Australian Biography

Smoky Dawson - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

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So Smoky when they arrested you, what did they do to you?

They marched me down into number one hold and they had me move all the cans, the tins of food and all their provisions going to the islands, from one side of the hold to the other.

Just pointlessly?

'Just do that. Penance, work you and don't do it again', and I was half way through this and getting very monotonous to, and I look up, I heard a voice call. It was Thelmer up on the top, looking down, with the members of the crew and he said to me, 'Smoky drop what you're doing and come up'. And I said, 'I can't. I will be dealt with pretty severely, you know', and he said, 'You'll have to come mate because I've just got a whole letter here signed by the colonel that says that you are free and you can be our guest. Because we told him that unless we, the crew of the Joseph Carrion ... unless you are released, we won't take this ship any further'. [Laughs] Unbelievable. So there I was. I went down and I spent the rest of my journey to Morotai, the island of Morotai ... But I also did another thing too. I went and found the rest of my members of the Troubadour Party and said, 'Righto boys, grab your things and come with me'. And I said to Thelmer, 'Would you put their names on the list too'. But the whole crew had actually signed their names, that they wouldn't take that ship any further and they told the colonel. They said, 'Now how come that you think you're any better than Smoky Dawson, just because you got a few pips here and there? One thing you can't do, you can't yodel like Smoky'. And I think the officer found a lot of fun in that. Because he said, 'Well you know, we can't [have] everybody sleeping in midships and breaking the rules. But', he said, 'I see your point. Okay'. Because they were all enjoying the places too, you see.

And so you then had a lovely trip. Did you feel a tinge of guilt about those guys still down there in the hold?

I felt very guilty about the poor beggars that didn't get what I was getting. Yes, that's right. I was very sad about them. And when we land at Morotai, there was the Australian General Hospital too, a big marquee, where I was to, not long after that, to be brought back to as a casualty. But we were destined to go to ... from Morotai to Balikpapan. The ship then, of course, with the remaining people on it, was destined for Brunei and on the way it struck a mine and a few of them were killed on it. And I can ... [in the] part actually where I used to sit and talk with my mates, an officer was killed. So I ... I don't know really what happened to the ship but knowing the history of the liberty ships, they were destined to go down. And this was the old man's last trip. I think he lost about two or three of them. So anyway, we were next thing put on a little plane and flown all the way to Balikpapan. But we touched down in Tarakan. And that was a miracle kind of landing too because, as we arrived, as you know, when the Japanese were vacating ... getting out of Tarakan, when our forces took over the airport, the mesh that was put down there for the planes to land, something had happened with the water. Everything was buckled up. The water was coming in underneath there, and everything was blocked. And the planes were ... There was quite a few wrecks in the jungle there where some of the planes couldn't make it. So we did quite a few little rounds and rounds and eventually landed. Then we took off again. It was only a very small plane. And very turbulent. And I was pretty sick in that too.

So when you got there, what happened that made you a casualty of war?

Ah well, I wasn't a casualty straight away. I was a casualty to the point of fact that I wasn't suiting very well to mixing in with the climate. The humidity was so unbearable and my metabolism didn't work so well. And apart from that I picked up a dose of malaria and I don't know how I got it because I always was very careful about keeping mosquito nets over me and all the protective gear and that. And we were doing ... We were sent up to the Milford Highway - sent up to the front line, to put on our shows [in] a little jeep, and half the time we're dodging mines along the way on the Milford Highway. It was one of these runs - hit there and run back, not knowing what you're doing next and I just got run down so fast I went down.

So you were actually there encountering all the nastiness of war and you were feeling ill and you had malaria. It all came together and made you quite sick.

Yeah, well one of the worst things too was my nervous system. I knew all about that. My central nervous system just folded up. And prior to that I was ... We were in camp there at Balik and during the night we'd have all sorts of things like orangutans and monkeys coming and jumping all over your tent and over your bed. Pythons. All sorts of things and then we'd had about 4 o'clock, with out [fail] ... you know it was right on time every day, you would have this great storm. Lightning and the cracking of ... noises in the jungle just like canon, which would set me off.

Were you still afraid of thunderstorms?

Yeah. I was, and all those things like lightning that come back to me so that even the storms, and the guns themselves - the fire of the guns - were just the same as when we had a thunderstorm. So you'd have this tremendous thunderstorm. You'd hear somewhere out there there'd be a tree hit and these enormous violent storms and all this kind of thing going on all the time. It just wore me down.

So mentally and emotionally, did you start having feelings rather like the ones you used to have in the violence of your childhood?

Yeah, all this was the reaction from all that was coming back. You see I should never have been A1. I was B2 and yet I'd gone through a training of A1 and it wasn't ... it was a pressure, and don't forget we were doing concert after concert, making people happy. See we were right up behind ... we were sent up there ... one little ... the Second Third Commandos, right behind the lines. There was a feller called Billy Christian and about six or seven others there I remember, in this little clearing of the jungle with their one-man tents. You know, they were about this size and you had a fox hole you dig in and you get down underneath that. And about this time there's a lot of cleaning up and you know, they'd made quite an advancement on the front, cleaned up a lot of pockets, but every now and again there'd be skirmishes and things like that. And so you'd have this kind of quiet, all quiet with nothing happening, and then all hell would break loose. And here we were there, still with our jeep and our native carriers and our weapons there in case we had to hop in, with an old guitar that was so warped that you could hardly ... I could only play it in one key, it was so low, trying to entertain soldiers. And these fellers were nearly going to sleep there. They hadn't had a wash for weeks, sitting there in the middle of the road there. They'd have a little kitchen there where they cooked up M & V, vegetables and that, and feed them. And they were sitting there with their Bren guns and Allen guns and we knew the Japanese were everywhere because they were up among trees, interested in anything that was going on. And I remember saying to Billy Christian, I said, you know, it was getting a bit dark and I said, 'Can you give us a bit of a light on what we're doing'. We were putting on this show, doing all the things we do normally on a stage. We were doing quartets and that, and duos and then I was doing a comedy act called Texas Dan, dressing out like a cowboy. Throwing ... making up what I do out of my jungle uniform, putting my khaki scarf on. And he said to me, 'What do you want a light for? Do you want your bloody yodel cut off?' [Laughs] He said, 'Japs just over there'. I'll never forget that. Anyway all this went on. They just whipped me off from another camp - from one to the other. And so ... then Gracie Fields came to Balikpapan. And we had an enormous crowd there in the bowl. And I was asked to support her. So I got up in the top there and looked up at this great mass of troops there and they just loved everything that we did, you know, keep them well. They had the toilets there too, and so many got on these toilets that they caved in. In fact a few got drowned in it. It's a horrible way to go, isn't it? And anyway, so ...

So Smoky, do you feel that this pressure on you, that you were actually working very hard at entertaining, you were surrounded by danger, you're physically not well ... do you think that your violent childhood and the things you'd experienced had made you very vulnerable to a nervous collapse?

Oh that's for sure. Yeah. It was always there, but I've always been on top of it. I've always been in control. It's a thing that I do all my life, I always try and get on top. Then of course, the little boy is there all the time. But at the same time I was on a cloud nine. I was along with good, hard, fighting troops. They were all my mates. I saw men die, and that upset me a lot. And all this kind of thing had a tremendous, terrible effect on me. So by the time I got to Tarakan, where everything was easing off, the war had ended - the Japanese had capitulated and they were all put into camps - and we were all taking a sigh of relief when we were sitting down there one night ... It was just a Casualty Clearance Station at Tarakan, and we had some American films they were showing us. And suddenly I just felt myself going numb and my breathing become harder and I found it very hard to control my breathing. So what was happening I was losing control of my diaphragm. So suddenly my legs become numb and I was paralysed from there.

And this is your nervous collapse?

I just completely had a nervous ... a collapse of the whole nervous system. So much that I didn't know where I was and they took me over to the Casualty Clearance Station, put me on the table and I was shaking all over like I had palsy. There wasn't one piece of my face that wasn't a quivering piece of ... like jellyfish. I lost complete control of thinking, even. And my heart was racing at a rate I'd never felt before. It was erratic. I could have died any minute because the diaphragm ... When your diaphragm goes you have no control of your breathing. So I had a rapid gasping for breath and shaking all over from head to toe. Couldn't walk - I was just like a sack. So they put me under for five days and I woke up and [they were] trying to tell me, well, they going to send me back to Australia. But before that they had to get me well enough to travel. So they put me on this little plane and carried me on, on a stretcher, and I woke up at Australian General Hospital at Morotai, where I'd left before. And there I was in bed with remnants of the Changi prison and the boys on the Burma railway line, all suffering from beri-beri and malnutrition. My ribs were sticking out just like theirs. I had lost so much weight that it was unbelievable. I had been dehydrated and I was in a sad way.

How long did it take ...

One thing I was frightened of that, knowing a lot had gone off their brain. It's called troppo. A lot were sent back to Australia in padded cells on the ships. And so I had all that fear within me. That was ... The thought of never seeing Dottie again plagued me. So that's my humble confessions of the great soldier, the great Smoky. But you see you can only do what your body will allow you to do and I just couldn't take that. So the A1 soldier become D: totally medically unfit. And I had to be brought back [and] nursed back to health in Morotai. And I become great friends, while I was there, with all these boys, these ex- prisoners of war, the lost division, the Eighth, who I see quite a lot on Anzac Day. And they talked to me and I started to get well by the fact 'I'm going to entertain them' and what was left of my old guitar, I tried to entertain with them, and this feller next to me, a big six footer, he said, 'That's an old guitar you got'. He said, 'Doesn't look too good, does it?' I said, 'No'. I said, 'The humidity has buckled it up you see'. He said, 'Will you get compensation for that when you get out of the army?' 'No', I said. 'It's not bad enough'. He said, 'Would you like me to do a proper job for you?' He said, 'I know the feller in the laundry, in the steam laundry. What's say we put it in the steamer?' So he sent it over and put it in the steamer and it came out like a canoe. [Laughs] You know ...

So did you get compensation for it?

Well yes. We're talking about post-war now. I'll reach out for Anzac Day, and here on Anzac Day I was marching, many years after the war here in Sydney. And gosh, I'm marching down George Street, you'd think I won the war. Everybody cheering and yelling. And all my mates - they see our sign, you know, the First Australian Army Entertainment Unit and the cameras all picked up me and they said, 'They love you don't they?' A policeman said, 'They love you'. And I said, 'Yeah, they think I won the war'. He said, 'And did you?' I said, 'Yeah, I really won it, because I survived it'. And I said, 'There's one feller I'd like to meet and I'm hoping I will one day'. So as I got down to Hyde Park and we all pulled out of the march, I stood there having a cup of coffee with a couple of my mates and around the corner came the Eighth Division. And as they marched by, just for wanting to have a shot at them I said, 'Arh you lot of larrikins', and this big feller, six footer, looked across at me, he says, 'Smoky!' Broke his rank and come over to me and he said, 'Do you remember me?' He said, 'You remember back in Morotai, the Australian General Hospital, I was the feller in bed next to you. I was the feller that did a good steamer on your guitar forty years ago'. I couldn't believe it. He said, 'Did you ever get compensation?' 'Yeah, I got five quid'. It was a good ending to that episode, but Morotai ...

How long did it take you to get well again?

Ah, a long, long time, I might say. But it takes a long time. Takes a long time to get ...

Where did you go to recover?

Well I stayed there for some time and I was priority number one to fly me back to the mainland as soon [as possible], because they didn't think I'd live. And I ... They filled me up with vitamins because what had really happened, having not eaten and [being] dehydrated, my stomach had shrunk, so that I could only take liquids. And I was going down fast. So I was just skin and bone. Skin and bone.

Why hadn't you eaten? There was plenty of food for the troops ...

[Being] dehydrated, everything I ate just come up - I retched all the time. And I ... my nervousness and that was still there. And I didn't know what was really going to happen to me, but anyway, I came home. I was told that I was about to go home with 27 AMWAS and medical team - doctors, nurses, coming back from the islands, back to Australia and I would be put in repat. hospital at Heidelberg and would be given treatment. And so as though ... We were going on a Liberator and as we know the Americans called them Flying Missiles, the bombers. Big silver things. And very precarious. You know. That's all they were: a flying missile and you couldn't get up very high. You know, we didn't have pressurised cabins then. And I got shoved up in the gun, right in the front turret where the gunner sits, with a young lieutenant. Right out on the nose of this plane, you know, with the pilots at the back of me and all the rest of them just laying wherever they can. No seats, just lying, packed, jammed into this plane. And we had to take off from this airport - a strip that wasn't set for big bombers. With a big load like this. So we all had to get up in the front to take the weight off the tail. And we said, 'Let's hope we make it', and I'll never forget taking off there and my nerves shot again. So we screamed up down this tarmac, heading out towards the sea and hoping we'll get it and we lifted. Great cheer from everybody. But you know when you're sitting out in a blister like that, it's like you're floating out in the sky on your own. And all I could see were the volcanoes behind me and it got ... It started getting colder, the humidity was gone. And I felt for a while safe. The next thing I went out: passed out. And I woke up to find myself in Darwin and I was in the general hospital in Darwin. I'd passed out on the plane. And ... Very, very low blood pressure. And as you know we didn't have all the facilities that we needed on board. And I was put back on the plane again that night. They'd refuelled and this time they brought me inside, and layed me on the bomb bay doors, where they drop the bombs. And I was laying there with all my equipment around me and all these AMWAS. And the thing you've got to think about on board there, there was no facilities to go places.

You mean there were no toilets?

You couldn't go to the toilet. And my water works were playing up a bit and I think it was just a terrible time because you're flying non-stop from there to Melbourne.

How long did it take?

It took a long time. Well I started off in the afternoon. It was the dim dawn of the next morning arriving there in Melbourne and it was a very, very foggy morning. But I did ... I remember going into a violent storm and the crew had put the plane on automatic and they were all playing cards and had got this thing running on its own. And I ... my God, I look up and I see these fellers all playing cards and [say], 'Who's running this? Who's running the darn plane? We'll crash, we'll crash'. All these things were coming in. I was a fatalist by this time. The water was coming through the cracks and we were in a most violent thunderstorm, rocking all over the place. And I asked where I was and they said, 'You're on just the dead heart of Australia'. And I never went to sleep. I looked through the chinks - through the chinks on the bomb bay door and I'm glad the guy didn't pull the lever. I could see all this red sand. I knew we were somewhere in Central Australia.

You didn't ever think: I'll just give up and die?

I thought I was going to die all the time. I was really dying from the moment I was ... that I took that turn. I was dying all the way and the thing was I was going to die without seeing Dottie. It was she that kept me alive. I wanted to see her. And anyway I was taken off there. When I got off at Heidelberg, put into repat.

How long were you in repat?

I was in repat there for about five days before Dot was even informed. Didn't even know I was there. And they were going to give me treatment. A lot of them were given treatment for their nerve system. A lot of the men were terrible, in a terrible condition. And so I was then transported down to a convalescent home at Rockingham under the Red Cross, to nurse me back to health. They wouldn't let me out. The war - it was over. It was 1946 by this time and here I was still in there and they wouldn't let me out until I weighed eight stone. And I was coming out very quickly then. So I was having egg flips and that's when it all started. And Dot used to come out and see me. And then I was put on therapy: making rugs, making ... making polished tables. I've got a couple of pieces here you might see in the background. My little polish table that I did there. French polishing.

How long did it take you to get back ...

A year.

A year!

One year. Yeah. Exactly a year before I was released from there to go back well enough to face city life and be rehabilitated. And then I wasn't allowed out at all. All this time doing this therapy, as I say, doing rugs and furniture and I learnt all this. And entertaining the boys was ... I found that entertainment, which by the way, is the greatest industry in the world, it survives everything. The harder the times the better it works. And I found with that I was getting better.

Tell me about your reunion with Dot. What was it like?

Well Dot came out to see me and of course, how can I describe that? Our first meeting after coming home, and she said, 'They're going to allow you to come home of a weekend'. So she was allowed to take me. Now I wasn't ... I didn't have the confidence to even get on a tram or a bus, to walk across the road. I just couldn't do it on my own. And she'd have to take me across to the bus or the tram and I'd be hanging onto her arm, just like a little boy hanging onto his mother, and get on the tram. And everybody on the tram would all wait till I got settled. I was that bad. My feet were all shaking under me. I still had the trembles. I couldn't face it. I'd lost my complete confidence and I had to start all over again - start a life all over again. And it was through Dot getting me back and spending two days and then she'd take me back home again on Sunday night and then we'd go on and bit by bit I started ... they weighed me every day. [Laughs] The Red Cross were marvellous. Absolutely marvellous. And I ... All the fellers were getting ... putting on weight. Everybody was getting fat, in fact. And for the first time in my life I found that my face was getting fuller and I was getting something over my ribs - were covered up a bit. But it took a long time to eat. When Dot took me home that first time it took me over twenty minutes to eat a little piece of chop. Lamb chop. Because my stomach had shrunk. And bit by bit I had to take meals quite a lot until I was able to take a normal meal. But that's how I was. But anyway, Smoky become back to Smoky again.

And so what was your first job after the war?

When I went down of course ... The first thing - I went down to my school of music that I'd left behind with this feller, this Mormon, only to discover there was a Russian button manufacturer there. My name wasn't on the door anymore. And he said, 'Oh no', he said, 'The man that was here has sold out and went to New Zealand'. 'Oh did he?' And he did and what ... not only that but he had taken a lot of people's money for lessons on guitar, saying that Smoky would fix them up when he come back, which I had to do to fulfil my obligation. And he'd gone and sold my business up and [taken] all the money and cleared out. So you know, I come back from that to that - no business to start all over again. I don't know where I was going to start it all. But Dot by this time had been commandeered by the ABC. In fact she was the first woman to be engaged by the ABC for the special effects department. And she was in charge of drama at one time - which she's very good at. And then she become very, very, very good at the turntable - spinning the records in the middle of drama where a car moves off, or a horse galloping along or something like that, which had to be on cue. It was very, very important in those days that you came on cue when you had these things. So that's where Dot was. She was in work and I wasn't. So that was my getting back to civvy street. I had to be rehabilitated. We went to the Red Cross. We went to everybody to see what they could do. Nobody could do anything for me. They said, 'Unfortunately we can't do anything for you'. So I had to go back and do the walk around Melbourne: up the hill to 3AW, or to 3XY - Frank Mogg, bless his heart. I went to Frank at the Princess Theatre. And I said, 'Frank, have you got something for me?' He said, 'What do you want?' 'Well', I said, 'What about a show?' He said, 'What, for instance?' I said, 'Well I've got this ... this kind of 'sing a song'. Is this your favourite song? And Smoky'll sing it for you. Radio requests'. And he said, 'Well what's the deal?' 'Well', I said, 'If you can give free publicity for my school', which I was starting up again. And he said, 'Well, this is a contra deal'. So no money passed hands - what KZ used to do. So that's what I did. I went about six months on 3XY and it was called Smoky Dawson's Musical Buster. [Laughs] And gradually it started then. 3UZ took it up. Smoky coming back again to radio. And I picked up my boys and that's how we started off again.

So Dot was in sound effects and that's, of course, what we tend to think of with you Smoky. That you're able to do all those wonderful effects.

There's quite a story to that. One that I reiterate so many times. I think it's worth telling again. As I say Dot become very adept at this kind of thing. She was very good at it, not only that but promotions too: pushing Smoky. And so, there was a prize winning play called The Golden Lover and its head here was Frank Clulow of the ABC. And they were going to do this in Melbourne. So he went down to Melbourne to produce it - a national show. So he said to my wife, 'We require a dog in this'. And he said, 'This dog is a very special dog because', he said, 'The story is about this man on the island. He's got this beautiful dog that almost talks to him, you know. And then one day a beachcomber comes in a shipwreck, a feller [who] has some bad ideas. He's out to get this man. And the dog knows quicker than what the master does. And he doesn't take to him too well'. And of course, the long and short of it is that before he can murder his master, the dog goes for him. So this dog had to do all these kind of things on cue and they never had a record to do that, so they wanted something live. So they auditioned about fifty people and they're all little yap yaps and nobody could do it. And I was sitting home there twiddling my thumbs wondering when I was going to get the next job. And Dot came home one night and she said to me, 'I've got a job for you'. I said, 'At last'. She said, 'It's a play called The Golden Lover'. My eyes lit up - the great acting part for Smoky. 'What part do I play, the lover?' She said, 'No, it's a dog'. [Laughs] A dog. 'A dog', I said, 'What do I do?' She said, 'You have to bark'. And I was a bit crestfallen because I really wanted something a little bit more dignified than that. She said, 'Go in and do it, and you're going to love it. Because the money is just as big as the actors'. The top money was five pounds. Five pounds. So that Cliff Cowley and all these people were all getting only five pounds. So I said, 'How many barks do I do for that?' She said, 'Well it wouldn't matter. It wouldn't matter if it was only one, you'll still get paid'. So I went in there and auditioned for Frank. He said, 'Now be realistic', and you know me. So I decided to do something a little bit different, like Smoky does. I got down on all fours and marked out my territory and lifted my leg and I rushed at Frank - a comedy act really. Grabbed him by the cuff of the thing and growled. And I did this enormous bark to really sent him flying into the corner. He said, 'My god, I never thought I'd ever hear this one'. I was never out of work. That dog bark was barking all the way to the bank with me. Dog barks.

So you got to be a dog in lots of other ...

Absolutely.

So what kind of a bark was it that you did?

Well first of all I had to do various types for him, and he said, 'Well give me a type of a dog'. So I started of I go [barks]. Well that's a normal dog. 'No', he said, 'What I want is something really big'. I said, 'Something like this'. [barks] 'You got the job'.

It sounds great.

What about the growl. [Growls and laughs]

So did you then get any other sorts of parts? Tell me what happened to get the whole Smoky Dawson show happening.

Well my ... [The] Smoky Dawson Show was ... well I went back to the early days, like I told you in my radio career, where I provided all those sound effects: the crow, the cows - everything on the farm I provided.

Where had you learnt those?

When I was with Frank Duggan and with ... yes, it was with Frank Duggan. And all the time I had there listening to the crow [crow call]. I used to go out there and sometimes the poor sheep would be down lambing and the crows used to pick their eyes out. And I used to go down with a shotgun and sometimes I had to help a little lamb out that wasn't born properly and save it. So I saved quite a few little lambs in my time. So I had all these sound effects built into me, you know. And the crow has that [crow call]. You know about it. And pigs and these kind of things - I had them all the time. I used to feed them [pig noise]. I could do all this kind of thing, you see. And dogs far away ... when you sent the dog off to bring in the sheep: 'Fetch him up there'. And he goes [dog yelps]. And as he got near [barking]. See? So you can get sort of dimension in it. You like that?

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 7