LOOKING BACK: Vern Lilley, the last WWII veteran in Gympie.
LOOKING BACK: Vern Lilley, the last WWII veteran in Gympie. Jacob Carson

Up in the air: Gympie WWII Vet recalls his service

THE days can be a bit quieter for Gympie's last-surviving Second World War veteran Vernon Lilley.

After all, the soon-to-be 95-year-old said, the company gets a little smaller each year.

"There aren't as many of us to talk to any more, but that's part of life, you know,” he said.

"What good would getting upset about it do?”

Only 17-years-old in 1939, Vern was barely a young man when he entered the 608 Squadron of the Royal Air Force.

His training took him from Sydney to New Zealand to America to Canada.

"With a crew you had a pilot, a navigator and two gunners,” Vern said.

"I received training on machine gunning, and things like astro-navigation.”

Sorted into a crew with two New Zealanders, along with friend and "Pommy” Ken Watson, Vern was soon relocated to England before deployment to North Africa and the Mediterranean.

While 608 had originated as a bomber squadron, by the middle of the war it was based on the Sicilian Coast, largely flying reconnaissance missions across the the Mediterranean Sea.

"We were using radar to search for submerged enemy submarines around Gibraltar and North Africa,” he said.

Come October 1943, the squadron was once again re-purposed, providing convoy escorts toward Italy until it was disbanded the following year.

Vern soon found himself posted in Bucharest, Romania.

"I stayed there until around June or July of 1945, before I was sent back to Australia,” he said.

"On the way there, when we had gotten to Cairo, we found out the war was all over - they'd dropped the atomic bomb.”

One of the most significant moments Vern recalls of his service came after the war had actually ended, when his crewmate Ken Archer was killed in an accident.

Finding out exactly what happened to Ken was a long effort, as Vern took to the internet to find out exactly what happened to his friend.

Even today, the details are difficult to find, but after a painstaking effort, an answer finally - but probably not the one he was looking for.

"We were together since about 1942 - after I'd left Romania, he was still posted there, he'd married,” Vern said.

"And one night, after visiting his squadron commander he was shot accidentally as he opened the door to his quarters.”

Vern was discharged in Brisbane at the end of 1945 and returned home to Gympie.

At the time, the Returned Soldiers Hall on Reef St (where the IGA now stands) was where the local RSL sub-branch had been operating.

"But the site of the old Mining Exchange Hotel, which had burned down, became available - so we put a bid in.”

The Soldier's Club was born, going under a number of revamps and renovations to become Gympie's beloved RSL Club.

"There are parts of the original building within the club that still stand, I think a few walls,” Vern said.

"But it's certainly changed a lot since then.”

For many veterans, this time of the year can be an emotionally loaded experience.

So, how will Gympie's last WWII veteran be feeling come April 25.

"I feel pride with what I've done, and what others have done as well,” he said.

Gympie Times


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