I am getting back to a long-overdue project. If anyone has any ideas of where best to publish a book based on the letters of my grandfather’s experiences in WWII I would be most grateful. Here is an extract of the introduction plus three of the 120 letters he wrote.
BEYOND THE NORM
Hidden amongst a stack of boxes accumulated over many decades in an attic lay a treasure trove of over 100 letters from World War II written by Lt. Norman Martin Peterson. This decorated ANZAC served from 1939-1945 in the 2/1 & 2/2 Australian Field Ambulance.
Lt. Peterson was a Rat of Tobruk. He served in the hell hole of Crete and saw hand-to-hand combat in the jungles of the Pacific Islands. Reading his letters and viewing the many photographs gave me an insight into a man, my grandfather, who I never really knew.
As a child, I only saw him as a larrikin given his wit and humour. He never discussed his experiences, but after reading his letters I developed a new found respect for him and wondered how he managed to maintain his sanity during, let alone after the war.
It is important his despatches be preserved as a reminder of how we must never take for granted the bravery of those who fought and died for our freedom.
Despite the often graphic details contained within his eloquent prose, he left some invaluable lessons about honour, courage and sacrifice. To read these letters in chronological order provides a powerful insight into what it’s like to serve in a theatre of war. Over time, the initial excitement of being in different surroundings and serving one’s country turns to fear, and eventually relief in the dying years of the war. His personal courage and bravery are never discussed. But anger and depression, in and after battle, make their presence felt.
Norman painted a very clear picture of the stresses and trauma faced by soldiers in the field. Whether the bitterness of losing a respected commanding officer, the courage shown when facing direct fire from a Messerschmitt Me-109 or moving wounded troops under mortar fire as a mate falls victim to shell shock, his letters bring to life what few Australians have ever experienced.
It wasn’t only Norman Peterson who bore the weight of war. From his letters, it is clear that his wife, Mary ‘Molly’ Peterson was suffering on the home front too. She never knew if or when she would become a war widow or whether their daughters, Margaret and Valma, would ever see their father again.
Sometimes communications were brief. They said almost nothing, but then again, everything. The telegram which cryptically advised her, “LEFT GREECE. STILL ALIVE. LOVE PETERSON” provided momentary relief before the nagging fear of how long it would be before she received another telegram telling her that Norman’s luck had run out.
TOBRUK – 1941
”We were wakened by the drone of Italian bombers which have a distinctive note and easily recognizable at night…we heard 1/2 dozen explosions & wondered what they would be bombing…about 30 minutes later we got a message to go immediately to the prisoner of war compound as they had been bombed…
…it was a most ghastly sight imaginable. The prisoners without blankets were huddled together for warmth and had lit fires and their own planes had dropped big 500lb bombs…
…there were bits of bodies everywhere, like a slaughterhouse – brains, livers, arms, trunks. I couldn’t describe it. The bombs landed right into the huddled mass of prisoners & blown them to pieces. The doctors and the boys worked like Trojans doing amputations in the field. Arms and legs were put in a stack like a wood heap and to make it worse some desert dogs were having a feast on the remains. One of our blokes was doing an Italian, who had his arm just hanging by a bit of tissue, hacked the arm off with a jackknife. When he returned a bloody dog had the arm in his mouth. And was streaking over the hill when an MP shot it with his revolver. We worked all that day and through the night & done around 300 operations on the spot. Near one bomb crater, we shovelled bits and pieces in the hole and covered it in…it is not so much the shrapnel but the concussion that does the damage”
“We were in an olive grove with wounded men under every tree before we got word to get going and they gave us hell here, the guns tipped toward the men under the trees and straked is with machine guns. I nearly took a soilly here. I heard a plane roaring down & looking up saw a Messerschmitt 109 diving straight for me. You should have seen me move. I dived for the nearest tree and just got there before he opened up with his machine guns (6 of them, 3 in each wing). The chatter of them was deafening as he flew as low as 100ft from me, the b———-d…any man on Crete who never prayed was a bloody liar…
…anyway I had the job of getting 300 walking wounded to the beach which was 45 miles away (they told us 7)…what a march keeping our movement secret & taking cover by day and moving only at night…the hours of daylight would drive you crazy…a road was being done over by Junkers 87s and heard Jerries trench mortars landing very close so I said to Kev & Bill “let’s go” daylight or not I was moving. Bill told me he’d had enough and couldn’t stand it any longer then I noticed for the first time he was bomb happy (shell shock) his head was nodding nineteen to the dozen, eyes staring and hands shaking…
…water was scarce. My mouth like blotting paper and we were in rotten condition until we came across a bombed truck so we drank the radiator water (rust, oil and all). It was like nectar…I never thought hunger was so crook…I couldn’t keep my mind off food, even dreamt of it and of the crusts I’d wasted (Kev admitted the same)”
NEW GUINEA – 1942
“Meanwhile Private Jenkins was sent through by jeep to act as a guide…however about 50yds from the corner; a sustained burst of MG fire whistled around us which was tragically funny as I looked behind to see the boys moving up the track. After the burst I dived for cover in the tall Kumai grass and when I looked back there wasn’t a man to be seen because when I dived they all dived too. We stayed about 1/4 hour and I decided I couldn’t stay all day so I decided to risk it and make a dash for it…a man every two minutes…without mock heroics my knees were knocking as I got to my feet and darted 200 yards long and expected to get one in the guts at any moment…
…to my sorrow around the corner we came across poor George Jenkins who had been the guide- shot-our first casualty and we’d only been in the place 5 minutes and a sniper had got him. The bullet had plowed through his scalp from ear to eye and his face was a mess. Poor bugger. All he was worrying about was that he wasn’t able to tell us about the snipers and was we alright? I slipped a shell dressing on his skull and carried him back – lucky bugger he’ll go home now…
…this bloody war is a terrible mental strain. You can get shot anywhere with snipers (who never live more than two hours anyway after they’ve climbed the trees) because our boys comb the branches with Brens and they dangle like rabbits from their perch). I’ve lost about 2 stone since I’ve been in action here. It’s tough believe me.”