Donald Wilson
Archive number: 252
Preferred name: Don
Date interviewed: 29 May, 2003

Served with:

2/3rd Infantry Battalion

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Donald Wilson 0252

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Transcript

Tape 01

01:00:30:00

Don, could you give us a quick summary of your life to date?
Well I was born in Sydney, North Sydney, but at a very early age my grandmother, mother and my brother and I moved to Nerriga where my grandmother took over

01:01:00:00

the hotel, the shop. Nerriga is on the southern highlands. Lots of people have never heard of Nerriga but it was where I spend the first five years of my life. I went to Nerriga’s school for a little while after my fifth birthday, which is a one-classroom school. My brother was in the class at the same school for a little while and then he went down to Sydney for a better education.

01:01:30:00

The family on my mother’s side was relatively well off. My grandfather had been a bank manager in the early part of the 20th Century, and they had accumulated a bit of property and so on and they built this big home at Wollstonecraft. So my brother went down there to go to school. He went to Gordon School, I stayed up there but when I was five,

01:02:00:00

my mother and father had been separated and my mother one Sunday decided to take me with her and the new man in her life to Queanbeyan by car, a (UNCLEAR) car which had a faulty door lock on the passenger side. On the road from Braidwood to Queanbeyan

01:02:30:00

at night the car rolled crossing a creek, and there was no bridge there at that time. My mother was thrown out into the creek bed, and as we subsequently discovered she suffered a broken spine. She lived another eighteen months in various hospitals, mostly in the Mater at Crows Nest,

01:03:00:00

and I only ever saw her three times after that accident. Once in Queanbeyan Hospital, once in the St Luke’s at Darlinghurst and once in the Mater Hospital. My brother remained at Wollstonecraft. My father was boarding there at the time. I went to my mother’s brother’s home, he had three daughters out at Croydon.

01:03:30:00

I went there until my mother died after being in hospital as I probably said, for the rest of her life, eighteen months of it in plaster in hospital beds. When she died I went back to Wollstonecraft and lived for a while there with my brother, but then my father claimed me and I went to Roseville, went to live with him at Roseville

01:04:00:00

with his mother, who had also been rather wealthy. She was one of the direct descendents of Richard Archibald, which run the Archibald Estate, which was an extensive property on the north shore. And from there I went to Roseville School for about four years. I was dux of Roseville School and won a scholarship to Sydney Grammar School.

01:04:30:00

When I started at Sydney Grammar School, I went back to live at Wollstonecraft. I don’t really know why, possibly because my grandmother may have wished for me to live with her, or it might have been because it was easier for me to get to school by train, I’m not sure. But I lived with her then for a while there at Wollstonecraft. I did well at Sydney Grammar School. In the first year I was the top in most subjects, or many subjects, I should say.

01:05:00:00

And in second year I needed a Latin grammar book, my father told me he couldn’t afford to buy it for me and I sort of, to some extent, lost interest. I switched from Latin to Geography and without much feeling for it. I rather fear it was all down hill from then on. He married about that time a woman with four children.

01:05:30:00

And he told me he couldn’t afford to buy me the Latin book, but he married again and I lived with that family. Now, I liked my stepmother very much and I liked the children, I got on well with the children. In fact, I liked being part of a family, I had not been part of a continuous family, since my brother and I were separated at Nerriga. At the same time, I felt I wasn’t really of them,

01:06:00:00

I was just with them. But they, the children there, were of working class family as I was of course, but their father had died young and they had known poverty, and as far as they were concerned, as soon as they could, they got out and went to work, and I thought well, so should I, so I stopped studying and I barely scraped through the intermediate certificate, but

01:06:30:00

I did get a job at the Sydney County Council as a clerk, it was the beginning of 1936, and I stayed there until I joined up in the beginning of 1940. I joined the army and I spent, I was overseas, I joined up in time to catch the first convoy, which sailed on the 10th January 1940. I was in the infantry, the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion

01:07:00:00

and I was there for the next, the best part of six years, the Western Desert, Greece, Syria, and some few months in Ceylon. Came home and then went up to the Owen Stanley, Kokoda, Sanananda campaign. Came back to Australia, spent some eighteen months on the Atherton Tablelands, training, and then went to

01:07:30:00

New Guinea again to the Aitape, Wewak campaign and I was discharged in October 1945. In 1942, I’d married my childhood sweetheart, I suppose I could call her, depends on what constitutes childhood, actually. We met when she came to work in the same section of the Sydney County Council as I was working. I was working in the advertising

01:08:00:00

department, the department also included the Home Management Cookery Demonstrator staff, who were there to promote the use of electric cookery and my wife went there as a general assistant. She was three years older than me and I used to have to go down and help her, wash up after there had been cookery demonstrations on. So that constant intimacy with her led to my asking her out. She was the first girl I ever took out.

01:08:30:00

And of course I fell in love with her. But she was three years older than me, so it was a bit, I had the feeling that she liked being taken out maybe as all girls do, but that she wasn’t all that keen on me, but eventually we did have an on and off romance and when I went away we were corresponding and I rather thought that she was finally in love with me but she

01:09:00:00

became engaged when I was away, which upset me, to somebody else of course, but then that fell through and she finally decided that, yes, she was happy to become engaged to me. So when I came home in 1942 in August, she was in the women’s, the women’s air force [WAAAF – Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force], and she got leave to come home and we got married, then we could leave in January 1943, after that 1942 campaign in New Guinea, and we lived together for a while there and our first son was born that year, Brian and so then at the end of the war I went back to Sydney County Council and stayed there until 1959. Our second son, Peter was born in 1949 and in 1959,

01:10:00:00

I thought, I had studied advertising and I was doing well enough at Sydney County Council to realise there was a steady progression there but I, we had a difficult time coping with the health problems of the children. We lived at Manly on the beach, which was a great place to live in the summer. You could go for a swim before work in the morning

01:10:30:00

but the problem was in winter it was too damp for my eldest son, Brian. The result was that he was continually bronchial. A doctor told us that we just had to get out of there in winter. So we rented another place up in the Blue Mountains over the next three or four years, so that meant we were paying two rents, one in the Mountains and one in Sydney.

01:11:00:00

So money became a bit of a problem but we managed, and by 1959 we decided there wasn’t all that much of a future in Sydney County Council, being just one of a large number of people and I applied for a job with the Standards Association of Australia which I took, which they offered me and I took, and I eventually stayed there

01:11:30:00

for another 24 years and became Publishing Manager and Chief Editor, and it was the best move I ever made in my life. If I can say about marriage, I had a happy marriage but I became you know, from nobody, I became responsible for 22 people and every Australian standard that was published over those years, I read and organised the publishing of

01:12:00:00

and felt that I had a very responsible job, a unique job in Australia because I was the only person doing that job. But in 1983 the Standards Association had, was going places. About 1980, 1979 they sent me on a round the world trip to investigate methods of production in other Standards bodies,

01:12:30:00

which was quite good but I had already made up my mind what equipment we needed to become an effective in-house publishing organisation. And my trip overseas, which took in an exhibition in New York, proved to me that the equipment I had already made up my mind about was still the best equipment. I didn’t learn anything,

01:13:00:00

in other words, about what other organisations were doing, I already knew and so we got this equipment. And I was rather proud of the fact that within a couple of years I was saving about a million dollars a year in outside printing costs but the pressures of work built up. And I was happy too, that we had an International Standards meeting there in my time with the Standards. We were in North Sydney,

01:13:30:00

and they brought all the leaders of the other Standards Organisations out and I was very chuffed when the leader of the British Standards institution came and looked at our set up there and he said, “By God, you’ve got a good set up here and I’ve learned a few things from that to take back home.” When they came, I had already investigated what they had over there and they had their operations split. I brought everything together, you know and sort of

01:14:00:00

had a work flow procedure operating. But work pressures got too much for me. I felt that I loved the work, but it was building up too much and in the situation of having grown from nothing I didn’t have anybody with me who could do my job and sort of give me a break. The work was divided into divisions

01:14:30:00

and so I decided to leave and work for myself for a while, which I did. I had a three day a week job at the Law Book Company, just proofreading but with other retired people and they were, we were a good team there, reading law reports but I found that with the experience with the Standards Association, I was able to teach them a thing or two

01:15:00:00

with the result that they offered me a permanent job as a senior editor there but I said, “No.” I was happy to work three days a week because I was also working at home doing publishing for other magazines and we, in the meantime we had moved to Rozelle to a townhouse and we were quite happy there, and as I say with three days permanent and being able to choose my hours on the other two days we had quite a good life. We went to

01:15:30:00

anything that culturally was going. We would go to the operas, the ballets, plays and subscribed to all the different theatre organisations. But then in 1988, my son Brian in the meantime had moved in the meantime to Tasmania as manager of Motorola. He himself had been part owner of a business here, which the senior partner had sold off,

01:16:00:00

so he was looking to get something more responsible himself. And he went to Tasmania as Motorola’s manager, but he found they weren’t doing the right thing in support and there was a big need down there for somebody as technically trained as he was to provide good service for mobile phones, which were then coming in, and for CB radio and that area.

01:16:30:00

I should mention that he himself had been to Vietnam and he had nine years in the army in signals, and he had done the Marconi School of Signals. So he left Motorola, set up his own business and within a matter of three or four years he had three shops going, and a factory and he finished up eventually, he was the biggest mobile phone retailer in Tasmania.

01:17:00:00

Originally, he was based in Ulverstone and then in Devonport, but in 1988 his wife rang to say that “She thought he had a heart condition,” and I said to my wife, my wife’s name was Nancy by the way, “I think we ought to go down there. We’ve got nothing to tie us here and we would be with family.” We had the other son, he was living up north of Sydney at Karuah I think,

01:17:30:00

and so we packed up and went down to Tasmania and bought a home down there in the hills out of Penguin. It was an old home and restored it, we made it a very nice home. And the other son decided he, too, would like to live in Tasmania, so he came down and got a job and we are all there together. Unfortunately, my wife was developing dementia.

01:18:00:00

This wasn’t apparent to me at the time but she more or less suddenly turned against the family. She didn’t want anything to do with the grandchildren. She thought they were dreadful. They were teenagers growing up, I saw no problem with them, they were cheeky to their parents and fought with each other. But they were teenagers and it didn’t worry me, but she thought they were badly behaved and therefore didn’t want them in the home,

01:18:30:00

which upset them of course. They said many times they wanted to come up and visit us but no, she didn’t want them. So I said to her one day, “Do you want to go back to Sydney?” And she said, “Yes.” Well, in hindsight that was a bad decision. But she said, “Yes,” and we packed up and came back to Sydney and moved to Chatswood Garden Village, where I’m now living. My life in the village itself has been good,

01:19:00:00

I’m very happy. But for my wife, it was more or less all down hill. The dementia, she seemed happy enough at first here, we were meeting old friends again. But even then she started not to want to be with our friends, and then I found that she was telling all our friends stories about me that I was some terrible person, and people in the village, she told that too, and I didn’t

01:19:30:00

know what to do about this, but the manageress of the village here told me one day to get in touch with the Department of the Ageing because she felt that she had dementia. I still hadn’t recognised it. So, they came and took her away for tests and they said, “Yes, she had Alzheimer’s disease.” We kept together here for a while but life was very difficult. It was very stressful

01:20:00:00

because she had really turned against me and even though we were nearly by that time, we had been married about 56 years, but life was hell to put it mildly. We never went anywhere together and then she got to the stage of roaming and getting lost, and with the support of the Department of the Ageing we got her into respite at the James Nilson village. The respite idea

01:20:30:00

is mainly to give respite to the other partner for a break. I was in the unfortunate situation, I read many stories of where partners have kept their, say husbands or wife, have kept their other partner going even though they have Alzheimer’s, I’ve read many books on it, but in every case they had family backup. I had no family up here and I felt terribly about putting my

01:21:00:00

wife into care. If I hadn’t, the stress levels had got so high that I developed asthma, I developed a heart condition and was told, you know that I would just have to do something about it. If she remained here and I suddenly carked it to put it mildly, she’d still have to go.

01:21:30:00

So, we were just fortunate once she was in care in the dementia unit at the James Nilson Village, a bed became available, so they accepted her immediately, and she did not return here. Now, that was two years ago. The first year was difficult. I visited her often and she would resent the fact that she was there

01:22:00:00

and resent my leaving but there were good moments. Gradually, with the help of the therapists and the caring staff, she settled down and now today, she is completely placid. When I visit her we are happy to throw our arms around each other,

01:22:30:00

but I have to leave her then after, and I hate leaving her because I feel that I am letting her down just by leaving her. But I know that she is well cared for. I could not wish for people to be more caring. So this is what I’m doing now. Trying to keep myself occupied.

01:23:00:00

I do Meals on Wheels once a week, I’ve been doing that for the past, most of the last ten years, with Lane Cove and Willoughby and I’ve also been doing a little bit for an organisation called SHUSH, Self Help for Hard of Hearing. You help with people here in the village. Living in a retirement village you tend to help each other. Yesterday, one of our

01:23:30:00

lady neighbours, she needed to see her doctor who is at Greenwich, which would have meant getting three buses, and I thought, first I was on a Meals on Wheels run yesterday, and so I said, “I could take you down there, and leave you there, and then go and do my Meals on Wheels run.”

01:24:00:00

But she was being investigated for a tumour in the throat, which the doctor was so concerned about, she said, “I want you to go.” Well, she knows it was nothing to do with me but she said, “I want you to go, well, I want you to go and see the specialist straight away down at North Shore [Hospital],” and as it turned out I wasn’t on Meals on Wheels, so I said, “All right, I’ll take you down there, I can wait.” We had lunch, we couldn’t see anyone till after lunch,

01:24:30:00

so we decided to have lunch and we went down at Harbord for a drive. I bought her back there, she thought she might be there half an hour. She was there two hours and I waited in the car. That’s the sort of thing. I’m not saying that to build myself up, being there all day waiting for her, I didn’t wait with her. I just waited in the car but that’s the sort of thing we do in the village. Other people are doing that driving,

01:25:00:00

picking up people who don’t have cars, take them to doctor’s, take them on outings. It’s a good life in the village and I’m regretful that my wife is no longer here to share it with me.
Thank you, Don. That’s a very, very good story.
I’m only sorry about my voice.
No, you’re doing very well. Thank you for such an excellent summary. It’s taken us on quite a journey. You’ve had quite a remarkable life, actually.
Well, in a way, yes.

01:25:30:00

Yes, very much. If we can go back to the beginning, and just to give us just a couple more details. Can you tell us where and when you were born?
I’m not sure of the name of the hospital but I was born in North Sydney. I’m not sure at what age I went to Nerriga. But at Nerriga, of course, I had my share of childhood experiences, I loved Nerriga. It’s a very small place

01:26:00:00

and I’ve been back there. When I was two, I went walking with our dog and got lost in the bush. He got his foot caught in a rabbit trap, and I in my innocence, tried to get his foot out of the rabbit trap and he bit me on the little fingers, which I now have a reminder of that incident. But I was found the same day by a young fellow called Ernie Smith,

01:26:30:00

and he was eighteen at the time. And about forty years later, I went back to Nerriga and met Ernie again. And thanked him for finding me.
What were the family living circumstances at Nerriga?
Well, we had the hotel. I was living with my grandmother, who had taken over the hotel. I don’t know why she went to Nerriga. It might have been, she had the big home at Wollstonecraft,

01:27:00:00

and it might have been that they, it might have been because of my mother’s and father’s marriage splitting up that she wanted to get away from the city. I don’t really know that of course, and I can’t ask anybody who would know, but she did have the hotel there and obviously, we had been there probably at least four years there.

01:27:30:00

And when I was four, I went down to visit a neighbour, a little boy friend of mine, and his dog, which was a fox terrier or it could have been a bull terrier. I know it was white with black spots. Sitting on the top step and I was a bit wary of him and he sensed that I think, because I said, “Look out Spot.” I can remember saying those words, “Look out Spot.” And he attacked me about the head rather savagely of course, he took a piece out of my ear

01:28:00:00

and I’ve got scars on the top of my head, and I do remember the lady of the house having blood-stained towels, and the next thing memory I have is being in hospital and my mother bringing me some toys. I went back to Braidwood to see the hospital, to see if they had any records of my being there, but the records didn’t go back that far.

01:28:30:00

I’ve no doubt there would have been newspaper stories of what happened. You know, dog attacks on children always rate a newspaper story. As would the incident with the car crash involving my mother. That was a really stressful situation, although as a five year old boy at the time I did not feel it stressful. It was all too confusing for me.

01:29:00:00

But when she was thrown out of the car, I lay in that creek bed, and this was not as if it was a main road, with houses either side. It was bushland with, and it was night-time, and this was 1926 in, I’m not sure if it was the start of winter or the end of winter, I rather think it might have been early in winter, that’s right because she died

01:29:30:00

in November 1927, but we were hoping, the driver was uninjured and we were hoping for something to come through to help us. We didn’t have a phone, how could we contact anybody? She was lying there on the bed of the creek. Fortunately, a bus of footballers came though.

01:30:00:00

I don’t know whether they were probably returning to Braidwood, perhaps. But the help came through them. What form the help took, I don’t remember. But as I say it was a sort of change in my life. A bad change of course because from then on I was brought up without a mother. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a very wonderful person,

01:30:30:00

and I loved living with her. But as I mentioned, my father took me to live with him as was no doubt was his right, although he never took my brother too. If we had both gone it might have been easier growing up because I was something of an only child in those years.

01:31:00:00

But my other grandmother was not quite as kind and caring I felt, as my mother’s mother. So I was happier living at Wollstonecraft than I was living at Roseville. Or I would have been better off say, had I remained at Wollstonecraft as far as my future life was concerned. I would have been growing up with my brother. He was four years older than me. But because of that separation from him we didn’t

01:31:30:00

get to be very close in later years, although he became very successful. He went to the islands working with a shipping company, worked for Burns Philp, that’s right he went to work in the New Hebrides for Burns Philp and eventually became Managing Director of Burns Philp New Hebrides.
Getting back to Nerriga for the moment, what can you tell me about your memories of the hotel?

01:32:00:00

Well, it was a single storey building with a hitching rail outside for horses with a parlour. It would be one of the oldest in the country, no doubt. And the general store was part of the same building, which my grandmother also ran. One incident I should mention there shows what sort of a strange life I had. I was ill one day, I’m not sure

01:32:30:00

what it was, I might have just had a cold. But I was put into, my godfather was there, he was the licensee for the hotel, acting for my grandmother, and I was put into his bedroom, which was a very sunny room. I remember getting out of bed, I would have been about five at the time. This would have been the same year as the

01:33:00:00

eventual car crash but I decided to investigate around the room. Opened a drawer and there was a revolver in the drawer. Took the revolver out, playing with it, bang. I looked down at my hand - I had a scratch on that finger. I didn’t think any more of it. I just put the revolver back in the drawer. Then some time later

01:33:30:00

my godfather came into the room and he started looking around and he found the bullet up on a shelf, and he said, “What’s this?” I said, “I don’t know, Pard.” We called him Pard. But it was interesting to me that there was all that time had gone from the time of that shot until he came in and, no doubt they’d heard the shot, but didn’t think

01:34:00:00

that it would have come from there, but in the meantime I could have been laying critically injured or even dead.
It sounds like you did leave a very solitary, lonely life.
Yes, I’ve never, I’ve mixed well, but only when people have bothered to ask me to mix with them.

01:34:30:00

I’ve always been sort of shy as a kid, and reluctant as an adult to get involved with other people that I don’t know. They have to involve me. And I just put this down to the fact that I didn’t have an outgoing childhood. Keeping too much by myself.
What memories do you have of your mother as a personality? What can you remember of her as a character?

01:35:00:00

That she was very beautiful. And my last memory, vivid memory, was the day of the accident. She stood me on the kitchen table in the pub at Nerriga and dressed me to go on this car trip. But you know, I don’t have any

01:35:30:00

further memories of her, but she was my mother and I really was, I suppose because I lived longer with her rather than my own mother, was closer to my grandmother but up to the age of five, you can’t really say what your mother meant to you. She was your mother.
So who do you think exercised the strongest influence on your life when you were growing up?

01:36:00:00

Probably the stepbrothers and sisters, not too much the sisters, but the stepbrothers.
In what kinds of ways?
Well, they had limited education and they were people who went to work early and I, instead of you know

01:36:30:00

studying, and making a success of my life as my brother did, he went through the intermediate with six As and three Bs, I had one A and six Bs, so I think that was a bad influence on me. I don’t blame my stepbrother, my immediate stepbrother, the other stepbrother, these were the times, he had even been a bottle’o, used to go around and collect bottles, anything to make money in those days.

01:37:00:00

And at that stage my father and his mother weren’t married. She’d had a terrible job having lost her husband at an age when the children were young, trying to cope with the poverty of the Depression years.
But so would the influence by your stepbrothers on you have been by example, would you say?
Yes.
And what was that example, would you say?
That example was to not to bother doing anything about school.

01:37:30:00

To get out and work, play on the streets after school, which was what I did. I stopped studying. I just, they the younger one, he was two years older than me. He’d go out and play on the streets with the local kids, why couldn’t I? So I just did that.
Now could you describe the personality of your father?
My father was a man who

01:38:00:00

tried to please everybody. He wasn’t a strict father. He didn’t teach me things that he ought to have taught me. For example, I never cleaned my teeth properly when I was a kid. He didn’t teach me to clean my teeth. I remember him saying to somebody once, “I don’t have any teeth,

01:38:30:00

I don’t have to worry about toothache.” All his teeth were false. I learnt a lesson from that myself and made sure my own kids cleaned their teeth regularly. I was very happy when my son Brian, when he went into the regular army. He was one of a batch of 36 and he didn’t have to have any teeth extracted. But my father, he was never strict with me in any way. He never laid a hand on me in the whole of my life.

01:39:00:00

But as I say I felt that he should have been able to teach me more about being able to live than he did. Not that I’m sure that I‘ve been able to teach my own sons more about how to live, but I was stricter with them, you know on trying to study and do things for the family,

01:39:30:00

so, but he did say, I’ve got to tell you what he said to me on the night he died and I saw him, he was in a nursing home. And he said to me, “I haven’t been a good father.” I couldn’t say, I didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t a bad father, he just was a little bit inadequate, I suppose that’s the best way of putting it, in preparing me to become something in life.

01:40:00:00

I became something because I did it myself. But I lost a lot of opportunity by not studying and going on with my scholarship at Sydney Grammar School. Now that was an achievement, as far as I was concerned, that I wasted.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0252 Tape 02

02:00:30:00

So up until the time you were twenty you seem to have had quite a few changes of address?
Yes, when I left Nerriga I went to stay with my aunt and uncle. Would you like some spicy bits in this story?
Sure.
They had three daughters. I went to Croydon Public School, Infants School, with them,

02:01:00:00

and one day after school we were playing up at a neighbour’s place and they apparently wanted to play doctors and nurses or something like that, and when my youngest cousin and I heard what we were supposed to do, we were horrified and went home and told on them. The other two sisters, one was about four years older than me and one was about two, so the next thing I remember is being put in the bath with my young cousin

02:01:30:00

and that’s when I learned that boys and girls were different. I don’t know if that was the intention of my aunt and uncle or whether they merely wanted to save on the hot water bill. Any rate, from there I went back to Wollstonecraft and I went to Greenwich Public School from there for a while, possibly for not quite twelve months, that was before my father claimed me and took me to live at Roseville with his mother,

02:02:00:00

who was an Archibald, she was the granddaughter of Richard Archibald and I lived there as I said I went to Roseville School. But from then on it was back to Wollstonecraft, back to Roseville, back to where my father and my stepmother were living. And they had several changes of address in the years that I lived with them, which was only really in total about four years. It seemed longer but it wasn’t. Because I was

02:02:30:00

also going to stay with my other grandmother at Wollstonecraft. So in all I calculated that I had ten changes of address between the ages of five and nineteen when I joined the army. I was at Wollstonecraft with my grandmother when I joined the army. In that same year, early in that same year I lived with my other grandmother who had sold the Roseville property and moved to a smaller home in Willoughby. So I lived with her for a while.

02:03:00:00

Just diverting to look at a bit of regional history here, you mentioned the Archibald Estate and you mentioned the house that was there. Before we started recording again you gave us a brief description of that house. For the purposes of the record, can you tell us about that place?
It was a single storeyed place but it had a very big veranda, and a very big front room where they had a piano, unfortunately nobody had ever suggested I might learn to play the piano. But there it was.

02:03:30:00

But I played tennis at odd times there but there was nobody to play tennis with. Mostly after school when I was living at Roseville, I would go down to play with the kids down in, I think it was Oliver Road, which wasn’t far from there. But I met other members of the Archibald family at times. They were still in property, there was one, had an orchard at Narrara, and I

02:04:00:00

went up, one had a pineapple plantation in Queensland. I went up there one holiday with my father.
But could you describe this property in Roseville? It sounds like quite a substantial, impressive place? You mentioned an orchard.
Yes, when I way an orchard, probably around a dozen fruit trees. It wasn’t a commercial orchard. It was just that grandmother had a lot of fruit trees. My grandmother would have been well off in her

02:04:30:00

early years I’ve no doubt. She married a man who was a coachbuilder in the 19th century. But he also, like my grandmother at Wollstonecraft, she lost her husband early too. So she was left to battle on. But she did have, she was fairly well off, I can say. Because my brother told me later on that she had assets,

02:05:00:00

but she lost in the stock market. But she lost most of it in the great Depression when the stock market crashed. But the home itself was not a very substantial place, in fact while I was there the white ants had got in and did a lot of damage.
Now while we are on the subject of the Depression, what are your main memories of the Depression?
Well,

02:05:30:00

only that it affected me and affected my father. For example, I was living in an area where the boys all had bicycles, I didn’t. I don’t remember ever having one. I never learnt to ride a bike. And I used to walk to Roseville School with them, and we’d go past the cub’s hall, the other kids were in the cubs

02:06:00:00

but there was no chance of my joining the cubs. I was lucky to have any money. Other kids would have money to spend in the tuckshop at school, I didn’t. Only time I ever had any money to spend there was when I would walk instead of getting the bus because it was raining, and if it wasn’t too heavy, I would spend the bus fare in the tuckshop. In fact I did, one day I went to the tuckshop before school, spent my twopence

02:06:30:00

and then at assembly the acting headmaster said, “Any boys lost any money?” And I thought, “What’s happened to my twopence?” And I said, “Yes sir,” and put my hand up. And he said, “See me at play time.” So I thought, “Oh, he’s found my twopence.” At playtime I went to him, and he said, “Hold your hand out,” and gave me two cuts with the cane for being careless. I didn’t get the twopence and I didn’t even get to have the playtime break.

02:07:00:00

Another memory of Roseville school, was when I was dux, it was announced that I was dux of the school. One boy congratulated me by slapping me on the back. On the Sunday I’d been down to Balmoral and got badly sunburnt and I had a blister on my back as big as the palm of my hand, and he slapped me right where that blister was.

02:07:30:00

Well the blister burst and so did I, into tears. As for other aspects of poverty it was more the fact that when I went to Sydney Grammar School I did not have, and had no chance of getting the school uniform but I eventually did get the school cap but then when my clothes wore out I wore my brother’s clothes, which were handed down to me.

02:08:00:00

So, that’s what it meant to me. Not having the things that the other kids had.
It sounds like your older brother, being the older brother was given far more opportunities.
Well, it was his good luck to have remained at Wollstonecraft. Well that was a fairly, well Roseville was a fairly wealthy area to grow up in, I suppose. Wollstonecraft was

02:08:30:00

probably a little bit more so. His school friends were the sons of Sir Walter Carpenter, the Carpenter home was directly opposite the Wollstonecraft home. The Wollstonecraft home was a large home. It ran, it had a street frontage to Shirley Road, of seventy feet and a depth of about 200, and it had another street frontage at the back. It was a potentially very valuable property. And it was a big home,

02:09:00:00

lots of rooms. Although it was only single storey. My grandmother, I felt, and I never knew the truth of this but I have no doubt, when my grandmother had property at Elizabeth Bay in the mountains, and at Lindfield that I know of. And yet she needed, she struggled and had boarders in, and I put that down

02:09:30:00

to the fact, that I think she would have had to sell everything off to keep my mother in private hospitals for eighteen months. My mother and father having been divorced, there was no responsibility on him, and he had no money in any case. So I feel that my grandmother had footed the bill for eighteen months of hospital care, private hospital care for my mother. So she had then to struggle and my brother having become successful in the New Hebrides, took over the mortgage

02:10:00:00

of the Wollstonecraft home and he, when we were living at Manly, my wife and I, when my grandmother died in1950, he offered me the home at Wollstonecraft to live in and pay him rent, which was great because our kids, as I mentioned, we were paying two rents at the time, going up to the [Blue] Mountains in winter to keep the elder boy

02:10:30:00

from his bronchial attacks, Brian, and so we moved to Wollstonecraft, and in that time we acquired our own block of land at Lane Cove, and built a home there. But my brother then sold the Wollstonecraft property, decided it was too much of a bother to keep it going. What he didn’t know was, there was originally a covenant on the Wollstonecraft estate,

02:11:00:00

which prevented all those lots from being subdivided. Now, that covenant only applied to the original owner who had been my grandmother and my grandfather. When my grandmother passed the mortgage over to him he could have divided it, and doubled his money on it, but we didn’t know that. The estate agent knew it and the estate agent bought the block and then subdivided it. So that happens. We got our own home on a war service block of land at Lane Cove,

02:11:30:00

in a lovely area. It was, as far as the outlook was concerned, it looked out over the river and across to Hunters Hill and we lived there for twenty-four years. The boys, Brian went to Crows Nest High and then from there he joined the army. Peter went to Hunters Hill High and Peter was a bit of a problem child and

02:12:00:00

he didn’t want to study too, a bit like me, despite my trying to be strict with him. But eventually, he’s done all right with his life. He now lives in New Zealand. He went over there working with a British company. He’s changed jobs over there but so I have one son in New Zealand and one son in Tasmania. I was telling you the story of Brian in Tasmania. But then when we continued to live there after the boys had moved out,

02:12:30:00

but we thought we might like to change life styles.
Look, we covered that earlier. I just wanted to go back to the chronology of your earlier life. I just want to go back to that period when your mother was in hospital for eighteen months, did you have much of an opportunity to see her during that time?
No, I saw her twice, after having seen her in hospital,

02:13:00:00

which would have been in Queanbeyan, I only saw her once in St Luke’s Hospital and once in the North Shore, the Mater Private Hospital in North Sydney.
Prior to that you seem to have been quite close to your mother.
I thought I was, but I don’t know. I was too young to understand what was happening. I never expected my mother to die,

02:13:30:00

I never expected that she would never come out of hospital. I was just waiting for her to be there in my life again, but it didn’t happen. But when my father came and told me that she had died, I didn’t burst into tears or anything, I just took it.
I mean you must have really missed her during that period.
I think not,

02:14:00:00

because I was with this other family. It was a busy time in effect, even though it was only a little over a year being with three girls, a family with three girls.
Now, as you were growing up in the various families that you were mixing and merging with, did anyone talk about the impact of World War I?
No, my father was in World War I,

02:14:30:00

he was in the ambulance corps. I do remember my grandmother being a bit unhappy that my father had gone to war, because she said, “My mother pressured him to go to war,” because he didn’t join up until 1917. But he did serve.

02:15:00:00

He got over to Europe and France in time to have an active role in the war, but I know that my grandmother did say that my mother pressured him. But she felt that I had been pressured to join up in 1939 by my good friend who I worked with. We joined up together, we had consecutive numbers. Fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, they put us into different battalions.
So looking back to the 1920s and 30s,

02:15:30:00

did you feel that World War I had left a lasting legacy?
Well, I can say that when I went to join up with my friend we originally went up just after enlistment for the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] had started. But I had joined the militia before the war and had been in the artillery and he and I had talked about getting in the artillery. I said, “I wouldn’t join the infantry.”

02:16:00:00

We had read about the terrible things that happened you know, in the trenches in World War I and the dreadful conditions, which they had to live under. And we’re not going to go into them but the artillery might have a better proposition. So we went up to Victoria Barracks and said, “We want to join the artillery.” “No, we’re only taking people for the infantry.” I said, “All right, we’re not going to join up.” So we didn’t then, that was in November.

02:16:30:00

But on 2nd January 1941, we said, “Let’s go.” We’d take the infantry. But the funny thing is, even as far as the effect of you know, remembering what it was like in World War I, in Greece say, Middle East we didn’t strike those conditions they had in the trenches in World War I. Although the more sophisticated weapons, tanks and air craft and

02:17:00:00

so on. But the New Guinea campaign, the first one through the Owen Stanleys, Kokoda and Sanananda, I think the conditions at Sanananda were somewhat akin to what they put up with in World War I. We weren’t in trenches, we couldn’t because we were living in a swamp. But you know, you had to lie down at night where you were,

02:17:30:00

and in the morning you would be in a pool of water. There was no escape from it. That’s where the Japanese were entrenched there and we couldn’t budge them. We had to stay where we were. And so when we came home on leave another friend and I, and many other fellows had the same view. We’re mugs to think we would go through that again, those conditions. Let’s go to the air force. They can sleep in beds and night and we were on starvation rations at times

02:18:00:00

there in the Owen Stanley Ranges. You know they were trying to drop food from planes which was a failure in those days. They weren’t using parachutes. I think they had about a 30 percent recovery rate. So I said, “Let’s join the air force.” So, this particular mate of mine and I went along and went for the test and I joined the AIF. Perhaps I should mention this, one of the little things that had happened in my early life.

02:18:30:00

At the age of sixteen I lost the hearing in my right ear, as the result of a mastoid. So, I joined the army with that, being totally deaf in one ear. They didn’t test my hearing. I think they should have because during, I had to do the same as any other serving man, that is do my share of guard duty. And I could have been the cause of a position being overrun through not hearing, you know enemy movements.

02:19:00:00

Fortunately, I was not put in that position. I did have to do my share of guard duty though, just the same though. I think that anybody who joins the army should have good hearing in both ears. Joining the infantry I should say. Certainly there are positions in the army that don’t require good hearing in both ears but the infantry does. And I thought I could cheat them in the air force when they did the hearing test because they ask you to put your hand over one ear and decide what’s being said to you.

02:19:30:00

Which was all right when I put my hand over my deaf ear. But when I put it over my good ear, I slightly cupped it and I could still hear what they said. So, I cheated there but they had another test of hearing frequencies, and I couldn’t get the high frequencies. That let me down. I told them it was the effect of the Quinine I was taking for malaria. Well, they said, “Come back when the effect of the Quinine has worn off.” But in the meantime there was so many of the

02:20:00:00

6th Division and 7th Division, the 9th Division wasn’t involved at that stage, that were trying to transfer to the air force that an edict came out that there would be no more transfers from 6th or 7th Divisions. Some of the fellows did get through you know, who were medically fit, and this is nothing to do with me. But it’s a story that I’d like to tell because one fellow that went up from our platoon did

02:20:30:00

enlist and in his pilot training he was a failure. He crash landed two Wirraways. So they put him into ground signals operations, and he was one of the few who had been in the army who actually was at the Philippines because we were led to believe that we were going to the Philippines. In fact, I can tell how my brother had breached military security, my brother in-law I should say, had breached military security. He was in army headquarters, a warrant officer class 1, and I called on him after returning from leave

02:21:00:00

just after that New Guinea campaign where he was based in Brisbane and he told me we were going to the Philippines. But of course General MacArthur wanted only Americans involved, so we didn’t go there. But this fellow that had been in our battalion, did go but only by courtesy of the air force.
A very unique position.
Incidentally, I went to his funeral about a month ago.

02:21:30:00

There are not many left of my platoon of 28 that sailed in January 1940. As far as we know now there are only four of us still alive. There were five until he died the other day, and I had a photograph which I would be happy to show you but I’ve lost it, of a group taken in Palestine early in 1940, there were seven of us in the group, and by a strange co-incidence,

02:22:00:00

there were five of us until he died, five of us in that group were still alive. Four of us in that group are still alive. And the only four that are still alive from our platoons, just co-incidence that they are in that photograph.
Sound like a charmed photograph, really.
Yes.
Now look, just moving back to your first job after school. This was with the Sydney County Council.
Yes.
Can you describe for us what your job was?
Yes, I went in there as a junior clerk.

02:22:30:00

Let’s say, I was fortunate to get a job there at that time. Jobs weren’t easy to come by. But this was the result of my grandmother at Wollstonecraft’s influence. Her next-door neighbour was a personal friend of the Town Clerk of Sydney and he put in a word for me, which led to my moving from fifteenth, I was told, on a list of seventy, and there were five that were appointed.

02:23:00:00

So I was put into the advertising section and was just a general office boy. My main job seemed to be going through all the newspapers to cut out all references to electricity for filing purposes. And being under strict instructions not to read the newspaper while I was doing it. But I didn’t study again, I was too

02:23:30:00

concerned to play around when I was there. I had made up my mind to do the advertising course in 1939 when I was there, but to join the army instead. I did an advertising course after the war.
No, you just said you were too concerned to play around. What do you mean by that?
Oh, going out with the boys, and girls.
Tell me a bit about that? What were your recreation activities at that time?
Well, I liked all sport but I played

02:24:00:00

junior football, ’37, 1937? Yes. But I didn’t play in 1938. 1939, I was involved in the formation of a football team at the Sydney County Council which played in what they called the City Houses Rugby League competition. And that became a busy year sports wise because I played,

02:24:30:00

trained two afternoons a week and played football Saturdays. I also played basketball one night a week. And at the same time I was going to gymnasium a couple of afternoons a week with a chap from the office. Used to do wrestling. The workplace was the Queen Victoria Building at that time. Wonderful building. Loved it.
Was that in a fairly, boarded up, ruinous state at that time?

02:25:00:00

No. Not when we were there. Sydney County Council had renovated it. The other thing I did in 1939 was to learn to ice skate. I went with a girl. I met a girl who went to a roller skating rink out at Westgate with a group of chaps that I met who were just holidaying from Queensland. You know, I don’t know how I came to meet them, but I just took them around, went around with them, I was eighteen at the time. And we met this girl out there who was

02:25:30:00

rather stunning and I became friendly with her, took her home and then she said she liked ice skating, so she persuaded me to go ice skating and I would go ice skating with her for some time every weekend and even though I got tired of her, you know it’s strange to say that, I just lost interest with her, it seems strange to say that because she was a nice girl, but at the back of my mind I was always conscious that I was in love with Nancy, the one I eventually married.

02:26:00:00

Tell me again about meeting Nancy or knowing Nancy in the first place?
Well, she came to the same section. The advertising section was one sort of group in one office at the County Council in the Queen Victoria Building. And the Home Management section was in entirely another group based in the showroom of the Queen Victoria Building. They were all women.

02:26:30:00

Nancy came there, into the Sydney County Council as a general assistant, general dogsbody if you like, so as I said, when they had cookery demonstrations, cookery classes, there was always a lot of washing up to do. She would do that but I was sent down, being the junior to help her and that brought us in close contact

02:27:00:00

and we had an on again and off again relationship, but mostly off again. She was three years older than me and she had many other boyfriends. But for me it was, as I say, I realised that I loved her and tried to forget about her at times by going with other girls.
Nancy’s image kept on coming back.
Yes, this is right. It was the fact that we were still working together.

02:27:30:00

If she had been somewhere else and I hadn’t seen so much of her, probably it might have finished up that I mightn’t have married her.
So, was it your feeling, your instinctive feeling that she was the one for you?
No. I was too young to have particular feelings about that. We were married when I came home from the war, and I was 21 and she was 24. Now, she would have been more worldly wise than I was. I have a feeling

02:28:00:00

about joining up in the service and serving for a number of years about what it does to your life. I had just turned 19 and I was 25 when I came back. Now that was six years of my life, which were not spent in learning to become a member of the community of the life that people live, the ordinary life. I was a soldier and mixing with men,

02:28:30:00

many of them older than me, some younger than me, you know.
So did you feel that in terms of learning to become a member of the community, that they were lost years?
They were lost years. Exactly.
So what sort of impact did that have on you, do you think?
Well, you have a lot of catching up to do. I mean, I went away a junior clerk and I came back at 25, I’m junior clerk. I had to learn a lot of things quickly. The County Council were very good, of course.

02:29:00:00

They didn’t say come back and you had to work full time. They let you work half a day. Or at least half of each day, I think it was, or maybe it might have been a couple of days. They didn’t hurry you back. They gave you time to settle down. I had to fit into married life too, with a wife and child, which was a new experience for me.
So, you were working half a day. We’ll obviously get back

02:29:30:00

to this a little bit later. But you were working half a day and but what were you doing with the rest of your time?
I don’t remember.
But clearly the County Council recognised that you needed time to settle, that you needed time to find your feet.
Yes, I was probably home with my wife, maybe going out, taking the son out. I just don’t remember at this point what I actually did.

02:30:00:00

I’ve just recently worked on another project which had to do with the history of electricity. Can you tell me something about the County Council at that time?
Yes, the Sydney County Council at that time was both the generating authority and the distribution authority for the greater Sydney metropolitan area, for most of the Sydney metropolitan area. There was also St George and Balmain,

02:30:30:00

private company, and the Manly, Warringah area but Sydney County Council had been set up at the end of 1935. It was originally called the Electricity Department and was part of the Sydney City Council. And it was hived off as the Sydney County Council. And I was one of the first staff, if you like, when they moved into the Queen Victoria Building, but the rest of the staff had come from the Electricity Department.
And they would have had a series of power stations as well.
Yes, They had the great Bunnerong Power Station

02:31:00:00

and they also built one after the war at Pyrmont and at that time, electricity generation was thought to be more economical to be carried out where the need was, because of the cost of, coal was cheap and they could bring the coal

02:31:30:00

cheaply to the power stations. But later on of course with the developments in transmission, which was mainly the cables, they decided it was more economical to build the power stations on the sites of the coal fields and erect the high voltage transmission lines and transport the electricity that way and get rid of the power stations out of the city.

02:32:00:00

But that was, when they did that they set up a separate authority to own the power stations, so they were no longer part of the Sydney County Council. That happened in the period after the war when there was a severe shortage of electricity in Sydney. Many blackouts because of the insufficient capacity, generating capacity,

02:32:30:00

and it was a rush job to get the power stations built.
And the Electricity Commission was established in the early ‘50s?
Yes, the Electricity Commission was established, yes. I remained in the Sydney County Council in the advertising department as a clerk, but I gradually acquired sufficient knowledge of the way electricity worked and

02:33:00:00

of the needs of consumers and so on that I was given the job of handling two magazines. The County Council was issuing an electrical magazine, a monthly, which went to many electrical contractors and like people to keep them in touch with what the County Council was doing and with developments in electricity,

02:33:30:00

if you like, and the needs that the County Council had with respect to electrical contractors. You know, there’s a book called the SAA [Standards Association of Australia] Wiring Rules. This set out the way that electrical contractors could wire a home. They had to suit the needs of the Sydney County Council before they would allow them to be connected to the electricity supply, the home to be connected to the electricity supply.

02:34:00:00

That was one magazine. And what was the second magazine?
The second magazine was a consumer one on cookery news, which was distributed to every domestic consumer which set out recipes. You know it was a little thing to encourage people to buy electrical appliances and how to wisely use electricity. The experience I got from handling those helped

02:34:30:00

me when I saw, as I mentioned, I got a bit, feeling with the Sydney County Council job, there was too much of a thing about who was going to scratch somebody else’s back in order to progress around the place. In a big organisation like that it does happen.
So, it became very much a political organisation?
That’s right, yes. You cultivate friendships and then religion played a part. You know, you knew all these things

02:35:00:00

and I thought, you know.
How did religion play a part?
Well, it was the old story of Masons and Catholics. If there was a Catholic in charge of a particular operation you had to worry whether a Catholic might get a promotion there. It didn’t worry me greatly but it happened, everybody knew it happened.
So, what is your religion?

02:35:30:00

I was nominally Church of England, but I really don’t have one now. I was too sort of turned off from the happenings in the world to realise that there’s a higher power.
So, just sticking with the Sydney County Council for a moment, was it the case that there were certain departments that were dominated by a particular faith?
Oh, there could have been.

02:36:00:00

I’d rather not go into that too much but there was a feeling that that sort of thing happened in government areas, in particular. It’s always been a little bit of a thing in the old Catholic, non-Catholic divide that Catholics tended to go into government jobs and non-Catholics would go into you know, private industry jobs. But it’s not, that doesn’t apply now.

02:36:30:00

I feel now, at any rate.
No, I think you’re right. Certainly sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants had been a big thing.
It had been a big thing. But maybe to some extent in areas now, but I don’t think so. I think that people with better education realising, you know religion is not the, even Catholics, say with religious teaching,

02:37:00:00

realise you’ve got to accept that religion can’t control your life completely as tended to be the case in some areas with some religious organisations, say teaching organisations.
So, how big a factor was religion in the services?
Not conscious of it. None whatsoever.
Were you, would you describe yourself at the time that you were serving with the army as a

02:37:30:00

particularly religious person?
No, I didn’t go to church services. There was no compulsion to go to church services. Strangely enough, I can recall one church service we went to which was a very interesting experience because this happened in Syria, no in Lebanon actually, and after the campaign we were billeted in a Lebanese village called Beshmaziem. It was a lovely village and they billeted us, Abatenum, this was,

02:38:00:00

in that village and on the first Sunday we were there the CO [Commanding Officer] said, “We want to get on well with the people at this village.” They were mostly Christian, Lebanese of course, so we are all going to the church on Sunday as a battalion, which we did. We went to the Christian church with all the village people and while we were there one particular friend of mine, the one I mentioned that went into the air force and crash-landed the Wirraways,

02:38:30:00

he and I became friends with a family there and we used to go to their home at night and play cards with the mother and the daughters. In fact, he became engaged to the daughter and I was the only one who knew about it. He confided in me and showed me the engagement ring. He didn’t go on with it but that was you know, that was the only time I went to the church during the war.
But otherwise you were aware that the padres were always available.
The padres were always there. We had a wonderful

02:39:00:00

padre ourselves and he won a Military Cross for bravery.

02:39:30:00

Did he? What was his name?
Bill Hart. His diocese was out Randwick way somewhere.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0252 Tape 03

03:00:30:00

So, Don perhaps we could start off by, if you could explain when and why you joined the militia?
I joined the militia at the suggestion of a friend mainly because, partly because there were a lot of worries at that time in the world, this was

03:01:00:00

late 1938, 1939, you know the rise of Hitler and there was a campaign to get young fellows to join up. So we said, “Well, let’s join up.” We were living in Chatswood and there was an artillery unit based at Willoughby, so we joined up there. I did a camp

03:01:30:00

and when war broke out they immediately called us up for camp again up in the Hunter Valley area, Rutherford way.
So where were you when war broke out?
I was living in Sydney, in Wollstonecraft with my grandmother.
And can you recall what actually happened that day when you found out?

03:02:00:00

No, not really. You know, it didn’t cause me any fear or worry, or what’s going to happen to the world or anything like that. I was too young to understand, and when I joined up, it was more for the adventure than for the idea of saving the world. As you go on in your service you realise that you’re there for a job and you’ve got to do it.

03:02:30:00

So around this time did you have a sense that the Empire was important?
Well, you grew up with it and there was always Empire Day before the war, which meant fireworks and you know, you were glad that you had a British heritage, a British background. You certainly looked up to England,

03:03:00:00

but I can’t remember any other particular thoughts about the gradual decline of the Empire after World War II, it just was inevitable and you regretted, I regretted say, the loss of ties with England because one side

03:03:30:00

of my family was English of course. My other side was Irish. But even when I went overseas, when I went into the army, my grandmother had given me a letter addressed to one of the relatives in England, in case I went to England, to visit her. And I carried that letter but we lost all of our gear in Greece. And of course,

03:04:00:00

so I don’t know what happened to it.
At the time did you regard yourself more a citizen of the Empire or a citizen of Australia?
I think we, good question. I don’t know that we really thought about it particularly. If you’re an older person, voting age say, you would have thought about that,

03:04:30:00

but I was still a boy. You know I didn’t, I kept up to date with the events by reading newspapers. I bought the daily newspapers. But I can’t remember thinking very much what our role was in the world, I just took it for granted.
A lot of people around that time felt very separate

03:05:00:00

from the rest of the world, in Australia, because they were so far away from the rest of the war, because Australia wasn’t in the thick of it, that maybe that was why, I don’t know.
I personally wasn’t aware of thinking along those lines.

03:05:30:00

So, you mentioned that you joined the militia. What did you do as a part of the militia?
I was a signalman with an artillery battery. So, because I had learned the basics of Morse code, that’s about all I learnt I suppose, when I joined the AIF I went into a signals platoon.

03:06:00:00

And what training did you do as part of the militia. You mentioned signalling, but what other training did you undergo?
None in particular, I mean you weren’t trained to fire the guns. There was nothing else they taught you. You went to, I can’t even remember how often you went to drill hall. Wasn’t an important part of my life.

03:06:30:00

You went when you had to go, you presented yourself on the due night, they were night-time parades but what they taught you, that was where they taught you Morse code, how to use field telephones and so on.
So, when and where did you enlist for the AIF?
I enlisted on 2nd January 1940 at Victoria Barracks.

03:07:00:00

And what can you recall of the enlistment?
Nothing much, except as I say they didn’t test my hearing. But I didn’t tell them, I think they asked if you had anything wrong with your ears. You just say no and that’s it. I had a rather exciting week.

03:07:30:00

I was only in Australia a week in one way because actually, when I went back home, I was living at Wollstonecraft, yet I went back up to Chatswood for some reason and I met my friend I’d joined the militia and I told him I had joined up, and he was very upset that I’d joined up without telling him I was going to. So he promptly went up and joined up the next day.

03:08:00:00

They didn’t put him in the same infantry battalion either. He went to Greece and was taken prisoner. I’ve forgotten…
We were just talking about the enlistment and what you remember, what you recall.
Yes, I was going to say that my father did not like very much that stepbrother I mentioned, the one who was a bad influence on me. Not because he deliberately set out to be a bad influence, I just wanted to live the way he lived

03:08:30:00

and be free. Apparently when I joined up, I put my age up to 21, my father must have been praising me, or whatever, I don’t know what happened but on the night before we were due to sail, my father and my stepmother and my stepsister

03:09:00:00

arrived there by taxi. They took them by taxi from Willoughby to Ingleburn camp, which was a hell of a long way to go by taxi, and the reason why they were there he was going to take me out of the army because I joined up under age without his permission, and he said, “I had rung my grandmother.” His story was I had rung my grandmother at Wollstonecraft, and told her I was glad to be going and I was never going to see anybody again

03:09:30:00

and made her very distressed. And I had made no such telephone call. I put that down to my stepbrother. I never confronted him with it but it was rather obvious. Because as I say my father was sort of praising me and having always made it plain that he didn’t think much of him, so he was getting a bit back at me. So, but I refused. My father went to the CO and he called me up and said, “My father had come to take me back”

03:10:00:00

and I said, “I’m not going.” I would have hated my father forever if he had taken me out there and then, but he changed his mind.
Did the CO know that you had changed your age?
No, the army doesn’t check your age, if you say you’re 21, that’s it.

03:10:30:00

Yes, because I was wondering because it was actually quite common to put your age up. So what was it, just a matter of filling in a form?
You just tell them. Probably fill in a form. Came back at me actually, when I went to visit a World War II website that I found my age my date of birth was 11th November 1918, which was a very significant date in history, of course. But of course it wasn’t. It was 11th November 1920.

03:11:00:00

Yeah. And I believe you enlisted with a mate, as well?
Yes.
Can you tell me about this mate you enlisted with?
Yes. We both worked at the County Council and we’d both go on benders together. Drink at the pub under age, and we went away on weekends together, and camped and so on, very good friends. After the war, I only saw him once during the war because he went into a

03:11:30:00

different battalion and he developed pneumonia at Colombo on the way over. I think he was sent to hospital in India. He didn’t catch up to the rest of the division until a few months later and when he got there they’d already formed an anti-tank unit and he was put into that straight out of his battalion, so I only saw him once. But after the war, because we were both working in the same place, we came back together again. Well now, strangely enough he married

03:12:00:00

in 1942, the same month as I did. And I knew his wife before the war and he knew my wife before the war because the three of us worked at the Sydney County Council. But after the war of course, we had family responsibilities, so we didn’t see very much of each other. Then he went to the Electricity Commission when it was formed and he was sent to where they were developing power stations and finished up at Orange.

03:12:30:00

Then in about 1970 odd, we had bought a weekender cottage up at Gwandalan on Lake Macquarie and we, one weekend we went from there into Swansea to the RSL [Returned and Services League] club in there to have a meal. Went into the dining room and there was he and his wife, and so we caught up again and from then on every weekend we went to Gwandalan, we were back with him and his wife

03:13:00:00

going out together. We had some wonderful times. We went to the Hunter Valley and those vineyards and so on. We made great friends with people in the vineyards and managers of the Hunter Valley Wine Society. On our wedding anniversaries we went to the Wyndham Estate and the manager there, who later became the manager of the Hunter Valley Wine Society, put on a special spread for us, they had a cook there, a Danish cook and his wife.

03:13:30:00

Used to give us a wonderful treat. And considering that even when he moved from there to Cessnock with the Hunter Valley Wine Society we would go up each year and he would put on a spread for us, the four of us. It was wonderful.
That’s lovely.
Of course, that broke when we went to Tasmania. When we came back, in the meantime, he had started to develop dementia

03:14:00:00

and we still managed to know each other and go out again for a while, but you could see the dementia biting in, if you like. Eventually his wife was unable to cope with him, so he was put into a nursing home up at Allandale, I think it’s a special one out of Cessnock. We visited him a couple of times there, but then

03:14:30:00

it was no use. But he died about 1994, I think. I went to his funeral.
It’s remarkable that you maintained a friendship.
Yes. That’s right.
Now what was his name, the man that you enlisted with?
Stan Watson. Stanley Victor Watson.
Now I believe also your brother had enlisted as well.
Yes well, my brother was in the merchant navy. When the Japs came into the war

03:15:00:00

he was in the New Hebrides on the island of Espiritu Santo, and he was manager of the branch there and they had to evacuate there for fears of Jap invasion and he went on to, he decided to join one of the Burns Philp vessels, the MacDhui. He went on as assistant purser.

03:15:30:00

He probably had other boat experiences while he was in the islands. That was the means of communication between the islands and headquarters in Vila, Port Vila, so he probably had sufficient knowledge of how ship’s crews operated to get straight on to a boat like the MacDhui as the assistant purser. He was on her, the MacDhui was bombed and sunk in Port Moresby harbour in 1942 and he was on her at the time.

03:16:00:00

He was slightly injured but he got over that and then he went back to the New Hebrides after the war and became eventually the managing director. But he only died, he died two years ago of lung cancer back here. He came back, it’s not very relevant to my story, but for him it was important. He went overseas on an extended holiday

03:16:30:00

from Vila and while he was away he left a man in charge, what they call the supervisor of cargo, but they shorten it to supercargo, and who overloaded the boat, the inter-island boat that they have, and it sank. My brother felt that he was responsible for having given that man the responsibility, so he asked to be transferred away from New Hebrides. He went to Fiji as manager of Lautoka.

03:17:00:00

So, had your brother enlisted before you?
No.
So, tell me more about what job you were allocated when you enlisted? Did you get to choose that?
No, as I say I was a signalman in the artillery, so I went into the infantry signal platoon. The signal platoon in an infantry battalion has to provide, an infantry battalion has four what they call rifle companies.

03:17:30:00

You’ve got to have communication between each rifle company, the commander of each rifle company and the commander of the battalion. So the signal platoon sets up, sends people to each of the rifle companies with equipment and you set up, whether it’s by means of telephone lines, which it was mostly. But radios weren’t developed sufficiently in those days. It had to be by telephone line or by visual

03:18:00:00

signalling. So that was our job. To lay lines to provide the means of communication, to know how to keep our equipment operating and so on. You would come under fire if you were with the rifle company. My own personal best experience of being an active signaller was in Syria because

03:18:30:00

my battalion, the 2/3rd because when we came back from Greece, we didn’t go to Crete, some members of the battalion did, but most of the battalion who were able to, hadn’t been captured, or hadn’t been lost, say, and were unable to get down to the embarkation point in time for the evacuation, we caught the ship called the Dilwara,

03:19:00:00

and some went on the ship called the Costa Rica, on the voyage across. At that stage it wasn’t intended for us to be involved in the defence of Crete, the Australian 6th Division to be involved in the defence of Crete, but the Costa Rica was bombed and damaged and had to go to Crete but our ship, while we suffered damage from a near miss,

03:19:30:00

didn’t disable the ship, so we went on to Egypt. So when we got there we had I suppose about 300, 400 members of the battalion. The 2/1st Battalion had suffered grievously. Most of them were on the Costa Rica and went to Crete and so it was decided that some of our people would have to go from our battalion and bolster the 2/1st Battalion. I’m glad I wasn’t one.

03:20:00:00

Nobody wanted to. You loved your own battalion and people were very upset about having to go to another one. But then we also had a lot of reinforcements waiting there for us. So when the decision was made to attack the Vichy French in Syria, there wasn’t a big enough force available and they then decided that we were about 400 strong as a battalion that they would use us

03:20:30:00

and they would also use the 2/5th Battalion. But we didn’t go with the 7th Division. We went to the Damascus area where we were attached first of all to an Indian Brigade. And then later on, in a later stage of that operation we became attached to an English Brigade. We were the only Australians involved in the Damascus area, in fact we were the only Australians who served truly in Syria.

03:21:00:00

They talk about the Syrian campaign but the 7th Division was in Lebanon. The whole of that campaign took place in what was actually the Lebanon area. But Lebanon and Syria for purposes of French administration, which was the true situation at the time, were regarded as one country, Syria. But anyway, at the end of Damascus, the campaign there was, we copped everything, aircraft, bombing raids, tank attacks,

03:21:30:00

and I even considered myself to have been the man who took the first prisoner of war there because we were coming under attack from a fort on the outskirts, it was on a hill and we returned fire. I even fired my first shot there, but the company commander, I was with A Company said, “Come with me, sig.”

03:22:00:00

And so we went through some winding streets and coming out on the Damascus, Beirut road, which was the main road of course, and there was only one man in sight and he was in uniform. I think he was probably a policeman, but our OC, a very fine soldier, he tried to talk to him but we didn’t have enough French. Even though I had learnt French at school, no doubt he did too,

03:22:30:00

he was a very well educated man, but he decided that he couldn’t afford to let this man go for what he had in mind, so he said, “Take that man prisoner.” So I had to produce my, I had my rifle, yes my rifle at the time, so I took him prisoner, which meant bringing him back to where the rest of the company was, but then we all advanced on to that road and took up a position, and set up a road block.

03:23:00:00

In the course of that night we captured, I think the record says we captured 26 vehicles and 80 odd French troops, including three colonels. It was just incredible to me that the CO and I, or the OC I should say, the CO is a commander of a battalion, the OC is the officer of a company, when we went on to that road there was no French in sight. If there had of been, they might have taken us prisoner. So,

03:23:30:00

that was a very successful campaign in that respect. Then next day we had, during the middle of the night, it was the coldest I have ever been in my life, we were only dressed in summer gear, but we were in the valley that came off Mount Herman, which was the highest mountain in that area - 12,000 feet. So, I had to do my share of guard duty during the middle of the night on those prisoners that were being collected. I was standing there, I was shivering,

03:24:00:00

I couldn’t stop shivering. I had my Tommy gun. Just as well I didn’t have an itchy finger. The next morning we had to, we decided to attack the fort that had been firing on us from that side of the road, and we attacked them from the other side and another company came up on that side, so the two companies attacked it and we captured the fort. It was a little bit alarming because it was on a steep hill side

03:24:30:00

and a scree type surface and the French were throwing grenades down onto us out of the fort, but they weren’t our grenades like the British have, which are deadly weapons. These were more stun grenades and a few people got hurt including our medical officer who was with us, he sustained a wound but then was awarded a Military Cross for having been with us in action. But we took the fort and then my signalling experience came into use there

03:25:00:00

because somebody drew attention to the fact that there was an Indian Battalion over there, we were part of that brigade trying to signal, I forget whether it was by a light or by hand, by waving a flag. I think it was a light and I had no signalling gear. I had lost everything in Greece. I had no equipment and so there was a tower,

03:25:30:00

you know a watch tower in the fort, and I went up to the watch tower and read what they were signalling, and they were saying “They were under attack from a point a certain distance away and could we put some machine gun fire onto them?” So I told the OC, and I replied to them by waving my rifle. So he put up a Bren gun and sprayed a few bursts in the area where we thought they meant,

03:26:00:00

but that was that. Then we moved on from that fort and down on to, we were pushing the French back, and there was another fort on the same ridge where another company had taken it, and we pushed the French back. When we got down on to a lower area the OC said,

03:26:30:00

“Can you signal back to that fort up there?” I forget what he wanted me to tell them. I got my rifle out and I knew it was a bit of a distance there, so I tied my pullover to the rifle and I used that as a signalling means. Then a little later on he said, “I want you to take a message back to the commander of B Company,” which was occupying the original fort that we had engaged and I had to go back across the hills,

03:27:00:00

there were more or less foothills around this fort and then along the ridge that connected the two forts. And when I got to the top of the hill, the French artillery opened up, and you get a sense about guns. You hear a gun and you drop, and the shell burst near me, and so I got up and went forward again.

03:27:30:00

Another shot from that gun and another shell burst just ahead of me. They were bursting just ahead of me. That happened three times. And I thought, “Why the hell are they targeting me, one soldier?” And then just as I got into the fort another shell burst inside and it wounded a couple of fellows nearby, fortunately it didn’t hurt me and I hit the ground, the concrete floor of the fort so hard that I took a chunk out of my knee.

03:28:00:00

That was my only war injury. But I realised later on what the French were doing was what they call ranging. I should have remembered that from my time when I served in the artillery in the militia. You can’t target an area, say that’s such and such a distance right, and you’re going to land on it. You fire at what you think might be the distance and the bullet leaves a shell, see where the shell lands, and right, up the elevation, fire again and that’s what they were doing so.

03:28:30:00

We pushed them back, so they had to re-target at the targets, if you like. By re-ranging, so I thought I was being the sole target of a 75mm gun, but I wasn’t, just a co-incidence.
Well, that’s a remarkable story that you’ve told about Syria. And I want to come back later on and go into some more detail about that because they’re a few little things that I am fascinated about.

03:29:00:00

But before that I want to go into the training that you underwent after you’d enlisted. What training did you undergo?
After I enlisted. Well, it’s a bit hard to say what the training is for an infantryman. I mean, you trained at rifle ranges and we did a lot of marching around, and you had to keep fit when you went out into the desert country,

03:29:30:00

Palestine as it then was.
So you didn’t actually do any training in Australia?
No, I didn’t, but the battalion did. I was only in it a week, and it was more or less a case of getting equipped and fitting in, sort of thing.
So how did you come to learn that you would be going abroad?
Well, everybody who was in that battalion

03:30:00:00

was told that we were going. I don’t remember how. But we were told. I can tell you a funny incident, too, if you like lighter touches. On the boat, we went over on the Orcades, which was then an ocean liner and had not been converted into a troop ship. We had cabins and were probably, the first time, the only group of soldiers who went overseas who had cabins.

03:30:30:00

That is ordinary ranks, ORs [other ranks]. And we had four to a cabin and on the night before we were due at Fremantle the four members of our cabin went to the wet canteen and had a few beers and we decided to have a sing-a-long in our cabin and at lights out it was 10 o’clock and what they call the orderly corporal came knocking on our door and told us

03:31:00:00

to shut up and go to bed. So we just stopped and after a while we thought he was gone, so we thought okay, and started to sing again. So he put us all on charge, and which next day put us up before the company commander for creating a disturbance. For which we were fined half a day’s pay, the large sum of two and sixpence. It also included being confined to ship at Fremantle. So we thought, oh no, we’re going to miss our last leave in Australia.

03:31:30:00

But nobody told us what being confined to ship meant, and next day well everybody was going on leave, dressed up, and formed up on the shore in ranks, well we went along too. So the four of us, we weren’t all together, but two of the four of us were side by side and we were on the back row, so nobody could see us and there was the

03:32:00:00

sergeant in charge of the leave party walked along to see if everybody was in good order and condition, if you like, and he suddenly looked in my direction and said, “You aren’t you confined to ship?” And I thought, “Oh no.” “Yes Sarg,” says the bloke standing next to me. It wasn’t my platoon. He wasn’t in my platoon. He was in another platoon. I love that story because I thought I was gone and the four of us

03:32:30:00

managed to get our leave at Fremantle even though we weren’t supposed to.
It was lucky you kept quiet.
Yes, I was about to speak up and say, “Yes Sarg,” but he said it before me.
Can you remember what song you were singing?
No, probably “Tipperary” and things like that. We’d sing the war songs that came from World War I of course.
So what did you get up to at Fremantle?
Nothing. Just went in to Perth and looked at the lower end of life, if you like.

03:33:00:00

Had a few beers, nothing much.
What, could you describe to me what the lower end of life is?
I’d rather not.
I mean were there brothels?
Everybody said, “Make for the brothels.” That’s what it is.
Yeah. So I guess that was, I guess obviously that was a very common thing for AIF to go to those places?
It was, yes.

03:33:30:00

I was reading the other day about Americans who came to Perth too, and that’s where they headed.
So was there a particular area in Perth?
Yes, it’s called Rose Street.
Rose Street, is it? Right. And can you describe Rose Street as it was back then?
No, we went at night-time. We didn’t have any actually daylight hours there, it was night.
And how long did you have in Fremantle?
Only that one night.

03:34:00:00

I imagine it must have been a pretty wild night.
Well, it probably was. It was mainly a re-fuelling stop. Ocean liners took fuel in Sydney and then re-fuelled in Fremantle because it was a full trip across the Indian Ocean to Colombo.
It seems that because this was your last stopover before, your last Australian stop over, that you wanted to make the most of it.

03:34:30:00

Yes, it was. You never knew if you were going to come back. You assumed you would come back but you never knew for sure.
And at this point on the trip, that you were on the ship, were you starting to develop mates, friends, within your battalion?
We all became very good mates. One thing with an infantry battalion, it applied to certain other units, but more so an infantry battalion,

03:35:00:00

because you’re the ones who are most under fire. I’m talking about army, an aircrew might have a similar opinion and a boat crew of course, but you get that closeness together, and you’re always there for each other. My two best friends now, one of them was in that photo I mentioned, and he lives up in Queensland, he moved up there recently with his wife, and unfortunately she died,

03:35:30:00

she had cancer, but he came back down for Anzac Day, and my other friend whose story is also being recorded, he wrote a book, which I helped him with, to get published, called Battle Initiation because it described his first day in battle, which was the first day of the Battle of Bardia in 1941, 3rd January 1941, and he lives at Glen Ean Retirement Village. And once a month

03:36:00:00

at least we get together, because we both serve on the committee of the remaining members of the battalion, we have a committee and we mostly just get together to see if everything is all right for those that might have needs.
What were those two mates called? What were their names?
John Armstrong and Neville Blundell. Neville Blundell won a Military Medal in Bardia. He won

03:36:30:00

one of the first bravery medals in World War II, but it’s described in his book.
What was it that you liked about Neville, as a person?
I think, Neville, he is the most wonderful person I’ve ever met I think because nothing worries him. He can laugh at anything. He can laugh even at things that you’re not laughing about, but he will just make a joke of it. He’s the most placid man I’ve ever met in my life. Everybody says the same about him.

03:37:00:00

He’s just a wonderful fellow. I was stung we were in a camp up in northern Queensland on the Atherton Tablelands. I felt a hell of a sting in my neck, so I grabbed it and it was a bull ant, and he was standing there laughing, I said, “Did you put that there?” You know, I was furious. “No,” he said, “I didn’t put it there.” It got there somehow. But the way he was laughing at me being stung by a bull ant. It was, the sting lasted for three months as far as I was concerned.

03:37:30:00

He’s a wonderful fellow.
So John was the name?
John Armstrong, yes. John was a very much underage fellow. He was just barely seventeen when he joined. He’s a, you know, a happy-go-lucky fellow. I don’t see as much of him as I do of Neville. But there’s three of us, we’re always happy to be in each other’s company. Well, I would never find any word of criticism for John. I don’t think there’s a thing

03:38:00:00

he would ever have done to annoy me in any way, or anybody else for that matter. Great men.
And those men, were those men with you for the whole of your war service?
Yes. Neville started off, when we sailed overseas, he was in A Company. But then later on he became a runner, the companies have supply runners, and the runners become attached to the signals platoon. And if there are no signals or visual communications and use a runner to deliver messages for the battalion, so he was a runner who became attached to our platoon and eventually became a permanent member of the platoon. I first caught up with him in Tobruk, as a matter of fact.
So what route did the

03:39:00:00

ship take after Fremantle?
We went to Colombo and then to, into the Suez Canal, and El Kantara we disembarked, El Kantara on the Suez Canal and we then went on a train up at a camp called Julis, Palestine, which is near Palestine.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0252 Tape 04

04:00:30:00

So, just before we were talking about your arrival in Palestine, but just before I get you to talk about that we’ll just back track to your farewell from Australia. What do you recall of the farewell from Australia, if there was one?
Nothing much. You mean my own personal family.

04:01:00:00

No, I more or less said goodbye when I went into camp. I had leave but I didn’t see much point in going back home. I went to a place with a chap that I sort of knew, met for the first time say, there in camp, the night before we left.

04:01:30:00

And I knew a house of girls, they were not that sort of girls, they were just girls I’d been out with, all living together. They were Victorian girls who had come up here looking for jobs. They were all boarding at the same place and they were all good for a party. So he and I went to this girl’s place and partied for a while and we left there. He wanted to say goodbye to his own girlfriend.

04:02:00:00

So we went to his own girlfriend’s place at Glebe and slept on the floor there while he slept with his girlfriend. For a little while any rate, then we went back to camp and that was it. But the night before I had said goodbye to Nancy. I went into the Sydney County Council to say goodbye there but got in a little bit too late for most of the women of the Home Management section, they had all

04:02:30:00

gone, and Nancy was the only one there. And she and I weren’t going together at that time. I hadn’t really come in to say goodbye to her at all, I had just come in to say goodbye to the other women. And I said, “I’ve now got to go back to camp.” She said, “Oh, I may as well go on the train with you.” So I went on the train with her as far as Burwood, no Croydon, that’s where she was living, but she wouldn’t let me

04:03:00:00

go any further with her. She was meeting another fellow. So we said goodbye there. Just a little kiss and that was it.
How did you feel at that moment, saying goodbye to Nancy?
Oh, I didn’t have any real feeling that we were still in love. Or I was still in love.

04:03:30:00

I didn’t have that feeling. There’d been too many girls in between.
Was there any promise to correspond while you were away?
Oh, yes. She wanted me to write. As I was writing, the writing gradually became loving letters and they became loving letters back from her. And then they stopped. Then I got advice from somebody else writing that she was getting married.

04:04:00:00

Then after a while another letter came from her. You know, humble and apologetic and so on, she loved me, and so on. I mean, I wondered what had happened if I’d torn the letter up and sent her back the pieces, as somebody might have done. But I didn’t. We just resumed.
So essentially, I mean we’ll talk about this progressively through the interview, but essentially you re-fell in love with Nancy through letters?

04:04:30:00

Through corresponding, yes.
That’s beautiful really, a good story.
I sent her the money for an engagement ring, when I could afford it from Syria, in 1941.
And she wore your ring back in Sydney? Well, we’ll talk about that a little bit later on when we get up to that in the chronology, but

04:05:00:00

we were talking about your training in Palestine. What sort of training did you undergo there?
I sort of had said, you know training as an infantryman, how to fire guns, how to set up your signals communications units, as far as we were concerned. Training includes a lot of

04:05:30:00

parades and marching to make sure you’re disciplined. And beyond that there’s not much more I can say.
So what sort of guns were you training on?
Well, we were only training on rifles, at later stages during the war we carried a Tommy gun, or at least a rifle, at least a revolver.
Was that the Bren or the 303?
No, it was a Tommy gun, a sub-machine gun.

04:06:00:00

And, I mean you mentioned the set up of the signalling area. What would be involved in setting up the signal communications?
As I say, radio wasn’t big in those days. They didn’t have small enough sets. They came in later in the war. We had radio sets, but even they were massive things. So it was mainly communications either by laying cables with the phone at the company, and the phone in battalion headquarters

04:06:30:00

where you would have a switchboard, or else you would signal by flag, visual signalling, or by Lucas lamp, visual signalling, or by heliograph, using the rays of the sun, visual signalling.
A heliograph, is it? Can you describe that for me?
Yes, it’s a thing, something like a camera tripod set up with a camera on top,

04:07:00:00

but it’s a piece of equipment that has a refractive surface, a mirror, and the mirror is say, movable, and you can, if the sun is in the right position, you can communicate with a distant place, by sending Morse code by means of long and short

04:07:30:00

flashes of light as they reflect from the sun. We only ever used it in Ceylon, as a matter of fact, when we were on various outposts and set up signals units to watch for Japanese aircraft and we would signal to each other by means of the heliograph there.
Could you give me a sense of size and dimensions

04:08:00:00

of the mirror and the tripod?
Oh, it’s only about the size of the equipment on the top of your tripod.
And was it 20cm big, the mirror on top of the tripod?
Oh, a bit hard to remember, 20? I suppose it would have been that size. Yes, about that size.
And how would you actually move the apparatus to create the signals?

04:08:30:00

Well, I just forget now, it was so long ago. But I think it was just a lever. You first of all directed the sun to the place by moving the mirror you directed the sun to the place you wanted to receive your signal. But you wouldn’t leave it on there all the time. You had to keep moving of course, as the sun moved.
Now that’s fascinating.
It was rarely used. It was better at a long distance because you had to have

04:09:00:00

such a clear line of sight. The Lucas lamp, what they called the Lucas lamp, as the more common form of light signalling.
Could you describe the Lucas lamp for me?
The Lucas lamp would be in a box about the size of one of your containers, and again you had a little base for it, a tripod sort of thing, with just a lamp on top that operated

04:09:30:00

with batteries and by manipulating the lever at the side, you could make it shutter, go on and off, as used on warships you know, warships communicated that way a lot. Just by lamp with closing the shutter, opening the shutter.
Sorry, I’m just a bit worried that people viewing this won’t be able to know how big the box was. Was it about a metre?

04:10:00:00

No, you had to be able to carry it around. Well let’s see, about that big, say about, I tend to think in terms of inches, but it’s about a foot by a foot square, something like that, a foot by a foot by a foot. Transfer that into about 300mm each way.
And what were the other signalling devices that you were being trained on?

04:10:30:00

The other one was a flag, which was a blue and white square flag, say about that big, say 600mm by perhaps 300, and attached to a long wooden stick. Very light, but you could wave that and you could half wave from rest position to straight up the top

04:11:00:00

represented a dot, a full wave right around meant a dash. So that’s how you signalled with that, dots and dashes.
That must have been quite exhausting at times if you had to send a long message.
Well, you rarely sent long messages. Mostly in that situation you probably had landline you know cable, phone connection. It was,

04:11:30:00

the unfortunate part about, I mentioned having no signalling equipment when we went into Syria, halfway through when we were withdrawn from the Damascus area and transferred to the coastal area, I was issued with a torch, which I could flash on and off. And the first night there, we lay down in bare trenches

04:12:00:00

and then we were to attack the next morning from our position. We started out and I thought, “Oh, my God I’ve left that torch behind.” I went to the company commander and said, “Sorry Sir, I left that torch behind.” He was very unhappy, but he said, “Go back and get it.” So I had to go back by myself, the company was advancing, they were under fire, and I went back and got the torch, and raced to catch up with them, and there was bullets whizzing all around me. You hear them

04:12:30:00

ricocheting the bullets. But fortunately I had it because that same night, I think it was the same night, but the armistice was decided, ceasefire. That came in the middle of the night and I had to receive the signal by torchlight, and tell them that I had received it. It was to be ceasefire at midnight, but the French were shelling at the time, and they continued to shell us or mortar us, until three o’clock in the morning.

04:13:00:00

At that point did you receive the information from the enemy at that point that there was going to be a ceasefire?
Oh, no.
From our own side, all right.
No, that was from battalion headquarters, which were back, and they signalled by torchlight to me.
So, just getting back to Palestine, what happened after you completed training? Well, first of all was there anything about the training

04:13:30:00

or any of the devices that you were training on?
No, just training.
Could you describe Palestine to me?
Well, it was very barren where we were. A lot of orange trees, orange groves. Yes, the Arabs used to come up and sell us navel oranges and they were very good for us of course, they kept us you know, can’t think of the word you know, when your bowels are operating?

04:14:00:00

Regular?
Regular. Yes, we ate lots and lots of naval oranges. We played sport there, we played football, and the battalion, the division rather, formed a team to play the French. We were friends in those days. The French in Beirut played a Rugby Union match against the Italians and beat them. Three members of our own battalion were in the team.

04:14:30:00

And one of the fellows was the one that I went on leave with, who had the girlfriend in Glebe, he played with NSW [New South Wales] Country Rugby League against city and our adjutant was a Captain Frank Hassett, who had played with the Royal Military College team and later became General Sir Frances Hassett and chief of all the Australian Defence Forces. There was another one there, a chap named Vickery, and I think he played

04:15:00:00

for NSW before the war or was about to play for NSW, he played for Balmain grade football, so we had a good football team. Our battalion seemed to be blessed with good footballers because after we were all sent up to the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland they had football competitions and our battalion won the competition up there, the Rugby League competition and played the rest of the army

04:15:30:00

in a match in Cairns, which we lost but we had won the competition itself mainly because one of the players, the captain of our team was a man called Colin Windom, a man who later captained Australia.
So, how important was the sport and playing the matches for morale?
Important oh, important, yes. You had to have plenty of sport,

04:16:00:00

plenty of recreation.
Were there any other types of recreation in Palestine?
Only going on leave. You know, you were allowed leave to Jerusalem, see the sites around there, the historic sites, and Tel Aviv. Wasn’t much in the way of historic sites in Tel Aviv, but they had a hotel in each of those places for you to go on leave to.

04:16:30:00

So where did you then go after Palestine?
Oh, did I say Jerusalem?
Yes, sorry. So tell me about Jerusalem. What you remember about that place?
Well on the first leave there another chap and I, and he incidentally that I mentioned earlier when I went up to join the air force, he was the one I went to join the air force with. He passed the medical but he got rejected because he lied about his age, he was too old.

04:17:00:00

But he and I went on leave together and we met up with some Armenian teenagers, and they took us around the Armenian convent, and some of the, you know the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and so on and then later on we had a photograph taken of the Armenian Cub Troop with my friend and I and that may be worth an historical one for you. This was March 1940 with the Armenian Cubs

04:17:30:00

in Palestine and the two of us.
How did the local Jerusalem population, what did they think of the Australian soldiers?
We never had any problems. We made friends with Jews and Arabs alike. In fact, my friend Neville Blunden, whom I mentioned in the battle initiation as

04:18:00:00

he told me later on that he became very friendly with a young Jewish fellow in Tel Aviv and went to his home, met his parents, and even after the war went back when he was on an RSL tour, caught up with him and corresponded for a while. But we never had any problems with local populations anywhere because we were never invaders. We never, you might say we invaded

04:18:30:00

Syria and Lebanon, but on the other hand the locals thought the French were occupiers of their countries, and they didn’t see us as invaders. We were freeing them up if you like, freeing their countries.
Because I had heard that, though Australians were never invaders, the Australian soldiers did tend to create a bit of mischief when they went on leave.
Oh, yes. There’s no doubt about that. As a matter of fact, in Athens,

04:19:00:00

another little story that we can fit in somewhere, if you like, when we went to Greece, the battalion went to Alexandria on the British cruiser, the [HMS] Gloucester, the rest of the division went by convoy, we didn’t. We went straight across to Alexandria, we went full bore on that cruiser. We were bombed once on the way over but nothing, you know no bombs landed near us. So when we got to Athens we were the only Australian troops there, and at Athens,

04:19:30:00

of course I think there were a few advance guard fellows there, but we had Athens to ourselves. We were camped at a lovely grove called Daphne, just out of Athens. We had a bit of leave at Athens, and the Greeks loved us, we played up admittedly, drinking. But you probably may have heard or read the books that Olivia Manning wrote called The Fortunes of War. Two volumes,

04:20:00:00

which was a BBC TV series with Kenneth Brannagh and Emma Thompson, it was run here in 1988 and I’ve been trying to get a copy of it ever since and my son, who will be going to London shortly on his way to Sweden is going to see if he can buy a copy from the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] because it’s still available in their catalogue. But it’s about her fictional, her story, about her being involved with the British Council and the British Educational Institutions

04:20:30:00

at first in Romania and then when the Germans came in they moved to Greece. And she was in Athens when we were there and of course she described the Australians arriving, and sort of playing up and a lot of beer drinking and so on and then she said, “When the Australian battalion left Athens a lot of Greeks regretted it, they liked them,” and it was significant to me because she said the battalion and we were

04:21:00:00

the battalion. The rest of the Australian Army wasn’t there. We’d gone on ahead and they were camped at another lovely place, the Tempe Valley, the Valley of the Gods, outside of Larisa. But I thought that was interesting that she would mention the battalion singular, not the Australian Army but the battalion.
Well, that’s a compliment isn’t it, not to be missed.
Yes later on, her story took her to Egypt, when she escaped from you know, left Greece and then

04:21:30:00

into Palestine, Syria, she was in all the countries where we were in. That series Fortunes of War, covers all the countries we were in, in the Middle East.
So, just getting back to Palestine and what you did after your training in Palestine. I believe you went across North Africa to fight the Italians?
Yes. We went down to Egypt. We moved to camp

04:22:00:00

out of Cairo, we had a few days leave in Cairo, and then we moved out of Alexandria, Amiriya, and then we had leaves in Alexandria and then we went into the desert. But I got a rash there and had to go to hospital and the result was that I missed Bardia because another chap from the battalion and we both went into hospital in Alexandria

04:22:30:00

and when we had this rash, this scabies rash, desert itch they called it, and when it was cleaned up we thought, we’ll go back now to the battalion but they said, “You’ve got to go to convalescent camp.” “We don’t want to go to convalescent.” “Well, you have to.” You know, we thought for a moment let’s go back,

04:23:00:00

but we thought we’d better play it safe, because when they sent us back to this convalescent camp, they then sent us back to Palestine to the training battalion, which was the routine and so we missed Bardia and we caught up with the battalion at Tobruk and I was there when the CO announced that the Australians had gone into action in Bardia and I was just close to tears to think

04:23:30:00

that they had gone in and we weren’t there. You just wanted to be with your own battalion.
Yes, because you mention it before, you know for you especially and also for other men who served in the AIF, that your battalion was such an important part of who you were and your identity. I mean you must have felt like you were letting them down perhaps?

04:24:00:00

Yes.
What was going through your mind at the time when you realised that you weren’t going to make it to Bardia?
Just, it was despair at not being there. Not being there in their first go. You know, you just wanted to be there.
Did that despair stay with you throughout, or regrets?
Oh yes, I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t in the action at Bardia.

04:24:30:00

I mean I guess it must be hard to kind of, I don’t know, engage in the conversations about the Battle of Bardia if you weren’t exactly there?
Yes, we celebrate it on the 13th January, those of us who are left, even though I wasn’t there. For us it was the start of war if you like,

04:25:00:00

and we get together on the 3rd January and just meet up again.
So you mentioned that you had scabies. What are the symptoms of scabies?
It’s a rash that you get, I think it’s an insect. I think it burrows under your skin.
What does it look like, is it like, could you describe. I’ve never actually

04:25:30:00

seen scabies and I’ve heard a lot of the desert skin conditions that happen in the desert.
It’s probably from too intimate contact with a female who had it, and not realised it. I mean we went to the brothels as Ken Cliffe made a claim in his statement, and we took precautions but that was one that you couldn’t take precautions against, apparently.

04:26:00:00

And I guess that must have been on one of your trips to Cairo or Alexandria?
Alexandria.
Yes. Could you, I mean we kind of skipped over it before when you went to Bardia, when you were talking about Bardia, can you describe what Cairo was like during that time as a place?

04:26:30:00

We used to go in by train from Helwan, they had a diesel train running from Helwan to Cairo, Helwan is not that far out, and Cairo was a bustling place. It looked to have a good feed. I remember one chap I went on leave with, we saw a place was advertising

04:27:00:00

Italian meals, spaghetti, spaghetti there, we hadn’t had it since we left Australia. And we had two helpings of it, the plate was piled high with spaghetti, and we had a second helping. That sort of thing, you know. But it was mostly a case of having a few beers and looking around. I didn’t get across to the pyramids. You could see them from where you where, you know I saw them. I didn’t even go to the Acropolis in Athens. Neville and I had leave there and we set out for it and we saw a skating rink

04:27:30:00

and we thought, “We’ll watch the girls skating.” We didn’t even go up and see the Parthenon.
What was it like as a young Australian who had never left Australia to arrive in Cairo and be able to see the pyramids in the distance?
A bit too far back, but I didn’t have any feeling

04:28:00:00

of anything. There might have been something lacking in my upbringing, you know being a loner as I was most of the time, but you know, I knew these were countries you read about but I didn’t have any feeling of awe if you like, of the grandeur of these things. Now I watch all the

04:28:30:00

television documentaries on them and find incredible, the way they were built and so on.
So, you mentioned that you were ill at the time that your battalion fought the Battle of Bardia. What did your mates tell you about what happened at Bardia?
Oh, nothing much. I think the book that

04:29:00:00

Neville wrote, the Battle of Initiation is as good a story as you could have of what it was like on the first day. You know, there was a bombing raid prior to the attack and some chaps were killed in the bombing raid, but that was their first real taste of war and the Italians as you realise had succumbed fairly quickly but certainly they,

04:29:30:00

in that first day we had a lot of casualties by tank action, and by machine gun and so on, so Neville describes that quite well in his book.
At the time, I’m thinking, just post the Bardia battle, did they talk about the battle and what they’d been through?
No, not really,

04:30:00:00

because when I caught up we had Tobruk to engage in and that was also a fairly quick operation and we didn’t suffer, like our platoon didn’t suffer, did we have one life lost there, I think we did have one bloke killed there at Tobruk. I’ve forgotten now. We had one killed in Bardia

04:30:30:00

by the tank that Neville talks about.
Could you describe what happened to that man that you lost in Bardia?
Oh well, an Italian tank, a line of tanks came through into the battalion headquarters area and opened up and they killed a few. They killed one or two, an officer and also this chap from our platoon.

04:31:00:00

But then the anti-tanks guns, which was a separate regiment than we originally had, well we did have an anti-tank platoon, but this anti-tank regiment had been set up over there, because there was no such thing when we left Australia. They were there with their guns and they knocked enough tanks out to make the others depart and again Neville describes that well in his book. It’s been well documented of course,

04:31:30:00

that actual action in the history books.
What was that like for your battalion to lose a man?
I wasn’t there when it happened, you know.
Not necessarily there at the time, but in terms of the morale with the company?
Well, I’m not sure how I can answer that. You miss,

04:32:00:00

you know the fellows that die, but life goes on. You don’t, it’s a funny thing to say that but Neville, in his book mentions about one chap coming up and being very distressed about another fellow, not from our platoon, who’d been killed, and one of our fellows said,

04:32:30:00

“Well, what do you want us to do about it, cry?” They were themselves under fire, so you just accepted it.
Yes, there seemed to be a way of coping with it I guess.
Yes, you had to. You had to. If you were under direct fire, you were scared yourself.

04:33:00:00

When you weren’t under fire, you weren’t scared.
So Don, where did you first see action?
Well, in Tobruk we came under fire. We were attacked there, but nothing very drastic. The real action for me was in Greece of course, and that was the aerial attack on our battalion. .

04:33:30:00

Just before we get to Greece, I’d like to just quickly cover Tobruk, even though you were only there briefly, but could you talk us through step by step what happened at Tobruk?
No I can’t, I wasn’t really clued up at the time about the disposition of the rifle companies.
Well, just rather than what everyone else was doing, talk us through what you did at Tobruk?
I did nothing. Because I caught up to the battalion there

04:34:00:00

and the dispositions of the 2nd Rifle Companies had already been made, you see. So I was more or less a supernumerary if you like, just a hanger on. After Tobruk, when we were based there, we did more training and we didn’t go any further forward. We eventually evacuated from there to be replaced by the 9th Division and we went to Alexandria.

04:34:30:00

So, tell us about your trip to Greece?
Well, as I said we went across on the Gloucester in quick time and then when we moved up, when Germany came into the war and we were at the Tempe Valley, camped there at Larisa, we moved from there by truck to the Yugoslav border, what they called the Varia Pass area.

04:35:00:00

Now the forward elements of the battalion did come under some fire there from the Germans. We didn’t. I was with B Company, but in the meantime the Germans had broken through the Greek lines and we were going to be surrounded, cut off, so we had to withdraw. That was an operation that involved us going over

04:35:30:00

rugged country and we stopped one night, part of the one night in some trenches on a hillside that some Greeks had dug, but we still weren’t in contact with the enemy and the next day we got going again on our further withdrawal, and I remember we came around the side of a mountain and saw the German dive bombers in action in the distance at a town called Servia,

04:36:00:00

S-E-R-V-I-A, and that was our first glimpse of German dive-bombers.
What was going through your head at the time when you saw the German dive-bombers in action?
We just hoped that they weren’t going to attack us. That’s about all you could think of. We just kept going, and we had to cross a river, and a German plane came over.

04:36:30:00

We think they spotted us but we were in a village at the time and nothing happened there, and then we were on a sort of slope of Mount Olympus and had to follow this donkey track up Mount Olympus, and around and about and you know we kept going, and more or less the next night we stopped

04:37:00:00

eventually where the brigade was re-forming and that was back somewhere in the Larisa area. It was night-time and we had marched for so long and they gave us a drink of whiskey, I think. Somebody said it was rum, but I think it was whiskey to pep us up a bit, and we kept going and took up positions the other side of Larisa and the next day the Germans attacked in that area

04:37:30:00

in the Pinios Gorge area and eventually broke through there with tanks and a tank, this was in the afternoon and we were told to, they had trucks there hidden in a grove of olive trees and we were to get on them, get out of that area because the tanks were going to cut us off. Somebody, some commander decided it was too late, we were too big a target,

04:38:00:00

so we had to get off the trucks. But some trucks were left. So what was left of the battalion were told to form a square, as a tank came around and got among us, but this was right on dusk fortunately for us, otherwise we were a sitting duck, the tank did cause some damage there. But when he put his searchlight on, that was shot and everybody was firing rifles and grenades and throwing grenades

04:38:30:00

at it and the tank took off. He had no chance of seeing what he was doing in the pitch black dark and so then we, the rest of us were told to get on the few trucks that were still there, which we did, we took off in the dark, and the next morning there were 30 of us there on our truck, we were on a truck all by ourselves, with nothing else in sight on our own on a road, which went somewhere but on the way

04:39:00:00

we caught up with another truck, which had become bogged on the side of the road. It was apparently an agricultural area. So we pulled that truck out and got bogged ourselves. But he didn’t stop to help us out, he took off and kept going. But we managed to get the truck out ourselves. And from then on we kept going south all by ourselves in this truck, and eventually caught up with

04:39:30:00

what was left of the battalion in an area the other side of the Thessaloniki area, we crossed the Brallos Pass. Caught up with the battalion there.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0252 Tape 05

05:00:30:00

You were describing Don, you were beginning to describe the time that you spent in Athens and then you were talking about Olivia Manning’s experiences. Could we have a little bit more about the enthusiastic reception and the good times that you had in Athens from your own perspective?
Well, we were only there for two days and it was a case of going in and looking around and getting the feel of the place, looking at what

05:01:00:00

they call the Palace Guard soldiers, the Evzones and finding somewhere to eat and enjoying the good beer there, which was a contrast to what we’d been used to, and having a good meal. That’s more or less all there was to it you know. I’ve got a photo there, it was taken in a park in Athens of a group of us including Neville Blundell. I must remember before you go, I must give you each of copy of that book of his. Yes, because

05:01:30:00

that gives you a better picture.
I would be interested to have a look at that.
Yes.
You said earlier that the Greeks gave you an enthusiastic reception. How did they demonstrate that enthusiasm?
Well, actually, we of course went to the Port of Piraeus and the CO decided that we should march to our camp, which was not that far, and we went marching from Piraeus to Daphne,

05:02:00:00

but he formed us up and we marched and groups cheered us all the way.
They were big crowds, were they?
Yes.
And how long after that was you battalion despatched to the Yugoslav border?
I can’t remember the dates now, but we weren’t in any place very long. I think we were only two days in Athens,

05:02:30:00

and took a train trip up, we might have had three days in Tempe Valley before we got on trucks and went straight up to the border. So we weren’t there long. And we weren’t in Greece for too long, either, not much more than two weeks.
What did you actually do in the Tempe Valley?
Oh, that was just a temporary camp, we didn’t do much at all there.

05:03:00:00

It wasn’t a defensive situation. We didn’t do any real training there. We went on leave into Larisa and met the locals. We went on one exercise of some sort, where we were around among a group of Cypriot soldiers and there was an earthquake. There had been an earthquake not long before we were there, but there was another one, and we were amused the way the Cypriot soldiers all took off for their lives.

05:03:30:00

Didn’t seem much of an earthquake to us, but they’d been there of course, for the previous one.
So they’d experienced the dire consequences and didn’t want to hang around?
No.
You said you went for, you went on leave or you had a bit of R&R [Rest and Recreation] in a nearby town? What did Larisa consist of?
Oh, it was just a sort of a country town. I don’t have a very strong recollection of it, you know, but the people were very friendly

05:04:00:00

and there was a hospital there, and there were some nurses in town and we made friends. Everyone was very friendly.
Was there any feeling among the troops that the Greek campaign was either doomed or futile?
Afterwards. Well, during the course of it yes, because we had no air cover. We realised we were totally, hopelessly, you know.

05:04:30:00

Can you talk a bit more about being exposed and not having air cover, when was it first apparent that you were in quite a bit of trouble because of this?
Well, we never saw an RAF [Royal Air Force], or RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force], there were a couple of RAAF fellows there, but apparently the Germans, I’m not sure of the history, they would have had planes there, but the Germans must have destroyed them too early for them to be effective.

05:05:00:00

We never saw an allied plane at any time.
So can you describe your journey to the Yugoslav border?
No. It was just a routine trip in trucks. It was uphill all the way. It was mountainous country.
It was mountainous country. Was it very spectacular, for instance?
Yes, I remember we could peer out over the valley. But it was all done in the one hop. It wasn’t as if it was a two-day trip, it was all done in the one day.

05:05:30:00

Now.
You don’t see much out of trucks with canopy sides.
Well, no. Let’s take the story on from this point and I’ll get you to tell the story in as much of a chronological fashion as you can and I’ll just lead into it by asking what are your main memories of the Greek campaign?
Well, it was the hopelessness and the helplessness against aircraft. We all

05:06:00:00

agreed that if we ever saw any German pilot down, we would shoot him, we’d kill him because they, we were defenceless against them. They could do what they liked. That was your feelings. There was one stage there before we formed the square when a tank got among us, I was standing, this was in a valley, a wide valley of course, and I was just standing on a hillside

05:06:30:00

with another chap and we were just yarning about something and we saw in the top end of the valley, a Messerschmitt lining up to come through on a strafing run, so we said, “Well, we better get out of here.” There was a bomb crater near us and we thought this will be all right, we’ll jump into that bomb crater, but something clicked and told us no. We quickly dived behind a rock, not a very big rock, it didn’t completely cover us at least, it was up off the floor of the valley,

05:07:00:00

and when the plane went though we saw the bullets hitting into that bomb crater. I attended to that chap’s funeral recently, too.
Which chap was that?
The one who was with me choosing between the bomb crafter or the big rock.
What do you think saved you? What sort of instinct saved you?
I don’t know. I don’t know. We just made a decision, instead of going into that bomb crater. You know a hole in the ground, in a defensive situation,

05:07:30:00

it’s usually just a slit trench or something to get below the ground level and that’s what we were looking at.
Now you’ve described quite a vivid incident here and you’ve reflected on the lack of air cover, but can you from you own perspective give us more of an account of the Greek campaign from your point of view?
No. Well, only that it was continual retreat. Continual retreat.

05:08:00:00

We never, well we never had a chance and I personally never engaged the enemy at any time. Some of the companies did, and the Yugoslav border, the leading element there and again, the Pinios Gorge area, but it was more the 2/2nd Battalion, or the 2/1st, I just forget which and we had New Zealand troops there too.

05:08:20:00

So as you were heading up to the Greek, Yugoslav border, what was

05:08:30:00

your understanding of what you were going to do there?
Knew nothing. I was only a private soldier and we weren’t told anything.
When was it that you first heard that you would have to retreat?
Well, I don’t remember exactly. We were, well I can remember we were talking and one of the chaps took a photo of me because I was growing a sort of a beard to combat the cold,

05:09:00:00

and I lost that photo, but I can’t remember actually when it was you know, it’s usually a case of nobody says, “We’re going to retreat.” They say, “Pack up. We’re moving,” sort of thing. You’re either moving forwards or you're moving backwards.
You’ve described that occasion with the Messerschmitt flying down the valley. When was it that you first saw the Germans? Was that your first glimpse of the Germans?

05:09:30:00

Well they, apart from, I mentioned the dive bombers we’d met earlier and seen, that was the first glimpse of the Germans actually in operation. But we didn’t see any, or I didn’t see any German soldiers on the ground. It was only the tanks and aircraft.
Could you describe the withdrawal for us?

05:10:00:00

Well it, I don’t know the logistics of it and how well they planned it. It went reasonably well, I suppose it must have been provided for, but the fact that in our particular situation, only having a few members of our battalion being left to handle a tank, if you like, and then finding when we got out, there were only 30 of us on this truck.

05:10:30:00

Everybody else had gone, it was just a case of you’re going to be cut off, you’ve got to get out. You know, you can’t really plan a line of retreat in a situation like that, everything happened so quickly. The tanks burst through on the opposite side of the valley, and then raced around and we could see them racing up the side of the valley.
How was it that you managed to escape?

05:11:00:00

Well, on the truck we had one almost funny incident on the way south, there was an officer on the truck and we saw an abandoned British staff car, so he said, “Stop,” and went over and got his revolver and put a bullet in the carburettor and the tank. Next minute we’re being strafed by a German spotter plane. Nobody saw it. It just suddenly dived down on us and we hopped into a canal there. But he didn’t stay. He gave us that one burst and he took off.

05:11:30:00

So we got back into the truck and our first port of call was Lamia, which is a fairly large town and that had only just been bombed and there were fires going, and we got out of the truck there, I don’t know why, maybe the road was blocked and I do remember going for a little walk and just around the corner from where we got out of the truck there was a shop, apparently it must have obtained a direct hit

05:12:00:00

from overhead. It had no front, no floor, no roof. But it had three walls standing and it had been a pharmacist shop and there was not one bottle on those walls broken. That amazed me. They had blown the whole shop out but didn’t break the bottles.
That’s like you hear of a church being bombed and the sacred relics not being touched.
Yes, yes. We got back on the trucks and we were bombed twice

05:12:30:00

on the way but planes came over, when they came over, we would hop out and get under a tree and they didn’t actually attack us at that stage until we got to Brallos, the Brallos Pass, but we did see quite a number of trucks that had been shot up. Top of Brallos Pass

05:13:00:00

a flight of Dornier bombers came over and we hopped out of the truck and you know, the road was like that. A deep hillside there, and a very steep decline down to the floor of the valley. I hopped out and got on to that side of the road just below the road level and I looked up and I saw a stick of bombs coming from one of the planes. One landed on that side of the road and the rest

05:13:30:00

all went down into the valley. Then we got back into the trucks, we had to surmount some craters in the road. We went down to the other side of the pass and there was our battalion, what was left of them, formed up down there. By this time, as you might imagine, my mate and I were pretty grubby, hungry, so there was a river there and we went down to the river to get a drink and have a wash.

05:14:00:00

The CO was down there having his breakfast, and he said, he invited us to share some strawberry jam and biscuits with him. So that was very kind of him. And we went up and took shelter on the side of the hillside, until we decided what we were going to do and everything like that. But I was impressed by the size of the scorpions and centipedes. I had never seen anything like it in my life, as long as your hand.
Any close calls with those?

05:14:30:00

No, well not there. I did get stung with by a scorpion in New Guinea. Twice in the knee. But fortunately, he was only a little fellow.
You mentioned the German fighter plane who tried to shoot you up after the officer shot out the radiator.
It was only a spotter plane.
How do you think, had the Messerschmitt seen any of you? How had he actually spotted that you were there?
He was probably on his way back after doing some reconnaissance.

05:15:00:00

We used spotter planes ourselves of course, to assist artillery and something like that.
Do you think the whole process of the car being shot up attracted his attention?
Yes, a plume of black smoke went up.
What was that?
The officer fired a shot into the carburettor, and a plume of black smoke shot straight up into the air. So that would have attracted the pilot’s attention, no doubt. There was no one else around. It was farming country, perfectly flat all round.

05:15:30:00

Not a tree on it.
Now, did you find any of this, I mean, what was your response? What was your reaction to this? It must have been quite a stressful time.
No. I don’t think I was overly frightened. I remember when we got onto that truck to get away from the tank, there was one fellow crying there, but nobody condemned him for that.

05:16:00:00

A bloke just put his arms around him and said, “You’ll be right mate.” I never felt any great panic or fear there. Everything happened so quickly after the tank had been among us, but when we got on the truck there was one chap who was crying and obviously was crying with fear, but nobody condemned him for that. One bloke put his arms around him and said, “You’ll be right mate”

05:16:30:00

and that was it.
Did you see other examples of battle stress in Greece itself?
No, no. One interesting thing I might mention about this getting out of the truck business, I had mentioned earlier that we were originally told to get on trucks and leave, and the tanks broke through, then it was decided no, it was

05:17:00:00

too late, and we got off the trucks, but some other trucks left. Now this truck that my mate and I, that is my signalling mate and I got on, or were about to get on was a little utility, which had the driver and his mate had obviously raided the main canteen store in Larisa. It was full of cigarettes, scotch whiskey and biscuits. And we thought.

05:17:30:00

“You beauty, we’ll get on this one.” But it had, and then we were told to get off, of course, and the trucks took off, many of them took off. But that truck had a striking camouflage, and later on after well south of the Brallos Pass on the way towards our evacuation point, we were on a steep mountain road,

05:18:00:00

we looked down the side of the road to the valley down below, and there was the truck down the bottom. I could pick it by its camouflage.
Just as well you didn’t stay aboard.
That’s right, yes.
Did you have a chance to sample any of the merchandise?
No, it took off, and it was hundreds of feet down on the floor of the valley.
Once again fate had played a bit of a hand here. Are you a believer in fate?
Pardon?
In fate?
No, I don’t believe in anything.

05:18:30:00

Whatever happens will happen.
Yes. So you don’t apply any kind of any religious pre-determination to anything?
No. Life’s what you make of it. I’ve found my own philosophy is, from birth you’re either a beneficiary or a victim, or nurture versus nature situation, if that makes sense to anybody.
Could you explain that a little more?

05:19:00:00

Well, if you grow up with a family who are not in poverty say, you’ve got siblings and your mother and father together, you must have a better life than somebody who grows up losing a parent early being, knowing, I won’t say I knew poverty but knowing what it’s like to be poor, doing without things that you’d like to have, you’ve got to have a slightly different outlook on life than

05:19:30:00

someone who’s grown up with all the home comforts, if you like.
What do you think it is that’s made you the survivor that you are?
Good luck. I haven’t done all that much to look after myself, or I hadn’t. But when we were living at Lane Cove in our own home, our next-door neighbour had a heart attack

05:20:00:00

and at six o’clock in the morning his wife and daughter came rushing in to us to tell us, and we had a doctor living a couple of doors away and I said to my son, “Go and get Dr Gunther,” and I rushed in next door. I had already done CPR [Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation] through some instruction and I tried to revive him but it was too late, and the doctor came up and said, “He’d gone a while, he’d had a massive coronary,” he said. But that was an awakening that you could go so suddenly.

05:20:30:00

Because that man, he was a regular golf player, he had a shop at Lane Cove and every afternoon after he came home he’d get out the back and swing a golf club. He said, “Just doing it for exercise” and from then on I decided I should do some exercise. So I mainly did just some stretching exercise, and standing, running sort of things, but I never went to gymnasium or anything like that.

05:21:00:00

You used the term good luck a little while back but clearly you’ve made a lot of your life through some sheer determination to win through.
I don’t know. Just say I gave up smoking at an early age and since the war I’ve never been a heavy drinker. I’ve never once been drunk since the war, even if I was drunk during the war, which most soldiers who drank were at some stage or other.

05:21:30:00

But you know, as far as I’m concerned, I existed for my family. I wanted always to have my family with me, probably because I hadn’t had my own family or hadn’t been part of my own family. So for me to have a wife and have a happy married life with her, we had our problems but not many serious ones, and kids, problems with the kids, but never serious ones, as far as I’m concerned, being married and settled down,

05:22:00:00

that was good. And I pride myself at work. I hated being idle, I wanted to work all the time.
It sounds like you wanted to get as much interest and involvement out of life as you could.
Yes, I did.
Now, just moving back to your view of the Greek campaign. To what extent do you think that the Greek campaign was a futile one?

05:22:30:00

Well we had, there was a bit of a rumour going around that Russia was going to come into the war and attack Germany. That was the sort of a feeling that we had. We’re here, the Russians will come through from that side, and the Italians are beaten and the Germans are going to be occupied with the Russians. We’ve got a chance. But when the Russians, nothing happened there you know, and we realised we were just up against overwhelming forces.

05:23:00:00

It was a futile campaign. It was futile. You didn’t feel hostility about it. You just accepted your lot.
So, what can you tell us about events after being aboard the trucks? You were on the trucks, you were obviously evacuating. What happened from that point?
After the incidents I mentioned, catching up with the battalion such as it was, we went down to a port

05:23:30:00

called Kalamata, and this was still daylight, and we dispersed in an olive grove and while we were there a German fighter plane showed us how by flying low, it can get ahead of its sound. Something flew over, we hadn’t heard a thing. Fortunately, we were concealed. They were looking for us. They knew we were about to go but the ships, when it came dark

05:24:00:00

we then had to go out on a long boardwalk to two destroyers pulled up there and we got on board the destroyers and the destroyers took us out to the troopship. So this all went quite well, there were no problems, no night bombers came over or fighters. But this was about three o’clock in the morning. The interesting thing is, it’s always been to me, my good mate who had been

05:24:30:00

through the whole of the Greek campaign we’d stuck together, and yet he didn’t, and you know I thought I’m getting on this ship, and he’s behind me but somehow he got separated from me. He got on the other ship, the Costa Rica, which went to Crete. So he didn’t come through to Alexandria with me. But we were heavily bombed of course, as soon as daylight came, by dive-bombers. I think we had five or six separate attacks. And as I mentioned they hit the Costa Rica.

05:25:00:00

There was a third ship, I don’t know anything about that one, but we were below decks, we were four thousand on a ship, built as a troop ship for two thousand, and we were below decks and we could hear all the thumps from time to time as bombs were being dropped. Then one terrific thump and the ship almost lifted out of the water, and we thought, “We’ve been hit,” so we all started to make for the stairway, but one sergeant

05:25:30:00

had the presence of mind to say, “Don’t panic.” So we all stopped and we sat there. And the funny thing about that sergeant, and it was my good mate, Neville, had a bit of a feeling that he wasn’t a very brave soldier, from his experience in the desert with him. Now it just goes to show. He just said, “Don’t panic.”
So what had been happening to the men up until then?
Well, nothing. We were just, been sitting on the floor of the troopship and on our way to Alexandria,

05:26:00:00

there was plenty of fire power in the convoy, something like three cruisers and four or five destroyers escorting us, and they put up plenty of fire power, so the Germans didn’t get it easy and they shot down half a dozen German planes, or something.
So when the sergeant called out, what had the men been doing? You mentioned they were headed towards the stairway but what had been the attitude of these men at this point?
Well, you don’t want to get trapped, if the boat’s going to sink, you don’t want to get trapped below decks, do you? Just get out of here and up on the deck.

05:26:30:00

To what extent was there panic among the men?
Oh, not really panic, just a sudden quick movement. Nobody actually rushed. Everybody just got up and started to move, but there was no sort of scrambling over everybody to get to the stairs, nothing like that.
The sergeant clearly realised though, that if there had been a panic, there would have been some damage.
Could have been yes, a sticky situation.
What happened after this?

05:27:00:00

Well, we got up to Alexandria safely. There was no more raids after that one and then we, did we go to camp, no we got, I think it was a train, back to Palestine, a camp up there, as a matter of fact I think it was our old camp. Well, we were there for about three or four weeks before we went up to the Syria campaign, which I described.
So what did you do at Julis while you were there for that three or four weeks?

05:27:30:00

Well, that I can’t remember. I don’t know if we even had leave. We may have had leave. Some people had leave. Some people went AWL [Absent Without Leave].
Did you?
I don’t think I did. No, we were still trying to get together again. We were still trying to form some, there were soldiers coming from everywhere that had been with different groups. There were even some who had escaped through Turkey, you know. We were in the process of becoming a battalion again,

05:28:00:00

which it wasn’t of course because there were reinforcements from Australia already there. But we were only half a battalion. When we went into Syria, which I mentioned earlier, I think we were only just over 400 men, whereas a full battalion was 800 odd.
So, when did reinforcements from Australia join you?
Immediately. They were already there.
They were there at Julis, were they?
Yes. Or at Beersheba, which was a training area for reinforcements.
Now, a few people have mentioned Julis to us.

05:28:30:00

Could you describe the area?
Well it was just flat country, for all intents and purposes.
It was flat desert country, was it?
Yes. The camp had originally been built for us, I think by the British Army, when we landed there in February 1940, the original camp had been built by the British and it was a camp of tents in twelve-man tents in regular rows and so on, but when we came back

05:29:00:00

it was dispersed. There were no sort of thoughts of being attacked from the air at the time the original camp was set up and so we were in, generally in the same area but not entirely.
When you say dispersed, what do you mean by that?
Oh, scattered about. You no longer had rows of tents you might have had one here and one over there and somewhere else.
You talked about aspects of the Syrian campaign. How did you come to be sent to Syria?

05:29:30:00

Well, that was because the British command expected, were worried that the Germans might decide to come down through Turkey. That they might persuade Turkey to let them come that way and even make a parachute attack on Syria. The British tried to get the Vichy French to change sides, but they wouldn’t.

05:30:00:00

So, it became a full scale campaign as far as the Australian army were concerned, there were British and as I say, Indian troops but on the coastal plain, it was mostly the Australian 7th Division.
And you were the only, as you were saying before, you were the only division to actually fight in Syria?
That’s right.
The 7th Division, it was.
Yes, but with two 6th Division Battalions, the 5th and the 3rd and we of course, were in the

05:30:30:00

Damascus area originally.
Now, did we talk about the battle you were involved in Syria? Did we describe that?
Well, I described the Damascus situation, the original attack on there and how we, I thought I was being targeted by an artillery by a 75mm cannon, which I realised later I wasn’t, but we continued to advance there across fairly low level country, and we had to walk through an artillery barrage at one stage, which was a surprising thing to walk through.

05:31:00:00

Shells bursting around you and in the nature of the way it works, if shells came down at an angle and burst out so long as they are bursting in front of you, you’re safer than if they burst behind you.
Why was it surprising?
Just because of the way the shells having to land at an angle. An artillery expert would probably have a better explanation.

05:31:30:00

That’s the way it seemed to me.
So to what extent were you expecting to be hit at every footstep?
No, just kept going. You don’t think about it. You don’t think about it. Just kept going. And then we got to a position that the French had moved out of. There were some trenches. And a French tank came into the area and that caused some problems for a while.
What sort of problems did it cause?
Well, it was targeting

05:32:00:00

the company area but not us, personally. It was driven off and in the meantime it was seen that we were not going to take that position. We were tying to take the mountain there, which had the road that led over to the Beirut area. We know we couldn’t do it. The French were too strong and entrenched there. In fact they captured

05:32:30:00

some of our fellows at one stage. And you know they counter attacked when we attacked. And they were too strong. So we were withdrawn and the British then took over the defensive position and we were taken around by truck to the coast to join up with the rest of the 7th Division for the attack on the coastal area.
Right. So what were conditions like for soldiers in Syria?
Well,

05:33:00:00

it was very hilly, very hilly country. But I don’t feel I know how to answer that in the sense of what you mean when you say what conditions.
Yes,
We had plenty to eat.
No, there was information that came in from our research that was mostly around Damascus itself and conditions there.

05:33:30:00

Well we claimed the honour of course, of having cut the Damascus, Beirut road, which had been done in World War I by the Australian Light Horse. So were sort of, feather in our cap. The battalion did get a very glowing recommendation from the British Brigadier after we detached from him to go back to our unit.
Now just to continue the story, you said you were then moved down to the coast.

05:34:00:00

You were moved away from that area.
Yes, not immediately to the coast. On to the high country overlooking the coast. A staging area, if you like.
And could you describe what happened from the time of your arrival at that staging area?
No, I can’t remember that in particular. Just sitting there, talking, just nagging as soldiers do, just waiting for the next order whatever it might be. As I say, we moved there down into a,

05:34:30:00

an area which had some trenches, I’m not sure where the 7th Division troops were at the time, but Damascus, not Damascus, Beirut, this was in what was called the Damour area. Beirut was not all that far ahead of us, and they were getting naval support there, too, incidentally, I don’t know the full set up there because I never actually bothered to study it. I only know from what my own situation was.

05:35:00:00

So you then arrived at the coast, did you after the staging area?
Well, in the coastal region, yes, but we weren’t actually down on the coast. We were still in the hills overlooking the coast, but not on the mountainous area, which we’d left. And we attacked through that area after one night.
Could you be a bit more specific about how you attacked, and what you were actually attacking?
Well the French, this was a twin hill situation,

05:35:30:00

with two similar hills. In fact, among the troops they became known as the twin what’s-is-names because they resembled a woman’s anatomy. So we had the French defending that position and we had to attack them there, which we did and drove them out of there, further back.

05:36:00:00

Further back into the hills.
During this conflict were you continuing to do only signalling activities?
No, I didn’t have any signals to communicate to anybody. After I’d left Damascus where I had sort of been used as a signaller, it wasn’t until the night that the armistice, the ceasefire was decided, that I then signalled. You just.

05:36:30:00

As a signaller you went along and if the company commander wanted you to act as a runner to take a verbal message back you did, and while you’re on the move, in those situations, there was no opportunity to use any phones, or even if you have to signal, like visually signal, you had to stop to do that. You really didn’t do much while you were moving.

05:37:00:00

So, with the previous battle, what were your day-to-day, moment-to-moment activities? If we can just place you into the battle, what were you actually doing, if you were not signalling?
You were there, you were there to do what you had to do if you were called upon to do it. You had to be there near the company commander.
So what sort of activities are we talking about?
Well, there was nothing. Nothing for me

05:37:30:00

until the last night. We just went along, you know, the rifle company itself were the attacking troops. You didn’t go in as an attacking soldier, you went in as a signalman. You had to be there to provide communications.
Were you carrying a weapon at this point?
Oh, yes. I always carried a rifle.
Did you have cause to use a rifle at any point in that campaign?
Only in Damascus.
What were the circumstances of you using it in Damascus?

05:38:00:00

Well, I decided I’d have a shot at trying to put a bullet through a slit in a fort. Just for the sake of doing something with it. I knew it was futile.
And was it futile?
Yes, it was futile. In the sense of not having any chance of hitting anybody, with the prospect of having a bullet go through a little slit like that.
So apart from that, you didn’t hit anybody that you knew of?
No. I never fired another

05:38:30:00

shot in anger during the war. I wasn’t called on to.
So, if we can place you in this situation near the coast that you are describing okay, so you’re not being called upon to deliver signals, so what, if I can have just a mental image of what you were doing. What were you actually doing there?
Well when we got to the position,

05:39:00:00

the final position, you just sat. You had no say. You weren’t told to do anything. You just sat where you were. With the company headquarters, and waited for the company commander to decide whether he was going to move, or withdraw, or what. You just waited be told what to do.
Interviewee: Don Wilson Archive ID 0252 Tape 06

06:00:30:00

What do you recall of the French themselves as you progressively met them?
I didn’t meet any French enemy except for those we captured in Damascus, but we had no conversation with them. But on leave in Tripoli in the beach area, we met some French officers actually, there. We got on all right.

06:01:00:00

That was the only time I actually met any French. On our side if you like, they were Free French of course.
But I believe there’s quite a variety among the Free French that you met.
Yes, a lot of the soldiers were Senegalese, particularly the ones around Damascus, were black soldiers, but these ones, the Free French that we met there you know, I would say there were coloured soldiers on both sides,

06:01:30:00

the Free French were white, and the Vichy French.
You must surely have met people from the French Foreign Legion?
I don’t remember, you know. There could have been there. I don’t think so. We didn’t really get together with them, there was no real fraternisation. There might have been among officers of course, but I was just a private.
Now you talk about the French being based in forts. Can you give us a description of one of these forts?

06:02:00:00

Well, they’re like a miniature fortress castles, you know how a castle can rise up from nowhere sort of thing with battlements and that sort or thing, well a fort would be in a very strategic position where it could have a very commanding view of everything around. And it was more or less a miniature castle, if you like, upper storey places to fire from and lower storey

06:02:30:00

places to fire from, and you had to use, if you couldn’t shell them, which we didn’t have artillery fire support on those forts, so it was a case of ground attack, it was just sheer numbers and possibly we, they used up most of their ammunition, I’m not sure what really caused them to capitulate, but this happened in both those forts, but on the other hand,

06:03:00:00

on the road further east towards Beirut, it was a different situation. They were in entrenched situations on the mountaintops.
They were in entrenched situations?
Yes, and we were trying to dislodge them from where they had a full commanding view of everything, and on all the approaches and we didn’t have the numbers to really overwhelm them by any means.
It sounds like a series of old forts that appear in the movie, Gunga Din?

06:03:30:00

Yes.
It was very much along those lines, was it a kind of traditional?
Around Damascus yes, itself, but not on the road. They weren’t firing on us from forts. They were in entrenched positions on the mountains.
Now, at one point you fought alongside an Indian unit, didn’t you?
Well, we were part of an Indian Brigade, but the actual Indian Battalions were on the other side of the Damascus, Beirut road, like that was in a valley.

06:04:00:00

They were on the other side.
And so were you actually fighting cheek by jowl alongside Indians?
No.
They just happened to be?
No, they just happened to be, for command purposes, you had to have somebody in overall command of a particular charge and the brigadier, you know, whose brigade included the Italians, not the Italians, the Indians and us, was there to decide what would happen next. After we left Damascus and

06:04:30:00

moved further on, we became part of the British infantry brigade.
What were the weather conditions like in Syria?
Well, they were quite dry and freezing cold at night, as I mentioned when I was guarding the prisoners. It was June, which was coming on to our summer, their summer rather, yet it being valley and high mountains around,

06:05:00:00

I suppose that contributed to it being very cold. Later on that year we went into, we’d gone to Tripoli and then to this village, Beshmazien, and there we were trapped at an area near Damascus called Qattara. This was in a valley, sort of,

06:05:30:00

that came from the slopes of Mount Herman, as I mentioned the highest mountain there. And we were sent up there to prepare a defensive position. Dig trenches and put up barbed wire and so on, until we were needed elsewhere, and of course this is all coming on to the winter months. And while we were there, we were struck by a blizzard, we were in tents and the blizzard was so fierce

06:06:00:00

that we were snow-bound in no time, and my mate John Armstrong and I, the one I mentioned that lives up in Queensland, were supposed to go the kitchen and peel spuds and things for the next meal. And we didn’t know what to do. Can they operate the kitchen in these conditions? Well, we didn’t how long the blizzard was going to last, so we thought we better not, not show up, we’d be in trouble,

06:06:30:00

so we got out of our tent and headed for the, what we thought would be the kitchen, which as I recollect, would be in say a north-westerly position from our tent not all that far away, maybe about a hundred yards. Next thing I knew was falling over the tent rope of the battalion headquarters tent, which was about in a directly opposite, north-easterly direction, I was totally scared there, you couldn’t breathe.

06:07:00:00

I was walking into the teeth of a blizzard. We didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for. And fortunately, he fell into a tent too, so there was no spuds peeled, I can tell you that.
Funny that.
We lost, we had a dog. When we were up in Tripoli we’d been given, one of the boys had been given a St Bernard pup, and that St Bernard pup had come down with us and he was growing up into a beautiful dog, a lovely dog, but anyway, he went for a walk in that blizzard and he didn’t come back.

06:07:30:00

So we lost our dog.
So, I believe you’ve got a notion of what the garrison of Syria consisted of.
Not really. Well, how do you mean?
Well, once again I’m referring to the research notes, which indicate that you’re able to talk about the garrison of Syria, and I’m just, I don’t know what that actually refers to.
You mean the Australian’s garrison?

06:08:00:00

Yes.
There was still considered a possibility that the Germans might still try to come through there some way, and we had to set up a defensive position there. Although we had defeated the Vichy French, it doesn’t meant that we could then pull out and go somewhere else, we had to defend that place, or be prepared to defend that place in case we were attacked.
For how long were the Australians intending to garrison or to defend, Syria?

06:08:30:00

I don’t know, because remember in December that year the Japanese entered the war and not long after that we went down to, left the area, went down to Palestine on to troop ships and we went to Ceylon, you see, to garrison Ceylon for three months. They were expecting a Japanese invasion there.
Before we leave Syria, you’ve mentioned that on a day-to-day basis you were actually sitting waiting for things to happen.

06:09:00:00

What were your most active times in Syria as a signaller?
Oh, around the Damascus area. Yes, I was serving a purpose, if you like, there.
Could you give us a description of that purpose, and what you actually did?
Well, I suppose the first signal, which was to the Indian troops, was not very significant. It was of no relevance to our own situation.

06:09:30:00

When I signalled by having to tie a pullover onto my rifle in order to attract the attention of the other company behind us, I don’t remember what messages I had to send, but obviously I was serving a purpose there, and then going back, and later on of course I had to set up a signal, after we had withdrawn

06:10:00:00

from the attack on the Damascus, Beirut road, when we realised that we weren’t going to get through, we had to regroup behind and I had to set up a signal line there with phone between battalion headquarters and company, and then that.
So were you serving as a Don R [Despatch Rider] at all?
No.
That was a totally different.
No, never driven a motorbike. Only been a pillion passenger.

06:10:30:00

How many, did you have any fellow signallers that you were working alongside at that time?
Not at that time, no. I was by myself. We did receive reinforcements later on.
So could you describe your range of equipment that you carried with you?
Well, nothing there, only when I got to the other side, when I got this torch. You see we had left everything in Greece.

06:11:00:00

So you didn’t have flags? You didn’t have lamps?
No lamps, no, we had nothing. But obviously we must have had a phone because I remember having to set up the phone line for the OC [Officer Commanding], who was still in that general area.
This is in Syria once again?
Yes, in the withdrawal from the attack down on the Damascus, Beirut road.

06:11:30:00

Now, I believe that after the armistice in Syria, you went into Tripoli. Could you tell us about that?
Well, we went into a French barrack, as a matter of fact and the first thing we did was take all the beds out and make a bonfire of them with kerosene. To kill the bed bugs. We weren’t there long. Long enough to be given leave. I was one of a number that was allowed to go on a four-day leave trip around northern Syria,

06:12:00:00

which took in Homs Harbour, Aleppo, various scenes around the country side.
That must have been interesting.
It was.
What were the most memorable aspects of that tour?
I think with my mate, who incidentally was the fellow I talked about joining the air force with again, we watched the Arabs performing a play.

06:12:30:00

Can you tell me a bit more about the play?
No. Didn’t understand a word of it, but they found it interesting, so we stopped and watched.
It was a drama, was it?
Eh?
What kind of play was it?
I don’t know. Can’t remember now, it was an open air, play. But we had no trouble with the Arabs there, we just looked at buildings and things, and went and had beers.

06:13:00:00

Did you go into any of the local bars or cafes?
Oh, yes. But I’ve got no long-term impressions of anything that happened there. More an impression I remember was Homs, I think. We got out to stretch our legs in Homs and looked down the street and you couldn’t see a single human beings, you know, it was a built street with houses and shops. It was you know, absolutely devoid of human beings.

06:13:30:00

Had it recently been attacked?
No, No.
How odd.
Maybe they were avoiding the Australian troops.
Now, you were billeted with a Lebanese family at this point, weren’t you?
We were in a Lebanese village, but not with a Lebanese family, but in a village. They were the homes, I don’t know how they came to find enough homes for us that were vacant. Some of them were in tents, but I was with a group of signallers, we were in a two-storey home.
With a family at all?
No, not in that house, no.

06:14:00:00

You had a friend Clarrie, who later became engaged to one of the locals, didn’t you? Could you tell us that story?
Well I, as I say, we met up with these local girls, two sisters, and they invited us to their home. So we played cards with the family, we used to go there at night and play cards with the family. But he, as I say, became very friendly with the girl, and eventually became engaged with her, but if the family

06:14:30:00

approved of it or not, I don’t know but he bought her an engagement which she showed me, but it didn’t work out.
How long after this did you hop back on to a boat and start to head towards Ceylon?
Well, of course in between times, from there we went down to this defensive position called Qattara, and we stayed there, out of Damascus for a while,

06:15:00:00

we were there a couple of months, actually, oh, three or four months, I just don’t remember, but they built huts down there for us, to cope with the winter conditions. We were in huts there, so that’s how much of a permanent position, or a temporary-permanent position it was.
Was it, when we say winter conditions, are we talking about blizzards here?
Oh, yes. We had the blizzard. It was, you know we were there in mid-winter. We were there in December

06:15:30:00

and that would have been then mid-winter.
Now, you say defensive position. What did that actually mean?
Well, we were digging trenches and putting barbed wire entanglements in the area. I don’t, you know, know particularly the disposition of it, they didn’t tell the common soldier exactly what they were doing but we had to dig trenches and erect barbed wire entanglements.
After that what happened?
Well, we went back to Palestine,

06:16:00:00

we went to the Beersheba camp this time and I don’t remember how long we were there but we went from there back to the Suez Canal area. Whether it was at El Kantara we embarked from, I suppose it might have been but those details are now forgotten.
Do you remember what sort of ship it was?
Yes, it was the Orontes, another P&O liner. This had been converted

06:16:30:00

into a troop ship, but I was on an advance guard, sent down to arrange the signals platoon area, headquarter companies area, and I and my other three companions acquired a cabin, and then later on when all the battalion came along, the sergeants came along, they said, “You blokes out, this is for us,” we said, “No way, we’re here, here we stay.” We did. The rest of the troops

06:17:00:00

were below decks, in hammocks. I was only a private.
Did anyone try and get you out of there?
Pardon?
Did anyone try to get you out of there?
No, only the sergeant. I forget who it was, but he said, “You can’t be in here, this is for sergeants.” But we said, “No, we’re in here and this is where we are staying.” Then we went to Colombo.
Now, what were conditions like aboard the Orontes at this time?
I don’t really remember.

06:17:30:00

You know, we were well fed on troopships. Some people might have said we weren’t well fed on the Orcades, our original ship, because we were served some concoction there, called macaroni cheese pie, which a lot of soldiers thought was awful. And almost staged a bit of a sit-down strike until we were given something extra to eat, but it didn’t worry me, I enjoyed it but I’m easily pleased when it comes to food.
It actually sounds pretty ghastly.
It does, yes.

06:18:00:00

But no, on the whole, I don’t know that we had any, it wasn’t a very long trip to Colombo. Oh, we had a bridge tournament, I remember. My partner and I were in the final of this bridge tournament and we got beaten in the final. So, that was another memory of that trip. You had you know, entertainers, blokes that could perform and sing.

06:18:30:00

You always had this on a troopship voyage.
So, what the purpose of your being in Ceylon once you got there?
The invasion was expected you know, an attack from the Japanese was expected there, and the British, not long after we got there of course, the British navy suffered grievous losses in that area, and it was sort of open go for the Japanese,

06:19:00:00

but I think at that time they were stretched far enough. They were heavily engaged in Burma and also in Indonesia. The Dutch East Indies as it was then, and apart from air raids, they bombed the place, but not us directly, our role there was to, oh, another aspect of our role there was to get a sample of jungle warfare training because we had never been near a jungle. And so we did do plenty of exercises.

06:19:30:00

Now, what did that consist of, that jungle warfare training?
Learning how to move amongst heavily timbered country, if you like, and what to look for, snipers and this sort of thing. Knowing how to move you know, you just forget these sorts of things, now.
What about survival skills? Did you learn about survival skills?
No, no.
Living off the land?
No. Living off the land, no. Ceylon was a very nice country, Sri Lanka as it is now. We enjoyed it there,

06:20:00:00

because the people were very hospitable. It was such a lovely place to be.
Was there any emphasis on jungle camouflage at all?
Yes, we had to learn how to, we weren’t issued with camouflage clothing there because we were short of clothing as a matter of fact. I know my shorts that I was wearing, one pair was so, were washed so many times they were now white.

06:20:30:00

And when I went to the quartermaster, I said, “About time I had a pair of shorts the right colour.” He said, “I haven’t got any.” So there it was. I couldn’t get a new pair of shorts. But there were shortages of material, in the military sense and the supply more or less right through, in these latter stages, at that time of the war, with the Japanese in. We had experienced it already, well previously

06:21:00:00

when we were in Palestine when the Italians entered the war and that closed the Suez Canal. And nothing was coming through the Red Sea because the Italians had Ethiopia and Eritrea, and so for a long while there we were existing on British Army rations, which for the most part seemed to consist of tinned herrings. So we were assured of at least one meal a day of tinned herrings, and at times two meals a day of tinned herrings, which we called gull fish, which we swore we would never eat again.
What about bully beef.

06:21:30:00

Was there any evidence of that?
Oh, we had plenty of bully beef.
Wasn’t there some sort of intention to send you to Burma as well?
Well, we understood that. But we never heard it ourselves there. The COs might have known.
So you’ve mentioned the defence of Ceylon, but what was your understanding as far as yourselves and Burma was concerned?
Well, we didn’t, we weren’t fully aware of what was happening in Burma. We didn’t know where we were,

06:22:00:00

whether we were going to be left in Ceylon, or go on from there Java. There was some talk about us going to Java even, but no as I say, being lowly down in the ranks you didn’t hear everything that was being planned for you. You just knew that the day arrived when they said, “We’re going home, we’re getting on the troop ships and going back to Australia.” That was a long voyage because they were worried about Japanese

06:22:30:00

submarines and they went due south for a little way, instead of south-east. They went due south and then west.
I was thinking a moment ago, the Japanese had an enormous amount of ground to cover.
They did.
From Rabaul, right across to Ceylon.
Yes, they had all that. The south-east Asia area, the Philippines, the islands in the Pacific, so they were taking on a lot. And they were also engaged in China, of course.
Yes. It’s no wonder the supply lines were stretched.
That’s right, yes.

06:23:00:00

I think they realised they had a job, if they sent in an invasion force to Ceylon, they would have had a job to supply that, even if the British had lost most of its fleet in that area.
So the trip to Australia was pretty long. I mean, what sort of ship were you sailing on from Ceylon back to Australia?
A World War I German boat, originally, called the Westmoreland, been converted to a troop ship.

06:23:30:00

What were you conditions aboard that ship?
We were in hammocks but it was a good trip. We had concert parties and boxing tournaments to keep us entertained. But we were glad when we got to Fremantle, of course, I don’t remember, we did go on leave in Fremantle, yes we went on leave.

06:24:00:00

And but I think only one day before we were back on it again, and then we eventually disembarked in Melbourne.
From your disembarkation in Melbourne, where did you go then?
We went to a camp in Seymour, in the Seymour area. But I think that was only for possibly, one day. It might have been a couple of days. On train and up to Sydney where we were given ten days’ leave and that was you know, this was an urgent situation as far as Papua New Guinea

06:24:30:00

was concerned. This was August 1942 of course, when the Japs were still advancing up there, so they told us we had short leave and that was it. Time enough to get married.
Yes, well tell us a bit about the marriage. Obviously, you’d been communicating with Nancy by letter. What happened when you arrived back in Sydney between you and Nancy?
Well,

06:25:00:00

she hadn’t told me she’d joined the WAAAFs. We hadn’t had any mail for a while. She must have decided to join the WAAAFs and at that stage she was in Melbourne, training. She was, you know an expert cook, so she became a cook in the WAAAFs. So she got leave to come to Sydney and we got married. And has as many friends, relatives there as we could organise at the time. And I went back to Melbourne with her and we camped out in a

06:25:30:00

boarding house until it was time for me to go back.
Had you seen her in Melbourne, prior to going up to Sydney?
No, no. We were at sea. I didn’t know she was there. I wouldn’t have had any leave to Melbourne, in any case, I suppose.
You hadn’t had contact for a while. Had you actually proposed to her by letter?
Yes, we had become engaged by letter, yes.
How long before you returned to Australia did this happen?
I sent her the money for an engagement ring in November ‘41.

06:26:00:00

And then this is mid to late 1942?
Yes, mid.
So what was the actual date of the wedding?
The 14th August.
Can you tell us a bit about the wedding?
Well, it was at St Mathews Church of England in Manly. She’d been living there with her mother and father who had a flat in the area. And we had the reception at the

06:26:30:00

Pacific, and two nights there, no one night there, or maybe two nights there, I forget now, and back to Melbourne, on the Melbourne Express.
So which of your family members attended the wedding?
Oh, my brother had malaria. He was here in Sydney at the time but he had malaria, so he didn’t come. My father and stepmother, my eldest stepbrother

06:27:00:00

acted as best man. And my younger stepsister was bridesmaid because Nancy didn’t have any time to organise any of her own friends. Her parents were there and she had an adopted sister as flower girl. Most of the other guests were people we worked with because having both come from the same section of the Sydney County Council, they all came to our wedding.
Several other people that we interviewed

06:27:30:00

said that they wanted to delay marriage, even if they were engaged, until the end of the war. What was your feeling about that?
It’s funny you should ask that because I didn’t know what was going to happen. But when I met Nancy at Cental Station when she came up from Melbourne, the first thing she said was, “When are we going to get married?” So I couldn’t say, “I hadn’t thought about it.” No, it was all so sudden, and she was in the WAAAFs when I expected her to be in Sydney and she wasn’t, so I said, “All right,” and that was it.

06:28:00:00

So we got married.
How long after that eventful meeting did you get married?
Well, in two days, I suppose. She was only up here four days.
That’s not much time to arrange a wedding, is it?
No, that’s right, but I think from her previous engagement, maybe she knew what she had to do?
Oh, she had previously?
She had previously been engaged, you see.
And that was the relationship that fell through and then she subsequently wrote to you?
Yes, she was, already organised to be married if not to me, to somebody else.

06:28:30:00

How had she had time to organise the bridal dress, for instance?
Well, it was at somebody’s place. She probably borrowed it you know, I know we went by taxi to this place where she picked it up, you know.
Right. So you had the honeymoon. How long after the honeymoon were you bound for New Guinea?
We went there in about the beginning of September, I think. I forget the date now. But on the troop ship on the way up, we went to Brisbane, did we embark from Brisbane, no we went to camp up in the Hunter Valley area. We were only there one or two nights, and then we went by train to Brisbane, where we embarked and on the troopship I developed acute tonsillitis, never had it like that before,

06:29:30:00

so I became a hospital case. I had to go to hospital in Port Moresby, when they took me off, I had only been there a week and in the meantime the battalion had gone forward off up into the heights and I had to catch up with them.
This must have been like history repeating itself.
Yes, that’s right, catching up to the battalion. But by the time I caught them up they hadn’t had their first action. I caught them up in time for their first action, which was

06:30:00:00

at Templeton’s Crossing, the Eora Creek area, but it was interesting to me to be part of the, and one of the fellows I was with was John Armstrong, and we became great friends, and had get-togethers and there were only six of us in a little party and had to catch up to our respective battalions, and one of them was an officer, but you know we ploughed along up the Owen Stanley Ranges and down. But I found it more interesting,

06:30:30:00

or less tiring, climbing the Owen Stanley Range, not to stop half way up one hill but to keep plugging on, which gave me longer time at the top, when the others arrived. So I would do that. I’ve always had a determination to finish what I’ve started.
Can you describe the Owen Stanleys for us?
Well they’re very, they’re up to 12,000 feet up the mountains, but they were simply a muddy track,

06:31:00:00

this was what they called the Kokoda track, trail whatever the steps were cut into the hills, into the mountain sides and if you didn’t put your foot in the right place, you’d go in mud up to your knee on the other side. There was mud all the way and just one ridge after another. You’d think you’d come to what looks like the top and no, keep going.

06:31:30:00

Keep going. Seemed to go on forever.
Were the conditions hot and sticky and humid?
I don’t think so because we were too high up for it to be hot and sticky.
So what were the conditions like? Could you describe them?
Pretty wet, you know. Wet most of the time. Yes, when we got to the battalion at Templeton’s Crossing, the Eora Creek area,

06:32:00:00

we got called upon there, not long after we got there to be, some members of my battalion were called on to act as stretcher-bearers. And the 2/1st Battalion was being heavily mortared by a Japanese gun, what they called a mountain gun, some called it a mortar and some called it a mountain gun, and it was deadly accurate. They obviously were looking down on the site from a hill, or the top of a

06:32:30:00

tree somewhere, and they had an exact observation of where these things could be targeted. The 2/1st Battalion Headquarters was suffering, and some of us had to go down there and act as stretcher-bearers to take them up. There wasn’t enough stretchers. They were makeshift stretchers. One party of four of us, we started out to go up, back up. There was what they called an advance dressing station up the top of the mountain, or the hill.

06:33:00:00

And we had to cross an exposed area, and as I said before there is something that tells you when you here a pop somewhere in the distance, something tells you to take cover. We heard the pop and we hit the ground, and the mortar bomb was aimed at us, but it hit the trees above us and didn’t explode. So we got up, went forward another few paces, we were still exposed, pop again, down we went.

06:33:30:00

This time it burst. You can imagine a four-man stretcher team, one, two on each side, and I was at the back on this side, and the fellow on the front on that side had his leg blown off. And so we then had two casualties. We got him as far as, I don’t know how we did it, but we got him and the other stretcher patient, we got him as far as the advance dressing station but he died up there. And an interesting thing

06:34:00:00

about his death was, he and I both got married at the same time, and when we were in Ceylon, we were together on this observation post, we were both silly enough to have the same tattoo done on our arm. But as an appendage to that story if you like, some years later around about 1984, a group of us from our platoon decided to go and visit

06:34:30:00

an old chap, it was at a nursing home on the Central Coast, the Entrance area. He was a much older man than the others in our platoon. And the other man with him was also fairly old. And we thought, we’ll go up there, two lots of us in two cars, and we picked up our old ex-officer, who was living in the Central Coast, and we picked him up and took him to the Entrance RSL Club

06:35:00:00

for lunch. I was sitting next to him at lunch, and we were talking about things that happened, and I mentioned Clarrie, the one who was killed by having his leg blown off, and he said, “That should have been me.” This man was in his eighties then, and I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I was originally on that party,” he said. “But I wanted be on the party with my special mate Bob, and I asked Clarrie to swap with me.”

06:35:30:00

And there he was all these years later, and he said, “That’s on my conscience.” I said, “Oh, Charlie. That’s life, things happen, you couldn’t have anticipated that.”
That’s fate once again, I think. Definitely. Things are meant to be. I think so anyway. Was Clarrie a good friend of yours?
Not a close friend. No, because he came in as a reinforcement. We were in the same platoon. We were all friends, but no, he wasn’t a close friend.
That must have had some impact on you, seeing a man lose his leg in that way.

06:36:00:00

Oh well, this is right. No. When you say have an impact. It was sad, but you didn’t sort of think, “Gee, that could have been me.” Just got on with the job. I was never conscious of saying how lucky I was, which I was. That bomb could have landed anywhere there.
But do you remember your response, your own response, when you saw that happen?
No, I don’t. All I knew was I just had to get on with getting him and the other fellow back up there. It was a horrible moment admittedly, to know that he had copped it. But we just had to do what we had to do. Dropped them off and then went back. And we again went back to that same station, and I remember we waited there with the 2/1st Battalion Headquarters to see if they had more casualties, but of course then they didn’t.

06:37:00:00

Then our battalion took over the lead role in the attack on the Japanese in the battle that became known as the Eora Creek. We had to cross a river up to here, a fast-flowing river incidentally, but fortunately it wasn’t very wide. Probably the Eora Creek itself of course, but up on the other side we got up there and took up positions, but I must admit I spent a rather frightened night because the

06:37:30:00

Japs had been picking blokes off during the night and they got several blokes they picked off, they came out looking for them and you never knew, going to sleep didn’t seem like a good idea.
The Japanese came looking for men?
Yes, they picked them off.
As they slept?
Well, I don’t know whether they were asleep or whether they were themselves looking for Japanese but whatever,

06:38:00:00

we lost, not my platoon but the battalion headquarters, lost a couple of good men there, with the Japs picking them off. And as I say we were only tentative quarters area. At that time I wasn’t with a rifle company. But it was a battle that did the battalion proud because even though there weren’t large numbers involved they were in more or less a certain, the way in which we were configured there. You couldn’t attack from behind.

06:38:30:00

You tried to find flanks around them but you couldn’t, the country didn’t lend itself to that. The Japs, until you could break their line, you had to be stuck facing them and this is why the advance was so slow, MacArthur complained about it. But you couldn’t, if we’d had hundreds and hundreds more troops too, you know irrespective of casualties, just overwhelm them perhaps. But in the event, what did happen there in that front

06:39:00:00

because our CO got wounded and went back and our second in charge took over the battalion and he said, “We’ve had enough of this trying to pick them off,” and he put on a full-frontal attack which the Japs weren’t expecting and they killed seventy of them, seventy of them and the rest took off, and we only lost five killed. Just to show the surprise.
Did you see these events happen?
Pardon?
Were you there and did you see these events happen?

06:39:30:00

No, I wasn’t with the attacking companies, no.
Where were you?
Oh, just behind at headquarters. You heard all the fire. The fire-fight. And then the Japs went right back then. They didn’t defend any more of the Owen Stanley mountains until they got to the other side of Kokoda.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0252 Tape 07

07:00:30:00

So this was quite a momentous battle that you’ve just described.
Yes, in a small scale but very effective, very effective. That won us our battle honours in New Guinea, that particular battle.
Now, your activities as signaller, you’d had sporadic activity as a signaller in Syria. Once you got to New Guinea were you much more active in this capacity?
Not at that stage.

07:01:00:00

Just had to be at headquarters to be on call to do what you had to do in case you were needed. Whether it was to run a line somewhere or whatever. Later on I did run a line in that campaign and later on again, still, I was attached to a rifle company.
Did you have your full range of equipment back with you at this time?
Yes, we did have signals, we had phones and the necessary drums of cable.
Now, obviously signalling in the desert as opposed to signalling in the jungle

07:01:30:00

probably had a few differences.
Well, there was no line of sight signalling in the jungle.
So what did you have to mostly rely on?
Well, you relied on telephone lines. I don’t think we used radios there. They were still too primitive, too heavy to carry around. There could have been some radios involved but I don’t remember any.
Were there walkie-talkies in use?
I did not, not in that campaign.

07:02:00:00

I don’t think there were. We didn’t use them ourselves as signallers. Unless you know, certain officers might have had them. But I don’t think so.
Now, we’ve been talking about Kokoda. At what stage in the events of Kokoda was this? There’s the very famous newsreel, “Kokoda Front Line.”
Oh, yes. Damien Parer.
From Damien Parer, were any events that you described covered by that newsreel?

07:02:30:00

It’s been so long since I’ve seen it. No, he wasn’t with us. We didn’t have a camera crew with us. But at a later stage perhaps, somewhere along the line he may have.
Now, you’ve described laying out the lines. What was involved in laying out the telephone lines?
Well, you had to

07:03:00:00

have a phone at a certain point you know, where you wanted the communication from. Usually, you would run the line from your battalion. There was a switchboard at the battalion headquarters with say the lines from all the companies could be brought in, so you would take your line from there, and you would have a drum of cable, you might have to carry a couple of drums on a spindle for cable laying,

07:03:30:00

and just walk along with it, laying it. You had two methods of laying. You could have laying cables, or you could have what you called earth return where you used the earth to provide the second link. Just depends on the country. Earth return wasn’t much good in desert country, but you could use it in wet country.

07:04:00:00

What were twig cables?
Well, laying two lines.
Right, two lines together, oh, twin cables, two cables.
The cable wasn’t twin itself. You had to lay two lines.
How risky could that operation be?
Well, you had to think of the possibility of snipers. We had a line in the second New Guinea campaign later on we had a line cut. I wasn’t on the team that had to go and find the cut,

07:04:30:00

but I know the fellows that had to repair it were a bit worried, because the Japanese could cut a line and then set up a sniper when somebody went to repair it, but fortunately the Japanese had been driven them back by the time they repaired that line. A bad experience.
And could you describe how crucial using phone line actually was?
It was critical so the

07:05:00:00

battalion commander can tell his company commander and vice versa what’s got to be done. What’s happening, you know the battalion commander has to be in a reasonably safe area, otherwise there’s no use in having him too exposed, sometimes they were but the brigade commander, he’s got to be back too. You’ve got to have them in an area where they’re, they can command and not be too exposed and in danger of

07:05:30:00

themselves being wiped out. Otherwise, you’ve got to find new commanders.
So in Syria and at Tobruk and in Bardia, to what extent were other forms of communication being used?
Oh, I think it would have been by visual or by cable.
So the lamps would have been used to a fair extent?
No, cable more than anything else. Cable more than anything. Phone lines.

07:06:00:00

I had sort of flashback question here. And this relates to Clarrie. You described a couple of tattoos. What were those tattoos?
Oh, just a tattoo, I don’t want it on the camera.
Oh, okay.
They were a tattoo of a bird with my wife’s name in it. You put your wife’s name in it, and he did the same.

07:06:30:00

Oh, okay.
Even though I didn’t know if she was going to be my wife at the time. No, she wasn’t. She wasn’t at the time. This was in Ceylon.
That you had that done.
Yes,
That’s a nice gesture.
Incidentally, getting back to telephones you know, a commander can’t talk to another commander by means of signals. You know, by telephone line they can actually carry on a conversation, so that is the preferred method of communicating.

07:07:00:00

Obviously, they can sort of discuss things. You know, a visual communication can only be in the way of giving an order, send an order to do this, do that.
Did you have any interaction with New Guinea locals when you were in New Guinea?
Oh yes, the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels as we called them, oh yes.
Can you tell me a bit about them?
Well, we you know,

07:07:30:00

trying to think how I can. You know they weren’t always up there with us in the infantry battalion, they were more coming to the supply lines, but they would come forward and act as stretcher-bearers, and we weren’t as far as I can remember all that close to them, constantly that is. But they were always happy-go-lucky people.

07:08:00:00

I can remember, I was a smoker then, I can remember exchanging a bit of my tobacco for a bit of his what they call Boong twist, which is like liquorice as a sort of means of communication.
Did they refer to it as Boong twist?
They didn’t no, it was just tobacco.
Of course, the term Boong, somebody says the word Boong these days and there is a kind of horrified reaction.
Yes, it was generally used to refer to the natives

07:08:30:00

as the Boongs, without meaning anything detrimental to them.
Did you see any Japanese prisoners at all?
A couple up, further up. The first one we saw, we overran a Japanese rice dump, this is getting close to Sanananda, and there was one poor little fellow there who had been left behind. He had no,

07:09:00:00

he just had a shirt on. He had dysentery and he was the most bedraggled looking man I have ever seen in my life. But you know he was harmless. Later on there was another one brought back through us, that one of the others had captured. They were tying to get information of course. But this was a fair way down the track, when that happened of course, in the meantime we had to attack the Japanese position at a place called Oivi, which was just the other side of Kokoda, and I was called on

07:09:30:00

to lay a line there and take a phone out to Don Company, I think it was, and they had launched an attack on the Japanese and pushed them from their position, and just as I got there with the phone, the Japanese counter-attacked. It was all hell let lose there, and I left the phone, the company commander said, “Get the hell out of here.”

07:10:00:00

So I, then it became dark all of a sudden, you know darkness drops quickly there and I had to go back by means of holding the line, but somewhere along the line I must have crossed other lines and I continued with the wrong one and I finished up stumbling over the little tent that the regimental aid post had and when I told the sergeant that I was trying to find my own battalion, he said, “Forget about it. You can sleep here tonight on the bed.” So I slept on a bed in the

07:10:30:00

regimental aid post. But in that same area we also had to act as a stretcher-bearer party again, a four-man one and including that old chap I mentioned and his mate, the one that he’d exchanged for to swap places earlier, for the young chap to be with him, two of them and another chap, and I. And we had two supporting you know, we had to go down a very slippery track,

07:11:00:00

so there were six of us, two ready to take over and bear the weight because it was so steep. And when we were coming down the track, Bob who was one of the old fellows, and the one up the Central Coast was Charlie. And Bob, we always considered him to be a very prim and proper man, he never swore, he was religious and he was a very kind, quiet a real gentleman of the old school.

07:11:30:00

He was a country farmer, and very much older than the rest of use, and Bob slipped and we nearly threw the patient, the wounded man off the stretcher, and Bob said, “Jesus fucking Christ,” and we could not believe it that Bob would say a thing like that.
You must have nearly dropped the stretcher out of sheer astonishment.
I did. Bob of all people.
Now, did fighting in jungle conditions bring its own set of stresses?

07:12:00:00

Yes, I suppose it did. More I think, as much concern from disease. We were all scared we would get scrub typhus. Scrub typhus was a terrible debilitating disease and we had one fellow die from it. Another fellow was you know, permanently incapacitated from it. So that was our main worry, scrub typhus,

07:12:30:00

apart from perhaps Japanese snipers. But as I said before you just got on doing what you had to do.
We spoke to a man who fought in Bougainville and he said the whole experience of, in his case being a jungle fighter, placed him very much on edge. Did you see any of that among the soldiers, or to what extent did you see any of that among the soldiers?

07:13:00:00

Not really, I think we had been in the war for so long at that time, we had been in so many actions, whereas in Bougainville they were more newer troops. You know, might have been a completely new experience for him, as a first engagement. But no, I mean I can’t speak for you know, you had reinforcements from time to time and I’m sure it was a pretty unnerving

07:13:30:00

experience for them from time to time, but once you got used to it you accepted it, I mean that’s not to say you were heroic, you just did what you had to do. We were looking forward to the end of whatever you were doing, and getting to hell out of the place.
Now you’ve described early in the interview some family situations, which clearly had an impact on you, and affected you quite deeply. Were there any situations during World War II, which

07:14:00:00

affected you quite to the same extent?
No. Not really. I don’t really remember what my reaction was when I got the letter to say that Nancy was getting married. I just can’t remember those things now.
Why do you think that was?
I don’t know, probably because I’m a pretty placid person. I’ve always been that way, I’m not volatile in any way.

07:14:30:00

I don’t go looking for trouble and I try not to make trouble, you know.
I would imagine if we were looking at those two phases of your life, that there were, despite the fact that you didn’t know how long the war was going to continue, there probably would have been a bit more certainty about the war.
In what respect?
Well, certainty. You were there to do a job. You had obviously passed your crucial
Test.

07:15:00:00

Yes, you had passed your formative years. But did you have a sense of what the war was doing to you as an individual. You spoke about missing out on crucial formative years between the ages of 19 and 25.
No, I didn’t think of that at the time.
You didn’t think of that at the time?
No, that’s something that came to me in retrospect.
Well, we’ll deal with that later when we come to the end of the war.
No, I didn’t think I was missing out.

07:15:30:00

Looking at a day-to-day pragmatic thing, how plentiful were the rations there in New Guinea?
They were very scarce. As I mentioned earlier, at one stage there they were trying to supply us by air, but without parachutes, the chances were, well I looked at the statistics, there was only a thirty percent recovery rate. That was in the mountainous country of course, but at one stage there we got to share a tin of bully beef

07:16:00:00

between six men. Whereas the actual normal ration was one between three men. Even when we were in the Eora Creek area we were so hungry, they weren’t able to get supplies up to use there, that we ate our emergency rations a lot of us did, ate our emergency rations, which was strictly taboo. And I spoke to

07:16:30:00

an officer of that time, after the war about this, I said, “Did you eat yours?” He said, “No.” I said, “Oh, we did, everyone around. We just ate those emergency rations.” But after this was all over and we were re-supplied, they said, “You’re forgiven,” sort of thing, “But don’t let ever do it again.” But that was the way it was, you know we were so hungry.
What did emergency rations consist of?

07:17:00:00

Mostly just dried things, dried biscuits and dried crumbly things that might have been all right if they’d been boiled up in water but you just ate whatever, and even the food that was dropped, you’d pick up broken biscuits out of mud because it was food. We were really hungry then. But once we got to Kokoda we got past that, because then they started to supply us

07:17:30:00

using the landing strip at Kokoda and we got better food from then on. When I mentioned we overran a Japanese rice dump, where we saw the first prisoner and we all filled our bags, we had little dilly bags, as we called them, which we were supposed to hold our toiletries in, we put the toiletries loose somewhere in our gear and filled some of those up with rice, and the first opportunity we had to cook it, we would.

07:18:00:00

I knew nothing about cooking, I’d never cooked anything in my life, but others knew, told me how to, so we’d cook up a billy of rice and then eat it every meal afterwards, as long as you could, that became a love affair with rice for me, I just loved it.
Getting back to the emergency rations, you said you would normally add water. In this case what was happening?
Well there was no fire you see, no fires, no heating.
How did you prepare them before you ate them?

07:18:30:00

Just ate them raw. Ate them as they were. They were all dehydrated. Everything was dehydrated, except the biscuits. But the other things were dehydrated. I forget what they were. I think there was egg and you know, meat and so on.
They must have had a rather interesting reaction when they expanded inside.
Possibly. I don’t think so. I don’t think they caused us any illness.

07:19:00:00

What would you say would have been you worst experience in New Guinea?
I think, towards the end, on the Sanananda front, I was with B Company and we were trying to live in a swamp. You had to,

07:19:30:00

the Japanese had fixed fields of fire and they would open up with their machine guns, morning and night, and we were in a plantation of some sort, I don’t know if it was rubber, but quite often they would cut the trees down with the bullets, cut the trees, so you knew you had to keep low at all times, but you had to be prepared for them to open up in the middle of the day, perhaps when you weren’t expecting it.

07:20:00:00

But lying at night, and having to get down in this swamp and try to get to sleep, and you’d find yourself that you were up, you know to the level of your body in water. You wonder how you could come out of that without being diseased ridden. But malaria was the only disease, oh tropical skin rashes or whatever, but malaria was the only thing that I copped there. The interesting thing is, it got so far and so close to what we thought was the end of that

07:20:30:00

campaign, and as it turned out, we were nowhere near it, and we never did finish that, we had to wait for the 18th to come round from Milne Bay with tanks to finish that off because the Americans couldn’t. They thought they were going to finish it off through us. We had Americans go through us, through our front, and the next thing they were running back throwing their gear away, but it was the fact that we were so close, we thought, we’ve got to stick with it.

07:21:00:00

I went back to the RAP [Regimental Aid Post] with an attack of malaria, it was about 103.8 and the fellow with me was 104.8, and the sergeant said, “Well I could evacuate you, but it will go down after a while,” so we said, “We’re not going out.” We went back, we just wanted to stay the distance, and I’m not saying just us two, because everybody else did.
You’ve talked about being in the swamps in Sanananda campaign,

07:21:30:00

how did you come to get there and what was the purpose of your being there?
Well, the Japanese had set up, you know sort of posts on the track that were impregnable, if you like, that could not be overrun, you know machine guns everywhere. And we couldn’t, we just couldn’t get through the land, the country all round was deep swamp, rivers, whatever. And they had full command of the approach

07:22:00:00

to the coast itself. And we just couldn’t get though. And they tried everything, they sent out patrols, in one case they sent out a hundred man patrol, made up of a couple of the battalions, to try and get around them. This was going on at the same time as the operation against Buna and Gona. There were three bases there for the Japanese, and they were all experiencing the same opposition from the Japanese.

07:22:30:00

They bought tanks up and some artillery, and they actually overran them.
We seem to have missed a step here between Kokoda and Sanananda. Could you take us, could you describe the sequence?
Yes, we went, I’ve described the Oivi battle and then we advanced without meeting any real opposition. We had to cross what they call the Wairopi River at one stage, which was a bit unnerving,

07:23:00:00

because we were crossing on a log with a wire over a raging torrent, this river, feeling your way across, like you see in Grand Canyons, but we got across and then we went to Sangara Mission where we had to stop for the night. I remember I had to lay a line from there out to one of the company positions, and when I came back it was pouring rain,

07:23:30:00

but I was so exhausted I just laid down on the ground and went to sleep. Wet, soaked, wet, I couldn’t have gone another step. From then on we got down onto the lower ground, and that was through Popondetta and where there was an airstrip and on to the coastal plains, which was a swampy area of course. At one stage we had to go through the swamp area up to here (INDICATES NECK) to take some supplies

07:24:00:00

to the 2/2nd Battalion. They asked us to do that. But we had our own problems on that particular front where we were with B Company. My particular companion there, in that campaign, was the fellow that crashed the Wirraways. And an interesting story about him, he had the

07:24:30:00

nickname of Suds, he was scrupulously clean and when we were in Palestine, or in Egypt more, that he got the nickname of Suds because he would, he was the man who would try to have a bath in a dixie. Dixie was your mess tin of water when water was scarce. The resident comedian called him “Soapsuds” and that was shortened to “Suds,” but the strange thing was that when we were in this position in Sanananda, we got a Comforts Fund parcel each and in it was a cake of soap each, but in the meantime the Americans had come up

07:25:00:00

there to join us and the Americans had chocolate, so I persuaded him to trade one of our cakes of soap for a cake of chocolate. So it was one time when he lost his name of Suds.
Having that chocolate must have been quite wonderful?
It was, to think that they could have chocolate, but we couldn’t. That was part of their normal rations. It wasn’t ours.
Now what, this must have been quite a trek from Kokoda

07:25:30:00

up into the Sanananda region. How long did that take?
I can’t remember now. To tell you the truth, I just can’t remember. We were evacuated Christmas, just on Christmas, no just before Christmas, back to Port Moresby and we went up there in September, so we had been three months, say altogether, roughly.

07:26:00:00

So once you got to the Sanananda region, were you laying out lengths of cable once again?
I did lay a line, yes from where we were to battalion headquarters.
And so what was your day-to-day activity?
Oh, just being there with the company commander, and by the phone.
Who was the company commander?
The company commander then was a man named Lysaght, Captain Lysaght. He was one of the Lysaght family.

07:26:30:00

He had a visit there. He was associated with Lysaghts, you know down the south coast, and also associated with them was one of our company commanders originally, or just originally one of the officers became company commander of the company I was with in Syria. And he was Philip Parbury, he eventually became a Lieutenant Colonel with DSO [Distinguished Service Order] and Bar and so on, he was a great soldier and he came there to visit us.

07:27:00:00

It was rather a contrast. When he came to visit us he was with general headquarters, general army headquarters. And Nick Lysaght was an old friend of his because of both being associated with Lysaght Broken Hill Proprietary. But the contrast, Nick was like us, just in greens, covered in mud, slush, straggly, and this,

07:27:30:00

was he colonel, at the time? Yes, I think he was Colonel Parbury at the time, there in immaculate dress clothes, contrast.
So what were you wearing at this time?
Jungle greens.
Jungle greens. Did you have to wait for those when you first went to New Guinea?
Oh, no. We got them straight away. We were probably issued with them here in Australia.
That’s good. Because I believe the earlier troops had to wait for their jungle greens.
They probably did, yes.
Now, you had some interaction

07:28:00:00

with Americans and you referred quickly in passing before to Americans running away. Could you tell me that story?
Well this American regiment had landed on the coast, south from this area and they’d moved inland to come round to dislodge the Japs that we couldn’t. That seemed to be the general idea, but

07:28:30:00

this was their first engagement. They weren’t up to it. They set up a machine gun post just near us, and we thought, “What the hell are they putting that there for,” because they’re going to fire through us. But fortunately they didn’t, but as I said it was the fact that we wanted to go back. We were walking cross the potential line of fire of that machine gun. But I happened to be down near the brigade headquarters, I don’t know why I was back there at the time.

07:29:00:00

After this failed attack they came running back, and their commander was talking to our brigadier and I heard him say to our brigadier, “My boys haven’t got it here,” and he put his hand on his heart.
What do you think he meant by that?
Well they were just green you know, they hadn’t, you know they were new troops. We were volunteers and they were conscripts, you know. They were from,

07:29:30:00

even as far as volunteers in our own army there was some screening done, but I rather think that in the American case everybody had to be called up and serve, no matter what. And they just weren’t up to it. A new attack was launched and this time, and this is recorded in our history, with some of our officers, you know to bolster them along.

07:30:00:00

And this didn’t help. One particular decorated fellow of ours, when one American wouldn’t get up off the ground, he kicked him in the behind and said, “Get up and fight,” you know. But he was standing up he was facing them, the difference between seasoned troops and unseasoned troops.
Did you see this happen?
No, but it is recorded, it is an historic incident.
Apart from giving an American soldier a kick, how were they bolstering them along?

07:30:30:00

Well I suppose to be able to provide the guidance, encouragement. The American officers apparently weren’t up to it. They were using our battle hardened officers and sergeants to get them going, to motivate them.
Now was there a certain point when the Americans came dashing back?
Only on this one occasion, because they dashed back through us, they had advanced through us, the position where I was with my company, B Company,

07:31:00:00

they had advanced through us. Just came back, nothing like it.
What were the expressions on their faces?
They went back so fast I don’t think I saw.
But what you seem to be describing is a panic.
A panic, yes, it was a panic retreat, yes. They hadn’t been prepared for what they had to confront. That was obvious.
Do you know what they were confronting?

07:31:30:00

Beg pardon?
What were they actually confronting?
Well, they were confronting virtually the same position as we were, an impregnable position with machine guns covering every corner of the field in front of them. We couldn’t get through, and apparently the idea was, they were fresh troops, there were plenty of them, there were very few of us left. Maybe their numbers would do it. I don’t know. But it didn’t work.

07:32:00:00

So when we’re looking at number, how many Americans were there, and how many Australians?
It was a full regiment, which was you know, a full regiment didn’t go through our little position but across the front it did. Whereas, we were an infantry brigade 2/1st, 2/2nd, 3rd Battalions who’d been largely decimated not so much by Jap casualties, and there were plenty of those but by malaria and other tropical diseases.

07:32:30:00

And when we came out, I think we had out of the brigade 150 or so of the brigade left, that’s 90 or something in our battalion, and the other battalions were even worse off. That’s doesn’t mean that they were all battle casualties, they were sick from malaria and disease.
Specifically, do you know what it was the Americans saw, or encountered, that made them run?

07:33:00:00

No. We heard the fire, the gunfire. They must have obviously suffered casualties. We saw some of the leading fellows mown down if you like, there was no point in staying there. We might have done the same thing if we were new troops. We might have, I mean experienced troops would go to ground. They wouldn’t turn around and run. They’d go to ground.
How many of these Americans ran away?
I don’t know.
How many did you see run away.
Oh, I think it was only about two. Just went right back past me

07:33:30:00

because they were spread across the front. But they all did so you know, we were told.
Now you mentioned that you had malaria. Were you not taking Atebrin as well?
Not at that time, we had been put on Quinine and this had had such an effect on us, causing deafness and things like that, just about everyone wasn’t taking it. We thought we were immune,

07:34:00:00

but we weren’t. Only later on did we take Atebrin. And that was introduced after that campaign.
Oh because I’ve heard, most of the people I’ve spoken to who were in New Guinea were taking Atebrin. So prior to Atebrin what was the cure, or what was the preventative measure for malaria?
Atebrin became, Quinine originally, but Quinine was not a good thing to keep you going on.

07:34:30:00

Why was this?
Well as I say, it caused deafness, temporary deafness when you were taking it. Atebrin didn’t, Atebrin only made your skin colour change but we didn’t get on to Atebrin at that stage, that came later.
So when was it in the overall scheme of things in New Guinea that you got malaria?

07:35:00:00

Well on that front, that’s when I got the first attack. As I say, the RAP sergeant said that “Your temperature will go back down again” and so I put up with it, but then I had another attack and with a few others we were evacuated by plane, a DC-3, and overall I think I had about six attacks, one after the other, even at home on leave I had an attack.

07:35:30:00

So how long did you put up it?
Well the last attack was after I had already been discharged from the army.
But initially up in New Guinea, I presume it was up in the Sanananda region that you had the first attack.
That’s when I had the first attack. Yes.
So how long did you put up with it before you were evacuated?
I don’t remember, probably only about a week or so, we weren’t there that much longer in that area

07:36:00:00

when the whole battalion was taken out. They all came out, more or less progressively from that point.
But do you remember what the effect of the malaria was on you?
Oh, well, high temperature is one aspect and cold shivers is the other. The cold shivers, is possibly more worse than the high temperature.
You were clearly quite determined to stay with your mates though, weren’t you?
Originally, yes.

07:36:30:00

But we realised it was hopeless. There was no point in staying here. We knew that we were not going to get through from the north, so when the opportunity came to be evacuated, I just took it.
How important is mateship in war?
Oh, you couldn’t have survived if you couldn’t depend on your mates around you. And as far as you were concerned they were all your mates. You all had to depend on each other, comfort each other if necessary.

07:37:00:00

It looks as though you were determined to stick by your mates for as long as possible.
Yes. That was the idea.
How important was humour in war, would you say?
Oh very. It was good to have some humourists. We had a couple in our platoon, you know.
What sort of things would they be funny about?
Oh, you know, nicknames, creating nicknames, things like that. Well that chap in the cabin

07:37:30:00

on the Orcades, we had one of the fellows was concerned for some reason or other about contracting, or going bald, that’s right. And this other fellow said, “Rubbing banana skins into your scalp will prevent baldness.” We were getting issued with bananas and he was saving up these damn banana skins and rubbing them into his head and the cabin was

07:38:00:00

stinking of rotting banana skins. He had him on later on about something. He was frightened of getting crab lice, you know he’d heard about crab lice, and he said, “What you should do there,” he thought he had them, so he said, “Put some tobacco on your testicles,” which was about the worst thing you could do because that made them sting like hell. He was that sort of a character.

07:38:30:00

Sounds like old wives tales.
Well, this is right, yes, a very funny man. He was very popular.
Now, you mentioned before volunteers and conscripts. Can you draw a distinction between volunteers and conscripts and their attitude to being in the front line?
Well, we had no conscripts. I was in a volunteer unit.
But you had a view about the American conscripts.

07:39:00:00

Well no, at the time we didn’t know they were conscripts. We didn’t know anything about them, but later on in hindsight you realise, that they were too green and that’s the way the American army was formed. The marines were volunteers and some certain units were volunteers, but most of the American army were conscripts.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0252 Tape 08

08:00:30:00

So, Don, can you tell us what happened when you withdrew from New Guinea? What happened next?
We went back to Port Moresby and we were addressed by General Blamey. I remember him saying “What a terrible ordeal we’d had and we had done very well.”

08:01:00:00

He had been accused of referring to some other soldiers as rabbits or something but he, I forget the facts now, but they are on record but he praised the troops, the brigade, for what we had done up there. Then we went back Australia, we must have come back by ship. Yes, we did. And I think we, can’t remember whether we went to Townsville then by train down, or whether we went by boat, all the way to Brisbane.

08:01:30:00

But we did go to Eagle Farm where we were given a Christmas dinner by local voluntary organisations.
And what was that like?
Oh great, after what we’d been eating.
Can you describe the meal?
Turkey roast, and things, the things you would normally have for Christmas in a family situation.
And did you get any special presents or communication from Nancy, or your brother,

08:02:00:00

for that Christmas?
No, not really. No but when we got back to Sydney, I had leave and Nancy got leave and so we had a few, about ten days together again. I got malaria, she had to go back, but I got malaria and decided to extend my leave for a few more days to make up for that. So did everybody else I think,

08:02:30:00

because I then made what I regard as one of the longest train trips on record without any authority to do so. I met another chap from the 2/1st Battalion and he was overdue too, so we went to Central [Railway Station] and got on the Brisbane Express among the troops that were there and when the train got going

08:03:00:00

we heard that there was an inspector, or conductor, of some sort coming through, wanting to see authorities, rail warrants, whatever. I went to the toilet and he banged on the door and he said, “You in there. Have you got your warrant?” And I was trying to think of something to say and he said, “Have you got a warrant or are you with the draft?” So I said, “I’m with the draft,” and my mate did the same, he survived. We got to Brisbane and we went over to,

08:03:30:00

you couldn’t get the line right through then. We went over to Roma and tried to get on the Sunlander going north as it was about to pull out, but we were hunted off by the conductor, or whatever there, he said, “No troops on this train.” So when the 2nd Division came along we got on that, we were in the ordinary civilian carriage with a few soldiers and nobody ever came near us looking for tickets or whatever. We didn’t have much money, we were

08:04:00:00

both smokers and we had very little left in the way of a smoke, got held up at Mackay because the river was in flood and there was a ladies auxiliary that kept us supplied with meals, very kindly. Got to Cairns, went over to the train that goes up to the Atherton Tablelands, and again no tickets nothing. Arrived at, I knew where we were going to be camped at Ravenshoe, walked in there,

08:04:30:00

the acting adjutant said, “Where have you come from?” I said, “Hospital, Sir.” And he said, “Right, go back to your company.” So I had all that long trip and a few days over, and survived the ordeal. Didn’t get caught out in other words. But there were a heck of a lot of others. They were very sympathetic to what we had been through up in New Guinea. They were very sympathetic.
Yes, I am sure they would have been quite understanding about a couple of days. Now just getting back to Sydney for a moment, when you had some leave with Nancy, I imagine that it must have been quite difficult in a way to re-connect with your wife Nancy after being away for such a long time. In a sense you were probably like strangers.
Yes, it was. It was. You know, we had,

08:05:30:00

you know we were still trying to come to terms with the fact that we got married in a bit of a hurry and separated. When we got married, we weren’t really all that sure that we wanted to get married. It took us a while to get organised, yes. And then of course, she was pregnant, and our first son was born in August that year and so that sort of solved all the problems, becoming a father.
So she was pregnant while you were up in the Atherton Tablelands? Right. So what was that like to receive that news that she was pregnant?

08:06:00:00

Unexpected, unexpected, wasn’t planned. I didn’t get to see him until I got Christmas leave that year to see him. By which time Nancy had got the flat at Manly.
And so he would have been about four months old at that time?
Yes.
Right.
She had her mother and father living nearby as I mentioned,

08:06:30:00

so she wasn’t isolated by any means.
Because Graham [Interviewer] and I have spoken to a couple of people who have talked about the difficulties of having a relationship and a marriage and then coming back and essentially being a stranger and being very uncertain.
Yes, it was uncertain. We did have to start all over again every time. We had

08:07:00:00

another leave about twelve months later, or a bit less than that before we went to Wewak and of course, I came home, I actually came home in August. Left New Guinea in August 1945, but discharge came through in October.
Okay, let’s get back up to the Atherton Tablelands

08:07:30:00

because I believe the 9th, the 7th and the 6th Divisions were also up there.
All up there.
So, what was that like?
Well, I don’t know. I only saw our own unit, you trained as a battalion, you went on a brigade exercise, we did brigade training exercises up in the jungle country. But you didn’t, you weren’t conscious of all those other troops there. I had quite a few attacks of malaria there I went into hospital in the Cairns area there,

08:08:00:00

a couple of attacks of malaria.
How many troops were up there in the Atherton Tablelands area?
I don’t know, but I think there would be well over, well about 100,000. It was supposed to be the biggest concentration of troops in the Southern Hemisphere at one stage. With three divisions and there were also some American units there as well plus all the ancillary support troops.

08:08:30:00

Were there ever any, because I believe not always, but sometimes it was quite competitive between the different divisions. Often that there might have been a few fisty-cuffs in Cairns itself on leave. Were there ever any incidents that you can recall?
No. Never hear of any. The only fights were between our fellows and provos. Military police. They were a permanent sort of enemy for soldiers on leave.
Can you recall any incidents

08:09:00:00

between your guys and the provos [Provosts: Military Police]?
Not involving me. I never saw them but there were some in Palestine in the early days between our fellows and the military police and there was one situation in Damascus where the provos beat up one of our sergeants, and just about all the sergeants in the battalion went in a group,

08:09:30:00

with guns, and they were going to take them on. They belted them up and the commander of the provos, I forget what rank they called him, he protested to our CO and our CO fobbed him off and said, “They beat up one of my sergeants. What did you expect?”
Now, you mention it in the summary

08:10:00:00

but I believe that there was lots of activity going on up in the Atherton Tablelands in terms of sport and entertainment.
Yes, there was plenty of sport.
Did you take part in any of the local sports?
Oh, I just played platoon football. And we had tennis courts there. We had games of tennis. I don’t remember participating in any particular athletic carnivals. But probably we had them. We even had a race meeting up there, at one stage,

08:10:30:00

they put on a race meeting for us, but mostly it was a case of going down to the canteen, having a few beers and playing cards and whatever.
And what was morale like at the Atherton Tablelands?
Pretty good. There was no problems with morale, there was no feeling, oh well, we all thought it was pretty frustrating waiting there to be called on to do something, but you couldn’t do anything about it. We didn’t have any

08:11:00:00

problems, you know there may have been some fellows deserted, went home but I didn’t know of any such cases, that can always happen of course.
I believe at this point you were also sent to Maroochydore for some more training.
Yes, I went to signals school
And can you describe the type of training you did at the signals school?
Well, it was mainly a test of what knowledge you had, I’d acquired. I passed a few exams

08:11:30:00

that they set. It was a very good break though, down there for us. It was plenty of beer, as we found, you know we were on tight rations for beer up north. We’d been, apparently in Queensland when they allocated how much beer could go to each pub, they did it at the peak holiday season. And so Maroochydore was getting

08:12:00:00

so much beer there that anybody could walk in and buy a keg, you know it was incredible. If you went to Brisbane you were lucky to get half an hour in the bar between half past five and six. It was all you could get. It was a good time. People put on dances for us, and things like that.
So, at what point did you return to New Guinea?
That was around I think December 1944. I went up on the advance guard,

08:12:30:00

on an American ship that had been a converted private yacht, as a matter of fact. Went up there, and just more or less took over possession of the camps that the Americans were leaving. Grabbed whatever furniture might be there, so we could say to our officer, “Here you are, we’ve got this for you,” you now, and did swap deals with the Americans.

08:13:00:00

I got a couple of bottles of beer off them, I swapped a couple, about three cans for one of theirs. But that was a bad idea. Their beer was you know, weak compared with our beer. Then we got plenty of things like their shaving creams. They left lots of brushless shaving creams behind. We didn’t know there was such a thing. I used that for a long time, brushless shaving cream.

08:13:30:00

And what was the role of your unit up at, where were you situated at this point?
Well, this was Aitape. We then, as the whole brigade, whole division, got there we took over their positions and they moved out and took part in the Philippines invasion. But so it was just a case of pushing on and eliminating the pockets of Jap resistance.

08:14:00:00

We weren’t happy about it. You know, we were wasted. We were always conscious of that, but we weren’t bitter about it, we just had to do it. But every man that got killed there we thought was a waste. We lost some in a flood, when that river flooded and took away seven of our fellows. Not out of my platoon, but from the battalion.
So what kind of duties were you performing on a day-to-day basis?

08:14:30:00

Nothing much in particular, I was a corporal at the time with battalion headquarters and just pushing on, seeing that, you know laying lines, you still had to lay lines and things like that. Until, we just pressed on and on the coast and part of the way inland, until we got to the Wewak area and we set up a sort of

08:15:00:00

permanent headquarters there, and we had the experience of the American Liberators flying over, and bombing the offshore islands and strafing us on the way back.
Why?
Don’t know why, because they were trigger-happy, from the rear gunners, I remember bullets hitting into a post. I was on the switchboard, and hitting into the post onto which

08:15:30:00

all the signal lines were tied. You know the signal lines were all coming in together and tied to one post and a bullet hit that post. But they were just trigger-happy.
I mean they must have known that you were not the enemy at this point?
They did but they did it elsewhere.
Wow, that’s deliberately firing.

08:16:00:00

I don’t know that they were targeting us, just trying to give us a scare I suppose, but it was still a risk of somebody getting hit.
Gosh, that must have, that would have made me very angry towards the Americans.
Well, it did make us very angry, yes. We had no respect for them because of that. You know, the experience of them on the Sanananda front and then the experience with the aircrew, had made us very apathetic if you like, towards them.

08:16:30:00

That doesn’t sound very good, to be fired at by the Americans. What did you do at Wewak when you arrived there?
Oh, we moved, you know the battalion was engaging the enemy but I was mostly at battalion headquarters, but we moved headquarters up onto a mountain there where we had a good view inland.

08:17:00:00

We could see the Sepik River as a matter of fact, in the distance, and I was there, that’s where I got stung by a scorpion.
Sorry, what happened when you were stung by the scorpion?
Oh, just this sudden pain in my knee and I grabbed there, he stung me twice and pulled my trouser leg up and found this little scorpion. It didn’t have any lasting effects, not like a bull ant sting, and I was, because

08:17:30:00

they introduced the idea of early discharge. They knew that the war was going to be over and they introduced the idea of early discharge for long service, and I had accumulated points for that as well as for being married with a child and it so happened that before the actual atom bomb was dropped, I was there when the atom bomb was dropped but before it was dropped, I was told that I was going home in about a week I think it was, with my good mate Neville and we both had the same number of points.

08:18:00:00

Just staying on the atomic bomb at the moment. What had you heard about the atomic bomb?
Only that it was being exploded, you know. You heard the news over the radio and I knew that an atomic bomb had been dropped without knowing much about the consequences, what the casualties were and so on. We didn’t know that when it was dropped

08:18:30:00

it was going to result in Japan capitulating.
When you heard later the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what did you think of them bomb then?
You know, I was appalled that they dropped it onto a city of civilians. I think they could have shown the effects of that in an area where there would have been less loss of life. All they had to do was demonstrate

08:19:00:00

to the Japanese its potential somewhere, that would have caused widespread land destruction, even crop destruction, but not on a city.
What was your attitude towards the Japanese as an enemy in New Guinea?
Well, naturally

08:19:30:00

you despised them from having in the meantime hearing about what had been happening to prisoners of war. Having acquired that knowledge you hated them for what they were doing to our fellows. You know, their culture was different to our culture. They were conditioned to treat other human beings differently from the way they were conditioned to, and I accept that with most cultures that the way those

08:20:00:00

people are, you can’t condemn them if it’s not the way you are. It’s the way they are brought up to believe and do whatever they do.
The war is ended, where were you when this happened?
Probably on the boat, I think. I’m not sure, I can’t actually remember whether I was still there

08:20:30:00

or whether I was on the way home.
Can you remember what went through your head when that announcement was made?
Not really because I was already on my way to be discharged. I was already on my way to go back to civilian life and to my family. We knew the war was going to end, the war in Europe was over, the Americans were so powerful that Japan had no chance of defeating them, it was just a matter of time,

08:21:00:00

just another day when it was declared that it was over.
There must have been some sense of relief.
I can’t remember any.
Or was there, what sort of celebrations took place on the boat?
No, we weren’t involved in any sort of celebrations of any sort. I can’t imagine, when I saw newsreels of what

08:21:30:00

took place in Sydney that I’d have been out there screaming and dancing and yelling, because after six years of it, you were so conditioned to it, and you knew it was finished for you and you were expecting it, so it was just another day. If it had come suddenly, it might have been different, but it didn’t come suddenly. You knew it was inevitable.

08:22:00:00

What was going through your head when you were coming back from New Guinea and you knew you were going to be discharged from the army, which had been your life for six years and you were coming back to this wife and your child. What was going through your head at that time?
Sorry. I’ve got no recollection of thinking anything in particular. Just wanting to get back home. Just wanting to get back home.

08:22:30:00

I’d had enough of the army, enough of the war.
Yes. Those are thoughts that were obviously going through your head at the time.
Yes, I’d had enough. You know some fellows stayed on, went to Japan, went to Korea, you know. I couldn’t have done that. I was just glad to get out and get back and be with my family.
So, tell me about your homecoming, what was that like?

08:23:00:00

Can’t remember. I mean Nancy knew I was coming home, just nice to be home. I came home, but I also had to go back to camp because I wasn’t fully discharged until then. Had some leave but.
What was it like seeing your son for the first time?
Seeing?
Seeing your son?

08:23:30:00

Well, I had seen him on my leaves. You know, watching him grow up. It was a bit hard to realise, to be a close father to him at the time. Nancy’s father had been sort of a foster father if you like, with him while I was away. And he took him everywhere on the weekends, boat trips, and bus trips and this sort of thing,

08:24:00:00

and playgrounds, so he got very close to her father. And when I came home, you know I was happy to be with my son and I’d go out, take him out the two of us, we’d take him out together wherever we went. But on the weekends I’d be happy to let the grandfather still take him out because I thought he was used to having him,

08:24:30:00

and I didn’t want to take him away or lose his close contact with him. But later on in life my son threw that back at me, and said, “I palmed him off onto his grandfather.” When I explained to him, he changed his mind when I told him why I’d done it. You know, to keep his grandfather happy in his old age.
What kind of impact did the war and your service life have on your post-war life?

08:25:00:00

I don’t know. That’s the sort of question that you’d have to spend a lot of time thinking about. Everywhere around you there were other people in the same situation. Fellows that you worked with before the war, now you were back working with them again, and this sort of thing, so you just had to, as they say, get on with life and treat it

08:25:30:00

as a break in the continuity of it, if you like.
I mean, I can think of an obvious change, whether or not you agree with this. It seems to me when you went away to the war you were essentially a boy.
I was, yes.
And obviously had many experiences that changed you, or impacted on you.
Yes, you were with men all the time. You learnt things from these older men.

08:26:00:00

But I don’t know whether I learnt anything good being with men all the time during the war. I don’t really know. The close friendships are good and perhaps being more caring of other people because you came to care for those who had suffered and were no longer, you know been wounded or ill and you kept in touch

08:26:30:00

and became conscious of the fact that, as I see it, if you can do things for other people, then do them. I mean, I’ve sort of had the view that if I could that I can do something for somebody and I don’t do it, I’m not happy. If I don’t do it in the sense that I’m now happy, I do it in the sense that I’m not unhappy, for not having done it,

08:27:00:00

and I think a lot of us are like that. Get involved in voluntary work.
Did you miss service life when you first came back?
No. No. It was great to be a civilian again. The Anzac Day reunions were pretty good, but that was the only time we got back together, with my mates.
And you’ve touched on this briefly but I’d like to hear more,

08:27:30:00

because I think for a lot of people it’s really important to know how war affects people in their post-war life. I think it’s quite, it does impact on people’s lives. So I’m wondering if you can describe how difficult it was for you to adjust back into civilian life when you first came back.
Well, it was difficult to know

08:28:00:00

how to handle work that I was unfamiliar with. You know, I wasn’t going to continue to be the junior clerk at age 25, so I had to quickly pick up other work that other older people had been doing, so I could prepare myself to step into their shoes, even though I wasn’t trained to do so and that was always a worry.

08:28:30:00

I went and did the School of Applied Advertising course and I also took up, we needed also to be able to if we could, do drawing in that section and I took up an art course, but that was at the time when we had the sickness problems with Brian having to go to the mountains in winter, but I found that it was a bit

08:29:00:00

much of a drag, I did it for six months, but I found it was a bit much of a drag having to go back there late at night and leave early the next morning to come to work by train. Sometimes, it depended on where we were living, I caught the one they called the Fish, and other times it might be the train they called the Chips.
Why did they call the trains the Fish and Chips?
I don’t know now why they were named them now. Well the Chips was obviously the inferior train.

08:29:30:00

The Fish was the one that went to Mount Victoria, it was a through train from, I think from Springwood. But the Chips was an all stops train, so it was a slower trip. But these were commuter trains, which people went to Sydney for work by nine o’clock.

08:30:00:00

But it was a bit of a continual change of situation after the war because of this having to go the Mountains and coming back and living at Manly and trying to think whether we were going to get our own home, which fortunately my brother made it easier for us by giving us the house at Wollstonecraft to rent, which enabled us to save money,

08:30:30:00

which was a lower rental than what we would have been paying at Manly. The land I got at Lane Cove was a war service block of land, which was quite cheap.
Did you dream about the war upon your return?
Yes, I had plenty of nightmares. You go through that stage of being attacked, the Japanese about to jump on top of you and that sort of thing. That stage lasted, I suppose on the odd occasions,

08:31:00:00

probably for about thirty years after. I’d still have not so much a nightmare but a bad dream about it. I haven’t had it for years now.
Thirty years. It’s a long time.
Yes.
Was it a recurring, a particular recurring dream, or would it change?
It always involved being bombed or being attacked by the Japanese. You know we had this picture of the Japanese being savages,

08:31:30:00

if you like and it would always come up in your dreams. Being bombed was a more frequent dream.
Yes, right. Did you ever talk to Nancy or your sons about the war, about your experiences?
No, no never.
Has that changed in recent years?
Yes, with Brian and my other son. He’s more interested. He wants to know a bit more about what I was involved in. That’s why they want me to do this story. I’ll tell them certain incidents from the war, you know, what happened and things make say, an ongoing story if you like. I think as I was saying earlier. More and more of this is happening. There was a time when the general public seemed

08:32:30:00

to lose interest in Anzac Day and then it’s been rekindled and it’s amazing the number of stories that are untold about things that happened during the war. I mean, we even, we have a monthly meeting and every now and again somebody will say, “Remember so and so and so and so,” stories never heard before, you know, and would be, as part of a saga of wartime experience, would be of interest to other people.

08:33:00:00

Why didn’t you talk about your wartime experience with your family?
I don’t know, I thing it was just that you had so much to do in bringing up a family and getting your entertainment here and there, meeting friends, having dinners, you didn’t worry about it. You didn’t sit down, I mean kids would be interested in what they were doing at school,

08:33:30:00

and they didn’t want to get involved in stories about the war. No inclination to talk about the war.
Has that changed for you in recent years? Have you felt compelled to tell your story?
As I say, more when Brian became interested in our family history,

08:34:00:00

because I had mentioned to him about our antecedents and they wanted to know a lot more about everybody and that sort of led on to what happened to you during the war and it sort of followed on from there. Plus the fact that Brian himself has realised that he hasn’t said anything about what he did, and yet he’s got a story to tell.
So have you actually been back to where you fought, at any of the places that you fought at any point?

08:34:30:00

No, I haven’t been to Greece, and Egypt and New Guinea, no.
No?
I did apply for the Greek Commemoration trip and I was down to being one of the last 40 of 20 to go, but I didn’t go to Crete and they found there were also enough people who went to Crete, so it was only fair that they should have priority, since the commemoration trip was covering both places.

08:35:00:00

Now are you a member of any associations or the RSL?
No, I joined the RSL when I came back from the war but gradually I lost interest in it because I thought it was too political. I’ve got many friends who have that same view. If it was just there for soldiers, but certain people that are in it that spout off about any subject

08:35:30:00

under the sun instead of just simply the needs and caring for soldiers and war widows and things like that. So I never maintained my membership. The only other association I’m in is my own battalion, so we’ve kept that going. Our numbers are declining as you can imagine but of course, during the course of the war with reinforcements, we had you know, we had over 4,000 men pass through the battalion.

08:36:00:00

And there are not all that many, we have a newsletter, which is probably one of the best newsletters of its type around. I’ve been told that by people who have seen a lot of them. I was editor of it for a few years until I went to Tasmania, but its mailing list now is down to about 500 and a lot of those are simply war widows and children,

08:36:30:00

who want to see what sort of stories come out of it. So it’s a bit hard to say how many are still alive of all our original battalion, out of all those who served in our battalion.
How important is it to keep in touch with your battalion and your mates?
Oh, very important. It’s something that you’d be reluctant to know, that you were never going

08:37:00:00

be able to meet up with them again, let’s put it that way. For me, it’s monthly. So long as I’m mobile, I’ll get in there to these monthly meetings. Not everybody is in a position to do that. There’s very many of them who are incapacitated, whether it’s with Alzheimer’s or loss of limbs, mobility, whatever. But so long as I can continue to get to the meetings, we have a dinner of course, every three months. That helps to bring us together.

08:37:30:00

We are a very tight little mob.
So I mean, obviously you couldn’t talk to, or you didn’t talk to Nancy and your kids about the war, but was there an ongoing dialogue with your mates about what your experiences were?
Oh yes, you always talked about your experiences. Nancy was quite happy about the fellows from the battalion one Anzac Day when we were in there at Wollstonecraft, and it poured rain, and we all got saturated,

08:38:00:00

so one fellow had his car there and I said, “Let’s go home to our place and dry off,” so we all came to our place and dried off. Nancy ironed all their clothes and shirts for them and she thought it was great. When we went up to our reunion up at North Sydney but she never objected to me going in on Anzac Day. As I say, I’ve never been drunk since the war.

08:38:30:00

So she’s had nothing to worry about in that respect.
How important is Anzac Day to you?
Well, I’d like to think it would go on forever, purely as a commemoration because as a national day it has become more that just a day of remembering the invasion of Gallipoli. I mean, as a day it has nothing to do with the Second World War in our annals.

08:39:00:00

It’s a day for Australia and it is a national day and probably the most important national day, rather than Australia Day, because Australia Day does upset the Aborigines and I sympathise with them, but Anzac Day doesn’t, to the best of my knowledge. We had Aborigines in our platoon.

08:39:30:00

So we’re coming to the end of the interview now, but before we finish I was wondering is there anything you might want to add, if there is anything you might want to put on the record?
Not that I can think of now. No, I can’t thing. What do you mean, like funny stories, or things like that?
Oh, just something that you feel is important, that you need to say.

08:40:00:00

Well, I don’t think Australia should get involved in wars like the Iraq war. That’s a pretty common view amongst people who served in the war. I think we’re catering to American interests there. And it’s not going to be in Australia’s best interest because we are going to get these terrorist attacks. That seems to me for sure, as a consequence

08:40:30:00

of our involvement over there.
Well, thanks for that. We’re actually coming right towards the end of the tape. But that’s good to get that.
That’s my view. I feel very strongly about that. I feel very hostile to our Prime Minister for really getting us involved there. We could have provided support, logistic support, without putting troops on the ground there.
Graham and I would really like to thank you for your wonderful and very open, generous story. We feel really privileged to have been there.
INTERVIEW ENDS

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