(Photo: WD Martin/AWM/Wikipedia.)
NAOU & my old mate
I've been going through my place lately, cleaning out old stuff and basically "de-cluttering". Always an interesting, soul cleansing experience. I have come across a number of old books, some of which go back years, some of which I've already read, and some I haven't. Amongst the latter was one called "Curtin's Cowboys", written by Richard and Helen Walker, published as far back as 1986 by Allen and Unwin. Heaven only knows when I bought it, but I hadn't read it until I started my "cleaning out" process.
"Curtin's Cowboys" is about a little-known Australian Army unit, the North Australia Observer Unit, or NAOU. I'd barely heard of them. About 500 strong, it was raised, mainly from volunteers, in the dark days of 1942 when Australia faced the threat of Japanese invasion. Deployed across northern Australia in very small sections and groups, from the Kimberley in WA, through the Top End, to Queensland's Gulf country, it was a hybrid coast watch/reconnaissance/guerrilla warfare unit, whose job was to give early warning of any Japanese invasion, track and report on the invaders, and if necessary, remain behind the lines, live off the country, and harass the enemy. As things turned out, they didn't have to face the Japanese. Their main enemies were isolation, the wet season, mud, crocodiles and insects. In the dry season, lack of water was a major handicap. Travel was often by horse and donkey, or by boat, because the local road system in those days was either primitive or non-existent.
It's a fascinating and very readable account, but from my point of view, the interesting and personal bit was the chapter where the authors gave some bio on some of the leading "characters" in the NAOU. They were an eclectic and highly individual lot, but I knew none of the names – until one name leapt off the page at me. I'd personally known this guy!
Now, those of you who are familiar with my website, or who possibly have read my books, may remember Xavier. He was the famous writer who I had met in Cairns, through my father, when we lived there in the 1950s and early 1960s. Xavier and my father shared an interest in aviation and Xavier often flew my dad on business trips. Several times I flew with them. Xavier and my dad were even in a plane crash together. Our family lost contact with the Herberts, Xavier and his wife Sadie, after we left Cairns in 1963. Then, as I reveal in one of my books, I ran into Xavier, completely by chance, when I was in Alice Springs on a business trip in 1984. He didn't remember me but he remembered my dad very well. That was near the end of his life; he died only some months later.
I had never ever thought, never even suspected, that Xavier might have some sort of military background. I only knew him as a writer and an aviator. Yet Xavier was born in 1901, so he was well and truly of military age by the time World War II came along. And so it proved to be. "Curtin's Cowboys" reveals that Xavier joined the NAOU and served with it for a little less than a year and a half. Xavier had had extensive experience of northern Australia and its aboriginal peoples well before World War II, so he was, seemingly, an obvious "fit" for the outfit.
Xavier had also become a famous novelist before World War II, having published "Capricornia" to wide acclaim in the late 1930s. So, he came to the NAOU with a well-established reputation. However, according to the Walkers' book – and the authors were able to interview Xavier before his death – while his fellow soldiers looked up to Xavier's intellectual achievements, they were less fond of his highly eccentric and individualistic ways. In short, Xavier's way did not suit the Army way. When he left the outfit, it seems that neither Xavier nor the NAOU was sad to see the back of each other.
Certainly, when I knew him, he never spoke – at least to me – of his wartime service in the NAOU. I am not sure that he even mentioned it to my father, with whom he was on fairly close terms. If he did, dad never mentioned it to me, and dad knew of my interest in military history. This may be because, according to the Walkers, Xavier had a poor opinion of the NAOU. But then, many others in the Australian Army at that time had a poor opinion of the NAOU, regarding it as ill-disciplined and too individualistic. How ironic: the same two qualities which made Xavier Herbert such a bad fit for the military.
So, it just goes to show what can happen when you decide to clean out and de-clutter your place. Sometimes you unearth gems, and if they shed some unexpected light on your own personal history, as in this case, that is an added and welcome bonus.
By the way, "Curtin's Cowboys", if you can still get hold of it, is an excellent and enjoyable read. It has lots of photos in it – including one of a much younger, wartime, Xavier Herbert – tells a rattling good yarn (all the better for being true), and fills a fascinating little gap in Australia's military history.
(Photo source: State Library of WA.)