Des White: 'Grenades, a Coconut and Footy' in WWII
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
He was living in a small coal mining town, west of Newcastle, the suburb of ‘Weston’ to be exact, yet the eighteen-year-old was about to leave his home and head 3107 kilometres north. He was off to Papua New Guinea, it was 1944 and he had just been conscripted into the War effort.
Similar to today's pandemic, essential workplaces could continue working undisturbed, however those that were deemed ‘non-essential’ would have to close shop and join the cause. However, they weren't to be fighting for the health of the country, but rather fight for the future of the country. After deciding between Army, Navy or the Air Force, the conscripted soldier would then be sent off to train efficiently in preparation.
Desmond ‘Des’ White was that eighteen-year-old from Weston.
Earlier, at the tender age of fourteen, Des was a postman and he was able to remember every person by name throughout his town, which made him much loved by all he met. By eighteen, he had a career at the Orient Hotel where he would serve alcoholic beverages. “I was working in the Orient Hotel in Watts street as a cellar man / handyman and that was me first job out of town where I came from in Weston.” Sunday's were his day off, and he found pleasure from playing a bit of under 18s junior rugby league. Before he left for Papua New Guinea, he was invited to play in a curtain raiser to a Grand Final in Sydney. He was unsure to why he was picked, as he wasn't able to train as often as he would like, but having grown up in a Football loving family, he was often tackled and practiced kicking as a youth.
Soon he would be trading the leather-bound football for a grenade, and as you will learn - a fish.
“Early in '44, I was conscripted.” Only "protected industries" like coal miners on the coal fields were exempt from conscription. When you were called up, you could pick what service you wanted to represent. To him, flying was fascinating so he marked down 'Air Force' and was trying desperately to get into a class to learn how to fly. Before he would travel to Melbourne Cricket Ground where flight training would commence, he travelled to Cootamundra for basic training in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Des said, “Just when I thought I was going to be successful, the end of War wasn’t near, but it was insight.”
This meant that the piloting course had been discontinued, and he was to be shunted off ‘as is’ to New Guinea.
The shunting of troops would occur through two modes of transport. They would begin on a Reserves Train which would carry them to Townsville, and then a ship that would sail the units to New Guinea. It was now the middle of '44, and Des was on the troop train. He recalled an unusual moment that happened between destinations and involved his mother's friend.
Des said, "My mother had a life long friendship with a lady that had bad luck. She had an unhappy marriage, one son and all she knew was house work." The lady was in her 40s and to her friends she was Eileen, but to Des, she took the title of "Aunty Eileen."
The train was powering along the tracks, breathing its steam outwardly in huffs. This five to ten carriage-long machine, pushed along with anticipation for its destination. Townsville was marked in red, for that was the location of the docked ship that would sail the soldiers to New Guinea. Gazing around the carriage, you would think your eyesight was failing, a sea of khaki and brown was all that could be seen. Brown spotless slouch hats that were yet to be introduced to battle, were littered throughout the carriages. Brown, spit-polished boots that would soon be introduced to the mud and moss of New Guinea, sat resting on the floor. And shirts that would soon be drenched in the drippings of sweat and grime from endless hours of trudging through rainforests. It was colourless and bland, khaki, browns and olive greens. If it were not for that single blue uniform, worn by a five foot four, eighteen-year-old, that added a breath of fresh air, you would think you were colourblind.
That blue uniform was for the Air Force, it was Des, and he had found his way onto a carriage filled with Army servicemen. Regardless of the uniform, they all had one thing in common - no one knew the weight and toll this battle would have. Hopeful young men, most of which wouldn't return with the same youthful innocence that they once held when boarding the train. The train trip was following schedule until the Engine Driver pulled the brakes and it came to a halt at a station thirty miles north of Maitland. There didn't appear to be a reason for a thoroughly packed train to stop at a rural, building-less field of dust. It was to be one of the unlikeliest of stops. Civilians were not permitted to travel with the soldiers, yet there was a single civilian standing outside. To try and squeeze another person into the coach would have been like attempting to put another sardine in an already filled tin, near impossible.
The train came to an unauthorised stop called Stroud Road. Des has wondered to himself, "Why has the train stopped?" There isn't any more room for serviceman to fill the carriage since it was packed. Des said, "I am in the carriage, and I look. Not out the window because I was on the [opposite] side of the carriage. I thought, 'God, is that Aunty Eileen?' And I pushed passed blokes. I never found out how she knew a reserve train would stop there."
Still perplexed when recalling the yarn, Des assumes that she either received knowledge of the train's whereabouts and flagged it down, or she was just lucky. The carriage was brimming with soldiers, body on body. Pushes to the left and right, swimming over and through soldiers with flailing hands. Moving the soldiers back like water in a breaststroke manoeuvre, Des finally came face to face with the lady. She hadn't prepared to join the train, but had a singular item to give young Des. It was an envelope. In wonder, he opened up the envelope to reveal, sitting inside, a single one pound note. Aunty Eileen worked as a cleaning lady and would have only earned two pound ten a week, so to provide half her weekly earnings was a demonstration of her respect, devotion and sheer love towards the young man.
Aunty Eileen, who was described as "a lady that had bad luck", somehow cashed in that bad luck for a momentary ounce of good luck, for the determined train had halted from its schedule and she was able to say her farewells with a memory.
His role in Papua New Guinea was simple. He was still surrounded and a part of the RAAF, but instead of being in the cockpit, he would begin as a Technical Trainee (ACI) and then move into the role of Leading Aircraftman (LAC) in freight and as a general hand, equivalent to a Private. Des would regularly load and unload equipment from Douglas DC-3 Airliners. The gear would then be sent to other provinces and campaigns, like Wewak.
Des was based at Finschhafen first, followed by Lae. Des recalled, "Lae was a pretty busy airport. Because from there, they were sending provisions and munition and so forth to advanced areas to the north."
On the outskirts of the airfield was a prisoner of war camp which was surrounded by the sharp nails of barbed wire protruding from the ground. The wired fence had two assignments, firstly to keep prisoners trapped, and secondly appear unappetizing to those outside it's boundaries. Keep in and keep out. Only specific military personnel had access to this location, and it didn't provide a shock factor to those walking outside it's boundaries. It wasn't confronting because you weren't witness to that which was transpiring inside, whether it be pain or struggle.
Due to the geographical location of New Guinea, the climate was challenging for the lungs of a country boy. The air was wet and heavy to breathe, and the rainfall didn’t help with the atmospheric conditions. If you left your boots under your bed, a party of moss would gather by morning. Footprints would be embossed into the ground, and water would find a home within, making every step a strain. Large leaves, like elephant ears would drape across the path, with heavy fog suffocating the treetops. Usually, only light was able to penetrate through, but on occasions soldiers with ambition and exertion could find a narrow path. Des was one of these soldiers.
Food in camp was atrocious. The bread he would eat was commonly described as ‘Dog Biscuits’, and most other meals were uninspiringly rationed into tins: tinned fruit, dried potatoes, beans, canned vegetables and sausages. It is also said that one of the 'finest foods available' on the campaign was that of ‘dehydrated mutton’, which didn’t sound that appetising. It was easier to access alcohol and cigarettes than provide a nutritionally-sound and fresh food diet.
Des was a keen fisherman, and fish were known to provide consistently high levels of protein. Fish are good for the mind and healthy for an active lifestyle, especially that of war. Before conscription, Des had a little side business selling alcohol after hours to American Soldiers, since the pub closed a 6pm. It was very successful, and resulted in meals of luxury fish and oysters from Jerry's Fish Cafe in Newcastle. His life changed by the time he arrived at the Army Camp in New Guinea, but he still had a craving for fish. There were no fishing rods on the airfield base, it wasn't an 'essential item' in war, but with the quick wits of an entrepreneurial young man, a lightbulb went on. The solution wasn't "safe" by any means, but if pulled off correctly, would provide protein, an escape from the constant rationing of poor quality meals, and transport the mind to that of home.
After prowling the munitions room at the airstrip, Des would gather a handful of HE-36 Hand Grenades and then undertake a hike.
Not far from Lae airfield was the Erap and Markham river which wound like snakes, cutting through the hills and leading to the mouth of the ocean. After finding the ideal location along the riverbank, Des would proceed into the water and his comrade would follow suit, but about 40 feet up stream. Only their ankles would be submerged. Each hand would hold a HE-36 grenade. They were about the size of a closed fist. It was a quick process, but the steps involved had to be undertaken correctly.
With confidence and with steady well-placed feet, and whilst holding down the striking handle, the index finger on both left and right hands would quickly lock in and yank the pin out. If, in this quick moment, you slipped or undertook a wrong manoeuvre, disaster would ensue. It was a live weapon and shrapnel could penetrate bodies over 15 metres away . The HE-36 was the grenade of choice during the New Guinea campaign, since the detonation fuse was protected from both moisture and humidity, two extremely noticeable characteristics of the Pacific Island's landscape.
Des recalled that on one occasion the plan didn’t go off without a hitch. He had taken another soldier with him, but the unnamed soldier, referred to as a 'lunatic bloke' by Des, nearly caused a disaster. Des told his comrade to hold the grenades, one in each hand. Des said, "Pull the pins, use your index fingers to pull the pins out. Now, throw on three." Des looked over to the fellow comrade and asked, "You ready? Go - one, two, THROW". Floating through the air the four grenades hit the water together. However, the guy didn't adjust his angle and speed of the throw, which resulted in his two grenades hitting the bank on the other side of the river. Des laughs, "That only happened once".
Needless to say, that comrade lost the right of becoming 'much loved' over the dinner table, and didn't join him on another 'fishing' expedition. When the plan would come together, Des would throw the grenades at 45-degree angles aiming for their landing zone to sit 30 feet from each other. They would sail through the air like Olympic divers, spinning in somersaults before landing in synchronised unison. Then, in a brief moment, the crescendo would sound. Like a heart beat, the river would be provided with a thump beneath the surface, silent to those on the riverbank but concussing to those underneath. After a brief pause, a fulfilling dinner would float to the top for collection.
It is an illegal form of fishing nowadays due to the stress it places on the ecosystem, and Des highlighted that he wasn't proud of what he did, but at the time it was the only solution to a healthy meal that wasn't hiding in an indented and lacklustre container.
Des said, "Our food was, well you can imagine, pretty crook. We were only a small unit, and when I landed home with some big fish, I was very popular. Because the kitchen staff was delighted to get fresh fish. It was served in the dining room."
Munitions weren’t the only thing that could be sourced at the airfield. Des and his brother Noel were avid smokers and they had a thirst for American cigarettes, but in Australia they were quite costly. 'Drug smuggling' is a questionable descriptor, yet transporting substances from country to country in a deceptive manner was achieved.
Des' unit was working on the airstrip which was largely occupied by American forces, so Des had the benefits of buying items from their stores. "American cigarettes, we valued enormously", said Des, before continuing, "They were practically free. So I found a way of getting some sent home to my brother."
The cigarettes couldn’t be sent in an obvious way which would be picked up by officials, so creativity had to endure. Commanding officers didn't endorse the shipping of products, because some soldiers treated the system like a black-market business for extra cash. Des and the food store masked a plan and would use a common staple Australian food 'The Arnott's SAO Biscuit'. The Packaging of the SAO's was a light and sturdy tin with the dimensions of 10in x 10in x 12in. "With the help of those in the food store, I got an Arnott’s SAO biscuit tin and took heaps of cigarettes out of its packets and filled the SAO biscuit tin, and then punched a hole in the top for moisture."
The postman delivered a tin of ‘biscuits’ to Noel, his brother, in Weston. Unbeknownst to Noel, he lifted the lid expecting a savoury snack, but he soon discovered that smuggled within the tin lived a multitude of American cigarettes, much more to his liking. Having been extremely successful in shipping cigarettes from a war zone to Australia and passing security check points, Des had another idea and it would make his friend’s daughter the talk of the town.
You could hear his smile when he spoke of his friend Jim McNabb (not the famous Soccer Player) and his daughter, who was about seven years old at the time. You could hear his eyes light up, his kindness, his excitement. To top it all off, through joyful pauses, and sighs of happiness, Des smiled as he said, "I got the bright idea - there were coconuts lying under trees and they were huge too. Much bigger than a football." Des bent down and picked up one of the coconuts and carved his best mate's daughter's name on it, stuck a stamp on the shell and put it in the post. "I was astonished to see it got home. And she was the hero at school; taking it and showing the who primary school." Her 'Show and Tell' was a coconut that had come from a soldier in New Guinea.
There was no packaging, it wasn’t wrapped in fabric or paper. It was just a natural brown coconut with a rough exterior and a few stray hairs. It was a coconut that he had found lying on the ground, and his sharp knife provided both name and address pierced into its skin-like shell. Surprisingly, a stamp was stuck forcefully to its body which survived the trip from Lae, PNG to Weston, NSW. Even after sixty years, the young girl from the story can still vividly recall a coconut arriving in the post.
In a letter that marked Des' 90th Birthday, she said, "I think of a young man who cared enough to send a coconut in the mail. Not wrapped, but stamped and addressed just on the coconut shell. [Sent it] To a little girl who still remembers it with a smile on her face more than sixty years later."
As one of the last returning servicemen for Australia, Des arrived home from World War II mid-1946. In contrast to how he left for war, "trading the leather-bound football for a grenade, and as you will learn - a fish", he exchanged those HE-36 hand grenades and clasped onto that leather-bound football. He rejoined a Rugby League Squad and they won a premiership. Sounding chuffed, and as you would be, Des declared, "Won a premiership...WON a Premiership! and got measured for blazers and presented with our blazers in the church there in Weston."
Des would then later coach and captain a Rugby League team to another premiership.
However, in terms of the 'fish', he kept that passion for fishing, yet nowadays he is a little bit more traditional: choosing to use a fishing rod, reel, hook and bait, instead of the 'synchronised toss of perfectly positioned hand-grenades'.
May you enjoy these yarns, laugh a little, and reflect on times gone by. If I can recommend anything, ask a friend to hear theirs, if not – I will.
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