Australian Biography

Smoky Dawson - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

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Last time you described how a young man set out for war, and joined two old ladies in a railway carriage, and weeping as he left his bride behind. What was ... Where were you headed for and how did your war begin?

Destination unknown. We were told to assemble at Pagewood in Sydney here, among the sandhills, under the captaincy of Captain Jim Davidson, who used to be leader of the ABC Band. And he got together what was known as the First Australian Army Entertainment Unit. But they were drawn from all parts of the army. Anybody who could entertain was suddenly put into this particular army division. And we were to ... to boost up the morale of the boys in the islands. You see the war had got to a pretty bad state at the time. Japan was very close to Australia. It was a turning point in whether we'd become a free country - keep our free country or be under the rule of Japanese. It was very strong and we knew that wherever we were going it'd be in the fighting zones. And although we were classified as soldiers first ... We all had our jungle training. I had a big schooling in army medical. I was number one stretcher bearer in the early days. It had been like,following my father's footsteps in a way, and so when I was suddenly plucked from that and brought into the Entertainment Unit, and they told me I was going to have a wonderful time, I believed them, except for the fact that the war might go on longer than we might think and I might never see Dottie again. So on the train that morning when I saw her on the top of the hill and I poured my very soul out and those two ladies weeping with me - because they had two nephews who had gone away ... By the time I got into Melbourne to pick up the threads and say goodbye to Dot, I had left all that behind. Now I was on the real ... the march northward, destination unknown. So we arrived in Sydney and we were escorted by the Provos and marched all the way down to the Sydney Showgrounds, where we were all inspected health-wise and I was a B2 at that time. I wasn't A1.

Why was that?

Well the fact is that I didn't pass the medical A1, when I joined the army.

What was wrong with you?

Well they had doubts about my ticker. Now if you remember I was talking about my earlier escapade, riding pushbikes, in which I passed out. And the insurance company had doubts about whether they should insure me because I had a bumpy heart. Well this, of course, put me through a bit of ... a little bit of unpleasantness because the doctor at the time at the drill hall told me to strip off and stand in the corner, naked, and jump six times in the air, like a bouncing animal. How ridiculous, you know. The damage you could do to certain portions of your body anatomy didn't help me any. And Pro Hart did a wonderful job of that illustrating it in my book. But it was ridiculous why the doctor would want me to do that because I thought I'd probably end up with a rupture anyway. And when I got there and I was so breathless he put his machine onto me and came up with 'You've got a weak heart'. 'But', I said, 'I didn't know I had a weak heart. I'd rather have a very strong heart and be fighting fit and do what I can for my country', and he said, 'Well I think we will send you and have you put in a place where it'll be a non-combatant unit, in the army medical'. So away I went down to Darvey and they said, 'Oh you're going to have a lovely time'. They found out I was Smoky Dawson. And of course when I got down there I had to sing songs and I become very popular round the camp. Then we started learning all about the vertebras [sic] and how many vertebras [sic] you've got and your nervous system, your digestive system and every system under the sun and I passed with flying honours. And after that, of course, I was about to go overseas to New Guinea.

Smoky did you really have a weak heart? How's your heart now?

Fantastic. I think the only time it beats a little bit fast is when I look at Dottie. [Laughs] But it did palpitate a lot and a lot of things, and I do still have a bit of a bumpy heart. But it hasn't hurt me any. My doctor assures me that I'm strong as a Mallee ox. And I've taken his word for that. I have survived, but as you say, where was I going, where did I go. Well we didn't know at the time 'til we were all assembled there down at Pagewood and out came Jim Davidson and said, 'Attention everybody. Just stand at ease and I'll just tell you what's happening. First and primarily you are soldiers. You've all had your training. And we have added to that', he said. 'You will be going and be split up into various combatant units or non-combatant units. You will be entertaining and wherever there is a fighting zone, where you may be caught, you will have ... have organised where you will have somebody with you to escort you here and there. But first of all, if you happen to be caught in those areas, you'll have to fight your way out. Not I'm telling you you're going to be fighting. But', he said, 'You could end up in it'. So I said, 'All right'. Davidson was a great psychologist. He always built you right up and made you feel fantastic and then he'd pull you into his office and pull you down to the lowest. Now he said, 'Now we're going to make the B1s, the big bands', and they had complete symphony orchestras. They had people from all walks of life, who had been in the Middle East, ex-commandos, all pulled out to do entertainment. So they were well skilled in army. And we still had our army routines to do of a morning. We'd get up and do a five mile march. We had to do sentry duties on the gate. Ridiculous, of course, because you could walk in the back in the door over the sandhills without going through the front gate. And many a time I did some soldier's leave for the price of seven and sixpence. It wasn't too much money. Or ten bob or somebody's dungarees and his uniform. And so, you know, earn a little bit of money while you were away. So this is why we were assembled until we were then told where we were going.

And where was that?

And then he said, 'Well you're going north. You're going to the islands. But to go to the islands you have to be A1'. So I was formed into Number 10 I think it was, Troubadour Party, along with five others. And we were self supporting. We had native carriers to carry our gear. And we had ... I'm talking about rifles and things like that too, and greatcoats and our respirators, to go into a hot climate. I couldn't believe it. Because at that time we didn't know the Japanese wouldn't be using gas. So ... but they could have found out from General Melford, who was in command of the divisions there fighting in Borneo, where we eventually went.

Now how is it that you were sent to the islands although you weren't A1 medically, when that was a condition of going to the islands.

Ah yes. Well that was one of those little manoeuvres you see, knowing people in high places. Davidson said, 'Now of course you have to be A1 to go overseas'. Well that were already doing this in New Guinea and it was overseas but you see it was still Australian Capital Territory. Beyond that you come into a different category. And so they marched us out with a little note from him to the medicals. Out of the Showgrounds. And they just said, 'How do you feel?' 'Good'. 'Okay. A1'. And I wasn't A1. I was really not fit to go into that kind of climate, for a start. I wasn't fit to stand up to the conditions too, because I found I had a low blood pressure. That was there all the time. And there were a few other things - ingrown toenails that nearly killed me. And I know a few soldiers that didn't go away because they had flat feet. I would have swapped them for a flat foot, instead of having ingrown toenails. And despite the fact that I was in the army medical and they said, 'Oh you'll get that and you'll get all your haemorrhoids and all those done free', and I never got them done at all. It cost me money in the end. after the war was over. to get them done. However we assembled one morning and they said, 'Right. You're in transit. That means in transit you're going North. You're going. Prepare. If you have anything to do you'll have leave around in Sydney, but no soldier goes any further than that'. Well I said, 'I'm going to see my Dottie. I'm not going to leave her down there and never see her again'. So I planned a little thing where I might sneak on a train and avoid the Provos and the Military Police and get down to Dottie, who was living just at West Brunswick, which is a hop, step and a jump from Royal Park. And how did I do that? Well there's only one way that you can escape the Military Police, is just join, join the troops that are going down south in transit, which I did. And I waited for the first troops coming through all marching along there in Central here. And the Provos marching along with them. And I fell in step with them and I said to my ... to the next soldier to me, I said, 'Willie, lend us your rifle'. So I carried that and next thing I was told what to do. They put me on the train. A Provo put me on the train. 'Get in there soldier'. I said, 'Yes, sir'. That's how I was. Then, until a lieutenant decided to check up and see how many was in the carriage and there was one more than there should be. So 'Quick', I said, 'Fellers, for God's sake hide me'. So the three on this side of the seat here, got up and put me on the seat and sat on me with their greatcoats over the top of their knees while the lieut on the other side was, 'Righto soldier, what unit do you belong to?' and I'm nearly suffocating under these three heavy louts sitting on top of me. All I could see was this feller's knees. And I thought I'd die, all this suffocating, until he got up and went. And that's how I did it all the way down to Melbourne.

All this for love of Dottie.

Always. And the things that I did, you know. You see I had learnt a lot since a child. If I may recall having said to you prior, in my earlier life, when your back's to the wall, you become very inventive. And it pays. You do what they call lateral thinking. Not the positive. The last straw. Anything will work.

So how long did you have with her?

About two hours. All for the sake of that I could have put ... been put in the boob and been run around with a pack on my back and soldiers, Provos, whipping me along. And bread and water. [Laughs] I missed all that.

Was she impressed? Was she impressed?

She said, 'What are you doing back here?' I said, 'Oh I can't bear it. I've got to stay with you. I've got to see you again'. And I said, 'And I've worked out what time the next troops going north will be going, coming from Camp L'. Camp L was just around the corner. That's where I first went in. And so I watched for it, said goodbye and ran like anything all the way up there and waited. Then I saw the next lot of troops all going north. And they got over here at Royal Park and I fell in with them again, and put into a carriage. Whole trouble though is that when I got to Albury we had a change of gauges. The rail didn't go right through on the same gauge. So we all had to get off. And it all started again: the process of being numbered again, who's in what carriage and what. And so I had to invent things and of course the place where they look is generally in the toilets to see if there's anybody hiding or going AWOL. And this time, after having a lovely breakfast which was provided, on the platform there at Albury, we were all put back in the train again. So I got back in the train, new train of course, and this time I was put up in the rack ... on the rack with all the feller's luggage on top of me. And I could spy down and see it all happening. This is where mateship really came to the fore again. Wonderful people. That's what it does for you.

So what part of the islands were you sent to?

Well I was sent to ... First of all I didn't even know we were going to Balikpapan but that's where we went. But we knew when we boarded that ship, which was the Joseph Carrion by the way, an American merchant ship of ten thousand ton displacement. A very small ship with two holds in it with about a thousand men crammed into the two holds. Over crowded. It was the most sickening voyage we've ever been. In fact we had a mutiny. It ended up in a mutiny and it looked like the ship wasn't going to go anywhere because the Americans on board. They were American crew men. They weren't belonging to anything here. They were helping us out in the islands providing ... sending ammunition and provisions and a lot of whisky for the officers on the island. And when we boarded it we were all told, 'You go down to this hold'. One in the fore, and one in the aft, and we had one rope ladder and that's all. And we had our little - I'll never forget it - if I may go back - when I first went into Camp L and spent the first night in a tent, when I was a rookie, I was told 'You, you, you and you, soldier, get yourself a palliasse and get into that tent over there and you, you and you go there', and I said, 'What's a palliasse?' and I remember this big sergeant. He got me by the ... held me up like that and he said, 'A mattress, stupid'. And I said, 'I hate you'. He said, 'What? I didn't hear that'. I tell him I hated him and he said, 'Your grandmother won't know you when I'm finished with you', and I hated all those sergeant majors, I tell you what. And I had this bit of a chip on my shoulder all the way because as soon as we got in the hold we got this standover business. And I'd been such a free man. I'd had all this persecution in my childhood and here I was starting off. 'I'm going to do something for my country and here's a feller pushing me around'. So of course, it doesn't pay, does it? You get all the duties. All the hard work. So no matter what they did, they couldn't change me. I was not a rebel actually. But they always asked why I had to have my hat look like a cowboy hat, why my green shirt had to look like a cowboy shirt. Because no matter where I went I still looked like Smoky Dawson. They weren't going to call me Private Dawson. And my mail came that way: To Smoky Dawson. And they used to yell out, 'Smoky Dawson, Private Dawson. No one called you Smoky in this. You are a soldier and that's all you'll ever be. Understand. Do you understand?' 'Yes sir, yes sir'. They drilled that into me all right. But I said, 'Oh well the war's not going to last very long. Wait 'til we get back to civvy street. I got a good memory of faces'. So anyway, you forget all about that. We got down in the hold and found that our palliasses were about a foot apart. All these soldiers laying on that, in this ship. And of course there was no air conditioning like we've got now. The heat was unbearable. And they were smoking, smoking. And a lot of us got violently sick you know. We got into some rough seas and I've never been a good sailor and I was always sick. And there was my ... my bloomin' steel helmet there and my bayonet and all my weapons for war - my gas mask lying there. All the things that I'm supposed to use when I got to the islands, if necessary. And my guitar and the pillowslip that Dottie had made me. This huge pillowslip. It was like two big sheets put together. Of course at the camp up at Wandecla ... Before I went away with the Sixth Divvy the camp was full of black fleas and everybody was getting bitten and were covered with rashes. And I sent down to her and I said, 'For God's sake get me something for these fleas'. So she went to the chemist and she said, 'Have you got something for ... a talcum powder or something like that for fleas'. And he said, 'What animal, madam?' And she said, 'It's my husband'. When it arrived I got hold of this stuff. I didn't put it on my blankets. I got naked and I tipped all this powder over me - this flea powder. And then I got into my sheets. I was the only one that survived the black fleas. So having been ... Strength it was to have knowledge of that. Great to have wisdom and know how to apply it right at the right time.

It must have been terrible conditions in the hold though, with everybody being sick and no room and ... Were you allowed up on deck if you were sick?

Yes it was. Yeah, of course, yeah. No. Well, let me tell you this. It was bad in both holds. [INTERRUPTION]

So how did you get to the islands?

I went by way of a merchant ship, an American merchant ship called the Joseph Carrion. It was the last of the liberty ships and most of them had all broken up in heavy seas because they were welded jobs. And I never forget the morning in Brisbane when we boarded. It was one thousand troops boarded onto a ten thousand ton ship and I didn't know how we ever got them in. We were certainly overcrowded. And our mattresses were about ... you know, about a foot apart and everybody smoking, and people being sick and all this kind of thing. And one rope ladder we had to climb up to get our meals, which had to be served up on deck. Needless to say it was a complete mess up because by the time you got up on deck it was time to go down again. And it was too late to come back for another meal. So they only had one meal a day. And they put the toilets up the other end of the ship - on the bow. And so you had all these things, sit down toilets, makeshift there, on the deck, looking out to sea with the seagulls while you made your circle around the deck until you come up to your feeding station and you held out your pannikins and got whatever they handed you. Dog biscuits or a bit of ... a stick of celery or carrot. All dehydrated stuff you know. And wherever you could go: sit in a life boat or anything, you sat down and ate it. Or get down below and eat it. So it was a very kind of painful situation and we never really felt we were eating well. And me, having had all that lovely comfort of Dot, you know, leaving that behind, I started to feel it. But I otherwise felt pretty good. The thought of going away, once we got to sea, I sort of left things behind and I was looking forward to what was before me. And I had my other five mates with me. We were told before we boarded too, that midships was out of bounds. Anyone caught there would be severely dealt with. And that was to be understood that it was an American merchant and they had their own quarters and we were not to go anywhere near them. So that was broken because by the time we got to Cairns and put into ... overnight into the Redlynch staging camp, waiting supplies to be loaded on board to take us further north to where we were going, only then were we told we were going to Borneo. And we were told also that we would have twenty-four hours leave. And we made use of that. When we got to Redlynch we all went down into Cairns and the first thing we did was get 'round and enjoy the sights and the next thing we knew there was a paddy wagon running around rounding everybody up. We should have gone back to camp. And somebody came back and said, 'Smoky pull off your colour patch. The Provos are just round the corner'. So I pulled the patch of my hat, which bore my unit. So I had no identification - to escape being captured. And along around the corner came the old paddy wagon, with this little cage on top with all these soldiers in it, that had been rounded up. They spotted me but wouldn't let on that I was one too. And back they were taken to camp to be dealt with. So when we saw that everybody was getting rounded up for refusing to go back we'd all made up our minds we weren't going back because we were overcrowded, and the colonel was a pretty strong British man, but a very fair man on his ship. He was a colonel and very, very, very English. So when we got back, we got back as fast as we could, he assembled us all and he said, 'Men I know your plight. I know things are bad. I'll have them reported. Never have I seen a ship crowded as this, even in the Middle East and the worst. But', he said, 'Bear with me and we'll make it as comfortable as we can'. He said, 'But you must go back'. So we all went back on board again. Got down into our holds. And then it started. Before we got to ... just off the coast of Bougainville, we got in some pretty rough seas. And because ... you must understand this, during the war, it was a blackout, you couldn't show a light. And we had on board Grant Taylor, you know, with Peter Finch. Peter didn't come with us but Grant did. But he was one of the team. If you remember 40,000 Horsemen and he was a ... had once been a military policeman. Very tough. And of course he was going overseas with us too, and he was a rebel. He was in midships in the dark, lighting a cigarette, until a lieutenant coming by, with no identification on him because it was so hot that no one wore shirts, tapped him on the shoulder. 'Put that light out soldier'. And of course, he turned round and grabbed the feller, knowing who he was, and grabbed him in one piece and slung him over the top of the rails. He said, 'One more [word] out of you and that's where you go, into the brink'. So they left him alone. You couldn't stand over him. But we were getting a lot of this standover again. What had really happened, we were told that we weren't allowed in midships, but the wireless operator and all those people on top that had cabins, had given up their cabins for the officers to have their cabins. And all these lieutenants and those above us were sharing accommodation that were on the merchant ship. Into their cabins and were made very comfortable while the men were down in the holds. Well ,we're walking around the deck waiting to be fed in the evening this ... in the dark and I happened to look through the port hole and I see that there's a crowd of Americans sitting down at the table. And they're all having a good feed: steak, eggs and bacon, all this kind of thing. Cookies. Beautiful. And the aroma of coffee wifted through the port hole to me and I put my head in and said, 'Oh half your luck'. They said, 'You all come in, come in'. And I said, 'I can't come in. We'll be caught if we ... we'll be court martialled', you know. So he handed me a cup of coffee and a cookie and, of course, I went the rounds with this and so we did it several times. I wasn't eating what was handed out to me, I was relying what was fed through the porthole. So this feller came to the porthole and he said to me, 'Why don't you all come in and have a meal'. I said, 'I'll get shot if I do'. 'Look', he said, 'Wait 'til after dark and meet me around at the middle of the deck there', he said, 'And I'll be waiting for you'. So I waited 'til everything had gone and everything was quiet and I sneaked around and I came to the door leading in to the midship, down below the decks. And this feller was called ... oh, now what was his name, it'll come to me in a minute.

It doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter. Yes it does because he had a name that was to be a part of me for the rest of the voyage and years later. I'll come back to that. But anyway he was a hillbilly, from them thar hills of Arkansas. And when he found that I played a guitar he said, 'You're like one of us'. So I got in there and I started playing. Brought me guitar in and I sat down and I was fed up with steak and having a wonderful time. And then I spotted all my mates going by, looking through the port hole saying, 'Half your luck Smoky', and I was passing stuff out to them. And I had a wonderful time for about two or three nights. They said to me, 'Why don't you stay here? Move your things in. We've got a spare cabin'. [INTERRUPTION - PHONE, SLATE]

So you're in a really bad situation on this ship. Now always Smoky Dawson seemed to find some kind of way to survive, or to make things better when he was in bad situations. What happened? What did you do to improve things on the ship?

Well one thing that I wanted to do was to get into that ... with those ... into the hold where these fellers were having a good meal. And they looked like my kind of people too, because they played Country Music. And this feller invited me in ... to come in, which I did. And when I got down there ... His name was Thelmer Burns, from Arkansas, and he said to me, 'Well', he said, 'I'll tell you what. When the war is over, Smoky, I want you to bring your wife and your kids and spend some time with me in the hills of Arkansas'. 'But', I said, 'Thelmer, I'm not married'. He said, 'Never mind, bring your kids'. [Laughs] That's the sort of character he was. They had a spare cabin there for me, shower and everything in it. Unbelievable, with about six bunks in it. So he said, 'I'm going to put you in there'. I said, 'Look, if I get caught in here, you know what it's going to mean? I'm going to be court martialled'. 'Well', he said, 'It won't happen. I can tell you that. We run this ship. This is an American merchant ship and we're the guys that are looking after these people upstairs. They're up there and you're down here. As far as we're concerned, everybody's the same with us. And they do the same things as we do. Now', he said, 'We want you ... we're asking you ... you're going to be our guest. You're not intruding. So', he said, 'What the colonel might have meant was don't disturb us, but we are inviting you as a guest. Smoky Dawson'. 'So', I said, 'Considering that, I'll stay'. So I got to bed and I got on the ... lay down on the bottom bunk and anyway, all of a sudden he said to me, 'Now whatever you do, if you hear any commotion, don't open the door. I'm going to lock you in'. Little did I know that they were going to raid the hold which had the whisky in it. And this is what happened. The crew raided the whisky, got drunk, and then they had this bloomin' fight in midships. Up in the corridors I could hear them pounding and banging and there was 'ahs' and 'oohs' until there was a casualty. And then I thought: My God I'm going to be caught up in this'. Next thing there's a bang on the door and somebody's pushing, and they can't open the door. They're trying to bring this feller in. And all of a sudden I heard a familiar voice. It was Thelmer and he said, 'Well where's Smoky? I left him in there', and he said, 'Smoky where are you?' And by this time I had hidden underneath the mattress. And I climbed from the bottom right up onto the top. And next thing he burst ... He got the door open and he said, and he said, 'Righto throw him up here'. 'Oh just a moment', and this thing was going to be on top of me and I suddenly revealed myself. They were going to throw this body on top of me. So I climbed down and I heard him mention Doc. 'How bad is he, Doc?' And there's this little old man sitting across there with just a towel on around him. And he said ... He said, 'Doc, this is Smoky Dawson', he said. He said, 'He's our guest'. He said, 'I know Smoky Dawson. I come from St. Kilda'. He said, 'Doc you won't tell on him'. 'I never ever saw him in my life'. Wonderful. So having that good feeling - this feller had a big gash on his head where he'd been hit on the head with a bottle. So they put him down and the doctor treated him and they said, 'Now Smoky go to sleep. You'll be all right now. Have a shower and forget everything. In the morning, get yourself up early and get down back to the hold again before they wake up'. So I did that. I went to sleep and the moans went away and the old soldiers down below went to sleep. Woke up in the morning, decided to have a shower, and I'm just getting dressed and ready to go out the door and bang, knock at the door. Opened it and there is this officer with two soldiers standing either side of him. He said, 'Soldier, what are you doing here?' I said, 'Well I was invited here sir'. He said, 'You're up on arrest. Follow me'. So they walk out and I follow him. And he marched me down into the other ... number one hold, where they had a big table set up and there was the O C Ship with all his braid on and his medals and they stood me in front of him. And he said, 'Well, well, what have you got to say for yourself?' And I said, 'What can I say?' I said, 'I was invited in by ...' He said, 'Never mind being invited in. You knew the orders. You were told not to go midships and you'll be dealt with very severely'. He said, 'So why did you break the law? Every other soldier didn't do that. They never did that'. 'Well', I said, 'Well I understood ... interpreted that we weren't to interfere with the other people down in the midships, the American merchants'. And he said, 'No. I meant nobody goes in that hold. It's a blackout. This is the law. If you can't do it right here, you're not going to do it right over there either. Now', he said, 'The penalty will be: you are to be taken down into the ...' There's a hold there that had all the provisions in it: dehydrated vegetables, and meat, tinned things, you know what I mean, in tins. 'And you move them from one side of the hold to the other and back, 'til the end of the journey'. So down I went. And they put me down this hold and they said, 'Righto, get to work soldier', and it's this ton of canned meat and dehydrated vegetables. And I started moving them over to this end. And when I got them over to the other side and this was going on for some time. And all of a sudden I heard a voice above say, 'Smoky!' And I look up and there's Thelmer, with a few others of the crew, looking down on me. 'What the heck are you doing there?' I said, 'This is what I get for being disobedient'.

[end of tape]

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