This article is adapted in part from an unpublished story entitled “Boomerang Boy” by David Wilson, a memoir of Warrant Officer First Class Frederick Wilson (1924-68), the Regimental Sergeant Major of 1PIR
SOME of the strangest stories are fact rather than fiction. This story, I believe, falls into this category.
On 24 June 1924, a boy known as Frederick was born to Kate who had given birth to Fred’s older brothers, Henry and Philip, some years before. Fred was the son of Captain Alfred Henry Willson, an engineer at Woolwich Arsenal (UK) who had seen service overseas including the Boer War and other affrays of the Old Empire.
Kate was the de facto wife of Alfred, now retired, who had worked his way up through the ranks from humble beginnings. Later, a sister for the three boys was born to Kate and she was named Mabel.
Fred and his family’s fate changed for the worse when Captain Alfred Willson died leaving Fred, his older brothers and younger sister, all between the ages of 11 and four, to fend for themselves. The captain’s legal wife took the spoils of inheritance, leaving Kate on the breadline.
Kate, from rural Wilshire, and her young family were destitute in her London accommodation. The Lambeth Congregational Church provided some relief. Dr Barnardo’s Welfare offered Kate’s younger boys, Philip aged 9 and Fred aged 8, the hospitality of the Dr Barnardo’s Boys Garden City in Woodford, Essex as ‘orphans’. Mabel had died a month earlier at the age of four from convulsions, whooping cough and diphtheria.
The boys’ home provided an escape from the slums and poverty of inner London at that time replacing the hopelessness with security, organisation and a disciplined life. It is believed that Fred did not immediately settle, suffering from his recent traumas, and he was sent to a respite centre at Bognor Regis for a month under the care of the matron of the Margaret Convalescent Home.
Fred’s physical condition improved greatly and several reassignment places were endured over the next year. Philip and Fred remained together for most of this time and both boys were considered by the Child Immigration Society as suitable to be shipped to Australia.
Unfortunately, Philip took ill and Fred was sent on the ship to Australia without his dear brother. Neither boy was ever to see his brother again. Fred moved from the care of Barnardo’s, ‘The Father of Nobody’s Children’, to the Australian equivalent run by Kingsley Fairbridge at Pinjarra in Western Australia, a working farm in the country side set among the Darling Ranges near Perth.
Fred, now aged 10 years, was to be moulded to become a citizen of the Empire. Along the way his surname shortened to Wilson.
The World War II saw Fred move from the security of the farm school, leaving behind Canon Walter Watson, Fred’s spiritual advisor, to join the Royal Australian Air Force at Clontarf Training School in Perth.
Fred was selected for the Empire Air Training Scheme, training first at Clontarf then Ballarat to complete his 36 weeks training for the Wireless Airgunners’ School at West Sale and later at Subiaco. Fred was ready for the defence of the realm.
A further course at the Initial Training School at Bradfield Park in Sydney resulted in Fred embarking in Melbourne on 30 August 1943 to sail to Britain via New York arriving in England on an Atlantic convoy where he was posted to an air base in Northamptonshire at the age of 19 years.
Fred’s physical stature suited him for tail gunner on various Bomber Command aircraft. Sorties were accumulated, first with 622 Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, flying Avro Lancasters, then on to RAF Oulton as part of a 10 man crew of the B-17 Flying Fortresses filled with top secret radio jamming devices. Fred was in the thick of it for 12 months or more including D Day missions. It is a lonely place, that of the rear gunner.
Life improved somewhat with a transfer to the top secret Electronic Counter Measures Unit, 214 Squadron at Oulton where Fred became a wing gunner with the task of dropping sheets of metal foil to disrupt German airwaves at key moments during air raids to Kiel, Stettin and Bremen in August 1944. Special operators mingled with Cambridge boffins and aircrew in the very cold winter of 1944.
This was Fred’s final Christmas in England before a short transfer to Scotland’s Loch Ness (RAF Blackla), then recreation leave back in Brighton England before sailing back to Australia, to Melbourne’s Bradfield Park on 9 April 1945.
An aged 21 year old revisited Canon Watson at Fairbridge Farm School, Pinjarra near Perth to assure him that he was alive and to decline the life of a farmer. Fred followed his father into an army career to give loyalty to King and country, this time to the Australian Army.
Fred would have worked his way up the ranks of the non-commissioned officers in the soon to become peacetime army. Promotion in a shrinking defence force following the war would have been slow. A tour of Korea was conducted with Australian Forces early in his new career.
Fred was also part of the Anzac coronation contingent from Australia in 1953 that returned to London to receive the Coronation Medal from the Queen and he took part in the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace not far from the place of his earliest upbringing.
Another such posting amongst many was to the Staff Training College, Queenscliff near Geelong. This was where Fred was to meet his future wife, Vera before accepting a new posting to 1PIR (Pacific Islands Regiment) outside Port Moresby as the battalion’s RSM in 1967.
Fred’s role at Taurama Barracks was to oversee the battalion in conjunction with the commanding officer of the day. He was to head the group of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), a mix of Australian and newly promoted indigenous soldiers.
The Pacific Islanders formed the majority of personnel in the camp and constant training and instruction was given to the senior indigenous NCOs on their duties of their rank with a view to them taking over command in the not too distant future.
As well as instructing newly appointed officers in sword drill and parade duties, he conducted the various parades and ceremonials expected of a showcase infantry regiment throughout the year. Administrative paperwork always accompanied mundane daily tasks.
Family life prospered during this time with two children Anthony and Susanne joining Vera and Fred prior to their PNG posting. Fred’s life was complete! He was a successful family man, avoiding the pitfalls and trauma that marred his early upbringing.
Regimental life was a success. Fred was the highest ranking NCO as the Regimental Sergeant Major in the battalion and second only to the camp’s commanding officer. He was genuinely liked by his subordinates, as life in childcare homes forged community bonds which enabled one to mix freely in the company of men.
Alas, it was this community obligation which proved to be Fred’s undoing. Fred’s vision was to improve the lot of his fellow man, to help families of the serving soldiers to have a recreational facility added as an annex to the newly completed Sergeants’ Mess.
Fred with his ‘hands on approach’, died on the work site one Saturday morning in March 1968 as he laboured in the hot tropical sun installing roofing metal to complete his vision for his subordinates.
Fred had survived his infant and teenage years in orphanages on both sides of the world, he fought in World War II in an extremely dangerous posting for more than 12 months of active service and he survived the various postings imposed by the Australian Army to finally arrive at the idyllic Taurama Barracks in PNG with his family by his side only to succumb to an early death at aged 43 years due to excessive heat, a cold drink into a hot body and an undiagnosed heart condition.
Fred’s life story is one of a boy’s own adventure but without the happy ending. He is survived by his son and daughter following the passing of his wife Vera in 2010. May he rest in peace.
Photos: (1) Newly refurbished grave of Fred Wilson at Taurama Barracks, Port Moresby. (2) Fred Wilson on parade at front right. Similar military stories from PNG may be found at http://www.nashospng.com/