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The remarkable Doc Vernon, doctor to the troops

Soldiers of the Australian 39th Battalion  Kokoda campaign  1942 (AWM)
Soldiers of the Australian 39th Battalion,  Kokoda campaign,  1942 (Australian War Memorial)

KEITH JACKSON

NOOSA – After graduating with a BA in history and English literature, Adrian Clack spent six years as a history teacher and school counsellor.

He then served 12 years as a police officer before, in 2017, making his passion for military history a major pursuit.

Since then Adrian has completed 15 crossings of the Kokoda Track as a guide and historian for On Track Expeditions.

Adrian Clack
Adrian Clack

Now he’s on the trail of the inspirational Dr Geoffrey Hampden (Doc) Vernon MC (1882-1946), a figure who deserves to be better remembered in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

He loved and admired the people of the then Australian colony and, as a medical doctor, he made a significant contribution to it in peace and war.

I expect Doc Vernon is a name most readers will not have come across.

But if you do have some knowledge of him, then Adrian Clack is eager to hear from you.

It may be an anecdote, a newspaper clipping, a document or a story handed down from the war.

So you can email Adrian here if you have even the smallest morsel of information to offer. I know he will be delighted.

In a moment, I want to provide a cut down version of as much of the Doc Vernon story that we know.

But first a bit more about Adrian Clack, whose interest in Australian military history flows strongly from his own family heritage.

Adrian
Adrian presenting a lecture in military history

His grandfather, Percy James Clack (NX194756), served with the 2/9th Battalion of the Australian Army which in World War II, as part of the 7th Division, fought campaigns in North Africa, Syria–Lebanon, New Guinea and Borneo.

Adrian’s great-uncle, Donald McKenzie (NX46603), was a member of 2/30th Battalion, part of the 8th Division which in February 1942 fought against the Japanese in Malaya and Singapore, where the Allies surrendered.

The Imperial Japanese Army was not expected to attack Singapore through the back door of the Malayan peninsula; they were expected to storm the city from the sea.

McKenzie was captured, became a prisoner-of-war and survived disease, starvation and brutality on the notorious Thai-Burma railway. Many of the 2/30th's personnel died in captivity before the war ended in August 1945.

clipWhile Adrian Clack was still a member of the NSW Police between 1999 and 2011, he helped lead the first group of young Indigenous people to trek the Kokoda Trail.

As a result of this initiative, he was a joint winner of the National Crime Prevention Award in 2009; two years earlier he had been recognised locally in Eurobodalla Shire on the NSW south coast, also with an award for preventing crime in youth.

It’s clearly a community that Adrian has been very close to for many years. In his spare time he plays the bagpipes as a member of the Batemans Bay Pipe Band.

Reminiscing on that first visit to PNG, Adrian says he had “never seen such generous hospitality”.

“There were speeches, gospel songs and prayers,” he said, revealing that the favourite song of the trekking group was Buju Banton’s ‘It’s not an easy road’.

“I never thought I would've made it
Then afterwards, they mistake it,
I'll be here for sure, don't worry
And mi say my, my, my m-my
It's not an easy road”

Adrian contacted me after reading an article about Doc Vernon in PNG Attitude.

Philip Selth OAM
Philip Selth OAM

It was contributed in 2012 by lawyer, senior public servant, senior academic and now director of the NSW Bar Association, Philip Selth OAM.

Philip died of pancreatic cancer in 2020 and the famed Australian barrister, Bret Walker AO SC, wrote of him that he had an “infectious love of history”.

This most visibly took the form of writing essay-style biographies of under-recognised contributors to Australian public life.

It was in this context that Philip Selth, researching the life and times of Doc Vernon, contacted me.

We had many conversations and the piece he wrote for PNG Attitude was an attempt to help him pin down the Doc's complete story.

Unfortunately Philip died before completing this project, or so it seems, and now Adrian, having taken on a similar pursuit, has turned our way to see if we can assist or identify people who may be able to do so.

“I’m wondering if you have any idea what happened to the research he was conducting,” Adrian asked me.

“Do you know if it's still held by his family, or was it passed on to someone else?”

“I realise it is a long shot, but any assistance would be appreciated.”

Drs Bevington & Vernon at Thursday Island Hospital  1931 (Jardine-Vidgen Family)
Drs Bevington & Vernon, Thursday Island Hospital,  1931 (Jardine-Vidgen Family)

Not a solitary answer did I have, but I pointed Adrian in the direction of the National Library of Australia, wherein a knew had been deposited at least some of the papers of Doc and historian the late Hank Nelson.

Bret Walker said Philip Selth had been assiduous in ensuring his books and papers would not be lost or destroyed when he died.

And of all the PNG-related academics I knew, Hank would be the most likely to have produced something, somewhere on Doc Vernon.

And so on to this man, Geoffrey Vernon MC, a doctor-warrior and enough a leader to participate in the practice of his profession as an officer on the front line of two world wars.

Doc was clearly a most unusual man with a story worth telling that had at no time been fully revealed.

Of his exploits during the famed Kokoda campaign of July to November 1942, Doc kept a diary. It has never been published in full.

The late political journalist Alan Ramsey saw it and read it: “Its 74 pages, on brown paper, are bound by red twine between tattered, stained cardboard covers. It has no title, but the first page has the heading, ‘A War Diary. The Owen Stanley campaign, July-November, 1942’.”

Ramsay noted that the diary had never been published in full.

“A great pity,” he wrote. “Captain Geoffrey Hampden Vernon, despite being deaf - from a Great War artillery shell that exploded near him - had a wonderful feel for language.”

Doc was a Captain with the Australian 4th Light Horse Field Ambulance in World War I, where he was awarded the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” at Gallipoli.

The citation said that, under heavy fire, he continued to tend wounded soldiers, displaying great courage and determination.

On one occasion, he remained all night with a wounded man in ‘no man’s land’.

Doc Vernon
This undated photo of Doc Vernon appears to date from World War I

Between the wars, Doc somehow made his way to Papua and became a doctor-planter near Daru. Just before World War II, he had effectively retired to his rubber plantation.

When the Japanese entered the war and headed for New Guinea, Doc refused to be repatriated to Australia.

Instead, and against some strenuous opposition, reported by the Queensland Times, he “got back into uniform with a native infantry battalion". His serial number, P390. I presume the P was for Papua.

You can understand the reservations of the military authorities. Not only was Doc quite deaf, but at 60 he was regarded as being far too old. We also know now that he probably had tuberculosis.

None of this was of concern to Doc. The Army did not assign him to one of its regular units, but he still had a war to fight – or, in Doc’s case, its warriors to tend to.

Australian troops having their wounds patched in the foothills above Kokoda would see trudging along the track towards them a “tall, thin figure with a dark pullover tied by the sleeves round his neck, and carrying in each hand a white triangular bandage filled with instruments, antiseptics and dressings.”

The article in the Queensland Times continued:

I heard there was some action here and no doctor, so I thought I might be able to help until others come,” Doc said. “Now, where do we start?”

“Men who were in the New Guinea fighting will talk of him for years,” a journalist wrote.

“That tall, deaf doctor who operated under fire, who gave them a smoke, who put new dressings on, who gave them a cup of tea and biscuits, and helped them along with a cheery word.

“They marvelled at his energy and kindness.

“Later, at Deniki village, while he attended the casualties, he asked one of his assistants: ‘Were those bullets that were knocking down the grass from the roof in Kokoda?’

“Came the reply, ‘I'll say, they were! Millions of them’.

“‘Well,’ said Doc, ‘at first I thought it was rats. But when big lumps came down I guessed what it was.

"Of course, there was no danger as they were all high, but it is an advantage to be deaf sometimes.

"I might have been alarmed if I had heard them!’”

Doc survived the war and ‘the rats’ and in March 1946 was discharged from his duties with ANGAU, the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit.

However, he did not live much longer.

Doc did have tuberculosis and, while recuperating in Samarai, suffered a stroke on 16 May 1946 and died aged 63.

“He was an unsung hero of the Battle of Papua,” eulogised the Queensland Times after the news reached Australia.

Vernon (NSW State Archives)
A young Doc Vernon posing in a bush garden, no date (NSW State Archives)

“The Kokoda Trail is their supreme legacy,” Alan Ramsey wrote of Doc and his mate Bert Kienzle.

“They made victory possible by keeping going the carrier line that, week after week, for four months, on their backs or by slings and stretchers, took supplies and ammunition to the diggers fighting in the Owen Stanleys and brought the wounded out,” Ramsay wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Pulling together the complete story of Doc Vernon is a noble, necessary and overdue task.

Philip Selth volunteered for the job, and it was one he was truly enjoying when he became too ill to write.

It would be a wonderful gift to Papua New Guinea and Australia if Adrian Clack is able to take it further.

Do drop him an email here if you’re able to assist even in a small way.

Comments

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Adrian Clack

Just letting you know as a result of your article a great niece of Docs has contacted me. I am meeting her tomorrow. An amazing result!

Chris Overland

From the perspective of the Papuans who participated in the Kokoda campaign there were two important men: one was Captain Geoffrey 'Doc' Vernon MC and the other was Captain Bert Kienzle MBE CBE.

It was Bert Kienzle who organised the much admired 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels' who served as carriers and guides for the Australian troops. Their fame endures in both PNG and Australia.

Kenzle and Doc Vernon, who had known each other since well before the war, were very familiar with the Papuan people.
Both spoke fluent Motu and were determined that the welfare and rights of the Papuan carriers would be protected.

Both Kienzle and Vernon insisted that Papuan carriers receive the same level of medical care and rations as the soldiers, rightly arguing that they could not be expected to do the hard work demanded of them unless they were well looked after.

This attitude was enlightened by the standards of the time but was based as much upon hard headed calculation as it was common humanity or sentiment.

I had the good fortune to meet Bert Kienzle (and his younger brother Wallace) whilst stationed at Kokoda in 1973-74.

The Kienzle family then owned and operated Mamba Estate, which was composed of a large rubber plantation and a similarly large cattle operation.

Bert Kienzle was regarded with a great deal of respect and deference by the people who lived in and around the Kokoda Valley.

He was described by them as a 'Taubada Badana', literally 'Great Man', a term only applied to leaders who enjoyed the highest possible status and prestige.

I have no doubt that the same appellation would have been applied to Doc Vernon.

For those interested in the remarkable life of Bert Kienzle, his daughter-in-law Robyn's book, 'The Architect of Kokoda', details his many achievements.

Ian Ritchie | Advance Native Tours

Thank you for posting this, Keith. I will certainly ask around to see if any further info can be gleaned on Doc Vernon MC from my contacts.

Wonderful story, wonderful man and I wish Adrian Clack the best in discovering and publishing this remarkable piece of history.

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