Our Under-16 Digger looks back on life very well lived
Enlistment was a relief to 14-year-old from Outback
FOR a young teenager working hard on a sheep station in outback New South Wales, the prospect of joining the war seemed a welcome relief.
So in May 1941, aged just 14 years and eight months, Roy Crossley travelled to Sydney from Bathurst and, after being knocked back several times, managed to enlist with the Australian Army (militia).
“I had to grow up in a hurry,” said Mr Crossley, 90, who now lives in Pottsville.
“When I was 12 my parents separated but my mother could not afford to keep my twin brother and myself so, as I was a big strapping lad, I was sent to Bathurst to work on a sheep station.
“There were no women there, the men were pretty rough and I had to fend for myself a lot of the time.
“If there was no work I had to go rabbiting, as you didn’t get fed if you didn’t work. I did learn to shoot very well, so I later made a good marksman in the army.”
To the young Roy, the army seemed “a bit of a breeze, with three square meals a day, warm clothing and the training wasn’t that hard after the life I had been living”.
Originally posted to Coastal Defence with the 1AABDE, Roy considers himself extremely lucky, after sickness saw him twice miss out on near-death experiences.
In his first posting, a dose of mumps saw him hospitalised just before his unit sailed for Rabaul. Of the 57 men who went out, only six came home, and they had to trek through the jungle to do so.
After recovering, Roy was sent to Port Kembla, where he trained as a gun-layer on anti-aircraft guns just as Japan entered the war. Refused entry to the AIF upon application, while on leave in January 1942, Roy dressed in civilian clothes and went to Martin Place, where he joined the AIF under a different name.
This time he was 15 years and three months old – still underage.
Posted to Dubbo in the 19th Battalion, the unit was ready to embark to Malaya when news came of the fall of that country.
“I must have had a guardian angel as my unit was to have been sent to Malaya,” Roy said.
“Those troops in Malaya that survived the attack and fall were taken POW and worked on the notorious Burma Railroad.”
Instead, his unit was sent to Port Moresby, where he joined the 53rd Battalion in defending Moresby’s Seven Mile Aerodrome, fighting against the Japanese who routinely dropped their bombs at 11am each day.
Contracting dysentery some two months later, Roy was evacuated home in June 1942, aged 15 and eight months. While recuperating, his mother informed authorities of his true age and, having just turned 16, he was discharged in October 1942.
Not one to miss out on the excitement, Roy again joined the AIF in April 1943, this time under his own name but again lying about his true age.
He eventually served in the trenches of Borneo, where he survived numerous attacks, including on the oilfields which saw the night light up like day.
He served there until the end of the war, remaining as part of the mopping-up operation. There he celebrated his 19th birthday.
“I consider myself extremely lucky to have survived the war as it could have had a different outcome had it not been for illness,” said Roy, who served an accumulated 4.5 years.
After the war, he trained as a plumber, married three times and became a father to four children “who meant the world to me”. Today he is a grandfather of 12 and a great-grandfather of five.
It was only later in life he realised his mental suffering, including recurring nightmares, was attributable to posttraumatic stress disorder.
“I didn’t know I had PTSD,” he recalled.
“But I had a quick temper, especially road rage in the traffic. I never did anything to anybody but I would lose my temper. Afterwards, I would think to myself, ‘why did you do that?’ It wasn’t in my nature to do that as I was pretty easy-going. It wasn’t until Veterans Affairs sent out a book on PTSD, when I read it, I realised that’s what was occurring with me. It was the best book I ever read.”
Now, turning 91 soon, Roy is happy to enjoy the quiet life at his canal estate home in Pottsville. He looks back on a full, happy life, which has seen him reunite with his fellow Under 16s to march in Anzac Day parades since 2007.
“I was lucky I never went to Rabaul. I never got hit, I never even got hurt. I was just lucky, there must be someone up there looking out for me,” he said.
❝If there was no work, you had to go rabbiting.
— Roy Crossley
PROUD: Roy and Liz Crossley, daughter Nicole and granddaughter Joanna with Sydney Mayor Clover Moore.
Roy Crossley wears his medals proudly at the Anzac Day service at Pottsville in April 2017.
A strapping young Roy Crossley first signed up for the ADF as an underaged 14-year-old.
Roy Crossley served as a gunner in the Second World War in the Pacific.