Bert Turner was born in Cairns to parents, Thomas and Charlotte Turner on the 9th September 1916. He attended school at St Augustine’s College from 20th February 1930 to 10th October 1933 and then secured employment with the ‘Cairns Post’ and became a rotary machinist.
Bert was strong and athletic and excelled in numerous sports such as cricket, tennis, boxing, cycling and long-distance swimming. He enlisted in the Army in Sydney on the 8th July 1940 and was selected for specialised training in unarmed combat and demolition procedures.
On the 24th of July 1941, Bert was a member of the 1st. Independent company No 4 section deployed on Manus Island under the leadership of Lieutenant Palmer. Manus Island, at its closest point, is approximately 320km north of what is now PNG, and is the largest of the Admiralty Islands and part of the Bismarck Archipelago.
The unit dug in and had control of the Island for some months until a convoy of Japanese ships unloaded approximately 15,000 personnel on the island.
After several weeks hiding from the Japanese, it became obvious that it would only be a matter of time before they were discovered.
Lt. Palmer, who was unable to walk due to severe septic infection on his arms and legs as a result of several attacks of malaria, formulated a plan. On a night when visibility was low, Bert would place demolition charges in and around the Japanese camp; Lt. Palmer, heavily armed with an Australian-manufactured Vickers machine-gun, four fully loaded rifles and a stack of grenades would be carried to the top of a hillside commanding the main approaches to the camp. He would create a diversion and hold the Japanese off as long as he could until the unit escaped in a sampan which they had concealed in a secluded spot on the Coast.
Shortly afterwards the plan went ahead, charges were placed and the Japanese camp was seriously damaged. However contrary to his plan, Lt. Palmer was picked up and carried by his men and all twenty-five made it to the sampan to attempt the dangerous crossing of the Bismarck Sea to the mainland of New Guinea. At night the group used to row and paddle and in the day they would swim, push and tow the sampan whilst disguised as Island fisherman.
This small group travelled some two hundred miles through Japanese patrolled waters and disembarked from their escape boats at Bogadjim, Astrolabe Bay, northern New Guinea, near Madang.
As they walked along the beach, a small monoplane circled low overhead and eventually landed on the beach nearby. The pilot of the plane, Australian Missionary Catholic Priest Father Glover, had recognised the group from the air as Aussies and warned them that their present course would take them to a large Japanese camp. Father Glover then quickly took to the air again. It was a strange even miraculous happening to have a Priest drop out of the sky and warn of impending danger.
The soldiers, suffering from poor health, recurring malarial attacks, and with Lieutenant Palmer on a stretcher, then headed bare-footed out of Bogadjim to begin their epic journey across wilderness New Guinea. After three days of travel, they reached the Upper Ramu River valley, passing over the Finnisterre mountain range. On 5 May they struggled through many flooded rivers and over the Bismarck mountain range finally arriving at the Mt. Hagen camp on 16 May. It had taken months to fight their way against the enemy and the extreme conditions of the mountains of New Guinea, and when the unit eventually reached Army Headquarters in Port Moresby (approximately 900km from Manus Island) there was a feeling of jubilation that they made it against impossible odds. However, this was short lived as the officer of the day arrested the group on a charge of desertion and they were all imprisoned.
Some time later an inquiry reversed the decision and Lt. Palmer received the Military Medal for his actions. On the 22nd of May 1942, after 315 days of continuous active service, Bert was granted leave and returned to Cairns to visit his family and friends.
While he was in Cairns Bert married his sweetheart Beryl on the 24th April 1943. They decided to settle in Brisbane.
On the 8th of November 1943, after serving a total of 1219 days, Bert was discharged from further military service due to health reasons.
When Bert was studying for the Post Office exams he used to catch the ferry across the Brisbane River. He was always running late for the ferry and used to have to jump off the wharf to catch it. One day he was running later than usual and the ferry was a lot further away, however he thought that with his military training this would not be a problem and so he jumped. He ended up in the river with his paperwork and books floating alongside him.
Bert sat for the Post Office exams and achieved the highest result in Queensland. He worked for the Post Office in Brisbane for 38 years until he retired.
In his later years, Bert had circulatory problems and lost his big toe. The problems continued and it was advised that his lower limb be amputated to relieve his suffering. This was done but he died a few months later.
Bert’s family had by then become aware of the potential benefits of hyperbaric medicine in treating the medical condition Bert had suffered from. They set up The Bert Turner Fund as a memorial to him, and to assist other people’s quality of life through hyperbaric medicine.
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