World War II veteran Ted Howe knows what it is like to lose good mates. Mr Howe stood alongside about 100 fellow soldiers at the beginning of the Kokoda Campaign in Papua New Guinea, in July 1942, as part of B Company of the 2/31 Battalion 7th Division. Less than 10 soldiers from the 7th Division survived. The campaign lasted approximately five months before the Japanese were defeated, literally on Australia’s doorstep.
“I lost some good mates there,” Mr Howe said.
The 95-year-old also saw action in the Middle East and Borneo during WWII, but it is his experiences in the jungles of PNG that have clearly left an indelible mark on one of the most famous faces in the small North-West Tasmanian seaside town of Penguin. So much so that Mr Howe – who has worshipped at the Penguin Uniting Church for about 70 years – said it took more than a decade after his return before he felt comfortable talking about his war-time experiences.
“I just would never say much about it,” he said.
It was only after attending a reunion with mates in Queensland that he felt comfortable opening up about the war. Like many young men, Mr Howe enlisted smartly after war was declared in 1939. Following basic training in New South Wales, he found himself on the Queen Mary bound for England before heading to the Middle East to do battle with the Germans.
Mr Howe copped two bullets – one in the leg which still bothers him and another in the ribs – during the Middle East campaign.
He returned to Australia as a corporal before being shipped to PNG to halt the advancing Japanese. According to Mr Howe, he and his mates were prepared to fight but were not prepared for the conditions they faced.
“It was very tough and the Japanese were always keeping us tidy (occupied),” he said.
“We had come out of the desert and were suddenly in forests where it was muddy and slippery all the time.
“It would rain every afternoon and you would be wet through. You would go to sleep like that and wake up dry.
“That was when you actually got some sleep.
“You had to carry everything you had and all we had to eat were these biscuits we called dog biscuits (because they were so hard).
“It was tough.”
Almost 700 Australians soldiers lost their lives in PNG while a further 5000 were either injured or fell sick. The Japanese lost 6500 soldiers in the campaign. According to Mr Howe, the PNG natives – or ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ as they became known – were essential allies during the conflict.
“They certainly looked after us when we were wounded.”
Mr Howe counts himself lucky to have been one of the survivors, given he believes he cheated death twice.
“One time I bumped into a tree and there was a Japanese sniper (hiding in it) and he just missed me. Another time I was sheltering under a tree when a mate asked me to go and help him collect something. When we got back a few minutes later that tree had been bombed.”
Mr Howe married Edna Lancaster, in the Penguin Methodist Church, during a week’s leave following the Kokoda campaign.
He returned to the army and was serving in Borneo in September 1945 when news came through that the war was over.
“That was the happiest thing I ever heard. They (his senior officers) came and said ‘Ted, pack your gear. You are going home’.”
As fate would have it, Mr Howe missed an opportunity to return to Kokoda last year when illness stopped him from joining a group of veterans for a service to recognise the 70th anniversary of the conflict. In late 1945 Mr Howe returned to Penguin and paid cash for his first house. Mr Howe lived there with his wife until she passed away in 1987 and lived independently until he moved into the Coroneagh Park aged care facility following a fall last year.
Mr Howe’s father-in-law arranged a job for him with the Penguin Council, where he rose to the position of roads supervisor before retiring at the age of 61. Mr Howe has not missed an Anzac Day service at Penguin since he returned from the war. For many years he served as the parade marshal for the Dawn Service.
It is a chance to remember those who didn’t return, as well as the friends lost throughout the years. Mateship and camaraderie have featured strongly in Mr Howe’s life. Returning from the war, the digger soon became involved with his local Aussie-rules football team.
Football has been a lifelong passion for Mr Howe. He would have been in the crowd when the Penguin Football Club began its 2013 Northern Tasmanian Football League season.
Mr Howe played with the club after the war until 1950 when he turned his hand to training. For more than 60 years he massaged the aches and pains of players but was forced to give it away after breaking his hip last year.
“I just can’t get around as well now,” Mr Howe said.
“But, I still get to games. There is always someone to pick me up and take me.”
Mr Howe’s devotion to the Two Blues has been recognised with life membership of both the club and the league. He said he remained involved because he just loved the game and the enduring friendships he had made. Mr Howe said he had to concede he could not be as active as he once had been.
“I am handicapped now with my hip but I just have to accept that,” he said.
“I miss not being able to get out into the garden. I would love to still be able to do that.”
But, Mr Howe considers himself fortunate to have many good friends around to ensure he is able to get to the football and church virtually every weekend.