Bill Gordon

The Passing Out Parade was supported by the Australian Government’s Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund and was coordinated by South West Arts in partnership with South West Music Regional Conservatorium and Outback Theatre for Young People.

By David Schoeffel

“Dad had a dairy farm, just out of Deniliquin. I joined the Municipal Band, playing cornet, as a young kid. When I turned sixteen, I got a job in Melbourne, in the Victorian Railways workshops. They had a band, too, which practised there in Spencer Street. Our bandmaster, Mr. Belcher, was a pretty strict sort of a bloke, and he started me as second cornet. I worked and played with them for about a year and a half, and during that time I also played with the Tramways Band. We used to go on pleasant musical tram trips, out to places like Wattle Park.

I joined the Air Force when I turned eighteen. They sent me to Hamilton, where I worked briefly, installing machine-guns in aircraft. I didn’t much like this mechanical work, but had always been keen on fiddling with crystal-sets and radios, so they decided to train me in signals. I always carried my cornet with me, so, wherever I went, I always had to do the bugle-calls. This meant that I was always first out of bed, to play the “Reveille”, last in to lunch, after “Come to the Cookhouse Door, Boys”, last to dinner, after “The Last Post” and last into bed, after the “Lights Out”. But I didn’t mind.

A funny thing, ‘Signals’: the bugle has long been replaced by telephones, radios and loudspeakers, yet everyone still seems to want bugle-calls for ceremonial signalling. Is this just nostalgia for the good old battles? Certainly, it’s meagre fare for a musician, though I guess there’s challenge and satisfaction in doing it well.

Anyhow, I was sent to study communications technology at the Tech. College, over in Adelaide. They had a drum and bugle band; just one step cruder, musically, I suppose, than a drum and bagpipe band, but I played with them until, shortly, they sent me up to Newcastle and then, on, up to Townsville, as a ‘plotter recorder’. You’ve probably seen control rooms in war movies, where radio messages come in and people push markers around with sticks on map-covered tables. Well, that’s the sort of thing I was doing.

It was November of 1943 when I boarded a DC3 Dakota and flew, via Cooktown, to Port Moresby. Six weeks later, our unit went to Dobodura, an airstrip on the Sambogi River, near the infamous Sanananda Trail. Always, we followed up behind the fighting, northwestward, up the north coast of New Guinea. Every day, I played the required bugle-calls, on top of my normal duties.

Though always behind the fighting, with only malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, fungal infections and tropical ulcers to worry about, we still saw some pretty graphic stuff, such as when heavy rain would expose trenches full of skeletons, though whether ours, or theirs, we couldn’t tell.

Milne Bay, Lae, Madang, finally, Aitape, near the West New Guinea border, where McArthur’s Americans were preparing for his promised return to the Philipines. Here, the Yanks trained us in using their new ‘Loran’ communications system, effective with ships, submarines and aircraft. I worked and bugled there until, a full year after the war had ended, I was ‘de-mobbed’ back to Melbourne, where the Air Force had commandeered the M.C.G. as a demobilisation camp.

While in Melbourne, I fell in love with a charming young tailoress. I was able to persuade her to come with me, back up to Deniliquin, where we married and worked together in ‘the rag trade’ for many years. I, naturally, rejoined the Deni. Band. I played with them until my recent retirement, at the age of ninety-three.”