Xmas 1944 marked the
completion of my third year in the army and I was beginning to regard my
military experience as the wasted years of my life.
By coincidence I had signed on the Friday prior to the Black Sunday of Pearl Harbour 1941. The ensuring news was all bad. The Jap army over ran Malaya. I can vividly recall the sense of disbelief at the loss of the King George V and the Renown and when this was followed by the capitulation of Singapore, which until then had been regarded as impregnable, it was obvious that if the Empire was to win the traditional last battle then we were in for a long war.
The system of shuttling the re enforcements to the battle fronts was terminated and along with many others I was shuffled into a series of hastily formed units intended to create a Corps to face the threat of a Japanese invasion. A very real threat in 1942.
I went from Infantry Training Camp to Bomb Disposal and for a time took part in exercises which involved our unit racing into the blacked out city at an ungodly hour of the night cordoning off a street and digging a hole to recover a supposed unexploded bomb. As a viable unit bomb disposal quickly withered on the vine because it soon became obvious that the Japs were unlikely to bomb our Western seaboard.
The remnants of our unit was absorbed as foundation members of a field company integral with Gordon Bennett's 3 Australian Corps.
A reconnaissance had shown that no traffic bridge between the railhead and the North had the capacity to take a General Grant, the then standard fighting unit of the very efficient Tank Corps. Of the many machines that had been listed on the establishment of the Bomb Disposal Unit one of the few items we received in full was a number of portable generators and we were seconded to various units to provide lighting to enable the work of re enforcing the bridges to go forward in continuous shifts.
By the time the bridges had been finished the Battle of the Coral Sea had been fought and its outcome marked the end of the 3rd Australian Corps.
Many units were disbanded and sent off as re enforcements to the Islands. Our field company degenerated into a holding company and after functioning as such at several locations we passed through a training camp at Wagga Wagga and we were finally rushed to the Granville Trotting Ground with the grapevine buzzing to the rumour that we were to be reformed equipped and sent overseas. Fifteen months later we were still at Granville guarding a stand of some hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of heavy duty earth moving equipment.
The newspapers of the day featured articles of airstrips being created by logs being hauled manually to smooth strips for the fighter aircraft whilst day in day out our unit dutifully patrolled the perimeter of the trotting ground in which lines of sophisticated machines were stored for anyone of which an Aerodrome Construction Company would have given their eye teeth.
The morale of our unit was low. We believed and from subsequent advice, it seems that for once we were right, that the Army had lost us.
We had lost our A.I.F officers to the Islands. Our C.O. was an elderly civil servant who celebrated his acquisition of command by going home on three weeks leave. Apart from guard duties and fatigues there was very little for us to do to fill in our time.To most of our regiment this was no hardship they were New South Welshmen and had homes or girlfriends in Sydney but for the rest of us it was a constant battle to fill in the days. In the summer I found swimming at the Granville Olympic Pool excellent in respect to fitness and interest.
One afternoon I returned to the orderly room after my swim and found a Ground Routine Order posted in which a call was made for volunteers to take part in a chemical warfare experiment to be conducted in a tropical locality. I spent little time on the detail, the line that caught my eye, the punch line, read, "at the completion of the course each volunteer will receive three days leave in his home state."
I had my application on the Commanding Officer's desk before the evening mess parade.
On army form it should have taken a month for my request to be processed, instead within five days I was on my way, marched out with papers to report to the R.T.O. Sydney Central Rail Station.
As the Brisbane express pulled out that evening I was one of forty volunteers en route to parts unknown. Volunteer guinea pigs for the Chemical Warfare Unit.
At Brisbane we joined the northern express, our coaches being the famous "comfort coaches" all seats removed and fitted with tiered bunks. Queensland in my experience was the only state to bother about the travelling comfort of troops and it was a far cry from the treatment meted out in other states. The train to a West Australian was like old home week, narrow gauged, steam hauled.
We rocked and bumped our leisurely way north through the lush rich coastal plains. There I saw for the first time cattle and horses literally belly deep in grass.
The only time we were off the train was for meals. These stops were again an example of what could be achieved by simple planning.
We would be warned one station ahead that the next stop would be a meal. As the train drew in we would be disembarked coach by coach each dis embarkment controlled by an officer and N.C.O. We would carry knife, fork, plate, mug and spoon. Trestle tables would be set out on the platform, each table covered and complete with salt,pepper, tomato sauce and of course jam. We provided helpers but most of the work was done by volunteer women axillaries. Another first for Queensland and as far as I knew the only State to treat serving soldiers as other than pests or worse. There was always ample hot water to clean our utensils before we climbed aboard the train.
Mid afternoon on the second day we left our train to continue its battle north. As it laboured off in the distance we climbed aboard the motor vehicles waiting to take us to the Chemical Warfare Unit Proserpine.
I had expected a tent village. Instead, we arrived at a well laid out camp site with solid buildings and excellent amenities. Later when it rained I learned why tents were taboo.
Our hut was solid, timber framed and camouflaged corrugated iron. Instead of the usual straw palliasse on the floor we each had a spring wire bunk. The evening meal was another pleasant surprise. The food was good , well cooked and plentiful. Additionally we would not be required for any camp duties.
The camp was administered for logistics and discipline by a separate army unit, but we the guinea pigs, would be under the control of a group of medicos and scientists, some army some civilian, who were in charge of the experiments.
The officer in charge of the camp, in command of the army unit and the medico scientists was a Canadian, with the rank of Major and a dubbed knight. He exuded personality and charisma.
Our first day began for us with the usual roll call followed by the shave shower prelude to the breakfast mess parade. Mid morning we were assembled for an orientation parade. It was at this parade we met the Major.
He began with an explanation of the censorship applying to the camp. All of our out going mail would be officer censored. We would post our letters in the orderly room box, envelopes would be left unsealed. Proserpine or Chemical Warfare Unit or experiments were not to be mentioned under any circumstances, nor were we to describe any of the local features which may give a clue to our whereabouts. As for incoming mail it was to be addressed to our service number and name care of a code number Victoria Barracks Melbourne for on forwarding to us.
Regarding the experiments we would be involved in he stressed that neither the Australian or any other Allied Government intended using chemicals in warfare but it was feared that the Japs could do so if things went against them. The work we would do in the days ahead would be testing the preparedness of the equipment and the behaviour of various gases under a multitude of conditions.
Concluding, he warned us not to underestimate the value of the work being done and to always, for our own safety carefully observe all instructions given to us by our supervisors.
He wished us luck and turned us over to
the NCO's working with the medico scientists.
We were promptly marched to the "Q" store where we were issued with American style gas masks. These were lighter than our standard issue and had a side canister which allowed greater head movement than the breast type with which we were familiar. The NCO's checked each mask to ensure a proper fit and the lens had been coated with anti fogging ointment. We were then told that there would be a two hour route march in the evening. Gas masks would be worn to enable us to be come acclimatised to them.
The route march was a comedy. It did not commence till eight o'clock because until then it was not dark enough. Assembled in column of threes we shambled off down a bush road. At the front and rear of the group an NCO carried a lantern to warn traffic. Thankfully it was a very unused bit of road. Inside the masks we were to all intents and purposes near blind, shambling along relating only to the shadowy figure dimly seen ahead. Unofficially, we had been warned about snakes and as we marched it only needed someone to step on a stick and the muffled cry "snake" would send us scurrying into the bush. Of course the practical jokers could not resist the chance, and we spent a good deaL of the first night in confusion. However the joke wore thin eventually, and him or they, whoever was responsible got the message and we settled down. None the less for the duration of the exercise there were some high steppers amongst the group.
The first experiment began the next morning when we were marched into a hanger type building, a big nissen hut. We filed in through an insulated door similar to that of a cold room. Inside the domed roof was dimly lit with two rows of light bulbs. A row of seats was built around the base of the wall.
The scientist in charge was a
meteorologist. He explained that within the building they could by the simple
process of switching reproduce a replica of the weather experienced anywhere in
the world from the Artic to the tropics. A full range of temperature and
humidity was available. The intention was to test our clothing and web equipment
under varying changes of temperature and humidity, but mainly we were to be
checked under changing weather conditions as to our capacity to continually wear
our gas mask. So for the next two days we sat, walked and marched in that
cavernous building , sweating and freezing, whilst the medicos checked our
physical responses. It was a lazy life but it soon became monotonous. Unable to
talk, encapsulated in the semi gloom of a gas mask the hours dragged and our
evening route march whilst a burlesque proved a welcome relief.
By the end of the week we were thoroughly bored and browned off with the routine and welcomed the weekend which was free. One thing I personally learned was the high degree of dry heat which can be assimilated by the human being and the low resistance there is to humidity. In fact until these experiments I had little appreciation of the effects of humidity.
With the free weekend we, the guinea pigs, were able to catch up on our laundry and correspondence, The camp staff, those not on duty service and civilians, went off on tours to the Barrier Reef.
Beginning the second week we paraded in our Australian issued K D's complete with web equipment. The day was clear and hot. We were told that our equipment would be impregnated with a small amount of liquid gas and we were to remain in direct sunlight for a minimum of two hours once this had been done. After the two hours we could return to the hut remove our equipment and the remainder of the day was our own.A scientist and his assistant moved quickly through us placing, with what appeared to be an eyedropper a pinpoint of liquid on our web equipment over our breasts, stomach, kidneys and shoulder blades. At each application as the globe of liquid left the dropper it momentarily moistened the webbing and immediately evaporated. It seemed innocuous, more so than waiting in the sun for two hours. We were glad to be release to the comparative cool of our hut to strip off our web equipment.
Our route march that evening was the last of that type exercise. By the morning we were all nursing blisters of varying dimensions where the gas had been placed. We reported to the doctors who carefully measured the position, size and volume of each blister. During the ensuring days the blisters progressed to obscene bladders of liquid,dangling udders of liquid eight to ten inches long swinging pendulously from breasts, stomach, shoulders and kidneys. We had to nurture the things. On no account were we to do anything to burst them. The bigger they bloomed the more delighted the medicos. The blisters were not painful more awkward. It was difficult to find a position in which to sleep and most of them burst whilst we were sleeping. Once burst the blisters dried off leaving an inflamed sore the size of a fifty cent piece which in turn dried to a scab. The scab eventually flaked off leaving the skin scarred as from a burn.
We experienced burns from several types of gases. The aim it seemed to test the effectiveness of the gases, the equipment and clothing. We wore apart from our own K D's, British battle dress and an assortment of American battle dress and gear We received many shapes and sizes of burns during the course of the trials. Coinciding with our recovery from the burns we were told our stint of experiments were finished and we could return to our units.
That evening a cyclone came roaring in from the Pacific.
The afternoon had been hot and sultry. When we turned into our bunks the stars were hidden behind a heavy overcast. During the night a high wind raged and tore at the hut. Rain followed and by dawn it was pelting down. Our hut was situated on the edge of a dry and dusty creek. By morning the creek was running a banker, chocolate coloured water foamed capped, frothing and tumbling as it swept along.
The radio told us that the Burdekin river was rising one foot per hour. The old railway bridge was underwater and the trains north and south were being held. A goods train caught on the bridge was stranded and two or three bogies had been swept off the rails.
In several cases men helping save stock had been swept away, they were feared drowned.
The rain continued for the next two days and nights, constantly. We were confined to our hut, venturing out only for our forays to the mess or the ablution block. For those trips we wrapped ourselves in our groundsheets wore our tin hats and did as best we could against the driving rain, the drops of which felt as big as bullets and arrived at about the same velocity.
Our creek seemed to have the capacity to handle any amount of run off. Once past the camp however , on the plain, a miniature lake developed to spread through the scrub. We were comfortable enough in the hut and passed the time playing "Slippery Sam" and "Poker".
The rain brought out the frogs, The din at night was terrific. Listening to their chorus it was easy to imagine that familiar sounds could be heard in the cacophony of their croaking. One group near the hut seemed to have a deeper superior sound to the others and it was easy to believe their theme was the old cry of the game "two bob in the guts".
We were just beginning to become bored and quarrelsome with each other when the sun came back warm and brilliant and the black clouds were gone. It was good to be able to get into the sun stripped to shorts only and to feel its warmth. As though like the frogs our hibernation was ending and life was blooming. The creek subsided as quickly as it had risen. The question on everyone's lips the big one" when are we out of here?"
At the time the cyclone hit we had been within a few hours of our home return. Our program was at an end. We could go. There was however one small hitch! No trains.
The Burdekin was still flooded. The
rail bridge was under water and it was anyone's guess as to when the track would
The camp staff were tired of us and we were bored. We lay about the hut thumbing through dated magazines and whingeing at our luck.
Finally, in all probability, to keep us occupied we were asked to take part in one more exercise. It was optional, if we refused it would be accepted. We had completed our original assignment. It seemed as if there would be no trains for several days and the exercise was one which the boffins seemed very keen to complete.
One thing was made clear there was a risk that some personnel would be burned. Every care would be taken but the chance was there and any casualties would have to wait to be healed even if the trains commenced service.
We volunteered in the Army fashion, by not saying "No".
New gear was issued us.
Long johns to be worn under our KD's,
American jungle greens complete with knee high lace up boots. To complete the
outfit we received a hip length double breasted anorak with parka complete with
We spent the afternoon trying the new gear for fit. We had been warned that it was important that we feel comfortable.
No time was wasted the next day. Straight from breakfast we were loaded into trucks and driven some miles into the bush to a swamp. The swamp was about a square half mile in area, bisected by a stagnant creek. It was covered with a thick foliage of reeds, grass and scrub. All lush green and shoulder high.
A mobile "Q" store was already on site and we were quickly issued with wrist tight cotton gloves and elbow length rubber gauntlets. Once the issue was completed we were assembled and warned to pay particular attention to the way in which we fitted our gear. Our safety would depend on it.
First the gas mask which when fitted
was enclosed by the parka with the draw string tight and secured. With the gas
mask adjusted the cotton gloves were then drawn on, to be followed by the rubber
gauntlets with the elbow buckle drawn tight and secure. the day was mild and
sunny but rugged up as we were we were soon a bath of perspiration.
We were next issued with 30 sheets of white cardboard each sheet approximately 20 inches square. We were then allotted a line through the swamp and our task was to move down the line as straight as possible and to drop a cardboard sheet approximately every 20 paces, each sheet was left face up and flat. It was planned that when we dropped the last sheet we would be on the other side of the swamp. We were to then return on this first trip empty handed but on subsequent trips we would be dropping new sheets going out and picking up the soiled sheets cards on the return. Once we had completed dropping the cards in the pattern required a RAAF plane would be called in and it would spray the area.
We were not told the name of the gas being used but we were warned that it was dangerous and to keep fully protected at all times when in the spray area. To ensure that we would be always be conscious of the presence of the gas it had been mixed with a red dye and would have the appearance of blood on anything it touched.
Finally we were told that it was inevitable that we would become soiled with the gas. It would not matter if it was on our outer gear but should the cotton gloves or gas mask become stained we were to report to the "Q" store where we would be issued with replacement equipment.
With theses ominous warnings warm in our ears we plunged into the swamp, the cardboard were bulky, but because we were dropping one every few yards the load became lighter as we progressed. The going through the swamp was not easy. On the first trip the undergrowth was thick and had to be crashed through. Clumps of low grass tussocks made a foot hold precarious added to which the firm going turned out to be a black glutinous ooze through which we had to scramble. Having completed the card drop we staggered back the way we had come. On our return we were allowed to slip our gas masks off while we waited for the spray plane.
Soon it was overhead. It came in at a fixed height and laid a red plume of vapour neatly on the swamp.
Masks back on and buttoned up we slogged back into the swamp dropping fresh cards and picking up the old checking them numerically. They were now covered in a measles like outbreak of red spots. Laced in our swaddling of clothes we sweated. Floundering in a black swamp beneath a tropical sun soon had us soaking with perspiration. The greatest inconvenience was in the mouthpiece of the gas mask, the perspiration collected in a pool in the chin recess and by the time we reached the end of our trail it was slopping in our mouths. We emerged from the swamp in technicolour smeared with red dye and dripping black mud.
It took 30 minutes to get the plane back. We were allowed to slip off our gas masks and remove the gauntlets and cotton gloves. Being very careful of the red dye. It was a wonderful sensation to breathe the fresh air and feel the slight breeze on our hands. The physical effort involved in each crossing was not minimal. Each time I staggered from the mud exhausted feeling I could not go back again. But on each occasion when the time came I went back through the mud and across the grass islands. The eye pieces of our masks had been treated with anti fogging ointment but they misted and in the middle of the swamp , half blinded, with the bitter salt of your own perspiration slopping in your mouth, whenever you could see the undergrowth dripping globules of red gas you had an awesome feeling of being alone in a medieval forrest of terror.
There were three runs completed in the morning and we had a break for lunch. The RAAF were due back at two o'clock so a half an hour before that time we were back on the job. Precisely at two they were back and through the long afternoon we repeated the morning performance. The contamination was much worse in the afternoon than the morning, the grass and reds were dripping with the stuff and we just had to push through as best we could.
When I picked up my cotton gloves to pull them on for the last trip I could see that they were badly stained. I went to the "Q" truck for a replacement pair and found they were fresh out of stock. It was an impasse. The cards had to be recovered. I was told to button the gauntlets tight and to chance it.
That last trip was the longest and loneliest of them all. In the depths of the swamp I felt I was choking in my own sweat. From the semi darkness of the respirator the world seemed a haze of dripping blood. Suddenly the claustrophobia got to me. More than anything else I wanted to get rid of the slopping sweat and to get a lung full of fresh air. Badly I wanted to perform the trick of slipping a finger inside the mask to let the sweat out and the fresh air in. But the menace of the globules of red gas held me. How lethal they were I did not know but I was not ready to find out. I staggered on and eventually and finally the trial ended.
When I handed in the last of my cards I was told to strip of the mask, anorak, gauntlets, gloves and boots and throw then on a rapidly growing heap. The rest of the squad had similarly stripped. The collection was dowsed with petrol and burnt.
Whilst we wanted to move we could not help but marvel at the way this lush green swamp had changed. It was straw coloured and dying. As we drove away a match was put to it and it burned with tinder like combustion.
Back in the camp and showering for the evening meal three of us had a warning of things to come. Our skin was prickling and changing colour. By the middle of the night , unable to sleep and burning hot on our upper bodies we found the only relief was to stand in the showers with hot water running down our bodies. From the waist up we were the colour of boiled crayfish. Away from the hot water our skin contracted and developed a burning itch which made sunburn or heat rash appear as some form of a sedative. The hot showers were our only relief. The doctors were very interested in our condition when we paraded next morning. They diagnosed the cause of our problem as our having entered the gas area without the cotton gloves. The gas in the absence of the cotton gloves had permeated the gauntlets gone up our sleeves and burned our bodies. The other two had gone in twice without gloves. I had only done the one trip but interestingly I seemed to have been burned to the same degree.
I recalled how close I had come to easing the perspiration from my mask and breathing the swamp air. I wondered what my lungs would have been like if I had inhaled that badly needed gasp of fresh air.
Two days later the first train went through. The floods in the North had subsided and the express schedules were back to normal. By this time we were over the blistering and had begun to peel. The skin came off in strips leaving near enough to raw flesh. We had to keep out of the sun, even strong light . We had to keep covered as much as possible, a long sleeved shirt was an essential safeguard.
The rest of the squad packed and cheerfully left us. They were off on their leave and any sympathy they showed at our plight was forced. They left singing happily if not tunefully, in trucks taking them into Proserpine where they would board the express. Alone in the big hut we felt deserted but we soon rallied knowing that in a few more days we would be on our way. In fact it was a week before the doctors signed us off as fully fit and ready to travel.
We were discharged on a Monday.The first train that we could catch was the Wednesday express. Responsibility for the transport was in the hands of a corporal, very efficient, very much on the ball. He handled our movement papers and briefed us on catching the train
" We are not taking you into
Proserpine. You can catch the express at the siding. They don't normally stop
there as a rule but the Stationmaster at Proserpine will tip the driver to pull
up. One thing however, don't mess about trying to find seats. Just get on the
train and then report to the guard once you get aboard, he'll find you a
He told us this on the Monday. Between then and the Tuesday evening we assembled our gear a dozen times to make sure we were ready. But at last the waiting ended and after the evening mess parade where we said goodbye to everybody we made our final pack and settled down to wait until 1 AM Wednesday morning. This was an hour before the train was due but we were taking no risks on it being early. We had been concerned about falling asleep but in the event we all remained restless and awake. At 1 o'clock we shrugged on our haversacks, rifles, knapsacks, tin hat and picked up our kit bags and lumbered over to the siding.
The early morning was clear and cold. As usual, the stars seemed big enough and close enough to touch. We stamped about to keep warm and at last with fifteen minutes to go, gathered our gear ready to move the moment the train stopped. At 2 AM a light appeared down the track and a distant roar told us the express, on time, was charging at us.
We shouted last minute advise at each
other as we drove forward, closer to the track. No one listened.
With a rush the engine flashed past. It seemed at a pace for a train that was about to stop. We waited for the brakes to go on. Nothing. The carriages, some darkened ,others ablaze with light, flashed by. We stood silent- three forlorn figures. The red tail light of the guards's van swept past and we stood silently and watched it fade from sight. For a time we could hear the train echoing in the steel rails and then that faded. We just stood unbelieving. It was incredible. We had been forgotten. Eventually, we trudged sadly back to the camp.
The young corporal was irate when we reported to him at the breakfast parade. He cut short his meal and made a line for the nearest phone. We did not see him until mid day.
"They forgot to tell the driver to stop." He said. " I took a strip off them,it will be all right on Friday. You can be sure they will stop on Friday."
It was unbelievable he expected us to line up again at the siding!!
We spoke as one.
"No way, next time we are into Proserpine, even if we have to go in during the day."
We knew the later comment was necessary
. The real snag in being taken to Proserpine was finding a driver to work late
shift. The corporal argued for a while but then agreed to our demands.
On the Friday we were delivered to the rail head after the evening meal and we settled down to wait for the express due at 1 a.m.
The train was on time and we fronted the guard with our rail warrants. It was obvious he was in no mood to co operate with the military a species whom he obviously regarded as pests.
"No one told me about you chaps," he
said. He scarcely glanced at our rail warrants. "I've got a full train. I can't
put you on . Sorry." He moved into the station master's office.
It began to look as if we would be stuck in Proserpine for the duration.
"What about trying him out with a quid a piece? " one of the others suggested.
"Good idea I'm sick of Proserpine, its
worth a try."
When the guard appeared we fumbled the three quid into his hand and appealed to him for assistance, Either the money or the appeal softened him , he said he would see what he could do. In a few minutes he herded us down the platform and into an empty first class sleeper. We did the trip to Brisbane in style. First class all the way.
At Brisbane I lost my mates, they were for NSW leave and sought a draught immediately for Sydney. I was for WA and as the saying goes, it, "took a little longer."
I spent a day at a transit camp at
Indooroopilly. The following night I was on the South bound express headed for
Perth via Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, the Nullabour. Travelling alone meant the
trip had its moments but that's another story, the most eventful happening was
an engine breakdown when we spent a day waiting for a replacement engine from
Cook. But because I was travelling by the Commonwealth Railways comfort cars, ie,
cattle trucks, I did not mind the lay day.
I was more than glad to eventually report to the RSM at Claremont and be sent off on leave.
As the RSM handed me my pass he said:-
"Don't bring your gear when you report back on Friday. I've another job for you next Monday. You'll get another pass when you come in."
Another two days leave. I didn't ask
what the job would be. I left with wings on my feet.
As always the leave went quickly. Three days gone in a flash.
I reported back on the Friday and received another leave pass until the Monday AM. However, this time I was curious enough to ask what the RSM had in mind for me.
" Escort," he answered brusquely "to Sydney. Any objections?"
" No, no not at all!" I left before he
took back the pass.
Escort, I really did not fancy the job. Probably some poor devil who had outstayed his leave and had been given a court martial sentence to Fremantle. I would be taking him back to his unit. It could be good or bad, all right if he played ball and behaved but if he was cantankerous it could be a nuisance. That however was Monday's problem. For the present I had another three days leave.
As ever the leave seemed to be over before it began and it was Monday morning and I was back at Claremont waiting to see the RSM.
In the event I didn't see the Sergeant Major. Instead I was accosted by a transport driver.
"Are you the NCO for the escort?" he inquired and following my nod he added. " I've got to take you to Guildford. They're waiting for you."
Guildford, I had expected Fremantle
where they sent the court martial cases but things could have changed. I loaded
my gear on the waiting utility. In the Army what the Army says goes!!
My bewilderment increased when I was off loaded at the Guildford Army Ordinance Depot Orderly Room. The driver handed in his papers , got a receipt and drove off with a wave of his hand. A few minutes later I was ushered into the office of the C.O - a Captain. It was then I discovered that my job was to escort five trucks of ammunition across Australia from Guildford to Liverpool.
Interestingly also, I was told that after I left Parkeston I would be travelling in circumstances where the Army could not provide food and lodging I would be paid 10 shillings and sixpence per day subsistence.I began to feel that my trip across the Nullabour would at least be an experience. I was assured it was standard practice so I guess it worked. The interview ended with the Captain remarking that he would see me later and summoning an NCO to take me to the goods yard to check the wagons.
I was shown five tarpaulin covered wagons and told each contained X number of cases.
I untied one of the tarpaulins and threw back the corner. Row on row of sturdy pine boxes packed the interior. I retied the tarpaulin.
"What am I supposed to be escorting ?" I asked. "The wagons or the ammo".
The corporal grinned.
" The ammo." He answered.
"How do I know its all here? It probably is - but I don't know and can't check it, what am I responsible for each case? What's the drill?"
"Well" he answered. "You have to
tranship, change from one gauge to another, at Kalgoorlie, Port
Augusta,Peterboro and Broken Hill. In theory you will have to supervise each
change and check each case because if there are any missing they'll try and have
you for the cost of what ever is missing when you reach Liverpool. There will be
some missing that's for sure. A case of .303 is worth money on the black market.
There's no way you can watch five wagons day and night on your own. I'll tell
you what I would do but don't let on I tipped you off. Back at the office the
Captain will want you to sign for so many cases of ammunition as the contents of
the five wagons. Well I wouldn't sign on any voucher unless he allows you to
endorse the voucher and your copy to the effect that one man is an inadequate
guard for five wagons. You will act as an escort to the best of your ability.
You will take every care but no responsibility for the losses. If you do that
you will be in the clear as long as you look after your copy of the voucher.
Come on the Captain will be waiting for us."
The Captain was waiting for us, very impatient to get away. He became very testy when I made my request to endorse the voucher. In fact despite his obvious wish to be on his way, he stood me down for a while but after an hour of stalling he consented to my endorsement of the voucher and receipt. I took my copy gave him a salute and left. I was sure this had all happened to him before.
We, my five babies and me, left Guildford at seven that evening, part of a long rake of trucks that formed a regular goods train.
It was a clear bitterly cold night, There was a miniature pot bellied stove and a good supply of coal to keep us warm. I dozed intermittently. At each awakening there seemed to be a new guard offering me a pannikin of black tea laced with sugar. Dawn found us clattering through the low green scrub and red loam country of the Goldfields but Kalgoorlie did not appear until mid morning. On arrival I was met by another Corporal. This one exuded energy and help. "Once they shunt the wagons I'll take you and your gear out to Parkeston. You can make yourself comfortable while we tranship. It will take a couple of days but you will leave on the goods train which goes on Friday night. We will get started this afternoon."
" Shouldn't I supervise?"
"It's up to you but you can't be there all the time. You might as well leave it."
It was sensible advice even if it was
ethically wrong. I was wise enough to know that if there was to be any thieving
done it would be done whether I was there or not.
So from midday Tuesday until 5pm Friday when the goods train pulled out I made myself comfortable. Three good meals a day and a comfortable bed at the Parkeston Transit Camp. I made it my business to get into the camp cook's good books and I boarded the train with a carton containing bread,jam, half a dozen tins of canned meat and a couple of pounds of butter.
The guard's van attached to the long rake of trucks was of two or three passenger compartments with an attached guard's cabin at the rear.I reported to the guard and he directed me to one of the compartments. The goods train was as near to an express as it was possible, it only stopped to take on water or to change engines. In transit I was comfortable as we swept along the well ballasted permanent way but I learned to loath the stops. Having ground to a halt, we had to, when the time came, get started. It was a long and heavy train and it took some starting. Our van was at the rear of the rake and by the time each set of buffers had passed on the slack the jarring blow with which we took off was an explosion of violence. After being tossed to the floor a couple of times I learned to brace myself against the opposite seat and hang on grimly.
We arrived in Port Augusta on time Sunday evening. Once again I was met by a helpful corporal. He told me it would be two or three days before we would move. The wagons for transhipment had not arrived. I left some of my gear in his care and set off to try and find some accommodation. Late on a Sunday evening was not the time to be searching for accommodation but I found a hotel near the station. After a shower I had a late meal at a nearby restaurant and found the hotel bed pleasantly soft after the rock and roll of the hard rail carriage seats.
My stay in Port Augusta was uneventful I ate, read, wandered about the town and generally rusticated.
The next leg was Peterboro, a short trip, I arrived late afternoon, met the usual corporal left him to arrange the trans-shipment. I booked into the hotel opposite the station and repeated the Port Augusta experience. As an escort I was a joke half the time I didn't know if my charges were part of the same train.
At Port Augusta a count had shown one case missing. I could only register the possibility that the helpful corporal and his gang had done themselves and the local dingo and kangaroo shooters a good turn. There was nothing more I could do.
From Peterboro I bumped up to Cockburn where the train was taken over by the staff of the Cockburn Trainway Company. This company was one of the two privately owned railway companies in Australia. The other was the Midland Company in West Australia. Each of these companies had received their franchise in the early days to provide a special service. With the passing of time the need had gone and in the 1940's it was obvious that they would be absorbed into their respective Government railway systems.
The Cockburn company was unique in so far that they no longer owned any rolling stock. A railroad company which owned no locomotives or wagons. The short piece of permanent way leading from Cockburn to Broken Hill was it's only asset. All trains moving from Cockburn to Broken Hill were taken in by the Cockburn staff. The South Australian Government Railways locomotives and wagons became, for the short run, Cockburn Trainway Company property.
I had to wait at Broken Hill the usual couple of days. The trans-shipment count confirmed the missing case of ammo and as this was the last changeover there seemed a fair chance of only being one case down when I reached Sydney.
We pulled out of Broken Hill on Thursday at dusk, the train comprised the longest rake of trucks I had ever seen, at least a mile long.
The take offs followed the patterns to which I had become accustomed. A long rumble of the buffers coming together culminating in the final shattering blow to get the wheels turning. Perhaps because the train was longer or possibly the NSW drivers rougher I learned to hate the starts because no matter how well I braced myself I invariably finished on the floor.
In the morning when I awoke we were stationary. I raised the window and looked out . Not a thing in sight. I went to the opposite window and put my head out. A guard walking back to the van looked up in amazement
"How long have you been on board ?" He asked.
"Ever since Broken Hill. I'm escorting the wagons of ammo".
"No one told me we had a passenger. How far are you goin'?"
" Right into Redfern. Where are we now?"
"This", he waved his arm in an
encircling gesture, "Is Hotham. There's really more than this but you can't see
it right now. I'm just going to brew a billy of tea. Come and have a mug."
I climbed down and joined him and stayed in the van yarning until the next stop a couple of hours later. Our long rake of trucks was switched to a loop line to allow the "Silver Bullet" to pass through to the "Hill". It was quite a spectacle, two silver coaches, reputed to hit 80 M/hr went through like a gale, leaving a cloud of dust and debris whirling in it's wake. This train was the pride of the NSW rail and as I watched it disappear from sight I thought how it would cover in a couple of hours what we had achieved overnight. Once more we were underway rolling along steadily through the afternoon.
The next stop was made at dusk, in fact it was almost dark when once again I frightened the life out of a guard when I raised the window.
In reply to his "How long have you been on board?" I told him my story and received an invitation to share a brew of tea. The mug of tea half drunk and my piece of spiced bun eaten he asked the inevitable question. "How long have you been in the Army ?"
" About three and a half years ," I answered.
"Well" he said "Looks as if you will be going home soon".
"What do you mean ?" said I.
" I don't know exactly. The Yanks have dropped some bomb on two of the Japs big cities and the Jap emperor has ask for peace terms. Apparently this new bomb is worse than anything they have had before. Just reduces the city to rubble. Heard it on the radio news just before I came on shift."
This was news indeed but the guard did not know anymore.
I would just have to wait until I could
get my hands on a newspaper. I had always said the war would end if I was ever
sent on embarkation leave. But it seemed it might be about to happen without
Next morning when I woke the train was stationery. I climbed down and found the guard. We were waiting at Katoomba for another train to go through. I told him I wanted to get some papers and he assured me the train would not be going for three quarters of an hour, so I went looking for a newsagency.
There in that city in the Blue Mountains I read all about or at least as much as was printed of Ngasaki and Hiroshima.
As I read I knew my war was over.
A week later I had delivered my five wagons, got a clean discharge with no mention of the missing case, for the want of somewhere better to put me I was returned to my home state for discharge.