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Ted Kenna - a man who never gave up

02 Oct 2009

Ted Kenna - a man who never gave up Image

In June this year Victoria Cross recipient Ted Kenna passed away quietly just two days after his 90th birthday. A war hero who was always modest about his achievements, he was one of only 20 Australians to be recognised with a VC during World War II.

His son, Docklands resident Rob Kenna, still marvels at his father’s extraordinary bravery. “How do any of us know how we would act in a similar situation? Well, Dad was one of the few who did know,” he said.

According to Rob, long before his father saw any action during WWII, he had a reputation for being “game as bull-ant” and was ready to meet any challenge.

“Dad was just 15 when his father died and it was the middle of the depression so he and his brother Jack had to fend for seven kids. Shooting rabbits was a way of putting food on the table, but it also meant he was an accurate shot,” Rob said.  This skill was to hold him in good stead for the action he would later see in New Guinea.

Toward the end of 1944 Private Kenna was sent to Wewak, on the north coast of what is now Papua New Guinea, with the 2/4th Australian Infantry Battalion. According to Rob, the area had seen tenacious fighting and “after landing in Aitape they had to fight their way down the Wewak Peninsula, which took about six months.”

During this period Rob says his father had already shown a high level of bravery as a Bren gunner (a light machine gun).

“The Bren gunners were the first target for any army, and came with a huge responsibility,” Mr Kenna said.

On the 15 May 1945 Rob explained: “They were under heavy enemy fire at Wairui Mission but the kunai grass was too tall for Dad to get a ‘bead on’ the enemy. With a Bren gun you have to lie down, but Dad thought ‘stuff this, I’m going to have a crack’”.

And have a crack he did. According to Rob with the enemy machine gun only 50 metres away and protected within a concrete pillbox, his dad stood up and holding the gun to hip started firing. Miraculously, he wasn’t hit, but realising he also had no accuracy, as the Bren wasn’t mounted, he threw it down and picked up a .303 rifle.

“Despite being under heavy fire, Dad calmly took aim at the slit in the pillbox, and with his first shot took the machine gunner out. Another Japanese soldier then took over and started firing. After an exchange of rounds Dad took out the second soldier and the position was taken without further loss of life,” Mr Kenna said.

It was only a couple of months before Ted died that Rob heard him say that he thought anyone would do what he did.  “Dad said that at time he was only thinking of doing the job and clearing it for his mates. It was only later that he felt the fear and wondered how he was going to perform the next time.”

Two weeks later, he was to find out. In another action Rob said:  “Dad was ordered forward, with Australians flanking their position. He was going up the centre leading the pack. He reported to his captain that he thought the position was too hot, but was ordered to stay and keep moving forward.”

“Dad ran out about 50 metres to a log to set up his Bren gun, but it was an ambush and he was hit in the left hand side of his face by machine gun fire. The explosive bullet hit him in the mouth and exploded through his chest.”

Lieutenant Whitehouse came out to take over from his father, but due to his wounds Ted was unable to explain to “Whitey” that the position was ambushed. It gave Ted the opportunity to get back to cover, but Whitey was killed.

“It’s the only time I’d seen Dad emotional. He said ‘only for Whitey taking my position I lived’”.

Ted was evacuated with the help of “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” and shipped back to Australia. According to Rob when his Dad overheard a doctor say he had a 70 per cent chance of living, he just thought “pig’s arse” to that.

Following nearly a year in the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, undergoing major reconstructive surgery, he married his nurse Marjorie Rushbury and went on to have a family of four.

Rob’s mother passed away only five weeks after his father died.

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