A Sergeant’s Progress

Sergeant Swy, is well known by another name but this is what I call him in the story. I leave it to the reader to guess just whom I’m describing.

Anyway to cut my introduction short. Swy was a member of the 7th Division, an infantry division of the Australian army during World war II.

The 7th Division, was formed in February 1940 and is sometimes called “The Silent Seventh”, as some thought its achievements were unrecognised during the war. This was mainly the result of war time censorship. The 7th Division, along with the 6th and 9th Divisions, served in both the Middle East and the South West Pacific area, notably New Guinea and Borneo.

As General McArthur conducted his island hopping assault on Japan, the 7th Division was sent to occupy the oil refining town of Balikpapan in what is now Kalimantan Timur.

1. The 7th Div., approaching Balikpapan. 2. Last dash to shore aboard American crewed alligators. In background smoke from ruins of enemy positions and burning oil-wells. 3. Australian infantry advances and comes under sniper fire. 4. Two infantrymen from set out on patrol, on the alert for snipers. 5. Residents displaced by the fighting return to Balikpapan. 6. A member of the 7th Div handing out treats to children in Balikpapan.
Photos from the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Swy wasn’t involved in the Middle East campaign, he joined the 7th Division after it returned to Australia in 1942. Prior to this he was in the Militia.

Swy’s military career is fascinating and it foreshadowed his later career in politics.

My knowledge of Swy was both firsthand, as I saw him him operating during his political phase, and secondhand from a taletold by a senior member of my extended family, a man from the 7th Division who briefly worked with Swy after the war.

Here is a part of the story. My intention is to keep Swy’s identity hidden until the reading on 1 Dec.

A Sergeant’s Progress

Bob was a World War II veteran from the Borneo campaign. We first met in 1968 and discovered an immediate affinity in our shared views on the Vietnam War. By that stage, it was a protracted event proving most costly in human terms. After forty-five years we met again at a funeral. With little time to chat, we exchanged email addresses and agreed to meet for lunch.
As he was the oldest surviving member of our extended family, I was keen to draw on Bob’s insights to fill in some blanks about family history and gather his perceptions of the 20th century.
Bob’s club was a short drive from the retirement village where he stayed, so within ten minutes, we were in the dining room. It was Melbourne Cup Day and an excited crowd filled the club. The fascinator hat competition ensured the clientele were mainly women dressed in their finest. Bright colours and the scent of perfume hung in the room.

Being a two minutes’ walk from the TAB meant a steady stream of patrons moving in or out of the club. Here and there small groups organised their own Cup Day sweeps.
“I’d forgotten it was Melbourne Cup Day,” Bob observed, as we made for a quiet corner of a dining room. “Most people are in the bars, so we’ll have some peace here.” He drew out a chair.
“Yeah, me too, Bob. Very un-Australian, eh?”
With sceptical raised brow, he replied, “Such a mis-used notion these days, given the skeletons in this nation’s closet.”
“Johnny Howard hasn’t helped,” I added, as I took a seat opposite him.
He nodded, pressing the menu towards me. “I know the menu. I’ll have item 25, with a glass of lite ale. What’ll you have?”
“I’m not sure. The waiters are run off their feet with the crowd. It seems they’re taking orders from the bar as well as this dining area. I’ll go and place yours and figure out mine on the way.”
A large screen in the bar room blasted out a race call for a pre-Cup fixture. In the background, a poker machine dropped a load of coins to loud whooping.
Jackpot, I thought.
Patrons were two-deep, so the exercise took longer than expected.
Settled back in our quiet corner again, I said, “No point ordering anything elaborate today with the kitchen as busy as it is. I picked something simple.”
Without response, he said, “Given your interest in foreign parts to our near north, I’ve been wanting to tell you about a bloke I once worked with. We served in the same general theatre but didn’t meet until after the war. Through the war, he achieved a degree of notoriety, a larrikin persona. Subsequently, he distinguished himself in other ways, but I’m jumping ahead.”
The waiter arrived with a generous plate of roast lamb, baked vegetables and green peas. Bob beheld this traditional fare with relish. His generation were fond of this Anglo-Australian staple. Lamb was a luxury for them in the 1930s, although Bob didn’t look as if he had to struggle much. He was a tall man with grey hair, still with traces of auburn colour, remarkable for a man in his 80s. With a strong build, he looked as though he’d have no difficulty putting in a day’s gardening.
Reaching for the salt and pepper, he continued the tale as he dusted his plate.
“We shared the same name, a form of it. It doesn’t matter what his name was exactly, let’s call him Sergeant Swy. You understand the term swy, don’t you?’
“It’s slang for Two-up.”
“Correct. Anyway, given his later life, maybe he’d bristle at the nickname and then again maybe not. No misnomer, as you’ll learn.”
A waiter appeared with my grilled fish, chips and salad.
Bob resumed, “He was the eldest of three sons. His dad was a sailor, then a tram driver. His mum was a widow and he was born out of wedlock. No one’s certain when he was born. Sometimes parents registered their children as a batch. His birthday was most likely in 1907, so, when the war broke out, he was about 32.
“As with a lot of young blokes, he’d been in the militia for a while early on and acquired the rank of lieutenant. He told me he promoted himself to captain on his regular army recruiting papers.”
“He joined up as soon as the war broke out, did he?”
“No, he joined the 2/31st Infantry Battalion in 1942 and went through training in preparation for deployment to New Guinea. You remember our militia units had been fighting a rear-guard action to delay a Japanese advance on Port Moresby.”
“I’ve read about it, watched Damien Parer’s documentaries, and heard stories from returned soldiers. I’ve even visited MacArthur’s’ old base at Sentani in West Papua.”
“So, you know a bit about the history. Funny thing is, when I met him after the war, he told me that he started running a swy game in the battalion even before they left for New Guinea. Before departure he was promoted to corporal and demoted six weeks on.”
“You think this was because he was caught playing two-up while in training?”
“Can’t be certain. Once in New Guinea, he claimed his commanding officer gave a blessing for the two-up. Apparently, this was because Swy always insisted that the punters had their sleeves rolled down and gaiters on. It helped keep them safe from malaria and dengue, big problems up there.”
“I see the merit in that. Long sleeves meant covered forearms and the gaiters protected skin around the ankles. Easy targets for malaria or dengue mosquitos.”
“That’s right?”
“I’ve lived in the tropics long enough, so I understand the logic. From what I’ve read, scrub typhus was also a problem along the north coast.”
“That’s where they ended up,” Bob explained. “Initially they were engaged along the Kokoda track. Theirs was the first battalion to re-enter Kokoda. They played a key role in over running the last Japanese defensive position at Gorari before moving on to Gona.”
“Some historians consider the defeat of the Japanese at Gorari the turning point in the Pacific land war.”
“I’m sure that’s right. I’ve never understood why the 2/31st was moved onto Gona. They needed a break because many were suffering from malaria, and down on the coast at Gona there was that more dangerous form of malaria plus the scrub typhus. Eventually, in January 1943 they were shipped back to Australia.”
“Nasty, Bob. Too early for antibiotics to treat the typhus, as well.”
Bob fell quiet. After a few moments, he asked, “You right for a drink?”
“Fine, but I’ll get you another.”
“No, don’t worry about it. Pour me a water. You’re closest.”
He continued. “It wasn’t only rest in Australia. The battalion was prepared for the next phase of the Pacific war. First, it was to New Guinea again, and joint action with US forces in the Salamaua-Lae Campaign, with some patrolling duty in the Markham Valley and Finisterre Range. This is where my group was operating. Then to Australia again before they were sent to Balikpapan, in Borneo.”
“They certainly moved around. I hadn’t realised.”
“Swy landed in Balikpapan at the end of June 1945. The 2/31st was concentrated around the Milford Highway. There was a lot of fighting.”
“I read there was heavy bombing and shelling by Australian and US forces before the landing.”
“There was, but Japanese resistance was tough all right. The 2/31st suffered many casualties over the six-week operation. Japan surrendered on 16 August.”
“So, the battalion had plenty of time on its hands at the end?”
“They did, and nine days before the surrender Swy was promoted to sergeant quartermaster. He kept the two-up school going but began to branch out into a business on the side.”
“How? Infrastructure, production, all would have been destroyed. What scope for business was there?”
“Quartermaster is a position usually attached to headquarters company. It can be a most enterprising role in the military, lots of opportunities for advancement, official and unofficial.”
“How do you mean?” I pressed.
“Any army has to pay for things. That’s why the Japanese printed occupation money. Swy told me they were to receive Dutch currency for local purchases, and there was a delay. They did find bales of Japanese occupation money. A decision was taken to use this as an interim measure and exchange it for Dutch currency later.”

I hope you can join the reading of this story. Some will be surprised when Swy’s identity is revealed

My book is available from this site in PDF or from Apple Books, and Kindle

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