#bravery

June 1943 on the operating table in New Guinea

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From June 1943 – a day in the life of the Field Ambulance,

Last night the Fuzzy Wuzzies brought him in on the improvised stretcher – he had copped a mortar bomb 12 hours ago and was despairingly low…

…now that surgeon battled to keep that little spark of life flickering for as long as he did was a miracle…picture a scene in a ramshackle thatched hut and the faces of the M.O. nad his orderlies reflected in the light of a hurricane lamp as they worked quietly and efficiently over the wounded man. A bottle of blood serum hangs from the rafters and from it leads the glass and rubber tubing into a vein. The serum drips steadily and the casualty opens his eyes for an instant and gives a long sigh – the M.O. mutters “he may make it”…but two hours later he passed away quietly and the long struggle for life had been in vain…

…next day his cobbers carried him to his grave, stumbling, slipping and sometimes wading thigh deep through a boulder strewn stream to get to a suitable site…a few words, simple but sincere said by his NCO and the grave is filled in and a bottle containing the dead man’s particulars are placed on the grave and a rough cross of saplings tied together with vines and his tin hat placed over it was erected.

His cobbers filed silently back to their hut engrossed in their own thoughts and flopped on their bunks…one man, veteran of Libya, Greece & Crete picked up the Army newssheet scanned through it then suddenly got to his feet with a ferocious look and said, “Christ almighty wouldn’t it ______ you” and stormed out of the hut.

I wondered what had “bitten him” so picked up the paper he had thrown down – and suddenly understood – “Strikers demand holiday in lieu of Anzac Day”…The opinions of the rest of the occupants are not fit to print!

Living life to the max (when he could)

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It is hard not to get a bit misty eyes reading my grandfather’s letters. I only wish I had done it earlier. From New Guinea he wrote about how much he grew to appreciate life. Then again he knew he, like his mates, could be offed at any moment. Lt Peterson wrote on 16 March 1943,

”Next time I go home – when God only knows – I will profit from previous mistakes of my previous leavein that this time I’m going to have a hell of a fling in case it’s my last! I have 108 pounds in my paybook and it will be none by the time I get home – I mean you can’t help but save in an operational area because there is nothing to buy, not even a stamp. Our tobacco is issued by the Comfort Fund. Our recreations  -nil. Except talk and letter writing and I pine for the bright lights and life and gaiety. – the flick, – children, -trams, – shops, a pot of beer, – electric light, – steak, fish and chips. I am going to by some civvy clothes this leave to get the feel of them again. We take life’s amenities for granted too much I think. At least the army has taught me to place a value on things I never gave a thought for…

…At the moment I’m in tip top condition. Lean as a rake as usual but feel extra well. I suppose its the air. Old Nippon is a bit quiet here at the moment- but I guess the big news will break shortly – you’ll know when and are we ready and rarin’ to go?…

…you have no idea how eagerly mail is looked forward to by the boys. As soon as it comes up the track the cry goes up, “Mail’s in!” And you get knocked down in the stampede…

…excuse me for a moment. I’m about to partake in half a huge succulent pawpaw with lemon all for nothing…like some? It was delicious indeed…

a lot of blokes to save razor blades are sporting mutton chops and side levers with waxed moustaches – it gives ‘em something to do. Crimes some of ‘em look funny…

…Sgt Wilcox is now telling me about his past girlfriends- all virgins of course-but it is going in one ear and out the other as I write. Capt “Doggy” Reid after having been staring into a hurricane lamp for the last past hour just made us laugh. Usually the quiet type, he hasn’t said a word since meal time, but just stood up and said , “Japanese Bastards!!”and went straight to bed. It sounded funny as hell. He has been daydreaming about his missus and leave – it’s a moral

tell Jim to lay in a stock of plonk and we’ll down it like nobody’s business!”

It would appear from reading all the other letters that the troops were feeling far more confident they’d win against the Japanese. This is perhaps his cheeriest letter with battle hardened experience behind him. It reads much like the pre battle stationing in Palestine. Truly powerful stuff.

 

Freedom isn’t free

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My grandfather’s comments could easily be directed at the same people who try to shame Anzac Day marches today by calling it “Bogan Halloween” and suggesting that soldiers’ jobs is no more dangerous than any other. Lt. Peterson wrote,

Well on reading about some of the women you were telling me about I feel a loathing for such hypocritical parasites. Is this what men are laying down their lives to protect? I sometimes wish that they could see how a bloke looks like when he is unburied for a couple of months, a skeleton with boots and clothes on, eaten by ants. A grinning skull and shirt black and stiff with congealed blood. Or a few Japs scattered around a shell hole with leg bones protruding from their boots…

…I wonder and think that these bones were a few months ago living people, with their loves and hates, wives and mothers, and sweethearts, posted as missing, they are frequently seen in the jungle, unburied until found. Then I think of the mongrels safe in Australia and having a great time the bastards – pardon my eloquence but I really get worked up over the mongrels that are not worth the little finger of the boys on the job defending their pseudo honour and their miserable little lives.”

Unseen WW2 battlefield letters from North Africa

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This is an excerpt from a letter written by my grandfather S/Sgt Norman Peterson on 11th Jan 1941.

Dear Auntie Marie, (he always wrote to her the truth and sent happy versions to his wife)

“…I travelled by truck to a place called Ikingi Maryut where I caught a train at 2 in the morning to Marsa Matruh…but I couldn’t get a seat for drunks and others asleep on the floor all coming back from Cairo from leave. So I thought “bugger this” I’m not going to sleep in the cold on an observation platform so I walked the length of the train & eventually gate crashed the postal van, occupied by a real lime house cockney who told me, “Ee laad, ye carnt room in ‘ere.” I said “Like _______ I can’t!” So I unrolled my swag, took off my boots and slept on the mail bags…I soon made good friends with the Tommies who were a good crowd but were mystified by the way I rolled my own cigarettes. Apparently only the poorest classes roll their own!…

…Matruh is a very pretty place with wide tree lined avenues….but I wouldn’t give 2 bob for it now as it has been bashed and bombed into an unrecognizable rubble…while I was here I saw a gallant piece of action by two Tommies. A train was at the station full of stores and ammunition when two Italian bombers came over and commenced to lay their eggs around the place. The Tommies jumped into the cab and it was a thrill to see puffs of smoke from the engine as it slowly drew away from the station out of danger…

…I was here for two days when the word came through that our forces were pushing westward and I was sent to a post between Sidi Barrani and Matruh and did the wounded roll in. I worked on the wounded prisoners and saw some ghastly sights, One Libyan had a shrapnel wound under the left shoulder blade that had ricocheted on the bone and come out near the collarbone. The whole wound was crawling with maggots (which really isn’t so bad as they eat the putrified tissues)…

…We were here for 3 days…I was sent to the 3/3rd English 7th Ambulance. I went through the battlefield of Sidi Barrani and the quantity of material would truly astound you. Tanks, motorcycles, lorries and cars just for the taking. I had a motorbike and when she ran out of juice dropped it and picked up another….I picked up my first souvenir – an Iti tin hat – once owned by a field ambulance man. These lids are very rare…

…anyway to cut my own story short…I saw a grisly sight, a Savoia 79, a tri motored bomber had been shot down and the pilot had tried to pancake down but when he hit the petrol tank exploded thus incinerating the occupants. The pilot was a charred skeleton, both legs snapped like dry twigs, The foregunner was in two pieces, sheared in halves from the waist, the top part in an attitude of prayer though both hands were missing. The heat must have been terrific as the motors were fused together in a solid mass. The rear gunner was sprawled in his compartment, not so badly charred, his fingers stiffened in rigor mortis on the keys of the bomb rack and bullet holes in his Adam’s apple and temple. I took the builder’s nameplate as a souvenir…If I only had my camera I’d make a fortune but of course it is stowed away in Alex….

…Along the roads were truckload after truckload of prisoners who didn’t seem very dejected…however some who were told to dig slit trenches broke down and cried…the position was rather embarrassing until an interpreter told them they weren’t digging their own graves…they broke out in huge smiles and dug like hell…

…I was in a quandary as to where my own unit was…I attached myself to a section of Royal Tank Corps who had told me they saw an Australian Field Ambulance near Sollium. I spent three days with this crowd and spent a night at an Air Force refueling dump with beers and cheers and told them some bullshit about Australia…I at last found my unit to be greeted with the news A company was in Libya. Incidentally up to this time I had had neither a wash or shave and looked a fright from 9 Dec to 22nd Dec…”

 

ANZAC Lt. Peterson’s letters from the WW2 battlefields

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Here are some excerpts from my grandfather’s letters of what it was like on the battlefields –

TOBRUK – 1941

We were wakened by the drone of Italian bombers which have a distinctive note and easily recognizable at night…we heard 1/2 dozen explosions & wondered what they would be bombing…about 30 minutes later we got a message to go immediately to the prisoner of war compound as they had been bombed…

…it was a most ghastly sight imaginable. The prisoners without blankets were huddled together for warmth and had lit fires and their own planes had dropped big 500lb bombs…

…there were bits of bodies everywhere, like a slaughterhouse – brains, livers, arms, trunks. I couldn’t describe it. The bombs landed right into the huddled mass of prisoners & blown them to pieces. The doctors and the boys worked like Trojans doing amputations in the field. Arms and legs were put in a stack like a wood heap and to make it worse some desert dogs were having a feast on the remains. On of our blokes was doing an Italian, who had his arm just hanging by a bit of tissue, hacked the arm off with a jack knife. When he returned a bloody dog had the arm in his mouth. And was streaking over the hill when an MP shot it with his revolver. We worked all that day and through the night & done around 300 operations on the spot. Near one bomb crater we shoveled bits and pieces in the hole and covered it in…it is not so much the shrapnel but the concussion that does the damage”

CRETE -1941

”we were in an olive grove with wounded men under every tree before we got word to get going and they gave us hell here, the guns tipped toward the men under the trees and straked is with machine guns. I nearly took a soilly here. I heard a plane roaring down & looking up saw a Messerschmitt 109 diving straight for me. You should have seen me move. I dived for the nearest tree and just got there before he opened up with his machine guns (6 of them, 3 in each wing).  The chatter of them was deafening as he flew as low as 100ft from me, the b———-d…any man on Crete who never prayed was a bloody liar…

…anyway I had the job of getting 300 walking wounded to the beach which was 45 miles away (they told us 7)…what a march keeping our movement secret & taking cover by day and moving only at night…the hours of daylight would drive you crazy…a road was being done over by Junkers 87s and heard Jerries trench mortars landing very close so I said to Kev & Bill “let’s go” daylight or not I was moving. Bill told me he’d had enough and couldn’t stand it any longer then I noticed for the first time he was bomb happy (shell shock) his head was  nodding nineteen to the dozen, eyes staring and hands shaking…

…water was scarce. My mouth like blotting paper and we were in rotten condition until we came across a bombed truck so we drank the radiator water (rust, oil and all). It was like nectar…I never thought hunger was so crook…I couldn’t keep my mind off food, even dreamt of it and of the crusts I’d wasted (Kev admitted the same)

NEW GUINEA – 1942

Meanwhile Private Jenkins was sent through by jeep to act as a guide…however about 50yds from the corner; a sustained burst of MG fire whistled around us which was tragically funny as I looked behind to see the boys moving up the track. After the burst I dived for cover in the tall Kumai grass and when I looked back there wasn’t a man to be seen because when I dived they all dived too. We stayed about 1/4 hour and I decided I couldn’t stay all day so I decided to risk it and make a dash for it…a man every two minutes…without mock heroics my knees were knocking as I got to my feet and darted 200 yards long and expected to get one in the guts at any moment…

…to my sorrow around the corner we came across poor George Jenkins who had been the guide- shot-our first casualty and we’d only been in the place 5 minutes and a sniper had got him. The bullet had plowed through his scalp from ear to eye and his face was a mess. Poor bugger. All he was worrying about was that he wasn’t able to tell us about the snipers and was we alright? I slipped a shell dressing on his skull and carried him back – lucky bugger he’ll go home now…

…this bloody war is a terrible mental strain. You can get shot anywhere with snipers (who never live more than two hours anyway after they’ve climbed the trees) because our boys comb the branches with Brens and they dangle like rabbits from their perch). I’ve lost about 2 stone since I’ve been in action here. It’s tough believe me….

….as we were coming back (it was dark) I am in front treading safely- a stick cracks and we prop, listen and sneak on. When I tripped over a wire stretched across the path I went cold with terror – a booby trap…I flopped to Mother Earth waiting for the explosion – which never materialized. Quickly as possible we moved on fearing a delayed action grenade…the trouble with the front line is that it is so fluid that they are everywhere…

Another letter from New Guinea

Are we giving the Japanese fighting boys a belting!!…yesterday when our 25 pounders started up behind us was it accurate? I’ll say. The Japanese scattered in all directions squealing like girls were blown to shred..they hate our mortars. You can hear them quite plainly in the bush screaming and squealing like animals when our mortars lob on them and as they bunch together like sheep and don’t disperse it’s like shooting clay pigeons…

...I’m not exaggerating when I tell you the fighting is going on at a 20 yard range yet you can’t see them and they can’t see us. A patrol will he on the track and meet a patrol of Japanese suddenly 5 yards away. It’s a case of whose quicker on the draw. Our boys have really got Nippon beat at this game they seem dull witted and before they wake up, our blokes have generally riddled them…

…I’m applying for a recommendation for decoration for two of my blokes – Nicol and Lennar to the OC as they’ve done a marvelous job. Hope they click although honestly every man in the show deserves one

Most powerful thing I’ve read in a very long time

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As ANZAC day approaches tomorrow I went through my grandfather’s WW2 memorabilia. This is a message Lt. Norman Martin Peterson sent my grandmother on 10 May 1941. Puts our petty modern day quibbles into perspective. He survived 6 years of battle on the front lines as a medic – from Crete to Tobruk to the Pacific Islands. He never got hit by bullets but no doubt remained scarred inside for a long time after. I was always amazed at him. I do not know what brave is. Lest we forget.

He’s not called ‘Jackass’ for nothing

Aussie Jack Miller, affectionately known as ‘Jackass’, finished in his first ever pole position at the Argentinian MotoGP after risking slick tyres in the wet conditions. If anyone wondered why MotoGP is so much better than the politically correct F1 this is why. Talk about putting it on the line!