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Norman Carson Letts (VX63740) 1922 – 2012

Added on by 2/29 Battalion.

Norm Letts was born in Wedderburn, where he was known from boyhood as 'Digger'. His father was the mail driver (horse and buggy), and 'Digger' milked cows for cocky farmers around Boort. He enlisted at 19 in September 1941, trained at Darley near Bacchus Marsh, at Bonegilla and at Queenscliff, before embarking on the Aquitania from Sydney. Arriving in Singapore on 10 January 1942, he became a 2/29th Battalion reinforcement, as part of C Company. After the surrender, and the march to Changi, Norm went into Singapore on work parties, including building the Japanese shrine at Bukit Timah. With F Force on the Thai-Burma Railway at Kami Songkurai in Thailand, Norm worked with Jack Coffey, 'a good bloke', and 17-year- old Bobby Harvey [Nancarrow], 'a good worker'. Other mates Norm recalled were Queenslander 'Snowy' Reid, and Doug Cameron and Gordon Wilson (both from Camperdown). Norm also was part of a six-man team on a pile driver sinking bridge poles. Cholera was the big killer: 'there was a big red-headed Queenslander got it. He was crook all right. He was a married bloke, four kids, and I abused him something terrible [to try to save him], but he said "I'll be dead in the morning, Norman." . . [And] he was dead in the morning.' Norm was at Hellfire Pass, where he survived beri-beri and Japanese brutality. 'Some [officers] tried, put it that way, they tried to get a bit less work out of you, but there wasn't much they could do. They'd stand up for you, but they copped their share [of bashing] then. They didn't miss out.' Back on Singapore Island, Norm dug tunnels at River Valley Road, but they were not permitted to timber them properly and there were many earth falls: 'a bloke we called "Goofy", he was a good bloke, as far as Japs went. He'd give us his dinner and go down the street and buy his own. He was the only one, old "Goofy".' When the war ended Norm and five mates crammed into an Austin and drove around Singapore. As for taking revenge on their tormenters, Norm decided, after looking at the young blokes in camp in Singapore, 'I couldn't hit an innocent bloke. They were only doing [to us] what they had been told [to do].....They were only kids. They were, they were only kids. I picked.....out one who'd given me a belting, but he was only young. I just couldn't hit him'.

Norm came home on the Largs Bay in October 1945. He went back to milking cows at Boort, then went to Barham, and returned to Wedderburn, cutting eucalyptus leaf for eucalyptus oil, then went shearing for 30 years. In 1946 Norm met Jessie, a telephonist at Wedderburn, and they married in 1948 when 'Digger' was working at the Barham brick works. 'You missed your mates for a fair while. That's when I got into Barham. There were a few of us working there, at the brick works.' Over the years, Norm and Jessie kept in contact with Norm's army mates, attending reunions in Tassie and Queensland, sometimes meeting them in Sydney, combining meetings with visits to their daughters in Sydney and Brisbane. 'When they'd get together,' Jessie recalled, 'then they'd talk about all the good times, not the bad times, the good times.'

When Marguerite spoke with Norm in August 2011, he and Jessie had been married 63 years, and Norm was 89: 'heading 90, I'll make 90'. And he did, passing away at 90 years of age at Bendigo Hospital, Victoria, on 16 September 2012. His funeral service was held at the RSL in Wedderburn.

John Lack

Hal Rouvray Thirlwell (VX59292) 1921 – 2012

Added on by 2/29 Battalion.

Hal Thirlwell was born in East Melbourne, of Scottish and American ancestry, on 5 July 1921. Both Hal and his brother sang in the St James' and St Pauls' choirs and received scholarships to Trinity Grammar, and later to Caulfield Grammar. These scholarships were very welcome in the depths of the Great Depression: 'People had money, no doubt,' he recalled, 'but we didn't.' In 1936 Hal left school to work at Myer' s, and after a year he moved to Flinders Lane as an office boy for a firm of textile importers: 'They were all First World War fellows, and I was the general rouseabout. I was there until the war started.' He also enlisted in the Militia, and in 1940 was part of the 5th Battalion, Victorian Scottish Regiment.

Hal's older brother 'Mac' enlisted in the AIF and went away with the 9th Division to the Middle East, where at Tobruk he fought, was wounded, and won the Military Cross. In 1941 Hal also enlisted in the AIF: 'My mother wasn't very happy about it. But in those days people just - took it on the chin, as it were, when their sons enlisted. They had no real option, assuming that you're old enough.' Hal went AWOL to farewell his family, and was demoted from Lance Corporal to Private!

When he joined the 2/29th Bn AIF as a private on Singapore Island on Australia Day, 26 January 1942, the Battalion was being re-formed after suffering frightful losses at Muar and Bakri in Malaya. Hal was one of the few 600 reinforcements who had some training and experience, from being in the Militia, and he was given charge of a Great War-vintage Lewis machinegun. Hal's reminiscences of the frustrating defence of Singapore are featured in the book No Lost Battalion. On 15 February Hal became one of many thousands of Australians interned at Changi. He joined working parties at Thompson Road, and in April 1943 went away to Thailand with Pond's Party of F Force. They started with a forced march of almost 200 kms from Banpong to Koncoita, two-thirds of the way to the Burmese border. During the subsequent eight months of working up and down the line, almost three in every ten of the men of F Force died as a result of malnutrition, mistreatment, and disease.

Hal contracted malaria in May 1943, the first of what he calculated was about one hundred episodes: 'But you sort of got used to it. It was a way of life'. Cholera was another matter. Cholera almost guaranteed death. On 14 July Hal was thought to have contracted cholera at Takunun (120 km from Banpong), and along with 67 others was placed in isolation. He had had other health problems too, but in his self- deprecating way said 'lots of people had to put up with much worse.' On the last day of August 1943, debilitated, and suffering weakness in the limbs from beri-beri, he became one of Pond's Party evacuated south to the hospital at Wanyai. It was no easy passage. Paralysed from the waist down, Hal had to be carried out of Takunun, feeling guilty 'because these same guys who were carrying me were in very bad physical condition'. So when his right leg improved, he forced himself to walk, crab-like, sideways, with his left knee locked.

Hal's weight had dropped from a normal 12 – 12 ½ stone to around seven stone. He put his survival down to 'learning to live with' what befell you, insisting that 'it was just a fluke that I got through'. But another survivor of F Force and of that evacuation described Hal's literally dragging himself hand over hand along the railway as one of the most courageous acts he had ever seen.

Hal was in Changi when the war ended, and he was restless on his return to Australia. After some years managing Victorian country chain stores he went to the UK, where he met and in 1954 married Mary and brought her to Australia. Back in Melbourne he returned to the business of textile importing in Flinders Lane before he started his own business, which he sold upon his retirement in 1991.

Hal was devoted to the welfare of the fellow members of his Battalion and their families through his membership of the 2/29th Battalion AIF Association and his work as a Committee member. He died peacefully in the Epworth Hospital on 29 March 2012, survived by Mary, their two children and their two grandchildren. His ashes have been placed in a niche at the wall of remembrance at Springvale Cemetery. The family of the Battalion Association salutes him.

John Lack

George Henry Clifford Tite (VX56209) 1923-2011

Added on by 2/29 Battalion.

Elspeth McOmish interviewed George on 9 May 1999 and his story was told in No Lost Battalion, on which this tribute has been based.]

George was born in 1923, the seventh of six boys and six girls. He grew up in North Melbourne, where his father was a bottle-oh for a Carlton marine dealer, and went to Errol Street State School, leaving before he was 14 with His Merit Certificate to go dairy farming in South Gippsland. George recalled he came home from Gippsland looking around for a job and 'a fortnight after [the third of my brothers enlisted] I went and joined the Army. It was not patriotism. There was no work. In the Army you got three feeds a day and something to wear.' He joined up on 20 May 1941, and turned 18 seven days after landing in Singapore.

After Muar and Singapore Island, George found himself in Changi, where the Battalion cooks struggled to learn how to cook rice: 'they soon learned. . .Usually you got about one cupful or two, three times a day. That was at the start, of course.' He missed being assigned to F Force by being hospitalised with failing eyesight due to dietary deficiencies, but was chosen for J Force, leaving for Japan in May 1943: 'That was going to be the best camp of the lot, was going to be a recuperation camp for the sick and the dying and the wounded. And so it was. You worked or you died. So that was the recuperation camp.' George spent 2V2 years in the Kobe House camp holding 900 POWs of 14 nationalities including 300 Australians. Conditions were extreme: 95-96 degrees F in summer, as low as 20 F (below freezing) in winter. He had only two baths in those years. His two best friends were older men, one of whom more or less fathered him, and Peter Omarides, 'a marvellous man' who would carry the loads of the sick. The Japanese officers were very severe. . . None were friendly.' Only by fixing on the future, and surveying their lot with wry humour, did the survivors survive. George missed out on malaria, but had dengue fever. Thirty days work was followed by a day off, when you cleaned camp, so you never really got a day off at all. Ten months in a steel foundry was bad luck: nothing to steal that you could eat. Working on the wharf meant searches at the end of the day: 'Say you get caught pinching a bag of beans, they'd belt the hell out of you with a bag of beans. So you always made sure you never got caught with a tin, because they'd belt the hell out of you with a tin.' Then the American bombing started. George was near Kyoto when a day after his birthday, 23 August 1945, their Japanese interpreter announced that the war was over: 'The English sang "God Save the King" . . . The Dutch sang their anthem. The Australians said "About bloody time!"'

The POWs of G and J Forces in Japan were evacuated to Manila on an American troopship: George remembered the 29 days he spent there, with access to a 24-hour kitchen: 'I was 9 stone 1 lb. when went into the Army and 9 stone 1 lb. when I got out.' He came to Sydney on the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable. In the next twelve months, he grew an inch and put on three stone: 'I'd just stopped growing [while a POW], that's what it was, just stopped growing. No tucker.' George took a while to readjust to a family and neighbourhood largely made up of women: 'And that's when I met my wife. I'd known her since she was 10 years old. When I went away I was 17, when I came home she was 17 and I was 22. All the humps and bumps were in the right places.' George married May in 1950: 'They said the marriage would never last but it did.' When interviewed in 1999, George was a widower with five children, ten grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. He passed away at the Royal Melbourne Hospital on 27 July 2011, and a service was held at Tobin Brothers' Chapel, Glenroy, on 3 August.

John Lack

Doug Ogden writes about George Tite

About sixteen years ago I first met George at the Annual Battalion Reunion. I was talking to someone and said 'Thanks guys'. George boomed in and said 'You American?' I answered 'No' and George then said, 'Well, speak Australian.' I thought he was a grumpy old coot. That was George's manner, and as I got to know him he wasn't at all grumpy.

Over the years I learned how reserved and genuine George was. When I asked George if he would mind being interviewed by a TV presenter George told me he was sick with worry as he thought he had little to offer and speaking publicly was for others. George was reluctant to speak of his service but he told me that as a young man he was left at a crossroad near Yong Peng when his mates were getting sent back to Singapore. George was directing traffic. He told me he had never experienced such fear, the dark, the jungle and any noise had him in a flap.

Over the years George and I had chats on the phone and when I visited in hospital towards the end George could manage a joke or two about his impending death. George was not afraid. It was sad, as it always is, when George died. I considered him a good friend, a decent man, a man who spoke his mind, and a man one could rely on. George right until he passed away was a great friend of the Battalion and all its members and their families.

Doug Ogden

Walter Andrew Sarkies (VX27723) 1923 – 2012

Added on by 2/29 Battalion.

Walter Sarkies VX27723 (Pte), who served as a machine gunner with HQ Company (Carriers) and later with A Company, and was a POW with F Force ('Pond's Party') in Thailand, died in Melbourne on 17 June.

Walter was born on 2 February 1923 in Glenhuntly and spent his youth in Reservoir. In June 1940, aged 17, he enlisted in the 2nd AIF, and after basic training joined the 2/29th at Bonegilla. At 18 Wal was with the battalion at Segamat (Malaya). When the Japanese entered the war in December 1941, his unit was assigned to defend airfields and he experienced bombing at close range with only the protection of a shallow slit trench.

Too young to become a carrier driver, he was reassigned to A Company. As part of a small unit he went behind enemy lines to bomb bridges to slow the Japanese advance down the peninsula. After successfully destroying two bridges, the unit found its way back to allied lines, following creeks and avoiding the Japanese. He was wounded in action against advancing Japanese as the unit attempted to rejoin the main body of the 2/29th which had been sent north to Muar. Unable to break through, the commandos regrouped with British gunners. After his wound was dressed at a British aid post (RAP), he was sent on the last train south to the makeshift Australian field hospital at Jahore Baru before being evacuated to Singapore. He was in hospital in Singapore when the Allies surrendered. A few days later, with other wounded he marched to the Selarang Barracks, Changi. Wal's closest friends, Tommy Hall and Donny McCallum, had been killed at Muar.

As a POW in 1942, Wal was with work parties ordered to build the Japanese Bukit Timah Hill memorial, and on the Singapore wharves. Later he worked making timber supports for the network of tunnels constructed under Singapore. In April 1943, Walter was sent to Thailand with F Force (Pond's Party). Disembarking from the train at Bampong, the men were force-marched, always at night after days of labouring, 160 miles north to Konkoita camp where they began work on the Burma- Thailand railway. In poor health since being wounded in January 1942, Walter succumbed to severe illness after only three days and was sent to a 'hospital' camp ("a funny name to give it", he said) back at Bampong. Walter attributed his 'good luck' in this to Dr Roy Mills. His friend Geoff Forster died on the boat that took these desperately ill men away from 'the line'. Walter remained at Bampong camp for some months before returning to Changi, having rejoined the F Force survivors as they came south.

In Changi hospital Walter took up drawing, with paper and pencils supplied by his friend Frank Day who worked in the camp library. The Walter Sarkies Collection of 41 drawings of Changi life is held at the State Library of Victoria. Walter remembered the day of the Japanese surrender, and the early days of freedom in liberated Singapore. Interviewed in 2011, he remembered the sweet taste of ice cream after years of near starvation. He also remembered 'marvellous' days and nights on the Esperance Bay, which brought the 2/29th home. Walter was 23.

In 1947 Walter married Betty. He had a lifelong career with Shell. He and Betty travelled extensively, including business trips to Japan. In later years, Walter and Betty lived with their son Richard at Wallan. Brian Cleveland represented the Battalion at Wal's funeral, which was held at Fawkner Cemetery on Thursday 21 June.

Marguerita Stephens

[Marguerita, the daughter of 2/29th veteran Bob Stephens, interviewed Walter Sarkies for the Battalion Association in 2011.]