- A.N. Other
- History - WW2, Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Cerberus (Shore Establishment)
- March 2018 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Hector Donohue
Harold Leon (Bill) Billman had a relatively short war in the RAN of just three years, but as a bomb and mine disposal officer he was regularly close to front line action. After nearly two and a half years in the Air Force he joined the Navy in late 1942 and qualified in bomb disposal. During 1943 he was quickly involved in battles in New Guinea and demonstrated courage and skill under dangerous circumstances being Mentioned in Despatches. This continued in 1944/45 when he was attached to the US Navy in the Philippines and was awarded a DSC. Bill was demobilised in December 1945 and little is known of him after this. Given his demonstrated abilities and bravery, it is surprising his career has not received greater coverage and this short biography attempts to describe his background and enlarge upon his wartime naval career.
Information for this article came from his service records held in National Australian Archives (NAA), his recommendation for Commendation, The Shepparton Advertiser, interviews with Ms S. Williamson of Chiltern, a Billman family historian, and his friend Mr B. Gawne of Grong Grong. The Wangaratta Family History Society also kindly provided details of his time in that town.
Harold Leon (Bill) Billman was born in Carlton, Victoria on 4 January 1908. Bill’s mother, Bertha Billman was unmarried and there is no record of his father. Bill was fostered out to William and Eliza Walke who lived in Sale, Victoria. Eliza was in her mid-50s and knew the Billman family, so Bill retained his mother’s name. Bill went to Sale Technical School and was apprenticed to the Melbourne Electric Supply Company from 1926 to 1930. Through a company merger he was transferred to the Victorian State Electricity Commission as a linesman, initially working in Sorrento before moving to Shepparton in 1933. He became the residential linesman and assistant officer in charge of the Shepparton branch of the State Electricity Commission. His foster father had died in 1930 and Bill lived with Eliza in Shepparton with TheShepparton Advertiser reporting him as her nephew (when she was aged 80 and he was 25). Billman had studied refrigeration and in 1938 started his own business in this industry.
Bill was a very active sportsman (cricket, tennis, golf and rifle shooting) and The Shepparton Advertiser regularly reported on Bill and his older half-brother Albert (Bert) Billman who was also a regular in the sporting pages. The two, although friends, were unaware they shared the same mother. Bert had been adopted at birth and both boys had assumed their mother’s name. Bill was elected as Secretary to the Shepparton Tennis Association in 1934 and in 1937 won the Shepparton Rifle Club trophy.
Bert, who was three years older than Bill, married in 1926 and had five children. He joined 2/7 Battalion in November 1939 and served in the Middle East. He returned to Australia in August 1942 as a Sergeant and transferred to AAOC. He was discharged in November 1944. Bert died in a car accident near Dimboola in November 1950, aged 47 years. There is no record of the half-brothers being in post war contact.
Royal Australian Air Force
In March 1940 Bill applied to join the RAAF, indicating he would like to train for the aero mechanical branch and to be attached to a fighting unit overseas. As his mother had died in 1924 he gave his single aunt, Ida Billman (from Ballarat) as his next of kin, indicating he had kept in touch with his family. He allotted money from his pay to his foster mother who was by then in a nursing home.
His application stated an involvement in refrigeration service work in the Goulbourn Valley and he was unable to terminate his business until the end of May. His application was successful and on 27 April 1942 he passed the trade test and was enlisted as a Fitter IIA on 25 May 1940. Bill joined No. 1 Engineering School Ascot Vale on 28 June 1940 and did the Fitter IIA course, completing it in October 1940. After a brief posting to No 2 Service Flying Training School, Wagga, on promotion to Corporal on 4 November 1940 he returned to Ascot Vale. He was promoted Sergeant on 1 January 1942.
On 31 August he requested release from the RAAF to enlist in the Australian Military Force. His request mentions that he had applied for a commission but this had been rejected. He pointed out that he had been an instructor at No. 1 Engineering School for 21 months and had given his best and suggested that his previous training and experience would be more useful to the national effort in the AMF. The application was approved and he was discharged on 19 September 1942. It would be fair to say that he had wanted to be deployed overseas and his war at that time seemed restricted to Melbourne. Also his inability to reach commissioned rank may have been a factor.
On leaving the RAAF he gave his address as 12 Essex Street, West Footscray which was where his friends Jim and Anne Pavich lived. Jim Pavich, a WWI veteran who had lost his right leg in France in 1917, was eleven years older than Bill. His wife, Anne (nee Gawne), was from Shepparton and they visited there during the 1930s when they met Bill and became friends.
Royal Australian Navy
Bill told Bruce Gawne that after the war he wanted to be a diver and in the event applied to join the Navy. On joining, he gave his aunt as his next of kin but included in the listings of next of kin on his service record were his foster mother, who was still in a nursing home, and the Pavich family. Eliza Walke died in 1944 and his aunt, Ida Billman, died in 1948.
Billman joined the RANVR as a Sub Lieutenant on 16 November 1942 and was assigned to the M (mining) specialisation which covered controlled mines and bomb and mine disposal. He completed a controlled mine course and render mine safe course at Flinders Naval Depot before qualifying in bomb disposal at the Army Bomb Disposal School at Inglefield in February 1943. Bill was then posted in March to HMAS Platypusat Cairns for bomb and mine disposal (BMD) duties.
Between 1942 and 1945, Queensland became a support base for the war effort in the South West Pacific and the ports in Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns were rapidly expanded to become significant naval bases. Shipping congestion at Townsville caused the main naval presence in north Queensland to be based further north at Cairns. Early in 1943 RAN wartime facilities for the port of Cairns also included an oil tanker berth and the RAN shore depot, HMAS Kuranda, containing naval stores and accommodation for about 400 personnel. In February 1943 the depot ship HMAS Platypus took up permanent mooring near the shore depot and the naval base at Cairns was re-named Platypus until she departed in May 1944.
Both the RAN and the USN utilised Trinity Inlet in Cairns which became the principal naval base for repair, refuelling, victualling and maintenance of minor naval craft such as Australian corvettes, Fairmile patrol launches, and US motor torpedo (PT) boats. In addition, Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina flying boats of RAAF Nos. 11 and 20 Squadrons were based there from late 1942. The Cairns in which Billman found himself in early 1943 was a busy area but unlikely to have much requirement for bomb and mine disposal.
He qualified Diver II in HMAS Penguin in May 1943 and was promoted to Lieutenant in June with seniority of 21 March 1943. In August 1943 he was sent to HMAS Basilisk at Port Moresby where he was engaged in bomb and mine disposal in the New Guinea forward areas
Deployment to New Guinea
Japan’s entry into the war in December 1941 saw south-east Queensland become an important strategic hub following an expansion of the Allied presence in the Brisbane area. A US submarine base was established at New Farm and additional naval stores depots, victualling yards and maintenance facilities were created. There was an increased throughput of personnel to serve in combined operations training camps situated at Toorbul and Bribie Island. An effective examination service, Port War Signal Station and mine watching service were also operated by the RAN, as was a small ships base situated at Colmslie. By 1944 HMAS Moreton was also responsible for administering operations, intelligence and communications staffs attached to Allied Headquarters, Allied Naval Headquarters and Naval Staff in depots throughout Queensland and New Guinea.
In the South West Pacific area the US Army had few active bomb disposal squads in the theatre until after June 1944. Until then bomb and mine disposal was handled by RAN BMD teams, Australian Air Force and Army bomb disposal units or US Navy Mobile Explosive Investigation Units. BMD personnel in support of Allied offensives in New Guinea and the islands were often close to fierce fighting and dealt with Japanese booby traps as well as the large amounts of unexploded ordnance, both Japanese and Allied.
The campaign to take the Salamaua and Lae areas began after the successful defence of Wau in late January 1943, which was followed up by an Australian advance towards Mubo. A series of actions followed over the course of several months as the Australian 3rd Division advanced north-east towards Salamaua. The amphibious landing at Nassau Bay in July, some 24 km south of Salamaua, was carried out in order to capture a staging post to improve the supply situation for the main Australian force attacking Salamaua from inland bases.
Following the landing, the Australians were reinforced by a US regimental combat team, which subsequently advanced north up the coast. The US forces made contact with the Australian 17th Brigade around Mubo. The combined forces then turned their attention towards the Japanese at Salamaua, advancing slowly across difficult terrain during July and August, The Salamaua garrison was captured on 11 September 1943, while Lae fell shortly afterwards on 16 September, bringing this campaign to an end.
In August and September 1943, Billman was involved in providing BMD support for the Allied forces advancing towards Salamaua, following the Allied landings in Nassau Bay in July. He was attached to the advancing troops and regularly under fire. He was responsible for locating and disposing of land mines and booby traps left by the retreating Japanese which delayed operations and also caused casualties. The BMD teams also demolished Japanese emplacements and tunnels.
A 3rd Division report describing the demands on the men fighting illustrates the difficult conditions Billman and other bomb and mine disposal personnel operated under.
It rained almost every day and campsites were damp, at best, or soaked. Such conditions of rain, mud, rottenness, stench, gloom, and, above all, the feeling of being shut in by everlasting jungle and ever ascending mountains, are sufficient to fray the strongest nerves. But add to them the tension of constant expectancy of death from behind the impenetrable screen of green, and nerves must be of the strongest, and morale of the highest, to live down these conditions, accept them as a matter of course, and maintain a cheerful yet fighting spirit.
After joining HMAS Ladavaat Milne Bay on 1 October, he was hospitalised in Port Moresby two weeks later with malaria and was posted to Moreton in Brisbane mid November for bomb and mine disposal duties. But in May 1944 he was again hospitalised with malaria.
In August 1944 a recommendation for a Mention in Despatches (MID) was forwarded to the Admiralty for his work in the Nassau Bay area and the award was received on 26 June 1945 …for courage, skill and undaunted devotion to duty in exceptionally hazardous operations. In September he was posted for duty with the 7th Fleet. It is unlikely that there was much call for Bill’s BMD expertise whilst at Moreton apart from dealing with allied unexploded ordnance found during training, but his diving skills were regularly required. Indeed he had to delay commencing his US Navy attachment to complete an important diving operation.
Attachment to the US Navy
Four US Navy Mobile Explosive Investigation Units (MEIU) were established during the war, two in the Pacific and two in the European theatre. MEIU 1 was established in the US in July 1942 for duty in the South West Pacific area and by January 1943 it had established its headquarters in Brisbane under Commander Service Force, 7th Fleet.
MEIU 1 teams were also involved in the operations in New Guinea. During USN planning for the retaking of the Philippines a number of RAN officers with relevant expertise were attached to the 7th Fleet, including bomb and mine disposal qualified officers.
Lieutenant Billman was the first of three RAN officers to serve with MIEU 1, joining in Brisbane on 14 September 1944. During his first two weeks he attended a refresher course on US and Japanese ordnance and undertook trials in using shaped charges. At the end of September he flew to Hollandia where the US Sixth Army was based and joined a US Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) under Lieutenant Colver USN onboard Landing Craft Infantry (Demolitions) 29 (LCI) which was attached to Commander 7th Fleet Amphibious Forces.
On Friday 13 October, the forces assigned for the operation comprising some 700 ships sailed from Hollandia for the 1300 nm journey to Leyte. The invasion fleet was so large it took a day and a half to clear the harbour. LCI 29 was allocated to the Panaon Attack Group, TG78.3, which included three Australian LSIs: Manoora, Westraliaand Kanimbla.
On A-Day, 20 October, Billman (and the UDT) landed with the almost 3000 men of the Sixth Army’s 21st Regimental Combat Team on the northern tip of Panaon Island just south of Leyte. The aim was to secure the strait between Leyte and Panaon Island to counter any IJN movement of ships into Leyte Gulf. No enemy resistance was encountered and a search of the island revealed the Japanese had left some months earlier. Investigations revealed that the channel between Panaon and Leyte had been laid with Japanese controlled mines but on leaving, the Japanese had blown the mines and removed the shore installations. Nothing else of interest was found and they returned to the LCI.
Three days later he landed with a support group that attacked a Japanese station at Leyte and captured some Japanese wireless equipment. The LCI then moved to the Tacloban area in Leyte, where the main landings had been conducted. During an air raid he noticed that a bomb which had fallen on a troop laden liberty ship had not detonated. Billman boarded the ship and found the bomb lodged behind the bridge with a nose and tail fuze, both in an armed condition. He decided it was too dangerous to move, cleared the area of troops and with a heavy sea running, rendered the bomb safe, after which it was lowered over the side. On 28 October, Billman took a UDT detachment to the Tacloban airfield and cleared the airfield and its vicinity disposing of 24 Japanese and US unexploded bombs. Speed was essential and the task was completed in two days. Later he disarmed a US torpedo in a crashed aircraft near the airfield.
On 1 November Billman contacted a MEIU 1 field unit at the airfield and joined them in reclaiming Japanese fuze dumps for shipment. He remained onboard LCI (D) 29 and responded as required for bomb disposal tasks around Tacloban. In early December, whilst staging in LCI (D) 29 for the Luzon campaign he was involved in searching for K-2 mines in Billiran Strait.
On 2 January 1945, together with the UDT, he joined the high speed transport ship (APD 13) USS Sands as part of the convoy transiting for the Lingayen Gulf landings. He suffered a severe bout of malaria and was hospitalised onboard. On 11 January Sands received a report that Japanese suicide swimmers were operating in the Gulf. The ship proceeded to the area, and despite his malaria issues, Billman joined Colver to search for swimmers in the ship’s landing craft, locating and killing three. From these three and a further seven already dead, they recovered diaries which provided valuable intelligence. They assumed the 10 personnel were survivors of an attack group formed the previous night. Searches continued each night for the next week with negative results. Sands returned to Tacloban and the UDT transferred back to LCI (D) 29. Billman remained onboard until the end of January, recovering from malaria.
In mid February, under orders from the Commanding Officer MEIU 1, Billman, together with Lieutenant Van Arsdale USN from MEIU, joined the 7th Fleet Intelligence Centre (SEFIC) personnel as the ordnance intelligence officer. They travelled to Paranaque, Manila Bay which was to be their base to examine Japanese hulks in the Bay. From 26 February until 9 March they searched 19 hulks finding no ordnance of interest and no booby traps. In three of the ships Japanese escapees from the mainland were found and in one ship, nine escapees in a cabin refused to be taken prisoner and commenced committing suicide using their own grenades. Billman and Van Arsdale hastened their demise throwing a further two grenades into the compartment. After a suitable delay they entered the compartment and made sure all were dead, with the aid of a carbine, before searching the bodies. Diaries were found which were given to the SEFIC group.
At the request of Commander 7th Fleet Amphibious Forces, Billman together with two MEIU officers was sent by PT boat to Corregidor Island on 13 March to examine Japanese Navy suicide boats, the first of such boats to be recovered. They spent three days examining, stripping and drawing the boats. The firing panel and wiring was recovered and sent to MEIU 1 for analysis and report. The boats were 6 m long with a beam of 1.6 m, had a speed of 18 knots and carried an explosive charge in the bow of 270 kg. Whilst on the island, the team examined all the open tunnels and rendered safe many J-XVI mines.
Billman then joined MEIU members searching Japanese dumps in the Nichols Field area, clearing mined areas and recovering ordnance of interest including Japanese torpedoes. Acting on advice from a US Army bomb disposal officer who had been instructed to investigate a mine found on the beach at Cavite Naval Base, south of Manila, Billman and a MEIU officer went to assist. They found it was new Japanese mine, which was subsequently designated ‘Camote’. Although of an unusual shape Billman found it had the standard safety switch and horns and, taking all precautions, rendered it safe. Subsequently a second one was found in a wrecked building at Sangley Point, which was also recovered. After lengthy searches in the ruins of a mine depot and surrounding areas, Billman found sufficient material with which, with skill and perseverance, he was able to reconstruct a Camote mine. This was reported to Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the mine was shipped by air to the Mine Disposal School, Washington. The new mine was an aircraft laid moored mine, now designated Type 3 Mark 1 Mod 1, a 640 kg mine with an explosive charge of 80 kg and four horns.
Other items of interest found in the burnt out base included sonar equipment and a new underwater sound making device. On his own initiative, Billman searched the burnt out Japanese workshops and found sufficient parts of the sound making device to construct a complete unit. His report resulted in the CNO requesting the device be sent by air to Washington for study by the Bureau of Ordnance,
Billman spent the remaining weeks of his tour writing reports and gathering a range of Japanese underwater and air delivered ordnance, many of which he had collected himself, to be shipped back to Australia. In commenting on the material to be shipped, Billman made the point that he was fortunate to be able to draw on the MEIU 1 resources which enabled a significant amount of enemy ordnance to be collected, which would benefit bomb and mine disposal training in Australia. He completed his tour with MEIU 1 on 26 April and accompanied the collected Japanese ordnance by ship back to Australia.
Principally for his work at Cavite, Billman received a Commander 7th Fleet Commendation in June that stated:
During the period September 1944 to April 1945 you were attached to MEIU 1 and rendered invaluable assistance in clearing unexploded ordnance from the Leyte and Manila Bay areas. By your diligent methods and careful research you recovered and reconstructed a new type of Japanese mine and a new enemy underwater sound making device. The Commander Seventh Fleet commends you upon your exemplary performance and your contributions to the success of our operations in the Philippines.
Lieutenant John Hunter RANVR joined MEIU 1 in November 1944 remaining until August 1945. He was initially employed in the Unit’s mine disposal vessel USS YP 421and then continued bomb disposal activities in Cavite Naval Base. In reporting on the two RAN officers to Navy Office in April 1945, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander F.M. Rivinus USNR stated: This command is pleased to have attached two officers of the quality of Billman and Hunter. They have co-operated in every way with this unit. They have worked unusually hard at their jobs and by doing so have earned the respect and friendship of every officer in the unit. Lieutenant Gavin Anderson RANVR, the third RAN officer, joined MEIU 1 in July remaining until November 1945.
Final Posting and Post War
Billman returned to HMAS Cerberus where he was involved in RMS training in the Torpedo School. His DSC was promulgated in the London Gazette on 6 November 1945 with the following citation: Lieutenant Billman landed on Panaon Island on 20th October, 1944 with the assault forces. He displayed bravery, devotion to duty and exceptional skill over a period of four months in dealing with Japanese mines and unexploded bombs in the clearance operations in the Philippines.
At Cerberus, Billman did not get on well with the OIC of the Torpedo School, Lieutenant Commander R H Fanshawe RN who in his reporting of Billman was less than complimentary. He wrote that Billman …was a good BMD officer for operations but had very little administrative ability and was not outstanding in any way. He also did not recommend him for promotion. In fact, Billman had exhibited outstanding administrative qualities in collecting and arranging for transport to Cerberus of the many Japanese ordnance artefacts, for which Fanshawe seemingly gave no credit. After a ‘full on’ operational period with the USN, it must have been hard to adjust to life in a training establishment working for a RN officer with little understanding of US procedures and who was not qualified in BMD. This clash of personalities in his final posting after receiving such a high award, together with his malaria attacks, may well have soured his feelings towards the Navy. Billman had a final Medical Board on 23 November, demobilised on 17 December 1945 and moved to live with the Pavich family in West Footscray.
Billman’s DSC was despatched from London and arrived in Navy Office, Melbourne in May 1946. Billman would have been contacted regarding a presentation but must have refused as the medal was sent by registered post to 12 Essex Street, West Footscray on 18 November 1946.
Little is known of his post war activities. Initially he lived with his friends Jim and Anne Pavich in West Footscray where he had a self contained flat in their backyard. He was probably engaged in handyman type work and may well have had a Veterans Affairs disability pension given his poor health. The Shepparton Advertiser reported in 1946 that he had been elected to the Committee of the Mechanics Institute in Shepparton.
Billman was approached by the RAN in October 1950 to assist with the War Crimes Trials at Manus Island (one Lieutenant Commander and two Lieutenants were allocated to the War Crimes Compound at Manus Island from early 1950 until November 1951). He applied to rejoin the RAN in October 1950 but although recommended, he was assessed as medically unfit and re-entry was not approved.
In the mid-1950s the Pavich family moved to Warragul and Bill moved to Wangaratta where he boarded with a friend and local teacher, Neil Redfern and his family at 27 Taylor Street. Harold Leon Billman DSC died in Wangaratta on 16 April 1968, just 60 years old. He is buried in the Victoria Garden of Remembrance, Springvale Botanical Cemetery in Melbourne, which honours those who died as the result of service in the armed forces of the Commonwealth. It has been Australian policy since 1922 to extend official commemoration to eligible post-war deaths, and in Billman’s case would indicate his death was determined by the Department of Veterans Affairs to have been related to war service.