John was born on 23 June 1947 in country Wauchope, NSW. He was just over 2 and his sister Margaret 13 when their mother was killed outside Wauchope in 1949. His father re-married and John socialised with local school mates and his cousins. One cousin recalls John escorting her and her friends to the local swimming pool.
After high school, John moved to study at Newcastle Teachers College but returned to Wauchope during vacations. At College in 1965-66, John joined the College Rifle Club as did Garry Screen. He played with Alex Thomson in the College Hockey Team, scoring the winning goal in the last minute against Sydney Teachers College in the Inter-Collegiate Competition. John, Garry and Alex were soon to meet again at Singleton, NSW.
John was conscripted in 1968 during his second year as a Teacher. He passed the medical tests and other assessments so he was directed to enter National Service with the Army in January 1969. He did Recruit Training at the 3rd Training Battalion at Singleton in the Hunter Valley. Being the first intake of the year, John was in the company of many Teachers and University graduates. Recruits were at that time given the chance to indicate their preferred Corps for subsequent Army employment. John listed Royal Australian Army Educational Corps as one of his preferences. He was interviewed by an Army panel for possible posting to Papua New Guinea as an Education Instructor. In April 1969, on successfully completing Recruit Training, 2791500 Private John Martin was told he had been selected for duty with RAAEC. Only a limited number of conscripted Teachers were selected for the Education Corps. The majority of conscripted Teachers were posted to non-teaching Army roles in Australia or South Vietnam.
In the period before joining the RAAEC, John and the other Nashos provisionally selected for PNG had to undergo additional Infantry Training at Singleton Barracks. During this extended training at Singleton Barracks, John took advantage of the Army Leave opportunities to take short breaks from Army life. He often took Teacher mates like Alex Thomson in his blue Holden Monaro to near by Muswellbrook or Cessnock for a game of Snooker and a few beers. The Holden Monaro was a sporty two-door sedan which was popular with young men (with money) and admired by young women. When weekend Leave was available, John sometimes drove to Sydney to stay with Alex’s parents at Greenacre and sometimes he drove back to Newcastle and gave another Teacher mate Garry Screen a lift. After successfully completing Infantry Training in late June 1969, John and Garry Screen were posted to the Army Education Unit at Singleton to commence instructing Regular Army soldiers attending the Education courses.
In October – November 1969, John and the 43 other Teachers (called Chalkies) selected that year were flown to TPNG to begin their overseas work as Instructors in the Army. Since 1966, the Army had posted approximately 40 of its most-suitable Teachers to bases in PNG in order to raise the educational standards of indigenous soldiers and potential officers. John and his Instructor mates were given a one-week Induction Course at Taurama Barracks, outside Port Moresby. All newly-promoted to the rank of Sergeant, and adjusting to the hot climate, they were introduced to the food and culture of TPNG as well as their new roles and responsibilities. John and his mates had their specific postings confirmed that week and John moved into the centre of Port Moresby to take up duty at Murray Barracks, the Headquarters of the Australian Army in TPNG.
The Education Unit at Murray Barracks was responsible for a number of Courses on-site and off-site. John was allocated to the major off-site location of Iduabada Technical College for his teaching while he lived in the Sergeants Mess at Murray Barracks. Iduabada was a civilian TAFE college staffed by civilian and Army teachers. Because Army apprentices were allowed to learn their trade at this College, the Army reciprocated by providing a few Army Teachers to provide instruction. The Principal at that time was a Scotsman, Jock Mooney, who was particular about all Teachers starting their work on time. John and several other Army Teachers travelled, in civilian clothes, each day to Iduabada to teach indigenous apprentices. These other Army Teachers included John Fennell and David Roxburgh who drove his Peugeot 504 to Iduabada.
John had his own room in the recently-built, two-storey, steel and concrete, accommodation block at the Murray Barracks Sergeants Mess. His room had a bed, built-in cupboard, overhead fan and louvre windows. Common bathrooms were located on each floor. Connected to the accommodation block was the eating and recreation block which consisted of a Kitchen, Dining room and Pool room with a Bar. By paying a small monthly fee, John had access to three meals a day, the Pool table, regular family barbecues and occasional formal Dinners. Because of the malaria-carrying mosquitoes in low-altitude parts of PNG, John had to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, with tie or cravat, after sunset; and had to take anti-malaria tablets daily.
As a Sergeant, John was required to take his turn as Murray Barracks Duty Sergeant for 24 hours. Like most new Sergeants, John would have approached this role with amusement (as the night shift was usually quiet) and trepidation (about doing the few official tasks correctly). One of John’s tasks was to signal the end and beginning of the day shift by lowering and raising the Australian Flag outside the Residence of the Commanding Officer. He would have been very conscious that the Flag did not touch the ground and that it was not raised upside down, as it was assumed that the Brigadier would be watching from his Residence and would quickly report anything incorrect.
For private transport, many of the Australian soldiers at Murray Barracks bought second-hand cars. John’s Monaro was still in NSW and he considered having it shipped to Port Moresby. In the end, he bought a motor bike on which he rode the short distance to the shops and hotels in the centre of Port Moresby. While cars and bikes had to be registered, a motor bike licence was not required at that time. John Meyer recalls that Johnny had a fall off his bike once and suffered skin damage that was treated in Port Moresby Hospital.
Occasionally, John gave a lift on his bike to a Chalkie mate such as John Meyer.
There was limited social life for single Army men in Port Moresby but John’s relatively good looks and physique gave him an advantage, according to his Chalkie mates. John was sociable and he enjoyed visiting the Hotels and Clubs with his mates for relaxing and asking girls to dance to the ‘disco’ music that was popular at that time. John and the other Chalkies also played Sport each week while some joined Army or local teams for football, hockey, cricket or other competitions. John played Hockey on Saturdays in the Army Team with David Roxburgh and again playing alongside Alex Thomson.
One fateful Saturday, John rode into town and met his mates, including Mike Lee, for Lunch and a few drinks at the Ela Beach RSL Club. The Chalkies then went in separate directions and John rode back to Murray Barracks. Riding up a winding road, John’s bike crashed. Whether he swerved to avoid hitting a person walking along the road or whether a bike pedal dug into the road on the bend, is not known. No other vehicle was involved and John died on that road on 5th April1970. I was a passenger in a taxi and stopped at the scene of the accident. John’s body was taken to the Mortuary.
The next day was Sunday so we reported the tragic news to the regional Head of the RAAEC, Lt. Colonel Maunsell, outside the Murray Barracks Chapel. By Monday, all John’s Chalkie mates knew the very sad news and Steven Hill visited John’s body at the Mortuary. Chalkie Instructors wore black armbands on their Army shirt sleeves as a mark of respect for John and planned a Remembrance Service in John’s honour. At the Murray Barracks Remembrance Service photos of John were displayed. The Chalkies later discussed a way to commemorate John’s contribution to Education. They chose to donate money to create the John Martin Memorial Scholarship which was awarded to a promising local Student to enable him to complete his schooling.
The body of John Martin was returned to Australia and his funeral was held in his birth- place of Wauchope, NSW, a town established by the early timber-getters. The Wauchope Cemetery is located outside the town and surrounded by a forest of aged Blackbutt trees. John’s funeral was held late in the day and, as the last rays of sunshine filtered through the trees, the Army bugler played The Last Post. One family member present was his close cousin who reflected “Such a young man with so much promise and it was just a terrible waste.” John’s family had been happy in 1969 when he was not posted to Vietnam. They were shocked by his death in a country which appeared to hold less danger for Servicemen.
In 2014, a National Serviceman called Neville Browne compiled a list of Servicemen who died on deployment to TPNG before Independence. Neville sent this list to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra arguing that these Servicemen deserved better recognition at the Memorial. As a result of a number of family and public submissions, the Memorial Council changed its policy to allow equal recognition for Servicemen dying on duty overseas, such as John Martin. John’s name was added to the Operational Service bronze panels under ‘Papua and New Guinea 1947-1975’. John’s name was also added to the Roll of Honour database at the War Memorial.
Gregory J. Ivey
on behalf of John’s Chalkie mates
Credit: photos from Garry Screen, Steven Hill and Graeme Johnson