During the war, Ken Smith typified many adolescent Australians. Brimming with energy, he saw his goal as helping the country defeat the fascism of Germany and imperial Japan. Because of his age, however, young Ken had to follow the progress of the Allies, which included his uncle, from afar. Born in November 1925 he was only 14 when the Second World War commenced, but that didn't stop him from at least getting himself ready.
"I was very keen and also very fit. My father had been a Depression-era boxer."
His preparation included among other things regular bushwalks and camping in the Royal National Park and cycling to Queensland with a mate. The age issue is ironic given the two were arrested during the trip as likely Army deserters. Once the authorities took a closer look, of course, the two were released.
Ken also joined the Militia as a way to ease into the AIF without alarming his mother who was terrified at the prospect of her beloved son becoming fodder for Japanese soldiers in the jungles of New Guinea.
At his workplace, Ken made the mistake of confiding in his employer and colleagues that he intended to put up his age and enlist. They happened to be American Brethren opposed to the war and they swiftly alerted the recruitment office. To counteract this, Ken appealed to a court judge who questioned him about his ambitions. He asked what service Kenneth wanted to be in and Ken told him the Army. Next he was asked about his age and Ken produced a forged birth certificate that showed his age as 18, not 17, and the judge overruled the recruiters' decision.
Next thing, Ken was off to Bathurst for training. An officer spotted his potential and recommended him for Officer training school and he sat the test. He came second and was promoted to Corporal. But this, he thought to himself, was not what he wanted. He realised he was more interested in being on the frontline rather than giving orders as an Officer. He was also up against a group of seasoned Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) who'd been in the army for a while and were much more likely to become Officers.
"I wanted to get into action and not stay in training school. My idea of war was to do something."
He joined the Victoria-based 7th Australian Infantry Battalion and after intensive pre-deployment training in Canungra then Atherton, Queensland, in November 1943, the group sailed to Lae, New Guinea. There the Battalion was tasked with taking over from the Americans and launching a renewed offensive on Bougainville.
At one point, Ken and his men were sent behind enemy lines to get an idea of Japanese positions and generally "create havoc". This didn't go down well with other Australian services, especially the patrol boats just off the coast "because it would stir up the Japanese". But Ken's view was, "if you want to play soldiers, you don't want to be left out."
Ken's unit was a very effective, fast-moving group and they were often used for intelligence-gathering. They were put on a boat and spent a lot of time exploring the island which the British still administered and making maps and documenting enemy positions and assets, valuable information which other Allied forces relied heavily on for their strategic planning. They had a range of techniques for moving around undetected including hiring locals to walk behind them to cover their tracks.
There were many close calls including an ambush by the Japanese in Bougainville which they were lucky to escape from. Over the course of the final three months until the end of the war, the 7th Battalion captured 25 Japanese positions, winning back Bougainville and other islands.
After the Japanese Surrender, Ken's 7th Battalion took on the task of guarding the thousands of Japanese POWs on the island of Fauro.
Kenneth in Japan
Ken joined the 64th Battalion as one of the thousands of Australian servicemen and women in the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) in Japan. As if they hadn't sacrificed enough, these brave volunteers helped the defeated enemy get back on its feet, serving in cities like Tokyo and Kure as well as being prominent in Hiroshima, the first of only two cities to be obliterated by atomic weapons.
As with so many veterans of this era, Ken is modest about his achievements and says, "It was nothing to write about, I was just an ordinary soldier."
One wonders what Ken's mother might have thought of all this?