top of page


Z special unit

17th Sept 2018

Born 19 Feb 1926

(Extract of eulogy delivered by Norman’s son)

In January 1942 the war in Europe had been going for over a year, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour a month earlier and were advancing rapidly down the Malayan peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago towards Australia. So on the 6th of January, dad and his mate Alby decided it was “as good a time as any” to join the army. They did this at Caulfield so as no one would recognise them. Dad forged one of his parent’s signatures, Alby did the other. He was 15 years 11 months old. He managed to convince the recruiting person that he was 19 ½ and was initially allocated to the infantry.

He told his father, who was in the infantry at Gallipoli, and he was very angry as you would expect and threatened to pull him out. But dad said he was going regardless but the one concession he gave to his father was to go to an artillery regiment as his father said the infantry was too dangerous.

Quite ironic considering that he ended up in Z special unit and was at one time training for a mission that would take him almost 3500km behind enemy lines.

He did basic training at Pukapunyal and then on to the 2 Field Engineer regiment, the 2nd/2nd field artillery. From there the army mixed them in with the 106th Anti Tank Regiment.

In the middle of 1943 the army asked for volunteers for the 1st Parachute Battalion which was being formed. Dad said yes. He was 17 years old. His parachute training was at Richmond in NSW. His instructor at the time told them that they were going to suffer later in life due to the physical demands placed on them due to the parachutes of the time and dad did suffer later.

In late 1943 the army asked a group of them if they wanted to volunteer for “something”. They didn’t say what. Once again dad said yes and was accepted into Z special unit. He was still 17 years old.

When I was in Borneo with dad in 2005 I asked him how he ended up in Z and his response in typical understated fashion was “I just kept saying yes”. Understated and matter of fact describes how he was whenever he was talking about his experiences in Z yet you were always in amazement at the things he did. A comment that sticks in my mind from the SBS documentary on Z from 5-6 years ago, which featured dad prominently, and it had grandchildren of Z men doing the same training. One of the grandchildren said “I never knew grand dad was such a badass”. Whilst not in those words, that describes perfectly how you reacted when dad was talking about the things he did in Z.

He was in the first group to go to Fraser Commando School which was situated on the escarpment above Mackenzie Jetty on Fraser Island and then later moved to a camp at Lake Mackenzie with a smaller group of Z men called the special raiding section.

There were all sorts of stories from his time at Fraser Island.

They trained a lot in foldboats, a collapsible kayak, in the straights between Hervey Bay and Fraser Island and also on the ocean side which dad said "wasn't nice as there were a lot of sharks and you could see the buggers”.

The group would run along the beach every morning from Mackenzie Jetty up to Kingfisher Bay and back. And every morning a shark would appear just offshore and follow them. When they got back to Mackenzie Jetty some of them would go for a swim, shark and all.

On one of their training marches they stopped for a break and dad sat down on top of a death adder. Luckily he didn’t get bitten.

They used to go fishing with hand grenades off the wreck of the Maheno on Eastern Beach.

He also trained in caves at Rockhampton where they had to crawl through ever decreasing size caves and get themselves out again. This was for a mission in New Guinea where they were going to hide in caves and harass the Japanese. That mission never eventuated.

They did parachute jumps into the water at Lake Mackenzie. We have a training video which ends with dad being a smart arse and bowing to the camera after a water jump for which he got into a lot of trouble.

He was then sent to Garden Island in WA to train for Operation RIMAU, the 2nd raid on Singapore Harbour. There he trained in the submersible canoes called sleeping beauties that were to be used for the operation. Dad recalled that he had “real trouble controlling the buggers”. Apparently he wasn’t alone with that. Whilst in training Dad cut his finger on coral which got infected and he missed 2 weeks of training. He was still one of the last to be cut from the final squad but fortunate to miss out as all of them ended up being killed.

He then went to Beaudesert in Queensland for further training which included learning to speak pigeon English. This was in preparation for going to New Guinea. They were based at Aitape near Wewak as part of a contingent of Z people who were to be selected for various missions. Whilst there, he narrowly missed selection for Operation COPPER to Muschu Island. For some reason his place was taken by another man who was the only one to survive that mission, another slice of luck.

He went out on the next mission to Vokeo Island, part of which was to look for survivors from the previous mission, which was uneventful with no contact with the Japanese. Back to Australia, and then to Morotai Island in the Halmahera group of islands in Indonesia in preparation for the next mission.

Around this time in Borneo the Japanese began moving POWs from the POW camp in Sandakan on the east coast to Ranau in the interior near Mt Kinabalu. The camp originally had 2500 POWs and 1100 were marched to Ranau. Many didn’t survive the cruel treatment of the journey or the camps at Ranau. The ones left at Sandakan didn’t survive. This episode has now become known as the Sandakan death marches. Dad’s next mission was to go into Borneo to locate and recover any escaped POWs from the Sandakan death marches. This was Operation AGAS III. He was 19 years old.

They parachuted into the Ranau region of Borneo on 18 August 1945. (Five Austers came to Ranau to extract the four POWs. The fifth was for the doctor. Each Auster could take only one passenger. The plane with Moxham crashed before it could take off, so Moxham went off in the doctor's plane. The doctor and the pilot of the crashed plane had to do the walk to Keningau. They were not impressed!)

The war had officially ended but not in Borneo. Seven of them parachuted in to meet up with two Z guys who were already on the ground. They had radio contact with the two but couldn’t see them and had no idea whether they had been compromised by the Japanese, but they went anyway. There were four Z operatives in dads plane, his best mate Lofty Hodges, Jack McNeil and Bluey Grinham the medical orderly, who had never parachuted before. The plane was a B24 bomber set up with a slide coming out of the belly of the plane just behind the bomb bay. As Bluey had never jumped before Dad, Lofty and Jack sandwiched him on the slide so as he had no choice but to go out with them.

There were nine of them in the group and a couple of thousand Japanese in and around the Ranau area at the time. Their job was not to engage with the Japanese but to recover POWs and in dads words a lot of those Japanese were vey angry. Dad’s initial role was to mind the doctor in the group “a bit of a nutter” and keep him under control as the doctor was more interested in fighting the Japanese than doctoring.

In one patrol they were warned of a Japanese patrol coming their way and they quickly dived into the jungle beside the track and not long after they passed, dad poked his head out to have a look, to which he got into trouble again.

I asked dad once what it was like getting around in the Ranau area, which is very mountainous, and he said “you were never walking on level ground, you were always going bloody up or you were going bloody down”.

At one stage a local native who was scouting for them came in with a gun shot wound to the arm which had become gangrenous. They had to amputate the arm with minimal anaesthetic. Dad was the one who had to hold him down.

They recovered four POWs. Another two were recovered elsewhere. That’s all that survived, six survivors out of the 2500 who were at the Sandakan POW camp and on the subsequent marches to Ranau.

They met up with three of the four POWs who were being looked after by local tribesmen, one had already been recovered. The three were in horrific condition.

The group then proceeded to clear an airstrip for Auster light aircraft to be able to land and extract the POWs. They had to do this at night as the Japanese in the area were shooting at them if they did it in the day time.

They nursed the POWs back to health and the POWs were eventually taken out by the Austers, not without drama with one carrying one of the POWs crashing on take off with nobody hurt. A spare plane was used but the pilot had to stay behind with dads group which he wasn’t happy about.

By this stage the word had got to the Japanese that the war had ended and they were dispersing or surrendering to dads group. Dad said at that time they were becoming aware first hand of the atrocities committed upon the POWs and that they could have very easily sought retribution and no one would have known. But they were so disgusted by the Japanese that they thought seeking retribution would bring them down to the Japanese level which they didn’t want.

The group then split up and dad, Jack, Bluey and Baldy Gore walked to Keninghau which was a week’s walk away where they were extracted by plane which only stopped long enough for them to rush out and get on, didn’t even stop its engines.

From there they went to Labaun Island and then by ship back to Australia. He came back with a lot more than he bargained for with hook worm, malaria and whatever else after 7 weeks in the jungle. His sister June observed that before he went away he was a magnificent specimen but came back an absolute wreck.

The condition of the POWs haunted dad all through out his life as well as the fact there were others in the area still held captive that were killed by the Japanese before dads group could get to them. He never spoke of their condition and it was a subject you didn’t go near. But he never showed or spoke any ill towards the Japanese as a people, he saved that for the few Japanese individuals who were responsible for the atrocities and the fact that many of them were never brought to account.

His experiences with the POWs and how so many more could have been saved if various people in charge had acted sooner forged his beliefs and how he behaved for the rest of his life. He always said that every man deserved a roof over his head and food to eat.


17th Sept 2018

bottom of page