by Colin Stiles
On 14 October 1945 Neil Ross, of Newtown, Geelong, wrote as follows to my mother Joyce Stiles, the wife of Sgt Leo Vernon Stiles VX40201 A Coy 2/29th Battalion:
I don’t think you know me, but I was lucky enough to be a very good friend of your husband, Leo. We were in A Coy together and got very friendly. But I would like to offer you my sincerest sympathy on your great loss.
Leo was one of the great men of this world. Everyone thought the world of him and his death left a gap in our lives which can never be refilled.
Up to the last on the Thailand railway Leo was working to help other people and although he was sick himself he did not spare himself in trying to help other sick people. He has left a name behind that will never die. In the 2/29th Bn he is looked upon as the ideal Sergeant and everything a man should be.
It must be quite a relief to you that you have two sons left to carry on. You and they were always in his thoughts. Once again I offer my sincere sympathy and if there is anything I can do I will only be too glad. Full records of his death are kept by the 2/29th Bn.
Writing to John Lack, Colin Stiles adds:
‘I went to my first 2/29th reunion dinner in 1994 and was put alongside Jack Lonsdale. During the evening Jack spoke about my Father, which was great to hear. Near the end of the evening he said the day my Father died there was a call for a volunteer to go to a camp nearby to pick up some rice. My Father volunteered and despite Jack and his friends trying to stop him because he was very sick, he went. On his return to the camp he collapsed and Jack was nursing him and trying to get him to eat when he died. Jack did not give me any more detail than that.
‘But on page 196 during an interview recorded in your book No Lost Battalion, Frank Nankervis stated “I remember one of our sergeants, who was an old sergeant, a highly respected sergeant. His health deteriorated to a stage where I walked into the camp one night and he was lying on the ground. He was being cradled by three of his men who were a group. And they were begging him to eat. He was that sick, he couldn’t be bothered. And one of the three, a rough tough man himself, this fellow, he was a miner down Wonthaggi, he got the food and he chewed it and he leaned over and he spat it into the mouth of this man. That was one of the most moving I think I’ve ever seen. And his sergeant – ‘Ooh, sergeant’, you know, as long as there’s been army there’ve been fables about sergeants. These fellows begged him to live, and he died, and they just wept over him. They were men used to death and yet their sergeant died and they nursed him until the end.”
‘Frank told me he did not name Jack or my Father during the interview in case it embarrassed me. I know Tich Davitt was there also, but unfortunately do not know who the third person was.’
[Thank you, Colin, for sharing this letter and your memories with us. Leo Stiles died at Takanoon, Thailand, on 14 July 1943, from typhus and malaria. Lt Colonel SAF Pond also recorded Leo’s death in his diary on that day. Leo left a widow and two sons, Charley aged 6 and Colin aged 5. He was cremated with other soldiers and their ashes were eventually reburied in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, and Leo's headstone is at Collective Grave Lot 1, Row O, Grave 4-43. ‘Tich’ Davitt came home, but passed away in recent years. I remember vividly Frank telling me this story when I interviewed him for No Lost Battalion at his home ‘Willow Farm’ on 1 May 2000. Colonel Pond kept a diary, mostly in French, and the Thailand section of that diary, covering ‘Pond’s Party’ on the railway, is currently being translated. – John Lack.]