Fever caused more grief than the enemy

Name: Lionel Abeshouse
Date: 1942-1945
Unit: 8th Platoon, 55th Battalion AIF
Location: New Guinea

Shortly after disembarking from the Taroona on arrival in Port Moresby with the 8th Platoon, 55th Battalion AIF, in May 1942, Lionel Abeshouse found himself marching 20 km to camp, carrying full equipment.

Within a few days he had witnessed a number of air raids, watched aerial dog fights and experienced his first tropical downpour. He also received promotion to the rank of corporal.

But over the next few months, in between fighting the Japanese, he suffered more from dengue fever and malaria than the effects of battle.

His first experience of being directly under fire came when he was helping to unload stores from the SS Macduie.

"A fleet of bombers passed overhead out of reach of our ack ack," he recalled. "They flew out to sea, turned and bombed Macduie on the way back. Realising their intention we had raced back to terra firma looking for shelter.

"As the ship endeavoured to steam away from wharf, she took a direct hit. There was much damage and several casualties (four killed and six missing). The ship returned to the wharf for help and the cabin boy raced off telling us 'No way I'm going aboard that boat again'. The ship was to have taken us on our next step."

Next day, the bombers were back again for a repeat performance and Macduie e was hit three more times, set on fire and sank in the middle of the harbour with more casualties.

Three days later they left Moresby for Milne Bay at Samurai on SS Bontekoe.

"My platoon was quartered in mission buildings near the beach, he said. "Immediately we dug in our guns along the bay with camouflage. Any closer and we would have been in the water. I had two guns under my orders."

Soon afterwards, Corporal Abeshouse became ill and was admitted to the US field hospital with dengue fever. He recovered enough to join his platoon as it returned to Moresby.

"History records that the Japanese attacked Milne Bay l0 days after our departure. Although they were defeated for the first time, our casualties could have been terrible if we had remained behind," he recalled.

The First RAAF Squadron arrived on 23 July 1942 while 6000 Japs landed 120 km away at Boore Bay. Our blokes sank two troop carriers and damaged one battleship. It was all very serious. All units were standing by for any eventuality but we returned to Moresby on SS Tasman.

Lionel continued to suffer from the effects of dengue fever, having a temperature of 39 C. On arrival at Port Moresby at 7am on 7 August, the ship was quarantined because of an outbreak of mumps on board.

"There was no doctor to examine us and we moved by truck to our previous camp. The place was unrecognisable having been burnt to the ground. But we had our first issue of beer - one bottle per man".

Word came through of a big sea battle taking place which turned out to be the Battle of Coral Sea. Platoon Sergeant Harry Berry and Cpl Lionel Abeshouse reported to the NCO and Officers Training School at Port Moresby but the school was abandoned after four days due to the grave situation. The Japanese had landed at Milne Bay and there were many night raids at the time so the unlucky pair returned to their unit.

"At this stage only three men were still fit," Lionel recalled. "Nearly all the men were down with malaria and we had virtually no anti-malaria protection."

Lionel was admitted to base hospital at Kings Hollow with a raging malaria fever.

"I had never been so ill," he said. After being discharged from hospital he was sent on convalescence.

"There was a big air raid which featured at least 30 to 40 bombers and 30 fighters," he said. "There were bombs all around us. I was the last one to get to the only slit trench but found there was no room left and had to stay on the edge. We discovered shrapnel pieces in some tents, lucky there were no casualties.

"Cobra fighters just arrived and there was a big dog fight. It must be the heaviest raid yet. Glad to be OM. Seeing movies for first time at Rona. For the first time I'm beginning to feel homesick," he wrote in his diary. "The sooner this war is over the better. Am I developing nerves?"

Corporal Abeshouse spent the next few weeks in hospital having his fever treated and was eventually discharged again on 18 November, not long after his 20th birthday. Having been transferred to Rigo he was now with the 7th Machine Gun Battalion, New Guinea Force.

After taking part in a raid on 25 November where things were "mighty close this time", he was evacuated to hospital again, this time with colitis. The doctors decided to send him back to Australia for treatment and he was discharged on 9 December.

"I can't believe it," he wrote. "I boarded ML Duntroon, a very nice craft where I had a cabin to myself. Bound for Blighty shore. I still can't believe it."

The ship arrived in Townsville on 7 December 1942 and he was quartered at the l2th Station Hospital run by the Americans.

"Had ice cream! Sent telegrams to Mum and Jack. Caught the train to Warwick and reached 2/11 AGH. At this time I had been in New Guinea 11 months."

"After spending some time in hospital, and undergoing some embarrassing tests from the, rear, I was discharged. At a suggestion from my brother Jack, and the urging of my parents, I applied for a compassionate transfer to Jack's unit. A Signaller's Corps, stationed at Kingaroy of all places. This was where the family had a dairy farm, way back about 1912-14.

"I received the transfer but had to relinquish my hard earned stripes to do so, and did not find this out until I arrived there. Being the only bloke for miles around to have served in New Guinea, for a while I was an object of great curiosity.

"Life was pretty easy at Kingaroy after New Guinea, but shortly 'old man malaria' was to strike again. I was flown to Brisbane in an old monoplane. It was my first flight ever and here I was strapped down on a rotten old stretcher, too sick to care.

"This time I was admitted to the 2/4th AGH at Redbank, outside Brisbane. Upon discharge I think they gave me a job with Movement Control, Brisbane. I know I worked at the South Brisbane Interstate Railway Station. Every week we handled the transfer of hundreds of troops, going every which way.

"I must have been in Sydney on leave, when I suddenly felt another attack of malaria coming on whilst somewhere in Market Street in the city. I rushed over to a policeman, as best I could, and asked if he could help me, but the answer was no.

"I got home somehow, and asked my poor panic stricken parents, to phone for an ambulance. This time I finished up in a hospital in Goulburn. An old friend, Etta Green, had contacted her cousins who lived in Goulburn, and that is how I came to meet my very good friends, Rosalie, Betty and Judy Green. I still remember their first visit to the hospital, they were so kind.

"When I was well enough they invited me home to Carinya for dinner, where I met their father, and that most wonderful of mothers, Gwen. The hospitality was boundless, and I enjoyed being there so much. Their young brother, Bob was at boarding school, and it was to be some time before I met him.

"After Goulburn, I was transferred to Movement Control, Sydney. I was allowed to live at home, and it was like having a civilian job, almost. Not long after my return to Sydney, I was given a fresh medical, and joy-o bliss, I was declared A1 fit for tropical service again."

During this time at home, Lionel had met and become engaged to his future wife, Fae, so it was quite a wrench to leave the second time.

"Instead of being transferred to some infantry battalion, I was to be sent to 8th Movement Control Group, Wewak."

"Between July 1942 and September 1943 I had dengue fever and then malaria six times. Looking back, I cannot believe how bad it was. Despite another three and a half years in the Army, including about a year in Wewak, I was never sick again.

"Upon arrival at Madang, I was immediately shipped out to Wewak on the next available boat, and it looked to me as if they were leaving every five minutes. As we sailed into Wewak, I could see what the war was all about. Talk about busy! Martin Place at lunchtime was nothing like this. As I watched in amazement our planes dropped bomb after bomb, within a very short distance of the beach, and as I could see our troops on the shore I soon found that we, so far, only had a toehold of a landing, but we were belting hell out of the enemy.

"Our Navy offshore was having a go, and stuff was flying all over the place, and I was expected to go ashore at this time? OK, OK, so I jumped ashore in one piece, and thankfully it wasn't very long before our boys succeeded in tidying up the debris, and that was that."

"I was was made Air Transport Officer at the so called airstrip, with its wooden tower, and a small hut as an office - no staff, just me and an occasional visit from a Flight-Lieutenant, RAAF, who really did nothing," he wrote.

"I was still a private, despite my exalted title. Because the strip was a fair distance from the camp, I was ordered to take an army driving test and solemnly issued with a brand new license and best of all, the use of one Jeep, troops, for the use of - namely, me.

"As the war started to wind down in our neck of the woods, we took many prisoners and they were imprisoned on Muschu Island, some miles off the coast of Wewak. We even had working parties of Japanese POWs building a seawall in front of our camp, to keep the sea out, and we took turns in guarding them as they worked.

"Finally, when it was all over, there was an official signing of the surrender document on the Wewak strip by General Adachi. We finally had the wonderful task of sending the POWs back to Japan on anything that would float, so they arrived home before we did. Out of the many thousands held on Muschu, only about 20,000 survived.

"Well, after they had gone and things were quiet for a few days, Lt Biddle and I took a fast supply boat to the island to look around. It had been one large plantation before the war, but bore little resemblance to such an undertaking when we saw it. I must admit to an eerie silence as the boat cut its engine, and we glided silently to the small wooden wharf. I really think I expected someone there to meet us, and I found it hard to get used to the idea that the island was indeed completely deserted, except for the graves of the many dead Japanese soldiers.

"There was a shrine at the entrance to the cemetery, neatly laid out with headstones and ringed with crushed coral. We treated all this with due respect, and continued to explore the camp. There really was not much to see, though I do remember seeing what must have been the medical officer's surgery, still with a few pieces of equipment lying around. We could not get over the smell of death which hung over the entire area. It was a very sombre experience.

"We returned to the boat, ate our lunch, and headed back to Wewak. To expedite our discharges on return to Sydney, we had our medicals at Wewak. They were not very happy with my blood pressure, and I was told to return again the next day. This time around they made me relax for about 30 minutes before checking me out and this time it must have been OK.

"The HMAS Shropshire took a huge load of troops, followed by ship after ship, and I can tell you, I was sick and tired of embarking these jokers and waving them goodbye. They would drive down to the beach where we had 'dukws' waiting for them, and after leaving the trucks on the beach, they were off. Civil Administration would come down and take the trucks away for their own use. It wasn't worth the effort to transport them back to Australia.

"Finally, the great day arrived and I was ordered to board the Nordnes, and became the second last bloke to leave Wewak. Last bloke to leave, please put out the lights! The Nordnes was not a cruise liner by any stretch of the imagination, and I don't think we cared very much.

"It had concrete decks, the kitchen on the deck, and the most 'beautiful' set of toilets you ever saw, hanging over the side of the boat, where everything dropped straight into the sea. On the way down the Queensland coast we struck a cyclone, and just about everyone was seasick, except me. As they say, we braved the storm, and finally sailed triumphantly into Sydney Harbour.

"It would be difficult to describe one's emotions. For once, as we sailed through the Heads, all the boys were quiet. Here we were home at last, with civvy street just around the corner. Our part in this terrible war was now over, and Australia with the rest of the world had to learn to live together in harmony.

"Fae's first words on sighting me were not what I expected, like 'I missed you', 'glad you are home', 'wonderful to see you again safe and sound', or anything mundane like that, but 'you look so yellow!' It was to be quite a while before the effects of the atebrin faded.

"Such is the resilience of youth, what with getting back to work, being married, and settling down, I soon put the horrors of war behind me. I was discharged on Friday 30 May 1946, and returned to work the following Monday."

The material for this article was supplied by Mr Lionel Abeshouse from New South Wales

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Fever caused more grief than the enemy, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 May 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/fever-caused-more-grief-enemy
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