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Air war over Papua New Guinea was like a fireworks display

Night skyKATRINA LOVELL | Warrnambool Standard

WARRNAMBOOL, VIC - The gunfire in the skies above New Guinea during World War II was like a fireworks display, according to Warrnambool's Keith Keilar.

The 99-year-old was first deployed to Palestine for 12 months before being send to New Guinea after signing up in 1940 at the age of 20.

Mr Keilar was a contractor in Woolsthorpe working on trucks building roads across the district when he joined the war effort.

He left Australia for Palestine aboard the Queen Mary which was part of a convoy of three ships including the luxury liners Aquatania and Queen Elizabeth which had been converted to troop ships.

"It was rough as billy-oh going through the Bight. No one was allowed on deck. It was a closed ship. No one was allowed on the promenade deck it was that rough," he said.

"After we got into the Indian Ocean it was plain sailing. It was calm."

Mr Keilar was a reinforcement for the 2/3rd battery which had been fighting in Crete, and joined them when they returned to Palestine.

For 12 months he was stationed at Hill 95 in Palestine where he underwent training, and never saw conflict during that time.

Mr Keilar has fond memories of his time there. "You only think of the good times don't you," he said. "You enjoyed life. We swam in the Mediterranean. It had a terrible undertow." For entertainment they would have camel races.

Bofors anti-aircraft gun at Gurney,  Milne Bay,  with Kittyhawk fighter-bomber landing,  September 1942

After he came home from the Middle East he was deployed to New Guinea where he spent about 12 months in Milne Bay protecting the American Liberty ships.

Mr Keilar was part of the anti-aircraft regiment using Bofors 40mm gun to keep enough flak in the air to stop the Japanese aircraft from coming in low.

He said most of the aircraft they had to deal with were the bombers because the Japanese fighter planes, Zeros, only had enough petrol to get there but didn't have enough to return home.

"A bomb fell through one bloke's tent on the gun site there," he said. "Straight down between the two beds. It was a dud."

It happened under the cover of darkness and wasn't far from where Mr Keilar was on duty on the guns in a dugout.

But he said it was "close enough". 

He said even if it had exploded, he probably would have been safe because he was sheltered in a dugout.

Keith Keilar
Keith Keilar

"It would have blown everything to pieces," he said, including the tent where he usually slept.

They then had to detonate “the damned thing", he said.

Mr Keilar said he saw plenty of planes come down during the heat of battle in the skies.

"There was that much flak in the air," he said. "It was like a fireworks display. You'd see tracer bullets."

When the war ended, Mr Keilar was back in Brisbane on rest and recuperation.

He returned to Woolsthorpe and went back to work building Cassidys Bridge over the Merri River on Caramut Road.


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