Smokey Dawson: First Australian Army Entertainment Unit (People)
Module name: Campaign history (Australian perspective)
This page was contributed by Dr John Moremon (Australian War Memorial)
Like many young Australians Smokey’s first response to the outbreak of the Second World War was to try to enlist. He was rejected by the army on medical grounds- he had a "bumpy heart" that left him with only a B2 rating, which was inadequate for service. Smokey returned to his normal life following this rejection, until Japan and the war neared Australia. This event provoked a successful effort to gain acceptance into a non-combat unit- he was admitted into the army as a nursing orderly.
Smokey was trained by the army to become a No. 1 stretcher-bearer ready to be posted to New Guinea. However, on the eve of departure for New Guinea he was commandeered into the First Australian Army Entertainment Unit. This Unit was intended to play an important role in building the morale of weary troops returned from the Middle East that were being quickly redeployed into action against the Japanese.
The Entertainment Unit consisted of soldiers, unlike the Concert Party staffed by civilian performers. Troops in the Entertainment Unit were given extensive army training and organized into self-contained detachments of 6 performers that would have to look after themselves in the event of a crisis, as the division to which they had been attached was not responsible for their safety. The entertainers would have to fight their own way out if caught behind enemy lines and could not expect special help. Smokey’s detachment was sent right up into the frontlines of New Guinea- "foxhole entertainment". This gave Smokey first hand experience of digging his own trench to hide in.
The fact that Smokey was there to entertain by no means disguised the reality or reduced the appreciation “that the war was still going on very real, and men were still dying.” The conditions experienced in New Guinea seem almost unforgettable. Smokey found the experience incredibly exhausting, but he seemed to have been driven by the men’s need for light entertainment as an important form of escapism from the war. Smokey maintained a demanding performance schedule as well as satisfying his army chores and surviving the mosquitoes, limited rations, and incessant damp.
Like many who served in New Guinea Smokey suffered from malaria. The malaria became so violent while he was providing entertainment to contain troops being organized for repatriation in Tarakan that he ended up hospitalized. He suffered diaphragm and nervous system troubles, and his weight rapidly dropped to a mere six and a half stone.
Smokey, like many other Australians who failed to attain A1 classification or acceptance into armed service, made an incredibly valuable contribution to the Australian war effort. In remembering the war and those who helped the men in the front lines survive what could be a highly dehumanizing experience, and who did so often with limited appreciation and respect and at risk to their own personal safety should not be ignored or forgotten.