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Hec’s war is living history

Tuesday, 24th April, 2012

MEMORIES: World War II digger Hec Stellini with his wife Edith and the photograph of her that he carried through the war. MEMORIES: World War II digger Hec Stellini with his wife Edith and the photograph of her that he carried through the war.

 By Kurtis Eichler

World War II veteran Hec Stellini will never forget the day he shot and killed an enemy soldier in New Guinea.

Mr Stellini’s platoon was returning to base when they struck a Japanese patrol. The enemy fled into the jungle with the Australians in pursuit.

That’s when he saw a Japanese soldier hiding beside a wall.

“If I’d stepped over him he would’ve got me,” said Mr Stellini, who was then 18 years old. So it was kill or be killed.

He says his comrades probably shot a few more but his was the only one he remembered.

“Woke me up 20 years later... thinking of his wife and kids and how they were getting on without him,” said Mr Stellini, who is now 87.

But at the time it was a “bloody pleasure” to kill the enemy, he said.

“You know they were coming into Australia and Darwin got bombed time and time again and they were working their way down to New Guinea.”

After the war he married Edith and they had two children and now have three grandchildren.

Sitting in the lounge room of his Cobalt Street home, the softly-spoken gent dusts off his slouch hat and pulls out his old war photos.

Although he talks willingly about his time abroad serving his country, there’s not much he liked about being in New Guinea.

The highlight of his 666 days of service was being discharged, he said, but the experience was at least “educational.”

“You learnt a lot,” he says. “There’s lots of things you’ll never ever learn in Broken Hill. I still remember it... I had a couple of close shaves.” 

Mr Stellini was conscripted at 18, and although worried, his parents were pleased as his father’s home country of Malta was being attacked.

“He ended up pulling out of the mines and going up to Darwin building aerodromes. He was upset about so much bombing in Malta - they bombed them day and night - they just wanted that little island.”

Mr Stellini had many close shaves in New Guinea.

“I was just going up on the hill there one day and I just poked my head up and a Jap sprayed a heap of dirt in front of me with the machine gun.

“He saw me but his aim was just a little bit low. I was very close that day to being hit.”

Another time he was the leading scout of his section on account of his dark complexion.

“Blokes used to put charcoal on their face and you’d be out 30, 40 feet by yourself and the rest would be behind you and one day I was going along the track with a bamboo fence on my right and he opened up.

“I went straight through that bloody bamboo fence and went back to the platoon.”

He said there were quite a few other BH soldiers in the battalion but only two who were still alive.

“They’ve all gone on and I’ve forgotten their names now.”

One of the survivors is Bill Hunter. Mr Stellini recalls being placed in the Aitape-Wewak campaign with him.

“Sometimes I see him Anzac Day but he hasn’t been around for a couple of years.”

But there’s one very special person who is still with him after all these years - Mr Stellini’s wife, Edith.

“I came back on leave one day and went across the street and she give me an invitation to a 21st birthday party and that’s when I met the wife there.

“We got along alright together and we corresponded during the war and that’s when I carried this photo with me all the time.” 

The photo is of Edith as a teenager which he still keeps in the same pouch as he did 70 years ago.

“Come Christmas time we’ll be 63 years married.”

But the war took a toll on their relationship.

At times, Edith said, she waited weeks or months without any word from him.

“For a while there we didn’t know what happened to him,” she said.

“There was no correspondence or nothing but we found out after that he was in hospital with malaria.”

He contracted the illness even though he was taking Atabrine which was compulsory for troops at the time.

“It’d turn your complexion yellow but you had to take it because it was the rule unless otherwise you get sick and you’re in hospital all the time.”

When he was discharged Mr Stellini returned to work at the Gypsum Street service stores.

“In those days they walked around to the house and would take your grocery order, then they’d deliver it two days later.”

He then took a job on the mines where he would spend the next 38 years until his retirement in 1984.

Mr Stellini said his experience of war was far different to what soldiers went through today.

“It’s entirely different... they’ve got big machinery now and we were going through mud that deep and now they get back at night and they’ve got a bed to lay on.”

Tomorrow Mr Stellini will attend both the dawn and afternoon Anzac Day services as one of the few remaining Broken Hill WWII veterans.

To him Anzac Day is a very solemn occasion and a time to remember his old comrades.

“They never die, they just fade away.

“Here today, gone tomorrow, just a memory.”

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