JACK Nie had many jobs as a young fella – the Depression years were hard and you had to adapt – but none were as memorable as his time fighting for his country.
Jack was 21 when, in September of 1941, he and a mate applied for the RAAF – but they were offered postings with the ground crew. This was not form, according to Jack, who wanted to be a pilot.
So off to the Naval recruiting office they went, but there was a month-long wait, which was too long without earning any money. So on impulse on their way home from Fremantle, Jack stopped at Claremont and was accepted into the Army almost at once. He was sent to Northam for training and just three weeks later, he was advised that he was off overseas.
Jack and the others were taken to Fremantle, where the HMS Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, both converted to troop carriers for the war years, awaited. The recruits sailed from Fremantle to the Middle East via Colombo, disembarking at Port Said, Egypt.
Much of Jack’s training was carried out in the then-Palestine on the Gaza Strip. After about a month, Jack was one of six soldiers sent to Tobruk, where they were became part of the 2/32 Battalion as reinforcements. The 2/32 was part of the 9th Australian Division. The division was withdrawn and spent time training at Gaza and Syria. From there, the division was mobilised to return to Egypt. Jack recalls that all troops were instructed to remove any evidence that would identify them as Australian. However, nobody thought to remove their boots, which were a giveaway because everyone wanted the Aussie boots.
From Alexandria, the Battalion was sent to Ruin Ridge, El Alamein. However, the troops realised they were too far forward at dawn, when, to their surprise, the learned the armour they’d heard overnight was in fact German, not British. A German officer instructed them all out of their foxholes or he would blow them out. This had the desired effect. It was July 17, 1942.
The 2/28th Battalion suffered the same fate, having also advanced too far. The Germans likened it to rounding up sheep. One of Jack’s fondest memories was the repose he had with his mate Harry Davis, an Indigenous infantryman from Northam. During action, they would yell out to one another “G’Day Jack’’, to which Jack would reply “G’Day Harry”.
The Germans handed their captives over to the Italians, who transported them to Benghazi and then to Taranto, in the south of Italy. The prisoners were distributed from the camp to work on farms as labour to harvest the rice crops. Red Cross parcels sometimes arrived and Jack remembers taking a pound of butter and dipping it in sugar, which he devoured in one sitting. The food given to the captives was mainly weak soup, which was not enough to stop them getting beriberi due a lack of vitamins.
When the Italians capitulated, the guards just walked away, so Jack and his mates wandered off with no one to watch them. At one of the farms they called in on, it was discovered that the elderly couple’s son was a POW in Australia. As they made their way through the north of Italy, they were fed and housed by local farmers.
Jack and his mates eventually came across a high fence with bells attached. They tried to cut the wire with a knife but gave up due to its thickness, instead deciding to cautiously approach a bridge because there were no guards. It was there they ran into the arms of the Swiss Guards and just in time, too – because as they were being taken for questioning, the Germans swept down the other side of the fence looking for escapees
The Swiss did not have camps, all Allied troops were billeted in old schools or halls. Jack spent the rest of his time in Switzerland until Germany surrendered.
At the end of the European war, Jack and his mates were transferred to Marseilles, boarding a ship for Bombay, where they stayed for a week. This was in late 1944. From Bombay they set sail again and disembarked in Melbourne, before catching a train back to Perth, with returning soldiers dropped off along the way.
During Jack’s time away, he had exchanged letters with Yvonne Calder. After taking up a relationship upon his return, the pair married on May 16, 1945. The family still have the letters Jack wrote to Yvonne.
Jack was Discharged from the army and took up position with the then PMG as linesman stationed in Pinjarra, where he and Yvonne raised three children, Alexander, Carolynn (dec) and Barry.
In 1975 Jack and Yvonne moved to Mandurah to enjoy retirement, but Jack lost his beloved wife and now lives at the RAAFA nursing home in Meadow Springs, Mandurah.
He will celebrate his 100th birthday on June 14 surrounded by family and friends. – Alex Nie
- The Nie family believe Jack may be the last surviving member of 2/32 Battalion. If there are any other survivors, son Alex Nie would love to hear from you, via firstname.lastname@example.org