Former 2/27th Battalion Lieutenant Edgar Ebsary OAM at the Bute RSL in South Australia's Mid North, and right, in uniform soon after accepting his commission.

No ordinary bloke
Edgar James Ebsary OAM (1919 - 2022)

In 1919, a few weeks before the start of the annual grain harvest in the Hundred of Barunga in South Australia’s Mid North, a baby boy was born.

In the early hours of Wednesday, October 15, as a soft spring was making way for another scorching summer across the broad swathes of barley and wheat, a cry was heard coming from the bedroom of a farmhouse on Section 247.

Edgar James Ebsary entered the world, the fourth child of farmer Edgar Harold Ebsary and his wife, Catherine Evelyn Olive Ebsary (nee Bessell).

From the beginning, Ed was a true son of the stubble, with his bond to local community and the land on which he was born only interrupted by the advent of World War II.

Despite the hardships of being a teenager in the Great Depression, the vagaries of rural life working first with his father and then on his own land, making the best of both the booms and busts of farming in a fickle, sometimes merciless landscape, Ed’s stoic, wise and gentle presence in his family, his community and amongst his military brothers in arms would span more than a century.

The oldest and last surviving member of the South Australian 2/27th Battalion Australian Imperial Force (AIF) who saw action in the Middle East and Papua New Guinea during World War II, Edgar James Ebsary (SX9760) died at the age of 102.

Ed, who had survived the diseases, dangers and hardships of jungle warfare, first wounded a few weeks before his 24th birthday at Mission Ridge on the Kokoda Track in the Owen Stanley Ranges in September 1942 and again a few months later at Gona during the Battle of the Beachheads on the northern coast of Papua, died peacefully at Barunga Village, Port Broughton, in South Australia’s Mid North, on Thursday, January 13, 2022.

A self-made man and a graduate of the University of Life, Ed left school at the age of thirteen to work on his father’s farm.

Dedicated and humble, Ed’s civilian life was focused on community and family.  To those who knew him, he was truly a “gentle man”.

In A Rough Rundown of The Life of Ed Ebsary, Ed in his eighties recounted his life, which he referred to as the “story of a very ordinary Australian”.

But Ed was no ordinary bloke.

The fourth child in a family of five, his birth followed his two sisters, Ruth and Ila and a baby sister, Mary, who died in infancy. Another sister, Joy, was born a year after Ed and three years later, Colin Harold (Bob) was born, Ed’s younger brother.

In his reminiscence, Ed remembered the tough times and his parents’ long hours working on the farm, often from before sunup to after sundown, adding: “It certainly took real love of family (and each other) to endure the rugged conditions to start the kids on the best possible track (for life)”.

Ed learnt those lessons well and applied them to his own life’s journey.

Some of his earliest memories were of attending Sunday School at Dolling’s Corner (Wokurna), where his father was a local preacher and his mother a volunteer teacher.

As a small boy at church services, two things fascinated Ed… men’s waistcoat chains and ladies’ hat pins.

Ed couldn’t work out which end of the fob chain dangling from men’s waistcoat pockets was connected to the watch, or indeed whether there was even a watch on the end… he couldn’t tell.

Ladies’ hats were big in those days and when visiting his mother, ladies left their hats on the bed in his parent’s bedroom. Ed was intrigued with the method by which they fixed their big hats to their heads.

Using long, sharp hat pins, they appeared to push them right through the hat and into their heads. Laughing, his sisters explained that the pins only went through the lady’s hair, usually tied up in a bun.

In his early years at school, Ed said the no-nonsense approach of teachers regarding study and tests along with a lot of hard work on his part stood him in good stead, placing him regularly at the top of the class, despite the fact he was “a slow thinker, but quick with figures and good at spelling”.

Ed gained his Qualifying Certificate at Barunga School at the age of twelve-and-a-half, but because he was considered too small to harness and manage draft horses, he spent another year in Grade 7.

He didn’t take the repeat year as seriously, finding plenty of time to hunt rabbits and practice trick riding on his pony.

From the age of ten until leaving school, Ed worked for his father as a tally boy at Barunga Gap during the Christmas holidays.

Ed’s father was a grain agent at the Barunga Gap wheat stacks and Ed’s job was to weigh each bag of grain, mark the weight on the bag with a piece of cane dipped in ink, enter the weight in a tally book and write out a cart note to enable the grower to claim his payment at the end of the season.

At the age of thirteen, Ed’s father let him get in some driving practice by allowing him to drive the family Chevrolet part of the way home.

There was the occasional trip to Adelaide, when much of the luggage was packed, wrapped in canvas and strapped to the running boards because the car had no boot.

The kids played “Riddle Me Ree” to help pass the long hours on the road and when they finally got to Adelaide, Ed was more interested in the workings of the City Council’s teams of dray-pulling horses than taking in the sights.

After leaving school, Ed worked on the farm, picking up pointers and skills from his father and hired farmhands, helping mend fences, feeding, grooming and handling the farm’s two teams of horses and on wet days, trimming the horses’ hooves and firing up the forge for blacksmithing jobs.

In the early 1930s, summer thunderstorms brought heavy rains near the end of harvest, saturating the bagged seed in the paddocks.

Then came heavier rains along the Barunga Range, with the run-off forming a torrent which raced past the farmhouse.

The water scoured the topsoil away in a 150-metre-wide swathe, pushing silt, straw and dead wood up against wire fences until they broke under the strain. By the time the waters subsided more than twenty wire fences were undermined and burst open, a heartbreaking sight which took weeks to repair.

The exposed light soil was the result of an accepted, misplaced faith in fallow farming, in the belief that bare fallow was essential to grow a successful crop.

Over the years, farming methods improved, but not before grain farmers in the Mid North were battered and sometimes broken by massive dust storms that could last for two or three days, whipped up by hot north winds which scoured the exposed, light soil from the landscape, leaving huge patches of bare, clay subsoil useless for cropping.

The topsoil was blown across Yorke Peninsula and everything on the farm was covered in a film of dust.

The dust also filled the tracks in the rutted roads, at times making them almost impossible to negotiate in a motor vehicle and when a dust storm was followed by heavy rain, it made sections of the local roads mud wallows in which beast and machine both became bogged.

After each successful harvest there would be a mouse plague sparked by the volume of bagged grain, or a rat plague, or both.

“These and other depressing circumstances limited production and broke the stout hearts of some battling families,” Ed said.

“If there was a bright spot, it was that it cost little to live. We could shoot or trap rabbits, we had livestock and poultry, veggies and fruit in the garden and milk and cream on the table, besides sometimes having cream to sell, along with fat lambs and wool in season.”

The good years on the Hundred of Barunga produced quality fat lambs, which Ed drove to market at nearby Snowtown riding his pony, helped by a sheep dog.

The lambs pined for their mothers and so were difficult to drive, with Ed sometimes not getting back to the farmhouse until after dark.

When the Great Depression cut incomes, many farmers resorted to horse-drawn jinkers for local travel, putting their motor cars on wooden blocks in the implement shed to prevent the tyres from perishing.

Through the tough times Ed said there was a remarkable sense of humour, especially among the kids, who made the most of life.

In his teenage years, Ed played tennis in summer and football in winter, thinking nothing of working in the paddocks on a Saturday morning, then riding kilometres to Wokurna to play football, staying for tea and a dance, then riding home.

His sport commitment was hardly surprising given his father was chairman or on the committee of most of the local sporting clubs, along with involvement in community events and the Uniting Church.

At the age of nineteen, Ed’s world changed forever when Australia became embroiled in World War II.

Fuelled by feelings of patriotism and duty, Ed said he had a strong urge to join up but resisted it for a while, until ten of his footy mates from the surrounding districts of Mundoora, Wokurna and Port Broughton decided to catch the train to Adelaide to front up for enlistment at Wayville.

During the medical, Ed’s inability to produce a urine sample on demand delayed his induction, which separated him from his mates.

As fate would have it, this delay later proved an advantage for Ed.

Most of his mates were drafted in the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion which saw action in the Middle East and then was shipped to Java, where most were captured by the Japanese and endured atrocious conditions as prisoners of war for the remainder of the conflict.

After three months of intensive drill and weapons training, Ed found himself aboard the Mauritania, part of a convoy of troop ships carrying reinforcements sailing from Melbourne in November,1940, bound for the Middle East to join the South Australian 2/27th Infantry Battalion AIF.

It was a month before Ed’s 21st birthday. He would not see home again until March 1942.

On shore leave in Perth, Ed was struck by the comments of an old digger who had seen action in World War I: “You buggers are mad, I wouldn’t be in it again if they were using tennis balls.”

Back on board, the men were issued with British Army clothing and equipment, “some of which was strange and some quite hilarious,” Ed said.

“The items of most interest were the dual-purpose trousers known as Bombay Bloomers, with wide legs long enough to tuck in socks and theoretically, protect our legs from mosquitoes and other insects.

“They could also be worn as shorts by folding up the leg of the pants and securing it with a button each side.”

The men had their heads shaved before crossing the Equator and were issued with steel helmets, the weight of which initially made it hard to balance them on their heads.

But the value of the helmets became apparent when the shrapnel started flying, Ed said.

India was the next port of call, where the fresh troops were put through intensive military training for some weeks at Deolali Camp, located in the hills outside Bombay (Mumbai).

The convoy left Bombay and passed through the Suez Canal to El Qantara, from where they were taken to Julis Camp, one of the biggest Australian army camps in Palestine, to join up with their battalion.

“We were told that we would have to get fit quickly as the battalion was capable of marching 25 miles (40 kilometres) a day in battle kit,” Ed said.

The men were posted to various companies. Ed’s platoon commander was Lieutenant A. J. Lee, who later won the Military Cross (and Bar), rose to the rank of Brigadier and at war’s end, was elected as national president of the Returned Servicemen’s league (RSL), a role which he performed with such distinction that he was knighted, Sir Arthur Lee.

Young and fit, Ed was made a runner, a critical and responsible job.

Despite the advent of short wave radio, a runner was often the only effective means of communication in the field between platoons and Battalion Headquarters (HQ).

When the company was on the move, laying phone wire was impractical and the few radio sets available, which were heavy, were only used for communication between companies and HQ.

Enduring sandstorms and flea-infested dugouts, being strafed by enemy aircraft while travelling in a 10-mile-long (16 kilometre) convoy during the invasion of Syria and fighting the French Foreign Legion led by Vichy French officers, the 2/27th Battalion served with distinction, fighting over rocky, mountainous country, paving the way for the Allied occupation of Beirut.

The Syria Campaign only took six weeks, but Ed, like so many of his comrades, began it as a virgin soldier and ended it as an experienced campaigner.

The men had tasted victory, but it would not prepare them for the deprivations and torments of the Kokoda Track in New Guinea.

 In January, 1942, the 2/27th Battalion was on the move again, first taken by truck to Suez and after much “organized delay” finding themselves on board the cruise liner Ile de France which sailed on January 30, 1942, bound for Bombay, where they were transferred to an ageing rust bucket, The City of London, which sailed in convoy with eight other ramshackle ships, bound for parts unknown.

The destination was first thought to be Burma (Myanmar), then Java, but when the Japanese took Java and Singapore, the convoy was diverted to Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

There they were greeted with the best news of all, they would sail for Australia to help defend the homeland.

Ed and the rest of the 2/27th Battalion arrived at Port Adelaide on March 25, 1942, but their stay in South Australia was short.

Transferred to Springbank Camp opposite the Repat Hospital on Dawes Road, the men were issued a week’s leave, not long after which they were first transferred to Glen Innes in northern New South Wales and then to Caloundra in Queensland to train for jungle warfare in the rainforest.

But nothing could prepare them for the energy-sapping humidity, the impossibly steep, muddy tracks and the tangled wall of rampant rainforest with which they would be confronted in the Owen Stanley Ranges of New Guinea.

Nor had they faced a suicidal, desperate enemy.

Five months after setting foot back on home soil, Ed and his comrades in the 2/27th Battalion were again bound for parts unknown.

In August 1942, the battalion sailed from Brisbane to New Guinea. As the troop ship moved through the oily waters of Port Moresby, the horizon was filled with rugged, jungle-clad mountains.

 The Japanese Imperial Army had landed on the north coast of Papua and were advancing across the Owen Stanley Range down a little-known native trail in a bid to take Port Moresby, from where it could stage air attacks on Allied shipping and mainland Australia.

The 2/27th Battalion and its 7th Division sister battalions, the 2/14th Battalion from Victoria and Western Australia’s 2/16th Battalion, were sent to help stop the advance and turn the Japanese back in what would become known as the Kokoda Campaign.

The only route of advance was up the 96km-long Kokoda Track on foot.

The men’s kit was limited to half a blanket and a change of clothes so they could carry more rations and ammunition and as they scrambled up and down impossibly steep slopes, hour after hour in the heat and suffocating humidity, many a country lad must have rued the day they caught the train to Adelaide to sign up in the AIF.

Slipping and sliding in the mud, they often made slow, agonizing progress, sometimes alleviated by the advance work of army engineers who had laboured ahead of them, chopping out footholds on some of the steep inclines and bracing them with small logs held in place with wooden stakes to create stairs.

It was tough going and any soldier aged over thirty-five who was not fully fit was left out of the initial advance up the track.

The campaign was beset with problems. The supply of food and ammunition was sporadic, with American DC3 cargo planes flying in low through the valleys and over razorback ridges in attempts to accurately drop cargoes of bully beef and biscuits through the jungle canopy to the troops.

On the ground, the cry went up to take cover behind trees whenever the soldiers heard the engine drone of looming aircraft to avoid being hit by bales of rations and ammunition padded with blankets, some of which bust open on impact, spreading their contents over a wide area.

The soldiers had to hunt, first for the impact site which might be more than a kilometre away hidden in the jungle and then through the wreckage to find intact food and equipment.

One poor young bloke, one of the battalion’s first casualties on the Kokoda Track, was killed when a tin of falling biscuits hit him on the head.

Communication also was a major problem. With the track often only wide enough for one soldier at a time, in some places made a muddy wallow by the tramping of thousands of boots, the advancing battalions were strung out over kilometres.

With the men on the move, laying phone line was pointless and the rugged terrain limited radio use.

“Any message to go forward was passed orally from man to man, each puffing and gasping as he climbed,” Ed said.

The 39th Battalion, made up of young, inexperienced militia men, had bravely delayed the advancing Japanese for some weeks, sustaining heavy casualties.

The 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions were first sent up the track to support and relieve the 39th Battalion.

Badly mauled, they pulled back to make another stand at the village of Efogi while simultaneously, the 2/27th Battalion, held in reserve, was rushed forward.

On September 6, 1942, bolstered by the arrival of the 2/27th Battalion troops, which had desperately scrambled up the track in the preceding 48 hours to support their mates, they made another stand.

The soldiers of the battle-weary 39th and 2/14th Battalions moved through the 2/27th Battalion as its men frantically hacked out trenches from the rocky ground with whatever they could find - tin hats and bayonets – digging in on a razorback mountain spine overlooking Efogi which would come to be known as Mission Ridge.

Little more than a kilometre up the ridge, headquarters was established at a knoll called Brigade Hill, where the tired men of the 2/16th assumed positions as reserve for the 2/27th Battalion, while the bedraggled soldiers of the 39th and 2/14th battalions moved on down the track to relative safety.

“Our position was part way down a long forward slope which fell away more steeply in front of us,” Ed said.

“A Company was on the right of the track and B Company (my company) was on the left.”

Air support was called in and the men waiting in the trenches as dawn broke watched as low-flying American Airforce P-39 Aeracobra fighters roared down the valley toward Efogi, strafing and bombing the Japanese placements.

For a few minutes the heavy, humid air was saturated with the reek of hot engines and aviation fuel.

To the soldiers on the ridge waiting tensely in the trenches, the smell was sweet.

Then the Japanese opened fire with their mountain guns, the disassembled parts of which they had hauled down the track from the coast.

“The Japs hammered at us all day from first light, a very long day without relief in the very hot sun,” Ed said.

“We were out of food and water and had little chance of replenishment.”

The effect of the mountain guns on the Australian soldiers was devastating.

When forward patrols passed through Mission Ridge a few weeks later as they chased the Japanese back to the north coast, they found bodies blown up into tree branches.

The Japanese had ranged their artillery shells to explode on impact as they hit the tree canopy, sending waves of shrapnel scything through the undergrowth.

Bodies of men who had dug in amid tree roots were found with their skulls cracked open like eggshells, the result of the percussion of the blast being carried to the ground through the trunk.

“The attacks eased off as night fell but resumed at first light the next day,” Ed said.

The events of that day were etched in Ed’s memory.

A fellow soldier in a nearby forward trench stood up quickly to throw a grenade but dropped it as he pulled the pin.

The impact of the explosion on the three men in the confines of the trench was horrific.

Two soldiers died outright, but one, in the last minutes of his life as his blood seeped into the soil, called out to Ed by name to come and “finish me off”.

Pinned down and the last man left in his section, Ed furtively watched the jungle for signs of enemy movement as he listened to the soldier’s plaintive cries weaken and then fall silent.

A little later, Ed saw Japanese riflemen move past a gap in the undergrowth and fired off a few rounds. Now they knew his position.

“I heard movement in the grass in front of, but out of sight of my position, so I took a grenade out of my utility pouch and was about to pull the pin when a bullet came through the top of the mound of earth in front of me and struck the fingers of my left hand, which held the grenade,” Ed said.

“The fact that the bullet had lost velocity by passing through the earth mound obviously saved me, as the grenade, which at the time was just in front of my navel, did not explode.

“I have only told that story to a few people, as I feel they would probably consider it a tall story without any proof.”

The ricocheting bullet took off the top of Ed’s finger. He picked up the grenade and managed to pull the pin and throw it.

Then he slipped out in the long grass “like a goanna” and made his way back to platoon headquarters where he had the wound dressed and was ordered to move out with the walking wounded.

“I offered to stay but was told I would be a liability…” Ed said.

To add insult to injury, an officer suggested that the missing finger top was a SIW (Self Inflicted Wound).

SIW was used by soldiers to get out of the firing line.

Anybody who knew Ed knew that it was not something he would do.

That evening, the remainder of the 2/27th Battalion, 300-odd men, retreated off the Kokoda Track and carrying their wounded, began a two-week trek through the jungle to make it back to the safety of the Australian lines.

Ed spent a week at base hospital, where he lost the end of one mangled finger and had another stitched up, before returning to active duty.

A few months later, he was back in action at Gona on the north coast of then Papua, where the Japanese, hidden in bunkers, were desperately holding on for reinforcements that never came.

“The attack went in at first light,” Ed said.

“We were held up by enemy in heavily fortified positions. We were stopped and losing chaps right and left and I made the mistake of picking up a dead soldier’s Bren light machine gun that was lying on the ground.

“It was a sticky position and just a matter of time before I copped something as I could see bullet holes appearing in the leaves of the pandanus palm behind which I was concealed.

“I was firing through the foliage in a standing position. The Japs must have thought I would have had enough sense to be in a lying position, because when I did stop one (a bullet) it went through my left foot, just below the ankle, splitting the heel bone on exit.

“I gave the game away then and slithered back through the undergrowth, got bandaged up and put on a stretcher, then carried several miles by native carriers before being placed on a transport plane and evacuated to Port Moresby.”

With his leg and foot in plaster, Ed was taken by hospital ship to Brisbane, then to a hospital in Baulkam Hills in New South Wales, where within 24 hours he contracted malaria. By the time he recovered, his foot was out of plaster, but he took some time to learn to walk again without a limp.

Ed was back in New Guinea in August, 1943, marching north through the Markham and Ramu Valleys in the campaign to take Lae and engaged in the attacks on Shaggy Ridge in the Finisterre Ranges.

By this time Ed was a Sergeant and after falling sick and being moved to Port Moresby to recuperate, was told by his commanding officer that he had been recommended to attend the Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) at Woodside in South Australia.

He passed and was made a Lieutenant, then sent to the Jungle Warfare Training Centre at Canungra in Queensland where he instructed platoons of 30-odd young recruits.

Ed was posted to the 31/51st Infantry Battalion and in late 1944 found himself again in the jungle fighting the Japanese, this time on the island of Bougainville.

He was discharged two weeks before his 26th birthday and, given that he had served in the army for nearly six years, admitted that he “found camp life almost enjoyable, with regular meals and exercise and plenty of activity, being fully occupied with the tasks in hand”.

He also enjoyed the camaraderie and humour.

Ed remembered one incident in which a larrikin sent a burning wad of newspaper floating down the water trough of a latrine block.

There were ten toilets in a row and as the burning paper passed below each occupied seat “the incumbents rose rapidly from their throne in succession, their placid expressions changing to one of consternation as they turned, clutching their trousers at half-mast to peer into the latrine to ascertain the cause of the heat”.

The larrikin got away.

Ed applied the same enthusiasm he was noted for in the army on his return to civilian life, first joining the RSL in Port Broughton and in 1948, then transferring his membership to Bute.

He held various positions at the Bute RSL including President (1953, ’78, ’79, ’87, ’90, ’91, ’92, ’93); Secretary (1982, ’83, ’95); Treasurer (1961, ’62, ’97), Vice president, Assistant Secretary and was elected State Councillor in 1964.

Ed was appointed Local Controller of Civil Defence in 1963 by the District Council and for his service, was awarded the National Medal in 1989.

He was the last president of the Wokurna Football Club and the first president for the merged Mundoora/Wokurna club in 1966 and in 1972 was elected President of the Broughton Football League following three years’ service as Vice President.

Ed also was an innovative farmer.

He used his deferred army pay to buy a tractor, a kerosene-fuelled Fordson, cropped the family farm, then when his father died, took over the sections in the Hundred of Barunga while his brother Bob farmed the home section.

Ed bought the neighbouring section of land for six pounds an acre, married Vida Noble in 1947 and built a new house a few years later.

All four children from the marriage, two girls and two boys (Linda June, Peter James, Jennifer Kay and Allan Douglas), attended Bute Primary School. In their childhood years, Ed was heavily involved in school sports, tennis and football, annually clocking up more than 20,000 miles (32,186km) in the family car attending country sporting events, church and community meetings.

From 1976, in his sixties, Ed and Vida moved to Arno Bay then Cleve, with Ed managing the local Horwood Ford Dealership for five years, leaving the now-divided farmland in the care of his sons, Peter and Allan.

Vida was diagnosed with cancer, prompting Ed to resign from the job in Cleve and move with his wife back to Bute, where Ed worked part-time as a salesman for garage J.C. McDonald & Son while caring for his wife.

Vida died on October 6, 1983.

During Ed’s work at McDonald & Son, he struck up a friendship with Connie, the mother of business owner Malcolm McDonald, which led to their marriage on September 1, 1985, and the broadening of the family fold to include stepchildren Judith and Noel, Malcolm and Heather.

Connie passed away on March 14, 2011, but the legacy of her and Ed’s union is a combined total of sixteen grandchildren and twenty-four great-grandchildren.

Ed was the dearly loved Dad of June and Kevin, Peter and Kaye, Jennifer and Robin and Allan and Marcia.

In 1989, he received the Australia Day Citizen Award, in 1990 was made a Life Member of the RSL and was nominated for the order of Australia medal (OAM), which he accepted at an investiture ceremony at Government House by the then State Governor Dame Roma Mitchell.

Ed lived for another 32 years after accepting the OAM, continuing to give back to the life and community which had given him so much.

 “In retrospect, I believe I have had an interesting life, during which I have naturally made mistakes, but I have done nothing of which I should be ashamed,” Ed once said.

“Embarrassed yes, but not ashamed.”