You could not find a bigger contrast in topography- experienced by one man during two World Wars. From riding in the heat and dust of ‘The Desert Column’ with the Australian Light Horse – to the monsoonal downpours experienced by the diggers of the 8th Australian Division in Malaya and Java; Walter James BOOTH fought in two conflicts in opposite corners of the globe. The first time as a Trooper with the 6th Light Horse Regiment – the second as a Staff Sergeant with the 2/3 Reserve Motor Transport Company.
Walter James BOOTH was born on the 11th of July, 1891 in Sydney, New South Wales. His calling before the outbreak of the Great War was “Attendant” at the Sydney Town Hall. So when he enlisted into the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) on the 8th of June, 1915 – his age was indicated as being 27 years and 11 months. Interestingly, this city boy was accepted as a reinforcement for the 6th Australian Light Horse Regiment and in what must have seemed like a ‘whirlwind’ of activity – less than three weeks later he was onboard the transport HMAT Clan MacEwan, bound for the Middle East. One can only assume that he knew how to ride a horse! His service number was 1064 and he would not see Australia’s shores again until 1919.
Walter did not spend long in training; being taken on strength with the 6th Light Horse Regiment on Gallipoli on the 2nd of October, 1915. Just over two months later on the 4th of December, he suffered a ‘G.S.W’ (gun shot wound) to the point of his shoulder – however the wound was not severe and he did not require evacuation at that time. But with the Australians completing their evacuation of ANZAC on the 19th/20th December, 1915 – it is evident that he left Gallipoli within the next two weeks.
Spending some time in Egypt, it would appear that his ‘war wounds’ were not limited exclusively to enemy action. As his service record indicates, he may have had some close encounters in certain establishments of ill repute within Cairo…..which resulted in some stints in hospital during 1916 & 1917.
However, his service record indicates that he suffered a second Gun Shot Wound on the 29th of November, 1917 – this wound occasioned to his left leg. A number of his service entries relate to his admission to hospital. After a period of convalescing – he rejoined his unit….but is often the case with troops in the Middle East campaign, Walter suffered bouts of illness which required him to be withdrawn from the field. It is ironic that during this time, one such affliction was the contracting of “malaria” during May of 1918. A disease that would come back to haunt him in the jungles of Malaya and Thailand as a prisoner of war during World War Two.
It was not until the cessation of hostilities that he would be promoted from Trooper to Lance Corporal – before being granted “early repatriation” back to Australia aboard HMAT Port Sydney on the 4th of March, 1919. With over three years of overseas service, Walter was granted his full medal entitlement and peacetime found his return to employment with the Council of the City of Sydney.
PHOTO RIGHT: 1064 Trooper Walter James BOOTH. Just visible on his left epaulette, is the brass numeral ‘6’ and letters ‘L/H’ which signify his unit, prior to the advent of cloth colour patches. Born and bred in Sydney, Walter’s service is testimony to the fact that the Australian Light Horse Regiments were not exclusively formed with men from the country. Walter had filled in his enlistment form on the 8th of June, 1915….just twenty days later (28th June, 1915) he was onboard ship and off to war.
During the ‘inter-war’ years, Walter married his first wife Edith and they would bear three children as a result of their union:- Norma, Walter (junior) and Ray.
On the 3rd of September, 1939 – war had come to the world for a second time. The 8th Australian Division was formed and it was this formation that would be shipped to the Far East, to help bolster the defences of ‘Fortress Singapore’ at the southern tip of Malaya. As fate would have it, Walter would become part of that body and end up a Prisoner of War to the Japanese for over three years of brutal captivity.
PHOTO LEFT: Second World War Attestation papers for NX68905 Walter James BOOTH. With regards to his age – Walter stated that he was 39 years and 10 months old (just two months under the cut-off age of 40 years for other ranks). He obviously wished to maintain a low key, as Item number 7 on the form makes the request: Give details of previous Military Service. Walter has left this section ‘blank’ and to Item 8, “If now serving, give particulars” ….he has responded simply with the word ‘No’.
He filled out his Attestation Form on the 7th of February, 1941 and the World War Two Nominal Roll records his enlistment as taking place on the 5th of March, 1941. Allocated the Service Number NX68905 – Walter was assigned to the 3rd Reserve Motor Transport Company being formed at Liverpool (known as the 2/3 Res M.T. Coy – the ‘2’ signified that it was the Second AIF ……a “3 Reserve Motor Transport Company” being in existance during the First World War with the First AIF).
He recorded his date of birth as being the 11th of July, 1902 (11 years short of his real age) to ensure that he fitted the eligibility criteria. Originally in 1939, the maximum age of a general enlistee had been 35 (higher for officers and some N.C.O’s) but this limit was raised to 40 years of age in 1940. With this ‘amended’ birth day, Walter sneaked in with a stated age of 39 years and 10 months at the time of his enlistment.
One can only assume that the logistical difficulty (and lack of modern technology) of checking any First World War Records – made investigating misleading or fraudulent applications; such as Walter’s near impossible. Either way, there is no indication on his paperwork – that there were any doubts as to Walter’s true date of birth. And with the state of affairs in Europe at this time, it is likely that many a “blind eye” was turned in Walters and many other cases; in order to fill our 4 Divisions for overseas service.
His enlistment into the Second AIF showed Walter – that little had changed in the way of deployment protocols since his first tour of duty in 1915. Less than 3 months of signing his Attestation Form (7th February, 1941) he was disembarking from a ship onto the docks of Singapore (3rd of May, 1941).
Walter was appointed to the rank of Acting Corporal on the day that he landed in Singapore; and was detached from his unit for duty with ‘2 Echelon – Malaya’. He remained on this seconded duty until the 28th of June, 1941 – when he returned to the 2/3 Reserve Motor Transport Company and his rank of Corporal was confirmed. Then, on the 18th of October, 1941 he was promoted to the rank of Lance Sergeant.
On the 1st of November, 1941 – he was detached for duty with “L” Force and his service record states that he rejoined the 3 M.T. Coy on the 23rd of November. However, his movements indicate that he embarked onboard a ship at Singapore on the 6th of February, 1942 and disembarked at Java on the 11th of February…..just four days before Singapore was to fall.
His service record (clearly – these service records were maintained back in Australia) has an entry dated 25/3/42 which indicates his movement from Singapore to Java. A stark line was drawn under this entry….the next entry is dated the 27/4/42 and this simple states the word “Missing”. The next entry dated 29/4/42 records the words “Missing believed P.O.W”
The next entry is not until the 28/7/43 (almost 12 months to the day) which clearly states the words “PRISONER OF WAR” as an inked stamping – and the word “Java” next to that. But the reality was, after twelve months of captivity…..Walter could have been anywhere.
As it turned out, that month of July 1943 saw Walter and his comrades – suffering the living hell that was the ‘Thai-Burma Railway’. In fact, Walter had the unenviable honour – to be given special mention in a diary kept by Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop. On the 12th of July, 1943 Sir Edward wrote “NX68905, S/Sgt BOOTH, W.J. aged 52 was admitted to hospital. On 10 July, he was savagely set upon by Nipponese engineer, punched, kicked and struck on the head with a stick. Today he was required by the Nipponese to take charge of a party of 8 men to carry a heavy ‘shoot’ or ‘skid’ for logs etc. out to the railway. It was 1600 hours when they got back and for thanks, S/Sgt BOOTH was punched in the face and head, thrown repeatedly to the ground, struck on the head and body with a stick and kicked in the jaw by a soldier known to the AAF, as the Crow”. (The War Diaries of Sir Edward Dunlop, Commanding Officer and Surgeon on the Burma-Thailand Railway 1942-1945)
Walter obviously survived this ordeal, however we Australians should never forget the cruelty and deprivation suffered by our 8th Division, other Allied troops, Chinese and indigenous Asians – during the Japanese occupation. Much has been written, about what shamefully occurred to our men at the hands of a heartless Japanese Army (please see the Recommended Reading section at the bottom of this narrative) Walter’s service record indicates that on the 29th of September, 1945 – his nightmare was over and he embarked at Singapore. He disembarked at Sydney on the 20th of October, 1945 and it is believed that during this time, he was convalesced at Morotai for a short time. Even at the time of his discharge from the army, his correct age is not being recorded….the document declaring that he was 44 years and 4 months.
PHOTO RIGHT: Portrait of NX68905 Walter James BOOTH. Due to the state of his apparent good health….and as this photograph shows him devoid of any rank – it is believed that it was taken in Sydney, prior to his embarkation to Singapore.
Walter returned to his civil employment after the war (with the Council of Sydney City) where he served until July of 1957. He served this council for 48 years…..his employment period only interrupted by two World Wars. His wartime wife, Edith passed away in August of 1956. As fate would have it, Walter married Captain Ellie BROGAN (retired) Australian Army Nursing Service who had nursed him for a time during his convalescence period.
Walter’s health began to deteriorate, partly as a result of his mis-treatment as a P.O.W. and in the early 1960’s – he was forced to confine himself more to his home in Campsie. Once again, his second wife Ellie was required to ‘nurse’ this man as a result of his war service. Walter suffered from the debilitating effects and complications of Prostate Cancer and died on the 19th of February, 1965. Ellie was to live for another 20 years and Walter’s war medals were to remain in her “Army Footlocker” until the late 1990’s. A number of years later, they were returned to Wally (junior) – Walters son – by the nephew of Ellie Brogan (Chris Heffernan – please see the Success Story section of the Medals Gone Missing website)
PHOTO LEFT: NX70618 Captain Eleanor Elizabeth BROGAN, 2/9 A.G.H (Australian General Hospital) Australian Army Nursing Service. Ellie enlisted on the 10th of January, 1941 and saw service in both the Middle East and the South West Pacific Area. She served for a total effective period of two thousand and twenty five days; of which one 1,320 days were served overseas. She was awarded the 1939-1945 Star, Africa Star, Pacific Star, Defence Medal, 1939-1945 War Medal and the 1939-1945 Australia Service Medal. Ellie nursed Walter in his last years.
It is easy for a ‘peacetime’ nation to forget the sacrifices made by Walter’s generation, so many years ago. The vast majority of our population have never known; and never will know – the hardships of war, as our diggers did. It would be bad enough, going to war just once. But to serve out the best years of your life – on Gallipoli….then endure the dry and dust of a desert war on horseback. Only to throw your hand up and volunteer to do it all over again. To be bashed and starved; forced to work 10 to 12 hour days….and sleep on a hard bamboo floor. To suffer the effects of Malaria, Cholera, Dysentery and Beri Beri – Tropical Ulcers and other afflictions. One can only marvel at the fact that these men and women did this….and sought nothing in return, except solace in the knowledge that they did their best. You should thank God, that it was not you!
IMAGE RIGHT: The final medal entitlement of Walter BOOTH, accrued through service in two World Wars. From left to right:- 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal, 1939-1945 Star, Pacific Star, 1939-1945 War Medal & 1939-1945 Australia Service Medal.
RECOMMENDED READING: P.O.W. – AUSTRALIANS UNDER NIPPON by Hank Nelson This is one of the most compelling, yet disturbing accounts, written about the sufferings of our men and women, at the hands of the Japanese.
WHITE COOLIES by Betty Jeffery Written by a woman of the Australian Army Nursing Service who was captured after the Fall of Singapore. It gives an account of the deprivation and hardship suffered by the women who were captives for over three years.
WEARY – THE LIFE OF SIR EDWARD DUNLOP by Sue Ebury. The story of Weary Dunlop is one that should be part of our school curriculum. We often remember the ‘heroes’ who earned prestigious awards (and rightly so) yet his quiet courage was inspirational and thousands of soldiers owe their lives to this one man. He truly was a hero in every sense of the word.