|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: February 27, 1992
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
What was the most dangerous thing you had to do while you were in France?
Well, I think I may have mentioned to you that I was on a mission where the phone lines were impossible to keep under repair and I was carrying a message up to the front line and this pretty heavy white shell - I'll never know what size it was - it went off practically alongside of me and bombed me right out of where I was but it didn't do any damage to my structure. But it certainly did a lot of damage to my nerve system and I passed out. I never got to the front line. I was very close to it anyhow and next morning I came to and thought well I've got to try and crawl back to my own side of the line. I knew I was near the front line with the Germans and I didn't feel at all well, so I lay there. This hole that this shell must have made was about as big as an average room and I was at the bottom of it. And all of a sudden I heard voices, hoping it was some of my own mob, or even a stretcher bearer or two, but they were German voices and I knew then that this tangle during the night, that somehow I had got pretty close if not on the front line, [which was] just a chain of muddy trench holes. There were not forts there. The shelling was too fierce to ever keep anything like that. And there was a rumour around, which was probably quite unfounded, that the Germans at some parts of the line didn't take prisoners because they were so overloaded with their own problems. Whether that's true or not I'll never know to this day but I know the thought never crossed my mind with the Turks on Gallipoli. If you were captured, you were taken back as a prisoner but I think down on the ... the fierce fighting down on the Somme in France there was a possibility that people who were captured, were captured and that was it. So I decided I've got to lie doggo down there for as long as I could until the next night. I lay in the bottom of that hole there, hoping another shell wouldn't go anywhere near me and I had the usual emergency rations, which you carried in a little pack, which you'd use and a water bottle. So I lay there all that day, and the next night - in the meantime I think I'd recovered some of my damaged senses - I knew which way to go and soon as it got dark, I crawled out of this shell hole and gradually crawled back into the direction of the Brigade Headquarters, where I was on signal staff. And I got back to the top of that thing and the officer in charge of our signal squad, a fellow called Schooler, he looked at me. I remember him saying, 'Good God you've had it. Go on back to the clearing station', and from then on I was ordered back to another place, where I had to look after ... We were a mounted brigade, when there was anything to be mounted about. We had horses and we carried all our phone lines and stuff on horses and they were tethered about a mile back from where this other situation occurred and I lived in a tent there, one tent, and I tried to keep the horses alive because it snowed there every winter and that was a sad situation. There were about sixteen horses there and they were dying one by one from starvation because the food to keep them alive wasn't arriving from base, and no food for me, but there was a mountainous pile of American tinned asparagus made by a big firm over there called Libbys, and they were great big cans and there were stacks of them there been left behind when the troops went forward. They were there for the officers. I don't think the privates ever saw tinned asparagus. I practically lived on that and army biscuits and in the end I recovered enough. I got a message back to Albert, where the Divisional Headquarters were, that I was a bit of a mess and they eventually came and took me back there and then they apparently decided that I was more than half silly. I was sent to a place called Perron Downs under medical supervision. I wasn't in hospital I wasn't in bed, but they decided that I was finished with the war. Apparently my speech and general look of me was not much use on the front line.
Now Jack let me get this straight. You found yourself at the bottom of a crater made by a shell, got yourself back to your Commanding Officer, who sent you off to look after horses without food for them or you, for how long?
Well I was only there for about ten days.
On your own?
Yes, but there was enough food there to keep me alive.
And you were in this shell-shocked state and you were on your own and you were aged what - twenty?
That was in 1916. Nineteen, yeah.
And you were there for ten days on your own in that state, before they finally decided to send you back to England. They treated you tough, didn't they?
Well, the need for re-enforcements was desperate because the slaughter going on from both sides, you know, was absolutely ... was beyond description. So every able-bodied man, if he still got some able in his able body, they didn't want to send him away and hoped he'd get better as many of them did. Up to a degree I think that maybe I was being kept there because the casualty rate on the signals was very heavy, as was the running job. Every twenty-four hours, there was another casualty. And they, I suppose ... I don't know to this day, of course, what the attitude was, but ... [they hoped] that I'd recover just looking after a few horses. It didn't work and I think they must have decided that I'd had it anyhow, so they were taking me back to a big military hospital just near Albert and they confirmed that I was a write-off. And away I went to England and I was hospitalised there for a while and they decided ... confirmed the general diagnosis and I was put on another ... See the war was still on and they were still sending troops around the Cape [of] Africa and up to the Middle East - Persia it was then. The Blue Funnel ship, the Nestor, was half a hospital ship and half ammunitions and they put me on board that and [I came] back to Australia. It took thirteen weeks from when we left Plymouth because German raiders were still around - armed gun ships and of course submarines - and when we got off the African coast there I remember a dreadful scare and the course was changed about 180 degrees and we went straight into the African coast we were just opposite what was then a British Colony - Sierra Leone - and they got in there and put a torpedo net across the entrance to it and there we sat for two weeks and weren't allowed to go ashore. The monotony. Then they must have thought it was clearer and away we went down there to Cape Town and I just show the effect on my nerve system: I must have been in a dreadful state I think because, as we left Cape Town to go around to Durban, there was another Blue Funnel ship ahead of us in the convoy going up to Persia and it was a nice sunny morning and all of sudden there was a colossal explosion about four miles ahead of our ship, the Nestor, and we realised later that this Blue Funnel thing had hit a mine. [We] found out later that the mines were laid by ostensibly a Dutch freighter that was dropping mines for the Germans and on its first voyage. Anyhow I heard afterwards. We kept going. The captain steered the ship and managed to keep up the speed because most of the bow had been blown off and managed to beach it at a near little town called Simonstown. He saved the ship. I never saw it again. And from there we went around to Durban. We were there two weeks and then back to Australia.
Was your mother there to meet you?
She was ... She had left Western Australia when my brother got killed and I looked like not coming back and my eldest brother had died in Kings School. And ... She'd gone back to Melbourne. Her mother was still alive then and I think she was pretty well bonkers by then. She ... she lived for a number of years after this, but she was never the same.
Really seriously disturbed or just distressed about the death of her boys?
Oh, I ... well I think you know, Robin, it was a bit of each of your description because I'm sure that she was never quite the personality she was before that war, otherwise she'd never have been able to run those musical connections the way she did and organising amateur plays and things like that.
What was she like when you came back? What sort of a person had she become?
Oh, well she was very very distraught, face it all too. See there was no loving father or husband there and she absolutely was devoted to her three kids and two out of three had gone, so I suppose anyone would be getting a bit knocked about mentally.
Did you stay with her when you came back?
Oh yes. She had a little house down at Hampton, a little suburb of Melbourne and the returned soldiers then, you know, didn't count for much at that time. The Repatriation Department was still a struggling government thing trying to get going and the first thing they tried to do was establish soldiers on blocks of land, which was a grave error because a lot of them weren't farming material - never been on the land in their lives and was stuck there with a few hundred acres, and a horse and a cow and things and of course a lot of them went broke. What saved my day was the old headmaster at Haileybury. He used to get together any of the former students and get little tea-parties down at where this college was in those days, and I met two men there at one of these tea parties, when I was still trying to get started on something. One of them was an electric scientist who'd been brought out to Australia from England to establish the first radio masts around the Australian coast. You know those masts. The first time they were ever put up out here: one in the Domain, one at Pennant Hills and so on. J. Graham Balsillie. I remember his name and in his spare time he was experimenting ... was trying to produce rainfall, which was badly needed in Australia because I've lived in the bush a lot in the early days and day after day a clear sky but now and again you get a lovely looking black Nimbus cloud drifting along: this is going to break the drought. Well in most cases they don't, [it] drifts on, [and] the next day the same brazen sky. Well that's what he was experimenting with. He found that those big clouds, when they do come over, have got plenty of rain in them but it takes electrical action in the cloud to make the tiny particles group together where they form a raindrop. When they get together enough, gravity takes them down and that's rain. That's how rain comes. I learned all that because he gave me a job to run the station in the Northern part of what was then desert country, near the South Australian border up near Mildura. That was my first job.
And how long did that last?
Well, I was about twenty miles from the nearest town. I had a horse and a Bell tent, just like the army, and I was on top of a sand hill and a horse drawn wagon used to bring out tinned stuff and water because [there was] absolutely no rivers there running. It was particularly chosen to be a real testing spot for Balsillie's invention. Well, it didn't succeed or I wouldn't be here now. I think if that had been successful I might have been finished up a millionaire.
It was a good idea that didn't work.
It worked in the laboratory yeah. I could give you the simple scientific facts now but I don't think I will. It was like sending a boy on a man's errand. When those clouds decide to send a shower of rain down below, it's quite a intricate electrical action takes place between positive and negative up there in that cloud, which had been there since the beginning of time but he had the idea all right, but not the equipment to make it work. So I think I was out there about six months.
On your own?
Yeah. Oh I used to go into the nearest town occasionally on a horse. There were no picture shows or anything but I got to know a few people, drank a bit of beer and so but it's pretty lonely too. What you had to watch there was where the station had been established with all the instruments that I had to look after - because I had to keep a complete record of wind direction, wind strength, barometers, reading all that sort of thing - it was extremely barren country but it was the home of brown snakes. Big fellows they were too. Where I had my tent they took a bit of getting used to. I found that with snakes too, that if you leave them alone they'll leave you alone, unless you accidentally tread on one, then of course he thinks he's been attacked. But I was very careful about that, particularly at night. I only had a hurricane lamp of course - no electricity. If I had to get out of bed, my little folding bed I had in the tent, I used to have the wick turned down and I'd turn it up a bit and make certain one of those brown fellows wasn't there camped alongside of me.
I hope you had something better to eat than hard biscuit and tinned beef.
No. Only tinned ... Well I used to get it brought out from Hopetoun, which was the nearest town there. I used to be very fond of it - it was tinned tongues, sheep's tongues. Used to eat a lot of them, a change from Audrey's tinned beef and tinned vegetables.
And tinned asparagus?
No. Do you know, it's funny you should mention that because I ate so much asparagus in that tent over on the Somme that the very smell of asparagus made me almost back up, you know. But it's cured me now. If Lesley opened a can there now, I'd enjoy it, but it took a long time. So anyhow that was the rain making experiment and another of Charles Henry Rendall's, our old head of tea-parties down there, another man was invited as a guest. He was a colonel in the air force in England - Harry Turner Shaw - and he was just starting up a small aviation company in Melbourne and he was at one of these tea parties and we met and I was still trying to get a start and he took a liking to me and found out that I had had a bit of mechanical [experience] but not much but he wanted to get a small staff together because they were going to start a company called the Shawross - a very grandiloquent title: Shawross Engineering and Aviation Company. I got the original prospectus when the company was floated somewhere here now. Of course, like all those early aviation companies it went bust. But it started with Port Melbourne. Built a hangar there and I ... we didn't have to have licenses then, but his partner, a fellow called Ross, who eventually spun into the ground one day and that was the end of Ross. But anyhow before that he used give me Jewel, one of the planes, and I used to ... I learned very rapidly. I think I went solo after about two hours instruction.
So you took to flying very readily.
[NODS] And when ... after I'd been there a year or two, I'm not too certain of dates now, the partner got killed - Ross. He had some passengers on board and he got into a spin, which is one of the things you had to fear in those days. He was too close to the ground and he couldn't come out of the spin and he spun into it and killed himself and the two passengers. And the ... Shaw wasn't mentally the same material as Ross and the company was still going along doing taxi work and so on, but I'd heard about Qantas just starting with an airmail contract and I got in touch with them and even though I was not very experienced for what they were looking for, apparently I was good enough. So they offered me a job. I went off up to Longreach.
The beginning of Qantas.
Yeah, it took a week to get there you know. Trains sent from Sydney, from Melbourne to Sydney and then another train from Sydney to Brisbane and another train from Brisbane to Rockhampton and then from there to Longreach is nearly 500 miles inland. Another train there. It took ... with the stops and waiting for the trains it took a long time to get there and now they do it in about two hours. [Laughs] Yeah, anyhow that's where I got to.
How long were you with Qantas?
Just on three years. I could have stayed with them but I got to bring my mother into this now. Well she was down in Melbourne and quite miserable because her mother had died so she didn't have her comfort and so I found a miserable letters arriving and so I sent her down the money and she came up by train, and we rented a little house in Longreach. And then she was able to rent a piano. I don't know how out there, because it's not a good climate for pianos, but anyhow that kept her happy for a while. But she became upset and changing a bit right from the start, as we've discussed already. You know she was mentally damaged, I think, from the wartime and things like that. No husband. And I thought, well, I know she won't go back to Melbourne. There is nothing for her to go back there now and she wants to stay with me. And I thought, well it's going to be rather miserable for her and for me too because at Qantas in those days, it was long hours and very poor pay and it was hard to think what the prospects were, because I'd been ... although I'd done some flying down Shaw-Ross in Melbourne, when they called me up for a medical, they reckoned I had a heart condition. They wouldn't give me a license.
They thought you wouldn't live.
Well, they ... If you've got a joy stick in your hand and your feet on a rudder and you pass out and faint, there is only one ending.
Did you have a heart condition?
Oh yes. It wasn't to do ... I think I know why I had it too. It wasn't the usual one with the pumping cut off to the heart, it was a nerve condition. What they call a vaso-motor nerve, which regulates the beat of the heart electrically. And they didn't like the sound of that. Well, I'm not surprised after my wartime. However, it was a bit of a blow and that meant that I still went to Qantas then, but I couldn't fly any aeroplanes up there, I had to mend them. And that's how I got to Qantas and then mum came up to me and it was a case of either sticking it out a bit longer with her getting more and more miserable out there. There was absolutely no ... it was only a village then you know. So I resigned, because I heard there was another aircraft company starting in New South Wales and I thought it would be much more civilised life from Sydney to Adelaide, by a firm called Larkin Aircraft Supply Company and they got the contract from Sydney to Narranderra, Hay, Mildura, Adelaide. And I was with them then about a couple of years. And ...
Was your mother happier?
Oh yes, yes she ... I think it was a good move and that but I think ... I really think about it but Qantas then the staff was eight people you see, and I think at one stage I remember they had about ten dollars in the bank but I had a feeling that they must eventually make it pretty well. Now today, of course, they've got about 15,000 on their staff - enormous reserve. And I think ...
But still not enough in the bank.
Oh well, I ... their bank account now must be a bit lean looking. [Laughs]
So you often wondered what would have happened if you'd stayed with them.
Oh I think it's almost a certainty that see ... A fellow - ground engineers we were called - George Bowen, again he's dead. He and I were great friends out there and shortly [after] I resigned and went back to Melbourne the Qantas management sent him off up to Singapore, to take charge of that branch. And I heard later that they had me lined up for that job and of course I'd resigned. So I might've got somewhere in Qantas if I'd stayed there, because I had a fairly good primary education.
Now tell me, with this business of trying to get yourself established in some sort or career after the War, and a lot of responsibility, as your mother's only son who was left, did you have any time for girls?
Yes, that takes a bit of thinking out. Well the first ... what word shall I use? ... becoming friendly was back in Perth when I was in the Army, training there and I got a family there who became celebrated for making billiard tables. Alcock I think their name was and this was the daughter, Dorothy, and she and I became very friendly and I think if I'd gone back to Western Australia after I came back from the War something might have happened. But I never saw Western Australia see and we wrote a few letters, then the letters fizzled out. That wasn't a very exciting event, was it?
When did it start getting exciting?
Oh well, only she used to send letters wherever my military address was while I was away, you see. That's about all. No I never saw her again because I never went back to her. No, the general answer to your question was I think I was ... I think I must have been a bit of a neuter then. [Laughs] I wasn't bothered much - all the time trying to get a start in something, and I've got to go back to Melbourne to finish up this career story. The ... I don't think the ... no back ... J.C. Williamson's - cause I told you my father was in that and so on - but the secretary of the company was Major. Ted Major - he was the secretary of the whole show. He lived in Melbourne and I think he was always a bit sympathetic with the marriage bust-up between my mother and my father, because he knew my father very well but he was always very friendly towards me and I had ... couldn't get an aircraft license. I'd come back from Qantas and so on and he ... I went up to visit him one day. He lived in a nice home in St. Kilda Road there and he said, 'Look, a very old friend of mine, who lives in Sydney, heads off one of the big motor companies up there. If you could get yourself to Sydney, you might be able to get a start there', because I wasn't doing much good in Melbourne. So he gave me a letter of introduction and I got myself - without prolonging this story unduly - to Sydney. I had practically no money. Of course, I had no army pay. I was out of that. And I went around - had the appointment with this chap called Carter. Larke Neave and Carter. They were just being founded to handle Chrysler, when it first came to Australia. And I went with this letter of introduction to Hunter Street, where he had his office. And one word led to another and he was looking for somebody to start up their service department and he appointed me, when the company was founded, and I was there until I retired. Nearly forty years.
So what year did you get this job?
19 ... I remember it: February 15, 1926.
And it saw you through the Depression?
Yeah, right through. We nearly folded, and I'd produced four kids by then and the only way we kept going was I don't think the unions would stand for it now, but we used to put everybody off for one week, no pay, and they could fiddle around. Nobody could get jobs anyhow and then we'd put them on for another week and they'd get paid. That went on for months and months and months. It just about kept the doors of the company open. They were almost ready to fold up and that was in the depth of the Depression. And then just when that was recovering we went into the Second World War. [Laughs]
Now you said that you'd produced four children by then so you got over your lack of interest in girls I take it.
Yes. As a matter of fact, the interest started back in that second aircraft company, before we get too confused, after I left Qantas - the other company started up with a contract from Sydney to Adelaide and I was stationed at Hay and that was about the half way point and the rich graziers had started a high school in Hay - a very remote area then - and called it the War Memorial High School in Hay and the French teacher at that school boarded at the Free Masons Hotel, where I put up, when I got there from Melbourne ...
[end of tape]