SX9755 Private Howard NIGHTINGALE – died whilst a prisoner of war on 3 October 1944
Howard Nightingale was born in Adelaide on 30 August 1919, the younger of two children of George Hamer Nightingale and Elsie Alice May Nightingale (nee JACOB). The family moved to Victor Harbor in 1920 and Howard and his brother Kevin and were educated at the Victor Harbor Primary and High Schools. Howard was employed as a storeman at the time of his enlistment in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force of 26 July 1940. His brother Kevin had enlisted in the RAAF on 11 April 1940.
After a short stint of basic training, Howard was posted to the newly formed 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion under the command of Lt-Col Arthur Seaforth BLACKBURN VC. Further training followed and the Battalion entrained for Sydney and boarded the former luxury liner and now converted troopship Ile de France. The convoy contained some 25,000 troops and sailed on 11 April 1941, disembarking at Port Tewfik, Egypt on 14 May.
The Battalion formed part of the Australian 7th Division which was to form the backbone of the Allied invasion of Vichy-French controlled Lebanon and Syria. The campaign had the objective of denying Germany control of those countries and using them as springboards for attacks on Allied controlled Egypt. The invasion started on 8 June 1941 and the 2/3rd was involved in fierce fighting against Vichy troops. The Battalion suffered a number of casualties and it was not until 12 July when Beirut fell and an armistice declared. The 2/3rd was then involved in garrison duties.
Following the entry the Japanese into the war the Australian Government ordered the return of its troops from the Middle East. On 30 January 1942 the 2/3rd was one of the units ordered back to Australia and 700 of its men embarked aboard the Orcadia along with another 2,700 men. The ship was diverted to Java in what would be an ill-fated attempt to bolster Dutch resistance against the advancing Japanese. Unfortunately, the army had loaded their heavy weapons and stores on another ship, which continued onto Australia. The men landed in Java were ill equipped and Lt-Col Blackburn, now commander of all Australian troops on the island, quickly organised the troops into a credible fighting force. They fought bravely against overwhelming odds, and finally with ammunition and stores running low, on 9 March 1942 Blackburn was ordered by the Dutch commander to surrender his troops.
Their captors paid no heed to the Geneva Convention’s rules governing the treatment of prisoners and subjected the men to bashings and inhuman treatment. In June 1942, the Japanese commenced construction of a rail line from Banpong, Thailand to Rangoon, Burma to support their army in Burma against the British. A huge force of POW’s and Asian labourers were forcefully put to work building the line. Tens of thousands died building the line due to illness, mistreatment and disease. Thousands more POW’s were sent to Thailand and men from the 2/3rd on Java were a shipped across to join the labour force. In September 1943, Howard met up with fellow Victor Harbor soldiers Colin MILNES and Bernard Robinson.
In October 1943 with the railway finished, most of the surviving POW’s were shipped back to Singapore, whilst some were sent onto Vietnam, Formosa and Japan. Howard was among a group that sailed for Japan and ended up in Yokohama as forced labour at the Obama coal mine.
On 3 October 1944, United States aircraft bombed enemy industries in and around Yokohama. Howard was building an air raid shelter for his captors at the time when a bomb collapsed the shelter on top of him. He died of suffocation. After the war, Howard’s remains were reinterred in the Yokohama War Cemetery.
The Battalion had completed its long route march from Woodside Camp. It had left Woodside on 3rd February and marched via Ashbourne, Currency Creek, Goolwa and Port Elliot. The Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Seaforth BLACKBURN VC. The men of the Battalion were impatient for overseas service and Lt-Col BLACKBURN conceived the long march to test the men’s resolve and stamina during what was Adelaide’s hottest month. Fortunately the weather turned out unseasonably cool over the many days of arduous marching. It is believed this was the longest route march undertaken by any troops in Australia.
This photograph was taken by Mr George Nightingale who was positioned on the first floor of the Bell’s building, corner of Ocean and Coral Streets. The time was a few minutes after 3pm. George’s son, Pte Howard Nightingale, is believed to be the drummer at the rear of the band, left hand side.
Immediately behind the Battalion’s band is Headquarter Company, led by Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Blackburn VC. Mr S.D. Bruce, Mayor of Victor Harbor, took the official salute.
Many of the buildings shown here are now gone. On the corner is Summerlea Mansions, with the chemist shop shown on the ground floor. At the time the pharmacist was Ron Goldsack who, after serving in the Royal Australian Air Force, would continue to operate the pharmacy for many decades.
The Battalion later sailed for the Middle East and fought in the Lebanon and Syrian campaign against the Vichy French. The men were engaged in heavy fighting and casualties were suffered against a determined foe.
Lt-Col Blackburn VC was greatly admired by his men as their Commanding Officer. He had fought at Gallipoli as a private during the First World War and later served on the Western Front where, as a second lieutenant, he was awarded a Victoria Cross for valour whilst serving with the 10th Infantry Battalion.
In January 1942, the Battalion sailed for home but most of the Battalion was diverted to Java in what would prove an ill-fated campaign. By now a Brigadier, Blackburn was forced to surrender to the Japanese on 9 March 1942. The men went into captivity and were later used as forced labour on the notorious Thai-Burma Railway. Many died from ill-treatment, starvation and illness.
The remaining elements of the Battalion that returned to Australia in February 1942 became the nucleus of the reformed 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion. The unit later served in New Guinea and, during this campaign, local men Pte Lionel Wilfred COX (eldest brother of Laurel MILNES) and Cpl Dudley James JENKINS were killed in action.
This photograph has been reproduced with kind permission of Susan ROGERS (nee Nightingale). Susan is the daughter of the late Kevin Nightingale, brother of Howard. Kevin served with the Royal Australian Air Force as a pilot and would later carry out many bombing missions against Japanese targets in New Guinea.
Shown on the far right of the photograph is Victor Harbour Times editor Peter MILNES, his wife Ivy (immediately in front of him), their daughter Helen MILNES (in school uniform) and (at Ivy’s right), daughter-in-law Mrs Laurel MILNES (nee COX). Pte Colin MILNES and Laurel had married one month before, in early January 1941.
Service file of SX9755 PTE Howard NIGHTINGALE purchased from the National Archives of Australia (www.naa.org.au ).
Australian War Memorial database.
Bellair, John, From snow to jungle: a history of the 2/3rd Australian Machine Gun Battalion (Sydney): Allen & Unwin, 1987).
Compiled by the Victor Harbor RSL History Research team, December 2014.