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The Little Digger

Anzacday_2013_webheaderKai (9) and Taj (6) Stitt had something really special for ANZAC parade at South Kolan State School.  Each of them was going to honour a great great grandfather who served Australia in World War 2.  Kai was honouring Bert Wight who served in the RAAF and Taj was honouring Keith Conroy.  What made it special was that they were able wear replicas of Bert and Keith’s medals and what made it even more special was Taj was wearing one of Keith genuine medals.  It was awarded to him posthumously.

Keith Conroy with his daughter Valerie in Hyde Park, Sydney in 1943 while on leave.

The Little Digger.  Keith Conroy with his daughter Valerie in Hyde Park, Sydney in 1943 while on leave. He had just had all of his teeth removed according to standard army procedure.

Grandmother Johanne Stitt had gone to the war service record office to find what each grandfather had been awarded.  She wanted to buy replicas for Kai and Taj for South Kolan School’s ANZAC parade.  She wanted to also order the equivalent of the medals in ribbons for  Charlee and Billy Ironside to wear at their ANZAC parade in Townsville.

However, Johanne discovered an omission from the record.  After a lot of digging and a lot of help from the records office, she uncovered that Keith Conroy had never received one of his awards and so it was awarded to him posthumously.  That meant that Taj was going to  South Kolan State School ANZAC parade wearing an original medal.

Keith Conroy joined the army in Sydney and was fortunate enough to serve around Sydney during the whole of WW2.  He was honoured this ANZAC day by Ashley in Brisbane, Taj in South Kolan and Billy in Townsville.  They all wore his medals.  Little diggers honouring their own Little Digger.

Taj at his school's ANZAC parade with Grandpa Keith Conroy's original medal.

Taj at his school’s ANZAC parade with Grandpa Keith Conroy’s original medal. The medal on the left is the original and the others are replicas.

Keith staying around Sydney was very fortunate for his family, who lived in Paddington in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.  He would come home on leave and would light the copper, cut the wood and do a whole lot of things around the house that were difficult for the woman.  Keith’s wife Isobel lived with her grandmother Elizabeth Brown (who was the daughter of 2 convicts) and their little girl Valerie.  Isobel had cerebral palsy from a birth injury and required a lot of help around the house.

Valerie, who is the great grandmother of Kai, Taj, Charlee, Billy, Maddie and Ashley was just 6 years old and she went to school at Darlinghurst Primary School.

Things were very challenging for children during the war.  They had to have ration tickets as well as money for almost everything they wanted to buy.  They could almost never have sweets because everything was in short supply.

The Kuttabul was sunk with loss of life in Sydney Harbour.

The Kuttabul was sunk with loss of life in Sydney Harbour.

Children and their families lived in constant fear of being invaded by the Japanese.  It became more of a real threat after 2 miniature submarines infiltrated Sydney Harbour, sunk some shipping and took some lives.

The thing the Japanese were really trying to do was to have the population living in fear of attack and they succeeded very well at this.

The submarine for sinking shipping in Sydney Harbour.

The submarine reponsible for sinking shipping in Sydney Harbour.

Schools had air-raid drills, so that children knew what to do if there was ever an air-raid.  The school-yard had deep trenches with concrete walls.  There were seats for the children to sit on along the walls of the trenches.  Wardens who wore gas masks and had metal helmets supervised the drills.

Sydney lived in real fear of air-raids, not just during the day, but also at night.  When the air-raid siren sounded at night, everybody had to reduce their lighting to at absolute minimum and draw their curtains, so that there was no light visible from outside.

Coastal cities like Sydney and Newcastle ran low lights at night.

Coastal cities like Sydney and Newcastle ran low lights at night.

If any light was visible from your house, wardens would bang on your door and demand that you turned down the lights and seal your curtains properly.

The fears about attack were very real as submarines were on the East Coast of Australia.

The fears about attack were very real as submarines were off the East Coast of Australia.

Just to ensure that the population was kept in a constant state of anxiety, the Japanese would occasionally shell the major cities like Sydney and Newcastle from submarines.  These tactics would inflict little real damage, but proved that the Japanese could get through defenses.

Manly Beach in Sydney with barbed wire defences. during WW2.

Manly Beach in Sydney with barbed wire defences during WW2.

The level of anxiety in Sydney was very visible at the beach.  Iconic beaches like Manly Beach had barbed-wire barricades.  This was intended to slow down the enemy coming from the sea.  The war was a real threat to civilians, it wasn’t faced only by the troops.  The war was right in Sydney and that is why it was important to have people like Keith serving in Australia.

Valerie was a lucky girl because she saw her Dad quite often, other children didn’t see their dad for years and very sadly, some children never saw their dad again after he left on a troop ship.

While Keith was working hard to make sure that Sydney was defended and Australia was working well with its new United States allies, the other grandpa,  Bert Wight was in service in the RAAF in the Northern Territory.

CAC produced the Wirraway which was designed as a trainer but pulled in to active service

CAC produced the Wirraway which was designed as a trainer but taken into combat service.

Before joining up, Bert Wight worked at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) at Fisherman’s Bend in Melbourne.  He was engaged in what was termed an ‘essential service’ and was therefore exempted from military service.  However, when Bert had a major argument with wife Dorrie and she kicked him out, he was really angry and in a fit of pique joined the RAAF.  He was posted to Batchelor Air-base in the Northern Territory, which is around 100km south of Darwin.  Batchelor became a major air-base and was home to a joint Dutch East Indies Air Force and the US Air-Force as well as the RAAF.

The Dutch had been overrun in Indonesia (Netherland East Indies) by the Japanese and in Holland by the Germans.  A special joint squadron was formed with the RAAF.  The Dutch war-time parliament ran in exile from Brussels.

The American Mitchell B25 Bomber operated out of Batchelor Airbase.

The American B25-Mitchell Bomber operated out of Batchelor Airbase.

Batchelor became a centre of the Dutch world-wide intelligence radio network.  The Dutch had predicted the rise of the Japanese through their intelligence network in the early 1930’s.  The No 18 NEI (Netherlands East Indies) Squadron of the RAAF flew B25-Mitchell bombers.  It was on one of these planes the Bert flew over NEI as an observer.

Kai with Bert Wight's medals on his chest at the South Kolan State School ANZAC parade.

Kai with Bert Wight’s medals on his chest at the South Kolan State School ANZAC parade.

Kai wore Bert’s medals to the ANZAC parade.  He was very proud of his great great grandfather whose original medals are still in the family.

In the meantime, up in Townsville, Charlee and Billy were attending their own ANZAC service.

Charlee and Billy Ironside wearing the ribbons for Bert Wight and Keith Conroy.

Charlee and Billy Ironside wearing the ribbons for Bert Wight and Keith Conroy. One is each side of their mother Joleen.

Life in Townsville was very much effected by World War 2.   There were multiple bombing raids on this northern outpost by the Japanese.  It was Queensland’s most northern centre of significant resistance to the Japanese advance.

Townsville Sound Detectors

Special set-up to ‘listen’ for Japanese aircraft in Townsville in WW2.

Townsville was geographically closer to where Bert served, than distant Melbourne, where his family lived during the war.  Families had to live together during the war to try to get by.  Bert’s aged father lived with Dorrie and his 2 boys, Bill and Jim.

Bert with Yankee boss at Batchelor Airbase which is about 100 km south on Darwin.

Bert with his Yankee boss at Batchelor Airbase which is about 100 km south of Darwin.

Bert served as a dornier and this meant that he carried intelligence on his American Air-Force Harley Davidson (or Indian) motorcycle.  He was honoured by Madelyn in Brisbane, Kai in South Kolan and Charlee in Townsville.  They wore his medals this ANZAC day.

Meantime Back at the Oil Rig

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Val was in Tambo Hospital confined with her 4th child who had been delivered on 7th September, 1957. Bill was compelled to be superdad for a week.

As it happened, early in that very week, a truck came to the Oil Rig.

Val & Kids with Truck_Tambo_Enhanced Arcsoft

The crane truck was used to load and unload the various trucks that were coming to the Oil Rig as it was taken to pieces to be used in other locations like Weipa and Timor.

Bill needed to operate the crane truck to help unload it and then load it up again.

Bill was in a real bind. He couldn’t operate the crane truck with the 3 children in the truck, because they would be too distracting. He couldn’t leave them at large, because he couldn’t be sure that the children wouldn’t get in the road and into harms way.

What could he do?

The only solution seemed to be to lock them in one of the altents. That’s just what he did. He locked all 3 in the kitchen Altent and dealt with the matter at hand.

When the truck was seen to and gone, he open the door of Altent. Nothing could have prepared him for the what awaited him. 3 children can do a lot an hour, even without assistance. They had managed to get into and open almost everything imaginable – powdered milk, honey, flour…..

The place was a disaster. The kids were a mess. And Bill was on his own. It was like an overdone food-fight scene from a Disney movie.

Oil Rig Site Map

A sketch of the site of the Oil Rig and the Altents were Bill and Val and children lived. Notice the washing area in front of the Altents and water drums on the other site,

He did the best he could to clean up the kitchen and the kids.

Now by this time in addition to the mess from the children there were dirty nappies, dirty clothes and now dirty kids and a dirty kitchen. He’d been batching in primitive conditions for much of the week.

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The wash stand can be seen with a small dish in front of the bonnet of the Land-Rover and the large tubs with handles can be seen over the top of the bonnet.

Bill had to make a serious attack on the washing and that was quite a process at the best of times.

There were were 2 tubs on a washing stand that Bill had made. One tub was used for washing and the other was for rinsing the clothes.

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Val washing up the dishes at the wash stand between the Altents. Notice the bucket in front of the tree used to carry water from the 44 gallon drums to the tubs for washing or for baths or to the kitchen for domestic use.

A kerosene tin was used to boil the clothes that needed boiling since no copper was available.  Polyester clothes were a real hit because they didn’t need boiling.

The water had to be carried in buckets from the three 44 gallon drums which were the water storage.

Those same tubs were used for bathing. They had handle and were lifted down from the wash-stand at bath time. In winter, which was freezing cold, the tub was placed near the cooking fire, which was between the 2 Altents. On the fire-side, you boiled and on the other side you froze – all in the same tub at the same time.

And then there were the dishes…..

Bill, as matron had insisted, was able to get by.she_who_must_be_obeyed_postcards_package_of_8

Blokes, if you think it is tough to manage these days, spare a thought for Bill, who all round had a pretty tough week. He was being superdad in circumstances that were about as difficult as you could get. But, at the insistence of Hospital Boss and Sergeant Eiser, he manned up and got through it.  Job done!imgres-1

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