Jack Van Emden

Service #34611

Joined the RAAF with a bicycle and fishing tackle 

Jack Van Emden was just 16 when World War II broke out. He grew up walking distance from what was to become Sydney Airport, and dreamt of flying with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)—but his recruiters had other ideas. Jack was a watchmaking apprentice and when he enlisted with the RAAF two weeks after his 18th birthday, on 31 October 1940, they saw his potential as an instrument maker. 

A black and white photograph of a young man in uniform
Jack Van Emden at 18

The day after Jack enlisted his personal items were inventoried, providing a valuable glimpse into the life of a fresh recruit. He had RAAF-issue blue overalls, beret, kit bag, Gillette-branded shaving set and a boot brush. He carried fishing tackle—perhaps a habit from growing up in the Sydney beach-side suburb of Maroubra—a towel, and even a bicycle. However, he could only take the smallest items in his kit bag as he travelled around Australia for training.

On 21 December 1941 Jack arrived in Melbourne, headed for the No. 1 School of Technical Training that was based at the RAAF’s Exhibition Buildings facility. Jack was soon studying hard to complete an instrument maker course and learning other valuable war-time skills. In Easter 1942, Jack and other members of his course were photographed deep in trenches dug alongside the eastern annexe of the Exhibition Buildings.

Black and white photograph of seven young men, smiling, wearing military shorts, some in white singlets, and some with bare chests digging a trench.
Jack Van Emden (top right) digging slit trenches with other RAAF personnel at the Exhibition Building

Jack left Melbourne in June 1942 and was posted overseas the following year—first to Milne Bay, New Guinea with 6 Squadron, and then to Goodenough Island. Both locations had recently seen fighting and were an active part of the war. Jack’s only wounds were from an accidental fire.

In recognition for his careful work maintaining and repairing aircraft, Jack was promoted to Corporal before his return to Australia in September 1944. Unfortunately issues with communication in the Pacific meant he wasn’t told until after he missed a flight home, because they had called for a ‘Corporal’ Van Emden to board. That error resulted in a four-day journey from Townsville to Sydney on a packed train. ‘I was a corporal for about three months without knowing,’ he said.

Jack was discharged from the RAAF in 1946 and married Sheila Ferguson, who was a flight mechanic with the WAAAF. During their long life together, he worked as a watchmaker and jeweller. Jack never forgot his time at Melbourne’s Exhibition Buildings, and many decades later donated photographs of his time there to Museums Victoria.

SH 960567 – Photograph - 'RAAF Trench Diggers Champ Team', Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Victoria, Apr 1942

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