Frank started in one war and by the time the shooting was over already found himself in another.
He finished up working in signals and served in the Pacific, where signals would be filtered from the sky and sent to interpreters – sometimes going as far as the legendary Bletchley Park in the UK.
And no sooner had the Japanese surrendered than his unit was told to start monitoring the Russians as the Cold War replaced the world war.
The hat you’ve got on, is it an original?
This is the original, 1942 model. When I didn’t wear it, I had it put away in a plastic bag. (Wore it everywhere but) not while we were in New Guinea, we wore the gigglehats then. It’s seen pretty good service. Well if I didn’t put it in a plastic bag, the moths – they love this stuff. This is the only one I ever had.
How did you first try to get into the armed forces?
Well I thought the air force would’ve been the good one. But no, they wanted to know too much. My age; my birth certificate – and my parents’ consent and all this sort of jazz.
And you didn’t have any of that?
Well I couldn’t, I was only 17.
So then you tried the army?
Yes, I thought that was the next best thing. My dad was in the army in the First World War. But he wasn’t very good after.
I did all my preparation work in Melbourne at one of the army centres down there. They had me tossed before I started, so I had to wait until I was 18.
You enlisted in ’42, where did you do your basic training?
First of all I started off at the Caulfield Racecourse – coldest place in the world. They lined us up about a week after and said what do you want to do? And I said signals, because I’d learnt the Morse Code in the railways. So I thought Signals, that’ll do, Bendigo training, I’ll get home every weekend. Such was not the case. They sent me out to Park Orchards out in the mud. I was only there for a week. Then they put us out on a train and sent us to Bungella that was 12 miles out of Albury. It was originally a big army camp I think a whole square mile was barracks. There were a few when I got there, but I think most of them had gone. And that’s where we did our training. Training was pretty full-on.
You did most of the intercepts with the Japanese. Did they try and teach you Japanese?
No; not Japanese, just the signals. They were using Kana. We ended up in the Pacific. My first trip was to New Guinea, Port Moresby. I was only there for a couple of weeks. Then they flew us out to Brisbane, just out of Brisbane. They established a camp there – Kalinga. (It was a specialist signals’ camp) It was very hush-hush all this, especially this.
How long were you in the Pacific for?
The rest of the war, on and off sort of thing. I went to different places. Port Moresby to Finchaven.
In the signals you were kind of behind the front lines, did you ever have any trouble?
Oh yeah, nearly got my head blown off once. That was at Finchaven. The Americans had established a bit of a dump there, a fuel dump. We were camped near the fuel dump and one morning, a mate and I were standing outside the tent just talking and all of a sudden BOOM and away she went. The Japs had this happy knack of sneaking these little blokes in. A plane had come in with his engine off. It happened in Port Moresby a couple of times too. They just dropped the bombs on the dump and it just went WHOOP. I got a bit that went just past my face. It landed at a mate’s feet and I said ‘Pick that up Jack’ and he picked it up and it was bloody hot so he dropped it. It was a casing off one of the bombs.
You were in Morotai when the war finished, still doing signals. But in mid-August you changed who you were listening too?
Changes to the Russians. I was there for five months there.
Were there any other times you felt in danger?
There was one night in Port Moresby, the first week I was there, a mate said to me, we’ll go to the pictures. You take a four gallon drum to sit on. And half way through the picture BOOM. One of these silent ones had come in and probably had a shot at us when we had the lights on and missed us. So that was a near miss.
There was one at Finchaven. When our boys landed and Scarlett Beach and took that, opposite to Finchaven on the other side of the peninsula. The Yanks had established a landing spot and the barges and that used to come in and unload there. The Japs used to come over every night and have a shot at us. I never knew I could get so close to the ground to be quite honest.
Where did your signals material go from you?
It went from us to Brisbane, we had a centre there. An Australian Army centre – very good too, they did a lot of good work. They were one of the suburbs in Brisbane. The Army bought a big house and they were in that. If anything was too big for them or if it was more interest to Bletchley Park, that’s where it went. The work finished up there.
On your way through the system you got quite ill with measles?
That was early in the piece, Bungella. I was in the army hospital in Bungella. But I didn’t know how long, I can’t remember. I was pretty crook, they sent for my dad.
He was in Echuca and he caught the bus down to Albury. A few days after that I picked up again.
In 1945, when you were on leave, you met someone called Heather.
Best thing I ever did in my life.
We had leave from time to time.
We met at the dance in Echuca. I walked into the hall and I looked across and there were these three young women standing on the other side talking. One was a blonde with long hair. I hadn’t seen a white woman for months. She was a good looker. I didn’t waste anytime. I started talking to her and had a couple of dances. Actually I’d taken someone else to the dance, my cousin. I said I’d have a dance with Heather and a dance with my cousin and this went on and on all night. Finally I asked if I could take her home and she said yes and I thought that was pretty good. Then I had two women. I didn’t ask her where she lived, that could’ve been a snag, she could’ve lived in Moama and that would’ve been a hell of a long walk home. But she lived about 150m from me. We were married in 1947. I didn’t ask her to marry me for a long time because she was living with her mother. Her mother had two brothers in the first war and they were both killed. So it was a pretty sore point, a bloke in uniform. So I didn’t ask for her hand until after the war.
What did you and your mates when you heard the Japanese had surrendered?
Home! We’re going home!
We were stuck in Morotai for another five months. We filled in the time alright. We took over an American camp and they had everything. They had cases of sultanas, bags of sugar, everything that we couldn’t get they had – and left it all behind.
And clothing, I didn’t buy any work clothing for I think three years. The biggest thing was to get it home. My best mate, he was a winery chemist and he said why don’t we make some alcohol. So we went to the dump next door. Just across the road there was a plane dump where we got all the tubing and everything we needed, all the aluminium. We had all the sugar and the sultanas, he had it all worked out he could do it. We made this distillery and everything. We hung a petrol drum up in the tree and run the pipe down. She’d burble away and the alcohol would drip out just a drip at a time; very slowly. The Yanks had a cordial factory there, or soft drink and we used to get the soft drink and tip that much out of it and fill it up with alcohol. It was pure alcohol – you’d throw it in the ground and it’d burn. We’d sell it back to them. They were dumping stuff out to sea. I bought a little wooden boat – took four blocks to carry it, geez it was heavy. We were camped right on the beach. We used to run that out to the boats and sell them the drinks. I forget what we used to get for them two guilders or something. We made a fair bit of alcohol – we didn’t use it ourselves – but put it in these other drinks and sold it back to the Yanks.
When did you get back to Australia?
About the third of January. It was a blasted great thing, the Liberty boat. They must have dropped some off in Sydney and dropped us on in Brisbane. It went back to Britain and broke in half on the rocks off the Irish coast. Everybody got out and walked off it.
And did you keep in touch with the people you served with?
Yes, we still have a chappie in Melbourne, most of them are gone now, but this chappie, he runs a newsletter, it was twice a year, but he’s got old now too and he finds it pretty hard to manage now, he might be a month older than me but he does a good job. But this newsletter was started in 1946 at Bungella, the chappie started it there.
When you came home did you just pick up where you left off?
I did a rehabilitation course. But I worked at the ball-bearing factory in Echuca, that was the only job. Everyone went to that factory. I bought a block of land and built a house on it and then we got married we moved into the house, it was half finished. By that time I was a carpenter.
Looking back, what’s the strongest memory you have from your time overseas during the war?
Wartime I suppose. It was the most worrisome – especially for my family. I’ll tell you about my mum. She had a father who was in the First World War and he was invalided home in 1917, he was pretty crook. He was one of these tunnellers who used to try and tunnel to the German lines. Anyway, our house was only 400m from the railway station. Every time I went home on leave, mum used to look after me like I was a baby, but that was beside the point, but I had to catch the train to go back to camp. Dad was the one who’d take me. Mum would not go near me to the railway station, she would not come with me to say goodbye or anything. It was just too much for her I think. Well she had; I was in the army, my sister was in the army and my brother was in the air force so she had three of us. She had a lot of people to think about. So she wouldn’t go near it to see us off, she’d probably break down.
If you had the opportunity to give someone a message about the war – like the young ones – what would you say?
That’s a bit hard, depends on the necessities at the time. I’ve got four young grandsons, in their 40s now. But they’re fairly interested in any stuff I’ve got. I wrote a book one time, only a small one, from when I was a kid up to the war. The wife goes crook at me all the time she says ‘But you never put anything in it about your army service’.
Is that because you’d like to keep it out of your life now?
Yeah well, it was nothing to do anybody else really. But I would not have missed it for 100 quid.
Interviewed by: Andrew Mole.
Voice: Vivienne Duck.
Produced by: Kimberley Price and Vivienne Duck.
A Riverine Herald production.