75 Years: Victory in the Pacific Day Digital Stories and Oral Histories – Robert McDermant, Veteran

The end of World War Two, for Queenslanders and Australia at large, came officially with the declaration of Victory in the Pacific in August 1945.

For Australian soldiers, it was the end of a turbulent and sometimes traumatic experience. Whilst some soldiers returned home within a matter of days, others would remain in the Pacific for months to come, organising the return of the wounded, the identification and burial of the dead, the processes for surrendered Japanese forces, and the stabilisation and rebuilding of small island nations rocked by a war that was not their own. 

Robert McDermant, QX58320, was a nursing orderly with the 7th Field Ambulance. Born in March 1923, he enlisted in 1941 after receiving a letter to meet members of the army at Roma Street Station. Initially placed in infantry, he was later transferred into nursing due to significant prior training in first aid and an endorsement with St John’s Ambulance.

Portrait of Robert McDermant.

Photograph from the World War Two veteran Robert McDermant digital story and oral history, 75 Years: Victory in the Pacific digital stories and oral histories, This Story Australia Ltd., producer, 2020, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

His oral history details his time in Port Moresby, Milne Bay, and Papua New Guinea. He describes in detail the events of a five day journey on a makeshift hospital and POW transport ship, filled with sick and wounded Japanese soldiers.

We didn’t have to get too far from the ship to realise this was trouble. Because you can smell it a mile away. See when we got there and climbed on board, we found that it was a ship coming back from further north and had something like 150 Japanese sick and wounded, they were full of diarrhoea, dysentery, malaria, and many of them were wounded and all the wounds were sort of smothered in flies and everything else in the place. Along the side of the deck was 44 gallon drums which we found afterwards was the toilet area for all these Japanese and so that’s where they used to be sick or whatever they wanted to do and the drum got full enough, they sealed it and threw it overboard.

Robert McDermant

Japanese prisoners of war arriving at Brisbane, ca. 1944. Negative number 45719, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

Due to his training with cutting-edge blood transfusion technology, Robert spent the majority of his overseas service in Forward Aid posts, which were the first response units and closest to enemy action.

When a person was injured up the front, they were sent to a Forward Aid post, where they could get some immediate work done on their wounds, then they would be moved to an ADS, an advanced dressing station, where someone could do something more for them. I was always sent up to a forward advanced dressing station, which means, we got them directly from the regimental aid post, which was the unit aid post, which would bring them in from the wounded area and bang them straight to us and then we would move them on to other areas. Most of my time, was spent in these forward aid posts.

Robert McDermant

When the Pacific campaign ended and victory was declared, Robert and a friend found their own means of returning home to Brisbane. Stowing away on the River Fitzroy, they successfully avoided detection until the ship was already out at sea. Both soldiers were charged as being Absent Without Leave (AWOL) and were fined 28 days’ pay and ₤5. However, they received largely positive treatment from the Australian public, including receiving free meals from local restaurants.

So we then had our meal, and we went and had a look around Sydney. We not only got fed, people in the street gave us money and they gave us cigarettes, they gave us the best of wishes because everybody in Sydney seemed so happy to see at least somebody had come home from Bougainville.

Robert McDermant

First aid practise in Brisbane, ca. 1942. Troops practising a blood transfusion in the field, while a group of observers watch. Negative number 166296, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

When Robert was formally discharged, he was one of many soldiers who was able to return to his previous job in Queensland, but his passion for the Queensland Ambulance service led him into a lifelong career there. You can access Robert McDermant’s fascinating story in its full oral history and  digital story here:

World War Two veteran Robert McDermant digital story and oral history, 75 Years: Victory in the Pacific digital stories and oral histories, This Story Australia Ltd., producer, 2020, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

This activity was funded under the Commonwealth Government’s Saluting Their Service Commemorative Grants Program. Proudly supported by the Queensland Government.    

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