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On Target: The Firebug Flight Lieutenant Bill Newton, VC

Dr Alan Stephens 'On Target: The Firebug Flight Lieutenant Bill Newton, VC ' in Australian Aviation August 2018, p 105

Flight Lieutenant William Ellis “Bill” Newton was the only RAAF winner of the Victoria Cross in the Pacific Theatre during World War II.

Born in St Kilda in 1919, Newton was educated at Melbourne Grammar School. A big man, he was a fine AFL player and also played cricket (alongside fellow RAAF wartime pilot and legendary Australian cricketer Keith Miller) for the Victorian Second XI. His schoolmasters regarded him as a future community leader.

Newton resigned his job with a Melbourne silk warehouse on the outbreak of war to enlist in the RAAF, graduating as a pilot in June 1940. After employment as a flying instructor, he went on operations in New Guinea in May 1942 flying Boston light bombers with No. 22 Squadron.

Throughout his fifty-two operational sorties, ninety per cent of which were flown through anti-aircraft fire, Newton consistently displayed great courage and a remarkable determination to inflict the utmost damage on the enemy. Disdaining evasive tactics even when under heavy attack, he always “went straight at his objective” to try to achieve maximum accuracy with his weapons.

He carried out many daring machine gun attacks on enemy positions, flying low through intense and sustained anti-aircraft fire to ensure “devastating accuracy”. On one such occasion his aircraft’s starboard engine failed over the target but Newton completed the attack and then flew two hundred and sixty kilometres back to base.

His exploits earned him the nickname of “The Firebug” - wherever he flew he left a trail of fire.

While leading an attack against a target near Salamaua on 16 March 1943, Newton dived through intense shell fire. Although his aircraft was hit repeatedly, he held his course and bombed the target from low-level, destroying many buildings and supply dumps, including two 180,000 litre fuel installations. Newton’s aircraft was severely damaged, its fuselage and wings torn, engines hit, fuel tanks pierced and one tyre punctured, but he once again managed to nurse the machine home.

Two days later Newton returned to the same locality for another strike. This time his target was a single building, which he attacked through a barrage of fire. At the instant Newton’s bombs scored a direct hit his aircraft burst into flames. With great skill he brought his blazing machine down in the sea. Two of the three crew members were seen by squadron colleagues to escape from the Boston and swim ashore.

For his extraordinary fearlessness, courageous leadership and successful operations against the enemy under the most hazardous circumstances, Newton was awarded the VC. Tragically the award was posthumous for, although Newton had been one of the two men to survive the crash landing, he had been captured and beheaded by the Japanese eleven days later.

The details of Newton’s murder were subsequently revealed in a captured Japanese diary and deeply shocked Australians when newspapers reported the atrocity. The eyewitness account of his death makes deeply emotional reading; his courage and dignity affecting even his executioners:

“We assembled in front of the Headquarters at 1500 hours. One of the two crew members of the Douglas which was shot down on the 18th has been returned to Salamaua. The Commanding Officer of the Komai Tai was to decapitate him with his favourite sword.

“The time has come. The prisoner-of-war totters forward with his arms tied. I feel he suspects what is afoot; but he is more composed than I thought he would be. He is put on the truck and taken to the place of execution. The noise of the engine echoes along the road in the hush of twilight. The sun has set. Dusk has descended all around. I glance up at the prisoner and he seems to be prepared. He gazes at the grass, now at the mountains, and the sea.

“We arrive at the execution ground. The Komai Tai Commander faces the prisoner and says ‘You are to die. I am going to kill you with this Japanese sword, according to the Samurai Code’. The Tai Commander says he will allow the [pilot] two or three minutes to prepare himself for death. The prisoner-of-war remains unshaken to the last.

“The Commander draws his sword, the famous Osamune. The sight of the glittering blade sends cold shivers down the spine. First he touches the prisoner’s neck lightly … Then he raises the sword overhead. His arm muscles bulge. The prisoner closes his eyes for a second, and at once the sword sweeps down.

“The body falls forward. ‘Sh … Sh …’ The dark blood gushes from the trunk. All is over. There lies the head like a white doll. There is not a drop of blood left in the man’s body.

“The wind blows mournfully and the scene prints itself on my mind. We set off back. Darkness descends.

“[Written] at Salamaua observation post, 30 March 1943, 0110 hours, to the sound of midnight waves.”

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