BY FRAZER & ROHAN HARRY
In the space of a week around the turn of this year, three veterans of the 2/22 Battalion died, including Bill Harry. This leaves just ten men of the military group deployed to Rabaul which fought the Japanese invasion of 23 January 1942. Many members of Lark Force were captured and later lost in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. Bill not only escaped the onslaught, he assisted many other men to do so.
BILL WAS CHRISTENED Cuthbert Oswald. His mother Annie had asked each of her two young nieces what their favourite name was. Not surprisingly, from the word go Cuthbert Oswald was called “Bill” - and his mother never ceased apologising.
Bill’s father, Henry Harry, has four sons. Over the years he expanded the farming operation he had established at Yallook about 30 miles out of Bendigo and acquired numerous new properties. For a time they were the largest wheat growers in Victoria, and largest Clydesdale Horse breeders in Australia.
But when the Great Depression hit after several years of drought and over-development, Henry was unable to service his debt and (like many others) in the early 1930s lost the lot. Difficult times indeed, but the family stayed loyally together.
They then relocated to the Mallee where they battled and just made a living, never really getting ahead. They moved on - from Natya, to Piangil, and then Murrabit. Wherever they were, the family was always actively involved in community, church and sporting activity.
This early life gave Bill a lasting love of the Murray River and Mallee region - particularly Murrabit.
In the mid 1930’s the family wisely decided to move operations to Gippsland, on the Bass River, where they finally found more success on the land.
Then war came - and Bill travelled to Melbourne. On 28 May 1940, he enlisted in the AIF. The 2/22 Infantry Battalion was formed, and in February 1941, its 1,300 men were transferred to Rabaul.
The story of the 2/22 Battalion and what it went through is long and tragic. When the Japanese invaded Rabaul, they attacked in force: up to 20,000 troops and 40 warships including two aircraft carriers against 1,300 infantry men with a meagre six Wirraway planes.
Bill’s role prior to the invasion was to survey the surrounding area. He became friendly with some of the Methodist missionaries and went on many patrols with them into the mountains, gaining a greater understanding of the jungle, its tracks and villages.
Lark Force was overwhelmed by the invasion and retreat became inevitable within hours. OIC Colonel Scanlon soon declared “every man for himself”.
Bill’s knowledge of the land was invaluable and after the invasion he was summoned by Colonel Scanlon to work with him and Command HQ to assist in very belatedly planning a retreat into the jungle – which ultimately saved many lives.
When Scanlon and some other officers decided to surrender, Bill travelled down to the south coast looking for his mates. Unfortunately many had surrendered and were lost on the Montevideo Maru.
Bill spent the next few months in the bush - sometimes by himself, sometimes in a small group - dodging the enemy. His survival skills as a self professed “boy from the bush” served him well, even though he was registered as “missing” for months.
At one stage, the party Bill was with needed to get word to another group of soldiers back up the coast regarding planning of their escape from New Britain. Bill was the one nominated for this task. He was given four days to get there and return, otherwise he’d be left behind.
He made it and returned in less than two days – travelling day and night, and hardly resting or sleeping the whole time. It was a remarkable effort, later referred to by some of his battalion mates as “Bill Harry’s March”.
Tragically only 300-400 or so of the battalion of 1,300 odd made it home. Of Bill’s team in the Intelligence Section, he was the only survivor.
Bill retained a lifelong bond with his battalion mates, and after the war, was instrumental in forming the 2/22 Battalion Lark Force Association, being its President, and later its Secretary, from the 1950s until 2002, when Norm Furness took up the reins.
It is difficult to comprehend the time and effort that Bill put into this, and it was truly appreciated by the men and their families – as evidenced by this tribute presented to him by the battalion in 1980, which he treasured greatly.
I can still clearly remember, when at a Battalion reunion when I was a kid of about 12 or 13, listening to a group of Bill’s battalion mates talking. Then Jock Woods, one of Dad’s great mates turned to Frazer and me and said “You know fellas, to all of us blokes, your Dad’s a hero.”
Photos of Bill Harry circa 1940 and circa 2000 - Frazer Harry