‘You could see the bombs falling out of the aircraft’
Dick Thomson was among the first recruits to be billeted at the Exhibition Buildings when they were requisitioned by the RAAF during World War II. The 18-year-old electrical apprentice came to Melbourne from Brisbane in January 1941, to train as a wireless operator at the No. 1 School of Technical Training. He slept on the ground floor, with the aquarium—that had been part of the Exhibition Buildings since 1885—next door. ‘You could hear the seals at night-time, popping around and snorting,’ he recalled in a later interview with Museums Victoria.
After training, Dick was transferred to Darwin where he witnessed the ferocity of Japanese bombing runs on the city, including the one on 19 February 1942 that killed more than 250 servicemen and civilians. ‘I remember them quite clearly,’ he said. ‘Because we were far enough away…you could see the bombs falling out of the aircraft and the sun flashing on them.’
He was lucky to escape with his life when Batchelor Airfield, south of Darwin, was also bombed on 24 October 1942. He ran from the base’s signals office in the middle of the night, as a bomber dropped its payload, but couldn’t reach the safety of the trenches. Dick lay flat on the ground, listening to the sound of the falling bombs, and he was splattered with mud from the explosions. The next morning, he found an unexploded bomb in the trench he had been running to, ‘so we were lucky we didn’t hit the trenches!’. Dick’s brother, Evan, had not been so fortunate—he was killed in a bombing raid in Germany in January that year.
After a 15-month spell teaching wireless air gunners in country Victoria, Dick requested a return to active service. He joined invading and clean-up forces across the Pacific in 1945, including the battle for the island of Tarakan, off Borneo’s north-eastern coast, in May and June.
Dick returned to Australia and was discharged in May 1946. He was married later that year and became an electrical technician at Queensland University’s Physics Department.