My father Frank flew Kittyhawks with No.75 Squadron against the Japanese in 1943-4 in New Guinea and the nearby islands and then became an instructor at the Central Flying School at Point Cook, teaching trainees how to fly the plane he really loved - the Spitfire.
Anxious to join the action in the projected invasion of Tokyo, in which the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) was surplus to US (United States) requirements, Frank enlisted as a naval pilot to fly off a British aircraft carrier.
He was ordered to report for duty on August 14 – the day Japan surrendered. So he then called Joy Beattie, the WAAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force) Corporal he had taken out in Townsville and said we might as well get married. She agreed and I was born the following year, the first of three sons.
That I was born at all was something of a miracle, given my father’s incredible survival after he crash-landed his plane on the roof of a house in northern Victoria and walked away with a few scratches.
It was his first solo night flight - in an old Wirraway trainer- when he became lost in a storm and was almost out of petrol. He should sensibly have bailed out but as he later told the official investigation I had glimpsed a town below me and I was not prepared to let my aircraft go with the possibility of it causing damage and loss of civilian life.
So instead, with his last minute of fuel, he nosed beneath the black rainclouds and espied a paddock flanked by power lines. Descending, he chucked a flare which brought into focus a telegraph pole, just before he hit it with an impact that tore away the engine and his left wing, but the rest of the plane and its pilot bounced to the right, landing on the power lines.
The 56 strands of rubber wire cushioned the craft for a second and then literally catapulted it into the air, from which it descended, almost sedately, onto the flat roof of a nearby house in the town of Chiltern.
Photographs were in all the papers the next day and everyone marvelled at how a 19-year-old trainee could manage to land a plane on the roof of a house and walk away with a few scratches.
Afterwards, Dad recorded laconically in his logbook had three days bludge in Wangaratta hospital, and he was in combat three months later.
The official inquiry upheld his moral decision to avoid possible civilian casualties and the only effect the crash had on his career was to supply his nickname: his mates in No.75 Squadron dubbed him home-wrecker. The plane’s impact had pushed the house a metre off its alignment.
My father’s war began with a personal tragedy. His beloved elder brother, Ron, a RAAF navigator, was killed in an Avro Anson crash at Heron Island.
This left Dad mentally shaken, so the Squadron treated him with kid gloves for a few days. Then they decided that the best way of “unshakening” him was to put him in the most perilous position available - that of wingman to the notorious daredevil pilot Les Jackson. Les had not been able to cope with the death in combat of his own brother John Jackson, the great first CO (Commanding Officer) of the Squadron, and he flew with a bravado that bordered on madness. He took his new wingman high into the darkest clouds, then down to strafe the enemy from a few feet above the ground.
I have always been proud of my father for being among what Americans call the great generation, the fliers and fighters of the South Pacific, but I suspect he was terrified much of the time, inconsolable over his brother’s death and simply found himself in a position where there was no alternative to courage.
Of course there were innocent pleasures, recorded in logbooks and by Kodak – the grass skirts and coconuts, swims in clear mountain pools and coral-paved beaches, meeting the occasional infusion of nurses and soaking up the sunshine which planted the melanomas that killed some of them in later life.
But war in the Pacific was as cruel a war as anywhere. My father could never forget the smell of burning flesh as he came out of his cockpit onto a captured runway after one island assault.
Dad’s logbook records the hazards of flying in places like Port Moresby, Milne Bay and Morotai Island, over islands occupied by Japanese troops who would have cut off his head with a ceremonial sword if he had crash-landed again.
Malaria was endemic, as were dengue fever and gastroenteritis: pilots flew with an empty gumboot in the cockpit to serve as a toilet. There were bullets sometimes from zeke, the nippy Japanese Zeros, although it was more dangerous to be caught on the ground by a surprise attack with bombs that sprayed shrapnel – often pieces of Australian pig-iron, irresponsibly sold to Japan just before the war began.
Perhaps the highest tribute to Dad’s integrity, or at least his sobriety, was that his Commanding Officers entrusted him to do the grog run for the Squadron, back to Townsville where he re-united with Joy.
As a small boy I was proud of my father, as I rooted around his cupboard to find his medals and his photos (with his Errol Flynn moustache) and the wings sewn onto his uniform. But later, at University, I was also proud of his refusal to join the drunken Anzac Day celebrations, or the RSL – then a racist and xenophobic organisation that wanted us conscripted to fight in Vietnam.
War had been a tragedy for Dad and his family: they had fought it gamely, but the loss of his brother was not something to be celebrated.
However, in 1992 – inspired by his stories – I made a documentary for the ABC about the achievement of John Jackson and the original members of No. 75 Squadron in what Prime Minister John Curtin called our darkest hour – the 44 days between the fall of Singapore and the battle of the Coral Sea.
Dad reunited with some old comrades and marched with them on Anzac Day. I walked proudly beside him.
Frank and Joy’s marriage lasted as long as they did - for 72 years - and produced two more sons – Graeme, an international businessman and Tim, a Senior Counsel in Sydney.
After demobbing, Frank went back to his teenage job as a teller at the Commonwealth Bank, but was soon promoted and was appointed as Registrar of the bank by the time he was 40.
He left after being elected to membership of the Sydney Stock Exchange and then became director of a number of public companies.
My father Frank Robertson died in 2017, a few weeks after Joy. His family were pleased that the now Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, and officers of No.75 Squadron attended his funeral, in full uniform despite the 40 degree heat – too hot for the planned flypast of Tiger Moths (all the Wirraways having by now presumably crashed).
Frank’s uniform and goggles are on display at Chiltern Athenaeum Museum, together with photos of his amazing rooftop landing.