Three years, three months and three days. That was the exact length of Alex Sheaves' time in the Army during World War II. His wartime experiences testify to the modest heroism of so many Australians who served.
Alex Sheaves in 1942
The Sheaves were a dairy family in Western Sydney and because of regulations regarding essential industry, Alex had to stay behind to help with the milking while others, including his twin brother, left to fight. When he was finally given permission to join, it was June 1942 and the Pacific Campaign was in full swing. He opted for the infantry and was sent to Dubbo for six months' training in preparation for frontline action in New Guinea.
Even before he finished his intensive training, Alex got an idea of what was in store. One of the training drills was dubbed the Mad Mile and only Alex attempted a jump which was six metres high. Much of the sawdust meant to soften the landing had thinned and Alex hurt his back and was put on light duties. In another incident, Alex's group watched a plane crash into a tree.
In Port Moresby he became the No. 2 in a two-man team operating the legendary Bren gun which he describes as "the fire power of the platoon, a beautiful weapon at the time." The No. 1, his partner in the Bren gun operation, was Ed "Snow" Taylor. Together they would fight side-by-side and share a tent in both the New Guinea and Borneo campaign for the rest of the war.
Armed with his rifle, five magazines for the Bren and two grenades on his belt, Alex was flown over the Owen Stanley Range on a bumpy DC3 as part of the 14 Platoon C Company (4 Section) to patrol and defend Johns Knoll near the infamous Shaggy Ridge, a razorback mountain where many Australian soldiers were lost. He remembers the long trek up where "every step was a drip of sweat." It was here that Private Alexander Sheaves of the Australian Imperial Force spent his first Christmas away from home.
After this campaign the 2/27 Division shipped back to Australia in preparation for another tour and while Alex had emerged unscathed from the fight, he was suffering from an attack on another front: mosquitos. He had attacks of malaria and ended up in a Brisbane hospital.
Once he had recovered, he was sent to intelligence training to sharpen his skills in identifying enemy positions, gun emplacements and map-drawing. He was also questioned about a possible promotion as one officer's "eye man" but refused, preferring to stay in the ranks with his unit.
It was early June, 1945, when Alex's Battalion boarded a US ship bound for Morotai, on the Equator. The end of the war was in sight but the fighting was no less intense as the Macarthur-led Allies pushed back the Japanese forces.
Embarking on the HMAS Westralia in Morotai, the Battalion headed for Balikpapan on the East Coast of Borneo. A beach landing was planned for the 20th June and at 4am Alex and his Battalion were woken and readied for a long day ahead. The sea was rough "and the whole area was lit up with oil wells in flames towering in the air, lighting the whole area for miles". Allied bombers and fighter planes were providing advanced attack on the town as Alex and the other soldiers were given the order to go over the side on rope ladders into the landing craft bobbing in the water with heavy machine gun "bullets fizzing over and around the small boat into the sea."
There was a continual barrage of machine gun fire from the Japanese as the Australians reached the beach. Amid the smoke and chaos, Private Sheaves found himself ahead of the Platoon and ducked into a protected position just under the camouflaged Japanese bunker.
"I kept firing at it as fast as I could. Then the machine gun went silent."
The Japanese soldiers retreated into the nearby bush and as the other Australian soldiers caught up, one of them said he'd never seen anyone fire so many rounds as quickly as Alex.
The fighting in the area continued for days as Alex's C Company and other troops spread out across the island's east with heavy loss of lives on both sides. Alex and Snow were photographed by war correspondents and unbeknownst to the two soldiers the photos appeareda short time later in the Daily Telegraph in Sydney where Alex's mum recognised him - even if his back was to the camera.
Alex and Snow on patrol as captured by a war correspondent.
Alex Sheaves with his unit
Weeks later, the Japanese Surrender was signed and all the Japanese in the region were interned. "They were very docile and bowing to us as we went by." The first soldiers selected to return home were the family men and that included Alex. He boarded a DC3 bound for Darwin just behind another DC3 carrying a mate. After only 30 minutes in the air, Alex's plane returned. The other plane continued, however, and was lost in the storm and never made it to Darwin.
Alex arrived back in Sydney on Christmas morning:
"I went straight home to Dundas. I walked up the track to the dairy and met my father and brother Gicka who were still milking. Mum was in the house getting the Christmas dinner ready. It was a great day for me with my son Jim there and my two sisters Gwen and Susie came down to help Mum."
It was a far cry from that first Christmas on duty on a cold ridge in the New Guinea Highlands facing enemy fire.