We recently caught up with Freddy Cullen OAM, a WW2 veteran who celebrated his 101st birthday in June this year! Freddy is an incredible gentleman, with a sharp mind and quick wit, so we are honoured to share his story!
Tell us about your military background:
I enlisted into the Royal Australian Artillery on 3rd November 1942.
Before I enlisted, I was a Student Teacher in Ascot Vale West, but I wasn’t getting paid very much once my student rent was deducted, so joining the Army was a good financial decision for me. When I joined, I was getting paid more and had clothing given to me - it was a gold mine for me back then! We had a canteen, cheap beers and I still managed to save some money.
After initial training in Seymour (Victoria), I travelled on the troop train to Brisbane. Then we transferred to a camp near Maryborough (QLD) on the coast. Training was pretty arduous, but we often went swimming in the nearby river to cool off and have fun. We knew nothing about proper hygiene in those days, so we struggled with maggots in our food and terrible living conditions. We learned lessons about poor hygiene very quickly.
The Queensland coast was under a very real threat from the Japanese at that time. It was our job to track the Japanese near the coast, but nothing eventuated. In 1942, we embarked from Townsville to New Guinea on HMAS Katoomba. We had undertaken lots of training in amphibious landings, which was arduous and very demanding, but we were all extremely fit!
Once we arrived in New Guinea, we followed the Japanese along various rivers and gullies. We had three batteries in the Regiment with a couple of hundred people and eight guns in every battery - I was a Bombardier at the time. We used translators to help set the guns and we needed to be very knowledgeable about which ammunition to use.
A few months into this campaign, I was looking for a clearing to set up a new gun position at about 7:00am in the morning. Because of the dense forest and canopy, the vegetation was too thick to effectively fire rounds, so I ventured a short distance from camp by myself.
When I came to a cleared area without much vegetation, I was shot straight into the top of my head by a Japanese sniper at Shaggy Ridge. It has been a long-standing joke for a number of years that “I was shagged at Shaggy Ridge”. I was very lucky - the sniper had climbed up a tree on the edge of the clearing and had an open shot at me.
"Amazingly, I still have the slouch hat that I was wearing when I was shot, which has a bullet hole right through the top of it."
After I was hit, I was picked up an hour later by the field ambulance. I was a jumbled mess, but I was still alive. I was taken to a field hospital, then evacuated by air to the Army General Hospital. They patched me up there, then flew me to Port Moresby where I waited for departure on the hospital ship heading back to Australia. Coincidently, that was D-Day – 6 June 1944. I don’t remember anything until I got to Australia... I must have been in a coma or still in shock. Amazingly, I still have the slouch hat that I was wearing when I was shot, which has a bullet hole right through the top of it.
After I had healed from my wounds, one of my tasks was the Welfare Officer and helping other servicemen with their pensions, entitlements and housing, until I retired from the military on 5 Feb 1947. At one stage, I had a caseload of over 100 widows, but I had a very good track record of supporting them through the process. My advocacy work continued post-service as I commenced working with the RSL in advocacy and welfare, which has been an important part of my life for 50 years. I was the President of the Ivanhoe RSL for 40 years.
After separating from the Army, I caught the ‘study bug’ and focused on my education and career progression, which led to my appointment as the Head of the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme. At one stage, I had 6000 students under my wing. I had made a lot of great friends, including the future Governor of Victoria, Hon Sir James ‘Jim’ Gobbo AC CVO QC.
From there, I went on to become the Director of Staff Training in Government, which focused on management training for Government executives. During that time, I met with Digger James (head of Veterans Affairs in Canberra at the time), who was a Military Cross winner after losing his leg. He supported me through my training role and his father was a WW1 veteran.
What skills or lessons have you learned from the military that you used throughout your life?
I have learned a lot about weather systems and became a specialist in ballistic science. I also learned the importance of having colleagues you can rely on. Everyone needs a mate and it can be pretty lonely existence without them. I had a lot of close friends and it’s a wonderful aspect of Army service. I am now the last living member from my Regiment - my last mate recently passed away. Mateship is something that has endured right throughout my life. Remarkably, the Medic who patched me up in New Guinea in 1944 came to my 100th birthday celebration last June.
What is your favourite memory from the military?
The Orderly Officer would come along in the morning and check that we had shaved. I didn’t have much facial hair back then, so I didn’t put much effort into shaving. The orderly officer came along and asked “Have you shaved this morning, Gunner?”.
I confidently replied “Yes, Sir!” and he responded, “You need to stand closer to the razor!”
That officer was a terrific leader and he was awarded a Military Cross in Guinea.
What has been the best advice you've been given?
Not to volunteer too readily for anything (laughs).
Our sincere gratitude to Michael Marsh (RAA) for organising this interview - we are honoured to interview Freddy Cullen OAM and hear about his incredible life journey!
In July 2020, Fred Cullen OAM was recognised in the Governor-General’s Kindness in the Community Awards.
Mr Fred Cullen OAM from the Weary Dunlop Foundation is a terrific example of kindness in our community.
A veteran of the Second World War, Fred has been doing good works for most of his life (and that’s a long time). At 99 years old, he still exudes kindness in his relationships, but never in a self-seeking way. His is an energetic and altruistic kindness that both recognises the worth of people and works to improve their welfare. This shines through in his advocating for Veterans’ and war widows’ benefits, and in his tireless tin-rattling for the Weary Dunlop Foundation and RSL over many decades. His genuine kindness and thoughtfulness serve as an inspiration to all, encouraging us to examine our own behaviours. Perhaps his kindness gives a clue to his longevity and contentedness.