90 year old Cassino veteran and Japanese Prisoner of War, Noel Bunn visited the National Army Museum recently and in doing so shared his remarkable story of service.
Noel’s first taste of the military began as a schoolboy when the war started and his Dad wouldn’t let him have school holidays. Instead he got Noel a job at HopuHopu Army camp rubbing whale oil into old WWI cavalry saddles.
Noel was just 18 when he joined the Army in 1942 and begun training at HopuHopu before being posted overseas. As a Private of 35 Battalion he begun his service in Fiji and also served in New Caledonia in early 1943 before heading for Europe. He fought in the battle for Monte Cassino with 26 Battalion in 1944 in the middle of a freezing Italian winter. The battle lasted several weeks and Noel was wounded with a shot to his shoulder but was able to carry on to the end of the campaign.
With the war in Italy winding down, a shipload of surplus war materials was placed on a ship in Naples in May 1945, and Noel (along with 35 others) was sent to establish a “jumping off” base at Okinawa for the final assault on Japan.
Noel recounted his experience to Museum Custodian Grant Hays saying, “he and a mate wanted to jump ship as it went through the Suez Canal but the ship was travelling too fast for them to do so safely. He said as they got to the Sea of Japan just off Okinawa, they were assured by the US Navy that all the minefields had been cleared, all except the one right in front of their ship!”
Many men were lost when the ship sank but Noel was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat and arrested by the Japanese Army. He was put into a POW camp where conditions were tough and prisoners starved as food was short in Japan. Noel said “he can’t stand rice and hasn’t eaten it since.”
Noel spent 10 weeks as a POW and during this time was witness to the huge mushroom cloud that was the Hiroshima atomic bomb, dropped in August 1945 just 50 km from Noel’s prison camp at Iwakuni. A month later the war was over.
Noel stayed on in Japan to establish a repatriation point for all POWs (mainly Australians) to leave Japan post-war. This added up to another 13 months assisting with the clean-up before returning to NZ in September 1946. During this time Noel was commissioned in Japan and rose to the rank of Major. Years later during a trip to visit family in Australia, Noel was given a special award by the Australian Defence Force in recognition of his services in Japan. Over the years Noel has suffered from many ailments associated with radiation sickness but still managed the trip to Cassino for the 70th anniversary in May this year. He was one of the lucky ones who got to shake hands with Prince Harry who Noel referred to as “a bit of a character”.