John Allen - Part 2


Interviewee: John Allen, born 1917

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 22 June, 2010

Transcription: Glenys Murray, July 2010

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

It was a well known fact in those days that if you could answer, it didn’t matter what the question, a Japanese asked you. If you could answer straight away it was OK but if you hesitated it was a lie. That was the way they summed things up. They sent for the Australian looking after the ducks they wanted to see him. The Japanese colonel asked him what had happened to the ducks. He wasn’t getting the eggs that he was used to. He said “I don’t know I’ll go and ask the ducks” He said “all right go on”.

Japanese Rail Trucks, Burma-Thailand Railway, 1945

Oh well we did all sorts of funny things there.

I was promoted to corporal the day the war started and I was sorted out with about thirty blokes. Our job was to go down to where the bridges had been washed away or blown away to ferry the stuff from one side to the other across the creek. That’s where I spent six months. We weren’t living too bad there. We were thieving everything we could get our hands on. Nearly all food was moving. When the war finished, we woke up one morning. We knew there was something going wrong. It wasn’t right because the locals kept telling us that the Americans were there. We never saw one but they claimed the Americans were there. The guards were making gun emplacements round our little camp there. We wondered what was going on here. They lined us up and put us on a railway truck and away we went. It was a cattle truck we were in. We stopped three or four times. We had no idea where we were going. They finally came to a stop and I was in the last carriage if you like but it was just a cattle float thing. One of the chaps got down to relieve himself and as he did a Japanese guard walked round the corner and saw him. He was just about to knock him over with a rifle butt and an American walked round and saw it and he flattened the Jap. That’s when we found out the war was over.

They announced then that the war was finished. We had a camp there where we stayed till we were alright.

It was a funny sort of a finish up. I was there for a while. I was doing the cooking in those days. They had an airstrip I suppose about a kilometre away from the camp. They had little aeroplanes come. You couldn’t land a big one. They were five passenger aeroplanes and they came in and picked up the chaps who were sick to take them out. They had me out there with some sort of homemade kitchen. To give them a cup of tea. Sometimes they’d be out there at nine o’clock in the morning and they wouldn’t get picked up till three o’clock in the afternoon. That’s where I spent the last two days.

Finally a train took us down to Port Swettenham and put us on a boat to come home.

Burma-Thailand POW Mess Parade, 1943

How did the Japanese treat the Australians though?

Well the Japanese themselves they weren’t too bad. But the Japanese army they had the one star general, they had the two stars and then they had the three stars. Well the three stars could knock hell out of the two stars if he wanted to. He was superior. We found that the Japanese soldiers they were more or less robots. They did what they were told. What we did have were Korean guards and they were absolute dogs. Their greatest pleasure was to see how much pain they could cause. We had two of them guarding our camp a lot of the time. They were christened the BB and the BBC, the boy bastard and the boy bastard’s cobber that’s what it referred to. They caused a lot of pain and suffering along the line. When we got to this base camp after the line was finished. One of the chaps in the unit he had a bit of experience on dental work before he went. They had some medical supplies that had been delivered there by the Red Cross. He started up a little bit of a dental project because no one had seen a dentist for three years. He turned up and no sooner started up than in came one of the boy bastards came in. He had to get his teeth fixed up. He refused to do it and finished up getting a hiding for not doing it. He said “all right that’d he’d do it”. So he went over to the dysentery latrines and filled a syringe up out of that. That’s what injected into his mouth when he went to do the work. We never saw him again. I would say without a doubt he had dysentery in no uncertain terms.

What were you fed all that time?

We were fed rice and the only thing that we had with rice was chilies. We had the little red dried chilies. We had plenty of them and rice and tapioca flour. The ration was a mug of rice three times a day. In the morning it was boiled up like a porridge. The other two meals it was cooked in a grain form. We’d boil the chilies up and pour a little bit of chili juice over it. For years that was our meal three pannikins full of rice a day most of the time cold. I can tell you it wasn’t very appetizing. I don’t eat rice today.

Trestle bridge, Thailand 1945

Now tell me about your work in building the Thai-Burma Railway what did you actually participate in?

Well all we had was a pick and shovel. That was our tools. Our job was to cut through the hills to make… fairly hilly country over there. We’d cut through the hills or fill up down below where we had to build the railway bridges. They were built out of the local trees. They cut the trees down. They had an apparatus that they used to put them in piles and drive them down with the pile driver and put a cap on top of them. Sometimes they had to go another storey it was that steep, that high.

Most of the time we were doing the bridges, they were a bit of a joke really because they had no way of compounding the approaches. They had to fill up where the bridge started six or eight foot deep. They could only fill it up with the dirt we dug out of another spot. They’d fill them up and when they put them where the railway started they’d already sunk a bit. The approach to the bridges would be this much below the bridge itself. They got there.

We pulled a fast trick on the Japanese. They didn’t know that we were doing it. To build these bridges we had to have scaffolding of course you realise. Then after those were finished we had to pull the scaffolding down. All the scaffolding was thrown on the top side of the bridge. You get a lot of rainy seasons over there, the monsoons. When the monsoons come it forms a dam. The pressure behind it washed the dam bridges away. They let go the stuff we had in there let go, it couldn’t hold the water back. It would build up and away she’d go bridge and all. That’s what happened to a lot of the bridges we built.

Where was that actually located in Burma or Thailand? Where were you?

It went from a place called Thanbyuzayat up into Thailand. I can’t think of the place where it finished. It would have been a couple of hundred kilometres long at least.

Were you mainly in the one area or did you move around a lot?

We started off in the twenty kilometre base at Thanbyuzayat and we finished off at the 105 camp. That was half way up. The other teams were further along.

Building the Burma-Thailand railway, 1943

What would your typical day have been like as a prisoner of war under the Japanese?

It was the same every day. When we first went there we used to get every tenth day off to do what we wanted to do. It wasn’t long before that was cut out. We had that many sick that we worked seven days a week, period finish stop. Sometimes we’d leave before daylight to go out to the job and arrive home at ten or eleven o’clock at night. We had to walk so damn far to get to the work. It was the same thing every day. Day after day doing the bridges or doing the cuttings which ever we had to do.

How long was the walk to the actual work site from where you were living?

You may have to walk twenty kilometres. If you were working near your camp you had a close one. The camp we had to go both ways. The start of it would be only a couple of hundred yards. By the time you were ready to move it you’d done twenty or twenty five kilometres each side.

Now which other Australian prisoners of war that we might have heard about did you meet there?

None of any great note, I know a few odd ones. There was a few in the district here a long time ago. They’re all dead now. Walter Johnson was here, Roy Shepherd was here, Gordon McKnight was here, Norm Malone who was here.

Weary Dunlop in 1945

So Weary Dunlop (Sir Earnest Edward Dunlop) was your doctor in your unit?

Yeah, well he didn’t have much to worry about with me. I got pretty crook at one stage but most of the time I was able to get about. I didn’t have near as much sickness as a lot of them because I was younger and fit as a bull when I joined up. There were others survived just as good as me. I did have a little bit of an advantage. I was one selected to take the team down to ferry the stuff across the gutters when the bridge was blown away. We thieved enough stuff there. We were living pretty well. These sort of things helped without a doubt.

So how many men in your unit survived the war?

I don’t know. There were four hundred and ninety five from memory originally. I would say if half of them survived it would be a maximum. I don’t know, had no way of knowing.

So how long were you actually a prisoner of war?

Three and a half years.

That’s amazing?

My wife… I was listed as missing believed killed. She didn’t know I was alive for three and a half years. She was notified when the war started that I was missing believed killed.

POWs and "natives" working on the Burma-Thailand railway

Now tell me that day that you met your family again when you came back from the war? What was that like for you?

When we came home we got out of the boat and they took us by bus up to Moorebank to be joined with our families. The chap that lived up the road he took my wife and kiddies down to meet me down there. When the bus pulled up, they’d have a list of who was on it. There was a chap used to stand at the back of the bus and call out the names with a microphone of who was the next one getting off the bus. There were quite a lot of families there as you realise. The chap who was getting out before me, Ernie Noble, he was a lot older than me and pretty feeble. They called his name out but he had a lot of trouble getting off the bus. They called my name out before he was off the bus. When he got out my wife thought that was me getting off. She had a bit of a surprise when I followed.

She did recognise you did she?

Well I was recognizable when I got off. He just called the name and all she could see was this little old bloke getting out of the bus. She had no idea what I’d look like.

That’s a good story. So was it difficult for you to adjust to normal life again in Australia?

Not really, no not really. I don’t think I had any great problems. We spent months going backwards and forwards to the damned hospital. I was in Yarralla Hospital for quite a while. I had all my teeth removed and I had my tonsils taken out while I was there.

I went to work driving a truck for a chap there for a while. Then one night I had a knock on the door at home and a group of farmers there. They asked me would I put a truck on the road to cart their fruit to market and they’d guarantee to give me their work if I’d do so. Which I did, that was in 1948. I’d been used to giving the service I had to give before the war. That was the only service I knew. It was the way that I worked. But the service that they got during the war, it wasn’t service at all. If the carrier was tired one night, he’d leave the fruit there till tomorrow night. He didn’t care.

When I started I went back to the way I used to do it before the war. It wasn’t very long before I was carting all the fruit out of Arcadia, Galston, Dural and West Pennant Hills. I had a fleet of trucks carting the fruit out. Then they started to get rid the farms. The value of land went up in the Hills district very smartly. The farmers could sell out and get enough money. They never thought of before. A lot of them sold out and bought nice places and went to other places to live. Every time I went out another farm went bust. The result where I had seven or eight trucks carting the fruit to the market you could have done it in a wheelbarrow you might say. All the farmers were selling out. I had the one driver who… he was with me for a long time and he wanted to take it on. So I sold him the two trucks and gave him the business.

Thirty dozen eggs were packed in a box

I was smashed up badly in 1949. One of the jobs I had after I bought the trucks, I did a lot of work for the Egg Marketing Board. They used to have an Egg Marketing Board in those days. All the eggs produced had to go to Sydney and be distributed from there. I did quite a lot of carting for them from Tamworth which was a very high production area. From Young which was a very high production area. On the trip down to Young I was involved in a very bad accident at Yass. In a heavy fog, the only trip my wife ever took with me. It was a very heavy fog and a furniture pantech came the other way from Melbourne. He lost control of it he hit the bank in front of me. It was in a bit of a cutting. He hit the bank and came over and crashed straight into my driver’s door. Down over the side I went into a four or five feet deep gutter over the side. Went down in there and I finished up under the semi trailer wheel at the back. I finished up under the wheel. My wife was alongside me and her skirt was around my leg. She couldn’t move and I had a jar of acid on the truck and it busted. I had acid dripping in my eyes. Oh misery I tell you.

I don’t know how long it was but they finally got me to Yass hospital. The whole hip area was smashed because that’s where it hit me. That night I know they called my wife in on three different occasions to say goodbye. They thought I’d had it. Then they transferred me, it might have been by ambulance, up to Randwick. To a private hospital at Randwick and I spent another six months there. All you can do is lay still until the thing heals up. Until the bones knit, I tell you its not very nice. So I spent about six months in (?) Hospital.

When I got out I could walk with crutches. Then I finally had to go back into Yaralla with trouble. I went in there. The chap they put in the bed alongside me was a doctor. Of course the conversation you know “what are you in for”? I told him. They told me I’d never walk again. I was badly smashed up. He said “you could walk again if you tried hard enough”. I said “I don’t know”. He said “why don’t you try, get off your backside and try”. So I thought it was a pretty good idea and I did try. Two or three weeks later I was walking with walking sticks again. Finally I was walking without walking sticks.

I went on driving trucks for a while. Then the thing collapsed with me and I went down again. I had to give it up. I still had the carrying business. Mobil Oil Company. I had my own private bowser with them. The traveller there Arthur Chipperfield, he said to me… of course I couldn’t drive the trucks. He said to me “I’ll get the company to build you a little service station, petrol station here if you like. You’d be able to do that with your walking sticks.” “If you’d be prepared to sell their fuel only for ten years, they’ll build a place for you”.

That’s what happened I’d already bought a couple of blocks opposite. That’s what they did. Mobil built the little garage it was just a petrol station out the front and a lube bay and a little office area. I started there. The thing was hardly finished and I was over there one night and a car pulled in. Go past and turned around and pulled in. Introduced themselves it was George James the manager of the NRMA (National Roads and Motorist’s Association). He had his offsider with him. They said “we’re looking for someone to do the road patrol in the area. The chap at Wiseman’s Ferry we’ve just been down to terminate his arrangements because he wasn’t quite doing the right thing”. I knew what he was doing. He was booking out jobs he wasn’t doing anything.

Staff at J.E. Allen Pty Ltd 1970s

He said “if you’re interested we’ll offer you the roadside service”.

I took it on. I had two boys just left school. Not old enough to have licences but that didn’t matter. They had a fair bit of knowledge. Those days the only thing that used to happen to vehicles you ran out of petrol or you got a flat battery or a flat tyre. That was ninety percent of the problems that they had. So I took the job on with them. Well I finished up as one of their second biggest depots I suppose.

I’d only started that when another chap called in that I used to buy trucks off, when I had the trucks. He was from British Leyland, well it was known as Nuffield Australia in those days. He offered me the franchise with Morris vehicles in the area. I took that on too. It just grew like a snowball. I started with me only, then with the two boys. Then when I started that I had to get a couple of mechanics in almost straight away. Then with the NRMA I was picking up a few damaged cars, that was part of the work. You used to have to send them out to a panel beater somewhere to be done. An old panel beater called into me he said “why don’t you start your own panel beating? I’ll come and manage it for you” I said “that’s a good idea too”. So I started my own panel beating business and away we went.

I had a chap that was in the army with me. As a matter of fact he joined the army the same day as me and my number was NX72255 and his was NX72256. He was the next number. Prior to the war he had a contract with Bebarfalds the furniture people delivering furniture for them. They offered him the contract back and he came into me and he said “you told me you used to build truck bodies and that, I’ve got a new truck and you’ll have to build me a body on it”. I said “well I’ve never built a van body in my life Harry”. He said “well it’s a good time to start”. So I built him a van body totally different to what the furniture vans were. All the furniture vans in those days were built out of wood. I built one out of angle iron. It was the same size exactly outside as the old one he was using. But it was a lot wider inside because the walls were only an inch and a half thick. The old ones were about five inches thick. He was delighted when he put it to work and found he could put another suite of furniture in it. He ordered a second one which I did for him only a little Morris truck. A chap named Allen Davis he owned Davis Van Lines, which was a fairly big furniture carrier. He saw it one day and he asked Harry where he got it done and he told him.

The next thing I had Allen Davis out to see me. He said “I’ve got a truck damaged, not a lot of damage but it’s at St Peters but they can’t touch it for three months, would you like to have the job of repairing it for me”. We were in the car and he took me down to St Peters it wasn’t very bad. I said “I’ll repair it for you”. So he had it towed up. I put him back on the road in about two weeks, which pleased him immensely. He happened to be the president of the Furniture Coach Association. He sang my praises everywhere. He got me to build a body for them and I put a new concept of body altogether. I built it out of square tubing and everyone reckoned I was mad. I put the body out over the cabin, out level with the front bumper bar which made a big box up on top. This gave them a lot more space inside which was the big thing for furniture. Furniture was carried in space not in weight. Other furniture removers saw it and of course they wanted it. I think I’d be building at least seventy five percent of all the furniture bodies in NSW. I had customers everywhere ringing up. I had the body building section. I built quite a big section for commercial motor body building. That was one of the biggest parts of our business from then on. Everything else kept going and going. I finished up with seventy people on the staff. That was about 1975 I had about seventy on then. Then I sold out in 1989.

Truck built by John Allen at Old Northern Road Dural

I believe you also played a part in the earth station for the satellite? Tell me about that when the America’s Cup was on?

When I had the smash repairers I had an engineering area too. Being an old truckie I used… When you went to buy a truck you could buy a truck the most suitable you could find for your job. Not really suitable but the closest thing to it. Well with my background I could make them so you could get the maximum space with the body work. In conjunction with that I built the engineering side of it. I used to modify these new trucks to make them one hundred suitable for what they were going into, which was very desirable.

A chap who was E Long Industries… E Long homes, he had a truck smashed up badly twisted chassis. Someone told him to bring it to me and he did. Only about a matter of a week or two later I gave it back to him. I also modified it while I had it. He was carting house frames on it. I made it so that it did a much better job. I couldn’t do anything wrong from then on.

It turned out that there was a firm called Magnitech Pty Ltd. They got the contract to supply the earth station for the satellite when the America’s Cup was on. Eddie Long was the president of the company that got the contract. He came up to me one day and he said “have you got my trailer ready yet?” I said “I don’t know anything about your trailer”. He said “haven’t you got an order yet?” I said “no”. So he got on the phone to the office and said “why hasn’t Jack Allen got his order for the trailer”? I got it very quickly.

They gave me a list of what I had to do. It was a pretty special sort of a trailer. Maximum size forty foot long and they gave me a list of things and I went ahead and built it. There was a lot of technicality I suppose involved in it. It had to be able to withstand a fifty kilometre wind without moving more than half a degree. So it had to be well and truly stabilised. It had to have a very soft ride because the big aluminium dish at the back was made out of soft aluminium. A bad jar and it would break collapse. Plus the electrical room with all the gear in it. That had to be kept at a low temperature maximum twenty five degrees temperature. I built it to those specifications. I insulated the main area with polyurethane and I designed a special suspension for the back of it. I altered the springs on another suspension. Made them longer and took some of the leaves out to give it a soft ride. I put big balloon tyres on it so that it didn’t have to have very high pressure. There was no weight in the damned thing, it was all bulk. I put a petrol generator on it to supply the power for the air conditioners. I had two air conditioners for the main room and I put a generator on there to supply the power for it. We put four big outriggers one on each corner that swung out seven foot six wide to each corner to stabilise it. They had wind down legs on it. They were the legs that you see under trailers when they park trailers. They carried those and they clipped them on and used them for stabilizing.

They picked it up at my place. Robert Holmes a Court, it was associated with him of course, Channel Seven. He sent his engineer over from Perth to have a look at it. To see if he thought it was satisfactory. He gave it a clean bill of health. He didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He was satisfied that it was all right. Andrews Antennae from Melbourne they sent two engineers up to look over it. They said “if anything will work, this will”. They went back quite happy and then the stuff all arrived for the innards. The electrical gear and what have you and two engineers came from America with it to fit it up. They were the engineers from Magnitechs. They assembled it and fitted it up. Brought a prime mover over and hooked it up and moved it to Melbourne to have the antenna fitted. Then got the prime mover and pulled it over to Perth and set it up. As soon as they set her up away she went and never gave a fault.

So was this a satellite dish?

It had a big satellite dish on it yes.

So what was its purpose?

It took all the images of the race. It was the America’s Cup race. It did all the normal TV work on it and they had to send the beam up to the satellite. The satellite couldn’t take the photos or anything. The earth station did all the work and then they beamed the images to the satellite to be distributed world wide.

John Allen's workshop and petrol station Old Northern Road Dural 1980s

How did it go, the business?

Well it went very well. It was one of the biggest businesses in the district. I don’t know any other place that employed seventy people those days. I’d just about eliminated the out of work problems in the Dural area. There was only one person on the staff that didn’t either live in the Baulkham Hills or Hornsby Shire. He was one of the old foremen. Tradesmen were hard to find you’d appreciate. The only people that were available were people that used to work on the farms before they sold out. They were the ones that were available. Good workers most of them, good triers, but no experience. I had five people that were old enough to be on the pension. They should have been on the pension. I contacted them and they came to work for me. There was old Bill Moses, there was Horrie Chandler, there was the Longmore brothers. They came… and the main job was to show the others how to do it. To supervise what they were doing. They got along very, very well with it as a matter of fact.

Did you train many apprentices in your motor business?

About twenty five, as near as I can tell, apprentices I trained. Most of them became top tradesmen. About half a dozen of them started their own business. Some of them are still going today. No we had a very high reputation for that. They all went to Granville Tech and learnt.

Any of your children join you in the business?

I formed the business into a company round about 1957/58 and there was the two boys, my daughter, my wife and myself.

Sand mining at Maroota c1993

What was the business actually called?

J. E. Allen Pty Ltd.

Sadly John’s wife Betty and sons Barry and Ken have passed away. Ken, the youngest, left the family firm after 10 years and ran a successful used car business at Granville. Barry, the middle child, bought a couple of trucks and contracted to cart sand for the pipeline from Gosford to Sydney, eventually selling the trucks and working the pit at Maroota himself – the first one to mine the sand there. After John sold to Ampol in 1989, daughter Shirley, who had helped in the office, operated the car yard site for 10 years with her husband. John recently sold this site. He is very proud to have 7 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.