some more spares to put the other one back in the sky.
So would they have been dealing with radar guys before you got there?
I was to increase the strength of the unit.
So during that battle there would have been radar operators like yourself to guide those RAAF flights in.
They weren’t working, they were petrified that word would come through that they had to go.
So what was your relationship like with the pilots, did you have much to do with them then?
Oh yes, we got on terribly well with them because they recognised particularly in our area
that what we did was so vital to what they did and it was a working relationship between pilots and radar.
And was it sort of something that you got to realise afterwards or did you have time during operating to deal with the pilots?
No, well we lived with them, we shared the same camp, they were just fighter pilots, we didn’t worry about what rank they were,
we were just the boys and Bluey Truscott, a wonderful character, wonderful fellow, fantastic pilot.
A lot of men we have spoken to have some inkling that what they were doing was important but they just couldn’t see it in the scheme of things, given the nature of what you were doing did you realise the work that you were doing was vital?
it was without the early warning of aircraft of shipping, they had coast watchers, they were wonderful men, most of them were living off the land, they had transmitters that weren’t very powerful but they managed to get their information out and lots of times they lived up the top of trees,
there were Japs down the bottom and they lived up the top and they did some fantastic work about Japanese landings and so forth and the other warning was done by radar because we were picking movement, we were picking up visual movement of aircraft or shipping
Can you tell me what it was like going to Milne Bay and having to join the unit there or having to re-establish the unit there after the battle, give me a visual of how that worked?
We sort of, you arrived on the post and I remember myself arriving about midday and at six o’clock that night I was on duty down in the control room
and I didn’t have a chance to worry about what was happening around you. You sort of staked out a site in the hut to put your ground sheet on to sleep, you just did it and you got a meal and you got some M & V [meat and vegetable] rations. There was another great thing that I thought about
last night, our cook, he had a wonderful way of cooking rice and he used to cook rice with custard powder, it was foul, it was terrible stuff, but it was food and you ate it.
I don’t quite understand the army got so much right but they didn’t seem to hire people who had any sense of food?
No, it was a rare thing in a unit that a cook knew what cooking was all about, just deviating one second about Milne Bay when I was at radar school for the third time and I was rostered for orderly sergeant this particular day and the duty of the orderly sergeant is go through the airmen’s mess and to see if they have any complaints about the food
and I announced myself and asked for any complaints and almost as one they all said “Look at this rubbish we can’t eat it, you see”. And it was some sort of stew that curry powder had been stirred into it, it was foul. I said “Well, I’ll see what I can do about it”, and these guys took the law into their own hands and I was one against four hundred and they marched out to the mess and hurled
it all over the cook and the kitchen and they were then invited to another cookhouse, there were different sections. But the cooks were hopeless some of them
I don’t think it would be in a good position to be in especially if you didn’t know how to cook, it is a terrible job to be faced with?
It did get later on as things got more organised they did start a catering section and they took these fellow and when the WAFS [Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Supporters] got into it they made it a natural thing but it did come. In Darwin we had the chef, he wasn’t a cook, he was a chef and he used to put on the most magnificent meals,
he could make the basic material and make it into something worthwhile.
Until Milne Bay, Australia was in dire straights though?
Absolutely, well you see we were lucky if we got a delivery of mail once a fortnight, if you were lucky. There was very little fresh food came through, occasionally then of course
they managed to get themselves a bakery and they made bread and of course then we had an alternative to hard biscuits and then when the Yanks arrived they of course came in with frozen food, we had never heard of frozen food, it was something we had never heard about. Cause that meant that we managed to get meat, fresh meat.
By Christmas time, we wondered what we would get for Christmas and we thought it would be pretty crook you know, and by Christmas they had managed to get some supplies in and we had Christmas pudding and we had chickens, we didn’t have turkey, but it was a decent Christmas, we were lucky.
So this is about eight or nine months after you had arrived?
No it was only four months, well three and half months, I got there in September. Actually my posting date to Milne Bay was dated the 17th August. I must have been there by the end of August.
The Japs had gone but everything was there, the mess was there, the tanks were still in the mud and their barges were still stuck out in the mud banks in the bay.
I was listening to you yesterday and you said that the date April 13th stayed with you because of your father, you said that day was really clear for you?
April 13th in 1943 which was an absolutely
midday air raid, you could see, you could look up from the trenches and all you could see were aircraft in all directions Japanese and ours and the anti-aircraft were having a great time further out, they fired out where there were no fighter aircraft and you could see this going on all around you. It was a pretty horrendous time really,
it was quite nerve wracking and then of course that afternoon I got notification that my father had died, that wasn’t nice at all, so my CO said “Pack your bag and get down to the strip and see if you can get a ride”, which I did and there was a Yankee Dakota ready to take off for Townsville and I climbed aboard and two hours later I was in Townsville, I never went back to New Guinea
and when I landed at Townsville air field and there were a couple of air force communication planes and I went over to see one and he had been a regular coming into Milne Bay and I said “Where are you heading?” He said “Brisbane”, so I climbed aboard and got to Brisbane that way.
That was the way the air force travelled around, you used the knowledge, you didn’t wait for trains.
Well you certainly had one up on the AIF in that respect. I’m curious that after having succeeded in Milne Bay the Japanese continued to have a go at it?
Oh yes, they were so upset that the fact that they had no toehold in as it were,
they had no land forces, there they were completely wiped out, well not completely, a few got away but not too many but they were determined that they were going to give Milne Bay a lot of attention because they wanted it to have that point right on the end of New Guinea.
So how much pressure did you experience in your position there?
Oh I don’t remember any great pressure,
it was a job you went on duty and you came off and you went and lay down and had a sleep and your wrote some letters to your girlfriends or something and you would listen to the radio. I am very fond of classical music and the Armed Forces Radio was a source of great joy, you could tune into
it we all had radio sets of some sort for our equipment and you could just change the frequencies and I used to pick up Armed Forces Radio and I would sit for hours listening to it, a few of the other boys would too. What about some jazz, not that silly classical rubbish you know. Classical music has got a
calming quality about it.
So it wasn’t bead-sweating stress having to get everything right all the time?
No I don’t recall it, I suppose the whole thing was we had a job to do
and as long as our equipment was working and it was a terrible thing if it went off the air because we worked flat out to get it back on the air again, that was when the pressure was on because without that equipment there was no warning.
And did it ever just blip out on your when you could see aircraft coming in and the screen was dead?
No, as I said yesterday the equipment was English
and it had never been moisture proofed because of the rain and the moisture of Milne Bay, it just seeped into everything and of course moisture and electricity don’t go terribly well together and not like today with microchips, they had great big valves and tubes and when water got in they just blew and you had to get the equipment particularly the transmitters more than the receivers
and you couldn’t go straight in and work on it because of the build up of electricity, it had to be earthed and run away to earth then you managed to get into it and replace that valve and sometimes you didn’t have a replacement. There were a couple of times when we were off the air for twenty-four hours because we had to wait for a replacement to turn up from Port Moresby.
Interviewee: David Maxwell Archive ID 0139 Tape 07
You wanted to go back to the Brisbane line and the information your father was sending you about that?
I was not aware of the great enmity that existed between the Australians and the Americans and these commandos that had been training in the jungle warfare camp at Caloundra and they were in the city on Sunday night and they were refused admittance to the American
PX [post exchange] which was the American canteen and they said “Righto, we’ll take it over”, and in the mean time the Americans brought truck loads of military police and it was on, it was a pitched battle, bullets flying left, right and centre and my father came back and got to Central station and got into a tram and the tram was in Adelaide Street, which is not far
from the battle, which was actually on the corner of Adelaide and Creek Street and the Aussies took the electric pole off the overhead wires and pushed this tram out of the road, they pushed it up the road and Dad wrote to me this story and I couldn’t believe it and I told some of my pals and they weren’t Brisbanites and I was the only
Brisbane person in the whole unit and they said “It must be a pretty tough town, rough place”. They didn’t have much, they were more heavily rationed than the rest of us.
Is that so, why was it harder to get food to Brisbane?
Because the food was hard to get you see, food was being channelled towards the services and there
and I said there were hundreds and thousands of them camped, there were big base hospitals that the Americans had established, they had to feed them and a lot of it had to be local produced, so the civilian population, they got a pretty poor last.
Actually not much has changed, I think a lot of food still gets shipped south from Queensland?
it is a state was able to produce a lot of food.
Politically Brisbane or Queensland has played some interesting roles politically in Australia, not to mention the constitutional crises in Australia in ’75, it played its hand there, was there a sense of Queensland’s politicization at the time in terms of itself of state, did that register at all?
It was a different; I think it was always looked upon as the deep north, well a lot of
Queenslanders looked at the border between Queensland and New South Wales for the southerners as a fence that you weren’t suppose to climb over, it was true. It had a very sort of insular mentality that it was a totally separate area - Queensland.
And if you were the only Queenslander in your unit, did you have a separateness to the rest of the guys, did you feel that?
No, I don’t think so.
Queensland was quite strange in those days because as I said it was a large country town and when you think about it, it wasn’t much bigger than what Geelong is today, but it grew up fast, but it took a long time to settle down,
bomb shelters all around the place and they were there for years in the streets before they got around to putting the jack hammers in them, years and years they were around and the derelicts used to live in them you know and it was quite as I said it wasn’t until Expo came along and that changed Brisbane radically. It was put on to the map then.
Now tell me a bit more about the letters your father was able to send you, because if you were an only child it must have been particularly difficulty for the separation?
We were good mates and he would send me letters full of information on what was happening, then when he took ill those letters ceased, but Mother kept up an enormous communication, I think she used to write to me almost every day and she was a
great letter writer, a whole lot of information about what happened to the family, where she had been and who she had visited, she was a violinist and used to play in a quartet and she filled me up on all this data on where they were playing. Then mothers’ big thing in the war was her great thing,
she became the organiser for the packing room for the Comfort Fund.
Did you manage to get a few extra goodies out of her from that?
No, I think I might have got a few extra parcels, I think I might have done well there. Mother was a fantastic organiser, and she hadn’t been one of the volunteers in this packing room for long before she became the supervisor,
they had this, she wrote and gave me an illustration, I will never forget this letter of this long table with all these different things that went into the parcels, it would start up one end with an empty carton and it was passed down the table and each lady had to put their thing in it and my mother at the other end had to check that everything was in it and she used to rush up and down the length of this long table making sure everything was going
until one day I think it was the premier or someone that was a government official came to visit this thing and he saw mother rushing up and down this table and about a week later a scooter arrived for mother to go up and down, I will never forget that letter all with the illustrations.
What was in an average care parcel?
A couple of tins of fruit,
condensed cream, there was chocolate, cigarettes of course, dried fruit, writing paper and envelopes.
Did you ever receive something that was absolutely ridiculous?
Oh yes, not as a food parcel. When I was in Darwin and I had had the car crash
and I was lying in bed and the Red Cross lady came around and she said, “Would you like a pullover?” I said, “Yes, because Darwin can get pretty cold at night”, so she went and got me this pullover. I don’t know what poor darling had knitted it but the arms were about four feet long and the body was about eighteen inches, it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen.
The Comfort Fund really was wonderful and gave a lot of joy to we fellows, you know when you get a Comfort Fund parcel it was great.
Were just addressed at random?
They were addressed to; the next of kin would send a name to the Comfort Fund,
number, name and name of unit and the Army Post Office would make sure it went into the right bag. That was a remarkable thing, the post office run by the army and the air force was absolutely fantastic.
We heard the tale of a chap who had been sent mail that morning, he was in a special division and got his hands on it before a lot of other guys did,
even by today’s standard it was pretty tricky?
The strange part about it was the majority of the people in those post offices were ex-postal employees, one thing that they did the right thing, because it was terribly important, it was one of those things that if you didn’t get a letter you would wonder what was happening you know.
Did you know guys that didn’t get any mail?
The ones that didn’t get any mail were the ones that were married and whose wives were making off with some other bloke while hubby was at war and that was very sad because I remember one fellow, this wasn’t in New Guinea, this was in Darwin, he nearly went around the bend and eventually he got leave to go home and sort things out. He had children and he hadn’t had any mail for weeks and weeks and he
couldn’t make out what was happening, cause what was happening was his wife had nicked off with somebody else.
So what did you do about guys like that, I know the army wasn’t the place to have a good cry but you must have had some sort of tactics to help each other through?
The chaplains and there were a lot of very fine chaplains and the Salvation Army
were wonderful, they were fantastic the Salvos.
But even to someone, I imagine that if a fellow had received a “Dear John letter” [letter informing that a relationship is over], I don’t know if a padre or a chaplain would understand what he might be going through?
That’s true, they probably didn’t. The padres would do their best and the beauty of the padres was they had access to the hierarchy of the services
and if they saw a fellow in distress say a matrimonial problem or children’s problem because these padres had access not to just a low ranking officer, they could assess the top brass and they could take action for this fellow. That was one of the beauties of it.
You got a lot of mail over the time, did you ever receive bad mail from time to time evidently your father
was very bad news, at other times did you have to experience the shock of something that was going on?
Oh yes, I remember one letter that devastated me for about twenty four hours, my very best pal that I had been to school with and was very close, we would live in each other’s house when we were teenagers, he was flying in a North Africa and then went across into Italy,
he was shot down and the whole crew were killed and his sister wrote to me and told me, it was weeks later until I got the message and it knocked me because Don was a very close friend.
What do you do in the jungle when something like that happens?
Now well you sort of think, “Well, it’s war I suppose”.
I did well, you see I lost so many of my close friends it was a constant thing that you would hear, particularly air force people.
Does it rock your sense of purpose?
Yes, you see the futility of war, what was the purpose of it you know, why are we killing each other?
What gave you the strength to keep going?
You keep going, you are going be a victor, you are going to win.
Winning at what price?
Winning was the big thing. The final crunch came when you win and of course the final crunch came with Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the enormous sense of relief
although there was an enormous loss of life in both cities in Japan, the sense of relief to know that it was all over it had finished, it was incredible.
What do you think about the Japanese personally?
Oh, I didn’t have any great hatred for them and they were there to do a job the same as we were, mind you they were the Japanese in the army, they were unfortunately
and I am not saying this in any nasty way but they were peasants, they were not educated people and they were just told what to do and they had no initiative of their own. We heard about the guards in the prison camps and they were told to treat the prisoners in such and such a way and never stopped to analyse why they should do it.
Can I just deviate for just a second? Did you watch Andrew Denton last night [television talk show], there was this fellow who had this letter written by a Japanese guard who couldn’t understand why there was such inhumanity dealt out to the prisoners and he had pages of it and it was written to his grandfather who was a prisoner of war by this Japanese guard
and he was obviously of a high intelligence and it was quite interesting to see that some Japanese didn’t belong to that
Well that’s a point then, the chap you were working with were obviously very intelligent, they couldn’t be doing their job unless they had the smarts, did you in your time bump into some guys that were a bit limited in their intelligence perhaps and did they seem to have a different attitude to what they were doing?
Possibly. It was quite surprising after the battle which was called the Bismarck Sea battle and there were literally thousands of Japanese swimming towards the coast of New Guinea and being picked up by the dozens by the natives and bringing them into places like Milne Bay and Buna
compounds, of course it became a must to have a look at the prison compound and see what Japs were in today you see, some of the fellows imagined they were guards over the Japanese and would do exactly what the Japanese would do to us and the worst came out of them, became sadistic.
Can you give me more explicit examples of that?
No, I sort of didn’t feel in a way, they looked half drowned and were starving and in a way you sort of felt sorry for them because they were another human being.
Did you see or witness anything though?
Well a funny thing I witnessed when the natives were bringing them in, they would lash them together with pieces of cane
and they walked them in and then the ones that were injured and couldn’t walk, they would strap them onto a pole with their hands and feet across the pole and their bodies sagging down and they would carry them on their shoulders and it was pretty uncomfortable for the soldiers and they would start to complain and the natives couldn’t speak any Japanese but they had pidgin English and they weren’t impressed by the Japanese complaining and I remember this
day and they came past our camp and this chap was wailing and making a terrible noise and the PNG [Papua New Guinea] that was in charge of the party and of course they had very strong thick feet, they had never worn shoes and their feet were you know apart, and he’d walk up and give this fellow a kick up the backside and say “tutup”, and he would give another wail and he would give him another tutup, again it was really funny.
How big were those holding camps for the Japanese prisoners?
Well, they were a whopping big thing, they had thousands in it at Milne Bay, eventually they brought a ship and they took them all back to Brisbane, Brisbane was the holding camp.
What was the likelihood of the Japanese POWs being strafed by their own aircraft?
Oh quite possible.
Is it too far fetched to imagine that if you had POWs and there were Jap planes coming in that you would let them through to the wicket keeper or is that ridiculous?
Well, we didn’t have much to do with control of that sort of thing. Mind you, I remember having a discussion one day in the mess when there was a big heap brought in on this particular day and it all happened over a period of three or four weeks
and we were saying “If a bomb had come” and they were bombing us at that time, and actually hit a compound and broke it open, broke the barb wire “What would happen? Would they stand still or would they try to grab Australian weapons and start fighting us?”
The general opinion was we would grab our rifles and fire back at them. Milne Bay, I’d like to tell you a funny story, we used to go fishing in the river about three miles up river from the bay itself, we didn’t fish with lines and hooks we fished with hand grenades
and it was a wonderful way of getting fish, you get stunned fish but of course you also get a lot of mutilated fish and we used to strip off stark naked and swim into the water to collect the fish and in those rivers in New Guinea when it rains heavily up in the mountains and you almost gets walls of water rushing down and this particular day the water came down before we were aware of it and we had a stony bank on the side of the river,
where our clothes were and they all went disappearing down the river and we had to go back to camp with no clothes on, we had to get past an army camp to get to our place and we got absolutely rubbished.
Well fill in my limited imagination and give me an example of some of the things that they called out to you?
There were all sorts of things,
the main thing we were quite close to a native village where we were, and the army boys said “You’ve been getting off with the native woman and they have taken your clothes and hidden them”. All this sort of thing. And comments about our physical being.
It would have been no stretch of the imagination to see the natives going around with just the basic lap laps from time to time but if the natives saw you white fellows going around with nothing on?
Oh the natives couldn’t stand that, they didn’t understand that because they always associated the white man with a man who was clothed,
they didn’t like it. We had a native boy who was about sixteen who was allocated to us by the native administration unit, general rouseabout around the camp and he was a highly educated kid actually by a Lutheran missionary and he was quite a smart boy,
he could use a typewriter and he was given the joy of typing up all the unit records and so forth but he would never go near the showers when we were having a shower because he didn’t like to see any of us naked. He was the cleanest and most tidiest fellow you could meet and we had given him bit and pieces of clothing, a uniform of sorts,
someone had managed to get him a pair of boots and he used to polish them, I mean no one up there would polish their boots, there was no point in it because you were always walking around in mud all the time, but he used to polish the boots, he was so fussy and so proud of them you know. That same fellow went on after the war and I kept track of him, he was an outstanding fellow and he became the Assistant Commissioner of Police
in New Guinea.
Now you weren’t able to keep yourself in the condition that the air force required, you certainly didn’t turn out in polished buttons and so forth but given that you had to live a jungle existence, how did that affect the chain of command. Was that maintained or did the jungle take over that, what I’m getting at did things get lax in the chain of command?
It got lax very lax, it got lax in the air force particularly because you sort of just treated the officers as one of the blokes, you used their Christian names not their rank, that was in New Guinea it was much more formal in Darwin because the war was in a different state and rank was recognised,
there was a familiarity between the different ranks like the senior NCO and the officer rank there was a familiarity there. The ordinary ranking men had to respect rank and address the person with the correct rank.
What about saluting in New Guinea?
None at all.
It just didn’t happen, it did happen in Darwin. There was too much of the desire to survive, no need to use the expression, no need for the bull that’s what it was.
What about the Yank camps over with the Americans?
Well they were worse than we were with being sloppy, oh yes very sloppy, they didn’t recognised rank at all, they loved to wear their rank. The NCO’s would have stripes and bars up and down their arms and the officers would have their bars on their lapels and if they had a jacket on there would be bars on the epaulettes
and they never let you know that they weren’t officers. They would say “Hey Joe” and Joe might be the major or something.
So how did it work between the Australians and they Americans, so if you were subordinate serviceman in Australia and you were dealing with a superior member of the American service, did you pay any attention to their rank?
Yes you did, well I did, I recognised the fact that they were of a rank. I had a lot to do with the Americans in Darwin, they had a very big influence in Darwin, there were thousands of them, and they had fighter aircraft and they used our facilities, so we had a lot to do with the Yanks then
and most of them were officers, a lot of colonels. Colonels were a tuppence a dozen. They loved to wear that eagle but you never got familiar with them except off duty you would, you might go to a party in their officers’ mess or something and you would use Christian names.
So you didn’t have
any hostility that Australian didn’t like them over here and over sexed?
Oh yes, there were some Australians that couldn’t stand the Yanks, I never felt that way and I felt “Thank God for the Yanks” because if they hadn’t turned up when they did we wouldn’t be around today, we would have been Japan South, it’s true.
So in your radar station, did you work on behalf of any aircraft coming in?
Any sea craft coming in whether they were Australian, British or American?
No, it didn’t matter. All we did was report an aircraft in the sky or a ship. The actual radar station didn’t discriminate at all. The discrimination took place in the operations room or the filter room, that was what the filter room was for, it was all to sift out the chaff sort of thing.
I want to know a bit more about the filter room because that was what you went back to in Australia unless there is more about Milne Bay that we should discuss?
Not really I think I have covered it very thoroughly. I have spoken about the shelling.
You actually haven’t told us much about the shelling, what was it really like for yourself?
It was pretty horrible, I don’t think anybody knew what to do whether to go into a slit trench and duck your head or to stay up and if you saw the shell going overhead, well it didn’t
matter because it was going to burst away from you and remembering that it was at night time.
What did you do at night time?
Well occasionally there would be a film, one of the film units would turn up with a sixteen millimetre film and we would sit out in the open with a ground sheet around your shoulders because you didn’t know if it was going to rain
and that was once a week and about once a month a concert party would turn up and they would put on a day time concert never a night time concert and that was the only entertainment we had, nothing else, the American Forces radio was a source of enjoyment because you could listen to different sorts of music,
the old American plays Leave it to Beaver, one of things I will always remember as far as entertainment is concerned was the American comedian Joey Brown put on this enormous concert in the afternoon,
every one off duty headed for this natural amphitheatre thing, a couple of trucks were put together and Joey Brown turned up, he was absolutely hilariously funny, particularly he homed in on one of our guys Bluey Brunt who had brilliant red hair, it just wasn’t red hair, it shone,
Joey Brown couldn’t miss this fellow and he spotted him sitting up there and he pulled him down on the stage with him and of course used poor Blue for jokes and we thought, “Well, he was one of our blokes” you know and we didn’t find out till the next day that Joey Brown had arrived by air from Guadalcanal in the Solomons where that morning he had been to the funeral of a friend who was killed at Guadalcanal the day before,
and yet he came over and did this magnificent programme it was fantastic, he was a very, very wonderful man. It was one of the highlights; some of those big concerts were highlights of your service life. Another one that stands out was in the Northern Territory below Adelaide River, put on my Margery Lawrence, she was a wonderful
soprano and there must have been about forty thousand men and women in this area that night to hear Margery Lawrence. We had about three truckloads of our men go down there and we managed to get out of the truck park at 4 o’ clock in the morning.
I still struggle to imagine what it is like for that many people together in one space?
It was an incredible sight. Imagine the MCG [Melbourne Cricket Ground] at a grand final many times over but not tiered but spread out.
New Guinea had a number of AGH [Australian General Hospital] operating quite a few nurses in the country, but WAAAFs came over too did they not to New Guinea?
No, the WAAAFs did not get to New Guinea not to my knowledge, they may have got into some of the bases Port Moresby or Lae later in the war but I wasn’t
aware of them. The army girls came over first, there were always nurses of course and in nurses there were stacks and stacks of army girls but no WAAAFs at all.
So did you have any opportunity to maintain friendships with women while you were overseas?
Yes, you did because for instance there were army girls that were associated with our big unit over there, so you got to know them, they were signals girls,
and there were some really lovely girls, two girls were mates of my two cousins who were both signal girls and both my cousins kept up correspondence and these girls and we used to put on dances and the blokes would line and there would be about ten girls and about one hundred blokes.
Is that the sort of thing that fuel conversation for weeks afterwards?
Oh yes, you know we had, in a way I was partly responsible for organising this in our Darwin unit, we built this enormous recreation hut
and we scrounged the material, it had a stage, but open sided not walls, with a concrete floor, and I managed to scrounge hundreds of gallons of concrete paving paint
of a mate of mine in the stores, anyway I managed to get hold of this paint, and we painted this floor and we put layer after layer of this grey paving paint but it was like a slippery smooth surface and it was a wonderful dance floor and do you know that was the talking point
for weeks afterwards.
Even in New Guinea where everybody kind of knew what you were doing there, were you still restricted from talking about what you did?
Yes I will give you an instance of that, a very great old school friend of mine was in the Liberators squadron,
forty miles south of Darwin and I was off duty, I had a couple of days off and I got one of the jeeps and I drove down to see him and he was a pilot and he said “What are you doing up in Darwin?” I said, “Oh, I’m just mucking around in the control room”. He got very upset with me because I wouldn’t tell him, you didn’t do it,
and you were not suppose to do it. You were supposed to keep quiet about the fact that you were in radar.
Did people think you were being superior by not telling them?
Oh yes we were rubbished, “Who do you think you are? You radar blokes think you are big headed”, but we weren’t. We were in a strange mustering
and of course there was that financial area of the air force and the only higher pay were the aircrew.
So they probably wanted to know what you were doing?
Interviewee: David Maxwell Archive ID 0139 Tape 08
I do want to get your story about coming back to Australia. Did you have a radar language that you used within the control room?
Yes, there was I suppose you would call it a language in a way because you would read off a bearing
of the rotating aerial and you would read a bearing off a straight aerial. And then there was what you referred to aircraft as giggle hawks, so many giggle hawks, there was a typically Australian.
What was a giggle hawk? A craft was it, what about a ship, did it have a?
No, we would just call it a ship and then of course the aircraft, yes it sort of became universal, the talk like that and of course there was always the ones,
that bandits which were the Japs, a foreign aircraft and that was an official language, the bandits it was used in the broadcast from the controller to the fighter pilot that the bandits were bearing such and such a height.
Can you give me an example of how you would send a message to a pilot then?
Well I actually never did it, I would hear it
but I never actually in the controller situation.
Why was that?
Well what I did and similar people to me did was to actually give the controller the actual accurate track of those aircraft and communicate via microphone to the fighter pilots and they would simply give them,
they would reiterate that the bandits were at such and such a range and such and such a height and they would give them the angels and angels was the height. It was a laid down formula because they would teach the fighter pilots were told what to recognise, it was standard language for RAF and the RAAF.
Standard for Australians, standard throughout Britain and Australia but not an American language?
The Yanks did exactly the same because they recognised that the aircraft control was far better organised by us than the Yanks. The Yank had wonderful radar but it wasn’t as accurate as our radar. It was all mobile stuff, it was all mounted on
trucks and they could take it anywhere in five minutes and have it operating, whereas our stuff was hauled in bits and pieces with nuts and bolts and stuck together.
Did you see the Australian troops working at cross-purposes with the Americans?
Yes I think so, but I personally never came across it. You did hear about it and sometimes you would hear the stupid bloody Yanks
and our colloquialisms and that was the trouble because the Yanks have got their own colloquial the same as we have and it didn’t always match up together.
Confetti, I’d like to know a little more about that and how it worked?
Well it was very useful, mostly used by the bombers they carried confetti,
and it was just strips of aluminium foil, just strips not thick, in strips about, the length of the strip had relationship to the microwave of the pulse and they were normally about and that was when we had to use centimetres
and it would be around about I suppose between seventy cm long and about two to three cm wide and they had a tube in the aircraft and they had a bundle of these things and they just float out into the slip stream and it completely dumped the radar,
mucked it up because these things were the actual wave lengths that they were receiving on instead of aircraft echo there would be all these tiny little ones.
So you knew it was confetti when you saw it, it wasn’t anything else?
Yes but you couldn’t do a thing about it because you couldn’t read a thing, you couldn’t read a bearing there was so much of it.
Did it fall into its own pattern?
No, it just scattered and it also had the nick
name of “scatter” because it scattered right across the screens and made everything like snow, you see the same thing on television, snow.
Tell me what you can about the Secrets Act, did you understand what you were signing?
Oh yes, you knew you were signing a document prohibiting you from disclosing information,
you were not allowed to discuss what radar was or how it operated or what it worked on, you were not allowed to mention the fact that it was microwave because that was giving it away. This was another crazy thing that they did and I could never quite understand this when the technical fellows went through radar school, they were
simply the technicians that kept the thing going they were given copious notes type of valves and type of cathode-ray tubes, and voltages need to run these things and when they left radar school and every last page of these notes were checked, counted and accounted for and they were destroyed and these fellows went out into the field
to service radar stations and they had to remember it because there was no written stuff at all. It was crazy. I’ve got a very good memory, but you think of all the technical data that was involved especially with these English stations because they were big things, the whole thing would be
fit into the this room, it was so big and there were literally hundreds of sizes and shapes to do different things and another lot that was the receiving side of it and they had to remember it all. It was crazy.
Did you run into other people who had signed secrecy documents and the two of you knew that you had both signed secrecy documents?
Yes, one of my cousins she worked down here in the Victoria Barracks here in Melbourne, she was an absolutely expert on listening to Morse code and wasn’t allowed to say pussy boots about it, the funny part she couldn’t tell me and I couldn’t tell her.
You’re only human, you want to tell people?
It was a bit frustrating in a way because you would like to tell people that you were doing something worthwhile, instead of that people thought you were having a ball, it was quite strange.
How long did you have to maintain that Secrecy Act?
For twelve months after the war.
We did, we had to but a lot of information about radar was kept very much under wraps for a number of years. It was because it was being developed into what it is today used extensively for civil aviation for all the civil aircraft flying around the world, I think the reason that it was kept under wraps,
intellectual property with it you know what that is, that is a minefield. Had the English put in theirs and the Australians produced theirs some of the very smart ones they got patents on the way they did it, you had Thompsons, the French one then you had Siemens of Germany,
then you go to American and you’ve got Hellcraft I think was one and General Electric and they all had their own little and they didn’t want and it was kept under wraps and we are going to produce our own super duper model.
So if you were demobbed somewhere around late ’45 and a year later, did you and could you talk about?
No, I don’t think so, I was yes I suppose I did talk about it to some of my mates that came out of the navy or the army who knew a lot about it, because every ship had radar and they knew about it and it didn’t matter what rate you were on a ship because a ship is a terrible close knit,
you see even the operators, they weren’t alone in knowing what was going on. They have just put one back into the Castlemaine, they found one and put it back. The navy did know about it, but the army was ignorant of it.
I’d like you to tell us a little bit more about this bloke the Yanks thought was a German spy if that is possible?
It was just one of those silly things that should never have happened really. In all innocence I wanted to learn to speak German and I had an opportunity which I took that was in 1936-38 and I left school and didn’t have much to do with it but I was still getting these wonderful publications form Germany and they were magnificent
as from a point of view of magazine editing, colour, they were beautiful publications.
After it all came out, I’m curious as to why didn’t they take advantage of your knowledge?
I never sort of pushed that idea at all, I was doing what I was doing and I wanted to stay, although I could
understand spoken German, I wasn’t brilliant at it and I used to find it terribly difficult to read German, I could hear it and translate it in an audio situation, to read it was another matter and of course the Germans had for many years had been in the habit of using Gutenberg printing instead of our stuff, so you had to try and
What about when the American picked up the fellow suspected of spying in Milne Bay, you said they took him out and shot him?
They didn’t muck around. I don’t know much about it. I would have loved to have this fellow who is a friend of mine to tell you what I’m doing because he was a dispatch rider in the army in the army signals and it was he who told me this story and I have every reason to trust him,
that this American was found at the end of the strip, Jackson Field which was the main airstrip at Moresby there was these signal lights going off when the Japs were coming over to bomb Moresby, so they decided to do something about it but the first few times it was seen they didn’t manage to catch anybody and finally
they caught this fellow and he was an officer in the American Army, I forget what the rank was and they caught him and he confessed that he was a Nazi sympathiser and that he reckoned “The Japs and the Germans should win the war” and they didn’t muck around, they just took him out the back in the bush in Port Moresby and shot him
and the story sent around Moresby in the circle of people that knew about it, there was no secret about it. And another time there was an instance of a German sympathiser in the American Army, they had a big prison, a service prison in Beaudesert in Brisbane on the New South Wales border and this
fellow he was locked away there and eventually taken back to America and charged, he wasn’t charged in Australia and what happened to him I don’t know. See they had much more of a problem than we did, they had a much bigger country and also a lot of German sympathisers
in America when the war broke out, lot a sympathisers they thought that Hitler’s form of socialism was the answer to the problem. They had a problem and they had it in England too.
I’m jut wondering if there were any other opportunities where the law or ever the army law was taken?
This is only hearsay, I do believe in Java which was the Dutch East Indies, they had a similar problem there because you had these colonial Dutchmen who had no real loyalty to Holland and had enormous dealings with Germany and therefore their sympathies lay with the Germans.
They had a big problem up there I believe, I have heard this from people who were there, I think they did have it, a lot of things happened up in that part of the world which should never have happened you know, quite often there was a landing that was sabotaged because and also the natives in that part of the world,
they weren’t as loyal.
I hear a lot of people who say how good the natives were but I’m sure there were some who had their own interests at heart.
You see Timor was a typical example of that, some of the Portuguese Timorese people were loyal to the ninth degree, whereas the indigenous Timorese people
were totally the other way. When the commandos were operating in Timor they had a big problem, they had to keep away from one lot and associate with the other.
Australians not being brilliant at detecting differences between various races? Who did you respect in the service?
I think you respected high-ranking officers. It was funny the respect started at a fairly low rank and that was, there was a person known on the unit as the warrant officer was a person who was not really connected with the operations, they were a disciplinary type person
and actually he was highly respected, you didn’t tread on his corns [irritate him] because if you did you were, would be in much trouble than treading on the CO’s corns. They were very powerful people those disciplinary warrant officers. Some CO’s were wonderful people, some were autocratic that absolutely should never have been
in the forces, people who were given high rank and they should never have been there, there was a lot of that, it just went to their heads.
Well I’m guess that’s what I’m asking about, were their opportunities, well not opportunities to show that, but what did you do in the face of a CO and you didn’t respect their decision, but you had to respect him as an officer?
You couldn’t do much about it unless you were of a similar rank or a higher rank and there weren’t too many of those
and you had to put up with it and I had a couple of occasions where I had COs like that, the one I had for most of my stay in Darwin he was fantastic, he was a commander who you respected but at the same time he was one of the boys and for that reason you respected him more than ever, a wonderful man, he had a wonderful unit it was,
it just operated and everybody had their job to do and they did it without any sort of, you didn’t need any direction it automatically came from this guy, he had charisma, he was a wonderful bloke.
Did you ever put a foot wrong in the service?
Yes, that very serious I got ten days confinement
to barracks, I didn’t lose any pay that was the good thing about it. I wanted to come down to Melbourne to see somebody and I had some leave due to me, so I very conveniently changed from next of kin from Brisbane to Melbourne and got a free rail pass.
Who busted you?
I was busted because I was posted while this happened
and of course this signal was sent to these people that I was visiting and they didn’t know and I was busted and I got ten days confined to barracks, I didn’t get any pay docked and I was posted and that was the end of that story.
When you say you were signalled, I guess it was reasonably secret to where you were being posted, would they receive something that they couldn’t understand?
They received a communication of some sort from the,
to advise me that I was posted to return to my unit because I was posted and they didn’t realise that I was using their address to come down to Melbourne and I was just visiting them you see.
Who was the lady’s name that you were visiting?
I can’t tell you that, it was Annette and she belonged to a very well known family in
Melbourne, so we won’t put that up. She was a lovely girl, she was a nurse. I, actually she came as a guest to my wedding when I was married, because I came to Melbourne eventually and you see I married a Melbourne girl, so she and her husband were invited to our wedding. Lovely person but that was some of things that you did.
Mind you that went on a lot, if you didn’t get busted you could change your next of kin address if you wanted to travel somewhere and you got a free rail pass.
It was one of those seemingly innocent things that I guess could end quite badly but it could have been a lot worse.
Oh I could have been severely disciplined, lost my rank, but there again I had a wonderful CO this fellow and he laughed and said “Oh you got busted, didn’t you?”
He thought it was a bit of a joke but he had to do the right thing. It is actually on that record that I have got and it says “Punishments”.
Now post to New Guinea, you went back to do a course, so did they send you or did you request?
No, from the time I got involved in radar
I didn’t request any other postings but they picked me out for other things to do and I was posted to the first ever filter’s course in Australia then I went back, from then I went on to fighter control units and never moved away, either in New South Wales, Queensland or Darwin.
I did two other courses, advanced course because they were the quality of the radar stations around the place and it was getting much faster, much quicker and where in the early days you would get plots that were a one a minute and by the time I came out you were getting plots that were four a minute. You had to work very quickly
to be able to analyse the thing.
I want to know a little about the course that you did after your experiences in Milne Bay, was it more of the same?
No, not really the majority of that in the first course that I went to, we had all been in operational areas, there was one lady, one WAAAF, she was a trainee officer,
very nice lady actually and she was the only female on this course, all the rest of us were either guys that had been in New Guinea or Darwin during the period when we had the bombs blasting off, so that we had all come from operational areas. We didn’t have to be told hold to work it, what was given and how to analyse it in a better way
than before and more accurate descriptions for the fighter boys.
Ok, what happened just after that, were you promoted soon after that?
Yes, I was promoted immediately after that but you see this is a funny thing about the air force, they would promote you
and then you were acting for a period, the air force had a strange way of running things, they were frightened that you might have too many something you know. As far as your authority was, it didn’t change but they never gave you the permanency.
Mind you it was a good service I suppose, it was, eventually it became one of the better services, the navy was the best out of the lot, on ships they were well off, they were well fed, mind you they might have lived a pretty hard life, the army was the worst off, they got a pretty raw deal, the air force were
the ones that had all the amenities you know for instance we had our own picture theatre, open air, full size film twice a week, we used to get it on the circuit that came around and we had recreation huts for every convenience, we had our own broadcasting system, music and the national news on our own circuit.
It was what the air force had because we had the equipment to do it with.
If AIF [Australian Imperial Force – the army] and a navy and air force serviceman walked into a pub which one would the lady gravitate to, which uniform?
That seems to be the opinion everywhere.
I just want to talk about your experiences in Brisbane because you were made CO there.
When I was medically evacuated from Darwin, I came back as a medical evacuee from Darwin because I had this injury.
Oh I see, I thought that was New Guinea, so you went back to Darwin after that?
I went to Darwin after New Guinea.
I came back from New Guinea, served in various places doing these filter things in Richmond and then I was posted to embarkation depot which was the MCG, that’s another funny story, the MCG was number one embarkation depot for the RAAF and the
accommodation for everybody, whether you were a rank or an officer or an NCO was in the tiers of the old southern of the stand, it had hessian hanging over the edge to keep the wind off you, so they said and they had special stretchers made and the head of the stretcher that you were sleeping on had little, tiny short legs
and at the end of the foot of the stretcher they had extra long legs, this is here they stuck us, it was horrible, so of course I had been the air force for quite a while and I woke up to the fact that it was neat trick, I was a sergeant, I attended all the things that I had to do then I would get a leave pass,
a night leave pass and I would head into the city and I would book into Air Force House, what is the old National Mutual building in Collins Street and I’d have a nice bed for the night, get up in the morning have a shower in Air Force House and get a tram back out to the MCG in time to go on parade, I never slept there. And there were a whole heap of us doing the same thing, I wasn’t on my own.
So I take it you didn’t shed too many tears when they decided to knock down the old stand at the MCG?
No, I didn’t. I had a lot to do with the Olympics, by this time when I was working
with Ramset which was to work special types of fasteners for special jobs and one of them to produce fasteners for the seats for the Olympic Games at the MCG, they had an awful lot to do with the MCG, I was in there on a daily basis for almost a year. It was quite interesting and it is very changed; now you wouldn’t know it.
There were four of us going out to a very close radar station, the closest to Darwin, a place called Lee Point driving out in a jeep and I might add at that time you had what they called emergency drivers, they had official drivers in the air force,
it was like passing a driving test and you got this emergency driver’s ticket. Our driver had just got his emergency driving ticket, this jeep was pretty worn out and wasn’t new and he went to overtake a truck on the road and he overcorrected, the jeep did a nosedive into the road and we were all tossed out. I probably got off the lightest and I came out on my head,
I had concussion and I wasn’t very happy and I was put into the medical unit at Darwin and the CO was a Squadron Leader Hudson, a very good man I got to know him after the war here in Melbourne, but that is another story. They did all sorts of tests with me and they
found what I had was spinal pressure that they couldn’t correct in Darwin, so I was medically evacuated to the nearest hospital which was Brisbane, which suited me, so I away I go and I’m mobile, I’m not confined to a bed or anything but subject to a lot of headaches. I arrived at Brisbane to Greenslopes Military Hospital in the air force section there
and I had to report to the orderly room and who should be the WAAAF officer in charge but an old girlfriend of mine, so I said, we got chatting away and eventually I got allocated a bed and was examined by several doctors who couldn’t quite make out what was wrong with me, they took x-rays and did all sorts of wonderful things. The air force had a
clause in the enlistment that if you were subject or the necessity arose for you to have serious surgery you could elect to have it done by your own medical officer not by the air force, so I was living in Brisbane and I had my own friends, so I said to this WAAAF officer “I don’t want this character to play around with my head, I want our old family GP.” [General Physician – doctor]
so it was arranged and what transpired was that all my life my skull is not flat across the top, it has a depression in it, but that is just me and these x-rays and they thought I was caving in on myself. They weren’t allowed to touch me and then I went to my girlfriend, the adjutant
and said “I’m sick of the air force. I’ve been in it too damn long and it looks like it will fold. Can you get me out of?” The next thing I knew I was posted to this stores depot as what is called a supernumerary NCO, in other words I was not really attached. I was parked there for the time being pending discharge, then of course they discovered I was only acting
and they reduced my rank which upset me considerably, but never mind, they had no sooner done that than my discharge came through and that was the end of that. But that is how I came to be discharged from the air force, it was all a simple accident. I was a lucky one. One of my pals, he had been in the jeep with me, strangely enough he and I had been together a lot, he was with me in Milne Bay,
with me on one of the course that I did and blow me down he came to Darwin when I was there. And poor Harry, the jeep landed on his shoulder and he suffered considerably for years on that. Quite a cricketer before he went into the air force and he was never able to play cricket again because it mucked up his shoulder. Like I say I was one of the lucky ones.
One had a broken arm and one had abrasions all over him because there is no protection in a jeep when a jeep rolls over, you are all out. There is nothing to save you.
Interviewee: David Maxwell Archive ID 0139 Tape 09
There was apparently a sign put up in Milne Bay after the battle and it says, “This marks the most western point of the advance of the Japanese advance 1942 and this marks the spot where eighty four Jap marines lie buried here”.
There were still bodies unburied, bodies lying there and
when I got there they had cleaned a lot of it up, that post is now a part of the war memorial at Milne Bay, it is actually a piece of coconut palm with a notice on it that so many Japanese bodies, I think it was over two hundred I think, there were one or two Australians
bodies were somewhere just temporarily buried, oh I suppose five hundred yards east from that is where the first of the Japanese tanks were stuck in the mud, they hadn’t got them out at that stage, not very nice, because bodies in the tropics get pretty rotten pretty quickly, it wasn’t nice.
So you saw it once and you didn’t go back for a second view, you sort of they have done that.
I imagine that insects and animals are on to them pretty quickly are they?
Yes, you just kept out of the road. Later on when it was over we used to go down there and have a look at it, take a jeep and go for a drive down there where the Americans came in with their motor torpedo boats.
That was right down on East Cape itself, that was Kennedy’s crowd he was there, President Kennedy.
Did you ever bump into him?
No, he was nobody as far as we were concerned, he was just another Yank, we didn’t know till years later that was who they were. They didn’t stay there for long; their idea was to harass the Japs,
the air force got to them first and the Bismarck battle happened further north and the Yanks didn’t get a chance to use their boats.
We were talking just post your discharge and how you managed to get out before the onslaught from the fellows evacuating at the end of the war. You said you were put into stores
at a nominal position and didn’t have anything to do?
I used to have to turn up for parade in the morning and do nothing else, well I was living at home with my mother and I used to just amble off and next morning I would turn up for parade and do the same thing again and it got, the funny part about it was
as far as the unit was concerned when I arrived there I was still a sergeant, I was on the sergeants’ list you see they had the audacity to make me an orderly sergeant one day and I was upset about that. I had to stay on the unit for twenty-four hours.
You said they messed with your rank, did that mess with your pay?
So you got demoted in terms of your pay packet as well?
You got more pay,
there was quite a considerable rise particularly when you were in the higher mustering and when you got rank your pay leapt up quite considerably.
In a drinking situation was there some sort of operating in terms of rounds, if you were able to mix with officers and sergeants, was the person being paid more supposed to buy more rounds?
I don’t think that entered into it, sometime there would be a bit of friendly banter going on, you know “You are a lower rank, you don’t get as much as I do”, a bit of rubbishing thing, and if you were in that higher rank and some of the guys would have no money,
“Well, he’s all right, he has more money, he can shout today”, but that was all.
How did you know that things were finishing up, I would have thought that a lot of people didn’t know.
Oh, it was a well known fact.
If you knew someone in records wonderful things happened, it was quite a well know fact, people that didn’t want to be posted into an operation area and they happened to have someone in records they could have that posting wiped out and it did happen. Connections were terribly important.
Connections there was a terribly lot of snobbery in the air force you know and the air force perpetrated it because you couldn’t get into certain musterings if you didn’t have a secondary education of a certain level and that was spread around the place, so if you were a radar operator it was automatically known
that you had been to a secondary school and had reached a certain education level, so therefore above the guy who had only gone through primary school and in those days you could leave school at fourteen and their educational qualifications were minimal and yes it was a sort of snobbish sort of thing.
Now this might sound like a cynical question,
I’m sure you needed a certain level of intelligence in the air force to do a number of things but virtually did they set that up to keep a number of people out of the air force?
Definitely, I knew a chap in Brisbane and he was a very intelligent fellow and he badly wanted to join the air force
and he would have been a very good air crew person, a pilot or whatever, four attempts to get into the air force but because his qualifications were minimal and the test that they gave you and you were graded cause the aptitude test said “A1” for air crew, they had passed the highest score
in that particular test and they were terribly important as far as the air force was concerned and that stayed with you right through your career but if you didn’t meet that requirement they didn’t want to know you. The army would have him, the army didn’t worry about educational qualifications. It was terrible and the navy was as bad as the air force, exactly the same as in the navy where you asked that question before,
if three services met in a pub they would naturally gravitate to the navy.
So it wasn’t the uniform?
No, it was a sort of thing a fellow person, it was something I don’t know, there was no two ways about it, the rivalry that existed between the army and the air force because the army recognised
that a lot of us were snobs, you know the “Blue Orchids” that was the name given to the air force.
Were there any other derogatory terms used beside the Blue Orchids, I have heard the “Flying Arseholes”, did you have any in return for the AIF?
Not particularly the
AIF, the 6th, 7th, and the 9th Divy they were given respect by everybody but there was what we called the choccos and this was a very bad thing, I could never quite equate that because a lot of those men were conscripts they had been, some of them had been doing a job that was pretty important
but when the “Conscripts Act” came through and that didn’t apply and they were just tossed into a unit, tossed basically into the army, the air force got a few, the air force had five categories of qualification, there was aircrew, the one I belonged to which was number 2, number 3 were people like
qualified clerks that ran stores depots, number 4 were the cooks, stewards in the mess and that sort of thing and number 5 were general hands which were unit guards, mounted the guard at night, operated the rubbish carts just
the bottom layer of the ladder you know, it was a terribly, whereas in the army they had technicians and officers and the technicians were few and far between, possibly people that had shops or armourers looking after the artillery and they had a ranking
of their own, the majority of fellows in the army were all on the same level irrespective of what they were, but the air force and the navy was worse than the air force
Sounds like you didn’t experience any, well it sounds like your service in the air force was not the greatest experience in your life and it might have been for some people who might never have gone overseas?
No, it’s a thing you felt you had to do because your country was at war and you had to win this war and hopefully you got it over and done and you could go back to civilian life again.
So did you have any sense of achievement at the end of it?
Well yes, I suppose I did, I had a sense of achievement, I did contribute
to the ultimate victory, yes I think I did, I’m sure of it. I got terribly interested in producing for my old school a memorial for the serviceman who were killed and for all of us that came out and it was one of the highest enlistments of any school in Australia and there were a lot of deaths believe you me,
there is a big honour book, is a very big volume and I became the chairman for the appeal to build the war memorial for the school and that to me an achievement which I needed because it was for my friends that didn’t come back.
You mentioned that yesterday and a little bit today unlike the AIF, where you would probably move with your mates,
you didn’t really get that opportunity in the AIF, what was your sense of brotherhood or camaraderie?
You had a camaraderie to the extent that when you were on leave you would go into town and you would meet up with some of your mates that were on leave at the same time, we used to head for the pub and buy a beer and talk about the things that happened to you and happened to your mates,
exchange information but that was about all, that was the end of it but my desire when I accepted the nomination to run this war memorial was to make sure all my friends, particularly my school friends who had been killed were recognised, that really motivated me,
it was terribly important to me.
Did you feel that it was hard to bury the ghosts until you did that?
Oh yes. I mean I have, there were three blokes in particular that were killed, we went through school from the time we were in preparatory school, we had been mates, and we all went into the air force at various times and one in particular John McTaggart he joined about a year after me
because he was a year younger than me and he went and did his training in Australia, he was posted to a fighter squadron, he was a fighter pilot in Moresby and he went up on his first scramble and he was killed and it was devastating to me and he was a wonderful bloke and his family were friends of my family,
there was a big family thing there and his father was a fairly wealthy man and he anonymously donated to the school, a magnificent pipe organ which is in the school chapel and is now recognised that it was given by John’s father, there were only a few of that knew because I went to the dedication to it and there were several
the same thing, they didn’t have a life, they didn’t have a service life, they were snuffed out so quickly. So I was then because of my job I was transferred, I was no longer in Brisbane, had to relinquish this chairmanship and finally the war memorial was built and then about six years ago they decided
to update the memorial, it consists of a change room and a first aid room at the school oval and they decided to upgrade it and make it a bigger and better thing and I was invited to go back to school and rededicated it. Quite honestly that was quite something
because my name is on the wall and I feel that I have given to my mates something you know and that’s a big thing for me. As I said yesterday, one of the big things for me, I go to Anzac Day, it is a tradition for the school, Anzac Day is a very big thing and the new headmaster who was appointed
six years ago and the first thing he did, Anzac Day always coincides, always close to the holidays of the second semester, what used to happen and it still does, now he didn’t call the school back in time for Anzac Day, he has got the message now, oh we old boys heard about it
and he was well and truly told “Never to do it again”.
Did you feel that some sort of guilt that you survived and they didn’t?
Yes I think you do. It was a subconscious thing, I’m sure you do. You would be a pretty strange person if you didn’t do that.
You know it’s hard to describe really, you had a sense of relief, yes I have survived thank God for that but at the same time well how unlucky these fellows were, it could have been me. That shows you look at it I suppose I still get a bit of
a bump in my throat when I go back to that school and I see the war memorial and memorial book which is locked up in the chapel and it does affect you, you would have to be very heartless. Fifty years down from the war they had this very big service, Anzac Day service and every ex-serviceman was invited to it,
I think I told you that the only time I got my medals we had to wear our medals, there was an enormous roll up, quite a lot couldn’t make it but there was a tremendous roll up because we were all of the same vintage, so we all knew each other, we hadn’t seen each other, yet it was quite remarkable that we still recognised one another.
We hadn’t changed a lot really, we were still the same, a few more wrinkles and your hair might have changed colour, you still knew one another and we all got a special presentation of a special book that was written and we have a book plate in it and we were presented with it. It is one
of my favourite possessions.
Now what about coming and meeting up with your mother again.
Oh that was difficult, she was a very wonderful lady, I am not going to knock mother but she was also a very difficult lady, she was a very possessive person,
didn’t think that I should have some sort of independence, I’d had independence and she thought a harem, a whole range of girlfriends, all great friends of mine, sisters of mates of mine and I was having an absolute ball,
she didn’t appreciate this and I was keeping the most horrendous hours, I was out every night of the week, this sort of thing being a bit of a pain in the neck. We had rather memorable rows about it, she just couldn’t understand so in the end I was very grateful that I got a posting from Brisbane to Melbourne and I was able to get away from mother.
She wasn’t very happy about that but that didn’t matter. What annoyed me and it really did annoy me cause what I did when I got out of the air force, I managed to salvage my father’s company and install a fellow who was a highly trustworthy person as a manager which managed to provide for mother, she was provided for and that’s all I had to do, after that I was going to do my own thing.
So when I eventually came to Melbourne and met the lady, you saw her photo in there and that was it, that was the end of the story I had found the right one.
What did she have that was so special different from the women that you knew?
I don’t know, you can’t describe that. It’s chemistry isn’t it, two likes that meet each other or dislikes that find they can be together and that’s it.
So of course and mother didn’t want to recognise the fact that her son was going to marry somebody and take second fiddle and she never really accepted Shirley as her daughter-in-law. It was sad in a way. Mother was a very clever woman, she was an extremely clever person, qualified pharmacist, she had umpteen letters after her name,
music she was an extraordinary fine violinist, she could turn her hand to anything.
Why was there only one child in the Maxwell family?
I don’t know, she did admit to me once that after I was married that she had had a miscarriage but that put the end of the story
and that was it, so I was the only child. An only child has an awful problem, you’ve got to walk a fine line particularly when your parent is a single parent, your father is dead, you’ve got a mother that is hanging on to you.
That must have been odd though to have such a close relationship with your father and unfortunately he dies before you come home,
it’s all a bit topsy turvey, isn’t it?
That was probably worse trying to get back to come to terms with that, it was harder than the fact that I had served in a war and was back in civilisation because dad had planned. There was a plan that my father had plotted, when I left school I would go into a commercial operation to learn procedures,
then I was to join him in his company and do engineering when I joined him and that was the hard part. I wasn’t sufficiently qualified to take the company and run it and in consultation with
my father’s accountant who was a public accountant, we discussed this and realised that it was far better to put a competent manager to run the company and I just stepped aside and that was very hard, because I had to walk away from the plan you know.
What a difficult position to find yourself in though?
Oh, it was very difficult and that was why I was very glad to move out of Brisbane. Brisbane is there and I’m down here with my new life.
So you had your own Brisbane line?
Exactly. Do you know what during mother’s lifetime I only went back to Brisbane once and since she died I have been back umpteen times. Mother was in her
final years was a pain in the neck and I say this without contradiction, she was teaching music at St. Luke’s Lutheran College in St. Lucia, full time but she also acquired a horrible habit, she got addicted to the brandy bottle and she was a bit of nuisance, she would get all maudlin about it and she’d be on the phone
saying what a terrible son I was and why didn’t I come to visit her? Why she couldn’t stay with Shirley and I and the children, but I knew that if she did, she did come to Melbourne on several occasions and it was like a dogfight it really was, it was shocking. Then I found out consequently that this is not a strange thing to happen. It is quite a common thing particularly with
mothers and sons and an only son.
You would have been a hard man to let go of I’m sure.
And of course mother’s addiction to the brandy bottle came about because after my father died before the war ended and she was nursing him and she had gone into a depression, which is understandable and in those days to treat depression they used to give them great quantities of phenobarbital, it was the standard procedure for treatment,
now mother was a chemist, she was a pharmacist and she used to do locums for a couple of her mates that had pharmacies which meant that she had access to as many pills.
Did she self-administer?
Yes and of course now it is a medically established fact that there is a progression from phenobarbital to alcohol, poor darling.
Did you keep the last letter that your father sent you?
No, I didn’t, I didn’t know it was the last letter. You hear about serviceman who have kept their letters and they are sort of surfacing now and they must have been pretty clever blokes because I don’t know how you would,
I used to get stacks and stacks of letter but you had nowhere to store them, where would you put them?
Did you souvenir anything that you brought back?
You know, did you manage to get Japanese swords?
Well I did, I had a Japanese ammunition bandolier with twenty or thirty rounds of rifle ammunition, I had a Japanese Marine hat badge and it was all part of the memorabilia and that was part of the things I lost in the fire,
disappeared from sight. They weren’t very important to me; they weren’t going to be put on display or anything. Everybody acquired something. Some people got some wonderful things; some came back with Samurai swords.
We even met some chaps who had trouble with customs when they came back.
Yes, that’s right.
Did you run into any ridiculous things when you got back you know, they had been saving the country and customs hit them for cigarettes?
No, I didn’t, I never had any problem at all. I came back because when I left New Guinea to get home for my father’s death. I didn’t have acquired anything, I did have those few souvenirs and I threw them in my kit bag a little bundle like that and yet guys coming back from that part of the world
came back with kit bags of cigarettes, silk stockings that they would get from the Americans. I didn’t want to. I have been a hoarder every since, he reckons I’m the worst hoarder in the world.
Where were you on VJ Day [Victory over Japan]?
In Brisbane. Brisbane went absolutely bonkers, they didn’t stop celebrating for twenty-four hours. There was no shops open and people were just out in the streets all ages, from kids to old ladies were all out in the street dancing in the street
jumping up and down, it was quite incredible, the police took off their badges and just forgot about it. It was quite remarkable.
And what did you do?
Oh, I went and had a few beers with my mates and that was about all, it was a relief to know that no longer was this war on. We were free you know.
Four days after VP day they organised this great victory march in Brisbane, they gathered every serviceman and woman and they put us into the great march and marched down the streets of Brisbane, by the time you got outside the old Post Office you were marching through paper that was about three feet thick. People were hurling toilet rolls
out of windows at you, it was unbelievable. And I made up my mind that day that “That would be the last time I would ever march”, I have never been to an Anzac Day march, never once, I have never stepped foot outside, I had had it. That was it finitio, finished.
Let me ask about meeting your wife Shirley then?
It was quite remarkable, I was working down here for an engineering company, I had to go to lectures at night to MIT and we used to go to, you might recall a whole lot of cafes in the basements in Collins Street in the 1940s
and 1950s and they all had different names, there was the Albany, there was Raffles and there was, our favourite one was underneath Raffles, where would it be now, you know where the
Block Court is, well it was one or two shops from Swanson Street from there and this was our favourite coffee lounge after lectures at night we used to head down there and there were all sorts of students there and there were a whole lot of girls from the Queen Victoria Hospital, they used to all get down there. I got down there one night with a couple of my friends and one
of them knew Shirley and she introduced me to her and apparently Shirley had been urging this friend of mine to take her dancing at Ormond Hall and he wouldn’t be in, and he said “You ask him, he’ll take you”. I said “What’s all this about? I’ll take you”. I was attracted to this lady.
Were you a dancer?
Not really, a bit of shuffling around the dance floor and in those days you didn’t just pick up a girl and take her dancing, you had to go and meet her parents you know. So it was arranged that I would go out and meet her parents before I took her out. She was a trainee nurse and she had leave and that was it, we were together from then on.
I met her in June I think, it was my birthday in August and she arranged a party for me and the day after I proposed to her and we were married the January the following year.
And never looked back?
Oh, we had our moments but we had a wonderful life, poor darling she died comparatively young,
she was only forty-five when she died poor darling, it was very sad. She died of cancer which was the scourge, not so much now they are reaching a stage where they are getting on top of it but in her day it was not possible. That’s how I met her and she was not only a nurse, she never finished nursing,
the equation got finished in a hurry, she was a very accomplished artist; she had done art before she became a nurse. I think it has washed off on my kids because they are both artistic, my daughter has a degree in fine arts, one of her degrees, I am very proud of my daughter; she has no less than four degrees including a Masters
and that’s not bad going, a pretty smart girl.