Sarah Jane Smith – Norseman mother loses three sons to WW2

SARAH JANE SMITH (nee Leighton) mother to WX8736 ROBERT (BOB) LEIGHTON SMITH and WX8731 THOMAS (TOM) ERNST SMITH from the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion.  Brothers  Bob and Tom did not return from war.   Sarah also lost her youngest son WX11520 Edward John (known as Ted) enlisted with 2/28th.  
When you are feeling a little sorry for yourself – stop to think of WW2 and WW1 mothers who lost not one son, but two or three and sometimes four.  Sarah Jane Smith, who had been widowed twice, now alone had to endure the news that three of her sons would not be returning to Australia – Bob KIA February 1942, youngest son Ted drowned September 1943 New Guinea and Tom died illness Sandakan, Borneo December 1944.
Sarah Jane Leighton was born at the Victorian Goldfields, as was her husband Thomas William (Will) Smith. They married Eaglehawke, near Bendigo in 1904 and moved to WA Goldfields, where Will resumed mining at Norseman. Their first son Alfred was born here in 1905.  His birth was  followed by a further 5 sons and one daughter.
Two years after the birth of youngest son Ted, Sarah’s husband died at the TB Wooroloo Sanatorium in 1920 aged 46 years. He had been sent to Wooroloo with silicosis as the Sanatorium at Coolgardie had closed. Former miner Will died alone without any family.   Sarah now had 7 children between the ages of 2 years and 15 years to take care of (although it is probable her eldest born son Alfred was working at the age of 15). Bob was then aged 12.


One can’t imagine how Sarah survived as a widow in Norseman. She probably had managed for up to 6 months whilst her husband was ill and dying. She may have had the opportunity of earning an income by providing boarding house facilities.  There were large numbers of single men on the goldfields who sought accommodation and laundering. We will never know.
Four years later Sarah remarried in 1924 to George Blythe Jones, WW1 Veteran. 
Sadly George died four years later in 1928 aged 42 years in a shooting accident.
George enlisted WW1 15 March 1915 at Kalgoorlie aged 29 years.   His previous occupation was miner.   He was the only son of Hannah Jones of Mildura Hill.
He embarked 9 June 1915 and disembarked 27 April 1919 at Fremantle.  He served 8th Field Company Engineers.


George Smith’s grave at Norseman.

Below:  George’s property at Grass Patch is advertised in 1929.

Above:  George’s mother dies in 1931.


Both Bob and Tom Smith enlisted in October 1940, joining ‘B’ Company 8th Platoon with 2/4th MGB.


During the battle for Singapore, Bob was KIA at West Mandai Hill on 11 February 1942 aged 33 years.   Under the command of Lt. MacKinnon, Bob was one of four men from this platoon to tragically die that day.  Others were – Sgt Richard Sandilands who was second-in-charge (enlisted from Norseman) Don Day and Raymond Carruthers.



Tom Smith, whose nickname was Jerry’  – by 2/4th mates (as in Tom & Jerry!) Section Orderly, managed to survive the Battle.  He was taken POW of Japan and incarcerated at Selarang Camp and Selarang Barracks, Changi.  Ern had the misfortune to be selected with ‘E’ Force Borneo which sailed from Singapore on 2 March 1943 to their first stop of Kuching (Sarawak).
At the age of 32 years, Ern died of pulmonary tuberculosis and beri beri at Sandakan on 18 December 1944.  Only 6 Australians from more than 2,000 POWs survived this horrendous WW2 event in Borneo.
To read further about ‘E’ Force Borneo



Ted was the youngest of Sarah’s large family of seven children.  He was born at Norseman in 1918.  Ted enlisted and joined 2/28th Battalion.
He lost his life on 9 September 1943 at Busu River, New Guinea. Ted was one of 13 soldiers ‘missing’ at  Busu River crossing, his body never found.   A Goldfield’s boy, it is quite likely he never had the opportunity to learn to swim.
Conditions were terrible at that time of the year with raging currents and extremely high water level however the Australians were hard pressed to cross  Busu River to evade the Japanese. Initially as many as 30 Australians were swept away with the current. Those who survived managed to reach the safety of a less deep area, and were forced to hide from the Japanese for several daylight hours before being saved by the Battalion.
Two other sons James Henry and Leonard Richard also enlisted WW2.  With younger son Ted, the three joined the 2/28th.
James Henry survived the same Basu River crossing in New Guinea with 2/28th with the assistance of a mate, who pulled him across.

Enlistment photos of James Henry Smith.


We take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank daughter of James Henry, Margaret Murphy for the information she provided, particularly about James and Leonard.  Margaret was about 8 years old when her grandmother Sarah died and of course her father never talked much of the war,  Margaret wrote that it has only been in recent years she was able to understand the hardships her grandmother endured.  The Smith family was a loving and close knit one.  (June 2019)



Sarah died at Norseman in 1963 aged 78 years, having never left the goldfields of WA and endured too many family tragedies and hardships.  She was buried as Sarah Jones at Norseman Cemetery.


Please read about early Norseman