John was born in Bowral in the Southern Highlands of NSW and was one of 13 children – nine boys and four girls. John’s family is related to the famous Australian cricketing legend Don Bradman who was an uncle on his mother’s side.
For the first six years of his life there was no electricity in Bowral until Bradman House was built.
John left Bowral in May with two of his mates, Alwyn Jones and Don Hansen, and voluntarily enlisted with the Australian Royal Navy on 18 May 1943 to serve his country. After he enlisted he did three months of training at the Flinders Naval Depot. John was then drafted to the Australian built corvette HMAS Broome on 14 November 1943.
Australian-built Corvettes were one of the smallest warships on the high seas in World War II. As well as escorting convoys and sweeping mines, Corvettes were called on to perform duties their designers never imagined.
“They did a range of things including troop carriers, bombardment of enemy positions, surveys of unchartered waters, towing ships and barges, sinking submarines, shooting down enemy aircraft and landing spies. There was hardly anything they did not do – except stay in harbour for long.”
HMAS Broome sailed to Melbourne to join a convoy and then headed to Sydney. On the way they had enemy submarine contact off Macquarie Island and dropped a depth charge. After losing contact, she re-joined the convoy and sailed north doing convoy work in Cairns, Townsville, Milne Bay, Port Moresby and various places across the Pacific region.
On Christmas Day 1943 John remembers they spent the day pulling a tanker off a reef after it ran onto it.
Corvettes were packed with a mass of equipment including radio receivers and transmitters, radar, radio direction finders, searchlight and signalling equipment, gyro and magnetic compasses, telephones and winches.
“With additional armaments a crew of 90 was needed on these little ships so it was pretty tight. Fortunately it was not as strict as the bigger ships and so we didn’t have to dress up too often, usually it was just working dress.”
After six months on the HMAS Broome, John was posted onto another corvette, HMAS Townsville for two years. During that time they were undertaking towing, mine sweeping, radar and gunnery operations in the Coral Sea, Milne Bay, Madang, Oro Bay, Buna, Morobe and Langemack Bay.
He says there are a lot of vivid memories from that period.
“On Tuesday 13 June 1944 we had left for Madang at 1000, took on board 12 seamen and a Commander. We made three stops before Madang. ‘Bunbury’ [another Corvette] was with us and 60,000 Japs were trapped between Wewak and Hollandia. We thought Jap subs would try to get them out,” he recalls.
“I remember we were in Langemack Bay on night harbour patrol and the radar picked up a contact. We were sent to action stations and put up a star shell from a four inch cannon over the area.
“We sighted a small boat off our starboard side. In pursuit for about 15 minutes it turned out to be an Air Force launch out for a fish.
“We were invited onto a Yank destroyer USS Schroeder in Hollandia in 1944 to see the movies ‘Song of Russia’ and ‘That Uncertain Feeling’. We saw the picture show loaded with candy bars – they had not met Aussies before.
“Things were always worse when we ran out of fresh food and on dehydrated rations – terrible constipation!”
John remembers when the HMAS Townsville had to tow three large barges with American dead bodies onboard from Manus Island to Milne Bay.
“Often there were bad storms with gale force winds and the crow’s nest was at 45 degrees. The only time we lost a ship in convoy was when the Matafele, a small coastal converted ship was caught in a storm.”
John will never forget the day the war ended.
“On arriving in Morotai with a convoy, the Japanese were bombing the town so our ship was ordered to another bay away from the action where we were anchored together with sister ship HMAS Glenelg. “In the evening there were three American patrol boats tied up alongside us – during the day they went raiding Japanese positions along the coast, some of our crew went with them. After leaving Morotai we were sailing along the east coast of Borneo when the propeller struck an underwater object, taking a chunk out and bending the shaft. The ship had to sail back to Melbourne on one engine for repairs while the HMAS Glenelg went on to relieve a Japanese POW Camp on Mindanao Island. The ship was at Williamstown for repairs when victory was declared. Some of our crew had to practice marching along Port Melbourne pier with others. We then marched in the Victory Parade on 25 August. During the march I saw a camera man on the Town Hall steps – next day our photo was on the front page of the Argus!”
John says the city was swamped with people celebrating. “I was kissing a lot of girls until my girlfriend turned up! I married that girl at the end of 1946.”
After the war, John took compassionate leave as his brother had died as a Prisoner of War at Sandakan. He was in the Army and captured at the fall of Singapore.
John was transferred to HMAS Manoora and sailed to Jackanow Bay in Bougainville and then onto Rabaul to undertake minesweeping operations in the harbour.
“In September 1945 I saw the HMS Glory in Rabaul Harbour, where the Japanese signed the surrender document with the Australian Army General.”
The next job was down in Bass Strait clearing mines.
“I never got seasick in rough weather and spent all my time at the wheel during those times almost under the water!”
After demobilisation in May 1946, John found it hard to find work and worked in a bush sawmill in his hometown of Bowral. He then went to Melbourne to find factory work and then finished up at a sawmill in South Yarra.
Later John worked on the Melbourne railways for 18 years as a suburban guard. After that, he worked for Datsun Nissan as a bulk supervisor for five years and retired when his good friend the President of Datsun Nissan Australia passed on.
In 1979, John bought a house at Sussex Inlet and retired on the coast and is a passionate member of the local RSL. John Dickman was awarded the 1939-45 Star, the Pacific Star, War Medal 1939-45, Australia Service Medal 1939-45 and the Defence Medal for his service during WWII.