The for­got­ten air­craft crew

Mansfield Courier - - Courier Opinions/People - By PAM ZIERK-MA­HONEY

ONE of Mans­field RSL sub­branch’s mem­bers, Len Wright at the age of 95, re­flected on his ser­vice in the Aus­tralian Air Force dur­ing World War II on Re­mem­brance Day.

Len has a clear me­mory of where and when he served his coun­try, but those mem­o­ries are how he and a few fel­low mem­bers of the Air Force were for­got­ten at the dec­la­ra­tion of the end of the war and were aban­doned in a for­eign coun­try.

At the time that peace was de­clared he was an air­craft sup­port elec­tri­cian serv­ing at Fin­schhaven, Pa­pua New Guinea (PNG).

He joined the Aus­tralian Air Force in 1942 and was listed as a Lead­ing Air­craft Man (LAC) train­ing in Gipp­s­land.

His first post­ing was at Townsville un­der the guid­ance of Lt Col Lamb who not long af­ter the ar­rival of this small band of Air Force sup­port crews at this north­ern port de­cided it was time to ship out to where they were needed most – Pa­pua New Guinea.

“I re­mem­ber we were loaded onto a ship, the Ka­toomba, and be­ing only 24 air­men among the hun­dreds of Army per­son­nel were given the back and lower decks of the ship with only a small bunk to ac­com­mo­date us,” Len re­called.

“At one stage it was de­cided we all had to be given an ap­ple to sup­ple­ment our di­ets and although I was very fas­tid­i­ous about keep­ing my area clean there was one ap­ple core found un­der my bunk so I was given kitchen du­ties in pun­ish­ment.

“Among my du­ties was to get rid of this huge bag of potato peel­ings over the side of the boat and I had to make my way through a nar­row cor­ri­dor with this huge bag of peel­ings and onto the deck.

“But when I got up there (the deck) I had the bag bal­anced over the side and it was rough and I nearly went over with the peel­ings,” he laughed.

“I would have been man over­board and would have to swim back – a long way, but luck­ily I let go of the bag and saved my­self.

“We vis­ited many of the smaller is­lands around PNG and picked up pris­on­ers of war and ended up at Lae.

“And when we got there the tide was low and the only way to get us off the ship was to hang big nets over the side and we had to climb down the net with our packs.

“I was only there (Lae) for two days be­fore be­ing flown to Madang.

“I didn’t have much to do there as the planes were just fly­ing in and fly­ing out again, at that stage there was air­craft go­ing fur­ther north.

“But while I was at Madang the Amer­i­cans dropped the hy­dro­gen bombs on the Japs that ended the war (Au­gust 6, 1945).

“So I was then placed at Fin­schhaven where the planes would fly in and the crews would come in for a meal and sleep overnight.

“I was an elec­tri­cian and I be­lieve I was the only one at both Madang and Fin­schhaven.

“The Air Force left Fin­schhaven but left four or five of us be­hind; on top of that my dis­charge came through while I was still there.

“I then had to find my own way through to Port Moresby some few hun­dred miles away.

“At Port Moresby no­body wanted to know any­thing about me, so me and an­other fel­low who was in the same boat, went down to the fly­ing boat area and put our names down to be brought back to Aus­tralia.

“We were flown to Cairns, but from there we had to get onto the train to Sydney.

“Then we had to sit on the plat­form in Sydney un­til the next day when we caught an­other train to Melbourne.

“The day af­ter ar­riv­ing in Melbourne I went into the city and got my of­fi­cial dis­charge pa­pers and that was that, serv­ing for three years.”

It took Len un­til June 1946 to re­turn to Melbourne.

Len joined the RSL straight af­ter the war – along with two of his mates who went to Moonee Ponds and joined there.

“But they didn’t want us at that stage, so I then went to RSL at Black­burn,” he said.

Len was told he could not con­tinue his ca­reer as an elec­tri­cian so went on to an ap­pren­tice­ship as a car­pen­ter.

Af­ter some years of ex­pe­ri­ence and do­ing ex­tra cour­ses he was ac­cepted to be a teacher of wood­work, draw­ing and other sub­jects, end­ing up at Mitcham Tech­ni­cal School for the next 17 years be­fore re­tir­ing.

Len now lives with his son Robert in Mans­field and en­joys his reg­u­lar Fri­day nights at the RSL and at­tends al­most all com­mem­o­ra­tive ser­vices and other ac­tiv­i­ties of­fered.

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