Voices from the air, p.10

Voices from the Air, page 10


Voices from the Air

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  Peter Hemery had arrived in Darwin a couple of days before the Japanese raids, travelling part of the way on a train he nicknamed the ‘Mechanized Monstrosity’, carrying troops and other passengers from Adelaide. Hemery was 28 years old, well groomed, outwardly confident with a restless and impatient character, and was already a skilled broadcaster. He had trained in architecture but gave it up for his real passion: writing and producing for the theatre and broadcasting. He had written and produced radio plays, and was an announcer and an ‘actuality broadcaster’ with the ABC, broadcasting descriptions of public marches, races and exhibitions and creating feature recordings of news events. Hemery became studio manager for the Argus newspaper chain’s radio station, 3SR, in Shepparton in regional Victoria, and later married Norma Turnbull, the beautiful young daughter of a prominent Shepparton family, owners of a fruit-growing business in the Goulburn Valley.

  In 1939 he returned to the ABC as an Outside Broadcasts officer. There he put his broadcasting flair to use in actuality broadcasts, from the skies above, flying aboard RAAF Wirraways, to the underground depths of Victoria’s Wattle Gully gold mine. His work also included some spot news and documentary production – he was not a news journalist by training but he had a broad range of skills and was a very good storyteller. The ABC had planned to send him to Malaya with a field unit, to join Henry Stokes, but the plan was abandoned once Hemery reached Darwin. He was initially disappointed not to be nearer to the action.8

  When the Japanese raid struck Darwin, Hemery’s recording gear was still in a goods carriage somewhere on the rail line far to the south. The technician, Ed Jinks, had returned 500 kilometres to the rail head at Birdum to try and track it down. The senior ABC observer with the unit, Dudley Leggett, was also several days behind Hemery and Jinks on his way to Darwin, and Hemery was on his own when the attacks happened, with no means of recording the attack or a report. However he did manage to send a press cable to the ABC with news of the raid.9

  Upon his arrival, Dudley Leggett commandeered an abandoned car to carry the recording equipment – an unreliable V8 sedan he nicknamed the ‘old green grass-hopper’, which sported a number of bullet holes and seemed ready to fall to pieces at any moment. The field unit of Leggett, Hemery and Jinks moved to a military camp in the bush outside Darwin where other war correspondents soon joined them. The ABC crew tried to listen in to the ABC’s national programs and their own recordings in the Sunday morning field unit session but radio reception was sometimes patchy in the far north and their radio set was unreliable when working on batteries. Leggett made light of the conditions in the ‘benighted and besweated land’ of the Northern Territory: land of sweat, dust, mosquitoes, sand flies and poor food. But he had only recently returned to the ABC after duty with the militia force and he felt for the long-serving troops in the north, and the gulf between their daily lives and the relative normality of life at home, carried in music and sound over the radio. ‘And what are the feelings of the lads when they turn the knob and tune in some crooning dude indulging in flights of romantic fancy. Need I endeavour to detail them? Need I say how they ache for just one day at home? . . . I don’t begin to think on the chaps overseas and especially the POWs.’10

  The technician, Ed Jinks, had retrieved the recording equipment by the time of the third raid on Darwin.

  The first indication of a raid was the appearance of the planes diving from height out of the clouds. Mr Hemery and Mr Jinks were on the road in a nicely exposed position at the time and naturally made a bee line for some cover in the scrub. As soon as they had reached reasonable cover they set up the gear and made a cut. By this time the planes had wheeled and raced back overhead towards their target.11

  Unfortunately, the recording of Hemery’s commentary failed to pick up the noise of the ack-ack guns but he added the voices of four section commanders from the anti-aircraft batteries to go with his commentary. It started a pattern of long days and frequent alerts.

  The recording at Fixed Defences was made at 11 pm. By the time we had driven home – travelling at that hour of the night with dim lights, varying road conditions and avoiding Army trucks in the pall of dust – it was midnight. Mr Jinks cleaned the discs. I had four hours’ sleep and then out to the ’drome with the discs. Yesterday, the area appeared to be extremely air conscious and there were five alarms which took up the better part of the day.12

  By the end of February, Japanese forces were close to victory in the Philippines; they had captured Ambon, Borneo, the Celebes and Sarawak; their troops had invaded Timor; Rabaul was in their hands; Singapore had fallen; and the invasion of New Guinea seemed certain.

  Japanese midget submarines had attacked Sydney Harbour, killing 21 Allied sailors, and there were very real fears in the coastal cities to the south, but Australia’s first defence was stationed in the north. As a result, correspondents could not give their location in their reports, instead referring only to being somewhere in the north or at an advanced base.

  Dudley Leggett’s main role in Darwin was to co-ordinate the work of the field unit. Leggett was a vital and handsome man, a Sydney University blue in athletics and rugby, and later a champion athlete at the state level. He had been known as the ‘Footballer Parson’ during his days playing rugby as an assistant Presbyterian minister in country New South Wales. He left the ministry but continued to play fullback for club rugby in the city and at state level. Dudley married Dawn Lightfoot, a singer and musical theatre and radio performer, a couple of years after he joined the ABC, where he became an announcer and sporting commentator, and was one of the radio broadcasters at the 1938 Empire Games. He was capable, conscientious and determined and was later put in charge of all ABC field broadcasts. He went into the Australian Militia Force early in the war and when he was called back to become a war correspondent in Darwin his role with the field unit was essentially administrative: liaising with the ABC; arranging the logistics of accommodation, transport and recording supplies; and sending off the recorded discs and scripts. It was not the most satisfying work and it was certainly not the best use of his potential as a broadcaster.

  At the end of April, Leggett was recalled from Darwin to be the observer on a field unit in Queensland, where there was a build-up of troops, and training and operational bases. GHQ in Melbourne would soon move to Brisbane, and Townsville was already developing into the most important air base in the north and a key forward area for the Allied forces. At the same time as Dudley was assigned to Brisbane, Chester Wilmot was also heading back into the field.

  The Bombing of Townsville

  After his return from the Middle East, Chester Wilmot married Edith Irwin, the young woman whose letters had helped sustain him during the long months overseas. However, he spared little time from writing and broadcasting. In the four months following his return, he broadcast 29 talks, 11 news commentaries and 5 national talks for the ABC, and 13 news commentaries for the BBC. In the Middle East he’d already fallen foul of General Blamey, the Australian commander-in-chief. Wilmot believed that the C-in-C was both incompetent and corrupt, and Blamey had barred some of Wilmot’s scripts.

  The ABC was very happy with Wilmot’s outstanding reporting from the Middle East and in early 1942 appointed him as its chief war correspondent for the Pacific theatre. Wilmot would now be working more closely with the federal controller of Talks, BH Molesworth, known to some as ‘Moley’. Wilmot’s work in the Middle East had been done largely in isolation from ABC management, with Lawrence Cecil acting as the go-between with the acting general manager, TW Bearup, but he had been reporting for Talks programs run by Molesworth. Molesworth would be the main contact and support for the field unit correspondents throughout the Pacific war.

  Wilmot and Dudley Leggett drove north to Queensland together, visiting a number of military units en route. Leggett stayed on in Brisbane, where his aim was to record interviews and actuality of the activities of the Australian and American forces in the north. Despite his experience as an a
nnouncer and sporting commentator, and as a co-ordinator of the work of mobile units, Leggett was still learning the skills of reporting and pacing his voice on extended stories: ‘my experience in these matters is not what it will be’,13 he promised in a letter to Molesworth. He found the Navy very shy of talking to reporters and the RAAF had a clear ‘aversion to correspondents’.14

  He was energetic, eager to cover meaningful stories and very conscious of his responsibilities to the ABC – and was frustrated by the little he had achieved so far for all his spade work. Wilmot’s friend, George Fenton, who had been the military censor in Cairo, was now with Army public relations in Brisbane. Fenton and others counselled Leggett to have patience: ‘They have pointed out that it is most important to know your area and the troops and their commanders in the area before anything flares up, which is true, for familiarity and confidence have played an essential part in the success of Mr Wilmot’s work.’15

  Wilmot moved on to Townsville at the end of May, with a recording unit and his colleague from the Middle East, technician Bill MacFarlane. The town around Castle Hill and straddling Ross Creek, and the promontory that pushed the port and its wharves out into the harbour, were guarded by searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries. Guns and barbed wire protected the town along The Strand, the foreshore strip that faced the waters of the bay and the Coral Sea.

  Most of the other war correspondents were bunking at the Queens Hotel, but there was no correspondents’ mess at the hotel and no workshop for MacFarlane’s equipment. Drawing on his experience in the Middle East, Chester had arranged other digs for himself and Bill MacFarlane.

  The manager of the Commonwealth Bank, whom I chanced to meet the day after we arrived, has leant us his garage as a storeroom and workshop and has given us sleeping quarters – a dressing room, which I use as a study also, and part of a sleep-out. The main object in living here is that the house is situated right on top of a hill that commands a view of the harbour and the town. We have the gear set up ready to record 24 hrs a day just in case there should be a raid. Actually this is the only spot in Townsville which gives us an all round view and is near the guns.16

  The news journalist in Townsville, Haydon Lennard, was staying in the Queens Hotel with the main press pack and was disgusted to find that someone had broken into his room and stolen his clothes and his radio. Lennard was protective of his area of coverage and was concerned that he didn’t end up playing ‘second fiddle to Wilmot’ but they apparently rubbed along with little trouble. Lennard had spent several months in Port Moresby covering the first Japanese air raids and was now alternating between there and Townsville, sharing coverage with his friend Barry Young from the Daily Mirror.

  Port Moresby and Papua would soon be the latest frontline for Australian troops. It was a month since the Battle of the Coral Sea had prevented a Japanese invasion of Port Moresby and in a month’s time the Japanese landings on the north coast of Papua would herald the beginning of the Kokoda campaign. In the meantime, Wilmot was unwell and returned to Melbourne for treatment for his hay fever and Dudley Leggett replaced him in Townsville – with the hope of releasing more of his pent-up energy. Leggett quickly found some of his reports from Townsville were blocked but then the same information was released by GHQ. Despite the undoubted aggravation this caused, Leggett was a broadcaster rather than a journalist and he was less interested in some of the more heated rows over censorship.

  I’ve never heard so much haggling as has gone on or rather as goes on between the pressmen and censors. Not that I’ve been out of it entirely myself but I’ve been keeping out of most of it and I’m not interested in trying to push through material which may be dangerous. Some of these fellows are a little too concerned about their reputations and consequently are inclined to forget the security aspect.17

  Late on the night of 25–26 July, a small group of Japanese planes bombed Townsville. The bombs landed in the water of the harbour and there were no casualties. Dudley was anguished to hear that his news telegram to the ABC was held up and did not make the main evening news the next day, and apologetic that an attack of nerves had blighted his voice report recorded several hours later – ‘it was incredibly bad and I am dismayed at the whole thing’.18 Molesworth later advised Dudley to commit his story to a script immediately a raid was over and while it was still fresh in his mind.19 Wilmot arrived back in Townsville and for the final night-time raid, he and MacFarlane were well positioned on a hill above the town to record the defensive fire against the lone raider. In Bill’s recording of Chester’s commentary you can clearly hear the deep, stuttering fire of the ack-ack guns in the background.

  The plane is held in the lights absolutely dead above us and it’s heading out now westwards right above the town. The searchlights are holding it absolutely perfectly in their beams from all sides and at the moment I can see one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, more than a dozen searchlights. It’s making the most extraordinary pattern as the plane heads out westwards but the plane is so high up that the ack-ack shells are not bursting anywhere near it . . . it’s been hit by tracers from one our fighters, yellow tracers are streaming past it and there’s one hit the tail of the plane, I can see a burst of light stream from it . . . well now the plane is moving away . . . it seems to me to be losing a little height but is continuing on its course well out to the westward.20

  Within hours of recording the Townsville raid Wilmot was on a plane to Port Moresby, soon to head into the Owen Stanley Ranges with the Australian troops on the Kokoda Trail. Bill MacFarlane also headed to Moresby. Leggett stayed in North Queensland and was joined by Len Edwards, the young PMG technician from Tasmania.

  This was the first major assignment for Len Edwards, and he worked with Leggett for several months, as Dudley recorded interviews and provided news coverage from Townsville on the bombing campaign against the Japanese in New Guinea and Papua. It was also the first real opportunity for Len to use his technical skills and versatility on coverage of the war. Edwards was born in Hobart in 1916 and was a keen ham radio operator. He was fascinated by radio and radio technology and was broadcasting on an experimental radio licence until just before the war, when amateur radio activities were closed down. In 1939 he was working at the ABC’s Hobart studios as a PMG radio mechanic, or technician, and was one of the first to use the new acetate disc recorders. ‘I was one of the fortunate ones and became hooked.’21

  While working on a PMG experimental radio link and also at the cable station in the remote town of Stanley, he used his spare time – and the PMG workshop – to build his own audio disc recorder and microphones. He joined the ABC field teams in 1942 and inherited responsibility for Jumbo, the studio van that had come back from the Middle East with Bill MacFarlane and Chester Wilmot and was now based in Sydney. When Dudley Leggett encountered Edwards, he was immediately impressed. ‘I consider myself extremely fortunate to have him. It is a pleasure to work with him. He is most reliable, conscientious and adaptable, and his recordings appear to be of excellent quality. He is very interested in his work and eager to get further forward and produce the maximum number of recordings.’22


  Not long before, the ABC had appointed its first war correspondent covering GHQ in Melbourne, a former newspaper journalist named Bill Marien, who had joined the Commission only a month or so earlier. Marien attended the twice-daily news conferences at GHQ and filed news reports for the ABC on the official communiqués and on other stories gleaned from the GHQ round. Marien was soon sent to Darwin as a news correspondent, joining Peter Hemery. He was replaced at GHQ by John Hinde, a former newspaper journalist who had become one of the senior members of Frank Dixon’s small news team at the ABC.

  In July 1942, Douglas MacArthur moved GHQ to Brisbane and Hinde travelled north on the train carrying the American general and his staff. Hinde’s career as a war correspondent almost came to an early and inglorious end when he breached the security cordon around
MacArthur’s carriage during a night-time stop at Albury, and narrowly escaped being shot.23 GHQ was a critical assignment for ABC war correspondents: it provided the official reports of the war each day and much information was only released at GHQ or at the advanced GHQ in the forward areas. Hinde explained the daily process at GHQ for war correspondents as

  . . . covering the HQ press conferences every morning and sending a story back based on the communiqué, which wasn’t as totally routine as it sounds, because you got a lot of background information at the same time and a lot of continuity, so you could tell a certain fact of the story of the war from there, rather better than from anywhere else, although it did tend to be the MacArthur view of the war, in which the Australians didn’t appear much.24

  GHQ proved a thorn in the side of correspondents in the field as stories they wrote on military operations could not be released before the official GHQ communiqué. GHQ releases often failed to tell the full story, which was a further challenge for correspondents trying to navigate the twin rocks of propaganda and censorship. After spending much of the first half of 1942 in Port Moresby or Townsville, Haydon Lennard joined the hothouse of MacArthur’s headquarters when he took over as GHQ war correspondent.


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