Archive number: 464
Preferred name: Norm
Date interviewed: 12 June, 2003
2/22nd Battalion - Lark Force
You are listening to the interview audio
Okay, Norm. When and where were you born?
I was born in Prahran, in Melbourne, on the 15th of January, 1922.
And what were your parents names?
John and Alice.
John was on one of the boats that used to go around to the lighthouses, delivering stores. A ship called the [MV] Lady Luck, and they used to go around to all the lighthouses around Victoria.
What an interesting job. And what about your mother?
No, Mum was just Mum.
And how many children were there in the family?
I had a brother who was a twin, but the twin died from—very young. And my sister, and there was another brother born, he also died. And there was another brother, and then myself. I was the last. I was seven years younger than the brother we buried only yesterday.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Well, what are your earliest childhood memories?
Well, we shifted from Prahran very early, I was only a few months old. And we went to Fairfield. And I grew up in Fairfield. And my earliest memories go back to when I was about five, and we lived behind a shop in Fairfield. And that’s the earliest I can remember back.
And then not long after that, we rented a house in Fairfield. And at that time the Depression was starting to hit, and things changed dramatically. My father was out of work, my brothers were finding work hard to get. And things were pretty tough, later on in Fairfield.
Did your father manage to get any more work?
Yes, he got a job then as a
wardsman down at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital.
And when did you start school? How old were you?
And I was just wondering if you could tell us a little bit about school. Did you enjoy it?
Yeah, I loved school. I loved school. I went to Fairfield State School, which was the only school I ever went to.
I wasn’t a brilliant student or anything, but I got by. And I loved every minute of school. I’ve got my merit certificate there, when I was thirteen and I immediately left school.
What subjects did you enjoy the most?
History. Hated arithmetic. And algebra, I was hopeless. But I enjoyed history, geography and anything like that. We had an old
German teacher, a chap by the name of Tascott, Tommy Tascott. And he was excellent. He was of German heritage, but he was wonderful.
What was the discipline like?
Pretty good. A lot better than it is today. A lot better. You know, if you did anything wrong, well, you got punished. And many a time I got punished. You got the strap or a clip over the ear. I don’t think it affected
anyone very much. I think it kept them in line, and it sort of gave the people a bit of authority, which they haven’t got today. And nobody got injured or anything like that. But it just made them toe the line a bit. I loved sport. I absolutely loved sport. I played football, with the school. And I also loved running.
And I used to run at every opportunity. And in 1934, I won the sixty yard dash at the combined schools sports, out at the Heidelberg area, which I was very proud of.
Yeah, that was a pretty impressive achievement, wasn’t it?
Yeah, I enjoyed that.
about your relatives. Did you have any extended family living close by?
Not really. I had a couple of older aunties. There was no-one on my father’ side because he’d come from England. And I’ve got no idea to this day, whether he had any brothers or sisters or anything at all. I’ve got no idea of the family whatsoever. We’ve tried, but we’ve come up
with a blank. So he’s a mystery. But my mother, she had a big family. They lived up on the Murray River. And one of the brothers, he used to be one of the fellows on the paddle boats, on a ship called the [LV] Rodney. And there’s quite a story of the Rodney. They had a bit of a strike there at one time. And the Rodney,
defied the orders of the so-called union at the time, and decided to run stuff down the Murray. And one morning, when they were anchored alongside the river, someone set the ship alight. So that was the end of the Rodney. Because they reckoned they scabbed on the rest of the fellows on the Murray.
What happened? Did he get another ship?
No, no. He went out of that.
As I said there was a big family of them. There was about four boys and about five girls. There was about ten in Mum’s family. She was the youngest one.
I was just wondering if you heard anything. Had any of them served in World War I?
Yes, one of her brothers, his two sons were in World War I and they were both killed, over in
France. And there’s memorial things over in King’s Park in Perth. For both of them. Another one of the brothers, he was the licensee of the Shamrock Hotel in Echuca. And I’ve got a photo somewhere amongst my possessions, with them standing outside with their name over. Their name was Doren. And he’s got a big beard like they used to. This was
before the turn of the century. But it was quite interesting. And Beryl and I went up there a few years ago, and we got a book on the riverboats, and it told us all about the Rodney. Then I found out that Mum had another sister that I didn’t know anything about, that had died up there. It was quite a big family. But they were all—when I got to know them, they were all getting around to the eighty mark. And they were all long livers. They all lived to about
They all lived well then.
Oh yes, they lived well.
I was wondering if you heard or if you knew much about Anzac Day? Did you learn anything about Anzac Day at school?
I can’t recall it. They must have done. But I can’t recall it. I can’t recall Anzac Day at school.
And also I was wondering about the Depression. It obviously
affected your family. Did you notice any other effects around you, in your suburb?
Oh, it was apparent right through. I can remember going down the old Heidelberg Town Hall. That was the council we were in, with my father, this would have be about 1930, and we used to get into the hall there, and they’d to go through it alphabetically. And they’d get, and
they’d say “Well we’re at Furness,” and when they got to the Fs, they’d say “Any more Fs?” And you’d go up with your bag and they’d give you a loaf of bread and some potatoes, and possibly a tin of golden syrup or treacle. And we used to do that every week, and my father used to take me up with him. Everything was tough, and my brothers were out of work.
All theses sort of things all affected the family very much. And of course my father died in 1932….
That must have made it very difficult for the family.
Yes. Well, I was only ten at the time. So anyhow, we battled on. And my sister, who was working, she worked for one of the top drapers out in the Fairfield area.
She decided she’d give up work and look after the family, which she did. But it just never worked. It wasn’t her caper at all. She just couldn’t cope with doing housework, it affected her social activities and everything else. So at the end of twelve months, we had a council of war and they decided we’d split up the house. We were only renting. And I was the main concern, what they’d
do with me. I said “Well look,”—at that time I was—it was ’34, I was about sixteen, under sixteen I was at the time. I’d just started work, I know that. Well I started work at thirteen, so it would be about fifteen, when I was about fifteen they broke up the home. And
they were all worried, concerned about me being the youngest one. And I said “Look, don’t worry about me.” I’d started work by that time, at the Australian Paper Mill, and a chap that I knew down there, I was telling him that we were breaking up, and he said “Would you like to come and live with us?” The chap and his wife and the young son that they had. So I went and lived with them. And they were absolutely marvellous to me.
Oh, well that worked
out very well for you then. Well, what had happened to your mother then?
Well, Mum died in 1938, when I was sixteen. She’d been sick for a while. I think it was just the strain of everything she’d gone through over the years. My father was, apparently, a pretty difficult man to live with. I haven’t got much recollection of him. Not much at all, but apparently he was pretty difficult.
So that’s how we sort of scrapped through there.
Were you happy to leave school?
Yes, I couldn’t wait to leave school. I enjoyed school, but I had to exist, so I had to get work. But I used to do a paper round before that. I started when I was about eight doing a paper round in the morning. Walked it,
delivering the Sun and the other paper they used to have at that time. The Argus I think it was. That was good, because I got money. Thruppence a dozen, for every dozen that I got rid of. Then a little bit later on, I got the chance to do an evening round as well, but I got the best stand in Fairfield, at the
Grandview Hotel. I used to do my morning paper round, and then do the night stand from, say, four o’ clock to six, down at the pub. And of course everyone gets to know you down at the pub, and they used to look after me pretty well. I got to know the cook, and the cook always had an extra bun or a sandwich or something or another for me. So that was all very good.
Was it very hard for you to get your first job,
because it would have still been during the Depression?
Yes, well the paper mill was the first choice for anyone out there to try and get in, because it was a secure sort of job. But you had to get on the waiting list to get in there. Everybody wanted to get a job at the paper mill. Well, I put my name down before I left school, but there was nothing happening at the time, so I had to get another job. So I chased around locally, and I finished up, I got a job at Clifton Hill, in a
furniture manufacturers factory. And I worked there for about six or eight months before I got a call from the paper mill, for an interview, and to cut a long story short I got the job at the paper mill.
Just going back to the furniture factory for a minute. What sort of work did you do there?
Mainly I was doing the sanding. They had a big sand belt, and as the timber was cut
I used to sand it all. And there was stuff going everywhere, from the sander.
Can you remember what sort of hours you used to work?
Yes, I used to work forty-eight hours, and I started at seven and six a week.
So what was your employer like?
He was good. He was a good fellow. The Supreme Furnishing Company, it was. They went out of
business a long while ago now, but I always remember that. And when I went to the paper mill I went onto ten shillings a week. And that made a difference. And a bit later on, I got the opportunity to go on to shift work, and I went on to seventeen and six a week. And I got my brother a job there. One of my brothers who was out of work, I got him a job there. That was good. We worked on alternate shifts, and
I’d be on night shift, and he’d be on day shift. So I’d knock off at seven o’ clock in the morning, and he’d start at seven o’ clock in the morning. And in the winter months I used to go home, and instead of getting into my bed, I’d get into his bed, because it was still warm.
Well what sort of work did you do at the paper mill?
I was a tester. If I had stayed, if the war hadn’t broken out, I would have finished up, if I’d passed the exams, I would have ended up an industrial chemist, but I was in
paper testing. That was what they started me on there.
Could you explain what you did?
Well, all different pulps and waste paper and everything that came in from all over the place, that used to go into a beater machine, and it used to beat it into a pulp with water and dyes and acids and all sorts of things added to it. And then it used to go through on a conveyor belt,
over heated rollers. And it used to go up and down, then finally the finished product came out. And it had to be a certain texture. It had to have a certain amount of moisture in it, otherwise it was no good. And that’s what I used to do. I used to test the pulp before it went through the machine, and then when the finished product came out. I was testing that every hour to make sure that the moisture content and everything was correct. And if it wasn’t,
well you had to go back to the beater room and they used to have to adjust it. It was all interesting.
And when you did the shift work, how long were your shifts?
Well the night shift, the normal night shift used to go from eleven o’ clock at night till seven in the morning. And then the other one from seven until two o’ clock, and then two o’ clock till eleven.
And obviously the paper mills was a
good—was it a good place to work?
Tremendous place. Yeah, they had lots of entertainment. Functions and things like that. I was very pleased, and I’ve still got it in there, they used to have their picnic, and in 1938—I say again, I was sixteen—I won the two hundred and twenty yards sprint, and I got a
cup for it. Which I’ve still got in there.
I was wondering what other sort of social activities you got up to.
Very little, really. Very little. The pictures used to be the go in those days, all black and white pictures. And now and then they used to have a picnic. We used to go in the old furniture vans, and they had seats down both
sides and we’d go to Healesville or somewhere like that, and that was a day’s outing.
Well, what about dances?
I just started to learn dancing when I went into the army. And then I never followed it on. I think I’ve got two left feet. I’m not a dancer. And when I came out, the urge had gone then. I got married before I came out of the army. So,
it just never happened.
I was wondering, during the 1930s, were you aware of what was happening in Europe?
Oh yes, because at the theatre they used to always have the Cinescope on, of world news, and I was very interested in that. And of course what you read in the paper, and you wondered what was going to happen.
And did you know anything about Japan?
Japan? Nothing. Nothing.
Well, where were you when the announcement of war came?
Well, prior to that, while I was at the paper mills, when I was sixteen, one of the other chaps I used to work with there, he said to me one day “By the way
Norm, I won’t be here next month.” I said “Why? Are you going on a holiday or something?” He said “No, I’m in the army, I’m in the militia.” He said “We’re going into camp for a fortnight. We go in a couple of times a year for a fortnight.” I said “Oh gee, that’d be good.” I said “Can I go into that?” He said “Oh yes, you could
go into it all right, but you’d go in as a cadet.” I said “Well, what are you?” He said “Well, I’m a militiaman.” I said “What’s the difference between a cadet and a militiaman?” And he said “Well a militiaman gets paid, and the cadets don’t get paid.” And he said “You’ve got to be eighteen to be militiaman.” And I turned eighteen in about two minutes, and I said “I’ve just turned eighteen.” So he
took me down to the drill hall about a week later, and I joined the militia, with age up two years. And that was in 1938. I became a member of 57/ 60th Battalion, which was stationed at Preston and Westgarth, and I was at the Westgarth drill hall.
Well what rank did you join as?
Well could you tell us a little about the training that you did?
Well, once a week, we had to report down for training. And they taught you how to form fours, and how to conduct yourself. And march you up and down the hall. Then they started introducing weapon training, and they showed you the machine-guns that they had at the time, and we learned how to pull them apart and
put them back together again. And twice a year you used to go into camp. So, that was in about the February, so April we went into camp, my first camp, which was down at Mount Martha, down near Mornington, and that was my first army camp. And that was an absolute
In what ways?
Well, it was just so big. There were just so many people. Horses, which I’d never had anything to do with in my life before. You’re in a hut down there with about six or eight other fellows. And it was good. Fellows that I’d never met before in my life. They were all older than me,
but I fitted in all right, because I was always a big boy. My mate Snowy, he never let on that I was only sixteen, so I got through all right. And it was marvellous, I enjoyed every minute of it.
Well what did you actually do at the camp?
Well, they—we went on route marches, and again out there we used to have what they called ”bull team training”, and in that they used to go off in different
groups to various areas and you’d do different things. You might do rifle training one day, and something else the next day, and gas mask training. All different things every day.
What about the horses?
Well, every officer had a horse in those days. Every officer. So the horses had to be fed and groomed, and it was all exciting.
Well just back to your job at the paper mill for a minute. Was there a union there?
Were you a member?
Yes. That was part of the deal, you had to be a member in those days at the mill.
Were you happy to be a member of the union?
Well, it didn’t worry me. I paid my money, I wasn’t an agitator, or anything like that. I just went
along with the stream.
And was it a strong union? Do you know the name of the union?
No, I can’t remember that now.
And you can’t remember whether it had a reputation for being a strong union? I mean, were you happy with your working conditions?
Oh yes, they had a couple of like union representatives that used to go to the management, I know that, if there was something they were unhappy about, and
discuss it with the management. But there was never any trouble. There was never a strike at the paper mill. Never. Not in my time, anyhow. It was a good job and people wanted work, so they were quite happy go along. And it was a good place to work. Excellent.
Well, when you joined the militia in 1938, was it just out of interest, or were there any concerns that anything was going to happen?
No, not really. It was just out of interest. I had no parents and I thought it would be something, I would belong to something where before I never belong to anything much, other than my running. I thought well, it’s an adventure. And I’d heard of army life previously and I thought this might be good. And it was.
How had you heard of army life? Who had told you about army
Well, I’d seen fellows go into training, in their uniforms, and I thought ‘Gee, that’d be good.’ And I loved band music, brass band, I could have sat all day and listened to—but it was all good. All very good.
Well, you did have uniforms, did you, when you first joined the militia?
Were you immediately issued with uniforms?
Issued with a uniform. I’ve just been writing a story, too, at the moment. When we used to go down to training, we only put what they used to call a drill suit on, which was for drilling purposes only, not your proper uniform. And when I went into the first camp, I had to turn up at the station in full uniform. Absolute full uniform. Dress uniform.
And of course, I hadn’t sort of taken in what I should have done. So I got dressed at home, and I put my putties on, then I put my trousers on over the putties. When I got down to the station, there was three or four other fellows there, in uniform, that I’d never met before, plus a tough old sergeant there. And he came up to me and he said “You new in the army son?” And I said “Yes, sir.” He
said “I thought so. You put your trousers on first, then you put your putties on.” Because otherwise, they had to keep the water out of your boots. But the way I had it, I had putties on my legs, and then put the pants over, so any water would have run straight into my boots. So he said “Get on the train and fix it.” So, you know, you learnt straight off.
So you obviously hadn’t been told how to do that,
No, I thought I was pretty smart walking down the street.
Well, you must have been. I’m working out the dates here, you must have been in the militia, then, over a year, before war was announced. Is that right?
That’s right. I went in, in ’38.
Well, can you remember where you were, when the announcement of war came?
Yes, I was
home. I heard it on the—I was home when the announcement came over the air. And the same night I got a telegram, delivered at the door, and I had to report to the drill hall on the Monday. That was on the Sunday
war was declared, and I got a telegram that night to report to the drill hall, with all my gear, which I did. Down to Westgarth, and we got sent out to what was an overseas radio receiving mast, out at Mont Park. And there was about a dozen of us went out there. And we were on guard duty, we were issued with live
ammunition. They were receiving messages from overseas, and we had to make that sure nobody interfered with the mast, in any way at all. They had a hut down below the mast, where the fellows were working, receiving messages, and we put up a couple of tents near it, and we had a twenty-four hour patrol on the mast.
Well does this mean that
you were now in the militia full-time?
No, not then, no. We were out there for a fortnight. And a couple of noted gentlemen that were in the same guard as me out there, and one was Harris, who was the president of the Carlton football club, and another one was Jeff Donaldson, who finished up the managing
director of Woodside Petroleum. And he’s still alive and I still see him. He’s ninety now, but we were there for a fortnight.
Well what did you do about work? Did you have to get leave?
We got leave, they gave us leave automatically from work. And at the end of the fortnight I went back to work, and a couple of months later we were called into camp again, and went up to
Nagambie, and we did three weeks camp there. Then I was back to work for a while, then we got called into camp again. This all happened in a short space of time, and that was when I decided I’d go join the AIF [Australian Imperial Force]. So I joined the AIF on the 10th of June, 1940.
That was two lots
of camps then that you went into. What sort of work were you doing in those camps? It was just a continuation of your training?
Continuation of training, and they took us over to Seymour. And at Seymour there they had an area there, it was supposed to be replica of the trenches from France from the First [World] War. And they used to pour water down the trenches, and we used to have to go in there
and it was, sort of, reinacting what they did in the trenches in France. And as it turned out it was absolutely useless. Other than that it gave us a bit of an idea, possibly, of what the fellows went through in France. The conditions they lived under. But as far as actual use, it was absolutely useless.
And what did you think of your instructors?
All right. At that time they had the first call-up. And the first call-up, the national service, soon after the war broke out, were all the twenty-one year olds, and we were up at Nagambie at the time, and one day there I got picked out and they said “Come with us.” And they took us down the paddock and the sergeant in charge
said “I want you to go down the end of the paddock there, about a hundred yards”, and he said “I’ll yell out orders to you and I want you to repeat the orders so that I can hear them.” And anyhow, I didn’t know what was going on. So, I did that, and he said “Right, you’re going to be one of the drill instructors for the chaps that are coming into the army.” And there I was,
eighteen, and I was telling all theses fellows of twenty-one how to march, and how to form up in fours and how to drill. But they didn’t know I was eighteen.
And what was your rank then?
Still private. That’s what I’ve been crook on all these—like they used me. But I didn’t mind.
Well, had any of your friends joined the militia with you?
No, not the militia. No,
I joined just with this one fellow that I worked with. I didn’t know anyone when I went down there, other than this Snowy.
Can you remember what the feeling was among people at work? Among family or friends, when war was announced?
I think everybody was concerned as to what was going happen. But I think a lot them thought that we were just so
far away from it, it’s not going to affect us very much. I think this seemed to be the general feeling. When I joined the AIF—two reasons, I loved the army life and I thought ‘What an adventure. I’ll get the opportunity to go overseas’, and I just loved army life.
Well, did you think about who you’d be fighting for? Did you think of yourself as a British subject, an Australian,
I thought of myself as a British subject, yeah. We declared war and I felt it was up to the Australians to support it. While having had the training, I thought this is what I was meant to do. I thought I could look after myself. You don’t worry about that you might get killed. When you’re
eighteen, that never enters your head. You just think you’re invincible.
Now, I’m wondering about your age here. You enlisted in the AIF, you had to get somebody’s permission didn’t you?
No, my Mum and Dad were dead, so I got my sister to sign it. I wasn’t twenty-one, I was eighteen. But according to the army records I was twenty. If you see on that thing of my service up there, that I’ve got
on my paper, it shows that I was born in 1920. In actual fact I was born in ’22. But it wasn’t for gain and money.
Well that’s something that young men have always done, isn’t it? I can remember reading about sixteen-year-olds enlisting in the First World War.
You see my family had all split up, so I was with these other people and they were thinking about shifting down to.
Morwell. Because he got another job offer at the Australia paper mills, a promotion, down at the Morwell plant, Maryvale. And I didn’t want to go down to Maryvale, and I was quite happy, I thought ‘This is a solution.’ And at that time, as I said, I was getting seventeen and six, I went into the army and I got thirty-five shillings a week, five bob a day, plus my keep and plus my clothes.
Well, that was a bad deal was it?
No, not for me. Well, I doubled my income and I got looked after.
Well, can you just explain what you had to do to enlist in the AIF?
They had recruiting offices everywhere, so I just went down to this recruiting office. I told them down at the 57/ 60,
because there were others leaving to join the AIF, older ones, I said “I’m joining the AIF.” They said “Well, as soon as you sign your papers, bring all your stuff back to the drill hall.” And that was it. So I left all the mates that I had. But another fellow at the paper mill, when he heard I was joining the AIF, he joined up with me. A chap by the name of Max Parker. He was a paper tester, too.
So, we left and after we—
And what was the attitude of your employer when you said you joined?
Very good. They were the top employers, they really were. They helped in every way that they could.
So the paper industry wasn’t classified as a protected one at that stage?
It was later. Because I got my brother a job there
and he never went into the army at all. He stayed there in the protected industry.
Well, here you are, you’re an eighteen-year-old, and you joined the AIF.
We went into Caulfield racecourse, that’s where they took us first up. And we slept in the horse stalls there for two or three nights, then they said, the next morning—before that, that was all an eye
opener, too. They said “You’ve got to have a medical exam.” And it was in June, and we went up in the old guinea stand that was there, and the group I went up, there was about a hundred fellows, and Max was the only fellow I knew, and this was in the early afternoon, and they just said “Strip off.” So, that’s quite a shock to the
system. All of a sudden, you’ve got a hundred fellows around you that you’ve never met in your life before, and they’re all starkers. And the doctor came along and examined each one as he went along the thing. “You’re right, you’re right.” Then you went on, they took a bit of medical history, then they started issuing you with gear then.
What did they check? What did the medical examination consist of?
Well, the first thing they do, as you’ve most likely heard, they hold you by the whatnots, and ask you to cough to see whether you’ve got a hernia or anything else. It’s quite interesting, but it’s quite a shock to the system. Some fellows there that had been sort of molly-coddled all their lives, to all of a sudden have this thrust on them—and they listened to your chest and
just general fitness.
Well, how did you feel about it?
It didn’t worry me.
Interviewee: Norman Furness Archive ID 0464 Tape 02
We were just talking about the medical examination, so I was wondering what was your next step, in terms of being taken into the AIF?
Well, as I said, after that we were issued with our uniform, and then we went round and they gave us—to me it was a hessian bag, and they took us along, palios it turned out,
and they filled with straw, and of course I’d used them before, and I knew you don’t stuff it too full because if you do you can’t sleep on it, you just roll off. So you just put in enough to make it so it’s nice. And then we went down to the horse stalls, and we were there for a couple of days.
Why did they put you in the horse stalls?
Well, there was nowhere else to put us, and you were about six to a stall.
It was, of course it was winter, June, so it was pretty cool and windy. And amongst the clothes that they issue you were the long johns, which I’ve never worn in my life, and still never have and never will.
You said that with great vehemence, why won’t you?
I just don’t like them. I put them on once and I thought I just couldn’t possibly wear those. And the longer singlet. Possibly if I went over to where there was a colder climate, I might have changed my mind, but I didn’t. I went to the tropics, so it worked out all right.
Well, after being in the horse stalls, where did you go?
We had to be all ready,
they told us to be all ready the next morning, we were shifting. This is after a couple of days. They lined us all up and they marched us across to the Caulfield Station, and there was a group of carriages there, and we were tossing up where we were going to go, because there was no engine on the carriages, so they put us all in, and then there were engines choofing around here and there, and all of a sudden
it hooked onto one end of the train and away we went down to Balcombe army camp. And that was the First Infantry Training Battalion, which were to be basically reinforcements for the 6th Div [Division] that had already gone over to the Middle East. So, that’s where I wanted to be in. I thought ‘Boy, I’m on my way to the Middle
East.’ And we used to come out of a morning down there, and we’d all line up and the sergeant used to come along and he’d go “Righto, those left turn, those right turn.” And away you’d go, to the bull rings again, learning drill and all sorts of things.
Was this a repetition of what you’d done in the militia?
Repetition, yes. So this particular morning, this mate Max Parker,
he was standing alongside of me, and it so happened that that was the divide, so he went left and I went right, and I said “I’ll see you at lunchtime, Max.” And we thought we were just going off to various groups, and we did, we went off to our group and did whatever we had to do, and I got back to the hut at lunchtime, and here’s Max, who’d been in the army a fortnight, a fortnight, all dressed up with all his gear. And I said,
“What the devil are you doing? Where are you going?” And he said “I’m off to the Middle East.” So I immediately went down to the orderly room, and said “Look, I want to get onto that list, I want to go, too.” I said “My mate’s going and I want to go with him.” And they said “You can’t. The lists are finalised and that’s it.” And I said “But I’ve done two years training in the militia.” And I said “That boy’s only been in the army a fortnight.” “Too bad.”
So away he went to the Middle East, and I never, ever saw him again.
Was he killed in the Middle East?
Not in the Middle East, no. He went with the reinforcement for the 2/7th Battalion, and did the Middle East campaign, went over to Greece. And he came back and I missed him, when he came back.
And we both tried to get in touch with each other apparently, but missed one another. And he went up to New Guinea with the 2/7th Battalion, and at that time they were trying to get up to Wau, and he was on the plane. They flew them into Wau airport, or airfield, and he was shot as he got out the plane.
How did you find this out?
Had you been communicating with one another?
After the war. I didn’t know what happened to him until after the war. So they finished up, they took the airport there, and they just threw Max’s body back on the plane and he went back to Moresby. But that’s just how it happened.
So one turns right and the other turns left.
Well, what happened to you then? You stayed on at Balcombe?
We were down at Balcombe, I suppose, for about three—
This is what people talk about, though. There’s a lot of luck there, isn’t there?
Sorry, what were you saying about Max?
Well, Max was a good mate and I felt what they did was so wrong, you know. Particularly as far as I was concerned. I knew how to strip a machine-gun, and I knew how to work one, and he hadn’t even got around to that. And yet he was shipped oft to the Middle East with a fortnight’s training. And not only Max. But there was a lot of
them. They were only boys, and I felt it was wrong.
Yes, it seems as if there was no logic to the selection process then.
No, just numbers. Just numbers. They said “Right, we want two hundred reinforcements, bang, we’ve got them.”
And tell me, why did you want to go to the Middle East?
Well, I thought that was the place to be. That was where the war
was and I wanted to be part of it.
Well, what had you heard about the war at this stage?
Only the bits and pieces that were coming through in the papers. They were around Bardia at the time, and that was about the first real campaign that they had. See they went over in the December, the first lot. They went over to the Middle East, and by this time it’s June. So, this was when they had the first push
up along the Mediterranean. And they weren’t having a lot of casualties. They were doing all right.
Well you didn’t go to the Middle East, so what did you keep doing?
So from Dalkum, we got woken there one morning, about four o’ clock in the morning with a voice that—I’d never heard a voice like it before in
my life. Didn’t know who it was. It was in the dark, but I could hear this massive voice bellowing out orders, and we had to get dressed and get all our gear together. Hadn’t been told about it. Get all our gear together, this took a few hours to do, and by about eight o’ clock—they gave us breakfast first.
When you say to get all your gear together, what gear
did you have at this point?
Well, you had your rifle and you had the clothing, your spare clothing. You had a pack, which was about that big, the sausage bag, which stood about that big, and that was your gear. But you had to have a shave and you had to be clean, ready to go. Then daylight came and I finally saw this fellow. His name was Bowring, and he came from Mildura.
He’d been in the militia for some years, he was a captain, and they called him “Bull,” for obvious reasons. Because he had a voice that sounded like a bull. He was the one that was to take us up. And we found out afterwards, that the new division was being formed, and we had been allocated to a battalion in the 8th Division, which was the 2/22nd Battalion.
So, that was the start of the movement. So we got on the train and away we choofed. We didn’t know where we were going at the time. Didn’t know where we were going. And of course they had to give clearance to other trains and we pulled into sidings. We pulled into a couple of places there where there was a bar. And apart from that, some of the very enterprising
ones got a lot of grog from somewhere, so it was a bit of a boozy train, but it finished up. We finally got to Trailwell, we didn’t know where we were, never heard of Trailwell, and we staggered out. I wasn’t too bad, because I was only a boy, I didn’t drink much. Some of them were pretty ripe. Of course there was no platform at Trailwell, they fell out of
the train. And the advance guard of the 22nd [Battalion] were already up there, and they’d put all the tents up, all ready for us. And I think the officers up there had wondered what they’d struck when all these blokes got off the train. But they immediately got them back into shape, and told them they were in the army.
Well, what had your reaction been to hearing
that you were, or being told that you were a part of this new division.
I thought ‘That’s good, we’re forming another division, we’ll be going over to the Middle East, too.’ That was the initial reaction. And everybody thought the same. ‘It won’t be long now before we’re on our way to the Middle East.’ But it wasn’t to be. So, we went up there in July to Trailwell, the end of July. And we stayed there until
October. And in October, we marched from there up to Bonegilla….It might have been September. It might have been September we marched up to Bonegilla. That was a new army camp, and we were the first troops into Bonegilla army camp.
But what had you done in those couple of months at Trailwell?
around the hills there. Ran up and down the hills. We were fit. They got us very fit, and at that time they just started to phase the horses out. They horses were going, and instead of the horses they had utes and things like that. But we did have the horses at Trawool for a start, but then they gradually got rid of those, and things became a
bit more modernised. But equipment wise, we weren’t very well off. Because most of the stuff we were getting was old stuff from the First World War, that had been stacked away in grease for twenty years. It was pretty ancient the stuff that we got. We marched up from Trawool to Bonegilla, which took us
about eight or nine days, we were on the road. And we marched every inch of the way up there.
Can you remember how many miles a day you’d average?
I’d say about thirty. About thirty to forty mile a day. And at each town we went to, the band who didn’t march, they’d used to go up in the trucks, they’d come out and
meet us, about a mile out of town, and then we’d form up into proper ranks then, because we were just two files on one side of the road, and one on the other. Then we’d form up as a battalion then, and we’d march into the town. And started to look like a regiment again, and that happened at every town. And the first night we stopped at, just out of
Seymour, thirty mile up from Seymour, and then from there we went up to Violetown, then up to Euroa, and then further on to the next town. And then from there we cut across, and we went around the back way, through Yackandandah, and came into Bonegilla that way.
The route march, to Bonegilla?
Well, that was interesting and it was good training. I never had any trouble. Some fellows had trouble with their feet, but I never ever, I was a like a duck. I adapted to army footwear without any problems at all. Having been in the militia before, so I never had any worries. But at various times, they used to send over a little Gypsy Moth, which I think was about our air force at the time, and
they used to supposedly give us a bit of a blast along the road, dive down over the road. We used to have to get off the Hume Highway, which in those days was a one lane, virtually, road, and into the scrub on the side, wherever we could get and then come out again and away we went. But we used to have a bit of fun, have a bit of a sing-song, all sorts of things to keep us going.
There was very little trouble or anything. A few fellows with bad feet had to pull out. There used to be a truck that used to follow us along, and they’d pick up any of the stragglers that couldn’t make it, until finally we marched into Bonegilla.
I was wondering, can you remember any of the songs you sang as you marched along?
Mainly parodies I think.
Can you sing any of them now?
No, I can’t remember them, but I know they were South of the Border was one, you know the parody that they used to sing. And then of course, when we got to there, it used to be south of the border because with Albury, and we’d become the Mexicans then. But it was all fun.
And I was wondering too, how did your feet stand up to the march?
Good, no problems at all. Of a night
they used to come round with the Condi’s crystals, put the Condi’s crystals in a bowl, and if you had any problems, well you sat there for a while with your feet in the Condi’s crystals. They were supposed to be marvellous. But I never had to worry. I never had any trouble with my feet. They’ve been very good to me and they walked me out of New Guinea, so I’m quite happy with them.
Yes, justifiably so I think. Well, when you marched into
Bonegilla, were you in your battalion formation then?
Yes, marched in there and took control of the camp. We were the first ones in there. And within the space of a couple of months, the 21st Battalion came in, and the 23rd Battalion, which was Albury’s own. They’d been at the showgrounds or somewhere. The thing was, with both of those battalions, they were formed after
we were formed, and if you look through the lists of the 23rd Battalion and the 24th Battalion, most of their VX [Victorian AIF recruit number] numbers are bigger than what mine was. And that’s why, it depended on what month you went through Caulfield. If you went through Caulfield or some other place. So I’d say most of the fellows in the 23rd Battalion, you’d find
would have enlisted about a month after I did, or as little as a month. Some were even longer. So we’d been in the army so much longer than them. And then later on, of course, the 40th Battalion, which had just been signed up over in Tasmania, they came across from Tassie and joined us at Bonegilla. And that was all interesting.
And after we’d been there a short time, they brought in their wet canteen. They’d never had a wet canteen in the army camps before, and it was passed that afternoon, and that night there was grog on in the camp. And they never had a bar. They just had a couple of trestle tables, and I don’t know where they got the grog from, but it was pretty potent.
And some of our fellows went up in the next hut to us, they just had the barrels there, and they decided that they’d have to have one of these barrels. So you can imagine at that time, there was something like four thousand troops in Bonegilla camp,
all battling to get a drink, and some of our enterprising fellows in our battalion got around, they brought an army blanket up, and in all the confusion and all the noise, and everything else, all of a sudden one of the barrels disappeared out of the stack and into the blanket and away it went. Then next morning, I woke up
and I could hear all this noise going on. I wondered what it was. So we went out, into the next hut, and they’d drained the barrels into the dispsies, the food dipsies, and there was cigarette butts floating in what was left of it. And blokes full everywhere, in this hut. And of course they all got put on charge. But it was quite a
night. That was the first—but you got four thousand fellows, and a lot of them drink, and they hadn’t had a—other than an odd drink here and there, and that night they put it on, and as I said, I don’t know where they got it from but it was pretty potent grog. So that was one of the things at the camp. And when the 40th Battalion came over, every night there they used to have a
battalion guard, a battalion guard. So righto, it was the 21st turn tonight, the 22nd turn, and they used to have a band and it was a big ceremony. And the changing of the guard. They used to take us round to all the various spots around the camp that used to have to be guarded. And I always remember the first night that the 40th Battalion was on guard, and they used to generally play, and
the band was always there. You always had your battalion band at the changing of the guard, one band, and our band was very good. I’ll you a little bit about that in a minute. But the 40th, this was their first battalion band, so they marched down the same as we did, and they all lined up. And then there’s an inspection of the guard. And the officers, they walked up and down inspecting the ranks, you know, as you see
on TV, and they generally play a nice subtle tune. So the 2/40th then, they start up and they’d never done a battalion guard before, and of all the things they had to play, they played a waltz, and if you’ve ever seen an officer, trying to walk up and down the army ranks, with them playing a waltz, they were sort of floating
half in air, and it was a riot that night. The 2/40th guard, I always remember that.
Yes, I think that must have been very hilarious…
But soon after that the 23rd and the 24th Battalions left us, and they went off to the Middle East, and were still stuck there.
Well, what did you think about that?
Well, we were very
disappointed. Everyone was disappointed. They thought ‘Well, we’ve been in the army’. At that time we’d been in for over six months, and here we were, we were getting nowhere. We were all just stuck there. So, we didn’t know what was going to happen really.
So what did they do to keep you busy? Were you still going through your training regime?
No, we went out on the tablelands, and we used to go out on bivouacs. Go out for three or four days at a time, and virtually live in the
country. Yeah, no tents, nothing. You go up the Kiewa Valley, and it was the first time I’d really ever slept in a hole with a man. You dug yourself a bit of a hole to get yourself out of the wind, because it’s pretty cold up in the Kiewa Valley, and you just dig a hole and you and your mate climbed in there, and cuddled up and went to sleep. So that was a bit of an eye opener for some of them. I coped all right, I had a good mate,
and we got on all right.
Well, did you do any jungle training?
None at all. We were training mainly for desert warfare up there. You know, quick movements, things like that. Jungle training. None. None whatsoever.
Well, at what point did you get the news that you were on the move? That you were
That would have been—well, we got our final leave, in March, early March. We marched through Melbourne, they brought us down. We marched through Melbourne in February, that was the whole brigade they brought down.
You’d had Christmas up in—
Did you get any leave for Christmas?
Yes, we used to get leave about every month. We used to come down
for about three or four days, come down on the troop train.
Well, who would you stay with when you come down to Melbourne?
The people that I’d lived with, they’d gone. And my brother got married, in 1939, and had his wedding. I met a young girl and I got very friendly with her, and I finished up years later marrying her. I’ve been married twice, see.
And what was her name?
Belle Wright. She was an only daughter, and her father, he was in the First World War. He’d never had a son, and he was just so pleased to have someone to talk to. He’d had bad trench feet from the First World War, and
got nothing. In those days the repat [repatriation] was virtually non-existent. And anyhow, I went and stayed out there. So I went, I left Northover’s, I packed up everything. And I had a suitcase, average sized suitcase, and everything I had went into the suitcase, and I left it at her place. At her mum and dad’s. So when I came down on leave, that’s where I used to go.
must have been very enjoyable then.
Oh it was.
So how did you spend that Christmas then?
Did you spend that Christmas with them?
Yes, I came down and had Christmas with them. My brothers and my sisters, they came over, naturally, to see me. And I went and saw a couple of the old aunties. And we went out, went and saw a couple of pictures, and that was it.
So that would have been Christmas, 1940?
Yes, Christmas, ’40. Then we went back to camp after that. Then we came to the march in February, they brought us all down, on the banks of the Yarra [River]. I’ve got photos in there of the fellows having a wash in the Yarra before the march, and having a shave,
and whatnot. Then we marched from the gardens there, over the river, straight up Swanston Street.
Can you remember how big the crowds were?
Very big, very big. And the boys looked tremendous. Because we were pretty tanned, and all in shorts. We marched in shorts and shirt. And they looked good.
Yes, I was just wondering at this stage, because as you mentioned there wasn’t a lot happening in the desert, was there at this stage? I’m just wondering how people in Melbourne were thinking about the war, or whether they were taking it too seriously at this stage?
Because then, Japan—there was nothing to say that Japan was coming into the war then. The war
was all just so far away. We thought we’d be going there, too. The 6th and 7th Divisions were over there, and then when they broke it from four battalions to a brigade to three, that’s when they formed the 9th Division, because they had battalions left over from all over the place. So that made up the three divisions,
6, 7 and 9. So we thought, we’re the 8th Division, we’ve got to go, but it wasn’t to be.
So at this point you still think you’re going to the Middle East?
Yes. And then we finally got our final leave.
And what did you do on that final leave?
Well, they said we could get away if we could get a lift down. So I came down with three or four others, and we ended up on top of a cattle track, up on
top of it, because there wasn’t room in the cabin. And the fellow said “If you’d like to get up on top and hang on, I’ll get you to Melbourne.” And we came all the way from Bonegilla down to Melbourne. And I got down to Melbourne about eight o’ clock in the morning. We’d travelled all night up on top of it. Frozen stiff. So there we are.
And what did you actually do on your leave?
Well, again, they all knew it was my final leave. So the family, my aunts, they invited them all out to our place, and we only had about four days final leave, and that soon goes. And then we went back into town, they came in with us. There were troops everywhere. All going back. Because the whole brigade was down on leave, so the trains were
packed. Then we went back to Bonegilla. Then a week later, or a fortnight after that, we were finally told we were going away. But they still didn’t tell us where we were going. We never had a clue where we were going.
Did that ever bother you? That you didn’t know where you were going?
I think it was more the excitement that finally, at last, we were moving. After all those
months. See, that was nine months. Like a pregnancy, it was nine months we were sitting around waiting for something to happen, and it just hadn’t happened. We were all just so pleased to think that at last something was happening.
During that time, did any of the soldiers express their frustration in other ways? I mean did any of them go AWL [Absent Without Leave]?
Some, some did.
Yeah, some said “This is not the life for us.” Got out, disappeared. I don’t know what happened to them. They would have got picked up eventually, and most likely in other units. And also at Bonegilla, around about December, they had a pretty strict medical run through of the whole battalion. And we had a tremendous old doctor, that was
our doctor. A chap by the name of Ackroyd. Doctor John Ackroyd. And he was a rough old bugger, but a very good doctor. Big, how he ever passed to get into the army I don’t know, because he was overweight. But he was in there, and he turfed out, I would say at a rough guess, about fifty,
at Bonegilla. With flat feet and things like that, and other medical conditions. And I think he was in the know as to where we were going—into the tropics, and he knew these blokes wouldn’t be able to cope. So he turfed out about fifty, at Bonegilla, and then they brought another fifty in there.
I suppose you could say it was like reinforcements, but it wasn’t. We hadn’t been anywhere to get hit, knocked around, anything like that. And they filed the battalion up again, and that was it. And at the same time then, some of the other units that were up at Bonegilla, other small units, like medical corps, anti-tanks, aircraft,
anti-aircraft, some of these units were disappearing, then the word got around then that they were going to Malaya, so again things fell into place, so we thought ‘Well, that’s where we’re going, to Malaya.’ And the Japs still weren’t in the war at that stage.
So they went over to Malaya…
And had there been any reports in the news about Japan?
No, no. The only things you saw about Japan was that they were fighting in China, and some of the atrocities that happened in some of the cities in China, that they’d been through. So finally they decided that, righto, we were ready to move.
All the trucks, they loaded all the trucks up and the trucks left. And then there was only the fellows left. And we got, then, taken by other trucks to the station in Albury and put on the train there, and away we choofed.
In which direction this time?
Oh, we were heading up to Sydney, we knew that. We knew we were off to Sydney, but again, still thinking we were going to Malaya.
The train there pulled up, right on the wharf at Sydney, and there was the first ship I’d ever seen in my life, other than going down the bay, and they marched us straight off the train and straight onto the ship.
And what were your first impressions of this ship?
I thought it was like the [HMS] Queen Mary, but I was in for a shock.
Pyrmont was where—they’ve given the name Pyrmont away, I forget what they call it now. But it’s the main port over there in Sydney, under the Bridge and around. So anyhow, we all got on the ship, and we sailed down under the bridge and I thought we were going to hit the bridge, but we missed it by about a hundred feet I think. But the ship looked so big to me, until we sailed out into the outer harbour,
and there was the Queen Mary parked there, and we went past it, and it was just like a lifeboat, ours was.
Well, what was the name of your ship?
The [HMAS] Katoomba, which had been a ship that they had used around the bay and around Australia on cruises and things like that. And it was a lovely old ship.
And it was the first ship through the Dardanelles, after the First War, so, it certainly wasn’t new. It had been well used. But they still had most of the crew on board, and the dining facilities and things like that. So, it was the first time it had been used as a troop ship.
Well what were your living quarters like on board
Cabins, we were in cabins.
How many of you to a cabin?
So that was fairly civilised?
Oh yeah. And we went down, and they waited on the tables, and it was very good.
And what was the food like?
Good. No problems with the food.
Well I haven’t asked you about the army food to this point, either, what was that like?
The army food was basic, but good. Basic,
but good. I never had any troubles with food, none at all. Not down here anyhow. So, then we cruised up to Brisbane.
Well, how did you pass your time on the ship?
Physical education, and lectures on how we had to conduct ourselves when we got to our destination, which we still didn’t know. Nobody
knew. Well, they knew, but we didn’t know where we were going.
Well when you say how to conduct yourselves, were they the routine VD [venereal disease] class and—?
Yeah, yeah. And you don’t mix with women and you don’t do this and you don’t do that. You go by the rules of the land where you go. But it all just sort of followed the normal pattern,
So you said you pulled in at Brisbane?
We pulled in at Brisbane. And then we got leave in Brisbane, for about—we had to be back on board by eleven o’ clock I think it was, so we got off about four o’ clock and we had to be back on the boat at eleven o’ clock. In the meantime, they had loaded some more troops onto the boats. They were a Queensland group.
A smaller group, but they were Queensland boys. And from there we went out and we pulled into Thursday Island, at night. You could only see it in the distance. And they unloaded a couple of dozen of these troops on to Thursday Island, the Queensland ones.
And so you didn’t know why so few had been dropped there?
No, not at all.
And then we went on to Moresby, from there. And that’s the first time we started to realise that we were going to be in New Guinea. And we thought we were going to get off at Moresby. But we pulled into Moresby and all we did there was the balance of the troops from Queensland, they got off there. And we had to help unload the stores off the boat, and then we were off. And then we got told,
after we left Moresby, which was to Rabaul.
Interviewee: Norman Furness Archive ID 0464 Tape 03
So Norm, coming out of Moresby, you’re finally told where you’re going. What was your reaction?
We were excited just to be going I think, at least we’re going somewhere. We didn’t know what we were going to do, or what the reason was, or anything else at that time. None at all.
Had you heard of Rabaul?
No, never heard of it.
Did they tell you where it was?
They told us it was part of New Guinea, but I didn’t know that it was on a separate island. I thought it was just part of New Guinea. But it turned out it was on the island of New Britain, which was an entirely separate island.
So when did you find that out?
On the ship going there. On the ship between Moresby and that, we realised we were going to a separate island. And that was when we got lectured about
how we had to conduct ourselves and we weren’t to fraternise with the native people, particularly the women. And that’s how it sort of opened up then. So we were excited to think at least we were going somewhere, but we weren’t to know we were going to be stuck on the island for another twelve months.
Did any of you ask why you were being sent to
They told us why. There were German raiders, ship raiders, operating in the Pacific and they had sunk quite a few ships in the Pacific, and they had dumped some of the survivors they had picked up out of the water on various island up there. So we were there to protect the airfields, in case there was any things—
not from the Japanese, but from the Germans, if they landed at any of those places and tried to take over airfields or anything. So we were to protect the airfields and I think mainly to show a bit of force. But I think at the back of their minds, they must have thought there could be some threat from the Japanese, and at least the Japanese would know the islands were protected in some way. That they couldn’t just walk in there.
So tell me about the first time you laid eyes on New Britain?
Well, we sailed into Blanche Bay, which is the main bay there. And I thought it was the most beautiful spot I’d ever seen in my life. It was absolutely beautiful. This massive great bay surrounded by greenery and the mountains. Surrounded by
mountains. And it’s hard to describe how nice it looked. Absolutely beautiful. You’d see pictures of these island places, and that was Rabaul.
So you felt like you were arriving in a tropical paradise?
Yeah, that’s exactly—we thought ‘This is going to be marvellous.’
But still a long way from the war. But we thought ‘Oh well, it’s only a stepping stone. They’ll have us hear for a while, then we’ll go on somewhere else.’ But it wasn’t to unfold like that at all.
And who was already there when you arrived? Who was living there?
Mainly public servants, planters, miners, timber workers. Because they used
to export a lot of timber from New Britain. And of course, Rabaul Harbour is probably one of the best harbours in the world, other than that it’s surrounded by volcanos. But the actual harbour itself is an old crater, volcanic crater. And the big ships there, you could pull in within three foot of the shore, and no worries at all. It just dropped right
away. It didn’t matter how big the ship was, they didn’t have to build a wharf out to it, They just built the wharf on the land and the ship could pull in right alongside. And it was a beautiful harbour and a beautiful town, Rabaul.
Who was in charge of Rabaul at that time?
Well, it was a mandated territory. So the governor was there, the governor of New Guinea. That was the capital of New
Guinea, Rabaul. And the governor’s residence was there. Autumn Nicholl was the governor. He had one eye, old digger, old sailor or something, walked with a stick. He was in charge. He was the governor of New Guinea at that time.
Were there any other troops stationed there when you arrived?
No, we were the first troops.
And they had never seen anything like it before. We got lined up on the wharf there with our band, then we fixed bayonets, and we marched right through the centre of Rabaul.
And how did the townspeople receive you?
They were wonderful people—but I’ll tell you some of the things that happened later on—but they were very pleased to see us, I think. But then it altered their whole outlook on life, at a later date, because you’ve got to imagine, here’s a little jewel in the ocean, where they lived the good life.
They all had two or three servants each, every white family there. They did no work, basically. All the physical work was done by natives. They ran the offices and things like that. But no physical work there. The women did no physical work. They all had a couple of Marys [Papua New Guinean women] that did the cooking, did the housework, so it was a pretty good life.
And when they knocked off in the afternoon, early in the afternoon. They either went home to the homes, or down to the New Guinea, which was the gathering place of all the top public servants in New Britain. Or around Rabaul. All of a sudden, their life started to change, from the time we got there. But they were very good to
us. Very good indeed. And they’ve still got a great people of Rabaul. They’ve still got a lot of respect for our crowd. Not that there’s many of us left.
Well how did their lives change when you arrived?
Well, when we first went there, we were welcomed there. But then we started having to
do some of the things you’ve got to do when you take over control of a place, with the military. So you’ve got two controls. You’ve got a military control and you’ve got a civilian control. And they’re so vastly different. And our first job when we got there, was they decided they were going to put two six in naval guns at the entrance to the bay. At a place called Craig Point.
Which over—in the event of any ships coming in, they could have sunk them. This was the idea. This was the theory, but to put two six-inch guns on the side of a cliff there, was a pretty massive job. So for the first three months we were up there, we worked as labourers. And we had to build all the concrete foundations. They used to come over to the camp, and we
marched down to the wharf, and hop on these little cutters, and they used to take us about twenty minute journey across to the point, Craig Point, where they were going to put the guns. And we used to work in shifts there, mixing the concrete and making all these foundations for the fort. And some of the public servants came out the first time, and you can imagine, chaps like
myself, were stripped to the waist mixing cement and that. And one of the public servants came out and said “Good God, what are you doing there?” And I said “Well, you can see what we’re doing.” And he said “But you can’t work like that, put your shirts back on. You can’t work like that. You’ll ruin the image of the white man. No white man up here strips to the waist to work.” That was a bit of
a shock to the system, so you can imagine some of the answers he got told that day. So that put a bit of an edge on. That continued. Not in the evenings, once they finished work they were different altogether, but during work, there was a clash of the two personalities, in as much as they’d been used to doing things one way
all the time, and the army had a different way. And to get anything, we had to get it through the public servants, and the public servants found out then, that the commander of the force up there, he couldn’t just give them a cheque. If he wanted something, he couldn’t give them a cheque. It had to go through Moresby, and then it had to come down to Canberra, and the come back to them. So if they supplied any goods to us at all, they might get
paid for them three months later. And this was not the way they worked. Previously if they supplied anything to the planters, or the timber workers, they were paid on the spot. But here you are, you’ve got the army putting in requests for all sorts of things, and haven’t got the ability to pay for them direct. They would get it, but they had to wait for it, and they weren’t very happy about that. But then on the other side of the coin,
they were asked for some ridiculous things, by the army. And it was unreal, some of the things. They had an idea, at one stage, they’d put pointed sticks all over the sides of the aerodrome, to prevent any Japanese, or any other force, parachuting in there. But when you have a look at the airport, you needed twelve million sticks or something,
all to be sharpened. It was a ridiculous request, that came from our top level command. It was impossible.
Well, your commander at that time was Lieutenant Colonel Carr, was the Light Horse commander when you first arrived. What
was he like as a commander?
Colonel Carr was a delightful old man. Well I felt he was an old man. I suppose he was about forty at the time, and I was eighteen, but he was a delightful old fellow. And I think he had all his troops’ welfare at heart, but I don’t know, he just wasn’t tough
enough I felt. He wasn’t tough enough. But he was a good soldier, but there was something missing.
So, in October then, he was replaced—
He wasn’t replaced. What they did, after the two shiploads—one lot went on the [HMAS] Katoomba, and the other lot came up on the [SS] Zealandia, later. So that was the whole force. Then from
about—that was in the end of March, ’41, and then we were doing the fort thing. And then they started to bring other auxiliary troops up. You had your anti-aircraft, anti-tank, medical, nursing sisters, and various other smaller units, started to arrive, just on smaller ships that went up there. And then they decided it had
become a force then, so it was named as Lark Force, and they sent a commander up then, who had control over everything. He was in charge. And he made all the final decisions as to what had to be done, and who was going to do it. And his name was JJ Scalan, and he was an ex-governor of the Hobart jail. And
he was pretty ruthless. I never had anything to do with him at all. I never spoke to him. He used to appear on very odd occasions at our parades. And he was always sort of aloof. Some of the officers had a lot to do with him, but I didn’t. I never ever spoke to him, but he had a reputation for being
pretty tough, and he was a good soldier from the First World War, and having had the experience over in the Hobart jail, he would have to know how to handle the men. So he became the force commander. With these other units that came up, they were the anti-aircraft group that arrived, they brought with them two three-inch guns,
three-inch anti-aircraft guns, but they were old. They had no predictors, no height finders, so it was a sort of hit and miss object, but I’ll tell you some more about that later. And the fort fellows, they knew what they had to when the fort was finished, they had to get the guns installed
and all the supplies and everything up to them. The anti-tank they arrived, and they had only two or three rounds per gun, so they couldn’t practise, they couldn’t do anything because that’s all they had, and so it went on.
Were you starting to wonder what you were doing there?
Well, as I said
they told us we were there to guard the airfields, and a show of strength, more than anything. That’s all it was. And we thought ‘Oh well, we’ll be here for a few months, then we’ll move on.’ But the months just went on and on. And a lot of the boys, including myself, started to get pretty frustrated, because it was a pretty mundane sort of life. If you can imagine a garrison, there’s not much to do in a
place like Rabaul. They had a theatre there which you could go to, and they had three levels of seating. The whites sat upstairs, and the coloured population and Chinese sat in the back stalls, and the natives sat in the front stalls. And that’s how it had been for years, and that’s how it was run. But there’s not much else to do
up there. We had very little training as far as firing guns or anything, because we didn’t have the ammunition. We used to go out and pretend you were firing, but they didn’t have the ammunition to have real practise. They gave us no jungle training, at all. Apparently, I found out afterwards, it was offered
by some of the patrol officers that were there, that knew the jungle, that knew what it could to do you, and they could have taught us what we could and what we couldn’t eat out in the jungle. And apparently, we found afterwards, there was lots of things that you could eat, but we didn’t know about it because no-one told us. So, they put us there and virtually left us there as a garrison
battalion, and that was it. So we finished up with a force of about fourteen hundred altogether, and out of that the 22nd Battalion was about nine hundred and thirty, approximately. Somewhere around that figure, approximately, nine hundred and thirty fellows. The band, they were welcomed by the local population, because they used to go out and play for dances for them.
So they were the most welcome lot in Rabaul. Because social-wise, they were just something that they never had there. And all of a sudden they got top musicians and our band that went up there, which joined us as we were going up from Trawool up to Bonegilla, they were all Salvation Army
fellows, and they enlisted as a group. Arthur Dulwich was the band master, and he got together a group of fellows who, they were all Salvation Army fellows and they joined as a band. Non-combatants that played the music and in warfare, they became stretcher-bearers. And so they were very good. And he was one of the top bandsman
in Australia. Brass band. They had a competition in about 1937. The Empire competition for band music, and Arthur Dulwich wrote a piece and submitted and he won it. I forget what he got, a few hundred pound in those days. But they were very good.
Now earlier you mentioned that
there were several different racial groups living on the island. Can you tell us a bit about the different groupings?
Well, the people that lived round Rabaul, the native people, were mainly Tolos. What they called Tolos, and they were a very calm, pleasant type of native people. They were very best of the New Guinea people without any doubt at all, the Tolo people. They were a very
gentle people, and very loving people. And then they used to have the Buka people, who came over from the Solomon Islands, and they were a different group altogether. They were bigger, blacker, and very rebellious, some of the Buka boys. But they used to come over, and of course, they had a
prison there, a native prison. And if there were any troubles in the prisons at all, it was always the boys from Buka. But the Tolo people were renowned in New Guinea as being a very mild and pleasant type of people, and we found them that way.
Well, how much did you have to do with the Tolo people?
Quite a lot. Quite a lot, they used to do all the chores around the camp. See, when we got there the camp had been built
for us. Huts, as a permanent residence. And they used to do all the work around the camp. They used to do your washing in buckets, of a morning. And they did all the chores. All the chores around the place.
Well, I bet that was a blessing for you?
Oh yeah. Honestly, it was a pretty easy life there, for the few months that we were
there. And it was a very pleasant place to live, and very clean. And the people in charge there made sure the streets were always clean. They had plenty of native people, the streets were spotless there. You never found any odd water laying around that would breed mosquitos. They used to spray regularly. And they had very little problems in Rabaul itself. Not like some of the other places.
Were these people who worked in the camp, were they paid then by the Australian Army?
They were paid, yes.
And was it men and women, both?
Men and women, yes.
Anyone you got to know particularly?
We knew whoever did our lines. I can’t remember the names now; it was just too long ago. But no, they were good.
And who were the other racial groupings in the town? You mentioned the Chinese?
The Chinese. They had Chinatown there. There was a big Chinatown there. They had stores, and we used to wander along there and buy things, and send them home. That was good in the Chinatown. You know what army gear’s
generally like. You get issued with it, and it’s usually too big or it doesn’t match the colours, you know, shirt and trousers, and of course we were in tropical gear the whole time there. We never wore the other uniform at all. But you could go into the Chinese store there, and for a few pound really, you could get a beautifully made, tailored shorts and shirts. For a couple of pound, made to measure. And
I think practically everyone in the 22/2nd Battalion had a pair of tailored shorts and shirt that were made in Chinatown.
You said you didn’t have that much to do. Well, what did you do to fill up your days?
As I said the first three months up there we worked as labourers, so that took us through from March, May, June,
July, and then after that they used to take us out to some of the plantation places. Now, this Robertson that I spoke about before, the crowd that he used to work for, Brooks Robertson in the city, one of the managers from there had a plantation house out from around the coast from Rabaul, and I got leave for a week, Robbie and I, and when he
came into Rabaul, we went on his boat and we went around to the plantation house and stayed there for a week. And of course they used to come into Rabaul to get all their supplies. They had all their own electricity, they had their own refrigeration. The cupboards were stocked. They lived well, the plantation owners, they lived very well. And we went out there, and when we got there, we were
diving over the side into the sea, and the natives came out and said “No swim! No swim! Get out!” “Why?” “Puk puk,” he’d say, “P-U-K, P-U-K, puk puk, puk puk.” And I didn’t know what the devil puk puk was, and then it came through they were crocodiles. And we’d been swimming around the ocean there, and apparently there were crocodiles everywhere in the ocean there.
We got out very smartly.
So you couldn’t swim for recreation, then?
No, you could swim. We went to another beach. There were other beaches around Rabaul, but this place where they were, were renowned for puk puks, because there was a river inlet and that. But around Rabaul, we used to go. And another time there, the officer I had at that
time, was a chap by the name of Gordon Grant, who was the intermediate diving champion of Victoria, before he went away. He’s still alive. And he was a good officer. He used to take us out to various places. Anyhow, he found out about this plantation, and the people that owned it, had gone away. Down to Australia, for a holiday. So we went out this day,
and a couple of trucks, we went down to the plantation and drove in, never went near the house, but they had a beautiful beach there so we all stripped off, and we were in the water there and having a swim around, and we’d been there for about an hour, and then next minute a car came down, and here was the planter and his wife. They’d returned unexpectedly, and they get out of the car, and here’s a
hundred nude men, swimming around the beach on their property, but we got around that all right. Gordon Grant talked his way out of that. We hadn’t touched anything, we hadn’t done any damage or anything, just a bit of a shock to the system for the planter’s wife, I think.
So did you spend any of that time exploring the island?
You didn’t go out on reccies [reconnaissance] and learn—
Not at all. We never went further than, at that stage, about five mile at the most, and I doubt it would be that, more like five kilometres, from Rabaul itself.
So it just doesn’t make much sense to me because you’re there ostensibly to protect the island, but surely you need to know—
To protect the Rabaul
approaches and the aerodromes. There were no other aerodromes that we knew about at that time on New Britain, they were only at Rabaul.
Well, did you have accurate maps of the island?
No, we didn’t.
Did you have a map?
No, I didn’t have a map at all. No. I’ve got maps that I’ve come in possession of, particularly in the last few months that’s got every track marked on it. Every track.
And we didn’t know any of them. The Japanese, when they finally landed there, they knew more about Rabaul than we did. They knew more about New Britain than we did.
Well, what did you know about New Britain outside of Rabaul?
Nothing. Nothing. We knew it was an island, and we knew it was about three hundred mile long, and about
forty mile across at the narrowest part. That’s about all I knew about it.
Did you witness any volcanic eruptions during your time there?
Yes, yes. About July, ’41. The main volcano there, which we used to know as Matupi,
M-A-T-U-P-I, that was smoking all the time, but about July it really went off. And with the trade winds blowing, it blew it right over the camp area, and there was this massive cloud of volcanic ash and dust, and they evacuated the camp. And all the troops were sent in various areas,
away from it, out to the aerodrome and different places. But unfortunately I was in the ack ack [anti-aircraft gun] platoon. Which was a light ack ack platoon, and we had to stay there. So for three months there, we stayed there and we were basically the only ones in the camp. All the others had been evacuated to various areas around Rabaul.
How was that? Being the only ones there?
Well, because we were the ack ack platoon, our job was to—if there was any attack, air attack, we were supposed to endeavour to shoot down the planes, with the guns we had, which were useless. Absolutely useless.
So moving on a bit, December 7 and December 8, Japan entered the war in earnest. Bombed Pearl Harbour, attacked Malaya, and started the invasion of Malaysia. So how did that news impact on the brigade in Rabaul?
We immediately thought that something would happen in that area. We thought
it wouldn’t be long. One thing I omitted to tell you before, was the day that the Katoomba pulled into Burns Philip wharf in Rabaul, at Carpenters wharf, the next wharf. And they were like, there’s Burns Philips, there’s Carpenters, there was a Japanese merchant ship there, and when we pulled in, the whole side of it was lined with fellows with cameras. And everything that we took off that ship, they photographed.
Because they weren’t in the war. But that’s what I say, they knew more about what we had and the place up there then we knew. And the Japanese ships were coming in there, up until November, ’41. And of course, they were trading. And they were taking timber and copper and stuff, out of Rabaul.
And you’d see them, they’d come down and they’d wander around the town. And similar to what they are today, they never went anywhere without a camera. So they knew everything about Rabaul.
So they must have known exactly how many of you there were?
Not a worry at all. And as it turned out they had collaborators there, which I’ll tell you about
later, that helped them. They became interpreters for them and everything else. And they were mainly half-caste people there.
So when did you first start thinking that you might start facing Japan as an enemy rather than Germany?
Well, as soon as they came into the war. Early December.
And things started to tighten up then. We thought something might happen then. But again, the first thing they did was we had to round up all the women and children. They decided in mid-December that all the women and children, the European women and children, had to be evacuated. So it was our job to around to some of these places and round up
all the women and children, and bring them into Rabaul. And they were put on a ship called the [MV] Macdhui and brought back to Australia. And the other job we had in early December, from day one after Japan entered the war, we went out and brought in all the Japanese, anyone of Japanese nationality, or mixed Japanese nationality, and they were all brought in and put in
the compound in Rabaul. And I was on guard there a couple of times, over these fellows. And there was a couple amongst them were ex-Japanese naval retired, Japanese naval men that had been living in Rabaul for some year. So they rounded all those up. The other, the Chinese, they made no attempt at all,
the Australian government, to bring any Chinese women or children out, they left them there. Which I thought at the time was entirely wrong. I think they should have made no discrimination. The same with the men that were left there. I though they could have made an effort, at that time, to have got the civilian men. Because they weren’t soldiers, and they were just left there.
So, if you can imagine, all these planters, planters wives and children, they were all of a sudden just taken out. And their men and sons were left behind.
It does seem very strange to split up families like that.
Well, we thought so.
Was that how it seemed to you
at the time?
I think they deserved better than what they got. And the Chinese, well the Chinese had been very loyal up there. And I thought if they were going to take the women and children off, they should have taken the Chinese women and children off as well. Because some of them suffered, pretty badly. Later.
Well, why do you think they didn’t take the Chinese women
I don’t know. It was an Australian government decision. The same as to leave them in. They had no intention of taking the men off. None at all.
But these are all Australian civilians, aren’t they?
Chinese, non-Chinese, they’re all Australian civilians, so—
I’ve never been able to—it was wrong. They must have known more than we did, and
if they knew as much as I think they did know, they should have taken the men off. Well, as a matter of fact they should have taken everybody off, including us. Because it was undefendable.
Interviewee: Norman Furness Archive ID 0464 Tape 04
So, what had you been told about the Japanese? What instructions had you been given?
We hadn’t been given any directions, really. Other than that they were on the move. It wasn’t until December, Christmas Day, was the first time there was any direct involvement
with the Japanese. It was just after lunch, and we were all in the camp, back there, the volcano had died down so most of the troops were back in camp on Christmas Day. A traditional thing in the army on Christmas Day, if you’re in the position, the officers wait on the men. So they gave us a bottle of beer each, and we had our lunch, and the
officers waited on our tables and that was very good. And about, I’d say roughly about two o’ clock, the air-raid siren went. And that was our first indication that something was going on. And as I said, I was on the Lewis gun, and the Lewis gun was on a stand
like that outside our hut, in a pit. We went out, as soon as the air-raid siren went it was our job to go out onto the gun. And our instructions were if anything came down low, to have a go at it. Well, an unidentified plane came over, flying at about thirty thousand feet, and it just cruised around Rabaul, just went
round, two or three times, over the camp, over the guns. And we had the two other guns up on top of the hill. They fired a couple of shots, but the plane was too high for it. So it was there for about ten minutes, then away it went. But that was the first time the air-raid sirens went, was on Christmas Day, ’41.
Now you were on anti-aircraft gun, what kind of instruction had you been given about aircraft recognition of Japanese aircraft?
Well, they had photos taken of so-called Japanese planes. They were mainly Kawasaki flying boats, or what they used to call Betsy bombers. Nothing about fight aircraft at all, and
we used to have to read these books, look at these books, and then try and identify what they were. And that was easy enough. But the Lewis guns that we were on—the Lewis guns were designed for open warfare, trench warfare. It was operated by one who fired, which was me, and
and you had another fellow, and you had to—not like in the pictures where you can hold it up at the hip and fire it, like the machine-guns they finished up using in New Guinea. This had about a four-inch barrel on it, and you couldn’t hold it up like that, you had to put it down. It had tripod legs in the front, and you laid behind it, and the other fellow who was helping you, he put the magazine on the top. And when that was fired, he flipped that off and put
another one on. And open fire, you could fire from here down to Oakleigh, on a straight line. Or around either way, as long as you had a field of fire. But they were never made for jungle warfare, because if you laid down in the jungle, you couldn’t see anything. And apart from that, they were never built for tropical conditions, and never meant to be used for that. Because they had a return spring on,
and with the atmosphere up in the tropics, the moment you put any pressure on it, the return spring snapped. So if you could adjust the firepower, fire quicker or slower, but if you tried to put it on anything over a certain range the return spring snapped. So they were absolutely useless. Useless. So we had one on a tripod, and I’ll tell you more about that, too, what we were
supposed to do with it. So then we got sent with our guns, and they decided they would put two of these, we had two of them, two Lewis guns we had to the platoon, and they put one down on Burns Philip wharf, and the other one down on Carpenters wharf. So I helped install them. So we went down and filled sandbags, and we made a pit, a circle
about six feet wide, and you were able to stand the tripod like that, with the gun sitting on the top. And the object was, if you were firing, you had it up to your shoulder and you fired at whatever came. That was that one. And then they decided to put the gun that I was on down on the other wharf, down at Carpenters. The only thing was, they decided they wouldn’t build anything there, so it was like putting it out in
the middle of the drive here. But there it was. And the orders were given by our lieutenant, that if the bombers came over, we were to head straight to the slip trench. Because you couldn’t possibly hit anything with a Lewis gun, because it only fired .303 ammunition. So we were to head straight for the slip trench,
and wait till they came over. So that was the order that I was given, to do. So we used to go down, and everyday of the morning go down, and take the gun we’d prop it up, it was no good at night, and prop it up on the stand. And this went on and then the air-raids started to become more frequent, and every time they came over, the bombers came
over, they bombed the aerodrome. They never touched the camp, never touched the town, they just went mainly for the fort and the aerodromes, that’s what they were after. So finally, diverging from that, about a week before, about a week or ten days before the Japanese landed,
they put into effect a plan, that was any time during the night, or any time, an alarm would sound and you would have to go to your designated place. And the group I was with, we were supposed to go to Raluana, a place called Raluana, which is about thirty miles, thirty ks [kilometres], from Rabaul around the bay. And this
used to happen, and it could go at any time, in the middle of the night, and you’d have to jump out of bed, put your gear on, grab your equipment, into the truck and away you’d go. And you’d get down there, and after you’d been there about an hour, they’d say “Righto, the exercise is over. Back to the hut.” And this is what we did. Some of the rifle companies, one was stationed permanently at each airport.
But this was the group that I was in. So this went on, and about four days before the Japs landed there, the alarm went early one morning, and we piled out. We had been used to this now, so you just grabbed the nearest thing you can get, in your clothes, get your boots on, into the car and away you go. And went round to Rayuana, this was about four days before, and we never ever went back to the camp.
But again, they didn’t tell us this, that we weren’t going back. We never saw the camp again, and I, like a lot of others, you had a comfortable pair of boots that you had for quite some time, and you got a newer pair, you grab the oldest ones and put on, “Oh well, I’ll be back in an hour.” Your old clothes. We took nothing with us. No shaving gear, took nothing. Just what you stood
up in. And the gun. And that was it. And that’s where we finished up, round at Raluana Beach.
Did you have anything personal in your belongings that you left behind?
Well, they told us to burn any letters or anything that we had. But if you can imagine, in a garrison camp like that, where you’ve been for twelve months, you do accumulate things.
You know, you had your bits and pieces. We had a bed each, home made, but it was still a bed. And you had a mosquito net around the bed, keep the mosquitos out. But when we went out, we took nothing, other than what we stood up in. And we never ever got back to the camp again.
So Norm, tell me, just
back-tracking a little bit, tell about the first time that the bombing raids happened.
Well, we could hear what was going on. They were over the airports. The first lot of bombs were dropped on the airport. They killed about half a dozen natives, the first time. They put a few potholes in the ’drome, and that was about it. The next time they came
over, they did the other ’drome, there were two aerodromes there. They did the same thing at the other ’drome, and dropped a few bombs around, but again, never came near the camp. And the camp was visible, because you can imagine a thousand men living in a camp, all in huts, and they were all lined up. They were easy to see, and they knew where we were. As proved afterwards when they landed.
That was it, mainly, they’d drop a few. Most of the first lot that came over, would have been anything from six to a dozen planes. Always high flying bombers, always. Until the big raid that happened there a couple of days before they landed.
What sort of anti-
aircraft equipment did you have?
Well, we had the two Lewis guns, and we had two three-inch guns, without any protectors or height finders. And a chap by the name of Selby, I’ve got his book there called Hell on a High Fever, he was in charge of it. They were all young New South Wales fellows, all about eighteen or nineteen.
And they set their guns up on top of the hill, right at the back of the camp. Right at the back, on the top of the hill, which was one of the extinct volcanoes. And when the raids were on, you could hear Selby bellowing out the orders. But what they used to do, they used to have the tracer elements, in some of them,
and all he could do was say “Up” or “Down”. And that was his orders. Because they just had no equipment to predict the height of the plane, or to guide them. It was just a hit and miss object.
So look as these raids are intensifying, you’re coming up for your twentieth birthday?
Did you celebrate that birthday?
Had a couple of drinks, that was about all.
January 15, 1942.
You still in Rabaul?
I was still in the camp on the fifteenth. Had a few beers, that was all. And as a result of the few beers I had, I’ve got the photos to back it up, another chap that was in my platoon, and a great fellow,
a fellow by the name of Brian Hannigan. We had a few beers and he said, “You know what we ought to do? We ought to shave our heads.” And I think I must have had an extra beer or something, and I woke up in the morning, and I had no hair. That was on my birthday. But, as it turned out,
it was possibly one of the best things I could have done, because by the time I got back to Australia, I had more hair on my face than I had on my head. And the other fellows had long hair, draping down, and I used to just go down to the ocean, get a handful of sand and wash the bit of hair that I had. So that was it, it worked out well that.
So was Brian a mate?
Oh yeah, a good mate.
I’ll tell you a little bit about….I should have told you before. Brian Hannigan, he came from Ballarat, and he went to St Pat’s School at Ballarat. And he was one of the most unusual men that you could possibly meet. He could do anything.
He won all the sports up in Ballarat, and he was a couple of years older than me. He was about 22, I think Brian was at the time. And in 1940, he was entered for the Stall Gift [sprint competition], and he got his mark, and he’d been running times, off his mark,
that would have one the Stall Gift, off that mark. Anyhow, a week before the Stall Gift, at Easter, 1940, he tore a leg muscle and that ended his chance to do it. When we were up at Bonegilla, he knew that I used to have a bit of running. And he said “I want you to come out with me. I’ve entered for the Albury Gift. And I think I can win it!”
Anyhow, we used to go out on the lakes, on the shores of Lake Hume, up at Albury, and I used to train with him. So finally the big day arrived for the Gift, and we went into showgrounds, it was run. And Brian Hannigan was ten to one, for the final. So we raked up whatever we could, our platoon, and we put it on Brian Hannigan for the
final. So the heats were run, and he won the heat. And he won the semi-final, and he’s favourite for the final, by this time. You couldn’t bet on him in the final, he was a red hot favourite. And we’re sitting holding the tickets at ten to one. There were some good runners. There were air force fellows
that had run at Stall, but off his mark he would have won it. Anyhow the final comes, and we’re all so happy that Brian’s going to win the final, and away they go, and he’s about from here to there from the finishing tape and he grabbed his leg, and the same muscle that had torn at Stall, tore. And a fellow by the name of Ron McCan, who had also won
at Stall Gift, nipped him right on the post. He lost it by—and I’ve seen him in the canteens there, get up and sing, and you could have heard a pin drop. He said that his favourite song was
Tiny Ball on the end of String.
How does it go, Norm?
I’m not a singer—tiny ball on end of string, and it goes on.
Would he sing funny songs or sad songs, homesick songs?
No, it’s what? A Maori song. the Maoris sing it. It’s a New Zealand type song. But it was very good. But he was one of these exceptional blokes, Brian Hannigan.
And he was also the first bloke to go AWOL in New Guinea.
Would you like to tell us about that?
Yes, well Brian used to like a beer. And he disappeared one night. He was in the next bed to me, and we woke up in the morning, and no Brian. And we knew he had gone out the night before into the town. Into Rabaul. And there was a couple of pubs there that
you could go to. The Cosmopolitan and the Pacific Hotel, but no Hannigan. So we covered for him in the morning, at roll call. We got around that all right. And this went on for a couple of days. And I said to the other boys, “Look, I’m starting to get worried about Brian. Something must have happened to him. I think we should—”. So we told Gordon Grant, who was our officer, we said, “Brian’s been missing.” He said “Where is he?” We said “We haven’t got a clue. But
we’ve covered for him for a couple of days.” Oh, I’m in trouble now. Anyhow, that same afternoon they got a phone call through from this plantation, about sixty mile around the coast and Brian was around there. He was a corporal at the time, and what he had done, he had gone down to one of the boats, one of the timber boats and had a few beers. And had a few too many and went to sleep
and they pulled away, and they went back to the thing and of course Brian’s with it. And there’s no way of getting back. So he was stuck there for a week, until they came in with the next load of timber. So he was court-martialled and reduced back to private. But he’s a remarkable man.
Did you have any other particular mates in your platoon?
Well, we were all good mates, because
you know, we lived in the same hut. And in our platoon there was about—our platoon was one of the small platoons because it was a specialised section. There would be about a dozen in the platoon. You lived with them, you slept with them. And I’d done this for eighteen months, from June ’40 right through
to March, ’42. So you knew them all, and a lot of characters amongst them. We were all pretty young. We had one married man with us, he was the only one. Old Sydney Herbert Joseph Smith, of all names. He was married, and he was the only one that had any children. There was one married, and all the rest of us were single. So we had a lot
in common. We used to have the swimming sports in the Rabaul Harbour, in the Rabaul pool. They had a pool at Rabaul, and we used to have swimming in there. Swimming events. And then they used to have the boxing events. And it’s been well documented, when we had the boxing. They had to do anything to keep the fellows involved in something, otherwise they got bored. At the boxing, the band used to always come
down and play. Always in between bouts. And this particular night, it was a heavyweight bout. And anyhow, the referee, whoever he was, I forget now, one fellow was clearly the winner but he gave it to the fellow, gave the verdict to the other fellow. So you’ve got five hundred fellows all booing, and yelling out all sorts of things. So Arthur Dulwich, the band master,
tapped his baton, and the band started to play. And, of course, Arthur being a Salvation Army fellow, he didn’t realise at the time, the implication of what he was playing. And the song that they played was Colonel Bogie. And of course the parody of Colonel Bogie, was Bulldust was all the Band could Play. And the whole
place just erupted when he played that. So, of course, he immediately realised that he had made a terrific boo-boo at playing that song at that particular time. So he chopped it very quickly and went on to something else.
And Norm, can you tell me what did mateship mean for you?
Everything. And that was to come out
more as we started to get out of the place, because you couldn’t do it on your own. Everybody relied on everybody else.
So they were really strong bonds then?
Well, I would say we were as near as brothers as we could get. They were terrific. We had some villains, but we had some wonderful blokes. But we never had any real problems. Nothing that couldn’t be sorted out. We never had a scrap in our platoon.
We stuck together. Everything we did, we did together. Oh, it was good. And there’s only two of us alive now.
Well, did any of your mates get into trouble with the local women?
No. Not that I know of.
No? No-one ever tempted?
Not that I know of. They had one bloke, I won’t name him, but he was lucky he wasn’t killed. He got sent back to Australia. He didn’t like women, he liked boys. And he tried it on one of the young boys that we had in the battalion, and they very quickly
got rid of him. Very quickly. But no, I would say that the whole force up in Rabaul conducted themselves pretty well.
So there were no local women wanting to take advantage of the presence of fourteen hundred soldiers?
Again, none that I know of. I might have been a bit naive or something, but I don’t know
of any. No doubt there was, but I didn’t know of any. And I know a few that would have, if they had got the chance. Some of them. Whether they got the chance or not, I don’t know. It didn’t concern me, and I didn’t even sort of think about it. I was just happy with my mates, that’s all.
Would you talk about girls with your mates?
I don’t think you can get a group of men together that wouldn’t talk about women. I think since men was born, that’s been a prime consideration to talk about women. That’ll never change.
Did you have a girl at home at this stage?
That’s the one where I left my thing, and the one I was to marry later. And had fifty wonderful
years with her, and then lost her. And now I’ve got another good mate, so I’ve been nothing but lucky. Nothing but lucky. Even have a bit of luck at gambling occasionally. Not a big punter, but I have a bit of luck. But, no, I’ve had a wonderful life, and
I always feel that I’m very lucky to be able to sit here at this stage of my life and talk to you.
Well Norm, can you tell us then. You got your orders to move out of Rabaul, to go to your—
To our allocated spot, yeah. At Raluana.
And then what happened?
Well, they told us then—word came that there was possibly an invasion fleet on the way, so we had to dig trenches along the beach where we were. And if you’ve ever tried to dig trenches where there’s deep vegetation been growing for years, and palm trees and goodness knows what,
without the proper tools, it’s virtually impossible. But try we did. And I suppose we got down a couple of inches and that’d be about as far as you could go. But while we were there, the big air-raid was on. And in the big air-raid, they tackled the fort, that was their first thing. And that was the
first time that we’d seen dive bombers and jets, and the Zeros came over. And from our vantage point, which I can show you on the map, we looked across and we could see exactly what was going on. The planes diving down on the fort, and it was just—the whole area at Craig Point, was just enveloped in a cloud of smoke. And you can imagine
there was a fort, there was buildings, there was trees, there was everything on this neck of the thing. And they blew it to smithereens, the area there. And they sank a ship that was in the harbour. The [MS] Herstein, which was a Norwegian ship that had come in. And the commander of the force there, Scanlan,
tried to get them to take the men off, the civilian men, but instead of that they were loading copper on it to take out. This was in January, about the 20th of January, three days before they landed, and he was trying to get the civilians out, because he could see what was going to happen. But no, the government decided that the copper was more valuable.
But the Japanese dive bombers came over and they cleaned the ship up completely. Some of the fellows on the ship were killed. Some of the fellows at the fort were killed. Some of the 22nd boys that were stationed out there, they lost their lives there. Some of the fort boys, some of the natives, and when the smoke cleared, this cliff that had had all this stuff on it was as
bare as that wall. One of the bombs they dropped hit the ammunition dump there, that had these six-inch shells in, that had never been—the guns had never been fired. And the whole lot went.
So what were the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] doing?
They had Wirraways they sent up. Wirraways, they came up there in December. We had a Catalina, a couple of Hudson bombers, and about ten Wirraways came up. Now the Wirraways were basically training planes, built at Fishermens Bend down here. They were training
planes. That’s all they were ever designated for. But they sent them up there as fighter planes. And, of course, when the early bombing raids come on, where there was bombers only, well you see they were useless, because they couldn’t go up that high. These planes had no way of getting up to the bombers. But the day of the big raid, they had warnings about that, so the Wirraways took off.
I think, I don’t know the exact number, but around about six of them got airborne, and we were on the ground watching, and the planes came over. The bombers came over first, then the Japanese fighter planes came over. We could hear the firing, and it was distinctive,
because the Wirraways had machine-guns on, and you’d hear the rattle-rattle-rattle, and the Zeros had cannons, and you’d hear the boof-boof-boof, you know? And within about five minutes, the Wirraways were all shot down.
I think one landed, one got down safely, the others, some of the crew got down, but basically that was the end of the RAAF. The Hudson had already taken out the air force fellows, because they had the air force fellows there
with no planes to fly. So they reckoned they were pretty valuable, the fellows who could fly, so they took them out, and they took them back to Moresby. So when the Japanese landed there, we had no navy, there was no navy, no air force. The two anti-aircraft guns were useless, so they blew them up. Blew the barrels out. They put
shells in them, plugged the end of it and burst the barrels. The ack ack guns, ours were useless, the little ack ack, the Lewis guns, they were useless. The anti-tank they brought up, they brought up some new anti-tank guns, but they forgot to send any ammunition up, so
the anti-tank guns that we had were limited to around four rounds a gun. And that was it. Not that they were any value because they were using—the only ammunition they had was solid projectiles. They never had any explosive; they were mainly to cripple the tracks on the tanks.
When they fired some at the landing craft coming in, but all they did, if they actually hit them, all they did was make a hole in them, because there was no explosive charge in them. They were solid projectile, to cripple tank. So they finished up, they had no guns; they ran out of ammunition, they were useless, so they got rid of those. All the fellows at the
fort, the guns there had all been blown out. So all of a sudden we had something in the vicinity of two to three hundred fellows that were stationed at the fort, who had no infantry training at all, they had no weapons. And they scouted around and they found about a dozen rifles of fellows who had been shipped back to Australia, prior to that, and they handed those
out. But you had fellows there who weren’t armed at all.
So you were really quite defenceless against the attack.
Absolutely. Absolutely. There were no provisions made, everything that we owned in the way of stores, medical supplies, anything else, food,
there was nothing been put in the jungle anywhere in case we got pushed back, which we’d have to, at all. So once we lost the beach heads, we were gone.
Well, from your regrouping point, you said you were able to see the town of Rabaul. Did you see the invasion fleet come in?
You could hear it, I couldn’t see it. Couldn’t see it,
because it started at two o’ clock in the morning. A plane came over a few hours before that, and they dropped flares right along the beach. And they must have been parachute, because they hung in the air, like parachute flares, and they dropped those at two or three places right along the beach where we were. I’ll show you after, but when you have a look—they decided that Rabaul itself, the
township and that area could not be defended, so the day before they landed they evacuated everybody. All the soldiers. They left the civilians there. They evacuated all the soldiers out of Rabaul. Every one. So there was no one within about ten k of Rabaul when the Japanese started to land. Because the Rabaul
township is on an isthmus, with water both sides, and they could land anywhere that they wanted. So that was all cleared, the Rabaul township entire was evacuated. And they had along the main road into Rabaul, they had all these aerial bombs for the RAAF, and they had
them laying in the grass alongside the road. And they were stacked in rows, along the side of the thing, so they decided in their wisdom that they’d blow all these up so no-one else could use them. But what they didn’t realise was that the force of the explosion blew everything off the air, so all communication
ceased. The minute they blew those bombs up, all communication with Rabaul ceased.
We’ll have to stop there, Norm.
Interviewee: Norman Furness Archive ID 0464 Tape 05
Yes, well after I told you about the flares, we could hear movement and motors in the bay, in Blanche Bay, but we couldn’t see anything. And the next thing we heard, was machine-gun fire, further along the beach at Vulcan, so it was obvious people were coming ashore.
We couldn’t, we had no idea what was going on, because by this time it was as black as pitch, but we could hear all this noise. And we were down another fifteen to twenty ks down from Blanche Bay. Then after that we heard noises up our end. You could hear chains and motors running and things like that. And
the group fired some shots out into the bay, because we knew they weren’t our fellows. And this went on for about an hour, then our section, plus some others there, we were ordered to get back to Fourways, which was out the back of Vulcan. By this time you’re getting round about to four o’ clock in the morning. So we got into trucks there, and
no lights, so we had to crawl along the roads. And the roads are pretty crook anyhow. And I found out after, the object of what we were supposed to be doing, was that A Company, which was on Vulcan, had run into some trouble, and they had mortars and machine-guns down there. Vickers machine-guns, which you sit behind in an upright
position and fire, and apparently what they had done was pretty good down there. Because they had a criss-cross fire going. They had two machine-guns each side, and they were firing crossways, and that was causing a lot causalities with the Japs, apparently, and they could hear them. And they made no effort to disguise themselves. Apparently the ones that came in there, were all dressed
in black, but they were smoking and talking. And they could hear all this. But they didn’t expect to run into any resistance. This is what it was, because they had landed over the other side, where there was no resistance. And they ran into all this heavy fire with the mortars and quite a lot of the Japanese were killed there. Then, what they did, they pulled back off and their landing barges, which we had nothing to hit
them with, they just went along a kilometre or so and they just stormed ashore. There was nobody. And A Company looked like being surrounded.
But you didn’t know that at the time, you were just—
No. So we were pulled back at the Fourways, which is a road junction, at the back of Vulcan, and now the object of what we were doing, apparently, was we were
supposed to give them support fire while they came back through us, because they had to get off the beach. So, by this time it was gradually getting light.
And how many of you were there?
In the group we were in at Fourways, about twenty of us. So the A Company fellows start coming
back through us, and by then dawn was coming, and I looked into the harbour, from where I was I could see into the harbour, and where the night before when the only ship in Blanche Bay was the wreck of the ship that had been bombed previously, I forget the exact count now, but something like twenty-five or thirty ships were in the bay.
And from these ships, there were barges full of Japanese going in all directions. All directions. There were naval craft as well, destroyers and cruisers, and there were two aircraft carriers there. And you could see the planes on the deck, and you could hear the motors running and the next minute they become
airborne. So they were on a seek-and-destroy mission. No opposition. We had no guns that could have reached them in the middle of the bay, and we had no guns to shoot them down with, so they had an open go. And they came along the beachfront and we could see them. And they were only up, a couple of hundred feet up, over the trees, and they were looking over the sides and wherever they saw any movement at all, they
just turned around and came down on an angle and strafed the whole area. And this went on for a couple of hours. And the group I was in, we got strafed two or three times. And the tracks were only about a couple of foot wide up around this area, and whenever we saw one coming, someone would give warning, and we’d be off the track and into jungle, heads down,
flat down, and hope we weren’t hit. Anyway, after one of these raids, and this was early in the morning, when they’d passed by, we’d come back on the track again, and by this time we were told to get out, that there were Japs swarming in all directions.
Now how did you get those instructions, or those orders?
The officer gave us our orders.
So he was with you?
He was with us. That was a fellow by the name of Henry. He’d taken over about a fortnight before the Japs landed. He took over from this Gordon Grant. For some reason, never known, they switched a lot of the officers around. So we got a brand new officer that none of us knew. But he was a good soldier, though, he’d been a warrant officer, and he’d been promoted to lieutenant and put in charge of our section.
Well, after one of these raids, they came over strafing, we’d come back and regrouped and we were told to get the hell out of there, there were Japs everywhere.
So what had happened to A Company at this stage?
They’d come back, and they’d gone back through us. So I don’t know what happened as far as they were concerned from there on. I met up with some of them later on. But when we came back on, after one of these strafing attacks,
Henry had disappeared. Brian Hannigan, Johnny Hay and one other, they had disappeared, and we couldn’t find them anywhere. We didn’t know whether they’d been shot, we didn’t know what had happened to them. So Vance Straw, he was
our senior sergeant at the time, so he took over.
And what happens in that case. I mean, did you look for them?
Oh yes, we hunted everywhere in the scrub and couldn’t find them. And we couldn’t stay there. Vance Straw said “We’ve got to get out of here; otherwise we’re going to get cut down.” So, we moved back then, into the jungle. So anyhow, it turned out afterwards—I don’t know how Hannigan got to where he was, but he finished up down on the
south coast. How the devil he got there, I don’t know. And Henry, he was found later on, he had about five Japs laying around him that he killed. And he’d been executed. Johnny Hay,
well we never ever found out, other than he died. We don’t know what happened to him. We’ve tried. And all we got is that he was found dead. But I don’t know how it happened or anything else. So that was it. We had Vance Straw, and he had nine of us that had all been together, this was our original platoon, and I was lugging the machine-gun still at that stage. And the other fellows had their
rifles. The other gun had gone, I don’t know what happened to that. That had gone. So we struggled on. And we could hear shooting, and the whole time that morning, we could hear all this noise going on, but we couldn’t see what was anything. The jungle was too thick. So another group came through and said the order’s been given, every man for himself.
Can you remember what went through your head when you heard that?
We didn’t know what to think. The officers didn’t—they weren’t receiving orders, because all communication had broken down. The officers didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t know what was going on. There was no proper plan, escape plan in force. We didn’t know what to do.
All we knew is we had to get away from where we were. And that’s what we battled to do. And so then started—all we knew was the only way out was to go westward. There was no other way to go. The Bainings Mountains, which is spelt B-A-I-N-I-N-G-S. At the back of us. Towering mountains. In lots of places there had never been a white man before.
So, this was the area that we had to head for, which we did. We had no food.
You’re still together as a group here?
Yes. We’re still together as a group.
I was just wondering. When you got that order, every man for himself, I mean you had a sergeant there, and you were still a private?
I was a lance corporal at that stage, which is near enough to a private.
What I’m wondering is, what’s happening to the rank structure here? When the orders given every man for himself, does this mean you now have to obey your sergeant, or what’s going on there?
No it’s every man to get out for himself. It was never going in single group. You had to go as a group. You had no chance of survival unless you had a group. So by this time we had nine men, we had about six rifles between
us, we had very little ammunition, very little ammunition, and that was it. To try and—we had no plan, we didn’t know where we were going. We had no maps. We had no compasses. We had nothing. The only thing we had was what we stood up in. No medical equipment, nothing. We never had a bandage, we never had anything. Just what we’d left the camp with four days before.
Hadn’t had a wash for four days, so that was it. And this just carried on, day after day. We had a couple of—one party of Japanese they tried to ambush in one part. But we got out of that.
Could you tell us about that?
Well, we didn’t know what
was going on. I’m sorry to keep mentioning this, but it was a fact. Nobody knew what was going on, and then suddenly through the bushes figures were seen. And the next minute there were shots coming our way. And we just backed off as quick as we could, because we had nothing to fight with.
What were you doing? Did you keep moving?
We kept moving.
And you were moving in this particular direction?
Moving in the western direction.
And this went on for a couple of days, but one crowd came through and they had a bit of rice, and they gave us a bit of their rice. But other than that, for two days we virtually had nothing. Nothing at all. And then we got down to the Keravat River, and when we got down to the Keravat River, there was trucks there,
that had been abandoned, so they were some of our other groups from the force that had got out, and were apparently able to get out in trucks, and they got as far as the Keravat River and the road ran out there, at the river, so they just abandoned trucks and away they went. And I know we got underneath some of the trucks and took
the sump plugs out, so that they couldn’t be used. And in some of them, there was food in some of them, that had been left there. We got some tinned food out of some of the trucks there. But one of the problems as we got along a little bit further, was the police boys up there. The police boys, they had a
beautiful group of police boys in Rabaul, about thirty or forty strong. Well trained. They had rifles and bayonets but no ammunition. And when they knew that the Japs were landing, they took their guns off them. The Australian authorities took their guns off them, because they were ordered to do that, because under the mandate
of the territory up there, the natives weren’t allowed to fight. This was true, they weren’t allowed to fight. And they told them to clear off. And they did. And most of the places we went to, plantation homes and that, they’d been there before us, and they’d wrecked the place. And if there was anything of any value, or any food—we went into places and there was food strewn on the floor, and we were scooping it up with
our hands to try and take some with us. Anything at all. It was just all so wrong. The way the whole thing was planned. Now we didn’t know who gave the order, but apparently Scanlan was the man that finally gave the order, every man for himself. But he was miles away from where we were.
So where was he stationed?
Force headquarters, which was down towards the south coast. By this time, the direction we’re heading was towards the north coast. And you will see on the map, where we were at Rayuana, the easiest and most logical place for us to go would have been the south coast, and if I had had a choice where I’d gone, the south or the north coast, I would have certainly picked the south coast because it’s nearer to Australia than the north
coast. But as it turned out, not by any direction, it just so happened we finished up on the north coast, and it turned out that it was a better coast than the south coast. It turned out that it’s not so heavily timbered. It’s heavily timbered, but nowhere near as bad as the south coast, and of course the troops that came along the north coast, the Japanese troops,
they were apparently permanent troops of the Japanese Army, where the others that went down the south coast, picking up, they were conscripts into the army, and they were ruthless. So we got to the Keravat River, and we got across the Keravat River, and we had some of this food we got off
the trucks, there. Then we got down into an area called Takis. T-A-K-I-S. And it was all mangrove swamps. And we got in there and water up to our waist. And do you think we could find a track through that? We went round in circles, and we just couldn’t find a way through it. And we were stuck there, and we finished up, all day one day, and we finished up at exactly the same place at
night. And we’d walked all day and got nowhere. There was no way through it. So finally, we got onto some natives, there were natives coming around from time to time, and some of the natives knew where the track was and we got led through the track at Takis. So, by this time, we’re getting down from Rabaul towards St Paul’s mission. We got down a bit further, and
this is sort of—every day became one. It was very hard to distinguish what day it was, because we had nothing, we had no—
Did anyone have watches? Was anyone wearing a watch?
A few were wearing a watch. I had a watch. I’ve still got my watch, I carried through.
Were you sleeping? Did you sleep at night?
Just on the ground. Slept wherever
we could. We sweated all day, with the tropical heat in the jungle, and it was mud and slush. It was all slushy wherever we were. And then at night—it rains every night in New Guinea—so we got soaked every night. If we could we got banana leaves to pull over us, to keep the rain and the mosquitoes off. If we could. And the mosquitoes just ate us alive. Night after night.
We got down to this place near St Paul’s mission, and a natives came up, and we met up with another group then, who were under the control of New South Wales officer, not a 22nd one. He was in one of the smaller units. And the native told him that the Japanese were down at St Paul’s mission, and
John Ackyroyd, the medical fellow, he got down to St Paul’s mission and he was treating some wounded fellows, and sick fellows down there, and he said the only thing to do was to go down and surrender. And this was a beach near St Paul’s, not quite at St Paul’s. He said to go down and surrender. And here we were, I suppose at this time we had a party of about a hundred all together. Just sort of come together.
You sort of run into different parties.
So the nine of you had joined up with all these other people?
Well, we still kept in our own group. We were all in a certain locality. So he said, “Look, the only thing to do, we’re not going to get off this island, there’s no way. We’ve got no food, we’ve got nothing to fight with. We’re all going to die in the jungle and nobody will know what happened to us.” He said,
“The only logical thing to do is to go down and surrender. Then your relatives at home will know what’s happened and you’ll be treated as prisoners of war. And when the war finishes, you’ll be all brought home.” And he was pretty convincing with what he said. And after—this was a week or two weeks after, he said “We should go down and surrender.”
So he was pretty right in what he was saying, so it was decided we’d go down. So, we trekked down out of the hill to this beach where the Japs were supposed to be, and he led the way, and when we got down there, the Japs had gone. There wasn’t a Jap there. But there was every sign that they had been there. What the natives had said was right, they’d been there.
So, I can always remember, we got down there, and we stood around with all these fellows, and some of them were pretty sick. A fortnight like that had taken a lot off some of them, and I was quite okay.
So you didn’t have any diseases at this stage?
Not at that stage. I was surviving. I was pretty fit at that time, if you can imagine. Twenty years old, and did a lot of exercise, and I was fit.
Anyhow, they had another meeting down there. And some of them said, “Well bugger it. If we weren’t meant to be caught, let’s have another go at it.” And some of them “Well, the only way you’re going to get out from here is to go back into the mountains and try and get across this great mountain range, to get down further.” There’s no way you could get through the mangroves.
And we had no boats. So we had a bit of a vote on it, and out of our ten that we had, there was six of us decided to go back in, and four stayed. The four that stayed, after we'd gone back into the mountains, and there was also a lot of the other hundred, they
also said they’d have another go at it. But altogether, out of the hundred, there was about forty that decided because of their health, that they’d stay. And they’d go on to St Paul’s, which was just along a little bit, and they knew Ackyroyd was there with possible medical supplies. So they stayed, and the rest of us all went back into the mountains. We just weren’t meant to be captured.
But, his logic was right, that we’d possibly never get off. But then, when you’re young, you think you can climb mountains.
Did you think very seriously about being captured? What it meant?
Not really, not really. If I had known I wouldn’t have even gone down in the first place, if
I’d known what happened to some of our fellows. But it was soon after that, that we started to get messages.
So you’ve got communication now?
Communication started to come. And how that came about, was a chap by the name of McCarthy. Keith McCarthy, was a patrol officer in New Guinea and had been for many years, and he was known as a keop, which
is a policeman, a native word for policeman, keop. And he had a radio with him, and he was at a place called Talasea, which is further down the coast, and he got word on this that Rabaul had fallen, and that they wanted to know what had happened. So, they sent him and
some native carriers, back towards Rabaul to find out what had happened. And in doing so he started picking up stragglers, this Keith McCarthy. And he was absolutely brilliant. He spent his life in the territory, knew the area well, knew every inch of it, could speak
pidgin English perfectly, and of course, it’s a keop, they do what they’re told. So immediately he started picking up stragglers, he started to tell them where they had to head for. Gave them directions of where to head for. And we headed for Pondo, which is the plantation down
the coast. And it was a desiccated coconut factory. It was well known up there, and it was a big place. So we went back over the mountains, and it took us about a week, over this range, and struggled all the way. And a lot of the blokes were sick.
Could you just describe what this range is like?
Well, it’s hard to describe in as much as
it was just jungle nothing, but there was a track through it, that the natives used. And you had to cross rivers and some of the rivers run pretty strong up there, because of the terrain, the water, when it rains up in the mountains, comes down pretty quickly. So where you’ve got a trickle at night, you can wake up in the morning and you’ve got a deluge. It’s coming down like a torrent. And
some of the rivers there, we got the good swimmers, and fellows who were able to manage themselves in the water, to try and get a line across to the other side, and then we’d go across in a chain. To try and get across. So, this went on for a week, and finally we got inside of Pondo, and once when we got to Pondo, McCarthy was there,
that was the first time that I met him. And the Japs had been to Pondo by this time, and they had wrecked a lot of the machinery. And there were two boats there, two small boats, and they’d wrecked them, too. And they put up a Japanese flag, on the mast at the plantation. And they told Ivason, that was the bloke who ran it, that if
he helped any of the Australians trying to get through, they’d come back and kill him. So he helped everybody. And we had a shower there, we had a good feed, and it was marvellous.
Well, how had you survived in that week or so previously?
I don’t know.
Had your food supplies kept up?
And did you know
of any fruits or any of the vegetation you could have eaten?
No, bits and pieces that we had procured in the week prior to that, that’s what we lived on, with the silver cloud at the end of the lining, which was going to be Pondo. And I remember getting into Pondo, and when we got in there, they had these boxes of desiccated coconut. And we just put our hands in it and ate it. And if you eat desiccated coconut like that, there’s a
drastic result, in diarrhoea. And that added to the problems. It just went straight through us. No, but from then on, it was tough, every inch of the way was tough. But a couple of the fellows, Marslend, he was a New
Guinea man. And Alex Tolma, who was one of our officers, and he was a very good officer, and a couple of others that knew a bit about motors and things like that, one of the little boats there was called the [MV] Malahuka [?], at Pondo. And they got to work. The Japs had hit it with a toma-axe or something, and broken the shafts of the propellers. To cut a long story short,
they got it going. They patched it up and got it going. So immediately then, McCarthy swung his plan into action to try and get us across from point to point, because they’re all bays, and where it might be thirty mile around the bay, it was ten mile across. So he used this little Malahuka, to ferry troops across from one point to the other, to save twenty
mile of walking. Not all, everybody, but I was one of the lucky ones. I got a ride on that. But you could only do it at night, because the Japanese planes used to come, every day they’d came over, having a snoop, looking.
Did it have a motor on it or did you row?
It had a motor, they got the engine going on it. So it would take, from memory, about
twenty-five troops. And by this time there was other groups coming in to Pondo. So it finished up there was a couple of hundred troops at Pondo. So, this particular night we were going across the bay and all of a sudden, Tomlin or whoever it was at the time, said “Quick, we’re on a reef! Overboard!” So we all jumped out, and the water was about up to about
just under my armpits, when I stood up, and here we are, looking, and you can see the land in the distance. We’re about in the middle, five k that way, and about ten k that way, and here we are standing there, and it wasn’t cold. And anyhow, the boat floated off and he said, “Righto, those who can swim, help the others over.” And
we all got back in and away we went to the other shore. And this little boat ferried a hundred troops across there before it blew up.
Well, that was a fantastic effort, wasn’t it?
Yeah. And Alex Tolma, he was, you might recall some years back, the biggest toy producer, sales, in Australia,
was Toltoys. He’s dead now, but he built the Toltoy empire of kids toys. They had some wonderful officers. Some left a bit to be desired. But they had some wonderful officers along there. And had another plantation. I can’t remember going through it, but
I did. I was told by others that we were there, that I did go through it, so I accept that. This was Harvey’s plantation. And this Harvey and his wife, and a little boy of about ten, they were there. They helped and fed the different groups that went through. At least gave them something to keep them going. Anyhow, the fellow that used to
work at the Rabaul theatre was a half-caste, and he knew what was going on, and he was helping the Japanese. He knew the area well, and he was a collaborator, for the Japanese. And he heard that Harvey was helping the troops, and he dobbed him in to the Japanese, and the Japanese came round to Harvey’s plantation and took he and his wife and the son,
took them back to Rabaul and executed them. So these are just some of the things that happened. It’s a long while ago now, but they never leave you.
So the Harveys, they had decided not to leave then? They weren’t obviously evacuated?
Well, there was a few who decided they wouldn’t go. They’d stick together. So then we just went on, and it just went on, week after week after week. But we knew where we were heading, thanks to Keith McCarthy. I’ve said from the day I got
out of there, without Keith McCarthy there wouldn’t have been more than about forty get off that island. He was the major force that got troops off that island.
Well, how many weeks were you on the island, before you were actually evacuated?
What, from the time the Japs landed? Well, they landed on the 23rd of January, and we got off in the last week of March. And one of the things the boys had to contend with, was all the swamps there that you went through, were
full of leaches, and we had a burning stick, we always carried a burning stick our group, so you always had something that you could start a fire with, and this used to glow. And we made sure we had that stick the whole time. And we used to put the stick down your legs to burn the leaches off. That was the only way you could get them off, and of course by this time, my boots had fallen apart, so
I was barefooted by this time, as was a lot of the other fellows. Their boots just fell off. Now if we had been warned, we would have worn the better pair of boots. But we weren’t told, so we just wore the old, most comfortable ones out of the two. And everybody was in the same boat there. Some developed tropical ulcers, and I’ve seen tropical ulcers as big as the top of a cup.
I finished up with one on my ankle, but mine was only a small one and it healed up pretty quick afterwards. But that’s how they were. So we went to different plantations along the thing, but as I said, most of them had been wrecked before we got there. But one little place I must mention. We had been going for a few weeks, further on down the coast from Pondo,
and some of the fellows were—we had a couple of real sick ones. And in a clearing we came across a native hut. Oh, marvellous, we can get out of the rain tonight. Anyhow, we got the sick boy into the hut, and one of our fellows, Lugger Smythe, that had joined us. He wasn’t one of our platoon, but he had joined our group. And he was a real tough Brunswick boy, real tough.
And he took on the position as chief cook. And we had some rice at this time, so he decided he would light a fire in the back of the hut, and see if he could boil this rice up in a tin hat or a dish or whatever he found. And the huts there had a lean-to in the back, and there was a trench dug so apparently the natives had also used it, too, and he was having trouble getting a fire going. And one of the fellows that was with us—
Interviewee: Norman Furness Archive ID 0464 Tape 06
Oh yes, with this hut, anyhow we got the sick fellow in and Lugger’s was trying to get the fire going, and Andy Bishop, another one of our younger fellows, he’s younger than me, had apparently at some plantation, he’d found a bottle of wine of some description. So Lugger is puffing and blowing trying to get a fire going, and Andy Bishop came along and he said “I can help you Lugger, this might help your fire.” And he
threw it on, and within about five minutes flat the hut was burnt to the ground. We got the sick bloke out. And you can imagine, this boy would have been about nineteen at the time, and Lugger would be about 34, and he said “I’ll kill the bugger! I’ll kill him!” And all poor Andy was trying to do was help him, but it burnt, and
so we slept in the open again that night. And fellows were gradually getting sicker and losing weight. Wherever we could, some places you couldn’t get around the coast because of the mangrove swamps, or you just couldn’t get past, because of the rocks, so we had to go inland and sort of come back out again. But everyone was gradually getting weaker and weaker by this time. And it just seemed to go on
and on forever. And we lost a couple of fellows that died. Not from my little section.
I was just wondering, when there’s this large number of you heading in the one direction, were you still travelling in smaller groups?
Yes, we were still travelling in smaller groups, and we’d often meet up at night, things like that. Or if they had a rest during the day, you’d meet up, or
some would pass through. And we went to a place called Gavet, G-A-V-E-T, Gavet plantation, and when we got there, there was about thirty troops there. And the fellow that was in charge of them, was a chap by the name of Braydon, Gordon Braydon, and a good fellow. I always remember walking into the plantation there, and he had a baseball
cap on. And I was talking to him and I said, “How long have you been here, Gordon?” And he said “Oh, we’ve been here for a few days. A couple of my group are not too good.” He said “We’re having a rest.” He said, “What are you fellows doing?”. I said, “We’re going to push on in the morning. Stop here tonight and push on in the morning. We want to keep going.” He said “I might stay another day with our group” Anyhow, we pushed on,
and apparently, I heard later, about four or five hours later after we pushed off, the Japanese landed there and they grabbed all those, and out of that group of thirty, Gordon Braydon was the only one that survived.
They were taken prisoners or war?
They were taken prisoners. And, of course, him being an officer, he was taken to Japan on a different boat to what the
others were. So he was the only one that survived the war out of that thirty. Now we could have easily stayed there that night, easily, but we pushed on. So it was just a thing, day after day after day. We were always on the move. But McCarthy was in control of the whole situation. And he’d picked out the officers that he
thought were the best ones, he picked those out, and they were the ones that helped him. There was one officer there, and he was a wonderful officer, but he did the wrong thing as far as McCarthy was concerned. He had a little boat that they’d had picked up at one of the plantations, a little boat called the [MV] Dulcie. And he was a captain,
this Cameron, and when he first met up with McCarthy, McCarthy said, “Great, that’s what we need. Another boat to try and save these fellows, to keep them moving a big quicker.” And Cameron said “Righto.” So he said, “I want you to go down to so and so and I’ll meet you there.” Anyhow, Cameron, in his wisdom,
with his group that he had with him, decided to go straight on to New Guinea proper. And McCarthy was that wild. A funny thing with the officers and McCarthy, with some of them. McCarthy had no rank. But he was given the order that he was to control
the evacuation, which he did. And I don’t think some of them could accept it, that a fellow with no rank was telling them what to do. About that time, a message came through from the south coast, this was the first we heard of the south coast. A message came through that some of the survivors on the south coast,
there was problems. So McCarthy got together a fellow by the name of Frank Holland, who was also a New Guinea resident, a woodcutter, and lived in New Guinea quite a number of years. He got him with an armed party, and he said, “Look I want you to go across the island, between Open Bay and Wide Bay,” which is the narrowest part, “and see if you can find out what’s happening on the south coast.”
So of course he went over, and took this party, and the area that he went through there is—there’s a tribe of natives up there who are renowned for raiding other villages and killing anybody. And they were a pretty wild bunch of natives and they lived right in the middle of the Baining Mountains. And they ran across them,
they had a battle with them, and they killed some of them. Not our fellows, they killed some of this, I can’t think of the name, it starts with M. Anyhow he got over there to the south coast with his party, and when he got over he found Carr, Carr was there. And Carr told him, that
a group had been captured at Tol Plantation and they had two or three survivors from the Tol Plantation with them, and they brought them back from the south coast over to the north coast to get away. So there was about, roughly about ten they brought back from the south coast, including a couple that had been
in the Tongas. And that of course, we didn’t know who had been killed at Tol, we had no idea at all. But we got the story, from these blokes on the south coast, they got down to Tol Plantation, and they were around near a river there. And as I said, the area around there was even rougher than it was on the north coast, and the Japs landed
a raiding party there and rounded up everyone within a couple of miles. They finished up with about a hundred and fifty prisoners. And about twenty of them surrendered, and the ones that surrendered they put on the boat and took back to Rabaul, and the other hundred and thirty, I forget the exact numbers now, it might have been a hundred and fifty, they executed them on the
That just goes against all ideas of humanity.
When they captured them, they rounded them all up, and they gave them a drink, they gave them a cigarette, they took all their identity disks off them
and anything else they could find on them, and then they decided, for some unknown reason, they gave their identity disks back to them. And the next morning, they tied all their hands behind their backs with fishing wire, and they decided that they were going to execute the lot of them,
so they took them off in small groups of about half a dozen or so at a time, and they just—they took them into the jungle and used them for bayonet practice.
So that was the unfortunate story of Tol, and a couple of my mates were in that. Not from my platoon, but when they came to they were just laying in a heap of bodies, and they struggled, they still had their hands tied behind their backs, and they struggled off. The Japs had gone by this time. They just left where they
killed them, and they struggled off into the bush. And there was one of our parties coming through and they heard them, they heard our fellows, they thought they were more Japs and they took off. They tried to run, and of course they were wounded,
anyhow our fellows ran them down, to tell them that everything was right. But that was a very sad episode, that part of it. And they got two of the boys that were wounded, and some of our other fellows, and got them into a hut and put them there,
and the Japs came back and burnt the hut to the ground with the two fellows in it.
That’s just absolutely ghastly, isn’t it?
But at least we knew what was going on, on the south coast. So these other fellows came over, that Holland brought back with them, and they got down the end of the island with us. We got down to a place called
Aiboki, and when we got down there, this was getting into the end of March, and McCarthy had found out there was a boat over at the Vito Islands, a copper boat, three hundred tons it was. A three hundred ton copper boat, and he radioed Moresby, and he said, “Look, I think I can take possession of this boat.”
They gave him the okay to do that, so he went over with a party, and he had a couple of other fellows who had brought little boats over from New Guinea, that were planters, to help him. He teed all this up. It could go on for a week this story, there’s just so much to it. But he went over and sure enough, here was this copper boat
that the Japs had seen, and the Japs landed the sea plane down near it, and told him to go in there and stay there in this harbour, and they’d be back later. It was just full of copper. So anyhow McCarthy went over and he took command of it, and said, “Well, we’re taking the boat.” And the captain of the boat had never been to Australia, and didn’t know the waters or anything
else. So that was our point. But when we got down to this Iboki mission, there was a Mrs Baker there, who had been a nurse in the First World War, and she had medical supplies at the plantation. This is right down the other end of the island, by this time. And I was pretty sick by this time. I didn’t care much what happened.
And what had you
come down with?
Malaria. Malaria and malnutrition and everything else.
And you had your ulcer as well?
And dysentery. I was only one. And practically everyone in the parties were the same. And I arrived down there, I didn’t care what happened then. I’d lost to care.
But anyhow, she was very good. And a couple of the boys that were fitter than I were, she enrolled them as helpers to her, and she put us in beds along the balcony of her plantation home. And these other boys used to come along and administer quinine and dress the ulcers and things like this. By that stage I was about nine stone, and I generally
was about twelve to twelve and a half. But some of the blokes were down to five. So things were pretty grim. But anyhow finally, the word came and he got this other little boats that had come over and they ferried across from Aiboki across to these Vito Islands, which were north west
of New Britain, so we’re heading up the wrong direction. But we got over there, and I got carried onto the boat that took me over. I had dysentery pretty bad, and I could hardly walk. And they took a door off Mrs Baker’s plantation, and I remember them laying me on it, and they carried me onto the boat that I was going over on. And I looked down and I could see
the sea, beautiful, and I thought ‘If only they’d tip me into it.’
But anyhow we got over there, and the plantation house, we got to the little wharf that was over at Vetu, and the plantation house was up on a rise, like most of the plantation houses, and they said “Well, we can’t carry you up there.” And there was two other fellows like me, they were as bad, and by this time
I was reduced to, in clothes, I had a lap lap and a haversack with me—paybook, which is over there. You never loose your paybook. You can’t get paid if you haven’t got a paybook. So I had that, and one of the native blackets, that I had picked up along the way, that you could shoot peas through. But it was comfort you know. You could wrap it around you. Anyhow, when we came off
the boat there, they put me down on the side and said “Look, we’re going to be here for a couple of days, but we can’t carry you up the hill. You’ll just have to try and make your way up there.” This George, can’t think of his other name, this George and I, I think it took us about fourteen hours to walk up the hill. But we made it. We stopped every couple of yards with the dysentery.
But again, Mrs Baker had some medicine there, that she started giving us, that she got over at the Vito Islands, that she was very conversant with. So we started having doses of that to help us, and it certainly helped us. So then pit boys then, had to unload all the copper off the boat that was in the holds
on the boat. And fill sandbags, tip the copper out, and fill the bags up with sand for ballast, because we had to, because we were going to make a run for it. And they had a vote, whether we’d go to New Guinea or whether we’d go direct to Australia. And they had a vote on this and I reckon about eighty percent said “Bugger Port Moresby, let’s go to Australia. Let’s head for Cairns.”
But the only thing that we didn’t take into account was, that by this time, the Japs were already on mainland New Guinea, so anyhow, finally they got us all on board. I don’t know the exact number, but there was about two hundred of us on board, on this copper boat. And we were sitting on the deck, laying on the deck, and we were just shoulder to shoulder all the way. There was no room.
We were just like chooks sitting on it. And finally it took off and we headed down. And we only run at night. And they run down to Rook Island, which the skipper knew all about, which is right on the end of New Britain. And we got the boat in there, and up one of the rivers there. And they covered it up with branches and everything else, so
it wouldn’t be disturbed. But prior to that, one of the other boats, that had brought us from New Britain, they put that where the [MV] Lakatoi was, so the Japs would think it was the same boat. They left that there until we got away. And we stayed that night on Rook Island, and the next morning it was off to Australia. And we came down the
straits, between New Britain and mainland New Guinea, and it was occupied on both sides, and it was a dull overcast day. And the name of the boat we came down on was the Lakatoi. It had a freeboard of eighteen inches. So the deck was eighteen inches above the water. You could dangle your heads in it.
They put a rail over the back, that was the toilet. So if you wanted to go to the toilet, you just sat on that, hung on like grim death and hoped that you didn’t fall off. Anyhow it chugged down there, and it was a dull overcast day and we could hear planes, and they weren’t ours. They were Japanese planes. We could hear them, but we couldn’t see them, and apparently they couldn’t see us.
And we came right down there and arrangements had been made, when we got down near Samaray, that another boat from Moresby was to meet us with supplies, and we pulled up there, and this other boat came alongside. And they had food and medicine and everything else on board, and they gave us that, then they continued on. And their job was to go and pick up the survivors on the
south coast, which had also all been arranged by McCarthy. So they went down to another plantation, down near Palmal, and they picked up another, nearly, two hundred survivors there. Now they weren’t all from the 22nd Battalion, they were from some of the other units. There were some civilians amongst them. There were some NGVR,
New Guinea Volunteer Rifle fellows. But their instructions were to go straight to Moresby, they wanted the boat. It was the governor’s boat, the [HMAS] Laurabada. I’ve got a photo of that over there. Laden with the troops. I’ve got a photo of the Lakatoi,
but without anybody on it. So, it took us a week to get down to Cairns. And we got to Cairns, and we didn’t know our way into the harbour, and of course—and we sat outside Cairns for twenty-four hours.
What an anti-climax.
Waiting for someone to come out and bring us in, a pilot. So finally,
the next day, finally the pilot came out. And he said “Oh, we wondered who you were out here.” He said “You’re all right, you’ve drifted over the reef.” So then he took us into Cairns. So finally we arrived back in Australia. And when we got there, we lined up on the wharf. The boat was so small that it didn’t reach the wharf.
And they had to put rope ladders down, and we had to climb up the road ladders. I’d hate to be the fellow that was under me, because I only had a lap lap on. So anyhow we climbed up onto the wharf, and they lined us up there, then they marched us, or strolled us, up the main street of Cairns
to the Bluebird Café. And I think we went in there, and there was a pub opposite, and some of the fellows said “Blow the eggs, we’re going to have a beer. We haven’t had a beer for three months.” So they went in there, and we went into the Bluebird Café, and all I wanted was bread. I was bread hungry. And I reckon I ate nearly a loaf of bread in there. While all this was being done,
it was a Saturday afternoon, and all the shops had been shut, and the local Red Cross opened up, got in touch with all the owners of the shops, and got them to open, so that they could get clothes. And then they arranged coaches, and they took us out to the college out there. And at the college
they gave us a razor each, and we had a shower, and we had to throw whatever rags we had on, in a heap, and they destroyed those in case they had any germs on. So we had a shower and a shave and I had three months—as I said I had my head shaved, so I had more whiskers on my face than on my head. So I got all that off. And
we were given leave to go into Cairns that night, if we wanted to, but most of them stayed home. But one of the things that, firstly where they were going to put us, we were going to sleep on the concrete. So then someone said “No, we’ll take them to so and so college, at least they’re got wooden floors there.” I’ve got letters that
the mayor of Cairns wrote at the time, and said it was an absolute disgrace what they did to these.
People didn’t know, obviously, what had happened to you in the previous—
The officers were put up in a motel, and the fellows were taken to this college, and slept on the floor. And he’s very scathing in his remarks. He said every motel should have taken some of them in Cairns, so that they could
sleep in a bed.
Well what was your state of health at this stage?
Well, I started to pick up once I hit Australia. I thought I was better than what I was, but some of them were very sick. Some of the fellows, about half a dozen on our boat, they were taken direct to the Cairns hospital. And they were there for some weeks after. But the general state of health was pretty bad. Everyone
was suffering from malnutrition. Everyone had malaria, there wasn’t one that didn’t have malaria. A lot of them had all sorts of scrub problems. I had a skin one, I’d never had a skin like it. I come up with pimples all down my body. And the scars are still there this long after. But I picked up from the time I
got food again, and started to get some medical treatment. I picked up reasonably quick. So we only stayed the one night in Cairns. Oh, and after we’d had the shower and that, by this time the local Red Cross had set up tables in the yards of the school, and we walked along there with a towel around each one of us and righto, they started off. You got shoes,
a pair of shoes, anything that would fit you.. Be they running shoes, any sort of shoes, boots. Then you got socks, then you went along, and you got a pair of trousers, any colour, as long as they fitted you, roughly. Then a shirt and underwear, and that’s how they fitted us out. And the next morning they put us the train, and we came into Brisbane like that. And we used to pull into stations
and they’d wonder, ‘What the devil are all these blokes?’ No-one dressed the same, all in different gear. And we came straight through to Melbourne. We changed trains about three times. One fellow died at Brisbane, and another got right through to Albury, where we had to change. And he had a bad attack on Albury station, and he died on the Albury station.
What sort of attack?
He just collapsed. I don’t know what they put it down that he actually died from. But he was in such a bad way, he’d just given up I think.
So what happens in that situation? Did they have a burial service for him there?
I don’t know.
So you just kept going?
We just kept going. And I started to take sick in Albury. I was sick at Albury, and we had to
come through to Melbourne, and by the time I got to Melbourne, I had a decent dose of malaria. And when we got to Melbourne, they had the Red Cross there to meet us, with cars, and they took us out to Watsonia Barracks. I got out there, and of course they’d all been away for fifteen months, they all wanted to get home. So they’re all clamouring to get leave passes and what not.
And I was sitting on the steps of one of the huts there, and some fellow came up to me, one of the soldiers out there, and he said “Are you all right, mate?” And I said “I’ve been better.” He said “You don’t look to good to me.” And he said, “Just a minute.” So he went away and the next minute they came around and they grabbed me and put me straight into hospital there, in the camp hospital. Anyhow I don’t
remember any more of the night, and the next morning. With malaria, the type of malaria that I had, it sort of varied. One day you’d be as sick as a dog, and the next day you wouldn’t be too bad. And the next day, you’d be real bad again. Anyhow the next morning the doctor came around, I woke up, and he said, “How are you this morning?” And I said “Not bad,
not bad.” I said “Where’s my leave pass” He said, “You’re not getting a leave pass.” He said, “Do you know we’ve changed your bed three times during the night? We’ve been up, we’ve been at you, all night.” I said “Oh, that’s only malaria, don’t worry about that.” I said, “I want to get home.” All the other boys had gone, I was the only there. He said, “Oh, I don’t know, you should be taken straight to Heidelberg.” I said “Oh,
come on, I’ve been away. I want to go home.” So he finally relented, with the promise from me that if I took sick, that I get in touch with the local repat MO [Medical Officer] over here at Murrumbeena. So I got home. And about seven o’ clock that night I got—and of course my girlfriend at the time and her mother, they’d never seen anyone with
malaria before. Anyhow they nursed me through it. And they got the doctor the next day, and he said, “Oh, he should be in the hospital really. Should be in hospital.” They said “Oh, let’s have him for a couple more days here, he’s all right. We’ll look after him.” Anyhow, a couple of days and I didn’t get any better so finally they relented, and I got sent out to Heidelberg, out to the repat. And that was the start of a chain of trips to
Heidelberg. It just went on and on and on. I’d be in there for a couple of weeks, and then I’d get all right. Because we were all due for disembarkation leave for the time we’d been away, and I’d get my leave pass and go home, and two days later I’d be back in there. And this went on, practically, for the rest of 1942. I was in and out of hospital there, umpteen dozen times.
And this was all malaria, was it?
Malaria, yeah. And I soon built up, because of the malnutrition, they put us on a special diet that was the envy of the hospital out there. And we’d get a block of chocolate, and of course you couldn’t buy chocolate in those days, a block of chocolate and a little bottle of stout every day we used to get. And within, I would say, a couple of months I was pretty well back to twelve stone again.
Well, just going
back to your experience on Rabaul, at what point had your health started to deteriorate? Because you said initially you were one of the youngest and strongest.
I would say four weeks after the landing. The last four weeks it just got gradually worse. And looking back on it now, I would say definitely it was the lack of food. The lack of food more than anything, because I’m a big eater. I’ve got a big body to fill up.
And I think it was malnutrition that was affecting it, and of course, a lack of proper sleep. All these things, they all sort of join up together, and they make it pretty difficult.
Yes, I was just wondering how you must have felt, that was a long time to be trekking across the island.
Did you ever encounter any Japanese? I think you mentioned at one stage you were almost ambushed by Japanese? Did you come across them again?
No, they came down the island a few times. A destroyer pulled into one of the bays near where we were one day, and I don’t know whether it was just they thought, ‘Oh well, we’ll just a let few shots go.’ They shelled along
the harbour there, the bay, and we were on the hill on the side, and we were watching this go on, you know. And we expected at any time to see the boats go over the side and them come ashore, but they didn’t. They just stood off and shelled along there. Whether they thought, ‘Oh well, we might pick up a few’ or not. But I didn’t have a lot contact with the Japanese, even though I was there. But, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to, it was just
absolute luck, that they were where I wasn’t, or vice-versa.
But you were unarmed weren’t you?
At what point had you got rid of your anti-aircraft gun?
That was in the first couple of weeks, the first few days, really. Because I couldn’t do anything about it. What’s the good of carrying a gun that you can’t fire? It was no good at all. But the whole,
the whole episode up there was something that should never have happened. We were left for dead up there. Left for dead. I don’t think they thought ‘Well, it’ll slow the Japanese up.’ At least, they’ve got to get rid of us, before they can use the facilities. And if we lose a thousand men, so what?
See, but you didn’t know that at the time, did you?
No. Can you remember what you were
thinking at the time? I know that’s a difficult thing to recall. Did you feel that you had been deserted at the time?
I did, yes. And the longer it went on the more deserted we felt. Although I knew that Keith McCarthy was doing something. But he was the saviour of that whole terrible campaign, or whatever you like to call it. We were thrown to the wolves up there. They
put us there, and said, “Well, they’re there. Let’s forget them.” And, of course, with the lack of contact and communication between sections and companies, it was just non-existent, non-existent. Once the Japs landed, that was the end of it. Nobody knew who was doing what, or where they were supposed
to go. And I don’t blame the officers. Some blokes blame the officers, but they were in exactly the same position as we were. They didn’t know what they were supposed to do, because they hadn’t been briefed on what to do in the event of an invasion. They should have been briefed and we should have been in the position where we had food dumps, and we could have possibly continued on there as guerillas for months, and been supplied
by air drops. But they didn’t do that. Everything we owned was within a few hundred yards virtually of the waterfront.
And the other thing that I was wondering about, was there any dissension in the group that you travelled with. Were there any arguments or fights about what you were going to do next?
No, a couple of officers tried to give orders, but were very quickly told that it’s one for all and all for one here. If something’s got to be carried, or if something’s got to done, it’s one in, all in.
Interviewee: Norman Furness Archive ID 0464 Tape 07
To start off, Norm, would you like to read for us the note that was dropped to you on Rabaul?
Well, yes there used to be Japanese planes fly over regularly. A lot of them were on their way to bomb Port Moresby and other areas in New Guinea, but they used to fly along the coast, and along there they used to drop messages. And this is one of the messages that were dropped : “To the officers and soldiers of this island.
Surrender at once and we will guarantee your life, treating you as war prisoners. To those who resist us will be killed, one and all. Consider seriously if you can find either food or no way of escape off this island, and you’ll only die of hunger unless you surrender. January 23rd, 1942. The Japanese Commander in Chief.” And there were thousands of those dropped along the coast.
Anywhere that we might have been walking at the time.
Did you come across any of them?
Yeah. I saw some of them. I didn’t take any notice of them, other than we had our experience at St Pauls. We were up near St Pauls when we were going to surrender. There was never any thought of surrendering after that, as far as I was concerned. If they caught us, they caught us. If they didn’t, they didn’t.
Well, why didn’t you consider surrendering?
Well, by this time we had heard about what had happened to the ones that had surrendered over on the south coast, and it was apparent then that the Japanese weren’t prepared to take you as prisoners of war, they were just as likely to execute you on the spot, which they did with so many. And another place on the south cast, Summer Bay Company, that brought the brunt of the attack when the first lot came
ashore at Vulcan, they got down to Gasmata, and the officer that was in charge of the group down there, was a chap by the name of Ted Best. And Ted Best was captured. He walked into a trap down there and he was captured, and became a prisoner of war. The other fellows that were caught down there, they took Ted back to Rabaul.
The other chaps that were caught down there, they kept them down there for a couple of weeks. They were all A Company fellows. There was fourteen of them. And they executed the fourteen of them on the spot, down there. And Ted Best, he was a POW for three and a half years, and he came back. He was the Australian champion runner, sprinter, in Australia for the
years just before the war. And after he came back, he became lord mayor of Melbourne, on two occasions. He was another—he was a good young fellow. Very good. But we had some good officers with us. We had fellows like Captain Appelo; I always thought he was a very good officer. We had Jeff Donaldson, who
was, who I’d met in the 50/76th, and Jeff Donaldson, about six foot six or six foot seven tall, so if there was anybody who was going to get shot, it should have been him. But he didn’t. He had two or three real brushes with the Japanese, with his group that he was with. He ran into a couple of ambushes, and they acquitted him pretty well, but they were armed. They
were a rifle company. There were quite a lot of them that were excellent. And on the south coast, the top officer there without any doubt was a chap by the name of Bill Owen. Major Bill Owen. He was the commanding officer of A Company, that was on the beach, and he got out with the south coast evacuation, and within
about a couple of months, he was sent back to New Guinea, as colonel in charge of the 39th Battalion, at Kokoda. And he was shot in the head and killed there. After going through all that on New Britain. But he was a tremendous officer.
Scanlan. Scanlan decided to give up on the south coast. He decided that—he saw some of the fellows that had been butchered at Tol, and he decided that if he surrendered it might stop it, this execution. So he decided he would walk back to
Rabaul and surrender to the first Japs that he saw. And the 2IC [Second In Command] of the battalion was a chap by the name of Major Mollard, and Mollard always said he would never surrender. But when it came to the crunch, he felt that as the next senior officer on that coast, he should join Scanlan. So he went back and joined Scanlan, and the two of them went back and were picked up by Japs, and
taken in as prisoners of war. But as a far as I know, there was only about three or four officers that were killed by the Japanese. But the others, by the time you add them all together, the ones at Gasmata and the ones that were picked up at various places, and the ones at Tol, you’re looking at the best part of a couple of hundred that were just executed on the spot.
One of the things that’s striking about your story is how unprepared the battalion was.
Well, apparently offers were made up there by—you see some of these fellows in the civilian population were also members of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, and they knew quite a lot about the bush,
and what you could live on and what you could, and how you could cope with it, the jungle. And apparently, some of them that were officers in the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, offered their services to our force, and they weren’t accepted, which was wrong. We should have got every bit of information that we could have possibly got on how we could survive off the land up
there. And even when McCarthy caught up with us, we’d been walking through plantations there where there was food growing, but didn’t know it was food. Tapioca plants, and things like that, that were growing in the native gardens. And we didn’t know they were food. We thought they were all part of the bush. And he said “You could have lived on those, which would have kept you going.”
When on the 23rd of January, when Scanlan put through the order, every man for himself, what did you think about that?
Well, really I thought, what else could they do? What could they do? How could we possibly get off?
There was no way we could have stood there and fought. No way at all, because we had nothing to fight with. And a lot of the fellow were unarmed, because they didn’t have enough guns to go around. Others had very little ammunition. Guns had been destroyed. There was no other alternative. I think this was the way a lot of us thought about it. The only alternative was to try and get off that island. And I think that was the
main idea, that if we got off there, at least we would have another day to fight somewhere where possibly we would have been properly equipped, to the job. As proved in later ones, they went through the jungle training school—see the campaign, I often look at the campaign on the Kokoda Track too, but that was different. Again, they had a little bit of training because they knew what was going on there,
on the trail. And the trail was very narrow. It wasn’t like a beachfront assault like we had. The Japs had to come up this track and they might have been able to get a few metres off it each side, where on the beach if they struck any problem, they just moved up and there was nobody there. At Rabaul, I would say at any given time, during the landings there, there would have been a couple of hundred troops
spread over thirty-five kilometres, with very low firepower, and that was it. And they had the ships shelling the shore, they had the air force bombing and strafing the shore, and the troops were coming in all direction. And where they met no directions, they just stormed ashore. And the next minute they were around you, so you’ve got no hope. We had no options at all, but to fall back from there.
No, but what I’m wondering is, given that you had no hope of resisting a Japanese invasion force, why was there no evacuation planned?
I don’t know. I can’t answer it. It’s something that we’ve talked about, the fellows over the years. We just—something lacked somewhere along the line in the top management of the whole force.
It’s easy to point blame at this fellow or that fellow, but that’s not going to achieve anything. What happened, happened, and I only hope that they learnt by it, which they did. They learnt by it for sure. The 21st Battalion and the 40th Battalion had similar experiences, very similar. The only difference between those campaigns and ours
was that they were equipped a bit better than we were. Because they had Bren guns and things that we never ever saw. And the only reason they got those, was because they were in Darwin for so long before they went there. And the things started to flow up to Darwin, where we were isolated. We were way on our own, and the only people we used to see was the mail plane come in once a week.
Other than that we had no contact. The navy never came there. The air force came, but their time there was very short limited, and the minute they lost their planes, the whole air force contingent was evacuated. They sent Sunderland flying boats over and they had to make a rendezvous down on the south island, this was before the Japs landed, down on the
south coast, and the Sunderland boats pulled in there, and took all the air force personnel off, the whole lot. So there was no air force personnel left on the island.
Well, how did you feel about that? I would be asking the question, “Well, why aren’t we being evacuated?”
Well, at that time we didn’t know they were being evacuated. They didn’t tell us what was going on, but that’s what actually happened. That they decided,
that, righto, they had no planes to fly, they had no planes to service, so we’ll take them off, and they’ll live to fight another day. But foot soldiers, you know, so what if you lose a thousand, you get another thousand. You don’t have to train a foot soldier that hard. You get him physically conditioned and mentally conditioned, and he does the job. A lot different to flying a plane,
or service an airplane.
All right but that’s a very mercenary way to look at your troops. A life is a life no matter whose life it is. Isn’t it?
But that was the pattern right through that campaign. The whole pattern about the island of New Britain—they evacuate women and children, and leave Australian civilian men there, that they knew had no chance
of getting off. There was no chance that you could get off that island all in one piece. Those that got off were the lucky ones. Out of the three to four hundred that got off, today there’s about forty of us alive. Some got killed with other units afterwards, and a lot have died since. And the 22nd Battalion, we’ve got about thirty that are still alive, spread over Australia. And most of them
are aged between 85, and quite a few of them are over 90 now. Judge Selby, who became a judge of the high court, he was in charge of the ack ack battery, he just died recently. 96. 96.
Sorry to keep harping on this moment, but it just seems extraordinary to me, because all the time in the army you’re taught
to follow orders, there’s a chain of command, you must stay in the chain of command, you do what you are told. All of sudden you’re being told “Every man for himself.” Was that a bit like having the rug pulled out from under your feet?
Yes it was. Some of the officers, as I said, were very good. Very good. And once we got past Pondo, things started to piece together. But with our little group, all of a
sudden, we lost our officer and we lost our top sergeant.
So how then did the chain of command work?
It didn’t. It didn’t. There was no chain of command. From about midday on the morning that they landed, there was no chain of command until we met up with McCarthy. Then once McCarthy took charge
of the evacuation, things started to happen. Officers became officers again. Some of them really put in, and took command again, the way that they should have, right from the word go. But I don’t blame them. Because in lots of cases they weren’t sure what they had to do, because no-one was telling them. So they couldn’t tell us because they didn’t know themselves. This was the whole
crazy aspect of the whole thing. It was a complete shemozzle. From about a month before they must have known that the Japs were going to come into the war, and that’s when they should have been preparing dumps and things back in the jungle, so that we had something to fall back on. Because I don’t think the Japs would have followed us right in. Because you can’t put them in, in droves. So they might have sent raiding parties in,
but if we had been properly armed, and properly equipped with food and medical supplies, we could have survived there, and had every chance of fighting off any raiding parties that came in. But what the Japanese wanted from New Britain, was one, was the airport. They wanted the airport for their planes so that they could bomb Australia, and bomb Moresby, and they wanted the harbour
facilities, which were as good as anything in the Pacific Ocean. They were the facilities they were after. And this was proved by the number of troops that they put into Rabaul after they took it, and the tunnels that they built there, with the submarines. They used to pull the submarines out of the water. They dug tunnels into all the mountains there, which was done by mainly Indian labour. Indian troops that they caught in
Singapore, they brought them over there as forced labourers. And they dug into all these mountains, put railway tracks in, and the submarines and the patrol boats, they used to just run them up into there, into safety. Because the bombs wouldn’t touch them. So that’s what they worked on.
So look, how did McCarthy come to command the evacuation? Had he been a part of Lark Force?
No, he wasn’t.
So how did he come to command the evacuation?
Because he was giving the command, from Moresby, to go over and take command of it. Without rank. And all of a sudden you’ve got a group of rabble there, really, of people that didn’t know what they were doing. They had no idea of the territory
or the terrain. They didn’t know how to live off the land. They had no idea where they were heading, and what they were going to do when they got to wherever they got. And it had to be the end of the island, what they were going to do when they got there. They had no idea at all. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue comes this redheaded fellow who’s in charge, and says, “Well, this is what we’ve got to do.” And he laid it down, thick and loud, what he had to do.
Like he told Cameron, but Cameron ignored him and took the boat which was vital to this thing, to New Guinea. Then again, Cameron was a good soldier and he proved it later on. He was decorated. He fought in two other campaigns in New Guinea, with distinction, but his idea, which I heard later, was that, well, he had
knowledge of the debacle that went on there, and he thought by getting back, it could help them in New Guinea which is possibly right. And while he did the wrong thing there and jeopardised an escape plan, he was still a brilliant soldier. So, it’s a conundrum, there’s
so many bits. And as I said earlier, I could sit ten other fellows that are left out of the thirty here that would tell you a story, and it would be similar but different. Every one, because every one had a different story, because different things happened to different ones. It’s a story that’s hard to believe at times. To think that
the things that went on there did go on. And how can you possibly defend an island like that, with a coastline like that, with a thousand ill-equipped troops? Impossible. Now if the Japs had had any brains at all, they would have ignored Rabaul, and they would have landed at the narrowest part of the island there, which is only about fifty k down from Rabaul, landed there and worked
back into Rabaul, and no-one would have got off, not a soul. They could have closed it up, they need not have done anything. But they didn’t. And, of course, the thing was when the war finished, and our troops went back in there. What did they find there? A hundred thousand Japanese were in Rabaul. A hundred thousand.
And all these tunnels. And what they’d done. They were bottled up there, they couldn’t get out. Our fellows couldn’t go in. Our fellows that landed there later on New Britain, they went up as far as the Gazelle Peninsula, and they didn’t go any further, because they would have been slaughtered. Because there were so many Japanese in there. And the Japanese wouldn’t go out. They weren’t getting any supplies,
so their ammunition was running out. But they were smarter than we were. When they knew that they were going to get bottled up there, they started growing vegetables. And they had vegetable patches all around Rabaul, which they were living off.
Do you find it hard to believe now?
Very hard. I’ve said to my family over the years, “How
the devil I ever got off that island I’ll never know.” And I went back there in 1982. There were fifty-three of us went back, and out of that fifty-three there are five of us alive today. That’s only twenty years ago. And we went there. And we stayed in Rabaul. We decided we’d go out to Vulcan Beach, where the little beach was. So they put us in little
mini coaches to go out, and we go along the road, and there’s tracks that run down to Vulcan Beach, and they couldn’t even find the tracks down to Vulcan Beach. And you know, we drove up and down there for a while before we could even see there where we’d been. And we went round to Rayuana where we’d been, and I went down and stood on the beach there, and we
had a service on the beach at Vulcan, and I stood there and I thought, I stood close to this place, forty years ago, and saw all those ships there in the harbour and I thought how the devil are we ever going to get out of this? And here I was forty years later, standing in virtually the same spot, and it was all peaceful again. And I’ve never forgotten,
and never will.
Well it was a very intense experience, wasn’t it?
Tell me a bit more about that escape that you made. Those eight to ten weeks that you spent trekking through the island. What was the morale like?
I think it was—once again, once McCarthy got there, we felt that we had a chance. We felt
something was being done. Before that, we were very doubtful that we would get off the island, or what was going to happen to us. But once McCarthy came and took control, we felt right from the word go he instilled confidence in us. And he was adamant that we were going to get off here. “I’ll get you off.” And he did. So,
that’s what I’ve always been so grateful for. But you go back to the boys on the south coast, they had a shocking experience along there. Fortunately we didn’t have that. They raided and picked up groups along there, but we didn’t have that brutality that struck along there. And I’ve always been thankful for that. But it wasn’t by choice that I was on the north coast, it just
so happened that that’s the way fortune took me.
Now you’ve mentioned a few of the plantation owners that were very helpful to the Australian troops. Were they all helpful? Were there some that weren’t?
You’ve got to remember that some of the plantation owners up there, it was formally a German territory Rabaul. All New Britain was part of Germany before 1941. So the Germans had pretty
strong roots up there. A lot of the missionaries that were up there were German. A lot of the plantation owners up there were German. And some were very good. Some had to be forced to help us. But some were very good. And one fellow I must mention was Father Frankie. Father Frankie was at
Talasea. He was the Catholic minister there at Talasea. And when we come through there, he helped us all. He was a German, a German. Anyhow, he helped us on his way, and we tried to get him to come with us. And he said “I can’t leave. It’s been my job on earth
to look after the natives here. And he said “All the teachings that I’ve done, if I walked away and left them there, would be lost.” He said “I’ve got to stay.” And he wouldn’t come with us, but he helped us all—gave us all a feed at his plantation, at his church there, at Tellaseah. Anyway, he finally got grabbed by the Japanese, and they took him
into Rabaul. When we were up there in 1982, the first fellow to meet us at the plane was Father Frankie. A little wizened up old priest, but he was there, and he didn’t know us individually, but he knew we were boys that had been through his thing there. And he told us the story that
night of what happened after we left. The Japanese came down, and they arrested him and took him back to Rabaul. And they accused him of helping the Australian soldiers, of feeding them and helping them. They lined him up, with his hands tied behind his back and they were going to execute him. And Father Frankie
said, “You can’t execute me.” And the officer apparently said, “Why can’t we?” And he said, “Because I’m a German national.” And he said the little pint-sized Japanese fellow looked and he spoke in Japanese to someone else, then they went and got someone else, and they finally come back, and they
kept him in captivity. They sent him around to the Catholic mission, around at Kokopo, and he spent the war at Kokopo. He met us there, and he conducted the service that we had in ’82 out at the war cemetery, and he came down and saw us all off again. And I’ve letters in there that he wrote to me,
and they’re beautiful letters that he’s written to me. And he sent me a little card, and written on the bottom of it: “From Father Frankie, a bell is not a bell until you ring it. A song is not a song until you sing it,
love isn’t love until you give it away.” Or something like that. And that’s signed by Father Frankie. And he died a few years after we got there, in ’82, at age 90. And on the south coast
there was an identical fellow, he wasn’t a German, but his name was Father Harris. He was an Australian, and he helped the troops up there, and they wanted him to go with them, when they were getting off. They pleaded with him, to go with them. And he basically said the same thing that Father Frankie said “This is my life.”
But the difference was he was an Australian. And the Japs got him, and they beheaded him. And up at the Croydon Monastery, up in Croydon here, there’s a chalice there that was entered into the church by the boys off
the south coast. And in a couple of weeks time, Beryl and I, we’re going up, we’ve got an invitation to go to the Salvation Army Inala Village, up at South Blackburn. They’re having a special remembrance day up there. That’s the day that the [NK] Montevideo Maru, which I haven’t spoken about as yet,
that was the day that it was sunk, on the way to Japan, with a thousand and fifty. They’re having a memorial service there, and they’re also having a book launch. They’ve put out a book especially about the 22/2nd Battalion band. And it’s called Raving True, that book, and they’re launching it that day.
And it’s mainly about the 22/2nd Battalion band, who were all Salvation Army fellows, and out of them there was only one who got out. And he’ll be there.
Well look Norm, was there any of the plantation people who were not helpful? Who were unhelpful?
Who didn’t want to know?
Well, there was a few. I couldn’t name them. But there was a few. I didn’t strike any personally, but some of the groups that came through did, and they refused to help them. And the ones that refused to help them, they just took charge and took what they wanted anyhow. If there was a chicken there, or pig there, or anything, they just took it.
And it was the same with the natives. You see the natives have got an unusual philosophy, in those days, it’s changed now, but in those days the master was the master. And righto, the master had to be something they looked up to. And they’d done that with the white man up there for a long time. The white man had been the master up there. And they worked for the master, and they did this for the master,
and the master looked after them, gave them money, gave them tobacco, and that was it. So then, all of a sudden, after the man from Japan he come, things changed. The master was no longer master. And some of them, got arrogant, that we were something nothing then. Not all of them, but some did. And in some places they ran into trouble. There was a few stirrers amongst
some of the tribes, again particularly on the south coast, they had run into quite a bit of trouble there. You might have heard there was a white cargo cult running in New Guinea and some of these people believe the white men were something nothing, and the black man was going to rule the world, and they thought this was the opportunity to do it. So much so that in one village, down on the south coast,
they shot two of these fellows. They were stirring up the natives there, to rebel against, to kill these masters, they were no longer masters. And some of them were really bad, and they were getting them stirred up. And our fellows caught up with them and anyhow, one of them, he stood right out in the middle, and
said this is our opportunity to kill all these white masters, so they shot him. One of our officers shot him. And after that, the other one got down on the ground and begged for his life. And they had no more trouble after that. He thought, they're not the masters any longer, and same with the Japanese. The Japanese
soon become the master, yellow master. Until things started to swing around again.
So Norm, the native peoples that you mixed with, were they helpful to you?
Very helpful. Very helpful. I’m sure we wouldn’t have got as far as we did without them, but we did have the advantage that we had the kiap with us, and he made a difference. When he
spoke to natives, they moved. They moved. He didn’t pull any punches. He told what they had to do, and do it, fast time. None of this take time. Like distances. Distances mean nothing to natives up there. You say “How long house belong to so and so?” “Oh, he no long way, master, he no long way. He lik lik way.” A little way. “He no long long way.” And so you’d walk another three or four hours. “Where house belong
and so?” “Oh, he close to now, he close to.” And you’d walk another couple of hours and finally you’d come to it. But they’ve got no idea of distance. And of course they can walk all day, or trot all day, and they can carry loads. Not that we had any loads for them to carry.
So would local people come with you then as you trekked across—?
Some local people did. Some. Not a great deal. Mainly the ones that were in the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles.
They joined us, but the civilians, the others, were mainly public servants. Mainly.
The native people were public servants?
No, the white people.
No I was asking if some of the natives came with you as you made your trek across. Whether they guided you?
No, no. They didn’t move far out of their own territory. And you’d pick up another lot then.
Well, what sort of help would they give you?
Mainly guidance. Because McCarthy said “You bring him along. Bring him along.” So that’s what they did. And when we got to rivers, they helped us across rivers and things like that. Helped us when we had some sick ones. We had a few wounded ones with us, and they helped them along too. They were the ones
mainly helped. But we never had any real trouble with natives on the north coast.
It sounds as though they gave you a lot of help in fact?
Oh they did. They did. The people of Rabaul, the people of Rabaul were marvellous. And I think we endeared ourselves to them, but they just couldn’t work out the philosophy that they did work and got paid three months later.
And I think they were entitled to that. And they were a bonza lot of people up there. And when we went back in ’82, we were allocated people to look after us. Everybody up there volunteered to look after a couple of us, and my mate and I, Dicky Coil, we got the bank manager and his wife from the Bank of New South Wales. They were our hosts, and he used to go to the bank in the morning
and open up the bank, and then he’d come and pick us up in his car and he’d take us wherever we wanted to go.
Interviewee: Norman Furness Archive ID 0464 Tape 08
Another part of your story that I was struck by was that when you finally made your way in this boat down to Cairns, they made you sit out in the harbour for twenty-four hours. Now how did you feel about that at the time?
Terrible. We thought, here we’re back in Australia, and they don’t us. And we’d been smoking native twist,
we got some native twist, so we used to roll our own native twist. And when we saw Cairns in the near proximity, we said “Oh, we can forget this!” And we threw it all overboard to get rid of it, thinking ‘Oh, it’s only a matter of half an hour and we’ll smoking cigarettes,’ and of course it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen until the next day.
How could they have left this ship full of wounded and sick men?
I don’t know. They didn’t know what we were. I can’t understand it. You’d have thought someone would have come out to see who we were. A strange boat sitting out on the horizon, but no.
But McCarthy was in radio contact, wasn’t he? So someone should have known that you were due?
I don’t know what happened. It was a Saturday,
whether they were off duty or something or other, and no-one was game to make a decision to send someone out, I don’t know.
I want to ask you a little bit about your reflections on the New Britain campaign in hindsight. I read in that book of yours, in December ’41, after Pearl Harbour,
and the Australian Government started making plans for the south west Pacific. They evacuated the women and children from New Guinea, that at around that same time, they’d sent a cable to Washington, saying that the garrison in Rabaul, will be hostages to fortune?
Well what do you think about that? Why do you think they
Well, I was never able to piece out why they’d do that. And there were so many doubts in all our minds. What was going to happen? We knew it was going to happen, but how was it going to happen, what we were going to do, we didn’t know. And when they left all these civilian fellows there, you know, fellows who had been living with their wives and their families, all of a sudden,
you’ve got a couple of hundred men there with no contact with anyone, other than themselves. None at all. We just though it was just so unreal. And particularly when another boat came in, that they started loading up with copper. They put the copper before the men. They should have put the men on, the civilian men. Righto, we volunteered to fight anywhere. But
it didn’t work out that way. One of the things I’ve battled now for fifty years, and I think it’s one of the most disgraceful things that has happened. When we come back from there, we had to fight to get the Pacific Star. They said we weren’t entitled to it. The reason we weren’t entitled to it, was that New Britain
and New Guinea were part of Australia. Mandated territory, it’s part of Australia. And we had to fight tooth and nail to get that. Under duress they finally gave it to us. But the other thing we didn’t get, and I’ve got letters I’ve written to every minister of Veteran Affairs for fifty years, trying to rectify it, and I’ve had some of the oddest replies,
that’s the Defence Medal. None of the boys of Lark Force, that didn’t go back to another theatre of war, were never awarded the Defence Medal. Now righto, some went back and served up in New Guinea again, and because of the time of their service, they were awarded the Defence Medal.
But the boys in Rabaul, and because of what happened to them, and their health, they weren’t able to go back up there, they were denied any opportunity of getting that Defence Medal. Now all the 22nd fellows, all enlisted in June, 1940. They signed the papers, that they’d serve the country anywhere in the world that they’re wanted. Anywhere.
As I told you, prior to the war with Japan, I’d already served with the militia, and I was an armed guard at a radio station. We came back from New Guinea, we fought for the Pacific Star, but we don’t qualify for the Defence Medal. Now if we didn’t try to defend where we
were—I can’t understand it. I’ve still got the letter in there from the department of the thing, and they said we’ve looked into the claim, and stiff cheddar, you’ve missed it by three days, the qualification period. And I wrote back and said “I’m sorry about that, that I missed it by three days, but when we were evacuated, in the condition that we were in, what was I supposed to say?
“Hang on, come back in a couple of days and I’ll be ready to go.” And then I wrote to another minister and they wrote back and said that was a mistake. So then they said you weren’t actually out of Australian, you were in Australian mandated territory, you never left Australia. So not to be deterred I had another go, and a different interpretation comes out on it. And it said
that you weren’t in the theatre of war for the proclaimed period that sets the eligibility for the Defence Medal. And it said Rabaul wasn’t declared an operation area, this is what it all goes back to, an operational area until the moment that the first Jap set his foot on the thing. And I said
this is ridiculous. So therefore they rectified the three days and said you’re a month short, you had to spend three months. We’d already been up there for twelve months. So the 23rd of January, according to their thing, was the operational date of the area. That’s when it became an operational area. And I said, well, what about the planes that came over before that? Oh no, that’s different. I said
how’s it different, if a bomb drops on you there, and you’re wounded or that, you’re not in an operational area. There’s got to be something wrong. And they said, well, that’s the way it’s laid down. And I said but you’re not talking about thousands of people, you’re talking about a small group of people that were virtually sacrificed in an area. I said there are exceptions to every rule, it’s only up to someone
to make a decision that you’re entitled to that. And I quoted a couple of things, and I said my own brother, my eldest brother, who’s dead and gone now, bless him, he was called up in the army in 1942, in the call up. And he went into the army, and Bert would never have made a soldier. Ever. Because he wouldn’t know his left foot from his right foot. And he went into the army,
and he became a cook, and he was sent up to Darwin, in about August ’42. The main bombing raids had already been there. There was a couple of spasmodic raids there, and he stayed up there for twelve months, and when was discharged from the army, he gets the Defence Medal.
Another very good mate of my over at the club, he was also called up. He went to New Guinea, in 1943. In a supply unit. He was stationed a couple of miles out of Moresby, he was there for twelve months, he saw a couple of Japanese planes go over. But he qualifies for the Defence Medal. And our fellows,
they won’t have a bar of it. And I’ve spoke to so many. Mrs Bishop when she was there. Con Shacker. I’ve been through Peter Costello, who I know very well. I thought Scott, the bloke who was in before the present one, I was very impressed with him. I
went to a couple of functions where he spoke up. And I thought this is the fellow who can really help me. And I wrote to him and of course I get a letter back saying that I’ve received your letter, I’ve passed it on to the proper authorities in the army section, and the same reply came back. We’re terribly sorry to tell you, but you don’t qualify for it.
So look it sounds to me as though you feel that Lark Force has not
been given adequate recognition. Would you say that?
I think they got a very rough deal. Very rough.
How were you treated upon your return? Were you debriefed? Were you looked after? Were you given counselling?
No. No counselling. I went to Heidelberg, that was all. Someone came round and spoke to us one day, that was all, whether we knew
anyone that had died, or if we could give them any information about any particular person, that we could name a person so that they could fix their records, and that was about it. And then, of course, the big tragedy at the end of it, the POWs that were captured, they were taken into Rabaul, from January onwards as they were picked up.
The ones that weren’t killed. All the civilian men that were there, were picked up. They were brought over on New Island, which is an adjacent island over there, the Japs landed there the day before they landed at New Britain and they grabbed anyone that they could there, including all the civilians. Which was the same as Rabaul, the men had been left there. The 2/1st Independent Company were there,
they grabbed all them and they brought them to Rabaul, too. So altogether, they separated the officers and the nurses, from the men. They put the men in the old army camp, they wired a section of that off, and kept the men there. And then on about the end of June, 1942, they woke all these men, early one
morning, and marched them down and put them on this POW boat, the Montevideo Maru, to take them to Hainan, I think it is, Hainan in Japan. That sailed from Rabaul, from Vunapope Mission, which is down near Kokopo; they saw the boat go through there,
and on the way to Japan, just off the Luzon Island in the Philippines, an American submarine spotted this ship going at high speed, and they tailed it. About two o’ clock in the morning, the ship slowed down, thinking possibly it was safe, out of the water, and the American submarine let go two torpedoes,
which both hit the ship, and within five minutes the ship was gone. As far as we know, there was about twenty survivors of the crew, there were crew and guards on it, guarding the fellows on it. About twenty got off and landed somewhere in the Philippine Islands, in a lifeboat. But
they struck hostile Filipinos there, and they cleaned them up. And about six of them eventually got to Japan. But there were no known survivors of the prisoners, who were all down in the holds. Now, since then, there’s always people that doubt what happened. Always. And there’s been pushes over the years
that these fellows were never put on the boat, that they were taken away and executed. Now there’s no proof of this, but it’s persisted. And in the mail today, I got a letter from this lady up in Queensland, whose father was lost on the so called Montevideo Maru, and she’s getting up a petition, because
she swears that her father was on it. And her mother went up there afterwards, and a native told her that all the white masters were all executed. Now, there’s others that have thought that. There was a bishop up there. Bishop Schumach, he said there’s no guarantee at all that they ever went on the ship. I’ve
spoken to natives up there. And I’ve spoken to local people up there, in the couple of times that I’ve been back there since, and I’m positive, in my own mind, that the ship did exist and they did go onto the ship and they were lost. A chap rang me recently and said he’s located a Japanese man who’s from Tokyo, who reckons he was a crew member. He’s the only surviving crew
member and he said, some of the men did get off the ship. Now I find it very hard to believe. This is sixty years later that all of a sudden, this fellow’s come to light and he’s said yes he was on the ship and these fellows got off.
Still it’s an awful way to lose somebody when you’re not really sure what’s happened to them, isn’t it?
I mean that’s the point really. That you do, in
the end, want to know what happened. Do you want to know what happened?
No. What difference is it going to make? All they’re doing, I think, is stirring up the emotions of people. I’m quite convinced, in my own mind that these people
were on the ship, and the ship was sunk and that there were no survivors. Now they’re dead, and there’s no way it will ever be proved, because the ship—to find out absolutely, they’ve got to locate the ship, which is in about six hundred fathoms of water, it’s about sixty years ago, and knowing the Japanese there would be no identification
on anybody. They’d never be able to identify anybody. And what’s the end result going to be? In the meantime people think—they’re stirring up people’s imagination, and what’s it going to prove? If they were executed, they’re still dead. It’s not going to bring them back. It’s not going to give them any relief now. Because most of the people that were directly associated with the people that were lost on
that boat are old people. Old people. And righto, fair enough, there might be nephews and nieces, but there’s not a lot of direct relatives. And the reason I say this, is that the bulk of the force up there were unmarried. Unmarried. So there was very few direct relatives. If they had brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters
would be as old, if not older, than I am. The few married ones we had, there was very few kids, and if they did have kids, they’re old, too. It’s not to prove anything.
So you think people should let it rest?
Yes. I honestly do.
I want to just go back again to your time recovering in Melbourne, when you’ve come back from Rabaul and you’re quite ill for a long time, really, aren’t you?
Did you have a lot of support in that time?
No. The DVA [Department of Veterans Affairs] were very good, like the hospital. But that was it. And then I got sent up, well a lot of us got sent up, and they took us up to Ballarat.
And we were in the convalescent depot at Ballarat, in Victoria Park, which again, was in tents. And we had a lot of sickness there. And in 1943, January, 1943, I was up there at Ballarat, and they came up and a chap addressed us at the meeting. There was a lot of people from all sorts of units
and whatnot, been sent up there, that had come back from various areas. And they said “You fellows have got to stay up here for another three months. They’re building you up and we want to see you get right. But we’ve got a problem.” So we thought what’s this? What are they going to do now? So they said “Up in the Goulburn Valley,
things are pretty tough in the Goulburn Valley. All the fruit is on the trees up there, and there’s no one to pick them. So what we’re going to offer you is three months leave without pay from the army, you’ll still be under army control, but on pay, if you’d help us out by going up and picking the fruit at Goulburn Valley.” So anything to get out of Ballarat, I hated Ballarat. So I, amongst
a few others, volunteered to go up and pick fruit at the Goulburn Valley. So I went up there for three months, and picked fruit, and earnt good money, because we were getting paid good money by picking the fruit and it was good. And the mosquitos up there were bigger than any I saw in New Guinea, and at the end of it, we were to go back to Camp Pell. It was
at the time, out at Royal Park, and we were to be reallocated to units.
Can I just ask, at this point, did you want to be redeployed?
With the boys yes. Yes, I did. As long as we were kept together. Yes.
And where were all your mates at this stage?
Well, they were assembling them all back, at Royal Park.
For medical examination, then they’d go from there. So the day we were to come back to Royal Park, of all things, I got malaria in Shepparton, and I got to the station, and I collapsed on the station at Shepparton. And they got an ambulance and they took me to the Mooroopna Hospital.
I was the first case of the malaria that they had at the Mooroopna Hospital, so I was in there for nearly three weeks. And then they brought me back to Royal Park, and the others had gone. The others I had been up fruit picking with, plus the others that had come back, they’d gone to Queensland. So I was immediately very upset about it because I wanted to get with them.
So I went around to the orderly room to try and get on the draft. Too late, you’ve missed that. They’ve all had the medical examination, and those that weren’t fit enough to back up to New Guinea have been allocated other units. Australian based units. So they said we’ll work out what we’re going to do with you. So I was there for about ten days, and the next
minute I’m back in Heidelberg again. Another decent bout of malaria. So I then got boarded, and they boarded me B Class, unfit for any further tropical service, and they wouldn’t let me go back there. So the boys that left, they went up to Queensland to the jungle training school, then they went up as reinforcements to the 2/4th Battalion, about sixty of them. Some of them were killed with that battalion, a
couple were decorated, about ten of them were wounded. And I finished up in Melbourne. And I got attached to an ordinance unit, and the job that we were doing there was preparing stuff to go over to General Slim’s army in Burma. And that’s where I saw out my days in the army.
How was that for you? Knowing that the others
had gone off—
Why did you feel so badly about it do you think?
Well I think mainly because I had been through so much with so many of them, that I felt I should be part of it. Should have been part of it. Then of course they start coming back. Some of these fellows, some of them took very crook up there. They had a very short spell up in New Guinea. Others come
back wounded. And two of my own platoon, Billy Marr and Ernie Sinclair, who I’d been with since the day I enlisted in the AIF. Ernie got shot through the back of the head. The bullet went in the back of his head and come out of his cheek. And Ernie Sinclair got shot in the side.
And a couple of others got wounded. And Billy Marr was never the same again. Never the same. He was a fellow who was dapper, a very clean cut sort of fellow, and he was not allowed to have a shower for the rest of his life, because of this wound that he had. He could wash, but he couldn’t stand under a shower like a normal person could.
And, as I said, out of all these fellows and the only one of my mates from the platoon that’s still alive, he lives up in Queensland. And we correspond regularly, ring one another up.
Have you ever made friendships like those ones, since the war?
Never. And since the war, I’ve been involved with the 22nd, and as I said to you before, I’ve got more bits and pieces, I think, than anyone that was in Lark Force has ever accumulated. Because as different ones have passed on, everything’s come to me. And I’ve got all these memories.
So you’ve got your own
I’m just really struck by how important those men are to you, Norm.
Well now and then. That you were prepared to go into battle again, so long as you could be with them.
Well, it’s something that is very hard to explain until you’ve actually been in situation. When you’ve been in the situation, and know, righto, these
fellows become part of you. And when they become part of you, nothing will break that. We were one of the fittest battalions, and longest trained battalions in Australia, before we went up there. And we carried on that way. We were
a hundred percent fit, until they landed there, then everything was taken away in such a short space of time. It was like a deck of cards, it just came tumbling down. And the worst part of it was, there was no way you could stop it. There was no way you could stop it.
Have you, at times, felt angry about having been left in that situation?
Oh, I did. But I think I’m over that now, though. Because I know I can’t change it. It’s a situation that never should have happened, under the conditions it did. And they say we were put there for a reason. And sometimes I doubt the reason we were put there. But to be put there, and
then not worried about, I think that’s wrong. I do think that’s wrong. We had a job to do, and we did it to the best that we possibly could, but it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough. Not through any fault of anybody, not the fault of anyone in the force, but more top command that should have looked at the position where
we were, more then what they did.
So you say for a while you were angry? When did that anger set in, that you used to feel? When did it begin?
I think from the time we got back and got into Heidelberg. When we came back, we finished up. We
had four wards at Heidelberg. Four wards. And that’s when the boys started to talk between themselves as to what happened. Because then the stories started to—this mystery of it all started to tie in somewhere, as to what you did, and what we did. What someone else did. And all these stories were just so different, and yet all had the
same ending. A disastrous ending.
And did you, or other members, of Lark Force try to express that anger? To the government or to the military commanders?
They didn’t want to know about it. And there’d be less about the Rabaul campaign known, than any other campaign that was fought in the Second World War,
because they just clammed up. They didn’t want too much publicity about it, because I think they felt guilty about it. That they should have done more. They might say they couldn’t do more, but I’m quite sure they could have. And I’m only glad that the 39th Battalion never come there, because unless they were equipped better than we were, they would have suffered exactly the same fate. You could have put another two thousand soldiers in there,
but unless they’re properly equipped with support, of air force support in particularly, you’ve got no hope. Because once the air force has got control of the sky over anything like that, that’s it. And the air force blokes, their lives were thrown away, because they were sent up
in planes that weren’t adequate for the job. They were never meant to be fighter planes. And they had no knowledge, or if they did have any knowledge, they never expressed any knowledge to us or the air force blokes that they’d be fighting Zeros. Top planes, capable of five or six hundred miles an hour. If they reached two or three hundred mile an hour, that was it.
I just imagine it must have been very dispiriting in Rabaul in those last few days, watching those Wirraways come down, and realising you were stranded?
Yes. Well, we didn’t know what was happening. We had no idea what the plan was. We thought they’d have a plan, but we didn’t know about it. But then it turns out they didn’t have any plan. There was no plan at all
for any evacuation. But I tell you what, there’s not a more closer knit unit than the 22nd. But unfortunately, it’s getting less and less every year.
So Norm, where were you when the war ended?
I was at Clifton Hill. The old tramway depot. They’d put a lot of the stores in there, and that’s where I was. And we went down to a pub, down in Queens Parade, in Clifton Hill, and I always remember, the owner of that had a ship bell, on the wall. And when it
was time to close the pub at six o’ clock he would ring the bell, and everyone would go out. But if there was anyone in uniform, he said, “Just go round the side gate and come in the back door.” I can’t think of his name now, but he looked after the ex-servicemen for a drink. And I used to drink in those days. I drink very seldom now, very little.
So what was going through your mind
when you heard that day that it’s finally over?
Tremendous. And you know why? I thought, at that time, that all these mates that I knew nothing about, what happened to them, would be coming home.
But three and a half years before that, they were all dead. But we didn’t know.
Had you been writing to them, Norm?
The families had. But I hadn’t written to anyone in particular. We didn’t know whether they were dead, but we assumed they were prisoners of war.
That got through that the POWs had been taken into Rabaul. We though they were possibly still in Rabaul. We didn’t know anything about the ship, then, that had taken them. We knew nothing about that. None of the relatives knew anything about that. The only thing that they knew about, some people, about that their sons or husbands or relatives were POWs, was in,
somewhere in the middle of 1942, in a bombing raid over Moresby, they dropped a bag full of letters to say that these fellows had written that they were POWs in Rabaul. So, all these people just assumed that their sons and loved ones were POWs.
Because the Japanese never let anything out, that the ship had been sunk, and of course there was no one to tell us. We didn’t even know they’d gone on a ship. At that stage. We just assumed they were in Ballarat. So when the war ended, the first Australian troops that were already in New Britain, that went into Rabaul, expecting to find Australian prisoners of war, found none. No prisoners of war. There was
Indians, and some British, and some American pilots, but no Australians from Lark Force. And that’s when they started then to make enquires. What had happened to all these Lark Force fellows? And they got in touch with the authorities in Japan, and it took until about mid-October, ’45, when finally they admitted that they were all shipped on this
Montevideo Maru, which in turn was sunk by an American submarine. The USS Sturgeon. And I’ve got a copy of the log book of the Sturgeon, and it said of course they can’t identify the ship, but they saw a Japanese ship, heading towards Japan, and they tailed it and they sunk it. There was no indication that there was any POWs on
it. As far as they were concerned it was a cargo ship. And they did what they were sent out to do. Sink any shipping. The Japanese could have applied to say that they were taking prisoners of war on the ship, and the ship would have been given a wide berth, but they didn’t. So it went down to the bottom. And all these people that had waited all those years,
Interviewee: Norman Furness Archive ID 0464 Tape 09
So Norm, tell me have you attended Anzac Day ceremonies since the war?
Yes. Missed one. I was in hospital for one, that’s all.
And why is it important for you to go to the Anzac Day march?
Well, in most cases now, that’s the only
time I see them. That’s the only time I see them. I think it’s important. I’m sorry to see it changing the way it is, in as much as I think they’ve opened it too wide. It was great when the boys marched together, then relatives started marching. And
over the last couple of years, now you’ve got women with pushers and things, and they’re so far down the line, to the people that they’re representing. And it’s stringing the march out too far, and they’re not taking into consideration that fellows like myself have got to stand around for so much longer. And I think that’s important. And I think that’s wrong. Righto,
if they’re teenage and they’re a direct relative, fair enough. But it’s just going to get longer and longer, and you’ll finish up it’ll be like a parade and not a march. So I’ve seen the good days.
So what’s important about getting together with your mates?
To talk about the old times.
What sort of things do you talk about?
Mainly the fellows that are
no longer with us. And there’s just this bond. And it’s not only our unit, it’s in a lot of units. But with our unit it’s something special, mainly because we never had any reinforcements, none at all. So the only ones left are the ones that we started with.
And Norm, are there things you don’t talk about? That you avoid discussing?
I don’t, no. I’ll talk about anything. I get a bit emotional sometimes. That’s just me. You can’t help that.
And is that something that your veteran mates accept?
I think so. Well, some of them are the same as
myself. Some are different. We’re all built different. And our emotions affect you in different ways, but you can’t change what you are. And I’ve always been a bit of a softie that way, and I always will be.
Well, that’s what makes Norm Norm, isn’t it?
So this is a slightly odd question. But I want to ask, what was the part of the war that you enjoyed the most?
I would say the part that I enjoyed the most was the time up at Bonegilla. I think mainly because of the volume of fellows in the one group there. The competition between
different battalions. The pride in your regiment. And that only happened at Bonegilla. The pride in the regiment was always there, but not against anything. Where up there you were competing against other battalions, whether it was in sport or whether in dress or in drill or anything else. That’s what I liked about it.
And the other part of the
question is what part did you hate the most? What was the worst part for you?
Without a doubt, learning about what happened to the others. That was the hardest thing in the world to accept. To think that of our battalion, there was over five
hundred of them. Over five hundred, just gone. We knew about the fellows at Tol. We didn’t know exactly who they were, but we knew some had been killed at Tol. But there were still five hundred missing. And that five hundred turned out to be the ones on the Montevideo Maru.
It seems like that was a terrible blow.
Well, it was I think because it took so long to find out. We didn’t expect anything like that. We though there would be a few, no doubt, died in POW camps and things like that, but we didn’t think of anything like that. That they’d all go in one hit. And you thought back, and you thought, imagine the death. These fellows were battened down in holes, they had no hope.
They would have drowned like rats, or been killed if the torpedo had gone through the hull. I don’t know.
It must be very hard to imagine. So Norm, you said earlier in the interview that the war’s been your whole life. What do you mean by that exactly?
I don’t think it’s the actual
war, it’s the—the companion and—I sort of went from, hard to explain. Our family broke up, I was a loner, and all of a sudden I become part of another
family and the family was my unit. Mum and Dad had gone, and my brothers all had their own interest, and my sister had her own interest. And I was the one out. And then all of a sudden I got in where I was somebody. And I was accepted, and I accepted the others.
And I get a phone call every now and then, and I spend time with them. And then apart from that, every July, the last Sunday in July, we have a barbecue, which we’ve done for years and years and years. And where do we have it? We have it up at the old Trailwell campsite. Now there’s nothing there. The only
remnants of the camp there are the concrete foundations of the cookhouse. We lived in tents there. And we go up on the last Sunday of July, every year. We get up there about ten o’ clock, and we have a local up there deliver firewood, any old firewood. Trees, anything else, dry wood. The first ones up there, we light a couple of bonfires.
A couple of fires there on the side of the road. There’s a drive-in area right opposite the camp site. We couldn’t get onto the campsite because that’s all fenced off. But right opposite there’s a drive in area where people can park off the road. And we go there, and this has gone on for years now. It’s BYO [bring your own] everything. There’s no toilet, there’s no nothing. And people go past going up to the snow on the A road, and they think ‘What the devil are
all the cars here? There’s nothing here.’ We put our flag up, and from about eleven o’ clock on, people turn up in cars. And we get our own fellows, and their families. We get families of fellows who were lost up there. They can come when they want to, they can go when they want to. They bring their own food. And we put the flag up, and we all sit around the fire there.
We take a barbecue up, and we have a few drinks and we spend from about eleven o’ clock to two o ‘clock there. And gradually we all break off, and we meet the next year. And that’s been happening for years. Until a couple of years ago, we went up there and we saw a for sale on the land, where the camp was.
Norm, I just wanted to ask you about this idea of having this new family. You got into this unit, and suddenly you’ve
got this wonderful sense of belonging to these men, and you’re all in it together and so on. How was it for you then when the war ended and you were discharged and you lost that new family?
Yeah, well, of course I got married then, then I started getting my own family. So that sort of—but I took a long while to settle down. A long while. And I went back to the paper mill, and
the first fellow I met when I got back there, was a fellow, a young fellow then, about a year older than myself, that was doing the same job as I was when I left there, when I went back he was the boss of that department. And he welcomed me back. They had to give you your job back. And he said “Oh, it’s great to have you back, Norm.” And he said,
“No doubt you’re anxious to get started.” I was married, and I had a family on the way. I said “Yes I am.” He said “Well, you can start on Sunday night at seven o’ clock.” I said “I beg your pardon?” He said “You can go back on your shiftwork job, starting on Sunday night, seven o’ clock.” He said “It’s a twelve hour shift now, seven Monday morning.” I just looked at him.
I said “You’re joking.” He said “No, I’m not. Your job’s there for you.” I said “Well, I’m sorry, but if that’s the best you can offer me after six years to go back on night shift, first up.” I said “Not for me.” So, I walked out of there, and I said “That’s it.”
He said “Well, your job’s been offered to you.” And I was living in Murrumbeena, and that was at Fairfield, and I didn’t have a car, which meant I had to travel by train from there, and then walk about half a mile from the stations to the paper mill. So I said “That’s no good.” So I went home and I said “Oh well, next day I’ve got to get a job.” So I got a job pretty quickly, as a fill-in, as a
storeman, in Nestles chocolate factory. They had a factory in the city, down Little Collins Street, in those time. I thought ‘This is no good, I’ve got to do something.’ So I went into the army rehab place, and got an interview there, and said “I’d like to get a trade.” They said “Righto, what would you like to be?” I said “What about a
hairdresser?” I thought I’ll be a hairdresser. I know I could do that all right. So he pulled out the book and had a look and said “There’s an eighteen months wait on that, for courses for that.” So he said “Anything else?” I said “What about a cabinet maker? I’ll do a course on cabinet making.” He said “There’s about a fourteen month wait on that.” Then I went through a couple of other things, and there was a wait on all of them. And I wanted a job, I wanted to get into something. So in the finish I said “Well,
what’s available that I can go into straight off?” He thumbed through the book, and he said “Here’s an opportunity, French polishing.” So I said “Right, I’ll have a go at that.” So I immediately enlisted in the course for French Polishing out at the Brunswick Tech, and I went out there for three months and did a crash course for French polishing, then I got a job then,
they put me in a job, and I started polishing pianos. Which is a top class work, polishing pianos, and I did that for eight years.
Now Norm, you said it took you a while to settle in. In what way were you unsettled?
In many ways. Something just seemed to be lacking. I drank more than I should.
And I just couldn’t settle down properly. And I’d get angry easy, these sort of things. It took me a while after that, to settle down.
What do you think helped you settle down?
See, I didn’t have a lot of interests then. I wasn’t interested in
football, that much. I thought I used to run before the war myself, I’d have a go at that. And I joined the Melbourne Harriers, and I went over there and tried that for about two months, and I got sick of running last. So I gave that away. Whatever I’d had had gone, it wasn’t any longer with me. So I think I slowly calmed down, and said ‘Oh well, you’ve got to get on
with life.’ So I stuck at the French polishing for eight years, then I got sick of it. And I got sick. Which didn’t help. Because you’ve got the fumes of the polish and varnish and stuff, all the time, up your nostrils, and I got sick, so finally I gave that away. And I got a job as a salesman. Which is what I should have started at. And I’ve been a salesman ever since.
I can sell anything. I’m quite sure of that.
Now Norm, looking back, did you feel it was a just war that you were involved in?
Well, originally I did. Originally I did. But there is so many aspects of it,
that you can sort of doubt the sincerity of it. Whether they did all that they could. I think they were prepared to waste manpower, not only up where I was, but in other cases too. They put people in impossible situations. But overall I think the cause was just.
Perhaps the cause was just but not the means?
Yes. Men don’t want to go to war. Men go and fight the war. But wars are caused by greed, money, these are the things that cause war, and it’s not the ones dealing in the money that get hurt. They might get hurt financially,
but a lot of people make a lot of money out of war, but it’s the average person like me that suffers during war.
I think that’s a good point. Have you ever dreamt about your war service?
Many times. Still do, occasionally.
What sorts of dreams, Norm?
All sorts of things. I have some wild dreams, and some vivid dreams, sometimes. But I get over them all
Yes. Scary ones, But I cope with most things pretty good.
And how do you think that the war changed you?
I think it made a better man out of me.
Do you? In what way, Norm?
Oh, in many ways really. The fellow that’s never been to war, he doesn’t ever know the real meaning of companionship. As far as
from one bloke to another I’m talking about. Where you depend on me to help you, and I depend on you. And if we go down, we go down together. And that’s the way it is. And unless you’ve put your life on the line, it’s hard to realise how close this bond can get between people.
You know we, on Anzac Day, we shake hands and pat one another on the back, glad to see one another, then we go on our different ways. But that hour or two that we’re together brings back all those memories. And we talk about what could have been, if things had been different. And we can
see how different things could have been, you know, with the set-up up there, and in other places too. And we talk about the current situations, and like in Vietnam—I think the Americans in Vietnam never really tried. When you think about the air power that they’ve got. They had no opposition in the air, and yet they got beaten there. I can’t work that out. You can see what they can
do, if they really put their full force into it.
And Norm, how do you feel about the way war is depicted on TV and in the movies?
It’s not like it at all. Not like it at all. I often say that. When we went up to Rabaul, in ’82, Jennifer Byrne,
who did 60 Minutes and the other thing, that was her first assignment, to come with us. So she came and she had the men with the lights and microphone, and that was her first assignment. And she came on the trip on the—we went up in the Herc. She came with us there, and the six days we were there, she never left our side. And they recorded all this for Channel Nine,
and finally it comes on the Channel Nine program, and the story starts to unfold. And she does interviews, similar to what you’re doing here. She didn’t speak to me, but she spoke to other fellows that were in the party. And then all of a sudden they show bombing raids. The Japanese bombing Rabaul. And here’s three and four
story buildings. That are getting blasted out. And I said “That’s ridiculous, there was nothing more than a single story building in Rabaul.” Most of them were old warehouses and things like that. And the next minute it shows an anti-aircraft gun. And it’s a Bofors, with two barrels, that you sit in behind, and we never even
saw a Bofors gun up there. So they picked bits from some other thing and slid in there. Which made it—the part of the interviews was right, because I know the fellows who were talking to her, but to put in the footage where it had nothing to do with Rabaul at all. Nothing to do. And I though that spoiled the whole thing. And I went and saw this
other thing, Saving Private Murphy [Ryan], and they just travelled around like they were down St Kilda, going around looking for Private Murphy. It just couldn’t happen. It just couldn’t happen like that. And they slot in footage that has nothing to do with the campaign. You go back to what I was saying before with the machine-gun. And you see them hold a hot barrel machine-gun, firing away,
and that barrel would burn your hand off if you even tried hold it like that. John Wayne, and all these fellows in—it’s just Hollywood. Or any film-maker now. They put in all these—and it looks so good, looks active and that, but it’s only a big charade. Nothing like it at all. The best picture I ever saw on the war was a very old film and it was called All Quiet On The Western Front.
And it was about trench warfare in the First World War, and from what I’ve been told by old diggers, it was as authentic as you could possibly get it. But these other ones, particularly the American ones, are just unreal. Unreal entirely.
Well Norm, I’m just about finished with my questions. But I just want to ask if there’s anything else you’d like to say now? Anything we haven’t covered or anything we’ve left out?
I only hope the few of us that are left, hang on for a few more years. I think that’s important. Important to me.
We’re going to pass the information that I’ve got, it’ll go to Canberra, and I’ve got so much information there. And I’ve only talked about a little section that I was involved in. Mainly.
And have you got last words you’d like to offer Australians of future generations who are going to be watching and reading this?
Well I think Australia, without any doubt, is a very lucky country. And I think it’s worth fighting for. We should have a strong defence force here. There’s a lot of eager eyes, all over the world, who would love to have what we’ve got here. And I only hope that the people of Australia realise how good it is.
You see how some of the other nations are torn by internal fights, and the wreckage that they’re causing. They’re not only ruining it for themselves, they’re ruining these countries for everybody. And Australia is, it’s a wonderful place, and I only hope that we’re able to go along and that common sense prevails, and let’s not try to
make wars. Let’s try and keep the peace. And let’s go ahead like that.
Well, thank you very much, Norm. It’s been a fantastic day.