Joining the Royal Australian Navy towards the end of hostilities, John would discover the official end to fighting did not necessarily mean an end to the dying.
He would serve with occupation forces and would confront the dying – and killing – up way too close and personal.
His war was one of transition, of managing huge numbers of surrendering enemies and still trying to keep alive.
John, you got into the war quite late and even then you needed your mother to sign a letter?
She did, yes.
Well my brothers were all in services, they all joined. I had three brothers and a brother-in-law and they all joined the various services. The army as far as my brothers were concerned and the Navy as far as my brother-in-law was concerned. I thought the Navy was the ideal thing, besides I used to do a lot of sailing myself down in Melbourne, so I thought I’d be better off in the Navy. I was never rapted in the uniform.
You did some of your training on Cerberus?
Basic training, yes, but it wasn’t a great degree of training there. We finished up on Latrobe and there was no great drama as far as I was concerned. But I went from Latrobe to Gladstone and then onto the Kinimbler and I spent two and a half years on Kinimbler and went straight up to New Guinea where we were virtually in the act of force. We would take part in anything that happened. We never got excited about it, let’s put it that way, as far as I’m concerned. We had the armament there in New Guinea but we spent most of the time chasing pirates.
You wouldn’t have been in the Navy long before the war ended, but unlike the rest of the family you decided to stay in service?
I may as well, besides it was something I enjoyed doing and I made a lot of friends so what else could you do? We toured the world alright. I retired in 1968
Which took you from World War II past the Korean War and ’68 would’ve been around Vietnam as well?
That’s right. We shelled as necessary. There was a lot of people there that shouldn’t have been around there. Our action was to clear them all out as much as we could. And that was an action. For instance we went into Rabaul where the Japanese were in force and still holding out in Rabaul in the tunnels they’d built into the Three Sisters I think they called them. That was on the Kanimbla. We had put in, not good guns at all, they were six inch but we’d down graded them and we were actually down to about a 10. We did a bit of damage because we could get in nice and close and blast the hell out of them.
And you went up to Korea during the war?
Yes, we were mainly cruising around, we’d be ordered to bombard a certain area and we’d bombard the area and that was us. Then we’d sail on.
How many crew were on your boat?
Well it depends. On the Kanimbla – that was the largest one and that was 200.
And you went to Europe with the Kanimbla?
We went to Europe, we went to the Victory March over in Europe. (Which John participated in). The Olympics were on at that stage. I was a guard on them.
You also went to Germany when the War Trials were on?
Yes, again, we were out of the trials. We had to adjourn down to an area, two to three kilometres away from the trials. They would say ‘don’t stay, don’t touch them, don’t be involved with them’. And that was a normal thing as far as we were concerned. There was nothing of any great ‘moment’ before we started back down towards Australia and then we started to get a bit hysterical because we were required for stand up and name ourselves – mainly against the Australian police force – that happened when we came back to Australia. Our Captain – he was a very dominant young man and he stuck up for his men, for his crew and that was us.
You were on the Kanimbla during the early years of Vietnam?
No, we weren’t, we’d got off her by then. I was on a tug by then (doing) just general tug work.
Where were you based then?
Did you go to Japan?
Yes. We became the occupation force.
You were an occupation guard?
How long were you there for?
Again, we were up and down between Australia and Japan and we’d take troops up and bring generals back and that sort of thing. We carried everybody.
I spent time in Japan only in telling them what to do. They were very obliging people by that time.
They were working hard people too and they still are. We got to admire them in the end. A lot of them we didn’t but most we did.
You have medals from Japan?
This one’s from Japan for the X where we went. That one’s from New Guinea while they were still playing foots up there. We had to take them out. That one’s from New Guinea. And then from there we moved down to Japan and took the occupation over and we were there for two years
And then you retired in ’68 and you came back here?
Well not exactly, no. we did a lot of moving around in the Navy itself, right up until the time I retired in ‘68, late ’68.
I’m going back a bit to Italy – there was a bit of a barney going on over there, it was a community movement over there and they were trying to annoy us and do some damage so we did a bit of damage to them too. The thing was, their damage didn’t get any talk about it. We got back to Australia to find we were charged with damaging a lot of their people. They shot first and we shot last. But we had a lot more guns because we had the armary. But we got here, we came down via New Guinea and back to Australia. We got into Fremantle to find ourselves banned. They weren’t going to do anything to us but we were not to go ashore and we (had to) stay there and do all this. And as I said before the captain was a very courageous man and he went in to bat big.
So the charges got dropped?
Well, they would’ve got dropped because we had a couple of thousand men, not all told because by this time we’d picked up a group of volunteers from the British Navy who were joining the Australians and of course Johnny just stretches his hair and says ‘you’re in the Navy, my Navy and you’ll do what I say. Now move those policeman from my ship.’ We all stood back and gasped because there was about a 100 something police. And they left, they left in a hurry. Well, that was the end of the thing. They mingled on and we still had an inquiry going on even when we got back to Melbourne. But nobody was going to take any notice of it. We didn’t.
What a lot of people don’t realise was after the war there was so much stuff literally dumped across half the world and one of your jobs was to collect it all up.
Oh yeah and we collected quite a bit of useful material as well as the ones we blew up. The most interesting part I think was that everywhere we went we got shot at. Stupid you know. They used to try us.
And that was pirates?
Yes, well they called themselves pirates by that time. They were the Reserve Japanese. We captured a few too, there was a Japanese General and we captured him and we put him in a little lock up in New Guinea. We finished with quite a few of them as a matter of fact. But we were there as superguards. We weren’t allowed to do any questioning or anything of that nature – it was all done against the Japanese. and a lot of them passed on by the New Guinea troops. They used to take them out and play games with them which we objected to because of the fact it was just sheer cruelty. You know they’d take one guy out of maybe four guys out in the day time and they’d just say ‘righto you go over there, you go there, you go there and then they’d put a noose around their neck and they play a game of which one of you is going to walk away and which one of you is going to stay here and they’d hang them, or they’d hang one. It used to amuse themselves. It was a terrible disgrace and I wasn’t very amused with it and I don’t think many other Australians were either.
Who were the people actually doing this?
The New Guinea’s. well they were the guards. And they just thought it was fun. That was the way we looked at it anyway they thought it was fun and we tried to get out of it and tried to walk away from it but we couldn’t walk away we were the superguards
How long were you in that role?
Sitting back here today and looking back, what would be you strongest memory of your service?
I think, possibly the time when we went up to Japan to take over Japan, that would be the most serious situation. New Guinea was not so bad, a little bit of so-called pirates but nobody ever believed these things. We were never worried about being anything. I know I got shot at – on the collar of my uniform and he was up a tree and he was shooting down, so I shot him. And he fell out of the tree and he didn’t get up either. So these things, they happen, it didn’t take anything, say there wasn’t any great moment in it. Sure, you killed somebody. It was a shocking thing the first one, the first time you did it. But after that, so what? He was shooting at me. I shot straighter. It was a war and that’s all there was too it. Nobody objected or anything of that nature. There was a chap there, Bill Bowles and he was one of my mate I’d made on the trip back from Europe, they shot him and he died and I made sure he died too at the other end. I got the other bloke. But I was not callus or anything of that nature, I was the moment. I’d seen him shooting and I’d seen my mate drop dead and so I just went bang. These things, you just, it’s a nature of a thing, in my book. Italy was one of the worst spots as far as the Australians were concerned. They just wanted to kill Australians I’m sure of that. Of course, they tried too but we re-armed ourselves with lovely stuff from the armoury – much better than ours on the ship, so we re-armed it and we did a lot of shooting.
This was during the occupation of Italy? So you had groups like the communists and that fighting for control of the company?
That’s right, yeah.
What did they have against Australian in particular?
It was the first ones they went for.
Do you know why?
We had good sight. I suppose we were better shots than they were, that’s what we said anyway.
Do you think about your war years much these days?
Ah, well I spent a lot of time in Japan and Italy and China. I owned a travel agency so I still had contacts.
So when you finished travelling the world with the Navy you started travelling the world yourself?
That’s right. It was interesting. I’ve never lost interest in it. I’ve always made friends in Europe and in China, I have some very strong friends in China, all from the war, I had a lot of them, because they knew me and they believed in me.
Interviewed by: Andrew Mole.
Voice: Vivienne Duck.
Produced by: Kimberley Price and Vivienne Duck.
A Riverine Herald production.