Allen Stien is one of many Australian World War II veterans who quickly dismiss any suggestion their contributions to the Allied campaign to defeat fascism were unprecedented acts of bravery and sacrifice.
Neither does he claim to have been "in the thick of it or doing anything extraordinary", despite serving on Morotai Island and a long stint as a volunteer overseeing the post-war Japanese occupation in Tokyo and Kure which is near Hiroshima. In his eyes he was simply doing "what he was told to do".
When the 18 year old Allen from Concord in Sydney was called up in May 1944, his sights were set on the Air Force and he says he had been training for two years to achieve this. But after the medical check picked up his asthma he was knocked back. Next he applied for the Navy. “They insisted on recruits having 33 sound teeth, so I got knocked back again."
In the end he joined the Army. "At the age of 18 you just had to enlist in something. Everyone at 18 was called up. Everyone had to play their part."
As luck would have it, he was posted for normal infantry training to Cowra where his father was already in the garrison guarding Japanese internees. He would often see him and hear about the tension in the camp. It was only a week after Allen left that the famous mass Cowra Breakout occurred. To the young man the war suddenly seemed so much more real and closer to home than before, especially when his father reported being part of the force trying to stop the 1,000 Japanese escapees and shooting at 16 of them.
Next Allen was sent to Bonegilla near Albury for signals training. Then followed a long train trip north from Melbourne to Cairns where he waited for almost a week to join a ship destined for the Pacific. He was now part of the 62 Australian Wireless Section, Independent Signals.
Allen and his unit heard the news of the bombing of Hiroshima while on board the troop ship. “No one really knew what an atomic bomb was,” he says, but it was a sign that the war was about to turn a corner.
His posting was in Morotai, an island on the equator which served as a staging post for operations in Borneo where much of the recent conflict against the Japanese forces had occurred. Allen’s role as a Signalman was relaying communications within Army units operating there. Initially they relied on Morse code then moved on to teleprinters. Another task was constantly monitoring the airwaves to ensure Australian aircraft in the region were on course.
As for the celebrations on hearing news of the Japanese surrender, unlike the scenes of jubilation captured in newsreels, Allen and his unit were allotted their ration of two bottles of warm beer with which to toast the end of the gruelling six year world war.
He notes that many Australian aircraft now had the unusual task of dropping leaflets across the islands where Japanese troops were still in hiding. The leaflets were written partly in Japanese and were intended to notify them of the surrender and cease-fire since many were still firing on Allied troops.
Having been part of the war for only a short time, Signalman Stien volunteered to join the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) in Japan. Soon he was stationed with the 112 Telegraph Operating Section in Kure, Japan, a naval depot with many submarines. He arrived there directly from Morotai and was still in the uniform the army had issued for the tropics. Japan by now was entering its winter and it was some time before Allen was issued with the heavier woollen uniform suitable for the cold snowy climate.
His work included a posting in Tokyo, and with his free time he also travelled regularly and made repeated trips to Hiroshima to witness the devastation created by the world's first atomic bomb deployed in action. He says of Japan, "It was a helluva wreck."
The ruins of Hiroshima
There was ongoing hostility towards the occupying troops by Japanese soldiers and there were still ammunitions around the country so the work of BCOF was not insignificant. From the Australian end, tensions still lingered over the bloodshed in New Guinea and Borneo. Worst of all, Allen observed that in Hiroshima many of the US troops had been withdrawn after the initial clean-up for fear of radiation poisoning, leaving Australian troops from the 65, 66, and 67 Battalions in occupation and that many of them suffered from what he believes were the continued effects of radiation. Allen himself is now almost blind and reckons this is in part due to his own exposure to radiation there.
Allen's time in the war and just after opened his eyes to the world. He spent two winters in Japan along with his brother who was in the Ambulance unit. He enjoyed his time there even though he never got used to the rumble of regular earthquakes and one time even a tsunami.
He recalls watching General MacArthur appear every day on the parade ground just opposite the Emperor’s palace garden in Tokyo and was intrigued by the numbers of occupying troops who stayed on in Japan after the others had left.
He sailed back on the HMAS Kanimbla and recalls "It was a great sight coming back in through the Sydney heads and I was very glad to see my parents and my brother who had returned before me."
Allen formed close friendships with other servicemen during his time.
"You work with them 24 hours a day, you sleep with them, you eat with them. You make the best of friends, with people from all walks of life."
And for most of his life he stayed in contact with many of them. One was best man at his wedding. Another cycled with him down to Melbourne to visit other ex-service mates.
"They were all just like family."