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Memories of Morotai: Vern Roberts in conversation with Neil Sharkey

Conflict:
Second World War (1939-45)
Service:
Air Force

Leading Aircraftman Vern Roberts was a fitter with No. 24 Squadron RAAF and was posted to Morotai during the Second World War. 

On the 9th of September, 1945, Vern witnessed the Australian commander-in-chief Field Marshal Thomas Blamey accept the formal surrender of the 2nd Japanese Army. 

Now 99, Vern has an impeccable memory and shares with Shrine curator Neil Sharkey his memories of service and life at Morotai.

Music:

Kevin Grahams, Together

Transcript:

LAURA THOMAS: Welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance podcast. My name is Laura Thomas and I'm the production coordinator here at the Shrine. In this episode, you’ll meet Leading Aircraftman Vern Roberts, who was a fitter with No. 24 Squadron RAAF

Vern was posted to Morotai – a small Indonesian island – where he serviced aircraft carrying out raids on Borneo and the surrounding islands. 

On the 9th of September, 1945, Vern witnessed the Australian commander-in-chief Field Marshal Thomas Blamey accept the formal surrender of the 2nd Japanese Army. 

Now 99, Vern has an impeccable memory and shares with Shrine curator Neil Sharkey his memories of service and life at Morotai.

NEIL SHARKEY: It's wonderful to be with you here today, Vern. So I was wondering, perhaps the best way to start off this conversation is just to ask you, when did you join the Royal Australian Air Force? And what were your reasons for doing so? 

VERN ROBERTS: I turned 18 in 1942, October, and I joined actually the Air Force in November, the the 7th 1942. The reason for joining because Australia was under threat. Andwhen you turned 18 you either had to stay in your job or go to navy, air force or army. So I chose the Air Force because I was interested in aeroplanes as a young boy. And it all all developed from there.

NEIL SHARKEY: Had you been in the Air Cadets or anything prior? 

VERN ROBERTS: No, no

NEIL SHARKEY: You just always loved planes?

VERN ROBERTS: And the industry that I worked in, was in the printing industry. I was apprenticed, there are so many industries that they manpower stopped them from joining because they had to stay in the industry for the war effort 

NEIL SHARKEY: Oh protected industries. 

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah, protected industries, but I wasn't in a protected industry so it allowed me to join.

NEIL SHARKEY: What did your parents think about that? You were still very young

VERN ROBERTS: Oh no they were okay. Everything was okay with home

NEIL SHARKEY: When you were you were, you know, when you became a recruit in the Air Force, was there then a period where you or the Air Force officials decided which branch of service you would go into and the sort of role that you fulfil?

VERN ROBERTS: Well, when you first joined up, you did a medical and also they checked you out for what you wanted to do. They asked you what you wanted to do in the Air Force. And I chose to work on aircraft as a fitter, or in those days, they called us riggers, and I put that down as my first preference. And eventually that happened after I did some training.

NEIL SHARKEY: Tell me a little bit about the training and where that took place. And when you actually went through that training was being a rigger what you imagined it would be or was?

VERN ROBERTS: Before I got to that stage, we were taken up straight away to Shepparton show grounds where we did a what they call the rookie course. And that opened up your eyes a little bit because you're under drill instructors, marching, doing drills using a rifle, that was about 10 days. And then from there, I got sent straight across to Adelaide with a group of other young fellas, we were there for two months doing what they call a basic training course. We had civilian instructors and they just wanted to find out what you knew and how you operated machines or filing or normal engineering stuff. And from there, they must have thought that I was okay to do the rigging course and I was sent to the Melbourne Showgrounds which was a technical training centre that was taken over by the Air Force and we did various courses there. They have technical training to work on aircraft. And from there I  must have passed that test okay, and I was taken then to East Sale which was only just opened then in 19.- April 1943. At East Sale, we were working on the old Lockheed Hudson's two engines, they weren't bombers. They were training planes then and Airspeed Oxfords which was an English aircraft and basically it was a training area for pilots and air gunners that we had to do the maintenance on the aircraft.

NEIL SHARKEY: Did you enjoy that work as much as you thought you might? 

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah, we did. We were quite happy doing what we were doing. But like a lot of other young fellas we didn't want to be stationed down south too long. And we were itching to get to the northern part of Australia where there was a bit of action going on. And we're a bit lucky in a way because not long into that period, Australian Air Force received World War Two B 24 bombers, which were four engineer aircraft...

NEIL SHARKEY: And they would have been the first four engine-

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah, four engine aircraft. We had to do a a course on Liberators. So to do that we were sent up to Tocumwal,  because that was where they were stationed. Tocumwall was built by the Australians, but for the Americans, because that was going to be a strategic base because Australia was very close to being invaded. And the four-engine aircraft, they wnted them down south, near the railway line, not far from Melbourne, that they could fly long distances. So they kept them down there. But so that's where we did our training on liberators, and that's where they formed up squadrons. 

NEIL SHARKEY: And so you were in number 24 squadron, is that right? 

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah, well, that was one of the first squadrons firmed. And there was 21 Squadron, and then 23 squadrons they performed that later on. I'm jumping a little bit further on, we became 82 Wing, but there were other squadrons, there were seven squadrons of Liberators eventually formed just during the next few months.

NEIL SHARKEY: Were there like American Air Force, Army Air Force corps that trained you on the Liberators as to how to operate them, like how did all these RAAF peole get their head around this complex aircraft? 

VERN ROBERTS: I got a feeling there might have been one or two Americans, but no, was mostly trained by our own men - Australians. They'd probably done a course before we did and they trained us well into doing service work on Liberator bombers, which were far bigger aircrafts than any others we've worked on. And it was a real challenge, actually.

NEIL SHARKEY: Vern, I thought I might ask you about the squadron that you joined. Number 24. Is there anything you'd like to say about the culture of that squadron? Like when you joined it? What, what sort of, did you meet any characters? Do you have any sense of?

VERN ROBERTS: Well, yes, well, I just love being in 24 Squadron, because I palled up with some very nice young fellows. And two or three of them I met later one after the war that continued on for quite a long time later, it's only two or three, but the culture the of the of the squadron was pretty high, actually. And actually, we were called the city of Adelaide. Adelaide sort of took over a 24 Squadron.

NEIL SHARKEY: How many people are we talking about was in the squadron, you know, like ground crew and air crew?

VERN ROBERTS: I think estimated at about 650. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Wow. 

VERN ROBERTS: In one Squadron, we had ordered fourteen to fifteen aircraft. Of course, that all took in medical, administration, cooks, general hands, service personnel like what I was on, it took a lot of people 

NEIL SHARKEY: What was the air crew of a liberator versus the number of men on the ground that had to keep it in operation?

VERN ROBERTS: To do a bit of an estimate there'd be on seven or eight engine fitters, five or six airframe. Then you had electricians and you had instruments armorers, they fitted the bombs and had to do with the machine guns. I'm not too sure how many would be there, but it'd be over 100 that look after each aircraft.

NEIL SHARKEY: So it's pretty complex undertaking just to keep these planes in operation. So at what point did you join the squadron? Presumably you went through various training squadrons before you got to number 24. And then at what point did you join 24? Was that at Tocumwal?

VERN ROBERTS: That formed up when we went to Tocumwal, and that was about 1943, middle of 1943 June, July and we were there for five or six months servicing aircraft, and then they decided that so many at 24 squadron was going to move up to Darwin. 

NEIL SHARKEY: So you got your wish, you got to heard North 

VERN ROBERTS: That was our wish, we wanted to get away. We weren't married or anything like that. And so many of us say, 'Oh, we've been posted to Darwin'. 

NEIL SHARKEY: When you went north to Darwin had you ever been that far North before?

VERN ROBERTS: Never Never. Before we went to Darwin, they put us on a commando course. Now, airmen doing a commando course because you never knew where you're going to finish up, you can finish up in the jungle or somewhere you know? So the commando course I did out at Little Wonga Park which is back into Ringwood. It was in the middle of winter, I can remember it was as cold as charity. And we had to do all this commando stuff with for about a week living in tents and and what have you. But from there, we were taken to embarkation depot, which in those days was run by was taken over by the Air Force and everybody that went to Melbourne Cricket Ground. The embarkation depot was sent on embarkation for war service in the Northern Territory. But before they fought us up, we had to stay in embarkation depot for a while. So the only place we slept was in the old southern stand in Melbourne Cricket Ground.

NEIL SHARKEY: So how did that work?

VERN ROBERTS: It was a freezing cold, it was terrible. 

NEIL SHARKEY: So they just laid out like cots for you.

VERN ROBERTS: Up in the stand, you know the stands, like seat after seat after seat? Well, the seats were taken out and there were stretchers put in where people would normally sit to watch the football. That's where we slept for three or four days. So we got fitted out with our gear to go north because you didn't take a winter clothes. So that was my experience of sleeping in Melbourne Cricket Grounds. Next thing, we're taken over to Adelaide, by the normal Adelaide train, and from Adelaide, we were taken by another train up to a little place called Toralee. I've seen it day many times since there's only a sort of a sighting. And that's where the old old Ghan left from. Because there was no way of getting up to the Northern Territory by road because there was no roads. There's only tracks. So they took us by train, took us three days to get to Alice Springs. And when we got to Alice Springs, we were bedded down on a big open area, suppose it was a sports ground, for a night or two and next thing we found ourselves sitting on the back of semi trailers on our kit bags, because the road from Alice Springs was made by the civil construction Corps during the war years,

NEIL SHARKEY: So you got the train to Alice Springs, and from there you were able they were able to take you on trucks to Darwin,

VERN ROBERTS: So on the way up was two or three stops and they were staging camps, and they were great big buildings built that with concrete floors, so you bedded down on the concrete floor with your ground sheet. Use the kitbag as your pillow and stayed overnight and then back on the semi trailer again, till we got to another staging camp. One was Elliott and one was Banka Banka. They were named after, Banka Banka was named after a cattle station. Elliott was the name of a little place. And then we got to Darwin and Katherine. And that's where we set up our squadron and operated about 8 k'sout of Katherine and the airfield was called Manbulloo. It was named after a cattle station and their aircraft operated off an airstrip out of there. And we were just living in tents for about two or three months because our aircraft were flying right across Australia and bombing shipping and that and the Timor Sea and further over, those islands a little bit further up that they covered. Although then our next move was further up north towards Darwin about 110 K's or miles in those days south of Darwin. Another airfield called Fenton named after flying doctor Clyde Fenton. But these airfields were built for the Americans because the Americans used those before we did and they're only just strips cut out of the bush but a long way from from Darwin, but the aircraft could fly so far they can fly for 3000 ks 3000 miles without refuelling and they could fly for 15 or 16 hours at a time. 

NEIL SHARKEY: So the Americans have moved further north at this point

VERN ROBERTS: Then the Americans went further North, we followed them up but that was where our final areas was, not final, but in Australia, was Fenton.

NEIL SHARKEY: And what sort of missions were the crews performing. You mentioned before they were patrolling for enemy shipping

VERN ROBERTS: Oh yeah and quite often they'd get shot down, like they are going further over to the islands north of Darwin. You'd lose a crew, if you lost a crew lost an aircraft you lost 11 Men. Because Australian B24s operated had 11 in the crew. 

NEIL SHARKEY: It's a big crew, isn't it?

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah, big crew. Well, then, eventually 24 and 21 Squadron were being sent up to a little island called Moratai, which is well north of New Guinea and about level with the Phillipines and Morotai was a strategic point for when General MacArthur said 'I shall return to the Philippines'. Well, it wasn't long before we got there that they, the Americans took Morotai off the Japanese, there was still Japs on the island, a compound of them, as well as some strays. And we eventually found our way up there after the Morotai was taken and MacArthur returned and as he said he shall return and he took Manila and the Philippines back. So that's when we operated on two big strips, air strips for the bombing of Borneo, Tarakan and Balikpapan. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Well it certainly was a very important Island if it was the staging point for the American invasion of the Philippines and for the Australian invasion of Borneo.

VERN ROBERTS: That's right. But how we got to Morotai was by two liberty ships. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Oh you had to go by ship?

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah, and liberty ships were built by the Americans for carrying cargo. But they also never had much in the way of transporting troops, so they used liberty ships,

NEIL SHARKEY: It wouldn't have been too comfortable.

VERN ROBERTS: Well, there were only 12 or 13,000 tonne and they weren't built for carrying troops. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Wasn't the Queen Mary 

VERN ROBERTS: I was fortunate enough to get up on deck with me stretcher and whatever, me and a couple of my mates, but so many of them will put in the holds. Because it was so hot down there and they didn't like it. So, it was pretty pretty primitive and we travelled on two ships called the Louis Arguello and the Cleveland Forbes.

NEIL SHARKEY: Okay, so all of the ground crew went on two Libert ships, that's how big it was. 

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah, well, then they had to have a escort. So we had a destroyer escort and we travelled across from Darwin and across the Arafura Sea, right around Port Moresby up the east coast of New Guinea till we got to the little island of Morotai which is in a group of islands called the Halmaheras.

NEIL SHARKEY: Were you very worried about when you were travelling on the ship up to the islands, were you worried about Japanese submarines? Were there any threat from any Japanese vessels at this time?

VERN ROBERTS: I can imagine being now as young boys, ewe were only 20, 19 or 20. We never worried, we were never worried about that. It was just an adventure. But now years later when you knew what was going on and in many books I've read since that there was still a lot activity from submarines and mini subs. 

NEIL SHARKEY: So when you were at Morotai, you said there was already an airstrip that had already been - were they Japanese air strips?

VERN ROBERTS: Well, they had used them. They'd had originally built them I think. And then the airfield construction corps made them longer for long range bombers. They needed long strips to take off because they were 30 tonne fully loaded with men and with a crew and with full of petrol. It was a fair weight taking off. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Vern, in number 24 Squadron, can you tell us a little bit about the different roles of the the air crew versus the role of the Ground Crew the sort of work that you were doing, and how the work you were doing related to the men inside the planes flying the missions. I'm guessing that, you know, there was a lot of, you know, the cooperation between the two crews is very important.

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah. Well, to be quite honest, I never had a lot to do with the air crews. Virtually, aircrew were a bit different to ground crew, not that we didn't like each other. But we never had much to do with each other. And the air crews came and got in the aircraft. And off they flew. And what I've read since, I  wouldn't like to be in an air crew. Because they did it really hard and at times got shot down. And sometimes they parachuted out and they got prisoners of war. We were back looking after aircraft. So that didn't enter into our thoughts really, because we didn't really know what happened. But since then I've read so much that it was not easy to be in the air crew. Some got out of it okay, but there was a lot of them that didn't. We were fortunate we weren't in the firing line that's all.

NEIL SHARKEY: So there was never any, like air raids against the bases that you were at while you were there? Not at Fenton and not at Morotai?

VERN ROBERTS: No, never. Not that Fenton and Katherine weren't bombed at the height of the bombing, but I never experienced that. 

NEIL SHARKEY: By the time you got there the Japanese threat had been neutralised?

VERN ROBERTS: I was pretty fortunate in that respect. If the war had gone any longer, who knows? I mightn't have been here now. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Or if you'd gone in earlier I supposed. 

VERN ROBERTS: There would have been things happen, that they would have gone on further and we wouldn't know where we will finish up. 

NEIL SHARKEY: How did they keep a lid on on you guys? They must have had to entertain you in some way. 

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah, well, there were entertainment parties in amongst the boys themselves. But this particular day, at Morotai, the Yanks got looked after real well and they used to call them USO shows. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Oh, yeah. Like Bob Hope and, and Ginger Rogers.

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah, and we were opposite another American camp. And they said there's a big show on tonight. And so we went and I don't know whether we knew who was going to be on or not. But anyway, I think we might have. We went over in the early afternoon and we had little seats we make ourselves to sit and watch the pictures in nighttime, out in the rain. It rained every night almost. And this night, it was Gracie Fields who was a great English entertainer. And here she is all the way up in Moratai. That was an occasion, I'll always remember that. But then it got to the stage where we had no news of what was happening with the war. And we didn't know if it was getting closer, or what. And we didn't even know they dropped a bomb on Hiroshima and we didn't know they dropped a bomb on Nagasaki. But when they dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki, that's when they surrendered. The night that they surrendered, just a little story on my part, we had to do guard duty. Even though we were technical, we still had to do guard duty and each aircraft had to be guarded each night. Well this particular night,, the Duty Officer picked us up and dropped us off at each aircraft with their 303 rifle and our little stretcher. We used to put that underneath, because it was too hot to get in the aircraft, and with our mosquito net, hook it up onto the underneath the aircraft and I heard about 11 or 12 o'clock I heard all this firing, rifle firing and I thought 'Jesus the Japss have broken out of the compound' because they had a few Japs and there was a few loose ones around. And I was a bit worried. you know. And the duty officer come flying down the strip on his little jeep. He said 'Don't worry boys'. He said 'It's the boys down the camp firing off their rifles because we've got word that Japan's surrendered'. He said 'But I won't pick you up tomorrow morning'. So I happened to be on duty that night

NEIL SHARKEY: You got a bit of a fright. 

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah. Also, I'll continue on because we didn't go home. It was August the 15th. And I never come home until December just before '45, before Christmas, because our aircraft, instead of bombers, they were transporting prisoners of war and nurses, and any army guys who couldn't travel too well, we're bringing them down. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Oh the prisoner of war camps? Liberated?

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah there was 25 and 26 people on each aircraft and flying them down to the southern states and then come back again and pick up another lot because the aircraft had to be serviced in that time. So we were stuck there from August till December servicing the aircraft when the war was over. 

NEIL SHARKEY: So what was it like to see all those liberated prisoners? It must have been quite emotional.

VERN ROBERTS: To be quite honest, I didn't see much of that. I didn't see them get in the aircraft. I can honestly say that. They must have picked them up at certain times. Since then, I've been involved with rebuilding a Liberator Bomber at Werribee, and one or two fellas, one in particular, he was a pilot at Crabtree. We had a service there or a get together one weekend. And we all had to give a little talk about what I'm talking to you about now. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Yeah, your experiences 

VERN ROBERTS: and Ed said he had to fly very low at times because the prisoners of war were just skin and bone. And he said it was too cold to fly too high. So he had to keep the aircraft down below 10,000 feet. And the nurses were, I think they were pretty fit and able to fly but others they will fly higher,

NEIL SHARKEY: Depending on the condition of the prisoner. 

VERN ROBERTS: So that happened with a lot of the aircraft, all the three squadrons 21, 24 and 23 squadrons They all did that so they bought down so many. In December they decided to send us home and so we flew home in a Liberator, refuelled from Morotai to Darwin and refuelled and then come down to Tocumwal. And from Tocumwal, I found my way to Laverton. I can remember that. They said 'Oh, there's an aircraft going down to Laverton, you better jump on that'. So I jumped on it and just as a fill in, you know, and, and living in Footscray, it wasn't long before I was home, was it? 

NEIL SHARKEY: You didn't leave more Morotai until December, in September though there was the big surrender ceremony of the second Japanese army with Thomas Blamey, General Thomas Blamey took the surrender of the main Japanese forces in that region. Were you there that day? 

VERN ROBERTS: Well, the war finished on August 15. September the 9th we were taken to a big open area, I think it had been a big playing field that we were all assembled. And I had a little camera that my mother had given me when I left to go up north, I must have been in a pretty good position because I got a lot of photos very close up. And then we were given this official document, we'll put it that way, of the signing of the surrender by General Thomas Blamey 

NEIL SHARKEY: Oh like a souvenir? 

VERN ROBERTS:  Yeah. And his officers and those photos were about the same as mine, because I must have been pretty close to get them. I can't remember now. 

NEIL SHARKEY: That's a great, momentous occasion being there and seeing all that.

VERN ROBERTS: It was an occasion, I suppose, historical occasion, we came home and no one ever talked much about where they'd been and when my own family didn't know much about where I'd been and all the rest of it until the last few years. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Is that a difficult adjustment coming back from the war?

VERN ROBERTS: We just come back and picked up with their civilian life and got married and had children and that was it. But even my own father in law was at Morotai the same time as I was, and he was in the Navy. And I never knew. We never talked about it. My own brother in law was a prisoner of war from Crete. And the other brother in law was in the Navy when he was up in the islands too. But always years later, we knew we would, you know, we talked about being on the Air Force and Navy and Army, whatever, but never got into conversation about it. And I wish I had of.

NEIL SHARKEY: Were people worried that they'd trample on each other's feelings or that they would upset one another or?

VERN ROBERTS: I don't know. We had enough. I think everyone had enough. We didn't want to discuss it anymore. You know. Now it's become history. 

NEIL SHARKEY: How about the Liberator itself? Like, what does that aircraft mean to you? You said you've been working on the restoration of, of a liberator at Werribee, so obviously you were drawn to doing that.

VERN ROBERTS: I never ever thought I ever would. But one day my neighbour, I got very friendly with him. And he said he was in the Air Force Association and he used to get a newsletter. And he said to me, 'They're rebuilding the Liberator bomber down at Werribee'. He said, 'You were on liberators'. I said, 'Yeah'. Anyway, got talking to a mate of mine. And he was he was an Air Cadet, but he never ever got into the Air Force because he was in a protected industry. And I told him about it. He said, 'Oh, I'd be interested in that. Why don't you go and make some inquiries?'. So I did. And I found out all about it. So I eventually went down. And when I got there, it was in two pieces. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Sure. And you've been involved in repairs on the plane? Did you remember from all those times? Or did you have to retrain yourself to be able to do these tasks? 

VERN ROBERTS: It come back a bit. But to be quite honest, there was guys that knew more about engineering than what I did, because that's their profession. And they took over a fair bit, and we followed along and did a lot of riveting. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Do you feel that having a liberator in existence gives people a better sense of what those war years were like?

VERN ROBERTS: Yeah. Yeah. Because people, kids walk into that hangar and look at that Liberator and how big it is. Because they were super fortresses, there were fortresses and liberators. England had Lancaster's, but they walk into that hangar and see, and you can see their eyes, you know, 'Jesus, look at the size of it',  And they were pretty big. So it gives you a sense of you've done something that's brought back history, and there's only one left in Australia. And in the whole world, they built 18,000 plus liberators in America, and there's only in the world today, nine or 10. 

NEIL SHARKEY: Look, it's been a real pleasure and an honour speaking with you today, Vern. I'd just like to thank you so much for being with the Shrine of Remembrance today. And for sharing your recollections and your stories with us. And, and thank you for the work that you did during the war and the work of all of your comrades in arms. And thank you for the work that you and the rest of the team down at Werribee have been doing restoring this amazing aircraft so future generations can have a real sense of what you did during the war. 

VERN ROBERTS: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.

LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Shrine of Remembrance podcast. For more search Shrine of Remembrance wherever you get your podcasts

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