George Francis WWII Veteran - "No Atheists In A Slit Trench" - Hope 103.2

George Francis WWII Veteran – “No Atheists In A Slit Trench”

George Francis enlisted for WWII at the age of nineteen and spent his twenty first birthday in New Guinea on the Owen Stanley Ranges. He talked on Open House about faith under fire and the importance of a positive approach to life.

By Anne RinaudoFriday 23 Nov 2018Open House InterviewsNewsReading Time: 13 minutes

Listen: George Francis in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.

George Francis will soon turn 96 years old. At the age of nineteen he was thrust onto the front lines of the Second World War. George talked on ‘Open House’ about faith under fire and the importance of a positive approach to life. 

“Just a few months National Service”

He says he wasn’t really expecting to be in the army at all, let alone on the front line of the vicious Battle of Milne Bay in what was, at the time, know as New Guinea.

“I did my National Service training in October 1941 which was going to be two or three months or whatever it was. But then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and I was in for 5 ½ years.” he explained to Stephen O’Doherty.

The angel became a drinking, smoking, devil

A sheltered life

The army was a huge change of pace for George who had lived a somewhat sheltered existence before his army days.

“I was brought up by a family of very strict disciplinarians. I didn’t drink,  didn’t smoke, went to Sunday school, sung in the church choir. I was a bit of a wimp” admitted George.

“When I went in and did my service training it was a bit of a culture change for me.  Because I’d never mixed with any one in that way before, I wasn’t used to having a shower with the other men. I used to wait till the others were done, but then I got sick of cold water and joined in with all of them.” he said.

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Bad habits

He is the first to admit he developed some bad habits “I got used to smoking, I got my first drink at Bonegilla, near Albury. The older chaps said “Go on, be a man have a pot.” so I did. I went to the pictures after that but everything was spinning so I had to go again the next night to see what the movie was.”

Mrs Francis was none too pleased when she saw what National Service had done to her sweet young son.

“My mother said I went into the army an angel and came out the devil incarnate. I drank, I smoked and I gambled and did all those things I shouldn’t have done.” he chuckles.

Australians serving at Milne Bay. Photo credit: Australian War Memorial

“Some of the greatest men I ever met”

But he is very clear that it was the men not the Army that made him into the man he is today.

According to George “I was with some of the greatest men I ever met.” during his army service.

I want me mother … and me father too!

Under attack

At nineteen he was deployed to New Guinea to join the fight to stop the Japanese advance toward Australia. He was one of the youngest men at Milne Bay and his alert mind has no trouble recalling the first experience of coming under fire.

“When we had our first air attack, I didn’t know what was happening as the siren went off.” Says George.

“I was digging a trench around the tents because the rain fall was severe there and we needed it deep and wide” [to drain water away from the camp]

Australian War Memorial Photographs showing clockwise from top left: Australian troops at Milne Bay in 1942, shortly after the battle. A Kittyhawk comes in to land at No. 1 Airstrip, guarded by a Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun of the 2/9th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. The recreation hut at the Reception and General Details Depot, Milne Bay Sub Area, in 1944. Freighter Anshun lying on her side in Milne Bay, New Guinea, 1942. A Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go tank near Rabi, bogged in the mud and abandoned. Squadron Leader Keith “Bluey” Truscott, Commanding Officer of No. 76 Squadron RAAF, taxiing along Marston Matting at Milne Bay in September 1942. One of the Japanese barges after the battle. The fluted bottom allows the barge to retract from the beach easily.

The earth stopped shaking, I was shaking too

Swarm of Japanese bombers

What had looked like a swarm of mosquitoes in the distance got real very quickly for the Australians at Milne Bay.

“They were Mitsubishi 108 Japanese bombers.  When they started bombing and the guns went off I went to ground; trying to fit myself inside this little trench I was digging.” says George Francis.

“When I got up – and the earth stopped shaking, and I was shaking myself- they said ‘How do you feel George?’ he remembers.

“I involuntarily said ‘I want me mother’ and it caused a bit of laughter. Rather funny in subsequent attacks they would say ‘Do you still want your mother George?’ and  I would say “Yes and I want me father too. So we sort of made a joke of it – typically Australian.” says George.

A wireless operator

“Somehow I adapted to it, became a top wireless operator. We had a 40 strong sig section and there are only two left they are all gone and you wonder why you are left.”

“I was sent to fighter sector, which was the operational area of the Air Force. I was the liaison from the controller fighter sector.” George explains.

“I had to have the phone. When the controller said to stop firing the guns, I had to give the order to them to stop firing. Then when he said you can fire again, I had to tell them they could fire again.”

Invasion was so close

Wireless operators at Milne May. Photo credit: Australian War Memorial

Climbing 8,000 coconut trees

“I was with the signals section, wireless operators and linesmen. It was our duty to lay the cable. There were 8,000 coconut trees in Milne Bay, and those trees we used as a post from which to attach our cable. The cable would have rotted on the ground so we used spurs to climb up the trees.”

If frightened, you lose equilibrium

A pathway to invade Australia

The Battle of Milne Bay between 25 August and 5 September 1942 was very fierce and significant.  Milne Bay is remembered as the first defeat of the Japanese on land during the Pacific War and significantly boosted Allied spirits.

Japanese intelligence had vastly underestimated the Allied garrison and believed there no more than a few hundred troops defended the airstrip, but there were actually almost 9,000 Allied troops including two Australian infantry brigades – the 7th and the 18th. The Allies had the additional advantage of having air support close at hand because the 75 and 76 Squadrons from the RAAF were also based at Milne Bay.

Elite Japanese naval troops, known as Kaigun Tokubetsu Rikusentai (Special Naval Landing Forces), with two small tanks attacked the Allied airfields at Milne Bay late on the night of 25 August 1942. Of the 2,800 Japanese landed, only 1,318 re-embarked. It was estimated that up to 750 lay dead around Milne Bay and the majority of the remainder were killed trying to escape overland to the Japanese base at Buna. Allied deaths included 167 Australians and 14 Americans.

Most Australians at the time, and even now, don’t fully appreciate the significance of the Battle of Milne Bay says George Francis.

“Had the Japanese taken Milne Bay it would have been the pathway to invade Australia” he says.

“No one in Australia knew how close they were, because they were kept oblivious of what was happening. They didn’t even know. Not to this day do some of the public even know how close it was . Milne Bay is what, only 400 miles from the coast of Australia. We were told it was the last line of defence.” he explains.

The jungle at night is very eerie

Australian War Memorial Photographs . Left to right one of the locals who used lakatois (traditional outrigger canoes) to rescue airmen forced to ditch their plane in Milne Bay. John French, posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Milne Bay. French who was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross and A local nurse called Maiogara who rescued and hid a severely injured Australian from the Japanese, saving his life.

Young and with a sense of adventure

George says that he doesn’t remember having a sense of the danger he faced.

“It was a sense of adventure, we were young. [After leaving school] I got an apprenticeship with the Land Newspaper. At 18 I was called to do National Service.  When I got sent up there [New Guinea] there were chaps ten years older along with me.

Of the experience of being in the war he thinks he didn’t feel afraid but just concentrated on his responsibilities as a wireless operation in the signals section. Also as one of the youngest he probably didn’t fully understand the real dangers he faced, treating it as an adventure of sorts.

“You have to do something. It is an adventure, you don’t get frightened. If you get frightened, you lose your equilibrium. I was dealing in  Morse code, communication – important jobs.” George says.

God was always there

Holding tight to faith

While his mother may have deplored the bad habits he picked up in the army, George did hold tight to his faith.

“There is a saying “there is no such person as an atheist in a slit trench” They’re all praying. When they get out of the slit trench they forget.’

“That’s the strange thing. When you’re In the jungle of a night time it’s a very eerie feeling. You don’t know if the enemy is behind a tree or what’s happening at all. If you haven’t  got any faith to hang onto you’ve got nothing. I just don’t know what these people think about these non-believers and so forth. Have a look around you – how did this come about?”

God always with him

Asked if he had a sense that God was with you in those moments George was adamant.

Always, always. You have gotta look upwards not downward and when you look upward you find faith and when your find faith you find peace and when you find peace you’re calm. And when you are doing a chore and you do it with measured feelings and know what you’re doing.” he says.

A hairy plane ride

He had some hair raising incidents such as a particular plane flight that is indelibly etched in his amazing memory.

“I was given the task of being on one of the inaugural flights from one of the first flights from Milne Bay to Moresby. We had to take the DC-3, flown by an American Pilot, through a gap on the Owen Stanley Ranges. “14,000 feet between the peaks. The gap, which we flew through, we lost traction and dropped about 500 feet. It was a bit frightening and we eventually gained power again.” George Francis explained.

Without faith, you’ve got nothing.

An unusual 21st birthday key

George reached the milestone of his twenty first birthday while deployed and his ‘coming of age experience’ was a bit different to his contemporaries back in Australia.

“I spent about I spent about three  months up in the Owen Stanley Ranges. About 2,000 feet up doing a sig [signals] school. It was very interesting because I spent my 21st birthday there.” he says

“Usually at home you get the key to the door.  So this particular lunch time I had an individual serving of bully beef. A little tin can which has a key to unlock. So when I had a look at this key I thought ‘Hello this is the key to the door!’ So I polished it up and put it in my personal belongings.” George recounts, laughing at the memory.

I will return

After New Guinea George and his comrades were sent to Borneo. He is somewhat dismissive of the reason for that deployment.

“We were only there to hold up the advance so [General] MacArthur could return. Which he did . Of course Harry Truman did the right thing he sacked him. He [MacArthur] was just a big blowhard. What annoyed me was the fact that General George Bennett did the same thing from Singapore and he was regarded as – nobody. He was one of the  most magnificent man, a pity to God he didn’t take over.” George muses on glory hounds and what might have been.

Crying at the endurance of men

Then the war was over

Asked about how it felt when he heard the war was over, George had perfect recall.

“I happened to be standing near the Salvation Army tent on the 7th of August when they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, then two days later on Nagasaki. They said ‘The war’s over’, which we couldn’t believe because we’d been going since 1942 continuously from Milne Bay.”

The Salvation Army Officer

“I remember distinctly, standing with the Salvation Army officer. Most magnificent man, he used to go down with his urn of coffee to the Australian troops and he used to come back crying at the endurance. He looked at me and said. ‘You know George, I think a little bit of a prayer would be in order.’ and he just grabbed my hand and we thanked God the whole thing was over.

George witnessed first hand one of the most terrible acts of the war perpetrated by the Japanese against Prisoners of War.

Rescued Sandakan survivors

“It was officially over on the 15th of August and about two weeks later our troop rescued the six survivors from the Sandakan Death March.”

“The authorities went around to the units to see if they could find somebody suitable to help rehabilitate these chaps and a friend of mine and I were chosen. We were promptly taken there and these chaps came in and stood in front of us. I said to my mate ‘What do you say to these chaps?’ it was a very harrowing sort of time.” George reflects.

Compassion and maturity

For some one so young, George certainly had a good measure of compassion and maturity as revealed in the advice he gave to the survivors.

“I said to them, ‘You’ve got to realise now that if you want to get back to your loved ones you’ve got to cleanse your mind of all thoughts of hatred and retribution. That’s only going to hold you back. When you get yourself fit and able and ready that’s the time to start worrying about hatred and retribution. Get yourself well’ I said “When you wake up in the morning, realise the fact that you’re among friends, friends that are going to help you.’ We talked, and I’m sure that we done some good.”

No anger or regret

George Francis says he didn’t come back from the war angry or regretful about what he missed due to his army service – which was extended beyond the war years because George was a handy guy.

“I put in to get back to Australia and they  said I was too valuable and they needed us in Sig [signal] Office. They kept us in Borneo another seven months. Then I came back and went to Liverpool transit camp and applied to get out of the army. They refused again, because I had experience in the printing trade.  They sent me to the army printing presses in Surrey Hills.

“By the time I got out of the army, it was 14 months after the war had finished. By the time I went back to the Land Newspaper I still had three years [of his apprenticeship]  to finish.”

George says there was no point in lamenting missed opportunity and that his approach to people and circumstances in life is to take them as he finds them and make the best of things.

“What might seem major to other people I dismissed as minor incidents in life. I had to go back, I was 24 and a half, and I had to go back and finish three years. Apprentices that were under me when I went into the army were now tradesmen and teaching me laughing about the fact that the roles had been reversed. I think that cost me a lot in time and patience.” He says.

The Don Bradman bat

He does admit there is one thing he wished he could have done, that was to play cricket for Australia. He was a top player and captained a very good team during his army service.

“My childhood dream was to play cricket.  When I was 10 years of age my father took me to J B Palmers in the city where Don Bradman, 22 year old Don Bradman, was there in attendance and he shook my hand – which I didn’t wash for two weeks.” George recalls and you can sense the magic he felt as a 10 year old meeting his sporting hero.

“He said “What can I do for the young fella?” He picked a bat out which I used and I still have that bat, my Don Bradman bat.  I was very very keen that I would play competitive cricket.”

“I’m 67 years married, great years, wonderful years” he says, smiling as he thinks of Barbara, the only girl he ever took on a date. Then he continues. “I’ve got two daughters and six granddaughters and not a boy among them, so I’ve still got my Don Bradman bat.” says George.

I still remember every teacher I ever had

An unbelievable memory

George has the most incredible memory for detail from all parts of his life, including that his first date with wife Barbra coincided with the first edition of the Sunday Telegraph.

“I was mad you know, I was too cocky with myself. I did well in printing, I advanced myself. I also after that I became president of Probus, was editor of a journal there. I conducted outings, I did speeches, I wrote articles.” George remembers.

“I was so conscious of myself, I thought the greatest computer was the one on my shoulders. I never worried about computers. If I had of got a lap top I could have written a book . I started off you know, on handwritten A4 sheets and I got a hundred pages down. I started off [the story] when I was five and got to fifteen. I can still remember my school days and every teacher I ever had. ‘

They are wonderful here

Reflecting on his long life in the comfortable surrounds of a Sydney aged care facility run by Anglicare, George is effusive about the high standard of care he and his beloved wife of six decades, Barbara, receive. “I don’t know where they get them but they are wonderful here. They have a daily program and everything you ever need is here, I can’t say enough good about how well the staff and the nurses treat us.”

To listen to the podcast of this conversation click the red play button at the top of the page, or you can subscribe to Open House podcasts in iTunes and they will appear in your feed.