Name: Athol Snook
Unit: 100 Squadron RAAF Location: New Guinea
Flying Officer Athol Snook was a survivor. In 1942, he spent 47 days at sea in a lifeboat sailing from Java to Australia with 11 comrades to escape from the Japanese. Then, on a fateful night in New Guinea later that year, his plane was grounded while the rest of the squadron went to attack Japanese shipping
Some years later, Athol Snook wrote an article in remembrance of his mates in New Guinea. His memory was triggered by a chance conversation about a radio program that was popular during the war. Like many programs of their day, there were a number of catch phrases which always brought roars of laughter from the audience. Athol Snook takes up the story.
“Funny thing how memory works. A scent, an old tune or sometimes a taste can start your mind throwing up pictures that you thought you’d forgotten forever,” he wrote.
“I don’t suppose there are many people today who remember Harry Tate and his wonderful radio sketch ‘Running an Office’ all about Tootles the office boy, the mad inventor and the mousetrap.
“Well, the other night I heard Harry Tate’s name mentioned at
a party. We were all very much of an age, somewhere in our 50s – what might be called ‘older boys and girls’. That’s if one were being kind that is. Standing there in a mild alcoholic haze, well fed and at peace with the world, I was suddenly whisked out of that lounge, plucked from my friends and transported over the Indian Ocean, across the shallow Timor Sea, through the Torres Straits and straight into Milne Bay at the most eastern tip of New Guinea. Not only was this instantaneous, or nearly so, but there was a neat little bit of time wangling as well. Without any fuss or nonsense the clock was turned back and suddenly it was 1942.
“If you look at a map of New Guinea you’ll notice that there’s something about its shape that reminds you of some crouching primitive animal. What used to be called Dutch New Guinea is the head with gaping mouth; at the other end, with forked tail,
is where we were. Between these two points is the almost virgin world of this huge island. Dramatic, mountainous, jungle covered. Dangerous. Peopled by ochre-painted, sometimes warlike natives. A land where salt is a form of currency and where the plumes of the Bird of Paradise crown heads with exotic beauty.
“This was the last link in the chain of island conquests which the Japanese had to secure before they turned south for the greatest prize of all – Australia.
“That they never achieved their goal can only be called a miracle. They were beaten in the Battle of the Coral Sea and on land were stopped when only a handful of miles from Moresby. The battles along the Kokoda Trail were bitter, bloody and heroic.
“Milne Bay was the end of the line for the Japs; they were beaten there too and withdrew and that’s how our squadron came to be
stationed there. We flew Beaufort torpedo bombers, operated from a strip cut out of a coconut plantation and lived in a village
of brown-coloured tents. Mud, sweat, mildew, rain and the
thud of failing coconuts were the elements of our domestic life. Mosquitoes enlivened the nights with their whining flight and now and again the Japs brightened things up with their unwelcome and noisy visits. It is against this backdrop that the scene is played.
“Don Leigh, a gunner, was little, untidy and wore badly fitting false teeth. He nearly always sported a filthy, battered topee and his shorts were too long. In civilian life he had been a radio announcer in Hobart. He had a wonderful, wicked sense of humour. I thought he was the funniest thing since Charlie Chaplin.
“Bill Young was just the opposite. Good looking, pipe smoking, he exuded an atmosphere of calm control. He even managed to look clean. Both he and I were navigators. All of us treasured a battered portable gramophone; our greatest joy was to play a very noisy and scratchy recording of Colonel Corn. Vera Lynn brought emotional lumps to our throats and we wallowed in colourful and no doubt erotic memories of life ‘down south’. Harry Tate, with his ‘Running an Office’ sketch was the perfect ‘middle of the road’ distraction.
It neither enraged our neighbours nor reduced us to emotional wrecks.
“There were endless ways of introducing catch phrases from the sketch into the general conversation and it became a sort of bond to our friendship, rather like belonging to a secret society which has some form of ritual known only to the initiated. Others not
in the know would be puzzled by odd references to ‘being back
in the spring’ or that we were ‘closing the office’. The favourite, however, was to call someone back who was already some distance off and say, in a hesitating and vague way ‘Oh – eh – one thing more – goodbye’. This had the satisfying effect of infuriating the victim. It was the last line of the sketch and we used it whenever possible. Childish? Perhaps; but it was a form of escape from the monotony and yes, the fears of those days so long ago.
“We were down at the strip when news came in that there was a Japanese naval force consisting of a cruiser and destroyers within striking distance of our planes. No one who has not experienced the chill which strikes when you know that you are going to risk your neck within the next few hours can imagine, fully, how it feels. Nine crews were put on immediate stand by. Aircraft were to be checked. Take off was to be just before dusk. It started to rain. A depressing half light did nothing to brighten the atmosphere.
“Then our machine went U/S [unserviceable] with hydraulic trouble and we as a crew were withdrawn from the strike; we went to the briefing just the same, relieved to be out of what looked like being a very sticky ‘do’, yet carried along by the impetus of our near involvement.
“The Ops Room was a thatched hut, trestle tables end to end split the room in half down its length. Wall maps of the area showed the military situation. The enemy ships’ position was almost due east of the bay. The room was crowded, it smelt of dampness, sweat and cigarette smoke. The hard light of pressure lamps seemed to intensify the late afternoon gloom. It was to be a classic torpedo attack with the planes coming in at the cruiser from three different directions. It was simple enough – fly out in formation, find the enemy in the half dark, split up, attack and destroy. Then come home independently. All one had to do was to do it.
“The briefing came to an end. The crews collected their belongings, nav. Bags, head-phones, survival kits. All the paraphernalia of bomber crews. Gradually the room cleared.
My two friends moved towards the door; I stood watching. As if suddenly remembering something, Don turned. He came a few steps towards me and with a little smile said ‘Oh – one thing more – goodbye’.
“One by one the-planes racketed into life, taxied to the take-off point. Propellers hurled the streaming air behind and wheels crashed over the shining metal matting. They lifted into the weeping dusk heading towards the east. The sound of their motors faded and we were left with only the hissing of the lamp and the dripping rain.
“And so we waited, making conversation for the sake of appearing normal but our minds carried us out over a grey sea that swept
so close beneath our wings and suddenly there they are; dark smudges wildly swinging in an agony of evasion. Split up – line astern. Now the leading plane banks, turning in towards the ship. Now line abreast. Steady at 120 knots and 120 feet. Not much to remember, just do it. Now the grey shapes show little flicks of light along their sides. What’s that? They’re firing at us, that’s all. Get
in close. Now the great shape seems to fill the windshield. Now is the moment. Bomb doors open. Press the tit. A slight jolt and the torpedo slices away from the plane. It is done, now nothing can change what is going to happen. The planes swerve and jink. The navigators spray madly with their twin Vickers. The pilots sweat with an agony of tension as they battle to avoid the other planes and now they are pulling back on the control column and the great ship is whipping beneath. Planes seem to be everywhere. The ships fire madly. Skidding and weaving the aircraft climb away. The cruiser explodes in a thundering, tearing spasm of tortured metal, Inrushing sea and screeching steam. It is all over. The planes turn towards the west and home. Now it is almost night and the rain beats against the wings.
“We sat in the tent waiting. Overhead the palms move their fronds restlessly like great living, questing hairy creatures, dark against the weeping night. Now the sound of engines filling the dripping sky with the sad, lonely throb of their beat. One by one they come in to land, their brilliant lights seeking the sodden strip. Great dark shapes moving against a hedge of palms. The tyres touch, kissing the metal, sobbing in a watery embrace. Four down, four more
to come. Now once more the sound, the piercing light the mad careering shape – it goes on and on throwing up great gobs of water, It cannot stop in time. The pilot pulls up the undercart, the plane slithers obscenely in the mud like some poor broken bird. Rescue teams rush to help but there is no need, there is no fire and the crew climb out unhurt.
“Once more we wait and now the fear for our friends grows stronger, feeding on doubt, it spreads among the group of men who stand out in the rain straining their ears for the beat of propellers. The weather worsens, the palms bend to the rising wind. Squalls of rain lash obliquely at the planes, the flapping tents, the dripping jungle. Sheet lightning lights the world around like a series of false dawns, thunder rumbles, truculent, threatening. Suddenly we hear the plane. At first, it is only a whisper, but quickly the sound grows stronger as if gaining confidence. Now it is overhead drowning the other sounds with its pulsing beat. We can even see the navigation lights, red and green twin wandering stars, misted by the rain, sweeping in concentric orbits till they are lost to sight in the pounding rain. Again and again the scene is repeated. The plane is very low, circling and circling. Over the E/T the voice of the radio operator strained but controlled, his message, broken by static, tells the story. Visibility is so bad that they cannot see the strip lights well enough to attempt a landing. Fuel is getting very low.
“The CO makes the decision. They must gain height, set the machine on a course for the bay and bale out. It is the best chance they have.
“Now the engine note becomes stronger, more purposeful. They pass over us once more and the sound of their flight echoes from the crouching hills as they head for the sea. Suddenly, there is the dull boom of an explosion, then silence, only the wind and rain.
“The jungled arms of the bay have caught them in a wet embrace; the swaying trees and tangled vines ripped and torn by the violence of the union; the black wet earth layed bare by their metal plough. A self dug grave for four young men. Ken Magregor, pilot. Bill Young, navigator. Frank Ewing, radio operator and Don Leigh, gunner.
“Over the years I have often thought of them and of the other two crews who were lost that night, lost in the awful blind, wandering till they too found some mountain peak or watery end. I can still see the hissing lamp, still smell the musty jungle damp, still see the little figure with the battered topee, the long shorts and from the past a ghostly, taunting voice calls me back, intoning ‘One thing more – Goodbye’.”