Great friendships formed in heat of battle

Name: John Virgo
Date: 1942
Unit: 2/10 Battalion AIF
Location: New Guinea

Many great and lasting friendships were formed amongst the men and women who served in Australia's armed forces over the years. Sadly, many such friendships ended suddenly with the death of one or more of the individuals in battle.

Three mates from the South Australian country town of Cadell all joined up during World War II. John Virgo, Bill Smyth and Jack Lines all played in the local football team.

After their initial training they were sent to England and then to the Middle East, travelling on the Strathaid from Scotland to Egypt in 1940. Having survived the fighting in the desert, they returned to Australia and were then sent to New Guinea.

The fighting took its toll with first John Virgo killed, then some time later Bill Smyth met his end. The third member of the trio, Sgt Jack Lines was badly wounded and ended up in hospital from where he wrote to Charlie Virgo, John's father. He was optimistic about getting out of hospital and even making a visit back to Australia.

He was obviously still sad at John Virgo's death, [he was killed at Milne Bay on 27 August 1942] and more recently the death of Bob Smyth.

"7 February 1943

"Dear Charlie,

"I received your very welcome letter today and was pleased to hear that you, wife and Jim [John's brother] are in the best of health as I am doing extra well at present.

"I am afraid I won't be able to write much this time as I am not supposed to move my arm at all. I had a few pieces off my leg tacked onto the wound in my arm and I have to keep quiet so that it will graft on OK. It is nearly three weeks now since I got wounded and my arm should be goodoh in another fortnight.

"Yes Chas it was very sad to hear of Bob Smyth getting knocked. [Bob Smyth was killed at Buna on Christmas Eve 1942.] I went over to his Coy and asked whether he was around and his cobbers told me they had buried him only a few days before. By gee I was sorry to have missed seeing him. He got hit in the chest and knew he had no hope and he said 'well boys the *** have got me. Tell them not to worry at home.' He was dead in another few minutes. His pals said he was one of the gamest lads they had.

"I never had time to visit his grave. It is a hundred miles or so from John's grave. I never had a chance to go back to John's grave after they had done his and the other lad's graves up. I would have liked to get a snap of it for you. I think it was the saddest day of my life when I buried John and I will always treasure his friendship with myself.

"There isn't any doubt about it, this war sure is a terrible thing and costing a lot of lives. We have at least one consolation and that is we are making these yellow cows pay dearly for it. I never make any bones about it once I get any of them in my sights. I got 3 in a dugout one day and remembered what they had done to poor old John and Bob and lots of other cobbers and done them over quickly.

"You have to make yourself into an animal to do any good against these mongrels. I remember in the last big show an incident that will erase any sympathy from my mind in a future date.

"Quite a number of Japs sang out that they would surrender and when we went to collect them they opened fire on us. Fortunately we were expecting something of the sort and only a couple of lads were wounded. I won't tell you what we did to them. I reckon you can guess.

"Anyhow, damn this war business. Let's talk of other things. I hope you are getting your harvest done all right I would like to be there giving you a hand. I think I have a chance of visiting Aussie again in the near future.

"By gee I could do with a nice big bunch of sultanas or gordos now. Maybe I will be there for a few navel oranges.

"Lorna and the lad are goodoh. They are probably back in Adelaide again after a couple of months in Melbourne.

"My young brother is getting along after his bullet through the jaw and one in the head. He had a close call but managed to live through it by some miracle.

"Well old boy, here is the orderly taking our temps and he says Sister will be here any minute so I guess I had better ring off.

"Cheerio for the time Chas and kindest regards to wife and Jim. I will call in and see you soon with a bit of luck. Keep your chin up and keep smiling old beans.

"I remain your old friend Jack"

Bob Smyth also wrote to the Virgos after John was killed and not long before he himself died in the fighting.

"I find this letter the most difficult and painful letter I have ever written," he told the Virgos. "I felt it my duty and thought it would make it a little easier for you if I wrote and told you the circumstances of John's death. I have no doubt you have been informed by the military by this time.

"John was the best and most noble friend I ever knew, and his death was a terrible blow to myself and his many friends in this Battalion and we all wish to convey to you our most heartfelt sympathies.

"When John was promoted to Corporal, he was transferred to a different Platoon to myself, but still in the same Company, so when we went into action against the Japanese just after dark on the 27th of August I was not with John, but about 300 yards [275 metres] away on his left flank, so I did not know anything about it until the following day when one of the men in his section told me about it. He passed away about 11.30 that night, almost immediately after he was hit and just had enough time to say 'Goodbye'.

"I'm afraid I can't tell you the exact whereabouts of the battle owing to Censorship Regulations which are very strict. I will have to have special permission to forward this letter.

"John's grave is quite close to the beach, in a coconut grove near a number of other of our chaps who died in the same action. I will try to obtain a photo of it if possible and if you care me to I will forward it on. John's personal belongings will be forwarded to you by the Padre who held the burial service.

"I will close now Mr & Mrs Virgo, hoping that this letter will be of some comfort to you, and to say once again how terribly sorry I am. Would you please remember me to Jim and tell him he had a brother whom he could always be very proud of."

Bob Smyth wrote again to the Virgos on 9 November. He mentioned that the weather had improved and that they were getting plenty of fruit.

"The natives here, like us all, are very bitter against the Japanese & have helped a lot in bringing them to their knees," he wrote. "John's many friends wish to be remembered to Mrs Virgo, Jim & yourself. Our Pal will never be forgotten in this Battalion & the fine memory of him will remain with us forever."

Bob Smyth was not to know that he too would be killed shortly after he wrote the letter to the Virgo family.

Charlie Virgo had also received a letter from the Chaplain of the 2/10 Battalion AIF, Padre R Helmore, following his son's death.

"Dear Mr Virgo,

"I am writing to you as the next of kin and SX958 Corp J R Virgo. If Mrs Virgo is living I know you will understand that it is to both of you. An army regulation forbids me to write until twenty-eight days have elapsed, otherwise I would have written to you sooner. You will doubtless, however, have received word from the authorities that your son was killed in action on the night of 27th/28th of August.

"You will probably have various details of the happening from others but I will here give you in outline an account of the battle. In the afternoon of 27th the battalion moved into position from which it was expected to contact the Japanese next day; but at 8.15pm the enemy made an attack with a superior force including tanks.
B Company bore the brunt of the attack and suffered the heaviest casualties.

"For four hours they held the Japanese and took a heavy toll of them, but the tanks gave them superiority and it became necessary to withdraw to a new position. Your son was engaged in the fighting at a section of the line where it was particularly tough and grim and he played a man's part in leading and inspiring his section.

"We buried him next to a number of his section; or at least he was buried by a friend, and the same day we buried some of his section beside him. A simple wooden cross marks his grave and a metal plate bearing his particulars is attached. I understand that the War Graves Commission remove the remains to a central war cemetery which has not yet been established, but in the meantime you may be assured that proper records have been made.

"As we conducted a simple and sincere service at his grave our thoughts went out in sympathy to you at home and we prayed that the God of all comfort would strengthen your heart.

"Will you please accept my personal sympathy combined as it is with admiration of a life well lived and sacrificed in the service of his country."

Charlie Virgo also received a letter written by John Virgo's commanding officer, Captain G R Miethke in which he paid tribute to the dead soldier.

"By now you will have received the official advice of the sad death of your son in action August 27," Captain Miethke wrote. "John was young, keen and intelligent and one of the promising NCOs in my company.

"On August 27 we bumped into a much stronger enemy force unfortunately supported by tanks. Your son was in the forefront of the company which stood the brunt of the attack. However, he fought magnificently, despite tanks being within five yards all round his section.

"A burst of machine gun fire killed him instantly. If it is any consolation to you, the thickest of the enemy dead were piled in front of John and his section. We exacted a toll of 10 for every man we lost. The whole company mourns his death and I feel that I have lost a personal friend. Please accept my deepest sympathy for your loss."

John Virgo was reburied at the Bomana Cemetery, 19 kilometres north of Port Moresby.

The material for this article was supplied by Mr Don Virgo of South Australia
8/01/2002 10:20:37 AM


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Great friendships formed in heat of battle, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/great-friendships-formed-heat-battle
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