BY PHILIP SELTH
GEOFFREY HAMPDEN VERNON was born in Hastings, Sussex, England on 16 December 1882. Having migrated to Australia where his father was NSW government architect, Vernon was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School and graduated the University of Sydney MB, ChB 1905 and ChM 1907.
After a residency at Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, Vernon practiced in country towns in NSW and Queensland. He was appointed Captain in the 4th Light Horse Field Ambulance, AIF on 4 March 1915. Vernon damaged his hearing by concussion, probably on Gallipoli.
He was MID and awarded the MC, for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ when RMO with the 11th Light Horse Regiment at the battle of Romani in August 1916.
(The citation noted that Vernon ‘tended and dressed the wounds under heavy fire, displaying great courage and determination. Later, he remained out all night with a wounded man’.)
Promoted Major in January 1917, Vernon was wounded in action in November at Tel el Sheria. He returned to Australia in August 1918.
Vernon was discharged in December ‘in consequence of medical unfitness’. He was appointed an Honorary Major in the Reserve of Officers.
In the post war years he was the Queensland government medical officer, and had a private practice on Thursday Island. During this time he regularly visited Dutch New Guinea and Papua.
In 1932 he moved to Daru where he bought a store and small kapok plantation, continued to practice as a doctor, and, so Stuart Hawthorne tells us in The Kokoda Trail: A history, continued ‘his cherished explorations of the Fly River region’.
Having sold his interests on Daru in 1938, he bought a coconut plantation at Port Glasgow in eastern Papua where he tried to grow kapok then rubber. He retained the plantation and an interest in a block growing rubber near Kokoda when appointed government medical officer on Misima Island.
In Sydney in 1941 on leave he was rejected by the Army because of his age. Back in Port Moresby he was mobilised in the AAMC on 27 February 1942.
He was immediately attached to the Papuan Infantry Battalion as Medical Officer and placed in charge of the native hospital at Sapphire Creek until June when he went to build a hospital at Ilolo near the start of the Kokoda Trail.
He worked as a doctor to the Papuan carrier line, but in July 1942 on his own initiative he crossed the Owen Stanleys and tended the wounded of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion at Kokoda.
His lobbying of General Rowell led to better conditions for the carriers being employed on the Trail. Captain Vernon became one of the ‘most easily recognised and remembered men on the Trail’.
‘Deaf, husky-voiced, outwalking men 30 years younger, indifferent to personal safety or comfort, broad in interests and accomplishments, Vernon (now ‘the old Doc’) was being called an “unsung hero” by 1943’. He did not leave Oro Bay until March 1943.
Vernon was posted as RMO, ANGAU on 1 June 1943. In December 1943 he was MID for ‘gallant & distinguished services' in the South West Pacific Area.
General Blamey had established his Staff Headquarters on the southern slopes of Hombrom. The site, known as Blamey’s Retreat, was after the war designated a botanical garden to maintain and improve upon the many plants established by the soldiers during their time there. The fact that much effort had been spent on these gardens irritated Vernon.
Vernon’s appointment in the CMF was terminated on 3 March 1946 and he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 4 March 1946. Vernon retired to his plantation at Port Glasgow with his sister and his niece and her husband, hoping to be able to garden and write, his two favourite means of relaxing.
In early May he developed a fever but did not respond to the quinine and was taken by launch to Samarai. Vernon died two days later, on 16 May 1946, of tuberculosis and stroke at Samarai Hospital, and was buried on Logea Island. He had never married.
Drawn from a note prepared by the late Professor Hank Nelson, ANU, a copy of which he graciously gave me on 25 August 2010; Peter Reynolds, 'Vernon, Geoffrey Hampden (1882-1946)', ADB, v. 12, pp 320-322; ‘Vernon Geoffrey Hampden [WW 1 Service file]’, NAA B884, P390:6482938; and ‘Geoffrey Hampden Vernon’, The Medical Journal of Australia, 8 March 1947, pp. 318-319. See also Paul Ham, Kokoda, Sydney, 2004, esp. pp. 49-52 and Peter Williams, The Kokoda Campaign 1942: Myth and reality, Melbourne, 2012.
Philip Selth OAM is executive director of the NSW Bar Association. He is writing about 100 little biographies of pre war Papua New Guinea personnel, which are in various stages of preparation. “These blokes fascinate me,” he says