Unbelievably, there are those who find the army not sufficiently challenging, even in wartime. In World War II, the army advertised for volunteers already serving who wanted a more dangerous life.
Those interested were transported by train to Wilsons Promontory. At the railway station after a five- or six-day trip, they were met by a sergeant. He pointed out Mount Oberon, the highest peak of the Prom, and informed the volunteers that he expected them to run to the top. Those he beat to the top would get back on the train to return to their units. Those who beat him to the top would be accepted for basic training. This was the selection process in 1941 for the Independent Companies, later called Commando Companies.
The Australian parachute training unit formed in 1942 at Tocumwal was also selected from volunteers already in the army.
Training was tough. Initial parachute training consisted of four jumps.
These jumps were made from Dakota cargo planes over open country north-east of Tocumwal. People still remember seeing strings of paratroopers tumbling from open doors of Dakotas and parachute blossoms descending in graceful arcs towards the ground.
On March 18, 1943, Eric Johnson, a 20-year-old volunteer from 2/56 Infantry Battalion, jumped as part of a string of paratroopers. A gust of wind caught his parachute. Instead of opening smoothly, the parachute was blown over the tail of the Dakota. There it snagged, trapping Eric and buffeting him in the Dakota’s slipstream.
Once he realised, the pilot manoeuvred his plane in every way he could think of to free the young paratrooper. Nothing worked. The Dakota circled the aerodrome. Eric bounced and spun in the slipstream.
This problem was not unknown. Walter Osipoff, a Marine in the US, had suffered the same fate. A scout plane manoeuvred into position beside him. Its crew cut Osipoff free and then pulled him into the plane’s cockpit. It took 20 minutes.
Tocumwal airfield sent up a Wirraway to nudge Eric loose. Failing that, the pilot of the Wirraway was to come up on the rear of the Dakota and open the Wirraway’s sliding canopy. Eric could then unclip his parachute harness and drop into the Wirraway’s rear seat.
The Wirraway was one of the slowest fighters of the war. However, when flying at low speed with the canopy open, Wirraways were also prone to fatal stalls.
The Wirraway was not able to nudge Eric loose nor catch him.
Desperate now, the Dakota pilot headed for Lake Mulwala. Once there, the pilot slowed to just above stall speed and descended low to the water. Eric managed to release his harness. He fell 12 metres into the water.
When they hauled him from the water, Eric was dead. The buffeting and then the drop had been too much. Eric is buried in Tocumwal Services Cemetery.
- John Barry, Coo-ee