Interviewee: Richard Norman Eaton
Interviewer: Gail Parker
Synopsis: Gail Parker
Date: 8 November 2000
An interview with Richard Norman [Norm] Eaton was conducted at the Bunbury RSL on 8 November 2000. Mr. Bill Adams of Bunbury RSL was present at the interview and also makes brief comments on the tape. Further interviews were conducted at Mr. Eaton’s home in Bunbury.
Richard Norman Eaton was born on 19 August 1919 at Goomalling, Western Australia. His parents were Michael George Eaton and Olive Gertrude nee Wilsdon. He had eleven brothers and one sister, being the third child in the family. He left Goomalling at age fourteen with his brother, to work on farms around the state of WA.
He turned twenty years of age a couple of weeks before the outbreak of World War Two in 1939. He and his brother decided they would join up, so road their push bikes from Mount Magnet to Perth. They were called up on 8 November to go to Northam camp, being attested into the army on 11 November 1939, in the Second 11th Battalion. They were sent interstate for training in early December, to Ingleburn, at Greta, northern NSW.
They returned home for leave in April 1940 before sailing for Palestine on 20 April on the Nevasa. Norm describes a strike over the poor food on the ship during the voyage. They were held up for quite a while in the Red Sea because the Italians had entered the war. They entrained to Palestine after reaching port, where they did further training until just before Christmas 1940. They moved to Egypt in preparation for going into Libya against the Italians, and saw action in the first week of January in Badia, then Tobruk, then Derne, where they had their first real casualties, continuing to Banghazi, then to Tocra Fort. They pulled back into Egypt in about March 1941, then sailed for Athens.
They went into Greece almost up to the Yugoslav border where they met the might of the German Army, eventually retiring to Athens, to be taken to Crete on a destroyer. After a month on Crete, Norm was wounded just on nightfall on 20 May 1941, and took no further part in the war. His wounds had become septic by the time they capitulated to the Germans. He was flown to Athens to hospital, where he was operated on, spending nearly three months there before being taken by boat to Salonika [Thessalonika], where they were put in cattle trucks under terrible conditions of deprivation for the journey of six or seven days to Belgrade. He collapsed on arrival and was admitted to a Belgrade hospital for three months, where he was permitted visits by resident Americans, as America was not yet in the war.
He posed as a NCO [corporal] so that he would not be sent out to work from the hospital/convalescent camp. After about six months in the camp, the Red Cross had an exchange of wounded prisoners, but he was knocked back for selection by a Scots doctor. His wounded leg was completely stiff at this stage, as the kneecap had grown onto the top and bottom of the knee. He became part of a NCO party working on a sawmill in Sudatanland. Privates were required to work down the coalmines in Poland. He worked at the sawmill for nine months until Christmas 1942, then was given medical dispensation back to camp because of bad haemorrhoids, and did not work outside again. He worked around the camp in whatever jobs came up until Nov 1944.
Late in 1944 Russian guns could be heard on the other side of the Oder River. Everyone was marched out of the camp of Lamsdorff [Stalag] VIIIB just after Christmas, apart from three hundred who hid until the camp had emptied. The guards who had been left at the camp said there was no food, but they could stay and starve if they chose. They ate nothing but potatoes. They were put on a train at Lamsdorff Station after six weeks, and taken to a camp near Switzerland. After a few weeks they were shifted to a NCO camp in the centre of Germany, Owensfeld, near Ravensburg. However the push was going on, and they were told they had to march.
There were 80 – 100 unable to march and under threat of being shot by the German guard. They were shifted to the French camp over the road, again with no food. The guards were just young boys, who were in fear of the approaching Americans. The prisoners went scrounging for food outside the camp, where Norm met a German officer, an expatriate American who was on the run from the Gestapo, who drew him a mud map of the area.
Norm and seven others left the camp that night in rain and sleet. They hid overnight on a farm in the mountains, where they were fed and sheltered. Corporal Bill Pauley led them into a village the next day, which was handed over to them by the retreating Germans. They ended up sitting in a café with seven Germans, who handed themselves over to them to wait for the Americans to arrive. The Australian soldiers had to protect the Germans from the Americans, who wanted to shoot them.
The Americans returned them to England to convalesce. Norm stayed there until August 1945. He came home and was discharged at Graylands on 15 November 1945. After six years of being told what to do he says he felt like a lost soul in a different world.
Places and Names in order of mention:
Goomalling; Michael George Eaton; Olive Gertrude nee Wilsdon; Mount Magnet; Northam Camp; Second 11th Battalion; Greta, northern NSW; Ingleburn; Palestine; Nevasa; Kanaka; Ceylon; Sri Lanka; Colombo; Suez; Egypt; Libya; Badia; Tobruk; Derne; Banghazzi; Tocra Fort; Athens; Penland [ship]; Gracie Fields; Greece; Yugoslav border; Crete; Salonika; Belgrade; Americans; Geneva Convention; Germany; Sergeant Major Anderson; Sudatanland; Poland; Reisch; Oder River; Lamsdorff VIIIB; Switzerland; Regensberg; Owensfeld; Hitler Youth; Gestapo; Corporal Bill Pauley; General Patton; Belgium; England; Graylands.
Norm describes his experience in hospital in Athens, where wounded were treated by Australian and British doctors. During most of the time spent in prison camps they were treated by their own doctors, who had also been captured. Medical supplies were very short. Before capture, ammunition was also in short supply and they relied on what was dropped by parachute for the use of the enemy. They were unable to read the metric sites on the weapons.
While in VIIIB Lamsdorff prison camp between 1942 and 1944, as long as the prisoners did as they were told they were treated alright, apart from the odd time when something went wrong, and they were left standing out all day in sleet and cold while the barracks were searched. Prisoners had very little contact with the Germans apart from two roll calls every day. At one stage prisoners where handcuffed, in retaliation for restraining of German prisoners by the British.
The prisoners organised sporting teams within the camp to keep themselves occupied. They even staged a full Commonwealth Games, with people from every Commonwealth country represented. There was also some work to be done organising food delivery and storage. Spare time was spent endlessly playing cards and two-up.
Norm describes his experience working in the sawmill. He was first involved in building a barracks out of tongue and groove pinewood. When the building work was finished they were sent to work in the factories where he was given the job of stacking timber in the yard. He was unable to do the work because of his injured knee. He was able to convince the guard to give him a job on a saw in the factory. Under the direction of Sergeant Major Dave Anderson, they went on strike for more rations, because they were underfed for the work they were doing. The strike was successful and they received more rations. By 1944, they were doing better for food than the ordinary person outside, because of the arrival of Red Cross parcels.
After coming home to Western Australia, he became involved in the war service farming scheme that had been set up for returning servicemen. He moved to Denmark on New Year’s day 1946 to start re-clearing abandoned farms. He was eventually given a fully equipped farm to operate for the land settlement scheme. He was drinking heavily at this time, but his brother convinced him to try dancing instead of “boozing”, and introduced him to his girlfriend’s sister who had just returned from the Air Force. She turned out to be his future wife [Marjory Dora Lucy Swan, known as Jean]. They were married in October of 1946.
Two children were born in the first two years of their married life, both premature births. Norm was allotted a farm at Goomalling, and shifted the family there in 1948. There was an accident on the way involving Jean Eaton and one of the children, who both fell out of the car.
They farmed at Goomalling for eight years, and then in 1956 were transferred to another property at Dinninup [Boyup Brook] because of salt problems at Goomalling. There were five children at this stage. They stayed there for seventeen years. Ten children were born to them in all, but one daughter, a twin, died.
Norm found it very hard to put the experiences of war behind him, and suffered from depression. He felt the experience was always hanging over his head and made him feel negative about life. He was not able to work to his full potential, and was plagued by nightmares, which still sometimes bother him now. The medical profession at that time did not admit to the condition, and for the sufferer to admit to it would mean that he would not be allocated a farm or receive help from the banks. Norm feels the only reason he coped is because of having a good wife who staunchly stood by him.
Places and Names in order of mention:
Dr Palandri; [Dr] Alan King; Second 7th Field Ambulance; Diep; George Michelle; T&G pine wood; Sergeant Major Dave Anderson; Denmark; Land Settlement; Scottsdale; Canberra; Eaton children: Desie, Marie, Cathy, Kenny, Terry; Dinninup; Boyup Brook; Royal Perth Hospital Psychiatric Ward; Hollywood [Hospital].
Norm’s knee injury had been further damaged while playing rugby in the prisoner of war camp, but luckily the accident restored part movement. He kept working at it to free it up, so that by the time he went back to farming he had about 70% movement. In recent years he has had surgery to remove a bone fragment which has relieved the pain.
He joined the Returned & Services League [RSL] on the day that he was discharged from the army. When he went to Denmark he joined the local branch and was very active in that. He transferred to Goomalling and became president of the sub-branch there. When he moved to Boyup Brook he transferred to the sub-branch there and become president after a couple of years. He stayed on the executive until he shifted to Bunbury in 1973. His wife sold the farm while he was in Hollywood Hospital, which was the catalyst for the move to Bunbury. He became active in the Bunbury sub-branch, and continues to serve there in 2000.
Norm returned to visit Crete and Greece with his wife after his retirement, then travelled all over Europe. He was unable to visit the place where he was held prisoner because it was behind the Iron Curtain at that time .
Since the war, Norm has had contact with the family of Ronald Thomas, whom he cared for in Lamsdorff until his death from cancer. He was able to tell the family the circumstances of Thomas’ death, and has since met up with them. He has never revisited Lamsdorff himself, but has photographs of the memorial now on the site of the camp.
Norm talks about his time in the RSL and about the need for welfare work in the early days. He says Ford Campbell really pushed the welfare side of Bunbury sub-branch. Ken Littlejohn was another worker in this area, leading to the best welfare system in WA at the Bunbury sub-branch. Norm is a life member there, and is still a committee member.
He is also a life member of TorchBearers for Legacy for his fund raising efforts, which began in Boyup Brook and continued in Bunbury, where he worked with his wife for twenty-seven years [from 1973], running various activities.
Places and Names in order of mention:
Ronald Thomas; Ford Campbell; Alf Mainstone; Ken Littlejohn; Ex-Colonel Lineham.
Interview continued: 24 November 2000 at Norm Eaton’s home in Bunbury.
Norm speaks about his family background, beginning with the arrival of his great grandfather in Australia in 1852. He originally took up land at Irishtown, northeast of Northam, and eventually shifted to half way between Northam and Goomalling and took up land at Quelqualling. His sons dispersed throughout the area. Norm’s mother came to the area as a schoolteacher, where she met his father and married.
He speaks about his own school experiences locally and at New Norcia. Education was very important to his schoolteacher mother, and he also had an extremely bright elder brother whose example he was expected to follow, so leaving school at age fourteen was no small matter.
His first job was on a farm at Coorow. His employers were “very English” and correct, but the young Norm did not fit in, and left as soon as he had saved enough money for the train fare home. He then went to work for his future uncle on a farm at Bodallin. He again had problems with authority however, and soon was on the train back home. His parents had lost their farm by this time, and the whole family moved to Bassendean. Work was hard to find in Perth, but Norm eventually got a job on Fenton’s Milk Cart in Mount Hawthorne, a position he held for a couple of years before resuming farm work at Goomalling. In 1937 he returned to Perth and started up a cleaning round with his brother, but work was scarce, so they both went back to the bush to work, returning to Perth after the harvest.
In January 1939 they decided to jump the train to Mount Magnet to try their luck in the mines. Norm describes jumping trains. The effects of the depression were still strongly evident at this time, and food and work were scarce. It was the role of the police to keep people moving on, but once Norm’s brother got a job as an orderly at the local Mount Magnet hospital they had the necessary means of support that allowed them to stay. Norm and a mate who was also travelling with him took out a Miner’s Right and took over a disused mine. He describes the Prospector’s Scheme. During this time Norm lived in a tent on his claim.
He became very friendly with the Burns brothers, and went in with them on a show at Blackman’s Patch [twenty miles north of Mount Magnet]. The next six months were spent working the claim. He describes a near disaster while setting charges underground. The claim did not pay well enough to be worth getting the gold out of the ground.
Norm describes his experiences with bike racing in Mount Magnet in the late 1930’s, on a home made bike built from bits and pieces and on a bike borrowed from Andy Cassey.
Places and Names in order of mention:
Raleigh; Irishtown; Quelqualling; Marjorin Brook; Lynch; Yucarty; Dowerin; Manaville; Bodallin; Tardun; Mullewa; Yalgoo; Jimmy Burns; Andy Cassey.
Norm and his brother [Mervyn Henry Eaton] heard the announcement of the outbreak of war in mount Magnet and decided to return to Perth to join up. They set off to ride their bikes the 500 miles on dirt roads to Perth, camping the first night at White Wells out of Dalwallinu. The second night was spent at Wongan Hills and they were home for tea the following night. While waiting to be called up they entered the Beverley to Perth bike race. The call up came on 8 November 1939.
Norm describes his experience in the convalescent camp in Palestine, where he was sent after coming down with sand fly fever and suffering complications. He turned twenty-one while in hospital. After going to the convalescent camp at Farsickin, he stayed on for a while as a batman, but eventually asked to be returned to his battalion, and went with them to Egypt.
Norm talks about his time in the Bunbury RSL sub-branch, where he became vice president in 1974. He served as president for six and half years, during which time the welfare service was established. A lot of work was also done towards attracting the Vietnam veterans into the organisation. Alf Mainstone was the first to come along and hold office, and became the first Vietnam veteran to become president. He was instrumental in getting others to join. Norm has received a life membership of the Bunbury sub-branch for his work. He also has a Fifty Years Continuous Service certificate from the RSL. He still serves on the executive, and is also still active in TorchBearers for Legacy.
Norm was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, and talks about his Catholic heritage. He has been actively involved with the Church all his life, and served for fifty years as a Knight of the Southern Cross [the Bishop’s Men], including a term as president of the Bunbury branch. He talks about the origins of the organisation and its purpose. While in Goomalling and Boyup Brook he was involved in building of Catholic primary schools through the Knights.
Places and names in order of mention:
Mervyn Henry Eaton; White Wells; Dalwallinu; 8th Divisional Signallers; Alexandria; Gaza Hospital; Farsickin [convalescent camp]; Alf Mainstone; Charlie Hickmont; Mick Green; Marjory Dora Lucy Swan [Eaton]; Father Fitzgerald; Iona Presentation Sisters; St Vincent de Paul; Carmelites.
Interview continued: at Norm Eaton’s home in Bunbury on 6 December 2000
Norm speaks about his post war involvement in sport, beginning with the formation of two football teams at Denmark, where people had always played soccer prior to the war because of the large number of English migrants who settled there through the group settlement scheme.
He was involved in the formation of a second team in the Goomalling area, and voted in as vice president. The two teams later amalgamated, with Norm as president of the inaugural Goomalling Football Club.
His young family was first involved in tennis at Boyup Brook, then later in football. His growing sons became interested in hot rods, and were instrumental in setting up a hot rod club, with their father as president, in the 1960s.
After the family moved to Bunbury in 1973, Norm enrolled his youngest son at the Marist College, where he was asked to form a sports club for winter sports. He was voted in as president of the committee with Sheila Howard as secretary. He became a member of the South Bunbury Football Club because of the need for affiliation with a club, and served on the Junior Football Council. Marist Football Club eventually became a club in their own right.
He was also involved with basketball at Marist College.
Norm comments on the movement of young people away from the farming areas after their return from the war.
Places and Names in order of mention:
Sheila Howard; Bob Culph; Antony Eaton; Norm Howard; Jeff Ferguson.
Photographs (scanned images – embedded in transcript):
001 – Norm Eaton (on left), Bindeman, Jerusalem, 1940. ? on right. Postcard style.
002 – Hennersdorf, Ostsudetengau (site of sawmill where Norm Eaton worked while a prisoner of war). Postcard style, Echte Photographie. C1940s.
003 – POW No. 24410, Eaton RN. Third from left, third row. POW working party, sawmill workers. Hennersdorf, Upper Silesia. 1943
004 – Stalag VIIIB. Eaton, RN fourth from left, back row. C1942-45.
005 – Stamp, Stalag VIIIB. On back of photograph 004.
006 – Norm and Jean Eaton, European holiday C1974.