It was a moment that changed Eric Geldard’s life forever. At 4 o’clock on 26 July 1945, he was accidently shot through both legs in New Guinea and almost bled to death as he was carried to safety on a makeshift stretcher for seven hours through enemy territory by “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”.
“I was running out of blood, and that was what was going to kill me,” he said simply. “I don’t think I was really scared. I just took it as, well, that’s what happens if you go to war, I suppose. No, the worst part was after.”
Geldard, now 93, shared his story while visiting the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to remember his mates and pay his respects. He was just a teenager when the war broke out, but his uncles had served during the First World War and he was determined to do his bit.
“My parents were graziers with a sheep and cattle property, and I was exempt from military training, but things got desperate and they called for members to the Volunteer Defence Corps,” Geldard said. “The remarkable thing about it was that the day I turned 18, I was sworn into the army – part-time VDC – and [was] issued with a rifle and live ammunition the very first day.”
When the RAAF called for volunteers from “any walk of life”, he signed up and began training as a wireless air gunner. “They’d take you from the railway, from off the land, from anywhere at all,” he said. “And I answered that call. When the invasion of Europe took place, they didn’t have the losses they expected, so we became redundant.”
It was then that he and a few mates saw some “army blokes” parachuting into the airfield, and decided to ask them a few questions. They turned out to be commandos, and Geldard decided to become one of them. He and his mates transferred from the air force to the army, and volunteered for the commandos at Maryborough.
“My dad was battling away at home in his 60s trying to run four properties without any permanent help and I felt, ‘I better do the best I can while I’m here,’” he said. “I looked on it very personally. To me, I liked where I was, I liked the people, and I felt they needed protecting … [so] we just went out to fight to protect our home.”
After completing jungle warfare school at Canungra, Geldard was sent to Wewak in New Guinea with the 6th Division Cavalry Commando Regiment and joined the 2/9th Commando Squadron. It was while serving as a commando during the Aitape-Wewak campaign that he was accidently shot by a mate just weeks before the war ended. He was just 20 years old at the time.
“In that area there was a coastal plain about a kilometre wide and then from there it just went up. It was so steep that there were just native foot tracks … and in places there were steps cut in everywhere,” Geldard said.
“My unit was manning an outpost there and the Japanese had all that country and everything. There was a whole army of them – 24,400 came in when they surrendered – and there was a whole 30 of us.
“The day that I came to grief there were 14 of us who had been out patrolling in that area. We had tried to see where the enemy were because we had no helicopters in those days and fixed-wing aircraft couldn’t see through the canopy [of trees].
“Where we had to walk was along the crest of the razor back ridges. [They were] about the width of a tennis court, and then it just went down … on either side. [It was] a bit hazardous walking along there because we couldn’t see more than perhaps a metre either side of us for all the big leaves on the plants. And we also couldn’t see much in front of us either, perhaps about 20 metres.
“We did that all day, and then got back to the outpost. When we were cleaning our weapons, we had a little makeshift two-man shelter. It was only made up with a couple of groundsheets stuck together and my mate had an Owen gun – the Mark 1 – before they put the safety catch on …
“He was cleaning his Owen gun, as you had to do when you finish a patrol, [and was] making sure it was full of ammo.
“He had it … and he moved it across [his body] and the cocking lever caught in his shirt … It fired and the bullet went through both my legs.
“I had a sort of a bunk I was sitting on in a two-man shelter and it was very painful. It felt as if somebody had hit the funny bone with a sledge hammer, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s no signs of any broken bones, I’ve got out of this pretty well,’ and then I started to see blood going everywhere, and I knew I was in trouble then.”