Guest Post: Muddy – Desertion in Papua

Rarely do we read in popular military history of desertion to the enemy during a time of war. While charges of desertion were not uncommon, the overwhelming majority I have personally examined during years of military history research about the Australian experience in the Southwest Pacific Area in World War Two were downgraded to charges of AWL, or Absent Without Leave, a less serious offence bearing a less severe punishment. This story however, concerns an Australian soldier assisting the enemy on an actual battlefield.

What piqued my interest whilst browsing primary documents held by the Australian War Memorial was a written notification to all units in the Oro Bay area of Papua, in early 1943, that a particular named individual and member of an Australian Army infantry battalion was not only missing and suspected of desertion, but had been seen in the amicable presence of two Japanese soldiers. The Australians and Americans had just lost hundreds of men wearing down the stubborn Japanese defenders of Gona, Buna and Sanananda, after the enemy had been pushed back there following the desperate Kokoda Track campaign.

Metodoji Dimitrevich of the 2/10th Australian Infantry Battalion, which had participated in the slogging around Sanananda, was suspected of being a deserter and ‘Fifth Columnist’, essentially a spy who aided and abetted the enemy.

Born in Bitol, Yugoslavia (now Bitola in south-western Macedonia) in 1911, Metodoji Lazo Dimitrevich emigrated to Australia in October, 1937, disembarking in Fremantle, Western Australia, from an Italian ship with his wife and two children, another child being born the following year.

Initially settling in Bridgetown where an uncle ran a boarding house, Dimitrevich joined his father who was working on a fruit farm. After his father returned to Yugoslavia about one year later, he struggled to find lasting employment, working short term as a day labourer, in the gold mines at Kalgoorlie, doing ‘pick and shovel work’ at Darwin, and loading and unloading ships in Adelaide.

When war broke out in 1939, he, as an ‘alien’ was made to sign a parole document, stating that he would not act in any way against Australian or British interests. In 1941 his hometown in Bitol, Yugoslavia was occupied by the German Army.

While we can’t be certain, it was more than likely for economic reasons that Dimitrevich enlisted in the A.I.F. at Wayville, South Australia on the 17th of August, 1942. Though five months previously he was residing in the Detention Camp at Wayville, his enlistment photo shows a smiling, dark haired and well-built man.

After initial training, Dimitrevich disembarked at Milne Bay in Papua on the 4th of January, 1943, and was taken on strength of the 2/10th Australian Infantry Battalion five days later in the Sanananda area.

On or about the 4th of February, 1943, he chose to desert his unit, having participated in, by his own admission, only one day’s fighting, followed by two week’s duties in the cookhouse. After capture, he could not give a reason for his desertion. His battalion was actually conducting only training and patrol work at the time, with the most intense period of the fighting having ceased. Indeed, twelve days later, the whole unit flew back to the comparative safety of Port Moresby for rest and reorganisation.

At some point during the following weeks, Dimitrevich came across two surviving Japanese and spent three days in their company, during which he gave to them, or they took from him, a map of the area in his possession. They were all, apparently, quite sick, though with what condition is unknown.

His two enemy companions were captured by a patrol, but Dimitrevich escaped, however not for long. On the 31st of March, he was apprehended on the Killerton Track in the Sanananda area, and it is possibly then that the most serious aspect of his desertion took place. Not only did he threaten three U.S. servicemen with his rifle, but he was also alleged to have shot and killed a U.S. airman, Sergeant Delbert E. Houston of the 6th Bombardment Squadron, 3rd Bombardment Group, U.S. Army. While considered early in the investigation process, this charge of murder does not seem to have been laid, possibly because of a lack of witnesses.

Dimitrevich was admitted to the 1st U.S. Field Hospital the following day before being taken to Port Moresby and interrogated by an Allied Translator and Interpreter Service officer, during which he was noted as “extremely nervous and had very much of a “hunted dog” expression in his eyes, though he appeared fairly rational…Intellectually he is considered below normal.”

His Court Martial took place in Brisbane, Queensland, on the 30th and 31st of August, and 1st of September, 1943. Immediately prior, he was subject to a psychiatric evaluation, but the results of the same are not known.

Metodoji Lazo Dimitrevich was charged with: Desertion, Assisting the enemy with supplies (supplying food to two named Japanese soldiers), and “without due authority, giving intelligence to the enemy” in the form of a map of the area which he gave to his two Japanese companions in order, presumably, to help facilitate their escape.

He was found guilty on the charges of desertion and giving intelligence to the enemy, but not guilty on the second charge of assisting the enemy with supplies. Dimitrevich was sentenced to be discharged from the Army and “to be imprisoned with hard labour for five years,” initially at His Majesty’s Prison, Brisbane. Just what his wife and three children did and whether he maintained contact with them during his incarceration is not known.

Ten years later, on the 10th of September, 1953, Dimitrevich’s body was found with a bullet wound in the head at the limestone quarry where he had worked since 1948 at Wanneroo, “21 miles from Perth,” Western Australia. With a .22 rifle by his side, the wound was thought to have been self-inflicted.

Initially thought to be a ‘Fifth Columnist’, it is likely that Dimitrevich was simply a man unable to cope with life, rather than one affected by the trials of war, of which he must have experienced little during his time at the ‘front’.

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16 Responses to Guest Post: Muddy – Desertion in Papua

  1. candy says:

    A very interesting but sad story.  Possibly he could not speak English very well also and that made things more difficult in many ways.

    As Muddy stated, I reckon likely he joined for economic reasons, not even understanding what it was all about.

    Very nicely written by Muddy, it makes you feel sort of close to the situation.


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  2. Zulu Kilo Two Alpha says:

    Interesting post, Muddy, thank you.


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  3. cohenite says:

    Thank you Muddy


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  4. Bruce of Newcastle says:

    On my desk next to me is the first volume from the AWM history of the AIF during the war against Japan.  I should be reading it!  But events lately have been so depressing I haven’t wanted to, so I’ve been reading SF instead.  I will keep an eye out for Pvt Dimitrevich in this volume, when I get back to it, or in the next volume.

    The official history of WW2 produced by the Australian War Memorial, in 22 volumes, is a ripper read.  Well at least the first few volumes about the Middle East, Greece, Crete and Syria certainly have been.  Highly recommended.


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  5. Rex Anger says:

    Certainly a curious case, Muddy.

     

    Congratulations on beating YouTube historian of the militarily odd, remarkable and curious Mark Felton to it! 😉


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  6. Enyaw says:

    From the AWM site , His wifes christian name was/is FFLORINKA .


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  7. Old bloke says:

    That’s an interesting story Muddy, it sound like Dimitrevich was one very confused individual.

    I recently viewed a YouTube of footage taken by an American Air Force engineer during WWII. It was from his personal movie camera which focussed on life at Mareeba and in PNG.

    At one time he visited Mt. Hagen which was controlled by a single Australian Patrol Officer. Rumours had spread that some Japanese soldiers were seen in the area so all the local tribesmen, in their thousands, had gathered at the Patrol Officer’s house ready to go hunting for these Japanese.

    The American filming the event said that the natives would be paid one conch shell for every captured Japanese soldier, and the natives really wanted a conch shell as they could buy a wife for one shell.

    The big prize however was to capture two as two conch shells was the going rate of exchange for a pig.

    It is fortunate that those two Japanese soldiers who Dimitrevich aided weren’t in the Mt. Hagen area.


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  8. Muddy says:

    Enyaw.

    Thanks for that. I was aware of it, but had neglected to include it in the piece.

     

    Old bloke.

    From my fuzzy map memory, Hagen was in the same region as the Bena Bena plateau, the latter which had a small contingent named Bena Force (initially a single company of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion, joined by the 2/7th Australian Independent Company, and then by the 2/2nd Australian Ind. Coy.) using it as a base for long-range patrolling along the Ramu Valley and the north coast of New Guinea.* Bena Bena was the location of an airstrip. The Japanese were building a road from Bogadjim near Madang, south(ish) to the Ramu River Valley, and from there, the Japanese base at Lae could be accessed from the west. This was to provide an alternative L of C (Line of Communication) between their northern coast Wewak-Madang main bases, and their most forward positions at Lae-Salamaua, which they were struggling to supply with both personnel and materiel, due to the Allied air superiority over their Rabaul-Lae barge and submarine routes. The Japanese intended to occupy the Bena Bena Plateau, which was both fertile in terms of cropping, and which also contained a large native population (to be co-opted as road labourers, carriers for supplies along the Bogadjim-Lae route, and in farming crops to supply the Japanese). Due to difficulties in building the road (the climate and lack of labour), the project was delayed, and then the Australian 7th Division (preceded by a US parachute regiment and Australian gunners)landed at Nadzab, in the Markham Valley west of Lae, and in conjunction with the 9th Aust div on the coast north-east of Lae, occupied the latter base on the 16th of Sept ’43. The Japanese already had an advanced guard on the way down the Ramu Valley at the time, the latter being denied occupation of the Kaiapit area (with land suitable for an airstrip) further west of Nadzab, by a lightning assault of the 2/6th Australian Independent Company at Kaiapit.

    * ANGAU and various special operations parties were also present in the central highlands region, or passed through on their various missions.


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  9. Muddy says:

    Sorry, that was a bit messy. I was trying to indicate that the presence of Japanese in the Highlands was, for a time (1943), a distinct possibility. Indeed, there were native rumours on various occasions that the Japanese had dropped parachute troops, which, while not correct, was also not beyond the realm of possibility, as the Japanese did possess paratroops – and used them in West Timor – though it is unclear if they were ever present in the Southwest Pacific Area.

    I’m not sure about the conch shell payment, as the standard was usually payment in ‘trade goods’ which included axes, bush knives, cloth, etc. In certain areas of New Guinea, however, the ‘tambu’ (shell) currency still existed at the time, so it is possible.

    It might be of tangential interest to note that at the time of the capture of Lae-Salamaua in the Huon Gulf (September, 1943), the Japanese had been training a force of native soldiers (I think in the Wain area; the Wain was a river which entered the larger Markham River from the north, and was west of Nadzab).


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  10. Bar Beach Swimmer says:

    Thanks, Muddy, interesting story and great writing.


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  11. stackja says:

    Veteran Details
    https://nominal-rolls.dva.gov.au/veteran?id=682007&c=WW2#R

    Name
    DIMITREVICH, METODOJI

    Service
    Australian Army

    Service Number
    SX18774

    Date of Birth
    07 Feb 1911

    Place of Birth
    BITOL, YUGOSLAVIA

    Date of Enlistment
    21 Aug 1942

    Locality on Enlistment
    ADELAIDE, SA

    Place of Enlistment
    WAYVILLE, SA

    Next of Kin
    DIMITREVICH, FFLORINKA

    Date of Discharge
    28 Sep 1943

    Rank
    Private

    Posting at Discharge
    2/10 INFANTRY BATTALION

    Prisoner of War
    No

    Honours
    None for display



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  12. John Angelico says:

    Bruce of N, you said:

    But events lately have been so depressing I haven’t wanted to, so I’ve been reading SF instead.

    Some SF is so totalitarian that it would be equally depressing to see the end result of today, surely?

     


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  13. Muddy says:

    John,

    Present events are so depressing because they show how far we have plummeted from the society the men in the official histories fought for. I feel sure that many would turn their backs to us, and rightly so.


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  14. brennan says:

    ^^ That comment is so sad, but so true. My Grandfathers would be ashamed.
    moderated

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