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Milton's story: From school teacher to front-line soldier

Updated: Sep 11

August 15th 2020 marked 75 years since the war in the Pacific ended. This date has special significance for Australian Mayflower descendant, Orel Lea, as her father Milton fought in the front-line against the Japanese in PNG’s Bougainville jungle.


Prompted by the missed anniversary celebration due to Covid, Orel Lea shares the story of this brave and resourceful man. Like many on the Mayflower, Milton endured great hardships for what he believed in and played a part in preserving the freedoms we enjoy today.

Orel Lea as a baby with her Dad, Milton


Milton joins the Australian Imperial Forces

My dad Milton was a schoolteacher in Western Australia who had a hobby….radio. He held an early Ham Radio licence, # VK6MM. He knew about radar at a time when it was secret. When war with Japan was declared in 1941, Milton joined the AIF for training in communications.


Milton was very silent about his war experiences and told our family little about them. We do know he had to carry extremely heavy wooden radio equipment into the dense jungle to set up transmitters. The transmitters were crucial to alert the American and Australian ships and troops (stationed around New Guinea and the Solomon Islands) of the Japanese presence.


The soldiers slept in white tents with mosquito nets but still contracted malaria. Malaria brought Milton home for hospital treatment a couple of times, and he still had recurring bouts of the infection in the 1990s.


The only horror story my dad told me was about the jungle camp where he worked. One morning they found their sentries dead with their throats cut …so the Japanese were indeed awfully close!


Cleaning up the tunnels

After the war ended, my dad volunteered to stay on in Rabaul (New Britain, PNG) for 12 months to ‘clean up’.


Around Rabaul, there were 500km of tunnels built by POW slaves (mainly Indian) where the Japanese stored their equipment, some of which was extremely dangerous and had to be identified and disposed of by experts. I visited Rabaul in 2016 and saw one of the tunnels myself, preserved with a Japanese Landing Craft still inside.


My Dad and his friends souvenired some radio items and were able to build radio transmitters with the components back at home. I still have one of the military boxes he brought home. As a Post-War child I remember my dad …still wearing his battered Diggers hat, and on weekends, rabbit-shooting with his 303 rifle.



“He just did what had to be done…”

Milton served a total of 1,517 days according to his discharge papers, dated July 1946.


After this bitter war experience, he would not attend any ANZAC celebrations and did not collect his medals until 40 years later, encouraged by family. Milton attended his first ANZAC march at Lightning Ridge in 2001, aged 86. His attitude was that he did not want to be thanked for his contribution, he just did what had to be done…save his country from invasion.


I give thanks to him and all our Armed Forces and Allies, commemorating 75 years since Peace was declared…on 15th August 2020.



By Orel Lea Orel Lea is descended from Mayflower passenger George Soule. Her line goes through her maternal grandmother, Nellie Page, whose grandfather immigrated to the Australian Goldfields in 1853 from Ohio. Orel Lea is also a Daughter of the American Revolution, related to patriot Captain Benjamin Page (1753-1833), whose grandmother was Mary Soule.
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