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’.