The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (NX28880) Private William Marshall Aitken, 2/1st Pioneer Battalion, First World War.

Accession Number AWM2017.1.361
Collection type Film
Object type Last Post film
Physical description 16:9
Maker Australian War Memorial
Place made Australia: Australian Capital Territory, Canberra, Campbell
Date made 28 December 2017
Access Open
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945
Copyright Item copyright: © Australian War Memorial
Creative Commons License This item is licensed under CC BY-NC
Copying Provisions Copyright restrictions apply. Only personal, non-commercial, research and study use permitted. Permission of copyright holder required for any commercial use and/or reproduction.

The Last Post Ceremony is presented in the Commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial each day. The ceremony commemorates more than 102,000 Australians who have given their lives in war and other operations and whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour. At each ceremony the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour is told. Hosted by Charis May, the story for this day was on (NX28880) Private William Marshall Aitken, 2/1st Pioneer Battalion, First World War.

Film order form
Speech transcript

NX28880 Private William Marshall Aitken, 2/1st Pioneer Battalion
DOW 3 July 1945

Story delivered 28 December 2017

Today we remember and pay tribute to Private William Marshall Aitken.

William Aitken was born on 2 April 1919 in Murwillumbah, New South Wales, to William and Margaret Aitken.

The Aitken family moved to Kyogle when William was young and he attended school here, as well as serving in the militia with the “Kyogle Troop” of the 15th Light Horse Regiment. The Kyogle troop finished runners up in the Lord Forster Cup for their drill as a Vickers gun section in 1935 and 1936, before winning the competition in 1938 and only just missing out on winning the coveted George Macarthur-Onslow trophy for the most efficient regiment in the 1st Cavalry Division.

By the time the Second World War began, Aitken was working as a motor mechanic in Kyogle. Shortly after his 21st Birthday, on 6 June 1940, he enlisted for service in the Second AIF. He joined the newly-raised 2/1st Pioneer Battalion and began training at Greta. About a month later, he spent five days in Greta hospital with measles, but recovered quickly and returned to his unit.

On 20 September 1940 Aitken left Sydney aboard the transport ship Johan de Witt, bound for the Middle East. After arriving in Alexandria and going into camp in Palestine, in January 1941 the 2/1st Pioneers were sent to Tobruk. Here they helped restore the port and its facilities, repaired roads, and reclaimed engineering material. When the 6th Division left Egypt for Greece, the 2/1st Pioneers remained in Egypt and were attached to the 9th Australian Division.

Aitken was wounded in action on 29 May 1941 during the siege of Tobruk. He was evacuated to hospital in Egypt and spent over a month
recovering before being posted to the pioneer training battalion at the end of July.

When the 2/1st Pioneers were relieved from Tobruk in September, the battalion returned to Egypt and Aitken rejoined his unit. After some rest and training, the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion returned to Australia.

Arriving in Australi at the end of March 1942, Aitken used his brief period of leave to return to Kyogle and marry his sweetheart Florence Thompson. The couple would later have a son, David.

After conducting engineering tasks around Brisbane and Ipswich, the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion deployed to Papua at the end of August. Three of the battalion’s companies were sent via Uberi to Ioribaiwa and then took up positions on Imita Ridge. The remaining company was sent to Milne Bay. After heavy fighting against the Japanese took place at both Imita Ridge and Milne Bay, the battalion was involved in the advance towards the New Guinea beach heads.

After returning to Australia in late October 1943, the 2/1st Pioneers were sent to the Atherton Tablelands for rest, reorganisation, and training. During this time, Aitken was promoted to acting corporal. On the 12th of December Aitken went absent without leave and returned home. He handed himself in to his unit on 30 December and after being charged, was reduced to the ranks and forfeited 18 days’ pay.

The 2/1st Battalion continued training in the Atherton area until the beginning of June 1945, when it left Townsville for the island of Morotai in the Moluccas. After two weeks of training here, the battalion embarked once again, this time bound for the island of Borneo.

Aitken and the 2/1st Pioneers were part of the 7th Division’s amphibious landing at Balikpapan on the island of Borneo on 1 July.

A few days after landing, Aitken was part of a small team bringing two vehicles to shore on a landing craft. When the landing craft was fired on by Japanese artillery, a shell detonated nearby and Aitken was hit in the head and chest by shrapnel. His wounds were mortal and he died shortly afterwards. He was 26 years old.

Aitken was laid to rest the following day in the Balikpapan War Cemetery. After the war, his remains were reinterred in the Labuan War Cemetery. Inscribed on his headstone is the epitaph, “His duty nobly done, ever remembered”.

His name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my left, among almost 40,000 Australians who died while serving in the Second World War.
This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Private William Marshall Aitken, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.

Michael Kelly
Historian, Military History Section

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