Behind enemy lines: digger looks back on secret unit
IT TAKES a certain kind of mettle to operate in top secret conditions, behind enemy lines, and receive national recognition for your service.
It takes another kind of mettle to fight for the rights of one's fellow workers, to make their welfare your life-long concern and passion.
Such mettle is often born of adversity, and so it was with Flight Sergeant Jim Banks OAM, whose life story encompasses both.
Now retired to the Tweed Coast, Mr Banks, 92, will be the guest of honour at the village's Anzac Day service, hosted by the Pottsville and District RSL, on Wednesday.
His story, like so many others of his era, begins on his 18th birthday - on January 18, 1944 -when he was finally old enough to sign up for war service.
Growing up in the Great Depression, where his family struggled to make ends meet, Mr Banks jumped at the opportunity to sign up, joining his parents and sister who had all enlisted.
"I left school at 13," Mr Banks said.
"We were in real trouble, dad was a panel beater, we lived in Melbourne but had to shift to Sydney because the work was so spasmodic. I had a very lousy bringing up."
But that all changed when a young looking 18-year-old, whose eyesight wasn't the best, was accepted into the Royal Australian Air Force.
"When I was accepted for the aircrew I was over the moon," Mr Banks recalled last week.
"I was dead keen, I had my sights set on the air force, I didn't want to go to war on land. I just felt I wanted to fly."
And fly he did, moving to Leyburn near Toowoomba where he trained as a bomb aimer and navigator before he was assigned to the top secret 200 Special Duties Flight, details of which have only been made public in recent years.
The unit operated in 1945, the final year of World War II, where they were involved in clandestinely dropping personnel from 'Z' Special Unit and supplies behind enemy lines in Borneo and Timor.
The 'Z' Special unit conducted reconnaissance and sabotage, provided intelligence and led guerrilla warfare operations against the Japanese forces in Borneo and the Netherlands East Indies (now parts of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia).
Despite the obvious danger which only the toughest could stand, Mr Banks remains modest about his contribution.
"Mainly, I was travelling over sea a lot," Mr Banks said.
"I had to keep looking out for land to make sure I knew where we were and to confirm to the navigator where we were."
Generally they would fly from Leyburn to Morotai in the Philippine Islands before continuing on to Borneo before returning to Leyburn when necessary.
The unit flew sorties across the ocean to drop not bombs, but soldiers behind enemy lines as well as supplies like food and munitions.
"One time I dropped 5000 pounds of Malay dollars to give to the natives who had helped the Australians," Mr Banks said.
"We dropped the money on the camp after the war so it could be distributed."
He recalled harrowing attempts to land their B-24 Liberators on airstrips riddled with bomb craters, praising the skills of his pilot, Captain Tom Bridges, for getting them out alive.
"He was the best pilot," Mr Banks said.
"We had so much confidence in him, we used to trust him with our lives."
But others from the unit were not so lucky, with three of their six aircraft lost over the year.
Those that died are today remembered at a memorial site in Leyburn.
Mr Banks was discharged from the RAAF on December 6, 1945.
"After coming out of the Air Force I thought to myself: 'Was it all worth it?' I don't know. Did I make any difference? I don't think I did," he said.
He may be humble, but others recognised his great achievements with his name Mentioned in Despatches for his meritorious action in the face of the enemy.
After leaving the forces, Mr Banks went on to try his hand at accountancy but soon learned he did not enjoy it.
Instead, he ended up working in what is now known as Human Resources, where he fought for the rights of the workers in his company.
"It doesn't matter who you are, you don't treat workers like dirt," he said.
"The war made me a person who had the ability to make my own decisions and do anything."