ERIC Kneebone is all warmth and laughter.
With such a generous dash of cheekiness it’s actually hard to believe he’s seen what he’s seen.
Or heard what he’s heard.
Like so many veterans, he’s experienced more loss than most of us can imagine.
Or will ever experience.
He’s said goodbye to more mates than he can count – mates too young to die, with long lives that should have been lived in happiness.
But who – like Eric – were prepared to put their lives on the line if it meant keeping their loved ones safe at home, their mates safe in the trenches, the jungles and the desert and in towns, beside them.
Eric is 94 now, part of a shrinking band of brothers, but still remembers with clarity the moment he discovered World War II had begun – and the world had changed forever.
His brother came racing into the house to tell him and though still a teen Eric was immediately restless to join the war effort even though he knew he was far too young.
But as the years progressed, the war dragged on.
At 18 Eric and his mates decided to take a crack at joining the army.
Albeit a little too early.
The boys were still underage for an active service area.
But that wasn’t about to stop them (or the military) and they managed to sneak in, enlisting as ground staff, Eric and his mate travelled to Katherine for army training.
But their tender age was soon discovered and they were kicked out, sent to Townsville and Rockhampton for further training.
In September 1943, Eric and his three mates were the first four men to sign with 80 Fighter Squadron in the Australian First Tactical Airforce.
As a grounds man, Eric would essentially be an engineer, constructing roads and repairing airstrips, working day and night to clean up after the havoc left behind.
Initially sent to New Guinea with an advance party for the squadron, Eric worked in the blistering heat, laying concrete slabs for shower floors and cookhouses.
From there he sweated in the sapping sun and humidity, on island after island, left alone and sometimes under fire, laying the groundwork that was the infrastructure of war – trenches, slabs, roads and airstrips.
Always with a weather eye out for the Japanese, whose willingness to die and whose patience to lie in wait, in caves, tunnels with which they honeycombed the mountains and camouflaged sniper nests made them a constant threat.
In 1944, he was camping on the beach at Aitape under a drizzly rain when a Japanese bomber came out of the dark at 1am.
“He came in low and had a direct hit on a Liberty ship anchored close to shore,” Eric recalled.
What followed has been seared into his memory – the awful chorus of hundreds of men screaming for help from within the dying vessel.
“We couldn’t do anything. Eventually some troops went out and saved those in the water,” he said.
“In the end there were 12 killed and 75 wounded.
“It was a sad night, a very sad night.”
There’s one other memory Eric wishes he could forget.
While cleaning up the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers on an island one day, three of his mates ran down the shore to meet him.
“I had quite a soft stomach — if someone threw up I’d be right with them, throwing up as well. So they ran to me and said, ‘You’d better not go up there, there’s something you don’t want to see’,” he said.
“I said I was tough enough and walked down the shore.”
That’s when he stumbled upon a hut nestled in the trees. Eight girls, tragically killed, were lying dead out the front — six more were inside.
“Wherever the Japanese went, they took ‘comfort girls’ with them from the islands,” Eric said.
“The soldiers had taken off into the hills when we arrived but had killed the girls before they left. It was just so unbelievably tragic.”
On Christmas Eve 1944, the Japanese delivered forces an early ‘present’, bombing the island camp on Morotai, where Eric was working.
“Mortars and big guns were going all day long, but we eventually took no notice of it,” he said.
“We just kept working, building a camp for the soldiers.”
On Boxing Day, the commanding officer called Eric into his tent.
“He said, ‘You’ve done a good job, Kneebone. If you can get a ride home, you can go’,” Eric said.
“And I was ready to go.”
While Eric admits there were many confronting moments in the war, he said those were outweighed by the memories of the mates he made along the way.
Even now, his eyes naturally travel to a picture hanging on his wall, of his squadron, his military family, taken when they were based on Noemfoor, another New Guinea island.
The fresh, grinning faces put on for the camera, pushing out of sight the hardship each man and boy had endured, and still had more to come.
So you and I could live in peace today.