Ken Solomons’ Army career began in October 1941 when he joined the Citizens Military Force or CMF. “I could see Japan was going to enter the war, so I joined the home defence. We had three months of voluntary parades and then we mobilised. We had troops scattered along the beaches of New South Wales in preparation for a Japanese invasion. I was a wireless operator in the Armoured Division Signals based at the Coffs Harbour Showground.”
“Coffs Harbour was a strategic location for a Japanese invasion. Coffs is halfway between Sydney and Brisbane and the railway line runs right near the beach. The Japanese could destroy the rail line and prevent our troops from getting to Brisbane.”
In 1942 after a year in the militia, Ken transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. “The militia wasn’t allowed to serve outside of Australia and its territories. So, the militia could go to parts of New Guinea but not the north west corner, Dutch New Guinea. This frustrated General MacArthur.”
With the war in the Pacific escalating, the Allied forces needed boats to transport people and supplies up the rivers of New Guinea. “There was a lack of roads and ports in New Guinea, and there were no Navy boats capable of running the shallow rivers.”
“The Navy said it would take them 18 months to manufacture suitable boats, but they were needed in six weeks. While the boats were being built, they used civilian boats like fishing trawlers.”
The civilian boats were gradually replaced by Army-built boats. “They built them all over Australia, 40 foot to 52 foot boats. By the end of the war there were 1900 small boats.”
Ken was assigned to the Australian Army Water Transport unit. “I trained for 10 months on a ketch at Fraser Island. Before then, I had only played around with very small boats.”
After completing his training, Ken skippered a boat five days north from Cairns to Biak, a small island to the north of New Guinea. There he joined a flotilla of other boats and it was another five days or so to Morotai Island, the staging place for invasions in nearby Balikpapan on Borneo.
There he joined a growing fleet of water transport boats. “There were no roads in Morotai, so things were offloaded from the cargo ships into our small boats. We were more or less trucks on water, working 24 hours, seven days a week.”
One of the boats driven by Ken
It was risky work and Ken continued at this for 12 months.
“The boats were easy targets for the Japanese. And, there were the seas and the cyclones. Each time you go to sea in a small boat you’re afraid. Our unit lost 20-odd boats over the period of the war.”
In Morotai, there was also malaria to contend with. The damp, swampy islands were breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. The cinchona trees that provided the bark for making the antimalarial, quinine, grew in the Dutch East Indies. So, when the Nazis occupied Holland, they took control of the quinine supplies. Australian and American sailors, soldiers and airmen had to make do with the substitute antimalarial, Atabrine.
Atabrine had some terrible side effects: nausea, headaches, diarrhea and yellowing of the skin. “The pills also had an unpleasant bitter taste. They would line up the men to take their Atabrine and get them to open their mouths to show they’d swallowed it. A lot of people spat it out.”
Tropical ulcers were another problem with the wet steamy climate and poor nutrition. Ken suffered from chronic ulcers that later became cancerous. “I ended up having to have my bottom left jaw and inside of my cheek removed. Disease was as great an enemy as the Japanese.”
Ken mainly ferried people and it could be quite hairy especially navigating around the 10 - 20,000 ton ships. His duties did have its highlights, including taking the top brass to and from shore and sometimes even visiting stars like Gracie Fields who later sent Ken an autographed personal photo.
Ken remembers the day the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. “There were rockets going up. We thought the Japanese had broken through but then we heard the Americans had dropped some fandangle bomb, a very powerful one. The rockets were celebratory.”
It was another 10 days before the war actually finished and then Ken stayed on in the region till March 1946.
“It took months for the Japanese to surrender. Up to 10 years after the war, they would still find Japanese soldiers on the remote islands.”
All up, Ken spent four years and eight months skippering army small boats around Australia and the Pacific. He describes his wartime service as “being a small cog in a big wheel.” He says he just “happened to be in the right place at the right time. I wasn’t Errol Flynn I didn’t win the war.”