Anzac Day: World War II veterans who stood up to serve their country

SERVICE: World War II veterans Robert Lapsley and Duncan 'Ken' Johnston. Picture: Simon Bennett
SERVICE: World War II veterans Robert Lapsley and Duncan 'Ken' Johnston. Picture: Simon Bennett

GALLANTRY, bravery, courage and heroism are words often used at this time of year. You'll hear them used to describe those who put their hand up to serve their country during war and to describe actions and deeds that saved lives and defended countries.

This Anzac Day, we spoke to four World War II veterans. From different backgrounds, beliefs, and in one case, countries, they all have one thing in common. They don't speak of their service as something that's heroic or gallant; they say their enlistment or volunteer roles during war was just something they felt they should do to help and to give back.

The Second World War was the most destructive in human history and from September 3, 1939 to August 15, 1945, at least 60 million people died: the equivalent of more than 194,000 people every single week for the six years of the war.

In 1938, at just 17 years old, Robert Lapsley enlisted with the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp, No. 2 Scottish Company. While the 100-year-old lives in Narrabeen on Sydney's northern beaches now, he grew up in the then British colony and decided to volunteer for a bit of adventure.

"I felt that there was something to do and help whenever it was needed," he said. While war was declared a year after he enlisted, it had little impact on his life until December 7, 1941, when his company was called upon to defend their territory in the Battle of Hong Kong.

Shot by enemy fire

One day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in the US, Japan also attacked Hong Kong and fierce combat led to 3000 casualties and the fall of Hong Kong just three weeks later on Christmas Day.

SERVICE: Robert Lapsley (centre) during his service with the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp, No. 2 Scottish Company during World War II. Picture: Supplied

SERVICE: Robert Lapsley (centre) during his service with the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp, No. 2 Scottish Company during World War II. Picture: Supplied

During the battle, Mr Lapsley was shot and amid the confusion during a retreat was left for dead.

"I was shot and left on the hillside. I was shot in the arms, legs and the body. I wasn't really fearful, there was nothing much you can do about it," he said. "The person I was with was shot through the head, he was in front of me.

"I was on the hillside until I woke from my wounds and attempted to get free by going down the bottom of the hill, which was adjoined to the sea. I went into the sea water and swam a few strokes until I found it a bit chilly being December."

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Mr Lapsley spent months recovering from his wounds in a British Military Hospital in Hong Kong, and then, six months later, on January 19, 1943, he and 100 others were captured by the Japanese. "On my birthday in 1943, I was put on a Japanese liner with 100 other Hong Kong residents and we left Hong Kong," he said. "The ship was under control of the Japanese and in three days we reached Nagasaki."

Surviving a POW camp

Mr Lapsley, along with his brothers Tony and Ferdie, also on the same ship, were incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp on the small island of Innoshima. They would spend the next 2.5 years there until the war was over. The brothers were put to work at the island's ship building yard.

"We did all types of work. I personally was in the foundry where they do castings of ship parts and various fittings and we had to break up the iron and iron ore. We'd do about two weeks work and one day off."

Japanese POW camps may have had a reputation for horrific conditions and slave labour, but Mr Lapsley said this camp was different.

We were in such a position where you could hardly escape because it was a long way off to China.

Robert Lapsley

"The camp was quite comfortable, it was a two storey wooden structure and there were two sides to each room, and eight on the bottom floor and eight on the top floor and it was quite good," he said.

"They were very clean, quite modern, but the food was very space - barley and rice and occasionally fish. There were one or two people that tried their patience, maybe they might hit them a bit to make them see sense, but generally it wasn't too bad.

"We were in such a position where you could hardly escape because it was a long way off to China. We had amusements now and again, concerts, I remember being in a mouth organ band and there were private lessons and people wanting to learn accountancy or things of that nature."

At the end of the war, the POWs were sent to Sydney on the British aircraft carrier HMAS Ruler.

"It was a very interesting time, you couldn't do anything about it," he said. "I don't think I really felt scared, but you don't know what's going to happen."

Keeping the warbirds flying

SERVICE: World War II veterans Robert Lapsley and Duncan 'Ken' Johnston. Picture: Simon Bennett

SERVICE: World War II veterans Robert Lapsley and Duncan 'Ken' Johnston. Picture: Simon Bennett

WITH service to country in his blood, Duncan 'Ken' Johnston enlisted with the Air Force as soon as he was eligible. By then, it was 1944 and WWII had been dragging on for years.

"I was exactly the allowable age of joining up, I couldn't wait, I was 18," he said.

"Dad was in the Army during the First World War, he got a military medal for bravery. He was a stretcher bearer and he got two or three out and then he got hit himself and for his bravery, he got the highest medal a non-officer could get for bravery."

After he enlisted, Mr Johnston was sent to Melbourne for training as an aircraft mechanic.

"From there I was moved up to an airdrome that was training the men to fly," he said. "They couldn't fly a plane until the time they got their wings. To get their wings they had to go through 5SFTS, the 5 Service Flying Training School.

"You had to train the untrained pilots, the first stop they had was to go to the 5SFTS, and it happened to be at Uranquinty, it's 12 miles from Wagga Wagga (in NSW's Riverina). That's where I was based for the whole year. I wasn't in the fighting line but I was keeping the fighting line going by being a mechanic and keeping the aircraft going."

I wasn't in the fighting line but I was keeping the fighting line going by being a mechanic and keeping the aircraft going.

Duncan 'Ken' Johnston

As a Leading Aircraftman (LAC) he repaired the engines of war planes, and his favourite to work on were the Spitfire and Kittyhawk.

"The Kittyhawk, that was an American equivalent to the Spitfire, was a single engine and they were the best fighters we could have against the Japanese," he said. "A Spitfire's engine had 10,000 parts. My startling memories were having to run up the planes that you have serviced, to start them up and make the propeller go round."

Mr Johnston, who is now 95 years old and lives in Narrabeen, on Sydney's northern beaches, spent 18 months in the Air Force until the war ended in August 1945 and while it was tough work he made a lot of friends and there was time for some fun.

"While I was on the job it was hard work, you had to get results from what you were fixing, that was the main thing," he said. "I was training for my dancing medals at the time and I got up to silver, I had that behind me. At one stage each Wednesday night we had a dance hall dance."

Australia during World War II

  • From a population of almost 7,000,000, a total of 990,900 Australians enlisted in the military forces
  • More than 30,000 became prisoners of war
  • Of 22,000 prisoners captured by the Japanese, 35 per cent died in captivity
  • 25,727 enemy prisoners of war were held in Australia; 18,432 were Italian
  • More than 60,000 women enlisted. Of those, 26,704 enlisted in the largest women's service, the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force
  • There were 64 Japanese air raids on Darwin and 97 across northern Australia
This story Meet some survivors of the world's most destructive war first appeared on Northern Beaches Review.