Bill Newton VC: In honour of the Firebug
Flight Lieutenant Bill Newton VC may have been just 23 years old, but he was acutely aware of the dangers he faced during the Second World War.
When he said goodbye to his mother in Melbourne for the final time, he told her not to worry, that if something happened to him, she was not to make a fuss.
She never saw her son again.
Newton was captured and executed by the Japanese in March 1943.
He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his “great valour and devotion to duty”, the only Victoria Cross awarded to a member of the Royal Australian Air Force in the Pacific war.
His nephew, Nick Newton, grew up hearing stories about him from his father, Bill’s brother Lindsay.
“I think it had a devastating impact on my father,” Nick said.
"He said, ‘Oh, Bill was a marvellous fellow ... good at everything ... very much a ladies’ man ... just a really gregarious big, big man [with a] big personality.’
“He was just devastated, so it was really, really difficult, but they were one of many, many thousands of families who no doubt experienced the same thing.”
Born in St Kilda, Melbourne, on 8 June 1919, Newton had first attempted to enlist when he turned 18 in 1937, but his mother refused to give her permission. However, with Australia now at war, she relented.
Newton served as a flying instructor before being posted to No. 22 Squadron, based in Port Moresby, in May 1942. He quickly gained a reputation for fearless manoeuvres while making straight runs at Japanese targets.
A skilled and daring pilot, he flew Boston bombers in 52 operational sorties, most of which were “against difficult targets under intense tropical weather conditions and under enemy fire”.
He became known as ‘The Firebug’ because “wherever he flew he left a fire burning behind him”. The Japanese also knew his aircraft, calling him ‘Blue Cap’ because of the distinctive blue cricket cap he liked to wear on operations.
On 16 March 1943, Newton was leading an attack against Japanese positions at Salamaua, diving through heavy anti-aircraft fire, when his Boston bomber was hit repeatedly, severely damaging the aircraft.
Nevertheless, Newton held his course and continued the attack, successfully bombing his target, before pulling away and nursing his crippled aircraft and its crew back to Port Moresby.
Two days later, Newton returned for a further strike. As he bombed his designated target, Newton’s aircraft was hit by flak and burst into flames.
Attempting to save his crew, Newton flew along the shore, as far from Japanese positions as possible, and ditched the burning aircraft into the sea.
As the aircraft sank, two men were spotted swimming for the shore, about 900 metres away.
The two men in the water were in fact Newton and Sergeant John Lyon. The following day, they were captured by the Japanese and taken to Lae, where Lyon was executed by bayonet. Newton was taken back to Salamaua and beheaded on 29 March 1943. The third crew member, Sergeant Basil Eastwood, had been killed in the crash.
News of Newton’s brutal execution shocked Australia. It was published in newspapers around the country after it had been translated from the captured diary of a Japanese soldier who had witnessed Newton’s death.
The graphic account of his death tormented Newton’s mother, who believed the extensive coverage of her son’s exploits against the Japanese lay behind their decision to execute him.
She was presented with his Victoria Cross by the Governor-General, but nothing could ever make up for the loss of her son. A part of her, she said, had died with him.
“Obviously there was enormous pride,” Nick said.
“But I know [his mother and] both of his brothers were overcome with his death.
“Dad performed all the official tasks until it just became emotionally too hard for him in his late 70s. He just said, ‘No, I can't do this anymore,’ and so I've been doing it ever since.”
Before Nick’s father died at the age of 93, Nick visited Papua New Guinea and flew over the Owen Stanley Ranges to Lae where Newton is interned at the Commonwealth War Cemetery.
“It was like walking into almost paradise,” he said. “It was the most magnificently set out, cared for, manicured area, where all the service people who died are interned…
“And then they took me to where Bill's was… [My father] Lindsay never got the opportunity to visit Lae, and couldn't bring himself to do it in his later years, so I got him on the phone, and I said, ‘Well, I'm here,’ and he burst into tears.
“He said, ‘Oh well, say g'day to him for me, will you?’ And it was just a wonderful moment.”
In honour of his memory, Newton’s family commissioned a painting by Dhungutti artist and Archibald Prize Winner, Blak Douglas, and donated it to the Memorial.
“I couldn't think of a better place for the portrait to be housed than at the Memorial,” he said.
“From my perspective, it's beyond words... It's fantastic. I remember from the time that I was just a little boy, my father talked about Bill ...
“He used to spend hours and hours telling me about his childhood with his brothers, who he ... loved deeply, and so we became very familiar with Bill's story over the years.
“I have no doubt my father grieved for his brother every day of his life.
“It was terribly hard for him because of the nature of what happened and the way in which Bill ultimately lost his life.”
Nick’s eldest son, William Ellis Newton, is named in his honour.
“Bill was only 23 years old [when he was killed],” Nick said.
“I’ve been trying to imagine what makes somebody like Bill, at 23 years old, to be able to do what he did ...
“And I just I marvel at it.
“It’s just astounding.
“I just wish he'd survived, and that I'd got to meet him.”