Updated: Sep 8, 2021
He was five foot eight and three quarters, and was seen sitting on a rocky embankment that fell off into a ravine of grass covered hills. His stance, like his undisturbed hat, was slouched, with legs resting securely outwards, so that he could concentrate wholeheartedly on what was before him. He was comfortable in an uncomfortable environment. He was in World War II, Papua New Guinea. American garters encouraged his jungle green pants to stay strong and upright, whilst his belt had skipped four holes due to a dramatic loss in weight. His khaki shirt that once, yet no longer, housed his "pot belly", draped over him. The hills were blanketed in overgrown grass that reached up with its hands raised. The rolling heights were blemish-less, without obvious bruises of war and tangles of trees. Each step upwards towards where he now sits, was followed with the knowledge of hiking back down, for his feet and legs would become gelatinous in state and beneath his socks callouses would gather. These exhausting peaks would require 'superhuman' strength to navigate, as fog would dance around the landscapes' natural spires.
This man was William Edwin Pidgeon, simply put, 'Wep'. He was a Commissioned Artist with "The Australian Women’s Weekly" and a War Correspondent. Brandished in the fingers of his right hand was his weapon of choice, a paint brush, with artist pad resting on his provision-filled backpack.
It looked like tea, yet the mug accompanying him was filled with splashes of paint-infected water. If you listened, you could hear the power of Rouna Falls, which was in close proximity.
It wasn't unlike him to receive a phone call that required him to be at a location 'yesterday'. Six months earlier, he had been at home. He was sitting unshaved, hungry and having hopped out of his bed the wrong side. He was having quite a miserable day, that was until the phone rang. His wife answered and told him that the office was on the other end. His day went from bad to worse, and by the time he has made it to the pier to catch the ferry over to work, he had missed it. With a creative remark, he said,
"And then of course I miss the boat because the two minutes time our clock is always short of."
After a forty minute delay, having missed his transport, he arrived into the office, and then unfocused his mind as his editor was explaining the situation. Just as the editor stated that he is sending 'Wep to Darwin for a couple of hours'. Wep broke the hypnotised trance he had found himself in and replied with a confident "Oh yes, yes", whilst masking his disappointment and anger. By 12 midday he had found himself in his room deciding on the provisions that would make his trip worthwhile and provide the most ease. He wrote his thoughts out humorously,
"I find I’m responsible for a huge weight and a most imposing bulk of gear which will probably never be used. At 2 am it’s down to only 40 lbs overweight; i.e. allowing for 40 lbs of clothing – razor, teeth, wig, etc. – The 40 lbs over represents false nose, paints, easel, canvas, paper, and all those oddly dirty things which artists use. The problem is whether sacrifice the paints or go quite naked."
It wasn't all smooth sailing during World War II for an artist, Wep recalled in a letter to his wife, about an interesting flight he experienced from Lae, in Papua New Guinea.
Douglas Airliners were designed with two objectives in mind. The first was to transport multiple people to and from a location, and provide sleeping quarters. The second was to provide the ability to transport a large quantity of provisions and munition. However, the pilot that would be allocated to Wep and his comrades, believed in a third objective, to fly like a Fighter jet. Unbeknownst to Wep and the other two passengers, was the flying history of the man sitting in the cockpit, and if they knew of how he handled his flying hours, maybe the plane would have taken off without them. Sitting at the controls, and adjusting the dials was a big, uncontrollable American who enjoyed a good laugh. Nicknamed, adequately, with 'Mad Major', he had only recently been grounded for recklessness whilst in his Lightning Fighter Squadron.
The Mad Major was Lt. Col. Charles Carpenter, who was also referred to by the nickname 'Bazooka Charlie' for successfully strapping trios of bazookas to his plane so that he could go 'tank hunting'. He must have assumed that if he was banned from doing flips in his 'fighter jet', then he was allowed to do those same tricks in a 'transport plane'. Witnesses discovered him doing loops and slow rolls in them. Sitting in the side of the airliner, Wep and his fellow journalists were surrounded to the brim with provisions.
Long-life food was often stored in tins and dehydrated potatoes and soup had been bundled for arrival at another section of the campaign. The plane started to roll down the runway, but it found an inability to climb. It was unable to find a foot hold, and would continually drag along the tarmac. Each tick on the clock felt like an eternity, as the plane seemed to struggle to lift up. That same landscape WEP had once confidently painted with falling grassy foothills, was now visible, momentarily, through the airliner's windows. Like a movie where the pilot only narrowly takes off before the ultimate collision occurs, Wep believed the same event was occurring and he was partaking in it. "I’ll bet the pilot cleared the ridges by only 4 feet."
"My stomach anxiously awaited the disappearance of the strip beneath. Next thing I know is that my guts are trying to get on the other side of my backbone – we had gone into a steep climb."
Upon reflecting on Wep's letters and his quickly scribbled sketches, three portraits of Australian soldiers stand out. Why were these particular soldiers captured? I did some digging to find out, and I have uncovered the yarns of those very men. These are the stories of the three soldiers, all Military Medal recipients from World War II's Battle of Barvia.
The first yarn begins with heavy fire from M11 tanks and a plan to reduce the fire. A soldier had an extremely enthusiastic idea, his name was Sgt Arthur James Wyatt, who, armed with a single Anti-Tank (A.T.) Rifle, was going to use himself as a distraction.
Shell after shell would fall into the Australian Battalion's headquarters, as 45000 Italian troops marched through the stone covered desert, with plumes of dust surrounding them. Dust, caused by the bombs dropped from above. The Australian battalion was under fire, and under manned, with 4.5 times less troops than the Italians. The ground was tough and hard, like the spirits of the Australian's battling forward. If the classic tale of a Trojan horse was built from industrial machinery, then in the same way, The Australian battalion found refuge alongside their tanks. The troops found cover within their tracks, as they made their way across the arid landscape.
As a distraction, on 3 January 1941, Sgt Wyatt decided to pick up the A.T. rifle and approach the Italian tanks with a fellow Officer. After positioning himself less than 150 yards away from the tanks formation, he began to fire shots towards them. Startled, the only thing that the Italian Tanks could do would be to try and take him out. This was perfect though, since the distraction tactic worked and Wyatt's battalion, the 2/3 Australian Infantry, could organise their defence and ultimately disable six M11 tanks.
Sgt Arthur James Wyatt was awarded the Military Medal for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty".
To begin the second yarn, we focus on the military prowess of Neville Blundell, who was also fighting in Bardia. Before receiving his Military Medal, he recalls the moment aircraft tried to rid the Australians.
Upon reaching the outskirts of Bardia, his battalion dug into the ground, and they stood around spinning yarns with each other. One of his comrades exclaimed, "Look at that plane!" and it was heading across their position. Another voice shouted out, "Something fell out of one of those planes." With quick wits, the battalion dived into their holes and witnessed,
"Twenty two aircraft carrying two thousand kilograms of bombs dropped forty two thousand kilograms of bombs along the spot we were on. It was quite hair raising that bit."
It was now the day of the attack. Only the illuminations caused by anti-tank shells, provided the light to find their way across the battlefield. It was the day of the attack, and as he was marching blind. Blundell recalled how you were to focus on the "silhouette of the fella in front of you" as "blue balls (anti-tank shells)" would bounce around you, narrowly missing bodies. The soldiers were lined up with 30 to 50 yards between sections.
As the battalion reached within three hundred yards of the barbed wire fence that had previously been blown open, the company commander said to Blundell, "Go off and mark the opening." Blundell was surprised and said, "Me?", and after confirmation, he made his way towards the sharp broken defence. His battalion followed and they reached a small stone wall about chest high, in which they dropped low behind for cover. After waiting five minutes, so that his superior officers could determine the status of the situation, a fellow solider, Ray Coates, decided to leave and examine an Italian shelter nearby. Unfortunately, during that moment, a shell landed on it, and he was the first comrade they lost. The call was made to advance their line. The perimeter of Blundell's foot as he pressed on to the wall to hop over, became surrounded by bullets. Having just missed penetration, his team dropped to ground and began taking fire at the enemy who were now only 250 yards away. Driving the Italian forces back, the battalion pushed forward again. Each magazine that was fired, drifted closer to the next loosely formed stone wall.
The newspapers stated that they "stormed it", Blundell recalled, "You can’t storm a brick wall. You can storm a trench but not a rock wall." The batallion were now within twenty yards of the loosely stone-built rock wall and the Sanger. A Sanger is best envisioned as a large, circular wishing well without the rope or water.
"As we got closer to the sanger, the Italians were throwing their grenades, which were mainly percussion with shot. They weren’t like a Mills bomb."
An Italian soldier threw a grenade towards the Australian Battalion, however upon impact, the shot (shrapnel within) hit one of his fellow soldiers. Hopping from the injury, the soldier made his way to a rock about 30 yards from the wall. Blundell worked his way across to him and said, "Are you alright?' He said, "Yes, Go up there and kill the bastards."
Having just assisted the soldier that was hit with the grenade, and also assisting another who jammed his rifle, Blundell finally approached the face of the wall and the rest of his team. He wasn't aware that the orders were: "Front row kneeling, back row standing to open fire", so his next actions appeared to be fuelled with confidence. Having reached the wall, he felt quite vulnerable and open as he peered over with his rifle resting on the rough stone barrier. In a quick decision moment. he jumped up on to the wall and walked across the top of it to the Italian Machine gun post. Pushing and waving the bayonet of his rifle in front of him, he made some threatening gestures to see if the Italians were interested, before jumping down on the Italian's side, into the sanger.
"Shock", that's how the Italian's reacted. Running left, right, forward and back, the opposing side flooded from their rock formation, bar two soldiers - Blundell and an Italian soldier with a Breda light machine gun.
"This fella appeared behind there... so I stopped him and told him to put it down. He put it down."
He dropped low and began to unload his weapon, so Blundell knocked the rifle down with his bayonet and said, "Leave it." He left it and retreated.
Neville Blundell was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery and act of courage.
The third yarn follows a stretcher bearer of the 2/2 Australian Infantry Battalion, Ray McDonald Marney.
Through tank fire, both Marney and his comrade Private Tilbury disregarded their own safety, so that they could navigate through the clouds of dust and sharp machine-gun fire to help a fallen soldier. Their objective was to help Captain Godbold who had been hit from a previous bout of gunfire. Godbold lay in the dust, battling through the sounds of continual gun fire and lay drenched in newly blood stained clothing. Marney and Tilbury ignored the approaching machine-gun fire, which was now only 40 yards away, and focused on the job at hand, to help their injured Captain. They were successfully able to retrieve Godbold and retreat to their line.
"Their behaviour throughout the whole of the action showed gallantry of the highest order."
For Ray MacDonald Marney's bravery, he was awarded the Military Medal.
These yarns are dedicated to all the men and women who have given their lives towards protecting our country. We salute you and thank you for your service.
Wep artworks reproduced with permission of Peter Pidgeon. If you would like to see more of his masterpieces, from WWII to Archibald Prize Portraits: Click here