The memory of the Kokoda campaign is still alive in the mind of WWII returned serviceman and SwanCare resident Keith Norrish, who was part of the 2/16th Batallion.
Watch his story here.
ANZAC legend saved by steel mirror
Almost 100 years on from the birth of the ANZAC legend, SwanCare’s Bentley Park is celebrating the ANZAC heroes in its midst ahead of ANZAC Day on April 25.
As one of several World War II returned servicemen now living at SwanCare’s Bentley Park, Keith Norrish will be one of those commemorating his fallen mates in a ceremony at SwanCare at 1.30pm on April 24.
Mr Norrish enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at the age of 19 in 1940 and was posted to the 2/16th Battalion based in WA.
It was during basic training in Northam with his Battalion that Mr Norrish contracted Measles, German Measles and Bronchitis simultaneously, forcing his retreat to hospital and then to the Faversham Convalescent Home in York – which turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events.
Mr Norrish reckons it was “lucky” he got sick – because that’s how he met his future wife Peggy, whose ardent letter-writing throughout the war would prove to save his life in an unexpected way.
After surviving his first brush with death and completing his training, Mr Norrish and the 2/16th Battalion were deployed to the Middle East in 1941, where they fought the Vichy French in Syria.
Due to the Japanese threat, the 2/16th Battalion returned to Australia in 1942 for jungle warfare training in Queensland, and were soon on their way to New Guinea to fight on the Kokoda Track. It was just three weeks into the Kokoda campaign that Mr Norrish’s fate took an unexpected turn.
While waiting for instructions on their next movements one day, a mate jokingly teased Mr Norrish about his six day beard growth. They fished around and found a steel mirror to view their good looks. The officer commanding their company called Mr Norrish to get further instruction on the forthcoming attack. ‘Have you joined the signal corps, Norrish?’ The OC asked, indicating to the mirror still in his hand.
“With some difficulty I stuffed the mirror into my shirt pocket. There was already a wad of 17 letters that had arrived that morning from Peg and my family,” Mr Norrish says.
“And that turned out to be a rather lucky thing, because I still had my letters and the mirror in my pocket when we charged up the track and it’s what saved me when I stepped into a burst of fire from a light machine gun.”
Incredibly, the almost point-blank gunfire hit Mr Norrish’s firmly-lodged mirror, which deflected four bullets down into his stomach muscles, with another puncturing his lung and damaging his pericardium. Another deflected into his bicep muscle.
But that was only the beginning of Mr Norrish’s incredible story of survival. He then had to face an almost-six-day walk to reach the casualty clearing station at the beginning of the Kokoda Track.
“The doctor on the track put a field dressing over my chest, and I couldn’t lie down at that point because I felt my lungs were filling with fluid,” Mr Norrish says.
“He said to me ‘Well there you are Norrish, now you need to just keep walking, taking little short steps and when you run out of steam, someone will pick you up’.
“So off I went back along the track for the next five-and-a-half days. It was a fairly torturous walk. We had no guides to spare, so when I wanted to sleep I’d sit upright on a log and I had a great walking staff that I’d plant in the mud and rest my hands and chin on top of it and doze.”
Cpl Frank Farrell, a close friend, came looking for Mr Norrish to give him assistance. He organised a Fuzzy Wuzzy youth to take care of him and made a blanket poncho to keep him warm at night.
“I had a boy to lean on and he was wonderful. He had a sixth sense, he got me water when I needed to drink and he stopped when I needed to stop,” Mr Norrish says.
“We never spoke, but we didn’t need to. He was my guardian angel and he saved my life.”
With the help of the young Papuan, Mr Norrish reached the casualty clearing station where he underwent surgery, and was eventually shipped back to Brisbane to convalesce.
On August 1, 1943, Mr Norrish was commissioned Lieutenant and transferred to the 2/2nd Battalion and saw further service in the Aitape-Wewak campaign on the north coast of Papua New Guinea.
Mr Norrish finally married his sweetheart Peggy in 1944.
He was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia 2005, in recognition for his work as part of the 2/16th Battalion Association, and was part of the driving forces behind the 16th Battalion and 2/16th Battalion memorials and Kokoda Track memorial at Kings Park.
He will be laying a wreath at SwanCare’s ANZAC Day ceremony on April 24.
SwanCare Group Chief Executive Officer Graham Francis said the organisation was enormously proud of the number of ANZACs now living at SwanCare, Bentley Park.
“Every year SwanCare acknowledges the exceptional contribution of all Australian service men and women in our ANZAC Day ceremonies, and in particular it’s a time for us all to reflect on the incredible stories of the ANZACs living within our midst here at SwanCare,” he said.
“It’s thanks to the bravery and selflessness of servicemen like Keith that Australia is the place it is today.”