July 7, 2020
Seventy-five years after World War II ended, Wondai resident Len McLeod’s war service has finally been recognised with the awarding of the 1939-45 Star.
South Burnett mayor Brett Otto officially presented Len, 94, with the medal in a small ceremony before family members, friends and councillors at Kingaroy Town Hall on Tuesday afternoon.
The star was awarded to Army, Navy and RAAF personnel, merchant sailors and Australian civilians who served afloat with the United States Army Small Ships Section.
Most returned soldiers, sailors and air crews received their medals more than 70 years ago, so what was the delay with Len’s honour?
Len, who lived in Victoria at the time, had multiple attempts at signing up to serve in World War II, but the first few were unsuccessful due to his age.
When he finally did manage to get enlisted he was sent to New Guinea, barely 16 years old, after a stint at Canungra jungle training camp.
He was first placed on the famous “biscuit bombers”, military versions of the Dakota DC-3 which were resupplying Australian troops via air drops.
Len then transferred to the 2/7 Infantry Battalion at Wau and Buna where he served for several weeks before coming down with dengue fever and dysentery.
After walking back to Wau to receive hospital treatment, Len was sent to Australia for leave and to recuperate.
But that’s when his military life turned upside down. Len had managed to avoid being wounded by the Japanese, but while out shooting rabbits at Keilor in Victoria with an AIF mate – also on leave – he was accidentally shot in the hip and legs by a shotgun.
Len, who had just turned 17, recovered quickly but received a medical discharge from the Army.
Looking around for something to do, it was suggested Len get a job on a ship carting coal from Newcastle to Melbourne and back again.
After a few weeks, a merchant seaman told Len he should quit the “old tub” he was working on and join the US Army Small Ships which were supporting the war effort.
Len was quickly back on his way to Port Moresby and then Milne Bay, but this time serving under the Stars and Stripes.
The Small Ships – which ranged from fishing trawlers to ferries – employed more than 3000 Australian civilians, including one woman. They served alongside 1372 US Army personnel and citizens from other allied nations.
As well as New Guinea, the US Small Ships took Len to the Phillipines, Japan and China.
Unfortunately, Len’s service in New Guinea was just days short for him to qualify to receive his medal. And the eligibility of Small Ships veterans was not recognised by the Federal Government until 2010.
Proving his participation in the Small Ships 75 years after the war ended – and with records scarce or missing – also became an issue.
US Army Small Ships Association secretary Daniel O’Brien OAM said it was “a miracle” Len’s service had finally been recognised by the Defence Honours and Awards Directorate.
It reconsidered Len’s case based on published recollections of Small Ships’ veterans and photographic evidence.
Saying Len could well be the last Australian serviceman to be presented with the 1939-45 Star, Dan wrote to request Mayor Otto present the medal – and that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday.
After the war, Len worked on oil rigs in Bass Strait before retiring and travelling around Australia with his second wife in a caravan.
When they reached Bundaberg, they decided to settle down.
After enjoying life in Bundaberg for many years, Len’s wife became ill and Len moved into an aged care home in Deception Bay.
After his wife died, Len shifted to Wondai to live with his daughter Denise and son-in-law Barry West, who were proud guests at Tuesday’s ceremony.
Denise said Len’s other daughter, Suzanne, who lives in Victoria, was “heartbroken” she could not attend because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Footnote: The 75th anniversary of the unconditional surrender of the Japanese will occur on VP Day, August 15.
[UPDATED with correction]
* * *
Len describes a small part of his wartime experiences after being presented with the medal in Kingaroy:
* * *
External links – Radio interviews with Len