ORAL HISTORIES INTERVIEW
Mr John Snewin OAM
By Alison Rogers on 3 July 2014
This is an interview with John Snewin. The interview is taking place on the 3rd of July 2014. So John, if we can start, tell me when and where were you born?
Third of November 1921, at Loxton, South Australia. My father was there farming after World War I.
What sort of childhood did you have then? Tell me about your early memories of life in Loxton?
They must have come down when I was about five or six. It was a bad time for the farmers. I had a cousin, my father and his brother farmed together, they had a girl and she was my first girlfriend when I was from about three years up. And then I came to town, I counted it at probably five or six. Went to Goodwood Primary School, we had a house at Musgrave Street, off Albert Street.
So you moved from Loxton to here when you were five or six – do you remember why? Was it for your schooling, or what was happening with your parents and the farm?
The farm was no good. It was a bad year.
What did your dad do for an income when you moved down to Adelaide?
He got a job with the Railways at first, more or less untrained. And then he was with the Tramways for a number of years. Then during WWII he was heavily involved with St John Ambulance for many, many years, and he was giving instructions to people in the war years. And the manager of People Stores was quite taken with him and offered him a job. So he went to work there from 1942 until he retired when he was 80 or 70 or something, at People Stores, running their transport business around there. Very happy, a nice place to work, that was.
What about your memories of going to school at Goodwood Primary, how do you remember those days?
I was quite good, near the top of the class. Not a great sporting man. I remember I once went out to a game of cricket, about Grade 6 or 7, and I got out first ball. Never recovered from that.
Those sorts of things stay with you don’t they? <laughs>
Yes, that’s right.
Did you enjoy school, you enjoyed learning?
It was alright. I enjoyed and I was always a great reader, so I was ahead of the rest of the class because of that reason I think. Then when I was 13 to 14 I went to Adelaide Technical High School, you know that?
Commercial. And did intermediate. And then I was in the Boy Scouts, and the scout master knew the bloke at Baker McEwen Millhouse, they were both friends. They were looking for office boys so I started as an office boy there about 15 to 16, for ten bob a week. I worked there for a couple of years, and then someone pointed out, “why don’t you join the Railways, you could travel all over Australia then on your holidays for free”. So I went and joined the Railways, for about a year or something or other, or a couple of years. And then I joined the Air Force when I was 18 or 19.
Let’s just go back to the firm that you worked for - what sort of a firm was it, was it accounting or was it legal, the company when you were office boy?
Top lawyers in South Australia.
The top lawyers in South Australia at the time.
Yes, Baker, McEwen, Milhouse & Lidgerwood. They produced more Supreme Court judges than any other firm. A very old firm.
So while you were there, is that where your interest –
Oh I think so.
Right, so that was your first kind of experience of the Law.
Okay. And when you went to work on the Railways, what was the nature of the work that you did there?
All clerical work.
Okay, so you’ve done the Railways, and then what happens next?
I joined up, the Air Force. I joined up in 1941.
So the War was well under way at that stage.
Yes, that’s right. I was trained as a navigator, or an observer. That was a hangover from WWI – observers - you had a pilot and observer, and the observer did everything. It didn’t apply to WWII, but he was basically the boss, he navigated the bomb, aimed, if there was any bomb.
So then I joined the Air Force and then I did a couple of months down at Victor Harbour, that’s the initial training school. Then I went down to Mount Gambier and you learnt navigation. And then I did a couple of months up at Port Pirie, bombing [building?] a gunnery. Then I went to Nhill Victoria, for Astra Nav for a month. And then I finished up, I graduated as Sergeant Observer.
You were either commissioned or sergeant. The bright boys were commissioned, they were minority number. They didn’t have any planes for us so we kicked our heels around. I finished in May/June 1942, had kicked our heels around for a while. Then they posted redundant air crew to squadrons throughout Australia, to get them out of the way. So I finished up at SFTS, they were training pilots in Geraldton, and you sat there for six months. And I was very fortunate there because the Yanks had a Catalina Squadron there - they were based at Perth but they had a formation there - and they made arrangements for the lads to go out and do some trips with them. This was out in the Indian Ocean, a ten hour trip. I did about ten trips with them, which stood me in good stead. Then I was posted to Victoria anyway, to convert to bomber aircraft, and make up a crew.
When you were doing those trips with the Americans out over the ocean, did you see anything, was there Japanese, was there anything that was happening really?
No, no just looking around. I think they saw the occasional submarine, I didn’t. But I know that the Japanese had reached their wartime then, that was 1942. I don’t think they ever got there really.
So then you went to Victoria?
That’s right. I qualified as a Navigator on the 3rd of March 1942. Then I went to, no that must be at Mount Gambier. In May the Bomb Aimers course and Air Gunners course, and then I did Astro Nav, I finished up from it in June 1942. That’s when they delivered aircrafts, so I finished up at Geraldton. In those days Beaufort Australia made aircraft, crew of four, the Air Force left you to organise your own crew, they didn’t direct you.
It sounds surprisingly disorganised from what you are saying.
Oh yes, well I suppose it was. Anyway I crewed up with three blokes and they were all commission types actually, they could be commissioned off, of course. I had a great crew. We flew together from early 1943 when we formed, until July or August 1945. We did two operational tours, and I just finished up with about –
So this is your log book that you’ve got here is it?
Yes. I finished up with about 1,400 hours, which was a lot. 1,403 hours and 25 minutes.
When you said you did some operational, where did you go?
In 1943 we were posted up to 100 Squadron stationed at Milne Bay, and we were there six months. And that was a fairly hot, hot place. Up north, they had a great big Japanese station there, a few odd aircraft, we used to go up on sweeps up there.
You said you were stationed at Milne Bay. Tell me exactly, where’s that - if you were describing the location of Milne Bay, where would you say it is?
Bottom of New Guinea. Have a look at a map. We were there until January 1944. We did a couple of very hair raising jobs. They were there, Arnhem Land you’ve got [unclear] and someone had the bright idea that they might come down to a place called Gasmata, and then they’d be using those with fighters to do the AIF and the low landing. So we were given the job of bombing the low level Gasmata, putting it out of action.
The first day we went in there and saw one of our airplanes crash just in front of us like that.
What, just drop?
Just nosedived to be shot down. So a crew of four. Someone contacted us in the middle of the night the same day, and said they’re still operating, we want you to do it again. So we’ve set up ten aircraft and we lost - got three shot down - out of ten. We were a bit fortunate, we had a bit of trouble getting off, I forget what it was, some engine trouble. We were about a quarter of an hour, 20 minutes behind. So that means that these people went in a quarter of an hour before us, and when we arrived they were well prepared. We finished up with one bullet hole in us. It doesn't matter how good you are, you’ve got to be lucky.
Can you remember being scared or what was going on in your head when this is happening?
I’m a coward at heart but I found I was never scared. You did bombing or a bore at night, so flack all around the place. I’d just concentrate on bombing, and rather surprised me you know, as I said a coward at heart, but I managed to come up and bomb, do the job.
Why do you say that you’re a coward at heart, that seems a bit harsh?
I think I am. <laughs>
How do you know that - what do you mean? It doesn’t sound like it.
I don’t like fisticuffs or anything like that. <laughs>
Anyway, so then when we finished in January or February 1944, they asked us whether we wanted to be discharged, or moved to a civilian, or whether we would continue in operational work. And we said “no we’ll stay together as a crew”. We then went to 32 Squadron which was stationed along the East Coast of Australia, and we did convoy work, anti-sub, it wasn’t very exciting, from 1944 until June or July of 1945. We would have been one of the longest serving Beaufort crews in the RAAF.
And I guess what were the ties between you and the other three, they must have been pretty close?
Oh a very long time. The pilots finished up DFC. They gave me a MID as a Sergeant. Do you know what that is?
No, tell me.
A Mention in Despatches.
And what did the pilot get, you said a DFC?
Yes he got a DFC. Distinguished Flying Cross.
We had a great time together, loved them all. We loved each other.
Yes, of course. So after going for an experience like that, how do you get back to a normal sort of life? That must be quite a challenge.
Well we had, I had a pretty soft sort of time with 32 Squadron along the East Coast, we weren’t being shot at or anything. No I settled down, didn’t worry me, just bored I suppose and missing the Air Force life. Always looked upon it as the best. I had four years and two months at the Air Force, the best time of my life, all over.
I guess, you’ve got that level of excitement and there’s a real purpose to what you are doing.
Oh yes. So then when I came out and they had the Commonwealth Reconstruction Scheme where it gave people the opportunity to qualify and do a profession, I decided to do Law, so I had to matriculate. They were at a school down on Grenfell Street where there were a few hundred blokes there, and they joined up to something, and they’d never matriculated, and they did a matriculation course. So I did a matriculation course which gave me an entry into Law. Then I went back to my office days, and got articled to the senior partner there. You had to serve three or four years in Articles. I must have done something right because I finished a year ahead of all of my contemporaries from matriculation, and I did the law course and was admitted within four years and not five years. And then I stopped with the firm, and they weren’t very generous with me. I think the senior partner thought I was a bit of a dill academically.
He thought you were a bit of a dill? Really?
That’s a bit harsh isn't it, in your record?
Yes, yes. So then after four years I got an offer in the country to go, and they suddenly woke up. The younger partners there they were nice to me, and they leant on the senior partners, and I was made a partner. And a great number of years later I finished up as senior partner of the firm.
So when you went to the country, where did you go?
I didn’t, it was just an offer. And they heard about it. It was down the southeast or somewhere.
Okay, so they decided they’d better hang on to you and treat you a bit nicer.
That’s right. So I stopped there until I retired.
Of course the firm was taken over then, and we’d lost a number of people onto Court, the Supreme Court, Judges, blokes who did law all the time, did court work. I didn’t, I was a solicitor. I did commercial work. I had a couple of banks, BP Australia, there was a lot of big clients of mine, plus anyone else that came in.
If someone wanted a will or whatever advice, I would do it. I never knocked anything back. I was always a quick worker. I reckon I got through work in half the time a lot of other people did, so consequently I had a great list every month, of matters dealt with. That probably helped, plus four years waiting for a partnership.
So they knew if they gave it to you it would get sorted pretty quickly?
Oh yes. Anyway I stopped there, and things changed of course. I finished up head of the firm.
What was the firm called, and did it still retain the same name at that stage?
Yes, it was then.
And then the younger partners decided that it wasn’t going too well, so they spoke to a younger firm, or the younger firm spoke to me, spoke to us. They did this all behind my back - the senior partner. You know the old story, did he jump or was he pushed?
They made a deal with them, so I got out. That was when I was 70, I think. Because I’m getting on now.
Well if you were born in 1921, I’ve done the maths. <laughs>
Mathematically minded. So I stopped there for a while. It was a happy crowd. And then I got out, and then they decided - I think I was there or shortly after I left - they amalgamated with a big crowd called Minter Ellison. And I think they got swallowed up. I don’t think it was a great success. It served them right, you know.
At that time when you realised that they’d done these negotiations behind your back, that must have been pretty devastating?
Oh terrible, completely unethical. They are having these meetings that I knew about, they’d even have a couple of members from the staff there into the meeting – absolutely incredible. Anyway, so that’s given me probably 25 years of very hard feelings.
Yes, I can imagine.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking “those bastards”. Anyway, so then when I left there I just took up practicing, worked from home.
Let’s go back to your career with the firm. What are some of the cases that you worked on that really stand out, or some of the work that you did that you really felt proud of the sort of work that you were doing? Is there anything that really stands out?
These weren’t litigious cases, these were just commercial cases. You had everything. The bank, they wanted advice on what's correct, they wanted something formed, the company formed or this formed, I would do it. And then BP Australia Limited, they were a big client of mine, they always had documentation to be done with their staff or other people they were working on or negotiating with. So you needed a legal brain to go through the law.
And this sort of commercial area that you worked in, why did you go into that area? What was it about it that appealed, or was it just that that was the natural sort of area?
Basically I think I was probably a bit under-confident on court work a bit early in the place, with the firm. If I’d wanted to do it, it would have been there for me to do.
But it was your own sort of self-confidence that held you back a little bit?
Yes. Of course anyone who did this litigious work, they’re the ones who finished up the judges, in all the top jobs.
I was probably reasonably well-known in the commercial world in Adelaide, but not like a judge. Superannuation, that filthy word. <laughs>
And forgive my ignorance, but presumably you studied at the University of Adelaide, that’s where you did Law?
Yes, the Law School.
What about people that stand out to you, John? People who really helped you, mentors or colleagues that you hold in high esteem?
In the work?
Very few. I did article for Neil McEwen, the senior partner – I can only ever remember him taking me into his study and saying, “I’ve got a bloke in trouble, come in and listen”. So I went in, and this was, we used to actually advertise, and I did a lot of work for the Advertiser too. Anyway this bloke was, I know he came from Western Australian, there was some problem. Anyway I sat there and heard it. About a month later I was sitting in the library outside his office there, he went into Eric Millhouse, who was another room over, and obviously telling him the result of this thing. And the bugger came out and went past me and didn’t even mention it. He just completely ignored me right through. I must have offended him somewhere. You know, he would get onto someone and think they were bloody marvellous. Very hurtful.
It doesn't sound like it was a great environment then?
No, for me it wasn’t. I got on with the rest of the people; we just ignored each other I suppose. The other partners were alright. Robin Millhouse, do you know him?
He was one of my partners. He’s a nice bloke, he is still around. I see him over at the Military Club periodically. He finished up as Chief Judge at Kiribati or something over there for about eight years. And anyway he’s got family scattered around the place. He’s outside of Melbourne now, bought a house – I think it’s Melbourne. I got on well with Robin.
He was involved with the Democrats wasn’t he, the Australian Democrats?
Yes, he was mixed up in politics. He comes across periodically. I saw him about a couple of months ago at the Naval Military there, something he come across to, some character being inducted or something happening there. I get on very well with Robin, a very smart bloke.
Is there anyone else that stands out, that you recall fondly?
Gordon [unclear] was a nice fellow – he finished up a judge somewhere. Jack Cornish, a lovely man – he came from another firm and he was a contemporary of Neil McEwen, the senior partner, but he was a very charming man. Neil [unclear] I got on with alright.
Did you ever think to go somewhere else, to move to another firm once you were there, if you were a bit unhappy?
No. I don’t know whether it was a lack of confidence or what. Of course I had a wife and three children, that’s a bit of a deterrent to making up your mind to jumping into something like that.
Sort of would stop you from taking too many risks I guess, wouldn’t it.
What about the Law Society and your role within that, tell me about your involvement?
I went along to their dinners once a year, that’s about all.
I wasn’t involved. Some of the people get involved in it, but I didn’t. Basically back then I had my family to look after, and I was heavily involved in Legacy, which I have been for about 50 years.
I saw that you received an OAM for your work. That must have been nice to get that recognition?
Sadie and I got one each, about the same time.
Really? What did she get hers for?
Work in Legacy, President of the Wires, who did a lot of good work you know.
Do you still catch up, are your compatriots from those days still around?
From the Squadron, from when you were at Beaufort?
They’re probably all dead.
You’re the last one?
Yes. My pilot and one gunner, wireless operator/gunner died years ago. I’ve got one - the other wireless, he’s in Victoria. We are the only two left of the four, and we ring each other about once a fortnight. He lost his wife recently. He’s in a village and he’s one of these blokes that’s always helping around there, so he’s got plenty to do fixing people’s wirelesses or lawn mowers. <laughs> And of course a bloke like that, once he does something, nobody takes his job, he’s just landed with everything. Like anyone in an association who is a secretary or something, he can never be replaced, no bugger will take his place, or her place. Very hard to get away.
Yes, indeed. So we were talking about when you would have gone in and started working in the Law, that would have been the late 1940s early 1950s, is that right?
Yes well I was discharged from the Air Force in 1945, in August/September or something, and then I did matriculation, so that took up basically 1946.
So you did your matriculation and then you were, you actually completed your degree in four years did you say?
So it would have been 1951 that you would have started?
Something like that, yes.
And when did you retire, what year?
I stopped doing law, 30th of June 2012.
Okay. So you would have seen enormous changes in that time.
Yes, a lot.
Can you perhaps point out some of the biggest changes? The technology must have made a huge difference?
Well I was out of the mainstream of course. When you are doing solicitors work, you’re not working with other legal people around the place. But yes I can remember when we were with the big firm, when they started getting rid of paper and all that, that was the story. But of course it just generated paper. <laughs> That was a good fair number of years ago.
From when you started, to when you finished, do you think you changed the way you did things? Was there a lot of change in the way you practiced, or was it pretty consistent?
Mine was pretty well the same. About the only thing that I did improve myself was these things, dictate you know. I would dictate something, which sped up things tremendously.
So that meant - you said you already were a pretty fast worker, that meant you probably would have been able to get through –
Oh yes. Well I reckon I got through work in half the time that other people would do the same work. Not boasting, it’s a fact of life.
No, that’s fair enough. As a child did you have siblings, did you have brothers and sisters?
Yes I had an elder brother, he was five years older than me. He was born during the War. Dad was in the Army. It must have been a terrible time, there was your wife, he left in August or September 1916, Alec was born in 19 December, and he was away, dad was away fighting the War, literally fighting the War you know. A terrible war there in France.
So your dad was away in the War - do you have any memory of how he was when he came back, or you wouldn’t remember, you weren’t even born then were you.
No but it must have been a terrible time, mother left [at home].
Did he ever talk about his time in the War, in the First World War, your dad?
Sadie often mentions of the fact that he never. But really, people wouldn’t do that unless they were asked. And I can’t understand why we as a family didn’t ask in those days, you know, ‘Dad what did you do?’
I guess maybe sometimes you feel like it might be a bit too personal or it might be –
My family never asked me about my war service.
It’s funny isn't it. And you didn’t talk about it?
No, oh no, I never volunteered. No.
It’s interesting isn't it.
So you’ve talked about your career, and we’ve covered most of the issues that they’ve asked me to ask you about, but I just wonder if you have any observations that you have about the Law, and perhaps things that you wish might have been different, or that you think need to be improved?
Well no not really because as a solicitor you’re out of the mainstream. That was why the old book was –
Is there a photo of you here?
No that’s – There’s young John there.
Oh right. Wow look at you.
Yeah that looked about 16, I think that was one of my troubles.
You looked young?
Oh yes. All the time. Not doing too bad here at 93 either, 92. <laughs>
You look pretty good for 92. <laughs>
That was my father, a great bloke. One of our wing commanders. What's that?
That’s you, it’s a remark about you saying that “Flight Sergeant Snewin’s coolness, courage and devotion to people…”
Oh that’s the MID, yes.
Right, right. Yes in the Advertiser, 1944.
So let’s go back to the family, you had an elder brother who was five years older?
Yes. And then a sister who died last December, and a younger brother who died about two or three years ago. So I’m the surviving family member.
And none of them went into the same area of work as you, they didn’t go into the law?
No. My elder brother finished up very [unclear], of course his depression, he took a job, he did a lot of driving, and he finished up driving Performance Tours for a number of years. And then a sister, she was born a bit backward, Laura’s backward mentally. And then the younger brother he joined up in the Navy when he was about sixteen or seventeen, whatever the lowest age you can get in the Navy, during the War this was. He joined up in about 1940 I think it was. He had a very interesting press on war time, and he stopped in for a number of years after that. And then he opened shops and made quite a good, corner shop sort of thing, did quite well.
Were your parents proud of you going into the Law? It must have been seen as quite prestigious.
They never discussed it but I should imagine they would have been proud of it.
This lack of confidence, where did that come from? Is that just part of you? It’s just the way you were when you were young?
Well I think so, yes. When I was in primary school, I was in Fifth Class, I was a shy young bloke.
It’s hard to shake that off isn't it, that sort of stuff when you’re a kid.
Alright, I think we’re done thank you.