Memories of World War II: an interview with my grandfather

Last week I asked my father about my grandfather’s wartime experience since it was Remembrance Day and I had been thinking about it. He sent me an interview which my cousin, Lyle Shelton, had conducted with Pa in the years before he died. It’s fascinating reading and so I’m going to put it on my blog. At first I thought I’d just post snippets of it but I really can’t decide what to cull so here it is in its entirety (I have edited it only slightly). It is rather long and I don’t expect many people will read it but I thought it would be good to keep a record of it in the public domain.

A bit of an introduction first:

Early on in the war, Harry (my grandfather) was posted to various places in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. When the Japanese joined the war, he was called back to Australia to defend the country. From there he was posted to Papua New Guinea (PNG) where he saw a great deal of action in the jungle. He was a part of the Buna-Sanananda Operation which took place from 16th November 1942 – 23rd January 1943. Most of the following interview is about Harry’s experience in PNG.

Harry is my grandfather, LS is my cousin and Heather is my grandmother.

Harry: The background of the Sanananda campaign came from the end of the Kokoda campaign. The Japanese were driven back across the Owen Stanleys and they dug in on the flat muddy, swampy plains along the coast at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.

They had brought in American troops and they had been there some time, had terrible losses and had got no where. It was a very tough situation in that very swampy jungle. The Japanese were dug in with pill boxes roofed over and good machine gun positions and the Americans had had a bad time.

LS: Why was Sanananda so important to take?

Harry: They wanted to stop the Japanese from starting another campaign, to stop them reinforcing them. They were reinforcing them by submarine I think. It was important to get rid of their foothold on New Guinea.

We were in training at Port Moresby and we were rather frustrated because the Owen Stanley campaign had been taking place and we were itching to get into it and we had been held back.

At last the news came through that we were to take part and we were to be flown over the Owen Stanleys – not to walk over. So we were loaded into DC2s and flown over to Popondetta. There is an airfield on the coast south of Buna. From there we marched a long march up to a place called Soputa, a little native village. We camped there for a day or two.

The Colonel, Colonel Logan, and the four parties made a reconnaissance of the area we were to attack. The Americans had been involved in this area for about three weeks prior to this. Also two or three Australian militia battalions – the 39th and a couple of others had put in an attack on about the 6th of December on a big Japanese perimeter. The Japanese formed a big perimeter across the Sanananda Road and the Australians and the Americans had made an attack about the 6th of December with no success at all. The Americans had got to a position on the far side of the perimeter on the Sanananda Road and they had dug in there and had been there two or three weeks.

LS: Was that Huggins?

[Note: Huggins refers to a road block held by American forces just North of the Japanese position which meant the Japanese had to rely on a much more roundabout route in order to get supplies. It was named after Captain Meredith Huggins]

Harry: Yes. They had been able to take them a few supplies by a path around the big Japanese perimeter. (See map on page 8 of Hartley’s book)

The plan for us was for the whole regiment to move along that path to Huggins and spend the night there and attack further down the road.

LS: Was that to try and cut the Japanese off?

Harry: Yes. We were to try to reach Soputa point where the road reaches the sea where the supplies were coming in from.

LS: How far was that?

Harry: It would be about, I guess about five miles. Not that far.

The road had been cut through heavy jungle and it had grown up with Kunai grass – that’s the high grass that grows in New Guinea and grows up to four or five feet and is very thick. On each side of the road was heavy jungle.

We set out on the morning of the 18th of December along this track to Huggins and we spread out along the track and interspersed with some native carriers. We had handpicked some of them. We had to crawl along this path because in a lot of places we were within sight of the Japanese.

LS: Were the Japanese on both sides of you?

Harry: Just on the one flank. We would move around the edges of the big perimeter.

They sent out a patrol of ours along the Japanese perimeter and we lost our first man in action and another wounded who afterwards died.

Towards evening we reached Huggins. Huggins was on the road with the jungle all around it. We moved out of the jungle, across through the Kunai to the American position. The whole of the area surrounding Huggins was filled with skeletons, Japanese and American. We stepped over them and around them. That was from the fighting a few weeks earlier. A body doesn’t last long in that heat.

We got into the perimeter and the Americans were in a terrible state. We had been used to the well-fed Americans in Brisbane and these fellows were thin and worn with full-grown beards.

We were to make an attack. On the first early morning A Squadron moved out. While we were there in the perimeter these poor Americans were half starved and we had to give them – we did give them some rations to help them out a bit.

A Squadron moved up the track without any trouble. They walked up the road with no opposition and they reached a Japanese supply dump where they found a few Japanese whom they shot.

We followed them but by that time the Japanese were aware of what was going on we came under fire. We had to cross a log that was fallen over the track and they said “go over it fast” because the Japanese machine gun was trained on it. And so we did. We took a flying jump over it. A bit later on the Japanese shot a few men there and the track was closed off.

It was very hot. The day went on. It was extremely hot. In fact it was so hot a lot of the fellows had sun stroke and they were lying there in a dangerous position and a lot of the fellows were fast asleep because of the sun stroke. There was no water, only a shell hole full of water and we used to dip into that and tip a bit of water over ourselves.

We were lying on the track and nothing was happening and a message came back passed from man to man that D Squadron was to cross the Sanananda Road and attempt an attack up there which they did. They ran into heavy fire straight away and lost a lot of men.

Then word came back that my section was to advance through into the jungle on the left of the road with the jungle beside us. So we did. We had a sniper in a tree just close to us and he could see us as we moved among the Kunai. I moved around the tree but the fellow following me crawled under the tree and the Japanese shot him. A couple of others followed me and they fired on us heavily and my rifle was hit with a bullet and so we had to retire back on to the track.

Towards evening we got moving again and we got to a place called James and we dug in there for the night.

LS: You weren’t hurt at all when your rifle was hit?

Harry: No, it hit the breach of the rifle just in front of the bolt.

LS: That would have given you quite a fright.

Harry: Yes it certainly did and of course the fellow shot was close beside me….

LS: How close?

Harry: A yard, a couple of yards away. We were in the James perimeter for about a week.

LS: So you were in the first squadron that went up to James?

Harry: Yes. The remainder of the regiment were still back at Huggins.

LS: What company went up?

Harry: A Company moved into the supply dump and it was a big open area and they formed out in a line and attacked and ran straight into the Japanese strong position. One troop was nearly wiped out.

LS: How many in a troop?

Harry: About 17 or 18. One of the other troops was badly hit. We followed them up that evening. The remainder of A Squadron were coming back during the night but we dug in at James. We were there a week and we didn’t have much food. We only had three days’ rations.

At the end of the week they made another attempt from Huggins to relieve us. They came around the right side of the road, around through the jungle and eventually reached us. That was on the 24th of December.

 LS: Was that Lieutenant Morgan?

Harry: Yes. And on the 25th we were to take out wounded. We had about four or five wounded. We went around the track and we got back to Huggins safely with the wounded about midday Christmas day.

They gave us something to eat. It was half a sand bag of army biscuits all broken up into bits and a tin of ……… (butter fat). That was our Christmas dinner.

LS: How many men were in a Squadron?

Harry: I suppose about 80 or 90. While we were there, about the 29th of December, they decided to attack the supply ….. which went from James back to Huggins.

The troop I was in was picked to do it. We moved around the track to about where we thought the Japanese position was and moved in on it. We lost five killed and four wounded out of our troop. One was shot through the cheek and he walked out and another one was shot three or four times and he managed to crawl and we carried him out. But it wasn’t very good.

The next day the CO decided to put in another attack on the same position and they lost another five or six men in the same position.

About just after New Year they were trying to replace us up there in James and take us back to the main perimeter at Soputa and so we marched back. Thought we might have got a bit of a spell but we went straight back into the line opposite the Japanese perimeter. We were only about 30 or 40 yards away from them. We were dug into little fox holes.

LS: Whereabouts was this?

Harry: Back at Soputa near the perimeter. We were there for a couple of weeks and a pretty miserable place it was too.

While we were there my friend Lloyd was out in a fox hole out in front and one of the chaps who had been out sick came back and saw the movement out there and thought it was a chap and took aim and fired out Lloyd’s head.

We were there for a couple of weeks and they brought up the 18th Brigade from Buna. That’s the 9th, 10th and 12th Battalions. The Japanese were in a bad state by then. They were starving and they put in an attack one morning – the 12th Battalion, it was unsuccessful. We gave covering fire and the next day or the day after word came to us that we were to advance into the Japanese position. Later it was found out that the Japanese had abandoned the position but we weren’t told that. We advanced into it. Everybody expected that that was the end of it. But when we got there we found it had been abandoned and was full of dead men.

LS: Had they starved or been killed?

Harry: Both. Starved and killed. All the smokers gave their tobacco to their mates.

LS: What did you think yourself?

Harry: I didn’t think we had much chance of surviving that.

LS: How did you feel going in thinking you might not come back? Did you think about it at the time?

Harry: Yes, oh well, of course. You lived amongst death for a good while you knew what it was all about.

Anyway the Japanese were very hungry and they were starved. We found a dixie full of meat they had cut off a 2nd 12th Battalion man.

LS: How did that make the Australian troops feel when they saw that sort of atrocity?

Harry: They hated the Japanese anyway. It wasn’t very nice.

LS: That reinforced that hatred did it?

Harry: Oh yes.

Anyway our fellows were going out sick with malaria and that finished the campaign as far as we were concerned.

The small part of it that was left was clearing up the battlefield. We had to go into the Japanese perimeter and bury the dead as best we could and find the Australian dead. The Padre went with us. I was able to take him to the place where we put the attack in on the 29th of December and we found most of our fellows. Headquarters had maps of where other attacks had gone in and we found the remains of Australians that were buried there.

The finish of the campaign as far as I was concerned was when three of us were selected to escort General Vasey up to the 18th Brigade lines. We had to move around the Japanese positions through American positions through the swamps and back onto the Sanananda Road.

The swamps were just full of dead Japanese everywhere you went.

LS: From starvation or fighting or both.

Harry: Both. Wounded they hadn’t been able to care for.

We got the general off to the front and escorted him back through this track through the jungle and we just got back and they decided they wanted to send a team of native carriers up to bring the wounded back from the 18th brigade. So they thought since I had been on the track and knew it I could go with them.

LS: What date was this?

Harry: It was towards the middle of January. Anyway we picked up the wounded and brought them down the road and got to the edge of the jungle and night fell. We had to follow this track in the dark but we managed somehow and the next thing I knew I was stepping on dead Japanese.

I had been on the track and I knew it so I had to go in front. That was about the end of the campaign.

LS: Were you ever successful in getting through to Sanananda?

Harry: The 18th Brigade did. They finished the Japanese off.

LS: They came in and relieved your people?

Harry: Yes. I think only one of our chaps ever saw Sanananda Point.

LS: During this whole month from Christmas 1942 ‘till about the middle of January you were fighting over a piece of ground five miles?

Harry: Yes. The Japanese pill boxes would be heavily defended with machine guns.

LS: How many men would be in a pill box normally?

Harry: I wouldn’t know that. There was a fairly big number of Japanese in the positions. A lot of them died of starvation. They couldn’t get food in by boat.

LS: Was the fact that the Japanese were not very well supplied, did that help?

Harry: I think that if they had of been able to supply and reinforce their men I think…… We could only fly in supplies.

LS: How many men were in the 7th Division?

Harry: The 7th Division was three whole brigades, that’s nine battalions.

LS: How many men was that?

 Harry: A battalion was about 800 men I suppose. The whole of the 7th wasn’t at Sanananda. Only the Cav and some Americans and the 18th Brigade.

LS: How many Australians were involved in the Sanananda campaign?

Harry: The Cav would be about 350 I suppose altogether.

LS: Those 350, you had been with them in the Middle East?

Harry: Yes.

LS: So you would have known all of those guys?

Harry: Well I knew a big lot of them, yes.

When it was over and we went back to Moresby there was only actually nine left out of the whole. But that was malaria that played a big part in that of course. There were nine of us left.

Heather: What about Lloyd?

Harry: No Lloyd had gone back with malaria.

Heather: What about Alf?

Harry: Yeah, Alf had too. We all had malaria.

LS: What percentage of those were killed out of the 350?

Harry: About 60 killed I think out of the Regiment – out of the 350.

LS: Do you think when you said everyone was impatient going in because you had obviously waited several years before you saw any action, did people regret it in the end?

Harry: Well, they didn’t know what they were going into.

LS: Do you think if they had known what they were going into they would have had second thoughts?

Harry: Oh well, you do as you’re told, whether you like it or not.

LS: So how long were you involved in the campaign, just over that month was it?

Harry: Yes, it wasn’t very long. From the 19th of December to the end of January I think.

LS: During that period of time were you constantly in life-threatening situations?

Harry: We were in touch with the Japanese all the time. We were in foxholes of course.

LS: How did you go about digging your fox holes with the enemy in such close proximity? How were you able to move about and do what you needed to do to survive?

Harry: There were a few trees and bushes and we had a bit of cover. You couldn’t dig the foxholes very deep because the water would come into them. You could only dig them about 15 or 18 inches deep otherwise the water would come in. We used to dig long ones that you could lie in. You were on duty one hour on and two off the whole time.

LS: All through the night?

Harry: Yes, all through the night, every night.

LS: In your time on duty did you ever have to sound an alarm.

Harry: We were attacked one night when we were at James. They put in a big attack on us but they didn’t get into the perimeter.

LS: So what happened when they launched that attack?

Harry: They opened fire on us with heavy fire.

LS: From how far away did they open fire?

Harry: Pretty close in the jungle.

LS: What part did the Sanananda campaign play in the war in New Guinea?

Harry: It was part of the whole campaign. Buna was a worse battle. Very heavy Australian losses and American.

LS: You came back to Australia at the end of January?

Harry: We came back by ship, what was left of us. There were only nine left. The rest had gone back earlier. We went back to Brisbane and the unit was split up because there were so many losses and we were put into other units.

LS: Where did you go after that? You were in Australia for a couple of years?

Harry: Yes, ‘till the next year. Then we were flown up to New Guinea to the Ramu Valley. That’s up from Lae. We were there on Christmas Day, 1943. We were flown back to Australia and up to Charters Towers.

Heather: That’s where we met.

LS: What month did you meet?

Heather: I’m not going to tell. We used to go to church. There was a family there called ………. And they used to invite us home on Sunday nights.

Harry: Then I went back to Ramu Valley.

LS: What were you doing when you went back to the Ramu Valley, what was happening up there?

Harry: The Japanese were being attacked in that area and we were trying to push them back.

LS: Did you see action when you were there?

Harry: No not really there. I was in the engineers then and I wasn’t there very long. A few months. Then we were flown back to Australia and we were married.

LS: What month were you married?

Heather: November.

LS: November 44?

Harry: Yes. In 1945 we were put on a boat and sent up to Milne Bay and went up to New Ireland base and from then Borneo. I was involved in that in the engineers again.

LS: Were you involved in the attack on Borneo?

Harry: There were two attacks, one further north and one ……….. on the 1st of July, 1945. I had been in the Army for five years that day, I think. And I went ashore and they bombarded the place fairly heavily and there wasn’t a great deal of resistance. The Japanese had moved back a bit. We moved up the coast and fighting went on.

One morning I was operating the wireless set and the news came through that the atom bomb had been dropped and then a couple of days later they dropped the second one and we new the war was over.

Anybody who had been in the army more than five years they decided to give them immediate release.

LS: You were operating the wireless when news of the first atom bomb on Hiroshima came through, how did that come through to you. Who was it on the other end who told you?

Harry: We used to listen to a BBC broadcast every morning.

LS: Did you understand the significance of the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima?

Harry: We didn’t expect an immediate declaration of peace.

LS: Did you know what an atom bomb was?

Harry: Oh yes, we knew what it was.

Heather: I was in the hospital ward having Ian in Brisbane when the news came through, it was about the 8th of August I think. There was great rejoicing in the ward. It was a busy time for people having babies at that time. The woman across the corridor from me was delighted because her husband was due to go back overseas the next day. Peace was declared and he didn’t have to go.

LS: What did you think at the time, were you worried you mightn’t see Harry again?

Heather: When you are young you don’t think a lot like that. You just think they are coming back and that will be it. I never for a moment thought he wouldn’t come back, not for a moment.

Harry: I did a few times.

LS: While you were in Borneo or New Guinea?

Harry: More Sanananda.

Heather: We weren’t married when he was at Sanananda.

LS: You hadn’t even met at that stage.

Heather: No.

LS: When you were in Sanananda on Christmas Day in 1942, what was the feeling there amongst the men that were there. You had only been in action a few days and had seen a fair bit of tragedy already. What was the morale like?

Harry: It was a bit of shock when you see people killed.

LS: It must have been incredibly difficult because you had all been together for a couple of years travelling together.

Harry: We had been together for a long time.

LS: The book says that Logan was killed within a couple of days.

Harry: He was killed on the first day.

Heather: Aren’t the COs supposed to be at the back?

Harry: They are supposed to be but we moved in single file and he was just as likely to be killed as anybody else. He was hit and tried to get back but never ever made it.

LS: You were a Corporal during this time were you?

Harry: Yes.

LS: What other responsibilities did that mean you had?

Harry: You just had to lead your section.

LS: How many in your section?

Harry: Five or something. A Bren gun section we had.

LS: When you escorted this General Vasey, what was he like at the time?

Harry: He was a fine type of man. He wore his red hat band in the jungle still. He didn’t carry any arms.

LS: How many of you were escorting him?

Harry: Three of us.

LS: That seems crazy (that he didn’t carry any arms).

Harry: … set a good example.

LS: You had 3O3s?

Harry: By that time most of us had Owen guns. We only had a few at the beginning and most of the 303s were not much good in the jungle but whenever anyone was wounded who had an Owen gun or killed you got their Owen gun. Most of us had Owen guns. I had one.

LS: What’s an Owen gun?

Harry: It’s an Australian made type of machine gun. A little machine gun. Rapid firing. You could really spray the jungle.

LS: Did you have bayonets with them?

Harry: Oh no. No.

LS: You contracted malaria while you were up there didn’t you?

Harry: Yes. Everybody, 100 per cent I think.

LS: There was nothing you could do about it?

Harry: No.

LS: The malaria, that didn’t affect you while you were involved in the campaign?

 Harry: It did affect a lot of them.

Heather: There were different types of malaria weren’t there?

Harry: Yes, there were.

LS: It didn’t really affect you too much ‘till you were back in Australia?

Harry: No, I had lost a lot of weight by the time I got back to Australia – about two or three stone.

Heather: He was completely yellow – his face.

Harry: They trained us too hard. Too many marches and we carried too big a weights in the heat and we would go two weeks at a time. They trained us too hard.

LS: How long were you in Port Moresby before you went to Sanananda?

Harry: From about September to December, 1942. We camped in the bush there and it was hot and dusty – miserable sort of a place. We used to do route marches and shoot kangaroos. Kangaroos were up there. They are native to Port Moresby too.

LS: Were you ever involved in a plane crash?

Harry: Oh yes. That’s when we left the …… valley. Planes came in everyday with supplies and would land on a dirt strip and they would take off in the morning. We were on the first plane to take off and they took off up the strip. It was pretty wet, there had been a lot of rain. When we got to the end of the strip what they used to do was retract the undercarriage which would sort of get them airborne and he did it too soon. I was sitting there looking out of the window and hearing this noise under the plane and I saw one of the propellers go flying across the airdrome and we came to a stop and the pilot came out and said “get the hell out of here it might catch fire”. So we got out. Then the fellows remembered their packs were full of tobacco so they went back.

LS: Was it an Australian plane?

Harry: No, American.

LS: A DC3?

Harry: Yes.

LS: Was this when you were supposed to be leaving the …….. Valley?

Harry: On our way home, yes.

LS: No one was hurt in the crash?

Harry: No. The next morning they sent another plane in and we got out safely.

LS: You were in the …… Valley for about a month were you?

Harry: A bit longer than that. Not a great length of time.

LS: Were you worried about going back there again after Sanananda?

Harry: You could never say you looked forward to action again but the war went on so long you got to the stage where you never thought it was ending. After five years it just went on and on.

LS: When you were in Borneo you obviously heard the news of what was happening in Europe?

Harry: Oh yes, you knew it was getting close (to the end).

LS: Was there any sort of jubilation amongst the fellows in Borneo when the news came through that the war had finished?

Harry: Yes, they were happy and they issued them all a bottle of bear.

LS: And you got a bottle of bear too?

Harry: Yes.

LS: And what did you do with that?

Harry: I was a non-drinker but I did drink that one.

LS: Before the war you were here on the farm. There had been a build up towards war and you knew that it was coming. You were actually in some sort of light horse?

Harry: Yes, we were in the Light Horse for three years prior to the war. Of course there were signs there was going to be a war. Eventually it was declared and we were called up straight away in the Light Horse. We went to camp for a month.

LS: Whereabouts did you go?

Harry: Near Caloundra and back home for a short time and in January (1940) we were called up again and spent three months in Beaudesert training with the horses which was very silly really for a modern war. Then we were sent home again and three of us went down and tried to join the air force but they wouldn’t have us because we weren’t educated enough.

LS: Why did you try and join the air force?

Harry: That was the glamour. Next to that the armoured units were the glamour units and we heard about this cav unit which was armed with Bren gun carriers and tanks and so we decided to get into that and so we did. But I don’t think we were equipped for the whole course of the war. We never had a Bren gun carrier. We were never properly equipped during the whole of the war except for a little while we were in Egypt. We were ready to go up the Western Desert and they did equip us fully – everything. Proper number of tanks, proper number of Bren gun carriers. We were all set. We had them about a week and they said “the Sixth Group Cav is more experienced than you so we are going to take them off you and give them to the Sixth”.

Then they sent us on to the Suez Canal to guard night time anti-aircraft guns. We were there for a couple of weeks and word came through we were to move again. We didn’t know the destination. They took us down to Port Said and loaded us on to an ancient old ship – the whole regiment. Then we found out we were going to Cyprus. We landed at Cyprus at ……… . We spent three months in the garrison. There was only us and one battalion of the English Sherwood Foresters ??? on the island. That was the whole garrison. That was the time that Crete fell. Before we moved over to Cyprus Greece had fallen and then while we were on Cyprus the battle of Crete took place and it fell and we got a few survivors reached Cyprus. They expected Cyprus would be the next attack along the line. Every morning we were up about four o’clock. We were expecting there would be a parachute attack.

LS: Of Germans?

Harry: Of Germans. On about the 21st of June we were listening to the wireless again and word came through that Hitler had attached Russia and we were very happy – the war would soon be over. Just as well he did (attack Russia) because he would have come our way.

Then we moved up to Syria and we were there for some time.

LS: Why did you move to Syria?

Harry: The rest of the Seventh Division was up there. We had a good time up there. Traveled around a fair bit. And then the Japanese came into the war and we sailed for home.

LS: At what point did they decide to take you back to New Guinea? Was it after the fall of Singapore?

Harry: No, it was after the Japanese attacked. Before the fall of Singapore. That took place while we were on the water. We were at Colombo I think when Singapore fell.

LS: Was that a shock to people?

Harry: The Whole Seventh Division was going to Malaya. But some did get there. But we fortunately didn’t. They put us on a boat and took us back to Australia.

Heather: Didn’t you say you stayed on a boat out in the ocean for 13 days.

Harry: Yes, while Singapore fell.

Heather: While Churchill and somebody in Australia argued…

Harry: What they were going to do with us.

LS: How many troops were on the boat?

Harry: I don’t know. It was a liner. There were nurses on it too. Two British destroyer cruisers accompanied us and they were afterwards sunk.

Heather: Churchill and Curtin were arguing because Curtin wanted his men home and Churchill wanted them to go where?

Harry: He wanted them to go to Burma.

Heather: Curtin got his way and they all came home and went to New Guinea. He wanted them home to defend Australia.

LS: You went straight from Colombo to Port Moresby?

Harry: No. We landed in Adelaide. To get away from the danger of the Japanese fleet which was out in the ocean. We went as far south as we could get.

Heather: They went right down past Tasmania.

Harry: We came up at Adelaide. We were there for some time and then they put us on a train and brought us up to Queensland and we were trained there. By that time the Americans were in the war and Brisbane was full of Americans.

LS: So you were in Brisbane for a while?

Harry: Yes, around Brisbane.

LS: What year was that?

Harry: That was ’42. We came back early in ’42 from the Middle East and we left about September to go to Port Moresby.

LS: How did you go from Brisbane to Port Moresby?

Harry: By boat.

LS: Was that a dangerous voyage?

Harry: I don’t think so.

LS: When did you actually embark to go overseas originally?

Harry: It was not Boxing Day, but the day after Boxing Day – about the 27th of December 1940. We went on the Queen Mary.

LS: Really?

Harry: Yes. As far as Colombo.

LS: Where did you embark from?

Harry: From Sydney, in the Queen Mary. We got to Colombo and they transferred us to a smaller boat to go up the Suez Canal. We landed there and they sent us by train up into Palestine and we camped there for some time. That was really a novelty.

LS: Whereabouts in Palestine?

Harry: Not far from Gaza. We had a bit of leave there. I went to Jerusalem and saw all the holy places. Some of us did (go to the holy places) and some didn’t.

Heather: Some went to the naughty places.

LS: What was life like on the ship when you were going across. What was the daily routine?

Harry: Well the Queen Mary was a luxury liner but it wasn’t luxury for us, only the officers. They put us on a small boat and it was a terrible thing. The food was just dreadful. We would do PT and boat drill. Stand guard. Play a lot of cards.

LS: How long did it take to go from Sydney to Suez Canal?

Harry: I’ve forgotten really when we landed in Port Said.

LS: When you were in Sanananda did you see much of the air war. Was it apparent that that was going on?

Harry: There was a big dog fight going on above us. We were watching it. The Americans and Japanese.

Heather: Whereabouts Harry?

Harry: At Sanananda. And there was a fair bit of plane activity. There was a Wirraway when we were in the jungle that used to fly over and drop supplies.

LS: How was the Wirraway able to find you.

Harry: It would follow the Sanananda road. You couldn’t see very far through the jungle. It was very swampy – most of it.

Most of the fellows had trench feet by the time we had been there a few weeks.

Heather: What’s that?

Harry: Your skin starts to come off your feet. We were in the foxholes and your feet were in the water all the time.

LS: What could you do to treat that?

Harry: Not much.

LS: Were you just constantly wet all the time?

Harry: Pretty well all the time. It was warm. It rained every afternoon about two or three o’clock.

LS: Would your Owen guns still work when it was wet?

Harry: You had to look after them a bit.

LS: What was it like flying over the Owen Stanleys?

Harry: It was spectacular. It was a beautiful place. Better to fly over than to walk over. That might about do it, hey?

20 thoughts on “Memories of World War II: an interview with my grandfather”

  1. I won’t pretend I read all of this. But read enough to think it is more useful than a textbook account. My father served in WWII. I don’t remember ever talking to him about it. He died when I was about 26 and I really never had those adult to adult conversations with him.

    It is good you have these accounts from your grandfather.

    1. I don’t expect anyone will read all of it unless they have a particular interest in this aspect of the war or they’re related to me.

      I am glad I have this account of his experience too and this is why I wanted to post the entire interview, even though it’s crazily long. I didn’t want bits of it to die or get lost. I also thought it might be useful for someone researching the Sanananda campaign.

      My grandfather never spoke about the more harrowing aspects of his war experience until this interview and so it’s a bit of a treasure from that perspective. I really have to thank my cousin for taking the time to interview him.

  2. I liked the way you preserved the natural speech rhythm – which showed your grandfather sometimes going down one route of thought and then pulling back.

    On a hot day when I am thirsty I sometimes think of those conditions. even the conditions must have been horrific, never mind the battle and death. I used to feel quite affected by my Chinese heritage thinking what if I had been born in that country, and at a different time. The Japanese regime was so brutal that the memories took a long time to fade in China and in Korea.

    Great resource to have on the web.

  3. Thanks, Denise. It sounds as though you read a fair bit of it. Well done!

    I think for a lot of those soldiers, the awful memories they had of the Japanese never really died. They faded, but didn’t die.

  4. It seems it is not fashionable for many to speak of these things with respect. All the more reason why it should be done. The best we can do for those who endured and those who did not return, is to honour that sacrifice with remembrance intact not foreshortened. Even if it is not all read. What matters is that it is shown in full.

    Such things are thought provoking, as they shoud be. A very worthwhile post.

    Regards- Graham 🙂

  5. Thanks, Graham. Most of us really have no idea what war is like especially for those on the front lines. Hopefully by learning a bit more about what it was like, we might try harder to avoid it in the future.

  6. You are so right that most us (all of us who have not been to war) have no idea what it is really like. I have heard from Dad, and from others who have been to war, that war is 99% sitting around with not much happening, then events unimaginable occur over a very short period of time, with horrific scenes. Harry Shelton spent most of his war fairly quietly in the Middle east and Cypress, until he was recalled to join the Pacific war in PNG to relieve the conscripts that first took on the Japanese on the southern side of the Owen Stanley ranges. The hand to hand fighting that he experienced occurred over the Xmas period of 1942/43. Neither side took prisoners. It was not pretty.

    I am pleased to say that Harry came home relatively unscathed emotionally. He was not scarred. He never showed hatred or even dislike of the Japanese. He understood that those fighting the war were doing what they were told to do. We can be very proud of him. I find that am especially sympathetic / understanding of those other young men who have been sent to war, sometimes for the wrong reasons (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan).

    Yes war should be avoided.

  7. Thank you for sharing this fascinating interview with your grandfather Rachel. It is in ways like this, by other family members like your cousin writing down the memories of these men and also the women who lived through these world wars that we can be sure to never forget their powerful stories and their very great sacrifice.

  8. Sherri,
    It was actually your own blog post about Remembrance Day that inspired me to write this. I realised I didn’t know very much about my grandfather’s war experience and so I asked my dad about it and got this. So thank you!

  9. To preserve the historical remembrance of your grandfather about the war is a noble effort. Us, living today, should always learn from our past.
    Thank you for sharing us those precious memories.

  10. Just read this thanks to related posts – this is incredible. I’m a bit obsessed with WWII and the stories surrounding it – I’m glad you posted this. It boggles my mind what so many went through.

    1. Thanks! I find it fascinating too and horrible. War is sometime glorified and I think it’s important to remember how dreadful it is in the hope we avoid it in future.

  11. Thank you so much for this. My great-uncle fought, and died, in the same campaign. I have always wondered what he and these other lads went through on the Kokoda Trail, in the Jungles of Buna. He was one of the few Scots fighting there, and was nicknamed Bluey on account of his very pale features. So your noting of your grandfather’s account is extremely helpful, and therefore I am grateful to you. These lads who fought there need to be remembered, honoured and respected. Thank you for keeping that memory alive.

    1. You’re welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I like having this record of my grandfather’s experience and have read through it several times. We should never forget.

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