[NOTE: Many special thanks are owed to David Kilner of the Prospect Local History Group; to Bill Verco and Rose Verco Boucaut; finally, to the Dannelly family for granting continued use of the papers and artifacts.]
Through the last posts, we have seen the Americans arrive at their new post (the ex-Australian base called Camp Sandy Creek, on the outskirts of Adelaide, SA) and come to terms with both the differences from what they were used to as well as the surprising number of traits and attributes they actually had in common with their Australian hosts. Our primary subject, Second Lieutenant Sheldon M. Dannelly, has noted these characteristics very astutely so far, and equally has reported his firsthand observances to family members back home in a steady stream of correspondence. Again, we are very fortunate to have these notes today, not seen for decades and just recently discovered, organized, and digitized to provide our window into the past.
We should also recap why the Americans were welcomed as they were by the residents of Adelaide and surrounding locales in mid-1942, exactly seventy-five years ago. Assuredly, Americans en masse in South Australia were a novelty; but more seriously, aside from one other U.S. infantry division in the north, some assorted U.S. Engineer battalions, a steadily rebuilding but still fledgling American aviation force (the core of which remained the motley refugee aircraft that had escaped the Philippines and East Indies ahead of the Japanese advance), and various logistical and other support functions, the 32nd Infantry Division was “it” as far as ground troops. The first-line Australian national force was still in North Africa fighting Rommel (though, in part, already on its way back home), and what had remained to defend the continent were the equivalent of a home defense force, similar to our National Guard or militia. The Australian populace would have thus felt quite relieved to see an entire American Division nearby, even if only for “garrison” duty and actually geographically about as far away as possible from the areas of Australia that were actually in danger or else, like Darwin and vicinity, already under attack.
With that in mind, one can imagine that the war still felt a long way away for these Americans; but now, so did home. The citizens of Adelaide tried their best to make the Americans feel welcome, and their hospitality (and often, their patience) is well-remembered today. The infantry units continued to train intensely in the surrounding countryside, but there was also still plenty of leisure time for gatherings, parties, and sight-seeing. Also worthy to keep in mind that as a unit yet to see combat, the soldiers still held their peacetime innocence and hubris, remaining very unaware of the horrors and loss to come.
One particular feature of that legendary Australian hospitality persists in the memory of how families took American servicemen into their homes on weekends and whenever else the Red Arrows were able to arrange trips into town on pass. Despite a duty posting that lasted barely three months, some bonds formed that lasted throughout the war and in more than a few cases for years after. In one such instance, which we will see at the end of this installment, such memories, if accidentally rekindled, still linger.
In the present example, the story begins with the events outlined in a letter home dated 24 May 1942, written on blue “South Adelaide Hotel” stationery:
[Shown exactly as written, unless brackets added]
Dear Mother, Daddy, and all:
This has been a busy week, but one of pleasure and play as well as work. Thursday, the officers of our battalion had the Australian nurses from the hospital over for the evening. We danced and ate sandwiches, cookies, and coffee until quite late. They were a lot of fun and seemed to enjoy the party quite thoroughly.
In our day room, where we had the party, another Lieutenant and I have been making some drawings on the wall, including one of a “barber-shop” quartet, a fat Dutchman on a stool sipping beer, and one of a girl with a soldier’s head in the background where a V (for victory) is formed by an American and an Australian flag.
We’ve received quite a few compliments, and our Regimental commander has told us to sign our names and ranks to the panels. Friday we had a regimental parade in honor of the Australian Commander in charge of the post where we are stationed. It was said to have been the best we have ever had, and really was quite good. To top it all off, I have had a weekend such as I have seen in the movies, but didn’t know ever really happened to a person. I was granted a 36-hour weekend pass. Having arrived in town, I wandered about looking the place over. About six o’clock I returned to the hotel where our Colonel and several officers were going out to a party and to dinner. As luck would have it, I was included. We were driven out by chauffeurs to an elegant estate of enormous size, where a mansion rested atop a hill. Upon entering I was introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Barsmith, who happen to be one of the leading families in this county and one of the first millionaires here. There were several very attractive girls present and the evening passed in grand style. Later we went to a private dance for officers.
The Australians invite officers (and men too) to their homes for week-ends, so I was taken to spend the week-end with a Johnson family, also very well-known here and considered one of the best. They, too, live in a tremendous house and have a genuine treasure of family silver, paintings, china, etc. There is a son away in the Army and their daughters, Marjorie (about 20) [NOTE: actually incorrect, she was two years older], Pat (about 24 . . . with whom I went to the dance and who invited me to her home) [NOTE: incorrect again, she was 21] and an elder sister about 28 or 30. All of the girls are doing voluntary defense work, as everyone here seems to do. Anyway . . . there is a monument in the city to Pat’s Grandfather, who played a large part in the early colonization over in this part of Australia. I was certainly royally entertained, even to having breakfast served in bed before I could get up this A.M.
I have been offered their son’s room to use whenever I have a chance to come into town, and they mean it as much as we, ourselves, mean our real invitations! Now, I’m waiting for the convoy of trucks to return to camp. It will soon be time, so good night.
Love to all,
In a few more intervening items of correspondence, Lt. Dannelly repeatedly makes note of how nice the Australians are, and how they appear to be somewhat in awe of the Americans, for instance how “school kids keep asking us for autographs.” A few more parties occur, including a visit by the American Consul to the 1st Battalion 128 day room. Dannelly in multiple instances refers to Australian girls as “just like our American girls. . . . They are more like our Southern girls, but their accent is very like the British.” He was especially taken with the “refined, dignified . . . yet delicate and fresh” bearing of the Johnson sisters, whose family he certainly described as hearkening back to a prestigious family of the American South but “without the hoop skirts”.
In a letter dated 2 June ’42, Lt. Dannelly re-told the goings-on of another visit to the Johnson home. This time, he brought his fellow officer and friend from 1st Battalion 128th, Lt. R. C. “Charlie” Commander, of Florence, South Carolina and the Clemson College Class of 1936 (also with a Master’s Degree in Divinity from Yale, trained for the ministry but gave it up to accept a combat infantry commission): a slightly older, more mature, and actually married officer to squire Pat’s sister Marjorie on a planned outing.
Last weekend was another delightful one spent in town with the same family I stayed with before. Lt. Commander, also from South Carolina, went in with me. From all accounts, directly and indirectly, he had a grand time, too. We two took the girls out to dinner at one of the best hotels in town; and we were all invited out to dinner in another fine home for one evening.
We spent Sunday seeing the art gallery (including the beautiful painting of the “coronation” of King George VI), the university, a private school for boys, and a trip into the mountains. [Some photographs surviving from this weekend visit also show the group at the “Koala Farm”, equivalent of a “petting zoo” where they are looking at kangaroo, koala, and some exotic birds.] Sunday morning we went to Anglican (Church of England) services, which we enjoyed thoroughly. It was my first experience at such a service.
Sometime soon we are to go horseback riding with the Johnsons at their mountain home near here, where they have a farm and some very fine horses.
At least a handful more of these weekend visits occurred, including both “Danny” and “C. C.” Around this same time, the tenure of the Red Arrow Division’s stay in South Australia culminated in the grand occasion where the city threw a major Fourth of July celebration, highlighted by a parade through the city center and an exhibition of American football (selected 127th vs. 128th Regiment all-stars) played at the “Adelaide Oval” (parade ground). This eventful day, covered in some detail in 32 Answered, serves as the finest example of good will afforded by the citizens of Adelaide on behalf of their American guests.
The daytime celebration then broke apart into various evening social engagements. The next evening, still somewhat affected by the flurry of good times had by all, Lt. Dannelly summarized the celebration in a letter to his sister and brother-in law:
Yesterday was a genuine Fourth-of-July celebration for us, except that that football took the place of baseball. Our battalion led a parade in one of Australia’s cities, after which our regimental football team won over another regiment in an exhibition game.
Last night four couples of us took in the officers dance in the town hall. Our American Consul, the Lord Mayor, several generals, and other high army and government officials were present. My date was one of the society group who received a nice fashion write-up in this morning’s paper by the society editor. The hall was beautiful, having been decorated once for royal visitors from England. The ceiling, walls, and columns were beautifully painted in quiet, but richly royal colors. Across the floor from the entrance, down the steps, and across the sidewalk was laid a beautiful wine-colored carpet for us to enter on. A buffet supper was served. The orchestra, our own, was especially good. The entire day and evening was wonderful.
Within the two weeks that followed, the demeanor of the American units around Adelaide changed. Security tightened somewhat, including revised instructions on what could and could not be casually recorded in correspondence home. A secret move, certainly detectable in the air, then occurred at the end of July, at which time the Red Arrow Division transferred by rail to Camp Tambourine (later, re-named “Camp Cable”) near Brisbane, on Australia’s northeastern coast. While Lt. Dannelly remained in touch (letters, telegrams) with Pat Johnson for the rest of the war, they bid their farewells, not thinking that it would ever be permanent.
Jumping forward to December 2016, your author was determined enough, after a few years of idle curiosity about what became of the family and the house that was pictured in many of the snapshots, to find an avenue of inquiry. Social media, without fail when in responsible hands, gives us rather fast answers to such lingering questions. Likewise, the use of the “street view” feature embedded within a well known search engine allows one to locate, with a reasonable level of reliability, the house in said neighborhood that most resembles the one in the wartime photographs.
Yes, indeed, this story has an incredible ending that brings a full-circle to the different individuals it has touched, and brings some closure to the search objective as well as to the families on both sides of the globe. A wildcard search for some type of historical society in or around the Prospect community produced a willing fact-finder in David Kilner from the Prospect Local History Group, who went to the home and reported back that the occupant was none other than Pat Johnson Verco, now age 95. Her sister, Marjorie, age 97, lives nearby. Pat Verco’s son (Bill) and daughter (Rose) got in touch, and by the end of December multiple copies of 32 Answered went to Adelaide. The sisters had kept photo albums and other memorabilia pertaining to their American house guests from 75 years ago, and earlier this year the subject matter became their frequent dinnertime and family holiday gathering talk. All-in-all, another loose end wrapped up; but such an amazing outcome that has touched yet more families definitely makes the research, and the reach of the story, even that much more meaningful.
More to follow….
28 June 2017