1942, Gordonvale was skimping along on a wartime footing--living by
barter and doing without. A shortage of everything, especially combat
soldiers and money. Suddenly--INVASION; Not by Japanese but by three
thousand horny, brash, rich American paratroopers dropped into
the quiet rural area of North Queensland.
love to recount the effect of our arrival and tell with great relish how
ignorant of their currency we were. They remember how they trucked in
great quantities of watermelons when they discovered how well we like
Aussie standing behind a pile of watermelons. A paratrooper approaches,
holding up a 5 note: "Will this do?"
smiling a shark's smile: "Yes, Yank. It will do."
great beauty and girls of more ordinary appearance--old girls, and
young...followed by kids and sharpies of every description come to the
campsite--some only to view with awe the crazy Yank paratroopers. The
term "Yank" seemed to infuriate many an American soldier who'd cut loose
with a stream of language that was incomprehensible; surely not English!
in '79. I stayed with Arthur Hest and family of Aloomba for a couple of
days: Like other cane farmers, his house sits on a modest clearing,
shaded by palms and surrounded, to the distant hills, by cane fields.
The house is one we'd all recognize. Tongue and groove walls, glassed-in
and louvered porch, and a "Casablanca" ceiling fan in every room to move
the tropic air. Standing on pilings, to help cool the place, I'm
reminded of our camp with the bayonet-height stilts that kept our tents
out of the flood waters... most of the time. This year they had one
hundred inches of rain in the first week of January.
family and the Morton family whom I spent much time with, reminded me
very much of their counterpart farm families in the U.S. Conservative in
politics, concerned about the future of their country--"aren't we 20
years behind you?", worried about their children's education, about
drugs, the price of sugar, petrol and all the other universal problems.
Boredom seemed the most pervasive feeling of the teen-agers. But most
noticeable was the loving concern and easy humor between members of the
family. The old-fashioned virtue of a close-knit family was clearly
quickly added me to the family--I've never felt more welcome, anywhere.
you'll like what we've done with the $500 the 503rd sent to build the
memorial--it's red, white and blue," said Arthur Hesp. I winced, and
said, "You've made a barber pole to commemorate us?" He
laughed, but I was a bit worried as we stood beside the shrouded
and others in the 503rd had raised the money to place a plaque in
Gordonvale to commemorate our 9-months stay. (My Australian friends were
quick to point out the probable reasons we had to leave town...9 months
after arriving. Perhaps Mother's Day would have been more appropriate.)
March 17 -- Dedication Day was blazing hot and dry. Brenda and Arthur
Hesp had every possible detail under control for the events that were
about to unfold and the tension rose slightly as the phone rang
continually with last minute reports. Alan (9) was slightly miffed at
being shunted off to neighbors. Alison (14) gladly slipped away
and Helen (19) and her man, Robert, jumped into the utility truck to
lead the way downtown to Gordonvale. Townspeople turned out with their
umbrellas for the ceremony--mostly the older crowd with a smattering of
40-year olds who were starry-eyed kids in 1942. The 503rd they remember,
was a kind of crazy-circus-under-canvas where candy and money and
friendships were to be had.
to me was a gnarled veteran of The Great War. He turned a fierce eye to
me as the ceremonies began and not knowing that I was about to have my
turn at the audience, said "Now we get the bull."
speeches by Ken Alley, Chairman, Mulgrave Shire Council, other
dignitaries, and the U.S. Commercial Attache from Sydney, and myself
were mercifully relaxed and brief. I whisked off the cover for the
clicking cameras and the delighted audience, which now numbered nearly
300--even some of the new "old regulars" from the Gordonvale pub
wandered over--looking exactly like the old "old regulars" of 142.
see the monument they've made...it's beautiful--and not a barber pole!
The base is a dark gleaming red tile, the pillar a rich deep blue and
the bronze plaque rimmed with white.
difficult to recall the dangerous, rugged days of ‘42, standing before
this cheerful group of prosperous Australians..., but I did. How all
Australia lay nearly defenseless before the Japanese advance. The
majority of their army was in the Middle East fighting Rommel--the rest
of their men in Japanese prison camps in Singapore. North Queensland had
the 503rd Parachute Infantry and very little else. I thanked them (for
all of us) for their open hospitality and friendship and how good it had
been for us to continue our training and preparation for combat in such
an atmosphere. It contrasted with some areas of the states where our own
soldiers were sometimes unwelcome.
the highlights of our campaigning through Papua, Dutch New Guinea and
the Philippines, like a long-lost relative, I was able to give them a
little of our unit history and assign some credit to their supportive
attitudes that raised our morale and helped make our later combat
adjourned then to the RSL hall (Returned Soldier's League), once the old
movie house, for a delicious buffet luncheon of generous proportions.
gathering toasted the 503rd and I returned the toast--in beer, in the
name of the 503rd, of course.
speeches, more cheers, more sweat... Many older people came forward to
enquire of someone they remembered. Old Shopkeepers, The Village Chemist
and The Hairdresser: "If an Australian girl came to my shop to have her
hair done, it was easy to tell if she was going with an American or
Australian. If she said--"Leave my hair long; don't cut it"--we'd know
at once she had a Yank.!
was with the 503rd from North Carolina, all the way to Monkey Point on
Corregidor, there were so many guys I didn't know, it was depressing.
Later, it was a pleasure to distribute Certificates of Appreciation to
all the Australian individuals and organizations that helped in the
dedication ceremonies. The framed certificates made handsome gifts to
salute those who were on hand to greet us back in December 1942, that
night we arrived, stunned from the 44 days on the Pola Laut and just not
believing we were being dumped into the North Queensland bush.
The women who
once packed our parachutes had several representatives on hand. I think
we'd all agree, we never felt safer than when jumping a 'chute packed by
an Australian girl! Memories revived and stories I hadn't heard in years
were recounted. John Corcoran recalls (as a young boy) the last day
before we left for the Markham Valley jump. Three, 3rd Battalion
soldiers asked him to mind their bikes until they got back. One bike was
a Royal-Enfield (The Rolls Royce of bikes) and John was thrilled with
the assignment. Bikes were very hard to come by and here were three on
what looked like "permanent loan." That evening the three troopers
returned--having slipped out of camp for one last fling and needed the
bikes to get to town. They left and never returned. The bikes may still
be at the pub or at some girl's place...who knows?
"After a group of you jumped from C-47's at Green Hill, the roadway was
filled with paratroopers, 'chutes and equipment of all sorts. An old
cranky cane farmer came fuming down the road trying to weave his way
through the crowd on his bike, yelling: “Get off the bloody road. The
war's not here; it's up in bloody New Guinea!--Off the bloody
and his wife, Ronwin, live in a handsome new home perched on a small
knoll overlooking our old campsite. He can look down and point out each
distance, the sugar mill chimney in Gordonvale reminds me of marching
back to camp after a steaming day in the field, that landmark looked so
good. After showering and wrangling a pass or slipping out of camp, to
head for the healing pleasures of town.
Dedication Booklet which Clive Norton wrote so well, and in the
speeches, there was a lot about the fights between the Aussie soldiers
and us... and very little about the actual war--hardly a surprise, but
when Chairman Ken Alley called us "the 503rd Airborne Battalion," I
borrowed a trick from General Jones and used it to counter all this talk
about Yanks and Aussies continually battling each other. "I'm glad of
the chance to correct you, Mr. Chairman, but we were a regiment
of 3,000, not a battalion of 500, an understandable mistake. The 503rd
was such a well-disciplined outfit of superior warriors and hand-picked
representatives of the U.S.A., that it was natural to think there were
fewer of us than there actually were."