The forgotten aircraft crew
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.