From camp cook to Pacific campaigner
Howard Kellehear never went to school. So when the 35-year-old father of five, from country New South Wales, signed up to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in September 1941 he did so as a trainee cook. A letter of reference described him as a ‘strong type of country bush worker’—he had cut and hauled logs, and cooked at camp. His initial test showed he had a ‘fair knowledge of plain cooking, no knowledge of fancy cooking’.
Within weeks Howard was posted to Melbourne’s Exhibition Buildings, where he studied cookery at the RAAF’s No. 1 School of Technical Training. But six days after his arrival, Howard was seriously ill in hospital. He took 79 days sick leave before returning at the end of December but missed Christmas with his family and took another week of sick leave in January.
His wife, Nell, wrote often trying to lift his spirits. ‘Dear you must cheer up & don’t get the blues & please don’t drink any more beers until you are really well,’ she wrote on 5 January 1942. Somehow her letters were pushed between gaps in the floorboards of the Exhibition Building—whether Howard meant to hide them for safety, or discard them, may never be known. The letters were rediscovered nearly 50 years later.
His illness meant Howard failed his cook’s course, but by April he was deemed suitable as an aircraft hand. He was transferred to Rathmines RAAF base, just a two-hour drive from his home in Wingham, NSW. In February 1943 he passed a test to be a transport driver. ‘Excellent driver with good knowledge of roadside repairs…but requires more practice in reversing,’ his report said encouragingly.
Howard’s hometown threw him a going-away party on 2 April 1943, before his deployment to the Pacific Campaign. The mayor said he had ‘always been a good citizen and a good husband, and those two qualities are a great thing in our national life’.
Howard served in New Guinea and Borneo from May 1943 to September 1944. But a few months after his return to Australia, Howard had had enough. He requested to leave the RAAF to return to civilian life as a farm hand on a dairy back home, near his wife and children. His plan was delayed by another return to hospital in January the following year, and Howard was eventually discharged on 13 March 1945—reunited with his family, as he had long dreamed.