‘Ossie Trigwell, younger brother of Vern was going off to school on the morning that Vern, WX17863, was leaving for Northam. Riding off down the farm track, he turned to Vern and said, “I haven’t said goodbye yet”. Vern called out, “Don’t worry about that, I will get leave before I go overseas”. And that was the last he saw of him as there was no leave.’
Early January 1942 the men of the 2/4th were eager to reach port for the leave they believed they were to have before heading off to Singapore to ‘stop the Japs’.
The battalion had been on a circuitous route around Australia from Northam to Woodside in South Australia in July 1941 for further training. Then on to Darwin in October, as it was felt that the future of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion and the 2/4th Pioneers was home defense.
December 8th 1941 – ‘Japan has attacked Pearl Harbour and landed troops on the West Coast of Malaya, Singapore has been bombed’. Action Stations! A sense of urgency now intruded into every activity. Then the decision was made on December 23rd and the 2/4th Battalion was alerted for embarkation.
Reaching the Aquitania off Port Moresby, the troops learnt that they were heading for Sydney and then on to Fremantle to take on more troops from different battalions, including ‘E Company’ of the 2/4th. The Battalion had not seen their families since July.
The Aquitania spent one day in Sydney, just long enough to refuel and take aboard a few thousand more troops, before steaming through the Heads and moving south. As she raced across the Bight, the excitement grew in anticipation of a night ashore in Fremantle.
On that early Thursday morning, January 15th 1942 (exactly one month before Singapore surrendered) the Aquitania sailed serenely into Gage Roads between Rottnest Island and the coast, some of the men could see their homes.
The Aquitania was to refuel, take on stores, water, equipment and a small detachment of troops, among them the reinforcements for the 2/4th, ‘E’ Company. She was to be at anchor for about 36 hours.
The military authorities made a gross error. Because there had been problems in Sydney, and, because of the purported security risks, their decision was that the men would not be permitted ashore in Perth.
No shore leave? ‘Command refuses leave to all troops’. To men who could see their homes, or nearly so, and who had not seen loved ones for nearly seven months, and might never see them again, this was too much, especially when they learned that members of the ship’s crew had leave. With faultless logic the men reasoned; if the crew were permitted ashore, then security could hardly be a factor. As tankers, ferries and lighters came out to deliver, fuel, reinforcements, and provisions, so they carried back to port privates, corporals, sergeants, who had scrambled through portholes, slid down ropes, commandeered a gang plank, disobeyed orders (told one subaltern, silly enough to draw a pistol and threaten the ‘deserters’ ‘piss off and grow up’) and so made their triumphant home-coming. Saggers p7
Some orders are just too mean to be followed. The men knew it was possibly their last chance to see their loved ones before they went to war. When the barges came out we jumped ship by the dozens and in most cases it was a jump of about 3 or 5 metres. The skippers of the barges were well paid for cooperating and for them the choice was simple: either head back to wharf or risk sinking because the longer the barge stayed alongside the more soldiers jumped aboard. Harris p12
One of our corporals, quite a good soldier, was breaking his neck trying to get ashore. He had just got news that his wife had given birth to their first child. I suggested he try sliding down the rope tying the barge to the ship. I helped him get to the rope, and over the side he went. ‘Loosen your grip and slide down’, I called to him. He did so, and you could almost see the smoke coming from his hands. But he managed to get onto the barge just before they cast off. He was only wearing shorts, so he burned the inside of his legs as well, but he got ashore. Airey p113
Stories of family reunions and parties, which were celebrated in the next fifteen or sixteen hours, were faithfully told and irreverently exaggerated in the days and weeks and months and years that followed. Saggers p7
Bert Norton like all soldiers who had ‘gone AWL’ found the return to the Aquitania challenging ‘ I stayed with them for an hour then to Barrack Street jetty to catch ferry to Coode Street. The ferry master told me the M.P.’s had been stopping all service men and checked for leave passes and advised me to hide my Colour Patch on my hat by turning hat band inside out which I promptly did. Home to Thelma, at 301 Suburban Road, which is now Mill Point Road, for the night. Next morning Eddie Pummel (Battalions boot maker) came with his wife Audrey, who was a friend of Thelma, to see if I had got ashore. He said that he had heard M.P.s were arresting all AWL’s and taking them to Fremantle Gaol. So I wasn’t able to cross the river and say goodbye to my parents. Eddie, Audrey, Thelma and I caught the Metro Bus to Fremantle, warned by driver to keep down in seats as M.P.’s were checking buses from their vehicles. If they saw uniforms they were stopping buses and checking I.D.’s. Changed to tram at Beaconsfield, conductor gave us the same warning and said that the driver would drop us at nearest street to wharf. Got to wharf where R.A.N. guard at gate told us not to go down harbour side of sheds. M.P.’s had vehicles there and were arresting men and taking them to Freo Gaol, even though they can see that men are going back to “Aquitania” by “Zephyr”. Major Saggers spoke to me and hoped I had seen my family, he was very angry at the way M.P.’s were acting. Read Bert Norton’s recollections as per his diary.
On the 16th January, 1942 the Aquitania weighed anchor bound for Singapore.
Ninety-four men missed the Aquitania, and most did so because they believed what garrison soldiers on the wharf incorrectly told them of the ships sailing time. These men were ‘housed’ for a time in Fremantle gaol and at Karrakata military camp before being sent on to Java, where they were subsequently captured. Saggers p7
For the breach of military conduct, the soldiers were fined two days pay – for a private, a loss of twelve shillings. NCO’s that had gone ashore and returned, lost rank, some all of their rank, others just a stripe or two – ‘but the experience was worth every shilling’.
The visit to Fremantle was immortalized in verse by one of the staff of the ship’s Magazine Transportholes in the first issue produced a few days after departing.
The Gunners Go Through
Out through the portholes like eels they wriggled,
While lesser souls just stood and giggled,
Their toes in the air they gaily wiggled
That’s how the gunners went Thro’.
Sailed like Lords in borrowed boats,
Lots of ’em minus hats and coats,
While we just gaped like silly goats,
That’s how the gunners went Thro’.
Painted the town in colours bright,
Lodged in boudoirs – and cells – for the night,
That’s how the gunners went Thro’.
Brought two quid and two days pay,
Said “It was worth it any day”
And they’ll do their job when they’re in the fray –
And damned if they won’t get Thro’.
There was an epilogue added, in the Battalion’s own magazine The Borehole Bulletin after return to Australia.
Left Australia – changed boats twice….
Landed Singapore – not so nice….
Part of a gamble – loaded dice….
Finished in Gaol – eating rice…..
That’s how the gunner got Thro’. Cody p68
Personnel AWL at Fremantle, Western Australia
WX8245 E.T.Adams (No.10 Pln.)
WX7064 B.W.J.Allpike (Bn. Hq’s)
WX7905 F.J.Annesley (No.2 Pln.)
WX9367 J.R.Baker (No.6 Pln.)
WX8682 W.R.S.Baker (No.7 Pln.)
WX10343 N.F.Banks (‘C’ Coy Hq’s)
WX7587 T.Barbour (No.11 Pln.)
WX7164 F.Barker (No.11 Pln.)
WX6970 A.J.Barnes (No.4 Pln.)
WX10791 A.R.Beattie (No. 4 Pln.)
WX8766 H.V.Booth (No 8 Pln.)
WX7600 G.R.Bousfield (No.13 Pln.)
WX7333 A.J.Burns (No.8 Pln.)
WX6155 L.P.Byrne (No.10 Pln.)
WX10365 M.W.Caldwell (‘B’ Coy Hq’s)
WX9551 F.V.Carroll (No.10 Pln.)
WX8240 D.N.H.Carter (No.9 Pln.)
WX10354 H.T.Clayden (No.11 Pln.)
WX16369 A.J.Cocking (No.8 Pln)
WX10048 E.J.Cosson (No.1 Pln)
WX8855 D.J.Davies (No.2 Pln)
WX9310 A.A.Dickson (No.6 Pln.)
WX7299 T.F.Doyle (No.14 Pln.)
WX8830 A.Mc.Drummond (‘B’ Coy Hq’s)
WX9266 W.Dunwoodie (No.6 Pln.)
WX9199 A.E.Farmer (No.6 Pln.)
WX9070 C.Fielder (No.12 Pln.)
WX5132 G.Fisher (No.12 Pln.)
WX7569 S.E.Foxall (No.11 Pln.)
WX15422 B.M.Frost (No.3 Pln.)
WX9270 T.J.Fury (No.6 Pln.)
WX7595 G.Glass (Bn. Hq’s)
WX6980 P.Golden (No.6 Pln.)
WX8540 T.W.Green (No.3 Pln.)
WX8625 W.R.Gregory (No.5 Pln.)
WX6975 R.J.Ham (No.14 Pln.)
WX7123 R.D.Hampson (No.4 Pln.)
WX15736 R.Hansen (No.15 Pln.)
WX8695 W.D.Harris (Bn. Hq’s)
WX8408 A.G.Hayes ( No.2 Pln.)
WX7642 C.G.Henderson (No. 10 Pln.)
WX7465 N.Holdman (No. 2 Pln.)
WX10795 R.E.Hughes (No. 5 Pln.)
WX9130 M.A.Hunter (No. 9 Pln.)
WX5118 Cpl.J.M.Jenkins (No. 12 Pln.)
WX7453 E.C.Jones (No. 2 Pln.)
WX7612 C.G.McKelly (No. 13 Pln.)
WX4949 R.J.Kingswell (No. 12 Pln.)
WX8336 F.G.Kuhl (Bn. Hq’s)
WX7230 L.H.Lee (No.8 Pln.)
WX15744 L.W.Lee (No. 6 Pln.)
WX11316 L.H.Lewis (‘D’ Coy Hq’s)
WX7285 H.R.Love (No. 4 Pln.)
WX16341 S.T.Martin (No.3 Pln.)
WX13285 J.Maude (No.6 Pln.)
WX8261 R.R.McAskil (No.10 Pln.)
WX9825 C.P.McLoughlin (No.12 Pln. Hq’s)
WX9826 H.J.Millar (No.11 Pln.)
WX13562 P.J.Moate (‘C’ Coy Hq’s)
WX8200 W.R.Morris (No.10 Pln.)
WX15746 A.E.Morrison (No.13 Pln.)
WX5336 J.L.Murdoch (No.15 Pln.)
WX7645 W.J.Nicholls (No.1 Pln.)
WX16417 S.Ninyette (No.15 Pln.)
WX8828 W.D.O’Neill (No.7 Pln.)
WX8856 H.W.Pearce (No.11 Pln.)
WX8725 J.H.L. Pryce (No.1 Pln.)
WX9946 E.A.Pummel (Army Ord.Corps)
WX9059 G.R.Ramage (No.1 Pln.)
WX7493 R.G.S.Rennie (No.3 Pln.)
WX7750 S.H.G.Roberts (No.6 Pln.)
WX16427 D.C.Robertson (No.8 Pln.)
WX5200 W.J.Robinson (‘B’ Coy Hq’s & No.9 Pln.)
WX7939 C.J.Sawyer (Bn Hq’s)
WX8843 J.Scales (No.5 Pln.)
WX7576 N.E.Simmonds (No.10 Pln.)
WX16424 A.Sing (‘A’ Coy)
WX7893 J.S.Smith (No.2 Pln.)
WX8506 W.J.Smith (88 L.A.D.)
WX9419 H.W.Steele (‘C’ Coy Hq’s)
WX9827 R.H.Stribling (No.12 Pln.)
WX8585 C.J.Vidler (No.5 Pln.)
WX15614 R.J.Walker (No.3 Pln.)
WX7466 B.J.Walsh (No.3 Pln.)
WX8356 W.S.Watkins (Bn. Hq’s)
WX10761 T.M.Watters (No.3 Pln.)
WX7502 T.S.Wayman (No.3 Pln.)
WX10049 M.W.Wilkinson (No.1 Pln.)
WX1138 A.G.Williams (‘C’ Coy Hq’s) Ewen p808
The following soldiers were known to also have left the Aquatania at Fremantle but were able to return before it departed.
WX13285 J.Martin (No.3 Pln.)
WX8493 A.W.Norton (No.4 Pln.)
WX8642 D. Parker (No.9 Pln.)
|Cody, Les, Ghosts in Khaki : the history of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, 8th Australian Division A.I.F(Carlisle, W. Aust.: Hesperian Press, 1997)
Ewen, Murray, Colour Patch the men of the 2/4th Australian Machine Gun Battalion, 1940-1945(Victoria Park, W.A.: Hesperian Press, 2003)
|Harris, Richard All In My Stride: John Gilmour’s story: Changi to world Champion (Carlisle, W. Aust: Hespian Press, 1999)|
|Lane, John Summer Will Come Again: The story of Australian POW’s fight for survival in Japan (Fremantle, W. Aust: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987)|
|WX8493 Bert Norton’s recollections as per his diary found in ‘Stories’
Saggers, Ian; Saggers, A E, To Hell-fire, Purgatory and Back : an account of the battle exploits and prisoner-of-war experiences of Major A. E. Saggers, commanding officer ‘A’ Company, 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion and Special Reserve Batallion, A.I.F. : based on his secret diaries(Dalkeith, W.A.: I. Saggers, 2000)