Interview by Gwlad McLachlan at 3YYR Studio for the radio program ‘Keeping In Touch’, 16/4/1990.
Available for download for personal use.Copyright
Bob Moore & Colin Frisch talk about the experience of the 2/29th Battalion during WW2. Bob and fourteen others from the Battalion made a remarkable escape from the Japanese on the Malayan Peninsula in 1942, finding their way home only to be treated as deserters.
Gwlad McLachlan: I’m Gwlad McLachlan, and we’re going to be speaking very shortly with Colin Fritch, and Bob Moore.
(music: “The Road to Gundagai”.)
The recently published Heroes Denied, the Malayan Harriers’ Conspiracy, has become a runaway best seller, and Colin Fritch, the author of the book, lives in Geelong, and Colin is with me, in the studio, along with Bob Moore, and Bob, along with 14 other Australian soldiers became known as the Malayan Harriers.
Colin, why is Heroes Denied such a controversial book?
Colin Fritch: Well Gwlad, I’ve just picked up on the banner for your programme, the title :”Keeping in Touch”, and I suppose it’s so significant that the story be told after 48 years because here we have 15 men who they went through probably the most monumental adventure that anyone could ever imagine.
They were in the main young men of 19, 20 years of age, who went off to war, and were amongst the first Australian troops to meet the Japanese in Malaya.
They were decimated, they were beaten very, very badly by the Japanese, they spent a substantial amount of time, in fact five weeks, in the jungle, behind enemy lines, they made good their escape, back to Australia.
And when they got home their story really started, they were treated abysmally, they were treated as veritable lepers, no one wanted to know them, particularly, and after that sort of experience that was the logic behind them not seeing each other for 48 years, and Heroes Denied is a very, very sad story, in lots of respects, Gwlad.
Gwlad McLachlan: Bob, thank you, thank you very much for coming in.
Bob Moore: Thank you, Gwlad.
Gwlad McLachlan: Picking up on that, how, that you didn’t have contact with the other 14 survivors, could you tell me why that was?
Bob Moore: Glad, I’ve been asked this many a time, as you’ll realise, I can’t give you a straight out answer, one of the comrades who came home, with me, has said: “Oh look, we had our mortgages, we had our marriage to, and we had houses to look, why would we, should we be worried about each other”, but then, the trauma that we went through, you’d think there’d be a bond there that could never be broken.
But I never looked for anyone, I never, no intention of, didn’t even think of seeing them, didn’t go to a reunion, never been to an ANZAC Day march, now, someone could explain that, but I can’t, Gwlad, why was it so, I often ask.
Gwlad McLachlan: Bob, coming back to, just getting back to the other men that were involved, how many Geelong men were with you, in Malaya?
Bob Moore: In our mortar platoon, Gwlad, well I’d, well we’d better stick to that, because there was a lot of Geelong men in the 2/29th, which I, if I name them I might start missing out a couple.
But the ones in our platoon were a Hector Simpson, who worked on the cement works in those days, Wally Fisher, who was a grocer, Wip Dickens, Ronnie Jones, who was a grocer with Dickens, they’re getting a good plug, (laugh), and myself, and so the four of us were in the mortar platoon of the 2/29th Division, and actually our commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Robertson, who was a Geelong man also, and run a fuel yard, down Chilwell.
And why we got into the 29th was when the, it was formed, and Colonel Robertson deciding he wanted as many Geelong men as he could, went around all the training battalions, and luckily, or, shall we say unluckily, we got into the 2nd 29th.
Gwlad McLachlan: Colin, tell me, in the book, about the Malayan Campaign, that’s a very dramatic part of the book.
Colin Fritch: Yes, Glad, Heroes Denied commences in the heat of battle, the young men found themselves virtually overnight, in Malaya, and certainly in the front line, prior to the Japanese invasion.
The Japanese set themselves one hundred days, to take the impregnable fortress, Singapore, as it was to turn out they did that in 70, they exceeded even their own expectations.
The 2nd 29th Battalion was amongst the first Australian troops to meet the Japanese, and they did so on the 18th of January, 1942, and Bob Moore and the other members of the 2/29th, went into a battle that lasted three days, and three nights.
And despite what they expected, they got anything but, they faced the Japanese 5th, and 6th Imperial Guards’ Division, they were chosen because of their height and stamina, and they’d been battle hardened by fighting the Chinese in Manchuria, from, since 1937, basically.
So the Australians got a bit of a shock, they were expecting to face a few weaklings, in fact 200 they were told that they were going to go and meet, they met something like five and a half thousand Japanese, and against the five and a half thousand Japanese were pitted 18 hundred Australians.
The lieutenant colonel commanding the 2/29th Battalion, Colonel Robinson, was killed in the first day of fighting, the second in command, Major (Olaf?), was killed also, so the 2/29th were left in the first couple of fighting without their senior officer.
They went, after they suffered 60% casualties, in what I call the worst retreat in Australian military history, the 2nd 29th Battalion along with the 2nd 19th, and other British and Indian elements, retreated towards Singapore, during the course of the retreat, many, many hundreds of Australians were killed.
The remnants were forced into the jungles and swamps, and that’s where the Bob Moore, and the characters in Heroes Denied ended up, Gwlad, they ended up in the swamps, for three or four days.
When they came out there was the composite forces of about 200, approximately 200 and they were Indian, British, and Australian troops, and they were led by seven commissioned Australian officers, who decided that, a little further down the track, that they needed to part company, and the order was issued “Every man for himself, break up into small parties, and find your own lines”.
The officers went their own way and left the men to their own devices, and if it had not been for two people, and I like to think it was for two people, one, Sergeant Mick Gibbons, 20 years of age, and a corporal, Bob Moore, who we’ve got it with us this morning, 15 Australians wouldn’t have got home.
For the next five weeks, they spent the most terrible time imaginable, behind enemy lines, in the jungle, facing starvation, sickness, illness, you name it, they faced it, and on the point of starvation they happened across some Chinese communists, who took them under their wing for a while, and Gibbons and his “band of renowned”,’s worked with the Chinese for a week or so.
The Chinese, unfortunately, could not feed the Australian, so they moved Mick Gibbons and Bob Moore, and the other 13 of their party, on, and they moved them to a British subversive lieutenant, Jock Smiley, who was with a group called the Johor Rifles, volunteer rifles, and they worked with him for a number of weeks, carrying out demolition work, on railways, behind the lines, didn’t achieve too much I don’t think, but it kept them busy.
Smiley could no longer feed them either, I mean food was very tough to obtain, the Japanese were consolidating, they’d had by this time reached Singapore Island, the causeway was blown, in an endeavour, an attempt to stop them getting onto the Singapore Island, but that didn’t last very long, it didn’t achieve much at all, and at that stage Gibbons was moved on again, with Moore and his party, and it was decided that they had to escape, that they had to find their way back to Australia.
Gwlad McLachlan: And I’d be interested to ask you, Bob, about when the Japanese first struck in the Malaysian Peninsula, what were your feelings then, what it…?
Bob Moore: Now, we were going in, to fight little Japanese, who had handfuls of crackers to make a lot of noise, they were going to throw the crackers at us.
So when we did go, head towards (Amua?), to meet these 200 Japanese who were there, and we were going to clean them up, there was Indians, and coming, walking along the road, saying: “Finish, finish”, see?, and we thought: “Well why (laugh), what a nuisance, because they’ve finished the Jap’s, and then we’re not going to have, get a go at ‘em”.
We realised, the next day, that it was the whole Indian Division that was finished, not the War, and so there we were, I think we were in the middle of the Jap’s, at that stage, I think they’d let us come in, and sit in the middle, of them, because all of a sudden there were Jap’s, everywhere, they were all sides of us.
And we’d never fired a shot, in practice, never a live shot until we got into action; when we were training in Malaya we used to train on their footy fields, or and in full view of all the population, Jap spies and everything, they knew we didn’t (laugh) have any live ammunition, then the greatest trauma I think, that I went through, was when the non-commissioned officers, that’s sergeants and corporals, were called up by a lieutenant, and said: “Now, smash your mortars up, and throw ‘em away”.
And we had to smash our mortars up, throw them into swamps, or anything wet, so as the Jap’s couldn’t get them; but then again why, why did we have to do that? And that’s the worst thing ever happened to us though, that’s laying down your arms, I don’t care what anyone says.
So there you are, we had to withdraw, and as I say for me to lay down my arms, I think that was the finish of me, that was the finish of the War, as far as I was concerned (laugh), because I couldn’t see any other point.
Gwlad McLachlan: Well but there’s a very dramatic part in the book, where a decision is made, to go separate ways, every man for himself, could you tell me about that?
Bob Moore: Oh, Gwlad, yes, I won’t, and there were, we went for three days, that body of 200 Colin mentioned, we marched for three days, heading for a place called Yong Peng, which we found out later was in Japanese hands, so the officers, or someone came back and told us: “Look, we’d, better, every, better chance is to split into small parties, head for your own lines, get back to your lines, and we’ll reform there”.
Now, here we are, in the middle of Malaya, no maps, they’d never, we’d never thought of learning languages when we were over there, or anything like, no maps, nothing, in the middle of the – and they say: “Get back down to enemy lines”. Now (laugh), we thought: “Singapore, perhaps?”, but we didn’t know where the Singapore was, we knew in the general direction.
So, there’s 30 of them, of the mortar platoon left, we were all in a group, and I think it was, oh a Mick Gibbons decided, we’d have a better chance with a group of perhaps 15, than twos and threes, so he said: “Who’s coming with me?” and it was that stage, when we were starting to look for the officers, you admit, and you think that your officer’s going to be with you, and guide you, and but there was no officers, we saw them going along the road, in their own direction, on their own, no men with them,
Mick went towards one of them and they asked for a compass and maps, and they said: “No, we want those ourselves”, so it was that stage the officers left us, now that’s the second biggest trauma that could happen to a young soldier, first laying down his arms, and the second his officers leaving you.
So Mick said: “Well come on, now I’ll take you back to Singapore”, and that was the start (laugh) of a long, arduous walk, Glad.
Gwlad McLachlan: Colin, the role of Mick Gibbon in this whole story appears crucial.
Colin Fritch: Yes, it’s unbelievable to think that a man, of 20 years of age, could show the flexibility, the resilience, the fortitude, that his seniors, in particular the officers, did not show. I mean at the most diabolical of stages he stepped into the breach, he took the leadership role, and he brought home 15 men, safe and well, but he was treated disgustingly, for that achievement.
Gwlad McLachlan: We’ll come back to another part of the story, which is quite fascinating, and that’s the stealing of the sampans.
Colin Fritch: When they hit the coast they, and Bob Moore, and Ron Jones, swam out to a sampan that was moored a little way off shore, several Chinese fishermen were aboard, and they decided to make good their escape when Moore and Jones emerged from the murky depths, they jumped overboard and they, in fact Moore and Gibbons grabbed a Chinese and gave him instructions that he was to sail them to Australia.
He laughed, he thought that was most amusing, and so Gibbons instructed Bob to shoot him, and they’d had, obtained a couple of 38 pistols from some dead British officers, and Gibbons said: “Shoot him, Bob?”, and Bob turned to Gibbons and said: “No, I’m not going to shoot him, you’re the senior, you shoot him”.
And Gibbons said: “No, I’m issuing an order, you shoot him”, and this went on for a while and of course the Chinese fisherman just laughed, and ran off into the distance, while the argument was ensuing.
And anyway, they boarded the sampan, and after hours and hours of false starts they eventually got the flour sacking sail up and ready to go, but what they’d realised by that stage was that the tide had gone out and they were on the mud, they weren’t going anyway at all.
When the tide did come in they drifted about aimlessly, they drifted in fact back towards shore, toward the Japanese patrols that were on the beach, and it was a time of sheer terror.
When they did get going, sailing along quite nicely, Japanese planes were circling overhead, so one of the 15 got up the bow, in some of the Chinese peasants’, fishermen’s gear that was there, the you know the broad straw hat and so on, and ultimately they sailed across the Straits of Malacca, quite a hairy piece of water, with Japanese ships going up and down during the night, and the Japanese were well and truly in control of the seas
Next morning they were shipwrecked, on the beach at (Ben Carlos?) Island, and when they got onto the beach they were done-in and they came across a plantation of pineapples, which were all green, but they nonetheless gorged themselves on those and had a real picnic, there, before they made their way cross country to Padang, and they found their way back to Australia, they got back on a Dutch freighter, to Fremantle.
And there you would think: “Well that’s a quite a magnificent story in its own right, but it’s there, Gwlad, that the story of Heroes Denied really starts, in my opinion.
Bob Moore: When that boat was pulling into Fremantle, I did expect that, not a fleet of ambulances, but a few down there, to take us to either a convalescent camp, a hospital, for a good scrub up, a feed, and general, but instead of that we were shoved into a truck and taken 60 miles, to Northam, which was a training camp in Western Australia.
Now, there we were (sigh) oh, taken to have an issue of clothes.
Now, an issue of clothes was that if one had a pair of pants on they’d give him a shirt, to complete the uniform, if you had one left boot they’d give you a right one, it was a shocking thing, we’re, not heroes, I didn’t want to be a hero, but I did like well, we’d thought someone would call us up and say: “Well look, what are the Jap’s like, how are they fighting, what are, (what are?), and how do we beat them?”, instead of that, no.
We go into Northam, where you go into the city of Northam, we have, we have walked into a, I’ve got to say this, you (laugh) walked into a pub with no money, instead of someone come up and shaking hands, saying: “Oh, good on you, Dig, you know, you’re one of those fellas back”, you could see an edging-away, of people, so you’re getting, being ostracised, then and there, right and before, and we’d only been home 10 minutes.
Colin Fritch: That was after of course, Gwlad, they spent six weeks at Northam, being forgotten about, but initially, of course they were threatened with the charge, or court marshalled for desertion. The Army tried it’s very, very best, to make that stick, it interrogated them individually, and as a group, who could believe that they came home and pointed their finger, in a time of war, at their officers?
And that’s in fact what they did, and the High Command’d have none of that, they found that laughable, in fact they said: “No, you’re at fault, we’re going to court marshal, and try you for desertion”,
but the beauty of the story, Heroes Denied, is the fact that the truth will always shine through, Glad, and the 15 of them told the truth to a tee, they told identical stories, individually, under interrogation, it couldn’t make any charge stick, they were honest, they were telling the truth, so they split them up, sent them to B class activities.
Gwlad McLachlan: Bob, when you were coming home on that train, from Melbourne, you hadn’t seen your families and you pulled into the Geelong station and there were. apparently there’s nobody at the station, when you pulled in?
Bob Moore: No, there was no one, no one there at all, but and but my dear sister had watched too, I got in touch with her to tell her that, you know, we would be coming home, she knew and she hung over the back fence of her place, because the train used to pass there, and saw me coming, but no, there was no one there, but when I did get to (Packo?) Extension the neighbours were there, out in force, to greet the hero, coming home, so that was something.
(soft mouth organ music starts playing)
But the general thing, of other people, Glad, in Geelong, was pretty oh, nasty, I can understand it now, but I couldn’t understand it then:
“What are you doing home, when my husband’s still over there”,
“And did you see me brother?”, or: “Where was he?”, No?”,
“Why didn’t you see him, were you running too fast?”: little things like that that were said, time and time again:
“Could ya, how long can you take that sort of thing, you know, did you want to stay home?”
One of the fellows who, and Billy (Westhead?) in Melbourne, took his colour patch off, so no one would know that he was a, the 2/29th, I wouldn’t, think I wish I’d done that meself, but never mind, that was the general attitude of the public.
Gwlad McLachlan: On Thursday, I saw you, and Colin, on the Ray Martin Show, and Alf Garden, Garland, of, the National President of the R.S.L., (cough, pardon me), he said a few things and I thought I might just repeat them, if that’s all right, I’ve made a little note of them?
Bob Moore: Certainly, Gwlad.
Glad McLachlan: He said you were treated very badly, he said: “I don’t believe that the system treated them very nicely, at all”, he said: “We believe they were given a very bad deal”, and also, he said: “It should have been looked at, in a much better light”, so, does that make you feel a little bit better?
Bob Moore: No, oh but Glad, that doesn’t, that didn’t impress me at all, I don’t think…
Glad McLachlan: Is it the start?
Bob Moore: It’s a start, but to, I want a citation, in the War History, to say, “Mick Gibbons led 15 men back, and in the Army’s, oh blah, blah, they did the right thing, and God bless ‘em”, that’s all, Gwlad, not much to ask for, is it?
Glad McLachlan: No, not much, not much at all.
Copyright Gwlad McLachlan. Available for download for personal use.