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John (a.k.a. "Jack" or "Junior") O’REILLY – Instrument Fitter

17th October 1921 - 11 May 2014

“LAND” Journalist JACINTA CUMMINS wrote this tribute to John on Anzac Day 2013:

THE sun is setting over Lake Cargelligo on Anzac Day.  Second World War veteran John O’Reilly sits on a seat, his war medals in his aged hands (which bear testimony to a life on the land).  He watches the lake’s water lap the banks.  When asked the first thought which comes to his mind when someone mentions the war years, there is no hesitation in his response.

“Water – there was none of it,” he says emphatically.  “I was always thirsty.  We only had one litre a day when we were in the desert.  We washed our clothing in petrol and our bath was a swim in the sea - if we were close enough. ...Most of us didn’t have trunks, so we skinny-dipped!”

Looking through his photo album, his face lights up as he points out his tanned physique on a beach after skinny-dipping in the Mediterranean.  It was “illegal” for Allied troops to have cameras during the Second World War, so John traded some American cigarettes to a German POW for his Agfa camera.  “He would have had it confiscated from him anyway,” he says, a larrikin look in his eyes.  The camera is now on display in Canberra, while the album documenting John’s overseas service is safe at home in Lake Cargelligo. 

When John went farming with his father in 1937, times were tough.  Things looked up by 1939 when they cut 100 tonnes of hay, but all that changed once the Second World War broke out.  After a girlfriend’s brother (who was a Spitfire pilot) was shot down, John asked to join the Air Force and his parents reluctantly agreed, as they thought it was better than the Army.  John turned 19 while training at Richmond airbase, then studied fitting and turning before completing a course in aircraft instruments.

“I wanted to be a pilot, but was knocked back.  But I was thankful for that after seeing their problems. ...And often, their early deaths.”  A stint working on planes at the No.2 Air Navigators’ School, Cootamundra, increased John’s practical experience, but he worried when he saw how old the equipment was.  “We were sitting ducks...” .

John had two weeks' leave just before the bombing of Pearl Harbour delayed his departure to the Middle East.  He married Grace Murray during this time.  When John boarded the troopship “Dilwarra” in Adelaide in April, 1942, the predominantly Indian crew was his first contact with Islam.  He remembers the stench of sea sickness and the constant threat of being torpedoed.  The first land they sighted was Colombo, still partially burning from Japanese air raids.  It was a shock to see girls locked in cages and being forced into prostitution and to see Arab women bringing the coal to power the ship in baskets on their heads.  “We threw bread down to them, they weren’t treated much better than cattle.”

After landing, the journey across Egypt to the Western Desert by train and truck began.

“Most of us had ‘Gypo Guts’ - severe diarrhoea caused by the bad water, but there were no toilets and we couldn’t get off the train in case of mines, so we held each other out the windows to relieve ourselves!”

They arrived during a khamaseen (Egyptian for sandstorm) with only a few days to learn the ropes from the airmen they were replacing.  They slept in trenches just 30 kilometres from the frontline that night.  John maintained the instruments on the American-built Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, the oxygen supplies for the pilots and checked for sabotage and helped direct pilots [sitting on the wing while they taxied through the sand before takeoff].  The cooks did the best they could, but the food was ordinary, with some refusing it - before hunger changed their minds!  Comfort parcels were well received and pooled for a “jaffle party” in the tent. 

A photo from John's album.  Mates celebrating John's 21st birthday (17 Oct 1942) in the desert during the Battle of Alamein.

The Battle of El Alamein in late 1942 was a major turning point for the Allies.  No.3 Squadron then leap-frogged across the desert until the 8th Army met the Americans coming from Algiers.  John spent his first Christmas away from home in the desert west of Benghazi.

When they landed in Sicily in July 1943, conditions improved - with leave, plenty of water and regular mail.  The locals were friendly, hosting dances where the mothers kept a close eye on their daughters, but John alludes to still managing to steal a kiss or two!

Jack O'Reilly (right) helps Kittyhawk pilot Jack Doyle check over the instruments - July 1943.

In late 1944, Mustang fighter-bombers replaced the Kittyhawks.  The German surrender in April 1945 brought an end to the Italian campaign, yet despite the celebrations, it was a bit of an anti-climax and the men felt “let down”.  The new aircraft didn’t need much maintenance, so the men spent half of their time on leave, or went AWOL (Absent With Out Leave).

“The officers turned a ‘blind eye’ and we ‘covered’ for each other, our mateship was very strong.”

One of John’s fondest memories is seeing Madame Butterfly in Milan, with his impression of the upper-class Italian audience surpassed by the 90-piece orchestra’s performance.  John still has the program in his diary today.

The men celebrated Japan’s surrender in August 1945 with one last dance.  Number 3 Squadron left for Verona where the men played cards and waited for trains to transport home.  Despite not knowing it at the time, it was an eerie feeling travelling on boxcar trains like those which transported countless Jewish women and children to their deaths just months before.  While they waited for a ship at Taranto, English RAF Police booked John for not wearing his tie and for having his sleeves rolled up, but his Commanding Officer tore the charge up.

“The English police did find us ‘Colonials’ rather frustrating, but they were never seen near the front line,” John jokes.

On September 7, they boarded a ship only to land in Egypt... “A final taste of tent life; in the sand, flies and filth of Ancient Egypt.”

John bought a few cartons of English cigarettes after hearing there was a “chronic shortage” in Australia.  The journey home aboard the overcrowded “Stratheden” was long, but welcome.

“My first sight of Australia was Rottnest Island.  The cheering brought a lump to my throat, remembering how in the worst days, I’d sometimes wondered if I’d ever see home again.”

Despite docking in Melbourne, John wasn’t allowed to disembark for a party being thrown for his 24th birthday.  When he finally reached Sydney, his wife was there and they travelled to Lake Cargelligo where John was taken aback by how much his father had aged.  John was discharged in March, 1946.  After having so little water in the desert, John was drawn back to his home of Lake Cargelligo because of the bountiful water supply, but Grace was pregnant and unwilling to move from Sydney, so John did odd jobs and eventually spent 11 years with NSW Railways.

“It was difficult for people to understand how servicemen struggled to adapt to what they hoped would be a ‘normal’ life,” he said softly.  “There wasn’t any counselling, just a daily visit to the pub, which gave temporary relief, but eventually added to the problems.”

In 1960, John and Grace divorced and John returned to Lake Cargelligo and farming.  He met Sydney nurse, Louise Cantor, at the local show dance in 1961 and they married and have two children, Paul and Jackie.  They still live in Lake Cargelligo, where John is involved with the RSL, goes to the gym and rides his bike.  He has few regrets and is grateful to his wife and four children.

“I’m an old bloke, I’m still too fond of women,” he said, drawing a laugh from Louise who shakes her head at him.  “I made some great mates in the Air Force.”  John has few photos of his early days, which makes his war photos even more poignant. 
“To help remember those times is special.  There’s not many of us now.” 

John and Louise spent Anzac Day 2013 with their granddaughter, Brisbane journalist Jennifer O’Reilly, in Lake Cargelligo. 

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