Wartime 48 - Feature Article: Lost hero
He enlisted under an assumed name, fought bravely, and then …
By Nick Fletcher
A number of Australian soldiers received gallantry awards for the lengthy series of actions which made up the Kokoda campaign between July and November 1942. As many people know, only one Victoria Cross was awarded, to Private Bruce Steel Kingsbury of 2/14 Battalion, for his actions at Isurava on 29 August. Kingsbury was not, however, the only Australian to be recommended for the VC at Kokoda.
At least four VC recommendations were made, but other than Kingsbury’s, all were rejected for unknown reasons, and lesser awards substituted. The gallantry of Acting Corporal Charlie McCallum of 2/14th Battalion at Isurava in August is one of the epics of the campaign: he held off the advancing Japanese with a Bren gun in his right hand and a Thompson sub-machine gun in his left, allowing his platoon to withdraw. This action must surely have warranted the highest award, but perhaps the approval of two VCs to a single unit for the same action (a common enough event during the First World War) was not considered appropriate. Kingsbury received the VC posthumously, while McCallum received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but was killed in action only a week later.
Staff Sergeant Stan Miller of 2/1st Battalion was recommended for the VC for rescuing wounded men under heavy fire at Soputa during the Allied offensives in November. Like McCallum, he eventually received the DCM. Perhaps the strangest of the “non-VC” awards, however, was that of Alexander George Thornton, who served as WX4227, Private George Maidment, with 2/16th Battalion.
Thornton was born in June 1914 in the Sydney suburb of Paddington, the second child of a New Zealand mother and an Australian father. His mother Nellie (née Maidment) died of an illness when he was 12, and as his father’s health was also poor, the children were raised largely by other family and friends. The young Thornton worked on and off as a labourer in Sydney, but eventually stowed away aboard a ship bound for Western Australia in March 1939. He was discovered and arrested when the vessel reached Fremantle; giving his name as “George Maidment”, he was briefly imprisoned for his misdemeanour. In June 1940, he enlisted in the Second AIF, again using his assumed name, and joined the 2/16th Infantry Battalion, a principally Western Australian unit.
Thornton proved a somewhat unruly soldier – he was a tough nut who evidently had problems with his superiors, and with military discipline in general. The men of his platoon referred to him as “Bag Man”. For most of the North African campaign he remained at the base area in Palestine, but rejoined the 2/16th in Syria immediately after the battle of Sidon in June 1941, and participated in the advance on Damour and its eventual capture. He returned to Australia with the battalion in early 1942, and in August embarked for service in New Guinea. By the 17th of the month, the 2/16th were struggling up the Kokoda Track, and by the 29th they were in action against the Japanese at Abuari.
The threat of an enemy breakthrough at Abuari, which would have turned the flank of the Australian defence at Isurava, was a serious one. On the morning of 30 August, Lieutenant Jack Gerke’s 11 Platoon (of which Thornton was a member) was sent with 10 and 12 Platoons on an attack which was to be supported by the Militia’s 53rd Battalion.The 53rd was intended to take a position above the Japanese and fire down on them, but it got lost in the jungle. Soon 11 Platoon found itself in serious trouble. Corporal Michael Clarke and Private Reg Hackshaw were killed by a burst of machine-gun fire, and Private Allan “Cherry” Boyes was wounded. At this point, with the platoon in danger of annihilation, Thornton ran forward to retrieve Clarke’s grenades and Thompson sub-machine gun. Standing in the open, and despite heavy fire from the Japanese, he was able to silence their machine-gun, enabling the platoon to withdraw. Early in the action, he was seriously wounded in the chest, but had refused to accept assistance or be evacuated.
Thornton’s company commander, Captain Frank Sublet, recommended him for a VC, praising the “inspiring example” set by his “unsurpassed courage, fortitude and devotion to duty”. By the time this recommendation was written, however, the story had taken another turn – the potential VC winner had disappeared without trace. Frank Sublet had offered to assist Thornton immediately after the Abuari action, but was “refused with abuse”. Despite his injuries, he made his own way to the Regimental Aid Post, where his wound was dressed, and he was then taken by stretcher back to Templeton’s Crossing Dressing Station. Several soldiers, including Captain Harry Cooper of 2/16 Battalion, saw him there, “badly wounded but OK”, and Private Roy Turner, one of the battalion’s bearers, later saw him on a stretcher between Templeton’s Crossing and Myola in “a very low condition”. Thornton never checked in to the Myola Dressing Station, and could not be traced at any of the other medical units along the Kokoda Track. He was recorded by his unit as “missing’’.
In due course, “Private George Maidment” was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. It seems quite likely that Thornton’s disappearance was a contributing factor in the downgrading of the award.
The story did not end there. Although it seemed almost certain to his comrades that Thornton was dead, a letter from the Red Cross was received in December 1942 by Major Garth Symington, commanding the 2/16th Battalion reserve troops in Port Moresby. This letter stated that Maidment was doing well at hospital in Australia, and “could be expected to rejoin his unit at an early date”. Could he possibly have survived? The severity of his wounds and the harshness of conditions in the Owen Stanleys made it unlikely, but an investigation into the case was launched. All the hospitals in the Port Moresby area were checked, but there was no evidence of a Private Maidment. Nor was the Movement and Control branch aware of his existence. In the absence of any reliable information, the investigation, which lasted over 12 months, finally concluded that: “Private Maidment died of wounds, between Templeton’s Crossing and Myola, his body being abandoned, and his death not reported at the Myola Dressing Station.”
Nevertheless, rumours of Thornton’s survival, and even of his return to Australia, persist. Several former members of 2/16th Battalion reported sighting him in Western Australia during the postwar years, and there were other stories of him living in Queensland. Nobody, however, has been able to produce concrete evidence, or even a reliable witness for any of these reports. Whatever the truth may be, Alexander George Thornton is one of those listed – under his correct name – upon the Port Moresby Memorial to those lost in the fighting who have no known grave.
Nick Fletcher is Senior curator in the Military Heraldry and Technology Section at the Australian War Memorial.