'It changed our lives, it really did'

23 April 2019 by Claire Hunter

Gordon Richardson

For 96-year-old Gordon Richardson, Anzac Day means everything. His father served in both world wars and he and his wife met while serving in New Guinea during the Second World War.

Each year, he travels from his home in Sydney to spend Anzac Day at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and remember those who served.

He writes a letter to the Memorial to book tickets for the National Ceremony and lays a wreath at the Last Post Ceremony the night before to pay his respects.

“It means a lot to me,” he said, quietly.

“My father was in an Essex regiment during the First World War, and he was taken prisoner in Turkey.

“The Poms and the French were down on the bottom part of Gallipoli, at Cape Helles, and they lost a lot of soldiers there too.

“He made it back to England after the war … but he never, ever spoke about it.”

Gordon and Frances on their wedding day

Gordon Richardson and his wife Frances on their wedding day in March 1947. Photo: Courtesy Gordon Richardson

Gordon’s parents moved to Australia in December 1922 and took up a soldier settlement block at Milawa in north-east Victoria, but life on the land was hard during the Depression years.

“We had to walk about two and a half miles to school; no shoes, no nothing,” Gordon said.

“I loved it on the farm; I was out there trapping rabbits as a young kid, and helping dad to tend to the horses … but it wasn’t to be …

“Dad only had one crop in seven years, so they just walked off the station, and left the farm, and went to Mildura …

“If it hadn’t been for the very good people in Mildura, we wouldn’t have had any Christmas presents, or Christmas clothes, or anything.”

When the Second World War broke out, Gordon’s father was among the first to enlist.

“My father joined up about six weeks after war was declared,” he said.  “He went with the 6th Division to Greece and Crete and the Middle East.”

He was one of five members of Gordon’s family to enlist during the Second World War. Gordon joined the Royal Australian Air Force, two of his younger brothers joined the second AIF, and one of his sisters served in the Royal Australian Navy.

“I was the eldest boy … but my younger brother Ivor took my name and joined the army,” he said.

“He was only 16, so he couldn’t get in any other way, could he?  But he and my younger brother Herbert went to Korea as well.

“Herbert had joined the navy, but there was an accident on the ship, and he was discharged, and then he joined the army and went up into New Guinea.”

Frances Shaw and Gordon Richardson

Frances Shaw and Gordon Richardson at Acton Street, Croydon, in 1945. Photo: Courtesy Gordon Richardson

Gordon had been working as an 18-year-old apprentice motor mechanic when the war broke out.

“I just felt that I wanted to go and do my bit,” he said.

“I tried to enlist in Mildura, but they wouldn’t take my enlistment; they reckoned enough of my family had gone already, so I said, no, and I took off for Melbourne.

“I jumped on a train that night in Mildura and … filled in all the paperwork down in Russell Street and they sent me home with it to be signed by my mother.

“I was nearly 19 years of age for God’s sake, but … I took it home and she signed it, and I was eventually sworn in as an air force man.”

After training at Ararat, he was posted to 36 Squadron at Laverton and sent to Bairnsdale.

“I was ground staff, and they were training the pilots in Beaufort bombers,” he said. “I got sick of seeing them off and not coming home – not many of them were coming back from their training runs – so I applied to get a transfer to a driver training course in Sydney, and I eventually left Australia on my 22nd birthday, the 12th of February 1944.”

He went on to serve in Milne Bay, Finschhafen, and the Admiralty Islands before being sent to Morotai.

“I was only there a few weeks, [but] Milne Bay was an awful place,” he said.  “We were mosquito bitten, and wet, and everything was just dreadful.

“We went up to … Los Negros … and we were the only Australians in this little air force unit.

“It was a beautiful coral island, but it left me with a legacy; something got into my ear and ate that out so I’m deaf in that ear now.

“They were still killing Japs when we got there, but luckily I didn’t have to do that. I’d had to learn how to shoot and everything, but … I don’t think I could have done it actually.

“That was very frightening because the Japs were there and they came into the camp the first night we were there and they got somebody. We were told not to sleep in hammocks, but one of our guys did. I’m not sure if they got him, or somebody else, but one of our guys went missing, and we never did find out … what happened to him; they never did tell us.”

Gordon Richardson with Second World War veteran Bob Semple at a Last Post Ceremony at the Memorial.

Gordon Richardson, right, with Rat of Tobruk Bob Semple at a Last Post Ceremony at the Memorial ahead of Anzac Day 2018.

He remembers the conditions at Noemfoor as if it was yesterday.

“It was a dreadful island, full of mud,” he said. “We were just paddling in mud all the time going from one little place to another... We didn’t have anything to transport and we didn’t even have our trucks there.”

It was a relief when he was sent to Morotai just before Christmas 1944.

“This is where my life changed completely,” he said, smiling.

“We were an advance party for what was to happen – unbeknownst to us – in Borneo. 

"When we got there, we just thought, ‘What the hell are we doing here too,’ and gradually there was a very big build-up of our forces … getting ready for things to happen in Borneo.

Gordon Richardson and Frances Shaw

Gordon Richardson and Frances Shaw in Martin Place in Sydney after Frances returned home from Morotai. Photo: Courtesy Gordon Richardson

“It wasn’t long after we arrived that we found out that our army hospitals were there and the Americans were enjoying all the fun with our ladies.

“I went to our commanding officer and said, ‘Sir, there’s Australian nurses on this island, and there’s two hospital ships looking after the men, and they’re being entertained by the Americans. Is there any chance of us?’ He said, ‘No, we can’t do that, we haven’t got a hut, Richardson,’ and I said, ‘Is that so?’ So we built a hut, and about six or seven weeks later, we had the ladies at our place...

“The first evening, we only had them for a couple of hours. They had to be home at about half past nine, quarter to 10, and these ladies walked in, and the first one who walked in, I thought, ‘My God,’ because I hadn’t seen a lady for a long, long time … so I grabbed her and danced with her all night.

“When she had to go home, she asked if I would like to visit her at the hospital, and I said, ‘Yes, but who do I ask for?’ She said, ‘Private Shaw’, and … there ends the tale [of how we met]. 

“We started to correspond between the hospital, which was way down the other end of the island, and where I was… We had a little postman – this air force bloke – and he was running messages for us. 

“She had a birthday there – her 24th birthday – and I had a pair of tortoises that I’d had made for me on the Admiralty Islands, so I thought I’ll send her one of them for her birthday.”

The dance hall

The dance hall they built at Morotai. Photo: Courtesy Gordon Richardson

They were together when they found out the war was finally over. 

“I was with Frances when we got the message,” he said.  “We had little parachutes coming down towards us, and we grabbed one, and we danced around at the hospital.

“That was the 15th of August, and they sent me home on the 21st of September, so I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again.”

Just before he flew home, a plane carrying nurses and soldiers crashed in New Guinea, killing all those on board.

“I didn’t think we’d ever meet again,” Gordon said.

“But then she sent me a telegram saying she’d be home in November and I knew from the very first letter that she wanted to see me again. I’ve still got it to this day; the kids will probably find it eventually when I’m not around, but I’m not going to tell them what was in it...

Gordon and Frances on the beach at Morotai

Gordon and Frances on the beach at Morotai. Photo: Courtesy Gordon Richardson

“I went up to Sydney and I met her on Central Station, and she took me home to meet her parents. Even when I was up there, I couldn’t ask her to be my girlfriend. I didn’t know how to put it – I was very young, and I’d never had a girlfriend in my life – but she knew what I wanted to say.

“And then I couldn’t get it out to ask her whether she would marry me … She said it on the phone to me on my birthday in 1946.”

They wed in March 1947 and had been married for 65 years when Frances passed away in 2012.   

“I was lucky,” Gordon said. “I was in a few not very good places to be, but that’s what life makes for you … It changed our lives, it really did.”

Today, their five children remain extremely proud of their service.  

“Our mum and dad … were just ordinary folk with a deep sense of community, obligation and the need to defend their way of life,” his daughter Lyn Whitlam said.

“Neither mum or dad rose to high ranks or became heroes within the Australian forces but did the jobs that were allotted to them, along with their mates. However, to my brothers, and sister, and myself, they were heroes.”