Memories remain after 68 years
IT WAS a very close call; a bullet tore through the side of his steel helmet as he stood on a muddy jungle track.
He and his fellow troops were 17 miles from Kokoda and were under attack from the Japanese.
There were no stretchers and Jack Tannock had concussion.
“When I got wounded I went blind and numb in my right side. I was able to walk out. I walked to hospital,” Jack said.
Despite serving at Kokoda 68 years ago, the digger remembers it well.
He describes the Kokoda campaign as a “very brutal one physically”.
Soldiers patrolled a narrow track similar to the size of a footpath through the jungle, he said. They were on half rations and “lost a lot of very good men”.
“We went on to the track early September. We came out on November 10, when I got wounded.
“Eventually we took Kokoda on November 2, 1942. There were about 150 in the battalion lost.”
Jack served with his brother, Allan, two years his junior. Allan was one of the first men to survive scrubtitus. He also suffered from typhus, malaria and dysentery.
“I would never recommend anybody to go into active service with their brother. It’s a worry to you all the time,” Jack said.
Jack weighed 13 stones (82.5kg) when he went to Papua; after a fierce battle and a bad bout of dysentery his weight dropped to just nine stones (57kg).
“One of the biggest frights I ever got was leaving Townsville Harbour when we were rammed by a 12,000-ton British meat boat. One person was killed and about seven or eight were badly injured. That put us back a bit.
“Eventually we got to Moresby. The Japanese force came across to Stanley’s (Owen Stanley Ranges). By the time we contacted the Japanese we were 33 miles from Moresby.
“To see some of these fellas that had been slaughtered and left there and hadn’t been buried…” Jack trailed off, the memory still clear in his mind.
“It used to rain all the time. I’ve seen fellas crying with exertion.”
Kokoda was not the end of service for Jack, nor was it the beginning.
Jack served in the 2/25th Battalion, 2nd Australian Imperial Forces, formed in July 1940 in Brisbane.
Two months later, as part of the 9th Division, Jack headed to Darwin and, after an outbreak of meningitis, left for the Middle East on the Queen Mary on April 9, 1941.
Readying for invasion, they reached Syria, which was under French rule with German troops infiltrating the country.
“It turned into a very brutal campaign,” Jack said.
“I think in Syria there were more casualties than we had on that (Kokoda) track but all the physical exertion; I’ll never be the same again.
“There were more battle casualties in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East, including the Western Desert, Greece and Crete, up until Alamein. It was a very fierce campaign that lasted six weeks.”
Eventually the men were sent back unescorted to Australia as the country faced a growing Japanese threat.
After more training, Jack headed to Moresby mid-1942.
Jack was just 26 when he signed up to serve for Australia. At 93 it is amazing how vivid his memories of those six years of service still are.
The pain is visible in his eyes when he recalls seeing his mates’ bodies strewn across jungle tracks.
He also remembers writing letters home on toilet paper, dreaming about “tucker” on those rare nights he slept and being looked after by the fondly nick-named “fuzzy wuzzies”.
Jack’s willingness to tell his story steals the attention of a full room. Then he breaks our concentration with one simple line: “Then I went to another war; I got married.”
The 2/25th Battalion, 2nd AIF formed in July 1940 and served in Darwin, the Middle East, New Guinea and Borneo.