Education Activity: Milne Bay

Story: Fighter Squadron Doctor – Dr William Deane-Butcher

Dr William "Bill" Deane-Butcher was the medical officer for 75 Squadron, the defenders of the critical Milne Bay airstrip. He was also responsible for the campsite, which proved to be a mammoth task.

Dr Dean-Butcher
Dr Deane-Butcher

There had been very little preparation for the arrival of the squadron – just a pile of tents dumped in a clearing in the coconut plantation. There were no shovels, picks or tools with which to dig pit latrines or build makeshift facilities. The constant rain soon turned the site into a quagmire, the toilets overflowed, and the kitchen waste fouled the area:

"But you don't have strikes or complain in the services, you just do the best with what you have."

In these conditions Deane-Butcher attended to the men's physical and mental health. Malaria was rife, but there was no issue of long-sleeved shirts, trousers or repellant. Mosquito nets lay useless in a muddy bog. Medical facilities were very primitive, certainly not adequate to deal with the severe burns and injuries resulting from plane crashes. These cases had to be evacuated to the Casualty Clearing Station, often inaccessible along a muddy road.

Food was inadequate and of poor quality. The usual baked bean diet was not suitable for pilots, as at altitude there is a build up of gas in the stomach, which can cause severe pain. Cooking was difficult due to the dampness and a shortage of firewood. Tents were overcrowded and lacked privacy. There was no running water, clothes were filthy, personal cleanliness was impossible. Skin rashes and body lice were prevalent.

With the unsanitary conditions, gastro-enteritis was rife - pilots who were sick continued to fly, fouling their cockpits. It was the doctor's task to determine who was fit to fly, but men played down their symptoms, not wanting to be accused of shirking their responsibilities.

The pilots and their ground crews were facing the possibility of death day and night. Inevitably, some men expressed their fears to their squadron doctor – confiding in them, looking for reassurance, or just asking for messages and personal things to be passed onto loved ones in case of their death.

For Bill, Milne Bay exposed him to primitive conditions and drew upon his most basic health skills. But in his own words

"I learned a lot and grew in stature from this unique and humbling experience."