Anyone who reaches 96 and can still ride a bicycle is obviously doing something right. In Herb Bennett's case, this should also take in surviving many near-death incidents during World War II. He wasn't alone, and for many Australians his extraordinary experiences are variations on a common theme.
Herb Bennett, 1942.
He also sees himself blessed with good fortune – riding a bike into one’s nineties and surviving wartime combat surely testifies to this.
“I had a lot of luck. I felt a whole mag of bullets go between my legs without touching me. They even put holes in my trousers. It frightened the hell out of me but I wasn’t injured.”
And there are so many other incidents like that.
Of his decision to enlist, Herb says, ”I was living in the country, one of 11 kids. You don't see anything in the country and I thought it would be nice to join the force and see the world.”
In any discussions about the war, Herb reveals himself as ultimately a pragmatist. Not for him the ideal of heroes single-handedly leading their country to victory. "You're all there to do a bloody job and that's it."
Herb joined up in 1942 aged 18. The RAAF recognised his skills and he was sent to Shepparton, Victoria, to train as a Flight Armourer. “I was a crack shot, born with a rifle in my hand.” Training included an army commando course “where I was put through the hoops in unarmed combat, all that stuff and I did what I had to and reckon it saved a few lives.”
One his most harrowing experiences was being left on his own in the big smoke between trains en route to Melbourne via Sydney. Even next to the terrifying experience of creeping through the jungle of New Guinea watching out for enemy soldiers hiding in the trees or flying in malfunctioning aircraft “being brought up in the bush, what worried me was those big cities like Sydney and Melbourne.”
Herb was posted to No 1 Mobile Works Squadron and deployed to Port Moresby where they pitched in to build an airfield in three weeks. It was here he witnessed his first tragedy: a US Liberator bomber aborted its take-off and ploughed into a large group of soldiers, killing 180.
His re-designated squadron 5 MWS moved to the north coast of New Guinea to build an airfield on Goodenough Island when another tragedy occurred. It was Christmas and the squadron had been given the morning off. The rare peace didn’t last long. A good mate of Herb’s was flying a Beaufort bomber with a bomb caught half-in, half-out of the aircraft. The pilot undertook radical manoeuvres to try and shake the bomb loose but it was no use. As the plane touched down, the bomb exploded and the plane and crew were blown to pieces. Anyone left in their bunk was shaken out by the shock and noise and it was all hands to the pump to clear the wreckage away and rebuild the airstrip.
There were more airfields to be repaired or built as the fighting raged on and 5MWS was attached to the US Aviation Engineers. Leading Aircraftman Bennett was part of the 8,000 strong invasion force on Noemfoor Island comprising the US 158 RCT and No. 62 Works Wing RAAF. Surprise attacks at night by Japanese forces kept the Allied troops on edge and in one incident American soldiers on guard duty mistakenly shot and killed 18 of their own.
When the Allies invaded Noemfoor Island
Herb is still haunted by the memory of tripping over the feet of a dead Japanese soldier buried in a shallow grave. Another time he and his unit were walking through the jungle and his sense of foreboding was realised when he quickly spotted a Japanese soldier taking aim in a tree. Herb took position and fired back with his .303 killing the soldier. This was nothing to celebrate or big-note himself with.
"I just wanted to look after myself and I wanted to look after my mates"
Being a boy from the bush, Herb felt at home wandering through the jungles with locals. He certainly wasn’t a fan of the food served in the air force and says he lived on locally grown paw paw and bananas.
Otherwise, he was impressed by the huge supplies and equipment the Americans brought and their generosity with Australians. He was also flattered by the Americans’ delight in having Australians fighting by their side. It was as if they saw their Australian counterparts as lucky charms.
“One time the Yanks were insistent I go with them in a Liberator bomber on a bombing raid, but I had another of my premonitions that it was not a good idea and the aircraft never returned.”
Herb was also critical of the “Yanks’” poor table manners and shocked by their habit of piling food up on their plate including dessert right on top.
Herb flew back to Townsville in 1945 in a US C47 plane. It was another “very unreliable aircraft and it seemed a miracle that we arrived at our destination.” He was posted to the RAAF Williamtown base outside Newcastle and it was here he heard the news of the Japanese Surrender. He wasn’t ever much of a drinker and didn’t think the surrender was cause for great celebration.
“A lot of poor buggers had lost their lives and it had caused a lot of hardship for a lot of people.”
Herb felt the pull of the bush and vividly remembers pulling in on the train at Grafton and seeing his mother running excitedly towards him.
After the war he lived a peaceful life, working firstly as a timber cutter and then successfully running his own timber truck. He also became father to nine children.
“Now at 96 years of age, all my old mates are gone and I am just left with the never-ending nightmares from a war long ago.”