Updated: Oct 31, 2021
It was common for the 18-year-old soldier from Tuncurry, New South Wales, to find his name scribbled down, stating that he would be on guard duty, yet again, but the young soldier wasn’t complaining.
"They had pictures every night, and you wouldn't believe it but the sergeant and I, we missed out all the time. We were put on guard duty."
These theatre nights wouldn’t be halted, even when a torrential downpour would fall upon the 2/16th Battalion. Nor did the rain dampen their spirits, as they enjoyed the featured stories on screen. Wearing dark navy raincoats, and their recognisable olive slouch hats, that both equally repelled any water that fell upon them, the battalion would watch films that allowed their minds to momentarily take a deserved rest.
Hundreds of white fold-out chairs littered the uneven surface in rows of ten, and in three groupings. Palm trees swayed uneasily overhead. Searchlights hunting the night sky. Soldiers sat distracted by sound and screen, yet unbeknownst to them on a hill nearby, 18-year-old Russell 'Rusty' Fuller and his Sergeant were spinning yarns.
His Sergeant looked over towards Rusty and asked, “Tell me about life growing up?”
Rusty replied, “I was born in Goulburn. When I was about eight years old, Dad took me up to Forster to look at a farm.”
The farm in question was located in Shallow Bay, and it was named 'Coomba'. As eight-year-old Rusty stood next to his father, he was witnessing a property and a house that would soon become his home for the next few decades. The lakes and rivers that they passed would soon become Rusty's highways to town and to school, for it was the 1930s, and his mode of transport was a small white wooden punt with two oars and a whole lot of elbow grease. Thirty cows were stationed within the 500-acre property and they were to be milked twice a day and the milk was to be prepared for pickup via the transport vessel, which would take the milk to Tuncurry Butter Factory, seven miles downstream. Whilst the cows were maintained by his father Richard and mother Grace, Rusty looked after his pet magpie and rosella, as he was part of the Gould League of Bird Lovers.
School was also located in Tuncurry, but transport to school was on a school boat, skippered by a German man named Poppy Norman. The skipper must have thought that his luck had dwindled compared to his friends, as each day he would set crab and lobster pots along the coast, and rarely would he find a catch.
However, Rusty and his best friend Ronnie Foster always seemed to have lobster and crab on their dinner tables. Through laughter, Rusty said, “We were terrible. It was the wrong thing to do, but we got away with it.”
When the two boys were hungry for another catch and wanted to earn a little cash, they would search for rabbits. Upon finding a burrow, they would bravely crouch down and reach into the dark chamber, feeling around for a soft mammal, hoping not to find the scaly reptile, that too thought food was below ground. Pelts would be sent to Sydney for a few pounds, and the dinner table would be filled with stew and casseroles that Rusty's mother Grace would make.
Intrigued to know more, his Sergeant asked, “What were the circumstances that resulted in you joining the army?”
“I went to live with my sister at Bulahdelah where I worked in a timber mill, then I got a call from the army to go and have a medical exam. I was called up in June 1943. I had to get my Dad's permission to join the AIF. He said, ‘Go ahead Russell, go ahead.’”
Rusty's face lights up as his mind establishes an image of his dad, while a smile crosses his face, revealing how proud he is to be the son of an ANZAC, a loving father, and a committed husband to Grace Elizabeth. "My dad’s name was Richard William Fuller."
Richard was a 20 year old man when he joined the Australian Army on June 14th, 1916. If it wasn’t for a Salvation Army lady who brought forth salvation with her steps, Richard Fuller would have died by the trenches of the battle torn landscape.
On September 20th, 1917, during the Battle of Menin Road, he was wounded in action when a bullet tore a deep incision in his right leg. Two inches deep and three inches wide, Richard Fuller tried to hide his injury and dampen the pain by hiding the wound with mud from the trenches, until he collapsed. His body was determined as lifeless and was placed among the Canadian dead.
“This young little Salvation Army lady walked past, and dad waved his hand, and she saw it. They pulled him out.” If it weren’t for that lady making her rounds, the then, 22-year-old soldier wouldn’t have reached the ripe old age of 94.
Back on the mound overlooking the 2/16th Battalion, Rusty's sergeant asked, “What are your plans once this war ends?” Rusty said, “My mate and I want to go up to Rockhampton in Queensland to look at a soldiers settlement farm.” Unfortunately, after the war, the farm in question had been sold, so they returned to Rockhampton and found work laying telephone cables for PMG (Postmaster-General's Department). Their role was to dig a two to three foot deep trench that extended across rural Queensland and helped to provide a telephone connection between distant farms and the city, all whilst sleeping on stretchers, cooking beans on campfires, or cooking freshly caught eels in the local rivers.
Rusty and his Sergeant would also discuss their achievements for the day, or their objectives for tomorrow.
There was an occasion when the soldiers of the 2/16th Battalion were waiting for dinner to be served. The soldiers stood in formation when the unthinkable occurred. The 2/5th Artillery Battalion were practicing shell fire overhead when a shell fell short of its intended target.
"A drop short. It landed in front of the troops who were lined up for dinner and it killed six of us. I was in about 10th position."
Within the 2/16th Battalion, Rusty was in a small 3-inch Mortar team. When they were training, they were provided with metal helmets for protection, yet these helmets now lay in the dirt, replaced by comfortable slouch hats. "It is the risk you took", said Rusty. Helmets would blister your head in the sun, and were too heavy to manoeuvre efficiently, so the "felt hat" was the best option, regardless of the risk.
The Battle of Balikpapan was their current objective, and for months they had been practicing barge landing, both in Australia and in Morotai.
The same 2/5th Artillery Battalion which had the 'drop short' had arrived on the sands of Balikpapan earlier than their allotted time, and decided that due to the 'drop short' incident, they would assist the 2/16th with cover fire. The 2/16th Battalion arrived at 17:45 with an objective to capture Mount Malang. With Bergen rucksacks secured on their backs, and rifles in hand, soldiers huddled as one, as their arms held onto the side of the landing craft. Their eyes gazed forward towards the beach approaching, but their view was obscured by a heavy black, smoke-drenched landscape with staggered palm trees ripped of fronds. Rusty stood with his fellow ML 3-inch mortar crew: one secured the ammunition, and the other two soldiers had the weapon dismantled into their packs.
Rusty recalls, "We were allowed to take [up to] four days. It was captured on the first day."
In a few short months, the battalion would be walking 30 miles North East of Manggar on patrol along the jungle-filled coastline, when a message would reach the soldiers, "The war has ended". Without hesitation, the palm fronds above them would be hit by felt hats, that had been flung into the air by elated soldiers.
Guard duty was now over, and the mud-soaked soldiers stood up from their hillside lookout, their seating area marked only by their footprints and the place they rested their bodies. They made the hike back down the hill they had climbed earlier that evening and rejoined their comrades, who had finished watching a theatre film production. Unbeknownst to these other soldiers, a greater story had been developing only a short distance away, through the yarns of Rusty Fuller.
After the war, Russell met his second-half who he still treasures, wholeheartedly, today. His heart fills with joy every time that he mentions his late wife, his beautiful Jenny. "She is the best thing that ever happened to me."
Russell had gone out twice for dinner with his sister, Yvonne, and her friend Jenny Dickerson. Bravely, Russell worked up the courage to ask Jenny if she would go out with him on a date, and she said "Yes". Russell recalls, "That made my day."
After more dates and months went by, they began to fall for one another, and after a year, Russell got down on one knee and proposed. On November 15th, 1952 they became husband and wife. Together, they adopted two girls which their hearts blessed, and a loving family was formed.
Nowadays, Russell Fuller is often found in one of three places -- his beloved Veggie Garden which he tends to everyday, so that he can provide food for his neighbours; with his church family on a Sunday; or listening to the music that transports him to the memories of his past, and provides his heart with peace.
Russell's advice after 95 years, "If everybody was there to help one another, what a wonderful world it would be. Good health, that's number one. If you have good friends and neighbours, that's number two. The other things are just extra."
During a moment in our conversation, Russell asked, "Do you want to hear my Battalion's marching song?". Excitedly, I said, "Yes". As he began to sing each phrase and note, I sat back in my chair, listening intently, absorbing every note and word. It was beautiful. It was his heart on his sleeve. It was ethereal. This was the song:
2/16th Battalion Marching Song We have come from afar in the Northwest
From the South where the tall timbers grow
From the stations and the farms
We have heard the call to arms
And we'll join in the world's big show.
From the mines and the wide open spaces
From the towns and the fields of our sport
We have come with spirits high
Have a fly do or die
To the scenes where the ANZACs fought.
We're the 16th the fighting 16th
Ready for the job on hand
Pals together in all weather
We'll be there to make our stand.
Meet the 16th the gallant (stabbish) 16th
What the odds are we don't care
And when it's all in
Just sound the fall in
And the 16th will be there.