Australian Biography

Jack Hazlitt - full interview transcript

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When the Second World War broke out, did you want to go?

I was tempted, because they badly needed people with the experience that I had, [to go] back into England and to try and keep up the production of aircraft. The only thing that stopped me was I had four young kids. They were all very young. The oldest was about sixteen and, of course the wife. And so ... I also had a job, which I'd started with that company in 1926 - been with them a long time - and I resisted the temptation.

Were you influenced at all by your experiences in the First World War in thinking about that? How did you feel about War in general after all of that?

I didn't feel any great eagerness to go and get into it. I ... I ... If it hadn't been for the kids I think I'd have probably gone back to England but it would have meant, as I've already stated, leaving my wife and kids behind to battle along. Anyhow I didn't go.

If you hadn't had them, you would have gone out of a sense of duty, would you?

Yes.

But not eagerly, whereas when you set off as that kid aged seventeen setting off to the First World War, it was with real eagerness to go. Why were you eager to go way back then?

In those days, there was no way of getting a trip out of Australia except by ship. There were no planes to take you there in quick time. Many, many weeks on a ship if you had the money to pay the fare. Most of us, spent our lives not giving ... getting involved in an adventure trip to see what the rest of the world was like. By joining the Army, I felt that there was a fair chance that could happen.

Did you feel patriotic?

Oh, I've always been, inspite of Mr. Keating. I'm always pro-British cause I think although they've done some bad things in world history they've done a lot of good things too. And all my people came from there. I'm only a first generation Australian and ...

Did you feel you were going to fight for England?

Not in the first ... When I enlisted it was a spirit of adventure that took me away, not anything to do with fighting for England. Same with my brother.

But when you got there and you saw that as an adventure it was a pretty rough one, did you then start feeling that King and Country mattered?

Oh we certainly found out that there was no adventure about it. See apart from the risks to your life the liv ... conditions you got into were so dreadful, particularly on Gallipoli. You'd never change your clothes and you'd never have a bath and months went by - very off putting.

Gallipoli is often seen by Australians as the time in a way that the Nation really born because those soldiers there were seen as Australian soldiers for the first time. For you as an ordinary soldier, were you thinking that you were fighting for England or that you were fighting for Australia?

You're speaking of what ... which war?

Back there in Gallipoli.

Well I can't recall any sorts of any great patriotism really. It's no good trying to pretend otherwise. If I hadn't enlisted there ... 'Cause of being seventeen, I say I'd gone up until I was nineteen - two years after the War had gone on - by that time no young Australian had any idea that there was any good in it - going to a war. There had been too many casualty lists. I don't know that ever have I been a flag waver. But I have a tremendous respect for British history and what they've done in the world.

Did you feel then really - when you got there and you realised what a hard time it was and what danger you were in - did you feel any sort of resentment at all that you were faced with this and that you hadn't really ever understood what you were getting yourself into?

No, I never felt that - any resentment. If there was, I don't remember it. I think there is a lot of not resentment but shrugging your shoulders and saying, 'Well I'm in it. I hope I get out of it'. Nothing much else.

A sort of fatalism about it.

Yes. Yes particularly ... we often used to use the expression, 'We wonder when the next bullet or what shell has got our name on it'. We used to make a joke of it.

Was there a lot of joking?

Oh, it was a weird kind of humour. A lot of our humour was very weird. [Laughs]

Was it important to have the other guys with you, the other men that the ... the other soldiers that you were at war with? Did that matter a lot to you? Did you make good relationships?

Oh, yes, I think that inevitably it brought out the best of any human in regard to relationship. The squabbling, the difference of opinion and so on that goes on in ordinary civil life, I never saw any signs of it in the army. We felt we were in it. You see where it was so different to World War Two was when they had to move troops around the different fronts in World War Two it was all done in huge motor vehicles. Well with the exception of a few Ford Model T ambulances, there was no motor vehicles in World War One. We all had to be marched - with all our packs and ammunition and rifles and everything else - cross-country. That's where so much of the marching songs were developed, to try and keep the spirit up a bit. Some of them wouldn't bear repetition out here now, but they ... they were funny. But in World War Two, as I say, everybody was moved by motor transport. It made a big difference.

They had it easy you think?

Hmm?

They had it easy in comparison?

Oh yes, there were some mad things and ill advised things done with marching men too far you know. It happened in Egypt when we were at a place Telekevere [?] Camp and we were ordered down to the canal when they thought the Turks were coming. And there is a railway line going down there, and we could have been moved on the railway line but some bright general thought it would be good practice for us to march down there. It's all desert country, and the heat is absolutely blinding and a lot of people died on that march, from Telekevere to Suez Canal. Just through a rotten bit of organisation.

And you all just accepted this? You didn't feel resentment of the generals for making that sort of decision?

Well, you see in the army you absolutely have to respect commissioned ranks. You've made an oath to that effect and you must not think otherwise or you'll get into trouble, so in the end, we just learned accept bad ... There were so many bad decisions made on Gallipoli. We all know now, but it's long after the damage was done. But it doesn't make ... I don't think anybody I know had a feeling they want to go and hit somebody or shoot somebody because they made a mistake.

Your story from the War, is an extraordinary story of endurance. You endured so much through that. What's been the legacy of that for you? What are the scars you bear physically and psychologically from having being through that experience, do you think?

Hmm. Oh I think that it does ... there is only one word that would really cover it. I think it was sadly lacking in the population today, in its proper sense, and that's the word discipline. I think that ever since my life in the services, it teaches you to ... discipline.

What do you mean when you say discipline? How do you apply that, that you were learning, say, to obey sometimes stupid commands?

Well if you're working for yourself - all right you're running a little business or a shop where the only discipline that's needed is to discipline yourself: what time you get up in the morning and what you do during the day, but when you work for an employer they have to run the business and they have to have discipline in the way its run, what you do, what instructions you get and at times you may feel the instruction is wrong, a mistake, and other than make a comment like that to your next boss, who could be the foreman or the manager, you just do what you've been told to do. That's discipline.

Have you got any physical scars from the war?

Any what?

Physical scars.

I got a bit of lead in that hand there, which has been there. It doesn't trouble me. Other than that nothing ever hit me.

The bad burning on your back that you got when you were digging trenches and things in the desert, did you ever get over that properly?

No, it was one that has got to be dealt ... Dr. Allen has got to have a go at that in about a week's time.

What are these - skin cancers?

Hmm. Most of them are not active. But now and again one changes its mind and he thinks there is one there he should ... What they do is they use liquid something. It's like ice when it touches your skin. It's the opposite of burning. That's how they deal with those, as long as they get them in time. Other than that I'm ... I haven't got anything very knocked about. This leg here from that smash. That's about the worst thing I've had happen to me.

Did you ever have any nightmares after the war?

Yes.

Do you still get nightmares?

Oh, no, no, I haven't, but for many years I used to wake up with a picture in mind of some horrible scene that I'd been mixed up in but they gradually thinned out in time.

How long did it last?

You mean [when] one of these takes place?

Having nightmares.

Oh, I think it happens in seconds. It doesn't go on for hours. Generally, it's very active. It's unpleasant it wakes you up. The problem then of course is to get to sleep again. But that's years ago. Now ... I sleep pretty well now.

What do you think in the course of life has really been the best thing that has happened to you?

Well now, that's a very broad question. You see ...

I suppose life has ... your life has put great demands on you, and another way to ask the question would be: in meeting the demands that life has placed on you what do you think has been the greatest strength that you've acquired that's been useful to you?

Marrying the right woman.

You managed to do it twice.

Yep, yes. I think that's ... When you've got a good kind of companionship and when you're differing from your partner's comments in some way, instead of turning it into a snarling match just accept it. You don't need to be a willing slave, but I think life coasts along very pleasantly. You can't get it ... I think any of us must know men or women who never married. I think particularly as they get older, life's not very marvellous for them, without a partner.

You learned, at a fairly early age, not to complain about things. When you were confronted both in your early life and then again in wartime, and to some extent in the jobs you took in the early years after the war, you were confronted with real hardship and suffering. How mentally did you go about dealing with that? You obviously didn't complain.

Well, for instance, I was always so very keen on aircraft and the only reason I left Qantas ... I wasn't sacked or asked to leave in any way. The company then only had employees of eight of us. That was all in the company that now has thousands. I didn't need to leave them but my mother had ... I got her up there because she was on her own and so on. And she got sick of being out there and that unsettled me. And the working hours - there was no such thing as awards. If one of the old crates had to have a ... See, for instance, when they'd take off with the mail from Cloncurry or Winton or Longreach or Barcoo, right down the line to Charleville, if it didn't turn up at a certain time, Longreach would start to phone up all the outstations on the route to find out when did the Qantas plane go over you? If so, at what time? And gradually they'd get enough information if it had gone over righto - all right that far - but when another station on the route said, 'No, we've seen nothing and haven't heard it'. You know he's come down somewhere 'cause they had no radio you see. This is ... comes back to this. I'm always bleating like a duck on this. Radios made such a difference to so many things in life. Certainly out there, as it did in the trenches, radio - when it came later. So what we had in Longreach, was a fully equipped Talbot truck. On that was a new engine - a repaired engine, water, share legs - things that you put up over a plane to lift the busted engine out and to put another engine in. Anyhow we'd set off with that and ...

Jack, can I interrupt a minute. Now I asked you a question about how you endured suffering when you had to face it. And I'm getting the feeling that you find that a hard question to answer, because you're telling me a story rather than answering the question. Is that because you're someone who was brought up at a time when you really didn't actually think very much about your feelings? It was part of the code you were brought up with at school and so on, that you didn't think much about your feelings, that you tried to keep them well under control.

Well I think we all varied in that regard.

I suppose I'm thinking here of a seventeen year old boy going off to war. It must have been a lot of emotion and a lot of suffering and a lot of feeling there. How did you handle that, when you felt that you just wanted to run away, when you felt that you were confronted with things that were really unbearable? How did you deal with those feelings?

I don't know that I ever felt that I wanted to run away.

Not even for a minute?

No. When we were in the line there and so on, and things were ... it looked as though we were on the losing end of it and things were getting worse and worse. I can't ever remember wanting to pack up my little kit and run backwards. And I never saw anybody else, for that matter, in my little unit do that. So you stuck it out there until you either got killed, wounded or relieved.

And, it never occurred to you to do anything else?

No. I don't think that's abnormal by any means. You're in the Army and supposed to be doing things, and in case, we used this funny old term 'run away', where do you run? You'd be picked up by the military police pretty quickly and become a deserter.

Did you have any very close mates while you were there in Gallipoli?

Yes. There was another young fellow who was about my age I think, in that Bell tent we slept in, at Blackboy Hill. A fellow called - I've forgotten his first name - Holmes. Anyhow he and I were very friendly to each other in all the training. Shared our feelings at times. He got killed in the end. I never had anybody as close as him.

He was killed at Gallipoli?

No, he got to France. He got killed up in the Somme. But I never had anybody very close other than that. I had a lot of friends and another thing, I suppose you might be searching for anything odd in me. I wouldn't blame you if you if you do, but you see, in Cairo when we got leave, it was a hot bed of prostitution and every other thing you can name in those days. Probably still is. And we get leave time to go from our training camp and a lot of the fellows were charged down into what they call the wazza, where all the houses of pleasure were and I went with some of them once or twice, but the things I saw, I didn't want to see anymore.

What kind of things?

Well in one dreadful kind of a music hall you'd call it, the Eldorado, enormous completely nude coloured women would come on and they'd bring a donkey on. That's ... and you can imagine what else took place. Well that sort of thing revolted me. I'm no purist but I think that's carrying the thing too far, in front of an audience.

So you stopped going?

Oh yes. I used to ... I used ... when we got leave, I'd go into Cairo. It's the only place to go to, you know - museums there and art galleries and the Shepherd's Hotel, where they would only allow officers in there to start but that broke down, so you could go in there and meet somebody from another unit. Oh, it passed the time, when you had time off.

Were you laughed at by the other blokes in the unit for the fact that you weren't particularly interested in the flesh pots of Cairo?

Oh no. I think that everybody minded their own business. A lot of them used to drink too much. Well all that did was to make me sick and I don't want to be sick, I said to myself. They used to go and drink mostly beer, but they'd over do it. Well it used to make me vomit and I ... it was easy enough for me not to do it anyhow.

So that you never really been tempted by ... by any of the things that have got other of your friends into trouble?

No, I don't think I've been very strong on those sort of activities, so it hasn't been any effort on my part to keep clear.

What do you think has been your worst fault?

Hmm?

What's been your worst fault. Have you got any faults Jack?

Oh ... [Laughs] Goodness me. Well that's a crook one, isn't it? You see the faults varied according to the age one has reached. What was a fault in one decade, we'll say, is not necessarily a fault in the next one that you're living through.

You've lived through a very long life and you've seen immense changes in that time, You've already mentioned that you think that radio has been an amazing thing that's made a lot of difference to things.

My word

Just looking back over your life, what are some of the other developments that you've seen in ninety-four years, nearly ninety-five years, which have really seemed to you to be remarkable and important?

Oh I think there's one. I'm glad you asked me that because I've got very strong feelings about that. Was ... those great scientists in the past century, who developed electrical energy because if anybody sits down and thinks about, say there was no electrical energy, the whole structure of the world would go upside down, let alone when Hertz invented the vibration of electricity and how much that's meant to what we've got here now. It makes it all work. And I think as far as mankind's concerned, that's been the greatest development in ... right from Roman days was the discovery of harnessing electrical energy. [INTERRUPTION]

Is there anything you'd learned from your time in Gallipoli that you've never forgotten?

Yes, I've got an idea from a hint that I got recently. Before I got so bad with dysentery, I was still battling along the job with the signal company and I had to go down to the beach frequently with messages, and picking up other things, back up to where our line was, and I remember on one occasion it was pitch dark and I was sitting on the beach looking out. The Turks never damaged the ships. The hospital ships used to moor about half a mile out from the beach and they all lit up brilliantly and the Turks never fired at them. This night, I remember, I sat on the beach and I could hear an orchestra playing from the hospital ship coming across the water, and even against the booming of the guns, you know, you could hear the music. And like the rest of the mob, I was unwashed, dirty, lousy and generally physically run down and I ... I can't remember the exact words but I know that I said this to me that - I'll have to think of words that suit it but aren't the exact words - which was, 'If every I get out of this hell hole, I'll never do anything bad again', and I tried to live up to that, but of course I didn't, not for too long. That was a real oath. [Laughs] [INTERRUPTION] 'I'll never complain again', that's right. I've complained at times.

[end of tape]

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