War Letters – NW Australia: 14 July 1943, Darwin; First impressions of life amongst the press corps

W.E. Pidgeon

DPR Unit

Army Post Office

Darwin

Wednesday night

Dear Jess,

Arrived here after a very long & rather exhausting trip which seemed to last for days.  Most of it was spent sprawled precariously over piles of sharp edged boxes and bloody hard crates of gear for some of the posts.  We left early Monday morning long before the roosters started their daily work.  I am somewhat vague as to the cans and cannots of communications.  All mail is censored.

Although I had no idea of what to expect in the way of habitation and country around here – none of it is even remotely like my nebulous preconceived notions.  Trees are laid on with lavish profusion & colour.  The climate is really balmy.  Typical summer days with mild & temperate nights which are really perfection at the moment.  Booful big moon plenty of stars & gentle Dotty Lamour breezes.  Everybody says it’s just perfect weather for the little yellow men to make a raid.  I’ve got my tin hat ready & the receptive trench eyed off.  Surprisingly enough there does not seem to have been much damage done – that is from what is visible now.  They do say as ‘ow they ‘ave cleaned it all up like.  Noticed a few big holes you could put half a house in but no one seems to have bothered to do so.  All so much useless spade work on the part of the nips.  Ninety-nine & then some percent of the houses (of which there are quite a lot) are made of fibro.  These are now nicely aired – cellstexed with irregular holes of varying shapes and sizes.

War Correspondents' Mess, Darwin; July 1943
War Correspondents’ Mess, Darwin; July 1943
War Correspondents' Mess, Darwin; July 1943
War Correspondents’ Mess, Darwin; July 1943

I was sure staggered to see my present living quarters.  A tin hut or hessian hut with rude bush carpentered beds and furniture was my dream.  Imagine my dismay in having to pig it in a two storied airy fibro cottage of very recent vintage and extremely pleasant design.  A large right angled room twice as big as our lounge occupies the centre of the building & from off lead a kitchenette, a tiled bathroom with shower recess & W.C. & 5 bedrooms.  It is all extremely airy – half of the walls are built on a pattern of venetian blinds – you may open or close them as is necessary.  About 11 of us sit down to meals – or to mess as is said.  The major of public relations sits at the head.  The good little boys are ranged down either side.  Food is pretty good – a new whole ham provided last night with tomatoes, lettuce and cucumber.  Sherry before dinner.  Australian whiskey on arrival & beer late last night.  It is hardly necessary to add that this grog was in moderate doses.  The ration is one bottle of beer a week.  I haven’t yet found out about the other alcohols.  Trotted off to an open air picture show last night – you take your own seat.    This is no trouble as 2 cars & 1 truck are at the disposal of the poor correspondents.  A team of American entertainers provided the first half of the show – they were really excellent.  Hard lines for the local lads that they were all men.  It is reported that down south 8 glamour girls were on the show too but higher ups decided such a show of limbs & breast might set in a rot among the troops, most of whom haven’t seen a dame for at least 6 months.  Comments when women appear on the screen are a trifle ribald.  I suppose real tarts would render them speechless.  It’s a rare sight to see the dags yelling out for Myrna Loy to hurry up & die (in the picture “The Rains Came”).  The distances between the various camps in this area are staggering.  I’ve been all day in a blasted car & seen about a dozen.  Christ only knows how I’m going to get around to the time needed to paint If I have to spend most of the day riding to & from the bloody joints.  I haven’t started yet.  It’ll take me a week to find the lay of the land.  It’s plenty hot.  Address your reply to W.E. Pidgeon – if you add a Mr. It will cost you 1 ½ d extra.  Airmail comes to me otherwise for 4d. Let me hear from you soon – am beginning to miss you – There’s no privacy & I don’t care much for a couple of these blokes.  Lots of love to you my sweetie-pie.

Heh-heh – love from

Bill.

War Letters – Brisbane, Sunday (11 July 1943), socialising

Oxford House

Brisbane

Sunday 8.30 am

I haven’t had malaria! – now aint  that a surprise to us all!

I’m leasing a monk like existence – Friday night after finding my kitbag I went to the pictures & saw “The Moon & Sixpence”.  It wasn’t much chop.  Saturday morning after returning from the hospital which was out along the road to that trailer camp we parked at five years ago I went with the boys to a pub and amazingly managed to get about six beers down before the drought set in.

Met another correspondent who had my phone number and a note from me in my own writing in his note book.  Neither he nor I have the faintest idea what it was about.  We had met him at the Royal Standard last year.  A civilian turned up who knew him – we were introduced & he said ‘not Bill Pidgeon?”.  “But yes” I say.  “Married a girl from the P.D.S.”  “U-huh” = me.  “Well” sez he “I’m Roy West, you and Jess had a drink with Jean Smith & I at the Great Southern just before we got married.”  What a teeny-weeny little world!  He and Jean have amicably parted.

Left him and went round to the Gresham hotel for dinner, in the midst of which a croaking voice hails me from behind & none other than dear old debtor Francis Clancy beams upon my shaken face.  “Christ, can’t I ever get away from you” I ask.  However he was sober and didn’t worry me.  Said he would ring this morning – but I won’t be here.  Am going down to have a look at what the boys call the press circus, i.e. G.H.Q. conference & handout.

I rang Eager but couldn’t contact him – he is away at his stud farm doesn’t return until tonight.

The food in this joint is very good.  The Yanks see to it that their bellies are well looked after.  According to the local correspondents they look after their John Thomases too with loving care & affection – see to it that they are never starved.

Went to bed at 8.30 pm last night.  Am getting sick of walking round the blocks!

Tell King I have met a lot of the boys.

Hugh Dash       –           Brammal

Lloyd Clarke   –           Hutton

Jack Brairs (?) –          Peterson

Mishael             –           Fitzhenry

Brisbane full of correspondents.  English Australian American.  I haven’t met Williams yet.

War Letters – Brisbane, Saturday (10 July 1943), Awaiting malaria test whilst waiting to fly to Darwin

“Everybody gapes at my green armbands”

Brisbane

Sat.

Dear Jesso,

Poor little Willie

Is sitting alone

I’m out at a military hospital waiting for results of a malaria test.  Everyone going north has to have a Malaria free certificate.

Arrived here at 1.15 after a pleasant trip.  When we got to ANA office in Brisbane I left my gear & reported to the Public Relations people where I had to get a further pass & have arrangements made for transport further on.  So far as I know I’m leaving Monday.

Contacted Hughie Dash, Telegraph representative here.  He took me round, got me accommodation at a PRIVATE hotel.  When I returned to pick up the luggage – the blasted kit bag was missing.  One of the girls seemed to think it a great joke that she had seen a soldier take it out.  Christ! Was I mortified!  Panic swept over me like a steamroller.  Your heart would have bled for me.  The manager was a little more civilized & suggested it may have been picked up by mistake.  So he started ringing all the military folk who were on the plane.  None of them had it.  At 6.30 pm I staggered down to the Police & reported.  Tottered back to the ANA & at 7 pm the bloody thing turned up!  A RAAF driver had taken it in mistake.  I’d have got drunk if there was anything to drink in this God-damned dry joint.  The beer here just ‘aint!  It’s only for ½ hour midday and again from 4.45 pm to 5.15 pm.  A seething screaming mob of soldiers and civilians battle grimly for a smell of what’s going.  Most of them only get a look at it.  Hugh Dash, Ian Gall, cartoonist and Roy Connolly, (of Colin Wills wife fame) & I managed to get 4 beers & 3 rums between 2 pubs.  Grog was then over.

Brisbane is a hell of a lot busier than Sydney.  Streets are jammed with cars and people.  Vast vistas of squealing yanks open before the eyes.  The place is lousy with them.  At night the city is scarcely less infested than in day.  S’Awful!  Everybody gapes at my green armbands – most embarrassing – one hears – “Big Shots!”, “General Staff” etc.  Mortifying!  All the others have learnt from experience to wear inconspicuous metal badges.  The correspondents life is not a happy one!

STOP PRESS

Am leaving for Darwin at tremendously early hour as appointed.  Lots of love, be good and give me some kind thoughts – love

Willie

War Letters Back Home – from Northern Australia, Papua New Guinea, Morotai and Borneo

During WW2, William Edwin Pidgeon (Wep) was a War Correspondent for The Australian Women’s Weekly. Between 1943 and 1945, Bill was attached to the Australian troops in Northern Australia, Papua New Guinea, Borneo and Morotai where he was situated when hostilities ceased in August 1945. In his work he recorded the daily lives of the men, women and natives around the camps, field hospitals, race meetings, church parades and some famous battle scenes. As a participant in their lives he drew and painted his subjects with a marked sense of involvement and an unmistakably Australian feeling of casualness. There is no straining after effect in his compositions, which are almost always of groups of figures in their appropriate settings. Their style is quite opposite to the style of the official war artist’s portrayal of troops in heroic action. The paintings are usually small in size, with a limited colour palette and restricted by what material was available on the run.

The following is a collection of letters to his wife, Jess, during these trips; letters composed in similar vein to his painting, yet full of visual verbal description describing life amongst the troops complete with illustrations scattered throughout.