‘You were young … you thought you were bulletproof’
WORLD WAR II veteran and staunch community volunteer Leonard Lister will be honoured at a ceremony at Jubilee Park in Mackay today.
He will be presented with a certificate for 60 years of service to the RSL as well as a pin commemorating 75 years since WWII ended.
The 96 year old was incredibly humble and generous in inviting the Daily Mercury into his home to share his story.
Mr Lister was 18 when he enlisted for the war - one of the "depression kids" that made up "most of the blokes" in the army.
"I had trouble getting in because I was working at a factory that was making the equipment for the war and he wouldn't release me," he said.
Mr Lister said he was finally freed eight months later and assigned to the Australian Electrician and Mechanical Engineers unit to learn optics because at that point, 18 year olds were not allowed to join the Australian Imperial Forces.
At 19, he was drafted to take over the base at Milne Bay in New Guinea.
"We only got to Canungra and the drafting officer disappeared," Mr Lister said.
"It was a real balls up".
He said his unit - a mesh of young craftsmen and older tradesmen - was there to train for "jungle warfare".
Mr Lister said he requested a transfer to the AIF, joining the 2/12th Battalion in Charters Towers.
But after getting bored with tasks like building log huts for the mess officers, he went AWOL with a group of mates.
Mr Lister said they travelled to Townsville without passes only to be accosted by American troops at the Strand and ordered to return.
"You were young … you thought you were bulletproof," he reflected.
Reporting back to the Officer-in-Charge, Mr Lister said he finally got the chance to head over to New Guinea three months after his brother Walter had left to fight in Singapore.
Little did he know at the time, his brother had been taken as a Prisoner of War and executed in Myanmar.
"Next minute" he was at Dumpu with a heavy artillery back-up unit - his job to haul eight shells weighing about 80kg back and forth up steep hills.
And in full-circle fashion, Mr Lister discovered he had actually helped make the clamps on the shell boxes back at his factory job.
The sound of the shellfire was deafening, Mr Lister said, as he was advised to keep his mouth open at all times to avoid his eardrums bursting from the pressure.
But Mr Lister would not complete his service in New Guinea after a patrol for Japanese soldiers in the mountains went horribly wrong.
He had attempted to make a 10m descent when he landed awkwardly on a rock.
Mr Lister said when the medic asked him to bare weight on his leg to prove it was broken, it separated from his foot on the ground, only the muscle and skin holding the two pieces together.
He said the "fuzzy wuzzies" made him a makeshift splint out of jungle sticks and stitched together a blanket with wild hibiscus bark.
But he said it was a race to get back to the coast to avoid the rats and tiny ticks or "mokkers" that would "fit four or five on the head of a pin".
Mr Lister spent almost the next 12 months in hospital before being transferred to Sydney where he was put in charge of the pavilion.
He said his task involved loading seaplanes with supplies for many of the "liberators and foreign fortresses" overseas.
Then in 1946, he was medically discharged and moved to Mackay where the weather was kinder to his asthma.
Mr Lister said he married Ada, a cane farmer's daughter, and spent his remaining working years in cane-related jobs including cutting it by hand "the old fashioned way" and three decades managing a farm.
He also spent 25 years as the secretary and then president of Air and Sea Rescue, now known as Volunteer Marine Rescue, and has been involved with the Rotary Club of Sarina for almost five decades.
Certificates of thanks, including for his beloved late wife Ada who was entrenched with the QCWA, line the walls of their family home.
Her piano remains centre-stage in the lounge room, with photographs of Ada scattered among treasured memories with his battalion mates.
That aren't many of us left, he said.
If you are a veteran who would like support, you can phone the 24/78 hotline Open Arms on 1800 011 046.