We had the skills, they had the money

Name: Charles Hilton "Snow" Beal
Date: 1944-1945
Unit: 11th Repair and Salvage Unit, RAAF
Location: New Guinea

Hilton Beal became an expert wheeler-dealer in New Guinea during World War II. He discovered he had a talent for making jewellery out of all sorts of spare bits and pieces - and there was a ready market among the well-paid US servicemen.

Although he didn't know it at the time, this talent was to prove useful in later life when he became a jeweller.

But in New Guinea, he tried his hand at all sorts of things in an effort to improve his lot. He arrived there in January 1944 with 11RSU (repair and salvage unit) RAAF after training to service aircraft engines.

After establishing their camp at Nadzab, they worked long hard days recovering and repairing aircraft.

"There were no hangers, we worked in the open, sometimes in the rain," Hilton wrote in his book Tales of a Wingham Tiger. "Our unit was very efficient, quick and reliable and was congratulated by the Air Board and was the only RAAF ground service unit mentioned in the official American War History book.

"Our first salvage and retrieval job was a Vultee Vengence which crashed landed about 10 miles [16km] west of Nadzab on the banks of the Markham River. The terrain was terrible with the 10ft [3m] high kunai grass reducing visibility to a few feet.

"The repair was successful with the plane being dismantled and transported back to base and was the first of many repair and salvage operations in the Markham and Ramu valleys."

After working all day, they would return to camp, shower and change and then the real work would start.

"Two or three fellows started filing away making souvenirs to sell to the Yanks," he wrote. "This was a levelling out exercise, they had the money and we had the adaptability to produce things from scraps of aircraft perspex, fire walls, old propellers, and any scrap material we could find.

"This system worked wonderfully well. Soon production lines sprang up all around the camp. Watch bands were made out of stainless steel taken from crashed planes, ammunition boxes and fire walls. I am still wearing one I made in New Guinea in 1943 and the only thing I have renewed in that time is the aluminium rivets that hold on the lugs."

Some things were made out of bullet shells, others from pearl sea shells. They used coins by pressing them into the perspex and then filing down one side and engraving names on them.

"There was so much wheeling and dealing going on at night I'm quite sure Al Capone would not have been able to make a living up there at night time," Hilton wrote. "We became aircraft technicians by day and factory production workers at night till the lights went out about 11pm. Our pay was 12 shillings a day (about $1.20) and we did very much better at night."

Dealing with the local wildlife also had its moments. On arrival at the camp, one man picked up his kit bag from the ground to find a death adder wrapped around it. Hilton had his own problems.

"One morning I was about to get out of my stretcher and my mate said 'Don't move, Snow, just keep very still'. Slowly he reached for his 303 rifle and BANG - pieces of venomous snake were blown all around the tent. I said 'Thanks mate' and we went to breakfast.

"Another morning when I was folding my blankets and tidying my bed, out popped the largest centipede I have ever seen, about 20 cm. We always tipped our boots upside down in case of spiders etc had wandered inside during the night.

"One day, when doing this, out came a 9cm scorpion. All creatures seem to be several times larger in New Guinea, including spiders, death adders and other snakes, hornets and lots of other nasties."

Never one to worry about bending the rules, Hilton took up photography - even though there was a complete ban on cameras.

"When I was at school I became quite good at developing and printing my own photos," he wrote. "I wrote to my mother and asked her to send me some of my printing frames and dishes for hypo developer etc and pack them in a cake tin and making sure they didn't rattle when shaken - cakes didn't rattle.

"A few weeks later they arrived so I took a few of my souvenirs to a Yankee photographic unit nearby and made a deal for some hypo, developer and top class printing paper.

"In the jungle I found an old disused shed and spent quite a while taking my gear out to it and developing films in the moonlight. I would leave the films out to dry and return early next morning to cut them into photo sections. Everything had to be packed away in case of any inspection.

"Next night I would print from these negatives by using a tilly light, then get them back to their owners before our Orderly Officer decided to have an inspection.

"The risk factor for this venture became too hot. Sooner or later I would make a mistake and the reward was not high enough," Hilton wrote. "Also in those days the film was covered by a special paper (to keep the light from getting to the film) and in a lot of cases would stick to the film in the New Guinea humidity. So I packed my gear and returned it to home and so concluded the project."

Like most servicemen in New Guinea, Hilton Beal spent time in hospital with Dengue Fever caused by a mosquito bite.

"Malaria was bad enough," he wrote. "A daily dose of Atebrin helped to keep this nasty at bay, but nothing stopped Dengue Fever.

"Sulphur and other drugs were supposed to ease the high temperatures and throbbing headache. On the first day I thought I was going to die, the second day I was sure of it and the third day I wished I had. After that I slowly recovered and after a couple of days, although weak, I returned to work."

When his unit moved camp to a new area as the war progressed, the first job was to reduce the number of rats that roamed around, especially at night. "We filled a drum with about 25 centimetres of water and placed it on the ground under the outside edge of the raised timber floor," he wrote. "We fixed a long-nosed bottle to the timber floor of the tent by the large end, which then sloped down to and protruded over the drum of water.

"We tied a piece of cheese to the neck of the bottle and oiled the neck - and waited. As the snoring in the tent increased, the rat came into the tent, climbed on the dry end in an endeavour to reach the cheese at the other end. It slipped on the oil and, unable to turn around, fell into the drum of water underneath and was either killed or drowned."

And finally it was time to go home. "I had been in New Guinea for 18 months and one morning I was getting ready for a routine day when I was asked to go to the administration office and see the clerk who said 'Snow, I have here a piece of paper you have been searching for for 18 months. It has your name on it and it reads Go Home.' I could have kissed the ugly little fella, but that was not the right thing to do in those days," Hilton wrote.

But getting home was another matter. Hilton and his mate Russ were given travel movement orders and told to make their own way to Australia as best they could. The only way to do this was to hitch a ride with an RAAF or a American plane heading to Australia.

After waiting at the airstrip for several days they finally managed to get a ride on an American aircraft heading for Cairns. It was a rough flight, especially going through "the Gap", between two mountains in the Owen Stanley Range, and notorious for its turbulent weather and dangerous air currents.

"We were really flying, the ends of the wings were moving up and down about 20 centimetres, next we seemed to fall out of the sky even though the motors were still going full bore," Hilton wrote. "Suddenly we hit bottom with a loud bang and levelled out with the nose of the plane pointing down. The plane slid from side to side like a leaf falling from a tree, then the pilot yelled 'OK guys that's it, we are on our way again'."

They eventually flew on to Townsville and decided to pay their own fare to fly to Sydney - thus saving several days travel on trains. Having saved that time they decided to spend it with their families. Although this was strictly against the rules they did it anyway and eventually reported back for duty.

All was going well until a new recruit noticed they had taken 14 days to get from New Guinea. They were charged with being AWL but when they were marched in front of the disciplinary officer he turned out to be an old New Guinea hand who had a sneaking regard for the work of the 11th RSU and they eventually were let off with a warning.

Not long afterwards, the war having come to an end, Hilton Beal was discharged. After working at a variety of jobs including making batteries and car radiators, he was eventually offered a position making jewellery, thanks to the experience he had gained in New Guinea. And he never looked back.

The material for this article was supplied by Hilton "Snow" Beal from Tuncurry, New South Wales. Copies of his book are available from Mr Beal +61 2 6554 8731

Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), We had the skills, they had the money, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 29 September 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/we-had-skills-they-had-money
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