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The Station Masters Bell - A story of World War Two
The Station Master’s Bell (From a story told to me by a man who knew)
by Arthur Thomas Ware.
They’d kept him on because of the war. At sixty-seven he was already two years past his retiring age but railroad employees were hard to come by in the Australian Winter of 1942. Everyone had joined the army; or the navy; or the airforce. And so, in the Autumn of his years old Gerald Roberts, the station master at Barcoo Crossing, had been kept on
The long, dusty train rattlled up the narrow gauge line
The long, dusty train rattled up the narrow gauge line and with its two steam locomotives panting like exhausted Clydesdales, drew into Barcoo Crossing. It was a troop train, filled to capacity with young, fit, though largely inexperienced, soldiers bound for Papua New Guinea. The Sons of Nippon were launching an all out assault on Port Moresby across the Kokoda Trail, and they had to be held back at all costs, or Australia would fall.
The soldiers were supposed to stay aboard
The soldiers were supposed to stay on the train but they were young. They would not be confined. Some jumped off and walked idly along the railroad track as the two locomotives topped up with water and coal. Some soldiers stood about on the short platform. They were not there long. There came two short, shrill toots, on the leading steam-engine’s whistle and a few strident, rather angry yells from the battalion’s sergeant major. Then the train pulled out. But when it did so, the station master’s bell was missing.
Now it was a beautiful brass bell
Now it was a beautiful bell; brass. It was old. It was heavy. It had a long handle on one end so that it could be swung manfully at train guards, engine drivers, and the like. On it, and deeply etched into the metal, were the words, “Barcoo Crossing.” And in smaller lettering, “Property Queensland Railways.”
Clang! Clang! “All aboard” Those were the moments the old station master, Gerald Roberts, liked the most. It made him feel quite important. And Gerald needed that, for although he was station master he had only one employee in his charge, a fifteen year old who had left school early and was still too young to join the army.
The bell's gone! In his fifty years with the railways he'd never lost a bell before
“Gone!” The bell’s gone. Gerald was depressed. Of course, he could send a message up the line. It would have to be a telegraph. Barcoo Crossing didn’t have the phone on. But Gerald knew they weren’t going to delay a troop train, packed with over a thousand soldiers, just to retrieve a station master’s bell. So Gerald let it go. Though for a long, long while he thought about that bell. It’s loss filled him with sorrow. In his fifty years as a station master he’d never lost a bell before.
The bell had gone all right
Well, the bell had gone all right. It now resided at the bottom of the kitbag of one, Corporal, Jerry Smith. Jerry thought it great to have a “souvenir.” And Jerry was an army cook. He would use that bell and use it well. Why, it mellow tones, summoning the hungry, would make him the talking point of the whole battalion.
The troops were off loaded at the Burns Philp wharf at Port Moresby and the bell was nearly lost when a line parted and fifty army kitbags, held in a rope sling, fell into the sea. But all were retrieved, the bell along with them. The kitbags’ rescuers wondered about the weight of Corporal Jerry Smith’s kitbag. But they never guessed what it contained.
The enemy were on the next ridge
Now the troops lay quiet. It was night. There was no moon. And hardly a star glinted in the cloudy sky. But the soldiers could see the ridge. It was faint, but it was there. On that ridge were the Japs. The night had a greyness, and it was wet. For hour after hour the rain had poured down relentlessly. Now, it had stopped and the soldiers, shivering in their wet, summer-weight uniforms, lay waiting for the dawn.
The dawn came to the jungles to the north of Port Moresby
A greyish light appeared to the east. Wan fingers of pale yellow searched along the base of the strato-form clouds turning them to a splendid crimson. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the dawn came to the jungles to the north of Port Moresby. And then the soldiers, who had lain fitfully, and fearfully, trying to get some sleep, could see the lair of the enemy- the ridge to the north.
But in the dawn light the soldiers could now breath a sigh of relief. That enemy ridge was a good fifty miles away.
But the ridge was a good fifty miles away
There was laughter. There was camaraderie. And there was cooking as Corporal Smith and his consorts set to to provide the soldiers with a hearty meal. And when it was ready Corporal Smith broke out the station master’s bell and swung it vigorously.
“Come and get it. Hot grub! Come on you doggy soldiers. Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang! “Hear that bell? When you hear that bell the grub is on- and it’s good.”
Well, the soldiers did come and ate. Then they moved camp and the bell went with them. And they moved again, and still the bell went with them.
A bullet struck the bell and glanced off harmlessly
One day a squadron of Japanese fighters strathed the camp. The Zeros dived down and shot up the tents. And they tried to riddle Corporal Gerald Smith. But as chance had it, a bullet struck the bell, and glanced off harmlessly. But it left a deep groove across the bell’s brass surface.
Now the bell became a “lucky bell.” The cooks of the bell’s battalion knew that as long as they had that bell nothing could go wrong. Well, they carried that bell with them right across Papua New Guinea. It was with them on the Kokoda Trail. It was with them in Lae and Madang and Wewak and, later, in Borneo.
Now the war was over and the troops were set for return
It was with them, too, when the giant B29 Bomber, the Enola Gay, crossed the coast of Honshu and dropped a deadly load called Little Boy on Hiroshima. It was with them when the Japanese surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Now the war was over and the troops were set for return. But they didn’t return just yet. There were starving men to be fed. The bell was there to summon the prisoners of war to their first decent meal in years. And the sound of the bell became loved. And Private Gerald Smith, too, loved that bell. But somehow, along the way, his conscience pricked. It was not really “his” bell, at all. It had served its purpose. It had even saved his life. But now, every time he saw that bell he was reminded of its origin. The words, “Barcoo Crossing,” and “Queensland Railways” stood out in his mind.
The long, dustry troop train rolled in
The long, dusty troop train rolled into Barcoo Crossing from the north. With a creak of carriages and the hiss of escaping steam, it rumbled to a halt alongside the tired old railway station. A few soldiers got out and desultorily kicked pebbles off the platform. Others rolled cigarettes and chatted quietly. But one man was seen to surreptitiously move towards the station master’s office. He was hiding something under a hession bag. Nobody said anything. Though half the battalion knew what was going on.
With a hoot on the whistle the train got ready to leave the station. “All aboard! All aboard,” called old Gerald Roberts, the grizzled station master. He was now nearly seventy- and he knew that now the war was over his time with the Queensland Railways was limited. There was a tear in his eye as he saw the troop train pull out. There were far less young men aboard the one’s going south than had gone north those years ago.
Gerald watched the train pull out to disappear among the sugar cane and the rain forest to the south. It’s panting and puffing faded until he could hear nothing but the sound of the cicadas and the occasional call of a whip bird. It was gone; had arrived and gone like the years of his life.
The grey-haired railway-man pulled out his pipe, lit up, and took a long, emotional puff. He was alone now. His former fifteen-year old assistant had joined the army at sixteen. The boy had lied about his age. He now lay in Bomana War Cemetery in the foothills of the Owen Stanley’s in New Guinea. Then the station master slowly plodded back to his tiny wooden office.
He couldn’t believe it! But there it was. It was gleaming. It had been polished to perfection. It stood on a piece of thick, green felt, mounted like an emperor’s crown on a hand-carved, polished wooden base. Magnificent! Gerald Roberts could not believe his eyes. He had to touch its coolness to realise it was real. Moisture welled in eye-ducts which had been dry for over half a century. Yes, it had returned home. The mystery was solved. There in his dusty office -stood the Station Masters Bell.
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