Archive number: 189
Preferred name: Norman
Date interviewed: 22 May, 2003Return to Search results
You are listening to the interview audio
Ok. Lets start with the Norman Turrell story, if you wouldn’t mind. Our walk through your life in twenty-five words or less.
Twenty-five words or less?
Not at all. Tell me where you were born?
Still feel like a Pom?
Yes. But we came out in 1920.
So I’ve been here a long time.
No memories of home then?
Not really. I was only a little tacker. My father had been in the army for fifteen years and there was no future for blokes in England after World War 1 so they migrated here. So we grew up in Northcote and then we moved down to Mentone.
And where did they send you to primary school?
I went to the Northcote state school and then the Mentone
State school. And then Mordialloc High school.
Mordy High. That had a bit of a reputation when I was growing up.
Ambitious at high school to be anything?
Not really. The average thing with kids at school, you think school’s a bit of a chore but looking back of course you realise that you should have studied more. But I did night school when I started work, to catch up.
I went to Caulfield Tech [Technical College] at night. You know, to catch up on things.
What about the depression? How did that affect you and your family?
Well it nearly killed my father in 1934. He lost his job. He was a cabinetmaker and those sorts of things were luxury items. He took a job selling insurance, it killed him and of course he eventually got sick and he died
at forty-eight years of age.
That’s very young.
I was head of family at fifteen.
What was that like?
Terrible. I had to change. I had a young brother, ten, a widowed mother, and we were really up against it because in those days you couldn’t survive on one job. I had about four jobs. I used to work as a caddy on the golf course at weekends. I used to work in the butcher’s shop.
I had a paper round. I had all sorts of little jobs to sort of bring in enough cash to sort of keep the family going.
Did you lose your youth?
Well I didn’t have a youth that the average kid has. I sort of went from a boy to a man literally and I lost a lot of time there. So by the time, you know one was twenty-one, I’d had a pretty tough time between say fifteen and twenty-one. Those years
were very quick years. I didn’t have the time for leisure that the average kid had. I was head of family and I think it set a pattern for future years.
I suspect it might have set you up mentally from the out set.
Well I think it did really. It taught me a bit of responsibility and I think that’s how I finished up in the army. The responsibility then wasn’t new to me because I had sort of had that training as a kid
without realizing that I had been trained. But it was a fact of life. You know, we had to survive and I was the breadwinner.
Did you end up in a slightly more vocational or professional line of work before you joined up?
No. Well put it this way. I started off as a rouseabout doing manual labour sort of thing and then I got a job as a clerk at the Rosella Preserving Company. And I stayed there for fifteen years.
And that gave me a commercial background.
Evidently that was interrupted by the war?
Yes. Five years or nearly six years away at the war. I went back to Rosella and it was the worst thing I ever did.
Did they pay you at all while you were in service?
No and when we came out of the army in 1946 , I went back to see the chief and he said, “We can’t get your job back for another six months, Norman”. I said, “Why’s that?” Well he said, “All the boys have gone to war and all the
girls have been doing the job.” He said, “We can’t sack the girls. Can you stay in the army for another six months? So that’s how I…
I’ll ask you about that a little bit later. Because…
But you can see the background. Early on I was educated into the fact that I was head of family and I had to look after the family. And with a young brother. You know, he had no family. I was his father literally.
So where were you when
war broke out?
I was in Mentone.
Working at which one of your jobs?
I was working at Rosella.
At Rosella. And was that a difficult decision then, to have to leave your family and go off to fight?
No. Not really. I had a good hard look at things and I decided that I would make just as much money in the army, if not a little more than I would working. You see at that stage of race three or four quid a week was about the
basic wage. So going into the army. I thought that I’ve got a wage that I can allot to my mother. She doesn’t have to keep me, the army keeps me.
A bit of an opportunity cost.
Exactly. And I suppose in a way that’s what made me like the army. The average bloke, really when he went into the army, thought it was the worst day of his life. But I could see that there was a future in the army if you put your head down and that’s why I chased
Interesting. It seems that at quit e an early age you had a perspective that I’ve noticed, if I can put this delicately, that quite a lot of men of your peerage just didn’t have. You seemed observant.
Perhaps I was forced into it. Perhaps a lot of them didn’t have to do that. They had families to look after. They had brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles. We didn’t have any of that. We were an isolated family.
And when you look at it in retrospect. I really had a challenge because I loved my Mum and I had a young brother. Of course in 1941 he joined the army against his mother’s wishes.
He didn’t need to go.
He didn’t need to go. He went to Singapore and he spent three and a half years in Changi. So you see, I then, was certainly head of family. I had a widowed mother not knowing if her son was ever going to come home. She had two sons away at the war.
We had to get rid of the family home and she went and boarded. I mean life really was pretty bare. And again that brought out something in me. I thought, well I’d better knuckle down here.
So which unit did you join?
I joined the 46th Battalion, Brighton Rifles. And that was my first unit. And I used to go down to the drill hall every Thursday night.
And drilled in the streets.
That’s the Militia?
Yes it was the Militia. Then in 1942 when they decided that they would split up all the old militia battalions and reinforce the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] battalions, I was sent to the 26th Battalion, which was a Queensland unit. And I was the first Victorian in the Queensland unit.
And had they relaxed their attitude towards the militia at that stage or was there still a stigma?
No there was still a stigma.
We will talk about that a bit later because the Militia were exemplary
in Bougainville and Kokoda.
Can you recall where you were exactly when the war broke out and Menzies made his speech?
Yes. I was sitting in the lounge room listening to the radio and my mother said to me, “I hope you don’t have to go to war son.”
I bet she felt sick at the thought of it.
Because the war killed her husband and I could see what she was thinking. But you couldn’t go down that path.
You had to go along with the flow and OK I was in the army and my brother, of course, he could see that there was no home life. So the big decision was made. I’m in the army. He went into the army. We got rid of the family home and she went to live with another lady that her husband was away. So everyone went their own way. So that’s how I sort of got
into the army, you might say.
Where did you do your training and how long was it?
We had a series of camps. The first camp I went to was at Trailwell, which was near Tallarook. I had two camps up there. Then Seymour. Then I went to Bonegilla. And by the time I got to Bonegilla I had three stripes on my arm. I was a sergeant instructor at Bonegilla and we used to train the national trainees as they came in for three months training.
We would train them. They could come in as civvies and go out as soldiers. And that’s when I got cheesed off. I thought, “I can’t do this for the rest of my life” and that’s how I got sent away to an officer’s course.
Had you…You’d seen active service before you did your officer’s course had you?
No. Not active service. Not overseas. Australian active service, yes. But…
Is this before or after you did your signallers work in the Torres Straits?
The thing is that it’s a
rather odd story. But the best way I can describe it is once I was commissioned and went to the 26th Battalion I was given the job as sig. officer [signals officer] by the battalion. Which is a very important post because you’re the right hand man to the commanding officer. You’re responsible for the communication of the unit and that’s a pretty exacting sort of job. But just prior to that we were based on Horn Island.
And at that time I wasn’t the sig. officer I was the ack ack [anti-aircraft] officer and ack ack as you know is the light machine gun against aircraft. Our job at Horn Island, we were infantry support to the air force. And the air force was very substantial there because it was the biggest airfield closer to Australia that the Japanese wanted and Australia had to retain. It was a gateway to Australia because they could fly form Rabaul to Horn Island without any trouble, the Japanese.
So we were there for about six months and you might say we were garrison. But the troops, of course, became browned off but the officers couldn’t be that way. They had to sort of fly the flag, you know. Keep the training going and whatever. And then suddenly at the end of 1942 it was decided they would take the unit back to Australia. In 1943 we then really started to train for jungle warfare. We
went to various jungle camps and learned all that business.
Did they send you to Canungra?
No I missed Canungra thank god. There was another place called Kuranda which is up in Queensland. It was about the same. It was the equivalent.
Beautiful Barron Falls, yes. So we did our jungle training there. Then of course at the end of 1943, early ‘44 we refitted in Townsville and went to war. That’s how I got to Bougainville.
I’m not suggesting for a second that Bougainville was when you were hard up against it but it does seem a long time in various Australian camps out of what I would call front line service I suppose.
Yes. But unfortunately you see I had taken on the job of an instructor and they wouldn’t let us go. And the main reason for that was I went from five bob a day to ten bob a day.
That was the thing. I thought, “Well I can’t do it any other way. It’s money in the bank, I need the money” so that’s how I got stuck with the job.
It’s really interesting to hear that because a lot of chaps we’ve spoken to were just so one eyed about stopping the Japs or doing their bit and so on and you had this slightly more responsible position of not just falling at the hands of destiny. You actually had to engineer it a little bit.
interesting. You got sent into Bougainville after the yanks pulled out?
Yes. We relieved the Americans. We were the first Australian troops to relieve the Americans in Torokina. I don’t know what your background on Bougainville is but it is termed the forgotten war. Nobody knew about it and nobody wanted to know about it. And of course when we got there we wondered what the hell we’d struck. This American base,
ice cream factory, “Would you like some ice cream, you guys?” And here we are, oh God. So that’s how we met the Yanks. The moment we got there they left.
And I believe that they completely underestimated the number of Japanese.
Yes, interesting. When we got to Torokina, being the sig. officer, I was privy to a lot of inside information.
I sat in a conference and I was told that the American estimate was fourteen thousand Japanese troops. So the Australian command they revised that figure to eighteen thousand. In October after the war the Japanese documents showed that there were forty thousand there. And they weren’t funny little men with glasses and riding bicycles. They were big fit marines. Bigger than I am.
The six-foot Japanese.
And they were pretty tough guys. And when you think that they were so far from Japan and they still were able to fight to the end. We had a lot of respect for them and I guess it was a bit of a shock to us because we had been told, “Oh these guys, they’re only funny little men”. It was a different story.
I look forward to talking to you more about that too because the average digger believed it lock stock and
barrel. Many died as a consequence of believing that. Were you in Bougainville when VP day [Victory in the Pacific] came around?
Yes. We were at a place called Buka, which is the north part of Bougainville Island. We had a, what you call a battalion front. In other words the whole battalion was in line with another battalion on our left. 31/51st Battalion, and we were the blockage for the Japs trying to get to the
south to escape and we had to block them off. And I was there when the plane flew over with the writing on the wings. “The war is over fellows.” It was in August 1945.
Sorry you said you were there when the plane flew over. Was there writing on the wings?
Yes. Writing on the wings saying that the war was over.
What an image. Again I will talk to you in greater detail about that.
How soon after that day were you able to head back to Australia?
Right, the war’s over. I’d had enough of the army and the adjutant came to me one day and he said, “Norm, do you want to go home?”
I said, “You’re joking Kim.” He said, “You’ve got more points than anyone else in the unit. Because of your circumstances. Now you can go tomorrow.” I said, “Thank you very much sir”. He said, “But there’s only one catch. You’ve got to find your own way home”.
“That is no problem.” I was very friendly with the Americans. I went straight down to the air force, “Want to get to Moresby”.“Right buddy you be here tomorrow morning, we’ll take you to…”. Away I go in a bomber to Moresby. Get to Moresby, same thing. I go to see the Yanks. Got myself to Brisbane. Brisbane I went to the air force, got onto a flying boat and landed at Rose Bay, Sydney Harbour.
And then train to Melbourne. In the course of a week I got home under my own steam.
Well. A very independent soldier.
Well I wanted to get home. I’d had six years of it and my brother was still listed missing and I thought “I’ve got to get home to Mum”.
How long after you got back did you…I’m sorry I’m just assuming that your brother came home.
Yes. It was about three months before we got word that he was alive and he would be landing in Melbourne on such
and such a date. And it was a very proud moment when I took my Mum down to Port Melbourne.
What kind of shape was he in?
He wasn’t too bad.
Had he been…I believe they took a lot of the Changi prisoners to Darwin.
Well Bill was four years younger than me and I think his youth saved him.
He was fit I imagine.
Well he was fit enough in that he didn’t succumb to the illnesses a lot of the older men did.
His youth saved him but then when he got home he went a hundred miles an hour at everything he did. He lived life right to the full but he died five years ago. And I’ve no doubt that his army life killed him or hastened it along.
Well, rich and fertile soil. Lets begin at the beginning again.
Your Mum and Dad. First of all tell me their names.
Albert Turrell and Florence Turrell.
And what part of England did they hail from?
They were in a place called Chester. Which of course is up in Wales.
Is it in Wales or is it north of Wales?
Well it is up in the Wales area.
Ok. Johnnie’s a Pom, half Pom.
My father is in the royal horse artillery for fifteen years. He was a shoeing
smith. And they met. My mother was housekeeper to a doctor. And he became the chauffer to the doctor and the doctor lived in this lovely old house in Islington in North London and that’s where I was born. And I’ve been back to the house, done all that, seen all that. Been to the church where I was christened.
I’ve been to the family cemetery where my father’s and mother’s parents are buried.
Did the doctor deliver you?
He must have.
Did your dad talk at all about the war?
Not a thing.
Did you ever ask him?
I tried to but he didn’t want to be in it.
When you asked him as a kid with all that sort of beguiled innocence and so on was he short with you or did he gently tell you he just didn’t want to talk about it?
He didn’t want to talk about it because it had actually affected him in that he
saw so much carnage in France and their war was even worse than ours. I mean blood and guts and horses killed underneath him and he had to shoot them and put them out of their misery. It was a terrible war. His job was to ride the horses pulling the guns into action. And then go back and the guns would fire and he’d bring up the limbers, load up, take the guns, out of action and horses were just shot underneath him, whatever, whatever. But he
had such a love of horses.
What I’m going to say might sound perverse but I can imagine seeing the horses shot might be in some ways harder than dealing with the men dying.
That’s right. Poor dumb animals. So his was a pretty bloody war if I can put it that way. More so than ours. Our war was a personal war but he had so much on his mind when he came out of the army that he to get out of it and after fifteen years I guess he’s had enough.
was a career soldier?
Well there was nothing else to do in England. There was more money in the army than in anything else. You see he really didn’t have a trade then.
It’s interesting cause you seem to have inherited a bit of that reluctance to duty. I don’t mean reluctance in shirking, I mean if life had been a little bit different you might both have been able to avoid that.
You don’t know, do you…You look back and say, “I wonder if that had happened”. But by the time he came to Australia he was a new man.
Like he’d got rid of his war and all that business and he had me to look after and my brother was born four years after we arrived here. And we started off and we went to Mentone, down in Charmin Road.
If I can just cut back a bit. I imagine both of you, both of your parents, were on the poor end of the spectrum back in England.
How did they manage to get out to Australia without…
Mum came out before the war to Australia as part of the Chirnside family and she was a chambermaid and she used to work at that lovely old house down in Werribee.
Oh the big old heritage listed place.
She came out as part of the Chirnside family so she had a wage coming in. When the war was coming they must have said to her, “Florence,
you better get back home”. So she went back to England and got the job as housekeeper to the doctor.
How unusual because those would have been long trips then on the boats.
This is a little bit irrelevant but I’m curious myself. That home, I don’t know much about it other than the lord of the manor there was quite eccentric. He imported almost entire interior designs from Europe to furnish his home. Do you know much about it?
No I don’t. I’ve
been in the home but when I got to the home some years later, when we went back on one of our trips, the home had been turned into three flats. The young blokes had got in there and remodelled the whole thing. It was magnificent inside, magnificent. I was standing outside looking. And he said, “Can I help you?” I said, “I’m interested in that house”. He said, “Do you want to buy it?” I said, “No. I was born in that house.” “You what? Come in.” Gin and tonics, all that business;
I spent a lovely day there and I sort of revisited that and I could see my father and mother there back during the war years. I could see it all. And this wasn’t until about 1978 or 1979 I got back there. That’s sixty years after the war.
If I’ve missed this I apologise but did your folks marry after he came back from….
No my father married. He got seven days
leave from the front and was married in London and then went back to the war again. They were married in 1916 I think or 1915.
Your poor mum. She spent a lot of time waiting at home for her man to come back.
I bet that carved certain niches in her personality.
Well women of those days accepted their lot. That was their life. They knew no other life.
Not like that now.
You see they were there. They were family and they looked after their men. So when you look at it I suppose you might say she did it the hard way. But when he died it was tragedy for her because they’d started a new life out here. We were getting on. She had both her sons back from the war and one thing and another and all that business. But then she was still a widow. And eventually we had to sell up the home and she went into the
Freemason homes up in Prahran. She died there.
Now I don’t know if you’ve totally cleared up how both your parents managed to come out here.
The fact was they must have come out as immigrants. You know the cheap passage. He must have had enough money and she had enough money to buy whatever had to be bought to get out here. They came out and we were offered a home with her sister. Her sister had married well. They lived in Preston. He was a horse
trainer, John Stevens. Because we didn’t have a house we went and lived in Preston. We lived up there for six months or more while father found a job.
And you were just a little tacker [a child].
Oh yes. Just a little tacker. Had to go to Northcote State School. Whatever. But in those days things were pretty rugged. Like I had my tonsils taken out on the kitchen table.
How old were you?
My brother was born in the same house. That house is still there today in Beavers Road, Northcote.
I know Beaver’s road. Did you spend any time down at Merry Creek?
God yes. With the tins sleds. I’ll say because I’ve got the gashes up here to prove it.
Could you fish in Merry Creek then?
Can’t remember. We were only interested in going down the mudslides.
That mud’s quite
stinky there. I don’t know whether it was like that then.
Oh it was terrible but there were a lot of trees about in those days and there was the odd orchard and one thing and another. It wasn’t built in like it is now. It was a pretty good place for kids to play.
It was orchard territory was it?
Yes. There were orchards there and kids pinching fruit and all that sort of business. But we thought life was great.
Did you get tummy aches from pinching the fruit?
Oh yes. That was just part of the deal. What happened then. We finally got a home of our own. We went
to live in Beavers road, Northcote and then things developed a wee bit. We must have, how shall I say, we must have started to change our luck and we moved up to the top of Rucker’s Hill. That’s in Northcote and we lived in a unit there. We’d sort of lifted our lifestyle a wee bit. Then my father got sick and that was the depression. In 1934 we moved down to Mentone.
Lived in Charmin road and that house is still there today.
Was he a self taught cabinetmaker?
Yes. He was very clever. He could make anything, do anything. Very clever man.
Was he the kind of man who taught you and your brother as much as he could?
Yes. I’ve still got his tools out there.
So tell me a little if you can about the depression. I know it was probably as tough as things could probably get.
Well of course both the kids, that’s myself and my brother, were too young to work. So my father, having lost his job as a cabinetmaker, started to try and sell insurance to get some sort of an income. Then he got a bit of a lucky break. He was in the Freemasons and on one occasion…
I wanted to ask a little…You said your father lost his job
as a cabinetmaker and I’m wondering. That was a sort of independent skill to have, that he didn’t start his own business or…
Well he didn’t have enough capital. So as I say he joined the lodge and the master of the lodge was the managing director of Rosella.
A few winks and a few nods there.
And because of his skill with saws and the like he got a job at Rosella. He was what they called
the saw sharpener. He was responsible for all the equipment for the making of cases. In those days cases were literally made by hand. So he worked there for a number of years. I can’t remember how long but on the side, we supplemented the income by…He was very good at repairing boots and shoes. We had a sign on the front gate,
‘Boot Repairs’. He would mend the shoes and boots. And my job was to polish them, wrap them in newspaper and put the client’s name on them. And that’s how we sort of survived.
Are you still a Freemason?
Can you talk about that?
I don’t go very often now. Mainly because all of my Freemason mates are dead and I feel one out. I don’t know anyone but I don’t go very much. The chap over the road’s a past master and I go with him
occasionally to a special event.
But as a Freemason can you talk about what goes on?
Well you can’t really talk about it because it really is a thing that’s….It’s a bit like a church service in a way. It’s very religious up to a point. There’s a lot of conjecture about what goes on. It’s a secret society but on the credit side they do so much good for their fellow man.
In the same vein as say Rotary or Lions.
Yes. But it’s
not publicised. They support the Freemason homes. They put so much money and effort in. They are always there when they’re wanted. That was the side of it that appealed to me.
Why was it secret?
In the early days of freemasonry you never asked to join. You were asked if you wanted to join you didn’t say you wanted to join and then you were put through the third degree. You had to be right.
Can you talk about it?
Well at the time you had to be free of any crimes. You had to have certain ideas about the Lord and one thing and another. You had to have a clean sheet. You more or less had to be lily white. You had to be of good temperament. And having passed that test, you were welcomed into the fraternity.
What sort of religious upbringing did you need to have to be part of the Masons?
Well you had to be a churchgoer. You had to be aware at church. We had
to go to Sunday school every Sunday. Brother and I went to Mentone Sunday school every Sunday. We never missed.
So there wasn’t a particular order. Evidently the Catholics weren’t welcome.
No. No, Catholics were barred from freemasonry. Not so today. It’s open slather. Now you can apply to join. It has changed.
I’m just wondering why they stayed so secret?
Oh I think they felt that they didn’t want people coming in that they didn’t want. They were selective.
Had they been persecuted in their history?
Yes. Once upon a time if you were a Freemason you were ostracised in many ways and you were looked upon as a bit of a freak. But, having been in the Freemasons and when I saw what they were about…It wasn’t personal glory it was for the good of other mankind. Wonderful thing to be in.
And definitely no women.
No. But there are today. There are ladies’ lodges today.
Would I be right in assuming that whilst women couldn’t be part of the Freemasons they were very well looked on? Wives of Freemasons were very well looked on?
Oh, very much so. If you became an office bearer the wife was very important to go to functions with her husband. And a lot of these chaps that went to very high office had a very good wife. Like the governor’s wife, people like that, they support their man in the job that they have to do.
The current governor’s wife?
Well any governor with his wife.
Oh, Ok, sorry. I thought you were suggesting that the GG [Governor General] was a Freemason.
Any governor or any person of high office that’s on public view. If they’ve got a good woman behind him them there much more successful.
What about some of the apocryphal stories you hear about the outfits or the aprons or the initiation ceremonies?
That’s secret. That is secret. You can only talk about that
with other Masons but you have to prove that you are a Mason and that can be done by various ways and means.
And are they the hand signals?
Did your father…was he attracted to the Masons anyway or did he also think it was a matter of survival?
No. He was attracted to it because it gave him an out. It gave him a chance to go out looking smart. And I used to see him go out in his suit and I thought, “By Jove, for a fellow that did it the hard way he’s
got somewhere in life”. It gave him a big thrill.
A black suit?
A dress suit. He would go out and he looked a millionaire.
And did each of the Masons get given a specific task?
Well you had a choice. You had various committees you could go on. You might go on a committee that looked after people in hospital. Other Masons that were sick. Or you could be in the choir or you could do other things.
But they gave him a paid position as part of the Masons?
No it wasn’t a paid position. It was all gratis [free of charge].
No I’m sorry…. the sharpening of the saws.
No that was when he was working at Rosella.
So that was sort of by the by and through…
That was a job.
And I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with that sort of nepotism because it happens everywhere but I’m sure that a very important part of how the economy happened within that milieu of people?
True. And when I look back
he was able to rub shoulders with very influential people but he was just a common labourer.
So it transcended class.
Yes. It gave him a lift to be accepted into that sort of fraternity and he was equal.
That is interesting.
And I saw nothing wrong with that.
Have you drawn any parallels between his experience and and yours as a Mason and how you operated within the army? Worlds within worlds.
Of course he would never know that I joined the Masons.
He was dead you see.
For you then?
Well I could see that within the Masons there were a lot of ex-army people or ex-service people. So it was the same fraternity it was just another aside.
Did you join the Masons after your service or before?
I joined the Masons after the army service.
Ok. I have a whole lot of questioning that is now irrelevant. I’ll go back.
So you are down in Mentone now and I take it life might be a little sweeter with the beach close by.
It was a lot better. We, you know kids, we would have somewhere to go. And life was getting pretty good. This is about 1936, perhaps. My father died, I said in 1934 but we were sort of getting ahead. My brother and I
had two or three jobs. I was working, my brother was working. We caddied at the weekend.
Have you left school already by this stage?
Yes. I had left school at fifteen.
I just wanted to ask a little bit about Mentone State and Mordy High. Did they have a bit of a kind of a…what am I looking for? You know how each school’s got it’s own identity or…
Mordialloc High was looked upon as probably one of the better high schools in Melbourne.
Because it was one of the very few. There was not much between Caulfield.
There was Brighton probably.
Brighten. Mordialloc, perhaps Frankston. There were very few schools of that quality.
Then you got up into say the inner city schools, Melbourne High and so on.
That’s true. In our life there was no way one could go to university. We did not have the money for that. But like I say once I started work I could see that I
hadn’t stayed at school long enough so I went back Caulfield Tech, two nights a week to catch up.
Can you tell me what you were studying there?
Sales. Ok, at a technical school?
Yes. They had a course there for salesmanship.
You don’t come across as a salesman.
Well that’s how literally I…perhaps if I put it this way when I came back from the war I stayed at Rosella for five
years and I got sick and tired of being no one, being nothing. I finished up, I was given the job as factory manager, hiring and firing of labour. And of course by virtue of the fact that my father had worked in the factory he had so many old good friends there that I was pretty well treated by some of the foremen and whatever. So I could see that I was not going to be,
what’s the word…I was not going to be rich. I had to get more money out of life. So I’m still doing the course at Caulfield Tech. So I went into the managing director one day and I said, “Mr Stafford”, I said, “I think I’ve reached the end of my tether with this company”. He said, “What do you mean Norman”. I said, “Well I’ve been on the telephone, I’m taking orders, the travellers report sick, I ring up the shops and I take their orders over the telephone.” I said, “I’d like to
go out and represent this company as a representative”. Mr Stafford looked up at the ceiling in his office and then he looked me in the eye. He said, “Norman, you’re far too young for that responsibility”. After having had six years in the army and whatever. So I said, “I’m sorry I have to leave you sir.” So I took a fortnight’s leave, walked Melbourne and got myself a job as a country rep. That was in 1950.
I’m going to interrupt you right there while we change tapes because we are out of tape.
End of tape
Interviewee: Albert Turrell Archive ID 0189 Tape 02
We tend to jump forward and backwards a lot anyway so there’s no problem with that.
So I started work at Donaggies as a representative with the soda because I had worked the area for five years. I was well known. So my brother and I represented Donaggies’s. And it was while I was at Donaggie’s that I was the top paid salesman in Australia. It was beautiful.
A bit of a badge of honour.
I had a magnificent big car, had an expense account.
They questioned nothing. And you know Donaggies was the oldest road company in Australia and we had a terrible, how shall I say, big tradition to uphold. And it was soda. My brother and I, we were the two reps for Victoria and the Riverina. The only problem was it was pretty tough on married life. I had two sons. So the fact that the money was so good I couldn’t see anything but the money side of things.
It seems that maybe you had finally found a position that…
Well it suited me. My army training had helped me. I could stand up and say a few words in front of people. I could sell a product. I was able to sort of put on the front that you needed. You had to look smart and efficient and whatever. This is not being egotistical in any way but this was part of the deal. You had to look as though you knew what you were talking about. When you stood up
in front of raw men and said, “Now this is how you stand up and this is what you do”, it gives you the confidence to express yourself, see. And it’s easy to sell things if you know what you are talking about. So I made a lot of money there but after fifteen years I got sick of living out of a suitcase so I opened a shop in Caulfield selling floor coverings.
A bit of a change.
My second youngest son Peter, he was a floor layer so he came to work with me. My other son Roger was in the air force. He joined up
with the RAAF [Royal Australian Airforce] and had six years in the air force. So we soldiered on there and then I got sick. I hurt myself and went to the doctor and he said, “Mr Turrell” he said, “ I think you should give up that shop”. In the meantime I was the sub agent for a travel agent. Croydon Travel.
Are you a workaholic? Or were you?
Yes. So the thing was that we were at the stage of our lives where we thought, “We’re not going to kill ourselves but we are comfortable”, you see?
So I closed down the floor shop and opened the travel shop the same day. South Caulfield Travel. And then our life really started. That’s when life started for us. We travelled the world and that was in 1971 we started travelling the world and we are still travelling the world.
What a great time to be travelling too.
Exactly. So, you know, it was easy, it was beautiful. And I was very successful up there. I sold my business in 1983
when I retired.
Well that’s a happy ending to the difficult early days.
That basically is my working life.
Well I hope you don’t mind if I take you back to those difficult early days but I think it is important to ask you about your father’s death if you don’t mind because he was such an influential figure in your choices later one.
Well I could see that he was failing. I could see that his health was not good.
And I used to work till nine o’clock on Friday night in the city. I used to work till 12 o’clock on Saturday in the city. It was a full time job. When I got off the train one Friday night and I saw my cousin standing there I thought, “God”. And he’d died that day. Well when I got home my mother was shot to pieces. I knew I was head of family.
And I was fifteen or sixteen years of age.
What happens to a young boy? Well I appreciate fifteen in the thirties may not be so young as it is now but does the grief come first or does the acknowledgement of your destiny?
No. The acknowledgement of what I had to do got me through. There was no time for sitting down weeping. I had to survive. My family had to survive.
So I think in a way the fact that I was a three-job man got rid of a lot of the sadness and whatever. I just simply had to do it and I revelled in it.
It sounds like working is your raison d’etre… you know.
Well the thing was it was a case of survival. And the fact that I’d only had a high school education ,I had to improve myself.
Are you the kind of fellow that if you’d had the family
finances you probably would have been an astute scholar?
Not an intellectual pursuit?
No, not at all. I would have probably been a drifter. I probably wouldn’t have had the incentive to do what I had to do. I think it made me.
It’s interesting because you seemed to just thrive. Your limitations actually…
The thing about it is you had to get some variety into your life. Like I
started a jazz band. I ran a jazz band for about twenty years.
What instrument did you play?
Played the drums. And I was out five nights a week.
Was this when you were between say fifteen, sixteen, seventeen?
When I was about eighteen or nineteen I started a jazz band and I made a lot of money out of music. And I kept playing until about 1950. I had a band going.
And what was the name of the band?
So not traditional Jazz by the sound of it.
Oh very much. Real Jazz we played.
What were your influences?
I had records laid on. I had every conceivable book on music and I used to go in and have lessons. At the time the big band in Melbourne was J Widdon and his Sweet Swing at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda and I used to go down there on Saturday nights and watch and listen.
And then I got friendly with George Watson the drummer. And one night he let me behind the drums after it was all over and I was gone. This is my life and I sat there behind the drums and then from there on in I thought I’ve got to get my own band going. So out of that I made a lot of money out of music. I was able to buy a motorcar and our lifestyle changed.
I’d say you were one of the few musicians who could say that at the moment.
But having got the car
I always got the job and I always had first choice of whether we wanted to play there or not. See, they’d ring me up because I was the only guy with a car.
Very important position to have in a band.
So I was always first cab off the rank, you might say.
What about girls? Did it bring the girls?
No. It didn’t bring the girls. At Rosella I met my future wife when I was about eighteen.
Are we talking Rosella in Richmond?
Yes. She was a
A what, sorry?
A comptometrist. A machine that you operated with your fingers.
Counting, and she came from Peacock Brothers, the famous…they used to hire girls out and send them round to the various companies when they sort of had to get extra work done.
Temp. Yes. So Freda came to Richmond one day and I looked at Freda and she
looked at me and I thought, “You’re not a bad sort”, you know.
How old were you then?
I was about eighteen.
So we are talking thirty-seven, thirty-eight.
No war yet. Things were peaceful. So we were going out steady and I also used to ride the bike. I was a road racer. I was the captain of the Sandringham Cycling Club.
You’re not a man that seems to be part of the flock. You tend to be at the front.
Yep. And that was another thing that I used to keep myself fit. I was a caddy at Kingston Heath Golf Course.
I used to be a barmaid at Kingston Heath Golf Course.
Did you really?
I seemed to work the golf courses round there.
Well I started there and that taught me about life. I hobnobbed with people there of considerable status. All income. All money in the bank.
I know I might sound a bit obsessed with the Freemasons, but I’m curious. If your Dad had been a Mason. I know he’s not around any more but he had been one. For example Kingston Heath would have has a number of Masons there.
There were Masons everywhere but you didn’t know until you joined them. They wouldn’t walk up to you and say, “I’m a Mason”.
Ok. So it’s sort of irrelevant at that point anyway.
Once you knew them and wanted a favour. If you were a fellow Mason it was easy.
They looked after their own.
So the thing was that the war came.
You sort of had it all at this point too, didn’t you?
I had so many decisions to make. I had a girl friend. I had a widowed mother. So we sort of shook hands. I said to Freda, “Well we won’t get married. If I come back from the war we’ll get married”.
What do you mean you shook hands?
We shook hands.
That’s a bit stiff, isn’t it?
Perhaps that’s a term but
we more or less, “See ya after the war mate”.
Right. So away I go to the war and when I come back from the war she is engaged to a Yank. So we fixed that up. Got rid of him.
Were there fisticuffs?
Whom did you have a word to? Freda or the Yank?
Her mother. I said Edith,
You went over her head.
I said, “Edith, he’s got to go.” She said, “I hope he does. We want you.”
Because I’d know Freda for what, since I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty…this is five years, six years, seven years. I am twenty-six. I came back out of the army and I got married while I was still in the army. We’ve been married fifty-seven years.
It was interesting because you said earlier that the army offered better cash than your job but that was a pretty good job you had.
I had a lot of jobs.
Yes and it’s hard to believe that all of the things you were doing
didn’t add up to more money than the army.
But it was giving me satisfaction that I could do something that was a challenge. I would say, “I think can do that”, and I would learn how to do it.
But the other things you were doing were fairly challenging.
I know. But see I felt that I had a lot of catching up to do. I had lost all those years when we were poor. I had lost all those years and I used to see people driving round in nice clothes and motorcars. I thought I’ve got to get some of that. And I got it.
It kind of seemed to really burn in you.
Yes. And that was me. I couldn’t help myself I revelled in it. But it had its pluses because I got results. You know, and when I look back probably the war was the biggest turning point in my life in that it showed me what you could do if you really put your mind to it.
So had you been aware of the prevailing fears operating in Europe prior to that? Had you been paying much attention to world politics?
Yes. Yes. I couldn’t see myself going overseas in 1940. I just couldn’t leave my mother.
How had she been coping
after your father’s death? Did she get back on the bike quickly?
In a way. Like she did what a lot of widowed mothers did, they took in boarders. She took in the washing. She used to wash all the football jumpers for Mentone Football Club.
Her back yard just filled with coloured jumpers.
I used to go down on Saturday afternoon and I would work the scoreboard. At break I would go out and put the oranges down, clean the stops and all that business. We were a very active family. There was never sitting around.
No one ever sat around. And we thrived on it. It was all part of the family deal. We all supported one another. And I think in a way I perhaps made my mother’s life a lot more fulfilling. I could have easily walked away in a way but I couldn’t do it. So I really felt that in a way I was fenced in.
But it didn’t hurt me. I thrived on it.
What about your brother?
Well my brother was only…when I was sixteen he was twelve and at twelve he was a bit of a terror but eventually he joined the army. He joined the army in 1941 because he was crook on me. I had a corporal stripe up and he was a private.
I guess you set the benchmark for him to climb up to.
Was that your sibling relationship for most of your life? That you’d set the agenda and he’d have to try and match you?
Yes. And eventually he did and passed me.
How did that feel?
Well he was a gambler. Never was I a gambler. He would gamble on two flies going up a wall. He lived a completely different lifestyle to me.
I bet that kept him going in Changi.
Yes. He was a goer. And when he came back from the war he….
Like I say, we worked at Donaggies together and he then went into business and he opened up a floor covering shop on the corner of Glenn Huntley Road and Hawthorn Road. W. E. Turrell and Company. And I learned a lot from him. I was sick and tired of the Donaggie bit. I had had enough so I went up there for twelve months and got a taste of retail business.
That’s where the tramlines are overhead?
Yes. So a shop became vacant
two doors down and I opened up Turrell vinyl floors and eventually Turrell travel service. So when one phased out the other came in. So in a way we were equal. He was a member of Kingsford Golf Club I was a member of Keysborough Golf Club. We were both Masons. We were both ex-servicemen. We were very much together engulfed in service matters, whatever. When mother died
we sort of literally spread apart. There was no need for the bond. We sort of went our own private ways. He became very successful, made a lot of money and he would be going ten times quicker than I would be going. He was a gambler. I was not a gambler. He lived a different lifestyle to me. He was president of the Golf club. I didn’t want that. I was just one of the boys.
He was the president of the RSL [Returned and Services League] up here on the corner.
You got it out of your system and he didn’t.
Yes. But I was satisfied with my life. I’d done it the hard way and I’d achieved it without any help from anyone else.
Do you think he had help apart from you?
Yes. Bill was a follower. He would see a very influential person and then he would hob nob in that upper bracket and get into the run of things. I didn’t want to do it that way. I suppose I was a leader and he was not a leader. Bill was a follower.
But he became one.
Yes. Then became a top man. Eventually his health failed. He lived up here on Sunset Avenue, which is only two streets up.
Could you equate success with anything other than money? Do you think?
Well having grown up in hard times when money was scarce it was probably the most important thing in my life. And to a degree the money brought us the happiness that we didn’t have prior to having no money.
One thing lead to another.
So how long did Bill stay in school while you were working?
Bill left school when he was about fourteen. I was working
About the same age as you?
Well literally. He was four years younger than I. So that he followed me into the workforce. And he got a job because he used to caddy at Kingston Heath with me. And one of the people that he became very friendly with was a fellow
who was the managing director of Roger, Cellar and Mile, the big tile people in Melbourne. And invariably if you were a caddy you would be with that particular guy and you’d always caddy for him every time he played. And he got a very good job in there. He learned a little bit about hardware and one thing and another. And he then, eventually, he gave that away and went to Donaggies long before I did. I followed him to Donaggies.
Just to change subjects for a second. What year was it when you joined the Militia?
Why the militia and not the AIF [Australian Imperial Force]?
I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. I might have thought that I wasn’t good enough for the AIF, I wasn’t game enough. I might have been….
That doesn’t add up.
I know it doesn’t. Later on I proved that was not the case but in those days I thought I can’t go and leave my mother.
I’ll serve in Australia.
When you decided to join and all this business about
militia would serve in Australian territories ecetera. I’m still finding it hard to believe that nobody figured out that they’d still get sent to New Guinea or Borneo or similar. But was it because there wasn’t any threat there at the time?
There was no threat to Australia in 1940. It was in Europe.
But in 1942 it was a different story.
So when you joined the militia there was no threat to Australia?
No threat to Australia territories, no. Japan hadn’t come into the war.
So you figured it would be a bit of a bob each way. You could still serve
Yes. Not until Pearl Harbor when the Nips [Japanese] showed their hand and they started to come south. In 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea. That was a different story with every man for himself.
And evidently easy to say in hindsight but in hindsight you could see that they were gearing up, the Japanese. Yes and I’m sure it was very hard to imagine that anybody was going to try and take on Australia with the geographical position we were in.
Once it became evident
and after all they did land and set up camp in Broome. We have evidence of that and that’s in my book. They got into Sydney Harbour. I mean they were a real threat. And the fact that there were forty thousand of them in Bougainville which was only a couple of hours away by plane to the mainland, boy or by, things were really grim.
So give me a bit of an idea of what it was like joining the Brighton Militia.
It appealed to me in that the physical side of things appealed to me. You know, the get up and do things and learn things. It sort of, it gave me an incentive to be fit and one of the boys, whatever. But then I could see there was room for promotion if you got stuck in. And after the first camp in 1940 I came home as a lance corporal. And I thought,
“Oh this is a beauty”.
How long had you been in then?
That’s pretty quick isn’t it?
That’s quite quick and I am interested and I guess I know from my own experience when you want to step forward there are ways of doing it but I’d lay even money that you were quite subtle about positioning yourself for, not so much
promotion, but just letting them see that you were keen for maybe the right reasons.
Well if you showed any keenness or ability promotion was there. At the end of the second camp I was a corporal.
But I’ve met vets who would like to have been promoted but did six years without promotion.
But you had to want to do it. You had to have the desire to do it. You had to have the confidence to
I think that might be…
You see, the confidence to do it and looking at my background with the way we grew up, I suppose the confidence was there but I’d never tested it. But the army was the chance to put the confidence to a test and achieve it and the further I went the better it got. So I thought, “Righto. Not only is it a better way of life,
but there’s more money in it”.
So how do you do that though? They’re busy barking orders and you’re all forming lines and you all look the same in uniform. How do you stand out?
Well you try and be the best man in the platoon. You try to show that you are better than the bloke standing next to you. And somehow or other the powers that be see this and they think, “The bloke over there’s got a bit of an air about him. He could be a corporal”.
So you get called in, “We’re short of a corporal. It’s a responsibility. You’ll have to do some study and a bit more responsibility. Are you interested”? “Yes Sir”. See they’d ask you. And gradually that’s how it started. So by the end of 1941 I’m a sergeant.
Does that mean that you have to curb the good times with the blokes?
Yes. You had to start to ease away. Command has its
weaknesses or its problems.
It has its compromises for sure.
So then being an officer in the battalion that you were once a private was not a good thing. So the minute you got your commission they sent you to another unit to make it easier for everybody.
It didn’t bother you that you were going to be a little bit isolated?
Not a drinker?
In those days, yes. Loved it. When we were in
Bonegilla after being out in the drill pit all day long we’d go into the sergeant’s mess and there’d be about a dozen of us and you’d walk up to the bar and pick up about twelve pots. That was the shout. Four o’clock the next afternoon you could hardly wait to do it again. It never hurt you it just went straight through. That was the shout. Twelve pots. Six in that hand and six in that hand. There were
twelve sergeants and we formed a pretty nice little band of blokes. But, those days finished when commission started you didn’t do that sort of thing, old chap. You had to sort of pass the port. Oh God that was an education. Education, all part of the system. But Duntroon [Royal Military College] taught me that.
Ok, three months before you were lance corporal. That was right wasn’t it?
In those three months did you set your sights quite high already? Did you come up with a plan for yourself?
I thought, “Well I’m this far now. I’ve got to go on with it”.
And also, just to divert for a second, you say you shook hands with Freda and said, “At the end of the war we’ll get serious about this”. But if you were in the militia why didn’t you think about marrying before then? I mean you’re not all that old but you’re old enough I suppose.
Well of course the question was…my mum was still alive and I felt I couldn’t get married and leave my mum with nothing.
But why would that have been leaving her with nothing?
Well I was the father figure of the house. And my mother got on very well with Freda and Freda got on very well with Mum. So I suppose I had a decision to make.
“What do I do.?” I really couldn’t afford to get married to be quite honest. To be quite honest I couldn’t afford to get married because I had nothing to offer Freda. But after the war when I was coming out of the army I had deferred pay, I then had a chance to say, “Righto, let’s get married,” see. I could still support mum and she lived with us for a period of time, until she got sick. And perhaps that
paved the way. So we got married and one thing and another and there you go.
But I had a decision to make. I had to sort of put my own goals on hold; I had an obligation to my mum. Then I met Freda and I thought, “Ok here’s my future wife. But the war’s here now. Let’s get rid of the war. Then we take up the slack. If we all survive then we are in business”.
And I’m a far wiser guy at this stage. I’m twenty-six. I’d had five or six years in the army. What do we do now?
Well just to haul you back again when they made you a lance corporal were you at all nervous about having to go back to the men where you had been…?
No, no, no. I remember I’ve got a perverse delight in ordering them around. Like when the tent
with eight blokes and then I get the one stripe up and the next camp they’re all there again and I walk in with a stripe and I said, “I’m in charge of this tent. Clean the bloody place up mate”.
Did they hate you for that?
Yes. Of course they did. And there was much shoving and pushing and whatever.
Between you and
And blokes that I’d previously…
You had to physically…
Oh yes, that was part of the deal. But those mates, I remember we
were in Brisbane and they said, “We’re going down to the Brisbane Town Hall tonight for the big dance. Are you coming?” So I took down my pips and I went as a private and I got caught by the MPs [Military Police].
First question, why didn’t you want to go as a lance corporal?
Well I suppose it didn’t look right for the NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers] to be out grogging on with the privates.
You had to sort of…
You had to sort of take each step as it came. You had to preserve that rank because if you lost the authority the stripe didn’t mean a dam thing. You had to have the upper hand.
What happens when a provo [Provost Marshal – military police] catches you and you don’t have the proper insignia?
Well you get the big, “Mr Turrell, you are doing the wrong thing. This will have to go to the CO” [Commanding Officer]. Which it did.
But I was told that if I did that again that was the end of it.
Was that the first and last time you got reprimanded?
Yep. So back went the rank and those fellows, I knew those fellows for…Bob McKenzie and Wally Fraser, I knew them for twenty odd years after the war. They are both dead. And we used to laugh about the night that we got picked up…that I got picked up that night at the town hall.
Why did he pick you up?
Well some how or other they found
out that I was not a private. I don’t know. Someone might have dobbed [informed on] me in.
Well someone would have to dob you in. They can’t just look at a guy and think he looks like he should be a corporal.
But we had a bottle of rum hidden in the sawdust in one of the plants and we used to get into that. They were wild days.
You’re quite a paradox really. Part of you shapes upas a slightly austere, stoical sort of figure and part of you, it’s probably the jazz part of you,
Interesting. Just tell me if you could. You’ve said you first went to Terara and then to Seymour and then to Bonegilla. I know where Seymour is and Bonegilla’s in Victoria too isn’t it?
Bonegilla is in Albury.
But by this stage you are already up in Brisbane so I’ve missed…
Well, OK we were at Bonegilla and then I go to the
military college in Duntroon in April 1942.
And how long had you been enlisted at this stage?
Ok. That’s the bit I’ve kind of missed out on but Ok.
Two years, I’ve got the commission after two years. So then…
You’d gone from corporal to sergeant and that was quite quick wasn’t it?
That was about a month.
You’ve kind of got a bit of a killer instinct, if they are going to promote you that quickly.
Well I think the situation was that very few blokes wanted to take rank. They wouldn’t accept the responsibilities. There were a lot of no hopers in the army. A lot of fellows went into the army who were no hopers. I didn’t think I was a no hoper. I had had such a hectic time leading up to the army days, I knew how to make a quid and how to look after myself and one thing and another.
And deep down I thought, “Well Dad would be proud of me”. That sort of thing. There was always this driving force that he got his reward for doing what he did in the war and I thought well righto. So we’re now at 1942 and I got my commission. That’s when the axe fell on the Militia and they said these units have got to be AIF so they sent us to Brisbane. And we were all lined up on the Yongapilly Golf Course.
All the officers there. All the sergeants there and all the privates there. Thousands of men. Three battalions. That’s about three thousand men. So they numbered us off. One, two, three, four, five, six. You go there. And I was one of the six was and going there was on the train to Cairns to join the 26th battalion.
Ok. Being a lance
corporal is kind of good but it is no great shakes in the scheme of things.
In the British army it was god. If you were a lance corporal you had a lot of power. In the Australian Army it was a joke. But it was the first rung on the ladder.
But becoming a sergeant is rather impressive.
Yes. Particularly if you were an instructor. And I was an instructor in drill and small arms. I studied hard. I studied damn hard and I had the gift of being able to
relay it to other people and turn civilians into soldiers. And when you saw them come in on the first day all shuffling and whatever, whatever but when they all marched out I could think; I’ve done that. But I wanted the next step.
So you got personal satisfaction out of….
Yes. Very much so. Very much.
And what kind of a sergeant were you then? Were you quite fearsome?
I was fair dinkum. Like if someone challenged
you had to look em in the eye and challenge them back.
What’s that like? Eyeballing a man who you’ve barely met and getting him to…
It’s part of the deal. You knew that if he hit you he was in big trouble. You couldn’t strike an NCO.
You were protected by the system?
Yes. The system protected you.
That’s all very well until you’re faced with a guy who might be bigger than you, who might be inclined to bear a grudge.
Plenty of those. Plenty of those wanted to fight you and knock your head off.
There were a lot of fellows who took their rank down and went on with it but I wasn’t built that way. I didn’t want to get involved in that business. But I used to sort of think, Well righto. I’ve studied hard and I’ve got the rank. There’s a job to be done and if the officer in charge says, “Sergeant I want that man put on charge.” I had to do it”.
You said that you had a little perverse pleasure in ordering the man about. Did the power go to your head?
A bit. Yes. It had to.
how do you go to bed at night with that sort of running around inside of you?
Well you accept the rank and the responsibility. You think, “Well it’s part of the job and part of the set up”. You couldn’t afford to wear a rank and not carry out what the rank meant. If you were given a rank and you were given a job to do. Let me just give you an instance. The whole unit, we were at Bonegilla, the whole unit is going
on leave. The train was in the platform and they are about to board the train. And I happened to be what they call the colour sergeant. Every day there was a big red sash and this used to happen. You were what they called the colour sergeant. And your job, for that day, was to be
the link to the officers. You were the link between the officers and the other ranks. The whole unit is on the train ready to leave Bonegilla to come on home leave. And a fellow called…. he was coach for St Kilda. What was his name? I’ll think of it in a minute.
He arrived drunk, abusive on the platform. And the adjutant said to me, “Sergeant, arrest that man”. Killagrue…Alan Killagrue. “Arrest that man”. So of course I go up to Killagrue and I say, “You stupid so and so if you don’t smarten yourself up
that train won’t leave and they’ll kill you.
Being a little bit facetious I suppose?
They were all chiacking [teasing]. You know. You can see the situation. The train wouldn’t leave until he smartened himself up. I could see he made the big effort. I had to stare him down. The whole bloody unit’s looking at me. Gradually we got him on the train.
So Northcott said to me later, the captain, he said, “Good show Sarge”. You see. I had to prove that I could do it. And that’s not being perverse. I’m doing what I’m told to do. Arrest that man in front of the whole unit.
No no it was your word perverse that I picked up. In the movies sergeants are often portrayed as verging on the smart arse. You know. They’ll get personal.
Yep. You were the link between the men and the officer. And half the time you had to prop the officer up and at the same time you had to look after the needs of the man.
It’s my personal opinion that the sergeants won the war.
Evidently I can’t say that in the company of everybody.
You’re quite right.
But a tricky psychological position to be in.
The day I lost my platoon sergeant was a terrible sad day for me.
Where were you at this point?
And he was your junior officer at this stage.
He was my best mate. Ian Alford was my best mate and we were under fire and he copped it. I was never the same without him. He was a wonderful bloke.
I’m sorry about that.
You see there’s a lot of sadness involved in the war
and to lose men like that. Apart from the fact that we were there and had a job to do. Outside of being on parade we were very close…We were very nice friends, good friends. So you see the sergeant really was the go between. Actually the sergeant had more authority, more roughness than the officer. He was the guy that “Now listen mate. I’ll send you up to
the officer if you don’t behave yourself” and all that sort of business. You’d be walking along inspecting the troops and you found a guy with a dirty rifle. “Sergeant, Take that man’s name and report so and so, so and so”. You had to put on a show. “You haven’t shaved”, and all this sort of business. But the other side of the deal is that when we were in Bougainville, being the officer, I had to inspect the men’s
feet. Make sure they didn’t have bad feet. I had to watch them take the Atebrin tablet. All that business. It was pretty much on then. Things were really mattering a bit so the thing was that there was a time when it really had to be seen that your rank had authority from the orders higher up. Some of the things that you had to do. I thought, “I couldn’t do this”, but you had to do it. But having started from nothing
you knew the other side of the deal. And on Anzac Day, some of the stories I hear. I’m the only officer by the way and they get around, “Oh you bloody officers” and all this sort of business. And I said to one bloke one day, “You know I started as a private. I know all the lurks mate. I know what you are thinking”.
We have to stop this tape now.
End of tape
Interviewee: Albert Turrell Archive ID 0189 Tape 03
Thank you. I’m going to sort of jump around a bit because I have every confidence in John picking up detail again tomorrow. I’d like to jump to the experience you had of getting sent to Duntroon and how it came about that you had the confidence to take on your officers about the issues you had.
You mean decide to be an officer?
No you said earlier off camera that it started to
really annoy you watching these guys coming in for thirty days training and coming out as officers.
Yeah. I felt that that was not right and the boys, the troops, they didn’t think it was right. We felt that we were there for the end of the war, going nowhere, we had the ability, we had the background and we felt we’d be better officers. So I thought to myself, “Righto. I could be an officer, the way these fellows…But I’ve earned mine”.
Not these guys that have literally given it because they’re well to do people or come from university or are like public school boys.
It is a strange system that those with money and class consider that they will just automatically make better leaders.
They come in with an aura. They come in with an outlook on life. You know, here we are sort of thing. My life was a sort of a hard life. I didn’t have the glamour. I didn’t have the
background to promote myself as officer material. I had to prove to the powers that be that I did have it in here.
How did you prove it then?
By being game enough to stand out in front of thirty or forty blokes and show them how it is done. I don’t know what makes you do these sorts of things. In other words I was a salesman wasn’t I. Basically. That’s what it was I was selling the army to them. And whilst they hated your guts they went away
far better men than when they came in. And many of those guys I met later on in life and they were so pleased to have gone through the system. A lot of them, of course, died. But I knew a lot of those fellows later on in life. I met them on golf courses and whatever, “Remember those days at Bonegilla”. “You bastard”, they’d say, “You used to worry us”. That was part of it.
Now you are very softly spoken now but I’d lay bets that you could roar.
You had to roar.
Have you ever been to Duntroon?
I’ve met some chaps who came back from it.
The parade ground there is like a football ground. Imagine the MCG [Melbourne Cricket Ground] and you had to stand at one end and drill troops at the other end.
Actors go through a lot of training to come up with that capacity.
You had to do that. You had a group of men two hundred yards away and you had to give orders and they
had to hear you.
Did they teach you how to use your diaphragm so you could bellow?
Yes. There was a warrant officer class 1A. That’s the highest non-commissioned rank in the army. He was a British soldier, the Welsh Guards. I can still see him, Watson. Warrant Officer Watson and he taught us how to conduct ourselves. How to look potential officers. “They can’t hear you lad. Louder.
They can’t hear”. He was as broad as a broad and you had to yell your lungs out to make these guys do certain things. That’s how you learned to yell.
But there’s yelling and yelling. There’s yelling that maintains your voice.
You had to have a voice that carried.
And it has to carry authority because yelling can be desperate.
Exactly. The day we arrived at Duntroon, Canberra in the middle of the night on the train. The next morning we went
somewhere. They staged us somewhere overnight. The next morning this three-ton truck came and picked us up. Two trucks, there were sixty of us. Sergeants and corporals and whatever. Potential officers course. So we arrive in Duntroon and the cadets in their red and whatever are drilling. And I’d never seen anything like it. And one bloke dropped his rifle. We all burst out laughing. Well the warrant officer in charge
nearly had a fit. His face went like a beetroot and he said, “Gentlemen, That will be the last time you will laugh for the next three months. But mark my word the day you leave hear you will be better than they are.” Well we quietly snuck away and I thought, well what have we struck here. So the day came for graduation. You still didn’t know whether you had passed. Three months later. The last day. The cadets are watching
on the parade ground and they are waiting for one of us. Because they were told what had happened. So in the midst of all that Watson screamed out: “Sergeant Turrell, Dress the parade”. Me. On this parade ground I am dressing the parade having laughed at the red coats three months earlier. Imagine how I felt.
Well how did you feel?
I felt I had won Tats [Tats Lotto]. I was so good at doing it. And I dressed the parade in front of all the top brass and whatever. And the cadets are watching us and we marched off. And the warrant officer came up to me and said, “Good show Sarge”. I knew I’d passed of course. There was sixty-six and I was third in the course. That’s how keen I
was. But everywhere you went you went at the double. On Saturday afternoon we’d dress ourselves up and go into the dance on Saturday night. Have a few beers, a tube of toothpaste, before we came past the sentry so they knew we hadn’t been grogging on. That was our only release.
That doesn’t work now. A tube of toothpaste. Mints.
Well that was how we did it. Because they
used to smell our breath. But there everything was done at the double. So here I am at day one watching these guys and here I was at the end dressing the parade. How do you reckon I felt? I couldn’t get to the telegraph office quick enough to send my poor mum. “Mum you will be pleased that I am now an officer.” That’s how I got through Duntroon. I loved it.
It’s a great story. When you got there did you have a feeling that
maybe you were punching above your weight?
Yes. But deep down I’d had three months as a sergeant Instructor at Bonegilla. A lot of the boys with me had never ever issued a command in their life. And you had to really perform and you were being watched. Everything you did you were watched. Day and night. There was no privacy and when you were given a job
you had to really look as though you knew what you were doing.
And as well as the senior officers watching at you, you’ve also got your peers.
The warrant officers were actually terrible people. They were so hard. They were what you call AIC. Australian Instructional Corps. They were the people that made officers. They were the authority. They were professional soldiers.
Watson was the most senior man of all. And I’d never seen people like this. Most of the warrant officers were ex-privates, got warrant officer class like regimental sergeant major but these guys were professional soldiers and they trained officers. And they used to put the boots in because they knew very well that the next day they had to salute these guys. You know. It was terribly demeaning.
That film, An Officer
and a Gentleman. The first day. I think he it’s a warrant officer or a sergeant, forgive me for not knowing. And he is giving them merry hell. These pathetic individuals that have turned up. Non wartime of course. Have you seen that film before I go on?
I think I can remember it.
And I’m just picking up on that because It’s interesting what you say. One day they are feather duster and the next day they are going to be cock of the walk. What did your Warrant
Officer Watson have to say to you after you became an officer?
Well you didn’t actually put your rank up until you got back to your unit. But you were given a certificate to say that you had passed and he would know because he would mark you. And he obviously marked me well and the very fact that he said out of the side of his mouth, “Good show Sarge”. I knew I’d passed. And he must have thought, “This Turrell bloke, he’s tried hard”
and the fact that I finished in the top three obviously proved that I could hold my own.
Why didn’t number one or number two dress the parade at that point?
He just picked me out. I must have had some sign that I could do it properly. And you know you really had to be as good, if not better, than the professional soldiers, that is the cadets. And they were like wooden soldiers. God it was unbelievable to see this. Because in the army
you know it was a ragtime show really. But these guys were like this and the fact that we performed as well if not better and we were told that we had to do it.
How did you come from the militia to this particular point? It was a most unusual course.
Where did the other guys come from?
Some came from the Middle East. Some came from other battalions, some were Privates, some were corporals and a few were sergeants. I was a sergeant. But very few of them had had my background as an instructor.
I had the wood on them. So when my turn came to stand out the front and show people how to make a right or a left hand turn and show whatever. I had been doing it for three months. It was easy.
So these other blokes you’re on the officers’ course with, they are not coming from landed wealth.
They’ve done the hard yards as well.
Yeah, they are just blokes that showed a bit of promise and a lot of them failed.
What would happen to them?
They would go back to their units as whatever they were. They failed. They didn’t make it.
That would be a bit rough wouldn’t it?
Yeah. It was a tough course.
Because if they had failed and gone back they would have to go back to blokes who probably thought they were too good for them anyway.
Exactly. Yes. You simply had to pass otherwise your life would have been hell. But then they started moving blokes around. If a guy didn’t fit and couldn’t handle it they’d move him into another unit. A new identity.
They’d have to be good for something. The fact that they’d tried and failed must mean they had a bit more guts than the people who’d never tired. Now there’s a war going on throughout all of this. Is there ever a sense of desperation that rather than fluffing around going up the ranks you should be just out there.
Well I think probably my aim was to get a commission and then having got the commission then I was in their hands.
Because they would shoot officers around more so than privates. Privates were a dime a dozen but officers, well he would be suitable for this unit or that unit, you see and away he went
So at this point do you still have an eye on going up the ranks for the reasons you mentioned earlier? For self-preservation, for your mother, for your need to succeed. Is that preoccupying you a lot more
than that Australia might be invaded?
No. I felt I was better equipped. That I’d come out of it better trained.
Were your chances of surviving much better as an office?
Yes. It was a better life. You had a batman. You didn’t have to do your own washing. You had the officers’ mess. You had a certain prestige. You looked better and you were better paid. But by the same token you had a lot more responsibility.
If there were any problems you had to sort it out. So you’d go to your sergeant and said, “What’s wrong with Fred Smith”. “Well he’s got a problem. He’s had a row with his missus or his girlfriend” or something like this. So you’d get the guy and you’d have a talk to him. “Sit down Fred. What’s your problem?” “Oh my so and so and so and so”. So you tried to put on a bit of an act that you knew all the answers. And you’d convince the bloke that that was the way to go. You couldn’t win. You had to do your job but you had to make him
go on. See? And a lot of them went away and say, “Oh turn it up. What would you know. You’re only a lad”, sort of thing. Some of these blokes were older than me and they were still privates. See? So it really was a number one challenge and to me that challenge had to be met and handled. And out of that I suppose I gained some satisfaction.
What were the conditions like at Duntroon?
Had your own room. Had the best of everything. Everyone sat to attention before you ate. Had to honour the Queen and all that sort of business. Everywhere you went you went at the double. You had to conduct yourself in a military way. You couldn’t afford to be seen drinking or with girls or anything like that. You were there to study.
Three months isn’t really very long in the scheme of things.
It was amazing what they turned out in three months. Bear in mind this is 1942. Australia is now
in trouble. They’ve got to get more officers you see.
Did they shorten the length of time that they were training you?
Three months was the minimum. You couldn’t do it much under three months. But I actually was lucky in that I had the background of the time I spent at Bonegilla as against the fellows that had never sort of issued a command in their life. That had never sat down and studied an army book on procedure or how to do this and how to do that.
They had a hell of a hard job to qualify and some of them did. But a lot couldn’t adapt to that higher level of responsibility. You know you had to sort of conduct yourself as an officer even though you weren’t an officer. You had to look as though you were officer material.
Could you make friends there or was that not really the place for it?
That was not the place for it. You were one out. You were in your own little self.
Except when we were in town in Canberra having a few beers. That was a different story but back on the program you weren’t game to be seen enjoying yourself.
Run me through an average day then.
Well of course in the morning you’d be up, showered and shaved and you’d be inspected and go in and have your Breakfast.
Bugle call to wake.
Yes, yes. Much spit and polish. Running everywhere. And we wore giggle suits. Do you know what a giggle suit is?
Everyone looked the same. We didn’t have any rank up you were just a soldier. They didn’t say, “Sergeant Turrell” they’d say, “ Soldier”. You were a non identity. So then you’d go and have your breakfast and then you’d perhaps do a study or you’d go out and do a field exercise or you’d go and do physical training or you’d be out on the parade ground learning how to walk properly. They had the
ladder marked out. You had to take that step and you weren’t able to touch that rod because that meant your step was too long or too short. Then the voice training and then map reading. How to conduct yourself as an officer in the mess.
What were the instructions on how to conduct oneself as an officer?
You had to be…what’s the word? You had to have bearing, you had to have a look of command. You had to be able to take yourself away
from the other ranks and work on the level of an officer. You had to be able to go and have dinner with a general or with a colonel.
Did they have practise dinners?
No. It wasn’t a practise dinner but it was set up that if you didn’t realise that it was an exercise in that then you didn’t get any plusses for that. You had to visualize that one-day you would be in the officers mess with the colonel,
taking port. You had to assume that that would happen. A lot of fellows couldn’t see that. I could see it. And I suppose that was one of the tests. You had to look as though you had the aptitude or the desire to rise out of this lowly rank of a sergeant to an officer. You had to be seen that you understood what it was all about. And I remember the first night
as an officer I walked into the mess. Brand new officer. Everything shiny, brand new and the old salts were standing there, “Well you finally made it Dad”. You know all of that business. But on the parade ground it was a different story. You had to be whatever. It was a challenge but I loved it. I loved the professional side of it. A lot of people couldn’t handle that.
I’m asking a question that, no I don’t know the
answer to. With a situation like that you either lose your identity or you gain a better one. Is that fair to say?
Yes but you assume a new identity.
But is there part of it that you keep private? You know, Norm Turrell, guy from Mentone.
Yes. You don’t tell them that you had the hard days.
What happens when you get punished at Duntroon?
Well there were terrible things. Terrible things. What they used to do
to the cadets. They used to tar and feather them and all that sort of business, you know. And General Bridges was the original commander of Duntroon. There was a big monument at the top of the hill to General Bridges. And one of the punishments was that the cadets used to have to run up this hill and run back again and collapse through sheer exhaustion. That was one punishment. We never copped that.
What’s the point of
tarring and feathering them?
To make them feel terrible.
Yes that’s obvious but why such a humiliating…?
I don’t know. It’s part of the…to test a man’s fortitude or to bring out the worst in him or the best in him or whatever.
What did you have to do to get tarred and feathered?
Perhaps get a speck on your beautiful red uniform or be late or be walking somewhere when you should have been doubling or you didn’t salute at the proper time
or if you were caught down town in a pub or something like that. There were all sorts of demeanours that really. And a lot of those guys never got past a lieutenant. A lot of them went on to be generals and Duntroon was the only place in Australia that produced…not us, not the army blokes but the professional soldiers was a six-year course. You learned all the languages. You learned
how to play tennis, how to pass the port. You learned all that. There wasn’t time for that then. There was a war on. We had to get in and out in three months and suddenly we were chucked into a war. Boy O boy it was a case of learning quick.
When were you allowed out?
Sunday. Sunday afternoon. On Sunday in the morning you’d sort of do a bit of washing and tidy yourself up and write a letter. You had your own room. And then on Sunday afternoon
we’d go down town and go to the Services Hut. Somehow or other we got grog.
So that was a no no?
They knew we drank. You never sort of let them see you.
You were pretty keen to do well.
Yeah, I had to. I had to pass.
It was your one chance. So why risk drinking?
Well there comes a time when you’ve got to relax. How can you front up on Monday morning and have to run everywhere and do stuff if you haven’t had a bit of fun the day before. Bearing in mind that at that time there was a blackout in Canberra.
No lights. You used to get lost because all the streets went round in the middle, in circles.
I’m curious about Canberra at the time. Curtin [Prime Minsiter] is in 1942. Much loved by the people of Australia. Were you a big fan of his?
Yes. John Curtin, yes. Well he was a good Prime Minister. He had a very terrible time and he had a war to handle. And how many prime ministers have to handle a war? Great test of character.
Canberra is a small place now still and even smaller then.
Gosh. In 1942 it was nothing really. It was a small place, Canberra in 1942.
Did you see the politicians driving around?
No not in those days.
Did you have any connection with Canberra other than say a few hours every Sunday?
No we weren’t allowed in town. There was no local leave.
Back to Duntroon. Did you get into trouble at any stage?
In Duntroon? No.
You just managed to stay out?
There wasn’t much chance of getting into trouble.
No but you must have known guys who had these terrible things happen to them or were you talking about the…
No. I’m talking about the cadets. Not the three-month people. The six-year people. The cadets. They used to get into all sorts of problems.
Yes and it’s been well documented now. The bastardisation at Duntroon.
They…How they ever stood it for six years I’ll never know.
What about your lot in three months? Would you be punished for anything?
You couldn’t afford to be. Some were. Some were sent home half way through the course. You know that if you didn’t perform you were on your bike mate.
Ok. And these dances that you said you could go to. Tell me a little bit about those.
Well it was a sort of a red shield hut type of thing. There’d be hostesses there and there’d be girls
and there’d be cakes and cups of tea and lord knows what. And we would have had a couple of hours perhaps in a pub somewhere on the quiet and we’d arrive and get on with all the nonsense.
So you got Saturday night to have a bit of fun and Sunday afternoon?
Ok. In three months I know you don’t have much time. There’s only…
There was always the study. After the days events were over you had to then sit in your room and study. And it was practical. You had to write then you had to write all
this stuff out. And the warrant officer would belt the door open. “What are you doing? What are you on?” “I’m on the machine gun, sir.” “How many rounds a minute”. They’d hit you with all this sort of business. You had to know what you were doing. You couldn’t be dreaming about other things.
About girls. Did you think about Freda during this time?
Oh yes. We used to write. We used to write letters.
And give me and idea of some of the academic study you had to do there.
Well you had to learn…How shall I say? You had to learn
how to address people with their proper rank, respect their rank. You had to assume that you were going to be a fellow officer. You had to know how to handle a colonel and so on and generals. You met all these people, “Yes sir, no sir”. And of course they used to try and stare you down as they always did. The academic side of things for us was very little but we didn’t have to learn languages and the such. The other cadets did.
They had a six-year course and they had to learn all sorts of things; maths and science and language and whatever. And a lot of those guys were well to do blokes. They had a lot of wealth behind them.
What’s your attitude to officers at this point, knowing you are going to become one?
Actually unknown territory but there were a few dills in the 46th Battalion. Blokes that should never have been officers. They were officers by virtue of their age and their service before the war.
And I used to think, “Well Crikey. If they can do it I can do it.”
Where did they post you after Duntroon? Well before we do that you got to dress the parade. You know you’ve passed.
I come home. I go straight back to the 46th Battalion.
You get to come home. You got a bit of leave.
Yes, home leave. Come home. See Mum. See Freda. By that time I had been to Brisbane.
Had they given you a little party to celebrate?
Much how do you do and all that, sir and all that sort of business. And of course, how shall I say, proudness from dear old Mum. So the thing is that you then had to take on a new identity. You had to let them see that they’d filled you up with a bit more self-respect and preparing and whatever. You had to look as though you were really fair dinkum.
This is a massive leap from the so called choccos [chocolate soldiers – the Militia].
Exactly. Exactly. I was going from one world to another.
You know and I thought Crikey, this is beautiful. And I must have been alright because I got away with it. I didn’t get into much trouble. The big test will then come when you finally go into battle and you’ve got decisions to make and people to look after. That was the big thing that none of us had experienced. We were being made and groomed for that and many failed. And I might have failed on the odd occasion, but I’m still alive. Lucky to be alive on several occasions, I can tell you, but I survived.
Some of my mates didn’t you see? So there were lots of things that you had to learn. And having been in the army and gone up through corporal, sergeant and whatever I had plenty of chance to study and watch how various blokes handled it.. A lot of these fellows that were on the course with me had never done that. They were just plucked out of there and they had never thought about it. I had thought about it and I had tried to assess myself. Would I be able to handle that when the time came?
Could I be an officer? Could I order my mates around? Of course I could order them around. So you sort of prepare yourself for that great day.
I’m just going to look at my notes and see where they sent you. You went to Horn Island or did you go to Brisbane before then.
No I’m back home. I’m now on home leave. So then I go to Yeerongpilly
where we are broken up. By that time we are given a chit [ a receipt] to go down to the officer shop and order some uniforms. So we do all that. So then I come home on leave, knowing that I am going to be sent to the 26th Battalion. I come home on leave dressed as an officer. The next thing back in Brisbane. The next thing I’m in Kuranda.
You said earlier, thank God you didn’t go Canungra.
Well I had done all my training at other courses. I’d sort of done it at Bonegilla. I had a lot of experience by the time I got to Bonegilla.
So you’re just saying, “I’m just glad I didn’t have to do it again”.
Yes, it was a terrible place Canungra.
Yes. That’s what I mean. I keep hearing that.
Broke people’s hearts. It was terrible. Walking through lantana and all that sort of business. A lot of fellows gave it away. But most troops went through Canungra.
Because the war was different. It was a jungle and everyone had to learn. The Middle East blokes had to come back and they had to learn all of that. They didn’t know what Canungra meant. But Kuranda was almost the same. When I got to Canungra as part of the 26th Battalion it was my job then to train these guys that hadn’t been to Canungra. Because we had our jungle set up up there.
So really I probably was lucky that I didn’t go to Canungra. I probably would have been alright but.
Ok so what happens at Kuranda for you?
Well we walk into the…Six of us from Victoria walk into the officers’ mess, no walked into the Adjutant’s office and report for duty. “Sir”. “Where are you from? Turrell, where are you from”.
“46th Battalion, Sir”. ”Mmm. What’s your background?” “So and so, so and so …corporal, Private, sergeant, Bonegilla ,” all that business, you know. “Where did you qualify for your commission?” “Royal Military College, Duntroon”. “Did you enjoy it?” “Yes.” I can still see this bastard. “Righto. Wait over there”. Gradually they sorted them out and they said, “Well we’ll send Turrell
this company”, and so and so to so and so and so and so. They hated out guts because we were Victorians. Queensland Battalion. So the first night in the mess, you won’t believe this Stella [Interviewer]. The first night in the mess there are fisticuffs. All the Victorians on one side, the six of us, and the rest of them all six-foot fourteen Queenslanders. Six foot fourteen giants. And they took exception to having Victorian officers in their
battalion. And all this jostling and shoving and pushing and language was all going on and unbeknownst to us in the doorway is the colonel. New South Wales, NX59, 2/3rd Battalion. Colonel John Abbot DSO [Distinguished Service Order] watching all this. So
he got to the adjutant and he called the mess to order. This is in the mess. “Gentlemen. I’ve been watching this display. You’re a disgrace and I know what this is all about. You Queenslanders don’t want these Victorians. How do you feel about me? I’m from New South Wales.” Deathly bloody silence in the mess. “Now you’ll all shake hands
and there’ll be no more of this. If that doesn’t suit you there is the so and so door. Leave now”. This is in the officers’ mess the first night. There were no problems after that. By the time the unit went to war there were troops from every state in Australia. It didn’t matter where you were from. You were in the unit. The same thing happened in the sergeants’ mess. The same thing happened in the privates’ mess. They
were ostracised. They didn’t want them. See the 26th Battalion at that time was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harry Murray. VC, most decorated soldier in the history of the British army. Colonel Murray. You’ve heard of Colonel Murray. VC [Victoria Cross], CGM [Conspicuous Gallantry Medal], DSO [Distinguished Service Order] and bar,
DCM [Distinguished Conduct Medal], Croix de Guerre [War Cross (French)], DSM [Distinguished Service Medal]. Mentioned in Dispatches thirteen times. He was the commanding officer when we got to Queensland. But he used to walk around in a pair of sandshoes, a pair of shorts and no shirt. And he carried all his medals in a sugar bag. He was a funny bloke. But he was fifty
and it wasn’t long until they retired him and that’s when Abbot arrived. So you see the battalion overnight literally became a national unit rather than a state unit.
Overnight. They came from everywhere. Even Darwin.
This is in April ‘42.
No this was in January ‘43.
January ‘43. I’m sorry.
We were in Kuranda see.
I can see where I’ve messed up there.
here we are. The unit is built up to war strength and we start training at this jungle school. Up to Atherton Tablelands and all that business and down into Cairns. Redlinch and all those places. Everywhere we marched and whatever. We trained damn hard there. And we were gradually built up to what they call war strength. Right. There were so many officers, so many sergeants and so on and so on. There we were. The next thing we go to Horn Island and we became
labourers. Whatever, but we were there to guard the air force and everyone’s cheesed off.
Ok. Lets back up a little bit of we could. I want to ask about the adjutant. There is always a bit of an attitude whenever anyone mentions one of the adjutants.
Well they’re the difficult officers in the unit. They’re like a secretary to the colonel. And this bloke was called…in the 46th Battalion, a fellow called Northcott.
And his father was a major general. John Northcott. He was a terrible sod and he was the bloke that said to me, “Turrell if you don’t pass the course don’t come back”. Then when we got to Queensland the adjutant there was a fellow called Maxwell. Kent Maxwell. A big grazier from Winton. Very nice chap and I got very friendly with him. And of course after the war we corresponded. And I’ve been up to
Winton and spent some time with them. Like we maintained our friendship for over fifty years. But he was one of the few blokes in the 26th battalion that actually put his hand out and said “Welcome”. A lot of the officers never accepted us except when the flack started and that was a different story. The adjutant was really the key. He was the man who sussed you out and said, “You’ll be alright in that particular company or that platoon” or
Now when a bunch of privates are allowed to fall out and go to whatever their version of a mess tent was, wherever they were. They would have whatever they could get their hands on. But I’m curious to know what officers do in a mess?
In a mess, well you sit down at a table when the colonel … you all stand till the colonel comes in. The colonel comes in and he sits then you sit. And all the junior officers are right down the end and the captains and the majors are all next to the…and it
works down. If you were the junior officer you were at the end of the table and it is your job to pass the port. And it goes right up and around the table and comes back to you and you drink last. And the thing must never touch the table. It’s got to be handed from hand to hand to hand. The colonel’s got his port, “Gentlemen, the Queen”. Bingo then in come the mess stewards and they put the meal in front of you.
You’ve mentioned the port a number of times. Just port. Why does it carry such weight among officers?
I don’t know. I hated it. Then when the colonel left the mess it was a case of off with the ties and into the grog.
So you did get to kickback [relax]?
God yes. We did terrible things in the mess.
Fighting and jumping about and one bloke broke his ankle so he had a crutch so we threw the crutch into the fire and burned it and left him in the corner with one leg and all that sort of business.
Another night up in Bougainville we got friendly with the Yanks before they left and they gave us one of those big trucks that they transport the troops in. And we had that privately stuck away. Nobody knew we had that. We used to go down to the officers’ mess at Torokina and on the way home we’d knock down all the signs and one thing and another. Oh God.
You realize how much at odds that sounds in terms of being an officer you had to set and example.
But you had to let off steam somehow.
That’s probably what it’s boiling down to. Letting off steam as opposed to puerile behaviour.
It depended on the general. The general at the time was a fellow called Stan Savige. Lieutenant General Stan Savige was….. He was a lovely bloke and a good soldier Stan Savige. He used to come down to the officers’mess and he wouldn’t drink with the other generals. He’s come and sit with the subalterns. The Junior officers.
Subalterns? I haven’t heard of that.
You were a subaltern
Subaltern. Thank you because I’ve been trying to find a good word to use.
A subaltern is an officer and you always address them as Mister. When you are a captain it was Captain Smith. But if you were a subaltern it was Mr Smith.
Why is that?
I don’t know. That’s just the way you do it. Stan Savige used to come down to the officers’ mess at Torokina and drink with us. And I mean drink with us.
Officers got good grog?
Yep. You got a ration.
We are about to run out of time but what was the ration of grog for an officer?
You’d get a bottle of scotch or a bottle of gin or whatever.
Per once a week I think. That would all be stored up.
That’s a fair bit.
I know. I never drank spirits so I used to give it to my batman and he would sell it.
Did you split the proceeds?
No he would keep all that. Never drew a day’s pay while in the army, my batty.
Because he made so much money on the side. I didn’t smoke, I’d give him my cigarettes, give him my grog,
and he used to flog it to the Yanks.
Oh sorry he never drew a day’s wage. I thought he never got paid.
Interviewee: Albert Turrell Archive ID 0189 Tape 04
What was your pay like at that point? How much had it jumped up?
Private was seven and six. Officer - nineteen and six.
A day. That bought quite a bit.
That’s nearly seven quid a week and I think at Rosella I was getting five pounds a week. I was in front. Plus the third pay, Stella see?. I had the third pay on top of that.
You mean money that you didn’t use while, that you didn’t draw? I would like to jump if we could straight to Horn Island. Working as an ack ack officer. Just if you could take me through how you got there and what you had to do as soon as you got there.
We pulled into Horn Island jetty and you can’t do that at Thursday Island because there is not much there. Horn Island is the better place and the only place you can land with an airplane. So we arrived and we were
allotted this job of protecting the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force], which was a huge area. The first thing that had to be done is we had to construct a runway. And we had these thousands and thousands and thousands of these metal planks. Big. They were about as big at the top of a table and they all had to be put down, put down for the planes. You see. Because there were big bombers coming in there. So we literally were, you might say back up or
minders. Ground defence against any possible invasion by land. Being the ack ack officer my job was to shoot at any enemy planes that came. Which was a joke. But in theory that’s what it was. So we had these vehicles set up, small three-ton trucks, with Bren Guns fitted up. And you had to fire to show aggression.
was it a joke? Because the Bren guns weren’t good enough?
Well you couldn’t hit a plane with a machine gun. Hopeless.
Were there any plans to get any Bofors guns there?
Oh yes. There were artillery people there. There were big units like heavy 4.2s and 3.7s and all that. But we were sort of in between and I suppose ack ack could have easily been mobile machine guns had there been
land forces to deal with. And at the time we thought it was a bit of a joke because we felt we were not in the war. But it was only years afterwards that the troops realized the importance of that airfield at Horne Island.
Why didn’t you think you were in the war? There’s enough…
We were bombed. They used to come over and bomb us but there was no sign of the Japanese. We didn’t know what a Japanese soldier looked like.
Had you been told at this stage? Had you been given the propaganda
routine about them?
Oh yeah, funny little men on bikes.
But as officers didn’t they think you could figure that out?
Oh of course we knew that. But the troops. We were told, “You won’t have any worry with these blokes. Little blokes”.
Why did they keep saying that do you think?
They believed it and it was only when they showed how good they were that they suddenly thought, “Hey these guys are better than our blokes. We’ve got to smarten ourselves up”.
They’d already put in a fairly impressive force in Malaya.
But the thing is this. That the Australian army had never had anything on their doorstep before. They had gone over to France and fought all these battles. It was a different story. And you really had to think about it that the government on the day was really under the thumb of the American via MacArthur. They had very little say on the policy of the war. It was only when Curtin was able to divert the troops from
Malaya to come back here we would have lost the 7th Division lock stock and barrel. So we’re on Horn Island. We could know the Battle of the Coral Sea was going on out there because we could hear it and see the flashes , we can see the debris being washed up on the beaches. Bits of the lifeboat or a life belt. We used to pick it up and say, “Well gee something’s happening.” We could hear this terrible naval battle going on and here we were are literally labourers on Horn Island. So when the time came and the word was
we were now going back to Australia to be refitted and brought up to strength we looked like going to the war. And that’s exactly what happened. We came back to Townsville, everyone went on home leave. We were then refitted and reinforced to battle strength and the next thing we were in Bougainville. So Horn Island was a very frustrating time for us.
You say you were labourers there but were you as signal officer?
No I was ack ack. I was only sig [signals] officer in the 26th
Battalion when we finally got to Bougainville. So you see Horn Island was a blot and the troops felt that they were never going to fire a shot in anger.
Were there any locals there? Local aboriginal…
Yes. The Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion. They were troops. They were formed up into battalions, they were local blokes and they fought with great distinction.
Did they have to work alongside
you as labourers at that point?
At that point, yes.
And how was the companies put together. Did they have an aboriginal officer commanding them?
No they had white officers. Some of the old 46th Battalion officers went up there as their officers. And I thought thank god I didn’t cop that.
Well I couldn’t have gone on with that. It didn’t suit me, that sort of…. I wanted to be with our own blokes.
At that point was there major distinction between being an aboriginal Australian and a white
Australian in terms of fighting the enemy?
Well for a start they didn’t get any pay. They didn’t get any recognition. It’s only now, only last year they only got their medals.
It’s just amazing isn’t it?
It is amazing. It is an absolute scandal to think that the government, whatever, has never seen fit to do anything before that. Because half the blokes are dead or the majority of them are dead. The blokes who are getting their medals now are all like this. You know. It’s unbelievable
They would be almost…
But they were top soldiers.
I wonder what kept them in if they didn’t even get any money for what they were doing.
I think they had no option but to do it. Then of course we saw that and then when we got up to Bougainville and we had the police boys. That is the local Bougainville natives working with us we realized how good these other guys were. And those other guys should have gone into the war but they never actually got there. See that was the tragedy. They were
over trained. Anyway Horn Island was a sorting out place. We got rid of a lot of people in the unit that we didn’t want. We got new people that came in.
Tell me about how you get rid of somebody. It might be pretty simple but I’m sure there’s a bit involved there.
Well it’s not so much they’re a troublemaker. They don’t fit or they don’t blend in or they don’t soldier on. They influence other people. They are a bad influence. Or they’re perhaps not A1. They may be A2 or B1 or whatever. They are not fit enough
for jungle warfare.
Can you go through that with me? A1, B2.
A1 you’re top. Then you’ve got A2 slightly lesser. Perhaps good enough for the front like but perhaps only in the quartermaster store or something like that. Then you’ve got B, B1, B2. They are people that are typists or filing clerks or pay clerks or the such. That never leave the office or battalion headquarters. Or they might be
say someone in a survey unit where there is no arms carried. Or they might even go to medical units or whatever. Where they are not actually trained as front line troops. So the unit is cleared out of all that below level quality and other units are broken up and that’s why 46th Battalion was broken up and reinforced a lot of the other units to bring them up to war strength, All A1.
As an officer at Horn Island you say you were
only labourers but I imagine you personally didn’t have to.
Well you did. You did pitch in. I worked alongside the blokes.
Was that a choice?
And did you find…I’m asking an obvious question but did you find that gave you a better relationship with them.
In a way but a lot of them took advantage of it.
Tell me how.
Well they wouldn’t salute when they should have saluted. They wouldn’t call you sir when they should have called you sir.
And a lot of them would give you the worst part of the job or the heaviest part of the load or whatever. You had to soldier on. You had to do that.
So if your subordinates are doing that to you do they get paid back at some stage later on?
Well you store it away and you await your chance. A funny occasion. Let me go back to my golfing days at Kingston Heath. There was a chap named Bill Edgar. He played golf at Collinsworth. He was a champion golfer. Won the Australian amateur
championships. Champion at Collinsworth for seventeen years in a row. Whenever he came to Kingston Heath I was his caddy. And I got to know him. It was Bill and Norm, see. We were at Horn Island and we were about to be relieved by the 9th Machine Gun Battalion. So I’ve got my crew. We’ve been up all night unloading a boat. Call the men out ready to walk off and I could see this new group coming towards me to relieve us.
And marching in front is Bill Edgar. Sergeant Edgar. So we meet on the jetty. The troops halt. His lot halt, our lot halt and I look at Bill and Bill looks at me. And he salutes me and I salute him back and I say, “How are you, Bill”. He says, “Do I know you, sir?” I says, “Yes. I used to carry your bloody bag at Kingston Heath”. That’s as true as I sit here. And years afterwards…of course I got to know him very well
and years afterwards I used to say, “Do you remember that day we met at the jetty on Horn Island?” He’d say, “What a performance.What did the boys think? You shaking hands with a sergeant”. You had to be able to blend away from all this status thing. You had to be human. You had to blend to the moment and I think that gave you a good image in front of the troops. You were human after all. You know. I saw nothing wrong with that.
It is interesting. It is a lesson in human relations. That can only be good.
So you say you knew there was something going on out in the Coral Sea and it wasn’t going to be until later that you actually realized how significant that was. And Horn Island at that point was a bit of a gateway to Australia.
It was the gateway. Horn Island at that time was the gateway by virtue of where it is located. It is the tip of Australia. And you could get there from Rabaul by air only. Now
the idea was that if Horn Island fell the next airstrip was Jacky Jacky, twenty-eight miles south of Cape York. That was the first or most northern airstrip in Australia at the battle of the Coral Sea. And a lot of aircraft never got to Horn Island. They landed at Jacky Jacky. Mostly they were Liberators from the Yanks and they used to hose out the
rear gunner and all that sort of business. When we left Horn Island they sent us to Jacky Jacky. It was only a short trip. And a lot of us went down to Jacky-Jacky, again as protection for the air force at Jacky-Jacky. Ultimately it became Higgins Field. Higgins was a bloke that was killed landing so they named the airport after him. So we spent our time between Horn Island and Jacky Jacky. Twenty-eight miles down from Cape York. It’s near Red Island Point.
The battalion is split up. A company is in Morokai, Dutch New Guinea. I’m in headquarters company as the ack ack officer, and then for some reason or other they decided they wouldn’t have an ack ack platoon any more. It was obsolete. They chucked it out and it became the flamethrower’s platoon. So I didn’t like the idea of running around with hot cans of petrol and whatever. So I asked to go to a rifle company. So I finished up in Don Company
So you could ask and it would be answered?
Yes. You could go to the adjutant and say, “I’m not trained for that. I’m trained as a rifle sergeant”.
So you just have to give them a reasonable excuse.
Yes. You’ve got to state your case. And they would assess you. And I think that was better than being forced to go where you didn’t want to go because I they knew they were going to get a better result from you.
And what a change also too from being a private where you…well you weren’t a private for long I know. But just that mental change of realizing, hang on I can do something about your circumstances. Just before we leave Horn Island did you say
you were bombed there? Was that the first time you had experienced any activity?
It was scary. When the order came the first day to dig the slit trenches the troops wouldn’t be in it.
Sorry. I mean what choice did they have?
“What are we digging bloody holes for Sir?” I said, “One day you might need them”. Well the first time the bombs came over they couldn’t get their shovels out quick enough. I can tell you. And they used to come over on the mail run they called it. They’d come over
just on dusk and drop their bombs. It was scary stuff. You had no comeback. You just had to cop it.
The way you talk it sounds like it was a bit rudimentary on the Japanese behalf.
Hit or miss. Yep. They were just letting us know they could do it. They were bombing Australia. Literally, Horn Island. They were bombing Australia.
I can’t remember my dates off hand. Is this before Darwin?
This would be 1942. The Battle of the Coral Sea is going on. Whatever, whatever. But
the troops couldn’t understand why they were unloading boats. They were trained to be soldiers. You may not know this but it costs about twenty-five thousand dollars to train one infantryman. And to equip him it cost twenty pounds from his clothing to his gear. That’s the cost to put a man in the field. Twenty-five thousand dollars it cost to train every man. You’ve got a thousand men in the battalion and they’re unloading
boats. Someone had to do it. And when you weren’t unloading boats you were on guard duty minding the RAAF, see? Peculiar set up and the troops were browned off. They weren’t learning how to be soldiers. They were learning how to be wharf labourers.
What grievances did they come to you with?
They wanted to go to the navy. They wanted to go to the air force. They wanted to get out of the army. They weren’t in the army. They were in the work corps, see? They were cheesed off and as officers we had a terrible job
to keep morale up.
How did you do it then?
Well we used to make them play sport. We used to get them into their fighting gear and we used to go on route marches and become soldiers. Then another boat would come in so all that would be chucked away and back you were with your shirt off.
How long would it take to walk around Horn Island?
Not long, very small place. Take the airstrip away and you’ve got nothing left.
How do you go on a route march day after day when there’s nothing to see?
You just go round and round and round, up and down. Bare as a babies bum. But it was a
feature that had to be maintained. And had that fallen you wouldn’t be sitting here today talking to me.
Were they…not much to do in their time off either, the soldiers?
Nowhere to go. Occasionally you would go over to Thursday Island in the barge for the picture show at night. I had a stroke of luck. On a place called Goode Island, which is one of the islands up there, one of that group. There were two 6 inch naval guns set in concrete.
Huge things. Six inches. That’s a big shell and eighteen platoon, Don Company, I was in charge. We were given the job to go over there, thirty five of us., that’s a platoon, to be backup to the navy. The navy maned those guns. And we were there for three months on Goode Island completely and utterly on our own. We always had a lookout on the top of the mountain and
if anoyone was coming word would get back, “ There’s a barge coming in. Everyone smarten up”, and all this sort of business, you know. But we learned a lot there, learned a lot.
Interesting that you all didn’t go crazy too.
We kept them busy. And I did things like…We had the machine gunners there, the Vickers gunners. I had the 9th Battalion there as well. And we got them to show us how the Vickers gun worked. We’d never seen a Vickers gun. We had people from the signallers and we got them
all…we taught all our blokes all this business, semaphore. And we used to go down and stand on the beach at Horn Island and read all the secret signals between the American boats. We knew what was happening.
Give me an idea of what was happening with the signals then.
All signals about the Coral Sea battle. So and so was sunk or de dar de dar de dar.boat going here and
Da, Da, Da, We knew all that because I taught the blokes semaphore. We were the only platoon in the battalion that knew anything about semaphore. And when we got back into the unit word got around. “What have you been doing”? But I was determined that they weren’t going to sit there scratching their backsides.
And when you learned what was going on in the Coral Sea did you start to sort of…Did the hair rise on the back of your neck?
Yes. We had every right to be. Because we were just a handful of blokes, for goodness sakes, when you think of the might out in the water. It was a terrible thing, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and really when you think of the possibility that had they landed in strength Australia would not be what it is today. As it is they did pretty well when you think a bloke left Japan
in a submarine as long as this room and he finished up in Sydney Harbour. Boy O boy that is talent. You’ve got to respect them in that way.
Oh it was an awesome achievement.
I’ll say. They were absolutely dedicated for the Emperor.
And what’s it like. As an officer as you say, you get this better insight into what it going on and why things are happening but you haven’t had to actually fight the enemy yet.
And you’ve heard
all this rubbish about what they’re supposed to look like and so on. What’s it like forming an admiration for somebody that you are now being trained to kill?
You’ve got to look at them and respect them for what they had done. They had done more than we had done at that stage. We were untried. They knew what they were about. They had gone from Tokyo to Singapore to Rabaul and no one had stopped them. At Milne Bay that was the only time they first
lost their land battle. That was the turning point in the war. The 61st Battalion, the 2/12th, the 2/14th, they stopped the Japs at Port Moresby and the tide turned and history will say that that was the turning point for victory for the allies. Right. We were not in that class. Like we were just a bunch of young blokes. No battle experience, no nothing at Horn Island.
We were in the reserves, in the VFL [Victorian Football League], you know. We were trained but we couldn’t prove anything. You just imagine trying to keep the enthusiasm of your troops while all that is going on around you.
Do you talk amongst each other as officers as to how you think it is going on?
Well yes. You’d have conferences. You’d be called into the CO and you would be told things you weren’t allowed to tell the troops. You’d be told that this was going to happen or that was going to happen. It was secret.
Can you give me a few examples?
Well he might say, “Well in a month’s time or a week’s time we are going to be fighting there or we’re going there or doing this and that”. See you couldn’t tell the troops that until it was official.
I bet they changed plans a bit. They’d say plan’s changed. Not going there now.
Yes. Plans did change. Very smartly. But the thing was officers always had more intricate knowledge of what the thing was about. And whilst we thought it was absolutely terrible the way the war was going the troops thought it was a joke.
They couldn’t get the big picture. They just couldn’t understand because they were not given any information about what was happening. The Australian public didn’t know we were on Horn Island. They didn’t know what was going on in Horn Island. They thought we were all up round Brisbane and all those sorts of places. They didn’t know. [General] MacArthur wouldn’t let that go out to the press. The Australian army was put down by MacArthur in a terrible fashion. He wanted America to be seen
as the saviours but we did the job. To the credit of the fellows when they put all that Horn Island business behind them and we came back to Brisbane and we went to Bougainville the unit was completely different. It was a tough fighting unit.
Now it’s kind of hard to keep a secret. You can do it. But it’s kind of hard living with a secret and as officers you have to live with them all the time. Did that sort of skew your image of how the world is operating?
Yes. Lot of faults, lot of falsehoods, lot of lies,, a lot of cover-ups.
It kind of forces you to become a duplicitous individual.
Well you are part of the system and you can’t let it break down. You are part of the chain. If the CO calls all his platoon commanders in…First of all he calls in the company commanders. Got four company commanders. And he tells them such and such. Then the company commanders’ conference and all the subalterns go in, sit down.
He’s got three lieutenants and a 2 IC [Second in Command], normally a captain and a major in charge of the company. You’ve got five officers in charge of about a hundred and fifty men. Well the CO has been ordered to do such and such and Don Company, “That’s you Major Milson, I want you to brief your officers, officers’ level only at this stage that this is what the plan is”.
So we get called in and Major Milson sits us down. The three officers. He says, “Fellows that is going to happen but it is not going to be released at this stage. Prepare yourself. Prepare your thoughts. Prepare your men, perhaps in a different way, your training. Get them ready without letting them knowing what they are getting ready for.” So then the time comes and the company’s fallen in. Out comes the officer commanding the company and says,
“Well Fellows, good news. We’re going to war” or “We’re going to do this”. All the company is told at the one time even though the officers knew the day before. It’s a sort of a con set up isn’t it.
Then you get the reaction. There’s a bit of shuffling going on. You can tense them. But having been in the ranks and had that on a minor level, all that nonsense, I can imagine how these guys feel. You take an officer
that was a private one day and an officer the next he hasn’t got that background. He finds it hard to relate to the troops but having been one of the troops first, and gone da, da, da officer you handle it a different way. You can understand the logic of it all. But a lot of fellows couldn’t.
Now the army has its own natural bush telegraph.
Yes, oh God yes.
They seem to be able to find things out before the officers know. Sometimes.
Well once the
officer knew the next bloke that knew was the batman. And he couldn’t get back to the other ranks quick enough to say, “Norm reckons that so and so is on’.
Sorry. How does the batman know? Are they present? They can’t be present.
No. You’ve got to tell someone so you tell your batty. “Now listen Ernie. I want you to have all that ready, packed up tomorrow night at six o’clock”. “Why is that Sir?”“We’re going to be moving out.”
Isn’t that a no no?
Yes. I’ve got to tell him.
I’ve got to tell him what we are doing. Now a good batman would shut his trap up. A bad batman couldn’t get back to the mess quick enough. “Norm’s telling us to pack up” You know.
It’s a bit of power isn’t it?
Yes. You’re sort of a little wheel on a bigger wheel on a bigger wheel on a big wheel. So it really is a con job in a way but you’ve got to be very careful how it is interpreted. And then of course you’ll get the next
day Private Smith will come up and say, “I want to report sick”. So he’s got the message. He’s getting scared. “What’s wrong with you?” So you send him down to the RAP [Regimental Aid Post] and the RAP says take an aspro and go back. He’s going to be your number one problem because he’s on the point of doubt you see. So you watch him more than anyone else. You word your sergeant up. “Smithies on the way. Watch him. Keep your eye on him.” It’s a whispering campaign.
It’s intrigue. So meanwhile you’ve got twenty-nine other blokes to worry about including yourself and of course they always eat first, they always sleep first. You’re always last. You’ve got to be. You eat last. That’s the way it is. That’s unspoken. On Christmas day you serve the troops. It is an officer’s privilege to serve the troops. And my mind used to go back to the early days at Rugby where I was one of the troops and I’d think, “What the
bloody hell are the officers doing here serving all this muck?” Little did I realize I’d be doing the same two years later. See the change in my life?
Where did you spend your Christmases?
Well I would have had five Christmases away wouldn’t I?
Each one would have been a bit different.
Yes. Some were safe. Some were not safe. Christmas in Bougainville wasn’t very safe. We were well and truly into it in December 1945,
44. We were actually in action. We started in December. 1944 we started our first patrols. And we were up the Numa Numa Trail which was like the Kokoda trail. Straight up onto the top. We were actually out on patrols on Christmas day, 1945… 1944.
Well let’s jump to your….
That’s another story but you asked the question. Every Christmas in the army would have been different depending where you were. No
doubt if we’d been in Brisbane it would have been a mad grog on or if we were in Bonegilla it would have been much drinking in the mess at night and all that business. But once it got to the serious stuff you had to sort of weigh up the pros and cons.
So you had some leave after Horn Island? Did you go back home or?
Yes home. Most of us got home. By train.
And I’m also curious about Brisbane then too because it was just riotous by the sounds of it.
It was a terrible place because the Americans were there.
Like that side of Brisbane was all American. That side was Australian and we used to meet on the Storey Bridge. That’s where the fighting took place, on the Storey Bridge.
I was going to ask, were you any where near the Brisbane riot?
Yes. Terrible things happened. I didn’t get involved in any fisticuffs but boy o boy some of our blokes got knocked around. So the word would come, “Turrell, I want you to take a picket down to the so and so hotel and stand guard there. If any of our blokes are there get them out.” You know. Terrible things.
You can imagine the commanding officers going, “We’ve got enough trouble with the Japanese. Why can’t these people just behave”?
And then on one occasion a great mob of Italian prisoners of war arrived in Brisbane. And I was the officer in charge, an armed party to escort these guys off the boat into what they called the cage. We actually put them in a cage in Brisbane.
On the wharfs?
Yes. They were POWs [Prisoners of War] and they ultimately went to Cowra.
The thing is that an officer had to be very good at everything. It wasn’t just a case of putting your pips up and whatever. You had to be very good at anything. And you never knew what you were going to be asked to do. Really and truly.
What’s the strangest thing you were ever asked to do then as an officer?
I found it strange having to inspect feet.
if a bloke had crook feet you’d had to say, “Well mate I’m sorry you can’t come tomorrow you’ve got to go get those feet treated.” And make them take an Atebrin tablet in front of you. Otherwise they would spit it out. I found that strange. You’re right into a man’s soul, aren’t you?
Did you ever have to bust anyone for not taking Atebrin?
Yes. I busted blokes for not rolling their sleeves down because of the mosquitos and things like that. If you were caught not wearing a shirt you were in big trouble.
Did you ever waste time explaining to them why you were busting them?
You’d have to say to them, “You’re on charge. ““Why am I on charge?”“Well the rules are so and so and so and so. You broke the rules so you’ve got to front the CO”. The CO would read the riot act and say, “I’ll fine you for three days pay” or something like that, you see, or loss of rank.
Not to put too fine a point on it but some of the privates may not have been very well educated and they might just not have got it into their heads why.
Couldn’t be bothered.
The rules didn’t mean a damn thing. But when the war started they were very conscious of the rules. They knew exactly what had to be done. It was a different story once the business started. Because they realized that if they let the side down they would be ostracised. That man there and that man there was your friend. Without them you were jiggered. There couldn’t be any weaklings in the chain. It was a different story. But when it was on Horn Island or in Brisbane
or in Cairns or whatever there was a lot of gaps.
I also think that whilst you’ve got many opportunities for making friends as officers you’d probably make friends and then be sent elsewhere so do you become a bit circumspect about who you open up to and become friendly with?
Yes. There’s about thirty-five officers in a battalion and of the thirty-five there might be one or two that you would call a close friend. I mean
you wouldn’t be chinning up to the CO or the 2IC or the company commander. It would be a fellow subaltern. And invariably in my case it was a Victorian. And I suppose that was an easy way to establish a relationship.
It’s a cliché but it’s a bit lonely at the top I suppose.
It is. Command is always lonely. And yet command as a lieutenant was very very minor. It is the first chain of command. It’s when you get up
into majors and colonels that it becomes a bit tough. But even so you are dealing face to face with thirty odd blokes and if they don’t like you god help them. On one occasion I got called into the company commander, Dave Milson. He said, “Mr Turrell, I’ve had a complaint about you.” This is the company commander talking to me.
“Sir, what’s the problem?” “So and so, so and so says that you’re too hard or you made him do this or you made him do that”. And I know the bloke. A bloke called McKenzie. He was a swine. He was a shearer and he was going to…he hated my guts. I had trouble with him. So I said, “I know the man, without you telling me. It’s Private McKenzie”. He said, “How do you know that”. “I happen to know.” He said, “Did you have a run in with him?” “I could have a run in with him any time you like”.
He said, “What’s your reaction to that?” And I remember saying this to Dave Milson. I said “Major, I’m not here to make friends with these guys. I’m here to save their lives.” End of story. You had to be able to say that to your next senior officer. He knew. So you see…
Is that just…
That’s just one instance where you’re on trial. You have to state your case, have a good answer and stick by your word. And that’s exactly. Instead of skylarking around I’m trying to educate this bloke to save his bloody life.
Your CO, I mean nine times out of ten he’s going to believe your story.
He’s got to.
So are you just going through the motions there? Crossing your Ts, dotting your Is.
In other words you know your limits, you know how far you can go. You can’t abuse a soldier.
You can only do so much with him. You know your limits because you’ve been there yourself.
It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think of privates complaining against their senior officers. What about when someone in your position wants to make a complaint about a commander?
You can’t do that. You’d go to your company commander first and say I’ve got a complaint against the CO. That would be unheard of.
You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place though, aren’t you?
You would have to have a terrible good…you might want to leave the unit so you would go to the company commander and say I would like to be paraded to the Adjutant. “Why? “Personal, Sir”. He can’t deny you that. So you front to the adjutant. “What’s your problem Turrell”. “Well I want to go to another battalion”. You haven’t seen the CO yet. He sorts you out. “Why do you want to go to another battalion?” “Der der der”. If he reckons you’ve got a case
then you would front the CO. But it’s got to be good but you are on very shaky ground there.
Did you ever?
Did you ever want to?
No. I was quite happy.
Know anyone who did?
There were some that did it. Yes. Plenty of blokes did it. They got out of the unit. Sure, yes.
I’m also imaging too that a lot of fellows that went through training from the privileged end of things came out as pretty shonky officers and made some
pretty stupid decisions?
Killed a lot of men as a consequence?
Yes, and themselves.
And themselves. Well perhaps the ones that didn’t for example. Can you think of any examples where there was a good reason for making a complaint against their CO?
No. I never experienced any of that, that you would want to go to a CO level. But there were plenty of troops that didn’t like their immediate officer and they had recourse
to the company commander. Now the company commander has got to make up his mind whether he backs his officer or he listens to the private’s tale of woe.
Now he is naturally on the officer’s side. And he would ask you why you did such and such. And in that case where I said, “I’m here not to make a good fellow of myself but I’m trying to save the man’s life”. He dismissed the private. From that day on
McKenzie and I never sort of came in any contact other than when it was necessary. You know how far you can go and you’ve got to be pretty fair about this. They guy’s got some axe to grind. He can’t go straight to the company commander. He’s got to go through the sergeant. Sergeant’s got to say to me, “McKenzie’s not happy. You’d better go see him”.
You see McKenzie. McKenzie says, “I want to see the officer commanding Don Company”. You’ve got to let him go. That’ the way it happens. But it would have to be terrible bad to get to CO level. He can’t be bothered with that sort of stuff.
Are there more subtle ways that privates and corporals and the like get back at their officers?
Yes. They can be given a job and they don’t do it properly or they do it in such a fashion
that you think,” Oh well it’s got to be done so we’ll take him off and put him on”. There are ways. Plenty of ways.
And what about cruelty inflicted on officers?
Not very much, no not very much. The Australian Army is not like the British Army. In the British Army there was a lot of cruelty went on. There was more difference in the ranks and the officers in the British Army.
And how would you account for that?
The way they are taught. The way they are brought up. There’s a big difference in the way the army runs in Britain.
And in the American’s. But in the Australian Army there’s a bit more of, “Oh well It’ll be alright mate”. The happy Australian way. A big difference.
And do you imagine that. I’m fascinated by the idea that our class played a lot in how Australians viewed their senior officers and so on? We tried to be a classless society.
We weren’t so much but we tried to be.
And actually the system worked pretty well because the majority of people who got command are pretty level headed. They know when enough’s enough. There was a line. But in other armies it gets really serious. And you’ve seen perhaps instances of this on the television where you see these war shows where there’s insubordination between privates and officers
and blokes have them shot. Firing squad, desertion and all that sort of business. We never had that in our army. It never got to that level but it did happen in the American army quite a lot.
I’m going to have to interrupt you.
End of tape
Interviewee: Albert Turrell Archive ID 0189 Tape 05
I know John’s going to spend a lot of time tomorrow on Bougainville but I would now like you to indulge me with your experience there. Just if you would, we rolling? If you would give me a kind of a what’s happening around Australia, what’s happening around the world as you get to Bougainville. It’s ‘44.
‘44. December ‘44.
It’s crunch time isn’t it?
The Coral Sea battle has been on and won. We are in Bougainville, we are
at the sharp end of things. We are now face to face with the Japanese for the first time in our lives. Late in the war, yes. But most guys knew that the battle of the Coral Sea was the turning point and having won it gave them confidence. They were part of the deal. It was now the face-to-face stuff. So it was probably the turning point in the war, which it was, and for many blokes it was the
culmination of all the training and the boredom and all the stuff that went on for another three or four years prior to that moment. And it brought out the best in them.
Yes. And I imagine, you know, the wars been raging for years. So much training, so much lead up, so much build up.
That’s right. That’s right. You can only train so much. You can only do this and that and that and it becomes boring after a while. But once it gets underway
and the principle of the army is you do it so many times it becomes second nature. It’s the whole deal. So that when things have to be done it becomes second nature. And you’re going to do it without thinking and that’s the way the people are trained, the way the army trains people. You haven’t got time to think. So therefore the training, all in all, boring as it was at the time, the logic is that’s the only way you can do it.
How long after the battle of Guadalcanal have you arrived in Bougainville?
Well I think they were there…The Americans were there under twelve months I think from memory. I’d have to look that up. But we got there not long after Guadalcanal because what happen then is MacArthur decided that he had had enough in that area. That was all bottled up we’ll now go on to places like Iwo Jima
and further away from Australia and closer to Japan. So there might have been twelve months where a brief number of troops were left as a holding force until the Australians came in. And we came in, in numbers and relieved them. And you might say to me, “Why did that happen?” Well it was a case of this. The Australian government had to look to their territorial
gains after the war. That’s why we were there.
It’s interesting you know…
So we didn’t know the big picture at the time. And the average bloke in the trenches wouldn’t have thought, “Well Australia was putting him here because they wanted to call Bougainville Australia after the war”. They didn’t realize that. I could see it and I’m convinced now that’s what it was all about. And that’s why wars are wars because you kill of the enemy and you take their land. That’s what it is all about.
But that picture really didn’t sink into the troops. It was a case of survival. I’m going to live through this. See. They weren’t worried about the big picture. Some of the officers had to be because they were in charge of all these guys see. If you are a colonel in charge of a thousand men you’ve got a lot of things to worry about. So when it filters down to us and we’ve got thirty-five blokes under our control it is still a problem but it is not as bigger problem. It’s lessened but having been with your
boys say for one, two, three years you know their strengths, you know their weaknesses, you know their standards. So you’re either confident or you’re not confident. If there is something that hasn’t been done right you’ve got to fix it right away. It’s your responsibility because it might cost you your life, or him his life. And this is what it’s all about. It’s a matter of being able to recognize something that might happen before it happens.
One can get very cynical
about the reasons why Australians were sent in and died in numbers to places like Bougainville and Borneo and so on.
You can get very cut up about that and there is lots to say about that but I feel very honour bound to get you to describe, first of all, what you saw when you arrived in Bougainville and the departure of the Yanks and what that was like?
What I saw was the start of a war that we could
not understand why we were in battle so late. Three or four years of training and suddenly we were in the front line. Why weren’t we in it sooner? The circumstances didn’t permit that. There was no war we could have gone to unless we had gone with the AIF to Syria and the Middle East. Right. We were militia battalions. It was only the government decided that because the Yanks had moved out, they had all these men standing round. Let’s
put them in the war. And suddenly we were in the war. And it all happened so quickly. All overnight. We were in Brisbane and next thing we were in Bougainville and we were there and it was on So we arrive and suddenly we’ve got the Yanks and they move out. We move in.
What did they send you over on?
We went up on the Duntroon from Brisbane. We arrived in Emperor’s
Bay and we went over the side of the ship, down the rope ladders and into barges, landing barges, you’ve seen them? And we went ashore in those. At the ready.
Was that a dangerous point?
How positioned were the Japanese?
We didn’t know.
How did nobody know?
So we arrive on the shore and there are the Yanks sitting back licking ice creams.
Yes. We’ve heard about the ice creams. I just find it funny.
And the dry cleaning and all this business.
And what dry cleaning?
They always look as though they have creases in their gear. They had laundries there. They had Bosley Field, they had all the Tommy Dorsey's Band and all this business. They had Paddy’s Market. They had blokes making swords out of springs and whatever.
We arrive here. What are we doing here? So the Yanks move out and they started to pull all the huts down. “Hey hey leave that”. We had never been in a hut. We had tents. So we took over a lot of their stuff, see. And we’re sitting there thinking, “Well this is a great old way to win the war”. And all of a sudden General Savige gets a directive from General Blamey, “Start the war. We want active patrolling”.
“Where are the Japs?” “Over there. Go find them”. So having found them, then it was a case of getting rid of them. They were below ground. We were above ground. They’re dug in. We’re up. So we would go on, on, on. We might be from here to the front door and you couldn’t see them. Suddenly they’re there. So they open fire, we return fire. We can’t move them so we ring up the artillery and say, “We want
so many rounds of whatever, 8G”. So they would fire. They are three or four miles back… Crunch. As near as your car and we’re dug down. There’s nothing worse than being killed by friendly fire. So they would scare the nips, thinking, “Well we’d better get out of here”. So up they’d get and run and we’d be chasing them. And that went on. Leap frog. Leap frog.
‘Til finally we got to Buin and that was the end of it. And that went on for eight months. That was our war in Bougainville.
It sounds a lot like the way they fought in Vietnam.
Yes. Exactly. Exactly. But the cost, five hundred and seventeen men killed and one thousand seven hundred and fifty-two wounded in action. For what? When you look at Bougainville today they’re still cutting people’s heads off. Why did we do it? Why didn’t we let the Japanese have it?
Strikes me that would have been fairly obvious fairly quickly too.
I can’t answer that.
I know I’m talking in hindsight and from an academic point of view, I know but for example by contrast in New Guinea, in Borneo, in New Britain and so on there might have been a little bit more reason as to why they had to get rid of the Japanese at those points.
Yes. Bougainville was an odd place. No one had ever heard of it prior to the war. But we, once they started, once the war started up there
out blokes got on with it. I don’t mean our battalion. The Australian troops got on with it. They really did a damn good job under great hardship. At one stage we were down to a week’s rations. After one week there would have been no bully beef on Bougainville. Because we had no ships. MacArthur took all the ships and spare aircraft. Supplies could not come in and we were down to nothing.
The troops knew this. That made them go harder. It was a funny war. It wasn’t like a normal war. It was a war of circumstances that we didn’t know what was going to happen. That’s happened. “How do we get out if this?” There was nothing in the book to tell us. We’d never done it before. You see.
So when you got there you say you don’t know how dangerous it was even getting out of the boat. No one’s got any idea.
Who gave you an idea that there was maybe about fifteen thousand Japanese there, wrong as it was?
Well we knew that they were there but we were never told that they were in their own perimeter. There was no man’s land and then there were the American lines. There was this no man’s land. They don’t worry us. We don’t worry them. It was static. And we arrived on the scene thinking that
surely we are not going to be the same. We live here, they live there. And when word came, “Pull the fence down and go after them”, it was on and it went on for eight months.
It just feel a bit like suicide?
Well there was no other way to do it. But the whole war changed. Suddenly it was a terrible war. It was a war then it was an absolute terrible war.
Had the Americans been doing that prior to you arriving there?
Look. When they first went there in the early part of 42,
when that war started in that area first of all the navy would stand off and they would blast all the trees. It was as bare as a baby’s [bottom] when we got there except on the top of the mountain where it was all still heavily treed. And that’s where the nips were over on the other side, and on the down side. And we thought, “Alright. It looks a soda from here”, but once you got
into the trees it was a different story. It was pretty dangerous. We felt that all the training we had, it didn’t prepare us for this. Like the training in Australia, It was…it doesn’t matter if you fall down a get a splinter in your whatever. It was a different story on the other side of things. All those little things like a sprained ankle and things
went out the window. That was nothing. You know it is very hard to go from peace to actual war. It was a shock. So we were told we were relieving the Americans. We thought that the Americans would be still firing their guns when we got there and the Japs would be firing back. There was none of that but once we started it was on. The Americans were then long gone.
Well I’d like to hear a little bit more about that image of arriving and finding the Yanks
eating ice cream.
It was a fact. It’s nearly Christmas time, Christmas Eve in Bougainville,Torokina and I was the entertainments officer.
Well you were a Jazz drummer weren’t you?
So the CO got me, Abbot got me, and said, “Mr Turrell, You’ve got a musical background”. “That’s right, Sir”. “I want you to put on a concert for New Years Eve, Christmas Eve”. “Right!”
Into a truck, sergeant and half a dozen blokes down to the Yanks. “What can I do for you guys?” Big black Nigger. I can still see this bloke. “Well we want some instruments”. “Well you come with me, buddy”. So we go into this huge place and there’s all the sets of drums, there’s pianos, there’s saxophones, there’s string basses, lord knows what. He says, “Take the god damn stuff. We don’t want it”. So I loaded up the jolly old truck. Went round to all the companies. “Can you play a harp, can you play
a violin, can you play a piano, can you sing, can you tap dance, can you do anything funny?” So gradually I got a concert party together. All done secretly. We used to practise and the night of the concert came and we were all up on the stage and Norm’s behind the drums isn’t he. Master of Ceremonies. I’ve got me piano, a sax player got a band. In comes the colonel and sits down. And away we go.
How many did you perform in front of?
The whole battalion. Torokina.
How did you keep rehearsals quiet?
Oh well they knew something was going on.
Do you put curtains up around the place?
You just took them somewhere. I can’t remember where we went but we certainly didn’t let ourselves be seen. But they knew something was going on because blokes would disappear from their units, their company. “Where have you been?” “I’ve been to band practice” “What’s going on?” “I’m not allowed to tell you.” See.
Did you audition them?
Oh yeah. There was a tremendous amount of talent in the unit. There really was.
Did you offend anyone by saying that they weren’t quite good enough?
Oh yes. It was like New Faces [Television show]. You had to say, righto you’re next. But I was a bit lucky. I had the band experience behind me and I could see whether a bloke could paly without music and all this sort of business. We wanted people who could ad lib. And whilst some of the blokes in the band played the euphonium suddenly we’d give him a saxophone and we’d say, “Can you play that?” “No”. Then you get a bloke who can play a violin beautifully. See. And he was the number
one act. And in my book there is a program of what went on that night. And there was a lot of good singers and funny blokes dressed up as ladies and all that sort of business. And in the background we’d play like Tiger Rag and Bugle Call Rag and all that sort of stuff. It brought the house down. When the thing was over the CO said to me, “By Jove Turrell, you’ve done a fine job there”. He was very pleased about it. So I had a great deal of pleasure doing that because I felt I was qualified to do it
if you see what I mean. It was easy because I had been doing it for years.
Tell me a little bit more about what the Americans left behind.
They left everything. They left refrigerators. They left all these places where they could send their uniforms to be cleaned and pressed and whatever.
I want to interrupt you there. Surely only the officers were allowed to do that?
No the troops. You never saw an untidy American soldier and their uniforms were beautiful as you know.
They always had the creases down here and the pants and whatever. And ours looked, Oh my God. When you think what we walked around in. Those jungle greens. So they had the dry cleaning. They had the ice cream factory. They had libraries, they had music. They had…There was always Benny Goodman in the background, going full bore. Bugle Call Rag whenever you went anywhere in the battalion lines. They had PX [postal exchange]. You could buy cigarettes, grog, and whatever.
That’s the American term for
army canteen. Right. You could get places to write a letter. Pen and paper and lord knows what. We didn’t have any of that. And we felt that the Americans really, the best place to be would be in the army. They had good food. The K rations that they had were ten times better than we had. K rations were good. We’d say “Give us some of those” and they’d say, “Get a truckload, buddy”. They didn’t want it.
So trading wasn’t so difficult with them, then?
No. They wanted to get rid of it. They had more stuff than they needed, see. There was only a handful of blokes there. When I say handful I would say probably there would be less than a battalion strength. Which is about a thousand men.
And did they strike you as not really taking the war too seriously?
Yes it was a joke. The war was over. They didn’t want to get involved in any fighting. The fighting was all over and done with. And in the earliest days when they landed at Torokina the
Nips were on the beach ready to have a go. And they lost a lot of men, the Yanks, and when we went in it was all over. But we stirred them up and once we stirred them well they came back. But we had to go find them. So when you think of Bougainville it was 130 miles long and about 20 miles wide. They simply cut the island in half and we were given the north sector and the other brigades
were given the south sector. And once we established the line up the Numa Numa Trail from coast to coast there was no way the Nips could get to the south where their command structure was. So the further they retreated they ran out of land, ran out of land, ran out of land. When the plane flew over they were almost in the sea. We’d gone right to the very end. And we never knew from one day to the next how far we would progress. If we went 100 yards it was a good day.
Now when you say that MacArthur basically cut Bougainville off, no more ships, no more rations getting through…
He wanted all that for his own troops.
I assume that also means no more mail?
That’s right, nothing. Not even supplies.
How were you receiving information from company HQ about what to do next, about how to position yourselves and so on?
Well me being the
sig officer at that stage I would be at the CO’s right hand and he would say, “Norm, here’s a signal I want sent to all companies. Do this do that, send out a patrol or we want four men there…transferred whatever.” All sorts of stuff, see. So we’d ring up A Company, B Company, C Company, no answer on D Company. Line’s cut. So two blokes and a sergeant go out and find it and repair it
under fire, perhaps. That was my job. So you had to keep your lines of communication open. And when you think that we laid about sixteen miles of wire…That’s a lot of wire. So you see we had to be able to get the information to the companies. If it wasn’t done by telephone there was no other way except to send a runner.
The thing is where do you find them? So there were pretty exciting times, I’ll tell you, where the message never got through or it was interrupted. We lost some blokes because one man would stay put while the other bloke would scramble up the tree to find the wire, wherever it was.. And we lost a few blokes like that. But that’s war. You say, “How did the message get through? What were they told”? There was
all sorts of stuff that had to be relayed. We were all given code names. We weren’t Turrell, we weren’t lieutenant we were all called orange or pineapple or something, code names. “This is Apricot”, “Pineapple, yes”. To confuse the Nips. Poor buggers. How could they ever win? But actually it was a funny set up. It was a funny war. It wasn’t like the wars in the desert Wasn’t like
the wars in Europe. It wasn’t like the Battle of the Bulge any of that.
As an officer in charge of a lot of men and the enemy coming you’ve got to do something, it is obvious what you have to do, that’s one thing but you are an officer in a war where you have to deliberately go and pick a fight?
That’s right. We were told to pick the fight. Find them and chase them out. Drive them out of the land.
How do you deliver that sort of information to the men?
Well you would say…
I would get word to the CO. I’ve now gone from the sig officer into the rifle company. I’d had enough of the sigs. I wanted to get back into the rifle company as an infantryman. So I finished up 9 Platoon in A Company.
Were you getting bored?
Yes. Sitting up all night on the telephone, in the dugout, trying to…it doesn’t sort of appeal to me. I couldn’t see any value in it. So I went back to Don Company, A company. So word would
come down. I’d get a call or report to the OC [Officer Commanding]. “Turrell I want you to send out a fighting patrol, map reference so and so, so and so. Find that and report back”. A fighting patrol means you attack. If it’s a listening patrol you hide in the jungle and listen what’s going on and come back without revealing you’ve been there. So you get the sergeant and say, “Sergeant, I want a corporal and ten men and we’re going out at O 10 100 tomorrow morning”. I might go, sergeant might go, you never went together because he’s
your right hand. So you would send the blokes out. There would be shots fired, they’d come back and there’s one man with his hand hanging off or something like this or someone’s not there. And now you would say, “Well we found Japs in strength here. We killed three, we lost one.” That would all go in the whatever, in the diary. And that’s how the war was fought.
Was there a first time that you lost a soldier?
Can you talk about
We were going up a track and I came to a fork in the track. I can see this as clear as clear. This was in the Soraken Plantation and I called the sergeant over and I said, “What do you think Ian? Right or left?” So, you know, he’s sort of collecting himself and with that the enemy opens up. They’ve got us. On the track in the open.
So we all hit the dirt and I dived in behind a great big log. Meanwhile my forward scout would be about from here to where your vehicle is. Private Sorenson. I don’t know that he has been shot and killed so after all the firing ceases my job is then to check if I’ve got any casualties. So you get your runner to go to section… You’ve got three sections in a platoon.
Sections one, two and three. So nick over to one and see if they’re alright. “Yeah One?” “OK” “Two?” “One man missing.” “Who is it?” “We don’t know yet”. Roll call. “It’s Sorenson”. “Where was Sorenson?” “He was the forward scout. He must be over there”. Right. The firings all over. We then get Sorenson’s body out. My job as the officer, has to go through his effects. So I take his little pack off, which is a bag about as big as that
off his back. In this pack amongst all sorts of things like his razor and his knife and fork is an exercise book. And the boy is teaching himself to write. He was illiterate. A, B, C, Nobody knew. He is nineteen. He hadn’t started to shave and he is dead. That shook me up so I turned to my platoon sergeant, Ian Alford, and said, “Did you know
he couldn’t read or write.” “No.” The kid never told anyone. He bluffed his way through. He’s dead and Ian says to me: “It’s a damn tragedy. I’m a schoolteacher. Had I known about this I could have helped him”. Two day later I lose him. How do you reckon I felt?
I had to write a letter to his parents. Now he came
from a peanut farm on the Atherton Tablelands, Private Sorenson. It is one of the biggest farms there today. I’ve had a life. I’ve reared a family. I’ve had a great time. I’ve been around the world. He never even got past nineteen and he is dead. That is a personal tragedy for me. Really it is. Just imagine if that bloke was still alive today he would be a big shot in the Atherton Tablelands
with all his peanuts. That’s a personal thing. That was the first guy I saw shot. I didn’t see him, but I knew he got shot. I’ve never forgotten it. Two years ago my son and daughter took us up to Longreach where the battalion was raised and I went wondering around the town and I come to the local scout hall. Didn’t know it was there. And I see
‘Ian Alford Memorial Scout Hall’. My platoon sergeant, he was the local scoutmaster and I never knew. I howled. I howled. You’ve asked me if I had seen blokes shot. There was a bloke next to me when I lost Ian Alford I got a new sergeant. Burgin, B-U-R-G-I-N. Private, Sergeant Burgin He was my new sergeant.
We were in another shindig and they opened up on us. We used to wear those green berets. The shot took his beret off and left a mark over his forehead. He wasn’t worth two bob the next day. They had to get rid of him. Like I’m trying to preserve myself. Thinking, “God, How am I going to get out of this?” Death is a terrible thing. Poor bloody Sorenson.
So now I write the book, sitting up in that den of mine up there and I’m reading all my notes and I get to the battle of the Soraken Plantation and I read the action. I’m reading the war diary. 9 Platoon engaged the enemy at such and such. Private Sorenson killed. I had to shut the door and go away. I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t handle it. I came back. It’s in the
book. Now that’s 1991 and he was killed in 1944. How long’s that? But still in here. See I suppose I felt life was unfair to him and how lucky am I here today. Look what I’ve achieved and he had no chance.
Another bloke Tom Beatty, a beautiful Fellow, a lovely bloke. We called in friendly fire to move the Nips. To get them out and get them to run. And one shell hit a tree, our own shell hit a tree and came straight down and went through there and came out there. I saw him go down.
Like once is enough in your life for that. To have that every day would have been….
It’s your job to write the letters.
What could you say? He died a hero. When I saw the book I couldn’t believe it. He was illiterate and he was dead.
What about his burial? Did you do something special for that?
No. All they do then, you report the death and you put a cross in the ground, a rough cross and the burial party follow around. And they raise those guys, we just cover him over, they raise those guys and they take them down and bury them. At that time they buried them in the cemetery at Torokina. That’s a temporary. When the war was over the Army Graves Unit picked all those
guys up and took them up to Port Moresby, at Bomana and that’s where they are today. Beautifully set out in that lovely cemetery up there. So the guy was buried three times and he is up there with Ian Alford along side him.
I won’t ask you about your sergeant just at the moment because we’re approaching the end of this tape. They joined up and they volunteered and they knew the risks and they knew the odds.
They were unlucky weren’t they? I was lucky.
But as their senior officer on that patrol how do you not beat yourself up about making decisions one way or another.
You find it very hard the next time. Have I got it right or have I got it wrong? I’ve got a new platoon sergeant. The responsibility is right on you and that’s where your training has got to
take over. It’s not that I’m not scared. I’m bloody scared. When you’ve been under enemy fire it makes you really…it doesn’t matter who you are and what rank you hold. You’re a human being and one bloke’s trying to knock you off, right. And you get superstitious. You think I’ll go to the right to the right or I’ll go to the left. I went to the left. I lived. I’ll go to the left again. You go through all this nonsense but you either live or you die. Like there was no
whole row of soldiers mown down with machine guns. It was all very personal. One man against one man You just couldn’t see the others. Like it was a strange war. We weren’t trained for that. We had to suddenly get a whole new ballgame going. And that put the strain on the commanders but because we had been so well trained. And I speak now of our officers, our sergeants, corporals,
senior privates. They all did a fantastic job. We lost thirty-seven men killed. And Ray Block, my…he took over when Sorenson was killed. Ray is…he lives over in the Pascoe Vale retirement village. He was being interviewed on the phone yesterday by one of the girls. I hope he gets a chance at this because he is a very interesting bloke
and a bloody good soldier. The war has been over thirty or forty years and I didn’t know Blocky was still on this earth. And I go to the football one day and Richmond are playing someone and it’s half time and Blocky is down on the fence and he turns around to look back into the stand and he sees me.
“Blocky!” And he’s got a voice like a foghorn. “Turrell. You bastard” People are wondering what’s going on.We raced towards one and another. It was the first time I had seen him since the war ended and he is still alive today. These are valuable moments.
But you’ve got to be lucky.
Interviewee: Albert Turrell Archive ID 0189 Tape 06
I would like to start today’s conversation by asking a little bit about your jazz band experience. I would like to go a bit pre-war and…
Well that all started when with me going down to the Palais on the Saturday night and sitting watching the big band. Then having sat behind the drums one night and got talking to George Watson, who was one of Australia’s
premier drummers I then thought, “Well that’s my future”. So I then started to take lessons from George Watson and I used to go into town every Sunday morning at Alan’s and go through all the business and whatever. So then of course it was a matter of practising. And one would have records and play the records and play the drums and drive the neighbours mad. So of course in due course I had to buy a set of drums . Well that was a bit of a battle because I was a bit light on for money
because I had no capital to start with. So the long and short of that was I reckoned I’d got to a stage where I could play the drums. Now at the Mentone city hall on Saturday night there was a big dance. And I knew the lady pretty well that played the piano, Cath Barnard. Her husband was Jim and he was the stationmaster at Mentone. So I got to know the Barnard family pretty well. So I went to the dance not to dance just to listen to the band. And I couldn’t stand the…
So I looked at this for a while and I went up to Cath at the interval and I said, “That drummer of yours is not so hot”. She said, “Well what about you”? I said, “I can play the drums better than that”. She said, “Well we have a rehearsal at our home every Sunday morning. Bring your drums around and we’ll give you a run”. Which I did. I got the job and from then on in I started playing in the band, you see, as her drummer.
They used to go everywhere. They’d go to Somerville, they’d go to Tyabb, they’d go to Sorrento, they’d go everywhere and word got around, as it does in the music business, that Norm Turrell’s a drummer and that’s his phone number. So in due course I get a ring from people like Mrs Cook who had a band down at Summerville, they were orchardists and then I got very pally with a fellow called George McQuinney who ran a dance studio in the city and I used to go and do some work in there. And then I started playing drums
with other bands and I gradually got the feeling that I ought to be running things myself. So I knew a chap who was at the Blind Institute. A fellow called Alan Campbell. He played alto, soprano sax and clarinet. And he was a hell of a good musician. So he said to me, “Norm, If you ever want to get a band together we’ve got all the other players here.” So I went up to the Blind Institute here at St Kilda Road and I sat in and listened to them.
They were fantastic. Magnificent musicians. You know, just away they go. So the long and the short of it was I built a band out of the blind musicians. I had Fred Holland on piano, Jack Terns on base. And Jack used to play down where Bobby Gibson played down in St Kilda, Palm Grove. I got Jack Turns on base. Then I had Helen Campbell on saxophone, Dick Sutcliffe on Saxophone, on tenor sax,
and a fellow called White on trumpet. We had a seven piece band and I used to play at the Jewish Young People’s Association in Elma Road every Saturday night. And one of the guests that used to go there was a fellow called Ern Petifer. Ern was one of the best clarinet players in the country. And Ern used to come along and MC [Master of Ceremonies] the night. And they had what they called dance schools and dance prizes for the best couple. Whatever. And he would
come along and he would say now this is the tempo I want you to play in Norm. And I’d play his tempo and he’d stand in the background and fiddle around. It was fantastic. We had this seven-piece band and it was good music. So at the end of the business I used to have to take all these guys home, didn’t I. Everything hanging out the back of the car. Here I am driving down the road with three blind blokes. So the long and the short of it was I gradually got into the industry. People would ring me and say, “Look we want a job done can you get
a band together”. “What do you want?” “Oh I want four pieces, five pieces, six pieces”. Then I used to go down to Mt Martha House every Friday night for the cabaret night down there, very strict stuff. And we played down at Mt Martha House. And then we’d have old time in Mornington on Monday night. We’d have a swing night down at Summerville on Tuesday. At Christmas time at the carnival they had a band that played all day behind the wire and you bought a ticket and went in and had a dance. We used to play there. We
did all sorts of funny things. One night I went to the deaf and dumb place in Gellibrand and we’ve got a fellow blind on the saxophone, Fred Holland and me. Fred was the piano player. And we’ve got deaf and dumb dances. And I said to the MC. “How do they know when to start?” He said, “You start. They’ll start with you”. “How do they do it?” “They feel the vibrations in the floor.” So he gets up on stage and announces the Palmer Waltz
or whatever. Bang bang and it’s on. Here we are sitting playing music like that. Then of course we gradually got into the weddings. I played for the Mentone Jockey Club. They used to bring their hearse. Not the hearse, the horse float to Fred’s home and pick up the piano, six blokes picked up his piano And took it down to the Mentone Golf Club. Took it up here to the Mentone Hotel, the piano. We had all sorts of jobs. It really was fantastic. So I went into the army with a lot of musical
background and my crowning glory, when we were in camp at Maryborough…I had my commission at that stage. When we were in camp at Maryborough we went to this huge army dance in the Maryborough town hall. And I got dobbed in to play the drums. So I thought, this will be a bit of a thing. It’s a seventeen-piece band. The lost you know, the whole deal.
I got introduced to the bandleader. He said, “What would you like to play, Sir” because I’d got my rank up. I said, “Well we’ll start off with Tommy Dorsey’s Song Of India’, Glen Miller, ‘In The Mood” and Benny Goodman’s ‘Bugle Call Rag’. As it is” He said, “You fair Dinkum?” I said, “Yes”. He said, “Go”. So I started off. Well it was fantastic. I’ve got a seventeen-piece band and here I am sitting up.
Those were the sort of bands. Well that’s my background in music. Then just for a joke I made a Changi Fiddle. A Changi Fiddle is made out of a dunny can upside down. With one string through it and a pole. And I used to have that for my second part of the act. And one night I got a bloke to play the drums in the blind band and I’d produced the fiddle.
And Alan Campbell turned down and said, “Who’s that bastard playing bass”. And I said, “It’s a new bloke in the band, Alan”. He said, “Well he’s not a bad bass player. So when the interval came he said, “Introduce me to him”. So I did a double round and said, “Pleased to meet you Mr Campbell”. So he put his hand…He said, “This is not a bass, you bastard, this is a dunny can”. We had a lot of fun. A lot of fun. So that briefly is my story but in the end I made quite a few bob out of it. You know I used to play for
seven and six and when I left the industry it was ten or fifteen bucks. It was good stuff.
Traditionally musicians have lived out of the seat of their pants but if you had only relied on music…
I wouldn’t have but let me go back to the army. When I first went into the army what they do they say, “What do you do soldier? Are you are carpenter, are you a brick layer?” So I thought I’d be
bloody smart see. “What are you?” “I’m a musician”. So what did I do? I finish up in the band. See. Well after about a week up and down the road playing the drums in the band I thought, “This is not for me!” And I got out of it. The bloke that took my place became one of the best drummers and he went away with the Australian entertainment group. All over the world. Fabulous. A fellow called
Bobby Plimun. And he opened a drum shop up on the corner of Lonsdale Street and Latrobe Street and made a lot of money Now had I gone down that path I wouldn’t be sitting here today talking to you.
Well I don’t know. We might be talking to some bandleaders.
But he was a professional. I was only an amateur.
Why didn’t you like playing in the army?
Well I couldn’t see any future in playing in a band in the army.
Would have probably saved you from getting shot at though. Unless you were really bad.
Well you become a stretcher bearer when the flack…
See you are a stretcher-bearer. But that didn’t appeal to me. I thought, “There’s no future in this for me. No promotion”. It was all very nice and whatever but I used to think, “Oh crikey, there’s no future in just up and playing in the band”. So really I stuck to the…So I went back to the jazz and we played good jazz. We played old time. We played anything. I used to play up at Mario’s and places like that.
The one up in Russell Street.
I don’t know it. Never mind.
I’ll get off the band soon because we should be talking about the war but it fascinates me.
That covers twenty odd years. And after we were married I still played because I had enough money to buy a motorcar. I was the only one in the group that had the car. That gave me choice of where we’d go and who we’d have in the band. Because I had the car I was able to pick up the blind blokes, you see. They couldn’t get there.
Before I got the car I used to go on the tram with the drums and in the train. Hilarious.
What did your mother think of you practising to be a drummer in the house?
I did the right thing. You could buy those practise pads that don’t make a noise. I used to get the records on and play away with the pads on my knee here. And I was still playing but not making any noise. That solved that problem. But then the drums went into sort of hibernation.
They were up in the roof of the garage and ever now and then we’d have a party and out would come the drums. The first night my brother came home from Changi, I took…he was living with a lady up in…He actually took board and lodgings with a lady that had a daughter and he ultimately married her, up in Bentley. He said, “I’ll go and get the grog. Can you arrange the music”? So I rang the blokes up. I said, “Look my brother Bill’s home. This is a gratis
job. I want you to come to this place up in Bentley and we put on the band”. Well they had a fantastic night. And there we were belting it out up in Bentley there. And Bill is sitting there. He was a bit of a keen drummer and he’s had a bit of a serve and I thought, “Well you know that was a nice gesture”. Mostly I played for money because the money was pleasant, you know. It was a good thing. The only down town was that I used to probably get too tired and I used to fall asleep at work.
And all this sort of business.
Now musicians have always got a reputation for being as close to the cool scene as you can get. And probably at the forefront of all sorts of things that more conventional society wouldn’t go near, like sly boot alcohol…
Oh yes but that’s a different level of music. We were never in that. We were always public music. Now when I lived in Moorabbin the fellow next door played the
ukulele. He was very good and we used to go down to Sorrento for weekends. He and I and our two wives. And we would play ukulele and bass and it used to bring the house down. Well then being very friendly with the Jewish fraternity in Caulfield, playing at their Saturday night. I used to get the weddings. And the wedding reception would invariably be at this palatial home in Toorak.
We have the band all set up and we’re playing and we have a good night. So I thought “Well I’ll put on a performance here”, so I excused myself and went out to the car and got the dunny can. Knocked on the door and this lady opened it and said, “Yes”. I’ve got the dunny can like this. I said, “Do you need one of these Madam”. She said, “ Oh no no no. Just a minute, you’re the drummer. What do you think you’re doing?” I thought, “I’ll show you”. So we go in and started and I’m playing
the bass. It brought the house down.
And one last question.
I’m fascinated about St Kilda before the war because it had a particular place in both wars as an R and R [Rest and Recreation] local. What were your thoughts about St Kilda?
Well I first became aware of St Kilda when Mum and Dad used to take us kids down to that Kiosk there, opposite Luna Park.
We thought that was a big deal. You know, to sit there and have a cup of tea or an ice cream or whatever and go in the water and get sunburned. That was my first impression of St Kilda because it was a beaut beach. We hadn’t discovered Rickett’s Point or Frankston. So I suppose that was a long time before the war, this would be in the early thirties.
Well I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure it was an R and R place
in the First World War as well. It wouldn’t have been as well used but….
No but it was a sort of a Kings Cross of Melbourne.
It had a lot of ballrooms and single room dwellings.
Exactly. But you see Palm Grove came along. That was up on the higher level there, opposite Luna Park. Palm Grove came and Bobby Gibson started that going and that brought a lot of new people into the area. He had one of the first big bands in Melbourne and he brought a new type of person
into the area. The young person that wanted to dance and listen to good music. So, and J Widden of course and his Sweet Swing. He was the American bandleader and he had that big band at the Palais de Dance. So St Kilda changed and it went very arty and went very musical. And then the war came along and I suppose I didn’t see much of St Kilda but to go back to St Kilda after the war. It was all different. All that scene by the beach had gone.
Is that right?
To my way of thinking it
wasn’t the place that Dad and Mum would take us. Because when my father then was dead and Mum wouldn’t take us to St Kilda, she would take us to Mordialloc or somewhere else, not St Kilda. I don’t know why.
I don’t know why either but it was also obviously home to a lot of new migrants, new Australians there.
And good good food. OK. I think that was more to indulge me than for the archive but it is fantastic stories. Let’s get back to Bougainville if we could. You started telling me
quite a bit about it yesterday and you had started talking about some of the missions you were sent out on and I’m assuming that that was at the beginning of a what was a long campaign of very difficult warfare and…
Eight months, yes.
I’d like to talk a bit about the trench warfare you encountered there and the slit trenches that you were stuck in for perhaps a couple of weeks at a time.
Well that’s not quite right. We were
never sort of in the same place more than one night. For obvious reasons. Now let me take you back a bit. A company has three platoons. Each platoon has three sections. A section is ten men; nine men and a corporal or an NCO. Now you couldn’t afford to have all your men in one spot. So you would go out on a patrol. That might be a patrol with a view to staying out
overnight on your own. So you’ve got a map and a compass and they say, “If you go that bearing for three hundred yards you’ll come to that and that bearing for another two hundred yards and you’ll come to that”. And you’d check it out on your map but of course the maps were ancient maps and a lot of the paths and things had been made by the Japanese to suit their own mode of travel. So we were really being conned on the map you see. We would arrive at a place and decide that it is getting late in the day
and you never moved at night, no one moved at night. So you would dig and digging in meant a two-man trench. About four foot deep and about a foot wide. And close enough so that you can touch hands with the next trench on your right or left. So you’ve got either a section that’s ten men or a platoon of thirty men in what we call a perimeter and platoon headquarters, that’s me, the sergeant, the runner would be in the middle.
In the middle so you’ve got your eye on the whole deal see. Then before you got to bed you’d put the booby traps out, you see. You’d get some milk cans, put them on a wire and string the wire out across the track and put two hand grenades at either end of the wire. If the wire was tripped the hand grenades would go off. So that was your protection. And that was the only way in and out of our perimeter. Nos that is where you stayed the night. If you’ve got say, a platoon, you’ve got a bit of backup. If
that part of the platoon is attacked you’ve got a reserve force to bring in. But if you down to say one section, ten men. You’ve got to spread your group pretty thinly but safely. So digging in was the thing so that at least one man could sleep at night or part of the night. You couldn’t afford to be above ground at night. So with the rains that used to come nearly every night we cut
palm those huge leave things and just lay them across the trench. But at night everyone actually got in the trench and one man would be awake and the other would be asleep. We used to say tie a string to the guy next door because at night no one spoke and if you wanted to get him you’d do this sort of business, see. You had silent contact and you also had code words. Hand signs and all sorts of things to indicate what your intentions were going to be.
Now, OK. You’ve gone out on the patrol platoon strength. You strike the enemy and you decide to dig in for the night. Of course the next morning you’d stand to before light. Everyone’s up ready to go. No thought of any meal or anything like this. So you test the enemy. Are they still there or are they gone. If they’d gone, Ok you’d get a meal and then you would go further on. Now when I say further on you might only move fifty yards. That’s a long way in the jungle, fifty yards.
And having moved that fifty yards you would consider you’d won that ground. That’s a plus. If you’re attacked and you have to retreat you would probably retreat more than fifty yards. You wouldn’t go back to your old holes because they’d had those zeroed. You might go back seventy yards because ten, fifteen, twenty yards in the jungle was a long way. Now, OK, you would then, if you were bedding
down for the night you’d ring company head quarters and say, “I’m at map reference so and so and so and so” and he would look up the map and see where you are. You had to be able to read a map and you had to recognize the terrain and know exactly where you were. Your compass would tell you, you’d read the stars and you would report in. Often the company commander would not know where his platoon was because you couldn’t get through, the lines were down, or it was not safe to use the telephone. So
it boiled down to this. To go out in a section patrol or a platoon patrol. Sometimes it was very very dicey. Now if for arguments sake the next day nothing happened and you were told to go out for three days, you would on and on and on. And you’d ring on the third day and say, “Do we go any further, sir, or do we come back?”
He’d say, “No. That’s as far as you’re allowed to go. Come back but come back a different way”. Before you left you had to bury all your
rubbish because they knew troops had been there. You were not allowed to blaze trees or knock things down to say give you an idea where you were. So that’s how patrols acted. If for some reason or other you arrived at a place and you decided to dig in and you found suddenly that the enemy were close, say as close as that road out there and you couldn’t lodge them you invariably had an artillery man with you and he was in touch with his battery of guns back two or three miles
and I would say to him, “What about three or four rounds to stir these blokes up?” and he would say, “Righto I’ll whip over”. So he would say back, “I want three rounds rapid fire, Bang Bang Bang”. Over would come three big shells onto the enemy and you would wait and see what’d happen. Whether you’d see blokes get up and run or nothing happens. You’d just say, “Well we killed them”. But we might not have killed them. They might be well and truly entrenched and they were.
So you had your options. So really it was a games of wits. Yours against theirs. There was nothing in the rule book to tell you how to do it. So you had to be pretty versatile. You had to have the support of every man. There were no weak links. If there was a weak link you had to get rid of him.
Is that what you wanted
Yep. I’ve got a zillion questions for you now. A patrol was between one and three days, there about.
Yes. Very rarely would you be out longer than that that because you couldn’t carry enough backup. You couldn’t carry enough food, ammunition and if you had casualties you were in big trouble.
And that is one of my questions. What did you do in the case of casualties? Them and yours?
If you had a casualty,
what we called a walking wounded and he could get back on his own he would go back on his own.
If he was say unable to sort of comprehend what he was doing you’d send a man back so you were two men light so then you’d say to the skipper, “Do you want me to go on? I’m two light. Sent two new men back”. So he’d bring two men out of the other platoon and reinforce me back to fighting strength. You can see there was nothing in
the book that you could say, “Well that’s how I’d do it”. It was all up here. Hit or miss.
I’ve never seen photos of World War II diggers, for example, carrying shovels but they must have.
Yes, we had those little shovels, like half shovels. They were about how should I say… the spade was about half the size of a normal spade with a short handle.
It was bent in I think and they still sell them.
The boys used to sharpen them to use
as a machete and a weapon and they used to go down your belt with the spade part in the small of your back and the handle down here so you could drag it out quick. Whatever. That’s how you dug a hole. If you didn’t have a spade you used a bayonet. But the ground was pretty soft.
I was going to ask. I’ve dug holes and it takes a long time.
The ground was swampy until you got up on top of the mountains. But then it was just like digging down at the beach, the sand you see?
You had trouble keeping a trench secure. As fast as you dug it out it would fall back in again. So we used to use a word called revetments which is a wooden…You’d cut a tree and lay a tree along the edge of the trench to stop the sand from coming back in and that would also give you a little bit of protection. If there was any firing you had a log of wood in front of you, right. Now the problem
was how to disguise that. So we would cut leave and put leaves over that to disguise it.
What time did it get dark there?
Yes. And like that.
Literally like that. Perhaps sooner if it was raining. Three or four o’clock if it was heavy raining. Rain was always worse in the dark because it was still light but you couldn’t sort of discern anything because of this huge rain. When I say rain, I mean rain.
So like a camping trip
part of your patrol is it about planning how much time you’ve got to do this tricky task.
Yes. Except that they might not have realized that they were sending you into an area where time had to be altered because there was too much action or too many enemy or you were too far from home. They might say three days. You might finish up two and a half days or you might run into the forth day. So you say to the skipper, “I can’t get back tomorrow”. He’d say, “OK come back the day after”. But he’s got
to know where his troops are.
How did you maintain your ground in a place like a jungle where you might get fifty yards for a day? They could sneak in behind and…
That’s right. The favourite method was this. If you came across opposition they were invariably on a trail. On either side of a trail. If you can imagine they’d be on each side of a trail now a trail would be about this width here. About
six feet. A track that they had made with all the continued walking. It wasn’t a road or a lane. It was just a track. They would invariably have a dugout or a machine gun over there sighted so they could get anyone coming round the track, invariably on a bend where you could come round the bend and suddenly you are there. You are vulnerable, see. So if you were on these tracks you got to know
them. Not by the map but just where they were in your mind. “Now we know there’s a track up…That goes there. I wonder if …” and you look at it and think, “That hasn’t been used in a while. That’s a bit scary. There has been no movement from this end up that track. We could be walking into an ambush” so you’d veer off the track and go around it. Now having found the enemy and you couldn’t go forward you’d go round their flanks and come in from the rear. So what you would do you would put one section in front to attract
their fire and you’d send one section round there and one section round there. You’d have to say, “Now don’t fire because you’ll kill one another, don’t fire under ten seconds, twenty seconds, one minute. Don’t fire unless l I give you the signal“ And that’s how you surrounded them. And then what would happen is that the Japs had all their armament facing that way they were sitting ducks from the rear. And a lot of our fellows got close enough to throw in
grenades and kill these guys in the back door, see. So the favourite thing was to sit on a track because invariably you were going to draw something. Now sometimes the Japs got very angry. And they would come out of their foxholes and come after you. And they would just, blokes would look up and pick them off like peas. And I remember one occasion we were astride a track and it was getting
late in the afternoon and we’d sort of stirred them up a bit. Like ants they were angry and the next thing they attacked us. I can still see this officer resplendent in white gloves, sashes, waving this huge bloody sword leading his men. And they just came out of the woodwork. Well it was a case of everyone fire, go for your life, you know.
How many of them? How many of you?
Oh we would outnumber them.
They didn’t have the resources that we had. I’m talking now a platoon of thirty men. Half a dozen Japs would attack thirty Australians. They were game. We wouldn’t have done it but they were game. And I admired them for it because we had them beat by sheer numbers. So you’ve got to remember this. None of us had been in action before and the minute the first shot was fired you think, “Crikey now this is the real serious stuff here.
What do we do?” We don’t know because we’ve never been there before. So all your training comes back in. How to shoot straight. How to stop. How to start. When to run. When to not run. Boy O boy a lot of things were made up in a hurry.
Do you think your training equipped you?
Yes. It equipped me.
What about your boys?
Yes because we’d put them through time and time and time again so that it was instinctive. There were some guys who just couldn’t hack it.
They just froze…OK.
What do you do with a private who is frozen?
You give them a chance, have a talk to them. You might switch them from this section to, another section.
What about in the heat of battle?
Well it’s almost every man for himself. And really if a bloke is that way inclined and he sees his mate go down invariably they will come good. It’s when the whole business collapses that they start to think, “Oh God, we’ve got to get out of here”. I never saw any of that.
Did you have a rifle or a revolver?
Carried a revolver, never used it. It was useless. I had an Owen gun.
Code words and hand signs. Can you show me some?
Code words were mainly for disguising the identity of the battalion and the sections or the platoons. My code name was Roger.
They’d ring up and say, “Roger, Apple here”. Well I knew I was talking to Major Souels and he knew he was talking to Norm Turrell. No one else knew. My blokes used to call me Roger. I never wore my rank in action. Never. Because unfortunately the Australian Army gave us green uniforms and white badges of rank. They stuck out like dog’s balls, excuse the expression. It was stupid. But the blokes would never call you Sir. They’d just yell out, “Norm, We’re in trouble” and that was right.
Because I wouldn’t say, “Private Smith”. I would say, “Smithy” or something like that. There was no corporal this and sergeant that. Except when we knew we were safe. So in the heat of battle the less said the better. A lot of it was sign. I would say, “I’ll send three blokes round here and I…” what was his name, corporal…I’ll think if it in a minute but I’ll say, “Corporal Something.
I’d go…Three men round there. Smithy. Three over here…Two there”. He could mouth me, sort of he could sort of understand what you were talking about.
Sorry Norm. We’ve missed your left hand signals on cameral there.
Yes, I should have been a bit more specific too. Could you do again for us about nipple high in front of your chest?
Hand signals. We want three men to go round to the right.
So I’d catch his eye over there and I’d say, “Three men”. Nothing said, just OK and I want two to go round to the left. Everyone knew down. Deathly silence. The blokes go out. Suddenly boom boom boom boom and you look over and they’re coming backwards and these guys are going forwards. That means we’re winning that side so more blokes round this side. You pull those blokes back, put them in reserve,
and we go round with the guys on the left because obviously that’s the way in to success. So it’s like a game of cards.
You’re making it up as you go along. There’s the ball you’ve got to follow it. And that’s how we sort of acted. There’s no difference generally speaking. That’s the way an infantryman either won or lost. It was a game of nerve, a game of bluff, a game of
how shall I say, common sense. There’s nothing in any military book that tells you that. But all that was done during training. We used to train. All that stuff used to be battle stimulated. We’d have blokes firing, actually firing with live bullets over your head while you
did that. You knew if you stood up you were in trouble. So we tried to stimulate battle conditions in our schools and our jungle training.
Yes. Booby traps.
Did any ever get tripped up while you were trying to get some kip [sleep] at night?
Yes. That was a sign something was wrong. It wouldn’t be us because no one moved in the perimeter at night.
If someone moved it was enemy. Now if the booby traps went off everyone was up, alert. Now you knew where the gate was. It was over there. There was a wire across a track about six foot. If the booby traps went off and sometimes they went off and in the morning there was a dead Jap. If the booby trap went off and there was no one there they got out of it but two days later we find a bloke lying on the side of the track wounded and bleeding.
He managed to get out of it, right. Sometimes our own blokes were wounded with booby traps because they were too close. The Jap blew them up. One bloke has got his head, “What’s going on?”. That happened. Wounded by own booby traps. That happened. There were a number of fellows wounded by booby traps. On another occasion we were walking along and I had a police boy with me. That’s
a native police boy, a Solomon Islander. Fit like these league footballers. Fit, keen. Just their lap lap on, their beads and their rifle. And you introduced yourself, “Hello Jimmy. I’m Norm”. “OK Boss. What do I do?”. “When I stop sir you stop. When I run you run. Right?” “Right” “Pass the word back”. So the police boy, me. We are going down the track and all the boys behind me. Going along this track at a rate of knots and he stopped.
Hand up. “What’s wrong?”, He says… And here’s a wire across the track and on each end of the wire are two mortar bombs. A mortar bomb is about that big and that round. Had he not been there I would not have seen that wire and the lot of us would have gone.
Did that happen more than once?
Two or three times but on that occasion I can remember it so clearly. I would not have seen that.
Did you ever find them yourself after learning from him?
Well we were very very conscious of it but you only get one chance. So what would happen. Say we had found it and not tripped it. I would immediately stop and say, “Right, get one of the pioneers up”. And the pioneer would come up and disconnect it. We weren’t allowed to touch it. Mind you, you’d move our men away. But the police boys had eyes like…O goodness me they were good.
They were fantastic.
We are nearly out of time but did they share a similar ability like the indigenous Australians? Having this sort of sixth sense.
They were better than the Australian Aborigines because they were trained to a very high degree. They were so keen to show how good they were. They were fighting for their own country.
You say they were police boys. Would they be police officers in civilian times?
No just police boys.
That was just their army title.
Yes. The police boys. They were fantastic blokes.
I think we had better change tapes actually because every other question…
End of tape
Interviewee: Albert Turrell Archive ID 0189 Tape 07
I’d better turn a page. My next question. What did you do with the Japanese dead?
Well the Japanese dead invariably if the other Japanese had gone and left them it was our job to sort of note that they were there. Invariably you’d get hold of something like a rifle upside down or
a stick or something and poke it in the ground. You wouldn’t bury them. None of that business. Then you would report that three Japanese dead lying at point so and so on the map. They’d get a detail of other men to come and do something about that. They would want to search them. They would get an I man up. An intelligence man to search the bodies for documents and such and any other. They’d look at his physical condition to assess
the state of the Japanese army. They were very particular about dead Japs. If you had a wounded Jap our RAP man, that’s our medical bloke, he would administer first aid to this guy. And invariably he would patch him up and take him back for questioning. We had a Japanese interpreter who would interpret these guys and we’d got a lot of information out of them. They were dead scared that we were going to shoot them and when they found out that they were going to be treated like human beings
we got information out of them.
Were they ever tortured?
No never. Never. I never saw any brutality. But I must tell you this. In my platoon I had a bloke and he carried a pair of pliers. And he made a lot of money out of gold teeth. And he’s one of the men I’ve recommended for interview and I hope he gets an interview because Blocky will tell them.
So would that…
I’m assuming he just took them out of the dead Japanese not the wounded.
Well we’ll say that the dead Japanese. I won’t answer that any more. I’m going to incriminate the poor guy.
You don’t need to. You say you never saw any cruelty or whatever. There’s definitely talk of Australians treating wounded Japanese quite badly.
soldier in ninety nine point nine percent in my opinion would never resort to that sort of thing. If it did happen it would be a one off. It would be personal grudge that that guy has faced him and tried to kill one another. And the Australian bloke is on top he would be cruel. He would finish that bloke off man to man. But in the heat of battle there was none of that.
Nor did I see any Japanese cruelty to our blokes. There was no evidence of it.
What about mercy killings. If someone’s really badly wounded on either side?
No we didn’t experience any of that. While a bloke was still breathing he was alive.
What about if you are three days away?
What would happen then if we had a badly wounded man we would call for the stretcher bearers and they would send up three or four of the natives with a couple of blankets. They would make a sort of
blanket bed and put a huge pole through it. Cut a pole down. And sling it over their shoulders and take him back to the RAP. Even a dead body sometimes came back like that. We would be going up the stairs or up the slope and the natives would be coming down four blokes on a pole with a dead body. “Who’s that?” “It’s Freddy Smith from so and so so and so”. Not good for the morale but we saw a lot of that. The natives were wonderful.
How did you get messages back when you were in tricky tight spots?
Well you always had a runner and the runner Invariably was your batman. He just wasn’t a batman to make your clothes clean and feed you. He was your runner. He was armed and where I went he would go. And he was always at my side with my platoon sergeant. If I wanted a message sent where I couldn’t send it by visual or wire I would send a message
Either write it our or tell him what I wanted done and get him repeat it three or four times and take that message to someone say 100 yards away, thirty yards away. Because I’ve got to be where I’m saying I’m going to be. They have got to know where I am for various commands and various indications of what we are doing. So the runner was a very valuable part of platoon headquarters.
In other words he wasn’t just a batman, he was a runner and you had to trust that guy. And after all if he is doing your washing and looking after you, he knows you pretty well, you know him pretty well. . That’s why you look after your batman. You keep him loyal. So the batman…while the rest of the troops derided them for being servants, they were a very very important part of an officers right and left hand.
Gutsy kind of role?
Very much so and they were very badly underrated.
And if ever I heard anyone criticising a batman I used to say, “Hay, you wait until we get into action. You’ll see what a batman does”.
Did you ever have any experiences of men in your section who were out on patrol who just didn’t get it? And I think I know what you are going to say but how…You’d say get rid of them. Send them back or whatever but how?
Well you’d go through a various chain of command. You’d call the corporal over and you’d say, “Corporal
Fred, what’s wrong with Charlie Smith?” “Well his wife left him or he’s feeling crook or he’s got a sore foot”. Whatever.. You’d say “Look. Gee him up, see what you can do”. That fails. So then the sergeant goes over and assesses in front of the corporal. “Now listen Charlie, What’s your problem. We’re too far from home and you can’t go back on your own. You’ve got to stick it out mate”. Mate still hasn’t responded so he fronts me or I front him see. “Now look, I can’t send you back.
and you know. What’s your big problem”? Invariably they would take advice from me that they wouldn’t take from the corporal. They think I know more about the things of the world. It’s a case of a status thing. So invariably you got a result but where you have no recovery at all in that sort of situation he simply has to go. So you send him back. On the pretence sometimes, because of saving face, that you’ve got a message for the officer commanding
that company. But you would ring the company commander up and say, “I’ve got to send Brown back, he’s no good but treat him pretty well. He’s not a bad sort of a bloke but he’s having an off day. But send me up a replacement”. You wouldn’t sort of give the bloke a bad start to his problem but if he didn’t respond to that well the company commander would take over and he would get rid of him. Sent him back to one of the base areas. Because we always had reserves up to a point but it meant
a strange man coming into the section and that was always a dicey thing. Because if a section is together for three or four weeks on their own, they know exactly what the reaction from each person’s going to be. Suddenly you’ve got a strange man and a feeling of, “I wonder if he’s alright”. It was a very, very, very close to the bone situation. And a lot of these blokes never ever got the credit for doing nothing but they did something. They never did nothing outstanding
but they did something. They did their job.
Now in addition to that example of the under numbered Japanese who came out and you took them apart. Were there any other times when you were ambushed and…
Yes. They’d be waiting for us.
I’ll just ask the question again for the future filmmakers. Can you tell me about a time on patrol when you were ambushed?
Yes. We would be going
down a track thinking there was no enemy about and suddenly they’re there. And they invariably fired first. They saw us before we saw them. It’s a case of every man for himself so that’s when you’ve got to really make a quick decision. And I think I told you yesterday that that did actually happen to me. We were sitting on the side of a track thinking, “Well we’re here. Do we go on or do we go left or right?” They saw all this and when they reckoned they were right and they had enough bodies to fire at they opened fire. But invariably
you sensed that they were there. Particularly if you had one of the police boys. They could smell them. They could tell you that they were there but they couldn’t be seen. So you would send one man out to ascertain what the numbers were. Were we outnumbered? Were they dug in? In other words it was a case of a quick assessment before you went anywhere. Very rarely were Australian troops out-manoeuvred. They were too shrewd. Australian troops were so well trained
because the Japanese sort of were blind hit or miss. The Australian troops weren’t like that. They were pretty cunning. They were shrewd. They were Australian attitude, you know, “Let’s have a look at this mate”, sort of thing.. And they always had a bit of reserve. The Japs were hit or miss. There’s a lot of men like that.
Comparatively in Bougainville they just lost thousands and thousands.
They were badly out numbered. In the finish they were outnumbered. But in the initial stages neither side knew the strength of the other side. We didn’t know there was forty thousand there. We thought there was eighteen thousand there. They didn’t know that as one battalion went out and came out another battalion came in behind them fresh. When they had their serve, another…And they couldn’t believe there were so many troops after them.
Now just at MacArthur
not to put too finer point on it left you guys to rot in Bougainville for a while did the Japanese command sort of do the same to their men in Bougainville?
No the Japanese command was slightly different. You had your generals that sort of never appeared to us. Probably the highest-ranking officers we would ever come face to
to face with were captains. But their NCOs had a lot of clout. Their corporals and sergeants had a lot of clout. They were very much superior in reputation to our NCOs and they used to drive their men to do fanatical things. A lot of them didn’t have to be told to do it. They would happily die for their emperor. You know. A completely different attitude
to the Australian soldier. The Australian soldier didn’t want to die but the Japanese soldier couldn’t have cared less. He was there to fight to the death. So it was a queer situation. We hadn’t struck them before and they hadn’t struck us before. But they had struck the Americans and the American attitude was this; “If you can’t kill them with guns fired from ships two miles away why go into the jungle and try and kill them with bayonets? That wasn’t the American way. It had to be a mass slaughter job.
No hand to hand stuff. That was the difference. We were the hand-to-hand stuff. We were there on the ground. Not hitting them from miles away or shelling them for two weeks in a row and frightening them and getting them to hit you. You know. Ours was face-to-face stuff. You’d come into a place where there’d been a village and you’ve got these huts. Bamboo huts and things. And you’d look at is and think, “I wonder if this is occupied”? See.
And you could tell the signs. You were looking for smoke, if there was fire, right. So then you’d send a couple of blokes out. One man to go and one man to follow him three or four yards behind and cover him. And he’d say, “I’m going over there” and he’d go and suss this place out and if he was going backward you knew there was a problem. So those guys would hit the dirt and we’d fire over them. And they’d quietly come back on their hands and knees.
So you had to sort of make it up again as you went along. You couldn’t sort of say, “Well I’ve got to have five men to do this”. It was a case of what have we got? How do we get out of this quickly? There was plenty of that because those huts invariably would be occupied by the Japanese. In other words they had chased the natives away. They had knocked their gardens off. They had been overnighting in this lean to come bamboo hut whatever it is and when we went
into some of these places there’d be dead Japanese there. There’d be bandages or there’d be rubbish. They were a terrible filthy lot the way they lived. There’d be a few little garden with beans and all sorts of vegies tried to be grown. But you were gradually able to recognise the signs of occupation or non occupation. Very rarely did they sort of set themselves in a hut,
high up in the ground to withstand any attack. They were always below ground. If we caught them in a hut we would catch them unawares and of course we would hoe into them. Then if the hut was empty that would go down. Because when the patrol leader got back he would have to report everything that happened. Insignificant as it well may be. ‘Found a hut at map reference so and so. Searched. Possibly occupied by ten Japanese last night.
Lots of bandages on the floor. Rations laying about. Odd scraps of paper and one thing and another. Probably the ashes in the fire were still warm’ which meant they were there yesterday. That would all go back to headquarters. And then we would go on and perhaps the next day we would go back again to see whether the Nips had come back. See there is nothing in the books about all this. This is all make it up
as you go.
Were there ever any cases of the Japanese calling out at night?
What would they call?
“Hello Australia. How’s your bloody wife?” No. I’m not kidding.
It’s not funny but it always sounds comical.
Oh they soon learned all that stuff. Plenty of that.
It’s just such a funny thing to call out. It makes sense.
But they thought because it was so stupid that our blokes used to laugh at it.
I’m not the only person who thinks that sounds funny.
They thought that that would upset somebody.
What else would they call out?
I can’t remember anything much more than that. There probably would be other things. But that basically. “Hello Aussie” and all this kind of business. And the wife or invariably your sister.
And did you yell back in Japanese?
Did you ever know any Japanese?
No. In other words you did not let them know that you’d
heard it because you were giving away your location.
Well no that is a stupid question in the way I approached it. Was there ever a time when you were trying to psych them out though?
No. No. I mean often when battle was on you’d hear our blokes, “Take that you so and so bastard”. You know there was plenty of that. Like they play football today. There’s aggravation and blokes have got to shout. We had a
tough little sergeant. He wasn’t my sergeant but he was a real bloody tough man. He killed a Jap one day and we couldn’t stop him stabbing him with the bayonet.
After he’d killed him?
Yeah. He went off. A bit like a soup when he’d finished. It was terrible thing to see but it got the better of him. He was so bloody angry. It was a talking point for days.
It wasn’t my sergeant but I remember this.
Did you see any evidence of the Japanese cruelty to the locals?
No. We didn’t see any locals of any sort.
The local police boys though.
Oh I’m talking about…You mean the native locals, the non combatants? No didn’t see any of those. Any of the locals that we saw were police boys, armed.
Were there no women about anywhere?
Do you know where they were?
Well what happened when the Japanese came most of the natives shot through And probably when I say shot through they got somewhere near the beach where they went to… they got the canoes and they simply left Bougainville. They went to the little islands where the Japanese weren’t. And there were thousands of those little islands. Some of the islands only as big as this house, perhaps. Just to get away.
on those patrols or in similar incidents did you experience a number of close shaves on your person?
Bullets whizzing past?
Any illustrations of that?
Well on that day that we copped it on the track, and I say, I’ve got my map out. I’m on my hands and knees talking to Ian my sergeant here and asking if I should go right or left. And of course the Jap must have said that’s the bloody officer with a map in his hand. See.
So the next thing I know the shots are at me. So I just went to ground. I crawled on my guts and I got behind this tree. It was a log about a foot round, and I got behind that. And he followed me there. But his machine gun could not be depressed. It reached the limit of his depressed aim. And he went right along the top of that bough and all the bark went down my neck.
Down the collar and I’m going “You bastard, you bastard.” I remember that very clearly.
Is there time to think about anything?
Well it’s a case of personal survival.
Do you see your mother or…
No you are only thinking, “God have I got to finish like this?” or whatever, whatever.
Can I ask you a personal question?
Do you piss yourself at that point?
Yes. Many a time but you didn’t know it at the time.
Do you get any other bodily functions?
Well I suppose it did happen but that was the thing. I suppose you were going to ask me how did you overcome that problem? When you were in a overnight situation. We always had what we call a pioneer. He was a man that was trained for digging holes and…he was a man that could defuse a bomb. He would make a toilet. Dig a hole.
put four logs across it and put on it like a four-gallon can with a lid on it and that’s where everyone went in the night. Right. In the day time if you had to go to the toilet you would say, “Charlie, I’ve got to take a bog, Keep an eye on things”. So this bloke would go into the trees with his little bit of paper, sit himself down,do the job and come back. It was just when you felt like it.
You’d go days sometimes. Nothing happened.
What happens when you are in the little slit trenches at night? Well stupid question. You’d just sort yourselves out before you get into the trench.
Well, sort yourself but if in the middle of the night you had to go wee wee you did it in the trench. We had empty tins.
Not that this is related but I’m going to change the subject slightly. I’m wondering if you would talk to me about Ian Alford?
Yes. When a new officer goes to a company invariably you inherit the platoon. You get the lot. You get the NCOs and the privates, exactly, right. In my case when I went to this eighteen platoon Ian Alford was the platoon sergeant. Up stairs I had all the records of promotions in the unit and I noted that he was a corporal for a long time in Sellheim in 1941.
He was a corporal. When I got to him he was a sergeant. He was a very quietly spoken gentleman. Little did I know he was a scoutmaster in Longreach prior to the war. He was a bloke that could defuse a situation just by being there. And when I inherited him I thought, how lucky am I because some of the sergeants wanted to set their officer up, wanted to knock him off, they hated
his guts. Ian was exactly the opposite. He was a good friend as well as my platoon sergeant. We both clicked. We had a good runner and the three of us clicked. And when we were on Goode Island we had what they call two messes; we had the officer’s mess for one man and the other rank’s mess but Ian always ate with me. So the sergeant ate with the officer.
That’s how much I thought of him. And my batty used to come in and serve Ian without any problem whatsoever. The troops never queried it. They thought it was only right and proper that Ian should not eat with them, should eat with his officer. Now when Ian was…Well he was wounded and then he died of wounds. When Ian was with me I had every confidence.
Had I been knocked off he could have taken over without any problems. The men respected him. He was one of the original soldiers in the unit. A lot of the blokes in the unit were Queenslanders. They knew Ian Alford. They all came from Longreach or Winton. They knew Ian Alford. He was a schoolteacher. He knew a lot of people. He had a reputation as a bloke before he even got into the army. And when he eventually died there were a lot of sorry people. More so than me. Fantastic bloke.
You said yesterday…I had asked you about what was it like losing one of the first chaps that you lost and it was Sorenson that you were talking about.
So Ian went less than a couple of days later.
So you were early on in your patrols in Bougainville at this point by the sound of it.
Yes. That was in the Soraken. That was the day we got lumbered. The day I got shot
at. That was my…Sorenson was out front as the scout and he would be about from here to your car away and he got clobbered. And of course Ian’s along side me there and we pulled him back out and we went through his pack and I went through the little session yesterday about finding the notebook. Little did I realize that two days later I’d lose Ian.
Can you tell me about that then?
He was sitting on the side of a trench and the enemy opened up with a mountain gun. Now mountain gun
fire a bullet about as big as a beer bottle. It is a sphere sort of a thing. It is about that round and about that long. Now this mountain gun was a terrible weapon. It was a two man thing. Like it was only like a pram. Very small wheels about that round and about as big as a pram. And they could take it anywhere, through the jungle whatever, but they were deadly accurate with it. And they fired on us and from what I can remember
the shell hit the tree and disintegrated and he copped a sliver of the shell into the upper part of the body. We got him back to the hospital but he died two days later. He didn’t actually die along side me.
When you care so much about a person is it a bit different when they are wounded on patrol?
Yes. You lose the plot for a bit. But then you look around and think, “God, I’ve got to go on with this”.
There’s a big gulf then.
Yes. You’ve got to start anew. So I got this new bloke, they sent him up. I don’t know where he came from, came up but it wasn’t five minutes before we were in another action and I think I told you yesterday that one bullet took his hat off and left a stripe over his head. He wasn’t worth two bob after that. I had to get another one.
Was he just raving on after that?
Had every right to be. Sergeant Burgin, B-U-R-G-I-N. I can see it. I don’t want to put any names down but poor old Burgin. He didn’t last long. I don’t know what happened to him but I think I might have got a bloke called Mansfield or someone like that but I’d have to look up the records. But you know everybody was indispensable.
I gather a little part of you dies when you lose someone you care about out there.
Well the bum fell out of things if I put it bluntly. The troops were upset about it and that says a lot for the bloke, doesn’t it? A lot of them hated the sergeant because he was the order maker. He was the man that got it done and they were pleased to see him go. But not Ian. And when I saw that memorial up in Longreach last year, year before last I had to howl.
I’m not surprised.
Because I didn’t know his background. I knew
he was a schoolteacher but I didn’t know he was held in such high regard in Longreach, as the scoutmaster.
So if you spend so much time together, is there not time to talk about your life before the war?
Oh we used to sit for hours, we used to play cards up in my tent. We used to sit for hours. He was a very knowledgeable bloke. Far ahead of me in general knowledge. He wasn’t young. I think he was probably older than me but he was terribly quiet and he used to speak quietly. “That’ll be right Norm”.
But on parade he was, “Yes Sir”.
Did you beat yourself up about letting him die?
I was upset for days. My problem was that I couldn’t get to hospital and see him die, or be there when he died. He died out of action. He went back to hospital. I don’t know whether he died at RAP [Regimental Aid Post]. No he went to hospital. That would be a field ambulance. In other words, an area behind company headquarters.
Were there any erroneous decisions made at that point that left him in sight of a mountain gun?
Bad luck. In the wrong place at the wrong time.
Did your feelings about the Japanese go from abstract to personal?
Yes. I wanted to even it up.
Did you ever get the chance to take that sort of revenge on Ian’s behalf?
You had to do it. It was the only thing that kept you going. They kicked a goal. We kick a goal.
So what did you do to do that to them?
You know. We had to even things up. Knock someone’s head off.
A bit more detail?
Rather not. Bit savage but you get carried away.
Are you sure it’s not worth it for the record to talk about it?
Well you can’t hold your hate in. You’ve got to say an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
I think that’s enough to say. I didn’t single one bloke out but anyone who wasn’t wearing an Australian uniform was the enemy. And having lost Sorenson and Ian literally within two days that left a big hole in my command structure. The word was, “Righto fellows, we’ve got to even this up”.
So when you’re writing your company history, your battalion history, what do you do about those sort of things? I take it you left them out.
No I put it in but after I had done that I put the cover on the typewriter, locked the door and I went away for two weeks. I went to London. I came back completely refreshed and started again. I couldn’t handle it. I put that in the book. That, “The author has reached the stage where
he remembers the loss of certain people.” It’s in the book somewhere there. “And you’ll excuse the author if he puts down the pen at this stage,” or something like that for a while so I can come good. Had too. But I never ever got to speak to his relatives. I never got the chance. Letters went out because they go out but really and truly
what can you do? Every man is open to that sort of thing. But the loss in Longreach must have been huge because they erected that scout hall and that is a big tribute to one man. He wasn’t a colonel he was just a humble sergeant. So when I saw that in 2001 that made me even sadder.
And I know I’ve upset you again by asking about it , just it’s important.
So when another soldier dies who you may or may not be so close to and you have to report the death is it clinical? What do you have to do?
It’s clinical. You have to record that Private Smith was killed in action as a result of enemy fire. At the time of his death he was operating as a lone scout, or he was a forward scout, or he was a machine gunner or whatever. You simply write the facts and
you dismiss that from your mind. Then that goes back to the headquarters and they assess that my report contains the same very words and they confirm it. They’ve either got the body or the wounded man to prove it. End of story. So that’s the historical record of a man’s death. What other way could you do it?
I don’t know but what did you do for example when Ian died?
I didn’t actually see him
die. I knew he was wounded. I had lost him so I assumed that he would recover.
So is he out of your jurisdiction one he has left your patrol?
Yes. Once he has left my patrol and been replaced by another sergeant I have to forget about him. I’ve got the new sergeant to worry about. I’ve got the men to worry about but in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “God Ian, I hope you make it”. And it wasn’t until two days later that I got the word that he had passed on.
Does that cause a perverse sort of resentment to your new sergeant?
No. You have to say that he is equal to that man until such time as it is proved different.
He is not really though is he?
Oh no no. The connection had to start again. He’s got to get used to me. I’ve got to get used to him. Where I’d only have to look at Ian he’d know what I’m thinking because we had built up this rapport. Before we went into action we knew one another so well. We knew one and another’s thoughts. When you’ve got a new sergeant
you’ve got to see how he’s going to go. He’s not only got to react to me, I got to react to him, he’s got to react to the other thirty odd blokes. They don’t know him. Why didn’t we promote one of the corporals to sergeant in that same platoon? Why didn’t we do that instead of bringing in a new sergeant? See. They’re the questions you ask yourself. So when you get back and you say, “This bloke’s not as good as Alford, I want Mansfield promoted to sergeant”. You would take your case to your company commander and say, “Hey that’s
got to be”. And invariably they would do something like that if they thought it was the right thing to do.
What happened under this circumstance though? Did you try?
No. At that stage I sort of got on with Burgin but it wasn’t long before I lost him and I got on with someone else. I don’t know who it was. I’d have to look up my records but I wasn’t happy with him. Perhaps I didn’t give him a fair go. Perhaps he was terribly unlucky to cop what he copped the first the bullets started firing. I don’t know
where he came from. I don’t know where he went. I wasn’t interested in him, I didn’t have time to be interested in him. But I was probably spoiled because I knew so much about the other guy. When I went to the reunion in 1991 Jack Mansfield, who was one of my senior corporals. He was blind. Not during the war but he lost his sight but he was at the reunion.
And at the reunion you sit around tables, sixty or seventy or a hundred of us and you move from table to table and you go sit there and talk to them and then go over there and talk to him. And I saw Jack Mansfield. He’s blind. I went up and sat next to him. I said, “How are you Jack?”
He said, “Hello Norm”. Think about that. I’ve got a picture up there
of him the day I did it. I can’t explain that. [(UNCLEAR)]. You see this story sounds like a broken record. There must be hundreds of blokes who have the same set of circumstances. But this is an individual thing that you are asking me and I’m trying to answer
it. What happened to me? Which is all you wanted to know. That actually happened. The 1991 reunion.
If you want to see the picture I can show it to you. Jack Mansfield, poor old Jack, he’s since died. So many of our blokes have died. Out of three thousand three hundred in the unit there are barely three hundred left. There are
only seven officers still alive out of thirty five. Seven out of thirty-five and I am one of them.
What do you have, do you think, that has kept you so strong in mind and body?
I don’t know. Luck.
Do you think it’s any more than that?
Luck. Absolute luck. I should have copped it but the blokes that did cop it they didn’t go looking for it they just copped it. Mind you a lot of them had died of old age. We only lost two officers
in battle. Johnny Compton was killed and Major Matthews was killed. But they’ve since died of health problems, bearing in mind that some of them are older than I am or were when they died.
But you’ve got something else that’s kept you going too. Like for example do you have nightmares about this? Ever since and still?
Yes. I can still get nightmares about the war. Without any trouble.
What do you do in the morning when you know you’ve had one?
Oh I think, “Oh well a man’s getting a bit old. He’s getting a bit stupid to have all this happening to him”. I go for a walk or something.
Do you think women can really understand this?
No. I’ve never talked like this to Freda. She’s never asked and yet she’s been very supportive, very supportive when I was writing the book. I nearly drove her mad. I used to go up there and never see her from morn till night. I’d lock the door. All she could hear was the typewriter going.
But at least she gave me a week of her time up at Canberra. Sat next to me and wrote it out and whatever. Very supportive. But to sit down. It’s not the thing for me and her to talk like that. We never had that discussion.
Well you’ve got to live together don’t you?
Yes. And I think it’s a good thing. I’ve said more to you than I’ve said in a long time. When we go to a reunion I would
never dream of talking like this to the other blokes. They’d think he’s big noting himself. So it’s an opportunity for me perhaps to get it off my chest once and for all. But blokes don’t talk like that any more. But every man has a story to tell. Whatever it is. But in my case, perhaps because I had so much responsibility thrust upon me, it makes you more conscious of the facts. It makes you more conscious of the problems.
It makes you more conscious that you have to perform. And I probably could have done a better job somehow. I don’t know I could have done a worse job but I did my job and I’m still alive. Luck.
End of tape
Interviewee: Albert Turrell Archive ID 0189 Tape 08
After listening to seven tapes you’re a man with a big chunk of drive.
Yes, that’s my nature.
Do you think that comes at all from you being part of the migrant experience?
No. It’s just something that you are born with. Or perhaps I’ll put it another way, I think it was forced upon me with my early loss of father. I had to assume
responsibility. I had to become a provider. I had to become a minder. I had to improve myself so I could improve the lot of my family. Had that not happened I might have been just one of the mob. So it has brought out what I might say has been my success in life. And to a degree both of my sons have got the same incentive.
Do you think then that prior to that you were just a fifteen-year-old boy ?
Yes. Without a care in the world.
Because it seems to me that.
But I still had three jobs when I was fifteen.
I reckon you had it before then but you perhaps didn’t realize it.
Even though I was going to school I had jobs. When I say jobs I mean up at five o’clock in the morning delivering papers or going over to the golf club and walking around Kingston Heath twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday carrying a bag and coming home with twelve shillings. Which was a bloody fortune. Twelve shillings in two days.
I’d get ten bob a week working in the city.
That’s pretty good isn’t it?
So you see the incentive was there to keep going.
When your father passed away did your mother’s attitude to you change?
How was that?
Well she looked to me to sort of fill the hole. To provide the sustenance. Without me she would never have survived.
It’s a terrible blow for a woman of that age. She was just about fifty when he died. Terrible. And when you think about what they had to do to come all the way from London to Australia, rear two kids, and finally get to the stage where he’s got a job and she’s going along nicely and suddenly he’s not there. It’s a terrible shock for a mother at that age. At fifty say, with two kids. We’d never being tested, right. But
I was lucky I suppose that those circumstances came at the time when I was able to realize it. I didn’t have to have anyone tell me about it. I knew myself that I had to perform.
You think those kind of qualities are the same ones that drove you to become an officer?
Yes. Ambition to be better than I was.
But raw ambition is a dangerous and not necessarily a good thing. It has to be tempered.
But I knew where to stop. I knew my limits.
So I think if you’re ambitious and at the same time you know your limits and you are aware of consequences.
Yes. I always knew where to stop. Never ever did I go over that line. My brother did. He was a gambler. I was not. He would go into things with his eyes shut. I had to go in with both eyes open. We tried to go into business together. We lasted a week.
I couldn’t understand him the way his attitude was and he couldn’t understand…. “I wasn’t game to do this”. “But you should be. You were a bloody officer in the war mate”. “But that doesn’t come into it. The war is over mate”. “Oh well we better shake hands and on our way”. Which we did. The best thing that ever happened, John [Interviewer]. Couldn’t have gone on with it. We’d have been a failure. And he made a success of his life and I made a success of my life. I think I did. There’s very limited opportunities
mind you and certainly no one behind me. There was always that gap. There was no one behind me. Whatever I’ve done has been under my own momentum. But what drives me I don’t know. I think I’ve been lucky that I’ve had good health. Without that I couldn’t have done it. And of course Freda. We’ve been married for fifty-seven years for God’s sakes. And I knew her five, six years before that. We’ve spent a lifetime together. And you know, that today,
There aren’t too many people running around being married at fifty-seven, fifty-eight years.
No. You’re right mate.
You know it’s a very small club. Three years ago Freda nearly died. She’s had two very bad sessions. I nursed her. I just shut the door and never went anywhere for six months. She was in bed for six months. We nearly lost her. In 1999, in 2000 in 2001.
We’ve had three goes. We’re on borrowed time. So that again, I had to produce things that I had never produced. I had to learn how to cook, wash, do the ironing, make the beds. I had to be a complete housewife. But the army training helped. See. So all this thing is set out before you and it is a case of survival, isn’t it? I know plenty of blokes that are brilliant but they can’t
drive a bloody nail into a piece of wood. But they are brilliant. Their mind is brilliant. But they have a different way of sort of expressing themselves. So yes. I don’t know what. It’s how you’re born, John. It’s in the genes.
OK if we might talk about Freda for a moment.
When you came back on leave was Freda already engaged to that American chap at that stage? There was that one time you came back to Melbourne?
It was when
I came on final leave when the war was over.
I’m interested in knowing, for a man like yourself it can’t be too much of a challenge but I’m interested to know how you convinced her mother to
Well I had got on very well with her family and it was a sort of forgone conclusion that we would eventually marry. Like when you keep going steady with your first girlfriend as we did they think, “Well this is going to eventually become man and wife”. So when I came home and found that that was the situation. I sort of…
Well strike while the irons hot. So I strode up to Mum and said, “What’s going on?” “Well we’d love to see you back”. So she put in a word for me, you know. Come in the back door and get your act going. You might go through this yourself one day. Don’t laugh. Hope that’s not on camera.
Of course it is. Did you give your future brother in law the hand signals?
I remember the day when it was all fixed. I knocked on the door and Edith burned out and said, “Welcome home Son”.
That must have been a joyous day?
Very happy time.
I’m sure. One thing you mentioned yesterday that I’m quite interested to follow up on. You say you have evidence that the Japanese had camps around Broome.
Tell us about that.
Not in our time but it is recorded in our book. And I don’t know where I got the information from…Yes I do. Alex Stewart, who was our former Adjutant. He was a member of a clan of people called Murray’s Marauders. They were wild Queensland Stockmen. The used to ride horses and do all sorts of things up through Broome, Darwin and whatever. And they knew the land like the back of their hand.
And they heard from the natives that there was Japanese activity around the Broome area. And of course then the war has started and it’s all fair dinkum and whatever. They discovered that the Japanese had actually set up a camp near Broome. And it is in my history book. The actual location and the date.
What date and where is the location?
I’d have to look in the book, John.
Roughly year wise, the date
I’d be guessing but I could confirm that by looking in the book.
The Australian government at the time was unaware of this, I take it.
That’s right. You got to remember this. They were very active in the West Australian waters with their submarines. Very active.
Well they sunk the [HMAS] Sydney.
And you must remember that the biggest American submarine base operated out of Fremantle. You were probably aware of that. And at Kings Park there is a huge, huge memorial there to the American
Submarines, erected by the Australian people for what they did, the Americans. So the Japanese were very active in that part of the water. Down that western side of Australia. And I think probably that’s how those people got ashore. They were dropped by submarine. And probably they were there as a base for the submarines to operate from. They never went inland with a view to taking over Darwin or anything. They were there, I think, as a
symbol of the fact that the Japanese submarines were operating in those waters. But that was not generally known. But I got hold of that from Alex Stewart and he gave it to me and he said, “Do you think it is worth putting that in the book?” And I did put it in the book and a number of the book reviewers challenged it. But it is factual, it’s there and it’s been proven true. So I’m quite happy for it to be in my book.
And why not if it’s
But it is. It’s in the book and we can show it to you if you would like to view that and record it there A lot of people never believed it. But they certainly believed it when they bombed Darwin and when they got into Sydney harbour. The Broome bit was prior. Because I think the Japanese realized that there was no point in being at Broome there was nothing there. But there were certainly things to be done and knocked over in Darwin and Sydney but Broome was no no. But had they
landed they could have come a gutser because they could have gone for millions of miles and seen nothing. That’s no man’s land. But to their credit they landed and hauled the flag up. You know. I suppose if they had done that at Cape York or Cairns or Cooktown or somewhere it would have been a different ball game because there was population there. They would have had roads, they would have had houses, they would have had things they could have knock off. But there was nothing in Broome.
Not a damn thing.
Speaking of the Japanese.
But come back to that, you know for years and years and years the Japanese divers operated out of Broome. So they were aware of Broome as such. All those pearl divers were Japanese, in the Broome area. They must have been aware that Broome was probably a place that was worth knocking off.
Well it is certainly reasonably isolated. It could be a place to leave a cache of food or so forth.
Sure. And all the
cemeteries up there are filled with Japanese graves of divers who died diving for pearls. They were aware of Broome more so than of places like Darwin and Sydney where they had never been. But they’d certainly been to Broome before.
I’m interested in asking you as someone who experienced, I don’t know how long for, a certain hatred of the Japanese after Ian and Sorenson had been killed.
Did that persist for many years afterwards?
Yes it did. It did. But that changed when I went to Japan. I went to Japan in the seventies.
Tell us about the feelings you had for those years and then about Japan.
For a start you looked down on anyone that drove a Japanese car. And there were plenty of my friends that said, “I would never buy a Japanese car”. But we’ve got Japanese cars. I’ve been to Japan. It’s a beautiful country. The people are marvellous.
The generation that we met never even knew there was a war on. It never happened but it is only now that we are getting evidence that they want to know what their forefathers, the terrible things that they did. My hate diminished by time but had I been a prisoner of war like my brother I would have kicked arse.
When I was writing the book, I got hold of what they called the surrender form, which was dropped out of the plane for the Japanese to pick up and come and surrender to us. But it was all in Japanese. Three doors up one of the top men at Nissan used to live. We said, “Hello, Hello”, very polite for years so I got hold of this and I wondered if he would interpret that and
put it into English for me. So knock on the door. “Hello”, I can’t think of his name, “I’ve got a problem”. “Yes, how can I help?” Very polite. “I’ve have a document here in Japanese. Would you interpret that into English for me please?” “Oh Sure”. He picked it up. “Oh…..Mr Turrell
I will do it but you’ll have to give me a little time to think about this.” He was shocked. I don’t think he knew about it but to his credit he brought it back here one day and knocked on the door and said, “Mr Turrell, I’ve done what you asked me”. And he had it all typed out in English for me. But he was never the same, never the same. I shocked him. I don’t think he knew. That’s just a little side thing.
That’s how I sort of saw another side of the Japanese.
What does it say, that document?
Well it’s translated in English and again you can read the book and perhaps put it in there but it meant that if you wanted to surrender you would be treated according to the conventions of war. You would be fed and watered and looked after. And if you were injured you would be treated by…You wouldn’t be
shot or anything like that. They firmly believed that we were savages.
Yes. They were fed the same sort of propaganda about you as you were about them.
Do you think it’s dangerous that a generation of Japanese people were not told about their involvement in the war?
Yes. Very much so. Very much so. And when you consider that last year was the first sign of any recovery of money from the Japanese people
and of course anyone that was a prisoner of war got twenty-five thousand dollars. But many men had died. It should have happened twenty or thirty years ago when they could have used it. So you know, its forty years too late, fifty years too late so there is some guilt now being admitted. But there should be a lot more. You know when you consider that when the Australian prisoners came home they said,
“Well why don’t we get pay and meal allowance for all the time we were locked up?”. Well they had no control over that and they’ve missed out. Three and a half years pay they should have got for every day they were a prisoner, plus a meal allowance, plus this, that and the other. They never got that. So what did the government do? They say, “Well give you twenty-five thousand bucks and shut up”. End of story.
That’s disgusting isn’t it?
That’s exactly what happened John. That caused a lot of problems and than last year or early this year
one of our senior generals took a party of servicemen to Japan to shake hands. And a lot of blokes in the RSL didn’t want that.
I’m sure they didn’t. I’m interested in knowing. You were a travel agent so I suppose you had to go to Japan but did you go there on official travel agent business or did you….
No. I went and I took groups. First of all I went with two of my mates that served with me.
Tell us about that trip.
My friend Arthur Chambers who won the MC [Military Cross] while he was with us…I’d known Arthur for years, way back. He had a business. He was a manufacturer’s representative and I used to do a lot of business. And he had a representative in Tokyo that sold car accessories. He primarily sold car stuff. He said, “I’m going up to Japan. What about coming with me?” I said, “Yes. Right, lovely”.
So Austy his mate, that’s Captain Fores, was a QM [Quartermaster]. “Why don’t we get Austy and the three of us will go?” So the three of us went to Japan. We had a fantastic time for a fortnight. Went everywhere. And I was amazed at Japan. Loved it. This was in the late seventies perhaps or early eighties. I’ll say the late seventies. So being in the travel business I’ll say that Japan was an excellent destination for a group tour.
So I organized a group tour. And I had that agency in South Caulfield and I put an ad in the paper. Tour leaving for Japan and all that sort of stuff. It costs so much so much and I think I had about thirty odd people and we went to Japan and had a fantastic time. Then I took another tour. It was such a success. Now being a tour guide
and having had a lot of trips away as a tour guide I then leased myself out to the bigger operators like Travel Land. They’d ring me up and they’d say, “Norm, we’ve got a group going to Japan on the thirtieth of April. Are you available to lead it?” “Yes” So I was…I would hire myself out to other big companies and take their groups to Japan. Now that’s three or four times I’ve been. Then Alan Lea…He was also a lieutenant. He had 8 platoon. I had
9 platoon. He got married for the second time. I said, “What are you going to do for your honey moon? “ He said, “I want to go to London”. I said, “What about we go via Japan”. So we had another six days in Japan. So that was six times I’ve been in Japan.
Did it help each time a little in the healing process?
Yes. I never had a hard word with anyone. They are very polite. You know, in the lift they would bow, usher you in,
shake hands, introduce yourself, hand the business cards over. Lovely people.
Played golf in Japan, you know. I took my family to Japan. Took the two boys and their wives and Freda and I. The six of us went to Japan. Went through Sydney Airport. Everyone went through and I came through last. The bloke, he saw the name Turrell six times. He said, “Your two brothers have just gone through”.
I said, “They’re not brothers. They’re my sons.” “God”, he said, “Six Turrells. This has never happened before”. This is immigration in Sydney. So my recollections of Japan are wonderful. Lovely country.
Was there any time in the first couple of days you were there when… I’m interested to know what your mind, whether there were wheels turning in the back of your mind?
I was waiting for something to happen.
I was waiting for something to happen, that I would get angry but it never happened because they were so beautiful. The country is so beautiful. The week we were there the Queen was there. All the cherry blossom had not come out so they made artificial cherry blossom. And all the trees looked as though they were real cherry blossom trees. This was in April and I can see it clearly. We had a fantastic time.
Any of your RSL mates give you grief about going to Japan?
No. No. No. Although
when I was a member at Keysborough the president came up to me one time and said, “Norm, were you in the army?” I said, “Yes”. “Were you against the Japanese?” “Yes”. “We’ve got a bloke here wants to join but he’s Japanese. Have you any objection to that?” I said, “No. Provided he meets the criteria, why not?” And I met the bloke. Lovely fellow. He was one of the principals of one of the car companies. Why should you because they didn’t hit us. It was the people before them that did it.
What about your brother?
He was different.
He was different. He was really savage inside. He would no more go to Japan. He would have nothing to do with the Nips. Bill was very, like most prisoners, they wouldn’t show it in a general sense. But you could see that they would have kicked arse at every opportunity.
What does that kind of compressed anger and hatred and pain do to a man do you think over the years?
Well it sears you for life. Because they did terrible things to the prisoners. I mean being beaten and starved and when you read the stories about how many men perished. On the very last day before the war ended they executed Australians and all that sort of business. I don’t know whether I could have tolerated that. And I’ve just read a book, I’ve got it upstairs, and it’s entitled “Four Thousand Meals of Rice”, is the title of the book.
It’s the story of this guy that was a prisoner. He finished up in Japan making parts for guns to fire against his own men. And the book’s entitled “Four Thousand Meals of Rice”. He survived and he’s still alive. When you read those sorts of books. I’ve read every book on military history. I’ve got all Weary Dunlop’s books up there. I read every book. I get a fair cross section of material that gives me room for thoughts and things and I sort things out in my mind.
But I don’t hate the Japanese. I could have if I had been in Bill’s shoes. But they didn’t harm me. They made me frightened. I lost my mates butthat didn’t make me hate them. Because every Japanese I met, just not that I was a tour leader and was bringing business into their country, they treated me properly. I think if any one had stepped out of line I would have stared them right down, you know. You would have to do that. You would have to do that. But no I…
Freda look, stuff from Japan. Loved it. We went to where they have the pearls. That thing there. that came from where they had the pearls. The pearl divers and all that sort of business. A beautiful country.
Well it’s a good story then that you managed to heal that hatred.
That must make you feel like you have come in a circle almost?
Yes. It has healed things. It puts the war in the background.
We had a fantastic time. We got on the bullet train and we had to sit in various places. We couldn’t sit together and I sat down next to this very distinguished looking gentleman and we were going down to Hiroshima to see the bomb. “How do you do Sir? My name is Norm Turrell. I’m from Melbourne, Australia”. “I am so and so so and so. I am the managing director of Nissan Motors. I am going to
Hiroshima if I can be of any help, Sir, let me know. Where are you staying? I’ll look you up.” And he did. What more do you want than that?
Did you ever find yourself looking at blokes about the same age as you and…
Yes.Wondering if they…
What did you think?
They would have to speak first. That would be my nature.
Did you ever come across anybody and the war came up?
No. Never discussed .
Never. We would be obviously of war age. They would know that we would have been in the war. Our age would give us away.
Would it be unspoken in each other’s eyes that you both knew?
There would be an element of, you know. But they were non aggressive. They were very, how shall I say, peaceful. And so polite. And they are.
You cannot believe that the Japanese are so polite and yet they could do such terrible things. It is the greatest anomaly in the empire of Japan that I can’t find the answer to and I’ve read every book on it.
Would that be an eerie experience when you encounter a man of your own age and you are thinking….?
Yes, you’d have to wonder. And if the guy had said to me, “Were you in the war, Mister?” You wouldn’t lie. You’d say, “Yes”.
And if he said, “Where did you fight?” I’d say, “I fought in the Solomon’s, against the Japanese. What are you going to say?” He might say, “I was there too”. “Well how are you mate? Lovely to meet you.” I’d have my hand out first. See, you’ve got to do that. You can’t put the boots in. That would only spoil your trip. You are there to enjoy yourself. And I guess unless I’d been belted and whipped
as a prisoner I wouldn’t have been that way but I had no axe to grind.
OK. Well let’s have a look at…As you can see I’ve got page after page of notes here. Tell us about your post war career. You said you were in a Melbourne regiment.
Yes. When the war was over and we sort of settled ourselves down and got ourselves married. And I speak now of Arthur Chambers, and Austy Fours and myself.
We were all at the same golf club. We used to see one another every Friday for golf. We used to fraternize. Socialize, we knew their kids. I was godfather to their kids. They were godfather to our kids. Happy family group, right. Austy used to own Mack’s Hotel in Mortlake. We used to go down there for a wild weekend. He then moved to the Bush in Toorak Road, We used to go up there and get nice and how do you do thank you very much. Very close
knit. So you might say that we were pretty well much the same. Our thoughts and emotions were under control. So as a group of three of us you would reckon one would have something to say but for some strange reason we all went down the same path together. We talked about it before we went. “How are we going to get on with these Japanese. What are we going to do?”
And Arthur would always say, “Don’t stir the pot. Take things…” Because he had to earn a living from Japan. So there’s a line there. You decided well they’ll go over it. We’ll come on this side. But we went away peacefully minded and we had a fantastic time because we were on holidays. Now if I went there tomorrow I might have even kinder thoughts.
Age does mellow you and I would have to be very hard pressed and provoked to even mention the fact that I was in the war. I really mean that. I have nothing but happy memories of Japan and the people that I met.
So you might say I’ve got no axe to burn. And there are more people in the RSL and the army like me than the prisoners. Because the prisoners
have got their own reason but a non prisoner doesn’t see it that way. And you’d have to say it’s a personal thing. If you’d thumped me and done that I’d hate you forever. But this guy over here never laid a hand on me. I wouldn’t hate him. It’s a personal thing John.
What about your military career after the war. You were in…
Yes, well. As I say we saw a lot of one another and one day Arthur came to me and said, “Norm, they’re looking for instructors
in the Royal Melbourne Regiment. They prefer men that have been in action and they prefer men who want to retain an interest in the army. And bearing in mind that we’re still on the reserve…” Officers don’t go out of the army. They are forever in the army until you run out of time. You reach a certain age and if you are only at that rank that means you’re out but if you’ve still got years up your sleeve, you can go to another rank and you can stay on. I kept going until 1968. That’s nearly twenty years after the war. So he
said, “What about coming up one night and meet the CO and he’ll look you over and if he’s happy about it you’ll get a guernsey”. “Well what’s it mean, Arthur?” He said, “Well we’ve got to go up to the drill hall outside the baths in the city”. He said, “We’ve got to talk to these cadets and drill them and instruct them in map reading, and marching, and weaponry and whatever, whatever. Will you be in it”? “Yes. Why not?” So we used to go up there every Thursday night, the three of us. Get up there at seven o’clock and we’d be out up and down
the road and left right left end all that. And you know, drills and things and we’d have a talk about tactics. We’d have a talk about the war in general. And these young blokes are all fit, keen young kids of about seventeen, or eighteen. Almost ready for war, you might say. And we did that for a long long time. For a long time. And what finished me off in the end was after all that was over you would be accepted to go back to the mess
and I say the mess and it was a mess. Because this bloke was a terrible drunk, the CO, and you’d still be there at midnight. No future in that. Gave it away.
Tell me then, you mentioned that you were still on reserve as an officer. Was there any danger of you being called up for Korea?
Yes. While I was still on the reserve, sure. Provided I was still A1, had to be A1.
So I was always there. They could have pulled me back in and said, “Well now we’re going to put you in a job here mate”. Supposing today’s set of circumstances, it’s 1964, that’s thirty years younger than I am now. I could have easily been roped in. Not as a fighting soldier but perhaps in a desk job or a training job quite easily. That’s what the reserve is for.
And what happens to your business
in that case?
Bad luck. When you’ve got to go you’ve got to go. That’s one of the responsibilities of taking on an officer. You are on the reserve.
And when do you finish on the reserve? What is the retirement age?
Well you get to a stage where the age is linked to your rank. And I think I’d reached the age of perhaps forty-five or something like that. Yes, about forty-five I think from mind.
If I was a captain, perhaps I could have gone on to fifty-five and if I was a colonel perhaps to about seventy-five or so on. But the time had come. Not only had I had it but I’d reached the age where I was running out of time.
So can’t you be a lieutenant if you are over forty-five?
I think it’s forty-five, John. It’s very close to that age.
I didn’t know about that.
I could be wrong but it is about that. So anyone over that age they consider they’re past it.
And see this is why promotion was very hard to get in our unit. Because so many of the officers when the unit was formed they were commissioned in 1939. I wasn’t commissioned until 1942. They had three years on me. Now those guys eventually became captains. They had first chance to become captains. We didn’t and that’s why I never got any progress. And the CO was very angry about it because some of these blokes were
hanging on by the skin of their teeth. We couldn’t get any promotion because these guys had seniority and it was all done by seniority. If I was your senior by one day you would have to salute me. Even though we were equal rank. Stupid isn’t it?
So if we were both lieutenants and you’d been a lieutenant longer than me I’d have to salute you?
Yes. Senior rank.
But that’s the way it works, John.
If I was from a different unit I wouldn’t know that, would I? So would lieutenants normally salute each other?
Normally salute one another. You salute the uniform. Then you would says, “What’s the date of your commission” and you would establish who’s junior, who’s senior. There are other ways and means of finding it out without doing it face to face. You would check the records and see “Smith”. When was he commissioned? 14th of March 1942. So I was senior. Then eventually the time might come when you’ve got to give him an order.
He certainly has to salute you. A terrible way but that’s the way it is.
It’s quite strange isn’t it?
Speaking of officers and the strangeness thereof. Officers were party to a lot more information than the men were.
The men were, perhaps, party to even less information than the general public were at times.
How skewed to you think were the different visions of war? Officers? Men?
the further down the line of command the less you knew. The higher up the more you knew. Right, you were not privy to anything much above your rank. What would happen the general would call in the Brigadiers. That’s the brigade commanders and they would have a conference. And they would say, “This information must not go below the rank of major”. So, righto, it gets to the major.
So the major is the 2IC of the battalion. He is second in command and he may have a company. Now he would issue policy as to how he reads the instruction. But if the CO, that’s the lieutenant colonel said,”Tthis can go down to company commanders or platoon commanders to other ranks” that’s the end of the line. But if the company commander said to the platoon commander, “You can distribute this information
to all ranks”, then that’s how the ranks got the official story. Other than that it was scuttle but. Via the batman or via some other way. In many cases it was wrong. So you see the chain of command dictated the release of information.
Do you feel that…Were you party to cover ups?
Yes. Very much so. Bluff, sure.
Can you give us…Without naming specific instances if it’s sensitive.
Well a lot of blokes took the attitude because they were majors above you that you were pretty junior. They would sort of say things that weren’t true to big note themselves. When events didn’t happen you’d think, “Oh this bastard. What’s he trying to do to me?”. He would be suspect. The next time he told you something you’d say, “Now is that real, sir?” See. Check him out.
That often happened and you were quite entitled to do that.
That’s not insubordination?
No. You were entitled to ask, “Is that fair dinkum?” Then you got to say to the guy, “Is it?” And if he says, “Well, I only heard it.” “Sorry, sir”. That’s it. You couldn’t go over his head. But if he made a statement you knew was wrong you could go to the court of appeal. Say, “I want to be paraded to the CO, please”. You could go above him.
Did that ever happen?
Yes. Not to me but it did happen. Then you are in real strife if you are in the wrong you’re in trouble but if you are right then “Goodbye major”. And a lot of that happened.
What would happen to him?
Well he would get sent out of the unit to another unit. A back unit. There could even be loss of rank. He could go down to captain or lieut [lieutenant]. Court martialled for the wrong information
or derogatory information. He might have hated the colonel’s guts and reckoned he should be colonel. It was jolly up to all the lieuts to get a campaign going. Yes. Terrible thing. It’s all jealousy. It’s all ego. It’s all kick where you see a head stuck.
Was there a lot of that?
It did happen. It didn’t happen to me. It didn’t happen in our unit. We had a very good unit but it did happen in some units. That’s why units didn’t perform
because there was no confidence through the line of command.
Was there ever a case where you were privy to information…this is just quickly because we’re nearly at the end of our tape. Privy to information where you thought, “Oh god.I wish I could tell this to the men?”
What does that do to you?
Well it puts you on edge a bit. Thinking, “If I tell them they’ve got more chance of survival or more chance of getting home leave” or something like that. So you’d go to your sergeant and say, “Listen Ian, I hear on the grape vine
that there’s such and such on. What do you think we ought to do?” “Oh I wouldn’t tell them, Sir”. You know, you’re getting on.
Would that conversation mean he said, “I wouldn’t tell them if I were you, sir”, but he would tell them?
He wouldn’t tell them unless you told him . You’ve reached your end. You can’t go past your sergeant. If you go over his head you’ve had it. So the thing is you’d have to try him out and say, “What do you think, Ian, will we tell them?”. “Oh I wouldn’t tell them that, sir, til it’s true”..
“Is that true, sir? No I cant…oh hang on hang on”. Because that was Ian’s way. “Oh hang on hang on….”
What about when me would come up to you and say, “Lieutenant, I’ve heard this and that…” And you knew that this and that were was going to happen.
You would have to deny it. “Sorry. No truth in that”. Even if you thought it was true you’d have to bluff your way out of it. But you’d whip yourself back to the company commander and say, “They’re asking me questions about that? Is it on?”
Why shouldn’t I know? How didn’t I know if it’s true?. So you’ve got the company commander. And lets face it, a blokes been in the mess for about seven or eight hours and he gets a skin full he’ll say things he doesn’t want to say or shouldn’t say. And then you get conversations that you shouldn’t hear. You hear two colonels talking. “Oh boy oh boy oh boy”. You know. Well you’re mad if you go back to your mob and tell them
what you heard two majors talking about. Because you’ve lost the plot. Because you’ve got to stick together. It is a peculiar set up, command. You’ve got to know when to stop and when to be aware. But it is always nice to know what is going to happen before it happens if it is going to save your life. Human preservation comes into it. You know yourself. If you’re going to get the sack it’s nice to know, isn’t it?
It’s very nice to know.
Exactly. It’s human nature.
Now being a lieutenant, that’s a…Sorry.
that’s the end of the tape. I got carried away.
End of tape
Interviewee: Albert Turrell Archive ID 0189 Tape 09
What was I asking about? Lieutenant can sometimes be a difficult rank can’t it?
You’re in between. You’re in between everything. You’re in between the top command and the strength of the unit. And you’ve got to be pretty shrewd how you operate. You’ve got to be loyal to both sides. You’ve still got to retain your authority. Particularly if the troops know
that you’ve come up through the ranks. Because you know all the angles. It’s different if a new officer comes in they don’t know his background. But if they know your background. If you’ve been one of them. If you’ve been private, corporal, sergeant. You know all the lurks, you know all the answers and you know when a bloke’s fair dinkum. If you are an officer and you haven’t had that experience then they can put it over you.
Would it be the case that say a green lieutenant comes in
and the privates are all sort of ‘I know more than this fellow”.
Old hands. Yes. They put it all over you.
Could it be difficult for him to establish authority in some cases?
Very hard until the test came. Invariably the only test would be going into action. But that’s when your sergeant becomes very important. He could say to the lieut, “Look. I know you haven’t had experience sir but leave it to me”. And a good sergeant would look after his officer.
And a good officer would look after his sergeant. The sergeant would fix the men up because he’s got supreme command. He’s got close command. The sergeant only relays your order. You don’t give the orders. He relays them. You tell him and he tells them. So a sergeant and his officer have got to be a good team if they are going to succeed. But it’s a fair thing because it means both parties have get the right support. The men are supported. The officer is supported
because you’ve got that chain of command that makes it that way. So if an officer is on uneven ground…And I’ll be quite frank with you. Many a time I said to Ian, “What will we do? What would you do?” And on that day when we were attacked I was in conversation with him. “What do you reckon we ought to do. Go left or right, Ian?” And then it all opened up. You get so close to a guy. And you might say if an officer’s green and he does’t know he’s a bloody
fool if he goes ahead on his own. And many did and they failed. “Bugger the Sargeant, I’m in charge here, baby”. Plenty of those guys lost their lives because they were arrogant and didn’t take the advice of the seasoned NCO. Many blokes got to sergeant and couldn’t go any further but they knew a hell of a lot about the army and the war. And once they got to a warrant officer you could be more scared of a warrant officer than you could a colonel because a warrant officer
was really the man. If he was a RSM, a regimental sergeant major. I remember when I first got to the 26th battalion, the RSM was a fellow called Paddy… I’ve just lost him. Paddy, but he was a Welshman, fought in India. He was a Welsh Guard and he was as broad as…he was a real Welshman. You know how they speak…
and he was a stickler for everything. Everything had to be absolutely right. He was well on in his years. Perhaps he was hanging on a bit. And we are raw young lieuts, very proud of ourselves and our rank. And if you were the officer of the guard he would be there to supervise to see you didn’t make a balls of it. It wouldn’t be beyond him to whisper out the side, “You forgot that, sir”. You know. He’d
look after you. And I remember the first time I struck him. I was officer of the guard. And bearing in mind that I’d just come out of Duntroon I was pretty sure of myself, you know. And I’ve got my guard there. About eighteen or twenty blokes. And it was his job to come up to me and salute me. And he never batted an eye at anyone. He was so fair dinkum but you know when a bloke’s trying to tell you something.
He came up to me and came to attention. He gave me a flashing salute and I saluted him back, you know. And I sensed I’d done something wrong but he didn’t tell me what it was but he warned me that I had done something wrong. I quickly thought, ‘Geez, I have too” and fixed it up. That was the sort of bloke he was. They are mint those guys in the unit. So you’ve got the highest admiration for fellows who have reached that rank and know
they can’t go any further. But a good officer relies on a good NCO. A good NCO relies on his men. It is a peculiar thing the army. It was a shock to the system and the more rank you got the more you had to think about it because you realized what your responsibilities grew.
Did you ever come across officers who were careless about the lives of their men?
Yes. Couldn’t care less. They wanted to win a gong at the
expense of men’s lives. We didn’t have any of those guys. They were the other way around.
What do you mean the other way around?
They would rather be killed than put their men at risk.
Oh I see.
But there were plenty of others but bugger the troops. Sacrifice the men to win a medal.
Would that be noticed at HQ if it took you…
It would eventually get back. Word would get back. Perhaps the troops would get the message going. You know, “That bastard. He slaughtered three of our blokes. He made the wrong decision”.
Perhaps he didn’t ask the sergeant, see. And he would be noted and the minute he stepped out of line again he’s gone. They had no confidence.
What happened if someone was demoted from major to captain or from captain to lieutenant? Are they finished then? Can they get back?
Some of them got back. They had made a mistake. They might have been abusive to a senior officer. They might have been drunk and disorderly.
They might have had fisticuffs in the mess. They might have done something terribly wrong. And they would be demoted or they were in an age where perhaps they were on the border line of being retired. “If you go back a rank Sir, you could still hang on for another couple of weeks”. That often happened, see. To get a particular job. “We don’t want a colonel. We want a major. Are you prepared to drop colonel back to major to do that?” “Yes”.
And that often happened. It was a way out. Again the way the army operated was a complete revelation to me as most blokes it was. But I often used to wonder how privates survived with all this nonsense. All this tradition and all that business.
What do you mean? Explain that a little?
Why does it have to be that way? Why does one
have to salute another man? Why does one man have that terrible control because he’s got an extra bit on his shoulder or whatever. Is it fair? This bloke is trying to kill the enemy. The officer’s trying to kill the enemy. They’re all at the same job but this guy is getting privileges to do it. He is being paid more to do it. They don’t understand that you are accepting more responsibility. If something goes wrong you’re the guy. You’re the man. They don’t understand this, the average bloke. But it depends again
on how they’ve been trained. If you’ve been through a rigid training period of time, six or twelve months with a group of men everybody knows their place. Everybody.
Speaking of training. Sorry to interrupt there but we are running out of time and I really want to ask this question. How hard is it to train a man to kill?
You can only give him the tools and the desire to do it. But the thing is this. Once the first shot is fired at him he knows what he has been trained to do
is the only way he is going to survive. And thank God he had been trained. But if he hasn’t been trained he doesn’t know how he is going to come back and he’ll die.
What about hand to hand combat? Because it’s quite easy to imagine yourself breaking a man’s neck or stabbing him with a knife but when you are actually doing it?
I don’t know how. I didn’t ever get involved in that. We had what we called unarmed combat…Sticking the bayonet in the sack and all that business. We had all that training. I never saw it. It never happened to me.
But there were plenty of times when hand to hand came out in other wars, other places, other battalions. You’ve only got to read the history books, John.
Well let’s talk about being trained and drilled to shoot back. Because I’ve read of instances where men would fire in the air rather than firing at the enemy. They’d…
I can’t imagine why. I can’t imagine why. I can’t
imagine why. I mean if they’re there to either to kill or be kill, they would have to try and kill.. Why he would fire off I don’t know. I can’t answer that question, John.
That’s Okay. Does it weigh on your mind when you have to kill someone in war or is it gone?
No. It’s part of the deal. It’s part of the deal. The fact that you’ve been given an instrument with which to do it. The more proficient
you are the more confident you are, you are just itching to have a go. And weapons of war are terrible things. That’s why blokes go over to Iraq. They’ve got all this fantastic new equipment. They want use it on some poor bugger.
It is a strange state of mind to be in. Isn’t it?
Yes it is. It almost distorts the reason and a man’s thinking. But once he’s got this in his hand he’s God. “I’ve got to knock someone off”. You know.
We sort of didn’t get into that mode of thought. We sort of just took it as a war’s a war. But when you see how these guys are all decked out with God knows what. They are a walking arsenal. All we had was a rifle. One shot and that’s it. They’ve got so much back up and resources. If you can’t get him yourself then, hey, get the flamethrower out and hose this bloke out. Once I saw the flamethrowers that frightened me.
The sheer brutality of it. To
hose a bloke down with liquid fire. I couldn’t believe that any man could do that to another man.
Were flamethrowers used on Bougainville?
Yes. You’d come to a pillbox or something, an underground defence area, and you couldn’t get them out with bombs or shells or grenades or whatever. You’d get the flamethrowers in and they would come up and … finished. Imagine that. I couldn’t have done that.
No way could I have done that. But blokes did.
And would you hear them screaming?
Yes. Imagine it. It’s terrible. But I couldn’t have done that. Because in many cases you would fire at the enemy just because he is a figure in a uniform. You didn’t look at his face. He was just a body to be hit. But many blokes, how shall I say, particularly in World War 1, where they were a professional sniper. They would wait for days and
days and day to kill one man. And there was plenty of that went on in Gallipoli and places like that but we didn’t have that. We didn’t see the enemy but we knew he was there and you knew he was behind that shrub so you fire at the shrub. We struck a number of times when the Japs sat up in the trees and waited until we got past. They shot us in the back. Plenty of that.
Did you consider that fair?
Would you have done
the same do you think?
We weren’t trained to do it. But that was one of their lurks.
Is it the kind of thing where you say, “Alright they’ve done that to us so we can do that to them?”
I have no evidence in my experience that that actually happened to us but it did happen. Where the Nips got up in these trees, knowing before they strapped themselves in that they were there to be killed or to kill.
But I had no evidence of that in our war.
How hard is it to be trained to kill and be killed and to lead men into battle and then to come home and sit on the couch and have a cup of tea with your mum?
Well the relief of still being alive after the war was the greatest healer, that you’ve survived it. And you just have to go on from there. The minute you get out of uniform all that aggression leaves you.
While you are in uniform you’ve got to do what you were trained to do. But once you get out into civvies you change your thoughts. You think, “That’s another thing and it’s gone”. But if you had to go back into uniform and fight another war I don’t know how you’d handle that.
I don’t know. I don’t know how you could gear yourself up a second time around. You’d have to be a pretty strong man to come again. I don’t think I could do it. I think having one dash at it and getting out of it
would be enough for me. But there’s plenty of blokes who have done it. Plenty of blokes have saddled up the second time. Look at the blokes that went back to Vietnam and Korea. How, I’ll never know.
Did being involved in jungle warfare and warfare in forests and so forth have an effect on you in terms of could you go bushwalking? Was that a difficult thing to you?
No. No. That didn’t worry me. No.
Were there any situations post war that made you jumpy or that made you
Yes. Even today if I hear a very sharp sound I….like a gun going off. The neighbours next door have a young kid of about fourteen. He’s got a popgun and occasionally they get on the back veranda and fire it. It’s just like a shot going off and I was in the back garden one day sitting there reading the paper and this young bugger fired it. Jesus!
It got me! And I got bloody angry. I leaned over the fence and said, “You’ve got to cut that out mate.” Well I won’t tell you what he told me to do. But what I should have done was grabbed his father but I never done it. But had it persisted… As a matter of fact it frightened Freda one day. She said, “What’s that idiot doing there with that terrible thing”. It’s not dangerous it’s just the noise. And even today if that happened I would…It would affect me. It would
bring back a lot of memories. The sound.
So it’s not just the shock of, “Oh that was a gun”, it’s the memories come back?
Yes. Brings it all back.
Does it stay with you for a while?
This will take a while for me to get rid of. When you left me yesterday, one hour later I wasn’t worth two bob. And I went to bed and I woke up at twenty past five and I’ve
been shopping this morning. I’ve sort of prepared myself for today because I knew what I was going to go through. But yesterday drained me. I suppose we’ve talked about a hell of a lot of things. You’ve talked about my whole life. And you know if you were sitting in this chair and I was there you’d feel the same way.
It’s a rare man who gets to sit, or rare anybody man or woman who gets to sit down and talk about his or her entire life in detail.
I know. I know
Especially a life that features something…
Everything. I’ve done everything.
As stunning and
horrific as a war.
Yeah, I’ve done everything. I’ve had a very, very interesting life and been lucky.
Is that the thought that is uppermost in your mind when you think about…Perhaps memories of war come flooding back and you’re depressed or upset or distressed by it? Is that what you hang on to?
Yes. When I march on Anzac Day and I’m walking down St Kilda Road with my mates
I can’t get the terrible thoughts of people like Ian Alford out of my mind. I think, “Why should I be able to do this and he’s been up in Port Moresby for forty years?”. I feel guilty. And it’s not until I have about four beers down at Bells Pub that I sort of recover myself. I go quiet and they say, “You alright Norm?” and I say, “Yes. I’m alright”. But I’m not alright. But I feel that because I can
see the terrible tragedy of loss of life. And when I come home on Anzac night I sort of go, “Thank God that’s over”. And for some reason or other the next day I’m a bit listless. Not sort of with it. I’ve noticed that lately that it takes me longer to get over Anzac Day. So what happens now is my eldest son Roger comes with me as a minder. And two years ago
the march was over and we’d finished the march and when you get to the Cenotaph you veer left and I got the staggers. He said, “Are you alright?” I said, “Yes. I’m alright”. I wasn’t sick. I was in another world.
Do you sometimes hate the war for doing that to your life?
Yes. I hated the war for what it did to my father. Roger wears my father’s medals. He’s a World War 1 man. Roger wears those. He’s now starting
to realize. He’s never met his grandfather, see. And I look at those medals and think how hard he worked to earn them and never lived to enjoy it. But they are still here and they will be in my possession until I die. So I take my medals off and put them in the box. I put my father’s on top and that’s Anzac day. Then I have a howl and I think,
“What the bloody hell am I crying for? Again”. And then it passes and I’m alright. Sorry.
There is nothing to be sorry for. I’m going to take a break Norm.
I’m alright. But we are getting pretty close to the bone here and I guess I never thought I’d be talking like
this. But the medals go away and I only hope that my kids when I pass on. They’ll do the same thing. See I encourage these guys now to bring their sons with them because they can’t cope on their own. And I want these young blokes to march when we are all gone. Because they’re now men of some
years. Some of them are in their fifties and whatever. And I know they will. Because they’re doing it while we’re alive. And I know that my son, both of them…Peter won’t, he’s not interested one bit but Roger is. Because Roger had six years in the RAAF. He knows what the system’s like. He knows what it’s all about even though he didn’t fire a shot in anger. He knows how the system works. And Peter’s got no idea. Roger’s got discipline. He knows
what to do. Peter hasn’t got any idea but you see he’s a younger boy. He’s lived in a different era. So I can say to Roger now, “So and so, so and so.” And there’s a bit of an army way of putting it to him but I can’t talk to Peter like that because he thinks, “Oh dear the old man’s gone”…And his eyes start rolling around and whatever. But Roger is now doing what I am doing. He is organizing a reunion of his group of
men that he served with in the sixties. And he’s been all over Australia finding blokes. He’s got them on the Internet and he’s organized reunions, you see. I’ve schooled him into it and he loves it. So it’s a foregone conclusion. Our Roger drives up from Teraglin, gets here at eight o’clock. Leaves home at stumps. Drives here and leaves the car. We go in on the train and he puts his grandfather’s medals on and he has a great day.
I treasure that. So I don’t think I’d get the same comfort out of the day if I’m on my own. Even though the troops are there it is nice to have your son there.
In recent years the whole country seems to have changed its attitude to Anzac Day and war?
Yes, and noted changes. Particularly this year. This year was the best ever.
The weather was good. The crowd was more spontaneous. They were six deep from Latrobe Street to the Shrine. We form up outside the Grave Street there on Flinders Street. We make a right and go down. By the time we get down where the art gallery is they are six deep. You see blokes in wheelchairs with their medals and I break ranks and go and shake them by the hand. You know.
Their eyes light up. It’s good stuff. And then after the march we have a cup of tea and we go back down to our tree. We have a tree there. Three trees down on the right, we group there and have our pictures taken with the banner. Then we go down to Bells Pub and we are down there till three o’clock. We call for one minute’s silence and then we get into it.
And what happens when you get into it now. Is it the same conversation every year?
Pretty well. Invariably “How’s
Fred going? How are you going? Where’s Charlie”. “Charlie’s dead”. “Oh poor bloody Charlie. I remember him. He was in Don company”. And away it goes on and on and on. So what I do, I listen to all that and then I put that in the newsletter and the newsletter goes all over Australia. I had a lovely Anzac Day. I spoke to Vin, spoke to Bob spoke to Blocky, we missed Charlie… Charlie’s dead”. I put that in the newsletter and send that out because they’d never know that Charlie’s dead.
See this is another thing that I have sort of dreamed up. The newsletter is a lifeline to the blokes I’ll never see again. It goes to Horn Island. It goes to America. It goes to Perth. And blokes write back and they say, “Gee thanks for that newsletter. I’m very sorry to hear about Charlie”. They don’t have to know but they feel better for knowing and I feel good that I’ve told them.
Is this still a continuing part of the healing?
Yes. It’s a new bandaid you might say. It’s a new, it’s a top up. It’s keeping alive the memories and today the memories are what’s keeping a lot of blokes alive. We have blokes that would love to come and march with us but they can’t. They are physically not able or they live in the bush and they can’t make the journey to Melbourne on their own. Some of them come down and they’ve got a son living here. That’s great. You
take a bloke that lives in Ballarat. It’s only two hours away but to him it’s a big event to go to Melbourne and back in one day. When you’re eighty-five. It’s asking a lot. So the newsletter fills a void there. And we send out about eighty newsletters. And I edit it and put in a lot of, you know, light and shade stuff. I think it’s been a wonderful thing because I get
so much feedback. Then I ring blokes up and I say, “Give us a story. Give us about fifty or sixty lines about something that happened”. And one bloke I got onto was the CO's batman. Arthur Thompson. He rang me up form Port Macquarie. He said, “You don’t know me but I used to be the CO’s batman.” “You’re just the man I want to hear from”. I said, “What about giving us a little story from while you were the CO’s Batman?” “Righto” he says. So he writes me down all this and tells me about when our battalion went to Rabaul
to be garrisoned for all the prisoners up there. Over thousands and thousands of Japanese prisoners. The colonel had the Japs build this beautiful hut, bamboo hut for the CO and he insisted on a hot shower. And the hot shower was out of a forty-four gallon drum and whatever whatever and Arthur wrote back and said, “When Bernie was not there I had the hot shower”. Bernie knew but he never said anything. Funny little story but this is all of interest to the boys.
It’s better for them to know than not to know that that happened. Poor old Bernie’s dead but it’s only a little thing. It’s of no interest other than that all the boys in the unit are better for having sort of thought about Author Thompson. That he was prepared to have the colonel’s hot shower when he wasn’t there.
Well that’s what memories all about isn’t it? Re-creating people in your mind.
Yeah. One of my batmen
early on was a barber. He had a barbers shop in Hurstville in Sydney. He was a much older man but a very good bloke. Quick moving like a bird and plenty of chat like a barber has. Excellent barber he was the camp barber. And he came to me one day and said, “I volunteer to be your batman”. I said, “I’d love you to, Ernie”. He said, “Would you do me a favour boss?” He always used to call me boss. I said, “What do you want?” He said, “I want a tent so I can set up a barber’s shop”. He said, “I have to go around all the companies.
Why can’t I have a tent at headquarters and let people come to me?” So I got a tent and got the pole painted red and white. I got a form made. Old magazines and here’s Ernie in the barbers shop and when we moved that was the first tent that went up. And it was years afterwards that I found out that a bloke called Johnston ran an SP [gambling business] from there. So I put it in the newsletter. So Ernie died about three months ago so I wrote and obituary saying he had done all that and I said, “By the way, Ernie
knew the SP was operating from the tent. He told me who it was but I’m not telling”. You should have seen the feedback I got from that. And the bloke that ran it is still alive. I know who it was. But see it’s all little funny stuff. Light and shade. It’s colour, it’s memories.
Would they have to pay for a haircut?
And was this the same fellow you gave the ciggies and the booze to?
He must have made a bloody fortune.
He never drew one days pay out of the army.
He made a fortune, Ernie, and good luck to him. But when we went to Bougainville he couldn’t go because he was too old. He cried he said, “I want to go” but I said, “You can’t go to Bougainville Ernie, you’re too old”.
Crying about all the money he was still going to make.
He was ninety-six when he died. He was still cutting hair down at the old man’s home. Lovely bloke. When I got sick I got dermatitis. It was easy to get, you know, the green dye. I used to strip right off and hang onto the tent post and he painted
me from head to foot in lycasol. That’s green dye. Two days later he’d come and peel the skin off me. I wasn’t game to go to hospital. Once you went to hospital like that you never got out. I went to see these guys lying on straps, not beds, straps because they’re covered in ulcers. I could see myself being like that. Ernie used to do that for me. And occasionally I’d ring him up and say, “How’s that bottle of dye?
“Christ,” he said. “I know it used to hurt you mate”.
Can you explain to me about that procedure a little more? Would you be walking around coloured green for a couple of days?
Yes. Forever. And you’d have it on for weeks and you’d sweat and the green dye would come out and you’d have terrible rashes. I used to get terrible dermatitis and rash and eczema and all of that. I could see that the only way to get rid of it was to
get Ernie to paint me. He thought that was hilarious. You know, dobbing it up and down his bloody officer and I’m there hanging on to the tent post. I mean that’s another fact. This is not a fable. This is a fact. I can still see it. You might wonder how we kept ourselves clean. This is a funny thing. I never told you that yesterday. He got hold of an American helmet and you know how they are sort of like a bucket. He carried that all the way and that was our
bath. He got three sticks and put them in the ground and sat the American helmet in it and filled that with water. So you stripped off and took a bath out of that. And the last final act was…that’s it. That’s how we had a shower. This in the jungle. You can’t believe how you did those things.
But everyone was in the same boat. It was not as though you were the only one suffering. But he was so anxious to make sure you had the best that was available at the time. And he carried that bloody American helmet and then when we were going out of Townsville on the way from Brisbane to Bougainville he didn’t come. He shook hands. He said,
“Boss, I wish I was coming”. And I said, “You can’t come you’re too bloody old”. And we’ve kept in touch all through the years and when I was in Sydney I used to ring him up and say, “How are you going Ernie?”. And as I say he died late last year. I got a lovely letter from his wife. She knew. She knew his connection with me. Because I used to look after him. He was well off, Ernie, and good luck to him. And I used to say, “Get rid of that”. “Yes. No problem”. And he’d get a quid for a bottle of beer.
You know, cigarettes. He never drew any. I think he used to charge a shilling for a hair cut. It was a good thing for the blokes to be able to go into the barber’s shop and have a professional barber give him a professional hair cut. He get put a quid on a horse and read the books and one thing and another. It was a funny set up.
So that SP thing was something they tried to keep hidden from the officers?
Yes. It was illegal, of course.
But did you turn a blind eye to it?
Had to. I knew what was going on. Because I know the bloke who did it and he’s still alive.
A lot of things went on that the top brass never knew about. If they did they never let on.
Was that an unspoken thing between officers and men in that…?
There was a limit. They knew how far they could go. They could come to you and say, “Listen boss, we want to set this up”. Particularly the sly grog. They were making their own grog. Plenty of that went on. Terrible things went on, John. I remember one-night two blokes
got a bit full and they decided to go off the rails. This was up on a place called Pearl Ridge. On top of the Numa Numa trail. And we were sort of in a fixed camp. Everyone made their own bed. Like they put four sticks in the ground crossways, like that and then they put two side bearers and over that they put a sack. So you made a bed. Two holes in the end of the sack. This
bright spark rolled a grenade under this blokes bed and it went off.
While he was in it?
You can imagine what happened. His whole body from head to tail was covered in blood and whatever, whatever. Terrible scream over when the old man found out about it.
Was he killed?
No he got over it. Spot Webb it happened to. Spot Webb. I can still see him. Spot Webb.
He was a pretty tough sort of a guy but I tell you what he was never the same after that.
So this was a drunk fellow was doing this? And a grenade right underneath him and it didn’t kill him?
He was very lucky?
I think it went that way but a lot of it went up. He was the colour of your shirt, poor old Webby. But that was stupid but those sort stupid things happened. And the night that peace was declared everyone got full and fired the guns into the air. I went to bed. I wasn’t going to be killed by
No but there were a couple of near misses. The blokes went out of control.
What were you thinking lying there in bed? Were you thinking Crikey?
I’ve come this far. You see then you become a coward don’t you. Self-preservation. You’ve been through the heavy stuff and you don’t want to get knocked off just for a prank.
Well that’s not cowardice. That’s being sensible.
God, I can’t even remember your names. The young lady yesterday, that we carried on as officers. We were given this big American truck on the quiet. And Austy Ford who was the QM he had access to transport as well. And having transport you could go places without anyone knowing and do terrible things like going on overnight leave and getting away with it. You know.
We had this big truck and we were in Bougainville and the war was over. And we used to go into the mess and get pretty well tanked up and carry on. So we decided that we would go down to the officers’ mess at Torakina. Where all the officers used to go for drinks. And we’d be drinking with General Savige and all the top brass and whatever and we’d consider ourselves bloody heroes and whatever and on the way home we would knock down as many signs as we could.
And think that was funny. And one night we approached the 26th battalion officers’ mess and the driver wanted to drive the truck through the mess and wreck it. And Kent Maxwell the Adjutant came out and stood in front of the truck and said, “Gentleman.Please, don’t do it”. “Kent, Get out of the so and so way. We are coming. These are officers and gentlemen”.
I’m in the truck. As bad as the rest of them. The grog’s got us. “Please don’t come any further”. So Austy drives the truck up and touches Kent. And then sense prevails. Boy O boy that was a close thing. Just imagine if he had driven it through the mess. We would have all been court martialled. That’s the other side of
war. You might say that is a stupid thing to do. But we all did it and we loved it. Perhaps it was happy release.
It’s got to come out somewhere doesn’t it? And it is not always going to come out in the most appropriate manner either.
But there were funny things that happened. When we got to Strathpine we’ve got what was called the battalion fund. The battalion fund is made by fines that the CO puts on men. You see it’s all put into a fund and you get to the stage where you’ve got to spend it or you’ll lose it. So we get to
Strathpine and there was a big army camp. This was just prior to going to Bougainville. And the CO said, “Why haven’t we got a piano?” “I don’t know sir”. I’m the amenities officer. “I don’t know sir”. He said, “We’ve got enough money. Go into Brisbane and buy a piano, Turrell”. “You fair dinkum?” “Go into Brisbane and buy a piano and bring it back”. So I get my sergeant and about a dozen blokes and we get into this three tonne truck and we go into Brisbane. We go into one of the shops there and we see this piano and
I’ve got the bloke the plays it. Bonsy Bradford, he was the RAP sergeant. Beautiful pianist. And I say, “Which one do you like Bonsy”. And he says, “That one”. “We’ll have it”. Up comes the man. “Yes gentleman” So I say, “We want to buy a piano”. And he says, “Which one?” “That one.” “Where do you want it sent?” “We’re taking it!” In comes the blokes, picked the piano up. Bonsy opens the lid and as we were going out of the shop he was playing the piano. We put it in the truck and came home and we’ve got our piano. That’s the funny side of it. See.
As against driving through the mess. There had to be that, John.
Oh for sure.
And one night…We used to play a lot of bridge and poker. And one night we stacked the cards against the padre. He never forgave us for that.
Did you skin him?
He was a catholic padre. Father Brill. I can still see his face. He wanted to say,
“You bastards” but he couldn’t and we are just going…trying to look coy. Padre Brill, we stacked the cards. He never forgave us for that but it was all good fun. And they’re the funny sides of it. You had to have that release. And we considered it…We knew when to stop but there were a couple of times when it got awfully close. Like poor old Webby. He either broke his ankle or fractured his ankle or something or rather and he had to have a crutch made.
And he had it painted in the football colours of his club. So one night in the mess we decided we were going to fix Webby up so we took his crutch away and threw it in the fire and burned it. And he couldn’t go anywhere. Like all these things happened.
What happened the next day? Did you get put on a charge for that?
No. He… we got even with him. He vowed he’d get us. Many years after
the war Arthur Chambers and I went on a cruise and the cruise went from Sydney. We knew Webby worked in the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney. So I said, “Let’s go down and get bloody Webby and we’ll have a few beers”. So we walk into the bank’ and here’s Webby sitting at his desk. And he looked up, “Oh god.” And he went over to the rack and put his coat on and said to the guy, “I won’t be back”. And he wasn’t back and we were very nicely when we got back on the ship but see
he forgave us because we were the blokes who burned his crutch. And we said to him, “Remember the crutch?” “Yes and I’ve never got even with you bastards”, and I wanted to thump you there and then.
I think that’s a lovely note to finish on.
Yes well that’s a bit of light stuff like I relay all that sort of stuff because they’re just little things that happened to me. I was perhaps the instigator end sometimes or on the receiving end of it. They broke my bed one night. We had a fight with sandshoes. A bloke hit me with a sandshoe, I had a bruise down here.
He we were throwing sandshoes at one another and about ten jumped on my bed and broke it. I thought it was a hell of a bloody joke. But you’ve got to have that and the troops did it to each other. I remember we had one corporal and we was an officious little man and we got to him. We pulled his pants down and we tanned him.
On the bottom?
Yep. With a Nugget. [shoe polish]
He wasn’t game to go to the CO but he was never any sort of bad after that. He learned his lesson. You know a lot of things like that happened.
Are we there Stella? Yeah…
End of tape